Not long after his visit to the village, the year’s first snow covered the mountain. Stone and tree alike were coated in a thin layer of white. The snow sparkled in the faint winter sunlight, echoing the sounds of footsteps and falling drifts. Just as Sagiri had predicted, the cold’s arrival came hand in hand with illness. Shichi’s workroom, normally a place of quiet examination, was filled with his suffering peers. The scent of paper and herbs was now overwhelmed by the smell of sickness. Luckily, the ailments of the monks weren’t nearly as severe as the plague in the village. Most had been diagnosed with a mild cold and sent back to their rooms to wait it out.
“Can’t you just prescribe me some tamagozake?” Shusei asked, frowning at the cup of ginger tea Shichi had given him. He was the last of the day’s patients, and coincidentally the most petulant.
“I’m not going to give you another excuse to drink,” Shichi said, washing his hands in a shallow bowl. “You know we don’t have eggs here, anyway.”
“My mother always prepared it for me when I was sick.”
“Do I look like your mother?” Shichi asked, narrowing his eyes at the other monk.
“A little, when you glare at me like that.”
“All right, Shusei,” he replied dryly, opening a box of needles. “Give me your arm.”
“I don’t think acupuncture is really necessary. I’m feeling much better already,” Shusei insisted, clutching his hand to his chest. “This tea is wonderful.”
“You have a fever. Please give me your arm.”
Shusei still hesitated, clearly remembering the last time the other had performed acupuncture on him.
“I promise that it won’t hurt this time. Then again, there are some points on your face I could try...”
“All right, all right. Here,” Shusei said, quickly offering his hand. He shut his eyes, waiting with bated breath for the needle to pierce his skin. A minute passed and his feathers bristled with impatience.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Shusei said, wondering if Shichi was trying to tease him.
The tengu opened his eyes, his gaze drawing down to his hand. To his surprise, there were five thin needles pressed into specific points along his lower arm and palm. Shichi was already putting away his supplies, closing the box with a thin metal clasp.
“Maybe Sagiri slipped in here when my eyes were closed,” Shusei muttered, examining the needles with scrutiny.
“That sounds logical,” Shichi said, putting the box away on a shelf. He was relieved that he’d managed to keep his focus. This was the day that Kana would be visiting again. It had been a challenge to keep his mind on his patients and out of the clouds. He had heard that the plague in the village had subsided, allowing his worries to fade. Instead, he felt excitement at the prospect of seeing her. He knew he could no longer afford the luxury of distraction. Sagiri had caught him once, and if he were to start seeing Kana again, he could leave absolutely no evidence of it in his behavior. It was important to maintain the pattern of productivity and dedication he had built in the last few months.
“Well, I’d better go. I have errands to tend to,” Shichi said, shifting to stand.
“You can’t just leave these needles in me!” the younger monk exclaimed, sitting up anxiously.
“You seem to prefer Sagiri’s skill to mine. Why don’t you ask her to do it?”
After calming down his patient and assuring him that it had been a joke, Shichi finished tending to his symptoms and suggested that he rest for the remainder of the day. Shusei had no problem complying. The whole temple had been working particularly hard the past week and a day in bed was rather appealing.
With his work done, Shichi could finally make his way down the hundred steps and into the forest towards the old storehouse. The sight of his footprints concerned him, but fresh snow was already falling over the gaps. The evidence of his excursion would be hidden almost as quickly as it was made. By the time he reached the entrance of the structure, his own body had also been covered. The flakes stood out clearly against the black of his feathers and he shook them off with a shiver.
“There you are.”
Shichi looked up at the sound of Kana’s voice -- she had already arrived, seated patiently on the floor next to a stack of empty casks.
“I’m sorry,” he said, the sight of her making him forget the snow on his clothes. “Were you waiting long?”
“It’s all right,” Kana replied, watching as he sat down next to her. She leaned over, dusting the remaining snow from the top of his head. He took the opportunity to touch the side of her face, noticing that her skin was chilled. He remembered that humans had a lower body temperature than tengu, but it had never been more evident to him than now. Carefully, he pulled her into his arms, letting her rest her cold cheek on his collar.
“You’re so warm,” she murmured. “I want to borrow your feathers...”
“I don’t think you’d enjoy how I look without feathers,” he said under his breath, nearly cringing at the thought. She snickered against his chest, making him regret the mental image he’d given her. For a while they were quiet, simply appreciating each other’s presence. He never thought that he would see her in the old storage shed again, and part of him still questioned whether or not this was real. The biggest question, however, was what had been left unsaid back in the village.
“Kana,” he started, choosing his words carefully. “Can you tell me what you meant before... about already having a family?”
She didn’t answer immediately, though she’d known the question was coming.
“I’m so sorry,” she managed to say. “I should have told you earlier, but... I didn’t know how.”
Shichi closed his eyes, knowing his suspicions were about to be confirmed. He wondered if she could feel the anxiety in his pulse.
“Last year, my parents arranged a marriage for me. I had no choice.”
“I see,” he said, feeling suddenly guilty for holding her. He didn’t, however, let go.
“He’s much older than I am,” she said. Shichi decided not to remind her that he was also significantly older than she was. “But he’s a samurai, with strong relations to his daimyo. It was beneficial for our family.”
The monks of his temple didn’t have much interaction with human beings, but they were at least aware of the social and political systems that governed the land around them. In a village as small and remote as theirs, a samurai would likely be in the highest social class.
“I feel like a stranger in that house,” she said, her voice muffling as she spoke into his shoulder. “He only sees me as a vessel to bear children. It was why I was up in the mountains when I met you.”
“What do you mean?” Shichi asked, touching over her hair and letting it drape through his fingers.
“He wanted to start... that night. To try to have a child. I wasn’t ready, so I ran away.”
His hand stopped in place as he was forced to face reality. Kana had a husband. There were things that husbands and wives were expected to do. Another man viewed her as his property -- and even worse, it was all against her will. Kana noticed as he went still and sat upright to look him in the eyes.
“There is no love in my home,” she said. “But I find love... when I’m with you. I feel whole when we’re together. I feel like I could do anything.”
“So do I,” he replied. He hesitated before continuing, unsure if he wanted the truth. “Do you... have children, then?”
“I haven’t let him touch me,” she said, shaking her head. “It infuriates him. I’m worried that someday he’ll grow tired of waiting.”
Shichi was at a loss. Since he had met Kana, a barrage of unfamiliar, bizarre feelings had tormented him. Some of these were wonderful -- the sensations of love and longing, the way they hurt deep enough to make him feel truly alive. This newest feeling, however, was different. It felt like a disease, creeping into him and spreading beyond his control.
He had never felt jealousy before. Until then, his life had been free of attachment. He had always been content with what he had -- grateful for life, breath, and the roof over his head. Yet now, the image of a man he’d never seen before ran wantonly through his mind -- a man who kept Kana in his home, who desired her and had control over her.
He let go, his body stiffening as he sat back. This wasn’t acceptable. Thinking this way -- losing control of his emotions and allowing himself to feel resentment. This feeling, this envy, it was poison.
There was more than just the jealousy. The list of rules he was breaking grew every day -- from communicating with a human, to lying, having an intimate relationship, and now... with a married woman. How could he call himself a monk? Even normal men respected the vows of marriage, and monks were supposed to exemplify a standard of honesty and humility.
Overwhelmed, he put his head into his hands and took in a breath.
“Shichi,” Kana said, reaching for him. “If it’s against your morals, and you can’t... do this anymore. I’ll understand. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he answered. “It wouldn’t have made a difference. I won’t leave you, Kana.”
Her relief was evident in her expression. Leaning closer, she took him by the hands and touched her forehead to his.
“It must be so difficult,” he said. “Living that way.”
“He travels often, to the capital. I usually take those days to visit you.”
“And when he’s home?” Shichi said, clearly not sated by her answer. “What will you do when he tires of waiting? I wish I could help you. I wish there was something I could do.”
“Don’t worry yourself over it,” she said, stroking the top of his beak. “Let’s just be happy that we’re together.”
“Maybe you should be the monk,” Shichi muttered. It was amusing to him that he was getting emotional when, at the same time, Kana was soothing him with reason. He really was terrible at this.
“I eat too much to be a monk,” she admitted.
“And you talk quite a bit, too,” Shichi added.
“Is that so?” Kana said with a scowl, ruffling his feathers against the grain in a way she knew he hated.
“Ah, don’t! I’m sorry,” he begged, attempting to stop her, but failing. At that moment, he realized that she was right. They were together now, and that was what truly mattered.
For the next few weeks, Kana continued to visit him at the top of the mountain. As winter grew deeper and colder, her journeys became more arduous. Shichi had insisted that he visit her instead, but they both knew that it was much too dangerous. If they were caught by the monks, he would be severely reprimanded. If they were caught by the villagers, however, he would most certainly be killed.
It was one particularly cold afternoon that he was waiting in the storehouse entrance for her. Kana was late. The snow obscured his vision, whipping sideways with the wind and stinging the skin of his hands. When she finally appeared at the threshold, he led her in and shut the door firmly behind them. Shichi had long since repaired the holes in the walls and windows, doing his best to make the abandoned old structure somewhat habitable. Kana shivered audibly, quickly making herself at home in his arms. Whether this was an affectionate gesture or just another attempt to steal his body heat mattered little to him. He was just happy to see that she was safe.
“You shouldn’t have come. It’s practically a snowstorm out there,” he said, easing her down to the floor.
“Just a small one. Nothing I can’t handle,” she said, though it was clear that she was cold and exhausted. He brushed the ice from her outer robe, noticing the fur lining around her shoulders.
“What’s this?” he asked, touching the soft material. “Rabbit fur?”
“My sister gave it to me. She likes hunting.”
“Ah,” he said, letting his hand drop. It was unacceptable for him or any of the monks to hurt a living being, but he was in no place to judge the actions of others. “You mentioned her before. Haru, right?”
“Yes. I worry about her, sometimes. Mother and father want her to marry, but all she wants to do is run around in the woods.”
“So she’s exactly like you.”
“But it’s for the joy of the hunt. I find joy in... other things,” she said, her voice low and coy.
“Such as?” he asked, either coaxing her on or completely oblivious -- it was difficult to tell.
Instead of answering, Kana pressed her body closer to his. Her winter robe slid lazily past her shoulders as she nestled against his throat.
“Ah,” was all Shichi could manage to say, trying to ignore exactly how close she was. This grew more difficult as she continued, parting his robe with her hands. She kissed him once, then twice, and only after the third time did he hold her firmly by the shoulders in protest.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, glancing up. “You don’t want to?”
“O-of course I do,” he murmured, his eyes flickering sideways. “But... I’m a monk.”
“Well. Monks are generally... celibate.”
“Are you serious,” she said, her voice flat. She shifted upright, clearly unhappy with this development.
“You didn’t know?” he asked, his posture shrinking.
“How was I supposed to know that?”
“I thought it was common knowledge.”
“I don’t spend a lot of time with monks!” she snapped, bristling in defense.
“You spend a lot of time with me!”
“Well, you kind of failed to mention it.”
“It never came up!”
Kana looked back at him, unable to come up with a fair reply. Eventually, her scowl melted in defeat and she dropped her head onto his chest with a sigh.
“All right,” she mumbled. “I understand.”
Shichi wanted to hit himself. His hands were itching to mirror her touches, to learn how the pink skin beneath her robes would feel under his fingers. They had shown affection before, but nothing deeper than innocent embraces. This proximity, this complete and utter closeness, was making it impossible to think straight.
Why did this rule have to be the one where he drew the line? It was already too late to redeem himself. He was fraternizing with a human and betraying his mentor, not to mention the entire temple; he’d fallen into a relationship that was forbidden from every angle. Yet now, at this point, was where he had decided to be a proper monk?
Slowly, he lifted her chin, waiting for eye contact. When she looked at him, he realized that there wasn’t a thing in the world that he would deny her -- including this.
“But,” he said, his eyes intent as he spoke. “If it makes you happy...”
The brightness that he was so fond of returned to her face. She smiled, tugging the seams of his robe until their bodies matched once again.
“Are you sure?” she asked, her mouth touching the side of his face.
“Just be careful with me. I’m an old man, remember?"
“I’m not making any promises.”
The wind howled outside, bitter that, for the first time that winter, it was being utterly ignored.