My legs and lungs burned. I sucked in breath after breath as my feet hit each step up to Yamagata’s house.
The guards tilted their heads. One asked, “Usami-san, what is the matter? Yamagata-sama said you were staying elsewhere.”
I was too winded to do anything but shake my head. They let me in, and I bowed my gratitude.
A woman’s shriek pierced the air, and icy wind filled the hallways.
No, no, no! “Shimoko!” My intended shout only came out as a rasp. So I forced my shaky legs to keep going.
Yamagata’s woman servant smacked into me, her eyes wild. I panted, “Where are Yamagata-sama and my wife?”
She pointed to the room where Shimoko and I were staying. My blood ran cold. But I stumbled past the servant, fighting down the bile in my throat. A cat with twin tails and flames on the end of each hissed as it burst through the lattice doors. The creature booked past me and out of the house.
When I threw open the ruined shoji door, Shimoko was paler than the moon and Yamagata stood, frozen in place with his hand raised as if to ward her off.
Her narrowed eyes, filled with hurt, darted to me. It was a stark contrast to the snow filled room.
“I’m here.” I doubled over with the effort of speaking, before collapsing to my knees beside my daimyou. Spiked ice patterns covered his skin and his frozen expression spoke of sheer terror.
What had I brought on him and his household in my selfish desire to play for the audience of a lifetime?
Pitching forward, my head touched the tatami mat floor. “Please Shimoko, let Yamagata-sama go. If you must take anyone’s life, let it be mine for not understanding what Lady Kae meant until she hurt you with her selfishness and assumptions. My lord was only doing his best to be kind and not let you worry about my lateness.”
“Did you sleep with that nekomata witch?”
“The curse bringing, two-tailed, cat demon that just fled.” Shimoko set her jaw.
“No, I left when my tired, thick brain realized what Lady Kae wanted. I need no one but you.”
Shimoko’s eyes closed, and her posture relaxed. “She said you did. That’s when my disguise fell and I tried to end her. But he accidentally got in the way.” She pointed at Yamagata.
“I ran here from Lady Kae’s house. How could she have gotten here ahead of me?”
“A cat can easily outrun a human. Understand, the woman you saw was likely Lady Kae’s corpse.”
“Poor Lady Kae.”
“And I can’t undo what's been done, just as he and his servants can’t unsee my true nature.” A tear froze in place on her cheek as her voice cracked. “He may yet live, if you can play for him.”
My eyes scrunched shut. “My magic is tapped. I spent it playing for...”
My words turned clipped. “The Emperor.” How long would she hold that doubt over my head? Not something I wanted to live with. “I left Lady Kae to be with you, and you alone. Will you or will you not believe me?”
Shimoko’s lip sucked in, but she nodded.
“Then I will remain your husband. But right now, we have to help Yamagata-sama.”
A polite cough, from outside the room, made Shimoko and I both jump. Yamagata’s woman servant wrung her hands. “The yuki onna said my Lord may survive. How may I help?”
“Okuni-sensei had told me I could only use my ki and borrow that from my surroundings if it was freely available.”
Shimoko’s head fell. “And I took all that was available here, save for the scrap that flickers inside him now. I was just so enraged by the nekomata’s words.”
“I know. Let’s do our best by Yamagata-sama.”
The servant fell to her knees before us, bowing her head. “Then take all I have. Let me be of use to my Lord.”
She didn't offer her words simply out of kindness, rather something deeper.
“What's your name?” I asked.
“Let’s use all the options we have. Is the fire still going in the hearth?”
Rising, Tomoe nodded. “I’ll ensure it is.”
“Have someone else do that and place stones near the fire. Then have them prepare a futon. While that's handled, you and I and Shimoko will do what we can.”
Tomoe disappeared, but we could hear her sharp commands that brought others shuffling quickly to her bidding. Morning light filtered into the room.
Shimoko shook. “What have I done? Why did I even dare to come here?”
“Shhh, Wife. We need to focus on saving Yamagata-sama’s life. We can figure out how to avoid future confrontations later.”
“You really will still be my husband after this?”
“Yes.” I squeezed her hand. “Now help me figure out how to transfer ki from a willing person. I believe it’s possible, and Yamagata-sama will need all we can give him through my music.”
Placing my hand on the daimyou’s neck, I dared to take his pulse to ensure he really was alive. The faintest of beats thrummed under my fingers.
“M-my mother...” Shimoko began, but faltered.
“What about her?”
“She gave ki back once. B-but it cost her life.”
“But several of us will help.” I gave her hand a pat before moving poor Yamagata from his terrified pose. With pressure, his limbs budged.
Shimoko joined me. “That’s not what I meant. The man took her life.”
My face fell. “We won’t let that happen,” I said. “Don’t push hard, we don’t want to tear any of the sinews.”
When Tomoe returned, the three of us hoisted the prone daimyou onto the futon and dragged him to the central hearth before ordering everyone else out of the room. Though the guards could stay posted at the doors. Please Kami-sama, you gave me this gift. Let me use it to help Yamagata-sama.
Shimoko directed Tomoe to hold on to her and Yamagata. Then she placed her hand on my shoulder. “I am trusting you with the lives of all of us here, Husband. We’ll go slowly, so Tomoe-san has the best chance.”
Warmth revitalized me after the long night, and Tomoe gasped. I played specifically to Yamagata, not wanting to waste a single drop of the energy being transferred. Please, let Yamagata-sama live!
Instead of glowing around us, light trickled into him. Tomoe’s teeth chattered, and she paled.
Shimoko’s brows furrowed. “You don’t have much more to give, Tomoe-san.”
The servant growled, “Keep playing. Take every drop.”
“No,” Shimoko spat. She pulled her hand back from Tomoe. “I won’t kill another! Never again!”
Yamagata groaned. Progress. But we needed more ki. Tomoe was tapped.
Outside, someone was shouting. A guard reported, “Yamagata-sama! A giant fireball came out of nowhere above the palace and flames are spreading fast with these winds. Someone said it was an evil two-tailed cat. And there’s a yuki onna on the loose. But the Emperor and his family have been evacuated.” He skittered to a stop upon seeing Yamagata’s state.
Holding up a hand, I said, “Our Lord is alive. And we’re trying to keep him that way. Get Yamagata-sama’s palanquin and help us get him out of the city to safety. He won’t be able to walk just yet.”
“H-how can I be sure that… that monster won’t kill him?”
I stomped over into his face. “Because she just helped save him by giving him ki. Gather the rest of the household. Hurry! It’s going to be crowded as people flee the city. We have to get a head of it!”
He bobbed and commanded the rest of the guards outside to help with the heavy traveling box.
Shimoko grabbed Tomoe’s wrist before Tomoe could stagger off to gather things for her Lord. “Don’t waste the energy I’m about to give you. Save it for him. You love him. I can tell.”
Tomoe stiffened but didn’t refute Shimoko’s claim. My wife's hand glowed where it gripped the servant woman’s arm, and she whispered something in Tomoe’s ear before releasing. I scooped up Shimoko as she went limp. Then Tomoe and I did our best to disguise my yuki onna bride by covering her head with a kimono.
Guards helped carry Yamagata-sama to the palanquin waiting outside and helped Tomoe inside. The bearers took off at a jog, with plenty of others to relieve them.
I hoisted Shimoko on my back and headed for the mountains to the east. It was a long hike, and I was already tired from giving all I could for the performance late into the night, on top of using magic to save my daimyou.
Many people drug heirlooms out of their houses to save them from the raging fire that loomed, red and angry, to the north. Smoke darkened the sky. The growing winds pushed it faster and faster toward us.
Everyone else seemed to head south. While that was away from the spreading fire, Kyoto lay in a valley. South was the easiest way for the fire to travel.
The winds changed direction often. A man shouted about pillars of flame that ripped up entire houses and lightning that spread the fire. I shook my head. My job was to get my wife to safety.
When one woman carrying a toddler suggested a yuki onna was involved in this, I snapped. “How could a snow maiden have anything to do with a fire? Stop spreading rumors and focus on getting your child to safety!” The woman slunk into the crowd.
Shimoko was slipping from my grasp when she stirred. “Can you walk?” I asked. “The fire is spreading faster than I can carry you.”
“Not yet. But you can pull ki from the energy of the fire, then share it. I can’t do it or the energy will kill me. But filtered through you, it should be ok.”
When I’d first started walking, the mountains to the east didn’t seem so far, but we’d barely made progress. I stopped to rest and try to rid my lungs of the smoke. The haze hung everywhere. Shimoko and I leaned on a building. She guided me through how to draw energy from the heat that kept increasing around us. Within a few moments, we could run again.
I panted as I told her my plan. “When we’re clear, we’ll head north to Lake Biwa and the hut where we first met. We should be safe there, right?”
Reaching the base of the mountains in the afternoon, we stopped to rest. My stomach rumbled loudly, but we had nothing to eat. So, we took ki from the fire again. I would have rather roasted fish or scarfed down a bowl of rice.
Then my eyes lit on the swirling billows of smoke and I knew we couldn’t rest long. The nekomata's firestorm swept through the city.
We had a long way to go to Lake Biwa. I could get fish there!
When we heard a little boy crying to his mom for food, Shimoko nudged me and I gave him some of the ki we’d siphoned from the fire.
If there ever was a monster among us, it wasn’t Shimoko. She’d only hunted to survive. The monster was the nekomata that started the inferno of hate.
Others trudged along with Shimoko and I and our group took turns keeping watch at night to avoid opportunistic thieves. Though we had little. Shimoko and I taught others to pull ki gently from willing living things around us in order to survive the grueling hike through the mountains.
Two days later, our hodgepodge group arrived at Lake Biwa. Finally, food! Though the residents encouraged us to eat a little at a time, so our bodies could adjust to food again.
Shimoko decided she liked the area, and we stayed. I played music to earn our keep.
A month had gone by when a letter from Yamagata arrived. His news? He never fully regained his strength. Though, he took brave Tomoe as his wife. While he would never welcome Shimoko and me in his home, he was sad that he’d not hear me perform again. To my surprise, he sent wishes for our health.
Lake Biwa was the perfect place to have a music school in the mountains. People flocked to hear me play, so I didn’t need to travel anymore. I also kept up correspondence with Yamagata. And Okuni-sensei was delighted to hear I discovered the secret to unlock my potential and sent students my way.
My best pupil turned out to be Tai, the little boy that we’d given ki to, and I sent him to play for Yamagata and Okuni-sensei. His talent grew to surpass my own. I couldn’t have been prouder.
History Trivia: The fire on December 5, 982 (old Japan date—Tengen 5, 17th day of the 11th month) was the last of the three major fires in the 900s in Kyoto that burned down the palace.