“I can’t help but feel like I’m abandoning you here,” Yoshiki said quietly to Yume as he checked his bags for a final time.

     “I know that’s how you feel, but we’ve both got things we have to do. You’ve gotta go, Yoshiki. I understand that.”

     “I’m really proud of you, Sis. You’re doing the right thing.”

     “I wish Mom agreed,” she replied sullenly.

     “I can’t blame her for wanting you guys to go to their place. In some ways it does seem like it’d be easier. You’d have less on your plate anyway.”

     “Tamaki says Hironah will get over this faster being here, and I’ll have Uneme to help keep an eye on her. We’ll be okay.”

     “Gods, I hope she hasn’t cracked up permanently. Tamaki keeps telling me it isn’t like that, she’ll go back to normal one of these days… but, I dunno.” He shook his head. “Honestly, I’ll be glad to get out of here. I hate the way this place makes me feel. I keep looking for people who aren’t here anymore. I turn corners and expect to run into Blue or Kaiya or Uncle Taka- even Hironah’s here but she isn’t. I hate all the memories floating around. I don’t know how you can stand it.”

     “I promised,” Yume said quietly. “I told Kaiya I’d watch over Hironah when the time came that he couldn’t. When it gets tough to be around, I just remind myself of that.”

     “I’ll come back as soon as I can- with Renta, of course.”

     “Good luck, Yoshiki.”

     “I’d better go say goodbye to Hironah and make sure everyone’s ready to leave. See you out front.” He patted her on the arm as he left the room.

     Yume didn’t follow him, instead choosing to stand alone in the guest room beside the bedroom that had been Blue and Takae’s. She tried to tell herself that the lingering smell of acrid smoke was in her imagination. Though they’d managed to contain the blaze before it spread through the rafters to the remainder of the house, both Kaiya’s and Hironah’s rooms had been destroyed in the fire. After spending a few days in the student’s dormitories, Hironah and her guests had moved back into the house. Bel had assured Yoshiki that Hironah’s room would be rebuilt in the spring. Kaiya’s would not.

     “Hironah doesn’t want to,” Bel explained. “It’s her house now. She can do what she wants with it.”

     Yume shuddered at the memory of Yoshiki dragging Hironah from the burning building. She kicked and fought against him, screaming and sobbing. Once outside and restrained, she’d fallen in a heap on the ground and lay motionless while everyone else struggled to put out the flames.

     Yoshiki was returning to Sirrah, taking most of the others with him. Only Yume, Uneme and Hironah would remain behind. There had been a long debate over what to do with Hironah, who was obviously incapable of taking care of herself. Yoshiki had felt it was best to take her along to Sirrah’s headquarters, where she would be well guarded, sending Yume home to their parents. Renta had silently agreed, not wishing to distress his best friend further. However, Quen had no such worry.

     “She’ll be a liability. I know you think you need to protect Hironah out of loyalty, but you have Sirrah’s welfare to consider as well.”

     “She can’t be left alone like this,” Yoshiki retorted. “Caiaphas is out there somewhere, and there’s nothing she can do if he shows up looking for her.”

     “I can stay here with her,” Yume offered.

     “Of course, I would be willing to stay as well,” Uneme put in. “Though I do think your fears are a bit unfounded.”

     “Why’s that?” Yoshiki asked, his tone slightly hostile.

     “I don’t believe Caiaphas has any reason to bother with Hironah. From all accounts, he was a very focused man. He’ll be concentrating on his plans. Hironah’s no threat to him.”

     “But Kaiya said-”

     “We must keep in mind that Caiaphas did nothing to harm Kaiya. His death was an accident of fate.”

     The group at the table fell into an awkward silence. After a time, Yoshiki looked squarely into Uneme’s eyes.

     “You promise to protect her?”

     “With my life,” Uneme answered solemnly. “Surely it must be obvious that I want nothing more than Hironah’s health, safety and happiness. Yume and I will take care of her. Put your mind at ease.”

     Yume had been surprised that her brother hadn’t pressured her to return home. Though her parents had later begged her to move Hironah into their house, Yoshiki had supported her decision to remain at Kamitouki. They didn’t discuss his unusual acceptance. Yume just assumed there were far too many problems on his mind.

     With a sigh, she turned and left the room, wandering through the house until she found herself outside. There she saw Tamaki, Renta, Seiken and Quen loading their gear and clothing onto the motorcycles parked on the cobblestones. Renta broke from the others and approached her.

     “Yoshiki’s gone to talk to Hironah and Uneme,” Yume informed him. “He’ll be out in a couple of minutes.”

     “Alright.” He looked at her sincerely. “You take good care of yourself, kiddo.”

     “I will. You take care of yourself, too. And Yoshiki. He needs you now more than ever.”

     “I’ll watch out for him. Don’t worry. We’ll all feel better in a couple of months, you’ll see.”

     “I really hope so.”

     Renta drew her close and hugged her tightly.

     “Clan Angemal believes that grief comes in threes, love. You can rest easy. You’ve had your three, so you’re not due again for a while.”

     “We’ll see.”

     Once Yoshiki had emerged from the house, those that were departing said their goodbyes. Yume watched as they rode away, forcing herself to smile as she waved them on. They’d been out of sight for a long while before she turned and reentered the cold and lonely house.

 

    Seiken leaned huddled against the rough bark of a pine tree. He shivered and his nose was running. He was aware that it had grown dark. The cold was terrible, but he felt that it was more bearable than all the clamor and noise within the converted warehouse that was Sirrah’s headquarters. He couldn’t seem to find a quiet corner in the entire building. Besides, he told himself repeatedly, it wasn’t all that different from other winters spent wandering the countryside while unemployed.

     Yet it was different, in many ways. Seiken thought bitterly that he’d give anything to return to earlier days, a time in which he did not bear the burdens of these latter months. Not smallest among them was the perpetual darkness that had enclosed him, which he couldn’t quite assimilate. Though far more painful even than that was Kaiya’s loss, a blow Seiken felt he’d never shake. Under the influence of that unlikely friendship, the Decameron had begun to open up, reveal himself and discover a path away from all the fears he’d carried for so long. The others, distracted as they were, hadn’t seemed to notice the frailty and terror that had crept back into his actions and his words. The greatest fear that Seiken hid had come to pass. Wounded, he pulled back within himself, taught by circumstance that it was easier to remain silent and alone.

     “There you are!” A familiar voice called somewhere off to his left. “I’ve been looking all over for you. What are you doing out here? It’s freezing!”

     “Hey, Tamaki,” was all he said in reply, his voice sullen. He listened as her footsteps drew nearer, crunching through fallen leaves and pine needles. He wondered again what she looked like. The Elementals had described her, but there was no true substitute for the actual sight of someone previously unknown. In his mind she was a conglomeration of a multitude of other women that he’d known, but he had no way of knowing the accuracy of his composite.

     “By all the gods, Seiken! How long have you been out here? You look awful!”

     “Few hours.”

     “Come inside. You’re gonna freeze to death.”

     “I- I don’t really want to. It’s… it’s kinda noisy.”

     “Please, come in. We can go sit in Yoshiki’s studio. It’s not so loud in there.”

     “I dunno, Tamaki.”

     “He won’t mind. He asked me to talk to you, anyway. He won’t care if we do it in there.”

     “T-talk to me? About what?” Seiken’s tremulous voice turned skeptical.

     “I’ll tell you- after you agree to come inside. I’m cold, too.”

     “Alright.” He rose stiffly, realizing that the Night’s Herald probably wouldn’t be willing to leave him be. There was no sense in being stubborn. She’d only have to suffer with him.

     He followed the sound of her footsteps trough the surrounding woods and up the path to Sirrah’s headquarters. Once inside, he was hit with a wave of warmth and noise. Tamaki took him by the hand and wove through the building to the relative calm of the studio. Had he been able to look upon its contents, Seiken would surely have frozen a moment in awe, as Tamaki had done the first time she’d entered.

     Though Yume had repeatedly insisted that her brother was a talented artist, Yoshiki had laughingly waved her off each and every time.

     “It’s really nothing more than a hobby,” he’d explained to Tamaki. “If I was really so good at it, why wouldn’t I be doing that for a living instead of shooting people?”

     As a result, the Night’s Herald had been completely unprepared for what she found inside the room when Yoshiki showed it to her. It smelled strongly of a dizzying mix of oils and turpentine and was filled with both paintings and sculptures, some of them shrouded in cloth. The peace that permeated the place, that radiated from the subjects on the canvases or carved in stone threw her. As she gazed at landscapes and numerous figures in repose, she realized how little she knew about the young man who’d created them with such attention to detail and careful rendering. She’d wanted to look at him, but found it too difficult to tear her eyes from the unexpected beauty all around her.

     Seiken was, of course, unaffected.

     “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” he asked with hesitant curiosity as they sat down upon a battered chaise.

     “Yoshiki explained to me what you guys were doing before we met.”

     “Yeah…”

     “He told me about Caiaphas and what he did to Blue. Yoshiki feels like it’s his responsibility to see to it that something’s done, but…”

     “He has no idea what to do,” Seiken finished for her.

     “He feels pretty powerless. He’s asked me to help.” When Seiken didn’t reply, she continued. “To start with, he’s asked me to talk to you about what you know.”

     “I can’t talk about that, to you or anyone else.”

     “But you did talk to Kaiya. Yoshiki told me you two had plans. You were going to help him.”

     Seiken shook his head.

     “That was… different…”

     “How?” Tamaki scrutinized Seiken’s downcast face.

     “I- I couldn’t tell him anything more than I can tell you. He… he just kinda figured things out.”

     “Maybe I could, too.”

     “I dunno…” Hastily, the Decameron continued. “I’m not saying you’re not smart or anything- just maybe he could think of so many answers cause he already knew so much about the situation.”

     “Perhaps a fresh perspective-”

     “Perhaps I don’t want to help you.”

     “What?” Tamaki straightened, taken aback.

     “You heard me.”

     “But- but why not?”

     “Why should I? What do I even have to do with any of this? I’ve lost enough. As soon as I have the chance, I’m telling Yoshiki that I’m leaving.”

     Shocked by the anger in Seiken’s words, Tamaki sat silent. She hadn’t expected this, not from the quiet, cringing Decameron. Yoshiki had been confident that he’d not only be willing to help, he’d be eager to. From Yoshiki’s perspective, Seiken had no reason to do anything else. Faced with the exposure of his hidden fury, Tamaki decided it might be better to follow the path where his words led, rather than redirect him to the argument that loomed.

     “Where will you go?” she asked, her voice carefully concerned.

     “Anywhere,” he gestured vaguely. “I’ll just go back to being a Wanderer.” He laughed bitterly. “Though I doubt it’ll be easy to find work now.”

     “What’ll happen to you if you can’t?”

     “What do you think?” He sighed. “It doesn’t matter to me anymore, anyways.”

     “Gods, Seiken! I didn’t know you felt like this.”

     When he didn’t answer her, she went on.

     “Maybe you should give yourself some more time. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in your position, but do you really think it’s worth throwing your life away?”

     “What life? I have a choice, Tamaki. I can leave now, give up and keep as little of myself as I’ve managed to retain, or I can stay here. If I stay, Yoshiki will insist that I be of some use to him, and I’ll just continue to lose things. I can’t win either way. I’ve already been destroyed. The day I walked into Kamitouki, everything changed. I’m never going to be what I was.” Overcome by his own righteous anger and despair, Seiken found he couldn’t hold back his words. “I was innocent! I was the only one of all of them that could’ve walked away. I curse the day I set foot in that place.”

     “But Blue chose you, Seiken. He must’ve had a reason.” Tamaki’s voice was soft.

     “He made a mistake,” the Decameron replied harshly. “He should’ve told someone else.”

     “Regardless, he chose to tell you. You’re the only one who knows it all.”

     “I’m well aware of that.”

     Sighing, the Night’s Herald looked down at her hands folded in her lap.

     “I know you’re angry. I can’t blame you. If all this had happened to me, maybe I’d even feel the same way. But if you leave now, you’ll have this burden hanging over you for however long you continue to exist. If you really believe that you’ve lost either way, why not see it through? At least then you can have the peace of knowing that it’s over.”

     “It never should’ve been at all.”

     “But it is. You can’t do anything to change that now, Seiken.”

     The Decameron was silent for a long time. Tamaki rose and moved slowly around the studio, scrutinizing the artwork, seeking out favorites. A moment of fear and frustration crossed over her as she thought of Yoshiki’s disappointment in her failure to glean anything from Seiken. She allowed the feelings to flare and pass, letting herself become absorbed in the peace of the subjects around her. When Seiken finally spoke again, her back was to him, and she barely caught his words until she turned around.

     “Don’t involve yourself with this, Tamaki. Go home. You’re only going to end up like me if you don’t.”

     “I have no intention of running away from this. I’ve already made my choice. Yoshiki’s asked for my help and he’s going to get it.”

     “You’re setting yourself up for nothing more than pain. Please, just go home.”

     “I’m aware of what I’m doing,” Tamaki replied quietly. “If you’d help me, maybe it’ll work out.”

     “I don’t think it will.”

     “You know who Caiaphas is.”

     “Yeah, yeah I do,” he said heavily. “Go home, Tamaki. Forget this ever happened.”

     “I can’t.” Seiken listened knowingly to the break in the Night’s Herald’s voice.

     “Fall in love with somebody else.”

     “You know as well as I do how possible that would be.”

     “Yeah. I know.” His voice was nearly a whisper.

     “Will you at least think about helping me? Give it a couple of days?”

     Exhausted by the weight of his emotions, Seiken quietly replied,

     “Yeah, I’ll think it over.”

     “Thanks, Seiken.”

     “Can I- can I go now?”

     “Sure. Just please don’t go back outside, okay?”

     “All right.”

     Tamaki helped the Decameron navigate his way out of the cluttered room. As she watched him shuffle away down the hall, she made a mental note to ask the others what they knew of him. Expecting easy answers, she’d come to the table this time pitifully unarmed.

 

     “Come in,” Yoshiki’s voice called, muffled by the door.

     Renta entered quickly, closing the door behind him.

     “Juriaan said you wanted me.”

     “Yeah, I was just going over the stuff recon got on our boys from the Ghost Clan’s HQ. It’s not so much fun to look at this shit alone.” Yoshiki forced at grin, the scar on his cheek twisting. The smile quickly collapsed.

     “What’s the matter?” Renta eyed his friend with concern.

     “You can take a gander at this guy’s list of known associates and tell me. We’ll test your powers of observation.”

     Yoshiki tossed a few sheets of stapled paper to Renta, who sat down on the creaky bed to read them. Yoshiki was sitting at his desk, a large, industrial steel affair, complete with peeling enamel, rust and an old, wobbly chair. All of the furniture in the building had been scavenged, and had a trademark look of shabbiness about it. Members of Sirrah jokingly referred to the décor as “vigilante chic”.

     Renta scanned the pages of names, which included occupations and areas of residence for those listed. The man to whom they were all in some way associated was one of those that had been killed by Hironah’s group. He’d once been a powerful man, and had still been a Senator with a base in the northern city of Kitaka’en. Most of the names on the list were fellow Empirians and GelbFausts. There was a spattering of Angemal, mostly generals and high ranking officers. Other than that, there were a handful of members of other Clans- though none from Pantagruel or Dauern.

     “I had the guys shortlist anyone with shady business. None of the garden-variety daily activities on here. Notice anything?”

     “Can’t say I’m picking up anything unusual.” Renta flipped through the pages again.

     “Alas, I didn’t think you would,” Yoshiki sighed theatrically, goofing around.

     “Have you so little confidence in me?” the Angemal replied with mock hurt.

     “Naw, I just didn’t think I’d ever given you enough information to clue you into what’s bugging me on that list.”

     “Huh?” Renta looked up, puzzled. “Since when have you withheld anything from me?”

     “Not withheld so much as never bothered to tell you about it. This isn’t business. It’s of a personal nature.”

     The Angemal read the names again. He shook his head.

     “You’re just gonna have to tell me, man.”

     “Well, for starters, did I ever tell you that my House is totally made up? It’s not my mother’s or father’s?”

     “Come to think of it, yeah I think you did- a long time ago.”

     “How about my Uncle Taka?”

     “Didn’t he take Blue’s name?”

     “Yup.”

     “What was it before?”

     “He didn’t have one,” Yoshiki smirked. “He got disowned. You can use your imagination to come up with the reason. Won’t take you long.”

     “Okay…”

     “My dad got disowned, too, on account of my ma. As soon as his parent’s got wind of what was up between the two of them, they kicked him out of the family and had him legally stripped of their name, just like Uncle Taka.”

     “Uh-huh.” Renta cocked his head.

     “So, did I ever tell you what their House was?”

     “Not that I can recall.”

     “Well, it’s riiighhht…” Yoshiki leaned over and marked an “x” on the page. “Here!”

     Renta looked down at the name his friend had marked.

     “That’s my grandfather,” Yoshiki informed him.

     “Are you sure?”  

     “Yup. Same name, same residential area, same former occupation- that ‘R’ indicates retirement… My dad’s real sentimental. He never really let go of the dream that the family might get back together. Apparently, he even tried getting in touch to tell them when I was born. That was a mistake.”

     “What happened?”

     “Gram and gramps didn’t dignify him with a response. My Aunt sent a nice package.”

     “That’s not so bad,” Renta ventured. Yoshiki laughed.

     “Yeah, she sent a real sweet little blanket… coated in poison. Lucky for me the dog got it before I did. But it was still sad for Ma. She loved that dog, even if the bastard did try to eat everything in sight.”

     “Damn.” Renta’s eyes were wide. “That’s nasty.”

     “My ma hates them, but good ol’ Dad’s still prayin’ they’ll come around. I always figured they’d crop up on the other side eventually.”

     “Just because he’s on this list doesn’t necessarily mean your granddad’s in the Ghost Clan.”

     “Maybe not, but c’mon- they’re right up his alley. They hate all the same things. But it’s not so much him as Auntie dearest that I’m worried about. She’s on there, too.” When Renta looked back at the paper, he went on. “Different name. She’s married. Matter of fact, she’s on quite a few of these lists.”

     “Okay, I get what’s bumming you out.” Renta looked directly at Yoshiki. “But maybe it won’t come down to Blood versus Blood. It certainly doesn’t have to right now.”

     “Yeah, but if we keep going it’ll probably end up like that. And what else are we gonna do but keep going, right?” Yoshiki grinned smugly. “Besides, I’m not so sure that’s such a bad thing. As long as my dad never hears a whisper of it, I don’t think I’d mind too much wiping them off the face of the planet.”

     “I can’t say I blame you for feeling that way.” Renta’s serious expression changed to one of mirth. “Well, since I feel- as your second-in-command- that you’ve had enough crappy news for one day, I will now inform you of two pieces of news that aren’t bad.”

     “And those are?” Yoshiki asked, his curiosity piqued.

     “First of all, your little social experiment seems to be going rather well.”

     “Oh yeah? I take it you mean Quen.”

     “I do. Most of the guys don’t hate him, and Hyan actually likes him for some reason. They’ve been hanging out all day.”

     “You don’t say.” Yoshiki laughed. “I knew I’d be better at this than Meena! What’s the second thing?”

     “It’s snowing. You know what that means.”

     “Snowball fight!”

     “Yup, tomorrow’s will be the first of the season.”

     “Prepare to have your ass handed to you.”

     “Not this year, my friend.”

     The two continued laughing and teasing each other until Renta felt secure that he’d successfully managed to lift Yoshiki’s gloom, a task that was getting harder and harder, but one he didn’t mind. The shoe had been on the other foot for most of their relationship. A small part of the Angemal, while still sorry for Yoshiki’s misfortune, was glad of the chance to prove his loyalty. As the snow fell gently outside, Renta thought of the happier days to come- for they were coming. They had to be. Of that he had little doubt.

 

 

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