“My countrymen, I stand before you to ask you- nay, to beg of you- Look around yourselves. Observe with naked eyes our nation, our Empire. She is on her knees. She has faltered, certainly, as all nations do, but there are some who seek to see her dragged entirely to the ground. These enemies are not only abroad, in the Otherlands where countries fall to chaos without out guiding hand, but at home. Here, in the most powerful, affluent nation on all of Qian Ra, there are some who detest their own country to such a degree that they work to see her destroyed. We cannot allow this to continue.

    “Think a moment on our great country. Yes, there have been times of struggle, times of revolution. In the years before the Feast of the Cats, our Clans lived at war, each struggling to survive. Yet the gods, who favor our nation, granted us a chance at salvation. Through the work of their son- the great Clanless One, Qa Haran- the Clans were united. A sacred Order was established, one in which every Clan had a place in society. Every man and every woman worked within their capabilities to create the wondrous homeland that we love.

     “Look around you now. In the name of change, in the name of progress, our Order has been broken down. The Clans have been stripped of their dignity, each and every one. Outlaws roam the streets, waging war, terrorizing our people. Under the false claims of our ‘one-ness’, the military and our police have been crippled. Under the lie of our so-called ‘unity’, we have been torn apart. If Qa Haran could stand among you now, I have no doubt he would weep.

     “We have fallen far, but all is not lost. We have time. We can turn back, raise our beloved Diasminion from her knees. We can walk in the light of the gods once more, but we must be strong. My people, I ask you to look, to listen. I ask for your hands. Together, united as we once were, we can reclaim our nation from the grasp of the impostor.

     “We all know where he can be found, this man who stole our Empire from the hands of her rightful leaders. He hides in his Palace, too afraid to face the people he has cheated. In a dark time, as the very fabric of our noble land is being torn in half, we are in desperate need of a leader. Where is our Emperor? Where is the one whose divine purpose is to hold us together? He is nowhere to be found. He, who should be father to us all, protecting us and nurturing our nation, cowers within the walls of the Palace. Can you accept this? As the war moves down your street, as your children cry in fear- tell me, can you accept his ignorance of your suffering? As we lose our pride in our work, our dignity, can you allow our own Emperor to turn his back? I think not. I, for one, cannot.

     “We must reclaim our nation. We must place her once again in the hands of one who will care for her. For the love of Diasminion and all her people, we must rise against this foe within the Palace. Be strong. Be steadfast. I call on you to help bring our homeland from her knees. For the glory of Diasminion- as she was and as she shall be!”

     The rallies had been going on for a week. From the frozen, snow blanketed regions of the north to the warmer, windy south, people gathered before podiums and listened to the orators give their speeches. There was cheering, there was some dissent. The purpose of the rallies was clear. Those who spoke and those who cheered them on wanted one thing- to return to the system of the past. There were some, like the man who had just spoken, who called for the overthrow of the Emperor. Others expressed their wish to reinstate the practices of halcyon days. Some of the speakers were fairly moderate, talking of a future government that contained elements of the present and the past. Others went as far as to call for the execution of Harata- and of the half-Clan children spawned under his rule.

     Yoshiki was staring at the television intently. He scanned the crowds, took note of the faces behind the podiums and on the platforms. All of this information he recorded carefully in a notebook. He listened only vaguely to the messages being delivered. He’d heard them all before. He could not afford to listen too closely, to become affronted or enraged. He needed to concentrate on his mission of identifying the enemy, matching the names on his lists to the faces on the screen. He’d assigned other members of Sirrah this same task. Later, they would compare notes. Cooler heads than his were given the assignment of summarizing the speeches and looking for new or changed agendas.

     Tamaki stirred beside him. She was unusually pale, and her struggle to remain passive and composed was evident on her face.

     “This is really bad,” she murmured when the Media had moved on to another story, this one about a civil war in the Otherlands. The juxtaposition was not lost on anyone.

     “We all knew this would happen eventually,” Yoshiki informed her. “In a way, it’s good for us. It’s about time all our underground struggles got brought to light.”

     “But it’s all one-sided,” Tamaki sighed. “Just people going on and on about the New Laws being corrupt and… and stuff like that.”

     “Well, it’s their rally.”

     “But a lot of people seem to agree with them.”

     “And a lot of others don’t. There are people out there right now who are just as angry as we are with what they’re saying. We’ll have our own say in time.”

     “I don’t understand why Harata doesn’t stop them.”

     The Emperor hadn’t made a single public appearance since the assassination of his son over a month earlier. Many members of the Senate, already restless with his reclusive actions over the past year, had begun to outwardly criticize Harata, claiming his incompetence. Unfortunately for supporters of the Emperor, their grievances were strong and in some ways, well founded.

     Those that organized the rallies cited a long list of faults- the rise in crime, an epidemic of homelessness, a drop in the overall quality of life for all citizens, and a faltering economy. The escalating crime rate was blamed on a combination of causes. Not only was the rampant gang warfare listed as a factor, so was the disestablishment of the former surveillance system used to track citizens. Criminals could fade easily into a crowd nowadays, go on the run, and police could do little to find them. Many of the orators complained of the new system of penitentiaries as well. In the past, punishment for all but the most petty of crimes was execution- this, they claimed, served as the most important deterrent- but now, those found guilty of the charges against them were given a sentence of forced labor, the length of which depended on their crime. Once a prisoner’s sentence had been carried out, he or she was free to return to society. Opponents of this system claimed that this so-called punishment did nothing to turn a citizen’s mind from crime either before or after incarceration.

     Homelessness was a modern issue, as the people of Diasminion all had at least someplace to call home under the old Law of Clans. A manifold problem, it spread across the Lower Clans in ever-increasing waves. Nearly half of Clan Decameron had been displaced as their Outposts were destroyed by warring gangs. Only those that lived and worked in metropolitan areas had managed to escape the wrath of the outlaws on either side of the conflict. However, Decameron was not the only Clan that was suffering this burden.

     Clan Dauern, now fully liberated from slavery, found that freedom had come at a cost. Of all Clans, they felt collectively that their lives had improved the most under the New Law. However, as they could now demand pay for their labor, the Empirians who had once overseen the government-funded tenements that housed them chose to turn the buildings over to GelbFaust landowners. The landlords began charging rent as a matter of course, and many Dauern found that they could just barely scrape together enough money to keep themselves housed, clothed, and fed. Some could not, and soon found themselves on the streets. A similar problem had cropped up among the Pantagruel, who had never been well-paid to begin with. While the cost of basic necessities escalated under the new business practices adopted by the corporations, many Pantagruel simply couldn’t pay their bills.

     The spreading homelessness and poverty had, of course, been cited in the quality of life argument in terms of the Lower Clans. The Middle Clans, while fairly stable, bemoaned the rising cost of everyday goods and shrinking labor market. Wealthy Empirians and GelbFaust argued that they, too, had cause to complain. The rich, no longer provided for by slaves, had either to dig into their bank accounts to pay for the luxuries of servants and chauffeurs, or go without. Many GelbFaust businesspeople made far less profit than they had in the past, and some found themselves leading far more austere lives than those to which they’d been accustomed. They placed the blame squarely on the loss of Diasminion’s colonies and the new business models they’d been forced to adopt.

     Diasminion’s colonies in the Otherlands, which had provided vast amounts of cheap natural resources, had been abolished some fifteen years earlier. Countries were now free to charge for the export of lumber, oil, natural gas, precious stones, rubber, and all manner of metals. Businesses in Diasminion now found themselves with the cost not only of shipping raw materials, but of the materials themselves. Precious metals and stones were also subject to luxury tariffs when imported. In addition to the new price-tags attached to once near-free materials, any unrest overseas could cause the price of one or more of them to skyrocket overnight.

     Already losing sleep over the situation in the Otherlands, business owners found no comfort at home. Manufacturers who had once been able to keep their plants running nearly all day every day, found that impossible under the New Laws. Pantagruel laborers could no longer be forced to work fourteen-hour shifts, and companies were required by law to provide at least two weeks total of vacation days and at least two days off per week. Though there could be no argument against the fact that the quality of goods produced in Diasminion was had improved greatly, less of everything was being manufactured overall. Farm owners, who had once relied on unpaid Dauern to grow crops and tend fields, now were forced to pay those that worked for them. Stores of all kinds that had once been able to request Dauern cashiers, janitors and stock workers now had to provide paychecks for their employees. Businesses all over the country, strapped with the increased cost of labor and materials, raised prices on everything in an attempt to turn what they saw as a decent profit.

     The changes in society, while made with the noblest of intentions, were not worth the price. At least, that was the feeling of the men and women gathered at the rallies.

     “Why does he let them talk that way?” Tamaki asked again softly when no one answered her. “They’re talking about executing him. It’s treason!”

     “It’s good that he doesn’t stop them,” Renta returned gently. “Other Emperors in the past wouldn’t have allowed rallies like these, and yes, those speakers would surely have been hanged. That those people have the right to gather and speak that way is a kind of freedom, too. They might have conveniently forgotten at the moment that they’d never have had that freedom under the Old Laws, but they’ll be reminded.”

      “Renta’s right,” Yoshiki agreed. “What they’re doing right now is a pure example of the rights we’re fighting for. Our side will use that to our advantage.”

     Seiken, who’d been incredibly quiet for the last forty-five minutes, even more so than usual, suddenly spoke.

     “Is that really what you’re fighting for? Freedom?”

     “Of course,” Yoshiki answered with pride.

     “Freedom for everyone, so everybody can live as they see fit as long as it’s within the boundaries of the Law?”

     “Yup.”

     Seiken shook his head slowly.

     “What, you don’t believe that?” Yoshiki’s voice took on an incredulous, somewhat defensive tone.

     “I believe it of you, but maybe not of all the people fighting on ‘your side’.”

     “Of course that’s what we’re all doing.”

     “You’re not fighting for the freedom of Clan Decameron, that’s for sure.”

     “Sure we are! We’re fighting for everyone.”

     “You know how I became a Wanderer?”

     “Your Outpost got burned down, didn’t it?”

     “Ever heard of Fortuna?”

     “Yeah,” Yoshiki’s face brightened. “I used to hang out with the son of one of their main operatives. They’re not around anymore, but back in the day they were nearly as famous as Sirrah is now.”

     “They burnt down my Outpost.”

     “What? No way! How come?”

     “There was a big fight between Fortuna and Kries. After Kries took some of their men to our Outpost for treatment, these guys from Fortuna showed up and demanded that we turn them out. When we refused, they stormed us and burned the place to the ground. They killed most of the Elders and some other people, too. My sister got shot, but she survived. I never saw her again, anyway, but last I heard she was doing okay.”

     For a few breaths, everyone was silent.

     “What about our freedom? Don’t we have the right to do our work in peace?” Seiken challenged his silent companions.

     “You do,” Yoshiki conceded, “but…”

     “This is a state of war,” Renta finished for him. “The government and the Media may not recognize it as such, but that’s what it is. Atrocities happen in all wars. From either side’s point of view, the destruction of the enemy is the main objective. Anyone who hinders that goal becomes an enemy as well.”

     Seiken nodded silently. After some thought, he addressed Yoshiki.

     “You want me to help you defeat Caiaphas. Do you know why? What reason do you have for making him your enemy?”

     “You already know the answer to that,” he replied impatiently. “He killed Blue. He wants to tear apart our society-”

     “Isn’t that what you want?”

     “What? No. I don’t want what Caiaphas wants.”

     “Don’t you? I think you do, you just don’t realize it.”

     “What are you saying?” Yoshiki’s voice rose, accusatory. “How can you compare me to him?”

     “When Qa Haran began to formulate the Law of Clans, Caiaphas opposed him. He saw the potential for corruption, the future of enslavement and rigidity that would befall the country. Caiaphas argued that a truly unified Diasminion would be a free one- one without Clan boundaries. In his vision, all men would have the right to choose their own path. He also believed that the strife between Clans would cease when they intermarried, eventually producing children with the potential of every Order. This is no different at all from your beliefs, is it?”

     Yoshiki bit his lip. When he finally answered, he spoke slowly, choosing his words with care.

     “Okay, you’re right, Seiken. I do share his beliefs, some of them. What makes me consider him an enemy is the means he uses to achieve his ends. I may fight and kill for my beliefs, but never against anyone who hasn’t chosen to take up arms. For the record, Sirrah has never turned against the Decameron, or burned down someone’s house, or murdered someone’s family just to get to them- and never will. As for Caiaphas, look at the things he’s done- when he couldn’t change Qa Haran’s mind, he chose to murder him. He spent the rest of his life trying to build an uprising, killing anyone who got in his way. After his death, he did all he could to stop the Champions from completing their Task. He wanted to see the whole world destroyed just because things weren’t going his way. When he returned here, he left a gaping hole into Pandemonium just lying in his wake. I may want similar things, but there’s only so much I’m willing to do to get them.”

     Seiken sighed heavily.

     “Yoshiki, there’s something I want you to understand… Before I agree to help you, I want you to be really sure of what you’re doing. I want you to fully realize what you’re asking for.”

     “Yeah?”

     “If you allow Caiaphas to complete his plans, there will be lives lost- Harata’s for example- but in the end, you will see the establishment of the freedom you seek to achieve. Most, if not all, of the people that you care about will be safe. If you choose to stand against him, it may mean your life, and will definitely cost the lives of people that you love. Depending on the outcome of your fight and the point at which you are successful, the odds lean heavily toward the beliefs you hold dear never being realized. You have this choice to make.” Seiken held up his hand. “Don’t make it tonight. Think about it. If you decide that defeating Caiaphas is worth the sacrifices that you’ll have to make, I’m willing to give you all the help I can.”

     Yoshiki nodded solemnly.

     “We should get back to work. The coverage of the rally in Rien is about to start,” Renta put in, changing the channel.

     Grimly, they all turned back to the task at hand.

 

     “Fools,” Uneme muttered, his eyes on the screen. Like Yoshiki and Sirrah, like countless others across the country, Uneme and Yume were watching the televised coverage of the rallies. Hironah slept softly on the sofa beside him. She’d watched for a while before drifting off to sleep.

     “Maybe we should shut this off,” Yume suggested from where she sat on Uneme’s other side. “I really don’t like hearing this stuff. It’s making me feel depressed.”

     “It’s important to know what they’re saying.”

     “I guess, but it still makes me sad and worried.” After a time, she went on. “I feel so confused. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Harata… but some of the things they’ve said… There are families living in the streets, and people like Seiken getting turned out of their homes. There’s so much poverty, and people are getting hurt or killed by the gangs that work for the Ghost Clan or the ones against them. It makes me afraid that maybe Sirrah’s done stuff like that. There’s so much Yoshiki won’t tell me.”

     “Your brother would never harm anyone who was innocent. He has Honor. That’s one reason why I try to help him.” Uneme smiled reassuringly at Yume’s dubious look. “It’s true. I’ve lost people I care about to both sides of the conflict, and I’ve known people on both sides as well. Yoshiki’s a breed apart.”

     “I’ve always thought so.” Yume smiled briefly, but her look soon darkened. “But still- what if those people are right? Maybe the changes we’ve made really weren’t worth the cost.”

     Uneme sighed.

     “It’s unfortunate, but when a society changes as rapidly as ours has in the past 25 years, this kind of upheaval and readjustment is a necessity. There are problems with our new way of doing things, but we will solve them in time. Perhaps rallies like these can even help- pointing out the areas that need improvement.”

     “I don’t remember the old ways of doing things. Sometimes I wonder if maybe they really were better.”

     “They weren’t.” Uneme focused his gaze on Yume. “You know what some of these- these fascists are proposing? After they take control of the government, some of them want to kill off half-Clan people like you and Yoshiki and Hironah. But the official platform is more moderate- a simple program of sterilization. If they come into power, Yume, you’ll be denied the right to raise a family. So would Yoshiki and Hironah,” he looked down at her sleeping form, “and everyone else like you. You’re right to be upset about things like crime and poverty and homelessness. But remember- just because these people are pointing at the right problems doesn’t mean they have the right answers.”

     “I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Do you think there are other answers out there, Uneme?”

     “Yeah, I do. And I have faith that they’ll be found.”

     Yume smiled, feeling more relaxed. Much to her initial surprise, she found that she quite liked Uneme. She’d never spent very long talking to him before they were thrust into this awkward domesticity, and even then it had only been on matters of necessity. Since they’d been sharing the house virtually alone, she’d come to learn volumes about the dark, quiet Angemal, and had begun to understand what it was Hironah saw in him. He had a kind of nobility, a dignity hidden within. An idealistic dreamer, he belied all the assumptions she’d had about him from the start. He was not, as she’d believed, simply an immoral, bloodthirsty mercenary, rigidly performing the duties assigned to him in his work. She’d come to learn through him that neutrality could be an ideal in itself, and that he’d never taken a job he found unsavory.

     Yume had also grown to admire Uneme’s perseverance in the face of adversity. In truth, she’d always found him somewhat cold- a calculating man who buried his emotions. However, she’d learned from their nightly conversations that his stoicism was what gave him the strength to bear the hardships in his life. Unlike Seiken, he had not collapsed under the weight of sorrow. Unlike Kaiya, he did not take to brooding. He’d taken the good times and the bad with the quiet calm that Blue had taught, learning his lessons without adulation or remorse, simply acceptance.

     Uneme was the only son of two Angemal who were, by his account, very much in love. He’d had a very happy childhood, though it was in no way idyllic, what with the harsh physical and mental training members of his Clan began at an early age. His mother had been a soldier- a member, in fact, of Keyu’s fierce platoon. His father had been a police officer. He’d enjoyed a peaceful home life, peppered with fond memories.

     His mother succumbed to an illness common among those who’d campaigned in certain regions of the Otherlands when Uneme was eleven years old. His father had told him honestly what was happening at the time- how many Angemal, like his mother, had been poisoned by the herbicides used to clear the jungles and were now dying years later. In their love and grief, father and son cleaved to one another in support. As he grew, Uneme began to regard his father as a friend and they grew closer as the years passed. In Uneme’s seventeenth year, his father was gunned down while trying to arrest a member of a gang known as Guild, who were rivals to the local gangs controlled by the Ghost Clan. Uneme found himself alone.

     Suddenly burdened with the need to support himself, he gave up on his education and turned to the only work he’d be able to get. Rather than succumb to his anger and join one of the gangs that fought for the Ghost Clan, he became a mercenary. It was hard going at first, and he spent a few years in poverty, living hand to mouth. However, as years passed by, he built a reputation and things grew easier. He made friends and lost them- most to the violence that spread across the nation. He was quite isolated at the time when he’d been hired by the Musubiki, and the nature of his work for them made it difficult to forge new relationships. He admitted to Yume that he’d been very lonely at the time he’d met them on the beach.

     She hadn’t savored the idea of sharing the house and the burden of caring for Hironah with him. Yet as the days went by, he proved a world of help- running errands, fixing things that needed mending and looking after Hironah with a tender patience. The evidence of his deep concern for her cousin touched Yume, who began to reconsider her feelings toward their relationship. Hironah was gradually improving. She would speak at times, if somewhat dully, and seemed far more aware of her surroundings than in weeks past.

     Uneme had also befriended Bel, and he would sometimes join them for dinner at the house. The Angemal occasionally assisted with demonstrations for the students, and would frequently spar with the Corduran for fun. It was to Uneme that Bel confessed some of the larger troubles looming over the school, the most prominent being their need to hire a replacement for Blue and Kaiya. This was a pressing, immediate need after Kaiya’s long absence. Bel had managed to call in guest instructors to fill some of the gap, but they were sorely in need of someone to take a permanent position. It was Uneme who had gently coaxed Hironah into authorizing Bel to hire someone new, though she’d made it plain she wanted nothing to do with the proceedings.

     In the end, no one at Kamitouki was sorry that Uneme was with them, though they’d all had their misgivings at first. Yume felt a pang of guilt when she considered her misjudgment of the Angemal. She thought back to those summer months when she’d teased Hironah, secretly in full support of the union she saw coming. She wondered if she, like her brother, had become blinded by loyalty to Kaiya and had ceased to see Uneme for who he was.

 

 

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