“So Kaiya just looks at the guy… Next thing I know the two of them are beating the living daylights out of each other. I mean, really going at it… When they get done, the big dude’s laid out on the floor and there’s just blood and teeth all over the place. Kaiya sits down and looks at me like nothing happened at all and goes, ‘So, what were you saying about the rabbit?’ Never know it to look at the guy, but he’s not one I’d ever want to go up against.”

     Yoshiki’s voice carried down the beach. He finished his tale with a laugh.

     “You’ve known each other a long time,” Seiken observed quietly.

     “Kaiya? I’ve known him all my life. You won’t meet a nicer guy… unless you piss him off.” Seeing Seiken’s discomfort, Yoshiki added, “But it’s pretty hard to make him angry. As a matter of fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen it happen. Night’s Herald and all that… hard people to piss off.”

     Seiken merely nodded.

     “Kaiya tells me you might be staying at Kamitouki.”

     “That’s up to Hironah. I… I don’t think she likes me very much.”

     “Hironah? Don’t let her get to you. She doesn’t like anyone she hasn’t known for more than three years. If you want her trust, you really have to earn it. I blame the Angemal blood. What’s more important is for Kaiya to want you around. If that’s what he wants, he’ll get it. Hironah would set herself on fire if she thought that would make him happy.”

     Seiken nodded again.

     “Do you wanna stay?” Yoshiki probed. “I mean, I guess it would be nice for you to have somewhere to hang your hat.”

     “I… It’s not really for me to decide, I guess.”

     “Listen, if Hironah does give you the boot, why don’t you come and hang with Sirrah for a while? We could use a Decameron.”

     “I- I’ll keep it in mind.” Flushing in the dark, Seiken added, “Thanks for the offer.”

     “I mean it. You could-”

     Yoshiki ran headlong into Yume, who’d stopped abruptly.

     “What’s that?” she pondered aloud, pointing down the beach. Hironah threw out her arm protectively, holding Yume back from investigating.

     “Who cares? Watch where you’re going!” Yoshiki reprimanded his sister.

     They gazed down the shoreline to where Yume was pointing.

     “What’s the matter?” asked Quen as he came up behind the others.

     “Yume thinks she’s a beachcomber.”

     “No, look, Yoshiki. See that? At the edge of the water…”

     “It’s just a rock.”

     The water broke around a dark mass. It was longish, perhaps a somewhat flat, oblong rock. At its base was a tangle of gleaming white, maybe a cloth or a bag made of plastic. Night had fallen and it was too dark on the beach to see clearly. Without warning, Seiken broke from the others and began trotting through the sand toward whatever it was.

     “Seiken?” Hironah called. “What’s he doing?”

     Yoshiki shrugged, then followed after him. Sighing, Hironah turned to Yume and said,

     “You stay here. Quen, stay with her?”

     “Alright,” Quen replied. He sounded disinterested.

     Seiken had reached whatever it was in the water. As she made her way down the beach, Hironah saw him crouch down in the surf, seemingly oblivious to the water. He reached down and began dragging whatever it was away from the reach of the waves. Yoshiki quickened his pace and joined Seiken, helping to lift… Was that a person? Hironah jogged the rest of the way down the beach.

     It was a young woman. She was dressed in a sodden, shapeless sack of a robe, apparently black or some other dark shade. The white they’d noticed was her hair, a long and tangled mass the likes of which Hironah had never seen before. In the pale moonlight, her skin gleamed white as well, impossibly white…

     “She’s dead, Seiken,” Hironah murmured.

      He ignored her. Setting the young woman on the sand, he turned to Yoshiki.

     “Have you got a light? Flashlight? Anything?”

     “No, sorry, I-”

     “Go ask Yume and Quen.”

     As Yoshiki turned wordlessly and ran back up the beach, Hironah regarded Seiken as he bent over the drowned girl. It was as though he’d transformed into an entirely different person. His actions were swift and sure, his voice steady. As she watched him work, she wondered if perhaps she’d misjudged him. It wasn’t just the hidden confidence- there was a tragic nobility in his attempts on what surely must’ve been a very dead young woman. It had been the same with Blue, she realized, in slow motion. Yet he hadn’t given up then, either.

     Hironah was shocked when the young woman sputtered. Seiken held her gently as she retched. When her fit of coughing had subsided, she clung to him and he was whispering something to her, stroking her hair. The overwhelming tenderness with which he treated her made Hironah turn away, gnawing her lip. You did that for him, too… She wanted to cast her heart into the gently undulating waves, she’d grown so tired of its ache. How can you show such love for people you don’t even know?

     Yoshiki returned with Quen and Yume in tow. The young woman was coming around, looking groggily at Seiken with colorless eyes. Unexpectedly, Quen shoved Yoshiki out of the way and went to stand before Seiken and his charge.

     “Oh, it’s you,” she said, looking up at him, before Quen could say a word. “Hello.”

     “Hello? What-”

     “Mirai!” a voice called from down the beach. “Get away from her! Get back or I’ll shoot!”

     A dark figure was running through the sand toward them. Yoshiki drew one of his pistols, and Seiken tensed. Quen, however, coolly instructed,

     “Do as he says. Get back.”

     “What the-” Hironah started.

     “Do it!” Quen barked.

     The others fell back away from the young woman. The man reached them, gun pointed threateningly at Yoshiki.

     “Drop it!”

     Yoshiki did as he was told. The man was tall and muscular, dressed in a black uniform, unidentifiable emblems shining in the darkness. His close-cropped hair was dark, his eyes shadowed pits. He snarled at the group with menace. The darkness where his eyes would be widened as they fell on Quen.

     “What’s the meaning of this?” the man demanded. “Who are these people?”

     “Bystanders,” Quen replied without emotion. “Why are you two here?”

     “Mirai…” the man began, then trailed off. Turning to the young woman, he said, “Mirai, what happened?”

     She shrugged, but didn’t answer him.

     “Mirai…” There was a warning note in the man’s voice.

     “Uneme,” Quen said, “what’s she doing here?”

     “I don’t know myself. Mirai, what was it? Were you kidnapped? Did you leave on your own? What happened? Tell me!”

     The young woman simply gazed up at him, coughing softly.

     “If it’s all the same to you,” Seiken put in, “she needs help. Please, let me see to her.”

     “As you will,” the man said grudgingly. As Seiken returned to the young woman, the man turned away. Quen followed him up the beach.

     “This is weird,” Yoshiki said to Hironah, who only nodded.

     After a time, Quen and the man returned.

     “This is Uneme,” Quen informed the others. “He works for the Musubiki. Mirai is his ward. As for what she’s doing here… only she knows, apparently.”

     They all introduced themselves, somewhat hesitantly.

     “Why don’t we build a fire?” Hironah suggested to Yoshiki. “Here’s as good a place as any.”

     “Yeah…” Yoshiki answered. “Yume, come with us.”

     “But-”

     “Come on, Yume.”

     She followed. Once they reached the border of the woods that spilled into the beach, parklands where Harata had once taken refuge, Hironah said,

     “Something about this stinks.”

     “Seriously,” replied Yoshiki, bending to pick up a fallen branch. “I’m starting to think that Quen’s a bad apple.”

     “Is Seiken okay?” Yume asked nervously.

     “Let him take care of himself,” Hironah said flatly.

     “Hironah-”

     “Just get firewood, Yume,” Yoshiki instructed. “Never mind about Seiken.”

     After a few moments of silence, he added to Hironah,

     “You know what I think already.”

     “Yoshiki, you want to kill half the people you meet.”

     “Really, Hironah. I say we off the both of them. It won’t be hard. Maybe we should do the girl, too. Just to be safe.”

     “You heard Quen. He’s Musubiki. Are you or aren’t you on their side?”

     “At this point, I’m on my own side.”

     “Look, Yoshiki, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the Ghost Clan and the Musubiki after me. Look at Seiken. The guy’s a mess.”

     “Yeah, but-”

     “You’re just caught up in the heat of the moment,” Hironah said sagely. “If you cool off and still think it’s a good idea-”

     “I hate you Night’s Herald.”

     “I’m not-”

     “You sound like one. You sound like Blue and Kaiya.”

     “Better for us then.” Her arms full of branches, Hironah headed back for the beach. Yume followed her.

 

 

     In the light of the bonfire, Hironah and Uneme were deep in discussion. They’d been talking to one another for some time, conversation lubricated by the beer Yoshiki insisted on buying. He was talking to Quen, apparently discussing some battle or other, arms flailing. Seiken was busy with the mysterious Mirai, who remained pale as marble, but had sat up and was now chatting with the Decameron. Yume sat alone.

     Again.

     It had always been that way. Ever since she was young, ever since Yoshiki had been sent to live at Kamitouki it had been that way. He came back, but things were never the same. He was never the same… and she, she was changed as well. The years it took to return to some semblance of normal… Yume shuddered.

     It wasn’t my fault. Why do they all act like it was?

     Part of her realized that wasn’t the problem. Part of her did realize that it was merely that they’d seen her mortality, making her life far more precious than their own. She knew how frightened her family had been, even Yoshiki who’d been sent to live far away that he might escape the disease that claimed her.

     But I got better.

     I did.

     Sure, it had taken years of rehab. Sure, even after that torture was over, she’d never been quite as gregarious and energetic as she had been before… but did they have to keep treating her like a convalescent? It was years ago! She had a life now, her own life. She had her own dreams, her own friends. Suddenly, it struck her. Maybe that’s what set her apart from Hironah, Yoshiki and Kaiya. They ran in the same circle, doing the same things… what she did was different. They would forever push against the boundaries, while she was content to live within them. The life she had ahead of her was a good one, no reason to ask for more. The only thing she wished was that she could meet some nice guy who was cute and didn’t care much that she was a half-Clan.

     A guy like…?

     No. She banished the image of the smiling young man from her mind. No, never. Of course she liked him. He was handsome, brave, funny… but she’d really been hoping to meet a guy who was GelbFaust or Corduran, something close to her own blood. Something he wasn’t.

     Now who’s prejudiced?

     It was just closing the gap. She wasn’t sure her parents had done the right thing, mixing blood like that. She couldn’t really question them, of course- if they hadn’t, she wouldn’t exist, she supposed. Yet, if she was to marry and have children, she wanted it to be with someone whose blood she already shared. She didn’t want to be like her own parents, like Hironah’s. She wanted to be with someone who had something in common with her.

     “Yume?” Seiken’s hesitant voice broke her reverie. “Are you okay? You’re very quiet.”

     “Fine, Seiken,” I shouldn’t feel relieved. “I’m fine.”

 

     The fire had burned down to embers. Above, the black of night receded from the sky, replaced by pale blue and coral, clouds of dusky purple and vibrant pink. The Prime Sun was no more than an orange sliver on the horizon. The Black Sun was nowhere to be seen. Uneme and Hironah sat in silence, watching the changing sky.

     The others were asleep, sprawled around the dead campfire. As he had the night before, Quen slept deathlike, making no trace of sound or motion. Yume was curled up beside him. Yoshiki lay spread-eagle on the sand, not far from where Seiken lay on his side, facing Mirai. She was dressed in a motley collection of borrowed clothing, a black band tied around her forehead where Seiken had discovered an old scar. Uneme had given the cloth to Mirai, insisting that she cover the scar, which had obviously come from some serious wound. She slept now with her face pillowed on her hand. Seiken had watched her long into the night, after everyone but Uneme and Hironah had fallen asleep. Even in slumber, his hand rested protectively on the sleeve of the shirt Mirai wore. It was his own.

     Hironah and Uneme had talked through the night. They swapped tales of brawls and battles, history and future. Hironah was fascinated by his life as a mercenary, he by her relation to the legendary Angemal Champion and her knowledge of martial arts. The conversation had finally wound to a close, leaving them in silence to witness the sunrise.

     Hironah studied Uneme in the growing brightness. There was a coldness to his features- the sharpness of his nose, the twist of his thin lips as he smiled, the dark pits of his eyes. Those eyes were wide and slightly slanted, his yellow irises gazing out over the sea. His hair was very straight and short, a dark forest green. The emblems on the black uniform he wore identified him as a mercenary in the employ of the Musubiki.

     He was the bodyguard of the young woman, Mirai. In a manner that Hironah found somewhat cruel, both Uneme and Quen referred to her as the “property” of the Musubiki. From what Hironah had gathered, Mirai was not meant to leave the complex where she was housed, and the reason for her appearance on the beach was a mystery to both Quen and Uneme. The two men apparently had known each other for some time.

     Hironah thought about what she knew of the Musubiki. Some twenty years ago, the group had been founded as a forum for members of all nine Clans to share their knowledge and talents. It had grown into an organization that did everything from social work to scientific experiments. Hironah knew that both the Empress Kat and Meena were active members of the Musubiki. Her Aunt Chie had done some work with them years ago but had since backed out. She’d never said why.

     It was the Musubiki that was organizing the Zeit. The enormous fair was to be a showcase of the group’s achievements. Despite the continuing violence of the warring gangs, talk of the Zeit had taken front seat in gossip across the country. In the history of Diasminion, there had never been an event of its magnitude, and people were rightly excited. Everyone Hironah knew was looking forward to attending.

     Hironah had never given much thought to the Musubiki. To her, the organization was just another benevolent group doing work tangential to her family’s. She wondered now if the Musubiki had ever tried to absorb Kamitouki. She knew that the group quietly supported the work of Blue and Takae, but had never gone so far as to extend the protection of their influence in the government. They flatly renounced Sirrah and other gangs that fought against the Ghost Clan. Like the government, the Musubiki insisted that any resolution to the conflict must be a peaceful one. Hironah found them naïve.

     Yet with the discovery of Mirai and the way that Quen and Uneme referred to her, Hironah found herself unsure of her feelings. It sounded to Hironah like the girl was a prisoner. Was it the Musubiki that had given her the scar upon her forehead? What made her so important to them? Uneme would be returning her to the complex in a few hours. Would she be safe there? At first, Hironah had been seriously considering Yoshiki’s proposition to kill both Quen and Uneme. Then she and the Angemal had fallen to talking…

     Something about him charmed her. In their mingled words hid the idea that he was the potential of her blood, working within the law rather than outside it. In a world where those closest to her were all outlaws, criminals and half-breeds, his presence was like the first autumn breeze after a hot southern summer. She loved her family. She did… but she’d grown so tired. She was tired of questioning the righteousness of her actions, tired of fighting against enemies she felt she didn’t need to have. She often felt she lived off other people’s dreams, so invested in them that she could make none of her own. After a few hours of talking to Uneme, even these thoughts faded. All of her worries were washed away in his words, until she sat under the orange ball of the Prime Sun with no care at all, everything, everyone forgotten.

     She was barely conscious of Uneme’s hand on her own.

 

     “I’ll see you again at the Zeit,” Uneme said to Hironah. “You’re going, aren’t you?”

     “Yeah.”

     “Then you’ll know what all this,” Uneme waved a hand, “was about. It must seem strange to you.”

     “Actually… yeah, it does.”

     He smiled at her.

     “Of course it does.” Turning his head, he called, “Come on, Mirai, we’re going!”

     Mirai tilted her head, observing Seiken who was putting his shirt back on. She was dressed once again in the shapeless black robe, which made her lack of color even more striking. Even her eyes were colorless, simply a ring around her irises which housed ink-black pupils. There was a look of vacancy about her, as though nothing at all went on in her mind. Her full lips slightly parted, she watched Seiken.

     “Goodbye,” she said simply.

     “Take care of yourself,” the Decameron replied.

     “We’ll meet again… on the day when the war starts and we’re stolen into the Dead City.”

     “What?”

     Mirai merely smiled slightly and walked away.

     After Uneme and Mirai had left, the remaining five packed up and made their way to Central Station. There, Quen would board a train bound for Morika’en, Yoshiki and Yume one headed for Rien, and Hironah and Seiken one for Kinumi. The walk to the station was quiet. Even Yoshiki had little to say. They parted ways with few words, disturbed as they all were.

     Once settled on the train, Hironah informed Seiken that she was going to sleep. He only nodded his understanding and buried his nose in the book he’d borrowed from Kaiya. After a few moments of silence, Hironah said abruptly,

     “I want you to stay and work at Kamitouki. Will you?”

     “I will. Thank you, Hironah.”

     “Good. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

     “Okay. Sleep well.”

     She did.

 

  

 

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