Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1439
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 steady, cold wind gusted in Chichiri's face as he and Chiriko rode beyond the city wall to the very outskirts of Touran. The guards at the gate had told them the encampment was six li to the northeast. Their horse snorted and shook the accumulating snow off its head as it trotted down the deserted road. Chichiri shivered as snow found its way into his thick robe. It melted in the soft wool of his kesa and froze his skin beneath. He knew Chiriko, sitting in the saddle in front of him, had to be in much the same predicament.

It had been Chiriko's suggestion that they search the outlying areas. Since many of the Genbu Seven had been tribal clansmen before becoming celestial warriors, perhaps the nomads that camped regularly on the outskirts of the capital might know something the city dwellers didn't. Chichiri had to admit that he wouldn't have thought to look beyond the city's walls. He was still a bit concerned that the rest of the Shichiseishi wouldn't see the signal flare so far from the city, despite Chiriko's insistence that they would. Still, maybe he's right, he thought. Perhaps there is a clue to be found out here, no da. He just hoped that the information they sought would be easily found. He didn't like having so much time to think, especially when the fight at the yurt village and the image of Tasuki's hurt and angry face battled for dominance at the forefront of his mind. As he rode, replaying that night over and over again, there was a pull at Chichiri's sleeve. It was gentle, almost imperceptible over the bite of the wind and the constant jerking as the horse adjusted to the rutted, snowbound road. When it didn't happen again, Chichiri could almost believe that the sensation was nothing more than his imagination, born of exhaustion and his preoccupation with Tasuki.

Chiriko's brow furrowed, his hair plastered down with half-melted snowflakes. Cold rivulets flowed down the back of his neck into his robe. He shivered as the water soaked into his teal silk coat underneath. If he didn't try to dry his face, especially his nose, lips, and ears, the water could speed the onset of frostbite, especially with the wind blowing as it was. "Chichiri!" He didn't know how long he'd tugged at Chichiri's sleeve to get the monk's attention, though he thought they had managed two li or more before he'd had to resort to shouting. "Please stop! I'm freezing!"

With a firm tug on the reins, Chichiri slowed their mount to a walk. The brows of his mask furrowed as he looked down at the shivering scholar. "I'm sorry, Chiriko, no da," he said. "I guess I got carried away, na no da." He dug in the small pockets lining the inside of his tunic until his fingers felt the miraculously dry edge of a linen handkerchief. He handed it to Chiriko. As the scholar wiped the melted snow from his face and hair, Chichiri silently berated himself for letting this problem with Tasuki get out of hand; Tasuki had managed to seize control of his thoughts and now this fixation truly was causing harm to one of his fellow Warriors. Why had he ever let his desires go so far?

The two men rode on in silence. The horse's hooves crunched into the snow with every step, its swaying gait lulling Chichiri even deeper into his thoughts. A gust of wind blew through the barren trees lining their route, stirring the branches and knocking them together with hollow clacks. Fine showers of flakes swirled up from the wood to add to the steadier snow still falling. A wispy column of gray smoke rose from just past the horizon, only barely visible against the steel gray sky. They still had some way to go before reaching the camp.

Pushing the damp cloth into the sleeve of his robe, Chiriko watched the snowdrifts bound back from the roadside into the treeline, eventually fading into an even blanket covering the forest floor. He sighed to himself at the loneliness of the road and the quiet creak of the trees waving in the wind. He wondered if this was what Chichiri saw and heard in his travels and if this is what he wanted to return to after their duties were done. Chichiri had always struck him as a recluse, someone who felt more at ease by himself than with others. Not unlike Mitsukake, Chiriko thought. Yet, Chichiri's isolation seemed more self-imposed to him, more purposeful than Mitsukake's inveterate shyness. It was as if Chichiri wanted to distance himself from the other Warriors and Miaka. Chiriko had been the last of the Suzaku Seven to be gathered following the failed summoning, but in that short time he had seen each of the Seven develop strong bonds, with the priestess and with each other. Chichiri was no different. For as much as Chiriko sensed he wanted to stay an outsider, leading from the shadows, Chichiri had grown just as close to the balance of the Shichiseishi as they had to him. Whatever this rift was between him and Tasuki, Chiriko was determined to set it right, not only for their mission to summon Suzaku, but for Chichiri's sake as well. "Chichiri?" He kept his voice low out of respect for the tranquility around them.

"Yes, Chiriko, no da?"

"Did you and Tasuki have a fight? You both seem so sad lately." He heard Chichiri cough once, and felt the monk shift in the saddle behind him as though he were a novice horseman just learning to ride. Chiriko looked up after a pause that seemed to him to be much too long to find Chichiri staring at the desolate, snowbound lane ahead. The brows on his mask were furrowed and his ever-present smile was curved into a small frown. "Chichiri? What's wrong?" He had never seen the man look so obviously bothered before. "Did something happen?"

"No, no, it's nothing, Chiriko, no da," Chichiri said finally. It was the right choice, he thought. Pushing Tasuki away at the yurt village was the best course of action he could have taken to salvage things. They still had a duty to fulfill and he wouldn't let his inability to control himself become a liability to their mission. Yet, the look of utter rage on Tasuki's face and the subsequent pain in his eyes wouldn't leave his head. It was the right choice, he repeated to himself. Glancing down at Chiriko, he forced a smile and returned to the higher pitch he normally used. "It's just this journey is taking a lot out of everyone, no da. Finding the Shinzahou is of the utmost importance and we're all trying to do our best, na no da. "

Silence descended on them once more, the stillness broken only by the occasional snort of their mount and the rattle of branches in the deep woods along the road. Chiriko again sat looking out at the empty woods, brows drawn in frustration. Delving into the sleeve of his robe with freezing fingers, he found the still-damp handkerchief. He played with the warm, moist corner of the linen. His lips twisted in an exasperated smirk as he contemplated his next move. I don't know what to do, Mitsukake, he thought. He wondered if Mitsukake was having any more luck with Tasuki than he was with Chichiri. He doesn't seem to want my help at all. How am I supposed to fix this if he won't cooperate? "Chichiri, please," he sighed, "tell me what happened."

"It's nothing–"

"You're wrong! It is something, Chichiri," Chiriko declared, cutting him off in mid-sentence. Turning as best he could to look at Chichiri's face, Chiriko placed a concerned hand over the monk's cold, larger one. He noted how the knuckles under his palm flexed as if tightening around the leather reins. "You're my friend and I care about you, Chichiri." He hoped he finally had Chichiri's undivided attention. "I know that whatever happened between you two is bothering you greatly. You don't seem yourself, and you haven't seemed yourself since we left the Kounan border. Please, for yourself as well as the rest of us who care about you, tell me what's wrong. I want to help you." As the last of his words floated away, he watched the cold wind toss Chichiri's soaked bangs against the side of his face, sticking the wet strands fast.

Another long and deafening silence imposed itself on the two warriors. Chiriko was quickly losing patience with the situation. He turned again to look at the snowy road ahead. What more could he do to convince Chichiri to open up to him? He'd already told the monk as plainly as he knew how that he didn't have to cut himself off from friends who cared about him and his welfare. Chiriko could barely remember the last time he'd seen a grown man, a logical, rational grown man, act in such a manner.

Many years before Chiriko had known of his calling as one of the Shichiseishi, his elder brother, Gishou, a man Chiriko respected for his wisdom and kind heart, met a woman in the city marketplace of unimaginable beauty. He wooed her with gifts and spent his time with her deep in discussion and trading words of love. One day, several months after their first meeting, the young woman announced that she was to be married and that she couldn't see his brother anymore. For weeks afterward, Gishou sat in his chamber and stared at the jeweled comb he'd bought for her, barely speaking or eating. All of it for the love of a woman he had lost.

Gishou had tried to give the public appearance that nothing was amiss, but Chiriko could tell he was still hurting. He'd stare sometimes into the distance when he thought no one was looking. He even went to the trouble of avoiding the specific stall in the market where he'd met the woman who'd broken his heart. Eventually, their mother had arranged a match with another woman, Ryokuu, from a prominent local family, but it wasn't the same. Even years later, Gishou still wasn't as talkative and open as he had once been.

Chiriko blinked, his eyes widening as his gaze jerked up to Chichiri's impassive face. Could he? "You're in love with him, aren't you," he said. It was more of a statement than a question and his suspicions were confirmed as Chichiri let out a pent-up sigh. A great cloud of white mist rose into the sky to mingle with the snowflakes.

"Yes, no da."

"I see," Chiriko said, nodding slowly. As one of the four gods, Suzaku ruled over many elements: fire, the south, summer, and of course, love. It made sense that Suzaku's Warriors might end up falling for each other; Tamahome seemed to be in love with Miaka after all. He was honestly more surprised that Chichiri had admitted it than anything else. Still, the monk's discomfort when he'd mentioned Tasuki's name confused him. "I'm happy for you, Chichiri, but aren't you glad about it?"

"Glad about it, no da?"

Chiriko frowned, his brow furrowing at the almost distressed tone in Chichiri's voice. The monk kept his eyes firmly on the road ahead, his face set into his usual smile. Wasn't falling in love generally considered to be a good thing? Chiriko knew from his brother's example that love didn't always work out between two people. Still, did not Laozi say that "being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage?" Shouldn't Chichiri be happy? Unless... "Did Tasuki share your feelings?"

There was no reply and silence fell once more. Ahead, the tops of the nomads' greyish-white yurts finally began to rise up from the surrounding snow cover, the smoke they'd seen earlier thicker and more visible the closer they rode. The crunch of footfalls on the forest floor to the side of the road rose out of the snowy stillness, followed by the scent of thick musk and coppery blood.

"Hail, travelers," called a deep, jovial voice.

Shaking its head, their mount shied and sidestepped as its ears swiveled this way and that. Chichiri pulled on the reins in an attempt to get the horse back under control. Both seishi looked into the trees to see a party of six men, each wrapped in thick felt robes with high collars. Across each man's back was strapped a simple leather quiver full of arrows fletched with smoky blue crane feathers. In each hand, they carried wicked-looking recurve bows. Two of them carried a thick tree limb, stripped of its bark and leaves, between them from which a large elk had been slung. A trickle of blood seeped from what looked to be an arrow wound on the side of the animal's chest. Finally able to get the spooked horse to calm down, Chichiri reined it to a stop. It snorted, a great blast of frigid breath rising from its nostrils, as it pawed the snowy ground.

A stocky, middle-aged man with a dark beard nodded to them as the group made their way up to the two warriors before coming to a stop. The embroidery on the man's dark blue felt robe and hat was much more intricate than that of any of his fellows. "What brings you out of Touran in this weather?" he asked, his voice the same as had greeted them just a moment before. "From the look of things," he glanced up into the curtain of falling snow at the steely clouds, "the snows will continue through the night."

Chichiri nodded back. "We were on our way to the encampment just over the rise, no da." Both he and Chiriko swayed as the horse adjusted its footing once more. "We were hoping to speak with the elder, na no da."

The bearded man threw his head back and laughed, a fog of breath escaping into the cold air. The snow that had accumulated on top of the man's hat slipped off as he did so and was carried away with the breeze. "You've found him, my friends!" Waving to the rest of the hunters, he motioned for them to head on. They trudged past through the snowdrifts to a tumult of arrows clattering in quivers, the crack of fallen pine branches under their feet, and the steady swish of the hanging elk's back brushing the snow. "Come, come," he said, motioning for Chichiri and Chiriko to follow him. "You must be eager for a warm fire."

A small frown made its way to Chiriko's lips. He was relieved to soon be able to get out of his wet clothes, but his conversation with Chichiri would now have to wait. He didn't want to bring up such a personal subject in front of strangers, even if they were offering them shelter. He could only hope that, when he again got the chance to talk to Chichiri about it, the monk would be more forthcoming. He pushed his hands into the snow-coated sleeves of his robe. "Thank you, um..."

The man looked up at Chiriko and grinned. The tanned skin around his eyes wrinkled with mirth. "I am Delger, leader of this encampment and son of the high elder of the Ha Tribe."

"Thank you for your generous offer, Delger, no da. We really appreciate it, na no da." Chichiri urged the horse on with a flick of the reins and it started forward, its plodding steps keeping pace with the men on foot.

Delger placed a hand on the horse's neck, patting it gently as he walked. The horse nickered and shook its head clear of fallen snow. "So, whom do I have the honor of addressing? You two must not be from Hokkan if you are braving the snows with no packs or provisions."

Chichiri chuckled. "Ah, forgive me, no da. I am Chichiri and this is Chiriko, no da." In front of him, Chiriko nodded in greeting. "We've come to Hokkan from Kounan, na no da."

"That is a long journey if you've come to this land from beyond the sea." Delger laughed again before gesturing to the youngest of the hunters. "Vachir, run ahead and tell Checheg and Bayar we'll be having two guests for dinner." The boy nodded and took off through the still-falling snow, his hand clamped firmly to his russet-colored hat. "Well, my friends," he said, looking up at Chichiri and Chiriko, "let's hurry and get out of this weather, eh? Some hot tsuivan and suutei tsai should warm you right up."

- o - o - o -

Snow fell steadily as Mitsukake followed after a now-silent Tasuki. He watched him scrub at his nose with the sleeve of his robe before breathing into his hands. A cloud of vapor streamed over Tasuki's shoulder toward him, only to disappear amid the snowflakes. Something had happened with Nuriko just before they left the tavern. Mitsukake didn't know what, but it had been enough for Nuriko to frown more deeply than he had ever seen. Ahead of him, Tasuki trudged through the ankle-deep drifts blanketing the alley. Snow clung to the hem of his robe as he caught the crests of the mounds with his feet.

"Yah sure we're goin' th' right way, Mitsukake?" Tasuki threw over his shoulder.

"Yes." The snow crunched under his feet as Mitsukake stepped into the prints left by Tasuki's boots.

Several long moments of silence stretched between them before Tasuki spoke again. "An' yer sure those ol' guys're gonna tell us what we wanna know?"

Mitsukake sidestepped a half-covered pile of broken crates someone had thrown from an upper window. "Yes." As they had learned with Tomoru, the elders were the ones who kept the history of Hokkan. If anyone knew the whereabouts of the Shinzahou, it would be them. Still, he hoped to get Tasuki talking before they got their information. Depending on what they found, he might not get a chance to ask again before they left Hokkan.

The pair continued on down the alley. The snow in Tasuki's hair began to melt into rivulets that trickled down the back of his neck and into his collar. He huddled farther into his robe. He knew Mitsukake could be terse, but this one-word answer thing was ridiculous. Tasuki didn't dislike him; in fact, he didn't really have an opinion about him one way or another. They had really never spent any time together, apart from the other seishi. Chiriko spent much more time with Mitsukake than he did. Still, he owed him one for the night of the Kutou trip. Even though he'd already used his powers to heal Miaka, Mitsukake had done his best to treat his wounds. A gust of cold wind funneled down the alley, shearing the loose flakes from the tops of the snowdrifts and throwing them against the two warriors. "'Ey, Mitsukake," Tasuki said, breaking the silence. "Yah sure are quiet back there. Yah alright?"

Finally, he had an opening. "I could ask you the same," Mitsukake replied. He'd never known Tasuki to avoid a direct question, though he did wonder if he would get a direct answer to what he had to ask.

Tasuki stopped. He turned to Mitsukake, brow raising. "What're yah talkin' about?"

"What's going on between you and Chichiri?" Mitsukake watched Tasuki's posture go rigid at the mention of the monk's name. The set of his shoulders tightened and he wrapped his arms around himself.

"Nothin'," Tasuki growled and turned his back. "Let's get goin'. We're lookin' fer that Shinzahou thing, ain't we?" He really didn't want to have this conversation. First Nuriko, now Mitsukake: did everyone know about him and Chichiri? He scowled and continued walking.

A tense silence fell over them. The crunch of snow beneath their feet and the whoosh of the wind as it blew over the tops of the buildings to either side of the alley were the only sounds for a long time. Mitsukake's brows furrowed. Inside his robe, Tama-neko shifted to push his head out of the collar. As snowflakes landed on his sensitive ears and nose, the cat twitched vigorously. "Tasuki," Mitsukake said. He wondered if Nuriko had the same trouble trying to get Tasuki to open up to him.

"I don' wanna fuckin' talk about it," Tasuki growled. Why couldn't Mitsukake just let it go? What business was it of his anyway? They were after the Shinzahou, weren't they? Shouldn't they be concentrating on that? It was their duty to summon Suzaku, right? Duty... He bared his fangs.

Mitsukake followed close behind. Blowing snow forced Tama-neko back into Mitsukake's robe. He squirmed down into the warm silk of the saffron-colored coat underneath, just above where it was tied at the waist. Without the cat as a barrier, snow found its way down the front of Mitsukake's robe and he pulled it tighter before crossing his arms and thrusting his bare hands into his armpits. He understood why Tasuki would choose to hold his problems close–Mitsukake himself guarded his thoughts and feelings much of the time–but it wasn't necessary. He'd kept his own thoughts inside, unable to relate enough to anyone after Shouka died to really open his heart and confidences, but after traveling this far with the Suzaku Seven, he found he had people who cared for him. Resolving to keep Tasuki from replaying his old mistakes, he began again. "You should–"

"I said I don't wanna fuckin' talk about it!" Spinning on his heel, Tasuki glared at Mitsukake, his earrings swinging at his jaw. The sharp sting of the cold air and the ashy smell of wood smoke assaulted his nose. He scowled, crossing his arms. "'Sides," he scoffed, "Nuriko told'ja all about it, didn' 'e?"

"Nuriko didn't tell me anything," Mitsukake replied. He frowned at Tasuki's bullheadedness. "Your emotions are not subtle." Tasuki humphed and shifted on his feet in front of him. A moment went by, then another, until they were silently trying to stare each other down. Mitsukake scowled. This was getting them nowhere. "I know you had a fight with Chichiri." He watched Tasuki again tense at the name. "It's affecting both of you and it needs to be resolved. Now, do you want to tell me what happened?"

"Do I gotta choice?" Frosty clouds of breath puffed from Tasuki's mouth as he spoke.


A great misty sigh escaped Tasuki's lips. The unimpressed look on Mitsukake's face told him all he needed to know; he was going to have to tell him. An' 'e's gonna lecture me 'bout how I fucked up, he thought. Tasuki looked down at the rapidly filling footprints at his feet. Kicking at them, he sent small showers of already-fallen snow into the air only to be caught and whisked off by the wind. Dammit. Glancing off to his right, he saw the mouth of the alley. A few people passed by, their hats and robes coated with a fine layer of snow. He growled softly in the back of his throat. With a scowl, he turned and continued on, slower than before and very aware Mitsukake wanted an answer.

As Tasuki came to the end of the alley, he stepped out onto a wider, more used street. The musky scent of yak permeated the area despite the breeze and the cold. A few small shops dotted the stone buildings along the way, but none of them were as active or as large as the stalls in the market he'd seen earlier. An old man with a grass broom swept the snow from in front of one doorway and out into the street. Children bound up in thick felt robes ran around laughing in the packed-down, rutted lane. They weaved around yak-drawn wooden carts loaded down with bales of wool and bags of grain. A yak snorted as it trudged past, a cloud of foggy white breath puffing from its nostrils. The leather straps and brass fittings of its harness jangled as it shook the snow off its shaggy head and shoulders. Mitsukake walked up next to him and Tasuki frowned. "I…love 'im, Mitsukake."

Mitsukake looked over at Tasuki, his eyebrows rising. "What?" The clatter and squeak of an axle and the thunder of hooves drew their attention and cut off Mitsukake's questions.

A painted cart rolled down the street, a heavyset bearded man in a tan felt hat driving it. The cart's two oversized wheels bounced over the ruts in the snow as the yak pulling it loped toward them. The children scattered to get out of the way, but one little boy tripped on the hard-packed furrows.

"Hey kid! Look out!" Tasuki bellowed. He sprang toward him, but it was too late.

The boy tried to scramble out of the cart's way, but his foot slipped out from under him. Oblivious to the child, the man continued on, one bright yellow painted wheel rolling over the boy's leg with a sickening crunch.

The coppery scent of blood began to fill the air. Yaks drawing other carts shied at the smell, grunting and snorting as they hurried past. Younger children began to scream and cry as they fled the scene. Revelation temporarily forgotten, Mitsukake and Tasuki ran to the child along with the old man and a handful of older children. Deep crimson seeped out of the boy's dark green pant leg. It stained the fallen snow a bright pink, the still-falling flakes washing out the color with each passing moment.

Mitsukake knelt beside the boy and gingerly prodded his leg. The boy shrieked. Hot tears slid down his face as he tried to push Mitsukake's big hand away. "His leg has been crushed." Mitsukake looked up at the crowd gathered around. "We need to get him medical treatment at once."

"You there," the old man snapped and pointed a crooked finger at Mitsukake, "don't just sit there, bring the boy inside." Not waiting for a reply, he tottered off toward the doorway he'd been sweeping just moments earlier.

Mitsukake and Tasuki shared a look before the healer scooped up the little boy and both warriors followed after.

- o - o - o -

"Right through here," Delger said as he held up the thick felt door to the yurt. He ushered both Chichiri and Chiriko in as a gust of wind and snow all but pushed the two seishi inside.

Chiriko glanced around as they entered. Flames crackled and jumped across the coals in the yurt's central firepit as the wind whipped the glowing embers into a blaze. Orangey tendrils licked up the side of a round iron pot nestled into the crumbling shell of a log. The lid rattled as the contents bubbled and roiled, allowing the scent of fresh pepper and garlic to escape. An arm's length from the iron pot sat a smaller, cylindrical pot, its lid propped next to it on the rocks bordering the pit. Inside, on a metal grate elevated above a pool of not-quite-boiling water, a dozen or so dumplings huddled together. They looked to Chiriko much like the kuushuur he'd eaten at the tavern earlier, but these were obviously meant for steaming, not frying. The tell-tale licorice-like smell of caraway hung just below the pine of the burning logs.

A few pieces of wooden furniture lined the walls of the yurt, painted in the same bright reds and yellows that he had seen in Tomoru's village. A neat pyramid of split logs sat near the yurt's door, ready to use at a moment's notice. Rich blue, green, and orange embroidery picked out elaborate geometric patterns on the wool rugs covering the floor and hanging from the walls like tapestries. The whole yurt exuded an air of homey coziness. As his gaze moved upward, he cocked his head. Near the junction of the curved walls with the conical ceiling hung row upon row of what looked to be wood, but was actually dried meat. Chiriko had read about the nomads of Hokkan employing such a preservation technique in an ancient tome in the imperial library as he worked to craft the map the Shichiseishi had used on their journey north. The shriveled, vaguely rectangular sticks hung from the the rafters from cotton string, creating a sort of suspended forest of leafless branches.

A middle-aged woman in a bright yellow felt robe sat on an embroidered rug near the fire pit. On her lap lay a wooden board. Circles of pressed dough were strewn across the surface, along with a few small bronze bowls filled with what smelled like garlic, more caraway, and a mixture of ground meat and onion. She looked up as the two seishi spent a moment taking in the yurt. "Ah, travelers, please do come in." Putting the board down, she pushed herself to her feet. She moved to a red-and-yellow-painted cabinet a few paces from the yurt's door flap and brought out two heavy cotton towels. She smiled as she handed them to Chichiri and Chiriko. "Please, let me take your wet robes. You must be freezing from your ride in such inclement weather."

Both men took the proffered towels gratefully and began to remove their robes. Chiriko fumbled a moment with his robe's belt before shrugging out of the wet garment. "Thank you very much." Folding the robe neatly, he handed it to the kind woman with a smile of his own. He unfolded the brightly dyed towel and began to pat his hair and face dry. Out of the corner of his eye, Chiriko watched Chichiri do the same.

"Checheg, my love!" Delger exclaimed as he walked to the woman and took hold of her shoulders. She let out a small squeak as he did so. "Genbu be praised! We brought down a fine elk. A fine elk!" He kissed her on the cheek before letting go, and walked to the yurt's far wall. Taking up an embossed leather case, he pulled out a carved and painted stool. He plopped down onto it and placed the case across his lap. "You should have seen Vachir, my love. A talented hunter he's becoming, to be sure. Brought the thing down through the driving snow and with his first shot!" Delger chuckled. "He and Qacha are helping Bayar dress it as we speak." Planting his bow firmly against his booted foot, he pulled hard, flexing its laminated wood and horn limbs until he could easily remove the string. Without it, the bow curled back on itself until it resembled a lopsided circle. "It will last us a good while, even should Yisun and Bora's party be unsuccessful." He placed the bow and detached string into the case and closed it gently. "Still, if the snows continue to block the pass, we should look into taking a few more animals to preserve for borts. We may have to wait until the spring thaws to return to the rest of the tribe."

"Dear, we have guests," Checheg chided as she laid out the robes near the fire to dry. "I doubt they wish to hear of our troubles." She gestured for the two seishi to take a seat on the rugs ringing the fire pit.

"No, please, don't worry about us, no da." Chichiri shook his head, hoping to dispel the woman's concerns. Returning the towel with a nod of thanks, he took a seat and rubbed his cold-numbed hands together over the fire's warmth. "We're imposing on your hospitality, after all, na no da."

Chiriko also returned his towel. Taking a place next to the monk, he cocked his head. "You've been separated from your tribe?"

"Yes," Delger said, a frown curving his lips just below his thick mustache. "The snows came a bit early this year and closed the northeast pass many weeks earlier than usual. With the route blocked, we've been forced to remain camped here on the outskirts of Touran for the last fortnight."

"Does your tribe often travel to Touran?" Chiriko's stomach growled audibly as Checheg ladled some of the boiling stew from the round pot into a heavy bronze bowl. His eyes widened and he flushed a bright pink as the woman chuckled. "Please, excuse me. I'm so sorry," he said with a simper. He looked away, his ears turning red, as he accepted the bowl of tsuivan and a pair of chopsticks.

"Don't apologize! It's a compliment! Checheg's tsuivan is the best in all of Hokkan!" Delger threw his head back and laughed. "The tsuivan and the buuz really do smell wonderful, my love," he added and grinned at his wife, who only smiled and rolled her eyes as she handed a steaming bowl and another pair of chopsticks to Chichiri. Once the two seishi had their food, Delger continued. "The Ha Tribe sends a small contingent to Touran in the late summer of every year to trade for items we cannot craft ourselves. We have a strong hunting tradition in our tribe, so we trade pelts and hides for things like flour, cotton, and vegetables."

After providing her husband with his own meal, Checheg retrieved a free-standing metal grate from the cabinet she'd gotten the towels from earlier. Placing it in the firepit above the coals, she set a high-sided metal bowl filled with water atop it. She then returned to her seat and took up the wooden board and its contents. Chiriko watched her stuff and twist closed dumpling after dumpling with quick, skillful movements.

Delger took a bite of the tsuivan, his brow furrowing as he did. "In my grandfather's time, the markets of Touran were awash with goods from the eastern lands. Now, most of what we trade for comes from the western trade roads at higher cost. We can ask only half as much for our pelts as we could a decade ago, if that." He sighed. "There's not much call for furs in the deserts of Sairou." Delger paused and looked down at the wool rug he sat upon. "The Ha Tribe has always struggled to eke out a living from the land, but this may just be the hardest struggle we've yet faced." Shrugging, his lips quirked into a halfhearted smile. "But, what are we simple hunters and herders to do? As long as the Kutou emperor has his ambition set on war with Kounan, trade with the eastern lands simply will not flow."

Chichiri nodded and frowned. He knew Kutou had a warlike history–Tomoru had told them that only Genbu's intervention had saved Hokkan from Kutou's invasion two hundred years ago–but to hear that Kutou's belligerence toward Kounan now was also impacting Hokkan's people was sobering. Summoning Suzaku and stopping the Seiryuu wasn't just about Kounan's safety anymore, it seemed. He gazed down into his food and watched a piece of carrot float around the bowl as he picked at a nearby noodle with his chopsticks. They had to find the Shinzahou as soon as possible.

Chiriko's brow furrowed. He sympathized with Delger and his tribe's situation. The books he'd found in the imperial library had told of the harshness of Hokkan's climate and its geography. Mountainous and snowy, the land wasn't suitable for agriculture, leaving the people with really only herding, hunting, and mining as viable industry. And yet, even those options were difficult and labor-intensive. Unlike Kounan's people, the people of Hokkan had to struggle to maintain their way of life against such huge obstacles. Was there anything he could do to help them? He took a bite of the tsuivan and turned the problem over in his mind.

Delger looked back and forth between the two men. "Ah, I apologize," he said, waving the chopsticks in his hand as if to ward off the tension that had descended. "You are from Kounan, are you not? I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. Checheg always tells me I speak far too much."

"Please, don't apologize," Chiriko replied. He held the bronze bowl and the slender copper chopsticks up as he scrutinized the geometric patterns pressed into them. The toolmarks were delicate and very deliberately arranged so as to add another dimension to the design. When the piece had been polished, the tiny indentations were left dark, purposefully creating a shadow, mid-tone, and highlight on the intertwining knotwork encircling the vessel. He shifted his attention back to Delger, a small smile on his lips. Maybe he had an idea... "By the looks of this bowl and these chopsticks," Chiriko said, "I would say that some of your people are very skilled craftsmen."

Delger blinked a few times, then nodded slowly. "Yes, there are several craftsmen among the Ha Tribe. Temur, our tribe's smith, made the bowl and chopsticks you hold."

Chiriko glanced down at Delger's boots. They were a simple leather with upturned toes, dyed a similar navy to his robe, but the craftsman who'd made them had been very meticulous. Each knotwork medallion had been carefully embossed and appliquéd with tiny, contrasting stitches. Even the seams up each boot's shaft were impeccable; they were tight and nearly invisible. The work was exquisite. "Could you not utilize these talents to help your tribe?" Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Chichiri watching him as well.

"I am unsure of what you mean..." Delger cocked his head, brow furrowed in confusion.

Chiriko put his empty bowl and utensils down before tucking his hands into the sleeves of his coat. "Your craftsmen make items for you tribe's use, but couldn't they create items for sale or trade? Instead of receiving only a few coins in trade for a pelt at market, by crafting that pelt into a pair of leather boots or a horse's bridle, your tribe would be able to trade for anything it needed with the profit made from those items."

Delger scratched at his beard. "We could make those items to trade. They are useful to our tribe, so I can see how they would be valuable to someone else, but how would we make a profit off such things?"

Chiriko nodded. "What I propose," he said, his smile widening at the look of interest on the man's face, "is that your craftsmen create items specifically for trading from the hides and pelts your hunters collect. That way, you will be able to command a higher price at market. The time and effort your craftsmen put into the pieces could also be included in the amount you could trade it for, not just the initial trade price of the hides or pelts themselves." Chiriko's cheeks flushed as Chichiri reached out and gently patted his shoulder. He returned the monk's smile with a simper before looking once more at Delger. "It might not be a total solution to the problem of trade with Kutou and the east being blocked, but it would make it easier to get what your tribe needs to survive."

Delger's dark eyebrows rose toward his hairline as the idea seemed to sink in. "Checheg, my love! Are you hearing this?!" He looked to his wife, eyes alight with excitement. He put his own bowl down and clapped his hands together. "Unegen and Erdene already fashion hide into leather for our quivers and boots. And Temur could make a few more bits and fittings for bridles. We could finally afford to expand the herd! Or purchase enough vegetables to last until the spring thaw!" He let out a giddy laugh and stretched his arms wide. "Praise Genbu! Praise Genbu for you, travelers! Anythinganything at all that we could provide, please, just ask and it is yours!"

Chiriko glanced at Chichiri and the two seishi nodded to each other. The monk set down his bowl and turned back to Delger. He laced his fingers in his lap. "We've come to Hokkan in search of the Shinzahou of Genbu, no da. Can you tell us anything about it, no da?"

"The Shinzahou of Genbu?" Delger cocked his head. "Indeed?"

Chiriko nodded. "Yes. We are two of the celestial warriors in service to the Priestess of Suzaku. We've come to search for the Shinzahou to prevent Kutou's invasion."

"Celestial warriors..." Delger eyes darted to his wife and he and Checheg shared a long look. After a moment, Delger returned his attention to the two seishi. "My love, please get our honored guests some suutei tsai."

Rising from her spot, Checheg turned to Chichiri and Chiriko and bowed slightly at the waist. "Warriors of Suzaku," she said, "please, the least we can do is offer you some suutei tsai. I shall prepare it while you continue your discussion with my husband."

"Thank you very much, but you don't have to go out of your way for us, no da." Chichiri gestured to the bowl of tsuivan by his side. "You've already done so much already, na no da."

Checheg smiled and shook her head. "It would be our pleasure." Turning, she headed to the cabinet near the door and rummaged inside once more. Pulling out a small, covered bronze vessel, two bronze drinking cups, and the broken corner of a block of powdered and pressed tea, she headed back to the firepit, taking a leather bag hanging from a hook on the yurt wall as she went. She slipped the bit of block into the now-boiling bowl of water on the grate she'd placed earlier. Stirring it around with a large bronze spoon, the light, earthy scent of brewing tea began to fill the yurt.

"It may not be much, given what you've done to help our tribe, but..." Delger began again as his wife worked on the suutei tsai. His face took on a thoughtful expression and he scratched at his beard. "A legend has been passed down to each elder, from father to son, since my grandfather's grandfather's time. It tells of a young hunter from the Ha Tribe that was marked by Genbu as one his seven Stars. Being so chosen, this young hunter was destined to serve the priestess in her quest to summon the beast god."

Chichiri's eyes widened. He glanced at Chiriko, holding the scholar's equally surprised look for a moment before returning his attention to Delger. "A hunter from your tribe was a celestial warrior of Genbu, no da?"

"So the legend tells. This young warrior, it is said, met the priestess near the base of Mount Koku, the sacred black mountain, which lies some two hundred li north of Touran."

"Does the legend mention anything about the Shinzahou?" Chiriko asked, his eyes wide and shining with excitement. "Or where it may be located?" This was the information they had been looking for! If the Ha Tribe legend was correct and its details complete, the Shinzahou could be theirs within just a few days.

Delger frowned and shook his head slowly. "I am afraid the legend ends with the hunter's departure into the service of the priestess. He never returned to the tribe after Genbu's summoning. It is assumed he died sometime during the execution of his duty, but his true fate remains a mystery to this day. And as for the Shinzahou," he said, shrugging his shoulders, "none now know where it lies."

"I see." Chiriko let out a small sigh. They had been so close... Still, he shouldn't have expected the Shinzahou to fall into their hands that easily. The nomadic peoples of Hokkan kept their histories as oral tradition passed down through the tribal elders, not as written accounts in books. In any case, what Delger had told them was more information than they had started with. He couldn't be disappointed that they now had a direction to focus their search in.

Upon seeing Chiriko's downcast expression, Delger simpered and rubbed the back of his head. "I am sorry I do not know any more that may help you. Though, perhaps searching the mountain may yield some clues? It is there, at Mount Koku's summit, that it is said the priestess descended to our world." He leaned forward and fixed both seishi with a grave look. "Do be wary if you venture there; the mountain's peak is treacherously rocky and snow-bound throughout the year. Few dare to brave it and fewer still return from the journey."

"No, no, you've given us a great deal of useful information, no da. Thank you for all your help, na no da," Chichiri said.

A gust of snow blew into the yurt as the heavy felt door flap opened, cutting off the conversation. The faint metallic scent of blood permeated the air along with the crisp cold of the wind. Chichiri, Chiriko, Delger, and Checheg all turned to look as a young girl in a pale blue robe covered by a stained linen apron entered. "Father, we are working to dress the elk Vachir brought down, but–" Her exclamation came to a halt with a squeak as her eyes fell on the two seishi sitting near the firepit. Clasping her hands in front of her, she bowed low. "Oh, please forgive me! I forgot we had guests!" Her two black braids slid off her back to hang nearly to the ground before her.

"Bayar," Checheg said, moving to intercept her. She began ushering the girl back toward the door to the yurt. "Come. Let us leave your father and our visitors to their discussion."

The girl glanced back and forth between Checheg and Delger. Her brow furrowed in apparent frustration. "But, Mother..."

Delger chuckled and raised a hand to stop the two women. "Let her speak, my love. I am sure our honored guests do not mind." He glanced at Chichiri and Chiriko, who promptly shook their heads.

Bayar's face pinkened as her eyes traveled over the monk and the scholar. Looking away quickly, she took a step toward the three still-seated men. "Father," she said, her seeming embarrassment fading as she focused on Delger. "Bora and Uncle have returned with two enormous bull elk!" A smile bloomed across her face and she wiped her hands on a less-stained corner of her apron. "The animals are so large that Qacha, Vachir, Altani, and I will not be able to dress and prepare all three ourselves."

"Ha ha!" Delger bounded from his seat and took his daughter by the shoulders. The girl's braids swished across her chest with the movement. A broad grin seized the man's face. "Praise Genbu for this day!" he laughed. The smile on Bayar's face widened into a grin to match that of her father. "Come, show me these gifts of the beast god!" Sweeping the felt door aside and letting in another shower of snowflakes, Delger placed a hand on Bayar's shoulder and followed her out. The two of them disappeared into the still-falling snow just as the door flap fell closed.

Checheg stared at the yurt door for a long moment before sighing. "I apologize for my husband's and daughter's rudeness, Warriors of Suzaku," she said, shaking her head. The carved lapis and turquoise beads and delicate gold and silver chains braided into her ebon hair jangled together. She turned back toward Chichiri and Chiriko. "Please be assured: the Ha Tribe is not nearly so mannerless as they make it seem."

Chichiri chuckled and shook his own head. His half-dry bangs bobbed with the movement. "No, no, it's fine, no da. Please, don't worry about it, no da."

She looked at Chichiri and Chiriko in turn. Her tanned face softened as a smile graced her lips. "I thank you both for your help. Our tribe's ability to weather the harsh winters and short summers has surely been bolstered by your suggestions. Once we return to the rest of the tribe, I shall make sure to pass your ideas on to the high elder." The woman smiled as she walked back to the center of the yurt. "Please, let us give you, our honored guests, a place to stay." Stooping, she placed the buuz she had made during the discussions about trade goods and the Shinzahou into the open pot in the firepit before replacing the lid. "Night has fallen and the snows do not look to be letting up." Checheg gave the tea one last stir before opening the closure on the leather bag she'd brought from the hook by the door. The scent of fresh milk mingled with the tea aroma as she poured the buff-colored liquid into the brew. "It would be much safer for you and your horse to return to Touran when the morning breaks. Perhaps the weather will have improved by then." Opening the covered bronze vessel, she added a few generous pinches of salt. She ladled some of the milk-tea mixture out with the spoon several times, each time pouring it back into the bowl from a short height. "Please, enjoy," she said, seemingly satisfied with the amount of mixing, and filled the two cups she'd retrieved. She handed one to Chichiri and one to Chiriko. "I can take your bowls and utensils, if you wish."

"Thank you." Chiriko nodded as he took the cup in his small hands and handed her the empty bowl and chopsticks in return. "The tsuivan was very good." He took a sip of the steaming suutei tsai. It was much weaker than the tea he'd routinely drunk in Kounan and quite salty, but it wasn't bad. He watched Chichiri return his bronze bowl and accept the cup from Checheg as well.

The door opened once more as Delger poked his head into the yurt, grin still in place. His white teeth provided a stark contrast to his dark beard. "Checheg! Come look at these magnificent animals!" he exclaimed. Snow began to coat the wool rugs near the door as he held up the heavy felt. He flapped his arm in a vigorous signal to follow. "Come, come!"

Checheg glanced down at the melting flakes on the ground and the damp spots they left behind. Her brow furrowed and her lips pursed into a flat line. Turning to the two seishi, she bowed slightly at the waist. The ornaments in her hair glittered in the firelight as she did so. "Please, excuse me. Feel free to serve yourselves more of the suutei tsai, if you wish." Turning on her heel, she walked to Delger and the open door. Checheg's eyes narrowed as she shot him a glare, but the look didn't seem to faze him at all. Still grinning, he draped an arm around her shoulders and led her out as the door flap fell closed behind them.

Relative quiet descended on the yurt once more. The fire crackled and popped. A burned-out shell of a log broke in two and each half slid down the pile of coals in a shower of embers. The clack-whump of the lid of the cylindrical pot Checheg had put the buuz into as it jumped to let out a puff of steam punctuated the low hum of the boiling water inside. Chiriko took another sip from his cup. Alone once more, he now had the opportunity to speak to Chichiri about their previous conversation. But, how could he bring it up without causing the monk to change the subject again?

The perpetual smile on Chichiri's face made it easy for the man to pretend nothing was amiss, but Chiriko had felt the tension in Chichiri's posture and heard the near-despair in his voice when he'd admitted to being in love with Tasuki as they were riding. He'd gotten no answer when he'd asked if Tasuki shared Chichiri's feelings, either. Could that be part of why the monk wanted to avoid the subject?

It was true that Chichiri and Tasuki were almost direct opposites. Tasuki wanted action, to be on the move even if that meant pacing back and forth until needed. He rarely showed much foresight when dealing with things, choosing to strike first and ask questions afterward. Chichiri, on the other hand, cultivated caution and an air of aloofness. During the short time he had been part of the Shichiseishi, Chiriko had seen just how often Chichiri had conferred with Hotohori and other palace advisors. He'd spearheaded the outfitting of the ship on which they'd made the voyage to Hokkan and, at Tomoru's village, Chichiri had spent much longer speaking with the elder about Touran and the Shinzahou than Chiriko himself had. He didn't know to what extent Chichiri saw himself as responsible for driving their mission to summon Suzaku, but the monk seemed to want to put the burden all on his own shoulders. Chiriko sighed. It certainly wasn't the most harmonious pairing of two people he'd ever come across. Still, their differences aside, something had drawn Chichiri to Tasuki to the point the monk had fallen in love with him. Both men seemed hurt and upset by the current situation. How could he help them? Was there anything he could do? If only he would choose to confide in me...

"Tomorrow morning, we should head back to Touran and try to get in touch with Miaka and the others, no da," Chichiri said, finally breaking the silence. "Hopefully, the snow will have stopped by then, no da." He pushed himself to his feet and walked to the bowl of milk tea and ladled himself another cupful. "We'll need everyone's help to search Mount Koku, no da. Especially if it's as dangerous as Delger warned, na no da."

"Yes, I agree." Chiriko nodded as he pushed himself to standing. "Though, we should be prepared to spend the foreseeable future in Hokkan if any of the others have found leads about the Shinzahou. Investigating each clue could take a considerable amount of time." He moved to deposit his teacup on the small table near the yurt door where Checheg had placed the bowls and chopsticks from dinner before she'd left.

Chichiri sighed. "That's true, no da." If it did take days or weeks to track down the Shinzahou, the uncomfortable awkwardness he felt around Tasuki would only get worse. It was already bad enough that the situation between them had gotten to the point where the other celestial warriors were taking note. How he cursed his inability to keep his focus squarely on their mission. With a shake of his head, he took a long sip of the suutei tsai and sat once more on one of the embroidered rugs. "I just wish I could update His Majesty on our progress, no da. With the Seiryuu Seven more than likely already in Hokkan, it's just too risky, na no da."

Chiriko's brow furrowed. The look on Chichiri's face seemed a bit darker than it had a moment ago, his smile fading until only a hint of its previous mirth remained. It reminded Chiriko of the expression of unease he'd seen on Chichiri's face during their earlier conversation. I have to do something... "I'm sure His Highness wouldn't mind waiting until we've secured the Shinzahou before contacting him." Taking a seat as well, he studied Chichiri. "Right now, I'm much more concerned about Tasuki's and your well-being."

"I'm fine, Chiriko no da." Chichiri glanced at Chiriko as the scholar tucked his hands into the sleeves of his silk coat. Doubt played across Chiriko's quirked lips and drawn brow. Chichiri really didn't want to revisit this conversation. Letting his mask smile for him, he gave Chiriko the most sincere smile he could muster. "Really, I am, no da. You don't have to worry about me, na no da."

For a long moment, the roil of the milk tea and the steam escaping the pot in the firepit were the only sounds. An air of tension filled the yurt. Chiriko watched Chichiri stare into the glowing embers. The monk's smile had disappeared, replaced by a small frown. Chiriko fidgeted with the silk cuff of his robe. He didn't want to upset Chichiri any further than he already was, but he didn't want to fail either. Mitsukake had entrusted him this task and he was depending on him to see it through. He couldn't let the big healer down. "Chichiri, please," Chiriko pleaded, "you don't have to pretend that nothing is wrong. Ignoring how you feel can be harmful to the spirit. Laozi once taught that, 'Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.' Even if Tasuki doesn't share your feelings, please don't cut yourself off from those of us who care about you."

The yurt's door flap opened once more to the sound of snow crunching under boots and the gusting of wind. Chichiri glanced at the door for a moment before turning to Chiriko. He felt a twinge of regret as he held the scholar's wide-eyed gaze. "We must stop Kutou from invading Kounan, no da. It's our duty as celestial warriors, no da," Chichiri said finally in a low voice, cutting him off. Concern, embarrassment, and a hint of shame passed in turn across Chiriko's face. I'm sorry, he thought as he looked once more to the yurt's door."I don't have time to worry about Tasuki right now, na no da."

"Ah, I apologize for leaving you alone," Checheg said as she entered, snow wreathing her dark hair and dusting the tops of her shoulders. "My brother, Yisun, has offered you the use of his yurt for the night. I hope this will be acceptable to you?" She brushed the accumulated snow off her robe.

"Of course, no da." Chichiri stood and grabbed his now-dry robe from its spot next to the firepit. Pulling on the warm indigo felt, he moved toward the door, mirthful smile in place once more. "We appreciate all the hospitality you've shown us, na no da."

Checheg smiled. "Good, good. Please," she said, gesturing out into the darkness beyond the yurt, "follow me and I will take you there."

Chiriko watched Chichiri as he himself rose and also donned his robe. His brow furrowed. The monk seemed completely at ease as he set his teacup down on the table next to the door and took the flap from Checheg. I'm so sorry, Mitsukake. It was almost as if Chichiri had decided their conversation had never happened. Chiriko pulled his robe closed and tucked his hands into the heavy salmon-colored sleeves. I've failed. A deep frown curving his lips, he moved to the door as well, ducking under the thick, embroidered felt and stepping out into the cold, snowy night. Is there anything we can do to help them now?

- o - o - o -

"Set him down there," the old man said as he threw open the door and marched into the lamplit apartment. He gestured over his shoulder to a low, rectangular bed in the corner before wobbling to a cabinet on the opposite side of the room.

Cold sheets of snow blew in with them as Mitsukake followed the old man, Tasuki close behind. Dying flames reignited and leapt across the charred logs on the hearth for just a moment, invigorated by the gust of wind. The bronze lamps scattered about the room flickered wildly before Tasuki pushed the door shut with a resounding thud.

The boy cried and screamed as he clutched at his bloody leg. Mitsukake stooped and laid him down on the red painted surface. He knelt and began feeling around the broken area. It was definitely fractured into at least four separate pieces. His healing powers would cure the boy in an instant, but he was wary of using them. Chichiri had warned them all before they'd left the tavern that the Seiryuu could detect them through the use of Suzaku's power. And if the enemy was nearby, he didn't want to risk being without his powers at a critical moment.

The old man returned and pushed himself in between Mitsukake and the boy. His arms were full of earthenware jars, aromatic herbs, and bandages. He scowled. "Stay out of the way, travelers, unless one of you is a doctor."

Mitsukake didn't move. Even kneeling, he was still taller than the hunched, white-haired old man. "I am a doctor," he said.

The old man blinked and the irritated look that had been on his face faded. "Why didn't you say so then?" He gave a gap-toothed smile and shoved the items he'd been carrying into Mitsukake's hands. He didn't wait for an acknowledgment. Turning to the patient, he took the boy's wrist in his liver-spotted hand and began noting a pulse. "Give me the decoction of datura. We can't have him wailing like that when we set the bone, can we?"

It took a second for Mitsukake to process the man's change of attitude. He glanced over at Tasuki. The redhead had posted himself near the heavy wooden door through which they'd entered. He leaned against the stuccoed stone wall with his arms crossed, his wet hair sticking to his forehead and cheek. The snow that had been piling up on his shoulders had melted and a puddle of water spread across the brick tile floor under his boots. In the light of the bronze lamp on a table next to the door, Mitsukake watched Tasuki's brow furrow as his eyes tracked the old man attending to the boy.

Datura, datura, Mitsukake thought as he turned back to the task at hand. Looking through the bottles and jars, he pushed up the oiled leather lids and glanced at their contents. He recognized the piney scent of amur cork and the moist, earthy smell of myrrh immediately, but some of the others he couldn't place. In a round clay jar with an ochre tint, he found what he was looking for. A meaty, nutty odor wafted out. It was still so pungent even in decoction form. "Here," he said, handing it to the old man.

Using a small bronze spoon, the man fed the boy two measured spoonfuls. The child's cries died down quickly and his eyelids began to droop. "Now," the old man said, turning to Mitsukake, "get the splints from the table near the hearth." He glanced over at Tasuki. "And you there, throw a few more logs on the fire."

Rising from his spot, Mitsukake made his way across the modest room. It was not much bigger than one of the rooms in the guest palace back in Eiyou. A few thick wool rugs covered the tile floor near a small bed and end table that were probably the old man's. Both were painted red and covered in the same colorful geometric patterns Mitsukake had seen in Tomoru's village. A large bronze mirror hung on the wall near it. A wavy reflection of himself undulated across the polished surface as he walked past. The old man's home reminded Mitsukake a lot of his father's home in Choukou before the flood that killed him and destroyed the house. He frowned and gathered up the splints under one arm.

Tasuki took a deep breath and shrugged. Stepping past Mitsukake as the big healer walked back to the boy, Tasuki moved without a word to obey the old man. He placed a few barky logs into the fireplace before returning to his spot by the door. Pine smoke drifted into the room for a moment as the fire roared back to life from glowing embers.

Mitsukake watched as the man removed the boy's leather boots and thick felt socks, setting them aside before he gently slipped the boy's blood-soaked pant leg off. The boy whimpered. Using a cotton cloth, he wiped up the semi-clotted blood. "Hold his shoulders," the old man instructed as Mitsukake knelt by the bedside. Taking the boy's ankle, the man lifted the broken leg and shook it. He nodded at the sound of the bone pieces rubbing together. The boy struggled weakly against the sedative and Mitsukake, but he didn't cry out again. The old man massaged the leg, manipulating the flesh with skilled hands. "I've pushed the fragments back into place." He opened another jar and spread its contents on the bruised and broken skin. Mitsukake thought the paste smelled similar to the liniment he'd used on Tasuki. "There. Wrap the wound and secure it tightly." Mitsukake nodded and set about splinting the boy's leg.

The old man stood and moved to a painted table near the hearth. Filling the bronze basin on it, he dipped his hands into the water before scrubbing with soap. He rinsed the honey-scented suds away and wiped his hands on another cloth. Looking at the two seishi, he took a handful of the herbs he'd originally given to Mitsukake and tottered back across the room to a table near the foot of the boy's bed. It was covered with other medicines in various states of preparation. Taking a seat in one of the chairs, he began crushing one of the fleshy roots in a stone mortar. The spicy scent of ginger filled the air. "Thank you for your help. Now," he said, "who are you?"

Mitsukake finished tying off the linen bandages to keep the splints in place. He smiled as the boy stilled and quietly began to snore. "I am Mitsukake," he said, rising from the floor, "and he is Tasuki." Tama-neko pushed his way up through Mitsukake's coat and robe until his head popped out the collar. The cat's ears swiveled and his nose wiggled as he took in the new surroundings and smells. "And this," Mitsukake chuckled, "is Tama."

The old man nodded. "My name is Gurban," he said. He portioned out the crushed root into a plain bronze cup filled with other ground herbs. "The way you speak..." Gurban scrutinized them for a moment, his eyes flicking back and forth between the two seishi. He smoothed his wispy beard with one hand. "You're from Kounan, across the sea, aren't you? What brings you to Hokkan?"

Tasuki shifted in his spot. "'S a long story," he muttered. A drop of water dripped from his hair onto his nose and rolled off the end. If he didn't dry himself off soon, he was going to go crazy.

"Where are my manners? Please, make yourselves at home." Gurban shook his head and got up from the table. He tottered toward the hearth. "You can hang your robes near the fire to dry."

"Thank you." Water dripped onto Mitsukake's hand from the lapel of his robe as he untied the belt. Tama-neko jumped out of the damp indigo felt just as it fell open, and landed on the medicine table. He stretched, his furry tail swishing, and mewed. "You ate plenty this morning," Mitsukake said, giving the cat a scratch behind the ears.

"The least I can do is offer you a place to stay for the night." Gurban took Mitsukake's robe from him and hung it from a bronze hook attached to the stucco next to the fireplace. He handed him a towel. "Perhaps you can tell me your story over a bowl of tsuivan," Gurban said, digging once more through the painted cabinet.

Mitsukake nodded, wiping the water off the back of his neck and out of his hair. "We would appreciate that." He glanced over at Tasuki.

With a look of relief and a great sigh, Tasuki whisked off his wet robe. He shook the water out of his hair like a dog, his necklaces clacking and his tessen jangling across his back. Stray strands fell into his eyes and over his nose. Walking over to the fireplace, he hung his robe on the hook as well. He nodded as Mitsukake gave him the towel and he started to dry his own hair. Tasuki looked much younger than he usually did to Mitsukake and he wondered if it had anything to do with their interrupted conversation.

In love with Chichiri, he thought. He had never imagined anything of the like: an argument, a fight, an imagined slight perhaps, but not that. It would make more sense if it was Miaka, as all the celestial warriors felt some attraction to her, be it manifested as love like Tamahome and Hotohori, or affection like Chiriko and himself. His brow furrowed. He needed to talk to Tasuki more about it before he could really figure anything out.

"Here, here," Gurban said, drawing Mitsukake out of his thoughts. He pushed a bronze bowl and a pair of copper chopsticks into his hands. Taking up a large wooden spoon, Gurban gave the stew bubbling inside the iron pot hanging just above the hearth a good stir. The scent of garlic and pepper wafted out and got stronger as he ladled a serving into the bowl he'd given Mitsukake. "Eat, eat." He did the same for Tasuki before dishing some tsuivan into a bowl for himself. Plopping down on an embroidered wool rug near the fire, Gurban waited for his guests to do the same.

"We're celestial warriors of Suzaku," Mitsukake said once he'd seated himself. Tama-neko jumped down from the medicine table and bounded over before climbing into the big man's lap. He sniffed at the side of the bowl before putting a small paw on Mitsukake's hand and giving him a pitiful look. Mitsukake smiled and gave the cat a small piece of meat. "We've come to find the Shinzahou of Genbu."

"Suzaku, eh?" Gurban said. "You're a long way from home then." He took a bite of the steaming noodles and vegetables. The fire popped and a log rolled over, shifting the entire stack of wood in a small shower of sparks. "And the Shinzahou. No one has seen it since the Priestess of Genbu's time."

"D' yah know anythin' 'bout where we could find it?" Tasuki asked. He'd taken up a spot next to Mitsukake and a bit closer to the fire. Tama-neko licked his lips and jumped into the redhead's lap. He nuzzled the hand Tasuki held his chopsticks in. "Hey, get yer own!" Tasuki scowled, his fangs sticking out at the corners of his mouth, and lifted the bowl out of the cat's reach.

"Tama." Mitsukake frowned as the cat mewed at him.

Gurban chuckled. "Well," he said, "I know of no one who knows the true story of the priestess and her warriors anymore. The story is as much folklore as not these days. Even my grandmother knew only what was passed down to her from her grandmother."

Tasuki frowned. "How're we gonna summon Suzaku if we can't even find th' fuckin' thing?" If they couldn't find a lead, they would have to keep traveling until they found one. And that meant that he'd have to spend that much longer with a Chichiri that didn't want him, that acted as if he didn't exist, a Chichiri that he still loved. His brow furrowed and his grip on his bowl tightened. How much longer would this go on? And how much more could he take? Chichiri's words again flooded his mind: "I don't love you, Tasuki! I have never loved you! I will never love you!" "After we retrieve the Shinzahou and summon Suzaku, our duty will be done and I will be gone. We won't see each other again. Until then, we have to work together. I suggest you keep that in mind."

"I didn't say I knew nothing that might help you," Gurban said, finishing off his meal. "In the center of the market district is a stone monument." He rose and left his bowl and chopsticks on the table next to the fireplace before dragging a few more rugs onto the floor from a pile underneath it. He spread them around the area in front of the hearth. "The meaning of its inscription has been lost, but at the top is a carving of Genbu. If you can find someone to translate, it may tell you what you seek."

Mitsukake nodded. "We should take a look at the monument before we contact Miaka and the others. Perhaps someone in the market can help us read it."

"Yeah," Tasuki murmured.

Mitsukake turned to Tasuki. The look on the redhead's face was decidedly darker than when they'd started eating. It reminded him of the look he'd seen in the alley, when Tasuki had spoken of Chichiri. This isn't good, he thought. Shaking his head, Mitsukake held out another piece of meat to Tama-neko. The cat bounced off Tasuki's lap and took it eagerly before climbing up on Mitsukake's shoulder.

"I'll return shortly," Gurban said as he put on a black felt hat. He gathered the crushed herbs from the bronze cup on the medicine table into a small leather bag. "I need to notify Chagatai's parents about what happened. It shouldn't take long–they run a shop just up the street–but they may keep me for awhile." He chuckled and tottered to the door, placing a hand on the bronze door pull. "I apologize for not having proper accommodations; I rarely have guests outside of my patients." Gesturing toward the fireplace, he opened the door. A gust of cold air blew in, along with more snow. "I pulled out some wool rugs for you to sleep on. There are more under the table there if you need them." Gurban smiled and left, shutting the door behind him.

A long and tense silence descended on the room. The crackle of the fire seemed to swallow up all other sound. Mitsukake got up and placed his now-empty bowl on the table, next to the bowl Gurban had used. He watched Tasuki take a few more bites of his tsuivan. The upset expression had settled between the redhead's brows as a scowl, and on his lips as a deep frown. "Have you told him?"

Tasuki could feel Mitsukake's eyes on him. He knew what he wanted; he'd seen the healer glancing at him the entire evening. He began to wish he'd never said anything; just thinking about it hurt, but talking about it was so much more painful. Why did he tell either of them, Chichiri or Mitsukake? Yet, what could he do now? He'd already admitted that he had feelings for Chichiri and Tasuki doubted that he could laugh it off. Even as a child, he couldn't keep his mouth shut when it really mattered. He'd always taken the opportunity to voice his opinion about his sisters' choices for husbands or his mother's parenting skills; he had the scars on his head to prove that. Letting out a soft growl, Tasuki kept his eyes focused on the dancing fire."Why th' fuck do yah think I'm so pissed off?"

"He didn't react the way you expected."

Tasuki scowled, baring his fangs. "Fuckin' liar," he spat, finally looking at Mitsukake. "'E can take 'is 'duty' an' shove it up 'is fuckin' ass."

Tasuki's anger at what seemed to be Chichiri's rejection wasn't surprising, but the situation still didn't make much sense to him. Taking a deep breath, Mitsukake let it out slowly. The answers he was getting only seemed to be creating more questions, despite Tasuki's seeming willingness to talk to him. Who had lied, why, and about what? Did "duty" have something to do with their obligation as part of the Suzaku Seven, or was it about something else? And how did Nuriko fit into all of it? Perhaps, Mitsukake thought, he should start at the beginning: assess the situation, for good or ill, and begin to puzzle out the whole affair from that. "When did you know you were in love with him?"

Tasuki sighed. "I've wanted 'im since th' night 'fore him, Miaka, an' me went t' Kutou t' get Tama."

That was the day we arrived at the palace. It didn't surprise Mitsukake much that a quick-tempered, passionate man like Tasuki would end up falling for someone he had just met. A fleeting memory of his own realization about Shouka floated across his mind. He was young, barely sixteen and already established as the successor to his father, the village's healer. She had come to fetch her wayward cat who'd gotten itself stuck in a tree. Her golden hair shone in the crisp autumn sunlight as he tried to coax the cat down for her. He'd never spoken to her before–she was the daughter of the village's landowner and much more wealthy and noble than he was–but that day, when he saw her take the little white cat into her arms, cheeks flushed in the cool air and with a heartbreaking smile on her face, she was the most beautiful girl in all of the four empires and he knew that he would love her for the rest of his life. He shook his head at the irony. "Did you know if your feelings were mutual?"

Tasuki hunched his shoulders at the question. It reminded Mitsukake of an angry dog with its hackles raised. "I don't need a fuckin' lecture from you, too!" Tasuki snarled, slamming his nearly empty bowl to the tile floor. Some of the broth sloshed out with the force, running down the side to puddle underneath it. The copper chopsticks bounced out of the bronze vessel and clattered to a stop at the base of the brick hearth. "We almost fucked on th' way out 'ere, Mitsukake. 'E wants me. Bad." Running his hands through his hair, Tasuki dropped his forehead into his hands. A guttural groan worked its way from his throat. "Dammit! I don' understand!"

Mitsukake stood in stunned silence for a long moment. He had no idea what to say to that. It was difficult for him to wrap his mind around the idea. It seemed so out of character from what he knew about Chichiri. He knew the man to be quiet and level-headed, even reserved. He didn't doubt Tasuki was telling the truth; he couldn't imagine a more straightforward, honest person in word or deed. It just seemed so unlikely: Chichiri had nearly slept with Tasuki on their trip to Hokkan? "And you told Chichiri the night we stayed at Tomoru's village?"

Tasuki looked back into the fire and bared his fangs. The shifting light played over his face and hair. "Yeah."

"Tell me what happened when you told him."

"I've been tryin' t' tell 'im since Qi Xi an' 'e's been ignorin' me ever since. I was fed up, so I wanted answers. Didn't help 'e jumped me th' night b'fore."

Qi Xi... Mitsukake's brow raised. That was just before they had left for Hokkan. He thought back to the ship. He'd seen both of them trading strange looks throughout the voyage. Knowing what he knew now put those looks into context. Chiriko had been right; there had been signs of something brewing all along.

"'E told me him jumpin' me was a 'mistake' an' that I didn't really love 'im." Tasuki clenched his hands into fists. "That it was 'purely physical.'" His jaw tensed for a moment. "'E said 'e didn't love me an' that 'e'd never love me. That our responsibility t' Suzaku an' Miaka was more important an' that Kutou'd use us bein' together as a reason t' invade Kounan." He gave a bitter bark of a laugh. "'E even said that after we summon Suzaku, 'e was gonna leave an' I'd never see 'im again."

Mitsukake empathized with Tasuki; Chichiri had been extremely harsh. Kutou starting an offensive against Kounan based on whether Suzaku's seishi were in a relationship seemed very unlikely. He didn't think the Seiryuu could even know that information if they were. Mitsukake frowned. From what he'd heard, it sounded as if Chichiri did reciprocate Tasuki's feelings, but wanted to deny them for some reason. He couldn't understand it; Chichiri was shrugging off the offer of a relationship with a man who loved him to remain alone and isolated. Life was much too short to ignore love. Shouka had died not even a year after they had finally begun their relationship, but he would never trade that short time and the pain of losing her for never having met her at all. "Why did you think Nuriko had told me about this?"

"'E found out about it at th' Qi Xi festival an' 'e'd been annoyin' th' shit outta me t' tell Chiri how I felt. I didn't wanna tell 'im what happened 'cause 'e said 'e'd hurt me if I messed it up with Chiri an' Miaka couldn't summon Suzaku." Tasuki shook his head. A look of defeat settled on his face as he sat, his head bowed, the firelight playing over his unruly locks of vermilion hair. "I figured 'e came t' you t' find out what I wasn't tellin' 'im."

Sighing, Mitsukake moved to place a hand on Tasuki's shoulder. He gripped it tightly and with as much compassion as he could. "I think Chichiri shares your feelings, Tasuki, but there is something else weighing on his heart," he said. "Give him time. He may change his mind once we get the Shinzahou and summon Suzaku."

Tasuki looked up and Mitsukake saw a glimmer of the familiar optimism return to his eyes. "Maybe yer right," Tasuki said. He took a deep breath and let out a long sigh. "But it sure as hell don't make it any easier, does it?"

"No, I suppose it doesn't." Mitsukake patted Tasuki on the arm and rose. He grabbed the towel Gurban had given them from the table and wiped up the spilled tsuivan. Putting Tasuki's bowl and chopsticks with the others on the table, he pulled over a few more wool rugs. "Come, we should get some rest while we can. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow." Tama-neko stirred from his nap on Mitsukake's shoulder and jumped down to the floor. Moving closer to the fire, the cat stretched and yawned wide, showing off his tiny white teeth and pink tongue. He nuzzled into the wool rug nearest the hearth and promptly fell back asleep.

Tasuki nodded and began removing his tessen and boots. I hope yer right, Mitsukake...

- o - o - o -

Chichiri squinted at the dazzling glint of sunlight bouncing off the freshly fallen snow. A boundless and brilliant azure sky, nearly the same hue as his hair, opened before them as he and Chiriko rode back toward Touran. High above, thin clouds drifted in small, gauzy patches across the crystalline blue expanse. The desolate and rutted road he and Chiriko had traveled the day before had been transformed into a thing of sparkling beauty. The deep furrows and slushy tracks of yesterday were wiped clean. Only an immaculate swath of white remained, neatly cutting the deep wood in two as it meandered back toward Touran's gates.

"I can't believe that we're the first group to find a lead on the Shinzahou's whereabouts," Chiriko said, looking up at Chichiri from his place in the saddle in front of the monk. "We haven't seen any signals from any of the others at all."

The corners of Chichiri's perpetual smile edged up at the enthusiasm in the scholar's voice. "We were lucky to have run into Delger and his group, no da. Who knows how long we'd have been searching if we hadn't, na no da?"

"That's true." Misty clouds of vapor escaped from Chiriko's mouth as he spoke. "After two hundred years, even the oral history of the Ha Tribe–who's ancestor was one of the Genbu Seven–is only fragmentary. That being the case," he looked back out at the passing snowbound landscape, "I can't imagine how the others may be doing. It was quite fortuitous that we've learned as much as we have."

Chichiri hummed in agreement and the conversation slacked off into silence. A handful of nuthatches twittered in the white-mantled trees lining the road. Small clumps of snow fell from the bare branches to the forest floor as the little birds fluttered back and forth. Fine showers of snowflakes, kicked up as their mount crunched its way through the drifts, floated off on the cold breeze. A column of warm, foggy breath streamed from the horse's nose as it trotted on.

Chiriko tucked his cold hands into the sleeves of his robe. He started as he bumped the hard, cylindrical outline of the bamboo flare under the heavy, salmon-colored felt. I almost forgot! he thought to himself as he traced the object's shape through the material with slender fingers. "Why don't we use the flare now?" he said, again turning his gaze up to Chichiri. "Delger mentioned that the road splits toward the north another two li past the encampment. And we do have to travel north to investigate Mount Koku. If we fire the signal flare as we travel back to Touran, it would give everyone time to gather at the city gates."

"I know, no da. But, I'm worried the others won't see the flare from this far outside the city, no da." Glancing down, Chichiri noted the frown forming on Chiriko's lips. "We should wait to use it until we're closer, na no da."

"But, the flares are meant to be used over long distances, Chichiri," Chiriko countered, his brow furrowing. "The formula Hotohori's court alchemist used is potent enough that anyone in a ten-li radius will see-Ah!"

Chiriko's words dissolved into a whimper. Alarmed, Chichiri opened his mouth to speak. The burning light of Suzaku's power shot through him then, scorching his veins and spiking into the base of his skull with the incandescence of the god of the south himself. "Agh!" His mouth snapped shut hard enough that his teeth rattled. A vicious, rasping gasp tore from his constricted throat. His heart skipped several beats as the air refused to reenter his aching lungs. Pulling up hard on the reins of their mount, he fought to remain upright. The horse whinnied and snorted as it came to a stop. Thick clouds of breath poured from its mouth and nose as it gnashed at the bit and yanked its head from side to side. And just as suddenly, the feeling was gone.

"Chichiri!" Chiriko jerked his gaze up to the unnerved monk. "Did-did you feel that? Just now?" He grasped at the felt cloaking his knees until the knuckles of his hands turned white.

Chichiri heaved in labored breath after labored breath. That was like nothing he'd ever experienced before. Suzaku's power never flared like that, not even when he was actively channeling it. A creeping dread began to coil in his gut. "Something's wrong...with one of our Warriors, no da." Please, Suzaku, don't let me be right...

"What do we do, Chichiri?!" Chiriko searched their surroundings, his head swiveling back and forth as he tried to make sense of the feeling he'd had and the monk's ominous words. The woods stretched as far as he could see to either side of the road, the uniform spread of trees broken only by the sparkle of sunlight in small, snow-bound clearings, and fallen logs half-covered by snow drifts. Birds continued to trill and sing, oblivious to the panic surging through him. He latched onto Chichiri's cold hand in both of his own and squeezed hard. "We have to find everyone, Chichiri! We have to help them..."

"I know, Chiriko, no da," Chichiri replied, dropping the silly tone from his voice. "I'll try to locate Miaka, na no da." He let his eyes drift closed as he threw off the restraints on his power that he'd been maintaining since arriving in Hokkan. By unmasking his chi, he was taking a huge risk–the Seiryuu could easily track him down–but he pushed the thought aside. He had no choice; he had to find the rest of the Shichiseishi, and quickly.

A calming warmth flooded Chichiri's body. A soft, reddish light painted the insides of his eyelids as he focused on finding Miaka's life force. Just as before, when he'd reached out to Suzaku to pinpoint Miaka's whereabouts when she'd tried to drown herself, he found himself transported. This time, it was to a narrow trail leading up the side of a snowy mountain. Chichiri looked around, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun. To the south, in the valley below, he could see the squatty shapes of buildings and the tell-tale ribbon of the Touran's thick city wall peeking from under the blanket of snow. Is this Mount Koku, no da? he thought as he scrutinized his surroundings. Churned-up snow and myriad prints–some made by booted feet, some made by huge, clawed bare feet–disturbed the pristine snow cover. The tangle of tracks moved upward toward what looked to be a relatively flat outcropping just out of his view. A thin column of grayish smoke rose skyward from what could only be a fire somewhere near the summit. The cold breeze that had been so prevalent that morning had calmed almost to nothing. An almost unnatural stillness dominated the scene. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes to see Chiriko staring up at him.

"Chi-chichiri?" The young scholar's brow furrowed as he watched the monk return to awareness. He'd never seen Chichiri use his powers like that before. The energy radiating from him was at once comforting and frightening. "Did you find Miaka?" There was no reply. "Chichiri?"

Reining the horse around the way they had come, Chichiri urged it into a full gallop. Whether it was truly Mount Koku or not, Chichiri thought, Miaka was there, he could feel it. They had to go.

- o - o - o -

Tasuki took a deep breath of the cold morning air, letting it out as a great blast of fog that dispersed quickly in the light breeze. Putting a boot into the ornate metal stirrup, he grabbed the high pommel of his saddle and hoisted himself up. The horse beneath him snorted and swayed as he settled himself. "'Ey, Mitsukake," he said as the big man swung himself up and into the saddle of his own mount, "yah don't think anybody can actually read th' shit on that monument, do yah?"

The monument to Genbu Gurban had told them about had been an absolute bust in Tasuki's opinion. He might not be able to read, but whatever that was, it wasn't words. He was convinced that the "writing" on the monument was merely glorified scribbling set in stone. The characters looked nothing like the elegant, flowing script Chichiri had produced the night he'd had the monk write to Kouji for him. And the fact that no one else they'd asked could read it either only affirmed his belief. Still, that one woman they'd asked about it did say that a group of people had inquired about the monument the day before.

Mitsukake glanced at Tasuki, the trailing ends of his headband fluttering in the breeze. "Someone asked about it yesterday. We should look into it as well." Tama-neko pushed his head out of the collar of Mitsukake's robe. His nose wiggled and his ears swiveled back and forth as he watched the people bustling to and fro between the nearby market stalls.

Tasuki snorted, a misty puff of breath escaping his lips. "'S a fuckin' waste, if yah ask me." He put his hand to his brow in an attempt to block some of the bright sun bouncing off the glittering snow cloaking the whole of Touran. The snowfall had ended sometime during the night, leaving only a crisp and nearly cloudless blue sky. Where were they headed anyway? The woman who'd mentioned the group inquiring after the inscription had said two of them waited for a third member to return after a notoriously shady man offered to tell them about the monument. She said she later saw them head deeper into Touran, but she didn't know where they had gone. And then, without a firm direction to even begin their search, Mitsukake had suggested they retrieve their horses from the stable near Inami's Garden. He growled. It was like looking for a needle in a fucking haystack.

"Agh!" Tasuki gasped for air as an unseen force constricted around his heart. Pain, white-hot and searing, shot through Tasuki's system, forcing the breath from his lungs. He doubled over in his saddle. His horse whinnied loudly, stamping its hooves and shaking its head. Clouds of mist billowed from its flared nostrils. He clutched at his chest, twisting his fingers into the thick green felt of his robe. The feeling fled as quickly as it had come, leaving behind a vertigo and an emptiness he'd never experienced before. He looked to Mitsukake. The big healer's drawn brows and wide eyes mirrored Tasuki's own expression. "What th' hell did I just feel?" Tasuki breathed. "Did'ja feel that? What th' fuck was that?" The longer Mitsukake held his gaze without speaking, the faster the panic rose in his gut. "What th' fuck did I feel just now? Mitsukake?!"

"I don't know," Mitsukake replied. Something was very wrong. He looked around, dark blue eyes darting from face to face in the crowd of market-goers. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. Nothing seemed out of place. People bustled from stall to stall, buying, selling, and haggling just as they had when they'd arrived back at the market that morning. No one seemed to have felt what he and Tasuki had just moments before. His brow furrowed even deeper. "I don't know."

What th' fuck was that?! Tasuki thought, growling aloud. He turned this way and that, his head whipping back and forth. At every turn, shoppers calmly went about their business. Why were he and Mitsukake the only ones who felt it? The pit of his stomach pitched and yawed, the panic churning with the vertigo until he felt sick. It was like he was again on the ship to Hokkan. Eyes widening, his breath hitched in his throat. Chiri...

A faint flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention and Tasuki again put his hand to his forehead. Wha? Squinting through the sun reflecting off the snow-cover, he scanned the market and immediate area, but found nothing. He widened his search to the rooftops. Where? There was still no sign of what caught his eye. His heart thundered against his ribs. He twisted in his saddle as he scrutinized mountain ranges surrounding the city, clouds of anxious breath pouring from his lips. Where is it?! A thin grayish column of smoke, not much darker than the sparkling white landscape it emanated from, rose from the top of a craggy mountain at least one hundred fifty, maybe two hundred li, north of Touran. His mouth went dry. That was where the feeling had come from, he just knew. "There," he intoned, pointing to the spot. "It's there. We 'ave t' go." Reining his horse around hard, Tasuki raced off in the direction of the mountain, Mitsukake following close behind.

- o - o - o -

A lone cloud of breath escaped Tasuki's mouth as he came to a stop at the top of the path. The crunch of his boots in the snow seemed much too loud as it echoed and reechoed off the surrounding mountains. The entire climb up the mountainside had been tense and silent. None of them–not Mitsukake, not Chiriko, not Chichiri, and certainly not himself–had said anything beyond a few cursory words of direction. Even the relief he felt at seeing that the healer, the scholar, and especially the monk were safe and unharmed did little to alleviate the anxiety swirling in his mind.

"We're here," Tasuki said, his eyes wide and his brows drawing closer and closer together as he took in the scene before him. Nuriko lay in the snow, still and unmoving, the black felt robe he'd been wearing nowhere to be seen. Draped over him was Miaka. Tasuki couldn't quite see her face as it was pressed into Nuriko's shoulder, but he could hear muffled sniffling. Tamahome knelt in the snow next to the priestess and courtier. His shoulders were slumped so much that he looked to Tasuki to be only half as tall as he should be. A pair of ancient coffered bronze doors set into the summit loomed like sentinels over the priestess and her two seishi. Nearby, a massive boulder of grayish-black stone sat, ringed by a slipshod halo of jagged and broken chunks. Judging by the lack of snow dusting it and the shallow depression devoid of snow cover before the two doors, the giant crumbling stone had recently been moved. A few paces farther on, in a tumult of footprints, trodden snow, and slush, someone else, someone Tasuki had never seen before, lay prostrate and motionless. The dread that had invaded Tasuki's gut in Touran writhed within him as he returned his attention to Miaka and Tamahome. Neither one had moved nor given any indication that they'd heard him at all. In the silence of the mountaintop, only her quiet cries and the staccato pound of Tasuki's heart against his ribs cut through the oppressive stillness.

"Tamahome!" Tasuki fought to swallow the acrid lump forming in the back of his throat as the fighter slowly and silently rose. "What's wrong with Nuriko?" At Tamahome's feet, Tasuki could see a rosy haze nearly the same color as Miaka's robe tinging the snow beneath Nuriko's supine body. A familiar coppery scent suffused the air, just below the crisp cold of the snowpack. His eyes widened even further. He'd experienced the same thing when that kid got hit by the cart the day before. Blood... Panic squirmed in his veins. "Tell us!" He stared at the tainted snow, only barely registering Tamahome turning to face him. Blood, crimson and fresh, welled up from under the snow cover, coating the soles of the fighter's boots and spreading into his bootprints. As Tamahome covered the few paces separating them, Tasuki watched the smeary red of each print begin creeping into the white of the surrounding drifts, turning each a differing tint of pink.

Tears streamed down Tamahome's cheeks as he stopped in front of Tasuki. His brow furrowed and he closed his eyes. "He challenged one of the Seiryuu Seven," he whispered, his voice sounding like a rusty hinge in the stillness. "And then moved the boulder blocking the shrine door." He reached out a shaking hand and rested it on Tasuki's robe-clad shoulder. "Just before we got here."

"That's..." Tasuki stared at Nuriko unblinking. There was so much blood. That feelin' in Touran... It soaked what was left of Nuriko's shredded silk robe. It... it was him... Oxidizing scarlet caked Nuriko's hair and tracked rivulets down his slack face. "That's nuts..." Gashes and cuts, slashes and punctures dotted the courtier's exposed chest like gaping crimson maws. It was him dyin'... The unspoken words squeezed the air from Tasuki's lungs and tightened around his hammering heart. No... No, 'e can't... "Idiot!" he snarled, a vicious noise that crawled up from the deepest pit of his stomach. "Why'dja do it?!" He threw himself forward, fangs bared. "What's th' fuckin' point o' yah gettin' yourself killed?! Fer what?!" He shoved Tamahome backward, trying to get past him, only to be shoved back himself. "Yah fuckin' coward! Get up!" he screamed, the anger, the betrayal, the sadness tearing from his throat as surely as he tore at Tamahome's robe to get at Nuriko's still body. "You get up fer them right now! Get th' fuck up, I said! Get up!"

Chichiri reached up and slowly removed the mask from his face. Eye wide, his lips parted as he watched Tasuki rage for a moment before turning his gaze to Nuriko. Nuriko... That was what he had felt; he'd felt Nuriko's life force flare through their bond as celestial warriors just as the mortal wound had been struck. He tightened his grip on the shaft of his shakujou until his knuckles showed white against his alabaster skin. Again; it had happened again. Someone else had been killed due to his failure. How could he have let this happen?

"Wait a minute." Tasuki abruptly stopped his struggle with Tamahome and smirked to himself. It was so simple; why hadn't he thought about it before? He turned and walked to Mitsukake. The crunch of his footfalls echoed around the summit. He leaned his elbow on the big healer's shoulder. "Mitsukake, we need yah." He turned to look back at where Nuriko lay. His eyes burned and he blinked to clear the undulating red-and-purple blur the courtier had become. "Use yer power t' help this bastard out an' put 'im back together again."

Nuriko... Mitsukake set his jaw and swallowed hard around the lump rising in his throat. He'd arrived too late to save another life. He'd sworn to himself, and to Suzaku, when Shouka had died in his arms a second time, that he'd never allow that to happen again. He'd never let another person he cared for suffer, and he'd failed. The pain he heard in Tasuki's tone and felt in the slight tremble that ran through the redhead's body wrenched at his heart. He couldn't face him. He couldn't look Tasuki in the eye knowing that he was powerless, that he had betrayed everyone: Tasuki, Miaka, and especially Nuriko. Nuriko... Mitsukake felt Chiriko's small hand clutch at his larger one and he squeezed back.

Tasuki chuckled. "What a phoney," he spat. "'E may 'ave Tamahome fooled, but 'e doesn't fool me one bit." Yah damn bastard, gettin' everybody all worked up, he thought. Once yer healed, yah gotta lotta explainin' t' do... No one moved or spoke. The smirk on Tasuki's lips slowly twisted into a grimace and the knowing chuckle began to take on a hysterical edge. He grabbed the heavy felt of Mitsukake's robe's lapels. "What th' fuck're yah waitin' for?!" he growled. "Hurry up an' heal 'im!" Still, the big healer didn't move. He didn't even look Tasuki in the eye. If anything, Mitsukake seemed to flinch away. His eyes stayed clamped shut and his brows furrowed so tightly his eyebrows seemed to be as one. No... Yah hafta... Tasuki's vision quivered and the tremor in his hands got worse. More tears filled his eyes until Mitsukake's face was nothing but a roiling blob of saffron, violet, and tan. "Yah can do it, can'tcha? Mitsukake? Yah can help 'im, can'tcha?" Once more, Mitsukake refused to move or respond. No... Please... Teardrops began to slide down Tasuki's cold cheeks, carving scalding rivers all the way to his chin. His jaw trembled and he ground his teeth together to stop it. "Yah can't help?" he forced out. He strained to keep the threatening sob at bay. "Yah can't he-he-" A cry, forlorn and anguished, spilled from his lips as he buried his face in Mitsukake's robe. "It doesn't make sense! 'E was just 'ere! Yesterday! 'E was so strong an' full o' life." His voice trembled until it broke into a strangled series of sobs. As he wept, he felt the weight of the healer's hand light on his shoulder. Fresh hot tears welled up, spilling down his face only to be absorbed by the indigo felt in his grip.

Tama-neko mewed softly as he poked his head out of Mitsukake's robe, just below where Tasuki held the garment's thick fabric fast. The cat's pointed ears drooped as he took in the almost tangible sadness and grief rolling off of Tasuki in waves. He reached out with a small paw and placed it on the redhead's robe-clad chest.

"He's not dead." Miaka's muffled voice cut through Tasuki's sobs. "He isn't. Nuriko isn't dead." She lifted her head from Nuriko's chest to glare defiantly at her Warriors. Tears flowed in rivers down her cheeks from her red-rimmed and puffy eyes. "He's not dead! He can't be!" she cried, her words shrill and angry. Still, even her vehemence couldn't hide the trembling of her jaw or the sharp furrow of her brow. Rising to her feet, the evidence of Nuriko's fate was lain bare. Streaks and spatters of maroon stained the front of her robe. The blood-soaked felt clung to her bare knees, leaving crimson smears on her skin as the material slowly peeled away. "Nuriko can't be dead! He can't!" She turned on her heel and sprinted off into the undisturbed snowdrifts beyond the sealed door in the summit.

"Miaka!" Tamahome called out and bounded after her.

Chichiri allowed his mask to dissipate as he dropped his hand back to his side. The sound of Miaka's retreating sobs and the quietening crunch of Tamahome's boots joined the bouncing echoes of Tasuki's cries in a warbling round-robin of sorrow. He took a deep breath and let it out in a slow exhale of mist that disappeared not an arm's length above his head. They should never have split up, not when he knew the Seiryuu were also in pursuit of the Shinzahou. The Seiryuu Seven were too powerful of opponents to let any one of the Suzaku take them on without the entire complement of warriors there to help. He'd seen and felt that for himself in Kutou when he, Miaka, and Tasuki had tried to retrieve The Universe of the Four Gods. And yet, he'd chosen to do it; he'd been the one who had decided to put the safety of the entire group at risk.

Chichiri glanced at Tasuki as he started toward Nuriko's body. The crunch of his own soft steps in the packed-down snow and the jangle of his shakujou added yet another layer of sound to the stifling atmosphere. He shook his head, his long bangs bobbing with the movement. It was his fault. Nuriko's death was on his hands. How could he have let his problems with Tasuki dictate decisions that should have been made with the best interest of the priestess in mind, not his own? How could he have let himself throw sound strategic thinking to the wind, and for what? So he didn't have to search Touran with Tasuki? He exhaled, long and low. Nuriko was now another in a long line of those who had died because of his failures and inaction.

A trail of dark, reddish blotches in the snow interspersed with stumbling footprints caught Chichiri's eye and he followed it with his gaze. At the end of the tracks lay the corpse of a hulking brute of a man. He lay in a heap in the churned-up snow, his cloudy, lifeless eyes staring toward the scarred and tarnished bronze doors in the rockface. The man's tongue lolled from his mouth, showing off wickedly pointed teeth. Matted, grayish hair peeked out from under the man's worn and frayed clothing, and scars crisscrossed what skin Chichiri could see. Dark and drying blood coated the man's left hand, staining his fingers and what looked to be claws a deep maroon. The monk frowned. This beast-man could only be the Seiryuu Warrior that had killed Nuriko. But, if that were so, why hadn't any of the other Seiryuu Shichiseishi arrived to continue the fight? Why hadn't they come to avenge this one's death, as they had with Amiboshi? Why couldn't he feel even the hint of any Seiryuu life forces? It seemed as if none of the rest of the dragon god's chosen were anywhere in the immediate area.

Chichiri turned his focus back to Nuriko's still form. This death wouldn't be the end of it or even the worst that they'd encounter, of that he was certain. The Shinzahou was yet to be found, the remaining Seiryuu were still out there, and Kounan was still under threat from Kutou's armies. He came to a stop next to the courtier. Letting out a low sigh, a stream of foggy breath poured from Chichiri's mouth. I'm sorry, he thought. I'm so sorry... The brass rings of his shakujou tinkled as he took a seat on the uncorrupted snow near Nuriko's head. "We need to prepare Nuriko for his rebirth into the next life, no da," he said softly.

"Tasuki," Mitsukake murmured. No matter how he himself may feel, he had to support the others through this. If he could do nothing else, he could at least do that. He took the redhead's shoulders and gently pushed him back a step. His heart broke as Tasuki finally looked up at him. The younger seishi just stared, the amber of his eyes all the more piercing against the bloodshot and glassy look of utter loss dominating his expression. Mitsukake mustered the most comforting smile he could, but given the way Tasuki's face mirrored his own emotions, he knew it was little more than a crooked, barely discernible curving of his lips. "We should see to Nuriko now."

"Nuriko..." A hiccuped sob escaped Chiriko's lips. Twisting his fingers tightly into Mitsukake's robe, he pressed his face into the indigo felt at the big man's side. "Nuriko..." he whimpered. Tears, salty and hot, poured unceasing down his face, soaking not only Mitsukake's robe but his own, down to the teal silk coat beneath.

"No..." Tasuki shook his head, slowly at first, then faster, until his fiery red bangs covered his face and stuck in wet clumps to his cheeks. "No..." He let go his death-grip on Mitsukake's lapels. "He ain't..." Taking a stumbling step back, he swayed on unsteady feet. Mitsukake reached out a stabilizing hand, but Tasuki only pushed it away. "H-he can't..." He turned his back on the healer, toward where Chichiri sat next to Nuriko's body. Nuriko... Another sob caught in his throat as he watched the monk take his prayer beads in hand and begin an invocation. Tears rolled forth anew, and he hung his head. Nuriko...

Placing one hand on Chiriko's shoulder and one on Tasuki's, Mitsukake gently urged both men onward. "You can wait over by the cliff while Chichiri and I prepare Nuriko's body," he said. His heart ached at the sobs and the tremors he felt run through both the scholar and the redhead. As much as he was loathe to admit it, he had little doubt this wouldn't be the only time one of them wouldn't make it. Mitsukake glanced at the body of the Seiryuu Warrior laying a few paces from Nuriko. From Tasuki's dire condition after the mission to retrieve The Universe of the Four Gods and Tamahome's poisoning by kodoku, to Amiboshi's betrayal during the summoning ceremony, the slaughter of Tamahome's family by Suboshi, and Soi's destruction of their ship on the voyage to Hokkan, it was clear the Seiryuu were not about to allow them to summon Suzaku. Yet, all he could do was ensure his priestess and his fellow Warriors didn't fall apart, either physically or mentally, even with the knowledge that it was only a matter of time before another of their number fell. He patted each seishi's shoulder. "We'll gather everyone when it's time." Mitsukake watched as Tasuki nodded and lurched toward the doors set into the rocky cliff a few steps from Nuriko. The crunch of the redhead's boots did nothing to mitigate Chiriko's whimpers. Mitsukake glanced down at the young scholar as the boy stayed steadfastly attached to his robe. His lips twitched again into a rueful smile and he placed a hand on Chiriko's head before guiding him to Nuriko's side.

Chichiri tightened his grip on the cold jade beads of his necklace and dropped the usual silly tone from his voice. "Holy Suzaku, guardian of the south, guide this man as his journey in this mortal vessel comes to an end and his soul continues on the path of reincarnation," he breathed, his words little more than the mere movement of his lips. "Guide this man, your chosen seishi, through the dark night of death and into the bright sunlight of rebirth. Guide this man's soul, pure and unsullied, from the ending of this life and into the next." He quivered his shakujou in punctuation of his prayer. The light, silvery chime seemed somehow fitting, as if he was sending Nuriko's soul off with a beautiful, if somber, melody. "Holy Suzaku–" he began again, but the suddenly close swish of fabric, crunching of snow underfoot, and Chiriko's crying cut him off. He opened his eye. Mitsukake...

"I didn't mean to interrupt." The healer knelt next to Nuriko in nearly the same spot as Miaka had when they'd arrived. His knees sunk into the pink-hued snow. He could feel the bloody slush begin to wick into the felt of his robe and his pants underneath, but he ignored it. The reality of death, he knew, was never clean. "I need to prepare Nuriko's body."

"Nuriko..." Chiriko whimpered as he looked on the courtier. Standing this close, the scholar could see the bluish tint to Nuriko's skin and the dark, bloodied holes in the side of his chest. A fresh wave of tears blurred Chiriko's vision, washing out the awful details in a watery amalgam of color. He seized Mitsukake's shoulder and gritted his teeth to fend off another sob.

Why? Why'd this hafta happen? Tasuki stared unseeing into the nearly cloudless sky. He felt numb. The tears wouldn't stop, but he could barely feel them. Even the cold and wet of the snow under him seeping into the back of his robe and the seat of his pants seemed so far away. Why? With leaden fingers, he reached into his robe, into the pocket of his leather coat, and pulled out the heavy, warm weight of the bronze coin charm. The last thing I told 'em was for 'im t' fuck off. Why'd I say that? Why'd I yell at 'im? He closed his hand around it, its heft the only thing he could discern against his unfeeling palm. I didn' mean it. I didn't. His tearful gaze drifted down to Mitsukake, Chiriko, and Chichiri as they huddled around Nuriko's body. He studied the monk, watching him as he shook his shakujou. The gentle sound of the brass rings tinkling floated to Tasuki's ears. I didn' mean it, Nuriko. He closed his eyes and clenched his hand into a fist around the charm until he could feel the metal bite into his flesh. Yah gotta believe me...

Mitsukake surveyed the damage done to Nuriko's body. The courtier's slender frame seemed so small lying in the rose-tinted, packed-down snow. His once-vibrant amethyst hair now looked dull and flat where it wasn't covered with blood. Minute white flecks amidst the rust-colored wounds on Nuriko's chest caught Mitsukake's attention. Bone, he thought. The Seiryuu Warrior's hand had penetrated the courtier's back, shattering ribs and rupturing organs as it passed through Nuriko's chest and emerged just below his heart. Mitsukake's brows furrowed. The pain Nuriko had endured before his death must have been agonizing. If only he had arrived at the mountain sooner. If only he could have done something... He shook his head. "All I can do is erase his wounds, and make him as beautiful as he always was," he said, almost more to himself than to anyone. He reached into his thick felt robe. Tama-neko pushed his furry head against the healer's big hand as if attempting to be of some comfort to the grieving seishi. Mitsukake paused to scratch the cat under the chin before slipping his hand into his silk coat. In the confines of the saffron-colored fabric, he retrieved the unassuming red earthenware jar Taiitsukun had given him after the failed summoning ceremony. Mitsukake removed the oiled leather lid and poured a small amount of the warm holy water into his hand. He could feel the power it contained as it pooled in his palm and slid through his cold, thick fingers. Nuriko... He took a breath and let the tingling energy of Suzaku's divine light flow through him. It welled up from deep inside himself, spreading through his body, to each limb, and finally to his liquid-filled hand. The familiar, warm pulsation of his character mark on his palm coming to life intensified the energy of the blessed water and he sprinkled it over Nuriko's body.

In the glow of Mitsukake's healing power, the droplets sparkled like prisms in the cold sunlight. The drops separated and spun, seemingly with a life of their own. The glittering curtain of water hovered for just a moment before, drop by drop, it drifted slowly earthward, engulfing Nuriko's entire form. The courtier's cobalt and ivory silk robe, shredded and ruined, began to mend itself, thread by thread. His deathly pale skin flushed with color once more. The darkened and dried blood, even the gaping wounds in his chest and on his shoulder, faded and closed before disappearing completely.

Chiriko clutched at Mitsukake's shoulder as he watched the holy water rain down. "It even...fixed his clothes," he whimpered, another wave of tears sliding down his face. "It looks like he's sleeping."

Replacing the jar's lid, Mitsukake slipped it back into an inner pocket in his silk coat. He looked down at Nuriko for a long moment. "Find Miaka," he said finally. "Let's get everyone together."

No... Tasuki's lip quivered as he tried to hold back a fresh sob. Stinging tears welled up once more and flowed down his already wet face, dripping off his chin to be absorbed by the mossy green felt of his robe. Nuriko...

Chichiri nodded and looked over his shoulder in the direction Miaka and Tamahome had run. His brow furrowed. Would Miaka be willing to accept that Nuriko was gone? He didn't know, but the only one he thought would be able to get through to her right now was Tamahome. Tamahome... He took a breath and pushed himself to standing. Snowflakes clung to the back of his robe and half-melted lumps of ice slid down his bare ankles and into his shoes. As Chichiri dusted himself off, his gaze wandered to Tasuki. The redhead sat slumped heavily against the rocky, snow-dusted cliff. His head was bowed, and his unruly hair obscured his face. Even if keeping his distance from Tasuki was the best thing for their mission and, ultimately, himself, seeing grief swallow the redhead whole stabbed at Chichiri's heart. He didn't want it to be this way; he had never wanted it to be this way. But, it was his fault; he had killed Nuriko as surely as the Seiryuu Warrior had, and he'd wounded Miaka and the rest of the Shichiseishi. The burden of guilt he carried hung from his neck like an anchor: ponderous and suffocating, but his alone to bear.

"You're hurting me!"

Mitsukake, Chiriko, and Chichiri turned to see Tamahome pulling a reluctant Miaka by the arm back to where Nuriko lay. She struggled against his grip, stumbling through the snowdrifts as he dragged her almost bodily along. "Let go of me, Tamahome! Let me go!" she cried, shattering the mournful silence that had descended. The echoes and reechoes of her shrill command were jarring. Tears stained her flushed cheeks and she sank to her knees when Tamahome released her.

"Look at Nuriko, Miaka," Tamahome said.

Miaka shrank away from his order and shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut. The trailing ends of the ribbons binding her auburn hair fluttered with the violence of the movement. "No."

"Look at him," he demanded. Tears began filling Tamahome's eyes as Miaka refused again, this time doubling over on her hands and knees until she was nearly prostrate on the ground. "Are you going to let his death amount to nothing?!" His voice cracked as he shouted at her, pouring forth all his anger and sadness. His harsh words bounced off the distant mountaintops, only to return more discordant and more severe. "What do you think Nuriko sacrificed his life for, anyway? You! You, more than anyone, should understand what he succeeded in doing for us!" Tamahome stopped abruptly as Mitsukake placed a calming hand on his shoulder.

"Miaka," Mitsukake murmured. He walked to the priestess' side, the snow crunching under his soft-soled shoes. Kneeling next to her, he squeezed her shoulder gently, willing as much compassion and understanding as he could into that mere touch. "I've given Nuriko his beauty back. Won't you come and look at him?" Mitsukake watched Miaka rub at her tear-streaked face with the back of her bare hand. He could feel the tremor of an unreleased sob go through her. "I know how sad you are, and how terribly lonely you feel. We don't expect you to feel better any time soon. No one here does, because we all feel the same." Mitsukake looked up at Nuriko lying still in the snow. Nuriko... Another lump began to form in the back of this throat as he spoke. "There's nothing to be done about the grief." He could feel the salty sting of tears begin to fill his eyes and he tried to blink them away. "I wish we had the time. The time it takes to heal." He clasped her shoulder tighter, as much for her sake as for his. "But, right now, we don't. You don't have that time." He felt Miaka shift and he glanced down at her again. She had sat up, her bloodshot gaze now directed at Nuriko's body. Moving his hand to the top of Miaka's head, Mitsukake continued. "I know it'll be hard; grieve as much as you need to, but keep moving forward. I want Nuriko to rest in peace now." He'd failed and he would carry that knowledge with him until the day he, too, met his death. But, they couldn't shy away or falter if their mission was to succeed. They had been given a charge, a sacred task to complete, a duty Nuriko had already fulfilled. "Everyone has a purpose in life. Everyone is born to do something only they can do. To the very end, Nuriko lived to fulfill his role as one of the Suzaku Seven."

Chichiri turned his eye back to Nuriko. "He does look satisfied, no da."

"Nuriko," Miaka whispered. She scrubbed at her cheeks with the back of her sleeve and sniffled. Mitsukake stood and held out his hand to her. She took it without argument, allowing him to help her up, and staggered toward where the courtier lay.

As Miaka came to a halt next to him, Chichiri spoke. "It's time to say goodbye to him, no da."

A faint noise of assent escaped Miaka's lips. She started as a pair of warm hands took hers in theirs. Glancing down, she watched Tamahome slip Nuriko's bracelets into them before gently pulling away. Sunlight gleamed off the golden edges and ivory enamel inlay of the holy items Taiitsukun had bestowed upon the courtier.

"You should take his bracelets, Miaka," Tamahome said, his voice thick with emotion. "I think Nuriko would have wanted you to."

Tasuki wiped the tears from his face as well as he could. Slipping the coin charm back into his pocket, he watched Tamahome and Mitsukake begin ferrying the chunks of stone from the broken boulder to Nuriko's side. The rhythmic crack of rock hitting rock as the fighter and the healer stacked piece after piece rang out across the summit, swallowing all other sound. Tasuki's brow furrowed. He knew what they were doing: they were building a cairn. The rest of the group was ready to let Nuriko go. An emptiness, not unlike what he'd felt in Touran when the last of Nuriko's chi passed through him, settled in his chest. Tasuki didn't want to bury his confidant, his friend–especially in a desolate place like this–but what choice did he have? He gritted his teeth and forced himself to his feet. They would pay for this; the Seiryuu would pay dearly for this. He'd make sure of it.

Eh? A hint of red, too bright to be Nuriko's now-oxidized blood, caught Tasuki's eye and he moved toward it. Almost hidden under the footprints and slush, lay a piece of crimson material. He swept the clods of snow away and picked up the damp item. His hand tightened around the wet silk bag. Through the fabric he could feel the tell-tale lumpy coil of Nuriko's braid. A sob crept up his throat, but he forced himself to swallow it. Taking a calming breath and letting it out in a long, misty column, he made his way to where the others continued construction of Nuriko's grave. "Look." He held out his palm. "This's th' parcel with 'is hair inside o' it. We should bury it with 'im." Miaka nodded and Tasuki bent down to place the small package on Nuriko's unmoving chest. "Was 'e a woman? Was 'e a man? I couldn't figure th' guy out. No matter what 'e was, 'e was cool."

Miaka nodded. "Uh-huh. He wasn't defined as a man or a woman." Wiping away the last of her tears, a small smile graced her lips. "Nuriko was...Nuriko."

When the last stone was set in place, Tamahome snapped a dead, barkless branch from one of the stunted trees clinging to the mountaintop. He wedged it into the top of the mound, pulling at it to make sure it was secure. No one spoke for a long time as the seishi and priestess stood gazing at the completed gravesite, each alone with their thoughts. After what seemed both an instant and an eternity, they turned, one by one, to focus their attention on the scarred bronze doors Nuriko had sacrificed himself to unbar.

Tasuki glanced back over his shoulder at Nuriko's grave. Sunlight glittered off the snow around it like a blanket of gems. The corners of his mouth curved into a tiny smile. Yah done good, Nuriko. Yah done good. His eyes burned as more tears threatened to form. Blinking them away, the courtier's advice repeated in his head once more: "Do you love him?" "You owe it to yourself and to him to figure it out." "Some of us just weren't meant to find love and keep it, you know." "That's why it's so important to say something when you do." Tasuki turned back to the balance of the Shichiseishi in time to see Tamahome pull open one of the ancient doors. The squealing scrape of metal on stone pierced the silence. He winced as the grating noise echoed back and forth across the mountain ranges. Once the ringing had stopped, Tasuki threw a sidelong glance at Chichiri where the monk stood next to Mitsukake. He didn't know what the future held–for their mission, for Kounan, for anyone, including himself–but he would be damned if he would let things remain the way they had been. If any one of them could die at any moment, if death could come this easily, time was running out. Pursing his lips into a determined line, he followed the balance of the Shichiseishi and his priestess into the inky blackness beyond the open bronze door.

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 9

Datura → (Datura stramonium) a toxic, herbaceous flowering plant used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as an an anesthetic and a sedative

Myrrh → (Commiphora myrrha) a tree resin used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to heal wounds, reduce swelling, and as a pain reliever

Ginger → (Zingiber officinale) fleshy rhizome used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for a range of ailments, from frostbite to dysentery; in this case used for pain reduction and as an anti-inflammatory

Buuz → pocket-shaped dumplings filled with meat, usually mutton; similar to khuushuur, but steamed instead of fried

Borts → traditional Mongolian dried and preserved meats, usually horse; when dry, these meats are broken into small pieces or ground into a fine powder for use in food dishes during the harsh winter months

Laozi → also romanized as Lao Tzu; famous Chinese philosopher and reputed founder of philosophical Daoism; the seminal Daoist work, the Daodejing, is attributed to him; an almost mythical figure, he is considered a deity in religious Daoism, and is said to have lived any time between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE

Nuthatch → (Sitta europaea) Eurasian Nuthatch, also Wood Nuthatch; a small arboreal songbird native to much of Europe and northern central Asia

Pommel → the raised portion at the front of the seat of a saddle, sometimes topped by a knob or horn

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