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“Damn it.” Hironah jerked awake. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. She’d been waiting up for Seiken to come downstairs and talk to her. Sitting on the sofa, Uneme had stayed with her, distracting her with idle chatter until they’d both fallen silent, unable to speak any more. Hironah had fallen asleep in his arms, seeking any small comfort in her fear. Uneme’s head was on her shoulder. The peace of sleep had stolen the sharp coldness from his features. Looking at him, Hironah felt a sting in her heart that contrasted sharply with the dull ache of her resignation.

The night before, Kaiya had been disturbed by the sudden change he’d seen in Mirai, and decided to heed her advice. There was nothing left for them to do but wait and pray.

“Will you stay with me?” Kaiya asked Hironah. “I think I’ll drive myself nuts waiting all alone.”

“I’ll stay with you. I… I don’t want to be by myself either. We’ll just wait for Seiken together.”

Hironah sat down beside Kaiya and took his hand.

Mirai, relegated once more to a state of empty serenity, stared at them vacantly.

“You look beautiful,” she said in an awed voice.

Kaiya laughed weakly.

“I should go… Quen will be really mad at me. I’m not supposed to be wandering around. I hope you feel better soon, Kaiya.”

She skipped out of the room, singing something to herself.

“She’s crazier than a chicken in a dog pen,” Kaiya observed. “Seiken said she was ‘touched’… I think the word ‘smacked’ might’ve been more to the point.”

“But you listened to her,” Hironah pointed out.

“She seemed very sure of herself. And what if she was right? You’re always on my case, Hironah, but I’m not trying to throw my life away needlessly.”

“Sure looks like it sometimes.”

Kaiya didn’t answer her. Speaking was becoming increasingly difficult, and he had no desire to revisit this familiar argument for the millionth time. In the silence that fell between them, he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to cling to consciousness much longer. Resigning himself to that truth, he contented himself with looking at Hironah. Despite the lines of fear and anxiety that etched her face, Kaiya could think of no one else in the world lovelier than she was.

“Mirai was right about one of us, at least,” his whispered, his voice fading with his wakefulness. “You are beautiful.”

Hironah remained sitting with Kaiya for over an hour. Unable to stand the hollow feeling that made it seem as though her lungs were filled with nothingness, she’d bitten her lip until it bled. She tried to convince herself that she’d known for a long, long time that this day would come, that she’d always seen herself sitting just like this at some point in the future. She could feel her hopes being replaced by hatred- hatred of herself for the dream that this event might not come to pass, hatred of Kaiya for flinging himself to the vultures at every opportunity, hatred of her country for its meaningless warfare that claimed the destinies of friends and family.

Closing her eyes, Hironah tried to call up the lessons Blue had given her. She tried to let go, to accept… but she felt instead a pained bitterness within her soul. Blue was gone as well. In the end, he’d done as Kaiya had been trying to do all those years- cast himself into a challenge far too difficult to be overcome… or so it seemed. Now Kaiya, too, would leave her. The gloom that had settled over her life threatened to suffocate her. Suddenly numb, Hironah sat in silence, staring down at Kaiya, wondering what she was meant to do now.

Eventually, Seiken opened the door and walked into the room without a word. He strode across the floor quickly and purposefully as Hironah stood up. He looked down at Kaiya, and for a second a pained expression flickered across his face. He sighed. Getting a hold of himself, he turned his eyes toward Hironah.

“Yume?” The weight of the desperation Hironah felt was voiced in her cousin’s name.

“We did it.” Seiken smiled his triumph. “She’s going to be all right.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

The Decameron was shocked by Hironah’s swift embrace. She broke from him, beaming, violet eyes full of gratitude.

“Thank you. Thank you!” Her face fell and her posture slumped once more. “Kaiya…” she gestured toward him.

“It’s gonna be a long night,” Seiken stated. His expression soft and full of compassion, he said, “I’m sorry, Hironah, but I’m gonna have to ask you to leave us. I have to concentrate.”

“I don’t want to leave him. I… I don’t want him to die alone.”

“He won’t, Hironah. Let me take care of him.”

“But-”

“Look, I’ll make you a promise, okay? If there’s nothing more I can do, I’ll go and find you. I’ll let the two of you be alone together. Alright?”

Hironah nodded.

“Okay.”

“Go see Yume. She’s sleeping, but you can see for yourself that she’ll be okay. It’ll make you feel better. Then go and wait for me. As soon as I’m done here, I’ll let you come back.”

“Yeah,” Hironah said dully as she turned to leave.

Twenty minutes later she stood downstairs. Uneme, seeing her pale, lined face and the blood on her lip, softened his expression.

“Hironah?”

In an instant, she was in his arms, weeping violently, her tears soaking the front of his uniform.

She detached herself now from his embrace, doing her best not to wake him. As she rose, she felt his fingers brush her arm.

“Go back to sleep,” she instructed.

“Hironah?”

“Go back to sleep.”

She walked away from him and bounded up the stairs. Yume first, she told herself firmly. Go check on Yume again first. She entered the dark room, which was full of the sound of Yoshiki’s snoring. He was sprawled in an armchair, sleeping soundly. Hironah crept up to Yume’s bed and gazed down at her. She slept peacefully, her breathing soft and even. She was safe. She really was safe. Hironah allowed relief to seep through her for a few blessed moments. Then she turned away, trying to prepare herself for what she’d find in the room where Kaiya lay.

She entered and saw Seiken asleep, half on the floor, his head resting on the bed beside Kaiya’s shoulder. Following the line of his arm stretched out on the bed, Hironah saw that his hand lay over Kaiya’s. Fighting her terror, she moved closer and peered down at the Night’s Herald. He was still pale in the weak light of dawn, but his skin had lost its grayish cast. Though his breathing was still somewhat labored, it no longer rasped and rumbled in his chest.

“By all the gods,” Hironah whispered, her eyes on Seiken, “you’re going to save him. It’s not possible…” She shook her head. “I’ll owe you everyone I love.”

She sat down on the floor and put her hand over Seiken’s and Kaiya’s. She remained that way, watchful for a time, until sleep stole over her as well.

“I love you, Yume. Go out with me.”

“For the hundredth time, Renta, no.”

Yume stretched, feeling the Black Sun warm her. She twirled a bright red leaf in her hand and smiled at the blue sky above.

“I’m really serious, Yume. Look at me.”

She rolled over on the grass to face Renta. His dark eyes were watching her steadily.

“No, Renta.”

“Why not?”

Because you’re an Angemal.

“Why not?” He asked again when she didn’t answer.

“Because we’re not suited to each other, that’s why. We’ll only end up like Yoshiki and Meela, fighting all the time.”

Like they are right now.

Just over the hill where Renta and Yume lay in the afternoon sun, Sirrah was encamped. Meela was with Yoshiki in his tent. Yume knew that there was only one of two things they could be doing. Fighting was one of them, and that’s where her money was. Meela had been furious when Yoshiki wouldn’t give her the address of the safehouse where they’d stayed while waiting for Kaiya to recover. Yume knew with a sinking feeling that she’d be even further incensed to learn where it was Yoshiki was going next.

“What is there for us to fight over?” Renta pressed. “We never argue.”

“We’d fight if I was your girlfriend.”

“That’s stupid, Yume.”

“See? If I was your girlfriend, you couldn’t say stuff like that.” She laughed and threw Renta a defiant look.

He and Yoshiki had joined Sirrah at the same time, some seven years ago. They became fast friends, and when Yoshiki had later taken over the gang, he made Renta his second in command. The Angemal was a fierce fighter, devoted to the cause. He was tall, though a bit shorter than Yoshiki, with sun-bronzed skin and spiked black hair. He had broad, expressive features and a ready smile, his depthless eyes so often sparkling with laughter. Yume had always secretly believed he was the most attractive guy she knew, but had repeatedly turned him down whenever he asked her out. He’d never been serious, anyway… or so she’d thought.

“Yume,” he said, rolling closer to her. “One date. That’s it. If you hate it, I’ll never ask again. We can go as soon as I get back.”

“Yeah, if you don’t get yourself killed. Another reason I don’t want to get involved with you.”

“I’d come back from the dead,” he gazed down at her with his soul in his eyes, “if I knew you were waiting for me.”

“Renta…” Oh gods, he’s serious enough to be cheesy.

He reached out and stroked her cheek.

“When Yoshiki told me what happened to you and I had no idea whether or not you were even still breathing at any given moment, I realized that I had to tell you… if I ever got the chance. We won’t fight, Yume. I’ve known you all these years. I love you for who you are, not who I wish you’d be. And I can understand your fear when I go off fighting. I can understand because I felt it myself for you.”

She looked away from him, unable to bear his expression. She was so confused and torn that she forgot any of the words she might’ve used to answer him. In desperation, she clung to the only arguments she had. I can’t let myself fall in love with an Angemal, especially not an Angemal who has no job and runs around the country with my older brother fighting a war that doesn’t exist.

He drew her into his arms and she smelled his oddly mingled combination of soap and sweat and spent gunpowder. Before she could make a move to stop him, he kissed her, feeding her his desperation. Instinct failed her as she felt her heart leap, realizing that in the most cloistered part of her soul she’d wished for this. She kissed him back, unbridled. They rolled over and over, down the side of the hill, until they came to a stop. When they finally broke from one another, Renta gazed down at her, panting, and whispered,

“Say yes.”

“Yes,” she gasped back at him, eyes brimming.

He fell back into her arms and it was a long time before they parted again.

Ow. Hironah, cut it out or I’ll tell Seiken on you.” Kaiya laughed, rubbing the place where she’d smacked him playfully.

“I mean it, Kaiya. No heroics. When we go and do this thing, if I so much as imagine you deciding to act like an ass, I’ll put you out of your misery myself to save the Ghost Clan the trouble.”

“Okay, okay. I get it.”

She smirked at him.

“Good.”

“Hypocrite,” Kaiya snorted.

“What!?” she glared at him in the light of the campfire.

“You are.” He grinned. “It’s fine for you to go running headlong into enemy fire, screaming your Angemal oaths and waving your swords around, but all the gods forbid any of the rest of us behave like we’ve got balls.”

“It’s different.”

“How?” Kaiya laughed again with a skeptical smile. “How is it different?”

“I don’t get hurt.”

“True… but-”

“Nope. No buts. That’s how it’s different. You get hurt, I don’t, simple as that. End of story.”

Kaiya, knowing he would not win the debate, simply smiled and nodded, rolling his eyes. He was about to speak when Yoshiki walked up to them and sat beside Hironah.

“Meela is so pissed at me.”

“What’s the matter this time?” Hironah asked.

“She doesn’t want us to do this. She thinks I’m being stupid.”

“Yoshiki, you are being stupid. We’re probably all going to die.”

“Nobody said you had to go.” He looked darkly at her.

“What the hell am I supposed to do otherwise? Go home and make tea?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“What I want most is for you two,” Hironah jabbed her finger at Yoshiki and Kaiya respectively, “to stop taking responsibility for everything that’s going on in this god-forsaken country. As I can’t have that, I’m going with you on this stupid suicide mission in the event I can be of some use. And when I drag your sorry, wounded asses back home, I expect you to listen to me next time.”

“Yes, Mom,” Yoshiki groaned.

“Hey, Yoshiki,” Kaiya reached over and nudged him. “Did you see Renta and Yume? Holding hands?”

“I did,” Yoshiki replied with a grin. “I thought she’d never give in. It’s about damn time.”

“It can’t possibly work out,” Hironah cautioned.

“Sure it will,” Yoshiki said confidently. “They’re gonna get married and have, like, a million babies.”

“Keep dreaming.”

“I will, if you don’t mind.” Yoshiki rubbed his hands together. “All of my plans are finally falling into place.”

“Not this again,” Hironah looked pleadingly at Kaiya, who only smiled.

“They are. Yume will fall madly in love with my best friend, who’s been pining after her for ages and I know will never, ever hurt her. You two will finally get over yourselves and realize that you’re perfect together. I’ll ride back triumphant from saving the world from the scourge of the Ghost Clan and that cousin of yours will finally notice I’m alive, being that I’m a hero and all.”

“Who? Renata?”

“Yup. And I’ll be an advisor to the Emperor. We’ll all live happily ever after.”

“None of that is going to happen, Yoshiki,” Hironah said with a sigh.

“Sure it will. It’s already started.” His grin broadened. “The future looks bright.”

“You seem more chipper even than usual,” Hironah observed.

“I know I’m right.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Mirai. I asked her and she told me I was right. She said it was certainly one of our potential futures. So there.”

“I thought you didn’t believe that Mirai could see the future.”

“Well, what she told Seiken was right, after a fashion. And it was her prediction that kept Kaiya here from… from going to Elysium. So maybe I believe a little bit.”

“Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that stuff’s not gonna happen.”

“It’d better,” Yoshiki’s expression grew dark. “Mirai said that otherwise the future is pretty bleak for all of us.”

“She was probably just being dramatic.”

Yoshiki shrugged.

“Either way, I like my way better.” Changing the subject abruptly, he asked, “Where’s Uneme?”

“Still off trying to teach Seiken to use a gun. I guess the lesson isn’t going very well.” Hironah smiled smugly.

“I’d better get back to Meela,” Yoshiki said with exaggerated resignation. He slapped his knees as he stood. “I’m sending her home tomorrow. Yume, too.” He glanced down at Hironah. “It’ll be good for Uncle Taka to have her around for a while before she goes back to school. Ma says the new house is fantastic. He even has his own room.”

“I’m glad they’re willing to take care of him for a little while longer.”

“They’ll take care of him,” Yoshiki smiled warmly at Hironah, “for as long as they have to. Don’t worry. And don’t worry about the Ghost Clan. They’re going down.”

“I certainly hope so. The alternative isn’t all that appealing.”

Hironah watched Yoshiki walk away into the darkness, so engrossed with him that she never noticed Kaiya’s eyes on her, evidence of some internal struggle clear within their depths.

“No.”

“Yume-”

“I said no. I’m going with you guys.”

“You can’t. You have to go home.”

“I am not going home.” Yume looked defiantly at her brother. “You can’t spare anyone to take me home, and you know that. You need your men. All of them.”

“Get real, Yume. You can’t fight. You’ll only be in the way.” Yoshiki glared angrily at his sister.

“I can shoot now, kinda, thanks to Kaiya and Uneme. And you can give me one of the easier jobs. You know I can handle it.”

I know what this is about, Yoshiki thought to himself.

“I’ll have Renta take you home. He can take a couple of days off.”

“You can’t do that, Yoshiki.” Yume stared hard at him. “You need him. You need all of them. You’ve already got to let someone take Meela. Let me stay. I’m not willing to be the reason why somebody’s not there when you need them.”

“Fine. I’ll just wait until they get back.”

“You can’t. You know you have to go tonight, before someone notices the camp.”

“Damn it, Yume! Why did you have to get born smart?”

“I’m right,” she said triumphantly. “And you know it.”

“I can’t take you, Yume. It’s too dangerous.”

“But you can do it? I can, too. I’m going. I’ll help Hironah.”

“Didn’t you learn anything from what happened to you last month?” Yoshiki spewed furiously.

“Yeah, I did,” Yume replied coolly. “I learned that I can handle it. Fear, pain- I can handle it. What I can’t handle is the thought that one day you’ll make a sacrifice for me that costs you your life. I’d rather die myself.”

“It’s easier to die for the people you love than it is to live for their sake.” Yume was taken aback by the depth of her brother’s gravity. “I know that better than you.”

“Then why is it that you get to take the easier path? I’m going with you, even if it means I can’t come back. I’m going so you’ll be able to.”

Yoshiki stared at Yume for a few minutes. Finally, he muttered,

“Stay here,” and walked off. He returned dragging Renta.

“Tell her she’s being a moron,” Yoshiki demanded of his best friend.

“Yume, why won’t you go home?” Renta asked patiently.

“Because if someone takes me home, it’ll be one less person riding with Sirrah, somebody you might need. I know that going with you is dangerous, but I’m willing to risk it.”

“If you go with us, people will want to protect you. You’ll be a distraction.”

Yume looked calmly at Renta.

“I trust you all to know I can look out for myself, and that it’s my responsibility to do so. Besides, Hironah and Kaiya will be there. That’s all the protection I need.”

“You’re hell-bent on going, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

Renta opened his arms and Yume ran to him. As they embraced, Yoshiki threw his hands in the air.

“Damn it, Renta! You were supposed to convince her not to go!”

Ignoring Yoshiki, Renta gazed down at Yume.

“I don’t want you to go. I think you should go home. I promise I’ll call as soon as it’s over and tell you everything. I know you’re scared, but it’ll work out fine. I promise.”

“I can’t go home. I’m sorry, Renta… but I need to go with you guys. I won’t be in the way. You’ll see.”

“Yume-”

“You told me we wouldn’t fight,” she said smugly.

“I-”

“Yume,” Yoshiki cut in. “Have sense. Ma will kill me if I let you come with us. Then it would be all for nothing.”

“I’m not changing my mind.”

Furious, Yoshiki glared at his sister.

“Fine. You know what? You can go ahead and come with us. Go right ahead. But you ought to know that if anything happens to you it’ll ruin my life. And the only reason why I even do this is to try and keep you safe. That’s why I joined Sirrah. That’s why I gave up having a life of my own. For you. And now you’re just going to piss all over everything I’ve done. Fine. Go ahead.”

He stormed off into the camp, swearing fluently.

Sirrah broke camp at sundown, riding off to the west, where they would storm the headquarters of the Ghost Clan. Their destination lay on the outskirts of what used to be the city of Mika’en, now known as the Dead City. Yoshiki put on a great show of confidence, whooping as he tore off toward the blood red horizon. Secretly, he fought rising fears, especially for Yume.

She was on the back of Hironah’s bike. Her cousin had given her a merciless dressing-down for “being an idiot”, but Yume was not to be swayed. Though she was terrified, she refused to let the others see it. As afraid as she might be of dying, she knew that she’d made the right choice. No one else agreed with her, but they would eventually. They’d see that she was thinking clearly… This was far too big an attempt to send men off taking her home. She just hoped she’d live to gloat.

Hironah, every bit as angry as Yoshiki, decided that her entire family had gone insane, every one of them. Admittedly, Kaiya had always been a daredevil and she knew it was a lost cause trying to get him to change, but the rest of them had used sense up until recently. This plan of Yoshiki’s was not only foolhardy- it was uncharacteristic. He took his leadership of Sirrah very seriously, and never made any moves without careful consideration and meticulous planning. Then there was Yume. She’d obviously lost her mind. No one had been able to convince her to go home- not Kaiya, not Hironah- even Seiken and Uneme had tried to no avail. The only one who’d supported Yume’s decision was Quen.

What was he even doing with them? His presence irked Hironah. He’d insisted on accompanying Sirrah, leaving Mirai behind in the care of other members of the Musubiki. When Hironah pressed him for a reason, he’d stated blandly that his mother had asked him to remain with them. He told her that Meena was worried for their safety. Hironah had passionately fought against his joining them, until Yoshiki stepped in, stating in his usual easygoing manner,

“Aw, let’s just take him. We’ll need all the help we can get.”

Though he rode with them now, Hironah couldn’t help but wonder what was going on inside Quen’s mind. She hated him for his coldness, but there was something else, something indefinable that made her mistrust him. The best she could hope for was that he wouldn’t turn on them tonight.

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