‘Lying is an art,’ Falling Leaf said, pouring from the small earthenware teapot. ‘I do not go to such lengths for those I despise.’
Aoandon’s clawed blue fingers reached across the low table and closed around her teacup. Her lips parted, revealing a flash of teeth as sharp as her horns. Falling Leaf shuddered and fought down the instinct to flee. After all the pains and preparations to reach this point, she could not give up now.
‘Lying is as much my realm as any other story,’ Aoandon said. ‘It would help you little today.’
Falling Leaf straightened the folds of her second best kimono.
‘Is something wrong with the tea?’ she asked, noticing that the oni had not yet taken a drink.
‘Lying is one thing,’ Aoandon said. ‘Poisoning another. A matriarch will do much to rid her village of a menace.’
Falling Leaf inclined her head.
‘You are wise,’ she said. ‘My tea is just the same as yours.’
She drained her cup and poured another. The oni smiled, drank, and held her cup out for another serving.
‘What does it benefit you to haunt us?’ Falling Leaf asked. ‘To traumatise children, frighten old people to death, make men so scared that they will not go into the fields for the harvest?’
Aoandon smiled. In any other face that smile would have been a thing of grace and beauty, but it sent a shiver through Falling Leaf.
‘Your people’s fear is to me as rice or fish or fine tea,’ Aoandon said. ‘It sustains me. It invigorates me. It makes my life worthwhile.’
‘You lived in the shadows for so long,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘Showing yourself in only in the moments after ghost stories had ended, feeding off the fear of those moments. Is that not enough?’
‘Barely.’ Aoandon held out her empty cup again. ‘And one can never have too much. Your people told so many stories, so many lies, I no longer needed to hide from the light. Would you stay in others’ shadows, given the choice?’
‘I raised seven children.’ Falling Leaf filled her own cup too, enjoyed the soft scent of the steam. ‘One of them is head man, as his father was before him.’
‘Half truths are still truths, but I am the devourer of stories, I see through the gaps. You are trapped, just as you have always been. You come here reluctantly, the village’s pet story teller sent to bargain with a demon. But all you really want is out. Please, deny any of it – I will know if you are lying.’
Falling Leaf looked down at her own trembling hands. The creature knew her better than her husband had, better than her children did, better than she had even known herself for many years. All that time forcing herself to be good and diligent, until it was too late to follow the craving for freedom she finally recognised. Until she was as scared of her own broken heart as of the oni that plagued her people.
She looked up, tears running from her eyes.
‘This is good tea,’ Aoandon said, reaching out and pouring for herself. ‘But you cannot have hoped to persuade me with just tea. So tell me, why should I seek out the life that you yourself cannot accept? What words can possibly persuade me?’
‘None,’ Falling Leaf whispered.
‘And what lies could possibly trick me?’
‘So you see, I am going nowhere.’ Aoandon tilted back her head, raised the teapot and poured its contents straight down her throat. The finest tea in the village, gone in five long gulps. She slammed it down on the table so hard that the pot cracked. ‘Delicious.’
With a click and a small thud the teapot fell in two, spilling damp green leaves onto the pale wood of the table. Tiny black berries stood out amidst the debris. Aoandon stared at them, her face crumpling in outrage and then fear.
‘The fruit of the drifting tree,’ Falling Leaf said. The trembling had spread to her whole body now. ‘I traded my best kimono for them.’
‘These will kill me,’ Aoandon said. She jerked to her feet, staggered and fell shaking to one knee. Her terror finally made that blue face beautiful. ‘But you… It will kill you too.’
‘Yes.’ The tears had turned to blood now, and Falling Leaf’s vision was fading.
‘Your people asked you to do this?’ Aoandon’s words were turning into a rasping wheeze. ‘Yet you would die for them?’
‘They did not ask me,’ Falling Leaf said. ‘They never would.’ The world was black now. She lay down. The floor was soft and warm. ‘I told them I had come to make peace.’
* * *