Naoe was never much of a reader, but the centuries made him more of one. As time swept over the land, books became his only unchanging connection to the world of his birth. Even spirits, even the Yami Sengoku, bore the etching of the years. But a book stopped time at the instant of its creation.
Not entirely, of course--these new editions were in modern Japanese. The orthography struck him as childish; it annoyed him. And it seemed absurd that the very people Kenshin-kou had called him to protect should annoy him merely by simplifying their kanji.
In his heart, he looked down on them. He had no sympathy for them. He could pretend, but underneath his punctilious shell lived no compassion.
He thought all that by rote tonight. He was too tired to flagellate himself, drained by battles with spirits—and with Takaya-san. They'd parted on bad terms again, and with no immediate duty to discharge, Naoe had gone home. It was 7:30 p.m., and he was going to go to bed and read: a paperback he'd picked up that afternoon of Akinari's Tales of Moonlight and Rain. He started with the story, "Demon." He didn't really remember it but chose it on the strength of a diverting title.
A priest traveling through a town was mistaken for a demon...
"Yoshiaki?" Naoe's mother peeked in at the door. "Would you like dinner?"
"No thanks, Mom. I'll get something later."
"Okay. I'll put leftovers in the fridge." She left.
He yawned and went back to his book. They mistook the priest for another priest who'd gone mad and begun terrorizing the town...
"Naoe, you're a sorry excuse for a monk." Kagetora-sama's face was a marble wall, unbreachable. He wore the face of his second life, but that didn't matter. Naoe would recognize that wall if he were blind.
It's a dream, said a voice at the back his mind. It didn't help. All life was all a dream. And only the Enlightened could see through the mists, right?
Kagetora-sama sneered. "You'll never reach Enlightenment. You don't even want Enlightenment. You're a slug crawling around in the dark, wailing about how unfair it is that you can't be a happy little slug."
Yes, Kagetora-sama was marble—pale stone—now wearing Takaya-san's face.
Of course, he was pale. He was dying, his soul hammered too thin by centuries of sacrifice. Not marble—no—more like aluminum foil, blinding bright in the sun and crumpling and tearing at the slightest vibration.
Naoe reached out to him. "Takaya-san." He held that spectral face in his hands. It stared, unmoving, no more fire in its eyes. Slick and clammy, like a mushroom in the earth.
"Naoe," it seemed to breathe. And then, he slumped to the ground, Takaya-san.
Naoe caught his limp, dead form and crushed it against his chest. "Kagetora-sama." He shook him to wake him. "Kagetora-sama!" Over and over, he cried out his name. (Why not "Takaya-san"?)
Where is his soul? Why won't his body release it?
But this was his soul, this heap of flesh collapsed in the ultimate death.
It was insupportable. I will not let you go. Naoe needed him—needed—there must be some of him, some essence left in this form, in this soul. Traces decaying, like a rain-soaked straw man, in his arms. I have to take you in. I have to take what's left.
He could see a blue vein in Takaya-san's neck. He bent and tore the flesh as a vampire would; it fell away like wet plaster. Cold as water, and beneath, blood thick as syrup cooling. Brown. He peeled the skin from the skull in strips; they stuck in his mouth like boiled seaweed. The skull beaded with blood over bones of silver, steel. Wall. Staring—no—no eyes. Empty sockets.
Where were the eyes?
Had he eaten them already? He hadn't; he would have felt them inside. Where had the eyes gone? The fire? The life?
Naoe started awake, heart thundering. He froze, not daring to move. Awake. Reading lamp yellow, book fallen on his chest. He lay propped on pillows, facing the door—the familiar door to the bedroom of this body's childhood.
He took a deep breath, glanced at the clock: 9:39 p.m. The house was quiet. Mother and Father would already be in bed.
When he took up the book, all he'd read came back: the town's priest fell in love with his serving boy and forgot his religious devotion. When the boy got sick and died, the priest, inconsolable, refused him burial. Finally, he ate his corpse sooner than see him decay to nothing.
That was as far as Naoe had read. It made him sick to think of it.
So he took another breath and read on.
After that, insane, the priest roamed the town disinterring and devouring corpses, until another priest, a venerable teacher, agreed to help the townspeople be rid of this demon. He came to see the mad priest in the ruins of his temple and led him again to religious devotion by presenting him a question for the training of his mind.
After a year's reflection on this question, the mad priest attained Enlightenment and disappeared, released from this world.
To Naoe, this ending was like a poem in a language he did not speak. He could imagine himself surrounded by faces smiling in understanding while he could comprehend no more than a pretty string of sounds.
Kagetora-sama would comprehend.
Or would he?
The question went:
"Over the inlet the moon shines brightly
While the breeze whispers calmly among the pines.
For whom is the gift of this purity—
The view on this long night?"
When the mad priest had reflected for a year, his teacher returned to him and said:
"For whom indeed but thee, to
Cross the holy border."
I have no teacher to speak so to me. I want no teacher.
My teacher is the boy who drives me to madness.
The purity of moonlight is nothing to me. I will never be the teacher who brings peace through his compassion. I will never know Enlightenment.
I'm a sorry excuse for a monk.
I will always be inferior to him.
I don't even have the courtesy to have dinner with my mother.
Naoe squeezed his eyes shut and let the tears leak down his face. If only he could tear his flesh open, it seemed to him he might disgorge this demon self through his streaming blood.
But the scars beneath his sleeves spelled out a tale of how he'd tried that before, and it hadn't worked.