Kaiya’s eyes opened upon the grey-green fabric of the tent above. He knew immediately that he was alone. As he readjusted to inhabiting his living body, he tried to gauge how long he’d been away. Not more than a week, he figured, paying attention to the sensations in his lungs and stomach. He felt the lurch of his heart and shook his head.

     He waited for some time, as he’d been taught. No one came, and so he used the time for quiet reflection. In silence he meditated, allowing a stillness to steal over him. There was so much to rejoice in briefly, so much to mourn… He allowed himself to release those things that he might focus solely on the task at hand.

     When he felt ready, Kaiya finally rose, a bit shaky as was natural after Soul Walking. He moved the tent flap aside cautiously, peering out. His eyes fell immediately on Seiken, who sat facing the tent. The large black raven that had appeared in the Dead City was perched on his shoulder. For a delirious moment, it almost appeared that they were in conversation. The bird turned its dark eyes on Kaiya and let out a cry.

     “Welcome back,” Seiken called after its voice had died away. His face broke into a smile.

     “Are you still having trouble sleeping?” Kaiya asked, noting the grayish cast of a clouded dawn.

     “Yes… but at least I’ve been able to convince Hironah that I can still keep watch.”

     “Did you explain to her? She knows a bit about Decameron, so she should be able to understand.”

     “I did.” Seiken felt, rather than saw, that Kaiya approached and was preparing to sit beside him. The Decameron shifted slightly, causing the raven to flap its wings.

     “What’s his name?” Kaiya asked as he sat, gazing at the bird.

     “Rah.”

     “Can I touch him?”

     “Sure. Mirai pets him all the time. He’s getting used to it.”

     Kaiya reached over and stroked the black feathers, which were surprisingly soft.

     “How’s Yume?”

     “Fine.” Seiken was silent for a moment before adding. “I’ve been blessed. Trista answered my prayers. I can learn to be content with that, I think. As long as I can keep helping people, nothing else really matters.”

     After some time, Kaiya spoke.

     “I can talk to Erishkegal. I may be able to bargain with her.”

     Seiken’s brow furrowed.

     “Don’t, Kaiya. I know what you’re offering me. You’re Night’s Herald… and you belong to Blue. Don’t give yourself to her for my sake.”

     “I probably wouldn’t have to. She’s not happy with Caiaphas at the moment. You’re going to help defeat him… Perhaps I can make her change her mind in light of the circumstances.”

     “I take it you learned something on your journey.” Seiken smiled smugly.

     “I did. And I promise you- when I can, I’ll face Erishkegal. I’ll help you, for all the help you’ve given me.”

     Seiken opened his mouth to reply, but their conversation was cut short by the sound of hushed laughter and murmured voices coming from one of tents. The flap opened, and Hironah emerged, holding a towel. Uneme followed. She hushed him, whispering,

     “It’s Seiken’s watch. The gods only know what might tattle on us.”

     They both laughed softly.

     The pair headed away, and for a time it seemed they’d leave the camp without a backward glance. Kaiya watched as Hironah looked over her shoulder furtively. Catching sight of the Night’s Herald, she exclaimed,

     “Kaiya!” and ran over to where he sat. In a breath, he was in her arms. “Did you find Blue?”

     “I did,” he replied.

     “Oh! We’ve got to get everybody up.” Suddenly, aware of what he must have just witnessed, she said, “I was… I was going to take a bath at the stream.”

     “Yeah,” Kaiya replied without enthusiasm. “Don’t wake them up now, Hironah. We can talk about it over breakfast.”

     “Did you learn anything?”

     “Yep.”

     “I knew you would!” She beamed at him.

     “You go and take your bath, Hironah. We’ll… we’ll talk about it later.”
She couldn’t meet his eyes as she said,

     “Okay.”

     As Kaiya watched her walk away, he asked Seiken,

     “How long was I away?”

     “It’ll be six days today.”

     “Hm,” was all Kaiya said in reply, though his eyes were fixed on the trees through which Hironah disappeared.

     

     “Maybe splitting up really would be the best idea,” Yoshiki put in. “I can’t sit on what we’ve got. I know who some of the members of the Ghost Clan were. I’ve gotta get back to Sirrah with this information, so we can plan our next strike.”

      “I dunno,” Kaiya said skeptically. “I really think that we ought to go to Mianuus together. We can split up after that.”

     “I don’t know what makes you think Harata’s going to be any more willing to see us now,” Hironah spoke sullenly. “I know that we should try and warn him, but…”

     All eight of them were seated in a circle, surrounded by the tents they’d been camping in. Kaiya had told them of his journey in Elysium and of the little he’d learned there. Not wanting to worry the others, he’d made no mention of Blue’s warning to him that he was a likely target of Caiaphas. After a lengthy discussion, they’d reached an impasse on whether or not to remain together or split up.

      It was Uneme who’d proposed going their separate ways. He realized that Sirrah was running out of time in which to plan another strike. He felt that Yoshiki ought to return to headquarters as soon as possible. The Angemal offered to go with him.

      “I still think Yoshiki, Hironah and I should go back to Sirrah, while the rest of you head to Mianuus. The three of us have no business there… Perhaps we ought to take Seiken as well. We’ll probably need him.” Uneme looked around the circle as though daring the others to disagree with him.

     Kaiya took the bait.

     “The Ghost Clan is a problem, yes… but Caiaphas’s return is a far more pressing matter. There are other gangs out there currently fighting the Ghost Clan.” His eyes fell on Yoshiki. “I know they haven’t got the knowledge you’ve got, but we’re the only ones who can do anything about Caiaphas right now. Besides, in light of all that’s happened, taking your information to Harata may be for the best. It’s possible that the government might finally change its stance. I want to see the Ghost Clan wiped out as much as you do… but it’ll be all for nothing if Caiaphas carries out his plans.”

     “You don’t even know what his plans are,” Uneme scoffed. “You don’t know who he is or where to find him. For all you know, he might even be the one behind the Ghost Clan. Taking them down may take him down as well.”

     “I doubt that,” Kaiya said evenly.

     “Why?”

     “The most obvious reason being that the Ghost Clan is fighting to restore the Old Laws, a system Caiaphas opposed in life.”

     “Look, Kaiya,” Uneme’s tone turned patient. “You can’t possibly believe that you’re capable of defeating Caiaphas, even if you could somehow figure out who he was. He killed Blue… and face it, you aren’t half as skilled as he was. Admittedly, that little trick you pulled in the Rift was impressive, but that was just a fluke, wasn’t it? You haven’t got a chance.”

     “Be that as it may, I’ve been entrusted with this duty. I’ll do my best to see that Caiaphas is defeated. His avatar here won’t be as powerful as his soul in Pandemonium. I realize I’m not the man that Blue was, but I know he’s watching… and I’ll be doing all I can not to let him down.”

     Everyone fell silent, all eyes on either Uneme or Kaiya, or flicking between the both of them. When it was obvious that no one was going to speak, Kaiya went on.

     “I just feel that it would be best for us to split up after going to Mianuus. It’s really from there that our paths diverge. Yoshiki- you, Hironah and Uneme can return to Sirrah from there. Quen and Mirai can return to the Musubiki, and Yume can go home. Seiken and I will look for Caiaphas and a way to defeat him. We’re only talking about a delay of a few days.”

     “Yoshiki,” Yume ventured, “I think Kaiya’s right. Renta can handle things for a couple more days.” She turned to the Night’s Herald. “But I don’t want to go home. I want to help you.”

     “Going home will help us, Yume.” Kaiya’s voice was warm. “I need someone who knows what’s going on to watch over Takae… and you’ll be guarding your parents as well. Caiaphas has no love for the Champions. I don’t know whether or not he’s got plans for them, but if he does I want to be sure there’s someone I can count on keeping them safe.”

     Yume blushed and lowered her eyes.

     “O- okay.”

     “It would be better to take Seiken with us to Sirrah,” Uneme stated. “We’re sure to need his help.”

     “I- I have to go with Kaiya,” Seiken said nervously.

     “Why’s that?”

     “I… I know some things that’ll help him.”

     “Why don’t you just tell him, then?”

     “I can’t. It’s not that simple. If it was, none of this would even be the mystery that it is.”

     “Do you know who the avatar of Caiaphas is?” Uneme pressed.

     “I have my suspicions,” Seiken evaded. “What’s more important is that I know why he’s here and what he’s trying to do. I can help to find him.”

     “Though you can’t speak of it?”

     “There are other ways in which I can be useful.”

     “Why don’t we just put it to a vote,” Yoshiki offered. “We’ll vote on whether or not to split up now or later. Uneme, let Seiken choose his own path. If you really think it’s necessary, we can hire another Decameron. So, who says we should split up now?”

    Only Yoshiki and Uneme raised their hands.

     “In Mianuus?”

     Kaiya, Seiken, Quen and Yume raised their hands.

     “Hironah?” Yoshiki pressed.

     “I… I have no idea. Honestly, I don’t know if splitting up is a good idea at all. Let’s- let’s just stay together for now.”

     “Alright, together it is.”

     Mirai, who’d been silent throughout the meeting, smiled at Kaiya.

     “Don’t worry about finding Caiaphas. He knows where you are already.”

     She continued to smile passively while the others stared in her direction.

 

      In the darkness, Hironah huddled against the chill in the air. Uneme had joined Yoshiki in the tent he was sharing with Yume. The two had gone to discuss tactics and make plans for their return to Sirrah. Uncharacteristically, Hironah had decided to remain outside alone. There was too much on her mind for her to wish to discuss the dry, logical procedures of guerrilla warfare. As much as she enjoyed rushing into battle, plans of that nature bored her. Unlike her father, she had not the mind for tactics, and was a far better follower than leader. She knew this, and decided to remain with her multitude of tumbling thoughts.

     Quen was alone in his tent. He’d had very little to say over the past six days. He never caused trouble- in fact, if he’d been bothered at all by his sudden demotion to the status of “prisoner”, it certainly wasn’t obvious. His behavior hadn’t changed in the least. This irked Hironah, who wanted sorely to find fault with him, but could point to nothing but her own innate mistrust. She’d be very happy to part with him in Mianuus, and prayed that separation would be permanent.

     Laughter drifted from the other side of the camp, where Seiken, Mirai and Yume sat chatting. The Decameron had explained to Hironah how he’d come to be aided by the ravens and the Elementals that spoke to his Clan, lending him insight to replace his vision. Though it was obvious he was having trouble adjusting to his sudden blindness, he made no complaint to her. Hironah suspected that he withheld his concerns out of fear that she’d decide he was incompetent. However, the fact that he’d been able to ease the trouble Yume had been having breathing proved otherwise. It was obvious that with the aid of the Elementals, he was capable of doing his job. Yet Hironah felt certain that he’d never be able to work to the same ability as he had before. Now that she’d learned that the Decameron’s uncanny skill had been granted by Erishkegal, she couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t for the best.

     Someone gently touched her shoulder.

     “Hironah, can we talk?”

     It was Kaiya.

     “Do we have anything to talk about?” she asked coldly in reply, feeling her very soul twist in discomfort.

     “I’d say there’s quite a bit,” he said softly. “We talk all the time, Hironah. Just cause we’re not at home it shouldn’t be any different.”

     She sighed and rose, following him as he led her into the tent he’d used while his soul wandered Elysium. He lit a candle, and with his back still turned to her, said,

     “You didn’t wait.”

     There was no accusation in his tone, but Hironah could sense a quiet disappointment. This irked her.

     “Oh, come off it, Kaiya,” she spoke in her irritation. “I did wait- most of my life.”

     “I only asked you for a couple of days.”

     “You were already too late.”
“I guess I was.” He turned to face her, but she wouldn’t look at him.

     “Why’d you have to wait until now, huh Kaiya? Was it the competition? Is that what finally drove you to want to have this ‘talk’ with me? Couldn’t handle the fact that I might finally give up and fall for someone else?”

    “I always knew that was something that would happen eventually… No, there are other reasons why I chose to tell you now.”

     “And those are?” She glared at him suddenly, challenging. He met her gaze, even and calm.

     “For one thing, you’ve been saying you don’t know what you want since we were in our teens. I never wanted to pressure you into feeling like you had to accept a life you didn’t want. I wanted you to be sure of yourself, to be happy- not to carry the questions around with you for your whole life. I figured if I let you fly away, there was a chance you’d come back one day… but you never took off. You never found the answers to your own questions, and I couldn’t be sure, listening to the things you said, if you stayed because you realized you loved your life or just because you loved the people in it. So I remained afraid of tying you down.

      “But that was a simpler life than the one we’ve got right now. Hironah,” she bit her lip as his eyes filled with affection and concern. “What we’re up against is pretty huge. This isn’t going to be easy. We may not survive. I just… I don’t want to go into it with the regret of never having told you how I felt.”

     “And how do you feel?” she spoke the words mechanically, already terrified of what he was about to tell her.

     “That of all the people I’ve ever known, you’re the one who can make me smile just by smiling yourself, even on the darkest days. When you laugh, I hear the echo of all the sounds I’ve ever loved. I remember when we were kids thinking about how your soul was like fire, and as we grew I watched you tame that fire and use it forge the steel of your spirit. I never met anyone who could compare to you- not just that you’re beautiful… but the determination you’ve always had, your perseverance, and the way you loved so fiercely. Even all those times you mentioned not being cut out for life at Kamitouki, it was always your love for your family that made you question yourself. And the thought that you might count me, give me that unconditional, fierce love, astounded me. But you always did, even though you never had to. You adopted me in your care when you could just as easily have dismissed me. Where you could’ve had a servant, you made a friend. All these things, Hironah, made me grow to love you in a way that makes me unafraid of losing you. Because my love will never change. I know I won’t stop loving you as much as I do, no matter what happens, and you’ll always have a home with me. No one has known me as well as you do, and no one ever will. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met, and I’ve thought that every time I’ve laid eyes on you for years.”

     He fell silent, and for a time Hironah didn’t respond. When she did, her voice was bitter.

     “You say no one knew you better than me? Then tell me, Kaiya- why didn’t you ever tell me what it was that bothered you so much all these years? What is it you’re thinking about when you run off all alone? What drives you to sit under that tree and brood, huh? What little secret kills your conversations? You never told me that.”

     It was Kaiya’s turn to look away.

     “Well?”

     “I… Look, I-”

     “Let me guess. You don’t want to talk about it. Same as always.”

     He said nothing.

     “Well, guess what, Kaiya. We’re gonna talk about it.” Hironah’s eyes narrowed. “Because I know.”

     He looked at her, puzzled.

     “I heard Blue and Taka talking about it… the year that Yume got sick. I took to eavesdropping on them, afraid they knew more about her than they let on. I learned a whole lot about you in the process.” Her face twisted in pain as she blurted the question, “How many years have you got left now, you think? Five? Six?”

     “Hironah,” Kaiya’s voice was laced with shock and disbelief.

     “Less now, isn’t it?” she interrupted heatedly. “What with all the stupid shit you’ve pulled. I don’t even know why you’re still here, after last month. Seiken may have been able to miraculously pull you out of that one, but it’s coming isn’t it? Or did he just buy you some time? Is that it? Do you know when it’s gonna be, the day you just drop dead?”

     “You knew?” was all he was able to force out.

     “Why didn’t you ever tell us? Why’d you try to go through it all by yourself?”

     “I just… I didn’t want you guys to look at me like I was some kind of walking time-bomb or something. If you knew, maybe you’d all have gotten sad about it prematurely. I figured if you could just chalk it up to me doing stupid stuff all my life, it’d be easier on you in the end.”

     “Do you have any idea how hard it’s been, watching you all these years, showing off how tough you are while trying to kill yourself to hide the fact that you might just keel over someday? Did you think we’d love you any less because you just dropped dead walking around? Or… all the gods forbid, you got sicker and died? Is that what you thought?”

     “It’s not that. I just never wanted you guys to worry is all.”

     “For fuck’s sake! I love you, Kaiya! Worrying about you is part of the bargain. And I’ve loved you anyway, even knowing that you probably won’t live past thirty-five. What did I care? Look at my parents- Blue and Taka fell in love even though they both knew Taka could go catatonic the next day and never come back. They both knew that Caiaphas wanted Blue dead. But they tried anyway.  And look at all they did! They built Kamitouki, raised a family- you think I cared we wouldn’t last long? Look at what we both grew up with. Do you really think I would’ve given a shit marrying a man I loved even though I knew he wouldn’t be around that long?”

     “I couldn’t do that to you, Hironah.” Kaiya’s voice was soft. “If I’d told you how I felt… If we’d chosen to do that… I think the weight of your sorrow alone would be enough to damn me for eternity.” He looked at her lovingly. “And rightly so.”

     “Then why are you telling me now? What, do you think that the danger we’re in absolves you from any guilt? Dammit, Kaiya, you did it backwards! You pushed yourself for all those years to try and do the noble thing- not to tell us you’d die, to let me be free to do as I pleased. You wasted all that time, and now you finally admit how you feel when there isn’t any left.”

     Something snapped within Hironah, and she began sobbing violently, doubling over. She’d fought with all her will against her knowledge for so many years, a constant denial of the loss that loomed in the future. As she faced Kaiya now, that cherished denial abandoned her and she felt the full weight of her grief flood in, drowning any hope she might’ve had that she was mistaken, that she’d misheard or misunderstood, that she’d misinterpreted the signs she’d seen. He’d made it so easy for her to pretend. Every time she’d marveled at his strength, every time she watched him recover from his often self-inflicted injuries, it became easier to ignore the things she’d seen and heard. Her denial allowed her to dismiss all the evidence- the way he’d sometimes excuse himself from sparring while only halfway through their rounds, breathlessly tousling her hair and telling her he had extra studies, the lengths of time he and Blue would be away that were simply trips to enrich his education, the stash of medication she’d discovered while rooting through his drawers without permission, which surely must’ve been left over from his failed attempt to jump that row of cars on his motorcycle, the matter-of-fact way in which Blue would keep him sequestered after Soul Walking with the excuse that Kaiya was less experienced with the sometimes painful aftereffects, the way he never seemed to dream of the future, which of course was due to his lot as a Night’s Herald. The brooding became no more than his personality. Kaiya, with his steadfast adherence to proving his worth and penchant for ignoring pain became her accomplice, allowing her to believe that he was, in fact, perfectly healthy. It was only when it seemed to her that he was trying to do away with himself that her nagging thoughts got the better of her, but those would inevitably disperse as soon as he got well again.

     Yet now he stood before her, confirming all her fears, forcing her to face all the evidence she’d pushed aside. For so long she’d simply shoved her worries over Kaiya into the pile of fear she had for so many of those closest to her, and like those they had taken on an air of uncertainty. Blue may or may not meet an untimely demise. Takae may or may not succumb to his illness. Yoshiki may or may not be gunned down during one of his many skirmishes. When her fears for Blue had come to pass, though the acuteness of her terror sharpened, she could still quantify it. With his confirmation, Kaiya stole away her quantifier. He’d taken her “maybe”. The ribbon to measure his life had been cut at his birth, and the only other outcome possible was death before that length ran out. And it would run out soon. Hironah, overcome by that thought, had begun sobbing before she’d even realized she was doing it. The hopelessness she felt made it seem as though he was already gone.

     Kaiya gathered her into his arms, holding her close as she wept bitterly into his shoulder.

     “See? This is kinda exactly what I didn’t want to happen,” he said with a wry smile. “Don’t cry, Hironah. It’s not as bad as all that.”

     “How can you say that?” she sobbed, her voice muffled by the rough fabric of his robe. “You’re going to die.”

     “Same as everybody else.” He kissed the top of her head, then grasped her tighter. “Aw, Hironah, why didn’t you ever tell me you knew? It must’ve been hell for you going through it all alone.”

     “I figured if you could do it, so could I. I was hoping that one day you’d tell me yourself, but you never did. Sometimes I wondered how you managed all alone.”

     “But I wasn’t alone. Blue and Takae were with me. They took such great care of me and helped me through everything. They taught me how to accept my life as it was. It’s hard sometimes, and frightening… but I’ve loved the life I’ve lived so much I wouldn’t trade it for another. Though now I’m sorry you had to suffer with me when I didn’t even know it. I never wanted that. If I’d known, I could’ve helped you understand. It would’ve been easier.”

     “If wishes were fishes,” Hironah whispered. She’d stopped crying, and snuggled closer to him. She felt his heart beating, searched out its differences, pretended she could understand the subtlety of the sounds. Someday, those differences she could neither see nor hear would prove too much of a strain. She grimaced, remembering the sight of him turned that frightening shade of grey-blue, knowing that it was quite possible she’d be forced to watch it again, this time an irreversible consequence of his damaged heart.

     “Hironah, listen,” Kaiya’s voice took on a sudden tone of urgency, prompting her to look up at him. “There was another reason why I wanted to talk to you now, to tell you all this. I’d planned on telling you sooner, but what with all that’s been going on I never got the chance. This is really why I feel like I can tell you this stuff without any guilt.”

     “What is it?”

     “Maybe… maybe I’ll be okay for a while. Seiken and I have been working on it, and it looks like we’re pretty near a decent treatment.”

     Flustered, the only reply she could come up with was,

     “I figured you told Seiken. He said something a while back that made me realize he must’ve known.”

     “It’s not so much I told him as he figured it out on his own. It was pretty obvious to him and he insisted on trying to do something about it. I thought at first he was being kinda pig-headed about it, but…” Kaiya shrugged. “He’s done a good job so far.”

     “You… you really think you guys have it taken care of? I mean, for a while at least… long enough, maybe?”

     “Definitely getting better. I was pretty sure I’d be really sick after having to pull all of you out of the Rift, but all I felt was completely exhausted. That’s an improvement.”

     When Hironah said nothing, Kaiya looked down at her. His eyes, brown and green, were gentle.

     “I wanted to tell you how I felt at the Zeit. Actually… Well…” He grew sheepish. “I was finally gonna ask you how you felt about, you know, settling down.”

     Hironah let her head fall against his shoulder once again. She swore softly. Kaiya said nothing more, only held her close, his head bowed over hers. Overcome with remorse, she whispered,

     “I’m so sorry, Kaiya.”

     “That’s why I asked you to wait. I wish you’d trusted me, but I guess I can understand now why you didn’t.”

    “I knew I’d hurt you,” she admitted, “but since you’d always encouraged me to see someone else, I thought this time wouldn’t be any different. Shit! I finally make up my mind about something and look what happens!”

     “Are you happy, Hironah?” he asked into her hair.

     “I guess… I was happy, but now I’m not so sure.”

     “Be happy.” He snuggled against her. “It’s all I ever wanted for you anyway.”

     “The both of us have never had good timing… but I think this takes the cake.”

     “It is what it is, Hironah. If you’re happy with- with your decision, then you’ll get no blame from me. Just know I’m here waiting, if you ever change your mind.”

     She nodded, fighting the urge to give in, to tell Kaiya that she’d already changed her mind, that she wanted him above any other and always had. She bit her lip to keep from kissing him, knowing that if she did, she’d lose herself entirely to this secret fantasy come true- Kaiya telling her that he’d be okay, that he loved her and wanted her to continue sharing his life. Holding him, she trusted what he said was true. She could take her time, figure out what she truly wanted in life, and he would simply wait. She had time, now that his was no longer running out quite so fast. She could explore as he’d always hoped she would. For a moment she marveled at the depth of his love, that he could bear everything- even this laughable turn of irony- without anger or accusation, with nothing more than trust and patience. Understanding the purity of his affection made her heart burn with admiration and longing, but she ignored those feelings, afraid of the surrender they would bring. For a long time, she neither moved nor spoke, every ounce of strength spent on preventing herself from succumbing to her long-hidden wish.

     Kaiya, like Hironah, remained still and silent, knowing that when they broke from one another it might be a long time- if ever- that he would hold her like this again. He closed his eyes, his head bowed once again, and listened to his lessons repeat within his mind. He fought the bitterness he felt at having gained all he had only to lose the very reason for wishing he could change his circumstances in the first place. He reminded himself that he had a duty to perform. His purpose was evident, even if it wasn’t the purpose he’d intended. He had to keep that in mind. Yet the dull ache he felt when he thought of the life he might’ve had reared up within his soul, more fearful than any of the hellions of Pandemonium. He’d faced that sorrow before, though it was more acute now than it had ever been. For as much as his confirmations had killed Hironah’s hope that nothing had ever been wrong, her admission of her feelings had also taken away his own idea that his affection had been one-sided. He could almost hear the gods laughing over this tiny tragedy. This thought only caused him to steel his soul further, to accept this test as he’d tried to accept others. However, he was loath to let go of Hironah, understanding that when he did, he would truly be allowing her to make that journey of self-discovery he’d just told her he knew she needed.

     Slowly, after a very long time, he relaxed his grip on her, kissing her softly on the forehead.

     “I love you, Hironah, today as yesterday, yesterday as tomorrow. You go do whatever it is you gotta do. I’ll be here.”

     “I…” She turned from him, realizing that if she looked at him now she’d either give in or lose her mind. “I love you, too. If… if you wait for me- like I couldn’t do for you- maybe… maybe I’ll come back.”

     “I’ll wait.” There was no hesitation in his voice, no hint of despair or sullenness.

     “I- I’m gonna go,” she whispered, breaking from him.

     “Goodnight, Hironah.”

     She was halfway through the tent-flaps when a sudden thought struck her, causing her to turn around.

     “Kaiya?”

     “Yeah?”

     “Seiken was able to figure out how to help you because of the blessing he’d received from Erishkegal, wasn’t he?”

     “That’s right.” He eyed her quizzically.

     “Then… Is he still going to be able to help you now that she’s cursed him?”

     “Should be,” he said with a smile.

     “If he can’t-”

     “Hironah,” Kaiya said evenly, “the curse doesn’t affect things Seiken’s already seen and figured out. He’ll just have a harder time acquiring new information. We’ve already got a lot to go on, and what he’s been doing has helped a lot. Don’t worry- that problem was solved before Seiken was cursed. It’ll be okay.”

     “Are you sure? Did you talk to him about it?”

     “No, Hironah, I didn’t. He needs some more time. I can’t pester him about that with everything else he’s got to deal with right now. We’ll work it out when the time comes.”

     “What if he can’t help you anymore?”

     “He can. I know he can. Love, don’t let that bother you anymore. Since I know you know, you can ask me about it whenever you want. If you ever feel scared or upset, just tell me. We’ll talk about it.”

     “And you’ll tell me the truth?”

     “I will.”

     “Okay,” she said softly. After a moment’s hesitation, she said a quiet “Goodnight, Kaiya,” and left. He sighed softly watching her go, wondering if he’d ever be able to accept what might be the permanent loss of the only woman he’d ever allowed himself to love.

 

 

     “Quen!” Yoshiki called abruptly. “You’re coming, too. Let’s go.”

     Quen eyed him quizzically in the dim light.

     “For what reason?”

     “I dunno. Kaiya needs you for sommat. So, you get to take a walk.”

     “Can I come, too? I wanna talk to Renta,” Yume put in. Yoshiki regarded her with his head tilted for a moment, marveling at her ability to be so exuberant at this ungodly hour before dawn.

     “I dunno, Yume… Maybe you ought to stay back and give Hironah a hand breaking camp.” He shot a glance at his cousin, who was decidedly not a morning person. As he watched, Uneme approached her, smiling, and whispered something in her ear. She laughed. Yoshiki spat in disgust.

     “Let her come with us,” Kaiya put in thoughtfully. “She may have some insight, catch something we’ve overlooked.”

     “Huh?” Yume looked at him, puzzled. “I thought we were going to use the payphone.”

     “We are,” Yoshiki answered simply. “We’d better get a move on.”

     “Quen?” Kaiya turned to him, his expression gentle.

     “I’m coming.”

     As they wove their way down the side of the mountain, Kaiya addressed Quen calmly.

     “I’d like to call your mother,” he stated. “I think she could be of some help to us in Mianuus.”

     “How so?”

     “Well, as Hironah pointed out, it’ll still be quite difficult to approach Harata.”

     “I don’t believe she’ll be able to help you with that problem,” Quen replied skeptically.

     “I think she may be able to find a way to contact Kat. If we can meet with her, it’ll increase our chances at an audience with the Emperor. Your mother is the only person I can think of who might be able to get in touch with her.”

      “What about Hironah? She’s a blood relative of the Imperial Family. Why isn’t she willing to help you?” There was no malice in Quen’s tone, but his sea-green eyes pierced Kaiya’s momentarily.

     “It’s not a question of willingness,” the Night’s Herald asserted. “She’s discouraged after her last attempt and doesn’t feel she has any sway in this matter.”

     “She didn’t try very hard. In fact, she gives the appearance of not wishing to meet with her family at all.”

     “Hironah has reasons for her feelings.”

     “You put an awful lot of trust in her while she betrays you.”

     Kaiya was silent for a moment. Yoshiki, having known him for so many years, saw that he was growing close to being offended. However, when he spoke again, his voice was measured and even.

     “A difference in opinion does not equate betrayal, Quen.”

     Quen said nothing, a sly smile twisted on his lips. After a long silence, he spoke again, in a manner that suggested he and Kaiya were all alone.

     “I would recommend that you stop shielding yourself with technicalities and view your situation with your eyes open. As much as you may care about those closest to you, you cannot allow them to hinder you in your mission. There’s too much at stake for you to fall due to their unwillingness to assist you… or because they turn their backs on you when you need them most.”

     “Hey!” Yoshiki exclaimed, his voice sharp and too loud. Kaiya held up his hand and shook his head. He turned to Quen.

     “So… You seem to understand the gravity of the situation. I can’t force Hironah to try and contact her family again. As a result, I’m asking for your help. Seeing that you understand the importance of this matter, I’m trusting you’ll cooperate.”

     “If that’s what you wish, though as I said I doubt it’ll be of use.”

     “It’s worth a shot.”

     They continued in silence until Yoshiki asked,

     “Kaiya, how do you plan to find Caiaphas?”

     “I think the first step is to figure out what he’s up to. Knowing that will narrow the list of people he might be and places where he might be hanging around. Blue told me that I already knew what Caiaphas is after, I’ve just gotta work it out. Hironah should be able to help me out with that. She knows a lot about him, too.”

     “Aren’t you worried about what Mirai said? I mean, what if Caiaphas already knows you plan to try and stop him? He could be waiting for you, or he could try and get you first.”

     Kaiya smiled.

     “The sooner the better. Frankly, I’d be happier to face him and get it over with. Then I can just go home.”

     “But… Aren’t you afraid of getting killed?”

     “Since when have I ever worried about that?”

     Yoshiki rolled his eyes.

     “Point taken. Seiken said he had suspicions about who the avatar of Caiaphas might be. Do you have any guesses?”

     “A couple,” Kaiya replied evasively.

     Suddenly, Yoshiki turned to Quen.

     “How about you? Care to venture an opinion?”

     “I think Kaiya’s on the right track- it’ll be easier to find out who he is once you’ve discerned his plan. Any speculations ahead of that are premature.”

     “You know, Quen, I was wondering something. I know this is totally off-topic, but…” Yoshiki trailed off, eyeing Quen shiftily. The latter raised his eyebrows. “I mean, it’s fairly obvious Meena’s your mom and all, but… Did you ever meet your dad?”

     “Yoshiki, I swear you’re worse than Mom sometimes!” Yume, who’d been listening in silence, exclaimed suddenly.

     Quen, in his stiff, emotionless manner, replied,

     “No. I have no idea who he is. Mother and I don’t speak of it.”

     “You know… You and Hironah are pretty close in age. From what I heard, your ma was closer to Keyu than anyone else in her life. Have you ever considered Hironah might be you sister?”

     “Yoshiki, shut up!” Yume commanded.

     “I haven’t given it much thought, though I figured you and your family would wonder. I couldn’t tell you one way or another.”

     “Aren’t you at least a little curious?”

     “No. It wouldn’t change anything- not for me, anyway.”

     “Not to offend, but I do find it a little strange that your mother never mentioned you until the day you showed up at the funeral. I mean, she went to my ma and dad’s wedding and all. You’d have been born by then. It kind of seems like she was hiding you or something.”

     “My mother was never particularly close to yours,” Quen replied somewhat coldly.

     “But it seems like she hid you from almost everyone. You never went to school… from what you said, you pretty much grew up in her lab. Why?”

     “Mother has always kept to herself. She has her reasons. Perhaps she was merely trying to protect me.”

     “From what?” Yoshiki peered at Quen. Suddenly he blurted, “What’s the matter with you, anyway? All that stuff Mirai said- what was that all about?”

     “A personal matter Mirai shouldn’t have been privy to, and neither should you. And you shouldn’t take the things that Mirai says very seriously. Her mind doesn’t always work to capacity.”

     “The Musubiki did that to her… Uneme and I had an argument last night. Know what it was about?”

     “Enlighten me.”

     “Uneme believes we’ll find the avatar of Caiaphas within the ranks of the Ghost Clan, but I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure the Musubiki is the place to look.” Yoshiki’s ice-blue eyes narrowed on Quen. There was a hint of menace in their gleam.

     “What are you suggesting?”

     “You really can’t blame me for being suspicious, can you, Quen?”

     He didn’t reply.

     “Look at it from my point of view- Nobody knew you even existed until you showed up after Blue was murdered. You’ve never shown one iota of compassion for any one of us, not even Mirai. You’re the coldest, most emotionless guy I’ve ever met… and then there’s the business with the Rift. We all got pulled in and you didn’t. And you couldn’t tell us why. Of course I wonder what you’re all about. Why do you follow us around like this? Why don’t you leave us alone?”
Quen cocked his head and eyed Yoshiki with interest.

     “As I recall, it wasn’t exactly my decision to come here with you. Personally, I believe it’s high time we parted ways. As for your speculations, I doubt anything short of the truth will satisfy you. However, I have no intention of telling you.”

     “Why not?”

     “Because I won’t. I don’t need to give you a reason.”

     “Quen,” Yoshiki kept his voice even, though it grew gravely serious. “Your secrecy may end up getting you killed.”

     “I am aware of that. Sadly, it will only be after one of you decides to do away with me that you’ll know the truth. I’m not involved with Caiaphas, or Blue, or the Emperor, or anything else. The failure of which Mirai spoke is nothing more than a failure to myself, and to my mother.” After a beat, he added quietly, “Though perhaps it is she who has failed me.”

 

 

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