It was several weeks before they left. Hajime wanted to leave immediately, but his wife had refused to go until he proved himself ready, justifying her decision by saying that since the paintings had been hidden away for years already, then what would a little while longer matter? There wasnít any question in Hajimeís mind of leaving her behind and going himself, and so he had reluctantly agreed.
It was not an easy process. The nightmares and moments of madness still terrorized him daily. Now, however, he found something to hold onto. One night Hajime fought his way free of clawing hands that pulled him down. He jerked wildly awake to find the hands were real. His wife held him back when he would throw himself away and though her face grew shadowed when he railed at her, she refused to let go. When he had worn himself out to the point of exhaustion she sat with him, holding him like a child until he fell asleep. It was the first time in a long time, he told her later, that he had slept peacefully.
Some time after that night he felt ready to face the outside world. He assisted his wife with the shopping and marveled at the faces and lives around him. It helped keep the paintings from his thoughts. After a little while, it grew easier to think about other things. One morning after brushing his teeth Hajime smiled to check if he was done satisfactorily and realised he liked what he saw. He kept the smile when he went to the kitchen and gave his wife a kiss with it. That was the day the two of them began to make travel arrangements.
The night before leaving Hajime suffered a nightmare of drowning in blood. Neither he nor Toru had pretended that the path to recovery would be easy.
On the morning of departure, Hajime was given no choice but to face the chest. His wife had put everything back inside but Hajime didnít need to see the paintings to think about them. He didnít want to touch it. In the end he called the watchman at the front desk downstairs to carry the chest into the taxi, and when he and Toru arrived at the station, asked an attendant to carry it onto the train.
The trip to Kyoto was a tense one. If it werenít for the chest sitting in the carriage with them, a mute reminder of wounds still healing, they could pretend they were going away for the weekend. They didnít talk much. At their destination they sent their few personal luggage on to the small hotel they had arranged for, then found a taxi driver who maneuvered the chest into the backseat. Toru asked the driver if he knew the address on the paper.
"This place?" The driver looked at them, startled. "Sure I know it. Sumeragi estate."
Hajime and his wife looked at each other. "Estate?"
"Yeah. Donít get a fare going there very often. What are you going there for? Itís a private residence, not a tourist destination."
Hajime took the front passenger seat as his wife climbed into the back beside the chest. "Weíre delivering something."
It was a long car ride. The driver filled the minutes of the trip with descriptions of tourist sites they didnít plan to see to pass the journey. Once at the address given the driver helped them unload the chest, received his payment, then drove off leaving Hajime and his wife staring at the formal gates in front of them and the traditional grounds beyond. There was an intercom set into the wall, which Hajime pressed, explaining his identity and business to the cool voice that answered as best as possible. It must have worked, for the gates opened. A man appeared to guide them; seeing the chest he called two servants to carry it. Wondering what they were getting into, Hajime and his wife followed him into the main house where they were led into an elegantly furnished sitting room and told to wait. Intimidated by their surroundings, they obeyed. The servants put the chest down and left.
They waited a few minutes. Eventually the door slid open and a servant came in, followed by a young woman about Hajimeís age.
"Lady Reiko Sumeragi," the servant announced.
Hajime and his wife bowed. The young woman bowed as well, though not as deep as they. She was dressed simply in black pants and a fitting pale yellow sweater. Her black hair was tied back, and she gazed at her visitors with light green eyes and a friendly smile.
"Welcome. Who am I speaking to?"
Hajime coughed. "I am Hajime Negi, and this is my wife Toru. We Ö" He glanced at his wife. "We found something in our home. We didnít know what it was, but we opened it and there was a note asking us to bring it here."
"My husband oversimplifies the matter," Toru interjected. "He found this chest hidden in our apartment with paintings in it. After looking at them he began to act strangely as if he were going mad."
Reiko lifted an eyebrow. "And youíre sure whatever you found is the reason?"
"My husband believes so, yes. Personally I donít know what to think, but I found a reference inside to your home and I am hoping that by coming here you could explain it."
"Let me see." Reiko got up and went over to the chest. She looked at it carefully, then opened it. Toru had carefully packed everything to Hajimeís instructions, leaving only the silken locks undone; those she hadnít been able to replicate. Reiko examined everything closely, then took out the cases one by one. She brought out each of the pictures and laid them out before her. Hajime averted his eyes, Toru watched intently.
Reiko closed her eyes and held her hand above each of the paintings for a moment or two. "There is magic here," she said at last, "but Iím not familiar with it."
Hajime and his wife blinked. "Magic?" asked Toru in disbelief.
"Yes. My family are onmyouji, mediums of traditional spiritual magic." Reiko smiled a little. "Donít worry, I donít expect it to be general knowledge. But yes, whatever these are they have the stain of magic, but it is very old. Were there seals on the clasps? Something that held it closed?"
Hajime looked at his wife. "There was silk, black silk tied in some kind of knot Ö"
"Thatís it. There were sealing spells on each of these, spells set a long time ago but since they havenít been renewed, theyíve faded. By opening the cases you must have released whatever was sealed away, Negi-san, and been struck by the full brunt of it."
"Full brunt of what? What are these paintings?"
"These paintings are just that Ė paintings. A picture on canvas like any other, but they have another dimension to them. These paintings give corporeal shape to something that does not lend itself to tangible form, so that it can be dealt with. Think of the prison system; you can lock a criminal away as a way of dealing evil, but you canít lock away Evil itself."
"So then, these paintings are evil?" asked Hajime, glancing at them in revulsion.
"I donít think so. Whatever these paintings are, they werenít there to destroy or harm anyoneís lives. It was just bad luck that you happened upon them just at the time when the concealment and sealing spells were fading. From what you tell me, however, it doesnít sound like whatever was contained in these paintings faded at all. It sounds more like whatever was held in them remained latent until you, Hajime-san, inadvertently released the seals."
"Does this mean Ö whatever it is could return?" asked Toru anxiously.
"Itís possible, but extremely unlikely. Exorcised ghosts do not return to haunt once freed. And already your husband seems to have recovered." Reiko closed her eyes, concentrating on the paintings again. "Strangely enough, I canít sense anything in this Last painting. Thatís all I can tell you Ė I donít know what was sealed away, or why you would be asked to send it here."
"Ö Oh." Hajime was disappointed, a sentiment his wife shared. Seeing their faces, Reiko smiled again.
"Donít worry. Youíve come too far for me to turn you away now." She got up and went to the door. A servant must have been waiting just outside. "Where is my uncle?" she asked the servant.
"In the usual room, Lady Reiko."
"Thank you. Fetch two men here then tell my uncle that Iím bringing him something Iíd like him to see." The servant bowed and obeyed. Reiko gestured for Hajime and his wife to get up. "Iím sure my uncle will be able to tell you more than I. Follow me."
Hajime and his wife rose to their feet as two menservants came inside and lifted the chest. "Your uncle?" asked Toru.
"My uncle is the thirteenth clan head and the premier onmyouji of this age. Iím training to be his successor," explained Reiko.
Hajime and his wife felt very apprehensive as they followed the young woman through the large house, the menservants trailing behind with the chest. Eventually they came to a large screen door. Sunlight filtered through the paper. Without hesitation Reiko opened it and went inside. Nervously Hajime and his wife followed. It was a large room, spacious and minimally furnished. The screen doors on the other side were open with a view over a garden. There was someone looking.
"Uncle," called Reiko softly. "Uncle, Iím here."
The person sitting by the window turned around. He was an old man yet he didnít seem old at all. True, his hair was white but while his finely-boned face was certainly not young it showed little evidence of time either. Ageless, as if for him the years had frozen in ice. Dressed all in white, he seemed almost a ghost from the past. His eyes, however, were peculiarly striking. As the man looked up Hajime saw that his right eye was gold in color, while the left was emerald green.
Hajime stared. The green eye was the same as the one in the Last.
The man gazed at them calmly. Reiko ignored all ceremony and kissed him on the cheek. "Hello, Uncle. This is Hajime Negi and his wife, Toru. Negi-san, this is Subaru Sumeragi, the thirteenth clan head, my teacher."
Hajime found himself at loss for words. There was something strangely Ö not familiar, but something recognizable about this man. It was unsettling. "Itís an honor to meet you, Sumeragi-sama," he said at last.
Sumeragi inclined his head. "Please, be at ease," he said. His voice was low and soft. Controlled, like his eyes. "Reiko-san sent word that you have something for me to see."
Flustered, Hajime looked around. Reiko was quiet, sitting beside her uncle like a waiting student. The menservants had placed the chest between him and his wife then disappeared. "Ah, yes. My wife and I Ö I mean, I found this in my apartment when I was renovating. I looked inside, and something happened Ö" He hesitated, then brought the chest closer to the older man. "Iím sorry, Sumeragi-sama, my wife and I did not wish to trouble youó"
Sumeragi lifted a hand, quieting him. "There is no need to apologise. Now, please explain to me what happened to you."
Slowly, with frequent additions by his wife, Hajime told him. He left out nothing of his gradual descent into madness, and as he progressed the face of the thirteenth Sumeragi head grew shadowed.
"You believe that these paintings you found had an evil effect on you?" Hajime nodded. The Sumeragi thought for a moment, then motioned for him to come closer. "Give me your hand, Negi-san."
More than a little apprehensive, Hajime obeyed. The Sumeragi reached out and took his hand. Hajime noticed that the Sumeragiís own hands were slim, like that of a woman or musician. He tensed, wondering what was going to happen, and was surprised when his hand was released a moment later and the older manís eyes opened. "I can find no magical taint on you. There is turmoil, yes, and disturbance, but it is emotional. It may be an effect of a spell, but not a spell itself." The Sumeragi glanced at the chest. "I think itís time that I look at these paintings."
Hajime nodded and opened the chest, not without some small measure of unease. He brought out the First painting and, taking it out of its coffin, laid it on the floor. The thirteenth Sumeragi head examined the picture for several long moments, his face expressionless. Hajime shifted uncomfortably. Looking at the picture again, he could almost hear the silent scream of the black face in his mind.
Without looking up, Sumeragi spoke. "Next."
Obediently, Hajime brought out the Second. The cage holding its dissected bird made his skin crawl. He laid it before the Sumeragi, who frowned a little. Then he closed his eyes, and held one hand above it as Reiko had just earlier.
Hajime looked from the man to the painting to his wife and back, startled. Sumeragiís eyes flew wide open and he glanced at his hand. It was trembling. Quickly he drew his hand back and turned that unsettling mismatched gaze onto Hajime with all the intensity of a fever.
"Where did you get these," he demanded.
Hajime jumped. Gone was the calm dignity of before, the Sumeragiís voice was almost sharp. "I Ė I found it hidden behind the wall while I was renovatingó"
"No," Sumeragi cut him off abruptly. "Your address. Where do you live."
Taken aback by the burning that had awoken in those mismatched eyes, Hajime told him. The moment he did, what color there had been in the Sumeragiís face drained away.
"Uncle?" asked Reiko worriedly. He didnít seem to hear her, but when she made as if to touch him he waved her away and fixed Hajime with a look.
"Show me the next one."
Hajime didnít dare disobey. He brought out the rest in slow succession, trying not to look at them. Still, however, he felt the distant muffled emotion contained in each.
The blood-smeared birds of the Third.
The torn Fourth with its splash of angry red.
The Fifth, frighteningly dark.
No one spoke. It was all done in complete silence. There were no more outbursts from the Sumeragi. Instead, he stared intently at each as they were revealed as if to burn the pictures into his mind. Only his hands betrayed him. They were shaking.
When Hajime brought out the Sixth, the Sumeragi bit his lip. Hajime respectfully waited as the man slowly reached out to touch the painting. He watched as the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi ran slim fingers over the outlines of the boyís blank face and the gloved hands drawing him down. Hajime exchanged a glance at Reiko, whose face was a mixture of questioning and worry.
Finally, the Sumeragi sat back. He laid his hands in his lap, rubbing the back of one with half-closed eyes.
"Are there any more?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, Sumeragi-sama," said Toru. Hesitantly she reached into the chest and brought out the Last. "One more."
She did. She drew out the canvas wrapped in velvet and laid it on the floor. Sumeragi didnít look up as she unfolded the velvet before him. Hajime glanced at the picture, the hazy face side-profiled with the open eye, comparing it to the man sitting. True, one had dark hair and one had white hair, but the eye Ö they were one and the same. Surely it was the Sumeragi who was the subject of this picture?
Toru drew back. Only then did the Sumeragi inhale deeply as if steeling himself, and open his eyes to look. He stared for a moment, but then he frowned a little. Half-closing his eyes the Sumeragi touched the painting with his fingertips, tracing the lines there as if feeling for something. His face grew pained. Without warning he fixed Hajime in an accusing gaze. "This painting, what did you do to it? Why is it empty?"
Hajime blinked, taken aback. "Empty? I donít understand, what do you mean, Ďemptyí?"
"Thereís nothing in it." The Sumeragi gestured to all the other paintings surrounding him, his words growing desperate. "These ones, they all held something, I can sense the remains of magic in them, but this one, this Last, there is nothing Ė I canít feel anything from it, I need to know what this Last is what did you do?!"
The frantic shout stunned Hajime into silence. "My husband didnít do anything, Sumeragi-sama," said Toru shakily. "He wasnít even the one who opened it. I did." Immediately those strange eyes turned to her. Toru faltered, but kept going. "My husband was in no shape to look at any more, he was frightened by what he was finding. I opened the Last."
"When you opened it, what did you feel?" demanded Sumeragi.
"Nothing," Toru admitted. "All I thought was that the painting was very beautiful."
"You were the one who untied the seal on it, and you felt nothing?"
Toru looked confused. "Seal? There wasnít any seal."
The Sumeragi stared at her. "You mean to say that there was nothing that held the case for this Last closed like the others?" he said very quietly.
"No, Sumeragi-sama. There wasnít."
Silence. The man in white did not move. "The Last Ö was not sealed away Ö" he said slowly, more to himself than to anyone else. His gaze drew back to the painting in question, studying the plays of shadow, the soft luminosity as if the artist had painted with liquid light, and the emerald green eye. He seemed to stop breathing.
"Uncle." Reikoís voice was uneasy. "Uncle, are you alright? Whatís wrong?"
There was no answer. Only the ageless man staring, sitting so still he might have been a statue of snow. He didnít touch the picture, but Hajime noted that his hands were clenched so tightly the skin tone nearly matched his robes. He lifted one hand to the right side of his face as if to cover one eye, then, as if suddenly remembering his company, stopped. The Sumeragi glanced at each of them. His eyes, Hajime realised suddenly, were very bright. Emerald and molten gold Ö there was something almost hypnotizing about them, like sunlight on a forest pool, bright and cool and cleansing all at once Ö suddenly he was falling, falling Ö
Hajime blinked, his vision clearing. There were people around him, he realised, and one of them was shouting his name.
"Hajime-san!" Toruís face moved into his sight. Her sweet face was frightened. "Hajime!"
"Negi-san." Another voice, more controlled but no less worried. "Negi-san, whatís wrong?"
It seemed an eternity that he lay there, waiting for the sudden giddiness to pass. The floor was cool beneath him, he could hear the footsteps of people nearby like muted drums, or someoneís heartbeat. A small hand had wound into his and he clenched it tightly as he breathed deeply, the first clean breath he had had for so long.
Slowly, he sat up.
"Iím alright," Hajime said quietly. "Iím alright." Toru didnít looked convinced, and he freed his hand from hers to wind his arm about her waist. He drew her close and breathed in the soft smell from her hair. "Iím alright."
Toru didnít speak; her responding embrace was answer enough. Reiko watched them, relief evident on her face. "What happened?" she demanded.
Hajime tried to remember. "I donít know. One moment I was sitting there, the next thing I knew I was lying down. But I feel Ö clean."
Reiko frowned, reaching forward to touch one finger to his forehead and her eyes grew distant for a moment. "Thereís nothing there." She moved back and stared. "The turmoil is gone. Itís as if you have been exorcised, but there was no possessing spirit so howó? Uncle?" Reiko turned. "Ö Uncle?
Hajime loosened his embrace on his wife, looking around, and stopped. The thirteenth head of the Sumeragi seemed not to have noticed Hajimeís collapse. He knelt with one fist pressed over the Last, the other covering his eyes. He was shaking uncontrollably, Hajime noticed uneasily, a figure in white like a snow sculpture being eroded by the wind that could speak, whispers, soft whispers that were not meant to be heard, but they were, even if they were not understood.
"Ö itís been so long, so long Iíve endured Ö why couldnít you tell me, why did you have to come back like this after itís all over Ö"
Reiko ran to him. "Uncle!" Kneeling down she wrapped her arms around him, trying to get him to look at her. "Whatís wrong, whatís the mató" She broke off as she inadvertently pulled the old manís hand from his face. It was damp.
"Uncle." Gently she grasped his hand. "Uncle Subaru, whatís wrong?"
Sumeragi glanced at her as if only just noticing her presence. He stared. Then, as if all his years had suddenly come crashing down on him, the Sumeragi bowed his head.
Hajime glanced at his wife. Toruís posture was already leaning towards the door. For a moment Hajime hesitated, but then he thought back to everything he had suffered without knowing why. "Sumeragi-sama," he began respectfully. "My wife and I came looking for answers to what happened. Is there anything you can tell us?" The thirteenth head of the Sumeragi didnít answer, in fact he made no sign that he had even heard. Reiko for her part stared in complete disbelief that they would dare to push so. "Sumeragi-sama, my wife and I came all this way to bring these here, these paintings that nearly destroyed my life. You are obviously connected to them. You recognized our address. Did you know someone who lived there before us?"
"My uncle is in no condition to be interviewed in such a manner," snapped Reiko, her pale green eyes flashing. "You would do best to leave."
Hajime stared at the old man. "You know. You know who created those paintings, donít you. Who was he?"
The Sumeragi looked at Hajime sharply. "How did you know it was a man?" he demanded.
Hajime blinked, startled. "I Ö I donít know. I just did." The Sumeragi didnít answer, instead he sat very, very still. Hajime tried again. "Please, tell me. What kind of a man painted those? Whose life was it that took over mine?"
Silence. Then the Sumeragi spoke. "I do not expect to be disobeyed under my own roof," he said quietly. He lifted his head to fix all three of them in a look of emerald and gold. "I asked you all to leave. Please do so."
Hajime faltered. "Butó"
"I said leave!" the Sumeragi half-shouted.
For a moment Hajime debated standing his ground. Someone touched his hand, and he turned. Toru gazed up at him with pleading eyes.
"Hajime. Let it go."
Firmly, she began to pull him away. Hajime let her. The Sumeragi turned his unsettling gaze to Reiko, who was still supporting him. "I said, all of you."
Reikoís eyes widened. "But, uncle, surely Ió" She broke off at the look her uncle gave her. Hajime couldnít see it, but whatever it was, Reiko unconsciously backed away from it. "Ö Yes, Uncle Subaru."
Hajime and Toru were already at the door. Reiko stared at her uncle for the moment, then rose as well. She cast a critical eye at the paintings, then at her uncleís bowed head. For a moment it seemed that she would collect the paintings and bring them away, but she must have thought the better of it. She opened the door for Hajime and Toru, and led them out without looking back.
Hajime looked back. A white figure knelt on the floor bathed in sunlight. As he watched, the figure reached out to caress whatever picture was lying in front of him.
Then the door closed.
In silence, Reiko led them back through the halls they had traveled just before. Her face was troubled. It made things far from comfortable. Hajime felt a small hand winding into his seeking reassurance, and he squeezed it, grateful for his wifeís presence.
"Sumeragi-san," began Hajime uncomfortably, disturbed by what had just passed, "allow me to apologise."
"Itís alright. You had a right to ask."
"But, your uncle, will he be alright?" asked Toru.
Reiko sighed. "I donít know. I think so." The tone of her voice indicated that she would not be fond to carry on this conversation, but Hajime wasnít so easily put off.
"What happened, Sumeragi-san? Your uncle seemed to recognise our address. Did he know a man who lived there before us?"
"I donít know. Iím as surprised as you Ė as far as I know, my uncle knows only one person in Tokyo, and he doesnít live anywhere near your area."
"Sumeragi-san, whatever it is I found, it nearly drove me mad and destroyed my marriage. Your uncle is obviously connected in some way. There has to be something you can tell us."
Reiko stopped and turned to face them. "There is little I can tell you. My uncle keeps his personal matters extremely private, even from me. Iíve been his student for twenty years and heís still an enigma. This is the first time Iíve ever seen him display such sharp emotion."
"What do you mean?" asked Hajime.
"I was adopted as my uncleís heir after his wife and child died in an accident. I was only five, but I remember everyone whispering at the funeral about how Uncle Subaru was so impassive, how he wasnít showing any grief that his wife and their son had been killed in a stupid car crash. And then adopting me the day after the funeral, well, that certainly caused a bit of a shock. Not that my uncle really cares about what other people think."
"But the paintings, what are they, what do they have to do with your uncle?" pressed Hajime.
"I told you, I donít know exactly. All I could tell was that the paintings were hidden by onmyoujitsu and were created to seal something away, which means whoever did it, he must have been an onmyouji of some level. But the one friend my uncle has in Tokyo is not an onmyouji, and my uncle doesnít even travel to Tokyo much in the first place." Reiko hesitated a little. "I have heard, though, that when he was young he used to live in the capital city, but I was told never to ask him about that time."
"Why not?" asked Hajime curiously.
Reiko shrugged. "If I canít ask, I canít know. I did hear that he lost his sister under painful circumstances when he was sixteen, I think, so Iím guessing thatís the reason. Iíve never asked the details." She looked at the two of them. "Believe me, I want to understand all of this just as much as you do. Those paintings Ö whatever they are, they mean a lot to him."
Hajime didnít reply as Reiko began walking again, leading them back the way they had come. He thought back to the almost-frightening intensity with which the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi had looked at him, the somehow familiar shades of emerald and molten gold Ö
"I might be wrong, Sumeragi-san," said Hajime slowly, "but I think the person in the Last painting was your uncle." Reiko and Toru stopped to look at him curiously. "The eyes, theyíre the same, Iím sure of it, but not only that, thereís something familiar about your uncle. Some part of me recognized him, but it wasnít me Ö" He gestured helplessly, trying to form an explanation. "I donít know. Itís more like Ö whatever it was I experienced from seeing those paintings recognized Sumeragi-sama through me somehow."
"What do you mean?" asked Reiko.
Hajime thought for a moment. "I donít know," he admitted, "but that moment when I collapsed, it was something about your uncle that caused it. It felt like Ö an ending. As if something could now be at peace."
Silence. The shadows on the floor grew longer Ė the sun was probably setting outside. Finally, Reiko sighed. "I donít know. I cannot give you any answers, for which I am sorry, but I will not ask my uncle for them either. If he wishes to say anything, he will do so in his own time." She glanced back down the corridor. "You have stayed long enough. I thank you for your effort, but I hope you will forgive me if I ask you to leave. I must go back to my uncle."
Hajime and Toru bowed. "We understand," said Toru.
Reiko half-smiled, and bowed as well. She led them personally to the main doors and arranged for one of the servants to drive them in one of the household cars to one of the finer hotels in the city and transfer their luggage there to a room booked by the Sumeragi name. "For I wish that I could have been a better hostess this afternoon; please let me try to make the rest of your stay in Kyoto enjoyable," explained Reiko when Hajime and Toru protested. In the end they could do nothing but accept her offer with sincere thanks.
Five minutes later, they were driven out the gates of the Sumeragi estate with nothing, no strange chest with paintings, no answers, nothing but silence, questions, and each other.
"Are you sure youíre alright?" asked Toru as they prepared for sleep.
Hajime nodded, smiling almost shyly. "I feel fine."
"Iím happy to hear that."
On impulse Hajime caught her up in an embrace. "Ö Thank you," he said softly, "thank you for putting up with me."
Slim fingers trailed through his hair. "Of course. Even if you were Ö difficult."
They laughed wryly. Toru sighed and pressed against him. "I wonder who he was," she murmured.
"The artist. He must have been special to Sumeragi-sama. What do you think?"
Hajime tightened his hold upon his wife as he stared out the window at the city lights. He thought back to each painting, and what he had endured from all. "Ö I think he must have been lonely. He couldnít have been as lucky as me."
"And how are you lucky?" Toruís voice seemed amused.
Hajime smiled. "Iím lucky to have someone who has stayed with me all this time. How many people can say that?"
Another amused laugh. Hajime stopped it with his mouth. As Toru pulled him closer he felt a spark of pity for the artist whose story he had unleashed, a story that seemed to have been full of turmoil and pain, but then he soon forgot it, losing himself in his wifeís embrace.
After all, that wasnít his story. He had his own.
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