“I’m going to need to see some permits for those weapons.”

     Hironah, not at all surprised, laid her swords and the sapphire-capped dagger she’d recently inherited on the counter and fished out the card that was proof she was allowed to carry them. She handed it over to the Angemal guard as Yoshiki began piling his veritable arsenal on the countertop. Unlike many members of gangs like Sirrah, Yoshiki had managed to obtain a license for his weapons through his well-connected family.

     “Blackriver…” the guard read Hironah’s name aloud. “Are you…?”

     “Yeah,” she replied without emotion. This was a common scenario.

     “So these are… These are his swords.”

     Last I checked they were mine.

     “May I?” the young man asked, reaching out to the pair of swords.

     “Knock yourself out.”

     “My mom was a Champion, too,” Yoshiki informed the Angemal, who ignored him. “So was my uncle.”

     The young guard continued to examine Dawn and Dusk reverently while Yoshiki finished piling up his guns- one rifle, two pistols, a compact sub-machine gun and a revolver- followed by a collection of narrow throwing knives and an evil-looking machete. He attempted to hand his permit over to the guard, who continued to ignore him.

     “Hello?”

     “I think we’ve lost him,” joked Hironah.

     “Sorry,” the guard said sheepishly, blushing. “I just can’t believe I’m face to face with the daughter of the Commander. And these- these are relics, man.”

     “She’s single,” Yoshiki offered. “Wanna take her on a date?”

     “I… um… uh… Where’s your permit?”

     “Here,” Yoshiki answered, thrusting the card under the young man’s nose.

     “Okay, well… uh, these seem to be in order,” the guard said, still flustered. “Anyone else?”

     To the shock of his companions, Quen stepped forward and removed a pistol from a shoulder holster concealed under his dark jacket and handed it to the guard, along with the permit he had for it.

     “Delving… wow… as in Meena, House of Delving?”

     “What is it with this guy?” Yoshiki muttered as Quen answered,

     “Yes.”

     “Is she your mother?”

     “Yes.”

     “By the gods,” whispered the guard. “Um… do you think… I mean, if you wouldn’t mind… um, could I get a picture with you guys?”

     “Are you unaware that we have to get on a train?” asked Yoshiki in frustration.

     “Sorry, sorry… but it’ll only take a second. Please?”

     The guard produced a camera from behind the counter. People lined up behind the group were beginning to mutter.

     “I think we’ll have to agree if we ever want to get out of here,” Hironah said with a smirk.

     “You even look like him!” the guard exclaimed, scurrying out from behind the counter. He quickly shoved the camera into Seiken’s hands. Bewildered, the Decameron took the picture, and the five were finally allowed to proceed.

    “Thank you!” the Angemal was calling after them, as a furious superior officer was shoving his way through the line to see what the hold up was all about.

     “I can’t take you anywhere,” Yoshiki said to Hironah as the group boarded the train.

     They’d traveled from Nira to Kinumi, where they would take an overnight train to Mianuus. There weren’t many cabins left on such short notice, forcing the group of five to book a cabin for four. Seiken immediately offered to sleep on the floor. No one but Yume argued with him, and she only out of politeness. She conceded rapidly.

     The cabin was cramped, but Yoshiki seemed to take no notice as he flopped himself onto a top bunk with a luxuriant sigh. Hironah noticed Seiken regard him with a shy smile. Quen wordlessly claimed the bunk below Yoshiki’s. He barely spoke, though his silence seemed to come more from self-assurance than any form of awkwardness. Hironah, knowing from experience that Yume preferred bottom bunks, swung herself up to perch above.

     “Don’t sit on the floor, Seiken, just because you’ve got to sleep there. You can sit next to me.” Yume patted the mattress where she sat.

   “Thanks, Yume,” he replied in his soft, skittish way. He sat down beside her gingerly, careful not to touch her, as though her skin might be electrified. Yume politely ignored his behavior.

     “I didn’t know you carried, Quen,” Yoshiki said conversationally, hanging over the bunk to dangle in front of Meena’s son.

     “Excuse me?”

     “You have a gun.”

     “Yes, I do.”

     “Lemme see it?” Yoshiki reminded his sister very strongly of a monkey reaching for a banana. Quen wordlessly handed him the weapon, and Yoshiki flopped back on the bunk to inspect it.

     “This is a nice piece. How’s it handle?”

     “It does what it’s supposed to.”

     Yume, sensing a jab coming from her brother’s end, quickly interrupted the conversation.

     “So, you grew up in Morika’en, Quen?”

     “Yes, I did.”

     “It’s pretty rural there, isn’t it? Where did you go to school?”

     “I didn’t. My mother oversaw my education.”

     “That must’ve been kind of lonely,” Yume observed.

     “I’ve never felt lonely.”

     “That’s good… I went to boarding school in Rien, but in the summer I missed my friends a lot. My parents live in the middle of the woods. It’s hard to get anywhere. Maybe it’s similar to Morika’en.”

     “I suppose it is,” Quen said without enthusiasm.

     Yoshiki resumed his dangling as he handed the gun back to Quen.

     “Didn’t your ma used to make guns and all?” he asked.

     “She used to, yes.”

     “You don’t talk to people too often, do you, Quen?” Yoshiki probed.

     “No, I suppose not.”

     “Didn’t think so,” Yoshiki said with a laugh.

     “Not everybody’s as talkative as you, Yoshiki,” Yume countered.

     “Nobody could be,” Hironah put in.

     “Hey,” Yoshiki protested as the girls laughed.

     Seiken, seated on the bunk beside Yume, recalled a fairy tale he’d once heard about a Corduran magician with an enchanted ring that could make him invisible. In the past few weeks he’d wished a number of times that he, too, had such a ring. He felt that vague longing pull at him now, that wish to disappear. Seiken looked back upon his fate- guest of a hundred houses, resident of none- with a silent inward sigh. It was the people, he realized, the way they knew each other in such an intimate way- that was what made him shudder so among them. He would tarry with them as long as he was needed- salvager of life or angel of death- and wander off again in solitude. It had been hard to swallow at first, some twelve years ago with the dissolution of his Outpost, that he would be forced to meander, alone, possibly for the rest of his life. As the years passed, the solitude and homelessness became easier to bear. His family was out there somewhere, scattered, but as much as he longed for a reunion he feared that they were now as much strangers to him as all the other people he met in his journeys.

     Having no intimate relationships, Seiken felt that he was forgetting humanity. He could no longer fully understand what it was that made people smile, or laugh, or weep. He never knew what to expect when he spoke with others, and had somehow developed a terror of making conversational missteps. He was unable to put his finger on just what it was he was afraid of. Perhaps his mistakes were evidence of his total detachment from others, and it was that very evidence he didn’t want to be aware of. Most of the time it didn’t matter. In the households where he found passing employment, he was rarely spoken to, except on matters of “business”.

     Kamitouki had been different.

     Knowledge of the borrowed book that slept nestled in the shapeless black bag he carried everywhere made his mind turn to Kaiya.

     “Take it with you,” he’d said.

     “Are you sure? You don’t mind?” Seiken answered.

     “Don’t worry about it. I’ve read that book a hundred times. I think I might have it memorized.”

     Kaiya laughed and Seiken smiled back at him.

     “Thanks, Kaiya. It’s really interesting.”

     “I thought you might like that one.”

     The smile that Kaiya shot Seiken was conspiratorial, as though they shared some private knowledge of one another. His warmth was so alien to Seiken, who at once felt both thankful for and fearful of it. Kaiya had somehow managed to move into an area of Seiken’s mind that didn’t equate him with stranger- in fact, there seemed to be no category into which the Night’s Herald might fall. None of the people he’d met at Kamitouki seemed to want to fall into categories. Seiken supposed that Blue was the best example…

     His reverie was broken by Yoshiki’s raucous voice calling,

     “Seiken! Seiken, tell everybody the joke about the chicken.”

 

     In the dark, Hironah felt the swaying of the train, heard the cah-dunk, cah-dunk of its passage over the tracks mingled with the noises of her slumbering companions. Yoshiki, of course, had been the first to fall asleep. He always was. Hironah had long envied the self-assurance with which he could just drift off, unhindered by worldly anxieties. Now they all dreamt, even Seiken who’d fallen asleep last of all. Still the workings of her mind kept her awake. Was everything okay at home? What kind of reception awaited her in Mianuus? Unable to sleep, Hironah turned over in her bunk yet again and remembered the morning.

     She’d gone to say goodbye to Takae. She knocked her knock, then entered tentatively when she received no reply. He was still in bed on the cushions laid over the rush-matted floor of the room, but that didn’t surprise her. She checked to see if he was sleeping. He wasn’t.

     “Dad?”

     Thankfully, his eyes moved to meet her own. Hironah sat down beside him.

      “I’m going away for a couple of days,” she informed him, hand on his shoulder, “to Mianuus.”

     Takae’s expression didn’t change, but he nodded slightly.

     “I wouldn’t go, but it’s kind of important. I’ll be back soon. I’m taking Seiken with me, so if you don’t see him around, don’t be worried.”

     Nod.

     Shit.

     “That’s all I wanted to tell you. Auntie Chiesara and Uncle Kieran are going home today, too, but Kaiya will be here.”

     Nod.

     Not both of you. Please.

     “I love you, Dad,” she whispered, hugging him. He returned her embrace, and in a voice that seemed to come from far away replied,

     “I love you, too, honey.”

     She pulled away slightly to look into his eyes, and seeing him there whispered,

     “I know. I know it’s hard, but please try. Please try to stay with me. I can’t stand this.”

     “Mmm,” was all he could manage, but she could see that he heard her, understood. Not like other times.

     “Just leave him be, Hironah,” Blue’s voice spoke in her memory. She was a child again.

     “Why does he do this?” she’d asked in desperation.

     “He doesn’t want to, love. He can’t help it. Leave him be for now, until you have some news for him.”

     “Why should I bother, if he doesn’t listen?”

     “Hironah,” Blue said softly, “remember the time you went off in the woods?”

     “Yeah…”

     “Remember how you got lost? It was scary, wasn’t it?”

     “Uh-huh. I got scared no one would find me.”

     “Takae and I looked for you all day. We called you and called you until finally you answered.”

     Hironah nodded solemnly, remembered fear making her quake slightly.

     “Taka gets lost in his mind, the same way you were lost in the woods. We have to keep calling… even if he doesn’t answer for a while. We can’t give up on him, or else he might just be lost forever.”
“But why? How come he gets lost? Why doesn’t he just stay where he belongs, like you told me to?”

     “Nobody knows, love. He’s just sick.”

     Hironah had a sudden thought.

     “Like little Aki?”

     “A bit different.”

     Hironah rolled over again. Still the train carried on, Yoshiki snored, Seiken fidgeted even in sleep. Yume muttered occasionally. Quen slept deep and unbroken, lying rigidly on his bunk. In the dark, Hironah regarded him with the coldness she reserved for unknown persons. He was so still, he might have been a statue. It’s like he’s not even human.

     She tried to drum up what memories she had of his mother. She could barely remember having seen Meena on one occasion. The rest of Hironah’s knowledge came from what Blue, Chiesara and Takae had told her of their days as Champions. From what she gathered, Meena was a reclusive, cold woman with less than admirable morals. She’d been closest to Hironah’s biological parents, who were mysteries to Hironah, as much as the woman in question. That made her realize something… Quen, unlike Hironah, bore his mother’s name. It had been there on his weapons permit. I guess that could answer Auntie Chiesara’s question… Boy’s possibly more of a bastard than I am. Of course, with a Sabian it could go either way. With a rush of bitterness, she thought, At least his mom didn’t dump him on a friend’s doorstep.

     It was different, Hironah knew. Besides, she loved Blue and Takae. They’d been good parents. Yet, on these nights when she couldn’t get to sleep, she always found her mind eventually turned to questions she’d had all her life. Had her mother abandoned her to keep her safe, like everyone said, or had she simply not wanted her? Kaiya had once divulged a family secret- Harata and Kat had at one time insisted on raising Hironah. They’d gone so far as to fight with Blue and Takae face to face over it. During the argument it had been pointed out that Aya chose to leave Hironah at the temple, rather than in Mianuus. It must’ve been there that she felt her child would be safe. Despite Harata’s persistence, Hironah remained in Nira. Though the two families reconciled, Hironah now wondered if it wasn’t bitterness that had caused the Imperial Family to ignore her own. It seemed irrational, but then again she hadn’t seen any of them for about three years. Was this evidence of a feud she’d been left out of, but was at the same time the center of? I guess I’ll know tomorrow.

 

     “No admittance.”

     Undaunted, Hironah handed her ID to the guard.

     “I’m here on family business.”

     “I recognized you, Miss Blackriver. And even if you were here to say that the world was coming to an end- again- you still couldn’t come in. No admittance.”

     “I’ll make an appointment, then. Is there someone I could talk to-”

     “You can’t make an appointment. The Family isn’t receiving guests of any sort.”

     “I want to see Renata and Reina.”

     “It wouldn’t matter if you were here to see the dogs. Please go away.”

     “You’re telling me I can’t even visit my own cousins?”

     “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”

     Hironah faced the Angemal with what Kaiya called her “do it or I’ll kill you” look.

     “Is there a reason for this sequestering?”

     “I don’t have to tell you that.”

     “Who ordered this?”

     “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Look buddy, I know you’re only doing your job, but I really need to talk to them.”

     “You and everybody else.”

     “Yeah, but I’m not everybody else. I’m a member of this family, too.”

     The guard seemed to struggle for a moment. With a sigh he said,

     “Nobody’s getting in, Miss Blackriver. Yesterday, I had to turn away Queen Shaia of Anrakshi. What a scene that was.”

     “But-”

     “I can’t let you in. That’s all there is to it. Go away, or we’ll be forced to make you go away.”

     “Fine.”

     After walking a few blocks from the palace, Hironah fumed,

     “Well, that was pointless.”

     “Shady, don’t you think?” Yoshiki responded. “I wonder what’s going on in there?”

     Hironah took no notice of the crafty tone her cousin’s voice had taken on.

     “They won’t meet with the officials from Musubiki, either… but mother was sure you’d get in.” Quen offered this information as though he was reading it from a textbook.

     “It is strange,” Hironah admitted.

     “I say we break in,” Yoshiki stated.

     “No. No breaking and entering. If they want to be left alone, I’m sure they’ve got a reason for it.”

     They walked another block before Hironah put her hand to her head.

     “Oh, gods… Aki. Maybe something happened to Aki.” Her voice shook.

     Yume rushed to comfort her.

     “Nothing happened, Hironah. If it was anything like that you know the Media would be all over it. Besides, didn’t Meena tell you he was okay?”

     “Yeah, but-”

     “That isn’t the problem,” Quen said flatly.

     “You know more about this than you let on,” Hironah observed. “What else aren’t you telling us?”

     Quen said nothing.

     “Fess up,” Yoshiki commanded.

     “At this point, I know no more than you do.” Quen’s voice was calm, emotionless. “Mother asked me to come here, presumably due to some remaining loyalty she has for the Imperial Family. The Musubiki is concerned, of course, but their minds are on other matters. As for the Crown Prince, no harm has befallen him. The Musubiki has seen to that. The reason for the seclusion of the Imperial Family lies elsewhere. Mother has asked me to discover what it is.”

     “Maybe Meena’s making more out of this than there is,” Yume offered. “There’s so much going on with the Zeit coming up. It could just be that they’re busy and want to be left alone.”

     “Kat asked Meena for help, though…” Hironah trailed off.

     “I say we use whatever means necessary to find out what this is all about.” Yoshiki’s hand strayed to the pistol at his hip.

     “We can’t just storm the Imperial Palace, Yoshiki! Be reasonable. We have to face it- there’s nothing we can do about this. We have our own families to worry about. Harata will have to put in an appearance at the Zeit. If things haven’t changed by then, we can try again.”

     “Hironah’s right,” Yume said firmly.

     “Harata’s family is your family, Hironah,” Yoshiki argued.

     Hironah eyed her cousin angrily.

     “And I don’t like being reminded that I have to choose between them and Taka. What I decide to do is my business. I came all the way out here for no reason when who knows what’s going on at home. Let Harata take care of himself. I want to go home.”

     “I don’t know what makes you think anything’s going on back in Nira.”

     “I just do, okay? I wish I hadn’t come here.”

     Yoshiki opened his mouth to reply, but Yume beat him to it.

     “Well, at any rate, we can’t leave until tomorrow. What should we do until then?”

     The small group walked on for a while, before Hironah spoke.

     “I want to visit Blue’s old temple.”

     No one felt much like arguing with her.

     “Let’s do that, then,” Yume said brightly. “We’ll need to find a place to stay…”

     “Why don’t we just camp on the beach?” Yoshiki suggested. “It’ll be fun, not to mention free.”

     “I dunno,” Yume replied dubiously. “Isn’t that a little dangerous?”

     “Not now. Look around- this city’s crawling with cops. Nobody will mess with us.”

     It was true. With preparations for the Zeit underway, security in the city was stepped up almost alarmingly. As the five travelers wove their way through the streets, police eyed the heavily armed Yoshiki and Hironah suspiciously. Even a slight whiff of violence would bring a large force down upon them. After another few minutes of discussion, it was decided that they’d go to the temple in the Parks, then head down to the beach. Only Yume seemed nervous, but knew from long years of experience that once Hironah and Yoshiki agreed on something, not even the gods could sway them. 

  

 

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