The shock of the looming exile hit Hiro hard that night as he tossed and turned for the last time in silken sheets. The hollowness in his chest grew like a sinkhole after a devastating earthquake. It sucked the light from the world and filled Hiro with darkness and dread.
He’d known the law. The consequences were clear, but he’d let himself stay cloaked in the security of the Fujiwara power. Add that to his relationship with the Crown Princess, and he hadn’t actually believed the repercussions would be so severe. Now he was a disgrace to his family, and it would take many years to undo the stain. Even after his return from exile, the power ladder within the court would be difficult for him to climb.
And what if he didn’t even survive? He’d never known hunger, never truly experienced the cold or the fear of not having a roof over his head. He could use a bow and arrow but knew nothing about preparing food. How would he find shelter on the mountain? How would he protect himself from wild animals? What if he got hurt? Where could he find medicine in the forest? What if he ate a poisonous mushroom? Gods, it would be a miracle if he lasted a month.
Five years of miserable existence. And he was dragging Ryū along, back to the horror he’d been living all his life.
In the early morning, four guards entered Hiro’s room and respectfully told him it was time to go. They dropped two large packs and two changes of clothes at Hiro’s feet.
“You should dress in this, my lord,” one of the guards said, not meeting his eyes. “Silks are dangerous on the road. Thieves hide on every corner on the way to Mount Kurama.”
Hiro hated hemp. It was itchy, scratchy and gave no discernible warmth. The robe they’d given him had short, light brown sleeves and no pattern, the type worn by peasants. He used a cord to tie it around his torso, and then he discarded his wooden clogs and pushed his bare feet into braided straw sandals. Ryū arranged a brimmed hat on his head.
“Can I have a minute, please?” he asked the guards.
He picked at the millet straw mantle destined to shield his shoulders from summer rain, waiting for them to leave the room. The men looked at each other, unsure if they should obey.
“I just need a moment,” Hiro said. “I will be with you shortly.”
The leader beckoned, and the others followed him. “We’ll wait for you outside, Young Lord Hirotsugu.”
As soon as the sliding door clicked closed, Hiro collapsed onto his knees and broke down in tears. Ryū wrapped his arms around him. “Don’t worry, Master. I will help you survive this. You’ll return home a stronger man.”
Hiro dropped his face to Ryū’s lap and cried harder.
No one waved goodbye to him. No one wished him good health. His father and uncles stayed inside with the servants, sending an unequivocal message. Now and for the next five years, he would be a pariah.
The ride to Kurama took two and a half days and was a complete blur. On the second day, dark clouds seized the sky and brought hail that devastated a quarter of the rice fields in the region. The usually placid mountain streams spilled down the slopes and ruined the road. Traveling became dangerous for the horses, so Hiro and his group had to stay at an inn for a day.
Hiro hadn’t been allowed to bring any of his possessions. He’d been given a little money, but it was barely enough to buy four sacks of rice for the winter. At the inn, Ryū removed the contents of their packs and took inventory.
“We have a month’s worth of rice,” Ryū beamed. “Even longer if we ration it well. This is good, Master. Your family is taking care of you.”
Hiro nodded, staring at the pack. A bag of rice, a few dried medicine plants for heaven-knew-what ailment, two thick robes for winter, two pairs of socks, a small kettle, a sickle, a skinning knife, two straw mats, a bone comb, and Hiro’s bow and arrows. The servants had also packed the bronze flasks of sandalwood oil he’d bought in Naniwa. Hiro picked up one of them and examined its intricate and exotic details. He supposed he could sell them somewhere, if he ever left the mountain.
Ryū opened one of the flasks and lit up at the smell. “This is byakudan. We can use it to heal insect bites. See how nice and relaxing it smells, Master?” Ryū urged Hiro to take a whiff, but he pulled back when he realized Hiro wasn’t paying attention. He was looking out at the rain, his food untouched.
By the time they reached Mount Kurama, Hiro had already lost weight. He was pale and had bags under his eyes, making him seem older than his fifteen years. They stopped near a narrow, nondescript path leading up the mountain.
“Here’s where we must leave you, my lord,” the lead guard said. “This is Mount Kurama.”
Hiro’s hands were slack on the reins, and he’d closed his eyes. He hadn’t heard the man’s words.
“My lord? We have arrived.”
Ryū dismounted and carried their packs to the side of the road. Then he approached Hiro and placed a gentle hand on his wrist. “Master? Can you hear me?” Hiro blinked at the hand and turned to him. “You must come down, Master. This is where we need to proceed by ourselves.”
“What?” Hiro murmured.
“We’re at Mount Kurama.” Ryū said. “We can’t take the horses with us.”
“Of course,” Hiro said. His legs shook as he slid from his horse. This was it.
“Don’t worry, Master,” Ryū whispered as he steadied him. “I will take care of you.”
The words were a knife in his chest. He had intended to care of Ryū, yet another plan that had gone badly awry.
“You can let me go,” he told Ryū. “I can walk.” He picked up one of the packs and nodded to the guards. Then he and Ryū began their ascent.
Mount Kurama’s lower valleys were dense with cedar and Hinoki cypress. The birdsong was as loud and cheerful as it had been on Mount Kasuga, making the climb feel somewhat familiar. The rain had brought an abundance of mushrooms, and Ryū stopped to inspect them. He shaped a pouch from the front of his robe and gathered a huge pile of edible mushrooms.
“For dinner,” he explained. He noticed the clouds threatening overhead and added, “We should find shelter soon, Master. It’s dangerous to be unprotected when lightning strikes the mountain.”
They climbed and climbed. After an hour, they reached a spot where the left side of the path gave way to giant bamboo stalks as tall as a young cypress.
“Moso bamboo!” Ryū exclaimed. “Master, we are blessed.” He set his pack down, grabbed the sickle, and disappeared into the bamboo forest.
Hiro looked around in confusion. Thunder reverberated from far away. He slumped down onto a boulder, completely uncertain how to handle the coming storm.
“Hirotsugu, what are you doing here?”
Startled, Hiro turned toward the voice. The presence of Inari-sama dissolved the last of his composure. “Kami-sama,” he sobbed. “I don’t know what to do. I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Inari listened as he shared his woe between shuddering breaths. When Hiro finished, he said, “When you get to the intersection, choose the path to the right. It will take you to a clearing covered with dead trees, and a lake is nearby. Build your shelter there. You will be safe. You will be under my protection.”
“Master, look what I found,” Ryū reappeared with an armload of bamboo shoots. “We could boil these and eat like the Emperor tonight. Master?”
Hiro eyed the empty space where Inari had been only a moment before. The forest flashed with lightning. He stood, brushed the dirt from his hands and knees, and wiped the tears from his cheeks.
“Give me some. I’ll help carry them.”
The rain began just as they arrived in the clearing.
“Over here, Master,” Ryū called, pointing toward a fallen beech leaning between the branches of an old maple. “We can use that as temporary shelter.”
“Let’s gather some sticks. Not too thick. The width of your arm would be enough.”
Ryū worked with impressive efficiency, using sticks to build walls on each side of the beech. By the time Hiro managed to collect his own armload of wood, Ryū had almost finished a makeshift lean-to.
“Will you hand me your pack, Master?” Ryū said. “That’s where I put the mats for the bedding.”
The ground was covered with moss. Ryū dug out the mats and placed them on the moss. “May I have your straw cloak as well?”
Hiro wordlessly handed it over, getting drenched from the rain. Ryū placed both of their straw cloaks on the roof of the shelter and weighted them down with rocks. He took Hiro’s hand and guided him inside the lean-to. It was cold, and water dripped between the gaps in the wood, but at least the rain was no longer pelting them.
“I will make it better after the storm,” Ryū apologized, casting his eyes down. “It was all I could do in such a short time.”
Hiro opened his mouth to speak, but his heart was bleeding and words were worthless. With the last of his energy, he whispered, “Ryū, look at me.”
The pair of shining brown eyes peered from underneath the bangs covering Ryū’s forehead. “Master?”
Hiro hugged him, squeezing the slight body that was ten times stronger than his own. Ryū froze at the touch. “Thank you,” Hiro said, “for being here.”
Slowly and shyly, Ryū’s hands went to Hiro’s back and returned the embrace. “We’re going to survive this, Master. I am your friend. Your tomodachi. Together we will survive.”
“Together,” Hiro agreed.