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Spirits of the Noh

Thomas Randall

PROLOGUE

Demons covered one entire wall of Yuuka Aritomo’s classroom. At least, that was how other people would have seen her collection of Noh theater masks. Some were monsters, some evil spirits, and others merely distorted representations of gods, crazy people, and fierce warriors. Most of them were tragic figures, and many were hideous to behold, but Miss Aritomo thought them all quite beautiful.

A shiver went through her, a sudden feeling of dread that spider-walked up the back of her neck. She turned to stare at the shadowed corner of the art room, troubled by the certainty that something had just darted out of view. For a moment, it felt as though the masks were staring at her.

Stop. You’re frightening yourself.

Alone in the room, the school so quiet, it was easy to get spooked, but this was something more than nerves. Something had made her uneasy. Something had flitted through the shadows in her peripheral vision.

No. Stop.

“You’re a grown woman,” she said aloud, and the sound of her own voice comforted her. She might be an adult, a teacher, but at heart she was still the little girl who had been afraid of her own shadow.

It’s just the murders, she thought, and shivered again. Several students and one teacher had died on the campus of Monju-no-Chie school this past spring, and another girl had been drowned the previous fall. They hadn’t all been murders, at least according to the police, but she could not help feeling claustrophobic there, alone in her classroom, with the echoes of those deaths-the cruelty, the malice, the evil-lingering in her mind.

She could only imagine how the students must feel. Which was why she had decided to do something to take their minds off such a grim reality. The summer term was about to begin and she had just come from a meeting with the school’s principal, Mr. Yamato, who had approved her request to give her students a once-in-a-lifetime experience-they would put on a Noh play, complete with actors, musicians, and traditional dance. The club would build their own Noh stage and create costumes and props and masks.

Miss Aritomo looked at the masks again and smiled. They were just masks, after all. She had loved Noh theater since she was nine years old, when her father had taken her to a performance of The Lady Aoi and told her that in an earlier era, commoners had been forbidden to learn the music and dance of the Noh. Now, while she loved teaching and enjoyed all forms of art, her greatest pleasure came from her role as faculty advisor to the Noh theater club.

She studied the various masks on the wall, and felt nine years old again, studying the faces of gods and monsters.

Should they perform a realistic genzai no, or a more fantastical mugen no? After the tragic deaths of the last year, it seemed more respectful to choose a genzai no. But her Noh club would doubtless prefer some wild fantasy. It was a difficult decision.

Miss Aritomo let her gaze wander over the masks. There was Satokagura, a furious red devil with white hair and beard, and Torakumadoji, whose ivory devil face was made almost comic by the huge brushes of his bristly eyebrows. There were long-jawed gods with golden faces, dragons and elementals, and several versions of the fox-mask of Kitsune.

From the bookshelf by her desk, she plucked a thick volume that listed every Noh play included in the modern repertoire, as well as older variations that had gone out of fashion. There were fewer than three hundred to choose from, and it would be a simple matter to narrow it down now that she had decided upon some parameters.

She started to riffle through the pages, glancing at them casually. She intended to wait until the second week of the summer term to reveal her plan to the Noh club, to make certain that a few transfer students would have time to adjust to the club and decide if they wanted to remain before she sprang the surprise.

A contented smile settled upon her features as she turned pages and thought about the effort and dedication it would require of her students. Yet she knew they would love every moment of it, just as much as she did.

Perhaps not just as much, she corrected herself, but nearly.

Rob would love it, though. When she had discovered that Professor Harper shared her interest in the arts, she realized that they had the potential to develop a real relationship. Yuuka had no desire to compete with the memory of his late wife, but Rob was still a young man. He had a future to look forward to, and though she knew it was much too early to be thinking so seriously, she could not pretend that she had not wondered if they might share that future together.

Don’t get ahead of yourself, she thought. No matter how strong her feelings for Rob were growing, his lingering devotion to his wife created a barrier between them, and the powerful bond he shared with his daughter, Kara, meant that she would always be foremost in his mind.

That’s as it should be. He’s her father, Miss Aritomo reminded herself.

And yet she could not help feeling at least a little jealous.

The book fell open to Lady Aoi. She had read and reread the description of that play dozens of times, so it was no wonder that the binding naturally opened there, upon the first Noh she had ever seen. It would have been wonderful to do that one, but it was too grim and too fantastical, and the disturbing presence of the Hannya made it everything she didn’t want for the first production of the Noh club.

First production? Her smile widened as she realized she had already begun thinking of it in this way. But she told herself to slow down and focus. So much would be involved in this performance that it would be foolish to assume she would be able to do it again, or that Mr. Yamato would allow it.

A clatter came from behind her. Frowning, she turned to see that one of the masks had fallen off its hook.

“Oh, no,” she said, hurrying to pick it up.

She put a finger into the book to hold her page and crouched to reach for the mask. Even as her fingers brushed its surface, she realized with a shudder that it was the Hannya mask. Knees bent, she turned it over and stared in astonishment when she saw that it was unharmed. There were no cracks, the reddish paint was not chipped, and-even more surprising-the delicate horns and metallic fangs were intact.

Yet what she felt was not relief. Her brow knitted with an unease she did not understand, and as she began to rise, a wave of disorientation swept over her. She felt cold and unsteady and her vision began to blur, and Miss Aritomo fell, book and mask both dropping from her hands.

It might have been minutes or merely seconds later that she opened her eyes and found herself sprawled on the floor. Her head ached from the impact of her fall and she felt strangely thirsty. Blinking, breathing steadily, she moved carefully into a sitting position, afraid she would faint again. She had only ever passed out once before, on a hot, humid morning when she had been a schoolgirl.

Shaken, she glanced around. The Hannya mask lay on the floor a few feet away, still intact, staring up at the ceiling with what she’d always thought of as gleeful malice. The book had fallen open a few feet from the mask, and now Miss Aritomo reached out to retrieve it.

Curious, she saw that the book had fallen open on Dojoji, a horrific play that, like Lady Aoi, also featured the Hannya. Dojoji concerned the spirit of a young woman who had been spurned by her lover and transformed into a demonic serpent-the Hannya-to take her vengeance.

Miss Aritomo smiled and reached for the Hannya mask. A small voice in the back of her mind objected, but she forced those concerns away and they were instantly forgotten. Dojoji seemed like the perfect choice for the Noh club.

Just perfect.

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