history lesson-


Naming The Demons
by Lara Dean-Brierley

Mija, kneeling before her father, made his words into rain: pattering softly but insistently against her ears.

"I don't understand why you can't kill them," he was saying. "They're killing us."

Mija tried to slide past the familiar rhythms of the start of his tirade. "They would be foolish to do that, honored father," she said as diffidently as she could manage. "Why annex a nation of corpses?"

"They're crushing our spirit," he snapped.

She couldn't deny that. They had just learned of the new decree: not content with their land and their labor, the Japanese were taking their names. Stripping them of identity, wiping out generations of painstakingly recorded lineages. Filling their mouths with stark, foreign consonants even to greet a neighbor. Her father, trembling like a leaf in an autumn wind in an effort to contain his anger, had announced that they were henceforth to be called Hida. She would be Mineko. She had tried tasting it; it had been sour, the hollow name of some stranger.

But she was sworn to protect friends and strangers alike, and she did not have the luxury of drawing that line. "I cannot kill men," she said softly.

Not softly enough; she saw the storm break across his face. "'Men'? They're beasts, trying to drag us down with them. They love our blood and pain--they wallow in it. Our misery is their food, and they glut themselves." He rose, looming over her, anger lending him strength. "How are they any different from the demons you slay each night?"

She had no answer. Instead she bowed low, touching her forehead to the floor between her hands and hoping that his rage would pass over her. "Forgive me, honored father."

He sighed, and she risked straightening. There was the same regret in his eyes that she had seen on the day her teacher first came for her. "Go," he said brusquely.

Mija bowed again before she rose and left the room. Her mother, sitting mute in the corner all this time, was already by his side and comforting him when she slid the door closed behind her.

She had never wished to be a burden upon them. She remembered a childhood in which her father had handed her forsythia blossoms, so that she could drop them and watch how they twirled as they fell; her mother taught her just how to spice dishes, and promised her a handsome, wealthy husband. They had surrendered their dreams of grandchildren when a man walked into their garden, crushing fallen yellow flowers underfoot.

He waited outside the gate even now, her teacher. For a moment she staggered under a hate so intense it blinded her. She despised him and his large, callused hands that had ripped her away from her family, and his crane-graceful movements when he unfolded attack after attack upon her, so that she could learn from the bruises. Then she blinked, and it was a man she venerated who stood before her. She bowed to him and murmured the traditional greeting: "May peace be with you."

She understood why he did not offer it back. He never gave her promises, and she accepted this: it meant that there were none to be broken.

His face was grim. "You heard?"

She nodded. "My father is going to register a Japanese name tomorrow," she said, and there was something blurred pushing at the back of her eyes. It was the last night she would have her own name, and she had to spend it killing demons. She wanted to curl up on the mats in her room and surround herself with familiar things so that she would not forget who she truly was when morning arrived.

Her teacher shook his head. "They dare too much. I will not be called by the name of one of those brutes." His voice frightened her more than her father's had--it was cool and dispassionate.

"We must bend with the wind, and let our roots hold fast," she said. "They can't keep us from using our real names, any more than they can keep us from speaking Korean when we're among ourselves."

"Yes--Yoon is holding lessons tonight," he said, recalled to his duty. "He asked that we keep the children safe."

Those lessons were held by candlelight and in hushed tones, because in the schools, their history had been rewritten to glorify their conquerors, and all instruction was in Japanese. Though their mother tongue was forbidden them, they defied the law by sending children to learn at scholars' homes during the night. It was so easy for one of them to be plucked away as they were herded down the streets. Their caretakers were vigilant against policemen, not demons.

They did not save the first child. Huddled in an alley, the demon lifted his head from the space between the boy's neck and shoulder and growled at them. Her first blows were meant less to harm him than to force him away from the body, which she did not want sullied any further by dust. Then they truly began to fight. He was all fire, raging at her, flickering here and there; she was water, fluidly moving out of the way of his fists. She let herself forget all her troubles except the one before her, until she saw a brief opening, a gap in his defense, and she slipped through.

In the evenings, when she braided her hair tightly and placed it atop her head, she replaced the long metal hairpins with wooden ones. She pulled one out now and slid it into the demon's heart, careful to penetrate between the ribs, and then there was only the harshness of her breathing and her teacher asking, "Are you hurt, Mija?"

Her teacher had already tended to the boy, arranging the limbs to a more peaceful position. He would find his parents later tonight and deliver to them this fresh grief among all the others collected--for no family was untouched by hardship, these days. She went to kneel by the corpse and touched his blood-flecked face, eyes and mouth wide with horror. Even before the demon fed, his skin must have been so tightly wrapped around his bones, for there was little rice that was not sent to Japan. A harsh end to a harsh life. She could almost understand why someone might become demon merely for sustenance.

"No," she said, but she was lying.


They protected the children when they returned to their homes, as well. Once, Mija had learned their names and murmured reassurances to them. They called her elder sister out of respect and affection. They wanted her to hold their hands, even though she told them that she might have to drop them at any moment. Jihae, a girl with a serious face and therefore the most beautiful smile, asked her to tell old folktales about the moon. Her house was the farthest, and so after all the others had been delivered to safety, she was the last one they guarded. It was during one of these times that she watched Mija fight and kill a demon. Mija had worried that she had frightened her, but the girl had only clung to her and said fiercely that she wanted to do the same when she grew up.

But children were never patient.

She must have wandered out into the night on her own soon afterward. Mija imagined, vividly, how full of terror her last moments must have been. The next time Mija had seen her, collecting the children for another session of covert schooling, her face had been twisted into a demon's. Mija had slain her quickly.

"Sister?" Jihae had whispered before dissolving into a grit-filled wind.

Now she never spoke to the children, save to offer them warnings. It hurt a little, as she led them away from Yoon's house, that they drew away from her, intimidated by her coldness, but it hurt less than killing Jihae had. She would never have sons and daughters of her own--she wouldn't live long enough to bear them--and neither could she afford to pretend that these children were hers to care for as any more than extensions of her duty. Walking the streets now, she concentrated instead on the shape of the night and what it might hide.

She halted.

She knew it was there: somehow she felt the press of its soles into the ground, the way the night breezes had to part around its body and found no heat to steal. Mija whipped around and saw a shadow draw away from the moonlight. She moved toward it.

"Go! Run!" her teacher said sharply from behind her. The children, trained to silence, made no sound but pattering footsteps as they fled. He went with them, in case there were other demons lurking tonight.

This demon wore the face of a man. He was pale and lean, and reminded her of winter. He rushed at her like a blizzard, and she stepped aside--and he vaulted over the wall behind her.

She leapt after him, scrabbling for handholds and pulling herself over just in time to see him rip open the gate at the other end of the garden, then vanish through it. She reached the gate and glanced both ways. There was a diminishing figure to the south, and she followed, afraid to blink despite the wind making her eyes tear, in case she would not be able to distinguish him from the surrounding darkness when she opened them again.

He vanished around a corner. She skidded barely short of missing the turn altogether and sprang in the new direction. He stood there, arm cocked back as if to throw something-- She flung her body back behind the wall just as he hurled it.

A heartbeat. Another. Her pulse slowed and she warily stole forward, pressing herself against her cover and allowing only one eye to be exposed. But he was gone, and when she stepped out, no presence prickled across her senses.

Something lay on the ground, obscured by her own shadow. She walked forward and picked it up. The petals of the hibiscus blossom were soft in her callused palms.


Her teacher did not come the next evening. Mija dared not attract attention by standing outside and scanning the streets, but she found a myriad of errands that needed to be run, all of them taking her outside and none of them taking her far. After each, she lingered by the gate before passing through, but no one she saw possessed the water-smooth stride that she always recognized him by, no matter what his disguise. Her mother found her standing by the door, dressed in men's garb and with her hair braided, shifting her weight between her feet.

"You do not go out tonight?" she asked.

She was so faded, the strength gone from the once-straight spine and her hands as seamed as any grandmother's. Her voice was a magpie's, harsh where it had once been mellifluous--she used to sing lullabies to her.

Mija's heart ached whenever she looked at her mother, but she let none of it show on her face. "My honored teacher has not yet come," she said. "When he arrives, we will go out."

Her mother did not say, I wish you had not been cursed with this duty, or If only you had been born as some other family's burden. She said, "Be careful, my daughter. And be strong." She slowly raised her hand and smoothed Mija's hair with stiff fingers. Then she turned away. Mija watched her retreat to her chamber and slide the door shut behind her.

Outside, the gate rattled.

Her eyes narrowed. Who would shake the gate so, instead of knocking? Careful to keep her footsteps silent, she made her way there and listened carefully.

A man's hoarse breathing convinced her that this was not a demon. She opened the gate.

Her teacher was lying on the ground, one hand lifted to push against the gate again. When he saw that it was open he gasped and let his arm fall to the ground with an audible impact. His clothes were stained with blood, both dried and fresh, and there were similar splotches on the face he raised to her, only of the dark plum of bruises.

She didn't waste time with words, only crept her arms around him gently and helped him into the garden. He couldn't manage to stand, only scrabble along on his elbows with his legs dragging behind him. She closed the gate and then caught him about the waist, holding him upright and letting him lean against her as much as his dignity would allow.

It took long, dragging minutes for them to reach the door of the house, and then into her chamber. She unfolded two mats for him, so that the surface he lay on would be twice as soft, and helped him settled onto them. Then she fetched water to trickle between his bloody lips, and to wipe the grime off his face.

She wanted him to save his strength, but he insisted on telling her what had happened.

"I was coming back from the home of that boy we found. I was tired and angry, and careless. A policeman caught me outside and arrested me for breaking curfew."

"You were in prison all day?" she whispered, horrified. She should have known, somehow, and come to his aid.

"They bound me and beat me with bamboo sticks."

"Rest," she said, alarmed because he was growing agitated. "Don't dwell on it. You can stay here as long as you need to. My father won't object." Her father would consider her teacher a hero for defying the Japanese. "When you're better--"

"When I'm better, I will leave," he said quietly.

He did not mean the house. She forgot herself and stared at him.

"The resistance is strong in the north. They need men. My skills will be useful to them."

"Of course," she said dully. "You can teach them how to fight."

"Yes." He was not looking at her, surely, with that dark glare, but at an all-too-recent memory of his suffering. "I've seen the true demons, Mija. They must be stopped." He suddenly focused on her. "You must come, too."

"I--" She turned away, unable to bear the intensity of his gaze. "Honored teacher, I can't. I must stay here and do my duty." The duty he had taught her, but she dare not reprimand him. It was not her place.

"Your duty is to fight demons," he said.

"Yes," she said steadily, and they both knew that in her agreement she was defying him.

His lips thinned, much the way they did when she made a careless mistake while fighting. She did not think she could bear a lecture from him on the error of her ways, so she rose to forestall him.

"Stay in peace," she said, and bowed before taking her leave.

After she slid the door shut, she pressed her forehead against the wall and tried to stop her trembling. How dared he abandon her? He had torn her away from a contented future and taught her of death, and told her it was a sacrifice for a cause that came before her birth and would last long past her death. She remembered him walking into the garden and addressing her instead of her father, reshaping their lives with blunt words. You were called to guard the people. And now he dismissed it all, like a piece of straw to be blown away by the first strong wind that came.

No. She forced herself to honesty. She resented not that he was leaving, but that he asked her to go with him. Because part of her yearned for the cold of the north, where she knew people dared to openly speak against their rulers. And if they could use her teacher, they could use her, surely, with her strength and speed and training.

She went out alone before she could convince herself to return to her teacher and tell him that she had changed her mind.

But her feet were curiously light as she moved along the streets. There was no one at her back, warning her to be cautious and snapping out instructions. Nor was there the heavy presence of her disapproving father, or the sad weight of her ailing mother. Only a fierce sense of freedom: she owned this night, and whatever she encountered was hers to deal with.

The first demon she met was a woman, as emaciated as she had been in life. She was a young demon, then, not yet plump with stolen blood, and she was easy to defeat. For the first time, Mija felt no regret as she drove wood through her heart, only a blazing need for more violence. The next three she found together, and she knew this would have worried her teacher, but she tossed aside such concerns the way she flung them away from her. She was upon each of them before they could recover, and rendered them into dust.

Silence reigned over the next several streets, and weariness was finally settling into her flesh. She circled back and began to make her way back home, when she saw someone leaning over a sprawled figure near a wall. She recognized him: it was the same demon she had chased the other night.

She pulled him away from his victim and struck at him, sending him staggering away. Her fingers sought a hairpin. But as she bent her head so that she could reach it more easily, she froze.

The man on the ground wore the uniform of a Japanese policeman.

The demon took advantage of her hesitation and hurled a punch at her. She ducked aside and whirled, but he crossed her arm with his own and stopped her. When she tried to slam her hand into his neck, he shoved her away, then leapt to attack again.

A flurry of blows. One of them caught her on her head and Mija reeled back to recover. She yanked out another hairpin, and was startled to discover that it was the last. Her hair uncoiled along her back, an unfamiliar weight. The demon smiled with his eyes.

She flushed. A man was not meant to see the unbound hair of any woman but his wife, and that he was witnessing her thus-- She aimed a vicious kick at that not-quite-curving mouth, and he caught her foot and twisted. She was rolling when she hit the ground, and she hooked one of his ankles between hers, bringing him down with her. He didn't manage to stand quite as fast as she did, but he raised his arms in time to block her next blow.

Her hair was in her eyes; she cursed it and swiped it aside. That cost her; during her moment of blindness he surged upward, and his fist exploded into her stomach. She folded over his arm, desperate for air, and he moved aside and let her fall, grabbing hold of her hands so that he could twist them behind her back. She cried out as he jerked her upright, her shoulders suddenly aflame, and then he slammed her face-first into a wall. He pinned her there with his own body, one hand still enclosing her wrists. The other wrapped itself in her hair and forced her head back. The sky was a beautiful, endless shade.

He laid his cheek on her shoulder, breathing deeply--for want, not need. Inhaling her scent. She could feel the ridges of his face, and the sharpness of the fangs that drew a teasing line down her neck. His tongue stroked her throat, and she shuddered. She closed her eyes and prayed for her ancestors to receive her kindly despite her failure.

Then there was smooth skin against hers.

"I hunted other prey tonight."

It took a moment for her to realize that he spoke.

He lifted his head a little so that his whisper trickled directly into her ear. "Why did you stop me?"

"I was called to guard the people," she said.

He pulled her away from the wall then shoved her back into it, hard. She had just enough warning to turn her head so that her cheek was bruised instead of her nose, but this was even worse, for now she could see him. It was not fair that he looked so human.

"He is Japanese scum," he said. "He is not of your people."

"I share more with him than with you," she said evenly.

This time when he yanked her body toward him she was ready, and she twisted her wrists sharply. His grip fell away. She dove for the ground, where her hairpin had fallen, but then he threw himself atop her. They rolled together, fighting for the upper position, until they finally dropped into a ditch and the impact made them break away from each other.

He half-rose onto his elbows, while she curled protectively around herself, watching him warily and ready to move as soon as she recovered from the agony that splintered along her ribs with each gasp.

"If you share anything with him, it is because they have taken everything from us and made it theirs," he said, as though they had never been interrupted.

He granted her the time she needed to collect breath and speak, which frightened her. "What do you want?"

"I want you to fight them." His smile was fierce. "With your strength and mine, we can make them suffer."

She was startled by the longing that leapt up inside her. Her father, her teacher, now even this demon, all demanding the same thing of her. It would be so easy to comply. To allow herself, at last, some measure of justice.

What would it be like, to strike a man and watch his body fold to the ground, broken flesh and spilled blood in place of dust?

"I can't," she said brokenly.

He stood and she immediately staggered to her own feet. But then he bowed deeply, low enough for a king. He straightened. "Think about it." He offered the hairpin to her, limp in his fingers. "You dropped this."

She took it. She could not seem to speak, then or as he turned and strode away with the arrogant confidence that she would let him. Troubled, she did.


It was only as she was returning home and passing his unconscious form that she remembered the Japanese policeman. She hesitated, then knelt by his side and checked his pulse. It was slow and faint, but steady. She tore a strip of her shirt off and wadded the cloth up so that she could press it against the bloody punctures on the side of his neck.

He stirred suddenly, one hand questing in the air, his lips forming an unvoiced word.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

He blinked up at her several times. "Someone attacked me...."

"He's gone now," she said. She put one arm around his back and helped him sit up. "But you must be careful during the nights."

"It's after curfew. There shouldn't be any Koreans on the streets," he said. Belatedly, he seemed to recognize what she was. "What are you doing out?"

She tensed. Would he try to arrest her after she saved his life? "Be glad of it."

"I am," he said slowly. His fingers touched his neck.

She let go of the makeshift bandage so that he could hold it for himself. "Can you walk?"

"I hope so. I've no wish to crawl home."

She wanted to say, You made my teacher do that. You beat him so badly he could not stay upright without pain. You destroyed his body and his pride. Why should I care for yours? But instead she murmured, "It is well," and rose.

He caught at her sleeve. "Who are you?"

He looked far from being the sadistic brute that everyone told her every Japanese policeman was. He couldn't be much older than herself, and with the vulnerability and unexpected trust that formed his expression, he seemed no more menacing than her brother would have been.

Her brother had been taken away, to serve the Japanese in their war. She let that harden her.

"Just another one of the people you conquered," she said. "That's all you would see me as anyway, isn't it?" She stopped abruptly. If she let even a small part of her bitterness loose, it would all pour out at once. "Stay in peace." Mija began to walk away.


She understood then the smugness that the vampire must have felt, leaving her in confusion. There was so much contempt she could show by offering her back instead of an honest view of her face. But she turned around, and found him standing and leaning against the wall, cloth lowered so that the punctures on his neck were visible.

"It wasn't a man that attacked me, was it?"

She hesitated, then shook her head. It was as much warning as she was willing to provide, and although he called after her again, this time she kept walking.


She woke late in the morning, exhausted. She had slept in her parents' chamber, so that her teacher could rest undisturbed, but when she went to him to tend to him, he had not improved much. He had fretted the night away, and she did not know what he had told himself, but it left him cold to her.

"I won't impose on your family's hospitality," he said. "If you will tell one of my friends that I am here, he will help me leave."

"You shouldn't be moved," she protested.

"I shouldn't stay under the roof of a Japanese sympathizer," he said with quiet venom. "You might betray me. Out of duty, of course."

Tears caught in her eyes, but she only bowed and left to fetch his friend, who came and took him away. It was hard, watching him leave without farewell. She could not even blame him. And he was nothing to her, she insisted to herself, nothing but biting comments and unbending rules that she was better without.

Still, when a knock came later, she hoped it was some last message from him. She unlatched the gate and let it swing open.

The policeman of last night stood there. During day he looked much stronger, the tan of his face no longer washed out by moonlight.

She gathered calmness to herself and clutched it close. "What are you doing here?"

"I followed you the other night," he said. "Since you wouldn't tell me who you were."

"So that you could arrest me?"

"No. So that I could thank you properly."

She hesitated. She had no wish to invite him in, but clearly he would not leave soon, and the neighbors would talk if he lingered visibly too long outside the gate. Reluctantly she moved aside and said, "The garden will have to suffice--my parents aren't well enough for company." Her parents would disown her if they knew she was allowing him to set foot here.

"That's fine." He stepped inside, but his gaze didn't wander about the garden, as most people's would; it remained steady on her face.

She lowered her eyes. "Please don't stare."

He started. "I didn't mean-- It's just your hair."

"My hair?" She touched it with a hand and found it smoothly braided, as was proper.

"You let it down last night."

Hot shame crawled up her cheeks. "You do me dishonor," she said lowly.

"I apologize," he said swiftly. "That isn't why I came."

"I know." She pressed a hand to her forehead. "You've thanked me. Now please--"

"But I haven't." He moved toward her and she refused to retreat from him. He was close enough to touch her, if he dared. She swore to herself that she would have his hand should he try. But he only lowered his voice and spoke earnestly: "They will be searching the houses on this street later this afternoon. If you have anything valuable or contraband, be sure to get rid of it or hide it well."

Her eyes widened as she thought of the silver jewelry tucked inside the folds of old garments. And her weapons--those would be questioned, of course. But if she buried them there would be signs of fresh earth. Perhaps she could hide them in the bottom of one of the tall food urns.

"What's your name?" he asked in that same gentle, insistent tone.

Distracted, she said, "Han Mija."

"Remember to use your Japanese name," he said.

Her temper flared, but she reined it before she said anything regrettable. It was wise advice, as much as she abhorred it. Stiffly, she said, "Thank you."

"My own is Izumi Akihiro. Use it, if you think it'll have any force."

She refused to thank him twice. But her silence did little to deter him.

"Do you go out at night often?"

Mija slanted a disdainful look at him. "As though I would tell you."

"I think I already know," he said drily. "But I'm not accusing you of anything. I was wondering if you've seen any other attacks." He raised a hand to forestall her protest. "I know some things are better unknown. But whatever is out there is dangerous, and could be threatening other people."

She studied him. He actually seemed serious. "What do you want?"

"Tell me of other attack sites. I'll go there tonight and hope that it shows up so that I can take care of it."

"No! You were almost killed last time." After what she had been through to save him, she did not want him to toss his life away.

"Surely you're not actually concerned about my safety." When she said nothing, he smiled tightly. "It should be of no concern to you, then."

"Let me show you instead," she said, and the words tasted thick and sour. "Some of the places are difficult to describe." She would protect him and take him to areas where she had never found a demon, then let him return disappointed to his home and go out again by herself. She would pretend that he was one of the children she guarded on the way to lessons. And he was a child, she thought, furious at his stubborn insistence.

His smile turned genuine. "My thanks," he said. "Tonight, then." He opened the gate for himself, and left with the same quiet assurance with which he had entered.


He had not lied about the search. Someone banged on the gate just after she finished stashing the last of the jewelry into a hole in the wall. She covered it hastily and ran to the gate, knowing that too long a delay would make them suspicious.

Four policemen shoved their way past her. One of them barked orders, and the others moved purposefully into the house. She looked down, trying to adopt a meek demeanor that would not offend the commander.

"Your name?"

"Hida Mineko," she said.

"Who else lives here?"

"Only my parents, honored sir."

"No other family?"

"My brother is serving in the army," she said, her voice as dry as wood.

There were noises from the house. They were not being gentle. She found it difficult to concentrate on the rapid fire of questions while the policemen rifled through her things. She hoped they would not be rough with her parents, whom she had warned.

When they finally emerged, looking disappointed, she was careful to keep her sigh of relief internal.

"Nothing," one of them reported.

The commander nodded and began to wave them out the gate. He paused at the threshold, though, and turned back.

"You look young and strong," he said. "Why aren't you working at one of the factories?"

Fear gripped her. "Please," she said with soft urgency. "My parents are ill, and I must care for them."

"Everyone's health is at stake during this war," he said. "Besides, every Korean seems to have come down with some sickness or other. Do you think we're stupid?"

Yes, she wanted to shout. We are all weak and ill because you take away the food that should give us strength, and the money with which we could buy medicines. She said, "No. But Izumi Akihiro understood." She bit her lip and hated herself for using his name.

There was a pause, and then a burst of laughter. One of the other men crowed, "So Akihiro finally fell for someone, did he?"

She knew her face was burning. The commander took hold of her chin and she filled her fists with folds of her skirt, so that she would not strike at his arm. He inspected her like so much merchandise, then grunted and released her.

"Perhaps. I'll check with him. If you're lying, girl, we'll return."

"As you see fit," she said. "Go in peace."

They didn't bother to return the courtesy.

Her parents were overanxious about the search, and she spent the rest of the day soothing them and assuring them that they had found nothing. Her father lashed out at her, accusing her of bringing the policemen upon them; she did not deny it, although she learned that other houses on the street had suffered the same. She knew that it gnawed at him, that he had acted subservient while they were in his house.

When her father's railing finally tired him out and led him into sleep, she cleaned the house of the wreckage the Japanese had left, and waited for nightfall impatiently. She needed very badly to kill a demon.


After the very first rap on the gate she pulled it open and walked past Akihiro. He had to close the gate and lengthen his stride to catch up with her.

"You used my name," he observed.

Mija did not look at him. "It will probably make you a target of gossip."

"I don't mind," he said. "Not if it helped."

She sighed. "Yes. It helped. Thank you."

"Your parents weren't hurt?"

"Only because they did not resist as the house was overturned."

He realized her mood then, and fell into silence.

She led him rapidly to several random sites where there was no sign of any demon. She almost wished for one, although she did not know how she would explain it to him, afterward.

"You think I'm a fool," he said finally, halting before she could take him to another such place. "You're taking me to meaningless places."

Reckless, she said, "You are indeed a fool, to wander about outside at night."

"And you?" he asked.

"I have a--" She hesitated. Duty.

He took up the sentence swiftly. "A secret lover, I'm sure, for whom you're willing to defy both parents and law."

"No!" Too late she realized that it was the perfect explanation. What else would he have assumed when he saw her with her hair down, returning home in the middle of the night? But she refused to let him think such. "I am seeing no man," she said loudly, as though vehemence would make him believe her. Her voice echoed down the street.

He looked astonished for a moment; then he pulled her to him suddenly and covered her mouth with his. Her hands were trapped against his chest, and she was about to push him away, when a belligerent voice hailed them.

"You! What are you doing outside?"

Akihiro broke off the kiss. "Keep it down, Hideaki," he hissed, while she hid her face against his shoulder.

"Akihiro? Ah." A snort. "I see. You could have the decency to take her to a room."

"You could have the decency not to interrupt," Akihiro returned.

The other man chuckled and moved on.

He pressed his face into her hair for a long moment, taking in unnaturally deep, even breaths. Then he pushed away from her.

"I am sorry," he said.

She shook her head. There should be rage, she thought. There was only a painful twist of sorrow trapped in her throat. She forced words past it, but they sounded stilted. "I should return home."

"Of course. I'll come with you--"

She stepped back and he immediately stopped.

"Of course," he repeated softly. And as though some book had just been opened to her, she suddenly knew him. The expression he wore now, with the corners of his mouth tight and his brows gathering slightly, was worry for her, and the gesture he made, hands briefly spread open, was helplessness. He would do this: let her make her way through the streets by herself, because he understood honor and wished for her to keep it.

He hesitated only a moment longer before he walked away.

She was not surprised when the demon emerged from the darkness behind her, just as Akihiro turned the corner. She felt him approach and wearily turned to face him.

"May peace be with you," the demon said gravely.

"It is not peace that either of us seeks," she said.

He smiled. "True. But it isn't my death that you want, either."

A moment of weakness had brought her this. If she had killed him the first night she saw him, she would not have to listen to these taunts. "What is it that I want, then?" she challenged him.

"How would you like," he said, "to be free?"

"You offer me things that aren't yours." She thought of the hibiscus, stolen from someone's garden; her own hairpin. He thought to fool her with empty gifts.

"Independence is nothing I can give you." He circled her and she pivoted to keep him before her. "It is something you must take."

"From you?" She made the question disdainful.

His mouth tightened in anger. "From whom else would you seek it? The young Japanese policeman with his lovely dark hair and crisp uniform?"

"No!" He was too close to truth. "He is one of the enemy."

"Good of you to remember," he said. "Perhaps you should keep it in mind the next time you allow him to hold you and put his mouth on you."

She flinched away. "I never--" But that was a lie. "There is nowhere in my life for a man of any kind," she said instead, weakly.

"Ah." He drew closer and curved his hand over her shoulder. She caught at his wrist but did nothing else, confused as to his purpose. "Then no one has ever touched you like this--" The fingers of his other hand glided across her collarbone. "--or this--" Downward, between her breasts.

She pulled away, but the movement was as slow as though it were against the current of a river. "Don't do this." So many young men had been sent away to fight for the Japanese, and even if there had been any left, there was no chance she would ever be betrothed. She had not been born to be a wife. And so these were forbidden to her, the light strokes across the flush of her skin, as though he practiced calligraphy on her flesh.

"Do you deny yourself everything you want?" He circled her waist with a lazy arm and pulled her toward him. When she turned her head away he licked the corner of her mouth. She closed her eyes and fought the need for air that made her want to part her lips. Then he breathed into her ear, "You're as starved as I...."

Mija violently tore herself away and fell to her hands and knees when he let her go. "I will never consort with a demon!" Her breathing was harsh because of her fury, she told herself. "And I would only be your prey, in the end."

He laughed. "Likely." Unconcerned, he crouched in front of her and dragged his knuckles along her jaw. "But we could hunt together, instead."

She rose on her knees and laid a hand on his chest and felt the silence within. No gentle rise of breath, no startled leap of heart. She remembered these things from Akihiro, and it was a memory she should not have, but it coursed through her blood nonetheless.

When the demon caressed her leg she did not stop him. He smiled and leaned forward to lay the coolness of his mouth over hers. He bit her lip and she jerked away, but his hands slid up to her hips and pulled her back to him. His thigh was between hers, now, and the friction added to the heat building low in her belly.

His fingers raked through her hair to loosen it from its careful braids, letting it fall unbound down her back. She made a sound she did not recognize. The pressure of his kiss increased until she was arching backward, steadying herself with hands set on the ground behind her.

He pushed her down more roughly. Her palms scraped along the ground and rolled briefly over one of the fallen hairpins. She pushed it to one side as she lay down, throwing her head back to expose her throat. He leaned over her, his eyes dark with hunger, and she curled her fingers around the slender piece of wood and shoved it through his heart.

She could have stayed there for hours, dust settling over her like a coverlet, if she hadn't heard footfalls. She pushed herself up onto her feet and waited.

Akihiro stopped in front of her.

The utter lack of surprise on his face told her. "You knew," she said. "You knew everything." And she had never known him.

"Hardly," he said. "If I knew how to slay demons as well as you, this one never would have surprised me that night. And if I had known what your choice would be between two duties, I wouldn't have stayed to watch you tonight."

She rubbed her arms, feeling the cold all at once. Duty. "You are my new teacher, then."

He nodded.

She sighed a little, and studied his face. There was a tenseness in him, as though he waited for something. Mija went to him and put her arms around him, pressed her body tightly to his, and listened to the sound of their hearts against each other.