Hiro’s life changed after he returned from Naniwa. Meeting Kurohana had been an eye-opening experience. He’d discovered more about his body in one night than he’d managed during any of the previous clumsy attempts on his own. Eager to learn more, he continued to explore his sexuality with just his hand and a few drops of the sandalwood oil from Tenjiku. Best purchasing decision of his life.
The days were easy to bear, for he knew many nooks where he could hide for a minute or two, but the nights became an issue. Ryū slept so close to him, vulnerably wrapped in gentle slumber. When his lips were parted and his face serene, his long black hair spilling over Hiro’s shitone, it was the embodiment of both bliss and torture. During Hiro’s braver moments, he touched the smooth ends of Ryū’s hair or hovered his fingers over the boy’s lips, imagining lowering his thumb to feel their softness.
His dreams also grew alarmingly lurid, to the point where he would wake up and find dampness on his sheets. In the beginning, he thought he’d incurred some kind of curse that fed on his desires and humiliation, so he began to pray at Amaterasu’s shrine for deliverance. When nothing happened, he moved to Susanoo’s shrine, but that was worse. He didn’t understand it, but whenever he prayed to Susanoo, his chest would cramp and sometimes he’d even cry.
One night, Ryū began to writhe in his sleep from one of the nightmares that plagued him. It killed Hiro when this would happen. He felt powerless watching Ryū toss and turn in distress. But that night, he courageously wrapped his arm around Ryū and pulled him close, whispering soothing words in his ear.
“You are safe. You’re with me. No one will hurt you as long as I’m here.” Hiro was almost surprised to hear his own words, but as he spoke them, he found they were as soothing for him as for Ryū. “I think I have feelings for you that I shouldn’t,” he admitted quietly as he kissed the top of Ryū’s head.
From where I sat on the skull throne made of Fujiwara souls, in my lonely prison in the Land of the Dead, I watched and suffered. The hardest part of my ordeal was about to begin.
Hiro couldn’t stop blaming himself for Ryū’s misfortune. He was sure it had something to do with the orderly he’d scorned that day.
All of Hiro’s questions ended with Ryū’s refusal to talk about it. Hiro could have ordered him to answer, but that would have traumatized Ryū even further.
The opportunity to confirm his suspicion came at the beginning of autumn, when all the orderlies arrived at the Fujiwara sanctuary to receive stipends for their work. Hiro asked Ryū to drink sakura tea with him on the veranda as the men entered in the courtyard.
It was a beautiful day outside, with the sun shining brightly and flocks of geese leaving for the lands of perpetual summer. Umakai ordered the servants to arrange a platform in the courtyard where he could meet his employees over tea.
Hiro immediately recognized the agekubi with the Sagarifuji emblem sewn in silver on the back. And the man who wore it exuded an unmistakably haughty air as he gazed down at the servants who helped him dismount.
Hiro had done his research. Apparently, the orderly had Fujiwara blood in him. He was the bastard son of Uncle Muchimaro, from a dalliance with some peasant girl. No wonder Kamatari’s library held so many diary scrolls. The Fujiwara men found it hard to abstain from illicit debauchery, assembly of official wives and consorts be damned. They were as greedy in this as they were in everything else.
As the orderly came into view, Hiro watched Ryū’s reaction. He noticed how his shoulders tensed, how he dropped his head to hide behind his bangs. He saw how Ryū abstained from bolting to take cover in their room. He also observed the orderly’s surprise when he saw Ryū sitting close to Hiro, dressed in silk, body healthy and scrubbed of dirt.
He and Hiro shared a look filled with mutual hatred, but the man eventually yielded and bowed.
“Ryū, go inside and wait for me,” Hiro said. Ryū obeyed without a word.
Hiro went to the stables and asked a servant to saddle his russet Kiso for a ride around the deer park. He grabbed his bow and quiver full of sharp, deadly arrows, and he wrapped them diagonally across his chest and back. Then he waited for the orderly to finish his business with his father.
At the sound of approaching hooves, he positioned his bow, notched one of the arrows, and let it loose. It pierced the ground at the horse’s feet, spooking the animal and forcing it to rear up and buck the rider from its back.
“My lord?” he exclaimed. “What are you doing?”
Hiro calmly maneuvered his horse to circle around the orderly. “Fukushū. I know it was you,” he said. He lowered himself in a stirrup and pulled the arrow from the ground. Then he threw it into the man’s arm.
“You are making a mistake,” he sputtered. “When your father and uncle hear how you treated me, they will…”
“They will nothing.” Hiro looked down at him. “The arrow is a memento from Umakai’s firstborn son to a bastard cousin. If I ever discover you were involved in selling another human into servitude, I will aim the next one at your neck.”
The man narrowed his eyes. “You’re a hypocrite, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu. Your silken sleeves aren’t white enough to admonish me for recovering the coins I was entitled to. Do you not understand the world you live in? Humans are sold into bondage and will continue to be. As long as the Fujiwara clan works with the bailiff, you should be the last to judge.”
Hiro notched another arrow and pointed it at the man’s forehead. “Don’t be so sure. Soon I will be the head of Umakai’s house. And I will do something about it.” He released his grip, letting the arrow fly over the man’s head into the trunk of a young maple, and then rode away in a curtain of dust.
That afternoon, the plum grew more than it had in a decade. It would be ripe soon.
I examined my blackened fingers, charred eons ago from holding lightning and thunder in this polluted Land of the Dead. Thin golden veins pulsated with immortal blood beneath my indestructible skin.
“I will do something about it,” Hiro had said, driven with purpose.
But you will not, dear boy, for this was not the reason for your life, and you don’t have much more time.