by shukyou (主教) and Tsukizubon Saruko (月図凡然る子)
Saburou lifted his lantern higher, squinting at the small swath it cut into the darkness. He swallowed. Maybe, he thought not for the first time, he should just turn back.
Cleaning the monastery at the start of spring was a tradition almost as old as the monastery itself – or so the abbot liked to tell them all, when the time came around each year. Whether it was the truth or just meant to inspire the acolytes with a false sense of importance was anyone’s guess. Either way, what it meant for Saburou was that the other acolytes – and many of the fully-grown monks, come to that – conspired to stick him with the worst job they could find, out of all the tasks that needed to be done. Last spring it had been cleaning the toilets, which frankly he was surprised it’d taken them so long to get around to; the spring before that, it had been scrubbing out the rat-infested storeroom where a wet, leaky winter had rotted away almost a whole harvest’s worth of rice and gourds. No matter what they ended up foisting off on him, though, he just squared his shoulders, set his jaw, and did it, without arguing or whining or – worse yet – tattling to the abbot. When things were at their worst, he recited mantra in his head, in spite of the decidedly fleshly circumstances, or overcame the smell of old dried shit by forcing his mind into contemplation of how the physical world was truly an illusion. Which was fairly comforting, at the time.
To be fair, though, all that was sort of why they hated him. A skilled hawk hides its talons, the abbot had told him gently, blowing pipe-smoke on the porch out behind his study on some heavy summer night, but although he hated to admit it, Saburou hadn’t entirely understood what he meant. Devoting their lives to the Way was what they were all here for, wasn’t it? It wasn’t his fault that the stupider animals were prone to jealousy.
This year, though, he’d thought he’d gotten off relatively light, at first. Just tidying up the storage rooms on the monastery’s underground floor; a little spooky and more than a little arduous, at least by himself, but nothing disgusting or dangerous. But when he’d finally made his way, with his broom and his cloth, to the back wall of the last room, he’d found something. A large, person-sized hole, right through both the monastery wall and the earth around it: down into a deep tunnel, where earth eventually gave way to stone and even the dim light from the storeroom lanterns failed.
He’d thought of going to get someone, to tell the others and get some boards and plaster and help; he might rather die than complain and show they’d gotten to him, but he knew he wasn’t up to performing heavy-duty carpentry alone. The abbot should know, anyway: he’d be concerned, and rightly so, that the opening might be a doorway for thieves or worse. But first, he’d decided to look around a bit. The hole was oddly regular, for something that had just happened by accident or as a result of digging animals (or spirits, the thought crossed his mind and then he tried to push away). Maybe this was just… something ordinary. Something that was just part of the monastery’s design, and that everybody knew about, and wouldn’t he look stupid coming running to them about it then? Or could it possibly even a prank, set up for him ahead of time: the reason for his suspiciously benign duties this year? That did sort of make sense – although it would take an awful lot of dedication to accomplish on this scale. But…
But he wasn’t turning back. Just yet.
He set his feet carefully on the stone steps the tunnel’s earthen floor had turned into, leading deeper down into the ground. They were slick – not only was the stone very smooth, almost glassy, but he could hear water dripping somewhere in here – and so narrow he couldn’t quite fit even his small sandals on them lengthwise; he had to turn his feet sideways, sidling down them one at a time. The air tasted wet, and briny somehow, alkaline. He had very little sense of how far he’d come already; could it be he was under the river by now, even as far as the base of the waterfall?
Eventually the steps ended, and the footing evened out again, although it was still on a mild downward incline. He picked his way between jutting spurs of rock and outcroppings in the wall, following the path. The lantern barely seemed to illuminate a full arm’s length ahead of his face; he kept having to slow down, afraid he would run into something – and then, rounding a sharp corner that he had first taken for a dead end, he almost did.
Or at least, nearly stumbled forward and fell over something, which was equally stupid. He caught himself just in time, and stumbled back up to a halt, glowering at nothing for the blow to his dignity. What he’d almost fallen over, he saw – with a slightly sinking stomach – was another stone step: just as smooth and slick as the last flight but much larger and steeper, and leading into a flight of similar steps that went up, not down. He could see them rising ahead of him, and… wait. …He could see. Wherever he’d come around that last corner to, there was light in here.
Frowning, Saburou lifted his head, and for the first time took a really good look around him. And felt his eyes go wide.
When he’d rounded the corner, the tunnel had opened out, to a much wider space; he hadn’t noticed, caught between the tunnel at his back and the stairs ahead as he had been, but now he almost couldn’t see how. He was standing on one side of a huge underground cavern, its edges roughened by rock formations and stalactites. There were torches set in the rock walls, high up near the ceiling, way above his head. There weren’t many, and at that height and in all this space they didn’t lift the darkness all that far; it wasn’t an enormous surprise that he hadn’t noticed the light at first, beyond the gleam of his lantern. …The far more impressive thing, however, that he could now see in their glow, were the fuda.
The cavern was covered in fuda. Littered with them. Paper charms stuck to the circle of the walls off in both directions that they curved around the stairs at the center (which, he could see now, were really one wall of a sort of stepped pyramid, rising to a kind of dais in the center of the room), rising up to the cave’s ragged ceiling. They plastered stalactites, humped over rocks, papered the stairs themselves. There were long strands of them dangling in diagonal arcs roped across the ceiling’s upper third; as hard as Saburou stared at them, he couldn’t even imagine how someone had gotten them up that high. They were everywhere: stuck to every surface, at irregular intervals, but giving the whole cavern a sort of an even coating. Surrounding, in a vague pattern, that platform at the center.
Welll, that couldn’t be good.
Before he could even fully have that thought, though, Saburou found his feet already carrying him forward: up onto the first step, and then the second, having to boost himself clumsily along each time with the hand not holding the lantern. He was twelve this year, and not tall for his age; that was part of how the monks had justified making him crawl into the storeroom, smirking and saying it had to be someone small, no one else would fit into that odd, cramped space. He couldn’t have even said why he was still going, not turning back and just getting right out of here – although curiosity seemed the most likely factor. He hadn’t been able to see from the ground; what could even be up there, that it had made somebody protect it so thoroughly?
Whatever he might have expected though, what he saw at the top still managed to take him by surprise.
It was a statue. Just a statue, as far as he could tell: massive, at least ten times his size, and carved from heavy, glossy black stone, but still just a figure carved from rock, all the same. He stared up at it, raising the lantern as high as he could for a better look; the torchlight reached here almost not at all, this far into the center, and both he and the statue were buried in flickering shadows. They made it almost seem to move – made its eyes appear to follow him, as he shifted a little in one direction, then another. It was of a massive, monstrous creature he couldn’t fully identify: long, lithe, vaguely canine, long thin legs and a pointed, angular head. On long consideration, he thought it might be a fox – although not one of the charming, playful foxes he sometimes spotted in the woods when he went walking by the river, chasing each other through the trees on the far bank, until they heard him coming and first froze, alarmed, then bounded away into the underbrush. If this was a fox, it was no cousin of those simple creatures; it was a spirit, a fox like in the old stories the older acolytes sometimes scared the younger ones with. A canny, capricious, and dangerous monster, that would cause mischief and strife just for the sheer pleasure of watching humans suffer. This fox towered, seated on its haunches in a dignified, thoughtful pose that still looked somehow predatory. A profusion of tails, lithe and flowing for all they were rendered in heavy stone, waved and curled around its hindquarters: Saburou counted nine, in all. He had to crane his head all the way back to look up into its face, but it seemed to look back down at him, its sharp nose pointing at the ground and blank stone eyes narrowed. Like it was watching him. Waiting for him. Hungry.
Could it be something to do with the name of the monastery, maybe? That this statue was down here? Some sort of a temple guardian, maybe?
Except the statue, like the rest of the cavern, was also plastered in fuda – even more so than the walls, to be honest. More long strands draped around it, or anchored to it from where they swept out to the walls, and more fuda still were just plastered to the stone. There was one large one – a huge one, really, far outsized, the size of an entire paper screen, and entirely covered in a tightly-packed scrawl of symbols and calligraphy – stuck directly in the center of its chest, right under that pointed muzzle. It even seemed slightly embedded in the stone, like a hollow had been carved out for it.
That oversized fuda was just at the upper end of Saburou’s arms’ reach, if he stood on his toes. Fascinated, he craned up, straining his free arm over his head as he held the lantern with the other. Cleaning had been forgotten, possible pranks forgotten, all the other acolytes and older monks who didn’t like him more than forgotten, everything left behind him up in the temple somewhere behind and above. Just curious now: to see if his fingertips would reach, to see if the seal would feel like paper, or if it was perhaps some clever trick with stone.
He reached. Reached higher. Strained.
And his fingertipes touched, just barely, the very bottom edge of the fuda.
All at once, in a single, blinding flare of fiery light, the fuda burned away. In one miraculous flash, as though he had soaked it in some powerful oil first and touched one of the torch-flames to it instead. Then all of the fuda burned away, the same way. Dissolving off the stone, burning in quick firework flares on their lines, there and then gone like fireflies. It swept through the whole cavern in a wave that took less than a second to complete – that never even gave Saburou time to do anything, beyond the instant, reflexive widening of his eyes.
The torches went out. And so did his lantern.
And suddenly, he was standing in pitch-blackness. And there was a heavy, roaring, deafening sound building up in his ears. Like groaning, tortured stone.
He stumbled back a few steps, instinctively, flailing with his useless lantern as though somehow shaking it could bring back its light. He lost his footing, kept staggering backward, not even thinking about it – just trying to retreat, his heart stuttering wild in his chest like something broken, adrenaline spiking crazily through all his nerves, fleeing from whatever was making that sound –
Which was when, of course, he fell back down the stairs.
He was, he would think later, extremely lucky. He could very easily have killed himself that way; the steps were made of stone, and in the total darkness of the cave, it would’ve been simpler than anything to crack his head open on them, no matter how he fell. At the very least, he could’ve broken one or a lot of his bones. But somehow, although the floor disappearing out from under his feet washed him with dreamy, horrified vertigo and his back bounced against the steps when he hit hard enough to knock all the air out of him and make him bite his tongue so hard it bled, and he didn’t even stop himself that first time but kept tumbling, side-over-side, nearly halfway back to the bottom again, somehow he managed to brace and catch himself on his splayed arms and legs before any real damage could be done. He just lay for long moments, vivid sparks dancing in front of his vision of total blackness, struggling to suck air back into the horrible flatness of his lungs; then, finally, he could catch a few burning breaths, and that made moving possible again. He began to cough, as he pulled himself up onto his elbows, and then carefully flopped himself over, groaning, to a sitting position on the stairs. He rubbed his aching back for a moment, wincing, learning how to breathe right again; and then, when he finally felt a little more right in himself, he remembered the lantern, and twisted himself around on the steps to cast around for it, hoping it hadn’t been smashed beyond all recovery. At least the sound had gone, sometime in there. Everything was very quiet again, except for him.
He found the lantern after only a few minutes’ crawling and groping, toppled on its side on a stair a few risers above him: the paper was fairly battered but at least mostly intact, thankfully, and not even too much of the oil had spilled, by the feel. He wiped off his hands and fumbled into the inner pouches of his robe, glad he’d brought flint and steel just in case. His hands were still shaking, and it took him several tries to light the remaining oil again, and set the paper sleeve back in place. He picked it up again, lifting it to the level of his eyes –
And illuminated a face, looming pale and shadowed out of the darkness of the stairs above him, far too close to his own.
To his eternal furious shame to follow, Saburou screamed. Threw himself backward down the steps, too – unthinking, so hard he nearly went tumbling head-over-rump right down them again, and nearly dropped the lantern again. At the same time, though, the owner of the face screamed too, and also flung himself back – landing in a sprawl on the steps leading upward from both of them. They both ended up in ungainly tumbles: Saburou propped awkwardly on his hand against the downward slant of the steps with his legs spraddled upward and his breath coming in high wheezing gasps, and above him clung with equally little dignity to the steps… another… boy about his age?
Saburou blinked. Stared. Then took a deep breath, and made what he felt, under the circumstances, to be a truly heroic effort to collect himself.
“How did you get in here?” he demanded, after a second or two. Trying, belatedly, to at least struggle himself up to some sort of position that looked like it might belong to someone vaguely authoritative. The boy on the steps blinked back at him, and sat up too, rubbing his head.
“I… don’t know,” he said – in a patient, uneasy tone that suggested he was alarmed to find himself dealing with a person who was asking him crazy and possibly personal questions for no apparent reason. He had a high voice, but musical and rather pretty. “Where is ‘here,’ exactly?”
By now they’d both sat up and were something more like face-to-face again, and Saburou had brought the lantern back within range. He could see, now, that the boy did indeed look about twelve too; he would’ve suspected it was another acolyte he didn’t know very well – it wasn’t like he was exactly close to any of them – except that the boy had hair. Strange hair, too: a coppery reddish color, in a thick, soft-looking shag that hung almost in his eyes, but with dark patches along each side of the top of his head, near its crown. He was very thin, with a narrow, pale face, features that were small and angular and doll-like – all except for his eyes, which were large and wide and surprised. They were strange, too: the color of amber, and with oddly narrow-looking pupils. They gleamed in the lantern-light, reflecting it back. He was barefoot, and dressed only in a tattered, frayed brown garment that might have been a robe at one point; it was much too big for him, its hem dragging far out on the ground and sleeves swallowing his hands. He looked as small as Saburou was, if not more so.
Saburou dragged his knees under him, scowling. Becoming annoyed seemed like the safest way to deal with this bizarre situation, and he clung to it with relief. “A cave under Ishikitsune Monastery. I’m not sure what it’s for. …Are you from the village?”
The boy frowned, cocking his head in a fast, liquid way that seemed somehow unplaceably familiar. “Which village?”
“…Kazesaki Village. The only one anywhere near here.” The bizarre boy looked even more mystified, if possible. Saburou sighed. “It’s small, and there aren’t many people, and they’re known for their pottery. In the valley in the mountains?”
“Oh, the mountains.” He said this in an airy, dismissive way, as though the mystery were solved. “No, I’m not from there. Who are you?”
Saburou blinked, then scowled again. “I’m… Saburou. I’m an acolyte at the monastery. Who are you? You never told me what you’re doing here.”
“I told you, I don’t know.” The boy didn’t seem cross, though, only mildly interested – an expression that just focused as he sat up and considered. “Actually, now that you ask, I don’t know who I am, either! That’s strange, isn’t it? That’s a strange thing not to know.” He tilted his head again, and then looked at Saburou, frowning thoughtfully. “I’m a little peculiar, aren’t I? Have you noticed that?”
It seemed best not to dignify that with a response. “You… don’t?” The boy shook his head, his whole face transforming with a broad, breaking smile. Now that he’d put his finger on that fact, his whole manner seemed to have brightened into a cheery good humor that Saburou didn’t feel was appropriate. Saburou sat nonplussed for a moment or two more, and then finally sighed, gathering up his lantern and himself to his feet. “Well… you can’t stay here, anyway. We should go see the abbot. He’ll know what to do.”
“Okay.” The boy got to his feet too, smacking dust from his tattery robe. It was loose where it crossed over his chest, and it pulled for a second as he did, and for just that second, Saburou thought he saw… something. Underneath, on the skin of his upper chest. Some flash. …But no sooner had it caught his eye and made him frown than he became suddenly self-conscious – what was he doing, staring at some clearly insane stranger’s chest? – and he dropped his eyes away, hiding his slight fluster with an even deeper scowl. “I’ve never met an abbot before. Is he nice?”
Saburou sighed, barely bothering to keep it under his breath. “…Yes. He’s very nice. And my lantern’s almost out of oil, so just come on, all right?”
“All right,” the boy agreed, his good cheer apparently dampened not in the slightest. He hopped down the steps after Saburou, and he tried, very hard, not to watch the front of his robe – to see if that gap would open again. It had probably just been his imagination, anyway, in the first place: brought on by this strange cave and all its fuda.
…Which were still gone, he noticed, looking down at the steps in the lantern-light around his feet. Had they ever been there to begin with? Had he just had… some sort of bizarre waking dream, or vision, from being down here in the dark alone?
Well, it didn’t matter. He had more important things to worry about now – like a tiny lunatic who’d apparently been running around in the monastery basement, all unsuspected. He couldn’t even imagine what the abbot was going to say about this.
Which all kept him preoccupied enough that it never even occurred to him to look back up behind them, as they clambered down the stairs back to the tunnel and the path back up. Or saw, as he might have if he had, that the fuda weren’t the only thing that was missing.
They had learned the history of the monastery in their lessons, when Saburou had been eleven: a classroom of some fifteen ill-assorted acolytes, ranging in age from five (a shy, perpetually terrified little transplant from the distant coast, who still routinely cried through the night from homesickness and was bullied pitilessly) to fifteen (a nose-picking dullard and farmer’s son from the nearby village, who should have become a novice monk last year, but whose prospects for advancement at all seemed to dim by the moment). Their teacher that day had been Denshin, which had decreased Saburou’s enthusiasm for the lesson right from the start. Denshin was a sallow young monk with enormous ears, whose loathing Saburou had won the year before, when he had stood up, incensed, in the middle of a lesson and argued vehemently against Denshin’s lax, indulgent rendering of the qualities of Buddha Dharma.
“Three centuries ago, it is said,” Denshin had said, today, kneeling in front of the class, as Saburou had leaned his cheek against his hand and gazed out the window, “a terrible fox spirit roamed these forests and the mountains to the west. It was the most powerful monster of its kind that anyone had ever seen, and very cunning. It liked nothing better than to attack and kill human prey, and would sometimes trick its way into a home at the heart of a village, or into the midst of an army, the better to have more people around it to rend and tear its way through.” Saburou had thought, with some distaste, that for the moment Denshin sounded more like one of the older acolytes telling the younger ones ghost stories than like a teacher. “Men came from the cities for miles around to try to defeat it, but none ever returned. In time, travelers came to avoid these lands, choosing instead to circle all the way around the far side of the mountains to pass through, or simply not to pass through at all.”
A butterfly had flapped its lazy way up to the window-screens, lighting for a second and then flitting away. The cicadas had been a loud midsummer chorus, the light on the courtyard outside thick and hazy, Saburou’s eyes half-lidded as he’d watched.
“But finally, the great itinerant exorcist monk, Chimamirenate no Zuijin, heard of this land’s plight,” Denshin had gone on, after pausing momentarily for effect. “He traveled across half the nation to come and battle the fox spirit, and end its rampage. They fought for nine days and nine nights, all through the whole forest, without pause for rest or food or drink. And at the end, Chimamirenate no Zuijin was victorious, and the demon lay defeated.” Denshin had lifted his finger, teacherly and somber; Saburou had sighed slightly into his palm. “But in his mercy, he did not slay the fox spirit. Instead, he used his powers of exorcism to transform it into human form, so that in time it could come to contemplate the Buddha and attain enlightenment. He then sealed it into the stones under the mountain, where it would be trapped by the earth, and could harm no one. And he asked the people who had been living in hiding in the mountains, in fear of the fox spirit, to build a monastery on the spot where he had defeated it, to honor its courage as his opponent and to restore holiness to the land that had been defiled. And that is the story of how Ishikitsune Monastery was founded by the great and holy Chimamirenate no Zuijin, and named for the spirit that he trapped in stone.”
Denshin had paused then, to check the impact the story had had on all of his students. And if he was dissatisfied, it came only from the quarter that he might have expected; the rest, Saburou had been aware with a slight edge of contempt, had been more or less riveted, even the idiot from the village who couldn’t normally keep his finger out of his nose.
And “Now, Saburou,” Denshin had said then, with a slight, nasty sneer of his own in his voice – making Saburou at last drop his hand and look up. “Since you’re clearly far too advanced for a simple history lesson, perhaps you can tell us all which principles of the dhamma-vinaya are illustrated by this story, and why?”
And Saburou had straightened, that stubborn little line forming between his brows that so amused the abbot and irritated everyone else, and prepared his answer; but only out of sheer obstinacy. He hadn’t thought much of the story then, and hadn’t thought much of it since. It was a silly folktale, treated like fact for far too long by those who wanted to make their home sound important. There were probably no more than a handful of kernels of truth in the whole thing, even on the metaphorical level. It was a shame monks like Denshin thought they had to toss fantastical stories into their lessons, just to keep all of the students awake. He was here to learn more serious things.
“I think he’s lost his memory, too,” Saburou said by way of conclusion, sitting beside the abbot on his porch in the waning blue twilight, the familiar and soothing smell of smoke curling around him from the bowl of the abbot’s pipe. “He says he doesn’t know who he is, or where he came from.”
He looked at the abbot expectantly, but wasn’t satisfied with the slow, thoughtful nod that was his only answer. Out in the dim, off the way they were both facing, there were splashing sounds and laughter, and flickering movement: the strange boy Saburou had found, playing like a toddler in the abbot’s koi pond. To Saburou’s mortification, the boy had only greeted the abbot in a perfunctory, absent sort of way, before spotting the pond and tearing off toward it in delight. The abbot had only laughed, though, hard, and clapped his hand on Saburou’s shoulder: saying, That’s all right, that’s all right. He knows what he wants out of life, I see; it is a rare and admirable quality. Let’s sit and talk for now, Saburou, just you and me.
The abbot hadn’t seemed at all surprised by any part of Saburou’s story of finding the boy, but neither had he offered any explanation for any of it: neither the tunnel, nor the cave, nor the statue, nor the endless fuda that had disappeared. On the other hand, it was possible he didn’t actually have any answers for these things, and just seemed unsurprised because he always did – which was true, in Saburou’s experience. When Saburou had tentatively suggested that maybe the opening ought to be sealed up, the abbot had just nodded, and said, That’s a good idea. I’ll have some of the monks do that first thing in the morning, and made no other comment. Neither had he offered any opinion as to where the boy might have come from… although personally, in spite of the boy’s strange dress and appearance, Saburou couldn’t imagine it could’ve been any further than the mountain village to the west. Not barefoot, at least. Then again, maybe that was a simple lack of imagination on Saburou’s part. He’d been left at the monastery as an infant, by impoverished but well-meaning parents, according to the abbot (and had sometimes wondered, not without a certain wistful envy, if they’d kept the other two sons they must have had). The youngest acolyte the monks had ever taken on, to be sure. He’d never lived anywhere but here as long as he could remember, and often found it difficult to picture much of the world outside these walls.
“Please tell me what you think, Abbot,” Saburou pressed, timidly, after nothing but plumes of smoke and a silence that seemed endless. “What should be done with him?”
The abbot drew on his pipe again, wrinkled lips puckering and dabbing around its stem within the frame of his long grey whiskers. “I think it would be best,” he said at last, slowly, “if he remained here, at the monastery. Perhaps the nature of this place will help him come to understand his own nature.”
That made a certain amount of sense, Saburou guessed – although it was a bit loftier than the more practical solution he might have hoped for. “I… suppose.” The abbot only smiled at his slightly skeptical tone, however, which was as always a relief. “…We can’t be sure he has anywhere else to go, anyway.”
The abbot nodded, smiling at him again. He was the only person Saburou had ever known to do that on a regular basis. “Just so. Like all mysteries, he’s sure to be unraveled with time; in the meantime, he can remain in our care, and be sure of being safe.” He paused a moment, thoughtfully, puffing smoke again through his lips. “…And of course, it should be you who looks after him.”
That drew Saburou bolt upright, forgetting himself enough to whirl around and stare at the abbot in sudden undisguised horror. “…What??”
The abbot was implacable, though, in spite of that rudeness; smiling benignly around his pipe. “Oh, naturally. It was you who ventured far enough to find him, after all; it may well have been your fate to meet him there, and you his. Or it may be that some part of his need called out to you, and you heeded it without knowing. In either case, it would be unwise for you to untangle your threads so soon. Not without understanding what has woven them together.”
All of this was sounding uncomfortably punitive, and more than a little nonsensical at that. “Abbot, I don’t think – ” The abbot lifted his bushy eyebrows, and Saburou swallowed, staring down. “I… have many responsibilities. And he’s – ”
“Another,” the abbot said, composedly. “I will try to keep you from becoming overburdened, don’t worry.” When Saburou failed to look placated at that, he smiled again. “It would be very fine to see you have some companionship, as well.”
I don’t need companionship, Saburou almost said… and then finally decided he had probably taken too much advantage of the abbot’s tolerance already today, and only sighed under his breath. “…If you think it best, Abbot.”
“I do.” Saburou nodded, and then bowed, down over his knees to the floor. A warm, familiar touch came on the back of his head, when he did: the abbot’s hand, briefly resting there. Like always, it won a rare flicker of a smile across his downturned face. When he straightened, the abbot looked off at the dimming shape of the boy again for a moment, and then added, “The first thing will be to give him a name. If he knows of none of his own. Do you think you can find him one?”
Saburou hesitated. Thinking (although he never would have said it): Do I have to? If I name him, I’ll never get rid of him.
“I’ll try,” he said, though; if only for the pleasure of the abbot’s approving smile.
“You can stay here for now,” Saburou said, in long-suffering tones that made it absolutely clear what a burden this fact was. “There are some spare cells on the other side of the hall, but they’ll need to be aired out and cleaned before anyone can stay there. You can move into one of those afterward.”
The boy stopped, in the midst of standing on tiptoes to peer curiously at the paper shield on Saburou’s candle-stand, to frown over at him. “I have to go to another room? Why can’t I just stay with you?”
Saburou scowled, brushing past him to root through the trunk at his pallet’s foot. “Because. It’s not appropriate.” There was a long silence behind him, though, and when he turned back the boy was frowning at him, evidently baffled. He sighed; he was going to have to become a teacher himself, it seemed like. Although if Denshin was any example, it couldn’t be that difficult a job. “A monk isn’t allowed to share a room with anyone who isn’t a monk, for more than three nights.”
“But you’re not a monk yet, either,” the boy pointed out – fairly, which was all the more annoying. “You said you’re an acolyte.”
“I’m close enough – look, don’t be a pest, all right?” The boy shrugged and turned back to poking around Saburou’s cell, although with an unrepentant grin that made him scowl more than ever. “It’s just not. Wouldn’t you rather have your own room, anyway?”
“No!” The boy whirled back, looking slightly indignant at the suggestion. “I want to stay here with you!”
Saburou blinked. “…Why?”
“Because! I like you. I’ve never liked anyone before, so it’s special.” …Well, Saburou thought, now entirely bemused, he guessed in a way he could identify with that. “Can’t I stay here? I’ll be good. And very appropriate.”
“No.” He scowled at the spare robes he was lifting out of his trunk, to avoid having to meet the boy’s eyes. “I don’t believe you, anyway. Do you even know what that means?”
“…Maybe?” That finally got Saburou’s head up, at least enough to shoot over an unamused look. The boy contrived to look innocent. “I promised, though. I’ll do whatever you say.”
Saburou just looked at him a moment longer: trying to wither him with that same look, the one he turned on the other acolytes or even on the younger monks, when they tried to pester or bully him. The boy remained unwithered, though, and finally he clicked his tongue in an impatient noise. “Then – get ready for bed. That’s what I say. We’ll talk about it later.”
“Okay,” the boy said. It took Saburou a bit by surprise – but then, it was anyone’s guess whether he actually meant to obey anything Saburou told him to do, or was just trying to soften him up for now. He started pulling at his robe, though, making Saburou quickly avert his eyes –
Although, as it turned out, not quite quickly enough. Because before he could entirely look away, he saw that same flash again: something strangely-colored in the middle of the boy’s chest, framed all around in skin. And this time, somehow, self-consciousness didn’t get the better of him, and he looked again, frowning.
…There was a fuda in the middle of the boy’s chest. Not just stuck there, either; it looked actually embedded into the skin, as though it had been pressed into the boy’s chest and made a slight concavity there in its own shape. The skin around it seemed to overgrow its edges slightly, like unkempt shrubs encroaching their way into an unintended part of a garden. Flesh sucked and puckered down into the outline of the fuda, obscuring its outer lines and making its shape uneven and organic. And the actual paper of the fuda itself, for that matter, was packed so solidly with characters and symbols that it was almost entirely black with ink… in a way that, even after so short a view down in the hidden cave, Saburou found unsettlingly familiar.
“What…” His voice came out dry and unsteady, and he had to stop and swallow. He hadn’t even been aware that he was going to speak. “…What is that?”
“What?” The boy frowned at him, and then followed the line of his eyes to frown down at his own chest – apparently untroubled that he was standing there doing all this while stark naked, all skinny arms and legs and pale flesh. The fuda seemed to take him by surprise too, and he prodded at it with his finger once before dropping his hand away. “Oh. …I don’t know. That’s strange.”
That seemed to Saburou like the most unnecessary thing anyone had ever said. “Is it… you don’t know why it’s there?”
The boy shook his head. “I guess it’s supposed to be.” He looked back up at Saburou… but now Saburou thought there was something a touch false and uneasy about his grin. “It seems like I’m really peculiar.”
Again, Saburou was getting up before he was aware he was going to do so, crossing to where the boy stood before it could occur to him that maybe he shouldn’t. Without ever taking his eyes off the fuda – he probably would’ve been too embarrassed at once to keep going if he had – he reached out his hand: stretching his fingertips out toward it without thinking, like he had in the cave below.
But this time, the boy caught it, a fingerlength from his chest. He moved with such flashing speed that Saburou didn’t even see it; and the grip of his hand was startlingly strong.
“Sorry,” the boy said, quietly, as Saburou’s eyes were startled up to his. “But I don’t think you should do that.”
It took Saburou a long moment to recover the presence of mind to speak. His voice still sounded dry. “…Why not?”
The boy shrugged, and smiled; and all at once, just like that, the strange tension in the air was gone. He was just a strange, irritating boy again, holding onto Saburou’s hand in his slightly sweaty grip and giving him that ridiculous grin. “I don’t know. Is that robe for me? Or should I just sleep like this? It is kind of more comfortable.”
Saburou flushed a little in spite of himself, and stepped back out of the boy’s grip so hard he might have been touching something hot, scowling harder than ever to cover. “It’s for you.”
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Trying to think of a name for you,” Saburou said. He’d spread out one scroll from the pile beside him across his knees, and had bent his head down over it, cross with the poor light from the candle. “The abbot said I should.”
“A name? For me?” The undisguised delight in the boy’s voice made Saburou lift his head again, to find his guest bounding up from the bed to come kneel in front of him, in an ungainly and unmonklike sprawl. He tried to peer at the scroll; Saburou lifted it out of range. “Really? I’ve never – ”
” – had a name before?” Saburou guessed, in his driest tone. The boy looked surprised, but nodded, and Saburou sighed. Over the last two days he’d been hearing that more than enough for it to stick. He set the scroll to one side, looking at the boy again. “Of course you have. How would you know all these things you’ve never done before if you don’t remember anything, anyway?”
The boy frowned, puzzled. “I don’t know. I just do.” He craned his head, trying to peer at the scroll again, and this time Saburou gave up and let him. “What does that say?”
“You can’t read?” The boy shook his head, cheerfully. Well, that was hardly uncommon; even within the monastery, Saburou prided himself on being one of the only ones who was any good at reading and writing, enough to even win grudging praise from the monks who taught him. “It’s a text on doctrine. I’m trying to find some sort of holy principle to name you after. Maybe it’ll give you some restraint.”
“I don’t think that’ll work,” the boy said, with the same good cheer. On consideration, Saburou was forced to snort his agreement. “You’re thinking about this too hard. I’ll be happy with any name I have, if you give it to me. You should just pick something.”
“No.” Saburou furrowed his brow, picking back up the scroll and turning his attention back to it. “Names are important. It needs to have meaning.”
“No it doesn’t. It can just be something silly. I’m pretty silly.” He glanced around the room, apparently considering. “Just pick something you see. Like… Bed!”
Saburou closed his eyes briefly, trying to center himself. “I am not calling you Bed.”
“Candle? Trunk?” The worst thing was that he sounded like he was enjoying himself. “Um… Oh, I know! Scroll! That’s like what you wanted, but it’s easier.”
“It’s not supposed to be easy, it’s – ”
“But the easier it is, the sooner you can give me my name!” He leaned well into Saburou’s space, hands braced on his knees. “I don’t mind, just pick something. Whatever you want!”
Saburou snapped his head up, glaring into his eyes with his mouth open for a rebuke – and then stopped, and shut it again, and set the scroll aside. “Fine,” he snarled – making the boy sink down slightly on his hands, looking cowed, which was tremendously satisfying by now. “Do you know what your name is going to be? It’s going to be exactly what you’ve been for me, ever since you showed up. Trouble.” He lunged up to his feet to go grab up the slate and brush and pot of water he used to practice calligraphy, and threw himself back down with them beside the boy, dipping the brush and then slashing out the kanji in savage strokes. “Ko. Ma. Ri. Komari. Trouble.”
He looked up when he had finished, slightly out of breath from his exertions… and found the boy looking at him, to his dismay, with something like dawning wonder. “Komari?” he repeated, uncertainly at first: rolling the sounds around in his mouth. And then stretching them, inside a growing grin. “Komari.”
“Komari,” Saburou said back, deadpan. And the boy – Komari – just kept smiling, more than ever.
He stayed like that for a moment, and then peered at the slate, tapping the character Saburou had drawn without his grin ever diminishing. “Is that what it looks like? Is that how you write it?” Saburou nodded, and Komari leaned in closer, peering harder than ever. “…Huh. That’s funny. It looks like a tree in a box.” He straightened back up, with a thoughtful noise. “…I guess that probably would be a lot of trouble. How would you even grow it in there?”
Saburou sighed, heavily. “No – that’s not how it – ”
“But you know what would really be trouble?” Komari went on, after a moment’s pause, apparently without having heard him. And apparently to himself. “If the tree got out of the box.”
There was a long silence, in which Saburou stared at Komari and Komari looked slightly pleased with himself. Finally, Saburou let a small hiss of breath out through his teeth, and scrubbed at his face with both hands. “You,” he said, in the most measured, even tones he could manage, “are now the most aptly named person who has ever existed.”
“Of course I am,” Komari said – and was beaming, when Saburou glanced up at him. “You named me.”
And then, before Saburou could move or glare or even react, he’d planted a light kiss on Saburou’s cheek, and bounced up to his feet and away. Leaving Saburou to slap his hand to the spot as though a flea had bitten him, and try to scowl away the uncomfortable blood from his face.
In time, he came to realize that he hadn’t even known how right he was.
The worst part wasn’t even how firmly Komari had latched onto him, although that was bad enough. Another cell was prepared by the time their three days were up, but Komari refused to stay in it; he would go there when admonished to, at the start of the night, but by morning Saburou would always find him back in the room, sharing Saburou’s hard monk’s pallet again. Nothing Saburou said or did or even any amount of blockades he tried to use to bar his cell’s entrance had any effect. At least for some reason Komari always curled up in a ball at the end of his bed, like a pet dog, instead of actually getting in it with him; that made it feel a little less potentially scandalous.
No, the worst part was how Komari changed things. Where Saburou had previously been able to go whole days without speaking to anyone, if the abbot was away or busy, now he had someone wanting to talk to him all the time, trying to draw him out when he was quiet and coming to pester him when he was alone. When Saburou went to his lessons, Komari tried to come with him, and had to be forcibly chased out by the monks – to the great amusement of the other acolytes, and Saburou’s eternal embarrassment. The only sliver of a bright side in that was that the monks had come to hate Komari even more than they hated him. When he tried to do his chores, Komari was there again: asking him to go play, and then offering to help when he scowled and said he had to finish his work. No amount of explaining that getting the chore finished wasn’t the point could seem to make him understand.
And the abbot, as he might have expected, was no help at all. “Work is excellent, but to share work is also excellent,” he said when Saburou appealed to him about Komari’s trying to help him scrub the courtyard, and Saburou could have sworn that under his disguising whiskers the cruel old man was actually grinning at him. “I think this would be a good lesson for you, Saburou. You should let your friend share your task if he wishes, and turn your mind to contemplation of the interconnectedness of all things.”
“He only wants to help so I’ll go play with him,” Saburou hissed in a near-whisper, after a moment’s agonized silence – as though confessing a murder. The composed tranquility of the abbot’s face seemed to grow more practiced by the moment.
“Then when you’ve finished, by all means, go and play,” he said, with not even a trace of a laugh – although Saburou had known him too long to be fooled. “Surely you realize that there is divine understanding to be found in all things?”
Saburou opened his mouth to say something hotly to that – and then closed it again when he realized he had nothing. “He’s not even my friend!” was finally the best he could do, in another desperate clench.
“Yes I am,” Komari said, happily, having appeared at Saburou’s side out of nowhere, and slung an arm around his shoulders before he could escape. “Thank you, Abbot! That’s just what I was trying to tell him all along.”
So he ended up finding himself playing pretty often, too. Which was completely beneath his dignity, and he made sure Komari knew it at every turn, although Komari didn’t seem to mind. …And if Saburou were to be honest with himself, Komari did have some sort of interesting ideas: he led Saburou off daily on wild chases through places that even he, who’d lived in the monastery all his life, had never even known existed. He found hidden streams to pick frogs out of, dazzling secret clearings where rocks had split open and glittered inside like gems, frayed old bridges over unsuspected chasms – even, once, what seemed like the ruins of a town, now just eroded walls and half-scattered cairns.
“How did you know about this?” he’d ask Komari, time and again, and again and again Komari’s answer would be, simply: “I don’t know, I just do.”
Although the odder thing still was that, sometimes, Komari’s aim would turn out to be off. He would say that he recalled a place by the river, but they would spend the whole day tracing its banks, Komari’s frown growing deeper and deeper, without ever finding it. Or he would say that he knew where there was an abandoned shrine out in the forest, but they would find only rubble where one might have been, a long time ago. Komari became a little strange on those occasions, too, as if they weren’t strange enough by themselves: drawing in on himself, becoming quiet and contemplative. As though he were trying to remember something he had forgotten, long forgotten, and never known he had.
It was all a lot more than he’d bargained for, at any rate; a deep injustice, to be sure, for so small a crime as wandering too far down into the basement.
Saburou had known that the abbot traveled to the capital from time to time, but the first time he saw the capital come to them was in his fourteenth year: two years after he had first found and been saddled with Komari, and bare months after the pride of having been made a novice at last. He was sitting with the abbot on his porch again, sharing conversation and receiving the abbot’s teachings, like he had as often as the abbot could spare the time since he’d been very small. And Komari sat by the koi pond, like he always did now as well; he had grown several inches and his voice had deepened in the intervening time, but he still refused to be parted from Saburou for very long, and he still loved looking at the fish.
The abbot was in mid-sentence when a monk came in, pushing apart the inner screens on his knees and then bending face-down to the floor. “Forgive my intrusion, please, Abbot,” he said before straightening up again – and then when he did, even Saburou could see the fear and uncertainty on his face. “But… the venerable elder monk Butsugen of the holy temple at the capital city has come to see you.”
Saburou’s eyes flickered to the abbot’s face, and though there was no expression there, he thought its very steadiness betrayed something. “Then please send him in,” the abbot said, after only a second’s pause. “It would not do to keep such a distinguished guest waiting.” He rose to his feet, and Saburou followed him, frowning slightly as the monk disappeared again.
The monk who parted the screens and came out onto the porch a moment later was probably about the abbot’s age, although his more orthodox clean-shaven face disguised it some; it betrayed itself, though, in the deep lines carved down his cheeks and across his forehead, and the uncountable wrinkles crackling around his eyes and mouth. He was tall and thickly-built, still handsome in a heavy jovial way that did not quite hide the flat, shiny coldness of his eyes. His robes were extremely fine, heavy brocade long enough to drag behind him when he walked; there were even actually jeweled rings on his hands. Saburou’s mouth thinned as he looked at them, with an instinctive distaste that he couldn’t have disguised.
“Good evening, Butsugen,” the abbot said, bowing politely. Butsugen did not return it, Saburou saw, with his distaste beginning to mount toward outrage. “I apologize for not having better hospitality to offer, when you have called so late.”
Butsugen eyed the abbot, with a sour expression. “Since when have you ever offered me hospitality?” he said, in a deep rolling voice like far-off thunder. And then he was looking at Saburou, before he’d had a chance to bristle properly. “Have I interrupted you?”
“Not at all,” the abbot said, inclining his head. “Ah – but forgive my rudeness. This youth is Saburou, the most promising of our novices.” Which could almost make Saburou forget his annoyance by itself. “Saburou, you’ve heard this distinguished gentleman’s introduction, but once again, he is Butsugen, of the temple at the capital city. He is most favored of the regent, the eldest son of the Chuushin clan.”
Saburou inclined his head, in a bow so stiff and slight it probably came off more insulting than would have none at all. He found it difficult to care. “I am honored to meet you, sir.”
“My pleasure,” Butsugen agreed, with a slight ironic edge, before turning his attention back to the abbot. “We need to talk at once. In private. You’ve gone too far this time, Jiryu.”
“Of course.” The abbot turned to Saburou, patting his shoulder. “You should go to your prayers now, and then to bed. I apologize for cutting our discussion short, but as you can see, living in the great city makes even the most humble monk feel himself of great importance.”
“I’ve come to offer you advice at my own expense, out of the goodness of my heart,” Butsugen snapped, almost cutting off that last. “Am I to just stand here while you slander me to your pupil?”
The abbot smiled: a toothless, foolish, indulgent old man’s smile, you might have said if you didn’t know him. “Slander implies falsehood, Butsugen. And you will forgive me for saying so, but somehow I doubt your advice rests on purely spiritual grounds.” He turned to address Saburou again. “Saburou, perhaps you can refresh my memory: what does the Buddha teach us are the greatest virtues of a monk who follows the Way?”
“Purity,” Saburou said – his eyes never leaving Butsugen. “Humility. Poverty. And doing no harm to any living creature.”
“Just so.” The abbot’s tone was cheerful, as though they were discussing a particularly fine spring day. “And what of the condition of a monk who has elevated himself to wealth and power, through alliance with mighty rulers who put true men of peace to the sword?”
“Such a monk would require expiation at least,” Saburou said. Butsugen was meeting his eyes now, with an expression of distaste: a man facing squashed dung on the sole of his sandals. “For he would have strayed from the true Way.”
“And apart from slander, what is your purpose in having a child recite doctrine to me?” Butsugen said. His eyes had fixed back on the abbot, and narrowed; and his voice was quiet now, the low ominous grumble between loud cracks of thunder. The abbot smiled, and bowed his head again.
“Children see with pure eyes, untainted by the world’s corrupting influences.”
“Children see with naïve eyes, ignorant of the world’s realities,” Butsugen returned. The abbot’s smile broadened.
“And now we play games of synonyms. This is too ignoble a sight for the young and impressionable.” He patted Saburou’s shoulder again. “Collect Komari – ”
“I’m here,” Komari’s voice said from the edge of the porch – startling all of them. Saburou turned to find him standing just in the porch’s shadow, his elbows leaned on the boards. The light from indoors glinted off his strange amber eyes, which were fixed with keen attention on the three of them. There was no way of knowing how long he’d been there.
The abbot recovered himself quickly, though, only nodding. “Excellent. Then both of you should be on your way. You are a highly disciplined and faithful student, Saburou; I would not force you to share company you would find discomforting.”
Saburou bowed to him, deeply. “Thank you for your care for my purity of spirit, Abbot.”
Butsugen’s low snort followed him out through the abbot’s chambers; but so did Komari, trotting along behind with the curious backward glance Saburou didn’t allow himself.
“Who was that?” Komari asked in a low voice, once they were out in the hall again. Saburou glanced back at him, and then fell back a little, so they could walk side-by-side.
“Butsugen. A highly-ranked monk.” He paused, deliberating. “…I’ve heard the monks talking about him. He and the abbot trained together at the temple in the capital, when they were young. But the abbot came here instead, many years ago, and Butsugen stayed in the city. They don’t talk much now; I’m surprised he’s here.”
Komari made a thoughtful noise, under his breath. “Is he Abbot’s friend, then?”
Saburou started to answer – then thought about it, and finally had to revise. “I… suppose he was once. I don’t think so anymore.” He glanced at Komari again. “Why?”
“I didn’t like him,” Komari said; and he was looking back at the way they’d come, a frown creasing his brow. “…He smells bad.”
Saburou blinked, and then snorted. “What are you talking about? He’s a fat, spoiled city monk. He’s probably had three baths since you last took one.”
“I don’t mean like that.” Komari sounded cross, but shied a little closer to Saburou as they walked, when he had the opportunity. “I mean… he smells bad. Mean. Like he wants to hurt Abbot.”
That slowed Saburou down, to stare at Komari more than ever, frowning. “You’re not making any sense. How can anybody smell like he wants to hurt somebody?”
And Komari returned his eyes to him, frowning, and gave him the answer he supposed he might have expected:
“I don’t know. He just does.”
He thought little enough of it at the time, though, and little enough afterward; there was just so much to do, between his chores and prayers and studies and keeping Komari out of trouble, that there never seemed to be room for anything else. He never found out what had brought Butsugen that night – although afterward, he seemed to begin to hear whispers, in the halls and in the kitchen preparing meals in the morning. Tyranny in the capital, he thought he overheard the older monks say, trying to strain his ears without appearing to listen at all. Terror in the outer provinces. Strange otherworldly magics hand-in-hand with martial law. And more and more, the abbot was gone from the monastery; sometimes for weeks at a time, and always looking tired and grim on his return.
Finally, one autumn night when Saburou was sixteen – not long after he’d found Komari’s habits of sleeping at the end of his bed and kissing his cheek and casually touching his wrist or shoulder had suddenly become unbearable for no reason he allowed himself to understand, shortening his temper to nothing and leaving him disturbed and uncomfortable for hours on end – the abbot called Saburou to his rooms, as he had so many times before. This time, however, the tone seemed different: Komari was specifically not invited, and Saburou had to shout and pry himself away from his miserable clinging just to leave his own cell; and once he arrived, they did not go outside to watch the end of sunset, but stayed within the abbot’s cell. There seemed to be fine threads of tense uneasiness under the abbot’s usual demeanor, as well – his eyes cutting often to the candle on a low table that marked off the time.
“I should apologize to you, Saburou,” he said, almost at once, and smiled briefly at Saburou’s frown. “There are many things I need to tell you, and many I should have told you sooner. I suppose I had thought to wait until you had become a full monk, but…” He sighed, slightly, under his breath. “I doubt I will have that luxury, now.”
Saburou frowned at him more deeply than ever. “Pardon me, Abbot, but… why should that be?”
The abbot only waved his hand, though, dismissing this and already going on. “That is of no importance. Let me only tell you what I must. When you were left in my care, some fifteen years ago…” He paused, seeming to collect his breath – and then smiled again, more honestly, clasping his hands on the shoulders of Saburou’s robe. He had to reach up slightly to do it now. “Has it really been so long? I hope you will forgive me if I say it sometimes seems like only days. …But you have grown so much, I suppose it must be.” Saburou ducked his head down a little, discomfited and with no answer, and finally he went on. “I was sent a dream, shortly before you were left here. In it, the great and merciful bodhisattva Kwannon appeared to me; and in her arms she held wrapped in a blanket an infant that I would soon recognize as you. Here is what she told me:
“‘Jiryu the abbot of Ishikitsune Monastery, remember this child I carry. Soon he will come to you in the flesh, and you must receive and protect him, and teach him the true Way. His is the reincarnated soul of the great Chimamirenate no Zuijin, returned to this place by the wheel of samsara; and his, as well, are the Zuijin’s famous bloody hands. For very soon, a time will come when men blind to the Way will once again wash this land in blood. And like the Zuijin before him, this child must take up the burden of turning back the tide for those who cannot, so that the pure may remain free of stain.'”
The abbot fell silent there for a moment, and then sighed – his eyes drifting to the candle again. “I see now that the time the bodhisattva spoke of is upon us, and sooner than I might have expected. Your burden will be a heavy one indeed, I fear. You will need all of the training I have been able to give you, in our short time together… and you will need Komari beside you, as well.” His eyes flicked back to Saburou, seeming to take the measure of him. “It may take some time before the reason for that becomes clear to you. But I assure you, it must be so. It was no coincidence that you were the one who found him, nor is the timing of his appearance an accident. Keep him close to you: whatever may happen.”
A long, stunned silence followed: in which Saburou stared at the abbot, but the abbot, no matter how long he waited, seemed to have nothing more to say. Only standing composed, his hands folded inside his sleeves. He couldn’t even begin to think of how to respond; couldn’t even begin to make any of it make sense, inside his mind.
“Abbot, I don’t understand,” he said at last. His voice sounded husky and dry. The abbot raised his eyebrows.
“Oh? What part confuses you?”
All of it! he wanted to shout, but he swallowed it by force of will. “I…” He grasped at the profusion of threads that faced him, finally seized one. “It’s not my place to question your vision, but… how could I be Chimamirenate no Zuijin reincarnated? Wouldn’t a monk of his renown have achieved enlightenment?”
The abbot looked at him with more surprise than ever – perhaps slightly tinged with reproach. “It’s not like you to be inattentive, Saburou. Have you not heeded even the name he took on?” Saburou only frowned at him, until he finally relented. “Chimamirenate no Zuijin was a murderer.”
Saburou stared. In the sudden quiet, he thought he could hear some sound out elsewhere in the monastery: some distant clamor, an argument or an accident perhaps. It didn’t seem to matter. He could hardly think.
“A swordsman, to be precise,” the abbot continued, after a brief pause. “One of great renown, before his conversion late in life – who, in fact, fought for the very Chuushin clan whose son now rules as regent. But when his beloved comrade was slain before his eyes, he lost his will for battle. He wandered the country as a deserter; and found that his heart was so moved by the plight of the common people, besieged by demons and evil spirits, that he pledged that he would begin a new life, as one who could offer them help and peace. He prayed to the Buddha without ceasing for a hundred days and a hundred nights, and at the end of his prayers he was accepted as a monk, and granted divine powers of exorcism. …But even as an exorcist, he did not lay down his sword. Indeed, he was forced to kill many of the spirits he met, to end their mischief; and not only spirits, but sometimes men.” The abbot’s eyes remained fixed on him: seeming to pierce inside him, making him want to look away. “A story is told – seldomly, in these lands where the Zuijin is venerated – of how he once came to a temple to rid it of a demon… only to find that there was no demon, but only bandits using that disguise to hide their crimes. They had been stealing from the treasury and kidnapping young acolytes, misusing them most foully before killing them, and only using tricks and illusions to make the monks believe these misdeeds of otherworldly origin. When the Zuijin discovered this, he was deeply enraged that men would be so wicked as to commit such sins against the pure and holy, who could not defend themselves; and he fought and killed the bandits to the last man, even as they wept and begged for mercy.”
He fell silent again, and Saburou fought to unstick his leaden tongue; fought to be able to say anything, not just to stand there staring in stricken horror. “But…” He struggled, his mouth numb. “But…”
The abbot touched Saburou’s shoulders again, holding his wide-eyed gaze. “Can you not understand, Saburou? He fought for their sakes, where they could not. He made himself impure, so that others could remain pure.” The sounds seemed to be growing closer; what was going on? Could it be Komari? Was Komari causing some sort of trouble, left to his own devices like this? “Listen – there is more than right conduct, there is more than purity. You must be ready to see in a different way. If Komari – ”
But he got no further.
The screens out to the hallway were suddenly flung wide, and a monk came stumbling and flailing in, panic-white showing all around his eyes. “Abbot!” he cried – over some confusion behind him, some excess of light and flashing movement Saburou couldn’t quite see. “Abbot, you must flee! It’s – ”
And then there was a heavy thud sound, from just behind him, and he broke off suddenly, in the middle of the word. His breath hitched, and then he seemed to choke – and then a gargling rush of blood spilled from his mouth, down to patter and stain the front of his robes and the floor. As Saburou stared, in numb, stunned, uncomprehending horror, he collapsed slowly forward, in a dreaming and oddly graceful tumble of limbs –
Revealing behind him a man clothed in a short, unkempt robe, his face obscured by a demon’s mask… but his bandit’s appearance belied, just slightly, by the quality of the bloody sword he still held high.
The abbot, Saburou was dimly aware, did not look at all surprised to see this apparition: only alarmed, and then furious. It was the fallen monk he rushed to, seeming unmindful of the stranger’s sword; he pulled the man up from the floor into his arms, and only on finding his body already lifeless did he look up at the intruder. Behind him, Saburou couldn’t see his face, but didn’t need to. He could hear every inch of the grim, cold rage in the abbot’s voice.
“Run, Saburou,” he said, first – quick and curt. Saburou’s feet seemed to stay rooted to the spot, though, frozen and unable to move him, even as the abbot raised his voice to the stranger instead: “It’s me you’ve come for. You owe my monks no harm; they’ve done you no offense.”
The man in the entrance seemed to laugh; it was hard to tell behind his mask. “What offense do bandits need?” he said, with a touch of irony. He didn’t speak like a bandit, though, any more than his sword seemed to belong to one. His words were cultured, educated. The abbot watched him for a moment, not moving.
“Is that the mask your master intends to hide my assassination behind, then?” He set the monk’s body down again with great care and reverence, rising to his feet. “A raid by bandits? I suppose no one will question him, at least.” Saburou could see a sliver of his face now: the contempt in his eyes. “And I suppose you will leave none to tell how one of the bandits mysteriously bore the famous sword of Chuushin Toshiaki.”
The man in the mask said nothing for a moment: only taking a step inside the room, into menacing closeness. Around his body it became possible to see the scene out in the hallway: corpses of monks littering the ground in pools of blood, men in dirty peasant robes cutting their way through with the ruthless efficiency of an elite army. Saburou closed his eyes, helplessly; but the sight would not be banished from his mind, now and maybe forever. Maybe for the rest of his life.
“You’ve said more than enough already, old man,” the man said, more softly now, raising his sword. “The time for your silence has come.”
“Run, Saburou!” the abbot said, much more sharply this time. And still, still he couldn’t move.
Things broke down. Became disoriented. He was aware of the man in the mask stepping in, closer, for a span of time that seemed like years, of the lamp-light gleaming off the man’s upraised sword. He was aware of the smell of blood, heavy in his nose and in his lungs, the distant sounds of cries and screens slammed apart and thudding flesh. Aware of the abbot stepping close in front of him, of being washed in his comforting smell of pipe-smoke and tea, and then of the abbot spreading his arms out, protecting him; aware also that it would protect him no longer than however many seconds the abbot had left to live. Aware of the air seeming to leave his lungs, the blood seeming to draw inward from his skin, leaving him cold and numb. Aware of all these things, somehow, without seeming to be a part of them – without ever seeming to understand any of what was happening, even as it all seemed to take decades, centuries. Trapped inside a bubble of empty unthinking roaring silence, even as there was time enough for everything to happen with agonizing slowness.
The blade came down. It struck the abbot across his chest, parting his flesh from his right shoulder to his left hip in one bloody swipe. Saburou could see fine droplets of blood in the air and then pattering to the floor, and then the sudden, heavy blossom of it across the abbot’s robes, around his sides to the back. The abbot stayed on his feet a moment longer, even after the sword had swept away… and then gradually his knees first weakened, and then released, dropping him in a crumple of limbs and flutter of robes. On sheer instinct, Saburou caught his arms around him, half catching him and half going down with him. They settled together to Saburou’s knees on the floor, the abbot held clumsily across his lap and in his arms.
The abbot’s eyes were bleary and distant, fixed up toward Saburou’s face but not focused on it, or on anything. His face looked more weary than anything else. Saburou stared at him, his face a frozen horror-rictus, not breathing or moving. The abbot’s lips were moving: shaping some final words that he could not understand.
Then, a moment later, they were still. His eyes were still. His chest was still, and there was no sound inside it. Or anywhere inside of him.
And the masked man took another step closer – toward him –
“Saburou?” a voice came, suddenly, from behind him.
They both stopped. Froze right where they were, in a unison that must have been nearly comical – although each for very different reasons. Feeling caught in a dream, Saburou turned slowly around on his knees, to stare back over his shoulder…
At Komari, who was standing in front of the open screens to the abbot’s porch: his eyes wide and staring and uncomprehending. He looked very small and very thin, in his ill-fitting monk’s robe and bare feet.
All at once, Saburou’s paralysis broke. He set down the abbot’s body as gently as he could even in his haste, and stagger-lunged to his feet; ran at Komari like a projectile, tripping over himself and losing his balance, already screaming. “Run! Komari, run! You have to get out of here!” And he could hear the stranger’s feet, starting to move behind him, his heart exploding in panic – “Get out, get out, it’s not – ”
But by then he had collided, full force, with Komari’s smaller body: his whole front and hands soaked with the abbot’s blood, staining Komari’s chest as he scrabbled and shoved at it, trying to push him bodily away and out. Komari’s robe had pulled slightly open, from climbing up to the abbot’s quarters from the porch and from Saburou’s clawing hands, so that the fuda embedded in his chest had become exposed. And it was inevitable that one of Saburou’s palms brushed, just lightly, over its surface, leaving a small smear of blood across the white paper and black lettering.
And when it moved away again, the fuda came as well: slipping free of Komari’s skin as if it had only been blown there by a breeze, and caught for a moment before moving on. It fell away, in a graceful white flutter, seesawing its lazy way down through the air. Saburou watched it fall as though hypnotized – his mind too blown out, shattered, by everything that had happened tonight to even react. By pure reflex, he bent and caught it in his hand, before it could reach the floor.
Then straightened up, to look into Komari’s face again – just in time to see it change.
Pupils dimming, whites disappearing until his eyes were all that amber color. Until they seemed faintly to glow. Ears sharpening, cheekbones standing out in sharper relief, all the corners of his face becoming firmer and more angular. Lips peeling back into a slow, smirking snarl, that revealed rows of far too many very pointed teeth. It all happened so fast that Saburou almost couldn’t even be sure he had seen it.
And then Komari was gone.
There was no visible movement, not even any feeling of displaced air. It was as though he had just vanished from the spot – all except for the faint streak of pure amber-colored motion Saburou could just see whip around him, and whirled to see fly at the man behind him. Into him. Like an arrow.
Blood burst from the man’s chest. Showered from it, in a sudden crimson rain. A swath of huge, long, gouged claw-marks had appeared in his chest with no apparent intervening steps; Saburou gaped at them, totally numb, unable to believe what he was seeing. The man made a short, high sound, like a bird shot in the air, and staggered back, dropping his sword to clutch at his surely mortal wounds… and even as he did, Komari – if that thing even was still Komari – appeared beside him again. Crouched down, low, almost on all fours. When he – it – straightened up and craned up to the man’s neck, it did it like an animal standing on its hind legs: bracing its hands on the man’s shoulder, like front paws.
And bit the man’s neck open, in an arterial spray of blood, in one savage stroke.
The man’s body made a jarring crash as it hit the floor, instantly dead. His mask had come askew, revealing an anonymously handsome face, frozen in an expression of stunned horror, that meant nothing to Saburou at all. And Komari was already gone; only that streak of crackling, reddish motion again, vanishing out into the hall. It left behind marks wherever it went, though, Saburou saw – from what was now a state of total, brainless, paralytic shock. Sootily black pawprints, much larger than Komari’s actual feet, that stretched out in a line that looped uncaringly up the walls and ceiling as often as the floor.
He was already following before he could think. Before he could stop himself.
Running, splashing through pools of blood, his breath a thunder in his ears. Ahead of him, down the hallway, he had a perfect, framed view of the Komari-thing landing from nowhere on another masked man’s shoulders, carving his head from them with a cross-handed flash of claws and an expression of savage glee on its twisted face. Then gone again, the head dropping abandoned from its hands to thud on the floor and roll across it, the thing moving too fast to see except for the trails of where it had been, until it reached the next intruder. And the next. And the next. And the next.
Until at last Saburou caught up to it, in the kitchens, at the far end of the main hall from the abbot’s quarters; tearing into the center of an armed quintet before they could even see it, even do more than register surprise at seeing Saburou burst through the doorway behind it. One man’s arm had been torn clean off from a ragged bloody stump before he could so much as move, and while the others were still turning their heads toward his shocked, drilling scream, the thing that had been Komari had thrown the severed arm into their faces hard enough to knock them stumbling back. Then he was cutting across them, low, all a flail of wild limbs and flashing long claws: opening their guts to spill out in steaming piles on the floor. They barely even had time to know what was happening: only looking down, in broken trembling astonishment, at the long ropes of their own insides, before collapsing in a ragged stagger. And then the Komari-thing had jumped onto the heap of their writhing, flailing bodies, ripping into them with its teeth, coming up snapping at bloody flaps of things Saburou couldn’t identify and didn’t want to. It was painted in blood, up its arms and all down its robes and all around its mouth and chin. Its sharp teeth were stained entirely red, when they showed in flashes. Some stupid, incoherent part of Saburou managed to think what a mess this all was, how long of scrubbing it was going to take to clean up.
He could smell smoke from somewhere, though: thick and heavy. Could hear the distant crackling of flame.
As soon as the men lay dead, the thing that had been Komari seemed to lose interest again: pulling up off their bodies, again with such liquid awful speed it was somehow nauseating. It lifted its head, pitched forward in its feral crouch, seeming to sniff the air for a moment. Then finally looked around, behind it… and fixed its eyes directly on Saburou.
They both only stood like that, for seconds that could’ve been an eternity: Saburou staring into the alien, animal eyes of the thing that had somehow become of his only friend.
Then it was moving again. In a there-and-gone-and-there flash, again – vanishing from its crouch over the swordsmen and then suddenly directly in front of Saburou, far too close, close enough that he could smell its bloody stench and see nothing but its feral, strange eyes. He hitched in a helpless breath, twitching all over, but didn’t dare move. The thing regarded him, from inches away, for what felt again like forever… and then finally snaked forward, at him, with that same impossible speed. To bite, he thought, to tear out his throat, and his eyes squeezed shut against the raw red agony that would come, of sharp needle teeth ripping the blood from his throat –
Which never came.
Instead, only a soft rhythmic huff of breaths, on the skin of his throat. For long enough that he had time to open his eyes and stare, uncomprehending, at the ceiling. Just a series of shallow inhales, cooling his flesh, raising goosebumps from it. As though the thing were smelling him: as though it had leaned this close to try to catch his scent. Maybe even to try to place its odd familiarity.
And that was when he realized – with sudden, dreamy intensity – that he still had the fuda in his hand. Gripped so tightly it had crumpled, and drenched in his sour fear-sweat, but still carried with him, all this time.
And when the Komari-thing drew back again, slightly, apparently satisfied and ready to do whatever would come next… he flashed his hand up from his side in one swift jerking thrust, and slapped the fuda straight into the shallow concavity in its chest.
The skin of Komari’s chest surged – rippled – and then seemed to squeeze in, overgrowing the edge of the fuda again. Sucking it back under, into its place again. Komari’s whole body twitched under Saburou’s hand, then jerked harder, juddering as though struck by lightning. The thing let out a scream that was more like a thin, shrieky howl, its head straining back, veins and tendons standing out in its neck and the bunched muscles of its chest and arms… and Saburou would have sworn that the last expression he saw in its glowing, animal amber eyes was one of hurt, surprised betrayal.
And then the eyes rolled up, and the thing collapsed, its knees buckling and then its entire body crumpling to the floor. He stared down, his heart beating a frantic tattoo and every inch of him shaking, and found the lines of its face had gone regular and human again, the claws vanished, the teeth between the slack lips blunt and ordinary; and when he finally dared to bend down, and kneel beside the body on the floor… the eyes that it opened were Komari’s.
“Saburou…?” he whispered; his voice sounding ragged and hoarse. Saburou had to try, very very hard, not to look at the blood around his mouth and on his teeth. “You’re…” He swallowed, thickly, and then his eyes slid closed again, his head falling to one side. “What did I…”
But he trailed off there; and that seemed to be the end of it. When Saburou touched his forehead (one of the least bloody areas still available), he didn’t respond, didn’t even twitch. He had fallen unconscious, and could not be woken.
The smell of smoke was stronger than ever; it had begun to choke the air, making it thick and acrid. It was uncomfortably hot in the kitchens, too, Saburou began to realize, dimly, as he still crouched there, dazed and silent. Terribly hot.
It took him only a few minutes, even in his state, to haul Komari up onto his shoulder, lift him, and drag him out of the back entrance to the kitchens, out onto the grassy hill behind the monastery; but that was almost too long, all the same. By the time they got outside, they were both coughing violently, Komari even in his swoon – and behind them, the monastery was burning. Flames towered into the dark sky, lighting the world up like day.
He staggered along, never stopping, Komari dead weight on his shoulder. Eventually, the heat of the fire faded away behind them, and then its light: until they were buried in the total darkness of the forest on a moonless night. His sides burned, lungs burned, everything ached, everything whirled. Nothing made sense. He had never been so tired, so empty-headed, so completely lost in all his life. All there seemed to be to do, all in the world, was keep walking.
He made it as far as the river, and then collapsed, Komari going down with him. Fell unconscious there, on the banks, with the sound of rushing water soothing in his ears.
He drifted in and out of consciousness, over the next few days. Most of what stayed in his mind were only images, glimpsed for a moment and then faded back into the darkness of sleep again. A lumpy futon on the floor of a decrepit, dusty cottage. A very old, toothless, smiling man, bringing him water in an earthenware jug, rubbing salve gently into his cracked and aching skin. Soft voices talking to each other, on the other side of a screen. Komari, sitting beside him and holding his hand – and making him jolt when he woke up, and saw at first only the outline, the shape next to him that could have been a slightly different one. The one that had haunted his bloody, smoke-filled dreams.
Gradually, he started to be awake for longer periods of time, and then to be able to sit up and eat and drink on his own, and then to hear and understand what Komari and the old man had to explain to him. The old man’s name was Osamu, he said; he was the keeper of a tiny shrine in the mountains, “because I’m too old to have anything better to do anymore.” He had seen the fire at the monastery that night and come down to investigate, found the two of them by the river, and brought them back to his home. That was where they were now. They were safe here: except for festival times, no one came this deep into the mountains except the occasional villager making a journey to pray and give alms, and Osamu could, and would, hide them from those easily enough. And meanwhile, it would look as though everyone who had been at the monastery had died. No one who came to look into the matter – for good or ill – would think of searching for survivors this far afield.
“Your abbot was named Jiryu, isn’t that right?” Osamu asked, one afternoon when Saburou was feeling well enough to come sit out on the shrine steps with him. He was wrapped in a set of extra threadbare robes like blankets around his shoulders, Osamu sitting by with a pot of rice that he was stirring with a small wooden paddle. Out in the direction they both faced, they could see Komari running and laughing between the trunks of the trees, Osamu’s dog bounding gleefully along at his heels. Saburou had asked him the dog’s name, when he had first seen it lolling blissfully on Komari’s lap when they’d both come to check up on him; apparently Komari and the dog had instantly become the best of friends, the second they’d met. Osamu had replied, unabashedly, Amenigishi-kuninigishi-amatsu-hitaka-hik
Now, Saburou shifted where he sat, his brow furrowing at the ground. He didn’t want to talk about the abbot; didn’t even want to think about him, yet. Thinking, he sensed, would only lead back into that warren of bloody images and terror and bottomless grief that he had to face every time he went to sleep, and this time there would be nowhere to wake up to. “Yes,” he said, though – shortly, hoping it would lead no further. Osamu nodded, prodding at his rice.
“Thought so. I kept hearing, every time I went to the village, about how an old monk name of Jiryu had been making some trouble at the capital. Telling nasty truths about the Chuushin clan and trying to stir up rebellion.” He chuckled, shaking his head, making Saburou raise his eyes and frown at him. “I had to admire the fellow’s courage. The Chuushin scare the wits out of me, I don’t mind telling you. You couldn’t pay me enough to go to the capital and say one word against them.”
“Why did you help us, then?” Saburou asked quietly, after a moment. “If you’re so scared of them.”
Osamu shrugged, tapping the paddle on the lip of the pot. “When it comes to saving the lives of two young boys, bravery doesn’t enter into it. That’s just a matter of common decency.” He caught Saburou’s gaze, and smiled, straightening up with his hands on his knees. “I’m no martyr, Novice Saburou. And no monk, either. But I’ve served the gods for many a year now; and the way I see it, that makes us brothers, as men of faith. Not to mention I don’t like watching bullies and murderers poison my land and hurt its people.”
Saburou tried to grunt as noncommittally as possible; he didn’t really know how to engage that, if at all. …And his thoughts had moved on already, anyway. “When you…” He caught himself, paused, swallowed, moved on. Not even sure how to begin to approach what was on his mind. “When you found us… ah… um. …The blood…”
“I cleaned you both up,” Osamu said, with perfect, neutral calm. “Including Komari-chan’s mouth.” Saburou’s head jerked up, startled, but Osamu met his gaze with only a slight, knowing smile. “…One time, when my Nini-chan was just a pup, he was playing with a boy from the village and bit him by accident – just enthusiasm, getting the better of him. But I got to them right away, and even before I patched up the boy’s hand – it wasn’t that bad, anyway – I made sure I wiped the blood off Nini-chan’s muzzle, just the same way.” He paused, meeting Saburou’s eyes. “It’s not good for an animal to taste too much human blood.”
Saburou swallowed, looking down at his hands, and said nothing. There was too much for him to choose anything to say; too many questions he didn’t actually want to ask. Komari’s voice, laughing, calling Nini’s name, reaching him through the trees.
“Did he tell you anything?” he said finally, his voice thin and dry. “About… what happened at the monastery?” Osamu hummed thoughtfully, peering down into the pot.
“Some of it. But if you mean about that part, then no. He said he didn’t remember.” Saburou glanced at him, frowning, and Osamu shrugged again. “He could tell me all about you going off to see the abbot, and him sneaking out after you, and then hearing strange noises back inside. And then about finding you with the old man’s body and you telling him to get out. But then nothing, ’til he woke up here.” Saburou’s hands digging deeper into his blanket of robes on his shoulders by now, his eyes squeezing involuntarily shut; even so, though, he could hear Osamu’s deliberating pause. “You don’t have to tell me about what did happen, if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you,” Saburou said, almost in a whisper.
Osamu let that sit for long minutes: watching Komari and Nini again as Komari toppled giggling into a soft patch of earth and fallen leaves, Nini leaping into his arms on his chest to lick his face, tail wagging frantically. “You’re a smart boy,” he said at last, quieter. Keeping his voice down. “I figure you’ve got to know by now what he is.”
Saburou nodded, staring at the ground until the leaves on the steps blurred. “The fox spirit,” he said. Feeling numb all through his chest. “The one the monastery was named for. …The one Chimamirenate no Zuijin defeated.” It took him a moment to spit that last out – too many uncomfortable feelings and thoughts wound up inside that famous name – but Osamu just nodded: as though they had agreed on some matter of politics or finance. Saburou took a long pause, trying to gather his breath. “How did you know?”
“Oh, if you spend enough time looking after a holy place, you’ll come to see a little clearer than most.” Saburou frowned at him, but Osamu was just beaming peacefully, and went on before Saburou could ask what that was supposed to mean. “He doesn’t know, though, does he.”
“No.” Saburou pressed his lips together, staring down at his hands. “…Why doesn’t he remember?”
“Who knows? Maybe he stayed a rock for too long and his mind got addled. Or maybe he just got so fond of being human that he made up his mind to forget.” Osamu spread his hands, then set the pot aside. “Not really what matters now, anyway, is it?”
No, Saburou wanted to say, again; but the word wouldn’t seem to come out of his chest, where it lodged like a stone.
“You’re welcome in my home,” Osamu said, at last, after a few more moments had passed; and climbed to his feet with the ponderous care it always took him, leaning most of his weight on his gnarled walking stick. “For as long as you need. And I’m happy to protect you, as much as I’m able.” He was silent a moment, bending with creaky care to pick up the pot of rice, and then added: “But I’m not sure how much you need it.”
The words hung oddly on the air, for long seconds: seeming to gain weight, the longer they were there.
Osamu had given them separate beds, of course, and perhaps he had also admonished Komari that crawling into Saburou’s while he was recovering might hurt him: so far he had yet to wake up in the morning here with Komari curled up at the foot of his futon, head pillowed against his calf. Saburou supposed he should have been pleased.
A few weeks after they had first been brought here, though, he woke up in the night for what seemed like the hundredth time with his heart pounding and body pouring sweat, his eyes wide and seeming to pulse as they stared at the ceiling. Caught blurrily between dream and reality, in the dark, not sure yet what any sound was, the urge to flee refusing to let him go. It faded only slowly after he thrashed up to a sitting position, clutching at his head and gasping for his breath; leaving him only cold and numb, and seeming to fit wrong inside his skin.
And, after only a minute or two more of sitting like that, he pushed back the cover and crept across the floor, to crawl his way instead into the futon that had been laid opposite his.
Komari stirred when Saburou curled up along his back, then rolled over to face him, half-lidded eyes reflecting what little light there was so they seemed to gleam. “Saburou?” he murmured, sounding thick and drowsy. Saburou grunted confirmation, bulling his head between Komari’s chin and the futon. Awake enough by now, though, to be fully aware of the irony: that he meant to comfort his fear from that night in the presence of the most dangerous thing that had been there. …But it was just Komari, now, just Komari again; he’d endured enough of Komari’s perplexing affection and attempts at nursing all this time to know he was entirely back to normal, just the same as always. What fear he was able to feel had ended up bemused, even while all comforting familiarity had likewise ended up tinged with uneasiness.
And maybe even more than that, even that night… Komari had stopped. When there had been no one left alive but him, Komari had stopped. Hesitated, if only for a moment – as though distracted by his scent.
Now, though, Komari wrapped both arms around him, pulling him close; his breath across Saburou’s skin was hot and feathery, and made him shiver. “Are you okay?” he whispered, and Saburou nodded, his head knocking against Komari’s chin. Not wanting to speak yet. Komari let that be, and after a moment Saburou wrested his arms from where they’d been wrapped around himself, under the cover, and tangled his hands in the sides of Komari’s robe instead. Komari made a sound like a sigh, and kissed the top of his head. Saburou frowned into Komari’s chest, but didn’t try to escape, and Komari did it again: first on the bare curve of Saburou’s skull, then again, and then craning his neck back to press the next into Saburou’s forehead.
Saburou lay still – not moving, suddenly not trusting himself to move – as Komari kept going: pressing quick, light kisses to his temples, the lids of his closed eyes, down his cheeks. His mouth was small and warm and dry. When he reached Saburou’s mouth, he didn’t even hesitate – just pressed another of those light closed kisses to his lips, seemingly oblivious to Saburou’s swift indrawn breath. But he did hover there for a moment… and then kissed him again, more firmly, and without pulling back right away. But all innocence, even so; with no ulterior motives Saburou could sense at all. Just warm and fond and sweet. Comforting.
For no reason at all the image seared his mind, hellishly vivid, of that mouth using newly sharp teeth to rip out the throat of the man who had killed the abbot; the feeling of it pressed against Saburou’s neck, soft and open and bloody, as the fox spirit had inhaled his smell. And then somehow both of his hands had tight fistfuls of the front of Komari’s robe, and he was kissing Komari back, hard.
Komari made a small, surprised sound against his lips – and then met him in kind. Answering Saburou’s clumsy ferocity with more gentleness, but enthusiasm, his mouth going softer and wetter under the force of Saburou’s. Just going along, agreeably, as though this were nothing stranger than any new demand Saburou might have made of him before. He tasted like mostly nothing, faintly sleep-sour, not like blood at all. Quickly they were open-mouthed against each other, catching their shortening breath between them, and then Komari was exploring and mouthing and nibbling gently at Saburou’s lip until Saburou had to press his head in tighter, to muffle his breathing in Komari’s skin. Osamu’s futon was on the far side of the cottage’s single main room, behind only a partial screen. They had only the distance of a few paces to themselves; only a small patch of private darkness.
He grabbed one of his arms around Komari’s waist, the one that wasn’t trapped against the futon, and wrestled Komari over on top of him, to lie stretched out over his body. Komari was very warm and heavy on his chest, a satisfying solidity in his grasp. They kept kissing, hard, Komari’s elbows braced on either side of his head and his arms clutched up Komari’s back, until Komari shifted position and his knee pressed between Saburou’s thighs. And then Saburou had to break away to press his mouth into the curve where Komari’s neck met his shoulder, hissing, starving for air and tasting skin.
He wasn’t supposed to want this. He wasn’t supposed to want anything. This was, he really more sensed than knew, why it wasn’t proper for a monk to share a room, but none of this was proper, and he did want it and he thought maybe he had always wanted it and the truth was he did want things, so many things: for the abbot to be alive, for the only home he’d ever known not to be gone, to be out of this dreadful numb dislocation that had overtaken everything and dimmed his sight and mind and spirit, for the people who had done this to him to be made to pay. He wasn’t divine detached nothingness but only stupid useless base flesh and blood and bone; he wasn’t even a full monk, and by now even Osamu’s calling him novice was more kindness than fact. Without a monastery or continued training or a master to teach him, he barely knew what he was. A ghost, maybe? A spirit himself.
And if he clutched Komari down on him and thrust his hips up into Komari’s thigh, grinding the erection under his disheveled robe up against its narrow muscle, maybe it was partly just to feel that there was some part of him that was still solid.
Komari made a soft, breathy sound, kissed his ear. Shifted his weight, too, so his leg pressed more firmly into Saburou’s groin – making him shudder. He just let Saburou squirm against him for a few seconds, and then worked his hand in between their bodies and cupped his palm over the clothed shape of Saburou’s cock, between it and his own leg. Tentatively at first, and then – when it made Saburou twitch all over and strangle a gasp in his locked teeth – with increasing pressure, then a slow circling rub that was eye-wateringly good, and too quickly not enough. Saburou crushed his closed eyes against Komari’s neck, grabbing up helpless spasmodic handfuls of the back of his robe, eventually making it come undone in front and hang loose and disordered around them both. The feeling of skin rubbing against him – not to mention the fuda’s paper, shocking in all that flesh, brushing his own bared chest – did nothing to calm him.
Eventually Komari let the clothed shape of him go, making him grit his teeth for the few seconds it took to worm it inside his clothing and undergarments instead. Then Komari’s long, slim hand was wrapping around him, squeezing him gently, and it was impossible to think of anything else – even the claws that had tipped that hand, that had loosed the guts and blood of Chuushin swordsmen to spill out of them and across the floor. Now it only felt warm and smooth, and an infinite relief. Somehow, when he wasn’t paying attention, his own hands had also fumbled their way down into the sides of Komari’s robe, and now in his overheated, hazy mind it seemed only natural to move one of them in kind, to fumble its way between cloth and skin and Komari’s wrist and take Komari’s own warm, heavy hardness into his hand. Komari’s breath stuttered, his supporting elbow weakening and dropping him more flush to Saburou’s chest, and then his hand found its rhythm again. They both did: Saburou’s face buried against Komari’s neck, Komari’s mouth pressed to his hair, both their limbs tangled and clothing bunched and bound in roped confusion between them.
Embarrassingly, it took Saburou only seconds more to come. He felt himself stiffening, seeming to draw in on himself, condensing on the brink of explosion; and then he was exhaling hard and loud into the crook of Komari’s shoulder, his unused hand digging into Komari’s bare side hard enough to leave marks, the one on Komari’s cock working into a frenzy there on strange mindless instinct. Komari’s breath was decidedly shaky by the time Saburou collapsed, gasping, back to the futon underneath him, muscles trembling and sweat rolling down his temples and tickling his neck, but it still took him moments longer to follow, even after Saburou’s hand resumed in full force where it had faltered. And then he was shivering on top of Saburou, clutching at him, squirming Saburou’s head up from his shoulder so he could kiss him one more time, hard and sloppily… and then just whimpering into his mouth, as his body went rigid and warm wetness spilled over Saburou’s hand.
Then he had gone limp too, lying heavily on Saburou, his hand crushed between them. His head fell against the side of Saburou’s, and Saburou turned his own to press his face into Komari’s hair: buried deeply in his earthy, slightly sweaty smell, and breathing it in. They just lay like that a moment, breathing, not moving. Everything felt very quiet, and very warm.
And then Saburou’s chest stuttered, hitching, on a sudden hard inhale. And the breath came out in a sob; and all of a sudden, he was in tears, so hard he shook with the force of them.
He tried to bury his face more tightly against Komari’s head, dampen the sound of his breath, but he had never been able to fool Komari. He stirred, and then wrapped himself around Saburou, gathering his arms around Saburou’s shoulders. The loose rumpled sleeves of his robe folded around his head as Komari pulled him in, whispering something drowsy and soothing he couldn’t understand. Somehow all that only made it worse.
He dug his head in, dug his face in, shuddering and wracked with the force of his sobbing. Clinging to fistfuls of fabric wherever he could reach, holding on to Komari with the panic-tightness of someone drowning. The only thing he had left in the world.
And eventually, he fell asleep like that; without ever letting go, and with the tears still wet on his face.
Later, Saburou would be surprised to look back and realize that they had stayed with Osamu for more than two years. Surprised, and somewhat chagrined as well; that was a long time to impose on anyone’s hospitality, let alone an impoverished shrinekeeper who lived on the donations of almost-as-poor villagers. But each day was so much like the next at the shrine, once they’d settled in, that the passage of time became invisible, impossible to track. And the question, the one he supposed Osamu must have asked himself as well, was: where else would they have gone?
They helped Osamu with his chores by day, anyway, especially the ones he had difficulty getting around enough to do anymore: Komari chopping wood and fetching water and lifting bushels and any number of other labors that made use of his curious strength; Saburou cleaning the shrine, sweeping the steps and scrubbing the floors, clearing away leaves in autumn and blossoms in spring and snow in winter, and rescuing trapped insects from the purification font in summer. Meat from the village was lean, but Osamu cooked what there was for himself and Komari (whose rapacious new delight in it Saburou tried not to watch at mealtimes; it made him feel somehow uncomfortable), and made separate vegetarian dishes for Saburou unasked and without comment. Saburou did let his hair grow, all the same: first to a fine, dark fuzz over his skull, and then gradually to a longer shag that he had to ask Osamu to cut for him monthly. It hurt him, a bit, but he understood the need for it well enough. Not being so distinctive, not needing to hide from the locals quite so much.
And he had to admit, shamefacedly, that growing his hair was really the least of his transgressions these days. Considering that by night, either Komari crawled into his futon or he into Komari’s, shushing each other against the risk of sound carrying to Osamu in the dark. He had no idea yet what to make of that, or if he’d be ever able to make anything of it at all.
He still prayed and meditated when he could find time to spare, though: often at the small, hopeful shrine to Kwannon tucked into a wooded corner of the larger shrine. Even though, to be honest, finding it there had unsettled him at first, for all he had tried to tell himself it was only coincidence, he had been taught that she was a popular figure in these lands, and it meant nothing. Somehow, every time he tried, eventually he only seemed to feel the abbot smiling at him from somewhere just out of sight – the gentle, patient way he always had, on the rare occasions when Saburou had missed something in what he was saying that should have been plain as could be.
“It fell off,” he volunteered, one day the following spring, surprising even himself – out of nowhere, as he and Osamu knelt together preparing dinner, while Komari had gone off to collect the firewood. Osamu looked up, mildly curious, from the rice he was washing and into his eyes. Saburou swallowed. “The fuda, I mean. …That’s how it happened. When it’s on him, he’s like he is now, but when it came off…”
He trailed off, and after a moment Osamu rescued him by nodding. “I see, I see. And it just came off out of nowhere?”
“Well… sort of.” Saburou frowned, thinking back – his hand clenching, as he did, around the knife he was using to chop vegetables. So tightly there was a small flare of pain at the base of his thumb, as he nicked himself. Thinking back had gotten a little easier, but not much. “…I touched it. Right before it fell off.” He raised his eyes to Osamu’s again, brow still furrowed. “He’d stopped me from touching it before.”
“Hmm.” Osamu swept a pile of diced yam from in front of him and into the pot, startling him; he hadn’t even noticed that he’d finished with it. “Have you touched it since?”
Saburou looked at him again, more sharply than ever – but couldn’t see any implication in those mild, watery old eyes, and finally relaxed again. “…Yes,” he admitted. That was the problem, after all; he had, in Komari’s futon in the dark, both with accidental brushes of his chest and the occasional more deliberate (maybe even, he tried not to think, suicidal) stroking of his hand. “Nothing happened.”
“I could guess that much,” Osamu said drily, and Saburou nearly forgot himself enough to crack a wan smile. “Well, what was different, then? What was special about that night that hasn’t been true since?”
It was the night the abbot died, my home burned to the ground, and almost everything I ever cared about disappeared, Saburou thought of saying, staring down at the pile of vegetables beside his knees, but he didn’t think that was what Osamu was looking for. After a moment or two, his mind focused in on that first point, though; just as his eyes, at the same time, found a small cut he had made at the base of his thumb, holding the knife too tight. He switched the knife to his other hand, brought his palm to his mouth, and sucked the wound – tasting a second’s bright tang of copper, before slowly lowering it again.
“My hands,” he said, finally. Staring down at them as he spoke. “That night… I had caught the abbot when he fell. I was covered in blood.” He swallowed again, trying not to let it show. “It… was on my hands, too. There’s actually a mark on the fuda now, where I touched it.”
When he looked back up, he found Osamu watching him keenly – with that sudden, startling focus he sometimes took on out of nowhere, that made the ghost of a younger man seem to hover inside his eyes. “Makes sense to me,” he said, after a moment, and sat back and looked down again so that whatever was still in his eyes was hidden. “It must have been Chimamirenate no Zuijin who put that seal in place, after all. And they didn’t call him ‘of the bloody hands’ for nothing, I guess you know.” Saburou swallowed but said nothing, although his brow creased again. He knew too well; had already begun to wrestle with the knowledge, sometimes, through long sleepless nights. “It stands to reason that it would weaken his magics if they were touched by his sin. No seal can be more pure than the hand that put it there.”
That just tightened Saburou’s frown more deeply than ever – for a number of reasons. All he said, though, after a moment, was: “So… anytime it gets blood on it, that fuda will just… keep coming off?”
“Seems like,” Osamu said, with a casualness Saburou found slightly irritating. “And I’d be very careful about that, if I were you. I mean, for more reasons than just the obvious.” Saburou looked at him again, curious, and found Osamu watching him again with an unusually serious expression. “No seal can last forever, either. And if that thing falls off Komari-chan enough times… someday, there’s going to come a day when it just won’t go back on again.”
Which left Saburou struck numb: sitting and staring at Osamu over the beginnings of their dinner, without a word to say.
It was spring again, the day the men came to the shrine; the day the Chuushin finally found them. Cherry blossoms had fallen across the shrine’s courtyard in stormy pink-and-white drifts, the winds high and the gentle sun at mid-day making it much warmer than the still-freezing nights. A beautiful day, sun-dappled and pleasant. They were all sitting out in front of the tiny prayer hall, just resting for once, with Nini asleep in Komari’s lap, and Komari pestering Saburou until Saburou snapped at him and made Osamu laugh. They didn’t even hear anything; the first hint of anything wrong was when a gust of wind blew by and Komari suddenly raised his head and cut himself off mid-sentence, sniffing slightly. And looking suddenly alert and serious.
“Gramps,” he said, quietly. (Which he still called Osamu in spite of Saburou’s multiple furious attempts to get him to stop; it didn’t help at all that Osamu seemed to find it hilarious.) “Take Nini-chan inside.”
Osamu and Saburou both gave him sharp looks at once – even as, Saburou noticed, Osamu was already pushing up to his feet, to collect a puzzled and sleepy sprawl of Nini from Komari’s knees. “What is it?” Saburou asked him, leaning in; but Komari was already climbing to his feet too, as soon as Osamu had picked Nini up.
“There are men coming. A lot of them.” Komari paused a moment, and then his expression tightened further, eyes narrowing. “…With weapons.”
Saburou stood up beside him, stepping in closer – putting his body a little between Komari’s and the steps down the mountain, without thinking about it. “We should get out of here,” he said, keeping his voice down – knowing if Osamu heard him from inside, he would argue. “Into the woods. Now.”
Komari shook his head, though; without looking around, his eyes fixed ahead at the torii gates where they emerged between the trees. “There’s not enough time to get far. And they’d find us, if we hid.” His gaze flickered to Saburou at last, meeting his eyes. “I think they know we’re here.”
And before Saburou could even question that, the wind faded for a moment, and he could hear the strangers that Komari had smelled: distant, creaking and clanking, and footfalls on the stone steps.
It was a small company of soldiers that surged into the courtyard, this time: maybe thirty in all, and much more official than before, Saburou noted grimly. Either the regent was increasing state support for his actions, or he was becoming bolder about taking advantage of what he had. Only the man at the company’s head seemed suspect, for all that he carried a sword of his own; he was dressed more like a lord than a soldier, finely-dressed and mustached, and carried himself in a certain regal way that confirmed the impression. No general but a swordsman loyal to the Chuushin – if the two things weren’t already one and the same, by now.
They spread out at the top of the stairs, settling into rough lines, facing Saburou and Komari. The swordsman in front of the rest of them, looking the two of them over with a keen, thoughtful eye. Saburou guessed they must have looked very small, standing there: two empty-handed boys, alone in the center of a shrine’s blossom-swept courtyard, facing down dozens of armed men.
“Hello, there, gentlemen,” Osamu’s voice split the silence suddenly – making Saburou jump. He hadn’t even heard the old man come back outside. A second later Osamu was hobbling past them from behind, his expression bland and pleasant and giving every evidence of benign senility that it possibly could. “Is there something I can do for you? Have you come to pray, perhaps?”
“Go back inside, old man,” the man in the lead said. He kept coming forward, even as the soldiers stopped a little ways into the courtyard, waiting. “We’ve no business with you. It’s those boys behind you we’ve come for.”
“Well, that’s a terrible shame,” Osamu said. Standing and leaning on his cane in front of them both, all addled servility on his face, beaming with his toothless mouth as the man strode closer. “You see, these boys help me out with the work around this old shrine. I have to say, my poor back has gotten awfully used to having them around. You couldn’t reconsider?”
The man stood nearly over Osamu now, directly in front of the three of them, staring down at him with the sort of remote, contemptuous interest he might have given some sort of crawling insect. After a moment, he dug into his robes, and produced a handful of coins, which he flung onto the ground at Osamu’s feet in one sharp, jingling patter. “Go hire a boy from the village to do your work,” he said – still looking in Osamu’s eyes, all the while. He took a moment’s pause, as though daring Osamu to say anything else; and then when he didn’t, went on, raising his gaze and his voice to include all three of them in turn. “Gossip spreads quickly around these rural towns. Imagine our surprise and pleasure at learning that there were two survivors of the terrible fire at Ishikitsune Monastery, where all were thought lost. The regent is most anxious to have these young men in his state’s custody, where they can be properly protected.”
“Your regent is an usurper and a murderer,” Saburou said. Clearly and loudly; never caring that he could almost feel both Osamu and Komari flinching, to either side of him. The man’s eyes snapped back to him… and then in an instant’s flash of steel, he had his sword out, and pointing at Saburou’s chest. Making Osamu stagger back out of the way so hard he nearly fell, just to keep from being cut in the process – his breath heaving out of him in an involuntary wheeze.
“Watch your tongue, Novice,” the man said – although still with more cold in it than anger. “If you can learn to hold it, this needn’t go badly for you.” His eyes holding Saburou’s, very dark and very flat, and Saburou understood something suddenly and instinctively: this was a different kind of man. A man qualified for this task by the unlikelihood of his showing mercy, even to a boy who had devoted his life to religion. A man with no need to posture, no need to strut and rise to every offense like the monk Butsugen, or even like the son of the Chuushin who had come to kill the abbot; a man who was deadly certainty in himself. A man no reason or appeal would stop. “Come with us peacefully, and you can enjoy a new life at the temple in the capital, worshipping in comfort and security. In exchange for your promise of cooperation, of course.”
And even in spite of everything, Saburou never hesitated. Without speaking, or letting his eyes move from the swordsman’s, he spat on the ground at the man’s feet.
“Saburou,” Komari actually hissed this time from his elbow, sounding in an agony, but it was already too late. The man’s eyes had narrowed slightly; that was all, but from him it was enough. His sword never moved, but somehow it suddenly seemed much closer, all the same.
“Of course, this needn’t go well for you, either,” the man said, softly. Almost as though nothing had happened. “You should be grateful that your ruler has chosen to be so merciful. We could just as easily have come here and killed you at once, and the old man with you. And taken that – ” his eyes flicked to Komari, just for a second – “by force.”
Saburou frowned – distracted by that at last. “…What do you mean? What do you want with him?”
For the first time, the man smiled. It wasn’t much of a smile: just a thin, pale stretching of his lips. “That thing is the true reason we’ve come; you’re only an incidental, I’m afraid. The regent has heard stories of what it is and what it’s done, and is very anxious that we bring it back. He… has a certain interest, in creatures like your pet there.” The smile grew, fractionally. “He’s already put some of them to fascinating uses, all over this country.”
All the monks’ talk of strange magics, Saburou thought. All the rumors of using spirits to enforce the Chuushin’s law. Out loud, though, he said nothing. Only continued to meet the man’s eyes; and tried, tried to think.
And came to the only conclusion he could… at the very same moment that he felt Komari’s hand, from behind, touch his arm. Komari’s breath, warm and soft, near the cup of his ear.
“Do it,” Komari said. For Saburou only; too low for anyone else to hear. “It’s okay.”
He didn’t look behind him. Didn’t dare. Didn’t want to see what would be in Komari’s face if he did; what strange light might be behind his eyes. …When had he spoken with Osamu about what had happened, and what he was? How much had he found out, and how much did he understand even now? Or did he even know what he was saying? Could he only smell some terrible intent rising off of Saburou’s skin, and choose to place every grain of his trust in Saburou’s hands, whatever it might be?
Impossible to say. And honestly, it didn’t matter.
“Osamu-san,” Saburou said. His lips feeling numb and hard to move. “Get away. As quickly as you can.”
To his credit, it took no time at all for Osamu to understand. “No!” he said, sharply – all of his earlier pretense dropped, his voice now strong and stern and commanding. “Absolutely not. You mustn’t – ”
“It’s okay,” Komari said again: louder this time, enough to carry to him too. Without ever moving, that Saburou could feel. “Do what he says.”
There was a moment’s hesitation. And then Osamu was cursing under his breath, and turning to flee – surprisingly quickly, for an old man with a walking stick. Saburou supposed sheer adrenaline might be lending him speed.
“That won’t save him, if you decide to resist,” the swordsman said. Neither his sword nor his eyes had ever moved from Saburou, and he spoke with mild interest at best. Saburou looked back at him; listening to the sound of footsteps fading in the direction of the prayer hall. Waiting until he was sure they had entirely gone.
“The real question is,” he said, when they had, “what will save you?”
And in one swift motion, he lifted his palm and swiped it along the blade of the man’s sword, laying it open in a stripe of bright blood; and slapped it back behind him, into Komari’s chest.
He closed his eyes, when he felt the rush of displaced air moving past him at the swordsman – who could react with no more than a widening of eyes before he was airborne in a shower of blood – but only for a moment, before opening them again. The least he could do was watch.
He counted off his heartbeats, hand still clutched in a convulsive fist around the fuda, as the courtyard erupted into screaming chaos; as the fox spirit tore through it with such plain savage joy in its face that it was almost beautiful to see. He counted no more than a hundred before the last of the screaming stopped again, and there was nothing left but a sea of stained blossoms and bloody stone and mangled corpses, and the fox spirit standing alone at their center with its back to him, still and painted in blood. Even a hundred was probably a generous estimate, come to that. His heart was, after all, beating very fast.
And then, after a moment that seemed endless, the fox spirit turned – craning its head back around, in his direction. With a huge, terrified jolt, Saburou thought for a moment it was looking at him – but then it was moving again in that reddish streak, and moving past him, far off to the side. Behind him, around the other side of the courtyard –
Toward the prayer hall.
“No!” Saburou screamed – now that the time had come, never even stopping to think. “No, stop! Come back! Come to me!”
It was only desperation, no thought or sense in it at all… but all the same, the streaking blur of motion stopped. Resolved into the fox spirit again: standing in place, head cocked on an eerie boneless angle of curiosity, and this time unquestionably looking at him. He resisted the urge to falter, to take a step back or even turn and run. There was another blur of motion – and then it was back directly in front of him, making him draw in an involuntary breath. Glowing eyes fixed on him, lips peeling back unnaturally wide in a strange smile-snarl that revealed the nasty pointed tips of its teeth. Saburou swallowed, couldn’t help himself… but stood his ground.
“That’s right,” he said – calling to it, trying for a voice of command, summoning a confidence he didn’t feel. Desperate only to hold its attention. “You remember me, don’t you?”
The thing’s lips stretched further. Its nostrils flared slightly, as it scented the air.
Another blur –
And then it was right in front of him, almost pressed against him. Staring at him. And that look again, buried in its inhuman, feral eyes: as though it were trying to remember something almost entirely forgotten, but not quite. Saburou stared back; his blood roared in his ears, terror-sweat pouring down every line of him. Gathering his breath.
“I’m the one who beat you,” he hissed. And slapped the fuda back into its chest.
Its scream seemed to pierce the sky, raise all the hairs on his neck and body; its thrashings were so violent that from this close, it almost knocked him backward. He recovered just in time to catch Komari’s limp body in his arms, as it tumbled forward into him, and gather Komari in against his chest, going to his knees with his weight but at least letting him down easily. Komari’s head fell bonelessly onto his shoulder, his breathing thick and labored against Saburou’s chest. Unconscious again. He felt unnaturally hot to the touch, and stank of blood.
“You are the most aptly named person who has ever existed,” Saburou murmured against Komari’s bloody hair, staring over it up at the sky. Even as both his arms squeezed tighter than ever around Komari, in spite of the awkward angle at which they’d fallen; pressed Komari in to him, as tightly as he could.
“Will you be all right?” he asked Osamu, quietly, as they sat at the bottom of the shrine steps, Nini-chan at Osamu’s feet and Komari sprawled across Saburou’s lap. Osamu sat for a long time, staring out into nothing, before answering.
“I’ll go and stay with my daughter and son-in-law, at their farm outside the village,” he said. “The shrine is defiled anyway; the gods won’t come back to this place.”
Saburou closed his eyes, and then dropped his head forward. “I’m sorry,” he said. His voice coming out thick and choked. “I’m so sorry.”
Osamu only shook his head, and said nothing. They sat for another moment in silence, nothing making a sound but the wind, until Saburou recovered first his breath and then his voice.
“We’ll leave as soon as he wakes up,” he said, finally, with something like calm. “…Thank you for looking after us for so long.”
“The pleasure was all mine.” With something soft and painful, almost like regret, in Osamu’s voice. “Where are you going? Have you decided?”
“The capital,” Saburou said. Without looking at Osamu, but without hesitation, either. “It seems the Chuushin aren’t about to just leave us alone. …And we have work to do there, anyway.”
Osamu sighed, looking down at the gnarled hands in his lap. “I wish you’d change your mind, Novice,” he said, after another long pause. “Revenge is the worst reason there is to dig yourself a grave.”
“It isn’t just revenge. It’s much more than that now.” He could see Osamu glance over at him, from the corner of his eye, but only kept looking ahead, at the forest and the mountain path. The way they’d have to take when they left, very soon now. Saburou’s fingers drifted over Komari’s hair, combing it back from his slack sleeping face, without really realizing it; finally, he let out a sigh, and let his head tip back to look up at the sky again. “…Much, much more.”
And to that, one way or another, Osamu seemed to have nothing to say.
Making a monk a sword wasn’t the strangest thing Shin had ever been asked to do as a weaponsmith, but it certainly ranked far up there. He’d wondered at first if he might have somehow mistaken the young man’s vocation, but really, even in spite of the fellow’s unshaven head there could be no question: from his robes to his new-looking prayer beads to the way he spoke, it was plain in every line of him. He’d been given a respectful distance by everyone else in town too, ever since he’d come in from the great road with the strange, friendly boy who seemed to be his servant. People were honored to see a man of religion out here in the provinces, no matter how young he might be.
“I can’t pay you, I’m afraid,” the monk had said after making the commission, too, and that had settled things at once, as far as Shin was concerned. “I can work it off in trade, if that’s acceptable.”
With his mind made up, though, that had just put a crease between Shin’s brows at once, and he’d faced down the stranger in his shop with mild indignance. “It most certainly isn’t! I’d never ask a holy man for payment in the first place. Begging your pardon, sir, but what do you take me for?”
And the monk had looked momentarily surprised… and then had apologized, and bowed and thanked him. And, supposing he wasn’t likely to get much more than that, Shin had set to work.
He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but the monk seemed impressed when he came back, and Shin handed over the finished product: balancing it between his hands to test the weight, turning it over with respectful care to inspect every angle. Shin watched him for long moments – with some pride; he liked to think his reputation in these parts was well earned – before he found he could no longer hold his tongue. “Is it, ah… for some sort of ceremony, sir? If you don’t mind my asking.”
The monk glanced up at him only briefly, before returning his eyes to the sword. “No,” he said, in an almost absent murmur. “It’s for the usual purpose of a sword.”
“Oh. Ah.” …Try as he might, Shin couldn’t think of much of anything to say to that. “Um.”
“I’m sorry if that shocks you, given that I’m a holy man,” the monk said, after another moment – sounding almost amused, which somehow made Shin even more uncomfortable. Still without looking up. “But I’ve often wondered this, so maybe you can tell me… what kind of a holy man would just stand aside and allow other people to suffer, if he could do something to aid them?” He turned the sword over again in his hands, this time gripping the hilt as though to wield it. “What kind of a holy man – for that matter – would preserve his own holiness alone, while he allowed others to carry his burden of impurity?”
“I…” Shin could scarcely speak, he found himself at such a loss. After that first word, his voice gave out, and he simply stood and stared at the monk, not sure what to say or even think.
“No kind,” the monk said, after a long moment’s silence. “That’s what I’ve begun to think.” He tested the sword’s blade on the ball of his thumb, with his mouth curved slightly in what might have been a tiny, grim smile. “No kind at all.”
NOTE: The authors would like to extend special thanks to beeblebabe, who originally made the “tree in a box” joke. May you one day find that movie about the Christmas trees that eat people.