“And in so many patterns can be seen the transitory state of our existence.”
Transitory. What was the word? Ephemeral. Yeah, that was it.
Hironah’s eyes lifted from the flames to the billowing smoke that swirled into the red and gold tinged sky. Her mind wandered over the memory within, and she allowed herself to be swept up in it, momentarily severed from the events at hand.
How old had she been? Maybe three or four, perhaps a little older. Hironah could no longer remember what had angered her so, but in her one of her frequent fits of rage had broken a favorite toy. Takae had repaired it for her, though not perfectly- it would never again be the same as it had been before. The idea that she had lost something precious had caused her to cry in disappointment. She seemed on the verge of another of her common tantrums when Blue called to her from the other side of the room.
“Hironah, come here. There’s something I want to tell you about.”
She’d been torn between her welling disappointment and curiosity. Blue’s stories never failed to be exciting, and she had learned that he would only tell them to her if she calmed herself. Sniffling, she plodded over to where he sat, dragging her cherished plaything behind. She snuggled up beside him and he was quiet for a bit, then asked her,
“Why do you feel sad?”
“It’s broken!” she wailed of her toy, sobs renewing. Blue waited for her to quiet down again before saying,
“Takae fixed it for you. See?”
“It’s not the same!”
“No, it isn’t.”
The serene simplicity in his voice made her look up.
“Today you have learned something very important, Hironah. Do you know what it is?”
“No,” she replied sullenly.
“That everything changes, even the things we love. It cannot be helped, but can be accepted. It’s good for you that your toy couldn’t be completely mended- in your anger you damaged it yourself. What you feel now is regret. Hironah, things will always change. When you look at your toy from now on, you can be reminded of that. And you can be reminded that in our anger we can harm the things and people that we love if we’re not careful. We are all ephemeral.”
“What’s ‘ephemeral’?” she asked skeptically.
“A thing that doesn’t last forever.”
Hironah gave this some thought, then abruptly tapped Blue’s leg.
“Is that why you have a leg made of plastic? So you can remember about e-eh-”
“Being ephemeral? Perhaps.”
He smiled down at her.
“I don’t want things to be ephe-meral,” she pouted, stumbling over the word. “I want you and me to be together forever. And Takae, too.”
“If things always stay the same, you can’t grow up and be big and strong, right? Change doesn’t always mean something bad.” He hugged her. “And I promise to be here with you as long as I can.”
“Only our souls last forever, Hironah. But I promise that my soul will always love you. I’ll do whatever I can to watch over you. Forever.”
Are you watching now?
Hironah turned her eyes away from the drifting smoke to the scene spread out before her. A crooked smirk, inherited from her father, played across her face as she imagined Blue shaking his head in wonderment at the people gathered all around her.
Kaiya was still speaking, plunging stoically through the Rites- or so it seemed. Hironah could hear the cracked notes in his usually musical voice, took notice of the lines of grief on his face. This has got to be killing him. He was holding up all right now- it was later that Hironah worried about. Later on, when there was no duty to occupy his mind, that was when he would succumb to the broodiness that he’d never really learned to overcome. He blamed himself, and there seemed to be nothing Hironah could say to assuage his guilt. You certainly left me with a mess.
Hironah glanced up at Takae, who was staring resolutely at the pyre where burned the body of the man he’d shared heart and home with for twenty-five years. He didn’t look back at her. What would she do about him now? She’d spent the last two weeks trying to decide, but couldn’t manage to force a conclusion. So much depended on Kaiya… and on Takae himself. Perhaps the decision wouldn’t be hers to make. Guiltily, she almost wished that someone else would make that choice for her.
Her eyes were drawn to her Uncle Kieran and his family, standing not far off. Hironah was not surprised to see her Auntie Chiesara weeping disconsolately, clinging to her daughter Yume. Yoshiki stood behind the two women, an unreadable look on his usually jovial face. He’d shown up in force with most of the members of Sirrah. They’d torn through the city of Nira on their noisy motorcycles. No doubt they’d terrorize the seaside town with their drunken revelries come nightfall. At the moment, they stood a respectable distance from their leader and his family, spectators of grief.
Many more people had arrived at the funeral than Hironah had expected. There were acquaintances from town, former students, unfamiliar faces of people who had come simply to witness the Rites of one of Diasminion’s Champions. A woman who was vaguely familiar to Hironah was standing off to the far side, alone save for a young man who resembled her quite strongly.
There was, however, one glaring absence. Hironah’s uncle, Harata, and his wife were nowhere to be seen. She tried at first to rationalize their lack of attendance- Harata was, after all, the Emperor of Diasminion. No doubt he was very busy, and perhaps a trip to Nira had been deemed unsafe by his advisors. Maybe Aki was ill again. Yet Hironah couldn’t help but feel a twinge of irritation. Blue had been a friend of Harata’s for years, even in times of grave troubles. She had sent word to the Imperial couple weeks ago, telling them of the situation. She had received no reply. How could he simply ignore them- his own niece and long time friends? Hironah felt her irritation rise again, and her hand balled in a fist at her side.
When the ceremony had ended, many of the onlookers straggled away, some stopping at the temple to pray or leave offerings. A group of former students remained, talking quietly amongst themselves. Kieran broke from his family and walked over to where Hironah stood beside the stock-still Takae.
“Hironah,” he said as he embraced her.
“Hey, Uncle Kieran,” she replied, doing her best to sound casual. She squeezed him tighter, then broke the embrace, saying, “I’m going to go and talk to Auntie Chiesara… I’m sure you guys have stuff you want to talk about.”
She flitted off before Kieran could reply, walking purposefully toward her aunt and cousins. Chie was still clinging to Yume, who was shooting desperate glances at her brother. Yoshiki stood near the two women, though by the occasional looks he sent over his shoulder it was obvious that he’d much rather be with the rest of Sirrah, who stood chatting nearby. Hironah was struck by how much he resembled Takae- he’d inherited his father’s height and leanness, yet there was a cast to his ice-blue eyes that spoke more of his uncle. While Yoshiki was far more animated and light-hearted than Takae had ever been in Hironah’s lifetime, moments of stress or trouble rendered their likeness striking. He’d dressed this day all in black- even the beads and feathers that adorned his long yellow-blonde hair were of that somber shade. His eyes locked with Hironah’s for a moment and he nodded at her soberly as she approached.
“Oh, Hironah!” Chiesara sobbed desperately, detaching herself from her daughter and throwing her arms around her niece. Hironah glanced over at Yume, who merely shrugged. Quiet and logical, Yume was frequently embarrassed by her mother’s shows of intense emotion. She was rather small in stature and thin, yet her resemblance to Chie was quite strong. She rarely wore her pale blonde hair loose, and it was now pulled back behind a black band, falling to her shoulders. She wore a knee-length black dress, which despite the trip from the north had nary a wrinkle nor a spot of lint. Yume had inherited her father’s fastidious cleanliness and sense of order, which stood in stark contrast to her brother’s willy-nilly chaos. Like Kieran, Yume wore glasses, her eyesight being so poor she could barely see without them. The thick frames partially obscured her bright blue-green eyes.
Chiesara managed to compose herself enough to ask Hironah,
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Kieran’s been beside himself with worry. This is just… it’s awful. You’re so brave!”
Why do people keep saying that? Hironah wondered with a twinge of annoyance. Bravery has nothing to do with it. As she was attempting to drum up a polite response, her aunt suddenly shouted,
“Chie, long time no see,” answered the tall woman who Hironah had noticed standing with the young man earlier. “Too bad we couldn’t have met again under happier circumstances.”
“I can’t believe this happened,” Chie responded, eyes growing misty once more. “He was so young! And he seemed… well, fine really. I can’t get my head around it.”
“I was pretty surprised myself when Taka wrote me. Speaking of, I have business with him before I go back to Morika’en. I hate to bring thunder to a rainy day, but…” she trailed off. Turning abruptly, she extended her hand. “You must be Hironah. Boy, you’ve grown! I’m Meena, I was a friend of Blue’s…. and of your parents, for that matter.”
Blue and Takae are my parents. Hironah wondered how many times she’d be driven to irritation on top of her grief. She’d always been fascinated by the fact that people tended to say the stupidest things at funerals… but today she was not amused. She shook Meena’s hand, making the bland statement,
“You were one of the Champions.”
The awkward introduction was cut short when the young man who’d accompanied Meena approached the group. He was tall and lanky like Meena, dressed smartly in a suit and tie and wearing a pair of silver-framed spectacles. His neatly trimmed hair was very straight, the same seafoam shade as Meena’s, but without the streaks of grey that could be found in hers. Their eyes were mirrors of one another’s- the same shape and color, and bearing a slight look of vacancy, as though they watched the world as one watches a movie, seeing but not participating in the events that unfold.
“Who’s this?” Chiesara asked with friendly curiosity.
“This is my son, Quen,” Meena said proudly.
“But… but you don’t have a son, Meena!”
“Mom,” Yume groaned. Turning to Quen, she took his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Quen. My name is Yume, and this is my brother, Yoshiki.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Quen said politely, shaking Yume and Yoshiki’s hands respectively.
“Same here,” Yoshiki answered casually.
“Nice to meet you. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Hironah replied awkwardly. What am I supposed to say to that? Me too?
“Really, Meena? He’s your son?” pressed Chie. “How come you never told any of us?”
“I suppose it just slipped my mind.”
“Did you get married, too?”
“That’s enough, Mother!” Yume exclaimed, hands on her hips. “Honestly, you have no manners. Sorry, Quen. I wish I could say it’s shock or grief or something, but she’s always like this.”
“Now who’s rude?” fumed Chie. “You shouldn’t say things like that about your mother!”
Hironah had heard this argument far too many times, and was in no mood to hear it again.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said, backing away, “I really should go and talk to some of the guests. Meena, Quen, it was nice meeting you. Auntie, I think dinner might be a bit late tonight, but I’ll send Seiken to get you guys when it’s ready.”
Yoshiki rolled his eyes as Hironah walked past, holding up his hands in mock confusion. She smiled at him, and as he watched her receding form he whispered to himself,
No one heard him. Giving up on his mother and sister, Yoshiki walked over to the rest of his gang, intent on making plans for a night of heavy drinking.
Stars twinkled high above where the moons hung over a peaceful sea. Far down the beach below, Hironah could see the light of a huge bonfire. That would be Yoshiki and Sirrah, no doubt. Chiesara hadn’t been pleased when her son announced that he’d be going out as soon as he was done eating. He’d merely smiled at her and said,
“What difference does it make, Ma? Not like I’m helping anything. Might as well give Uncle Blue a good send-off.”
Kaiya was exactly where Hironah had expected to find him, seated beneath the tree she always referred to as “his”. It grew twisted on the sandy bluffs over the beach, alone save for some scrubby growth at its roots and the grasses that grew copiously on the bluffs. Years of countless memories of finding him here, beneath the aging tree or nestled in its branches, flashed through Hironah’s mind. Usually he came here to meditate, though she knew he used this refuge for those times when his broodiness got the better of him as well. He was not meditating now, that much was obvious. His back was to her, knees pulled up to his chest, chin resting on them. He hadn’t changed his clothes and was still clad in the traditional funerary uniform of the Night’s Herald- a white silk robe embroidered in scarlet, black pleated pants and a black mantle, also embroidered in blood-red silk. Hironah watched him in silence for a few moments, seeing his back shudder. Finally, her heart breaking for him, for them both, she whispered,
He started and turned.
“Hironah. Sorry… I- I didn’t know you were there.”
“I haven’t been here long,” she answered, coming to sit beside him. She pretended not to notice as he wiped his face on his sleeve. “I figured I’d find you here.”
He didn’t say anything in response to her, but smiled slightly. She leaned her head against his shoulder, seeking comfort as she had so many times before. As he put his arm around her, she squeezed her eyes shut tight, groaning.
“Ohhh, I feel like I’m gonna lose it any minute.”
“You’ve done your duty,” he assured her. “It’s okay to lose it a little. That’s why I’m up here. I kinda couldn’t take it anymore.”
“I know, Kaiya. It’s alright. Blue was as much a father to you as he was to me. Honestly, I don’t know how you did what you had to do today. You could’ve asked someone else.”
“I promised him I’d do it. Besides,” he shrugged the shoulder she wasn’t leaning on, “it’s not like I haven’t got plenty of experience. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother changing clothes.”
Kaiya laughed, but Hironah’s expression was dark.
“You know how much I hate hearing about what you do with Sirrah,” she reminded him. “It freaks me out, and tonight especially. I don’t want to think about losing another family member.”
She gazed down at the beach, toward the bonfire. Kaiya held her closer.
“I know. I’m sorry.” When she didn’t answer, he said, “You really did well today. You held up better than most Night’s Heralds I know would’ve been able to. Blue would be proud.”
Not if he could see inside my soul.
“Where’s Takae?” Kaiya asked abruptly, changing the subject.
“Back at the house. The family’s with him. I think Seiken might be with them, too. I saw him going in as I was leaving.”
“Poor Seiken. I wonder what’s to become of him now.”
“I wonder what’s to become of any of us,” Hironah answered darkly.
“Why do you say that?”
Might as well ask him. I hate to do it now, but…
“Are you going to stay here, Kaiya? You didn’t go and pledge yourself to another temple or make plans to permanently run off with Sirrah, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t. You know that.” He snuggled her playfully. “You couldn’t possibly think I’d just take off at a time like this.”
“You’ll take over Blue’s duties, then? All of them?”
“Did you talk to Takae about it?”
“No, why would I? Blue trained you to take care of both the temple and the school. He trained you to be his successor. I don’t think anyone could do as good a job as you. I’d hate to have to find someone else.”
“I still think we need to get Takae’s opinion. He might feel it’s better that I did one or the other.”
“I can’t imagine why he would.” Unless… unless this is about that thing. That thing we don’t talk about. “Besides… you won’t be working with him.”
“Why not? Who will I be working with?”
“You’ll be working with Bel. We both know it’s high time Takae retired.”
Kaiya nodded solemnly.
“What are you going to do, Hironah?”
“I don’t know, Kaiya. I really don’t. I was thinking about maybe joining the Angemal… I’m pretty sure they’d take me, and there’s a lot of mercenary work these days.”
“You’re not going to stay here for at least a little while?” Kaiya looked at her in disbelief.
“I’m not a teacher, Kaiya. I just don’t have the patience for it the way that you and Bel and Taka do. You know that. I’ve gotta do what’s in my blood.”
“How many times have we had this conversation?”
“About once every few months since I was seventeen. And it always goes the same way: I work myself up, you tell me I should go and seek my fortune, and then I wuss out and stay home. But not this time.”
“Will you take Takae with you if you leave?”
“I don’t think so.” Hironah sighed heavily. “He’s gotten so bad with new people and places lately. Can’t remember faces, gets lost… you’ve seen it. He should be in a familiar place, with people who love him. I was wondering if I should send him to live with Aunt Chi and Uncle Kieran. Or, maybe, if I left him here with you, I was also thinking… about maybe-”
“You’re thinking about asking Seiken to stay?”
“Yeah. Takae really has taken a shine to him. Haven’t seen that happen with a new person in forever.”
“Seiken reminds him of that girl he used to know, doesn’t he? The Champion. What was her name?”
“Yuiren, I think. Apparently, they look quite a bit alike.”
“It’s more than that. Blue said something to me about his soul being a kindred of hers.”
“She was a Champion, though. He told me the Champions went to Elysium. And besides, it’s said now that she was one of the greatest healers the Decameron ever had.”
“He said Seiken had a kindred soul, not the same one. And you shouldn’t belittle him.”
“He couldn’t save Blue.”
“Hironah… nothing was going to save Blue. We all knew that. He told us that he would die. He knew it himself. And thanks to Seiken he was in very little pain. If there’s anyone you should feel bitterness toward, it’s me.”
“Why wouldn’t he take me? You know he met his end in Pandemonium, Hironah. If I had been there-”
“You’d probably be dead now, too.”
Hironah thought little of the harshness of her response. Instead, her mind was running over the events of the past few weeks. For a long time, Blue had rarely taken his journeys to other Planes without Kaiya, his apprentice. He had tried in vain to teach Hironah to send her soul, but she always remained firmly rooted in the Universal Plane, whose magic she could not grasp either, despite Takae’s tutelage. However, one night Blue announced that he would journey to Pandemonium- alone. When pressed for a reason, he simply stated that he had business there- business he was not ready to involve his apprentice with. Though Kaiya had argued, Blue was not to be swayed. And so he departed, quite alone, for the dreaded Plane of Pandemonium.
When he returned, he gathered his family together and calmly informed the three of them- Takae, Hironah and Kaiya- that he would die. There was nothing to be done, though he asked them to pray for his soul. He also told them, in his serene manner, that there was yet another journey he must make, and time was of the essence. And so he departed once again, leaving his small, beloved family in bewilderment.
When he returned to them again, there was no doubt that he was weaker than before, though he seemed to be in good spirits. Takae, in his desperation, had insisted on hiring a Decameron, finally settling on Seiken. The young Decameron “Wanderer” was quick to grasp the family politics- outwardly deferring to Takae while actually allowing Hironah and Kaiya to call the shots. He’d admitted immediately that Blue’s illness was terminal… and extremely rare- so rare, in fact, that there hadn’t been any documented cases in over a century. To Seiken’s credit, he threw himself wholeheartedly into his work, allowing Blue to remain lucid throughout most of his sickness. He’d breathed his last breath in the same way as he’d breathed his first- surrounded by people who loved him.
Hironah had taken it upon herself to hide the mysterious nature of Blue’s death, informing friends and family alike that he was dying of mundane causes. While she was nagged at by a variety of unanswered questions, she was loath to discuss them with anyone other than Kaiya.
“He never told you what he was doing?” she asked now.
“No… He just said that he hoped the problem would be taken care of before I needed to be involved. I can’t imagine what he could’ve come up against in Pandemonium that would have the power to kill his body here… unless…” Kaiya shuddered.
“It’s driving me nuts… the thought that he might just be gone, you know? What if… what if that is what happened? I can’t stand not knowing, but part of me really doesn’t want to.”
“I’m going to go to Elysium. I’m going to find out,” Kaiya said resolutely.
“We’d better go home, before Aunt Chi drives Takae crazier than he already is.”
Kaiya nodded. Standing, he took a long last look at the sea below. As they turned to leave, Hironah looked at him in the moonlight and thought, At least I still have you.