Sometimes Minami dared to dream about this moment when he would be able to visit the God’s shrine. Every year as he saw crowds going towards the forest, the boy imagined being a part of them. From the talks he overheard, Minami tried to picture how big and beautiful that place could be; how friendly were monks and students; the God blessing people with his visit, and kind words. In Minami’s imagination, this place was divine and magical, almost perfect - and as the view behind the gates opened Minami’s eyes filled with new light. He was right.
“We will go to see the high priest, Kusou-san. I…. Minami?”
Jirou let the other monk go and turned at the boy from a bit further. Minami was still standing by the gates, trying to capture every detail, but there were just too many of them. His head felt dizzy from bright colors and enchanting architecture. His eyes followed building after building, and as far as he could see there was no end. Somewhere in the very distance, Minami saw students walking and the boy for a moment imagined himself being a part of their group. Of course, he had no clue why Jirou brought him here, but Minami couldn’t help but hopefully look forward to what awaited him there.
“Let’s go boy, we don’t have the whole day…” Jirou urged him, but his lips shuttered, holding back the smile.
“Thank you…” Minami ran towards Jirou with a wide smile. He couldn’t tell exactly what he was thanking for, but the boy knew why Jirou did it and that reason was enough.
However, Jirou’s expression is something Minami couldn’t read well. As if he tried to apologize for something in advance. But he had no clue that there couldn’t be anything worse than what Minami had to go through already. This shrine was his escape from all the darkness that followed him in the village. It could have been the start of Minami’s new life.
They passed through a large square stage, surrounded by dozens of paper lanterns, and the other fascinating shrine, which was completely closed from the outside, decorated by long hanging ropes with bells on top. No matter where Minami gazed, there was only peace and light.
“There is a pond….” Minami’s jaw almost dropped as he was able to get a peek of a garden, before the elder man called the boy to enter a building, just next to the shrine. Minami’s hands sweated as he thought of the possibility of meeting the God there.
“Kusou-san, this is Minami. We talked about him yesterday.” Jirou waited until Minami stood by his side and then spoke with a man at the table.
Minami deeply bowed for him. It was such an honor to meet someone so important in the shrine, that the boy wasn’t sure his vocabulary was rich enough to find the right words.
“It’s a pleasure to me---”
“Oh, yeah? I don’t remember.” The man didn’t bother to lift his head, he only gave Minami a quick glare before going back to some papers on his table.
“You promised that he could stay, Kusou-san. Minami has nowhere else to go. I’m sure there is a free bed in the students’ quarters.” Jirou didn’t give up, but the youth next to him felt something hard stuck in his throat.
“And since when are homeless people our problem, Jirou? I don’t feel any spiritual energy coming from him, he is completely useless to the shrine and one more mouth to feed if he stays.” Kusou talked back with a bored and a bit insulting voice. Minami thought he had to say something for himself.
“I… I can do a lot of things…. and help everywhere you need, sir… I---”
“How dare you speak without permission?! See Jirou, this peasant doesn’t have any manners. He would be just a burden.” Kusou interrupted the boy, raising his voice. Minami never met this man and yet he felt like that was something personal. The boy pressed his lips harder together, hiding shivering hands behind the back. He didn’t want to go back.
“So he will learn. I will take him under my watch. You won’t even notice him.” Jirou stepped a little bit forward as if he was ready to say something more if needed. Finally, Kusou looked up. They stared at Jirou for a long minute.
“If he disturbs the students or makes the slightest mistake… it’s on your shoulders Jirou. And I will personally report Ryou-sama about you breaking rules again.” Kusou glared at Minami again, making the boy flinch. The last thing he wanted was to bring trouble for Jirou.
“Just try. I would love to hear what Ryou-sama has to say about that.” Minami thought he saw Jirou’s lips curving into a smile with his words. Minami hardly swallowed saliva when they both casually mentioned the God’s name.
“Fine. But he’s not staying at the students’ quarters, he would only disturb them. Put him in the storage building, and don’t you dare give this peasant new clothes.” Kusou let his eyes down at the papers as if both Jirou and Minami were not here anymore.
Jirou had not said a word, but Minami quickly bowed again, before the elder man gently placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and took him out of the building. Minami just outside realized how hard he was shivering.
“I’m… I’m so sorry… Jirou-san… causing you trouble and…”
“Child, believe me, it's my pleasure to go against him.” The older man exhaled deeply, scratching his head. “You didn’t cause any trouble boy. I’m sorry this is as much as I can do.”
All he could do… Jirou already did more for him than anyone else in Minami’s life. The high priest didn’t like Minami for now, but the boy wanted to prove to him that he wasn’t a burden. Minami knew it may not be easy, but if he didn’t give up until now, he couldn’t miss this chance life gave him. Ryou-sama was listening to his prayers after all. Minami wanted to believe so.
At least he was here. At least he could wake up every morning and pass through the gorgeous garden, give his prayers next to the main shrine. At least Minami could not only be useful but feel like he was helping others.
“Hey, peasant! Catch this!” A loud voice shouted.
Minami was standing next to the main gates, making sure there was not a single leaf on the white gravel. He was just in time to notice a group of students nearby when a handful of tiny stones flew at him. Minami raised his hand to protect his face at least, but stones painfully hit his side and hand.
“Whoops.” One of the students pushed Minami down on the hard gravelly ground, as the group passed him through the gates. “Watch where you are going, peasant!” Their laughs soon disappeared. Minami sat, holding on to his hurt hand, when falling he ripped the old material of his clothes a bit. Skin got bruised.
Sun was about to set down, and students went to lighten up the lanterns. Minami wasn’t allowed to do that. His job was to make sure the yard, garden, and floors inside the buildings were always clean, dishes and students' clothes washed. And for that Minami was allowed to stay in the old storage room at the end of the shrine, he could eat with everyone in the dining room. He was given the old clothes of one of the previous students that were a little bit baggy on him but the youth didn’t mind. Minami convinced himself that life in the shrine wasn’t as bad as it could be. He tried to justify how the students behaved with him. Even if a few weeks had already passed, Minami was still a stranger, they didn’t have time to get to know the boy better. He tried to come to the students a few times himself, but they were still not ready to accept him.
Minami believed that neither of them wanted something bad to happen to him, they were just teasing. On the other hand, the real darkness was still visiting the boy at night. Even the light of the shrine wasn’t able to protect Minami from Youkais, who would still come to him at night. Even here he couldn’t escape the curse, so maybe the monks acting rude and students who didn’t want to be friends weren’t that wrong.
The boy slowly got back on his feet, holding the broom tightly, watching at the stairs. Life here wasn’t as Minami first expected it to be, but he still found things that made him happy. Colors. The shrine’s warmth. The smell of incense. The morning toll of a big bell near the entrance of the shrine. Pond with colorful koi fish and the most important - people. Minami was just simply happy he could hear and see them everyday, one way or another, to be a part of the community, not alone anymore.
As the boy was just standing and staring, how the dark orange hides in the clouds, turning the sky grey, he saw a silhouette at the top of the stairs. Definitely not a student. Even though the shrine officially was open for visitors only during the celebration, sometimes random travelers would come to pay their respects to the God. Some of them were from distant villages, some just searching for peace. Monks allowed them to come inside and pay respects to the God. The God apparently didn’t even visit the shrine.
“Good evening.” Minami greeted the guest with a smile on his face, bowing a bit.
As the person was getting closer, Minami could see his features better. The man was maybe only a couple of years older than Minami, in a long pitch black yukata. Minami caught himself thinking if he wasn't cold wearing only that light material.
“Evening… indeed.” His voice was deep, almost hypnotizing with a pleasant tone.
The man passed through the gate and stopped right after it. His back was straight, hands hidden in sleeves. Minami knew he shouldn’t be staring that much, but the man’s skin was pale like paper, his black hair and dark eyes - Minami for a moment thought he was looking at a ghost.
“Would you like… to wash your hands at the pavilion and pray?” The boy suggested after a moment since the man wasn’t moving. His eyes however were wandering around, as if he would be searching for something. Someone.
After Minami’s question, the man slowly turned his odd eyes at the boy. Minami felt like he got stuck in the ground. The visitor was looking at him but as if he could see something more than just the boy.
“Pray?” The young man quietly laughed. “I was just searching for something and I think…. I found it.”
It? The situation was weird. Minami felt his heart pounding, cold sweat running down his back. The boy wasn’t feeling comfortable, more than that, the first time Minami really wanted to just walk away, but he couldn’t move. However, the man finally did. He stepped towards the youth, leaving just a tiny gap between them. Minami looked up at the man, feeling how every inch of his body became tense.
“What is your name?”
The boy could almost sense hot clouds of air coming from the stranger, every time he exhaled.
“Min-ami.” He answered, with a crashing voice, completely immobilized.
“Minami…” The man repeated slowly, intrigued. Corners of his lips went up as if seeing the boy's reaction was fun. Minami’s eyes became wider, as he saw how the man’s beautiful face drowned in creepy shadows. “Bright….”
The visitor’s expression suddenly changed, he looked away from the boy, glanced at the sky, and then turned around to leave as if nothing happened. Last time before disappearing on the stairs, he glared at Minami, breathless and shivering. The boy had never felt such dark energy from someone before. Once he blinked again, the mysterious visitor was gone. Minami gripped his chest, still not being able to look away from the spot where the man disappeared.
“Hey!!” The youth heard yelling coming from behind. Like snapping back from a strange dream, Minami flinched. One of the students was running towards him, but he passed through the boy as if he was just empty space.
Minami wanted to warn the boy about the visitor, but there was no need because the other students who went to light lanterns were already back. The boys gathered together around the excited one in bright red cheeks. Minami was covered by the shadow created by the gate like he was invisible, but he heard everything.
“What’s happening, Takao?” One of the students asked.
The boy named Takao was trying to catch his breath, and say something, nervously kept stepping in the same spot, waving hands.
“He-e is here…. the God… Ryou-sama came back to the shrine.”