Shitone: Ancient pillows used for sitting and sleeping
Yoshi had been expected at the sanctuary that evening, but news came that his arrival would be delayed because he’d broken his foot climbing one of the watchtowers. So after dinner, Hiro took his time writing a letter to wish him good health. Then he spent the rest of the evening outside his room, like a squirrel clinging to a wooden pole, too afraid to go in.
After they’d returned home, Ryū had been taken by the servants to be washed, properly dressed, and instructed on his duties, so Hiro hadn’t seen him all afternoon. Ryū had been officially appointed Hiro’s personal servant. He’d be in charge of dressing the young lord, washing his clothes, and changing his bed linens, along with any other duties his master might request. He would also sleep in Hiro’s room and provide companionship.
Hiro had so many questions. What had happened since he last saw him? It had only been a day. How did Ryū end up with the bailiff? Where was his father? He loitered in front of his room, walking up and down the hall, biting his nails.
Voices entered the corridor. He didn’t wait to see whose they were, because he knew he looked like a fool, quivering in front of his own room, scared of the scrawny boy he’d bought. He pushed back his shoulders, opened the sliding panel, and stepped over the threshold.
The image of Ryū, crouching to dry his hair in front of the fire pit, took his breath away. He’d been given a light brown hitatare that was too large for him. The left sleeve had fallen off his shoulder as he combed through his hair, uncovering a purple bruise. The red welt from the orderly’s whip was still visible and angry-looking. Many other bruises were growing dark on his chest and legs, and Hiro could see finger marks around his neck.
A terrible thought occurred to him.
Ryū stood and bowed, though he was clearly tired. “Welcome, Master,” he said. It was no longer ‘my lord.’ Hiro was his master now. He realized he didn’t like being called either of these things by Ryū.
Hiro sat by the fire and gathered his feet underneath him. He took Ryū’s hand in both of his and invited him to take a seat. “What did they do to you?” he asked gently.
Ryū’s sad eyes turned toward the flames, but Hiro lightly guided his chin back. His thumb trailed over Ryū’s cheek, and the boy flinched when Hiro grazed a minor cut.
He noticed dark bruises climbing up Ryū’s skinny thighs, and anger rose in him. He pushed up the folds of the hitatare to reveal bruises between his legs.
“Tell me they didn’t…” He couldn’t make himself say it.
“No! Master, no!” Ryū said. “They just beat me. I was too feisty for them, so they kicked me and made me lose consciousness. They didn’t touch me like that, I swear.”
Thank the Heavenly Gods. “I’m so sorry. It’s because of me. Because I gave you the money. Someone must have seen.” He became agitated as he realized his own stupidity. “Of course. Everyone saw. They saw me give you the money. They—”
“Master, please don’t. It was as the gods willed it.”
“Is your father still alive?”
Ryū froze for a moment and then just shook his head.
Hiro buried his face in his hands. Again, his desire to be kind had only brought suffering. Why did he keep making the same mistake over and over? He knew better than to interfere.
“I’m so sorry,” Hiro whispered.
“It’s not your fault, Master. It’s the way of the world.”
“It is my fault,” Hiro said. “If not for me, your father would still be alive.”
“Master.” Ryū’s voice shook. “It’s not… No…”
Hiro took a deep breath to steady himself. Nothing he could say would erase his terrible mistake.
The servants had prepared a crude pallet for Ryū and placed it in the corner of the room, far away from Hiro’s oversized, goose-feathered shitone. At least it was close enough to the fire.
“You should get some sleep,” Hiro said. He rubbed his face with his palms and stood.
Ryū glanced at him. “Shouldn’t I help you undress, Master?”
“Not tonight, Ryū. Tonight you rest.”
Hiro woke up when the night was still young. He was sweaty and the sheets coiled around him like a water snake. Disoriented, he pushed the covers away. Quiet sobs broke through the silence of the room, and he froze.
Ryū was crying.
Hiro tried not to stir. He didn’t want Ryū to know he was awake and feel embarrassed. He listened to the boy weep and whisper his father’s name, followed by a plea to help him be strong and face his new life. Sorrow seeped from Ryū like a bleeding wound. Hiro wanted to take his hand and tell him it would be all right, but that would be terrible hubris. Only the gods knew the future.
When Ryū fell asleep just before daybreak, Hiro chanced a peek at his pallet. The boy’s back was turned, and he was softly illuminated by the embers in the irori. He was shivering, having only his new hitatare covering him like a sheet.
Hiro stood slowly. He picked up his linens and tiptoed toward Ryū’s corner, careful not to wake him up. He draped the fabric around the boy and went to kindle the fire. Tomorrow he would make sure Ryū had his own warm sheets.