The Hell Screen (Akitada Mysteries Book 5)

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Series: Sugawara Akitada Mysteries - chronological order

The Water Sprite by I. Confessions by I. Akitada's Holiday by I. This gentleman is a stranger to my sister-in-law and myself. Multiple layers of fine silk, in shades from russet to lavender, peeked out from under the cream-colored satin sleeve of her robe. The embroidery on the sleeve and hem was of autumn leaves and chrysanthemums. A very rich lady indeed, thought Akitada, who was tying his horse next to their mounts and noting the costly saddles. Bowing deeply to her, he hoped she would remove the veil so he could see her face.

But he was disappointed, for she abruptly turned her back to him. I shall wait for your return. They followed him. Akitada stepped up under the gateway to watch them walk away. And a group of players who put on bugaku dances for the local people. They are in a different building. He reflected ruefully that she had evidently not approved of him, either, when she saw him in his cheap rain gear and on a hired horse.


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Underneath the straw cape he wore a sober brown hunting robe over fawn-colored silk trousers which he had tucked into his leather riding boots. A long sword was pushed through his wide leather belt. His slender, deeply tanned face with the heavy eyebrows might have belonged to a scholar or a warrior, but was to his mind ordinary. And he thought his narrow straight back and waist and the broad shoulders lacked both grace and muscular bulk. He laid his wet straw cape and hat on the railing of the balustrade and looked out across the large courtyard toward the main temple hall.

Memories stirred of visits to this place back in the days of his childhood. He had been accompanied by his imperious mother and two younger sisters, along with nursemaids and servants. How would he find them now?

Sugawara Akitada Mysteries - chronological order | Awards | LibraryThing

Was his mother still alive? The message of her severe illness had reached them two weeks earlier, on their homeward journey, and Akitada had pushed ahead alone, leaving his wife and small son to follow more slowly with the luggage and servants. Akiko, the elder of his two sisters, had married an official during his absence and moved away, but Yoshiko was still at home.

He tried to imagine his mother ill, her fierce strength gone, and only the bitterness remaining. He sighed. Steady streams of water descended along the chains suspended from the monstrous snouts of rain spouts above him and splashed with a great din into pebble troughs. Across the courtyard the tall pagoda rose into the mist, its top lost above the clouds. The scent of pines hung in the air and mingled with the sweetish odor of wet straw and sedge.

But for this miserable rain he would have made better time and arrived home this very night. Instead, he and his horse were near physical collapse after hours of trudging through deep mud and roaring torrents.

Sugawara Akitada

The gatekeeper returned, his soles whispering softly on the smooth boards of the gallery. He was bone-tired and in no mood for courtesies over fruit juice, but the visit was obligatory for men of his rank. This time the monk turned to the left and led the way to the inner courts of the temple and its monastery. After an eternity of galleries and corridors, he paused before an unadorned door made of beautifully polished wood. It was opened by an acolyte, a boy of ten or eleven.

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In the room behind him sat a very old man on a small dais. Genshin was frail, almost skeletal, and his skin stretched like yellowed paper across his shaven skull. He wore a dark silk robe and a very beautiful stole patched from many-colored pieces of brocade. A string of amber beads slid slowly through fingers thin as the claws of a bird. His eyes were closed, the lids almost transparent, and the thin, pursed lips moved silently.

Finally the thin lids lifted and faded eyes looked at Akitada. Michizane, long dead though never forgotten? I am Akitada, most recently provisional governor of Echigo. Echigo had been a punitive and punishing assignment, and only he knew how hard-won his achievements had been. The abbot shook his head confusedly. I thought. Apparently the courtesy visit was going to be more difficult than Akitada had anticipated.

He sought for words that might wake the old man to some semblance of conversation. A few years ago I held a minor position in the Ministry of Justice. Why not? Please be seated, Akitada. I am delighted that you have come to see me. Then listen: He who seeks the Law will find it in the mountain groves. And remember, that which seems real in the world of men is but a dream and a deception. Though the reverse is also true. Now be at peace, my son! Disconcerted, Akitada looked at the gatekeeper. The lateness of the hour and the overcast sky made the light poor.

They passed through a labyrinth of dark, quiet corridors, emerging now and again into the gray light of covered galleries. Akitada caught glimpses of wet graveled courtyards and heard the sound of steady rain, before delving again into the silent obscurity of another hall or corridor. Akitada lost all sense of direction and was following sleepily when they turned a corner and he came face-to-face with a monstrous creature. Light flashed from its bulbous eyes, and its slavering lips bared sharp fangs.

Akitada saw a raised weapon and started back, his hand reaching for his sword. Then he took in the rest of the life-sized statue of a guardian spirit in ornate armor and the flaming sword raised threateningly above its head. The flickering of an oil lamp in the air current of their passing had caused the masterful carving to appear momentarily alive. The room beyond the figure was filled with shelves of ritual objects used in Buddhist ceremonies: gilded bronze bells, thunderbolts, scepters, and wheels of the law jostled gongs and plaques of every size on stands and tables.

They went on. The flame of the lantern flickered as they walked, transferring gigantic swooping birds and moving branches from the decorative pattern of the lantern onto the walls and ceiling. Sharp looming shadows distorted pillars and doorways into swaying tree trunks and cavern openings until Akitada felt he had passed into another world.

He stumbled with tiredness and disorientation. The long journey up the mountain and the strangeness of this temple had taken their toll. Shaking his head to rid himself of the sense of having wandered into some nightmare, he abruptly remembered his horse in the rain outside the temple gate. Had he spoken out loud, or was this monk a mind reader? And how much longer must he follow the shuffling footsteps?

They entered a very large, empty hall. One whole wall was covered with dark curtains, and a strange smell, part mineral and part resin, hung in the air. The monk reached for a rope to pull up the draperies. He started back with a cry. The lantern light shone on a gruesome image. A child, a small boy no more than five or six, was sitting there. His rounded features were distorted in agony and he held up two bleeding stumps where his hands had been.

He is very proud of it. The artist is Noami, a man who is most devout and meticulous. He has been painting the screen for the past year. The monk held up his lantern to illuminate another section.