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Devotion

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In the encampment at Kawachi, Aterui and More waited with Sakanoue no Tamuramaro’s forces for the answer from the Capital; whether the emperor would recognize the Emishi and allow a reconciliation, or whether they would treated like beasts or demons and marched into the Capital to be humiliated.

Hirate was there as well, serving as Aterui’s attendant. He made the decision for himself to accompany them, to follow Aterui no matter what happened. He wanted to personally make sure that Aterui and More would be treated with the respect and dignity they deserved in the Yamato camp, even if only by one person.

The soldiers warily kept their distance from them, but when they worked up the courage to approach, it was with jeers and taunts, even spitting at the Emishi. To the soldiers’ eyes, at best they were defeated prisoners of war who ought to be in chains, rather than honorable generals negotiating peace. At worst, they were less than human, and hardly deserved to live.

Hirate used his presence as best he could to spare Aterui and More from the Yamato soldiers’ harassment. By acting as messenger, servant, and general go-between in the camp, Hirate was able to keep Aterui from having to deal with anyone except lord Tamuramaro. Whether the soldiers stared or spat at him, or even kicked and beat him, Hirate was prepared to endure any torment, if it meant that Aterui wouldn’t face the same treatment.

In Aterui’s tent, Hirate had just finished his tasks, and bowed to take his leave, when Aterui stopped him.

“Hirate, I wanted to properly thank you for everything you’ve done for me up until now. I may have been the son of the chief, but you were the one who showed me the true heart of the Emishi.”

“Lord Aterui, I’m honored, but what brought this on?” It’s too soon for the verdict to have come back yet. Besides, the soldiers would have taunted me with it if they had known there was bad news.

Aterui reached out a hand to take hold of Hirate’s arm, but Hirate couldn’t help but flinch away from even a light touch. Aterui had suspected that Hirate was suffering for his sake, and now that his suspicions were confirmed, his heart ached for Hirate who had followed him so loyally for so long. Hirate bowed his head, unable to face Aterui’s pained expression.

“You were the one who resented the life I lived without knowing any hardships, so why are you enduring so much now just to make my life easier?” Aterui asked, gently pleading for him to stop sacrificing himself for Aterui’s comfort.

“It’s true that I once resented you because of the differences between us,” Hirate admitted, “but you inspired me to hold onto my pride as an Emishi and keep fighting for all our sakes.” Hirate looked Aterui straight in the eyes as he gave his passionate declaration. “You gave me something to believe in. I realized back then that you were someone worth following, someone worth risking my life for.”

“Hirate… I want you to know it’s been one of the greatest honors of my life to have been worthy of your respect.”

Aterui would always say things like that with such a straightforward and honest expression, and Hirate couldn't meet his eyes. “Lord Aterui, I should be the one saying that.”

“I mean it, which is why I want you to go home.” Aterui raised Hirate’s head, wanting to have this serious conversation face to face. “More and I are prepared to face our fates here according to the judgement of the Capital, but you’re different. You don’t have to stay here.” Aterui put on a cheery grin, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Besides, with Tamuramaro’s help, we’ll be able to make peace, and the Emishi will surely be recognized, so there’s nothing you need to worry about.”

Hirate knew just as well that things were far from certain, and he put on a determined face. “Even if you say that, I won’t abandon you here without even knowing the Capital’s decision. I swore to follow you. Don’t ask me to leave you now.”

Aterui met Hirate’s eyes with a serious expression. “In the Capital, we ran into Takuma who planned to follow after Lord Azamaro in death, but I convinced him to come home with us, didn’t I? He even has a beautiful girlfriend now. You do too, don’t you?”

“Yes, her name is Takina. She helped guide us in the Capital.” Hirate didn’t want to think about how he left her to follow Aterui to the Capital instead, but they had both accepted when he left that they might never see each other again.

Carefully, mindful of the bruises he now knew Hirate was hiding beneath his tunic, Aterui took hold of him by the shoulders. “I want you to promise me that you’ll go home to your Takina, no matter what happens to me.”

Hirate bowed his head so Aterui couldn’t see his eyes.

I may not be like Lord More, who could boldly declare that he would share your fate as an equal, but I can at least stay with you to the end. Please forgive me for deceiving you, but if the worst should happen, I don’t want you to die with any regrets about me. I already made my decision long ago, and I know my spirit will return to my village even after I’ve left this world, so whether I’m alive or dead, I’ll go home to her,

“I promise.”