All seemed to be going quite well. On a cliff-side patch of clear land along Diasminion’s west coast, Sirrah was making camp for the night. Yoshiki moved swiftly around the camp, giving orders and advice to the men and women who fought for him. He paused occasionally to share jokes or warm himself at one of the fires. Spirits were high, shot through with the usual nervous anticipation that welled before a fight. The next day they would descend upon the small coastal town of Shai, where they would face off against The Risen, Sirrah’s latest rivals since the fall of Remnant. Word had it that The Risen had been terrorizing the townspeople, systematically sacking homes and businesses of those who disagreed with the Ghost Clan. Intelligence indicated that they were so wrapped up in their conquest that they had no idea Sirrah was coming for them. Yoshiki, familiar with the terrain, had chosen a place to make camp that was far enough from Shai that it was likely to go unnoticed by their careless foes.

     Once he was certain that preparations for the night watch were adequate and the layout of the tents was satisfactory, Yoshiki made his way to the edge of the cliffs that hung over a rocky beach. He listened to the sound of the surf and realized that he felt good. Action soothed his soul. The familiar motions and plans washed away the strange and troubling thoughts that had been haunting him of late. He was doing something he could understand, something solid, something real.

     He turned at the sound of footsteps behind him, watching the silhouetted form approach. His muscles, which had tensed instinctively, relaxed. He’d recognize Renta’s gait in a crowd of millions, even in the darkness.

     “Not moping, I hope,” the Angemal’s voice cut through the night.

     “Far from it,” Yoshiki answered with a smile. “You do a double-check of the camp?”

     “Sure did. We’re ship-shape.”

     “Great. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”

    “Me, too. Seems like things are finally getting back to normal.”

     “Does, doesn’t it?”

     “Too right.”

     The two stood in complacent silence for a few minutes, surveying the stars and moons that hung over the water. Yoshiki turned to say something to his friend, but the words died on his lips as he realized that he suddenly felt very strange. It was over in an instant, that quick, sharp feeling of being punched in the chest. What followed it was… absolutely nothing. Renta watched in horror as Yoshiki pitched forward over the side of the precipice. His eyes followed the moonlit shimmer of blonde hair as it cascaded downward with the body of his closest friend to land on the rock-strewn sand below.

     Hironah bolted upright, shrieking, her hands clawing at her head. In less than a breath, she felt arms around her, holding her still.

     “It was a dream,” Uneme soothed, his voice carefully devoid of his own shock. “You were dreaming. It’s over.”

     Breathing heavily, she tried to make out his face in the night-blackened room.

     “It’s alright,” he continued. “It’s okay. It wasn’t real. You’re safe now. It’s alright.”

     She began to sob, clinging to him. He stroked her hair and continued whispering to her until she finally calmed. They held each other without speaking for a long time. Uneme remained still as he felt Hironah shudder occasionally. When it seemed that she’d relaxed at last, he held her away from him, peering at her through the darkness.

     “Are you okay? You had a nightmare.”

     “Yeah,” she replied, somewhat breathless. “I’m alright. Gods, it was horrible.”

     She fell back against him, burrowing into his arms, seeking comfort in his solidity and strength.

     “What were you dreaming about?”

     She didn’t reply, save for some renewed sniffling.

     “Don’t want to talk about it?”

     “Uneme…” her voice cracked over his name. “Yoshiki’s dead.”

     “No, he isn’t. We just talked to him. You were only dreaming.”

      “I saw it happen.” Hironah began to cry again, her tears soaking Uneme’s chest. He hugged her tighter.

     “It was only a nightmare. We’ll get in touch with him as soon as we can and you’ll see. He’s fine.”

     “I’ve had this kind of dream before. It means something.”

     “It’ll be okay. We’ll warn him the next time we talk to him. I know you’ve got foresight, Hironah, but you’ve never watched the present, have you?”

     “No… but it seemed so- so real, you know?”

     “Well, keep in mind that Sirrah only just left their headquarters. They can’t have come up against The Risen yet. He’s fine.”

     “It’s not a fight I saw.”

     “What happened to him, then?”

     “I don’t know. He was just standing there and then…” Hironah shook her head.

     “Well, keep in mind that if anything did happen to him, he’s got Seiken with him. He’ll set it right.”

     “Seiken’s useless.”

     “How can you say that after you’ve seen what he can do?”

     “Uneme, he had Erishkegal helping him. He can’t do anything now. He can’t even see!”

     “He took care of me and Yume after we left the Rift. He was blind by then and he still did more than a fair job. And look at what he did for Quen.”

     Hironah was silent for some time before Uneme realized she was crying again.

     “He… he wouldn’t even try.”

     “Hironah, there was nothing any of us could’ve done,” Uneme replied quietly, seeing what this was about.

     “He could’ve done something. He- he just stood there.”

     “Hironah-”

     “Don’t, Uneme. Don’t defend him. He could’ve pretended, even. I hate him. I’m tired of losing people I love while he stands around and does nothing. It’s not fair.”

     “He does the best he can.” Feeling Hironah stiffen, Uneme went on. “Don’t worry about Yoshiki. If it was a premonition you had, we’ll tell him to be on his guard. But he’s alright now. Okay?”

     “I guess you’re right. Sorry… the whole thing was just so- so vivid, like I was really there.”

     “It’s okay. Lie down. Go back to sleep. I’ll be here to watch over you and drive your dreams away.”

     She looked up at him, saw the moonlight catch his eyes as he gazed back at her. She kissed him softly and felt the hard curves of his mouth on hers.

     “Thank you,” she whispered as he eased her down onto the bedding.

     “Sleep tight,” he replied quietly. “Don’t be frightened. I’m here with you.”

 

     “You cannot continue on this way, Your Majesty. Whatever it is that’s driven you to try to protect yourself, it can’t be worth the cost… You’ve seen the reports. The country is tearing itself apart.”

     Harata turned to face his advisor, his haggard visage set in hard lines.

     “I’m aware of what’s going on.”

     “Please, Your Majesty, Diasminion needs you. Speak to the people. Come back to the Senate. Help to set this right.”

     “Isn’t that what I’m paying you for? You’re my representative. It’s your job to deliver the messages.”

     “It’s just not the same. If you could be there in body as well as in spirit-”

     “I’m not going to do any good for this country as a corpse!”

     “Your Highness, if you would just tell us… The Guard and the military-”

     “The military can do nothing.” Harata sank down into his chair and held his head in his hands. “And little good the Guard has done me.”

     “Without more information-”

     “For the last time, I’ve already given you all the information possible. If I was going to say anything more on the subject, I’d have done so already.”    

     The advisor sighed.

     “Your Majesty, just one public appearance… Show the people that you care about them as much as yourself. Tell them how you’ll set this right. They need to hear it from you. They need your voice.”

     “I’ll consider it,” Harata replied quietly. “If there’s nothing else…”

     “No, Your Highness.”

     “You may take your leave, then.”

     “Yes, Sir.”

     The Emperor watched as his advisor turned and left the office, closing the door as softly as possible behind him. Harata lowered his head once more, regret the likes of which he’d never known battering him in violent waves. The past played again in his mind, and he wondered just where it was that he went wrong. The answer could lay at so many crossroads in time, though he had his suspicions about a few of them.

     Harata lived now for these few moments of silence he was afforded, cherished minutes in which he could grieve outwardly the losses that battered him. Alone, he had no need for shows of strength or perseverance. Alone, he could succumb to the questions and doubts that gnawed at him. He pictured the faces of the people who were gone, remembered their words and the times they’d spent together.

     He thought of his son. He remembered clearly the night Aki had been born, the mixture of pride and elation, worry and confusion that had surrounded him in the precious seconds he’d been allowed to hold his only son for the first time. He pondered over the strange way in which a parent’s hope for a child could be changed so, boiled down to one simple plea- survive.

     Harata didn’t need to be told why his son had been assassinated. It seemed absurd to many that anyone would go through the time, trouble and risk of murdering the Crown Prince. It was no secret that Akos was in very poor health, and probably never would have lived to ascend the throne. Yet Harata understood. Though the Imperial Family had never disclosed their plans to anyone other than the concerned parties, it would have been easy enough to surmise what they were.

     In about nine months, when he came of age, Aki was to marry. His parents had chosen a young woman who came from an offshoot of the family of the previous Emperor- a family that had legal right to the Empire after the last Emperor had died without an heir. Any offspring produced by the union would forever solidify Harata’s line’s claim to the throne. While this decision was made quietly, anyone with a mind for politics would’ve realized what was coming. For anyone who wished to thwart the Emperor in his plans, Akos-Hieran’s death became an urgent necessity.

     Yet throughout Diasminion there were murmurs on the subject of the sheer cruelty with which the crime had been committed. The details of Aki’s murder, made public by the Media, caused many to shake their heads in revulsion. Perhaps a simple assassination, while still shocking, might have been accepted by the populace as an unfortunate result of political turmoil. However, this crime spoke of more than necessity- it told a tale of hatred, of a loathing so vile that whoever had committed it had been driven to torture. The collective awareness of this fact caused the citizens of Diasminion to raise questions among themselves. Did the Emperor perhaps have some enemy other than those found in the Senate? Could it, in fact, have been the Ghost Clan? Whatever became of the people that the Imperial Guard had been looking for, one of whom was a direct relation to the Emperor himself?

     Harata knew the answers to all of these questions. Yes, he had answers, but he remained helpless. Trapped, he could do nothing but watch and regret as the world came crashing down. He thought of the evening when the Guard informed him of Kaiya’s death. He’d merely nodded, an acceptance of fact, and asked if there was anything else to report. It wasn’t until many hours later, alone and in silence, that Harata gritted his teeth against the profound sorrow of the news, pounding his fist against the polished surface of the desk. Remembrance of the necessary coldness with which he’d treated the Night’s Herald- a young man he both admired and cared for- made him cringe. There was nothing else he could’ve done, he told himself, but the words seemed hollow.

     That night the Emperor battled his doubts all over again. What if he’d told Kaiya? What if he’d taken him aside to some quiet place, free of any other ears, and unburdened himself of all he hid? No, surely Kaiya wouldn’t have accepted it… and what would have become of the both of them if he had? Harata knew, deep within his heart, that this battle was his to face alone.

     Alone, he laughed bitterly. Yes, I’m certainly alone.

     The throne upon which he sat during formal audiences had never felt so cold; the mantle he wore had never seemed so heavy. There was no longer any warmth within his life, and Harata felt that the word “loneliness” did not even begin to describe the void that had crept in to take its place. His forced silence and oppressive demands had driven a wedge between Harata and his family. Only Akos had accepted the order to remain sequestered with calm patience. His wife and daughters railed against him, unable to understand his reasons for ordering them to sever themselves from society. Kat had tried. He watched her as she struggled to remain supportive, to have faith that he had sound reasons, even if he didn’t share them. In fact, Harata had admired her for the sheer length of time in which she’d stood by him… but that, too, was over now.

     Aki’s death had severed the remaining thread of loyalty between husband and wife. On the evening of the day his body had been found, Kat had turned pleading eyes on Harata.

     “Tell me what’s going on,” she’d begged in a low voice.

    He’d said nothing in return.

     “Tell me.”

     He shook his head.

     “Our son is dead!” the Empress shrieked, pounding her fists against his chest. “Tell me why!”
Still silent, he made to draw her toward him, but she pulled away. Her eyes wild, she stared at him in horror and fury. Drawing a shuddering breath, she whispered,

     “I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

     She fled the room, sobbing bitterly. Though she’d stood beside him at the funeral, Kat didn’t say a word to her husband. They now slept in separate rooms.

     She was the last to leave him, and now he was truly and utterly alone. The only people he saw all day were aides and advisors and a handful of servants. None of them spoke to him about anything other than their daily business. To them, he was the Emperor of Diasminion. None of them knew him as the simple man, Harata, and none of them ever would. Even during his darkest days of the Task, when he was no more than the so-called “Clanless One” with his Nine Champions, he’d never felt such desolation. At least in those days there had been people he could rely on.

     I couldn’t even say goodbye.

     Harata thought with grief of how he’d burned Hironah’s letters, to prevent being reminded of Blue’s impending death. He regretted the passing of his oldest friend, even more so because the web in which he’d been caught would not allow him even the comfort of one final conversation, one last look. He often wondered if Blue had become ensnared as well, and that was how he met his end. Nothing in Hironah’s letters indicated that this was the case, but Hironah was never one for disclosing family intimacies, either. Harata supposed he’d know the answer someday, and tried to force himself not to think about it.

     I should never have given up the sword.

     Harata’s thoughts invariably led to wondering what would’ve been if he’d chosen another life. He could’ve helped Blue and Takae found Kamitouki, teaching the ancient skills of his Shaen in the Otherlands to a new generation of Diasminian warriors. His children would’ve grown up near the sand and sea, never far from Hironah and Kaiya, who they adored. He could’ve worked with Chiesara, helping her to quietly reform the country from the inside. His family would’ve lived in a tiny cabin in the mountains, barely getting by, but safe and happy and near to people who loved them. His children would’ve entertained Pantagruel and Dauern rather than Empirians and GelbFaust and probably would’ve worn little more than rags, but they would’ve been at peace. It would never have come to this.

     He rubbed his forehead and tried to convince himself that he’d made the right decision. It had taken hard years of legal battles and political posing before Harata had managed to lay claim to the Empire. He was, after all, Qa Haran’s chosen one. In the end, those who opposed him could find no evidence that he was not, in fact, Clanless. In those days, his popularity was such that the citizens were practically begging the Senators to name him the successor to the throne. Upon his ascension, Harata swore to himself that he would right all the wrongs he could within his country.

     He’d been true to his vow. The Dauern were free. The Pantagruel were no longer forced to work in appalling, dangerous conditions. No more wars were waged in the name of profit. Citizens could do what work they pleased, and no longer were they spied on by their government. Yet Harata was not naïve. He listened grimly to the reports of growing squalor and economic distress. He was aware of the toll that gang warfare was taking on his nation. There was still a lot of work left to be done.

     And that is why, he reminded himself, I cannot give up. I have to press on, no matter what the cost.

 

     Try as he might, Renta couldn’t tear his eyes away from Yume’s. She was staring up at him with such a look of shock, fear and sorrow that he felt he would burn away in his guilt-ridden regret. He wished that someone would say something to end this moment, just as he wished they’d all remain silent and let him slink back out the way he came. Three people were staring at him, but he couldn’t break his gaze from the one he’d failed the most.

     After what felt like an eternity, Uneme spoke.

     “What happened?”

     “A… a sniper,” Renta finally managed to answer, his voice so quiet that the others had to strain to hear.

     Hironah and Uneme locked eyes, an unspoken conversation passing between them. Without a word, Hironah knelt down beside the shrouded figure on the floor. She touched the black cloth that covered its face.

     “Don’t,” Tamaki pleaded from where she stood beside Renta.

     “I’m sorry,” Hironah replied sincerely. “I have to. I’m never going to believe it otherwise.”

      The Night’s Herald nodded.

     “I’m going outside,” she informed the others. She turned and left without a backward glance.

     Hironah gently pulled back the heavy cloth and looked solemnly at the face of her cousin. She carefully studied the expression frozen there, ignoring the sounds of grief behind her. As she had dreamt, as she believed she had seen, Yoshiki had fallen, heart-shot, to the snow-dusted beach below the cliff. There were still grains of sand in his hair. Dazed, she plucked a red feather from those yellow-blonde tresses and turned it over in her fingers. Standing, she drew a breath and closed her eyes.

     “Did you catch him?” she asked.

     “Yeah,” Renta replied.

     “Who did it? Who sent him?”

     Renta was silent for a moment, deliberating. Finally, he turned to Yume.

     “Go to the kitchen, Yume, or go outside with Tamaki,” he instructed. “You don’t need to hear about this.”

     “No,” she refused firmly. “I want to know.”

     “Really, Yume.” He watched her, begging. “I don’t want you to. This is hurting you enough.”

     “That’s for me to decide. Just get on with it, Renta.”

     He shook his head. Slumping, his eyes on the polished wooden floor, he took a deep breath.

     “Your aunt did it, Yume- your father’s sister.”

     She looked at him in confusion, as did Uneme and Hironah.

     “It’s weird… we’d just learned about her connections to the Ghost Clan. But I guess she would’ve known about Yoshiki leading Sirrah for a long time. It wasn’t exactly a secret. I don’t know how she knew where to find us…” Renta trailed off. Facing Yume once more, he choked, sputtering the words, “I’m so sorry. I failed. If you never forgive me, I won’t blame you. I can’t forgive myself.”

     Gently, Yume laid her hand on Renta’s arm, her eyes on his. Without saying anything more they embraced, sobbing.

     “And what about you, Seiken?” Hironah spun to face the silent Decameron. “What were you doing while all this was going on?”

     “I- I was in camp. Renta called me when it h-happened, but…” Seiken bit his lip. “He was killed instantly, Hironah. I promise, he wasn’t in any pain.”

     Hironah crossed the few feet that lay between her and the Decameron. She stood very close to him, so close that he could feel her breath on his face. She peered at him. She seemed utterly calm. The only person who would’ve read the signs of the anger she disguised was no longer alive to give warning. She backed away from him slightly.

     “Blue… Yoshiki… Kaiya…” her voice hissed out in a whisper, naming the dead, watching him cringe at each one, watching the spasm of pain that crossed his face at the last and hating him all the more for it. “I’d say you’ve outlasted your usefulness, wouldn’t you, Seiken?”

     “I…” He shrank from her, unable to answer.

     Yume, who had turned from Renta to watch the exchange, saw Hironah’s hand stray to the sapphire-capped dagger at her belt. She watched as Hironah drew it slowly.

     “Don’t!” Yume cried out, leaping toward her cousin. “Don’t do it, Hironah! It’s not his fault!”

     Hironah, lost in her fury, ignored her. Horrified, Yume grasped Hironah’s wrist, struggling to hold her back.

     “Get off, Yume!” she snarled. When Yume failed to release her, Hironah twisted her arm and broke loose, slashing upward. Yume screamed as the blade tore a jagged gash on her face.

     “Yume!” Renta bellowed, catching hold of her as she fell.

     Unchallenged, Hironah fell on Seiken, who was trying frantically to scrabble away. She plunged the dagger into his flesh repeatedly, up to the hilt. Consumed by bloodlust, she relished the sound of his screams in her ears as she wordlessly listed his failures with every thrust. His blood welled hot over her hands and arms, splattered her face, satisfying her need to exact a toll for every moment of her own despair. She did not cease until long after he’d fallen silent, limp and lifeless.

     She ignored Yume’s distressed sobbing, Renta’s murmured swearing. She ignored the fact that Uneme had turned his face away. Silently, she cleaned her blade, stopping only for a moment when she noticed that the sapphire that capped its hilt was cracked where Seiken’s blood had run over it.

 

 

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