Reiko Sumeragi was not a patient person by nature. It was her mother’s favourite joke that Reiko had learnt to run before she could walk, and given that Reiko’s chosen form of exercise was running, that was probably true. Since her adoption into the Sumeragi family and the onmyouji tradition Reiko had taught herself patience, and now at the age of twenty-four had a more than reasonable claim to the virtue. Now and then, however, there were times when her training was tested and she found herself on edge. This was one of them.
Reiko brought her run to a halt, bending over with her hands placed on her knees. Beads of water dripped down her face, some of it sweat, some of it dew from the mist as she caught her breath. Usually she paced herself on these morning runs, bringing herself to the point between satisfied exertion and exhaustion. Today she had a stitch. Today was the sixth day. Six days since that couple from Tokyo had come to the house with their eerie gift, and six days since her uncle had locked himself in his rooms. Six days of continuous, growing worry.
The stitch in her side wasn’t going quickly. Reiko gave up and sat down by the side of the road, trying not to think about the last time she had seen her uncle, how for the first time in her life she had seen him break down and cry. Before that her uncle had existed in her mind as a person detached from the noise of the world, his displays of emotion as ephemeral as mist on the mountain. The whispered stories she had heard about her uncle and the supposed end of the humanity forty years ago had only reinforced that. To have that idea overturned … it wasn’t comfortable.
Then again, it was also something of a relief.
The mist was dissipating. With a sigh Reiko stood up, flexing her limbs for a moment before resuming her run. Judging by the sunlight, it was nearly time for breakfast, and it was time for her to return home.
She entered through the side-gate, which had been left unlocked for her, as always. Reiko’s exercise habits were routine now and had been for several years, though when she had first extended her runs outside Reiko had had a long heated discussion with the head servant who had objected to leaving an entry open in the perimeter for trespassers. Reiko had pointed out to him that the reputation of the Sumeragi was enough to discourage most people, and if he still didn’t like the idea, she could summon a shikigami to watch over the entrance whilst she was out. That had stopped the discussion at once. It wasn’t that the servants were frightened of onmyoujitsu – they couldn’t be, not if they were serving the premier onmyouji clan in Japan – but given the option, they would prefer not to be exposed to it anymore than they needed to. And besides, who was he to argue with the future clan head?
Reiko smiled to herself as she grabbed the towel she had left hanging by the kitchen door. Status, she had to admit, had its good points sometimes.
“Is my uncle awake?” she asked a passing servant. The man answered that he didn’t know. “Thank you.”
The servant bowed, then left. His pace seemed a trifle hurried and there was a furtive air about him. Reiko sighed, but let it go. Ever since her uncle had hid himself away the whole atmosphere in the house had been unsettled. She had tried to keep things normal, taking over the few duties and appointments her uncle would have had and managing the household as if nothing was wrong, but it was impossible to counter the fact that the doors to her uncle’s rooms were solidly shut and that he had left strict orders not to be disturbed. The only times those doors opened was when the old manservant, the one who had been serving the family longer than Reiko had been alive, brought in food. Reiko had tried to ask him about her uncle once, and gotten no response other than a frustrating shake of a head which only added to Reiko’s anxiety. It was getting to the point that she decided that if her uncle didn’t make an appearance by the end of today, she was going to fake a fire-alarm. Maybe. She was supposed to be past things like that now.
Reiko sighed. She knew that there were times in the Sumeragi House when one did not ask questions, and she loved her uncle enough to respect that, but really … Reiko headed towards the dining room, willing herself to be more patient. As she walked, however, something in the garden through the wisps of mist caught her eye. She paused and looked; there was a flash of white beyond the thinning leaves of the willow trees on the far side of the pond. Disbelief prevented Reiko from identifying it at first, but once she did, she half-leapt off the veranda and began to run again, breakfast forgotten, to the person in the garden.
The figure in white beneath the willow looked up. All of Reiko’s frustration of the past week disappeared into relief as her uncle turned away from his apparent study of the leaves towards her. His green and gold eyes were ever so slightly startled, Reiko noticed, and what with the white of his robes and hair and pale skin, their colour stood out with almost painful starkness. She had always found his eyes beautiful. The fact that anything to do with his eyes was a taboo subject of conversation only increased their allure.
“Uncle Subaru.” Reiko slowed to a halt then gave a little bow. “I’m glad to see you up again.”
The thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan returned the bow. “Good morning, Reiko-san. I heard that you were worried about me.”
“Of course I was.” Formalities over, Reiko gave her old uncle a Look. “You gave me a fright that afternoon that couple from Tokyo came. And then you locked yourself away in your rooms for nearly a full week! If I didn’t see you today I was debating calling a fire- alarm.”
Her uncle laughed. Reiko blinked; the laugh was warmer than what she was used to. “I’m sorry. Next time I retreat I will give the servants daily correspondences to pass on to you. Will that be satisfactory?”
Reiko wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this unexpected jesting. “Well, I suppose.”
“Did anything of importance come up during my absence?”
Reiko tried to dismiss her uneasiness. “Nothing I couldn’t deal with. I took care of the few appointments you had. There was a request from the Minister of Transport; he wants advice on the new section of road that’s being built which might be too close to a burial ground – I said that I would handle it. Oh, and there was one exorcism where that car crash happened a fortnight ago, that was no problem. Other than that, no, nothing really important.”
Her uncle nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.” Suddenly, unexpectedly, he smiled. “You’re going to be a wonderful clan head, Reiko-san.”
Something was wrong. Her uncle was too relaxed and calm considering what had happened six days past. More than that, he seemed warmer, more open … Reiko hesitated briefly. “Uncle? Are you all right? You don’t seem … quite yourself.”
“Is that so?” Her uncle laughed again, softly. “Perhaps you’re right. Or perhaps the person you see before you now truly is myself at last.” His gaze grew ever so slightly distant, and a bitter-sweet expression crept over his face. “Then again,” he continued softly, “I always was slow to realise important things. At least this time, it’s not too late.”
The uneasy feeling was growing. “What do you mean?”
Her uncle turned to meet her eyes. He was smiling, and his smile seemed to be full of muted light, like sun through a dark green glass. “I’m dying, Reiko-san. Very soon you will take my place as the head of the Sumeragi.”
He said it so simply, so matter-of-fact, it took a moment for the full weight of his words to register. When it did, Reiko stared at her uncle in absolute shock. “You’re joking,” she said flatly.
“I am not.”
“But—” Coherent thought failed her; Reiko looked her uncle over, his face, his hands, his stance, trying to find any sign of weakness or ailment. There was none. “You can’t be dying! How can you be so sure about such a thing? I mean, you haven’t seen a doctor or anything, and as far as I know you’re not sick …” Cold began to coil around her stomach like steel clamps when she realised her uncle was perfectly serious. “How can you be dying!”
For a long time her uncle looked at her. Reiko tried to steady her breathing. Her uncle looked away. “The morning is getting on. You haven’t eaten breakfast yet – you should go do so.” Reiko opened her mouth to protest; her uncle lifted a hand to stop her. “Please, Reiko-san, not yet. There is a lot that has to be done. I have already begun the arrangements, but you, as my successor, will be doing the most of it. Once it settled, I will let you ask all the questions you want.”
A strange, fluttery, and not entirely pleasant sensation began to make itself known in Reiko’s chest. “About anything?” she asked warily. “You mean, I can ask you questions about anything?”
He nodded. “Anything. Now,” he continued, stepping away from the tree. “Shall we go get breakfast?”
Reiko nodded numbly, still trying to grasp what her uncle had told her. She watched him as he passed; it might have been morbid thinking given what had just occurred, but what with the dissipating mist and the white robes, her uncle seemed almost ghostly.
Detached from the world, indeed.
Reiko bit her lip. Then she hurried to his side and took his arm. Her uncle said nothing, but accepted her support as they walked over the stepping stones, wet with dew, through the garden. Together in silence, they returned to the house.
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