"If you see the Buddha on the side of the road, spook him."
My clever turn of phrase nearly cost me a great opportunity. I bit my lip to avoid giggling and giving away my position. The Myouren Temple's appearance in the Human Village had been like someone giving me my very own chicken farm. Lots of travellers and young'uns, and rooms full of people sitting silently with their eyes closed. It's every karakasa's dream.
In fact, this wasn't the first time my target -- a youkai modelled after some exotic beast called a 'tiger' -- would be getting a dose of the Kogasa treatment. Just last week she was sitting in this very same spot, cross-legged, breathing slowly. I crept up close, evading every dry leaf and twig in my way, before leaning in and giving her my best "booga-booga-bleh!"
The claw marks healed pretty quickly, but the satisfaction lasted for days.
To my delight, as I peeked over the shrubbery around the temple yard I saw that the tiger lady wasn't alone today. A woman with mouse ears and a tail, obviously not young but still pretty tiny, was sitting almost shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
Facing the two of them with her eyes closed was an older woman with big, curly hair that changed from purple to blonde. Even just sitting, I could tell she was pretty tall, and pretty cut, too. She didn't look like a bodybuilder, but she definitely kept in shape. I got a very mom-like vibe looking at her.
I hovered over the shrubs... careful now... and crept close to the mouse girl... careful...
Suddenly, the mom-looking lady's eyes opened. She looked right at me, as if she'd known I was there the whole time, and smiled at me like I had just shown up early for a party. She pointed at me (how rude) and then pointed to the hallway behind me, hoping for me to leave them in peace.
Sorry, lady, but you'd have more luck asking a child not to eat a cake.
I stuck my tongue out at her, continuing my stealthy approach towards the other two. She started to unfold her legs and stand up. I'd have to take advantage of the situation before she--
--ran in front of me so fast I couldn't even see her. What the hell. Next thing I knew, I was grabbed by the scruff of my collar like a cat and forcefully hauled into the hallway. Haulway. She slid the door shut behind her, trying not to disturb the other two with whatever she had in store for me.
I knew right away that I probably couldn't take this lady in a fight, especially not with two of her cronies just a stone's throw away. But considering how hard she was smiling, a fight probably wasn't coming. I decided to go with my tried-and-true backup plan: grovel and escape.
She set me down on my feet, but before I could start faking an apology, she clapped a hand on my shoulder.
"Please forgiv- buh?"
"Sorry for handling you so roughly back there, but meditation sessions must not be disturbed," she almost whispered. Her voice was very low and soft, the kind of gentle tone normally reserved for offering cookies and tuck-ins.
She put her other hand on my other shoulder. "Let me just offer you a prayer before you leave."
She began to chant, as if she'd repeated the words so many times that they had become a permanent part of her: "May you be filled with loving kindness. May you be safe from inner and outer dangers. May you be well in body and mind. May you be at ease and happy."
She smiled again and took her hands off of me. "Take care. I hope to see you again later."
I tried to speak, but an apple-sized lump in my throat kept anything from coming out. Being a career spooker, compassion wasn't something I came across every day. I ran through my memory, trying to think of the last time anyone had said such kind words to me. Nothing. And here was this total stranger, with good reason to kick my rear, wishing me well.
"Y-you too," I finally managed to cough out.
She grabbed me around the waist, hugging me close to her chest. "Thank you."
Kindly nun or not -- Was she a nun? Was she a youkai? Can youkai even be nuns? -- my instincts still screamed at me to run. And yet running just felt wrong in such a nice, quiet hallway. Still, I couldn't very well escape by politely walking out, could I? That would just be silly.
I turned and took a few steps away, then glanced back over my shoulder. Her pleasant smiling expression hadn't changed a bit, as if whether I stayed or left made no difference to her. Being around her had given me a bit of that dangerously human trait: curiosity.
I turned back to face her. Her face brightened just a little. "Would you like to stay here at our temple?"
"Whoa, hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'm not gonna become a nun or anything." Though I had to wonder how I'd look in nun's clothes.
"You could stay a few days if you wish to learn more about the Buddha and his teachings."
What was the proper response to that? 'Yes, please'? 'Damn straight'? 'You bet your sweet bippy'? I settled on a quick 'yeah' mumbled almost under my breath.
"If you'll wait quietly for the end of meditation practice, I can introduce you to Nazrin and Miss Toramaru."
I nodded. "How long will that take?"
"They've been at it for about half an hour, so probably another fifteen minutes."
My heart jumped into the air up only to tumble right off a cliff. The thought of sitting still doing nothing for forty-five minutes at a time seemed like torture.
"Or, if you'd prefer, you could wait out in the main room." Byakuren gestured down the hall.
[ ] Fine, be a good little karakasa (for once). Try to sit still with Byakuren and her disciples. [ ] Fifteen minutes? Go sweep the main hall for people to spook. Or maybe a new friend, who knows? [ ] Poke around for dirty secrets, curiosities, and what-have-you. [ ] Shun the consequences and test Byakuren's patience. Give Nazrin and Miss Toramaru a surprising interruption.
[X] Poke around for dirty secrets, curiosities, and what-have-you.
"Thanks for the offer, but I'll stay out here for now."
"Alright. I'm Byakuren Hijiri, by the way," the possible nun and probable youkai said.
"Kogasa Tatara." I gave her a quick, tense bow.
"See you soon, Tatara." She smiled, returned the bow, and snuck back to her disciples. They were still sitting quietly as if they hadn't heard a word.
Fifteen minutes was enough time to explore. Temples meant people, and people meant spooking opportunities. I, Kogasa -- Princess of Pranks, Mistress of Mischief, and Shogun of Shocks -- was now prepared to reconnoiter for opportunities. A door was waiting right in front of me.
I slipped through it and right into a dark, dusty, mostly-empty room. Well, that killed the mood. But right on the other end of the room, I could see light streaming in through the thin paper door and the shadows of people. This was looking promising already. I pressed my back against the edge of the wall and nudged the door open a crack, just enough to peek inside.
Kogasa, status report.
Twelve people and a big pink cloud, ma'am.
A cloud? Are you sure? Rub your eyes and make sure you aren't seeing spots.
No, ma'am. One pink cloud in visual range. Baldy with a big moustache and big brows.
Is your position compromised?
Negative. All targets are meditating. Cloudbrows running surveillance. Infiltration would be suicide.
Pull back and continue reconnaissance. Remember, Kogasa, this is a spooking mission.
I went back to the hallway. There were two, three, four other doors in sight, along with a stairwell leading upstairs. Probably the heartbeat of the temple. I picked a door at random and got close. Here was a chance to practice my Folded Umbrella Which Fits Through Anything technique. Through years of practice, I had mastered slipping through the smallest of open doorways and cracks.
Hrnf. Not that small, apparently. I reminded myself to steal some cloth the next time I had a chance so I could strap down the twins and fit through smaller openings. I could disappear into my umbrella to become really small -- my umbrella was basically me, after all -- but hopping around on one foot doesn't make for good stealth.
In any case, I slipped into a well-lit study. A large bookcase stretched from floor to ceiling filled with books and scrolls, and glass cabinets with nifty-looking artifacts took up the other walls. I picked one of the scrolls and let it unfurl down to the floor. A puff of dust came out and nearly made me sneeze. Hm, yes. Uh-huh. I see now.
What am I reading.
It looked like someone spilled ink all over the page and ran a brush over it to add insult to injury. Though it could have just been that I didn't recognize any of the big, squiggly words. Some of them hardly even looked like Japanese. Feeling more illiterate than ever, I wound the scroll up and stuffed it back into the shelf.
The study had nothing else interesting for me. When I slunk -- slank? slinked? slonk? -- back out, Hijiri and the others were still meditating. The clanging of pots drew my attention to the other end of the hallway. First a book, now a cook.
Rather than just strolling across the paper door, I did a little spin when I passed the doors. That way, my outstretched legs didn't make a large shadow, and my profile faced the door when I was in the most obvious part, shrinking my shadow even further. I called it The Open Umbrella Which Flies in the Wind, a technique handed down to me by a wizened old umbrella that originally sat on a clay chariot of Qin Shi Huang's Terracotta Army. At least, that's what I like to believe.
I pressed my ear to the wall and heard the soft chop-chop-chopping of vegetables. I had stumbled upon an occupied kitchen. My heart raced as I reached to open the door. I didn't know where the cook was looking, so even the slightest movement would have given away my position if my luck was bad. I opened the door just a nook and took a look like a crook.
Oho, fortune smiled on me. The cook was hunched over a cutting board. Short black hair, short white sailor's clothes, and a chef's kerchief over the head. Kinda short, muscular and with a light but noticeable tan, the chef looked as plain as your average human. The most noteworthy thing was how I couldn't tell if I was looking at a boy or a girl, especially with those shorts.
Spooking someone while they're cooking presents several interesting challenges. First of all, they're usually holding a knife, which is bad for obvious reasons. Secondly, they're bustling around and already used to hearing noises, which often makes the surprise more difficult and less rewarding. And, besides, everyone expects to be interrupted while they're cooking.
I took stock -- heehee, 'stock' -- of my opportunities. Rice was boiling on the stovetop, next to an empty pan. A wooden spoon, so shallow it was almost a paddle, sat next to the boiling pot, still wet from stirring. Sailor Chef was totally absorbed in chopping vegetables. Yes, there was still quite a lot of potential here. In just seconds, a truly ingenious plan had come together.
I held my umbrella against the crack of the door. Its tongue slithered out, slipped in through the doorway, and went straight for the paddle. It scooped it up and pulled back to the door like a grappling hook, completely unnoticed by Sailor Chef. I took the paddle and weighed it in my hand. Good, nice swing to it. Now, for the right opportunity.
I closed the door until it was open just a crack, not even as wide as my pinky, and waited. Sure enough, Sailor Chef, most likely a she now that I could see her face, turned around and was surprised to see her paddle-spoon was gone. The rush was small but enough for me to feel it. It was like catching a whiff of food cooking off in the distance. Or maybe I was just smelling the food cooking right in front of me.
She huffed and looked around for the thing, too frustrated to notice the door. After a minute of searching, she sighed to herself and admitted that she'd have to dig out something else. She bent down and yanked open a utensil drawer, her eyes on the floor. Her butt stuck up in the air, shifting as she dug around for a replacement paddle.
Now, it was time to strike! Using Umbrella Which Opens as Quietly as the Moon, I slid open the door and got behind her in two long strides. Paddle in hand, I raised it high like a warrior charging into battle.
"Odoro-KE!" With a shout, I brought the paddle down on her rump. A fleshy 'thwap!' rang out.
She shot straight up in terror and whanged her head against the corner of the countertop. I winced. That had to hurt. No time to dawdle, though.
I threw down the paddle and got out of the room by the time she started swearing in pain. The sound of her screaming "FUCK A FUCK!" covered up my footsteps into the hall, and the "PISS A SHIT COCK!" covered my footsteps thumping up the creaky stairs.
The pleasure of my success flooded my veins. My knees wobbled, and I struggled to make it to the top of the stairs. My eardrums thumped with each heartbeat, making it hard to tell how loud I was being.
Calm yourself, Kogasa. Take note of your environment. You need to hide, soon, and this hallway isn't going to cut it.
Sailor Chef's screaming was loud enough to wake the dead, and I could already hear the rustling of feet downstairs. I found a door and sprang inside.
I found a dark guest room, empty except for a few futons. The previous inhabitants must've been messy and careless, since the sheets were still still undone. I dove underneath the nearest one, brought the sheets over my head, and waited.
I heard the usual sounds of a ruckus, lots of people stomping around and asking what happened. I held my breath, trying to follow the sound of the footsteps, but something else distracted me. It was the sound of squeaking. Squeaking very close to my face.
Something furry rubbed against my cheek.
Another furry thing rubbed against my calf. Its little claws climbed up onto the back of my leg.
A mouse walked right in front of my face.
"Chip-chip, wheek?" it said.
"Ffffff," I said.
"Hey, little guy," I whispered, "I'm trying to hide, so if you could--"
The mouse let out a loud squeak, and the pitter-patter of little mouse claws ran all over the bed, then on my legs, and then on my back. Sweat broke out on my forehead and my whole body trembled. What's worse, I had to hold back my giggles as all the furry rodent paws tickled my body.
The mouse in front of me nipped at my nose. As if taking a cue from their boss, the other mice made little bites on my thighs with their sharp teeth.
My sweat was so thick it made my hair stick to my forehead. This must be the Buddha's revenge, I thought to myself. Outraged that I had spanked one of his disciples, he sent me a swift dose of karma and decreed that I should be eaten to death by mice.
But I refused to take my fate lying down -- literally. I scrambled to my feet, flung open the door, and ran outside, shrieking "I'm sorryyyyy!"
I ran right into Sailor Chef again. Poor girl, her head was getting used like a punching bag. The mice flew off of me like bits of shrapnel when I collided with her and flopped onto my back. My unplanned mouse surprise gave me goose-pimples of delight. These mood swings were very uncomfortable.
Sailor Chef took the fall a lot better than me and was already on her feet while I was still groggy. "Why, you little...!" she growled and pounced on me.
She already had me in a wicked headlock by the time Cloudbrows made it up the stairs, less pink and more red now. He heaved a tired sigh when he saw the two of us, like saying "I'm not angry, just disappointed." He grabbed Sailor Chef's arms and pulled her off of me before I choked to death.
"I-I can explain!" I stammered once I had my breath back. "You see--" It was no use. Cloudbrows narrowed his eyes, shutting me up with his body language. I let out an awkward giggle and considered diving out a nearby window.
Giving me no such chance, he grabbed me by the ear and started leading me down the stairs. I let out a little yelp with each tug on my earlobe. It felt like it was going to fall off.
He led me through the hall and into the meditation room I had been avoiding. The meditators were on their feet, staring at me as we walked in. I recognized a few faces from my previous adventures. Or I thought I did, at least.
A woman in a white nun's garb stepped forward, her light lilac hair and shocking purple eyes obscured by her blue hood. She produced a golden ring from inside her dress and pointed it at Cloudbrows, who nodded in response. He turned to look at me. My heart nearly leapt out of my chest. I could almost feel the bopping I was about to get.
"Young lady," he said, his voice even gruffer than I expected, "you interrupted their meditation session, and I believe you owe them an apology."
That's the second time I was expecting a smack only to be shown something else. This was, somehow, even worse. "I'm a karakasa! It's my job to interrupt people."
"That may be the case. But you can still apologize, can't you?"
He had me there.
"I'm sorry for interrupting your meditation, and stuff." I tried to sound sincere but it came out as a panicked shout, and when I bowed in apology I moved like I had stiff wooden joints.
The nun stepped in front of the crowd and faced them. "That will be it for today's session, everyone. Lady Hijiri will be giving a sermon tomorrow evening. Take care and be safe."
The rabble filed out of the hall, a few of them glancing back at me as they left. As soon as they were gone, the nun and Cloudbrows surrounded me in a pincer-glare.
"This is a place of worship," the nun waggled a finger at me and began ranting. "A place of contemplation and salvation! You've got some nerve--"
Hijiri's soft mom-voice rescued me. She, Nazrin, and Toramaru came in through the door, trailed by Sailor Chef.
"Oh, my. Tatara, have you gotten up to mischief?"
Hijiri clasped her hands together and smiled as if she was tickled pink that I had spread chaos through her temple. She plopped a hand on my head and ruffled my hair.
"Please don't be too harsh on the girl," she said kindly, turning to the nun. "A cluttered, uncultivated mind will run rampant as a matter of course."
The nun blushed a bright red and mumbled out a 'yes'm'.
"Speaking of clutter." Hijiri turned back to me. "Would you like to get on the right path and occupy your mind with some honest work?"
Honesty and work. Two things I didn't like. Then again, I had a week's worth of surprises today and a little break might be nice.
"What kind of work?" I asked. What if she was about to send me to the salt mines? How crazy would that be if this whole temple was a scam to lure in young laborers and kidnap them? Was this what Hijiri meant by 'uncultivated mind'?
My imagination was running so wild that by the time Hijiri pushed a scrap of paper into my hands, my mind was busy imagining that she had sold me into the sex trade. Having fallen for my (pretty nice) body, Shidehara the greedy landlord added me to his harem, but he was as cruel to his concubines as he was to his tenant farmers. The girls and I united in a plot against his life, and together we could overthrow his tyrant...
Anyway, the paper. It was a little grid with all the days of the week and a bunch of names, including a couple I didn't recognize, each square with a different chore on it. "These are today's duties," Hijiri said, pointing at today's column.
I noticed one of the names was crossed out and a big note was scribbled in red underneath the chart saying "MURASA IN CHARGE OF ALL KITCHEN DUTIES!" So the kitchen is Sailor Chef's ship, eh?
"What's with that?" I asked, pointing to the scribble.
Hijiri's smile didn't falter. "Murasa enjoys taking care of the kitchen, though she wouldn't turn down any help with cleaning up."
A very diplomatic way to put it.
[ ] Tend the garden - Nazrin [ ] Sweep the courtyard - Kyouko [ ] Clean the kitchen - Murasa [ ] Housekeeping in the study - Ichirin
"I probably should make it up to Sailo-- to Murasa. For the butt-smack and everything."
"She whacked you on the ass?" The tiger youkai, either Nazrin or Toramaru, let out a hearty laugh.
The nun -- Ichirin, wasn't it? -- winced at the word 'ass', her eyebrow twitching like she wanted to snap at a tiger twice her size.
"Har har. I'll scoop up your dinner with the ass-paddle if you think it's so funny," Murasa shot back.
Ichirin's eyebrow twitched again. With the bright light-purple color of her brows, the motion stood out. She seemed like a real hard-ass, but that was just my ass-umption.
"That's very kind of you, Tatara. I'm sure Murasa would appreciate the help, but don't you think a proper apology is in order as well?" Hijiri asked.
I turned to Murasa and bowed. To be honest, I did feel a little sorry for making her hit her head on the kitchen counter. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.
"Sorry for slapping your ass."
"That's not proper language for a place of worship!" Ichirin spat, throwing up her hands.
Hijiri ignored her outburst. I got the feeling that happened a lot. Instead, she turned to Murasa. "And now that she's apologized, why not return the favor by letting her have dinner with us?"
Murasa's head jerked up in realization. She blurted out, "Shit, the food! I mean, darn, the food!" and bolted through the doors.
"She really does have a sailor's mouth," Hijiri said, putting a hand to her cheek and tittering a little. I couldn't get over how pleasant everything seemed to her. I was intensely curious to see how she'd react to a surprise. It'd have to be a really big one to get a rise from her, though -- something involving sturdy iron hinges, a leather jerkin, maybe a jar of peanut butter...
"Shou, can you help her set the table?"
"Yep!" she chirped, raising her hand before quickly scampering off after the chef. So she was Shou Toramaru. That made the mouse Nazrin, then.
Speaking of which, I double-checked the list. "I don't see Shou's name on here."
Hijiri scratched her cheek. "It's a little hard to explain."
"She's an avatar of Bishamonten," Nazrin groused. "Not that you'd know it with how hard she hits the booze. And red meat. And--"
Ah, the freeloading celebrity hanging around for easy publicity.
"Nazrin, please. Let's not cast judgement on our followers, no matter how long they've been here. Anyway, let's get everyone to the dinner table."
Hijiri passed by Naz, who was unaffected by the gentle scolding, and leaned her head out the door to the outside.
She took a deep breath and raised her hand to her mouth. "Kyouko, dinnertime!"
"DINNERTIME!" Hijiri's voice echoed back, five times as loud.
She winced. A few seconds later, a short, green-haired girl ran in through the door. A pair of brown, furry dog ears flopped up and down on her head as she pranced past us.
"Hi, Nazrin! Hi, Byakuren! Hi, Ichirin! Hi, other lady!" the girl blabbered as she zoomed into the hallway and off in the direction of the kitchen.
"Ah, what am I going to do with her?" Hijiri shook her head with a smile. Her soft hair bounced around her shoulders.
She followed Kyouko to the dining table, and Nazrin and I trailed behind her. Shou and Murasa were bouncing back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, carrying plates and bowls.
I walked in to see a pretty standard spread of rice, pickled veggies, soup and a couple of side dishes, the sort of thing I'd seen on countless dinner tables. There was a notable absence of fish, though, and the tub of rice had fluffy specks of millet and squishy barley grains mixed in, making the meal look a little paltry.
But I was in no place to complain about free food. I plopped down and reached for the plain bowl that was probably mine, but Shou tapped me on the shoulder before I could even grab my chopsticks.
"Please wait for grace first," she said.
"Right, yeah. I knew that." I set down my chopsticks.
Shou took a seat next to me. "And just so we're clear, I have no grudge towards you for last week." She gave me a hearty pat on the shoulder.
Ah, yes, the spooking followed by a vigorous clawing.
I laughed. "You got even with me, at least."
"Hah, sorry about that."
Murasa soon came in, the last few bowls in hand. "That was a close call, but no major damage done."
The table now completed, Murasa sat down and dabbed the sweat from her brow. With everyone present, they all closed their eyes, sat up straight and began to chant:
"First, let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food."
I saw the faintest flicker of a smirk on Murasa's face.
"Second, let us be aware of the quality of our deeds as we receive this meal."
Shou, Nazrin and Kyouko were mumbling their way through the recitation. The only ones putting in any effort were Hijiri and Ichirin. Hijirichirin.
"Third, what is most essential is the practice of mindfulness, which helps us transcend greed, anger and delusion."
But I love greed, anger and delusion!
"Fourth, we appreciate this food which sustains the good health of our body and mind."
How much longer was this going to go? The soup was right under my face and the delicious savory smell was tempting me, making me forget that I had just considered it a meager spread a few moments ago.
"Fifth, in order to continue our practice for all beings we accept this offering."
They opened their eyes.
Sitting in the middle of a sudden chanting session felt weirder than I thought it would. On the other hand, it was also kinda cool.
Eating was now free of sin, so I picked up my bowl of soup and took a slurp of the rich broth, keeping an eye open to see how everyone else did the same. My examination proved some of my previous suspicions. Ichirin, for example, ate just as fussily as she talked, and Shou and Kyouko had as much table manners as their animal counterparts.
Byakuren, always peaceful, drank her soup with a slow, personal pleasure, like she was savoring every drop. Murasa enjoyed her meal as well, but with the smug satisfaction of a chef.
As for myself, I wasn't sure. I have yet to eat while staring at a mirror.
Kyouko and Shou finished their soup and plunked their bowls down in the same split second.
"First!" they both called out.
"Aw, poo." Kyouko was a split-second slower. Her ears sunk down in defeat.
"Almost got me that time." Shou reached across me and patted her on the head.
Ichirin set down her bowl and glared at the two of them. I wondered how long it would be before I was caught in the crossfire of her fury. She took a second to choose her words before speaking up with a very obviously forced calm.
"Tatara, right? Don't take this as an insult to Shou or Kyouko, but food should be appreciated as what gives us life, and soup-drinking contests distract us from that." She stopped and gave a quick glare at the offenders.
"Kay, sorry!" Kyouko said, not looking sorry in the least.
Ichirin resumed her quiet, fussy sipping while the rest of the table began picking out soggy bits of tofu.
While watching Nazrin eat, I noticed she pinched the larger pieces of food between her sharp mouse-teeth. "Um, Nazrin, do you have a... mice deal power thing, by any chance?" I asked.
Her usual glare changed to a thin, smug smile. "Yep. All of the mice around here follow my orders."
Aha! Rats in mice's clothing.
"They'd better. If I saw even one of the buggers in my kitchen, Siddhartha himself would have to come down and stop me from flattening it," Murasa added.
While Murasa and Nazrin swapped banter, I felt a tap on the shoulder. Kyouko was looking up at me, her mouth hanging slightly open as if she just now realized there was someone new at the table.
"Are you gonna be here for a while?" She looked up at me with those round, excited blue eyes of hers.
"Well, I might." I felt my hand rise up on its own and move toward the top of her head. "Hijiri seems cool, and I'd like to learn some stuff from her."
Kogasa, no! You barely even know her! But there was no fighting it. My hand came down on the top of her head, between her floppy ears, and ruffled her hair. Aah, so soft.
"So I guess I'll see where this goes," I said.
Kyouko let out a little giggle and her ears twitched. I grabbed my elbow with my other hand and wrenched myself away from her head before I forgot about food entirely. Taking care not to use the same hand that just rubbed dog hair, I plucked up a big chunk of pickled radish and popped it into my mouth.
"Whoa, these are really good!" I said through a mouthful.
Murasa beamed with pride. "I pickled 'em in toasted rice bran and syrup. Gives it just a light sweetness, so it doesn't overstep its boundaries as a side dish." One compliment and all was forgiven, apparently.
Kyouko tugged my sleeve to get my attention. "Are you gonna start learning meditation and stuff with us too?" she asked.
"Well... I dunno. You guys have been really friendly even though I've been messing with you, so I should at least listen to whatever spiel you want to give me."
I only realized after the words left my mouth that it was a little rude to call it 'a spiel.' Nobody seemed to mind it too much, and Kyouko didn't ask any questions after that, so the meal went by quickly.
It made me feel weirdly nostalgic. Even though the people at the table were strangers, I felt like an equal as we ate together. The lack of talking felt odd, but everyone had a smile, even Nazrin, and that was enough for me. I chased the last few grains of rice around my bowl with my chopsticks, full and happy.
And then I was in the kitchen. In all the pleasantries, I had forgotten what I'd signed up for. The once happy bowls of food were now empty, bitter old things demanding my attention. Captain Murasa stood next to me, in front of the big wooden sink. I was out of the dining room and in her territory now.
"Sorry about the lump on the back of your head," I said with a nervous laugh.
"Feh," she said, waving it off. "It's already healed and forgotten." She picked up a utensil and got to cleaning, humming a tune to herself.
I breathed a sigh of relief, picked up a plate and brushed the food debris off of it. That's one adventure behind me. Although, that spoon she's cleaning looks awfully familiar...
The sting of a hard smack to the ass and the realization that I'd been tricked hit me at the same time. Before I could even gasp, the paddle came down on the other side of my butt with an even louder slapping sound. I shot up on my tiptoes, clenched my shoulders, and gasped and yelped at the same time, letting out a pained "nork!" sound.
Murasa had already put the spoon back in the sink and started laughing as I turned around with my dukes up.
"Alright, I lied. Now it's healed and forgotten." She stuck her hand out for a shake. "Start from a clean slate?"
My aching rump told me not to forgive her, but my heart told me to accept it. I wasn't going to run around making enemies if I was going to stay there long.
"Clean slate." I shook her soapy hand.
"Good. Then let's clean some dishes." She picked up a bowl and brushed the remaining flecks of tofu out of it.
If only forgiving and forgetting were that easy. With my hands all wet and soapy, I couldn't even stop to massage my poor, sore backside. It still bothered me. I made it through four plates before I dropped my brush and looked over my shoulder at Murasa.
"I didn't hit you that hard."
"Yeah, but I didn't nail you on the head either. Besides, I had to make up for your fat butt."
"Hey, don't be a pain in the ass."
She chuckled and cracked a warm, neighborly smile. "Really, though. You liked my cooking, so you've obviously got good taste."
"I guess so." I laughed back, not the way you laugh at something funny but the way you laugh at something that went well.
I was scraping the tiny millet beads out of a wooden serving bowl, noticing that Murasa was saving all the extra-dirty dishes for me, when she spoke again.
"Hijiri'll do you good. She's a wonderful woman."
"Mmhmm." I patted the bowl dry with a towel.
"What brought you here, anyway? I mean, what's your story?" she asked.
"I'm a karakasa, and temples tend to have a lot of people standing around quietly. Not like I need the easy pickings, of course." I thought for a moment while I polished another bowl. "Other than that, I guess I'm just a drifter?"
"I'm an umbrella too, so there's that," I said with a shrug. "I thought purple was a nice, royal color, but apparently nobody else liked it. That's how I ended up hanging around in closets for a century before becoming a youkai."
She blinked. "I see."
"Well, what about you?" I asked.
"I was a sailor, then I was a ghost. I'm still a ghost, but I don't terrorize the seas anymore thanks to Hijiri. That's about it."
"You're not much more interesting than I am."
"Yeah." Murasa's smile was difficult to place.
I finished wiping the last of the steelware dry and set it on the counter. Now that we'd eaten together and shared our stories, I already felt like I belonged.
"We can dump the grey water straight out the window." Murasa said, grabbing one end of the tub.
"Doesn't that hurt the grass?" I hoisted up the other end.
"Hasn't yet, heh."
"And that's how you do it." Murasa set the tub down and pat me on the shoulder. "Now let's see what Hijiri's got in mind for the rest of the night. She's usually reading in the study around now, so make sure your hands are dry."
After I wiped off, we walked over to the study. It wasn't hard to find Hijiri since she was sitting by the only light in the room, an oil lamp, poring over one of those scrolls with the ink stains. Maybe she was trying to figure them out too. She looked up as soon as we walked in.
"Ah, hello, Tatara and... Murasa. You two finished rather quickly."
She stopped short of using Murasa's first name. I was the new gal and she wanted to be polite and slightly distant around me. I'm so aware of stuff, how am I not better at my job?
"Work goes quickly when you've got two hands on deck," Murasa said.
Hijiri smiled at Murasa. "Well, since you've worked so hard, why don't you have the rest of the night to yourself? I'd like to spend some time with Tatara."
Alone? In a dark room? Just the two of us? Not sinister at all. Nope.
Murasa scratched her neck. It looked kind of like she wanted to say something, but she just turned around and walked to the door. "Alright, then. See you tomorrow," she said with a quick nod to me. And a really quick nod to Hijiri.
With Murasa gone, Hijiri rolled up the scroll and put it back in its home. I tried to sit down, found it too uncomfortable, and stood back up. Then, feeling weird standing while she was sitting, I sat back down.
"You must have so many questions. But, please, don't worry. Everyone learns at their own pace. In the Buddhist practice, there is no failure so long as you are devoting your attention to the path. What's on your mind? What are you hoping to get out of this?"
"I was thinking you'd tell me that," I said.
Hijiri laughed, a short, light titter.
"Ah, where to start. Have you ever felt like your mind is a horse without a harness? That your thoughts and feelings run wild and uncultivated?"
I clutched my umbrella. "That's just my running commentary!"
"Did your 'running commentary' tell you to surprise Shou and Murasa?"
"Yeah, and it worked out great."
"Did it really?" she asked.
I looked away from Hijiri. Why was I getting so defensive -- or, should I say, why was this lady getting in my business like this?
This is my horse without a harness.
"Nay," I said.
She smiled. "Just by realizing it, you've done more than many, many people. I can't promise you fantastic success or enlightenment, but I can promise you that so long as you stay attentive to the path, your efforts will be rewarded."
"Okay." I hung my head, feeling like a student who'd just been put in her place. Which is what I was in a way.
"But it's too late in the night to begin any real practice. For now, I'd like to know where you want to start. You might want to know a little history about the Buddha first: who he was and what he did in his life. Or perhaps you'd like to go right into the concept and practice of mindfulness? I could even teach you about an equally important principle of Buddhism: the cultivation of compassion."
That was a lot of words to absorb. I gave the subject some thought.
[ ] So, meditating... [ ] How 'bout that 'compassion' stuff? [ ] Who is this "The Buddha" guy, anyway?
"So... compassion." I put my hands on my hips, firm in my decision. "What is it, exactly?" I asked after a short pause.
Hijiri tittered. "I have a story that might explain it best."
I gave a quiet grumble, realizing she'd been leading me by the nose. Still, there was nowhere to run now, so I crossed my legs and leaned forward, listening with anticipation. With her eyes closed, Hijiri took a deep breath and began to tell her story...
Long, long ago, in a place called Benares, people still lived close to nature. The vast forests of the land had enormous herds of deer running all throughout. And among them was me.
From the time I was born, everyone said I was special. Maybe it was my blue hair or my blue and red eyes. It could just as well have been my purple antlers -- I always felt a bit sensitive about them. Whatever it was, the others, all five-hundred of them, decided that I was going to lead them. Queen Banyan Deer is what they started calling me. It was such a weird name, but I just ran with it.
And then there was the other guy: a big deer who was born about the same time as me who had a five-hundred-strong herd of his own following him around. They called him Branch Deer. His antlers reminded me of branches, though I don't think that's what they meant. I did have to admit that he was quite a tall drink of water. He seemed to glide along the forest floor when he ran. Me, I tripped over my own hooves a lot. Everybody said I was just as good as him regardless, but I couldn't help feeling like he could have led a thousand of us as well as I led five-hundred.
However I felt about the matter, I was Queen Banyan Deer, whatever that meant, so I did my best to act as the head of the herd. Wherever I went, so did they. And they needed my leadership, too. Whenever the King of Benares was in the nearby village, he would get on his horse, which struggled to carry its bloated master, and drag the villagers along to help hunt us.
The sound of horse hooves and the sight of drawn arrows were an all-too-regular sight. They drove my followers into a panic each time, and were it not for my leadership -- weak though it was -- we would've been hopelessly routed each month.
Not that we were the only ones who suffered. The villagers also bore a great deal of hardship to sate their king's appetite. They always complained between hunts that their fields were being left unworked. Unlike us, they couldn't eat the grass in the forest, which meant they had to struggle constantly to survive. It was pitiful in a way.
The villagers were coming today, even though the King was nowhere to be seen. This time, no arrows flew, but they brought something that terrified us much more: loud whistles and rattles. They thundered through the forest, sending us fleeing to the north.
As we were chased through the forest, I saw the Branch Deer and his crew coming in from the west. He had the sad eyes of a prisoner, dragging his legs even as he galloped. We were forced through a massive wooden gate surrounded by walls too high to jump. By the time any of us realized what was going on, the gate had already slammed shut behind us, and the racket ceased.
The inside was beautiful: flower gardens, fountains, lily ponds, and rich green grass covered the grounds, but I knew it was all too nice to come without some price. We ate dinner with our eyes raised that night.
The price of our new home became clear the very next day. The King of Benares came in by his lonesome, bow in hand. With the thousand of us all herded into the deer park, it was too easy for him to stick an arrow into the belly of one of my followers.
The King seemed satisfied with his one kill. He stowed his bow and dismounted from his horse while I was still mourning the loss of my countrydeer. Before taking his kill, however, the King trotted over to me. His eyes were wide in awe.
"You are the most gorgeous deer I have ever laid eyes upon!" he proclaimed.
The Branch Deer saw the King, and taken in with interest, he moved closer.
"And you as well!" The King spread his arms. "By royal decree, I shall see that no harm will fall to you two, for you are beautiful!"
I was at first happy to see the spark of mercy from the King, but although Branch Deer and I were spared, the rest of us were not as lucky. The King would hunt by his lonesome -- or sometimes send the royal cook in his stead -- but there was not a day where we were spared from the fearsome sight of arrows.
Our deer could not continually live in terror, so our two tribes met to work out a solution. After much discussion, I said my final piece:
"None of us can escape death, but I can't bear to see us trampling each other anymore. Their spears and arrows are too much for us to fight against. The king only wants one of us a day, right? Then we should choose one of us each day to go. One day it'll be from my herd, and then the Branch Deer's herd can deal with it the next day. Just one deer at a time."
Nobody was satisfied with a life of submission, but it was better than living in constant fear. Each day, one deer would meekly present themselves to the royal cook, even taking the walk to the chopping block for him. It seemed to work for a while, but one day the death toll fell upon a pregnant young doe.
She pleaded with Branch Deer to be spared, and her argument was sound: To kill her would also kill the baby and take two lives in one day. Branch Deer had only a sad look to offer her.
"This is the agreement we have made; there is no halting it. It is better this way than it was before."
I shook my head in surprise. This didn't seem like the Branch Deer I knew and nearly worshiped from before. The poor doe turned to me and fell to her knees. Tears marked her muzzle.
"Please, Queen Banyan Deer, I beg of you to help me!"
I felt as though a mantle had been passed to me. I refused to disappoint my followers.
"I cannot let this stand. I will go in your stead, and you will be spared."
They looked at me in silent shock. The doe was reverent, while Branch Deer seemed ready to explode for any number of reasons.
"Don't be ridiculous! You are the leader of your clan, you can't offer yourself as a sacrifice!" he said.
I knelt down and nuzzled the doe along her cheek. "Take good care of your child."
"Queen Banyan Deer... You don't have to do this. I wouldn't even know how to repay the favor. Please." The poor doe was ashamed that I had come to her aid. She must have felt as though she'd killed me herself.
I turned and left before I could hear any more protests.
My heart raced as I went to the edge of the forest, to the blood-stained stump of wood that served as the chef's chopping block. The chef was there, ready and waiting, carrying a wickedly sharp blade. I strode up and placed my head on the chopping block without a word.
My legs quivered. All that I could think of was how much a knife slicing my neck would hurt and how much blood it would get all over everything. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. Thoughts of all the friends I wouldn't be able to talk to anymore raced through my head. This was it. I closed my eyes, ready for the end.
But it never came.
I looked up and saw the chef kneeling beside the chopping block. He had laid aside his knife.
"Oh, beautiful Queen Deer, though you lay your noble neck upon my cutting block, I cannot bear to bring harm upon you -- nor am I permitted to. The king shall have my head if I were to even nick a single hair from your hide. Please, I beg of you, go and continue to live free. Yours is a different fate."
"I will not leave," I said with the same strength as before.
The chef looked at me, then at his knife. He raised it up and stepped towards me. I shut my eyes and heard a loud 'thunk.'
No pain. I opened my eyes and saw the knife stuck in the side of the trunk.
"I'll go get the King," the chef said.
And so I waited. An hour must have passed before the chef finally returned with his King in tow. It's a small miracle the King believed him to begin with.
The King looked down at me with a confused pity. "Oh Queen of deer, did I not promise to spare your life? What is the reason you come here like the others?"
I showed a sad smile. "A pregnant doe was unlucky enough to draw today's straw," I replied. "I felt so sorry for the poor creature and her unborn child that I took her place. That's all."
The King of Benares was overwhelmed. Powerful as he was, a tear rolled down his cheek. Then he said: "Oh, great lady, the golden queen of deer, even among human beings, I have not seen any such as you! Such great compassion, to share in the suffering of others! Such great generosity, to give your life for others! Such great kindness and tender love for all your fellow deer! Arise. I decree that you will never be killed by me or anyone else in my kingdom," the King continued. "And, so too, the doe and her babe."
I did not raise my head. "Just the doe and I? I would sacrifice myself to save any of my friends," I said, even though I wasn't sure if I would.
"Milady, I cannot refuse you, I grant safety and freedom to all the deer in the park," the King proclaimed.
"And what about the deer outside the park, will they be killed?" I asked.
"No, milady, I spare all the deer in my whole kingdom!" He was enraptured, as if my words were a drug to him. He made grand, sweeping gestures with each word, overwhelmed with emotion until it nearly wracked his body.
I kept my head firmly against the block and continued to plead: "So the deer will be safe, but what will the other four-footed animals do?"
"From now on, they too are safe in my land."
"And what of the birds? They too want to live." I pressed my demands further.
"Yes, the birds too will be safe from death at the hands of men," he responded immediately. We were as synchronized as tennis partners. It felt as if he knew each word I would say, and I knew his.
"And what of the fish, who live in the water?"
"Even the fish will be free to live, milady."
I had named every living creature I could think of. I knew now that never again would anyone be harmed or killed by a human's hand in all of Benares.
"Having pleaded for the lives of all creatures, the Great Being arose," said Hijiri, and then her soft voice went silent. My fantasy faded into mist, leaving me with just my thoughts.
I expected a follow-up, an explanation, or even just a 'ta-dah!' from Hijiri. All I got was a smile, indicating it was my turn to say something about how much I learned or how blown my mind was, but I wasn't able to deliver.
It was a nice story, sure, and it's nice to be nice, but is that it? There had to be so much more to the story than that, but trying to figure it out further felt like staring at the big, messy, archaic scrolls on the wall next to me.
And so I sat there, eyes and mouth shut. Hijiri leaned forward and wrapped her arms around my waist. "Even giving a moment's thought to compassion, you're already on a more aware path," she said softly, pulling me close to her.
I noticed she shifted her posture so her boobs didn't squish against mine, and laughed inwardly at her silent act of propriety. Was it normal for a monk to be this touchy-feely to begin with?
"Thanks," I said. Truth be told, I already felt the story fading from me, like waking up from a dream.
She stood up, her smile now gone. "It's late. I'll show you to the guest room."
"Okay." This atmosphere was new to me. It felt basic -- not in a bad way, but the air was missing something, something that was usually so present that it was difficult even to name.
While pondering what this thing could possibly be, I followed Hijiri to the guest room. As I had suspected, it wound up being the same room the mice had chased me out of earlier.
"I hope there are no mice this time." I forced out the weak joke with a slight but obvious crack in my voice.
Hijiri, most likely out of politeness, let out another characteristic titter.
"Please don't mind Nazrin too much," she said, her smile flickering back before going away again.
"Alright." I nodded. I hadn't planned to hold a grudge anyway. I was very used to having bizarre and unfortunate things happen to me after getting caught.
"Sleep well. I'll see you in the morning." Hijiri left.
With nothing else left to do, I climbed under the sheets. My mind was still running, even though my body was dead tired. I thought back to Queen Banyan Deer offering her life. Animals would be reincarnated if they die, I knew that much. I wondered how long it took, and what it felt like.
I tossed and turned and fiddled with the sheets, looking for sleep. I much preferred sleeping in the day, under the shade of a tree. Something about being in a dark, empty room made me uncomfortable. It made me feel trapped. No, not trapped. Something else. I didn't know what it was, but I didn't like it.
If you're tired enough, though, you'll eventually fall asleep no matter how nervous you are or how busy your thoughts are, and that's just what I did. My sleep was uneasy, and the word 'closet' flashed in and out of my mind.
Whether it was hours later or only a few seconds, the next thing I felt was the sunrise on my eyes through the window, forcing me awake. I was still painfully tired, so I rolled away from the window and fell right back asleep.
I hadn't even started dreaming when I was forced awake again. I recognized the voice as the girl with the doggy ears. Kyouko.
"GOOD MORNING! GOOD MORNING!"
This was torture. Pure torture. I looked around for something to stuff in my ears.
Knock knock knock.
"Tatara?" Hijiri's voice came through the door.
The door slid open just a few inches. Hijiri peeked inside.
"It's morning, Tatara. You need to get up."
Yeah, I totally hadn't noticed the alarm bell screaming loud enough for the netherworld to hear.
"Right, right, m'up, m'up." I threw off the sheets and staggered to my feet like a drunkard.
"Mormbig," I mumbled to Hijiri.
"Trouble sleeping?" Hijiri asked with a sympathetic frown.
"Murm. I mean, a little. Tired. Having a... thing..." Thoughts not available. Please try again later.
"You'll get used to it, don't worry."
Waking up this early was a regular thing for her?
"Some breakfast should help wake you up, come on downstairs to the dining room."
Hijiri closed the door. I wanted to go back to sleep, but the promise of food made my stomach seize my legs and force
my heavy feet forward direction of food. Fourteen steps. I walked down with closed eyes, counting each step, so I could at least pretend to sleep some more.
The promise of breakfast turned out to be a tiny bowl of rice, an equally tiny cup of miso soup, and a fistful of mustard greens for each person. As a youkai, I didn't even need to eat to live, being a youkai, and I was still upset by the poor offering.
"What happened to last night's spread?" I asked, too tired to care about manners.
"Small meals help us appreciate the value of what gives us life." Hijiri, pleasant to the end, responded in her calm
Shou Toramaru shuffled through the door and plopped down next to me. She stretched her arms and clamped her hands over her mouth to try and hide a massive yawn. I was a little glad to see I wasn't the only one suffering from tiredness. Kyouko bounced into the room just after her, brimming with energy. I pondered how much I wanted to smack 'morning people' as she took her seat.
They all sat up straight and closed their eyes. Right, the pre-meal prayers. I closed my eyes, and my head drooped as
I listened. Something something greed is bad, food is nice, let's eat.
The bitter greens were tough to chew and even tougher to swallow. The soup and rice were fine but if anything, the meager portions only made my stomach angrier with hunger. Was this 'Buddhism' mystique worth it if it meant day after day of little sleep, awful food, and long stretches of sitting still doing nothing?
Maybe it wasn't. I have a good life I can return to. Well, an okay one, at least. I stared down at the table, clearing the fog from my mind. I blinked hard, calling on one of my lesser-used skills: The Rain Which Falls When the Sky is Clear.
Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. A large one ran down my nose and fell onto the table.
"Tatara, are you alright?" Hijiri asked with the most emotion I'd heard from her yet.
"I... I dunno." That's it, girl. Reel 'em in.
I sniffed loudly. "I jus'... I jus' don't know if I'm good enough to be a Buddhi-i-ist!" I whimpered and looked up, showing Hijiri my wet face.
I didn't get a chance to stab at Hijiri's emotions any further. Strong, wiry arms grabbed me from the side. Shou pulled me into a strong hug. It felt like being pressed against a brick wall.
"You poor thing!" she squealed. "Please don't give up on the way. Just give it a chance. It will be worth it, I promise."
She shook me in her grip. If I had eaten more it might've made me want to throw up. She ran a muscular hand through my hair, ruffling me.
"Um. Okay." My concentration was broken and the flow of tears dried up.
Shou released her hold and clapped her hands on my shoulders, now looking me straight in the eye. "Spend some time with me before meditation practice. I'll help keep you sane." Her friendly smile revealed the pearly-white fangs hiding under her lips.
Hijiri cleared her throat. "Meditation practice is normally right after breakfast."
"These are special circumstances. We can't let our new little sheep be led astray!" She shook me again.
"Hurk," I said.
"Alright, but just this once." Hijiri sighed and followed it up with an almost silent tsk. "I have things to be doing anyway."
Shou gave my hair another good tousling, and then finally released me.
"What do you want to do, sport?" she asked.
[ ] I dunno, what do you usually do for fun? [ ] Maybe I should have her do her job for once. [ ] Let's go order Nazrin around! [ ] Secret naps! [ ] Actually, maybe I should just go with Hijiri...
Nice formatting bro. What text editor do you use? Also, that story was totally not about compassion. Self-sacrifice, sure, but bullying the King into promising not to let any animal be eaten ever again, just because he thinks you're pretty? That's hella selfish, and goes completely against the natural order. Also, what about plants? Don't they count for anything, just because they can't speak? I can't imagine a plant youkai reacting positively to such a tale.
That was the result of jumping from Notepad to Titanpad to Word and then back to Notepad. The original formatting was even worse, but after three sessions of posting, finding all the formatting errors, fixing it, posting it and finding even more errors, I admitted defeat.
I feel like there's something to be explored here. That scene where Kogasa was having trouble sleeping speaks to me in ways I still don't understand. Hijiri's putting us up here, we should make the effort.
"Stuff? I still don't know what you guys do all day." I wiped the tears off of my face.
Shou thought for a moment, then clapped a hand against my back. "Let me show you the shrine to Bishamonten, then. I've got a modest little spot of worship in the courtyard, being an avatar of Bishamonten and all." She made a polite but paper-thin attempt at humility.
"Please don't put any odd ideas in her head," Hijiri said through pursed lips.
"Don't worry. I'm just being friendly to her, that's all. Didn't you see how hurt her feelings were?"
I felt a stab of guilt. Of all people, I wouldn't expect a tiger youkai to be so sensitive. Maybe someday I'll tell her I faked the crying. Fifty years from now sounds good.
With our meager meals already finished, Shou was ready to go. She stood up and moved out of the dining room, and I followed her out through the back of the temple and into the courtyard. There was a patch of flowers here, some veggies growing over there, and a graveyard over thataway, even though the temple was so new I doubted that anyone was there yet.
As for the small shack that served as a shrine... it wasn't bad, or ugly or run-down or anything, but it had a very do-it-yourself feel to it. It kind of looked like an oversized shed, made out of rough-cut bamboo like it was made in a hurry. It could have used some paint, that's for sure.
The inside looked nicer than the outside. There was a bronze statue of the big guy himself, probably about one-third the size of a normal person. I glanced at Shou, then back at the statue. I couldn't see the resemblance, to be honest. Bishamonten was stocky and a little short, with a square face beneath his big, bushy beard. He was all muscle. I bet he'd be great at wrestling. A handful of candles gave off a rice-y aroma even when unlit. It's amazing all the stuff people can make out of rice.
"Like I said, it's not much." Shou scratched her neck. "Once people start coming in and donating, I've got plans for a statue that'll truly epitomize Bishamonten's might and dignity." She held her hands up, gesturing to the statue. "His left foot'll be stomping on an oni's head, and his right foot'll be on top of a chest of gold, for starters. Real gold, too, and..."
I tuned out the rest of her talking, wondering if she had interpreted my lack of a reaction as me being underwhelmed. Even though I was.
If you can be underwhelmed, and overwhelmed, can you be just whelmed? Reacting to something exactly as you ought to. I could easily imagine being whelmed by a good night's sleep or a friendly hello. It seemed like a very Zen thought.
"Are you tired?" Shou asked out of nowhere once her interior decoration lecture was over.
"Am I ever." I was awake now, at least, but my lack of sleep was constantly tickling at my eyelids.
"Everyone's a little emotionally fragile when they don't get enough sleep."
It took a moment to realize she was still talking about my weepy little outburst, and I got another stab of guilt for that.
"But I know just the thing for you."
Shou pointed up at a spot on the ceiling. I squinted and saw a small square opening. A trapdoor! I could already tell she was someone I was going to like.
With a long, lean arm, she reached up and dug her fingernails into the sliver between the trapdoor and the ceiling proper. She wrenched it open with a loud clatter. Sunlight beamed down through the hole, along with a small pile of dust bunnies. No skeletons or spiders fell out, but it was still a rather unsettling sight, as attics tend to be.
"I have a secret nap spot." She gave me a wink. "Even after I got used to waking up early, I still like a little rest after lunch every now and then. Can you fly?"
I nodded. Shou floated herself up through the door, and I followed. I had to point my umbrella up to fit through. Once we were both in the dusty hiding spot, she clicked the floor-door shut and rolled onto her back. She didn't seem to mind the sun being right in her eyes.
"Cozy." She sighed happily.
She kicked her shoes off and wiggled her toes in the open air. I took my place next to her, positioning myself to get the sun on my body without it showing in my eyes. My eyelids snapped shut. I felt like someone left a hundred-pound weight on my body, or if I'd been glued to the floor, but in a good way. I was right where I needed to be right now.
"I usually sleep in the nude," Shou said.
I expected some sort of follow-up, but she just let that awkward moment of over-sharing hang in the air.
That, uh, yep. I'm sure that's true, Shou.
I wasn't as weird about nudity as humans are. They can't see so much as a bare boob without losing their minds. I think it's mostly an act, though. Humans like nudity as much as anyone else. I have peeped in through windows and I have seen things. But still, I didn't want to be naked with a tiger woman in a hidden attic where nobody could hear me scream and my tasty, marbled thigh-meat was on display.
There was a few seconds of silence, then a chirp, then the screech of a cicada.
Stupid loud dumb stinky cicadas. I hate 'em. Does Hijiri like them? I know Buddhists are supposed to be all love and peace and accepting of every living creature, but what about if someone's whole purpose is to just sit around making loud sounds? If you had a neighbour, and her job was just to stand outside your window and yell at you all day, and then you punched her, who'd argue with you?
Getting frustrated had woke me up a little. Shou had already started snoring as I lay there damning the cicadas. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. No use getting mad at a whole species. The breaths cleared my mind and let the weight of tiredness push back down on me. Soon, I slipped out of consciousness into the dreamless sleep of a sunbathed nap.
I blinked back to reality and had one of those wonderful moments where you wake up from a nap and realize you've still got time for more sleep. I rolled over onto my side, arms and legs clutched around my umbrella, and went back to sleep.
Erp. Hello again, Shou. You seem to have grabbed onto me in your sleep. Goodness, you're strong. My arms were wedged tight to my body, so I bent my hand up to give her a wake-up touch. She responded with a sleepy murmur and tightened her grip. Double erp.
Although, I had to admit it was comfy.
Another while passed before I woke up. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. Maybe we slept for decades and when I woke up I was going to return to an abandoned village.
Or not, since Nazrin was still there. Her head peeked up through the trapdoor just enough for her front teeth to be visible. She poked Shou in the backside with a dowsing rod.
"Hooza-howa-gabuh?" Shou startled awake, flopping against me as she flailed around in search of her intruder.
"I should have figured I'd find you up here. I'm glad you're getting along with Kogasa, at least." Nazrin floated up through the door and gave Shou another poke.
"I'm awake, sheesh!" Shou sat up and glanced at the sun. "Crud, did I sleep through anything?"
"Not yet. Did you forget about who's arriving tomorrow?"
"Oh, that's right, uh... Keine Kamisomethingsomething?"
"Kamishirasawa. You know how important this is for Hijiri."
Ah yes, Keine. I'd heard some children talking about her before, with varying opinions, especially regarding homework. Only humans would come up with something as twisted as homework.
Then I'd try to scare them, and then they'd laugh at me and call me 'big sis' and ask for hugs. The nerve!
"So Hijiri wants to see you soon for a prep meeting. I told them you were telling her about Bishamonten's history, so your secret is safe for now."
Nazrin floated back down and shut the door behind her.
"Aren't we not supposed to lie?" I asked.
"We're not supposed to sleep past sunrise, either." Shou wiped the dust off of her collar. "Hey, nobody's perfect."
"She seems awfully grouchy. Shouldn't you get a better subordinate?" I coughed out some dust on my tongue. That'll show me for sleeping with my mouth open.
"She's a friend, and that's most important to me." Shou scratched her hair. "Plus, mice are a friend of Bishamonten, so she's good in my book."
"Really?" I opened the trapdoor back up.
"Yeah, it was great! Over a millennium ago, enemy forces had surrounded the city of Kutcha, a city with one of the best shrines to Bishamonten around. They were hopelessly outnumbered, but then he himself appeared at the northern gate and summoned hordes of golden mice from the ground." She waved her arms and flung her body this way and that. "The mice crawled up the legs of every archer and chewed the bowstrings off!"
"Where's Kutcha?" I asked.
"That's not important. What's important is that that was awesome." Shou hopped down the door.
"No argument here." I followed her back to the temple.
The sun was up high. We must've slept through most of the morning. Nazrin had stopped in the garden, knelt down with a mouse in her hand with a dozen more in front of her.
"Alright, minions. You know the drill, right? All the leaves like this," she gestured to the carrot and radish greens sticking up through the ground, "are for the temple. Everything else is yours. Keep an eye out for nasty grubs."
The mouse stood up on its hind legs and gave a salute. Nazrin set it on the ground.
"I'll be back soon." She smiled for once.
Shou dragged me through the open door before Nazrin could stand up. "C'mon, she'd die of embarrassment if you saw her like that."
Aww, that's just adorable.
The rest of the gang was seated around a table in the meditation room from earlier, even Cloudbrows was there. I'd have to learn his name sometime. Hijiri nodded at us.
"Naz is on the way," Shou said as she took her seat.
"Good, good." Hijiri smiled. "Did you tell Kogasa about the visitor?"
"I told her of her." Shou glanced away.
Nazrin came through the door, some dirt still on her knees, and took her seat between Shou and me.
"That's alright. We're all getting up to speed. Kamishirasawa teaches at a school in the village, and provides council for many important families in the Human Village. Despite having the blood of a youkai, a hakutaku to be precise, she is accepted and respected by humans. Quite a wonderful sign of progress, don't you think?"
Everyone else gave half-hearted nods, as if they'd heard this exact same story many times.
"So, because of that, let's leave a good impression on her. And a good impression starts with a clean temple. Murasa?"
"Polishing floors." Murasa straightened up.
"Dusting! Unzan'll help me get at the high spots."
Cloudbrows, who I could now confirm as Unzan, looked embarrassed at even being acknowledged.
"Nazrin, Shou, while I know that Bishamonten is your master and I can't compel you to do anything..."
"I'll make sure we clean the temple," Naz said.
"I'll do the old man proud!" Shou raised a fist and patted her bicep.
Everyone stood up and went to go for their cleaning tools, but Ichirin looked back at me, her eyes screaming 'a slacker, eh?'
"I'm going to give Kogasa a little briefing today, since she's still new here," Hijiri said. As if she was waiting for someone to notice, she rose up and motioned for me to follow her.
She led me through the temple, into the study where she'd told me about Banyan Deer earlier. Now that the sun was up, the place was a lot more bright and welcoming than before. I sat facing her, legs crossed, umbrella going across my lap.
"Things have been so busy here lately, I haven't had a chance to officially induct you into the Myouren temple."
Sneaky Hijiri, springing this on me when I least expected it. Though I suppose if I didn't like it, I could just shove off in the middle of the night. I'd go along with it for now.
"Do I get a cool title?"
She smiled. "No, sorry to disappoint you. But since you're going to be part of the temple from now on, you should get an introduction into how we present ourselves as Buddhists."
"Will I have to decanter anything?"
She fought the urge to chuckle. "No, no, I just want to make sure you..."
Her voice trailed off.
Aha. She was worried I'd ruin her big presentation. I started plotting how I could sabotage it.
"I'm sorry." She hung her head a little and actually looked actually sorry. "That wasn't very thoughtful of me, to assume you'd cause trouble."
Damn it, there's no way I could scheme against that sad face. I stroked my umbrella to soothe my soul. "Well, you've got good reason to think that."
"You're learning very quickly. You'll become a great addition to the Myouren temple, disciple Tatara."
"So I do get a cool title?" I beamed. "Disciple Tatara."
Hijiri stifled something else, not the urge to laugh, more like she's resisting the urge to hug me and not let go.
"I'm grateful for your enthusiasm, especially if you keep it for the cleaning."
I should've stalled for time.
"It looks like you're already making friends here. You're getting along well with everyone. Why don't you choose who you'd like to have be your first teacher?"
I considered the obvious options...
[ ] Hijiri, please-iri. [ ] Shou. She might not be that pious, but darn it, she's friendly. [ ] Or Nazrin, if I actually wanted to learn things. [ ] Murasa. Maybe she meditates as good as she cooks.
...but there are still plenty of new people to meet.
[ ] I BET KYOUKO WOULD BE PEACEFUL AND QUIET [ ] Ichirin and Unzan because I can press their buttons real easy