Ryū burned with a fever. Perspiration soaked his brow, and his eyes flickered with agitation beneath their lids.
Hiro placed the pot on the irori and threw in some snowballs to boil for tea. He cut off a quarter of the fresh kikyo root they’d harvested that past autumn and dropped it in the boiling water.
When the tea was done, he filled a cup and blew over the surface until it wouldn’t burn Ryū’s tongue. He sat with Ryū’s head on his lap and spent the evening trickling tea into his mouth and wiping his brow with a damp cloth. He covered him with the kudzu blanket when the tremors started.
Hiro didn’t sleep that night. He nursed Ryū and kept watch, bow and arrows by his side. In the morning, Biko knocked softly on the door.
“You should get some sleep,” Biko said, patting Hiro’s tired face. “I’ll take care of him until you wake up.”
“Don’t be stubborn. His recovery will take time. You’ll need your energy.”
Reluctantly, Hiro agreed to take a short nap while little Biko sat guard on Ryū’s chest.
Over the days, they fell into a routine. Hiro cared for Ryū during the night, and Biko came in the morning so Hiro could get some sleep. Paw became the second guardian and only left Ryū’s side when she needed to relieve herself or eat. Her belly was growing, and Biko said she was pregnant with six cubs. Hiro smiled halfheartedly and wished he could share that with Ryū.
But when Ryū’s condition eventually worsened, Hiro became desperate and anxious. He couldn’t eat or sleep. Only the fox’s hungry whines made him hoist himself up, leave the hut to Biko’s protection, and go check the snares for hares.
That night, Ryū’s breathing became erratic.
“If he doesn’t come through this, I will never forgive myself,” Hiro said. “He’s lost so much weight. How can I feed him if he doesn’t wake up? Should I call a priest to do a harai for him? Would that help?”
“I don’t know,” Biko said, sounding as powerless as Hiro felt. “I wish there was something we yōkai could do. One of us did this.”
Hiro shook his head. “No. You’re wrong. This was caused by my own family.” He took Ryū’s limp hand in his. “Do you think humans can be turned to yōkai when they die? Not like an ayakashi. Like the good kind. Like you.”
“I don’t really know,” Biko said with a little shrug. “Inari-sama would know best. But if a human can become an ayakashi, I don’t see why they couldn’t become a kodama or any other type of yōkai.”
“But they would lose their memories, wouldn’t they?”
“They could get them back,” Biko said. “Like I did.”
Hiro looked at Ryū’s gaunt face. “How?”
Biko pulled an olive feather from the folds of his long robe. “For two days, Inari-sama waited beside the chrysanthemum for me to return to the world. When I did, he asked whether I wanted my memories or wanted to start anew. I asked to have them back, so he gave me one of my feathers. As soon as I touched it, I remembered everything.”
“I see.” He covered his face with his hands. “I pray he gets better soon.”
After Biko left, Hiro lay by Ryū’s side on the straw mat, holding his lover’s clammy hand and listening to his wheezing breath. His pulse was faint, but his fever had finally gone down. Hiro was exhausted in every way. He closed his eyes for a moment and sleep took him.
He awoke with a start when he heard bells clinging.
I had been standing by their feet, staring at them for hours before making a sound. When he saw me, Hiro scrambled to his feet, his eyes searching for his bow and the air pungent with his panic.
“Who are you?” he asked.
But he knew. He had to know. I kept my face under the hood. The tiny bells on my bone staff tinkled as I gestured toward the sick boy.
“When a human is bedridden, a shinigami will visit them and appear either by their head or feet. If by the feet, the human has life left in them. If by the head, their life is ending.”
“Are you a shinigami?” he whispered.
“Among other things.”
“You have the eyes of a god,” he said. “Do all shinigami have golden eyes?”
The package containing the sword was leaning on the opposite corner of the hut. He still hadn’t opened it. What was he waiting for?
“Are you the shinigami who made the pact with Kamatari?”
“Is this what you most want to know?” I asked. “Aren’t you more curious to hear the fate of your beloved?”
Hiro shook his head. “Yes. No. Of course. You stand by Ryū’s feet. It means today is not his day, right? It means he will continue to live.”
I nodded. “The ayakashi’s touch has poisoned him and drained his strength. The healing he requires rests in my palms. If I cleanse his blood, he will awaken. If I do not, by tomorrow evening you will find me by his head.”
“What would you demand in return?”
“A wish,” I said.
“One day I will ask you to grant me a wish, and you will be bound by Heaven and Earth to obey. Do you accept?”
“I do, Kami-sama,” Hiro said. He didn’t hesitate. He didn’t even pause to consider any potential danger.
“So be it. And you have nothing further to fear from the ayakashi. Tell your small friend he doesn’t need to guard you anymore.”
I placed my hand on the boy’s chest and blessed his remaining life.
Ryū gasped loudly, as if he had been under water. He opened his eyes wide and called Hiro’s name, and they clutched each other tightly in relief.
“Thank you,” Hiro said as he looked around, but he found the room empty.
“What happened?” Ryū asked. “I had the strangest nightmare. And I don’t believe my bladder has ever been this full.”
Hiro laughed, his joy erupting like a geyser. “Thank the Gods in Heaven,” he said. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“It felt so real. There was this woman, but she wasn’t a woman. I don’t even think she was human. And she kept telling me she was my mother… I don’t know. Very odd.”
“All that matters is that you’re safe now. And well. And with me,” Hiro said, kissing him. “Let’s talk about this tomorrow. Are you hungry?”
Within a few minutes, the irori’s fire burned cedar under the pot, filling the room with the smell of its bark. Hiro moved with alacrity, set on preparing a hare stew with beans, carrots, and a handful of rice. He decided it needed something more and went in search of the dried mushrooms they had harvested that summer.
On the shelf where they kept their supplies, Hiro found the scroll, resting in between a couple of baskets of dried herbs. He’d completely forgotten about his father’s letter. He picked it up and glanced over his shoulder. Ryū had gone outside to relieve himself.
Hiro glared first at Umakai’s letter, then at the pardon, and then at the fire. For a second, he wondered if he should keep the pardon, but then his face twisted in anger and he threw them both in the pit. The flames licked the rice paper and charred the scrolls, leaving nothing but ashes.
Hiro was not going to marry Princess Abe. And he was not going to become a courtier at the Imperial Palace. He would never return to his family again.
He renounced the name Fujiwara.
I frowned at this unexpected development. But he wasn’t finished surprising me.
“Something smells nice,” Ryū said when he came back holding the fox in his arms. He had snow in his hair, and his clothes were wet.
“What happened to you?”
“I was playing with Paw,” he answered.
Hiro shook his head. “You’re just able to get out of bed! Don’t roll around in the snow.”
“It felt refreshing,” he said.
Hiro rubbed his forehead and sighed. Then he remembered his question. He took Ryū’s hand in both of his. “Ryū, I have something very important to ask you.”
“What spices to add to the stew?” Ryū grinned.
“Will you become my husband?”
Three creatures dropped their jaws. Ryū, who was still standing in the doorway. Biko, who had just arrived for his ‘day shift.’ And I, beyond the veil, who turned to granite on my throne of skulls.
“What?” Biko cried, startling them both.
“Biko-chan, you came right on time,” Hiro said, picking up the spirit and placing him in his palm. “Ryū, meet Biko-chan. He is a yōkai.”
“Hajimemashite,” the little creature raised his hand in greeting.
“And I want you to meet Inari-sama soon,” Hiro added. “He’s the god protector of this mountain. He’s a fox, so you will love him. I’ll ask him to marry us.”
Ryū pinched one of his own cheeks. “I’ve never been this hungry while I was asleep before,” he said. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Hiro and Biko, and then he stepped outside, picked up a handful of snow, and rubbed his face. He looked all around him and then back at Biko, who waved. “He’s still there,” he mumbled. Paw yipped to confirm her presence as well.
“Come inside,” Hiro laughed. “You’re going to get sick again. Let’s eat and I will tell you a story that began in my childhood.”