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.
“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.
“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?”
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?”
“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?”
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.