Whatever Happened to…


, ,

Bel? Bel closed Kamitouki in the spring, as he told Hironah he would. He did so with deep regret, but Hironah’s death sealed his suspicion that the school was cursed. He went on to start a new school with another graduate of Kamitouki, following exactly the teachings prescribed by Blue and Takae. He led a happy and fruitful life, finally meeting his end during the Purges, when he refused to give up his Angemal students to an angry mob outside. Takae was his Guide into Elysium, where he stayed until being reborn two years later.

Yume? It took Yume years to get over Yoshiki’s death and the sudden losses of so many in her otherwise sheltered life. She did not return to University and for a time kept herself completely oblivious to the happenings of the outside world. It was only through the love and patience of her parents, Renta, and Tamaki that she finally recovered. Renta and Yume were married one year after Yoshiki’s death. They had six healthy and very happy children (their two sons were named for Yoshiki and Kaiya, respectively). As Yume found joy in her children and nephew, her heart began to heal, guided by Renta. Unlike her own mother, Yume became a model housewife.

Renta? Renta left Sirrah the day after Takae’s death. He realized that Yume needed him far more than the gang did. He left on very good terms- nearly everyone in Sirrah knew of Yoshiki’s love for his family and appreciated Renta’s efforts to protect them in his absence. As civil war swept across the nation, Renta became a security officer for a shipping company in Rien. Though the job was still dangerous, it was closer to home and allowed him more time with Yume. He continued on in this line of work for the rest of his life, until the Purges came and he was forced into hiding. Through the efforts of his nephew Taka, Renta, Yume and their children survived the Purges. Both Renta and Yume, despite all odds, lived to be great-grandparents.

Takae? Taka was Guided into Elysium by Hironah. Having been granted Holy Death as his reward for acting as a Champion, he was reunited with the soul of Blue, finding a peace he’d known only in his earliest years. He helped prepare Hironah for rebirth, then he and Blue entered into the oblivion of Elysium together. Any Night’s Herald to visit that Plane would find them together still.

Uneme/Caiaphas? Once finished executing his plot to ensure the death of the Imperial Couple, Caiaphas no longer had any need for his identity as Uneme. He returned to Pandemonium through the Rift. From there, he extended his influence over the people of Diasminion, causing such events as the Senate Massacre and the Purges in order to plunge the country into the anarchy he wished for. While he was aware that his actions were vile, he tallied the years of Qa Haran’s government and the masses it had killed and felt that, in the end, he was the lesser of two evils. As to whether or not Caiaphas’s secret revolution brought about the utopia he dreamed of, that truth is written in the future…




, ,

Part 1


Tamaki allowed herself one soft sigh before clearing her mind and soul of emotion. Though her grandfather, the master of her tiny temple home, had cautiously restricted her activities to the mundane, there was no one else available to perform the Rites this day- and they were needed. Apologetically he’d asked her- the coming of the group had already delayed him from his departure to the Conclave, an event he knew could not be missed. With the usual practicality of the Night’s Herald, there was an unspoken agreement between them that if this event had come to pass then it was meant to be.

In the past months, Tamaki had been called upon to perform the Rites for only the elderly, who’d died after leading rich lives in the small communities that peppered her portion of the countryside. She knew them all. There were no strangers, no silent unknowns to haunt her. The only exception was her favor to the mother of the man whose love still stung her heart. Above all, she was kept sheltered from the ever increasing flow of young people that arrived at the gates of the temple, worn and trampled, bearing the bodies of their companions. She was aware of them, but never exposed to their plight.

She looked down at the face of the young man laid out on the ceremonial table. He was young, barely over twenty, but already he bore the hard lines of conviction on his countenance. They were frozen in place by his death, the story of which was written on his wounded form. She’d had to explain the Rites to his companions, who had the flustered misery of those not acquainted with death. She did what she could to comfort them and set about her work, accompanied by the young woman who’d resolutely offered to stand as Witness.

As she worked, Tamaki’s concentration was broken only once by memory. She paused, allowing the thought to enter and leave her, that she might not be distracted by its lingering presence. Her recollection was of Kaiya, and of the irony that struck her on the day she ushered him quietly into the hands of his Guide. As she’d looked on his face, she’d been struck by the thought of how, at the last light of the Prime Sun, she would set alight his pyre while miles away in Mianuus, the same would be done, at nearly the same moment, for the Crown Prince- before thousands, with great pomp and ceremony. Aware as she was of the identity of the Night’s Herald on whom she so lovingly performed her duty, she could not help but feel it ironic that he should be laid to rest in such obscurity.

Later that night, as the young stranger’s pyre burned, Tamaki sat with his small group of friends, listening to their tales of his life and leading them sagely through their first steps in the vale of grief. After a time, the young woman who’d stood as Witness rubbed her face with her hands, as though trying to clear the bitterness from her expression and turned to Tamaki.

“I guess I should offer my congratulations to you and your husband,” she attempted in a cheerful tone.

Tamaki smiled the serene, gap-toothed smile that had so bewitched Yoshiki.

“Thank you,” she replied.

“When are you due?” The girl asked, her curiosity displacing her woe, at least temporarily.

“Sometime next month.”

“Is it twins?” The young woman looked with awe at Tamaki’s incredible girth, which was evident despite her traditional robes.

“No,” the Night’s Herald answered with a laugh. “All the men on his father’s side are tall, and the ones on mine are pretty stocky. He’s just one big baby.”

“How can you be sure it’s a boy?” The girl was now engrossed in her inquisition, the bitter jealousy that stung her forgotten.

“Just a feeling,” Tamaki replied slyly. In fact, she was quite sure her child would be a son, but just how she knew, she couldn’t say.

When she’d first returned to the temple, Tamaki had assumed her weakness and exhaustion came from the darkness of the snow-driven season and the lingering effects of her grief. She tried all she could to overcome her languid state, but it was to no avail. In her youth, she’d been quite fond of old-fashioned romances, which she read on the sly, for her grandfather disapproved strongly of such worldly works of literature. In them, she’d read of faint-hearted Empirian maidens dying for the loss of their heroic lovers. The thought that she might be doing the same both haunted and infuriated her. She became ever more flustered, disoriented and sick, until finally her grandfather, worried for her health, ordered her to bed. He insisted gently that she had a bad case of flu. He told her that he’d send for the local Decameron the following day.

The arrival of the unknown young woman at the gates of the temple took away any need for that. These were still days before the time- some months later- when strangers would descend upon the temple almost daily, so her appearance there in the dead of winter came as something of a surprise. When she asked for Tamaki, it was assumed that she must’ve been one of the women of Sirrah. The temple Master apologetically explained that Tamaki was ill and not receiving guests. Undeterred, the young woman said,

“Then perhaps I’ll be able to be some help to her, to repay the help I hope she’ll give me. I’m a Decameron.”

After giving her a thorough examination, the Decameron, whose name was Saika, informed Tamaki that she was pregnant. Much to Saika’s surprise, the Night’s Herald laughed.

“Of all things, that’s the only one I hadn’t considered. It makes perfect sense. I don’t know what I was thinking. Anyways,” Tamaki changed the subject with abrupt cheeriness, “what was it you wanted to ask me about?”

It took Saika a moment to adjust to the sudden turn in conversation. She’d expected Tamaki to barrage her with questions, or at least wish to discuss her expectant state in more detail. With a shake of her head, she answered,

“I was hoping you could help me find my brother.”

“Your brother?” Tamaki looked at Saika, puzzled, but after a few seconds passed, sickening realization began to descend on her. She had the sudden urge to pray that she was mistaken, that it was only in her mind that she felt certain she’d seen the face of the Decameron someplace else. Her frantic hopes were dashed on Saika’s words.

“His name is Seiken. I haven’t seen him in more than twelve years, but I saw that he was listed among those the Imperial Guard were looking for a while back. I’ve been trying to track him down ever since. I don’t know what he got himself into, but I really want to find him if I can. I found out all I could about the people he was with, and when I got to asking questions I learned that he was with Yoshiki and Sirrah, but I couldn’t find them. One of the people I asked told me to ask you. He said you were with Sirrah for a while and would probably know Seiken. So, I came here to ask if you did.”

Guilt knotted Tamaki’s chest.

“I did know Seiken,” she said haltingly, searching for words. Before she could continue, Saika asked brightly,

“You did? Do you know where he is now?”

It took all of Tamaki’s years of training to reply.

“He- he passed away, a few weeks ago.”

The Decameron was silent, her head drooping until it was bowed completely.

“I’m sorry,” Tamaki said earnestly.

Saika merely nodded.

Unable to think of any other way to soften the blow the Decameron had just taken, Tamaki fell to listing Seiken’s merits- his talent, his inexhaustible compassion, his heroism and patience. She told stories of the lives he’d saved- stories told to her by Yoshiki. She spoke of his humility and kindness. Finally, after the Night’s Herald had exhausted her store of praise, Saika asked quietly,

“The report in the newspaper said he was blind. Is that true?”

“Yes, he was.”

“How did that happen? Do you know?”

It took a moment for Tamaki to respond.

“He was cursed by the goddess, Erishkegal.” Seeing Saika’s perplexed look, the Night’s Herald explained as best as she felt she could. “Your brother was involved in an event that may yet come to shape the future of our world. He played a vital role in it, and he did his best to do right. The mission he was assigned to would’ve daunted even the great Qa Haran himself.”

“He failed?”

“I think we’ve all failed.”

The next day, the country was rocked by the news of the death of the Imperial Couple. When word of Hironah’s involvement reached Tamaki’s ears, the Night’s Herald understood with sudden clarity what it would take months, even years, for the rest of the nation to grasp. They’d been ushered into an era of fear and annihilation, from which Diasminion as a whole might never recover. Though she knew of the terror to come, she had no idea what form it might take. She fought off the pressing urge to visit Elysium for answers to her deepest questions. Her Soul Walking technique had always been shaky at best, and the maternal instinct that she’d never realized was sleeping within her reared up and forced her to reconsider.

Tamaki made no mention of her pregnancy when Chiesara came to visit. Though the Champion had planned to stay only long enough to “have a chat”, the two women got on so well that they talked long into the night. Chie ended up staying at the temple for two days. She left with Tamaki’s promise to handle Takae’s funeral when the time came and a deep affection for the Night’s Herald.

Tamaki made good on her promise on a warm day late in the spring. Like Kaiya’s funeral, Taka’s was a quiet affair. The country was far too embroiled in its political conundrum to notice the death of another of its Champions. Chiesara cried buckets, which everyone expected, while Kieran held her hand, his face set in stoic stone, for only his wife had ever learned the depths of his emotions. In his pragmatic way, he told himself there was always later, away from the eyes of strangers, that he could vent the feelings of his soul. Yume, who had once stood much the same way, now looked as though the only thing that kept her on her feet was Renta’s arm around her. Tamaki, who had at first been startled and disturbed by Yume’s despair, saw the empathic adoration with which Renta looked at her and felt an unshakable faith that he would lead her from her darkest days. The Night’s Herald spent the evening ping-ponging her comforts between the two women while the men drank and told stories. Out of the ashes and blood, the web of this small new family had been constructed with threads of steel.

Late in the night, long after Renta had led Yume gently to bed, Chiesara distractedly observed,

“You’re going to have a baby.”

Tamaki nodded shyly. There was no hiding the fact.

“Is it…?” Chie found herself unable to finish the question. Tamaki understood anyway.


“So, I’m going to be a grandma?” There was so much cheerful inquisitiveness in her tone that Tamaki, taken aback, simply looked at her in astonishment. Chie’s family, the other Champions- those who’d known her long and well- would’ve recognized the voice of the woman that Tamaki had come to know only in the recent days of sorrow. It was the voice of the Chiesara who’d shouldered her burden as a Champion with great cheer and aspiration, who’d fallen in love with a handsome, well-mannered Corduran, and who’d raised her children in a home built of love and laughter.

“Yes, you are,” Tamaki answered slowly, treading this unknown ground with care.

“Oh, this is so exciting!” Tamaki’s eyes grew wider as Chie allowed herself to be swept away completely in what she considered happy news. “I wonder if it’ll be a boy or a girl. Have you thought of any names? Do you have all the things you need? I could give you some of Yume and Yoshiki’s old- oops, wait, nevermind. I forgot the house burned down! Still, Kieran and I would be happy to pick up anything you want. Wait until I tell him! And Yume! She’s going to be an auntie! But, are you feeling okay? Here I’ve kept you up half the night when you ought to be getting some rest. It’s just I’ve been so sad and it feels like nothing good is ever going to happen again- but I guess something just did. Oh, there’s so much to think about!”

Recovered from her shock, Tamaki laughed, her head thrown back.

“I didn’t think you’d be so happy about it,” she admitted.

“Are you kidding? I’ve had nothing but awful news nearly all this year. I’ve got enough things to be sad about. Having a grandbaby in my life doesn’t have to be one of them.”

The women laughed and hugged and cried and laughed again until Chiesara came to her senses and insisted Tamaki get some sleep. She’d called the temple at least twice a week ever since.

There was plenty for the two women to talk about aside from Tamaki’s health, which after her initial difficulty had become quite good. The country was in upheaval. Those loyal to Harata insisted that his eldest daughter, Renata, assume the throne. Others claimed that the Empire ought to be turned back to the hands of its previous dynasty. The Senate debated fiercely as it slowly lost grip of the reins it had on the country. At any moment, the clashes between what had been the Ghost Clan and their enemies could boil into civil war. The military, still comprised mostly of Angemal, grew tired of waiting for the politicians to talk things out. They began to choose sides, dividing into factions, ready to use their weapons where words had failed.

As the trouble escalated, people began to arrive at the temple, bearing their dead and their stories of war. Panic spread across the nation. In an effort to restore some semblance of order, the Senate voted to put a young woman- the same one who’d been betrothed to Akos-Hieran- on the throne. The Empress ruled for only one month. She was discovered drowned in her bathtub. The note scratched on the wall, which proved to be written in her own hand, warned that the Empire was cursed. Any who sought to rule it would suffer a fate not unlike her own. Harata’s daughter fared no better. Renata, in a state of complete silence, threw herself from the balcony of the Senate Building. The politicians decided that all this trouble came from looking to a woman to lead in such trying times. They scrabbled to find a male suitable to be crowned Emperor. The man they chose was shrewd and warlike, another member of the line that produced the Drowned Empress. He, too, ruled for a month before falling victim to his own sword before the eyes of his advisors. Rumor spread around the country of the Drowned Empress’s warning. People began to believe the story of the curse.

The young men and women gathered around Tamaki on the night she’d performed the Rites for their friend certainly did. They wondered aloud despairingly whether or not they would see a return of peace in their lifetime.

“Are you afraid?” the young woman asked now, looking directly at Tamaki.

“A little,” the Night’s Herald admitted. “But what is going to be will be. We have no choice but to live our lives with acceptance of that truth.”

That night, as she lay down to sleep, Tamaki indulged herself in thoughts about her son. She allowed herself a myriad of questions to ponder. Would he resemble his father? What color would his eyes be? Would he be strong? What kind of nature would he have? Would he laugh his father’s laugh or her own, or neither? Her mind pored over the multitude of possibilities and she felt she could barely wait to meet this new little person, who would be born into such an uncertain world with but one guarantee- love. She imagined that he would be quite a person, for the blood of three Champions ran through his veins- that of his father’s side: his grandmother Chiesara and great-uncle Taka (for whom he was to be named), and that of his mother’s: his great-uncle Blue. The master of Tamaki’s little country temple- her grandfather- was Blue’s father and her mother was the sister Blue had never known existed. She’d never found the time to explain this to Yoshiki, and he’d never questioned her help after she’d asked for his faith.

Though Tamaki could wonder and dream, she could not know on that night that her son would grow to be the strong and steadfast man he was to become. The young Taka would possess the easy laughter of his parents, tempered by Blue’s capacity for acceptance and peace. He would shoulder all the burdens of his life with grace and silence, for he would think of nothing but the love he both gave and received. Tamaki could not know that one day, when the Purges came, Taka would rescue his aunt, uncle and six cousins from certain death, ensuring a bloodline that would produce a hero of the future. His own line would spawn another. She could not see these things, but already they loomed ahead, as clear as Mirai’s waking dreams.


Part 2


Seiken, trapped against the wall, could do nothing to defend himself. He knew from the sounds around him that Hironah would attack, and the shouted warnings in his ears begged him to save himself. Yet he was helpless. The voices of the Elementals ceased as the dagger sank into his belly, filling him with an agony he wailed into the face of his killer. The sound seemed to goad her on, and more blows came, each more painful than the last. Seiken, blind and terrified, lost awareness of everything but the tortured, frenzied tearing of his flesh. He forgot who he was, swept away in horror. His only thought was of pain and of how that pain was his penalty for failure.

He had known, from the moment he found he could not so much as touch Kaiya that Hironah would never forgive him. He’d wanted badly to pretend, to imagine that he might’ve made a difference, but he couldn’t force his body to move. He’d hated that moment in his life even more than the torching of his Outpost, more than that long last look he gave over his shoulder at his family when he parted from them. Kaiya’s death overshadowed even the wrath of Erishkegal. In a way, he could understand Hironah’s blame and anger, for he wished to find reason in the demise of the Night’s Herald as well. When the moment of his reckoning came, Seiken, despite his agony and terror, understood Hironah’s heart. He’d been punished like this once before.

When the moment came that he could no longer hear his own screams echoing in his ears, Seiken thought of nothing. Washed away in time and memory, he waited only for the time to come that this would end. Swords plunged, men laughed and cried and screamed at him. Outside the door, he heard the voice of his love crying out. It seemed to him that it would never end, but finally they left him, the last sword sliding out, trailing blood and viscera. Sinking to the floor, he closed his eyes, prepared to fade from this haze of pain. He felt the footsteps resonate on the floorboards, felt himself gathered up in familiar arms- arms that had held him so many times in their affectionate embrace. Overcome with the longing to look on the face of the one he loved, he opened his eyes.

The being above him radiated such peace and blessedness that he felt his soul exalt.

“Rain.” The being spoke with satisfaction, placing a soft hand on his forehead.

Confused, he turned his head to look around.

“Welcome to Elysium,” the shining being whispered.

Slowly, comprehension and remembrance filled Seiken. He lay in wonder, staring at the cerulean sky, allowing knowledge to flood in. He embraced the soul that held him, not knowing what name to call it by, for he had known it in so many guises throughout lifetimes of existence. Every few generations they met and loved and died and met again. In the last of their encounters, they’d been known as Yuiren and Rain, though they’d lived as Dauern, as Otherlanders, as Angemal- countless men and women throughout the tides of time. He settled on calling this gleaming soul nothing, reaching out to stroke its face. It smiled a smile that warmed him.

“We’ll not be parted again,” Yuiren’s soul informed Seiken’s joyfully. “You’ve completed your Cycle. I expected to wait an eternity.”

“It’s over?” He asked in a whisper.

“Over and done. The gods were pleased with your final life, beloved. We shall remain here in peace until the end of time.”

Hand in hand, the two souls walked together into the peace of eternal oblivion, Holy Dead to people the Plane of Elysium with shining light.

An Oath on the Blood


, ,

Harata walked into the library through its main entrance. The lighting within was dim, its only source being the small tabletop lamp beside one of the many comfortable armchairs. The curtains that adorned the enormous windows had been closed. He moved forward through the familiar room, calling tentatively,


As he approached the figure sitting in the armchair beside the lamp, he sucked in his breath, teeth clenched. It made the hissing noise of a trapped animal. As he realized he’d been tricked, the sound of the door closing behind him fell on his ears. He heard the lock click, followed by a sound he didn’t recognize. He did not turn to investigate, however, as his eyes were riveted on the one who sat before him.

The look on Harata’s face confounded Hironah. She’d expected him to be surprised, shocked even, perhaps angry or bewildered. Yet he stared at her with an expression of abject fear. It passed, to be replaced by a resignation that caused him to slump a bit. His arms dangled uselessly at his sides.

“What are you doing here?” His voice was a whisper, shaking with awe and disbelief.

“I wanted to talk to you, Uncle,” Hironah answered calmly, wondering at his strange reaction.

Harata’s first thought was of his wife.

“Where’s Kat?” It sounded like begging.

“She’s fine,” Hironah assured him. “She’s in your room. She called you to ask you to meet her here so that I could see you.”

Kat had called upstairs to lie to Harata a few minutes earlier. She’d told him that she’d had a terrible nightmare and longed to talk to him. Claiming that she couldn’t bear to remain in the bedroom, she asked that he meet her in the library. His heart filled with the hope of reconnecting with his estranged wife, Harata had hurried downstairs without a second thought.

The dead guards were dragged into the Imperial bedroom, where Kat remained locked in with them. Their corpses brought goose-pimples to her skin and caused shudders within her soul, but for the sake of her husband, she agreed to hide them. When the next set of guards came to take over their posts, she was to announce that the missing men had gone to investigate some noise. They were meant to call in such action, but if the new guards complained, she was to suggest that those not present be reprimanded and ask not to be burdened with the details of the Imperial Guard’s disorganization.

“I want to see her,” Harata said firmly.

“You will,” Hironah replied, “when we’re finished.”

“What do you want?” The tormented edge to his voice confused Hironah. Despite all his strange behavior of the past months, she was truly astounded by his reaction to her presence.

“I’m here to help you.” She smiled, attempting to reassure him.

“You can’t help me, Hironah. You have to get out of here. Go away. Please.” He was pleading with her, his eyes full of fear and sorrow.

“I’m afraid that’s out of the question, Your Highness,” Uneme spoke from where he stood beside the door he’d closed, locked, and jammed with a homemade device that would detonate as soon as anyone tried to force it open.

“Who are you?” Harata asked, turning from Hironah to stare at the other man.

“My name is Uneme. You’ve seen me before.”

Harata shook his head.

“I don’t remember you.”

“I’m not surprised,” the Angemal replied with a bitter smile.

Harata turned back to Hironah.

“Leave,” he begged. “Get away from here. I’ll tell the Guard to allow you to walk out of this place unharmed, regardless of whatever it is you did to get in. Go back to Nira and never come back here, never again. Whatever happens, just ignore it. Don’t come back.”

“But- but why?”

“I can’t tell you- or at least I won’t. Just go, please.”

Hironah crossed her arms and leaned away from Harata, regarding him coldly.

“You know, Uncle, I’m getting pretty tired of hearing that. I got it from Blue, from Quen, from Seiken… Even Kaiya tried to keep little secrets. I’m sick of this. Tell me the truth.”

Harata’s face screwed up with pain. His anguish made Hironah long to comfort him, but she remained glued in her seat, her expression unmoved.

“You have to go, Hironah,” the Emperor breathed out the words softly, “because I don’t want to be forced to have you killed.”

She stared at him in silence for what felt like a long time. Finally, she asked,

“Why? Why would you have to do that?”

It was Uneme, rather than Harata, who answered.

“Isn’t it obvious, Hironah? Can’t you see?” He was standing close to Harata now. Yellow eyes met deep, dark brown, locked on one another as the Angemal spoke. “This man is not Harata. Or perhaps he still is, but isn’t.”

“You’re insane,” the Emperor said dismissively.

“No,” Uneme replied in a calm voice. “I’m not the one who’s insane.”

“Who is this guy, Hironah? What’s he doing with you? What’s he been telling you?”

Hironah ignored her uncle.

“Uneme, what are you talking about?” she asked, somewhat impatiently.

“I’d been afraid for a while that Caiaphas would be nearer to the Imperial Family than we believed. I tried talking to Kaiya about it, but he never wanted to listen, not even after Akos-Hieran was murdered. You saw what his reaction was like. I thought maybe after the shock wore off, I’d try again, but Kaiya was dead before I had another chance. I decided to try to figure it out for myself.

“While we were at Kamitouki, I went into Blue’s library and read whatever I could find about avatars and Pandemonium and the return of souls to the Universal Plane. It wasn’t easy- many of the books were written in an old language and made little sense to me. But finally the pieces began to fall together.”

Both Hironah and Harata stared at the Angemal, speechless.

“There is no avatar.”

Uneme’s announcement took Hironah completely by surprise.

“What? Of course there is. Kaiya even said that Blue confirmed it.”

“It’s most likely that there was, for a time. Caiaphas would’ve used his avatar to create the Rift and throw us all off course. But I’m sure he’s returned to Pandemonium. He doesn’t need to be here. He can remain safe on his Plane, extending his influence through the Rift to ours.”

“How is that possible?”

“I read in one of Blue’s books about a time of great terror, thousands of years ago. In those years, there was a Rift on Qian Ra just as there is now. Through it, a powerful demigod of Pandemonium worked his spells on the people of our planet, enslaving them inside their minds. He was eventually defeated by those that went on to found the Night’s Herald Clan, and the Rift was closed. As a Night’s Herald, Caiaphas would be sure to know this story. I have little doubt he used the same plan.”

Hironah was now staring at Harata, unblinking and shaking her head.


“He’s being controlled by Caiaphas, Hironah.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“He killed Akos-Hieran.”

At this point, Harata, who’d been standing in a state of silent disbelief, exploded with rage.

“I didn’t kill my son! Who the hell are you? You come in here, spouting insanity, accusing me of-”

“I’m sure you don’t remember it,” Uneme interrupted in even tones, “just like you don’t remember me. Hironah, keep in mind- this is the same man who had you hunted down by the Imperial Guard, trying to blame your cousin’s death on you. As a result, Kaiya was killed. It’s his fault, Hironah. This isn’t your uncle. Not anymore.”

Both Hironah and Harata stared at one another, equally pleading.

“Is this true?” Hironah finally whispered.

“It’s not,” Harata replied vehemently.

“Then why– why did you do all this? Why did you lock yourself and your family away, even from me? Why did you have the Guard chase us? Why didn’t you care that Blue was dying? You say it’s not true, but I don’t know how I can believe you.”

“Hironah, try to understand. I only wanted to ask you about what you’d seen here on the day of Aki’s death. I was desperate to find answers, so I asked the Guard to bring you in so I could find out if you’d noticed anything that others hadn’t. Kat overheard and mistook my orders for wishing to place the blame on your shoulders… She overreacted. I’m sorry about what happened to Kaiya, and I feel responsible. Believe me. I never wanted any of this to happen.”

“You’re not the man I remember,” Hironah whispered, her voice dripping with regret. “You’ve grown so cold.”

The Emperor said nothing.

“Can we free you from this?” she asked.

“You believe him?” Harata asked incredulously.

“I want to help you.”

“I already told you, Hironah. He’s wrong, and there’s nothing you can do for me. Leave here, and we’ll never see each other again. Promise me, and you might see something change.”

“I don’t understand.”

Defeated, Hironah put her head in her hands.

“Maybe one day you will,” Harata said gently. “I’m sorry, Hironah.”

“Don’t be fooled by him, Hironah,” Uneme said harshly. “If you leave here, you’re taking away any chance of stopping Caiaphas with you. This man is destroying his own Empire, causing it to crumble into the chaos that Caiaphas wishes to achieve. Look at him, Hironah. Look at your enemy and mine for who he is.”

Harata turned slowly around, eyeing Uneme with cold stillness.

“I will allow Hironah to leave, but not you. You’re either a complete lunatic or admirably devoted to your mistaken cause. In either case, I can’t allow you to go free.”

“Try and stop me.”

Without another word, Harata walked away. Thinking he was heading for the side door, which was also equipped with a detonator, Hironah half-rose, but he changed course. He stood before a glass display case, staring down into it.

“I wish I’d never given up the life I knew,” she heard him whisper, “but I suppose that it’s true that our intentions are nothing but the paths of arrows hindered by the wind.”

The words sounded familiar to Hironah, but she couldn’t place them.

His back still turned to the two who had broken into his home, Harata opened the case slowly. He took from it a sword, the one he’d carried in the days when he’d led the Champions to victory, a gift from the Queen of Anrakshi as his old one had been lost at sea. He felt its familiar heft, savoring the feeling of its hilt in his hand as he did on so many recent lonely nights. Still facing the glass case, he spoke, his voice clear and steady.

“We’re going to settle this in the way it should be settled, one warrior against another. I have the honor of the truth behind me. I don’t know what you’ve got, but pray it helps you.”

Abruptly, Harata turned and stalked halfway back across the library, but found his way blocked by Hironah, who stood with her own swords drawn.

“To reach him you’ll have to pass me first, Uncle. I promised to protect him, no matter what the cost.”

“Don’t do this, Hironah. Let us settle this between ourselves.”

“I can’t.”

“I can’t defeat you,” Harata spoke the words emotionlessly, without sorrow, fear or bitterness. “I can best him, but not you.”

“Then let us both go.”

“I can’t do that either. I suppose it’s time I faced the fate I’ve spent all this time running from. I knew that as soon as I laid eyes on you tonight. If that’s what you want, so be it, Hironah.”

“I don’t want this! I don’t understand. I just want somebody to tell me the truth.”

“The truth is, you’re going to kill me because I couldn’t find it within my heart to do the same to you. You walked free, at the cost of my life.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Hironah yelled, fury and frustration vying for control of her voice.

“He’s insane!” Uneme shouted, pushing past her. “Aren’t you, you filthy, murderous dog?”

His nerves shot and patience drained, Harata clubbed Uneme hard against the side of his head with the hilt of the sword. The Angemal crumpled to the floor.


Her veins ignited with bloodlust, on the very brink of insanity herself, Hironah fell on Harata in a rage. The library filled with the sounds of screeching steel as they battled. As once, many years before, Harata had fought against her father for the control of his destiny, he now struggled against Hironah. As at that time, the combatants forgot everything but each other’s bodies and blades and the ground underfoot.

Harata, though he’d spent years without the need for the sword in his hand, fought with the violent urges of one who wishes only to survive. His muscles called up long-forgotten patterns, like the sudden recollections of a lapsed musician who finds himself seated at his instrument once more. All of the sorrows he could not vent, all of the anguish he was no longer free to express surged through him, feeding his desire to fight.

They moved all over the library, swinging and parrying. They did not speak. Both felt the weight of their sadness at this outcome, and it slowed them like a mediating soul attempting to break up the fight. Yet Harata felt the heaviness of fate on his back and Hironah’s mind screamed out a litany of wrongs that ached for compensation. Hearts aching, they continued. For a long time, neither landed anything other than slight blows.

Harata grew weary. It was not from an unfit body, but in his soul. Hironah’s movements, graceful and calculated, were the motions made by Keyu, who had spawned her, by Takae, who had trained her, and by Blue, who had tried to tame the inferno of her soul. They were not the gestures of enemies, but of long-lost friends who’d turned against him.

Still they fought; still they whirled about the room, the sound of clashing steel echoing in the high ceilings. Hironah began to doubt the victory Harata had assured her, and it was with mixed feelings. Until she remembered that Uneme would die if she failed, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to win. He was all she had to live for. Everything else in her reality lay shattered, but he remained, right or wrong in his theories. If she was to forfeit her life, she forfeit that of the man who’d enchanted her so when her heart was heavy with woe, who shared and understood her values, and who hadn’t abandoned her to darkness. With renewed determination, she fought on, forcing herself to forget her love and confusion, forcing herself to no longer see the man against whom she struggled.

Harata, growing ever more exhausted, stumbled and fell back against the steps leading up to the second floor of the library. Without vision, moving by reflex alone, Hironah thrust the point of Dawn directly through his heart, as she would’ve done to any ordinary enemy. Once she realized what she’d done, she let go of the blade and stood, staring in vacant horror at the damage she had caused. Dusk fell to the floor with a clatter as her left hand went limp. Aghast, she gazed at Harata’s shocked expression. A scream burned in her throat, fighting for release, but she swallowed it at the sound of the unfamiliar voice that pulsed through her veins, buried in her blood.

This I swear…

“This I swear,” she repeated in a whisper.

…by the blood of my House.

“By the blood of my House,” she wept the words that were forced from her.

She might’ve been frozen there until she finally collapsed from exhaustion, but for the rustling sound in the middle of the library. Turning, she ran toward it, falling to her knees beside its source.

“Uneme,” she called softly.

He put his hand to his head and groaned.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’ll be fine,” he answered groggily. “Just a headache.”

She helped him to stand. They clung to each other for a moment, before he seemed to recollect what had led up to his lying on the floor. He looked around hastily.

“I killed him,” Hironah sobbed. “It’s over.”

“No it isn’t. Not yet.”

Thinking that he meant the guards that were surely coming, Hironah turned her head toward the side door. Her body buckled reflexively before she actually felt the pain in her abdomen where the long dagger lodged, her face pressed against Uneme’s shoulder. He stroked her hair in the way he so usually did and whispered,

“There. Now it’s over.”

She lifted her head weakly to look at his face. He smiled down at her gently and recited, as if by rote,

“You will die-if not now, if not tomorrow, even if not by my own hand, then by the bloodline of the House of Blackriver. I am your death, and my heirs will carry that Oath as well. You will die by these blades. This I swear by the Great Cat and by the blood of my House.” His smile widened. “Those were the words of the Angemal Champion who was your father to Harata, many years ago.”

Hironah tried to speak, but the blood welling in her gut spilled out of her mouth rather than her words.

“You were such a fool, Hironah,” Uneme said sadly.

She struggled to move away from him, but he twisted the knife in her stomach and she fell against him once more, gagging on pain, blood, and bile. He held up an object with his left hand, that which was not holding the knife, next to her face. Her eyes moved to focus on it- the strange cylinder through which he’d launched the darts that killed the guards.

“Curious weapon, this,” he said casually. “It comes from the Otherlands, as does the poison on the darts. You probably don’t know anything much about the Otherlands. So little one can learn in just a single lifetime!” He laughed hollowly and pocketed the blowgun, careful not to jar Hironah, who was still prone upon the blade. “Right about now, those men should be waking up, intent only on avenging their own deaths. Mindless, they will stalk the warmth of the living to rend them from this Plane. They won’t remain alive long, but it will be more than enough time for them to devour the Empress, which is their purpose, of course.”

“Caiaphas.” The name was wetted with tears and blood.

“Congratulations,” he answered sarcastically. “You found me.”

Hironah tried to jerk herself off of the dagger, but he held her fast.

“Careful, now. You don’t want to make it hurt any worse than it has to,” he chided. “Blue never learned that lesson. He realized what I was going to do- to be honest, I told him part myself- and he just couldn’t let it go. When I realized I’d never get him to join me, that his convictions were just too strong, I realized I’d have to make good on my promise to do to him what I did to Qa Haran all those years ago. I’m not surprised the gods intervened for Blue, and I’m not disappointed. He was a worthy soul, and I’ve always had a great affection for him, despite all the ill spoken of me on this Plane.”

“He hated you,” Hironah sputtered.

“I don’t expect you to understand the nature of our relationship. That’s not what I’m keeping you alive for. I want you to understand your mistakes, so that you do not repeat them in your next life- if you’re granted one.”

“I don’t care.”

“Listen anyway,” he commanded. “You see, Hironah, you all made mistakes. Yours are probably some of the most blameless. I realized I could use you from the moment Harata was crowned Emperor. I didn’t have to, of course, but you and the Oath that Keyu made to stain your blood were so convenient that the idea couldn’t be ignored. You were bound by destiny to long for Harata’s death, cursed by the urges of an Oath you’d never heard. It slept in your subconscious, waiting to be ignited. Before I came to this Plane, I sent the Emperor horrifying nightmares of his fate, helping him to remember the words of your father. He began to fear you. He stopped visiting, didn’t he?”

“Three years ago.”

“It’s such a pity you were raised by Blue. He questioned Harata on his long absence and began to suspect I had a hand in it somehow. He was never able to calm the Emperor enough to return to Kamitouki. He confronted me, knowing already that I wished to end the Empire. I know he loved you. He’d never have condoned the use of you in my plans, and so I killed him. It wasn’t easy for me to do- emotionally or physically- but I managed.

“A few days later, I set my plans in motion. I returned to Qian Ra as an avatar- the man you see here.” He gestured to himself.

“But- but Quen… Meena…”

“Knew Uneme for over a year. Or so they thought, or used to, whichever you prefer. You see, Tamaki had it all wrong. She wrote in the note to you that Seiken had told her the avatar would be a lonely, wandering soul, without family or friends. This much is true- to a degree. Loved ones or close friends would’ve noticed the difference, but casual, work related acquaintances are another story. Seiken was trying, of course, to remind Tamaki that she knew someone other than himself who had no living relatives and was friendless when you all met him. However, Tamaki misinterpreted his meaning. Yes, an avatar can come into the world as a fully-grown, disconnected individual… but we don’t have to. I became Uneme, adopting his name and likeness. Imagine his surprise when he woke one night to find a mirror of himself hovering over his bed, ready to end his life! I took his place, and with no one close to his lonely soul to notice the changes, went on with his daily life.

“Before I did this, Mirai had been to visit the Imperial Palace. Since the gears of my plot were already in motion, she naturally prophesied the outcome to Harata- he would die by your hand, just like in his dreams. While she was still lucid, she tried to comfort him, but it was to no avail. I sent him two dreams within the following week. In the first, he had you killed by some assassins and went on to live in peace. In the second, he tried to bar you from the Palace, but you came in, disguised as someone else.

“Harata could not have you assassinated. Aware as he was of Keyu’s Oath, he loved you. He tried twice to give the order and failed. I pressed him with more dreams of your disguises until he finally closed off the Palace to everyone a few weeks before Blue died, in the hopes of keeping you from coming in under a disguise.

“Everything was going according to plan. When I heard from Meena that you were headed to Mianuus with Quen, I paid some thugs to kidnap Mirai and dump her in the harbor. It was mere coincidence that you happened to be on the beach when I came to pick her up. I’d planned to take her to the station in the morning, where I’d ‘run into’ you and Quen… but our meeting was far more fortuitous the way it went.

“However, I had a problem- a rather large problem, in fact. My minions had long been telling me of a soul that traveled with Blue in Pandemonium. This soul had a tremendous power, far greater even than the Champion himself. It frightened them, though I realized it must be a flawed soul, for only the Champions were the height of the ideals of their Clans. I longed to see this soul for myself, and though I could see his living form on the Universal Plane, Blue kept him hidden from me in Pandemonium.”

“Kaiya,” Hironah breathed his name with loving regret.

“Yes, Kaiya. I had been watching him for years. In the beginning, I wasn’t much worried about him on this Plane. I knew of his illness and the toll it had taken on his spirit. But by the time I arrived here, Erishkegal was working against me, angered that I had helped to rob her of Blue’s soul. She blessed and guided Seiken. With his help, Kaiya gained some of the strength in life that he had sleeping in his soul. He was already a man of astounding fortitude- that I was aware of- but I didn’t know until we were in the Rift that his soul had such power and that his body now had strength enough to withstand it.

“I hadn’t wanted you to enter the Rift. Though you should have been trapped there, I was afraid that some of you might remain to wonder when I returned and no one else did. However, I was blessed by circumstance. All of you entered but Quen, who- being a machine- could not. However, it was then that I learned of Kaiya’s power, and it was far worse than what my minions had described. You felt it yourself, that terrible, raw force he had within. I realized that he could defeat me. And suddenly, he wanted to.

“It was easy enough to throw him for a time. I had my minions cut me and pretended to be trapped by Pandemonium like the rest of you. He was distracted by Quen’s absence, and he accepted the lack of struggle in my soul for defeat, rather than belonging. However, I realized I had to make sure that he was killed.

“I knew of his love for you. Unbreakable, it was the only passion that had lasted in his life. Already, I had begun to seduce you that I might use you toward my ends. He saw this, but only through honest eyes that see love as love. When we were chased by the Imperial Guard I saw my chance. Quen had spoken of the dragon. If we could just meet it… I was sure Kaiya would die in defense of you. And so I forced him to. I played his faults and won. You’d have done anything I asked- even stayed in the cave- but I let him believe I’d actually allow you to join me on a mission that would likely end in death. I turned his love for you against him, and he died in agony, wishing he could only speak your name.”

“Fuck you,” came Hironah’s bloody whisper.

“It was his own fault. I’m sure Blue warned him, asked him to set aside his feelings, but he didn’t. By then, Mirai was taken care of. I made sure of that, as she- like Seiken- was nothing more than a walking bomb. Kaiya’s death rendered the Decameron useless, so I figured it’d be smooth sailing. But then Yoshiki decided to get involved. At first, I wasn’t too worried about him- he had neither the means nor the knowledge to find me- but then he had Tamaki digging into Seiken’s brains, so… I bided my time and waited. He told me over the phone about his aunt, so naturally I looked her up and gave her a call. I used you to get rid of Seiken and scare the shit out of Yume in the process and here we are. I left out some parts, but I’m sure you can put the pieces together yourself.”

“Let go of me,” Hironah demanded.

“Sure,” he answered with a smile. Pulling the dagger from her belly, he watched her fall to the floor.

She groped for her swords, which were still across the room.

“I’m going to kill you,” she choked.

“No, you’re not,” the avatar answered, still smiling. “You’re going to die.”

He plunged the dagger into her chest. Turning on his heel, he ran upstairs past the dead Emperor. There was no time left. As he reached the top of the steps, the Imperial Guard began to force the main door. The bomb-blast rocked the building as he escaped unnoticed in the commotion, leaving exactly the same way they’d come in. As he’d surmised, the Guard eventually came to the conclusion that Hironah and Harata had killed each other, just as they were never able to figure out that a lone man had entered the Palace once through the basement and called the Crown Prince to come to the cellar, where his father needed his help locating some lost item. Uneme, the avatar of Caiaphas, had taken Aki in that way when he was meant to be waiting for the others at the temple in the Parks. No one had thought to question his absence when they arrived, for neither Quen nor Meena were around to say that he’d been released from the hearing with the Musubiki hours earlier.

Feeling the heat of the fires against her skin, Hironah closed her eyes. She struggled to breathe, but it was an exhausting feat after bleeding both inside and out while Uneme spoke words that caused her soul to shrivel. She fought to survive, clung to her life out of fear. She knew now what Pandemonium meant, and she was terrified by the thought of its hellions coming to claim her- for what else could be the outcome of this life she’d led and what it came to in the end? Though she made a valiant effort, she soon became aware of the presence in the room. Terrified, she turned to look on it.

It was not, as she feared, a dark and fearsome creature, but a soul, shining and serene- unfamiliar. It knelt beside her and looked down, head cocked as though in curiosity.

“Come with me?” it invited in a clear voice, one hand extended.

With trepidation, Hironah nodded. She took its hand.

“I am your Guide,” the soul explained, “but only as far as the edge of Elysium. I cannot go any further, for I am on a journey into Life. I asked to be allowed to take you to the Gates, where you will find another waiting on the other side, and many more who are waiting to see you. You’ll meet those who will teach you until you are ready for rebirth.”

Hironah remained silent for the length of the strange journey, troubled by the longing that she felt deep within, a wish to remain beside the being who guided her always. When they reached their destination, the soul kissed her lightly on the forehead.

“I promise,” her Guide said softly, “no matter how many lives we have to live, my soul will find yours one day, maybe generations from now, and we’ll live in the love that was forfeit in this life.”

“Kaiya,” she said with a rush of sudden recognition.

He smiled at her. They embraced, and when he released her, he said,

“I have to leave now. Good luck to you here. We’ll meet again- I’m sure of it. Until then, know that I’ll be looking everywhere, even if it’s only in my soul.”

He left her then, and she turned to face the Gates of Elysium. The peace that flooded from them engulfed her, and she made her way inside to where Blue waited to meet her. There she would remain in the light and the tranquility of those that loved her-Blue, her parents, and the gentle teachers that would coach her soul- until she was ready to continue her journey in the living world. And what a journey it would be.



, ,

After descending the rusted ladder into the maintenance shaft of the building that once housed the elaborate steam heating system, Hironah found herself in utter darkness. She closed the grate above, and though cold seeped in, no light could reach her. She felt Uneme stir, grope for her in the blackness that defied even the darkest night. His arms encircled her, holding her tightly. He kissed her with a furious passion that ached of potential finality. She echoed him, knowing they would express neither love nor longing until this was over, and only then if they survived. When they broke from one another, Uneme began to feel his way along the wall until he came to the trapdoor that led into the tunnels. It was heavy and made of iron, sealed by weight and time.

Like the grate above, he soaked its hinges in oil, waiting patiently for the lubricant to take effect. Once he was satisfied, he hefted the trapdoor open. Feeling about in the dark, he crawled through. Following the sounds he made, Hironah went after.

The lack of light became perfectly complete without the grate above them to allow in the feeble moons. The air smelled stagnant and dusty. Hironah eased the trapdoor shut and for a moment her mind was filled with closures- the silent boxes that held the ashes of Kaiya and Yoshiki gently sealed by Tamaki’s hands, the soft sound of Blue’s bedroom door sliding shut as Seiken left him to die, Yume’s eyes gone blank with confusion and terror, the clicking noise that signaled the death of a conversation by telephone. She shuddered, knowing full well that if she died here, lost beneath the Imperial Palace, no one would ever find her. She may have just sealed her own tomb.

Putting aside her morbid thoughts, Hironah turned to where she thought Uneme stood. At the sound of the trapdoor closing, he flicked on a flashlight, allowing them to take stock of their surroundings.

“It’s only for a little while,” he cautioned in a whisper. “We’ll have to turn it off once we get near the Palace.”

Hironah nodded, looking around. They stood underneath the building that had once housed the boiler. It was a crossroads of tunnels, each leading off in a different direction. It had the feeling of a buried atrium, some structure that had once stood on land but had been condemned to the ground by some catastrophe. The darkness pressed heavily against the beam of the flashlight, giving her the impression that the walls around her were painted black.

Uneme closed his eyes, blocking out the light and his surroundings. He turned slowly once, and halfway around again before he stopped.

“The Palace is this way,” he informed Hironah, who had no idea how he knew, confused as she was by being thrust underground. “The tunnel here should lead to it.”

He started off without hesitation. Hironah had no choice but to follow. She was surprised to learn that the tunnels were perfectly rectangular, with distinct walls, floors and ceilings. She’d been expecting something more cave-like, or at least more rounded.

As they made their way along, fighting the darkness with the flashlight, she relaxed somewhat. So long as they didn’t become lost, they had little to worry about down here. There was nothing more than rats and cobwebs. They moved as silently as possible, though this was unnecessary. The tunnel devoured sound, muffled it in the black belly of the planet. She’d expected their footfalls to echo, but they did not, cushioned as they were by the packed dirt floor.

They walked on in silence for what felt like an eternity, though it couldn’t have been longer than fifteen minutes, slightly longer than it would’ve taken them to walk to the Palace above ground. Signaling Hironah, Uneme stopped.

“We’re almost there, if this is the right tunnel,” he whispered. “Be prepared. If the way into the Palace is guarded, we’re going to have to fight- and make it quick. One wrong move and we’ll have the entire Imperial Guard on us.”

Hironah nodded, her eyes wide.

“We’re doing this for Diasminion. The gods are on our side.”

“I sure hope so,” she whispered in reply, though she seriously doubted that the gods gave a rat’s ass what they were doing. She knew through Blue’s teachings that the gods rarely showed interest in the fleeting lives of the people of Qian Ra, other than for their own amusement. However, if the thought that the gods watched over them gave Uneme peace, she did not want to dispute it.



Uneme turned off the flashlight, plunging them into darkness so thick that Hironah was unable to make out any part of her own body, let alone Uneme’s. Not even the whites of his eyes were visible. For a fleeting moment, Hironah understood what it meant to be blinded completely, and she felt a sudden sympathy for Seiken. Unlike Hironah, who knew she would emerge from the blackness, he’d been forced to accept his eternal curse. Momentarily furious with herself for recalling the Decameron, whose memory flitted about her like a vengeful spirit, Hironah shook her head. Feeling her motion, Uneme reached out and fumbled for her hand, squeezing it.

He drew her forward through the impenetrable curtain of darkness. After a few moments, he slowed dramatically, feeling along the ground with his feet. Eventually, they reached the place where his foot struck the first of the stairs that led up into the basement of the Palace, or so they hoped. Wherever that narrow flight of steps might lead, they followed it upward, groping, one behind the other.

They emerged in another tight space, knowing that the stairs had ended only by the leveling of the ground beneath their feet. Uneme continued to edge forward, his hands spread out before him. He sought a break in the unending nothingness until his fingertips brushed against a flat surface. The sensations against his skin told him it was wood, polished- odd for a basement door. He went on with his exploration, Hironah lightly pressed against his back. The object before him was not a door, but a large piece of furniture, possibly a cabinet or wardrobe. He felt to its edges, searching for any free space that would allow them to pass. He discovered the two and a half foot gap between the ponderous wooden structure and the rough-hewn stone walls. Holding his breath, he squeezed his way through.

Hironah followed behind, emerging in a vast, cluttered area. High above, narrow, oblong windows let the ambient white of the floodlights outside into the basement where they stood. After the pitch-black of the tunnel, this light allowed her to see clearly once her eyes had adjusted. The room in which they’d arrived was enormous, filled with all manner of strange and mundane items. All but the most unwieldy of them were stored on shelves and in boxes, creating a maze of organization that gave the impression of a library. It seemed they were alone. There were no sounds of footsteps, nor any other hint of humanity.

Uneme began to creep forward, carefully observing his surroundings.

“There are a lot of exits from the basement into the Palace,” he’d explained to Hironah as they rode the train. “We don’t want to take just any of them. Since we want to get as near to the Imperial Family’s living quarters as possible, we should try to find the entrance into the kitchens. We’ll have to use our intuition, judge our location by the things in the basement around us. We’ve both got a basic knowledge of the layout of the Palace, but that may not help us much after being underground. Our sense of direction might be confused.”

They inched along, taking note of the clutter that surrounded them. At the point when they began to notice boxes of office supplies and equipment, reams of paper and a variety of electronics in need of repair, Uneme shook his head. They were going the wrong way. They backtracked and continued on in the oppressive silence of forgotten things. Hironah began to give up hope until finally there appeared in the gloom signs that they were nearing their goal. A stack of antique china here, an old and battered cooking pot there- these were the signposts that pointed their way. She breathed a silent sigh- half from relief and half from foreboding- once they’d reached the foodstocks and collection of lesser-used utensils. They began to search for the stairs, which Hironah located between two shelves of flour, rice and gigantic jugs of oil and sauce.

They ascended the steps cautiously. Near the top, Uneme signaled Hironah. Though it was the middle of the night, the Imperial Family kept a servant on call all night, in the event one of them woke feeling peckish. The odds were in favor of the old cook sleeping peacefully in her room adjoining the kitchen, but still they needed to proceed with care. There was no way of getting a full view of the room. Uneme saw no light coming from the crack beneath the door, and so he opened it slowly.

The industrial sized kitchen was dark and silent. Putting a finger to his lips and pointing to the door behind which the cook surely slept, Uneme tiptoed across the vast expanse to the door that would bring them one step closer to their goal.

“That’s where your knowledge becomes most important,” Uneme had said the night before. “I’ve only been in the Palace once, but you used to visit there frequently when you were younger. You’ll know which way we should go, where the members of the family will be, and you know better than I do what Harata’s habits are.”

Together they pushed the swinging door that led to the hallway and peered out, only after listening for sounds of a patrol on the other side. The hallway was deserted, which didn’t surprise Hironah at all. It was used primarily by servants, who by day would scurry these back corridors out of sight of the lavish walkways traversed by the Imperial Family or -at one time- their guests. Long ago, Hironah had navigated these hidden corridors with her cousins in order to sneak cookies from the kitchen. There would be a stair here that led upward through the building.

There were three wings in the residential portion of the Palace. The furthest from where they stood was used by the children of the Emperor. Beside it was that of the Empress and the nearest was that of the Emperor, so that his every whim might be fulfilled by the army of servants as quickly as possible. Harata secretly found this formality ridiculous. It had taken him years to get used to asking the servants for anything at all. His wife called on them far more frequently, but when he’d suggested swapping wings with her, the old retainer nearly died of shock. It was against decorum, he explained once he’d recovered, and besides, there was tradition to think about. The Emperor’s wing had always been that one, since the construction of the Palace hundreds of years before. It simply could not be rearranged. Harata laughed at the irony that he had the power to bring change to an entire country, but not his own home.

Hironah led Uneme to the staircase and held up three fingers. Uneme shook his head and held up two. She made a negating motion with her hand and signaled,


He looked at her, puzzled. Again, she held up three fingers. Shrugging in confusion, he nodded.

They ascended the steps, which were carpeted to muffle the sound of trampling servant feet. It was easy to proceed in silence. When they reached the landing of the third floor, Hironah signaled Uneme to wait and peeped around the corner. When she ducked back, his hands formed the question,


She shook her head “no”, but grasped him as he made to move forward.

Patrol will come, she signed. Wait until gone.

The wait seemed to drag on for hours. Hidden in the stairwell, Uneme and Hironah listened for the sound of approaching footsteps which finally fell on their ears. They waited for the patrol to pass. After it had, Hironah signed,

Four minutes.

It was the length of time they had before the patrol would be along again, ample time for them to accomplish what she had in mind. Dropping down on her belly, she motioned for Uneme to do the same. He obeyed her without question. Once they were in the hall, which consisted of a row of doors on one side and the marble rail of a balcony on the other, she pointed at a door, held up five fingers, and pointed down the walkway. She reiterated the need to remain as flat against the ground as possible, pointing at the balcony and signing,

Guards below can see.

Uneme nodded his understanding.

They crawled down the walkway to the opposite end of the Emperor’s wing of the Palace. Hironah’s throat filled with fear. This is where they were most likely to be caught. There were too many unknown conditions for comfort. The patrols could’ve been increased, or the guards in the atrium below could be watching this floor attentively. If that was the case, they’d surely notice the door opening when she and Uneme reached it. In her mind, she repeated a litany of prayers, simultaneously begging Blue to watch over her.

When they arrived at the door Hironah had indicated, she reached up and turned the knob. Unlocked, it opened with the slightest creak. Not daring to breathe, she slinked inside, Uneme close behind. Closing the door without a sound, the two stood up behind it. They listened carefully to the silence for any indication they’d been noticed. No sound reached them. Letting out her breath, Hironah slumped against the door. Unbeknownst to them, the movement on the second floor had been spotted by a young guard on the first floor. Yet the nocturnal ramblings of the Emperor had grown so frequent in the past months, such movement was a common occurrence. Tired of being reprimanded for his eagerness to make reports, the guard took note of the door, but didn’t mention it.

The room in which Uneme and Hironah stood was bathed in moonlight. Along one wall was a row of bookshelves and cabinets filled with sculptures and other objects d’art. Paintings hung above them. They were standing on a balcony overlooking the rest of the Emperor’s library, which took up two stories. Once she’d recovered, Hironah led the way to the staircase that would take them back to the second floor.

In this way, Hironah had figured out how to avoid the heavily guarded main corridor of the second floor. From the library they could use a side exit into the small hallway that would take them to the bedroom of the Imperial couple, which is where Harata was sure to be, given the time of night. The bedroom, at the far end of the Emperor’s wing, was located to conjoin that wing and the one belonging to the Empress. The small corridor was not easily visible from the atrium below. Peering out the door of the library, Hironah saw- to no surprise- that the entrance to the bedroom was guarded. Two men stood stiff and rigid at either side of the door. Before she could make a move, Uneme stopped her. Holding out his hand, he showed her something that she couldn’t identify. It was a thin wooden cylinder, about a hand-span in length. He moved in front of her, still hidden in the shadows of the library’s doorway.

He raised the polished wooden cylinder to his lips and exhaled sharply. Down the hall, one of the guards flinched. He raised his hand to finger the feathered shaft of the dart that protruded from his neck and then toppled to the floor. The second guard was felled by the same means long before he had a chance to react.

Without a moment to ponder the strange weapon, Hironah was dragged from the doorway by Uneme. The two hurried down the hall to the bedroom door and entered without a second of hesitation. They’d set off their own countdown. They needed to reach Harata before the guards were discovered. How much time they’d be afforded was unknown to them. Fortunately, they’d reached the place where they’d find the Emperor. It was now in Harata’s hands whether or not they’d leave the Palace with their lives.

Together they crept across the floor of the lavish room. They looked down into the spacious bed, but were unable to make out the forms that lay on it. Silently, Uneme crossed to the window and gently moved aside the curtain to let in the light of the moons and floodlights. Hironah nearly bit her tongue in frustration.

The Empress slept alone.

Uneme let the curtain fall back into place. For a moment, the two stood facing each other, unmoving. Hironah wracked her brains. What was the second most likely place Harata would be? She’d been so sure he’d be asleep, she hadn’t taken the time to consider he might be someplace else. Cursing her own lack of foresight, she signaled to Uneme.

Back to library. Hide guards.

He nodded and they turned to leave.

Kat, who had once been a heavy sleeper, had developed a fear of being killed in her slumber during her time as a Champion and the turbulent years that followed. It was a terror she’d never been able to shake, no matter the number of guards or the comfort of knowing that Harata slept at her side. Since the death of her son and the separation from her husband, she hadn’t had a night’s unbroken sleep, either waking from horrific nightmares or from the noises of the changing guards outside. The slight sounds, the miniscule changes in the light brought on by Hironah and Uneme were enough to wake her. She sat up quickly, peering about in the darkness, clutching the winter blankets to her chest.

“Harata?” she called hopefully, fumbling for the switch on the bedside lamp.

Hironah and Uneme both froze in place. The bitter realization that they were about to be caught settled into them, filling their mouths with bile. As the light bathed the room with a soft glow, Kat gasped, shocked by the sight of the people standing in her bedroom.

“Hironah?” Her voice quavered. “What are you doing here?”

“We’ve come to see Harata,” Hironah replied, feeling somewhat sheepish. “Sorry to wake you. We thought he’d be in here.”

Kat, though groggy from sleep, was not fooled by her casual tone.

“Who let you in at this hour?”

“Well… um… nobody,” Hironah confessed. “We kinda snuck in.”

“You… you did?” Kat’s voice was incredulous. “The guards-”

“I’m terribly sorry, Your Highness,” Uneme interrupted with a formal bow, “but I’m afraid I was forced to dispatch the men guarding your door.”

“I don’t believe this.”

“We didn’t have any other choice. It’s imperative that we meet with the Emperor. Knowing that we’d only be turned away no matter how many times we tried more conventional methods, we decided to sneak in through the tunnels on the Palace grounds.” As an afterthought, Uneme added, “You really ought to have those blocked or filled in, or at least guarded. They’re a serious security breach.”

Kat was staring hard at Uneme.

“What is it that you need to speak to Harata so badly about that you’d risk your lives to see him?”

“We’re here to save him.”

“Save him? What are you talking about?”

“We believe the Emperor is in great danger- from Caiaphas.”

Kat turned her gaze back to Hironah.

“You were already here to talk to Harata about that. He’s been warned. He knows.”

“He was… he was awfully strange when we were here. He acted like he didn’t even care.” Hironah spoke softly. “He wouldn’t tell Kaiya why he’d locked down the Palace, and he refused to let me see any of you.”

“We’re afraid that Caiaphas has already gotten to the Emperor,” Uneme explained. “He could be the one who’s forcing him to act so strangely. We’ve come to learn once and for all whether or not that’s the case. If it is, we’re going to free Harata, or die trying.”

Kat was silent for a time. When she spoke again, her voice was low.

“I ought to call the guards and have you arrested. You both sound like a couple of raving lunatics. But I know this Caiaphas.” She shuddered involuntarily. “I know what he did to Blue. I saw with my own eyes what he did to the Attendants of the Guardians. I faced one of his denizens while trying to reach the lair of the Guardians, where they’d been attempting to hold the Negative Force that had grown in the world at bay. And I know Harata. I’ve seen the changes that have come over him in ways that the two of you would never notice. So I’m going to help you, in the hopes that you are not mad, and that perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll be able to reach him where I myself have failed.”

The Machine


, ,

“Are you really sure you want to take the train?” Hironah asked for the fifteenth time that day.

“Yup. I’m sure,” Uneme answered without losing patience. He smiled at her cheerfully.

“It just seems so inconvenient.”

“On the contrary, taking our bikes would be more so. There’s snow on the ground just north of here. It’s much too cold to ride, and it would take forever. We’d arrive in Mianuus exhausted.”

“But what if we need to get out of the city quickly for some reason?”

“I know plenty of ways out of the city. Don’t worry about that. Besides,” his grin broadened, “I doubt it’ll come to that.”

Uneme’s confidence worried Hironah. In some ways it was refreshing after Kaiya’s resignation and Yoshiki’s confusion, but it made her wonder whether or not he understood the scope of what he was going to do. The only time she’d brought this up, he’d smiled at her sadly.

“Hironah…” he began, drawing her near. “I understand that Caiaphas is a formidable enemy, but I think perhaps you’re making him more powerful in your mind than he really is. I think I know why you’re doing this, but trying to make sense of all that’s happened to you and your family by pinning it down on one source isn’t going to help you in the end.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he continued on before she had the chance. “Caiaphas didn’t kill Yoshiki or Kaiya. That doesn’t make their deaths meaningless, Hironah. Eventually, you’ll learn to accept that. And you killed Seiken yourself. Of course Caiaphas would want him dead if he knew that Seiken was aware of who he was, but in the end he didn’t have anything to do with it, did he?”

“No,” Hironah admitted sullenly.

“It’s just as dangerous to give your enemy too much power as it is to underestimate him. If you do so, you’ll be defeated before anyone has a chance to raise a sword.”

“I guess you’re right.”

The two hadn’t said anything more on the subject since then. Though Hironah agreed that maybe the idea of Caiaphas loomed a bit too large in her mind, Uneme’s refusal to show any fear of him needled her. It wasn’t until that afternoon when they started packing up their gear that she’d found a possible reason for the enormous gap in their levels of anxiety. Though Blue would never speak of the details, Hironah came to know through other sources how Caiaphas had tortured him to the brink of death when he was a Champion. She’d grown up under the shadow of his threats, despite all that Blue and Takae did to shelter her. In the end, Caiaphas had been victorious, killing Blue and returning to Qian Ra, from where he’d been banished in death. To Hironah, who had already suffered at the hands of this man, fear came naturally. Uneme, who’d grown up with no such proximity, had no reason to view Caiaphas any differently than the countless others he’d fought against in his years. While she could accept his optimism, Hironah couldn’t help but wish Uneme would at least show a little caution.

Hironah sighed as she peered into her pack.

“I think I’m finished,” she informed Uneme. “I’ve gotta go tell Bel I’ll be away for a while.”

As she crossed the grounds of Kamitouki, Hironah realized she felt relieved to be going away. Her home had become infested with ghosts. They sprung out at her as she turned corners and whispered in her ears as she tried to sleep. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to return victorious. Would these restless souls be silenced in her vengeance? If she could avenge Blue, complete the task that Kaiya and Yoshiki had died before carrying out, perhaps the spirits of her guilt could be laid to rest. She hadn’t considered the possibility of victory, only of failure. This new idea came with an entirely different set of questions. What would become of her if she still remained when all this was over? For that, she had no answer.

The class that Bel was teaching was nearly over, so Hironah waited in the doorway for it to finish. As a jumble of students filed out, she pressed through them. She ignored the stares they had for their absentee Headmistress. She was aware by now that rumors of her descent into madness had spread like a disease among the students. Bel eyed her quizzically as she approached.

“Hi, Bel.”

“Hey, Hironah. What’s up?” he asked casually, replacing a spear on the rack.

“I’ve got to make a trip to Mianuus. I should be back soon.”

“Okay,” he replied hesitantly. His look turned skeptical.

“I know I’ve been away most of the year, but this really can’t wait. I’ve asked a lot of you, Bel… but this is the last time. I promise.”

“What have you got to go to Mianuus for?” He was staring at her hard now and she shifted under his gaze.

“Personal business.”

“Has this got something to do with Harata?”

She looked him in the eyes but wouldn’t answer.

“I don’t think you ought to be going to Mianuus. Unless it’s really that important, maybe you should just stay here.”

“It’s that important. I won’t be all that long.”

“What’s going on, Hironah? Why didn’t you come home after you went with Sirrah to the Dead City? Kaiya told me something had come up, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. What happened last time you guys were in Mianuus? Tell me what’s happening.”

Hironah looked away from him.

“I can’t, not right now. I’ll tell you the whole story when I get back.”


“Look, Bel, it’s just… it’s complicated, okay? I don’t want you involved.”

“I get the feeling I ought to be stopping you from going. I don’t like this, Hironah. Something stinks.”

“It’ll be fine. Stop worrying so much.”

“If Kaiya was here-”

“Kaiya’s dead.”

The vehement finality in her tone caused Bel to flinch. Instinctively, he reached out toward her, but Hironah edged away.

“I’m going to Mianuus with Uneme.” Her voice was frosted over. “I ask you out of respect for Blue and Takae to be here when I get back.”

She turned and walked away from him before he had a chance to answer. As he watched her leave the building, silhouetted against the light of the Prime Sun, Bel struggled not to run after her. The pressing feeling of unease within him swelled, and he took a few steps toward the door when the first of his students for the next class ventured in. Sighing, he turned away to prepare for his lesson.


The door of the studio creaked open and a youthful, worried face peered in.

“You should take a break, Renta said. Come have some dinner.”

“I’ll be down in a few minutes, Hyan.”

“I’ll wait for you at the top of the steps.”


When Quen emerged from the room, the young Dauern was patiently waiting as promised. Hyan was of medium height and build, with an unruly shock of chestnut brown hair and wide-set green eyes that made him appear younger than his eighteen years. Remarkably attentive to others’ emotions, he vacillated wildly between jovial and relaxed to serious and solemn, depending on the attitudes of those around him. He rose at the sound of Quen’s footsteps on the creaking floorboards.

As they descended the rickety stairs, Hyan shot a sidelong glance at Quen.

“It’s nice of you to box up Yoshiki’s things for Renta,” he said softly. “It must be hard.”

“It’s better that I do it,” Quen replied casually. “It’d be a lot harder for Renta or the rest of you.”

“But still… Do you feel okay?”

“I’m fine. It’s been difficult trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not, so I’ve just been boxing everything categorically so that people who know better can go through it all later and redistribute it.” Quen paused, thinking. “People deal with grief in such odd and different ways. My mother, for example, has an old pair of socks sitting in her drawer that she refuses to get rid of because they once belonged to someone she cared a lot about.”

Hyan was quiet for a moment before responding.

“I heard Hironah burned all Kaiya’s things.”

“She did. Like I said, everyone deals with losses differently.”

Hyan nodded. Tilting his head to peer at Quen, he asked,

“What about you? How do you deal with it?”

Yoshiki had coached Quen on how to respond to questions like this. His advice contrasted heavily with Meena’s, who had prompted him to answer with some semblance of honesty.

“I guess I just try to accept things for what they are, like the Night’s Herald do.”

It’s not a lie, Yoshiki had told him. It’s just a different take on the truth.

“I wish I could do that,” Hyan said quietly. “I always get so caught up asking why or wishing that things could be different.”

“A lot of people do, from what I understand.”

They said nothing more as they wove through the teeming first floor of the headquarters toward the large area that had been converted into a mess hall. The other members of Sirrah regarded Quen with eyes full of compassion and pity, for he’d been assigned the task that none of the rest of them had wanted. Some wondered how he managed, crippled as he was, but he never complained or asked for help. Quen, under Yoshiki’s careful tutelage, had managed to soften some of his own coldness. The result, despite the fact that he was still regarded as somewhat aloof and inaccessible, was that he emerged in the collective mind of Sirrah’s members as someone who possessed great fortitude and strength of spirit. It was no secret that Hyan worshipped him, frequently trotting at his side like a love-struck puppy. No one envied Quen the duty of packing Yoshiki’s worldly possessions, and since none of them was aware that he could not be touched by sentiment or moved by longing, they spoke quietly of his resolve amongst themselves.

Renta rose from the table where he’d been sitting when he saw Quen and Hyan enter the mess hall. He walked over to them with long strides.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

“I’m nearly finished,” Quen replied.

Renta nodded solemnly. Turning to Hyan, he gestured at Quen.

“Get this guy sommat to eat, okay? We’re gonna go sit down.”

As the Dauern trotted off obediently, Renta led Quen to a different, smaller table in a far corner and sat down with him.

“Thanks a lot, Quen.”

“It’s no trouble to me. I can’t feel any of the same pain you do. You know, I’ve never envied any of you the ability to feel emotions. It seems quite unfortunate.”

“Sometimes it is,” Renta agreed, his voice full of gloom. Brightening, he added, “But not always.”

After furtively checking to see that they were out of earshot of anyone else, Quen asked in a whisper,

“Have you decided whether or not you’re going to stay?”

“I still haven’t. I’m having a lot of trouble deciding what the more Honorable course would be. If I leave, entrust Sirrah to someone else, it looks like I’ve gotten cold feet. I know that’s not the case, but it reflects poorly on Yoshiki, who chose me as his Second. And I have that obligation to him, too. On the other hand, my being here is causing Yume a lot of pain. She’s worried and afraid, and I’ve left her alone in her grief. Chiesara’s made it plain that she wants me to quit and do something else with my life. But this is the only thing I’ve done for so long, I don’t know what else I could do. I’m trying to decide which course is really for the best.”

“The way you put it, it does seem like a quandary.”

“I’m pretty torn.”

“Is there anyone here who would be capable of taking your place?”

“My aide, Juriaan, is more than competent. He’s been around since Yoshiki assumed command, and has always been dependable. Yoshiki often asked him to head up squadrons like the one he left in Nira when he went with you and Hironah to Mianuus. He’d make a strong leader, but like I said, I’m worried about leaving just now.” Renta sighed. “You know, one time I asked Kaiya how come it was that he never got scared of anything. He just shrugs and tells me that it doesn’t matter, that if something happens it was the right thing to happen. He said it’s always time to leave when you’re walking out the door. I thought he meant that about death, but I’m starting to think he meant it about everything. I can’t make the wrong decision, but either one will have consequences.”

“That is true,” Quen replied. “Kaiya was very wise.”

“He was like Yoshiki’s big brother. Whenever he had a problem that he couldn’t figure out, he’d take it to Kaiya… but not about girls, though. That was the one exception. Kaiya was a hopeless romantic.”

Hyan arrived at the table with a tray laden with the evening’s available fare. He set it before Quen and sat down to join them. The conversation turned to lighter matters. Quen was halfway through his meal when another member of Sirrah, who was meant to be one of those guarding the door, approached the table. He appeared somewhat shaken, and Renta eyed him with concern.


“There are some men here from the Musubiki, Sir,” the young man answered, his voice quavering.

“The Musubiki? How in the name of the gods did they know how to get here?”

“I don’t know, Sir.” After a pause, the guard went on. “They’re asking for Quen.”

Renta’s dark eyes met Quen’s pale ones.

“Kill them,” the Angemal commanded.

“No,” Quen said firmly, gripping Renta’s arm with the hand that remained. “You’ll only bring their wrath down on you. Trust me, you don’t want to make them your enemies. I’ll go with them.”


“I thank you for all that you and Yoshiki have done for me.” Rising, Quen moved to stand beside the guard. “But it seems it’s time for me to leave.”

“Quen?” Hyan looked up, his youthful face full of concern.

“Goodbye, Hyan. Take care of yourself.”

“Where are you going? Why is the Musubiki-”

“That’s enough, Hyan,” Renta silenced him grimly.

The Dauern watched helplessly as Quen followed behind the guard out of the mess hall. He turned his eyes pleadingly on Renta, who’d picked up a fork and was sullenly stabbing at the tabletop with it. He didn’t look up, and so Hyan sprung from his chair and raced out of the room. Already abuzz with whispers, many of the other members of Sirrah got up and followed him.

By the time Hyan made it to the door, the men from the Musubiki, dressed in dark uniforms like the one Uneme used to wear, were already leading Quen away. As the Dauern stumbled out of the building, a crowd formed behind him. The men continued to walk away, their backs to Sirrah with Quen between them. It looked as though they would continue on that way until the sight of them was lost in the darkness, but one spun on his heel abruptly and turned Quen toward the building. Quen’s face, barely visible, was devoid of emotion. He looked on the members of Sirrah with the same emptiness that he had for everything else- seeing, recognizing, but somehow vastly separated from them. Hyan took a step forward.

The man who’d turned spoke.

“Let this be a warning to anyone who would think it advisable to go against the Musubiki.”

Quen’s face disappeared, replaced by a bloody mass, as the sound of a gun echoed in the trees. His body crumpled to the snow-covered ground, a dark stain spreading from his head. Hyan howled in rage. The man who’d spoken drew his own gun and waggled it at the Dauern with a defiant look.

“Don’t be a hero, little guy,” he said. “One peep out of you, one sniff of trouble, and it’s all over. We could wipe out your little nest of hooligans in less than an hour.” He smiled cruelly. “Ta, now.”

The two men picked up Quen’s bleeding body and continued on their way. No one made a move to stop them.

Hours later, as Hyan stared down at the place where Quen had died, he noticed something glinting in the dawn light amidst the blood. He reached down and picked it up, wiping the blood and snow away with his thumb. It was a small, twisted piece of metal, no bigger than the tip of his finger. Wondering if perhaps it was part of the bullet that killed his friend, he placed it carefully in his pocket. Quen had been right. It truly was difficult to predict what would become a memento of an ended life.

     Hironah, in a state of shock, watched Uneme blankly as he oiled the hinges of a very old and rusted metal grate in the ground. She was crouched behind a bush, and he paid her no attention, intent as he was on his work. They were on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, though nowhere near the actual home of the Imperial Family itself. Long ago, in the days before electricity and central heating, this area had been used for the outbuildings that housed the stables, kitchens, and the vast boiler that provided steam heating- and later electricity- for the Palace itself. The building beside which they were hidden still boasted its tall smokestack. With the advances in technology, the now outmoded structures had been converted into guest houses. Since the lockdown of the Palace, they had stood empty and unused. The guest houses and the gardens that surrounded them had been cordoned off from the rest of the grounds as months wore on without an end to the sequestering. Though still patrolled several times a day, the area reserved for guests was not nearly as heavily guarded as the main building. Hironah and Uneme had been able to slip through the spaces in the decorative wrought iron gates without alerting anyone.

Hironah, for her part, could not believe they were doing this. She’d been astounded the night before when Uneme gave her the details of his plans as they rode the northbound train.

“Wait, you’re saying that you want to break into the Palace?”

“That’s right.”

“Uneme, that’s impossible! The place is crawling with guards. It’s got walls all around it. There’s no way in.”

The Angemal turned his yellow eyes on her. He smiled slightly.

“I think I might know a way in.”

Hironah stared at him in disbelief.

“I stress- might.”

He explained to her the defunct heating system and the system of underground tunnels it necessitated. There would be a tunnel leading directly into the Palace itself. They’d be able to access this tunnel through the vacant grounds where the guest houses stood.

“How do you know all this?” She eyed him skeptically.

“Mirai was a guest at the Palace shortly before the Imperial Family stopped receiving visitors. It was my job to look for stuff like that- possible security breaches or anything else that could’ve put Mirai in danger. I didn’t really need to worry that much about her at the Palace, but I noticed anyway, out of force of habit.” He sighed. “It may not work. The tunnels may have collapsed a long time ago, or may have been sealed off where they open into the Palace. There may be a guard posted there, just in case. The grounds where the guest houses are may still be patrolled. We could even get lost underground. But it’s worth a shot.”

“I don’t see why we need to sneak in.”

“We have to get Harata alone. I can’t think of any other way.”

“I was thinking maybe Kat-”

“Do you honestly think she’d be able to convince Harata to meet with you again? And if so, in private without guards or attendants?”

“I guess not,” Hironah conceded. “But what does it matter about the guards anyway? It’s not like we’re going there to hurt him. It doesn’t matter what they hear.”

“It does matter, Hironah. If Caiaphas is involved, Harata may well be a prisoner in his own home. The guards may not only be protecting him- they may be holding him captive.”

Hironah sighed heavily.

“I suppose you’re right, though I’ve got to admit the idea of sneaking into the Palace doesn’t really appeal to me.”

“If you come up with something different, I’d be happy to change plans.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Though she’d wracked her brains, Hironah had been unable to come up with a better idea. When they arrived in Mianuus, the pair decided to spend the day window-shopping. They poked around in a variety of stores, drank tea in a quaint little café, and dined that evening in a rather upscale restaurant. Hironah felt herself full of longing. This is what their life would’ve been if they’d met under different circumstances. There were times when she forgot the dreaded event to come and she relaxed, losing herself in her enjoyment of Uneme’s company and his observations. Occasionally, the part of her that took the education Blue had given her most seriously told her she ought to be spending the day in prayer and meditation, as Kaiya had spent his last. The part of her that was still furious over his death countered that prayer certainly hadn’t helped him any. As the day wore into night, Hironah and Uneme roamed the city, innocuous as any other tourists, their weapons stashed away behind a dumpster in an alley not far from the Palace. When the time drew near for their invasion, they returned to the alley and stripped themselves of their winter coats and hats, replacing them with the arsenal that had mercifully not been discovered.

Uneme motioned silently to Hironah. He’d finished his work, and now the heavy grate moved with no more than a whisper of sound. She scurried to his side and he held up his hand for her to wait. In the coded hand signals of Sirrah, he informed her that he intended to descend the ancient, rickety iron ladder first. She signaled her acquiescence. This was no time to argue. She watched him disappear into darkness. A few heartbeats passed before she followed.

The Marks of Valor


, ,

Chiesara sat at the table in her gleaming, months old kitchen and watched Renta intently. Her hands were clasped around the steaming mug of hot chocolate he’d made for her, letting the warmth seep in, hoping it would drive off the chill that had fallen over her very spirit. She longed for Kieran, but her husband had been forced to go to Rien, to register the death of their son with the local authorities. She’d wanted to go with him, but that was impossible. Someone needed to remain at home. Kieran had asked Renta to stay behind as well, to keep his wife company.

Chie sighed heavily, rubbing her eyes in the vain hope of stemming the tears that welled there.

“I’m really, really sorry,” Renta said again. That seemed to be all he could say since he’d recounted the grim tales of the murders that had transpired a few days before.

“I know, Renta, I know,” Chiesara replied softly. “Please stop blaming yourself.”

“I can’t… I was right there. I’m sorry.”

“There was nothing you could’ve done. Enough of that.”

She watched as Renta hung his head, tracing a line on the table with his index finger. He’d been unable to look her in the eye since she and Kieran had arrived at Kamitouki to oversee Yoshiki’s funeral.

“Yoshiki chose his fate a long time ago,” Chie said quietly, her knuckles white from clutching the mug in her hands. “I’ve had to make my peace with that. It was never what I wanted, but the choice wasn’t mine to make. Eventually, I even learned to be proud of him. He believed in what he was doing. One morning, I woke up and realized that he wasn’t being naïve or headstrong. He knew what he was sacrificing, but he did it willingly. He knew he’d never get to live a life of peace, with a quiet job and a happy family. He understood exactly what he was giving up, but he never once looked back. He did it out of love.” She released a shuddering sob. “I love my son. I miss him… but I’ve missed him a long time now. I have to carry on with the understanding that I’ll probably never give up believing that it’ll be him calling when I hear the phone ring, that one day he’ll just come home, swaggering through the door like always. But I can also have faith that one day, one glorious day, his soul will come home to mine. And we’ll never be apart again.”

Renta, unable to answer her, merely nodded in solemn understanding. Chiesara sighed.

“By every god there is, I wish I could kill that woman.”

“We’re working on it.”

“I wish I could do it myself. You might not believe it, Renta, but I’ve killed before. It took me a long time before I stopped beating myself up over it. But I don’t think I’d feel so sorry about her.”

“If you’re serious, I could probably-”

“I’m just mouthing off, Renta. I have too many other things to take care of, and Kieran would never forgive me. He’d tell me it made me just as bad.”

“I think it might be fitting.”

“Don’t tempt me.” There was a gleam in Chiesara’s eye that informed Renta that he’d be better off dropping the subject. There was a fire waiting to be ignited in this woman, and they both knew it. Too much talk of the idea, and she’d be off, dragging the Angemal behind, excitedly chatting about the coming revenge. If he thought it would help her, he wouldn’t hesitate to talk her into it, but he knew Chiesara all too well. The death of her estranged sister-in-law would offer her no comfort. Only time and peace could do that. Time they had. Peace was another matter.

“I should probably go check on Yume soon,” the Angemal said softly.

“I can’t believe Hironah did that to her. I still don’t understand.”

“She’s insane,” Renta said heavily. “She’s gone completely mad.”

“I wonder if I did the right thing, leaving her behind. She needs help…”

Renta shook his head.

“Let her alone.”

Unwanted, the memory of the night he’d brought Yoshiki’s body back to Kamitouki replayed itself in Renta’s mind. Hironah, covered in blood, stood before him, looking at him with a burning coldness in her eyes. She pointed at Seiken’s corpse, crumpled against the blood-splattered wall.

“You entered this house with a body in your arms,” she said to Renta, her voice steel. “You can exit the same way. Get rid of him. I don’t care where or how, just get him off this property. If you choose to return, that’s your decision.”

Renta hesitated, looking down at Yume.

“Do as I say.”

Still he did not move.

“Now!” Hironah’s hand was twitching near the dagger that she’d sheathed.

Uneme walked softly over to where Renta cradled Yume, who still wept.

“I’ll watch over her,” he said. “I promise no more harm will come to her. I swear it on my Blood.”

The two Angemal locked eyes for a moment, the vow solidifying between them. Renta nodded slightly. Kissing Yume on the head, he passed her to Uneme. He rose and made to follow Hironah’s instructions, gathering up Seiken’s destroyed body in his arms. Without a word he left, not looking back. He stepped out into the darkness. He went on a few feet, wondering what he ought to do, when he heard Tamaki’s voice.



“What happened? I heard someone screaming.” She stopped short in her advance, recognizing the body that leaked over his arms and dribbled blood on the cobblestones. “Seiken?”

“Hironah killed him.”

“She killed him?” Tamaki’s voice was quiet, thoughtful, rather than incredulous. “Why?”

“I- I don’t know.”

“What are you doing with him?”

“Hironah told me to get rid of the body. She wants it off the property.”

Tamaki tilted her head, regarding Renta and his burden in the light of the moons and the ambient glow that spilled from Kamitouki’s buildings. She moved closer, reaching out to touch Seiken on the forehead, as though expecting him to stir.

“What should I do?” Renta pleaded.

“I think I know a place.”

Renta followed Tamaki through the property to a pathway that led to the bluffs overlooking the beach. He became acutely aware of the cries of the ravens in the bare trees overhead.

“They’ll eat him!” the Angemal hissed in disgust.

“Let them,” Tamaki replied flippantly.

“He hasn’t had the Rites.”

“He doesn’t need them.”


“In the wars, the Angemal bury their dead, or burn them all together. They don’t bother with the Rites for each individual. Do you think all those people become ghosts?”

“I guess not, but-”

“They don’t.”

“But Seiken’s not an Angemal.”

“Trust me, he doesn’t need them.”

Tamaki sounded so sure of herself, he decided not to argue with her. Instead, they continued on in silence, the only sounds the cracking of twigs and crunching of leaves underfoot, the cries of the ravens overhead. They came to a place where the trees ended, the moons and stars frosting the bluffs with silver light. Tamaki continued to lead until the silhouette of an old and twisted tree, barren with winter, loomed over them.

“Here,” she said quietly.

“Here? Isn’t this where-”

“Yes, this is where Kaiya’s ashes are buried.”

“We can’t leave him here.”

“It’s what he would’ve wanted. Leave him, Renta. You can come back and bury what’s left of him tomorrow.”

What’s left of him. The Angemal gazed up at the flock of ravens that had followed them. They alighted in the tree, black on black. He shuddered.

“Isn’t this against all the tenets of your religion?”

“Religion isn’t going to help him now.”


“I’m going to say some prayers,” Tamaki assured him, “but he isn’t there, Renta. He’s gone, completely. There is nothing in this world we could do that would make any difference.”

“It’s against the Code.” Renta shook his head. “The desecration of bodies is a fate saved only for the most hated of enemies.”

Tamaki said nothing, her silence pensive.

“Maybe we should leave him somewhere else- in the trees, where there’s more cover.”

“No, leave him with Kaiya.”

“Why? You said it won’t make any difference.”

“Renta…” Tamaki shifted, a girlish gesture betraying the struggle within. “Seiken loved Kaiya. He’d never been close to anyone other than himself for a long, long time. Kaiya’s death broke his heart. Leave him here. I know you see it as a desecration, but it could also be viewed as a last blessing on a life that fell to evil.”

“Yoshiki told me you thought Seiken was Caiaphas. Was he?”

“We’ll know that answer soon enough.”

Sighing, Renta laid Seiken’s body under the spreading branches of the ancient tree. He did what he could to arrange the dripping, mangled corpse in a dignified pose. When he straightened, he surveyed the results of his attempt. Overhead, the ravens hopped eagerly to lower branches. Only one remained near the top of the tree. It was larger than the rest, massive in fact, and quite easily recognizable to those below.

“Rah,” Tamaki observed.

“I never really understood Seiken,” Renta admitted. “But I didn’t dislike him. He was always careful in his work for Sirrah. I never really got how someone who could be so… compassionate, I guess, could be so alone and terrified all the time. I wanted to get to know him better, I just never knew how. Sometimes it felt like he lived behind and invisible wall.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I kinda hope he really was Caiaphas, you know? At least then what just happened will make some sense. I’ve known Hironah a long time. I don’t like to think that she could just murder someone like that. It’s one thing to face an enemy on equal grounds, but he couldn’t even defend himself.”

Tamaki sighed.

“I’m going to stay here and pray for a while. I know it won’t do anything to help Seiken, but perhaps it will help the rest of us.” She touched Renta’s arm gently. “You can go back to the house. I’ll be along as soon as I’m finished.”


The sound of Chiesara’s voice brought him back to the present.

“- been through so much. And now she’s all alone. It isn’t right.”

“She’s got Uneme with her. Yume trusts him. Hironah ought to do alright for now. You’ve got enough worries.”

“I’ll be honest with you, Renta. I haven’t felt this awful in a long time. I wish Blue was here. He’d know what to say. He always knew what to tell me.”

Renta nodded silently.

“Not that you’re not a comfort,” Chie added hastily. “You’ve been a world of help, Renta.” She watched him blush. “Do you know where I wrote down Tamaki’s address? I was in such a haze, I completely forgot.”

“In the blue notebook. The small one.”

“Thanks. As soon as it’s possible, I want to drive out to see her. She’s such a nice girl. I can see why Yoshiki was so fond of her.”

“He was crazy about her. I’ve never seen him like that before.” The Angemal smiled ruefully. “Yume said so, too.”

Chie shook her head sadly.

“It figures.” With a sigh, she added. “I’m hoping she’ll be willing to make some arrangements for Taka. Yoshiki’s service was so beautiful. I was thinking that I’d like for her to do Taka’s, too.”

“She probably will. I think she’d be honored, actually.”

After a few moments of silence, Renta asked,

“Is it really that bad?”

“You’ll see for yourself in a few minutes. I need you to check on him when you go up to look in on Yume.”

“Alright. Should I go now?”

“Yeah. I’ll start making lunch. I hope soup and sandwiches are okay. Twenty-three years of marriage and I still can’t cook worth a damn.”

“That’ll be fine,” Renta replied with a broad smile.

“Ask Yume if she wants to come down. I doubt she’ll say yes, but it’s worth a shot.”


Renta left the kitchen and made his way upstairs. Chiesara and Kieran’s new house was quite a bit larger than their last one, and Renta felt a pang to think of its emptiness in days to come. He’d known Yoshiki’s family nearly as long as he’d known the man himself. His heart ached for them now, mingled with his own sorrow. He wanted badly to be able to shield them from further pain, but realized there was nothing he could do. Quietly, he repeated an old Angemal saying, one of which his own father was very fond.

“Pain is a part of life. Grit your teeth and it will either pass or kill you.”

His own words ringing in his ears, he turned the knob on Takae’s door.

Chiesara had been in earlier to open the curtains to the winter suns and brush his hair for him as she did every morning. She fluffed the pillows on the neatly made bed he ignored at night and chattered at him absently, long past the point of pleading with him to wake up. She turned him toward the window just like every other day, telling him,

“If you’ve got to stare at something, it might as well be the scenery.”

Renta entered the room quietly, creeping around to lay eyes on the man who was seated in the most comfortable armchair Chiesara and Kieran could find in Rien. He barely resembled the Takae that Renta had known from his visits to Kamitouki. Though Chiesara and Kieran kept him very clean and dressed him every day in a fresh set of clothes, it could not hide the changes that had come over him. He was pale and wasted, his skin dry and flaking. His hair was falling out in patches, shot through with white. His ice-blue eyes, so like Yoshiki’s, were sunken in his head, shadowed in violet. They appeared enormous as they stared out emptily at nothing.

Renta bowed his head.

“Oh, Sir.”

Renta had always addressed Takae, Blue and Kieran as “sir”. Yoshiki found this formality hilarious, but the Angemal could not be made to abandon it.

He looked again at Takae’s face, searching as others had, for some spark of lucidity, some flicker of recognition. He found nothing. Renta choked on his memories of this man, who despite his perpetual look of being a few steps further away than he ever really was, had all the hallmarks of a patient teacher, a loving father, and a caring uncle. For a moment Renta was thankful for his fate- that he would fade into death, never to wake to the reality of the desolation that had come to his family.

Renta had once watched Kaiya build castles in the sand to amuse the young and frail Aki. As the tide came in, the waves ate away at the walls and turrets, each progression of the water carrying back a portion of the sculpture until all that remained was a scarred place on the shoreline. Thus he felt he’d watched this family fade with each wave of fate. Hironah’s madness marked the end of Kamitouki, but what remained of the rest of them? When the water finally finished its erosion, who of them would be left, the scar to mark the place where once a family had stood?

Gripped by the urgency of the worry he felt for Yume, which constricted his throat and iced over his belly, Renta turned from the shadow of Takae and left the room. His pace increased until he reached her door, barely remembering to knock before entering.

Yume rolled over to face him as he entered. Her blue-green eyes were red and puffy from crying. The bandage on her face was wet.

“Renta?” she sniffled, squinting.

“Hey,” he said softly as he crossed the room to sit down on the bed beside her.

He touched her hesitantly. In response, she moved closer to him and he drew her into his lap, holding her close.

“How ya doin’?”

“I feel like shit,” she replied with renewed tears. He held her tightly until she cried herself out.

“I know,” he whispered. He couldn’t tell her that her pain would pass with time, that everything would be all right. He knew no empty phrases of comfort, and his Honor was too strong to allow him to speak words he didn’t mean. Instead, he placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head upward. “Let me take a look at you.”

She was silent as he inspected her bandaged face.

“We’ll have to change this.” He rose. “Hang on a second.”

Renta crossed to the cluttered chest of drawers and opened up a hinged wooden box atop it. As he carefully picked through the contents, he recalled the late night trip to visit one of Nira’s only remaining Decameron. Wise and getting on in years, she’d read the lie in Renta’s eyes as he recounted his hastily-constructed yarn about an accident with a kitchen knife. She didn’t press him for the truth, merely shook her head sadly and set about her work. The long gash that ran up the side of Yume’s face was deep, and required stitches. The Decameron worked attentively and quietly. When she was done, she gave them the box of supplies and wrote a list of instructions. Finally, she turned to Yume, looking somber.

“I’m sorry, dear, but that’s going to leave a scar. If you apply the poultice I’ve given you, it won’t be quite as bad.”

Yume only nodded in silence. Renta thanked the woman and gave her some payment and they left.

He closed the box and returned to Yume. As he carefully cleaned and disinfected her wound, she sat rigidly, occasionally squinting back tears.

“There,” Renta said. “That’s much better.”

Yume hung her head. Touching the fresh bandage gingerly, she whispered,

“Just like Yoshiki.”

Renta only nodded, understanding the weight of the meaning in her words. Yoshiki hadn’t mentioned the jagged scar that ran up his face, and the Angemal didn’t have any idea where it came from until he’d finally asked.

“Oh, this?” Yoshiki asked in reply, rubbing the raised pink flesh. “I forget I have it most of the time. Got it in Pandemonium, in the Rift. I don’t mind it so much… Kind of a souvenir from walking where no mortal is meant to roam.” He grinned. “Besides, Tamaki thinks it’s cool. Turns out I’ve seen more of Pandemonium than she has- she’s too awful at Soul Walking to get there.”

Renta brushed the hair back from Yume’s forehead.

“I can’t stand it,” she whimpered. “I can’t take the thought that every time I look in the mirror I’m going to see him instead of me. Every morning when I brush my teeth, I’m going to be reminded that he’s gone. Because of this.” She gestured at the wound.

Renta pursed his lips. He was no good at this. He couldn’t talk to her like Blue would’ve, or Kaiya or Yoshiki. He simply didn’t know how. Resigned, he accepted that none of those people were around to help her. There was only him, and he was going to talk to her the only way he knew how- like the Angemal that he was.

“Yume,” he began, taking her hands. “Yoshiki thought of that scar as a sign of his courage, and it was. So is yours. You earned it trying to help someone who wasn’t as strong as you. You put yourself in danger trying to save your friend.”

“It didn’t matter. Hironah killed him anyway.”

“We have a saying: ‘Victories do not courage make.’ It comes from an old story about a warlord who’d never once been defeated. He became so afraid of failure and so terrified of death that when he finally met a challenger he couldn’t overcome with ease, he turned and fled. In his haste to escape, he ran his horse over a cliff and died without Honor. The point is, it’s not the success of the act that counts toward bravery. It’s the act itself.” He touched her bandage lightly. “The scar you have here,” he touched her side, waking memories of a poisoned wound, “and here,” he laid his hand over her heart, “and here, are marks of a life lived in valor.”

“I don’t care about valor or bravery,” Yume said bitterly. “I want my brother back. I want Uncle Taka not to be dying. I want to hear Kaiya’s voice telling Seiken about the universe. I don’t care if that means I’d have to live my life a coward.”

“I know,” Renta replied sadly. “I’d do anything to make that a reality, even if it meant giving up my own life.”

“I’ve had enough of people giving up their lives. Kaiya died to save Hironah, and how does she thank him? By going crazy!”

“Well, Yume,” Renta looked her in the eyes, “Yoshiki devoted his life to you. It’s on your shoulders how he’ll be repaid.”

She glared at him in anger for a moment, as he’d expected her to, but soon she relaxed, slumping against him.

“You’re right,” she said quietly. “But I feel so tired and disappointed. My life has changed, and I just keep thinking about how badly I want things to be the way they were. I don’t want this life I have now. It feels like I’m never going to care about anything again. I wonder if that’s what happened to Hironah. After Kaiya died, maybe she just stopped caring.”


“I wish Uneme had stopped her. I was so angry with him for just standing there… but when I confronted him about it, he told me he couldn’t have stopped her, that she was Berserk, and that it would’ve been wrong to try, anyway.”

“Why did he say it would’ve been wrong?”

“He told me Hironah put and Oath on herself to kill Seiken. He said that kind of Oath is sacred to Angemal and cannot be broken, and that if an Angemal can’t fulfill an Oath in life, it’ll pass through their blood over generations until it can be. Is that true?”

“Yeah, it’s true. An Oath on the Blood is the most sacred kind of vow that we can make. And we do believe it can transcend death, guiding the fates of all the descendants of someone who doesn’t complete an Oath they swore in life.”

“I always felt sorry for Seiken. None of us really got close to him except Kaiya. Kaiya always loved everybody equally, even when we were real young. Blue was his Master, but he was so devoted to Uncle Taka you’d think they were father and son.” Yume shook her head. “Seiken reminded me a lot of Uncle Taka. He’d get the same look in his eyes sometimes- like he was cut off from everybody else, like no one would ever understand the depths of his soul and whatever torments rested there. But Uncle Taka was surrounded by people who loved him anyway. Seiken didn’t have that. Before Kaiya died, I used to hope that he’d help Seiken, that he’d give him the solidity that Uncle Taka had with all of us. I hope he’s at peace now, wherever he is.”

“I do, too.”

“Renta…” Yume ventured. “Do you think now that Blue and Kaiya and Yoshiki are dead and Hironah’s gone crazy, bad things will stop happening to us for a while? Yoshiki told me Tamaki thought Caiaphas was causing all this somehow. Do you think that maybe if we give up on him, he’ll give up on us?”

“I think it’s possible.”

“I hate to let him win, but Yoshiki always said that you have to learn to accept when you’re defeated. I don’t want revenge. I just want the people who I love who are still here to be safe.”

Renta nodded.

“Will you give up, too?”

“If you ask me to.”

Silently, Renta vowed never to mention that Caiaphas may have already been defeated, his bones buried beneath a tree next to the ashes of the man he’d loved in his second, unholy life.

     “I’m leaving.” Bel looked across the table at Hironah, who was regarding him with interest. “I’m sorry. I can’t keep working here.”

“I understand,” Hironah replied. It was not the response he’d been expecting.

“Of course, I’ll stay through the spring and take full responsibility for notifying the students.”

“That’d be much appreciated. You can also assume the duty of letting those enrolled for the next term know that Kamitouki will be closing its doors.”

“What? Hironah, how are you going to support yourself?”

“That’s not your concern.”

Bel sighed.

“Forget the formalities for a minute. I know you’re my employer, but I’ve been living here for over ten years. We practically grew up together. I’m worried about you, Hironah. I don’t know what’s going on or how things have gotten to be the way they are, but I bear you no ill will.”

“But you’re leaving anyway.”

“I’m sorry. I really am, but I can’t stay in this place. It’s like it’s been cursed.”

“And yet you would suggest that I keep inviting innocent young people to this place to share in that curse?”

“That’s not what I meant-”

“Look, Bel,” Hironah’s violet eyes gleamed in the dull kitchen light. “You’re right. We’ve known each other a long time. And I know you well enough to know exactly what it is you’re going to do. When you leave here, you’ll start your own school. You’ll keep teaching, probably line up one of your old Night’s Herald classmates to do it with you. In that way, I know that Blue and Taka’s legacy will live on. That’s all that matters to me. This is just a place. It’s not important.”

“But what about you?”

“I’ll figure something out. Don’t worry about me.”

“I can’t help myself. You’ve been through so much and… well, honestly, Hironah, you’re not okay.”

“Who says I need to be?”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.” Hironah rose. “Thanks for letting me know you’re planning on leaving. Now get out of my house.”


“Get out, Bel.”

His heart heavy, the towering Corduran did as he was told. Hironah, intent on ignoring him, walked into the sitting room. Uneme was lounging on the sofa, watching television. She flopped down beside him.

“Bel just quit.”

“What’d he do that for?” Uneme asked defensively.

“He said he couldn’t work here anymore. He didn’t say as much, but I know he meant he couldn’t work for me. He suspects that I did something to Seiken, and I already tried to burn the place down once. Who’d want to stay here and work for a nutter?”

“You’re not crazy, Hironah. You’re just in a lot of pain.”

“What’s the difference?” she asked despondently.

Uneme kissed her forehead lightly.

“If you allow yourself, there are ways to ease your pain. That’s one difference.”

“I haven’t got the faintest idea how to do that, Uneme.” With a sigh, she added, “Let’s not talk about it.”


The two said nothing more to one another, save for passing jokes or observations as they watched the television programs. After about an hour had passed, they listened together as a newscaster standing before the Imperial Palace recounted the first public appearance of the Emperor in over a month. Hironah and Uneme had watched his address earlier that day. Harata had appeared even older and more haggard than when Hironah had last seen him, and despite his best efforts he had the air of one haunted. Uneme shook his head sadly. He looked at Hironah and opened his mouth to speak, but abruptly changed his mind, turning from her again.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Hironah…” He scrutinized her face for signs that he should continue. “Do you think it would make you feel better if you could help Harata?”

“There’s nothing I can do for him. He doesn’t want my help anyway. He said as much.”

“Do you want Bel to stay?”

Hironah simply stared, startled by the swift change in topic. When her mind had caught up, she answered,

“Of course I do.”

“Did you tell him so?”

“No, but-”

“What was the last thing you said to him tonight?”

“I- I told him to get out.”

“See, Hironah? We don’t always say what we mean, and Harata’s your uncle. You have the same blood running through your veins. Of course you’re gonna do and say the same kinds of backwards things.”

“I hadn’t really thought of it that way. But still,” she added, “there’s nothing I can do to help him.”

“Look at him, Hironah. It’s obvious that something really terrible has happened, but nobody’s doing anything.”

“I have no intention of trying to meet with him again. It was hard enough the last time.”

Uneme looked at her intently.

“Things have changed since then. Maybe this time would be different. And when you think about it, you have so much to gain and nothing to lose. If you can help Harata, you’ll get a part of your family back. I only want what’s best for you, Hironah. That’s why I was asking.”

“I don’t think there’s anything I can do. I can’t even get close enough to Harata to have a conversation with him.”

“You will if you go with me.”

“Go with you?”

“I’m going to save him- from Caiaphas and from himself.”

“What? Uneme, you can’t be serious. Besides, in the note Tamaki left for me, she said she thought maybe Seiken-”

“I know what Tamaki thought, but I disagree. I’ve said all along that I believe we’ll find the avatar near the Imperial Family, in the capitol, at the heart of things. We’re running out of time. Harata can’t possibly hold on much longer. I love my country, and I’m loyal to the Empire. I’m not willing to let that bastard win. I won’t let him destroy the system my father died to protect. I’m going to save Harata and the Empire.”

Hironah made to argue, but felt her words shrivel before the fervent gleam in his eyes. Her logic faltered, her reason faded. She looked away from him, black strands of hair falling to hide her face. Her trembling voice spilled out, soaked in hopeless remorse.

“You’ll martyr yourself. You’re going to end up like Kaiya and Yoshiki, like Blue. Don’t do this to me. You’re all I’ve got left.”

“I’m not going to fail, Hironah. I know I’m not. It’s my destiny to do this, and I will succeed. I’m going to go to Mianuus. When I return, it will be in victory. I know you’ll be here waiting.”

“No I won’t.”

Uneme peered around the curtain of hair that hid her eyes. She looked back at him, her expression rigid and stony.

“I’m going with you. I’m not going to lose you, too. If I have to die a thousand deaths, I’ll protect you. Maybe that’s my destiny… and I lost everyone else because I never accepted it.”




, ,

All seemed to be going quite well. On a cliff-side patch of clear land along Diasminion’s west coast, Sirrah was making camp for the night. Yoshiki moved swiftly around the camp, giving orders and advice to the men and women who fought for him. He paused occasionally to share jokes or warm himself at one of the fires. Spirits were high, shot through with the usual nervous anticipation that welled before a fight. The next day they would descend upon the small coastal town of Shai, where they would face off against The Risen, Sirrah’s latest rivals since the fall of Remnant. Word had it that The Risen had been terrorizing the townspeople, systematically sacking homes and businesses of those who disagreed with the Ghost Clan. Intelligence indicated that they were so wrapped up in their conquest that they had no idea Sirrah was coming for them. Yoshiki, familiar with the terrain, had chosen a place to make camp that was far enough from Shai that it was likely to go unnoticed by their careless foes.

Once he was certain that preparations for the night watch were adequate and the layout of the tents was satisfactory, Yoshiki made his way to the edge of the cliffs that hung over a rocky beach. He listened to the sound of the surf and realized that he felt good. Action soothed his soul. The familiar motions and plans washed away the strange and troubling thoughts that had been haunting him of late. He was doing something he could understand, something solid, something real.

He turned at the sound of footsteps behind him, watching the silhouetted form approach. His muscles, which had tensed instinctively, relaxed. He’d recognize Renta’s gait in a crowd of millions, even in the darkness.

“Not moping, I hope,” the Angemal’s voice cut through the night.

“Far from it,” Yoshiki answered with a smile. “You do a double-check of the camp?”

“Sure did. We’re ship-shape.”

“Great. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

“Me, too. Seems like things are finally getting back to normal.”

“Does, doesn’t it?”

“Too right.”

The two stood in complacent silence for a few minutes, surveying the stars and moons that hung over the water. Yoshiki turned to say something to his friend, but the words died on his lips as he realized that he suddenly felt very strange. It was over in an instant, that quick, sharp feeling of being punched in the chest. What followed it was… absolutely nothing. Renta watched in horror as Yoshiki pitched forward over the side of the precipice. His eyes followed the moonlit shimmer of blonde hair as it cascaded downward with the body of his closest friend to land on the rock-strewn sand below.

Hironah bolted upright, shrieking, her hands clawing at her head. In less than a breath, she felt arms around her, holding her still.

“It was a dream,” Uneme soothed, his voice carefully devoid of his own shock. “You were dreaming. It’s over.”

Breathing heavily, she tried to make out his face in the night-blackened room.

“It’s alright,” he continued. “It’s okay. It wasn’t real. You’re safe now. It’s alright.”

She began to sob, clinging to him. He stroked her hair and continued whispering to her until she finally calmed. They held each other without speaking for a long time. Uneme remained still as he felt Hironah shudder occasionally. When it seemed that she’d relaxed at last, he held her away from him, peering at her through the darkness.

“Are you okay? You had a nightmare.”

“Yeah,” she replied, somewhat breathless. “I’m alright. Gods, it was horrible.”

She fell back against him, burrowing into his arms, seeking comfort in his solidity and strength.

“What were you dreaming about?”

She didn’t reply, save for some renewed sniffling.

“Don’t want to talk about it?”

“Uneme…” her voice cracked over his name. “Yoshiki’s dead.”

“No, he isn’t. We just talked to him. You were only dreaming.”

“I saw it happen.” Hironah began to cry again, her tears soaking Uneme’s chest. He hugged her tighter.

“It was only a nightmare. We’ll get in touch with him as soon as we can and you’ll see. He’s fine.”

“I’ve had this kind of dream before. It means something.”

“It’ll be okay. We’ll warn him the next time we talk to him. I know you’ve got foresight, Hironah, but you’ve never watched the present, have you?”

“No… but it seemed so- so real, you know?”

“Well, keep in mind that Sirrah only just left their headquarters. They can’t have come up against The Risen yet. He’s fine.”

“It’s not a fight I saw.”

“What happened to him, then?”

“I don’t know. He was just standing there and then…” Hironah shook her head.

“Well, keep in mind that if anything did happen to him, he’s got Seiken with him. He’ll set it right.”

“Seiken’s useless.”

“How can you say that after you’ve seen what he can do?”

“Uneme, he had Erishkegal helping him. He can’t do anything now. He can’t even see!”

“He took care of me and Yume after we left the Rift. He was blind by then and he still did more than a fair job. And look at what he did for Quen.”

Hironah was silent for some time before Uneme realized she was crying again.

“He… he wouldn’t even try.”

“Hironah, there was nothing any of us could’ve done,” Uneme replied quietly, seeing what this was about.

“He could’ve done something. He- he just stood there.”


“Don’t, Uneme. Don’t defend him. He could’ve pretended, even. I hate him. I’m tired of losing people I love while he stands around and does nothing. It’s not fair.”

“He does the best he can.” Feeling Hironah stiffen, Uneme went on. “Don’t worry about Yoshiki. If it was a premonition you had, we’ll tell him to be on his guard. But he’s alright now. Okay?”

“I guess you’re right. Sorry… the whole thing was just so- so vivid, like I was really there.”

“It’s okay. Lie down. Go back to sleep. I’ll be here to watch over you and drive your dreams away.”

She looked up at him, saw the moonlight catch his eyes as he gazed back at her. She kissed him softly and felt the hard curves of his mouth on hers.

“Thank you,” she whispered as he eased her down onto the bedding.

“Sleep tight,” he replied quietly. “Don’t be frightened. I’m here with you.”

     “You cannot continue on this way, Your Majesty. Whatever it is that’s driven you to try to protect yourself, it can’t be worth the cost… You’ve seen the reports. The country is tearing itself apart.”

Harata turned to face his advisor, his haggard visage set in hard lines.

“I’m aware of what’s going on.”

“Please, Your Majesty, Diasminion needs you. Speak to the people. Come back to the Senate. Help to set this right.”

“Isn’t that what I’m paying you for? You’re my representative. It’s your job to deliver the messages.”

“It’s just not the same. If you could be there in body as well as in spirit-”

“I’m not going to do any good for this country as a corpse!”

“Your Highness, if you would just tell us… The Guard and the military-”

“The military can do nothing.” Harata sank down into his chair and held his head in his hands. “And little good the Guard has done me.”

“Without more information-”

“For the last time, I’ve already given you all the information possible. If I was going to say anything more on the subject, I’d have done so already.”

The advisor sighed.

“Your Majesty, just one public appearance… Show the people that you care about them as much as yourself. Tell them how you’ll set this right. They need to hear it from you. They need your voice.”

“I’ll consider it,” Harata replied quietly. “If there’s nothing else…”

“No, Your Highness.”

“You may take your leave, then.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The Emperor watched as his advisor turned and left the office, closing the door as softly as possible behind him. Harata lowered his head once more, regret the likes of which he’d never known battering him in violent waves. The past played again in his mind, and he wondered just where it was that he went wrong. The answer could lay at so many crossroads in time, though he had his suspicions about a few of them.

Harata lived now for these few moments of silence he was afforded, cherished minutes in which he could grieve outwardly the losses that battered him. Alone, he had no need for shows of strength or perseverance. Alone, he could succumb to the questions and doubts that gnawed at him. He pictured the faces of the people who were gone, remembered their words and the times they’d spent together.

He thought of his son. He remembered clearly the night Aki had been born, the mixture of pride and elation, worry and confusion that had surrounded him in the precious seconds he’d been allowed to hold his only son for the first time. He pondered over the strange way in which a parent’s hope for a child could be changed so, boiled down to one simple plea- survive.

Harata didn’t need to be told why his son had been assassinated. It seemed absurd to many that anyone would go through the time, trouble and risk of murdering the Crown Prince. It was no secret that Akos was in very poor health, and probably never would have lived to ascend the throne. Yet Harata understood. Though the Imperial Family had never disclosed their plans to anyone other than the concerned parties, it would have been easy enough to surmise what they were.

In about nine months, when he came of age, Aki was to marry. His parents had chosen a young woman who came from an offshoot of the family of the previous Emperor- a family that had legal right to the Empire after the last Emperor had died without an heir. Any offspring produced by the union would forever solidify Harata’s line’s claim to the throne. While this decision was made quietly, anyone with a mind for politics would’ve realized what was coming. For anyone who wished to thwart the Emperor in his plans, Akos-Hieran’s death became an urgent necessity.

Yet throughout Diasminion there were murmurs on the subject of the sheer cruelty with which the crime had been committed. The details of Aki’s murder, made public by the Media, caused many to shake their heads in revulsion. Perhaps a simple assassination, while still shocking, might have been accepted by the populace as an unfortunate result of political turmoil. However, this crime spoke of more than necessity- it told a tale of hatred, of a loathing so vile that whoever had committed it had been driven to torture. The collective awareness of this fact caused the citizens of Diasminion to raise questions among themselves. Did the Emperor perhaps have some enemy other than those found in the Senate? Could it, in fact, have been the Ghost Clan? Whatever became of the people that the Imperial Guard had been looking for, one of whom was a direct relation to the Emperor himself?

Harata knew the answers to all of these questions. Yes, he had answers, but he remained helpless. Trapped, he could do nothing but watch and regret as the world came crashing down. He thought of the evening when the Guard informed him of Kaiya’s death. He’d merely nodded, an acceptance of fact, and asked if there was anything else to report. It wasn’t until many hours later, alone and in silence, that Harata gritted his teeth against the profound sorrow of the news, pounding his fist against the polished surface of the desk. Remembrance of the necessary coldness with which he’d treated the Night’s Herald- a young man he both admired and cared for- made him cringe. There was nothing else he could’ve done, he told himself, but the words seemed hollow.

That night the Emperor battled his doubts all over again. What if he’d told Kaiya? What if he’d taken him aside to some quiet place, free of any other ears, and unburdened himself of all he hid? No, surely Kaiya wouldn’t have accepted it… and what would have become of the both of them if he had? Harata knew, deep within his heart, that this battle was his to face alone.

Alone, he laughed bitterly. Yes, I’m certainly alone.

The throne upon which he sat during formal audiences had never felt so cold; the mantle he wore had never seemed so heavy. There was no longer any warmth within his life, and Harata felt that the word “loneliness” did not even begin to describe the void that had crept in to take its place. His forced silence and oppressive demands had driven a wedge between Harata and his family. Only Akos had accepted the order to remain sequestered with calm patience. His wife and daughters railed against him, unable to understand his reasons for ordering them to sever themselves from society. Kat had tried. He watched her as she struggled to remain supportive, to have faith that he had sound reasons, even if he didn’t share them. In fact, Harata had admired her for the sheer length of time in which she’d stood by him… but that, too, was over now.

Aki’s death had severed the remaining thread of loyalty between husband and wife. On the evening of the day his body had been found, Kat had turned pleading eyes on Harata.

“Tell me what’s going on,” she’d begged in a low voice.

He’d said nothing in return.

“Tell me.”

He shook his head.

“Our son is dead!” the Empress shrieked, pounding her fists against his chest. “Tell me why!”
Still silent, he made to draw her toward him, but she pulled away. Her eyes wild, she stared at him in horror and fury. Drawing a shuddering breath, she whispered,

“I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

She fled the room, sobbing bitterly. Though she’d stood beside him at the funeral, Kat didn’t say a word to her husband. They now slept in separate rooms.

She was the last to leave him, and now he was truly and utterly alone. The only people he saw all day were aides and advisors and a handful of servants. None of them spoke to him about anything other than their daily business. To them, he was the Emperor of Diasminion. None of them knew him as the simple man, Harata, and none of them ever would. Even during his darkest days of the Task, when he was no more than the so-called “Clanless One” with his Nine Champions, he’d never felt such desolation. At least in those days there had been people he could rely on.

I couldn’t even say goodbye.

Harata thought with grief of how he’d burned Hironah’s letters, to prevent being reminded of Blue’s impending death. He regretted the passing of his oldest friend, even more so because the web in which he’d been caught would not allow him even the comfort of one final conversation, one last look. He often wondered if Blue had become ensnared as well, and that was how he met his end. Nothing in Hironah’s letters indicated that this was the case, but Hironah was never one for disclosing family intimacies, either. Harata supposed he’d know the answer someday, and tried to force himself not to think about it.

I should never have given up the sword.

Harata’s thoughts invariably led to wondering what would’ve been if he’d chosen another life. He could’ve helped Blue and Takae found Kamitouki, teaching the ancient skills of his Shaen in the Otherlands to a new generation of Diasminian warriors. His children would’ve grown up near the sand and sea, never far from Hironah and Kaiya, who they adored. He could’ve worked with Chiesara, helping her to quietly reform the country from the inside. His family would’ve lived in a tiny cabin in the mountains, barely getting by, but safe and happy and near to people who loved them. His children would’ve entertained Pantagruel and Dauern rather than Empirians and GelbFaust and probably would’ve worn little more than rags, but they would’ve been at peace. It would never have come to this.

He rubbed his forehead and tried to convince himself that he’d made the right decision. It had taken hard years of legal battles and political posing before Harata had managed to lay claim to the Empire. He was, after all, Qa Haran’s chosen one. In the end, those who opposed him could find no evidence that he was not, in fact, Clanless. In those days, his popularity was such that the citizens were practically begging the Senators to name him the successor to the throne. Upon his ascension, Harata swore to himself that he would right all the wrongs he could within his country.

He’d been true to his vow. The Dauern were free. The Pantagruel were no longer forced to work in appalling, dangerous conditions. No more wars were waged in the name of profit. Citizens could do what work they pleased, and no longer were they spied on by their government. Yet Harata was not naïve. He listened grimly to the reports of growing squalor and economic distress. He was aware of the toll that gang warfare was taking on his nation. There was still a lot of work left to be done.

And that is why, he reminded himself, I cannot give up. I have to press on, no matter what the cost.


     Try as he might, Renta couldn’t tear his eyes away from Yume’s. She was staring up at him with such a look of shock, fear and sorrow that he felt he would burn away in his guilt-ridden regret. He wished that someone would say something to end this moment, just as he wished they’d all remain silent and let him slink back out the way he came. Three people were staring at him, but he couldn’t break his gaze from the one he’d failed the most.

After what felt like an eternity, Uneme spoke.

“What happened?”

“A… a sniper,” Renta finally managed to answer, his voice so quiet that the others had to strain to hear.

Hironah and Uneme locked eyes, an unspoken conversation passing between them. Without a word, Hironah knelt down beside the shrouded figure on the floor. She touched the black cloth that covered its face.

“Don’t,” Tamaki pleaded from where she stood beside Renta.

“I’m sorry,” Hironah replied sincerely. “I have to. I’m never going to believe it otherwise.”

The Night’s Herald nodded.

“I’m going outside,” she informed the others. She turned and left without a backward glance.

Hironah gently pulled back the heavy cloth and looked solemnly at the face of her cousin. She carefully studied the expression frozen there, ignoring the sounds of grief behind her. As she had dreamt, as she believed she had seen, Yoshiki had fallen, heart-shot, to the snow-dusted beach below the cliff. There were still grains of sand in his hair. Dazed, she plucked a red feather from those yellow-blonde tresses and turned it over in her fingers. Standing, she drew a breath and closed her eyes.

“Did you catch him?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Renta replied.

“Who did it? Who sent him?”

Renta was silent for a moment, deliberating. Finally, he turned to Yume.

“Go to the kitchen, Yume, or go outside with Tamaki,” he instructed. “You don’t need to hear about this.”

“No,” she refused firmly. “I want to know.”

“Really, Yume.” He watched her, begging. “I don’t want you to. This is hurting you enough.”

“That’s for me to decide. Just get on with it, Renta.”

He shook his head. Slumping, his eyes on the polished wooden floor, he took a deep breath.

“Your aunt did it, Yume- your father’s sister.”

She looked at him in confusion, as did Uneme and Hironah.

“It’s weird… we’d just learned about her connections to the Ghost Clan. But I guess she would’ve known about Yoshiki leading Sirrah for a long time. It wasn’t exactly a secret. I don’t know how she knew where to find us…” Renta trailed off. Facing Yume once more, he choked, sputtering the words, “I’m so sorry. I failed. If you never forgive me, I won’t blame you. I can’t forgive myself.”

Gently, Yume laid her hand on Renta’s arm, her eyes on his. Without saying anything more they embraced, sobbing.

“And what about you, Seiken?” Hironah spun to face the silent Decameron. “What were you doing while all this was going on?”

“I- I was in camp. Renta called me when it h-happened, but…” Seiken bit his lip. “He was killed instantly, Hironah. I promise, he wasn’t in any pain.”

Hironah crossed the few feet that lay between her and the Decameron. She stood very close to him, so close that he could feel her breath on his face. She peered at him. She seemed utterly calm. The only person who would’ve read the signs of the anger she disguised was no longer alive to give warning. She backed away from him slightly.

“Blue… Yoshiki… Kaiya…” her voice hissed out in a whisper, naming the dead, watching him cringe at each one, watching the spasm of pain that crossed his face at the last and hating him all the more for it. “I’d say you’ve outlasted your usefulness, wouldn’t you, Seiken?”

“I…” He shrank from her, unable to answer.

Yume, who had turned from Renta to watch the exchange, saw Hironah’s hand stray to the sapphire-capped dagger at her belt. She watched as Hironah drew it slowly.

“Don’t!” Yume cried out, leaping toward her cousin. “Don’t do it, Hironah! It’s not his fault!”

Hironah, lost in her fury, ignored her. Horrified, Yume grasped Hironah’s wrist, struggling to hold her back.

“Get off, Yume!” she snarled. When Yume failed to release her, Hironah twisted her arm and broke loose, slashing upward. Yume screamed as the blade tore a jagged gash on her face.

“Yume!” Renta bellowed, catching hold of her as she fell.

Unchallenged, Hironah fell on Seiken, who was trying frantically to scrabble away. She plunged the dagger into his flesh repeatedly, up to the hilt. Consumed by bloodlust, she relished the sound of his screams in her ears as she wordlessly listed his failures with every thrust. His blood welled hot over her hands and arms, splattered her face, satisfying her need to exact a toll for every moment of her own despair. She did not cease until long after he’d fallen silent, limp and lifeless.

She ignored Yume’s distressed sobbing, Renta’s murmured swearing. She ignored the fact that Uneme had turned his face away. Silently, she cleaned her blade, stopping only for a moment when she noticed that the sapphire that capped its hilt was cracked where Seiken’s blood had run over it.



, ,

Wake up.

The sharp sound cut abruptly through Seiken’s consciousness.

But I haven’t been sleeping, have I?

Slowly, he felt his eyelids open. Disoriented, he cast about, listening. He was greeted by the sound of shuddering, heavy breaths.

“By the gods, Seiken.” Tamaki’s voice fell on his ears, shocked and trembling. “I- I’m sorry.”

“Did you learn anything?” He asked her calmly, slowly recalling what it was they’d been doing.

“Nothing that I was looking for.” She paused. He listened to the sound of her wiping her hand across her face. “I’m sorry… I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know what?”

“I didn’t know you felt like that.”

“You say that a lot.”

“I mean about-”

“Listen, if it’s bringing you to tears, I probably don’t want to talk about it.”

“Maybe we should.”

“I don’t think so, Tamaki. If I wanted to talk about whatever it is, I’d do it when I had the choice.” Shaking his head, Seiken went on. “So, it didn’t work?”

“No, not really. The Binding is really strong.”

“Well, it was worth a shot anyway.” He shrugged. “We’ll just have to try something else.”

“Yeah,” Tamaki replied dejectedly.

A portion of Seiken’s mind was frantically insisting that he demand she tell him just what it was he’d said to upset her so. He suddenly felt extremely vulnerable, as though stripped naked and placed under white-hot lights. Why had he agreed to do this? He’d had his reservations last night, and now he wished he’d listened to his instincts.

The night before, Yoshiki and Tamaki had taken him into the studio.

“Okay, I thought it over,” Yoshiki said. “And I know it sounds kinda crazy, given all that you said the other day, but I want Caiaphas finished. Before you say anything- just know that I’ve given it a lot of thought. I realize that I really don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t know what I’m doing or what it means, just that… It was what Blue wanted. It was what Kaiya wanted. I’ll do it for them, and pray that the answers come to me in time. Will you help me, like you were helping Kaiya?”

“I will,” Seiken answered simply. “If that’s what you want.”

“Great. Tamaki has an idea, so I’m gonna leave you guys to it.”

Yoshiki turned and left the room with a nod to the Night’s Herald, who sat down gently beside Seiken.

“Thank you for helping us,” she said with a smile.

“It’s what you want, the gods know why.”

“Yes, well… I was wondering, did Kaiya ever try hypnosis? I mean, to help break the Binding that keeps you from speaking?”

“No. We talked about it, but he… He said he wasn’t very good at it, so we decided not to try.”

Seiken felt Tamaki’s weight shift as she nodded.

“We all do have different strengths,” she said. “I’m pretty abysmal at Soul Walking, but good at hypnosis. I guess Kaiya was the opposite.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Seiken’s reply was entirely lacking enthusiasm.

“Well, I’d like to try hypnosis, if it’s alright with you. There’s a possibility that the Binding on you is stronger in your conscious mind than your subconscious. If I can strip you of your awareness of the Binding, it might allow you to speak freely. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be harmed in any way. The Binding will simply continue to function as usual, effectively gagging you.”

“I’ve never been hypnotized. I heard some scary things about it. If you hypnotized me, wouldn’t I be entirely subject to your will?”

“You could be, but I won’t be using it that way.”

“I barely know you. How can I trust that you won’t?”

Tamaki was silent for a moment before she replied, her voice calm.

“You can’t, really. But you know of my loyalty to Yoshiki and the sacred Oath I swore not to use my education for personal gain. I’ve got no reason to make you my enemy, Seiken, and no use for you as a slave. I want to find this Caiaphas. I have my own reasons, beyond what you know, or what Yoshiki knows, for that matter. I can only use the tools available to me- just like Kaiya did.”

The Decameron nodded slowly, sighing.


Now he sat up on the chaise in the quiet studio. He felt and heard Tamaki shift her weight where she sat on the floor beside him.

“Can we talk about Caiaphas for a bit?” she asked. “You did say some things that I’m trying to work out.”

“Sure,” Seiken replied, somewhat apprehensively.

“First of all, Kaiya was correct in his belief that Caiaphas had returned to destroy- once and for all- the Order that Qa Haran created. Is that right?”

“Yes… that’s part of the reason.”

“Part? What’s the rest?”

“For the answer to that question, you must figure out why he wants the Order broken down.”

“It’s not for revenge? I thought-”

“No.” Seiken shook his head. “He has no need for revenge.”

“Okay… You’re sure you know who his avatar is?”


“Why can’t you just betray him? Point him out in a crowd?”

“Think I haven’t tried? It doesn’t work.”

“It sounds like Caiaphas’s abilities on this Plane would be severely limited if he returned as a member of a Clan other than Night’s Herald. I’m sure he’d be aware of this. It makes sense to me that he’d be careful to come back as one of us, rather than, say, a Dauern. Is his avatar a Night’s Herald?”

“No. Though your Clan has its advantages, it wouldn’t benefit him to return as one of you.”

“Why not?”

“Mobility. Night’s Heralds are obvious people. And you live set, structured lives with little aberration from the norm. For his p-purposes,” Seiken choked on the word, “he needs to… be able to, uh… move at will.”

“His goals seem mostly politically driven. Empirian?”

Seiken shook his head.

“An Empirian without a history is politically powerless.”

“What do you mean, ‘without a history’?” Tamaki asked, puzzled.

“No family backing, formerly unknown in the political platform, no verifiable education…”

“Literally no history. Why not?”

“Think about it. The avatar of Caiaphas didn’t exist until recently. He wasn’t born. He… arrived here.”

“Ah… So, the person who Caiaphas is now will be someone who can’t produce a family if asked, and wouldn’t be able to quantify his past with witnesses or old friends or anything. Kind of a… a drifter.” Had Seiken not been blind, he’d have been warned by the look that Tamaki turned on him, her eyes widening to a slight degree, then narrowing shrewdly.

“Yes, exactly.”

“Seiken… Did Kaiya know who the avatar is? Did he figure it out?”

“In his final moments, yes, I believe he did.” Seiken’s voice shook and it seemed he was forcing the words out by sheer force of will.

“Does Caiaphas know where we are?”

“He does, in terms of general location.”

“He knew that Kaiya was going to go after him. Does he know now that Yoshiki plans to do the same?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

Tamaki sighed in frustration.

“Something in the whole picture is missing,” she observed. “It seems so simple, but really it’s not, is it?”

“It is. It’s just a different kind of simple.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re asking good questions, Tamaki. They’re just not the right ones.”


I am a sword. I am a shield.

Motion, smooth and calculated, unified Hironah’s soul with her body, simplifying her being, erasing her mind. She’d forgotten the chill in the air, the frostbitten ground beneath her feet. She’d forgotten her name. She felt no more than the sensations of her fluid muscles as they obeyed her will. Lost in this sanctuary, she allowed her exercises to go on longer than usual.

When she finally finished, Hironah felt herself utterly calm. She smiled slightly at the memory playing in her mind. It brought with it no bitter sting, no sweet remorse, now that she had a few moments to think placidly. It was a memory of Blue, smiling his approval at her from across the courtyard where he stood beside Takae.

“I see you’ve learned to meditate,” he observed, crossing to where she stood winded from her exercises.

She cocked her head, not understanding.

“No,” she replied, her face downcast. “I still can’t do it. I keep thinking of other stuff.”

“You did it just now.”

“That wasn’t meditation. I was exercising.”

“How did you feel? Wasn’t it the same as what I’ve described to you as how your mind should clear?”

“Y-yeah, actually… but shouldn’t I, you know, do it the way you and Kaiya do?”

“You should do it the way it works.” Blue tousled her hair. “Taka asked me to watch you today. He told me what you’ve been doing. I’m not surprised. Keyu did it much the same way.”

Standing now in the chill that was settling into her, Hironah mused over her relationship with both Blue and Takae. The contrast between the two had been so great, it was like trying to compare the suns. Blue had always been the guiding force, helping her to make sense of the world in which she lived. His patience and serenity allowed her to freely speak her mind- asking any number of questions, making even the most ludicrous of observations- without worry or need for hesitation. Takae, on the other hand, she had learned to regard as the most fragile of things. Their relationship had been built entirely out of action, rather than words. He’d entertained her not with stories, but with magic. He’d been quick to understand the restlessness within her, and had been the one to teach her nearly everything she knew about weaponry and martial arts. He displayed his love for her without voice- in his unabashed pride in her accomplishments, gentle correction of her mistakes, and in those times when he would set his eyes upon her and smile through the fog that often drew him far away. Blue had nurtured her soul, but Takae had understood it in a way the Night’s Herald never could.

“He should be here,” Hironah spoke aloud. “I should be the one taking care of him.”

She shook her head solemnly, realizing the ways in which fate had forced her to choose against him, as she’d feared she would. She couldn’t change that now, but she could resume her duties. She owed him that much. Perhaps she’d manage to succeed where her aunt and uncle had failed, and if not… Hironah decided she wasn’t ready to deal with that possibility yet, and put it out of her mind. Resolved, she sheathed Dawn and Dusk and made her way back to the house.

A few hours later, Yume, Hironah and Uneme sat at the table in the kitchen. Mealtimes were usually pleasant, as the three were quite comfortable in each other’s company. Hironah’s announcement of her plan to bring Takae home had eventually turned into a general discussion of family matters.

“I talked to Yoshiki today,” Yume informed the others. “He told me he’s planning to go after Caiaphas.”

“Doesn’t he have enough to worry about?” Hironah queried. “Those rallies are escalating into riots. Sirrah’s gonna have their hands full.”

“He said he’s got Tamaki working on it mostly. And Seiken agreed to help.”

“Yoshiki’s gonna run himself ragged.”

“I’m worried about him, but he’s insisting that it’s his responsibility.” Yume shrugged. “You know how he gets.”

“I’m not surprised, really,” Uneme put in. “Knowing Yoshiki, he probably sees this as a personal thing.”

“He does,” Yume stated.

“It’s a lot bigger than just your family, though. I hope he understands that.”

“He told me Seiken gave him a big lecture about it. Yoshiki said he’s gone kinda funny.”

“Seiken’s always been ‘funny’. Strange guy.”

“I never liked him,” Hironah said sullenly. “Skittish bastard.”

“I think he’s okay,” Yume offered. “He’s been through a lot, probably enough to make anyone go off the deep end a bit.”

“I don’t trust him. I wish I knew why Blue and Kaiya did.”

“I doubt we’ll ever know that,” Yume said softly. “But as long as he’s helping Yoshiki…”

Hironah shrugged and waited for Uneme to change the subject, as he invariably did whenever he noticed her discomfort. She didn’t want to think about Seiken right now, or Blue or Kaiya. She was doing all she could to force them into the past, where she felt they belonged.


Yoshiki rolled over for what felt like the hundredth time. Beside him, Tamaki stirred and raised her head.

“You can’t sleep?” She sounded concerned, which wasn’t surprising. She’d never known him to toss and turn at night. Customarily, he was asleep within minutes of saying goodnight.

“My brain won’t shut up. I keep thinking and thinking.”

“What about?”

“A lot of stuff… I guess I’m just worried all of a sudden.”

“Is this about your family? Your aunt and grandfather?”

“Partly. Mostly, I guess. I dunno. I don’t want to talk about them.”

“Okay. You don’t have to.”

“I need something else to think about for a bit.” He rolled to face her. “Tell me how it’s going with Seiken.”

“That’s not going to help you sleep, Yoshiki,” Tamaki replied heavily.

“No progress, huh?”

“Actually…” she trailed off. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. I can think of better ways to wear you out.” The Night’s Herald smiled slyly.

After you tell me. It won’t hurt to do it now.”

“I dunno… I have a theory, but you’re not going to like it.”

“You don’t think I’m the avatar, do you? That’d be wacky.” Yoshiki laughed.

“No. I think Seiken is.”

“Huh? That ain’t right. It makes no sense.”

“It makes a lot of sense,” Tamaki said softly.

“Look, Tamaki, I know Seiken’s weird and all, but the guy saved my life- and Yume’s and Kaiya’s, too. Why would he bother to do that if he was Caiaphas?”

“Perhaps so you’d be forced to ask that very question.”

“You weren’t there, Tamaki. If you’d have seen his face…” Yoshiki shook his head. “He really cared what happened to Yume and Kaiya. On the night of the riot at the Zeit, he looked like someone ripped his heart out.”

“We’ll get to that… maybe. Seiken ended up telling me something by accident this morning, but I’m not really sure I’ve got any right to tell you. It was personal, not about any of what’s going on.”

“Did he tell you he was Caiaphas, too?”

“Not in so many words.”

“Okay, lay your theory on me. I’ll warn you beforehand that I’m probably not going to agree.”

“Alright… Well, to begin with, none of us really has any idea where Seiken came from. We could search all we wanted, but we’d never find his home, as it’s been demolished- or so he claims. He says that he’s got family, but it’s the same with them- we could look, but we’d probably never find them. There’s nothing out there to say he didn’t just poof himself into existence. He just showed up one day, standing in the doorway at Kamitouki.”

“Uncle Taka was hiring a Decameron. A lot of people showed up to interview for the job.”

“Ever find out why Seiken got it and not someone else?”

“No… He took really good care of Blue, so the question never crossed my mind. Speaking of which, if he was Caiaphas, what would he be doing caring for the guy he killed?”

“To see to it that the job was thoroughly done. By being present at Kamitouki, he could be certain that nothing went wrong.”

“Seiken could’ve cured Blue-”

“But he didn’t.”

“And he got struck blind on account of it!”

“That’s his version of the story, anyway.”

“You don’t believe it?”

“I believe parts of it… If Erishkegal was the one to curse Seiken, it’s more likely that he’s the avatar, not less.”

“Huh? Why?”

“It’s true that Erishkegal would’ve been furious with Caiaphas for losing Blue’s soul… but I find it hard to believe that she wanted it badly enough to bestow a blessing on a young man who was not her follower. It’s unusual behavior for her. However, she would offer Caiaphas the opportunity to make amends. If he was already at Kamitouki, it would be simple enough to undo what he had done with the goddess’s help. When he failed to do this, her wrath would be such that she would curse him- in a way that would severely hinder his ability to carry out his plans in Diasminion.”

“Okay, I admit that you know a lot more about gods and stuff than I do, but if that was the case, how do you explain what happened to Aki? Seiken was with us the night he was killed. He couldn’t have done it, sighted or otherwise.”

“Do you know for sure Caiaphas was responsible for that?”

“Who else would it be?”

“Yoshiki, right now all across the country, people are calling for Harata’s execution. He has enemies in the Senate that want to see him dead. Aki could just as easily have been assassinated by someone working for one of them.”

“That’s true, but we know that Caiaphas needs the Imperial Family wiped out, in order to carry out his plan to take over or whatever. We can’t count him out.”

“No… but I have noticed a pattern.”

“What’s that?”

“The people that Caiaphas seems to need disposal of do get put out of the picture… in neat, convenient ways that make it look as though he had nothing to do with it.”

“The only people I can think of are Aki and Kaiya. The two of them don’t make a pattern.”

“What about your Uncle Taka?”

“He’s sick, Tamaki. He has been for a long time.”

“Can you remember a time when it was as bad as it is now?”

“No, but you can’t be surprised that it is. He took losing Blue really hard. That’d be enough to trigger a strong reaction.”

“And who was it that was meant to be helping him cope with that loss? Who did Hironah keep around solely for that purpose?”

“I know you mean Seiken, but you can’t blame him for this. The whole family saw it coming.”

“He was there, every step of the way.” Tamaki’s voice was firm. “And now your uncle’s no threat to anyone but himself. And then there’s the situation with the Imperial Family. No one knows for sure why they’ve been sequestered, save for the Emperor himself. They’re safely out of the picture- for now. There’s no evidence that Caiaphas is involved, but I’m sure that if you delve deep enough you’ll find him in the shadows. He may not be setting all of this in motion- the political unrest, the underground war with the Ghost Clan- but he’s using it to his advantage. He’s there, waiting, protected by those who have grown to trust him. When the time is right, he’ll strike. In the meantime, any who would oppose him will just continue to disappear.”

“I’ve got to admit that your arguments have merit. I think you’re on the right track, but you’re wrong about Seiken.” Yoshiki shook his head. “I know the guy better than you do. Besides, if he was the avatar, why would Blue have chosen to tell him about his own plans, effectively locking away his secret forever?”

“I considered that myself… but Seiken answered that question for me.”

“What did he say?”

“While I had him under hypnosis, we discussed Blue for a bit. As it turns out, Blue never disagreed with Caiaphas in principle.”

“He didn’t? That can’t be true. Otherwise, Caiaphas never would’ve killed him.”

“What Caiaphas wanted most was for Blue to join him. It was common family knowledge that Blue’s eventual options would be join or die. Despite this, Blue felt that Caiaphas’s views were correct. What he really disagreed with was what Caiaphas did to achieve his goals. In fact, he felt very similarly to the way you do. It’s not the end that’s so wrong, it’s the means. Blue never aligned himself with Caiaphas because he couldn’t reconcile the deeds that had been done- and those that were to come. In short, he felt that Caiaphas was right about most- if not all- things, but what he did was wrong.”

“Blue would still want him to be stopped.”

“I think it’s entirely possible that they made a deal.”

“What deal?”

“Blue knew that he would die, leaving no one aware of Caiaphas’s plans unless he chose to divulge that knowledge to someone else. Blue may have agreed to lay the Binding on Caiaphas himself- as Seiken- in exchange for the safety of those he cared about most. If he made Caiaphas swear to limit the damages, it might be that he saw it as the best course of action. If you hadn’t stumbled into the Rift- a twist of fate that couldn’t have been foreseen- it probably would’ve worked, too. Caiaphas would’ve moved on with his plans, leaving your family alone.”

“If Seiken was Caiaphas, though, he’d have known about the Rift. He’d have known Erishkegal would come to him. I think he’d have wanted to avoid that.”

“Didn’t he? As I recall, he went in chasing after that girl, Mirai. He wasn’t meant to enter, but it would’ve been very suspicious if he hadn’t gone after her.”

“That is how it happened, but-”

“And speaking of,” Tamaki cut him off, “Mirai’s another one of those who are now just conveniently out of the picture. She was making predictions about Caiaphas’s return, and its consequences for Diasminion. That alone wasn’t too dangerous, but if Kaiya or one of the rest of you had managed to figure out how to use her, she could’ve proved… problematic.”

Yoshiki was quiet for a time, apparently deep in thought. When he broke the silence, his voice was measured and careful.

“You’ve definitely got some interesting ideas, Tamaki. Tomorrow, I want you to talk them over with Quen.”

“With Quen? Why?”

“Because, he’ll be able to look at the whole picture logically. The rest of us are all involved in this emotionally in some way or another. Quen won’t have that problem. He sees everything just for what it is.”

“Okay then.”

“Good… Then let’s be done with this discussion for tonight. It’s starting to dredge up memories I’d rather not have right now.”




, ,

“My countrymen, I stand before you to ask you- nay, to beg of you- Look around yourselves. Observe with naked eyes our nation, our Empire. She is on her knees. She has faltered, certainly, as all nations do, but there are some who seek to see her dragged entirely to the ground. These enemies are not only abroad, in the Otherlands where countries fall to chaos without out guiding hand, but at home. Here, in the most powerful, affluent nation on all of Qian Ra, there are some who detest their own country to such a degree that they work to see her destroyed. We cannot allow this to continue.

“Think a moment on our great country. Yes, there have been times of struggle, times of revolution. In the years before the Feast of the Cats, our Clans lived at war, each struggling to survive. Yet the gods, who favor our nation, granted us a chance at salvation. Through the work of their son- the great Clanless One, Qa Haran- the Clans were united. A sacred Order was established, one in which every Clan had a place in society. Every man and every woman worked within their capabilities to create the wondrous homeland that we love.

“Look around you now. In the name of change, in the name of progress, our Order has been broken down. The Clans have been stripped of their dignity, each and every one. Outlaws roam the streets, waging war, terrorizing our people. Under the false claims of our ‘one-ness’, the military and our police have been crippled. Under the lie of our so-called ‘unity’, we have been torn apart. If Qa Haran could stand among you now, I have no doubt he would weep.

“We have fallen far, but all is not lost. We have time. We can turn back, raise our beloved Diasminion from her knees. We can walk in the light of the gods once more, but we must be strong. My people, I ask you to look, to listen. I ask for your hands. Together, united as we once were, we can reclaim our nation from the grasp of the impostor.

“We all know where he can be found, this man who stole our Empire from the hands of her rightful leaders. He hides in his Palace, too afraid to face the people he has cheated. In a dark time, as the very fabric of our noble land is being torn in half, we are in desperate need of a leader. Where is our Emperor? Where is the one whose divine purpose is to hold us together? He is nowhere to be found. He, who should be father to us all, protecting us and nurturing our nation, cowers within the walls of the Palace. Can you accept this? As the war moves down your street, as your children cry in fear- tell me, can you accept his ignorance of your suffering? As we lose our pride in our work, our dignity, can you allow our own Emperor to turn his back? I think not. I, for one, cannot.

“We must reclaim our nation. We must place her once again in the hands of one who will care for her. For the love of Diasminion and all her people, we must rise against this foe within the Palace. Be strong. Be steadfast. I call on you to help bring our homeland from her knees. For the glory of Diasminion- as she was and as she shall be!”

The rallies had been going on for a week. From the frozen, snow blanketed regions of the north to the warmer, windy south, people gathered before podiums and listened to the orators give their speeches. There was cheering, there was some dissent. The purpose of the rallies was clear. Those who spoke and those who cheered them on wanted one thing- to return to the system of the past. There were some, like the man who had just spoken, who called for the overthrow of the Emperor. Others expressed their wish to reinstate the practices of halcyon days. Some of the speakers were fairly moderate, talking of a future government that contained elements of the present and the past. Others went as far as to call for the execution of Harata- and of the half-Clan children spawned under his rule.

Yoshiki was staring at the television intently. He scanned the crowds, took note of the faces behind the podiums and on the platforms. All of this information he recorded carefully in a notebook. He listened only vaguely to the messages being delivered. He’d heard them all before. He could not afford to listen too closely, to become affronted or enraged. He needed to concentrate on his mission of identifying the enemy, matching the names on his lists to the faces on the screen. He’d assigned other members of Sirrah this same task. Later, they would compare notes. Cooler heads than his were given the assignment of summarizing the speeches and looking for new or changed agendas.

Tamaki stirred beside him. She was unusually pale, and her struggle to remain passive and composed was evident on her face.

“This is really bad,” she murmured when the Media had moved on to another story, this one about a civil war in the Otherlands. The juxtaposition was not lost on anyone.

“We all knew this would happen eventually,” Yoshiki informed her. “In a way, it’s good for us. It’s about time all our underground struggles got brought to light.”

“But it’s all one-sided,” Tamaki sighed. “Just people going on and on about the New Laws being corrupt and… and stuff like that.”

“Well, it’s their rally.”

“But a lot of people seem to agree with them.”

“And a lot of others don’t. There are people out there right now who are just as angry as we are with what they’re saying. We’ll have our own say in time.”

“I don’t understand why Harata doesn’t stop them.”

The Emperor hadn’t made a single public appearance since the assassination of his son over a month earlier. Many members of the Senate, already restless with his reclusive actions over the past year, had begun to outwardly criticize Harata, claiming his incompetence. Unfortunately for supporters of the Emperor, their grievances were strong and in some ways, well founded.

Those that organized the rallies cited a long list of faults- the rise in crime, an epidemic of homelessness, a drop in the overall quality of life for all citizens, and a faltering economy. The escalating crime rate was blamed on a combination of causes. Not only was the rampant gang warfare listed as a factor, so was the disestablishment of the former surveillance system used to track citizens. Criminals could fade easily into a crowd nowadays, go on the run, and police could do little to find them. Many of the orators complained of the new system of penitentiaries as well. In the past, punishment for all but the most petty of crimes was execution- this, they claimed, served as the most important deterrent- but now, those found guilty of the charges against them were given a sentence of forced labor, the length of which depended on their crime. Once a prisoner’s sentence had been carried out, he or she was free to return to society. Opponents of this system claimed that this so-called punishment did nothing to turn a citizen’s mind from crime either before or after incarceration.

Homelessness was a modern issue, as the people of Diasminion all had at least someplace to call home under the old Law of Clans. A manifold problem, it spread across the Lower Clans in ever-increasing waves. Nearly half of Clan Decameron had been displaced as their Outposts were destroyed by warring gangs. Only those that lived and worked in metropolitan areas had managed to escape the wrath of the outlaws on either side of the conflict. However, Decameron was not the only Clan that was suffering this burden.

Clan Dauern, now fully liberated from slavery, found that freedom had come at a cost. Of all Clans, they felt collectively that their lives had improved the most under the New Law. However, as they could now demand pay for their labor, the Empirians who had once overseen the government-funded tenements that housed them chose to turn the buildings over to GelbFaust landowners. The landlords began charging rent as a matter of course, and many Dauern found that they could just barely scrape together enough money to keep themselves housed, clothed, and fed. Some could not, and soon found themselves on the streets. A similar problem had cropped up among the Pantagruel, who had never been well-paid to begin with. While the cost of basic necessities escalated under the new business practices adopted by the corporations, many Pantagruel simply couldn’t pay their bills.

The spreading homelessness and poverty had, of course, been cited in the quality of life argument in terms of the Lower Clans. The Middle Clans, while fairly stable, bemoaned the rising cost of everyday goods and shrinking labor market. Wealthy Empirians and GelbFaust argued that they, too, had cause to complain. The rich, no longer provided for by slaves, had either to dig into their bank accounts to pay for the luxuries of servants and chauffeurs, or go without. Many GelbFaust businesspeople made far less profit than they had in the past, and some found themselves leading far more austere lives than those to which they’d been accustomed. They placed the blame squarely on the loss of Diasminion’s colonies and the new business models they’d been forced to adopt.

Diasminion’s colonies in the Otherlands, which had provided vast amounts of cheap natural resources, had been abolished some fifteen years earlier. Countries were now free to charge for the export of lumber, oil, natural gas, precious stones, rubber, and all manner of metals. Businesses in Diasminion now found themselves with the cost not only of shipping raw materials, but of the materials themselves. Precious metals and stones were also subject to luxury tariffs when imported. In addition to the new price-tags attached to once near-free materials, any unrest overseas could cause the price of one or more of them to skyrocket overnight.

Already losing sleep over the situation in the Otherlands, business owners found no comfort at home. Manufacturers who had once been able to keep their plants running nearly all day every day, found that impossible under the New Laws. Pantagruel laborers could no longer be forced to work fourteen-hour shifts, and companies were required by law to provide at least two weeks total of vacation days and at least two days off per week. Though there could be no argument against the fact that the quality of goods produced in Diasminion was had improved greatly, less of everything was being manufactured overall. Farm owners, who had once relied on unpaid Dauern to grow crops and tend fields, now were forced to pay those that worked for them. Stores of all kinds that had once been able to request Dauern cashiers, janitors and stock workers now had to provide paychecks for their employees. Businesses all over the country, strapped with the increased cost of labor and materials, raised prices on everything in an attempt to turn what they saw as a decent profit.

The changes in society, while made with the noblest of intentions, were not worth the price. At least, that was the feeling of the men and women gathered at the rallies.

“Why does he let them talk that way?” Tamaki asked again softly when no one answered her. “They’re talking about executing him. It’s treason!”

“It’s good that he doesn’t stop them,” Renta returned gently. “Other Emperors in the past wouldn’t have allowed rallies like these, and yes, those speakers would surely have been hanged. That those people have the right to gather and speak that way is a kind of freedom, too. They might have conveniently forgotten at the moment that they’d never have had that freedom under the Old Laws, but they’ll be reminded.”

“Renta’s right,” Yoshiki agreed. “What they’re doing right now is a pure example of the rights we’re fighting for. Our side will use that to our advantage.”

Seiken, who’d been incredibly quiet for the last forty-five minutes, even more so than usual, suddenly spoke.

“Is that really what you’re fighting for? Freedom?”

“Of course,” Yoshiki answered with pride.

“Freedom for everyone, so everybody can live as they see fit as long as it’s within the boundaries of the Law?”


Seiken shook his head slowly.

“What, you don’t believe that?” Yoshiki’s voice took on an incredulous, somewhat defensive tone.

“I believe it of you, but maybe not of all the people fighting on ‘your side’.”

“Of course that’s what we’re all doing.”

“You’re not fighting for the freedom of Clan Decameron, that’s for sure.”

“Sure we are! We’re fighting for everyone.”

“You know how I became a Wanderer?”

“Your Outpost got burned down, didn’t it?”

“Ever heard of Fortuna?”

“Yeah,” Yoshiki’s face brightened. “I used to hang out with the son of one of their main operatives. They’re not around anymore, but back in the day they were nearly as famous as Sirrah is now.”

“They burnt down my Outpost.”

“What? No way! How come?”

“There was a big fight between Fortuna and Kries. After Kries took some of their men to our Outpost for treatment, these guys from Fortuna showed up and demanded that we turn them out. When we refused, they stormed us and burned the place to the ground. They killed most of the Elders and some other people, too. My sister got shot, but she survived. I never saw her again, anyway, but last I heard she was doing okay.”

For a few breaths, everyone was silent.

“What about our freedom? Don’t we have the right to do our work in peace?” Seiken challenged his silent companions.

“You do,” Yoshiki conceded, “but…”

“This is a state of war,” Renta finished for him. “The government and the Media may not recognize it as such, but that’s what it is. Atrocities happen in all wars. From either side’s point of view, the destruction of the enemy is the main objective. Anyone who hinders that goal becomes an enemy as well.”

Seiken nodded silently. After some thought, he addressed Yoshiki.

“You want me to help you defeat Caiaphas. Do you know why? What reason do you have for making him your enemy?”

“You already know the answer to that,” he replied impatiently. “He killed Blue. He wants to tear apart our society-”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“What? No. I don’t want what Caiaphas wants.”

“Don’t you? I think you do, you just don’t realize it.”

“What are you saying?” Yoshiki’s voice rose, accusatory. “How can you compare me to him?”

“When Qa Haran began to formulate the Law of Clans, Caiaphas opposed him. He saw the potential for corruption, the future of enslavement and rigidity that would befall the country. Caiaphas argued that a truly unified Diasminion would be a free one- one without Clan boundaries. In his vision, all men would have the right to choose their own path. He also believed that the strife between Clans would cease when they intermarried, eventually producing children with the potential of every Order. This is no different at all from your beliefs, is it?”

Yoshiki bit his lip. When he finally answered, he spoke slowly, choosing his words with care.

“Okay, you’re right, Seiken. I do share his beliefs, some of them. What makes me consider him an enemy is the means he uses to achieve his ends. I may fight and kill for my beliefs, but never against anyone who hasn’t chosen to take up arms. For the record, Sirrah has never turned against the Decameron, or burned down someone’s house, or murdered someone’s family just to get to them- and never will. As for Caiaphas, look at the things he’s done- when he couldn’t change Qa Haran’s mind, he chose to murder him. He spent the rest of his life trying to build an uprising, killing anyone who got in his way. After his death, he did all he could to stop the Champions from completing their Task. He wanted to see the whole world destroyed just because things weren’t going his way. When he returned here, he left a gaping hole into Pandemonium just lying in his wake. I may want similar things, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do to get them.”

Seiken sighed heavily.

“Yoshiki, there’s something I want you to understand… Before I agree to help you, I want you to be really sure of what you’re doing. I want you to fully realize what you’re asking for.”


“If you allow Caiaphas to complete his plans, there will be lives lost- Harata’s for example- but in the end, you will see the establishment of the freedom you seek to achieve. Most, if not all, of the people that you care about will be safe. If you choose to stand against him, it may mean your life, and will definitely cost the lives of people that you love. Depending on the outcome of your fight and the point at which you are successful, the odds lean heavily toward the beliefs you hold dear never being realized. You have this choice to make.” Seiken held up his hand. “Don’t make it tonight. Think about it. If you decide that defeating Caiaphas is worth the sacrifices that you’ll have to make, I’m willing to give you all the help I can.”

Yoshiki nodded solemnly.

“We should get back to work. The coverage of the rally in Rien is about to start,” Renta put in, changing the channel.

Grimly, they all turned back to the task at hand.

     “Fools,” Uneme muttered, his eyes on the screen. Like Yoshiki and Sirrah, like countless others across the country, Uneme and Yume were watching the televised coverage of the rallies. Hironah slept softly on the sofa beside him. She’d watched for a while before drifting off to sleep.

“Maybe we should shut this off,” Yume suggested from where she sat on Uneme’s other side. “I really don’t like hearing this stuff. It’s making me feel depressed.”

“It’s important to know what they’re saying.”

“I guess, but it still makes me sad and worried.” After a time, she went on. “I feel so confused. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Harata… but some of the things they’ve said… There are families living in the streets, and people like Seiken getting turned out of their homes. There’s so much poverty, and people are getting hurt or killed by the gangs that work for the Ghost Clan or the ones against them. It makes me afraid that maybe Sirrah’s done stuff like that. There’s so much Yoshiki won’t tell me.”

“Your brother would never harm anyone who was innocent. He has Honor. That’s one reason why I try to help him.” Uneme smiled reassuringly at Yume’s dubious look. “It’s true. I’ve lost people I care about to both sides of the conflict, and I’ve known people on both sides as well. Yoshiki’s a breed apart.”

“I’ve always thought so.” Yume smiled briefly, but her look soon darkened. “But still- what if those people are right? Maybe the changes we’ve made really weren’t worth the cost.”

Uneme sighed.

“It’s unfortunate, but when a society changes as rapidly as ours has in the past 25 years, this kind of upheaval and readjustment is a necessity. There are problems with our new way of doing things, but we will solve them in time. Perhaps rallies like these can even help- pointing out the areas that need improvement.”

“I don’t remember the old ways of doing things. Sometimes I wonder if maybe they really were better.”

“They weren’t.” Uneme focused his gaze on Yume. “You know what some of these- these fascists are proposing? After they take control of the government, some of them want to kill off half-Clan people like you and Yoshiki and Hironah. But the official platform is more moderate- a simple program of sterilization. If they come into power, Yume, you’ll be denied the right to raise a family. So would Yoshiki and Hironah,” he looked down at her sleeping form, “and everyone else like you. You’re right to be upset about things like crime and poverty and homelessness. But remember- just because these people are pointing at the right problems doesn’t mean they have the right answers.”

“I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Do you think there are other answers out there, Uneme?”

“Yeah, I do. And I have faith that they’ll be found.”

Yume smiled, feeling more relaxed. Much to her initial surprise, she found that she quite liked Uneme. She’d never spent very long talking to him before they were thrust into this awkward domesticity, and even then it had only been on matters of necessity. Since they’d been sharing the house virtually alone, she’d come to learn volumes about the dark, quiet Angemal, and had begun to understand what it was Hironah saw in him. He had a kind of nobility, a dignity hidden within. An idealistic dreamer, he belied all the assumptions she’d had about him from the start. He was not, as she’d believed, simply an immoral, bloodthirsty mercenary, rigidly performing the duties assigned to him in his work. She’d come to learn through him that neutrality could be an ideal in itself, and that he’d never taken a job he found unsavory.

Yume had also grown to admire Uneme’s perseverance in the face of adversity. In truth, she’d always found him somewhat cold- a calculating man who buried his emotions. However, she’d learned from their nightly conversations that his stoicism was what gave him the strength to bear the hardships in his life. Unlike Seiken, he had not collapsed under the weight of sorrow. Unlike Kaiya, he did not take to brooding. He’d taken the good times and the bad with the quiet calm that Blue had taught, learning his lessons without adulation or remorse, simply acceptance.

Uneme was the only son of two Angemal who were, by his account, very much in love. He’d had a very happy childhood, though it was in no way idyllic, what with the harsh physical and mental training members of his Clan began at an early age. His mother had been a soldier- a member, in fact, of Keyu’s fierce platoon. His father had been a police officer. He’d enjoyed a peaceful home life, peppered with fond memories.

His mother succumbed to an illness common among those who’d campaigned in certain regions of the Otherlands when Uneme was eleven years old. His father had told him honestly what was happening at the time- how many Angemal, like his mother, had been poisoned by the herbicides used to clear the jungles and were now dying years later. In their love and grief, father and son cleaved to one another in support. As he grew, Uneme began to regard his father as a friend and they grew closer as the years passed. In Uneme’s seventeenth year, his father was gunned down while trying to arrest a member of a gang known as Guild, who were rivals to the local gangs controlled by the Ghost Clan. Uneme found himself alone.

Suddenly burdened with the need to support himself, he gave up on his education and turned to the only work he’d be able to get. Rather than succumb to his anger and join one of the gangs that fought for the Ghost Clan, he became a mercenary. It was hard going at first, and he spent a few years in poverty, living hand to mouth. However, as years passed by, he built a reputation and things grew easier. He made friends and lost them- most to the violence that spread across the nation. He was quite isolated at the time when he’d been hired by the Musubiki, and the nature of his work for them made it difficult to forge new relationships. He admitted to Yume that he’d been very lonely at the time he’d met them on the beach.

She hadn’t savored the idea of sharing the house and the burden of caring for Hironah with him. Yet as the days went by, he proved a world of help- running errands, fixing things that needed mending and looking after Hironah with a tender patience. The evidence of his deep concern for her cousin touched Yume, who began to reconsider her feelings toward their relationship. Hironah was gradually improving. She would speak at times, if somewhat dully, and seemed far more aware of her surroundings than in weeks past.

Uneme had also befriended Bel, and he would sometimes join them for dinner at the house. The Angemal occasionally assisted with demonstrations for the students, and would frequently spar with the Corduran for fun. It was to Uneme that Bel confessed some of the larger troubles looming over the school, the most prominent being their need to hire a replacement for Blue and Kaiya. This was a pressing, immediate need after Kaiya’s long absence. Bel had managed to call in guest instructors to fill some of the gap, but they were sorely in need of someone to take a permanent position. It was Uneme who had gently coaxed Hironah into authorizing Bel to hire someone new, though she’d made it plain she wanted nothing to do with the proceedings.

In the end, no one at Kamitouki was sorry that Uneme was with them, though they’d all had their misgivings at first. Yume felt a pang of guilt when she considered her misjudgment of the Angemal. She thought back to those summer months when she’d teased Hironah, secretly in full support of the union she saw coming. She wondered if she, like her brother, had become blinded by loyalty to Kaiya and had ceased to see Uneme for who he was.

Tangled Webs


, ,

“I can’t help but feel like I’m abandoning you here,” Yoshiki said quietly to Yume as he checked his bags for a final time.

“I know that’s how you feel, but we’ve both got things we have to do. You’ve gotta go, Yoshiki. I understand that.”

“I’m really proud of you, Sis. You’re doing the right thing.”

“I wish Mom agreed,” she replied sullenly.

“I can’t blame her for wanting you guys to go to their place. In some ways it does seem like it’d be easier. You’d have less on your plate anyway.”

“Tamaki says Hironah will get over this faster being here, and I’ll have Uneme to help keep an eye on her. We’ll be okay.”

“Gods, I hope she hasn’t cracked up permanently. Tamaki keeps telling me it isn’t like that, she’ll go back to normal one of these days… but, I dunno.” He shook his head. “Honestly, I’ll be glad to get out of here. I hate the way this place makes me feel. I keep looking for people who aren’t here anymore. I turn corners and expect to run into Blue or Kaiya or Uncle Taka- even Hironah’s here but she isn’t. I hate all the memories floating around. I don’t know how you can stand it.”

“I promised,” Yume said quietly. “I told Kaiya I’d watch over Hironah when the time came that he couldn’t. When it gets tough to be around, I just remind myself of that.”

“I’ll come back as soon as I can- with Renta, of course.”

“Good luck, Yoshiki.”

“I’d better go say goodbye to Hironah and make sure everyone’s ready to leave. See you out front.” He patted her on the arm as he left the room.

Yume didn’t follow him, instead choosing to stand alone in the guest room beside the bedroom that had been Blue and Takae’s. She tried to tell herself that the lingering smell of acrid smoke was in her imagination. Though they’d managed to contain the blaze before it spread through the rafters to the remainder of the house, both Kaiya’s and Hironah’s rooms had been destroyed in the fire. After spending a few days in the student’s dormitories, Hironah and her guests had moved back into the house. Bel had assured Yoshiki that Hironah’s room would be rebuilt in the spring. Kaiya’s would not.

“Hironah doesn’t want to,” Bel explained. “It’s her house now. She can do what she wants with it.”

Yume shuddered at the memory of Yoshiki dragging Hironah from the burning building. She kicked and fought against him, screaming and sobbing. Once outside and restrained, she’d fallen in a heap on the ground and lay motionless while everyone else struggled to put out the flames.

Yoshiki was returning to Sirrah, taking most of the others with him. Only Yume, Uneme and Hironah would remain behind. There had been a long debate over what to do with Hironah, who was obviously incapable of taking care of herself. Yoshiki had felt it was best to take her along to Sirrah’s headquarters, where she would be well guarded, sending Yume home to their parents. Renta had silently agreed, not wishing to distress his best friend further. However, Quen had no such worry.

“She’ll be a liability. I know you think you need to protect Hironah out of loyalty, but you have Sirrah’s welfare to consider as well.”

“She can’t be left alone like this,” Yoshiki retorted. “Caiaphas is out there somewhere, and there’s nothing she can do if he shows up looking for her.”

“I can stay here with her,” Yume offered.

“Of course, I would be willing to stay as well,” Uneme put in. “Though I do think your fears are a bit unfounded.”

“Why’s that?” Yoshiki asked, his tone slightly hostile.

“I don’t believe Caiaphas has any reason to bother with Hironah. From all accounts, he was a very focused man. He’ll be concentrating on his plans. Hironah’s no threat to him.”

“But Kaiya said-”

“We must keep in mind that Caiaphas did nothing to harm Kaiya. His death was an accident of fate.”

The group at the table fell into an awkward silence. After a time, Yoshiki looked squarely into Uneme’s eyes.

“You promise to protect her?”

“With my life,” Uneme answered solemnly. “Surely it must be obvious that I want nothing more than Hironah’s health, safety and happiness. Yume and I will take care of her. Put your mind at ease.”

Yume had been surprised that her brother hadn’t pressured her to return home. Though her parents had later begged her to move Hironah into their house, Yoshiki had supported her decision to remain at Kamitouki. They didn’t discuss his unusual acceptance. Yume just assumed there were far too many problems on his mind.

With a sigh, she turned and left the room, wandering through the house until she found herself outside. There she saw Tamaki, Renta, Seiken and Quen loading their gear and clothing onto the motorcycles parked on the cobblestones. Renta broke from the others and approached her.

“Yoshiki’s gone to talk to Hironah and Uneme,” Yume informed him. “He’ll be out in a couple of minutes.”

“Alright.” He looked at her sincerely. “You take good care of yourself, kiddo.”

“I will. You take care of yourself, too. And Yoshiki. He needs you now more than ever.”

“I’ll watch out for him. Don’t worry. We’ll all feel better in a couple of months, you’ll see.”

“I really hope so.”

Renta drew her close and hugged her tightly.

“Clan Angemal believes that grief comes in threes, love. You can rest easy. You’ve had your three, so you’re not due again for a while.”

“We’ll see.”

Once Yoshiki had emerged from the house, those that were departing said their goodbyes. Yume watched as they rode away, forcing herself to smile as she waved them on. They’d been out of sight for a long while before she turned and reentered the cold and lonely house.

Seiken leaned huddled against the rough bark of a pine tree. He shivered and his nose was running. He was aware that it had grown dark. The cold was terrible, but he felt that it was more bearable than all the clamor and noise within the converted warehouse that was Sirrah’s headquarters. He couldn’t seem to find a quiet corner in the entire building. Besides, he told himself repeatedly, it wasn’t all that different from other winters spent wandering the countryside while unemployed.

Yet it was different, in many ways. Seiken thought bitterly that he’d give anything to return to earlier days, a time in which he did not bear the burdens of these latter months. Not smallest among them was the perpetual darkness that had enclosed him, which he couldn’t quite assimilate. Though far more painful even than that was Kaiya’s loss, a blow Seiken felt he’d never shake. Under the influence of that unlikely friendship, the Decameron had begun to open up, reveal himself and discover a path away from all the fears he’d carried for so long. The others, distracted as they were, hadn’t seemed to notice the frailty and terror that had crept back into his actions and his words. The greatest fear that Seiken hid had come to pass. Wounded, he pulled back within himself, taught by circumstance that it was easier to remain silent and alone.

“There you are!” A familiar voice called somewhere off to his left. “I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here? It’s freezing!”

“Hey, Tamaki,” was all he said in reply, his voice sullen. He listened as her footsteps drew nearer, crunching through fallen leaves and pine needles. He wondered again what she looked like. The Elementals had described her, but there was no true substitute for the actual sight of someone previously unknown. In his mind she was a conglomeration of a multitude of other women that he’d known, but he had no way of knowing the accuracy of his composite.

“By all the gods, Seiken! How long have you been out here? You look awful!”

“Few hours.”

“Come inside. You’re gonna freeze to death.”

“I- I don’t really want to. It’s… it’s kinda noisy.”

“Please, come in. We can go sit in Yoshiki’s studio. It’s not so loud in there.”

“I dunno, Tamaki.”

“He won’t mind. He asked me to talk to you, anyway. He won’t care if we do it in there.”

“T-talk to me? About what?” Seiken’s tremulous voice turned skeptical.

“I’ll tell you- after you agree to come inside. I’m cold, too.”

“Alright.” He rose stiffly, realizing that the Night’s Herald probably wouldn’t be willing to leave him be. There was no sense in being stubborn. She’d only have to suffer with him.

He followed the sound of her footsteps trough the surrounding woods and up the path to Sirrah’s headquarters. Once inside, he was hit with a wave of warmth and noise. Tamaki took him by the hand and wove through the building to the relative calm of the studio. Had he been able to look upon its contents, Seiken would surely have frozen a moment in awe, as Tamaki had done the first time she’d entered.

Though Yume had repeatedly insisted that her brother was a talented artist, Yoshiki had laughingly waved her off each and every time.

“It’s really nothing more than a hobby,” he’d explained to Tamaki. “If I was really so good at it, why wouldn’t I be doing that for a living instead of shooting people?”

As a result, the Night’s Herald had been completely unprepared for what she found inside the room when Yoshiki showed it to her. It smelled strongly of a dizzying mix of oils and turpentine and was filled with both paintings and sculptures, some of them shrouded in cloth. The peace that permeated the place, that radiated from the subjects on the canvases or carved in stone threw her. As she gazed at landscapes and numerous figures in repose, she realized how little she knew about the young man who’d created them with such attention to detail and careful rendering. She’d wanted to look at him, but found it too difficult to tear her eyes from the unexpected beauty all around her.

Seiken was, of course, unaffected.

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked with hesitant curiosity as they sat down upon a battered chaise.

“Yoshiki explained to me what you guys were doing before we met.”


“He told me about Caiaphas and what he did to Blue. Yoshiki feels like it’s his responsibility to see to it that something’s done, but…”

“He has no idea what to do,” Seiken finished for her.

“He feels pretty powerless. He’s asked me to help.” When Seiken didn’t reply, she continued. “To start with, he’s asked me to talk to you about what you know.”

“I can’t talk about that, to you or anyone else.”

“But you did talk to Kaiya. Yoshiki told me you two had plans. You were going to help him.”

Seiken shook his head.

“That was… different…”

“How?” Tamaki scrutinized Seiken’s downcast face.

“I- I couldn’t tell him anything more than I can tell you. He… he just kinda figured things out.”

“Maybe I could, too.”

“I dunno…” Hastily, the Decameron continued. “I’m not saying you’re not smart or anything- just maybe he could think of so many answers cause he already knew so much about the situation.”

“Perhaps a fresh perspective-”

“Perhaps I don’t want to help you.”

“What?” Tamaki straightened, taken aback.

“You heard me.”

“But- but why not?”

“Why should I? What do I even have to do with any of this? I’ve lost enough. As soon as I have the chance, I’m telling Yoshiki that I’m leaving.”

Shocked by the anger in Seiken’s words, Tamaki sat silent. She hadn’t expected this, not from the quiet, cringing Decameron. Yoshiki had been confident that he’d not only be willing to help, he’d be eager to. From Yoshiki’s perspective, Seiken had no reason to do anything else. Faced with the exposure of his hidden fury, Tamaki decided it might be better to follow the path where his words led, rather than redirect him to the argument that loomed.

“Where will you go?” she asked, her voice carefully concerned.

“Anywhere,” he gestured vaguely. “I’ll just go back to being a Wanderer.” He laughed bitterly. “Though I doubt it’ll be easy to find work now.”

“What’ll happen to you if you can’t?”

“What do you think?” He sighed. “It doesn’t matter to me anymore, anyways.”

“Gods, Seiken! I didn’t know you felt like this.”

When he didn’t answer her, she went on.

“Maybe you should give yourself some more time. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in your position, but do you really think it’s worth throwing your life away?”

“What life? I have a choice, Tamaki. I can leave now, give up and keep as little of myself as I’ve managed to retain, or I can stay here. If I stay, Yoshiki will insist that I be of some use to him, and I’ll just continue to lose things. I can’t win either way. I’ve already been destroyed. The day I walked into Kamitouki, everything changed. I’m never going to be what I was.” Overcome by his own righteous anger and despair, Seiken found he couldn’t hold back his words. “I was innocent! I was the only one of all of them that could’ve walked away. I curse the day I set foot in that place.”

“But Blue chose you, Seiken. He must’ve had a reason.” Tamaki’s voice was soft.

“He made a mistake,” the Decameron replied harshly. “He should’ve told someone else.”

“Regardless, he chose to tell you. You’re the only one who knows it all.”

“I’m well aware of that.”

Sighing, the Night’s Herald looked down at her hands folded in her lap.

“I know you’re angry. I can’t blame you. If all this had happened to me, maybe I’d even feel the same way. But if you leave now, you’ll have this burden hanging over you for however long you continue to exist. If you really believe that you’ve lost either way, why not see it through? At least then you can have the peace of knowing that it’s over.”

“It never should’ve been at all.”

“But it is. You can’t do anything to change that now, Seiken.”

The Decameron was silent for a long time. Tamaki rose and moved slowly around the studio, scrutinizing the artwork, seeking out favorites. A moment of fear and frustration crossed over her as she thought of Yoshiki’s disappointment in her failure to glean anything from Seiken. She allowed the feelings to flare and pass, letting herself become absorbed in the peace of the subjects around her. When Seiken finally spoke again, her back was to him, and she barely caught his words until she turned around.

“Don’t involve yourself with this, Tamaki. Go home. You’re only going to end up like me if you don’t.”

“I have no intention of running away from this. I’ve already made my choice. Yoshiki’s asked for my help and he’s going to get it.”

“You’re setting yourself up for nothing more than pain. Please, just go home.”

“I’m aware of what I’m doing,” Tamaki replied quietly. “If you’d help me, maybe it’ll work out.”

“I don’t think it will.”

“You know who Caiaphas is.”

“Yeah, yeah I do,” he said heavily. “Go home, Tamaki. Forget this ever happened.”

“I can’t.” Seiken listened knowingly to the break in the Night’s Herald’s voice.

“Fall in love with somebody else.”

“You know as well as I do how possible that would be.”

“Yeah. I know.” His voice was nearly a whisper.

“Will you at least think about helping me? Give it a couple of days?”

Exhausted by the weight of his emotions, Seiken quietly replied,

“Yeah, I’ll think it over.”

“Thanks, Seiken.”

“Can I- can I go now?”

“Sure. Just please don’t go back outside, okay?”

“All right.”

Tamaki helped the Decameron navigate his way out of the cluttered room. As she watched him shuffle away down the hall, she made a mental note to ask the others what they knew of him. Expecting easy answers, she’d come to the table this time pitifully unarmed.

“Come in,” Yoshiki’s voice called, muffled by the door.

Renta entered quickly, closing the door behind him.

“Juriaan said you wanted me.”

“Yeah, I was just going over the stuff recon got on our boys from the Ghost Clan’s HQ. It’s not so much fun to look at this shit alone.” Yoshiki forced at grin, the scar on his cheek twisting. The smile quickly collapsed.

“What’s the matter?” Renta eyed his friend with concern.

“You can take a gander at this guy’s list of known associates and tell me. We’ll test your powers of observation.”

Yoshiki tossed a few sheets of stapled paper to Renta, who sat down on the creaky bed to read them. Yoshiki was sitting at his desk, a large, industrial steel affair, complete with peeling enamel, rust and an old, wobbly chair. All of the furniture in the building had been scavenged, and had a trademark look of shabbiness about it. Members of Sirrah jokingly referred to the décor as “vigilante chic”.

Renta scanned the pages of names, which included occupations and areas of residence for those listed. The man to whom they were all in some way associated was one of those that had been killed by Hironah’s group. He’d once been a powerful man, and had still been a Senator with a base in the northern city of Kitaka’en. Most of the names on the list were fellow Empirians and GelbFausts. There was a spattering of Angemal, mostly generals and high ranking officers. Other than that, there were a handful of members of other Clans- though none from Pantagruel or Dauern.

“I had the guys shortlist anyone with shady business. None of the garden-variety daily activities on here. Notice anything?”

“Can’t say I’m picking up anything unusual.” Renta flipped through the pages again.

“Alas, I didn’t think you would,” Yoshiki sighed theatrically, goofing around.

“Have you so little confidence in me?” the Angemal replied with mock hurt.

“Naw, I just didn’t think I’d ever given you enough information to clue you into what’s bugging me on that list.”

“Huh?” Renta looked up, puzzled. “Since when have you withheld anything from me?”

“Not withheld so much as never bothered to tell you about it. This isn’t business. It’s of a personal nature.”

The Angemal read the names again. He shook his head.

“You’re just gonna have to tell me, man.”

“Well, for starters, did I ever tell you that my House is totally made up? It’s not my mother’s or father’s?”

“Come to think of it, yeah I think you did- a long time ago.”

“How about my Uncle Taka?”

“Didn’t he take Blue’s name?”


“What was it before?”

“He didn’t have one,” Yoshiki smirked. “He got disowned. You can use your imagination to come up with the reason. Won’t take you long.”


“My dad got disowned, too, on account of my ma. As soon as his parent’s got wind of what was up between the two of them, they kicked him out of the family and had him legally stripped of their name, just like Uncle Taka.”

“Uh-huh.” Renta cocked his head.

“So, did I ever tell you what their House was?”

“Not that I can recall.”

“Well, it’s riiighhht…” Yoshiki leaned over and marked an “x” on the page. “Here!”

Renta looked down at the name his friend had marked.

“That’s my grandfather,” Yoshiki informed him.

“Are you sure?”

“Yup. Same name, same residential area, same former occupation- that ‘R’ indicates retirement… My dad’s real sentimental. He never really let go of the dream that the family might get back together. Apparently, he even tried getting in touch to tell them when I was born. That was a mistake.”

“What happened?”

“Gram and gramps didn’t dignify him with a response. My Aunt sent a nice package.”

“That’s not so bad,” Renta ventured. Yoshiki laughed.

“Yeah, she sent a real sweet little blanket… coated in poison. Lucky for me the dog got it before I did. But it was still sad for Ma. She loved that dog, even if the bastard did try to eat everything in sight.”

Damn.” Renta’s eyes were wide. “That’s nasty.”

“My ma hates them, but good ol’ Dad’s still prayin’ they’ll come around. I always figured they’d crop up on the other side eventually.”

“Just because he’s on this list doesn’t necessarily mean your granddad’s in the Ghost Clan.”

“Maybe not, but c’mon- they’re right up his alley. They hate all the same things. But it’s not so much him as Auntie dearest that I’m worried about. She’s on there, too.” When Renta looked back at the paper, he went on. “Different name. She’s married. Matter of fact, she’s on quite a few of these lists.”

“Okay, I get what’s bumming you out.” Renta looked directly at Yoshiki. “But maybe it won’t come down to Blood versus Blood. It certainly doesn’t have to right now.”

“Yeah, but if we keep going it’ll probably end up like that. And what else are we gonna do but keep going, right?” Yoshiki grinned smugly. “Besides, I’m not so sure that’s such a bad thing. As long as my dad never hears a whisper of it, I don’t think I’d mind too much wiping them off the face of the planet.”

“I can’t say I blame you for feeling that way.” Renta’s serious expression changed to one of mirth. “Well, since I feel- as your second-in-command- that you’ve had enough crappy news for one day, I will now inform you of two pieces of news that aren’t bad.”

“And those are?” Yoshiki asked, his curiosity piqued.

“First of all, your little social experiment seems to be going rather well.”

“Oh yeah? I take it you mean Quen.”

“I do. Most of the guys don’t hate him, and Hyan actually likes him for some reason. They’ve been hanging out all day.”

“You don’t say.” Yoshiki laughed. “I knew I’d be better at this than Meena! What’s the second thing?”

“It’s snowing. You know what that means.”

“Snowball fight!”

“Yup, tomorrow’s will be the first of the season.”

“Prepare to have your ass handed to you.”

“Not this year, my friend.”

The two continued laughing and teasing each other until Renta felt secure that he’d successfully managed to lift Yoshiki’s gloom, a task that was getting harder and harder, but one he didn’t mind. The shoe had been on the other foot for most of their relationship. A small part of the Angemal, while still sorry for Yoshiki’s misfortune, was glad of the chance to prove his loyalty. As the snow fell gently outside, Renta thought of the happier days to come- for they were coming. They had to be. Of that he had little doubt.