There were thirst and hunger, and you were the fruit.
There were grief and the ruins, and you were the miracle.
When she names him, the last moments of his life flash in her mind: shock and confusion and icy terror, the strangling grip as he fights and struggles for breath, the look on his brother's face, the brother whom he loved more than anything, bearing down on him with righteous anger.
"Master." The Elder's voice is sharp. "Master, Master!"
"Eh?" Bishamon looks up. A tear slips down the side of her face, the nail glinting brightly from the fresh wound in her ear.
She has never named a shinki who was murdered by family before.
The humans who died usually did so because of their circumstances: war and famine, soldiers killed on the battlefield, a family whose crops withered and left them nothing to harvest. Even those that were killed were from random acts of violence, bandits and murderers who raped and pillaged, the humans just unlucky enough to be in harm's way.
She cards through his memories and sees a young boy chasing after his older brother, waving cheerfully and calling out for onii-sama to please play with him, look, he found a frog by the riverbank, he wanted to show him. The shock of his brother's betrayal is acute, and Bishamon feels it as if it had happened to her, his murder still fresh on her mind.
The shinki, Kazuma, smiles shyly at her.
He stabs her whenever she calls his name. He can't help it: his vessel turns, slicing through the air and penetrating her ear like an arrow, and each time she can't help but wince a little at the sensation, the sharp pinprick piercing her skin.
The others are horrified. "Can you not transform without hurting our Master?"
"Forgive me," Kazuma says, and Bishamon can see how his face burns.
"You shouldn't use him," the Elder says. They're alone now, the other shinki disengaged and long ago dispersed. "Chouki is a vessel that wounds you whenever you call him. Even now I can see the blood crusting along your ear."
Bishamon watches as her guide paces, agitated. She no doubt is upset that the shinki had pierced her, but that upset is compounded with the fact that her master had cried when she first named him. Bishamon has never cried before, at least not openly, and Bishamon knows the shock of it does not sit well with her.
"It isn't bad," Bishamon says. She touches her ear self-consciously. "And more to the point, Elder, I've seen humans with pierced ears."
"Your ears are not pierced." The Elder's face is pinched. She steps forward, folding her hands into the sleeves of her robe.
"It is an ill-omen," the Elder says, finally. "If Chouki were a knife that stabbed you whenever he was called, I doubt very much that you'd still use him."
"He's just a little nail," Bishamon says, and the Elder shakes her head.
"Indeed," the Elder says. "If he were a knife, you could actually use him."
She's walking along the corridor when she hears it: a sound, a ripple of movement and furtive whispers. Bishamon frowns and turns toward the commotion, coming upon a crowd gathered just outside the courtyard.
"Begone, you incompetent twit! Before you become an even greater burden to our master!" the Elder is saying, and Bishamon's eyes widen as she sees her guide shouting at Kazuma, whose head is bowed, wincing as the others jeer and berate him.
"Elder," Bishamon says, and the crowd of shinki turn toward her.
"Young Master." The Elder straightens. Behind her, Kazuma hunches further, chastened and humiliated.
"What is the meaning of this?" Bishamon asks. The Elder bristles.
"Chouki has made a mess of things," the Elder says, loftily. She points at a broken vase and a broom lying beside it. "The idiot boy cannot even handle the simplest of chores. It's bad enough he cannot draw a borderline, but as you can see, he can't even handle something as simple as sweeping."
"I apologize," a voice says, and both Bishamon and the Elder turn to the boy, whose head is still bowed and who is speaking to the floor. "My Master, I have no excuse. The vase broke because of my carelessness."
"What an idiot," someone says, and behind them someone adds, "He's just a nail, you know," and the crowd begins to disperse, shaking their heads collectively.
"Elder," Bishamon says, when she and her guide are alone. "Don't you think you are a little too harsh?"
"My Master forgets that it is the guide who keeps the others in line," the Elder says.
"But he's trying so hard - don't you think we should do more to encourage him?"
The Elder's face softens.
"You are very kind," the Elder says. She drops one wizened hand on Bishamon's shoulder. "It often surprises me that yours is the nature of a war god. But we mustn't go too easy on the young ones. Only discipline and hard work will lead to a well-functioning team."
Bishamon lowers her eyes.
The Elder, in her human life, had a daughter whom she loved more than anything. The moment Bishamon named her, the Elder felt a fierce and familial connection to her. "My Master, I love you as I would a daughter," the Elder once told her, and even without those memories, Bishamon would believe her.
"Elder," Bishamon begins, then hesitates. "This wouldn't be because Chouki wounds me whenever he enters my ear?"
The Elder frowns at her, then sighs. "It is," the Elder says. She picks up a brush and begins to brush Bishamon's hair with it, pulling the brush in long strokes while smoothing her hair with her hand.
"You wince whenever you call his name. He has no use except to hurt you."
That night, Bishamon sees an orange light flickering in the courtyard.
"A line. A line!"
He swipes. Bishamon tucks her hands into her sleeves and watches as the shinki practices. His movements are quick and frustrated, and it's only a moment before he realizes someone is watching him.
"Kazuma." Bishamon smiles. "Working hard, I see."
"Y-yes." He stammers, then bows quickly. "I apologize. Forgive me for waking you."
"You didn't wake me." Bishamon tucks her hands into her sleeves. "Is it okay if I sit a moment?"
Kazuma blinks. "O-of course."
"Thank you." She sits on the step, careful not to wrinkle her kimono. "Come," Bishamon says, and she pats the stone beside her. "Join me."
Bishamon smiles. Kazuma bows quickly and kneels in front of her.
He is a clumsy boy. Awkward and shy, the limbs of his body fold at odd angles as he tries his best not to fall on his face in front of her.
"I wanted to apologize," Bishamon begins, and the boy lifts his eyes. "My guide can be tough, but she is like that to all the young ones. She only wants my shinki to be useful to me."
"Forgive me for not being useful," Kazuma says, and Bishamon can see how his face burns, the slight tightening of his hands into fists.
"I'm sure there is something you can do," Bishamon says. She smiles at him kindly. "Even if you cannot yet draw a borderline. There is plenty of time."
She rises, but as she does, she gently touches him on the shoulder.
"Try not to take it to heart," Bishamon says, and she sees his face turn red. He lifts his eyes, then quickly looks back at the ground, nodding dumbly.
"Young Master," the Elder says, as Bishamon makes her way back to her chambers. "You must know that boy has ostracized himself. The others are afraid of him."
"He's a sweet child who can't even draw a borderline, why on earth would they be afraid of him?"
"He is not a child," the Elder says. "He is destined to bring you misfortune. Even the others can sense it."
"Or perhaps you've kept calling him an ill-omen, and the others are superstitious," Bishamon says.
"I worry for you," the Elder says. "I do not like the way he looks at you. He has a darkness that has not yet reached the surface.
"My eyes can see the truth of things. And they are never wrong."
The last of what was once her family is cut; her shinki scream, crying out in pain and confusion.
"Please," Bishamon begs. "Mercy!"
His sword slices through the tangle of phantoms that have encased her limbs like vines. She tumbles, falling artlessly and slamming onto the ground.
"Master!" Kazuma runs toward her, and dimly she's aware of two trembling hands bodily hoisting her up and cradling her.
Her guide is dead. Her little ones are dead. Bishamon sobs and she feels her only surviving shinki gather her up, hooking an arm beneath her legs as he moves to carry her.
She goes in and out of consciousness. Every so often, her mind will sluggishly come into focus, and she'll be aware of Kazuma carefully wiping her brow with a warm cloth, or gently wrapping the blighted areas with clean bandages. Everything hurts. Her eyes are swollen and her lashes are stuck together from crying. Long pieces of uncombed hair sticks to the sweat of her forehead.
He is the only one left. In her mind, his name glimmers, a faint white light in an empty expanse. She sees the name on his hand come into focus as he carefully moves to wipe the crust from her eyes.
"My Master. There is something I must tell you."
With difficulty, Bishamon lifts her eyes.
"I am but a mere nail, I cannot protect you," he begins, and Bishamon thinks to herself, no, no you are more than that. You're everything to me, you're all I have left, and he continues, "Please, find new shinki to serve you. I was the one--"
"I never want to go through that again." She thinks of all her children, precious souls she could never replace. "I don't need any more shinki!" she cries, and clings to him, sobbing. "Kazuma is the only one I need!"
She wraps her arms around his waist and sobs helplessly into his lap. Her tears stain the fabric of his kimono.
For a long time, neither of them speak.
Time passes. In the darkness of her room, she is only dimly aware by the passing of the days from the slight trickle of sunlight beneath the blinds of her window. In the hallway, she can hear the quiet footstep of her last shinki as he dutifully delivers another tray of food. "Master," he says. His voice is muffled outside the door. "I've brought you your meal."
Bishamon looks outward, up at the amber-tinted shadows and the orange sunlight pooling along the window ledge.
"I shall leave it here then." There is a soft sound of a tray rattling gently, then the deferential scraping sound of her shinki bowing. Bishamon turns, pulling the cover closer around her.
She drifts in and out of consciousness, her tearful waking moments replaced by a restless sleep. Dimly she is aware of her shinki carefully padding in and out of her room, stooping to comb her hair back or change the linens.
"Master." Her eyes drag upwards. She squints and his face goes in and out of focus. "Please. You must eat."
Bishamon lowers her eyes. She doesn't have the energy to argue with him.
"Forgive me," he murmurs, and he scoots closer to her. She hears a sound, the soft scraping of a spoon against a bowl, and when she blinks her eyes open she sees him looking down at her determinedly, holding the spoon tentatively by her face.
"Open," he says, and Bishamon tilts her head, opens her mouth a little. The spoon presses against her lips and she drinks the broth weakly.
He wipes the side of her mouth, then spoons a little more broth again. "Open," he says again, and Bishamon has a memory of the Elder when she was young, patiently feeding her one-year-old child.
She takes more of the broth. The broth is salty and warm, which brings tears to her eyes, because her shinki are dead and she shouldn't be here, swallowing something that tastes good.
"Master," Kazuma says, and Bishamon weeps. He sets down the bowl and she pulls herself back onto his lap again, clinging to his waist and crying softly.
"I'm sorry," Bishamon says. Her voice is hoarse from not talking.
Kazuma shakes his head. "No, Master, it's okay--"
"I'm sorry for making you take care of me."
"Master," Kazuma says, and Bishamon hangs her head. A tear drips, then another. She has never felt more ashamed.
In the days prior, Kazuma wouldn't move whenever Bishamon cried. He would sit on his knees, training his gaze on the floor while he waited for her to calm down and collect herself. It made her feel embarrassed and inadequate, that a stronger Master would not have ever let this happen.
But he doesn't wait this time. This time, he moves forward, pulling her against his chest and wrapping his arms around her body. Bishamon sobs openly and she feels him rocking her, shushing her softly, one comforting hand stroking the crown of her hair.
The great hall leading to the common room echoes with Bishamon's footsteps; even with the soft soles of indoor slippers, the sound of her footsteps is too loud for the quiet of her surroundings. Pulling her shawl, Bishamon looks up at the vast emptiness of the compound and sees how pockets of sunlight makes streaks of shadows through the windows. The afternoon light has a golden hue to it, and she can see motes of dust floating imperceptibly in the air.
It is surprising; she would expect that these rooms would be stuffy and stale from disuse, but Kazuma had done his best, dutifully straightening out the old rooms and packing up the things of his fallen kinsmen. Bishamon wanders over to an empty vanity and silently marvels that there's not a speck of dust on the lacquer, the wooden blinds freshly pulled up and the linens aired and laundered not too long ago.
This is how he fills his days, then: sweeping the stone steps of the courtyard, straightening the empty rooms of their empty stronghold. Sometimes, whole days will pass without her speaking to him, waking only to find a tray of food or freshly folded linens stacked neatly on the table.
She finds him in the kitchen. There is soup bubbling in an earthenware pot, and as Bishamon steps inside, she can see an array of vegetables spread out on the countertop.
"N-nushi-sama!" Kazuma stops, mid-motion, in the middle of peeling radishes. The sleeves of his kimono are tied back; his face is red and the dull paring knife he is using is poised mid-air.
Bishamon smiles. Kazuma pales, then quickly wipes his hands, bowing awkwardly and backing into a corner.
"What are you making?" she asks, peering around him. "Are you peeling radishes?"
He's staring at her, eyes wide and pupils dilated, as she steps around him, looking at the vegetables on the counter. "I thought I would boil it into soup."
"May I help?" Bishamon asks, and Kazuma seems to get a hold of himself.
"No, my Master, thank you. I couldn't possibly ask you to--"
"I won't be in the way," Bishamon says. "My guide - the Elder - she...she taught me some things," and there it is, that ache in her chest. She swallows it back, tries to smile for him. "She said it was women's work, and not something I should concern myself with. But I've always found it interesting," she says, and she smiles ruefully.
Kazuma watches her a moment, then nods. "What did she teach you?" he asks, finally.
"I can make rice balls," Bishamon says. "And, ah, I believe, miso soup?"
Kazuma laughs. It's sudden and it seems to startle him. His eyes widen and his hand flies to his mouth.
"I'm sorry," he stammers, backtracking. "It's just--"
"It's just that they're the kind of dishes children make, isn't it?"
Kazuma balks. "Well, cooking rice can be complicated--"
"I never said I knew how to cook the rice, Kazuma. Merely that I could push in some filling, and shape them into balls."
She grins at him, and Kazuma ducks his head and laughs, shyly.
"You have a nice smile," Bishamon says, and Kazuma's eyes widen. His face cracks into a blush. "I wish you would smile more."
"Thank you." His voice is hushed. Awestruck. But then he gets a hold of himself again, and moves quickly toward the radishes.
There is another memory. He is young, about five or six, following his mother as she cooks in the kitchen. It's women's work, but he's a sweet child who loves his mother and is eager to please. His little hands tug at her clothes as she stirs vegetables into soup.
He's no longer human, but Bishamon recognizes the recipes. He blanches ox bones in a pot of water, and one moment, they're his hands, with the name seared into his skin; in another moment, they're his mother's, mirroring the same action. Bishamon watches, transfixed, as her shinki replicates his human memories.
She helps him cook. They make rice balls since that's Bishamon's one and only specialty, and as she's shaping the warm rice in her hand, their shoulders touch; she looks up at him and sees him smiling shyly.
They finish cooking. Kazuma bows and serves her, but Bishamon shakes her head and smiles.
"Stay with me," Bishamon says. "After all, you helped me cook this meal."
They sit across from each other, Bishamon delicately holding a bowl of rice while Kazuma seems to forget what to do with his hands.
"Kazuma, may I ask you something?"
Kazuma looks up. "Yes, my Master?"
"How do you get around the Near Shore? Are you not afraid of phantoms?"
Kazuma lowers his chopsticks.
It's something Bishamon has always privately wondered. Even though he is a shinki, he is unable to draw a borderline, and so had no way to protect himself. It worried her, how he'd disappear for hours at a time, only to emerge unscathed and smiling from the market.
"My ability," Kazuma says. He lowers his eyes, deferentially. "I can sense phantoms around me; it makes it easy to avoid them."
"Is that so?" Bishamon brightens. "If that's the case, then perhaps I can accompany you to the market."
Kazuma blinks. "My Master, that is not a good idea."
Kazuma's face reddens in an embarrassed blush. "If I am wrong, I have no way to protect you."
Bishamon studies him. He is, as all humans are, frail; even the hardiest of humans could not stand up to a god. And yet here he is, daring to presume he should be strong enough to protect her.
It is blasphemous. Any other god would bristle with offense, but Bishamon touches his hand gently.
"What kind of god am I, if I were to rely on my shinki to protect me?" She looks into his eyes pointedly. "Let me accompany you to the market. I've become behind in my studies. I'd like you to guide me."
She waits. He stares silently at his hands.
"I think it would be better if I went by myself."
She was young and newly reincarnated, the Elder sitting behind her, combing her hair.
"Elder," young Bishamon said. "Will you tell me about love?"
"What is it that you want to know, Young Master?"
"What does it mean when humans love each other?"
The Elder paused. She felt the Elder's hand gently smoothing her hair.
"Love," the Elder said, "is a special bond between humans. It is one of nurturing and protection, such as the love of a mother and her child. It is the same as a god's love," the Elder said. "The gods grant us our names and give us protection. And we shinki return that love with filial devotion."
"So my love for my shinki is like a mother's for her child?" This seemed odd to young Bishamon, who took the form of a small child.
"Yes," the Elder said. "It is the strongest, most pure form of love."
"And what about the love between two humans?"
"The love of two humans is nothing like the love of the gods."
But she had memories of humans who loved each other. Who married and had families and spent their lives together. "Elder," young Bishamon asked. "How do you know when two humans love each other?" The Elder considered.
"When they want to spend time together," the Elder said, finally. "When they enjoy each others' company, and find happiness in being together.
"But that kind of love is fleeting," the Elder said. She ran a comb through Bishamon's hair. "It can be tainted jealousy or lust. And love that is unrequited is a love that can corrupt. No, Young Master, the strongest love is a parent's love," the Elder said.
"And I love you as I would a daughter."
A human shows love when they spend time together. When they enjoy each other's company and find happiness in being together.
Bishamon combs her hair, mulling over the Elder's words.
He had refused to take her to the market. On the face of it, it made sense - he couldn't draw a borderline and she didn't have any other weapons. But there were other things, too. How they would be sitting together or sharing a meal, and for a brief moment she would feel they shared the same warmth and affection. But then he'd catch himself, grow suddenly distant. His need for distance was papered over with flimsy apologies and proclamations that he was not worthy of her.
How could I blame him? she thinks, silently. His clan died because of her.
A few months after the massacre, the gods of the Lucky Seven finally come to visit her.
He doesn't look it, but Bishamon knows Kazuma is a ball of nervous energy. The day before the meeting, he rushes around the manor, tidying up the rooms and sweeping the halls. The death of an entire clan was practically unheard of, and so the other gods of Takamagahara took great pains to avoid her.
"Ridiculous," Ebisu says. He and his guide sit across from them, frowning at the intolerance of it all over sesame pastries and cups of tea. "The gods of heaven are patently closed-minded, but I hope you know the members of the Lucky Seven have always supported you."
"Thank you," Bishamon says, while behind her Kazuma hovers. Wordlessly he refills their cups, padding softly around them while they talk.
"And tell me, Bishamon, is there a reason why you haven't been to the Near Shore? The other members worry about your godly presence. But if you're not up to it, we understand - we know you need to take time to grieve."
"Indeed," Bishamon says, and she takes a sip from her cup, thoughtfully.
"My guide cannot draw a borderline," she says, finally. Ebisu quirks an eyebrow. "He thinks it prudent that I stay here until he's able to protect me."
"Can you not name another shinki?" Ebisu asks. Bishamon's grip tightens around the cup of tea.
"I'd rather not go through all that," she says, softly. Behind her, she hears Kazuma shuffle; doubtless he has heard her.
"Young Master," Iwami says, and Ebisu and Bishamon turn. "May I interject?"
"Of course," Ebisu says, and Bishamon is struck by how similar he is to the Elder.
"There are other ways of containing phantoms," Iwami says. "Even a human can cast spells or incantations."
"Ah, indeed," Ebisu says, smiling. "My previous incarnation was well-versed in human spellcasting. How good of you to remember for me."
"My humblest apologies for not bringing it up sooner," Iwami says, bowing.
"He reminds me of my old guide," Bishamon says, after Iwami and Kazuma leave them. Ebisu waits as she blinks, then looks down at her hands. She speaks quietly. "I miss her."
Ebisu nods knowingly. "I would be lost without my Iwami," Ebisu says.
The gods have left, and Kazuma is cleaning. It is dark in the manor except for the light in the kitchen, and Bishamon hovers at the doorway while Kazuma gathers the dishes.
He is a good servant, dutiful and loyal. But she sees Ebisu and Iwami, and she wishes they were closer, just like she was with the Elder.
But Kazuma is not an elder; he has no wisdom to impart, no sage advice or particular foresight. He is clumsy and awkward and eager to please, but all-too aware of his shortcomings. He treats me the way he treated his father, Bishamon thinks, and she remembers how love-starved he was in his human life, how his father emphasized competence over human affection.
I want to protect him, she thinks, and she remembers the Elder's words. A mother's love is the most pure.
For the first time in a long time, Bishamon descends to the Near Shore.
"Either you come with me, or I go by myself," Bishamon says, while Kazuma pleads with her - no, begs her - to please reconsider, she might get herself killed!
"If we were to go," he says, and Bishamon quirks an eyebrow, "If we were to go, it would have to be in the morning. If it gets dark too quickly we may find ourselves trapped in the witching hour. Furthermore," he says, and she can hear it, the subtle note of confidence, a proper lead flexing his authority, "I'll have to chart a path for you so that we can escape to consecrated grounds, if needed. I'll need to prepare," Kazuma says, finally. "I need some time to get these things sorted."
She knows it's a stalling tactic, but Bishamon smiles sweetly at him, perfectly innocent.
"Take your time," she says to him, smiling.
There is a fine coat of dust touching everything in the market. Children run across the closely packed stalls of vegetables and fish, and there's a crowd of people jostling for produce and carrying wicker baskets. There is a multitude of fabrics and colors, and everything is just so lively, vendors shouting and customers haggling, the heady smell of hanging meat and fermented paste surrounding them.
"It is lovely!" Bishamon exclaims.
She looks around, delighted. Kazuma smiles and shakes his head.
"What is it?" Bishamon asks.
"You seem so out of place here," Kazuma says, smiling. "You're shimmering with a godly aura while the rest of us are dirty and grimy."
"You're not dirty, Kazuma. You seem very clean."
"Ah, well." He blushes shyly.
They walk, Bishamon craning her neck at the humans around her. She sees families, mothers with children and husbands and wives....
The grief, which had lay dormant, suddenly makes it difficult to breathe.
"Master?" Kazuma stops to look at her. Bishamon blinks back tears and smiles up at him.
"Look at this fish," Bishamon says, and she forces herself to look at the fish monger's basket. It takes strength of will, but she's able to get a hold of herself. "How do you know which one is best?"
"You look at the eyes," Kazuma says, but he still seems worried. He seems to think the better to question it, though, and he bends down toward the basket to show her. "The pupils should be clear, not cloudy. And the flesh is firm when they're still fresh."
"So it's just recently that they died."
Kazuma looks up. Bishamon smiles, but her face is tight. She quickly wipes the side of her eyes.
"You know so much," Bishamon says. "I'm impressed, Kazuma. You know quite a lot about fish."
Kazuma shakes his head. "It's just common knowledge."
"Well it certainly isn't common to me," Bishamon says.
They walk along the market. Somehow, Kazuma's trepidation has passed, and eagerly he starts showing her everything she's missed: sunshine and blue skies, children playing in the streets. The joy of eating steamed buns at a local tavern; the simple pleasures of being human. Bishamon watches as Kazuma carefully chooses vegetables and shows her which ones are most fresh, and they carry baskets of meat and fruit and chat idly as they walk down the rest of the market.
"Salt!" a seller shouts. "Soy sauce, miso paste, salt!"
"Let's stop here," Kazuma says cheerfully, but Bishamon stops. The memory flares into focus: he was born the second son of a salt wholesaler. One who was to inherit his father's business, but was strangled to death by his brother.
Before she can say anything, Kazuma goes up to look at the different baskets of salt - sea salt, different sizes of crystals, as well as jars of paste lined up in perfect rows - and an icy terror grips her.
She needs to get him out of there. She thinks of all her old shinki, the pain of their names being ripped from her, and knows the loss of Kazuma would be even more than she could bear.
Kazuma kneels in front of the jars of salt excitedly.
"Master. What do you know about salt?" Kazuma asks. He's going into teaching mode again, having embraced his role as guide and wanting her to learn more about humans. Bishamon carefully kneels beside him.
"This salt is more fine. Taste it. Its crystals dissolve quickly, its saltiness is more pronounced. But if you taste this salt--" and he takes a small sample of the flaky sea salt, "--it's got bigger crystals, so it takes longer to dissolve. The flavor is more mild."
"Oh," Bishamon says, watching Kazuma carefully. He seems to be enjoying himself; there's no evidence that he is accessing his human memories.
"We should use this one for the fish," Kazuma says, decisively. He nods toward the salt seller. Bishamon watches, awkward and nervous, as Kazuma smiles broadly and pays for their bag.
"Here," the seller says, and he hands him another satchel. "A sample for you and your beautiful wife."
She sees Kazuma's eyes widen.
"O-oh. She's not-- I mean, that is to say, she isn't--"
"Thank you," Bishamon says, stepping forward. She touches Kazuma on the arm.
"We need to get back to the shrine," she says, quietly. "The witching hour is upon us. We've been out longer than expected."
"Forgive me." He nods, blushing and flustered.
They carry back a sack of rice and fish and vegetables, the excitement of the day tempered by a sudden awkwardness. Bishamon glances up at him, but Kazuma is staring resolutely down the trail, his face a bright shade of red. He's blushing so hard, the blush even reaches the tops of his neck and chest, the skin over his collarbones blotchy with embarrassment.
Bishamon giggles at him. Kazuma glances back at her, then turns even more red.
"Kazuma!" she says, and she takes his hand.
"Master--" he's so startled he drops the sack of vegetables. He stutters an apology, then stoops to pick up everything and shove their things back in the bag.
Bishamon giggles. "Why are you embarrassed?" she asks.
"He thought you were my wife," he says.
"And that embarrasses you, why?"
"Because--" his blush deepens. "Because you're my Master, I could never think of you as a wife."
"You know, people thought I was the Elder's daughter, once upon a time." Bishamon looks up at the trees, wistfully.
They walk in silence. Bishamon pushes back a lock of hair, reminded of the Elder and the rest of the Ma clan. Kazuma doesn't say anything; their footsteps crunch against dry, dead grass.
"Master," he says, and Bishamon looks up at him. "I know...I know I can never replace the Elder. But I'll do my best to be your guide."
Bishamon smiles. "Thank you, Kazuma," she says. Their eyes meet. He smiles shyly.
The sky is beginning to darken. Already there is a gust of wind, the clouds growing dark and gray and threatening rain.
"Master." Kazuma's eyes glint. He holds up a hand.
"What is it, Kazuma?"
"There are phantoms." He looks around. "I think...I think there may be a vent that's come open."
"Can we avoid it?" Bishamon asks. Kazuma looks around.
"I think so," Kazuma says. "We'll have to get off the path."
They turn. Instead of the footpath, which cut through the forest and lead directly to their shrine, they walk through the tall, dead grasses and gnarled trees, Bishamon picking up the fabric of her kimono as she walks with difficulty.
"It's getting dark," Bishamon says. "If we don't get to the shrine soon we'll be defenseless."
"We're almost there," Kazuma says. His eye glints. "We just need to cut through this path--"
He stops abruptly, Bishamon almost walking into him.
They freeze. The ayakashi are in the trees, a million eyes looking down on them.
"Kazuma," Bishamon says. She stares at the phantoms, reaching a hand out and pushing him backward. "Stay behind me."
"Smells good." The phantoms leer closer. "Smells good, smells good, smells--"
Bishamon starts shouting. "Run!"
The phantoms burst, an explosion of eyes and teeth in back of them. They run and Bishamon grabs Kazuma's hand.
"Smells good, smells good!"
"Here!" Bishamon says, and they lurch to the right, a hard turn that sends the phantoms crashing into the trees. But the phantom slides to a stop and changes direction, and Bishamon scrambles, yanking Kazuma as she runs faster, faster, her heartbeat roaring and breathing hard. The terrain dips and she rockets downward, feet pounding and dirt mushrooming around her...
But Kazuma's foot catches a root, and he slams to the ground.
"Kazuma!" Bishamon whirls around and grabs a broken tree branch. The phantom roars and explodes on top of them, but Bishamon is faster. She leaps in front of him and slams the tree branch into its face, the force of the blow causing bits of corroded flesh to pop and sizzle on the forest floor.
"Come on!" Bishamon grabs Kazuma and yanks him upright. More phantoms are coming toward them now, pouring out from the vent and surrounding them.
I need to call his name. They're running but Kazuma isn't fast enough, he's slowing down the both of them. I could carry him if I call his name--
"A chain of seven paths," Kazuma says, and they're surrounded, Bishamon backing up into him, blocking the phantom's path. "Deep within the hills in the distance, there hides the midnight union of a love to last."
The phantoms scream and hiss, but keep approaching.
"The gentle sway of blossoms lulled to eternal sleep," Kazuma says, and his voice gets louder. "Behold! The immortal grace and beauty of a just, kind god."
The phantoms scream. It's an inhuman screeching sound, the black mass in front of them writhing as if on fire. The eyes around them blink, then dissipate, the many dark shapes slithering back into the shadows.
Bishamon's heart, which had been thundering in her ears, quiets to a manageable lull, and it's only then that she realizes her hand is shaking. She turns back to Kazuma who's standing beside her, shakily.
"Kazuma," Bishamon says. "What was that?"
"A spell," he says. He takes a shaky breath.
"I didn't think it would actually work."
"So he's a spellcaster," Ookuninushi says. The other members of the Lucky Seven look on with interest. "Bishamon! That's exceedingly rare."
"He overheard me talking with Ebisu and his guide, Iwami," Bishamon says, proudly.
"Did Iwami-san teach him?"
"Ah, no," Bishamon says. "Apparently he borrowed a book of spells collected by Ebisu."
"I was happy to help," Ebisu says. "When young Kazuma came to me, he was desperate to learn something so he could be useful to his master. He is fortunate: my predecessor was quite interested in human spells, I happen to have a collection of books where he documented quite a few of them."
"Has he learned to draw a borderline?" Ookununishi says. Bishamon shakes her head.
"Not yet. Although to be honest, I don't think he's tried." She thinks of their encounter in the forest, and winces a little: instead of trying to draw a borderline, his first instinct was to try a questionable spell. "Some shinki just aren't able to draw them."
Ookuninushi points. "You need to go to my branch shrine in China! Have him mingle with experienced shinki who can teach him!"
"Or perhaps you should name someone else," Ebisu says. "Bishamon, if you name more shinki, Iwami and the others will be happy to teach them."
"You...you don't think my Kazuma could serve as lead?" Bishamon knits her brow.
"Oi, he doesn't mean anything," Ookuninushi says, and he shoots Ebisu a look. "The rest of us were just talkin'," Ookuninushi says, "And we're just worried. Your kid doesn't know how to draw a borderline, how's he supposed to teach the new ones?"
"I don't need new ones," Bishamon says, softly.
"Young Kazuma may be lonely," Ebisu says. "I've seen it many times. Young men don't do well when they're by themselves."
"You think he'd be happier if he stayed with you or Ookuninushi?" Bishamon says. Ebisu nods.
"At the very least, he could learn from other shinki," Ebisu says.
Nighttime. Bishamon walks down the corridor, adjusting her shawl and making her way to Kazuma's room. As before, the halls to her manor are vast and empty, but the emptiness no longer bothers her. Outside, the moon hangs like a bright silver coin, and the darkness is cut by the soft beams of moonlight coming in at slanted angles. She walks briskly, then turns to knock at the door to Kazuma's room.
"Kazuma?" She raps her knuckles at the door, then slides the door open. Kazuma looks up. He's been reading by candlelight going over a few old scrolls.
"Master," Kazuma says, happily. Ever since their trip to the market, he has been more openly affectionate with her. Bishamon smiles.
"What are you looking at?" Bishamon says, kneeling in front of him. Kazuma rolls out a scroll to show her, excitedly.
"It's a disguising spell," Kazuma says. "If Master needs me to infiltrate another group, I can use this to disguise my name. I can even masquerade as another god, if it pleases you."
Bishamon frowns. "That seems dishonest," Bishamon says. "I would rather fight head on than resort to guile and trickery."
Kazuma lowers his eyes. His hand, which had been resting on top of the parchment, clenches into a fist, and she sees his face flush with shame.
"Need I remind you, Nushi-sama, I am not a weapon and I cannot draw a proper borderline. Spellcasting is the only means I have with which to protect you."
"This is actually something I'd like to talk to you about," Bishamon says, and Kazuma lifts his eyes. "Wouldn't it be better to just learn to draw a borderline instead of memorizing different spells? I spoke with Ebisu and Ookuninushi, and their shinki are willing to teach you. Perhaps if you stayed with them, you might actually learn how to."
"You..." he hesitates. "You want me to leave?"
Bishamon presses her fingers together. "It would be better for you to go than to stay here with me," Bishamon says. "I know you're worried, but I promise you, I don't need you to take care of me."
Kazuma blinks, swallowing. He starts to speak, but quickly looks back down at his papers.
Something is wrong. Bishamon can sense it. Their connection is stronger now that he's the only one, and Bishamon can tell her words hurt him. But why? she wonders, and she wonders how she can rectify it.
"A shinki unable to draw a borderline can't serve as lead," she says, gently. "You're by yourself without anyone to guide you. And by staying with Ebisu, you'd be doing something useful."
She regrets it almost as soon as she's done saying it: Kazuma looks up at her with terrible eyes.
"Forgive me," Kazuma says, softly. His hands are on his knees; she sees them tighten into fists.
"Forgive me for not being useful to you."
He stands clumsily, and accidentally knocks the scrolls onto the floor.
Bishamon starts, "Kazuma--" but he quickly stoops down to pick them up, his face burning as he tucks them under his arms.
"Kazuma?" She stands, bewildered, as he starts to leave. "Where are you going? This is your room."
"If you would excuse me," Kazuma says, moving. He offers her a quick bow.
She blocks him as he tries to leave, catching him by the arm.
Kazuma reddens. Bishamon frowns at him, worried.
"I said something," Bishamon says. "My chest is hurting. What did I do wrong?"
Kazuma looks up, stricken.
Bishamon softens. "I hurt your feelings," she says, realizing. Kazuma reddens. She steps forward and takes his hand.
"I thought you'd be happier at Ebisu's, but I'd rather you stayed by my side. It matters not if you can draw a borderline, you are mine. I am here, and I will always protect you."
Kazuma's eyes are bright when he finally looks at her. "Master..."
"Come," she says, and she leads him back to the table.
"Show me more of these spells."
Over the next few days, Bishamon watches as Kazuma learns and memorizes the entire book of spells.
There are two humans bickering at the market. Bishamon watches as Kazuma murmurs under his breath, "Bind," and there's a flash, and both humans are suddenly frozen. Kazuma ducks his head as they walk past them, murmuring their names. Another flash, and the spell breaks. The humans look around bewildered, but then resume their argument.
"So why haven't you tried to draw a borderline?" Bishamon asks, watching the humans bicker. Now that they've cleared the air, she know it's okay to ask. "I understand it must be frustrating to practice, but I can't see how it's any different from memorizing all those spells."
"No reason," Kazuma says. "I suppose I never thought to try it since Touma's not here."
And he stops. His mouth opens, about to apologize, but Bishamon touches his arm.
"You miss her," Bishamon says, and Kazuma nods.
"I do," Kazuma says. "She was my friend. She was the only one to really accept me."
"The others on the combat team were quite fond of you, Kazuma. I hope you know that wasn't true."
"They only accepted me after I discovered my ability." Kazuma looks down at his hands and Bishamon remembers how the others openly jeered at him, the young ones whispering to themselves about how the Elder called him an ill-omen.
"Master," he says, and he hesitates. "Is the reason why you haven't called my name because my vessel hurts you?"
"What?" Bishamon stops. She thinks of how his Chouki form tears into the flesh of her earlobe whenever he is called.
"Of course not," Bishamon says. "It's just that right now as we are, I don't need you."
His jaw tightens. He stares heatedly at the ground.
"Kazuma," she says, and she takes his hand. "I only meant to say you can use your ability as a human, there's no reason to call your name."
He nods, but his eyes are dull, the hurt gathering up at the corners.
"I just want to be useful to you."
"And you are," Bishamon says. She pulls him close, gripping his hand tighter. "You are a good servant. You clean the mansion all by yourself! And you cook and you keep me company!
"And we both know I can't cook worth a damn," Bishamon adds, and Kazuma laughs, ruefully. "But perhaps sometime, you could show me."
"You want me to teach you how to cook?" They're standing closer now, Bishamon suddenly aware of the closeness of his body.
"You're my guide," she says, smiling. "You're supposed to guide me."
Kazuma smiles. "My master is very kind," he says, softly. He shifts his hand so that he's the one holding hers.
Their eyes catch, and she stills a moment. She feels the pad of his thumb brushing shyly over the bumps of her knuckles.
His eyes are a different color depending on the light. Sometimes, they are a deep green, with flecks of blue and hazel. Other times, they are a deep, warm brown.
His hair, too, is interesting. When it's backlit by sunlight, there are auburn shades intermixed with the soft browns. His hair is thick and curls at the ends from always being up in a ponytail.
"You are a beautiful vessel," Bishamon says, as they're rolling dough for steamed buns on the countertop. She wipes the flour off her hands and smiles at him fondly. "Did you know that, Kazuma?"
Kazuma laughs. "I am just a nail," he says, smiling. "If that's what you think is beautiful, I haven't been a proper guide."
"I wasn't referring to your chouki form, Kazuma."
Kazuma stops. His eyes widen and his face turns red. He turns back quickly to the dough, which he had been kneading with his hands.
"I think my master is very beautiful." He keeps his gaze on the dough, kneading furiously.
Bishamon smiles. Quietly she covers his hand with hers, then strokes his name with the pads of her fingers. Beside her, Kazuma reddens.
He gets a hold of himself.
"Why are you holding my hand?" he asks. Bishamon glances down, realizing.
"Oh," Bishamon says, straightening. "I suppose it's become a bad habit. It's just that I get great comfort from touching your name."
"I see." The explanation seems to put him at ease.
They take turns bathing in the grotto. Bishamon will go first, sinking gratefully into the steamy waters. Sometimes she will lose track of time, leaning peacefully against the stony ledge in the moonlight, warm waters lapping serenely at her shoulders and the steam rising and curling around her like an arabesque. But no matter how long she soaks, Kazuma never minds waiting - half the time he doesn't soak in the grotto at all, choosing instead to scrub roughly at the river that flows behind their compound.
The night is quiet, and as Bishamon rises she winds her damp hair into a thick plait at the base of her neck. Her robe flutters as she walks, and as she and Kazuma cross paths she sees how he blushes and ducks a little, clutching a change of clothes.
"Going to the grotto?" Bishamon asks. He nods.
"If you don't mind?"
"I have already finished bathing, Kazuma, the grotto is all yours."
She reaches the house. Lighting a candle, she looks at herself in the mirror and begins combing her fingers through her hair again, humming to herself. Orange light bounces off the shadowed walls and she has a sudden urge to speak to Kazuma again.
There are soft night sounds around her - the sound of insects and the slight rustle of leaves - and through her window she can see how the trees around her are traced in starlight. Though it was not too long since she's seen Kazuma walk up the grotto path, she is impatient and eager to see him. She pinches out the candle and walks toward the spring, pulling a light shawl around her shoulders.
The hill she crests opens up into a clearing, and as she steps closer she stops.
Kazuma is bathing. He is bare-chested and his hair is loose and hanging along his shoulders. Bishamon stills, one hand carefully touching the bark of a tree, and watches.
His body is different than hers. She had never noticed it - she was vaguely aware of the differences between men and women, but the Elder never explained it. Her eyes trace a line along the hollows of his body, down the pale wet skin and the surprising darkness just beneath.
He turns suddenly, and his eyes widen as he ducks into the water.
Bishamon smiles. "I was wondering if I could join you," she says.
Kazuma squeaks, "Now?"
She smiles and starts to step out of her robe.
"W-wait. Master, wait, wait--"
He fumbles, then somehow manages to grab his yukata.
Bishamon cocks her head. "Kazuma?"
"Master, please put something on! Y-you're naked--"
"Oh." She looks down at her breasts. "Does this bother you?" she asks. Kazuma grabs her robe.
"Please, just cover yourself," he says, and he throws her robe back on her shoulders.
The exchange puzzles her. They walk back down to the house, Kazuma burning a hole into the garden path while Bishamon walks beside him in bewildered silence.
The days pass. She watches him cook and helps out with a few chores, but she's suddenly become aware of his body. He bends forward and she sees the fabric of his kimono stretch. He moves and her eyes fall on the triangle of muscle at the side of his neck, then the delicate line of his collarbones. He's taller than her, she realizes, and her eyes follow the shadows just beneath the opening of his yukata.
She reaches out a hand; Kazuma isn't looking, too busy peeling a daikon radish for soup, and before he can react she moves and plucks out the string holding up his hair.
He looks up, surprised. His hair falls in loose curls around his shoulders.
"I wanted to see what it would look like," Bishamon says.
She brushes back a messy lock from his face, then straightens his hair, approvingly.
"Your hair is thicker than mine," Bishamon says. He blushes and looks back at the radishes.
She leans back and takes stock of her handiwork. Kazuma is furrowing his brow, blushing and staring at his hands. The afternoon light filters around him.
"Just a moment," Bishamon says, and she moves to undo the sash closing his yukata.
"Master! What--" he grabs the sash, scandalized. "What are you doing?"
"I've never seen a naked man before," Bishamon says. "The Elder said I was not to bother with such things, but since you're my guide, I thought perhaps you could show me."
"Is that why you were spying on me?" The question is too blunt and Kazuma opens his mouth to backtrack.
"It is indeed," Bishamon says. Kazuma nods, finally understanding.
"We could, uh. We could go to the baths." His face is red. "The humans won't notice us if we go."
"But you're standing here now. Why won't you show me?"
"Because it's private." His face has turned an even deeper shade of red.
She steps around him. The obi is tied tightly around his waist; curiously, she lets her hand drop to his hip, stroking the fabric, gently.
"I don't think it's right that you're hiding things from me." Bishamon lets her thumb graze against the fabric. "Humans see each other naked all the time, why should this be any different?" She thinks of the baths and of all the times people make love in her shinkis' memories.
Kazuma takes a breath.
"Only lovers see each other naked," he says. "Not that I have any experience with that, but asking your servant to strip for you is wildly inappropriate."
"Because we're not lovers?"
"Oh," Bishamon says, and Kazuma relaxes. He starts cutting the radish when Bishamon remembers the Elder.
"There is nothing worse than a human lusting after your body," the Elder said. "It is a fleeting, baseless love. It's nothing like the devotion of a shinki to his god."
"And what about a god's love for his shinki?" Bishamon asked. The Elder considered.
"The gods do not love as humans do. Lust and sex taint a human's love, but that's not so with the gods. The strength of their love is reflected when they bestow us our names.
"It must never be tainted," the Elder says. "There is nothing stronger than the love of a god and the shinki he has named."
"A god could never love the way humans do," Bishamon says, remembering. "That's why we could never be lovers. I'm your god, I'm supposed to protect you."
Kazuma glances up, then nods, mutely.
"I suppose this is a little bit like your mother asking to undress you, isn't it?"
"Not quite," Kazuma says, softly. He dumps the radishes into a pot of boiling water.
Time passes. Once again, there is an awkwardness between them, but Bishamon can't quite place it.
The mansion is large enough so that whole days will pass without them seeing each other, but Bishamon tries to find him. She goes to the kitchen and finds nothing but scraps of peeled vegetables and a pot of ox bones boiling in a soup; she wanders to the courtyard and sees piles of freshly swept leaves and an unattended broom.
"Are you using your ability to avoid me?" She speaks out loud, even though he's not anywhere near enough to hear her.
She sifts through his memories. There was a girl he loved, once, who was sent away to get married when he was fifteen. He avoided her too, Bishamon realizes, when things got too close between them.
I don't want to make him uncomfortable. Perhaps in her loneliness she had forced herself too much on him.
She is sitting in her chamber, combing her hair in the mirror, when Kazuma knocks and kneels outside her door.
"Master, I've brought you your meal."
"Leave it there," Bishamon says. She's careful not to look at him. Behind her, Kazuma lifts his eyes.
"Master," he begins, and he hesitates. "I wanted to apologize. I know you've been looking for me. I just...I had some things I had to come to grips with privately. Please, my master, forgive me."
Bishamon pauses, then continues combing her hair.
"It is fine," Bishamon says, lightly. She looks at the mirror. "I don't need you right now. You don't have to be here."
Kazuma blinks. He nods quickly and drops to a deep bow.
"Forgive me my intrusion," he murmurs, and quietly closes the door.
There is a growing distance between them.
She retreats to her room. Once again, the days pass without any discernible markers of time. She listens for the soft footsteps of Kazuma's comings and goings; a tray of food, fresh linens. Her kimonos washed and carefully folded at the foot of her door.
One day, he finds her in her room. Despite the past few weeks, he is coming toward her with a smile.
"Master," he says. "I was finally able to draw a borderline today. Now that I have a proper means of protection, let us venture to the mortal realm and search for new shinki."
Bishamon glances up.
He seems happy at the possibility of getting more shinki. Certainly he has been stifled, having to tend to her constant whims. It hurts her and she looks down at her hands sadly.
"I am just fine with you, Kazuma," she says, but Kazuma shakes his head.
"I think otherwise," Kazuma says.
"And yet, if the same thing happens again--"
"That is a distinct possibility, as you are unable to give people proper affection."
Bishamon's eyes widen. She turns, shocked, to look at him.
His gaze is steady. He's kneeling but hands are resting on his knees.
"The war god Bishamonten's nature cannot be undone. Gods giveth and gods taketh away, and that is all, and that is fine. But people still desire my master's love! And therefore they go astray. So from now on, please leave all matters of shinki to me. In return, you must not run from your duties. You bear the burden of so many people's wishes. It is your duty to answer them."
Bishamon stares. His forthrightness surprises her.
There is a shift in their relationship. When once he was just a servant, someone to tend to her needs and offer companionship, now he starts treating her as an equal. It is disconcerting and exhilarating, seeing someone as her shinki and then seeing him as a man.
The Binbougami comes, since it had been five years since Bishamon had asked for an augury. She sees her and her shinki walking and holding hands, and feels an unfamiliar ache.
She thinks of the Elder's words, and asks Kazuma to give her a name.
"So Kazu-chan's a hafuri?" Kofuku says. She's visiting Bishamon again, coming as soon as she heard Bishamon had somehow obtained a hafuri. "Waaah~~~! That's so cool, Bisha! May I see him?"
"Of course," Bishamon says, pleased, and she motions toward Kazuma.
"Come," Bishamon says. "Chouki."
A flash. He slips into her ear like a kiss, and the diamond jewel sparkles brightly.
"Wow~~" Kofuku says, and Daikoku peers down at him.
"Whoa, cool," Daikoku says in agreement. Bishamon flushes with pride.
"That's not all he can do," Bishamon says. "Kazuma, show her."
"Understood." The heads-up display flashes, sparkling around her eye.
"It's a futuristic glass that magnifies images and gives real-time information," Bishamon says, beaming.
"Wow!" Kofuku says again. "Bisha, do you know what this means? It means you two are highly compatible!"
Kofuku nods. "Kokki is a fan made of ~futuristic~ material. It's made of, what's the word, Daikoku? Plaaaas-tic?"
"Plastic," Daikoku affirms.
"Yeah~~! A super future material that's stronger and sturdier than wood!"
The gods of the Lucky Seven are happy. "What are the odds!" Ookuninushi says. "That good-for-nothing kid went from not bein' able to draw a borderline and a useless nail to becoming the ultimate existence! An actual hafuri."
"There hasn't been a hafuri vessel for thousands of years," Ebisu says. The other gods nod gravely.
"Kazuma," Bishamon calls, after the Lucky Seven leaves. Kazuma pokes his head around the door. For all he is the ultimate existence, he's still awkward and shy around them.
"Come here," she says, smiling, and Kazuma gets on his knees beside her, deferentially.
"I'm thinking of taking you to Kamuhakari," Bishamon says.
"Really?" Kazuma says. Bishamon nods.
"Of course! It's been a millennia since anyone's seen a hafuri! I want to be able to show you off."
"But we haven't been since..." Since the massacre, Bishamon knows, but Kazuma fortunately has the good sense not to mention it. "It's been so long," he says, finally.
"Well I think it's as good an excuse as any to make our debut. Kofuku-dono said she'd join us, too."
"The Binbougami is coming to Kamuhakari?" They both know Kofuku was in self-imposed exile, even moreso that she dared to name her own shinki. Bishamon nods, smiling.
"I think if Kofuku-dono is coming, we should definitely come, too."
Kamuhakari is a panoply of colors, a throng of gods laughing and taking part in the festivities. It's the first time Bishamon has stepped foot here since the massacre, and she can't help but feel the slightest bit of trepidation.
"Remember," the Elder told her once, when she was young and newly reincarnated, "Never let them see your distress. You may be young, but you're still a god."
"Bishamon," Ebisu says, pleasantly. He and the other god of the Lucky Seven smile and motion her over.
"Bisha, Bisha~~" Kofuku crashes through the crowd, causing a slight ripple of panic among the other gods.
"Ah, sorry," Daikoku says, grabbing Kofuku by the collar. "My lady has no sense of propriety."
"Waaah, Daikoku, you're such a meanie!"
"Hey! What did I tell ya? If you can't keep your aura in check you're not leavin' the house!"
"Well everyone seems certainly lively," Bishamon says, smiling.
"Indeed," Ebisu says. "Kamuhakari is not the same without your presence. The other gods have missed you."
They chat for awhile, Bishamon learning what she has missed while she was away, until she realizes that Kazuma isn't standing next to her. Craning her neck, she looks around and sees him standing alone in the corner.
"There you are," Bishamon says. Kazuma looks up at her and smiles shyly. "Is it okay if I show you off?"
"It's a bit embarrassing," he says, but he blushes, happily. "I'm just happy I'm a vessel that suits you better."
They wander around the room. The other gods smile at her politely, but even though she's got the first hafuri in centuries, no one comments on them. "Is this the boy?" they ask. They hold their drinks and nod their heads, before turning back to their own conversations.
"Well, this is a bust," Bishamon says. "I'm sorry, Kazuma. I thought people would be more excited."
"It's okay," Kazuma says. "I've always wondered what Kamuhakari was like. I'm having a really good time."
Bishamon looks out. The crowd is heavy, and she can barely hear her own thoughts over the din and general noise of the celebration. If the Elder were here, she would tsk and shake her head disapprovingly.
"You know, the Elder never did like Kamukahari," Bishamon says, and her eyes grow wet. The pain of her grief flares up from nowhere.
Before Kazuma can say anything, Bishamon quickly turns. Around her, gods are laughing and carousing, but Bishamon pushes past them, blinking her eyes and focusing on the door to the balcony. Behind her, Kazuma worriedly follows after her.
"Bishamon-sama!" Another god steps into her path. "How good of you to come here! And I heard you have a new guide."
"I do. Excuse me." Bishamon's voice is curt. Tears prick the corners of her eyes but she pushes it back, staring.
"Apologies," Kazuma says, breathless, and he shoves past them to follow after her.
She makes it to the balcony. The wind is cold, and her skin prickles with gooseflesh. It's dark outside except for the scattering of lanterns lighting the courtyard below her, so no one can tell if she starts to cry.
"Veena? Is everything okay?" Kazuma lurches through the doorway and onto the balcony. "Veena? Bishamon-sama?
"Master?" he says again, and Bishamon turns.
"Oh," Bishamon says. She lifts a shaking hand. "Kazuma. Yes. I'm sorry. I'm fine..."
"Are you sure?" Kazuma asks. Bishamon nods quickly.
"It was just too crowded. I needed some air."
She knows what the Elder would do: tell her to shake it off, go back to her duties and be a proper god. Do not be a burden. Keep your weaknesses private. She turns, taking a breath and readying herself to go back inside, when Kazuma touches her on the arm.
"Let's get you home," he says quietly, and she feels his grip tighten. She sniffs and nods, grateful for him.
"Bishamon?" Ookuninushi and the other gods turn, surprised as Kazuma leads her toward the exit. "You're leaving already?"
Bishamon starts to speak but Kazuma interrupts her.
"I accidentally left the fire going," Kazuma says, bowing deeply. "I humbly apologize for my carelessness. We're checking to make sure I haven't burned down the house."
"You had better discipline your hafuri," another god says, and behind them the other gods snicker quietly.
They get back to the manor. Bishamon turns quickly, ready to escape into her room and forget the foolishness of the day, when suddenly Kazuma reaches out and takes her by the hand.
His hand is warm, the dry pads of his fingers curling around her knuckles.
"Don't go," he says, and she feels his grip tighten. "Please."
Bishamon opens her mouth to speak, but closes it. Her eyes grow wet and she swallows, thickly.
"I miss them," she says. He says nothing as he folds her up against him.
They go to her room. He holds her hand as they walk there, and when she lays onto the futon he dutifully kneels.
But she doesn't want him to kneel. Her eyes red and her chest tight, she sniffs and pathetically clings to him, pulling him so that he's half-lying next to her. He opens his mouth to protest, but she buries her face into his neck before he can say the words.
"Stay with me," she says. She looks up at him, her face tear-streaked and swallowing thickly. "Please don't leave me."
"Okay." His voice is soft. She sniffs and huddles close to him, tears slipping as she closes her eyes, taking ragged breaths until she relaxes against him.
She falls asleep like this, nestled in his arms.
She wakes in darkness. Somehow while she was sleeping, she had moved so that she was lying directly on top of him. But Kazuma is fast asleep; apparently he didn't mind the discomfort of her weight against him.
He feels nice. Bishamon lays her head against his chest, her cheek rising and falling with the steady rhythm of his breathing. She presses her palm flat against his chest and can feel his heart beating. He feels warm and good, and she starts to drift back to sleep, nestled against him.
But there is something she doesn't expect. A hardness, which fits perfectly into the ridge at the front of her pelvis. She makes a motion to move, but the sensation startles her: it feels good. Furrowing her brow, she looks again at Kazuma's face, then carefully, experimentally rocks her hips so that she's pressing harder against him.
It feels good. Bishamon's eyes widen. It feels good and she wants more of it. Instinctively, she wraps her arms around him and grinds downward, breathing softly against his neck, feeling more of that sensation.
A few moments pass, and she feels Kazuma shift. Well this must be uncomfortable for him, she realizes, but then his eyes pop open and he stares up at her, stunned and speechless.
She expects him to move - she doesn't want to, it feels too good - but he doesn't. She moans softly and keeps grinding against him. She feels his hands shaking as they gently rest on the sides of her hips.
His hand trembles slightly, before coming to gently cup her breast. She takes in a breath, watching as he gently, carefully, brushes his thumb over the stiff peak of her nipple.
She gasps, and strangely she feels that hardness twitch. He lets out a shuddery breath. He rubs her nipple over the fabric again and she grinds down on him. Her hair falls over her face and her mouth is hanging open, while his breathing grows hard, his eyes growing more hazy and glazed over. She feels his hand move, this time carefully rubbing her nipple between the pads of his forefinger and thumb.
She wants more of that feeling. Breathing softly, she takes her hand and grips him by the hips, rolling him back into position. There is nothing but thin fabric separating her from him, and instinctively she grinds her hips downward, rubbing the spot against that hardness, trying to feel more of him.
She is lying flush against his body now, her legs straddling his hips as she presses downwards. The yukata slips off her shoulder, but she's breathing hard and feeling suddenly warm. Without thinking, she slips the sides of her robe down so that she's exposing both breasts. Beneath her, Kazuma's eyes widen. His hands are shaking as he reaches up to touch her.
That feeling is growing, and Bishamon's heart beats fast as she rubs against him. Beneath her, Kazuma has craned his neck, shifting their bodies upward so that he could reach up and gently mouth at her breast. He kisses one, gently licking and mouthing one soft mound, before shifting to kiss the other. She's surprised by how good it feels, the press of her body against his and the the soft warmth of his tongue on her nipples.
He's breathing harder; his face is red and his eyes are hazy when he reaches down between them, sliding a hand over the bare skin of her legs, and unties his robe. The fabric bunches to the side but she feels him adjust himself. Her mouth pops open when she feels it: the sudden warmth of skin on skin.
This is what a man looks like. The thought is hazy in her mind. She has memories - countless memories of humans having sex, the grunts and fumbling ministrations, the awkward press of fleshy bodies as they rub each other toward orgasm. In the distance of human memories, sex seemed strange and private, like memories of urinating or defecating, a memory not worth examining.
But she was wrong. Oh, how she's wrong. It feels good, and her body softens. There's a wetness, which slicks around the head of his erection, letting her slide her body easier on his. He grabs her by the hips and begins to thrust upwards, sliding outside of her, and the feeling is amazing and intense, something that grows as they lock together, something she's never experienced before.
Her body jerks. She gasps, her hair falls over her face, and her body trembles and bucks helplessly. Jerk, jerk, jerk. She clings to him, falling against his chest, gasping. Her mouth latches onto the side of his neck as she rides out the last wave of that sensation.
And he kisses her. He's breathing hard through his nose, and the movement is clumsy and awkward, but his skin is flushed and hot and she feels him sliding up against her. His hands seem hungry for more contact, sliding up and down her back, pressing down her hips, and there's a wet squelching sound as he keeps sliding her over his erection.
The feeling is building up again, and she doesn't stop him when he rolls her onto her back, breathing hard and pausing only to mouth her nipple, before he leans back, taking his penis into his hand and pushing the blunt head of him into her.
Bishamon gasps as he slides inside her fully, their bodies aligning tightly.
His mouth is hot as he kisses her again, thrusting into her with a steady rhythm. Their robes bunch around them as they move, catching the sheets on the futon and getting tangled in the bed. He rears back on his haunches as she tugs off the rest of her robe, then his, until they collapse back on each other, reveling in the feel of warm bare skin.
"Veena." He sighs against her neck, thrusting and mouthing her jugular. "Veena, Veena..."
He lets out a ragged breath, then pulses deep inside of her.
His breathing slows. Bishamon opens her eyes, looking up at him wonderingly.
"Veena." His eyes fill with tears. Bishamon smiles and cups his cheek, but he pulls away.
She's suddenly cold without him lying against her, and Bishamon sits up, wrapping a blanket around her chest as Kazuma sits at the edge of the futon. His back facing her as he slowly pulls on the sleeves of his yukata, one after the other, before slowly tying back on his robe.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't have done that."
He lifts a shaky hand to his eyes, and before Bishamon can say anything, hunches over and starts to cry.
Bishamon moves toward him. He curls up into himself, weeping silently.
"Kazuma." She carefully touches her palm flat against his back. It's a gesture meant to be comforting, but instead it only makes him weep harder.
She has never seen him so broken. She can feel it, his guilt and misery and regret, crashing violently through their connection.
"Veena," he says. And then, "Bishamon-sama. There's something I need to tell you."
She waits as he straightens himself, as if trying to summon the courage to say the words.
"I'm the reason why everybody died."
"It isn't your fault," Bishamon says. Kazuma shakes his head.
"My master, you don't understand--"
"It isn't your fault Touma got jealous," Bishamon says.
Kazuma blinks. Her admission seems to surprise him. "Don't worry," Bishamon says, before he can speak. "I've always known."
She folds her hands in her lap. She chooses her words, carefully.
"I should have listened to the Elder," Bishamon says. "It's true I gave you special treatment. You were such a small vessel, I figured even if I couldn't use you, you wouldn't get in the way. Touma's vessel form was fragile and bulky. It would be one thing if I could use her as a shield, but her pot lid was ceramic. I couldn't use her since she would break easily.
"And I know," Bishamon says, and she hesitates, "I know Touma was your friend. And I know you blame yourself for her death. I should have talked to her as soon as I realized she was stinging me. If only I took the time to reassure her!
"But I didn't. I didn't heed the Elder's words. So as her master, I had failed."
He says nothing, just stares at his hands.
"I'm sorry," Bishamon says. She covers his hand with hers, trying to reassure him. "Gods don't love as humans do. I never should have used you like this. This meant nothing to me, do you understand? This thing that happened has nothing to do with our connection."
He nods. The rims of his eyes are dark and shining, but he swallows and nods, mutely. "I understand," he says, finally.
It's something she's learned well from the Elder: the highest form of love was a god's love. Not the carnal, sweaty love of human lust and aborted connection. He means more to her than just another body. A human to fill some base, sordid need.
She resolves to never again use him so carelessly. He is someone to be cherished. He is, to her, someone like kin.
Centuries pass, and the bewildered hurt of that night is smoothed out by time.
Perhaps because he knows what it's like to struggle, but Kazuma is well-suited to teaching the young ones. Bishamon watches as they go over lines, Kazuma raising his fingers into a halberd and showing the young ones how to draw a borderline. Her family is growing and Kazuma steps easily into his role as her lead. With a touch of pride, she watches as he talks to them with an unfamiliar note of authority; even the way he carries himself is different, his spine straight and his voice shifting into an easy confidence.
It's only when she's alone with him that he slips into his old habits - that sweet-natured eagerness, the way he follows her like a self-effacing shadow. He meets her with a low-sweeping bow and when he thinks she's not looking, rushes around clumsily to meet her needs.
Sometimes, though, in quiet moments such as this, she's reminded of the Ma clan, of the pain of losing her children. She looks out at her family, smiling shinki who don't call her Master, but Ma'am - and she feels that familiar ache. The rawness of her grief may fade, but the pain of it will never fully heal.
The lesson is over. The young ones scatter as Kazuma watches them from the river's edge. The sun is setting, and there is a slight breeze in the air.
"Kazuma," she says, and she smiles at him. "Come here."
Their eyes catch. He is, and always has been, her one constant. He smiles and walks over, and doesn't pull away when she takes his hand.