Wake up.

     The sharp sound cut abruptly through Seiken’s consciousness.

     But I haven’t been sleeping, have I?

     Slowly, he felt his eyelids open. Disoriented, he cast about, listening. He was greeted by the sound of shuddering, heavy breaths.

     “By the gods, Seiken.” Tamaki’s voice fell on his ears, shocked and trembling. “I- I’m sorry.”

     “Did you learn anything?” He asked her calmly, slowly recalling what it was they’d been doing.

     “Nothing that I was looking for.” She paused. He listened to the sound of her wiping her hand across her face. “I’m sorry… I didn’t know.”

     “Didn’t know what?”

     “I didn’t know you felt like that.”

     “You say that a lot.”

     “I mean about-”

     “Listen, if it’s bringing you to tears, I probably don’t want to talk about it.”

     “Maybe we should.”

     “I don’t think so, Tamaki. If I wanted to talk about whatever it is, I’d do it when I had the choice.” Shaking his head, Seiken went on. “So, it didn’t work?”

     “No, not really. The Binding is really strong.”

     “Well, it was worth a shot anyway.” He shrugged. “We’ll just have to try something else.”

     “Yeah,” Tamaki replied dejectedly.

     A portion of Seiken’s mind was frantically insisting that he demand she tell him just what it was he’d said to upset her so. He suddenly felt extremely vulnerable, as though stripped naked and placed under white-hot lights. Why had he agreed to do this? He’d had his reservations last night, and now he wished he’d listened to his instincts.

     The night before, Yoshiki and Tamaki had taken him into the studio.

     “Okay, I thought it over,” Yoshiki said. “And I know it sounds kinda crazy, given all that you said the other day, but I want Caiaphas finished. Before you say anything- just know that I’ve given it a lot of thought. I realize that I really don’t understand what’s happening. I don’t know what I’m doing or what it means, just that… It was what Blue wanted. It was what Kaiya wanted. I’ll do it for them, and pray that the answers come to me in time. Will you help me, like you were helping Kaiya?”

     “I will,” Seiken answered simply. “If that’s what you want.”

     “Great. Tamaki has an idea, so I’m gonna leave you guys to it.”

     Yoshiki turned and left the room with a nod to the Night’s Herald, who sat down gently beside Seiken.

     “Thank you for helping us,” she said with a smile.

     “It’s what you want, the gods know why.”

     “Yes, well… I was wondering, did Kaiya ever try hypnosis? I mean, to help break the Binding that keeps you from speaking?”

     “No. We talked about it, but he… He said he wasn’t very good at it, so we decided not to try.”

     Seiken felt Tamaki’s weight shift as she nodded.

     “We all do have different strengths,” she said. “I’m pretty abysmal at Soul Walking, but good at hypnosis. I guess Kaiya was the opposite.”

     “Yeah, I guess,” Seiken’s reply was entirely lacking enthusiasm.

     “Well, I’d like to try hypnosis, if it’s alright with you. There’s a possibility that the Binding on you is stronger in your conscious mind than your subconscious. If I can strip you of your awareness of the Binding, it might allow you to speak freely. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be harmed in any way. The Binding will simply continue to function as usual, effectively gagging you.”

     “I’ve never been hypnotized. I heard some scary things about it. If you hypnotized me, wouldn’t I be entirely subject to your will?”

     “You could be, but I won’t be using it that way.”

     “I barely know you. How can I trust that you won’t?”

     Tamaki was silent for a moment before she replied, her voice calm.

     “You can’t, really. But you know of my loyalty to Yoshiki and the sacred Oath I swore not to use my education for personal gain. I’ve got no reason to make you my enemy, Seiken, and no use for you as a slave. I want to find this Caiaphas. I have my own reasons, beyond what you know, or what Yoshiki knows, for that matter. I can only use the tools available to me- just like Kaiya did.”

     The Decameron nodded slowly, sighing.

     “Okay.”

     Now he sat up on the chaise in the quiet studio. He felt and heard Tamaki shift her weight where she sat on the floor beside him.

     “Can we talk about Caiaphas for a bit?” she asked. “You did say some things that I’m trying to work out.”

     “Sure,” Seiken replied, somewhat apprehensively.

     “First of all, Kaiya was correct in his belief that Caiaphas had returned to destroy- once and for all- the Order that Qa Haran created. Is that right?”

     “Yes… that’s part of the reason.”

     “Part? What’s the rest?”

     “For the answer to that question, you must figure out why he wants the Order broken down.”

     “It’s not for revenge? I thought-”

     “No.” Seiken shook his head. “He has no need for revenge.”

     “Okay… You’re sure you know who his avatar is?”

     “Yes.”

     “Why can’t you just betray him? Point him out in a crowd?”

     “Think I haven’t tried? It doesn’t work.”

     “It sounds like Caiaphas’s abilities on this Plane would be severely limited if he returned as a member of a Clan other than Night’s Herald. I’m sure he’d be aware of this. It makes sense to me that he’d be careful to come back as one of us, rather than, say, a Dauern. Is his avatar a Night’s Herald?”

     “No. Though your Clan has its advantages, it wouldn’t benefit him to return as one of you.”

     “Why not?”

     “Mobility. Night’s Heralds are obvious people. And you live set, structured lives with little aberration from the norm. For his p-purposes,” Seiken choked on the word, “he needs to… be able to, uh… move at will.”

     “His goals seem mostly politically driven. Empirian?”

     Seiken shook his head.

     “An Empirian without a history is politically powerless.”

     “What do you mean, ‘without a history’?” Tamaki asked, puzzled.

     “No family backing, formerly unknown in the political platform, no verifiable education…”

     “Literally no history. Why not?”

     “Think about it. The avatar of Caiaphas didn’t exist until recently. He wasn’t born. He… arrived here.”

     “Ah… So, the person who Caiaphas is now will be someone who can’t produce a family if asked, and wouldn’t be able to quantify his past with witnesses or old friends or anything. Kind of a… a drifter.” Had Seiken not been blind, he’d have been warned by the look that Tamaki turned on him, her eyes widening to a slight degree, then narrowing shrewdly.

     “Yes, exactly.”

     “Seiken… Did Kaiya know who the avatar is? Did he figure it out?”

     “In his final moments, yes, I believe he did.” Seiken’s voice shook and it seemed he was forcing the words out by sheer force of will.

     “Does Caiaphas know where we are?”

     “He does, in terms of general location.”

     “He knew that Kaiya was going to go after him. Does he know now that Yoshiki plans to do the same?”

     “I don’t know.”

     “You don’t?”

     “Nope. Sorry.”

     Tamaki sighed in frustration.

     “Something in the whole picture is missing,” she observed. “It seems so simple, but really it’s not, is it?”

     “It is. It’s just a different kind of simple.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “You’re asking good questions, Tamaki. They’re just not the right ones.”

    

     I am a sword. I am a shield.

     Motion, smooth and calculated, unified Hironah’s soul with her body, simplifying her being, erasing her mind. She’d forgotten the chill in the air, the frostbitten ground beneath her feet. She’d forgotten her name. She felt no more than the sensations of her fluid muscles as they obeyed her will. Lost in this sanctuary, she allowed her exercises to go on longer than usual.

     When she finally finished, Hironah felt herself utterly calm. She smiled slightly at the memory playing in her mind. It brought with it no bitter sting, no sweet remorse, now that she had a few moments to think placidly. It was a memory of Blue, smiling his approval at her from across the courtyard where he stood beside Takae.

     “I see you’ve learned to meditate,” he observed, crossing to where she stood winded from her exercises.

     She cocked her head, not understanding.

     “No,” she replied, her face downcast. “I still can’t do it. I keep thinking of other stuff.”

     “You did it just now.”

     “That wasn’t meditation. I was exercising.”

     “How did you feel? Wasn’t it the same as what I’ve described to you as how your mind should clear?”

     “Y-yeah, actually… but shouldn’t I, you know, do it the way you and Kaiya do?”

     “You should do it the way it works.” Blue tousled her hair. “Taka asked me to watch you today. He told me what you’ve been doing. I’m not surprised. Keyu did it much the same way.”

     Standing now in the chill that was settling into her, Hironah mused over her relationship with both Blue and Takae. The contrast between the two had been so great, it was like trying to compare the suns. Blue had always been the guiding force, helping her to make sense of the world in which she lived. His patience and serenity allowed her to freely speak her mind- asking any number of questions, making even the most ludicrous of observations- without worry or need for hesitation. Takae, on the other hand, she had learned to regard as the most fragile of things. Their relationship had been built entirely out of action, rather than words. He’d entertained her not with stories, but with magic. He’d been quick to understand the restlessness within her, and had been the one to teach her nearly everything she knew about weaponry and martial arts. He displayed his love for her without voice- in his unabashed pride in her accomplishments, gentle correction of her mistakes, and in those times when he would set his eyes upon her and smile through the fog that often drew him far away. Blue had nurtured her soul, but Takae had understood it in a way the Night’s Herald never could.

     “He should be here,” Hironah spoke aloud. “I should be the one taking care of him.”

     She shook her head solemnly, realizing the ways in which fate had forced her to choose against him, as she’d feared she would. She couldn’t change that now, but she could resume her duties. She owed him that much. Perhaps she’d manage to succeed where her aunt and uncle had failed, and if not… Hironah decided she wasn’t ready to deal with that possibility yet, and put it out of her mind. Resolved, she sheathed Dawn and Dusk and made her way back to the house.

     A few hours later, Yume, Hironah and Uneme sat at the table in the kitchen. Mealtimes were usually pleasant, as the three were quite comfortable in each other’s company. Hironah’s announcement of her plan to bring Takae home had eventually turned into a general discussion of family matters.

     “I talked to Yoshiki today,” Yume informed the others. “He told me he’s planning to go after Caiaphas.”

     “Doesn’t he have enough to worry about?” Hironah queried. “Those rallies are escalating into riots. Sirrah’s gonna have their hands full.”

     “He said he’s got Tamaki working on it mostly. And Seiken agreed to help.”

     “Yoshiki’s gonna run himself ragged.”

     “I’m worried about him, but he’s insisting that it’s his responsibility.” Yume shrugged. “You know how he gets.”

     “I’m not surprised, really,” Uneme put in. “Knowing Yoshiki, he probably sees this as a personal thing.”

     “He does,” Yume stated.

     “It’s a lot bigger than just your family, though. I hope he understands that.”

     “He told me Seiken gave him a big lecture about it. Yoshiki said he’s gone kinda funny.”

     “Seiken’s always been ‘funny’. Strange guy.”

     “I never liked him,” Hironah said sullenly. “Skittish bastard.”

     “I think he’s okay,” Yume offered. “He’s been through a lot, probably enough to make anyone go off the deep end a bit.”

     “I don’t trust him. I wish I knew why Blue and Kaiya did.”

     “I doubt we’ll ever know that,” Yume said softly. “But as long as he’s helping Yoshiki…”

     Hironah shrugged and waited for Uneme to change the subject, as he invariably did whenever he noticed her discomfort. She didn’t want to think about Seiken right now, or Blue or Kaiya. She was doing all she could to force them into the past, where she felt they belonged.

 

     Yoshiki rolled over for what felt like the hundredth time. Beside him, Tamaki stirred and raised her head.

     “You can’t sleep?” She sounded concerned, which wasn’t surprising. She’d never known him to toss and turn at night. Customarily, he was asleep within minutes of saying goodnight.

     “My brain won’t shut up. I keep thinking and thinking.”

     “What about?”

     “A lot of stuff… I guess I’m just worried all of a sudden.”

     “Is this about your family? Your aunt and grandfather?”

     “Partly. Mostly, I guess. I dunno. I don’t want to talk about them.”

     “Okay. You don’t have to.”

     “I need something else to think about for a bit.” He rolled to face her. “Tell me how it’s going with Seiken.”

     “That’s not going to help you sleep, Yoshiki,” Tamaki replied heavily.

     “No progress, huh?”

     “Actually…” she trailed off. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow. I can think of better ways to wear you out.” The Night’s Herald smiled slyly.

     “After you tell me. It won’t hurt to do it now.”

     “I dunno… I have a theory, but you’re not going to like it.”

     “You don’t think I’m the avatar, do you? That’d be wacky.” Yoshiki laughed.

     “No. I think Seiken is.”

     “Huh? That ain’t right. It makes no sense.”

     “It makes a lot of sense,” Tamaki said softly.

     “Look, Tamaki, I know Seiken’s weird and all, but the guy saved my life- and Yume’s and Kaiya’s, too. Why would he bother to do that if he was Caiaphas?”

     “Perhaps so you’d be forced to ask that very question.”

     “You weren’t there, Tamaki. If you’d have seen his face…” Yoshiki shook his head. “He really cared what happened to Yume and Kaiya. On the night of the riot at the Zeit, he looked like someone ripped his heart out.”

     “We’ll get to that… maybe. Seiken ended up telling me something by accident this morning, but I’m not really sure I’ve got any right to tell you. It was personal, not about any of what’s going on.”

     “Did he tell you he was Caiaphas, too?”

     “Not in so many words.”

     “Okay, lay your theory on me. I’ll warn you beforehand that I’m probably not going to agree.”

     “Alright… Well, to begin with, none of us really has any idea where Seiken came from. We could search all we wanted, but we’d never find his home, as it’s been demolished- or so he claims. He says that he’s got family, but it’s the same with them- we could look, but we’d probably never find them. There’s nothing out there to say he didn’t just poof himself into existence. He just showed up one day, standing in the doorway at Kamitouki.”

     “Uncle Taka was hiring a Decameron. A lot of people showed up to interview for the job.”

     “Ever find out why Seiken got it and not someone else?”

     “No… He took really good care of Blue, so the question never crossed my mind. Speaking of which, if he was Caiaphas, what would he be doing caring for the guy he killed?”

      “To see to it that the job was thoroughly done. By being present at Kamitouki, he could be certain that nothing went wrong.”

     “Seiken could’ve cured Blue-”

     “But he didn’t.”

     “And he got struck blind on account of it!”

     “That’s his version of the story, anyway.”

     “You don’t believe it?”

     “I believe parts of it… If Erishkegal was the one to curse Seiken, it’s more likely that he’s the avatar, not less.”

     “Huh? Why?”

     “It’s true that Erishkegal would’ve been furious with Caiaphas for losing Blue’s soul… but I find it hard to believe that she wanted it badly enough to bestow a blessing on a young man who was not her follower. It’s unusual behavior for her. However, she would offer Caiaphas the opportunity to make amends. If he was already at Kamitouki, it would be simple enough to undo what he had done with the goddess’s help. When he failed to do this, her wrath would be such that she would curse him- in a way that would severely hinder his ability to carry out his plans in Diasminion.”

     “Okay, I admit that you know a lot more about gods and stuff than I do, but if that was the case, how do you explain what happened to Aki? Seiken was with us the night he was killed. He couldn’t have done it, sighted or otherwise.”

     “Do you know for sure Caiaphas was responsible for that?”

     “Who else would it be?”

     “Yoshiki, right now all across the country, people are calling for Harata’s execution. He has enemies in the Senate that want to see him dead. Aki could just as easily have been assassinated by someone working for one of them.”

     “That’s true, but we know that Caiaphas needs the Imperial Family wiped out, in order to carry out his plan to take over or whatever. We can’t count him out.”

     “No… but I have noticed a pattern.”

     “What’s that?”

     “The people that Caiaphas seems to need disposal of do get put out of the picture… in neat, convenient ways that make it look as though he had nothing to do with it.”

     “The only people I can think of are Aki and Kaiya. The two of them don’t make a pattern.”

     “What about your Uncle Taka?”

     “He’s sick, Tamaki. He has been for a long time.”

      “Can you remember a time when it was as bad as it is now?”

     “No, but you can’t be surprised that it is. He took losing Blue really hard. That’d be enough to trigger a strong reaction.”

     “And who was it that was meant to be helping him cope with that loss? Who did Hironah keep around solely for that purpose?”

     “I know you mean Seiken, but you can’t blame him for this. The whole family saw it coming.”

     “He was there, every step of the way.” Tamaki’s voice was firm. “And now your uncle’s no threat to anyone but himself. And then there’s the situation with the Imperial Family. No one knows for sure why they’ve been sequestered, save for the Emperor himself. They’re safely out of the picture- for now. There’s no evidence that Caiaphas is involved, but I’m sure that if you delve deep enough you’ll find him in the shadows. He may not be setting all of this in motion- the political unrest, the underground war with the Ghost Clan- but he’s using it to his advantage. He’s there, waiting, protected by those who have grown to trust him. When the time is right, he’ll strike. In the meantime, any who would oppose him will just continue to disappear.”

     “I’ve got to admit that your arguments have merit. I think you’re on the right track, but you’re wrong about Seiken.” Yoshiki shook his head. “I know the guy better than you do. Besides, if he was the avatar, why would Blue have chosen to tell him about his own plans, effectively locking away his secret forever?”

     “I considered that myself… but Seiken answered that question for me.”

     “What did he say?”

     “While I had him under hypnosis, we discussed Blue for a bit. As it turns out, Blue never disagreed with Caiaphas in principle.”

     “He didn’t? That can’t be true. Otherwise, Caiaphas never would’ve killed him.”

     “What Caiaphas wanted most was for Blue to join him. It was common family knowledge that Blue’s eventual options would be join or die. Despite this, Blue felt that Caiaphas’s views were correct. What he really disagreed with was what Caiaphas did to achieve his goals. In fact, he felt very similarly to the way you do. It’s not the end that’s so wrong, it’s the means. Blue never aligned himself with Caiaphas because he couldn’t reconcile the deeds that had been done- and those that were to come. In short, he felt that Caiaphas was right about most- if not all- things, but what he did was wrong.”

     “Blue would still want him to be stopped.”

     “I think it’s entirely possible that they made a deal.”

     “What deal?”

     “Blue knew that he would die, leaving no one aware of Caiaphas’s plans unless he chose to divulge that knowledge to someone else. Blue may have agreed to lay the Binding on Caiaphas himself- as Seiken- in exchange for the safety of those he cared about most. If he made Caiaphas swear to limit the damages, it might be that he saw it as the best course of action. If you hadn’t stumbled into the Rift- a twist of fate that couldn’t have been foreseen- it probably would’ve worked, too. Caiaphas would’ve moved on with his plans, leaving your family alone.”

     “If Seiken was Caiaphas, though, he’d have known about the Rift. He’d have known Erishkegal would come to him. I think he’d have wanted to avoid that.”

     “Didn’t he? As I recall, he went in chasing after that girl, Mirai. He wasn’t meant to enter, but it would’ve been very suspicious if he hadn’t gone after her.”

     “That is how it happened, but-”

     “And speaking of,” Tamaki cut him off, “Mirai’s another one of those who are now just conveniently out of the picture. She was making predictions about Caiaphas’s return, and its consequences for Diasminion. That alone wasn’t too dangerous, but if Kaiya or one of the rest of you had managed to figure out how to use her, she could’ve proved… problematic.”

     Yoshiki was quiet for a time, apparently deep in thought. When he broke the silence, his voice was measured and careful.

     “You’ve definitely got some interesting ideas, Tamaki. Tomorrow, I want you to talk them over with Quen.”

     “With Quen? Why?”

     “Because, he’ll be able to look at the whole picture logically. The rest of us are all involved in this emotionally in some way or another. Quen won’t have that problem. He sees everything just for what it is.”

     “Okay then.”

     “Good… Then let’s be done with this discussion for tonight. It’s starting to dredge up memories I’d rather not have right now.”

     “Alright.”

 

 

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