The Floating Bridge of Dreams
They had breakfast as they usually did, with Paw in Hiro’s lap demanding half of his food.
“I should take my bow and arrow today when I check the hare traps. Maybe I’ll get lucky and bring down a deer.”
Ryū shook his head. “That would be a waste. A deer is too large for us. I’ll be happy with a hare.”
“Aren’t they sleeping at this time of year?”
“Probably,” Ryū said. “By the way, I think our baby girl has a lover.”
“Who? Paw?” Hiro glared at the fox. She looked back at him innocently, waiting to be offered another bite.
“Mhmm. She disappeared while you were ice fishing yesterday. I thought she followed you, but then I heard the bark of another fox in the forest this morning. A mating call.”
“It’s January. If I remember correctly it’s their season.” Hiro mock gasped. “What if we become grandfathers?”
Ryū burst out laughing. “We should get married first,” he joked.
Hiro chuckled but glanced over at him. “You’d like to be my husband?”
“Who wouldn’t want to be Lady Fujiwara? But alas, you are meant to marry another aristocrat,” he added dramatically.
“Not Lady Fujiwara. Lord Fujiwara. You would be my husband.”
“That’s a nice fantasy.”
Hiro hesitated. “But what if it wasn’t?”
“Hiro, there is no one out there who would marry two men. It’s unheard of.”
“Not even the gods?”
“The gods? They live in Takamagahara, in the High Plain of Heaven. There are no gods among humans.”
“But what if? What if I found a god who would marry us? Would you do it if I asked?”
Ryū rolled his eyes. “Of course I would.”
“You think I’m joking,” Hiro pouted. “I might not be. You should take me seriously.”
Ryū threw up his hands. “Fine. If a god appears on our doorstep and says, ‘Takahashi Ryū, I have come to give you divine blessing to become Fujiwara no Hirotsugu’s husband,’ I will fall on my knees and cry ‘Banzai! Oh, great god, I accept your blessing.’ ”
Hiro perked up. “Deal!” He shooed the fox off his lap and kissed Ryū to seal the promise. “Just watch. Soon I’ll make good on this.”
“I’ll be waiting right by the door.”
The white hare heralded the passing of winter and the hope of spring. If Hiro found one in the snare, his superstition would compel him to let it go.
The basket-shaped snares trapped creatures without harming them, and they worked for both birds and small beasts. The first snare was empty and so was the second, but the third by the bamboo forest had caught a fluffy gray hare. It would feed them for at least three days.
A sleepy kodama waved from a tree. The yōkai had not yet managed the skill of hibernation. This one was young, barely two months old, the soul of a shima-enaga that Hiro had reaped last winter at Inari’s request. At death it had been a white long-tailed bird, and now the kodama inhabited the maple from which the baby shima-enaga had fallen and broken its neck.
It wasn’t the only time Inari had come for him. Hiro had helped sire no less than five yōkai to date, and he did it with an open heart. He was getting better at reaping, and it came more naturally with each one.
Hiro touched the hare’s ears and thanked the animal for its life. It closed its eyes and stopped struggling under his hand. Its soul levitated above its body and flew to the sky. Hiro found that most souls didn’t want to linger on earth as yōkai, so they went straight to Takamagahara. Only those with an untimely death, who hadn’t finished learning what it meant to be alive, needed to become spirits.
Hiro had two more snares to check, and for those he had to go deep into the forest and up a steep animal trail. He stopped when he noticed footprints in the snow by the trailhead. The tracks looked fresh.
All of a sudden, a patch of snow dropped onto Hiro’s head from the boughs above. Then a squirrel jumped, knocking even more of it loose. Hiro cursed as the frozen chunks found their way down his spine.
“Lord Fujiwara?” a man called down the track. “Is that you?”
Startled, Hiro notched an arrow and darted behind the tree. He hadn’t interacted with any human except Ryū since he’d arrived here, so this was highly suspicious.
“Who goes there?” he demanded.
“A friend,” he said. “Are you Lord Fujiwara?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I was sent by your father. I have a message.”
Hiro lowered the bow but kept the arrow ready. He nervously waited for the man to come into view. He hadn’t received a word from his father or family since his exile.
An old priest shuffled toward Hiro. He was clad in black ceremonial robes and carried a long parcel covered in purple silk.
“I know you,” Hiro said, recognizing the Head Priest of the Shrine of Kifune. This man had convinced the Emperor to give Hiro exile instead of death. He dropped to his knees, showing his respect to the priest. “I am long overdue in thanking you for your kindness and friendship in the Imperial Audience Hall.”
The old man placed a hand on Hiro’s head. “No need for that, my lord. How have you been faring?”
Hiro stood, brushed the snow from his trousers, and showed him his hare. “It isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. It has made me stronger. I’m thinking more clearly now.”
“And do you repent?”
He paused at this. Did he? His actions brought him to Mount Kurama, to his relationship with Ryū. No, repent was not accurate.
“I am sorry for shaming my family,” he said.
“Good.” The priest handed him the parcel. “Your father wanted you to have this.” He removed a scroll from his long sleeve. “And this letter. I dare say it will please you to read the content.”
Hiro set down his bow and took the items from the priest. The parcel was heavy and rigid, but that was only the start of his curiosity.
“Has something happened?” he asked.
“You are needed in Heijo-kyo. You have received a royal pardon.”
Hiro didn’t know what to do with himself. He bid farewell to the priest, thanking him for making the effort to find him on the cold winter day. Then he continued up the animal track toward the remaining two snares, which were empty.
A fallen log lay near the last trap. He swept the snow off of it and sat down, peering around at the skeletal trees edged in white, searching for an answer they didn’t hold.
A pardon. He should be pleased. Ecstatic. Shouldn’t he? The exile was ending early. No more struggling every day for food, no more fearing the approach of Kannazuki. No more dirty clothes and once-monthly baths during the cold season. No more poverty.
But would it also be the end of him and Ryū? There was only one possible reason for the pardon. His family was going to force him to marry. An alliance to be secured.
Hiro scowled at the scroll, then took a deep breath and broke the seal. The first page was the pardon, and the next was a letter from his father.
It was short, impersonal, and threatening. He’d gotten right to the point.
Enclosed you will find an Imperial Pardon signed by our Royal Sovereign. Be thankful, for the gods are smiling on you. You can return home.
Your uncles and I are of the opinion that even monkeys fall from trees. We are ready to forgive you. I hope you have learned to add caution to caution. A second mistake will not be tolerated. The Yamato man must put a lid on what smells bad.
In spring you will be seventeen, which makes you fit for marriage. There are many things to plan. The day you were born, your grandfather Fuhito made a pact with the Emperor that you would marry Princess Abe.
You are not worthy of her yet. Return to Heijo-kyo before the fires on Mikasa dwindle on the last day of winter. You will start your career at the Imperial Court.
I have sent you the sword. Happy New Year.”
Hiro dropped the letter on his lap and leaned forward, head in his hands. His mind raced. He was supposed to marry Princess Abe? His cousin? No. He didn’t want to be a pawn of the Fujiwara clan. He wouldn’t become like them. He cursed these arranged marriages that only meant to secure more and more power.
The sword lay heavy on his thighs. A year ago, he would have been elated to finally hold Kusanagi’s replica. Now he didn’t even care enough to open the parcel.
What would Ryū think of this? Would he be sad? What was going to happen to them?
Hiro would have plunged into despair, but the one thing he feared most in the world emerged like a demon in the night. His head shot up and the hair rose on the back of his neck. The gentle music of a koto echoed on the mountain.
I did not expect Hiro to be so good at reaping, for the power to come to him with such ease. With every use of his power, the plum behind my throne of skulls grew and grew, and now it was ripe. It would burst open at any moment, and the life Hiro knew would be lost to the nightmares awaiting him.
“I apologize, my dear,” I said to him through the veil. “Out of my love for you, I have let you live on a floating bridge of dreams. It’s time for you to come back to reality.”
I whistled to summon the wind that carried my voice, ordering the ayakashi to awaken once more. This would be her first time on the mountain outside of the month of Kannazuki.