Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers

Chapter 9 – Egato 8ni Kasun

Hajime might have been a well-traveled knight in the service of royalty, undoubtedly knew a lot more than Sano did about a number of things, and was probably at least ten years older, but he wasn’t very good at building fires. And it would have been more politic to ignore this for now, store it away against the next time Hajime had some snide remark about something Sano couldn’t do or didn’t know… but Sano simply couldn’t resist pointing it out and teasing the knight about it. The knight, however, was uncannily quick with a return jab, and therefore it wasn’t long before they were making camp in something of an irritated silence while Yahiko rolled his eyes at them both.

Sano yanked the blankets roughly out of his backpack and tossed them carelessly aside, searching for something to eat and drink. Yahiko immediately appeared at his side, seizing one of the blankets to keep it from sinking into the ill-made fire. Sano grunted his thanks and offered the kid an orange, which Yahiko accepted wordlessly before returning to the rock on which he’d previously been seated. Reaching the very bottom of the bag, Sano extracted the bottle that stood heavily there, and opened it. As he lifted it to his lips, however, he paused abruptly.

Around midday they’d stopped to eat lunch in the shade of a bridge over one of the streams that came down the mountain and crossed the road through the forest; being immediately adjacent to water, there had been no need to drink from the bottle, and this was therefore the first time Sano had uncorked it… his first indication that it might not, in fact, be full of water.

There’s no way… he told himself as he lifted the bottle’s mouth to his nose to confirm the scent he’d already caught. No fucking way… He took a deeper sniff, then turned away and sneezed. I can’t believe he… What is with him? He’s… Then he looked around. “Hey, Hajiface!”

“I assume you’re referring to me,” replied Hajime flatly from the other side of the fire.

“Did Seijuurou say anything to you while I wasn’t there?” Sano wondered, staring down at the bottle. “About all this, I mean, and why he helped us so much?”

“Something to the purpose of getting us all off his property as quickly as possible.” Hajime’s tone made it clear he didn’t feel Seijuurou had helped them ‘so much.’

“That old liar…” muttered Sano. “What the hell is he thinking..?”

This finally seemed to catch at least some of Hajime’s interest. “What’s wrong?”

Sano stood. “Look at this,” he said as he made his way around the fire to hand the open bottle to Hajime. “This is angiruou.”

Confirming Sano’s assertion with a sniff at the mouth of the bottle, Hajime looked back up at him with an eyebrow slightly raised. “So?”

“So,” Sano explained, “there’s something about what’s going on that he really cares about, even if he’s pretending not to.”

“Not enough to leave his precious mountain,” Hajime snorted.

“No, but this is the next best thing. You gotta understand, alcohol is like fucking air to this guy. He would barely even ever share the damn stuff with me while I was sleeping in his fucking bed.”

Again Hajime looked at Sano from where he’d been studying the bottle as if trying to determine what could be so intriguing about it. “He drinks in bed?” he wondered in mild surprise.

“No,” Sano said impatiently — then felt compelled to amend, “well, yeah, sometimes — but I mean, I was staying up there every weekend, sleeping in his bed; hell, I even bought the stuff for him in town and brought it up to him… and he still wouldn’t share it with me most of the time.”

“So?” said Hajime again.

Even more impatiently Sano replied, “I’m just trying to get you to understand what this means.”

“It sounds to me like you’re just babbling.” And Hajime handed the bottle back.

“All right, fine,” snapped Sano, snatching it. “Asshole.” As he went for the drink he’d never taken, he added under his breath, “…as bad as fucking Seijuurou…”

Now Hajime raised both brows. “And you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” he murmured.

“What? About what?”

“Fucking Seijuurou.”

Sano let out a loud breath and rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help grinning a little as well as he replied levelly, “Well, it was more like him fucking me.”

“I didn’t want to know that!” Yahiko protested loudly, reminding them of his presence.

After that, they discussed nothing but the arrangements of camp and their plans for tomorrow. A decision was reached regarding Yahiko having the use of one of the two blankets whenever it was needed from now on; Yahiko himself was not a party to this unanimous agreement, since he saw it as patronizing, and elaborated upon the many nights he’d spent outside on the ground with no more covering than the ladies’ blessing, but the others insisted and eventually won the argument by completely ignoring Yahiko’s side of it.

This left the disbursement of the second blanket up in the air. Hajime absolutely refused to fight Sano for it, pointing out with dogged, irritating rationality that they should alternate nights using it. When Sano pointed out that they could still settle who got it first with a fight, Hajime wordlessly pulled out a coin. The worst part was that Sano lost the toss as well as the debate, and so ended up in the position previously described by Yahiko but without the blessing of any fictitious ladies or the memory of a good fight with a royal knight to comfort him.

There was no clear path through the bright forest, but Sano didn’t really feel he needed one. Once he found Hajime, they could just move on in whatever direction seemed convenient. He wasn’t sure why he needed to find Hajime, either; he just knew he did. So he pushed his way through the glowing foliage, among trees and through bushes, until he caught sight of something white ahead that could only be a royal knight’s shiiya.

Hajime glanced over at him as he made his way out of a dense patch of greenery, but said nothing. He seemed to have been expecting him, for the moment Sano reached his side he started walking, and their footsteps crunching in the undergrowth was for a long time the only sound. It was strange… Sano didn’t like Hajime much, but somehow he didn’t mind this. They had to work together, after all.

Presently, at the bottom of a long, gently-sloping hill covered in progressively higher grass between the thinning trees, they came to the shores of a small lake in the middle of the forest. For a long, contented moment they gazed out across the glistening water, as blue as the clear sky above them, and the swans that moved across it with languid grace. It was a lovely day, a good day to be alive. Sano noticed Yahiko high above him in the branches of one of the trees, his ragged undyed cloak blowing around him almost like wings, undoubtedly and understandably trying to get a little closer to that blazing sky.

Then Hajime put a hand on his shoulder. Sano looked over, and found that the knight had pulled one of the swans from the surface of the lake and now held it out to him. Frowning slightly Sano wondered, “What do you expect me to do with that?”

Hajime appeared somewhat skeptical. “Fly, idiot,” he said, as if this should have been perfectly obvious.

Sano glanced back at Yahiko, just in time to see him caught up by the wind on his cloak and lifted out into the sky. With an expression of serenity he floated away until he was nothing more than a pale speck in the distance. Turning his eyes back to Hajime and the white wings he held, Sano reflected that if Yahiko was allowed to fly away, so was he.

“Right,” he said, and reached out. And the moment his hand met Hajime’s, there came a flash, and the wings had vanished from the knight’s palm to unfurl like a fluttering banner from Sano’s back.

He needed no prompting to take to the sky, and his heart soared even as his body did. The world above the forest and the water seemed so open and endless; anything was possible up here. He’d never been able to do this before, and he relished every moment of it. Racing upward and plunging furiously down, spinning and gliding and floating, he tasted a sort of freedom he could never have imagined.

Then he heard behind him a rasping metallic sound. Whirling in midair, he found Hajime hovering on swan’s wings as wide and strong as Sano’s and drawing his sword.

Sano’s startlement lasted only half an instant before, with a grin, he was pulling free his own weapon. The energy blade flashed out just in time to block Hajime’s strike, which Sano then returned with enthusiasm. It was exhilarating, fighting in the air like this; it added an entire new dimension and arsenal of potential moves to the combat, and the effects of gravity seemed far less important than they normally did.

Hajime was better at this than Sano was, by a long stretch, and for every attempted hit Hajime dodged or threw off with apparent ease, there were three blows Sano only avoided by the breadth of a lucky hair. This didn’t render the exercise any less entertaining, but it did mean that eventually Hajime broke entirely through Sano’s guard and dragged his sword across Sano’s body from shoulder to hip.

The actual metal of the keonblade only grazed Sano lightly in a couple of places, but the much longer energy blade went right through him, severing his shiiya in a neat line but leaving the flesh beneath untouched. Sano stilled, hovering in the air as he raised his hands to his uninjured chest where it showed through the slice across his heretical device. What a hit that had been! If it had damaged him, he would be in pieces!

He looked up at Hajime, who seemed to be waiting expectantly for something, and then realized– “Oh, shit, I guess that’s me dead, isn’t it?” And, his wings going limp, he fell backward and began to plummet toward the land far below.

At first there was only air rushing past, but after a few moments he saw the upper boughs and then the trunks of trees flash by as he fell faster and faster. Finally he dove with a great grinding splash into the river of rocks.

Momentarily stunned, he sank deep under the torrent without making any effort at saving himself, but finally, recovering, kicked and struggled upward. At last he broke the surface, spitting out a mouthful of small stones, and there found himself completely unable to take control of which direction he went or even to maintain a steady, upright position. He was jostled along in the rocky stream, moving at an increasingly quick pace, trying and failing to swim.

When he saw the falls ahead, the chaotic flow of rocks pouring over it into a clicking roar, he began to panic slightly, but there was still nothing he could do. Faster and faster he was shunted along toward it, reaching out desperately at anything that might help him get to land or even slow his progress, but it was no good. His hands closed on nothing but more tiny stones, the world seemed to spin, and he was plunging helplessly down–

He opened his eyes with a gasping breath. It seemed to be just after sunrise; the campsite was still striped with long oaken shadows in the early morning; and Sano was definitely not falling anywhere. He sat up slowly, blinking several times. Then he scrunched his eyes closed against a huge yawn.

Hajime lay to his left, wrapped in the blanket he’d refused to fight for, and Sano found his eyes riveted on the sleeping figure. Faery tales now, he was thinking. Why is this still happening? Hajime’s coma had passed, after all… there was no reason Sano should still be seeing him in his dreams. Are you seeing them too? he asked silently. Or am I just going crazy?

This dream hadn’t been quite the same as before, though; there had been a very blurry quality to it, unlike any other dream he could remember. None of the sensations had been as sharp as he was used to: the smells of the forest, the feeling of flight, the sound of rushing wind in his ears… even the sights he’d seen had been relatively indistinct. Inside the dream he hadn’t really noticed this, though, since the concepts of everything he experienced had been strong enough to fill in the gaps: he’d known he was walking through a forest, he’d known he was flying, he’d known he was fighting Hajime, so it didn’t matter much that his senses weren’t picking it up as clearly as his underlying awareness was.

What a strange dream.

Hajime didn’t really strike him as the type that generally slept late, especially when something specific needed doing, but so far that was purely a guess as Sano had pretty consistently awakened before the knight did. If he hadn’t believed this due to the strange circumstances of the last few days leaving Hajime in need of extra sleep, he would have shaken him now just to be an ass. As it was, he seated himself on one of the rocks around the fire pit, dug breakfast from his backpack, and watched the light grow in thoughtful silence.

It actually wasn’t long before Hajime woke up, though admittedly Sano might have been crunching his apple rather loudly to encourage this. Sano considered asking him whether he’d had a dream about flying with swan wings over a river of rocks, but decided against it when he realized how stupid the question sounded. Instead he argued with him, once Yahiko was also up and they’d all eaten something, about whether or not the kid should be allowed any angiruou.

He knew, though, despite having left the matter of the dream undiscussed, he was going to have a hard time getting it out of his head for the rest of the day.

>9 Interlude

By the ladies’ grace there lived a maker of fine cloths who had three sons. Now it so happened that this weaver suffered from a wasting disease which would one day kill him, so he established what was to be done with his fortune when he was dead, and what provision should be made for his sons. And the day came when the man died and his sons learned his will concerning the disposition of his fortune.

To the first son, who was restless, he left his sword and his horse, that his first son might travel and fight and perhaps win renown and wealth of his own.

For his second son, who was indolent, the weaver arranged a marriage with another rich and prosperous merchant with whom he had done much business in the past, that he might always be taken care of.

And to his third and youngest son, who was steadfast and hard-working, the weaver left his home and shop and all the primary workings of his craft.

And so, after the funeral of their father, the three brothers parted: the eldest to journey as he chose, the second to a life of luxury and ease, and the youngest staying where he had grown to manhood and continuing in his father’s work, though he felt he had much rather married or gone adventuring. Nevertheless, since he was indeed hard-working and steadfast, the third son flourished in his father’s trade, and for a while he was content.

But it happened on a time that, receiving from his eldest brother tidings of the great deeds he had done and the fortune he had won thereby, and from his second brother of the company he kept and the festivals he enjoyed, the young weaver became bitter, for a day, concerning his lot and the distribution of his father’s wealth. And it so happened that he had, that very morning, spread over the roof of his shop a fine length of colorful cloth to tempt the passersby inside. And, though a storm blew up from the ocean and the wind was strong, in his bitterness he gave little heed. But when the storm caught up the cloth and blew it away, the weaver repented his mood and went forth to chase after it, for it was very valuable.

And he came to a lake, and beside it a tall tree that he could not climb standing alone, wherein the cloth had become entangled. And as he gazed up at it in despair, a paruseji appeared at his side and asked, “What do you look for in the tree?”

And the weaver replied, “My length of fine cloth, which has been blown there by the storm.”

Then seeing the distress of the young man, the paruseji took up a swan that sailed upon the water, and took its wings, saying, “Take this and fly, and recover what you have lost.”

So the weaver, taking the wings, straightaway joined them to his own back and flew. And when he had recovered the length of cloth, he thanked the paruseji with great honor. And the paruseji said, “I leave these wings in your keeping for the time while I need them not, and may they aid you… Only be ready to yield them up when we meet again.”

The weaver agreed that it should be so, and they parted.

And now he found that so unusual was he, with his great swan’s wings, that folk would come from far and wide to see him. Often it chanced that they would buy his wares simply for the novelty of it, so that whatsoever effort he put into his craft was sufficient because the quality was of no concern to his buyers. But the people of his own town shook their heads, and went to another town to buy their cloth.

So the merchant prospered for some time, and felt that his life was good. It transpired, however, that the paruseji appeared one day and requested the return of his wings. The weaver knew that to give up his wings was to give up his unusual prosperity, and also he had grown pleased with them and the ability of flight that they bestowed. Nevertheless, as he had promised so would he do, and accordingly he returned to the paruseji the wings.

And the paruseji said, “As it happens, I am in need of a length of fine blue silk. And though I must take these wings from you, I would do you a service and make my purchase here.”

And the merchant, thinking on his manner of business since he had first obtained the wings, hung his head and said in shame, “I have nothing fine enough for you.”

So the paruseji took his departure.

Now again was required of the merchant the care and activity for his work he had shown prior to the time when he had wings, and for this he had been prepared in his mind. But he found also that his legs, through absence of use as he traveled rather by flight, had become crippled. So his work was now harder than ever it had been. Indeed, in order for him to produce the quality of goods that had once been his wont, he was forced to work twice as hard as before. And so he spent his days in great weariness and toil, lamenting bitterly the hour of carelessness that had caused his troubles.

Now it so happened at about this time that the merchant’s second brother was accused by his husband of unfaithfulness, and the debate thereof came to blows, in the which the second brother, his indolent lifestyle having left him little conditioned for bodily strife, came out much the worse. Indeed, he was blinded, and fled the rich house of his husband in distress and shame. After many difficulties, he returned to the house of his father, and there was welcomed sadly by his younger brother.

Misfortune fell also upon the first brother at this time, for in his travels he had grown arrogant of his own prowess with the sword, and continually sought to do battle with opponents of greater strength. In so doing he came upon a bandit prince renowned throughout the land for his skills in combat, and challenged him to a duel. The bandit prince laughed, and easily defeated the first brother. Indeed, he cut off his hands and took from him his sword and his horse and all the riches the first brother had gained thus far through his life of adventure. And so the first brother too returned in distress and shame to the house of his father, where he too was welcomed sadly by his youngest brother.

So now there were three brothers together again working at their father’s trade of weaving, and as each was in some manner crippled the work was tiring and difficult. But they managed, by dint of great effort and dedication, to make a living for themselves and even in a small way to prosper. Still they greatly rued their departure from the hard-working ways their father had always endeavored to teach them, which had brought them to such a pass, and had not many hours of great happiness.

And it happened on a particular day, after they had been thus occupied for the better part of a year, that a proxy doing the work of the divine in their town learned of the sad tale of the three brothers. Unnoticed by them he observed them to discover the truth of the report, and learned to his sorrow that what he had heard in the town was in fact the case. And he went before the divine ladies in the blue courts of eternity, and laid before them the entire story.

On the following day, the proxy appeared to the three brothers in glory, not disguising what he was, and spoke to them. “I have seen your trials, and I have seen the change that has come over you because of your hardships. And because of this, I have spoken to our creators and protectors the divine ladies, and interceded on your behalf, for such is the privilege of a proxy. And the ladies in their mercy, touched by your sad story, have granted me special license to heal you of your wounds and set things aright for you.” And so saying, he touched the arms of the first brother, and the eyes of the second, and the legs of the third, and they were made whole.

And he said, “This warning also I give you: that if you should forget the lesson you have learned during this time of trial, if you should once again rely upon circumstances other than your own honest work to be your means of provision, you shall find yourselves crippled again forever.”

The three brothers, finding themselves again whole and without pain, rejoiced greatly and gave great thanks and praise to the proxy and to the divine ladies. And they took to heart the warning the proxy had given them, and thenceforth worked industriously at their father’s trade. And though they became mightily prosperous, they never forgot the lesson they had learned, and relied always upon their own industry, which never faltered, and never found themselves crippled again. The End.

Chapter 10 – Torosa Forest Road

Heavy clouds gathered above them from mid-morning on, and it looked like they were in for quite a downpour after not too long. Sano didn’t mind in the slightest, since it was very hot and he could probably do with something like a bath in any case. Yahiko seemed less than entirely pleased, but offered no verbal complaint despite looking fairly regularly into the sky with an expression of faint apprehension. Hajime appeared neither to notice nor care.

“So I know it’s your job,” Sano was remarking as they walked, “but is there some particular reason you can give me why we even want Kenshin back on the throne?” It wasn’t that he doubted the purpose behind their quest — the same considerations and residual anger as before still applied — but he was curious.

Evidently both glad to discuss a topic related to their actual mission and dour at the topic itself, Hajime said slowly, “Kenshin is a good man. He may not be the strongest king in our history, for some of the reasons Seijuurou mentioned, but he’s unselfish and has a strong sense of rightness. Seijuurou was exaggerating his weakness–”

Sano made a rude noise. “No way; Seijuurou never exaggerates anything.”

With an echoing snort Hajime went on. “Where Kenshin has a tendency to be too lenient, he is reasonable enough to listen to good counsel, even if he sometimes complains like a child when he’s forced to see the logic of advice he doesn’t like.”

“You sure it’s safe to say shit like that about the king?” Sano laughed. “He’s only deposed, not dead!”

“It’s nothing I wouldn’t say to his face,” replied Hajime grimly, and Sano thought he recognized the source of at least some of the ‘good counsel’ the king could be brought to listen to. After a moment the knight continued in the same dark tone, “And in addition to all of that, he’s Akomera’s lawful ruler according to the established system. Even if Kenshin were much weaker, more selfish, less right-minded, a worse ruler all around… anyone willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king is a criminal, and undoubtedly has criminal intentions that may be disastrous on a large scale. I don’t want someone like that on the throne.”

Pensively Sano nodded, seeing the point. If he had engaged any doubts, they would have been erased. “So why would Soujirou be willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king?” he wondered next. “Sure, maybe his family’s all jealous and shit, but being king must be a hell of a lot of work, and you said he’s not a leader type…”

“When Soujirou was a child, during the Refugee Issue, he was kidnapped by Ayundomeshou and held for ransom–”

“All right,” Sano broke in, “what the hell is this ‘Refugee Issue’ you keep mentioning?”

“That’s the official name of the Bandit Wars.”

“Oh!” Just the sound of the words ‘Bandit Wars’ gave Sano an angry yet hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah,” he said a little more quietly, “those damn things fucked up everyone’s lives.”

Hajime went on with his speculating. “It’s possible Soujirou holds the king responsible for what happened to him, since Kenshin is generally considered to have mismanaged those years. Maybe someone’s convinced Soujirou he could do better.”

“Did he get ransomed?” asked Sano. “Or what?”

“From what I’ve heard, he was rescued by devoted warriors.”

“Really?” Now Sano was thoroughly curious. “What house?”

“I don’t know. His family kept the entire thing quiet; I think they would have preferred nobody hear about it at all, but it’s difficult to keep something like that secret when the kidnapped child is a prince of Gontamei.”

“Huh.”

At this moment Yahiko, who’d been silent for some time, put in unexpectedly, “He’s not the senior prince, though, right?”

Throwing the kid a quick, assessing glance, Hajime confirmed, “No.”

“Don’t look so surprised!” said Yahiko, in a dry tone that seemed like it should be coming from someone much older. “Unlike Sano, I do pay some attention to what’s going on in the country.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, though he really had very little defense against such an accusation.

“No,” Hajime said slowly, “I was just thinking that you’ll be even more useful to us if you’re aware of things like that.”

Yahiko’s tone had gone almost entirely flat as he responded quietly, “Sure. Useful.”

Presently the rain began. Since Sano had an unfashionably attached hood on his outer garment, he dug his own leather one out for Yahiko’s use. The kid looked even more odd than before wearing the oversized hood; he gave the impression of having been magically shrunken so that none of his clothing fit. But it kept the rain off his head.

As nobody was saying anything now, and as it always sounded better in the rain in any case, Sano launched into a bawdy song about a beautiful woman and all the things the narrator of the lyric would like to have her do. It wasn’t one of his favorites, particularly — though the fact that it followed the melody of an old children’s song with much more innocent words thoroughly amused him — it was just the first thing that happened to come to mind at the moment.

He’d half expected Hajime to order him to shut up, but instead the knight merely looked at him with a very skeptical expression and said absolutely nothing. Eventually, though, after the second refrain, Sano broke off of his own accord.

“I can see why you’d want to stop there,” Hajime remarked.

“Why?” Sano wondered, knowing he was walking into an insult by asking but nonetheless curious.

“I imagine the next verse would be rather embarrassing for you,” said Hajime easily.

“I… don’t remember the next verse,” Sano confessed. This was the reason he’d ceased singing.

Hajime reminded him, “Something about her beautiful voice making you wish she would deafen you.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sano laughed. “I’da thought a song like that was way below a royal knight’s dignity.”

“That’s because you haven’t known many royal knights.”

Sano laughed again, but stopped abruptly as the meaning of Hajime’s insult finally struck him. “Wait, so you’re saying I’m so bad at singing that I should be embarrassed to sing anything about someone with a beautiful voice?”

Hajime just smirked, probably at how long it had taken Sano to realize this was what he’d meant.

“Don’t listen to him,” Yahiko broke in. “You weren’t half bad.”

“Hah!” said Sano triumphantly, turning toward his new defender. “Thanks, kid!” After a moment’s thought, though, he added in some unease, “I hope you didn’t understand most of that shit in the song, though.”

Yahiko didn’t look at him as he answered, “I wasn’t actually listening.” Sano thought he mumbled something else, possibly expanding upon this, but Hajime’s sardonic chuckle drowned it out.

“What was that?” Sano asked, ignoring the knight. When Yahiko just shook his head, Sano protested, “You can’t just claim I don’t sing too bad and then say you weren’t listening!”

In an abrupt volte-face of demeanor such as Sano had seen in him a few times before, Yahiko finally looked up, suddenly and defiantly, and said clearly, “I wasn’t listening. Yumi said you’re not half-bad, but she thinks it’s funny to hear a subujinsh’wai singing that kind of thing about a woman.”

Dead silence fell (except for their footsteps and the falling rain and the various noises of the forest, of course), while Sano tried to overcome his unpleasant surprise at these words. It wasn’t that Yahiko had him pegged as someone that only liked men — it didn’t take divine inspiration to figure that out — but, rather, that he’d brought up one of those stupid ladies in the middle of a conversation that hadn’t previously been annoying Sano (much). And it wasn’t that Sano couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned at all; it was that he couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned so familiarly by someone he was coming to consider a friend.

And the idea of the Yumi inside the kid’s head having something to say about either his singing abilities or his romantic inclinations was one he was not even going to think about.

Abruptly he turned to Hajime and changed the subject. “You know what I don’t get? Why the king just gave up like that. How many guys did Soujirou have with him, eight? You could take eight guys at once, couldn’t you?”

Hajime appeared amused by Sano’s behavior and not averse to answering. “Those particular eight, probably. Those eight plus Soujirou… probably not.”

This had been the first topic off the top of Sano’s head, but he found himself genuinely interested. “But wasn’t there anything in the room the king could have used as a weapon?” he wondered. “Or knocked one of the guys down and taken his? Surely both of you together would have been all right?”

What Sano could see of Hajime’s downturned face under its hood looked pensive and displeased. “The truth is, I have no idea what the king was thinking. As Seijuurou said, it made my presence entirely pointless for Kenshin to surrender like that. He probably could have escaped the way I did…”

“Just another thing to ask him, I guess,” Sano said thoughtfully. Then, before he remembered he didn’t want to think about Yahiko and his strange condition, he added, “Too bad you didn’t have Yahiko with you; he could have killed ’em all for you!”

Yahiko seemed just as unhappy to have been dragged into this. “I don’t kill people,” he said in a surly tone.

“Well,” Sano said, shrugging and making an effort at speaking casually, “you’d have been useful somehow.”

They didn’t much feel like stopping and standing still in the rain — let alone sitting down — and they were low on food anyway, so they walked through midday and into the afternoon rather than eating lunch somewhere. Hajime elaborated on what he knew of Soujirou’s skills with a sword, which led to a discussion of swordsmanship in general, which led to some tales of Sano’s exploits in this area, which failed utterly to impress Hajime, which led to an argument. It also, however, took them all the way to the sign-marked crossroad Sano had been counting down steps to since they’d started that day.

“Hey.” Sano paused when they came within sight of the sign, and pointed. “Egato’s getting pretty close here… is one of us gonna go buy some more food?”

“Yes,” Hajime confirmed, “you are.”

Sano was faintly surprised. “Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re the less valuable fugitive,” answered Hajime simply.

With a sigh and accompanying gesture of exasperation, Sano echoed, “‘…less valuable…’ Ladies, you are such an asshole.”

“Use your brain, if you have one,” said Hajime impatiently. “Which of us is more likely to promote the good of the nation at this point?”

Stung, Sano retorted, “Oh, like any of you nobles in the capital could live without us farmers.”

“Aside from the fact that I said ‘at this point,’ I have a hard time believing you contribute all that much.”

Now Sano’s fists were clenched. “What would you know about that? I bet you don’t work ten hours a day in the hot sun!”

Hajime’s eyes narrowed as he replied pointedly, “Nor do I sell my body to some selfish warrior.”

“Leave me alone about that already!” Sano protested. A thought struck him as he was saying this, and he added quickly, trying his best to mimic Hajime’s significant narrowing of eyes, “Besides, I thought that was a pretty good description of being a royal knight.”

Hajime snorted. “No, nothing about you is similar to us.”

“Why don’t you fight me and prove it?” Sano gripped the hilt of his sword.

“You can barely use that weapon,” said Hajime disdainfully.

“Oh, yeah? Who says?”

“Seijuurou.”

“That old bastard,” Sano grumbled, then quickly returned to the topic at hand. “I think you’re just making excuses not to fight me.”

“I don’t need to make excuses. I don’t need to fight you. Any royal knight could kill you in thirty seconds.”

“Good to hear they have nothing better to do.”

Hajime huffed out an annoyed breath. “Oh, make up your mind, idiot. Either I have to make excuses not to fight you, or fighting you would be a waste of time; you can’t have it both ways.”

“I’ll go,” said Yahiko suddenly.

Sano looked down at him in some surprise. He’d been trying not to think much about the kid since earlier, and apparently it had worked. It took him a moment even to assimilate what Yahiko had proposed, but once he had he asked, “But didn’t they chase you halfway to Eloma last time you were here?”

“I’ll just avoid the shrine,” Yahiko said briefly, then held up an expectant hand. “Money?”

Hajime, who looked amused and faintly impressed, pulled out a few larger coins and dropped them into Yahiko’s hand before Sano could even start to get his backpack off. Sano was relieved to learn that the money Seijuurou had provided wouldn’t be their only source of funding on this venture — not least because, though the rain was beginning to let up a bit, he hadn’t been eager to get into his backpack in the wet — but he was still annoyed at Hajime.

“Hey, don’t just look like that solves all our problems,” he said as Yahiko began to walk away toward the town they could barely see at the bottom of a hill along the road that here joined theirs. “Kid could get in real trouble down there!”

“I’m afraid that, whatever you may think about the situation, my facial expression is outside your jurisdiction,” Hajime replied coolly.

Sano scowled. “And don’t think using big words will confuse me or something either, asshole.”

“Certainly not. I could do it just as well with small words.”

“What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“My point exactly.”

Sano stalked over to the side of the road, tossed his backpack down, heedless of how wet was the grass, and seated himself on a rock facing away from Hajime, arms crossed. He was determined not to talk to the knight again until Yahiko returned.

>10 Interlude

Holes riddled the wooden walls of the abandoned house, and very little of the roof remained. The lower half, the stone portion, was relatively intact, but the chimney had collapsed. This had been built around a stabilizing iron bar of some sort, which was now exposed in the house’s ruin and to which they’d tied Soujirou in a seated position with his arms behind his back.

There were three of them — two men and a woman — and they mostly ignored him, now he was restrained, and kept watch out the windows or other openings in the walls. Apparently they worried someone wouldn’t come alone as they’d demanded.

Sometimes they looked at him, though. Sometimes they even talked to him.

“Always smile,” his mother had told him — regularly, as far back as he could remember. “You want people to like you, and they will if you smile.” Of course her smile didn’t seem to make people like her, but maybe that was because she hadn’t practiced since she’d been his age. People did what she told them, anyway, and Soujirou along with them.

So he smiled. But he had a strange feeling it was that very expression that kept drawing the man back to him.

“You know where we’re from, lil prince?”

He had an accent Soujirou didn’t recognize — and didn’t like — so when, reluctant but knowing he must follow his mother’s constant instructions to answer people’s questions, he drew breath to reply, he guessed the farthest city he could think of under these trying circumstances: “Emorisa?”

The man laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. “I don’ know where the hell tha is, buh no.” He tapped the flat of his knife against Soujirou’s shoulder, as he’d done a few times already, and Soujirou forced himself to smile so he wouldn’t cry. “No, kid, we’re from Rauori — leas two of us are; I think Yaru’s from Corilo.”

“I’m sorry,” Soujirou faltered. “I don’t know where that is.”

“You’re a polie lil shih,” the man grinned, slapping his knife again. “We come from Ayundome! You know where Ayundome is?”

Soujirou scrambled through his memory for the geography lessons his mother insisted were so important, but all he could remember was that Ayundome’s capital was Celoho and it bordered Akomera to the… northwest? Its primary trade, the nature of its people, any detail of its history… it all slipped away from him.

Seeing his smile failing, the man laughed again. “Well, maybe you’re too young! So I’ll tell you this: a lah of people are running away from our country inna yours righ now, to geh away from the war, y’see? And every single one of those people is jus hoping to geh hold of a lil porable gold mine like you. I wouldn’ be surprised if you geh picked up twice a month the whole year.”

At the thought of going through all of this again, Soujirou felt an unconquerable lump rising in his throat. He couldn’t have spoken even if he’d known what to say, so he merely smiled somewhat desperately.

“Shuh the fuck up, would you, Lasuyo, and come watch this side?” The other man was big and every bit as unpleasant as the first, and more in charge. Now, as Lasuyo made a rude noise and did as he was told, the other man, Yaru, came to look down at Soujirou with no particularly friendly expression but at least no specific malice. After a moment he said, “He’s jus trying to scare you, kid. Nobody else is gonna kidnap you, unless you’re really unlucky.”

“I’m not scared,” Soujirou lied, smiling.

The big man stared at him for a moment, until finally a twisted smile appeared on his face as well. “Maybe you’re nah,” he allowed, seeming slightly impressed. “So jus sih quieh.”

Soujirou nodded.

The Ayundomeshou continued to move around with nervous energy, restlessly alternating which of the house’s four sides the three of them looked out from, sometimes discussing the ransom they’d demanded from Soujirou’s family and what their plans were once they’d received it, while the sun rose high enough to shine directly down through the broken roof. Soujirou grew very hot and uncomfortable in its glare, feeling as if he sat in the middle of a stone oven and unable to brush away the sweat that periodically ran down his face.

He wondered if his family would send the money these people wanted. His parents liked money — though not as much, he thought, as they liked having other people like them and do what they said — so he couldn’t be sure they would be willing to give up some money just to have him back.

He did do whatever they said, though. He studied his lessons and he practiced talking correctly to the other nobles he met in Elotica and he learned how to use a sword the way a prince should. Maybe they liked that enough. Maybe they would pay.

The woman didn’t say much — not even about where she would go once she had her share of the ransom — only stared out the window and held her bow at the ready. This was, at least, interesting to look at; nobody but hunters used bows that Soujirou knew of, and since you wouldn’t want to be like a low hunter living out in a forest, he’d never been allowed to try one. This woman appeared rough and poor just as he assumed a hunter would; maybe that was what she did — or had done — back in Ayundome. In any case, she now suddenly said, “Someone’s coming.”

“Alone?” Yaru demanded. “No, stay where you are and keep watching; ih could be a diversion.” And he too stayed where he was, looking out his own window.

“Yeh, alone,” the woman replied. “Ih’s one of their devoted — in red.”

“From which lady?” Lasuyo sounded mildly curious, but Soujirou was more so. He hoped it was Kaoru, his favorite. She didn’t have to do what anyone said.

“You know they call them differen names here,” replied the woman impatiently. “I don’ know how their sysem works.”

Yaru cut in just as impatiently. “Does ih look like they’re bringing the money?”

The woman was silent for a moment, still peering out a hole in the wall and gripping her bow. “No,” she finally said. “There should be a wheelbarrow or something…”

“Probably coming to try to negotiae,” Yaru muttered. “Red’s the lowes rank in their church, I think, so they won’ mind losing this fool as much.”

“Wan me to shoo?” The woman stood from her previous crouch, hugging the wall and peering even more intently through the hole as she reached for an arrow.

“Could still be a diversion,” Lasuyo said.

“Any movemen ou your side?” Yaru wondered, holding up a hand in the woman’s direction to stop her for now.

“Nothing.” Lasuyo scrambled over to just beside Soujirou and peered out from the one face of the house currently unguarded. “Nothing here either.”

“Don’ shoo yeh,” Yaru ordered. “We’ll leh them geh close enough to talk. We can raise the price if Gonamei’s being stupid about this.”

The span that followed seemed lengthy due to its tension and silence, but Soujirou didn’t know how many seconds or minutes actually passed. He couldn’t hear the footsteps of the approacher, who must still be too far away, but since the woman had no further comment as yet, the stranger must be continually drawing nearer.

Finally, “They’ve stopped,” she said. “Jus far enough away… I can’ make ou…” She was craning her neck as if that would help her see better.

“Warning shah,” Yaru commanded tersely.

“I only have so many arrows, you know,” the woman grumbled. But she started to nock one anyway.

At that moment, Yaru took such an abrupt step back from where he looked out his side of the house that he almost fell over the stones strewing the floor from the collapsed chimney. “Wa’er!” he gasped.

“Wha?” The other two started, and Lasuyo moved toward Yaru to see what in the world he meant. He didn’t even make it all the way across the room, though, before it became obvious on its own.

Yaru’s latest vantage point faced the river, the sound of which had been a constant, ignorable underscore to the entire scene. Now, somehow, the river seemed to have changed course, for the house suddenly began to flood. With impossible rapidity a huge and seemingly endless mass of clear water was rising over the feet and then up the legs of the shocked Ayundomeshou. Moreover, it didn’t rise evenly: though the floor was soon inches deep, most of the water bubbled up specifically around the adults in the room, enveloping them, its level lifting quickly above their shouting mouths and astonished eyes to form three bulging pillars, each with a person trapped inside.

The woman swept her bow out frantically as if she could pierce the seal over her, then dropped it and began waving her arms instead; Yaru made desperate swimming motions, trying to break free of his airless surroundings; Lasuyo staggered forward a step or two before buoyantly lifting off the ground — and in every case the water swelled out around them and even shifted in its entirety to accommodate their movements and ensure they were continually covered. It reminded Soujirou, watching in helpless horror, of the blue pillars proxy were supposed to have at their backs, but it was like a dreadful, unhappy version of that. Proxy didn’t kill, but this merciless water would. In fact Lasuyo, after releasing a distressingly large bubble from his mouth, had already stopped struggling.

More and more accumulated inside the enclosure of the ruined house’s lower walls, creeping up and joining the existing pillars, and, though it would probably run out under the door and through cracks between the stones, it wasn’t doing so as quickly as it entered. It had risen above Soujirou’s chest, and he could feel it teasing his chin no matter how he tilted his face upward. Below, wet and cold against the iron bar, his bound hands struggled in vain. At least he wasn’t completely coated as the adults were… but he soon would be, at this rate.

Rather than gushing and foaming, the water welled like a spring from somewhere underneath, expanding the three traps from within and remaining thereby smooth enough on its bulbous outer surfaces for the overhead sun to glitter and glare off of it like glass. As Soujirou looked helplessly around, from one deadly pillar to the second and the third, the brilliant spots of reflected sunlight burned his eyes until he could make out no further details; everything was a pandemonium of sparkling whiteness. He knew he should close his eyes, but he couldn’t. Stinging tears spilled over onto his face, further blurring the tableau, but despite his blindness he couldn’t bring himself to shut his lids and shut out the brightness. He didn’t want to die with his eyes closed.

He did squeeze his mouth tight when the water started to run into it, but still he stared — stared at the ascending doom he could barely make out until it covered his face and washed away the salt of sweat and the tears that had arisen in response to the sunlight glare. And still he stared, even when he realized he’d forgotten to take a deep breath while he’d had the chance, even though he distinguished nothing through the water and the bright spots burned into his eyes.

Then a note of red entered the chaos that was his vision, the water swished and churned before him, and he felt an adult’s arms to either side. The rope gave way, freeing him to struggle as he would. Just as he thought he must choke, that he couldn’t retain the breath in his body or keep from trying to draw another — especially with his limbs, prickling from inactivity, flying out every which way trying to propel him through the water that now stood far above his head — he was hauled up and out, into the free air, streaming and gasping and flailing.

He had the vague impression the flood was sinking all around him, that there were no Ayundomeshou left standing in the little ruined building. He knew he was lifted by and pulled against the red-clad stranger that had waded into the room to save him. But he could see nothing except the glare, could make out no details around him. And the stranger did not speak.

“Thank you,” he coughed at last.

“Always be polite,” his mother told him, practically every day. “People will like you better.”

“Thank you,” he managed again, more insistently this time, holding on for dear life around his rescuer’s neck with soaked, shivering arms.

But the devoted, who, though evidently weary in an aphysical way Soujirou could not quite describe and didn’t even know how he recognized, had turned and moved toward the exit just as if there weren’t three dead bodies lying in the fresh mud and scattered stones and draining water around them, just as if a spontaneous lake arising to kill a child’s captors and receding quietly as if on command was all in a day’s work, still said not a word.

Chapter 11 – Proxy’s Son

It hadn’t worked, of course. Somehow, ignoring a very present Hajime turned out to be almost as much of an ordeal as talking to him. Fortunately, though, the rain stopped while Yahiko was gone, giving Sano the excuse of brushing water off of things and wringing things out to delay conversation. And Yahiko returned a good deal sooner than he’d expected.

“That was quick!” Recognizing the shrug and aversion of eyes that formed Yahiko’s reply, Sano went on to speculate, “Checked with Megumi on the best way into town before you went, huh?” He tried to say it as passively as he could, since he’d decided that, whatever he actually thought of Yahiho’s delusions, continual verbal bitterness against the kid really wasn’t appropriate.

Yahiko gave him a wary glance and said very quietly, “Yumi, actually.”

“Why Yumi?” Sano wondered in what he hoped was a politely interested tone.

“Because I was already talking to her.” The bag he’d been carrying over his shoulder Yahiko now slung onto the ground beside Sano’s backpack, and he still didn’t meet Sano’s eye as he added, “She thinks you guys arguing is funny.”

“There’s another reason not to believe in her,” Sano snorted. Then, remembering he was trying not to be unnecessarily unkind, he said more neutrally, “So, any idea why you have this power of talking to the supposed ladies for their supposed blessings?”

Now Hajime snorted. “He’s not likely to answer if you ask him like that, idiot.”

“Well, seriously, I wanna know!” Sano protested. He began looking through the satisfyingly hefty bag, inspecting the goods.

“My mom was a proxy,” said Yahiko briefly

Sano glanced over at him in surprise. It really was remarkable what these religious people could think up.

“Every kid thinks his mother is a proxy,” Hajime commented.

Sano could see his point — there had certainly been a period in his childhood when he might have thought his mother was semi-divine — but he simply couldn’t resist the opportunity for, “I bet you didn’t. I bet you were the most obnoxious little–”

“I didn’t realize it was my history we were discussing,” interrupted Hajime.

Having decided that any sort of organized arrangement inside his backpack would be a waste of time, Sano had stuffed the entire bag into it instead. But he pulled out some of the dried meat, hard bread, and fruit to lunch on.

“Good choices,” he commended the kid. Then he returned to the previous topic. “So your mom was nice, and taught you all sorts of magic tricks?”

“No, you jerk.” Yahiko snatched the food Sano offered and turned his back. “My mom was actually a proxy.”

Sano tried his best to restrain a disbelieving sound, but rather failed.

“I know I can’t convince you. But if you’d ever met her, you’d know…” Yahiko’s voice sank almost to a murmur as he continued. “It was like nothing could ever, ever bother her — she was never scared or angry… and she had this sort of glow around her, sometimes faint but sometimes really bright, but not everyone could tell. And when you were with her you felt like nothing could ever go wrong.”

Sano had gradually fallen completely still and silent as he listened to this description, even neglecting what he was doing so that Hajime had to come over and retrieve his own lunch. Of course it was all silliness — the affection of a young child for his mother combined with fanatical religious beliefs — but it really did sound very much as if he was talking about…

Shaking his head abruptly to clear away these strange, almost hypnotic thoughts, Sano said, “Hajiguy’s right; you were just a kid who liked his mom a lot.”

Hajime, at whom Sano had jerked a thumb to accompany this statement, gave Sano a skeptical look. Yahiko grumbled, “When you start agreeing with him just to say I’m wrong, there’s no point for me to tell you anything.”

In keeping with this, he said nothing more for quite some time. They finished their meal and started walking again in near silence, letting the reappearing sun dry the rain off them even as it dried the forest around them. Sano couldn’t get the striking familiarity of Yahiko’s description out of his head, and for a while was lost in reverie. But eventually he realized his question had never been entirely answered. “So your mom…” he prodded.

Yahiko threw him a suspicious look, but seemed to consider it relatively safe to explain further. “Well, she disappeared when I was four…”

This did nothing to diminish the interesting coincidence Sano believed he saw. That sounds just like…

“But she came back when my dad died,” Yahiko went on, “and took him away with her. I saw it, and didn’t really understand, so later I asked the ladies… They told me sometimes a proxy working around people who are still alive falls in love with one of them. Then they’re allowed to spend five years here again with that person, but after that they have to get back to work. So my mom was one of those.”

“All right.” Sano struggled to keep any hint of a jeering tone from his voice. “What do you mean, she took your dad away?”

Despite Sano’s efforts, Yahiko obviously heard or guessed his real reaction, for his face took on that defiant expression he seemed to reserve specifically for subjects like this. “My dad was killed in a fire,” he said determinedly, as if daring Sano to jeer about that, “a few years after my mom left. But she took him out, so he didn’t feel any pain. Took his soul away, I mean.”

“Huh,” said Sano. “Seems like your dad got the shit end of that deal.” Quickly, before Yahiko could protest, he went on, “But I guess your mom couldn’t save his life because proxy aren’t allowed to lift a hand for or against the living.”

The boy gave him a look that was at once pleased and annoyed, and overall nothing less than astonished. “Right,” he said, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard.

Hajime also seemed startled. “That’s fairly obscure doctrine for a heretic to know.”

“My dad was a devoted,” Sano confessed with a shrug. “I had to pick up some of that bullshit.”

“My dad guarded the town storehouse,” said Yahiko, transitioning smoothly back to the topic at hand, probably seeking to avoid having to listen to another argument between his companions. “It was when it caught fire that he died.”

“And you were how old?” Sano wondered.

“Seven.”

“Shit!” If he’d thought about it, Sano must have realized this, but to hear the kid say it so blandly really brought it home. “What did you do after that? Did you have other family?”

Yahiko shook his head. “Maybe somewhere, but I don’t know who they are… I’ve just been wandering around on my own since then.”

“You’ve been wandering around alone since you were seven?” Sano demanded in some horror. “Sweet Kaoru, how did you cope?”

“Not like you’ll believe me,” grumbled Yahiko, “but the ladies helped me. They told me it’s good to face some things on your own.”

“And that comforted you?” Sano couldn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t deeply disturbed by this idea.

“Of course,” said Yahiko.

“But that’s…” Sano was appalled. “You don’t tell a seven-year-old it’s better that his dad dies and just leave it at that!”

“You do if you know all and see all.”

“No seven-year-old could just blindly accept that!” Sano protested.

“‘Blindly?'” echoed Yahiko in some irritation. “Just because you don’t know anything about faith–”

“Fuck faith!” interrupted Sano, finding himself more and more agitated by this conversation. “This was your family! There’s no way you took it this calmly!”

Yahiko snapped, “I never said I took it calmly! I’m just saying I didn’t question–”

But Sano overrode him again. “You’re worse than the fucking devoted! This is what this Yumi-damned system does to people: makes ’em into mindless–”

“Sano,” said Hajime firmly, placing a restraining hand on Sano’s shoulder.

But Sano was not to be deterred, and by now he was nearly shouting. “Your fucking parents die and you’re just fine because some voice in your head said it’s all right?”

“If you haven’t heard that voice,” Yahiko replied in the same raised tone, “you can’t know–”

“I don’t need to hear it!” Now Sano really was shouting. “Your dad died! There’s no way any lady bullshit could have helped!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Yahiko had stopped walking and faced Sano with a scowl and clenched fists. “The ladies will comfort anyone no matter how bad it was that happened to them!”

“Listen to you parroting that bullshit,” Sano growled, mimicking the kid’s stance and staring down angrily at him. “Your father… It’s like you’re not even human!”

Now the hand Hajime put on his shoulder was not passively restraining; the knight yanked Sano backward and off-balance, saying at the same time, “Calm down, idiot. Abusing him won’t bring your family back.”

Sano staggered and caught himself, then stood staring at Hajime with wide eyes. The words had been like a piercing blow, and in place of blood there was a rush of painful memory that he’d kept suppressed just below the surface but that had been stirred by Yahiko’s insane words. That Hajime had known this seemed incredible. “What…” he demanded breathlessly, unable to form a complete sentence in his momentary shock. “How did you…”

“There are only a few reasons people become heretics,” Hajime said quietly, pushing past him to move on up the road. “You’ve made yours fairly clear.”

Sano stared after him for a second, then looked at Yahiko again. The expression on the kid’s face was a mixture of the same irate, hurt defiance he’d worn before and a new pity and understanding of which he almost seemed ashamed. The moment he met Sano’s gaze, though, he withdrew his own and turned to follow Hajime.

Struggling with anger and old pain, Sano stood very still for some time. Eventually, though, he went after his companions, lost in recollection.

Normally Sanosuke didn’t like to wear shoes anywhere, and usually removed the ones his mother forced on him the moment he reached his best friend’s house. Today, however, he wouldn’t be there long, so he kept them on, and his footsteps tapped along the paved path around to the back.

“Katsu! Katsu!” he called. The yard, neglected by the household, was so overgrown that there was an unending supply of hiding places among the shaggy hedges and other trailing plants surrounding and overshadowing the cracked flagstones.

“Hello, Sano!” came his friend’s voice, alerting Sanosuke to his location.

Sanosuke ran a bit further down the path, then abandoned it to push his way through some bushes into a small paved area that seemed completely cut off from the rest of the world, cool and shady in the midst of this little jungle. Here he found another boy, about his age, with black hair pulled untidily back and dark eyes bent toward the paper before which he was seated and on which he was busily drawing.

“Katsu, guess what!” Sanosuke said breathlessly as he reached Katsuhiro’s side.

Katsuhiro glanced up and, in half an instant, seemed to take in Sanosuke’s shod state as well as his excitement. “You get to go with my dad after all?” he guessed calmly.

“Yes!” Sanosuke cried, ignoring for once the annoyance of having his good news specifically predicted before he was able to deliver it. “My dad changed his mind!”

“I thought your parents were pretty adamant about you all traveling together.”

“What does ‘adamant’ mean?” Sanosuke asked, sitting down next to Katsuhiro and twisting his neck to look at the paper his friend was bending over. The picture showed a man riding a giant kouseto through the ocean, and with the way Katsuhiro was coloring it, the ocean looked like it would to take forever to finish. It was really good, though.

“Never mind,” said Katsuhiro, setting down his crayon and sitting back to look fully at Sanosuke again. “What changed your dad’s mind?”

“I dunno,” Sanosuke shrugged. “He just announced today suddenly that I could go, just at the last minute when your dad came to say bye. So I grabbed my stuff as fast as I could, and we’re leaving soon! He just brought me by here to say bye to you.” Unable to contain his excitement, he jumped up. “I get to see Eloma early and stay there all alone for days! Isn’t it great??”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Katsuhiro. But even though he looked down at his picture again, Sanosuke could tell he was frowning.

“What?”

“Well, we’re not going to see each other again for nine years!” Katsuhiro complained.

“Nine?” Sanosuke wondered. If his friend had said, ‘for a long time,’ it wouldn’t have been so strange… but, then, it wouldn’t have been like Katsuhiro, either. “How do you know?”

Katsuhiro shrugged.

Letting it go, Sanosuke said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll write letters to you, all right?”

“Half the time letters don’t get through because of all the bandits,” said Katsuhiro darkly.

Annoyed, Sanosuke commanded, “Stop saying something bad about everything I say!”

“Sorry,” Katsuhiro smiled apologetically. “I’m glad you get to go.”

At that moment they both heard the sound of someone else approaching through the foliage of the overgrown yard, and presently a handsome man with the same pensive dark eyes as Katsuhiro appeared through the hedge. “Hey, guys,” he greeted them with a smile.

“Hi, dad,” said Katsuhiro.

“What are you drawing?” Souzou asked his son. Wordlessly Katsuhiro handed the paper up. “Oh, I see,” said Souzou thoughtfully. “This heroic figure is becoming something of a motif, isn’t he?”

Katsuhiro nodded.

“Well, I like the colors on this one very much.” Souzou handed the paper back, and turned to Sanosuke. “Ready to go, Sano?”

“Yeah!” Sanosuke could barely keep from shouting in his glee. Even saying goodbye to Katsuhiro for nine years or however long it turned out to be couldn’t dampen his spirits.

Souzou and Katsuhiro had already said their farewells, so all that remained was for Souzou to get one last hug from his son and remind him to mind the housekeeper and stay out of trouble while he was gone. And then Sanosuke and Souzou were off, riding Souzou’s big laden horse through the streets of Encoutia, their backs to the ocean, heading for Sanosuke’s new home almost two entire weeks before Sanosuke’s family was going to travel there.

Sano had always despised phrases like ‘lost faith’ and ‘fell away,’ even the simplistic and totally accurate ‘became a heretic,’ and any other expression that implied the naturality and normalcy of belief in the divine ladies opposing the freakish aberration of heresy. He didn’t think he should be obligated to explain why he did not believe in something and live a certain way based on that belief… but every once in a while he wanted to. And at those times he often found himself using some of those very phrases he hated so much.

“That wasn’t my reason for becoming a heretic,” he said quietly after several minutes of walking in utter silence. Neither of the others in front of him turned, but he knew they were listening. And somehow he wanted them to know. As Yahiko had said when they’d first met, some heretics didn’t think about it at all. Sano wanted his companions to know that he thought about it. “I mean,” he went on, “that wasn’t my whole reason.”

It wasn’t very comfortable to ride in front of someone else all the way to the other side of the mountains, but Souzou was such a good horseman that Sanosuke didn’t mind too much. Besides, Souzou knew probably more interesting stories than anyone else in the world, and even when Sanosuke started to get a little sore and tired from riding for so long, Souzou could easily distract him.

They were real stories, too. Oh, he knew some faery tales, yes, about talking animals and paruseshou, but most of the time he told Sanosuke about things that had actually happened — like how the previous queen had fought a pirate prince, or how he himself had lived in Etoronai in a little boat on the river for two whole years.

He would even tell Sanosuke about the business he had out east that took him past Eloma, just as if Sanosuke were an adult. Sometimes Sanosuke got the feeling Souzou knew everything. Souzou was very handsome, and he always looked so good on his horse, even after days on the road. And he did exciting things and went interesting places… Sanosuke loved his own parents, and would never actually have wanted to trade, but sometimes he did envy Katsuhiro a little.

This was the first time he’d been out of Encoutia in his life, and the changing scenery was an unending source of entertainment and wonder. He watched as the landscape became wilder and the road wound upward into rockier and more difficult terrain. He marveled at how far he could see whenever he turned to face his old home again, especially from up in the pass. And then he could no longer make out the distant sparkle that was Encoutia or the great blue band on the horizon that was the ocean, because they were coming down the other side of the mountain and had entered Torosa Forest.

Sanosuke had never been in a proper forest before, and found it just as interesting as everything else he’d seen on this journey. The road twisted and turned among the endless trees, and there were squirrels and foxes and deer and everything else, and it went on and on and on. In fact, he could almost say the forest was his favorite thing so far.

Souzou didn’t seem to agree, though. He continued conversing as before, but more quietly now; he rode at a much quicker pace, enough to be rather uncomfortable; and he kept looking around as if the trees made him nervous somehow.

“Just because one person’s family dies,” Sano went on slowly, “doesn’t mean…” It was difficult to explain what he really meant. Hajime and Yahiko still weren’t looking at him, and Sano did not hurry to walk close enough that they would have to. “I’m not that selfish,” he finally said, and found a touch of Yahiko-like defiance in his tone. “But it happens all the time everywhere…”

The red devoted of Megumi glanced up and immediately smiled when Sanosuke entered her office in Eloma’s little shrine. “What can I do for you, young man?” she asked. She was an old lady with white hair, and moved very slowly, but she had a nice smile.

“This letter’s for you,” Sanosuke informed her, holding out the scroll he’d been charged by his parents to deliver, “from my dad. He’s the new devoted.”

“Oh, good,” said the old woman. Accepting the rolled paper, she undid the tie that held it closed and set it absently on the table beside her. As she started to read, the tie slid off onto the floor, whence Sanosuke picked it up. “Well, this is quite an adventure for you, isn’t it,” the devoted remarked after a moment “–to get to come here all alone ahead of your family?”

Sanosuke beamed.

The devoted read on, until she reached part of the letter that made both of her pale eyebrows rise abruptly. “Oh, are there five of you?”

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said a bit proudly: “me and my mom and dad and brother and sister.”

The devoted laughed. “Did we ever get the wrong impression about the size of your family!” she said, shaking her head with a wrinkled grin. “The house we set up for you will never do!”

“Oh…” Sanosuke wasn’t sure if this meant he needed to… do something…

Observing his uncertainty, she gave him another kind smile. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “You can have that house all to yourself until your family comes, and we’ll try to figure something else out for all of you in the meantime.”

Sanosuke’s previously concerned face broke into a grin. That was quite possibly the greatest thing he’d ever heard.

“Not people who’ve done something to deserve it,” Sano continued, “but good people — good, honest people — people like my family, that was damn near perfect, or your dad, Yahiko, who was just doing his job… suffer and die for no reason at all. Everywhere.”

Sanosuke had taken to sitting just past the bridge that led over the irrigation at the west entrance of town, where the road onto the mountain through the forest took up where it had left off at the east entrance. He didn’t have to sit there — there were more comfortable places from which he still could have seen anyone approaching the moment they emerged from the trees — but if he sat within the boundaries of Eloma, the other kids bugged him to come play, or just bugged him. He didn’t have to sit waiting at all, really, but, no matter what else he did, his thoughts and consequently his feet were eventually dragged in this direction.

Souzou had already come back through, finished with his business out east, and been surprised not to find Sanosuke’s family in Eloma yet. He’d stayed for one night more than he’d been planning, out of concern for Sanosuke, but he had his own son and his home business to return to in Encoutia and couldn’t extend his trip more than that. His assurance that Sanosuke’s family had undoubtedly been delayed for some perfectly legitimate reason and would probably arrive at any time seemed a little flat.

And that had been twenty-nine days ago.

So Sanosuke sat by the bridge, waiting for his family, thinking the same thoughts he’d been thinking for weeks now: that traveling with a whole wagon full of stuff had to be slower than just a couple of people on a horse; that Uki was probably being a brat and slowing them up even farther; that baby Outa always needed fussing over and would make their travel time longer yet; that his parents knew what they were doing and wouldn’t let him sit here worrying unless they had a really good reason…

He played with the wide red tie that had been wrapped around his dad’s letter to the local devoted. It hadn’t exactly been a gift or anything, but it had been the very last thing either of his parents had given him, besides hugs and kisses. It had long since ceased to afford him any comfort, though.

“Who is that little boy?” This was the voice of one of the townswomen; Sanosuke didn’t know her name.

“Which one?” another voice asked. It sounded like they were over by one of the houses in the nearest row.

“No, there by the bridge,” the first voice said. “He’s been sitting there every day for more than a week, I think.”

“Oh, that’ll be the new devoted’s son,” was the answer.

“Oh! I heard Makai was retiring… when does the new one arrive?”

“That’s the thing. He and the rest of his family were supposed to be here forever ago. That’s probably why the kid’s been sitting there.”

“You don’t think… the bandits…” The woman’s voice quieted, but not far enough. Adults could be such jerks sometimes.

Sanosuke jumped up. With a scowl he turned in the direction of the women discussing him and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I can hear you, you know!!” Then, the red tie fluttering like a banner from his clenched hand, he ran as fast as he could back to the little house he had all to himself.

Sano’s tone dropped even lower as he finished his explanation. “I just can’t believe there’s some divine power letting that kind of shit happen.” His final statement — question, rather — was directed at the ground: “What kind of sick, evil being would create us just to watch us suffer?”

When he finally looked up again, he found Yahiko’s gaze directed toward him now entirely in pity. Having calmed down somewhat, Sano realized as he met the kid’s eyes that not only had he been something of an asshole, he’d then acted sad and bereaved as if to justify his attitude and actions by playing the tragic victim. Way to go, Sano, he told himself savagely. Aloud he mumbled, “Sorry about all that shit I said.” And while he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that perhaps Yahiko had been comforted at the time of his father’s death by something Sano didn’t believe in, he genuinely regretted having been so rude about it.

Yahiko smiled faintly at him, and, reaching back, squeezed Sano’s arm in an unmistakable gesture of forgiveness. Then they all walked on in continued silence.

Divine lady Megumi. She is represented by a scalpel and needle/thread since she is, among other things, the patroness of the medical profession. Here’s the full-color version:

Divine lady Yumi represents, among other things, beauty and externality, which is why her symbol is a mirror. Here’s the full-color version as well:

I think this is my favorite of the divine lady plates. I remember that, as I was drawing this one, my tablet completely died. So I saved what I had at that point as a preview until I could get a new tablet. Ju can see the preview here; it’s kindof interesting:


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plaidshirtjimkirk
Guest

I was hoping this chapter would be about them camping and here it was! Oh, guys, c’mawn. The solution to your blanket dilemma is totally to share it. (I hear, “Absolutely not” and “Not a chance in hell” simultaneously in response XD) All of these dreams Sano keeps having are super interesting and it’s just giving me vibes of them having some kind of mental link…which is frickin awesome. Whether that’s the case or not, I can’t wait to see what’s inspiring Sano to keep having them. *covers mouth and whispers* it’s fate telling you that you’re both meant to… Read more »

plaidshirtjimkirk
Guest

I feel like I picked up a book and read some lore just now of this world. *_* It was a smart way to introduce some more information on the ladies. I liked it a lot!

plaidshirtjimkirk
Guest

Loved the interactions here between all three of them. Sano singing and Yumi complimenting him!! XD Yahiko was particularly awesome when he spoke up and declared he’d be the one to go shopping amid the arguing. That poor kid just seems so done and I can’t say I blame him, considering his position. But as for me, I’m consistently entertained by Sano and Hajime banter. I wonder why… ^_~ I’m really interested in learning more about the Bandit Wars, too…my Sekihoutai-loving self is already hurting at the possible parallel there. Once again, great work!! I always start off reading your… Read more »

plaidshirtjimkirk
Guest

…Yeah, so I guess now’s a good time to say that I’ve legit been relating to Sano very hard in this story. His thoughts mirror my own on organized religion, and I’m just reading and nodding my head. I can’t really blame him for getting on the offensive with Yahiko about having divine voices in his head, especially when Sano apparently lost his family like that after they were devoted. YAY, KATSU!!! (sorry i always yell about him showing up XDD) And my darling Souzoooooooooooo omg! I love how you wrote him. He’s so fab! No wonder why Sano admires… Read more »

plaidshirtjimkirk
Guest

Damn, what an interlude! A great look at Soujiro here and a perfect way for him to meet his so-called “rescuer”…especially if that rescuer is the person I’m thinking of. I hate how terrible Soujiro’s life was and how he was conditioned into never showing emotion outside of smiling, but it does make him terribly interesting. Thanks so much!