He came through the door like any of the other visitors, overcoat swinging from his shoulders, suit neatly buttoned, quiet tie knotted at his throat, glasses flashing in a sudden burst of light from the lantern as it swung in the wind. The other guests failed to notice him, their attention on each other, or on the meager portions of food, or the ritual observances of grief. He walked through the room calmly, folding his overcoat over one arm, and entered the bedroom beyond without saying a word.

The man there lay with the covers pulled up to his chin, folded hands a visible bump under the pale grey coverlet. His thinning white hair was ruffled around his face like a degraded halo, and his flesh had fallen away with age, letting the lines of his skull show through. A medical stand beside the bed supported a drip and a bag of plasma. He breathed softly through his nose, eyes closed. He gave no sign of recognising the visitor's presence.

In the corner, a woman slumped huddled in an old armchair, the neatness of her sakura-embroidered kimono a contrast to the untidy tumble of her posture. She slept like the dead.

The visitor smiled.

"You know," he said conversationally to the man in the bed, "most of the time my job is a purely professional matter. I take care to keep it that way. I find that it is the easiest way of, shall we say, remaining sane?"

The man in the bed did not open his eyes.

"Of course, you might know a little more about that than I do. Or perhaps, I should say, a little less. Muraki-sensei."

A faint drift of voices came from the other room, as the visitors debated the issues of the day. Their host had been dying for a while now, and his demise was no longer an interesting topic of conversation.

"One of my colleagues has a certain degree of difficulty with it. Again, you might know a little more about that than do I."

The man in the bed showed no sign of hearing.

"My duty," the visitor continued, "is, shall we say, to make sure that certain things occur on schedule. One of those things, Muraki-sensei, is your death." The light flashed from his glasses as he adjusted them.

Silence hung in the air.

"What, no comments? I was sure that you would want to complain. You've done so much to try to avoid death, after all. We know all about your little experiments. Don't you feel at all dismayed to find that it was all worthless?" He took a step closer to the bed, looking down at the helpless figure lying there. "Aren't you going to say anything at all to me?"

The man in the bed made no answer, gave no sign of any awareness of the visitor, but simply lay there, breathing in and out.

"I . . ." The visitor raised one hand. Shadows seemed to flicker about it like a silk glove. He sighed. "I thought I was going to enjoy this, Muraki-sensei. There's someone I know. He's barely more than a child. He has a scar cut into his wrist and he flinches when anybody comments on his eyes. I thought that it would give me some sort of satisfaction to dispose of you when I found out who my next assignment was. But it doesn't. I can't even think of anything to tell Tsuzuki about it that will help him in any way. Here, I'll make it quick."

Shadows flooded up from the ground around him, falling over the man in the bed like a blanket. There was no sound from beneath them.

"We all die," said the visitor. He shook out his overcoat, settling it on his shoulders.

The shadows drained away from the bed like water. The man who lay there no longer breathed.

"We all die," the visitor repeated. "You and I both. Good night, Muraki-sensei." He turned and walked to the door, vanishing into the other room. The buzz of conversation continued unabated, unaware, unthinking.

A pale-haired, pale-eyed boy crawled out from behind the curtain where he had been hiding, and looked up at the still form of his grandfather.

"We all die," he whispered.

"But I don't want to die."


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