“Are you really sure you want to take the train?” Hironah asked for the fifteenth time that day.

     “Yup. I’m sure,” Uneme answered without losing patience. He smiled at her cheerfully.

     “It just seems so inconvenient.”

     “On the contrary, taking our bikes would be more so. There’s snow on the ground just north of here. It’s much too cold to ride, and it would take forever. We’d arrive in Mianuus exhausted.”

     “But what if we need to get out of the city quickly for some reason?”

     “I know plenty of ways out of the city. Don’t worry about that. Besides,” his grin broadened, “I doubt it’ll come to that.”

      Uneme’s confidence worried Hironah. In some ways it was refreshing after Kaiya’s resignation and Yoshiki’s confusion, but it made her wonder whether or not he understood the scope of what he was going to do. The only time she’d brought this up, he’d smiled at her sadly.

      “Hironah…” he began, drawing her near. “I understand that Caiaphas is a formidable enemy, but I think perhaps you’re making him more powerful in your mind than he really is. I think I know why you’re doing this, but trying to make sense of all that’s happened to you and your family by pinning it down on one source isn’t going to help you in the end.” She opened her mouth to speak, but he continued on before she had the chance. “Caiaphas didn’t kill Yoshiki or Kaiya. That doesn’t make their deaths meaningless, Hironah. Eventually, you’ll learn to accept that. And you killed Seiken yourself. Of course Caiaphas would want him dead if he knew that Seiken was aware of who he was, but in the end he didn’t have anything to do with it, did he?”

     “No,” Hironah admitted sullenly.

     “It’s just as dangerous to give your enemy too much power as it is to underestimate him. If you do so, you’ll be defeated before anyone has a chance to raise a sword.”

     “I guess you’re right.”

     The two hadn’t said anything more on the subject since then. Though Hironah agreed that maybe the idea of Caiaphas loomed a bit too large in her mind, Uneme’s refusal to show any fear of him needled her. It wasn’t until that afternoon when they started packing up their gear that she’d found a possible reason for the enormous gap in their levels of anxiety. Though Blue would never speak of the details, Hironah came to know through other sources how Caiaphas had tortured him to the brink of death when he was a Champion. She’d grown up under the shadow of his threats, despite all that Blue and Takae did to shelter her. In the end, Caiaphas had been victorious, killing Blue and returning to Qian Ra, from where he’d been banished in death. To Hironah, who had already suffered at the hands of this man, fear came naturally. Uneme, who’d grown up with no such proximity, had no reason to view Caiaphas any differently than the countless others he’d fought against in his years. While she could accept his optimism, Hironah couldn’t help but wish Uneme would at least show a little caution.

     Hironah sighed as she peered into her pack.

     “I think I’m finished,” she informed Uneme. “I’ve gotta go tell Bel I’ll be away for a while.”

     As she crossed the grounds of Kamitouki, Hironah realized she felt relieved to be going away. Her home had become infested with ghosts. They sprung out at her as she turned corners and whispered in her ears as she tried to sleep. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to return victorious. Would these restless souls be silenced in her vengeance? If she could avenge Blue, complete the task that Kaiya and Yoshiki had died before carrying out, perhaps the spirits of her guilt could be laid to rest. She hadn’t considered the possibility of victory, only of failure. This new idea came with an entirely different set of questions. What would become of her if she still remained when all this was over? For that, she had no answer.

     The class that Bel was teaching was nearly over, so Hironah waited in the doorway for it to finish. As a jumble of students filed out, she pressed through them. She ignored the stares they had for their absentee Headmistress. She was aware by now that rumors of her descent into madness had spread like a disease among the students. Bel eyed her quizzically as she approached.

     “Hi, Bel.”

     “Hey, Hironah. What’s up?” he asked casually, replacing a spear on the rack.

     “I’ve got to make a trip to Mianuus. I should be back soon.”

     “Okay,” he replied hesitantly. His look turned skeptical.

     “I know I’ve been away most of the year, but this really can’t wait. I’ve asked a lot of you, Bel… but this is the last time. I promise.”

     “What have you got to go to Mianuus for?” He was staring at her hard now and she shifted under his gaze.

     “Personal business.”

     “Has this got something to do with Harata?”

     She looked him in the eyes but wouldn’t answer.

     “I don’t think you ought to be going to Mianuus. Unless it’s really that important, maybe you should just stay here.”

     “It’s that important. I won’t be all that long.”

     “What’s going on, Hironah? Why didn’t you come home after you went with Sirrah to the Dead City? Kaiya told me something had come up, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. What happened last time you guys were in Mianuus? Tell me what’s happening.”

     Hironah looked away from him.

     “I can’t, not right now. I’ll tell you the whole story when I get back.”

     “Hironah…”

     “Look, Bel, it’s just… it’s complicated, okay? I don’t want you involved.”

     “I get the feeling I ought to be stopping you from going. I don’t like this, Hironah. Something stinks.”

     “It’ll be fine. Stop worrying so much.”

     “If Kaiya was here-”

     “Kaiya’s dead.”

     The vehement finality in her tone caused Bel to flinch. Instinctively, he reached out toward her, but Hironah edged away.

     “I’m going to Mianuus with Uneme.” Her voice was frosted over. “I ask you out of respect for Blue and Takae to be here when I get back.”

     She turned and walked away from him before he had a chance to answer. As he watched her leave the building, silhouetted against the light of the Prime Sun, Bel struggled not to run after her. The pressing feeling of unease within him swelled, and he took a few steps toward the door when the first of his students for the next class ventured in. Sighing, he turned away to prepare for his lesson.

 

      “Quen?”

     The door of the studio creaked open and a youthful, worried face peered in.

     “You should take a break, Renta said. Come have some dinner.”

     “I’ll be down in a few minutes, Hyan.”

     “I’ll wait for you at the top of the steps.”

     “Alright.”

     When Quen emerged from the room, the young Dauern was patiently waiting as promised. Hyan was of medium height and build, with an unruly shock of chestnut brown hair and wide-set green eyes that made him appear younger than his eighteen years. Remarkably attentive to others’ emotions, he vacillated wildly between jovial and relaxed to serious and solemn, depending on the attitudes of those around him. He rose at the sound of Quen’s footsteps on the creaking floorboards.

     As they descended the rickety stairs, Hyan shot a sidelong glance at Quen.

     “It’s nice of you to box up Yoshiki’s things for Renta,” he said softly. “It must be hard.”

     “It’s better that I do it,” Quen replied casually. “It’d be a lot harder for Renta or the rest of you.”

     “But still… Do you feel okay?”

     “I’m fine. It’s been difficult trying to figure out what’s important and what’s not, so I’ve just been boxing everything categorically so that people who know better can go through it all later and redistribute it.” Quen paused, thinking. “People deal with grief in such odd and different ways. My mother, for example, has an old pair of socks sitting in her drawer that she refuses to get rid of because they once belonged to someone she cared a lot about.”

     Hyan was quiet for a moment before responding.

     “I heard Hironah burned all Kaiya’s things.”

     “She did. Like I said, everyone deals with losses differently.”

     Hyan nodded. Tilting his head to peer at Quen, he asked,

     “What about you? How do you deal with it?”

     Yoshiki had coached Quen on how to respond to questions like this. His advice contrasted heavily with Meena’s, who had prompted him to answer with some semblance of honesty.

     “I guess I just try to accept things for what they are, like the Night’s Herald do.”

     It’s not a lie, Yoshiki had told him. It’s just a different take on the truth.

     “I wish I could do that,” Hyan said quietly. “I always get so caught up asking why or wishing that things could be different.”

     “A lot of people do, from what I understand.”

     They said nothing more as they wove through the teeming first floor of the headquarters toward the large area that had been converted into a mess hall. The other members of Sirrah regarded Quen with eyes full of compassion and pity, for he’d been assigned the task that none of the rest of them had wanted. Some wondered how he managed, crippled as he was, but he never complained or asked for help. Quen, under Yoshiki’s careful tutelage, had managed to soften some of his own coldness. The result, despite the fact that he was still regarded as somewhat aloof and inaccessible, was that he emerged in the collective mind of Sirrah’s members as someone who possessed great fortitude and strength of spirit. It was no secret that Hyan worshipped him, frequently trotting at his side like a love-struck puppy. No one envied Quen the duty of packing Yoshiki’s worldly possessions, and since none of them was aware that he could not be touched by sentiment or moved by longing, they spoke quietly of his resolve amongst themselves.

     Renta rose from the table where he’d been sitting when he saw Quen and Hyan enter the mess hall. He walked over to them with long strides.

     “How’s it going?” he asked.

     “I’m nearly finished,” Quen replied.

     Renta nodded solemnly. Turning to Hyan, he gestured at Quen.

     “Get this guy sommat to eat, okay? We’re gonna go sit down.”

     As the Dauern trotted off obediently, Renta led Quen to a different, smaller table in a far corner and sat down with him.

     “Thanks a lot, Quen.”

     “It’s no trouble to me. I can’t feel any of the same pain you do. You know, I’ve never envied any of you the ability to feel emotions. It seems quite unfortunate.”

     “Sometimes it is,” Renta agreed, his voice full of gloom. Brightening, he added, “But not always.”

     After furtively checking to see that they were out of earshot of anyone else, Quen asked in a whisper,

     “Have you decided whether or not you’re going to stay?”

     “I still haven’t. I’m having a lot of trouble deciding what the more Honorable course would be. If I leave, entrust Sirrah to someone else, it looks like I’ve gotten cold feet. I know that’s not the case, but it reflects poorly on Yoshiki, who chose me as his Second. And I have that obligation to him, too. On the other hand, my being here is causing Yume a lot of pain. She’s worried and afraid, and I’ve left her alone in her grief. Chiesara’s made it plain that she wants me to quit and do something else with my life. But this is the only thing I’ve done for so long, I don’t know what else I could do. I’m trying to decide which course is really for the best.”    

     “The way you put it, it does seem like a quandary.”

     “I’m pretty torn.”

     “Is there anyone here who would be capable of taking your place?”

     “My aide, Juriaan, is more than competent. He’s been around since Yoshiki assumed command, and has always been dependable. Yoshiki often asked him to head up squadrons like the one he left in Nira when he went with you and Hironah to Mianuus. He’d make a strong leader, but like I said, I’m worried about leaving just now.” Renta sighed. “You know, one time I asked Kaiya how come it was that he never got scared of anything. He just shrugs and tells me that it doesn’t matter, that if something happens it was the right thing to happen. He said it’s always time to leave when you’re walking out the door. I thought he meant that about death, but I’m starting to think he meant it about everything. I can’t make the wrong decision, but either one will have consequences.”

     “That is true,” Quen replied. “Kaiya was very wise.”

     “He was like Yoshiki’s big brother. Whenever he had a problem that he couldn’t figure out, he’d take it to Kaiya… but not about girls, though. That was the one exception. Kaiya was a hopeless romantic.”

     Hyan arrived at the table with a tray laden with the evening’s available fare. He set it before Quen and sat down to join them. The conversation turned to lighter matters. Quen was halfway through his meal when another member of Sirrah, who was meant to be one of those guarding the door, approached the table. He appeared somewhat shaken, and Renta eyed him with concern.

     “Yes?”

     “There are some men here from the Musubiki, Sir,” the young man answered, his voice quavering.

     “The Musubiki? How in the name of the gods did they know how to get here?”

     “I don’t know, Sir.” After a pause, the guard went on. “They’re asking for Quen.”

     Renta’s dark eyes met Quen’s pale ones.

     “Kill them,” the Angemal commanded.

     “No,” Quen said firmly, gripping Renta’s arm with the hand that remained. “You’ll only bring their wrath down on you. Trust me, you don’t want to make them your enemies. I’ll go with them.”

     “But-”

     “I thank you for all that you and Yoshiki have done for me.” Rising, Quen moved to stand beside the guard. “But it seems it’s time for me to leave.”

     “Quen?” Hyan looked up, his youthful face full of concern.

     “Goodbye, Hyan. Take care of yourself.”

     “Where are you going? Why is the Musubiki-”

     “That’s enough, Hyan,” Renta silenced him grimly.

     The Dauern watched helplessly as Quen followed behind the guard out of the mess hall. He turned his eyes pleadingly on Renta, who’d picked up a fork and was sullenly stabbing at the tabletop with it. He didn’t look up, and so Hyan sprung from his chair and raced out of the room. Already abuzz with whispers, many of the other members of Sirrah got up and followed him.

     By the time Hyan made it to the door, the men from the Musubiki, dressed in dark uniforms like the one Uneme used to wear, were already leading Quen away. As the Dauern stumbled out of the building, a crowd formed behind him. The men continued to walk away, their backs to Sirrah with Quen between them. It looked as though they would continue on that way until the sight of them was lost in the darkness, but one spun on his heel abruptly and turned Quen toward the building. Quen’s face, barely visible, was devoid of emotion. He looked on the members of Sirrah with the same emptiness that he had for everything else- seeing, recognizing, but somehow vastly separated from them. Hyan took a step forward.

     The man who’d turned spoke.

     “Let this be a warning to anyone who would think it advisable to go against the Musubiki.”

     Quen’s face disappeared, replaced by a bloody mass, as the sound of a gun echoed in the trees. His body crumpled to the snow-covered ground, a dark stain spreading from his head. Hyan howled in rage. The man who’d spoken drew his own gun and waggled it at the Dauern with a defiant look.

     “Don’t be a hero, little guy,” he said. “One peep out of you, one sniff of trouble, and it’s all over. We could wipe out your little nest of hooligans in less than an hour.” He smiled cruelly. “Ta, now.”

     The two men picked up Quen’s bleeding body and continued on their way. No one made a move to stop them.

     Hours later, as Hyan stared down at the place where Quen had died, he noticed something glinting in the dawn light amidst the blood. He reached down and picked it up, wiping the blood and snow away with his thumb. It was a small, twisted piece of metal, no bigger than the tip of his finger. Wondering if perhaps it was part of the bullet that killed his friend, he placed it carefully in his pocket. Quen had been right. It truly was difficult to predict what would become a memento of an ended life.

 

     Hironah, in a state of shock, watched Uneme blankly as he oiled the hinges of a very old and rusted metal grate in the ground. She was crouched behind a bush, and he paid her no attention, intent as he was on his work. They were on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, though nowhere near the actual home of the Imperial Family itself. Long ago, in the days before electricity and central heating, this area had been used for the outbuildings that housed the stables, kitchens, and the vast boiler that provided steam heating- and later electricity- for the Palace itself. The building beside which they were hidden still boasted its tall smokestack. With the advances in technology, the now outmoded structures had been converted into guest houses. Since the lockdown of the Palace, they had stood empty and unused. The guest houses and the gardens that surrounded them had been cordoned off from the rest of the grounds as months wore on without an end to the sequestering. Though still patrolled several times a day, the area reserved for guests was not nearly as heavily guarded as the main building. Hironah and Uneme had been able to slip through the spaces in the decorative wrought iron gates without alerting anyone.

     Hironah, for her part, could not believe they were doing this. She’d been astounded the night before when Uneme gave her the details of his plans as they rode the northbound train.

     “Wait, you’re saying that you want to break into the Palace?”

     “That’s right.”

     “Uneme, that’s impossible! The place is crawling with guards. It’s got walls all around it. There’s no way in.”

     The Angemal turned his yellow eyes on her. He smiled slightly.

     “I think I might know a way in.”

     Hironah stared at him in disbelief.

     “I stress- might.”

     He explained to her the defunct heating system and the system of underground tunnels it necessitated. There would be a tunnel leading directly into the Palace itself. They’d be able to access this tunnel through the vacant grounds where the guest houses stood.

     “How do you know all this?” She eyed him skeptically.

     “Mirai was a guest at the Palace shortly before the Imperial Family stopped receiving visitors. It was my job to look for stuff like that- possible security breaches or anything else that could’ve put Mirai in danger. I didn’t really need to worry that much about her at the Palace, but I noticed anyway, out of force of habit.” He sighed. “It may not work. The tunnels may have collapsed a long time ago, or may have been sealed off where they open into the Palace. There may be a guard posted there, just in case. The grounds where the guest houses are may still be patrolled. We could even get lost underground. But it’s worth a shot.”

     “I don’t see why we need to sneak in.”

     “We have to get Harata alone. I can’t think of any other way.”

     “I was thinking maybe Kat-”

     “Do you honestly think she’d be able to convince Harata to meet with you again? And if so, in private without guards or attendants?”

     “I guess not,” Hironah conceded. “But what does it matter about the guards anyway? It’s not like we’re going there to hurt him. It doesn’t matter what they hear.”

     “It does matter, Hironah. If Caiaphas is involved, Harata may well be a prisoner in his own home. The guards may not only be protecting him- they may be holding him captive.”

     Hironah sighed heavily.

     “I suppose you’re right, though I’ve got to admit the idea of sneaking into the Palace doesn’t really appeal to me.”

     “If you come up with something different, I’d be happy to change plans.”

     “I’ll think about it.”

     Though she’d wracked her brains, Hironah had been unable to come up with a better idea. When they arrived in Mianuus, the pair decided to spend the day window-shopping. They poked around in a variety of stores, drank tea in a quaint little café, and dined that evening in a rather upscale restaurant. Hironah felt herself full of longing. This is what their life would’ve been if they’d met under different circumstances. There were times when she forgot the dreaded event to come and she relaxed, losing herself in her enjoyment of Uneme’s company and his observations. Occasionally, the part of her that took the education Blue had given her most seriously told her she ought to be spending the day in prayer and meditation, as Kaiya had spent his last. The part of her that was still furious over his death countered that prayer certainly hadn’t helped him any. As the day wore into night, Hironah and Uneme roamed the city, innocuous as any other tourists, their weapons stashed away behind a dumpster in an alley not far from the Palace. When the time drew near for their invasion, they returned to the alley and stripped themselves of their winter coats and hats, replacing them with the arsenal that had mercifully not been discovered.

     Uneme motioned silently to Hironah. He’d finished his work, and now the heavy grate moved with no more than a whisper of sound. She scurried to his side and he held up his hand for her to wait. In the coded hand signals of Sirrah, he informed her that he intended to descend the ancient, rickety iron ladder first. She signaled her acquiescence. This was no time to argue. She watched him disappear into darkness. A few heartbeats passed before she followed.  

 

 

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