The Peddler On The Mountain

by Mushi Megane (虫メガネ)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/64417.html)

Banji the Peddler walked from town to town, his pots, incense burners, and rag dolls bouncing against his back. Whatever you were looking for, whatever you needed, he seemed to have it—as if by magic—right there in one of his many pouches or up his long sleeves. Sometimes you didn’t even recognize your need until he pulled out that bag of sweet candied beans or that yellow silk sash, but then it was all you could think about, as if he realized all your desires even before you knew they ever existed.

“Is there anything you don’t sell?” one merchant laughed as he fondled the new money purse he’d just bought, his fingers running up and down the intricate ivy pattern stitched across it.

Banji smiled and nodded to the merchant’s young daughter peeking out from the doorframe behind her father. “Just my heart,” he said, winking. “Still waiting for someone to name me the right price.”

The merchant’s wife loved this game. “So, how much would it cost,” she giggled and patted her hair. “Or would you accept a trade?”

“The Missus honors me with her question.” Banji bowed low. “I humbly reply that any wares she offers far out-price anything that I can return.”

The merchant harrumphed at his wife’s blushing cheeks, but then broke his scowl with a loud booming laugh. “I hear our Banji has girls in every village willing to trade their cherries for just one lighting of his incense stick.” He raised his eyebrows and poked Banji not-so-gently in the chest. “I bet you have some good stories up those sleeves. Perhaps a drink or two could loosen your tongue enough to tell us a few of your more,” he licked his lips, “colorful encounters?”

Banji playfully waved his hand no and took a step back. “I do not deserve such kindnesses. My ungrateful feet are so in love with the road, I can barely peel them off the dirt. Already the little devils dance with impatience to return.” To demonstrate, he kicked up his heels and did a quick jig. The young daughter clapped her hands and laughed.

He bowed again, this time as part of his familiar farewell ritual. “You have once again honored me with your patronage. May the gods watch over your business and your family. I must unfortunately take my leave. Until next time.” The merchant nodded, his wife bowed, and their daughter waved him goodbye until his figure disappeared in the distance.

——

There was some truth to the merchant’s jokes. Banji was propositioned at almost every village he stopped at. His tall lean figure, his neatly tied hair, his bright and easy smile, his robes which somehow never got dusty no matter how long he walked, seemed to radiate vigor and good humor, and women flocked to him when he arrived, offering their smiles and knowing looks. His almost unearthly knowledge of what they secretly wanted excited them, and the idea of what he might pull next from his sleeve was as intoxicating as the hope that he might someday accept their request for him to come back and show all his wares in a more intimate setting.

But Banji bowed out from accepting anything that was not his stated price, not even extra food. Always he smiled and waved his hand. “I can only accept what I ask for. Nothing more and unfortunately, nothing less.” He was one of the few peddlers who refused to bargain, but somehow the prices he stated seemed to fit, and no one ever argued, not even the stingiest samurai.

There was only one person Banji bargained with.

His route made a wide loop around the villages in the area, hitting each one once every month. He started at the castle town, with its bustling crowds and smoky streets, and then wound about until he reached the small hamlets nestled in the mountains, just south of the capital. As he moved closer to the end of his loop, his sandaled feet quickened their pace, and his wares bounced harder and higher against his back. The early morning mist clouded the rocky path in front of him, hiding any traces of who had passed on it earlier, or more importantly, who might be waiting alongside it.

Bandits often hid in the hills, waiting to encourage unsuspecting travelers to donate their goods and sometimes their lives. His ears keen, his eyes taking in every detail, Banji sped forward, noticing each rustle from the bushes, each snap of a branch. Even the sharpest bandits somehow missed catching him each time he passed, no matter how hard they stared at the road before them. By the time they rushed out, he was already gone, his prints lost in the mist.

Banji’s last stop before he started the journey all over again was a small cottage on the far side of the mountain, its thatched roof almost hidden among the evergreens that towered over it.

The air smelled of pine with a hint of smoke. He stomach rumbled but he patted it into silence. “Not yet,” he said softly. “We must see how much it costs first.”

He stepped between the trees and almost stumbled right into the door of the cottage. This happened almost every time. He shook his head. He never got used to it. How it just seemed to…pop up in front of him. He smoothed out his robe, adjusted his pack, checked his sleeves even though he knew everything was in order, and then lifted his hand to knock.

The door opened before his fist touched the wood, as always.

“I don’t want any,” a young man, short and slender, scowled at him, his skinny arms crossed in front of him.

Banji was prepared. “But that is because you don’t know what you want.” He began to roll up his sleeve. “I have right here the most amazing—”

The door slammed in his face.

Banji sighed and put the delicate silver chain up his sleeve again. He reached back into his pack. This was going to demand something more striking.

“From the far north, I have carried this treasure, unseen by anyone else. A gift from the gods themselves, a true blessing embodied in something so simple, yet so beautiful.” He held up a stone, smooth and shining, clear like glass, deep blue like the cold waters that bordered the northern coasts. “As if the gods themselves took the ocean and molded it in their hands.”

Silence. The door remained closed.

Banji put the stone away. He looked into his pouches and pulled out a beaten-up manuscript, its pages yellowed with age.

“Chikamatsu’s first play, hidden by his family, never performed and not printed anywhere else. The only copy now sits in my hands. The last man who read it said it was so good, his tears turned into stars.” He waved the manuscript at the door.

Not even a rustle from the other side. Banji put the play away.

He tried again and again, opening up each purse and pocket, but the door never opened. None of what he carried was enticing enough.

In defeat, Banji laid his head against the door and closed his eyes. “There is one other thing that I have to offer,” he murmured. “But it is so small, so insignificant, that I cannot show it to you, for no man would want it. It barely works at all, I tell you. But you drive a hard bargain. So, if you want this, this thing, you may have it.”

He waited, his eyes still closed. There was a shifting of feet on the other side.

“How much?” He could feel the words move through the door, soft and raspy.

“For such a discerning customer, I will say…one night’s rest. I have been traveling so long.”

“Too high.”

Banji nodded against the door. “The customer is of course right. The price is too high. Such a simple thing should cost much less. Say…one good meal.”

“Too high,” the voice repeated.

“Some water then. My throat is so parched. One cup of water and I shall gladly part with this useless thing. Did I tell you that it’s probably broken? Cracked right up the middle? It has this awful smell too. It will make your clothes jump right off your body, it smells so bad.”

There was a cough on the other side. Or was that a laugh?

“Too high,” the voice coughed again.

“I cannot best the customer. His wish I must fulfill. For you, for this special case, I will give it to you with no cost, but I pray the customer will be charitable and not tell anyone. If others hear, I would never be able to walk the road again.”

Silence. Banji heard his heart beat and realized his fist was balled up right on top of it, pressed tight against his chest. He waited.

There was a creak and the door slowly opened. Banji felt his head lean forward as the door pulled back.

“How smelly?” growled the young man on the other side, his glare barely masking his smile.

Banji opened his eyes and looked down at him. He reached out to brush a lock of stray hair away from the other’s forehead. The young man didn’t shy away from the brief touch. His mock glare deepened, even if his clouded eyes stared past Banji. “Well?”

Banji pulled at his sash around his waist, untying it. “My clothes can barely stay on, it smells so much.” The young man’s hand reached out and Banji took it and lowered it to the loosened sash. “See?”

“You’re right.” He raised his eyebrows. “That is pretty smelly.” The young man stepped aside, allowing Banji to enter.

Once inside, Banji pushed his pack against the door, closing it.

——-

Haruyuki lay beneath him, his pale back moving up and down as Banji pressed into him, slow at first and then speeding up as his one hand gripped Haruyuki’s hip. His other hand felt the mat beneath them until he brushed up against the unmistakable hardness of Haruyuki’s need. Haruyuki’s balled fists unclenched for a moment, one moving down to grab at Banji’s teasing hand, but Banji took it first and moved it back into place.

“No, let me.” He leaned down and kissed Haruyuki’s back as he slowly slid his hand up and down the other’s shaft, coaxing him towards release. He smiled as Haruyuki let out a hiss of air.

“Almost,” Banji kissed his neck as he thrust forward.

When Banji came, he couldn’t see Haruyuki’s face; before the other released, Banji turned him around to lie on his back, so when it happened, he could take in every detail—Haruyuki’s closed eyes, his open mouth, his once balled fists that now held Banji’s shoulders. Their embrace was so tight that when a tear slipped down Haruyuki’s cheek, Banji swore he saw it spark and glow red before it disappeared.

—–

“Why were you trying to sell me a play?” Haruyuki lay against his chest, hugging the blanket around them. “What was I supposed to do with that?”

It took a moment for Banji to remember. Their ritual at the door had already slipped his mind. “Oh…I don’t know. Maybe I could…read it to you.”

“All of it? All of the parts?”

“…Sure.”

“Even the women? Even the old old women?”

“Of coooourse,” he said, drawling it out like what he thought the oldest grandma might sound like. Haruyuki pounded his chest lightly.

“Don’t give up your day job.”

“And miss your abuse?” Banji tightened his arms around him. “Never.”

Haruyuki’s only reply was to roll off, taking the blanket with him. Banji lay naked and exposed on the floor.

“Hey. What about me?”

“What about you?” Haruyuki stood up and shuffled towards the corner where their clothes had been tossed. He felt around on the floor until he found his robe.

“Well, I’m also not wearing any clothes.”

“Yes, but I’m the one who can’t see that.” Haruyuki tied his sash around his waist. “You on the other hand, are a pervert.”

Banji smiled and watched him dress. “The Honored Customer is always right.”

Haruyuki’s reply was to throw his clothes right in his face. Banji always marveled at his aim.

—–

Haruyuki had lived alone in the cottage since his grandfather had passed away. Blind since birth, he had been trained as a masseuse when he was still a child. His grandfather would lead him by the hand and bring him from house to house offering his services. “Your back must be aching, all that walking. And you would never believe his hands. They’re small, but it’s as if the gods gifted him, they’re so good at finding what ails you and releasing it, like a demon.”

When his grandfather was too frail to walk him, he tried to go alone, but the mountain paths were too rocky for him. Then the knocks on his door started. The villagers came to him instead. Even when his grandfather passed away, they still came; instead of money, they would trade rice, vegetables, and other goods. Haruyuki became so used to the knock at the door that he would open it before asking who it was.

It was one morning when a loud strong knock banged against it that he opened it to find not a sore farmer seeking a massage, but a young peddler trying to sell his wares.

“I have right here the most amazing chain you will ever see,” the peddler started, and then stopped.

Haruyuki blinked at him and frowned.

“My apologies,” the peddler said. “I did not know that the Honored Customer was blind.”

Haruyuki’s frown deepened. “I’m not interested in anything you might have. You should move on.” He started to close the door, but felt it stop partway.

“I might have something that the Honored Customer may want,” the peddler continued, his hand on the door. Haruyuki heard the sound of rustling as the peddler began jangling his pouches. “I have sweet honey, carried all the way from the southern provinces. I can offer the Honored Customer a taste, but I warn you, one touch of it on your tongue, and you will have to eat it at every meal, it’s so good.”

Haruyuki pushed at the door. “I said I don’t need anything.”

The peddler didn’t move. “Or this blanket. Feel it.” The blanket was pressed against Haruyuki’s chest. His hand automatically fell on it, his fingers brushing against the fabric. It wasn’t rough like wool. It was smooth and soft. He brought it up to touch his cheek, but stopped. He had little money. Mostly he just traded with the villagers to get what he needed. He held the blanket away from him.

“I do not need anything,” he repeated, stronger this time. He heard the peddler suck in his breath and take a step back. The weight holding the door open was gone, and Haruyuki took that moment to close it.

He waited to hear the peddler walk away. The blanket’s softness was still a ghost in his hands, but he closed them and placed them against the door.

He heard the soft scraping sound against the wood on the other side. What was going on?

“I have a secret that I will only share with this door. My joints, they ache so much. I’m so tired from the road that I would give my most valued treasures to just sit down and rest.”

Haruyuki stood in silence. What was this peddler doing?

“My feet, I’m afraid they’ll fall right off. My hands, they’re useless. They can barely hold a pebble. If I could only find a warm spot to sit down, I would give-” there was a pause. “Anything.”

Haruyuki sighed. There was something in that voice that even he couldn’t fight against. He pulled open the door.

“Come in. But-” he stopped and glared into the nothing where the peddler stood, “only for a minute. I have not much to offer, nothing to steal, and I have no money to buy any of your wares.”

He heard the peddler step inside. “I shall follow only what the Honored Customer wishes.” The door closed behind him.

—–

It didn’t take much more coaxing from the peddler before Haruyuki found himself rubbing and massaging the traveler’s naked back. “You need to walk straight. Otherwise, it will continue to be sore,” he chastised as he pressed his hands against the peddler’s upper back.

“I don’t think the strongest man could walk straight with that pack,” the peddler murmured. Somehow, Haruyuki knew that his eyes were closed.

“Then carry less,” he scolded, and pressed down at a particularly tense spot until he heard the other suck in his breath.

The peddler shifted where he lay and took one of Haruyuki’s hands, stopping him. He grasped the fingers gently between his own, feeling them. “But I cannot carry less, for what I carry is the dreams of each Honored Customer. I would not leave even one behind if it would mean that I could not bring them their joys, the things they wish for most.”

Haruyuki paused, not pulling his hand away. The peddler’s words filtered through his mind. Carrying each of the dreams of his customers? He scoffed. “No one can carry everyone’s dreams. Once you accept that, your back will be much better.”

“But why should I accept it?” the peddler squeezed his hand, “I know now of such a good masseuse.”

Haruyuki stiffened. He started to pull his hand away, but the peddler didn’t let go.

“But what could I pay for such a service,” the peddler wondered aloud, his hand slowly caressing Haruyuki’s palm.

Haruyuki yanked his hand back. He was familiar with this ritual. This was not the first time a customer had tried to woo him into further “services.”

“You must have me mistaken. If you’re looking for a whore, then you should go back down the mountain.”

The peddler did not respond at first. Haruyuki heard the sound of the peddler’s pack being dragged across the floor.

“The Honored Customers wounds me. I would never ask of such a filthy bargain.” The pack was pushed into Haruyuki’s hands.

“You can have it all,” the peddler said. “Everything. But in exchange, I would like to come back. Never has my back felt so good. I would give you everything to have that feeling again.”

Haruyuki clutched the pack, his fingers feeling the pockets, both external and hidden. He felt his cheeks warming up. No one had ever given him such a compliment, not even the old women who doted on him. He shook his head and pushed the pack away.

“Take it,” he said. “I don’t need it. I don’t need anything.”

The peddler rested his hand on top of Haruyuki’s. “The Honored Customer drives a hard bargain. But I now know what dream I want, and it is one I do not carry. I now know that in all my wanderings there is nowhere else I can find it but here.”

He placed Haruyuki’s hand against his bare chest. “There is one thing that I could give you. There is only one in the world, but I would gladly give it to you.” He squeezed Haruyuki’s hand. “I have to warn you though. It’s almost broken.”

Haruyuki smiled. “Is this how you sell things? No wonder your pack is so heavy.”

The peddler laughed. “Yes, it truly is an awful thing. Did I mention the smell?”

“The smell?”

“Oh, it’s horrible. Brings tears to my eyes. I mean, look?” He brushed Haruyuki’s hand across his chest. “It smells so bad, not even my clothes will stay on.”

Haruyuki tried to make his smile into a frown. “Well, it’s a good thing I can’t see, or else I’d have to look at you.”

“The Honored Customer is truly blessed.” The peddler laughed. Haruyuki couldn’t help but join in.

They sat there on the floor, with Haruyuki’s hand still against the peddler’s chest. “Would such an unworthy trade interest the Honored Customer?” the peddler asked. Haruyuki felt the slight tremble in the other’s fingers.

He looked down so the peddler couldn’t see his face. He couldn’t hide his smile any more.

“No,” he said, trying his best to sound stern. “I don’t want it.” He paused as he felt the grip on his hand slacken. He took that moment to hold the hand in his. He squeezed. “But maybe next time I will.”

He felt a hand touch his chin and lift his face up. His hair was brushed away from his eyes, and something soft and warm touched his forehead.

“Until next time.”

——

Their monthly visits soon evolved into a series of familiar rituals, like a play they were slowly learning together. First was their ritual at the door, when Banji would try all his tricks to get inside, until finally he had only one item left to offer. Then it was their ritual by the fire that started with talking about the weather, and ended with them both exhausted and naked on the floor, their arms tightly wrapped around each other.

On the long stretches of road between villages, Banji would relive these rituals in his mind, and rehearse them for the next time he came up to the cottage. On his travels, all he could think about was getting there as fast as possible, but when he finally stood right outside, feeling Haruyuki’s mock glare through the door, he wanted to draw it out as long as possible. He was almost bursting with anticipation, but what he enjoyed most was the slow process that eventually culminated into the opening of the door and the outstretched hand taking him in.

The ritual that they played out the following day was always the hardest.

In the morning, Banji tied up his pack and slipped it over his shoulders. He tried to delay his farewell ritual as much as possible. It would be thirty more days until he’d be at this doorstep again, and he wanted to savor the scent of pine and cooking smoke and wet earth that surrounded them. If he could bottle that or stick it in one of his pouches, only to open it on some lonely night on the road…what wouldn’t he give to have that?

Haruyuki sat by the fire, his face blank.

“Do you want me to start lunch?” Banji offered, but Haruyuki shook his head.

“Baba is coming by later for a massage. She’ll put together something.”

Banji nodded without a word. He was happy that the mountain people stopped by Haruyuki’s house to check on him. Banji once asked one night, exhausted but curious, if there were other visitors “like him”. He never forgot Haruyuki’s expression. His eyes staring into nothing, his mouth a firm, thin line. He finally said, almost too low to hear, “There’s no one like you.”

Afterwards, Banji felt both elated and wretched for asking; he never broached the subject again.

He stepped outside the door and turned to bow, only to find Haruyuki standing in front of him. His hands were outstretched, grasping forward. Banji took one, and Haruyuki clasped his other hand on top.

“What is it? Do you feel all right?” Banji looked at him, worried. This was not a part of their ritual. Haruyuki never got up from the fire while he was leaving.

Haruyuki said nothing for a moment. His clouded eyes were looking up, almost as if they could see his anxious expression.

“They say the bandits are getting worse. Bolder. Because the winter was so harsh.” Haruyuki looked down. “I can even hear them at night, walking through the trees. They’ve started attacking villagers. Right in their homes. Some have even died.”

He paused. One of his hands left Banji’s and reached out to touch his shirt, feeling it lightly between his fingers.

“Are you afraid they’ll come here?”

“No. That’s not it.” Haruyuki’s grip on his shirt tightened. “There’s nothing to steal here.”

I beg to differ, Banji thought, but he waited for Haruyuki to finish.

“But there are some who hold far more valuable things, things that bandits would want very badly. I wish…they would be careful. Maybe they should stay away for a while. Until summer at least. Until it’s better.”

So that’s it… Banji took both of Haruyuki’s hands and held them to his chest.

“I’m sorry,” he squeezed them gently. “But that’s a deal I can’t make.” He kissed the fingers on each hand and leaned down and placed his lips softly on Haruyuki’s forehead. “Until next time.”

——

Another month passed and spring had arrived, green and promising. The air was filled with the scent of fresh grass and new growth. Haruyuki smiled as he carried a bucket of water up the path towards his cottage. The spring rains had made the trails muddier and he felt his feet sink with each step. Banji’s trip up the mountain would be sloshy and wet this time.

Even though he had warned him to stay away until the bandits’ attacks lessened, he couldn’t hide his anticipation. He counted the days until Banji’s arrival, and sometimes he asked his visitors what day it was to make sure he wasn’t off his count. His eagerness almost consumed him—to hear the familiar trudge up the path, the loud knock, the long list of items described to try to tempt him, and finally, the sound of Banji’s head against the door and his soft voice describing the one thing he would offer to no one else. It was his favorite moment, right before he would open the door.

He was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice the strange silence of the clearing in front of his cottage. The lack of birdsong would have alerted him, but he was too busy remembering the feel of Banji’s touch on his skin. Suddenly a hand, solid and hard, grabbed his arm and pulled him forward. Haruyuki dropped the bucket, and he heard it hit the ground.

“We thought you’d never get back,” a voice, harsh and cold, laughed by his ear as his arm was yanked behind him. “We hear that you give a nice massage.” The hand slipped from his arm and grabbed his chin, squeezing. “I think it’s time to show us your work.”

—–

Haruyuki was dumped roughly on the floor of his cottage. His heart pounded. There were at least four of them. They smelled of piss and alcohol, dirt and sweat. Their hands kept grabbing at him, pushing him down and up, playing with him, and enjoying the fact that he couldn’t see where they were coming from. He heard a crash by the fire. They must have found his cooking pots.

“Good thing you don’t see shit,” one said, pushing him down again. “‘Cause your place ain’t much to look at.” More crashing sounds. He heard one of them stomping around outside. “Hey, he’s got chickens! We can take those!”

“You don’t mind, do you?” Another hand grabbed him by the hair and pulled. “Good neighbors share, right?”

He didn’t respond, which they didn’t like. They enjoyed it when he made noises, like when they bent his arm back. One of them struck him in the face. He fell forward, his arms outstretched to catch the floor. He breathed in and out, and tried to calm down. Maybe they’ll just take the chickens and go. Maybe that will be it…

“How do you usually do it?” Another hand, this time sliding across his shoulder.

“W-what?” he asked, not looking up.

“The massage. What are you, an idiot too?” The hand smacked the back of his head.

“R-right.” He swallowed and nodded. His hands felt around the floor until they touched the straw mat. “Lie down here. Then I’ll start.”

“That’s it? I just gotta lie down?” The voice was right by his ear, he could smell the sake on the other’s breath.

Haruyuki nodded.

“And then you do your thing?”

He nodded.

“And? After that?”

Haruyuki kept his head down. “Then you feel relaxed.”

“Hmmmm…” A shuffling of feet. “I better.” Followed by another tug at his hair. “Or there’s gonna be more gutted than your chickens, ya hear?”

Haruyuki listened as the bandit lay down next to him. He gingerly reached out and felt the other’s back and moved his hands up. “First, I start at the shoulders…”

A hand suddenly grabbed at his neck and squeezed. Haruyuki started to bring his hands up to his throat but the other’s grip tightened. “Nothing funny, see? Just do what you’re supposed to do and nothing else. We’re all watching you.” He heard the others grunt and laugh behind him. He nodded and the hand let go. Slowly, he reached out again and began to massage the bandit’s shoulders.

As he worked, moving his hands slowly up the man’s upper back, the others joked behind him—about him, about the cottage, about other mountain people nearby, about whom they would hit next, and then, about who they’d just robbed.

“I’m still smiling from that last guy. How did we miss him every month? He was carrying so much junk, you’d think you’d hear him from miles away. He even carried bells. How come they didn’t ring in his pockets?”

Haruyuki’s hands stopped

“How are we gonna split all his stuff, boss?” Another voice called. “I want some of those rocks he had. They sure were nice.”

“I get the rocks,” the boss’s voice reverberated through his back. Haruyuki felt each word touch his hands that still lay motionless. The boss lying beneath them finally noticed. “Hey, why did you stop? You call that done?”

“No…I have to wait a moment for…things to work properly. It’s…part of the technique.” He swallowed. Realization was slowly dawning.

There was only one person who carried that much, who had bells that sat soundless in his pouches.

“Those stones are nice.” The boss sighed and relaxed his shoulders again as Haruyuki began to rub them.

“It’s like the gods had molded the ocean in their hands,” Haruyuki whispered.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He began to work the upper back. “What happened to the man who carried the stones?”

No one said anything for a moment. Haruyuki continued to rub and press his hands on the bandit’s back. He stopped suddenly when he felt a sharp prick against his neck. The prick moved from left to right beneath his jaw.

“Didn’t even see us coming,” a voice said behind him. The knife pressed in deeper. “It was about god damn time too. That fucker kept slipping past us. Not this time though. Not with all that rain and mud.”

Haruyuki was trembling. He couldn’t tell if it was anger or fear, but a part of him wanted to fall on that knife and a part of him wanted to grab it and start stabbing at the nearest voice.

“Put that down,” the bandit beneath him barked. “He’s not done yet, so don’t go poking holes.” The voice huffed. “Now, you’ve made me all not relaxed. Start over!”

The knife was pulled away, and Haruyuki let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding. He leaned forward again, reaching out to feel the back of the bandit chief. A hand, rough and calloused, grabbed his and squeezed. “Do you know what would really relax me though?” The boss chuckled deep in his throat. Haruyuki heard him shifting and sitting up in front of him. Another hand touched his sleeve and began to pull. “If you do it without this on.” There was a ripping sound, and Haruyuki felt cold air on his skin. He tried to back away, but the grip on his hand squeezed harder, almost breaking it. He gritted his teeth as he felt his sash loosened. “Now this,” the boss laughed, “is going to be relaxing.”

The others laughed around him, but all he could hear was the boss’s laugh, and his own heart pounding, hard and fast, as if someone was hitting it, hitting it like a door.

“Hey, what was that?” Silence fell on the room. The hand pulling off his clothes paused. It came again.

THUMP-THUMP-THUMP

There was someone at the door.

“What the hell is that?” the boss yelled. He pushed Haruyuki down against the floor and stood up.

“Rokumon was outside. With the chickens. It must be him,” one of the other voices offered.

“Then go look!” the boss ordered.

One set of footsteps moved towards the door and opened it. Silence.

“Nothing’s there, boss.”

“I can see that, asshole. Go find him!”

The footsteps moved outside. Haruyuki heard them crashing beyond the walls of the cottage. Crashing, stomping, then…nothing. Silence again.

“Where’d he go?” another of the voices asked.

“How the hell should I know?” the boss snapped. There was the smacking sound of leather against flesh. “Go out there, and take that damn knife of yours.”

Another set of footsteps moved towards the door and outside. Crashing, stomping, and then a high pitched squeal—cut off halfway.

The only sound he heard was his own breathing and the boss’s, both growing quicker.

He heard a tentative step towards the door. Haruyuki was roughly grabbed from behind and lifted up. “Get up!” the boss growled. “Up, up!”

Haruyuki was forced stumbling to the door, his one arm pulled behind him. He held the other out in front of him. The door frame came into contact with his fingers and he gripped it tightly. He heard the bandit next to him shift and step forward. A moment later, he heard the door close again.

“There’s nothing out there,” the bandit muttered. “What the hell is-”

THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.

Haruyuki thought his heart would stop with that knock, it was so loud. The bandit swore under his breath and squeezed Haruyuki’s arm. “Ask who it is,” he ordered.

He swallowed. “Who- who is it?”

There was no answer on the other side.

“Ask again!” the bandit hissed by his ear.

Haruyuki shook his head. It was starting to slip into place, the old familiar pattern. He couldn’t believe it, but what came next felt right.

“I don’t want any!” he yelled.

“What the fuck?” the bandit shoved him forward until his head hit the door. “What the hell is going on?”

“But that is because you don’t know what you want,” a voice, deep and thick, said on the other side of the door. The bandit’s grip on his arm tensed.

The voice continued, “I have right here the most amazing chain you will ever see. It shines like the sun against the river waters. Not even the emperor or the shogun has silver as fine as this. Straight from the west it came, carried by demons, some say. You won’t see anything like this again.”

His voice was entrancing. Haruyuki was used to the routine, but this time it had an almost otherworldly pull, tempting him to open the door, to take what was being offered. He felt the bandit slowly release his arm. Haruyuki remained motionless as he heard the other man move closer to the door.

The voice continued. “Once I had a stone that was so lovely, it was as if the gods themselves took the ocean and molded it in their hands. But here, carried from the northern provinces, I have a stone that’s even more beautiful. It’s like ice, but will never melt. It sparkles like the brightest star you will ever see, and no matter whether it’s day or night, it always shines.”

The bandit was at the door. He could hear the creak of it pulling open.

“You’ll never see anything like it, not ever. One of a kind—”

Haruyuki felt cool air on his face.

He heard the bandit step forward. “Where is it? I wanna see!” the man yelled.

There was a sudden gurgling sound, as if someone was having difficulty breathing, followed by the shuffling and kicking of feet and finally, the sound of bones snapping. A heavy weight hit the ground outside.

Silence.

Trembling, Haruyuki reached with his hands until he found the door and quickly closed it. He leaned up against it and listened, his breath ragged. What was he to think? Were the bandits wrong? Had they not killed Banji? How could they if he was- if he was- what was out there?

The sound of soft footsteps came close to the door, followed by the all-too-familiar sound of a head leaning against it. Haruyuki pressed his ear to the wood and listened.

“I have one thing, but it is so small, so insignificant, that I cannot show it to you,” the voice spoke again. “For no man would want it.”

Haruyuki began to mouth the familiar words, “It barely works at all, I tell you. But you drive a hard bargain. So, if you want this, this thing, you may have it.”

“How much?” he asked. More than anything, he wanted to throw open the door, but his instinct told him to wait, to play it out, not to break the ritual. If he did, what was on the other side might disappear…or worse.

“For such a discerning customer, I will say…one night’s rest. I have been traveling so long.”

Tears started to burn the edges of his eyes. “…Too high,” he whispered.

The voice continued. “The customer is of course right. That is too high of a price. Such a simple thing should cost much less. Say…one good meal.”

The tears slipped down his face. “Too high,” he repeated. He gripped his hands together, willing them not to grab the door and fling it open.

“Some water then. My throat is so parched. One cup of water and I shall gladly part with this useless thing. Did I tell you that it’s most likely broken? Cracked right up the middle? It has this awful smell too. It will make your clothes jump right off your body—”

“-it smells so bad,” he chorused softly.

He gripped the door, but just as he was about to open it, he remembered. No, one more time.

“Too high!” he cried out.

The voice chuckled. “I cannot best the customer. His wish I must fulfill. For you, for this special case, I will give it to you at no cost, but I pray the customer will be charitable and not tell anyone. If others hear, I would never be able to walk the road again.”

Now. Now I can do it. Haruyuki pulled the door open. He waited. Only silence and the cold air of the spring night.

Wait, there is one more thing—

He smiled. “How smelly?”

He breathed out as a hand gently brushed the matted hair away from his face, the fingers tracing down his tender cheek where he’d been hit.

He started to shake. “…Well?”

The voice was low and husky, and so so deep, as if it was speaking from down inside the earth. “My clothes can barely stay on, it smells so much.”

Haruyuki reached out his hand and held it in the air, waiting. Another beat, and he felt it taken. The other hand that held his was cold and wet, but still gentle. Instead of lowering to touch a loosened sash, Banji’s hand just grasped his own and squeezed.

“You’re right.” Haruyuki laughed as he cried. “That is pretty smelly.” He stepped back inside and waited, but the footsteps didn’t follow.

“Banji?”

Silence. The hand still held his. He felt it raised and the soft touch of lips on each finger. He began to shake his head as he recognized this pattern, but he found himself pulled forward through the doorway. He felt the hand take his chin, and the soft touch of lips, cold and wet, on his forehead.

Sometimes on a spring night, when it rains, it is said that a lone figure can be seen wandering the paths up the mountain, his pots, incense burners, and rag dolls bouncing against his back as he walks.

It is always the same path, always the same destination.

If you’re lucky to see him and fast enough to follow, it’s said that you might be led to the treasures that he has hidden on the mountain.

But if you are fast enough to follow him, you would know that there is only one thing waiting for him.

“Until next time…”

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