Moon Princess


           He lay sleepless in his futon, a light sweat on his forehead. The heavy greenness of the spring garden beyond the curtains was like a sponge: no slightest current of air made its way through that swollen barrier. The sickly perfume of dropping catkins stifled his breath like a length of silk held over the face. Nothing stirred about him- there was nothing to stir, not even bumbling night insects. Yet his ear caught a barely discernible swish-- swish-- swish-- from somewhere not too far away. The rustle of a woman's robes trailing along the corridor of his uncle's house. The sound crossed the wooden floor towards his sleeping place. The watery spring moon could barely pierce the bamboo blinds out on the verandah, and here in the depths of the room there was no light at all: but a glimmer like the misty moon's rays came filtering through the chinks of his bed curtains as a white hand drew one aside.

           "Seimei-dono," a woman's voice said. "Seimei-dono, how long must Chidori wait to see you? Why do you stay away from her house so long?" She leaned above him. "Seimei-dono, I've longed for you so many nights-- Ahh!" A shrill scream. "Woman, what are you doing here? Why do you take my place by Seimei-dono's side! Ahh, betrayed, he betrays me!! Woman, I will rip that hair from your head and the white skin from your face!!" She raised a menacing hand: the fingers were long black claws.

           "I'm not a woman," he said.

           She gasped and froze in place. "You- you are not--? But your hair is so long and your robes are a woman's--" She put her hands over her face and moaned. "Who are you? Where is Seimei-dono? Why does he hide from me?"

           "My name is Inanori and I am the son of Lord Seimei's daughter. My grandfather is not here."

           "Where has he gone? To some other woman's house? Tell me! Where is he?!"

           "He passed on to the other world ten years ago."

           There was silence. "Passed on?" she said in a wondering voice. "Seimei-dono is gone? He left me... he's gone, he left me... ohh. Ohh." She burst into tears. As she sobbed her figure grew paler and more transparent, and then wasn't there any more. The darkness pooled back into the sleeping place.

           Inanori shifted a little under the thin robes that covered him. This wing of the house was full of things that didn't belong to the ordinary world. Things with long arms and long legs and large heads: gekko spirits, butterfly spirits, flower spirits: the occasional living ghost or ghost of the dead, or just, like this last visitor, the ghost of some old passion kept unnaturally alive in time. He'd grown up surrounded by them, breathing their atmosphere, and feeling them encroach inexorably on his existence.

 He was small at birth, his nurse told him, and prone to sickness all his life. Spirits, visible to his eyes but not those of his servants, thronged about him from early childhood and did his growth no good. His mother worried and fretted over him, so puny and pale compared to the robust sons of her older brother. At fifteen he still hadn't cut his hair or put on the trousers of a man, and the maids treated him more like a daughter of the house than a son. No wonder, perhaps. He could sense the ambiguous yin element in himself, the basic nature of his soul: all mist and shadow, ambiguous watery moonlight, deep earth and concealed secrets. The men of his family were yin-yang masters and could hold light and darkness in balance, but his own nature leaned all to one side.

Growing up such a one, it was the things of the ordinary world that he found unspeakably strange. He knew that men paid court to women with poetry and conversation; that men gained their love and their favours and sometimes a child was the result, as his mother had produced him from her affair with a captain of the fourth rank. Men even married and set up a part of their mansions for their wife and her household, as his uncle had done, and the rooms rang with children's voices as they played and studied and quarrelled. All that seemed immensely far away, like a story from a distant land, here in the dim rooms of his mother's apartments in a side court of his grandfather's house. Here things lay upon his chest at night and tweaked his clothes during the day, making him stumble; here heads with glaring eyes and great bushy beards walked down the corridors upon huge feet with no body between; here beings with snouts and bright beady eyes peered curiously around the edges of his curtains; here he sat and felt the menace of the youkai world roiling about him like black fog.

Once, he could barely recall, it had been different. In his earliest childhood the house was quiet and friendly and he'd passed tranquil days and nights. That was when his grandfather was alive and his strong wards had kept malicious spirits at bay. Inanori remembered little of his grandfather as a person- white robes, black hat, a dry voice; but the sense of safety that surrounded him like a quilted jacket, that he recalled clearly.

Since Lord Seimei's death the wards he'd put on the house had weakened inexorably; the ones his uncle put up in their place lacked the subtlety and delicacy of the great onmyouji's. Spirits entered now that would never have come near before. His uncle, busy with court duties and certain in the bright masculine strength of his nature, never saw them, for they avoided his presence. But they clung to Inanori. The little things came and went about him with impunity, and the great ones, he felt, couldn't be far behind. Some day the wards would be gone completely. Some strong demon, fanged and bull-headed, would snap him up in a mouthful and that would be the end of it. He wished it might be otherwise; he couldn't see how it could be. In the world about him there was no one left like his grandfather, someone to keep him safe from the things that moved in the moonlight and shadows.

And so he spent his days in quiet tedium as the years passed. The dull misery of knowing his death must come sooner than later, an invalid's feeling, half terror and half regret, became so familiar that at last he ceased to notice it. And then, on a certain evening, something utterly unexpected happened.

           There was a voice outside his room, speaking from beyond the edge of the verandah.


"Moon of the fourth month

           hidden by the springtime mist-

           no man sees it clear-

           But like a will-o-the-wisp

           it calls this traveller near."


           Inanori crept over to the curtain and looked through a chink. In the uncertain light he saw an elegant figure standing in the garden: a man in a dark court robe and black court cap, its back edge sticking up like a plover's tail. The visitor politely concealed his face from view with a plain fan, but its whiteness was no whiter than the clear brows that showed above the edge.

           A suitor, he realized in slow surprise. Someone must have heard there was a woman living secluded in the house of Abe no Seimei and come to pay court to her. Inanori was a little sorry for the man's  inevitable disappointment. He was clearly a gentleman, for he made no attempt to enter the supposed lady's room but proffered his verse from a well-bred distance; his poem, as far as Inanori could tell, showed education and talent; and the cultivated tones of his voice did strange things to Inanori's heart. Perhaps it wasn't necessary to disillusion him immediately? Inanori had never had a chance to speak with a man from the outside world- or many men at all, come to that. There could be no harm in answering the poem. His voice had not yet broken, and it was no matter if it was a little rough: if the man believed there was a noblewoman within he'd expect to get his answer from a waiting woman, not the mistress herself. Adopting the diction of his mother's women, then, he answered hesitantly:


           "Hidden within mist

           the moon itself knows nothing

           of the world of men:

           she has no way of telling

           what is from what seems to be."


           The man took a step nearer, moving with unusual grace, and half-closed his fan so that Inanori had a glimpse of the smooth curve of his cheek and the edge of one dark eye.


           "If I might approach

           the pale moon's misty palace

           and enter within

           the truth would be clear enough

           that lies hidden in my heart."


           Inanori trembled. The temptation to beckon him in was strong. He was clearly a gentleman: he might not learn the truth immediately, perhaps not ever. But the last poem seemed to contain a suggestion, a request-- and if Inanori invited him into the house, might that not appear an affirmative answer? He knew so little of these things. With a pounding heart he pulled on the cords and raised the blind enough to see and be seen. Lacking a fan he raised his sleeve to conceal the lower part of his face.

He could see the man quite clearly now. A silken robe that must be a deep shade of mulberry; a white hand with long aristocratic nails; a stance that indicated both breeding and authority. More than a fifth or sixth rank courtier; perhaps one of the upper nobility, perhaps even a son or grandson of the emperor. Inanori shrank in upon himself. The man in turn would see only a slight form in a simple robe- no beauty, no great breeding, no wit nor delicacy. The woman who should be waiting within didn't exist. He looked down and clenched his hand on his lap. That thrilling voice came again:


           "A moment, the moon

           rides clear of the muffling clouds

           to look on the earth.

           Travellers on the night roads

           stop still before its beauty."


           He was standing at the very edge of the verandah. He lowered his fan a hand's space: dark eyes under feathered brows gazed straight into Inanori's. Inanori forgot entirely that this was all pretence. His head swam with an unknown excitement and he lifted a hand to beckon the man in. And in that same moment there was a sudden rush of wind that blew his hair into his eyes and a sound like a crack of thunder. The man swung round, dropping his fan to clap a hand to the sword at his side. Inanori's throat closed over a shriek. A grotesque head, more than the height of a man, was glaring at them from the garden. Its bulging eyes were a fish's, totally round with tiny round pupils in the centre, but below them a long snout ended in ridiculously snub human nostrils. The rest of the face was hidden by an enormous white moustache, and enormous white fangs showed through it.

           "Hoh," the thing said, in a deep voice like a bronze bell, "night-crawling thief! Would you lay hands on the Moon Princess whom I claim for my own?" It had wicked claws too, at the end of huge scaly arms on which it propped itself, lizard-like; snaky coils unwound behind it endlessly into the garden's depths. Inanori's heart banged in shock and terror: he slipped forward and caught the nobleman's sleeve from behind.

           "Come in, " he urged, "come in quickly, my grandfather's wards may keep us safe--"

           The man turned. "Gladly," he said. There was a sharp pointed shrike's bill in the centre of his naked face and a fence of pointed teeth poking from the mouth that stretched from one ear to the other.

           "You will not!" the brazen voice bellowed. Even as Inanori watched a taloned paw grasped the bird-thing in its claws and whisked it away. He shrank back, dumb with horror and despair, and buried his head between his hands so as not to hear the crunching chomping noises from outside. A part of his mind told him to run, to get up and run to his uncle's wing of the house, but his body stayed motionless. What should he run for? So that he could continue this twilight existence, his half-life in these rooms where the sun never came, waiting until some other monster like these two managed to catch him? No. No. Since the moment must come eventually, let it be now. He raised his head and looked into the garden where the snake thing lay crouched, licking at its claws.

           The enormous face swung up at him. The mouth hidden in that barrier of white fur made hrroom-hrroom noises like a dog's growl. And then the sprawling form was gone. In its place was a slender young man in a simple black robe. Not human- its unbound hair was white as the moonlight and its ears curved impossibly on either side of its head- but still possessed of arms and legs, of normal eyes and nose and mouth. It strolled over to the verandah, hoisted itself up and sat back on its heels a few feet from Inanori. Its eyes held a silver gleam and its teeth were very white and pointed.

           "So at last I see the face of the misty moon whose light I've glimpsed through blinds and curtains as I flew about this city. Greetings, Moon Princess. Will you not let me in?"

           "What is there to keep you out?" he asked numbly. "The old wards are no protection now."

           "Common civility. I don't enter a person's bedchamber without invitation, even if I am accustomed to coming and going about Seimei's house as I please. We're old acquaintances, he and I. You're a relative of his?"

           Inanori nodded.

           "And where is he now? I don't sense him anywhere." It turned its head back and forth, like a fox sniffing the air. Inanori remembered what that head really looked like and shuddered.

           "Grandfather died ten years ago."

           The pale eyebrows rose on the pale forehead. "Tchah, how vexing. You humans die so young." A crease appeared between them. "That explains the number of spirits around here, and that vulgar fellow just now. I wondered what was going on." Taloned fingers tapped on the wood of the verandah. "Princess, it seems you could do with some protection. May I come in?"

           Inanori regarded him bleakly. "There's no need for this playacting. I know you intend to eat me. Come and do it. Be certain I will make no resistance." He turned himself away and waited.

           The youkai clucked its tongue. "What was Seimei thinking of, to leave you such a prey to youkai vapours? The little sprats have been draining your life-force like fleas sucking blood. Clearly some serious tidying-up is in order here. I will accept your kind invitation." It rose, took a step inside the room and sank down by Inanori's side. "Now, Princess--"

           Inanori's nerves and patience snapped together. "You are mistaken. My name is Inanori and I am not a woman!"

           "I know. Women don't carry what you do beneath their robes." Inanori jumped in shock and his ears burned. "But your shining beauty recalls that of the famous Kaguya-hime, and as I am a lover of the moon I shall continue to style you thus. Though really, your male energy could do with a boost. Let's see what I can manage here--" It leaned closer and strands of its silver-white hair stroked across Inanori's face like a spider web. Inanori brushed them from him in horror and hastened to put a space between himself and the demon.

           "Youkai are creatures of yin, *my* grandfather told me. You can have no yang essence to give me."

           "Youkai? I'm a dragon!" It looked truly outraged.

           "It's all the same thing. Dragons, badgers, fox-spirits--"

           "I assure you it's not the same thing. Badgers and fox-spirits if you like, but we dragons are another matter entirely. Ask the Chinese, they'll tell you. The virtue of Dragon Yang has been known among them for centuries. And I'm willing to share it with you now, since you're clearly in such need of it."

           "I've never heard of Dragon Yang and I don't believe it exists. Only a fool would give credence to what a youkai says."

           The dragon shrugged its shoulders. "Moon princess, your distrust is understandable but misplaced. Allow me to demonstrate." It gave Inanori a tap on the chest, which for all its lack of force caused him to fall flat onto his back; rummaged among the skirts of Inanori's night robe and then dove beneath them: and there conducted itself in such a way that Inanori suddenly found himself in a very male state indeed. The blood burned in his cheeks; he covered his face with his sleeves to hide his disordered state and to stop the sounds his mouth wanted to make. Eventually he had to bite on a cloth-covered fist lest his cries bring the serving women running.

           A little while later--

           "Now," the youkai, or the dragon, or whatever it was, said in a muffled voice, "I believe I'm supposed to stop here so that the accumulated male energy can remain inside your body---"

           Inanori, vociferously if unclearly, stated his objections to that particular tenet of tantric practice. 

           "Oh, very well," and it went back to doing what it had done before. The results were certainly quite unlike anything Inanori had ever known in his life, but he felt almost immediately the effects of the influx of yang spirit.

           In very short time his relatives too remarked the change in him: a new energy, a new decisiveness, an access of robust health. His uncle happily officiated at the ceremony of Putting on the Trousers and followed it with a sumptuous banquet in his honour, where Inanori distinguished himself by the grace and wit he evidenced before the company. Returning to his apartments- rooms which seemed indescribably lighter and more pleasant than before- he displayed his adult clothes to their present tenant, who seemed to have settled in for a prolonged visit: of necessity, and fortunately, in his black-clothed silver-haired form. 'Good foraging here,' he'd said, catching something that looked like a small monkey and popping it into his mouth. 'I'll stick around until they stop coming. Which will be a while: mosquitoes have more intelligence than these things.'

           "Very nice," the dragon said now, surveying Inanori's billowing silk trousers under their long over-robe. "Green's a good colour. It becomes you, Moon Princess."

           "You can leave off the 'Moon Princess'," Inanori observed. "It's not suitable any more. Call me by my name."

           "Heavens, no. What poetry is there in names? I'll make it Moon Prince if you like, but I won't change the style. For I'm a lover of the moon still, and still devoted to that one- or is it two?- that you hide under those nice new trousers of yours. Which are in the way, incidentally. Let's have them off of you," and it reached to begin the process.

           Inanori blushed but made no objection.



june-july 07