Serpent of Time

Chapter 36

Cleaning Boy

Ryô awoke with a start and momentarily panicked that she’d overslept. She squinted at the watch on her left wrist and let out a sigh of relief.

She was curled up like a kitten on the tatami, tucked into the curve of Kuwada’s chest. They had gravitated together during the night, two bedraggled animals instinctively sharing body heat.

Holding her breath, she carefully rolled out from under his arm. The cold loss of that human warmth made her shiver.

Assured that Kuwada was sleeping soundly, Ryô tiptoed to the galley. Getting into the pagoda shouldn’t be a problem. She only needed an excuse. She filled one wooden bucket with rags and a scrubbing brush and another one with water.

With a conical straw hat pitched low over her eyes to hide her features, she gingerly opened the galley door and stepped outside.

The gray dawn erased the lines between the earth and the sky. Over the night, a disintegrating cloud had taken refuge in the mountain valley and was too lazy to work itself out.

Ryô bowed her head and started across the compound. Led more by her nose than her eyes, she came to the building that housed the kitchen and ducked beneath the eaves. She would wait here for the old delivery man and follow him to the pagoda.

But she could only wait so long. The spell kept the serpent on a tight schedule. Hurry up, old man, she said to herself, rocking back and forth and checking her watch over and over. The hands moved onward, no slower and no faster, as if mocking her distress.

The old man finally arrived, cheerfully jogging along with the yolk across his shoulders, the empty buckets bouncing at the end of their ropes. What took you so long? Ryô wanted to yell at him. Not so long ago she would have done exactly that, and with far less justification.

When he emerged a long minute later, she inched over to the corner of the building and scooted in behind him, trudging along like the most put-upon person in the world. He glanced back at her at one point, but only smiled and nodded. She didn’t doubt he’d seen straight through her. It didn’t matter as long as he played along.

The massive red walls of the pagoda emerged from the fog. She took a quick peek through the weave of her straw hat, then focused her gaze on the old man’s heels.

The side door was guarded by two soldiers. The old man squatted down and the soldiers helped themselves to the top bowls. He stood there as they slurped and chewed. Ryô started getting antsy again.

“What’s he here for?” the one on the left mumbled, his mouth full. Ryô imagined him jabbing his chopsticks at her.

Behind her, Kuwada barked, “Cleaning boy.”

His hand on her shoulder kept her from falling over. He did a good job sounding terrifically put out at being forced to get up this early in morning, though that could certainly be true too. Her relief quenched the surging panic.

“Cleaning boy?”

Kuwada said, “Lord Hatakeyama doesn’t want to offend the gods any more than necessary.”

Once he got his wits about him, the farm boy could adapt to his environment at the snap of a finger. A moment of silence followed. Even the most cynical of soldiers hesitated at endangering his place in the next world. The aura of Mt. Kôya only amplified every unanswered question and lingering doubt about the great beyond.

One of the soldiers grunted, got up, and lifted the bar from the door. Ryô and Kuwada and the old delivery man trooped into the pagoda. The door closed and the bar thumped back into place behind them.

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