Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan

By Kaminaga Manabu

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 2 Chapter 2

Ukikumo Shinrei Kitan Volume 2 Chapter 2

VOLUME 2 – THE WAY OF THE DEMON SWORD
the way of the root of evil

-

prologue

-

‘Have you heard about the curse of this swamp?’

The person who brought up this topic was Daijirou, who was also walking.

It was a night that was cold for summer –

They were on the way home after drinking at Marukuma, their usual drinking hole.

'What curse?’ asked Kisuke. He stopped walking.

'That swamp over there – ’

After saying that, Daijirou held up his lantern and pointed at the swamp behind the old estate.

Daijirou’s face was as expressionless as a Noh mask. He looked frightening under the light of the lantern.

They had taken this path countless times. Kisuke knew that it was an abandoned samurai estate. It had been abandoned for several years, overgrown and uncanny.

– Was there a swamp though?

Kisuke was doubtful as he looked, but there it was.

Behind the estate that looked like it might collapse at any time, there was a dark swamp.

'What about the swamp then?’ asked Kisuke, turning to face Daijirou.

Daijirou was thirty, the same as Kisuke, but because of his bald head, he looked much older.

'People say they appear here.’

'They appear? What?’

'Ghosts, obviously – ’

Kisuke couldn’t help but laugh at Daijirou’s words.

Ghosts appeared? Even as an attempt to frighten him, it was a bit too childish.

'So what if they do? I’m not afraid of ghosts,’ said Kisuke with a laugh.

Daijirou’s face grew grim. 'You don’t understand.’

'What?’

'People who see the ghosts here are killed by a curse.’

Daijirou spoke with such serious eyes that Kisuke thought it even funnier.

'Don’t be stupid. Whose curse is it?’

It was a creepy place, but that was all.

'The master of the samurai family that lived in this estate was pretty well-known. Even held an important office…’

'Oh?’

'But one day, his wife fell ill. Ever since then, he was a changed man. Seems he tried to kill both the doctor and his wife.’

Along with Daijirou’s words, the cold wind blue, rustling the grass growing about the swamp.

Daijirou made it sound very real, but most stories like this were just rumours.

'Stop telling boring stories and get going already.’

Kisuke tried to start walking again, but Daijirou grabbed his arm.

'Did you hear something just now?’

'You probably just heard the wind,’ said Kisuke with a laugh. He tried to start walking again, but then he stopped. He felt somebody’s gaze on him.

– What?

He felt suspicious as he looked about.

'Oooooooh.’

A groan reached Kisuke’s ears.

It wasn’t the wind.

Kisuke and Daijirou looked at each other.

Daijirou was pale. Kisuke probably looked the same.

'Ur…. gah…’

He heard it again.

It was clearer this time.

’T-tha….’

Daijirou’s voice trembled as he pointed at the swamp.

Kisuke looked at the dark swamp. It swelled up, like it was alive, and then a dark shadow came out from within.

'Guh…. urgh…’

The shadow walked towards them, swamp water dripping. Drip, drip, drip.

It was obvious at first glance that it was not something of this world.

'I-it appeared!’

Daijirou dropped his lantern and staggered backwards.

The lantern hit the ground. The fire crackled and lit the shadow up.

It was an old man, thin like a dead tree.

Kisuke tried to run, but his body wouldn’t move. Daijirou seemed to feel the same. His teeth ground together as he shuddered.

The old man was still approaching them, one step at a time.

Soon, he was right in front of them.

The old man brought his face close to them.

It was a creepy face, like skin plastered on a skull. His fish-like eyes were cloudy, with no sign of life.

'You… I’ll kill you…’ said the old man in a clear voice.

'Aahhh!’ Daijirou shrieked. He spun around and ran off.

Kisuke tried to run too, but his body wouldn’t move the way he wanted it to. He was frozen in place by fear and fell to the ground.

The old man’s frightening face drew closer to Kisuke.

'Stop! Stop!’ screamed Kisuke. He held his head in his arms and curled up.

For a while, he shook like a sign blowing in the wind, but nothing happened.

– What’s going on?

Kisuke was frightened, but he opened his eyes slightly.

He didn’t see anything. He opened his eyes in full and looked around, but he still didn’t see anything. The old man had disappeared.

There was just the fishy wind and the sound of rustling leaves.

– Was that just a trick of my eyes from too much drinking?

Though Kisuke was confused, he stood up.

He was still half in shock when a warm wind brushed his neck. No, it was different from wind.

It was like somebody had breathed on him.

Kisuke was nervous, but he slowly turned his head.

The old man from earlier was right behind him.

'Die – ’

As the old man said that, Kisuke shrieked and ran off.

-

1

-

Unlike the night before, the sun came out bright in the morning and brought with it a boiling heat.

Yasohachi spotted a crowd around the bridge. He was on his way home from delivering textiles to a customer at his father Genta’s request.

People had crowded around the bridge, blocking it off. Their heads were huddled together as they muttered.

– Did something happen?

Yasohachi took a look, but he wasn’t sure.

There were rumours of robbery around the area, so perhaps they had caught somebody of that sort.

'Did something happen?’

Yasohachi spoke to a man nearby.

He looked like a merchant, with a wooden rack of goods on his back and bamboo hat covering his eyes. He was tall and seemed refined, but there was a dark air about him.

The man looked at Yasohachi sharply from underneath his hat, but he didn’t say anything.

'Do you know what happened?’ Yasohachi asked again.

Though the man must have heard, he turned around and walked away.

– What a strange person.

Just as Yasohachi thought that, somebody slapped him on the back.

He turned around and saw a familiar face.

'Kuma-san.’

It was Kumakichi, the owner of Marukuma.

He was as large and hairy as a bear, just as his name suggested. He had a square jaw and face and looked stern but he was a very friendly man.

Kumakichi had often played with Yasohachi when Yasohachi was young.

'Hachi. Perfect timing.’ Kumakichi looked relieved. It sounded like he had something he wanted Yasohachi to do.

'What is it?’

'There’s something I want you to hear,’ said Kumakichi with a serious expression.

Kumakichi was usually in good humour. It was rare for him to look like this. Something serious must have happened.

'I don’t mind, but can I really be of use to you?’

'It’s fine. Let’s talk inside,’ suggested Kumakichi. It seemed like he didn’t want other people to hear.

'Could it be that you’re in love?’ said Yasohachi.

Kumakichi sighed. 'That’s not my sort of thing.’

It was true that he wasn’t the sort of person who would become anxious over love.

'And I’m not the one who wants you to hear something.’

Kumakichi looked forward.

Under the roof of the dango shop stood a man. He looked to be about thirty and was glancing about nervously.

'Who is that?’

'Kisuke-san who’s the head clerk at the sundries shop called Kuraya. Marukuma gets its stuff from there.’

'Ah…’

Yasohachi didn’t think that he’d be able to do anything after hearing the story of a person he didn’t know, but before he could say that, Kumakichi had started walking.

Yasohachi wasn’t sure about this, but he followed Kumakichi.

Kisuke joined them and they walked together, but nobody said anything. They walked silently, the atmosphere suffocating.

When they reached Marukuma, they went up to the room on the second floor.

After the three of them sat down, Kumakichi introduced Yasohachi to Kisuke. Kisuke nodded. His face was pale – perhaps he was unwell.

'He wants to talk to you about a ghost, Hachi,’ said Kumakichi in a heavy tone.

'A ghost?’

'Yeah. Kisuke-san will tell you the details.’

Kisuke looked divided, but he slowly began to speak. 'It was last night – ’

Kisuke started speaking in a shaking voice about the abandoned estate of a shogun’s vassal and the terrifying incident that had occurred at the swamp near it.

Kisuke spoke in great detail. It felt like they were right there.

Yasohachi almost yelped when Kisuke reached the point with the old man, like a dead tree, whispering 'Die – ’

'That’s terrifying,’ said Yasohachi in a hoarse voice.

Kisuke had been very focussed on his surroundings as he spoke and started at every small noise. It hurt to watch him.

Kumakichi was silent, a serious expression on his face.

'Actually, there’s more to the story,’ said Kisuke with an odd expression.

Everything so far had already been frightening enough. It made Yasohachi depressed to think there was more.

'What happened?’ he urged.

Kisuke nodded. 'I just ran. I didn’t know where or how, but before I noticed it, I was shaking in my futon at home. I did that for a while, but then I suddenly came to my senses. What on earth was I doing? Wasn’t it just a trick of my eye? That’s what I thought.’

'I see.’

'I decided to leave my futon. Then – ’

After saying that, Kisuke looked straight at Yasohachi. A shadow fell over his pale face.

Yasohachi’s heart was pounding.

I can’t listen to what comes next – that was how he felt. But he couldn’t say it, so he just gulped and held his breath.

'He was there. That old man, right in front of my eyes…’

Kisuke covered his face with his hands.

Yasohachi felt gooseflesh rise in his fear too, and his shoulders shook. Kumakichi looked frightened too, which didn’t match his image.

The silence continued.

After some time, Kisuke took a deep breath and said, 'I’m ashamed to say that I fainted… When I next woke up, it was morning…’

'There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Anybody would do that,’ said Kumakichi.

'Kuma-san, you don’t have to console me. I didn’t think I was such a coward,’ muttered Kisuke.

Even though Kumakichi wasn’t the sort of person who would say things he didn’t mean to console somebody, it probably wouldn’t help if Yasohachi said that.

'Was he gone in the morning?’ asked Yasohachi.

Kisuke nodded. 'My head started working properly and then I remembered Daijirou, who had been with me… so I went to his house to check on him,’ said Kisuke hoarsely.

'Daijirou is a poor wandering samurai who lives in a row house near Kisuke-san,’ explained Kumakichi.

'But there was nobody at Daijirou’s house. He’s single, so there was nobody to ask where he went. Normally I’d just think that he had gone out somewhere, but what happened yesterday was still on my mind…’ Kisuke stopped speaking, looked down and bit his lip.

They had run off separately after seeing a ghost. It was natural for Kisuke to be concerned about Daijirou’s absence.

'Did you go look for him?’ asked Yasohachi.

Kisuke looked up. 'I did, but since I didn’t have any clues, I just walked around town. Then…’

Kisuke stopped speaking and bit his lip again, looking down.

'Did something happen?’ Yasohachi asked.

Kisuke looked down further.

The story would get nowhere like this. Yasohachi looked to Kumakichi for help. Kumakichi breathed out and spoke in Kisuke’s stead.

'The commotion at the bridge earlier – Daijirou-san’s body was found there.’

'H-his body?’ Yasohachi half-got up without thinking.

'Yeah. He was cut right down the stomach…’

'That’s… too cruel…’ said Yasohachi, his body shaking.

Yasohachi’s shoulders slumped, but then he thought something odd.

'Could it have been the work of the ghost?’ asked Yasohachi.

'That’s the only thing I can think of,’ said Kumakichi.

'Do you have proof of that?’ Yasohachi asked.

Kumakichi nodded. 'There’s a bit of a history to the estate where Kisuke-san saw the ghost.’

'History?’

'I don’t know the details, but there’s been a rumour for a while that there’s a ghost there, and the people who’ve seen the ghost there die afterwards.’

'What…’

Yasohachi didn’t think it was good to just accept rumours as fact, but he did feel like the ghost that Kisuke saw had something to do with Daijirou’s death.

'I’ll be killed next… I’m sure of it…’ said Kisuke in a shaking voice with his hands on the tatami. He looked so frightened that he might just collapse at any moment.

'Hachi, could you ask Ukikumo to help Kisuke-san?’

Ukikumo was a man who worked as an exorcist.

He was Yasohachi’s acquaintance and a frequenter of Marukuma. He had solved many cases involving spirits in the past.

Kumakichi was the one asking. Yasohachi wanted to help if he could.

He also couldn’t just leave Kisuke alone when he was shaking in fear like that. But –

'I can ask, but Ukikumo-san is a bit moody.’

Ukikumo was troublesome. Though he was an exorcist, he was terribly slow to act.

'Doesn’t seem that way to me.’ Kumakichi shook his head.

Kumakichi only knew Ukikumo as a customer at Marukuma, so it made sense for him to think that way.

'And he’s a miser.’

Yasohachi had had to pay an unlawful rate to Ukikumo in the past. Ukikumo had even stolen the contents of his wallet.

'How much will it cost?’ Kumakichi asked.

That was difficult to answer. Ukikumo’s moods changed like the clouds, as his name suggested. He might ask for a whole fifty ryou sometimes but do something for free another.

There was nothing consistent about that man.

'I couldn’t say, but it’s a request from you, Kuma-san. I don’t think Ukikumo-san will refuse, so I’ll try asking him,’ said Yasohachi with a sigh, though he did feel anxious.

-

2

-

'Hey, are you listening?’ said Yasohachi to the man lying on the floor with his arm as a pillow.

They were in an old, slanted shrine.

The man had a refined look to his face, but his hair was loose, not in a topknot, and he wore his white kimono without hakama. The red obi was tied in a slovenly manner.

His skin was paler than the kimono – it made him look almost dead.

– This was Ukikumo.

'You’re so noisy.’

Ukikumo glared at Yasohachi.

His eyes were the vivid red of blood.

He had his red eyes in the open since they were in the shrine now, but he usually covered them with a red cloth that had eyes drawn on them in ink to pretend to be a blind man when he was out.

Yasohachi thought the eyes beautiful so he didn’t think it was necessary, but Ukikumo said that not everybody thought that way.

Ukikumo’s eyes weren’t just red. They could also see the spirits of the dead – that is, ghosts.

'I’m talking, so please listen. It’s rude.’

'Barging into somebody’s place and telling ghost stories isn’t rude?’ Ukikumo said lazily. He yawned.

This always happened, but Ukikumo really was good with words. Yasohachi wouldn’t lose though. If he became depressed at something of this level, he wouldn’t be able to get Ukikumo to move.

'Ukikumo-san, you’re an exorcist, aren’t you? I came here to talk about work.’

'You keep saying that, but who told you that?’

'Hijikata-san did.’

Hijikata was a medicine merchant who frequented Yasohachi’s father’s dry goods store. He had introduced Ukikumo to Yasohachi.

'That idiot Toshizou,’ spat out Ukikumo.

'In any case, this is about work, so please listen.’

Yasohachi sighed, and Ukikumo got up.

Just as Yasohachi thought that Ukikumo had finally decided to listen to him, Ukikumo just picked up his gourd, poured himself rice wine and gulped it down.

'Work? The guy probably just saw a bad dream after drinking too much,’ said Ukikumo, his own breath stinking of alcohol.

'But somebody is dead.’

That was the problem. Daijirou, who had seen the ghost with Kisuke, was dead, so it was hard to write this off as just a dream.

Even though Yasohachi was serious, Ukikumo just yawned. 'Like I care.’

'Please don’t say that. Kisuke-san is very concerned that he may be cursed himself. He says he’ll pay – ’

'Who’s this Kisuke anyway?’

Yasohachi sighed.

He had explained about Kisuke at the beginning, but it seemed Ukikumo hadn’t been listening at all.

'I said, Kisuke-san is the head clerk at the sundries shop that Marukuma uses. It’s called Kuraya.’

'Even if he is the head clerk, he’s a townsperson. Don’t think he’ll be able to pay.’

And he went and talked about money – he really was a miser.

Yasohachi wanted to complain, but if Ukikumo fell into a bad humour, there would be no saving the situation.

'Don’t say tha.t Please help.’

'Like I said, I don’t care.’

'This is a request from Kuma-san. It seems Marukuma has been helped greatly by Kuraya.’

From what Yasohachi had heard from Kumakichi, Ukikumo drank at Marukuma on a tab.

He did whatever he wanted, so he should at least help a bit.

'I don’t care about the things I don’t care about.’

'Are you serious?’

'So I am,’ Ukikumo said uncaringly. Then, he drank rice wine directly from his gourd and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his kimono. It was so insolent that Yasohachi was irritated.

'Don’t you feel bad for him?’

'I don’t.’

Why not? How can you be an exorcist like that?’

'I can say I don’t care because I’m an exorcist.’

Ukikumo threw his gourd to the ground.

'What do you mean?’

'You still don’t understand? I’ve said this before, but ghosts are like clusters of the thoughts of the dead.’

Ukikumo always said that.

Ghosts, which were the clusters of the thoughts of the dead, didn’t have bodies of their own, so they couldn’t touch anything.

Yasohachi had no way to confirm that, but Ukikumo was saying that and he could see ghosts, so it was probably true.

'What about it?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo made a click of his tongue in irritation.

'Daijirou the wandering samurai didn’t die at the hands of a ghost. A person did it – ’

Ukikumo’s red eyes glinted.

Under that pressure, Yasohachi leaned back and gulped.

'A person…’

'That’s how it is. That’s why there’s nothing for me to do.’

Yasohachi understood Ukikumo’s reasoning.

But was it really impossible for a ghost to kill somebody? Daijirou was dead. And –

'Even if it wasn’t the work of a ghost, I think this may have something to do with the ghost Kisuke-san saw…’

'What’s it got to do with anything?’

'I don’t know, but I think there’s something in that estate and swamp where Kisuke-san saw the ghost.’

After Yasohachi said that, Ukikumo’s expression went stern.

'Hachi. Could it be that the place the man named Kisuke saw the ghost is the old estate with the swamp behind it along the Koushuu Kaidou?’

Ukikumo’s left eyebrow went up.

Kisuke had been focussed on explaining the situation and hadn’t mentioned the specific location. But –

'How do you know?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo looked away. 'There’s a rumour.’

'What about?’

'It’s obvious, isn’t it? A rumour that there’s a ghost there – ’

Ukikumo ran a hand through his messy hair in irritation.

'Is that so? Then I think it must be related.’

Yasohachi leaned forward.

Ukikumo stood up as if to escape from him. He looked as refined as he always did when standing. It always caught Yasohachi’s eye.

'Might be related. Might not. Just leave it.’

'But…’

'If that man named Kisuke doesn’t want to die, tell him to stop talking to everyone about ghosts – ’

Ukikumo looked down with his red eyes at Yasohachi.

There was an unusual intimidating air to them that made Yasohachi hold his breath.

'Please wait. It really is related then, isn’t it?’

'You don’t understand anything.’

'What are you talking about?’

'Think for yourself a bit.’

'I’m asking because I don’t understand after thinking.’

'This is the end of the conversation. Go home.’

Ukikumo opened the door and urged Yasohachi out.

It was obvious that Ukikumo wasn’t going to hear Yasohachi out.

Ukikumo said a lot, but he couldn’t leave people in trouble alone. Yasohachi had thought he was a compassionate man, and yet –

'You really aren’t going to help?’

'Not going to do anything. Don’t do anything else if you don’t want to die. Go home and sleep.’

Yasohachi could do nothing more if Ukikumo refused him this way. His shoulders slumped and he left the shrine –

-

3

-

'Yasohachi-san – ’

Yasohachi had just left the shrine with his head down when somebody called out to him.

When he lifted his head, he saw a man he knew walking towards him.

'Ah, Hijikata-san,’ said Yasohachi.

Hijikata smiled gently at him. He seemed like a friendly and warm person when he was like this, but sometimes he showed a different face.

Yasohachi had seen Hijikata easily defeat a wandering samurai before.

It was clear he wasn’t just a medicine merchant. Yasohachi wanted to ask a variety of things, but the unique air Hijikata had about him made that hard, and Yasohachi had never been able to ask anything.

'Did you need something from that man?’

Hijikata glanced at the shrine.

'Yes, that was the plan…’ said Yasohachi, looking at the shrine as well.

Ukikumo was still inside. Perhaps he was looking out at them through the lattice.

'He refused then.’

'He did. Even though there are people who are troubled… I didn’t think he was such a cold person,’ said Yasohachi with a sigh.

'That man is busy too, though you might not think it.’

'It doesn’t seem that way to me…’

Ukikumo had just been lying on the ground while drinking rice wine earlier. He didn’t look busy at all.

Ukikumo was always drinking lazily anyway. Yasohachi had never seen him look busy.

'Actually, he is looking into a rather troublesome case right now.’

'A troublesome case?’

'Yes. Well, spirits are involved. I made the request, even though it was difficult,’ Hijikata said softly.

'Is that so…’

If that was the case, Ukikumo should have just said that he was busy and couldn’t help right now. Yasohachi wouldn’t know that if Ukikumo just shooed him away like that.

'What was your issue, Yasohachi-san?’

'There is a man who is afraid that he has been cursed by a ghost and will be killed, so I came to consult Ukikumo…’

'I see. Did he listen to you?’

'Yes, but he shooed me away, saying that there was nothing he could do,’ said Yasohachi, depressed.

For some reason, Hijikata laughed aloud. It didn’t seem funny to Yasohachi.

When Yasohachi looked at Hijikata, he immediately stopped laughing, perhaps feeling guilty. 'Well, that man is not an idiot. If he says there’s nothing he can do, there is probably nothing he can do.’

'But…’

'Yasohachi-san, you’re an earnest person, aren’t you?’ Hijikata nodded a few times.

If asked whether he was earnest or not, Yasohachi would say earnest, but when Hijikata spoke like that, Yasohachi felt like he was being made fun of.

'That’s not it. I just can’t accept it.’

'What is it?’

'Ukikumo-san made it sound like that case I mentioned was related to ghosts somehow. He told me not to do anything unnecessary if I didn’t want to die. I’m sure he knows something,’ said Yasohachi.

'I see,’ said Hijikata. He looked up at the sky. Yasohachi looked up as well.

There was a line of clouds.

After a silence, Hijikata nodded and said, 'If he told you not to do anything unnecessary, it is probably best to believe in him and wait.’

It looked like Hijikata had accepted that, but Yasohachi still didn’t understand anything. It made him feel uncomfortable.

'Is that really fine?’

'Yes, that’s fine. Since that man said so – ’

From those words, it sounded like Hijikata completely trusted Ukikumo.

To be honest, Yasohachi thought it was amazing Hijikata could trust Ukikumo with that attitude of his. There had to be a reason Hijikata trusted him so deeply.

'Er… Hijikata-san, how did you meet Ukikumo-san?’ asked Yasohachi.

Hijikata looked slightly surprised. 'It would take a while to explain.’

'Does that mean you are old acquaintances?’

'No, not quite old, but the circumstances were a bit complicated.’ Hijikata narrowed his already narrowed eyes.

It was a meaningful sentence. It made Yasohachi even more curious.

'Did something happen?’

'I am willing to discuss it, but I think that man probably wouldn’t like it. HE’s probably watching from the lattice right now.’

Hijikata looked at the shrine again.

Though there was no sound from the shrine, Yasohachi felt sure that Ukikumo was staring from within.

'Well, you’ll find out eventually,’ Hijikata said gently.

'Really?’

'People are connected by strings of fate. They aren’t strings that you can cut just because you want to. No matter how that many dislikes it, it isn’t something he can hide.’

'Oh…’

Yasohachi felt like he was being tricked by smoke with Hijikata’s roundabout speech.

'Just as it was with Kanou Yuuzan…’

'Eh?’

Yasohachi hadn’t thought that he would hear Kanou Yuuzan’s name from Hijikata’s mouth.

Kanou Yuuzan was a painter of the Kanou school. He was a shaman who cursed paintings to kill people without getting his hands dirty.

Yasohachi had been involved with Kanou Yuuzan before and knew how horrifying he was.

Yasohachi had sensed that Ukikumo and Kanou Yuuzan were related somehow, but from what Hijikata said just now, Hijikata was also involved.

'I’ve said something unnecessary, haven’t I? I’ll take my leave now – ’

Hijikata was about to go, but then he stopped.

'Yasohachi-san, could it be that the incident involving ghosts you mentioned today has something to do with the vassal’s estate and swamp by the Koushuu Kaidou?’ said Hijikata, his back facing Yasohachi.

That was exactly it.

'How do you know that?’

'Perhaps his is fate as well.’

'What do you mean?’

'I also think it would be better if you didn’t get involved with this case, Yasohachi-san. You will be swallowed up by the flow of fate.’

– What do you mean?

Yasohachi wanted to ask, but Hijikata went through the torii gate as if to run away from Yasohachi’s question and walked up to the shrine.

Though Yasohachi could have called out to him, Yasohachi was stopped by what felt almost like a thirst for blood emanating from Hijikata. All Yasohachi could do was stand there.

Hijikata went inside the shrine and disappeared.

Yasohachi heard thunder in the distance –

-

4

-

'Hello.’

Somebody called out to Yasohachi as he was ambling along.

He lifted his head and saw Iori.

Her lovely round face had a gentle smile on it.

Iori usually wore hakama with training clothes, but today she wore an elegant kimono. The water lilies on the kimono suited her well.

'Iori-san –’

– Why are you here?’

Yasohachi was about to ask that, but then he realised that he was standing in front of Iori’s estate.

'Is something the matter? You look depressed.’

Iori looked at Yasohachi’s face in concern.

Her eyes were as clear as a stream. Yasohachi could feel himself blushing under the gaze. He felt strangely embarrassed.

'No, I’m just a bit troubled,’ Yasohachi said as he looked away.

'What happened?’

'I was consulted about an incident involving a ghost and went to talk to Ukikumo-san about it, but he felt unapproachable.’

'I see…’

Iori looked at Yasohachi in sympathy, which made Yasohachi feel bad about saying something strange. 'No, it’s fine. I’ll do something about it.’

Though Yasohachi smiled, he knew it was unnatural.

Ukikumo had already refused. Yasohachi had no idea what else he could do.

'What sort of ghost is it?’

'Eh?’

Why did she ask? Yasohachi cocked his head.

Iori smiled. 'If you wouldn’t mind my assistance, I will help, so please tell me what happened.’

'No, I couldn’t…’

'It’s fine. Yasohachi-san, you have helped me so often. Please allow me to help, even if it is just a little.’

'No, I…’

Iori was probably talking about the previous cases involving spirits, but Yasohachi had just been watching. He hadn’t helped at all.

Furthermore, he was just a son from a dry-goods store. He knew his place. He couldn’t have Iori, the daughter of a samurai family, listen to his troubles.

'Ah, yes, you wouldn’t want to discuss something like that in the open. Let’s go inside.’

Though Yasohachi was troubled about what to do, Iori was the opposite – it looked like she was intent on hearing him.

Yasohachi couldn’t just refuse her now. Yasohachi let Iori show him into the Hagiwara estate to a room facing the garden.

He had been to this room many times before.

When Yasohachi thought about how kind Iori was to him when her status was so different, it made him feel somewhat nervous.

'What happened?’ asked Iori once they had sat down.

There were many thoughts on Yasohachi’s mind, but he couldn’t be silent after coming this far.

Yasohachi hesitantly told Iori what he had heard from Kisuke.

'How frightening,’ said Iori after Yasohachi had finished.

'It really is,’ agreed Yasohachi.

Kisuke had not just seen a ghost. No matter what Ukikumo said, the man named Daijirou had been sliced in the stomach and killed.

'I had heard that a corpse was found at the bridge, but I can’t believe a ghost was involved.’

Iori’s brows furrowed. Her eyes were melancholy.

It was strange how even that expression looked lovely.

'Yes…’

'I’ve heard of the ghost at that estate before.’

Yasohachi leapt up at the sudden voice.

He turned his eyes to the corridor and saw Iori’s brother Shintarou standing there, leaning against a pillar.

'Brother! Don’t surprise me like that!’ said Iori angrily, but Shintarou didn’t seem to care. He casually entered the room and sat down.

'I wasn’t trying to,’ said Shintarou with a smile.

This casual manner was just like Shintarou.

'Eavesdropping is improper,’ said Iori sullenly.

'I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was walking past and just happened to hear.’

'What is with that excuse?’

'It’s fine, isn’t it? I would have held back if it were an amorous conversation, but it’s just a ghost story.’

'What do you mean, amorous…’

Iori’s cheeks were slightly pink.

It seemed that Shintarou was teasing Yasohachi and Iori.

'I would not be so rude as to speak of such things to Iori-san,’ said Yasohachi with a wry smile.

'Yasohachi-san, do you dislike Iori?’ Shintarou cocked his head.

'That isn’t the problem. Our social statuses are too different.’

Yasohachi, a townsperson, was of such a different status than Iori, the daughter of a samurai family, that even talking of romance was ridiculous.

Ukikumo said that status didn’t matter between the sheets, but that wasn’t how things were.

Marriage between a samurai family member and a townsperson were forbidden by the shogunate.

'That is a bit troublesome.’

Shintarou put his chin in his hands and let his gaze wander. He seemed to be in thought. Yasohachi had no idea if Shintarou was being serious or if he was teasing him.

In either case, they had gone off-topic.

After Yasohachi mentioned this, Shintarou clapped his hands together and said, 'Actually, I know a ghost story about that estate too. I might be able to help.’

'Um… What do you mean by that?’ asked Yasohachi.

Shintarou nodded. 'The estate you mentioned is that abandoned building along the Koushuu Kaidou, right? With the swamp behind it.’

'Yes.’

'I hear that the estate used to be Fukami Shinzaemon’s.’

'Is he famous?’

'Shinzaemon-dono was a sharp guy – even the Aoyama family couldn’t outdo him. Well, there’s also a rumour that he was rather greedy…’

'Why did the family come to ruin?’

'Misfortune befell him…’

Shintarou’s eyes narrowed. Though he probably didn’t notice himself, his flat way of speaking was rather frightening.

'Misfortune?’

'Yes. It was about ten years ago. First, his wife fell ill. The reason for it was unknown, and it seems she suffered a lot. Then, Shinzaemon-dono called for a well-known doctor…’

After saying that, Shintarou looked down, seeming uncomfortable.

It would bother Yasohachi if Shintarou stopped here. 'What happened?’ Yasohachi asked.

After a while, Shintarou lifted his head. 'Shinzaemon-dono killed both his wife and the doctor.’

'Wha…’

It was so shocking that Yasohachi was at a loss for words.

The image of a man brandishing a bloody sword flashed through his head, making his whole body shudder with fear.

'Why would he do such a thing?’ asked Yasohachi in a trembling voice.

'I wonder. Perhaps he went mad.’

'What happened to Shinzaemon-dono after that?’ asked Iori. Her voice was high-pitched. Perhaps she was afraid as well.

'Shinzaemon-dono slit his own stomach and was found floating in the swamp.’

After Shintarou said that, a silence fell upon the room.

Yasohachi found it hard to breathe. He wasn’t sure whether it was because of the summer heat or the frightening way Shintarou had told the story.

'Ever since then, people sometimes see a ghost there,’ said Shintarou after a long silence.

'Then Kisuke-san saw Shinzaemon-san’s ghost?’ asked Yasohachi.

For just a moment, Shintarou looked outside.

Yasohachi looked out as well at the clouds in the sky. They were grey now.

'It may be too soon to say. What I heard was only a rumour. Furthermore I don’t know whether what the person named Kisuke-san saw was really Shinzaemon-san’s ghost…’

Though Yasohachi felt Shintarou was being too cautious, it made sense.

Yasohachi hadn’t seen the ghost himself. He couldn’t see ghosts like Ukikumo. If they didn’t confirm who the ghost was, there was nothing they could do. But the problem was how to go about doing that.

Yasohachi was thinking when Iori suddenly said, 'Oh! How about meeting with Kisuke-san and painting a portrait of the ghost?’

Iori’s suggestion made Yasohachi clapped his hands together. 'I see!’

If he went to talk to Kisuke again, drew a portrait of the ghost and showed it to people who knew Shinzaemon, he would probably be able to confirm a number of things.

-

5

-

Yasohachi stood in front of the shop called Kuraya. There was a big curtain hanging over the entrance.

Yasohachi had returned home to pick up his portable brush-and-ink case and paper, so when he reached the shop, it was already nearly evening.

Iori had insisted on going with him, but Yasohachi had refused.

This case had nothing to do with Iori. Yasohachi didn’t want to trouble her and they would gather attention if he walked around with Iori, who was the daughter a samurai family. Kisuke would probably be surprised and on guard.

When Yasohachi was about to go in, he felt somebody’s gaze on him.

He looked up and saw a man – a man he knew.

The man was tall, with a bamboo hat on his head. It was the man Yasohachi had spoken to yesterday at the bridge.

'Ah!’ exclaimed Yasohachi.

The man looked away and briskly walked off.

Had he had an errand at the shop? Or – well, thinking about that now was pointless. Yasohachi went under the curtain.

'Hello.’

When Yasohachi went inside, Kisuke looked up from organising the shelves.

He looked even paler than he had before.

'Yasohachi-san, correct?’

'Yes.’

'How was it?’ asked Kisuke. His face was clearly expectant.

It made it very hard for Yasohachi to say that nothing had changed. He was wondering what to say when a woman came out from the back.

She was probably about forty. She had good posture and a dignified face.

'A customer?’ the omwan asked Kisuke.

'No, I asked him for advice about the ghost the other night…’ responded Kisuke.

The woman sighed. 'Are you still talking about that? You just saw a nightmare.’ She spoke firmly, just as her appearance suggested.

'No, I definitely saw the ghost,’ Kisuke insisted, but the woman did not back down.

'You probably mistook a dog or something.’

'There’s no way I did that. It was definitely human. And it came into the house.’

Kisuke looked at the woman pleadingly, but the woman just snorted. 'You were probably just half asleep. It’s because you always stay out drinking until late at night. Good thing it was a ghost – a robber would have killed you.’

After that speech, Kisuke opened his mouth to speak, but in the end, he held in his words with slumped shoulders.

'More importantly, have you seen Ohisa?’ the woman asked.

'I think she was here just earlier…’

'Did she sneak off to see that man again?’

'I don’t…’ Kisuke stopped speaking, looking bitter.

Though Yasohachi didn’t know the details, it was clear that the woman was irritated about something.

'Honestly. There’s no helping it. I’m going out to deliver something, so I’ll leave the rest to you,’ the woman said briskly. She picked up a cloth parcel and stepped out.

She was a very vigorous woman.

'The wife of the owner,’ said Kisuke with a wry smile.

'Is that so?’

'She wasn’t so crabby before… but she’s been like this ever since the owner disappeared…’

'Did something happen to her husband?’

'I don’t know. It was ten years ago. He just left one day. There was a rumour that he had a woman somewhere.’

Kisuke scratched his head, looking like he wasn’t sure what to say.

'She must have had to work very hard.’

'She did, definitely. She acts strong so that nobody underestimates her.’

'I see.’

'Well, recently, it seems her daughter found a man, so she’s probably irritated about that too.’

'Why would she be irritated about an engagement?’

'Because the man’s some nobody that just came by recently. It makes sense for her to be tense,’ said Kisuke.

Yasohachi nodded and looked around the shop. It was fairly old, but it was well maintained.

Perhaps the owner’s wife was so frantic in protecting the store because she was waiting for her husband to return.

'So how was it?’ asked Kisuke, surprising Yasohachi. He had almost forgotten his point because of the owner’s wife’s vigour.

Yasohachi turned towards Kisuke. 'Actually…’

Though he wasn’t sure whether he should tell Kisuke that Ukikumo had refused or keep quiet, he decided to keep quiet for now.

He had decided to investigate on his own – he would get Ukikumo to help somehow afterwards.

'Kisuke-san, do you remember the ghost’s face?’ asked Yasohachi.

'Eh?’ Kisuke cocked his head. It was natural for him to be surprised at such a sudden question.

'First, we will investigate the identity of the ghost.’

'What? Does it matter who the ghost is?’ Kisuke looked doubtful.

Yasohachi probably would have looked the same if he hadn’t met Ukikumo.

'Yes. The ghost is wandering this world because of some attachment it has – if we understand what it is, we can exorcise the spirit.’

'Oh, that’s how it works?’ Kisuke nodded in admiration.

'That’s why I’d like you to describe the ghost to me. Just what you remember is fine. I’m going to paint the ghost’s portrait and ask around.’

Kisuke’s expression clouded over. 'Ah… I think he was a thin old man… but I can’t remember much.’ Kisuke put his hand on the back of his neck, looking apologetic.

It probably wasn’t that he had drunk too much and forgotten. He had probably been too afraid to look at the ghost’s face properly.

That said, Yasohachi couldn’t back down now.

'I don’t mind. Just tell me what you remember.’

He didn’t have to paint the portrait exactly. If he found out any particular characteristics, they should be enough to find out the identity of the ghost.

'If that’s so…’ responded Kisuke in a very unreliable one.

-

6

-

Yasohachi ambled along with the portrait.

Kisuke’s memory was less reliable than Yasohachi had thought it would be.

A thin old man with eyes like black holes. That was all Yasohachi had managed to get out of him. He had drawn many different examples for Kisuke like he had done with Iori, but Kisuke had been no help.

Yasohachi had painted a portrait, but it wasn’t likely somebody would be able to tell who it was.

'What to do…’ Yasohachi murmured just as thunder roared. The clouds looked like they might bring a storm.

It would probably rain in the evening –

Yasohachi had thought he would do things himself if Ukikumo wouldn’t help, but he was at a complete loss.

At this right, Kisuke might actually be cursed to death.

–Now, what to do?

Probably the only thing he could do was try to convince Ukikumo again.

Yasohachi was thinking as he walked, but before he’d noticed, he had reached the aforementioned estate.

It had probably been abandoned for a while. The garden was overgrown, the door out of the frame, the pillars slanted and the roof mossy.

Behind it, there was a swamp.

Weeds grew over the water. It was dark with mud and had a fishy smell.

'Ah!’

Yasohachi yelped without thinking.

He had spotted a man standing by the swamp, peering down at the water.

Though his back was facing Yasohachi, he recognised the man. He was tall and wore a bamboo hat. It was the third time he’d met him –

It couldn’t be just a coincidence.

'Excuse me…’

Yasohachi walked up to the man and called out, which made the man shudder in surprise and turn around hesitantly.

When the man’s eyes met his, he let out an 'Ah!’ – he seemed to have recognised Yasohachi.

'Why are you here?’ Yasohachi asked.

The man turned on his heels and dashed off.

Yasohachi tried to catch him, but the man was too fast. It felt like he had just slipped out of Yasohachi’s fingers.

After Yasohachi sighed, a raindrop fell on his cheek. Then, the rain came pouring down in the blink of an eye. It was a storm.

Yasohachi ran to hide from the rain under the estate’s eaves.

The sky lit up with lightning and the roar of thunder.

It was an evening shower and would probably end soon, but he would have to hide from the rain here for a while.

– This really has been quite a day.

Yasohachi sighed and peered inside the estate absentmindedly through a gap between the door.

It was too dark to see.

There was another flash of lightning.

For just a moment, the estate lit up enough for Yasohachi to see a wall scroll.

It was just a moment, but he saw a painting on the scroll.

– That painting.

Yasohachi, led by a hunch, slowly opened the door.

The room became brighter, just faintly.

There really was a wall scroll with a painting there. Yasohachi recognised the style.

He decided to step inside.

He felt like each step sank into the floor – perhaps the tatami was rotten.

He walked up to the wall scroll.

He stared at the painting in the door.

It was an absolutely ominous painting.

There was a lake with blooming water lilies. From inside the lake, a thin old man reached out with arms like branches of a dead try, trying to crawl out.

The man’s face was deathly pale and expressionless. His eyes were as dark as holes. Despite that, there was an incredible force emanating from him, like he could crawl out of the painting at any moment.

Yasohachi felt only one emotion as he looked at this painting – terror.

Yasohachi checked the painter’s seal in the bottom right of the painting. Though it was covered with dust, he could read the name.

'Kanou Yuuzan – ’

Yasohachi read the name aloud.

At the same time, a shudder ran through his body. His body was probably cold from the rain, but it wasn’t just that.

Yasohachi had met Kanou Yuuzan before.

He wasn’t just a painter. Kanou Yuuzan was a shaman who used curses to control people’s hearts and killed people without dirtying his own hands.

The story about this estate that Yasohachi had heard from Shintarou flashed through his mind.

Shinzaemon had gone mad after his wife fell ill and killed his wife and the doctor?

Could that have been Kanou Yuuzan’s work?

It had to be. That was why Ukikumo had refused the case – he’d known.

He had warned Yasohachi to not get involved if he didn’t want to die.

Despite that, Yasohachi had carelessly involved himself and brought himself to Kanou Yuuzan’s painting.

His eyes were ringing. It was hard to breathe.

This room was filled with Kanou Yuuzan’s curse.

Yasohachi ran out of the estate. The rain came down hard on his body.

He tried to run home, but he had only taken a few steps when the mud caught him and he fell forward.

Huge raindrops hit the swamp loudly.

The smell – the smell of the swamp seemed to eat away at Yasohachi’s heart.

– I need to run.

That thought forced Yasohachi back up.

Suddenly, he saw something like a dark shadow in the middle of the swamp.

– What is that?

He squinted but he couldn’t see well in the rain.

The sky lit up with lightning. There was a roar of thunder.

The white light lit up a man –

A man stood in the middle of the swamp.

Yasohachi couldn’t breathe. What was that? Was that the ghost Kisuke saw? Was that something brought about by Kanou Yuuzan’s curse?

Yasohachi tried to back away in his confusion, but his back hit something.

Did he walk into a tree? No, there was no tree there. He tried to turn around, but before he could, something hit him in the back.

The force made Yasohachi fall forward. He tried to get back up, but he slipped and hit the ground again.

Before he’d noticed, he found himself sitting by the swamp.

Yasohachi tried to get up, but something cold touched him.

When Yasohachi looked down, he was shocked.

It was a person’s hand.

A thin hand, like a brancho fa dead tree –

It had come out of the swamp and had a hold on Yasohachi’s ankle.

It was like something black had crawled out of the swamp, just like in Kanou Yuuzan’s painting.

'Agh!’

Yasohachi tried to run, but he lost his footing.

He didn’t even have time to think before he fell into the swamp.

He frantically struggled, but the more he did, the deeper his body sank.

The fishy, muddy water went down his throat.

He couldn’t breathe. Soon, he lost the power to struggle and sank deep into the swamp.

– I will not forgive you.

As Yasohachi’s consciousness faded, he heard the hoarse voice of an old man.

-

7

-

It was humid and hot. It felt hard to breathe.

Sweat dripped down his forehead and neck, but it was quick to dry.

His fingertips touched something cold.

He couldn’t see. He couldn’t see anything. But he could tell that it was a person’s hand.

It felt like his heart was melting away.

There was the sound of a cat mewing.

He heard the sound of water boiling.

He felt like somebody was calling his name. It was a beautiful voice – refreshing, like it was washing away all the dirt from his heart.

– Who could it be?

As he pondered, he spotted a light in this pitch-black world.

He felt like he wouldn’t be able to return if he went to the light.

The anxiety in his chest turned into fear. His body shook. The hand his fingers were touching suddenly grabbed his tightly, as if it had sensed the change in his state of mind.

He clutched the hand back.

– Yasohachi-san.

He heard the voice again. It was clearer than before.

Yasohachi opened his eyes, as if led by the voice. Bright light flooded his vision, disorienting him.

– Where on earth am I?

He didn’t know where he was, but he felt very at ease as he held this hand.

'Wake up already!’

A sudden voice woke Yasohachi up at once.

At the same time, a series of images flooded his mind and he sat right up.

After a vicious bout of dizziness, Yasohachi had to press the corners of his eyes in the pain. He could hear his body creak.

He had just taken a deep breath when somebody rubbed his back.

'Are you all right?’

'Yes – ’

As Yasohachi turned around, he saw a face he recognized in his blurry vision.

'I-Iori-san!’ Yasohachi exclaimed in surprised.

Iori sighed and smiled gently.

'Thank goodness. For a while, I wasn’t sure how things would turn out.’

Iori’s eyes were slightly wet as she said that.

Yasohachi finally realised that it was Iori’s hand he had been clasping and hurriedly let go.

Even if he had been confused, it was far too presumptuous of him –

’S-sorry.’

After Yasohachi made his apology, Iori shook her head and said, 'It’s fine,’ her cheeks a bit pink.

Yasohachi was starting to understand the situation.

He was in a small wooden room. He was sleeping on a thin futon.

At the same time, a number of questions came to him.

Why was Iori here? Where was this place anyway? He had fallen into a swamp – what on earth had happened?

'Get a grip already.’

A fist fell on his head.

Yasohachi saw Ukikumo in his usual hakama-less white kimono looking down at Yasohachi in a disgruntled manner.

'Ukikumo-san… Why?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo snorted and sat down cross-legged.

'Honestly. I told you not to do anything unnecessary…’

Ukikumo poured rice wine from his gourd into a cup and gulped it down.

Ukikumo had told Yasohachi that. Yasohachi had not listened to him – he’d gone investigating and fallen into the swamp as a result.

'Why am I here?’ asked Yasohachi. Then, the door opened and Koishikawa Souten appeared.

Koishikawa and Yasohachi had met on a previous incident involving spirits. He was young and looked unreliable, but he was a doctor at a clinic.

This meant Yasohachi was probably at Koishikawa’s clinic.

'It appears you’ve woken up,’ said Koishikawa gently. He swiftly confirmed Yasohachi’s vitals.

'It looks like you’re fine,’ said Koishikawa afterwards with a nod.

'Um… What on earth happened to me?’ Yasohachi asked Koishikawa.

'Fortunately, somebody had been passing by when you were drowning in the swamp, and that person brought you here,’ explained Koishikawa, which brought another question to Yasohachi’s mind.

Practically nobody passed by that area, and it had been pouring.

'Who was it?’ asked Yasohachi.

Koishikawa cocked his head. 'That’s the strange thing…’

'Strange?’

'Yes, after bringing you here, this person immediately ran off without giving a name.’

'I see…’

Even though it was something that was worth owning up to – did the person not like getting involved in troublesome things? Or was there a reason they didn’t want to give a name?

Though Yasohachi was glad to have been saved, he felt unsettled.

'Iori-san just happened to be picking up some medicine when you were brought here, so she has been at your bedside since,’ added Koishikawa.

'Iori-san…’ said Yasohachi in surprise. He turned to face Iori, who was smiling.

'No, last night, your older sister Osayo-san was here. She’s sleeping in the next room now.’

Iori glanced at the door.

'I see…’

Yasohachi looked at the door too and sighed.

It seemed like he had worried his sister Osayo as well.

'Iori-san was the one who told Osayo-san what happened. She told Ukikumo-san as well,’ explained Koishikawa.

It seemed he had put many people to a lot of trouble.

'Thank you very much. I sincerely apologise for all the trouble I have caused.’

Yasohachi sat up properly and bowed.

He was only able to talk like this now because of everyone’s aid.

'You should, idiot!’ shouted Ukikumo.

His red eyes glared at Yasohachi. Everyone here knew about Ukikumo’s red eyes, so he wasn’t covering them with a cloth now.

It made sense for Ukikumo to speak like that, and Yasohachi acknowledged that he was an idiot, but Yasohachi had things he wanted to say too.

'But I couldn’t leave Kisuke-san alone,’ said Yasohachi, which made Ukikumo snort.

'You like meddling in everything, don’t you?’ Ukikumo poured rice wine from his gourd into a cup and gulped it down.

'Perhaps, but…’

'You’re an odd guy,’ interrupted Ukikumo.

'What’s odd about me?’

'You look quiet, but you’re stubborn and rash. Even though you can’t do anything on your own, you insist on meddling in everyone else’s problems.’

'Is that so?’

Yasohachi admitted to not being able to do anything, but he wasn’t that stubborn and he didn’t think he was rash.

'And you don’t understand yourself either.’

Ukikumo poked Yasohachi in the forehead.’

'That hurts.’

It didn’t really hurt, but Yasohachi glared at Ukikumo anyway.

'You’re an idiot that causes so much trouble, but for some reason, Hachi, people gather around you – ’

Ukikumo muttered this last sentence and then stood up with the staff he had been holding under his arm.

Ukikumo seemed almost sublime in the faint light as he stood.

'Fine. I’ll exorcise the spirit haunting the swamp for you.’ Ukikumo smirked.

'Really?’

So much had happened, but if Ukikumo would help, Yasohachi would feel reassured.

'I’d be bothered if you did something half-baked and died.’

'Are you concerned about me?’

'Of course not.’

'But…’

'I can see ghosts. It’d be annoying to have you hanging around all the time after you died.’

'I wouldn’t follow you around if I died.’

'Who knows.’ Ukikumo smiled mockingly.

Though the man was fickle and terrible with women and money among other things, when Ukikumo smiled, it was strangely relieving.

'Shall we get going then?’

Ukikumo hit the ground with his metal staff.

-

8

-

Yasohachi went to Kuraya –

He recovered quickly thanks to Osayo and Iori, who had watched over him, but quite some time passed during his trip back home and the sky was already tinged vermillion.

'What is Ukikumo-san thinking?’ asked Iori as she stood beside Yasohachi.

Yasohachi had said he’d be fine alone, but Iori had insisted on coming.

She probably felt like Yasohachi had fallen into the swamp because she had not gone with him yesterday.

She was in hakama and had her wooden sword – it was clear she intended to protect Yasohachi.

Yasohachi knew very well Iori’s skill with the sword. He felt comforted knowing she would protect him, but he felt pathetic for needing that protection.

'I don’t know, but I think we can trust him,’ said Yasohachi with a nod, saying it more to himself than anything.

Ukikumo had told him to go to Kuraya.

Yasohachi had explained everything that happened yesterday to Ukikumo.

After thinking for a while, Ukikumo had told Yasohachi to go to Kuraya and take a certain person to the swamp.

He had spoken with confidence, like he understood everything.

'You really trust him, don’t you?’ Iori smiled happily.

'Yes,’ Yasohachi responded immediately.

Ukikumo was always drinking and he was a miser with sticky fingers.

It might seem like there was nothing good about him, but he was an excellent exorcist.

Of course, that wasn’t all.

He was a man as had to get a hold of as a cloud. There was strong emotion in his heart.

'Let’s go,’ Yasohachi told Iori, and he went under the curtain.

Kisuke was arranging a shelf like he had been yesterday. There was one other person there too. A woman was sweeping the floor.

Though she had a quiet air to her, her face looked similar to the owner’s wife.

Perhaps this was her daughter Ohisa.

'You’re fine?’

When Kisuke noticed Yasohachi, he looked like he had seen a ghost.

He should have been told that Yasohachi had fallen into the swamp. There had been the incident with Daijirou – that was probably why he was so shocked.

'Yes, thanks to everyone – ’

'Thank goodness.’

'Luckily, a passerby saved me.’

'Did a – did a ghost try to kill you?’ asked Kisuke, his voice hitching.

'I don’t remember…’ replied Yasohachi, scratching his head.

He remembered that a hand like a dead branch had grabbed him and dragged him into the swamp, but Ukikumo said that spirits had no physical body, so they wouldn’t be able to drag anyone.

It made Yasohachi think it might have been an illusion.

Putting aside whether his foot had been grabbed or not, he was certain that he had heard an old man’s voice say 'I will not forgive you’ as he passed out.

That voice filled with hatred still rang in his ears now.

'Is that so? It has to be a ghost though. It’s the same as what happened to Daijirou-san,’ said Kisuke hotly.

The woman cleaning the floor seemed exasperated as she watched him.

'Excuse me, but is that…’ said Yasohachi.

'That’s Ohisa-san,’ replied Kisuke.

So she really was the daughter of the owner’s wife.

'Is that the rumoured exorcist?’ asked Kisuke, looking at Iori.

Yasohachi introduced Iori, but he couldn’t explain why the daughter of the samurai family Hagiwara was with a townsperson like Yasohachi, so the atmosphere became strange. That said, he didn’t have the time to worry about that.

He hadn’t come to chat.

'Actually, I need to talk to you…’ said Yasohachi. Just as he did, Ohisa silently went to the back. Yasohachi hurriedly called out to her. 'Excuse me, but I’d like you to hear this as well, Ohisa-san.’

'Me…?’ said Ohisa in a faint voice. She looked very suspicious.

It made sense for her to be, but Yasohachi had to get her to hear this.

He wouldn’t be able to say why. Ukikumo had given him instructions.

'Please.’

Yasohachi bowed his head. Ohisa looked troubled, but she turned to face him again.

It looked like she would listen.

'It’s about the ghost, isn’t it?’ asked Kisuke.

'Yes. It’s very important…’

Just as Yasohachi said that, the owner’s wife came into the shop.

She had a cloth bag – she had probably just come back from an errand.

'Hello,’ said Yasohachi.

'The person from yesterday…’ said the owner’s wife. It looked like she remembered him. 'Are you talking about ghosts again?’ she asked Kisuke in exasperation.

Kisuke looked away, seeming uncomfortable.

Yasohachi could tell that the owner’s wife didn’t think much of this spiritual incident, but he still had to talk.

'Actually, I’d like to talk about that…’

'To me?’ The owner’s wife’s eyes went wide.

'Yes. I’d like everyone to hear this.’

'I don’t know what this is about, but I don’t believe in ghosts. It’s just make-believe.’

'It’s not make-believe. There are ghosts,’ Yasohachi insisted firmly.

He hadn’t believed in them himself before meeting Ukikumo, but after experiencing many incidents with spirits, he knew that they definitely existed.

'Even if they do, it’s got nothing to do with my business.’

It looked like the owner’s wife was a very practical person.

'Please just listen.’

'I’m busy.’

The owner’s wife waved a hand at him and went to the back.

Iori was the one to call out to her.

'This incident with the ghost has something to do with this shop.’

Iori’s words made the owner’s wife stop.

When the owner’s wife turned around slowly, there was suspicion on her face.

'What do you mean?’

Her brows were furrowed and her head was tilted to one side.

Yasohachi had thought that Iori was answer, but she kept her mouth shut and looked at Yasohachi. It looked like she was asking him to continue.

Yasohachi nodded and looked straight at the owner’s wife.

'I heard that your husband went missing about ten years ago.’

'What about it?’

'This incident has something to do with your husband’s whereabouts.’

Of course, these weren’t Yasohachi’s words.’

Ukikumo had said this. If the people at Kuraya didn’t want to come, tell them this.

Yasohachi didn’t know if it was true or not.

'What are you saying? Are you telling me that ghost is my husband?’

The owner’s wife’s eyes wavered slightly.

Yasohachi didn’t know if the emotion there was sadness or anger, but it was clear that something within her had moved.

'That’s impossible,’ said Kisuke in a hoarse voice. His shaking jaw made his voice shake too. 'I saw the ghost’s face. That wasn’t the boss’s face.’

If Kisuke, who had seen the ghost, said it wasn’t true, that was probably the case.

'I just said it was related – I didn’t say that the ghost was the owner,’ said Yasohachi.

The owner’s wife’s brows furrowed again. 'Then how is it related?’

Yasohachi couldn’t replied. He didn’t know. Yasohachi hadn’t heard the details from Ukikumo either.

'I don’t know the details either, but…’

'What?’

'It is definitely related. I apologise for the trouble, but please come with me – ’

Yasohachi bowed from the waist.

After a while – he didn’t know how long – he heard the owner’s wife let out a sigh.

-

9

-

When Yasohachi and the others reached the swamp, Ukikumo was already there.

In the dark, he wore his usual white kimono without hakama, tied with a red cloth at his waist. Standing there with his metal staff, he looked just like a ghost.

Ukikumo, who was an exorcist, always had a strange air about him.

Even though he was alive, it felt like he was already dead – somebody standing between the two worlds.

That was how Yasohachi felt.

'Who’s that?’ asked Kisuke from behind him.

'Ukikumo-san, the exorcist.’

'So he’s…’ Kisuke gulped, perhaps afraid of Ukikumo.

'What have you brought us here for?’ asked the owner’s wife. Her daughter Ohisa stood beside her, and Iori was there was well.

'We will exorcise the spirit,’ said Yasohachi, which made the owner’s wife frown.

'I’m not possessed or anything. Kisuke’s the one who saw the ghost.’

The owner’s wife’s comment made sense.

Yasohachi was thinking the same thing. Why had Ukikumo asked him to bring along the owner’s wife and daughter instead of just Kisuke?

'You just haven’t noticed. You’re possessed too,’ said Ukikumo.

Though he had his back to them, it seemed like he was listening properly.

'What do you mean?’ asked the owner’s wife.

Ukikumo slowly turned around.

He had a red cloth covering his red eyes. The eyes drawn in ink on the cloth stared eerily at them.

Kisuke and Ohisa both let out yelps upon seeing those eyes.

The owner’s wife just managed to keep quiet, but she had her hand on her mouth in shock.

'There’s a spirit haunting this swamp.’

Ukikumo pointed at the swamp with his staff.

The curtain of night had fallen. The moon was reflected on the surface of the black swamp.

’T-there really is a ghost then. Please exorcise it quickly.’ Kisuke shook in fear and clung to Ukikumo.

Ukikumo looked at Kisuke with the eyes on his cloth and then shook him away.

Kisuke fell onto the mud and looked up at Ukikumo in shock. He probably hadn’t thought he would be treated so roughly.

'Ukikumo-san!’

That was just too awful. Kisuke was still their client, after all.

Ukikumo ignored Yasohachi’s protest. He put his staff on his shoulder, took the gourd from his waist and drank rice wine straight from it.

'Hachi, when you were drowning in the swamp, you heard a man’s voice – that’s what you said, right?’

Ukikumo turned the eyes drawn on his blindfold towards him.

Yasohachi stopped breathing for a moment. He wasn’t afraid of Ukikumo’s red eyes, but the inked eyes on the blindfold frightened him somehow.

'Yes.’

'What did he say?’

’“I will not forgive you.”’

After Yasohachi responded, Ukikumo nodded in satisfaction. 'Now, who can’t the ghost haunting the swamp forgive? What can’t he forgive?’ he asked, looking around.

'That doesn’t matter. Just exorcise it already. You’re an exorcist, right?’

Kisuke must have been fairly displeased about being pushed away earlier. He stood up and spoke in a rough manner.

However, Ukikumo wouldn’t be bothered by something of that level.

'My exorcisms are a bit different from everyone else’s, you see…’

'They’re all the same, aren’t they?’ said Kisuke, flaring up.

'They’re not. I don’t use talismans or sutras. I find out why the spirit is wandering and take away that reason. That’s how I exorcise spirits – ’

Ukikumo drank more rice wine from his gourd.

'What are you saying? Can you really exorcise a spirit while drinking that much?’ complained Kisuke.

Ukikumo ignored him and continued, 'I’ll get this out of the way first. The identity of the spirit haunting the swamp is – ’

Ukikumo stopped there and walked up to the owner’s wife.

'W-what?’

The owner’s wife stepped back, perhaps hesitant in the face of the pressure coming from Ukikumo.

'Ten years ago – the man who went missing. Your husband, Jinzou.’

Ukikumo’s words echoed through the moonlit night.

Kisuke and Ohisa were gaping in shock.

However – the owner’s wife looked back at Ukikumo with the same expression she had had earlier.

There was no strength in her gaze, as if she were staring into nothingness.

'That’s… I can’t believe it…’ said Ohisa, crying.

Yasohachi understood painfully how she felt. She had just been told that her father, who had disappeared ten years ago, was dead. She probably couldn’t accept it.

'What proof do you have for saying such nonsense?’ cut in Kisuke.

Ukikumo sighed and ran a hand through his long hair.

'I’ve got proof. Well, it’d be better to have somebody else speak instead of me.’

Ukikumo pounded the ground with his staff.

That seemed to be a sign. A yellow light appeared from the estate and approached them.

Yasohachi thought at first that it was a disembodied soul, but he was wrong. It was the light of a lantern.

The light of the lantern illuminated the people walking towards them.

It was Hijikata, walking at the front with the lantern. Behind his back, as if hiding, there was a man.

'Ah!’ said Yasohachi involuntarily.

'Do you know him?’ asked Iori, but Yasohachi didn’t know how to respond. He only knew the man’s face – he had no idea who he was.

At the bridge where Daijirou’s corpse had been found. In front of Kuraya. Then, in front of the swamp. He had seen this man thrice.

'Matsukichi-san…’ said Ohisa in surprise.

The man named Matsukichi had his lips in a thin line and responded with a quick bow of his head.

From that atmosphere, it felt like they were more than just acquaintances.

'What is this?’ asked Yasohachi.

'Toshi, explain,’ said Ukikumo.

Hijikata smiled and nodded before speaking.

'Matsukichi-san is a medicine merchant, as I am. We are old acquaintances.’

It was true that Matsukichi had been dressed like a merchant when Yasohachi first met him.

'Yes,’ responded Matsukichi in a hoarse voice.

'I think you may have sensed this already, but Matsukichi-san and Ohisa-san are in a romantic relationship.’

– I see.

Kisuke had mentioned that Ohisa was in a relationship with somebody. So that person was Matsukichi.

But why had Matsukichi been brought here?

No. Matsukichi had been suspicious from the beginning. Yasohachi had met with him many times while investigating this spiritual phenomenon.

'This person..’ said Yasohachi, but Ukikumo covered his mouth.

It seemed he was telling him not to saying anything unnecessary. Yasohachi didn’t like it, but all he could do now was leave things to Ukikumo.

'Matsukichi, could you tell us? Why did Jinzou die?’

Ukikumo looked at Matsukichi with the eyes on his blindfold.

Matsukichi’s eyes flickered about for a while, but he seemed to find resolve within himself, as he began to speak in a heavy tone.

'Jinzou-san was killed by the master of that estate, Fukami Shinzaemon.’

Matsukichi pointed at the old estate lit up by the moon.

Everyone followed the finger with their gazes.

'What do you mean, killed?’ asked Iori.

'Shinzaemon was a man who was loose with money. He borrowed money from many people. One of those people was Jinzou-san,’ Matsukichi said, voice haltering. 'One day, Jinzou-san came round to ask Shinzaemon for his money back. As a result of this argument…’

Though Matsukichi said nothing else, everyone there understood what he was suggesting.

Shinzaemon had probably lost his temper and killed Jinzou.

'Then what happened?’ asked Yasohachi.

Matsukichi gripped his hands into tight fists and continued, 'Shinzaemon disposed of Jinzou-san’s body in the swamp behind the estate and acted like nothing had happened.’

Matsukichi pointed at the dark swamp.

The wind was blowing, making the grass growing around the swamp rustle.

'Why…’

Ohisa had collapsed to the floor. She probably couldn’t bear with the sudden truth.

It looked like Matsukichi wanted to run up to Ohisa, but he bit his lip and stopped.

It was like he was telling himself he couldn’t touch her.

'Why do you know that, Matsukichi-san?’ asked Iori.

That was a good question. Why would Matsukichi know the truth that Shinzaemon had hidden? Yasohachi looked to Ukikumo for an answer.

'Tell them, Matsukichi,’ said Ukikumo.

Matsukichi gulped.

Yasohachi didn’t know the circumstances, but it was clear that Matsukichi wasn’t sure whether he should tell them or not.

Matsukichi groaned and looked down.

Hijikata placed a hand on Matsukichi’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Yasohachi didn’t know what he said, but whatever it was, it made Matsukichi draw up resolve. His expression changed.

'I am Shinzaemon’s son – ’

Matsukichi’s sudden words made the air freeze.

Yasohachi and Iori were shocked, as was expected, but Kisuke’s cheek was twitching too, and Ohisa was dumbfounded, her eyes wide.

However, the owner’s wife just looked at Matsukichi with narrowed eyes.

'What on earth?’ said Yasohachi, unable to keep it in.

Matsukichi seemed to have used all his strength to say that. His shoulders were slumped.

Hijikata spoke up in his stead. 'Matsukichi-san was watching when Jinzou-san was killed, but he hadn’t been able to say anything. At the time, Matuskichi-san was just twelve. It makes sense.’

It was just as Hijikata said.

He couldn’t blame Matsukichi. If Yasohachi had been in the same situation, he wouldn’t have been able to say or do anything to sotp it.

'Matsukichi-san hated his father for acting like nothing had happened and left the Fukami family afterwards. It is impossible to think of how difficult it must have been for the son of a vassal to find their own way in the world at such a young age – ’

Hijikata patted Matsukichi on the back comfortingly.

Though Yasohachi couldn’t imagine, it must have been very difficult.

Matsukichi had suffered, but he didn’t want to live with his father, who had killed someone. That was how kind a person he was.

'Matsukichi-san went to many places and returned to Edo as a medicine merchant after ten years,’ finished Hijikata.

Ukikumo, staff on his shoulders, walked up to Ohisa.

'When Matsukichi returned, his family line had come to an end.’

– That’s right!

Shintarou had told Yasohachi about the terrible events that had occurred at the Fukami household.

'What on earth happened?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo looked bitter. 'You saw Kanou Yuuzan’s painting at the estate, right?’

'Yes.’

Yasohachi had seen it. It was a horrible and terrifying painting of a man crawling out of a lake.

'Then you should know. Kanou Yuuzan used the incident with Jinzou to put an end to the Fukami family.’

– So that’s what happened.

Shintarou had made it sound like Shinzaemon’s family had quite a lot of power, so somebody who thought that unpleasant had probably consulted Kanou Yuuzan.

Kanou Yuuzan played with people’s hearts and tricked them into hating and killing each other.

Shinzaemon had probably lost himself due to Kanou Yuuzan’s curse and killed his wife and the doctor.

Though Yasohachi hadn’t seen it, he could imagine the scene in his mind. It made him want to vomit.

'When Matsukichi came back to Edo, he had two goals. One was to check up on his family, and the other – ’

Ukikumo looked at Ohisa, who was sitting down.

’ – was to apologise.’

'Eh?’ Ohisa looked up.

'Matsukichi-san wanted to apologise to you for what his father did ten years ago and for being unable to do anything,’ said Hijikata, unusually gentle.

Ohisa slowly stood up and looked at Matsukichi with wet eyes.

'But Matsukichi-san fell in love with Ohisa-san. He must have been in so much pain,’ said Iori.

Her expression was a bit different from usual. Yasohachi couldn’t explain it well, but if he had to say, it was a face that reminded him that she was a woman.

'Yes. Even though he knew he couldn’t love her, he still did…’ said Hijikata, turning his eyes to the sky.

– How tragic.

Matsukichi wasn’t in the wrong, but to Ohisa, Matsukichi was the son of her father’s enemy.

Even if Matsukichi knew in his head that he couldn’t fall in love with her, he must have been unable to stop himself.

'Now, let’s get back to the story.’

Ukikumo hit his staff against the ground.

'You understand now, right? What Jinzou can’t forgive – ’

Ukikumo’s words echoed through Yasohachi’s ears.

Jinzou probably couldn’t accept Matuskichi, the son of the man who killed him, and his own daughter being together.

– I will not forgive you.

That was probably what those words meant.

Yasohachi understood how Jinzou felt, but it would be so sad if Matsukichi and Ohisa, who were in love, would have to separate because of their parents.

'Can’t something be done?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo smirked. 'That’s up to you.’

When Ukikumo said that, his eyes were on the owner’s wife.

'Eh?’

Everyone turned to look at her.

Still, the owner’s wife’s expression didn’t change at all.

'I knew…’

That murmur shocked everyone.

'What do you mean, you knew?’ asked Matsukichi, obviously shaken.

'My husband went to get his money back and did not return. Even an idiot would know what had happened.’

’…’

'But the man was the shogun’s vassal. No matter what I said, nothing would change.’

Though the owner’s voice spoke calmly, there was a strong anger there and frustration about the situation.

'If you went to the magistrate’s, they would have investigated,’ said Iori.

Iori was kind to townspeople like Yasohachi, but – no, not but, but because of that – she didn’t really understand the difference between classes.

'It would have been impossible. He was the shogun’s vassal. Unless it was something incredible, nobody would listen to a townsperson’s plea,’ said Yasohachi. He felt his heart grow cold.

There was a divide between townspeople and samurai that could not be crossed.

Even Iori, who was right next to him, felt terribly far away. Perhaps Iori had felt the same thing, as her lips were pulled into a tight frown and she looked down.

'That was why I gave up. My husband would not return. I would protect the store. I wouldn’t be able to bear with the situation unless I did.’

The owner’s wife smiled slightly.

Perhaps Yasohachi had been mistaken about her all along. Though she acted cool, it was because she had the strength to keep moving forward.

'I apologise – ’

Matsukichi bowed his head. It felt like he had been able to bear saying nothing.

'Don’t apologise. It makes everything seem worse – ’

'But…’

'This must be some sort of fate… I can’t believe that Shinzaemon’s son would fall in love with Ohisa…’

'I…’

The owner’s wife went to stand in front of Ukikumo. Her eyes were strong, unlike they had been earlier. It looked like she was already determined.

'Is my husband here?’ she asked.

Ukikumo pointed at the side of the swamp with his staff.

'He’s standing right there.’

'I see,’ the owner’s wife responded. She walked up to where Ukikumo had pointed.

'Dear, you’re there, right?’

She began to speak, but there was no response. She continued regardless.

'You loaned him money and were killed for it. You must be so angry – ’

The grass around the swamp rustled.

'But why not leave that anger with the person who actually did it? If you keep wandering around here with your hate, this time Ohisa will end up hating you.’

The owner’s wife’s words were refreshing and filled with kindness.

'So let’s leave it at that. Why not wish for Ohisa’s happiness? That’s what parents do – ’

As she finished, tears fell from her eyes.

Even though she had said she’d given up earlier, but she probably hadn’t truly meant it. Her heart had to be in disorder.

Still, the owner’s wife wished for her daughter Ohisa to be happy.

As if in response to her words, there was the sound of the wind.

'He’s gone,’ Ukikumo said quietly, his eyes following something through the sky.

For a while, it was silent, but then Matsukichi and Ohisa walked up to the owner’s wife, who was still standing by the swamp.

'If you are truly sorry, please carry on our store,’ said the owner’s wife.

Matsukichi fell to his knees and said 'Thank you’ over and over again while crying.

Ohisa rubbed Matsukichi’s back to comfort him.

– Ah, everything’s over now.

That feeling grew within Yasohachi’s heart.

-

10

-

'Not yet!’

Yasohachi had thought that things had come to a conclusion, but then he realised that there was something big that still hadn’t been solved.

'What do you mean?’ asked Iori, confused.

Yasohachi had been relieved like Iori until just earlier, but there was still the original problem.

'Who killed Daijirou-san?’ asked Yasohachi.

Ukikumo gave him an obscene smile.

It was like he was saying that he had known from the start.

'It’s simple. Daijirou’s death and Jinzou’s ghost have nothing to do with each other at all.’

'Eh?’

Yasohachi was shocked.

That didn’t add up at all. Kisuke had seen a ghost at the swamp with Daijirou. Had Daijirou been killed at random for reasons completely unrelated to the ghost?

'There was a rumour about a ghost around here for a while, which is why nobody would come by. There are no houses near either. Somebody used that for their own purposes.’

Ukikumo put his staff on his shoulder and looked at Kisuke.

Kisuke gulped and took two steps back, as if afraid of the eyes drawn on Ukikumo’s blindfold.

'What do you mean? Please explain properly,’ interrupted Yasohachi in confusion.

'This estate has become a hideaway for robbers thieving in the area.’

Ukikumo pointed at the estate with his staff.

The estate had an uncanny air to it. It seemed even more uncanny since something terrible had happened here before.

'Hideaway?’

'Yes, and Daijirou was one of those robbers,’ explained Hijikata. He had been completely unnoticeable until just now, but now he had a dangerous air to him.

'W-what are you saying?’

Yasohachi didn’t understand the situation, which made his words come up rough.

'Daijirou probably got into a fight with his friends about how to split shares or something and as killed for it,’ Hijikata said coolly.

'Please wait a second. How about the ghost Kisuke-san saw?’

'Try to remember. Hachi, you tried to draw a portrait of the ghost, right? What did Kisuke say then?’ said Ukikumo, walking up to Kisuke.

Kisuke had said he couldn’t remember clearly then, but the ghost wandering the swamp was Jinzou.

It would have been unnatural for Kisuke to see Jinzou’s face and not know it was him.

'What’s going on?’ asked Yasohachi.

Kisuke furrowed his brows.

'There’s nothing going on. I saw the ghost and it was somebody I didn’t know.’

Had Kisuke seen a different ghost? Yasohachi tried to believe him, but it was no use. Suspicion that had sprouted was hard to weed out.

'How long are you going to keep playing dumb for?’

Ukikumo smirked.

It was a frightening smile that gave Yasohachi shivers.

'I’m not playing dumb.’

'You’re no good at lying. That’s why you ended up cornering yourself.’

'So Kisuke-san lied about seeing a ghost?’ said Yasohachi.

Ukikumo nodded. 'After he killed Daijirou, he wasn’t sure what to do with the corpse. That’s when he decided to pretend a ghost did it. The reason he moved it to the bridge was because he was afraid the estate would be investigated.’

'Then…’

'Kisuke had been seen drinking with Daijirou at Marukuma. He didn’t want people to think he was the culprit, so he started talking about how he’d seen a ghost.’

'But that was a mistake…’

'Yup. Kumakichi and you both like to meddle. Even though Kisuke didn’t want any of it, you two keep talking about exorcising spirits.’

Ukikumo shrugged.

'Then the reason I fell in the swamp…’

'It was probably Kisuke. You were in the way. If he pushed you into the swamp and you drowned, then more people would believe in the ghost. Two birds, one stone.’

– I can’t believe it.

Yasohachi had been completely tricked. No, Kisuke himself had to be confused about what to do.

Now that Yasohachi thought about it, there were many holes in the story.

'Stop joking around! Don’t just say whatever you want! Me, a robber? Where’s your proof? I’d like you to stop accusing people for no reason!’ shouted Kisuke, waving both hands about.

However, the more he struggled, the more obvious it became. He had killed Daijirou, tried to make it seem like the worst of a ghost, and got caught in a swamp.

'Oh, you want proof? Here’s proof.’ Ukikumo put his face right up to Kisuke’s and whispered.

Kisuke looked bewildered. Ukikumo ignored him and looked at Hijikata.

'The oil has been poured already, so it should burn well,’ said Hijikata, sounding strangely amused. Then, he threw his lit lantern towards the estate.

The lantern hit the wall of the estate and fell to the floor. A fire started to burn.

Hijikata seemed to have poured oil around the estate, just as he had said.

The estate burned up, crackling away. The red light lit up the surroundings.

Kisuke just stared.

'Here it is,’ murmured Ukikumo. He walked p to Hijikata. Hijikata already had a wooden sword out. Yasohachi didn’t know where he had got it from.

– What’s here?

Yasohachi squinted and saw five men run out of the burning estate.

The men were holding knives, daggers and clubs. They ran at Ukikumo and Hijikata at once.

'Please stop!’ shouted Yasohachi.

It wasn’t that he was worried about Ukikumo and Hijikata. It was the opposite.

These men didn’t know. They didn’t know that Ukikumo and Hijikata were incredibly skilled –

'Yah!’

Two men with swords tried to slice at Hijikata.

Hijikata swiftly evaded their attack, hit one forcefully with the wooden sword and caught the other in the torso on the return.

This was what people meant when they said lightning speed.

The two men froze for a moment and then collapsed, showing the whites of their eyes.

Ukikumo spun his staff above his head and mowed down the three remaining men.

They fell to their knees, groaning.

– Like I said.

Yasohachi looked at the owner’s wife standing by the swamp. She looked shocked.

Five men had been defeated in a moment. It made sense for her to be surprised.

In any case, this was the end of it –

'Damn it!’

Yasohachi had just relaxed when he heard a shout.

It was Kisuke –

He had a short sword in his hand – he must have had it concealed. Then, he attacked Iori.

Perhaps he had thought that he’d be able to win against a woman. He had probably meant to use Iori as a hostage to escape.

However, there was a huge flaw in his plan.

Iori cut him down with her wooden blade before Kisuke even had the time to attack.

Kisuke fainted. He didn’t even have the time to scream.

He had chosen the wrong person to fight.

Just as Yasohachi had sighed in relief, he heard a loud noise.

He saw the Fukami estate collapsing in the fire.

Fortunately, there were no buildings nearby. It was summer, so the plants had a lot of water. The fire wouldn’t spread.

'This is really the end then.’

In the light of the red flames, Iori’s smiling face looked even more beautiful than usual.

'It is – ’

Yasohachi and Iori nodded at each other and then looked once more at the estate.

The connections to the past and Kanou Yuuzan’s painting both burned away, rising through the sky with the smoke –

-

epilogue

-

A few days afterwards, Yasohachi went to the burnt estate.

Ukikumo was with him.

He had his white kimono with no hakama as usual and a red cloth covering his eyes. He had his staff with him as well.

Though the area had seemed dark when the estate had been around, it was completely different now.

The light lit up the swamp.

With time, perhaps even this swamp would become a spring with beautiful water – that was how it felt.

When Yasohachi told Ukikumo this, he laughed.

'That estate was in a bad place.’

'Eh?’

'Because of the estate, the swamp didn’t get enough light and the water got muddy. That darkness brought about bad things.’

'Does that happen?’

'That’s what darkness is – ’

Ukikumo looked up at the sky.

With the cries of the cicadas and the sunlight pouring down, Yasohachi could believe what Ukikumo said.

Perhaps people’s hearts wouldn’t grow dark under a bright sky.

'Come to think of it, what happened with the robbers?’ asked Yasohachi.

'No idea,’ replied Ukikumo. 'It’s up to the magistrate. Nothing for an exorcist to do.’

'That’s right.’

It was just as Ukikumo said.

Ukikumo’s job was to exorcise spirits, not expelling robbers.

'Did you paint something this time?’ asked Ukikumo.

'Yes, of course.’

Yasohachi showed the painting he had brought to Ukikumo.

Ukikumo carelessly unrolled it, pushed the red blindfold up slightly and stared.

'It’s quite an odd painting,’ Ukikumo said.

Yasohachi himself knew that. He had painted it a bit differently than he usually did.

It was a picture of a man cutting the black chains that bound him. It was supposed to be of Jinzou, who had cut the roots of evil to wish for his daughter’s happiness.

However, Yasohachi just smiled without explaining that.

He didn’t plan on letting anyone have it. It was, perhaps, a way of showing his determination – that he was different from Kanou Yuuzan, who bound people with curses.

'Are those two doing well?’ asked Ukikumo as he returned the painting.

Ukikumo, no matter what he said, still cared. It was just like him.

'Yes. Matsukichi-san says that he is exhausted since he isn’t used to the work yet though…’

But it was probably nothing compared to how he had suffered in the past. Perhaps Yasohachi was being too optimistic, he thought they would be able to do well.

'I see.’

Ukikumo’s lips were turned up at the corners.

'By the way, I heard that Ukikumo-san was working on a different case, but how did that go?’

That was what Hijikata had said at the shrine when they met.

'It wasn’t a different case.’

'Eh?’

'Toshizo was asked by Matsukichi to consult me. So it’s not a different case.’

– I see.’

Matsukichi had probably heard the ghost stories about his family and consulted Hijikata, but Matsukichi had also gone around investigating himself. That was why Yasohachi had seen him so often.

Here, Yasohachi thought of something.

'Could it be that the person who saved me when I fell in the swamp was Matsukichi-san?’

'Probably.’

'Oh no, I haven’t thanked him yet.’

'That’s what makes you an idiot.’

'Sorry, I’m going to be right back,’ Yasohachi said quickly, running off –

He glanced behind him. Ukikumo was still looking at the burnt estate.