Spoiler Warning: This story is based on a fact about the twins' past given in episode 38 of the TV series, Fushigi Yuugi. This story also gives mild spoilers in the form of foreshadowing through episode 48.
Author's Note: I completed this story before reading the RyuuseiDen novel, so any similarities or discrepancies between this story and the novel are purely coincidental.
Twin souls, Twin minds
both equal kind
Twin hearts 'neath stars of Destiny
must find their way...
"Can we go out now?"
"Shhh. No, remember what Father said."
"But I don't want to stay here. It's dark. And everyone's fighting outside."
"That's why we're in here. The basement's safe because the soldiers won't come in here."
I hugged my knees to my body in the stuffy darkness. I hoped I was right when I told Shun-chan that nobody would come in here. The noises outside were scary. I didn't think war should sound like that. When we saw people fighting far away, it sounded exciting. The swords and spears would flash and swing and make klang! noises which sounded like bells or the blacksmith's hammers. And when we played at war, our wooden sticks would slap together with beautiful klock!klock! noises.
But right now, there were sounds of pots breaking, and wood snapping, and things burning, and dogs and pigs and chickens all yelling together. Sometimes, I could still hear swords hitting each other, but they were so loud, and they scraped like the awful sound it makes when someone's sharpening something on the whetting stone.
And I could hear people screaming. They never did that when the soldiers fought far away from us. I closed my eyes and hugged my knees tighter.
"Aniki..." Shun-chan was pulling on my sleeve. He sounded scared too. We almost always felt the same way about everything. "Aniki, why did Mother go out?"
"You know why," I said. Shun-chan was so stupid. We were the same age, but he always had to ask me stuff. "Mother said she was going to find Father."
He was quiet for a minute, and then he pulled on my sleeve again. "I want to go out too. We should help find Father."
"We're supposed to stay here, Shun-chan."
I pushed his hand away. "Stop it! Father told us not to go out. He said we'd be safe here while he fights."
"But Mother went out. We should help her. I want Father to come back. What if the soldiers kill him like Goran's father?"
I pushed Shun-chan, hard. I pushed him so hard that he fell back and I heard him hit the wall. He started to cry.
I wanted to hit him again for saying that, but I felt bad for hurting him, and I remembered that Mother had told me, just before she left, to take care of my little brother. I didn't think that was fair, because I wanted to cry too. Other people's Anikis were big and smart, and they knew what to do when something bad happened. But Shun-chan and me were the same age, so I never knew what to do.
It wasn't fair! Shun-chan always had me, but Father and Mother weren't here, so I didn't have them. It wasn't fair!
And what if the soldiers really did kill Father? I remembered when they brought Goran's father back in a big box. He had been all flat and white like he wasn't a real person anymore. It had scared me to look at him, and Mother had told me and Shun-chan not to look anymore. Goran's mother had cried a lot, and Goran had cried too, even though he's eleven, a whole three years older than us.
I didn't want Mother to cry like that. And I didn't want Father to turn flat and white and scary-looking. I was still mad at Shun-chan, but I knew that he was scared, like me, and that I should take care of him.
I sighed and crawled over in the dark until I touched him with my hands. "I'm sorry, Shun-chan," I said. I heard him sniffle.
"I'm sorry too," he said, and he sounded like he really was. I hugged him.
"It's okay. Let's go out and help Mother look for Father."
"Really?" He sounded happy. I was happy too, because when we found Father, we could all come back and hide in the basement where it was safe. The soldiers would go away after a while and then we'd all be okay again.
"Uh-huh," I said. "Let's go."
We stood up, both of us feeling better now, and we felt around until we found the ladder which led up to the trapdoor. We counted out loud as we climbed up the rungs side by side. We were getting bigger now, so it was a bit hard to do that, but we had to do it together because we would need both of us to open the door at the top. "...three, four, five..."
There were four more rungs, but we would have to open the door before we could go up. I reached up until my hand touched the rough wood. Shun-chan did the same thing. "Push!" I said, and we pushed hard against the door with our arms while we climbed up another rung together. The door lifted up a bit, and I climbed up and wiggled out, pushing away the sleeping mat which had been on top of the door. Then I stood at the edge of the basement and held the door up for Shun-chan. Once he got out after me, I dropped it closed.
I smiled. The door was very heavy, heavy enough that neither of us could have opened it by ourselves. But Shun-chan and me could do a lot of stuff together that even other kids older than us couldn't do by themselves.
Then I noticed that there was a terrible smell here that made me want to cough.
"Aniki, our house is burning!"
Shun-chan was right. There was fire all around us, and thick thick smoke. The walls were on fire! It felt like we were standing in the kitchen on a hot day, except worse. It was hard to breathe, and my skin felt like it was going to start burning up like the house was. I thought maybe this was what a yam felt like when Mother baked them, all crinkly and hot on the outside, except it didn't smell hardly as good in here.
"Maybe we should go back into the basement," Shun-chan said, covering his nose with his arm. I shook my head.
"No, we have to get outside," I said. I didn't want to be stuck back in the basement while our house was burning. And I wanted to find Father and Mother quickly. Without Father and Mother here, I had to make the decisions. It made me feel proud and important, but all the same, I hoped that we would find them soon.
"The doorway's fallen in," Shun-chan said, coughing in the horrible smoke. "I don't think we can get out there."
"We need to find another way." I looked around. We were in the bedroom, which had only one door which went to the main room of our house. There weren't any windows or other holes where we could go through. I frowned.
Then I noticed that a piece of the wooden wall had fallen down from the fire. The hole wasn't big enough to be safe to go through, but maybe we could make it bigger somehow. I pointed at the hole. "Can we knock down some more of the wall over there?"
Shun-chan looked at it, and he frowned like he was thinking. But before he could say anything, a big piece of the burning ceiling fell down right in front of us. I yelled and turned around, throwing up my hands to keep the fire from my face. I heard Shun-chan yelling too. There was a loud crash, and then something hit me in the back and I fell forward onto the ground.
"Aniki! Aniki, are you okay?!" I opened my eyes and saw Shun-chan's face. He was kneeling beside me, and he looked very worried.
"Ow... I think so." I sat up slowly and Shun-chan looked like he felt better when I did.
"Can you stand up?" he asked. My back hurt, and I'd gotten dirt in my mouth, but I was okay. I nodded, and he helped me up by pulling on my arm. I wiped my face with my hands and looked around.
The floor was burning now too. The piece of the ceiling which had fallen down had broken into pieces and spread the fire around so that now almost everything else was on fire too. We had to get out fast. The smoke was making me feel dizzy, and it was so dry and hot! What could we use to get out?
"Here, Aniki. We can use these." I looked over where Shun-chan was. He was taking the cover off of the hole in the ground where we kept our stuff. I went over to him and saw him take out our ryuuseisui.
They were really just two painted wooden balls strung on a rope, but you could do a lot of neat things with them, so we had given them a cool name -- shooting star mallets. I wasn't as good at handling mine, but Shun-chan could spin his around really well and loop it around tree branches and stuff. He could even hit rabbits and sometimes birds with it.
I smiled at Shun-chan, glad he had thought of this. I was sure that the hard balls on our ryuuseisui could knock down the already wobbly wall so that we could get out. I took mine from him, holding the loop of braided rope in my left hand.
"Okay," I said, "let's go."
Shun-chan stood up and started to make his way carefully toward the hole in the wall. I started to follow him, but then I stopped to look down into our little treasure hole. There were feathers and rocks we had collected, and a bag of grass seeds for when we wanted to play with straw blow-guns. There was other stuff too, but what I was looking at was our bamboo flutes.
Father had made them for us last winter, and I played mine almost every day. I didn't know why, but I really didn't want to leave my flute behind. I picked it up and stuck it in my waistband. I wondered if Shun-chan might want his too, but he didn't play his much, so I left it behind.
"C'mon, Aniki!" Shun-chan called. I put the cover back on our hole in the ground, then got up and went quickly to where Shun-chan was. On the way, another piece of the ceiling fell down close to me, making me jump and making Shun-chan yell. I was starting to feel scared again, because it would still take a while to get out, and I was afraid that the rest of the ceiling might fall down on top of us before then.
But I knew that we would get out soon, and when I looked at Shun-chan's face, he was smiling. He wasn't scared anymore, and it made me feel more brave to know that. I smiled back. "Okay," I said, "let's go."
We got as close to the burning wall as we could and started hitting it as hard as we could with our ryuuseisui. The wooden balls hit over and over again, making cracking noises, and finally, we broke through some of the boards beside the hole. By then, we were coughing a lot, and our eyes were stinging so much that we were crying. We held hands and ran together out through the hole.
The air wasn't as smoky as it had been inside, so once we got outside, we fell down together and coughed the horrible smell of the smoke out of us. It was cooler outside too, and I was glad that I didn't feel like I was burning up anymore.
I jumped up to my feet at the sound. It had been a lady screaming. I looked out across the road and saw a bunch of people on the other side. Most of them were soldiers with lots of armor and long swords. Two of them were kneeling on the ground like they were picking something up.
After a while, they all stood up and walked away. I could hear them yelling and laughing together.
"...trying to hide. But we burned her out of there."
"Yeah, and she had some good money on her too."
"Looks like we've got our wine tonight!"
"Too bad she was an old housewife, or I might've..."
And then they were too far away to hear. I don't think they ever noticed us standing there right across the street.
I stared at the woman on the ground. I couldn't see her face so I didn't know who she was, but I could see a lot of blood coming out of her side. She wasn't moving, not even to cover up the wound in her side where the blood was coming out.
"Aniki..." Shun-chan grabbed my arm and hugged it like he used to do when he was scared. I'd told him it was a baby thing to do, so he'd stopped doing it, but I didn't mind it right now. "Aniki..." he said again, and I could hear how his voice was shaking. "She's dead, isn't she? That lady?"
I nodded because I knew it was true. And even if the lady wasn't dead, we couldn't do anything to save her.
Shun-chan let go a bit but kept one hand on my arm.
"Let's go find Father now," he said. "Right now."
I nodded. I wanted to find Father and Mother really fast too. I took his hand. "C'mon, Shun-chan. We'll walk together."
"I'm not scared," he told me. And I nodded to show that I wasn't either. But he didn't let go of my hand and I was glad that he didn't.
We started down the street together, walking slowly and carefully, looking and listening to everything. Everything looked different from how it usually did. There was lots of junk in the road and all the houses were on fire, which made it smoky and hard to see anything. The smell made it hard to breathe too. There weren't any people walking around like there usually were, only lots of loose animals -- and sometimes soldiers.
When the soldiers came by, Shun-chan and I always stopped and tried to hide somewhere. We didn't want them to catch us, because we remembered the poor lady who had been killed by them, and we were afraid that they might want to kill us too.
As we walked, it became harder and harder to see, and the smell got worse and worse. There was something else besides smoke now too. It took me a while to realize that it was the smell of blood, like when mother kills a chicken or a pig, except that somehow it smelled a lot stronger and really bad. There were lots of dead animals all over the place, and lots of people, too, lying on the ground like the lady had been, and almost all of them were bleeding horribly. I held Shun-chan's hand tight.
I didn't want him to be afraid.
After a long time of walking through the street which didn't even look like our village anymore, I heard Shun-chan yell, "Aniki, over there!" I looked where Shun-chan was pointing. There was a house there, on fire like all the others. "Inside! It's Father!" Shun-chan let go of my hand and ran to the house.
"Shun-chan, wait!" The house was on fire and might start falling down like ours had. I didn't want Shun-chan to go in there, but he didn't listen to me, so I followed him. I wanted him to be careful, but I was excited too. Was Father really in there? I followed my brother to the doorway and looked inside.
Shun-chan was right! It was Father, with his back to us. And Mother was there too, hugging him! "Father! Mother!" Shun-chan ran inside, but I didn't. Something was wrong. Because Father and Mother weren't standing or sitting on the ground. They were lying there like they had fallen asleep...
I stood there in the doorway, watching Shun-chan run towards Father and Mother. I wanted to meet Father and Mother too. I wanted to run to them and yell at them for staying away for so long, and I wanted them to hug me and tell me everything was okay. I wanted them to tell me how smart and brave I was for taking care of Shun-chan all this time, and that they would take care of both of us now. I wanted to run to them so badly.
But I couldn't move.
"Father! Father, get up! It's me!" Shun-chan knelt down by Father and shook his shoulder. Then he stood up and ran around to Mother's side. "Mother!" he called, and I watched him kneel down and reach out to touch Mother's shoulder.
Then he screamed! And he fell backwards onto the ground, holding his head with his hands.
"Shun-chan!" I ran inside, suddenly able to move again. Something had hurt my brother, and for some reason, that scared me a lot, as if Shun-chan was the most important thing in the world to me. I couldn't let anything happen to him. Not now. I ran around Father and Mother lying there to stand in front of my brother. He was scrunched up on the ground now, and I saw that actually, he wasn't holding his head but covering his eyes.
"Don't look, Aniki! Don't look...!" he said.
But it was too late. I had turned around to look at Father and Mother, hoping that they could help me. And I saw it.
"Oh... oh... Shun-chan..." I fell down to the ground next to my brother, because I couldn't stand up anymore, and I put my arms around Shun-chan just as he got up and put his arms around me. I pushed my head into the place between his neck and his shoulder and I hugged him tight.
There was so much blood... so much blood. And Mother's head... And Father's...
I could feel Shun-chan shaking under my arms, and I knew that I was shaking too. I squeezed my eyes shut and I tried to bury my face in Shun-chan's hair.
Mother's hair which was so long and beautiful, which she let down and combed everyday... And Father's hands, which he used to pick us up with and which he had made our flutes with... And... and...
How could they look like they were sleeping from the other side, but then from this side...
"Aniki... Aniki, they're dead, aren't they? What are we going to do, Aniki? Father and Mother are dead!"
I shook my head, not wanting to open my eyes and afraid to let go of Shun-chan. "I don't know," I said. "I don't know what to do."
We sat there together, not wanting to stand up and not wanting to move.
Then suddenly, I heard a loud Crack! and I felt a lot of little hot things flying at and hitting me. It hurt. When I opened my eyes, I saw that a huge piece of the wall had fallen in and now the floor was on fire just like our house had been. I stared at it, then looked up where the ceiling was all holey, and I knew that if we didn't get outside very soon, everything else would fall down too and we would be burned up along with the house.
"Aniki, we have to get outside." I looked over at Shun-chan. He still looked scared, but his face was very serious. "We have to go," he said.
I nodded, knowing that he was right and glad that he was being so brave because I was feeling scared. We helped each other up and while we were doing that, some pieces of the ceiling starting falling down around us. "Run!" I yelled, and, holding hands, we ran outside together just as the rest of the house crashed down.
I looked back, trying to see Father and Mother again, trying again to see them lying together like they were asleep, but the house fell down on top of them and I knew that I would never see them that way again.
I looked back at Shun-chan, and I saw that he was watching me. His face was dirty and his hair was all messed up. And there was a big dark spot on the shoulder of his shirt where a piece of burning wood had fallen on him.
"Shun-chan," I said, not caring that my voice was all wobbly. "We're all alone now, aren't we?"
My brother nodded. And then he burst into tears.
in times of hate
shared shock and fear
Twin spirits break
twin cries unheard by ears long cold
twin sorrows mourn to helpless ghosts
We hugged each other for a long time, and we cried a lot too.
I was so scared and confused. What were we going to do now? Father and Mother had died, and our house had burned up. I wasn't even sure where we were anymore, because the village looked so different now, everything burning and broken.
It had all been okay when I thought we would find Father and Mother. Everything would have been okay then because they would have known what to do, and they would have taken care of Shun-chan and me. But now everything was all wrong!
Mother had told me to take care of Shun-chan, I remembered. But I didn't want to take care of Shun-chan. I wanted Father and Mother to take care of both of us! I wasn't big enough to take care of my brother. I wasn't big enough to take care of myself.
We hugged each other and cried and cried, forgetting that boys our age shouldn't cry this way like we were girls or little babies, because it didn't matter. No one was going to see us and laugh at us. Mother wouldn't come and tell us everything would be okay, and Father wouldn't pat our shoulders and tell us that we should be brave. Everything was just awful.
We didn't know what to do, so we just sat there together next to the burning house where Father and Mother were, hugging each other, and finally we fell asleep right there.
As red fires burn,
Blue lights awake
two fateful powers flame full forth,
make bonds unbreakable stronger still
and change once innocent gaming play
to devastating weaponry.
I woke up when someone grabbed me and picked me up. It wasn't like when Father picked us up but like when Chyouko the bully grabbed us and told us he would throw us down the well. I tried to yell but the person put a big hand over my mouth and held me tightly so that all I could do was kick my legs.
I kicked him as hard as I could, but he wouldn't let go of me.
"Erg... This one's feisty. Go grab the other kid while I tie this one up. We should get a good price for them on the slave market if they're this strong when they work."
Slave traders! Mother had told us about them. Sometimes people went outside the village and never ever came back. Mother always said that slave traders kidnapped them and sold them. She told me and Shun-chan never to go anywhere alone, and never to talk to men that we didn't know. I hadn't really believed Mother before, but now slave traders had me and they wanted to sell me and Shun-chan!
I kicked harder and tried to bite the man holding me, but he just held on tighter, so tight that I almost couldn't breathe. He walked away with me and I could see a pile of rope on the ground in the moonlight in the direction he was going. I twisted around and watched as another man started sneaking quietly toward my brother. He was going to grab him like this man was holding me, and then they would tie us up and sell us!
Shun-chan, wake up! Shun-chan! I tried to yell but could only make some tiny noises. I struggled and fought as hard as I could, but the man was too big and strong for me to make him let me go. Shun-chan!! I clenched my fists and poked my nails hard into my palms. I didn't know why, but I hoped that Shun-chan would feel it and wake up and run and get away. I had to save my brother!
"Hey!" I heard the other man yell. The man holding me turned around to look, and so I could see too.
Shun-chan was standing up and facing the man who had been about to grab him. He looked surprised and not quite awake, but I knew that he could get away now because he was the fastest runner on our street. No clumsy grown-up could catch him if he was standing on his feet.
"What are you doing?" The man holding me said. "Grab him! He's just a little kid!"
The other man jumped forward and tried to grab Shun-chan, but Shun-chan dodged away and then he bent down and took something from the ground. He looked toward me and I saw how angry he was.
"Let go of Aniki right now!" he yelled, and then he threw something at us. Something long and dark flew out and I heard the man holding me yell something. I saw Shun-chan stand up straight and it looked like he was pulling on something, and then the man holding me dropped me and fell down.
I fell down on top of him and quickly rolled off and ran away from him. I turned around once I was far enough that he couldn't grab me again, and I looked at his feet and saw a rope looped around his ankles. The rope moved a bit, and then loosened and flew back to my brother. There was a little round ball on the end of the rope which spun around as the rope pulled it through the air.
Our ryuuseisui! Shun-chan had tripped the man with our ryuuseisui! Or actually, mine, because Shun-chan's was under the building with Father and Mother. I must have dropped mine outside and Shun-chan had seen it and picked it up. I laughed, because I was so proud of my brother, and because it was so funny that the big ugly man had been knocked down with just a toy.
But then I heard Shun-chan yell, and I turned and saw that the other man had grabbed him from behind. Shun-chan was fighting, but the man wouldn't let go, and he had made Shun-chan drop the ryuuseisui on the ground so that he couldn't use them to hit him.
"Shun-chan!" I started toward them, but the man who had grabbed me before jumped at me and caught my arm tightly. Without thinking, I grabbed my flute that Father had made for me from my waistband and hit the man as hard as I could with it. The man yelled and let go, and I saw that there was a mark on his hand where I'd hit him that looked like he'd been burned.
I backed away from him, not really sure what had happened. I hadn't really expected the man to let go. I'd just hit him because I didn't want him to think that I would give up to him. Why should my flute burn his hand? I was confused.
"Aniki!" I turned and saw the other man coming for me too. He had Shun-chan under one arm as if he was a sack of rice and he was reaching out for me with his other arm. I dodged to the side, and again, without really thinking about it, I raised my flute and started to play it.
I played high sharp notes, as loud as I could, the kind of notes that drove the dogs crazy and made all the grown-ups yell at me. I made up a tune on the spot that was made up entirely of those horrible screeching notes, and I wished hard for the men to let my brother go and leave us alone forever.
The man holding my brother did drop him, and he made a terrible face and covered his ears with his hands. The other man did the same thing.
"Ahhhh! My head! Stop it, you stupid kid!" he yelled. He started toward me, his hands still covering his ears. He looked angry, but I kept playing, because it looked like it was hurting him, and I was angry too. These men didn't care that so many people had died, that our village had been burned up. They just wanted to sell other people and get money for it. They were disgusting dirty people, and they wanted to hurt me and my brother.
"Leave us alone!" I heard Shun-chan yell, and, still playing my flute, I looked to the side and saw him. He had gotten the ryuuseisui back and he was swinging it around in circles. He looked just as angry as I was.
We almost always felt the same way about things.
Shun-chan threw one end of his ryuuseisui out at the man coming towards us. The hard ball hit the man in the knee, making him stop, but before he could even rub his knee, my brother threw the other end at his lower leg. And then the first ball flew out again and hit the man's arm. The ryuuseisui flew in and out, faster than I had ever seen my brother throw it before, and the man couldn't get close to us, he was so busy getting hurt by Shun-chan. After a while, I heard a kri-eck! sound and the man fell down on the ground with a yell, holding his leg.
The other man looked surprised, but angry too. He ran towards us like he was going to try and grab us again, but Shun-chan hit him all over with his ryuuseisui like he had done to the other man, and he had to back away. I kept playing my flute, making both of them stop and cover their ears, even the man on the ground who had been yelling and holding his leg with his hands.
"Let's get out of here!" I heard the man on the ground say. The other man didn't argue with him. He helped him up and they ran away, with the first man limping on one foot.
When we couldn't see them anymore, I stopped playing. I was all out of breath from playing hard for so long, and Shun-chan was breathing hard too from throwing his ryuuseisui. We looked at each other. I felt excited and happy at what we had done together, and I could tell that he felt the same way.
Shun-chan started laughing, and I did too. We could beat two big men all by ourselves! We could fight and take care of ourselves. It felt great!
Suddenly, Shun-chan stopped laughing, and his eyes got very wide. He pointed at me. "Aniki, you're glowing!"
I looked down where he was pointing.
When the first man had grabbed me and I had fought him, my shirt had come a bit loose, and now I could see a bluish light showing on my shoulder where my shirt didn't cover it. I pulled the cloth down and twisted my head around to see.
There was a patch of blue light coming from my shoulder, like someone had put a candle under my skin there. Shun-chan came closer to look.
"It's a word!" he said. He looked very surprised. "Kou. It's part of your name, Aniki."
I tried to get a better look. It was hard, because it was so close to my eyes and shining in my face, and upside-down too, but it did look like Shun-chan was right. The light looked like the character kou, just like the one in my name, Bu Koutoku. Father had taught us how to read and write our names, so I knew that I was reading it right. But why would there be a word from my name shining on my shoulder? I looked up at Shun-chan, confused. And suddenly I noticed that there was a bluish light coming from under Shun-chan's shirt too, where a hole had gotten burned on his shoulder. "Look!" I said, pointing.
Shun-chan looked, and he quickly pulled down his shirt too so we could see his shoulder where the light was coming from. There was a word there just like me, except that it wasn't kou. "Kaku," I read. For Bu Shunkaku? I could see his word clearly, glowing like the embers from a fire except that it was blue. I reached out to touch it, wondering if there might be a hole in Shun-chan's shoulder and that he was filled with light inside instead of blood. But it didn't feel any different from the rest of Shun-chan's skin, as if the word had been drawn on there with blue ink.
Except that it was glowing.
We stared at each other, each of us with one side of our shirts pulled down. His word was on the other side from mine so that it looked almost like I was looking at my own reflection in the water, except that his word was different from mine. I suddenly realized that these glowing words were the only things about us that made us look different. That made me feel just a bit sad for a moment.
But I didn't think too much about it, I was still trying to figure out why they were there. Why were our names on our shoulders? And why the third word from his but the second one from mine? I frowned, thinking, and Shun-chan rubbed his head with one fist, something he did sometimes when he was trying to think hard. I noticed some reddish marks on his hand like he'd been cut there.
"What's that?" I asked him, forgetting about the glowing words for a moment. "Did those men do that?" I asked angrily.
Shun-chan opened his hand and looked at it. "I don't know," he said. "I woke up when something poked me on my hands, but I don't know what it was." He opened his other hand too and showed me marks there that looked the same.
I stared at them, suddenly remembering when I had been trying so hard to wake him up so that the men wouldn't get him too. I opened both my hands and showed him where I had poked my nails into my own palms. There were marks there too. The marks were red and bright like they had been painted there, or burned into my skin, even though it didn't hurt. "I did that," I told him, even more confused than before. "I poked myself and wished hard that you would feel it and wake up so that you could get away."
Shun-chan frowned, looking as confused as I was. Then he looked surprised again and a bit sad. "The word on your shoulder is gone!" he said. I looked down and saw just my bare shoulder where the glowing blue light had been. "Mine's gone too," Shun-chan said, and I saw that he was right.
"They'll be back," I said. Somehow, I knew that they would be.
"How do you know?" Shun-chan asked me.
"I don't know, but they will."
Shun-chan nodded. "I think so too," he said.
We looked at each other in the moonlight, and I felt that something exciting and very special had happened, even though I wasn't really sure what. But I did know now that my brother and I would be able to take care of ourselves, and that this special and exciting thing was not going to go away.
I smiled wide at Shun-chan, because I suddenly knew that even without the blue lights we were very special already. We were twins and almost the same person. We would take care of each other like we had just now, so that we would always have each other no matter what happened to us together.
My brother smiled back at me, and I knew that he was thinking the same thing, because we were twins and almost the same person, and we almost always agreed on everything.
They learn again to laugh,
to live, as bonded brothers should,
Their lives rebuilt 'round where the other stood.
They also learn to hate, to scorn
the petty soldiers in their land
whose ilk had ripped, with hands of war,
their childhood away
and set to flame.
I woke up with a start, my heart beating fast as if I had been running hard. I stared at the wall in front of my eyes, staying absolutely still and listening hard, trying to figure out what had woken me, and whether or not it was some danger to us. It didn't take long to realize that my fear had not originated within myself. I sat up quickly and looked for my brother.
He was beside me on the sleeping mat, as he should have been, but he was sitting up in bed, breathing hard and eyes staring glazedly at his covers. I put my hand on his shoulder and shook him slightly. "Are you alright?"
He didn't respond. Worrying that he might be ill, I took his limp wrist in my hand and opened the passages of ki between us, searching swiftly for the internal imbalances that caused sicknesses. His arm was covered with sweat and I could feel the irregularities in his ki caused by mental distress, but otherwise I sensed nothing wrong. I breathed a sigh of relief just as he began to stir.
"I'm fine," he said brusquely, slapping my hand away. "I just... had a dream. That's all."
"It must have been a bad one," I commented, taking no offense at his abrupt manner. Instead, I waited patiently for him to tell me about the cause of it. We used to have nightmares all the time, and we would rely on each other then for comforting. But it had been a long time since either of us had had one. I would have known if my brother had, just as he would know if something frightened me in my dreams.
The unique link that we shared had grown stronger through the years, to the point that if I really concentrated, I could usually pick up a sense of my brother's general location and state of well-being. It was a practical if mystifying power, one that we'd long gotten used to, though it never failed to surprise folk from outside the village -- especially those who thought we would be an easy target for pillaging or extortion.
Shunkaku rubbed his face with his hands, waking himself up fully. He shook his head once to dismiss the vestiges of sleep, then looked up, glaring at me. "I told you to stop calling me that," he said.
I blinked. "What?"
"You called me 'Shun-chan' again."
I thought back for a moment and realized that he was right. "I'm sorry," I said. "It just slipped out. I was worried about you."
He looked away and muttered something. I felt irritated at his attitude myself. It wasn't as if I had done it on purpose. I was just too used to the name. It was easy enough for him to complain; he'd been calling me "Aniki" since we started talking and would never have to change.
But he was right. "Shun-chan" was a baby name, and we would be fifteen years old this August. It wasn't right to keep calling him that, even if only in private. I would feel the same way if I were in his place.
"I'm sorry," I said again. Then I pushed my covers off and moved to get in front of him. "What were you dreaming about?" I asked gently, knowing that part of his bad mood was simply from being frightened. He would feel better if he told me about it. It always felt better to share a bad experience, and dreams were no exception.
He avoided my eyes, body hunched over the blanket that was pooled in his lap, while his hands fitfully pulled at it. Looking at him that way, with his long bangs falling over his eyes on one side, it suddenly occurred to me how young he looked. And, really, how young he was.
My brother and I might be the same age, born within a few minutes of each other, but even when we were children, those few minutes had made a difference. I had always been the older brother, and both of us knew it. Everything from how household responsibilities had been discharged, to the fact that Shunkaku called me "Aniki" and followed me around when we were little attested to that.
I'd used to wonder sometimes when I was little, what life would have been like if I had been born the younger sibling instead. Easier, I had always assumed, but somehow even then, though I occasionally chafed at the unfairness of it, I had never been really sure that I would want to relinquish my place as the older brother. There was something appealing, I suppose, about being looked up to as strong and smart by somebody, when everyone else was so much stronger and smarter than yourself, and of being entrusted with the responsibility of watching out for someone.
Vaguely, I'd used to wonder when I had relinquished that last bit of resentment of the command placed on me to take care of a brother no younger than myself and started to not only see it as natural, but as an integral part of my being. I'm pretty certain it came about after our village was attacked by those soldiers in the last major outbreak of the ever-present civil war raging in Kutou.
After we had lost our parents, the idle wish of being the younger, more care-free sibling had dropped from my mind completely. Protecting and providing for my brother became the center of my life, and became so unquestionably. It was the instinct to survive; and it was falling into our familiar patterns of me watching out for my little brother when our parents were absent; and then there was the simple fact that we were the only ones left.
We were part of an old family that had lived out its life in the village of Tenryou. The few members of the Bu family that had left for other villages by marriage and had kept in touch had been victim to the same war that had claimed our parents. Soldiers had cut a swath several kilometers wide through the countryside, destroying everything and everyone unlucky enough to get in their way.
I don't know whom or what the soldiers then were fighting for, or against, or with, nor do I know what ultimately happened to them. All I do know is that all of what little family we had known had died that night or shortly afterwards. The loneliness of that had made it impossible to feel anything but grateful for someone else who was there to share it with you.
I still feel the same way. I'm sure Shun-chan does too, though he probably wouldn't put it in so many words.
We had taken care of each other all these years, Shunkaku and I, with only minimal help from neighbors who just barely possessed the resources to fend for themselves. For five years now, we had watched each other's backs, and we had become undeniably closer for it. Even without the odd powers that had developed in us, we had a knack for sensing each other's life ki. Even as children, if one of us had a nightmare, the other would wake up crying as well.
Just like now. Only instead of our parents comforting the both of us, we comforted each other.
"Tell me about it," I prompted again, when Shunkaku continued to tug silently at the blanket across his lap. He fidgeted a bit, then drew in a deep breath and let it out in a rush.
"I dreamt about Mother," he said finally.
I sucked in my breath in surprise and understanding. "It was because of that woman today, wasn't it?" I asked.
A woman from another village had been killed by a lone rogue soldier this morning -- a bandit would be a more fitting term -- while on the way to our village. We had known her fairly well, actually, though we'd never learned her real name. She sold vegetables at our market once every other week, and we all called her "Ma'am" or "the vegetable lady," or on playful days, "grandmother." She hadn't really been that old.
As the strongest individuals in the area and also the self-appointed protectors of our village, Shunkaku and I had been notified to take care of the rogue. We had tracked down and killed the soldier, of course, as well as gotten back the money and produce he had stolen from the woman, but that was too late to save the poor woman herself.
I remembered how her husband had cried as he held her body, cursing himself for not having accompanied and protected her on her trip, and begging someone to save her. But it was no use. She had died instantly, her skull smashed in from behind like a rotten basket.
Shunkaku took a deep shaky breath. "Maybe..." he replied. He clenched the folds of his blanket tightly between his fists, and he stared down without seeing as he had been doing when I first woke up. He was remembering, I knew.
"She was walking," he began, in that far-away voice that people use when they're talking about dreams or distant memories. "And I was following her because I wanted to tell her something. I don't remember what I wanted to tell her. But she was walking down the road, when suddenly I saw a man coming up behind her.
"He looked perfectly normal, wearing regular clothing, and not mean or even really strong, but I knew somehow that he wanted to kill her. So I started running after her and screaming for her to run, but she just turned around and told me to stay quiet. She told me that I would be safe but that she had to go. She had to go look for something, she said. Or someone. She didn't even notice the man until he ran up to her and hit her across the face."
Shunkaku closed his eyes, remembering something that hadn't happened at all but which was as clear in his mind as any memory. I put my hand on his shoulder and waited for him to continue.
"He hit her hard," he said, in a pained voice, as if it had really happened that way. "And then he took out his knife and he- he stabbed her. He killed her. Right in front of me. I couldn't do anything to stop it, and no one else was around to help us. Mother never even screamed, and I couldn't make a sound or move a muscle. No one was there to help us, not even you, Aniki."
He said this last in a tone that was almost accusatory, but I didn't blame him for it because I understood. I had had similar dreams in which my brother was nowhere to be found when I needed him most. I always felt particularly lost and angry when that happened, feelings which carried over after I woke up until I regained my senses again. Afterwards, I always felt even more intensely glad that Shunkaku was with me. I didn't even want to think about the possibility that one day such a nightmare might come true.
I squeezed his shoulder, letting him know that I understood, that even though I hadn't experienced the nightmare as he had, I knew what he was feeling.
Shunkaku still did not look at me, but his fists slowly unclenched, and his breathing slowed into a regular tempo. I heard him take a deep breath and let it out slowly, and I knew then that the nightmare had finally ceased to be real to him, and he could go back to sleep without those not-quite-memories haunting him anymore. I smiled slightly, glad that he was feeling better and glad that I could help him, but pained that anything, even a dream, had hurt my brother.
I sighed and let my hand drop from his shoulder. Shunkaku did not look up, and neither did he make any move to return to bed, but I knew that he would do so eventually, when he was ready. I started to get back under my covers, when suddenly Shunkaku threw his arms around my waist from behind and held me
tight, pinning my arms down with a gentle hold. "Hey!" I cried, startled. My brother was quiet for a moment, but then he laughed and tightened his arms around me.
"Try and get loose!" he teased.
"That's not fair!" I protested, trying to sound angry even though I didn't really mean it. I was glad that Shunkaku wanted to have some fun. It'd take both of our minds off of the nightmare. And it'd been a while since we'd tested our strength against each other in a spontaneous wrestling match. I twisted around and shoved him with my elbow. "Three counts' warning!" I reminded him mock-accusingly.
He let go with an 'oof,' but immediately encircled my neck with his arm, bearing my head down with his upper body. "Three-two-one," he said, all in one breath. "There, you've been warned."
Instead of arguing with him, I threw my weight forward, bringing Shunkaku with me. He got entangled in his own blanket for just a moment, and his hold on me loosened, which was what I had wanted. But it still wasn't quite enough for me to get free. I resorted to tickling his side, right above the waist, where I knew he was the most sensitive.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Wait, wait a minute..." His cries of protest dissolved into helpless giggles, and he had to let go of me. I kept him at my mercy for a few more seconds just to get back at him, then finally relented. He sat up, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "That wasn't fair!" he scowled, but I just grinned back at him.
"It wasn't fair of you either to attack from behind without warning," I pointed out.
He narrowed his eyes in a playful expression that I knew well. "Alright, then," he said. "Let's start over. Three..." He got on his knees and hunkered down.
"Two..." I said, doing the same, and watching him carefully for anything that might signify his direction of movement.
"ONE!" We shouted at the same time and threw ourselves at each other.
The tussle went on for over ten minutes. Neither of us wanted to give up without a good fight, and we were evenly enough matched that we didn't have to. Shunkaku usually won our wrestling matches, because he was a bit better at physical things than I was. I always told him it was because he could put in extra training while I was stuck keeping up with our finances and our crop field and generally keeping us two alive.
Actually, though, I think that Shunkaku is just a natural fighter, while I'm really more of a musician at heart. I can certainly fight well enough, and my music has helped me to focus my ki, but I knew that my brother would always be the warrior of us two.
Of course, all that didn't mean that I was about to make it easy for him. I definitely wasn't against a good wrestling match, and older brothers have images to keep up, after all.
We ended up at the foot of the sleeping mat, me in a strangle-hold and Shunkaku smiling triumphantly down at me. "Give up?" he asked. I growled and struggled a bit, testing his hold, looking for a way out of it without breaking something or strangling myself. Finally, I had to admit to myself that I couldn't do it. Chalk up another victory to my younger brother.
"Okay, I give up," I said, a bit miffed despite the fact that I hadn't really expected to win in the first place. But once he let me up and I saw the glowing smile on his face, I couldn't help but answer it with a grin of my own. I shoved him none too lightly on the arm. "Alright, you win this time," I said. "But you better watch out the next time we wrestle."
"Oh, I'm really scared, Aniki," he returned with a laugh.
"Yup, you better be!" Laughing, I let myself fall backwards onto my side of the sleeping mat, exhausted. I blew out a long satisfied breath and kicked aside my covers, too hot from our exertion to want them at the moment. I was tired and a bit sore, and I was lying right on an immense wrinkle in the back of my shirt, but I didn't care. Suddenly, feeling the pleasant intoxicating sensation I always felt after a bout of satisfying physical exertion, I found myself giggling childishly.
"What?" Shunkaku asked, even as he broke out into giggles himself. There was something about giggling that made it infectious. Or maybe it was just because the two of us were so close that any feeling that one experienced was automatically taken up by the other.
I shook my head. "Nothing," I answered. I thought for a moment. "Just glad that we're together, I guess." I looked up at him, seeing a face which mirrored my own, pale against the dark stretches of the ceiling. Our eyes met, and all of a sudden, it seemed to me that Shunkaku got very quiet.
I wondered if I was just imagining things, but when I stretched out my ki, I could pick up vague inflections of disquiet from my twin. "Shunkaku...?"
For a long moment there was no response, and then I felt a touch at my hand. A moment of hesitation, and then my brother slipped his hand into mine and clutched it tightly.
"Shunkaku?" I said, sitting up quickly in surprise and concern even as I squeezed his hand back reflexively. I tried to see his face in the dim light, but he kept his gaze fixed on our linked hands and did not answer me. "Shunkaku?" I asked again, seriously worried now. When he still didn't respond, I pulled my hand away from his and put both my arms around him in a tight embrace. He returned the hug immediately, leaning hard into it to bury his face against my chest.
"Shun-chan, what's wrong?" I asked. He hadn't done anything like this for years.
Shun-chan didn't move, his arms still around me, his face still pressed against me. He didn't even react to the fact that I had slipped again and called him by his baby nickname.
"Aniki... I don't remember what she looks like," he said finally in a small tremulous voice, turning his face to the side so that he could speak.
"What?" I didn't quite understand what he was saying, but something cold fluttered in my chest.
"Mother. I can't remember her face. I haven't been able to for weeks now. I was trying and trying to after I woke up, but I couldn't, not even after just seeing her in my dream. All I can remember is that she had long long hair that was a bit darker than ours. And I think she used to wear a round piece of jade around her neck on a chain- no, not a chain, something red..."
"It was a dyed cord of muslin," I said, hugging him even tighter now that I understood why the dream had affected him so deeply. "Father always talked about how one day he'd earn enough money to buy her a real chain of gold or silver. But..." But Father had never had the time or the chance to do so.
Shunkaku nodded in agreement, probably matching my memory to his own. Then he said, in a quiet voice, "Tell me what she looked like, Aniki. I can't remember."
I stared at the shadows in the far corner of our house, my arms still around my brother, not wanting to tell him what I had discovered just a few days ago, but knowing that I had to because he was waiting for me to answer him. "I... I can't..." I finally admitted.
Shunkaku did not move, and when he spoke he sounded unsurprised, and resigned. "You don't remember either, do you?"
I didn't need to answer, because he had asked the question knowing what my answer would be.
I shook my head. Images of Father were fuzzy at best. We hadn't been old enough before the soldiers attacked our village to accompany Father often in the fields, so we had never really known him. But even so, we had known that he loved us. It hurt to forget him.
It occurred to me as long moments passed and Shunkaku did not make any move to disengage that the initial cause of our wrestling match may have been an aborted embrace. Although Shunkaku was a very physical person by nature, he rarely actively sought affection from me.
Aside from the reason that we were no longer children and were indeed almost men now, Shunkaku had long ago taken upon himself the job to 'protect' me, his more peaceful musician brother, and therefore tended not to show any signs of weakness around me. Though there was no question that he respected me and listened to me -- often acting very much like the care-free little brother he should be -- it was also not in his nature to hang on me like a little boy would his mother.
After all, it was clear that neither one of us had a mother anymore and never would have one again.
Suddenly, like a discordant cascade, a weight that had been building on my mind for days crashed over me. More abruptly than I had imagined, my role as the comforter crumpled away. I felt like I was only eight years old again, and childish tears came welling out of my eyes in rapid response.
Ashamed and surprised at this sudden display of weakness, I tried desperately to keep it quiet at least, hoping that Shunkaku wouldn't notice. Even though I often was the softer-hearted of us two, I was still supposed to be the strong older brother, and I did my best to maintain that position now. However, I was startled a moment later to hear a sharp ragged breath that was not my own, and feel dampness seeping through the thin cloth of my shirt at my chest. Shunkaku was crying as well.
I really shouldn't have been surprised. My brother and I were similar in more than just appearance.
Without even thinking about it, I buried my face in Shunkaku's hair, remembering in the vague reaches of my mind doing the same thing years ago. It was strange, but it felt like we had lost our parents all over again. Here in the quiet, cool darkness, holding each other like this, it felt like we were reliving that loud, fiery night so long ago when we had been made orphans.
And yet, there was something different as well, as if I were grieving for more than just two figures whose faces had already faded from my memory, like a solemn requiem into the deepest night. There was something fluttering at the edge of my consciousness, and when I strove to catch it and finally succeeded, I found to my surprise that it was fear. A soft nagging fear akin to the feeling I had experienced right after Shunkaku told me about his dream. That one day, Shunkaku might leave me behind in the same way. We had sworn to live and die together, but in all practicality, war didn't listen to vows like that. Death, as I well knew, took what and whom it liked.
But only if you let it! I told myself firmly, fiercely repressing that helpless, frightened part of myself. Never again... Not now that I had the means to fight and kill those who would kill us. I wasn't a helpless, oblivious child anymore.
"I won't let anyone take you away." This said with fierce conviction. It didn't surprise me at all that my brother's thoughts had been running along the same ways as my own.
"And I won't let anyone or anything take you away from me," I answered, with the same conviction. I would protect my brother with my life, and I knew that he would give up everything for me as well. It was a thought that we had always taken for granted, but it was nevertheless awesome to speak aloud.
"And we'll never let anything like that happen again, will we, Aniki?"
"No, we won't," I answered, a ferocity in my voice that I reserved for the ilk who had taken away our lives and those of the others in our village in the name of a pointless war.
Perhaps feeling bolder now, Shunkaku pushed me back until we could look each other in the face again. I stared at his swollen eyes and mussed hair, his clothes still disheveled from our scuffle, and wondered if I looked just as bad.
I don't know who started it first, but suddenly we were both giggling again, and then laughing hard, the chuckles and guffaws and hiccupping chortles echoing off the walls and ceiling of the house. For several minutes, there was nothing but the sound of our ridiculous laughter.
When finally we calmed down, Shunkaku was the first to speak. "Damn, Aniki," he gasped, "we look terrible, don't we?"
"Some protectors of the village," I agreed, wiping my eyes dry, not caring anymore whether they were wet with joy or sorrow. It felt good to laugh, and that was all that I wanted to think about at the moment.
"I guess we could always scare attackers away," Shunkaku snorted, making a terrible face, made even more terrible by his mussed appearance and the dim, eerie light of the moon. I laughed and made a face of my own, at which he shuddered away in mock-fright. "Oh no! Aniki's been possessed by a monster! Somebody save me!"
"Raaaaarrrr!" I roared, pouncing on him like the monster he said I was. The minute I was on him, I started tickling him mercilessly, and pretty soon I had him begging for help in earnest. I might not be able to win at wrestling, but I could tickle my brother to the ground whenever I wanted to.
Finally, when it looked like Shunkaku was about to suffocate from laughing, I let him up. But apparently, he wasn't as weakened as he'd led me to believe, because he jumped on me and retaliated with a vengeance.
"Shun- gah! HA ha ha! Shunkaku, st- stop!" I gasped out through uncontrollable gales of laughter. He laughed along with me, unable to resist the contagious effects inherent in a sound of joy. Seizing a lull in his attack, I pushed him off and flipped us around until I was on top again. But this time, Shunkaku didn't let me press my advantage.
We tumbled across the floor like brawling puppies, each trying to tickle the other into submission. Both of us were soon tearing and breathless from our impromptu contest, and still there was no stopping either of us. We got tangled in our blankets, and we knocked our heads against the wall. I felt the woven sleeping mat sliding beneath our bodies, and at one point, we rolled onto the bare dirt floor and then back again.
Finally, completely exhausted after who knows how long, lungs burning from dry quick breaths and faces sore from smiling and laughing and being occasionally shoved into the ground, we collapsed together back on our sleeping mat, side by side. I couldn't decide who had won and who had lost, but I didn't much care.
I turned to look at my brother, who was equally flushed and out of breath, and that look set us off into another bout of laughter which left me boneless and worn out and pleasantly drowsy.
After several minutes, feeling dreamy and lethargic, I reached out blindly for a blanket, found one, and pulled it lazily over my middle. My tunic was badly disheveled but I was too sleepy to care. Hardly conscious, I murmured, "Goodnight, Shun-chan" to my brother before drifting toward sleep.
A moment later, Shunkaku interrupted my descent into abstract dreams with a low whisper, "Aniki, are you still awake?"
"Hunh...?" I groaned. I turned to face him and found him leaning forward on his elbows and watching me anxiously. "I am now. What's the matter?"
He looked embarrassed. "Do you think... Would you play your flute for me?" he finally blurted out.
Perplexed at the sudden request, I shook myself awake and got up on my elbows as well, our positions exact reflections of each other. "Why?" I asked.
"I..." He lowered his gaze and started picking at the cloth wrapping around his straw pillow. "I can't sleep."
I frowned. "You know I don't like to do that, Shunkaku."
I'd learned a long time ago that I could influence people's consciousness with my flute-playing by concentrating my ki through it. Just like when I used my tunes as a weapon, all I had to do was to concentrate my ki on my flute and on my target and will what I wanted to happen. I could cause a man to fall asleep within half a minute. Faster for children. It worked on animals as well.
Sometimes, it almost frightened me what I could do with my ki and my flute. Five years ago, I had kept two slave traders from capturing my brother and me by playing my flute and giving them tremendous headaches, allowing my brother to dispatch them with his ryuuseisui. Now, I had the power and the control to kill two men such as they with just a few bars of music. Composing tunes of death had become as commonplace to me as lullabies or children's songs. It was so easy. Anyone who could hear was defenseless against my attacks. Sometimes, even the ki-charged waves of music themselves seemed to exert a physical force.
In a way, it gave me a peculiar and heady sense of invincibility, but at the same time, the ease with which I could manipulate and control others made me reluctant to use it on my friends and my brother. If given the choice, of course, I would never give up this power, because I knew that it was responsible for my ability to protect my village from harm, but that didn't make me any more comfortable with using it on someone I cared about.
But I had misunderstood Shunkaku. "That's not what I meant," he said. "I just wanted to hear you play."
"Oh," I said, feeling relieved and slightly chagrined. I should have known my brother wouldn't ask something of me that I felt uneasy doing. "Then of course." I got up and crawled over to where our clothes lay at the edge of the sleeping mat in two piles, now rumpled by our prior exercises.
Thankfully, I found my flute wrapped safely inside my outer tunic. I fingered it lightly, searching for cracks and finding none. The tone had developed a slight whistle lately, and I knew that something inside must have started to break. My ki protected it and made it stronger than a regular flute would be against external damage, but since I used it as instrument both of music and war, and channeled something stronger than breath and saliva through it, it saw much more internal wear than a regular flute did. I would have to make myself a new one soon.
Father had made my first flute, and I still kept that one for sentimental value, but it had been fitted for the fingers of a small child, and after I had grown up a little, I had made a new one for myself that was of a fitting size. To my surprise, it hadn't been too difficult. After only a few tries to figure out how to shape the bamboo material, I had had an easy time of it. Somehow, I knew instinctively how to space the holes and to drill them just right. In fact, Father's flute had been a bit off in pitch compared to mine.
Interestingly enough, around the same time, Shunkaku had made a new ryuuseisui for himself, with the same easy success. He had offered to make another one for me as well, but I had refused. We each had found our own weapons in which to focus and train our ki, and my choice was not the same as his -- perhaps the one major decision we had made in our lives where our choices had not coincided.
Taking the flute back to the head of the sleeping mat, I sat down with legs folded beneath me. My brother's eyes watched me as I raised the flute to my lips and played a few scales to warm up with, first long and slow, then picking up in speed, something he had watched me do countless times before. When I was satisfied, I lowered the instrument and smiled at my brother in the dark. "What would you like to hear?" I asked.
"I want to hear Mother's song," he replied in a clear voice.
The request surprised me and I showed it.
Mother's song was a simple and somewhat melancholy piece of slow, soulful notes, one that always reminded me of cold stars slowly appearing in the night sky over a lonely field. It had no words or name that I knew of. Mother had used to hum it as she worked, and it had been one of the first tunes that Father had taught my brother and me to play on our flutes. I hadn't played it in a long time, because Shunkaku said that it made him sad. In fact, he had quit playing the flute altogether after the first one that father had made for him had been lost, preferring to devote his time to training with his ryuuseisui, and insisting that listening to me play was enough for him.
Shunkaku returned my gaze now, his face very earnest, eyes that mirrored mine shining like disks of glass in the dim light. Looking into my brother's serious eyes, I nodded once, and raised my flute to my lips.
I had not forgotten the tune, and, fingers moving effortlessly to form the notes, I played it flawlessly the first time through. It seemed fitting to me to play that song again now, as I was sure it seemed to Shunkaku as well. It was a way to remember our parents when we had started to forget them, a way to save a piece of them forever.
'Neath twin-raised rafters
a moonlit piece is played in still harmony
A wordless song with gentle tone
to ease twin sorrows in their woe,
not to forget, but slowly
to let go...
When I finished, I continued smoothly into another more common village lullaby, one which most of the mothers on the street sang to their children at night, adding my own embellishments while being careful not to detract from the soothing tone.
And then another song that the farmers sang as the last of the day's light faded in the sky, humming to themselves to lead their footsteps home after a hard day in the fields.
And then a foreign tune that I had heard a merchant whistling last week.
And finally a tune that I had composed just the day before, a simple piece that I felt had potential, one that I planned to work on and perhaps add lyrics to, something that I rarely did for my own pieces. I had no clear idea yet what it would say, but I knew that it would be about peace, and about quiet villages in the safety of the night. Again a rarity, I had chosen a name for this song: Nocturne.
When the last notes faded away, I lowered my flute and recalled my soul from the world of music where I had immersed myself. I was somewhat surprised to find my brother's eyes still open, though cast with a sleepy half-lidded expression. He smiled up at me.
"Thank you. Niisan."
Shunkaku rarely called me by this more respectful address, but somehow it seemed right, and I was not surprised. "Is that enough?" I asked softly. "Or do you want me to play some more?"
He shook his head drowsily. "Nn-nnh. M'okay," he mumbled, so I put my flute away and slid again into bed beside him. Now that I was no longer surrounded by the cocoon of my music, I was starting to feel the cold and was grateful for the warm covers.
"Aniki?" The voice sounded clearer than it had before, and I opened my own eyes to look at Shunkaku, wondering what he was thinking about now.
"You remember that story the traveling story-teller was telling at the last village gathering?"
I frowned in thought. "The one about the brothers and the river goddess?" I said, thinking of the story in which two brothers had been separated and one taken by a river goddess to live with her beneath the waters. A romantic tale that had appealed to me. But probably not, I realized as soon as I mentioned it, the story that my brother would have found most interesting.
Indeed, he answered, "No, the other one."
"Which? He told a lot of stories that night."
"The one about the seven warriors of Seiryuu."
"Hm, yes, I remember." He had told that one at the beginning, and he had kept his gaze on Shunkaku and me almost the entire time. That had given me a strange, unsettling feeling, but the story had been a good one.
"Do you think it could be true? I mean, we would be two of the shichiseishi if it were, right?"
I shrugged skeptically. "I don't know. You know how story-tellers are. He could have just heard about us and the words on our shoulders beforehand and built up a story around it." It was a common strategy of professional story-tellers to alter or create their stories to include or allude to their audience, making the story more real and immediate and thus more interesting.
I had to admit, however, that his story had been quite compelling. Seven warriors with special powers who would protect a priestess who came from another world so that she could call the mystical beast-god, Seiryuu, and get three wishes from him. If it were true...
"Just think, Aniki. The miko could bring peace to Kutou. She could protect our whole country, not just our village. And think about how important we'd be, how powerful!"
The thought was quite captivating. It made me feel as if I could be part of something important and world-changing. And to bring peace to Kutou? Such a thought was irresistible. Even if an insubstantial dream, it was a fine one...
"You think she's pretty, Aniki?" My musings were interrupted by a sleepy voice.
I chuckled but did not bother to open my eyes. "Of course. Aren't all other-worldly girls sent to us to summon a god supposed to be beautiful beyond description?"
Shunkaku snickered. "Maybe she'll be all covered in warts, or have huge buck teeth."
"Maybe she won't have any teeth at all," I added, chuckling myself at the image we were conjuring up: a horrendous old hag supposed to summon the god Seiryuu? Laughable. But I couldn't help imagining. The miko, if there truly were one, ought to be pretty, I thought, but not inaccessibly so. And she ought to have a strong and optimistic character, one that could combat the depressing aura of war over our country. But was the story real, or just a tale spun by the story-teller in exchange for a responsive audience, a meal, and a night's stay? Shunkaku seemed to want to believe the former, and so, to tell the truth, did I.
Shunkaku's chuckles were interrupted by a yawn, and after a period of silence, his breathing deepened and evened out. A light stretch of ki through the bond between us, and I could tell that he had fallen asleep.
But the thought lingered in my head: What if the story was true? What if the two of us really were fated to be a part of a greater destiny? I couldn't tell quite what I thought about that, but one thing I knew for certain: No matter what was true and what was not, no matter what happened to my brother and me, we would always face it together.
We were twins, after all, and almost the same person, and we would always have each other.
As seasons come and go, they train
whilst legends roaming bear their names
Twin hopes but half-believe their say,
yet swear twin fierce vows to save
their war-torn home from strife,
Yet still untrained, unguided they
continue their provincial way
as restless changes
shake their homes and dreams delay,
They stay their hands,
until one day...
I still remember the day my brother and I met Nakago for the first time.
I was in our field -- the portion of the plot of land that our village owned which was ours to use -- pulling up weeds and checking over the leaves of the scrubby sweet potato plants we had planted in the spring. The weather had been too dry this year, and though potato plants are tough, it looked like we'd have to start hand-watering them soon. Which also meant more weeding to be done. I groaned.
At least I didn't find any evidence of insects chewing them up. It looked like the mixture we poured over the plants once a day was holding out against the little pests. One of our neighbors, old Shuuji-ojiisan, had taught us how to mix the foul-smelling stuff. It was a family secret, he said. I guess people get more friendly and generous when everyone's got to share to survive.
I groaned and leaned back from my kneeling position, letting my weight rest on my arms for a while. Our plot of land was hardly very large, since Father had been a poor man, but somehow, it looked like it had managed to grow throughout the afternoon while I had been working here. It sure seemed that way to my sore, aching body. And worse, it was a never-ending heart-deep ache, not the sweet muscle ache you get from battle.
Thank the four Gods that it was almost time to stop for the day. There were still a few hours before sunset, but Aniki and I made it a point to stop before dinner, unless something urgent needed to be done, so that we could train a bit outside while it was still light. Soldiers didn't come by so often anymore to be targets for us, after all. They had used to come by at least once a month, and two years ago we hadn't worked in the fields at all because the situation had been so bad that the villagers had agreed to feed us in exchange for guarding the village.
Battles still broke out every now and then, of course, but some of the idiot soldiers had figured out by now that trying to take over Tenryou Village or take stuff from us wasn't a good idea with the Bu brothers here. Sometimes people tried to recruit us to help them fight whatever group or person, but we never listened to them. I only fought for myself, my brother, and my village. And I didn't really care who we were fighting against as long as we won.
I ran a hand across my sweating face, then pulled off my headband to let my forehead cool. It was a thin, slightly stretchy piece of cloth that had been cut from the same bolt as my brother's had been. It kept my hair under control and kept the sweat from my eyes, but it also stifled my forehead. I looked at it and sighed. The blue cloth was dark with my sweat and, like the hand I was holding it with, was caked with dirt from the field.
I passed my arm across my face again, thinking how ridiculous it was for me to be sprawled here in the dirt in the middle of a few scrabbly rows of dying sweet potato plants. There had to be some greater purpose in my life. My brother and I were special somehow. I knew it. I was certain that those stories that had become more popular lately, the ones about the Seiryuu no Miko, weren't all made up. What were the signs on our shoulders then, if those were just stories?
Aniki never said anything about it, but I was sure that he believed in the legends too. We were meant to be Seiryuu's Shichisei, not regular farmers in a far-away village.
The wars had gone quiet, at least for now, so our village didn't need our protection anymore. I wanted to leave here and go someplace, maybe the city, maybe the capital city, and find something more worthwhile in life.
Aniki agreed with me. But he said that we should wait another year to make sure things were really settled down. We couldn't go if Tenryou might be in danger. He was right, of course. I would be devastated if something happened to our village again. Particularly if it were something that we could have prevented by being here.
But I wanted to leave so badly! I couldn't understand how my brother could stay so calm, and so devoted to the village. He's a better man than I am.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sharp prick on the upper part of my left arm. I looked at it, alarmed. Aniki had left just a few minutes ago to start preparing our dinner. He couldn't even have finished washing up yet. Not to mention, in the special code which we had developed over the years, the left upper arm could mean only one thing. Trouble.
I leaped to my feet, putting my headband back on as I ran. I raced towards our home, pausing only briefly at the edge of our field to pick up my ryuuseisui. I felt another prick on my left forearm as I ran, and I looked down to see three reddish marks appearing there, as if someone with strong ki had dug his fingers into my flesh.
There were three of them, then. Nothing we couldn't handle. Nothing, actually, that my brother couldn't handle by himself. But he would want me there to back him up, I knew. And I wanted a good fight to loosen up my muscles.
# # # # #
When I came in sight of the house, it was just in time to see three men ride up to the front where my brother was waiting, his flute in hand. I slowed to a jog, surveying the situation as I approached. Something told me these weren't the usual bandits trying to extort food and supplies from our village.
Three men. Armored, and armed with broadswords, as far as I could tell. One was clearly the leader, with crested helmet and wide, spiked shoulder plates that reflected the sunlight even as far as I was. He rode ahead of the others, his height not entirely due only to the powerful bay mare that was his mount. He drew up his horse with an experienced, almost contemptuous, pull of the reins. This one was dangerous. I could feel it.
Of the two who followed him, the one on the pied mare was noticeably the more powerful. He had what looked like a crossbow and a quiver of bolts slung across his shoulders in addition to the heavy broadsword at his right hip. Left-handed then, something rather rare. And he was trained in both long and short-range combat. He drew up more slowly than the first man, I would almost say cautiously, and he put his hand on his hilt, not to draw but ready to at a moment's notice. A bodyguard, probably. More and more strange.
The third man rode a clean, white-speckled mount, heavy set like all warhorses had to be to carry armored men, but with a slightly finer build. I didn't see many horses around the village because most people were too poor to own one, but soldiers and merchants rode through now and then, and I could tell by the way this beast walked that it had been bred for speed and agility as well as strength. The man himself wore lighter armor than his companions. As he drew up his horse, he steadied the tall pole that he held with one hand, the butt of which rested in his left stirrup, the top of which held a pennant of deep blue and silver.
I hissed through my teeth. Royal colors.
Defects from the royal army could be seen from time to time, but defects would never dare to fly the royal pennant -- or waste a man to do it.
So, what was a royal officer doing here? (Only a captain or higher would have a bodyguard and a flag bearer following him.) It couldn't be tax collection. That had to be beneath a man like this. Recruitment? I smiled grimly. Aniki and I were the best. Maybe at just barely fifteen some people might think we were young, but we were the best.
Just the same, we would never go to the army. What had the king of Kutou ever done for us? And what could be served by playing police and hurting our own people (which is largely what the royal army does), or by attacking another country that had nothing to do with us (which Aniki said was done now and then as a distraction for bored soldiers).
The men did not dismount. I heard the leader of the three say something and Aniki answered. I uncoiled my ryuuseisui and, tightening my grip on my weapon, I ran the rest of the way.
# # # # #
"Ah, and this must be Suboshi."
The tall man, the leader, didn't look surprised to see me. Most people are startled when they meet me and Aniki. Twins are rare. I've never met any others in my life. But this man looked almost like he had been expecting it. And he looked... pleased. I grit my teeth, immediately disliking him.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I snapped, stopping several meters from my brother, giving us room to fight if we needed to and splitting up the enemy's attention. Aniki spared me a quick glance of acknowledgement but otherwise kept his focus on the strangers. I held my ryuuseisui ready. You couldn't trust soldiers, even if they were part of the royal army. "My name is Bu Shunkaku, and you are standing on our land."
The man smiled, just a bit. It was an arrogant smile, the kind that a particularly nasty soldier might give a country bumpkin before kicking his cart of vegetables into the mud. His forehead glowed blue, and I thought for a moment that the glow was shaped like a word. But I barely had time to think this before a huge invisible force slammed into my chest and threw me backwards into the side of our house.
"Shunkaku!" Hazily, I saw my brother raise his flute, ready to deal with these intruders, but before a single note had sounded he froze with a startled look on his face.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. Amiboshi." I heard my brother cry out in anguish at the same time as I felt the echoes of pain that speared through my brother's hands. Somehow, this man was hurting my brother without even touching him. Even so, Aniki did not drop his flute. At the same time as I admired his bravery, I understood it. We had learned. A warrior's weapon was his life. The day I lost control over my own weapon in the middle of a battle was probably the day I would die.
I didn't waste time yelling threats this time. No one hurt my brother and lived to tell about it. I picked myself up and threw my ryuuseisui out with two flicks of my arm and a push from my mind. Even if my aim had been off -- which it rarely was -- my ki always guided my pets to their targets with deadly force.
But this man was different.
The same blue glow flared up, and my ryuuseisui made an impossible turn in the air and flew back at me. If my reflexes hadn't been trained by years of practice, they might have kept on going right through my body. As it was, I stepped aside just in time and threw my ki out to bring the spinning feathered balls back to my hand.
"Who the hell are you?" I demanded, throwing my ryuuseisui out again, but this time at intersecting curves and with a strong cocoon of ki around each ball to resist tampering. It looked like I was right. This one was dangerous. He would require more finesse to take down.
I hated this arrogant man, but at the same time I was a little bit awed, I think. Everyone has life ki, and many people tap into this energy when they fight, but my brother and I were the only people I knew who had enough control and strong enough ki to use it directly as a weapon.
I heard my brother's battle music, the angry tune that would raise some hairs even without adding deadly ki to it. Aniki must be free from what had held him. But I didn't turn to look. I could sense where my brother was through our connection and through a lifetime of fighting and living together, and I knew I would need all my attention for the battle.
The man cocked his head at the music. But instead of convulsing with pain at the sound as his fellows were doing, he smiled again. I was furious, and I gave an extra push to my ryuuseisui just as they were about to smash in the smug bastard's head. Without even turning to look at me, he raised an arm, and again my weapons flew in a tight circle back at me.
I was ready this time. I pulled the balls back toward me, speeding their flight, then swung the rope between my hands in a circle, just enough to use the force to hurtle my twin balls of death back at their target.
The man kicked his horse forward and ducked just in time for my ryuuseisui to miss his head again by a fraction. No matter. With barely a thought, I sent them to follow. They bounced off an invisible shield of ki that the man hastily erected, and I smiled and pressed my attack. Not so smooth now, are you?
My brother, meanwhile, had formed a tight sphere of ki around himself, and was sending sudden arcing strikes close to the ground at random intervals, all the time keeping up the general air of deadly pressure with his music. The man's own shield was holding up so far, but his horse seemed to be starting to become skittish at the pressure to its feet which it could surely feel, even though it looked like he was shielded too.
The man couldn't possibly keep a shield up for long that would cover both himself and his mount against my brother's attacks. Plus, I had not ceased my own attacks. The man would have to give in soon, unless he was more powerful than the two of us combined.
Aniki and I might be young yet, but we were stronger than most well-seasoned warriors, and together we could do much more than any enemy we had ever met. Surely this one would be no different.
As if to prove me wrong, I felt a sudden tremor in my control. The man turned and looked at me. No smile this time, just a look. Black objects swarmed my vision and I thought for a confused moment that a swarm of gnats was flying at me. And then I heard myself screaming as pain pierced me from all sides. I bent double, sweating from the agony of seemingly having my skin set on fire. I was conscious of the smell of blood that I had no doubt was my own.
There was a clattering sound, and my eyes barely focused enough to realize that hundreds of pieces of gravel were dropping around me. I saw glints of dark wetness on them and realized that they had flown through the air to stab themselves into my skin and gouge pieces from my flesh. Even as sharp as some of those pieces were, it would have taken an incredible amount of power to send them past my protective ki shield all at once and at my body with enough force to draw blood. Again I wavered between awe and rage.
The music stopped, and I looked up just as my brother clenched his jaw and ran straight at the enemy. He raised his flute and leaped, preparing to crush him with a direct blow. It was a move that he rarely used. It was powerful but dangerous, and I'd never seen him use it in battle unless there was no other option.
With all the power I could summon, I shot my ryuuseisui around the man and back to attack him from behind. This would strike him without spoiling my brother's aim, and with Aniki attacking from in front and me from behind, each would distract the man from the other. It was one of the strongest attacks we had.
But it did not succeed.
Just before my brother reached his target, the man narrowed his eyes, and the blue glow that had never left his forehead since the beginning flared brightly. My brother could not be distracted by the light, but at the same time, the man raised one hand and a ball of pure ki, blue in color like ours, shot out from it, slamming straight into my brother's chest. The breath knocked out of him, Aniki had no chance even to utter a cry of pain before he was thrown backwards into the ground at the soldiers' feet, limp and unmoving.
Barely taking the time to notice how my ryuuseisui balls were neatly diverted from their target once more, I yanked them to me with a fierce twist and sent them back again.
And each time, with seemingly growing ease, the man returned them to me with increasing force until I was no longer sure who was the attacker and who was the defender. And finally, even fueled by my anger, my power slipped and my control disappeared. I could only watch as my ryuuseisui came at me with deadly force.
And stopped a centimeter from my forehead.
I stared for a long moment, disbelieving, and then I collapsed to my knees, breathing in heavy gasps. My ryuuseisui bounced to the ground, reduced to ordinary wooden balls. I didn't have the energy to call them back to me. I knew the fight was over. I clenched my fists tight, tightening my grasp on my lifeless weapon and glaring at the still-mounted man who had beaten us. Concentrating, I dug my nails into my palms hard enough to leave marks.
I heard a groan, and I saw my brother stir from the corner of my eye. I didn't like adding to his pain, but our old trick had had it's effect. He was awake. If we were going to die, we should do it while conscious. And together.
The flag-bearer behind our enemy was running one shaky hand through his hair and wiping his bleeding nose with the other. His flag had fallen to the ground and his horse was rolling its eyes in fright. He should feel lucky. If my brother had not been concentrating on a different target, he would be dead now, blood pouring out of his nose and ears, and maybe his abdomen torn apart by the waves of ki. The bodyguard was in no better state. I did not spare the time to sneer at them.
Their leader swept his cold gaze over the both of us.
"Congratulations, you passed my little test. In fact, you're stronger than I thought you would be." His patronizing tone made me want to fly at his throat for all that I was too exhausted even to stand. But at the same time I felt a perverse sense of pride at having surprised him with our strength.
"What do you want?" My brother's voice was weak but steady. I heard him climb haltingly to his feet. I breathed slightly easier but did not take my attention off our enemy. It looked like he might not be planning to kill us after all, but now that we had passed his 'test', who knew what he would try next.
The man smiled again, that arrogant calculating smile that I hated with all my being. "I want you, Amiboshi." He fixed his gaze on me. "And you, Suboshi."
Those names again.
"I think you have the wrong people," my brother said, anger in his voice. "My name is Bu Koutoku, and this is my brother Bu Shunkaku. We don't know who you're talking about."
"Wrong. You are exactly whom I am looking for -- Seiryuu's Shichiseishi."
For the first time since before the battle started, my brother and I shared a glance. Our eyes met with exactly the same expressions of stunned incredulity. "What are you talking about?" I asked. He couldn't be talking about the stories that our country storytellers passed around. Even though I believed they had to be at least partly true, I would never imagine a royal soldier calling us by that title or supposedly searching for us because of them.
"I'm sure you've heard the legends."
"Yes..." Aniki was hesitant in his reply.
"Amiboshi and Suboshi are two of the dragon-god Seiryuu's Shichiseishi. As champions and protectors of this country, you are destined to serve the Miko of Seiryuu." He paused. "And me."
"And just who the hell are you?" I growled. With a grand effort, I struggled to a standing position, refusing to kneel in front of this arrogant man.
The man lifted his hands and I tensed, even though I had no power left at the moment to counter any attack he should throw at us. But he only put his hands to his helmet, and lifted it off.
I stared, gaping at the golden yellow hair that fell down across the man's shoulders. I had never seen hair that color before. It was a rich soft yellow, much lighter even than ours. It looked natural too, not paled or whitened by age. Without the hood of the helmet, I could see that his eyes were pale as well and blue as the sky just after sunrise.
"Demon," I breathed. He couldn't be human, looking the way he did and having the power that he had.
"You can call me Nakago," he returned coldly. For just a split-second, I thought I saw a glimpse of emotion on his face, but it disappeared before I was sure, and I was too distracted by his name to care.
"Nakago?" I repeated. "You're general of Kutou's military!" Word had traveled even to Tenryou about Nakago, the ruthless but unarguably brilliant general who led Kutou's armed forces. Now that I remembered, the rumors had said that the general had an unusual and foreign appearance. But I had ignored them as exaggerations contrived to add to the mystery and power of the man.
"I control most of the military, yes," he answered me, with no hint of pride in his voice. I'd never seen anyone this cold before. But it was harder to hate him now that I knew who he was. Kutou's highest general! And he had come especially looking for Aniki and me.
Suddenly I remembered the blue glow on the man's forehead during the battle. It had looked like a word, I remembered -- just like the marks on our shoulders. According to the legends, that was the sign of a Seiryuu Shichiseishi. So this man was also...
"You're also a Shichiseishi, aren't you?" my brother asked. Of course, he had come to the same conclusion as I had.
"Have you found the others?" I asked, excited. Legends said there were seven warriors altogether.
"You don't need to worry about that," he said. "I will make sure all are gathered when the time is ready."
"And the Miko?"
"Don't worry. She will come."
"How can you be so sure?" His arrogant attitude still annoyed me.
"We would not exist if she were not coming." That made sense, I guess.
"If you're asking us to join you, why did you attack us?" my brother demanded angrily.
"As I told you already, it was a test, to make sure you were whom I was searching for, and that you were worthy to serve the Miko. Don't worry. You passed superbly." Although I still didn't quite trust this strangely fair-colored man who had, as far as I could tell, stopped just short of killing us, I felt oddly pleased by his compliment, coming from Kutou's highest general.
"Enough of this talk. Will you join me?"
"What exactly do you want us to do?" Aniki asked. He sounded suspicious. We both were. Even being awed by this man's power did not make me trust him.
Nakago's expression did not change. "I want your complete and exclusive loyalty. To me and the Miko."
"And what would you ask us to do if you had our loyalty?" Aniki shot back. I didn't like how vague this Nakago's answers were. Aniki and I had followed nobody's orders except each other's since we were eight years old and we weren't about to do so now without some damn good explanations.
Nakago stared at us for a few seconds. Just stared. I couldn't tell if he was thinking about the question, or disdaining to answer, or getting ready to attack us again. I wondered how he could keep his face so cold all the time. Even without his powers he was dangerous. Very dangerous. And I told myself that if we decided to follow this man, we would have to be careful.
Finally, Nakago smiled. It wasn't as unpleasant as the ones he'd shown us before, but I can't say that I liked it much better. It gave me the feeling that everything was going according to some plan he had drawn up ages ago. With one fluid movement he swung off his horse to land almost soundlessly on the ground. I tensed, ready for another 'test' or something equally crazy. But he only gave his horse a pat and stayed where he was. "I can see I won't get far unless I tell you at least a portion of my plans in advance."
I got it. He was bringing himself down to our level. How kind of the arrogant bastard.
Now that he was on the ground, I could see how tall and physically strong he was. I had to admit he looked pretty impressive, especially with his armor on. The coloring and design had clearly been made to impress. Strangely enough, though, standing alone made Nakago look even more intimidating, and I had a feeling that the aura of danger around him had absolutely nothing to do with his armor or his weapons.
"Should you choose to follow me," he said, "I would of course expect you to do battle in behalf of the Miko and the country of Kutou. You will come to the palace to be close at hand. You will protect the Miko from harm. You will participate in the ceremony to summon the god Seiryuu. Additionally, given your unique powers, I will expect one of you to perform reconnaissance in a neighboring kingdom. In other words, you will be separated from each other for perhaps a long period of time."
And he looked hard at us, as if he knew that this was probably the most difficult thing he could ask us to do.
Aniki and I hadn't been farther than across the village from each other since we were born. And since our parents died and our powers manifested, we had been able to feel each others' presence even when we weren't close. If we were a country away from each other...? I couldn't be sure that our powers could stretch as far as that.
Still. It wasn't as if we were shackled to each other. And we were hardly children anymore. At fifteen, we could certainly take care of ourselves. Who knows? Maybe being apart might help develop some new power between us. Not that I wanted to be separated, of course. Only if it was necessary. If we had to be separated, though, I hoped to be the one going. I didn't want Aniki in enemy territory by himself. His soul's a bit too kind for work like that.
I couldn't help thinking of our dreams. Of becoming powerful and famous for bringing peace to all of Kutou. Of everyone being too awed and scared to ever think of crossing us again. If working with a cold-hearted bastard would get us that, well, so what? If he ordered us to do something we really didn't want to do, we could always defect. Aniki and I didn't need anyone aside from each other. Besides, bastard or not, it looked like Nakago knew what he was doing and was good at getting what he wanted. As long as what he wanted and what we wanted were the same thing, it was okay. And working with Kutou's highest general was exciting in itself.
I felt a soft prick on my left hand, between the first and second joints of my middle finger where a thumb could scrape the skin without being too obvious about it. My brother was saying yes then. Immediately, I returned the signal. As usual, we agreed with each other.
Nakago's ice-blue eyes flicked from my hand to Aniki's. He smiled, and I got the feeling that he knew exactly what we were doing. I didn't like that. "So, you agree?" he asked, that annoying look of satisfaction on his face.
"Yes," Aniki answered, before I could say something insulting. That was probably for the best. Didn't want to ruffle our new 'superior' and all, right?
"Excellent." He looked disgustingly pleased with himself. If I weren't injured and if I didn't guess that he could blow me to pieces with his ki alone, I might have decided even back then to tell him to forget his offer and leave us alone. Someday, I think, I will be that strong.
The satisfied look disappeared quickly. He was obviously not a man of emotions. "Do you know how to read and write?" he asked.
That was a surprise.
"Of course we do!" I replied.
Aniki threw me a look that said, Steady, and replied, more calmly and maybe a bit more truthfully, "We know the basics." Father had taught us our names and some common words for everyday life, which was all that he knew himself. I vaguely remember him talking about finding a tutor for us to learn more. "A strong man can be a warrior, boys, but the smart man is the general," I remember him saying once. I'd been young and I hadn't really understood at the time, but looking at Nakago, it made a lot more sense. Wasn't too hard to tell that he had a sharp brain. Though it probably didn't have much to do with how much reading he did.
Nakago nodded, again as if he'd been expecting our answer. "Learn more. This should cover a teacher's fees." He tossed out the casual command at the same time as a small sack. I caught it before it could hit my chest, even as I realized what it was and frowned. The Bu did not take charity.
"Why?" Aniki demanded of him.
"Your powers are not being used to their full potential." I didn't see any relation between the two and I was going to say so. But I saw Aniki was frowning, and he looked a little thoughtful like he might know what Nakago was talking about. I trusted my brother with my life. I didn't think my pride should be any different. I stuffed the money pouch inside my tunic.
"You will need to ready yourselves to come to the palace."
"We'll need time to prepare a few things," Aniki said.
"Just be ready when I send for you." Nakago was terse, already commanding us as underlings. He turned and swung himself back onto his horse. "Any questions?" he asked, once mounted, clearly not expecting any. We were silent, still not quite sure what to make of him, this man we had promised to follow to peace and glory.
"By the way," he said, smiling in that patronizing way he had. "I have some advice. Something to work on, shall we say, before me meet again." He looked directly at me and said, "Have you ever wondered, Suboshi, if your weapon could move independent of its little tether?" It was strange but interesting advice, and it set me thinking. While I hate the man Nakago, I could never say he didn't have great battle sense. But I wasn't about to let him know, so I did not respond. That didn't faze him, of course. He turned to Aniki next.
"And you, Amiboshi," he said with a sort of disdain in his voice that made me want to give another try at smashing my ryuuseisui into his head, "you should know by now that if you have absolute control, you don't need to worry about hurting others with your power. Let it grow strong. Do not tie yourselves down needlessly." He flicked a glance at me. "I look forward to seeing improvement in the both of you." And with that, he gestured to his followers, and they left.
We watched the riders until they had disappeared over the horizon. Maybe it was to make sure they were gone. Maybe it was to make sure they had been here in the first place. It was a long time before we could help each other to make our way back to our home. We needed to dress our wounds and prepare dinner.
Just before entering our house and returning to the mundane, however, I stopped and caught Aniki's eye.
"It looks like a lot of things will be changing soon, Amiboshi," I said.
That was the first and last time that I called my brother by anything other than older brother. But he understood, as I knew he would. And he answered me, "Exactly,... Suboshi." And he called me that for the rest of our days.
# # # # #
A little over a month and a half later, a man wearing a blue embroidered uniform arrived at our door on a frothing bay mare, escorted by two soldiers on equally winded steeds. He reined in his tired beast and handed us a sealed letter. Aniki took it and opened it immediately, holding it out so we could both read it at the same time. It read, simply:
To Amiboshi and Suboshi, Seiryuu's Shichiseishi:
The time has come. Be at the palace gates in one week.
There was no signature, but I didn't even have to think twice about just who had written it.
Aniki looked up from the words at the same time as I did, and his expression reflected exactly my feelings of fierce excitement. We were twins, after all, and you could say we were almost the same person. So it didn't take words to know that we agreed in what we wanted to do. Aniki handed the opened letter back to the messenger.
"Tell Nakago-sama, my brother and I will set out for the capital today."
At dragon's cry
twin bloods alight
excitement beating through twin veins
for anger at a pain-filled past
and burning hope for future, now