“Kamisama, please help me find a job.”
It sounded like a cop-out, I know. Even I was not sure if I was asking for divine emotional support or an actual job.
Thankfully, the deity I was praying to seemed to be capable of both. Or at least, I thought as those tell-tale bells rang behind me, his priest was.
“Mikoto-kun? You sure are early today.”
“Good morning, Rin-niisan.” I grinned at the young priest of the Hanamori Inari Shrine—Well, he probably wasn’t all that young anymore, but he looked as pretty as he did when I met him almost ten years ago. With his waist-length straight silky black hair, large eyes and long lashes… I always thought he looked prettier in that kimono than any priestess I ever met.
“Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“School ended yesterday, Nii-san. I was looking for a job.”
“You’re not going to university?”
I shrugged non-committedly. “Didn’t think there was a need to.”
It wasn’t as though I couldn’t afford it, or couldn’t make it in with my results. I just didn’t have anything I cared about enough to spend a few more years studying it.
“Well, aren’t you carefree.” Rin laughed. “So, Hanamori, anything you can do to help this poor believer?”
“Hmph, must I?” The fox god leapt down from the rafters gracefully, hiding his mouth behind his sleeve, his golden eyes narrowed in contempt. For a long time I had wondered why a Japanese fox god looked like a beautiful blonde foreigner. He liked to tell people ‘This is the body of someone I ate!’, but those things never worked on me. “I bet he hasn’t even tried looking for a job, he’s just using job-hunting as an excuse to come bother my cute Rin.”
Well, Rin wasn’t the only one who hadn’t changed in the past ten years. Thankfully, the past ten years had also taught me how to deal with this troublesome fox. I took out the package in my pocket.
“Is that—Fried tofu!”
As expected of a fox’s agile nose.
Rin shook his head. “Despite everything you say, the two of you get along just fine. It’s a rare friendship, you know.”
Hanamori opened his mouth to retort, but then closed it again, deep in thought. “Yes, I suppose it is rare for a boy to talk to people like us so easily.”
I chose not to say anything. They knew perfectly well why and how I was different from everyone else. That was the reason I went to them ten years ago. No, that was why they came to me.
“In that case… You know what, boy, I may actually have a job for you.”
That was how I found myself standing in front of the skyscraper.
Is this really the right place? A muscle in my face twitched, and I nearly crumpled the paper in my hand. I thought a job recommended by a fox god would be another shrine, or a small shop whose owner went to the shrine…
Maybe the CEO here was a devotee?
“Excuse me.” Pushing back any doubts in my mind, I approached the receptionist. “I’m here looking for a job.”
The lady’s smile was purely professional. “Is that so? Do you have an interview or an appointment?”
“I have a… recommendation.”
Her gaze became a little less cold. “From?”
Here goes nothing. “From the Hanamori Inari Shrine.”
The lady blinked, her expression turning strange. “I see… Then you’re looking for that lift over there.”
“See the row of lifts on your left? Take the one at the very end and go to the roof.”
When I got into the lift, I realized there was no mistake. Because there were only two buttons: ground floor and the roof.
What a strange office building…
I kept the door open for an old lady and her partner to hobble in. She gave me a grateful smile, a bit surprised.
“Hello, there. I’ve never seen you before.”
I scratched my head. “You could say I’m new.” Or I will be, if by some miracle I actually get the job.
“We don’t see a lot of youngsters here,” she chuckled, inexplicably happy. “Didn’t think many people knew about it anymore.”
There were a lot of young office workers in this building. And in any case, it was pretty hard not to know about one of the tallest buildings in town. The lower floors even included a large shopping mall.
So by the time the doors opened with a ding, I knew to expect the unexpected. I didn’t know where my standards for ‘unexpected’ lay anymore, though.
That’s why, when I saw the picturesque little Shinto shrine, nestled comfortably in the middle of a rooftop forest, I only raised an eyebrow.
The sign said ‘Kagari Inari Shrine’, and there were two fox statues on either side of the entrance.
Huh. Now I knew where Hanamori came into all of this.
“Good morning, Tamura-san.” There was a man in priest’s robes sweeping the path leading up to the shrine, and he raised a hand in greeting as the old lady walked past. They chatted for a while, just the normal about the weather, Tamura-san’s kids. She obviously came here often.
While I waited for my turn, I stood in front of one of the statues, pretending to appreciate its detail. And then, slowly, I closed my eyes.
It was a nice place, this shrine. Compared to Hanamori’s, which always smelled of flowers, this place had a cleaner, sunnier and crisper feel. Something like the difference between spring and summer. But there was one thing they had in common: no matter how new the actual structure was, the shrine – its existence, its god—was old. Much older than the skyscraper it rested on.
“What are you smiling about?”
“I was just thinking that it’s nice the shrine could be relocated.” I opened my eyes to see the priest smiling politely at me. He wasn’t very old, as priests went. He didn’t look as young as Rin, but on second thought they were probably around the same age. With his glasses and long hair tied loosely behind his head, he looked just like a young father or teacher. He even had that same gentle smile.
“Really? I’m glad to hear that.” He didn’t ask me how I knew.
I observed the priest carefully, and decided it was safe to shake his hand. “My name is Kamijyou Mikoto. I’m here to look for a job.”
“Nice to meet you, Kamijyou-kun. May I ask, how is your name written?”
Ah, as I thought. “Mikoto is written with the kanji for ‘life’.”
“I see.” The priest’s smile widened. “People call me Kou-san.”
“And how is Kou written?”
The priest only smiled some more, nodding his head at the large sign on top of the gate.
“Good work as always, Kou-san.”
“Come back often, Tamura-san.” The priest waved cheerily at the old lady’s retreating back. Tamura-san waved at me, too, but my attention was fully on the priest, and so I only caught myself after a moment, smiling back hastily. She didn’t seem to mind, though.
It still felt weird, watching her vanish into the lift that seemed to stick out of the floor, in the middle of a yard and surrounded by trees. I know circumstances made it that way, but what a strange place to have a shrine.
“So, Kamijyou-kun, shall we talk business now?”
Once the old lady was gone, the priest turned back to me. But compared to when he was looking at Tamura-san, there was something different in the way he smiled at me. It was as though he put a little less effort into faking that smile.
“The Hanamori shrine sent me here, said you could give me a job.”
“Hanamori, is it? No wonder. Please, follow me.”
I kept a few steps behind him as he led me into the kagura-den, where the priests and priestesses lived. On the way there, I marveled at how torii gates were red and shiny, the water in the temizuya crystal clean. There seemed to be only one priest and not many more devotees, yet this place was immaculately kept.
“Please, make yourself comfortable.”
I settled myself down in the meeting hall, and waited patiently for the priest to offer me a cup of tea. My attitude to him hadn’t been the best, but by now I could tell he meant no harm. Probably.
By the time we finished our first cup of tea, I asked the question on my mind, trying to sound casual, “So, where’s the fox god of this shrine?”
Just like Hanamori no Byakko, there was a fox god enshrined here. Kagari no Byakko.
The priest smiled again, and this time he wasn’t faking anything. His eyes narrowed and curved, glinting golden.
“You’re looking at him.”
I crushed the cup in my hand.
“My, my, and I thought you guessed.” He put down his cup, and by the time he stood up, the man before me was barely recognizable as the gentle priest from before. His black hair was now white and longer, the ribbon brushing his waist. Without those glasses, he looked less like someone you saw on the street every day, and though those features were generally the same, there was a feeling of intricacy to them that wasn’t there before. Something not human.
So it wasn’t Kou, but Kagari…
“Hmm, you’re taking it rather calmly.” The Kagari no Byakko started circling me as I carefully cleaned up the pieces of the cup. With a flick of his wrist, the remnants vanished, together with the tea stains on the cloth. A new, whole cup reappeared in my hands a moment later, filled with more steaming tea.
Of course, foxes were good at disguises and illusions. I should have guessed. Is this tea just an illusion, too?
I took a sip. It tasted real enough.
“Okay, then, I’ve decided. You will be my new priest.”
I spewed out the tea again.