His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was.
After being cursed by his best friend Trowa Barton, Duo Maxwell lived as a plastic doll from 1923 to 2010. Here is one story from each decade he spent in that form.

Unique to these stories: This is a difficult collection to tag. There are insensitive terms from some of these decades, and the sexism that might be expected of them as well. Trowa is significantly mentioned but does not appear. A transgender character is misunderstood and misgendered throughout that story’s narration. There’s some disparaging language regarding Catholics. The possibility of rape is referred to but does not take place in any story. There’s a picture of a scorpion. Just a bunch of little things that still bear mentioning.

His Own Humanity: Nine Decades

Tune In Next Week (1927)

These days you never knew if you would hear ‘nursery,’ ‘playroom,’ or something pretentious such as ‘children’s lounge’ in reference to the young people’s retreat in a wealthy household, but since Duo had never lived in such a house as a child, it made very little difference to him.

He shouldn’t have been forced to spend so much time in such rooms as an adult, either. Thanks, Trowa.

Clarence had been directed by the housekeeper to the playroom, so called here, to wait while she located young Raymond and sent him in to get to know the visitor while their mothers — old school chums reunited after one family’s recent move to Ann Arbor — chatted over coffee and cake in the parlor. Duo had never lived in a house with a parlor, and, due to his current form, didn’t know much of them now. Thanks, Trowa.

Examining the amenities in the small chamber that had more window than floorspace, Clarence waved Duo through the air in a vague flying motion as he often did, and ambled toward a large toy-chest and the much-abused rocking horse beside it. Instead of opening the former to see what interesting playthings Raymond, whose family seemed slightly richer than Clarence’s, had stashed within, he sat on the latter, setting it rocking, and looked down at Duo.

Duo wasn’t so much a participant in Clarence’s games as he was a focus for the dialogues the child came up with. Clarence would stare down at him intently, much as he did now, seem to take an endless amount of inspiration from the sight (Duo had always wanted to be inspiring simply because he was portable; thanks, Trowa), and talk his way, under his breath, through whatever adventure had popped into his head as a result. Sometimes the stories went on for days, though without much recognizable continuity. Judging by the look in the kid’s eye, increasingly familiar in this the fourth week of Duo’s time with him, Clarence aimed to start a new one, despite here and now perhaps not being the best place and time to do so.

But before Clarence could draw breath to speak, the playroom door opened and another boy appeared. This must be Raymond, though he didn’t introduce himself. Maybe he’d intended to, and maybe not — ten-year-old boys could be little monsters sometimes, no matter how hard their mothers worked to hammer manners into them — but in any case the sight of Clarence holding Duo completely distracted him.

“Is that a doll?” With the confidence of the master of the house and someone that has never considered himself wrong in his entire life, Raymond closed the door and came inside, swaggering toward Clarence as he continued with rising skepticism, “As if you were a girl?”

Clarence shrank a little and said nothing. Duo had seen it before: this child almost always chose to withdraw rather than engage. For this reason his father erroneously accused him of being sullen.

Raymond, on the other hand, proved the opposite of sullen or withdrawn. He hopped around like a flea, examining Duo from all angles, poking at both him and Clarence, trying to rock the horse beneath the other boy, spouting further witticisms. “I’ll bet you have tea parties with it, eh? Do you get it all dressed up and comb its hair? Catch me doing that! Does it sleep with you at night? Can you sleep without your dolly? I’ll be a man someday, but I bet you won’t!”

A deep crease had appeared between Clarence’s fine, pale eyebrows, and Duo thought this might be one of the few instances he’d witnessed thus far when the kid would actually stand up for himself. Clarence hadn’t wanted to come, after all, and to keep the experience from being completely miserable he needed to say something sooner rather than later. But Duo couldn’t have anticipated what he came up with.

Technically the words were merely, “Go away,” which made for the most basic of beginnings to his attempt at rebuffing Raymond and his taunts… except that they emerged in the magical language. They had little power behind them, and in any case only the most skilled of magicians could enact a spell without specifying the object at which it was directed, but the fact remained that Clarence had spoken in the tongue shared by all magicians, clearly enough for Duo to understand him easily.

Duo understood, but Raymond didn’t. Now he exhibited what Duo, from his human years practicing magic, recognized as the typical reaction of anyone hearing the magical language for the first time: he started and jerked back, disconcerted. And, given that the gist of Clarence’s command had been understandable despite the words’ incomprehensibility, and that it had been a sort of spell regardless of its overall effectiveness, no surprise Raymond then took two more steps, his features writhing with fear, confusion, and defiance, and left the room.

Clarence had allowed Duo to swivel into a position from which he could watch all of this, and now the doll remained pointed toward the newly closed playroom door and couldn’t see the boy’s face. He was conscious, however, of Clarence stretching his short legs out into the air in front of him before bracing himself on the floor again in order to rock the horse beneath in what seemed like a contemplative gesture.

He was also conscious of an urgent necessity that either hadn’t existed or that he simply hadn’t been aware of before.

Though Duo had only been with him a few weeks, so technically he might have missed something (though he doubted he had), he believed Clarence hadn’t shown any signs of magical ability prior to this — and indeed, children seldom did, seldom had their skill awaken at so early an age. Which probably meant both that Clarence was unusually powerful and that Duo’s presence in his vicinity had caused this awakening. And the temporary privacy in this playroom, before Raymond returned with further tauntings or it became time to go submit to the mother’s selfish demands, made for a very narrow window Duo had no choice but to take advantage of. There was a good reason, after all — a self-preservation reason, you might say; a security reason — nature didn’t allow magic into the hands of most children until after puberty.

“Clarence,” Duo said.

The child went utterly still.

“You hear me, Clarence?”

“Yes,” Clarence whispered, slowly rotating Duo to face him. Nearly his entire extent of eyeball showed in his pale face.

“Don’t be afraid of me, kid,” Duo said patiently. “You know I’m your friend, right?”

“But you heard all my stories.” Clarence’s voice remained choked and almost inaudible; lucky Duo was so close.

“I liked all your stories,” was all Duo could offer to assuage him on this point. Trust such a private child to worry about his personal mutterings having been overheard before wondering about the magical talking doll in his hands.

Shy and uncertain, Clarence asked, “Did you?”

“Yes,” Duo insisted. “But listen, Clarence. We need to talk about magic.”

Now Clarence’s reluctance began to shed from him. “Is that what you are?” With even more energy he added, “Is that what I did just now to make Raymond go away?”

“Yes and yes. And you need to understand how much danger you’re in.”

“Am I?” Clarence made this far-too-interested-sounding query before Duo could continue.

“Yes!” Duo’s tone turned severe. “Magic can be very dangerous if you’re careless about it! How do you think I ended up like this?”

Clarence’s eyes went wide again. “Are you under an enchantment?”

“If you want to call it that,” the doll grumbled. It was as good a description as any; he didn’t really know the nature of the spell Trowa had cast to leave him like this.

“Do you need the blood of a beheaded faithful servant smeared all over you to break it?” Exactly how serious Clarence was with this gruesome suggestion couldn’t be guessed, but evidently he’d come out of his shell somewhat. “Did someone turn you into a doll? Could I turn Raymond into a doll?”

Duo didn’t like the expression on the boy’s face — something much harder than those rounded, juvenile features were fitted for — nor the eager bite to his tone. Why did he so immediately envision perpetuating magical harm upon Raymond, whom he did not at all know? There was something lurking beneath Clarence’s shyness, it appeared, but sullenness was off the mark.

And why must Duo be the one to deal with this unexpected mean streak? Because his mere presence had caused Clarence’s awakening and he happened to have a sense of responsibility? Thanks, Trowa.

“No,” he said firmly, “you can’t. And you need to be careful about what magic you do try. What you did to make Raymond go away just now wasn’t a proper spell — I think he was only startled, so he may be back — but you did speak in the magical language, and–”

“And I can do it again!” crowed Clarence — in the magical language.

Duo winced internally (the only way he could wince). “You see, that’s exactly what you need to be careful of. The magical language is used to cast spells, and if you don’t take care what you say when you speak it, you could end up casting a spell by mistake and hurting someone with it. You could hurt a friend without meaning to, or your mother…” Realizing Clarence might want to hurt his mother, contingent upon circumstances and mood, Duo hastened on. “Or yourself. People can hurt themselves very badly when they cast spells by accident.”

“Hurt themselves how?” Clarence still sounded more interested than concerned; Duo obviously wasn’t getting through to him.

The doll pondered quickly. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but doubted it was enough to make any kind of roundabout point. He would have to resort to something less than perfect honesty. “I’m supposed to be a human man, Clarence. You wouldn’t want to be like this, would you? A doll who can’t go anywhere on his own, can’t feel anything, can’t taste anything?”

The tone of Clarence’s negative made Duo fear he still might be contemplating how this could possibly apply to Raymond.

Duo pressed on. “Well, the magic spell that turned me into a doll was an accident; my best friend did it, but he didn’t mean to.” In fact Duo had no idea this had been the case; he hoped so, but couldn’t and probably never would be certain. “You sure wouldn’t want to do that to one of your friends, but you could just as easily do it to yourself — turn yourself into a doll because you were being careless with the magical language, and get trapped like me for who knows how long.” And in fact Duo disbelieved a spell like this could be cast easily by just anyone. He didn’t know how Trowa had done it, but doubted Clarence would reach that level any time soon — at least not without a powerful artifact or two, something Duo himself didn’t seem to be.

If Clarence’s somber expression meant anything, he took at least some of Duo’s words into consideration now. He sat silently for several moments, swaying the horse again with one foot and kicking against its rockers with the other. The resultant motion probably jarred him repeatedly, but Duo merely knew it was taking place; he couldn’t begin to discern what it actually felt like. And finally Clarence spoke again. This time his tone sounded faintly wheedling, as if he’d gotten the incorrect impression of Duo as some kind of guardian of magic that could, if talked around, grant Clarence permission to do what he wanted with his newfound ability. “So as long as I’m very careful… and know what I’m trying to do so I don’t do things by accident… and take care not to speak the magical language except if I want to do a magical spell… what kind of magic can I do?”

Again Duo pondered. It might be wisest to downplay the desirability of magic at this point, try to dampen Clarence’s interest in it… but how? He’d already indicated magic could do unpleasant things to other people; he couldn’t backtrack and pretend that was untrue after all — not in his current shape! He feared, however, Clarence might be even more interested in that unpleasant side of magic than in the more pleasant and convenient results it could accomplish that would have engrossed most other people far more. How to present magic in such a way that it would seem relatively uninteresting to a child of ten with a secret vindictive side?

This wasn’t fair. A friend — and that term already exaggerated what Duo was to Clarence — shouldn’t be forced into this position; a relative or a magical mentor or anyone else that had voluntarily entered into a position of authority in this kid’s life should be the one to lecture Clarence on magic and try to set him on a correct path rather than a destructive or a cruel one in his use of it. Duo didn’t want to see Clarence harm or even kill himself or someone else with his early-blossoming abilities, but felt underqualified and very reluctant to deal with the problem. He was, however, the only one around that could do it. Thanks, Trowa.

“You can do all sorts of things with magic,” he began slowly, “if you don’t accidentally kill yourself with it. You can…” He still scrambled for examples that would suit his purposes. “…black your shoes so they stay blacked… and…” He tried to remember what he and Trowa had used magic for before the disaster; for some reason he was drawing a blank. “…get your shirts extremely clean without having to pay someone to wash them…”

Clarence’s nose wrinkled. “That’s different from turning someone into a doll, though.”

“Yes, well…”

He didn’t know whether he should consider it a rescue or a dangerous interruption that the playroom door opened before he could say anything more. Raymond reappeared, and, though he didn’t hang on the handle or hesitate in the doorway, the swagger had disappeared from his step, and his expression instead displayed a healthy portion of both curiosity and respect.

Clarence lowered Duo and looked at Raymond suspiciously without a word; the closed-off lines Duo already knew so well had returned to his face.

Though obviously not the type to beg pardon, Raymond was also evidently ready to do anything necessary for the fun of the moment. He came forward a few steps, looking once again at the doll in the hands of his guest — though this time, Duo believed, with far less disdain and far more readiness to admit there might be experiences in the world he hadn’t had — and finally, raising his eyes to Clarence’s face at last, asked, “What was that you said before?”

Clarence gave him a steady stare in return, and replied quietly, “It was magic words. I told you to go away because you were making fun of my doll.”

“Aww, I won’t make fun of your old doll anymore.” Duo guessed this was as close to an apology as Raymond would ever come. “Will you teach me how to say magic words like that?”

“No,” said Clarence sharply. “It’s a secret.”

If anything, Raymond seemed more impressed than before, and probably not entirely convinced he couldn’t winkle the secret out of Clarence, given time. “Well, shall we go outside and play? I’ve got a new ball and bat, but we can’t use them in here.”

Clarence threw a half hesitant look down at Duo, who stifled a sigh. He’d had a narrow window, and it had closed. Hopefully he would have another opportunity; hopefully Clarence wouldn’t become angry again with Raymond this afternoon and do something everyone would regret before Duo had a chance to impress upon him the dangers of careless magic further than he’d already managed.

“Go play outside,” Duo urged him. “We can talk again later.”

Clarence started, raising his eyes abruptly to Raymond, whom Duo hadn’t allowed to hear. What expression might be on Raymond’s face Duo couldn’t tell, but after a moment Clarence relaxed. “All right,” he said, and stood from the rocking horse. He gazed at Duo again, this time contemplatively, and after a moment turned, swiveling Duo’s legs up into a sitting position, and set the doll down on the leather saddle he had previously occupied. He made no comment, but Duo, assuming Clarence planned on leaving him here in order not to have his behavior criticized until it was time to go home, felt his heart sink. He watched the two boys vacate the playroom, closing the door behind them more carelessly than conscientiously, with a sense of indistinct foreboding.

He had no reliable method of marking the passage of time, which had already proven miserable in the four sleepless years he’d spent as a doll, but his eyes worked well enough, even if they were only painted on. Though he faced away from the window and felt no need to lever himself around, he could easily mark the change in the color of the light and the gradual dimming of the playroom while he sat, bored and agitated, on the rocking horse. Evidently far more time passed than he’d expected, far too much time to allow him to believe Clarence was coming back for him. And how had things gone outside with the ball and bat? Quite possibly Duo would never know.

The shadows continued to lengthen, and details in this room, where no electric light shone, grew difficult to make out. If he’d had to guess — and he sometimes did, though at other times too unhappy to make the attempt — he would have said it was past seven in the evening before any sound of human habitation met his ears beyond the occasional distant voice or muffled footstep.

Here came the housekeeper poking her head into the playroom, probably to be sure Clarence and Raymond hadn’t made a mess she would need to attend to before seeing to other evening duties. Since they hadn’t, she moved to withdraw, when it seemed her gaze fell on the figure seated on the rocking horse’s saddle. With an air of curiosity she stepped more fully into the room and pressed the switch to turn on the light. Seeing with greater certainty what had caught her eye, a funny little smile took her face, and she strode forward to pick Duo up.

After studying him for a few moments, she shook her head. “Well, they’re not likely to be back for you… Left in a hurry, they did… I don’t think the ladies got along too well, the snobbish cats.” The world was veiled in dimming white cotton as the housekeeper tucked Duo into a deep pocket of her apron, and then complete darkness fell as she switched off the playroom light. “My little girl will appreciate you more anyway.”

So Duo was to change hands again. The housekeeper’s daughter would be his fourteenth owner so far, and how long that arrangement would last he couldn’t begin to guess.

And what would become of Clarence, from whom Duo would undoubtedly never hear again? With no one around to give the child further information, to try to combat his unexpected desire to hurt others with his power, would he even survive his early magical awakening? Would he hurt some friend, or curse his parents, or burn down his own house, or turn himself into a teapot? This too Duo couldn’t begin to guess.

He hadn’t wanted to be involved in the first place in Clarence’s magical journey, but to be forced to begin and then debarred from seeing it through to the end was in some ways even worse. (Thanks, Trowa.) It reminded him of listening to an adventure serial on the radio, hearing every lurid detail of the catastrophic situation into which the heroine had been hurled by today’s events, being told to make extra sure not to miss next Saturday’s exciting episode in order to find out how she could possibly be extricated from this problem and escape certain death… and then never hearing one more minute of that particular program. Never finding out whether that heroine lived or died, whether justice was served, whether the tale had a happy ending. Even in a story Duo hadn’t been particularly enjoying, that lack of closure both galled and disheartened him.

But it was nothing new. Though he hadn’t previously encountered the precise problem presented by the precocious Clarence, nor any other with such a potentially disastrous outcome, every caretaker he’d had so far as a doll had been a story in progress, a dramatic serial whose second or even third episodes he’d been able to listen to but whose resolution he would never witness. Given the way he lived now, it seemed likely the only narrative whose ending he would be allowed to observe was his own. And his own tale — his erratic, largely immobile, sensationless, bitter, meaningless life — had it been a book, would have been the last Duo would ever have chosen to read through to the end. Thanks, Trowa.

Even Trowa was a story whose setup Duo had been forced to witness as if to make his subsequent lack of knowledge of where things went from there, where they ended up, all the more wretched and unfair.

As he bounced along in the housekeeper’s apron heading toward yet another person he might end up calling a friend of sorts or in some aspects of whose life he might, at least, develop some interest, then eventually, inevitably be separated from just when he learned enough about her to feel the beginnings of curiosity and concern, he supposed it would be best to work to accustom himself to these unfinished stories. As a helpless doll, he saw no real alternative. He saw no likelihood of escape, of justice being served, of a happy ending.

He saw no likelihood of an ending, and he supposed he’d better get used to the idea.



2>>

The Gift of Friendship (1934)

“Why are you only using parts that have no pictures?” Duo wondered as he looked on, prompted by a late-arriving realization.

Antonella paused, ceased her humming, and glanced critically over the newspaper page she’d already finished. Both it and the one she worked on now — at least on the sides that faced up — were solid walls of text broken only by slightly larger headlines. And while Duo supposed no gift would be much enhanced by photographs of murder victims or satirical cartoons of Adolf Hitler, there was usually a baseball image somewhere in front that might have made a pretty cheerful decoration with color added to it.

But Antonella said, “I didn’t want any pictures.” With one small hand she gestured in imprecise elaboration. “They make it look different from when it’s just words.”

“All right,” Duo allowed, watching her return to her task with great care so as not to tear the thin paper with the green drawing crayon she held.

Of course the Flores family could not afford actual gift wrap; honestly Duo wasn’t sure who could (or at least would be willing to spend money on something so impractical and extravagant). Even the drawing crayons, which had been a special treat to celebrate Antonella’s seventh birthday, were a bit of a luxury, and that she now used them so extensively to stripe the two sheets of newspaper with bright colors to create this faux gift wrap demonstrated how much she was putting her heart into the endeavor.

Presently, “I like red next to green,” Antonella commented.

“Yes, they look good,” Duo agreed.

“Maybe I put too many reds next to greens.” She paused again to examine her work.

The doll assured her, “I think it’s all right.”

“I’ll make some dots next.”

“That sounds good.”

Watching a little girl draw stripes across a newspaper perpendicular to the text, and now an uneven row of circles whose disparate size seemed to annoy her but proved difficult to fix, bored him, but not as severely as some of what Duo had suffered over the last eleven years. More than the boredom, in fact, he felt annoyance at this circumstance. Because he couldn’t figure out why the Flores family was doing this at all — why Antonella industriously prepared to wrap up one of the two toys she owned; why elsewhere in the tiny flat her mother had tied a festive ribbon around her more functional pair of shoes; why her father had rolled up, in preparation for taking it to the church, a scarf his late mother had knitted for him that he’d worn every day of chilly December up until this one — when they were struggling just as much as, and perhaps more than, anyone else. If anything, they should be on the receiving end of this gift drive, not scraping to find offerings for other people that might, for all they knew, actually be better off than they were.

Antonella made a frustrated sound, and a gesture as if she might throw her crayon, though she didn’t quite. “It’s going to be ruined!”

Nothing new to have annoyed her this much showed from where Duo sat nearby, so he assumed she must be referring to the varying sizes of the ‘dots’ she’d drawn. “Why?” He hastened to add, “I think it looks fine!”

“I wanted it to be neat,” she protested. “Like a real…” She evidently couldn’t think of the word for what she meant, for she finished in frustration, “Like a real thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be neat to look good, though.” When this didn’t seem to have any effect on the girl’s mood, Duo tried, “And I think true artists prefer to make things different sizes so it isn’t all the same across the whole thing. They do it purposely.”

I’m not a true artist,” Antonella grumbled. But she seemed simultaneously somewhat cheered, and the look she gave the half-colored paper now assessed more than despaired.

Such attempts to boost Antonella’s sense of worth during her not infrequent moments of uncertainty were the most Duo could do for her — offerings of friendship whose value he often doubted just as much as Antonella doubted herself. Unfortunately, even had he been human, he couldn’t have done significantly better. Because everyone was badly off these days. Duo had never been rich even during his normal life, had never managed to do more than scrape a living — and had never wanted more. He might be coming to miss the ability to earn it, but money had never meant much to him. But even if he had it now — even if he weren’t a doll, and had somehow gotten his hands on a fortune — would he be allowed to assist a little girl totally unrelated to him whose race and religion he didn’t share? Would he be able to tell her how remarkable he found her generosity, and offer generosity of his own? Probably not. So his friendship and support, under the current odd circumstances, were all he could present her with.

The look Antonella gave her finished project held only incomplete satisfaction, but Duo knew no way to encourage her more than he already had. Her perfectionism must make many of her life endeavors superb, but it often did her a disservice at the same time — especially when combined with her pessimism. He worried a little about her, actually; that these traits exhibited so strongly in someone so young might actually bode badly for the future. But he would do what he could for her.

She was analyzing both papers now, and after a moment began to touch up spots she felt needed some extra attention. Once, forgetting which color she held, she started drawing with the wrong one, and when she saw what she’d done she nearly threw her crayon across the room again. But in the end she did manage the final touches without too much frustration or self-loathing, and was now the successful possessor of two sheets of lovingly decorated gift wrap for this unfortunate project. Duo thought they would just fit, with space at each end for a small twist, around the wooden pick-up truck in whose bed he often rode during playtime.

A large cigar box, its exterior decoration fading by this the second generation of its use, held all of Antonella’s small treasures — a few stones she’d liked enough to bring inside, numerous bottle caps, a snail shell, and so on — and from this she’d already pulled all the string she owned in preparation for using it in the gift-packaging process. Now Duo was a bit surprised to see her turn the box slowly upside-down and tip its remaining contents into a careful pile on the floor nearby. Though her young, heartwarming sense of selflessness showed even further in this, and though there was some appropriateness to the idea of a full truck-bed, he doubted these items would contribute much.

“Are you going to put those in the truck?” he asked cautiously, not sure he could convey adequately to her that the gift’s recipient — or at least their parents — might not appreciate being handed another child’s random collection that meant something only to her.

Antonella looked around in some evident surprise at the truck, which stood beside her opposite Duo. “Oh, that’s a good idea,” she said, and began scooping up her things and loading them into its bed.

Duo’s brows would have drawn together if they weren’t, in fact, drawn on in the first place. If she hadn’t already been planning to put the things into the truck… “What will you do with the cigar box?” he asked, even more cautiously than before.

Still working on transferring items from the floor to the truck-bed, she replied placidly, “Put you in it. The newspaper will work better on a box instead of on a doll.”

For several moments Duo was dumbstruck. He couldn’t gape — his lips moved, but he didn’t really have a jaw — but that would have been the proper expression of his feelings as it occurred to him that Antonella never had stated her intention of using her pick-up truck for this; Duo had merely assumed that was the toy in view, and therefore never asked.

“I thought…” he said at last, weakly, “the pick-up truck was the gift.”

Antonella paused in her loading efforts and looked the truck over studiously. “This wouldn’t be as good of a gift.”

“Why?”

She gave the specific frown that usually heralded an imperfect attempt at explaining herself. “Father Herrera said the gifts don’t need to cost a lot of money.”

“All right…” That was rather a given in this economy.

“And he said we should look for a gift that would make someone happy.”

“And you think I’ll make someone more happy than the truck would?”

“Yes, because you’re my friend.” Though she still seemed unsure of her ability to express the concept she had in mind, this statement was decisive. “I’m happy to have a friend, so someone else will be happy to have a friend too.”

“I… I understand.” Once again his words came out very weakly, and after this he could say nothing more for another long moment. She might be right: a secret, constant companion and the support that companion could provide might well be the best present she could possibly give someone, far better than anything money could buy. But even after eleven years Duo hadn’t grown accustomed to being treated like the object he now was, or his friendship like a tradable commodity. Antonella undoubtedly had no idea how dehumanizing her actions were, and in some ways that made it even worse.

Knowing he must speak now before he lost his chance, Duo forced himself to ask, “But won’t you miss me if you give me away?” It seemed so ironically sad to think of her giving up something she valued and drew strength from specifically because she valued and drew strength from it.

She finished relocating the last of the box’s former contents as she replied, “Yes, but Father Herrera said we need to use our hearts. Somebody might be very poor and need a friend more than me.”

Duo remembered the sensation of a constricting throat and prickling eyes even if he couldn’t feel them, and his internal state represented several helpless emotions. He was angry because, with everyone poor, why should one person get the preference over another in terms of commodities? Especially when it meant displacing Duo again and removing what he believed with no false modesty to be a useful and supportive influence from Antonella’s life? He was weary at the thought of starting all over with a new child and a new set of circumstances. He was touched more than ever by Antonella’s pure charity and unselfishness, even if it actively wounded him. And though not in any real position to claim such a feeling, he was proud of her. He couldn’t bring himself to protest her legitimate generous impulse even if he hated every moment of it.

She’d placed the cigar box just in front of her and opened it, and now took Duo in her hands. She gave him a critical look, and for a moment he hoped she might be rethinking — but then she wedged him into the box without comment. He wore makeshift clothing that had been cleverly put together by Mrs. Flores from scraps, and he reflected irrelevantly and glumly that, had he been wearing proper shoes — made of anything thicker than cloth — he wouldn’t have fit in this space barely longer than he was tall. But he’d never had a pair of real shoes in this form, so that difficulty was nothing more than a distant daydream.

He looked up at the little girl that had been his guardian for the past six months or so and said forlornly, wishing things could be otherwise, “Well, goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” she replied, and swung the box’s lid down atop him.

In the resultant darkness he could hear the rustle and crinkle of newspaper being wrapped around his latest prison; he could hear Antonella beginning to hum once more as she worked. But he never saw her again.

General Dissent (1942)

While the grandmother had been busy making him an outfit — a princely outfit in bits of velvet and lace, with canvas shoes that looked less like drawstring bags than usual, and even a little hat with a tiny plume — Duo had, of course, spent some time with her. He hadn’t spoken to her, but had overheard a lot of the remarks she’d made. Funnily enough, this hadn’t prepared him for the granddaughter whose gift he was to be.

“Every birthday for as long as I can remember…” She’d shut herself into her bedroom at last, seeming relieved to have done so, and now looked down at Duo with a wry, weary expression. “One of these years they’ll have to realize I’m too old for this.”

And she was. Sixteen as of today, a tall, gangly girl in a lumpy dress with unkempt hair, she’d quite surprised Duo when he’d first seen her and realized she would be his new caretaker.

“I guess you can sit here with the rest of them,” she told Duo, swiveling his legs outward and reaching up to place him on a lace-draped shelf alongside an extensive row of other dolls, presumably birthday presents from previous years. Then she turned away from him in an almost eye-rolling movement.

This behavior fit with the attitude she’d exhibited downstairs during her grandparents’ visit. Duo speculated it had been getting harder and harder for her, year after year, to respond with any degree of graciousness to these gifts she didn’t want (and evidently hadn’t even played with much as a younger child, if the state of the dolls down at the end of the line was any indication). She’d tried to behave herself — the struggle had been visible even to newcomer Duo — though her efforts might perhaps have been more for the sake of her depressed-looking mother than the grandparents that beamed obliviously at her as she politely examined her new doll and his clothing. They might not have noticed a more open show of disinclination, but the mother was clearly anxious for the visit with her in-laws to be as smooth and pleasant as possible.

Now the young woman, Ethel, abruptly unhooked the frock she wore, yanked it over her head, and threw it carelessly to the floor. That explained its wrinkled state, and the underlying cause of its lumpiness was also revealed: a pair of overalls, the legs rolled up to hide beneath her skirt, atop a short-sleeved shirt (plain-cut; no girl’s blouse, this) that had also been invisible under the frillier bodice she’d previously worn. Next she roughly unrolled her trouser legs, then threw herself onto the bed with the air of one returning to something after an annoying interruption, and took up a book that had been lying there open on its face.

While Ethel made her way determinedly through The Red Badge of Courage, Duo studied his new home, which seemed destined to be a very static one. This family evidently had plenty of money, based on what he’d seen both of the grandparents’ home before this and the rooms downstairs, and Ethel’s bedroom appeared comfortable, if a trifle over-decorated. Everything here was fluffy and lacy and milky (except where little embroidered flowers in pastel colors peeked out from various surfaces), giving the decor a soft, almost dreamlike quality that Duo found he didn’t like very much.

And neither, it seemed, did the room’s inhabitant. Nearly everything in here — from the long row of dolls on the white shelf to the various cosmetic products atop the lace-covered dresser to the framed picture of a sweet pastoral scene on one of the walls — appeared disused and unregarded. The only parts of her bedroom Ethel seemed to derive any benefit from were the bookshelf beside the bed, the bed itself, and the large mirror near the bureau.

This last Duo looked at longest. For Ethel had decorated it, to the point of partially obscuring the glass, with papers of various shapes and sizes, ruthlessly driving pins into its beveled white frame in a destructive manner Duo wondered whether her mother knew about. The papers seemed to be mostly letters, some long and some short, all much-folded prior to their being smoothed out and tacked up around a girl’s mirror, many of them stained and probably difficult to read even if you happened to be close enough to try.

Interspersed among the letters were a few photographs, mostly of a man in uniform but a few of groups of soldiers presumably containing that same man. None of the personal pictures could Duo see in enough detail from here to detect any family resemblance between the man and Ethel, but he thought he knew now the reason Mrs. Roanridge appeared so haggard and sad. Many people already looked like that less than six months after the U.S. had jumped into this new war. They’d looked like that during the last one too, the one that had been supposed to end all wars. It seemed a perfectly understandable bitterness.

Ethel had been reading for barely fifteen minutes, kicking her legs and changing her position routinely and giving every indication of disinterest in her book except for lack of progress through its pages, when she dropped it, jumped up again, and came to stand in front of the mirror. There she waited, completely still and staring, for such a long time that at first Duo thought she must be perusing one of the letters tacked to the frame. But the eyes of her reflection roved too far up and down, seeking some mysterious object too restlessly, for her to be reading anything quite so small, and Duo decided eventually she must be examining herself. That was, after all, a mirror’s purpose. What he couldn’t quite determine, at least at first, was what she saw there.

And then, in a gesture so abrupt it startled the watching doll, she snapped her right hand upward on a stiff arm in not a half bad imitation of a military salute. And he realized that her prolonged stiffness as she faced the mirror had not been merely the stillness of concentration; she’d been standing at attention.

“Private Ethel Roanridge reporting for duty, sir,” she declared, putting into her voice all the firmness Duo suspected she longed to use with her grandparents on her disinclination for childish birthday gifts. Then she began practicing her salute, which had appeared acceptable to Duo but probably not up to snuff to its performer or the imaginary superior officer receiving it.

So Ethel didn’t merely miss her father in his country-serving absence; she wanted to join him, to serve alongside him. There had certainly been people like that last time; Duo couldn’t say he was surprised, though he’d never been one of them. During the previous war, despite the rampant patriotism and calls to support the effort going on around them, he and Trowa had considered themselves nothing like soldier material, and had avoided even the suggestion that they might enlist in what was proving an unpleasant experience for everyone; and Duo had come out of it with a dismal concept of war and some relief that he hadn’t been more closely involved.

This new conflict… He didn’t entirely know how he felt about it. Here was, he had grudgingly to admit, one of very few benefits to his current form: he didn’t have to decide how he felt. At forty-four years old, he might be too old to serve, and might not… but in any case wouldn’t be forced to make that decision.

Now Ethel had stopped her repetitive process of saluting, and frowned into the mirror. She took a step closer to it, and this time when she lifted her hand it didn’t snap off a gesture of respect and obedience from her forehead. Rather, she grasped at her clearly uncombed hair and pulled it roughly away from her face toward the nape of her neck. At first Duo thought she intended to tie it back, but he realized after watching her wrestle with it for several moments that she was trying to get an impression of her face without the long brown locks in the way. She appeared dissatisfied with her success, and threw more than one look of frustrated longing at something off to her right. Only after she’d done this several times could Duo hazard a guess as to what she contemplated over there: a pair of sewing shears lying atop her bureau.

Finally, obviously resisting with a greater or lesser level of difficulty the urge to hack all her hair off, she did tie it into a low tail, though this still left her scowling into the mirror at the insufficiently militaristic effect she’d created. She stood once more at attention, however, smoothing the discontentment from her face with some effort. And she saluted again, perhaps even more forcefully this time than before, as if she’d been reprimanded.

“Private… Ethan… Roanridge… reporting for duty, sir.” She held her pose for a long, silent moment, then said as if in response to an unspoken question, “No, sir.” Then, “Yes, sir.” And finally, “Eighteen, sir.”

Duo experienced the mental equivalent of a shiver of discomfort and concern.

For a few minutes Ethel continued to answer questions from nobody, though none of her answers were as telling as the first few. She continued practicing her salute as she did so, and the resulting impression was not so much ‘accurate military personnel behavior’ as ‘desperate windup toy,’ but Duo supposed that to be part of the reason she wanted practice. Then at last, after another disparaging glance at her hair, she turned away from the mirror and went back to her book. And it was her manner of doing so that really clinched it for Duo, that solidified in him the concern her words of a minute before had raised.

For she didn’t sigh, or turn forlornly aside as if from an impossible dream. She didn’t untie her hair and let it fall messily back around her shoulders as a symbol of defeat. She narrowed her eyes slightly, gave her figure in the mirror a calculating once-over, then nodded once, sharply and decisively. It was as if a choice had been made, or even as if an agreement had been reached — perhaps with some other self Ethel could see clearly in the mirror but Duo couldn’t. In any case, Ethel obviously had a plan. Duo didn’t know her well enough yet to assess just how serious she might be in pursuing it, but he definitely already worried.

The tale of the brave young woman disguising herself as a man in order to enter military service — usually in order to chase after some boy to whom she had a mulish attachment — was as old as the hills, and as familiar to Duo as to anyone else. But it occurred to him now to wonder exactly how romanticized those stories were. Had women actually successfully done that in the past? And with what degree of difficulty and personal suffering had it been accomplished? And surely, even if it had been feasible once, modern military procedure must make it next to impossible now.

He remembered when they’d opened up the draft to include men ages eighteen to forty-five just at the end of the last war because they’d needed the manpower; he hadn’t heard how the current system worked, but, knowing the U.S. had only recently become involved, doubted they were likely to be that desperate yet… desperate enough, maybe, to overlook the presence of disguised women in their ranks. A woman attempting to enter the U.S. Army simply didn’t seem practicable to Duo at this point.

What seemed a lot more likely was that Ethel would, sooner or later, attempt futilely to carry out her plan, and would either be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society, or get herself raped by some unscrupulous Army recruiter and then be the cause of hurt and scandal in her family and their society. And in the unlikely event that her attempt proved fruitful, then she would have the dangers of war to face. No outcome of this venture seemed desirable, and apparently Ethel couldn’t see that.

Could Duo make her see it? He didn’t know. Based on his reflections of just moments before, he had no idea what to say to someone in a situation like this. Because if she or anyone else made the decision to go to war — admittedly a more difficult prospect, in her situation, than in many another — shouldn’t that choice, and the possibility of gruesome injury or death that went with it, be respected? Who was he to condemn someone for joining the army just because he personally believed war was detrimental to society and probably not worth giving up one’s life for? With his own attitude on the business as a whole so uncertain, how could he think to persuade someone else to stay out of it?

That particular aspect of the question didn’t matter, though, since he still believed Ethel couldn’t possibly con her way into the army without getting caught. What he would really need to convince her of was the futility of her scheme, the potential dangers of putting herself into a vulnerable position for the sake of something that wouldn’t work out in any case. And fortunately, this seemed a much easier argument to make than any larger-scale social or moral rumination on the nature of war.

In any case he would have to talk to her, and this in its turn brought up a whole new set of problems. Because, though he knew her not at all yet, what he’d seen of her so far seemed to paint her as not the type of person to take a talking doll very seriously. Her quiet frustration with a girlish present at the age of sixteen, her preference for overalls instead of a dress and a book about war instead of fairy tales — even her daydream that, though unfeasible, was far more down-to-earth than what Duo believed sixteen-year-old girls typically fantasized about — all this pointed toward an abundance of the practical and lack of the fanciful in her personality. Such people were often difficult to convince that magic really existed; regardless of what other explanation they came up with for Duo’s ability to speak, they often lent very little credence to anything he had to say.

If only he could write! He’d often felt that yearning, since in far more situations than this one penmanship would have been extremely useful. The ability to communicate with people in a manner that wouldn’t disclose his status as an enchanted doll would put him two steps up the long ladder back to humanity. And in this case, he could write to Ethel’s father, whom he guessed to be the strongest influence in her life, and explain the situation. Thus it should be, after all; it wasn’t fair that Duo found himself in a position — and not for the first time! — where, with his extremely limited resources, he had to attempt to mend a situation that should more properly have been tackled by friends and relatives of his human caretaker.

Silently he sighed (more of a mental gesture, since without sound or breath the action had no substance). He would do his best. Though his life experience had been, by now, more doll than human, more acted-upon than actor, still he was in years lived more than twice Ethel’s age… and arguably wiser. He wouldn’t abandon her to her fate simply because he felt awkward about it, passively look the other way while she destroyed herself. He just had to figure out what to say and how best to say it.

And when best. It seemed unwise to alert her to his sentience today, when she’d only barely taken possession of him, and if he kept an eye on her for a while he was likelier to get a more complete impression of her specific attitudes and intentions. Sooner or later he would have to introduce himself, but later might turn out to be the best option, and that relieved his mind somewhat.

And possibly he wouldn’t have to talk to her at all, at least about this issue. Unless she was considerably less intelligent than she’d seemed so far, she must be fully aware that, though she might be able to pass for a young man, she wouldn’t be able to pass for a young man old enough to fight in a war for a while yet. She would have to wait until some time had passed — probably until she was eighteen, as her earlier apostrophic dialogue had hinted. That was exactly two years away, so perhaps Duo had nothing to worry about. The war had already been on since 1939; with the U.S. involved now, surely it couldn’t continue for another two years, could it?

Missing (1955)

Duo lay on his face, not at all an unusual attitude for him. Unless someone had kindly left him in a sitting position or propped him up standing, on his back or on his face remained his only options when people unfamiliar with his ability to move were around. He’d grown accustomed to it. He did rather wish the carpet were thicker, as it might have provided some muffling effect for the incredibly boring conversation that was all he could hear at the moment. This Saturday apparently blazed enticingly, but not too oppressively, as many weekends had all autumn, drawing his kid outside without him to play, leaving him to listen to the father and the uncle talking dullness as usual. Duo had grown accustomed to that too, but on this particular day he longed for something more interesting, or at least that they would turn on the radio. He doubted he would be in any luck with either wish.

Today was Trowa’s birthday, and Duo had — rather unwillingly — developed a tradition over the last couple of decades of dwelling pretty obsessively on his old friend throughout this day (whenever he happened to be aware of the date), and sometimes on the days surrounding it. It couldn’t be healthy, and certainly wasn’t cheerful, but he had no choice. Unless something massive arose to distract him — and that conversation in the armchairs over there definitely didn’t qualify — no thought he could come up with, no memories even from such an unusual life as he’d lived, could engross him the way these thoughts of Trowa did on this day every year.

“If only we could count on someone other than that silly gal over at Hopkins’ for the flyers,” the uncle was complaining. Women weren’t the only targets of his rudeness, but they were the most common.

What, Duo wondered, did Trowa look like nowadays? Thirty to forty years ago, Trowa had embraced the aggressively slicked-back style that had been so popular in men’s hair at that time, using first petroleum and then (when he’d been better able to afford it) that disgusting Brilliantine stuff to create a shiny, plastered-down impression… but that trend had, thankfully, evolved into something slightly less awful, so Trowa must be sporting a different look.

“Well,” said the father, his voice thick with the same disapproval his brother-in-law had expressed, “she seems to be the only one around here who knows the trick of getting magical text onto a mundane printing.”

For his part, Duo had always resisted any style that threatened his braid, regardless of how fashionable or unfashionable he subsequently appeared, and had especially resisted the trend of putting slimy stuff into his luxurious hair. It was vanity, of course, every bit as much as Trowa’s careful parting and fad-conforming oiliness… but he knew Trowa had loved his braid too. That, he thought, had been a secret part of why he’d been so unwilling to relinquish it. He’d made the occasional joke that he wore it to give the ladies some alternative to the helmet-hair, but in reality it had been to some extent to please Trowa. And he also believed it had been Trowa’s strong preference for his braid that had allowed it to remain the same even in doll form — just another cruel little trick of the spell, really.

“If there were anyone else… If only one of us could do it… You can’t trust a woman to understand how important this is, or anything having to do with politics.” This sort of talk consistently prevented Duo from revealing himself to these guys.

Of course these days — today, in fact — Trowa would be 57 years old. How much hair would he have left? It must be all grey by now in any case. It distressed Duo, to an extent that surprised him and struck him as more than a little absurd, that he didn’t know what pattern Trowa might have gone bald in. And what kind of wrinkles did he have? Had his eyesight deteriorated — did he need glasses? How about his teeth? These were all ridiculously mundane considerations, but every once in a while Duo wondered about them with a fervor to match his own desire to be human again.

“She’ll just have to have very specific instructions on how we want them to look. If everything is laid out for her in simple language, she should be able to manage it. And Hopkins himself will take care of the physical printing, so we won’t have to worry about that part.”

And what was Trowa likely to be up to now? Had he stayed at that same factory, perhaps been promoted even higher, and made more and more money over the years? Duo could picture him as the overseer of multiple facilities, raking in the dough, respected and sought after by everyone.

“Do you think we should be concentrating more on the mundane voters?” In this the uncle didn’t truly ask his in-law for advice or even opinion; he merely sought agreement with what he already believed and intended.

But perhaps Trowa had moved on, left Raberba Manufacturing behind, and gotten into something new. He’d been so good at so many things, there seemed endless possibilities as to what profession he might have entered. He’d always been quietly, admirably dedicated to helping others — especially homeless waifs such as he’d once been — but, interestingly enough, it had always seemed to come from a sense of responsibility rather than kindness: where he had the capacity to help, he felt it his duty to do so. Maybe he’d gotten involved in something like that. There would probably be far less money in it than in the by-now-booming plastics industry, but it might fit better with his ideas of rightness.

“No, let his staff handle that side of things. That’s what they’re paid for. And his platform is solid enough.”

Had Trowa, Duo wondered with a faint mental sense somewhat similar to the old one of bodily illness, ever married? He could easily have grandchildren by now if he had. He’d always seemed to like women well enough… maybe, with Duo out of the way, he’d married the one — what had her name been? — that had come between them so long ago. Maybe he’d bought her all sorts of nice things, wooed her properly, and made a home for them both with his vast amounts of money. Or maybe he’d left that city, left her behind, and eventually met someone else. Duo couldn’t imagine someone as clever and right-thinking and handsome (even with the slicked-down hair) as Trowa remaining single for long.

“‘Solid?'” the uncle echoed. Pompously he declared, “Elmo R. Beard is gonna accomplish more than any mayor we’ve ever had.”

Or had Trowa, perhaps, turned out to be attracted to men just as Duo had? That was almost more painful to think about than the idea of his making a happy domestic life with some woman Duo had never met, because it would mean there might have been a chance for them if things had been different. It had taken Duo twenty years to realize he loved Trowa, but he would probably never know whether Trowa, for all he’d loved Duo’s braid, had ever loved Duo. Even if he had, he’d surely recovered, moved on to something else Duo didn’t want to think about. Duo hadn’t recovered yet, but that was hardly a surprise in his unchanging life. By now, however, all such old feelings that partook of his previous frame of reference were more or less mummified, and he supposed he would recover eventually.

“Absolutely,” the father agreed. “And if we can just get the magical community on our side, though it may not be enough to tip the vote, we’ll have a strong grassroots campaign.”

So what, if Trowa either had never loved him like that or had long since recovered from that love, did Trowa think of him these days? Duo couldn’t guess, especially as it depended largely on what had been going through Trowa’s head at the time of the spell’s casting. Duo had long ago convinced himself that, whatever Trowa had intended to happen when he’d muttered those words, this — this long, miserable, helpless existence as a piece of plastic without most human sensation and with no human opportunity — hadn’t been it. Trowa might have been annoyed — even truly angry — but a wide gulf stood between that emotional state and the willingness to commit an atrocity like this. Even a temporary transformation used as a sort of threat or punishment was something Duo considered beyond Trowa’s willingness and moral pale. And if this whole doll thing, this ruination of Duo’s life, had been in part or in whole an accident, Trowa’s feelings about what he’d done must have been every bit as wretched as Duo’s feelings about having it done to him. And what would those feelings have turned into after three decades?

“If only we could count on those flyers looking any damn good,” the uncle grumbled.

Trowa might have been horrified at first, and possibly even downright frantic to rescind what he’d done to Duo, determined to fix things. But as the years passed and they never met again, how would his feelings have transformed? Would he have come to accept the futility of seeking a twelve-inch child’s plaything in a huge country, come to terms with what he’d done, and moved on? Would he now think of Duo only occasionally, and with regret, yes, but only as a forlorn memory of a mistake he’d once made and couldn’t take back? Or would he have held onto the guilt and horror and allowed it to make him miserable in the long-term, warping his entire future, twisting his attitudes and outlook until no happiness remained for him? In that case, he probably thought of Duo as little as possible, and felt only bitterness and despair when he did.

“Even if they don’t look any good,” said the father reassuringly, “if they’ve only got the things he’s promised on them, they’ll be convincing enough.”

Of course, there was always the possibility Trowa had remained angry at him. Trowa had never been the type to blame someone else for his own actions, to dodge responsibility, but it had been Duo’s bad behavior that had led to the situation in which he’d cast whatever that spell had been. Duo had betrayed their friendship by horning in on that woman — what was her name? — and then goaded Trowa into a frame of mind so angry he’d gotten careless with his magic. It wasn’t actually Duo’s fault, of course — Trowa had made his choice, even if it had been a bad one — but Trowa might still bear a grudge against the friend whose aggravating actions had brought them to a point where that choice could ruin one or perhaps both of their lives. Trowa wouldn’t know just how much Duo had suffered, and might look back with some ire in his heart.

“Folks’ll have to see how important it is to elect Beard when they realize he’s got a complete magical overhaul of the railroad infrastructure lined up for once he’s in office. That’s gonna make Beaumont the most successful freight point in the state. If they’re not all the damn fools I think they are most of the time, they’ll have to vote right.”

And maybe… just maybe… Trowa not only had loved Duo, but still loved him to this day. He’d always been reserved about certain things, and it didn’t seem impossible for him to have been incubating the same affection Duo had, maybe even with the same level of obliviousness to his own feelings. Had he recognized them decades later, just as Duo had? Was he out there somewhere now, lonely and heartbroken, unable to move on, just as Duo was? This possibility topped all others in the anguish it produced — worse than Trowa avoiding thoughts of him, worse than Trowa’s anger, perhaps even worse than the idea of Trowa being dead. If he’d had tear ducts, Duo would have wept. Why did he have to go through this year after year? Why must he always be wondering and never satisfied on this point?

“They are damn fools. But we’ll bring ’em ’round. You’ll see.”

There were ways he could have attempted to seek answers. Sometimes, he knew, he let his own helplessness engulf him, and took less action than perhaps he should have. Those two men whose terminally dull conversation he couldn’t help overhearing, for instance, were magically gifted, and might believe him if he told them his story. But what good would that do? Even if they accepted every word, would they be willing to offer him any assistance? He had no good impression of their level of kindness in the first place, and even a much nicer person might hesitate to get involved in a situation like this. Then, supposing they were willing, what could they actually do? Drop everything, drive him to a place twenty hours north of here, and start a dubious search for some fellow that had lived there thirty years before?

Even if Trowa remained in the same city — hell, in the same state — what were the chances of finding him? How would Duo go about looking — just ask around? Trowa had meant the world to him, but never all that much to the world. Who was likely to remember him? No, no, it was pointless even thinking about it. Might as well give up the idea forever, and simply keep lying here on his face.

Peace and Long Life (1966)

For all he complained, there were times he preferred not being able to feel anything. The mere awareness that Trudy’s mouth was significantly more slobbery than Bibble’s (though Bibble was no slacker in that area herself) disgusted him at least mentally… if he’d had to feel his entire body getting gradually coated with dog slime, it might have been too much for his sanity. He liked canines — he really did — and didn’t much like felines, but in such instances thought he would prefer a cat’s paw batting at him, the way they sometimes did, for all it tangled his hair and damaged his clothing, to a dog’s teeth and tongue and overactive salivary glands.

And now the two dachshunds had started a tug-of-war with Duo’s body as the rope, and he sighed loudly. He could call for help, but Anne probably wouldn’t hear his quiet voice from the kitchen over the snarling and the living room cuckoo clock striking eight. He would need to wait until the dogs got bored and put him down — which in some instances took an anomalously long time. What he would most like was for Janice, if she must abandon him at her grandmother’s house when she went home for the evening, at least to leave him on one of the doilied end tables or somewhere else higher up out of the dogs’ reach… but what were little girls made of if not carelessness?

And he honestly didn’t mind being left at Anne’s house. Though Trudy and Bibble ran amok time after time, fighting over him, carrying him around, and chewing and slobbering on him for hours on end if not checked, this place wasn’t nearly the menagerie some homes he’d lived in had been. At least there were only two fat dogs, and no cats, rodents, or — he shuddered mentally — horses to put up with.

“Trudy! Bibble!” Even Anne’s stern voice was exceptionally grandmotherly, and her pets often disregarded it. They couldn’t disregard her hand — quicker and stronger than her tone, and all pruny with soapy water — reaching in to break up their private little war and seize Duo with no concerns about how much saliva he might be wearing. “Bad girls! Leave the poor doll alone!” The dogs made small circles at her feet, sometimes rising up onto hind legs to protest the removal of their toy, but Anne had none of it. She turned smartly and headed back into the kitchen, saying to Duo, “Let’s get you cleaned up, my friend.”

“It isn’t every day the beautiful maiden rescues the handsome prince,” Duo replied in an overdone tone of grateful appreciation.

Anne chuckled. “It isn’t every day someone calls me a beautiful maiden!”

“Anne by any other name would still be a beautiful maiden,” was Duo’s gallant answer.

Again she laughed. “I’m afraid that makes no sense.”

Duo thought through his words and admitted, “I’m afraid you’re right.” He clicked the tongue he didn’t have. “Beautiful and intelligent!”

As she set aside the dishes she’d evidently been working on when she’d heard growling in the other room and come to investigate, she rolled her eyes… but Duo knew she enjoyed the flirtation. She’d lost her husband, he understood, some years back — before he’d met her — and appreciated the attentions even of a toy whose reality as a person she rather doubted. And of course Duo appreciated the opportunity to connect with another adult, even one whose belief in his reality as a person left something to be desired.

For the first time in his plastic life, Duo had professionally tailored clothing, thanks to the recent release onto the market of a doll approximately his size whose fashions he could appropriate. Of course the striped sweater and white pants he currently wore were more or less hideous, even without the dog slobber, but it was a delightful novelty to have store-bought clothing at all. And now Anne finished up her errand of mercy by stripping him down and putting both doll and clothing into the kitchen sink where an endeavor of cleanliness had already been going on. He wished he could discern the apple scent of the dishwashing liquid she used to bathe him, but was relieved at the improvement of his circumstances in any case.

“You do love to get me naked, don’t you?” he couldn’t help remarking, his voice more muffled than usual by the water running over him.

“And you do love to make terribly inappropriate comments at an old woman,” Anne replied, again in that would-be-stern tone that fooled nobody.

The naked time wasn’t destined to end particularly soon, since, though Duo’s plastic form (if not his hair) could be dried off pretty easily, his outfit needed longer; so, nude and relatively happy, he sat on the counter beside the little shirt and trousers laid out on the towel beside him and watched Anne return to the dishes that had been interrupted by Duo and the dogs.

Anne was a bit of an enigma in her mundane domesticity. Her years of life numbered slightly fewer than Duo’s — by eighteen or so — but she seemed, somehow, to have a far greater amount of placidity in her later decades than Duo did. And perhaps that was merely because she’d actually been able to live for all that time, to have a happy marriage and children and all the feelings and experiences of a normal person rather than being trapped in sensationless and unchanging plastic. But perhaps it was something else as well.

For Duo, sometimes the deadly years crawled tortuously along so he thought he must go crazy before he met many more of them; while at other times, tomorrow was yesterday so quickly it left him reeling and breathless — purely in a psychological sense, of course. He didn’t know which he preferred. Swift chronological progress meant nothing to someone that didn’t change and couldn’t change anything, but there were definitely some unpleasant happenings he would prefer to get through quickly rather than slowly. And outside, independent of how rapidly Duo’s life was or wasn’t moving, the world underwent its own metamorphosis such as he had never seen before — and, indeed, only imperfectly saw now through the media of television and gossip.

Instead of struggling valiantly to support the war effort with every last beat of their patriotic hearts as he’d watched them do thirty years before, people avidly protested that there was a war on at all. Popular music, apparently, was becoming increasingly sexualized and raucous, and was enjoyed in shameless defiance of a disapproving older generation. The oppressed and ignored were rising up and demanding rights and recognition that had long been denied them, willing to flout authority in pursuit of this end. And in many cases, it seemed, the children were leading these undertakings as adolescents and young adults gained a greater voice as discrete peoples.

Even Christine, Anne’s daughter, though she’d been adolescent herself in the 40’s and might have been expected to exhibit the habits of that era, never wore dresses these days and single-handedly supported little Janice, who subsequently stayed at her grandmother’s house in the afternoons and evenings until her mother came to pick her up after work. Sometimes Janice even stayed until morning, and was then driven to school by or else enjoyed a leisurely Saturday with Anne, in order to give Christine freedom to have overnight guests in that man trap of an apartment of hers.

Duo wasn’t certain how he felt about all these new ideas. Sure, he’d engaged in extramarital sex himself back when he’d been capable of it, but only ever with one person at a time — and he certainly hadn’t needed to temporarily relocate a naive eight-year-old in order to do it! He also wasn’t sure how Anne could be so tranquil, could give hardly the wink of an eye to a way of life so very different from what she’d grown up with — nor why he seemed to be experiencing such dissonance in observing it. Were those eighteen years between them really enough to make him so much less accepting than she was? Or else why couldn’t he feel the same peace she did?

He decided, as he watched his latest child’s grandmother placidly finishing up the dishes and then moving on to a barely-necessary more generalized kitchen cleanup, that what he truly wanted was a piece of the action. He wanted to be out there in the midst of the change instead of just faintly hearing about it from afar. He didn’t know how he felt about these new ideas of sexual freedom, but he would like to try them. He had lived through three wars and seen what they did to individuals and society, and would like to protest this latest. He was probably a gay man, and would like to say it proudly to anyone and everyone once he got that sorted. And others fighting for liberation — women and colored folk and so on — surely deserved a chance too! He would march in anyone’s parade that sought better conditions for honest, worthy people. He might even like to hear some of that ‘rock and roll’ music that had been gaining so much traction over the last ten or fifteen years.

But he couldn’t have sex. He couldn’t protest; he couldn’t fight; he couldn’t march. And he had no choice about what he did or didn’t listen to. In the end, his discontentment — and his discontentment with Anne’s contentment — found its basis not in disapproval, nor some supposed moral high ground, nor trepidation about where this new era would lead society… in fact it boiled down to the exact same thing it always did: he hated being a doll. Yes, in some ways he and Anne were similar — both aging products of a previous era watching the world evolve in front of them but taking very little part in it — but in one fundamental way they were very, very different.

She could, if she wished, get involved, but was satisfied not to. He could not, even if he wished, get involved, and was beyond dissatisfied. She was comfortable, after having lived a fulfilling life, to retire to her own happy private world of spoiling her pets and her granddaughter and obsessively scrubbing everything. He would prefer, after having his life put on hold for so long, to dive right off the side of paradise into the uncertain waters of societal progress and see where they took him.

But instead he was played with by children, stored away like the object he was, dropped, forgotten, and fought over by dogs. And what, for him, could possibly be the alternative? Factor in his near-complete immobility, his diminutive frame, and the quietness of his voice, and the chances of his ever being involved in the world, having what could be called an adult life, seemed depressingly minuscule.

Of course there was the dim possibility of his condition being reversed, of whatever spell Trowa had laid on him being broken… but by the time such a distant and unlikely event took place, would that which survived his long years as a doll be worth anything? All his yesterdays were slowly adding up to a tomorrow he didn’t necessarily want to return to. What would he be when no longer a doll? Could he make a new life in this new civilization he was watching grow up around him?

“Finished!” Anne gave the kitchen a long, critical look. Despite her owning two dogs, dirt remained above all things the enemy within this house, and she spent more time cleaning than anyone Duo had ever met. Now, however, the spotless kitchen (which to the doll appeared very little different than when he’d been in here earlier with Janice) evidently met her satisfaction, and she was able to hang up her apron for the nonce. Then she returned to where Duo sat on the counter and smiled down at him. “Fancy some television?”

“Yes, please!” The thought actually significantly cheered him, as television, ever since its invention, had proven an excellent distraction and a window into a wider world he wasn’t otherwise allowed to see much of — the best stand-in for actual involvement he was likely to get. He winked at Anne as he added, “If you don’t mind me sitting beside you in my elegant birthday suit, that is.”

“You’re a rogue,” she replied, picking him up. “But, yes, I think we’ll leave your clothes drying a little longer.” And she turned each piece over so as to air their opposite sides.

Since Friday’s child-care would probably run overnight — Duo had heard Christine making arrangements with a couple of her lovers, and therefore assumed Janice would begin the weekend here at Anne’s — he needed to take advantage of this Thursday evening to make all the borderline-risqué comments he could. “I think you just want an excuse to keep my manly figure uncovered as long as possible.”

“Shameless!” Anne laughed. “You may not say anything more like that during the program. It’s a new science fiction series my friend recommended to me, and I want to pay attention.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo allowed. “I’ll just pine in silence.”

Still chuckling, complacent as usual, Anne carried him into the darkness of the next room and lit it up by switching on the television set. And Duo supposed that, whatever changes the future held — in the world and in his own long life — and whatever frustrating inability he had to endure before he reached the unknown, he could probably face it all well enough with a peaceful example like this in mind.

Annunciation (1976)

In good news, the jar, though smeared with little fingerprints and dusted with dirt, remained clear glass and had had its label removed, and was therefore more or less transparent. In bad news, it had rolled such that Duo, inside it down to his thighs, faced the ground and still couldn’t see anything around him. He could probably heft himself over so as at least to be able to look at the sky for some minimal entertainment while alone, but only if he could be sure he was alone — and of course, lying on his face like this, he couldn’t be.

How much he actually needed that surety, however, he didn’t know; he’d been wondering lately whether it wasn’t about time to start talking to Rosa. If that time had come, manipulating himself onto his back with a stiff arm and leg wouldn’t be any worse a preface to their first conversation than anything else. But revealing that he could (to a certain extent) move under his own power would force the first conversation whether or not the time had come if Rosa happened to be around. Besides, Maria might be nearby as well — this was the exact problem with lying on his face — and Duo knew very well he didn’t want to speak to the superstitious Maria today or possibly any day.

Rosa, though, was a smart kid. Much smarter than her eight years might suggest, and too smart, if what Duo overheard on a regular basis inside the house was any indication, for her teachers to have any idea what to do with. But what baffled the public school system might win Duo a friend and ally. It would be so nice to have someone to talk to, someone to understand his situation again.

What he referred to in his head as ‘first contact’ had a certain ritual about it — a pattern of events that played out with a significant amount of similarity every time and thus that he’d come to regard almost as something he chose to have happen rather than something that merely naturally did. He would start by trying not to be a smart aleck, by saying something reasonable and not too dramatic to announce himself and his abilities. And then the response tended to fall into one of a few predictable categories.

There were the scared kids, of whom the subcategories were the ones Duo had to work on over multiple sessions before their fear would fade, and the ones that gave in to the cool factor much quicker. There were the canny kids that thought at first some friend or family member must be playing a trick on them; and their subcategories were the ones that maintained a dubious demeanor for a while in order to deny plausibly that they’d ever believed in him just in case they turned out to be right, and the ones that secretly wanted to believe and therefore dropped the pretense of skepticism fairly soon. And there were the kids that simply accepted from the beginning with little to no persuasion, whose subcategories were calmness, enthusiasm, and weirder enthusiasm. Perhaps this made for a decently large number of reaction possibilities, but Duo had seen them all multiple times, and he could usually guess, after getting to know a kid for a while, how that kid would behave when the revelation came.

Rosa, he thought, would be either the calmly accepting or the enthusiastic type. She would ask intelligent questions to comprehend the situation, and, once she understood, would assimilate the information into her life and get on with things. Then she and Duo could have conversations on a regular basis that would make existence a little less tedious, and future games could be enriched by two-sided dialogue.

That was all assuming Maria didn’t find out. Duo believed he could predict her reaction too, and it wouldn’t be nearly so measured and rational as Rosa’s: she would gasp and go as pale as her complexion allowed and cross herself and whisper something about the devil and pull Rosa away and probably call a priest to come confiscate the possessed toy. She might even insist the family pack up and move. He couldn’t be sure just how far she would take it, but he knew what, in general, she would do. Nope, definitely not planning to talk to Maria.

So he lay on his face continuing to consider whether it was time or not and listening for sounds of Rosa’s return from inside the house. Rosa and her mother often ate lunch outside, but today Duo had gotten the feeling — from their conversation as they went in, of course, not from any ability to detect the fact on his own — that it was a little cool out. Of course, in Arizona, ‘a little cool out’ probably still meant ‘warmer than anything but summer where Duo had lived back when he’d had the ability to discern temperatures.’ Be that as it might, Rosa and Maria were inside eating lunch, and Duo abandoned outside alone (he thought) in his spaceship.

Rosa had been learning about astronomy lately, and had developed a sudden burning passion for exploration of the cosmos. Thus Duo had transitioned abruptly from the previous, somewhat nebulous occupation of ‘hero’ that had kept him busy for the last few months to that of astronaut. The empty pickle jar was the latest in a series of experimental spaceships, and not, he thought, the most successful: though Maria had promised Rosa she could use construction paper to decorate it up like a real shuttle, it remained too short for Duo’s entire body and therefore faulty for the purpose.

Motion caught Duo’s eye, and he honestly didn’t want to know what it was. The only things he could possibly see from his current position were likely to fall under at least one of the headings ‘creepy’ or ‘crawly,’ and, despite being unable to feel the pitter-patter of tiny feet across his plastic body, he nevertheless deplored the awareness of its presence. Curiosity, however, got the better of distaste and compelled him to look down as best he could. His head didn’t swivel far in that direction, but it was far enough to disclose the blackish-brown figure of a small scorpion squeezing its way between Duo and the concave glass on which he lay.

With a severe mental shudder, Duo wondered why on earth the little creature wanted to be there, of all places. Had the sun through the bottle glass created a warm haven against the cool day? In any case, lying here spooning a scorpion ranked quite low on his list of favorite activities. He weighed the value of waving all his limbs (in an attempt to get the thing to flee) against the possibility that Rosa or her mother could come out of the house at any time without making enough noise to herald their approach.

This had been a fortunate consideration, for, before he’d come to any actual decision, he picked up footsteps and voices — Rosa’s and Maria’s — closer than he would have thought they could get without his noticing them. But he was on a space mission, and, as Rosa had carefully informed her parents just the other day, sound didn’t carry through space. Revealing himself at the moment was out of the question.

Or was it? The entire situation shifted as Duo realized what his two caretakers had come to do. Maria remarked, evidently upon catching sight of Duo’s bottle, “I think it will work great. We’ll tape the pot onto it, and it’ll be a perfect space shuttle.” And then smaller running steps, excited, hurried toward where Duo lay.

The doll had barely a second to plan his actions. He hadn’t considered the scorpion in the jar anything beyond an annoyance and discomfort he would have to deal with for a little while. But now it threatened to be far more than that to more than only him.

He’d been sure all along that Maria’s fear of the devil (which encompassed fear of anything she deemed supernatural, though Duo didn’t think she’d ever encountered anything truly magical besides himself) would make her the type of parent that would throw him away or take him to Goodwill the moment she became aware he could talk. No matter how rationally her daughter might explain that the doll was a friend and not evil, her daughter was, after all, only eight years old. Duo could in no way talk to Maria and hope to retain his place in this home. And he liked this home.

But a scorpion sting could kill a kid that small.

Without hesitation, at what, for lack of a better term, he must call the top of his lungs, Duo shouted, “Don’t touch the bottle! There’s a scorpion inside!”

All noise ceased, and Duo could not make out what happened next. No hand seemed to be reaching in for him; had he succeeded in delivering the message? He couldn’t take any chances. So again he cried, as loudly as possible, “Don’t touch the bottle! Scorpion!”

He thought he heard Maria gasp a broken prayer, and shuffling footsteps that might have been scrambling backward. Underneath him, Duo believed the scorpion stirred a bit, though certainty eluded him when he couldn’t feel the creature and wasn’t looking that direction. Then Maria’s voice sounded more surely: “No, you stay back there. Don’t go close to it. Let me…” And something clinked loudly against the side of the jar, which rocked a bit into a ponderous roll.

The sluggish movement couldn’t flip Duo over, only slid him along the bottom, but it was enough to vex the scorpion and send it outside; Duo knew this mostly by the little shrieks both Maria and Rosa gave. Then there were more quick footsteps and a crunching thud that probably heralded the end of the arachnid that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Duo couldn’t help thinking, Good riddance.

Continual crunching (somewhat disturbing to listen to no matter what Duo thought about scorpions) signified, he guessed, a large stone being shifted back and forth on top of the creature. Just as Duo had felt a minute before, Maria obviously didn’t want to take any chances. Then silence fell once again, nearly — this time marred by Maria’s heavy but unsteady breaths as if she were on the verge of sobbing. But she managed with relative evenness to ask, “Is it safe now?”

“Yeah…” Duo replied resignedly. If he’d already destroyed his future here by talking in front of Maria, he might as well finish the job. “There was only the one.”

Maria snatched up the jar and drew Duo out of it, her eyes moving manically back and forth between the two objects. Behind her stood Rosa, looking not so much afraid as curious. It really was time.

Except then Maria closed her eyes and whispered, “Dear Lord, thank you for saving my girl. Thank you for your voice of warning. Thank you.” Tears began to run down her face, at first in little rivulets but soon in torrents, as she repeated the grateful prayer a few times more. The third time, she referred to the preceding events as a miracle.

So now Duo definitely didn’t know what to say.

Maria calmed somewhat at last, stopped praying, and crossed herself (more or less) with the hand holding the jar. It probably would have looked absurd even to someone that was religiously inclined. “Rosa,” she said, turning to face her daughter, “I want you to remember that you’ve heard the voice of God. He saved you from the scorpion, so I know He must have something great planned for you.”

There were about a hundred things Duo could have said at this point. Obviously Rosa was headed for something great, but because she was a genius, not because of the will of God. Unless, of course, she got accidentally turned into a doll at some point, in which case she was headed for something completely awful. That was the thing about God: if he existed, he sure as hell didn’t care whether or not innocent people suffered for fifty-three years. And when an innocent, suffering person that had just risked his comfort and future and possibly even safety for the sake of someone whose mother then attributed the gesture to that same unfeeling and probably nonexistent God, it represented yet another blow against everything fair and rational in the universe. But Duo, dumbstruck, couldn’t utter a word of this.

“That was God’s voice?” Rosa wondered, sounding impressed. “I thought God would talk Latin like at church.”

Maria’s religion had made Duo wary of introducing himself to her, because he’d believed she would assume he was some devil-possessed object — not practically the opposite! He’d never been mistaken for a divine channel before, and not only did it annoy him, it discomforted and dismayed him.

“God can speak every language,” Maria told her child. “And see how He can say exactly what you need to hear at just the right time?”

Whether Maria believed the Voice Of God had come from Duo or merely out of the jar, the doll had no real way to be sure, unless he happened to be in the room later when Maria recounted these events to her husband — and possibly not even then… but it made very little difference. Whichever she believed at the moment, the very instant Duo spoke aloud again in her hearing, she would be confirmed in the doll side of the theory. She would think God still talked through him, and would be disturbingly grateful to hear whatever he had to say.

Rosa was peering at the dead scorpion now, intrigued. “Can I take it to school?”

But Duo wouldn’t have anything to say. The thought of impersonating a messenger from God would have been enough, even more than the scorpion, to make his skin crawl if he’d had skin. It didn’t matter much that he didn’t believe in God and, in fact, felt rather bitter anyone else still could. It would fill him with an entirely different bitterness to stage such a deception. And what would he say, anyway? “Be nice to all talking dolls from now on; thus saith the Lord!”

“No, love,” Maria replied. She’d barely looked away from the doll in her hand to see what Rosa was referring to. “We’ll get daddy to throw it away when he gets home. Don’t get too close to it.”

Of course there might be a backtracking option: to explain to Rosa privately that her mother had been mistaken, that he was merely an enchanted human rather than a divine vessel (he would avoid using the term ‘curse’ that he’d been revolving in his head for a number of years now)… but aside from doubting he could count on Rosa not to share whatever he said with Maria even if he requested silence, he didn’t think he could face doling out that kind of disillusionment.

“Can we go fix the spaceship now?” Rosa asked.

Maria hesitated. She was still staring in awe at Duo, and the degree to which she ignored the jar in her other hand seemed to indicate her belief that the holiness did not lie there. Duo guessed that, in spite of this, she worried about the potential sacrilege of fashioning a play spaceship out of it after the events of the day. Perhaps she hoped the godly mouthpiece would put in an opinion on the matter. Too bad the godly mouth was defiantly, disgustedly, permanently shut.

“Let’s… let’s go inside,” she said at last. “We’ll see.”

And so Duo was carried reverently into the house and an uncertain future with the depressing knowledge that he’d saved a brilliant little kid from a lot of trouble and possibly death by sacrificing any chance he had to make a friend of her… that by choosing to talk to Rosa and Maria once, he’d made it impossible ever to talk to them again. That he’d doomed himself to an even worse time in this home he hadn’t wanted to lose by valuing human life… something he didn’t even have.

The Irony of Not Actually Being a Liar (1984)

It had begun with Todd asking Duo several times if he was sure he couldn’t be damaged, to the point where Duo had felt it necessary to relate some of the experiences he’d had during the long years that would otherwise have meant some degree of destruction to a helpless plastic doll — including being run over on multiple occasions by motor vehicles, left on the floor of a Jacuzzi for half a week, and an encounter with an InSinkErator that the kid responsible had always (Duo believed falsely) claimed was an accident. Then Todd had gotten that conniving look and left the room, and Duo hadn’t had any idea what was in store until several days later.

Now Todd, three friends, and his younger sister Stacey, in whose six-year-old hands Duo currently rotated, had gathered in the Kelly family garage. Devoid of car while Lt. Kelly was at work, it left them plenty of free space, but Duo still had no idea what was in store. For one thing, the only light in the room came from the small windows across the top of the closed garage door, so he had an imperfect view of the setup to begin with; for another, Stacey rarely held him still so he could actually look at things — she constantly shifted him around into different positions, so at any given moment he might equally well be staring at the ruffles on the bottom of her shirt or the kitchen door behind her as what everyone had gathered for.

“Why don’t you turn on the light,” Ned complained.

“You’ll see!” Observing his friends weren’t buying this cryptic reply, Todd added, “It’ll look cooler in the dark when I get the fire lit.”

“You’re lighting a fire?” No surprise Sumit hadn’t been able to figure out what Todd was fumbling with.

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” said Rhonda gleefully.

Todd declared, “No, I’m not. Look, it’s in a can — a metal can’s not going to catch on fire — and I put it way out here in the middle where there’s nothing around it. It’s totally safe.”

They all crowded in, and Stacey’s hands remained stationary enough for several seconds that Duo could see the large coffee can, presumably filled with combustibles of some type, on top of a cinder block in the center of the otherwise empty expanse of concrete garage floor.

“Don’t stand so close, you guys!” Todd complained. “You’re making shadows and I can’t see the matches.” He still fumbled, and had yet to produce even a single spark.

“There’s going to be smoke, though,” Sumit protested, “even if nothing else catches on fire!”

Frustrated tone testament to his continual lack of luck with the matches, Todd said, “Oh, don’t be such a baby. There’s no smoke detector out here.”

“You’re going to get in so much trouble,” Rhonda repeated.

Ned wondered, “How’d you hang this thing up?” He referred to, and poked at, the unidentifiable object — some type of roughly rectangular framework — that dangled mysteriously several inches above the coffee can and swung in response to his prodding finger.

“I climbed up on the rafters and tied it up there.” Todd sounded extremely proud of himself.

Stacey contributed to the conversation for the first time with, “Mom says you’re not supposed to climb up there.”

“I know, but don’t tell her, OK?”

Stacey remained silent. Her nervousness about the proceedings showed in her tight and now relatively unmoving grip on Duo. The doll didn’t blame her; he still hadn’t figured out what was going on, but doubted the ingenious Todd, in dragging his friends into a dark garage and breaking so many rules, could possibly have anything particularly edifying planned.

“Can’t the strings catch on fire?” Sumit was a bit of a worrier, which in this situation was probably for the best.

“They’re fishing line,” said Todd dismissively. “Even if the fire got that high, they’d just melt, not burn and catch anything else on fire.”

Scornfully Rhonda said, “You don’t know how to use those matches. Let me do it.”

“I can use them just fine!” Todd jerked away from her. “I just can’t see anything!”

“Let’s turn the light on for a minute,” Ned suggested. “Just ’til you get the matches lit.” And when Todd reluctantly agreed, he fumbled his own way to the nearby dangling string, with its attached ping-pong ball that tapped against the windshield when the car had pulled in far enough to avoid having the garage door close on its rear bumper, and clicked the space around them into visibility.

“All right,” Todd said, and set to work again. It soon became clear, though, that Rhonda’s suggestion had been pretty near the truth — either he didn’t know how to use matches or just hadn’t had enough experience with them to do so smoothly or practically. He kept bending them out of shape without successfully striking them across the back of the book.

Duo rather hoped Todd would continue to fail until he’d mangled all the matches beyond any usefulness. The doll believed this had something to do with him and his indestructibility; he’d recalled, by now, their conversation of last week, and linked it with this scene with a fair degree of certainty. That framework hanging from the rafters, which in the light he now identified as having been formed out of wire coat-hangers, looked very much like some sort of torture rack as it dangled above the proposed fire-pit.

Todd’s creativity and handiness usually didn’t take so malicious a bent, but Duo couldn’t think of anything else the device could be intended for. And though Todd’s friends would certainly be impressed by a doll that resisted melting or blackening while dangling over a fire — undoubtedly one of the reasons he’d put this little demonstration together — Stacey was just as certain to be agitated and frightened by the scene. And Duo was Stacey’s doll, not Todd’s, even if his revelation of intelligence had brought him closer to the ten-year-old than to the younger sibling that technically owned him.

A triumphant noise issued from Todd’s throat as the latest match burst into flame and, not dropped in startlement like the previous, stayed there. Then his movements were perhaps a little jerky with haste as he hurried to light whatever filled the coffee can before the match could go out. Quickly he withdrew his hand, and there followed abruptly an up-springing of fire that seemed to give him a great deal of satisfaction.

“OK, Stace,” he said, turning to his sister and holding out his hand, “gimme Duo.”

Duo doubted Stacey had seen this coming, but that didn’t make her emphatic negative response less immediate. She took a step back, clutching at her doll now with both hands and vigorously shaking her head.

“Come on,” Todd wheedled. “You said you wanted to see the movie… I’m going to show you the best part!”

“He’ll get hurt!” Stacey looked back and forth from her brother to the fire in the coffee can with wide eyes.

“No, he won’t, I promise.”

Here Sumit put in with some concern, “But his clothes and hair–”

“He won’t get burned!” Todd interrupted impatiently. “Besides, your parents won’t let you see it either.”

Reluctantly Sumit had to admit the truth in this.

Rhonda had caught the interest of the scene — either that or she wanted the pleasure of tattling on Todd once he’d destroyed his sister’s toy — and now brought her own influence to bear. “Come on, Stacey, it’ll be fun!”

“I know what part he wants to do,” was Ned’s contribution, “and it really is the best part. Maybe this is the only way you’ll ever get to see it!”

Todd held out his hand again. “Come on, Stacey!”

The combination of legitimate curiosity with peer pressure (which she probably knew would become browbeating after not too long) forced the six-year-old to give in, and, though her motion in handing Duo over remained reluctant, she finally complied with the wishes of the group. Duo, as he so often did, restrained a sigh when he found himself looking up at Todd’s eager face; this couldn’t end well. In better news, the process of convincing Stacey and the subsequent preparation was taking so long that the fire might well have completely died out by the time the main event got started.

Todd began stripping off Duo’s clothing — which, having originally been designed for 1970’s Ken, Duo did not regret, but didn’t envisage being replaced by anything nicer anytime soon — while the other kids crowded around to see what he was doing. Of course as soon as the pants were removed, Rhonda started giggling uncontrollably, which made the boys laugh as well, but Todd stuck to his purpose: he’d withdrawn from his pocket what appeared to be the excised toe-end of a sock punctured twice so as to accommodate the legs of an unsuspecting doll. This makeshift undergarment, upon application, proved too big, but Todd had anticipated this, and fastened it in place with a rubber band cinching it close around Duo’s waist.

“He looks like he’s wearing a diaper,” said Rhonda, still giggling despite the hilarious penis having been covered up. Ned, also with a bit of residual laughter, agreed with her.

“You guys have anything to make a real loincloth for a doll out of?” Todd retorted. “I couldn’t leave him in that stuff, could I?” And he pointed disdainfully at the imitation-corduroy pants and striped red shirt he’d thrown to the floor, which, at his gesture, Stacey now snatched protectively up. Then, turning toward the coffee can and hanging wires, he said, “Now I just have to get him into the thing.”

This turned out easier said than done, as Todd planned to tie Duo’s arms and legs down with more fishing line, which proved absolutely impossible (without an additional hand or four) while holding the framework away from the fire and Duo motionless at the same time. Eventually he had to accept assistance from Ned and Rhonda, and the task went on far longer (and with a lot more arguing) than probably any of them had anticipated. Sumit stood on tiptoe trying to watch in evident agitation, Stacey was obviously bored despite her equal concern, and Duo might have been increasingly sanguine about the diminution of the fire if he hadn’t been directly facing it the entire time. Whatever Todd had put into that coffee can, it hadn’t yet stopped its steady burn even after all this nonsense. It looked like this torture ceremony really must happen, then. Duo could only hope Stacey wouldn’t be too traumatized; perhaps the boredom and impatience would act as a sort of buffer.

“OK, OK,” said Todd at last as Duo fell into place above the crackling flames and swung slightly before the boy steadied him. “Now you guys stand over here–” he gestured– “and I’ll do the ceremony.”

“There should only be three of us,” protested Ned.

“I don’t want to be the girl,” Rhonda complained at the same time. “I don’t like her!”

Also simultaneously Stacey, all fear for Duo’s safety abruptly renewed, squeaked, “What are you going to do to him?”

Todd addressed multiple concerns at once. “Stacey, you stand next to me — you’re one of the coltists, and I’m the high priest — and the rest of you guys stand over there. It doesn’t matter who’s who, because you just have to watch and pretend like you’re hiding.”

“But the girl didn’t watch.” Rhonda stood her ground. “She was too scared, remember? So we have to decide who’s the girl, because that person can’t watch, and I don’t want it to be me.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “But you have to be her. One of us can’t be her!”

At the same moment Sumit asked, “What’s happening? What are we doing?”

“We can just pretend the girl did watch,” Todd said in a loud and dictatorial tone, “and then it doesn’t matter who’s the girl because you can all watch. Sumit…” Though clearly impatient to get on with his big scene, he also took pity on those in the dark as to plotline, for he next gave a summary (which would have been brief if not for the helpful interjections of Rhonda and Ned) of the events that had brought the characters represented here to the scenario about to take place.

To this Duo, who hadn’t been to the movie and probably never would, paid little attention (though admittedly he was starting to understand why the Kelly parents weren’t allowing their younger child to see it). He watched Stacey’s pinched-up, worried little face with growing concern — not that he could do anything to help — and hoped she wouldn’t cry herself to sleep tonight and then wake screaming from bad dreams her parents would be at a loss to comprehend.

Finally — and, as far as Duo could tell, the fire had actually only gotten higher in its metal container — it was time. Stacey could not be convinced to chant or drum on anything or even stamp her feet, so Todd gave up on her participation entirely and turned toward Duo in his framework with a portentous expression; actually he looked somewhat constipated. As Todd began mumbling nonsense words (under his breath so as to hide the fact that they were random and unscripted) and stroking the doll’s face on both sides with one finger, Duo noticed they’d neglected to turn the light back off.

Todd’s incoherence rose in pitch and comprehensibility as he shouted, so abruptly it made most of the others jump, “Kali maa!” He lifted one hand toward the ceiling and repeated the phrase several times, his volume increasing with each instance.

The effect was entirely spoiled, however, when Ned cried out accusingly, in response to some movement of Todd’s other hand, “He didn’t use a knife!”

Todd turned an annoyed face toward Ned. “I can’t really stick my hand inside him, can I?”

“You can’t cut Duo!” Stacey shrieked, and now Duo could see the Swiss army knife Todd had pulled from his pocket.

“It won’t really hurt him,” Todd told her in a low, firm tone, seemingly far more concerned with being allowed to continue his act as high priest than actually comforting Stacey.

Sumit, confused and unhelpful, put in at this point, “I don’t think Kali would really–”

“Kali maa!” Todd roared by way of override, jerking the knife’s biggest blade out and raising the weapon threateningly.

“He didn’t say it that loud,” Ned muttered.

Abruptly Todd stabbed at Duo’s chest, repeating the dramatic phrase yet again at top volume. And once more the effect was ruined, since the gesture only set the framework swinging wildly, the contact between sharp metal and imperturbable plastic far too brief to amaze Todd’s friends and reassure his sister as to Duo’s indestructibility. With a frustrated sound Todd caught and stilled the wire with his left hand, holding it solidly in place as he took aim with his right, again made his meaningless declaration that seemed to have Sumit so perplexed, and gave Duo’s chest another, more solid jab.

This time the effect was not so much spoiled as augmented, since the knife glanced off plastic pectorals, slid to the side, and, as far as Duo could tell without turning his head, drove right into the hand holding the framework still. Todd’s latest “Kali maa!” broke off in a sort of surprised croak, and he dropped the knife with a clatter and drew back a suddenly bleeding hand to stare at in bewilderment and shock. The garage was overtaken, but for the crackling of the fire, by complete silence.

Then Stacey started to scream.

Pandemonium, complete with stomping feet, shrieking from some voices and ever-louder suggestions and comments from others, rapidly ensued. With everyone crowding so tightly, Duo was surprised he wasn’t torn down or the coffee can knocked over. He supposed the heat of the fire kept them at a safe distance.

Though weak-voiced and in some evident shock, Todd regained his presence of mind quicker than Duo would have expected. He held his wounded hand high, trying to prevent the others from touching it — which didn’t help at all to stop blood getting everywhere — and urged them to quiet down. He’d lost his audience, however, and found himself quickly overridden by a general insistence that they needed to go inside, wash the cut, put alcohol on the cut, bandage the cut, stitch the cut, cotch-rize the cut, and probably get Mrs. Kelly involved. While this latter was obviously the last thing Todd wanted under the circumstances, he no longer had any say in the matter.

Stacey had stopped actually screaming, but still made a string of distressed noises and gripped her brother by the arm not flailing in the air, and nobody could get her to shut up or let go. Rhonda looked inordinately gleeful about this bloody fate of someone for whom she supposedly had feelings of friendship, while it appeared all of Sumit’s worst nightmares were coming true. Ned was the loudest in insisting on seeking out medical attention (of the home-brew variety) for Todd, and the latter struggled just to make his voice heard. None of them seemed to remember, as they stampeded their agitation and din across the garage, the fire they left burning behind them. There was no reason they should remember, under the circumstances, the doll hanging above it. And presently, to the sound of the kitchen door slamming so hard it must seize Mrs. Kelly’s attention wherever she might be in the house, Duo found himself alone.

He’d known this would happen. Well, he hadn’t known exactly this would happen — that Todd would stab himself in the hand and the kids would all run off in a panic, leaving Duo hanging above an unexpectedly tenacious fire that now rose high enough now to lick at his legs — but he’d known this would end badly. And there had been absolutely nothing he could do about it.

Oh, sure, he could have talked to them, could have tried to convince Todd not to go through with it. But even aside from his desire not to expose himself at once to three extra people from divergent situations, would it have done any good? He had no authority and barely any influence; even the weight of his long experience might not have convinced these kids that their play was likely to be harmful in more than one way. In all probability they simply wouldn’t have believed a word he had to say; some of them might not even have believed a real person said it.

Duo let out a protracted sigh. He didn’t bother trying to stifle it this time. Even had someone been around, he wouldn’t have worried about the sound giving him away — the fire crackled too loudly.

And he couldn’t feel it. No matter how his situation changed, no matter how many years passed, this remained the same: even flames hot and high enough to have set his clumsy loincloth ablaze made no impression whatsoever on his nerves. Well, better to say he didn’t have nerves, just some kind of magical awareness that informed him coldly — ever so coldly, in situations like this — of something touching him. And even that was limited, apparently, to when he legitimately needed to know; at the moment he barely recognized the flames licking at him, more clearly the disintegration of his single garment, and only either of these because he concentrated on them.

Well, he wouldn’t be able to say ‘I told you so’ to Todd, since he hadn’t actually told him anything except the unfortunate information that had facilitated all of this — but he did hope Todd had learned his lesson about trying to impress his friends with fire and knives, and that his hand wasn’t so badly damaged he must spend the rest of his life regretting the tuition.

And what lesson had Duo taken from all of this? That sock toes burned slowly? That movies were becoming increasingly violent? Or perhaps that even the kindest-hearted of children were capable at times of a ridiculous level of insensitivity, even cruelty, against which Duo in his current state was utterly powerless?

But perhaps having a talk with Todd after the fact would work better than the hypothetical during. If Duo could only draw from this experience the moral that rules were in place for a reason (and if Todd’s wound proved mendable), they could survive and grow, and hopefully remain on good terms. Duo’s latest sigh turned unexpectedly into a laugh. For as little as the precise circumstances in which he now found himself were characteristic, he really felt like a dad sometimes.

It Hasn’t All Been Kids (1997)

Duo didn’t think he liked the expression on the face of the man that had done a double-take, retraced his steps to the dingy shelf full of worn old toys, and picked Duo out of the clutter to lift him up and look more closely at him. He’d come to associate that expression, on an adult, with being boxed up and wrapped, generally still naked but occasionally more creatively clothed, and given to other adults as the funniest birthday or bachelor(ette) party present they’d ever received. Usually when he saw that look on someone’s face in the Arc, he was back on that same Arc shelf within a few weeks after an experience he found far less hilarious than did the other people involved.

“Two fifty?” wondered the man under his breath, turning Duo over and finding the price tag Duo was absolutely positive would have itched like crazy if he’d been able to itch. “That’s not bad.”

Yeah, when they commented on his relative dollar value after staring at his penis, the stars had not aligned well. With an internal sigh, Duo began the process of bracing himself, though he’d started to consider it not worth much anymore.

Against the conversation at the checkstand he couldn’t exactly stop his ears — they weren’t even physical ears; even the world’s tiniest cotton balls wouldn’t have done him any good — but he didn’t exactly pay close attention either. It had been surreal and somewhat fascinating, once upon a time, to be the object of a sales transaction — to hear the polite exchange between cashier and customer that involved a dollar amount pertaining to the ownership of Duo himself, sometimes with commentary on his attributes but more often ignoring him completely as if, though at least part of the purchase, he remained unworthy of mention — but by now the process had become just as discouragingly real as any other mundane aspect of his dreary life. A mixture of bitterness and indifference fluctuated within him as the scene progressed; one moment he actively didn’t want to know what they were saying or what percentage sales tax had risen to these days, and the next he simply didn’t care.

He wouldn’t bother talking to this one. No point, when he’d obviously been acquired merely as a present — undoubtedly not a very serious present at that — and wouldn’t be spending any real time with the guy. But as Duo lay in the Arc bag in what he believed to be the man’s car heading he could only guess where, he was pretty sorely tempted. It had been months since he’d spoken to literally anyone, and ‘bored and lonely’ didn’t begin to cover how he’d been feeling lately. Still, reminding himself he would surely change hands very soon, after which he would probably be passed around amidst much laughter and then returned all too quickly to the Arc, whence he could hope to be rescued by someone more age-appropriate for appreciating him as a potential conversational companion, he restrained himself.

His guess as to where they were going had been ‘home,’ and he’d evidently been correct. Of course Duo could only assume the guy lived here, but he’d reached the point where a momentary glance was often all it took to recognize the homes of various types of people, and if he assessed this man correctly — single, straight, mid-to-late-20’s, decent but not huge income — then, yeah, this was definitely his apartment. The remains of his breakfast on the table where Duo now sat were eloquent about his way of life.

And now the guy examined him more closely than before, seated at the table staring hard at Duo with a hand worrying away thoughtfully at his chin and upper lip. Duo might have taken the opportunity to absorb details of his own about his new, short-term owner — the dark curly hair, the lingering acne, the pleasant features — but he didn’t bother looking particularly hard. This wasn’t a kid he would be playing with or even a friend he would be talking to; and the manner in which the man seemed to be considering something peripheral to Duo rather than any details of Duo himself made the doll feel free to do the same.

He supposed it would be equally evident in any situation where someone didn’t know you were observing them, but being a supposedly unresponsive doll really served to indicate how much adults talked to themselves or narrated their lives to nobody in particular. In fact they often talked directly to Duo — not the way children did, in an imaginative way as if he might talk back (regardless of whether or not they knew he could), but merely using Duo as a focus for the aforementioned narration because he happened to have a human-like shape complete with ears.

Now the guy said, in the half-under-his-breath tone people often used when they didn’t need to be saying this aloud at all, “Should I put you in a box? Or maybe a gift bag? But that makes it seem so formal…”

So Duo would be a surprise out of context this time, would he? That was less common than the bachelor party gag or birthday present, but not unheard of.

“But just handing you over like this–” Duo believed the guy’s eyes flicked specifically to his penis for a moment– “seems really weird.” He paused, considering, pointer finger still running pensively up and down his philtrum. “But wrapping paper would make it seem like a serious present, and I don’t want her to think I want something in return…”

‘Her?’ Now Duo perked up a bit. That was an unusual arrangement.

“Not like I’d complain if she said, ‘Oh, Eli, he’s so great; you wanna get some coffee or something?'” He chuckled at this clearly absurd idea.

Some light began to shine on this situation, though the nature of the present in hand still puzzled Duo. Who gave their crush an anatomically correct doll with no clothing?

Eli’s one-sided conversation obviously hadn’t helped him reach a decision as to how Duo should be packaged, so he discontinued it and got up abruptly from the table. Evidently the matter remained on his mind, though, as he started clearing his breakfast dishes from beside the doll — and not secondarily on his mind, either, if the half-hearted manner in which he ‘cleaned up’ was any indication. And partway through scraping the remaining eggs and cheese into the sink, without yet having rinsed it down or run the disposer, he apparently reached his decision. Abruptly he dropped everything he was doing, wiped his hands on his jeans, and returned to the table.

Duo, watching him approach, hoped in some amusement that the crush, whatever else she might be, was the type of person that could effectively insist on some better basic cleanliness. Of course it made little difference to a plastic doll that never seemed to stain despite his realistic hair and in no danger whatsoever of contamination, but he knew a lot of humans wouldn’t tolerate that food sitting there in the sink.

“I’ll just put you back in the Arc bag,” Eli said decisively as he looked down at Duo. “Then she’ll know I didn’t spend a lot of money or anything, and it’ll look like a casual, I-just-happened-to-find-this present.”

Though Duo still didn’t understand the specifics of the situation, he had to agree — not least because he was an I-just-happened-to-find-this present. He wondered, though, whether Eli realized exactly how much a naked doll with a big ol’ penis would make him look like a total creep when he gave it to some woman.

Duo couldn’t name the day of the week — he did tend to lose track when the thrift store stay lasted more than a fortnight or so — but Eli apparently had no work shift to get to. He’d wandered leisurely down several more Arc aisles even after finding Duo, had never hurried to get out and come home; did that imply a weekend? Duo supposed it was possible. In any case, Eli obviously had no problem with re-bagging Duo immediately in preparation for taking him to his next destination.

Despite this, they didn’t leave immediately. Though the bag Duo again found himself wrapped in crackled a bit, he could still hear pretty well what went on outside it, and from the echo (and other sounds), they evidently occupied a bathroom for at least fifteen minutes before doing anything else. Since only about three of those minutes involved actual use of the toilet and a very thorough handwash thereafter, it had to be assumed Eli was concerning himself with his appearance in a mirror, and that the opening and closing of drawers and what sounded like a magnetic medicine cabinet played into that endeavor as well. Duo found this kinda cute, as it seemed to indicate how infatuated Eli was, but feared it would all be for nothing the very moment the woman opened this Arc bag and saw the would-be-casual but in reality quite suggestive present he’d brought her.

Because of situations just like this, Duo had learned to deduce a fair amount from only what he could hear going on around him. And he speculated with some certainty that Eli was nervous as he drove wherever. Further monologue took place at first — about whether or not she would be there and how she was always there and should take more time off than she did because it wasn’t like the other employees didn’t do a good job but he supposed when you owned a place you got more paranoid about how it ran — but after a while he turned on the radio.

His pitch off for every single note, he sang along, first about flying like an eagle to the sea and then something fast and largely incomprehensible that seemed to involve cherry cola, and when he resumed talking to himself afterward — this time incomprehensibly as the subsequent noisy advertisements drowned him out — he seemed to be doing a tiny bit better. The deep breath he took once he’d stopped the car, however, before Duo was seized and lifted inside his crinkly plastic prison, indicated how nervous he still felt.

Eli’s determined footsteps across what sounded like a parking lot were followed by the entry chime inside their destination and the cars on the street outside fading. “Hi, there!” someone some distance away greeted. “Come on in — oh, hi, Eli.”

“Hey,” Eli returned the greeting, and Duo thought he struggled to sound natural. “Is Becca around?”

“Bex!” the other voice, now nearer, called. “Come out here!” The tone suggested Becca would want to do so and that the speaker had no need to detail why. Duo smiled again; evidently Eli hung around this place enough not to need specific announcing.

They’d stopped moving, having evidently reached their destination, and the volume of the other voice no longer changed as it asked how Eli had been. He answered only absently, and the amused edge to her reply made it clear she knew perfectly well where his real interest lay. And then Duo was conscious of Eli’s grip tightening on the bag as a new voice from farther away said, “Oh, hey, Eli.”

“Hi!” Eli’s reply was perhaps a little too enthusiastic, which he appeared to notice, if the far more subdued sound of his follow-up was any indication. “How’s it going?”

“Good, good,” she replied jovially. “What about you?”

“I’m great,” said Eli. “I had to come by and — I found this — I thought this would be…”

Duo was aware of his conveyance transferring from one grasp to another. If he’d been able to do either, he would have been biting his lip and holding his breath in agitated anticipation of the moment Becca pulled him out of the bag and saw exactly what Eli had brought her and all it implied. The bag unrolled, and a hand reached in for him, and Duo counted down to the moment when all of Eli’s chances with its owner died an embarrassing death.

Able to see something other than translucent white plastic at last, Duo looked up into Becca’s face, both studying her features and watching for her reaction to the gift. The first struck him as not particularly attractive — not that his opinion of her level of attractiveness mattered one whit to anyone — and the second as not exactly what he’d expected.

“Where did–” She glanced at the bag Duo had come out of. “Which Arc did you find this at?”

Eli reminded her, “There’s only one left, remember?” And it was a sad day when charitable secondhand stores started going out of business, no matter how much Duo loathed them.

“Well, he’s…” Becca looked down again, her gaze traversing Duo’s entire figure and sticking, as predicted, on the penis, and as she hesitated before finishing her sentence, her jaw opened somewhat slackly for a moment. Duo waited, braced, for her to crush all of Eli’s hopes and dreams.

“He’s perfect,” Becca finished. Her astonished face rose again toward Eli, still gaping slightly. “How did — you just came across this at the Arc?”

“Yep.” Eli seemed not only ridiculously pleased at her positive reaction (doubtless, in part, because she’d said one of the things he’d seemed so certain she wouldn’t), but relieved as well. “Just laying there on the shelf with all these other toys.”

“Other toys without dicks, I bet!” Becca grinned.

“Yeah,” Eli laughed.

She moved suddenly. “Oh, he’s going to be just perfect in here! I think I even have…” She’d stepped into what seemed like a central island of sorts — Duo couldn’t turn his head to get a good look around without Eli and Becca, who’d both held him, seeing the movement, so he wasn’t sure — and pulled open a drawer. While she made rattling sounds digging through it, Duo stared up at the enthusiasm on her face and puzzled over this totally unexpected reaction and behavior. Though when after not too long she said excitedly, “Yes!” and extracted one of Duo’s least favorite things in the world, he was distracted for a moment.

“I can’t believe you found something like that,” the other woman — the clerk that had already inhabited the central island — remarked. “I didn’t know they even made Ken dolls with penises like that.”

I’ve never seen one before,” Becca agreed as she adjusted the doll stand and then inserted Duo. “And look at his hair!” The latter, at least from the back of Duo’s head down, had been wrapped in a taped roll of plastic for protection, and this Becca now removed, causing a faint crackle of static electricity Duo couldn’t feel.

“I thought you’d like it,” Eli put in, still sounding very pleased.

“I love it,” Becca enthused. “I’ll get him an outfit made, and he’ll go perfect in this display.” She bent to make some brief rearrangement inside the referenced space before placing Duo, in his new hated doll stand, within. “For now he can just stand here naked.”

From inside the glass case beneath the counter where Duo found himself, he had been planning on scrutinizing the room around him and figuring out exactly where he now lived, to the extent he could do so without turning his head. However, something much closer at hand and directly in his line of sight seized his attention and held it for quite some time.

“Yeah, he looks good,” said Eli. The two women, who had both hastened out of the island and around to where he stood to look at the display from the outside, voiced their agreement.

Duo’s compelling focus was his new roommate, a Barbie perhaps six inches away from him in a similar doll stand. She had, if Duo was any judge, had some red and black stripes added to her hair for variety, and her makeup redone with a fairly deft hand and a very small paintbrush, but other than that appeared to be a bog-standard blonde Caucasian Barbie — except that she wore a shiny leather leotard that zipped up the front all the way to her chin, with a couple of perfectly round holes baring plastic breasts that had been modified with little nipples of some sort. Were they modeling clay? Duo couldn’t tell. When was the last time he’d stared so hard at anyone’s breasts? He didn’t know.

“He’s just…” As far as Duo could tell out of the corner of his eye, Becca was shaking her head in wonder. “Perfect. Eli, thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome,” Eli smiled.

“But seriously,” the sales clerk put in, “when did they start making Ken dolls with penises?”

From this angle it wasn’t a certainty, but Duo thought the back of Barbie’s outfit narrowed into a thong that would not, of course, fit between her buttocks since there would be no real groove there, but would at least suggest. In the last few years Mattel had started adding texturing to Barbie’s crotch area to suggest panties, but this model, fortunately for the current aesthetic, was one of the older ones without that embellishment.

Becca shook half-clenched fists in the air in excitement. “I need to go get some stuff for him. I need to go to the fabric store.”

“I can hold the fort,” the clerk assured her readily, obviously having expected this, “if you want to go right away.”

Barbie’s studded leather armbands were interesting — more in the question of why she wore them than for their own merits — but Duo couldn’t look at them for long. Because her boots — where had those boots come from? It wasn’t that Duo interested himself excessively in Barbie fashion, just that by necessity he happened to know a lot more about it than many people did… and he’d never seen boots like that on a Barbie doll before. If they were homemade, they were the most professional-looking homemade Barbie footwear he’d ever seen. Could you get stuff like that at a fabric store? They were the same shiny black leather (or imitation thereof) as her leotard thing, and they came all the way up past her knees. The buckles in front were almost confusing to the eye, and he could tell by the bows peeking out from behind her thighs that they laced up in back.

“Can I come with?” Eli said this with the air of one taking the first big, scary step down a path long eyed but never until now embarked upon. “Buy you lunch on the way?”

“Eli, you just got me, like, the best present ever,” Becca protested with a grin.

“Yeah, but I’m hungry,” Eli shrugged, doing a really good job on the nonchalance — better than Duo had expected, actually; he must have practiced.

“OK, fine,” said Becca, turning a complete three-sixty and patting her pockets as if trying to determine what she had on her right this moment. “Just let’s go now. I want to make something like that for him.”

Duo couldn’t see where she pointed, what kind of outfit she had in mind, but he also couldn’t help joining in the laugh of everyone else besides Becca at her adorable excitement and enthusiasm. His laugh was quiet enough; even those that had held him wouldn’t hear it through the glass.

The land definitely lay differently than he’d realized. Obviously to Becca, who must have created the outfit the Barbie across from him wore, a penis doll wasn’t nearly so creepy as it might be to many others, and in fact was something she specifically wanted. And clearly Eli had known that. Eli had anticipated, in fact, every little nuance of how this would come across. Knowing she would appreciate the offer but at the same time fully aware of exactly how creepy it still might seem; knowing also that it would be a professionally welcome item but wanting it to come across as a personal gift — yet, again, not wanting to seem like a weirdo trying to send an inappropriate message, Eli had been in an interestingly awkward position. Of course Duo could only guess at all of this, but he could also easily spot the potential dilemma, and thought he assessed the situation correctly.

It made him a little sad, now, that he hadn’t initiated a conversation while he’d had the chance, as he came to the realization that Eli was truly a decent guy. Maybe decent enough to have accepted the humanity of the doll he’d bought at the Arc… though counting on that often proved unwise. And the opportunity had passed, since this display case made no good venue to try to start a friendship from, especially with someone that didn’t even work here.

“So what– I’m just curious,” Becca was remarking as she and Eli walked away from the counter toward the door– “what were you actually looking for at the Arc when you found that doll?”

“No, I was actually there looking for a doll with a penis,” Eli said in a tone that barely maintained its seriousness all the way through the statement. “I go check every month or so in case they have one.”

Becca’s laugh, half drowned out by the entry chime, was the last Duo heard of them.

Deeming it finally safe to turn his head and look around, he dragged his gaze from the nearby leather-clad doll and surveyed the rest of the room, as far as he could through the single transparent surface facing out from the island. And gradually he realized exactly why he’d been such a welcome offering here.

Two mannequins of shiny black plastic, which would be visible from outside through the windows that flanked the doors, wore outfits similar to the one Barbie did — one leather like hers, the other of a lacier and more ruffled variety but just as revealing. Behind one of them stood a rack of more clothing, apparently available for both male and female bodies and tailored for optimum exposure or at least suggestion of primary and secondary sexual organs. Duo wondered if Becca made it all herself. In the other direction, a rack of tubes and plastic bottles in a number of colors bore a sign that read, All lubricants / Buy one get one half off. In between that and some shelves full of whips, gags, masks, and various unidentifiable items of restraint, visible only with difficulty from his angle, Duo could make out a more distant set of shelves that seemed to be full of videos whose covers featured a lot of flesh colors.

That was about all he could see of his new home, and all he was likely ever to see if he retained this spot — though Becca would presumably have to pull him back out of the display when she had the outfit made and needed to get him into it — but he anticipated that listening to customers and staff discuss items in stock and purchases being made would shed light on what lay beyond his field of vision.

And all he could think, with a bemused sort of gaping he couldn’t physically affect but that was mentally just as slack-jawed as Becca had been at the sight of his penis, was, Well, this should be educational.

Season Finale (2008)

Felishawna was never silent, never even quiet. She chattered nonstop to anyone nearby, or to Duo in the absence of properly human companions, or to animals she happened to encounter, or to herself or the walls if necessary. When not talking, she sang songs of her own invention, or made strange noises with a perseverance that eventually grated even on a doll with 85 years of practice dealing with repetitive tedium.

He would have thought a child so relentlessly noisy would be impossible to lose track of, but it seemed the very constancy of her sound rendered it transparent so she blended into the background. She made no attempts at sneaking anywhere, yet somehow did it remarkably successfully; the fading of her childish vocalizations evidently struck those around her only on a subconscious level, very much like, say, the discontinuance of distant construction noises outside at lunchtime: it might be a while before anyone actively recognized their absence and asked, “Where’s Feli?”

Thus Duo felt little surprise when Felishawna’s relatives failed to notice she’d wandered out of the living room and into her uncle Leon’s bedroom. The doll was uniquely positioned to observe both that she’d done so and the lack of notice on their part, since she’d dropped him in the hall on her way at a near midpoint between the two.

She hadn’t turned the light on in her new venue of play, whether because she couldn’t find the switch, or couldn’t reach it, or for some mysterious reason reserved for herself, Duo didn’t know. In any case, she made scant noise in there — just quiet shufflings, as if she were pulling the linens off the bed (something she loved to do), and, for the moment, a sort of chant that was her childish version of a rap: “I gotta tell you a story about the princess and the time she was going out, fighting the bad guys of evil ray, being a pirate on Saturday, swim in the pool and the ocean lake, eating the hamburgers and the cake.”

Meanwhile, in the living room, most of the conversation between Felishawna’s mother and uncle could be heard even over the sounds of football from the television.

“I wish you would’ve stayed later last night,” Tonya lamented. “Mom got going about Feli again, and I bet she wouldn’t have if you were there.”

“Sorry.” This apology Duo could barely make out; he hadn’t seen much of Leon thus far, but already got the impression of a very calm and quiet person.

“You better look out if you ever get married and have kids; then she’ll be on your case too. But maybe,” Tonya added with a sigh, “only if she doesn’t like your wife.”

In the dark bedroom to Duo’s left, the shuffling sounds continued. He couldn’t see what Felishawna was up to — he lay on his face — but he could hear her latest song clearly, even more easily than the TV-obscured sounds of her relatives. “I’ve been deeming of a true-love’s spike, and a Pokémon who comes with Mike. So to meeve a mife of emless this…”

“Mom likes Estevan,” Leon was assuring his sister.

“Sure,” Tonya allowed grudgingly. “She likes him personally, but she doesn’t like us living so far away even though we both got great jobs out there and I love New York.”

“That’s probably a grandma thing.” Leon undoubtedly shrugged as he said this. “She doesn’t get to see Feli as often as she wants.”

Tonya gave a frustrated sigh.

In the bedroom, the child in question chanted, “Beetle butt, bootle butt, bitle butt, butt. Butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt, butt.”

“It’s not just that. She thinks Feli’s problems came from her dad, or his side of the family. She blames Es for all the trouble Feli keeps getting in.”

Leon sounded surprised as he asked, “She said that?”

“No.” Tonya sighed again. “But I can tell.” She continued in a grumbling tone as if it were a direct follow-up, “There’s no way we can come back after that.” It took Duo a moment to realize, with some relief, that she referred to the football game and not her relationship with her mom.

Leon agreed regretfully, and that he didn’t question Tonya’s stated awareness of their mother’s opinion seemed to indicate he found the assessment undeniable.

“And the worst part of it is she might be right.”

“See, I’ma pold you, like you pold me, trash rules everything around me. See-ya la la la la lee-ya, la la la la bee-ya.” Duo vaguely recognized the song this was a take on, and, believing it to be about a prostitute, wondered if Tonya knew Feli had listened to it often enough to imitate it even this much. The child went on with more of her chanting version of rap: “She use to be the sweetest girl ever. Ever ever bevver. Now she’s the princess of all the world, all the burld. She’s gonna get you and make you do what she wants. Ride all the horses and do the dahnce. Do the dahnce, do the dahnce, do the dahnce.” She saw fit to end this repetition with a drawn-out hiss on the last sibilant before resuming, “See, I’ma fell you…”

“Estevan always had behavior issues as a kid, he told me, and a lot of it’s just like what Feli’s dealing with.” Tonya sounded downright angry as she protested, “But the answer to that isn’t to take her away from her dad and send her to live with her grandma across the country! It’s not like being around him is making it worse somehow; if she did inherit something from him, that’s, like, a genetic or chemical thing, not like he’s a bad influence or something!”

“So what is the answer?” Leon sounded truly concerned with his niece’s welfare.

Said niece had mostly ceased her shuffling, but was busy with another rousing chorus of Beetle butt, bootle butt, only slightly more adjectival this time: “Beetly butt, bootly butt, bitelly butt, beetly butt, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly, buttelly…” She seemed to be stuck on that word and enjoying it very much; she kept saying it for the next minute or so. She started tripping over the syllables eventually, adding extra t’s where she didn’t necessarily want them, and after a while shifted to blowing harshly through her teeth in mingled amusement and frustration.

“God, Lee, I wish I knew. The counselor at her school wants us to see an actual child psychiatrist, but Es doesn’t want to. He’s afraid they’re going to want to put her on drugs, and he doesn’t like that. He got through his childhood OK without drugs, and she’s so young…”

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t know. She’s such a good kid; she’s smart and nice and creative; she just…” It seemed a significant relief to Tonya to be able to discuss this with her sympathetic listener of a brother, and Duo was glad this vacation had given her the chance to do so. He agreed with her, too: Felishawna was a good kid, at least at heart if not always in practice.

And she’d come out of the bedroom now, as indicated by the random noises a few feet above the doll’s head. She picked Duo up and added him to whatever she carried, obviously acquired within, then turned toward the far end of the hall and the bathroom.

Here Duo could no longer hear the adults’ conversation — the TV with which their voices had always been in competition now conspired with Feli’s echoing speech nearer to Duo’s ears to drown them out — but he regretted this very little. The discussion might make Tonya feel a bit better, but seemed likely to have no other useful outcome. Even Duo, creeping up on a century of experience with children, didn’t know what to do for Felishawna; what chance did Tonya and Leon have to figure it out?

Feli couldn’t reach the medicine cabinet, which relieved Duo since he didn’t doubt she would eat something inside it believing (or pretending to believe) it was candy, but the items beside the sink and on the bathtub ledges were easily added to her collection of stolen goods. These included hand soap, aftershave, toothpaste, and body wash.

Duo had met children with the same prolificacy of oral noise as Feli, the same endless energy toward talking and singing and making strange sounds either for their own amusement or in interaction with others. They, like Feli, had gotten in trouble at school for never being able to keep quiet or for responding to statements made or questions asked with silly irrelevant chatter. The only cure for this behavior Duo had ever observed had been dogged repetition of commands to be quiet or to answer properly, and he felt this had only repressed the noise, not rechanneled it in the right direction or taught the kids how to manage and control it. He didn’t want to see Feli come to believe that expressing herself was shameful and become a sullen, speechless victim of a constant, “Shut up.”

A cheer from both adults in the other room overcame the television, and Feli joined in with an incredibly squeaky “Wooooo!” that sounded more like a ghostly whine than a cry of joy. She didn’t look up, though, from where she’d seated herself, legs akimbo, on the bathroom floor and started organizing the objects in front of her.

Other traits Feli demonstrated had been shared by other children in Duo’s past as well. She had a tendency to resent authority, and to do over-the-top silly things in response to direct commands, and Duo had definitely encountered that before on playgrounds and in schools and even in homes. Of course that led to trouble too, and Duo had never seen an adequate correctional process for it. The problem, he thought, lay more with the authority figures anyway, a problem that existed on too large a scale to hope much for.

The largest item Feli had purloined was a replica NFL jersey in pristine silver and black, and this she now arranged in a rough rectangle on the linoleum before her, crumpling its edges to create a sort of container. She sang nonsense words as she did so, but under her breath so Duo only caught the occasional ‘zoodles’ or ‘poopermooper.’

Where she got the energy for the ongoing activities and excitement that filled her life, Duo, like Tonya and her teachers at school, could not begin to guess. Well, no, that wasn’t quite true: the constant movement and noise and the thoughtlessness or even clumsiness that often came with them reminded him very much of the girl’s father, Estevan — a nice guy whose possession of these traits didn’t seem to have damaged his childhood beyond repair… but that didn’t help with the current issues.

Into the jersey Feli had now placed all the other objects she’d gathered except Duo. She began bouncing him from one to the next and the next, and doing his dialogue in a weird falsetto as usual. “Oh, I gotta get across… I gotta jump on the… stepping-rocks, and not fall into the swamp!” She paused, expression thoughtful. “I need a Real Swamp,” she announced.

Duo groaned internally as she then, clumsily with her small hands, popped open the bottle of body wash and began pouring it out onto the jersey. Since she’d left him lying in the swamp, he received a healthy dose of the gooey substance on his own body. He probably needed a wash anyway (well, he certainly did now). The bottle plopped down beside him, and next she unscrewed the cap on the aftershave. A much runnier liquid, it came out faster than she’d intended, and she giggled as she added its entirety to the bog. It made her cough, though, and Duo wished he knew what it smelled like.

Construction of the Real Swamp finished and the aftershave bottle taking its position as a stepping-rock, more satisfying play could commence. Once again Duo hopped from item to item, ‘narrating’ his journey in an absurd voice. Feli, almost immediately covered in body wash and aftershave, squirmed at the sensation of the latter’s ‘icy cold’ as well as the combination beginning to soak into her pants. Of course the jersey’s edges presented no significant barrier — they hadn’t even crumpled effectively in the first place — and soon the bathroom floor swam in a slowly expanding tide of personal care products.

Feli tried to sing a swamp song, tried to pretend she was foundering in muddy water from which Duo would have to rescue her, but signs of real discomfort from the aftershave marred her ability to perform or even to enjoy herself. Eventually she set Duo down again and started pushing the muck off her hands as best she could; her face threatened tears.

Perhaps because the little girl had gone silent, perhaps drawn by what must be an overpowering smell, Tonya entered at this moment. There was a prolonged lack of respiration as widened eyes twitched from one aspect of the disaster to another, and then the bathroom exploded into chaos. Tonya always tried her best not to react too harshly to Felishawna’s escapades, but this child would push any parent’s patience to its limits — and Duo thought embarrassment at today’s mayhem having been wreaked upon her brother’s possessions exacerbated her response.

Demanding to know what Feli had been thinking, declaring that she knew better than to do something like this, and with multiple interjections not quite profane expressing her various emotions, Tonya hauled Feli to her feet and pushed her toward the sink. Feli had begun outright crying, and every word from her mother’s mouth raised the volume until she was bawling and sobbing roughly. Not much more gently did Tonya ‘help’ her daughter wash her hands and forearms, demand of Leon in the doorway whether he had any washcloths, and begin scrubbing Feli’s legs and shoes. Feli complained incoherently through her misery that it hurt, that it felt like when she wet her pants (something Duo had known her to do at least three times since he’d been with her), and this did not improve Tonya’s mood.

From his bed in the swamp, the doll had a decent view of Leon at the bathroom entrance. His soothing words and mild suggestions of assistance had been totally ignored and overridden by his sister’s more forceful activities and tirade, and now he stood silently looking on. Whenever his gaze strayed to the possibly ruined jersey on the floor, he winced, but otherwise he showed no sign of being upset, and certainly none of being angry. In fact, though he’d schooled his handsome face into a somber expression appropriate to his niece’s misdeed, hints of amusement showed now and then, especially when Feli referred in anguish to her Real Swamp.

Eventually Tonya whirlwinded her daughter out of the bathroom. Duo heard her requesting a trash bag Feli could sit on so she didn’t dirty the rental car, and then there were hasty goodbyes. Out of Feli’s continued roaring Duo managed to hear the protesting cry, “Peanuts! Peanuts Hair!” She called him Peanuts Hair X. Correa whenever she hadn’t invented some context-dependent temporary name, so at least he wasn’t entirely forgotten. But that didn’t mean anyone extracted him from his slippery bath and allowed him to go with her, and soon her noises were muffled by the apartment door closing.

So there went that relationship. It had happened so fast, it was as if a guillotine had sliced down into his life and neatly severed him from his companion. Again. And he hadn’t even talked to this one yet. He hadn’t known what to make of her, what angle to approach her from, what reaction to expect. At that very moment, he began to consider it rather tiring and pointless to be so cautious about talking to people.

Whether he’d struck up a conversational friendship with her or not, Felishawna now numbered among those whose stories he’d become invested in but would never see the end of. Would her parents figure out what her deal was and how best to respond to it? Would she improve in her school performance and her behavior? Could she find some way, perhaps through her artistic propensities, to become a productive member of society in the future? Or would she die sometime from falling out of a tree not meant for climbing or playing with paper clips and power outlets? Once again, for the nth time, Duo would probably never know.

Yet this situation differed in several little ways from many in his past. Tonya and Feli had plane tickets back to New York tomorrow, but might they not swing by here and pick Duo up once Tonya’s desperate annoyance faded? Duo doubted it, but it wasn’t impossible. If they didn’t, might not Leon mail the doll to his niece? Sending packages no longer cost an arm and a leg; it could happen. And if he didn’t, Duo had already decided to talk to him. He seemed kind-hearted and not given to extravagant reactions; he might prove a better friend even than Felishawna — on whose progress he could keep Duo updated. In any of these cases, Duo would be able to continue following Feli’s story after all. Communication had become so much easier, faster, better these days. Maybe these days were just better.

That prospects had evidently improved so much gave him a feeling not precisely of hope, but of relative sanguinity. If distance travel and package shipping were more affordable and communication was easier… if times were better… if being separated from his caretaker no longer automatically meant the severance of all interaction with and knowledge of them… his life, such as it was, must become better as well. Surely this improvement must herald greater improvements to come!

After all, he hadn’t been left lying on his face this time. He wasn’t in a trash can or a doghouse or a forgotten toy-box. Sure, his hair and clothes were saturated with gunk he couldn’t smell or feel, his hearing a little muffled by the same, and he had no idea what Tonya or Leon planned. But he truly believed (perhaps only because he chose to, perhaps compelled by outside circumstances) that things were, just as he was, looking up.



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I’m incredibly pleased with this collection of stories, and will probably have more notes about them by and by. For now, check out lebzpel on Tumblr, because their art is always, always worth looking at.

Heretic’s Reward

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

"Sooner or later, whoever's behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of 'divine' display affirming his claim to the throne... Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat."

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.

Heretic’s Reward

Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after the next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if one ensued.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt and backed in its traces as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the path neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” An obvious untruth — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion actually came from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you, and it’ll be all profit.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she might be with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He now held a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, didn’t do much for him; mounted bravery against a man on foot inspired little admiration.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The bandit swept his weapon at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the man’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow didn’t break all the way through, but two loud cracks sounded, first as the blade made contact and then as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter, now even angrier than before, readied for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it required a greater effort to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic stood looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. Seijuurou took the opportunity to examine him more closely. For all he looked like a vagabond, he had a lean, muscular figure, well formed features, and an energy about him that hinted at potential in more than one area.

“I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it. His movements in general spoke of vigor and strength, and not a little restlessness.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded, having made his decision. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not recognizing the inadvertent compliment in his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

A valid question. But, “How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou, entirely ignoring it. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded.

As a much younger man, he had naturally followed the precepts of the church and the less-spoken rules of good society. But when he’d moved to Torosa, he’d embraced a kind of bitter abandon regarding certain behaviors that had then, over time, become habits. Perhaps he should offer a specific prayer or two to Kaoru about whether she truly condemned such things, but not now. Not with this enticing young man, who undoubtedly disregarded such precepts and rules far more than Seijuurou, in sore want of training. And it was with this in mind that the master added, “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Chapter 5 – Warrior’s Coma

Sano had managed successful meditative communication perhaps twice before, and each time had been so pleased and excited at getting it right, he’d spoiled his own concentration and broken the connection. So he had only an imprecise idea of what it was like — but that idea yet allowed him to recognize where he was now.

Well, not ‘where.’ He was nowhere, and if he tried to focus on the nonexistent background that seemed to be comprised of pure mood, he felt everything around him start to waver as if his attention threatened the very existence of the universe. Physical sensations were vague too. The feelings of walking, of breathing, of an itch on his face and the pull of gravity, were washed out and seemed to fade somewhat whenever he didn’t specifically think about them. If he remembered correctly from Seijuurou’s lectures, this was due to his mind fabricating them to accompany the false physicality of his spiritual manifestation; he wasn’t actually experiencing anything of the sort.

Beneath these fake sensations were the real ones, the ones his body actually felt: he could just barely make out the hard floor of Seijuurou’s house, the somewhat uncomfortable position in which he lay on it, and the soreness in the back of his skull. But he knew if he sought after that too energetically, he would wake himself up. Instead, he looked around for his trainer and the knight. And the moment he did, their voices reached him.

“Who are you? Where’s the boy?”

“The boy is somewhere about, probably. He’s incapable of maintaining a meditative state, so he put you in more qualified hands.”

Once Sano had heard them, it was simple enough to locate the visual aspect of their manifestations. Seijuurou appeared mostly as he did in life, with just a touch of greater presence, shinier musculature where his skin showed, and more eye-grabbing beauty here than there to set this manifestation apart from reality. The stranger wore his royal knight’s shiiya again, implying that his membership in that organization was a crucial part of his identity — crucial enough to overcome the knowledge Seijuurou and Sano had that he was currently topless, which would otherwise have forced him to appear here as they knew he did in outer life.

“The real question is, who are you?” Seijuurou was asking. “And what quest was so important you had to drive yourself into a coma for it?”

The knight seemed suspicious and a little irritated. “Why should I answer your questions when I have no idea who you are?”

At this point Sano broke into the conversation with, “Hey, what’s the big fucking idea hitting me on the head like that?”

Seijuurou barely turned to look at him with the comment, “There you are.” His succinct answer to the question was, “The off chance it would get you here, of course.”

“‘The off chance??'” echoed Sano, irate.

“I wanted to see this anomaly for myself,” Seijuurou explained placidly. “I knew your energy runs wild when you’re unconscious, but even I couldn’t have predicted this.”

The knight, who had been studying Sano with a somewhat skeptical expression, now gestured to him and asked Seijuurou, “Who is this idiot?”

Anger transferring immediately from his master to the knight, Sano raised a fist at the man and said, “‘This idiot’ just saved your life, you ungrateful asshole!”

“You didn’t save his life,” Seijuurou corrected him. “People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas. This idiot,” he went on, turning back to the knight and mimicking the latter’s gesture toward Sano, “is my latest worthless student. I assume my previous worthless student sent you to find me because he’s messed things up again.”

“Then you are Seijuurou,” stated the knight.

“Obviously.” Seijuurou’s eyes sparkled as he said this, something more than a figure of speech when the eyes in question were no more than a manifestation of a very arrogant spirit.

Sano rolled his own eyes. “Sounds like you two are gonna get along.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will.” Seijuurou flashed a suggestive smile at the knight, who looked away in annoyance. The keonmaster’s face returned to its previous serious expression as he went on to ask, “So what kind of foolishness is going on in Elotica?”

“The king has been usurped,” replied the knight, still not looking at Seijuurou.

The latter folded his arms and said flatly, “Predictable. By whom?”

Sano snorted quietly at the implication that Seijuurou had seen this coming. If the country were to be overrun by giant hedgehogs for whose nourishment worms began raining from the sky, Seijuurou would claim he’d seen it coming.

The knight, unfamiliar with Seijuurou’s ways, simply answered the question seriously. “A prince of Gontamei, of course. We knew there was some sort of conspiracy, but we hadn’t been able to pinpoint the powers behind it, and the king didn’t want random arrests.”

“He always has been too soft,” Seijuurou nodded. Sano, despite having just been reflecting on his master’s pretense of omniscience, was a little startled at the knowing tone. Was it possible Seijuurou really was familiar with the king? “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…” he’d said before. Did that mean…?

“Yes,” the knight was agreeing a little helplessly. “The best I could do was stay at his side as much as possible and keep my eyes open. That wasn’t enough, but at least I was present when it happened.” He shifted slightly, and all of a sudden Sano was seeing his memories.

The knight had been sitting in some room in the royal palace — a sunlit, mural-decorated chamber larger than Sano’s entire house — in a carved chair probably worth more than everything Sano owned put together, reading something. From the awareness in the memory Sano got the vague impression that the room’s original purpose had been as a sort of morning lounge, for a great, intricately-worked bay window looked east over a fine courtyard, but these days it was used as an office. Shelves full of books and papers lined the walls, hiding great chunks of the murals, and much of the remaining floor space was occupied by a large table at which the king sat.

Sano had never seen the king, nor, as he cared little about him, wondered what he might look like, but couldn’t help some surprise at the image the memory presented: he seemed remarkably short and small, though his arms where the sleeves of his shining royal shiiya fell from them were tan and toned. His hair was strikingly red, unusual among Akomerashou, the scar on his left cheek nearly the same color.

King Kenshin and his knight had evidently just finished a brief conversation and fallen silent, and now footsteps could be heard outside in the hallway. The knight seemed to tense at the sound, but before he could do more than rise from his seat, the doors had burst open. Several men entered, carrying drawn swords and clad in royal knight shiiyao that bore the crest of the other royal family, Gontamei.

When six of them had fallen into lines of three on either side of a path from the door to Kenshin’s table, another person appeared. Like the king he wore a shining royal shiiya, and he was followed by two more armed men. By this time, the king’s knight had, of course, approached to stand protectively beside his liege, keon sword drawn and the energy blade bright and long.

The Gontamei prince, who looked to be no older than Sano, raised a hand in a cheerful wave as he stopped in front of Kenshin’s table, and, smiling brightly, said, “Good morning, highness!”

“Good morning, Soujirou,” replied the king, who still held the papers he’d been drawing up as if this were nothing more than a temporary interruption. “From the looks of things, you have grown tired of waiting.”

Soujirou, still smiling, placed a hand on the table and leaned forward to peer at what the king was working on. “I do beg your pardon,” he said. “But you must be aware of what a weak king you are… this was inevitable.”

“Well,” replied Kenshin, tapping the stack of papers against the desk to straighten them and then setting them down on a nearby pile, “that may be true. Will you be killing me, then?”

“Oh, no!” Soujirou protested, raising his hands as if to ward off the suggestion. “Kill a prince of Baranor’mei? No!” He almost seemed to be laughing at the idea. “You will be my honored guest until I decide where to send you.”

Kenshin nodded, pushed back his chair, and stood. “Then I will surrender for now.”

At a gesture from the prince, Soujirou’s men began making their way around the table to lay hands on the king; at the same time, Kenshin turned to the knight at his side and said something so brief and quiet that, despite this being the knight’s own memory and the knight presumably having understood the words, Sano didn’t catch it. Then the scene abruptly faded.

Sano shook his head to clear the lingering images of the memory from his vision, and demanded as soon as he could, “What was that? He surrendered without even a fight?? There were two of you! And isn’t the king supposed to be this great swordsman?”

The knight also shook his head. “Ever since the Refugee Issue,” he explained, “the king only wears an empty sheath. It’s supposed to be a symbol of peace. He probably didn’t want to risk my life by essentially asking me to take on all nine of them by myself.”

“Thereby rendering your presence there entirely purposeless,” remarked Seijuurou.

“Or maybe he has something in mind that I can’t guess.” The knight sounded confused and perhaps a little bitter as he added, “All he said was, ‘Find Seijuurou.'”

“I can’t imagine why,” Seijuurou said.

The knight definitely sounded bitter as he muttered, “I’m beginning to agree with you.”

“How did you know where to find him?” Sano asked.

“The king has mentioned his mentor to me many times, as well as where he lives,” said the knight with a slight sigh. “But since there was a good chance others in the court knew as well, I thought it would be best to come as soon as possible.”

“And put yourself into a coma,” Seijuurou added critically.

Annoyed and possibly somewhat discouraged, the knight again looked away for a moment before continuing. “Soujirou sent half of his men away with the king; I have no idea where they might have gone. Then he tried to convince me to join him. I think my reply was more eloquent than his offer.”

Sano got a brief image of the knight kicking the entire large, heavy, book-and-paper-covered table over in Soujirou’s face, then jumping through the glass of the bay window into one of the trees in the courtyard below, and couldn’t help being rather amused and somewhat impressed at the drama and decisiveness of the knight’s ‘reply.’ That explained all the little cuts on his arms, too.

“They weren’t able to pursue me immediately,” the knight went on, “and Soujirou doesn’t know about the King’s Flight, so escape from the palace wasn’t difficult. Getting out of the city wasn’t either, though Soujirou’s takeover seems to have been coordinated across Elotica and many areas were already openly under his control.”

“Yeah, sounds like it was all real easy,” Sano said sarcastically, then asked in genuine curiosity, “What’s a King’s Flight?”

The knight showed him a quick memory of a long, narrow spiral staircase, completely dark but for the light of the energy on his keonblade, as he answered, “The hidden exit from the palace.”

“When did this all happen?” asked Seijuurou.

Pensively the knight said, “What day is it now?”

“Kahyou.” Seijuurou, for all he lived like a country hermit, always used the terms of the new calendar… which was probably for the best when talking to a knight from the capital.

“Three days ago, then,” the knight said.

“Three days?” Sano repeated in loud incredulity. “How in Kaoru’s name did you get up here so fast?”

“Soujirou sent at least two groups of men after me, so I didn’t feel I could afford to stop anywhere for long. I was able to change horses a few times along the way, so I traveled almost without rest.” A string of very brief images flashed past Sano’s awareness as the knight spoke. It seemed he had lost his pursuers, then been overtaken by them, twice, and blows had been exchanged both times. In the second instance, when the forest landscape surrounding him in the memory had become quite familiar to Sano, he had been unseated and wounded and had barely escaped.

“Which is why you’re now in a coma,” Seijuurou finished for him.

“A fact I don’t need to be reminded of again,” said the knight tightly.

“‘At least two groups?'” wondered Sano. “You must be pretty damn import–” And abruptly he cut his own words short as a thought occurred to him. “Wait… how far did they follow you? Did they know where you were going?”

“It’s not unlikely; I lost them on Torosa.”

Of course; otherwise the knight wouldn’t have been able to make it as far as that crossroads before collapsing after being wounded. That was why that last remembered image had looked so familiar to Sano. He swore, suddenly tense. “They’re gonna come looking for you in Eloma and hear I had you there last night!”

“Even if they track him here, are you really worried?” Seijuurou wondered skeptically.

“Not about us,” was Sano’s impatient reply. “What they might do over there if they can’t find him!” He gestured wildly, probably in entirely the wrong direction, trying to indicate his village and his friends that might even now be in danger. In this communicative unreality, he was undoubtedly projecting images of Eloma and the people there far better than he could indicate those concepts even in words.

“And what do you think there is to be done about that?” The knight’s tone was as skeptical as Seijuurou’s, but with a touch more derision. “Aren’t you unconscious?”

Sano rounded on him angrily. “At least I’m gonna wake up sometime!”

“To the world’s great benefit, I’m sure,” the knight responded dryly.

With a snort, Sano turned back to his master. “Seijuurou! Wake me up already!” he commanded, reaching out to pull at a long lock of Seijuurou’s shining black hair to make absolutely certain he had his attention.

“And how do you propose I do that?” Seijuurou said disinterestedly as he disengaged Sano’s hand and smoothed his hair back into place.

“I don’t care; just do it!” Sano insisted.

Seijuurou gave a brief smirk that had an unpleasantly suggestive edge to it, then abruptly vanished from the mindscape. Sano barely had time to notice the different aura the non-place took on once Seijuurou’s presence and mood were removed from it before he felt… something else. It was a real sensation, something happening to his actual body out there in the real world, not one of these things his head was supplying to add verisimilitude to the experience of manifesting via spiritual energy. As Sano realized exactly what it was, his eyes went wide and he felt a blush creeping over his face. Seijuurou was really unbelievable. With this knight here and everything!

But at least it worked. It wasn’t a sensation he could easily ignore, after all. The skeptical look the knight was giving him, as well as the knight himself and all lingering images from the memories they’d shared, were fading abruptly as Sano found himself racing toward consciousness again.

>5 Interlude

“You didn’t save his life. People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas.”

It wasn’t the kindest way to break to someone that he was dying, especially given that the statement hadn’t even been directed at him. Still, the manner of revelation didn’t make much difference, in the long run, to the dying man. It did say something, and not something particularly complimentary, about the speaker; at least he’d found him, though.

Seijuurou, to judge by the image manifested by his spiritual energy, seemed every bit as strong and effective as Kenshin believed, but Hajime wasn’t sure how much help he was actually going to be. At the very least, the man had little sympathy for Kenshin’s plight… or for Kenshin in general, it appeared. The king had always spoken of his former master fondly… and Hajime had always known that Kenshin was entirely too lenient with people he was attached to.

But the king had given an order — possibly his final order in that position, certainly his final order to Hajime — so the knight had obeyed. Obeyed to the point of suicide, which wasn’t an idea he balked at but also wasn’t something he’d anticipated. That type of loyalty to one’s king was perfectly appropriate, but he’d assumed either to see his death coming before it came and to prepare for it, or to die suddenly and unexpectedly. This was neither here nor there.

He’d never even heard of a “warrior’s coma” until Seijuurou explained it to him at needless length. Hajime had always known he had an exceptional level of control over his spiritual energy — there was a reason he’d become the chief of the king’s knights so quickly, after all — and his current state, apparently, was just further proof of that. How consoling Seijuurou expected it to be that Hajime’s strength of spirit had actually caused his current dilemma, Hajime wasn’t certain.

It was very much like being half-asleep, and aware that he was half-asleep: if he concentrated, he could ‘awaken.’ Unlike a typical awakening, however, this was merely a more complete awareness, not an actual change in circumstances. Still, as there was something vaguely, paradoxically agitating about the drifting state, that greater awareness was a definite improvement. And having someone else around, having something specific to concentrate on helped.

He wondered if concentrating would speed up or slow down his death. He also wondered when and if he would feel the answer to that question. At the moment he didn’t feel like he was dying, despite the pain (now relatively quiet with assimilation) that still throbbed at him from whatever connection he retained to his body. But simultaneously he couldn’t really sense the passage of time, so not only had he no concept of how long it had been since he’d collapsed on the forest road, he also couldn’t guess how swiftly or slowly he might be approaching the end of his energy. And when he reached that end… would he be snuffed out like a candle, or ebb like spilled water?

Seijuurou hadn’t mentioned quite a few details like that. Of course, Hajime didn’t know if, even in a spiritual state, he could have stomached any more of Seijuurou’s pompous details, pedantic and interspersed among pointlessly suggestive comments as they had been. Even that boy’s ignorant ranting would be better.

They’d both gone now, the boy running off to his village in a panic and Seijuurou ‘to try some things,’ so Hajime was alone again in this haze that felt like a dream but wasn’t.

Dreams… That was a topic he kept coming back to, despite the fact that his approaching demise really ought to have been more engrossing. But those dreams…

Exactly how much had come from his own subconscious and how much had been a product of the boy’s he didn’t know. Possibly because of Hajime’s disorientation, the boy’s influence had certainly been strong, especially at first — strong and sensory. Hajime could remember the smell of the inexplicably calm ocean water among the stepping stones, the chill claustrophobia of the spiral tower’s interior. He very rarely had dreams so rich in that sort of detail.

Only because of this comparison, in fact, was he now aware of just how surreal his own dreams usually were… a permeating sensibility or an understood concept to which any physical events portrayed were secondary. Normally what his body was feeling at this time would manifest itself almost preclusively in his dreams, so that if someone asked, “What did you dream about?” the answer would simply be, “Pain.”

Whereas, connected to that strange boy, it manifested rather as chains of blood growing from the wound and entwining him like hot, strangling vines. And the urgency that would normally, for him, have been simply an omnipresent mood, and that mood the core and substance of the dream, instead took physical shape… a straight hallway, a specific pillared lane to be followed, and forbidding darkness beyond the path’s boundaries.

Whether the fact that Hajime hadn’t technically been asleep made a difference, he didn’t know; what effect came of his attempts at talking to the boy, rather than just letting the dreams play out, he didn’t know. It was an entirely incomprehensible situation, from beginning to end, brought about by a strange and unanticipated link. He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that sudden, uncanny intimacy with a complete stranger, but it certainly had been the most unusual experience he could remember.

Given that spiritual energy was turned entirely inward during sleep, he’d never heard of keonmasters — even the strongest, which the boy quite obviously wasn’t — communicating via dreams… Hajime’s current state was anomalous, of course, which could account for any number of things… but, he felt, still couldn’t explain the boy.

Well, really, for all the mysterious facets of the situation, the boy was unimportant, and irritating in any event. But the fact remained that the bizarreness of unexpectedly sharing dreams with someone hadn’t really improved Hajime’s mental condition, nor put him in an appropriate state of mind to learn that he wasn’t going to wake up again. And the continued agitation called up by the memory of it wasn’t doing much to help him accept his fate.

The truth was, he felt about as cheerless and helpless right now as he possibly could. And any such sensations always inevitably reminded him of the last time he’d felt so completely ineffectual and unhappy. But that, even as his end approached, he preferred not to recall. Dreams or death or a quest unfulfilled — anything was a better topic than that.

He wasn’t afraid of dying. Actually, his thoughts on the subject had always been something of a blank, and in this disjointed reality they were even less substantial. But dying like this, slowly, vaguely, alone… not to mention dying while his mission was incomplete… that wasn’t his ideal way to go.

Kenshin’s two-word order hadn’t conveyed much information: whether the king believed Seijuurou would be willing to assist in this matter; what he might be able to do if he did; or even whether Hajime was actually supposed to be finding him to help or for some entirely different purpose. Hajime had made the assumption he thought the most logical and acted upon it, and now feared that all his effort might have been for nothing. That his death might be for nothing.

For Seijuurou certainly didn’t seem overly eager to help. Given that what he did seem was entirely content to sit around on the same mountain he’d apparently occupied for the last twenty years teaching some inept orchard-hand how to have sensory dreams rather than meditate, and making licentious comments at dying knights, Hajime didn’t have much hope for spurring him into action on anyone’s behalf… least of all someone Seijuurou referred to as his ‘previous worthless student.’

And, given what Hajime had observed of the man’s personality beyond those facts, Seijuurou wasn’t really someone he would have chosen to have by his side as he died, either.

Well, if he had a choice, he wouldn’t die at all.

Still, since he had to, he couldn’t quite decide whether the idea of expiring alone in this inbetween place or without fulfilling the king’s last request was bothering him more. If only he could get through to someone else — anyone else — he might be able to convey a warning about the state of things in Elotica to someone that might be able to do something about it. The multiple mights in that statement might be worrisome… but it didn’t matter, since he couldn’t do it. He’d already tried.

Normally — conscious, that is — the method by which he used his spiritual energy to contact someone was to hone that energy through meditation and reach out toward the other person. It only worked if they were expecting it and in a similar meditative state; their energy would meet his, and conversation could ensue. Right now, however, rather than feeling the energy inside him like blood in his veins ready to be tapped, taken control of, and shaped to his will, he felt as if he were submerged in a sea of it — he could just as easily take the actual ocean in his hands as direct this ubiquitous force.

Seijuurou had been able to reach out to him easily enough, it seemed; but Hajime was simply and completely unable to do the same. Even if, by some impossible chance, there were someone (besides Seijuurou) in a meditative state to whose energy he might have been able to connect, it was a moot point as he couldn’t even reach out in the first place.

If he had been able to, that boy and his bizarre dreams would probably have blocked him anyway.

What was that boy — besides unfathomable and intractable? What qualified him as the student of a man that had trained one of the greatest warriors Hajime had ever met? Was Seijuurou just bored? Going senile, perhaps? Or was the training the privilege of a lover? Hajime had gotten that feeling from them, to a certain extent… but he’d also gotten the feeling that Seijuurou wasn’t exactly the righteously monogamous type. He couldn’t really bring himself to trust most of the impressions he’d formed since falling unconscious, however, and the matter wasn’t exactly consequential.

The impressions he did trust — his general concepts of Seijuurou and the boy — were bleak enough: that both of his new acquaintances would, very likely, prove useless. The former was a sophomoric grouch, the latter all emotion and little purpose or thought.

Still… it might have been weakness, or it might have been completely natural — he didn’t know; he’d never died before — despite the master’s self-important disparagement and the latest worthless student’s defiant stupidity… Hajime wished they would come back.

Chapter 6 – The Defense of Eloma

Sano didn’t think he’d ever made such good time between Seijuurou’s house and his own, but running nearly the entire way rendered him almost useless by the time he reached the village. This was fortuitous, as he was forced to slow down about when crossing the irrigation bridge into Eloma; he hadn’t been thinking very clearly most of the way over, and would probably have flung himself immediately, sword drawn, at anyone he didn’t recognize once he arrived, so being compelled to ease up for a few minutes and be rational was undoubtedly for the best.

He took the same back route he had last night, avoiding the center of town, toward his house, letting his lungs and various muscles stop burning as he proceeded a little more slowly and carefully. This path provided him no sight of outsiders or anything dangerous, but as he approached his home from behind, he heard quite clearly a dismaying crashing noise within.

From around in front someone said loudly, “There’s nobody here!”

Quietly Sano moved to the corner of his residence and peered out to where exactly what he’d feared was evidently going on. The angry speaker wore what he’d seen on the men in the memories: the white shiiya of a royal knight with the blue-green ocean wave symbol of Gontamei in the diamond on the chest. And the object of his ire was the father of one of Sano’s friends, a grey-bearded man that appeared, at the moment, rather distressed. Even as Sano watched, the Gontamei knight took the man by the front of his shiiya and pulled him roughly closer.

“Have you been lying to me, old man,” he demanded, “or are you just blind and stupid?”

“No, master,” replied Genji’s father a little unsteadily, struggling as the other pulled him off balance, “I saw him come home last night carrying someone on his back! It must have been who you’re looking for.”

“Well, they’re not here now. If someone here’s hiding them…” The knight gave Genji’s father a threatening shake.

“He may have left again when nobody was looking,” suggested the old man helplessly.

Abruptly, in a motion almost more a shove, the knight released the old man so the latter fell hard to the ground. Turning to someone Sano couldn’t see, he gestured widely and angrily. “They can’t have gone far if Hajime had to be carried. Search every house! Search the orchards! And be thorough about it!”

Judging by the crash he’d heard as he’d approached, this last command implied free destruction throughout the village. And since the person they sought definitely wasn’t here, it probably wouldn’t end after only a few houses.

Genji’s father must also have realized this, for from his seat on the ground he said, hasty and desperate, “Please, master, I swear we don’t know where they are! The boy comes and goes on his own–”

But Sano had a better way of keeping the false knights from doing any more damage — at least to the property of those uninvolved. Stepping forward, drawing his sword, he interrupted the old man loudly, “Fucking right I do.”

The knight that had been giving the orders whirled to face him. He reached for his sword, but never managed to pull it more than a few inches free of its sheath. Sano’s energy blade, full and bright now with the strength of his rage, cut a long red line into the man’s arm, and Sano had brought the thick, round pommel down on the man’s head and knocked him senseless before the knight could even raise his other hand to clutch at the new wound.

Eager for another target, he turned, but what he saw made him pause even in his anger. Previously hidden from his view by the house, perhaps ten more men in Gontamei royal knights’ shiiyao were gathering slowly into a tighter group from where they’d probably been dispersing to follow orders. They all stared at him, evidently surprised by how quickly and easily he’d taken care of their leader.

On seeing just how many of them there were, Sano’s immediate reflection was, Seriously, how important is this Hajime guy? He didn’t really have time to think about it, however, since the men were drawing their weapons and eyeing him darkly. Instead, determined to make the first move, he pressed forward, sword flashing.

On the rare occasion when not annoyed with Seijuurou, Sano was willing to admit he hadn’t learned nothing from the man. True, he was still about as far from keonmastery as he had been before meeting Seijuurou, but his general swordsmanship skills had increased quite a bit. And if this hadn’t been the case, he would have gone down almost immediately in this situation.

Of course, ten on one was still pretty bad. Seijuurou could have taken them with no problem, but Sano found himself slowly forced into retreat, and would soon have his back to the wall of his own house, or possibly worse. Probably worse. In fact, worse was definitely about to come to worst in the form of one of the Gontamei knights charging Sano with sword raised while Sano was busy blocking a strike from another.

This attack, however, was turned away by the haft of an axe placed fortuitously in its path by Genji, who joined the fight at just this moment. Almost simultaneously, in the corner of his opposite eye, Sano noted the appearance of his other friend Tomo with what looked like the pole of a long lopper — which didn’t seem like a very comfortable thing to have slammed into the side of your head, if the way one of the false knights went down was any indication.

Sano kicked out at his primary opponent and sent him staggering back, then took a step backward himself to stand more firmly between his two friends. They had a momentary breather as the knights regrouped, glaring at him and his newly-arrived allies, and Genji leaned toward Sano a bit (rather than actually turning his direction), and demanded, “Sano, what the hell is going on? I swear to Yumi, if this is your fault…”

“I have practically nothing to do with this!” Sano protested.

“‘Practically?'” echoed Tomo.

Clutching at his sword with one hand and a cut in his shoulder with the other, one of the knights called out, “You country boys need to mind your own business!”

“Anyone else notice these guys are assholes?” Tomo said conversationally.

I noticed when they threw my dad on the ground,” replied Genji.

“Yeah, apparently their boss usurped the king or some shit,” said Sano.

“Guess it’s really not your fault, then,” Tomo allowed, backing up against Sano as the knights began closing in again.

“That explains the shiiyao,” Genji remarked, doing much the same.

The fighting resumed, and was even more chaotic than before now the numbers had changed. However, neither Genji nor Tomo was terribly proficient in combat, and when their weapons were designed to cut wood and prune trees they simply couldn’t hold out. Even Sano’s keonblade would fail here eventually, as soon as the anger settled a bit. He experienced a fresh burst of this emotion at seeing both of his friends fall — not dead, he thought, and hopefully not even too badly injured, but very distinctly defeated — but that circumstance also freed up more of the knights to attack him. He couldn’t last much longer.

And that was when he caught sight of a nearby figure bending slowly to retrieve from the grass the weapon of one of the fallen knights. Sano lost track of the battle for half an instant of intense surprise, and was lucky he didn’t die right then.

It was Yahiko.

With a pensive frown, the boy straightened, holding a sword almost as long as he was tall. He seemed to be muttering something to himself. Then, in a movement so fast Sano barely even saw it, he darted forward, lifting the weapon. There came a rushing like heavy wind, a great deal of motion, startled and pained cries all around, and then it was over as quickly as it had begun.

What had taken only a few moments to accomplish took at least twice as long for Sano’s brain to assimilate. He felt his arm drop limp, pointing his sword at the ground. The latter was strewn with what had been his opponents, most of them now in various states of bleeding pain or unconsciousness. Just before him, almost at his feet, one of them sat staring at the ruined remains of his shattered sword, while beside him another lay unmoving. As Sano looked haltingly around, he saw the man whose swordtip had been at Genji’s throat clutching now at a long cut across his chest, and the one that had been keeping Tomo at bay not only weaponless but in fact without a hand — the appendage, still uselessly holding the hilt of a sword, lay on the ground behind him.

Sano turned again to stare at Yahiko, who returned the gaze with a sad, determined look while his sword dripped blood onto the grass.

“Yahiko?” Sano faltered at last.

Yahiko nodded slowly. “What’s going on?”

Baffled, Sano shook his head, trying and failing to get a better mental grasp of the situation. “No,” he finally managed, “what’s going on with you? How the fuck did you just do that?”

With a frown, Yahiko drove the red point of the sword he held into the dirt, perhaps as an excuse to break eye contact with Sano, and released the weapon. “We should make sure your friends are all right,” he said evasively.

Sano couldn’t decide whether he was more afflicted by annoyance at not having his question answered or the amazement at what he had just witnessed. So for the moment he simply did as Yahiko suggested; resheathing his sword, he walked over to Genji. The knights he passed did nothing to stop him; some of them were getting slowly to their feet, and amid the groans of pain from those that were wounded, a muttering had begun.

“You all right?” Sano asked as he reached down to help his friend.

“Nothing a little explanation won’t fix,” Genji replied, accepting the hand up.

His father had approached, doubtless to see that Genji was all right, and now said to Sano, “It was you I saw last night, wasn’t it?”

Sano tried not to look guilty.

“Fuck, Sano,” said Tomo as he also drew near, “this is your fault?”

Three distinct groups were beginning to form of the various people involved in or watching the fight: first, Sano, Yahiko, Tomo, Genji and his father, and a couple of other villagers that had been nearby, clustered together to discuss the matter; second, the knights, gathering into a little knot to give what treatment they could to the worst wounded and decide what to do next; lastly, what looked like the entire remainder of the village, which had undoubtedly been so permeated by the sounds of clashing steel and shouting as to leave nobody peacefully ignorant.

“Look,” Sano began in response to Tomo’s comment, “there’s some kind of bullshit going on in Elotica.”

“Those guys don’t look too happy,” Genji’s father remarked uneasily, eyeing the huddled knights.

Sano also threw a glance in that direction, and thought he caught the words ‘demon child’ from one of the strangers.

Genji, who’d evidently also heard it, asked, “Who the hell is this kid?”

“I’m–” Yahiko began, but Sano interrupted him impatiently, still wanting to explain himself:

“Listen, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I guess the king’s been overthrown, and these are the new guy’s men. If he’s anything like them, we’re all in for some rough times.”

Tomo made a gesture of helpless exasperation. “You know, honestly, Sano, I don’t care what’s going on in Elotica. What the hell are we supposed to do now? We’ve got a whole bunch of knights or something here that we’ve managed to piss off, and–”

“I don’t know, all right?” Sano broke in, stung. “I told you I don’t really get what’s going on; I just came rushing back here because I thought there might be someone here making trouble and you guys might need a hand.”

“And started a completely unnecessary fight,” said Genji’s father severely.

Sano turned his wrath on the man. “Uh, maybe you forgot, but that guy was right in the middle of pushing you around when I showed up. Oh, yeah, and you were right in the middle of selling me out.”

“Hey–” said Yahiko.

“I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted!” the old man protested, scowling.

“Oh, so you just figured it’d be fine to send them to my house.”

“They’re looking for someone else… some royal knight… I thought they would just ask you the same things they asked me.” Genji’s father really didn’t seem to think he’d been in the wrong.

“Sano–” said Yahiko.

“And what if I was really hiding the guy, huh?” Sano took an irate step toward the old man, fists clenched. “Did you think of what they might do then?”

Here Genji jumped to his father’s defense. “Ladies, Sano, cut it out. He didn’t mean you any harm.” One of his own fists was clenched as he threw out an arm to stop Sano’s forward progress.

“Not much good, either,” Sano growled at him. “Nobody cares what happens to the town heretic, do they?” This accusation, admittedly rather unfair, caused the others all to speak at once:

Genji’s father said hotly, “That had nothing to do with it. You know we’ve never cared about that.”

Tomo groaned, “Oh, seas, Sano, don’t drag that into it.”

And Genji said, “You can’t blame him for trying to get guys like that off his back. It had nothing to do with you personally!”

Sano was drawing breath for another angry retort, when suddenly Yahiko said, “Hey!!” in a tone so loud and carrying that everyone in the group looked down at him, startled. He appeared anxious and unhappy, and glanced around with that same skittishness Sano had observed in him when they’d first met. He said, “Sano, I think you and I should leave here right now.”

Surprised, Sano said, “What? Why?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” murmured Genji’s father.

“Because,” said Yahiko firmly, “those guys are going to want to start fighting again pretty soon, and I really don’t want to have to kill anyone.” He gestured over at the knights, still grouped tightly a few yards off. “Besides, they’re after somebody you’ve got hidden somewhere else, right?”

Sano’s brows rose in continued surprise. “You pick up shit pretty fast.”

“They’ll leave the town alone once they know he’s not here, won’t they?” Yahiko prompted.

Sano turned toward the Gontamei knights, who were throwing dark glances over their shoulders at everyone else — especially at Yahiko — and still evidently discussing what to do next. The other villagers, none of them appearing terribly happy with what had happened here today, were doing the same. Sano thought very little of the way they looked at him in particular. He realized suddenly that if the rest of Eloma felt the way Tomo did — that Sano had just helped to make them the enemies of a group of royal knights or whatever they were from the capital — none of them were likely to feel very sympathetic toward him at the moment.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he finally said somewhat reluctantly. He turned back to his friends. “Sorry about the trouble, guys.”

They all stared at him, uncertain and unhappy. After a long, hesitant moment, Genji’s father cleared his throat and said, “It’s probably best if you don’t come back.”

“Somehow I figured you’d say that,” Sano muttered. Despite this having been the case, actually hearing the words seemed to drop a cold weight onto his heart that he didn’t know when or if he would be able to shake off. After so many years, even relatively happy years, in this town, after everything that had happened to him here, he must say goodbye to Eloma.

He turned abruptly and began to walk away.

“Sano…” said Genji sadly behind him.

“Sano–” said Tomo, almost desperately.

Sano didn’t look back. Yahiko had joined him, and together they moved away from the now-nearly-silent people of the village. Nobody else called after him, and his friends had nothing else to say.

At the point in his path closest to the huddled knights, Sano stopped briefly. Without looking over at them, he announced loudly, “You guys are looking for that knight Hajiwhatever, right? Well, he’s not here. Follow us if you want to die.” At the moment these words were not just bravado; Sano was so angry, he was absolutely certain of his own powers at least to make these men sorry they’d ever laid eyes on him — and that was before taking into account Yahiko’s presence. Still, as the purpose of the statement was to draw the knights away from the village, he corrected himself. “I mean, if you want to find him.”

Then he and Yahiko continued wordlessly away from Sano’s house and out of town.

Chapter 7 – Alleged Miracles

In an attempt at distracting himself from just having been essentially banished from his home of nearly a decade, and in light of the fact that the knights didn’t follow them out of the town, Sano turned his entire attention on Yahiko as they walked up the mountain road. The boy, however, seemed disinclined for conversation and wouldn’t answer any of Sano’s questions. So Sano was even more frustrated than before by the time they reached his master’s home.

Seijuurou waited in the second room beside the bed, drinking, and looked over immediately when Sano entered with Yahiko in tow. His eyes fell from Sano’s unhappy face to Yahiko’s, and his brows rose. “Oh, was this all you could save?” he asked.

“Yeah, very funny,” Sano growled, closing the door behind them. “This is Yahiko; he helped me fight off some guards or knights or something that trashed my house and were threatening to do more if somebody didn’t tell them where me and that knight were.”

“Well, you need to get ‘that knight’ out of here,” Seijuurou said, gesturing with his bottle before raising it to his lips again. “He’s no good in my bed in his current state,” he added before taking another drink.

“Yeah, sure,” said Sano vaguely. “First, though, Yahiko keeps avoiding my questions.” He turned toward the boy, sank into a crouch, and put his hands on Yahiko’s shoulders. “Yahiko, seriously, how in Tomoe’s name can you fight like that?”

Yahiko avoided his gaze, staring instead at the door through which they’d just come. “I told you I learned from my dad,” he mumbled.

“Not that you didn’t,” insisted Sano. “Not at your age. I never saw anyone fight like that. I bet you could even beat Seijuurou here.”

At this Seijuurou looked quickly over, his true attention finally procured. “What was that?”

Sano rolled his eyes, though this was about what he’d expected. “Yeah, now you’re interested. You shoulda seen him.” He stood, addressing his next few earnest statements to Seijuurou, who’d gotten to his feet, set down his bottle, and come into the front room. “It was fucking amazing. He beat something like ten guys in maybe five seconds. I swear I’m not exaggerating.”

Seijuurou looked down at Yahiko for a long moment, and finally said simply, “Well?” And while Yahiko might have resisted Sano’s questioning, it took some serious backbone to stand before the mountainous bulk of keonmaster Seijuurou and be anything but totally honest.

“…Kaoru…” Yahiko said almost inaudibly.

“Speak up,” Seijuurou urged. “What about Kaoru?” His tone indicated unequivocally that the kid had better not be swearing randomly.

Finally Yahiko’s face rose, and he met Seijuurou’s eyes with that suddenly defiant manner Sano had seen him display once or twice before. “I prayed for power to fight and I got it,” he said clearly.

Violently Sano started. “I thought you said you’re a heretic!” he burst out before Seijuurou could say anything.

Yahiko glanced at him sidelong. “I lied.”

“And I think you’re still lying,” said Seijuurou, crossing his arms and continuing to look down critically from his great height on Yahiko. “Or at least not telling the whole truth.”

“The divine ladies talk to me,” Yahiko replied, a little wearily.

“The divine ladies talk to anyone who’ll listen, child,” was Seijuurou’s impatient reply.

His defiance returning, Yahiko elaborated, “I mean they all talk to me. I can pray to any of them and get whatever blessings I need, as much as I need.”

“That’s quite a claim.”

Sano snorted. “No shit.” And he stalked into the other room.

After the day he’d had, this latest revelation was more of a blow than it might otherwise have been, but in no case would he have liked it. He’d felt so sympathetic toward Yahiko; he’d compared him to his dead brother, for Yumi’s sake! And now to discover Yahiko was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be… of what Sano was… Well, no wonder he hadn’t stuck around last week.

Seijuurou’s admonishing voice spoke to him from the doorway between the two rooms: “Don’t be petty. Didn’t he help you?”

“Whatever,” Sano growled.

A long period of quiet followed, and Sano got the feeling both Seijuurou and Yahiko were looking at him, waiting for him to turn and face them. He didn’t feel like it, though; instead, he let his eyes fall to the unconscious knight on the bed. The man’s form remained perfectly still but for the very slight movement of his chest occasioned by his shallow breathing, and his face bore an expression of pain.

Sano stared down at him while the silence mounted, thinking vaguely about Eloma and how he could never go back there. Finally, these disheartening thoughts becoming just a little too much for him, he forced himself to say something aloud to change the subject. “So what do we do with His Knightliness here?” It came out sounding almost angry, which was really no surprise.

“Hajime,” Seijuurou informed him, coming to stand beside the bed again and look down. “Apparently he’s the leader of Kenshin’s knights.”

“Right, whatever,” Sano grunted. “What do we do with him?”

“‘We?'” Seijuurou raised a brow. “He’s your problem. But I plan on sleeping in this bed tonight.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with him?” demanded Sano impatiently.

“I’ve never heard of someone waking up from a warrior’s coma,” Seijuurou remarked, rubbing at his chin contemplatively with one hand. “Though nobody in a warrior’s coma prior to this has ever had me around…”

“Yeah, maybe he just needs your cock,” Sano muttered, rolling his eyes.

Seijuurou smirked faintly. “Maybe he does.”

Again they fell silent, staring down, Sano considering the situation morosely while Seijuurou resumed drinking. However unpleasant it was to be banished, Sano was reflecting, it beat having your life slowly ebb away in a state somewhere between waking and death that yet was not sleep.

“Is he really just gonna die?” he finally asked quietly.

“If he can’t wake up, he’ll starve to death, or worse,” was the grim reply. “You might as well get a pyre ready. Unconsciousness seems to be an unusually stable way for you to connect your energy with his, so, if you want, I can knock you out again and you can find out if he has any last words.”

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do… we can’t just stand around waiting for him to die…” It seemed such a sorry way to go. Sano didn’t much like what he’d seen of the knight so far, but the man surely deserved better than that.

“You could just burn him now,” Seijuurou suggested with dry facetiousness. “That would be faster.”

“It’s not funny!” said Sano hotly. “He came all the way out here to find you, and now you can’t do anything for him?”

Seijuurou shook his head. “I can’t. It’s unfortunate, but every great once in a while even I encounter something that can’t be defeated. While you were gone I tried everything I could think of to wake him up, and nothing worked. It would probably be kindest to end it quickly for him.” He lifted the bottle to his mouth again as he added, “But not in my bed.”

“I can’t accept that!” Sano insisted. Because he would be damned if he couldn’t get something to go his way today.

“You’ll have to,” Seijuurou said once he’d lowered his angiruou. “Stubbornness won’t wake him up. It was his choice to push himself beyond what his body could handle out of loyalty to that foolish king of his; now he’s paying for it.”

“But–” Sano began. He stopped abruptly, however, when Yahiko moved forward.

The kid’s voice was hesitant as he said, “Hey…” but it was enough to seize Seijuurou’s attention as well. He looked up at them nervously, then took another step between them, toward the bed.

Wordlessly and with mirrored expressions of surprise, the two men stood back a pace as Yahiko moved forward and reached out to place an uncertain hand on the knight’s bare chest. The boy did not look at them again, so he didn’t see Sano’s disparaging skepticism or Seijuurou’s interested curiosity; instead, he closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly.

“Megumi, lady of life,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, “please use my hand to heal this man and wake him up.” Then he went silent and motionless.

Hajime opened his eyes. His face smoothed out somewhat from its previous expression of pain, but only for a moment; then his brows drew together again in confusion. He lifted a hand to touch his side where the injury had been, then ran one arm slowly over the other, along smooth skin that had mere seconds before been covered in small cuts. Finally he sat up.

Yahiko had by this time stepped back a few paces, putting himself behind Sano and Seijuurou, and would not meet Sano’s eye. Seijuurou, on the other hand, had drawn a step closer and was again fingering his chin thoughtfully, this time with a slight smile. “Well, well, well…”

Hajime looked at each of them in turn, then spoke. “How…” But he faltered in amazement after that single word.

Sano gestured. “Yahiko here healed you with his magic powers.”

Slowly Hajime swung his legs over the edge of the bed, taking a deep breath, and looked where Sano indicated.

“It’s not magic!” Yahiko was protesting. “I told you–”

“Right,” interrupted Sano a little bitterly. “Just like you beating a whole group of knights almost by yourself wasn’t magic either. The divine ladies all talk to you and give you whatever the fuck you want.”

Appearing hurt and agitated, Yahiko turned abruptly and went into the other room. Hajime watched him go, then gave his attention again to his own chest and side. He began untying the frayed strips of cloth that had served him up until now as bandages. Sano watched in silent wonder, noting not even a trace of blood on these.

Finally Hajime glanced up once more, this time at Sano. “You did this?” he asked.

“Yeah. You kinda collapsed in the forest, and I didn’t have anything else.” More quietly and mostly to himself Sano added, “That reminds me I left my backpack buried out there somewhere…”

Hajime finished removing the bandages and bunched them in his hand, staring down at them with a slight frown. To Sano it was understandable that, having gone from the edge of death to what seemed like perfect health in a moment, the knight would be somewhat disoriented.

Seijuurou did not seem nearly so understanding. “So, are you staying in my bed all night?”

Sano gave his master a look part skeptical and part angry. “Fucking Yumi, man, he’s been awake all of half a minute! He probably can’t even get up yet.”

But all Hajime said was, “No,” possibly contradicting both of them, as he then got up. He moved slowly at first, perhaps uncertain of his balance, but soon was walking purposefully out of the room.

“Thank you for healing me,” Sano heard him say to Yahiko.

During the silence that followed, Sano too made his way into the next room, where he saw Yahiko touching the front door as if he was, or had been, about to leave. Even as Sano appeared, though, the kid dropped his hand and turned to face Hajime. “You’re welcome,” he said quietly, with a faint smile.

A little stung, Sano demanded of the knight, “What, I don’t get a ‘thank you’ for bandaging you up and dragging your ass all over the place?”

Hajime turned toward him, but, though his yellow eyes flashed analytically over Sano from head to toe, he said nothing in response. Instead, he looked past Sano to where Seijuurou stood in the doorway between the two rooms. “And now, master Seijuurou,” he began somewhat acridly, “if you don’t mind having me in your house a little longer–”

“You misunderstood my question if you thought I minded,” interrupted Seijuurou easily.

Sano rolled his eyes.

“–I need to make plans for getting back to Elotica,” Hajime finished. And, after a quick glance around the room, he moved toward the table and pulled out a chair.

Sano mimicked him, seating himself near the knight and studying him with interest. Despite having been healed, Hajime still looked exhausted; Sano supposed the whole coma thing hadn’t been anything like a proper rest, which essentially meant Hajime hadn’t slept in, what? four days?

“So you’re just gonna head back right away?” he asked.

Hajime shook his head. “Not into Elotica immediately, no. I can’t just walk back into the capital; I’m too well known there.”

“At the palace and shit, sure,” Sano allowed, “but would normal people on the street recognize you?”

Drumming his fingers briefly on the tabletop, Hajime gave a sigh of annoyance. “Probably, since the king’s tournament a few months ago.”

“Tournament…” Seijuurou snorted in quiet contempt.

“Oh, I remember hearing about that,” Sano said in great interest. “I thought about going over there and joining, even, but…” Well, the truth was that he’d daydreamed of entering with a keonblade, but had known perfectly well he wasn’t up to the task. “I didn’t feel like walking that far,” he finished somewhat weakly.

“You?” Both of Hajime’s brows rose in obvious doubt.

“Hey, I’da done great!” Sano said hotly, in spite of what he’d just been recalling about the situation.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Hajime flatly, and moved on before Sano could protest further. “Anyway, I’ll need to find out exactly how things stand before I know what to do next.”

Distracted from his annoyance, Sano wondered, “What’s to find out?”

“Soujirou is a follower, not a leader. He has provided good service to the king in the past, and is an excellent swordsman, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing he could or would do on his own. Someone is standing behind him giving orders, or at least suggestions, and that’s going to be my real enemy.”

“Any ideas who it is?”

“Several. Which is what I need to investigate.”

By this time Sano had made up his mind, and now stated it decisively. “Well, I’ll come with you.”

Hajime’s brows shot up again, this time more honestly disbelieving than derisive.

“No need to look like that about it, asshole.” Sano scowled at him. “I didn’t fight in your stupid tournament, so nobody knows me in the capital. I can get information a lot easier than you can.” Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go, now…

Again Hajime’s tone went entirely flat as he declared, “I am not taking you anywhere.”

“He might as well go with you,” Seijuurou put in unexpectedly. “I’m certainly not.”

Turning quickly toward him, Hajime asked, “Why not?”

Disinterestedly Seijuurou explained. “For Kenshin to run off and deliberately ignore my advice is his own business, but he cannot expect me to come to his rescue every time what I told him not to do gets him into trouble.”

“And what was it you told him not to do?”

“Rule the country, of course. He isn’t right for it. He’s too soft, too easily influenced by the appearance of suffering — but at the same time has an unfortunate tendency to believe that every idea in his head is his own and absolutely right. It’s a bad combination for a king.”

Thin lips pursed, Hajime looked at the table, appearing very displeased but evidently unable to argue. The question of who Seijuurou believed should rule Akomera went unasked, probably because of the knight’s discomfort.

“I see you’re aware of his flaws,” said Seijuurou with a sharp nod. He leaned against the doorframe again and crossed his arms. “Well, do what you like to put him back on the throne; that’s your job, after all. But I see no reason to rush to his assistance.”

“You would disobey a direct order from the king, then?” Hajime seemed somewhat irritated, but simultaneously closer to resigned than Sano would have expected.

“My authority over him predates his over me,” Seijuurou shrugged. “Besides, he hasn’t ordered me to do anything. All he did was tell you to find me.”

I’ll help you,” Sano put in emphatically. “That Soujirou guy has it coming for what his men did in Eloma!”

Hajime looked at him, this time with less scorn and more straightforward appraisal. “What did they do?”

“They were pushing people around and threatening to destroy shit if they didn’t tell where I was — since they knew I’d hidden you somewhere — and now I’m kinda… kicked out… because of it…” The weighty awareness of that fact, which he’d successfully pushed from his mind in the light of other interesting topics, came abruptly and heavily back down onto him, and he found himself frowning more deeply than before.

“Predictable…” Seijuurou murmured.

“Anyway…” Sano struggled to pull himself together and finish what he had to say. “Yahiko and I had to fight ’em off.” He gestured again to the kid, who had at some point during this discussion drifted over to the corner formed by the fireplace and wall, seated himself in silence, and commenced listening.

Hajime glanced dubiously from Sano to Yahiko and back, and asked, “And how much good do you think you’ll do me — a boy in training who can’t even meditate and needs help from a kid to defend his hometown?”

“Who gives a fuck about meditation?” Slamming a fist down on the table, Sano insisted, “I can fight well enough! I woulda done fine without Yahiko even!”

“You would not,” said Yahiko quietly.

Sano jumped up, knocking the chair over in his haste, and drew his sword. The blade flashed out, translucent, bright, and long, as he glared at the knight across from him.

“You know what will happen if you damage my furniture,” was Seijuurou’s warning murmur from across the room.

But Hajime rolled his eyes. “Put that away; you’re not proving anything.” And as if to show just how little he cared for Sano’s wordless challenge, he stood, turning away from him, and moved toward Yahiko. “But you…”

The kid looked up at him wordlessly.

“I’m curious about this power of yours,” Hajime went on. “What exactly can you do?”

A little uncomfortably, Yahiko answered, “I dunno… whatever… I ask the ladies for whatever I need…”

“Show me,” commanded Hajime.

Yahiko appeared even more uncomfortable at this, and nestled back farther into his corner. “It… doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “I can’t do it just to show off.”

“I see,” said Hajime thoughtfully.

Sano broke in, impatient and somewhat irritated that his drawn weapon had been so coolly ignored. “He already healed you from some coma you weren’t supposed to wake up from. Isn’t that enough?”

Yahiko turned toward him an expression half defiant and half surprised. “You say that like you believe me or something.” He sounded faintly surly.

“Well, you obviously have some kind of power,” Sano allowed. “I never saw anybody kick ass like you did; no way can I not believe in that.”

Hajime nodded decisively. “Which is why he’s coming with me.”

“What??” This surprised outcry came from Sano and Yahiko both.

“I’m sure there’s at least one divine house involved in this,” Hajime explained, returning wearily to his chair. “Soujirou has been close to several of the high-level devoted for years. And if I know anything about the people of this kingdom, and Elotica in particular, neither side of this struggle will get much support from the population until somebody has told them what to think. Which means, sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming Soujirou’s claim to the throne in order to buy the loyalty of the flock.” He glanced at Yahiko again. “Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

“I just told you it doesn’t work like that!” Yahiko protested. “I’m not a circus act!”

Hajime’s eyes were very serious as they narrowed slightly at the kid. “There’s a real need for your power here,” he said slowly. “Are you going to run away from that?”

Yahiko frowned, and didn’t seem to know what to say.

“He’s right, you know, boy.” It was the first time Seijuurou had spoken for a while, and his tone was as somber as Hajime’s. “You may have been brought here just now for a purpose.”

“Purpose…” Sano put in under his breath. “Not your cock, I hope…”

Hajime threw him a somewhat confused sidelong glance, but said nothing.

“I’ll… think about it…” Yahiko finally answered, staring down at his crossed legs in apparent agitation.

“Think quickly,” Hajime said imperiously. “I’m leaving soon.”

“And I’m coming with you,” Sano declared.

Yet again Hajime gave him an assessing look that seemed more than half scornful. Sano scowled defiantly back. Finally Hajime’s gaze flicked away from him in a movement that was almost a roll of eyes, but all he said was, “Fine.”

In some triumph and some irritation, Sano also looked away, and found Seijuurou staring at him with what seemed to be mild interest. Staring, more precisely, at the sword Sano still held. And with a start Sano realized why: somehow, even through the parts of the conversation that hadn’t angered him, Sano had managed to keep the energy blade firmly in place. Was it because of all the fighting he’d done earlier? There really was no way to tell. In any case, he didn’t need it at the moment, so he put it away.

At that motion, Seijuurou stood straight and sighed somewhat theatrically. “I suppose this means you’ll all be sleeping in my house tonight.”

>7 Interlude

Slowly opening the bottle in his hand, Seijuurou watched the tiny points of light brighten in the deepening blue-black beyond the edge of the roof. The space between the latter and the tops of the trees that hemmed his property was narrow, but what he could see satisfied him as much as if the entire sky were open to his view. Parts of some constellations were already visible, and only becoming sharper.

After settling where and how his guests were to sleep, he’d come out for some quiet thought to his usual spot before the light had entirely faded; now he sat on the bench among the shelves in near-complete darkness. Early autumn evenings were always pleasantly warm, especially in this fine weather, even in the shadows, and it might be a while before he went back inside; but it might have been a while before he went back inside even had it been dead winter or a rainstorm. His clarity of thought did not hinge on any particular circumstance, but there was no shame in wanting to enjoy his angiruou in peace.

And the stars reminded him…

Some things simply didn’t change — not in twenty-three years, nor, he thought, forever. Fortunately, one of those was the taste of alcohol and its effect on melancholy memories. He smiled faintly as he took and savored a long drink, tracing nonexistent lines between the stars just as he had back then, and remembering a conversation from long ago.

Unfortunately, the conversation of this evening was more present and of greater concern to him at the moment, less interesting though it was. Kenshin had gotten himself into hot water again, and Seijuurou couldn’t help feeling a sort of paternal interest in Kenshin’s welfare. He’d given the king the warnings he had, back when they’d parted after nearly seven years of training, to guard against just such a circumstance. Kenshin, however, had too high an opinion of his own mental and moral resources to think much of the advice of others. Where he could have learned that attitude Seijuurou could not guess. Admittedly he always meant well… but didn’t always choose well.

Such a man could do nothing better, if indeed bent on trying to rule a country, than to surround himself with equally well-meaning but more clear-headed people whose influence, if not overt, would still be significant. He could undoubtedly have benefited from Seijuurou’s presence in the capital long before this… but Seijuurou did not fancy living in Elotica and dealing with people in Elotica and being constantly reminded of his younger days in Elotica. And as for uprooting at a moment’s notice to run off to Elotica and rescue Kenshin from what might after all turn out to be a very transient threat…

That single-minded knight seemed effective enough for the purpose, at any rate, and, if Sano’s assessment of the little boy’s power was accurate, the child would be helpful too. As for Sano himself… Well, Sano was fairly good at filling Seijuurou’s shopping list every week… and at sex… and presumably at picking apples and oranges and whatnot… but at keonmastery he was still a near-complete failure, almost in proportion to his desire not to be. And then there was his propensity to champion unpopular attitudes as brazenly as possible…

Until he got over his heretic phase, Sano was likely to find most people even more ready than the inhabitants of Eloma to ostracize him or worse, because the general populace wasn’t capable of leaving well enough alone and allowing someone to believe stupid things in peace. Of course, there were multiple sides to every issue; if Seijuurou knew Sano at all, the latter had gone charging into that town attacking the guards without any strategy or even thought, giving the villagers little choice but to turn him out or appear antagonistic toward the new regime. The whole thing was undoubtedly a mess.

Still, a mess didn’t seem a good enough reason to hasten from home. Indeed, Sano’s poor planning (and, hypothetical though his theory might be, Seijuurou didn’t doubt that was what had taken place) recommended rational forethought even more strongly. Let him leave the home he foolishly didn’t realize he had never liked; Seijuurou would not chase after solely because Sano had been his steadiest physical lover. How pathetic a thought!

He admitted unpleasant truths (to himself) much more readily these days. The loss of Sano’s regular energetic presence in his bed would bother him, whether or not the loss of Sano’s regular tedious and aggravating presence in his waking hours would — and to give up a lover just at the arrival of a messenger from Kenshin and a reminder of his former life bothered him more than anything. But it only hurt like an old, long-healed wound that acted up in certain weather. He had come to live out here, had changed his name and avoided society, in order to overcome that old pain, and it appeared he had succeeded. Would he reopen that wound by returning to Elotica?

Just then he looked around, broken from his thoughts. A party of horsemen was approaching up the little road. He couldn’t see them yet, but the noise of hooves and tack and muted voices already sounded through the shadows. With the educated guess that this must be the guards defeated by the little boy earlier, he sat back, continuing to sip at his liquor, and waited calmly.

The glow of a lantern through the trees first visibly marked their approach, and eventually its light broke onto the clearing in which Seijuurou’s house stood, and showed select details of the group behind the man that held it. The usurper, Seijuurou noted, had at least managed to get his followers looking like real knights; in the swaying light, their white-clad torsos seemed to float disembodied over their black trousers and boots, and the symbol of Gontamei was green on each chest. He wondered whether that prince had actually knighted them all or simply dressed them up for the occasion.

They’d certainly taken their time finding the place; Sano had come back from the village hours ago, and he’d been on foot. Given the bandages most of these men sported, they’d evidently had concerns other than following immediately, but still Seijuurou couldn’t think they took their mission terribly seriously. Though perhaps the supposed miracle had genuinely frightened them.

Two could ride abreast on the narrower way up the mountain from the crossroads, and now only the first couple of pairs filed off the road onto Seijuurou’s property before they all reined up. Seijuurou could sense, however, that there were ten or more of them all told, and wondered for the first time just how important this Hajime was (or was thought to be) down at the palace.

The newcomers looked around at the house, the kiln, and at Seijuurou himself in a mixture of anger and wariness. It was a mark of some sort of decent training that they saw him at all in the darkness under the roof, but his general impression of their abilities did them scant credit. Finally one — in the forefront, but not the man with the lantern — rode forward a pace and addressed Seijuurou without dismounting: “Good evening, master!” His tone, however, was not nearly as polite as his words.

“Evening,” Seijuurou replied.

The man didn’t waste time. “We’re looking for some people. Have you seen either a royal knight in the Barenor’mei dress or a young man in red with brown hair?”

“They’re both inside,” Seijuurou confirmed with a gesture.

Either the frankness of the answer startled the stranger, or the latter hadn’t really been expecting to find what they sought here. It seemed to take him a moment of blank staring, after his initial start, to grasp the meaning of what Seijuurou had said. Then he dismounted, gesturing at the lantern-bearer beside him, and moved forward, hand on hilt.

“You haven’t had enough fighting today?” wondered Seijuurou mildly. “With that injury to your sword-arm, I doubt you can hold your weapon up for very long.”

Looking sourly at him, “That’s beside the point,” the leader said. It seemed evident he would much rather reply that, yes, they had — and possibly that, no, he couldn’t. “They’re wanted criminals, and we have a duty to do.”

“How patriotic of you,” Seijuurou replied, stoppering his bottle and setting it down beside him on the bench. “Our new king must be a generous man. But, no–” and here, leisurely, he finally stood– “I meant, haven’t the eleven of you had enough of getting beaten within an inch of your lives by a single person today?” And in a movement very much like a stretch, he took one of the swords that hung from hooks on the wall and slowly drew it.

The group shifted, clearly nervous. Ordinarily such a seemingly foolhardy challenge would be met with skepticism at the very least; that here it was not seemed to confirm Sano’s story about the fight in the village. Finally the leader asked in a tellingly shrill attempt at bravado, “Are you in league with that demon child?”

“I don’t know any demon child,” Seijuurou replied, “but I have heard about your defeat earlier. It’s going to be embarrassing enough, I think, reporting that to that king of yours; a second defeat in the same day may mean the end of your fledgling careers. But that’s up to you, of course.” He raised his sword slightly into the earliest suggestion of a combative position, his overall demeanor still relatively casual.

The guards shifted further, looking indecisively at each other in the uneasy lantern-light.

Not long after, Seijuurou was again seated on his bench, alone, sipping angiruou and watching the stars. No, he really couldn’t take this great threat to the kingdom terribly seriously.

Chapter 8 – Departure

The high walls were built of orangewood, and a citrusy scent hung in the air as Sano and Hajime made their way down the short corridors and around the many corners of the maze. By now Sano hadn’t the faintest idea where they were, or how far they might be from the exit, but they had to keep going; they had to get through this.

He was fairly certain others had done so, as a faint murmuring of voices came from somewhere… Sano couldn’t quite tell if it was far or near, and the direction in which it lay was equally ambiguous, since it seemed somehow just around the corner no matter how far or which way they walked. But he couldn’t help thinking of it as a hopeful sign.

Hajime remained wordless at his side, not so much in contemplation or concentration as in a seeming attempt to ignore Sano completely. This was rather irritating, but they moved so quickly through the convoluted hallways that Sano didn’t really have time to comment. But then they emerged into a more open space whence at least five separate paths led, and were forced to stop and consider their path more carefully.

The voices seemed distinctly louder from a narrow opening just to Sano’s right; he leaned slightly that direction, trying to hear them more clearly, and nodded. “This way,” he said with certainty.

Hajime barely glanced at him. “Why in Kaoru’s name would I take advice from you?” he wondered disdainfully, and headed immediately toward the opening he’d been examining to his left.

“Fine!” Sano glared at him. Determined, however, that they should not be separated, after a moment he jogged to catch up. “Asshole,” he muttered as they plunged back into the depths of the maze.

Sano awoke on a hard surface looking up at Seijuurou’s ceiling, and was at first rather disoriented. The ceiling was nothing unusual, but the hard surface was. Then, glancing around, he remembered: he hadn’t felt comfortable taking his usual place in the bed — and Seijuurou had been so annoyed anyway — and therefore had stretched out on the floor in the front room beside Yahiko. The latter was curled up to Sano’s right, the only one of them with a blanket over him, and to his right lay Hajime on his side. Sano, evidently the first to awaken, sat up.

Across the room — which, when full-length figures occupied a third of its width, wasn’t very far — Seijuurou stood arranging something or things on the table.

Curiously Sano asked, “What’s that?”

Seijuurou’s head twitched only slightly in Sano’s direction — just as Hajime’s had done in that dream just now — and he didn’t answer the question, so Sano got to his feet and went to see. The motion by which he picked up the first item to hand, which turned out to be one of Seijuurou’s spare shiiyao, turned into a stretch; Sano found himself rather stiff from having slept on the hard floor, especially given that, the night before last, all the sleep he’d gotten had occurred in a sitting position. Then he held out the old-fashioned, blue-grey garment at arm’s length, examining it.

Seijuurou finally deigned to offer an explanation. “You’re going to need to wear something other than that target you call a shiiya,” he said brusquely, “and your friend over there needs something, period.” Evidently he wasn’t entirely recovered from his annoyance of last night.

Looking over the remaining array of objects on the table, Sano felt his brows lower in some confusion. Besides the shiiya he now held, there was another, as Seijuurou had implied; a decent collection of food — mostly orchard fare, but a loaf of bread as well, which would leave Seijuurou with practically nothing; one of the larger, sturdier ceramic bottles Seijuurou made, corked and ready to go; a box Sano recognized as having come from the cabinet across from the fireplace and containing bandages; and, more to Sano’s shock than anything else, a small pouch of money. For someone claiming to be disinterested in the fate of — and upset with! — the king, Seijuurou certainly was doing a lot to help the people setting out to help Kenshin.

“Why–” Sano began, but was immediately overridden by his trainer:

“Why don’t you go retrieve your backpack from the forest?” It was a tone that would not be gainsaid, especially accompanied by Seijuurou’s folded arms, solid stance, and expression not simply guarded but visibly ready for all-out siege.

“Yeah…” This didn’t stop Sano from eyeing him suspiciously. “Why don’t I.”

From the crossroads, it took some thinking just to come up with a vague idea of the direction he’d taken to get Hajime away… was that two days ago now? At any rate, Sano wasn’t even remotely certain until he actually found the spot where he’d left his backpack that he would be able to locate it again. And the entire way, his head went around and around with bitter reflections about the entire situation and all of his companions:

How the hell did I get into this? I’m not even sure why I want to go with this Hajiguy on this quest or whatever it is. He’s a jerk. Hell, I might not even bother going if I had anywhere else to go… or anything better to do… Something about this is bothering Seijuurou, too… I wonder if he would’ve eventually agreed to go if I hadn’t volunteered so quick. And what’s with the kid? Someone who lies about being a heretic can’t be a very good follower of the damn pretend ladies…

Backpack rediscovered and retrieved with far less aimless wandering in the general vicinity than he’d expected, he turned to go back. He only encountered one other human on the road: a horsewoman, appearing totally local and totally innocent, nodded politely at him as she passed, and therefore didn’t worry him much. So he returned to Seijuurou’s house in good time, and reentered in the middle of a conversation.

“–for the three of you, a couple of days,” Seijuurou was saying. “You’ll have to stock up at Egato, dangerous as it may be to let anyone see any of you.”

Sano glanced from Hajime, who was combing out his unbound hair and evidently the main recipient of Seijuurou’s remark, to Yahiko, who sat motionless on the floor where he’d slept. “The three of us? So you’re coming, Yahiko?”

“Yeah, I guess…” Yahiko shrugged.

“And a sword?” Hajime was asking, putting his hair back up with a practiced hand.

“Outside,” said Seijuurou, and headed for the door. Hajime, following him, set the comb on the table and seized in exchange one of the shiiyao Seijuurou had laid out for them. Whether by chance or choice, he took the black one.

Sano put his backpack down and pulled from it the bottles he’d intended to fill for Seijuurou as usual come next weekend. Seijuurou would have to go into town himself to do his own shopping now, something he seemed to dislike intensely, and the thought made Sano grin a little. He started packing the things his master had provided for them, and eventually could ignore the remaining shiiya no longer.

As his eyes fell on it and his hands stilled after dropping the last orange into his backpack, Sano’s lips pursed. He touched the device on his chest and stared at the blue cloth on the table. The thought of taking off his red shiiya and leaving it here, of being no longer recognizable as a proud heretic to anyone that saw him, didn’t strike his fancy. After all, he’d had this one made specifically so people would know exactly what he was, that he wasn’t like them, that he didn’t believe all that nonsense they did and didn’t live by the same silly rules — that, if they were inclined to treat him badly for it, they might as well start immediately they met him. Leaving that behind would be… well, it would be a little like leaving a part of himself behind.

But Seijuurou was right, damn him… they were heading out on a sort of secret mission here, and the red shiiya with its great white empty teardrop did rather stand out (that was the point). And it wasn’t as if relinquishing it would force him to acknowledge any sort of belief in the nonsense or start following the silly rules. And he could always get it back later. With a grimace, he pulled the shiiya off and exchanged it for the one on the table.

Next he looked around, somewhat disconsolate at the flashes of grey-blue in the corners of his eyes from his own shoulders. Yahiko, he saw, had stood up and was standing uncertainly almost in the corner.

“Hey,” Sano said, pointing, “bring those blankets over here.

Yahiko glanced down at his feet, at the one blanket that had covered him and the other that had been spread out beneath the three of them. “He didn’t say anything about these…”

Sano snorted. “Guy can spare his extra blankets.”

Protesting no further, Yahiko did as he was told, and Sano stuffed the blankets into his backpack. It was a tight fit with all the other things in there, but at least the overall load wasn’t too miserably heavy — though he would probably think differently after a day’s walk with it on his back.

“Wouldn’t it be better to fold them?” wondered Yahiko.

“Why?” Sano looked at him in some surprise. “We’d just have to unfold them later anyway.”

Yahiko shrugged.

“All right,” said Sano, hefting the bulging backpack onto his shoulders, “are you–” But as his eyes fell again on the boy, he frowned. Yahiko was still barefoot, still wearing that disreputable-looking, overlarge shiiya with just the one sleeve. “Uh, didn’t Seijuurou have anything for you?”

Yahiko appeared a little uncomfortable as he answered, “I’m fine.”

“If you say so,” Sano shrugged, settling the backpack more snugly as he did so. “Let’s go.”

Outside they found Hajime, now clad entirely in black, examining one of the longswords Seijuurou kept around for practice. Just as Sano and Yahiko emerged from the house, he was remarking, “This will do,” and returning the weapon to its sheath. The latter he then threaded onto his belt in place of the empty keonblade sheath he’d been wearing since Sano found him. Finally, apparently ready to depart, he threw a pointed glance at Seijuurou and said, “And we should go, if that’s the end of master Seijuurou’s magnanimous assistance on behalf of king and country.”

Turning away from him so abruptly that his hair whirled out behind him in a shining wave, Seijuurou said haughtily, “You’re welcome.” He didn’t walk away, though; he’d only turned toward the wall beneath the roof to take down another of the swords that hung there. “And Sano, remember–” he began.

Sano cut him off with a roll of eyes that was part sarcasm and part teasing; this was goodbye, after all. “What, your cock? Sure, fine.” And he grinned just slightly.

Seijuurou’s eyes narrowed as his glance flicked toward his erstwhile student and he returned the faint grin. “As if you could possibly forget that.” Then he held out the sword in his hand. “No, remember that a weapon you can’t master will do you more harm than good. Take this.”

“What?” Sano half yelped. “No!” Hands raised to ward off the offering, he backed away angrily. “I don’t need that! Why are you so sure I can’t–”

“Never mind, then.” This time Seijuurou’s scornful swivel away from them was more decisive and had an air of finality to it. “Get going, all of you.”

“Ladies, way to just kick us out,” Sano grumbled, watching his trainer head back into the house.

Seijuurou’s official farewell, without even a wave, was, “And tell Kenshin, if you see him, that I told him so.”

“Right…” Sano waited until the door had closed, then shook his head as he moved to join Hajime and Yahiko in walking away toward the road.

There was silence among them for some time as they went down the mountain. Sano was thinking how strange it seemed that he didn’t feel worse about leaving home like this, saying goodbye to Seijuurou and practically everything else he knew. He’d never been farther than Egato in his adult life, after all, and never to the capital; he’d certainly been unhappy last night about the prospect of never seeing Eloma again; and he’d expected to be at least a little moved by his parting with Seijuurou.

But he found now he was rather more excited than anything to be heading for Elotica; it would be so interesting to see the great stone city he’d always heard about, and (hopefully) to meet the king. Beyond that, that Soujirou bastard really did have it coming; doing something about him would be very satisfying. And as for Seijuurou… well, to be perfectly honest, Sano had never really liked him all that much. It would be nice not to have to do chores for him anymore, or put up with that grating I’m practically divine attitude of his.

Sano grinned. He discovered he was, in fact, not at all unhappy to be starting this journey now. He was even a good deal less upset with Yahiko than he had been last night, no matter what the kid claimed to hear — so much that, as Sano watched him walking there by his side, he felt prompted to resume their last topic of discussion.

“Seijuurou really didn’t have another shiiya you could use?”

“Yeah, he did,” Yahiko said, very reluctantly, tugging at the wide collar of his ragged outer garment, “but…”

“‘Cause anything’s better than that thing you’re wearing,” Sano added.

Finally Yahiko confessed, “It was just too creepy that he had clothes my size hanging around.”

On Yahiko’s other side, Hajime lifted one of the sleeves of the shiiya he wore. “Judging by the style of what he gave us, they’re probably his clothes from the Age of Knights.” Cuffs such as the one now pinched between Hajime’s fingers were long since out of fashion, as were the attached hoods that both his and Sano’s shiiyao bore.

“Yeah,” Yahiko agreed with a grimace, “and that’s creepy too.”

“Misao,” Sano chortled, “he probably is that old…” Because no matter how Sano had asked, Seijuurou had never been willing to confide his age. The Age of Knights, however, had ended seventy-three years ago, and Sano was thoroughly pleased at the implications of Hajime’s sarcastic statement.

“Incidentally,” Hajime wondered, looking sidelong at the laughing Sano, “what was all that about his… cock?”

Sano turned his eyes abruptly away, pointlessly scanning the trees to his right, mostly ironwood and oak, as they slowly passed. “The stupidest inside… thing… you never wanted to know.”

“I see,” said Hajime in a tone of understanding. “You two are lovers.”

“Not… exactly…” Sano shrugged. “That’s just how I pay him for the training.” He still did not turn his eyes back toward his companions, and fought to keep down a hard blush. However, the silence to his left stretched on so long that eventually he had to look. He found both of them staring at him with an expression he only ever saw on the faces of those raised in a society that didn’t look kindly on sexual relations between the unmarried.

“What?” Sano demanded hotly, feeling the blush rising despite his best efforts. “Something wrong with that? Not like I’m gonna accept charity even if he was nice enough to train me for free. I ain’t a beggar! I make good money! Just… not enough to afford a keonmaster.” He knew making such a fuss would have the opposite of its desired effect, and cursed himself and the situation silently. He didn’t want to be embarrassed about it, since he thought that particular rule was a load of bullshit invented and enforced by hypocritical church officials, but he’d never quite been able to escape some of the attitudes absorbed during childhood.

“Somehow,” Hajime murmured, “I think whatever you made would never be quite enough.”

“What do you mean by–” Although Sano was genuinely curious about the statement, which hadn’t been at all what he’d expected, it occurred to him belatedly that what he would most like was a complete change in subject. So he cut his question off abruptly and asked instead, “Hey, is this really something we should be discussing in front of a kid?”

“I’m not a kid,” said Yahiko at once.

“I wonder…” Hajime said thoughtfully.

Evidently under the impression that this had been in response to his declaration, Yahiko insisted more loudly, “I’m not!”

Hajime ignored his protest. “The king studied with Seijuurou when he was younger,” he said, still in that thoughtful tone, casting a meaningful glance over Yahiko’s head at Sano. “I wonder if…”

Sano immediately understood. “What?” he laughed. “No way! That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard! You should ask him!”

You’re welcome to,” Hajime told him with a roll of eyes, “if, as I suspect, you enjoy making a fool of yourself.”

Not at all put off, Sano cried, “I will! Soon’s I see him, that’s the first thing I’m gonna say: ‘Did Seijuurou get your royal ass in exchange for training?'”

Apparently having altered his stance on whether or not he was a kid — or at least on what he wanted discussed in front of him — Yahiko said in a low, sardonic tone, “Yeah, you guys could change the subject any time.”

Sano thought he saw Hajime hide a slight smile behind a raised hand, and triumphed in the revelation that this allegiant royal knight was willing to talk about his king in such a fashion. However, instead of pursuing it, he complied with Yahiko’s wishes and found a new topic of conversation. “Soooo…. you said you think one of the divine houses is behind all this trouble?”

Any trace of amusement immediately fled Hajime’s face as he answered. “There’s more of society and politics than religion about how the heads of the houses interact with the nobility in Elotica. Soujirou has been close to most of them for as long as he’s been at Kenshin’s court. But to say I think one of the houses is behind this is going too far. Whenever Barenor’mei is in power, there’s always someone in Gontamei who thinks the rulership should go back to the original ruling family.”

“So what you’re really saying,” Sano summarized for him, “is you have no idea.”

Hajime hesitated a moment in apparent discontentment before answering briefly, “Yes.”

“Good thing I’m coming with you, then!” Sano grinned.

“Yes,” Hajime replied very dryly. “Good thing.” And almost imperceptibly he quickened his pace.

Although Sano hadn’t traveled very far, he had traveled fairly often, and knew the road to Egato quite well. He’d gone there probably every third week or so for the last several years, since running such errands for his fellow villagers quelled the restlessness that often afflicted him and rendered more bearable a rather dull routine of daily orchard-work. (Was he really going to miss Eloma? it occurred to him to wonder as he thought back on this.)

Currently they moved at a slower walk than Sano by himself usually did, to accommodate Yahiko’s shorter stride, but every step of the way was still familiar enough that Sano knew exactly where they were when evening fell; he didn’t need the old battered sign at a small crossroad to know Egato was 8ni down the left-hand way. He also knew of a good camping spot just off the road not far from the crossing, and there he suggested they stop for the night.

Hajime at first wanted to continue while there was any light left, but Sano eventually managed to convince him not only that they wouldn’t find a better spot to camp in that amount of time and should take advantage of this one while they could, but that, with only the one break they’d taken earlier for lunch, they’d made good time so far and could afford to turn in a little early. So they went aside into the trees where Sano indicated, and soon had come to a halt in a little clearing around a well used fire pit in the gathering darkness.

Chapter 9 – Egato 8ni Kasun

Hajime might have been a well-traveled knight in the service of royalty, undoubtedly knew a lot more than Sano did about a number of things, and was probably at least ten years older, but he wasn’t very good at building fires. And it would have been more politic to ignore this for now, store it away against the next time Hajime had some snide remark about something Sano couldn’t do or didn’t know… but Sano simply couldn’t resist pointing it out and teasing the knight about it. The knight, however, was uncannily quick with a return jab, and therefore it wasn’t long before they were making camp in something of an irritated silence while Yahiko rolled his eyes at them both.

Sano yanked the blankets roughly out of his backpack and tossed them carelessly aside, searching for something to eat and drink. Yahiko immediately appeared at his side, seizing one of the blankets to keep it from sinking into the ill-made fire. Sano grunted his thanks and offered the kid an orange, which Yahiko accepted wordlessly before returning to the rock on which he’d previously been seated. Reaching the very bottom of the bag, Sano extracted the bottle that stood heavily there, and opened it. As he lifted it to his lips, however, he paused abruptly.

Around midday they’d stopped to eat lunch in the shade of a bridge over one of the streams that came down the mountain and crossed the road through the forest; being immediately adjacent to water, there had been no need to drink from the bottle, and this was therefore the first time Sano had uncorked it… his first indication that it might not, in fact, be full of water.

There’s no way… he told himself as he lifted the bottle’s mouth to his nose to confirm the scent he’d already caught. No fucking way… He took a deeper sniff, then turned away and sneezed. I can’t believe he… What is with him? He’s… Then he looked around. “Hey, Hajiface!”

“I assume you’re referring to me,” replied Hajime flatly from the other side of the fire.

“Did Seijuurou say anything to you while I wasn’t there?” Sano wondered, staring down at the bottle. “About all this, I mean, and why he helped us so much?”

“Something to the purpose of getting us all off his property as quickly as possible.” Hajime’s tone made it clear he didn’t feel Seijuurou had helped them ‘so much.’

“That old liar…” muttered Sano. “What the hell is he thinking..?”

This finally seemed to catch at least some of Hajime’s interest. “What’s wrong?”

Sano stood. “Look at this,” he said as he made his way around the fire to hand the open bottle to Hajime. “This is angiruou.”

Confirming Sano’s assertion with a sniff at the mouth of the bottle, Hajime looked back up at him with an eyebrow slightly raised. “So?”

“So,” Sano explained, “there’s something about what’s going on that he really cares about, even if he’s pretending not to.”

“Not enough to leave his precious mountain,” Hajime snorted.

“No, but this is the next best thing. You gotta understand, alcohol is like fucking air to this guy. He would barely even ever share the damn stuff with me while I was sleeping in his fucking bed.”

Again Hajime looked at Sano from where he’d been studying the bottle as if trying to determine what could be so intriguing about it. “He drinks in bed?” he wondered in mild surprise.

“No,” Sano said impatiently — then felt compelled to amend, “well, yeah, sometimes — but I mean, I was staying up there every weekend, sleeping in his bed; hell, I even bought the stuff for him in town and brought it up to him… and he still wouldn’t share it with me most of the time.”

“So?” said Hajime again.

Even more impatiently Sano replied, “I’m just trying to get you to understand what this means.”

“It sounds to me like you’re just babbling.” And Hajime handed the bottle back.

“All right, fine,” snapped Sano, snatching it. “Asshole.” As he went for the drink he’d never taken, he added under his breath, “…as bad as fucking Seijuurou…”

Now Hajime raised both brows. “And you’d know about that, wouldn’t you?” he murmured.

“What? About what?”

“Fucking Seijuurou.”

Sano let out a loud breath and rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help grinning a little as well as he replied levelly, “Well, it was more like him fucking me.”

“I didn’t want to know that!” Yahiko protested loudly, reminding them of his presence.

After that, they discussed nothing but the arrangements of camp and their plans for tomorrow. A decision was reached regarding Yahiko having the use of one of the two blankets whenever it was needed from now on; Yahiko himself was not a party to this unanimous agreement, since he saw it as patronizing, and elaborated upon the many nights he’d spent outside on the ground with no more covering than the ladies’ blessing, but the others insisted and eventually won the argument by completely ignoring Yahiko’s side of it.

This left the disbursement of the second blanket up in the air. Hajime absolutely refused to fight Sano for it, pointing out with dogged, irritating rationality that they should alternate nights using it. When Sano pointed out that they could still settle who got it first with a fight, Hajime wordlessly pulled out a coin. The worst part was that Sano lost the toss as well as the debate, and so ended up in the position previously described by Yahiko but without the blessing of any fictitious ladies or the memory of a good fight with a royal knight to comfort him.

There was no clear path through the bright forest, but Sano didn’t really feel he needed one. Once he found Hajime, they could just move on in whatever direction seemed convenient. He wasn’t sure why he needed to find Hajime, either; he just knew he did. So he pushed his way through the glowing foliage, among trees and through bushes, until he caught sight of something white ahead that could only be a royal knight’s shiiya.

Hajime glanced over at him as he made his way out of a dense patch of greenery, but said nothing. He seemed to have been expecting him, for the moment Sano reached his side he started walking, and their footsteps crunching in the undergrowth was for a long time the only sound. It was strange… Sano didn’t like Hajime much, but somehow he didn’t mind this. They had to work together, after all.

Presently, at the bottom of a long, gently-sloping hill covered in progressively higher grass between the thinning trees, they came to the shores of a small lake in the middle of the forest. For a long, contented moment they gazed out across the glistening water, as blue as the clear sky above them, and the swans that moved across it with languid grace. It was a lovely day, a good day to be alive. Sano noticed Yahiko high above him in the branches of one of the trees, his ragged undyed cloak blowing around him almost like wings, undoubtedly and understandably trying to get a little closer to that blazing sky.

Then Hajime put a hand on his shoulder. Sano looked over, and found that the knight had pulled one of the swans from the surface of the lake and now held it out to him. Frowning slightly Sano wondered, “What do you expect me to do with that?”

Hajime appeared somewhat skeptical. “Fly, idiot,” he said, as if this should have been perfectly obvious.

Sano glanced back at Yahiko, just in time to see him caught up by the wind on his cloak and lifted out into the sky. With an expression of serenity he floated away until he was nothing more than a pale speck in the distance. Turning his eyes back to Hajime and the white wings he held, Sano reflected that if Yahiko was allowed to fly away, so was he.

“Right,” he said, and reached out. And the moment his hand met Hajime’s, there came a flash, and the wings had vanished from the knight’s palm to unfurl like a fluttering banner from Sano’s back.

He needed no prompting to take to the sky, and his heart soared even as his body did. The world above the forest and the water seemed so open and endless; anything was possible up here. He’d never been able to do this before, and he relished every moment of it. Racing upward and plunging furiously down, spinning and gliding and floating, he tasted a sort of freedom he could never have imagined.

Then he heard behind him a rasping metallic sound. Whirling in midair, he found Hajime hovering on swan’s wings as wide and strong as Sano’s and drawing his sword.

Sano’s startlement lasted only half an instant before, with a grin, he was pulling free his own weapon. The energy blade flashed out just in time to block Hajime’s strike, which Sano then returned with enthusiasm. It was exhilarating, fighting in the air like this; it added an entire new dimension and arsenal of potential moves to the combat, and the effects of gravity seemed far less important than they normally did.

Hajime was better at this than Sano was, by a long stretch, and for every attempted hit Hajime dodged or threw off with apparent ease, there were three blows Sano only avoided by the breadth of a lucky hair. This didn’t render the exercise any less entertaining, but it did mean that eventually Hajime broke entirely through Sano’s guard and dragged his sword across Sano’s body from shoulder to hip.

The actual metal of the keonblade only grazed Sano lightly in a couple of places, but the much longer energy blade went right through him, severing his shiiya in a neat line but leaving the flesh beneath untouched. Sano stilled, hovering in the air as he raised his hands to his uninjured chest where it showed through the slice across his heretical device. What a hit that had been! If it had damaged him, he would be in pieces!

He looked up at Hajime, who seemed to be waiting expectantly for something, and then realized– “Oh, shit, I guess that’s me dead, isn’t it?” And, his wings going limp, he fell backward and began to plummet toward the land far below.

At first there was only air rushing past, but after a few moments he saw the upper boughs and then the trunks of trees flash by as he fell faster and faster. Finally he dove with a great grinding splash into the river of rocks.

Momentarily stunned, he sank deep under the torrent without making any effort at saving himself, but finally, recovering, kicked and struggled upward. At last he broke the surface, spitting out a mouthful of small stones, and there found himself completely unable to take control of which direction he went or even to maintain a steady, upright position. He was jostled along in the rocky stream, moving at an increasingly quick pace, trying and failing to swim.

When he saw the falls ahead, the chaotic flow of rocks pouring over it into a clicking roar, he began to panic slightly, but there was still nothing he could do. Faster and faster he was shunted along toward it, reaching out desperately at anything that might help him get to land or even slow his progress, but it was no good. His hands closed on nothing but more tiny stones, the world seemed to spin, and he was plunging helplessly down–

He opened his eyes with a gasping breath. It seemed to be just after sunrise; the campsite was still striped with long oaken shadows in the early morning; and Sano was definitely not falling anywhere. He sat up slowly, blinking several times. Then he scrunched his eyes closed against a huge yawn.

Hajime lay to his left, wrapped in the blanket he’d refused to fight for, and Sano found his eyes riveted on the sleeping figure. Faery tales now, he was thinking. Why is this still happening? Hajime’s coma had passed, after all… there was no reason Sano should still be seeing him in his dreams. Are you seeing them too? he asked silently. Or am I just going crazy?

This dream hadn’t been quite the same as before, though; there had been a very blurry quality to it, unlike any other dream he could remember. None of the sensations had been as sharp as he was used to: the smells of the forest, the feeling of flight, the sound of rushing wind in his ears… even the sights he’d seen had been relatively indistinct. Inside the dream he hadn’t really noticed this, though, since the concepts of everything he experienced had been strong enough to fill in the gaps: he’d known he was walking through a forest, he’d known he was flying, he’d known he was fighting Hajime, so it didn’t matter much that his senses weren’t picking it up as clearly as his underlying awareness was.

What a strange dream.

Hajime didn’t really strike him as the type that generally slept late, especially when something specific needed doing, but so far that was purely a guess as Sano had pretty consistently awakened before the knight did. If he hadn’t believed this due to the strange circumstances of the last few days leaving Hajime in need of extra sleep, he would have shaken him now just to be an ass. As it was, he seated himself on one of the rocks around the fire pit, dug breakfast from his backpack, and watched the light grow in thoughtful silence.

It actually wasn’t long before Hajime woke up, though admittedly Sano might have been crunching his apple rather loudly to encourage this. Sano considered asking him whether he’d had a dream about flying with swan wings over a river of rocks, but decided against it when he realized how stupid the question sounded. Instead he argued with him, once Yahiko was also up and they’d all eaten something, about whether or not the kid should be allowed any angiruou.

He knew, though, despite having left the matter of the dream undiscussed, he was going to have a hard time getting it out of his head for the rest of the day.

>9 Interlude

By the ladies’ grace there lived a maker of fine cloths who had three sons. Now it so happened that this weaver suffered from a wasting disease which would one day kill him, so he established what was to be done with his fortune when he was dead, and what provision should be made for his sons. And the day came when the man died and his sons learned his will concerning the disposition of his fortune.

To the first son, who was restless, he left his sword and his horse, that his first son might travel and fight and perhaps win renown and wealth of his own.

For his second son, who was indolent, the weaver arranged a marriage with another rich and prosperous merchant with whom he had done much business in the past, that he might always be taken care of.

And to his third and youngest son, who was steadfast and hard-working, the weaver left his home and shop and all the primary workings of his craft.

And so, after the funeral of their father, the three brothers parted: the eldest to journey as he chose, the second to a life of luxury and ease, and the youngest staying where he had grown to manhood and continuing in his father’s work, though he felt he had much rather married or gone adventuring. Nevertheless, since he was indeed hard-working and steadfast, the third son flourished in his father’s trade, and for a while he was content.

But it happened on a time that, receiving from his eldest brother tidings of the great deeds he had done and the fortune he had won thereby, and from his second brother of the company he kept and the festivals he enjoyed, the young weaver became bitter, for a day, concerning his lot and the distribution of his father’s wealth. And it so happened that he had, that very morning, spread over the roof of his shop a fine length of colorful cloth to tempt the passersby inside. And, though a storm blew up from the ocean and the wind was strong, in his bitterness he gave little heed. But when the storm caught up the cloth and blew it away, the weaver repented his mood and went forth to chase after it, for it was very valuable.

And he came to a lake, and beside it a tall tree that he could not climb standing alone, wherein the cloth had become entangled. And as he gazed up at it in despair, a paruseji appeared at his side and asked, “What do you look for in the tree?”

And the weaver replied, “My length of fine cloth, which has been blown there by the storm.”

Then seeing the distress of the young man, the paruseji took up a swan that sailed upon the water, and took its wings, saying, “Take this and fly, and recover what you have lost.”

So the weaver, taking the wings, straightaway joined them to his own back and flew. And when he had recovered the length of cloth, he thanked the paruseji with great honor. And the paruseji said, “I leave these wings in your keeping for the time while I need them not, and may they aid you… Only be ready to yield them up when we meet again.”

The weaver agreed that it should be so, and they parted.

And now he found that so unusual was he, with his great swan’s wings, that folk would come from far and wide to see him. Often it chanced that they would buy his wares simply for the novelty of it, so that whatsoever effort he put into his craft was sufficient because the quality was of no concern to his buyers. But the people of his own town shook their heads, and went to another town to buy their cloth.

So the merchant prospered for some time, and felt that his life was good. It transpired, however, that the paruseji appeared one day and requested the return of his wings. The weaver knew that to give up his wings was to give up his unusual prosperity, and also he had grown pleased with them and the ability of flight that they bestowed. Nevertheless, as he had promised so would he do, and accordingly he returned to the paruseji the wings.

And the paruseji said, “As it happens, I am in need of a length of fine blue silk. And though I must take these wings from you, I would do you a service and make my purchase here.”

And the merchant, thinking on his manner of business since he had first obtained the wings, hung his head and said in shame, “I have nothing fine enough for you.”

So the paruseji took his departure.

Now again was required of the merchant the care and activity for his work he had shown prior to the time when he had wings, and for this he had been prepared in his mind. But he found also that his legs, through absence of use as he traveled rather by flight, had become crippled. So his work was now harder than ever it had been. Indeed, in order for him to produce the quality of goods that had once been his wont, he was forced to work twice as hard as before. And so he spent his days in great weariness and toil, lamenting bitterly the hour of carelessness that had caused his troubles.

Now it so happened at about this time that the merchant’s second brother was accused by his husband of unfaithfulness, and the debate thereof came to blows, in the which the second brother, his indolent lifestyle having left him little conditioned for bodily strife, came out much the worse. Indeed, he was blinded, and fled the rich house of his husband in distress and shame. After many difficulties, he returned to the house of his father, and there was welcomed sadly by his younger brother.

Misfortune fell also upon the first brother at this time, for in his travels he had grown arrogant of his own prowess with the sword, and continually sought to do battle with opponents of greater strength. In so doing he came upon a bandit prince renowned throughout the land for his skills in combat, and challenged him to a duel. The bandit prince laughed, and easily defeated the first brother. Indeed, he cut off his hands and took from him his sword and his horse and all the riches the first brother had gained thus far through his life of adventure. And so the first brother too returned in distress and shame to the house of his father, where he too was welcomed sadly by his youngest brother.

So now there were three brothers together again working at their father’s trade of weaving, and as each was in some manner crippled the work was tiring and difficult. But they managed, by dint of great effort and dedication, to make a living for themselves and even in a small way to prosper. Still they greatly rued their departure from the hard-working ways their father had always endeavored to teach them, which had brought them to such a pass, and had not many hours of great happiness.

And it happened on a particular day, after they had been thus occupied for the better part of a year, that a proxy doing the work of the divine in their town learned of the sad tale of the three brothers. Unnoticed by them he observed them to discover the truth of the report, and learned to his sorrow that what he had heard in the town was in fact the case. And he went before the divine ladies in the blue courts of eternity, and laid before them the entire story.

On the following day, the proxy appeared to the three brothers in glory, not disguising what he was, and spoke to them. “I have seen your trials, and I have seen the change that has come over you because of your hardships. And because of this, I have spoken to our creators and protectors the divine ladies, and interceded on your behalf, for such is the privilege of a proxy. And the ladies in their mercy, touched by your sad story, have granted me special license to heal you of your wounds and set things aright for you.” And so saying, he touched the arms of the first brother, and the eyes of the second, and the legs of the third, and they were made whole.

And he said, “This warning also I give you: that if you should forget the lesson you have learned during this time of trial, if you should once again rely upon circumstances other than your own honest work to be your means of provision, you shall find yourselves crippled again forever.”

The three brothers, finding themselves again whole and without pain, rejoiced greatly and gave great thanks and praise to the proxy and to the divine ladies. And they took to heart the warning the proxy had given them, and thenceforth worked industriously at their father’s trade. And though they became mightily prosperous, they never forgot the lesson they had learned, and relied always upon their own industry, which never faltered, and never found themselves crippled again. The End.

Chapter 10 – Torosa Forest Road

Heavy clouds gathered above them from mid-morning on, and it looked like they were in for quite a downpour after not too long. Sano didn’t mind in the slightest, since it was very hot and he could probably do with something like a bath in any case. Yahiko seemed less than entirely pleased, but offered no verbal complaint despite looking fairly regularly into the sky with an expression of faint apprehension. Hajime appeared neither to notice nor care.

“So I know it’s your job,” Sano was remarking as they walked, “but is there some particular reason you can give me why we even want Kenshin back on the throne?” It wasn’t that he doubted the purpose behind their quest — the same considerations and residual anger as before still applied — but he was curious.

Evidently both glad to discuss a topic related to their actual mission and dour at the topic itself, Hajime said slowly, “Kenshin is a good man. He may not be the strongest king in our history, for some of the reasons Seijuurou mentioned, but he’s unselfish and has a strong sense of rightness. Seijuurou was exaggerating his weakness–”

Sano made a rude noise. “No way; Seijuurou never exaggerates anything.”

With an echoing snort Hajime went on. “Where Kenshin has a tendency to be too lenient, he is reasonable enough to listen to good counsel, even if he sometimes complains like a child when he’s forced to see the logic of advice he doesn’t like.”

“You sure it’s safe to say shit like that about the king?” Sano laughed. “He’s only deposed, not dead!”

“It’s nothing I wouldn’t say to his face,” replied Hajime grimly, and Sano thought he recognized the source of at least some of the ‘good counsel’ the king could be brought to listen to. After a moment the knight continued in the same dark tone, “And in addition to all of that, he’s Akomera’s lawful ruler according to the established system. Even if Kenshin were much weaker, more selfish, less right-minded, a worse ruler all around… anyone willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king is a criminal, and undoubtedly has criminal intentions that may be disastrous on a large scale. I don’t want someone like that on the throne.”

Pensively Sano nodded, seeing the point. If he had engaged any doubts, they would have been erased. “So why would Soujirou be willing to overthrow and imprison the rightful king?” he wondered next. “Sure, maybe his family’s all jealous and shit, but being king must be a hell of a lot of work, and you said he’s not a leader type…”

“When Soujirou was a child, during the Refugee Issue, he was kidnapped by Ayundomeshou and held for ransom–”

“All right,” Sano broke in, “what the hell is this ‘Refugee Issue’ you keep mentioning?”

“That’s the official name of the Bandit Wars.”

“Oh!” Just the sound of the words ‘Bandit Wars’ gave Sano an angry yet hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Yeah,” he said a little more quietly, “those damn things fucked up everyone’s lives.”

Hajime went on with his speculating. “It’s possible Soujirou holds the king responsible for what happened to him, since Kenshin is generally considered to have mismanaged those years. Maybe someone’s convinced Soujirou he could do better.”

“Did he get ransomed?” asked Sano. “Or what?”

“From what I’ve heard, he was rescued by devoted warriors.”

“Really?” Now Sano was thoroughly curious. “What house?”

“I don’t know. His family kept the entire thing quiet; I think they would have preferred nobody hear about it at all, but it’s difficult to keep something like that secret when the kidnapped child is a prince of Gontamei.”

“Huh.”

At this moment Yahiko, who’d been silent for some time, put in unexpectedly, “He’s not the senior prince, though, right?”

Throwing the kid a quick, assessing glance, Hajime confirmed, “No.”

“Don’t look so surprised!” said Yahiko, in a dry tone that seemed like it should be coming from someone much older. “Unlike Sano, I do pay some attention to what’s going on in the country.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, though he really had very little defense against such an accusation.

“No,” Hajime said slowly, “I was just thinking that you’ll be even more useful to us if you’re aware of things like that.”

Yahiko’s tone had gone almost entirely flat as he responded quietly, “Sure. Useful.”

Presently the rain began. Since Sano had an unfashionably attached hood on his outer garment, he dug his own leather one out for Yahiko’s use. The kid looked even more odd than before wearing the oversized hood; he gave the impression of having been magically shrunken so that none of his clothing fit. But it kept the rain off his head.

As nobody was saying anything now, and as it always sounded better in the rain in any case, Sano launched into a bawdy song about a beautiful woman and all the things the narrator of the lyric would like to have her do. It wasn’t one of his favorites, particularly — though the fact that it followed the melody of an old children’s song with much more innocent words thoroughly amused him — it was just the first thing that happened to come to mind at the moment.

He’d half expected Hajime to order him to shut up, but instead the knight merely looked at him with a very skeptical expression and said absolutely nothing. Eventually, though, after the second refrain, Sano broke off of his own accord.

“I can see why you’d want to stop there,” Hajime remarked.

“Why?” Sano wondered, knowing he was walking into an insult by asking but nonetheless curious.

“I imagine the next verse would be rather embarrassing for you,” said Hajime easily.

“I… don’t remember the next verse,” Sano confessed. This was the reason he’d ceased singing.

Hajime reminded him, “Something about her beautiful voice making you wish she would deafen you.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sano laughed. “I’da thought a song like that was way below a royal knight’s dignity.”

“That’s because you haven’t known many royal knights.”

Sano laughed again, but stopped abruptly as the meaning of Hajime’s insult finally struck him. “Wait, so you’re saying I’m so bad at singing that I should be embarrassed to sing anything about someone with a beautiful voice?”

Hajime just smirked, probably at how long it had taken Sano to realize this was what he’d meant.

“Don’t listen to him,” Yahiko broke in. “You weren’t half bad.”

“Hah!” said Sano triumphantly, turning toward his new defender. “Thanks, kid!” After a moment’s thought, though, he added in some unease, “I hope you didn’t understand most of that shit in the song, though.”

Yahiko didn’t look at him as he answered, “I wasn’t actually listening.” Sano thought he mumbled something else, possibly expanding upon this, but Hajime’s sardonic chuckle drowned it out.

“What was that?” Sano asked, ignoring the knight. When Yahiko just shook his head, Sano protested, “You can’t just claim I don’t sing too bad and then say you weren’t listening!”

In an abrupt volte-face of demeanor such as Sano had seen in him a few times before, Yahiko finally looked up, suddenly and defiantly, and said clearly, “I wasn’t listening. Yumi said you’re not half-bad, but she thinks it’s funny to hear a subujinsh’wai singing that kind of thing about a woman.”

Dead silence fell (except for their footsteps and the falling rain and the various noises of the forest, of course), while Sano tried to overcome his unpleasant surprise at these words. It wasn’t that Yahiko had him pegged as someone that only liked men — it didn’t take divine inspiration to figure that out — but, rather, that he’d brought up one of those stupid ladies in the middle of a conversation that hadn’t previously been annoying Sano (much). And it wasn’t that Sano couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned at all; it was that he couldn’t stand to hear them mentioned so familiarly by someone he was coming to consider a friend.

And the idea of the Yumi inside the kid’s head having something to say about either his singing abilities or his romantic inclinations was one he was not even going to think about.

Abruptly he turned to Hajime and changed the subject. “You know what I don’t get? Why the king just gave up like that. How many guys did Soujirou have with him, eight? You could take eight guys at once, couldn’t you?”

Hajime appeared amused by Sano’s behavior and not averse to answering. “Those particular eight, probably. Those eight plus Soujirou… probably not.”

This had been the first topic off the top of Sano’s head, but he found himself genuinely interested. “But wasn’t there anything in the room the king could have used as a weapon?” he wondered. “Or knocked one of the guys down and taken his? Surely both of you together would have been all right?”

What Sano could see of Hajime’s downturned face under its hood looked pensive and displeased. “The truth is, I have no idea what the king was thinking. As Seijuurou said, it made my presence entirely pointless for Kenshin to surrender like that. He probably could have escaped the way I did…”

“Just another thing to ask him, I guess,” Sano said thoughtfully. Then, before he remembered he didn’t want to think about Yahiko and his strange condition, he added, “Too bad you didn’t have Yahiko with you; he could have killed ’em all for you!”

Yahiko seemed just as unhappy to have been dragged into this. “I don’t kill people,” he said in a surly tone.

“Well,” Sano said, shrugging and making an effort at speaking casually, “you’d have been useful somehow.”

They didn’t much feel like stopping and standing still in the rain — let alone sitting down — and they were low on food anyway, so they walked through midday and into the afternoon rather than eating lunch somewhere. Hajime elaborated on what he knew of Soujirou’s skills with a sword, which led to a discussion of swordsmanship in general, which led to some tales of Sano’s exploits in this area, which failed utterly to impress Hajime, which led to an argument. It also, however, took them all the way to the sign-marked crossroad Sano had been counting down steps to since they’d started that day.

“Hey.” Sano paused when they came within sight of the sign, and pointed. “Egato’s getting pretty close here… is one of us gonna go buy some more food?”

“Yes,” Hajime confirmed, “you are.”

Sano was faintly surprised. “Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re the less valuable fugitive,” answered Hajime simply.

With a sigh and accompanying gesture of exasperation, Sano echoed, “‘…less valuable…’ Ladies, you are such an asshole.”

“Use your brain, if you have one,” said Hajime impatiently. “Which of us is more likely to promote the good of the nation at this point?”

Stung, Sano retorted, “Oh, like any of you nobles in the capital could live without us farmers.”

“Aside from the fact that I said ‘at this point,’ I have a hard time believing you contribute all that much.”

Now Sano’s fists were clenched. “What would you know about that? I bet you don’t work ten hours a day in the hot sun!”

Hajime’s eyes narrowed as he replied pointedly, “Nor do I sell my body to some selfish warrior.”

“Leave me alone about that already!” Sano protested. A thought struck him as he was saying this, and he added quickly, trying his best to mimic Hajime’s significant narrowing of eyes, “Besides, I thought that was a pretty good description of being a royal knight.”

Hajime snorted. “No, nothing about you is similar to us.”

“Why don’t you fight me and prove it?” Sano gripped the hilt of his sword.

“You can barely use that weapon,” said Hajime disdainfully.

“Oh, yeah? Who says?”

“Seijuurou.”

“That old bastard,” Sano grumbled, then quickly returned to the topic at hand. “I think you’re just making excuses not to fight me.”

“I don’t need to make excuses. I don’t need to fight you. Any royal knight could kill you in thirty seconds.”

“Good to hear they have nothing better to do.”

Hajime huffed out an annoyed breath. “Oh, make up your mind, idiot. Either I have to make excuses not to fight you, or fighting you would be a waste of time; you can’t have it both ways.”

“I’ll go,” said Yahiko suddenly.

Sano looked down at him in some surprise. He’d been trying not to think much about the kid since earlier, and apparently it had worked. It took him a moment even to assimilate what Yahiko had proposed, but once he had he asked, “But didn’t they chase you halfway to Eloma last time you were here?”

“I’ll just avoid the shrine,” Yahiko said briefly, then held up an expectant hand. “Money?”

Hajime, who looked amused and faintly impressed, pulled out a few larger coins and dropped them into Yahiko’s hand before Sano could even start to get his backpack off. Sano was relieved to learn that the money Seijuurou had provided wouldn’t be their only source of funding on this venture — not least because, though the rain was beginning to let up a bit, he hadn’t been eager to get into his backpack in the wet — but he was still annoyed at Hajime.

“Hey, don’t just look like that solves all our problems,” he said as Yahiko began to walk away toward the town they could barely see at the bottom of a hill along the road that here joined theirs. “Kid could get in real trouble down there!”

“I’m afraid that, whatever you may think about the situation, my facial expression is outside your jurisdiction,” Hajime replied coolly.

Sano scowled. “And don’t think using big words will confuse me or something either, asshole.”

“Certainly not. I could do it just as well with small words.”

“What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“My point exactly.”

Sano stalked over to the side of the road, tossed his backpack down, heedless of how wet was the grass, and seated himself on a rock facing away from Hajime, arms crossed. He was determined not to talk to the knight again until Yahiko returned.

>10 Interlude

Holes riddled the wooden walls of the abandoned house, and very little of the roof remained. The lower half, the stone portion, was relatively intact, but the chimney had collapsed. This had been built around a stabilizing iron bar of some sort, which was now exposed in the house’s ruin and to which they’d tied Soujirou in a seated position with his arms behind his back.

There were three of them — two men and a woman — and they mostly ignored him, now he was restrained, and kept watch out the windows or other openings in the walls. Apparently they worried someone wouldn’t come alone as they’d demanded.

Sometimes they looked at him, though. Sometimes they even talked to him.

“Always smile,” his mother had told him — regularly, as far back as he could remember. “You want people to like you, and they will if you smile.” Of course her smile didn’t seem to make people like her, but maybe that was because she hadn’t practiced since she’d been his age. People did what she told them, anyway, and Soujirou along with them.

So he smiled. But he had a strange feeling it was that very expression that kept drawing the man back to him.

“You know where we’re from, lil prince?”

He had an accent Soujirou didn’t recognize — and didn’t like — so when, reluctant but knowing he must follow his mother’s constant instructions to answer people’s questions, he drew breath to reply, he guessed the farthest city he could think of under these trying circumstances: “Emorisa?”

The man laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. “I don’ know where the hell tha is, buh no.” He tapped the flat of his knife against Soujirou’s shoulder, as he’d done a few times already, and Soujirou forced himself to smile so he wouldn’t cry. “No, kid, we’re from Rauori — leas two of us are; I think Yaru’s from Corilo.”

“I’m sorry,” Soujirou faltered. “I don’t know where that is.”

“You’re a polie lil shih,” the man grinned, slapping his knife again. “We come from Ayundome! You know where Ayundome is?”

Soujirou scrambled through his memory for the geography lessons his mother insisted were so important, but all he could remember was that Ayundome’s capital was Celoho and it bordered Akomera to the… northwest? Its primary trade, the nature of its people, any detail of its history… it all slipped away from him.

Seeing his smile failing, the man laughed again. “Well, maybe you’re too young! So I’ll tell you this: a lah of people are running away from our country inna yours righ now, to geh away from the war, y’see? And every single one of those people is jus hoping to geh hold of a lil porable gold mine like you. I wouldn’ be surprised if you geh picked up twice a month the whole year.”

At the thought of going through all of this again, Soujirou felt an unconquerable lump rising in his throat. He couldn’t have spoken even if he’d known what to say, so he merely smiled somewhat desperately.

“Shuh the fuck up, would you, Lasuyo, and come watch this side?” The other man was big and every bit as unpleasant as the first, and more in charge. Now, as Lasuyo made a rude noise and did as he was told, the other man, Yaru, came to look down at Soujirou with no particularly friendly expression but at least no specific malice. After a moment he said, “He’s jus trying to scare you, kid. Nobody else is gonna kidnap you, unless you’re really unlucky.”

“I’m not scared,” Soujirou lied, smiling.

The big man stared at him for a moment, until finally a twisted smile appeared on his face as well. “Maybe you’re nah,” he allowed, seeming slightly impressed. “So jus sih quieh.”

Soujirou nodded.

The Ayundomeshou continued to move around with nervous energy, restlessly alternating which of the house’s four sides the three of them looked out from, sometimes discussing the ransom they’d demanded from Soujirou’s family and what their plans were once they’d received it, while the sun rose high enough to shine directly down through the broken roof. Soujirou grew very hot and uncomfortable in its glare, feeling as if he sat in the middle of a stone oven and unable to brush away the sweat that periodically ran down his face.

He wondered if his family would send the money these people wanted. His parents liked money — though not as much, he thought, as they liked having other people like them and do what they said — so he couldn’t be sure they would be willing to give up some money just to have him back.

He did do whatever they said, though. He studied his lessons and he practiced talking correctly to the other nobles he met in Elotica and he learned how to use a sword the way a prince should. Maybe they liked that enough. Maybe they would pay.

The woman didn’t say much — not even about where she would go once she had her share of the ransom — only stared out the window and held her bow at the ready. This was, at least, interesting to look at; nobody but hunters used bows that Soujirou knew of, and since you wouldn’t want to be like a low hunter living out in a forest, he’d never been allowed to try one. This woman appeared rough and poor just as he assumed a hunter would; maybe that was what she did — or had done — back in Ayundome. In any case, she now suddenly said, “Someone’s coming.”

“Alone?” Yaru demanded. “No, stay where you are and keep watching; ih could be a diversion.” And he too stayed where he was, looking out his own window.

“Yeh, alone,” the woman replied. “Ih’s one of their devoted — in red.”

“From which lady?” Lasuyo sounded mildly curious, but Soujirou was more so. He hoped it was Kaoru, his favorite. She didn’t have to do what anyone said.

“You know they call them differen names here,” replied the woman impatiently. “I don’ know how their sysem works.”

Yaru cut in just as impatiently. “Does ih look like they’re bringing the money?”

The woman was silent for a moment, still peering out a hole in the wall and gripping her bow. “No,” she finally said. “There should be a wheelbarrow or something…”

“Probably coming to try to negotiae,” Yaru muttered. “Red’s the lowes rank in their church, I think, so they won’ mind losing this fool as much.”

“Wan me to shoo?” The woman stood from her previous crouch, hugging the wall and peering even more intently through the hole as she reached for an arrow.

“Could still be a diversion,” Lasuyo said.

“Any movemen ou your side?” Yaru wondered, holding up a hand in the woman’s direction to stop her for now.

“Nothing.” Lasuyo scrambled over to just beside Soujirou and peered out from the one face of the house currently unguarded. “Nothing here either.”

“Don’ shoo yeh,” Yaru ordered. “We’ll leh them geh close enough to talk. We can raise the price if Gonamei’s being stupid about this.”

The span that followed seemed lengthy due to its tension and silence, but Soujirou didn’t know how many seconds or minutes actually passed. He couldn’t hear the footsteps of the approacher, who must still be too far away, but since the woman had no further comment as yet, the stranger must be continually drawing nearer.

Finally, “They’ve stopped,” she said. “Jus far enough away… I can’ make ou…” She was craning her neck as if that would help her see better.

“Warning shah,” Yaru commanded tersely.

“I only have so many arrows, you know,” the woman grumbled. But she started to nock one anyway.

At that moment, Yaru took such an abrupt step back from where he looked out his side of the house that he almost fell over the stones strewing the floor from the collapsed chimney. “Wa’er!” he gasped.

“Wha?” The other two started, and Lasuyo moved toward Yaru to see what in the world he meant. He didn’t even make it all the way across the room, though, before it became obvious on its own.

Yaru’s latest vantage point faced the river, the sound of which had been a constant, ignorable underscore to the entire scene. Now, somehow, the river seemed to have changed course, for the house suddenly began to flood. With impossible rapidity a huge and seemingly endless mass of clear water was rising over the feet and then up the legs of the shocked Ayundomeshou. Moreover, it didn’t rise evenly: though the floor was soon inches deep, most of the water bubbled up specifically around the adults in the room, enveloping them, its level lifting quickly above their shouting mouths and astonished eyes to form three bulging pillars, each with a person trapped inside.

The woman swept her bow out frantically as if she could pierce the seal over her, then dropped it and began waving her arms instead; Yaru made desperate swimming motions, trying to break free of his airless surroundings; Lasuyo staggered forward a step or two before buoyantly lifting off the ground — and in every case the water swelled out around them and even shifted in its entirety to accommodate their movements and ensure they were continually covered. It reminded Soujirou, watching in helpless horror, of the blue pillars proxy were supposed to have at their backs, but it was like a dreadful, unhappy version of that. Proxy didn’t kill, but this merciless water would. In fact Lasuyo, after releasing a distressingly large bubble from his mouth, had already stopped struggling.

More and more accumulated inside the enclosure of the ruined house’s lower walls, creeping up and joining the existing pillars, and, though it would probably run out under the door and through cracks between the stones, it wasn’t doing so as quickly as it entered. It had risen above Soujirou’s chest, and he could feel it teasing his chin no matter how he tilted his face upward. Below, wet and cold against the iron bar, his bound hands struggled in vain. At least he wasn’t completely coated as the adults were… but he soon would be, at this rate.

Rather than gushing and foaming, the water welled like a spring from somewhere underneath, expanding the three traps from within and remaining thereby smooth enough on its bulbous outer surfaces for the overhead sun to glitter and glare off of it like glass. As Soujirou looked helplessly around, from one deadly pillar to the second and the third, the brilliant spots of reflected sunlight burned his eyes until he could make out no further details; everything was a pandemonium of sparkling whiteness. He knew he should close his eyes, but he couldn’t. Stinging tears spilled over onto his face, further blurring the tableau, but despite his blindness he couldn’t bring himself to shut his lids and shut out the brightness. He didn’t want to die with his eyes closed.

He did squeeze his mouth tight when the water started to run into it, but still he stared — stared at the ascending doom he could barely make out until it covered his face and washed away the salt of sweat and the tears that had arisen in response to the sunlight glare. And still he stared, even when he realized he’d forgotten to take a deep breath while he’d had the chance, even though he distinguished nothing through the water and the bright spots burned into his eyes.

Then a note of red entered the chaos that was his vision, the water swished and churned before him, and he felt an adult’s arms to either side. The rope gave way, freeing him to struggle as he would. Just as he thought he must choke, that he couldn’t retain the breath in his body or keep from trying to draw another — especially with his limbs, prickling from inactivity, flying out every which way trying to propel him through the water that now stood far above his head — he was hauled up and out, into the free air, streaming and gasping and flailing.

He had the vague impression the flood was sinking all around him, that there were no Ayundomeshou left standing in the little ruined building. He knew he was lifted by and pulled against the red-clad stranger that had waded into the room to save him. But he could see nothing except the glare, could make out no details around him. And the stranger did not speak.

“Thank you,” he coughed at last.

“Always be polite,” his mother told him, practically every day. “People will like you better.”

“Thank you,” he managed again, more insistently this time, holding on for dear life around his rescuer’s neck with soaked, shivering arms.

But the devoted, who, though evidently weary in an aphysical way Soujirou could not quite describe and didn’t even know how he recognized, had turned and moved toward the exit just as if there weren’t three dead bodies lying in the fresh mud and scattered stones and draining water around them, just as if a spontaneous lake arising to kill a child’s captors and receding quietly as if on command was all in a day’s work, still said not a word.

Chapter 11 – Proxy’s Son

It hadn’t worked, of course. Somehow, ignoring a very present Hajime turned out to be almost as much of an ordeal as talking to him. Fortunately, though, the rain stopped while Yahiko was gone, giving Sano the excuse of brushing water off of things and wringing things out to delay conversation. And Yahiko returned a good deal sooner than he’d expected.

“That was quick!” Recognizing the shrug and aversion of eyes that formed Yahiko’s reply, Sano went on to speculate, “Checked with Megumi on the best way into town before you went, huh?” He tried to say it as passively as he could, since he’d decided that, whatever he actually thought of Yahiho’s delusions, continual verbal bitterness against the kid really wasn’t appropriate.

Yahiko gave him a wary glance and said very quietly, “Yumi, actually.”

“Why Yumi?” Sano wondered in what he hoped was a politely interested tone.

“Because I was already talking to her.” The bag he’d been carrying over his shoulder Yahiko now slung onto the ground beside Sano’s backpack, and he still didn’t meet Sano’s eye as he added, “She thinks you guys arguing is funny.”

“There’s another reason not to believe in her,” Sano snorted. Then, remembering he was trying not to be unnecessarily unkind, he said more neutrally, “So, any idea why you have this power of talking to the supposed ladies for their supposed blessings?”

Now Hajime snorted. “He’s not likely to answer if you ask him like that, idiot.”

“Well, seriously, I wanna know!” Sano protested. He began looking through the satisfyingly hefty bag, inspecting the goods.

“My mom was a proxy,” said Yahiko briefly

Sano glanced over at him in surprise. It really was remarkable what these religious people could think up.

“Every kid thinks his mother is a proxy,” Hajime commented.

Sano could see his point — there had certainly been a period in his childhood when he might have thought his mother was semi-divine — but he simply couldn’t resist the opportunity for, “I bet you didn’t. I bet you were the most obnoxious little–”

“I didn’t realize it was my history we were discussing,” interrupted Hajime.

Having decided that any sort of organized arrangement inside his backpack would be a waste of time, Sano had stuffed the entire bag into it instead. But he pulled out some of the dried meat, hard bread, and fruit to lunch on.

“Good choices,” he commended the kid. Then he returned to the previous topic. “So your mom was nice, and taught you all sorts of magic tricks?”

“No, you jerk.” Yahiko snatched the food Sano offered and turned his back. “My mom was actually a proxy.”

Sano tried his best to restrain a disbelieving sound, but rather failed.

“I know I can’t convince you. But if you’d ever met her, you’d know…” Yahiko’s voice sank almost to a murmur as he continued. “It was like nothing could ever, ever bother her — she was never scared or angry… and she had this sort of glow around her, sometimes faint but sometimes really bright, but not everyone could tell. And when you were with her you felt like nothing could ever go wrong.”

Sano had gradually fallen completely still and silent as he listened to this description, even neglecting what he was doing so that Hajime had to come over and retrieve his own lunch. Of course it was all silliness — the affection of a young child for his mother combined with fanatical religious beliefs — but it really did sound very much as if he was talking about…

Shaking his head abruptly to clear away these strange, almost hypnotic thoughts, Sano said, “Hajiguy’s right; you were just a kid who liked his mom a lot.”

Hajime, at whom Sano had jerked a thumb to accompany this statement, gave Sano a skeptical look. Yahiko grumbled, “When you start agreeing with him just to say I’m wrong, there’s no point for me to tell you anything.”

In keeping with this, he said nothing more for quite some time. They finished their meal and started walking again in near silence, letting the reappearing sun dry the rain off them even as it dried the forest around them. Sano couldn’t get the striking familiarity of Yahiko’s description out of his head, and for a while was lost in reverie. But eventually he realized his question had never been entirely answered. “So your mom…” he prodded.

Yahiko threw him a suspicious look, but seemed to consider it relatively safe to explain further. “Well, she disappeared when I was four…”

This did nothing to diminish the interesting coincidence Sano believed he saw. That sounds just like…

“But she came back when my dad died,” Yahiko went on, “and took him away with her. I saw it, and didn’t really understand, so later I asked the ladies… They told me sometimes a proxy working around people who are still alive falls in love with one of them. Then they’re allowed to spend five years here again with that person, but after that they have to get back to work. So my mom was one of those.”

“All right.” Sano struggled to keep any hint of a jeering tone from his voice. “What do you mean, she took your dad away?”

Despite Sano’s efforts, Yahiko obviously heard or guessed his real reaction, for his face took on that defiant expression he seemed to reserve specifically for subjects like this. “My dad was killed in a fire,” he said determinedly, as if daring Sano to jeer about that, “a few years after my mom left. But she took him out, so he didn’t feel any pain. Took his soul away, I mean.”

“Huh,” said Sano. “Seems like your dad got the shit end of that deal.” Quickly, before Yahiko could protest, he went on, “But I guess your mom couldn’t save his life because proxy aren’t allowed to lift a hand for or against the living.”

The boy gave him a look that was at once pleased and annoyed, and overall nothing less than astonished. “Right,” he said, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard.

Hajime also seemed startled. “That’s fairly obscure doctrine for a heretic to know.”

“My dad was a devoted,” Sano confessed with a shrug. “I had to pick up some of that bullshit.”

“My dad guarded the town storehouse,” said Yahiko, transitioning smoothly back to the topic at hand, probably seeking to avoid having to listen to another argument between his companions. “It was when it caught fire that he died.”

“And you were how old?” Sano wondered.

“Seven.”

“Shit!” If he’d thought about it, Sano must have realized this, but to hear the kid say it so blandly really brought it home. “What did you do after that? Did you have other family?”

Yahiko shook his head. “Maybe somewhere, but I don’t know who they are… I’ve just been wandering around on my own since then.”

“You’ve been wandering around alone since you were seven?” Sano demanded in some horror. “Sweet Kaoru, how did you cope?”

“Not like you’ll believe me,” grumbled Yahiko, “but the ladies helped me. They told me it’s good to face some things on your own.”

“And that comforted you?” Sano couldn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t deeply disturbed by this idea.

“Of course,” said Yahiko.

“But that’s…” Sano was appalled. “You don’t tell a seven-year-old it’s better that his dad dies and just leave it at that!”

“You do if you know all and see all.”

“No seven-year-old could just blindly accept that!” Sano protested.

“‘Blindly?'” echoed Yahiko in some irritation. “Just because you don’t know anything about faith–”

“Fuck faith!” interrupted Sano, finding himself more and more agitated by this conversation. “This was your family! There’s no way you took it this calmly!”

Yahiko snapped, “I never said I took it calmly! I’m just saying I didn’t question–”

But Sano overrode him again. “You’re worse than the fucking devoted! This is what this Yumi-damned system does to people: makes ’em into mindless–”

“Sano,” said Hajime firmly, placing a restraining hand on Sano’s shoulder.

But Sano was not to be deterred, and by now he was nearly shouting. “Your fucking parents die and you’re just fine because some voice in your head said it’s all right?”

“If you haven’t heard that voice,” Yahiko replied in the same raised tone, “you can’t know–”

“I don’t need to hear it!” Now Sano really was shouting. “Your dad died! There’s no way any lady bullshit could have helped!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Yahiko had stopped walking and faced Sano with a scowl and clenched fists. “The ladies will comfort anyone no matter how bad it was that happened to them!”

“Listen to you parroting that bullshit,” Sano growled, mimicking the kid’s stance and staring down angrily at him. “Your father… It’s like you’re not even human!”

Now the hand Hajime put on his shoulder was not passively restraining; the knight yanked Sano backward and off-balance, saying at the same time, “Calm down, idiot. Abusing him won’t bring your family back.”

Sano staggered and caught himself, then stood staring at Hajime with wide eyes. The words had been like a piercing blow, and in place of blood there was a rush of painful memory that he’d kept suppressed just below the surface but that had been stirred by Yahiko’s insane words. That Hajime had known this seemed incredible. “What…” he demanded breathlessly, unable to form a complete sentence in his momentary shock. “How did you…”

“There are only a few reasons people become heretics,” Hajime said quietly, pushing past him to move on up the road. “You’ve made yours fairly clear.”

Sano stared after him for a second, then looked at Yahiko again. The expression on the kid’s face was a mixture of the same irate, hurt defiance he’d worn before and a new pity and understanding of which he almost seemed ashamed. The moment he met Sano’s gaze, though, he withdrew his own and turned to follow Hajime.

Struggling with anger and old pain, Sano stood very still for some time. Eventually, though, he went after his companions, lost in recollection.

Normally Sanosuke didn’t like to wear shoes anywhere, and usually removed the ones his mother forced on him the moment he reached his best friend’s house. Today, however, he wouldn’t be there long, so he kept them on, and his footsteps tapped along the paved path around to the back.

“Katsu! Katsu!” he called. The yard, neglected by the household, was so overgrown that there was an unending supply of hiding places among the shaggy hedges and other trailing plants surrounding and overshadowing the cracked flagstones.

“Hello, Sano!” came his friend’s voice, alerting Sanosuke to his location.

Sanosuke ran a bit further down the path, then abandoned it to push his way through some bushes into a small paved area that seemed completely cut off from the rest of the world, cool and shady in the midst of this little jungle. Here he found another boy, about his age, with black hair pulled untidily back and dark eyes bent toward the paper before which he was seated and on which he was busily drawing.

“Katsu, guess what!” Sanosuke said breathlessly as he reached Katsuhiro’s side.

Katsuhiro glanced up and, in half an instant, seemed to take in Sanosuke’s shod state as well as his excitement. “You get to go with my dad after all?” he guessed calmly.

“Yes!” Sanosuke cried, ignoring for once the annoyance of having his good news specifically predicted before he was able to deliver it. “My dad changed his mind!”

“I thought your parents were pretty adamant about you all traveling together.”

“What does ‘adamant’ mean?” Sanosuke asked, sitting down next to Katsuhiro and twisting his neck to look at the paper his friend was bending over. The picture showed a man riding a giant kouseto through the ocean, and with the way Katsuhiro was coloring it, the ocean looked like it would to take forever to finish. It was really good, though.

“Never mind,” said Katsuhiro, setting down his crayon and sitting back to look fully at Sanosuke again. “What changed your dad’s mind?”

“I dunno,” Sanosuke shrugged. “He just announced today suddenly that I could go, just at the last minute when your dad came to say bye. So I grabbed my stuff as fast as I could, and we’re leaving soon! He just brought me by here to say bye to you.” Unable to contain his excitement, he jumped up. “I get to see Eloma early and stay there all alone for days! Isn’t it great??”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Katsuhiro. But even though he looked down at his picture again, Sanosuke could tell he was frowning.

“What?”

“Well, we’re not going to see each other again for nine years!” Katsuhiro complained.

“Nine?” Sanosuke wondered. If his friend had said, ‘for a long time,’ it wouldn’t have been so strange… but, then, it wouldn’t have been like Katsuhiro, either. “How do you know?”

Katsuhiro shrugged.

Letting it go, Sanosuke said cheerfully, “Well, I’ll write letters to you, all right?”

“Half the time letters don’t get through because of all the bandits,” said Katsuhiro darkly.

Annoyed, Sanosuke commanded, “Stop saying something bad about everything I say!”

“Sorry,” Katsuhiro smiled apologetically. “I’m glad you get to go.”

At that moment they both heard the sound of someone else approaching through the foliage of the overgrown yard, and presently a handsome man with the same pensive dark eyes as Katsuhiro appeared through the hedge. “Hey, guys,” he greeted them with a smile.

“Hi, dad,” said Katsuhiro.

“What are you drawing?” Souzou asked his son. Wordlessly Katsuhiro handed the paper up. “Oh, I see,” said Souzou thoughtfully. “This heroic figure is becoming something of a motif, isn’t he?”

Katsuhiro nodded.

“Well, I like the colors on this one very much.” Souzou handed the paper back, and turned to Sanosuke. “Ready to go, Sano?”

“Yeah!” Sanosuke could barely keep from shouting in his glee. Even saying goodbye to Katsuhiro for nine years or however long it turned out to be couldn’t dampen his spirits.

Souzou and Katsuhiro had already said their farewells, so all that remained was for Souzou to get one last hug from his son and remind him to mind the housekeeper and stay out of trouble while he was gone. And then Sanosuke and Souzou were off, riding Souzou’s big laden horse through the streets of Encoutia, their backs to the ocean, heading for Sanosuke’s new home almost two entire weeks before Sanosuke’s family was going to travel there.

Sano had always despised phrases like ‘lost faith’ and ‘fell away,’ even the simplistic and totally accurate ‘became a heretic,’ and any other expression that implied the naturality and normalcy of belief in the divine ladies opposing the freakish aberration of heresy. He didn’t think he should be obligated to explain why he did not believe in something and live a certain way based on that belief… but every once in a while he wanted to. And at those times he often found himself using some of those very phrases he hated so much.

“That wasn’t my reason for becoming a heretic,” he said quietly after several minutes of walking in utter silence. Neither of the others in front of him turned, but he knew they were listening. And somehow he wanted them to know. As Yahiko had said when they’d first met, some heretics didn’t think about it at all. Sano wanted his companions to know that he thought about it. “I mean,” he went on, “that wasn’t my whole reason.”

It wasn’t very comfortable to ride in front of someone else all the way to the other side of the mountains, but Souzou was such a good horseman that Sanosuke didn’t mind too much. Besides, Souzou knew probably more interesting stories than anyone else in the world, and even when Sanosuke started to get a little sore and tired from riding for so long, Souzou could easily distract him.

They were real stories, too. Oh, he knew some faery tales, yes, about talking animals and paruseshou, but most of the time he told Sanosuke about things that had actually happened — like how the previous queen had fought a pirate prince, or how he himself had lived in Etoronai in a little boat on the river for two whole years.

He would even tell Sanosuke about the business he had out east that took him past Eloma, just as if Sanosuke were an adult. Sometimes Sanosuke got the feeling Souzou knew everything. Souzou was very handsome, and he always looked so good on his horse, even after days on the road. And he did exciting things and went interesting places… Sanosuke loved his own parents, and would never actually have wanted to trade, but sometimes he did envy Katsuhiro a little.

This was the first time he’d been out of Encoutia in his life, and the changing scenery was an unending source of entertainment and wonder. He watched as the landscape became wilder and the road wound upward into rockier and more difficult terrain. He marveled at how far he could see whenever he turned to face his old home again, especially from up in the pass. And then he could no longer make out the distant sparkle that was Encoutia or the great blue band on the horizon that was the ocean, because they were coming down the other side of the mountain and had entered Torosa Forest.

Sanosuke had never been in a proper forest before, and found it just as interesting as everything else he’d seen on this journey. The road twisted and turned among the endless trees, and there were squirrels and foxes and deer and everything else, and it went on and on and on. In fact, he could almost say the forest was his favorite thing so far.

Souzou didn’t seem to agree, though. He continued conversing as before, but more quietly now; he rode at a much quicker pace, enough to be rather uncomfortable; and he kept looking around as if the trees made him nervous somehow.

“Just because one person’s family dies,” Sano went on slowly, “doesn’t mean…” It was difficult to explain what he really meant. Hajime and Yahiko still weren’t looking at him, and Sano did not hurry to walk close enough that they would have to. “I’m not that selfish,” he finally said, and found a touch of Yahiko-like defiance in his tone. “But it happens all the time everywhere…”

The red devoted of Megumi glanced up and immediately smiled when Sanosuke entered her office in Eloma’s little shrine. “What can I do for you, young man?” she asked. She was an old lady with white hair, and moved very slowly, but she had a nice smile.

“This letter’s for you,” Sanosuke informed her, holding out the scroll he’d been charged by his parents to deliver, “from my dad. He’s the new devoted.”

“Oh, good,” said the old woman. Accepting the rolled paper, she undid the tie that held it closed and set it absently on the table beside her. As she started to read, the tie slid off onto the floor, whence Sanosuke picked it up. “Well, this is quite an adventure for you, isn’t it,” the devoted remarked after a moment “–to get to come here all alone ahead of your family?”

Sanosuke beamed.

The devoted read on, until she reached part of the letter that made both of her pale eyebrows rise abruptly. “Oh, are there five of you?”

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said a bit proudly: “me and my mom and dad and brother and sister.”

The devoted laughed. “Did we ever get the wrong impression about the size of your family!” she said, shaking her head with a wrinkled grin. “The house we set up for you will never do!”

“Oh…” Sanosuke wasn’t sure if this meant he needed to… do something…

Observing his uncertainty, she gave him another kind smile. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “You can have that house all to yourself until your family comes, and we’ll try to figure something else out for all of you in the meantime.”

Sanosuke’s previously concerned face broke into a grin. That was quite possibly the greatest thing he’d ever heard.

“Not people who’ve done something to deserve it,” Sano continued, “but good people — good, honest people — people like my family, that was damn near perfect, or your dad, Yahiko, who was just doing his job… suffer and die for no reason at all. Everywhere.”

Sanosuke had taken to sitting just past the bridge that led over the irrigation at the west entrance of town, where the road onto the mountain through the forest took up where it had left off at the east entrance. He didn’t have to sit there — there were more comfortable places from which he still could have seen anyone approaching the moment they emerged from the trees — but if he sat within the boundaries of Eloma, the other kids bugged him to come play, or just bugged him. He didn’t have to sit waiting at all, really, but, no matter what else he did, his thoughts and consequently his feet were eventually dragged in this direction.

Souzou had already come back through, finished with his business out east, and been surprised not to find Sanosuke’s family in Eloma yet. He’d stayed for one night more than he’d been planning, out of concern for Sanosuke, but he had his own son and his home business to return to in Encoutia and couldn’t extend his trip more than that. His assurance that Sanosuke’s family had undoubtedly been delayed for some perfectly legitimate reason and would probably arrive at any time seemed a little flat.

And that had been twenty-nine days ago.

So Sanosuke sat by the bridge, waiting for his family, thinking the same thoughts he’d been thinking for weeks now: that traveling with a whole wagon full of stuff had to be slower than just a couple of people on a horse; that Uki was probably being a brat and slowing them up even farther; that baby Outa always needed fussing over and would make their travel time longer yet; that his parents knew what they were doing and wouldn’t let him sit here worrying unless they had a really good reason…

He played with the wide red tie that had been wrapped around his dad’s letter to the local devoted. It hadn’t exactly been a gift or anything, but it had been the very last thing either of his parents had given him, besides hugs and kisses. It had long since ceased to afford him any comfort, though.

“Who is that little boy?” This was the voice of one of the townswomen; Sanosuke didn’t know her name.

“Which one?” another voice asked. It sounded like they were over by one of the houses in the nearest row.

“No, there by the bridge,” the first voice said. “He’s been sitting there every day for more than a week, I think.”

“Oh, that’ll be the new devoted’s son,” was the answer.

“Oh! I heard Makai was retiring… when does the new one arrive?”

“That’s the thing. He and the rest of his family were supposed to be here forever ago. That’s probably why the kid’s been sitting there.”

“You don’t think… the bandits…” The woman’s voice quieted, but not far enough. Adults could be such jerks sometimes.

Sanosuke jumped up. With a scowl he turned in the direction of the women discussing him and shouted at the top of his lungs, “I can hear you, you know!!” Then, the red tie fluttering like a banner from his clenched hand, he ran as fast as he could back to the little house he had all to himself.

Sano’s tone dropped even lower as he finished his explanation. “I just can’t believe there’s some divine power letting that kind of shit happen.” His final statement — question, rather — was directed at the ground: “What kind of sick, evil being would create us just to watch us suffer?”

When he finally looked up again, he found Yahiko’s gaze directed toward him now entirely in pity. Having calmed down somewhat, Sano realized as he met the kid’s eyes that not only had he been something of an asshole, he’d then acted sad and bereaved as if to justify his attitude and actions by playing the tragic victim. Way to go, Sano, he told himself savagely. Aloud he mumbled, “Sorry about all that shit I said.” And while he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that perhaps Yahiko had been comforted at the time of his father’s death by something Sano didn’t believe in, he genuinely regretted having been so rude about it.

Yahiko smiled faintly at him, and, reaching back, squeezed Sano’s arm in an unmistakable gesture of forgiveness. Then they all walked on in continued silence.

Chapter 12 – Yahiko’s Burden

“So what’s your excuse?” This question, addressed by Yahiko to Hajime, was the next thing anyone said, and that several minutes later.

Sano still walked behind the other two, but not at a bad angle to see the quizzical look Hajime gave in return.

“We heard Sano’s,” Yahiko explained. “What’s yours?”

Into the silence that followed Sano finally stammered, “Heard my… wait…” As he worked out what Yahiko probably meant, he felt shock creeping over him as slowly and gradually as if he’d just witnessed something so incredible that his brain was struggling to catch up and even believe it had happened. “His excuse??”

“It’s interesting that you can tell,” said Hajime at last, in a thoughtful tone that gave no indication how he really felt about the question.

“Wait, wait, wait.” Sano still couldn’t entirely grasp what he was hearing, and was almost afraid to demand clarification in case he’d misinterpreted. Almost. “You’re a heretic too?”

“Yes,” Hajime replied simply.

Sano could not but protest this vehemently. “You could damn well have said something!” Part of his interest in the subject, he knew perfectly well, was relief that he was no longer the one under scrutiny, but he was also quite honestly annoyed that he and Hajime had this in common and the knight hadn’t bothered to mention it.

“Some of us don’t feel the need to walk around with it written on our chests,” said Hajime dryly.

“And here I was feeling outnumbered,” Sano grumbled. His hand went immediately, almost unconsciously, to the front of his shiiya, where there currently rode no heretically empty white teardrop symbol. He hadn’t really thought about it since he’d traded garments, but that was only because he’d encountered relatively few other people during that time. If he’d been in a town or if they had met a greater number of travelers on the road, he would undoubtedly have been more bothered by its absence.

“Don’t worry,” said the knight. “You’re still outnumbered in many ways.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Sano demanded.

At the same moment, however, Yahiko continued with his train of thought, and he seemed to be the one to whom Hajime gave his attention. “There’s a feeling about people… I can tell when…” the kid began, then trailed off with a shrug as if the idea wasn’t worth completing. “So why don’t you believe?”

“Do I need a reason not to believe?” replied Hajime mildly. “It seems the burden of proof rests on those who do.”

“Hear, hear,” Sano wanted to say, but did not. He found himself quite interested in Hajime’s opinion on belief, and didn’t want to interrupt again at the moment; besides, he’d probably been belligerent enough to Yahiko for one day.

“To me,” the kid replied slowly, “I can’t understand how anyone could not believe.” He looked up at Hajime with a serious expression. “So, yeah, you need a reason.”

Hajime gave a brief, faintly amused laugh. “Pretentious child,” he said. “Well, then,” he went on in the tone of one delivering a much-practiced speech. “It’s impossible for me to believe in an organization as corrupt as the church of the divine ladies.”

Immediately Yahiko pointed out, “That’s just the human side of things, though…”

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” said Hajime, less casually now but still with the ease of much repetition, “we live on the human side of things. The highest officials who serve your ladies and preach their word are rapists, addicts, power-hungry politicians, and worse. If you’d seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be surprised the idea of following people like that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

Sano would never have told him, but Hajime made these points sound even more convincing than their innate logic could — much more convincing than Sano ever could, certainly. He couldn’t help admiring Hajime for it, and wondering at the incorrectness of the impressions he’d had about the man. In fact, he felt he had to say something. “And here I’ve been thinking all along you were another one of those self-righteous bastards who make other people’s lives hell and your own easier by quoting writ at just the right moment.”

Hajime threw Sano a skeptical look over his shoulder. “Have you heard me quoting any writ?”

“Well… no…” Sano admitted. “But I had you pegged as a loyal Kaoru man.”

“If I had to choose,” said Hajime, shrugging, “it would be Tomoe.”

“Oh, really?” Sano wondered in some interest.

But Hajime did not elaborate on why the lady of death would have been his choice, for Yahiko chose that moment to interject, “You don’t have to follow the church to follow the ladies,” at which Sano was surprised. He was accustomed to myriad responses to a revelation of heresy, but this was perhaps the least common. To most believers, to have faith in the ladies was to have faith in the church, and speaking out against the administration was heresy just as much as was speaking out against the divine.

Hajime too seemed surprised at Yahiko’s words. “You’re sounding almost heretical yourself now.”

“Hey, I like the church,” Yahiko assured them quickly. “I really do. But it isn’t what’s really important. So if that’s what bothers you, just ignore it.”

“It’s not that easy,” said Hajime.

“No, I guess not,” Yahiko sighed.

“Especially when we may have to deal with the church a lot in the next little while to figure out what’s going on in Elotica,” Sano put in.

He hadn’t really said it with any particular aim beyond expressing the concept, but it seemed to gratify both of his companions, as the conversation could then shift to the arrangement of the divine houses in the capital as far as Hajime knew. This turned out to be a good deal more interesting than Sano had expected — mostly because ‘as far as Hajime knew’ was primarily gossip. Like any villager, Sano had a healthy appreciation for gossip, and hearing the rumors about the various high-ranking religious officials in Elotica was very entertaining.

“So it sounds like the divine houses really are pretty important to what goes on in the royal ones,” Sano was musing.

“You’re just now convinced of this?” said Hajime dryly.

“Yeah, well, forgive me for not caring much what goes on halfway across the kingdom.” Sano realized even as he said this that it left him open for some insulting comment about his ignorant country ways, and tensed in readiness for it.

Hajime, however, evidently decided it wasn’t worth it, for all he said was, “Even if it turns out one or more of the divine houses didn’t put Soujirou up to this in the first place, they could be serious opposition; we’ll need to find out what they think of him and how much support they’re offering.”

“Well, we can use Yahiko for that,” Sano shrugged. “That’s right up his alley.”

After a pensive noise that seemed to express some agreement, Hajime went silent for a while. Finally he said, “There are a number of groups we’ll need to research, to find out whose side they’re on and what they plan on doing about it, if anything — but I’m convinced the divine houses are the most important.” He almost seemed to be speaking to himself, quietly, thoughtfully, as he went on, “We’ll have to find some way to get a reasonable amount of accurate information from all of them without arousing suspicion… without knowing, on the way in, which ones may be on our side, and who among them is trustworthy… And they’re all so exclusive in their corners of the city…”

“Sounds like a pain in the ass,” Sano admitted. He’d heard vaguely of the divine houses having their own private plazas in Elotica, and realized as Hajime spoke that it probably would be rather difficult to pick up detailed information from any of them. He had to shrug again, though, as he added, “But as long as we have Lady-Chatter here–” But that was as far as he got.

For Yahiko interrupted pointedly, “I’m trying to decide which one of you is the bigger jerk.”

“What?!” Sano yelped, turning to face Yahiko in shock. “How could that even be in question? What are you talking about?”

Yahiko had stopped moving, and looked upset again. He began speaking very quietly. “Every time I save someone’s town from guards or heal someone from a coma, people start talking about the amazing prophet boy, and the devoted hear about it, and one of them decides that he just has to have the amazing prophet boy at his shrine, but never bothers to ask the amazing prophet boy how he feels about it, because he’s a little orphan kid who obviously can’t make his own choices for his own life.”

He turned his angry eyes specifically upon Sano and demanded more loudly, “Why do you think those devoted were really following me that day? You think they chased me that far just because I stole something?”

Sano opened his mouth to answer, but nothing emerged. He was too surprised.

“No,” Yahiko went on, more loudly still, “they wanted to put me in a floor-length shiiya on a giant chair in a boiling room with a million candles to talk to the divine ladies all day and all night every day for the rest of my life!” By now he was almost shouting. “And somehow I thought you’d be better because you don’t even believe in any of it, but you’re just as bad as any of them!” His gaze took in Hajime as well, but this seemed primarily aimed at Sano. “All you care about is using me for whatever it is you want to do, just like all the rest of them!”

Somewhat dumbfounded, Sano continued to stand and stare, still unable to say a thing. At the beginning of this little tirade, it had felt like something out of nowhere — but he realized, as he looked back, it had probably been building up ever since he’d dragged Yahiko to Seijuurou’s house, and the conversation just now had simply been the final straw. The unpleasantness earlier probably hadn’t helped. And it had never occurred to Sano that Yahiko might feel this way. Of course the kid had a point, but Sano wasn’t… he wouldn’t…

“If you’re finished,” said Hajime coolly, “let’s keep moving.”

Now it was Yahiko’s turn to appear somewhat dumbfounded.

In fact his shock at Hajime’s cold words was evidently so great it seemed to compel the knight to explain. “I was sent to bring back the great keonmaster Seijuurou,” he said flatly, “to assist in a large-scale political struggle, and instead I’ve got two worthless kids to babysit. But at least two is better than one. You’re coming with us and you’re going to do your part to restore Kenshin’s throne.”

Sano was momentarily distracted from the real issue. “‘Worthless kids?'” he demanded irately.

Yahiko, on the other hand, turned abruptly, his face set, and began walking away from them back up the road. Without thinking, Sano took a step after him, reached out, and put a restraining hand on his arm. Immediately Yahiko tried to pull away, and Sano tightened his grip.

“Let go!” Yahiko commanded, struggling, and Sano looked around helplessly at Hajime. They couldn’t force Yahiko to stay with them if he didn’t want to, could they? Hajime’s expression was dark, and it looked as if he was about to speak, but the next moment they both heard Yahiko murmuring fiercely, “Kaoru, lady of strength, please give me the power to escape from these two bastards.”

Sano let go of him abruptly and stepped back, almost as much out of shock that his actions had made Yahiko feel the need to pray for ‘power to escape’ as out of interest in what would happen. He hadn’t meant to make Yahiko feel trapped; he hadn’t meant to be one of those people Yahiko had described that just wanted to use the kid for their own ends. He got the feeling he’d really fucked things up.

Not that Hajime had helped.

Yahiko’s eyes were closed, his fists clenched. For a moment he stood utterly still. Then in quick succession his face went pale and then red, and he seemed to tremble as if trying to control some violent emotion. At last he relaxed in a wilting sort of gesture, his hand uncurled, and he opened sorely disappointed eyes to stare sullenly at the ground.

“Finished?” Hajime wondered mildly. Sano had the urge to punch him.

“She said I run away too much!” Yahiko burst out. “She’d support me if…” But looking up into their faces caused his to twist into a bitter, miserable expression of helpless anger. “Fuck you both,” he muttered as he turned his eyes back toward the road again.

When it was apparent Yahiko would continue walking with them at least for now, they moved on. Nobody said a word, however, and the atmosphere was tense and unhappy. The kid’s steps seemed extremely reluctant, and he continued to stare at the ground.

He didn’t say one single thing to either of them for the rest of the day, and, the moment they stopped to make camp for the night, extracted his blanket from Sano’s backpack and curled up underneath it a few yards away with his back to them. When Sano tentatively asked if he wanted something to eat, he pulled the blanket over his head.

The two men ate their own supper in silence, looking from time to time over at Yahiko, who eventually relaxed, apparently in sleep. At that point Hajime moved to start building a fire, a task Sano impatiently took over. “You didn’t have to be such a jerk to him,” he said accusingly as he worked.

Hajime raised a brow. “Neither did you.”

I didn’t call him a ‘worthless kid,'” said Sano.

“No, you said he wasn’t even human.”

Sano flushed. “I… I was pissed! I wasn’t thinking straight! And I apologized. He knows I didn’t mean it. You just say shit all calmly like you mean every word of it.”

“Of course I mean every word of it,” Hajime snapped. “Those of us who can control ourselves like reasonable adults have a tendency to do that.”

Brows drawing together, Sano stared at him. “Then you’re doing exactly what he said!” he protested. “You’re just using him!”

“I thought that was the understanding from the beginning,” said Hajime curtly. “I believe I told him I’d be taking him with me because his power could be useful against our enemies.”

Sano didn’t know what to say, so he only scowled.

“It is… unfortunate…” Hajime went on, seeming to force the words out, “that he feels the way he does about it. But there’s nothing I can say to change that, or the situation.”

“You could…” But Sano really had nothing to suggest, and to admit Hajime was probably right.

“Besides…” Hajime fixed Sano with a very pointed look, and continued in an easier tone, “I plan on using you too, and I don’t see you throwing a temper tantrum.”

“I… what?” Sano had been ready to say something, but was put a bit off balance by Hajime’s statement — not least because the phrase ‘I plan on using you too’ was so rife with meaning.

Hajime smirked faintly. “What you both apparently need to realize is that there are some causes worth being ‘used’ for. You’d think his beloved ladies would have told him that,” he added with a touch of sarcasm, “in their infinite wisdom.”

“Yeah, funny how your wisdom beats the ladies’,” Sano said, though he wasn’t sure whether he intended this as an insult directed at Hajime or a derisive comment on the supposedly all-knowing nature of the divine. He was annoyed, partly with himself and partly with the knight; he didn’t know what he thought of what Hajime had said, nor how he felt about the situation with Yahiko; and he didn’t really want to keep discussing it right now.

So he pulled out the remaining blanket, since it was his turn tonight, and stretched out on a side of the fire where he could put his back to both of his companions. He didn’t want to think about either of them. Of course he would think about both of them, but that didn’t mean he had to look at them.

Eventually he fell asleep, and had a string of hazy, uncomfortable dreams that were full of guilt and pity and irritation, and yet drenched in a sense of inevitability, which was in itself annoying. Needless to say, Yahiko and Hajime featured prominently in these visions, though Sano, upon awakening, could remember very little of what had happened in any of them. Though that might have been because what he found in the morning worked quickly to drive all thoughts of the night’s sleep from his mind.

Yahiko was gone.

For a moment Sano was surprised, not because Yahiko had chosen to leave at all but because he’d been quiet enough not to rouse either Sano or Hajime in doing so — but after that moment even that surprise faded. It wasn’t the first time Yahiko had done something that seemed completely impossible right before Sano’s eyes; anyone that could take out ten armed men in half a minute could sneak away from two others. Even if they’d seen this coming — which Sano supposed he really had, at least subconsciously; he had no doubt Hajime had — there was little they could have done about it.

Yahiko had folded his blanket and left it lying on top of Sano’s backpack, the same as he’d done to the bedding he’d used in Sano’s house that first night, and looking at it brought an unexpected pain to Sano’s heart. He hadn’t known him long, and didn’t know him very well, but he’d felt genuine interest in Yahiko’s situation as a solitary orphan. He definitely thought there must be something wrong with the kid that he believed what he did, but at the same time he regretted a lot of what he’d said to him, and the way he’d said a lot more of it.

And then there was still the fact that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would have been; and certain similarities of temperament Sano thought he detected between Yahiko and himself made the kid seem all the more like a sort of surrogate brother. But now he was gone and, like Outa, Sano would probably never see him again in this world. What was worse, he was gone thinking badly of Sano, and at least part of it was certainly Sano’s fault.

Today Hajime had awakened before Sano, and had been sitting silently beside the cold fire pit eating an apple while these thoughts went through Sano’s head. He was stripping the thing down with vicious teeth, Sano noticed abstractedly, tearing at it with all the method and thoroughness he might have used to pull flesh from bone on a roast chicken leg, leaving as little of the core behind as he could. Sano, finding he had no appetite of his own at the moment, began packing up. He saw out of the corner of his eye Hajime rising and apparently throwing that sliver of a core out into the trees. Sano braced himself for some comment he would rather not hear.

All Hajime actually said was, “Wouldn’t it be better to fold that other blanket too?”

Sano snorted. Hajime undoubtedly had no idea he was echoing Yahiko, but it was interesting he’d managed to bring up the same concern. As he had then, “Why?” Sano wondered. “We’ll just unfold them again later anyway.”

Whether something in Sano’s voice or face gave him pause, whether Hajime really did have some sense of empathy somewhere inside him, or whether he simply had nothing to say on the matter, the knight made no comment whatsoever about a third of their party having disappeared during the night; he merely joined Sano in walking away from the little area they’d used for their camp and back onto the road, and together they moved on wordlessly toward Elotica.

Chapter 13 – Enca Inn North

If Sano remembered correctly (and it was not at all unlikely he didn’t), Elotica (whose name meant ‘beautiful shrine city’) had been built by a pious king (so pious he’d actually earned himself the title ‘the Pious’) for the express purpose of having a bunch of enormous shrines to the divine ladies sitting in the corners of a huge walled enclosure surrounding the new royal palace (which would then, presumably, be all the more holy).

And this was the real reason Sano had never found his way to the capital. Its being the seat of government did not bother him, but, as the seat of the church and having been designed and commissioned by someone with a name like ‘Rionura the Pious,’ it just seemed far too religious a place for a heretic to be comfortable in. Thus it was that even the draw of an arms tournament had not been enough to tempt Sano that far south, and that when he and Hajime caught sight of the city down in the hazy distance after rounding one of the mountainous spurs of Lotisa that had previously hidden it from view, it was Sano’s first sight of the place.

Having spent the initial decade of his life (still, technically, the greater part of his life) in a city — the former capital, in fact — Sano had thought he knew what to expect. But while his childhood home of Encoutia sprawled lazily along a stretch of Akomera’s western coast, expanding haphazardly in whatever direction suited the fancy of its inhabitants, Elotica appeared almost like a fortress behind its high walls, and whatever growth might have taken place since the time of its building had occurred inside. From here it looked very neat and self-contained, almost intimidating.

Much more familiar and pleasant to observe was the smaller city of Enca, which Hajime identified when Sano inquired about it. From a mid-sized shrine town at the time of Elotica’s building, it had grown until its southeastern border was less than an hour’s walk from the great walls, and it fit much better Sano’s idea of what towns and cities were like than the looming capital.

“We’ll stop at an inn there,” Hajime said as they continued down the road after the long pause spent looking out at their destinations. “It’s still a little too close to Elotica for comfort, but better than being actually inside the city.”

“So you can keep your head down, and I can go in and find out whatever it is you want to know,” Sano finished.

“Yes.” Hajime didn’t sound terribly pleased at the prospect.

“You know,” Sano said in some annoyance, “you don’t always have to make it seem like I’m imposing on you or something.

“Do you think you’re doing me a favor?” It wasn’t exactly a sneer, but neither was it very far from.

Sano threw him an irritated look. “A little, yeah. You said yourself you can’t just walk in there because people will recognize you. I’d like to know who else you think’s gonna do it for you.”

“And you as good as said you’re doing this as much for yourself as for me, as revenge against Soujirou for your banishment from your hometown.”

“Well, that’s definitely part of it.” Sano’s hands clenched into fists at his side. Even if they were successful in this venture, managed to overthrow the usurper and restore Kenshin’s throne, the mindset of the people in Eloma was such that Sano was unlikely to be welcomed back. And while he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to go back to the life he’d had there — he’d never been entirely sure he’d wanted it in the first place — he would prefer it to be his choice, not that of some paranoid old man whose opinion he didn’t really care about. But that didn’t make Hajime less of an ungrateful jerk. “But not all of it!”

Hajime gave a disinterested noise and kept walking. Sano didn’t feel like letting it go, though, and demanded to know why the knight seemed so determined Sano wouldn’t be any good to him. It turned out to be the wrong wording entirely, as Hajime then began to enumerate Sano’s apparent flaws and why they might prevent him from properly completing the task at hand. Then of course Sano had to defend himself and attempt to return the insults, though how well he did either in the midst of his wrath was anyone’s guess. And in this amicable fashion they passed the last two hours or so before reaching Enca.

This more populated area provided an increasing amount of traffic on the road. Hajime’s voice grew quieter and quieter, and his face was turned more and more frequently toward the ground, with every fresh proof that they were penetrating a danger zone. He became visibly tense, too, as if ready for combat or flight at the slightest provocation, and, any and all prior arguments notwithstanding, Sano was a little sorry for him.

He tried to imagine what it must feel like to be a fugitive in your own town, to have to approach home with your face hidden. Probably very much like his own current circumstances compounded. Nobody, however, appeared to take any particular notice of the knight or give either him or Sano any odd or lengthy scrutiny, so Sano judged they were still safe, even once they’d properly entered Enca.

“I believe there’s an inn near this end,” Hajime murmured as Sano began looking around with interest at the buildings that flanked the street in relatively orderly patterns and the city folk going about their business. “Keep your eyes open.”

It was a while since Sano had visited a town this big, but to his understanding there was an inn at every end where travelers might be snagged; it shouldn’t be difficult to find. This indeed turned out to be the case, less than half a street along; and as there was sure to be a yard in back, they agreed (or, rather, Hajime ordered and Sano did not object) that the knight would wait there and Sano would come find him once he’d arranged things.

Most inns were constructed along similar lines, whether they had just two guest rooms like the one in Eloma or three storeys’ worth and a couple of wings like this one, and there were always two entrances: one that led through the common room, for those socially inclined, and one that led through the innkeeper’s office, for those looking solely or first for a place to sleep or store their luggage.

Sano didn’t remember ever having seen an inn this massive. He was sure he had, back when he’d lived in Encoutia as a child, but he didn’t remember it. Still, it was easy to tell which door was the one he wanted: the one that wasn’t constantly swinging open at some cheerful person’s heels and admitting a tantalizing impression of activity, friendly sounds, and the smell of food. With something of a sigh, he headed for the quieter door.

A strict-looking woman sat behind a desk in the chamber he entered; she set down the book she’d been reading and asked in a polite but rather rigid tone, “What can I do for you, master?” And in just those few words Sano heard the Elotica accent even stronger than he ever did from Hajime.

“Got a room for two?” he asked. The woman threw a glance around as if to ask, rather pointedly he thought, where the second person was. Sano didn’t like that, but told himself not to be paranoid; it was highly improbable for anyone to know yet that he had the displaced king’s chief knight with him, and impossible for anyone to know who he was at all. So he just explained as easily as he could, “My friend’ll be around in a while.”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Sure,” she said. “How long?”

“Dunno yet. What’s the rate?”

“Seven and a half azu a day includes a hot meal and bath.”

Sano managed not to wince, but it was a near thing. It wasn’t by any means an unreasonable rate, and, if he’d thought about it beforehand, no more than he would have expected — but also not something they could afford indefinitely. “How much without the meal?” he asked. Innkeepers hated being asked that, but he needed to know.

“Six.” As expected, her tone went a little cold as she said this.

A meal for two at an azu and a half was not a bad price (though that did rather depend on the quantity and quality of the food), so Sano placated the woman immediately with, “We’ll take the whole deal.”

Immediately she thawed, giving him a professional smile and shutting her book.

Sano dropped to one knee the better to set down and rummage through his backpack. The wadded blankets blocked his access to what he was after, which, he supposed, was a point in favor of folding them, and eventually he had to pull them both out onto the floor. He threw a somewhat embarrassed glance up at the innkeeper as he did so, and found her watching him in bemusement. After a sheepish grin he returned to his pursuit, and now was able to locate and extract the money he sought. After stuffing the blankets away again he stood, resumed the backpack on his shoulders, and moved toward the woman’s desk.

A moment’s hesitation accompanied his beginning to count out the cost for the night as he realized he had no idea how long he and Hajime would be here — specifically, how long they would both be here — and therefore how long they would need a room for two. In the end he decided on giving the innkeeper only enough for tonight; he could hash out the details with Hajime, and pay the woman more as necessary, later.

The innkeeper pocketed the money with the same polite smile as before. “Thank you,” she said, her chair creaking as she rose. She turned to open a large cupboard mounted on the wall behind her and full of jingling keys on little hooks. Withdrawing a couple of these, “I’ll show you up,” she said.

The room was on the second floor in the east wing, and Sano was glad to see, on the way there, another set of stairs leading from the rear yard that offered a greater amount of privacy than the main flight they’d taken. As her brisk innkeeper’s tone enumerated the amenities, confirmed with him that they would want their supper brought up, and gave instructions on how to summon available services, he examined the room with an eye to how it would fit the current situation.

A window looked out, as far as Sano could tell at a glance, over the rear yard and the property next door. Beneath this window, against the wall, stood a small table that seemed like a cramped seat for two but had a pair of stools tucked beneath it. On this side of the room, beside the door, was a stand with a basin (currently empty) and a row of drawers down its front. All of the furniture was old and solid, not particularly decorative but well maintained. And the beds, against the walls to the right and left, looked neat and comfortable.

Sano wasn’t entirely sure why it struck him just at that moment that if Yahiko hadn’t left, someone would have had to share a bed with someone in here unless they felt like paying for three, which expenditure he doubted Hajime would have been pleased with.

“And there’s hot water service at dawn,” the innkeeper finished up. She handed Sano the room keys. “Please return these or pay for another night by ten in the morning.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded, his eyes for some reason still focused on the beds until long after she left.

Finally he shook himself, set down his backpack, locked the door, and went looking for Hajime. It took some work to time things correctly so as few people as possible would see the knight’s face, since there was the usual coming and going of patrons about the inn, and once they were both safely inside the room Sano breathed a sigh of relief.

Hajime, as Sano had rather expected, moved immediately to the window and started taking in their surroundings. “How much was this?” he asked.

“Seven and a half,” Sano replied. “And they’ll bring us up supper.”

“And how much do we have?”

Sano grinned wryly. “I don’t know how much ‘we‘ have, but with what Seijuurou gave me, I have a couple hundred azu.”

“That is essentially ‘we,'” said Hajime regretfully, “since I only have what I had on me at the time when Soujirou made his move. There’s not much reason for a royal knight to carry money around the palace; it’s a miracle I had anything at all.”

“A miracle, huh?”

Hajime turned from the window with a faint smirk. “Lucky,” he corrected himself. He hooked a foot around a leg of one of the stools, drew it out from beneath the table, and sat down.

“How much do royal knights make, anyway?”

“The other four earn a hundred fifty a week,” was Hajime’s easy reply. “As the chief, I get a hundred seventy-five.”

“Old week or new week?” Sano had taken a seat on one of the beds, and was already judging its comfort level favorably — though of course anything would be more comfortable than sleeping on the ground as he had been for the last several days.

“New.”

“Shit,” muttered Sano. “And here I thought I was doing well with twelve azu a day.”

“And we live at the palace.” Hajime was clearly rubbing it in. “So that’s room and board too.”

Sano hmphed, but his slight annoyance didn’t mean he wasn’t interested. To someone that had grown up the way he had — first in a reasonably comfortable but never opulent household and then in a one-room home that hadn’t even, for several years, belonged to him — the amount of money Hajime had mentioned seemed, for a single person, insanely luxurious. And yet Hajime hadn’t struck him as the type to wallow in riches, which prompted him to ask, “Was that much of a change for you?”

“I was always careful with my money.” The very slight emphasis Hajime put on ‘I’ conveyed clearly the otherwise unspoken sentiment, “As I’m sure you aren’t,” but he continued before Sano could protest. “A higher wage just means I have more saved; I’m not given to extravagant purchases.”

“No, I bet you aren’t. But the palace has gotta be better than wherever you lived before. I mean, the rooms I saw in that memory you showed me and Seijuurou…”

“The palace does have some needlessly fine rooms, but my quarters, at least, are perfectly reasonable.”

Sano grinned and shook his head. “Of course they are.”

“In general, though,” Hajime conceded at last, “life at the palace is on a different level than what I had before.”

“And what was that? What’d you do before this whole knight thing?” Before Hajime could even begin to answer, Sano added, “I mean, not that I can’t picture you having been a royal knight since you were about two years old, but still…”

Though he smirked faintly at the tease, Hajime answered straightforwardly enough. “I came from Emairi when I was twenty-seven, near the end of the Refugee Issue.”

“East coast, huh? No wonder you don’t sound much like an Eloticaji. What’d you do in Emairi?”

“I was in the guard for almost nine years.”

“So you really have always been doing the same kind of work. As long as you’ve been working, anyway… this kind of watching-out-for-crime sort of job. Only now it’s political.”

Hajime nodded with a slight smile. “Something like that, yes. My parents are both in the Emairi guard to this day.”

“Really? But if you were twenty-seven eight or nine years ago… your parents have got to be almost sixty or something!”

“While I commend your grasp of basic mathematics, I fail to see your point.”

“Well, it’s just that…” Really, it was just that Sano’s father had married late, and had always seemed like an old man to him — especially through the distorted perspective of childhood, which was all the chance he’d had to form an impression — and thus he found it a little difficult to imagine the parents of someone even older than himself, people nearing the ends of their lives, still pursuing such an active career as guard-work. Of course, if Hajime was their son, they were probably made of stone themselves, so it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. He shook his head. “Never mind.”

Though he evidently agreed that never minding was the wisest choice, Hajime also appeared, perhaps, a bit disappointed that he wouldn’t get a chance to make fun of Sano for whatever erroneous opinion he’d been about to put forward.

Hoping to eradicate that chance completely, Sano pressed hastily on. “Men or women? Your parents, I mean.”

Hajime raised a brow, but there was no particularly heavy scorn in his tone as he asked, “Why this sudden interest in my family?”

Sano shrugged, feeling abruptly a little awkward. “Just curious,” he replied honestly. “Must’ve been nice to grow up with a family,” he added at a mumble.

“I don’t know that the presence of parents growing up would have saved you from becoming much what you are now.” Though it seemed like an insult, Hajime’s tone was more solemn than mocking, and Sano wasn’t sure how to take the statement.

Eventually he decided to act as he would have if it had been a more straightforward gibe. “That’s probably true, since it’s obvious your parents couldn’t save you.”

Hajime just smirked.

So they alternately argued, mostly about nothing terribly substantial, and talked rationally, mostly about heredity and genealogy, until interrupted by the arrival of supper. This consisted of spiced pork over rice, seaweed cakes, a tiny sweetbun for each of them, and water to drink, and was tasty and filling enough to make it worth what they’d paid for it — to Sano, at least; ladies knew how the rich knight saw the matter. Hajime gave his sweetbun to Sano, which wasn’t a terribly good sign, but he also didn’t complain or make faces about the fare, which probably was.

This reminded Sano of the questions he’d been pondering earlier, so, after their dishes had been collected by the inn staff, he asked whether Hajime thought they should continue in this room or switch him to a smaller one tomorrow. There was no escaping the circumstance of Hajime’s face being seen occasionally by the employees here if he was to remain while Sano was in town, regardless of what room he occupied, and keeping the innkeeper happy and less inclined to pursue the matter seemed optimal; so Hajime judged, at any rate, and decided therefore to retain the larger room, at least for now, despite the cost.

Sano couldn’t help noticing a certain amount of tension in his thoughts dissipate at the announcement of this decision; was that because if they were to take a smaller room, it most likely would have necessitated, eventually, at some point, Sano sharing a bed with Hajime? And where, he wondered in agitated annoyance, struggling to brush these reflections aside, was this bed fixation coming from today?

This led very naturally to a discussion of the mission on which Sano would be embarking the next day: the layout of Elotica and various localities within it where he might be able to obtain information, what and whom he needed to avoid if he could, and of course, most importantly of all, what he was looking for.

“Try to find out,” Hajime lectured, “which major members of the royal families are in Elotica right now, what their attitudes are, and where their loyalties lie. Find out the same thing about the divine houses.” At first he counted points off on his fingers, but eventually stopped, Sano thought because his points were a little too multiform to be numbered by a single standard. “Keep an eye open for signs of any sort of resistance forming, as well as for a good place to meet in secret within the city. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find out where Kenshin is being held, but, again, keep your eyes open. And listen for any news of what’s happened to the other royal knights.”

“Got it,” Sano nodded.

“Do you?”

Though Sano did sigh, it was a little less angry and a little more hopeless than it might have been a few days ago, or perhaps even just this morning. He was getting used to Hajime consistently underestimating him. “You think I can’t remember all that?”

“Well, can you?”

Imitating the knight, Sano raised his hands and began counting on his fingers. “Find out what the royal families and the divine houses think of Soujirou. Look for signs of a resistance forming and a meeting place for that. See if I can figure out where Kenshin and the other knights are. Not that hard.”

“Fine.” Hajime appeared grudgingly satisfied, but that didn’t mean he had no further instructions. “Don’t stand out; don’t act suspicious. Try not to ask too many direct questions at this point; just listen as much as you can.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” Sano waved away this obvious advice in some irritation.

“This is too serious,” said Hajime in a tone to match, “for you to take lightly.” And as Sano looked at him, he realized in some surprise that the knight was actually trying not to show how worried he was. Worried about the situation in general? Or about trusting Sano with so many important tasks? And in the latter case, did Hajime’s attempt to hide his concern mean he was deliberately attempting to be less of an asshole? Or was it because he didn’t want to admit even to himself that he had no other options?

In any case, Sano thought, at least at the moment, he deserved a perfectly level answer. “No, I’m taking this totally seriously,” he said. “Seriously. I won’t screw it up, I promise.”

Hajime’s thin lips pursed briefly before he said a little stiffly, “Thank you.”

Sano grinned. “You know I think that’s the first time you’ve ever said that to me?”

“It’s the first time you’ve done anything to deserve it.”

“Oh,” Sano retorted, half amused and half annoyed, “so saying something in a serious voice is worth more than picking up your unconscious body off the road and taking care of your wounds and getting you to safety, is it?”

“You should go to bed,” was Hajime’s only reply. “Get a good night’s rest before you leave.”

Sano made a sound that conveyed the same combination of amusement and annoyance as before, and stood up. “First I’m gonna go see what kind of baths they have here; might as well take advantage of it while it’s paid for.”

Hajime just nodded; Sano found himself not only surprised but, oddly, a little disappointed that the knight had no teasing remark to make concerning his hygiene or something. He thought about making one himself in response to the lack of a similar declared intention on Hajime’s part, but decided against it. Instead, without comment, he just went to do as planned. And when he returned from his ablutionary pursuits, Hajime was asleep, or at least motionless in bed and facing the wall.

>13 Interlude

The scroll had lain untouched on the table for nearly two days when Imau finally decided to open it. Not that she didn’t want to hear from her parents; rather, she knew what this particular letter probably said, and wasn’t greatly looking forward to it, nor to the task of answering it.

Her father’s elegant handwriting was cramped small across the long paper, and she felt a twinge of guilt as she glanced over the whole before beginning; all the latest news from home was obviously here in addition to the unpleasantness, and she’d put off perusing it simply because of a few lines she knew she wouldn’t be happy to read.

Forcing herself to make her way patiently through the entire thing from its start, she took in all the details of Elotica society and politics her father had thought she needed to know, the account of what her brothers were getting into, and some meaningless description of the reassignment of palace rooms and stable renovations, before reaching the paragraphs she’d been anticipating.

Your letter gave us hardly any idea of just how bad the pirate situation is there; you need to be more informative! I can understand, of course, if you’re too busy with your training and other pursuits to think much of a threat at sea, but these are things you really should be paying attention to, especially if Hokichi is as busy dealing with it as his reports seem to indicate. I hope at least you’re watching his methods and learning more from him than just swordplay.

And on that topic, your mother and I believe it’s time you came home. I know it’ll be hard for you to leave the friends you’ve made in Encoutia, and I know how attached you are to your uncle; but your family here would be much easier if you were a little farther inland. Don’t get angry, my dear; I’m sure you’re not afraid of pirates. But we landlocked people are, at least when our daughter might be in danger from them. Besides, by the time this letter reaches you, you’ll have been there a year, and that’s more than enough time spent away from home. We all miss you quite a bit, and I’m sure a year is long enough to solidify the basics of your training so you can continue practicing and learning without your original master.

So please make plans to come home. We’ve put off Misseihyou this year, and we’re thinking of holding it on New Year’s Eve and having a dual celebration for those two days, and we hope you can be home by then.

Imau sighed and closed her eyes, tilting her head back against the chair so that when she looked again she saw the ceiling rather than the letter. After several moments of staring at blank stone, she returned her gaze to the paper and continued. There followed her father’s parting remarks and a few amusing paragraphs from her brothers, and lastly her mother’s almost harshly strong hand took over for the brief conclusion of the missive:

Mother here. Thinking a tournament for the joint holiday; three years since the last one. Ulako sure to take title, but you’re old enough to fight if you wish. Please come home. Miss you.

Imau’s second sigh was more amused than the first. Though she appreciated the straightforward nature of her father’s request, she had to admit that her mother knew far better what was likely to tempt her home; the prospect of fighting in a tournament was almost irresistibly compelling, and Piron knew her daughter would find it so. Of course, that only made it worse that Imau couldn’t even think of coming home at this point.

She tossed the letter from her, watching it float erratically down to the surface of the desk, then stared at the paper and ink she knew she must use to answer it. The one consolation was that it would take days for her reply to reach Elotica, double that time for her family to come up with another and get it back to her here — but that still didn’t make her eager to write out a flat denial to their request that she join them at home in time for two holidays and a tournament.

But sitting down and taking up the pen at last, she opened the ink and forced herself to begin.

Dearest all,

I’m glad to hear you are doing so well. It is beautiful here as usual, though we’ve had some unusually big storms lately. My training is going well, and, yes, father, I am learning more than just swordplay.

She sat back and sighed a third time. She really couldn’t bring herself to write about the trivialities she always exchanged with her family, nor to respond to the individual greetings of each, until she’d dealt with the most important subject.

As for coming home, I’m afraid that’s impossible at this time. I haven’t written details on the pirate situation because the situation is not entirely clear even to us, but I’m sure Hokichi’s reports filled you in on everything we do know and what we’re doing about it. Don’t think I’m not paying attention or even not involved. Hokichi and I are working together to end this threat, and though I don’t want to go so far as to say I’m invaluable to him at this point, I know he’s depending on me a great deal. So you can see how my leaving Encoutia right now would create problems.

Having gotten this far, she sat back again and pondered how to proceed the best to placate her parents’ worry and controlling instincts. And while she thus contemplated there came a knock at the door.

“Come in,” Imau called.

Akemi entered, combing her hair as she walked. “I thought you’d be up,” she remarked, moving to stand in front of Imau’s mirror.

“I’ve been up for hours,” Imau replied. “Don’t tell me you just got up.”

You may enjoy getting only half a night’s sleep, but I don’t want bags under my eyes.” Akemi rolled said organs as she made this comment.

Imau smiled and went back to her letter. Don’t worry about my safety, though, she wrote. Hokichi doesn’t have me fighting pirates or anything.

“You finally read that thing?” On hearing the scratching of the pen and observing the princess’ activity, Akemi abandoned her toilette for the moment and came to look. Perusing the barely-started reply over Imau’s shoulder, she nodded — Imau could tell by the shifting of the hair that had fallen across her when Akemi bent down — and made a little hmming sound as she went back to the mirror. “I see you’re not going to mention what you’re doing at night,” she said, beginning to comb her masses of hair once again.

Now it was Imau’s turn to roll her eyes. “Of course not,” she said. “…Though they may get it from my uncle.”

“Does he know?” Akemi wondered, throwing the locks she’d just finished back over her shoulder and starting on another length.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Imau replied, staring hard at the paper again. “But he’s sure to hear about it eventually.”

What we’re concentrating on at the moment is trying to make it impossible to get a good price for stolen goods in the area: working on trade customs and tweaking the import laws, that kind of thing.

“What I do in my spare time is none of his business to be reporting to my parents,” she went on once she’d finished this line, “but he might take it upon himself to do it anyway if he’s worried about me.”

“And he will be worried about you when he finds out.”

“And I can’t blame him for that. He knows how good I’ve gotten in the last year, and of course I have you with me… but he’ll anticipate the worst, and how do you tell the king and queen you’ve let their daughter get killed by pirates?”

“Nobody wants to have to write that letter,” Akemi agreed.

Nothing dangerous, she added to her previous paragraph. But also not something I can abandon him in the middle of. I do miss you all, but I really can’t come home right now. I don’t know how long it will take to get this situation resolved, but I doubt it will be before New Year. A Misseihyou-New Year festival sounds wonderful, and a tournament sounds even better, but, as I said, I can’t leave Hokichi to finish this alone.

“Help me,” Akemi bade at that moment, and Imau rose from the desk to assist in fastening the elaborate tail into which her friend had lifted most of her hair.

“This is going to outweigh you one of these days,” Imau remarked as, with the skill of much practice, she tied the three laces required to hold Akemi’s hair in place.

Akemi’s pleased smile reflected back from the mirror. “Thank you,” she said as Imau finished, and began braiding one of the lengths she’d allowed to hang free.

Imau returned to the desk. “Now you help me: tell me what else I can say to keep my parents from sending a delegation out here to drag me home.” And she read aloud what she’d written since Akemi had looked.

Akemi, finishing up one braid, shook her head before starting the other. “It sounds like you’ve said everything you could, and you’re already hiding something they probably wouldn’t like.”

Imau nodded ruefully and at last pushed the paper away. “I’ll just finish it later.”

“What are we doing today?”

“I’ve no idea. I practiced for a while, then took a bath, and I’ve been answering letters since; I haven’t heard from my uncle at all.”

“You really have been up for hours!”

Lifting one of the scrolls she’d dealt with before reading the one from home, Imau glanced over it again briefly and shook her head. “The Etoronaishou are still being unreasonable about this. All of them.”

“Aren’t most Etoronaishou actually pirates themselves, though?” Akemi grinned.

Imau laughed briefly, and stood. “Let’s go find Hokichi and see what he has planned for me today.”

As they walked the palace corridors in search of Imau’s uncle, the conversation turned, as it often did, to Akemi’s favorite topic as she asked if she’d yet shown Imau her new shiiya.

“The one you bought yesterday?” Imau was still thinking about how to make sure she was allowed to stay in Encoutia until she’d seen the pirate problem dealt with, but she could talk to Akemi about clothes in her sleep if she needed to. “No. You were going to, and then I think we both forgot.”

“It’s flower-cut.”

“As in, devoted flower-cut?”

“Almost the same.”

“I think my grandma had something like that…”

“It’s coming back, and I’m glad; I love flower-cut shiiyao.”

“Just hope the sleeves from those days don’t come back.”

Akemi lifted her arms with a slight grimace. “What I do hope is that they change the sleeves on these things sometime soon.”

Imau glanced at the rounded, cuffed sleeves in question and nodded with a twisted grin. “Should I put that in my letter?”

“You could…”

“‘It’s terribly important that I stay in Encoutia in order to help Hokichi deal with the pirates. Equally important: Akemi was wondering if you could modernize the sleeves of the royal knights’ shiiyao; she’s embarrassed to be seen in public.'”

“That would work,” Akemi nodded.

Imau laughed. “I’ll change them the moment I’m queen, if they’re still the same. You do know you’re going to be my chief knight, don’t you?”

“By the time you’re queen I’ll be too old to be your chief knight.”

“You’re only twenty-four.”

“And I hope I’m at least fifty when you become queen, married to a handsome muscular warrior an inch taller than me, and already retired.”

“So you think my mother will live to be at least sixty-seven.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Besides, you can’t retire. Who else is going to prowl–” Imau broke off abruptly and somewhat worriedly as they turned a corner and saw her uncle not three steps away coming their direction. Not that the single world ‘prowl’ was likely to give him ideas, but Imau didn’t want to take any chances.

Hokichi gave her his gentle smile. “Good morning, my dear. I was looking for you.”

Imau returned his greeting. For all she believed current affairs required more active tactics, she greatly respected her uncle and his focus on diplomacy — and she loved him for his kind-hearted disposition and endless patience. “What do you need from me today?”

“The representative from Etoronai has arrived early, so we’ve moved up the meeting with the Merchants’ Guild about the merger.”

She repressed a sigh. That sounded very tedious. But she understood the need for a royal presence at a conversation that might have to do with the pirate threat, especially given that Etoronaishou drove such hard bargains. This was something she needed to accustom herself to and learn as much about as she could. It did negate the need to send one of the letters she’d written this morning, and she’d worked hard on that! When Hokichi turned away with a gesture inviting her to follow, she threw Akemi a regretful look, and received a wry smile of sympathy in return.

Chapter 14 – First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe

Just under two weeks later (five-day weeks; being in the capital had resolved him on thinking in modern terms as much as possible, at least until this whole affair ended), Sano returned from Elotica. All things considered, he was in quite a cheerful mood, and even sang a little as he walked the wide road between the two cities — only a little, though, since the road was fairly busy and he didn’t want to attract too much attention.

Not far inside Enca, on the main market street, his eye caught on a stand of fine-looking fruits in bright pyramids. Mouth beginning to water, he grinned ruefully at the thought that though he’d left the orchards, the orchards apparently never left him… a nice big shiny apple would be perfect right about now, regardless of how many times in the past, sweating in the hot sun, arms aching from the tenth bushel he’d hauled in the last couple of hours, he’d cursed the very existence of apples and sworn never to eat one again.

In order to preserve his dwindling funds (having left much of the money he possessed behind for Hajime to continue paying the inn bill with), he’d limited himself, in the city, to as little food as he could possibly get by on, so he hadn’t had breakfast any time recently. It was getting to be nearer lunch time now — another meal he would probably end up skipping today — and an apple seemed all the more appetizing in the face of this. Well, he would just have a look at their prices.

The latter were so reasonable, and the fruit up close so appealing, he simply couldn’t resist. And the semi-guilty determination on this extravagance led to another brief internal debate: buy one apple and finish it before he reached the inn so Hajime would never know, or buy two apples and hope the gift would justify the expenditure in the knight’s eyes? After not a great deal of thought, he went with the second option.

He was more eager than he would have expected, he’d discovered since rising today, to get back. Not only had he found out some interesting and probably useful things, which would undoubtedly surprise the skeptical and exacting Hajime, there was also some anxiety that would not be banished about the safety of said Hajime, hiding as he was at a public inn practically on the doorstep of the city he’d fled not too long before. Sano comforted himself with the knowledge that there would surely have been a stir both here and in Elotica if Hajime had been captured, but he also restrained himself from eating his apple until he found out for sure.

The inn looked as it had two weeks ago, with no more or less bustle, no ominous Elotica city guards or Gontamei knights hanging around, or anything else that might have indicated sinister goings-on in his absence. He took the back stairs up to the east-wing second-floor corridor, and then paused for an embarrassed moment when he realized he didn’t remember which room he needed. Looking at the line of doors reminded him the next moment, however (even more embarrassed), that his key had the number painted on its flat bow. With both apples clumsily in one hand, he sought out the key, checked the number, moved to the appropriate door, and began to unlock it. Softly through the expanding aperture as he opened it he called, “It’s me.”

Hajime had pushed the table away from the window, and now sat on one of the stools in a position where he could look out the open shutter and, presumably, take some minimal entertainment from whatever went on in the yard and the properties visible nearby. At the moment, it appeared the interest and wariness with which he’d directed his eyes toward the door was the greatest instance of those emotions he’d felt any time in the last eight days; he looked as bored as anyone Sano had ever seen, and there was, for half a second, visible pleasure in his face at the sight of Sano entering.

“Hey,” Sano greeted him, tossing down his backpack onto the bed on the left and stretching. “I’m back.”

“So I see.” Hajime’s voice gave no hint he was glad to see his companion, and by this time his expression had also adjusted to indifference, which was a little annoying but simultaneously unsurprising.

“Everything all right here?”

“Yes,” Hajime replied impatiently. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Oh, I dunno… because you’re a fugitive from the conquering regime, maybe?” Sano was a little stung by the implication that he wasn’t allowed to express concern for Hajime and his situation here, but it didn’t bother him as much as it would have if it hadn’t been clearly obvious Hajime was bored out of his mind and far more eager to hear what Sano had learned than to discuss the last eight days of sitting around looking out the window.

Hajime relented a little at having it pointed out that Sano had a legitimate reason to ask. “It’s been fine. The inn staff are polite and don’t ask questions. I’ve avoided everyone else.”

“Good, good.” Sano sat down on the bed. “All right, what do you want to hear first?”

“That depends on which of our points you managed to find out anything about.”

“All of them, thank you very much!”

“Even where the king is being held?”

“Oh, no, not that. Sorry. I forgot about that.”

“How could you forget about that??” Hajime sounded almost horrified.

“I mean I forgot about it just now,” Sano assured him hastily, “not while I was in town.” He tried not to sound affronted at the idea he might forget something so important, but couldn’t help feeling it a little.

Irritably Hajime commanded, “Tell me about the royal houses.”

“Fine.” Sano let out an annoyed, huffing breath, wondering why their every conversation seemed to go this way. He’d even been glad to see the knight at first — gladder than he’d expected — and yet it had taken Hajime less than five minutes to get under his skin again. But he drew the breath back in deeply, forcing calm upon himself before he began.

“So it was strange. From what I heard, there’s hardly anybody from either royal family in town, and the ones that are are staying way the hell out of this. In fact, supposedly some Gontamei princess packed up and left the moment Soujirou did his thing. Of course that was just the gossip I overheard, since I didn’t want to come right out and ask anyone, but it still seemed really strange even to me who doesn’t know a damn thing about the royal houses.”

Hajime was nodding slowly. “It’s a hint that the main push for the usurpation came from somewhere else; the royalty want to make it clear they’ve had nothing to do with this and aren’t taking sides. I thought that might be the case.”

Throwing up a frustrated hand Sano demanded, “Then why’d you ask me to find out about the royal families?” He thought of how long he’d spent hanging around big rich houses pretending to be browsing for work as household staff so he could gossip with the existing household staff, and wondered whether it had all been a waste of time.

“Don’t be stupid,” said Hajime dismissively. “Of course we’re not going to ignore them even if it seems like the divine houses need more of our attention.”

Well, he did have a point. Again Sano forced himself to remain calm. Seeking something to do with his hands and reminded by his gesture a moment ago of the apples he held, he now began to juggle them as he continued speaking. “Everyone’s wondering what’s gonna be the reaction from people like Fumio and Shinorutei and Hokichi. I didn’t hear any real news about any of them, just a lot of guessing.”

And it had damn well taken him long enough to figure out, without actually asking and thereby making himself look like an idiot, that Fumio was Kenshin’s grandfather and a former dantaoji, and Hokichi his great-uncle and prince of Encoutia (which latter fact Sano, having been born in Encoutia, really should already have known). Of course Shinorutei was Kenshin’s mother dantaoji, who had acted as regent after his mother the queen had died and before he’d been old enough to rule on his own; Sano knew that much. He was sure Hajime knew all of it, though. Stupid politics.

“That will be interesting to see,” said Hajime in pensive agreement. “None of them will have any material power in this issue, but they all could have considerable influence. They could be in considerable danger as well, since Soujirou and his people will also be aware of that influence… I hope, whatever they do, they do it carefully. I wonder how Houji will react, too.”

“That was another name I heard a lot,” Sano nodded. “Most people I heard mention him feel like he’s got more right to be offended by Soujirou than even anyone from Barenor’mei.” After all, if any Gontameiji had a right to the throne, it would be Houji, the senior prince; Soujirou was something like eighth in line. “No real news about him, though, or any of the others. Not much real news about anything, actually. Everyone’s talking, but not actually saying much of anything.”

Sighing, he caught one apple in each hand, flopped onto his back on the bed, and directed his words now toward the ceiling. “You were right about the people… They’re like wandering little kids, but not know-it-all kids like Yahiko. They don’t know what to think, and they’re all looking for someone to tell them. If any resistance is gonna happen, I couldn’t figure out where… there was plenty of arguing going on in the inn I stayed at, but it never seemed like it was gonna go anywhere.”

“Typical. What did you find out about the divine houses?”

“Well, I knocked a Kaoru devoted over the head and took his shiiya–”

“You have an interesting idea of lying low,” murmured Hajime.

“–and wandered into Kaoru’s neighborhood pretending to be some new devoted who just came from a small-town shrine. I played stupid at the first gullible-looking person I met, and the guy showed me around everywhere and answered all my questions.”

Tone unaltered, Hajime remarked, “‘…played stupid…'”

“Yeah, shut up. So Kaoru’s white’s this girl Ayame, and I guess her gold sister is always with her and they pretty much run the house together. They support Kenshin, and everyone knows it.” Hajime had mentioned something like this during their walk to Enca, when he’d been reporting on what gossip he was familiar with about the divine houses, but Sano was determined to be thorough so Hajime could find no fault with his report.

“Yes…” Hajime sounded as if this was exactly in keeping with what he knew. “Kaoru is Kenshin’s lady, and her house has been the highest-favored in Elotica for years.”

“Those girls are interesting, though,” Sano mused. “While I was in their plaza they came out and did this thing…”

Kaoru’s center of worship in Elotica was tiled in red and hung with red and painted red. It didn’t look bad, necessarily, but Sano couldn’t help thinking that anyone living here must, in response, be angry quite a lot of the time. He wondered whether the Kaoru devoted considered themselves closer to the hypothetical lady of righteous wrath whenever they were feeling her emotion. Pissed off though he himself often was, he didn’t think he could stand to spend much time here.

The devoted at his side, wearing, as Sano was, a red shiiya marked with a white teardrop shape containing Kaoru’s erupting volcano symbol, chattered away about the plaza they’d just entered. He knew far too much of its history — primarily the names of what Sano supposed were notable followers of Kaoru and the precise years in which they had done what Sano supposed were notable things here in this very place — and it was all Sano could manage pretending to be interested. Fortunately, he got the feeling the devoted was trying to impress him — probably hoping Sano could be enticed into bed later — and therefore was hypersensitive to encouragement.

The plaza decorating, Sano had to admit, could be considered somewhat attractive if you liked austere red. It was remarkable how many rocks of that color, great and small, they’d managed to find to fill the plots between the building’s walls and the tiled ground. Sano, who hadn’t thought rocks could be arranged to nearly such good effect, was impressed at the layout. He couldn’t help wondering, though, to what extent weeds poked up among the artistically-arranged stones, and how much service for the populace — usually an essential function of red devoted — was being neglected in favor of the maintenance of Kaoru’s rock gardens.

The temple, like most religious establishments, was a five-sided structure surrounding a central space that could be accessed through an opening in the pentagon’s base. In this case, the building was so massive that the inside space was the plaza, big enough to hold special fundraising markets and holiday gatherings. A twelve-sided stone platform in the center, two steps above the tiles (undoubtedly intended for preaching from, ritual prayers, and Kaoru knew what else), was at the moment covered with lounging devoted — mostly reds and first-wash — enjoying an outside lunch in the pleasant autumn air. With the high walls of the temple all around, midday was probably about their only opportunity for sunlight in here.

The chatty devoted at his side had started talking about a statue that had previously stood on the platform and the circumstances that had removed it, when he cut off suddenly with, “Oh, look.” Following the direction of his gaze, Sano observed, approximately opposite across the plaza, a couple of woman whose attire marked them as the highest officials of this house.

It gave Sano an odd feeling seeing their shiiyao, one having been washed in a bleaching solution four times until it was off-white and the other only three so it remained a yellowish gold. He hadn’t really moved among devoted since his childhood when his father had been alive, didn’t believe in anything they did, and had been observing all of this thus far with a detachment half fascinated and half disgusted — but there was yet something interesting, even exciting, about being so close to the white devoted of any house, if only because he or she was someone most citizens would probably never meet.

This white devoted was a young woman, no older than Sano himself, carrying a staff the way all whites supposedly did and looking ready to use it cheerfully on anyone that annoyed her — though the keonblade she wore at her side in a red sheath would probably be more effective. Even from a distance, Sano liked the way she carried herself: determined, one step away from aggressive, and yet, oddly enough, relatively friendly. The third-wash woman beside her, perhaps just a little younger, had the same brown hair, and features similar enough, at least from this far off, to mark the two as close relations.

Sano considered asking what their names were, whether they were sisters or what, and why they were both so young in positions he generally associated with greybeards, but thought better of it. This was all information he probably should have known if he’d really been a devoted of Kaoru, and he didn’t want to make his guide suspicious. He would undoubtedly be able to pick it up along the way.

“Come on, let’s get closer,” the red at his side said. Wondering why they, along with several others on the plaza, were now suddenly mobbing their superiors, Sano followed at his gesture.

“Friends!” the pretty white cried as soon as she was a good distance from the door she’d come out of. She tossed her staff aside without even looking where she threw it, and it was caught so readily by someone nearby that Sano deemed this a regular occurrence. Then she drew her keonblade, letting the energy flash out into a sword-like shape perhaps just a touch longer than was typical, and began swinging it carelessly through the air. “Who will challenge us?” she cried, grinning around at the various approaching devoted.

The gold, drawing a sword that seemed to be a match to the one the white carried, expanded on her superior’s offer. “Any weapons! Any techniques! Bring them all!” And without another word, she and her sister (as Sano, drawing closer, had decided to assume the other must be) fell into a defensive position, back-to-back, just slightly offset so the right hand of each had plenty of room to swing its bright weapon.

The rasp of swords leaving sheaths suddenly sounded from one end of the plaza to another, and the glow of spiritual energy on keonblades actually seemed to be making a visible difference to the level of light even under the bright sun. It wasn’t just keonblades, though: there were standard swords, daggers, staves, a few brass knuckles, and even a couple of weapons Sano didn’t recognize offhand. The devoted specifically accompanying Sano had a pair of long knives.

Those that weren’t interested in challenging the white and the gold were moving outward toward the edges of the plaza and the temple walls, some of them grumbling a little but none of them concerned or appearing to think this anything out of the ordinary; and the atmosphere had changed abruptly from business as usual, if perhaps a little more tense than elsewhere in the city, to a jovial combative hum. It was like nothing Sano had ever seen before.

“Yes,” Hajime commented, “they do that fairly regularly, I’ve heard.” Once again he sounded as if none of this was in any way news.

“Misao’s lockpicks!” Sano swore in protest. “If you already know everything I found out, why bother me going in to find it?”

Hajime gave a sarcastic monosyllabic laugh, unexpectedly did not point out that the combative habits of Kaoru’s higher-wash wasn’t what Sano had gone into town to find out about, and said, “Just go on.”

“Anyway, when I attacked them–”

This time the knight broke in emphatically enough to force Sano to stop speaking. “Why did you attack them? I told you not to stand out.”

Sano sat up and threw one of the apples he held at Hajime’s face. The knight caught the missile only just in time, his expression a mirror of Sano’s annoyed glare. “I wasn’t standing out!” Sano said. “Plenty of people were attacking them! And if they do that all the time, and people challenge them all the time, wouldn’t it look weirder if some guy wearing a fucking sword didn’t attack them?”

After a moment, Hajime’s brows loosened their constriction over his eyes, and he said, “Fine,” and left it at that.

“It was amazing.” The interest of the memory overrode Sano’s irritation, and he continued in a tone of wonder. “Nobody could touch them! They just stayed back-to-back and moved like they were one person, and kept everyone back.” He himself had found, and not for the first time on this journey, that he could maintain his energy blade with little trouble for some reason, despite not being angry just then… but his attack had been thrown off with nearly the same level of ease and unconcern as Seijuurou had often shown while sparring with him — and that was saying something. “I don’t know what kind of technique it was, but they were… amazing.”

“I’m sure they were,” said Hajime, a little patronizingly. With supercilious eyes he was examining the apple he held.

“Have you ever tried fighting them?” Sano demanded. “I bet you couldn’t touch them either.”

“I’m not a devoted, idiot. They only do it on their own plaza.”

“Riiight.” Sano mimicked Hajime’s raised brow, but with his version of the expression tried to convey skepticism at this obvious excuse. It didn’t much matter, though, since Hajime was looking at the apple and not at him, and presently just ordered him to go on.

Sano obeyed. “So I hung around there until I found out about Ayame and Suzume and whose side they’re on. Seems like nobody was even surprised when they told everyone officially they didn’t approve of this stealing-the-throne business; actually I think people’d have been surprised if they hadn’t.

“But they’re not doing anything about it. At least not openly, not yet. I got the feeling someone there might try something eventually, but they’re waiting for something. Waiting for it to feel safe, maybe. And meanwhile all the Kaoru devoted are just going on like they always did, which I think is sending a message to the city people that they should just keep going like they always have.”

Hajime nodded, frowning, still regarding the apple as if it were positively riveting, though Sano didn’t think he was really looking at it anymore. “And there’s no way to tell whether Kaoru’s response is the usual hypocrisy about the divine houses staying out of politics,” he murmured, “or a circumspect way of supporting Soujirou while claiming to support Kenshin.”

Sano, to whom this had occurred (not entirely without external prompting), mimicked his nod. After a moment of pensive silence he shook himself and said, “Anyway, so then I went to see about Tomoe.”

“You knocked out another devoted to steal another shiiya, I assume?” Hajime’s tone was a little weary as he asked.

Sano had to admit he didn’t feel at all good about having done that — and not just because it wasn’t nearly as subtle as both he and Hajime would have preferred him to be on this venture. But all he said in reply was, “Hey, the bright side is that, now I have the lady-damned things, I won’t have to do it again.”

Hajime rolled his eyes.

Ignoring this, Sano went on. “So I did the same thing that worked at Kaoru, and it worked there too…”

Around each of the five temples in Elotica was a neighborhood containing everything related to the running of the religious branch that didn’t fit into the temple itself: housing for the devoted and their families — since only the most highly ranked lived inside the temple — storage facilities, offices, and Sano knew not what else. The temples nestled in corners of the main city walls, and the associated area had to be traversed to reach each one; fortunately for Sano, who’d already gotten lost more than once in this complex city, the temples themselves were so big that, once you were in their general vicinity, they were impossible to miss.

Fanatical dedication to lady-specific coloring was apparent the very instant Sano stepped onto the first street of any of these neighborhoods. But whereas Kaoru’s color agitated and overwhelmed, Tomoe’s dejected him unexpectedly. He didn’t know whether brighter purples were more expensive or difficult to come by, or whether the followers of the lady of death thought a hue closer to black was more appropriate to display their zeal, but the entire place was dark and dreary from top to bottom. Among all this gloomy deep purple, Sano’s eyes were singularly grateful for the sight of all the red and orange shiiyao of the lower-ranking devoted that comprised most of the traffic in this area.

His face must have been showing the increasing dismay these surroundings induced, for, as he walked past what was pretty clearly one of the quarters or barracks or whatever they called them, one red devoted broke away from a small group of her fellows talking by the door and came toward him.

“Good morning!” she said, and there was kindness in her tone, undoubtedly in response to his morbid demeanor.

“Morning,” Sano replied, looking her over. She was slender almost to the point of frailty, with big, liquidy eyes that drooped so far they must surely slide off her face one of these days and gave her a perpetually sad expression — or perhaps that effect was achieved by all the dark purple. The droopy eyes were that same color; he reflected disrespectfully that this was probably the primary reason she’d become a follower of Tomoe.

“You must be new,” she smiled. “Are you lost?”

He took interested note of the fact that she recognized him as a newcomer on sight; he’d thought there must be too many devoted for any one of them to be that familiar with the group. But, he reminded himself, his hair was fairly distinctive: he rarely combed it, and it probably couldn’t have been more obvious even at a casual glance that he would have hacked it short in an instant if anyone in this narrow-minded society would be willing to do business with him under those shockingly deviant circumstances.

He cleared his throat. “Yeah, I just got into town today,” he answered her assumption. To the question he replied with a forced grin, “I’ve already gotten lost a couple of times–” which of course was true– “but right now I’m just looking around this neighborhood.” He threw a slightly helpless glance at the buildings that, like shadows themselves in their depressing hues, cast morning shadows over the both of them.

She smiled again. It was a sad-looking little smile to match her sad-looking eyes. “Well, I could show you around, if you’d like; I have nothing to do until second bell.”

The regular sound of bells ringing out the hours from the palace in the center of town was something Sano hadn’t yet become accustomed to and wasn’t entirely sure he liked… but he grudgingly had to admit its usefulness for citywide punctuality. He might even remark upon it at some point, since his cover story was still that he’d just been transferred here from a rural shrine. But at the moment he only said, “Thanks!” in legitimate gratitude and satisfaction. “That’d be great!”

Droop-eyes turned out to be every bit as knowledgeable about the neighborhood and plaza, and the goings-on therein, as the Kaoru guy that had given Sano a similar tour over the last couple of days; Sano figured there was probably a helpful know-it-all type ready to escort newcomers around in every corner of town. But whereas that Kaoru guy (whose name Sano had already forgotten) had, to all appearances, been motivated primarily by lechery, this woman (whose name he eventually learned was Toki) seemed to be acting out of genuine kindness. Sano wasn’t sure whether, under the circumstances, he preferred an interest he didn’t at all return or a kindness he felt a little guilty about taking advantage of.

His excuse at Kaoru’s plaza for why he wouldn’t be staying with the other devoted in their quarters had been insubstantial in the extreme, and he’d actually been a little surprised that his amorous guide hadn’t pursued the matter, but today he had a much better answer to give to the polite questions Toki asked in her quest to help him out as much as possible.

Yesterday he’d overheard a Kaoru devoted — an actual newly arrived red from a country village — grumbling about how quickly upon arrival she’d been assigned to assist the city guards in a sentry job at the other end of town and how she would have to stay there, rather than in Kaoru’s neighborhood, for several days. It was easy to regurgitate this, right down to the slightly disgruntled tone of one that would much rather be rooming with fellow devoted during the first nights in a new city. And Toki, glancing at the sword he wore, seemed to think this story perfectly plausible.

Armaments among the Tomoe devoted were much more scarce than among Kaoru’s followers. There, nearly everyone had borne a weapon of some sort, and Sano had observed more than a few relatively good-natured spars break out over practically nothing during the last couple of days in the red neighborhood… but here it was almost the complete opposite. Tomoe devoted seemed to strive, rather, to outdo each other in accommodation. Their no, after you mentality was somewhat amusing, but Sano didn’t think he could stomach it for very long.

On the way to the plaza, Toki listed the functions of the buildings they passed, as well as some trivia about the plaza itself once they entered it. Completely disinterested in most of this, Sano made a few futile attempts at getting her to talk about house politics and the higher-wash, but she didn’t seem to take the hint. Finally, when she’d just finished up a relatively enthusiastic (considering her placid tone) description of their ritual prayer traditions here, Sano applied a blunter force.

The temple and the plaza were built to precisely the same design as Kaoru’s, though with actual gardens of various purple flowers in place of rock gardens, and Sano had his eyes fixed on the door from whose red correspondent at Kaoru’s temple he’d seen the white Ayame and the gold Suzume emerge. “Do you think I’m likely ever to meet the fourth-wash?” he asked. “It’s not something you ever expect back in Esabanca–” this was the totally made-up town whence he supposedly came– “but now that I’m here…” He trailed off as if he didn’t want to be putting himself forward or soliciting false hope.

Toki gave him that wan smile of hers again. “I don’t see why not… if you’re around here long enough, you’re sure to meet him eventually. It probably won’t be today, though, since the Devoted Council meets on Yum’hyou and I believe Enishi spends the rest of the day taking care of any other business he has at the palace or in that part of town.”

Sano had never heard of a Devoted Council and didn’t know what part of town she meant, but, since a devoted probably should have heard and should know, he didn’t ask. Instead he just nodded.

Obviously Hajime too had never heard of a Devoted Council, but just as obviously had a guess. He broke into Sano’s account at this point to demand in a tone of curiosity tinged with something darker, like suspicion or even horror, “Devoted Council?”

“I’ll get to that,” Sano assured him; “hang on.”

Hajime took one last bite of the apple he’d mostly finished, then set the core down on the table and chewed with a thoughtful frown as Sano continued his account.

Regretting the necessity for such directness but seeing no other way, Sano asked, “Has he had anything to say about the new king?”

Fortunately, Toki’s expression didn’t change; whatever her personal views on the subject, she didn’t seem to regard his question as suspicious. “He’s issued house-wide instructions that we’re to carry on as usual. There’s no reason for any of us to concern ourselves with who’s king… it doesn’t change anything here.” She sounded placid enough as she delivered the words, and it seemed a good bet to Sano that she agreed with them.

Actually, now he thought about it, Tomoe was (among all the other silly things she stood for) the lady of acceptance, wasn’t she? Tomoe’s followers probably had no choice but to accept Soujirou if they didn’t want to look like even bigger hypocrites than all devoted already were. Even if this Enishi didn’t approve of the change in government, there was nothing he could do about it openly, not even express disapprobation… and if he wanted to do anything about it covertly, this random red off the street undoubtedly wouldn’t know.

Even as Sano related these last few thoughts, it struck him suddenly that the official response of the house of Tomoe to the new regime had been the entire point of this part of his story, and it had taken many fewer words to tell than the far-less-necessary rest of it. And before, in his account of his experience in Kaoru’s neighborhood, he’d gotten caught up in describing things as he’d seen them and relating his impressions on all manner of only peripherally related aspects of the experience.

And yet Hajime hadn’t stopped him or given any signs of impatience (with Sano’s storytelling methods, at least). He’d even nodded subtle agreement at Sano’s assessment of the ladies’ colors and their probable effect on the moods of their followers, and laughed a little at the description of a woman whose eyes seemed ready to slide off her face at any moment. Perhaps he was humoring Sano; he must realize this was not only Sano’s first visit to the capital but his first close contact with the central branches of a religion on which he’d turned his back and by which he’d always felt persecuted. Of course Sano would get a little carried away in describing what he’d seen and heard over the last several days, and perhaps Hajime understood.

Unsure if he could ascribe to the knight such a generous impulse toward himself, Sano recollected by way of additional explanation that Hajime had been sitting in a small, undecorated room with nothing to do and no one to talk to for almost two weeks, extremely bored in addition to the concern he’d already been feeling for the king and the country’s situation. It was no real surprise if he didn’t mind a bit of unnecessary elaboration.

Still, whatever Hajime’s reasons for not protesting, Sano didn’t want to give the impression that he’d lost track even a little of his real mission in favor of sight-seeing. He didn’t want to provide Hajime with any excuse to denounce his efforts. So he resolved to tighten up his narrative, be a little more professional, for the rest of his report. He was going to impress Hajime one of these days if it killed him.

Chapter 15 – First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi

Megumi’s yellow gave him a headache. He supposed it was a cheerful color, especially as compared to Tomoe’s, but they’d so often used a harsh, eye-straining yellow rather than the soft pastel in which he usually saw the lady herself portrayed in paintings and the like… how could anyone live in these religious neighborhoods?

Today’s know-it-all was actually two know-it-alls, and Sano had quickly decided this was the best way to go about things. The old man, a doctor as were not a few followers of the lady of life, and his daughter of a more researching (if still medical) bent, were both reds and both extremely chatty; Sano could throw out a subject and get them talking, sit back and listen until the information he wanted came up, then insinuate another idea in order to send the conversation in a new direction.

He didn’t make it onto the plaza until late afternoon. The cheerful father-daughter combination took charge of his morning and lunch — which they insisted he eat with them and several others in a dining room in one of the devoted quarters — and didn’t get around to giving him much of a tour until they’d thoroughly worn out his ears with all sorts of information, useful and otherwise.

The woman — little more than a girl, really, even younger than Sano — explained enthusiastically about the work she was doing and the things she was learning and the results she and her mentor strove for in their research. If Sano was any judge, ‘mentor’ would not for very long describe what the other researcher was to her; and the father didn’t even seem upset at the idea of his daughter leaving the family at the age of seventeen.

As interesting as were the marital prospects of this complete stranger — and Sano really was interested (or at least more interested in that than in the largely incomprehensible medical-research talk) — it wasn’t what he was here for. Throughout the day and the various topics that had been discussed in his presence — not a few of them introduced by himself with a subtlety that rather pleased him — he’d gotten a pretty strong impression of what the general attitude was around here toward the kingdom’s new leadership, and he thought he could guess what the official stance was… but he wasn’t about to take a guess back to Hajime.

An afternoon bell had just rung, and Sano and his guides had been standing in silence on the plaza listening with varying degrees of respect to an elderly second-wash reciting a ritual prayer in the shadow of the great statue of Megumi that stood in the center of the pentagonal area. Sano was glad when the tedious kuumaruaya was finished, but, though he didn’t much like having to give the ritual response at the end as a good devoted must, he couldn’t say he regretted listening: the woman had said something in her prayer about ‘guidance toward the good of the kingdom,’ and Sano doubted any better opening for what he wanted to talk about was likely present itself.

“So…” He turned thoughtfully to his companions as if suddenly struck. “What is the official word from the bosses on ‘the good of the kingdom?’ On the new king, I mean?” He still didn’t much like having to ask directly, but at least this time he had some excuse.

At first, though, he feared he’d been too direct, when the young woman and her father exchanged a look he didn’t understand. But when the girl said, “Of course you wouldn’t have heard,” Sano decided he was probably fine.

“The official word is that it’s none of our business, and to carry on as usual,” the man told Sano in a low tone.

“But it’s hard to believe that’s really what they mean,” the girl added.

“Of course we do what they’ve officially told us to do,” said the father hastily.

“Of course,” agreed the girl. “But we’re still curious what’s their real opinion.”

“Why?” Sano broke in, knowing from the day’s prior experience that they might go on talking about this nonstop without providing that crucial detail.

“Shougo and Sayo,” the father answered, still in that hushed, gossipy tone. “The last I heard, nobody’s seen them this time for over a week.”

The girl said, “I heard it was going on two.”

Sano had picked up the mentioned names a few times that day, and was fairly certain he remembered correctly that Shougo and Sayo were brother and sister, and both golds; he didn’t dare ask for confirmation, though.

“Ever since the government change–” this was the polite term for ‘usurpation’ the wary had adopted– “they’ve been acting strange.”

“It started just then. We can’t believe it’s a coincidence.”

“They disappear for half a day, or even days at a time, and when they are around they’re distant and worried about something.”

“None of us–” it was clear from the accompanying gesture that this meant ‘none of us at the red and first-wash level’– “know what’s going on, but we’re all curious.”

“And worried! What if they’re trying to take part in some resistance or something right under Gensai’s nose?”

Sano couldn’t help asking, “Do you think they would?”

“I have no idea! To read the journals, you’d get the impression the whole house is pretty evenly divided, and there are some good points on both sides… but who knows what Shougo and Sayo think?”

“There was one journal — by Hanabi from Lotsu, I think — that made a very good point about the myths people commonly believe about heredity…”

“And that’s one thing,” Sano told Hajime, “that I had no idea Megumi people did: they write these journals. All of them are always writing journals, I guess, and then they tack them up in the buildings, and they all read them and talk about them. It’s weird.”

He’d managed to relay not quite so much unnecessary detail this time, and was disappointed to note that Hajime seemed less invested in the story. Was that because Sano’s sparser narrative had been less interesting, or in appropriate professional response to Sano’s appropriate professional terseness? There were still a lot of things about Hajime Sano just couldn’t figure out.

“Anyway,” he went on, “except for that thing about Shougo and Sayo, it felt just the same as all those people sitting around debating at the inn I was staying at: a lot of talk that’s never gonna go anywhere. It’s like they feel like they’ve done everything they need to as soon as they’ve written a journal about it, and then they can go back to whatever they were doing before.”

“Did you try to contact those two golds?” asked Hajime in a frowning tone.

“I thought about it…” By this time Sano had lain back down and was looking at the ceiling again. “But I thought, if they are part of some resistance or something, they’re doing a really shitty job keeping it secret, and I should probably stay away from them unless I have no other choice.”

A long moment of silence tempted Sano to sit up and see what expression might be on Hajime’s face, but he forced himself to remain as he was. He’d made a specific decision for reasons he thought were perfectly rational, and was ready to argue his point if Hajime wanted to condemn him. But eventually Hajime said, “We’ll keep them in mind, though.”

“Yeah.” Sano was more pleased than he could express at this unspoken approval, and his next statement, incongruously, came out sounding quite cheerful: “So word from Misao was pretty much the same…”

This was positively unbelievable. Sano had been assaulted with any number of new sights and experiences over the last few days, but this was by far the most astonishing of all of them. He could barely even begin to give credence to what he saw, and had to work to keep himself from shaking his head at regular intervals trying to get at the truth rather than this impossibility his eyes seemed to be presenting him.

Misao’s neighborhood looked nice.

It wasn’t just that they obviously didn’t mind using other colors as accents against that of their lady; it wasn’t just that, instead of slapping up any and every hue indiscriminately as paint availability allowed, as the devoted in the other religious districts seemed to have done, they had instead carefully combined variations on the color to the best possible effect; it wasn’t just that they avoided too much eye-straining use of the brighter, glowing end of that variability, keeping rather to more restful pastels and well-blended gradients for larger spaces and saving the more intense shades for drawing attention to details; it wasn’t just that they’d even occasionally allowed the building materials — usually stone, but sometimes a nicely-treated wood — to retain their natural hues instead of slathering paint all over every available surface to blare out their devotion to their lady…

It was all of this, and in addition the fact that they seemed to be better at it than anyone from Kaoru, Tomoe, or Megumi. Everything here had been done more adroitly, with a better eye to its effect and greater care for both its individual appearance and its coordination with other structures nearby. Sano would never have been able to believe it of orange; he’d been expecting this area of town to be the absolute worst. It was only after examining and admiring everything around him for more time than his overwrought brain could keep track of that he remembered Misao’s status as lady of the visual arts.

That she was also the lady of thievery he was reminded by being the victim of three pseudo-robberies before he even managed to have one real conversation with anyone.

The first pickpocket, a red about Sano’s age, got his attention by dropping a few coins into his hand with the statement, in a tone of greeting, “You’re a little too easy.” This remark (and its various possible interpretations) was so unexpected and strange, especially given that the speaker had essentially said it in passing, and when combined with the apparent gift of money out of nowhere so utterly bizarre, that Sano was more or less stunned for a few moments. It took several moments longer for him to realize the coins were his, and this, at least, prodded him out of his stupor. The pickpocket had returned exactly as much as he’d taken, Sano determined with a quick count, but how he’d gotten at Sano’s belt pouch without alerting him even in the slightest, Sano didn’t know.

What the second had to say was, “You’re making yourself a target, you know,” as she offered him his very own sword with a cheeky grin. Having thought he’d used all his capacity for astonishment today, what he felt at discovering someone had managed to unsheathe the weapon he wore without his beginning to notice overwhelmed him such that he was unable to say a word in reply. He just took the keonblade and stared as the first-wash winked at him and continued on her way.

“You must be new around here,” was the friendly, sympathetic comment of the third, a man perhaps ten years his senior, as he held up Sano’s entire belt-pouch in a gesture similar to what he might have used to return something Sano had accidentally dropped rather than something he’d somehow deliberately taken from him.

Trying not to gape at the man and probably failing, Sano accepted his belonging and struggled for words. Finally he managed, “Yes! And nobody did this back home!”

The red devoted laughed and clapped Sano on the back, disrupting for a moment the process of re-fastening the pouch at his waist. “You’d better get used to it; it’s tradition around here!” And thence he proceeded to make it obvious that he would be today’s know-it-all.

So interested was Sano in this bizarre tradition, and the nimbleness of finger that allowed the followers of Misao to carry it out, he didn’t feel the tiniest bit guilty about pursuing the topic with his new companion before he even started thinking about maneuvering the guy around to talking about Nenji, Misao’s white devoted, and what he and the other higher-wash might have had to say about Soujirou.

As fascinating as this had been to Sano, at the moment he decided Hajime didn’t need to hear about it, and restrained himself with great force of will from recounting it. All he said was, “They don’t officially care, and if they care underneath they’re pretending not to. But at Yumi I totally got lucky.”

Green was by far the most soothing of the five lady colors, and as such Yumi’s part of town looked better than anyone else’s except Misao’s. Which was not to say it looked good, just that there was a certain automatic benefit offered to the decor by the combination of coolness and relative brightness of the color. The devoted shiiyao, though, in their spectrum of red bleached to orange and warm yellow, did look rather jarring against it; still, he had to wear one.

To come across a red devoted in the proper state of solitude and apparent likelihood to recover well from a knock on the head had taken most of the day, so Sano hadn’t found his way into the green corner of the city until the sun had already sunk past the great walls and thrown everything into shadow; perhaps that skewed his opinion of the colors, but objective assessment of the decorating skills of the devoted was not what he was here for.

Knowing Yumi for the lady of love, Sano had somewhat expected to find her followers an unusually romantic lot, but just walking through her neighborhood didn’t give him any sign of this; there weren’t even any couples kissing in doorways or anything. But he did find that the unforeseen amount of music floating from down alleys, out of doorways, and off balconies, giving the entire walk a pleasant, cheerful feeling and reminding him that Yumi was also the lady of the performing arts, made up for this vague and not terribly important disappointment.

This neighborhood broke the trend by not supplying a know-it-all, but that might have been because Sano had wandered into it so late in the day… or perhaps merely because he ended up spending so little time there and not needing one at all. For as he was about to enter the plaza to see what kind of flower beds and statuary they had (and whether they might not, perhaps, have couples kissing in there), he happened to have his eye and ear caught by movement and conversation out around the side of the temple.

So, instead of going through the opening into the space surrounded by the great building, he followed the path that led to the left. He moved quietly at first, just in case this area was off-limits to reds or something, but soon saw it could not be: a wagon full of crates and packages of various shapes and sizes, which had been brought around to a side or back door of the temple, was being unloaded by a few legitimate reds while none other than the white devoted and one of her golds looked on.

Not yet having been in the capital very long, and having spent the entirety of his adult life in an orchard town some distance from the kingdom’s cultural hotspots, Sano had only a vague idea of what might or might not be in fashion at any given moment; he was pretty sure, in fact, that Eloma had always been at least five years behind the times when it came to shiiya cuts and sleeves and hoods. But even he could see that Yumi’s fourth-wash was about as fashionable as someone limited to a preselected religious outfit could be. From the ornament in her artfully-face-framing burgundy hair to the pointed bareness of her shapely legs to the interesting metallic spiral pattern on the otherwise black staff she held carelessly in one manicured hand, the word ‘chic’ seemed apropos — and that wasn’t a description Sano frequently employed. ‘Attractive,’ even — and he wasn’t generally attracted to women.

Busy in conversation, she didn’t even glance at Sano; but her third-wash companion, a short, bald, yellow-toothed man much less worth examining than his superior and a much less likely-looking follower of the lady of beauty, took immediate notice of him. Gesturing to the wagon he ordered, “Come on; give them a hand with this.”

Obeying, Sano at first had to stifle his annoyance at the apparent assumption on the old man’s part that he was either here for this purpose or at least had nothing else pressing to do; but this annoyance quickly faded as he realized he was suddenly in a uniquely advantageous position to eavesdrop on the white devoted’s relatively private discourse and hopefully find out what he needed to know without bothering about the type of circumspection he’d been wearying himself with in all the other divine neighborhoods.

So he quickly discovered where the items were being deposited, and thereafter dawdled as much as possible in retrieving new ones off the wagon in order to hear what he could of what the white had to say. The first partial statement he managed to catch was, “…have more important things to do than make sure all the little people are behaving themselves.”

“And you think I don’t?” The ugly man sounded rather grumpy about this.

Next was, “…need to be staying out of anything even a little bit political, all right?” Her somewhat low and gravelly voice had a pouty, almost teasing-sounding tone that it was no wonder her subordinate didn’t seem to be taking entirely seriously. “It’s none of our business.”

And the third statement, apparently in response to something perhaps somewhat rude from the gold, was, “…just the same thing from another angle! We won’t be making a commotion on either side of the issue, so of course I’ll do what…”

When Sano next emerged, it was to the sound of the gold’s surly complaint, “…at the palace as much as possible so you can socialize.”

“I think you’re jealous,” the white replied pertly; evidently taking direct criticism from her lower-wash didn’t bother her much. “And anyway that has nothing to do with it. Usurper or not, the Devoted Council was a fabulous idea.”

At that moment her eyes lighted on the package wrapped in paper and string that Sano had just extracted from the wagon. “Ah, there it is!” she cried in delight, and ran forward to take it from him; obviously she’d only been waiting around out here for this, and the conversation had probably been intended merely to pass the time until what she wanted from the delivery was unearthed.

As the object was quite heavy for its size, Sano warned, “You’re gonna need two hands for this.”

She gave him a smile that managed to be both condescending and flirtatious at once, and said, “You must be new.” Then she took the parcel lightly in her free hand, spun it deftly a couple of times on two fingers, winked at the now-gaping Sano, and turned with swaying hips to walk away.

Sano didn’t actually narrate quite to the end of this scene, since that last bit had been a little embarrassing and definitely not important. And anyway, Hajime broke in, this time sounding somewhat frustrated, when Sano reached the last item of interest Yumi’s gold had mentioned: “What is this ‘Devoted Council?'”

“Almost there,” Sano said in reply. “I saved the best for last. Well, it happened last, too. Since I pretty much had exactly what I wanted to know just from that, I went back to the inn instead of wandering Yumi’s neighborhood. And while I was sitting there eating supper…”

The low, tense chatter filling the common room was growing downright frustrating. After six nights of keeping his ears pricked for any signs of actual resistance against the usurper and hearing only a lot of directionless and often very ill-informed back-and-forth, Sano was sick of listening. He would be glad to leave Elotica in the morning, even if the part of his report regarding the types of things being discussed in the common room of a large inn would be obnoxiously disappointing.

The one thing that could be said for the ongoing intense discussion was that it allowed a stranger disinterested in interaction at this venue to sit at the bar in solitude and eat his supper without being accosted by anyone for whatever reason. Or, at least, it had up until now. A hand on his shoulder was the first indication anyone here was paying attention to him, and it came almost in conjunction with the quiet statement from behind him, “I knew I’d be running into you pretty soon here.”

Startled, very worried about who could possibly have recognized him in the capital so far from home, Sano turned swiftly to see whose hand might soon need to be broken if it didn’t immediately vacate his shoulder. Hopefully they’d mistaken him for a friend and could be quickly turned away. But his growling reply died in his throat when he saw who it was, and no other sound replaced it there for a long moment.

Chapter 16 – Nine Years Later

“Katsu?!” He said it overloudly, but he didn’t care. He’d jumped from his stool at last and seized both of his old friend’s shoulders in his pleasure and sudden surprise. “Holy fuck! What are you doing here?”

Katsu, who looked so much like an older version of what Sano specifically remembered that it was almost comical, gave him the same serious smile he’d always used to. “I’ve been living in Elotica almost two years now,” he said. “If you weren’t such a poor correspondent, you’d know that, but I haven’t had a letter from you since before I left Encoutia! A better question is: what are you doing here?”

This better question was enough to remind Sano forcibly of his situation; he glanced about in some concern to see whether he’d attracted any attention. It didn’t seem he had; excited reunions of old friends were probably tolerably common around here. Trying to think how to answer, he cleared his throat.

“I see that’s not a better question.” Katsu’s tone had dropped as he followed Sano’s somewhat paranoid gaze around the room. “Anyway, I have a letter for you.”

This recaptured Sano’s full attention. “What..?”

Katsu released Sano’s shoulder and slid onto the stool beside his. As Sano retook his abandoned place before his cooling supper, Katsu was pulling a small scroll from his sleeve; Sano accepted it in growing confusion.

For Sano, care of Katsuhiro the printmaker’s apprentice, was the cramped direction. Sano looked up from it to Katsu with knitted brows. “You’re a printmaker’s apprentice now?” It was a stupid thing to ask first, but at the moment he was torn inside between continued pleasure at seeing his friend again and wonder at the circumstances attending it. “But who could have possibly known we’d run into each other…?”

“It was delivered yesterday by a letter carrier,” Katsu answered; the look on his face seemed to convey much the same frame of mind as Sano’s. “I’ve been dying of curiosity ever since. Oh, and, yes,” he added as a sort of aside, “I am the printmaker’s apprentice. Though I think I’ve learned more than he ever knew, and it’s about time for me to move on.”

Sano wasted no more time in opening and reading the message. The handwriting inside, though a little crowded on the small paper, was neat enough — certainly neater than his own — and something about it, from the very beginning, struck him as familiar, though he knew he’d never seen it before. When he realized almost immediately whom the scroll was from, he thought he understood this impression, and he read with increasing wonder.

I’m sorry I I apologize for running off, but you have to understand how I was sure it was going to end up. What was I supposed to do? The ladies don’t take sides in politics, so should I really? I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, but it’s too bad you don’t believe in the ladies. They can help you a lot. They comfort you, like I told you, and they tell you things you need to know — like where to send a letter — and they warn you of danger and stuff. But it’s not my job to convince you, I guess. I hope I see you again sometime when you’re not with that jerk anymore and not working on stuff I shouldn’t be involved with. Stay safe. –Yahiko

Preceding the words ‘that jerk’ there was a fairly neat round blotch, as if Yahiko had started to write Hajime’s name, realized this could potentially put him and Sano in danger, and completely eradicated what characters he’d already formed. Sano rather thought Yahiko must think him the bigger jerk, in any case — and the forgiveness in this message, only implied though it was, meant more to him than he would have expected.

Katsu, invoking a privilege of friendship that, even after all these years apart, Sano did not begrudge him, had moved around to look over Sano’s shoulder and read the letter at the same time he did. Now he wondered quietly, “Who in the world is this?”

Slowly Sano dragged his eyes away and looked his friend over. Really, it was almost unbelievable how little Katsu had changed, at least visually, in the last nine years. His face and body were those of an adult now, of course, and a touch more angular, but he still had his hair cut the same way, and a gaze just as dark and serious as ever. It was as if he’d already been, back then, what he intended to be for the rest of his life, and had no reason thereafter for any alteration.

“Well, sit down, and I’ll tell you,” Sano commanded. And as Katsu obeyed, Sano began his tale in the quietest tone Katsu would still be able to hear. “Back home — in Eloma, you know — I was on my way home from somewhere, through the forest, and I ran into this kid…”

Having no idea who might overhear him despite his efforts at quiet, he decided reluctantly that, just for the moment, he probably shouldn’t mention Hajime even obliquely, nor the real reason he’d come to Elotica and what he was doing here. So he made Yahiko the focus of his story, didn’t specify the identity of the attackers the kid had helped him fight off, gave the impression that the journey to Elotica had been started on a whim or perhaps in response to his annoyance at Seijuurou’s attitudes, and generally managed to give an account with more holes than actual substance, finishing up with, “…and this is the first I’ve heard from him since.”

Katsu was shaking his head slowly and gravely. “Poor kid,” he remarked.

“‘Poor kid?'” echoed Sano in some irritation. He didn’t like withholding so much from his friend, but would quickly get over it if Katsu continued making comments like that. “He’s a little brat who hears voices and messes with people’s heads!”

With a wan smile Katsu said gently, “Sano, whether you believe in the ladies or not, it’s obvious from your story — and that letter! — that the kid has some real power. You can’t just ignore that.”

“That’s what we–” Quickly Sano caught himself, remembering there shouldn’t be any ‘we’ involved in his narrative at this point. “Well, but it doesn’t make up for…” But Yahiko hadn’t ever really done anything wrong, except as far as clinging to the traditional brainwashing of a na‹ve and repressive religion counted — which, to Sano, had always been quite a bit… Yahiko, however, was a little different. He hadn’t tried to force anything on Sano, and, in fact, had seemed pleased that Sano had real reasons for what he did and didn’t believe. He’d been reasonable about the church, too. Sano sighed.

“You thought you’d found somebody just like you, didn’t you? Some orphan who’d lost faith at the same age you had.” Katsu sounded sympathetic, and annoyingly certain of his speculation. “That’s why this bugs you so much; you thought you’d found a kindred spirit, and then it turned out he was actually almost the opposite.”

“You’re way too fucking smart for your own good, you know that?” Sano turned fully to face his friend with a skeptical and not entirely happy smile.

“Yeah, I know,” said Katsu dismissively. “Now think how the kid must feel.”

“You’re just standing up for him because his mom sounds exactly like yours,” Sano grumbled.

“Well, that might be a coincidence, and it might not. But, no, that’s not why I’m standing up for him. Think about it. All that stuff he said to you — I’m sure it’s true: people who are different always have a hard time. No wonder he lied to you when he realized you were a heretic! He’s probably taken every kind of abuse you can imagine since his dad died; how was he supposed to know you wouldn’t treat him even worse because of what he was and what you were?”

“Ladies, don’t lecture me, Katsu!” In some frustration Sano leaned his face on his hand. Why had he thought Katsu might be on his side? Hell, why had he thought he had a side? Were there sides in this? Why should there be sides? It was just a matter of being driven apart from someone he might have cared about by their drastically different beliefs. “I’m not really mad at him or nothing,” he admitted with another sigh. “But…” He tried to put into words one of the many things that had been bothering him about Yahiko. “If he’s so powerful, why would he let anyone treat him bad? If I could fight like that when I was his age, nobody would’ve ever kicked me around.”

Now Katsu grinned nostalgically. “I can only imagine,” he said with a slight laugh. “Not that I can remember anyone ever kicking you around, back in Encoutia, at least.” He sobered again as he continued. “But people are different, you know? You might have had the courage to use power like that whenever you wanted, if you’d had it, but it seems like he’s afraid of everyone. He hasn’t been able to trust anyone since his parents, so all he knows how to do is run away. He’ll learn one of these days he can’t keep running his whole life, and then he won’t get kicked around anymore either.”

Weakly, helplessly, Sano smiled. “You’re still a damn know-it-all. I barely told you about this kid and now you’re analyzing his deepest fears and everything…”

Katsu shrugged with a faint smile of his own, and turned his attention toward his drink.

Unrolling the little letter again, Sano reread it. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, it said. And he couldn’t help wondering whether if he hadn’t once had a brother Yahiko’s age he would have cared quite so much.

Not wanting to think about Yahiko anymore, “So how about this new king business?” Sano asked at length.

Katsu didn’t look up from his cup, but his sigh was audible and Sano could see the lowering of his brows. In as quiet a tone as Sano had used for his potentially dangerous story, he said, “Kenshin was never a strong enough king for my tastes, but he at least tried. The only reason to seize power from him would be to make certain immediate changes to the bureaucracy. Soujirou’s not doing anything of the sort… he has no reason for what he’s doing, as far as I can tell.”

Sano tried to move unobtrusively, casually, as he edged toward the left side of his stool and leaned a little closer to Katsu. “You think there’s someone behind him, right?”

Katsu nodded.

“But not Gontamei.”

Finally Katsu looked over at him, appearing surprised and pleased. “Sano, I’m proud of you! I never thought I’d see you paying attention to politics. No, not Gontamei. someone in one of the divine houses. Or someones in some of the divine houses.”

“Not Kaoru, though.”

Katsu returned his attention to his mostly empty drink. “Don’t be too sure of that… those girls’ loyalty to Kenshin could be for show.”

“Well, you seem to know a lot.”

Again Katsu nodded.

“Anything interesting?” There was no way for Sano to keep his tone casual; Katsu was bound to pick up that he had a stake in this beyond simple curiosity.

Whether or not Katsu did, he seemed ready enough to share what he knew. “Have you heard what our new king’s first official act was?” At Sano’s shake of head he went on, “He started this thing he calls the Devoted Council… It’s just like it sounds: a devoted from each house sit council to the king. Supposedly it’s ‘to ensure the king’s decisions are in keeping with the will of the ladies,’ but obviously it really comes from whoever in the divine houses is backing him — to make sure they have a say in the rule of the country. Probably a damn big say.”

“Shit.” Sano tried not to look too dark or pensive at this, but knew he was failing. “Thanks for that news.”

“I’m not going to ask questions you don’t want to answer, Sano,” said Katsu carefully, “but if you need any help, let me know, all right?”

“So that pretty much confirms it’s the divine houses behind this, doesn’t it?” was how Sano finished this account of his reunion with Katsu. Including so much detail hadn’t bothered him this time, not only because he’d been so pleased with the circumstance but because Katsu had given him so much useful information. Honestly he wished he’d run into him a lot sooner during his trip into the city.

“It is another good indicator,” Hajime agreed.

“And having Katsu around will be useful.”

“Are you sure you can trust him?”

Sano had sat up abruptly in response to Hajime’s statements so many times during this conversation that now he decided just to stay upright. “What do you mean?” he demanded as he slid until his back touched the wall. “This guy’s my best friend!”

Hajime threw a slightly skeptical look a Sano’s legs, which now protruded into space off the edge of the bed. “Your best friend whom you haven’t seen in nine years.”

“Hey, I wrote to him!” Sano protested.

“Only occasionally, from what you just said.”

“Yeah, well…” Even a hint that he might not be able to trust Katsu disturbed him, and Sano couldn’t help being annoyed at Hajime for suggesting it. That idea was, however, perfectly reasonable, and one that needed to be suggested at this point. Sano had fallen into such easy camaraderie with his old friend, just as if they’d never been separated, he’d almost automatically begun thinking of him as he had before: as someone with whom he could share anything, someone that would have his back in any scenario… but the truth was he didn’t really know Katsu anymore, and couldn’t say with any surety that Katsu would be on his side in any given situation.

Hajime seemed to recognize Sano’s understanding, for he only said, “Just be careful.”

Glumly Sano nodded.

After he’d allowed Sano to stew for a minute or two in doubt, Hajime remarked pensively, “This Devoted Council…”

Responding to the disapproval in the brief phrase, Sano said, “Yeah, as if the church needed more say in people’s lives.”

“Politically it’s a good move. It gives an impression of piety and tractability… and it will make people wonder why Kenshin never did something like it.”

“Yeah, but, seriously… more religious influence?”

Hajime shook his head.

With a frustrated sigh Sano tried to recall what was left of his report. “Royal knights,” he remembered. And at the attentiveness with which Hajime immediately looked at him, Sano felt a little bad having to admit, “I’ve got practically nothing. I heard some talk about you — pretty admiring talk, too, you should be glad to know — and I think at least one of the others is dead–”

“Who?”

Sano gave a gesture of helplessness. “Problem is, Soujirou’s got a lot of guys running around who he’s calling royal knights now, so just listening in to conversations is really confusing because you never know who they mean when they say ‘royal knight.’ And that’s already assuming people know what they’re talking about in the first place. But the rumors I heard most said three knights ran off and one was dead; nothing on the last guy.”

Who?” Hajime muttered intensely, clearly not expecting Sano to answer this time.

Honestly Sano wished he could… these were Hajime’s companions they were discussing, possible allies in the present cause, and maybe even the knight’s friends (if such a word could apply to any relationship of Hajime’s); it was only natural he would want to know what had become of them specifically. Unfortunately, Sano had never felt safe asking direct questions of anyone he thought might actually have the information; the rumors he’d already relayed were the best he could provide.

“Sorry,” he found himself saying, rather unexpectedly. “Maybe there’ll be better stuff later.”

“And I assume if you weren’t able to find out much about the royal knights, you found out even less about Kenshin.”

“Nothing,” Sano confirmed. “Lots of people are wondering where he is, but of course if anyone knew, they probably wouldn’t have been saying it where some random guy like me listening in could hear it.”

Appearing simultaneously annoyed and as if this was exactly what he’d been expecting, Hajime nodded again. “So,” he said darkly, “we still know next to nothing about what’s actually going on, and we have no advantage.”

“Hey–” Sano was a little stung by his demeanor and its implications– “that’s not my fault!”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“Yeah, well, you looked it.”

Hajime mostly ignored this. “We do know we should focus more on the divine houses than the royal families, and that’s a beginning, at least.”

“A beginning,” Sano repeated. “Sure.” It was a grumble, but there was the dullness of weary disappointment to it as well. He should have known even so many days of effort with no reward and possibly in constant danger, definitely bored and annoyed much of the time, still wouldn’t impress or even satisfy the chief of the royal knights.

But it didn’t really matter, he reminded himself. His reason for coming, for doing what he’d been doing, had been to assist in his patriotic duty and get some of his own back against Soujirou, not to impress Hajime. Well, maybe it had been a little of all three. Not necessarily in that order.

“A beginning is more than we had before,” Hajime admitted, to Sano’s minor gratification. “But you’ll have to go back tomorrow.”

Sharply Sano nodded. “And I can get a little more specific on everything. Drop the royal families, find out more about Shougo and Sayo, that sort of thing.”

With an assessing glance, perhaps somewhat pleased, Hajime also nodded.

“And for now, I can relax for a while. What is there to do around here for a guy who’s not busy spying out shit in the city?”

At this, Hajime turned slowly from him with a sigh and looked out the window again.

>16 Interlude

Following the direction of Akemi’s gesture through the smoke of the low-lit common room, Imau looked toward a nearby table where a small group of sailors sat around a communal supper pot. The animation of their discussion had grown since Imau had last glanced in that direction, and some of it was becoming audible.

“–wouldn’t wait to raise the colors if mine was faster,” a disreputable-looking woman with cropped hair was saying. “Let them see the flag and waste their energy abouting to run; they’ll be that much less prepared for being grappled.”

Nodding to Akemi, who immediately slipped around to the other side of the table in question, Imau slid off her stool and approached even as one of the other sailors laughed and said, “But most pirates aren’t so bright.”

“And what would you do if I ran you through with my sword?” Imau had approached to immediately behind the short-haired woman, drawing her weapon a few inches so the hilt pressed into the sailor’s back.

“I think it would depend on where you ran me through.” The woman had stiffened, but her voice held no fear. The five others at the table were warily eyeing Imau — and Akemi, who had mimicked the princess’ movements on the other side. “Somewhere lethal, I’d probable just die. Anywhere else, I’d probable roll around on the floor crying and screaming.”

Imau couldn’t help but be slightly amused at this candid answer, not to mention a little thrown off: she wasn’t quite sure what to say next, and her pause gave the woman a chance to add, “Why are we running me through, now?”

This, in turn, created the opening Imau needed. “It’s no more than any pirate deserves,” she replied harshly.

Somewhat to her chagrin, all of the strangers began to laugh. A few, probably in response to the seriousness in Imau’s tone, attempted to restrain this reaction, or at least to conceal it behind their hands or by looking away. But the woman Imau had at swordpoint numbered among those openly showing her entertainment.

“Noru, that’s your fault for talking like that right out where anyone can hear you,” another at the table chuckled.

“You’re right, you’re right,” the woman called Noru admitted, her laughter calming. Tilting her head back slightly, she addressed Imau. “Mistre, I’m glad to see someone trying to do something about the pirate problem. But it’s not bad enough yet that you’ll find pirates open discussing piracy in public in an Encoutia inn.”

“Of course not,” Imau replied dryly. “Only honest sailors honestly discussing what they might do if ever they should happen to turn pirate… which could happen tomorrow or the next day, depending on when they next cross paths with a rich and underprotected vessel.”

This accusation brought most of the sailors in the blink of an eye from amused to annoyed. But while at least half of them were shifting in their seats, evidently ready at least for an argument if not for a fight, Noru remained perfectly still against the hilt of Imau’s sword. When she replied, however, her voice was quieter and more serious than it had been before. “I’m not going to take offense at that because it’s true that all this pirate activity late has made more and more ships that were honest decide it’s all right just to do a little pillaging on the side, because nobody’s like to notice it with real pirates about… but I think you should ask around about people you meet at inns before you go accusing them of things.”

“Well, then, we’ll see what the bartender has to say about you,” Imau replied, lightening neither her tone nor her grip, gesturing with her free hand at Akemi as she spoke. The knight nodded and withdrew, making her way across the room to find out what she could about this particular group of people.

“If we was pirates,” the man Akemi had been prodding in the back grumbled during the ensuing silence, “it’d be six on two. I can’t think what you misses are thinking.”

“We have no worries on that score,” Imau answered. “Six or sixty; it makes no difference.” This bravado far overstepped her actual personal policy — for, while she was reasonably certain she and Akemi together could handle six only moderately skilled opponents at once, she definitely didn’t want to… especially given the impossibility of knowing they were only moderately skilled. And sixty was out of the question.

This raised another laugh from nearly every throat at the table. Only Noru and the man across from her that had introduced the topic held their peace. The man was grizzled, probably in his forties, and had the typical leather-skinned look of a sailor for life; his expression was dour and sardonic.

Noru, on the other hand, though Imau couldn’t get a good look at her face at this angle, seemed only to be refraining from laughter out of prudence. She did, however, casually as if merely to pass the time until Akemi returned, make the comment, “And if we were pirates, and even if six on two is no problem for you, what good would it do threatening us? Even if you killed us all–” here her confederates shifted a little nervously, as if merely hearing these words would bring down the fate referred to upon them– “it wouldn’t help with the larger problem.”

Immediately Imau contradicted, “Every pirate’s death helps with the larger problem,” and hoped it didn’t show how very aware she was of the truth in the woman’s statement.

“And how many pirates have you killed so far?” Noru wondered.

“I haven’t counted.” Technically the truth — it wasn’t really necessary to count to zero.

Noru saw through her, it seemed. “When you do start counting,” she said softly, “my condolences.”

Imau didn’t like the atmosphere; she got the feeling that she, who was doing the threatening and should have this situation completely under her personal control, was being talked down to. But before she could demand to know what Noru meant by that remark or come up with some statement calculated to remind the woman of her current position, the princess caught sight of her knight returning through the crowd. Akemi noticed Imau watching her, and shook her head.

Stifling a sigh, Imau turned back to the table. Pressing the hilt in her hand more firmly into Noru’s back just for a moment, she said harshly, “Just hope you’re not in that count.” Then she let her weapon slide completely into its sheath and stepped away.

Akemi joined her at another table not three paces from the sailors. This one stood near the wall, and both women put their backs to the latter in order to face the group they’d been harassing. They must make sure they didn’t appear to be retreating, and that the group knew it was still under surveillance.

“The innkeeper happened to be down just when I went over there,” Akemi informed quietly. “Both she and the bartender vouched for them. They’re all from a ship called Yujuui Nikamoru under a captain named Ryuutei. The innkeeper even mentioned his family, but I’ve already forgotten it.”

The sailors had been glancing somewhat uneasily at Imau and Akemi from time to time — all but Noru, who would have needed to turn completely around in her chair to do so — and now one of them rose abruptly as if to make a hasty exit. Noru reached out a hand to touch her companion’s forearm and said something that induced the other sailor to resume her seat.

Again Imau shook her head. “It’s not important.” And now she let free the sigh she’d been restraining. “She was right… we’re not going to find any real pirates this way.”

“But it’s like you said,” reassured Akemi: “with encounters like this, word will get around that pirates are in disfavor. We don’t necessarily need to find any, as long as they realize they’re being hunted.”

“But will that accomplish anything other than sending them into hiding?” Imau murmured. She’d noticed something she’d missed before, and stared at it thoughtfully as she spoke: the shady-looking Noru had one of her legs, bootless, bandaged from the knee down.

“I thought that was the point — not to actually fight pirates. Or are you having second thoughts?”

Imau tore her eyes from where they’d been absently running over and over the shadowy form of the crutch that lay beneath Noru’s chair and table, glancing at her friend with a smile. “You’d prefer to be at home in bed, wouldn’t you?”

Akemi returned the smile with a broader one. “Well, there is that… but if you think I regret this chance to wear something other than a royal knight’s shiiya in public, you’re mistaken.”

With a chuckle, Imau put her hands behind her head and leaned back against the wall. “I should have known.”

Silence followed as they both watched not only Noru’s group but the rest of the room as well. The impression of having failed rather pathetically expanded moment by moment in Imau’s consciousness, however, and eventually she was forced to comment on it. “They weren’t intimidated.”

“No, I don’t think they were.” Akemi, whose eyes had been squinting somewhat as they traversed the bar across the room, fixed her gaze once again on the nearby sailors. “They don’t seem like fighters, most of them… why should they be so confident?”

With a wan smile, “Confident in their honesty, I suppose,” Imau remarked. She thought it helped that Noru, who seemed to be a leader or at least someone with considerable influence among them, was obviously of a firm, calm temperament. “I don’t know that it’ll be any use to us even if they do bother to tell anyone about this.”

“Shall we find someone else to threaten?” Akemi suggested. “Another place, maybe?”

The acquiescence halted on Imau’s lips when she saw Noru rise slowly and turn toward them. Even the short walk between one table and the next was evidently an inconvenience in the sailor’s current state, but Noru didn’t bother to retrieve her crutch for such a negligible distance. She stopped, all her weight poised on her good foot, just before them, surveying them with a neutral expression. “May I join you?”

Taking her first good look at Noru’s face straight on, Imau didn’t immediately reply. The sailor was younger than she’d thought, less weather-beaten than she’d expected, and a good deal prettier than she could have imagined any sailor likely to be. Finally the princess nodded.

“I’d like to know what you’re up to here,” Noru explained as she settled onto the bench across from Imau. “You can’t serious think you’re going to do any good threatening random people.”

Akemi’s glance at Imau was subtle; she was evidently not entirely sure they could trust this woman, the reassurances of the bartender and innkeeper notwithstanding. Imau, however, had an odd feeling about this Noru, growing gradually as her previous sensation of failure had — for some reason she couldn’t pinpoint, she found she shared the confidence she’d mentioned before: that this was an honest person. Whether it was a good idea to believe in this inexplicable instinct she wasn’t sure, however… still, she had to say something

A few moments’ respite were granted her as a barmaid appeared at the table. All offers of refreshment had been turned away since Imau and Akemi had bought their obligatory drinks shortly after entering; not having seen this particular girl tonight, Imau assumed she was just starting her shift and therefore unaware that they didn’t need anything.

Or did they? The moment the impulse arose, she acted on it. “Shall I buy you a drink?” she asked Noru. “As my apology?”

Noru had a finely-shaped pair of lips the color of a fading sunset, and these moved slightly for a moment, as if indecisive, before curving into a smile. “I wouldn’t say no to a suts’giru,” she replied.

Though not much of a drinker herself and not terribly happy with Noru’s choice, Imau turned to the barmaid with the order, “Two sutsugiruou, if you please.”

Barely sparing Imau a glance in favor of the apparently much more interesting Akemi, the barmaid confirmed this order. “And what’ll you be having?” The girl’s tone and expression, especially when combined with the unnecessarily sharp angle at which she bent past Imau and Noru to address the shapely, muscular knight, made the direction of her thoughts all too evident.

Akemi, however, was disinterested in women to the point of being completely oblivious to their advances, and requested the house specialty without even appearing to notice the not-unattractive cleavage the girl had gone out of her way to display. The barmaid, with the characteristic resilience of her profession, departed to fetch their order seeming undiscouraged.

With the barmaid gone, Imau could once again see Noru’s companions at their table without craning her neck, and couldn’t help noticing that the sailors seemed to be watching this table avidly — a few occasionally trying to pretend they weren’t, but most unabashedly staring.

“Your people aren’t happy,” Imau said to Noru in a low tone.

Noru threw a stern glance over her shoulder before answering. “I’m in dry dock for the moment until I’m on both my feet again,” she explained. “They’re sure I’m going to overdo things and buy myself some extra time on land.”

“You don’t seem terribly reckless to me,” Imau remarked.

“I certain don’t go around threatening to run innocent strangers through with a sword.”

Imau had to smile at this, and easily made the decision she’d been putting off before; it wasn’t as if her objective on these nighttime treks must be kept strictly secret at any rate. “I’m afraid piracy is beginning to be recognized as a legitimate profession,” she began seriously, “the same way thievery has been in the past. If pirates get that kind of foothold among the working class, they’ll be five times as difficult to get rid of. I’m not here to fight pirates; I’m here to fight the idea that pirates are welcome in public establishments, that piracy will be tolerated by the average citizen. My goal is just to get the word spread, nothing more.”

Noru had listened with an expression of growing skepticism, though not necessarily of displeasure. After Imau finished, she sat silently for a moment before demanding, “Who are you? ‘The working class?’ ‘The average citizen?’ You talk like a noblewoman.”

Resisting the paranoid urge to check the bandanna she wore beneath her hood as added protection against anyone recognizing her by the color of her hair, Imau shook her head slightly. “It’s not really important.”

Noru studied her with calculating brown eyes. “But now you’ve made me curious,” she admitted. “Are you a noblewoman? Or some merchant whose shipping business is suffering?” She raised a hand to rub thoughtfully at her jawbone with two fingers.

Imau allowed her to guess, answering only with a slight laugh that she did not extend because it sounded a little too nervous for her tastes.

“I’ve dealt with all the big merchants in town,” Noru went on, “but I haven’t seen you before, and I’d remember a face like yours.”

Finding herself blushing slightly at this, Imau pushed away the urge to ask whether that was supposed to be a compliment, and still said nothing.

“The smaller companies are suffering even more than the big ones, though,” mused the sailor, “and you might–” But here the barmaid returned with their drinks.

“Suts’giru for you mistres,” she announced in an exaggerated fashion, setting down the cups; then, instead of leaning past the two of them again, she circumnavigated Noru and stood directly across the table from Akemi. “And for the fine warrior, house angiruou.” She put one foot up on the bench, allowing her shiiya to slide backward along her thigh a few inches. Leaning on the pretty bare knee that showed thus above the level of the table, she bent forward and added the cleavage that had been so blithely ignored on her previous visit to the alluring picture. “Anything else for you, mistress?” she enunciated pointedly.

And still Akemi didn’t notice. “Nothing for me. You two need anything else? What’s so funny?” For she’d turned to her two companions and noticed that something seemed to be amusing them unaccountably.

“No, nothing else right now,” Imau said, shooting a sympathetic look at the barmaid. The latter, straightening, appeared more annoyed than disappointed, and, smoothing out her shiiya, turned abruptly and left them without a word.

“Back to the topic at hand.” Noru removed her skeptically amused eyes from Akemi and fixed them on her drink. Imau didn’t have long to wonder whether the topic at hand was her identity or how to deal with piracy, for Noru continued with the simple statement, “I like this idea of yours. Everyone helps as they can, right? We sailors fight off the pirates as we have to, if we can, and keep from turning to it ourselves… merchants buy only from verified dealers… and the nobility up at the palace do… whatever it is they do to try to solve problems in the city… but what about everyone else? You seem to have found the solution.”

Not sure whether to smile at this apt summary of the situation or frown at the slight implication that she and the other ‘nobility up at the palace’ were doing very little to help at the moment, Imau did at least nod.

“But how many of you are there at this? You and your subujinsh’wai here seem fair formidable, but with only two of you…”

Prior to this, Akemi’s eyes had been turned away from the two of them, still surveying the rest of the room; she had undoubtedly been listening to the exchange, but had deferentially given no indication thereof. Now she turned her gaze, somewhere between skeptical and startled, on Noru. “How ever did you figure that?”

Noru chuckled. Imau refrained from laughing aloud at her bodyguard, and instead, disregarding Akemi’s confusion, answered Noru’s question. “Unfortunately, it is only the two of us. I came up with this plan, and my friend agreed to take part it in with me, but that’s as far as it goes.”

The sailor seemed to ponder over a pull at her drink. Finally she remarked, “Have you tried recruiting?”

Uncomfortably Imau admitted, “No. Anyone doing this has to be able to hold their own in a fight if things go wrong, so that eliminates many potential allies.”

“Not necessary.” Noru glanced over at the other table. “My crewmates, for example, are fair fighters — just sailors’ skills, mind — and as a group could undoubted take on most threats to be found in public places. Some of them even enjoy a good brawl,” she added with a sardonic smile.

“Are you volunteering to suggest this to them?” the princess wondered, trying to remain calm and diplomatic but in reality surprised and excited.

“I think I am.”

In a measured tone, Imau replied, “I appreciate that. But may I ask why you’re willing to help me when you’ve only just learned about this?”

Noru leaned forward and looked into Imau’s face. Her shapely eyes ran up and down the royal features, and Imau found herself blushing again. She wondered if Noru recognized the cosmetics she wore to darken her brows and lashes. She wondered what else Noru saw there.

“Seems like,” Noru said at last, “you feel some responsibility to do this. I respect that, and I admire your consideration for people who can’t fight. I figure ‘the average citizen’ has a responsibility too, and that’s me.”

“Then it looks like I’m not the only one here worthy of respect and admiration.” This came out somewhat breathless as Imau stared into the brown eyes opposite her.

Noru chuckled. “You’re a noblewoman; no doubt about that.” And when Imau had no response to this besides a slightly deeper blush, she went on. “I’d like to see you in action instead of from the other side of your sword. Let me talk to my people, and then let me join you to wherever you go next.”

Here Akemi put in, “You’re incapacitated,” and Imau had regretfully to agree.

“I’ll stand back and watch.” Noru spoke as if everything were settled, and began clumsily to rise and shift her way off the bench. “But let me have that conversation first.”

Imau and Akemi watched her head back to her companions. Quietly, doubtfully, Akemi wondered, “Are we really going to take her with us?”

“It looks like it,” Imau replied in the same tone. She hadn’t expected this tonight, or any night.

Chapter 17 – Second Report

“If Katsu isn’t on our side, he’s going pretty far to make it seem like he is.” This was the beginning of Sano’s second report on returning to the Enca inn, but it wasn’t the first thing he’d said on entering the room. First there had been an awkward greeting during which they’d both, apparently, tried to hide how pleased they were to see each other; and then an argument over how economical it might be to order a meal from the inn staff just then, since Sano hadn’t had breakfast but Hajime would prefer to conserve funds and simply wait until supper.

“Based on what you know of him, can you think of any reason for him to pretend to help you?”

Sano still didn’t like to consider the possibility of Katsu betraying him, didn’t really appreciate Hajime bringing it up again, and was already a little annoyed (and hungry) after the previous argument — but at the same time, Hajime was absolutely right to question everything at this point, especially such a convenient reunion with an old friend. So Sano struggled not to lash out and to give the matter some rational thought.

Finally he said, “I can think of a reason someone in his position might. We’ve been talking to people at a few different inns, trying to get a group together who might actually want to do something instead of just chattering about it over drinks, and we’ve got some people interested. If we got a resistance going and meeting somewhere, and then somebody reported it to Soujirou, that somebody might get a big reward… money or political favor or both or more; I don’t know. Thing is, I just don’t think Katsu’s that kind of person. He watches what’s going on, yeah, but he’s never shown any interest in getting involved until now. I just don’t think he cares that much; he’s way more interested in… art… and… making stuff.”

He thought he’d presented a fairly well rounded picture with this statement — though admittedly his knowledge of Katsu was still based more on the letters they’d exchanged over the last nine years than any newly discovered or rediscovered traits. In any case, he was pleased to see Hajime nodding slowly in a manner suggesting he would accept this perspective for now. “Keep your eyes open, though,” the knight said at last. “I know you don’t want to think so, but he may still have his own agenda.” And that was all it took to keep Sano from getting angry: an acknowledgment that Katsu was his friend and it distressed Sano to think of him as a possible enemy; Hajime was capable of being considerate when he bothered.

In response to this consideration, Sano decided to give Hajime what he’d brought him now instead of later. Despite this being a very natural reaction, however, he couldn’t help sounding a little awkward as he announced, “Hey, I brought you these.” Neither gift-giving nor a lot of interpersonal thoughtfulness had been typical of their relationship thus far, after all.

“Why?” Hajime wondered, perhaps just a little suspicious as he accepted the two books Sano had fished from his backpack.

“I dunno…” Sano looked away immediately, shrugging. “I thought you’d like them.”

“But how much did you spend on them?”

Reassured that the financial aspect of this exchange was Hajime’s source of concern, Sano replied in some relief, “Oh, they’re Katsu’s.”

But evidently the other aspects of this exchange were also on Hajime’s mind. “So you specifically asked him if you could borrow books for me?”

“Yeah… well… just it seemed like last time you were going a little stir-crazy in here. Or maybe more than a little.”

“That’s no reason to be giving out dangerous information.”

Reflecting that he should have known better than to expect thanks, Sano reassured him somewhat indignantly, “I haven’t told anyone about you — not even Katsu! He thinks I have to hide out a lot and it gets boring.”

“Does he really think that, I wonder…?”

“Well, even if he doesn’t believe that story,” Sano protested, “there’s no reason for him to think I wanted them for you.”

“He probably also has no reason to believe you’ve really gotten involved in the conflict against Soujirou purely out of your own interests and motives. And the fact you’re working with him to try to get a resistant group together will tell him you don’t have a group elsewhere. Therefore, it would be logical for him to assume, when you ask for books you’re really not the type to read on your own, that you want them for a fugitive you’re harboring somewhere. And if you happen to have mentioned my name even one time more than the name of anyone else involved in this affair, it’s a good bet he knows who you’re working with when you’re not working with him.”

“Ladies’ fucking tits!” Sano had jumped up from the bed where he’d previously been sitting, and was gaping angrily at Hajime. “Why don’t you just say I can’t read at all and I’m obviously too stupid to be handling any of this and too unprincipled to care about it anyway?!”

“As much as I would enjoy saying that,” replied Hajime coolly, though with a teasing glint in his eye, “it would be straying from the point. I’m not even trying to insult you at the moment; I’m trying to remind you you need to be careful. If your friend is really on our side, it’s fine for him to know about me… but if he’s playing his own game throughout all of this, it may be very dangerous.” He sounded somewhat bitter as he finished, “I can’t do much from here, so practically our entire cause is in your hands.”

Sano’s ire, and as a result his glare, had lost some of its intensity as Hajime said this. Problematically, Hajime’s rude bluntness was so often perfectly accurate. Sano really wasn’t much a reader of books, and probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, on his own, in the matter of who ruled the kingdom… and any potential carelessness on his part could get Hajime killed.

“Besides,” Hajime added as Sano stared across the room at him with this equivocal attitude, “I don’t doubt your principles.” Breaking eye contact with Sano so as to look down at the books again, he continued, “Your motives are always good. It’s your methods I doubt.”

Once again, though it rankled to be doubted, Sano couldn’t logically protest; Hajime had every right to worry about the performance of the man on whom his personal safety and possibly the future of the king he served rested. Besides that, it was unexpectedly gratifying, even mollifying, to have his principles recognized by this royal knight. So he took a deep breath and, instead of arguing, started trying to ease Hajime’s doubts regarding his methods.

There was a certain type of blind loyalist they didn’t want — people that, without a great deal of comprehension of what was going on or what had gone before, yet professed strong support for Kenshin. Of course any support was welcome, but people that had actually given the matter some thought, had some reason for their loyalty, were likely to be more reliable.

The woman they were watching tonight, for example, had established during her supper talk that, while she felt little in relation to Kenshin in specific, she was pretty passionate about changing things via the proper methods — and usurpation and abduction did not strike her as proper. Katsu and Sano had been particularly pleased with the way she’d worded it to the friend she was discussing the matter with: “If someone doesn’t like the way you handle your business, and thinks he could sell baked goods better than you do, is he allowed to lock you up in a back room somewhere and just step in and take over your shop?”

They’d decided she seemed more Sano’s type than Katsu’s. Whether or not she was Sano’s type (and, he being interested only in men, this was unlikely) didn’t really matter; it just needed to seem logical, at a glance, that someone like Sano might try to draw her aside for a private conversation.

Of course this way they risked exposure, but that risk could not be erased, and they had to do something. They could only gage people’s sincerity as best they were able, and hope any spies sent by Soujirou’s people to prevent exactly what they were trying to do would present the sort of supposedly raging loyalty they were already avoiding.

This particular woman didn’t give Sano any convenient opportunity to talk to her inside the inn, which meant he had to follow her out. He didn’t much like having to do that, since it made him come across as an overly eager creeper — not a good way to get someone to trust or want to talk to him. Still, once again, there was no other option if he wanted to try her at all tonight.

Katsu elbowed him conspicuously in the ribs in a ‘Go for it!’ sort of gesture. It was part of the act, but Sano hadn’t been expecting it, and therefore reacted very naturally by choking on his drink and jumping abruptly away from his seat in an attempt not to spill it all over himself. Then he shot Katsu a dirty look, left him to pay the tab, and headed toward the door after the woman.

This time he got lucky: nobody else was hanging out around the inn’s entrance, which meant he could approach her immediately instead of trying to stalk her to a point where nobody would overhear them. He still started things out in accordance with the deception, however, just in case. “Hey, wait up!”

She complied, turning to look at him, her expression curious and slightly skeptical as she glanced up and down his figure. “Yeah?”

“I, uh…” He glanced back at the inn’s door, probably giving a good impression of bashfulness but actually just to double-check that no one else was close by. “I was listening to you inside, and I was wondering if you might want to–” he lowered his voice– “team up with some other people who’re trying to get our old king back on the throne.”

After a pronounced blink of eyes, she stared at him in silence. Clearly he’d played his part well, for she looked completely taken by surprise. Finally she said, in as low a tone as his, “You really just walk up to people and ask them that?”

“If you can think of a better way to do it,” Sano replied with a rueful grin, “I’d love to hear it.”

Her return smile looked as if it was delivered almost against her will. “Let’s walk this way,” she said with a gesture. Sano nodded and fell into step beside her, ready to bolt if she gave any indication of turning on him. But as they walked she went on, “I might be interested in… what you suggested… if I thought it had a reasonable chance of success.”

“Gets more reasonable with every person who joins us.”

“And how many people is that?”

“Not enough yet.”

She nodded, and that she’d accepted this answer was another good sign. “I’m not any kind of fighter, mind you — a little self-defense for the streets is all. If flour will help you, I’m a good source, but if you’re looking for someone who can hold a sword, look somewhere else.”

“We’re just looking for lots of people,” Sano assured her. “The first step is to prove that lots of people don’t like this, right? There may be fighting eventually; I don’t know. You don’t have to commit to anything right now. We’re gonna meet in a week — a couple of weeks, I mean–” Damn the five-day week and that he was used to the ten– “to see just how many people we’ve managed to scrape up and what they all can do. We’ll talk about some ideas then.”

Again she nodded. “Sounds like the beginning of a plan. Where and when is this meeting?”

“If you come back here in nine days — Mis’hyou after next — we’ll tell you.”

She stopped walking and looked him over again, brows slightly lowered. “You’re taking a big personal risk here.”

Sano shrugged. “Like you said, you can’t just lock someone up in a back room and then take over their business.”

With a serious smile, she raised a hand to her forehead in a gesture of courtesy and respect. “I’ll see you a week from Mis’hyou, then.” Then she turned and hurried away down the street.

Once again Hajime was nodding with seemingly reluctant approbation. It was clear he wouldn’t concede verbally in regard to Sano’s methods, nor praise his progress, but there was definitely a relenting tone to his subsequent statement, “All right. So we may have a growing number of allies in town, with a date set to find out for sure, and your friend seems like a useful asset for now, whatever he may do later. What else did you find out?”

“Let’s see… knights.”

At this, Hajime looked quickly over at him with an expression of piercing interest.

“The ones who got away were Sanosuke and Soujirou. You didn’t tell me you had knights with the same names as me and the new fake king.”

“That didn’t seem a point worth mentioning.” Hajime was, however, evidently very pleased to hear which of his subordinates had escaped. “Besides, you’ve never mentioned that ‘Sano’ wasn’t your full name.”

“Oh. Well. Anyway, yeah, those two apparently escaped. I still don’t know about the other two, though; people keep saying they’re either dead or joined Soujirou.”

“Well, keep your ears open for where any of them might be.”

Sano nodded. “Still no real idea where Kenshin is, either. The good thing is, I figure if Soujirou had had him killed, I’d have heard about it. Some people wonder if Kenshin might be dead, but nobody’s claiming that he definitely is.”

“I doubt he’ll have Kenshin killed; he has no excuse to. Claiming he’s just trying to improve the kingdom will only work for him as long as he doesn’t demonstrate a personal grudge. Executing the previous king for nothing would lose him a lot of support.”

“Yeah, well,” said Sano darkly, “we better hope he sticks to that idea. Some people are worried he’ll come up with some fake crime Kenshin’s committed so he will have an excuse.”

Hajime looked grim, but said nothing.

Shaking his head to drive away the unpleasant possibilities for now, Sano went on. “I found out some stuff about most of the divine houses; that’s where I spent most of my time during the day. It’s actually mostly gossip, but that’s about all I can get at this point. There’s nothing really new about Shougo and Sayo; they haven’t stopped acting weird, and they still aren’t bothering to hide it at all, so that hasn’t changed, except that the Megumi people are starting to say what I already thought: if those two are in some resistance, they’re terrible at it.”

Hajime smirked faintly at this assessment.

“None of the divine houses have had any new announcements about Soujirou, and they’re still doing that Devoted Council thing every week. Five-day week. Gossip comes from the servants in the palace about what they’ve been talking about, and I don’t know how true it is, but it seems like the Kaoru girls are serious about not supporting Soujirou’s bullshit, since apparently everything Kaoru has to suggest at the Council gets completely ignored.”

“That’s useful to know,” Hajime said thoughtfully.

“Yeah. It makes it seem like, if a divine house is behind all of this, it really isn’t Kaoru.”

Hajime nodded.

“After I heard that, I decided not to spend any more time in Kaoru’s corner of town unless I had to. So the next interesting thing I noticed was Kamatari kissing someone on a balcony over in Yumi’s. I mean serious kissing: hands were going places, and some clothes were already off, and it looked like more clothes were about to come off; they were really into it. This other person didn’t have a shiiya on, and the light made it hard to see details, so I don’t know who it was… but the first one was definitely Kamatari.” Yumi’s fourth-wash had been interesting enough (and had embarrassed Sano enough at their first meeting) that he’d easily recognized her again.

“It may have been Makoto, one of Yumi’s golds,” Hajime provided, repeating one piece of gossip he’d already shared during their walk to Enca. “But given Kamatari’s reputation, it could have been anyone, inside Yumi’s house or out of it. According to everything I’ve heard, Kamatari is a very sexual person.”

It wasn’t a point of great significance at the moment, but Sano couldn’t help reflecting briefly on the complete lack of any sort of condemnation in Hajime’s voice.

One of many reasons religious folk were such damn hypocrites was that they held themselves to different standards of behavior, particularly when it came to sexuality, than the secular populace; the latter tended to be extremely repressive and prudish about extramarital sex and multiple partners, sometimes even when referring to the devoted among whom such behavior was allowed. To hear a non-devoted speaking without any negativity of a ‘very sexual person’ (in a tone of understatement, no less) was refreshing. Sano hadn’t forgotten the look Hajime had given him on discovering he’d been sleeping with Seijuurou, but, in light of what seemed to be optimistic new information on Hajime’s attitudes, Sano thought now the knight had probably been questioning his taste rather than his morals.

Of course this wasn’t the time to discuss such things, and even thinking about it, pleasant as it was, had to wait, since they were in the middle of a conversation. “Yeah,” Sano said, more or less smoothly in response to Hajime’s last statement, “the only reason this was even interesting is that people are starting to say Kamatari’s sleeping with Soujirou now too… but I’m pretty sure this person on the balcony wasn’t Soujirou. He wouldn’t have been on an open balcony where just anyone could assassinate him, for one thing.”

Hajime made a pensive sound and put a thoughtful hand to his face, obviously struck. When Sano inquired, the knight said slowly, “You’re right. It is interesting. Kamatari gets away with plenty of sex with people outside the church because everyone is willing to look the other way to a certain extent — but the king is too high-profile to ignore. If Kamatari is sleeping with Soujirou, we can expect to see serious repercussions of one type or another eventually.”

“And if we don’t…”

Hajime nodded. “Listen for anyone complaining about that; it may be useful to know which house objects most strongly.”

“Right. All right, so, Misao… there was nothing new, actually, around Misao’s place. At least I didn’t get robbed as much this time, though.” Sano shook his head. “They’re all so used to stealing shit, they probably didn’t think anything of Soujirou stealing the throne. Anyway, nobody seemed like they were thinking about it at all this week.”

Hajime snorted. “It’s no wonder the country’s in such a state, when the religious leaders people look to for guidance are so indifferent to the government.”

Sano could do nothing but agree. Then he cast about for any other news he hadn’t yet relayed and finally, a little reluctantly, brought up what he’d saved for last. “And Tomoe… Tomoe’s people…”

“What?”

Sano had to force the word out. “Kereme.”

“What about it?” Hajime didn’t seem to have much patience for Sano’s reluctance to speak, and Sano wasn’t sure he would have any more patience once the story was told.

“Well…”

Chapter 18 – The K

What he sought at this point was what would under other circumstances have been considered purely social interaction: the opportunity to discuss whatever came up (whatever he could induce to come up) with whomever he met. He hadn’t run into his acquaintance Toki so as to have her direct him to the best places for such interaction, so he searched for them on his own.

The problem with this was that Toki had seemed so pious, not at all the type to enjoy socializing in casual and only moderately religious settings, that Sano doubted he was likely to find the sort of interaction he needed based on what she’d shown him. As such, he mostly wandered blindly through Tomoe’s part of town poking his nose into corners where it looked like chatty people might be inclined to congregate (and hopefully share political thoughts and updates with newcomers).

Really, it was pure luck that a first-wash, whose name Sano didn’t remember but whom he recognized by the guy’s frizzy hair as someone to whom Toki had introduced him, happened to notice him poking around and hailed him in a tone of friendly secrecy by the false name he’d been using.

“Glad I saw you, buddy,” he said. “I was just checking the street, about to lock up.”

“Sounds like I’m just in time for something,” Sano replied, having no idea what that something might be but playing along and speaking in the same tone of subdued, clandestine excitement.

“You sure are.” The frizzy-haired devoted’s voice dropped. “We’re all hitting the K tonight, since we just finished a whole batch of shiiyao and made sure we had plenty left. Figured you might want to see how we do it here in the city.”

The bright-eyed anticipation — actually, the somewhat disconcertingly wide-eyed, pointed, almost twitching anticipation in the man’s face would have been impossible to miss, but Sano was so far from any idea what he meant that, though he followed him into the building from which he’d come, it must be inconceivable to play along any further than that.

Immediately inside the door frizz-hair was now locking stood another first-wash Sano vaguely recognized, and this man too greeted him with an obvious excitement whose source Sano could not place. Though he’d successfully stumbled upon a gathering, he was beginning to think it wasn’t the type likely to be exchanging political opinions. What it might actually be he couldn’t guess.

“Look who I found on the street,” said the first devoted.

“It’s Sometarou, isn’t it?” said the second, whose best identifying feature was a large mole on his jaw on the left.

“That’s right,” Sano replied, trying to sound easy and ready for anything.

“Good timing! But I bet you were probably looking around for it anyway, right?”

Evidently Sano’s total lack of understanding was glaringly apparent, for the mole-faced devoted burst out laughing. “Oh, man… I heard small-towners didn’t do it much, but, seriously…”

Frizz-hair clapped Sano on the back with a friendly hand that lingered there a few seconds too long for perfect comfort. “You really did come just in time,” he said, sounding pleased. “You’ll have your first taste of kereme in style.”

Kereme… that sounded familiar… but no matter how Sano wracked his brains, he couldn’t think where he’d heard the word before, or what it might be. So, wondering what the hell these people were on about, and distinctly uneasy about whatever was about to happen to him, he allowed himself to be led down the corridor by the two devoted. The latter moved quickly and quietly, looking around with practiced wariness that did little to make Sano feel any better about any of this.

“We’ve got another first-timer here too,” said frizz-hair as they entered an antechamber of some sort and there seemed to be security to speak more freely. “So we two’ll be keeping a watch all night so you’ll be cozy and safe for your fist time.”

Safe? Keeping a watch? What was this?

“Don’t look like that, master newcomer,” mole-face laughed quietly. “There’s no way for us to explain it; you just have to experience it yourself.”

“You’ll be closer to Tomoe than you’ve ever been before,” said the first devoted, with a decidedly un-pious grin on his face.

Sure, Sano remarked silently. ‘Cause that’s exactly where I wanna be. Especially given that ‘closer to the lady of death’ might be a euphemism for more than just religious experience. “All… right…” he finally forced himself to say aloud. “Is it against the rules or something?”

“Oh, man, I can’t believe you don’t know any of this. It’s against the law… but if that doesn’t stop Enishi, why should it stop us?”

“Enishi? He does this thing too?”

They’d entered another room past the antechamber by now, and those already present had evidently caught the tail-end of this conversation. “Does it?” one of them said. “He practically lives off the stuff. Gein and Akira complain nonstop about how often they have to cover for him when he’s out.”

“‘Out?'” Sano echoed.

“All right, enough questions.” Mole-face was still laughing at Sano’s ignorance, though it wasn’t a particularly unkind laugh — more anticipatory than anything, really, as if he sincerely looked forward to introducing Sano to this thing. “You’ll get it soon enough,” he went on, and gestured to the set of lounge cushions where those present were already seated or sprawled as if ready for a nap. “Just sit there; we’ve gotta check if everything’s safe.”

Trying simultaneously not to show his reluctance and to decide whether he would go through with this or back out now while he still seemed to have the chance, Sano obeyed. Frizz-hair and mole-face left the room, evidently heading a different direction than that from which they’d come, presumably to ensure doors were locked and no authority figures present — though if the head of this entire branch of the church partook of this entertainment, how much danger could any of them really be in here tonight?

In a confidential tone, “It’s my first time too,” said the red devoted seated on Sano’s left. She didn’t sound nearly as uncertain as Sano felt, probably because she actually knew what they would be doing.

The middle-aged man on the other side of the young woman leaned forward and addressed both her and Sano. “You guys are going to love this.” Sano was starting to recognize the bright-eyed excitement surrounding this activity. “I’ve done it a few times already, and they say eventually you can actually remember what you saw the next morning.”

“So it’s like being drunk?” If that was the case, Sano thought, it probably wouldn’t be too bad. He also logged away the fact that an overnight stay was the expected aftermath.

“Hmm, a little.” The older man’s thoughtful expression turned to a grin. “Better, though. Much better.”

“All right, well, that sounds good.” Silently Sano added, Maybe.

They’d barely gotten through introductions — the woman was called Lioda, the man Korucun; Sano had not really paid any attention to what other information, such as their family names and what they did around here, they’d given him — before the other two came back.

“All clear,” announced frizz-hair, dropping down at Sano’s side opposite Lioda. He held a tray containing a plethora of small cups and two stoppered ceramic bottles very much like the ones Seijuurou made (only, Sano thought with the loyalty of distance from his annoying former master, not quite as well constructed or elegant-looking). The reminder of Seijuurou and the promise of a drink of some sort eased Sano’s concerns about this process.

Mole-face took the last lounge cushion, on frizz-hair’s far side, and passed toward the latter a plain wooden box with waxed paper protruding from under its lid such as might be used to hold cosmetics or medicines. Frizz-hair accepted the container and set it down next to the bottles before unstoppering one of the latter and carefully opening the former. As Sano had expected, the small box contained powder: pale pink, appearing uniform in texture, clumped somewhat in spots, and topped by a miniature cup on a handle.

Though not eager to continue displaying his ignorance, “What is that?” Sano couldn’t help asking.

“Leftover dye,” frizz-hair replied, and began pouring out water into cups.

“Left over because we made too much,” mole-face grinned.

“We’ll start the newcomers on one portion,” said frizz-hair next, carefully lifting some powder from the box and doling out exactly one scoop each to two of the water-filled cups. “Korucun has graduated to two.” He’d set the cups into a line that matched the line of people on cushions, and now he put two scoops of powder into the one on the end. “And the rest of it for the rest of us.” He gave a matched number of scoops to the remaining two cups, then lifted the paper lining of the box to tip the last of it into what was presumably his own.

“You gotta start small,” mole-face explained as Sano watched in mystification, “but you’ll get up to our level eventually.”

“Right!” said Lioda breathlessly. Her excitement about doing this was a little creepy.

The small cups on the tray numbered twelve, and Sano wondered, as he watched frizz-hair fill five more of them from the second bottle, whether they’d expected another person or just grabbed the whole matching set without concern. This second liquid, by its smell, was hard liquor, and one helping went next to each of the previously readied cups to make five pairs.

“One drink of kereme,” frizz-hair instructed as he began distributing the cups, “one drink of ab’giru. Try to keep them even. Don’t gulp.”

“Keeps your mouth from turning bright red,” mole-face elaborated. And without further ado, he set the example.

Sano accepted his cups with mixed feelings. It was probably too late to back out now, but by this point he was curious in addition to a little concerned. This might be strange and illegal, but he wanted to know what its effect would be, so he didn’t mind giving it a try.

He took his first alternating sips.

The water, into which the powder had dissolved completely, had an unpleasantly bitter, plant-like taste that made Sano assume the dye was derived from some flower leaf or something. The abigiruou was good — he’d always been fond of this potent potato-based drink, but hadn’t always been able to afford it — and hopefully did its job of washing the dye-suffused water into his throat so it didn’t sit around coloring his gums. But that was the extent of the experience until about two thirds of the way down the cups.

They all imbibed in silence except for the sound of Lioda giggling; perhaps she was more of a lightweight than Sano, who was only just beginning to feel something. He concentrated on the sensation as he made his way through his last few drinks.

He was starting to feel very easy, very comfortable. This cushion was extremely nice to sit on. And yet there was a lightness to his frame, a floatiness, that suggested he could jump up at any time, that he was ready for any sort of physical exertion. Yes, there was a bit of buzz in his head and warmth suffusing him, but did that come from the kereme or the abigiruou? He didn’t really care.

By the time he’d emptied his cups, he found himself disappointed there was nothing left. Simultaneously, though, to sit here with good friends and feel so light and dreamy was very nice. Lioda’s laughter fell melodically from her lips, and the two first-wash had struck up a conversation in pleasant voices. Sano was quite content.

And then, as if he’d been wading into the ocean and suddenly reached the dropoff into deep water, everything around him seemed to fade and swish and change. Had it been a room made of wood? He wasn’t sure, and wasn’t sure he cared. Brimful of energy and yet incredibly relaxed, he explored, not quite walking but neither flying; in some manner between the two he moved along, brushing past soft, gentle veils of sweet pastel colors as if he were skimming just above the ground. At the same time he felt as if he were lying down comfortably, both asleep and aware. He smiled lazily.

Faces peeked from the weave of the veils, nice faces that changed and disappeared and reappeared as if playing hide-and-seek with him. They might have been the source of the gentle voices that filled the air with friendly murmurings, and they might not. Sano didn’t really care.

In that type of sudden, comfortable, heavy gust of warm wind that ruffled his hair and made the long ends of his bandanna snap out joyfully behind him, the veils whipped about as if parting just for him as he advanced at an even greater speed, almost carried by the buoyant air. And through the translucent cloth that seemed to sparkle as it fluttered away from him, he saw an unexpected figure. Unexpected, but far from unwelcome.

What was Hajime doing here? Sano wondered. And Hajime, stretching his lean body languidly where he lounged on the cushions, told him not to be stupid, that of course he was waiting here for Sano. What had taken so long? He reached out a strong hand, beckoning.

Hajime was warm and smooth and handsome, and it was lucky and convenient that no rough, troublesome clothing lay between them. Sano couldn’t say what had taken him so long, but he was sure he made some very insolent reply to the question as he floated into Hajime’s arms and into ecstasy.

He awoke with a muffled start, as if he really was quite startled but didn’t have the capacity, at the moment, to feel it as he should. Groggy and hazy-headed, he lay in what he came gradually to realize wasn’t a very comfortable position with someone using his thighs as a pillow and his entire upper half lying on the bare floor, and tried to figure out where the hell he was and why.

His breathing came in uncomfortable wheezes through a congested nose and an incredibly dry mouth, so much that he couldn’t even tell whether or not the air had a flavor to it — which was probably for the best. All his senses seemed dulled, as if each was set apart from the others in thick packing material. And he felt as if he’d had very little actual sleep during his period of unconsciousness. Plenty of time had passed, he believed, but what had gone on during it was a complete blank.

He had on a few occasions (mostly thanks to Seijuurou’s encouragement) been so drunk he’d had a difficult or even impossible time remembering in the morning what he had done the night before, and this was like that in certain respects… The physical symptoms weren’t terribly similar to those of a hangover, but the disorientation, complete lack of recollection of how he’d come to be here, and creeping horror of waking up were.

Traces of sex, he was starting slowly to note, lingered on his nerves, but he couldn’t remember a damn thing about what had happened last night. Presumably whoever clung to the bare skin of his legs had been part of it, and his imperfect hearing seemed to be picking up the sounds of someone else snoring nearby. And were there voices somewhere close? Not too close… indistinct… in another room? How many people had he slept with last night?

Actually, what, in general, had happened last night? What day was today? What had he been working on, and what should he be thinking — worrying — about now? Trying not to panic, he forced himself to lie still and give his best effort to remembering.

At first what he’d been doing during the entirety of yesterday — what he assumed had been yesterday, anyway — was vague and disorganized in his head, but he managed more or less to force it into some kind of focus and meaningful order with strenuous thinking. He recalled wandering around Tomoe’s corner looking for people to talk to… he recalled finding people… but they hadn’t wanted to talk, exactly, had they?

The closer he got to recalling the kereme itself, the more of an empty page his mind was. He remembered some of what had been said about it beforehand, he thought he remembered that the actual substance had been a drink of some sort, and… he’d… enjoyed the experience, hadn’t he? He couldn’t be quite sure, but he thought he had.

Finally he struggled to look around, finding the room unlit rather than that anything was wrong with his vision. His eyes did adjust gradually to some light from another room — candleflame, he believed, not daylight; wasn’t this an interior chamber? — and he was able to make out the shapes around him: a woman, her clothing in great disarray and hardly covering anything, was out cold on the next lounge cushion over, except for her head and shoulders that were haphazardly pillowed on Sano’s lower half; and a man, almost completely naked, lay close to him on the other side, snoring. Sano’s own state of dress looked about as bad: his pants, including his belts and sword, were down around his ankles, his stolen Tomoe shiiya nowhere to be seen (though he assumed it was in the room somewhere); and his shirt had actually been torn down the left side so it sat sadly bunched around his right arm, leaving his chest entirely bare.

Though not as uptight about casual sex as many people, yet he liked at least to know who someone was before he fucked them. Some manner of introduction had taken place last night, but he didn’t remember a word of it now, so that didn’t count. Beyond this, he didn’t have any idea which of the four people he was fairly sure had been there with him he’d actually had relations with. It didn’t bother him that the one he was most certain about was a woman — though he usually didn’t go in for that, whatever you enjoyed at the time, right? — but it did bother him that there were three other strangers that might have taken part, possibly all at once, and he couldn’t remember a minute of it. And hadn’t that frizz-haired devoted looked at him with… a lot of interest?

Actually, the frizz-haired devoted was probably the source of one of the voices coming from the next room, given that he and mole-face had seemed to be the experienced parties and therefore had probably awakened in greater clarity and sense than anyone else. Sano really didn’t relish the thought of confronting those two, of facing their laughing references to last night and how fun it had been when he couldn’t remember it and whether he’d done anything horribly embarrassing. Somebody needed to confront those two with the admonishment that ‘first-timers’ should be warned they might be headed for a night of unrecollected sex upon swallowing that stupid dye stuff, but Sano wouldn’t be the one to do it. It was about time to untangle himself from this pile, from this highly embarrassing situation, find his missing things, and sneak out of here. Sneak out of here and never look back.

“Kereme,” Sano said.

“What about it?” Hajime demanded impatiently.

“Well…”

And all at once, Sano realized there was no way in hell he planned to tell Hajime any of that. There was just no need for the knight to know; ladies could only guess what Hajime would think of him. Even after the indication Hajime had given a few minutes ago of not being nearly so prudish about sexual matters as Sano had expected to find him, he couldn’t imagine admitting he might have had a bit of an orgy but knew neither the details nor, for certain, whether it had happened at all. It was too damned embarrassing. Sano didn’t think he would even be capable of looking Hajime in the eye and saying it aloud.

So what he finally decided on was, “It’s pretty big in Tomoe’s corner, and it seems like her white’s whole life revolves around the stuff.”

Hajime nodded. If he’d noticed Sano had just omitted a huge part of his story, he said nothing about it — which probably meant he hadn’t noticed, since Sano couldn’t imagine him not insisting on hearing it all if he had. “It’s typical for any high-ranking devoted to be suspected of using kereme,” the knight said, “but Enishi always did seem the type more than the rest.”

“Yeah.” Sano was immensely relieved at having successfully evaded discussing his little kereme ‘outing,’ and quickly volunteered more information not related to himself in order to hasten past that uncomfortable topic. “Apparently sometimes it even gets in the way of his duties, and his golds have to cover for him. I guess it just figures, for a guy named after a city.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“From some of the Tomoe lower-wash.” Sano tried not to blush or otherwise signal there was more to it than just that. He also tried to reassure himself there was no way Hajime suspected the truth, since Hajime would absolutely say something if he did. And it wasn’t as if Sano owed Hajime that kind of personal detail, or owed Hajime any kind of restraint of his sexual behavior.

Hajime nodded. “I wonder if it’s true.”

Interest caught, Sano was distracted from his discomfort and wondered, “Why might it not be?”

“A rumor like that could provide excellent cover for any number of other activities. If Enishi and his golds are up to something — they’ve been secretly supporting or guiding Soujirou’s takeover all along, for example — people are less likely to suspect it if they believe Enishi is out of his mind on kereme half the time and his golds are busy trying to cover it up.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered. “You’re right.” He might have thought of that point himself if he hadn’t been so absorbed in other aspects of his own experience. “Sounds like I should try to find out whether Enishi really uses the stuff or not.”

Again Hajime nodded. “I’m not entirely familiar with how kereme works, but the impression I have is that the more someone uses it, the more they need it. If Enishi uses at all, that makes it seem less likely the rumor is just a cover story for something else.”

Sano sincerely hoped this growing need of kereme didn’t take any kind of firm hold after only a single instance, but of course said nothing to that effect. He was trying to put the entirety of that night out of his mind, even if he would have to make inquiries about the stuff the next time he was back in the city, and to this end felt they must stop talking about it as soon as possible. So he nodded his understand and said, “I’ll see what I can find out. I guess I’ll head back in the morning.”

As he’d hoped, this redirected Hajime’s thoughts toward plan-making and what they didn’t know yet. And though that did involve, again, some at least implied reproof of Sano and disregard for his abilities, that was significantly the lesser of two conversational evils at this point.

Chapter 19 – Tangles

Though there was no doubt that Hajime, impatient for news from the capital and unable to seek it on his own behalf, would not allow Sano to sleep far past the time he arose himself, Hajime hadn’t needed to shake or prod Sano awake even once at this inn. Here, something about Hajime being awake had, in turn, awakened Sano even when he might not normally have been inclined to alertness just yet.

So it was this morning: upon opening his eyes and stretching upward from his prone position, Sano noted Hajime too sitting up and looking as if he’d been awake for a short time already. Only the palest of pre-dawn light framed the closed shutters from outside, and the room was very dim, so when Hajime turned toward Sano, his eyes as he faced away from the window were barely visible beneath his brows.

Unable though Sano was to remember exactly what he’d been dreaming, yet he was pretty sure Hajime had been there. It couldn’t have been too terribly unpleasant, either, since Sano found himself in a reasonably good mood upon awakening — much better than last night when, even after distracting unrelated conversation and Hajime leaving the room for a while to take a bath, Sano had still bedded down with a worried and embarrassed feeling about what he’d omitted from his report.

And now he’d gone and thought about that again as pretty much his first reflection of the day.

“Morning,” he said as he pushed the blanket from his naked upper half and swiveled so his legs slid out from under it and off the bed. As a distraction from his unwanted thoughts he added, “Hot water been by yet?”

“Do you see any hot water in this room?” Hajime replied as he rose and went to open the window.

“Well, no, but…” Sano’s words degenerated into a yawn, and he didn’t bother to resume them. Instead he looked around for where he’d dropped last night’s shiiya, which turned out to be on the floor in such a spot that it had been kicked mostly under the bed. He picked it up, but decided not to put it on just yet; he wanted to wash up a little first.

Suddenly, making Sano start, “What happened to your shirt?” Hajime wondered from where Sano had believed him to be looking down into the yard.

Sano had made sure to get ready for bed last night while Hajime was out of the room so as to hide the damaged state of his shirt from the knight’s shrewd eyes, then crumpled the garment up and shoved it into his backpack… but obviously those eyes were even shrewder than he’d realized. Either that or Hajime had noted the unusual circumstance of Sano sleeping entirely bare-chested and was simply curious. No more than simple curiosity sounded in his voice, really, and Sano should probably stop being so paranoid. What, after all, was the worst that could happen if Hajime found out?

Still, he tried for absolute casualness as he answered, “Oh, it’s been threatening to fall apart for months,” and just hoped Hajime had never paid too close attention to the actual state of his shirt. There was no reason he should have.

Hajime’s skeptical expression was visible now in the growing light from the window, but if he intended to say anything, he evidently changed his mind when from outside in the hallway came the call — quiet enough not to be too disturbing to sleepers, but firm enough to be audible to anyone listening for it — of, “Hot water!”

After this Sano was safe, since he could tease Hajime about feeling the need to wash his face even though he’d had a bath mere hours before, respond to Hajime’s return tease about his own personal hygiene that Hajime had no idea when Sano was or wasn’t bathing in town, thank you very much, and generally get ready for the day without further worry. The process overall succeeded fairly well at driving what Sano didn’t want to think about out of his mind, at least for now.

Of course the conversation, as it so often did, shifted gradually to a reiteration of everything they still needed to know that Sano was trying to figure out in town, and, despite the usual apparent lack of confidence on Hajime’s part, it was an acceptable topic. Having pretty thoroughly covered any new ideas yesterday after Sano’s report, they had no fresh ground to tread, and the familiarity of everything they came up with to say actually, oddly, made the subject more or less comfortable.

But Sano noticed, while smoothing out his hair as best he could with his fingers and some of the water that had by now settled into tepidity, that Hajime seemed annoyed. Given that the knight not infrequently seemed annoyed about something or other, this didn’t immediately strike Sano; but after observing it over the course of the next several comments back and forth between them, he began to wonder why it should be the case now. They weren’t discussing anything particularly provoking — no more provoking than it usually was, anyway. And eventually so much of Sano’s attention was bent toward trying to figure out what was bothering Hajime that it caught Hajime’s attention. He broke off what he was saying to ask, “What are you making faces about?”

Abandoning subtlety and settling for asking directly, Sano retorted, “What are you making faces about? What’s got you so annoyed?”

“You think I need a reason beyond your mere presence?” It was the type of exaggerated sarcasm too over the top to be even a little cutting.

“I might not think so,” replied Sano, rolling his eyes, “if you always made that kind of face every time I was around… but these are new annoyed faces today. I can’t believe it’s just me.”

With a twitch of lips Hajime admitted, “It’s your stupid hair that’s annoying.” And his audible reluctance seemed somewhat at odds with the straightforward insult. The mismatch of sound and statement was so palpable, in fact, that Sano couldn’t even get annoyed himself; he was too busy trying, now more intensely than ever, to figure out what was really bothering his companion.

Hajime, to a certain extent, explained. “Your scraggly hair is too attention-grabbing, and we should have done something about it before the first time you ever went into the city.”

Reflecting hard, adding together the reluctant tone and an irritation that couldn’t possibly be centered on this alone, Sano stared at Hajime — at his hair, long and unbound, clean and still damp but lacking the sleek evenness that had marked it before.

“Combs aren’t expensive,” Hajime went on. “We should have bought one the first day here and taken care of your stupid look. It would have made you stand out far less.”

Reaching a conclusion at last, Sano shook his head. “No, this isn’t about my hair, is it?” he said pensively. “At least mostly not. This is about your hair.” And though Hajime’s instant scowl said, “Don’t be stupid,” his voice said nothing, so Sano’s confidence in the idea increased. “I seriously never figured you for the vain type–” he was grinning now– “but I guess if I had hair like yours I might be pretty happy with it too — and maybe want to comb it with an actual comb every once in a while!”

Perhaps he was merely grasping at what evidence he could of the correctness of his hypothesis (since the knight obviously wasn’t going to speak up and offer any verbally), but he thought there was a touch of redness to the irked darkening of Hajime’s face. Impetuously he stood, grin undiminished. “So obviously the answer is to run to the market and buy you a comb. I can grab some stuff to mend my shirt at the same time.”

Hajime too got to his feet, and this time he really did say, “Don’t be stupid. You need to get back into Elotica.”

“This won’t set me back more than an hour, and an hour’s not going to hurt anything.”

“Something so frivolous isn’t worth even an hour,” Hajime insisted irritably.

Sano wasn’t sure why, but he was overcome with a giddy impulse to have his own way in this. Maybe he’d been dedicating himself too completely to following Hajime’s orders lately and needed to strike out on his own, however minor the activity. Or maybe he just liked the thought of buying Hajime a present, however insignificant. In any case, he laughed as he reached for the door. “I’ll be able to make my hair look more respectable, and you’ll have something else to entertain you while I’m in town.”

“I do not entertain myself by combing my hair!” was Hajime’s final argument, sounding by now rather exasperated by the absurdity of the situation — and his own protest — than truly irritated. He preferred not to be seen outside the inn room more than necessary, though, and certainly wouldn’t draw attention to himself by staging a conflict in the hall, so this was as far as he could go.

Sano too appreciated the absurdity, and was laughing again as he waved a cheeky goodbye to the scowling face watching him through the crack of the door and turned to head toward the stairs. His steps were buoyant as he left the building.

Though Hajime hadn’t actually confirmed Sano’s guess, neither had he openly denied it, which was as good as a confession to Sano. And there was something unexpectedly endearing about Hajime longing to give his neglected hair a good combing. Sano loved it when Hajime offered such proofs that he wasn’t merely a royal knight dedicated at the expense of everything else to the restoration of Kenshin’s throne, but also a normal person with some interests and desires that might be, in his own words, frivolous. And admittedly some really nice hair that probably deserved more attention than he’d been able to give it lately.

In a town this size, the markets tended to get going quite early, as Sano had already noticed when he’d passed through on his way to and from Elotica. He was certain, as he made his way into the busy, chattering crowd around the various stands lining the streets, that it wouldn’t take long — or too extravagantly much money — to get exactly what he needed here. He should have told Hajime half an hour.

He’d become so accustomed, over the last couple of weeks, to listening carefully whenever he was in a group for any even remotely interesting or useful snippet of informative conversation or gossip that he’d started doing it without conscious thought. Only when certain provocative words lodged in his brain too firmly for him not to give them complete and intense attention did he start deliberately listening, and then his attitude changed swiftly from the unaccustomed but welcome cheer of the morning’s silliness to one far more somber and intent. He was back to the inn in under an hour, but he brought more than what he’d set out to retrieve.

Perhaps Hajime hadn’t believed Sano’s time estimate and had anticipated a longer wait, for he was reading when Sano entered the room. Or maybe the book was just that engrossing, and Hajime couldn’t wait to return to it. Sano, not being much of a reader, couldn’t guess, and it didn’t matter. The instant the door was closed and Sano advancing across the small room, he said in a low tone, “The market’s going crazy with news from town. Misao’s white’s been murdered.”

“What?” Hajime looked up and around with an expression of sudden concern — not, Sano thought, for the murdered devoted personally, but for what the event implied and what the political ramifications might be. “By whom?”

“Nobody knows! They can’t even agree whether it was one person or a group or a man or a woman or what. All the whites were attacked, people are saying, but all of them are fine except Nenji. And I guess the attacker got away every time.”

“Any more details than that?”

“No. Not floating around the market, anyway.” Sano took the last step forward and set the comb he’d bought down on the table.

Hajime, his expression very serious, did not reach for it. “And we can’t even guess how this may change things. You’ll have to be even more careful in town than before.”

“You think so?” Sano retreated to his bed and sat. “I bet everyone’ll be talking about it; it won’t be a problem for me to ask straight out.”

Swiveling on his stool to face Sano completely, Hajime did not lighten his sober look. “I mean you’ll have to be careful about wandering around in a devoted shiiya when there’s an assassin loose who’s targeting devoted.”

At the concerned sound of the statement, Sano was surprised. “What, you think this guy’s gonna come after me? When I’m dressed as a red? Why?”

Hajime shook his head as if he either had no concrete reason for his concern or simply didn’t want to voice it — neither of which seemed much like him — and finally moved to exchange the book in his hand for the comb on the table. Abruptly he stood from the stool and nudged it forward with one foot. “Come sit here,” he ordered.

“You’re really going to comb my hair?” Sano wondered skeptically. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had performed that service for him, but had an idea it might have been his mother back before she’d died. As such, it felt a little odd to think of Hajime doing the same.

“It’s more important than ever now that you don’t stand out too much,” the knight replied, gesturing to the stool.

Figuring he might as well, Sano obeyed. “You really think there’s a threat to me,” he said as he took the seat in front of Hajime.

“I think it’s a possibility we would be foolish to ignore.”

“I guess…”

Hajime’s fingers working at the knot of Sano’s bandanna startled the younger man for only a moment, but then he accepted the loosened red tie and held it on his lap as Hajime began combing. It started out, and remained, a difficult process.

“When was the last time you took an actual comb to this?” Hajime muttered presently.

“Uh… before I left Eloma, I think. Maybe at Seijuurou’s house…”

“No wonder, then…”

The weird feeling of having set Hajime parallel to his mother in his thoughts faded as the gulf of difference between the two experiences rapidly expanded. As a child with attentive parents, Sano had worn his hair as smooth as Hajime’s normally was, and the act of combing it had been a soothing morning and bedtime ritual. As an adult with defiantly untamed locks, he found the taming thereof an uncomfortable and wearisomely lengthy business.

At least Hajime knew what he was doing, starting from the ends and working the tangles out with sure, patient movements. Sano actually wondered a bit what he would look like when the process was finished, but there was no looking glass in the room to consult on the subject and he doubted Hajime would be accurately descriptive.

After a fairly lengthy silence that was surprisingly free of awkwardness, Hajime returned to their previous topic by asking, “When did the attacks take place?”

“Yesterday, I think.” Sano was continually trying not to grimace at the tugging of his hair. “Maybe the night before? Over the last couple of days, I guess… you know how gossip like that is; nobody knew for sure, and people make shit up when they want to be the first person to tell the news.”

“Hmm.”

“Why? What are you thinking?”

“You were out in public yesterday and the day before. If any of the attacks took place on those days, why did you only hear about it today?”

“That’s… true…” Sano said slowly. “What does that mean?”

Hajime also spoke slowly, pensively, as his hand holding the comb continued to move over Sano’s head. “If all the attacks occurred at the same time, it would make sense to hear about them all at once as well. It would also indicate a group of enemies able to coordinate their attacks. But if the attacks really did take place over the last couple of days, it could have been the same attacker or attackers every time — someone talented enough to get at whites wherever they were and escape without leaving much information — which is worrisome, but probably less worrisome than a larger group with those same skills. But why, in that case, would we only have heard about it today?”

“Maybe,” Sano suggested, “the other whites besides Nenji just didn’t bother mentioning they were attacked? They’re mostly warriors, or they’ve got warriors around to keep them safe… maybe they just didn’t take it very seriously until someone actually died?”

“That sounds like how you might respond in that situation,” said Hajime dryly. “But all of the current white devoted must be aware of their political importance, especially in the current climate, and wouldn’t let an attempt on their lives go unremarked. I think it’s more likely that the news came out only when it could no longer be suppressed; or that the gossips are simply wrong about the time frame, and all the attacks happened at about the same time.”

“Which doesn’t help us at all,” Sano grumbled.

Darkly Hajime agreed. “Nor,” he added, “do we have any idea what this assassin is after or whose side they’re on.”

“So add ‘anything I can find out about the assassin’ to my list of shit to look for.”

“Yes. I think, however…” It seemed clear that Hajime didn’t want to say this. “It might be wise if you didn’t go back into Elotica immediately.”

Again Sano was startled. “Why?”

“Even if you are dressed as only a red, we know for a fact that devoted have been attacked. Besides, you’re a newcomer who’s been asking questions and possibly making people suspicious even if they haven’t been showing it to your face. It’s probably best if you don’t show up again until this news has had time to fade a bit from everyone’s mind.”

Though Sano grasped Hajime’s meaning, he almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Not even that long ago you were complaining about me taking a whole hour to go buy shit we needed before I headed into town! Now you’re saying I should wait — how long?”

Hajime sighed in frustration. “I don’t like it. But I think you — and our cause — will be safer if we give it a day or two before people start noticing you again.”

Sano did not miss the placement of his safety before that of the cause — or, indeed, that the two were listed separately at all — but that wasn’t the aspect of Hajime’s statement he felt the immediate need to comment on. “So today and tomorrow? I know this is going to sound weird from me to you, but do you have the patience for that?”

Hajime chuckled faintly, darkly. “Even longer would be safer, I think, but, no, I probably wouldn’t have the patience for that. This is the best compromise I can come up with.”

And that the single-minded royal knight was willing to compromise at all in this matter that seemed to mean the entire world to him was… significant, Sano thought. Hajime’s hands had stilled, and the tugging at his hair had ceased, so Sano twisted where he sat to look up at the other man. He couldn’t quite read his expression, except to observe that it was very serious and not very happy.

Abruptly Sano stood and held out a hand. “So obviously it’s pointless for you to be messing with my hair right now.” He shook his head, feeling an unusually smooth swishing sensation against his chin and neck, and grinned. “Here, let me do yours instead.”

Hajime raised his brows not so much in his usual disdainful skepticism as in genuine, straightforward surprise. Drawing back he said simply, “Why?”

“Well, you said earlier that combing your hair doesn’t entertain you or whatever, but it obviously needs to be done, and now it turns out I don’t have anywhere to be anytime soon. So give it here.”

Hajime’s hand holding the comb had pulled back so far now that it actually lay against his chest, and on the man’s face was a frown. There was also, however, a discernible touch of reluctant, dubious amusement to demeanor and expression. “I don’t believe you even know how to comb hair.”

“That’s… fair…” Sano admitted. “But we’ve got a lot of hours ahead of us that you’re not allowed to spend sitting by the window reading books and ignoring me. And, yeah, I’ve got a shirt to fix, but that’s not going to take all that long — even if I have to pull all the stitches out halfway through because they suck and start over. So we can spend a little while seeing if I’m any good at combing hair, and if I’m balls at it, there’s plenty of time for you to teach me how to do it right.”

Sano still believed the theory he’d concocted earlier — that Hajime was discontented with the state of his hair and would be happier after a good combing — and for some reason wanted to be part of that… especially now that he wasn’t going to be able, any time soon, to contribute to easing the uptight knight’s mind with his usual method of searching out information in the capital.

Whatever Hajime’s real thoughts and source of discontentment, by the end of Sano’s defiant statement he was smiling with just one corner of his mouth, as if against his will — as if, in fact, he genuinely couldn’t believe he found this funny, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that he did. But at last he held out the comb, and when Sano took it moved forward to sit down on the stool Sano had vacated. “I suppose if you make a hopeless mess of my hair, you can always go back to the market for a pair of shears and some more gossip.” His sarcasm took a darker turn as he added, “Brace yourself, though… you don’t have any idea just how boring it gets around here during the day.”

Chapter 20 – Thirteen Years Ago

Despite Hajime’s warning, the first day of waiting wasn’t terribly bad to get through. Yes, they argued on and off throughout its extent, but Sano had reached a point where arguing with Hajime felt about the same as having less combative conversations with him, so that didn’t matter much.

He managed to wheedle Hajime into telling him what was so special about the book he was reading, and, though it didn’t sound like anything Sano would be even a little interested in reading for himself, he had to admit (not aloud) to a surprising level of enjoyment and interest at hearing Hajime talk about it. However annoying Hajime could be at times, he was also insightful to an impressive degree about a lot of things, and there was an unexpected passion about him — which perhaps shouldn’t have been so unexpected, given Hajime’s behavior in relation to the usurpation — that Sano found very engrossing; besides that, Hajime’s sarcasm made his descriptions endlessly interesting. Sano thought he could have listened to Hajime talk about any number of otherwise-boring-sounding books.

That did not, of course, stop Hajime from making snide comments about Sano’s level of literacy and ability to comprehend what he was saying. Which didn’t necessarily bother Sano, just led him to retaliate with unflattering suggestions about Hajime’s ability to make friends neither fictional nor historical.

As Sano set about mending his torn shirt and Hajime watched with eyes that expressed skepticism about the younger man’s needle skills but no verbal comment on the subject, they considered whether Sano should head back into the market and see if he could hear anything else useful. Sano marveled a little at the way they could turn a discussion without sides into an argument when they both expressed the idea that to seek more information tomorrow — whether through another trip into the market during a second day of lying low here in Enca, or through the usual methods in Elotica — would be wiser than to possibly draw attention to himself with a second trip in on the same day that wouldn’t end with any purchase as an excuse for his presence. How, he wondered, could they conjure confrontation, this tension between them, when agreeing on something? Sometimes there was no word for their conversations other than ‘silly.’

When supper time eventually rolled around, Hajime again gave Sano his sweetbun, and it occurred to Sano to ask what Hajime did with the things — which seemed to be a regular fixture of the meal included in the price of the room — when Sano was not present. And when Hajime grudgingly admitted that he ate them himself under those circumstances, Sano was led to a further set of questions about what meals were like at the royal palace. Did some comparatively spectacular dessert item there render the meager sweetbuns of the Enca Inn North more of a chore than a treat?

So then Hajime maintained, with an air of perfect disdainful seriousness, that a small-towner like Sano must obviously have no taste whatsoever, and it would be a waste of breath to discuss capitol cuisine with him. Which Sano interpreted (aloud) to mean that there was some dessert concocted by the palace chefs that Hajime was embarrassed to admit his excessive liking for. And Hajime reiterated that Sano, with his penchant for excessive sweetness that led him to actually enjoy the buns at this inn, would not understand the subtle appeal of finer cooking. To which Sano protested that Hajime too had been eating the inn’s sweetbuns when Sano wasn’t around. And Hajime informed him almost primly that, yes, this was true, but he scraped that overpowering glaze off them first. Then Sano had his really good laugh for the day while Hajime tried to look stern in the wake of that conversation.

At several moments throughout this downtime, but at greatest length just before bed, their talk came back to the assassin. This was never particularly useful, no matter the length of the conversation, since they’d already touched on every point they could based on what little they knew. Clearly Hajime was torn, longing for more data but worrying about the potential outcome of sending Sano to seek it. Sano continued to feel surprise that Hajime was so worried, but couldn’t honestly object to this day of relaxation, nor the one Hajime grudgingly decided he really must take tomorrow as well. So they went to their beds in a strange mixture of emotions and thoughts regarding the future. Or at least Sano did.

It was a long, long, high, steep hill, but what he couldn’t quite figure out was whether they were at the top or the bottom. They had to get to the other end — they would, inevitably, get to the other end — but would that prove a helpless careen or a wearying climb? He supposed it didn’t really matter much; they would see everyone along the way in either case. The idea of houses and businesses lined each side of the road and, like some cog-driven mechanism, it was clear that the people would emerge from each of these as Sano and Hajime passed their places of dwelling or employ.

In fact, the first had already appeared from the small home that was as neat as he could keep it in his near poverty. He was an old man, and clearly defeated. He’d worked hard and honestly all his long life only to receive proof at this late stage that other means might yield greater rewards. He looked at them with dull eyes and said, “I’m ruined.”

The next, stepping from the door of a boarding house, was a middle-aged woman with a number of responsibilities destined now to be more difficult than ever. She looked at them with weary bitterness and said, “We all trusted him.”

The next, coming from where he still lived with his parents, was a young man — very young; a boy, really — too young, maybe, for romance of any kind, and certainly for coupling with someone much older than himself. He looked at Sano and Hajime with embarrassment and perhaps some shame and said, “I thought I was something special to him.”

The next was a fellow city guard, as characteristic a citizen of Emairi as could be imagined. He looked at them with anger and said, “It was my entire savings.”

The next was a draftsman, the leader of a group of builders from Elotica. She looked at them in frustration and said, “He promised us work.”

On they plodded, up the difficult grade that was almost a climb, lungs and muscles burning. On they plunged, precipitously down the steep decline, loath to see and hear more but unable to stop.

“His plan sounded like such a good idea.”

“I thought he really wanted to help.”

“We trusted him with everything.”

“He really seemed like he loved me…”

The faces blurred together and the voices blended. They were, after all, conveying the same emotions, speaking the same ideas. Every one of these people — these allies, these relative innocents — had suffered the same thing. They’d committed time and effort and money to a plausible, desirable project; they’d given trust and love to a man that had promised improvements and services and, in some cases, his love in return. And they’d all been burned when the project had turned out to be a con, the man a fraud, the promises lies.

Sano felt he could hardly lift his feet to walk further up the tiring slope, so heavily weighed down was he by pity and despair. Simultaneously a burning and growing rage drove him onward, throwing him down the clifflike path as if he were weightless. Besides that, Hajime was obviously desperate to find something — to find someone. None of these people was unimportant — they had all suffered — but none of them was the specific victim Hajime needed to reach.

It was no surprise that their road ended with that specific victim, that she waited at the top or the bottom of the long hill. This house sat squarely, centrally at the cessation of the pavement, bringing their journey to an abrupt and decisive halt. There was something familiar about it — the kind of deep, aching familiarity that marks an old home under new ownership — and at the same time a discomfort, almost a horror, that grew as they drew closer. They would find only further suffering inside.

And she, like the old man that had been their first encounter, was utterly defeated.

“He made me think I was the only one.”

Unlike the previous victims, she was cool and calm. She assessed rather than lamenting.

“I can see now he made everyone feel that way — like they were the most important contributor, or the one he’d come to care about most.”

Her strength was remarkable, deeply admirable. She focused on analysis and planning rather than the hurt and betrayal.

“That’s how he got everyone to give just a little bit more… of whatever they were giving.”

Yet she had been hurt. Somehow, even in her placidity, the pain and the resulting bitterness came across even more clearly and intensely than it had from any previous interviewee. Only her strength made it endurable to witness, and that only barely.

“He acted his part well, but I should have seen through him sooner.”

Hajime was reaching out to touch her, to embrace her… but his hand never quite made contact with her form. He didn’t know how to offer comfort, or feared his efforts might be inadequate, in the face of this disaster.

“I should have realized that his willingness to be with someone outside the church as a second-wash indicated a disregard for the church’s policies and prioritization of his own desires.”

Hajime’s despair and anger at not being able to do even the slightest thing to help in this situation was almost as palpable as the woman’s sorrow and sense of betrayal; the calmness that nevertheless somehow expressed these emotions was shared between them.

“I should have seen what he was; then I could have helped prevent all of this.”

She put a hand to her belly, where an outward curve was just starting to show even beneath her shiiya.

“But love really is blind.”

Sano blinked awake as abruptly as if he’d been physically shaken. And though it wasn’t the irrational fear-heat of nightmare, still he felt overwarm from his emotional reactions to the dream. His fingers curled into fists in the bedding, but, tempted though he was to throw it off to cool down, he forced himself to remain still and silent.

As in every dream he’d shared with Hajime since the knight’s coma, sensory details had been unclear: the woman’s face had not been distinctly delineated, and Sano probably wouldn’t know her if he saw her again; the ideas of her calmness, her hurt and bitterness, had been far more present than any specific sound to her voice conveying them; and the mere knowledge of her progressing pregnancy had confirmed the fact better than any hazy visual indicator. The concepts inherent in the dream had been its strongest feature, and those concepts were what stayed with Sano now, firing his emotions.

He had no way of knowing, in the completely dark and noiseless room, whether Hajime had also awakened, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss this with him right away… or ever. He never had been able, after all, to determine to what extent these dreams were a shared experience — mostly because he’d always felt too embarrassed to ask — and if it turned out that Hajime wasn’t aware of Sano’s continued window into his head at night, this particular dream seemed like a bad place to start. Because this one had felt so personal.

No wonder Hajime disliked the church so much! Reading that dream as a sort of abstract memory or summation of actual events — and Sano didn’t know how else to interpret it — it became clear that some church official had at some point hurt and taken advantage of Hajime’s entire community, including someone he particularly cared about. That might even have been a cornerstone to his heresy, since it had happened so long ago.

Thirteen years. That this had all occurred thirteen years in the past had been a sense present throughout the dream as well, as if the number was of special significance… or perhaps as if the dreamer was pointedly aware of every year that had gone by since then. Was Hajime deliberately holding onto the bitterness he’d taken from that experience, never wanting to forget? What had happened to that woman he’d loved, who’d been conned and heartbroken? What had happened to that devoted, who had deceived her along with so many others? Had justice ever caught up with him? Had any member of the community besides Hajime ever acknowledged that a religious system full of people like that was both logistically flawed and no indication of a divine guiding hand?

And why, Sano wondered almost more than anything else, was Hajime dreaming about this now? Did that vision come to him intermittently, and this just happened to be the first time Sano had been present for it? Or was there some reason — beyond Sano’s current power to guess — that it had arisen tonight? He wanted to sit up and ask, to wake Hajime if necessary and ask why he’d had that dream, what it had meant, and whether there was anything Sano could…

But he couldn’t ask. He’d asked Hajime about his parents, he’d talked to him about religious beliefs, he’d discussed his own sex life; hell, he’d combed Hajime’s hair… but somehow he couldn’t pry into the details of an event that had so hurt someone Hajime loved and damaged his community, that Hajime was still carrying with him to this day.

He felt his fingers clench even more tightly into the bedding, his jaw clench against the pillow. He wanted to be able to ask. Sure, he’d come on this venture to help get Kenshin back onto the throne, to do legwork for Hajime in a (thus far) covert political struggle… but it wasn’t unreasonable to want to help Hajime with something a little more personal, was it? After all, Sano and Hajime were both heretics; they should stick together, right?

Of course if he were to question Hajime on such a subject, to offer good wishes and sympathy, Hajime would probably just snipe at him and refuse to answer straightforwardly. And with this hypothetical reaction in mind, Sano, scowling, wondered why he was interested in asking.

Yet they were both heretics. Sano certainly knew what it was like to be bitter about the church, if not for exactly the same reasons. Surely there was scope for discussion, for close understanding of each other here. Sano felt that, for some reason or other, he would… like that.

But Hajime probably wouldn’t. So Sano would just stick to the job he’d come to do.

As such, he felt an abrupt surge of impatience to get back into Elotica, to get on with things. Who was this assassin, this new player that had emerged onto the scene, and whose side were they on? Was Sano really likely to become a target, as Hajime so bizarrely thought possible?

Some answers — or at least further information that might suggest some — might be uncovered tomorrow when he went gossip-hunting at the Enca market again. More answers might be forthcoming when he went back into Elotica the day after. But none of those answers would be about Hajime and that woman he’d loved. Unless Sano could bring himself to ask that personal question, to pry into a matter it was possible he should never have become acquainted with at all, he should probably resign himself to ignorance.

And that might make tomorrow a good deal more difficult to get through than he’d been anticipating after the relative success of today.

>20 Interlude

Imau had been staring absently for several minutes before she realized what her eyes had fallen on: the letter she’d started to her family. Had it really been just three days ago? It felt like forever since her greatest personal concern had been the demands of her parents that she return to Elotica, when such petty things had seemed at all important.

I don’t know how long it will take to get this situation resolved, but I doubt it will be before New Year. A Misseihyou-New Year festival sounds wonderful, and a tournament sounds even better, but, as I said, I can’t leave Hokichi to finish this alone.

The meetings with the Encoutia Merchants’ Guild and the representative from Etoronai’s had proven even trickier than expected, and they were far from a solution to the problems that had come up while discussing terms. Imau’s peace-loving uncle obviously appreciated the presence of a princess willing to deal more sharply and relentlessly with the group he spent most of his time trying to placate; he clearly couldn’t spare her now. She should probably, as her father had suggested, be more informative about the differences in temperament that made them such a good team.

And at night…

How, she wondered, had Noru — whose full name was Shinorutei of family Tal’garou — made such a drastic difference in her plans? How, in only three nights’ time, could she feel her tactics had expanded beyond what she ever could have expected? One woman and three nights… how could so much have changed?

The truth was, she’d very foolishly never considered the potential benefit of having ‘the average citizen’ help her in this. She’d concocted a scheme she thought would work, and applied it without much further cogitation on the matter. Out of a desire to keep her goal a secret, she’d sought no outside advice, until a voice of reason had unexpectedly intruded on her private endeavor.

Noru had friends and acquintances all over Encoutia — sailors and tradesmen, mostly — and her straightforward good sense and frank humor allowed her to connect with them in a way Imau, disguised and distant from them, never could. Noru knew whom to entrust with the idea that the people needed to stand together against an anti-social menace. And they listened to her. Imau speculated that her presence, as well as Akemi’s, made a difference, helped to reassure those they interacted with that they had warriors on their side; but it was Noru’s influence that had won them numerous allies where Imau had never expected any.

The sailor had made it clear that, though she believed in encouraging the people of Encoutia to show united intolerance of pirates and their ways, she would only take part in this recruiting effort until her injury healed; her place was at sea. That left a few weeks during which she’d promised to meet with Imau as often as possible, but she would eventually board her father Ryuutei’s ship and sail away. She seemed to think the true answer lay there anyway.

The princess had her doubts, but simultaneously had been formulating a new plan. To combat the overwhelming numbers that were pirate ships’ primary advantage, a much more aggressive tactic than the political ones Hokichi had thus far adopted seemed necessary. Warriors, weapons, training… she revolved them all in her head, and had even begun jotting down ideas on paper. Of course she had only Akemi’s input on this for now, since she couldn’t approach her uncle with anything less than a fully developed proposal and hadn’t revealed to Noru how much influence she might have over policy, but Akemi was at least a royal knight for a reason.

Noru had her suspicions, though. She’d declared that first night that Imau (who’d been using the name Penka for her interactions with the woman) must be a noblewoman, and she’d left it at that; but the assessing looks she sometimes gave the princess, and certain remarks that seemed to carry quiet assumptions about her, agitated Imau somewhat. In fact they made her want to confess everything and seek Noru’s counsel on her ideas all the way up to the top.

Beyond a greater and more accomplished armed presence on merchant ships, they needed answers to crucial questions about the pirates themselves: was there any cooperation among them, and, if so, did they have leaders whose removal might weaken their overall effectiveness? What ports did they most frequently use, and in which areas or on which routes did they most frequently appear? To what extent did they terrorize ships from other nearby nations? These questions, as Noru had hinted, might best be answered at sea.

It seemed a special reconnaissance mission was in order, and Imau already had a ship and crew in mind to undertake it if they would accept the charge.

And at the same time, political measures should not be neglected; they simply needed to shift to a larger scale. Ayundome was in the middle of another power struggle, but could anything be accomplished working with their governing bodies? G”nst was Akomera’s biggest trade partner, and Hokichi might be able to put pressure on the G”nsting to throw in with active anti-pirate policies. Jo’onhkun, for all the strain in its relations with Akomera, might be of service too. Everything needed to escalate, and in quick but regulated manner.

Which meant Imau really did have only a few weeks to draft out a far more ambitious plan than she’d ever conceived before — certainly much greater in scope than her little project of prowling inns and taverns! — light a fire under her uncle so he would be willing to take more drastic steps, and convince Noru of the role she and her people must play. It might have been daunting, but in fact it made Imau feel more like a true princess than she ever had before.

Foreseeing herself as the spearhead of this effort, she tried to decide where her own talents would be the most useful. She’d come to Encoutia to train in swordsmanship with her uncle and his court, and, though she’d learned plenty about rulership as well, Hokichi’s kind-heartedly lackadaisical attitude toward government left something to be desired as an example. Would she do better, despite her state as a political beginner, to stay at his side as the constant galvanizing influence he needed; or to go to sea herself and come to grips with pirates as a model of fearlessness, defiance, and personal royal response for the people of this and other nations? Akemi would stand by her in either scenario, and, as Noru had said, the two of them were fair formidable.

Her thoughts kept returning to the Yujuui Nikamoru, the special mission she had in mind, and particularly the captain’s daughter. With Noru these last three nights, Imau had felt so alive, so much more effective. Noru hadn’t only impressed and inspired her; she’d changed Imau’s life. She’d spurred the princess to more dedicated and complex reflection and planning, to a greater sense of responsibility even than what Noru had recognized in her when they’d met. In Imau’s thoughts, Shinorutei shone and flashed like some kind of beacon.

She reached for the pen and ink. She must continue listing her ideas, setting them in order, before she spoke to Noru again tonight. Because she fully intended to put everything openly before the sailor and seek her advice in this paramount matter. But first she needed to finish her letter to her family.

…as I said, I can’t leave Hokichi to finish this alone.

As with her uncle, she believed it would be wisest not to get into detail until her plans were more completely formed. But she knew exactly what to say to placate her parents, to ensure she was allowed to remain in Encoutia as long as she needed to. Such a simple thing, not really a problem at all. Uncapping the ink bottle, she dipped the pen and set it to the paper without hesitation just after the last line she’d written so long ago.

Besides, she added easily, I think I’m in love.

Chapter 21 – Third Report: Purple Sky

It wasn’t that he hated it when Hajime was right, but in a way, Sano hated it when Hajime was right. Part of this was probably more that he hated the unpleasant and inconvenient circumstances the knight had predicted and warned him about, but merely the fact that Hajime had managed to anticipate something Sano had thought unlikely must be consistently annoying.

A mere two days in Elotica had proven Hajime’s concerns not unfounded. After the news of an assassin targeting devoted, naturally everyone in the religious districts was on edge, but it was worse than just that for Sano: suddenly almost everyone acted differently around him than they had. As Hajime had feared, a mood of mistrust had spread through the devoted, and anyone not long-established was being eyed askance and treated with less friendliness and welcome than before.

This applied, of course, to others besides Sano — any newcomer, really — but Sano, who carried a sword in contexts (such as in Megumi’s corner) where it was less than entirely usual to do so, and who’d had very attention-grabbing hair up until this very visit to town, was particularly visible. So he often got the worst of it, which was extremely inconvenient for someone trying not to stand out in order to gather information.

That wasn’t all Hajime had been right about.

Now Sano hurried back to Enca after those mere two days in the capital, his footsteps occasionally threatening to hasten into a run despite his efforts at keeping to an unsuspicious pace, his heart thudding with a beat far faster than those footsteps and that in part, he thought, served to quicken them past what he wanted, past endurance. The lump in his throat threatened to choke him, or to burst out of him as a hopeless cry, at any moment; and if it weren’t for the adrenaline pounding through him to the very tips of his extremities, he feared his entire body would be weighed down with an intolerable heaviness that would have prevented any movement whatsoever, except perhaps uncontrollable shaking.

Having passed out of sight of the Elotica gate-guards and onto a stretch of road completely untrafficked at this dark hour, Sano felt it safe to release some of his wretched energy in a brief run. It didn’t help much. And then forcing himself to slow as he reached a bend, around which he might encounter late-returning farmers or other tradesmen to whom his agitation and haste might appear strange, was tremendously difficult; it seemed his legs would easily continue running until the entirety of his being gave way in exhaustion and he collapsed. Running certainly felt more right at the moment.

There were a few people on the road outside Enca, and Sano struggled to move with something like calm. He hardly knew how he must look to them. How was he ever supposed to get into town and to the north end without someone taking unnecessary and detrimental notice of him? Or was he worrying too much? His thoughts were in chaos; he had no idea what he should be doing.

Whether or not he managed it in any way subtly, he did eventually, after what felt like an eternity, get back to the inn. And whether his footsteps on the wooden stairs and upper floor stomped or staggered, he did manage to get inside.

Hajime had obviously been in bed but not yet asleep, and was on his feet by the time Sano’s clumsy hands got the door unlocked and himself inside the room. His tall, wiry form, sword drawn against what he must perceive as an intruder at this unlikely time of night so soon after Sano had left, would have been intimidating — even terrifying — to an actual intruder, but to Sano was unexpectedly reassuring. Sano closed the door perhaps too abruptly and loudly, and leaned back against it with a shuddering breath, finally stilling except for the trembling of his body and the pounding of his heart.

Hajime’s sword lowered as quickly as it had risen, and he said somewhat harshly, “What happened? Why are you back here already?”

“I… shit…” At the thought of answering Hajime’s questions, Sano felt suddenly shakier than he had the entire way back to the inn. He moved to the table, dragged a stool out, and sat heavily down.

“You’ve got blood on your arm.” Later Sano must remember to be gratified in retrospect at the concern in the knight’s voice as he said this. “Were you attacked? Are you wounded?”

“No. Yes.” Sano shook his head. “No, I’m not wounded. Yes, I was attacked.”

“What in Yumi’s name happened?” demanded Hajime, both speaking and dropping his sword on his bed with evident impatience. “Unless you were attacked in the street right outside the inn, you’ve had the entire way back to calm down — so don’t just sit there; tell me.”

Sano snorted. “You really know how to comfort a guy.” Though the irony was that he was comforted. Somehow, though he hadn’t recognized it during the chaotic trip, he’d very much wanted to get back to Hajime. “All right.” He sat up straight from where he’d been resting his face on one hand, and took a deep breath, bracing himself to tell his unpleasant story. “I went to Tomoe’s plaza…”

Starting at the beginning helped calm him a little, enough that he was able to leave out the details he didn’t want to give. Other details, though, he found himself emphasizing to an unnecessary extent in a pretty obvious attempt to put off the eventual relation of the climax.

Hajime would never know just how difficult this was, because Sano would never tell him, because Sano would probably never want to relate the prior circumstances that made it so difficult. And maybe it was childish to keep that hidden, but that was how things were, and therefore led to how things must be.

He needed to find out more about kereme and whether or not Enishi used the stuff, and figured his best avenue for doing so — and the most effective use of his time, since, despite the approaching meeting with those he and Katsu had been chatting up lately, he often found himself at loose ends at night after most of the common roomers at the inn had gone home — was to head back to Tomoe’s corner and look around for the same companions with whom he’d had his own kereme experience.

He really, really didn’t want to — didn’t want to see any of them ever again, didn’t want to hear anything they might have to say, didn’t want to risk getting entangled in another scene like the previous — and hadn’t yet come up with anything logical he could ask that would get him information but keep him from having to partake again… but this was still the surest way he could think of to seek what he needed to know. With anyone else, he would be forced to work his way around to the subject first, and then what if they weren’t involved with kereme themselves and had no idea what he was talking about — or, worse (though probably better for them), were opposed to kereme and tried to get him in trouble for his interest? No, he thought, if he could find one or both of those two guys that had been in charge of the get-together before, that would be his best source of information.

Largely thanks to the memory gap that persisted of much of the night in question, Sano couldn’t be sure in what part of the purple end of town he’d run into them last week, so he was simply moving cautiously and watchfully through the darker and smaller streets of Tomoe’s corner, looking for low lights in any of the residences or the furtive movements of someone checking for trouble outside their doors. But thus far he’d seen nothing. It was so dark on this latest street, in fact, that he didn’t notice a still-standing figure leaning against the corner of a building until he was startlingly close.

“Sometarou?” Though there was a slight questioning tone to it, still the speaker detached from the wall and came toward Sano as if he’d been specifically expecting him.

Hoping his violent start hadn’t been visible in the darkness, Sano replied with all the levelness he could command, “Yeah. Is that–” Hair thinning and greying simultaneously, unremarkable face and figure… even in the low light it took only a moment to recognize one of his companions from that night last week, but… “Sorry, I… can’t remember your name.”

“Korucun,” the man replied with understanding friendliness. “It was your first time, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah…” Sano tried not to sound as chagrined as he actually felt, especially considering this was one of the people he might very well have slept with on that unfortunate occasion. “I forgot everyone else’s names there too.”

“That’s normal,” Korucun reassured him. He probably didn’t realize, actually, just how reassuring was his unpressing and unsuspicious good will; Sano had expected him to be as wary as the rest of the religious folks — or perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, given what they’d conceivably done together, leering and overly familiar — but here he was nothing but welcoming. He did seem a little abstracted, though, glancing around and up into the sky as if specifically waiting or searching for something.

“Are you looking for them again?” Sano wondered, quiet and conspiratorial. Maybe he could get the information he needed without having to risk another kereme encounter. “Going to hit the K tonight too?”

“No,” said Korucun, still looking upward. “No. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.”

Though it was a little off-topic, Sano couldn’t help asking in genuine curiosity at both words and tone, “Why?”

Instead of actually answering, the other man remarked, “Did you notice how purple the sky is tonight?”

Sano cast his bemused gaze in the same direction as Korucun’s and assessed, but couldn’t say he had.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” Korucun added softly, maybe even a little shyly.

“Her?”

“Tomoe.”

And what could Sano say to this? Possible answers in his head ranged from, “Are you sure you haven’t been hitting the K already?” to, “Do you have to stop existing too, to meet a nonexistent lady?”

Korucun was staring upward as if he’d forgotten Sano was there. After a moment he proved he hadn’t, however, by asking in the same distant tone, “Have you ever had your death reading done?”

Sano didn’t really want to know what a death reading was, and certainly couldn’t ask while posing as someone who probably should already have known. So he merely answered in the negative, and was a little surprised at how hoarsely the word came out.

“It’s an amazing experience. Yeah, it’s scary, but you feel so close to her…”

This time Sano didn’t bother to ask which ‘her’ he meant.

Finally Korucun’s eyes dropped from a sky Sano now realized he associated with the divine lady of mysteries and all that, and the look on his shadowed face proved that, however else he felt about it, ‘scary’ was accurate for his experience of whatever they were talking about. “Though I was a little surprised it was so soon,” he said, and there was a slight tremor to his tone.

Sano had a feeling he knew, now, what this death reading was, and it made him extremely uncomfortable. He was reminded a little of Yahiko claiming his proxy mother had pulled his father’s spirit from his body to spare him the pain of death by fire, and that was nothing he wanted to think about. He wondered how he could get out of this insane and unsettling conversation without giving away the fact that he didn’t believe in any of it. He cared less about hurting Korucun’s feelings than he had about Yahiko’s, of course, but here he had more of a cover to maintain…

“But I don’t think you’re the–” Korucun broke off suddenly, drawing in a sharp little breath, and in the shadows the whites of his eyes showed abruptly brighter around his irises. Startled at the expression, Sano whirled to follow the direction of his gaze, and he too found his breath catching when he saw what Korucun had seen.

There had been no sign of the man’s appearance or approach up until now, and he’d already come within a few yards of them. He moved utterly noiselessly, seemingly unaffected by the fact that they’d noticed him, and as he drew closer he also drew a keonblade whose sudden flash into energy momentarily brightened the scene. Though he was fairly clearly a man, judging by the shape of his body, little else could be determined about him; he had a hood pulled low over his face, which was consequently hidden in shadows. But if this wasn’t the assassin that had attempted to kill all the white devoted — and succeeded at one of them — it was, at least, somebody with a very similar purpose.

“Korucun,” Sano commanded in a low, tense tone, “run.”

“…and the guy came charging at us totally silent; I could barely hear his feet even when he was running. It was pretty creepy, but I drew my sword and got ready to fight him. He didn’t say anything — like, to explain what he was doing or why — but it wasn’t like we couldn’t tell he wanted to kill us.”

“Or just you,” Hajime speculated. His tone was tight, and he remained standing beside the table, not having found a seat anywhere in the room to listen. He was clearly hanging on Sano’s every word, which under other circumstances Sano would have found extremely gratifying.

Sano took a shaky breath. There were so many ways he could have responded to that brief statement, but some of those options — the most appealing, really — were sarcastic, and he didn’t have a drop of sarcasm in him at the moment. Probably best just to go on telling his story.

As the figure finished its approach, drawing up to Sano with those eerily quiet steps, Sano had a moment of relief and confidence as he reflected, Oh, this guy doesn’t actually move all that fast. And it was a moment in which he could easily have died. For what he mistook for slowness was a transition from running to attacking as fluidly smooth as a river that, under its apparent languidness, has a deadly swift current. The backhanded slice of the enemy’s sword, taking Sano unawares with its deceptively fast appearance of sluggishness as it did, should have removed him from the battle before he entered it, possibly even killed him immediately if it caught him in the neck rather than the chest. But in an instant of unexpected confusion, and more motion and heat than Sano’s awareness of the situation could account for, he felt nothing — no sudden, precise slice of pain from the energy blade, no blunter strike from the physical sword within — for it suddenly wasn’t his chest taking the blow. Nor was it the enemy’s body or weapon that met the keonblade Sano was raising in an anticipated attack of his own.

“Ko–!” Sano’s gasped-out cry of surprise and horror only got as far as the first syllable of the man’s name as the red devoted of Tomoe collapsed backward onto him, and Sano’s sword, abruptly devoid of energy, clattered to the ground.

Korucun had thrown himself into the middle of this with his back to Sano and arms spread, as if to shield him, but as he tumbled into Sano’s fumbling grasp, his head turned enough that Sano could see his expression — fear, pain… and determination. Maybe a touch of regret, but certainly no surprise. This was what he’d meant when he’d talked about meeting Tomoe. This was what he’d meant when he’d said, ‘so soon.’ He even made a brave attempt to smile now as he choked out, “Tomoe bless you, my friend.”

There wasn’t time for anything beyond that; just those five words, and he went limp. And Sano was left staggering backward under a suddenly dead weight and an oppressive purple sky.

Chapter 22 – Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers

“Fucking… how could he just do that?” It was the first thing Sano said after a long silence following the relation of the event itself. He should probably continue his account, but couldn’t help tangenting to express some of his extreme agitation. “Throw himself into the middle of something like that and fucking die smiling? Knowing he would die, for a complete stranger?? He was really hearing something, or thought he was, just like that fucking kid… are they all crazy? Or… I don’t know what to think! There must be something there… people don’t just… but if there’s really something, why would they let…”

“Maybe there is something there.” Hajime’s voice, utterly devoid of any emotion, was also, oddly enough, just a touch gentler than usual.

“You don’t believe in them either, though!”

Hajime shook his head minutely and said in the same somewhat blank tone, “But there’s no harm in believing something that helps you make sense of your world.”

“No harm??” Sano jumped up. “That man is dead because the voices in his head told him it was time to die!”

“And that was his choice. You said he was happy; who are you to question that?”

“I said he was smiling, not– what the fuck are you saying? Why are you taking their side?” Sano felt the usual fists forming out of his twitching hands, but in this instance wasn’t sure whether Hajime was the true object of his anger.

“Because while you’re confused about this, you’re likely to be less useful.” With this aloofly pragmatic statement, Hajime sounded more himself. “You need to resolve this and get past it.”

“And you think arguing some stupid devoted bullshit is the way to help?”

“What do you want me to say?” wondered Hajime irritably. “It’s a lot easier to prove something exists than to prove it doesn’t.”

“I want you to be less of a patronizing bastard! Don’t treat me like a little kid who can’t go to bed until daddy’s checked the cabinet for monsters! I’m not looking for an easy answer that might not be true but that’s all right to believe because it helps me cope!”

Hajime’s annoyance seemed suddenly tempered by surprise, and once again there was an unaccustomed gentleness to his tone as he asked, “Why do you think I have any answers at all?”

“I…” Sano retreated a few steps, then turned his back entirely and stared down at his own bed. “I don’t know.” He certainly wasn’t going to admit that he’d started to think of Hajime as one of the wisest people he knew. “Just because you’re here, I guess.”

“Then don’t blame me for offering the only thing I do have.” It was a cool reply, and something of a reprimand, but not unkind. Hajime obviously understood how much the events of the evening had shaken Sano.

“Thank you,” Sano said. It didn’t even come out grudgingly, for all he had no more answers now than when he’d entered the room.

Businesslike as ever, without acknowledging Sano’s thanks, Hajime returned to the events in Elotica by asking what had happened next.

With another deep breath, Sano resumed his previous place at the table and looked at his hands. One of the nails on the left had dried blood underneath, and he started picking at it as he spoke. “The assassin backed off a little and just stood there, staring at us. He didn’t expect Korucun to do that any more than I did, I guess, and since he did do it, it was like suddenly the assassin just couldn’t keep going. He probably could have killed me right then since I was so shocked, but he didn’t.”

“Interesting.”

“Then we both heard somebody coming, and the assassin just disappeared. I never saw anyone move like that. I couldn’t stand around holding this dead body, so I put him down and ran off too. I just put him down on the ground and… left him there…”

That utterly heartless and inhumane action on Sano’s part had bothered him almost as much as Korucun’s random sacrifice — but he’d had no choice! He, who had already attacked multiple devoted in order to impersonate them, an enemy of the current regime and the confederate of a man in hiding, simply could not be found by anyone holding a corpse in the street with no better explanation than ‘A mysterious hooded man did it and ran off before anybody but me saw him.’ But he’d just left him there in his own blood, like a sack of spilled goods, to be found without warning possibly by someone that had known and cared about him.

Yet again he took a deep breath and forced himself to go on. “It’s getting harder to pretend to be a devoted. By now everyone’s heard about the guy who knocked people over the head and stole their shiiyao, and a lot of them think that guy’s the assassin. Nobody I smacked got a good look at me, so they don’t know I’m that guy… but they all know I’m a new guy, and some of them have been asking questions about me…”

“And whoever this assassin is, he’s managed to gather enough information to come after you fairly effectively.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I can go as a devoted anymore. Even if I really wanted to.”

“You’re going to have to go back, though.”

“Yeah… yeah, I know. I shouldn’t even have come out here again so quick like I did.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“You could be a little more sympathetic.”

“Would that change things? I think you can handle this without it being sugar-coated.”

Sano looked over at him. “Do you really think that? Or are you just saying that to make sure I do go back right away?”

Hajime replied with a long, calculating look of his own. Finally he said, “Yes, I really do think that. You suffered the loss of your entire family when you were a child, and I think you knew even then that they were killed by bandits. I think you can handle this, no matter how much it’s bothering you.”

In a not insignificant amount of shock, Sano stared at the knight. That Hajime had, from the broken mentions of them Sano had made, pieced together the story of his family was not terribly surprising, but for Hajime to base on that circumstance any belief in Sano’s current ability to function under emotional stress was almost astonishing. Certainly Hajime had given no greater compliment or vote of confidence!

But Hajime himself had suffered some kind of pain in earlier life, hadn’t he? He’d been unable to deter some devoted from harming and taking advantage of a woman he loved — and ladies knew what had happened to her thereafter — and it disturbed him enough that he still dreamed about it to this day. His experience wasn’t remotely similar to Sano’s, but he must understand well the effect an emotional event would have on someone’s later abilities. Which made the fact that he still thought Sano capable of carrying on even more meaningful than it otherwise would have been.

Sano had no idea what to say next. That plenty remained to be said he felt deeply and intensely, but what it was or how to start he couldn’t determine. So he rose once more and began preparing for bed as if he had some illusory notion about lying down and getting a good night’s sleep. From behind him he heard Hajime resheathe the sword he’d drawn at Sano’s entrance, then sit down again on his own bed, and for several moments both men were wordless.

Finally, when Sano had removed his shoes and belts and was pulling his shiiya over his head, Hajime said, “From the way you described it, it sounds like that devoted saved your life.”

“Yeah…” Sano stilled for a moment, his vision entirely blocked by grey-blue cloth that looked colorless in the shadows, before resuming his disrobing. “Yeah, I think he did. That assassin’s got a way of moving that… I could probably fight him now, now I’ve seen it and know how much faster he is than you expect… but right at first… yeah, I probably would have died.”

“Do you regret not having died?”

“Of course I don’t!” On the surface it seemed like such a stupid question. Who wouldn’t rather be alive than dead? But as he considered further, after his initial growling outburst, doubts crept in — or, rather, doubts he’d already had solidified into an expressible form. “But… why should he be dead and not me?” Sano threw his shiiya to the floor, kicked it under the bed, and flopped down onto the latter facing the wall. He felt sick and cold, and was glad of the darkness that allowed him to avoid visual focus on anything.

“Because that’s what he chose.” This continued tolerance of the unproductive conversation did little to improve Sano’s mood, especially since Hajime had already admitted that his patience was aimed merely at trying to put Sano back into a frame of mind more useful for his own purposes.

“Only because he thought he had to. I mean…” Sano shook a fist that was as imperfectly formed as his uncertain thoughts. “He was terrified — he didn’t want to die — he was so surprised and… and… not happy that his stupid death reading told him he was going to die so soon… but he fucking did it anyway! It wasn’t like he knew me, or knew anything about what I was doing in town so he could think, ‘I gotta save this guy; this is totally worth dying for.’ If he didn’t already have this idea, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to die on Yumifyo 38,’ he wouldn’t ever have jumped in the middle of a fucking assassination!”

“He might have,” Hajime replied quietly. “He might have made the same choice.”

“But he wouldn’t have! Who would make a choice like that without any lady-damned reason for it? He really believed there was some good reason to get himself slashed and stabbed and bleed out on the street, or else he wouldn’t have fucking done it!”

“And you can’t allow him that belief?”

“I don’t want to!” Now Sano felt compelled to sit up again, staring across the space between the beds to where the shadowy figure of Hajime sat just opposite him staring back. “I don’t want him or anyone else to believe there’s something telling people they should die so someone else can survive! Why should I be the one who gets to live? What kind of monster would whisper that in someone’s ear?”

Hajime’s tone was quiet and dark, condemnatory of a distant evil, as he said, “I don’t want to believe something like that either.” He sounded very serious, his statement coming a bit more slowly, as he went on, “But when someone chooses to give up their life for someone else, that’s a choice you have to respect.”

“But it was a choice based on shitty information!”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he saved your life.”

“I know that! I just…” With his elbows on his knees, Sano hung his head and closed his eyes. There was such a maelstrom of emotions inside him — continued shock at what had happened, rage at the assassin as well as at the system that had been Korucun’s true murderer, sorrow that he hadn’t been able to prevent a pointless death, confusion about what others believed and how they could possibly do so, and even some loathing of himself under the circumstances — he feared he would never get it sorted out. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Neither do I.” Hajime sighed faintly, evidently annoyed — but Sano thought it was more frustration at his own helplessness in this situation than with Sano. “And we’ll never know what was going on in his head. But…” The sound of shifting, of weight leaving a mattress, made Sano look up just in time to see Hajime step over and place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t regret you’re alive.”

As Sano met his companion’s gaze, little of it as he could see in the dark room, and heard that somber tone, he was shaken for a few moments completely out of his dreary thoughts by the sudden startling realization that Hajime meant what he said on a level totally different from wanting Sano back to work as soon as possible. In fact there even seemed to be an unspoken “I don’t” appended to the previous statement. Hajime really wanted to help and comfort Sano on a personal level, and simply didn’t know exactly what to say — who, after all, would? And while Sano rather wished the knight would say that “I don’t” aloud and confirm its presence in his head, he was already almost stunned — and certainly very deeply touched — by what Hajime had offered.

“Thank you,” he said for a second time, hoarsely, staring Hajime in the eye unblinking for as long as the intense moment lasted before the knight removed his hand and turned back toward his side of the room. And Sano found that, when the previous maelstrom resumed, as if the eye of the storm had passed over him and gone, it was easier to deal with, seemed more likely to shift into perspective at some point. Slowly he turned and lay down on his side again, facing the wall, still glad of the darkness but now with an equally welcome image in it of Hajime’s eyes staring so intently into his.

“Will you be able to go back in the morning?” Of course Hajime would feel the need to return to this point… but at least Sano was certain he had returned to it after having left it for a moment of real camaraderie and goodwill.

“Yeah,” Sano said, more or less in a whisper. “Yeah, I should be fine.” For a given value of ‘fine.’

Hajime made no reply, and presently the sounds of his mattress and blanket shifting indicated that he too had lain down again, possibly even facing the wall and away from his companion just as his companion was.

Though motionless, Sano yet had a feeling of spinning, as if physically in the clutches of that storm he’d envisioned in his head and heart — perhaps as a reminder of how little control he could ever possibly have when people made insane choices they couldn’t take back based on a faith Sano would spend his last breath denying. He had the sense that he could do nothing more than hold on and wait this out… or, rather, since the spinning would never cease, he would simply have to adjust to it — as Hajime had said, resolve this and get past it.

And Hajime’s words really had helped. Despite the fact that nothing had been resolved, that Sano remained at square one trying to figure this shit out, the knight’s unexpected belief that he was strong enough to handle it, as well as his equally unexpected gladness that Sano had survived the attack, made all the difference in the world. Previously, Sano had doubted his ability to shoulder this burden, let alone get it straightened out in his mind; now, he was sure he could, given time.

He wondered what Hajime was thinking over there right now, if anything at all. It reminded him of lying here just a couple of nights ago pondering the dream he’d seen alongside the other man, wanting but feeling unable to ask, ignorant whether or not Hajime was awake just across from him.

An old saying kept coming to mind: Your wishes may be prayers, so make them wisely. The advice was not to spend a lot of effort longing for frivolities or things you shouldn’t have, since the ladies were always listening; aside from the embarrassment of their awareness of your shallow or inappropriate desires, what if they granted your wish as if you really had specifically asked them for it? Sano had never liked the adage, not merely because he didn’t pray and didn’t believe any supernatural force was taking a hand in his life and arranging events according to some cosmic plan or sense of irony, but also because supernatural forces that couldn’t distinguish between wishful thinking and actual requests were even less worthy of faith or worship. But he couldn’t help coming back now, again and again, to the idea that some caution was advisable in wishing intensely lest that wish be granted in some unpleasant way.

He’d wanted to be close enough to Hajime that they could discuss personal things, support each other through personal problems… He’d wished for it, he realized now, more fiercely than he’d had any idea even while lying right here thinking about the personal problem he thought he observed Hajime in the grip of. There had been a sort of ache inside him representing the want of that closeness.

And then something had happened to demonstrate that they already had it. Surely, therefore, Sano’s wish was granted; that particular ache was relieved. Yet the ‘something’ had shaken him deeply, saddened and confused him, replaced one ache with another and left him agitated and unable to sleep or foresee when he might next be content. Would he have wanted to know the degree to which Hajime was willing to engage with and comfort him if he’d known how he would come to know it?

And yet, just as being unable to figure out Korucun’s mindset didn’t change the fact that Korucun had saved his life, the fact that decidedly unpleasant circumstances had brought to light his closeness with Hajime didn’t change how much he’d wanted that closeness. He wouldn’t have wished — ‘prayed’ — for it to happen like this, but it meant so much to him that it had happened that he couldn’t really regret it. What was more, it gave him strength — or perhaps simply called on the strength Hajime had declared Sano already had — to lie quiet in the darkness and at least try to start making sense of his whirling thoughts about Korucun, about the divine ladies, about life and death, and how he himself fit into it all.

Chapter 23 – Wanted

Attempting to remain in the same spot long enough to get a good idea of the current setup at the gates while simultaneously blending in was proving ridiculously difficult. Sano found himself repeatedly forced to move along the line in one direction or the other when he saw someone apparently looking at him, which made it difficult not to reach the city entrance or get so far from it that he could no longer see anything useful.

It was obvious, at least, that everyone entering the capital was now being checked by the gate-guards. Exactly how thorough that examination was Sano had not yet been able to determine, thanks to the aforementioned difficulties getting information and refraining from standing out at the same time. He didn’t think they were searching carts and bags and pockets in detail — the line along the road would have been moving much more slowly in that case — but he simply couldn’t risk having his cache of one red devoted shiiya from each divine house discovered; honestly, he didn’t really want guards looking closely in his face and asking him what his business in the city was in any case. But would he be able to sneak in under the cover of some party or other? Were they checking that thoroughly? Three more slow instances of approaching Elotica’s high walls and then turning to go back as subtly as he could were required to determine that they were not.

He should have been well inside the capital by now seeking far more important information, but he supposed such obnoxious circumstances were inevitable whenever an anonymous assassin threatened high-profile targets and had now killed at least two people. Everyone in the crowd pressing along the road was a little on edge, and Sano rather doubted a cursory examination of persons and vehicles was likely to make anybody but whoever had ordered it feel any better. Hell, he knew more about the assassin than anyone else out here (most likely) — he was trying not to think about that — and he certainly wasn’t comforted by the checkpoint. Though his situation was a little different from that of all these workers trying to reach their jobs inside the city and deliverypeople trying to get their goods to the Elotica markets.

Without nearly as much consideration as he probably should have given it, he took the first opportunity that presented itself. A particularly long delay in the movement of the line had caused the driver of one wagon to hop down from his perch and move forward a bit trying to see around the bend in the road he’d nearly reached, and the people just behind him had gathered into a cluster at precisely that moment to discuss whether they shouldn’t try one of the other city entrances, as inconvenient a walk as that would be.

This left a tempting wagon bed unwatched for a brief period, without a driver to feel an additional weight added to it, and Sano jumped for it almost instinctively. It was full of — what else? — bushels of apples, but they sat atop a loosely placed tarp far larger than the floor it covered so it was bunched up in multiple places between the similarly loosely packed bushels. Shoving his backpack between tarp and wagon floor, within one of these folds so the new presence hopefully wouldn’t create an unusual bulge, and then worming his own way after it feet first was the work of less than a minute, and no outcry or approaching footsteps seemed to indicate he’d been spotted. If the guards made as desultory an examination of the interior of this wagon as they had those he’d noted the last time he’d been up near the gates, Sano should be able to slip through unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the presence of the tarp — or, rather, its shoddy placement with bushels stacked on top of it without its being smoothed out to accommodate them — should have told Sano something about the careless nature of the owner or driver of the wagon. The tarp served to separate the bushels from a surprisingly thick layer of grime that covered the floor of the wagon and was comprised, as far as Sano could tell (and he had some experience in this area) of the remains of rotted fruit. He could already feel the sticky goo penetrating his hair and clothing in various places before he was even fully settled, and the smell almost overpowered him. Lucky it was both that his face pointed toward the tented opening — though he didn’t dare stay too close, lest he be seen from without — and that he wouldn’t have to be here very long.

Of course he could only estimate, with this imperfect view of the world beyond the tarp, how close they drew to the city once the line started moving again in its broken fashion, and, misjudging, he didn’t start his agitated anticipation quite as soon as he otherwise would have. In fact it was the voices of the gate-guards that alerted him to how far they’d come, and then Sano, belatedly holding his breath, was startled at how smoothly the entry into the city went. As he’d somewhat expected but mostly hoped, it seemed the guards gave nothing more than a perfunctory glance into the bed of the wagon, not bothering to move the bushels or the tarp in any way; and evidently Sano’s presence under the latter presented no visual anomaly worth exploring or commenting on.

Before he knew it they were inside Elotica, and Sano was edging closer, within his reeking den, to the perimeter of the wagon’s bed where he could peer between the slats and try to gage when would be best to wriggle out of here. He didn’t want to get all the way to a market street where there would be a crowd, but at the same time preferred to wait as long as possible after passing through the gates. He also wanted a clear and immediate escape route before him when he disembarked.

Though he had these circumspect plans, once again he acted with little forethought when an opportunity arose. With no one immediately in sight (though admittedly his field of vision was severely limited), and with a narrow side-street — also apparently empty — coming into view, he made a break for it. Dragging his backpack behind him, he hauled himself free of the tarp (knocking two bushels askew or completely over in the process), and rather clumsily climbed the wagon’s side as quickly as he could. And this time his actions did not go unobserved.

“Hey!” He thought it was the wagon driver, who’d undoubtedly felt the shifting of Sano’s movements this time and turned. “What are you–” The man’s voice sounded so surprised, it was no wonder he couldn’t finish his sentence. Sano, though he didn’t look back as he pelted off with steps that stumbled at first after hitting the ground, had a confused idea that the wagon pulled up short and the horse protested. He couldn’t imagine the guy was likely to circle back to the gates and report that he’d apparently accidentally transported someone past the search, but he might mention it to others he encountered today; so Sano ducked his head and tried to put as much space as hastily as he could between the man and any details that could be noticed about the stowaway.

A couple of zig-zags down the network of alleys into which his chosen escape route had led, when it seemed no one was following and he was approaching another larger street, he slowed, ducked into a corner, and let his breathing settle as he looked around more carefully. Though it was larger, the street ahead wasn’t particularly busy — he’d drawn near the city wall, and this might be considered a back way — so he felt free to pause and consider what his plans for the day were. Of course first of all — he wished it could take place even before this cogitation — he needed to clean off the rancid fruit slime that coated him from head to toe, and that wasn’t going to be convenient, but thereafter he could decide where to seek information first.

Before he’d even finished these thoughts, however — and he certainly wasn’t accustomed, yet, to the smell that clogged his nostrils and only seemed to strengthen with every move he made — something just across the street from his corner caught his attention, and he was drawn almost inexorably, though not without scanning the area first to ensure his relative safety, to examine it.

The building on the other side of the larger street had a side-roof creating a little alcove that would doubtless have been used to shade sales stands if this particular area had been more advantageously placed for market purposes. As it was, only a stack of crates and a couple of barrels were tucked away there — but a number of public postings had been tacked onto the wall beneath the protective overhang as well, and one of these papers bore what appeared to be a very familiar face.

Sano became more and more convinced with every step that took him across to stand in the shadow of the roof and the crates and stare at the poster, until there could be no doubt. Under the large Wanted text at the top, around a portrait that held Sano’s eye far longer than it probably should have at the moment, the sign read, Royal knight Hajime – Chief of Prince Kenshin’s knights – Wanted for inciting rebellion and for the murder of Nenji, white devoted of Misao – Reward for capture or information regarding – Very dangerous: use caution.

As he read this, Sano gaped slightly. Hajime was wanted for what? They thought the assassin was Hajime? The idea was more than simply ludicrous. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hajime capable of moving and fighting with a silence and skill just as uncannily quiet and deadly as that of the assassin… but remembering that innocent Tomoe devoted choking on his own blood to wish Sano well as he died in his arms — something he was still trying not to think about — he found himself outraged on Hajime’s behalf. How could anyone believe Hajime was the assassin? It was absurd; it was insulting; it was… surprisingly painful. Someone so upstanding, someone so applied to righting wrongs — someone, in short, so good as Hajime was… it was preposterous.

Dragging narrowed eyes beneath lowered brows from that poster with an effort, fighting back the unexpected agitation the reading of it had caused, he forced himself to turn to the next one, which his peripheral vision had informed him might also be of interest. Again he was a little surprised at the accuracy of the face depicted; though it wasn’t exactly like gazing into a looking glass, he was pretty sure anyone that happened to walk by at the moment might look twice if they looked once at the man staring at his own image on a wanted poster.

Heretic Sanosuke – Rebel spy – May be disguised as a devoted of any house – Reward for capture or information regarding.

“‘Rebel spy?'” he muttered. “What the…” Well, technically, he supposed he was… It just seemed so overly dramatic when there wasn’t really, as far as he knew, a ‘rebellion’ yet. And he couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that, unlike Hajime, he wasn’t considered ‘very dangerous.’

The next thing he wondered was how whoever had printed these had gotten his name and the detail that he was a heretic and come up with such an accurate picture of him. It was actually fairly attractive, though his eyes had already wandered back to the one of Hajime (which was even more so). A few moments of consideration reminded him that the false knights he’d fought in Eloma would certainly have had the chance to make some mental notes, and have heard his name and probably his religious status from his neighbors. If that was where the information had come from, it surprised him a little at first that he saw no poster for Yahiko as well… but perhaps those guys hadn’t had the nerve to admit they’d been single-handedly defeated in that small town, and the single hand had belonged to a ten-year-old. Sano smirked at the thought, but the expression faded quickly.

He had no idea what to do now. These things were undoubtedly up all around town, and his picture was accurate enough that, even covered in smelly grime, even with hair far neater than it had been, even with what alterations he could make to his appearance in short order, he would be recognized almost immediately by average citizens in the street. How likely average citizens in the street would be to report his presence was debatable — though the word ‘reward’ did figure dismayingly on each poster — but the chance was better not taken. What to do instead, though…

The fact was that he just couldn’t count himself among the stealthiest people in all of Akomera. Though there had been some eavesdropping, most of his information-gathering had been conducted in a face-to-face manner with him merely being friendly and plausible — sometimes specifically helpful — in order to get what he needed out of people. And obviously that wouldn’t work anymore; a new plan was absolutely necessary. Should he abandon the efforts he’d made to get into the city today, go straight back to Enca, and discuss this development with Hajime? Or should he take advantage of his presence in Elotica to try to… accomplish something… while he could? Though the idea of returning to Hajime was immediately and almost overwhelmingly appealing, he forced himself to stay calm, stay still, and give the matter some reasoned thought.

It seemed he was destined never to finish thinking about what he would be doing today, however, as once again he was interrupted — this time by a quiet voice saying his name just to his right and a little behind. Nearly jumping out of his skin, Sano whirled, his hand going to his sword, his heart racing, but found only Katsu standing nearby.

“Fucking ladies’ tits!” he gasped out. “Give a guy some warning!”

“Somehow I didn’t think shouting out your name from across the street was a good idea,” replied Katsu in a low tone, tilting his head indicatively at the posters on the wall.

“Yeah… yeah…” Sano’s breathing was calming, but his heart still raced. “But, fuck, man.”

Katsu cast his dark eyes about to see if anyone was watching. “Come with me. There’s a place we can talk safely. What are you covered in?”

“I had to hide in a dirty-ass wagon to get through the gates.”

“For future reference–” now Katsu tried to repress a smile– “they’re only doing checks at the biggest two entrances. It’s just for show; they don’t have the manpower to waste on all eight.”

“Oh.” Thanks to his still-racing heart, Sano felt more bitter about this even than he might originally have done. “Fuck.”

“You can clean up a little when we get where we’re going, and we’ll see if we can’t find you something else to wear.” Katsu glanced around again, then unexpectedly pulled both wanted posters down from the wall in a quick movement that put little slits at the top edge of each where tacks had abruptly vacated the paper. After folding them and tucking them into a pocket somewhere, he gestured briefly and took off at a quick walk up the street.

Sano hastened after him. “Where are we going?” But Katsu, busy checking every corner carefully and obviously choosing the most back-street route he could find, did not answer.

Whether he was more tense or relieved during this circuitous walk, Sano couldn’t be sure. Katsu too might not have the most stealth in all of Akomera, but in that category — as well as in cautious forethought, and certainly in familiarity with the Elotica streets — he easily outranked Sano; and beyond that, his appearance at that precise moment, when Sano had been at a loss what to do, had been amazingly fortuitous. Perhaps, in fact, a little too fortuitous. As they made their especially cautious way to wherever they were going, Sano reflected not only on this phenomenal good luck, but also — perforce — on Hajime’s doubts regarding his friend. “Are you sure you can trust him?” the knight had asked… and then he’d let it go at Sano’s insistence… but the raised point hadn’t disappeared merely because Sano had resisted it.

How had Katsu managed to find Sano just when he had? Where were they going now? He had a feeling Katsu wouldn’t answer if he asked, and, at least while stealthily navigating the streets, he agreed that remaining as quiet as possible was wise — so he didn’t ask. But certain disloyal stirrings haunted him all the way there.

‘There’ was a grimy yard apparently belonging to a business of some kind, possibly an inn, that they entered via a small side-gate in another tiny back street. It did look like a fairly safe place to have a private conversation, since it sat right up against one of the high main city walls and there were no windows on this side of the building. Katsu evidently wanted even more privacy than only the relatively hidden space behind some of the stacked goods, though, and headed straight for a shed that stood near one of the corners of the yard. Sano, despite feeling this was maybe overkill, followed without question.

But Katsu did not enter the shed; rather, stopping to one side of it and reaching up into the space beneath the corner of its low-sloping roof, he manipulated something — something that creaked and turned and squeaked once — as Sano watched in curiosity and confusion. So intent was Sano, in fact, on this observation, that he didn’t at first notice the effect of his friend’s movement. When Katsu withdrew his hand and turned slightly, Sano finally caught sight of the purpose of all of this: an opening had appeared in the city wall nearby, a foot or so above the ground and totally black. And though it wasn’t enough to make him jump back in astonishment or anything, he did demand in some surprise to know what it was. But of course Katsu merely shook his head and gestured for Sano to follow him.

Down a grimy ladder into darkness Sano continued tailing his friend with only minimal hesitation, reflecting that whatever this clandestine place might be, it certainly seemed optimal for backstabbing. He felt comforted by the awareness, however, that there wasn’t much non-reward-related reason for anyone to do him harm at this point, and logistically it would be very troublesome to get him back out of here, up this ladder and through that smallish opening to somewhere a reward could be collected, either dead or under duress. This could possibly make a pretty decent prison, though…

“Chou, are you here?” Katsu’s voice echoed slightly beneath Sano, and covered up almost completely the sound of another crank working to close the opening above him. At that point it became obvious, as Sano reached the floor and turned away from the ladder, that the space wasn’t entirely dark, as flickering candlelight immediately approached around a corner in what appeared to be a multi-roomed space built into and under the great city wall.

Along with the candlelight came the protesting reply through the damp, musty air, “Not sure where else I’d be…” The speaker emerged around the corner, bringing the light with him, and stopped abruptly. “Who’s this?”

Even through the subsequent explanatory exchange, Sano stared bemusedly at the unexpected figure — at his impossibly erect hair, his loose pants and shiiya of blues and purples so bright they were clearly discernible even in the dimness, and at his stance that looked like a stationary swagger declaring his ownership of this… dirty underground place? …as if it were a royal treasure trove and Sano and Katsu supplicants before his throne.

“Chou,” Katsu was saying with an introductory gesture toward the stranger, “is a sword-thief–”

“Sword-collector,” the man, Chou, broke in.

Katsu went on as if he hadn’t heard him. “–a sword-thief who decided Kenshin’s empty sheath is a good target. With the king — and his sheath — a prisoner who-knows-where, Chou is a rebel by necessity for now.” He gave Chou a calculating look up and down. “I think he’s close enough to your size.”

They had all moved forward out of what must be considered the entry, so when Sano gave a convulsive shake of head and took a stumbling step back at Katsu’s words, still staring at Chou’s hair and the bright blue headband at its base, he found himself suddenly in the doorway near the ladder again. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Chou seemed to divine the exact cause of Sano’s chagrin, for he said with a pugnacious sneer, “You got a problem, stinky? How the fuck did you get like that, anyway? Ain’t you that heretic spy in the posters?” He turned from examining Sano toward Katsu. “Don’t tell me you want me to–”

A little impatiently, though not without some evident amusement, Katsu broke in. “He does have a problem; he is the spy from the posters, which is how he got like this; and, yes, I do.”

Chou’s pointed and very irritated stare dragged out as the artist looked placidly back in the flickering light, as if Chou thought Katsu might change his mind if he only squinted his left eye hard enough at him. Finally, though, clearly realizing he was getting nowhere, the sword-thief made a frustrated noise, turned abruptly, and disappeared. As he was holding the only light extant, this action plunged the room Katsu and Sano occupied into darkness except for the meandering glow from around the corner.

“Something with a hood!” Katsu called after.

“Fiiiine,” Chou replied petulantly.

In a lower, conspiratorial tone, Katsu explained, “He can’t say no to me since I bring him food.” And with as much confidence as if he were in his own home and knew every inch of it, he walked through the darkness. Presently the sound of a fire-starter clicked from the direction he’d gone, and a second candle provided some further illumination.

“What is this place?” With only a single light, even one more centrally placed than that which Chou had taken away, Sano couldn’t make out much more than before of the decent-sized room they stood in except that it held three long tables with attached benches and seemed to have as many gaping doorways into other, mostly blacker spaces.

It all made sense, though, when Katsu replied, “The old thieves’ guild headquarters.” He gestured around, sending strange blurry shadows up the walls behind him. “As you can see, it hasn’t been used for years.”

“I guess that weirdo found it for you, then?” Sano was still looking around, now in increasing curiosity and interest, little good though the action actually did him.

“I knew it was here,” Katsu shrugged, “but he reminded me.”

“You already knew where the thieves’ guild was?”

“No, don’t come over here yet.” Katsu raised his hands in a warding gesture as Sano took a step forward. “Get out of those clothes and use that bucket.” He pointed to a squat shape barely visible in the darkness near the bench at one of the tables. “The water’s not that clean — I was using it on some stuff around this place — but it’s better than what you’ve got all over you now. I’d treat you better, but there aren’t many places I can take a wanted man.”

Sano hadn’t been sure what to expect from this day, and never had made any concrete plans… but he certainly hadn’t anticipated stripping off smelly goo-soaked clothing in a secret chamber hidden inside the city wall with only some incredibly haired eccentric and the longtime best friend whose trustworthiness he didn’t want to admit he might be questioning a little for company. But a ‘rebel spy’ had to take such things as they came, so for now he just obeyed Katsu’s injunction and started to get cleaned up.

>23 Interlude

Katsu’s gaze snapped back to the street after what had originally been intended as a quick, casual glance. Once he’d confirmed that his eyes really weren’t playing tricks on him, he allowed them to follow the walking figure that had caused his double-take. He didn’t worry about the rudeness of staring; this particular guy was used to it, as anyone that looked like that must be. Katsu had never seen a more creative (or bizarre) use of hair wax. Sweeping his charcoal sticks into their tin and carefully but quickly rolling up his drawing, he tucked it all under his arm and set off to follow the stranger.

Skyward hair wasn’t the only peculiarity. The lime-green shiiya the guy wore was translucent, displaying the dark aqua of his shirt, which matched his pants; these bright colors were stabilized somewhat by the black of long gloves, boots, and several belts and straps that held at least half a dozen swords. All together it was a strange and attention-grabbing ensemble, which was why Katsu followed. Curiosity would be the death of him one of these days; knowing more than most people did seemed only to heighten proportionally his desire to know even more.

The newcomer paused at a street intersection, shifting the large leather pack he wore on his shoulders somewhat impatiently as he consulted a sheet of paper and looked back and forth. Katsu nearly laughed aloud when he realized where the guy was headed. Surely this flamboyantly attired and highly obtrusive person didn’t consider himself a thief…!

Although the old thieves’ guild headquarters was still accessible, as it had always been, through the yard behind a relatively respectable tavern in the green district, Katsu didn’t think there were more than a handful of people left in the entire city that were aware of it, and certainly no one used it. The Elotica underworld was so disorganized these days, he suspected half the criminals in town didn’t even know what a thieves’ guild was. Socially this was a mixed blessing — but there really wasn’t time at the moment to ponder that topic if he wanted to continue trailing this guy.

The stranger’s written instructions seemed to be correct, for he was heading exactly the right direction — without any apparent attempt to make himself less conspicuous or disguise where he was going. That would make sense if he was aware that nobody really remembered the thieves’ guild headquarters anymore — but if he knew that, why would he go there? Any number of logical reasons came to mind, but none of them seemed to be the case. So Katsu just kept following quietly.

It wasn’t difficult, given that the stranger didn’t seem to care about pursuit, never looked behind him, only walked along with an energetic, almost cocky step that yet seemed somehow impatient or even angry. Katsu didn’t think he was actively angry, but still got an overwhelming impression of that emotion from the guy’s bearing. Interesting.

Once they reached the Green Apple, Katsu had to fall back some distance: no matter how oblivious the other appeared, he was sure to notice someone practically treading on his heels down the little-used alley on the tavern’s north side and thence into the yard behind it. Even from the main street, however, the listening Katsu caught the sound of rusty hinges as the gate into the yard screeched open. Surely the stranger must be clued in by that… if thieves still used this place, there was not a chance they would leave such a noisy piece of metal unattended nearby. It was useful to Katsu, though, as it told him the guy had entered the yard. After counting to fifteen, he stepped into the alley after him.

He took note of the high, windowless wall of the building to his left, and that there was another way into (or out of) the alley: a narrow lane between that building and the even higher main city wall that was the rear of this space. The latter was rendered quite shadowy by all these walls, mid-afternoon and cloudless though it was. In the lowest wall, to his right, that of the tavern’s yard, the iron gate stood open. Why had the stranger left it standing like that? For a quick getaway?

Katsu edged to the opening and looked cautiously in. He caught a glimpse of a somewhat dirty enclosure mostly full of crates in neatly-stacked rows, some of them covered with tarps; what looked like a shed nestled right up against the city wall at the back of the yard; and a privy near one of two doors into the establishment. There was no chance to take in details, however, as almost immediately a gloved hand seized his shiiya, pulled him roughly through the open gate, and slammed him into the wall.

Breathless, he found himself facing the stranger’s glower, drawn sword, and abrupt demand, “Why the fuck are you following me?”

Though he was more concerned for the objects that had been knocked from his grasp to the dirty pavement than that the other would actually harm him, Katsu was at first too startled to speak. He examined the stranger’s face wordlessly, his mind momentarily blank.

The newcomer appeared to be a few years his senior, with features he could not exactly call handsome but that might be pleasant without the scowl and the squint they wore. The eye whose color Katsu could see was grey-brown, and the high blonde hair was even more astonishing up close.

Finally, getting hold of himself, he realized what he needed to say. “Orange skies’ blessings be on you, cousin.”

The grip on his shiiya relaxed, and the tip of the sword left his neck. The stranger didn’t sheathe the weapon yet, but he did step back. “Shit,” he was remarking, “you guys actually say that here?”

“Not so much anymore,” Katsu replied, bending to gather his fallen supplies, “but it was better than getting stabbed.”

“Aw, I wouldn’t have stabbed you.” The other was consulting his directions again, and said this somewhat absently. He seemed attentive enough, though, when he pursued, “So why were you following me? Keeping an eye on the new guy?”

“Something like that.” Katsu had located what they needed with a quick glance around, and now pointed. “It’s there, up in the shed eaves next to the wall.”

The man, who had been frowning darkly at the paper in his hand, looked up and then along Katsu’s extended arm. “Well, I sure as hell am glad you know.” He crumpled his instructions and shoved the crackling wad into a pocket, putting his sword away as he did so. Stalking to the shed, he twisted head and neck to look into the eaves where the low end of the roof met the city wall. Katsu, who only had a vague idea of what to expect here, watched with interest as the stranger’s face lit up at whatever he saw. The artist took a step closer when the newcomer reached into the recess and began, apparently, turning a crank of some sort — to judge by the motion and the horrible screeching sound that ensued.

In the brief space of city wall that stretched between the shed and the yard wall, a dark opening appeared, a low rectangle that had previously seemed just another of the large bricks. It ground backward and down, a subdued grating sound joining the shriek of rusted metal, bits of dirt raining down into the darkness from the widening cracks, and finally stopped.

The stranger bent and peered into the shadows. “What, do they think we’re all midgets?” he demanded.

“It had to look like the bricks,” Katsu supplied.

The other turned toward him as if he’d forgotten he was not alone. “I’m Chou, by the way.”

“You’re from G”nst… by way of Etoronai?” the artist wondered, rather than stating his own name.

Chou had turned back to the opening and inserted his head, so his reply was somewhat distorted by muffling stone and a slight echo: “Nah, I just talk like it.”

Ignoring this bit of bullshit, Katsu watched as Chou extracted his head and, turning, began to descend what was apparently a ladder leading into the lightless space below. Once the blonde plume had disappeared from sight, Katsu followed. Before he’d even reached the floor ten feet below, he heard Chou exclaiming, “The fuck…?”

The light from outside was quite limited, even after Katsu left the ladder and stood out of its way, so only the first room was dimly visible — but the shadows could not hide the fact that the place was completely empty. Some trash lay in one corner, cobwebs stretched across others, and a thick coating of dust or light dirt covered the floor everywhere their feet hadn’t touched. The doorway into the next room, devoid even of a door, was a yawning portal of darkness.

Chou rounded on Katsu, demanding, “What’s with this place?”

“It hasn’t been used for years,” replied Katsu.

For a second time the artist found himself slammed up against the wall with one of Chou’s swords to his neck; he realized with some amusement that this was not so much because Chou really felt the need to threaten him as that Chou really liked to swing his swords around. “Your behavior is striking me as pretty damn suspicious,” the other growled along the drawn blade. “If nobody uses this place, why the fuck did you follow me here and come down with me?”

“I’d never seen it before,” answered Katsu, calm and honest, “and I was curious. Besides, how else would you have gotten your questions answered?”

Again Chou released him, then swished the sword in his hand in an impatient pattern through the air before resheathing it. Katsu, smoothing out his now rather crumpled shiiya, noticed it was a different sword than the one he’d previously been threatened with. “Well, then, you better have some good answers,” Chou grumbled. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Katsu.” The latter held up the drawing he’d been working on earlier, still rolled up though it was, and added, “I’m an artist.”

“An artist?” echoed Chou incredulously. “No wonder this place don’t get used, if any old artist person knows it’s here.”

“Actually, almost nobody knows it’s here,” Katsu explained conversationally as he moved forward toward the black doorway. Free hand outstretched, counting on knowing what obstacles were in the next room before he ran into them, he walked slowly on.

“Wait…” Chou had also come to the door, but (naturally) didn’t have Katsu’s confidence in a pitch-black unknown space. “If you’re just an artist, how’d you know the thief greeting?”

Katsu rolled his eyes at being referred to as ‘just an artist,’ and didn’t answer the question. Rather, as he made his way around the old wooden tables that still stood in this large chamber, he narrated what he was realizing as it came to him — as much for his own entertainment as for the edification of the newcomer. “That room there is the entry; there’d have been a guard there just in case anyone made it down who wasn’t supposed to. Anyone coming down the ladder would be an easy target if they didn’t know the password. This is the common room here…”

His voice echoed as he approached another doorway into a third empty space. “And back here is where the thief princes did their private business.” He didn’t enter — too many spiders — but recrossed the common room to the final chamber. “And in here they used to practice knife-fighting and pocket-picking and wrestling. It still smells like sweat,” he added in mild distaste — “old sweat. And the sewer… that must be next door…