The two ghosts appeared with the rising of the moon. At first they were nothing but mist, each hovering over the pile of stones on either side of the path that marked where the gate towers of the Fujiwara compound had once stood. Large sections of crumbling wall remained, but the gate itself had long since fallen.
So much of the atmosphere of sadness and misery of this place filled the senses that one might easily make the fatal mistake of overlooking the ghosts entirely, if one—unlike me—wasn’t expecting them. Beyond the opening I could see the grassy mounds that contained the ghosts’ handiwork—piles of broken, moldering human bones. They were sobering reminders of how easily Kenji and I could join them.
At such times I was all too keenly aware that I had not had a drink in over a week. I waited for the ghosts to finish their manifestation while Kenji, blissfully ignorant, waited on me, but I would not be rushed. Only now, with the two wretched spirits before me, did I finally understand the full extent of my mission here. Even so, I did not yet see what path I would need to take to complete that mission, and our lives were in the balance.
“Don’t you feel it?” I asked. “The unrelenting sadness of this place? It sinks into my bones like the cold of winter.”
“Lord Yamada, you’re a moody sort in the best of times, and I know you don’t like ghosts,” Kenji the scruffy priest said. “I’ll exorcise them if you wish, but you’ll have to hold the lantern.”
I sighed. “First, no one asked you to do so. Second, you charge exorbitant rates for such services. Third...tell me again why you’ve insisted on accompanying me? I didn’t believe your story about wanting to see the countryside, you know.”
Kenji smiled a rueful smile. “If you must know, matters are a bit unsettled for me in the Capital at this time. Therefore I felt it prudent to make this journey with you.”
“You could contain the abundance of my surprise in the husk of one grain of rice, with room to spare. Who was she?”
Kenji looked at the moon. “The wife of a minor palace official. You wouldn’t know her.”
“Neither should you.” I thought of saying more on the subject, but dismissed the idea. It was pointless to scold Kenji. He was what he was, and even a reprobate monk with both the appetites and the piety of a stray cat had his uses. “I hope you brought your prayer beads. We may yet need them.”
“So I surmised. What have you led me to?”
I started to remind Kenji that I had led nowhere; he had simply followed. I did not, since that reminder was pointless too. We were three days from the Capital along the southern road toward Nara, safely through the bandit town of Uji, and now outside a ruined compound that, I was reliably informed, had once belonged to the former provincial governor, Fujiwara no En. “Former” as in nearly one hundred years previous to the rein of the current Emperor Reiza.
“My client insists there is an object somewhere in this compound that once belonged to her family. I have been engaged to reclaim it. That is all you need know.”
“So your client is a Fujiwara. And the ghosts?”
“Rumor, but a very consistent one, which fortunately I believed. Now please be quiet for a little while.”
There’s not much you can tell about a ghost if its preferred manifestation is little more than a vapor, but I was given to understand that these two normally presented themselves in a more substantial form. After a few more moments, it was plain to me—and especially Kenji—that this was the case.
I sighed. “Your morality may be suspect, but your eyes are still good.”
The figures were still vapor from the knees down, but from the knees up, they had the appearance of two very pretty young women with long black hair and cold, dark eyes. There was menace and suspicion in those eyes, but also a sadness almost beyond bearing. Now I knew the source of the melancholy I had felt the moment I came near to this place. I had seen ghosts times beyond counting, but I found that I could not look into these pitiful faces for very long.
They were clearly aware of our presence, but they said nothing, merely hovering over the twin sets of ruins, watching us.
“The Chinese say that ‘to make love to a spirit is to know the ultimate pleasure,’“ Kenji said a little wistfully.
“They also say that to love a ghost is to die. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?”
Kenji sighed again. “Such is the nature of the bargain that one wouldn’t know the correct answer to that question until it was too late. Still, they are lovely.”
“Were, Kenji. They are dead and have been for most of the past hundred years. And unless you want to join them, stay where you are, keep quiet, and leave this next bit to me.”
I rose just high enough to slip forward about ten paces from where the old gate had stood, and with my back to Kenji, I produced the token my client had entrusted to me. As one, the two ghosts bowed respectfully and faded to mist and then to nothing. “It’s safe to come forward now,” I said, rising. Kenji soon joined me.
“What did you do?” he asked.
“I showed them my client’s credentials, which I am not at liberty to reveal to you, so do not ask.”
Kenji scowled. “Then I’ll ask this: what would have happened if we’d attempted to enter the compound without those ‘credentials’?”
“We’d have been ripped limb from limb by those two charming rei, which I can assure you are far more dangerous than they appear. Look over there.”
I pointed to the thick clumps of grass that I had already noted, now drawing them to Kenji’s attention. When Kenji peered closer he saw what I saw: the graying skull and leg bones of a man.
“What happened to him?”
“The same thing that happened to those two over there... and there,” I said, pointing out more unburied bodies. “Or do you still wish to pay court to those two charming guardians?”
“I think not,” Kenji said, “but why did we not wait for daybreak? Both ghosts’ and demons’ strength is diminished by the sun.”
“Not nearly enough, I think, but in this case rumor also has it that there is a demon guarding the item I was sent to retrieve. In which case, only that demon’s presence will reveal where the object may be found. If the demon hides from us, so does our objective.”
Kenji just shook his head. “And a demon as well. I’m beginning to think I should have taken my chances with that lady’s husband.”
We passed through the empty gate. I noticed Kenji keeping an eye on the ruins, but there was no sign of the two ghosts. Not that I believed for a moment that they had departed. If the stories I’d heard were true that wasn’t possible for them, but they did not show themselves or interfere, and for now, that was all I wanted. I had gotten a much closer look at them than Kenji had, and there’s only so much pain and sadness one can bear to see on the face of another person, living or dead.
The compound was—or had been—a rather large one, befitting the status of its former master. The main building was once a massive structure, but now it was little more than a roof and pilings on a rotting platform; the left and right wings that had once run perpendicular from the main house and connected to it with covered walkways were little more than two long mounds of rotten wood and vegetation. One or two of the outbuildings stood as well, but little else. I knew where the garden had been, of course, as the placement of the garden was a fixed feature at such stately homes, but it was impossible now to differentiate it from all the other weeds and trees that had grown as they willed in the past century.
“You’re not going into that, are you?” Kenji asked. “Forget the demon; the roof’s more likely to collapse and kill you, if you don’t break your leg falling through a hole in the floor first.”
Kenji had a point, but I didn’t see much in the way of alternatives. I kept my hand near the hilt of my sword as I approached the house; Kenji followed close behind and held the lantern high, though the light did not reach very far into the gloom of the house. The moon shining through the gaps in the ceiling gave more, and I used it as I stepped on the great stone leading to the veranda that encircled the decaying mansion.
I passed the threshold into the deeper gloom of the interior, and the air was thick with the scent of rotting wood. Even so, I quickly realized that there was one great advantage for us in the dilapidated condition of the house—there was, almost literally, no place to hide. Most of the sliding screens that had once been used to divide the interior space of the mansion had long since either collapsed or gone to tatters. Except for the shadows not covered by either our lantern or the shining moon, there was nothing hidden.
We located and entered the nurigome, the family’s inner sanctum where treasures were likely to be kept, but found nothing. After a slow and careful round of the interior with Kenji holding the lantern, and even raising that lantern toward the rafters, we could see that there was nothing lurking in the house save for an ordinary rat or two and several moth-demons and other nightflyers too small to be a threat. The floor creaked ominously but otherwise held.
Kenji looked unhappy. “I know I’m going to regret asking this, but what about beneath the house?”
That had occurred to me as well, but the area beneath the floorboards was little more than a crawlspace, and it would simply be impossible to explore it properly without the risk of setting fire to the entire structure, a chance I was not yet prepared to take. “That’s something that very well might have to wait until morning, if no other signs present themselves.”
“Are you sure that what you’re searching for is within the house?” Kenji asked.
“I’m only sure it’s within the compound. It could be anywhere; the house simply seemed the sensible place to begin.”
“There’s far more to this tale than you’re telling,” Kenji said.
“Did I not say as much?”
We stood together near the center of the old house. Due to its state and the bright moonlight, we could see the approaches to the mansion in all directions. On the far side of the mansion was an outbuilding I hadn’t been able to see clearly before, but in the gloom it was hard to tell much about it. The rats had fled, so there was nothing stirring anywhere and no sounds save our own voices, the creaking of old wood, and the chirp of crickets. Not even the ghosts were in sight.
“You can’t tell me what we’re looking for or who your patron is. Fine. What about the story of this place and those two ghosts? That’s history, not a confidence.”
I shrugged. “It was during the Fujiwara Regency, if you must know. A time of great unrest and uncertainty. As a member of that clan, Fujiwara no En, the governor of this province, was recalled to the Capital to support the Regent. He took his household and most of his bushi with him. The item I’m seeking was left behind.”
“And the two ghosts?”
“Also left behind. Two trusted female attendants of Lady Fujiwara remained with some of the older servants to maintain the house, as no one knew then that the family would not be returning. I think you can guess what happened next.”
Kenji looked glum. “Uji.”
For more than a hundred years the town of Uji had harbored bandits that preyed on travelers on the southern road to the old Capital at Nara. This was not to say that all members of that village were thieves, but a significant portion were and had remained so by family tradition from ancient times until the present.
“Just so. As the local Governor, En could be depended on to make a show of force on his departure, but I’m afraid he had no more tactical sense than the average locust. His procession passed through Uji, so the entire town knew of his absence. A dozen or so of the worst lot decided to seize the chance and joined forces to attack the compound directly. They quickly overpowered whatever guards remained, if any, and ransacked the house. They found little save some rice, furnishings, and ordinary cloth and did not believe the two attendants when they told them there was no gold or any other valuables. In their anger and frustration, the bandits murdered the remaining servants, then brutalized the two unfortunate women before slaying them as well. Or so the story is told.”
Kenji nodded. “So they died to defend their lord’s property.”
“Actually, they died because their pitiful excuse for a master didn’t properly consider their safety, and because the bandits were foolish and greedy enough to believe that a Fujiwara would have left anything of real value behind, despite his haste.”
“Your opinion of the Fujiwara clan and this man in particular is duly noted. Nevertheless, he left the item you seek.”
I smiled. “True. But remember—he did mean to return. Regardless, now this is a cursed place, and the attendants’ miserable, wretched spirits guard in death the compound they could not defend in life.”
“There is some justice in this, that those bandits and thieves would pay the price for the past crimes of their village.”
I almost laughed. “You think these poor fools were from Uji? Hardly. As the primary cause of the curse, they know better. Those bones we saw are the remains of outside treasure-seekers drawn by the stories of this place, and that is the common fate of all who enter here.”
“Except for us. We survived,” Kenji pointed out.
I smiled again. “So far.”
I know it was wrong of me to savor the look of fear on Kenji’s face, but some temptations are not to be resisted. I didn’t have long to enjoy it, however. As I was glancing out toward the rear of the house, I saw a shadow that did not belong.
The moon was still high, and I noted the shadow cast by the house and another by the outbuilding that still stood in the near courtyard about ten paces away from what was left of the far wall, but there was a third shadow, roughly man-sized, that had apparently been cast by nothing. It had been approaching the house, but I think my attention alone had stopped it. Now it stood, wavering, like the surface of a cold, dark stream.
“A spell of protection, if you please,” I said. “There’s work to be done.”
Kenji took his prayer beads from around his neck. “Spells? Do you think I am some sort of Chinese yin-yang magician? I am a monk, and I invoke the protection of holy writ. You also know I do not work for nothing, Lord Yamada.”
“And you also know that if I die, you die,” I said. “How does that weigh against the needs of your purse?”
Kenji sighed and scratched his shaven head. “Heavily, as you damn well know.” He began to chant. It might have been a passage from the Diamond Sutra; I was not pious enough to know one book of Buddhist scripture from another, but Kenji, despite his flaws, knew nearly all of them and could recite the appropriate passages at will. Which he was doing now. The shadow moved away from us toward the outbuilding as we stepped out onto the rear veranda, always keeping the structure to its back, or such I judged its back to be. It was hard to be certain with something so close to formless.
I drew my tachi. “Follow me.”
I stepped down into the wild meadow that had once been part of the rear gardens of the compound and advanced steadily toward the shadow, which continued to retreat, wavering and reforming, until it finally began to take a more solid shape. Kenji never paused in his chanting, but if the thing decided to attack, I was far from certain that either my sword or Kenji’s sutra would be enough to dissuade it. Even so, I believed I was close to discovering what I needed to discover to complete my mission, and I wasn’t about to stop now.
We were finally close enough to the outbuilding to see what neither Kenji nor I had been able to see before. The structure was neither a storage building nor a separate studio of the type some noblemen occasionally built after the Chinese fashion. It was a shrine, strongly built of stone with glazed tiles for the roof, which explained why it was still standing.
Our shadow stood in front of the shrine, but it wasn’t a shadow anymore. A child of about twelve years of age stood before us, normal in almost all respects except that, like the two female spirits, his legs ended at the knees and were replaced by what appeared to be a trailing mist. Kenji was startled out of his chanting.
“Lord Yamada, who is that?”
“If I am not mistaken, it is Yamada no Kasuke. My elder brother.”
“Come, Kenji-san. We are leaving.”
I put my sword away and turned back toward the house. I set a quick pace. It took Kenji several moments to catch up with me. “Wait, I don’t understand! Where are we going?”
“Away from here. I must think about this.”
On my way into the house I had noticed a small bronze plaque with the wisteria design of the Fujiwara clan spiked onto one of the posts bordering the veranda. The plaque was no wider than my hand. I paused to pull it off the post, and the nail broke off as I pulled it loose. I tucked the plaque into a fold in my overjacket and kept walking, Kenji on my heels, until we had left the ruined compound far behind.
Kenji and I reached our temporary lodgings at the small temple south of Uji just before dawn. The monk on the night watch seemed very surprised to see us. His surprise did not surprise me.
“Our master will wish to speak to you,” he said.
“We will be pleased to meet with him at the noon meal,” I said, “if that is agreeable to him.”
When we returned to our room, I first checked to make sure that our belongings were as we’d left them, especially a large strong lacquered box fitted with a carrying pole. All was as it should have been. Kenji noted my attention.
“Did you suspect the good monks here would rob us?”
“I suspect that they’re not used to seeing someone make a foray to the Fujiwara compound and return in one piece,” I said. “No doubt property suddenly lacking an owner could be considered a temple donation. I think this has happened before now.”
“Well....” Kenji looked like he wanted to argue, but there was something else on his mind. “Lord Yamada, I didn’t know you had a brother.”
“An older brother. It’s not something I’d normally discuss. He died of a malady when I was seven. Such things happen.”
“Well, I can understand your reluctance to confront your own brother.”
“When the moment is right I will do what I must, Kenji-san. But matters must unfold as they should.”
He scowled. “Meaning what? And why would your brother’s ghost be lurking at a Fujiwara mansion that was abandoned decades before his birth?”
“Both are good questions,” I said. “Which must remain without answer for the moment.” Kenji started to speak again, but I cut him off. “Remember, Kenji-san, your coming was your own choice, not mine.”
Kenji just sighed. “What now?”
“Rest. Tomorrow evening will come earlier than either you or I might wish.”
We took our mid-day meal of fish, rice, and pickles in a place of honor with the abbot at the communal hall. He was a hale and quite jovial fellow, only slightly plump and no more than about forty. His priest-name, he said, was Rencho. There were, by my count, only seven other monks present, most younger than the abbot but cut from the same cloth, which made sense as the temple was a small one with no great reputation, and they were doubtless all native to that area. All were out of earshot. I did not think this a coincidence.
“I am pleased to see you both safely returned,” he said toward the end of the meal. All the talk before then had been news from the Capital and pleasantries. I had wondered when he would get to the matter at hand.
“Buddha is merciful,” said Kenji.
“Not always,” the abbot replied. “You might recall that our brothers warned you about that place. We call it ‘the Mansion of Bones.’ Many travelers have come to grief there.”
“Yet we have returned, as you see.” I paused to finish a bit of pickled radish.
“That place is cursed,” Rencho said. “Everyone knows that. I have no reason to doubt you....”
“Other than the fact that no one who enters that cursed place ever returns,” I said, trying not to smile. “Perhaps this will be more convincing than a traveler’s tale.” I reached into the fold of my overjacket where I’d stored the bronze plaque and produced it for the abbot’s inspection. “While I cannot prove that this old token is indeed from the Fujiwara governor’s compound, I think you’ll recognize the probability that it is.”
“Indeed,” said Rencho as his eyes opened wide. “I think it must be.”
I put the plaque away. “Our business at the compound is not yet concluded, but my friend and I must travel in a different direction after tonight, so we will take our leave. Our thanks for your hospitality.”
“May the blessed Buddha guide your steps,” said the abbot.
Kenji looked thoughtful but, for once, said nothing at all.
As night fell, we once more approached the haunted compound. I carried the large lacquered box in a bundle on my back.
The ghosts were out of sight, but they were there. If I had been blind, still I would have felt their misery. I did not know how the evening would unfold, but I found myself breathing a silent prayer for success, for their sake as much as my own.
“We’re being followed,” Kenji said, keeping his voice a whisper. “The monks?”
I nodded. “Led by His Holiness Rencho the abbot. I did wonder when you’d notice. Or the fact that they were also eating fish today, as we were. Monks cannot do so without breaking the dietary strictures of their order, as you of all people should know.”
Kenji dismissed that. “And you should know by now that some monks grow tired of rice and pickled vegetables,” he said. “I know I do. What made you suspect them?”
“I didn’t, to the extent that I knew they would follow us tonight. I thought they were in league with the bandits, rather than being bandits themselves. It seems I was in error.”
I couldn’t attempt to judge how the monks were armed without letting them know they had been detected. Kenji had his staff and I had my sword, but chances were we’d be overcome by sheer numbers if it came to an open fight.
Kenji sighed. “Threadbare indeed are these times, when monks turn to lawlessness.”
I grinned. “Rencho is no more a monk than I’m a Lady of the Court. I wager the real monks were either killed or driven off long ago. What better disguise for bandits than monks in a temple? As long as they are discreet in their activities, they have a secure base of operations. This ‘Rencho’ must be quite a leader, to keep that lot acting civil and at least mimicking the forms of piety.”
Kenji was off on another stream of thought entirely, despite our situation. “Wait a moment. They know what little we have. Why are they following us at all?”
“I showed Master Rencho the Fujiwara mon, remember? He expects us to fetch out the treasure tonight. Surely we would not leave without it?”
“Are you’re telling me that there is a treasure here?”
I sighed. “Whether there is an item of intrinsic value or not is irrelevant. The point is: those men following us do believe there is, and all the ones who died trying to find it before us did believe it.”
Kenji’s knuckles were white on his staff. “What do we do now?”
“We fetch the treasure, of course. Master Rencho expects to ambush us and take it when we try to leave. I would hate to disappoint him.”
“As simple as that? Assuming there is a treasure, you don’t even know where it is!”
“Of course I do. My brother told me.”
Kenji just stared at me. “If this is how insane you get when you’re sober, the first thing I’m going to do if we get out of this mess is to buy you the biggest saké cask I can afford.”
I grunted. “No more than enough to toast the Emperor’s health, I wager. And my mind is as clear as an autumn sky. Allow me to demonstrate.”
Kenji followed me through the echoing old mansion, though now we entered the ruin only because it was the shortest path to our true goal. We walked carefully on the rotting floor and out onto the rear veranda. My brother was waiting for us, standing between us and the small stone shrine. I took the bundle from my shoulder and set it carefully on the grass, then drew my sword and advanced on the image of my brother’s ghost.
“If you want to live,” I said, “leave now.”
Kasuke stared at me and didn’t move.
Kenji walked up beside me, his priest’s staff in front of him. “And you call yourself sane? How dare you threaten your brother? And how do you plan to kill him if he’s already dead? That’s a trick beyond even you.”
I sighed. “Kenji, you asked last night why my brother’s ghost could be in this place. After some reflection, the answer is obvious—there is no reason he would be. He had no attachment to it, or even knowledge of it. Therefore, this is not my brother.”
I addressed Kasuke’s image. “You are skilled. You’ve stolen my memory of Kasuke and fooled my eyes into seeing my brother so that I would not attack you. It was sound strategy. It has failed.”
I took another step and the image retreated. “Leave,” I said. “I will not warn you a third time.”
My brother’s image was gone in an instant. There was a nearly overpowering stench, and then in its place stood an eight-foot ogre with red skin, black hair, and an iron cudgel. The monster roared and raised his club to strike. To his credit, Kenji did not flee. He did, however, take one step back and started chanting a sutra. I assumed it was one of protection, but I didn’t even blink.
“So be it.”
My blade was in motion before the cudgel even began its descent; I took two steps forward, made my best judgment of my foe, and chose my target. Fortunately, I chose well. One stroke and the fight was over. I did not congratulate myself on either my bravery or skill, as I knew I owed the victory to neither. All that had been required was to keep a clear head, and so I succeeded because I had not been drinking. The idea depressed me. I wanted very much to be drinking.
The ogre in its turn was gone. What lay on the ground dead from my sword cut was a little wizened creature not much larger than a monkey, with a human-looking face but the teeth and horns of a devil. A very small, weak devil. I started to clean my sword before Kenji stopped chanting. Apparently his eyes had been closed the entire time.
“Lord Yamada, what...?”
“A youkai. Just some little shape-shifting monster with more skill than sense. I suspected as much as soon as I saw what appeared to be my brother’s ghost. As I said, my brother has no business either here or with me. Yet what I saw wanted me to believe it was my brother. So I took some time yesterday to ask myself why that was.”
Kenji stared at the pitiful little creature. “I retract my remark about your sanity...for the moment. What was your answer?”
“The answer was that I would never attack my own brother, alive or dead. What do you think you might have seen if you had been closer to this creature when we first encountered the thing yesterday?”
“I don’t know,” Kenji said, though of course he was lying.
I smiled. “I do. It would have been the image of something you couldn’t—or wouldn’t—fight. Quite clever, really. A skill that could potentially drive off even the most powerful attacker, if it was fooled. I wasn’t. The image of the ogre was simply a last resort.”
“But why the ogre at all? Why did it not flee, knowing its ruse had failed?”
I walked up to the small shrine building. “I think the poor creature had become attached to this, rather like a miser with its hoard. As those pitiful ghosts guard the compound, this creature guarded this shrine. That’s how I knew what I sought was here.”
I opened the door to the shrine. The moonlight caught the glimmer of gold. “Please fetch my box, Kenji.” He did as I directed, and I reached within the shrine and removed what lay within, placing it in the lacquer box. Kenji watched with more than usual interest.
“Kannon? A golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy?”
“That was what I was sent to find.”
Kenji let out a low whistle. “No wonder people have been getting themselves killed to search for this.”
I laughed. “Rubbish. No one had any idea what was here. They just knew that something was, and the guardian ghosts by their presence appeared to confirm this. Let’s be on our way.”
Kenji scowled. “Lord Yamada, aren’t you forgetting something? ‘Master Rencho’ and his murderous monks are out there waiting for us.”
“I have not forgotten. Let us greet them, shall we?”
Kenji sighed. “I retract my retracting. You are definitely insane.”
I didn’t feel inclined to argue the point. Yet, despite his misgivings, Kenji went with me when I approached the open gate where the door of the compound had once stood. I judged the distance as best I could and stopped about twenty paces from the dark opening. In the weak lamplight I saw a faint glow from the top of each ruined gatepost.
Loyal servants of the Fujiwara, I ask of you one last duty. For what I am about to force you to do, forgive me. It wasn’t a prayer, exactly, but it was the best I could do just then.
“Master Rencho. So good of you to come to meet us, but as I said, we will not be returning to the temple tonight.”
There was silence for a moment, but after a while a familiar figure appeared out of the gloom and stood just outside the gate opening. “Clever man, but you will not be returning anywhere unless you hand over what you’ve found. My men have the compound surrounded!”
I smiled. “Master Rencho, you and I both know that you have less than a dozen men. This compound is too large for you to cover all the gaps in sufficient force. My companion and I could slip out at any one of a score of places, and you couldn’t stop us.”
He laughed. I heard cruelty and murder reflected there. “No, but we would see where you emerged. We know this area. We would track you down before you got very far and make you regret our exertions.”
That part was doubtless true enough, if he had in fact dispersed his men. I was gambling our lives that he had not yet done so.
“No need for threats, Master Rencho. Kenji, your lantern please.”
I set the box on the ground on its side with the lid facing Rencho, and placed the lantern in front of that just off to one side so that the glow illuminated the box without blocking their view of it. “Behold your prize.”
I opened the lid, and the lantern threw back the shine of gold. “Kenji, run!”
I was already away, and Kenji followed me, nearly blind in the dark. “Lord Yamada, what are you—”
He didn’t get to finish. A roar had gone up from the front of the compound as several men rushed through the gap between the gateposts. So much for my insanity. Real monks would never have fallen for my trick. Bandits, on the other hand, were as predictable as the change of seasons. The gleam of gold drew them through the empty gateway, forgetting the curse, forgetting everything save their greed.
Also forgetting, as I knew they would, the two wretched but very deadly ghosts.
We heard the first scream before we could even turn around. I instantly regretted the backward glance I took then. The two formerly winsome ghosts were in the full power of their wrath. Their black hair struck blue sparks against the night; their white limbs had grown long and ended, not with delicate hands, but enlarged talons. Their teeth were as long and pointed as icicles, and they were, quite literally, tearing the bandits apart. They took down those few who had the sense to try to flee first, and then they turned on the rest.
Before we could get back, it was almost over. As one, the two vengeful ghosts turned on the only survivor, who happened to be Master Rencho, lying whimpering on the ground not five paces from the golden statue. Kenji started muttering a sutra as best he could, but he was winded from running, and I knew it would be too late. I had no choice. I reached into my robe again and drew out, not the plaque, but my original safe passage.
“In the name of the Emperor!”
Loyalty had kept us safe so far. I prayed it would again. There was a moment when I feared that it wouldn’t be enough, that all was lost, but the two ghosts stopped a mere pace or two from their victim.
I approached them, holding the symbol in front of me. “You know my authority. This man is my prisoner,” I said as I advanced. “Do not harm him.”
The ghosts resumed their usual appearances, along with the sadness that had come with it—the sadness I had felt at our first meeting with them. It was more overwhelming than even their fury, and I was not certain how long I could bear it. If I was right about what I was about to do, then none of us would have to bear it, ever again.
“It’s over,” I said to them. “The last item your master left behind has been recovered and will be returned to its rightful place. This I promise as a faithful servant of the Emperor. Your duty is discharged.” I kept my own doubts out of my mind and spoke with the certainty of command, of right, and then I held my breath.
It was the first time either of them had spoken. Both women reached out toward me, not in threat but in entreaty. At first I didn’t understand what they were asking, but then I realized what they wanted and I remembered to breathe again. I took the Fujiwara mon from my robe and held it out. “Go in peace and take this token with you, as proof of your devotion.”
They both put their hands on the bronze, and it floated away from me. In another moment they and the plaque had vanished.
“I guess we won’t need your services after all, Kenji-san.” I walked over to Master Rencho and kicked him, hard. “Stop your gibbering, man.”
The pain seemed to bring the man’s mind back into focus. Now his mind appeared to be focused on the tip of my tachi, which I was currently pressing into the hollow of his neck. “If I spare your life, will you promise to return to your temple and become the monk you’ve pretended to be? The temple will need new residents.”
He licked his lips. “I swear.”
Master Rencho didn’t need a second invitation. He scrambled past the bloody rags that were all that remained of his followers and disappeared into the night.
“Now you’re trading insanity for foolishness,” Kenji said. “Do you honestly believe that creature will mend his ways? Most likely he’s running back to Uji to find more men!”
“Likely? I’m counting on it. He will return in force, but not nearly soon enough to catch us. We will travel east through the woods until we reach the Iga barrier, then north. We can pick up the east-west road in a day or two without difficulty.”
Now Kenji blinked like some night creature that had been thrust too suddenly into the light. “Counting...?”
“Master Rencho knows we’ve found the ‘treasure’ because he saw it with his own eyes. Unless I misjudge the man, within hours the entire village of Uji will know. Within days, the entire province and beyond will know.”
“And they will return to this place looking for us. We won’t be here, of course. Neither will the ghosts.”
Kenji looked around, frowning. “Are you sure they’re gone?”
I was. There was no trace of their heavy melancholy about the place now. What sadness remained, as always, was my own.
“Quite sure. So the good people of Uji will be free to tear the remnants of this place apart, for all anyone cares. They won’t find anything. And no one else will come here to die. Or for any other reason.” I closed the lid of the box and picked it up.
“The Emperor sent you, alone, to destroy those bandits?!”
I smiled. “Hardly. I was sent to retrieve this item just as I told you. Nor did the Emperor send me here. I was, however, acting in his name. Not the same thing. You weren’t supposed to know that, by the way. If you tell anyone, I will kill you. I mean that.”
Kenji looked serious. “I know you do, so if it’s my death to speak, then I will know the full story of what I am not speaking about,” Kenji said. “Who sent you?”
“Princess Fujiwara no Ai.”
For a moment Kenji just stared at me. “The Empress?!”
I shrugged. “Yes, but more to the point: a direct descendent of Governor Fujiwara no En.”
“Lord Yamada, everyone knows that Princess Ai is proud, vain, and of most disagreeable temper. Are you telling me that she sent you out of the charity of her soul to lift the curse on this place?”
“Of course not. She knew of the statue’s existence, doubtless from a family tradition, and she engaged me to try and fetch it. I fear it was my idea that the statue’s removal could be the means to break the curse. Princess Ai could not have cared less. For my part, the plight of those two wretched spirits perhaps clouded my better judgment.”
“Then what you showed the two ghosts...?”
“...was the Imperial mon, the symbol of the Emperor. Against such authority, even their original master would bow. As attendants still in faithful service, they did the same.”
I removed the golden image from the box and casually tossed it to Kenji, who let go of his staff as he struggled to catch it.
“Lord Yamada, are you really insane—” He stopped. He held up the statue, feeling its weight, or rather lack of, in disbelief. “This isn’t gold!”
I smiled. “No, it’s gilded wood. A fine carving well-protected by the stone shrine, but a simple devotional image and no more.”
“And the rumors of treasure?”
“Rumors only, probably fed by the presence of the ghosts, who were obviously guarding something. No one knew of the statue, save a few members of the Fujiwara family, the two unfortunate ghosts, and that pitiful youkai. But, thanks to Master Rencho, soon everyone will know of it. They will tell stories of the marvelous golden statue plucked from the ruins of this place. They’ll know it’s no longer here and thus not seek it. And even if rumors of treasure persist those who come here will find nothing, suffer nothing save wasted time. I have completed my mission. And the curse on the Mansion of Bones is lifted. In all respects.”
“And the bandits?”
“At first I felt guilty for tricking the ghosts into dealing with them for us, but that was foolish of me. I was forgetting that the bandits of Uji were the physical and spiritual descendants of the people responsible for the ghosts’ suffering in the first place. What I did was no trick.”
Kenji scowled at the carnage around us. “No? What would you call this then?”
“A reward for devotion beyond the grave?” I smiled a grim smile. “No, Kenji-san. I call it justice.”