Some people said that when the worst happened, the bottom dropped out of their world. For Arima, it was the roof.
Up until that point, he had been as content as it was possible for a human being to be. He'd been in the sanctuary, kneeling before the altar and meditating on the glorious mysteries of his chosen god. The air was heavy with the scents of incense, flowers, and ancient secrets. The sanctuary was empty save for him, and he relished the sense of being alone in this sacred place, absorbing the warmth of the sun as it slanted through the magnificent stained-glass windows, creating rays of light as brilliant as the god's own arrows. When they fell across his shoulders, he could imagine that it warmth of a divine blessing.
Great Lord Aurite, lead me on your paths. Bless me with your guidance. Grant me the wisdom to know your will, and the strength to uphold it...
The litany was a familiar one. He'd read it aloud a thousand times, and repeated it silently thousands more. After all, Arima was the high priest of Aurite, god of law and order, and he would be a poor servant if he didn't have every detail of the worship service memorized by heart. Now he finished the last of the familiar words, but lingered, still kneeling, looking up at the golden statue of the being who commanded his utmost devotion.
Years ago, he had been nobody. His family had despaired of him, considering him to be too pliant, too lacking in ambition to ever make anything of himself. He'd never let that idea bother him. He had never seen any reason to make waves in the world. He was happy being told what to do and following orders. Following the rules made society function. Why go against the grain? It wasn't as if the rules were put there arbitrarily. You sowed your seeds in the spring and harvested the fruits in the fall because that was the way nature worked, and trying to assert yourself to do things any other way would leave you with nothing for your efforts. That was his philosophy, and it had served him well thus far.
It had been early in the morning when his life had changed forever, and he'd been out in his garden, pulling weeds and thinking about which vegetables would be ready to harvest soon, when a blaze of golden light had dazzled him, and he had looked up to find the source of the glare.
Afterwards, he couldn't have said what he had seen. He had been overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the person regarding him. It had filled him with the sense that he was utterly insignificant, the merest insect who would live and die in the blink of an eye without leaving more than a faint trace of his passing, and that this being was so much older and more powerful than he was that he could never even begin to comprehend it. At the same time, he felt the thrilling knowledge that of all the people in the world, this glorious being had chosen to notice him.
And then the god reached out and laid a hand on Arima's shoulder.
I am Aurite, god of law and order, and I have found you worthy. From here on in, you will be my servant, favored by me above all other mortals.
The words had filled Arima with a piercing joy that left him trembling. From that moment on, he had devoted his life to the service of his god, and had been blissfully happy in that pursuit. Three times since then, Aurite had visited him again - twice to issue commands, once to commend him on his handling of a particularly delicate problem. Arima had walked on air for weeks after that encounter, and lived in anticipation that he might again someday earn a few words of praise from his idol. He had believed from that first miraculous moment that as long as he was pursuing Aurite's goals, there was nothing in the world that could make him unhappy.
All that changed when he heard the crash. Arima's head snapped up, and he stared at the hole that had just opened up in the ceiling above him, taking a portion of the overhead arches with it. Dust and roofing tiles rained down on the pews and shattered in the aisles. The roaring continued, as something massive rolled all the way down the temple's sloping roof to finally crash into the street below. Screams of fright rang out.
Arima surged to his feet and raced down the aisle, stumbling over the debris as his mind whirled. What he found outside was worse than he could have imagined. The entire bell tower had come loose from its moorings and fallen, going in seconds from a marvel of architectural beauty to a splintered mess. He stared at it. He had been in that bell tower only that morning, ringing the bell that called the faithful to morning rituals. It had been whole and sound then, without any sign of wear or weakness. There had been no wind, no tremor in the earth, absolutely nothing to explain why a large chunk of his temple should suddenly decide to fall off. Strangest of all, the bell itself - a beautiful thing, plated in gold and ornamented with sacred symbols - had shattered like glass. Looking at it made Arima's stomach turn over.
Something is very, very wrong, he thought.
White-faced and shaking, he walked back into the temple.
Atsushi peered morosely out the window and sighed.
"It's supposed to be spring," he complained to the world in general.
The world ignored him. Rain continued to lash at his window, spattering in great fat drops that almost completely obscured his view. The sky outside was so dark it was nearly black, even though it was mid-afternoon, and the streets of the town looked more like rivers. Despite the fact that it was, as Atsushi had said, spring, the wind that was just now howling around his home had an icy bite to it.
And he still had to go out into it.
Resignedly, Atsushi turned away from his contemplation of the window and unhooked his cloak from the coat rack. With the hood pulled low over his face and the cloak wrapped tightly around himself, he took one last breath of warm, dry air before opening the front door. A blast of wind nearly blew him back inside, but he gritted his teeth and stomped his way out into the storm. Rain or no rain, he still planned to do some business at some point this week, and for that, he needed to go shopping.
It was as bad as it looked outside. Within minutes, Atsushi was shivering as the wind found every gap in his clothing. The puddles were three inches deep in places, and even his best boots couldn't keep all the water out. As he trudged through the mud and gloom, he scolded himself for waiting so long to do the shopping. Yes, there were good reasons why he'd let his provisions drop so low - he'd recently had a large party check into his inn, and they had both eaten heartily and kept him too busy to go off and restock - but at the moment he felt that nothing excused putting himself through this.
Still, at least with this sort of weather he could expect that not too many people would be dropping by for a drink. No one with any sense would be traveling today, and his local customers would probably be content to sit and warm themselves by the fire until he came back if they dared to show up at all. His inn would be fine without him for a little while.
All the same, he had plenty of incentive to get his work done as quickly as possible. He made stops at the butcher's, the baker's, the greengrocer's, and a few other places, gradually filling a sack with things he'd need in the coming days. Everyone he spoke to had to comment on the awful weather.
"It's like the gods are angry about something," said the greengrocer's wife, casting an anxious glance at the carving above her shop door. It depicted Pearlite, the god of springtime and beauty. Anyone whose livelihood was based on growing things tended to generally kept a shrine to him somewhere in their home or workplace. He was one of the more popular gods, but not one of those known for his fairness or good temper.
"If that's so," said Atsushi, "I hope they calm down soon."
The woman nodded in solemn agreement. "It's never good when the gods are angry. It's always us little people who suffer."
That was an ominous note to end a conversation on, and Atsushi felt a little chill crawl down his spine that had nothing to do with the weather outside as he started for the door. Still, that had been the last stop on his grocery list, and he could now go straight home to where it was warm and dry. Keeping that thought firmly in mind, he opened the door and began the long slog home.
If anything, the weather had only worsened while he'd been out shopping. The sun had started to set, making the world colder and darker than ever. Thunder rumbled, and the occasional fork of lighting flashed overhead. It really did feel like some supernatural force was bearing down on the little town. Atsushi tried to ignore the thought. Binan was a peaceful town full of ordinary people who generally tried to keep out of the gods' way. Why would anything here draw their attention? No, this had to be just the last of the winter storms blowing itself out before spring settled in for good.
Even as he was thinking that, Atsushi was struck in the face by a blast of wind and icy water, and he reeled backwards, trying to protect his face with the arm that wasn't occupied by carrying his sack of groceries. The wind continued to howl around him with a ferocity that nearly blew him off his feet. Casting around for shelter, he saw a narrow alley between two nearby buildings. At least there, he thought, he could get away from the wind for a little while. He splashed towards it through the puddles and dove into its shelter.
It was, as he'd hoped, a little better there - not much dryer, but at least the wind couldn't reach it easily, which made it a little warmer. Atsushi pressed himself into the meager shelter of a bit of overhanging roof and set about trying to wring some of the water out of his sleeves. It was a losing battle.
"When I get home," he muttered, "I am going to wrap up in a blanket and sit in front of the fire for a week."
As if in response to his complaint, a bolt of lightning flashed overhead, making him jump. For an instant, the alley was flooded with brilliant blue-white light, and that instant was just enough for Atsushi to realize that he wasn't alone. What he had taken to be a pile of garbage, he realized now, was a human figure lying sprawled on the ground. Atsushi exclaimed and dropped his bag to rush over to the fallen stranger's side.
"Hey," he called, shaking the figure's shoulder gently. "Are you all right? Can you hear me?"
The form - a man, he realized - twitched a little, making a feeble effort to get up before collapsing again. Atsushi's mind was made up in an instant. Very carefully, he levered the stranger off the ground and pulled him into a standing position. The stranger could barely keep himself on his feet, and leaned most of his weight on Atsushi, but he was so emaciated that he seemed to weigh less than Atsushi's sack of groceries. With one hand carrying his things and the other arm wrapped around the stranger, Atsushi began walking slowly back towards the road.
"Hold on," he told his new friend. "I'll get you somewhere safe. Just hang on."
They made their slow, shuffling way up the street, while the rain fell in a silver curtain around them. It was a good thing Atsushi knew the way home so well, because between the storm and the gathering dusk, it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Still, Atsushi staggered grimly onward, breathing heavily from the exertion, until at last they reached the front door of his inn. With a sigh of relief, he shoved the door open and hauled his burdens inside.
He was relieved to see that the inn's public room was still empty. Clearly, no one was going out on a day like this if they didn't have to. That left him free to devote all his attention to his companion. He dumped his sack on the floor to deal with later, and instead focused his attention to guiding the man over to the fireplace. At least the rain hadn't gotten down the chimney enough to put the fire out, so it was still going strong. Atsushi gently nudged his new friend into the chair nearest the fire. Only then did he stop to take a good look at the person he'd rescued.
It was, as he'd guessed before, a young man, probably about his own age. He was filthy and half-starved, dressed in dark rags that might have been blue or black before the elements had gotten hold of them. His skin was very pale, and his hair looked as though it might be some pale color as well, though it was so matted with mud and rainwater that it was hard to be sure. His eyes were closed, and he took rapid, shallow breaths.
"Hey," said Atsushi. "Are you okay?"
"Mm," said the man weakly. "I'm cold."
"Just relax," said Atsushi. "I'll get you warmed up in no time."
He added a few more logs to the fire and stirred it until it blazed. Then he went to fetch some spare blankets. When he came back, his new friend had pulled his chair up close to the fire and was holding his hands as close to the flames as he could come without scorching them.
"Here," said Atsushi, tucking the blanket gently around him. "Are you starting to feel better?"
"A little," the stranger admitted. He turned to face Atsushi. His eyes were very green in his pale face. "You didn't have to do this to me. I don't have any way to repay you..."
Atsushi shook his head. "I didn't help you because I expected to be paid. I did it because you needed help."
The man turned back to the fire. "You're very kind."
"Not really," said Atsushi. "So, what happened? Can you tell me?"
The stranger frowned. "I don't know. I can't seem to remember."
"You can't remember?" Atsushi repeated.
"No," said the stranger. "It's all a blank." His face creased in concentration. "I think someone was angry at me... Yes, I believe that's right. I don't remember what it was, only that they said they had to punish me, and the next thing I knew..." He held up his hands helplessly. "I was on the ground."
Atsushi frowned. Part of him insisted that it was dangerous for him to let a stranger like this into his home. Binan was a small town, and he knew everyone in it, and he couldn't even think of someone who had a family resemblance to this person. What had he done that was so wrong that he'd ended up like this? Everything Atsushi knew said he ought to turn this man over to the town watch and let them deal with him. At the same time, Atsushi's native compassion was telling him that he couldn't possibly turn away from someone who was so obviously in need. Whoever this man was, he was cold and hungry and wet and possibly injured. He needed help.
"Do you know your name?" he asked.
That question apparently required less thought.
"I think it's Kinshiro," the stranger answered.
Atsushi smiled. "That's a good name. I'm Atsushi."
The stranger smiled slightly. "Just what I needed."
Atsushi laughed in spite of himself. His name meant "warm", and warmth was certainly just what anyone would need on a day like today.
"Glad to be of service," he said. "Listen, Kinshiro, do you want to stay here for a while? I have lots of room."
Kinshiro's expression closed. "I don't want to be a burden. If you don't mind, I'll just sit by your fire until this rain lets up, and then I'll be on my way."
"To where?" asked Atsushi skeptically.
Kinshiro didn't answer. What could he say? He could barely even walk in the state he was in. Even if he had somewhere to go, he was in no shape to travel.
"Look," said Atsushi. "I've been trying to run this inn by myself, but it's really too much for one person alone. If you don't mind hard work, you can have one of the rooms upstairs in exchange for your help. You can at least stay long enough to get your strength back and maybe earn a little traveling money. You can leave once you have a better idea where it is you want to go. Does that sound fair?"
Kinshiro thought about this for a moment, then slowly nodded.
"It sounds fair," he agreed solemnly. "And I don't see myself getting any better offers."
Atsushi beamed. "Good. Then let's start by getting you cleaned up. I'll start getting a bath ready. Are you hungry? Wait, that was a silly question, of course you're hungry. Let me get you something to eat first...
"You don't have to go so much trouble..." Kinshiro began, but his expression made it clear that he had already realized it was no good to fight. Atsushi just smiled at him.
"Welcome to the Cloverleaf Inn," he said.
To Be Continued...