“She should be here any minute. Where’s Kaiya?” Yume looked around, as though merely by asking she could summon the Night’s Herald. The rest of them were milling about in a large meditation room on the grounds of the temple in the Parklands outside Mianuus. There they would meet with Kat- provided she could sneak there successfully. The Night’s Herald who ran the temple, a man named Makoto, had graciously allowed them to stay overnight there.

     “He’s praying,” answered Hironah softly from the corner where she sat.

     “Still?” Yoshiki’s voice, incredulous, echoed in the room. “He’s been at it since dawn.”

     “Let him take comfort where he can.” Heads turned at Uneme’s uncharacteristic defense of Kaiya. “He faces a daunting task, pretty much alone.”

     “He’ll have Seiken,” Yoshiki pointed out, somewhat defensively. In truth, his conscience had been nagging him. Was Quen right? Was he turning his back on Kaiya when the Night’s Herald needed him most? His eyes shifted instinctively to Hironah, who sat beside Uneme. Her violet eyes met his icy blue ones, traces of her own guilt surfacing.

     “I was with him this morning,” she told Yoshiki. “He’s alright. Really… peaceful.”

     The change that had come over Kaiya in the past few days was not one that Hironah had expected. Rather than sink deeper into his tendency toward gloom, he’d turned to his faith for solace. A quiet acceptance had taken root within him. Sometimes he reminded her so strongly of Blue that she felt herself a bit awed in his presence. There was no warmth lacking in his treatment of her or any of the others. The patterns of their conversations didn’t change- he still smiled and laughed, joked easily and patted her shoulder. It was enough to make Hironah wonder if they’d even had the conversation of two nights before. She knew they had, just as she knew he would leave them, with Seiken in tow, to try and face down a terrifying enemy without the help of any of the people that he loved. She’d expected him to be bitter and full of self-pity rather than peaceful and serene. She’d expected him to change, yes, just not in the way that he had.

     While Hironah was glad that Kaiya was not adrift in despair, his calm acceptance of his situation worried her. She knew the way his mind worked, those fatalistic turns he took. He’d been offered with one hand all that he’d dreamed of in his wildest and most hopeful moments, only to have that hand withdrawn and replaced with another, this one holding a future that could prove even more trying than the one he’d had in the first place. Hironah knew he felt he’d begun with nothing, and so he lost nothing in the bargain. She could see he believed his fate hadn’t changed at all- it was simply the means to his end that had.

     Seeing Hironah’s troubled expression, Uneme clasped her hand.

     “Maybe he’ll be alright, Hironah,” he said softly to her.

     “You don’t believe that yourself,” she replied, her tone gloomy.

     “He has some good ideas. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised. I didn’t realize Kaiya was as smart as that.”

     “Nobody seems to. He’s a lot brighter than most people give him credit for.” She cheered a bit. “You really think maybe he can do it?”

     “I think Caiaphas will come to realize he’s dealing with a much larger threat than he’d imagined. Kaiya has a lot of potential and excellent training. Now that he’s so focused… Yeah, I think he could give Caiaphas a run for his money. Remember, he’s here only as an avatar. Most of his powers will have been sacrificed for the failings of whatever body he’s assumed. Kaiya’s powerful- we’ve both seen that. It could be that he truly has the means to defeat Caiaphas.”

     Hironah nodded and smiled wistfully at Uneme. He drew her close and kissed her cheek.

     “It’ll all work out,” he whispered.

     “Maybe I should go get him…” Yume pondered from across the room. She rose before anyone could answer and was halfway across the floor when the door opened. “Oh, there you are.”

     “Sorry,” Kaiya replied. “I lost track of time.” Looking about, he added, “Oh good, Kat’s not here yet. I was afraid she’d have arrived already.”

     The eight waited together in silence for another five minutes until the door swung open again. A woman entered, tall and regal, dressed in a plain black suit. She wore sunglasses and a scarf tied around her head and neck, obscuring her face. She removed the glasses slowly as she surveyed the group within the room, revealing a pair of pale brown eyes only slightly lined with age.

     “Your Highness,” all eight of them chorused, falling to one knee, heads bowed, not daring to raise their eyes until she spoke.

     “Rise.”

     They did so, and for a moment everyone stood silent, ill at ease.

     “Oh, this is ridiculous!” the Empress exclaimed. In an instant, she bounded across the room and took Hironah in her arms. “I’ve missed you. All of us have. How have you been?”

     “Alright I guess,” Hironah answered awkwardly.

     “I’m so sorry about Blue. Harata was heartbroken.”

     You didn’t even answer my letter.

     Hironah merely nodded. Breaking from her, Kat turned to the rest.

     “Kaiya, you’re… looking well.”

     “Very well, thank you. And yourself?”

     Kat opened her mouth to issue forth the standard reply, but seeing Kaiya’s earnest expression, closed it once more. Her mind turned for a moment to her own son, who like the young man before her had been born under the burden of affliction. In bygone days, when her family had still visited Kamitouki with some regularity, Kaiya- some nine years his senior- had taken Aki under his wing. It had been Blue’s suggestion, made on the day when Harata, distraught with the news that his only son had been diagnosed with the rare and deadly “Bleeding Disease”, had traveled alone to the temple to beg his friend to pray for their family. It was then that Harata had learned of the young apprentice’s illness- the malformed heart he’d been born with that had only been partially repaired in his earliest childhood- that would be sure to shave decades off his life. The news came as quite a shock to the Emperor, who’d always viewed the adolescent Kaiya as vivacious and exuberant. It wasn’t until after he’d given the matter a good deal of thought that Harata had realized that the evidence had always been there- in the times the young Night’s Herald would quietly excuse himself from rowdier activities, his short stature, the almost lazy way in which he’d lope along behind Yoshiki, who in those days ran everywhere- it had simply been easy to ignore given Kaiya’s gregarious enthusiasm for life in general. In fact, it had long been a bit of a laugh among the families of Blue, Harata and Chiesara how much the young apprentice loved the world around him, expressing his affection for anything from animals to the night sky far above. The simple, warm love he showed for the younger children and for their families held no trace of bitterness or jealousy. Harata was forced to wonder whether Kaiya was an exceptional student or simply an unusual person.

     Kat had been firmly against the suggestion at first. Aki was a fragile boy; the smallest accident could kill him. At the age of twelve, Kaiya was already showing tendencies toward the daredevil he’d grow up to be. He certainly wasn’t the type of role model she thought her son ought to be encouraged to emulate. She’d lost in the end… though looking back she felt no regret. The gentleness with which Kaiya had watched over Akos on their visits, the quiet patience with which he’d taught him to love the waking world had been almost heartrending to watch. Kaiya took such care with the younger boy that eventually Kat had relaxed in her hawk-eyed observations. Over the years, the young Night’s Herald had proved himself to be an excellent mentor- evidenced in Aki’s quiet optimism and resolve. The man before her had taught her son, whose life might’ve been bleak and cold, to revel in the joys that came rather than wallow in the sadness. She swallowed her lie.

     “I- I’ve seen better days,” she admitted.

     He smiled at her softly.

     “Perhaps we’ll be able to help.”

     “Perhaps.”

     “Do you know everyone?”

     “I believe so,” Kat replied, and turned from Kaiya to greet the others. “Yume, you’ve certainly grown up! You look lovely.”

     “Thank you,” Yume replied bashfully. “You look nice, too.”

     “And Yoshiki. I think you’ve gotten even taller.”

     “Heh. Maybe.”

     Kat turned to Quen.

     “Have you been well, Quen? Your mother is worried about you.”

     “Just fine, Your Highness. How’s Akos-hieran?”

     “He’s… alright.”

     As though distracted, Kat’s gaze shifted to where Seiken stood. Before she could speak, however, Mirai stiffened and bowed once more.

     “Mirai.”

     “Hullo, Your Majesty!” she replied brightly.

     “The Musubiki has been quite distraught with your absence, from what I understand.”

     “Oh, they miss me… I guess if they’re worried I should probably go tell them I’m okay.”

     “That would probably be… wise.” Kat turned her attention back to the Decameron. “Are you Seiken?”

     “Yes, Your Highness.”

     “I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re developing quite a reputation for yourself.”

     “Oh?”

     “Yes, I’d been hoping to meet you…” the Empress trailed off, peering at the Decameron, who appeared not to notice her stare.

     “He can’t see you, Your Majesty,” Mirai offered. “He’s blind.”

     “Blind?” Kat repeated, studying Seiken. “I- I wasn’t aware of that. How extraordinary.”

     “It’s a recent… problem,” Seiken informed her, embarrassed. “I was cursed.”

     “Oh.” Kat’s voice rang with disappointment. Suddenly embarrassed herself, she turned from them quickly, her eyes falling on Uneme. She realized that she didn’t recognize him, though a nagging sensation told her that she should.

     “Have we met?” she queried.

     “Not formally, Your Highness.”

     “You seem… familiar.”

     “You’ve seen me before. I was Mirai’s bodyguard up until recently.”

     “Oh, I suppose that must be it then.” Something within Kat was not satisfied, yet she forced herself not to pursue the matter.

     “My name is Uneme. I’m honored to make your acquaintance.”

     “Pleased to meet you.”

     Kaiya approached and gently took Kat by the elbow.

     “Please be seated, Your Highness,” he said politely. “We’ve got a lot to discuss, and I know your time is short.”

     Kat sat down on a cushion and the others gathered around. Everyone listened quietly as Kaiya explained what he’d learned of Caiaphas’s return to the Universal Plane and his intentions to stop him.

     “I believe Caiaphas is a threat to the Emperor,” the Night’s Herald explained to Kat. “Blue also thinks so. I feel it’s important that we warn him in person.”

     “But why would Caiaphas return? What has he possibly got to gain by coming back here?”

     “Revenge.”

     Everyone’s eyes locked on Kaiya.

     “Revenge? On whom? Qa Haran is dead and he’s already taken his revenge on Blue. There’s no one living who he could possibly wish to smite. You don’t think he wants revenge on Harata?”

     “Not personally, no. What Caiaphas wants is to be sure of the complete collapse of the society that Qa Haran created. That is the vengeance he seeks… or so I believe. Blue was aware of Caiaphas’s true intentions, and that is how he came to meet his end. From the conversations I’ve had with both Blue and Hironah, I’ve surmised that Caiaphas’s purpose in returning is to destroy the system he reviles, once and for all.”

     Kat was silent for a time, deep in thought, before she said,

     “But Harata’s been doing all he can to change the system. It makes no sense that Caiaphas would want to harm him.”

     Kaiya’s eyes grew sorrowful as he looked at Kat steadily.

     “Caiaphas will want to see the breakdown of Diasminion in its entirety. It’s not only Harata who’s in danger- anyone who might be eligible to ascend the throne will be a target.”

     Kat pursed her lips, but said nothing.

     “You must do all you can to protect yourself and your family. Anyone else with the bloodline or political power to replace you I’d advise to do the same.”

     The Empress nodded slightly.

     “I’d really like to tell all of this to the Emperor in person,” Kaiya pressed. “I may be able to offer some advice on how to defend yourselves, and he may have information that would help me.”

     “Harata… won’t meet with anyone, only his top advisors. He’s become… a bit paranoid.” Watching Kaiya as he gazed upon her intently, Kat suddenly found herself emptying all her worries, the trials of the past few months, into words. “He’s ordered that our family meet with no one other than the usual staff members. The girls can’t see their friends. They’re not even permitted to leave the Palace grounds. Nothing I do or say seems to make any difference. He’s even started refusing physicians who might be able to help Akos. It feels like we’re prisoners. Whenever any of us complains or argues, he just grows cold and stops speaking to us.”

     “Why?” Kaiya asked gently. “Was there some event that triggered this, or-”

     “He won’t tell me.” Kat hung her head. “I doubt I’ll be able to convince him to meet with you, but I’ll try.”

     “I’d appreciate it.”

     “Come by the Palace tomorrow afternoon. If I can’t convince him today, he won’t be talked into it at all.”

     “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

     Kat rose to leave, and bade her farewells to the people assembled around her. As Kaiya led her to the door, she turned to him, concern deep in her pale brown eyes.

     “Do you truly believe my family is in danger?”

     “I’m afraid so. However,” he looked at her steadily, “I’ll be doing all I can to track down Caiaphas and stop him before it comes to that.”

     “I have faith in you, Kaiya.”

     “I’ll do my best.”

  

     “Why? Why can’t Seiken come with me?” Mirai whined. She turned away from Quen and laid her eyes on Uneme.

     “He’s got to go to the Palace with Kaiya,” Quen said impatiently. “You know that, Mirai.”

     “But…”

     “No ‘buts’.”

     “Mirai…” Uneme placed his hands on her shoulders and regarded her seriously. “Go say goodbye. Doing it now will be easier than doing it later, anyway.”

     “This isn’t fair,” she replied.

     “I know,” he said softly. “I know it isn’t.”

     She turned away, and as she walked off, Quen heard Uneme mutter, 

     “I hate myself.”

     Mirai found Seiken outside on the grounds of the temple, not far from where Kaiya stood before the Everlasting Fire.

     “Seiken?”

     “Hello, Mirai.” He shifted so that she might sit beside him. In a nearby tree, the huge raven- Rah- let out a cry.

     “I’m going away now,” she informed him. “I won’t see you anymore.”

     “I’ll miss you, Mirai,” he replied solemnly. “Take care of yourself.”

     “Will you be okay without me?”

     “I’ll have Kaiya to help me… and Rah and the Elementals. I’ll be alright. Maybe we’ll see each other again someday. I could go visit you.”

     “Maybe.”

     They fell silent. Mirai watched as Yume approached Kaiya and the two fell into conversation. For just a moment, Mirai thought with clarity about the people around her, of the things she knew yet did not know. As she shook her head, her hair brushed Seiken, who moved to face her. Without warning, she kissed him, hard, on the lips.

     “I love you, Seiken,” she said softly. “Please don’t forget.”

     “I- I won’t.”

     “Goodbye,” she whispered as she rose. “We won’t ever meet again.”

     He felt her walk away, heard her footsteps fade. He wondered if what she said was true. Recalling her words to him on the beach all those months ago, he realized that it probably was.

 

     As Kaiya watched the movement of the tongues of flame before him, he thought of the Everlasting Fire on the grounds of Kamitouki. Unlike all the others in Diasminion, the flames of Kamitouki’s Fire burned blue, lit by Takae’s magic. For a moment, Kaiya felt regret that he hadn’t been around to tend the Fire for so many weeks- it might’ve gone out by now. No, surely Bel would’ve made sure it was tended to. The pale blue Fire was as sacred as it was unusual, and Bel knew that. He would take care of it. The Everlasting Fire would be the first thing to greet Kaiya upon his return home.

     If. He thought solemnly. If I return home.

     Suddenly, he became aware of someone behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Yume, her hands clasping and unclasping the way they did when she wanted something.

     “Hiya, Yume,” he said to her with his customary smile.

     “Kaiya…” she began hesitantly. “I was thinking and I- I want you to take me with you when you go to look for Caiaphas.”

     “Hon, we talked about this,” he replied patiently. “I need you to go home.”

     “I know. I know you want me to go home, Kaiya. But… nobody’s going with you, just Seiken. You’ll be lonely, and… Well, I just think somebody from the family ought to be with you.”

     “It’ll be alright, Yume.” He smiled even more broadly. “It’s only a temporary separation. As soon as I’m finished, I can return to you all.”

     “I don’t understand why Hironah won’t go with you. She ought to be helping you, not…” Yume trailed off, shaking her head. She found that she could no longer look at Kaiya. She turned her eyes on the Fire.

     “Yoshiki needs help, too. Hironah can’t be in two places at once.”

     “He has Sirrah.” Suddenly, her face screwed up with anger and her hands formed fists at her sides. “I just hate the way we’re all abandoning you. It’s because we’re afraid. But you must be afraid, too, and you’re doing it anyway. I know it’s easier on everyone just to let you and Seiken take all the responsibility… but it isn’t fair.”

     “It’s not all on our shoulders, Yume. I can ask for help if I need it, and I intend to. You’re not abandoning me or ignoring me by doing what I ask. Knowing that you’re keeping your parents and Taka safe will take an immense load off my mind. And I know that if the time comes, you’ll help keep Hironah safe so she can finish what I started.”

     “Caiaphas is going to kill you.” Yume fixed her eyes on Kaiya once again. With her quiet statement, she realized that she didn’t expect him to contradict her.

     His smile faded, and she watched him struggle for a moment.

     “Yeah, Yume, he probably will. But when he does, he’ll most likely have to give himself away. Perhaps I’ll even be able to discover his identity before then. It’ll be up to Hironah and you guys to see he’s stopped.”

     Yume nodded solemnly. When she spoke, her voice was strained.

     “I don’t know how I’m supposed to say goodbye to you, knowing that it’ll be forever.”

     “It doesn’t have to be.” His smile returned, soft and somewhat wistful. “It’s possible I’ll defeat Caiaphas myself. And besides, even death is usually only a temporary separation. Don’t be afraid, Yume. Hold your head up high, and be proud of the role you play in all this.”

     “I’ll try,” she whispered. She felt the sting of irony in her heart- all those years she’d spent wishing the others would treat her like a grown-up and tell her the truth… and now all she wanted was to plug her ears until Kaiya stood before her, reassuring her with beautiful lies.

 

     “Uneme.” Meena’s voice wafted through the door as it swung open.

     He sat in a non-descript room, a waiting area outside the large chamber that housed the Inner Council of the Musubiki. He was the only occupant of the row of stiff-backed chairs, and had been waiting there alone for almost an hour while the Musubiki’s inner circle debated. He’d given his testimony, pleaded his innocence in Mirai’s disappearance, then had been excused. As he sat alone, he wondered how the others fared at the Palace. He’d have preferred to go with them, but that of course was not an option. Quen had made that plain enough. Uneme rose at the sound of Meena’s voice. She and Quen entered the room together.

     “The Council has decided in your favor,” Meena informed the Angemal. “I really feel I ought to apologize for all the inconvenience Mirai’s caused you.”

     Uneme nodded.

     “You’re free to go. It’d probably be best if you returned to the temple and waited for the others. I do hope they’re faring well at the Palace.”

     “What’s to become of Mirai?”

     “She’ll be taken back into custody.”

     “I see… Tell me, will you bother to keep her alive now that she’s served her purpose, or shall she go the way of the other subjects?”

     “Is it your concern?” Meena countered, a coldness in her voice which reminded him strongly of her son.

     “In light of the fact that I was the one entrusted with her safety for well over a year, I’d say so.” Uneme’s eyes narrowed. “Regardless of what you’ve done to her, Mirai is a person. These are people you alter and kill. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that.”

     “I remember,” Meena’s voice was soft, far away. “I remember better than you’ll ever know.” She stiffened, an abrupt motion akin to that a soldier might make as he felt a gun against his back. “I’ll take my leave of you. Quen has something he needs to discuss. Good luck to you in the future, wherever your path may lead.”

     “And you as well,” he answered without warmth.

     Meena turned and left through the door where she’d entered. She didn’t look back.

     “Well?” Uneme looked impatiently at Quen.

     “You’re very lucky. There were some in the Council who were calling for your head.”

     “And you were one of them, I suppose.”

     “No. I believe you are innocent, unlike the time before.”

     “Ha, you still buy into that conspiracy theory? Why would I plot to have my own ward kidnapped and dumped in the bay? I’m a mercenary, Quen. Cushy babysitting gigs that pay well don’t come along every day. You honestly think I’d give that up to go back to risking my neck for peanuts? What would be my motivation for that?”

     “I have no idea. I only follow where the evidence leads.”

     “Whatever you say. Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?”

     “No. I have a warning.”

     “A warning, huh?”

     “Yes. I was informed by some of the Council members that a few of the specimens escaped during the Ghost Clan’s raid on the Zeit. There are some yet to be captured. Some are harmless, but a couple have been causing some problems northwest of here. I’d avoid that area.”

     “Thanks for the advice,” Uneme said emotionlessly.

     “Really, Uneme… At least one of them is quite dangerous.”

     “Looks like the Musubiki’s just got tons of problems these days. I’ll tell the others.”

     “All right.”

     “Bye, Quen. Have a nice life.” Uneme turned away. With his hand on the door, he spoke over his shoulder. “You ought to know, Quen, when you put Mirai to sleep like an unwanted dog, what you’re doing is wrong. I know you can’t tell the difference, but it is. And remember, it’ll be the same when the Musubiki decides to pull the plug on you. Your days are numbered. You should try to enjoy them, if you can even feel that much.”

     Quen said nothing in reply.

 

     Harata chose to meet with his visitors within the confines of his office, rather than within his home or that vast and overwhelming chamber used for official visits. The neutrality of the choice was not lost on Hironah, who stared now at the Emperor, thinking about how startlingly he’d changed from the man she remembered. He was dressed in a stuffy dark suit, a far cry from the customary casual attire he’d worn while visiting Kamitouki. Gone as well was his easy warrior’s grace, replaced by a rigidity of posture, nervous ticks. An index finger tapped softly on the surface of the huge desk behind which he sat. New lines had formed on his face, slowly obliterating those that had been drawn by years of smiles and laughter. His white forelock now faded into the darker hair on his head which was frosted with grey. He’d smiled only briefly at them when they’d entered- a perfunctory gesture- and regarded all five of the people before him as though they were strangers.

     The office appeared empty save for the six of them, but only Yume was fooled. Hironah knew there were guards hidden here as well, and that mirror in the gilded frame was more than for show. Anyone who thought to harm the Emperor in this place would be dead before he or she hit the floor.

     “The Empress was most insistent that I meet with you,” Harata informed them.

     “The Empress” Hironah noted, not “Kat”.

     “Yes, Your Highness,” Kaiya replied politely, bowing his head slightly as he spoke. “There’s a matter we need to discuss with some urgency.”

     “The return of Caiaphas?”

     “Yes.”

     “Well, say whatever it is you feel you have to.”

     Kaiya recounted their discovery of the Rift and his sojourn in Elysium while the Emperor listened in silence. Finally, when his tale had wound to a close, the Night’s Herald finished with a warning.

     “I can see that you’ve already heightened security here, but you must continue to be vigilant. Until Caiaphas is discovered and defeated, I fear that you and your family may become his targets.”

     “I thank you for your warning,” Harata spoke to Kaiya as though the younger man was a faceless messenger he’d never seen before. “If that will be all-”

     “Your Highness, if I may…” Kaiya cut in. “There are a few things I’d like to ask you.”

     “Yes?”

     “Well, for one thing, I’m a bit curious about what’s caused you to sequester yourself and your family. I only ask because I wonder if perhaps you’d been forewarned. Maybe you know something that would help me.”

     “I don’t,” Harata stated flatly. “The security here is a personal matter.”

     “Has someone threatened you?”

     The Emperor was silent, refusing to answer.

     “Please, if you tell us, maybe there’s something we can do to help.”

     “There’s nothing you can do. It’s no concern of yours.”

     Kaiya opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, Hironah spoke out abruptly.

     “I want to see my cousins.”

     “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”

     “Why not? I’ll come back later if this is a bad time.”

     “My family is not receiving guests.”

     Fury broke over Hironah, warming her blood, her face.

     “Your family? You are my family! What the hell’s wrong with you? Why did you just shut us out? How can you sit there right now and look at us like you don’t even know us? Shit…” her voice grew soft. “Blue’s dead. He died and you didn’t even care.”

     Harata only stared at her, shaking his head.

     “Why are you doing this?” she pleaded.

     “I’m sorry you’ve been affected this way, Hironah, but it can’t be helped.”

     “You…” She stood, and Kaiya reached out and laid his hand on her arm, afraid of what she might do. “Oh, to hell with this!”

     Hironah spun around and stalked out of the room.

     “I’d say our audience has come to a close,” Harata stated coldly. “The rest of you would do well to follow her.”

 

 

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