Kaiya was lying on his back. Overhead, a cloud drifted through the strikingly blue sky.

     “You see, Kaiya, our thoughts are like clouds. Our mind is the sky. When we meditate, at first our minds are cluttered with thoughts. We must let go of them, let them drift away… More thoughts will come, but those must float by as well, until our minds are without thought, free and open as the cloudless sky.”

     Another cloud drifted by, and with it a thought.

     Funny… I can’t breathe.

     The sky above was blocked abruptly by a dark shape. He tried to focus on it… something familiar.

     Hironah flung herself down beside him. She was repeating his name as though it were a litany. Her face filled his vision. As his eyes came to rest on hers, his expression relaxed into one of abject relief. With the passing of a few of his numbered heartbeats, it changed to a sorrowful resignation, the bittersweet devotion with which he’d lived his life. He tried in vain to speak to her, to tell her of the numerous clouds that tumbled in his mind, but his ruined, flooded lungs refused to take in any air. Still gazing at her, he realized that there was really only one thing that would sum up the storm of thoughts that entered and left his fading mind.

     She was pleading with him, a constant flow of garbled words he couldn’t understand. Occasionally, he made out “please” and “no” and “don’t”.

     Hironah fell silent as she felt Kaiya’s hand move beside her. She watched, wordless, as he fought against his broken body to trace out letters in the blood-soaked soil.

     I love you.

     She began to weep, turning back to look at his face. Her tears fell on his cheeks, but he was unaware of them.

     Hironah spun suddenly as someone approached.

     “Seiken!” She grabbed his shirt, dragging him to the ground. “Do something!”

     “I-I can’t.” His voice was choked, his eyes screwed tight shut, as though that would block out the truths whispered in his ears. “Hironah, he-”

     “You’re fucking useless!” Hironah yelled, shoving him. He stood and backed off a few paces, unaware that his eyes, streaming tears, lay directly on what remained of Kaiya. He was nearly in pieces, rent asunder by the teeth of his adversary. The dragon had tossed him, a discarded toy, and he’d landed just outside the stand of trees along the cliffs. His blood soaked the ground, leaking slowly now that his soul had fled his body, his wounded heart- curse of his otherwise happy existence- sitting still as a stone within his chest.

     “Hironah?” Uneme’s voice drifted from the trees.

     She watched him blankly for a moment as he approached at a sprint. Suddenly, she felt that she abhorred everything- the sky above, the body below, the sight of Seiken’s shameless tears, the sound of Uneme’s voice calling. As a pain the likes of which she’d never known pierced her soul, a sound broke from her throat, at first a low whine that erupted into a keening wail. It carried on and on.

 

     Panic erupted within as Yume pushed herself up from the ground. She had to find her brother, even if that meant finding that he was the one for whom Hironah mourned. She swayed in place, unsure if it was silent due to the buzzing in her ears. Lost in her terror, she tried to decide on a direction. Slowly, she turned in a circle on the spot. She saw the remains of the gargantuan dragon. Remembering that Yoshiki had been on the other side of it, she started off in that direction. What if it had fallen on him? She swallowed hard, her mouth terribly dry.

     A movement in the corner of her eye caused her to stop, to turn slightly. She closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. There he was. Yoshiki walked toward her, staggering slightly. He was death-pale, the trickle of blood that ran from his mouth not yet dry. He said nothing to her, simply took her in his arms, his head bowed over hers. After a moment, Yume felt his tears through her hair as they fell on her head. His sobs were broken by fits of coughing. As they clung to each other, she realized she no longer felt the need to ask him any questions. The answer had already come to her. She’d never before seen Yoshiki cry. 

 

     Tamaki sang softly to herself as she swept the immaculate cobblestones in the main courtyard of the small temple. She was here alone. Her master had taken the other, younger acolytes to Mianuus, where they would pray for the soul of Diasminion’s Crown Prince. Tamaki knew that many members of her Clan would be making the same journey. She didn’t regret being left behind. She planned on joining them in prayer from afar. The gods could hear her wherever she was, and that was what counted. Someone had to watch over the temple. As she cheerfully went about doing the numerous chores, she felt the weak warmth of the Black Sun. It was a beautiful day.

     The sound of the bell ringing at the temple gate broke her concentration on the repetitive motion she was making with the rustic broom. Still holding it, she hurried around the Reliquary and the Everlasting Fire to greet her visitor, whoever it might be. As she composed her face into what she hoped was an unharried, welcoming expression, she saw that the one who summoned her was a very tall young man with long yellow-blonde hair. He was pale, and had the downtrodden expression of one who has suffered a lifetime of troubles in a short span. Her calm look was replaced by one of concern and she quickened her pace.

     “What can I do for you?” she asked with a good deal of warmth.

     Tamaki watched as the young man slumped slightly. Something behind his ice-blue eyes seemed to crack. He stared at her blankly for a moment before his posture stiffened. He stood very straight and looked down at her and spoke in a dignified voice.

     “I need you to perform the Rites.”

     “I see,” she said softly. She looked past him. He was very much alone. “And the deceased?”

     “A few miles east. You can do it?”

     “Certainly.” Tamaki peered at the man. He looked awfully familiar. “May I have your name, please?”

     “Is it important?” he asked wearily.

     “Not really. I was just curious… Wait, I do know who you are.” She watched as the young man’s eyes flooded with shock, then panic. “Your name’s Yoshiki, right? You lead Sirrah.”

     He stared at her, hands twitching near well-used weapons.

     “I- I’ve seen you before,” she hurried to explain. “At Kamitouki.”

     His expression changed to one of scrutiny as he studied her face.

     “You were a student there?”

     “No, though I really wanted to be. I was only there once.” Tamaki lowered her eyes. “For Blue’s funeral. He was… well, he was kind of my hero,” she admitted bashfully. “I saw you there.”

     Yoshiki looked relieved.

     “What’s your name?” he asked.

     “Tamaki.”

     “Are you here all alone?”

     “Yeah. Everyone went to Mianuus.”

     She watched as the relief seemed to spread from his expression down through the remainder of his body.

     “You’re in a lot of trouble,” she observed quietly. “I saw on the news.”

     “Yeah,” was all he said, his tone non-committal.

     Tamaki studied Yoshiki further in the cold light of the Prime Sun. He seemed to be making a great effort to stand erect before her. He shook slightly. There were purple shadows beneath his eyes and his clothing was torn in places. He breathed as though it pained him to do so- short, ragged gasps.

     “Why don’t you come in?” she invited warmly.

     “I should go back, tell the others… and…” he trailed off.

     “Come in,” she repeated. “I’ll make you some tea. You’re not in any shape to go anywhere. I’ll go pick up the rest of your people. We’ve got a truck for things like this.”

     “How do I know you’re not going to just turn us in?” he asked skeptically.

     “You don’t,” she replied simply- a Night’s Herald’s answer. “But I’m not going to. I don’t believe you’re guilty. Let me help you. It would mean a lot to me.”

     Yoshiki looked at the young woman before him. She appeared to be in her twenties, dressed in the traditional garb of her Clan, including the colorful quilted jacket he’d seen others wearing in cold weather. She was small, the top of her head barely level with his shoulder. Tamaki had a soft, serene face, her mouth wide and smiling slightly. Her brown hair shone with golden highlights. It was gathered in a hurried bunch upon her head, strands sticking out willy-nilly all over the place. Her silvery-grey eyes held that placid look he’d come to associate with Blue, though at the moment they gazed upon him with a look of depthless compassion tempered with admiration. If she truly meant him kindness, he felt he wanted to sink into it, lose himself in the gentleness of this stranger. For a moment he fought against himself- against pain, exhaustion and sorrow. He fought and lost. He’d already made the decision to accept what little help might be offered. It was being offered tenfold of his expectations, but he was past the point of caution.

     “Lead the way.”

     She took him to a room within one of the dormitories. It was small and tidy, with rush-matted floors like the ones in Kamitouki. A kettle was already boiling on the fire.

     “This is my room,” she informed him. “Being the Head Apprentice has it perks.”

     She shuttered the windows, blocking out the sunlight. She then went about making the promised cup of tea. She set it before Yoshiki, who’d sank into one of the cushions on the floor.

     “Are you okay?” she asked with concern.

     “I’ll be alright. Broke some ribs.”

     “Did you run into the Guard?”

     “No. It was… something else.”

     Tamaki didn’t press him. It was one thing Yoshiki truly appreciated about Night’s Herald. They never asked for more than he was willing to give.

     “Give me the directions and I’ll go pick up your friends. You can stay here and get some rest. I’ll put up a sign that I’m out. No one will bother you. We don’t get many visitors here.”

     “Okay,” Yoshiki said softly.

     “Drink your tea,” Tamaki instructed as she opened the sliding door of a large closet and started pulling out bedding. Once she’d arranged it to her liking, she turned back to him. “Alright, tell me where to go and you can get some sleep. You look like you need it.”

     He nodded and told her how to reach the ill-fated field from the temple. She insisted he lie down, and when she was satisfied that he was comfortable, she turned to leave. As she was closing the door behind her, Yoshiki spoke again.

     “Tamaki?”

     “Yeah?”

     “Thank you.”

 

     In the aftermath of the disastrous struggle with the dragon, Yoshiki had stood for what felt like a long time wondering what the hell he should do. He watched the frantic motion all around him- Seiken rushing off to try to salvage Quen, Yume being violently sick at the edge of the smoldering trees, Uneme pleading with Hironah to look at him… Suddenly, it struck him. He felt empty, uncaring about much other than what he felt was the right thing to do, the next logical step in this painfully illogical spiral. He walked over to where Uneme ground his knees into the blood-soaked soil.

     “I’m going to find a temple,” he announced as soon as he reached the Angemal. Uneme gazed up at him.

     “Yoshiki-”

     “Kaiya needs the Rites. There’s gotta be a place around here.”

     “We can’t do that now. We have to get out of here. The Guard-”

     “I don’t care about the Guard. I’m going to find a temple.”

     “Look,” Uneme said gently. “You’re not thinking straight. I don’t blame you. Let this sink in a little-”

     “It’s not gonna sink in.”

     Uneme stood.

     “It will. Just… we can’t do anything about Kaiya now. He doesn’t need anything from us.”

     “It’s up to me to make that decision, not you. And I’m not about to just up and leave him here. He deserves better than that.”

     “Yoshiki-”

     “Shut up, Uneme. I’m telling you, not asking you. This is my family, and I’ll say what we need to do and what we don’t. Just because you’ve been hanging around for a couple of months doesn’t make you one of us.” Yoshiki looked at Hironah with disgust. “Neither does screwing my cousin.”

     “You can’t possibly think you’ll make it anywhere in the shape you’re in. Let me do it.”

     Let me do it.

     Yoshiki stared coldly at Uneme. For a few breaths, he stood hating the Angemal for all he was worth. How did this work out? How could this man stand before him with nary a scratch while Kaiya lay dead at his feet? Why hadn’t Kaiya just let Uneme go in his place? Yoshiki already knew the answer, and it lay with Hironah. Furious, he tried to take a deep breath, but found the sharp pain in his sides too much.

     “It’s my job. I’ll take care of it. You stay here and keep an eye on everyone else. Yume’s hurt. Make sure Seiken takes a look at her as soon as he can.”

     “I will.”

     Yoshiki looked down at Hironah who had neither spoken nor moved since she’d ceased her abominable wailing. He thought about trying to say something to comfort her, but instead he turned and walked away, shaking his head.

 

     Yume waited in misery for her brother to return. Nothing was okay. Her head throbbed and her stomach felt like a nest of writhing snakes. She’d tried in vain to speak to Hironah, who paid absolutely no attention to her. Yoshiki had begged her not to look at Kaiya, but she did anyway, which resulted in another bout of vomiting. Uneme tried to say something comforting, but she didn’t feel much like hearing him. She decided against going anywhere near Seiken and Quen. All she wanted was for her brother to return. After an hour, she began to wonder if that was ever going to happen.

     She looked up at Uneme’s shout of,

     “Incoming!”

     A battered truck was bouncing through the field. Uneme drew his gun and took aim, ready to blow the brains out of its driver. However, whoever it was behind the wheel stuck her body out of the window, waving frantically. She was calling Uneme’s name. He held his fire, but did not holster his weapon. Yume dragged herself up to get a better view of the commotion. The truck rolled to a stop and a young woman jumped out. She didn’t seem particularly surprised that there was a gun pointed at her face.

     “You don’t need to shoot me,” she informed Uneme. “I’m Tamaki. Yoshiki sent me to pick you up. He’s back at the temple.” Her eyes shifted to Yume and she smiled reassuringly. “He’s alright. I thought he ought to lie down is all. You’re his sister, right?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Well, let’s get you guys outta here. How many of you are there?”

     “Six,” Yume answered quickly. Then, with a pained expression, she amended, “Uh, five.”

     Tamaki patted her arm gently.

     “Okay.” Her grey eyes were soft and serene. “Why don’t you go sit in the cab? You look a bit rough.”

     Yume opened her mouth to argue, but found she didn’t feel like it.

     “Uh-huh,” she replied dejectedly and went to wait in the truck. Tamaki turned her attention to Uneme.

     “Have you got a blanket?”

     “Yeah, but-”

     “Bring me one.”

     “What for?”

     “We have to move the body. Go get it, please.”

     Uneme said nothing more, but moved toward where their bikes were parked out of reach of the trees that still smoldered. Tamaki turned to look down at the remains of the young man on the ground. He was Night’s Herald, like her, his odd-colored eyes gazing blankly toward the sky. She recognized him as Blue’s apprentice. They’d spoken briefly after the funeral. She remembered him as being warm and kind, though sorrowful- not surprising under the circumstances. Tamaki knelt and reached out to close his staring eyes. As she did so, the woman who crouched beside him reached out suddenly and shoved her. She pitched backwards and landed on her rear. The black-haired woman covered Kaiya’s body and glared at her defensively.

     At twenty-six, and having been the Head Apprentice at her small temple for nearly ten years, Tamaki had plenty of experience dealing with the bereaved. She righted herself slowly, her eyes still locked on the woman who stared back.

     “Hironah,” she said softly. “Let me take care of him.”

     Hironah continued to stare, saying nothing. With excruciating slowness, Tamaki stood and moved to crouch beside her. Gently, she laid her hands over Hironah’s. She guided them back, placed them on her own lap, never breaking eye contact.

     “He needs to meet his Guide,” she said quietly. “We don’t want him lost, now do we?”

     Hironah remained silent.

     “Will you let me help him? He needs you. Let’s go to the temple. You can be his Witness if you want. Alright?”

     Though Hironah didn’t answer, she lowered her eyes. Cautiously, Tamaki reached out to touch Kaiya’s still form. Hironah didn’t move. Silently, Tamaki closed his eyes for him. She looked up and noticed Uneme approaching, carrying the blanket she’d asked for. She had sheets in the truck, of course. She simply hadn’t wanted the Angemal hovering around. Hironah watched, mute, as the two of them carefully moved Kaiya’s remains onto the blanket and carried it to the truck. Uneme was surprised at the small woman’s strength. Once they finished their grim task, Tamaki addressed him.

     “Is everyone ready to leave?”

     “Seiken said five more minutes. I don’t know why he’s even bothering. Quen’s not even-”

     “He’s doing what he’s doing.” Tamaki cut him off. “I’ll go see if he needs a hand. You get Hironah to the truck.”

     Uneme sighed.

     “You got it.”

 

     Yoshiki stood silently in the corner of the room and realized that he’d lost count of the number of times he’d done this- served as Witness to a fallen friend. Through the years, Sirrah had lost quite a few of their members to their numerous enemies, though they were rarely defeated. Sometimes a closer friend or comrade would assume the duty, but frequently the responsibilities of the Witness fell on Yoshiki’s shoulders. Each and every time it had been Kaiya who’d performed the Preparation, even in cases where Yoshiki was absent. It had been he who’d taught the younger man to do this difficult task.

     Yoshiki looked back with bitterness over the swath of death and destruction carved through his life. In that respect he’d far surpassed his parents, who had nothing left to teach him on the subject. When the time came, it would be he who would instruct them on the intricacies of an intimate funeral. He realized that he knew nothing of the Rites of birth or marriage. At that moment, he had the chilling thought that such knowledge would forever elude him. Long ago he’d turned his soul over to the shadowy hands of death. He’d pinned his hopes on Yume- her success and happiness, her fertile life, had been the only window of light to which he could turn for comfort.

     Tamaki had nearly finished the Preparation. She bound Kaiya’s body in cloth, starting at his feet and working up, murmuring the prayers that would free his soul from its worldly form that it might sail heavenward on the smoke of the pyre in the Final Release. It was not an easy feat. Kaiya had once explained to Yoshiki, after a particularly difficult Preparation, that badly mutilated bodies required a lot of care. They must be made as intact as possible, lest the soul miss some overlooked part and cling to it, refusing to leave. Part of the duty of the Witness was to be sure that the Night’s Herald who performed the Rites missed nothing, was diligent and respectful of the shell from which the soul must be coaxed.

     At first Yoshiki had watched Tamaki with extreme caution, but came to relax as he realized he had nothing to worry about. She performed the Rites with as much attention to detail as Kaiya had himself, and with a tenderness that Yoshiki hadn’t expected. It seemed as though she commuted all their love for Kaiya through her hands as she worked, her face serene, every motion a study in peace. It was only near the end, before she bound his head, that Yoshiki noticed Tamaki’s expression cloud. She gazed at Kaiya’s face for a moment, her countenance inscrutable. He wanted to ask her what she was thinking about, but knew he was forbidden to speak. Instead, he held his tongue and watched as she finished her work, winding the cloth around and forever obscuring the face of the man who’d been so many things to Yoshiki- surrogate brother, guide, idol, conspirator and sympathetic ear.

     Tamaki turned to Yoshiki and spoke the words of the ancient ritual.

     “He is now free to begin his journey.”

     “As I have Witnessed,” he replied almost robotically.

     “What words shall he carry?”

     “Go Kaiya,” Yoshiki whispered, voice cracking. “Don’t look back.”

     “And thus we shall release him to the Cycle.”

 

     Kaiya’s funeral was a somber, silent affair. There was no pomp; no speeches to celebrate his life, no crowds of mourners to bid him farewell. His shrouded body was borne to the pyre by Yoshiki, Yume, Uneme and Seiken. Each paused to murmur their goodbyes. Uneme and Yoshiki returned to the pyre with Hironah, who said not a word, but stared at the shrouded form, tears coursing down her cheeks. All but Uneme and Tamaki cried without shame, weeping as much for themselves as for the man whose days had come to an end.

     As the suns descended into night, Tamaki spoke the final words of the Rites. Hironah’s eyes never left Kaiya’s body, even after it had been set ablaze with the flame of the temple’s Everlasting Fire. She stared at him as he burned, her expression a blank wall. After all these years and all her childish frustrations, she finally felt she could sympathize with Takae. People had been speaking to her all day, but she couldn’t bring herself to answer them. At times she wanted to speak, but couldn’t drive the words up from her gut and out her mouth. She was guided and prodded in different directions, simply going where she was told. She felt Uneme’s hand on her arm, restraining her slightly. She knew what he was afraid of- that she would, in her despair, throw herself upon the pyre to join Kaiya in death. She wanted to reassure him, but couldn’t force the phrases into being. Instead she stood and stared, incapable of independent motion.

     It wasn’t until sometime near dawn, when the last ember finally flickered out, that Hironah’s head fell.

 

     “Seiken, get some sleep before you pass out, man.”

     Yoshiki thumped the Decameron affectionately on the shoulder. Seiken tried to smile in response, but nothing more appeared on his face than a pained grimace. He looked terrible, but Yoshiki figured he probably didn’t look much better himself.

     “I’ll keep an eye on Quen for you. If anything happens, it’s not like you’ve got far to go.”

     All six of them were holed up in Tamaki’s room on the grounds of the small temple. She’d made the place as comfortable as possible, scrounging around for extra bedding and bringing them a variety of books and magazines. The floor was now littered with blankets and pillows and discarded clothing. Hironah slept soundly in one corner. Uneme sat beside her, cleaning a pistol. Yume had her nose stuck in a book. She rarely turned the pages, as she constantly lost her concentration on the words. Despite the cramped conditions of the room, there was a good deal of space around Quen. He lay on his side with his face to the wall, though Yoshiki suspected he was awake. None of them seemed to have much to say to him, though in reality their minds buzzed with hundreds of questions. Yoshiki planned on getting some answers.

     As soon as he was sure that the exhausted Seiken had drifted off to sleep, Yoshiki crept up to Quen and peered at him. His eyes were open, staring hard at a spot on the wall. Yoshiki sat down beside him.

     “Hey man,” he said quietly.

     “Hey,” was the sullen reply.

     “I’m really sorry about your arm.”

     Quen shrugged, then winced in pain. At a loss for how to proceed, Yoshiki fell silent. He was tired. He’d been up late the night before, attempting to comfort Yume, who kept waking up every half-hour or so from nightmares. It wasn’t until Tamaki had finally come in for the night that he’d been able to get any sleep himself. His broken ribs, though bound skillfully by Seiken, ached abominably.

     At least I didn’t end up like this guy.

     In addition to a number of more minor injuries, Quen’s left arm had been entirely ripped from its socket. Under different circumstances, Seiken might have been able to re-attach it with some degree of success. However, the Decameron had explained desolately, he didn’t have the foggiest idea how to proceed. Seiken’s blindness was not the problem. Quen was the problem.

     Miserable and frustrated, Yoshiki found he didn’t have the will to contain his questions any longer.

     “How come you didn’t just tell us you’re a robot?” he blurted.

     “I’m not a robot,” Quen sulked.

     “Then what are you?”

     “I’m an android.”

     “Same thing.”

     “It is not the same thing.” Yoshiki nearly giggled at Quen’s petulant tone. “I’m not an automaton. I am equipped to function entirely independently of my creators. My programming allows me nearly two-hundred-fifty trillion constituents and a range of cerebral activity that-”

     “Right, right. My mistake,” Yoshiki interrupted. “Point is, why didn’t you just say so?”

     “I couldn’t. I’m an experiment. Meena was testing me in the field to see whether or not she’d finally succeeded in creating a prototype that would be able to function at a reasonable level among regular people. In other words, an android indistinguishable from a human being.” After a few seconds, he added, “I failed.”

     “Well, no one can really blame you under the circumstances. It’d be pretty hard to hide the truth after this.”

     “No. I was deemed a failure by the Musubiki’s Inner Council after Mirai’s hearing. They found me inadequate.”

     “How come?”

     “It was obvious to them, given the data that Meena and I had collected during my time with you, that my inability to interact with humans on an empathic level was a fatal flaw. Meena insists that such behavior can be learned. She might’ve been able to take me back and retrain me based on the knowledge we’ve gathered, then release me to a new group of subjects who were unaware of my previous flaws. Now that’s most assuredly out of the question.”

     “Because we know what you are?”

     “Pretty much.”

     “What’s gonna happen to you now?” Yoshiki suddenly felt very possessive of Quen, worried for him now that he understood the reason for his strange behavior.

     “Most likely my body will be reclaimed for spare parts. The organic matter will be incinerated, of course.”

     “Meena wouldn’t do that to you!” Yoshiki exclaimed. “She made you in her image. She even called you her son-”

     “Merely as a matter of convenience. Though, ironically enough, the organic parts of my body are vastly comprised of her DNA.”

     “And the rest?” Yoshiki was now completely absorbed in curiosity.

     “Take a wild guess,” Quen answered slyly.

     “You have got to be kidding me.”

     “I’m not. Meena had ample… opportunity, let’s call it, to collect samples. In some ways, Hironah and I are as related as you’d speculated.”

     “Holy crap.” Yoshiki’s eyes were wide as saucers. “This is kinda nuts, man.”

     Quen smiled smugly.

     “So… Mirai knew all this?”

     “Not all of it, but more than enough to get herself into trouble.”

     “I wish she’d told us,” Yoshiki said with regret. “You didn’t get pulled into the Rift on account of not being human… Not to offend or anything, but you haven’t got a soul, so that’s why you got left behind.”

     “Yep.”

     Yoshiki shook his head.

     “Gods, I wish we’d known. That one was driving Kaiya up a wall.”

     “I couldn’t tell you. I’m not surprised you mistrusted me, but I did tell you there was a good reason.”

     “It was really distracting him, though.” Yoshiki sighed. “He could’ve made a lot more headway without that to think about. And now he’s gone… All we’ve got to go on is what little he did figure out.”

     “I’m sorry about Kaiya,” Quen’s voice was slightly muffled as he turned his face further from Yoshiki’s. “I can’t feel it myself, but I do know how badly you all must hurt.”

     “Thanks for the sympathy,” Yoshiki replied somewhat coldly. “I’ll let you get back to sleep.”

     He rose and walked over to where Yume had given up entirely on the book and was valiantly fighting against the tears that stung her eyes.

 

     “Yoshiki?” Tamaki called tentatively, peering through the crack she’d opened in the sliding door. He looked up at her from where he sat. “Can I borrow you for a minute?”

     “Sure,” he attempted to sound bright and willing, but was unsure whether or not he’d succeeded.

     He followed her out into the hall and to another room, this one larger and obviously shared by several people. It was chilly from a lack of recent habitation.

     “It’s going to snow pretty soon,” Tamaki commented, noticing his shiver. “You can sit down.”

     He did so, and she sat as well, facing him.

     “How’s everyone holding up?” the Night’s Herald inquired.

     “We’ve all been better, that’s for sure.” Yoshiki shook his head.

     “Are you okay?” Tamaki’s gaze took on a worried cast.

     “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He didn’t want to tell her that he was in pain, exhausted, and bowled over by despair.

     “There’s an investigation on in Mianuus. I’m hoping that you guys will be cleared soon, but until then… I think you should stay here.”

     “You think you’re gonna be able to hide us from everyone else when they get back?”
Tamaki laughed, an unexpectedly clear sound.

     “Of course not, but my master will agree to help you.”

     “Are you sure? If you’re not, we have to get out of here. We could end up getting killed.”

     “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll be willing to help you. I wouldn’t have you here now if I thought otherwise.”
“What makes you so sure?” Yoshiki eyed her skeptically. She smiled softly in return.

     “Let’s just say I know some stuff. I’m gonna have to ask for your faith on this one. I promise no one will turn you in.”

     “You swear?”

     “On my honor,” Tamaki replied solemnly.

     “Why are you helping us?” He asked abruptly.

     “Partly just cause you need me to… And,” she looked away, stains of crimson on her cheeks, “I really admire you. I always wished I could be a student at Kamitouki, and… well…” She trailed off, gnawing her lip.

     “Yeah?”

     “I always wanted to meet you,” Tamaki spent another moment bashfully avoiding his gaze before she looked back at him. Her face had fallen into an expression of sympathy and concern. “But not like this.”

     “I can’t believe this is happening,” Yoshiki whispered. “I feel like someone just came along and turned the world on its head. Everything good and solid and reliable is disappearing. I feel like no matter how hard I try, everything I love is coming crashing down all around me. I don’t think there’s any way I’m gonna be able to handle this.”

     Tamaki regarded him silently for a few moments before speaking.

     “These revolutions in our lives can sometimes feel insurmountable. I guess what we really need to keep in mind is that even a change for the very worst will also eventually turn into something else.”

     “No amount of change is gonna bring Kaiya back.”

     “No, no it won’t… But we’ve given him back to the Cycle. He’ll have another chance, just like you will someday.”

     “There was just so much he was meant to do, so many things he didn’t finish. It almost seems impossible- how could he be gone right in the middle of all this? What’s going to happen to us now that he’s not around to help us anymore? It felt sometimes like he carried us all, but now that we’ve been dropped we’re all just sitting on our asses going ‘what now?’ I can’t really get my head around it.”

     “I’m so sorry this happened to you.”

     As Yoshiki looked at Tamaki’s grave and compassionate expression, he thought suddenly of Meela. He realized that he hadn’t had much time to spare for her memory in recent days. She’d been pushed out of his mind by more pressing troubles. He knew that, if she were here, they would not be having this conversation. He wouldn’t be able to glean any sympathy from her. The stranger before him did more to ease the sting of his loss than Meela ever would. Perhaps it was because Tamaki was a stranger that this could be, he pondered.

     Yoshiki had met Meela several years before, while they were still students before he’d dropped out of University. While at first their relationship had been a source of dangerous excitement for her- of living life purely in the moment- as she’d grown and settled into her humdrum life as an art teacher, her attitude had changed. Their lives had grown apart as he became ever more involved in Sirrah. She insisted that she still cared for him, and that was the reason she begged him to give up his violent days as an outlaw and settle down. In their most recent argument, she’d fumed at him tearfully,

     “You just don’t get it, do you? You think all this fighting is your fate, your responsibility. You don’t understand at all that you’re only bringing it on yourself. It’ll take the death of someone that you really love before you realize that you’re making a mistake.”

     “I’m not making any mistake, Meela,” he’d answered. “Someone has to protect people like you- people who can’t protect themselves.”

     “From what? If all you pig-headed jerks would stop running around shooting things, none of the rest of us would have to worry.”

     “It doesn’t work like that.”

     “It could. I swear, Yoshiki- the day that Renta or Hironah or Kaiya winds up dead, don’t come crying to me. You won’t get my sympathy. You did it to yourselves.”

     He’d never been able, even in the earliest days of their relationship, to make her understand that it had been fear of losing the ones he loved that had made him pick up a gun in the first place.

     Yoshiki studied Tamaki in the afternoon light that streamed through the window, which unlike her own hadn’t been shuttered. There was no comparing her to Meela, really. The Corduran woman was tall and lean, with perfectly proportioned curves. Her shining chestnut locks were long and wavy, always immaculately groomed. The proportionate, aquiline set of her nose was accented by jade-green eyes and a full and often pouting mouth. Beside her, the Night’s Herald would look dumpy and country-fried with her sun-freckled skin and slightly gap-toothed smile. Yet while there had always been an aloofness to Meela’s beauty, a coldness in her long-lashed eyes that spoke of her strict “me first” policy in life, Tamaki sat before him, barely known, but looking like her heart was breaking right along with his.

     When he hadn’t spoken, Tamaki reached over and gently touched his arm.

     “I’ll do all I can to help you,” she said quietly. After a beat, she brightened. “I’ll start by getting dinner ready.”

     She stood quickly, and bent to help him when she saw him struggle. His first instinct was to pull away from her, but he allowed himself the brief comfort of her touch.

     “I really hope I can trust you,” he said. “If not, and you end up getting all our butts thrown in jail, I’ll get you back- even if it’s from Pandemonium’s darkest depths.”

     Tamaki laughed again.

     “That’s not possible, Yoshiki.”

     “Oh, it’s possible. Far more possible than you’d ever believe.”

 

 

Want to comment? Visit this chapter on WordPress! Click here.