by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)
illustrated by Beili
There was no magic where Naoki came from.
Well. That wasn’t entirely accurate. Hanamigawa Ward in Chiba, where Naoki had grown up, was in fact covered in spells. The telephone wires that cut through the neighbourhoods were held up by charms that stood the utility posts straight and true in any weather. Most of the houses and all of the dozens of low-rise apartment blocks in the ward still bore traces of the first transformation spells that had formed their foundations. The Hanamigawa River, which flowed through the ward, was lined with kilometres of sturdy white fence wrought entirely from enchantment. Naoki’s father had helped to build it.
But it wasn’t magic.
Naoki himself had not been aware of this distinction until his first year of senior high, when he had chanced upon a slim volume tucked away in a bottom shelf of the school library, together with some untouched magazines on coral reefs. The cover had been just a plain dark blue, with the title printed on in white:
A Treatise on Modern Magic
Out of boredom, Naoki had flipped to the first page and read its opening line. “It has always been my suspicion that there is no discipline more misunderstood, more inconsistent, or more fascinating than the discipline of magic.”
By the time Naoki had gotten to the last page, the sun had set and everyone had gone home. And Naoki had sat there in the deserted library for some long moments, his fingers trembling on the page as he soaked in the fact that there were charms and spells out there that weren’t just for putting up electric poles. There were charms that created powerful illusions, that had won Tokugawa Ieyasu’s battles and had hidden whole towns from view. There were spells that, when cast correctly, formed a gate through which one could cross from one end of Honshu to the other. And, most importantly, there were people out there – real magicians – who were still casting these charms and spells today.
“Of course there are,” his mother had replied, when Naoki had returned home breathless with excitement. “But that’s not the sort of magic most of us can do.”
Naoki had said nothing. The following spring, the only application he submitted was to Kyoto University’s Department of Practical Magic.
It was only after he got there that he realised his mother had been right.
“What is Morishita Yuto doing at a calculus lecture?” hissed Yamazaki, elbowing Naoki in the ribs.
“Beats me,” said Naoki, not bothering to glance round to where she was pointing. “Maybe he really likes math.”
“Maybe he really likes your face,” said Yamazaki.
“Unlikely,” Naoki replied. “It was very dark when we met at that bar.”
“Well, then,” said Yamazaki, wriggling her eyebrows, “maybe he really likes your–”
“Don’t say it.”
“Sense of humour, is what I was going to say,” Yamazaki continued, “but now I have a rather more specific idea of what you two might have got up to that night and I’m not sure if I wanted that mental image.”
“Well then, you can quietly not think about it while I listen to this fascinating lecture about Lagrange multipliers,” said Naoki, before proceeding to ignore Yamazaki for the next twenty minutes.
What Naoki couldn’t ignore, however, was the fact that Yuto was sitting in two rows behind them, at a multivariable calculus lecture he wasn’t meant to be attending. And while Naoki had spent far more time feeling Yuto up in the alleyway behind that pretentious cocktail bar than actually talking to him, he knew enough about Yuto to be aware that he was up to something.
And sure enough, halfway through the lecture, a butterfly came winging its way towards Naoki. It was smaller than a hand span and brick red, with a curious black pattern going all around the edge of its wings. It was pretty, but that wasn’t what caught Naoki’s attention.
The butterfly wasn’t real.
It looked real enough, of course, as it landed on Naoki’s desk and began pacing around on top of his lecture notes. But as Naoki looked closer, he could see the delicate network of illusion charms woven together, the hex that had provided the spark of animation, and oddly enough, a clock spell. And not just any old clock spell, but a countdown that was about to end in–
“Five seconds?” Naoki exclaimed in a half-whisper.
Yamazaki jerked awake. “What on earth is that?” she asked, earning them the glare of the girl sitting in front of them. Hastily, Naoki picked up a pencil and sketched an eight-point barrier around the butterfly, whispering an incantation of containment last used in a particularly eventful Chemistry class. It took shape just as the last second ticked by. The butterfly twitched, stilled, and burst into flame.
It was a beautiful show of power, made all the more so by Naoki’s containment, which focused the flames within the barrier he had drawn and caused the fire to unfurl languidly, revealing hidden colours as it licked against the edge of the enchantment. And then, before anyone else could really notice the small fire that had started on Naoki’s desk, the flames popped out of existence, leaving a series of handwritten words printed across Naoki’s sheet of paper.
Nice job with those charms on the tennis courts. You’re good at mending fences.
Naoki whipped around to look at Yuto, who was nowhere to be found.
“Oh my god,” said Yamazaki, looking genuinely awed. “This takes flirting to a whole new level.”
It was probably not by chance that Naoki managed to find Yuto outside the Department of Practical Magic building after the lecture. He was fiddling with an illusory charm in his hands, which vanished before Naoki got close enough to see it. When Yuto glanced up he looked genuinely pleased to see Naoki.
“What the fuck was that about?” Naoki demanded.
“Oh, uh. I didn’t mean for it to burst into flames, actually,” said Yuto, rubbing the back of his neck. When he wasn’t smiling, he had one of those faces that people often described as cold. Now, however, his expression was entirely sheepish. “But I did mean it. About the fences.”
Well, Naoki wanted to say, that’s the benefit of specialisation. Because as it turned out, fence-type spells were the only thing Naoki could do. And because Practical Magic was about more than just fences and eight-point containment barriers, Naoki had been politely invited to transfer to the Faculty of Mathematics two weeks into his first semester.
But Yuto didn’t know about all that, and Naoki didn’t feel particularly inclined to tell him, so what Naoki said instead was, “I’m done with classes today.”
When Yuto grinned, the corners of his mouth turned slightly downwards. It was this suggestion of uncertainty in Yuto’s smile that had first attracted Naoki to him. The magic had come later.
“We could get a drink?” Yuto asked.
“It’s four in the afternoon,” said Naoki.
“Or we could go up to my room.”
“You’re full of good ideas.”
Apart from the mountain of laundry, the tower of empty convenience store bento boxes, and the pile of paper and manga strewn across the bed, Yuto’s dorm room was relatively pleasant. This was in comparison with Naoki’s room, which had a window that only opened an inch and which looked directly out to a concrete wall. The one thing both rooms had in common, however, was that the walls were equally thin. Even with the door shut, Naoki could hear the sounds of the television coming from next door.
“Is your neighbour actually watching Magical Kiyoshi Hour?” asked Naoki, while the overexcited voice of television presenter and magician Magical Kiyoshi exclaimed over some magicked household cleaning item.
Yuto laughed as he dropped his backpack onto a chair. “I think it’s a research project. The programme does give you some sound magical principles, though.”
“Yeah, well, only tangentially,” Naoki replied, stepping easily into Yuto’s space. “But where’s the rigour? He should be teaching spells that people can use and adapt, not selling some junk.”
“I suspect you’ve misunderstood the concept of daytime television,” Yuto said, before leaning up to kiss Naoki, curling one arm easily around Naoki’s neck. Naoki returned the kiss languidly while fumbling to undo Yuto’s belt and fly. “Also,” Yuto added, when they pulled apart, “you’re very into magic, for a math major.”
Naoki responded by stroking Yuto’s half-hard cock through his underwear. He was rewarded by Yuto’s gasping and pushing his hips forward, which Naoki took as his cue to slide his hand down the waistband of Yuto’s boxers and get his fingers around Yuto’s cock, stroking it slowly until his fingers were covered in precome.
The sound of Magical Kiyoshi talking animatedly was still audible. If anything, Yuto’s neighbour might have even turned up the volume. Not that it really mattered now, not when Naoki had managed to push Yuto’s trousers and underwear down his hips and was now sinking to his knees in front of him.
The last time they had done this, they had both been rather drunk, on half-price cocktails and that weird liqueur someone had smuggled in that had tasted like ice cream. Now, Naoki was drunk on the memory of Yuto’s magic and the sounds Yuto was making as Naoki ran his tongue along the underside of Yuto’s cock before taking it into his mouth. Yuto had one hand braced against his rather rickety bookshelf and the other resting on Naoki’s head, fingers threading lightly through his hair. Naoki swallowed around Yuto’s cock, and Yuto’s exhilarated gasp as he did so was particularly wondrous; he moaned a little when Yuto’s fingers tightened in his hair.
The last time they had done this had been after Naoki had gotten into a rather heated discussion with one of Yuto’s classmates about the merits and relevance of Ichinomiya Ippei’s Treatise. Yuto had slipped next to Naoki at the bar just as he had been making a particularly forceful point about how the Treatise should have as much prominence in the canon as Hyuga Shinji’s ambitious National Dictionary of Magic. “I don’t know if I agree with what you’re saying,” Yuto had told Naoki, sliding another vile cocktail over to him with a little smile, “because I wasn’t really listening. But I like the way you said it.”
“Are you seriously trying to chat me up while I’m in the middle of an argument?” Naoki had asked, while the guy he had been arguing with made a hasty escape.
“More or less,” Yuto had replied, grinning embarrassedly. “And also to help a classmate out; from what I did manage to hear, I think you pretty much won the argument.” Three drinks later, Yuto had had Naoki pressed up against the wall of the alleyway outside, and Naoki had concluded that Yuto was the sort of person who usually got what he wanted.
Like Naoki’s mouth on his dick, to cite an ongoing example. Yuto was truly making the most delicious groans as Naoki sucked him off, and he moaned even louder when he glanced down and realised that Naoki was getting his trousers open so that he could jerk himself off as he blew Yuto.
“Wait,” Yuto breathed, just as Naoki hummed around his cock. “Fuck.”
Naoki pulled away with a little smirk. “I’d be happy to.”
Yuto looked genuinely torn between guiding Naoki’s head back towards his crotch and moving things to the bed, so Naoki made the decision for him, standing up and tugging down his own trousers. They stumbled to Yuto’s narrow bed, pulling off the rest of their clothes as they went, and when Yuto landed on the mattress (and possibly a term essay and three socks) and sprawled himself out invitingly, Naoki was struck suddenly by just how gorgeous he was underneath his hoodies and button-downs.
“If you would be so kind as to hand me the lube,” said Yuto, grabbing the term essay and chucking it to one side. He also reached across to his bedside table to retrieve a condom that was sandwiched between the pages of volume two of Hyuga’s Dictionary.
“Not going to get it by magic?” Naoki joked as he stepped over to Yuto’s desk and picked up the bottle.
Yuto laughed. “What do you think this is, Harry Potter?”
“I’m a math major,” said Naoki, climbing on top of Yuto. “What would I know?” He leaned down to kiss Yuto sloppily, running his hands across Yuto’s bare skin.
“I think you know plenty,” Yuto replied when they broke apart. “I’ve seen your fences.” He reached for the lube that Naoki had dropped on the bed.
“Let me,” said Naoki, picking up the lube instead. He took his time working his fingers inside Yuto, one by one, taking in Yuto’s shallow breathes and the way his expression shifted as he grew more and more undone. “And you’ve only seen my fences.” He crooked his fingers slightly and Yuto let out a cry of pleasure.
“And your eight-point,” Yuto panted, gasping again as Naoki withdrew his fingers.
“Still a fence-type spell,” said Naoki. He sat up and brushed his thumb across Yuto’s nipple, enjoying the way it made the breath hitch in Yuto’s chest. “Now do you want to fuck, or just talk about magic?”
Yuto tossed the condom at Naoki; it hit him in the chest. “Can’t we do both?”
Naoki laughed, picking up the condom and unwrapping it. “I’d like to see you try,” he said.
When Naoki pushed inside, Yuto groaned again and squeezed his eyes shut. Naoki held his breath as he pushed in deeper until his hips were snug against Yuto’s skin. He watched the way Yuto’s mouth fell open as he adjusted to the sensation of fullness, the deliberate manner in which he steadied his breathing.
And then Yuto opened his eyes and said, with some effort, “So what are your thoughts on the Five Categories of magic? Is the distinction artificial?”
“I think you’re impossible,” said Naoki, while Yuto laughed breathlessly beneath him.
He was still laughing when Naoki pulled out slowly, but when he thrust back in again Yuto’s laughter turned into a choked-off sound. Naoki did it again, loving the way Yuto tilted his head back with pleasure. “It’s artificial,” Naoki said, before thrusting in a third time, “but has its uses.” Yuto groaned deep in his chest, and reached up to pull Naoki down for a kiss.
They fucked in earnest after that, gasping into each other’s mouths. Yuto had one hand in Naoki’s hair again while he reached down with the other to jerk himself off. Naoki lost himself to it, to the grasping twitch of Yuto’s fingers, to the heat of him, to Yuto’s gasps as words failed him. It hadn’t been like this the last time – or at least Naoki didn’t remember it that way; didn’t remember if Yuto’s face had been as open as it was now, if he had smiled even as he moaned and whispered things into Naoki’s skin that Naoki couldn’t catch. And then Yuto was tightening around him, legs squeezing around Naoki’s waist as his body grew taut. Naoki both felt and saw Yuto’s orgasm as he came with a silent groan.
Yuto slumped back against the sheets, chest heaving, while Naoki kept going, thrusting into Yuto at an increasingly erratic pace as his own orgasm overtook him and he came with a loud groan.
The Magical Kiyoshi theme music was still playing in the background. Naoki pulled out of Yuto and for a long moment they just lay there, breathing heavily beside each other.
After a while, Yuto spoke. “I much prefer Nagao Tomokazu’s six-category analysis, to be honest,” he said, completely seriously.
Naoki rolled over and began to laugh.
Later, while Naoki was getting dressed and casting around for a missing sock, he chanced upon a framed photograph of at least twenty people posed together in traditional clothes.
“Oh, yes,” said Yuto, leaning over, “that’s my family.”
“That’s a lot of people,” said Naoki, searching the different faces for Yuto’s.
“Yeah, this isn’t even everyone,” Yuto replied. “This one’s me.” He pointed at a kid near the front who couldn’t have been older than twelve, smiling that same hesitant smile. Then he pointed at another man who was standing right at the edge of the group. He was slight in stature and looked like he couldn’t have been older than thirty-five. The expression on his face was uncomfortable and slightly defiant, and he seemed to somehow be holding himself apart from the rest of the family even as they stood together.
“And this is my uncle Ippei, in case you were wondering what he looked like.”
“Ichinomiya Ippei is his uncle?” Yamazaki repeated incredulously. “Morishita Yuto is an Ichinomiya?”
“Yes, that’s what I just said,” Naoki replied, peering at part of Yamazaki’s enchantment which was coming undone and marking the wire fence with a bit of paint. They were fixing the fences around the baseball field as part of their part time job.
“That’s incredible, they’ve been practicing magic since before the Warring States period–”
“I’m aware of this,” said Naoki.
“And not your regular convenience store instruction manual stuff for fixing a garage. They wrote some of those first spellbooks.”
“Well, that’s rather debatable, but–”
“Can you imagine what he must have been like as a kid?” asked Yamazaki. “Surrounded by books of magic and some of the most powerful magicians in the country?”
It certainly explained a lot, thought Naoki, remembering the delicate symmetry of Yuto’s butterfly. For Naoki, magic was most comprehensible to him when set out with mathematical logic: subject to D, A will occur if B and C are done. It was a useful way of going about it, because such an approach promised almost uniform results, and this, of course, was perfect for fixing fences. By contrast, there had be something impromptu about Yuto’s butterfly, the illusion charms laid over each other carelessly and beautifully, imperfect but correct, somehow. It was like Naoki had only grasped basic grammar, while Yuto had the fluency of a native speaker.
“Well, while he’s out there casting charms like breathing, we’ve still got to move on to fence link number one hundred and fifty-eight or whatever,” said Yamazaki as she continued to painstakingly trace out the figures they would need to ensure that the patched fence would hold. Her brushstrokes were impeccable, better than anything Naoki could manage. Normally Naoki would be admiring them, but today his hands just itched to do something that wasn’t this tedious gruntwork.
“This is taking far too long,” said Naoki, thinking back to the first few proposals he had made when they had started this fence project back in winter. Some third-year had shot down his suggestion on account of its being too complicated, and Naoki had agreed, at the time. But things were different, now.
“I think I know how to fix this,” said Naoki.
“Wait, what–” Yamazaki began, as Naoki stood up and took a few steps backwards.
“If you look at the entire perimeter as an eight-point barrier,” said Naoki, “you could in theory apply the figures to the whole stretch of fence.”
“In theory,” said Yamazaki. “But you’d still need to place the enchantment over the whole area with the same precision as if you were working on a smaller part of the grounds. You’d have to cover the whole area with figures, and account for proportions”
“No,” said Naoki, with dawning realization, “we wouldn’t. All we’d need to do is start in the centre, the way we always do.”
“You’re crazy,” Yamazaki started to say, before she looked up and caught sight of the expression on Naoki’s face. “Are you serious about this?”
Naoki looked out at the grounds and knew he could do it; could see how the spells would lie in a recurring pattern, reinforcing the entire fence. It was almost elegant in its simplicity.
Yamazaki folded her arms across her chest. “Do it, then,” she said.
Naoki set off at a sprint.
He woke up the next morning to the sound of someone banging on his door.
“Go away,” he mumbled, pulling the covers over his head. His whole body ached like he was having a bad hangover.
“Open up, Akaiwa!” that person was shouting. It sounded suspiciously like the baseball captain. “What the fuck did you do to our field?”
In a trice, Naoki was out of the bed and flinging the door open. “What’s happened to the field? Did it work?”
The baseball captain rolled his eyes. “Whatever you did, it worked too well.”
A small crowd had amassed by the entrance of the baseball field by the time they got there. Apart from the crowd, however, nothing looked particularly amiss. The fence, which had been glowing gold when Naoki and Yamazaki had left it the night before, was now decidedly fencelike. There were no traces of spellwork to be seen anywhere.
And then Naoki drew nearer and saw what the problem was. The groundskeeper was trying to open the gate but there was no gate where the entrance once was. Now it was all fence.
“We tried bolt cutters and it didn’t work either,” said the captain, pointing to a patch of fence next to where the gate once was. There wasn’t even a scratch.
One of the relief pitchers tossed a baseball over the fence. Or rather, he attempted to, because it seemed to hit an invisible barrier after it crossed the top of the fence, and rolled back down towards the students.
“That’s crazy,” said Naoki. “I didn’t mean for it to work like that.”
“Yeah, whatever,” said the captain. “Can you take it down?”
His teammates were glaring at him as he approached the fence. Naoki ignored them as he stretched out his hand and touched the tips of his fingers to the wire. The spell flared back into visibility.
“What the hell?” someone gasped.
It had become more intricate than Naoki remembered. The original figures that Naoki had cast still remained, retaining their familiar gold colour. But now it was shot through with something else, with streaks of blue and red and silver curling off from the lines of Naoki’s spell, extending the protection haphazardly into the sky until it formed a dome over the entire field. It was beautiful. Naoki knew with one look who had done it.
“Take it down, Akaiwa,” said the captain. “I don’t want any force fields messing with us while we’re trying to play ball.”
It wasn’t a force field, Naoki thought irritably, but he said nothing as he studied the area where the gate once was, where Naoki’s spell had not touched. Sure enough, amidst the swirl of red and silver threads, he found the seam of the second spell. And, pushing his fingers through, he managed to part the spell like a curtain and step through.
“I guess no one told you not to stick your fingers into unfamiliar spells when you were a kid,” said Yuto.
He was standing at the spot that Naoki had earlier gauged to be the centre of the field, baseball in one hand and glove on the other. “And I guess no one told you that it’s kind of rude to run off like that and not even send a text,” Yuto continued.
“I don’t have your number,” Naoki said hoarsely. “And I was kind of busy.”
Yuto smiled. “I can see that. I thought I’d give you a hand.”
Naoki could still dimly hear the commotion outside as the baseball team presumably saw him vanish from sight. But now that didn’t seem to matter, because Yuto was pointing upwards towards the roof he had constructed and when Naoki glanced up he saw one of the most breath-taking sights he had ever encountered.
From the outside, Yuto’s spell had been intricate and delicate, like an exquisite fabric. Inside, however, it was like standing at the bottom of a lake looking up. The sunlight danced on the shifting surface of Yuto’s spell, which seemed to move with a gentle breeze that Naoki could neither feel nor fathom. After a moment Naoki realised that what he had taken for sunlight was not quite sunlight. Yuto had taken parts of Naoki’s original gold figures and pulled them into his own spell.
Yamazaki was right, Naoki thought. The old families’ magic was really something else.
“How did you do this?” Naoki asked. Then he shook his head. “No, why did you do this?”
Yuto shrugged, and tossed the baseball over to Naoki, who caught it by instinct. “I guess because I could,” he said, pulling off his baseball mitt and dropping it on the ground as he walked over to Naoki. “And also because I’ve got a proposal to make.”
“Okay,” said Naoki. “What is it?”
“How would you like a summer job?”
The job, as it turned out, was to travel halfway across the country to Yuto’s family home, and build a very large and complicated fence.
“For the summer celebration in the town,” Yuto had told Naoki. “Which my family does a big showpiece for. And which I’m in charge of this year.”
In exchange, Naoki was to have access to the Ichinomiyas’ vast library, starting with the books Yuto had brought along with him to Kyoto.
“I can’t believe that is your choice of reading material,” said Yuto on the train, as Naoki sat hunched in his seat with Yuto’s copy of Nagao Tomokazu’s Revised Principles and Applications of Modern Magic open on his lap. They had left for the station at the crack of dawn, and since they had boarded the train, Naoki had done nothing but read. Yuto, in the meantime, had done nothing but try to interrupt him.
“You can’t get this in a normal library,” Naoki murmured, tracing along with a finger as he skimmed through the chapter on transformation-type spells. “It’s fascinating.”
“It’s dreadful,” said Yuto in mock-despair. “I offered you sexual favours and you chose this instead.”
Naoki was only half listening. “But why would Nagao argue for a sixth category when it’s so clear that transformation spells are essentially modifiers?”
“You know,” said Yuto, “most people generally spend train rides making pleasant conversation, not debating one of the unresolved controversies of theoretical magic.”
“Well, you’re not most people,” Naoki replied, glancing up at Yuto.
Yuto shrugged. “True.”
“I don’t understand,” said Naoki, returning to the book. “The Treatise proposes that a transformation spell does not exist on its own, but always acts on another. One would think that’s the clearest way to understand it.”
Yuto sighed. “Of course I agree with the concept,” he said, leaning his head against the window, “but Nagao doesn’t, and neither does Professor Hyuga. In fact, the Professor wrote an article refuting Uncle Ippei’s argument, two years ago.”
Yuto tilted his head to one side. “And what?”
“What did your uncle have to say about that?” asked Naoki.
“Ah,” said Yuto, pausing. “About that.” He stopped again, and looked like he was considering what to say next. “The thing is. He left, five years ago.”
Naoki’s heart sank. “I’m so sorry to hear that, I shouldn’t have brought it up–”
“No, no, he’s not dead,” said Yuto. “He went someplace else.”
“On a trip?”
“Sort of,” said Yuto, giving Naoki a helpless little smile. “The thing about my family is that if you don’t do magic their way, they’d rather you not do magic at all. Uncle Ippei was better than all of them, and he wasn’t welcome. So he left.”
“Where did he go?”
“Well,” said Yuto. “It’s all rather embarrassing – for my Great-Aunts and Uncles at least – but he left to find a way into the Realms Beyond.”
“Wait, what?” said Naoki, unable to hide his astonishment. “That’s crazy.”
“Hence the embarrassment,” said Yuto, smiling wryly.
Naoki shook his head disbelievingly. “The Fifteen Aichi Legends, Momotaro’s Millstone… He thought all that stuff was real?”
Yuto gave a surprised laugh. “Oh, but it is.” He paused, and looked at Naoki strangely. “Of course Beyond exists.”
Naoki started to laugh, but after a moment he realised that Yuto was being entirely serious.
“Everyone’s only embarrassed because he actually tried to find a way there,” said Yuto.
“No,” said Yuto. “I’m really not. Where else do you think magic came from?”
One of the books that Naoki had come across in high school, during the stage when he had been frantically trying to unearth every volume on magic that he could lay his hands on, had been Matsudaira Hotaru’s Tales from the Realms Beyond. It was a good-sized anthology of children’s tales about magic and the colourful characters. Naoki had spent a pleasant afternoon with it, before dismissing it as a work of complete fiction.
In most of these tales, there had been some mention of one or several magical lands; Naoki remembered one particular one where a foolish daimyo’s entire estate got annexed by a fox spirit, became part of Beyond, and vanished entirely from existence. But the author hadn’t even been consistent with the terminology. In the Aichi Legends, Beyond had been referred to as the Fox’s Land, whereas in the stories about Momotaro’s travelling there to slay the oni, she just called it Onigashima.
“So you’re saying that Momotaro and oni and kitsune… they actually exist?”
“I mean, many of the stories have obviously been mixed up with folk tales,” said Yuto. “Take Momotaro, for example. When I got older I figured he was some kind of amalgam of different magicians from the past. Uncle Ippei used to say that he was just meant to be a noble magician archetype that parents used to teach their children. But my great-grandmother’s convinced that one of my ancestors had actually met him.”
“Beats me,” said Yuto. “The point is we all know that magic came from somewhere Beyond – almost every magician family probably has one or two scrolls or spellbooks that they claim was brought over from Beyond by an ancestor. But if there ever was some way to travel there, it’s been forgotten.”
“And Ichinomiya Ippei went in search of it.”
Yuto grinned. “Even better.” He turned to Naoki now, with all the wonder and secrecy of a little boy sharing a discovery. “Uncle Ippei found it.”
“How do you know?” asked Naoki, frowning.
“Because he sent me a message when he got there.” Yuto reached into his bag and took out his notebook, which was stuffed full of bits of paper and held closed only by an elastic band. Yuto opened it and flipped through the pages to pull out what looked like an amulet cover. But instead of just handing it to Naoki, he held it upside down instead and shook it gently.
Slowly, gracefully, a beautiful little butterfly climbed out of the amulet cover and landed on the windowsill.
“A telegram, from Beyond.”
Like Yuto’s enchantment, this butterfly was also brick red and entirely made of magic. Apart from that, however, it was entirely unlike Yuto’s butterfly. Try as he might, Naoki could not tell the layers of illusion charms apart, nor could he even begin to fathom how the enchantments had been woven together. The figures that Naoki could make out had a symmetry and solidity that Yuto’s butterfly hadn’t even come close to having. And as Naoki watched it move along the windowsill, he was struck by how real it was. It was uncanny. Somehow, while looking at it, Naoki was overcome by a creeping feeling that everything else – the train they were in, the other passengers around them, the voice announcing severe delays on one of the connecting lines due to unforeseen interruptions – had somehow become less real by comparison.
The train announcement was for their station. Naoki found that he couldn’t quite bring himself to care about it. With visible reluctance, however, Yuto held out the amulet cover and began to coax the butterfly back inside.
It was only after the butterfly had vanished inside the pouch that Naoki realised he had been holding his breath.
“I’ve been trying to replicate that for the past three years,” said Yuto quietly, as the train slowed to a halt at their station. “That’s how long his enchantment has lasted. But that’s the funny thing, really.”
“What is?” asked Naoki, as he stood to get his bag.
“He left to prove a point,” said Yuto. “Why hasn’t he come back?”
But Naoki didn’t have a chance to think about Ippei’s butterfly after that, because the moment they got off the train, they were met by Yuto’s aunt Hanae and three of his kid cousins.
“The bad news is that there are massive traffic jams all along the highways,” said Aunt Hanae. She was a delicate-looking woman in her early forties with an exuberant smile who had, upon meeting Naoki, elbowed him gently and said, “I hear you’re the young man who’ll be helping Yuto with the fences.”
“And what’s the good news?” asked Yuto, while the littlest girl tried to clamber up Naoki’s leg.
“The good news is that you’re here,” said Aunt Hanae, “and your Great-Grandmother’s going to open a Gate.”
Yuto laughed, “That must be some traffic jam,” he said. “So where is it?”
Naoki half expected for some sort of magical door to open in the air, but instead Yuto’s cousin stepped forward with one hand outstretched. As far as Naoki could tell, there was nothing in it.
“Show me?” said Yuto gently, smiling down at him.
The boy closed his hand into a fist and opened it again to reveal a small brown skylark perched on his fingers.
“Nicely done,” said Yuto, ruffling the boy’s hair. “You’re getting as good as your dad, huh?”
“Come on now, children,” said Aunt Hanae, gathering her two girls and taking the boy by the hand. “We’re going to your Great-Grandmother’s.”
Naoki jumped slightly when Yuto reached over to grab his wrist. “People have been known to get lost,” said Yuto, with that hesitant smile of his.
“Well then,” Naoki replied, pulling his wrist away and taking Yuto’s hand instead, “you had better not let go.”
On the face of it, it seemed that all they were doing was following the skylark as it flapped its way through the train station. But a curious thing was happening. People were ceasing to notice them. The crowd just stepped out of the way, letting them pass, never mind the fact that there was a bird loose in the station and a group of people trailing after it. The lark led them to a flight of stairs, and as Naoki went down it, shoulders bumping occasionally with Yuto’s, he found that at moments he could glimpse, out of the corner of his eye, the corridor of enchantment they were actually walking through.
“They don’t talk about this in the books,” Naoki murmured, as they rounded a corner and seemed to be walking through the train station’s back office. Yuto’s palm was warm against his, and Naoki had half a mind to lace their fingers together.
“Each family guards their gates jealously,” Yuto replied. “Great-Uncle Yukio edited mentions of ours out of the Treatise, together with the eleventh chapter.”
“There’s an eleventh chapter?” asked Naoki.
The surprise must have been evident on Naoki’s face, because Yuto laughed. “I’ll show you the original manuscript later. I watched him write it.”
They had exited the office now and were walking down a corridor that ended in a nondescript little back door. The bird stopped just in front of it, landing on Yuto’s cousin’s shoulder and preening a little.
“Well, then,” said Aunt Hanae brightly, as she turned the handle and pushed open the door. “Here we are.”
The door swung open, and they were no longer standing in the train station, but before a modest-looking traditional gate. Standing on the threshold was another skylark, which chirped loudly as the one on Yuto’s cousin’s shoulder swooped down to join it. Their job done, they took to the sky together.
“You need one bird to lead you and one to wait at the destination,” Yuto was explaining, but Naoki was just a little too caught up in the fact that the house beyond the gate was huge. It was an old traditional house, its beautiful roofs arranged against a backdrop of the surrounding hills. The garden, which was not so much a garden as a field, looked like it had been lovingly taken care of and boasted a good-sized pond just across from the main entrance of the house.
“So, uh,” said Yuto. He had let go of Naoki’s hand and was now rubbing the back of his neck again. “This is where I grew up.”
“You’re a very tall young man.”
Naoki glanced round from the figure he was marking out, and saw an old lady in gardening clothes looking up at him from beneath the wide brim of her hat. They were on a path that snaked down the side of the hill, and Naoki had not expected there to be anyone travelling along it at this time.
“Thank you? And good afternoon,” said Naoki, bowing.
“Good afternoon to you as well,” said the old lady. She pointed at Naoki’s half-finished figure, which he had chosen to place on a hedge as a marker for the midpoint of Yuto’s route. “And what might this be?”
“I’m putting up a fence for the magical display,” said Naoki. “There’ll be a procession of enchantments down this road and my friend – the one who’s casting them – doesn’t want them to veer off course.”
“Ah, I see,” said the old lady, beaming up at Naoki. “And where is this friend of yours? It’s an awfully hot day to be working on your own, out in the sun.”
“Well, it’s a bit of a long story,” Naoki replied.
They had arrived just in time to find Yuto’s Great-Uncle Ichiro on the way out, with his bicycle and sorcerer’s counting board. He had been off to help the Town Association deal with a forest that had suddenly appeared behind a supermarket.
“Not a real one, of course,” Great-Uncle Ichiro had told them, “I’m informed it’s all mostly illusory, but one never knows!” He had laughed, slapping his belly, and it had been in the twinkling of his eyes that Naoki could clearly see the family resemblance with Yuto. “What an unusual day! First the traffic jams, and now an imaginary forest.”
“Do you think everyone will be able to get back in time for the celebration?” Aunt Hanae had asked, looking slightly troubled.
“I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” Great-Uncle Ichiro had replied, in a booming tone he had clearly thought was comforting. “We Ichinomiyas always find our way back – especially in time for the summer celebration.” He had turned to point at Yuto after that. “What say you, grand-nephew? Think you’d be interested in inspecting that forest?”
Yuto had said something about having to work on the display, to which Great-Uncle Ichiro had scoffed and waved dismissively. “You could cast those spells in your sleep!” he had roared. “As for the fence… your friend over here can start on it first, can’t he?”
And that was how Naoki had ended up working on the fence alone, with only the diagrams and notes scribbled in Yuto’s notebook as his guide.
The old woman was still looking at him for an explanation, Naoki realised.
“Well, my friend will be back soon, I should think,” said Naoki hastily.
“That’s all right, then,” said the old woman. She turned back to inspect Naoki’s figure on the hedge. “This is a good spell you’ve chosen to use. Well-drawn, too. And using the hedge to help with stability and grounding, that’s very good.”
“Thank you,” said Naoki, bowing deeply. “You seem to know a lot about fence spells.”
“On the contrary, I find that the more I discover about them, the more I realise I do not know,” replied the old woman, with a little laugh. “Take your spell, for example. You are planning on fencing in your friend’s illusions, are you not?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, this is an excellent spell to start with, but I have found that if you add an additional figure–” Here she held out her hand for Naoki’s brush, and took it with a little nod when he handed it to her. With great and graceful precision, she finished off the figure Naoki had been drawing and then added on top of it what looked like the beginning of a simple transformation arc. “This should serve you better in containing illusory magic.”
“I’ve never seen something like this before,” said Naoki, taking back the brush. “How will I know if it works?”
The old lady laughed. “We’ll just have to test it, won’t we?” She clapped her hands twice, murmured an incantation, and suddenly two skylarks appeared out of nowhere, fluttering over to perch on her fingers.
How oblivious he had been, Naoki thought. Of course someone walking along this path was likely to be a relative of Yuto’s. The old lady’s magic certainly proved it. She sent the first bird flying over to the part of the fence that Naoki had worked on earlier, and they both watched as it bumped against the enchantment for a moment, before determinedly slipping through. The second one she sent towards the stretch she had now modified. The bird stopped short just in front of the enchantment, and then, looking slightly affronted, flew around to land on the brush Naoki was holding.
Naoki glanced down at the bird, which he now realised to be illusory, and back up at the old lady, who was waving at someone who was coming up the path.
“Great-Grandmother!” Yuto exclaimed as he came towards them, wheeling his bicycle along. “I was looking for you!”
“Yuto, dear,” called the old lady, “I was just talking to your friend–” She turned to Naoki. “What was your name again?”
“Akaiwa Naoki, ma’am,” said Naoki, bowing again. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’m so sorry for not introducing myself earlier.”
“That’s quite all right,” said the old lady. “I should have introduced myself too. I am Yuto’s Great-Grandmother, Ichinomiya Chiyo.”
“He’s the friend I was telling you about,” said Yuto, leaning his bicycle along the hedge and bounding over to give his Great-Grandmother a hug.
Naoki looked down at the skylark, which had hopped onto his thumb. It had the same solidity as Ippei’s butterfly, and the illusory charms that formed it were undoubtedly even more intricate. But Naoki didn’t experience that bewitching unreality when he looked at it. In fact, he felt the same sort of calmness that he sometimes got when watching rain falling on the edge of a roof. And yet, now that he had a chance to look more closely at the enchantment, he realised that he could discern at least some of the figures woven into it, and see their precise, almost familiar symmetry.
“This is the same little bird that brought you from the station,” said Great-Grandmother. “I would have welcomed you myself, but there were some things that needed seeing to, out in the town. So I sent its brother ahead to wait for you instead.”
“Thank you,” said Naoki, still looking down at the bird. There was something he was missing here, something about pairs and gateways, and those figures he could make out. But Yuto was now exclaiming over the fence that Great-Grandmother had modified, and Great-Grandmother was saying that she needed to get back to the house, so Naoki didn’t have the chance to consider it further.
Together, Naoki and Yuto traipsed back along the fence that Naoki had made so far, stopping at the intervals along the route where Naoki had drawn the figures in order to add Great-Grandmother’s transformation arc. Or rather, Naoki added the arc while Yuto told him about the forest he and Great-Uncle Ichiro had examined.
“It’s strange because it kind of felt like Uncle Ippei’s butterfly,” said Yuto. “It was beautiful, but it seemed also like it was somehow leaching the colour from everything around it.”
“That’s odd,” said Naoki, finishing off another arc. It was, in fact, the first time he had successfully drawn a transformation figure. The books had never been quite clear about how to go about doing one. It certainly helped that Yuto was around to see if he was drawing it right.
“What I heard was that odd things like that have been popping up all over,” Yuto continued, taking the brush from Naoki for a moment to correct the end of the arc. Now that they were alone, he seemed to keep stepping into Naoki’s space, their hands and elbows brushing by accident. Not that Naoki minded, of course.
“That massive traffic jam?” Yuto continued, “That was apparently because a giant katsura tree had appeared in the middle of the highway.”
“Didn’t they try to cut it down?” asked Naoki.
“Nobody dared to,” said Yuto. “Because the leaves were autumn colours and apparently the branches were swaying in an unknown breeze. They waited for one of the Matsudaira clan magicians to show up instead, and he took half a day to find his way there.” Yuto laughed. “Makes you glad we came through the gateway, doesn’t it? I guess we always find our way back.”
Naoki thought, suddenly, of the expression on Yuto’s face earlier that day on the train, when he had wondered aloud about Uncle Ippei. We Ichinomiyas always find our way back, Great-Uncle Ichiro had said.
Oh, thought Naoki.
“Yuto,” he said abruptly, “Is there a particular place where the second bird always waits?”
“Traditionally, it should wait at a threshold,” said Yuto. “Though I’ve seen people use three twigs to form a gate before, in a pinch. It works as well.”
“And these birds always come in pairs?” asked Naoki.
“Yes,” said Yuto, looking at Naoki curiously. “Why do you ask?”
“What if–” Naoki began, his heart pounding in his chest. “What if it wasn’t a bird?”
“What if someone didn’t send a bird to wait at a threshold,” said Naoki, “but a butterfly?”
This was, Naoki realised, the first time he had ever seen Yuto performing magic. He was of course familiar with the end results of Yuto’s enchantments, but never had he actually stood by to watch as the spells were constructed and cast.
They were at the part of the garden farthest from the main house, next to a small shed. For the past ten minutes Yuto had been crouched on the grass just a few feet away from the entrance of the shed. He looked like a man possessed. His eyes were bright and lips moving silently as he worked his way through what Naoki guessed was a gate spell. And then Naoki spotted the way his fingers were twitching in the air and recognised that Yuto was sorting out the figures he needed for his spell without use of a counting board or reference to any books. The red butterfly had been set loose and was fluttering around Yuto’s head, casting its trails of heightened reality and making Yuto seem almost otherworldly.
It was in these moments that Naoki truly appreciated the notion that there were magicians and there were magicians, and that Yuto fell squarely into the latter category. When he finally rose to his feet and started to cast the figures he had formulated, weaving them out of thin air with a crook of his fingers and two incantations that Naoki had only read about in books, there was a magnetism about him that Naoki had never fully noticed.
Yuto seized magic like it was his birthright. And magic, in turn, bent to his will. It didn’t matter what had been written in Hyuga’s Dictionary or Nagao’s Principles, or any of the standard-issue manuals that Naoki had all but memorised. The gate that Yuto wrought trembled into existence, the spells and figures that comprised it defying categorisation. At first glance it seemed like the simplest of wooden gates, formed by two square posts and a horizontal beam joining them. Then the butterfly flitted over and landed in the centre of the threshold, and the gate took on a whole different aspect. It was as if the lingering traces of Ippei’s magic had transformed the gate from being Yuto’s creation to something else entirely. The posts were no longer posts but pillars of deepest scarlet, and the horizontal beam was now an emerald green roof. It seemed to come from a different time altogether, shaped by a more precise – and powerful – hand.
From where Naoki was standing, the gate, although magnificent, merely framed a section of the Ichinomiya garden. He could still see the large pond and the children playing on the veranda under the watchful eye of Aunt Hanae. But Yuto just continued to stand directly in front of the gate, transfixed by something on the other side.
“Yuto?” asked Naoki hesitantly. “Are you all right?”
Naoki stepped closer to touch Yuto’s arm, and quite suddenly caught sight of what Yuto had been staring at.
Yuto hadn’t been looking out at the garden, but at a field of grass that stretched far into the horizon, tinged a ghostly blue by the light of dozens of stars that hung remarkably low from the night sky. The clouds, too, floated closely overhead like unseeing creatures. Naoki looked out at this landscape and experienced an unspeakable longing that left him unable to breathe.
“What’s that?” Yuto whispered.
Naoki looked in the direction that Yuto had pointed and saw something moving in the field. It was so far away that it seemed like just a black shadow traversing the horizon, but on closer look Naoki realised that it wasn’t so much moving as it was spreading, rolling rapidly across the field like a sea of black flame. The stars shattered in its wake.
“Ichinomiya Yuto!” someone called from across the garden. “What on earth are you doing?”
“Yuto, stop that right now!” shouted another voice.
Naoki looked over and saw a group of Yuto’s aunts and uncles, including Great-Uncle Ichiro, hurrying over to them.
“What’s gotten into you, boy?” roared Great-Uncle Ichiro, gesturing towards the gate. He didn’t seem to have caught sight of what was happening beyond the threshold. “Don’t you remember what happened to your Great-Aunt Hotaru?”
“Don’t you remember what happened to Uncle Ippei?” Yuto snapped, tearing his eyes away from the sight beyond the gate to glare at Great-Uncle Ichiro.
“Don’t you dare mention that thief on a day like this,” said one of Yuto’s aunts, a tall and sophisticated-looking woman who had previously been introduced by Aunt Hanae as Aunt Saki. She had been smoking an e-cigarette when Naoki had met her earlier in the day, and now she took an agitated drag from it. Her face when she wasn’t smiling was as cold as Yuto’s, and now both of them were scowling at each other in exactly the same way.
“He’s not a thief!” said Yuto, taking a step towards her.
“Is that so?” asked Aunt Saki. “Then tell me, nephew, what would you call breaking into the Nagao clan library and making off with an original manuscript of A Conjurer?”
“He returned it–”
“Your Great-Grandmother returned it,” said Aunt Saki. “While he was nowhere to be found. And he as good as stole your Great-Aunt Hotaru, feeding her with lies about how he had found his way to the Realms Beyond, even when she was on her deathbed!”
“That’s not true!” cried Yuto. “Those two things had nothing to do with each other.”
Great-Uncle Ichiro shook his head. “It’s a sickness, boy. Your Great-Aunt spent her whole life fascinated by the Realms Beyond. She was always off in search of fox lights and all sorts of rubbish, and Ippei tipped her over the edge.”
“And don’t forget,” Aunt Saki continued viciously, “don’t forget the fact that exactly five years ago, on the night of our summer celebration, he broke into your Great-Grandmother’s private study and stole Shigetaka’s Manual.”
“He didn’t, h –”
“That was the first book of magic the Ichinomiya family ever possessed, Yuto,” said Aunt Hanae’s husband, Genji. He had Great-Uncle Ichiro’s build and the same smiling eyes, but the way he spoke was the complete opposite of his father; quiet and measured. “But the more important question,” he continued, gesturing over to the gate, “is where exactly does this gate spell lead?”
In the time they had spent arguing, the grass on the other side had somehow managed to spread over the threshold of the gate, growing long and wild and even creeping up the two pillars. But it wasn’t the ghostly blue colour that they had first observed at the beginning. Whatever had been moving across the landscape had cast its shadow through the gate. The grass had turned black.
“Stay away from that gate, Yuto,” said Aunt Saki, sounding uncertain for the first time. “Yuto.”
The black grass wasn’t just creeping up the pillars. It was strangling Yuto’s enchantment, sinking against the surface of the wood and laying bare the intricacies of Yuto’s spell, consuming it, even. With a cry of dismay Yuto started towards it, but Naoki caught his arm before he could take another step and onto a patch of the black grass. In that same moment, Great-Uncle Ichiro and Uncle Genji sprinted forward, while Aunt Saki cast a perfect eight-point barrier around Naoki and Yuto without having even to draw the figure.
Before Great-Uncle Ichiro and Uncle Genji could do anything more, however, the base of the two pillars gave way with a loud crunch. For a heartbeat the roof and the tops of the ruined pillars just hung there. And then, just before it tipped over, the entire structure vanished into nothingness, together with the field of black grass.
Only the butterfly was left, perched on the spot in the grass where the threshold had once been. The black border around the edge of its brick red wings had somehow grown wider, or perhaps its wingspan had grown larger.
Then it fluttered into the air, and Naoki realised that he was looking at not one but two butterflies.
“It’s Uncle Ippei,” Yuto whispered.
And there he was.
Naoki had only seen that one photograph of him, back in Yuto’s room in Kyoto. But Ippei was still that same small man, who looked no older than thirty-five even though he had been gone for years since that photo had been taken. He was wearing traditional dress but even then he cut a slight figure under its bulk.
“Ippei?” said Great-Uncle Ichiro in a faint voice.
Like Yuto, there was a softness in Ippei’s cheeks that made him look younger than he probably was. It didn’t matter, though, because as he approached it became increasingly apparent how much magic was emanating from him. The faint light of unknown galaxies clung to the skirt of his hakama. The fabric of his haori seemed cut from the still surface of a lake. One look was enough to know that Ippei hadn’t spent the past five years dealing in run-of-the-mill fence and building spells, or even the complex illusions that Yuto was so adept at performing. This was old magic he was steeped in, enchantment unlike anything Naoki had seen.
“How dare you,” hissed Aunt Saki.
Ippei smiled. “Hello, Saki,” he said, as if he had just popped by for a stroll and had not just stepped through a collapsing magical gateway after five years in the Realms Beyond. His voice had a nasal quality to it, and his tone was almost too cavalier.
“How dare you come back here after breaking Grandmother’s heart?”
“Well, you see,” said Ippei, gesturing towards Yuto, who was trying to rip apart Aunt Saki’s eight point barrier from within, “I was invited.”
“Have you come to return the Manual, then?” asked Great-Uncle Ichiro gruffly.
“I suppose I could,” Ippei replied, with a flippant little shrug. “I’ve got no further use for it, after all.”
“Then we would all appreciate that very much.”
They turned and saw Great-Grandmother coming towards them, no longer in her gardening clothes but in a blue kimono. She was not smiling now, and her expression had in fact taken a steely edge that Naoki had not imagined possible, from their earlier encounter.
“Ippei,” said Great-Grandmother.
Ippei bowed. “Mother.”
“Just wait till the others hear about this,” Saki muttered.
“You’ve returned,” said Great-Grandmother.
“Yuto’s gate helped,” Ippei replied. “But it’s been a long journey nonetheless.”
Great-Grandmother was silent for a while. The rest of the aunts and uncles looked tensed for a fight. Yuto, on the other hand, had somehow managed to unravel the seam of Aunt Saki’s eight-point barrier.
At length, Great-Grandmother spoke. “Welcome home,” she said. “Won’t you have something to eat?”
Never in Naoki’s life had he sat through a larger or more awkward family dinner. A veritable feast had been prepared, and they all gathered to eat at a long, low table in the large shoin drawing room overlooking the garden. Including the children, there were around twenty-five Ichinomiyas in attendance that evening. Most of them appeared to be tolerating Ippei’s presence only on Great-Grandmother’s account. While Aunt Saki and some of the others continued shooting him death glares during the dinner, the rest of Yuto’s aunts and uncles chose instead to ignore him.
This appeared to suit Ippei just fine. He touched none of the food and after the first ten minutes moved over to the veranda with Yuto to pore over Yuto’s plans for the spells he was going to cast. They conversed quietly and delightedly, using their own hushed little verbal shorthand that Naoki strained to comprehend. Eventually Naoki gave up, and succumbed to being taken under the rather magnanimous and drunken wing of Great-Uncle Ichiro, who plied Naoki with food while giving him a long and enthusiastic account of the Ichinomiya family’s integral role in the late sixteenth-century unification of Japan.
Even as Great-Uncle Ichiro spoke, Naoki found his eyes wandering over to Yuto and Ippei. Naoki would be lying if he said that he had never once imagined what it would be like to one day meet Ichinomiya Ippei. In the years after he had first discovered the Treatise, Naoki had given serious consideration to what arguments he would marshal in response to the rather deficient chapter on illusory spells, or the top three questions of magic that he would seek Ippei’s opinion on. At the beginning Naoki had fancied himself somewhat of a prodigy at magic – his fence-type spells, after all, were possibly the best in the district. Later on, even after the disappointment of that first week in Kyoto, Naoki still cherished the thought of being acknowledged as a fellow scholar of magic.
But Ippei didn’t need that. The deep questions that Naoki had spent years pondering were probably mere trifles to Ippei, resolved long ago. Ippei had journeyed to the Realms Beyond and returned. He probably knew more about magic than Naoki could ever hope to understand even after a lifetime of study. And in any case, if Ippei wanted to share any of these secrets and revelations, he certainly wouldn’t share them with Akaiwa Naoki from Hanamigawa. Not when he had his nephew with him. Yuto, who cast spells like an afterthought; who had waited all these years for Ippei’s return. And who had built the gate that had brought him home.
“You’re Yuto’s friend from university, aren’t you?” said one of Yuto’s uncles. Naoki’s first thought upon turning towards him was that he looked awfully familiar.
“I’m Akaiwa,” Naoki replied. “I came to help with the fence.”
“I could have done that,” said the unknown uncle, bestowing Naoki with a smile reminiscent of an eighties pop idol. “It only takes a few simple steps to get right.”
“Oh do stop bragging, Kiyoshi,” Aunt Saki snapped. She appeared to be on her seventh glass of beer and still going strong.
“Thousands of households have proven that it works,” the uncle replied, with a little wink.
Suddenly it fell into place. “You’re Magical Kiyoshi?” Naoki asked, before he could stop himself.
“Who else could I be?” Kiyoshi demanded, looking deeply offended, while Aunt Saki burst into hysterical laughter.
“I think young Naoki looks like he’s in need of the gents, doesn’t he?” asked Great-Uncle Ichiro, slapping Naoki on the back. “Go on,” he added in what he thought was an undertone, “Before Kiyoshi throws another fit.”
“I can hear you, Uncle,” said Kiyoshi, which only set Aunt Saki off again.
With a grateful look to Great-Uncle Ichiro, Naoki rose to his feet and beat a hasty retreat.
It was much quieter further inside the house, which helped Naoki feel a lot less overwhelmed. He wandered along the corridor, bare feet padding softly against the cool wood floor, until eventually he arrived at a small courtyard garden that he hadn’t noticed earlier. As Naoki sat down on the veranda opening out into the courtyard, looking at the tranquil little formation of rocks and shrubbery under the evening light, he realised that none of the plants in the garden seemed to have been straightened or undergirded by magic. Only time and tender care had given it its form and beauty.
And as Naoki sat there, he couldn’t help but think back to the look on Yuto’s face as he spoke with Ippei about magic. It had been a look of pure joy, like he couldn’t believe his eyes, like there was nothing in the world that he wanted more than to see Ippei. And although Naoki was experienced enough to know not to take a casual hook-up too seriously, a feeling of something like jealousy still rose unbidden in his chest
While Naoki was still considering this, a little red butterfly fluttered into his field of vision. It was smaller than a hand span and brick red, and it was decidedly not Ippei’s.
“There you are,” said Yuto, stepping out onto the veranda. The butterfly winged its way over to Yuto, and vanished in his hand. “You just slipped off.”
“Your Great-Uncle Ichiro suggested I do so,” Naoki replied, “I may have offended your uncle.”
“Magical Kiyoshi,” said Naoki. “Who you could really have mentioned when we were still on the topic of famous magician relatives, by the way.”
Yuto made a face. “Please. That would have been an absolute mood-killer,” he said, walking over to sit down beside Naoki. “Besides, Uncle Kiyoshi’s probably the least magical member of the family. Aunt Yuzuko said that someone from the TV station plans all the spells he presents.”
“That’s a surprise,” said Naoki dryly, smirking when Yuto burst out laughing.
“You had better not let him hear you saying that,” said Yuto. “He’s very sensitive.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Naoki replied. “By the way, whose idea was it to build a non-magical garden in here?”
“That would have been my Great-Aunt Hotaru,” said Yuto. “The only thing she brought to the garden by magic was the fireflies. When she was still around, the courtyard would just be lit with them every night.”
“That must have been lovely.”
“It really was,” said Yuto. “They used to sit here and think through spells together. Great-Aunt Hotaru and Uncle Ippei. And sometimes Uncle Sou – her son – would join them too.”
Naoki glanced over at Yuto. There was a faraway look on his face as he gazed out into the unlit garden, which was growing darker as the sun set.
“Great-Aunt Hotaru was the only one who really cared for Uncle Ippei, you know,” said Yuto, after a pause. “Besides Great-Grandmother, who took him in. Everyone else hated him because he just reminded them of Great-Grandfather’s affair.”
“That explains the frosty reception,” said Naoki. It also explained why Ippei, despite being decades younger than Great-Uncle Ichiro, had addressed Great-Grandmother as Mother. “What happened to Great-Aunt Hotaru? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“She died of illness when I was fifteen,” said Yuto. “And that’s the whole story. Half my relatives think it was something to do with magic, that Uncle Ippei put ideas into her head about journeying to the Realms Beyond.”
Having caught a glimpse of what might have been part of the Realms Beyond, Naoki could understand the fascination.
“She certainly was quite taken with the idea of finding it. People used to say that the Matsudaira clan had a bit of fox blood in them – that’s why they always felt called to the Fox’s Land. Who knows? But it was only after she died that Uncle Ippei seriously thought about doing it,” Yuto continued. “Before that, his interest was just academic – what sort of powers lie Beyond, if it’s truly where magic came from. That sort of thing.”
“Oh,” said Naoki. “I suppose that would be a logical extension of learning about magic. To understand it by its foundations.”
Yuto laughed. “Not everyone thinks of it that way,” he said. “Not everyone wants to find out. Sometimes magic just is.”
“Where’s the rigour?” finished Yuto before Naoki could say it. He grinned at Naoki. “When it comes to debating about magic you’re so much like Uncle Ippei, sometimes.”
And Naoki didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so he said, instead, “Are you glad he’s back?”
“Yes,” said Yuto simply. “I am. I never wanted him to leave, and I’m glad he’s come back.” He paused, and turned to Naoki. “Thanks for figuring out the butterfly.”
“Not going to thank me for constructing the largest magical fence I’ve ever built in my life?”
“Wasn’t that meant to be your job in the first place?” Yuto replied, trying to keep his expression serious but unable to hide the mirth in his eyes. “Speaking of which,” he continued, “there’s the matter of payment.”
Yuto grabbed Naoki’s arm, and Naoki’s heart leapt in his chest. And then Yuto said, “I really should have shown you the library earlier,” and Naoki felt a different sort of excitement altogether.
Together they made their way through the house until they reached a pair of sliding doors, painted with little skylarks flitting above a lake of gold and deepest blue. Yuto reached forward and slid open the doors, revealing a room full of shelf upon shelf of books.
“Welcome to the library.”
It was a modest room by any measure, certainly only a fraction of the size of the university library in Kyoto. But that was only in terms of physical space. It was apparent from just a cursory glance at the shelves that the Ichinomiya library was filled with untold treasures. Within seconds, Naoki had already caught sight of a re-bound copy Daini no Sanmi’s The Magician, sitting next to a five-volume set of Hyuga’s Unabridged National Dictionary of Magic. Below that was a very rare edition of Hino Susumu’s Records, which Naoki had only read about and which supposedly contained all the magician’s notes on various experiments he had undertaken over the years.
And these were just the titles that Naoki knew. There were hundreds of others that no one had ever written of in the publicly available literature. For several long moments Naoki forgot everything and just wandered along the shelves, hungrily reading all the book spines and imagining what secrets they held within. Yuto followed behind him, clearly amused, occasionally pulling out a book or two to show Naoki an inscription written by one of the other old families to the Ichinomiyas. Only a handful of these were actually genuine attempts at cordiality; the rest of them were simply carefully-crafted insults.
“This is amazing,” said Naoki, running his fingers along one of the shelves and actually feeling centuries of magic just prickling beneath his touch. His heart was pounding from the shock and delight of being among these books. “I can’t believe this exists.”
“Look over here,” said Yuto, and when Naoki turned around he leaned up to kiss him.
It occurred to Naoki in that moment, that there was perhaps one thing he wanted more than this roomful of books. One person, to be exact. But despite being surrounded by words, he found he didn’t quite know how to say this. So instead he put it into their kiss, into the way he tugged Yuto gently towards him, into the way he slid one hand along Yuto’s jaw to cup his face, into the way he smiled against Yuto’s lips and said, when they pulled apart, “It figures you’d try to distract me again.”
“I can’t believe that worked,” said Yuto. They were pressed so close together that when Yuto huffed a laugh, Naoki could feel the vibrations against his chest.
“You,” said Naoki, “are quite impossible.”
And Naoki was just about to lean in and kiss Yuto again when he heard the sound of someone’s clearing their throat. Naoki and Yuto both sprang apart immediately, turning to see Ippei standing by the entrance to the library.
“You should probably shut the door first, next time,” said Ippei, looking rather embarrassed. He was rubbing the back of his head the same way Yuto always did.
“Sorry,” said Yuto, staring fixedly at his feet.
“Well, I came to tell you that it’s time for the display,” said Ippei. “Or rather, that you’ve still got forty-five minutes to spare but everyone else won’t stop fretting about it.” He looked over to Naoki and gave him a wry little smile. “I suppose it’s all been a bit of an ordeal for you, hasn’t it?”
“It’s been all right,” And then, before he could stop himself, Naoki said, “It’s truly an honour to be able to meet you.”
Ippei let out a startled laugh. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Really, your Treatise entirely changed the way I looked at magic,” said Naoki.
“You’ve read the Treatise?” asked Ippei, glancing from Naoki to Yuto.
“Oh yes,” Yuto told Ippei, “I forgot to mention that Great-Uncle Yukio edited and published it while you were away. Naoki here thinks it ought to occupy the same position as Hyuga’s Dictionary in the magical canon.”
If Naoki hadn’t been so nervous he would have remembered to be annoyed at Yuto for mentioning this. Ippei, on the other hand, looked surprised and delighted.
“Well I must say it’s terribly kind of you to think that,” said Ippei. He had a very genial way of speaking that instantly put Naoki at ease, and as he spoke, his hands moved animatedly as though he was about to cast a spell at any moment. “I didn’t imagine, while writing it, that it would ever be published.”
“I’m happy that it was,” said Naoki, hoping madly that he didn’t sound like too much of an idiot.
“But I should really be thanking you,” said Ippei, “for working out my butterfly. You won’t believe how hard it was to send it back to Yuto.”
“Was the magic required very complex?” asked Naoki.
“Oh, not at all,” said Ippei. “I simply used Hyuga’s standard figures with a bit of my own personal variations thrown in for good measure. And not forgetting the classical subjective transformation clause, of course, but that’s mostly just a matter of style, as I was explaining to Yuto earlier. The difficulty was in how to get it out –” Here Ippei paused all of a sudden and shook his head as if he wished to forget something rather unpleasant.
“Well, never mind about that,” he continued brightly, after a moment. “We’ve got that display to think about. Or rather, Yuto’s got to think about it. I fully intend to sit back and enjoy the spectacle.”
According to the plans sketched out in Yuto’s notebook, the procession of illusory creatures was meant to start from the Ichinomiya house, before winding down the hillside path towards the town, where the rest of the festival was taking place. The tradition, Ippei explained, had begun more than a century ago, when the Ichinomiya ancestors devised the festival as a gesture of goodwill between the family and the town.
“Only an Ichinomiya would devise a way to celebrate a town festival without actually having to physically be present at the town itself,” said Ippei, as they made their way back through the house to where the rest of the family was finishing their dinner.
“I suppose they thought the townspeople would somehow get hold of the family secrets?” asked Yuto.
“That was their main concern, I think,” Ippei replied. “The first few pages of Shigetaka’s Manual – the coherent pages, in any case – detail some of the lengths the Ichinomiya ancestors went to in order to conceal the very existence of this house.”
“Was it useful, then?” asked Yuto, just before they reached the corridor leading to the drawing room. “The Manual.”
Ippei seemed to consider this for a while. “Yes,” he said carefully, “in that I got where I wanted. But most of it is just the ravings of a madman.”
“Shigetaka’s the one whom Great-Grandmother is convinced has met Momotaro,” Yuto told Naoki, with a conspiratorial grin. “Remember what you used to say about the noble magician archetype, Uncle?”
But Ippei didn’t have a chance to respond to this, because they arrived at the drawing room to find everyone already on their feet. A man who Naoki had never seen before was urgently speaking to Great-Grandmother.
“It’s Uncle Sou,” said Yuto to Naoki. “I thought he said he wasn’t coming because he was putting in an extra shift at the police station.”
“Have you got anything to do with this?” snapped Aunt Saki, rounding on Ippei.
Ippei looked bewildered. “What on earth has happened?”
“The forest, Ippei,” said Uncle Sou. He was serious-looking and appeared no older than Ippei. Unlike Ippei, however, there seemed not a trace of magic on him, and when he spoke it was in deep and measured tones. “The one that appeared behind the supermarket.”
“But this afternoon it was merely illusory!” said Yuto.
“It appears that’s no longer the case,” said Uncle Sou, not sparing a glance towards Yuto. His words were directed only at Ippei. “It’s become quite real, and it’s spreading. Would you happen to know anything about this, Ippei?”
Ippei smiled bitterly. “Sou. Always with the interrogation.”
“I just want to know if you have any information on what’s happened, Ippei,” said Uncle Sou. “I’m certainly not here to chat.”
“I assure you,” said Ippei, “this is the first time I’m hearing of it.”
“But who else would have caused it?” muttered Aunt Saki.
“If Ippei says he doesn’t know about it,” said Great-Grandmother sharply, “he doesn’t know about it.”
“You’ve always sided with him!” one of the Aunts, Yuzuko, suddenly burst out. Naoki had earlier been introduced to her while she had been in the midst of giving her two young sons a lecture on the dangers of playing catch by the pond. “Even after our mother died. Even when Sou left home. Do you even care what he did to this family?”
Everyone looked taken aback by this outburst. From some of their faces it was clear that Aunt Yuzuko had only said out loud what they had already been thinking.
“But Great-Aunt Hotaru–” Yuto began to say, but stopped when Aunt Hanae gently touched his shoulder and shook her head.
“Yuzuko, my dear,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro, “be reasonable.”
“No, I’ve been quiet all evening and I’ve had enough,” said Aunt Yuzuko, in a trembling voice. “I saw him do it. Eight years ago I saw him open a gate. My mother was with him. They couldn’t pass through it – oh, how they tried – but they couldn’t.”
“Is that true?” asked Uncle Sou, turning to Ippei.
“Yuzuko,” Ippei said quietly, “Yuzuko, I didn’t –”
“And it consumed her, after that. Whatever she saw. She never stopped thinking about it. I didn’t breathe a word about it to anyone because I thought if I did I would make it real, that I wouldn’t be able to pretend it was just an ordinary illness.” Yuzuko pointed at Ippei. “But she died, because of you. Because you were curious.”
“Yuzuko,” said Great-Grandmother. “That’s quite enough.”
“And you didn’t learn, did you?” Yuzuko continued. “Grandmother protected you and you repaid her by stealing the Manual and leaving.” She took a step towards Ippei, and gestured towards his robes, which were less resplendent than when he had first appeared, but remained exquisite nonetheless. “So. If you’ve discovered all the secrets of magic. If you’ve gotten all the power and the knowledge you desired. Prove it. Make that forest go away.”
Everyone turned to look at Ippei, who for a moment seemed as lost and fearful as a child. And then he took a breath and seemed to compose himself. When he spoke again it was with the same deliberately cavalier tone he had used when he’d first arrived.
“I left in search of the Realms Beyond because I believed I could make this family’s magic greater than it ever was,” said Ippei. “And now I have returned to find that I’m still not welcome in this house.”
Nobody said anything. A few of the relatives, including Aunt Hanae and Great-Uncle Ichiro, looked uncomfortable. Aunt Saki, on the other hand, was still glaring at Ippei, arms folded across her chest.
“For various reasons, I would much rather not leave the threshold of this house,” Ippei continued. “But if you insist, I shall examine this forest. As for whether or not I can make it go away…” Ippei paused, and adjusted his haori. “That may not be entirely up to me.”
“Ippei,” said Great-Grandmother, with growing alarm. “What did you do? What did you find on the other side?”
But Ippei was already striding across the drawing room towards the veranda, not meeting anyone’s gaze as he went. He paused just before the short stone steps leading down to the garden.
“Mother,” said Ippei. He didn’t turn around. “You were right about everything.”
There was silence apart from a sharp intake of breath from Great-Grandmother. Ippei stepped down into the garden, and made his way across the grass towards the larger gate.
“I’ll go with you,” said Yuto, and instinctively Naoki found himself moving as well. Before anyone could stop them, they had both scrambled down from the veranda and were hurrying after Ippei.
And then Naoki saw it, and stopped in his tracks. A second gate, if you could even call it a gate, nothing like the one Ippei had emerged from.
It started as a black fog that gathered into existence around Ippei, rising from nowhere and swirling sluggishly about his legs.
“Uncle!” Yuto cried, reaching forward immediately to try and draw a containment or barrier of some sort.
“Stay back,” called Ippei in a hoarse voice. “I’m telling you, step away, run, if you can–”
The fog was thickening to shroud Ippei in a treacherous facsimile of an embrace. Yuto tried to bolt forward again but this time Naoki caught his arm, tugging him backwards. Naoki was dimly aware of Aunt Saki shouting something, and Aunt Hanae trying to gather the children, but it felt as if the sound had been sucked clean out of the air.
Yuto was pushing at Naoki, trying to wrench himself away, sending out sparks of enchantment that simply vanished into the fog before he could finish weaving them. Ippei himself had twisted around in his efforts to get free, and now Naoki could see that he was trying to murmur an incantation. But no sound was coming out even as his lips formed the syllables. All that was left was a horrible nothingness, a midnight chill with no promise of dawn. There was a fear in his eyes that terrified Naoki more than anything else.
“Stop!” Great-Grandmother’s voice rang out suddenly. With a sound like a thunderclap, an eight point barrier flashed into existence around Ippei.
The fog continued to surround Ippei, trapping him in place. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face a mask of agony. But now Naoki could hear the children crying behind them, and the sound of Kiyoshi hysterically shouting for someone to call the police. Another barrier snapped up around Naoki and Yuto, encircling them in Great-Grandmother’s enchantment. When Naoki turned round, he realised that the Ichinomiya house itself was bordered by a most complex web of spells, which looked like it had been woven together over generations.
Great-Grandmother raised her hands high. There was a great flash of light and with a wingbeat of a butterfly, the fog around Ippei was dispersed.
Yuto broke free from Naoki’s grip and started towards Ippei, who stumbled forward once but caught himself at the edge of the eight point barrier.
“Yuto, no!” shouted Aunt Hanae.
Then Naoki saw Ippei still hanging there mid-fall, unconscious, and realised that Ippei hadn’t caught himself. Something else had; and it was holding him there suspended.
“Let him go,” said Great-Grandmother, her voice sharp even though her hands shook.
Ippei stirred. For a moment it looked as if he would stand on his own.
And then, out of nowhere, a boy stepped out from behind Ippei.
He looked no older than fourteen, his face still slightly rounded with youth, but there was something in his grin and his dark eyes that made Naoki flinch. He was smaller than Ippei, but they now saw that he was holding Ippei up by the back of his collar with seemingly no effort at all. Like Ippei, he was dressed in traditional clothes, but in the brightest of hues. His kimono was the rich green of a forest at the height of summer, and it seemed almost as if sunlight and leaf shadows were dancing upon it as he moved. Flowers bloomed across the inner lining of his surcoat, which was embroidered with the vibrant scarlet and gold of autumn. His belt had the texture and colour of frost upon glass, and his long and short swords were the jet black of a barren tree in winter. Even behind the protection of Great-Grandmother’s eight-point barrier, Naoki could feel the intoxicating weight of the boy’s magic pressing down around him. He wanted to look away but found that he could not. All gazes were drawn towards him.
“I said to let him go,” said Great-Grandmother.
“Ah, but you see,” said the boy, releasing his grip on the fabric of Ippei’s kimono and letting him crumple to the ground, “this is what happens when I do.” He looked down at Ippei’s unconscious form and made a face. “It’s rather undignified.”
Yuto, who had been standing at the edge of their own eight point barrier, made a helpless sound as he pressed his hands against the surface of Great-Grandmother’s enchantment.
“Then again,” the boy continued. “This entire affair has been undignified. In fact, it has caused quite the scandal in my court. The Chancellor even went as far as to comment how unbecoming it was for one to go tearing apart the Realm – and the border between Realms – just for one human magician.” He crouched down beside Ippei, gazing at him with an expression that was both fond and predatory. “But for a human magician he is terribly dear to me.”
“He is not yours to claim,” said Great-Grandmother.
“Oh, is that so?” asked the boy, looking up at her. “I know you, Ichinomiya Chiyo, and I would think that you of all people would best understand the rules of safe passage. After all, I hear you were the one who explained them to Ippei when you gave him Shigetaka’s little diary.”
“I did not do so willingly,” said Great-Grandmother, ignoring the gasps from the Ichinomiyas in the house.
“Of course not,” agreed the boy, stroking one hand gently across Ippei’s brow. “How he must have begged you for Shigetaka’s secrets. And I, for one, am glad you told him. How else could he have found his way to me?”
“Let him go!” cried Yuto, slamming his fists against Great-Grandmother’s eight point barrier. “He wants to stay here!”
The boy turned his attention towards them, and Naoki shuddered under the boy’s cold, careless gaze.
“How dare you interrupt me?” asked the boy, rising to his feet. All traces of good humour had vanished from his voice, which had turned dangerously quiet. “How dare you, a mere child, speak to me in this manner?”
“He doesn’t know who you are,” said Great-Grandmother. “But I do. You are Momotaro.”
“Slayer of demons, Emperor of Onigashima and the isles beyond,” said the boy – Momotaro – with a haughty smile. “Yes, yes. You are quite right.”
Yuto let out a sound of disbelief and staggered backwards, bumping into Naoki. “But Momotaro was a noble magician–”
“Ah,” said Momotaro. “Ippei had to learn this too. Some of the stories are untrue. And the alternative is far more magnificent.”
At Momotaro’s feet, Ippei began to stir. Before he could fully awaken, Momotaro pulled him up to a standing position with merely a crook of his fingers. While Ippei hung there from invisible strings, struggling to regain consciousness, Momotaro straightened Ippei’s clothes with startling tenderness. “He came to me so very broken,” Momotaro murmured. “So very curious.”
“Don’t touch him!” cried Yuto.
“Boy.” Even though Momotaro himself had the appearance of a boy, it was clear from that one syllable that it was in form only. “If this were my Court I would have you put to death.”
“But this is not your Court,” said Great-Grandmother, her voice trembling only a little. “This is not your Realm. And I invoke the terms of Shigetaka’s treaty.”
Momotaro threw his head back and laughed. He laughed for a long time, in a child’s hysterical giggle, leaning against Ippei for support.
“You would rely on the very contract with which Shigetaka signed away his sanity?” Momotaro finally asked, wiping tears from his eyes.
“It is an agreement nonetheless,” said Great-Grandmother. “I believe it still holds, does it not?”
“Indeed,” replied Momotaro.
“Article eleven,” said Great-Grandmother. “Any human magician shall have the right to enter into negotiations with his Highness the Emperor to determine an adequate price–”
“Yes, yes, in exchange for safe passage into, through and from Onigashima and the Isles Beyond, I’m quite familiar with that, thank you,” said Momotaro impatiently. “Consider the Treaty invoked.” He looked around at the eight-point barrier that still encircled him and Ippei, and crinkled his nose. “And I’ll thank you to release me from this crude… containment of yours.”
“Only if you release Ippei,” replied Great-Grandmother.
In the same moment that Momotaro waved away whatever magic he was using to hold Ippei up, Grandmother removed the eight point barrier. Ippei stumbled forward, steadied himself, and backed away from Momotaro.
“Good, good,” said Momotaro. “As for the formalities to be observed – you need a witness who is not your kin.” He glanced around at the rest of the Ichinomiya family, who were still clustered in the drawing room. And then he looked over at Naoki. “I suppose that young chap over there ought to do. That tall workman fellow.”
“He’s our guest,” said Great-Grandmother.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care,” Momotaro replied. He pointed at Naoki. “You. Come here.”
Great-Grandmother removed the eight-point barrier just long enough for Naoki to step over. When Naoki had made his way unsteadily over to where Ippei was standing, somewhere at the midpoint between Momotaro and Great-Grandmother, Momotaro began to speak.
“Let it be witnessed today,” said Momotaro, “that I, Momotaro, the slayer of demons, Emperor of Onigashima and the Isles Beyond, am a magnanimous and benevolent ruler who keeps his word. This human magician, Ichinomiya Ippei, stumbled into my Realm, enjoyed the hospitality of my Court, and received magic, knowledge and power beyond his imagination. In exchange, all I asked was that he remain in my Court for the rest of his human lifespan. Yet he chose to escape.
“Ippei’s breach of our earlier agreement means that I am not bound by Shigetaka’s Treaty, insofar as it concerns Ippei. My claim over him remains. And yet, I understand a mother’s longing for her son. As a gesture of goodwill, I will name you the one price that I will accept in exchange for his return.”
“And what might that be?” asked Great-Grandmother.
Momotaro gave Great-Grandmother the widest and most chilling smile Naoki had ever seen. “I would have his magic.”
There was a collective gasp from the rest of the Ichinomiyas in the house. Ippei himself took a step backwards in shock. Only Great-Grandmother remained impassive.
“I am not asking for much,” said Momotaro. “Consider the fact that Shigetaka left my Realm a madman. By contrast, you would have Ippei back, intact and alive!”
It was a terrible choice. Great-Grandmother knew it, and so did everyone else.
Momotaro looked over at Yuto, who was still trapped inside Great-Grandmother’s eight point barrier. “Don’t you think that is reasonable? Didn’t you want, more than anything, for your beloved uncle to return to you for good? I, of course, would miss him dearly, but I’ve always been such a generous soul.”
“Will you not take anything else in exchange?” asked Great-Grandmother. “Will you not take my magic instead?”
“No,” said Momotaro. “I will accept nothing else.”
Great-Grandmother was silent for a long moment. Finally, she sighed, and nodded.
It was the first thing Ippei had said throughout the entire exchange. He took a step forward, and Naoki saw that his fists were clenched by his sides, knuckles white. “Wait.”
Momotaro turned to Ippei, his dark eyes gleaming. “Did you have something to say?”
“Ippei,” said Great-Grandmother.
“You warned me about this, Mother,” Ippei told her, “and I didn’t listen.”
“Ippei, it’s going to be all right–”
“Think about what you would lose,” Momotaro whispered. “Think about the splendour of my Court–”
“Yours is a court of monsters,” Ippei spat. His hands seemed to be moving unconsciously as he spoke, and Naoki thought he saw the beginnings of a figure of power.
“Remember how we all climbed that mountain one night and charmed a star into parting with its power–”
“You enslaved it–”
But it wasn’t possible to cast a figure of power, everyone agreed; it was too unstable and too complex, Hyuga had written, and Ippei himself had said so in the Treatise.
“My endless halls filled with books of magic, my advisors who taught you how to divine your future–”
“And yet all I saw was ruin!” As Ippei said these words, the figure he had drawn exploded into a massive bolt of energy which slammed into Momotaro. The force of impact was strong enough to throw Naoki and Great-Grandmother onto the ground.
Even as Naoki tried to get back on his feet, he felt a mad surge of hope. If Ippei could do that again, if he could defeat Momotaro –
But Ippei didn’t look triumphant; he looked stunned. He was staring down at his trembling hands with a mixture of amazement and guilt, with a curious hunger that Naoki was shocked to recognise. Because Naoki knew that hunger, that feeling of opening a book of magic and desperately studying the spells and incantations, knowing that whatever wonders he could already do still fell short of the sublime. It had consumed Naoki ever since that day in the library, and Naoki hadn’t even seen a gate spell up close until earlier that day. For Ippei, who had pursued magic beyond the ends of this earth, it must have felt cavernous.
Naoki realised that Momotaro’s choice was no choice at all.
“That was very well done,” said Momotaro, picking himself up and dusting off his clothes. He didn’t seem to be hurt. In fact, he was grinning rather delightedly as he walked over to Ippei, right hand outstretched.
“Now, imagine losing it.”
At those words, something shifted in Ippei’s expression. His hands dropped to his sides, fingers still for the first time. His face was one of utter defeat.
“No!” shouted Yuto, stumbling forwards, which was when Naoki realised that the eight point barrier had vanished. “Uncle Ippei, don’t go! Don’t you dare go!”
Ippei’s lips moved, but no sound came out. It might have been an apology. He shut his eyes, as if to ignore Yuto’s pleas and the sounds of the rest of the Ichinomiya family trying to rouse a still-unconscious Great-Grandmother, and took Momotaro’s hand.
Momotaro turned his gaze back to Naoki. Suddenly Naoki saw that Momotaro was standing at the entrance of a vast hall of gleaming black wood, with beasts and exquisitely-dressed courtiers alike awaiting his arrival. One of the courtiers, a woman garbed in juni-hitoe the colour of a candle flame’s heart, took up her shamisen and began to play the most haunting song Naoki had ever heard in his life.
“You have witnessed this,” said Momotaro. He entered the hall. The doorway remained open long enough for Naoki to see Ippei visibly shudder.
Then they vanished entirely from sight.
The sun the next morning rose over a cloudless sky. Naoki awoke with a terrible crick in his neck from sleeping on a sofa that was too short for him. Amidst last night’s confusion of getting Great-Grandmother to a hospital and making sure the barriers around the house were fortified, nobody had remembered to tell him where the extra futons were stored.
The house was silent as Naoki sat up from the sofa; most of the Ichinomiyas had either gone home or were still at the hospital.
“What about Uncle Ippei?” one of the older girls had asked. “Is anyone going after him?”
It was after she had been chased off to bed that Uncle Sou had spoken. “Ippei has been choosing magic over family ever since we were boys.” There had only been disappointment in his voice.
Naoki ached to imagine how much worse it must be for Yuto.
He was just about to get up and look for Yuto when he heard the pounding of feet against the wooden floor. Three of Yuto’s cousins burst into the room. One of them, a cheeky little fellow named Daichi, ran up to Naoki with a mixture of fear and breathless excitement on his face.
“The forest!” he burst out.
Naoki rubbed a hand over his face. “What about it?”
Daichi grabbed Naoki’s hand and dragged him through the house and out into the garden, where Aunt Hanae and Uncle Genji were standing. “Look!”
Just yesterday, Naoki had stood by the pond and gazed down the hill at the town below. The problem now was that there was no town to be seen. As far as Naoki could tell, it had been swallowed up entirely by the forest, which was very much not illusory and which had spread halfway up the hill.
“The forest is gone!” chanted Daiki, prompting one of the other boys to burst into tears.
“How–” Naoki began.
Aunt Hanae looked as amazed as Naoki was. “Momotaro talked about tearing apart the border between realms, last night. Perhaps this is a result of that.”
“It can’t be,” said Naoki. But there was something curious about the forest. Even in daytime it seemed illuminated by another moon, and the shapes Naoki could make out bore more resemblance to clouds than to trees. Strange, pale lights glowed amidst the foliage, and every now and then, a faraway breeze would cause the branches to shake out a whispering symphony.
“Thank goodness for your fence, Naoki,” said Uncle Genji, pointing at where the deep shadows of the forest came up against an invisible barrier. “The forest can’t go past it.”
Even as he said this, however, they all heard the rustling, cracking sound of dozens of branches surging against the fence. Solid as it was, Naoki’s fence wouldn’t be able to withstand the mindless weight of all that magic for long.
“Has Yuto seen this?” asked Naoki.
“He barricaded himself in the library last night and hasn’t come out,” said Aunt Hanae.
When Naoki got to the library, he saw that the doors had been charmed shut with a haphazard fence figure. Naoki found its seam in a matter of seconds. He entered the library to discover Yuto seated on the floor amidst a sea of books and papers, reading from a scroll that looked as if it would fall apart at any moment.
“Aunt Hanae said you would be here.”
“Uncle Ippei returned it, you know.” Yuto pointed at a thin, stab-bound book lying beside the scroll. His eyes were bloodshot, whether from crying or from lack of sleep Naoki did not know. “Shigetaka’s Manual.”
“Yuto, something’s happened to the forest. It’s spread across the town and it’s halfway up the hill.”
“Uncle Ippei was wrong. The Manual isn’t incoherent, it’s just that nobody understood the context,” Yuto continued. There was a fevered edge to his voice. “Great-Grandmother knew that there was something to be afraid of, in the Realms Beyond, so she locked it up. Uncle Ippei read it for its rules and spells. But it’s so clear.” He flipped open the Manual and began to read out loud. “‘He cannot stand the sight of peaches. The former chancellor, whom I understand was once a duke of –, told me in private that the first thing he did was to raze all the orchards to the ground. He may once have been a magician but his residence in demon’s castle–'”
“Yuto,” said Naoki, pushing aside some of the books and papers and sitting down beside him. “I don’t think that’s our concern right now. We need to find a way to contain the forest.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Yuto replied, pushing the manual into Naoki’s hands and pointing at a particular passage.
With some difficulty, Naoki read it. “‘He has said so himself. Given the chance, he will take his court and march on the capital, to make this land his fiefdom. He will let the forests grow up in place of ours, the rivers of night blot out our waters. Today I entreat him not to and he listens. I do not know about tomorrow. Perhaps he will forget.‘” Naoki looked up at Yuto. “But why would Momotaro want our realm when he’s got his own, and Ippei with him?”
“Don’t you see?” said Yuto. “If he annexes our land, Uncle Ippei won’t have anything to return to.”
“What I’m saying is that we should summon a fox spirit,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro for the fourth time.
“Could you not be ridiculous, Father?” snapped Aunt Saki. “I don’t see how a fox spirit would help! Not to mention the fact that we don’t know how to go about summoning one.”
“We’ve never been a spirit-summoning sort of family,” said Uncle Genji mildly. “I don’t even know if fox spirits are amenable to being summoned. But perhaps Daini no Sanmi’s book may have something to say about that.”
The family had gathered once again in the drawing room. When they had first begun to arrive, appearing at the threshold of the house through various gateways that Yuto and Uncle Genji had put up so effortlessly, Naoki had harboured the hope of being able to watch a powerful magician family put their skills together to solve the growing threat. But the only thing they had properly decided on in the past hour was that the barriers of enchantment around the house had to be reinforced. They hadn’t even let Naoki and Yuto go out to fix up what still remained of Naoki’s fence. Outside, the forest was creeping slowly up the hill. On the television, all the news stations were broadcasting aerial footage of other forests and anomalies that had sprung up elsewhere in the country.
“Grandmother would know what to do,” said Aunt Yuzuko.
“Well, the doctor said not to disturb her and this is the last thing she should be bothered about!” Aunt Saki replied.
“Then what do you propose we do?” asked Yuto. He had positioned himself beside the window and would glance agitatedly out at the garden every now and then. “Shore up our barriers and wait?”
“Yes!” said Aunt Saki, slapping the table. “And not go risking everyone’s lives trying to contain the Realms Beyond or whatever it is you’re planning. You saw how powerful that… creature was.”
“I agree,” said Aunt Hanae. “We need to make sure the children are safe.”
“But they won’t be!” cried Yuto. “And what about everyone else? You saw the news. This isn’t the only place that a forest has sprung up. What about people who can’t put up barriers like ours? Do you even care what happens to them?”
“Calm down, my boy,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro, “we’ll solve one problem at a time. There are magicians in the fire brigade and the police – like your Uncle Sou – who can handle this.”
“Can’t you see that this is our family’s problem?” asked Yuto. “That’s what Great-Grandmother would say, wouldn’t she? Momotaro came after one of us–”
“Momotaro came after Ippei,” said Aunt Yuzuko coldly. “And we are to bear the consequences of his actions, as always.”
“So tell us, then,” said Aunt Saki. “How do you propose we deal with this forest? Any ideas?”
Yuto opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to think better of it.
Aunt Saki sighed and shook her head. “We should call your father, Yuzuko, he’ll–”
“We could build a fence,” said Naoki suddenly, before he could stop himself.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“Excuse me?” said Aunt Saki.
Naoki could feel himself turning red under their collective stares. “We could, uh, build a fence,” he repeated. “A large one.”
“Around this hill, you mean?” asked Yuto.
“No, between this realm and the next,” said Naoki. “If we used Great-Grandmother’s transformation arc with Hyuga’s thirty-eighth figure, we could perhaps hold back the other realm from manifesting itself here.”
“I see. Combining the arc with the thirty-eighth would have the effect of pushing back the magical elements without creating a physical barrier,” said Uncle Genji, stroking his chin. “And you wouldn’t have to worry about blocking out all magic if you used a classical modifier addressing the forests specifically.”
“But it would probably hold up for the same amount of time as your current fence,” said Aunt Yuzuko.
“And it would take you months to set down all the figures,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro. “Months!”
“Not if you look at the entire perimeter as an eight-point barrier,” said Naoki slowly. “The whole land. Then what we’d need to do is–”
“To start in the centre,” said Yuto, with growing excitement. “It wouldn’t need to be the exact centre, even. If it falls within the boundaries of Hino’s Exception.”
Naoki had never heard of Hino’s Exception, but around the room, most of the relatives were nodding with approval. Uncle Genji had snatched up a pen and was sketching out a rough plan on the back of a furniture catalogue.
“How long is it going to hold up?” asked Aunt Saki. “That’s still a problem.”
“What about an abbreviated figure of power and a classical objective transformation clause?” said Aunt Yuzuko.
Uncle Genji shook his head. “No, that’s too unstable.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Naoki, “how was the Ichinomiya house’s barrier constructed?”
“Every spring, the eldest in each generation weaves fresh figures into it,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro. Then he paused, and slapped himself on the forehead. “Of course! The boy’s a genius!”
“Yes, yes,” said Uncle Genji, tapping his pen against the coffee table. “If we craft the figure such that it conforms to Hino’s Exception, the barrier could theoretically be fortified by having more magicians constructing it at the same time.”
“All right,” said Aunt Saki, “that’s a decent idea. But the enchantment becomes more diffuse over a larger area. If you mean for the barrier to cover even our prefecture alone, you’ll need more magicians than we have in this room.”
“We’ll just have to have more people construct it,” said Yuto. “It’s certainly simple enough for a lay-magician to cast.”
Aunt Saki raised one eyebrow. “And how do you intend to get these people?”
“Well,” said Aunt Yuzuko, gesturing towards the muted television, where Magical Kiyoshi was currently giving a presentation on the news on how to secure one’s home with magic. “There’s always him.”
Anyone who could construct a passable eight-point barrier could craft this figure. They knew this because Naoki had tested it himself on the forest creeping up the hillside. Unlike the fence Naoki had fixed at the baseball field, this variation on Hyuga’s thirty-eighth figure simply manifested itself as a brief flash of light which rolled its way across the ground until it diffused somewhere in the distance. As the enchantment took effect, the forest seemed to take on a faint, illusory aspect for a moment before vanishing out of sight. The barrier didn’t hold for long, however, and the forest flickered back into view shortly after.
“Now let’s try reinforcing it,” said Aunt Yuzuko.
Yuto constructed his barrier, as did Great-Uncle Ichiro and Aunt Saki. The figures flared out in a similar fashion, overlapping each other and, for a moment, forming a glimmering sea over the grass. Then it disappeared from sight, and the forest vanished quite permanently from the hill.
For a long moment they all stared out at the welcome sight of the town below.
“Well,” said Uncle Genji finally, breaking the stunned silence. “It certainly seems to work.”
“Then what are we standing around for?” Great-Uncle Ichiro said, looking jubilant. “There’s lots of work to be done!”
Aunt Yuzuko, who apparently did something quite secret and important in one of the Ministries, seemed to have no trouble getting the authorities to agree to Kiyoshi demonstrating the figure on air. Some of the other aunts and uncles set out after that to construct the figures elsewhere around the country, while Great-Uncle Ichiro and Aunt Hanae sat at the telephone, making calls to other magician families.
For the rest of the family, it was just a matter of waiting. They sat by the television while keeping an eye on Yuto’s cousins, watching as the reports of the vanishing forests came in, interspersed with Magical Kiyoshi’s enthusiastic public service announcement exhorting viewers to learn and cast the figure.
Only Naoki noticed Yuto slipping away from the drawing room.
But Yuto didn’t return to the library. Instead, Naoki found Yuto at the courtyard garden. He was standing in the middle of it, with Shigetaka’s Manual in one hand as he traced out a figure in the air with the other.
“What are you doing?” asked Naoki, even though he knew enough to recognise that Yuto was weaving the beginnings of a gate spell.
“I’m going after him,” said Yuto, setting down the Manual on the ground beside him. “I’m getting Uncle Ippei back.”
If Naoki shut his eyes he could still see Momotaro’s court, the chilling oddness of the hall and the composed misery of the creatures and courtiers within it. Just the thought of it filled him with dread. “You’ve seen what Momotaro can do,” Naoki said. “You couldn’t rescue Ippei by force.”
“You saw Great-Grandmother’s fortified eight-point last night. Even Momotaro couldn’t get past it. I could trap him long enough to make Uncle Ippei see reason.”
“You would ask Ippei to give up his magic?”
“If it’s the only way,” said Yuto. “Don’t I have to try, at least?”
There was a desperation in Yuto’s face – no, a conviction – as he said this, both wretched and hopeful. Naoki wanted nothing more than to reach over and hold him, to touch Yuto as easily as he had just the night before.
But the Yuto standing before Naoki, in this garden haunted by memory, was not the same Yuto who had stood beneath a canopy of enchantment with a baseball glove in one hand. Nor was he the same Yuto who had constructed the gate which had brought Ippei home just the day before, so full of innocent excitement.
Now he was drawing the figures for Shigetaka’s gate with a calculated precision antithetical to his usual languid style, lips moving silently as he did so. The look in his eyes was a mixture of determination and fear. He had never looked more like Ippei.
“Please, Yuto,” said Naoki, panic winding in his gut. “Please don’t. Ippei made his choice. Don’t make the same mistake.”
It was too late. Like the moon appearing from behind a cloud, Yuto’s gate slid into existence. Instead of the field of grass, however, this time the gate looked out onto a frozen lake. It was a forbidding deep blue, cut through with jagged lines this way and that. Beneath the thick ice, Naoki thought he saw a dark and massive shape moving through the water.
“Yuto, think about your family,” said Naoki urgently, resisting his own desire to just turn and run.
“Uncle Ippei is my family too,” said Yuto, picking up the Manual and taking a step towards the gate.
“Don’t.” Naoki caught Yuto’s hand. “Please.”
“Let go of me,” said Yuto, wrenching his hand away.
In the same moment, however, there came an unbearable crunching noise from the gate. To his horror, Naoki saw that the frozen lake from Beyond was now extending into the garden, pushing up the plants and rocks as it cracked into existence beneath the paving and soil. In a trice, Naoki and Yuto both drew the same fence figure in an effort to hold it back, but the lake continued to consume the garden.
“Why isn’t it working?” asked Naoki desperately, trying another fence figure and having it vanish over the ice.
“It’s the gate,” Yuto moaned, stumbling backwards. “I didn’t think this would happen, I didn’t–”
“Never mind about that!” said Naoki, grabbing Yuto and pulling him to the edge of the courtyard. “Can you close it?”
Yuto raised his hands to unravel his own spell, but before he could speak the incantation the wooden posts grew and swelled and then transformed into a thick black fog.
“What’s going on?” shouted Aunt Saki, emerging in the corridor with the rest of the relatives.
The frozen lake was still spreading, and the ice had reached the base of the veranda at the opposite end of the courtyard, splitting the wood.
“Why isn’t the fence working?” asked Aunt Saki.
“Because this lake isn’t coming through a rift like the forest,” said Aunt Yuzuko. “It’s coming through a gate that’s been deliberately opened.”
They saw the flags first. From within the fog it was possible to glimpse the bright banners of starlight and flame, fluttering in a strong wind.
Then they heard the sound of conch-shell horns, blasting out their lonely, tuneless call.
“Get the children,” said Aunt Yuzuko to Uncle Genji and Aunt Hanae. “Bring them away from here at once. The rest of us need to put up fortified eight-point –”
“Yuzuko,” said Great-Uncle Ichiro, pointing into the fog.
Two foot soldiers had emerged, bearing banners. Then two more came after them, playing the conch-shell horns. And after them came a sight that Naoki had hoped never to see again.
Momotaro’s Court had arrived.
The woman with the shamisen was there, sitting within a palanquin that looked like it was being carried along by magic alone. Standing beside her was a man with a wolf’s head, along with several other courtiers with faces both magnificent and cruel. A wizened monkey hopped out onto the ice, shaking off snow from its thick fur. They paid no attention to the Ichinomiyas and Naoki, who stood frozen on the veranda, but instead solemnly arranged themselves in two neat rows, facing each other.
Then Naoki heard Yuto gasp. Ippei had emerged. He was still as small in stature as before, but when he stepped out on the ice he seemed to eclipse all of the other courtiers entirely. He was wreathed in magic so powerful and so breath-taking that even the lines of the lake seemed to shift in greeting. His expression was unreadable as he stood at the end of the row, closest to the gate.
“Uncle–” Yuto began.
He was interrupted by the blast of conch-shell horns. From within the depths of the black fog came Momotaro. He was sitting astride a small horse the colour of a storm cloud, and just the sight of him filled Naoki with utmost fear.
Yuto didn’t even hesitate for a moment. He raised his arms and cast the figure for Great-Grandmother’s fortified eight-point barrier, looking on with grim satisfaction as it flashed into place around Momotaro. But his satisfaction turned to dismay when Momotaro simply waved one hand and turned the figures into brittle ice, which shattered when his horse stepped through. Momotaro guided the horse all the way to the lake’s creeping edge. He spared not one glance at his courtiers, who bowed deeply as he passed; instead his eyes were fixed on Yuto.
“You,” Momotaro said, “are incredibly tiresome.” He didn’t sound particularly furious, just exasperated, but when he glanced around Naoki saw the dark rage in his eyes. “As are the rest of you. Never have I come across a more impudent and dreadful family. Building a fence, of all things. As if throwing dear Ippei out wasn’t already bad enough.”
“You stole him from us!” shouted Yuto as he raised his arms again to cast another fortified eight-point barrier. It was no use. Before Yuto could even form the figure, Momotaro flicked his fingers and sent Yuto flying backwards. He hit the wall with a thud and crumpled to the ground.
“I did no such thing,” Momotaro replied, sounding bored. “Ippei, won’t you come over here and tell the boy he’s wrong?”
Ippei stepped out from the line and made his way to Momotaro’s side. If he was distressed at the sight of Yuto trying to get back on his feet, it didn’t show on his face.
“Please,” said Aunt Yuzuko, “leave us in peace.”
“Oh of course,” said Momotaro. “You’ll have all the peace you want once I’ve claimed this land as my own. You see, I was just speaking to Ippei about my plans to take control of the Fox’s Land, but he didn’t seem very enthused about it. And then it occurred to me that perhaps he might miss this little place, mundane as it might be.”
“You can’t just take a land,” said Aunt Saki, but even she sounded shaken.
Momotaro laughed. “But that’s exactly what I’m doing,” he replied, gesturing towards the lake. As he did so, the gate that was once Yuto’s stretched and groaned and burst forth with a new night sky, alien constellations whirling overhead. The house was plunged into darkness. Beneath their feet, the boards of the veranda began to groan and splinter, and Naoki just managed to help Yuto up and out of harm’s way before the wood collapsed. Beside them, Aunt Saki had thrown up another fence figure out of reflex, without any real hope of withstanding the frozen lake as it continued on its inexorable path–
Except that it had stopped.
At first this was evident only from the absence of the hideous crunching sound. And then Naoki glanced out into the courtyard and realised that the lake had gotten all the way up to the edge of the house and stopped short.
“Sire,” said the monkey, “it appears that there is something holding it back.”
“I can see that,” Momotaro snapped, dismounting from his horse. He walked over to the edge of the lake, but when he bent down to touch his fingers to where the ice met the house he jerked backwards as if burnt. His childish features crumpled with pain, and he let out a cry of sudden anger chillingly at odds with his earlier composure.
The monkey, who had also gone to look at the edge, shook its head. “Sire, this house and its foundations have been lined with peach wood.”
“Shigetaka!” Momotaro snarled, whirling round and sending a blast of power directly into the house. It hit Aunt Saki’s fence figure and zipped out of existence. “A century later and he still dares to thwart me. But no matter. Not all in my Court bear my curse. Ippei.”
Ippei stepped forward. With one hand resting on the folding fan tucked inside his belt, he seemed almost at ease. The fear from the night before was missing from his face. Instead there was a blank hollowness as he regarded Momotaro, who beamed indulgently.
“Ippei,” said Momotaro. “Would you destroy this house for me?”
For a moment Ippei was still. Naoki scanned his face desperately, looking for a sign of hesitation, some indication that Ippei wasn’t going to go through with Momotaro’s order. And then Ippei lifted his hand from the folding fan and cast a figure of power with effortless precision.
The entire opposite side of the house was ripped through as Ippei’s magic stripped the peach wood from the foundations and set it aflame. Yuto was shouting, tears streaming down his face, while Aunt Yuzuko and Aunt Saki wove figure after figure of protection. Great-Uncle Ichiro, in the meantime, had run over to the side of the room where a bow and three long spears had been placed on display. When Naoki had first come across them, he had thought it odd that the spear blades were not made of metal but were instead carved out of wood, but now he realised that these heirlooms had been crafted in such a way for a reason.
Great-Uncle Ichiro seized the bow, and, with impeccable form, fired off an untipped arrow. It shot through the air and the Aunts’ barrier, but was caught by the man with the wolf’s head before it could reach Momotaro.
The arrow clattered onto the surface of the lake. Momotaro glared up at the family, and it seemed in that moment that he was not so much a boy than night and madness twisted into human form. Then Ippei spun around and turned the peach wood foundations of their side of the house to dust, and it was only Aunt Saki and Aunt Yuzuko’s smaller eight-point barrier that prevented them from being crushed by the collapsing beams. But now there was nothing holding back the frozen lake, and as it crept forward beneath the rubble Naoki could see the Aunts’ magic becoming visibly brittle and coming apart.
Before anyone could attempt another fence, Yuto had stepped through a gap in the barrier and raised his hands to cast a figure. But it wasn’t a fence he was drawing. Instead, Naoki saw his fingers weave the beginnings of an illusory charm.
In the next moment the otherworldly night was filled with the glow of hundreds of fireflies. They floated idly through the darkness, flashing in and out of sight, casting little trails of light upon the surface of the lake. Yuto had spoken about Hotaru’s fireflies and Naoki had imagined them to be beautiful, but seeing Yuto’s version of them far surpassed anything Naoki could have dreamt up. Naoki looked upon them and felt the same strange sense of calm that he had experienced when Great-Grandmother’s skylark had landed in his hand.
Momotaro laughed. With a wave of one arm he blotted out dozens of Yuto’s fireflies, and with a crook of his fingers he had Yuto pinned onto the ice.
“And what exactly did you hope to achieve with your silly little charms?”
Yuto didn’t struggle against Momotaro’s magic, but neither did he cower under Momotaro’s gaze. Across the ice, Ippei’s hands stilled at the sight of Yuto’s fireflies, his eyes going wide with recognition.
“Let him go!” shouted Naoki, grabbing blindly at part of a floorboard and flinging it at Momotaro. It glanced off his shoulder but he didn’t seem to register the pain one bit. Naoki looked to the other Ichinomiyas but Momotaro had them all restrained with yet another flick of his fingers.
“Did you think you would get your uncle back if you made a pretty enough illusion, boy?” Momotaro asked Yuto. “Do you know where I took him, after he came back to me?”
“I don’t care,” Yuto spat. “Let me go.”
“I brought him to a cave deep below Onigashima, reachable only by those who know the way. And there I showed him his heart’s desire – the heart of magic, hidden beneath my realm in the very roots and bones of the land.” Momotaro crouched down beside Yuto, running his fingers gently along the side of Yuto’s face. Yuto cried out. Bruises bloomed beneath Momotaro’s touch.
“But there is a heavy price to be paid in return for its secrets. And oh, how he wept and trembled, but eventually he agreed to the terms. In exchange for unspeakable power, he will have no tears to shed even when his heart is filled with the greatest of sorrow. His feet will never bring him home. And his tongue will never again be able to utter the names of the ones he loves.”
Momotaro paused, smiling when he heard Yuto’s choked-off sob.
“So you understand, boy, that no matter what you do, your uncle will never return to you. He is bound to the land and, consequently, to me.”
“You forced him to.” Yuto’s voice was thick with tears. Around them, the lights of his fireflies were slowly going out. “You monster. You made him.”
“I merely presented him with a choice,” said Momotaro conversationally. “And he happened to make the correct one. You, on the other hand, are being extremely rude and contrary, and I grow quite tired of you. In fact, I should very much like to kill you.”
“No!” cried Naoki, trying to break free from the excruciating weight of Momotaro’s magic and failing.
“Yes,” said Momotaro, “I think I shall.”
Momotaro drew the short sword from his belt and raised it high in the air. But just as he was about to plunge it into Yuto’s chest, he seemed suddenly to freeze in place. And then he stumbled backwards and away from Yuto, almost as if he was being pulled by some unknown force.
The restraint on Naoki lifted, and Naoki sat up in time to see Ippei tugging the short sword from Momotaro’s hands by magic alone. What remained of Yuto’s fireflies hovered around him, illuminating his face and fingers as he cast a figure, trapping Momotaro within a prison of magic and ice. Momotaro tried to shatter the enchantment the same way as before, but this time the ice only grew thicker with each attempt.
“You dare turn against me?” Momotaro hissed. “I, who gave you all the power and magic you ever dreamed of?”
“I am bound to the land,” said Ippei. “I am not bound to you.” Although his voice and inflections were objectively the same, there was a different quality to it; a forcefulness akin to that of waves beating against a cliff.
Within the confinement of Ippei’s barrier, Momotaro swelled with rage. As he did so, he seemed less and less like a human. His dark eyes turned amber and his snarling mouth stretched into a fanged maw. His skin flamed red and instead of hands, he now had claws. When he made one tremendous swipe at Ippei, they all felt the force of his magic. But Ippei remained on his feet. From the rubble he picked up Great-Uncle Ichiro’s peach wood bow and one of the untipped arrows which were still intact. He nocked the arrow to the bow. His form as he drew the bow was not as perfect as Great-Uncle Ichiro’s, but Naoki had the feeling that the symbolism was what mattered.
“I gave you a home!” said Momotaro.
“You forget that my feet will never take me there,” Ippei replied. His face was impassive but there was no hiding the wretchedness in his voice. “With this, I claim your Court and your Realm.”
Momotaro bared his fangs into a snarl. “Not going to claim my magic?”
“I have all the magic I need,” said Ippei. “You saw to that.” As he drew the bow to its full extent, Naoki glimpsed the enchantment and power coursing through the shaft of the arrow, bright enough that he had to glance away.
Then Ippei released the arrow, and Momotaro was no more.
“I don’t suppose this spot will ever go back to normal,” said Ippei, gesturing towards the small patch of frozen lake that still surrounded Yuto’s gateway. The rest of the Court – Ippei’s Court, now – had already passed through it. “I suppose it will be something to remember me by.”
“But you’re back now,” said Uncle Genji. “Surely you could return again.”
“That was Momotaro’s doing,” Ippei replied. “And also his folly. If he hadn’t brought me back here, I would likely have remained under his thrall forever.” He looked over at Yuto, who was being made to press a bag of ice to his face under Aunt Saki’s watchful eye.
“Well done,” Ippei told Yuto. He didn’t attempt the syllables of Yuto’s name. “You were brilliant.”
Yuto looked caught between tears and fury. “Can’t you stay?” he asked, letting the bag of ice drop to the ground.
“Yes,” said Aunt Saki rather grudgingly. “Can’t you?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Ippei. His voice was full of regret.
Ippei took Yuto into his arms and embraced him goodbye. When they parted, Yuto was crying again, and although Ippei’s eyes were dry his chest heaved like his heart was about to break.
“I’m sorry,” said Ippei. “Will you tell her for me?” He didn’t have to specify who.
Aunt Yuzuko nodded. “We will.”
In spite of Naoki’s involvement in the devising of what was later known as the Ichinomiya Figure, the Department of Practical Magic never did offer him a place on their programme. It had, at one point, seemed like a very real possibility that they might have done so, mostly on account of Uncle Genji’s very enthusiastic letter of recommendation. (It turned out that Uncle Genji and Aunt Hanae were extremely well-respected figures in the field of magical research. By this point, however, Naoki had gotten used to the fact that most of Yuto’s relatives were rather illustrious individuals, and so he was only a little bit overawed by this discovery.) But the fact remained that besides fences and complex eight-point barriers, Naoki was more or less unable to accomplish any other spells, and not for lack of trying.
This no longer bothered Naoki. In fact, he grew so skilful at his craft that when he finished university it was only natural for him to go on and build fences for a living. He also wrote a great number of books on the subject, much to Yuto’s amusement.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Yamazaki bellowed, banging her fist on the table and almost upsetting her wine.
“I think it’s deeply and endearingly boring,” said Yuto, patting Naoki’s hand and smiling so fondly that Naoki didn’t have it in him to feel offended. “And I read every word, which is more than I can say about the buffoons at Hino’s Journal of Magic.”
Last month, the Journal had published a book review of Naoki’s latest work, which appeared to have completely misinterpreted his central thesis on the appropriateness of classical figures in modern fences. Yuto had written them a very scathing and only slightly ungrammatical letter in response.
“I read some of it,” said Yamazaki, because she was most truthful when drunk. “Mostly I just thought you looked handsome in the book jacket photograph.”
“Be honest,” Yuto told her, “you only read the cover page.”
“Yeah,” said Yamazaki, resting her head on the table. “But Naoki doesn’t mind. Do you, Naoki?”
Later, when Yamazaki had gone home in a taxi and it was just the two of them on the quiet street, Naoki took Yuto’s hand and leaned in to kiss him. “It is very nice to have you back.”
Yuto might now be the sort of master magician who travelled the world doing Important Things for Aunt Yuzuko’s Ministry, but it didn’t change the fact that when he smiled it was with that same hint of uncertainty that had so charmed Naoki in the first place.
“Aunt Hanae says that a letter came through the pond in the courtyard,” Naoki added. He didn’t have to say who from.
“Thanks, I’ll see it when I get there tomorrow,” said Yuto. He hadn’t let go of Naoki’s hand. “For now, though, a drink?”
“We’ve had many,” Naoki pointed out.
“Or we could go back to mine.”
“You’re full of good ideas.”
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Mathematics had a nice cameo. I bet he would like abstract algebra.