Shinigami Chapter 7


Omiyage: The way to show gratitude or good intentions

It continued to snow. 

Two days later, a stranger presented himself at the western gates, bearing a letter with the Sagarifuji crest. The guards let him in, and one of the servants informed Hiro that the new sensei had arrived. But a Fujiwara never received a visitor right away unless they were his brothers or part of the Royal Family. 

“He is welcome under my roof,” Hiro told the servant. “Show him to the room that’s been prepared for him. If he’s hungry, bring him something to eat. I will meet him at dinner.” These were not his original words, but he’d heard his father utter them countless times when a guest visited.

The snowfall stopped in the afternoon, and the sky exposed patches of blue. Hiro took a stroll in the gardens and pondered his actions. 

He had welcomed a guest. He’d given orders for dinner preparations. He felt like an adult. He was proud of himself.

But then he became a little disappointed when he reached the tsukubai by the bamboo fence and found no sign of the beggar boy. In his sleeve, he had a small bag containing a few coins. It wasn’t much, but it would pay for several bowls of rice. At least, Hiro hoped it would. He had no idea how much food cost.

They’d met every day in this same spot, and Hiro was getting rather fond of their secret encounters. “Perhaps he left the mountain because the snow stopped,” he mused. He pushed the gate open, leaned his shoulder on a pole, and stared into the distance. It was quiet, void of the trills of the cheerful uguisu. The snow was white and uncompressed, with no footprints in sight.

Hiro waited without knowing exactly why. He eyed the path he’d previously taken to get to the plum tree. He hadn’t seen the tree since the day he’d met Inari, although he climbed the watchtower every morning and afternoon to scout for it.

After some time had passed, he noticed a white and blue shape trudging slowly through the knee-high snow. Hiro’s heart skipped a beat, and the corners of his mouth curved upward. But before the boy reached him, he masked his emotions behind a glare.

“My lord,” the boy panted, looking exhausted. “Were you waiting for me?”

“Nonsense,” Hiro sputtered. 

“I’m sorry. I…”

Hiro struggled to keep from beaming when he saw that the boy was wearing the clogs and hitatare. His hands were grimy from scaling the slope, but his face was clean and his hair was no longer a dirty straw mat.

“How is your father?” Hiro asked politely.

The boy lit up. “He is well, my lord. He could stand today and is not coughing so much. It’s because of you and your medicine. You saved his life.” The boy dropped to his knees and gazed at Hiro as if the very sun stood in front of him. “It’s all thanks to your kindness.” He prostrated himself and made a move to kiss the lord’s feet. 

Hiro placed a hand on his head to stop him. “There is no need for that,” he said, reaching down to help him stand. “How long until you leave?”

The boy grinned. Some of his baby teeth had fallen out and were not fully replaced yet. “That’s what I came to tell you. Father said if the weather stays good, we can leave tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Hiro had been waiting for good weather for months. Now he cursed the sky and its clear outlook. “I wish you good fortune, and may the gods watch over you.” He took the boy’s hand and dropped the coin bag in his palm. “It’s an omiyage. A gift.”

“My lord!”

“You can’t refuse a gift. Use it as you need. Buy food. Find shelter. I don’t care, just take it.”

The boy clutched the bag to his chest. “May the gods bless you, my lord. I will never forget you. You will forever be in my dreams.” He bowed deeply and turned to leave.

“Oy! Wait!” Hiro called after him.

“Yes, my lord?”

“What’s your name?”

“Takahashi Ryū. Like the dragon.” 

“Ryū…” Hiro rolled the name in his mouth, tasting honey. The traitorous sun briefly escaped from the clouds.

“Sayōnara, my lord.”

“No,” Hiro said. “Not sayōnara. Until we meet again, Ryū.”

Ryū flashed him another gap-toothed grin. “Until we meet again, my lord.”

Hiro didn’t leave the gate until Ryū disappeared into the shadows of the forest. When he was alone again, he sighed and returned dejectedly to the palace. He might not ever see the boy again. Had he offered him enough? He was irritated with himself. He could’ve done more, much more. Unlike Hiro, Ryū had nothing except the freedom to go wherever he wanted. Unlike Ryū, Hiro had everything except the freedom to leave his gilded cage.

In this cloud of annoyance, the new sensei made his appearance. 

Hiro felt an aversion toward Hideyoshi Sensei from the start. He wore a gray-on-black Confucian robe, and his hair was untied and brushed down his back like some perfumed envoy from the Kingdom of Tang. His skin had the same tanned shade as the servants from the southern islands, and when he spoke, Hiro got the impression he was trying too hard to impress him with fancy words.

Hiro regarded him with a frown throughout dinner. The man had presented his father’s signet ring and a letter from Umakai himself, both of which proved he was the man his father had announced. The sensei praised Hirotsugu and his siblings for their table manners, and he gushed about how blessed he was to be able to teach the future of the Fujiwara clan. Then he began to gorge himself with food and sake while ogling the servant girls. Hiro didn’t like how he scanned the walls of the palace, taking in the expensive embroideries and porcelain vases from Silla. 

Something was not right.

I tilted my head, curious about what he would do.

“Sensei,” Hiro said when dinner was over and the sakura tea was served. He held the scroll he’d received from his father the other day, praising the merits of his new sensei. It was written in Tang letters, the official script of the court of Yamato. Only a few members of the population knew how to read it, and they included aristocrats, priests, physicians, merchants, or teachers.

“Please read us this letter.”

I chuckled. Well played, clever one.

The man’s smile faltered, but he nodded. “Certainly. As Young Master Fujiwara commands.”

The sensei stood and slowly walked toward the head of the table where Hiro sat on his father’s cushion, the one closest to the Tennō’s dais. Yoshi sat at his right, and several of his other siblings were present as well. The toddlers were in their rooms with their nurses. 

Hiro had initially seated the sensei at the other end of the table, according to his rank. The lower the rank, the farther from the Tennō. Hiro had a feeling the sensei believed this was an insult.

Hideyoshi Sensei bowed and took the letter from Hiro’s hand. With a swift, agitated motion, he pulled the string that bound the scroll and began to read.

“Son, I’m sending you a scholar from Chang’an who studied with the masters of the Tang Kingdom. He returned to the Land of Yamato this summer, and I hired him to teach you and Yoshitsugu how to become gentlemen. He will be an excellent teacher of Confucianism, history, and literature. He will help you master your letters. Welcome Hideyoshi Sensei with respect.”

At least he did know how to read. “Thank you, Sensei.” Hiro stood. “Lessons will start tomorrow morning.” 

Another adult decision made.

Yoshi followed him as he crossed the bridge between the hall and the bedrooms. They were no longer sharing a room, but they still slept in the same building. “Why did you treat Hideyoshi Sensei so disrespectfully, brother? It seemed like you were questioning his education.”

“I don’t know, Yoshi. There’s just something I don’t like about him. I can feel it in my gut.”

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