Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1306
Disclaimer: This fanfic is based on characters and events from Fushigi Yuugi copyright ©Yuu Watase, Shogakukan, Inc., TV Tokyo, et al. 1995. I have no wish to make profit of any kind off of this piece; it is for reading enjoyment only.

A bead of sweat rolled down the back of Tasuki's neck and into the collar of his leather coat. The feeling sent a tickle down his spine and he twitched. Reaching up, he swiped an arm across his forehead. Strands of his fiery hair stuck to his face and the bridge of his nose. He glared at them for a moment, his eyes crossing in the effort. With a pronounced frown, Tasuki turned his attention back to the road ahead. He had long since discarded the green felt robe he'd worn throughout most of Hokkan, though he was beginning to think he should remove his coat, too.

The transition between the hilly woodlands of southern Hokkan and the rocky badlands of northern Sairou was stark. The immense stands of ash, pine, and oak that had dominated much of the landscape had disappeared at least half a day ago. In their place, wind-eroded pillars of rock, a washed-out orangy beige in the late afternoon glare, sprang like a forest of limbless tree trunks from the rocky rim of a vast, sandy basin to the right of the road. Spiny, scrubby bushes poked out from between the cast-off boulders and rubble at the foot of each isolated column. Craggy ledges jutted from the otherwise sheer walls of a series of cliffs on their left, hemming them into a narrow, winding pass. Thick, dusty heat invaded Tasuki's nostrils with every breath. "Th' scenery changes drastically once yah leave Hokkan, don't it?" he muttered.

Chichiri glanced back over his shoulder at Tasuki from where he rode a few lengths ahead. His bangs swayed back and forth with his mount's rolling gait. "Only a little ways further and we'll be entirely surrounded by the desert, no da."

"Tamahome?" Chiriko shifted in his spot behind Mitsukake as he looked over at the fighter. "Are you certain Miaka will be coming to meet us soon?"

Tamahome's brows furrowed and the corner of his lip quirked. "Well, yeah. Sure. That's what Taiitsukun told me." His expression grew darker and more concerned as the five seishi continued down the road. Pursing his lips into a determined line, Tamahome yanked hard on the reins, bringing his horse to an abrupt halt. The animal reared back on its hind legs with a piercing scream.

"Wha?" Tasuki's head shot around at the sound and he brought his own mount up short. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chichiri, Mitsukake, and Chiriko do the same.

"Tamahome?" Chiriko said, watching the fighter turn his horse around the way they had come.

With a sharp "ha," the compact, tawny horse leapt forward from its dead stop. A choking cloud of dust rose from the animal's hooves and myriad pebbles skittered from its path. Tamahome leaned forward in his saddle, his dark navy hair fluttering about his face. "Sorry, everyone!" he shouted over his shoulder. "You'll have to go on ahead without me!"

As the thunder of hoofbeats faded and Tamahome's retreating figure disappeared around a bend in the road, Tasuki raised an eyebrow. "What's with 'im, 'uh?"

"I'm sure that Tamahome is worried about Miaka," Mitsukake said, turning to look at Tasuki before urging his horse forward.

"Shouldn't we go after him?" Chiriko glanced up at the healer before looking off toward the slowly dispersing dust cloud. He wiped at the sweat that had settled just under his lower lip with the back of a small hand. "Splitting up at this stage could be dangerous."

Chichiri, too, gazed off toward the way they had come. His perpetual smile dwindled to a mere curving of his lips as his brows creased. He was silent for a long moment before he reined his horse around and continued on. "Tamahome can look out for himself, and Miaka is with Taiitsukun, no da. What we have to do is make our way into Sairou as quickly as possible and locate the second Shinzahou, no da. We can wait for Miaka and Tamahome to join us there, na no da."

Tasuki took one last, long look at the heat shimmer rising off the trade road as it stretched out behind them. With a shake of his head, he too urged his horse around and followed after.

The rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop of the remaining horses' hooves filled the silence, echoing off the surrounding rock. It had been three days since they had set out from Mount Koku for the Hokkan-Sairou border, stopping briefly in Touran to procure a few supplies and retrieve Miaka's mislaid pack. No one had spoken more than a few stilted sentences in the hundreds of li they'd traveled; Nuriko's death was still too fresh in everyone's minds.

Tasuki's brow furrowed. Nuriko... He missed him so much. He felt strange and vulnerable without Nuriko there to laugh and joke with. It felt like a piece of himself had been stripped away, leaving behind a gaping hole. And no matter what he did, or said, or thought, there was nothing that would fix it, or change it, or make it better. The familiar lump crept once more into the back of Tasuki's throat. He scowled so deeply that his fangs poked out at the corners of his mouth. Mitsukake was right, though: he had to set his grief aside and attend to what he could do. Still, Tasuki didn't think he would ever be able to forget. He could still see Nuriko's lifeless, broken body lying in the blood-laced snow whenever he closed his eyes. He could still smell the stench of copper and feel the burning sting of tears whenever he thought about it. Even if he might be able to focus on his sworn duty for now, the guilt and anger he felt seized his heart in a grip so tight that he didn't think it would ever loosen. If he had been there, Nuriko might not be dead now. Nuriko might still be with them, not up on that desolate mountaintop, buried in a makeshift grave of rock and snow. If he had known, Tasuki would never have let the courtier walk into that slaughter by himself. He gritted his teeth. Damn the Seiryuu. Their deaths were the only thing that would put his heart at ease, and if he had to, he'd send the entirety of the Seiryuu Seven to the afterlife by his own hand. Tasuki took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, calming exhale. As appealing as the thought of revenge was, there was precious little he could do about it at the moment.

Still, it wasn't fair. Chichiri had said that they couldn't wish for Suzaku to resurrect Nuriko because the courtier would have been dead too long for his body to still be viable. Tasuki grimaced as the fight at the sanctuary on Mount Koku came back to his mind. A cold deeper and more biting than even the snowy mountaintop had engulfed them the moment they'd set foot beyond the ancient bronze doors Nuriko had sacrificed everything to open. Mere steps into the cave, those selfsame doors had slammed shut of their own accord, plunging them all into stygian blackness. Skeletons, some still clad in threadbare robes and rotten boots, their sightless eyes leering up from the dusty cave floor in the flickering flame of his tessen, sent a chill down Tasuki's spine. And he wasn't about to admit that goosebumps had risen on his arms and hairs had stood up on the back his neck at the disembodied voice that had threatened to kill them all as thieves. Even after ethereal orbs of pale green light had illuminated the cave, showing two figures that had coalesced from a swirl of glowing mist for who they were–Hikitsu and Tomite, Warriors of Genbu–Tasuki still couldn't stop the tingle of fear that had licked at the pit of his gut. How were they supposed to fight ghosts? None of his and Tamahome's attacks had been able to affect the seishis' bodiless forms, not even Tasuki's divine flame. Thieves they had been pronounced and, as thieves, executed. Miaka begging on hands and knees, then allowing herself to be tested the way she had–frozen solid, for Suzaku's sake–was the only reason they hadn't all met their deaths then and there. He didn't even want to think about what would have happened had they not been able to prove their intentions were true. An' now th' Shinzahou's gone, he thought. Tasuki's fingers tightened around the leather reins.

After Nuriko had given his life to unbar that cave, after they'd managed to persuade those two long-dead Genbu seishi to trust them, after coming so far and struggling so hard, the Shinzahou had been snatched right from Miaka's hands. The arrival of that wolf seemed much too convenient to Tasuki. And he didn't know if he liked the idea of leaving Miaka in Hokkan, even if she was being taken care of by Taiitsukun. It had seemed a bit weird to him that when Tamahome returned from looking for Miaka, he'd said Taiitsukun had appeared and told them to go ahead to Sairou and leave retrieving the stolen Genbu Shinzahou until later. If she had been just hanging around, couldn't she have used her powers to stop that damn wolf and get it back? Then again, he thought, the old sand witch had never done anything for them that they could do themselves.

Tasuki thought again of the two Stars of Genbu they'd faced. Those seishi had been tasked with guarding the Shinzahou, in spirit form, for two hundred years. They had a sacred duty to their priestess and their god, a specific reason to forgo the cycle of reincarnation. Perhaps that was why they were still so powerful, even after so much time. Why couldn't Nuriko do that? Why couldn't he rejoin their journey as a ghost? But, Tasuki thought, if Nuriko came back like that, what would his charge be? He didn't have to worry about Miaka's safety; their priestess still had Warriors alive to look after her. And they hadn't even summoned Suzaku yet, so there wasn't a Shinzahou to protect. If a soul, adrift in the mortal world, had no purpose, wouldn't it eventually become lost? Didn't lost souls become vengeful ghosts? What if Nuriko were doomed to wander the earth forever as a vengeful ghost? Tasuki glanced behind him as visions of otherworldly presences filled his mind. Didn't vengeful ghosts haunt people? Knowing Nuriko, scaring the shit out of Tasuki would be high on his priority list. Tasuki shuddered at the thought. Maybe it was better that Nuriko moved on to his next life.

Tasuki's gaze shifted to Chichiri's back. The late afternoon sunshine dusted the monk's long bangs, short-cropped hair, and ponytail with shifting golden highlights. A welcome gust of wind rippled Chichiri's kesa against his body. Tasuki let the hint of a sardonic chuckle escape his lips. He loved that back nearly as much as he hated looking at it. Chichiri hadn't spoken much during the trip–none of them had–but at least Chichiri wasn't actively avoiding Tasuki like he had been on the ride from Tomoru's village to Touran. What that meant exactly, Tasuki had no idea.

Chichiri wasn't making anything easy for him, Tasuki thought; that was certain. Mitsukake had told him, when they'd spent the night at Gurban's home in Touran, that the monk most likely did share his feelings. Tasuki pursed his lips. Of course Chichiri shared his feelings; it had been obvious that he was lying when Tasuki had confronted him. Yah don't try t' fuck somebody then turn around an' say yah made a "mistake," he thought. But, what was he supposed to do? Until Suzaku had been summoned, Tasuki doubted Chichiri would want anything to do with him–Mitsukake had said as much as well–and trying to jump into his bed so soon after Nuriko's death... Still, Nuriko had died in battle, performing his duty as a celestial warrior. It was a sobering thought: when the time came for him to lay down his life for Miaka, would he regret going into that good night without getting to show Chichiri just how much he loved him? He honestly didn't know. Tasuki scowled and shook his head. The sweat-soaked strands of hair stuck to his nose and forehead didn't budge. What he did know was that they needed to talk, about a great many things. He glanced up at where Mitsukake and Chiriko rode next to Chichiri. Though he'd told the big healer what was going on between the monk and himself, there was no way he wanted Chiriko hearing about it. The kid was too young to know about that sort of thing. Perhaps, Tasuki thought, once they'd arrived in Sairou, he and Chichiri could find a moment alone.

Tasuki took a deep breath and let it out as one long sigh. How long would they have to search for this Shinzahou, anyway? And where were they supposed to start looking? Since Taiitsukun hadn't told them they would even have to travel to Sairou, much less look for a second Shinzahou, he had no idea. He wasn't even sure where they were exactly. The guards at Touran's gates had told them, when they'd set out, to follow the trade road they were traveling until they reached the capital, but it was anyone's guess as to how long that would take. "Anybody know anythin' 'bout this country?" Tasuki asked.

"Oh, that's right."

Mitsukake glanced back over his shoulder at the young scholar clinging to his waist. The ends of the healer's headband waved in the puttering breeze. "What is it, Chiriko?"

"Before we left on our journey, I read a bit about Sairou in one of the tomes in the imperial library. I was searching for cultural and topographical information about Hokkan at the time, but I did come across a few things of interest."

Tasuki perked up at that. "Whad'd yah find?"

"Well, Sairou is much larger than Kounan, though Hokkan is larger still by far. Most of the country is situated on a vast plateau, and covered by desert, either rocky and arid, like we're traveling through now," Chiriko said, his blond topknot bobbing in time to the cadence of hoofbeats, "or sandy and nearly uninhabitable but for a handful of isolated lakes and oases. Being mostly desert, rainfall is scarce, but several rivers and rather elaborate irrigation systems supply a few fertile valleys."

"Chichiri," Mitsukake said, turning to the monk. "You've said before that you've been to Sairou. Do you know anything"

"I don't really have much to tell, no da." Chichiri shrugged. "When I passed through Sairou years ago, I spent a lot of that time just walking, no da."

Tasuki's gaze followed the undulating line of craggy rock walls bordering the pass as the conversation slacked off to silence. Eh? Almost hidden by a rise in the trade road several li ahead, the faint yellowish glimmer of light off of a polished surface caught Tasuki's eye. What's that? Brow furrowed, he put a hand to his forehead and squinted against the glare. It looked as if there were a series of shallow, parallel ledges protruding from a section of cliffs. He stared at that spot for a long time, trying to figure out what he was seeing. What th' fuck? He scrubbed his knuckles across his eyes and looked again. Sure enough, the uniform rounded curves of clay tiles and the upturned eaves of a sweeping roofline were still there. "'Ey," Tasuki said, raising an eyebrow, "there's some kinda roof up ahead."

"A roof?" Chiriko leaned around Mitsukake's wide back and placed a small hand to his own sweat-sheened forehead. "Where?"

Tasuki urged his horse forward until he was alongside the healer and scholar's mount. He leaned over in his saddle, earning him a snort from the dark bay horse under him. "'S right there," he said, pointing off down the road.

Chiriko gripped Mitsukake's sweat-dampened saffron-colored coat with both small hands as he, too, leaned over. Scrunching one eye closed, he looked down Tasuki's outstretched arm. Each swaying step of his and Mitsukake's horse made it nearly impossible for him to make out at what Tasuki was pointing. Chiriko attempted to follow the redhead's finger as it bounced across the landscape for a few moments longer, but the movement did nothing but make him slightly nauseous. With a shake of his head, he straightened up. "I'm sorry, but I don't see what you're talking about, Tasuki."

With a growl, Tasuki straightened back up as well. "Stop movin' around, yah stupid horse!" Almost as if it had understood him, the animal shook its head and let out another loud, irritated snort. "Fuckin' asshole horse," he muttered. "Well," he turned back to Chiriko with a wry quirk to his lips, "it's there, 'bout ten li from 'ere. Never seen a roof stickin' outta a rock wall b'fore, though."

"It might be the façade of a temple or monastery, no da."

Tasuki looked over at Chichiri, a skeptical brow raised. "In th' side o' a cliff in th' middle o' fuckin' nowhere?" Chichiri turned to look at him across Mitsukake and Chiriko's horse. The monk's perpetually smiling mask, dotted with beads of sweat, revealed nothing. Tasuki's jaw tightened as he held Chichiri's gaze firm. Avoiding him now or not, that Chichiri hadn't shown him his true face since that night on the Shouryuu River still hurt.

"The people of Sairou are very pious, no da. Shrines, temples, and monasteries aren't an uncommon sight along the roads, no matter how heavily traveled, no da," Chichiri said, returning his attention to the roadway. "I spent a night or two at a good number of temples and monasteries during my wandering, and a lot of them were built into or on top of mountains, na no da."

Mitsukake glanced back and forth between Tasuki and Chichiri as both men looked away. His brow furrowed. "Perhaps we should stop. The monks there may be able to replenish our water supplies."

"That's a good idea," Chiriko agreed. "We don't know if there are any villages or towns between our current location and the capital. It would be prudent to refill our canteens and water the horses before continuing on."

"Sounds good t' me. 'S damn hot out 'ere." Tasuki leaned forward in his saddle. "Let's go!" His horse let out a loud whinny as it jumped forward from its previous plodding walk into a fast canter. The sharp three-beat rhythm of hoof strikes against the rock drowned out any reply.

- o - o - o -

The clatter of hooves, the jangle of bronze fittings, and the crack of Tasuki's jade- and glass-beaded necklaces against each other accompanied the seishis' arrival. The tinny cacophony echoed and re-echoed off the carved rock façade until the narrow pass and the very air itself seemed to vibrate with sound.

"Whoa!" Tasuki pulled his mount up sharply, eliciting an irked grunt from the animal. It came to a stop, but not before it had stamped its hooves and shaken itself as if to throw the redhead from the saddle. "'Ey!" Clutching at the wooden pommel, Tasuki struggled to regain his balance. "What's yer fuckin' problem, yah damn horse?" he growled, his fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth as he steadied himself. The horse turned its head ever so slowly to look back over its shoulder, and gave him what could only be called a side-eyed glare. Brows drawn low, Tasuki scowled right back. "Try it again, I dare yah."

Glancing over at the test of wills between the redhead and his horse, Mitsukake shook his head. He brought his own mount to a more graceful halt as his gaze wandered over the monastery entrance. Stone balusters and handrails, not unlike the lacquered-wood versions he'd seen at the palace in Eiyou, edged a broad terrace set just above a series of wide, shallow stairs cut from the cliffside. Columns sculpted out of the rock and painted in shades of red, gold, blue, and white held up the largest, lower-most roof and formed a portico above the darkened doorway into the structure. His gaze swept upward, to the pagoda-like, parallel roofs emerging from the rock face. Massive square windows had been carved out above each section and inset with open-work lattice, allowing light and air into the monastery's interior. Behind him, he felt Chiriko shift as the scholar dismounted, slipping from the horse's back to the ground.

Chiriko landed with a muffled thud, the soles of his shoes too soft to make much noise against the roadbed. He brushed the dust kicked up from his descent off the hem and sleeves of his teal silk coat. Raising an eyebrow and cocking his head, he looked around. A good number of the glazed tiles composing the roofs were damaged or missing altogether. Portions of the open-work lattice of the windows had broken, creating gaping portals into the darkness beyond. Chips and gouges marred the surfaces of the columns, and small piles of rubble had begun to accumulate at their bases. The ornate paintwork was faded and had flaked off completely in some places. Hills of sand, probably blown in by the desert winds, peppered the porch and stairs. It seemed as if the monastery had been abandoned. "Chichiri," Chiriko said, his lips quirking into a frown. He glanced up at where Chichiri sat astride his own mount, also scrutinizing the building. "I don't think anyone has inhabited this monastery in quite some time."

A thoughtful hum was all the response Chichiri gave as he, too, dismounted. He patted his horse's iron-gray neck twice as he studied the façade. The monastery hadn't been abandoned for long, he could feel it. The aura surrounding the structure was still too saturated with chi. It was as if the monks who had called it home had just picked up and left. But why was the building in such disrepair? No lama or abbot that he'd ever met in his wandering had been anything but fastidious in the upkeep of their temple or monastery.

"Chichiri?" Mitsukake gave the monk a quizzical look as he stood on one ornate stirrup, swinging his leg over the hindquarters of his horse and to the ground. "Is everything alright?" The animal nickered softly before pushing its nose into the healer's shoulder, the bronze rings on its bridle jingling as it did so. Mitsukake scratched between the horse's ever-swiveling ears before caressing its chestnut-colored muzzle with one big hand.

I shouldn't alarm anyone until I have a better idea of what's going on, no da, he thought. Giving the ramshackle façade one last look, Chichiri shook his head. He slid slender fingers under the cheek piece of the horse's bridle, and with a click of his tongue, led the animal to the stone balustrade. He tied the leather reins loosely to the railing and turned back to Mitsukake. "Depending on how long ago the monastery was abandoned, we may still be able to find water or other provisions inside, no da," he said, willing the smile back onto his mask. "We should take a look around, na no da."

"Whoa, hey! What're yah doin'?!"

Chichiri whirled around in time to see Tasuki's horse shake itself violently, throwing the redhead, in mid-dismount, to the ground with a bone-rattling crash and thud. Chichiri winced at the sound. Tasuki sprawled in an unceremonious heap on the roadway, his necklaces bunched at his throat. The hem of his leather coat was a rumpled mess, stuck halfway under his body. The ornate gold belt holstering his tessen lay across his nose, the embossed leather doing little to obscure the look of shock and utter loathing on his face. Chichiri watched as the horse leaned down ever so slowly and snorted in Tasuki's face. The redhead's hair, what hadn't been flattened by the belt, rippled in the wash of exhalation. Without so much as a backward glance, the animal trotted over to stand next to Chichiri's own tethered mount.

"OW!" Tasuki bellowed, struggling to sit up. "Yah mangy, psycho fucker!" He yanked the belt draped across his face back into place and grabbed for the handle of his diamond fan. "Get yer ass back 'ere! I'll turn yah int' marou mifen!"

"Tasuki!" Chiriko cried and rushed to his side. "Are you alright?"

Mitsukake left his own horse and hastened over, reaching Tasuki and Chiriko in a few long strides. "Are you injured?" He reached out a large hand to the angry redhead.

Tasuki sneered, his fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. He eyed the horse warily and with as much malice and rancor as he could fit into one look. The animal turned its head at the commotion, the white of its eye a sinister contrast against its dark red-brown coat as it glared back over its shoulder. A long moment passed before, with a flick of its tail, it turned to nuzzle at Chichiri's horse beside it. Tasuki's eyes narrowed to slits, a deep growl rumbling up through his chest. Grudgingly, he released his grip on the tessen and grabbed Mitsukake's proffered hand. "No," he grumbled as the healer pulled him to his feet.

Chichiri let out a weary sigh. "If you're okay, Tasuki, we need to get moving, no da. We don't have the time to waste fooling around, na no da." Shaking his head, he started up the steps toward the portico and the swath of shadow cloaking the monastery door.

A deep scowl settled between Tasuki's brows, his eyes following Chichiri as the monk ascended. Was that why it had seemed like Chichiri hadn't been avoiding him as much for the last few days? Not because Chichiri might be thawing in his attitude toward him, but because the monk had truly written him–and how he felt–off as a nuisance? Tasuki was quiet for a long moment before he cast a last sidelong glance at his horse and moved to follow. "Fuckin' horse," he muttered.

His shoes making soft scratching noises on the sand-strewn steps, Chiriko fell in next to Tasuki. He looked up at the much taller seishi and cocked his head. "Why is your horse so angry with you?"

Tasuki snorted, his shoulders rising in a sharp shrug. "Damned if I know."

"Try to be more gentle with it," Mitsukake said. Securing his mount's reins to the stone balustrade near Chichiri's and Tasuki's horses, he gave the animal a parting scratch under the chin before climbing the steps himself. "Animals respond to kindness."

"I didn't barbecue th' fuckin' thing. How much 'kinder' d' yah want me t' be?"

A lopsided smile worked its way onto Chiriko's face, the first to do so in a long while, as he watched Mitsukake shake his head at Tasuki's irritation. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. Maybe he and Mitsukake would get a chance to discuss their findings from the conversations they'd had in Touran. If they were fortunate, the healer had learned something of more use than he had. A faint hint of movement past Tasuki's shoulder caught Chiriko's attention. Slowing his steps, he squinted down the trade road the way they had come.

"Whatcha lookin' at, Chiriko?" Tasuki paused in his stride as well, and turned to the scholar.

Chiriko cocked his head. "I'm not sure."

"It looks like a dust cloud," Mitsukake said as he stopped next to Chiriko. "Someone may be riding this way."

"That's strange." Chiriko glanced up at Mitsukake before turning his gaze back to the growing tannish smear on the horizon. "We haven't seen anyone on the road in days." The scholar tucked his hands into the sleeves of his silk coat.

Tasuki snorted. "Fer a 'trade road,' yah'd think there'd be more people usin' it." He too looked toward the way they had come. Cocking his head, he squinted against the afternoon sun. The shapes of horses bearing riders undulated through the heat shimmer just ahead of the rising cloud. "Yep, they're riders alright. There's maybe fifteen of 'em..." Huh? Spangles of light bounced across the riders' formation. Tasuki raised an eyebrow. What th' hell?

"It's them, no da."

Tasuki jerked his gaze to Chichiri, who now stood at the landing of the stairs staring out at the trade road. His perpetual smile had been replaced with a stern frown. "Wha-"

"Kutou soldiers, na no da."

Whipping his head back toward the approaching horsemen, Tasuki could now clearly see the tell-tale lamellar armor worn by Kutou's army. Glints of sunlight reflected off the soldiers' steel gray helmets and blue-trimmed cuirasses with each stride of their horses. His lips curled in a savage grimace, baring his fangs.

Chiriko's brows rose to his hairline. "How did they find us? I was certain we weren't followed when we left Touran."

Chichiri shook his head and looked down at the scholar. "I've been masking our life forces since we left Mount Koku, and I haven't felt anything since we entered Sairou, no da." Looking again toward the soldiers, his brow furrowed even deeper. "They must know about the other Shinzahou if they're here, no da," he said. "We have to get to the capital as soon as possible, na no da."

"But we don't know how far it is to the capital," Chiriko replied. He looked away, wringing his small hands. "I didn't think to make a map of Sairou while I had access to the imperial library. I'm so sorry." Mitsukake put a hand on the scholar's shoulder and gave it a comforting squeeze.

"Don't blame yourself, Chiriko no da." Chichiri looked back over his shoulder at the darkened doorway into the monastery. "Right now, we should get out of sight and wait for the Kutou forces to pass by, no da. We can't risk giving away our position to the enemy by engaging them, no da." He returned his attention to Chiriko and Mitsukake. "Once they've gone, we can continue on to the capital, na no da."

"But," Chiriko began, "this monastery is the first place with an easily accessible source of water-"

A guttural growl stained with rage worked its way up from the depths of Tasuki's chest, cutting Chiriko off. "I ain't hidin'." Blood rushed in Tasuki's ears and all he could hear was the sound of his own heart pleading for vengeance. He wasn't about to let this opportunity slip away.

The pit of Chichiri's stomach dropped out at the harsh, murderous tone in the redhead's voice. "Tasuki-"

"Fuck off, Chichiri," Tasuki snarled, grabbing for the handle of his tessen. "They're not gettin' away." Taking the solid weight of the weapon in hand, he turned to make his way back down the stone steps.

Chichiri bounded down the few stairs between them and caught Tasuki's arm in a tight grip. "Tasuki, don't, no da!"

Amber eyes flashing under tightly drawn brows, Tasuki's gaze bored straight into Chichiri's. "Let go. Now." Drawing up to his full height, Tasuki loomed over Chichiri, his fiery hair accentuating the fury painted across his face. "Nuriko deserves vengeance, an' I'm gonna make sure those fuckers die fer what they did."

Covering his mouth with both small hands, Chiriko watched wide-eyed as Tasuki and Chichiri squared off like two fighting dogs. The level of hostility that existed between the monk and the redhead shocked and surprised him. Relations between the two seemed to have been improving since they'd left Touran. Flicking his gaze to the road, his eyes grew larger still. The Kutou forces were nearly upon them and they had to do something. Chiriko looked up at Mitsukake. "What should we do?" he said, certain the big healer could hear the faint tremble in his voice.

Chichiri tightened his hold on Tasuki's coat-clad arm. He'd seen that reckless disregard for life and limb before–on that night in Kutou–and he liked it even less now than he had then. "Don't do this, Tasuki, no da. More bloodshed isn't the answer, no da. Nuriko wouldn't want you, or any of us, to be killed seeking revenge for his death, na no da."

"What th' fuck d' you know 'bout what Nuriko wants er not?" Tasuki's face contorted into a contemptuous sneer, his fangs clearly visible. "What th' fuck d' you know 'bout what I want er not? I'm sick o' yah tellin' me what t' do!" Tasuki roared. "Nuriko's soul's gotta be put t' rest, an' I'll be damned if yer gonna get in my way!"

Brows furrowed, Mitsukake watched the two seishi quarrel. Mitsukake knew Nuriko's death had affected Tasuki more deeply than the rest of the celestial warriors. Given the redhead's hot-headed disposition, he would want to seek retribution against Kutou and the Seiryuu. But, the wrath in Tasuki's accusations and the pure enmity on his face spoke of something deeper than avenging their fallen comrade. This argument, he suspected, was not just about their current situation, or Nuriko, at all.

Only the curve of Chichiri's fox-eyes retained any vestige of his mask's usual mirth. His brows drawn nearly as tight as those of the redhead he faced, his lips fell into a grim line. His hands were already stained with too much blood. He was not going to lose anyone else, especially Tasuki. "You'd have us fail both Miaka and Kounan to engage in a battle we don't even know if we can win, no da?" he retorted. "There are four of us, and at least fifteen of them; we are in no position to fight, no da. If we die here, Kutou will find the second Shinzahou and summon Seiryuu, and Kounan will be destroyed, no da."

The hurt and resentment Tasuki had nursed since the Shichiseishi had arrived in Hokkan welled up within him then. "That's yer answer t' everythin', ain't it?" he spat. Taking on the high-pitched tone of Chichiri's voice, he continued. "'Can't avenge Nuriko 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da!' 'Can't let Kutou see weakness 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da!'" His scowl deepened as a vivid and angry scarlet flush crept up his neck and into his cheeks. He dropped the affectation, his voice becoming a low and menacing growl rumbling up from deep within his chest. "'Can't love yah 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da.'"

Chiriko's mouth dropped open. In Delger's camp outside Touran, Chiriko hadn't been able to get Chichiri to open up about his relationship with Tasuki at all beyond that he was in love with him. Chiriko had assumed the reason for Chichiri's reticence was that his affections had been unrequited. But, did Tasuki actually share Chichiri's feelings? Chiriko jerked his gaze up to Mitsukake. Had the healer known about this? "Did y-"

That's it, then, Mitsukake thought as he heard the words leave Tasuki's lips. With a shake of his head, he cut Chiriko off mid-syllable. He could see the confusion and questions swirling in the scholar's mind, but they had no time for them. Once they were out of harm's way and somewhere he and Chiriko could talk alone, they would discuss it. Mitsukake glanced down the road. The Kutou forces were gaining on their position with each passing moment. If they tarried much longer, they would be seen and a fight would become inevitable. "What is our best option?" he asked as Chiriko reluctantly turned his attention to the haze kicked up by the advancing horsemen.

Chichiri's eyes narrowed at Tasuki's scornful impression, further still at the mention of that night in Tomoru's village. He should have known Tasuki would throw his rejection back in his face at some point, though he never imagined it would be in front of their fellow seishi. Out of the corner of his vision, he could see the surprised and knowing looks on Chiriko's and Mitsukake's faces. Apparently, Chiriko hadn't been the only one asking questions. And getting answers, Chichiri thought to himself. Still, no matter what he told himself about his feelings for Tasuki, and no matter how much the redhead ended up hating him for it, Chichiri knew that if he had to watch Tasuki die, even if it were by Tasuki's own choice, he would never forgive himself. "They can hide their life forces from us, Tasuki no da. We've only encountered five of the Seiryuu Seven so far; if the last two, or even Nakago, are in that contingent, we wouldn't stand a chance, na no da."

Tasuki bristled as his mind flew back to the abortive trip to Kutou and its aftermath: the dispute they'd had about saving Miaka, the monk's deception that led to Tasuki being tied to a column, the beating he'd taken at the hands of a drugged Tamahome, and the days afterward spent bandaged and bruised as he waited for Mitsukake to use his powers to heal him. If that was what Chichiri was getting at–that Tasuki had to be looked after like some child–he didn't want any part of it. He knew his way around a fight, and he could take care of himself; he'd proven that several times over already. What exactly was Chichiri trying to say? "So we run like fuckin' cowards? AgainThat's yer answer?!"

Chichiri let go of Tasuki's arm with a frustrated growl. Was Tasuki purposefully twisting Chichiri's meaning? "We barely made it out of Kutou alive, no da!" the monk shouted. ""I'm not going to let you throw your life and the lives of everyone in Kounan away for this hollow revenge, na no da!"

The hazy cloud had nearly tripled in size since Chiriko had first spotted it. The riders were no longer hidden by the swirling dust. Surely the soldiers were close enough to see the monastery and them by now? His brows furrowed as he fidgeted with the silk sleeves of his robe. "Outrunning them is no longer feasible. We wouldn't be able to ride fast enough to avoid detection at this point. And hiding until they pass just isn't advisable." Chiriko glanced up and down the trade road as Mitsukake hastened down the stairs and began untying the reins of the horses from the balustrade. The bass rumble of hooves echoing off the cliff walls began to assert itself, becoming an ominous drone just below Tasuki and Chichiri's arguing. ""he most likely scenario is that they will set up camp inside the monastery. It's the only choice for such a large group. Once they enter, we would never be able to sneak back out the entrance without being either seen or heard," Chiriko continued. "Our only real choice is to find a rear entrance to the monastery and enter the desert. The new moon tonight will keep us from being seen by any sentries. If we follow the cliffs, we should be able to parallel our current course. Once we're farther into Sairou and out of reach of the enemy, we can return to the road and make our way to the capital."

The horses nickered and snuffled in protest as Mitsukake started back up the short staircase to the stone terrace leading all three of their mounts. "Here." He thrust the reins of Tasuki's and Chichiri's mounts into their respective hands.

"'Ey-" Tasuki barked.

The sharp clop of Mitsukake's horse's hooves against the weathered stone as the healer continued on cut off Tasuki's objection. "We're out of time," he threw over his shoulder. "Lead your horse through the monastery and look for another exit. We'll use the desert beyond to escape."

A low growl slipped from Tasuki's throat as both Chichiri and Chiriko wordlessly moved to follow Mitsukake. Taking one more look at the Kutou soldiers bearing down on them, Tasuki clenched the leather reins in a tight fist. "Dammit," he hissed. His leather coat swirled about his boot tops as he headed off toward the monastery entrance and after the rest of the seishi.

- o - o - o -

The slow, rhythmic sway of his mount and the hushed rustle of sand under hooves lulled Chichiri into thought. He gazed up at the dazzling multicolored splash of the Silver River as it flowed across the heavens, a furrow of concern digging itself between his brows. The damage done to the interior of that monastery couldn't have been caused by mere neglect. In the main prayer hall, statues of both Buddhist deities and of Byakko had been pulled from their niches and ground almost to powder. Sprawling wall murals had been defaced or destroyed altogether. Ritual objects had littered the pockmarked and maroon-smeared tile floor, along with personal items, various and sundry. The individual cells had fared no better as piles of charred books and robes smoldered where broken candelabras had started small fires. They'd found no evidence that the monastery had still been inhabited when it was ransacked, but the faint residue of malignance hovering just beneath the echoes of the missing monks' chi unsettled him. He'd kept his concerns to himself; after all, what choice did they have but to pass through the structure with the enemy close on their heels? Still, that aura had felt familiar, as if he'd encountered it somewhere before. Chichiri frowned. Whatever it was, he thought, something very old and very powerful was at work.

The starlit sky did little to illuminate the steep dunes in front of him, and Tasuki scowled. They'd managed to find a switch-back-laden goat path snaking down the cliff behind the monastery, but it would have been better to have stayed on the trade road in his opinion. Even after Mitsukake had blindfolded it, saying that it would make it easier to lead the animal, Tasuki's increasingly belligerent horse wanted nothing more than to shove Tasuki over the edge to a messy end. He'd spent what seemed like hours trying to coax the damn thing along. And despite managing to get it to the bottom, it had still tried anything and everything to dislodge Tasuki from the saddle. Hours upon hours of riding a few li then having to endure myriad attempts at rearing, bucking, and shaking were starting to take their toll. He was certain the creaking noises he'd heard coming from beneath him during each incident couldn't be at all good. Tasuki eyed Chichiri's shadowy form riding several lengths ahead of him. "Ey, Chichiri!" he called. "Let's rest a while an' wait fer Miaka an' Tamahome."

Startled out of his reverie, Chichiri glanced back over his shoulder in the direction of Tasuki's voice. He could barely make out the redhead or his horse against the starlit sky. "We have to hurry, no da. If you don't cover as much distance as you can by night in the desert, you can be fried to a crisp when the sun comes up, na no da."

"I know that! But my horse has a mind o' its own an' refuses t' go on!" Tasuki nudged his mount's ribs with his knees. It stood as it had for the previous few minutes, hooves planted in the sand. An indignant snort was the only response. "Come on!" Again, Tasuki kneed the animal's ribs, this time harder. "Will yah move it?! We're gettin' further an' further b'hind, yah stupid horse!" Tasuki growled, yanking the reins back and forth in frustration.

A welcome gust of cool night air ruffled his bangs and Chichiri sighed to himself at the current iteration of Tasuki's battle with his mount. These incidents had been happening with almost clockwork consistency since they'd entered the desert. And they would always follow the same pattern: the horse didn't want to obey Tasuki's commands, Tasuki would throw out complaints and threats, and the horse would make an effort to rid itself of its rider. Chichiri wasn't particularly surprised by it at this point, but it did make their trek across the desert slow and irritating.

Tasuki... Almost everything about the redhead evoked some response from him, and most of those were irrational and unwelcome. Chichiri thought back to the argument outside the abandoned monastery. "What th' fuck d' you know 'about what I want er not? I'm sick o' yah tellin' me what t' do!" "That's yer answer t' everythin', ain't it?" "'Can't love yah 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da.'" He scowled, the edges of his perpetual smile dipping into a frown. They had very nearly been caught by that Kutou cavalry unit, and he had done nothing but exacerbate the situation. Mitsukake had to be the one to act. It mortified him. Tasuki pushed him, challenged him, in ways for which he had never prepared and could not control. Why? Why did he ever let this happen?

Without so much as a warning, the petite horse jumped forward, its legs locked and its head held low. Tasuki swayed dangerously in the saddle. "Stop it, yah fuckin' bastard!" he cried. Clamping both hands on the wooden saddle's high pommel, he braced himself against the metal stirrups. A few sharp snorts echoed across the dunes as it jumped again, this time kicking its rear legs out behind it. The leather girth gave an ominous rip-pop as the saddle lifted off the animal's back, launching Tasuki forward. "Fuck!" The scintillating stars and dusky dunes spun past in a blur as the redhead and the saddle sailed over the horse's head. Necklaces and tessen clattering, Tasuki slammed shoulder-first into the ground. Despite the cushioning effect of the sand, burning pain shot through every nerve in his body, wrenching a groan from his throat. The saddle landed with a jangling thud not an arm's length from his head.


Chiriko's exclamation from some ways ahead of where he rode tore Chichiri's gaze from the dark shape of Tasuki laying on the sand. "Yeah? Don't tell me you're having trouble with your horse, too no da?" he said.

"Look! At all the lights there!" Chiriko pointed off across the landscape. The voluminous sleeve of his teal silk coat rippled in the breeze.

"Huh? Is that-" Innumerable pinpricks of yellowy light–lamps of some kind, Chichiri thought–glittered in the valley between a collection of towering dunes on the southern horizon.

"That must be Sairou." Chiriko smiled as he turned back to Chichiri. "What other city would be situated out here in the middle of this interminable desert?"

"Let's go check it out, no da. Tasuki?" Chichiri reined his horse to a stop. Glancing back at where the redhead had fallen, he instead found Tasuki's shadowy shape marching across the sand toward him.

"That's it!" Tasuki slid down the slight incline separating him from the other seishi, his boots sinking to his ankles with each stride. "I'm fuckin' walkin'! That damn horse can die out 'ere in th' desert! I ain't ridin' it any more!" The wind tossed his disheveled hair into his face.

Mitsukake too brought his horse to a stop. He and Chiriko watched the redhead's silhouette tramp across the dusky sands. "But Tasuki," Chiriko said with a frown, "you'll never make it before the sun rises on foot."

"Don't fuckin' care."

"Tasuki, no da." Chichiri urged his horse into a walk to follow. The soft, plodding crush of sand beneath the animal's hooves and the jingle of the brass rings and buckles on its tack echoed the determined, scratchy crunch of Tasuki's bootsteps and the subdued swish of his leather coat. "Those lights are at least another day and a half from here, maybe more, no da."

"I said I don't fuckin' care."

With a heavy sigh, Chichiri clicked his tongue. His mount nickered and trotted past Tasuki before coming to a stop in the redhead's path. "You can't make it there without a horse, no da," he said.

Tasuki paused not a hand's breadth from where Chichiri sat astride his horse. He scowled as he looked up at the monk's dark outline, the quiet, leisurely flap of the man's kesa in the night air obscuring and revealing the starry sky by turns. "An' just whatta yah s'pose I do 'bout that, huh? Fuckin' horse threw th' saddle along with me, if yah didn't notice."

Mitsukake reined his and Chiriko's horse around and trotted toward Tasuki's abandoned mount. The little bay horse nickered almost happily as the healer and scholar approached. It nuzzled Mitsukake's knee, huffing a few warm breaths across his lap. He reached out to take hold of the reins, but hesitated in mid-movement. Instead, he ran his big hand down the horse's back. "Hmm." Tasuki was right: the saddle was no longer attached to the horse. Out of the corner of his eye, Mitsukake spotted something on the ground, darker than the surrounding sand. He could just make out the subtle glint of the polished metal medallions that decorated the saddle's seat amidst the disheveled heap. Taking the reins in hand, Mitsukake headed back toward where Tasuki's silhouette seemed to be trying to stare down Chichiri's mounted one. "If the leather girth is indeed broken, the saddle won't be of any use."

Tasuki snorted. "Oh, it's busted alright. Fuckin' thing snapped right b'fore I hit th' ground."

"Couldn't Tasuki ride without the saddle?" Chiriko cocked his head. He'd seen many people, his elder brother among them, ride a horse bareback from time to time. Tasuki and his horse might not get along very well, but it was better than allowing Tasuki to walk.

Mitsukake shook his head. "The horses we received from Tomoru are different from the horses in Kounan. Their small size makes it difficult for them to carry riders without a proper saddle. Putting the weight of a person directly on their backs for any appreciable amount of time would cause injury."

"So that's why the saddles are shaped the way they are," Chiriko said, the curiosity in his voice very similar to that which Mitsukake had often heard from the young scholar while studying.

"Yes. The saddle holds the rider's weight off the animal's back and shifts it to the stirrups." Mitsukake looked off toward the horizon, the ends of his headband waving in the breeze. The crests of the dunes to the east were dark against the night sky. Dawn was still a few hours off, but they would need to look for shelter from the coming day soon. He shook his head. Whatever Tasuki's complaints about having to share with Chichiri, Mitsukake knew the monk would make the best of it. Urging his horse forward into a walk, he and Chiriko began heading for the lights of the city, leading Tasuki's former mount. "We should hurry."

"'Ey! What th' fuck?!" Tasuki shouted. Bristling with displeasure, he scowled, his fangs poking from the corners of his mouth.

Taking hold of Mitsukake's coat, Chiriko turned back to look at Tasuki's and Chichiri's shadowy forms. "Yes. We'll be fortunate to find a place out of the sun to rest before daybreak," he added. As Tasuki cursed after them, he cocked his head. Even if there was no other choice, was it truly wise to force them together like that, especially after the ferocity of their argument outside the monastery? It was evident that Tasuki wanted no part of riding with Chichiri. Chiriko's lip quirked in contemplation. Mitsukake must have a reason to do it; Chiriko doubted the healer wouldn't have taken that into consideration before he suggested it. He must have something in mind, he thought.

Chichiri's brows furrowed as he watched Mitsukake's and Chiriko's silhouettes move off. A jumble of conflicting emotions swept through him. On one hand, it was his duty to make certain they carried out their mission. Allowing Tasuki to ride with him until they reached the city was part of that. Still... Chichiri glanced down at where Tasuki fumed next to him. He wasn't certain that he wanted to spend the next few days on the same horse with the piqued redhead. And they hadn't been in such close proximity to each other since their fight at Tomoru's village.

"Fuck," Tasuki spat. Crossing his arms over his chest, he glowered after Mitsukake and Chiriko before turning his attention to Chichiri. A larger part of himself than he had a desire to admit to wanted to climb onto the horse behind the monk and spend the rest of their journey across the desert snugged up together. Yet, he couldn't look past the anger and pain he felt toward Chichiri. That resentment–for preventing him from avenging Nuriko, for treating him like a child, for continuing to deny any feelings either of them had for the other–cast a pall over any thrill such closeness might have provided. Tasuki glared in sullen silence at Chichiri's shadowy figure.

After a long moment spent trading awkward stares, Chichiri let out a defeated sigh and held out a hand. "Come on, no da."

A soft growl bubbled up from deep in Tasuki's chest. "Fine. Move yer foot," he grumbled. Taking the proffered hand, he slipped a boot into the vacated stirrup. A gust of wind caught the hem of his leather coat. It billowed out behind him, allowing the breeze to rustle his linen pants beneath. The little iron-gray horse snorted and swayed, taking a few steps to adjust its footing. Grabbing the saddle's high cantle, Tasuki swung himself onto the horse's short back with a grunt. He slid as far forward as he could to avoid sitting on the animal's hindquarters. A grimace contorted his face as the cantle pressed farther and farther into his stomach. Having that piece of carved wood jammed into his diaphragm for the next few days would be a struggle, to be sure.

Chichiri's heart skipped a beat and a spark of electricity arced down his spine as he felt Tasuki lightly rest his hands on his hips. He swallowed hard. The coolness of the night air did little to mitigate the flush racing across his skin. The warmth radiating from the redhead's touch brought every emotion, every thought, everything Chichiri had been trying to suppress, into stark relief. He tensed, his grip on the reins tightening until he could feel the color drain from his knuckles. No, he thought. I can't do this. Taking a deep breath, Chichiri willed the errant feelings and selfish desires roiling within him back into the dark recesses of his mind. I won't do this. Not again. With a gentle nudge, he urged the horse around and followed the rapidly retreating shapes of Mitsukake and Chiriko.

- o - o - o -

Tasuki squinted in the strong sunlight and glanced around as the four seishi plodded into town on their tired mounts. White-plastered buildings bordered the quiet, almost empty side street they traveled. Small windows, a similar open-work lattice to the ones at the monastery, dotted the thick, earthen walls. Overhead, strings of silken flags crisscrossed between the roofs. Tasuki craned his neck back to look up at the hodgepodge of bright and cheerful blues, reds, greens, whites, and yellows that fluttered in the breeze rolling in off the surrounding desert. Neat lines of print covered each flag's surface, but the sun and elements had faded the words beyond recognition.

Movement caught Tasuki's attention and he brought his eyes back down to street-level. Tucked into an alcove between two buildings, a shop stall displayed woven wool rugs. The vivid colors echoed the flags flying above, but the intricate geometric patterns reminded Tasuki a bit of the rugs they'd seen in Hokkan. A few women wearing long, sleeveless dresses over colorfully dyed blouses picked through the selection, their offers and counteroffers punctuated by the reverberation of the slow, heavy hoofbeats of the warriors' horses. Just under the stall's fabric awning, a bored-looking young girl sat atop a hip-high stack of rugs. Shifting in her makeshift seat, she propped her chin on a small fist. Her long dark braid slipped over her shoulder into her lap. Tasuki sucked in a breathless gasp as a profound and instant ache stabbed at his heart. Nuriko... Hot tears sprang to his eyes. He'd watched Nuriko's amethyst braid slide off the courtier's thin shoulder a thousand times. It had become so commonplace that he'd never thought anything of it, but just seeing the little girl brought the feelings of loss, anger, and sadness rushing back to the surface. Memories of Nuriko spending hours brushing out his hair and how skillfully he would plait it back up, of how proud he was to get compliments from the courtesans at the palace and how he would crow about it to anyone who would listen for days afterward, filled Tasuki's mind. A lump formed in the back of his throat. Biting back a threatening sob, he reached up to wipe his eyes and sniffled in a shaky breath.

Tasuki started, blinking a few times to clear the tear-blur as he came face to face with Chichiri. The monk had turned to look back over his shoulder while the redhead had been wiping his eyes. Chichiri's cerulean bangs hung in a half-limp curtain that swung back and forth in time with their mount's gait. The two men looked at each other in silence for a long moment. Chichiri said nothing, but the slight furrowing of his brow and the subtle downward curve of his lips spoke volumes. As the monk returned his attention to the road ahead, Tasuki tracked a rivulet of sweat down the back of Chichiri's neck with his eyes. He frowned. The white-hot inferno of fury and heartache that had swirled within him outside the monastery had faded in the grueling heat of the desert. Every bit of the hurt, indignation, and sorrow remained–he would avenge Nuriko's death, no matter what Chichiri had to say about it–but Tasuki had found it difficult to actively rage with Chichiri's ponytail tickling his nose and the scent of sandalwood and of the monk himself enveloping his senses.

Several lengths ahead, Tasuki watched Chiriko look up and cock his head as Mitsukake brought their horse to a stop. The dark bay Tasuki had given up riding nickered and flicked its tail as the healer and scholar turned astride their mount to look back at Tasuki and Chichiri. When the monk and the redhead reached him, Mitsukake motioned down the street toward a building ringed by a cluster of scrubby multi-trunked willow trees. More of the yellow-glazed tiles they'd seen at the monastery decorated the shallow slopes of its roofs. "Chiriko thinks that may be a stable," he said.

Focusing his gaze beyond the place Mitsukake had indicated, Tasuki could see that the side street they followed intersected with a much larger thoroughfare. The hum of myriad voices buying, selling, talking, and laughing floated to his ears as men and women, children and elders, bustled past the mouth of the avenue in both directions.

Chichiri nodded. "Let's leave the horses there and ask around once we're on foot, no da." With a nod, both he and Mitsukake urged the horses into a walk and continued on.

The corner of Tasuki's mouth quirked into a wry line. The monk's voice retained its usual high-pitched tone, but it had taken on a dry, hoarse quality Tasuki knew was as much from the hot desert winds as it was from disuse. The long, wordless stretches between the two of them had become almost routine. He could count on one hand how many sentences they'd exchanged over the last two days. Even when the four seishi had stopped to wait for nightfall to continue traveling, Chichiri had barely said anything to anyone. Part of him almost preferred their angry shouting matches to this oppressive silence. Least then 'e was talkin' t' me, Tasuki thought.

A young groom scurried over the moment the warriors came to a halt in the arcaded courtyard of the stable. He took hold of the cheek piece of Mitsukake and Chiriko's horse's bridle. Glancing behind him, Mitsukake patted Chiriko's knee in signal to dismount. The scholar took the opportunity to slip from the animal's back to the ground. Chiriko glanced up from straightening his skewed collar as a wrinkled old woman materialized from somewhere in the back of the stable, and tottered over to stand next to the lanky stable boy. She attempted to look Mitsukake in the eye to address him. Craning her head back, she placed a calloused hand on the groom's arm to steady herself. Even on such a short horse, the healer's height was impressive. "Welcome. I am master of this stable. How may I help you gentlemen?" she asked. The strong, steady quality of her voice belied her fragile appearance.

Chichiri opened his mouth to reply but was cut off by the pronounced thud of Tasuki's boots hitting the stone floor of the stable. Chichiri's brows furrowed as he watched the redhead take each of his wrists in a tight grip and arch into a sensuous, full-body stretch. The breeze swirling in the open-air courtyard flung Tasuki's unruly vermilion hair into his eyes as he threw back his head. Reflexively, the monk's eyes traveled up and down Tasuki's frame for just a second before he wrenched his gaze away. Chichiri's jaw tightened as he heard a sonorous and unrestrained groan leap forth from Tasuki's throat behind him. Very deliberately, the monk turned to the stable master. "We would like to board our horses for a few days, no da."

The old woman scrutinized the seishi with a keen eye. She cocked her head and pursed her lips as she took in the dust coating each man's sweaty, bedraggled clothing, and the haggard, exhausted expressions on their faces. Nodding to herself, she looked at Chichiri. "By your dress, I would guess you are travelers from another land. You have been journeying through the desert for quite a while, have you not?" Her brown face broke into a beaming, wrinkled smile. "All of you must be quite weary after such a trek. We shall take care of your mounts while you are here in town."

Chiriko looked up at Mitsukake as the big healer dismounted. He frowned and fidgeted with the hem of his sleeve. "We don't have any currency."

"Do not worry about the cost," the stable master replied. She shot a look to the young groom. The boy held the bridle of Chichiri's horse, stilling it long enough for the monk to dismount as well. The stable hand then began leading the horses to stalls tucked under the wooden arcade lining the courtyard's perimeter. Motioning for the warriors to follow her, the woman wobbled toward the entrance to the stable.

Chichiri's brows furrowed as the woman continued her spiel. Something about her offer didn't quite sit right with him. They had no money, either from Sairou or Kounan. The small amount of cash remaining from what Hotohori had sent with them–what hadn't been lost or destroyed–had been left with the captain and surviving crew of the ship on which they'd traveled to Hokkan. Even if they'd had the funds on them to pay for the boarding of their horses, why would the stable master so readily offer to watch them for free? True, it could be months before the seishi managed to make their way back to Kounan and even longer to send payment from Kounan to the establishment by courier. It was also true that it had only been through the kindness of the people they'd met along the way that they'd managed to get as far as they had. Still, such generosity without the guarantee of compensation was rare indeed for the proprietor of a business. He glanced at his fellow warriors as they crossed the tile courtyard. Chichiri frowned. Even if something seemed off to him, could he really refuse such hospitality knowing just how tired and worn everyone was, including himself?

"We would be honored to keep your horses. There are many stables within the city, and indeed, many of them do more business than ours," the stable master said as she and the four men reached the entrance. She clasped her small, wrinkled hands behind her back. "But, I assure you, none of them can match the service and care of Lungta Stablery." Fixing Chichiri with another smile, she straightened her bent back in a show of pride. "Be at ease; your horses will be well cared for."

Exhaling deeply, Chichiri came to a decision. They didn't really have the luxury of ignoring such an offer if they were to succeed in finding the Sairou Shinzahou before the Seiryuu. The soldiers they had seen on the trade road three days before had most likely arrived already and would have quite the head start. He bowed his head low, his tangled bangs swinging with the movement. "Thank you very much, no da," he said, and returned the woman's smile. "We really appreciate your kindness, no da." A ripple of concurrence filled the air as the rest of the celestial warriors filed out of the building and into the street. Chichiri paused at the threshold and turned back to the old woman. "We'll return in a few days, na no da."

The stable master shook her head. "There is no hurry, young man. We are more than happy to offer any assistance we can to travelers such as yourselves."

Chichiri nodded once more and followed after the balance of the Shichiseishi.

Falling into step with Chichiri as the monk left the stable and moved toward the main street, Chiriko tucked his hands into the sleeves of his teal silk coat. "It was fortuitous that we found a place to stable our horses free of charge."

Mitsukake hummed in agreement and glanced down at Chiriko. "We should also look for a place to stay," he added.

"You said it, Mitsukake." Tasuki trailed a few steps behind the other three, the sound of his hard-soled boots nearly swallowed by the commotion farther ahead. "First thing I'm doin' when we stop somewhere 's take a bath. I got sand in places I don't even wanna talk about." He frowned, his fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. "An' I don' know 'bout you guys, but I'm fuckin' hungry."

As the four seishi stepped out of the quiet side street, they emerged onto a wide market street teeming with life. Tasuki's head swiveled this way and that as he took in all the sights and sound. Shop stalls roofed by patterned fabric canopies and bursting with wares of all kinds lined the thoroughfare in either direction as far as Tasuki could see. Strings of the same silk flags he'd seen over the side street rippled in the wind blowing over the nearly flat rooftops of the chalk-white buildings buttressing the stalls. He watched a line of double-humped camels, a rich burnt sienna in the morning sun, trundle down the sand-strewn stone avenue. Guttural grunts and huffs punctuated the animals' passage. Several caravaneers, clad in thin, earth-tone robes and sporting knit caps, adjusted the packs strapped to the camels' backs. Bolts of cotton, silk, and linen, bags brimming with grain, salt, and spices, and crates holding precious metals, tea, and wool bound for other parts of Sairou or even other countries wobbled with each rolling step.

Nearby, a group of young women wearing the same kinds of dresses and blouses as he'd seen at the rug shop haggled with a hunched old man at a butcher's stall. Hanging from the stall's roof, countless skinned and dressed carcasses oscillated in the hot breeze. The coppery smell of blood filled the air. Low tables held slabs of meat, viscera, and long chains of sausage, all neatly arranged according to type and size. In the center of one table, the great shaggy head of the yak the sausages most likely came from sat almost as if in contemplation of its fate. Tasuki grimaced and looked away.

A strong, musky, almost oily scent spread into the air just beneath the metallic tang of the butcher shop, and Tasuki's nose wrinkled. A few stalls farther down the thoroughfare, a woman in a charcoal-gray dress and wearing an elaborately embroidered apron sold what looked like candles. Myriad vessels cast of gleaming brass or copper dotted the stall, each filled with a yellowish wax and bristling with multiple wicks. Tasuki had no idea what was being used as a fuel, but the longer he and the other seishi stood there, the more potent the odor seemed to become. A few larger candles had been lit and flickered on a table in the back. The dancing glow cast soft shadows around the stall. It was almost pretty, Tasuki thought. If not fer th' smell.

A gust of wind brought the strong, earthy scent of carrots and onions, the tart citrus of pomegranates and oranges, and the delicate, floral aroma of peaches and apricots down the market street. Tasuki turned to look in the other direction and into the aromatic breeze. He took a deep breath and silently thanked Suzaku the fragrance had managed to cut through the lingering odor of the candle shop. His eyes darted from one stall to the next, each overflowing with baskets, boxes, tubs, and crates full of all manner of fruits, herbs, and vegetables. But, among those familiar items sat others the likes of which he'd never encountered. On a table in front of one stall, he spied a collection of oval fruits, nearly as long as a bitter melon, but over three times as wide and colored the darkest shade of purple he had ever seen. The hint of a grassy, almost nutty smell wafted to Tasuki's nose and he raised an eyebrow. Amid the papery garlic bulbs spilled across a table in front of yet another stall sat a round, shallow bamboo basket chock-full of what looked to him to be bunches of some sort of vegetable. A bundle of thick, celadon-hued stalks, capped by a crown of cilantro-like leaves, erupted from the plant's tangle of whitish roots. He wondered briefly if the vegetable would taste anything like cilantro.

From the corner of his eye, Tasuki spied an enterprising musician carrying a lute, much like the pipa he'd seen during the Qi Xi festival, but with a much longer neck and smaller body. He turned to watch the lutenist as he played to a group of gray-robed old men shuffling past. The man's fingers flew across the instrument's strings, plucking out a sprightly tune, all the while keeping time by stamping his boot-clad feet. A few nearby shoppers clapped at his antics and a handful of small children began to dance along to the rhythm. Tasuki cocked his head, but he couldn't make out the lyrics to the song the man was singing. Another musician, carrying a wooden flute and wearing a gold-trimmed brocade coat, emerged from the crowds hurrying to and fro. He walked up next to the lute player and joined in, weaving his melody into the song as if it had always been there.

Tasuki's eyes sparkled. A broad and cocky grin seized his lips and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Well, this 's a thrivin' metropolis."

"Pardon me, no da," Chichiri said as he flagged down a passing shopper. "Is this city in the Sairou empire, no da?"

The woman, clad in a voluminous, tan cotton cloak, paused and looked at the monk. Jet black hair spilled around her face under the hood she wore, accentuating the sunflower yellow of her eyes. She nodded. "Yes. It's the main border city." With the ghost of a smile, she continued on, the hem of her cloak fluttering in the hot desert breeze.

"See?" Tasuki shot Chichiri a smug smirk. "Not such a long trip after all."

Chichiri brows furrowed and he frowned at the almost impudent tone in Tasuki's voice. Deciding it wasn't worth it to engage in another squabble, he glanced back at Chiriko and Mitsukake. Both men looked as weary as he himself felt. Taking a respite in their journey might be the best course of action for the time being. If the major trade roads into Sairou all passed through this one city, he thought, Miaka and Tamahome would be certain to find them. "Alright," he said. "We can wait right here for Tamahome and Miaka, no da."

- o - o - o -

Chiriko unrolled the ancient scroll across the tabletop. Whoever had prepared the pulp used to manufacture the scroll had been a master of his craft. Each visible fiber bore a consistent thickness and texture, ideal as a writing surface. He held a corner of the document up and scrutinized the light shining through it. The glow of the lantern passed through the paper with only a slight reduction in its strength. And, instead of sporting tiny cracks or tears, or insect damage, as had the most venerable manuscripts he'd heretofore come across, the material used for this scroll looked almost new. He glanced at the date on the tag attached to the ribbon that held the document closed. This scroll has survived over two centuries completely intact? Chiriko's lip quirked in thought. He doubted the paper had been imported, given its unique properties. So, what could the people of Sairou have used to make such hardy fiber? Much of the paper used in Kounan was made from a mixture of mulberry bark, hemp, and cloth. Due to Sairou's arid climate, tree products were out of the question. Even if the stunted willows they'd seen growing near the stable hinted that the country did indeed support trees, that method would be unsustainable for wide-scale paper manufacture. Perhaps, he thought, the root of some abundant native plant had been used? He'd read once in a dusty treatise on the flora of the four kingdoms that some herbaceous plants could have some potential uses outside of medicine. Something related to Daphne? Stellera, maybe?

Across the paper's smooth surface, row upon row of faded black text ebbed and flowed. Despite its horizontal orientation, the script reminded Chiriko, in some ways, of the inscription on the Genbu monument in Touran. The carvings on the monument seemed to have represented individual words, with spaces separating them from each other. The syllables in each word had been carved as one unit, connected to the ones above and below it. On the scroll before him, each syllable looked to be described by its own symbol. Using an alphabetic scheme such as this would make transcribing multiple copies of a text quicker and more concise, he thought as his eyes wandered over the series of cabinets lining the library's walls, their shelves piled high with all manner of scrolls and documents.

The sound of footsteps drew Chiriko's attention and he looked to the open doorway. Two people paused at the threshold. One he recognized as Pema Tsolmo, the woman whom Chichiri had questioned on the street the previous day and had offered the seishi the use of her home, while the other, a man dressed in a green robe over a snow-white shirt, looked to be a trader of some kind. Pema bowed low to Chiriko, her long black ponytail sliding down her shoulder to dangle next to her face.

"Do you need anything as you read? Something to eat, perhaps?" she asked as she straightened.

Chiriko shook his head. "No, thank you. I'm fine."

With a nod, Pema turned to leave. She ushered the trader on as she went. "Gyaltsen, why don't you quit that boring merchant business and follow this guy's scholarly example, hmm?"

As the two of them walked away, Gyaltsen snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. "Leave me be, Pema. Once this trip is all over, I'm going back to the capital to take over my father's caravans and I'll be an even better boss than he was."

As Chiriko listened to Pema and Gyaltsen's exchange, he was reminded of something very similar that Nuriko had said to Tasuki after the failed summoning ceremony. Nuriko... Sorrow, sharp and unrelenting, bloomed in Chiriko's chest. The scene from that day popped unbidden into his head with a salience that surprised him. "So, you said you lived in Jouzen City, didn't you? That's just a stone's throw away from Eiyou, isn't it?" Nuriko had said as all the Warriors waited outside the shrine to Suzaku for Miaka's private meeting with Taiitsukun to end. A rueful smile graced Chiriko's lips. He remembered how intimidated he'd been when he'd stepped forward to introduce himself, of the soldiers pointing their weapons at him, and of the angry looks directed at him by the rest of the Shichiseishi as they regrouped from Amiboshi's betrayal. "Well, I was always busy studying, so I never got over here." Even after Chiriko's place in the Suzaku Seven had been confirmed, he'd felt nervous and a little out of his depth. "Hey, Tasuki, why don't you quit that boring bandit business and follow this guy's scholarly example, huh?" Nuriko's kindness in taking the time to include him in the conversation had reassured him, even if the courtier had turned the conversation into an excuse to make fun of Tasuki. "Humph. Lea' me alone. Once this 's all over, I'm goin' back t' Mount Reikaku an' I'll be 'n even better boss 'an 'r last one." Tasuki hadn't been too impressed with Nuriko's suggestion, Chiriko recalled as tears welled up in his eyes.

The familiar, warm pulse of Suzaku's power through him sputtered and ceased, and a feeling, not unlike that of an unmoored ship floating in the vastness of the ocean, settled like a weight on Chiriko's shoulders. "Nuriko..." Chiriko's jaw quivered as a tumult of images, blood-soaked and horrible, filled his mind's eye. Salty tears flowed from his red-rimmed eyes, tracking scalding rivulets down his face to his chin. Nuriko had died an agonizing, gruesome death at the hands of that monster. Chiriko shuddered as a sob clawed its way out of his throat. And what had he done to help? Nothing; he had only stood by and cried. If he could just control his celestial powers, if he were strong like Tasuki or Tamahome, or if he had useful abilities like Mitsukake and Chichiri, maybe then... He sniffled as, one by one, swollen drops fell onto his lapel, soaking into the teal-hued silk.

He didn't want to be alone. Wiping at his eyes and dripping nose with his sleeves, Chiriko pushed himself away from the table and the invaluable scroll. He staggered out of the library and into the quiet hallway. His soft shoes made barely a whisper against the stone tile. "Mitsukake," he called in a plaintive half-whisper.

"Chiriko?" Mitsukake's brows furrowed. Looking to the door of the room he occupied, he placed the potted plant he'd been studying down on the scuffed painted tabletop.

The geometric patterns decorating the wide corridor blurred into an undulating mass of color, and Chiriko dragged a small hand along one wall for guidance. "Mitsukake, w-where are you?"

Stepping out into the hallway, Mitsukake looked around. His eyes landed on the hunched figure of Chiriko. The scholar leaned heavily on the wall just a few paces from where Mitsukake stood. Rubbing at his eyes as he cried, Chiriko looked so small and vulnerable. "Chiriko," Mitsukake said as he hastened over, "what's wrong?" Placing a big hand on the boy's back, he could feel the sobs wracking Chiriko's body. He frowned. Gently, he guided the scholar into the room he'd occupied moments before.

"N-Nuriko..." Chiriko sniffed and wiped at his eyes with the hems of his sleeves.

Mitsukake shepherded Chiriko to an empty chair at the painted table near the center of the room. With a subdued scrape against the tiled flooring, he pulled over a chair for himself and sat down next to the weeping scholar.

"H-he was a-a-always so nice to me, and n-now, he's gone..." Chiriko struggled to get his uncooperative mouth to form an intelligible sentence despite the hiccupy sobs that escaped between halting words.


"Wh-when I saw him laying t-there..." A deep frown settled between Chiriko's brows and he dropped his watery gaze to the floor. "I-I c-c-couldn't h-help... I-I c-couldn't do anything." Wrapping his arms around himself, he shrunk down in his chair. "W-what good a-am I as a celestial w-warrior? I'm so useless..."

Mitsukake shook his head. "You're not useless, Chiriko. Nuriko's death isn't your fault. None of us knew what was going to happen." He leaned forward in his chair, resting his forearms on his knees and looked away. His thoughts returned to the snowy peak of Mount Koku. He understood the feeling Chiriko described well. "And, in the end, none of us was able to help him." After a long moment, Mitsukake returned his focus to Chiriko. If he dwelled on his failure, he would never be able to continue moving forward. "I think Nuriko is at peace now," he said. "And I think he'd want us to be at peace, too."

Chiriko looked up at the sadness he heard in Mitsukake's deep voice. He wiped his eyes as best he could until, through his tears, he could see the regret that had overspread the concern in the healer's expression. He'd never meant to cause Mitsukake pain. That he'd unknowingly made the big man so unhappy hit Chiriko like a slap to the face. He blinked as the stutter and flare of his celestial powers reigniting passed through him. With the return of his faculties, shame and embarrassment seized him. "I-I'm sorry. My character disappeared and I-"

Mitsukake shook his head, a faint and rueful smile touching his lips. "It's alright. All of us miss him."

His small fingers fidgeting with his dampened sleeves, Chiriko frowned. "That's the reason Tasuki got so angry outside the monastery."

Mitsukake sat back in his chair. The painted wood creaked as he shifted. "Nuriko's death hit Tasuki especially hard." He let out a soft sigh. "But, there was more than grief behind that argument."

Tasuki's venomous impersonation and inadvertent revelation rang in Chiriko's head: "'Can't avenge Nuriko 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da!' 'Can't let Kutou see weakness 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da!' 'Can't love yah 'cause Kounan'll be destroyed, no da.'" He nodded to himself in comprehension. "Chichiri," he said.

Mitsukake hummed in agreement.

"Chichiri refused to tell me anything about his relationship with Tasuki when I spoke with him in Touran." Slipping his hands fully into his sleeves, Chiriko's brows furrowed. "He only confirmed he had fallen in love with Tasuki after I deduced it for myself. Every entreaty to confide in me was met with either equivocation or a reminder of our duty as part of the Suzaku Seven." Chiriko frowned and looked away. "I'm sorry."

"No," Mitsukake said, "that confirms some things." He mulled the information for a long moment. What Tasuki had said in Touran was indeed true; he hadn't really doubted that it was, but that Chichiri had told Chiriko a similar story was interesting. "You were right that something was going on long before we sailed for Hokkan. Tasuki told me that he and Chichiri have been dancing around the issue, and each other, for weeks."

"'Weeks?' But that would mean..." Chiriko's eyes grew wide, and he trailed off as the idea sunk in.

Mitsukake nodded. "Tasuki has been interested in Chichiri since Miaka and they traveled to Kutou."

p"That was just after you and Tasuki arrived in Eiyou, wasn't it?" Chiriko asked, cocking his head. The gears of his mind whirred at a furious pace as he began talking more to himself than to Mitsukake. "But, what occurred between the time we began our voyage and you mentioned your concerns over Tasuki's and Chichiri's behavior to me after our departure from Tomoru's village? There was tension there before, yet both of them began acting truly strange during the trek to Touran..."

"They almost slept together the night before we made landfall in Hokkan."

"Oh." Chiriko's thoughts came to a screeching halt the moment he processed what Mitsukake had said. "Oh." A violent blush claimed his cheeks and his ears. Clapping both hands over his gaping mouth, his green eyes seemed to swallow the upper half of his face. Chiriko stared at Mitsukake for a long time before he spoke again. Cautiously, he removed his hands, clasping them in his lap. "'Almost?'" The crimson still painting Chiriko's skin belied the calm he affected.

The corner of Mitsukake's lip rose in amusement. "Tasuki said Chichiri walked away before anything happened. After dinner in Tomoru's village, Tasuki confronted him." He frowned as the image of the redhead, hurt and miserable before the fire in Gurban's apartment, floated across his mind's eye. "It didn't go well."

Chiriko's sandy blond topknot bobbed as he cocked his head. "But if they both wanted to-" He stopped abruptly, his face again flushing as red as a persimmon. Changing tacks, he cleared his throat and continued. "Why would Chichiri push Tasuki away? Unless he felt a relationship would somehow interfere with the summoning of Suzaku?"

Mitsukake shook his head. "I don't know. From what Tasuki told me, Chichiri wanted to crush any feelings Tasuki had for him." The healer crossed his arms over his chest. "He told Tasuki he would never love him, and if they acted on their feelings, Kutou would invade Kounan." Mitsukake frowned. "It doesn't make sense. There has to be another reason."

Eyebrows rising, Chiriko felt a pang of sympathy for Tasuki. He would be embittered and angry as well if the person he loved said that to him, he was certain. Still, why would Chichiri go so far in his rejection? Even if he didn't want to be with Tasuki–which Chiriko found unlikely given all that he'd hitherto seen and heard–wouldn't a simple "no" suffice? Mitsukake was right: it didn't make sense. "I agree. But, if Chichiri refuses to disclose his rationale, is there anything we can do?" Realization sparked in Chiriko's head and he put his hands back into the sleeves of his coat. "You forced them to share a horse to precipitate communication."

Mitsukake nodded. He uncrossed his arms and rested his hands on his knees. "They need to start talking to each other. All we can do is push them in that direction."

Chiriko glanced out the open-work lattice window on the wall opposite the door. He watched the silk flags strung over the street ripple in the breeze. If he didn't know better, Chiriko thought, when Laozi said, "Love is, of all the passions, the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses," the sage was describing Tasuki and Chichiri. A wry smile touched his lips. Whether conspiring to put the monk and the redhead into situations where they had to interact would have the desired effect or not, he didn't know. Still, he was determined to do what he could to help. He may have failed to get Chichiri to open up to him, but he vowed he would not fail in his task a second time.

- o - o - o -

The steep wooden staircase to the building's second floor creaked and complained with every step Chichiri made. He ghosted a hand over the time-worn handrail and let out a sigh. Another day without any sign of Miaka or Tamahome. In the past two days, he'd spent hours wandering through the city, up and down its streets, in its shops, and even among the caravaneers in the market, searching for anyone who may have seen either of them. And still nothing, he thought. I can't even feel their life forces. His brows furrowed and the smile on his mask dipped into a frown. Where are they?

The scent of grilled yak meat, fresh bread, and alcohol met him as he reached the landing. The woman who'd so graciously allowed them to stay in her home, Pema Tsolmo, seemed intent on making sure not a moment passed without providing some dish, drink, or meal. After subsisting off dried meat brought from Hokkan and the water they'd scrounged at the abandoned monastery during their journey through the desert, real food had been a welcome sight. Still, Chichiri couldn't shake the feeling that, with no foreseeable end to their imposition, what started as hospitality could become resentment. He came to a stop in front of the spacious sitting room Pema had allowed the four warriors to use. Perhaps the others were having an early dinner. He took hold of the patinated brass handle and pushed open one of the thick, wooden double doors.

A refreshing breeze blew in through the opened lattice windows, ruffling the sheer silk curtains hanging to either side of them. The afternoon sunlight illuminated the riot of colors that coated the painted walls and carved columns of the room. Chichiri glanced at the day's meal as he closed the door behind him. Across the painted dining table set to the right inside the door, porcelain and worked metal dishes and bowls of all kinds sat heaped with an assortment of foods. Savory, meaty steam rose from a wide oval bowl of thenthuk near the center of the spread. Thin slices of stir-fried mutton mingled with chopped cilantro, wilted spinach leaves, and the soup's signature pulled noodles in a hearty broth. To the left of the thenthuk sat a plate of balep korkun. The wind brought the nutty smell of the roasted barley flour in the palm-sized, skillet-baked flatbread to Chichiri's nose, along with the fiery spice of the ever-present sepen. He enjoyed the hot, pepper-ginger taste of the sauce well enough, but not nearly as much as Mitsukake. The big man wiped the small porcelain bowl clean at almost every sitting. Butting up against the balep korkun was a platter of cold laping, with its clear jelly noodles. A spicy mix of pungent minced garlic and onion, more chopped cilantro, and a dash of salty soy sauce topped the dish. A half-empty plate of what smelled like dri cheese momos graced the left side of the table. The little round dumplings reminded him of the buuz he'd seen Checheg make in Hokkan, but these were only half the size. On an inscribed metal tray nearby, slices of fresh fruits and vegetables lay arranged in an elaborate fan pattern. Chichiri could see the firm white of daikon radish, the translucent pale green of cucumber, and the tell-tale fuzzy brown rind on the kiwifruit, among many items he did not recognize.

Chichiri's eyes lighted for a moment on a handful of empty cups and three ornate brass ewers with low, serpentine spouts just beyond the plates of food. He raised an eyebrow. The breeze turned, allowing the sharp alcoholic tang he'd smelled in the hallway to waft to him in full force.

"'Ey, Chiri! Yer just in time. Another feast fit fer a king. Check it out!" The relaxed, cheerful drawl of Tasuki's voice drew Chichiri's attention away from the spread and to the man himself. Chichiri's breath hitched and he swallowed hard. The redhead sprawled leisurely in a wooden chair near the head of the table, his linen tunic and leather coat discarded and draped over the back of an adjacent seat. The unconscious–and unexpected–sensuality radiating from Tasuki's entire being took Chichiri aback. Instinctively, his eyes raked over Tasuki's half-naked, honey-hued body, burning every mark, plane, and contour into his mind. A spark of electricity dashed down Chichiri's spine, inciting a flutter in the pit of his stomach and a potent throb in his cock. The sweep of gentle hands across his body, the gust of hot breath against his face, the seductive whisper of passion in his ear, the heady scent of sex and leather tickling his nose, the bittersweet tang of Tasuki's tongue against his: The echoes of that night on the Shouryuu River assaulted Chichiri with a fervency that he didn't expect. "Suzaku, I want yah... I've wanted t' fuck yah since that night we went t' Kutou." The words rang in his head, speeding his pulse in his veins, and he spent a long moment schooling his expression, and himself, back to an unaffected neutral. When he felt confident he'd managed it, he spoke. "Where are Mitsukake and Chiriko, no da?"

"Eh, those two won't even 'ave a drink with me. Chiriko's cooped up in th' library downstairs, an' Mitsukake's wrapped up in researchin' all sorts o' great herbs fer 'is medicines."

A distinct muzzy sluggishness marked Tasuki's movements, and Chichiri frowned. He watched Tasuki take one of the ewers from the table and attempt to pour another measure into his silver-lined burlwood cup. The stream of liquid wobbled along with Tasuki's hand, nearly spilling over the rim and down the side several times before he had finished. And, if not for a fortuitous jerk of Tasuki's arm that set the ewer safely on the edge of the tabletop, the thing would have slipped from his languid grip and tumbled to the floor. Chichiri's brow furrowed as he took a seat not quite an arm's length from the drunken redhead.

The squeak of the door's brass hinges drew both men's attention. As one, they turned to the doorway. Pema pushed one of the heavy wooden doors open and took a step into the sitting room. Clasping her hands together in front of her, she bowed. The hem of the mauve shawl around her shoulders slid toward her neck as she did so. “Sir,” she said upon straightening, “would you like anything else? Some more rakshi, perhaps?”

Tasuki threw his head back and laughed, a few wayward locks of his hair falling across his nose. "Hell, if it ain't too much trouble for yah, sure I would! Thanks!" Pema nodded and bowed once more. As she closed the door behind her, he turned to Chichiri. His face split into a wide, inebriated grin. "Whatta hostess, eh? She's gone outta 'er way t' make us comfortable, includin' lettin' us stay in this great house! Who'da thought Sairou'd be so friendly?" He took a long draft from his cup, welcoming the strong alcoholic burn as the beverage slid down his throat.

Chichiri let out a quiet sigh. He gazed out the window into the sun-drenched city below. From two stories up, the buff-colored sand dunes beyond the furthest outskirts seemed as waves on a burning sea, rolling endlessly toward the horizon. "Yeah... I don't know, no da. Maybe..."

Grabbing the sculpted handle of the brass ewer in front of him, Tasuki stared at the vessel for a long moment, his lips skewed and his fangs poking from the corners of his mouth. He raised it above his cup as steadily as he could manage. His brow creased in concentration as he tipped the ewer up. Further and further he went without anything coming out, until it was perpendicular to the aged tile floor. A single clear drop fell from the spout. It landed without a sound on the rim and hung there for a mere moment, a perfectly formed cabochon. The tremble of his hand shook it loose and it slid ever so slowly down the hammered silver lining to pool in the bottom of the cup. Tasuki peered very deliberately into it, holding the cup within a hand's breadth of his eye.

"Miaka and Tamahome still haven't arrived, no da," Chichiri continued. The subdued din of the market floated in through the windows on the breeze, an auditory counterpoint to the hypnotic ripple of the rows of silken flags binding the tops of each building.

A broad, giddy smile seized Tasuki's lips and he snickered. Groping around on the tabletop for another of the empty cups, he lurched to his feet.

"I want to update His Majesty about our progress so far, but something's interfering with my spells and transmissions, no da." Chichiri couldn't quite put his finger on what it was, but something just wasn't right about this city. He returned his focus to Tasuki. "I'm worried, na no da."

Tasuki stumbled a few steps forward, his balance so compromised by the liquor that he only barely managed to stay upright. Whirling back toward Chichiri, he held both cups to the sides of his head. He chortled as he pranced a few steps to the right, then to the left. "'Ey! Lookit this! Elephant ears!"

As he watched Tasuki stagger to and fro, miming a woman's bustline and even Miaka's odangos with his cups, Chichiri's face fell like a stone dropped down a well. Why had he even entertained the idea of speaking to Tasuki about this? The redhead was so drunk that he probably wouldn't remember where he was, let alone their conversation, in an hour's time. A scowl settled between Chichiri's brows. Pushing his chair back from the table with a harsh scrape, he stood. "That's the last time I try to talk seriously to you," he said, dropping the silliness from his voice, and headed for the door.

Tasuki wobbled to a halt at the change in Chichiri's tone. Through the rakshi-haze enveloping his mind, the last words he ever spoke to Nuriko echoed and re-echoed: "Keep yer help. I've had enough of it t' last a fuckin' lifetime." He'd turned his back on Nuriko in a fit of anger and the next day, the courtier was dead. He'd never see him or talk to him again. He'd never get the chance to apologize. Tasuki's brows drew together as the icy grip of desperation clenched around his heart. If he left everything that lay between Chichiri and himself like this, if he let Chichiri walk out that door now... The cups slipped from his benumbed hands, landing on the stone tile with a resounding crack and clatter as they rolled to a stop beneath the table. "Chiri, wait. Don't go." He took a hesitant step toward the retreating monk. "Please."

Chichiri paused, his hand hovering over the door pull. He took a deep breath and let his eyes drift closed. The quiet plea in that gentle tenor voice slashed at his heart and cut at his resolve. He had a good idea of what Tasuki wanted to say. Still, some small part of himself again wanted to hear the words from the redhead's own lips. Chichiri exhaled long and low, and opened his eyes. Silently, he turned his head and looked back over his shoulder.

Tasuki planted his hands on the dining table and let his muscular frame sag against his arms. He traced the swirling flourishes in the geometric design painted along the edge with his eyes, the curtain of his vermilion hair veiling his gaze. "Nuriko... Th' last thin' I said t' 'im 'fore 'e died..." Tasuki shook his head, his earrings swinging at his jaw. "I never got t' tell 'im I was sorry. 'E died b'fore I could." All the pain and sadness that he'd been carrying, all the hurt and sorrow: he could feel it so much more keenly under the liquor's amplifying influence. "Chiri, I'm sorry. I know I fucked everythin' up between us. I didn' mean to, but I fucked it up anyway, an' I'm sorry." Tasuki exhaled, his body trembling with feelings he couldn't adequately process. He was silent for a long time before he finally looked up and into Chichiri's eyes. "I still love yah, Chiri. That ain't never changed, since th' day we met." He placed a hand on his chest, just above his heart. "I love yah, an' I want yah, with everythin' I got. An' I'm gonna keep on lovin' yah 'til th' day I die."

Chichiri's heart skipped a beat, then two, his lips parting in the crush of emotion sweeping through him. The manifest ardor and devotion shining in Tasuki's glassy, half-lidded amber eyes physically hurt to witness. Chichiri had seen those same emotions there so many, many times before, and each time, it got that much harder to ignore. He couldn't accept what Tasuki offered so freely; he had tried to make that abundantly clear, to Tasuki and to himself. Still, that he had chosen to listen anyway, knowing how much even the semblance of hope tortured both of them, only proved his unworthiness of such adoration. Chichiri turned back to the door before him. Clenching the hand at his side into a tight fist, he took the brass door pull in the other. He opened the door and stepped out into the hallway beyond, the whisper of his soft-soled shoes the only sound.

The door clicked shut behind him and the world began to unravel. Chichiri blundered forward as the floor heaved beneath his feet. An earthquake? He fumbled for the top of the handrail to the staircase. Around him, the painted walls warped and wavered, stretching impossibly in one direction before snapping back in the other. Tapestries and paintings lining the hallway skewed along with the walls they were attached to but did not move, almost as if they were glued down. Walls faded in and out of solidity, allowing flashes of barren desert and sand to intrude on the home's interior before disappearing once more. The hum of the market rose and distorted along with the building, until it became a shrilling whine that tore at his ears. Ferocious vertigo stripped Chichiri of his balance, and he tumbled forward onto his hands and knees. But, instead of slamming into hard tile, the surface gave on impact. He sank into the now soft, grainy, and scorching floor. Hellish, inferno-like heat choked Chichiri's lungs and seared his nose as he tried to inhale. The walls vanished in a blast of withering light that robbed him of his vision. Struck blind, his heart pounded against his ribs as panic held him fast. Merciless tremors wracked his body. He clutched at his throat with shuddering, numbed hands, while his stomach pitched and yawed. Doubling over, he retched. Flecks of acidic bile stung his swollen tongue and cracked lips as he heaved, but not much else came with it.

"Chiriko! Chiriko! Come on, little guy! Talk t' me! Chiriko!"

Mitsukake's brow furrowed and he glanced back over his shoulder as he made his way toward Chichiri. Tasuki held Chiriko's limp body in his arms, a barely controlled hysteria chiseled into the redhead's features. Enveloped in the teal-hued puddle of his silk coat, the young scholar had yet to regain consciousness. Still, Mitsukake had already administered as much of his holy water as he felt safe using; it was up to Suzaku and Chiriko's own will to live now.

Tasuki studied Chiriko's slack face. Mitsukake's holy water had instantly mended the bleeding cracks in the boy's skin, leaving behind an unblemished, if ashen and drawn, complexion. Chiriko's chest rose and fell with his shallow breaths, but he was breathing. Tasuki hugged him a bit tighter to his chest. Chiriko had to live through this; he was like the little brother Tasuki had never had growing up.

Mitsukake turned his gaze back to Chichiri, and assessed the situation. He didn't know how they had ended up in the middle of the desert, but it was clear the four of them had been there for some time. The pale azure predawn sky glowed a bright, creamy yellow on the eastern horizon, a far cry from the vivid sapphire flecked with wispy white clouds of late afternoon it had been just moments before. When the city had disappeared, he'd found Tasuki, burned and blistered, muttering incoherently to himself and crawling toward Chiriko's crumpled, still form. He'd had to stamp down the dread that had crept up his spine at the sight. Ultimately, Tasuki and himself had suffered the least from the sun poisoning, dehydration, and exposure with which they'd all been afflicted. After taking a sip of his holy water, he'd coaxed the delirious redhead to drink and set to work on the others. Chiriko's condition had been the worst. He'd been at death's door, and if Mitsukake had come to his senses a moment later, the boy would have perished. Chichiri had fared little better, despite most of his skin being covered. "Chichiri. Can you hear me?"

The crunch of sand underfoot filtered into Chichiri's consciousness. Seconds later, Mitsukake's calm baritone sounded next to him, while somewhere farther away and behind him came Tasuki's scratchy, fearful tenor. A large hand lighted on the back of Chichiri's neck and he shrieked in agony. Curling in on himself, a white-hot, prickling burn radiated out from that mere touch and raced across his skin.

At the sound of Chichiri's tortured scream, Tasuki's gaze shot to where the monk hunched whimpering in the sand. "Holy Suzaku," he breathed. "Chiri!" Holding Chiriko securely to his bare chest, Tasuki sprang to his feet and tore off toward him, his boots sinking to his ankles with every stride.

Mitsukake jerked his hand away from the stricken monk. His eyes widened as he caught sight of Tasuki barreling toward him. He snapped his head to the left just as the redhead dove knees-first to the ground next to him. A shower of sand exploded from the impact, spraying Mitsukake's entire right side.

"Chiri..." Angry, weeping sores covered what Tasuki could see of Chichiri's alabaster skin, especially around his tunic's collar. A panicky flutter invaded his stomach and his heart sped in his chest. "Mitsukake! Yah gotta heal 'im! Hurry!"

"Tasuki," Mitsukake warned, giving Tasuki a sharp look as he shook some of the grit out of his hair and brushed it off of his clothes, "calm down." The healer returned his attention to the shivering, cerulean-haired mess in front of him. "Chichiri," he slipped a hand into his saffron-colored coat and retrieved the jar of holy water, "I need you to drink this. Can you sit up for me?"

His brows drawn tight, Tasuki watched Mitsukake gently encircle Chichiri's upper body with one arm and raise him to a kneeling position. The monk groaned and shuddered against the big man's chest. Tasuki's lips parted in horror at the extent of the damage to Chichiri's visage. The mask that Tasuki had seen so often since that night on the Shouryuu had disappeared, exposing Chichiri's true face. Blisters almost as large as Tasuki's thumbs dotted Chichiri's reddened and cracked skin, the scar dominating his left eye a milky white by comparison. Rivulets of dried blood streaked his chin, while beads of fresh crimson welled from innumerable fissures in his lips. "Chiri," he murmured. Tasuki knew Mitsukake would do everything he could to fix the monk up, but if Chichiri didn't make it...


Chiriko's weak, tremulous voice cut through the fear engulfing Tasuki's mind. Flicking his gaze to the body huddled in his arms, an ecstatic fanged smile overtook him. "Chiriko! Yer okay! How'dya feel?"

Glancing at where Mitsukake sat, attempting to force a mouthful of water into an almost comatose Chichiri, Chiriko's confused expression twisted into one of terror. Trembling, he covered his face with his sleeve-draped hands. "Tasuki, I'm scared."

Tasuki gave the character-less boy another squeeze. "Don't worry," he said, almost more to convince himself than to comfort Chiriko. "We're gonna be alright."

Chichiri choked and coughed as blood-laced holy water started to flow down his trachea. His parched throat protested the action and his lungs burned and ached. His eye clamped shut, he pushed feebly at the little earthenware jar and at Mitsukake's hand.

"Chichiri," Mitsukake gathered the monk's wrists into a loose grip and guided them out of the way, "you have to drink a little more if you can." As delicately as he could, he rocked Chichiri backward into the crook of his well-built arm as if cradling a small child. He tipped Chichiri's head back just enough to pour a few more drops past the monk's parted lips. This time, the liquid seemed to stay down. Mitsukake let out a quiet sigh.

A tension lifted from Tasuki's shoulders as he watched as the water's magic began knitting Chichiri's wounded skin back together. The open lesions shrunk little by little, diminishing in size and redness until no sign of them remained. Unruptured blisters sank back into Chichiri's flesh, leaving it intact, if pallid and gaunt. The oxidized blood coating his chin evaporated like a mirage. Even his rough, chapped lips smoothed back to their original state, the deep fissures closing up of their own accord.

As the debilitating pain ebbed from his muscles and skin, Chichiri slowly prised his eye open. The bright light took a moment to adjust to, but it no longer stung and burned like it had. He blinked owlishly as things came back into focus. The blaze of Tasuki's hair against the sky drew Chichiri's notice and he looked up at the redhead planted in the sand a mere arm's length from him. Tasuki gazed down at him in turn, his expression brimming with concern, relief, and, above all, affection.

"Chichiri," Mitsukake said, shaking the monk from the spell of Tasuki's eyes, "how do you feel?"

Glancing up at the healer, Chichiri smiled. "I'm fine, thanks to you." He clambered out of Mitsukake's grasp and rose to his feet. With a word and a flick of his wrist, Chichiri conjured a new mask and smoothed it over his face.

"Chichiri," Chiriko whimpered, uncovering his eyes at last. Rolling out of Tasuki's arms, he crawled a few paces across the sand toward the monk and struggled to his feet. He threw his small arms around Chichiri's waist and buried his face in the warm wool of the older seishi's kesa. "I was so scared."

Chichiri placed a hand on the boy's head. "I know, Chiriko, no da. I know."

"What th' fuck happened, anyway? What th' hell was that place?" With a grunt, Tasuki pushed himself to his feet and roughly slapped the sand from his knees.

"An illusion spell, and an effective one, no da." Chichiri's brows furrowed. He hadn't detected the enchantment used to create the city at all and that worried him. Only in the moment it had crumbled had he felt anything. The only ones capable of such high-level sorcery, he thought, were the Stars of Seiryuu. "It was likely a trap laid by the Seiryuu Seven to keep us from retrieving the Shinzahou here in Sairou, na no da." He dug his fingernails into his palm. Once again, his abilities hadn't been enough to keep everyone safe. If not for the timely dispersal of the magic and Mitsukake's holy water, all of them might have perished. His eyes gravitated to where Tasuki stood dusting off his pants. "An' I'm gonna keep on lovin' yah 'til th' day I die." The redhead's drunken words rang through Chichiri's mind. If you continue to pursue this, he thought, will end up getting you killed.

"Damn those Seiryuu fuckers," Tasuki growled, and crossed his arms over his bare chest. "When I get my hands on 'em, I'm gonna make 'em wish they'd finished th' fuckin' job."

The flare of a powerful life force bloomed across Chichiri's consciousness and he whipped his head to the east. He squinted against the newly risen sun, his perpetual smile flattening to a line. It was Tamahome; he'd recognize the raw strength of the fighter's chi anywhere. As the initial burst of energy leveled off, Chichiri felt both the warm radiance of Miaka's spirit and the cold slither of Seiryuu. The life force of one, maybe more, of the Seiryuu Seven was in her and Tamahome's immediate vicinity. His brow furrowed. Miaka... Turning to Mitsukake and Tasuki, he gently pried Chiriko from him. "Tamahome is engaged with the Seiryuu, no da. We need to go, na no da." With clumsy fingers, Chichiri began unclasping his kesa.

Tasuki's lips twisted into a feral grin, the morning sunlight reflecting off his fangs. "They're not gettin' away this time." He trotted over to where his clothing and tessen lay almost forgotten, his footfalls heralded by a scratchy crunch. Brushing off the bone-colored linen, he slipped his tunic on, and reached for his leather coat. A grimace spread across his face as his eyes landed on the desiccated corpse of his horse. The animal lay a little way from where he stood, its skeleton distinctly visible under its ill-fitting hide. Sand dusted its dulled, red-brown coat. Its sunken, sightless eyes stared skyward, its mouth a toothy sneer where the papery skin of its muzzle had peeled back. A quiver of revulsion snaked down Tasuki's spine and he turned away. That was what could have become of them if they'd stayed in that illusory city much longer. He regretted wishing death on his fractious horse–nothing, no matter how ornery, deserved to die that way–but there was naught he could do to change its fate now. He finished re-donning his garments and weapon, and headed back toward the others.

Casting his kesa to the ground, Chichiri frowned as the navy wool lay in a rumpled, very loosely rectangular jumble. He shook his head. It would have to do. His hands flowed through the familiar mudras of summoning, though the channeling of Suzaku's light for such a routine incantation fatigued him far faster than he'd hoped. He would need to rest, and soon, or he risked being without his magic at a critical moment. With one last word, Chichiri held out a hand. The chime of brass on brass filled the air and his shakujou winked into existence a little more than an arm's length above his head. He grabbed the staff's polished wooden shaft as it plummeted, stopping it just before it planted itself in the sand. "Everyone get on the kesa, no da."

Tasuki ushered Chiriko onto the laid-out cloth, followed closely by Mitsukake. Once all four seishi were securely within the confines of the kesa, Chichiri began to chant once more. He raised his shakujou into the air and brought it down with a crash. Waves of golden light, more vivid than the sun cresting the dunes behind them, began to pulse from beneath the men's feet. As they sank into the portal's depths, Chiriko eyed the glowing rectangle warily, clutching at Tasuki's arm the farther he descended. When the top of Mitsukake's head finally disappeared into the gateway, the entire kesa vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke.

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 10

Lama → a title in Tibetan Buddhism given to one who teaches the Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha; from the Tibetan word for "high priest," it was historically bestowed on venerated spiritual masters or heads of monasteries; similar to the Sanskrit term "guru"
Marou Mifen → minted horse meat with rice-flour noodles, literally "horse meat rice noodles"
Lamellar → a type of armor composed of small plates, also called lames, laced together. This was the most common armor type used in China for rank-and-file soldiers from the Warring States Period at the end of the Zhou dynasty (2nd century BCE) to the beginning of the Ming (mid-14th century CE) dynasty
Girth → also called a cinch; a strap used to keep a saddle in place on a horse
Cantle → the back portion of the seat of a saddle, usually sloping upward
Lungta → Tibetan for "windhorse," it has many meanings in Tibetan Buddhism. First, it is a mythical, pre-Buddhist creature that, using the speed of the wind and strength of the horse, carries prayers from earth to heaven. Secondly, it symbolizes positive energy and good luck, being a subduer of evil and a vehicle for enlightenment. Thirdly, it, along with the "four dignities," creatures much like the four Taoist holy beasts used in Fushigi Yuugi, represent the five elements that make up the world: the tiger symbolizes wind, the snow lion symbolizes earth, the garuda symbolizes fire, the dragon symbolizes water, and the windhorse symbolizes space, or "the ground of all existence." Lastly, it symbolizes the "wind" or "subtle energy" that determines the direction the mind will take in reaction to the thoughts one has, either positive or negative, thus creating karma.
Dramyin → a wooden, long-necked, double-waisted, 7-string, fretless lute, played most commonly by plucking; used mainly in as accompaniment by storytellers and minstrels in secular Tibetan folk music, but also a few Buddhist rituals
Gling-bu → a side-blown Tibetan flute, similar to a Chinese hengdi
Daphne → a genus in the family Thymelaeaceae, it is composed of woody deciduous and evergreen shrubs native to Europe, Asia, and north Africa; most species are noted for scented flowers and poisonous berries; at least two species are used to make paper in Nepal, Bhutan, and possibly other countries in the Himalayan region
Stellera → (Stellera chamaejasme) also a member of the family Thymelaeaceae, it is an herbaceous plant native to Eastern Asia, along the Himalayas and into the highlands of China; it grows on stony slopes and alpine plains at an altitude of approximately 8,800 to 14,000 feet; the roots have traditionally been used to make paper in Tibet, Nepal, and other countries in the Himalayan region; the plant's toxicity makes the paper made from it naturally insect-repellent and the flexibility of its fiber gives excellent resistance to wear
Thenthuk → also thentuk; from the Tibetan words "then," meaning "pull," and "thuk," meaning "noodle," a Tibetan soup made with short, hand-pulled flour noodles; it can be made with or without meat, but the broth uses a beef-, mutton-, or yak-bone stock; pronounced sort of like "ten" + "too" + "k"
Balep Korkun → a traditional Tibetan bread that is cooked in a skillet rather than an oven; it is made traditionally with barley flour, water, and a leavening agent, usually baking powder, and shaped into thin, round disks
Sepen → a Tibetan hot sauce; its composition varies from cook to cook and region to region, but it is used to liven up the fairly mild Tibetan cuisine
Laping → a spicy noodle dish served cool or cold in summer; the noodles are made from a starch flour, shaped into a slab as it sets, then cut into thick slices; it is usually not made at home but sold at food carts by street vendors
Momo → a traditional Tibetan dumpling similar to Chinese jiaozi, Japanese gyoza, or Mongolian khuushuur and buuz; it can be round or crescent-shaped, and filled with anything from ground meat to vegetables to cheeses; it is prepared most commonly by steaming, but can be deep fried, pan fried if already steamed, or boiled in a soup
Dri → the Tibetan word for the female yak
Burlwood → wood cut from a burl–a large, rounded outgrowth on the trunk or branch of a tree–and used for making objects or as a veneer
Rakshi → also raksi, a traditional Nepali and Tibetan alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented millet or rice; often mislabeled as a wine, it is a grain alcohol and thus classified as a spirit with a 22%-27% alcohol content; it is clear like vodka or gin, and is said to have a taste similar to that of Japanese saké
Sun Poisoning → term often used to describe severe cases of sunburn; symptoms include skin redness, blistering, pain, tingling, and swelling, headache, fever and chills, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration; if not treated, it can be fatal

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