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.”
“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.
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.