The versatility of bamboo astounded Hiro. They could use the sprouts for food, the taller stems for making furniture and kitchenware, and now he was learning to cut the stems into strips for weaving baskets and hats.
After hours of debate, Hiro caved and agreed to Ryū going alone to sell their creations in Kyō no Miyako, the city sheltered at the base of Mount Kurama.
Hiro produced two hats of questionable quality. Ryū, on the other hand, made such intricate baskets that one would think he’d grown up at a Naniwa merchant’s feet.
“This is incredible,” Hiro marveled at a chrysanthemum-shaped bottom Ryū had constructed for one of the baskets.
“It was one of the hardest skills to learn,” Ryū said. “Father said the rich liked pretty things, so I tried to teach myself to make pretty things that pleased the rich.”
Hiro turned the basket around. “Why didn’t you and your father settle down and become basket weavers? You could have made good money.”
Ryū shook his head. “When our home was destroyed, Father became depressed. We tried a couple of times to start new lives and settle down, but after a month or two he’d become restless. And when he was restless, he drank. It wouldn’t take long for him to drink whatever money we’d made and get us kicked out of the shacks we’d rented. After he got sick, anything I made selling baskets, I spent right away for medicine.”
Hiro was responsible for hunting, and he took the job seriously. Every day was getting colder and windier, and the creatures of the sky were making themselves scarce. One day, he hid under a rocky archway to avoid being drenched by a surprise rain, and he got lucky because a hare had the same idea. Hiro notched an arrow and shot it between the eyes.
“A hare!” Ryū exclaimed when Hiro returned home and proudly presented his catch. “Well done, Master,” he said. His hands went around Hiro’s neck, and his head rested on Hiro’s chest.
Taken aback, Hiro froze. Had he heard correctly? He pulled in a deep breath and released it slowly.
“Hiro,” he forced through his throat. “Please don’t think of me as your master.” Tentatively, he placed his hands at Ryū’s narrow waist, fingers hovering over the material of his clothes.
“One of these could bring us a week’s worth of rice,” Ryū mumbled. He raised his head and beamed at him. “It would be wonderful if you could get another hare the day before I go to the city.”
Hiro looked down at his shining face and winced slightly. “I hope I won’t disappoint you.”
“I believe in you. And if you can’t get it, that’s all right. We have enough baskets.”
The reassurance eased the pressure from Hiro’s shoulders. He was awfully self-conscious about anything he provided in this exile. It was so little in comparison to Ryū’s contribution.
“Do you know how to skin a hare?” Hiro asked.
“Yes! Leave it to me.”
They ate well that night. Ryū had created a mat for the fox and placed it close to the fire. She still seemed more dead than alive, but she stirred at the smell of cooked game. Hiro and Ryū took turns feeding her a few morsels by hand, and it was the first time she didn’t snap at them.
However, her broken leg had gotten infected and a purple bruise was spreading.
“We should cut it off,” Ryū said after dinner. He pointed at the pus oozing from one of her wounds.
“Oh gods.” Hiro went green.
“Maybe we can do it tomorrow, when there’s daylight?”
“Will she live if we wait until tomorrow?”
“Probably not. Should we do it now?”
“Do we know what we’re doing?”
“No.” Ryū set his jaw and extended his hand to Hiro. “Can you bring me the sickle, please? The skinning knife is not sharp enough.”
It was the hardest thing Hiro had done in his life, including reaping the soul of the uguisu. But his was the easier part. He held her thrashing body while Ryū attended to the wound.
When it was finished, Hiro picked himself up and went to the lake. He splashed cold water onto his face and arms, and his frightened reflection stared back at him. He couldn’t stand hearing the fox cry out in pain. Even when he hunted, he tried to give the animals a quick, painless death. Suffering depleted him, exhausted him. He hated to see anything in agony.
How would he ever become a great warrior if he couldn’t stand someone else’s suffering? How could he take over his family’s business, when he knew the misery of those working under Kensei the Bailiff?
By the end of the week, Ryū and his creations were ready.
Four artisanal baskets filled with straw hats and sandals had accumulated in a corner of their hut, and Hiro helped load as much of it as possible into the large strap-on basket Ryū had built for the trip. He also tucked in the hare he’d managed to take down yesterday.
“I will be back by sunset,” Ryū said. “If I’m late, go to sleep, don’t wait for me.”
Hiro hovered behind him, fussing with the basket’s straps tied around his shoulders. “I wish I could go with you. I wish I was allowed to leave the mountain.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve done this many times by myself.”
But Hiro did worry. It was still October, and the ayakashi in the plum tree forest was still a threat. Even if the ayakashi hadn’t been there, the thieves and cutthroats lurking in this part of the region brought danger as well.
“Just be careful, Ryū. And please, if you hear music on the mountain, cover your ears.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the music?” he asked.
Hiro wasn’t ready to talk to Ryū about Inari, so he used the healthy fear of the supernatural that was instilled in every Yamato man from birth. “There might be ghosts. I don’t want them luring you away from me.”
“Oh? Didn’t know aristocrats were as superstitious as the common folk,” Ryū teased.
“A bit of superstition can be healthy.”
Hiro handed him the last of the baskets and watched as he started down the mountain. The straw hat on Ryū’s head eventually disappeared behind a red maple.
The howling wind grabbed at Hiro’s robes and whipped through his long hair. He was struck with a vision of how life here would have been if Ryū wasn’t with him. He glanced at the hut, small and crooked and poor, built by their own hands. The fox was lying inside by the fire, and Hiro would need to feed her later.
A shadow fell over him as a crow plunged for a bug in the moss. It flapped away with its prey into a blue sky patched with white clouds. Ryū would have good weather today.
Hiro noticed his heartbeat speeding up and a knot forming in his gut. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, unsure whether he should go inside or just keep standing where he was until Ryū returned. He swallowed and realized his throat was parched, so he took a bamboo cup and made his way toward the lake.
It felt so lonely here without Ryū. Hiro looked out at the field, at the dried grass where flowers had been blooming when they’d arrived. Now there were rotting leaves at the base of the trees and dying water lilies on the surface of the lake.
He stopped in his tracks and dropped the cup from his hand. This place was not beautiful. This mountain was not his home. The hut was not a piece of heaven. It was only a pile of wood held together by kudzu vines to protect them from the elements.
Had he been blind? It was Ryū who made it all seem beautiful and heavenly. Ryū—not the mountain, not the gods, not even the freedom from being shackled by the rules of society.
What if Ryū decided to leave him? What if something happened to him and he didn’t return?
Hiro took off running. He flew down the path, jumping over uprooted trees and fallen branches, until he could no longer feel his legs. He ran so fast that he eventually caught up with him.
“Ryū!” Despair and exertion strained his voice.
Ryū turned, panicked. “What happened?” Hiro crashed into him, driving the air out of his lungs. “Hiro, what hap—”
Hiro smashed their lips together, tasting Ryū with his tongue, sucking his breath away, making him his own. In their first kiss, all the months of pent-up emotion and frustration tried to come rushing out of Hiro at once.
“Stop, wait,” Ryū mercilessly pushed him away. They fell away and stared at each other, chests heaving.
“Please don’t leave me,” Hiro said before Ryū could speak. “I’ll give you anything you want. I’ll give you my heart. My body. My soul. Onegaishimasu.”
Ryū’s eyes widened. “Gods,” he whispered.
“You stayed by my side when no one else did. I would have died on this mountain. If not for you, I would have drowned myself in the lake from the shame of dishonoring my family.”
Tears began to fall down Hiro’s face. “I’ve watched you at night, falling slowly in love with you, ever since we slept in the same room in Heijo-kyo. I see you sleep and wonder how I ever became so lucky. You are everything to me. I couldn’t stand losing y—”
Ryū briefly placed a finger to Hiro’s lips. Then he pulled his hands through the straps, and the basket tumbled to the ground. Unencumbered, he reached for Hiro’s face.
“Is this a dream?” he asked. “I’m afraid I might be dreaming.”
Ryū stretched up and kissed him tenderly, and it took Hiro’s breath far more than the bruising first one had. He opened himself for Ryū’s exploring tongue. Only the gods knew how much he had wanted this. Hiro kissed him back hungrily, a hand coiled in Ryū’s hair to bring him closer.
“I don’t have the words,” Ryū said when they reluctantly separated. “Leaving you isn’t even possible.”
“You promise?” He needed to know for sure. He needed to hear the words.
Ryū laughed. “I worship the ground beneath your feet. You are my master in every single way. I’ll count the moments until I’m back with you this evening.”
“I will have dinner ready for you,” Hiro said happily into Ryū’s hair.
“Don’t forget to feed the fox.”
“I should go.”
“Just one more,” he murmured as he leaned back toward Ryū. How would he ever make it through this day?