Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan

By Kaminaga Manabu

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 1 Chapter 2

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 1 Chapter 2

It was night –

Clouds hid the moon, and a small light floated in the inky darkness.

It was the light of Yasohachi’s lantern.

– It’s late.

Yasohachi walked the footpath by the Tamagawa Aqueduct.

He had gone to deliver fabrics to a client, and before he’d noticed, dark had fallen.

Ever since the trouble with the ghost, his father, Genta, didn’t want to send Yasohachi’s older sister, Osayo, on errands, so Yasohachi got sent around instead.

Though he was being used as a gofer, he was allowed to paint in his free time, so he couldn’t complain.

Yasohachi had just laughed self-deprecatingly to himself when he suddenly stopped.

Even though it was the middle of summer, he had an unpleasant feeling that gave his spine chills.

In front of him, there was a weeping willow that probably spanned two ken[1]. The branches jutting out over the river shook in the night wind.

Willows by water were always unsettling.

Their unique hanging branches probably elicited that feeling.

Perhaps Yasohachi’s chill from earlier had been caused by this weeping willow.

Yasohachi was about to start walking again, but somebody suddenly appeared from the shadow of the willow to block his way.

‘Aaahh!’

A hysteric scream escaped Yasohachi’s lips in his shock, and he fell onto his behind.

It was a woman, probably about twenty years old. She wore an indigo kimono which seemed to melt into the night. Though she was slender and had a face that looked docile, the red of her lips alone was strangely alluring.

The woman paid no attention to Yasohachi and walked away with lithe steps.

It was careless for a woman to walk alone at this time of night, especially without a lantern. As that thought came to Yasohachi, he tried to stand, but he suddenly found a kanzashi[2] at his feet.

He lit it with his lantern.

It was a silver hirauchi kanzashi, a flat round ornament with two prongs attached.

Perhaps the woman earlier had dropped it. Yasohachi picked up the kanzashi, stood and went after the woman.

'Hello – ’

The woman didn’t seem to hear Yasohachi’s call as she kept walking away.

'Excuse me – you dropped this.’

Yasohachi called out once again, but the woman still did not stop. She disappeared around a corner.

Yasohachi jogged after her and turned the same corner.

Perhaps the woman had noticed him, as she had stopped. She stood in front of the back gate to a samurai residence.

'Excuse me…’

When Yasohachi spoke up, the woman turned around with a faint smile. It was a smile filed with a dark emotion that made him shudder.

Then, the woman went through the samurai residence’s back gate.

'Eh?’

Yasohachi’s eyes went wide in surprise. He hurriedly ran up to the door.

The woman had definitely gone through the gate. If she was a servant at this residence, it wouldn’t be suspicious for her to go inside. However, the problem was that the woman had gone through without even opening the gate.

It was as if she had slipped through like the gate had not been there at all.

'Could it be…’

A thought suddenly came to Yasohachi’s head.

– Was that woman a ghost?

Yasohachi became frightened the moment he thought that.

Perhaps it would be better to leave at once – is what he thought when he felt a presence behind him.

A sharp, pointed presence that could be taken as a killing intent –

When he turned around, he saw someone behind him. At first, he thought it was the woman from earlier, but he was wrong. The person was smaller framed and more slender.

While he was thinking, he heard a short. 'Ei!’

Yasohachi stepped back in surprise as a wooden sword sliced the air in front of him.

'Eek!’

Yasohachi dropped his lantern without thinking.

The lantern that had fallen to the floor started crackling as it burnt. The light lit the shadow standing in front of him.

A girl with her long hair tied behind her –

She was probably about the same age as Yasohachi. Her lips were thin and her big eyes looked straight at Yasohachi.

Though she had a small frame, she handled the wooden sword like a master.

That said, she did not seem rough. She was as lovely as a water lily.

'How beautiful…’ said Yasohachi without thinking. At the same time, the tip of the wooden sword was thrust to his chin.

'Are you the vengeful spirit[3] targeting my older brother?’

The girl’s voice was as beautiful as her looks.

'Vengeful spirit? What are you talking about?’

'Don’t play dumb.’

The girl pressed the wooden sword into his skin.

'I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just…’

'Don’t waste your breath.’

The girl raised the wooden sword.

Even if it was wooden, Yasohachi wouldn’t get away unscathed if he let it hit him.

I need to run – that was what he thought, bt his body didn’t move.

'Aaagh!’

Just as the girl was about to strike, there was a scream from the residence.

'Brother!’ shouted the girl. She turned on her heels, opened the back gate and ran in.

Though Yasohachi could have used this chance to flee, before he’d noticed it, he had run in after the girl –

He went through the gate into the residence and saw a young man trembling in fear by the garden.

The man was looking at the woman who had been under the willow earlier.

Standing by the pond, he had a bewitching and mysterious smile on her face.

'Is it you!?’

The girl readied her sword and headed for the woman with flowing steps.

'You mustn’t!’

Yasohachi tried to stop her, but she didn’t make it in time.

'Yah!’ the girl cried out as she tried to strike the woman. However, her blade went straight through her.

The woman’s scornful laughter reverberated through all of them as she disappeared, melting into the darkness –

-

1

-

'So then you fell for that lass, Hachi – ’

The man sitting in front of Yasohachi was nodding, his chin ins his hands.

They were within an old, lopsided shrine building.

The man wasn’t the monk at the shrine. He had just decided to stay here at this abandoned shrine on his own.

His name was Ukikumo. He wore his white kimono in a slapdash manner, red obi tied around him sloppily. His skin was as white as his kimono, his lips alone a startling red.

What stood out the most was his two eyes.

They were a vivid red that made one think of blood.

That wasn’t all. Those red eyes could see the spirits of the dead – that is, ghosts.

Yasohachi’s sister, Osayo, had been possessed by a ghost before. Hijikata, a seller of medicine, had introduced Yasohachi to an exorcist, and Yasohachi had met Ukikumo here at this shrine.

To be honest, he had doubted Ukikumo at first, since he had seemed incredibly suspicious.

However, Ukikumo, with his red eyes that saw the spirits of the dead, had not only revealed the truth of the incident but also exorcised the spirit.

'I didn’t say anything about that,’ denied Yasohachi.

Ukikumo poured sake from his gourd into the cup at his waist.

'What a boring man you are.’

'What do you mean?’

'You thought her beautiful, right?’

'Yes,’ Yasohachi replied honestly.

From his first glance at the girl with the wooden sword, he had thought her beautiful. There was no doubting that.

'Then just romance her.’

'Why do you make that sound like the logical course of action? I don’t know anything about her yet.’

Ukikumo sighed in exasperation upon hearing Yasohachi’s words.

'You can find that out after taking her to bed.’

After saying that, Ukikumo gulped down the sake in his cup.

'That would be utterly shameless.’

'What’s shameless about it? Are you an idiot? How could you know anything about her otherwise?’ said Ukikumo, sounding dissatisfied. He wiped his mouth with his hand.

From Yasohachi’s point of view, Ukikumo’s logic made no sense. People fell in love first before being intimate. He just couldn’t agree with being intimate with someone you didn’t know well

'Hachi, could it be that you still don’t know a woman’s body?’ Ukikumo said offhandedly.

Yasohachi let out an 'Urk’ without thinking.

There was no 'could it be’ about it. A woman’s body? Yasohachi hadn’t even held a woman’s hand.

'Is there something wrong with that?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo shook his head slightly.

'Don’t you have any desire?’

'Desire?’

'The desire to take a good woman to bed.’

'What is a good woman? And wouldn’t a passing moment of pleasure just leave you feeling empty?’

'Don’t give a lecture when you don’t know anything.’

Ukikumo poked Yasohachi in the head.

'There are things one knows because one doesn’t know.’

'Rather than naïve, you’re just an idiot.’

'Why am I an idiot?’

'Explaining aloud won’t get anything started. Come on. Let’s go,’ declared Ukikumo as he stood up.

Ukikumo’s tall figure was bewitching even to Yasohachi, who was of the same sex as him.

'To where?’ asked Yasohachi as he stood up as well.

'The red-light district, of course.’

'R-red-light district? Why would we go there?’

Ukikumo grabbed Yasohachi’s kimono and pulled him towards him to whisper in his ear. 'I’ll teach you about women, Hachi.’

'W-women…? I, er…’

'Scared?’

Ukikumo’s reds eyes stared at Yasohachi.

To be honest, he was. It wasn’t that he didn’t like women, but he was afraid of stepping into a realm he didn’t know.

However, he hesitated to say that aloud.

’T-that isn’t it… I don’t have money anyway.’

'Don’t worry about. No woman would be uncouth enough to take money from me,’ said Ukikumo, licking his lips.

Yasohachi was afraid. It felt like something inside him would change if he nodded here. And –

'Please wait. I didn’t come here to talk about women.’

Yasohachi pulled himself away from Ukikumo.

He had almost been washed away by the pace of the conversation and forgotten his original goal.

'At this rate, you’ll never lose your virginity,’ said Ukikumo with a sigh as he sat down cross-legged once more.

'I said, I’m not talking about that.’

'Then what are you talking about?’

Ukikumo looked up at Yasohachi –

Ukikumo’s gaze was cold enough to make Yasohachi shudder.

Yasohachi swallowed once before kneeling opposite Ukikumo. He took a deep breath to calm himself down before talking.

'I’m talking about the ghost that appeared at the samurai residence – ’

'Ghost.’

'Yes,’ said Yasohachi with a nod before continuing. 'After that, I heard the situation from Iori-san – ’

'Is Iori the lass with the wooden sword?’

'Yes, she is,’ said Yasohachi with a nod.

Iori was the daughter of the samurai family Hagiwara.

After the ghost disappeared, Iori had apologized to him.

Though Yasohachi could have left then, he couldn’t leave the matter alone and asked about the incident himself.

At first, Iori had been hesitant, but perhaps she felt guilty about suspecting Yasohachi as she invited him in and explained the situation.

'The ghost had started to appear at the Hagiwara household about ten days ago.’

The first to see her was a man named Shintani Naosuke who had been staying at the Hagiwara household as a guest.

He was the man who had been trembling in the garden the night before. Servants also started to see the ghost frequently afterwards.

'If it’s just a ghost showing up, you could let it alone, right?’

Ukikumo poured himself a cup of sake in disinterest and gulped it down.

It was mysterious how Ukikumo’s skin, which was so pale, never changed colour no matter how much he drank.

'The problem is – that she wasn’t just showing up.’

'Oh?’

'It seems that every time that ghost appears, she goes to the room of Iori-san’s older brother, Shintarou.’

'Is that ghost a good woman?’ said Ukikumo, licking his red lips.

'Well, I think she’s beautiful.’

'An enviable man then.’

'Why would you say that?’

'A beautiful ghost is paying him night visits – that makes him a lucky man, right?’

For Ukikumo to feel desire even to a dead woman, he must be a considerable lecher. Yasohachi couldn’t retort to each thing he said.

After clearing his throat, Yasohachi continued.

'It seems that ever since the ghost appeared, Shintarou-san has been sleeping on the floor.’

'Wore himself out, eh?’

'That’s not it! According to Iori-san, he’s been sleeping this whole time – ’

'Sleeping this whole time?’

'Yes. Well, Shintarou-san had never been a strong man and often went to see the doctor, but to keep sleeping like this – it’s strange. It appears to be the ghost’s doing.’

Iori had been waiting for the ghost with a wooden sword in hand at the gate in order to save her brother, Shintarou.

Then, Yasohachi had appeared, and the incident followed.

'What a boring story.’

Ukikumo yawned and then lay down, using his arms as a pillow.

'For the Hagiwara family, it is a big problem. It seems that there were talks of marriage for Shintarou-san, but that will be called off if he keeps sleeping. Furthermore, tasteless rumours may spread…’

'In any case, Hachi, it’s got nothing to do with you, right? And of course it’s the same for me,’ said Ukikumo, who then closed his eyes. It looked like he planned on going to sleep, but Yasohachi wouldn’t accept that.

'Ukikumo-san, I would like you to expel the spirit.’

'I don’t want to,’ said Ukikumo, his eyes still closed.

'Please don’t say that. I’ve already promised Iori-san.’

'Hm?’

Ukikumo opened his eyes, looking incredibly annoyed.

Yasohachi hadn’t been able to leave Iori alone when he saw how grieved she looked, so he had ended up saying, 'I will introduce you to an exorcist.’

Now that he’d said it, he couldn’t take it back.

'Please. If it goes well, there should be a considerable reward.’

Yasohachi bowed his head, which made Ukikumo sigh in a melodramatic manner.

'I hate samurai families.’

'Please don’t say that…’

'Honestly. Not only are you an idiot, you’re also meddlesome.’

Putting aside the idiot part, his older sister, Osayo, often called him meddlesome.

'I know that, but I can’t leave the matter alone.’

'I don’t mind going, but I have a condition.’

'What is it?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo slowly stood up.

'Let me meet Osayo.’

'My sister?’

'If you don’t like it, I’m not going.’

To tell the truth, Yasohachi didn’t like it. From the earlier conversation they’d had, Yasohachi could easily imagine why Ukikumo wanted to meet Osayo.

That said, if Yasohachi refused here, Ukikumo really wouldn’t do anything. Yasohachi wouldn’t be able to face Iori then.

'What’ll you do?’

Ukikumo’s red eyes pressed Yasohachi for an answer –

-

2

-

Yasohachi stood under the same willow tree he had the night before –

It was mysterious. Though the willow had seemed so uncanny when he saw it at night, it seemed elegant in the day with the burbling of the stream.

'It’s splendid,’ murmured Ukikumo, standing beside Yasohachi and looking up at the willow.

Though he wore his usual casual white outfit, he was using his staff and covering his eyes with a red cloth.

Ukikumo covered his eyes with the red cloth like to pretend to be blind in front of other people.

His red eyes were beautiful, so Yasohachi thought there was no need to hide them, but it seemed there were many people in this world he didn’t think the same way – according to Ukikumo.

'Willows often have ghosts about them, but is there some sort of power to the willow that causes that?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo looked his way. There were eyes drawn in ink on the red cloth he wore. Though they were only drawings, they seemed an unnatural force to them.

'It’s not the willows that’ve got ghosts.’

'What do you mean?’

Yasohachi had seen many paintings of ghosts before. Willows were often painted with the ghosts. It wasn’t just in paintings – ghosts often appeared below willow trees in ghost stories as well.

'It’s the water.’

Ukikumo pointed at the river with his staff.

'Water?’

'Yes. People’s souls gather near whether they’re alive or dead.’

'Is that so?’

'It is. And willows grow by water. That’s the reason behind it.’

Yasohachi understood now.

'Then the ghost I saw last night was drawn to the water too?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo looked at the willow again.

'I don’t know.’

'But you just…’

'I just meant that’s often the case. Saying that’s always true would make it impossible to see what’s really important.’

As Ukikumo said that, he put his staff on his shoulder.

'Is that how it is? ’

'That’s how it is. So where’d you pick up the kanzashi?’

'Around there.’

Yasohachi pointed at the roots of the willow after thinking about the events of last night.

Weeds grew wild. Yasohachi probably wouldn’t have noticed the kanzashi there if he hadn’t fallen.

'Show me that kanzashi once more.’

'Here.’

Yasohachi handed over the kanzashi to Ukikumo.

Ukikumo pushed up just the left side of the cloth covering his eyes and looked carefully at the kanzashi.

'It’s pretty scratched up.’

'It is.’

Yasohachi hadn’t noticed in the dark, but under the sunlight, he could tell there were scratches all over.

'I’ll take this for a bit.’

Ukikumo put the kanzashi into his kimono without waiting for Yasohachi’s answer.

Yasohachi had no objections. Keeping it himself wouldn’t be of any use.

'Did you figure something out?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo snorted. 'Don’t rush for an answer.’

'I know, but…’

'So that ghost kept walking without responding to your call then, Hachi?’

'Yes.’

When Yasohachi responded, Ukikumo started walking towards the Hagiwara household.

'Where did that ghost come from?’ asked Yasohachi as he followed Ukikumo.

'What do you mean?’

'It suddenly appeared under the willow tree, but I thought that maybe it was somewhere else before – ’

'Who knows,’ said Ukikumo with a shrug.

However, Yasohachi felt like Ukikumo knew the answer, despite his words.

Upon reaching the Hagiwara household back gate, Yasohachi said, 'Er, there’s one more thing I want to ask, but…’

Ukikumo stopped and turned around.

It had been on Yasohachi’s mind since yesterday. The question was –

'Why were we able to see the ghost too last night?’

Yasohachi was confused by that.

Ukikumo, with his red eyes, could always see ghosts. However, Yasohachi, without them, could not usually see ghosts.

However, sometimes he would suddenly be able to. Furthermore, yesterday, three people including Yasohachi had seen the same ghost.

Why were they able to see ghosts at some times but not at other times?

'I don’t know for sure either.’

Since Yasohachi had been hoping for a clear answer, to be honest, he was disappointed by Ukikumo’s response.

'Why? Don’t you have eyes that can see ghosts?’

'That’s why.’

'Eh?’

'My eyes can always see ghosts.’

Ukikumo lightly touched the red cloth with his fingers.

Now that Ukikumo said that, Yasohachi understood. Just as Yasohachi didn’t know the world that Ukikumo saw, Ukikumo did not know the world Yasohachi saw.

Ukikumo smiled bitterly. It felt a bit sad.

Perhaps Yasohachi’s words had hurt Ukikumo in some way.

'I’m sorry,’ said Yasohachi, which made Ukikumo furrow his brows.

'Why are you apologising?’

'I don’t have an answer, but I just felt like I should…’

'It’s pointless concern. I…’

The back gate to the Hagiwara household opened, interrupting Ukikumo.

Iori appeared from inside.

'So it really was you, Yasohachi-dono,’ said Iori in a clear voice.

Yasohachi had thought that Iori was like a water lily when he saw her in the night, but under the sun, she was as bright as a sunflower.

In either case, it did not change the fact that she was beautiful.

'Iori-san, how did you know it was me?’

'I heard voices, so I thought that perhaps…’

Iori glanced at Ukikumo.

'This is the exorcist that I mentioned last night. His name is Ukikumo-san.’

After Yasohachi introduced Ukikumo, Iori politely bowed from her waist. 'Thank you for coming.’

Ukikumo responded with a cool 'Hm’.

'Please come in.’

After saying that, Iori went inside.

Yasohachi was about to go in when Ukikumo grabbed his shoulder.

'What is it?’

Ukikumo put his face close to Yasohachi’s. 'Hachi, that woman’s a bad idea.’

'What are you talking about?’

'That woman’s trouble.’

'What do you mean?’

'Well, you’ll find out soon enough.’

Ukikumo smiled in a meaningful way.

What on earth did he mean? Yasohachi was about to question him, but Iori asked 'What’s the matter?’ and the conversation was interrupted.

-

3

-

Yasohachi sat next to Ukikumo –

They were in the Hagiwara guest room.

In complete contrast to Yasohachi, who was kneeling properly with his spine completely straight, Ukikumo had his staff under his arm and was sitting cross-legged – he even looked relaxed.

Two other men were sitting in the guest room.

Yasohachi had met one of them last night. Shintani Naosuke, a guest of the Hagiwara family.

He was probably about halfway through his twenties. He looked good sitting in his hakama, different from his frightened appearance last night. Furthermore, looking at him properly, he appeared to be quite a lady-killer.

The other was Iori’s father and the master of the Hagiwara household, Hagiwara Shounosuke.

He had a round face like Iori, but his eyes were thin and droopy and he had a large, round nose, which gave him a warm atmosphere.

He did not find fault with Ukikumo’s incredibly ill-mannered behavior either.

'Is this gentleman the exorcist?’ asked Shounosuke, looking at Ukikumo.

Ukikumo’s eyes were covered with a red cloth that had eyes drawn on it. Even as Shounosuke looked at this strange appearance, his smile did not leave his face.

'Well, something like it,’ replied Ukikumo. He poured sake from the gourd he had brought with him into the cup at his waist and gulped it down.

'That’s disrespectful!’

Naosuke half-got up but unexpectedly Shounosuke was the one to stop him.

'Isn’t he an interesting fellow?’

'But…’

'Shintani-dono, if you are a samurai, you should also show your broadmindedness. Otherwise, I will not accept your betrothal to Iori.’

Shounosuke’s words calmed the situation. In contrast, Yasohachi’s heart was unsettled. It seemed Naosuke was Iori’s betrothed.

'You’re a good man for a samurai.’

Ukikumo poured sake into his cup and held it out towards Shounosuke.

Shounosuke smiled slightly and took the cup, downing it in one go.

'So, Ukikumo-dono, did you undergo your training somewhere?’ asked Shounosuke as he returned the cup.

'No, unfortunately, I don’t believe in gods or Buddha.’

'How can you expel spirits like that!?’

Naosuke flared up again.

However, Ukikumo wouldn’t falter at something like that.

'Don’t decide things in that petty mind of yours.’

'What did you say?’

'I can see things you can’t – ’

After saying that, Ukikumo touched the red cloth with eyes on it with his finger.

'Talking big for a blind man.’

'You’ll get in trouble if you leap forward just based on appearances.’

'Now, let’s calm down.’

Shounosuke calmed the situation once more.

Ukikumo was calm, but Yasohachi felt nervous just watching. He was covered in a cold sweat.

'So Shintarou is really possessed by something?’ asked Shounosuke after a pause, bringing the conversation back on topic.

'I don’t know. I haven’t seen him yet. I’ll make a decision after that.’

When Ukikumo said that, Shounosuke looked a bit surprised.

'Then it might not be a possession?’

'Yeah, might just be an illness. I won’t be able to do anything then, so get a doctor instead.’

'A doctor…’

'And my specialty is ghosts. If it’s some other form of spirit, I won’t be able to do much, so you’ll need to find someone else.’

Ukikumo’s words made Shounosuke laugh aloud.

What was so funny? Yasohachi looked at Ukikumo. Ukikumo was frowning; it seemed like he didn’t understand why Shounosuke was laughing either.

'Ah, I apologise. You see, ever since Shintarou became as he is now, many people calling themselves exorcists who must have heard rumours have been coming here.’

'Is that so?’ asked Yasohachi.

Shounosuke nodded.

'All of them would ask things like “What did the evil spirit do?” and “What about that demon?”, speaking intimidating words before even seeing Shintarou. In short, they were trying to sell sutras or other things. It appears you are, unlike them, an honest person.’

'That’s my only good quality,’ Ukikumo said shamelessly.

Yasohachi, who had had the money stolen from his wallet, was doubtful about Ukikumo’s honesty, but it seemed Shounosuke liked him.

'Please allow me to leave Shintarou in your care.’

Shounosuke bowed his head deeply.

'I’ll do what I can. I need to see him first.’

After Ukikumo repeated himself, Shounosuke called Iori to the room and told her to show them to where Shintarou was.

With Iori as their guide, Yasohachi and Ukikumo headed for Shintarou’s room.

'A doctor is currently here,’ said Iori as she walked.

Shintarou’s room was at a corner which had a view of the garden.

'This is the one,’ said Iori, opening the sliding door.

'Eek!’

A little shriek came from the room.

The one who had spoken was a man in a jittoku[4]. He was probably the doctor.

'I apologise for surprising you.’

Iori bowed her head.

'No, not at all. Who might these people be?’

The doctor looked at Yasohachi and Ukikumo.

'These gentlemen are Yasohachi-dono and Ukikumo-dono.’

Iori gave a brief introduction.

She had probably refrained from mentioning that Ukikumo was an exorcist since she was in front of a doctor.

'My name is Koishikawa Souten.’

The man who had called himself Koishikawa bowed his head politely.

He was fairly young for a doctor. He had a pale face and seemed somewhat unreliable.

Koishikawa seemed suspicious of Ukikumo’s strange appearance, but he didn’t say anything.

Once things settled down, Yasohachi looked at Shintarou, who slept in his futon.

His round face and lips were similar to Iori’s.

His face as he slept was so withered away it was unfortunate.

Koishikawa examined Shintarou, checking his pulse and listening to his heartbeat in a manner that suggested he was very accustomed to doing so.

Yasohachi knelt by Shintarou’s futon beside Iori and watched Koishikawa.

Then, he saw Ukikumo leaning against a pillar.

He seemed to be in thought, with his hand on his chin.

'How is my brother’s condition?’ asked Iori, leaning forward, once Koishikawa was done with his examination.

'I cannot say anything since I don’t know the cause,’ replied Koishikawa with a small shake of his head.

Yasohachi felt like Iori’s dignified expression grew immediately darker.

'Is it the work of a ghost then?’ murmured Iori to herself.

'A ghost… That’s impossible,’ Koishikawa denied resolutely.

Ukikumo’s expression stiffened slightly.

'How can you say it’s impossible?’ asked Ukikumo, which made Koishikawa look up.

'I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t know the cause, but it is some sort of illness. Prayers and exorcisms will not heal him,’ Koishikawa said firmly. They were very much the words of a doctor.

'What proof do you have to say they don’t exist?’ asked Ukikumo, looking angry.

Koishikawa froze for a moment, perhaps afraid of the eyes drawn on the red cloth. However, he soon smiled slightly afterwards.

'I have never seen a ghost in my entire life.’

'You’ve never seen one, so they don’t exist – is that what you want to say?’

'Yes.’

'Then let me ask this. Do you think Oda Nobunaga existed?’

'Well, yes,’ replied Koishikawa, seeming suspicious.

'Why? Have you seen Oda Nobunaga before?’

'No, I haven’t.’

'You’ve never seen him, so isn’t it strange for you to say he existed?’

'That’s just quibbling.’

'What’s quibbling about it? You said just now that you don’t believe in something because you’ve never seen it.’

'That’s different. And aren’t there documents left behind which serve as signs that Oda Nobunaga existed?’

'Ghosts leave documents behind too, don’t they?’

'That’s just more quibbling.’

'OK. There are tons of things in this world that you don’t know. But, they exist whether you know about them or not. Got it?’

With a dubious smile on his face, Ukikumo put his sake gourd straight to his lips and took a gulp.

Koishikawa seemed to think that any further discussion would be pointless as he just smiled wryly and then swiftly took out five paper backs from a box and placed them on the tray by Shintarou’s pillow.

'Please give him one bag of medicine with water a day, just as you have done up until now,’ said Koishikawa.

'Yes,’ responded Iori with a nod.

'Please excuse me.’

Koishikawa bowed his head politely and left the room.

'What a quack!’ said Ukikumo very audibly right afterwards.

Ukikumo, who could see ghosts, probably hadn’t liked having their existence outright denied.

'How is he then?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo sat cross-legged by Shintarou’s pillow.

'Is something malevolent possessing him?’ asked Iori anxiously.

'I don’t know yet. More importantly, how long’s this man been sleeping?’

'It’s been seven days,’ replied Iori.

'Was there any sign of this beforehand?’

'He appeared to have caught a cold, but that was all,’ replied Iori, which made Ukikumo cross his arms and make a 'Hm’ sound.

Yasohachi didn’t know what he was thinking. There was no way for him to – the worlds they saw were different.

Unable to bear with the silence, Yasohachi asked, 'What will you do?’

'I’m staying here tonight – you don’t mind, right?’ said Ukikumo.

Iori gave him a big nod in response –

-

4

-

'The moon looks good tonight.’

Ukikumo, sitting by Shintarou’s pillow, spoke in a carefree manner as he poured sake from a bottle into a cup.

A female servant had brought it earlier.

It was true that the moon was beautiful, shining brightly unlike yesterday, when it had been hidden by the clouds. However, that wasn’t the problem.

'Could you guard a bit more seriously?’

Ukikumo didn’t seem anxious at all. This was just drinking sake while viewing the moon. Furthermore, he was doing this at the bedside of Shintarou, who was sleeping, unable to wake up. It was just too imprudent.

Ukikumo snorted and finished the sake in his cup in one gulp.

'I’m incredibly serious.’

'It doesn’t look that way.’

Drinking sake didn’t seem serious at all.

'You telling me to learn from that lass?’

Ukikumo looked at the garden.

Iori, in hakama, was waving her sword about with intense concentration. She was probably preparing for the ghost’s attack.

Her form was beautiful. It was beautiful, but something felt off to Yasohachi.

He couldn’t express it well, but if he had to say, it seemed that the bright spark that Iori had already had was being forced out.

'Come to think of it, you told me to give up on her.’

Ukikumo had said that when they were going through the Hagiwara gate. Though Ukikumo had said that Yasohachi would understand soon enough, Yasohachi still didn’t understand what he had meant.

'What, so you really did fall for her?’ said Ukikumo mockingly.

'That isn’t it. I’m just curious since you said something like that.’

'Hachi, can’t you tell just by looking?’

'I can’t,’ Yasohachi said firmly.

Ukikumo shook his head with an exasperated sigh.

'That’s an innocent young woman who doesn’t know men.’

It was so sudden that it took some time for Yasohachi to understand what Ukikumo meant.

'H-how can you tell?’

'You can tell just from looking, right?’

'I can’t!’

Perhaps because of Yasohachi’s loud voice, Iori stopped and turned to look at them.

When their gazes met, all Yasohachi could do was respond with a twitching smile. Iori seemed suspicious for a while, but then she started to wave her sword again.

'Honestly, Ukikumo-san, it’s your fault for saying something so strange all of a sudden,’ protested Yasohachi with a sigh.

However, Ukikumo didn’t care at all.

'What’s so strange about it? This is important.’

'Why is it?’

'I’m saying that taking a maiden as your partner is a heavy burden.’

'I said I don’t see Iori-san that way. And Iori-san is going to marry Shintani-san anyway. She lives in a different world from a townsman like me.’

Yasohachi’s words made Ukikumo smile.

'You’re the one deciding that you’re living in different worlds, aren’t you?’

'I’m not deciding anything. We really do come from different ranks.’

No matter what Ukikumo said, a marriage between someone from a samurai family and someone from the common folk would not be accepted. That was the difference between rank.

'Rank doesn’t exist in the bedroom. You’re just a man and a woman.’

Yasohachi could understand Ukikumo’s logic, but –

He was about to object when Naosuke walked down the corridor.

'What do you want?’ asked Ukikumo with a sigh.

'Nothing. Just…’

Naosuke paused.

'You can’t trust me, right?’ said Ukikumo in Naosuke’s stead.

Naosuke didn’t respond, just looking at Iori who was waving her sword fervently.

Though Naosuke probably couldn’t trust Ukikumo, he was probably also here because he was anxious about Iori.

'Hachi,’ muttered Ukikumo.

'Yes?’

'If it hurts, you can cry.’

What on earth was he talking about? Yasohachi was about to ask, but he couldn’t, because it was clear that Ukikumo had sensed something from his hard expression.

'You’ve come then – ’ murmured Ukikumo in a low voice. He stood with his staff.

'Who has?’

'The host.’

After saying that, Ukikumo pointed at the back gate.

Yasohachi looked in that direction while holding his breath.

A woman stood there.

She wore an indigo kimono that seemed like it would melt into the night. Though she had a pale face, there was a bewitching beauty to her. It was definitely the woman from last night.

Iori and Naosuke had noticed her as well and had turned their gazes that way.

A jolt of tension ran through the air.

The woman seemed to slide across the ground as she headed towards Shintarou’s room.

'Stay away from my brother!’

Iori ran up to the woman to block her way and held her wooden sword up in front of her.

Still, the woman did not stop.

'Stay away!’ shouted Iori as she struck.

However, the tip of her sword went right through the woman’s body.

Iori sliced sideways and then diagonally, not giving up, but still her strikes kept going through the woman.

'It’s useless. Give it up.’

Ukikumo went into the garden, still barefoot, and pushed Iori aside.

However, Iori still tried to strike the woman. Yasohachi grabbed Iori’s hand and pulled her away.

'Let’s leave this to Ukikumo-san,’ said Yasohachi.

Iori bit her lower lip and looked down.

'Why are you wandering the world of the living?’ asked Ukikumo, pulling up the left side of the red cloth covering his eyes just slightly. He was probably looking at the woman in a way that wouldn’t let Iori and Naosuke see his eyes.

'I… lo…’ said the woman, her voice trembling.

Yasohachi couldn’t hear her, but he could tell that there was strong emotion in that voice.

'Just as I expected then – ’ Ukikumo murmured.

He spoke as if he had known everything from the start.

'You… I’ll cut you down!’

Naosuke, who had been frozen in fear earlier, seemed to have gained his resolve as he unsheathed his sword and tried to cut the woman.

The tip of his sword went right through the woman, as expected.

The woman sent Naosuke a glare and then melted into the darkness, just as she had down the night before –

-

5

-

Yasohachi went to the shrine that Ukikumo had made his stronghold the next day, past noon –

He was meant to have come earlier, but because of the late night, he had completely slept in.

'Hello!’

He called out as he stood in front of the shrine, but there was no response.

'Ukikumo-san, are you here?’

He called out once more and the shrine door open.

Yasohachi was startled. It wasn’t Ukikumo who had come out but a woman in a pale red kimono.

She was probably about halfway through her twenties. She had sharp looks, with a showy and beguiling beauty that made him hold his breath.

'You must be Yasohachi-san.’

The woman looked at Yasohachi with seductive eyes.

Though her voice seemed a bit low, it matched the woman in front of his eyes and was bewitching.

'Eh, ah, yes… Why do you know my name?’

'Do you want me to tell you?’ said the woman teasingly, dragging a long, white finger along Yasohachi’s cheek.

A smell that reminded him of plum flowers tickled his nose.

It was too much for Yasohachi. He couldn’t speak. The woman saw Yasohachi in his predicament and gave him a full-lipped smile.

'You’re blushing. How cute.’

'I-I, er…’

'Somebody like you shouldn’t keep the company of a man like him,’ whispered the woman in Yasohachi’s ear.

Her breath felt ticklish.

'A man like him?’

'Well, it’s fine. If you’re looking for him, he’s inside,’ said the woman, turning around.

'Ah, yes,’ responded Yasohachi.

The woman smiled faintly. 'I’ll see you then – ’ She walked around with lithe steps.

– Is she Ukikumo’s lover?

Yasohachi thought about that as he stepped inside.

'What, it’s you, Hachi?’

Ukikumo said that as he stifled a yawn, sitting with his back against the wall.

He was only wearing his white kimono, leaving his firm chest exposed.

'Er… who was that woman earlier?’

Ukikumo pulled a wry face.

'Ah, Tamamo?’

'Tamamo-san – is that her name?’

'I don’t know her real name. I just call her that.’

'You don’t know…? Isn’t she your lover?’

'Do you know why I call her Tamamo?’ responded Ukikumo as he poured sake out from his gourd.

'I don’t know.’

'It’s from Tamamo-no-Mae.’

'Are you talking about that tale of a transforming nine-tailed fox spirit?’

Yasohachi had heard of the legend of Tamamo-no-Mae before.

Tamamo-no-Mae, who had been a woman of startling beauty, had been doted on by the emperor. However, her real form was that of the nine-tailed fox, a spirit that brought misfortune.

If Yasohachi remembered correctly, an onmyouji[5] named Abe-no-something or other had exorcised her spirit.

'That’s right. Tamamo might give up her body but she’ll never give up her heart. That’s the sort of woman she is. If you carelessly make a move on her, she’ll drag you to the pits of hell.’

'Huh.’

Yasohachi felt like he had been given the slip, but he couldn’t worry about that now.

Yasohachi knelt in front of Ukikumo.

'What are you being so formal for now?’ said Ukikumo as he drank his sake.

'What do you mean, what? It’s about the Hagiwara household case.’

After the woman’s ghost had disappeared last night, Ukikumo had quickly dressed himself and left the Hagiwara household.

The case hadn’t been solved.

'Ah, that…’

Ukikumo’s gaze wandered.

There was no way he had forgotten. It had been just yesterday. He had to be playing dumb.

'If nothing is done, Iori-san’s brother will…’

'You don’t have to worry about that,’ Ukikumo said firmly.

'What do you mean?’

'You don’t understand?’

'I don’t.’

Ukikumo looked troubled.

'Honestly, why not try thinking on your own sometimes?’

Ukikumo’s words irritated Yasohachi.

It wasn’t like Yasohachi was slow. He had been thinking about that ghost ever since last night. However, he still didn’t understand.

'I…’

Yasohachi was about to object when Ukikumo stopped him.

'Listen up. The ghost last night shows up at the Hagiwara household every night. Why do you think the ghost does that?’

'Isn’t the ghost going to see Shintarou-san?’

'Well, that’s near the mark.’

'Huh…’

'If that ghost is going to see Shintarou-san, do you know the reason?’

'The reason?’

'Yes. She’s going to see him because she has a reason, right?’

Yasohachi understood what Ukikumo was saying, but there was another way to think about it.

'I think she might go even without a reason.’

'Oh? And in what situation would that be?’

Ukikumo’s eyes narrowed. His red eyes seemed to glint.

'She might have fallen in love with Shintarou-san – ’

When Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo smiled slightly.

'Going to meet the person she loves is a splendid reason, right?’

'Ah, I see…’

'If a woman’s ghost is wandering because she fell in love – did she fall in love with Shintarou after dying? Or did she fall in love first and then die?’

'I think she fell in love first and then died.’

'Why do you think that?’

'I don’t have any proof. I just think so.’

Ukikumo nodded.

'I think the same thing.’

If it wasn’t just Yasohachi – if Ukikumo thought the same way – it made him think his current theory was correct. But if that was the case –

'That would make that ghost Shintarou-san’s lover.’

'Well, there’s that possibility.’

'But Shintarou-san was having talks of marriage…’

'Is that a marriage he desired?’

Ukikumo looked frightening as he said that.

'What do you mean?’

'The marriages of samurai families don’t just spring up because two people are madly in love.’

It was just as Ukikumo said.

A samurai family couldn’t decide which family to bind themselves to through marriage just by considering the feelings of the people getting married. It would have a great influence on their social status afterwards, so samurai marriages required the permission of the shogunate and the domain.

It was often the case that people were forced to separate from the ones they had fallen in love with in order to marry partners they did not desire. However –

'Then that woman’s ghost wasn’t Shintarou-san’s lover?’

'The relationship between a man and a woman cannot be explained with logic.’

There were talks of marriage, but he had another woman – that was probably what Ukikumo wanted to say.

'Well, maybe that was the case.’

'Then the question is why that woman died.’

Ukikumo’s words seemed to have subtext to them. His narrowed red eyes gleamed coldly.

'What are you trying to say/’

'That ghost was probably a woman from the red-light district. She had probably been troublesome for Shintarou, who was going to get married – ’

Another sentence full of subtext.

Though Ukikumo hadn’t said it aloud, it seemed he was suggesting that Shintarou had killed the woman from the red-light district in order to cut his ties with her. However –

'There are men who visit the red-light district even after marriage. Even men with mistresses…’

'I don’t think the Hagiwara household would have been able to do that. Paying to get a woman in the red-light district out of bondage to make her a mistress costs money.’

That was true. Yasohachi had heard that it cost a lot of money to buy somebody out of bondage. Furthermore, it would be necessary to set up a separate house and to pay for her living expenses.

It would be especially hard now that the power of samurai families had dwindled.

'But then he could have just left her – ’

'Maybe their break up turned sour or he didn’t want to leave her…’

'Then he should have just married the woman he loved…’

'This is why I call you an idiot. What if the marriage would be beneficial to his own status? There are people who could throw away their feelings of love if it was for their own profit.’

It was true that there were probably people like that.

However, even though Yasohachi had only seen Shintarou in his sleep, the man just didn’t seem like that sort of person.

Especially not the sort of person who would kill for that reason –

'Well, anyway, I’m having Tamamo investigate who that ghost is,’ said Ukikumo after a pause.

'How will she investigate?’

'For things about the red-light district, it’s best to ask a woman from there.’

So Tamamo was a prostitute from the red-light district then. When Yasohachi remembered that mellow fragrance, he understood, but at the same time, a question came to him.

A prostitute from the red-light district would never be allowed out alone. Yasohachi wanted to ask about that, but Ukikumo spoke before he could.

'I want you to investigate another matter.’

'Another matter?’

Yasohachi had a bad feeling even as he spoke.

-

6

-

'Hello – ’

Yasohachi called out to Iori, who was fervently brandishing her wooden sword. Yasohachi had been led to the porch by a female servant of the Hagiwara household.

Iori stopped waving her sword and turned to look at Yasohachi.

Yasohachi returned a stiff smile upon seeing her tense expression.

Though Iori looked elegant and beautiful as she held her wooden sword, she gave off an air that made it hard to approach her.

'Yasohachi-dono – did you discover anything new?’

Iori wiped the sweat off her forehead with a hand towel and walked towards him.

'No, not yet…’

'I see,’ said Iori, looking away as she sat on the porch.

'Ukikumo-san said it would be all right though.’

Even as Yasohachi knew those were just words of comfort, he sat next to Iori.
'I’ll believe those words.’

This time, with Iori’s strong gaze on him, Yasohachi was the one to look away.

For a while, the silence continued. Nothing would begin if they were both silent. Yasohachi had come here with a goal.

'Actually.’ he said, 'there’s something I want to ask you, Iori-san.’

'Me?’

Iori cocked her head.

'It’s about your older brother, Shintarou-san.’

'What is it?’

'What sort of person is her?’

As Yasohachi asked that, he looked towards Shintarou’s room.

The door was closed now so he couldn’t see him. Though Yasohachi’s impression of Shintarou was only of his sleeping figure, he seemed like his father, Shounosuke – a gentle person.

'He is kind. Very. But…’

Iori’s expression clouded over slightly.

'But – what is it?’

'He is too kind. Even when he practises swordsmanship, he lets himself be hit because he doesn’t want to hurt others.’

'Isn’t that a good thing?’

'It is unacceptable for the heir of a samurai family. Sometimes, it will be necessary for him to behave in a stricter manner.’

Yasohachi, the son of a dry-goods shop owner, had no way to fathom it, but just as Iori sad, it was probably necessary to act in a certain manner if born into a samurai family.

Iori bit her lip with force. It felt like she was holding something back. A question came to Yasohachi as he looked at her.

'Iori-san, why do you practise the sword?’ he asked.

Iori glared at him.

'Even though you’re a girl… That’s what you want to say, right?’

'That isn’t it. I don’t believe that woman shouldn’t practise swordsmanship.’

'Then…’

'I just thought that it would be very sad if you do so because you are in a samurai family or in your brother’s stead.’

'Sad?’

Iori cocked her head like she didn’t understand.

'Yes. Currently, I aim to be a painter.’

'A painter.’

'Yes. But just a little bit earlier, I had thought that I would have to take over the shop, since I’m the son of a dry-goods shop owner. However, living that way is a little strange in my opinion.’

'Why do you think so?’

'Whether it is birth or family, don’t you think it is sad to be bound?’

'Yasohachi-san, you’re a strange person,’ said Iori. She was looking down, but she had a faint smile on her face.

It might have been the first time Yasohachi had seen her smile. The expression made something within him feel warm.

'Am I strange?’

'Yes, you are.’

Iori nodded. When she said it so firmly, he had nothing to respond.

For a while, they were both silent, but then Iori stood up and said, 'Because I like it – ’

'Eh?’

'I practise swordsmanship because I like it. It’s not that I want to cut anyone done. I just find that my heart feels at ease when I wave the sword.’

After saying that, Iori held her wooden sword up in front of her.

The air about Iori changed immediately. She really was beautiful.

'Is that so? That makes me glad.’

'Yes.’

'Would you allow me to ask one more thing?’ asked Yasohachi.

Iori nodded and put down her sword.

'There are talks of marriage for Shintarou-san, but who is to be his partner?’

'The daughter of the Nagai household, Tae-san.’

'It was decided by the parents then,’ said Yasohachi, but Iori smiled bashfully.

'That isn’t it.’

'It isn’t?’

'It isn’t. My brother and Tae-san are both childhood friends and in love. My father knew that when he talked to the Nagai household about marriage.’

'Is that so – ’

It was an unexpected answer.

However, he might have just been prejudiced because of his conversation with Ukikumo.

'Though they did agree, the Nagai household is not very happy with the engagement.’

'Why is that?’

'To be honest, neither the Hagiwara household nor the Nagai household is that large. Tae-san is beautiful, so they probably believe they could marry her to a better family.’

'I see…’

Since the marriage of their daughter had direct connections to their advancement in society, it made sense that they were concerned. From the perspective of a townsman, the samurai families seemed to do whatever they wanted, but they had their own problems.

'They may end the talks of marriage if they hear of my brother’s condition.’

Iori sighed. She was probably deeply concerned about Shintarou.

'I won’t allow it.’

Yasohachi had spoken before he had realised it.

Yasohachi knew that he couldn’t do anything. He didn’t even know the situation. Still, he felt like he wanted to do something when he saw Iori’s sad profile.

'That is of great comfort to me.’

Iori smiled slightly.

However, it was an awkward one. She could probably see that there was no evidence behind Yasohachi’s words.

Yasohachi looked down in sudden embarrassment.

'Is that all you had to ask?’ said Iori after a silence.

'Ah, no. Did Shintarou-san have anybody he cared for besides Tae-san?’

'No.’

An immediate answer.

'He might have had a secret relationship without anyone realizing.’

'My brother would never do that,’ Iori said firmly.

Yasohachi wanted to believe those words, but sometimes people had sides to them that were unimaginable to others. He had learnt that from the previous case.

That said, pressing Iori further would probably be of no use.

'I see. Thank you very much.’

'Will doing this bring my brother to recovery?’

Yasohachi could understand why Iori was doubtful. Yasohachi himself was still half in doubt. That said, all he could do now was act with his belief in Ukikumo.

'Ukikumo-san will do something.’

'You trust him.’

Iori’s words made Yasohachi think.

Ukikumo just drank sake all the time, and Yasohachi knew nothing of where he came from. He had even stolen money from Yasohachi and was a lecher on top of that.

To be honest, it would be hard to say he was somebody worth trusting, but still, Ukikumo was the only person he could rely on in this situation.

'I wonder about that,’ Yasohachi replied vaguely. He stood up to thank Iori and leave, but then he remembered something.

'Excuse me. One more thing – ’

'What is it?’

'When was your betrothal decided, Ukikumo-san?’

This was also something Ukikumo had told Yasohachi to ask.

'It isn’t,’ Iori replied firmly.

'But…’

Yesterday, when Yasohachi had come to the Hagiwara household, Iori’s father, Shounosuke, had talked to Naosuke about the betrothal.

'That is just something Shintani-sama is talking about on his own.’

'Is that so?’

'I have no intentions of becoming a bride.’

'Is that because you dislike Shintani-san?’

'That isn’t it. I just don’t feel like it.’

Iori walked out of the garden, as if to escape.

Yasohachi couldn’t discern the true meaning of her words from her retreating figure –

-

7

-

'Yasohachi-san.’

As Yasohachi was heading for the shrine where Ukikumo was at, somebody called out to him.

Yasohachi turned around and called out, 'Hijikata-san.’ Hijikata was jogging towards him.

Hijikata’s soft features made him seem gentle at first glance, but there was always a sharp glint in the back of his almond eyes – he was an unfathomable man.

Though he was a seller of medicine, it felt like he was more suited to being a warrior.

'It seems you’ve wrapped yourself up in another supernatural case,’ said Hijikata with a smile.

'How do you know that?’

'That man was grumbling about how “Hachi’s gone and picked up something he didn’t need to”, see – ’ said Hijikata, mimicking Ukikumo’s voice.

It sounded so like it that Yasohachi burst out without thinking. 'That wasn’t my intention…’

'It isn’t anything to worry about. Expelling spirits is that man’s calling, so he should be grateful to you, Yasohachi-san, for bringing work to him.’

'Hearing that makes me feel a bit better.’

'You are heading to see that man now then.’

'Yes,’ responded Yasohachi, which made Hijikata take off the box of medicine he was carrying on his back and take out a piece of paper folded into a triangle.

'Please give this to that man.’

'What is it?’

'As you can see, it’s medicine.’

'Huh…’

Was Ukikumo feeling unwell – Yasohachi thought about that as he took the bag of medicine.

'Also, please give him this message.’

'Hijikata-san, you aren’t going yourself?’

'I have a bit of an urgent task to attend to.’

'I see…’

'It is as you imagined – would you please tell him that?’

'What does that mean?’

'You’ll understand if you tell him,’ said Hijikata with a smile. He put on the medicine box once more, turned around and walked away briskly.

He was as fast as if he was running – he disappeared from sight in no time at all.

– What a busy person.

Yasohachi started to head towards Ukikumo’s shrine again.

He passed through the torii, went through the tall grass and stood in front of the shrine building. He thought about calling out, but Ukikumo spoke before he could. 'Come in.’

Yasohachi went inside and saw Ukikumo lying on the ground, staring at the hirauchi kanzashi.

'That’s the one the ghost had, right?’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo sat up lazily.

'To be more correct, this was what that woman dropped before becoming a ghost.’

'What’s the difference?’

'Ghosts are clusters of human emotion. They can’t hold things or break things. More importantly, you met that idiot Toshizou, right?’

'How do you know that?’ said Yasohachi in surprise.

'You have a bag of medicine, right? I gave it to Toshizou.’

'Oh.’

That made sense, but another question came to Yasohachi.

'You gave it to him, Ukikumo-san?’

'I did.’

'Why?’

It was a bit strange to give medicine to Hijikata, who was a seller of it.

'I’ll explain afterwards. More importantly, Toshizou told you something, right?’

'Ah, he asked me to tell you that it was as you imagined – ’

Ukikumo put his chin in his hand. 'So that really is the case…’

What on earth was he thinking? Yasohachi thought about asking, but Ukikumo asked a question before he could.

'So how about your side of things?’

'About that…’

Yasohachi knelt in front of Ukikumo and told him in detail what he had heard from Iori.

Ukikumo gulped sake from his cup at times but listened to Yasohachi intently.

'I see. Most everything is clear to me now,’ said Ukikumo once Yasohachi finished.

'What is clear to you?’

'The truth – maybe I’ll say that.’

'Really?’

Yasohachi half-got up without thinking.

'Yeah.’

'Then you can expel that ghost.’

'There’s something to do before then.’

'What is it?’

'Wake Shintarou up.’

Ukikumo’s unexpected words made Yasohachi cock his head. 'Eh?’

'Wake Shintarou-san up before expelling the ghost?’

'That’s right.’

'But Shintarou-san is, er… isn’t he like that because the ghost is possessing him?’

When Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo looked straight at him with his red eyes and smiled confidently.

-

8

-

'Er… We’re going to wake up Shintarou-san then,’ said Yasohachi to Ukikumo, who was walking beside him.

Ukikumo had his staff with him and the red cloth with eyes drawn on it on as he pretend to be a blind man as usual.

'We are,’ Ukikumo replied calmly.

'If so, we’re heading in the wrong direction. The Hagiwara household is that way.’

Yasohachi stopped to point, but Ukikumo just snorted.

'I know that.’

'Then…’

'If we’re going to wake up Shintarou, this is the right direction,’ said Ukikumo pointedly. He started walking forward briskly. If he had so much confidence, all Yasohachi could do was follow him.

Yasohachi walked along with Ukikumo to a small clinic.

'Why are we at a clinic?’ asked Yasohachi.

'You’ll understand soon,’ said Ukikumo, going inside.

Yasohachi was confused, but he went inside after him.

'Ah!’

After going inside, he saw a face he recognized.

It was Koishikawa, the doctor who had examined Shintarou. He seemed surprised as well – his eyes darted back and forth between Yasohachi and Ukikumo.

'Is something the matter?’ asked Koishikawa, seeming suspicious.

Ukikumo smirked.

'There’s something I want to ask you.’

'What is it?’

'We can talk about it here, but it might not be a good idea.’

Ukikumo put his staff on his shoulder and walked close to Koishikawa.

Perhaps Koishikawa had been oppressed by that force, as he said, 'Please come this way,’ urging them inside.

Yasohachi was still confused as he and Ukikumo went where Koishikawa had guided them. They were taken to a room that was probably a study. There was a writing desk inside.

'What is it you wanted to talk about?’ asked Koishikawa once they had all sat down.

He looked ill at ease, with sweat on his forehead. In contrast, Ukikumo was leaning against the wall as he sat, one knee up.

'You know without me saying it, right?’ asked Ukikumo.

'Pardon?’ Koishikawa cocked his head.

'I’m talking about this,’ Ukikumo said brusquely, throwing a bag of medicine at Koishikawa. It was the one he had received from Hijikata earlier.

'What on earth is this?’

Koishikawa shook his head and placed the bag on the desk.

'Oh, you’re going to play dumb? Well, that makes sense. It’d be over for you if this got out.’

The eyes drawn on the red cloth Ukikumo was wearing stared straight at Koishikawa.

'Again, what are you talking about?’

'There’s a girl you like, right?’ Ukikumo continued to speak despite Koishikawa’s troubled look. 'A daughter of the Nagai household named Tae.’

'I do know Tae-san of the Nagai household, but she and I are of different ranks. It isn’t as if we are madly in love.’

'Boring!’ spat out Ukikumo.

'Pardon me?’

'Everyone keeps talking about rank – boring blather. Do you think that’s an excuse to say you haven’t fallen for her?’

'I don’t know what you’re…’

'I’m saying that even if they are of different ranks, a man will fall in love with a woman.’

Ukikumo’s words made Koishikawa’s face twitch.

'What on earth are you talking about?’

'Lying to yourself like that has made you lose yourself.’

'Please be more…’

'Shut up and listen!’

Ukikumo jabbed Koishikawa’s shoulder with his staff. Koishikawa fell backwards.

'What are you doing!?’ interrupted Yasohachi, but Ukikumo stood up, ignoring him as he stared down at Koishikawa.

'I said this back then too, right? That I can see things that you can’t – ’

After saying that, Ukikumo pulled down the red cloth covering his eyes.

Under the glare of these deep red eyes, Koishikawa was shocked.

'W-what’s with your eyes – ’

Koishikawa kept growing paler. He was clearly terrified.

Ukikumo had probably seen such an expression countless times after revealing his red eyes. That was why he covered them with a cloth.

Yasohachi realised anew the darkness that Ukikumo carried with him.

'These eyes can see things others can’t,’ said Ukikumo.

'See things others can’t?’

'Yes. For example, your heart – ’

'Eek…’

Koishikawa tried to escape in his fear, but Ukikumo grabbed him by the collar and pushed his face to the tatami.

'I’m still talking.’

'Urgh…’

'Though you had fallen for Tae, she already had a betrothed. A man from a samurai family. Man named Shintarou.’

'I-I…’

'Because of your feelings for Tae, you tried to stop that marriage however you could. Then, you heard about the woman’s ghost that appeared at the Hagiwara household and tried to use that.’

Yasohachi could vaguely see what had happened after hearing this much.

'Could it be that this person…’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo nodded. 'Yeah. What he was giving to Shintarou was a strong sleeping medicine.’

The moment Ukikumo said that, Koishikawa shut his eyes tightly, perhaps in resignation.

'That’s so…’ Yasohachi spoke up without thinking.

Ukikumo had probably thought it strange from the start that Shintarou kept on sleeping.

That was why he’d taken Shintarou’s medicine, given it to Hijikata and had him investigate it.

That wasn’t all. With the information from Iori that Yasohachi had gathered, Ukikumo had even formulated the motive for Koishikawa’s actions.

Ukikumo put his face close to Koishikawa’s ear and whispered, 'You are a foolish man.’ Then, he let go.

Koishikawa staggered up and glared at Ukikumo with anger and hatred.

'What is wrong with falling in love…’ said Koishikawa, voice strained and tears in his eyes.

He sounded pained. That probably showed his strong feelings for Tae.

'So you’re finally being honest?’

Ukikumo smiled in satisfaction.

Koishikawa looked at Ukikumo in surprise.

'I…’

'It’s because you bound yourself with stupid things like rank and background to push down your feelings that you lost sight of yourself.’

’…’

'Whether samurai or townsperson, men fall in love with women. That is the way of human beings.’

'Is it all right that I fell in love with Tae?’

'A man doesn’t need anyone’s permission to fall in love with a woman.’

'I see…’

Koishikawa bit his lip tightly.

'And you’ve already fallen in love. That’s why you tried to end the talks of Tae’s marriage, right?’

'Yes…’

Koishikawa hung his head.

'If Shintarou and Tae’s marriage had been some sort of political plan, I would7ve sympathised with you a bit. But those two love each other.’

'Urgh.’

'The woman named Tae fell in love with Shintarou. That makes you unnecessary.’

When Ukikumo said that, the tears in Koishikawa’s eyes started to fall.

As Yasohachi saw that, he did not think it was pitiful or weak. Though he didn’t agree with Koishikawa’s methods, loving someone to the point of tears was, in some ways, a form of happiness.

'I know that… I know that, but…’

Koishikawa dug his fingers into the tatami as he sobbed.

'You’re an idiot,’ Ukikumo said mercilessly.

'Eh?’

'Though love can make people stronger, sometimes it turns them into demons. That is – the way of things.’

'I was a demon?’

Koishikawa turned pleading eyes towards Ukikumo.

'Yeah, a demon. A demon who lost himself to passion. If you’re a man, don’t just go around lusting after the woman you love – try hoping for her happiness instead.’

Ukikumo’s words made Yasohachi feel warm inside.

Purely hoping for the happiness of the woman you loved wasn’t something that simple, but Yasohachi felt like there was truth there.

– Perhaps Ukikumo has fallen in love before himself.

After a silence, Koishikawa said in a strained voice, 'Hope for… Tae-san’s happiness…’

'If you’re prepared to do that, I don’t mind keeping silent about this,’ said Ukikumo with a full-faced smile, staff on his shoulder.

The words seemed generous, but Yasohachi had a bad feeling.

It was clear from his expression that he was thinking of something that wasn’t good.

'Yes…’

'Right. And now you owe me one. You know what I’m saying, right?’

Ukikumo probably meant to use this to make Koishikawa do as he wished.

Koishikawa probably understood that as well, but unable to refuse, he replied, head hung, 'Yes.’

-

9

-

Yasohachi knelt with his back completely straight –

Shounosuke, Iori and Naosuke were sitting as well. They had been gathered to discuss Shintarou.

Yasohachi looked beside him. Ukikumo sat there, legs stretched out and staff across his legs.

The complete opposite of Yasohachi, who was a bundle of nerves, Ukikumo looked right at home.

'How is Shintarou then?’

Shounosuke looked at Ukikumo.

Ukikumo smiled confidently as usual, but Yasohachi felt chills.

They had determined that Koishikawa’s sleeping medicine had been keeping Shintarou asleep, but Ukikumo had promised not to say anything.

– How on earth will he explain?

'That woman’s ghost definitely cursed him,’ Ukikumo said casually.

'A curse?’

'Yeah. Her strong ill intent has kept him asleep.’

– That’s a lie, isn’t it?

Yasohachi almost said that aloud. Still, he almost admired Ukikumo for his ability to lie so calmly.

'Can you expel the spirit?’ asked Shounosuke.

Ukikumo put a hand on his pointed chin. He appeared to be deep in thought.

'It isn’t impossible. My way of expelling spirits is a bit different from other people’s though.’

'How is it different?’ asked Shounosuke.

Ukikumo smiled as if he had been waiting for that question.

'Ghosts are clusters of people’s emotions. Chanting sutras or putting up charms won’t solve anything.’

'Is that so?’

'In any case, I’ve never done training, so I don’t have that power,’ said Ukikumo confidently.

'Then what will you do?’

'I’ll convince the ghost.’

'Convince?’ said Shounosuke in confusion.

It made sense for him to be confused. When expelling spirits, sutras and charms were the normal fare. However, Ukikumo had said he would convince the ghost.

Yasohachi hadn’t been able to understand Ukikumo’s methods before seeing himself either.

'I find the reason the ghost is wandering and solve it. Then, the ghost will be at peace.’

'I understand the logic… but what exactly are you going to do?’ said Shounosuke, crossing his arms.

'First, the problem was who the ghost appearing every night was.’

'Who is it?’ asked Iori.

'A prostitute from the red-light district. Her name is Otsuyu.’

It was the first time Yasohachi had heard that name too. 'How do you know?’ he asked, which made Ukikumo snort.

'I had Tamamo investigate for me.’

The woman he had met in front of the shrine before. Now that Ukikumo mentioned it, he had said that he was going to as Tamamo to investigate.

'Otsuyu was a prostitute at Mukaiya, in Naito-Shinjuku. However, ten days ago, se left her shop and has been missing since.’

'What is your reason for declaring that ghost to be the Otsuyu you mention?’ asked Naosuke.

'This.’

Ukikumo took the hirauchi kanzashi from his sleeve and placed it on the tatami.

Yasohachi had picked it up at the roots of the willow. Iori took it in her hands and looked at it.

'I had it confirmed by someone who knows Otsuyu. This was definitely hers.’

Naosuke grew quiet after hearing Ukikumo’s explanation.

'The person named Otsuyu-san is already dead then,’ said Iori in a hoarse voice. Her eyes seemed sad.

Ukikumo nodded. 'She is.’

'I see…’ murmured Iori, putting the kanzashi down on the tatami. Her fingrs were trembling, just slightly.

'Now, the question is why Otsuyu came to this estate every night.’

'She came to see Shintarou-dono,’ responded Naosuke.

'Probably,’ said Ukikumo, voice a pitch lower. He stood up silently.

After looking at everyone in the room with the eyes painted on the red cloth he wore, he hit the tatami with his staff before continuing.

'That woman’s ghost fell in love and became a demon. That’s why she keeps coming to see the man she loves even after her death.’

'What will happen to him?’ asked Iori anxiously.

'Otsuyu will probably keep coming here night after night, until finally the man she wants will come to her side – ’

After saying that, Ukikumo hit the tatami once more.

'That is – the way of love.’

Everyone there was at a loss for words. Ukikumo’s words were that dark and heavy.

It was true that one could say that was love, but continuing to visit the bedside of the person you love even after death was terribly frightening.’

'Is there any way to stop her?’ pleaded Iori, leaning forward.

'Well, it isn’t impossible,’ said Ukikumo, sounding tired.

'What should we do?’ urged Naosuke.

'From what I see, that ghost doesn’t realize she’s dead. That’s why she’s wandering.’

'Is it possible to not realize that you7re dead?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo snorted. 'It is. Normally you’d see your corpse after leaving your spirit and realise then, but what if the corpse was hidden?’

Yasohachi understood what Ukikumo was trying to say.

If one hadn’t died slowly from illness but unexpectedly, one might not realise one’s own death without seeing a body.

After Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo nodded.

'So do you know what we have to do to expel that woman’s ghost?’

'Find the body and show it to the ghost,’ responded Yasohachi. Ukikumo nodded again. Yasohachi understood the logic, but the problem was –

'Where is the body?’ asked Iori in Yasohachi’s stead.

Everyone’s gazes concentrated on Ukikumo. He was silent for a while, but then he sat down cross-legged with a sigh.

'Unfortunately, it is impossible to solve this without knowing that.’

Ukikumo shook his head slightly.

There had been such build up that it was a disappointing ending.

While everyone was sighing in disappointment, one person kept looking at Ukikumo, and Yasohachi noticed.

It was nobody else but Iori –

-

10

-

'What are you going to do now?’ asked Yasohachi to Ukikumo, who stood next to him. They were in front of a stand called Shinshuuya that sold soba.

'I’m going to eat soba,’ Ukikumo said, looking disappointed in Yasohachi for asking.

The owner took that moment to place bowls of soba in front of Yasohachi and Ukikumo.

Ukikumo smiled, looking incredibly happy. He put his face close to the boll to enjoy the smell of the steam coming up from it and then started to slurp the noodles loudly.

'Not that – I’m talking about the Hagiwara household matter.’

Though Ukikumo had boasted about being able to expel spirits, all he had done in the end was explain the situation and leave.

'Ah, that…’

'Please don’t play dumb. You have some kind of idea, right?’

Since it was Ukikumo, he wouldn’t be completely without a plan.

'Well, you could say that.’

'Please tell me.’

'Don’t be in such a rush. Fill yourself up first.’

'We can’t be so leisurely…’

'If you won’t eat, I will.’

Ukikumo, who had finished his bowl in no time at all, looked at Yasohachi’s untouched bowl.

Yasohachi didn’t like how Ukikumo had evaded the question, but he didn’t want to let Ukikumo have his soba either. Yasohachi quickly gulped his soba down.

'Now, it’s about time,’ murmured Ukikumo once Yasohachi finished his bowl.

'Time?’

'For the mouse to get caught by the trap.’

After saying that, Ukikumo said to the owner of the stand, 'It was delicious.’ Then, he started to walk away. Yasohachi didn’t understand, but he followed anyway.

'What do you mean by time? And what on earth is trap supposed to mean?’

Yasohachi’s questions made Ukikumo stop walking.

'Somebody’s been following us, see,’ Ukikumo muttered.

'Eh?’

When Yasohachi turned around frantically, Ukikumo smacked his head.

'Idiot! You’ll be noticed.’

After saying that gruffly, Ukikumo sarted to walk again.

Though Yasohachi followed him, he felt uncomfortable, as if he were floating.

When he turned around earlier, for just a moment, he had seen someone looking at them, hiding under the eaves of a row house.

It was a face he recognized.

The person was Iori.

No, he must have seen wrong. It couldn’t have been Iori. There was no reason for Iori to follow them.

However, the more he denied it, the more he thought it was Iori.

If he turned around again to check once more, he might be noticed, just as Ukikumo said.

Why couldn’t they be noticed anyway? What on earth was Ukikumo thinking?

Questions kept coming to Yasohachi when Ukikumo suddenly stopped.

They were in front of the willow where Yasohachi had seen the woman’s ghost. The hanging branches shook uncannily in the night wind.

'It really was here.’

Ukikumo smiled in satisfaction.

'What was?’

Ukikumo didn’t reply to Yasohachi’s question. He just went down to the riverbank by the willow.

– What is he thinking?

Yasohachi had that question in his head, but he followed Ukikumo to the riverbank regardless.

'As I thought, the body was buried there,’ said Ukikumo, pointing his staff at the ground.

His gaze was on a crouching person. That person leapt up in shock at Ukikumo’s voice.

It was a face Yasohachi recognized. It was –

'You bastard! You saw!’

That person screamed and unsheathed their sword. Then, they rushed forward.

– I’m going to be sliced through.

The moment Yasohachi thought that, something pushed him aside and he fell to the ground.

– What on earth is happening?

Yasohachi looked up. His eyes went wide in shock.

The person who had suddenly rushed at Yasohachi was Naosuke. The person who was standing in front of Yasohachi to protect him was Iori.

'I-Iori-san!’ exclaimed Yasohachi. Naosuke took a step back.

Yasohachi took that chance to stand up.

'Please step back.’

Iori stepped forward, as if to be Yasohachi’s shield.

'No. There’s no way you’ll win,’ said Yasohachi.

Iori glared at him sharply. 'Because I’m a girl?’

'No. Because a wooden sword can’t cross with a real one.’

'Weather a metal sword or a wooden one, it is the skill of the wielder that determines the match.’

'But…’

Yasohachi tried to speak, but Naosuke took that moment to charge, shouting 'Yah!’ as he did so.

Iori didn’t falter. At the same time as she blocked Naosuke’s sword, knocking it to the side with her wooden sword, she plunged forward. Her tip of her wooden sword was at Naosuke’s neck.

It only took a moment.

'Shintani-sama. Please sheathe your sword. Any further action would be meaningless,’ said Iori, wooden sword still at Naosuke’s neck. Naosuke looked down.

'Amazing! That’s amazing!’ Yasohachi approached Iori in his excitement.

'Please stay away.’

Iori pushed Yasohachi aside. Naosuke took that chance.

With a smirk, Naosuke knocked Iori aside with his body and sliced sideways with his sword.

Though Iori’s quick evasion saved her from being sliced in half, she still let out a short 'Urgh’ and fell to the ground, clutching her right arm.

Red blood was flowing out of Iori’s arm. The moment Yasohachi saw that, he felt like somebody had lit a fire in him.

Before he’d noticed it, he was standing in front of Iori and glaring at Naosuke.

Iori had clearly been the better swordsman. However, Naosuke’s heartless nature and, more than anything, Yasohachi’s own carelessness had decided the match.

Because of that, Yasohachi couldn’t forgive Naosuke. He could not back down.

'How could you do that to Iori-san!?’ shouted Yasohachi.

Naosuke sneered. 'What can a townsman like you do? Unarmed, at that.’

'Shut up!’

Yasohachi tried to rush forward at Naosuke, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t because he had been cut. Somebody had grabbed his collar and dragged him back, pushing him down.

Yasohachi looked up in shock to see Ukikumo standing there.

'Are you all idiots? Don’t forget about me.’

It was true that the events had been so surprising that he had forgotten that he had come here with Ukikumo. It seemed like Naosuke had been the same way. He looked displeased.

'You bastards…’ Naosuke said bitterly.

'You’d even cut your own betrothed down to protect your own sorry self – you’re a disgrace to all men.’

Ukikumo’s tone was filled with scorn.

Yasohachi felt the same way. No matter the reason, raising your sword towards your betrothed was inexcusable.

'Shut your mouth!’

'Nope, don’t feel like it. Why did Otsuyu fall for a good-for-nothing man like you?’

'You!’

'Stop howling! Can’t you see her?’

After saying that, Ukikumo pointed beside Naosuke. A woman was standing there. The woman’s ghost who appeared at the Hagiwara household every night – Otsuyu.

She smiled bewitchingly as she nestled close to Naosuke.

'Eeeek!’ shrieked Naosuke, backing away as he trembled in fear.

Otsuyu looked at him, entranced, and reached out with her hands.

'Stay away! Stay away! Stay away!’

Naosuke waved his sword about madly, but the sword just kept going through the woman.

'What are you so afraid of? She keeps coming to see the man she fell for, even after death. Isn’t that nice of her?’

Ukikumo’s words made Naosuke turn angry.

'You bastard! This is you’re doing, isn’t it!? You’re showing me an illusion!’

'Don’t turn your eyes away from reality.’

'Shut up! I’ll cut you down!’

Naosuke raised his sword.

However, Ukikumo was not fazed. He just smiled confidently at him.

'That’s a nice show, but you could never touch me.’

'What?’

'You don’t understand anything.’

'Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!’ screamed Naosuke, gripping the sword tightly.

Ukikumo still was not fazed. How could he be so calm in this situation? Yasohachi was wondering that when somebody expected appeared.

A woman appeared, overlapping with the ghost of Otsuyu at Naosuke’s side.

It was Tamamo –

'Die!’

The moment Naosuke tried to step forward – Tamamo reached out and grabbed his arm.

The sudden action made Naosuke’s face contort in fear.

'W-who are you…’

'There is no need for you to know,’ said Tamamo. Then, she took the kanzashi from her hair and thrust the tip into Naosuke’s nick, slowly letting it sink into him.

Naosuke’s face grew paler and paler, and then he collapsed to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

It was so sudden that all Yasohachi could do was stand there in shock.

Iori was the same way. Her mouth was gaping.

'I-is he dead?’ said Yasohachi, finally able to strange words out of his mouth.

'No, he has just fainted,’ responded Tamamo. Her smile could almost be called obscene.

Yasohachi didn’t know where she had come from, but she had probably hidden behind Naosuke during his and Ukikumo’s exchange.

Perhaps she had discussed this with Ukikumo beforehand, and that was why Ukikumo had said that Naosuke would never be able to touch him.

'Are you all right?’ asked Yasohachi after coming to his senses. He looked at Iori, who was sitting on the floor.

'Yes.’ Iori gave him a small nod and stood up slowly.

'Please show me your injury.’

'Something of this level is nothing to worry about.’

'Just show me.’

Yasohachi rolled up Iori’s sleeve and looked at the injury.

Fortunately, it wasn’t that deep and it had already stopped bleeding. Though Yasohachi felt relieved, he took his hand towel and wrapped it around the injury.

'Thank you,’ said Iori in an incredibly quiet voice as she looked away from Yasohachi.

Though things had settled down a bit, a flood of questions suddenly come eto Yasohachi.

'What on earth just happened?’

He looked at Ukikumo.

'It’s simple. The ghost of Otsuyu which appeared at the Hagiwara household every night was not going to see Shintarou but Naosuke.’

'Eh?’

'Naosuke frequented the red-light district. He had a relationship with the prostitute named Otsuyu. Well, from Naosuke’s perspective, it was just playing around. He was courting the Hagiwara household’s daughter, after all.’

Ukikumo looked at Iori.

Iori looked a bit surprised, but she said nothing.

'But Otsuyu-san was serious?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo nodded.

'He probably joked about paying her out of bondage even though he had no plans of doing so. It would have been fine of Otsuyu had just taken those words a joke, but she had believed in them – ’

'And that was troublesome for Naosuke-san.’

'Otsuyu, in love with Naosuke, escaped from her shop. She had probably planned on eloping with Naosuke.’

'Isn’t that strictly forbidden?’

'Yeah. They’d be in big trouble if they were found. Plus the betrothal to the women he actually fell for would be gone – ’

Ukikumo looked at Iori again.

Though Iori looked grave, she returned the gaze. She had a strong heart.

Yasohachi could imagine what had happened afterwards after hearing this much.

'And then Naosuke-san killed Otsuyu-san – ’

– How awful.

Yasohachi shuddered at the words that had come out of his mouth.

'Exactly. And he hid the body here.’

Ukikumo pointed at where Tamamo was standing.

Now that Yasohachi took another look, there was a small whole there. Naosuke had probably been digging out the body.

– Why?

That question came to Ukikumo, but the answer followed soon after.

In the conversation at the Hagiwara household, Ukikumo had said that if the ghost saw the body, it would realise that it was dead and would leave in peace.

So that had been a trick to lure Naosuke out.

'Otsuyu-san came to the Hagiwara household every night because she hated Naosuke-san for killing her – not because of Shintarou-san then,’ said Yasohachi, but Ukikumo shook his head.

'That’s not it.’

'It isn’t?’

'Otsuyu still loves Naosuke after being killed by him.’

'But that’s – ’

Yasohachi was shocked.

Would I be able to love somebody who killed me – he thought about it, but he didn’t know.

'That is – the way of love.’

Ukikumo struck the ground with his staff.

Though Yasohachi understood the matter with Naosuke, there was one more thing he didn’t understand.

'Iori-san, why are you here?’ asked Yasohachi.

Iori looked down awkwardly.

'You thought I was suspicious – right?’ said Ukikumo in Iori’s stead.

Though Iori was silent for a wihle, she soon nodded.

'Why did you think Ukikumo-san suspicious?’

Why had Iori looked at Ukikumo with suspicious when he had been trying to help Shintarou?

'That’s – ’ Iori looked up, determined, and said, ’ – because he pretend to be blind even though he can see.’

So she had realised. An exorcist that pretend to be blind – it was true that that was more suspicious than anything.

Under Iori’s sharp gaze, Ukikumo smiled, seeming incredibly amused.

'There’s a reason for that.’

As Ukikumo said that, he lowered the red cloth covering his eyes.

His crimson eyes were revealed under the moonlight.

Iori’s eyes went wide in surprise, but that soon changed to an entranced smile.

'How beautiful…’ she said.

Yasohachi smiled without thinking. He was incredibly happy that Iori felt the same way as him.

Ukikumo’s red eyes really were beautiful.

'Honestly… Everyone around Hachi is an idiot,’ said Ukikumo wryly, covering his eyes again with the red cloth. Though it was just for a moment, Ukikumo’s lips seemed to have been turned up in a smile.

'So the story has ended – ’

Tamamo was the one who spoke.

Under the faint moonlight, her figure was so beautiful it seemed otherworldly.

'It has,’ responded Ukikumo.

'Then I will take this man into my care.’

'Do as you wish.’

Ukikumo turned around and started to walk away.

'Eh? What’s going to happen to Naosuke-san?’

Yasohachi hurriedly ran after Ukikumo.

'Tamamo will make him pay the debt. The red-light district has its own rules, see.’

'Debt? What is that going to be?’

'You don’t need to know.’

'But…’

Iori didn’t look like she would accept that either.

'A guest of the Hagiwara household killed a prostitute – if a rumour like that spread, that would cast a shadow on Shintarou’s betrothal. That isn’t all. It would be bad for the Hagiwara household as a whole,’ said Ukikumo, looking at Iori.

It looked like Iori wasn’t sure what to decide. She just held her breath.

'Naosuke will disappear, never appearing at the Hagiwara household again. That’s all – ’

After saying just that, Ukikumo started walking away again briskly.

That said, Yasohachi couldn’t accept that. Iori seemed to feel the same way as she stood there, frozen.

'I really don’t – ’ said Yasohachi, turning around, but he stopped speaking in surprise at what he saw.

Tamamo and Naosuke were gone. It was as if they had been swallowed by the darkness –

Instead, Otsuyu just stood there, looking up at the willow with a sorrowful expression on her face.

Though Yasohachi had thought her frightening the first time he saw her, now he felt differently.

No matter the kind of man her partner had been, Otsuyu’s heart had not been filled with hatred or angry but a wholehearted love.

That made Otsuyu so beautiful that it took Yasohachi’s breath away.

Finally, Otsuyu disappeared as well, swallowed up by the shadows –

-

epilogue

-

Yasohachi visited the shrine that Ukikumo had made his stronghold.

'Hello!’

After calling out in front of the shrine building, Ukikumo yelled back from inside, 'Come in.’

Yasohachi opened the door, but he froze in shock at what he saw.

Though Ukikumo looked the same as always, wearing his kimono sloppily and drinking sake, somebody completely unexpected was sitting in front of him.

Iori –

She knelt in front of Ukikumo with her spine perfectly straight.

'Iori-san.’

'Oh, it’s you, Yasohachi-dono,’ responded Iori.

'Why are you here, Iori-san?’

'My brother has opened his eyes, so I came to express my gratitude.’

'Is that so? Thank goodness.’

Yasohachi was truly relieved as he sat down.

'I was thinking of visiting you as well to thank you, Yasohachi-dono.’

'No, I didn’t do anything…’

Yasohachi felt a bit embarrassed as he scratched his head. Then, he noticed a gaze on him. It was Ukikumo. His narrowed red eyes spoke unjust suspicion.

'What is it?’ said Yasohachi a bit sulkily, but Ukikumo just sighed.

'So what do you want, Hachi?’

'Ah, that’s right – ’

Yasohachi had almost forgotten, what with meeting Iori here unexpectedly. He spread out the painting he had brought on the floor.

It was a painting of Otsuyu standing under the willow with a sorrowful expression on her face.

'How beautiful!’ exclaimed Iori in admiration.

Those two words made Yasohachi’s heart leap. However, Ukikumo on the other hand was looking at the painting critically, his chin in his hand.

'Not bad, but you’ve still got a ways to go.’

Yasohachi wasn’t irritated by Ukikumo’s words. He himself wasn’t satisfied yet either.

'I will be diligent in my efforts to improve.’

'I’ll take this painting,’ Ukikumo said.

'I don’t mind, but what will you do with it?’

'Give it to Tamamo.’

The unworldly beauty of Tamamo’s figure came up in Yasohachi’s head.

Why are you going to give it to her – that question came to Yasohachi, but he felt like it was something he couldn’t ask.

'Then I’ll take my leave.’

At this lull in conversation, Iori stood up and left the shrine.

'Are you all right with that?’ said Ukikumo the moment Iori left. He sounded displeased.

'All right with what?’

'All right with not chasing after her.’

'It’s not like I…’

'Honestly. You haven’t learnt anything. No matter birth or breeding, men fall in love with women.’

'I said…’

'Stop jabbering and just go,’ Ukikumo said rudely, kicking Yasohachi.

Yasohachi ended up being chased out of the shrine building. He wasn’t sure what had happened. When he stepped out, he saw Iori walking through the torii.

'Iori-san,’ called out Yasohachi, though hesitantly.

Iori slowly turned around.

With a faint smile on her face, she was indisputably beautiful.

'Er – would you allow me to paint a picture of you next time, Iori-san?’ asked Yasohachi, his heart beating loudly in his chest –