Fujiwara no Yoshimitsu, Head of the Ministry of Onmyodo looked at the endless paperwork waiting for him after his month away. Three boxes overflowed around his desk.
“Travel for a month and this is my punishment,” he muttered.
“Yoshi, you do good as Ministry Head, like you always wanted,” his oldest friend Taru gently reminded him. Everything Taru did was calm and soothing. It was was one of the many things Yoshi appreciated about Taru.
“I wanted to revolutionize the Ministry of Onmyodo. And access the discretionary budget. I am still excited about the money, but I’ve long forgotten my grand plan. Therefore, my sanity remains.”
Taru was glad his friend had returned safely from visiting his daughters in a close province. Taru didn’t understand the Fujiwara clan machinations, but knew that a rival faction had sent Yoshi’s son-in-law to that province so Yoshi’s son-in-law couldn’t meddle elsewhere. All three of Yoshi’s daughters lived in that province, so he visited them all at once. Perhaps it was a kind concession, or perhaps it was happenstance. Taru was thankful for any happy accident.
It also took his friend out of The Capital, another deliberate effect. Yoshi was torn between his personal (and his faction’s) political aspirations and his immediate family. It wore on him, and Taru couldn’t help Yoshi with his divided loyalties. Much of Yoshi’s life was balancing those loyalties and his vision for the Ministry of Onmyodo. For now (only for now, as Yoshi reminded him often) his branch controlled the throne with one Empress and a second wife to the Emperor’s half brother. However, a rival faction controlled the Ministry of Appointments. So the Ministry of Appointments assigned Yoshi’s sons-in-law away from The Capital.
Taru helped Yoshi improve the Ministry of Onmyodo. What neither of them could change was the paperwork.
Yoshi stomped to his desk and sat down. He knocked another pile of paper off with his sleeve. He glared at the scattered paper then looked up. “Hey there, kami! I didn’t tell you to stop absorbing our words,” he snapped at one of the kami over head who wasn’t as fluffy as its fellows.
Taru sighed. “I don’t know why you antagonize them so. Gentleness elicits more cooperation.”
“Because I’m alone, Taru. The only one in the Ministry who can see them. The only onmyoji who’s kami-sighted. One kami at a time, I’ll make them all more compliant. I do this for the rest of the kami-blind onmyoji, so their magic is more effective. And that makes the Ministry of Onmyodo impressive and enigmatic to the citizens of The Capital.” Yoshi mumbled something and the pile of pages flew to his desk and restacked itself.
“Yoshi, there are at least 300 breeze kami eating our words. This afternoon none of them will remember doing so. One of 300 is not worth the time of the great Fujiwara no Yoshimitsu, Ministry of Onmyodo Head.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“Of course I am. You are thinking about too many things. Concentrate on one at a time. And you’re not alone.”
“Concentrate on one at a time,” Yoshi mimicked along with his friend.
Yoshi sighed. Taru was correct. He wasn’t alone, not really. He was merely the only kami-sighted onmyoji. He was one of tens of thousands of humans in The Capital. Taru and his family were the only Papermasters.
“I really admire you, old friend,” Yoshi smiled. “You are always positive.”
“My life is blessed, all things considered.” Taru smiled as he thought about his wife and three children.
Yoshi nodded. His friend was the only survivor of an attack on his small mountain village.
“I have good news for you, Yoshi. You are not alone as you think. One of the first year onmyodo students is kami-sighted.”
Yoshi looked up open mouthed. Finally! This was the day he’d been waiting for ever since he’d become Ministry Head. Longer than that, his whole life really.
“Kado was surprised that one of the students was terrified of him and squirmed during his prayers. After so many years of playing a monk, Kodo sort of joined a temple. Did you know that, Yoshi?”
“That Kitsune finally earned his money. Was he sure?”
“Oh yes. The student was brightly lit in the dark. The kami looked at him from time to time,” Taru conveyed what Kado had told him.
“I must talk to Kado.” Yoshi looked at the open door…where Second Rank Jomei waited. Jomei looked suitable cowed, so he probably saw Yoshi rearrange the paper back on his desk without an Ofuda.
Like so much in his life, Yoshi couldn’t properly savor the best news he’d heard in a long time. He motioned Jomei in since the fluffy breeze kami absorbed all sound inside his office.
Jomei nodded to Taru then stopped in front of the the Ministry Head’s desk.
“Yes, Second Rank Jomei?” And just like that, Yoshi was gone and the Ministry Head spoke. Taru was always fascinated at his friend’s dual nature. Second Rank Jomei exchanged the appropriate greeting and bow with his superior.
Instead of listening to the words he spoke, Yoshi contemplated the man in front of him. Jomei was a good man, and not cut out for politics at all. He was a hereditary onmyoji who could have stayed at tenth rank his whole career. But between Jomei’s skill and no ability to harm the Fujiwara clan, Yoshi had promoted him to Second Rank over the seven years he’d been a Ministry onmyoji. Jomei’s earnestness annoyed Yoshi, who felt his time as Ministry Head would make as much difference to The Capital as snapping at the breeze kami earlier. But Jomei always believed at he was making a difference.
He was. He was actually one of the best onmyoji Yoshi oversaw. Not that any of the kami-blind knew how effective they were. They created Ofuda, released the kami from them to cast a spell, and hoped for the best. Yoshi always knew which Ofuda to use and if it worked.
Jomei tugged on his sleeves. Yoshi sighed inwardly. Instead of talking to Kitsune Kado, Jomei needed something important, because he was not frivolous with Ministry Head’s time.
“It’s wonderful that you’re back, Ministry Head Fujiwara. Before you get too busy sir, please sign off on this year’s first year onmyoji students. If you don’t, none of them can continue, for none are hereditary onmyoji.” Jomei opened the paper box he carried and set the top paper on the desk.
Yoshi picked up the paper. He remembered the entrance exams. Naturally he’d eliminated any potential students who couldn’t reproduce exact calligraphy or would give a rival clan an edge. That left these three: a Taira and two Fujiwara. One Fujiwara was an idiot, but the family had to put him somewhere. He quickly signed it.
One of the three names belonged to the kami-sighted student Kado found. It was the Taira. Elation flowed over him with the knowledge and it took every one of his long years of statecraft to keep it out of his face and posture. He pushed the signed list towards Jomei.
Jomei tugged on his sleeves again, then adjusted his hat.
“What next? I saw how full your paper box is.” He saw Taru silently chuckle. He would have gone insane years ago without Taru’s calmness and sense of humor.
Jomei tugged his sleeves and cleared his throat. “Ministry Head Fujiwara, there are three of us plus a priest removing a curse today.” He paused to let the implication sink in.
“All our traveling onmyoji are adept at curse removal, even one this complicated.” Three onmyoji would fetch quite the fee, too.
Jomei smoothed his hakama in addition to his other nervous ticks. Perhaps he should have his dresser follow him around, thought Yoshi. If only I had this effect on political rivals.
“Yes sir, as you said this is a complicated, persistent curse.” Jomei abruptly took a deep breath and stopped fidgeting.
A persistent curse was trouble indeed. That means onmyoji and priests had attempted to remove the curse several times, yet it came back. Of course, none of them could tell what exactly was causing the curse, and if they had really removed it. Kami-blind and fumbling!
“It’s one of the Abe family. He’s a scribe at the Ministry of Law. The family has been cursed for quite some time. Fourth Rank Diviner Montaro determined the sickness last year began at where this family stayed.”
Yoshi had his own thoughts on Diviners, he never promoted any above Fifth Rank. Montaro predated him.
Jomei’s hands reached for his sleeves. “That was only one of their troubles, sir. It’s such a sad story.” And he means it. He wants to help.
“Continue, Second Rank.”
“When this Abe went to manage his family’s rice farm for a year, the crop failed! While he was away, his house in The Capital burned down. No one died, for the whole family went with Abe. When they returned, they stayed with Abe’s brother. Then, this is where the story is sad, his brother’s entire family died of the coughing sickness that swept through The Capital. None of the Unlucky Abe fell sick.
“I performed the purification rituals and curse removal and the family began a six month confinement. I performed them very carefully, sir.”
Yoshi nodded curtly. “Was a priest there as well?”
“Not with me, but Abe said he was there the day before.”
Yoshi nodded curtly again. I know where this is going, and I don’t like it either, Jomei.
Jomei smoothed his hakama before continuing. “During the confinement, every servant either fell sick or was injured. None died, but none will work at the house anymore.” You are even relieved servants are well, I wish I still had your earnestness.
Yoshi said nothing. He kept his face stern, as if at any moment he might rebuke Jomei. Jomei took another deep breath.
“Only The Great Burning will remove the Unlucky Abe curse at this point. Well, there is one more, but don’t wish to speak of it.”
“The Great Burning is today.” Yoshi didn’t ask him. If it was tomorrow or later in the week, Jomei would not be at his door this early.
“Yes sir.” Jomei had pulled his yellow onmyoji robe off one shoulder.
“The family will lose everything, but they will be free of the curse,” Yoshi said matter-of-factly.
“Yes Ministry Head.” Jomei relaxed since when the great Fujiwara no Yoshimitsu said something like that, it was. I have successfully cultivated that image, and most of the time it’s true. I hope it is today.
“Gather up everyone who is not traveling along with everyone who knows the fire control Ofuda among the diviners and calendar makers. I will observe. You will not see me.” Yoshi dismissed Second Rank Jomei with a wave of his hand.
Jomei bowed and left. At the door he paused and turned around. He pulled his sleeves back on his shoulders and smoothed his hakama.
“Thank you, Ministry Head. Every time there is some particularly difficult magic, I like to think you are there watching unseen.” Jomei relaxed for the first time.
“You never know,” Yoshi said. “I’ll see you at noon.”
Jomei did not touch his clothing again and walked out of the room with a spring in his step.
“You know where Kado is? If he’s still at that granary we have time to visit before The Great Burning at noon,” Yoshi asked his friend.
“He is probably at his temple this time of year. It’s half a day’s walk from The Capital,” Taru replied.
“Kado will have to wait then.”
“You are a better man than you think, Yoshi. You brought comfort to Second Rank Jomei and you’re watching The Great Burning.”
“A family is losing everything this afternoon. If ‘the curse’ isn’t lifted, one of them will be banished covered in Ofuda that will attract every evil spirit and rampaging kami. It’s a death sentence. There’s at least a ‘curse’ a day in The Capital. How many of them are just plain bad luck and nothing to do with kami? How many are Kitsune tricks? How many something only priests can quell?
“Only I know. The kami-blind create their best guess Ofuda and it works often enough. Yes, I should be there. A kami-sighted onmyoji should be at every curse removal, but I’m the only one! It does no good for me to do everything. For one I can’t, and for another it undermines the Ministry. When I’m gone, The Capital will need onmyoji and I must do everything to leave them better off.
“But now, now there is a kami-sighted student.” Yoshi relished the words.
Taru let his friend talk. When Yoshi was silent, Taru pulled out a small stack of narrow paper from his sleeves. “Go to my friend,” he told the paper. The paper flew in the shape of a fan from his hand to Yoshi’s desk.
“Miyana helped with some of these. In fact, Orino couldn’t keep her away. If only she keeps her enthusiasm when she is older.” Taru smiled thinking about his toddler daughter pushing paper slurry through a screen. Yoshi burst out laughing as he remembered all their toddlers through the years.
Yoshi read the reports about the Unlucky Abe family. Then it was time to leave for The Great Burning.
“Are you ready to chase down whatever is causing this curse if it escapes the fire?” Yoshi asked Taru.
“I am indeed.” Taru was the best tracker in The Capital.
Yoshi nodded then created two Ofuda. He drew a certain shape on two pieces of Taru’s paper. He made the same disguise Ofuda other onmyoji used to fool evil spirits. But between Taru Papermaster’s paper and Yoshi talking to kami, his disguise tricked humans.
There were many breeze kami drifting around the office who were not absorbing their words. Yoshi spoke to them.
“Gather around us and show others what is behind and to both sides of us, but not us.” The breeze kami flowed around the two of them, giving the world a slight shimmer. To one of the fluffy kami he said, “And you, wrap yourself around me.” Taru’s step was always silent. Now they were hidden. Then they walked through the Ministry Yoshi noted what each onmyoji was working on as they passed. Finally they slipped out onto an empty street, then around the corner to an empty alley.
Still hiding beneath the breeze kami, Yoshi removed the two Ofuda from a sleeve and slapped one on his friend’s shoulder.
“Stick to me, little one,” Taru said to the paper.
Yoshi slapped the other Ofuda on himself. “Stick to him, little one,” Taru told it.
Yoshi touched Taru’s Ofuda and the breeze kami rushed out of it and completely covered the Papermaster. Taru looked like a wooden man wearing coarse clothing. Yoshi coaxed and chided the kami until Taru looked completely different. He gave his friend a large nose for mocking him earlier.
Yoshi touched his own Ofuda. “Listen to the Papermaster,” he told the breeze kami that flowed over him.
Taru sculpted the breeze kami until Yoshi looked very different. He gave his friend a large mole on one cheek because Yoshi was vain.
“Leave us, you kami that hide us,” Yoshi said. The slight shimmer vanished.
Two middle aged peasant laborers joined the growing crowd around the Unlucky Abe manor. No one paid them any attention because everyone watched the onmyoji and priest. Taru saw a relieved look on every face in the crowd: none of them understood what was going on, but the Ministry onmyoji had it under control.
Taru Looked for any evil spirits or kami. He’d tell Yoshi when he saw something.
Second Rank Jomei, two other Ministry onmyoji, and a priest talked with the Abe family. One of the onmyoji held a burning torch. Seven more yellow robed onmyoji stood interspersed with firemen who had full buckets in front of them.
Second Rank Jomei comforted three women as best he could. If I didn’t have to worry about him being appointed Ministry Head, I’d promote Jomei to First Rank. There were no First Rank onmyoji in Yoshi’s Ministry.
Two of the women were already crying and the third had a grim look. A young boy watched every move the yellow robed men made. An older boy stood stoically next to Abe, but he clutched his younger brother’s hand tightly.
Yoshi had read the reports about the Unlucky Abe. These reports mentioned Abe’s two wives, but not how close they were. The third woman was the second wife's sister. All three women clung to each other for comfort instead of fighting like other families.
There were six straw effigies covered with Ofuda inside the house. Yoshi Saw the wooden family seated in the middle of a shadow house. The Ofuda, one of many Yoshi had improved while he was at the Ministry, were done properly. If an evil spirit was responsible for the Unlucky Abe curse, they would believe the family burned. I’ve improved every Ofuda they’re using today, he thought.
Yoshi Looked around the crowd. All of the people looked like shadows. Breeze kami drifted lazily, the torch was excited. Taru the man looked he same. Taru four-legs sniffed the air. His winter coat hadn’t grown in yet. I’ll never tell him how cute Papermasters are, Yoshi thought.
Then Yoshi gasped. One of the Abe women and the small boy were faintly visible, as if lit by a candle, in the midst of shadowed figures. He Looked again to make sure he wasn’t imagining it.
“Taru, look at the Abe family,” Yoshi said quietly.
“I see,” Taru said. “Yoshi, now there are two. Three, if you’d like to talk to the lady.”
Again Yoshi couldn’t savor the moment because the priest lit the fire and The Great Burning began. Hungry flame kami rose around the effigies. “Eat! Eat it all. Eat more!” The flame kami crackled.
A scream ripped through the dark world and an oni ran through the shadowed crowd and flames to the effigies. “No, No! Don’t burn! You can’t die and escape me, sisters!” The oni tried to drag one of the effigies from the flames, but couldn’t move it. That Ofuda worked as well. Yoshi smiled. The oni ignored the flames because fire couldn’t hurt it.
Then three onmyoji took out another Ofuda. Blue flame kami flowed from the paper into the burning house.
“I see you, oni! Eat, eat, eat the oni!” the flames screamed as they were imbibed with the new blue kami.
The oni roared. Once she touched the effigies, she couldn’t let go. Now she was trapped in flames that burned. “Noooo! Noooo! Sisters, we’ll all die together! I still win in the end!” She cackled and screamed as she burned along with the effigies and the entire house.
Of course neither the gathered crowd or even the other onmyoji can see any of this. They light the fire and by sheer dumb luck cast Fire that Bites after the oni was stuck to the effigies. Just me. And Taru. Everyone else sees giant straw dolls burning with the rest of the house. Yoshi pushed such thoughts aside since they made him lonely. He stopped Looking, knowing that Taru would continue and alert him if there were more oni, or it escaped.
When the flames threatened the house to the north, an onmyoji uncovered an Ofuda, and some of the flames rushed into the paper, leaving the fire under control. The onmyoji dropped the Ofuda into the water bucket. That Ofuda saved an entire block. It’s one of mine, too. Yoshi smiled.
Thanks to Ryujin for teaching O-Botan the kami binding language, and curse that ancient fire that destroyed so much knowledge! That was probably one of the Ofuda lost.
Yoshi had seen enough. There had been a curse and the Ministry Onmyoji removed it. “Taru, let’s go. If there were other oni, they would have arrived by now. Can you track down Kado and ask him to see me?” Two peasants walked away.
“Yes. Oh Yoshi, you’ll have two kami-sighted onmyoji! Maybe three with the lady. I know you’ve been waiting for this for a very long time.”
Yoshi nodded. “I’ll speak to her eventually. That family lost everything. Even with the curse removed, the Unlucky Abe will be considered…unlucky for a long time.” He smiled. “Now comes my favorite part: arranging for that young boy to become an onmyoji one day!”