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Then again, maybe this was Temptation, here to be resisted.
"Guide you around the market, sir!" A hatless urchin, his grimy face empty of pie, appeared from nowhere and attached himself to Yajiro's belt.
Yajiro gently pried himself free. "I think I can find my way to the river from here."
"Ah, but I know everybody, sir! Find you a special price!"
"I'm sure you would." Yajiro smiled and walked past him to the quayside.
Boats were plentiful here at the meeting of the waters, and Yajiro found he could drive a hard bargain with the jerkin clad boatmen, even with Tsuru the urchin bobbing underfoot, interrupting at every turn. A fisherman's boat would have been his best deal, but pride and the money he had earned blacksmithing between temple visits pushed him to settle on a fur trader's boat with a covered storage area in the stern and sails which showed off their previous owner's skill with the needle. Whatever Yajiro's final destiny might be, for the moment it was enough to have left his parents' home riding a mule and wearing rags, and return by water in a tunic, breeches, and hat, like an honest trader. Perhaps it might soften the blow to their honor when they found out that their second son had failed to win acceptance with any of the teachers at the temples along the road.
Money changed hands, and the boat was his.
"Captain, sir! You'll need a crew for the voyage!" Tsuru again, making as if to step down into the boat. Yajiro grabbed him by his collar and placed him firmly on the quay, looking to see if there was any sign of the boy's mother.
His gaze lingered on a slender girl with long black hair who knelt behind a straw bale twenty paces away, holding a necklace of sh.e.l.ls in both hands. A middle born woman with a bag over one shoulder turned to examine it.
A short weasely man sidestepped quickly to keep himself out of the middle born's sight. n.o.body but Yajiro paid him any particular attention.
Brazen as a magpie, the man slipped his hand into the middle born's sack.
Yajiro wondered whether he should notice. Footpads and fleas were equally common in riverside markets, and usually found together. Yajiro could get a blade in his gut for his trouble, or he could step in successfully and the middle born could still be robbed three more times before she got home. Why did she not bring a servant to look out for her?
It must be a test. The G.o.ds were at last giving him the chance to show his worth. If he'd wanted to intervene, it wouldn't be a test, would it?
Tsuru tugged at his arm. Yajiro brushed him off. "Stay here."
The sun glinted off something golden, shiny and rectangular as the weasel drew his hand from the sack. Yajiro's hand closed around his wrist at the same moment.
The weasel was a head shorter than Yajiro, and thin, but he had a wiry strength. Finding himself snared, he cracked his arm like a whip and dropped down onto his haunches to try to break the hold. The middle born was still turning to see what was happening as the footpad's other fist landed in Yajiro's gut.
Long hours at the anvil gave rewards more tangible than mere wages. Yajiro gasped but was not winded. He tore the golden box from the thief's hand and pushed him away. The middle born took a step back, her eyes widening, as the weasel danced out of range and ran into the crowd.
The box was as long as his hand, wide as his clenched fist, and a little deeper than the length of his thumb. For all its gilt finishing and iron comers it was not heavy. Yajiro glimpsed some characters engraved into the gold.
"Your property, Lady," he said quickly, lest the woman should fear that she had merely exchanged a short thief for a taller one. "My thanks at having been permitted to do you this service."
She s.n.a.t.c.hed the box from his hands. "Service?"
Yajiro was startled by her tone, but his attention was drawn away. An open s.p.a.ce was clearing around them, and he saw eyes lowered, faces averted, a nod here, a movement there.
"Permit me to suggest one more service that I might do you," said Yajiro. "There is a gang working here, and we have drawn attention. I have a boat."
"You suggest I am afraid?" she said, drawing her cloak around herself.
"I suggest you may end the day with your throat cut and your treasures sold to buy wine. I do not have your courage; please forgive me if I withdraw."
And, having done the minimum to ensure he would not be whipped for impertinence he ran for the boat.
"Captain, sir!" said the urchin. "You will need a deck hand!"
"Stay where you are." Yajiro flipped him a coin, case off the rope, and jumped into the boat. It rocked beneath him. "Where is your mother?"
"She is lost, sir!"
He thrust the oars into the rowlocks. "Go to the market shrine and ask for the priest. He will help you find her."
The boat swayed again as the middle born stepped down into it and took a seat at the stern. She did not meet his eye, but gazed coolly out over the river.
Yajiro took a long pull at the oars. A ribbon of water appeared between the boat and the wharf. He pulled again.
"Farewell then, Captain!" shouted Tsuru. "May we meet again soon!"
Yajiro did not spare the breath to reply.
Alert faces appeared at the water's edge. The weasel, hands on hips, watched them go, his face unreadable. Yajiro bent his back again, and the prow of his boat cut the river.
Four hundred feet from the wharf he felt a tugging at the bows as the boat began to turn into the gentle current. He shipped the oars and sucked breath deep into his lungs. Cool sweat began to dry on his forehead. His pa.s.senger still hadn't so much as glanced at him.
"Welcome aboard," said Yajiro, and bowed. "You honor me and my humble vessel."
"You are a fool, and you should have kept yourself to yourself."
This was grat.i.tude? "But, you were being robbed..."
"Yes. And then, because of you, I was suddenly in fear for my life, and you yours. Was it clever of you, do you think? Do you?"
Yajiro busied himself with setting the mast and arranging the lines, all the while keeping an eye out for movement ash.o.r.e. There were no signs of pursuit. Maybe it was over.
She continued, "Life is precious. A box may be replaced."
"You are quite right," said Yajiro stiffly. "I should have turned my face away and not intruded into your affairs. Forgive me."
He realized he was quivering with fear. He had rough housed with his brothers, but had never before risked his life. It was not glamorous to know he could have lost everything for the sake of a middle-born's trinket.
If he had died there, would it have been good sukuse, good karma, or bad?
The tests set by the G.o.ds were hard indeed.
She tapped the thwart impatiently. "We should hurry. Is something the matter?"
"Excuse me," said Yajiro "The sail is in the s.p.a.ce beneath your seat."
He threaded the halyard through the eyes on the sail's edge. It was a good, stout piece of cloth. Maybe he would sail on, all the way down the river to the sea, and keep going into the wasteland of the ocean until its immensity swallowed him up. Maybe the G.o.ds would think well of him then.
Yajiro had not planned to come this way at all. The quickest way home to Haruno lay along the South Road, where he might have hitched a ride on an ox cart, or at least found a companion to walk and build a fire with. But south was an unlucky direction for him this month, and he had faced a stark choice; travel even further from home, or take the East Road through the hills and then follow the river as it wound gently southwest towards Haruno.
As he hoisted the sail, he wondered if he had chosen the right course.
He mounted the flatboards in place on either side of the boat, so that it would not skip sideways across the water when he sailed against the wind. They changed places awkwardly so he could take the tiller.
The boat leaned as the moderate breeze filled the triangle of gray cloth. Today's breeze blew upriver, so they were helped by the current but had to work against the wind. Yajiro pulled in the sheet, and they began to tack.
The market shrank behind them until it was just a dark patch against the swath of trees. The hiss of the water was like the touch of soft fingers against his forehead, and the fear drained from him. He breathed deeply in the first exercise of Right Mindfulness, attentive to his sailing, giving his whole mind and body to the task.
She had been silent for so long that he jumped when she spoke. "Will we sail past the temple?"
"Which?" he said, for there were many.
Four days downstream the river would begin the slow curve out of forestland and into the plains. Two days beyond that, Yajiro would come home to Haruno. Kenno-ji lay on the riverbank nearly half way to the plains.
"We will pa.s.s Kenno-ji," he said.
"You may let me off there."
Two days with this woman. Yajiro said carefully, "Lady, I am sure my boat is too rude and lacking in the amenities to be a comfortable vessel for so long a journey."
"By no means. I have known worse lodgings, and a variety of less gentle forms of transport. Would you abandon me in the trees instead?'
It was true. No major or roads intersected the river much to the north of Kenno-ji. He sighed. "It will be my pleasure to escort you to the temple."
"You breathe like a novice," she said. "You must draw the air deeper, to the seat of your body." She patted herself on the navel.
Her voice was critical, but its tone a little less strident. "I am less than a novice," said Yajiro. "I have supplicated to many temples this summer, and none would take me, for I was not worthy."
"Who is Miroku Bosatsu?"
By the formal way she asked, Yajiro knew it was a test. Teachers, G.o.ds, even strangers on his boat saw fit to test him. "He is the Buddha who is to come," he said shortly.
"Then you are less than a novice, but more than a peasant. Others of your cla.s.s do not know a Buddha from a bamboo tree, and worship stones and rainclouds."
Yajiro gripped the tiller a little more tightly, but the spirits of the river did not tip the boat in defense of their companions of earth and air.
"Ah," she said. "I see the peasant is still there. No matter. We each grow at our own pace."
They were creeping too close to the other sh.o.r.e. Yajiro took in the sail and came about to take the other tack. When the boat was purring along again and he had the leisure, he looked at her more carefully. Thin as the mast and as straight, her clothes marked her as middle born but her voice gave her the air of the upper middle cla.s.s. She was about the same age as his mother, but now he saw that she was frailer.
He was not surprised to find her studying him just as in-tently. "You interest me," she said. "How did you come here?"
"From the East Road," he said.
She tutted. "Men your age are in the rice fields, or at best indentured to a tradesman. But you are free as a bird, walking to temples and spending coins at the market. Do not avoid my question. Are you a fugitive?"
He was stung. "Of course not. My name is Yajiro. My parents were farmers at Haruno, downstream from here, until my first sister wed one of the deputy estate managers of our daimyo. My elder brother now guides the work in the village, and my parents gave me leave to enter a temple and bring the teachings of the Buddha back to the village. At least that was my intention."
Her eyes were narrowed. Yajiro suddenly realized he had overstepped himself; to one of her rank, people of his cla.s.s existed only to labor and serve. Were they on land and she with others of her kind, she could have had him whipped for his ambitions. He bowed low, and the sail flapped as the boat swung off the tack. "Please forgive me. I babble of things I do not understand."
She sighed. "Yajiro, Yajiro. My name is Ume, and you are not my servant. I was born a very long time ago, and I think I will die very soon. You're a strong, healthy young man, and you have no idea what I would give to be young again, whatever the cla.s.s of the body I would have to wear."
He raised his head and stared.
She went on. "Let me tell you this. I've spent the last few years high in the mountains with a clan of men and women from all over j.a.pan, and we never once discussed how highborn or low born we were. It was enough that we all thought alike, and sought the same goals." She was studying him again with that intense, almost frightening gaze. "Yajiro, when you walk further down the Path maybe you will learn to know which things matter, and which do not. I would like to be your friend for a while, so please stop bobbing your head and being honored and all the rest of it. It quite exhausts me."
It was the strangest speech he had ever heard. Yajiro could not imagine being with a person and not knowing or caring what rank they held. The idea made him feel adrift, without bearings.
But worse than what she said was the manner in which she said it. The very language they spoke was rigidly structured along lines of family and social cla.s.s. That day Yajiro had addressed the boat trader, the urchin, and Ume using three very different styles and phrasings. Each had responded to him using the same code, reflecting back to him his own status in their eyes.
But Ume had just broken the pattern. She still used the heavy and sarcastic tone that a superior used to an inferior but the words and inflections themselves were those of a woman to her social equal, even a close friend. Yajiro was buffeted by a gale of contradictions. What did this woman want from him? Was she mad, or dangerous? What manner of test was this?
He felt the boat slowing as they sailed into the lee of the sh.o.r.e again, and seized the chance to cover his confusion.
"Coming about," he said. "Watch your head, Ume-san."
The boat turned, the boom swung, Ume pulled herself to the other side of the boat, and then they were speeding across the water again, away from the trees.
She was waiting for his reply. Yajiro said carefully, "Thank you for your words. I would like to be your friend, and I'm glad we can put our anger behind us." He spoke with the phrasings he would have used to a respected aunt. It was the best he could do.
"What reasons did they give for not accepting you at the temples?"
"All the masters said the same. That there was no stillness in me. Every student has to have a patch of stillness in his heart, where the truth can take hold and grow."
"You're young," she said bitterly. "Plenty of time later for stillness."
There was a ragged edge to her voice. Yajiro took his eyes off the sail. She was leaning on one arm, clutching the other hand to her chest. Pain creased her forehead. "Ume?" Her name meant 'plum-blossom', and he suddenly saw how fragile she was.
She reached into her bag and placed the golden box on the seat beside her. Next, she pulled out something that looked like a piece of tree root and bit off its tip. He saw her jaws working, A thin bubble of saliva appeared in the corner of her mouth.
The root seemed to ease the pain. She took a drink from his water-skin, and looked straight into his eyes. He tried not to flinch.
"This old body will be dead soon," she said. "It won't be long now, I think." She was looking at him very directly. Very oddly. "I hope to make it to Kenno-ji, but I want you to forgive me now if I do not."
Yajiro had dealt with dead bodies before. His uncle, his youngest sister. Neighbors. Contact with the diseased or dead would pollute him, but he could bathe and fast to cleanse himself. "It's all right. You won't be a burden to me. Please rest."
She looked at the box. "That's not really what I meant."
She did not answer, but picked up the box again and held it for a moment, not meeting his eyes. Then she put it back into her bag.
Yajiro awoke to daylight and a clammy mist that shrouded the boat and cut them off from the sh.o.r.e. Its tendrils stroked his face; its spore gleamed against the wood of the seats and hull.
When he raised his head he saw Ume sitting bolt upright in the bows with the sail wrapped about her shoulders, staring at him. "What?" he managed to say.
Her voice was strong again and sarcastic, loaded with middle-born poison. "Have you ever had to do something terrible?"
Mind reeling, he sat upright and blinked away the last tatters of sleep. He could see twenty feet of water beyond the gunwales, and then nothing but a soft gray-white curtain.