Title:Lost in Translation.
Lesson XI: The Keep (No. 11 of 16)
Disclaimer: These two were hatched from the collective brain of CLAMP. Not mine.
Spoilers: Set during the Shurano/Yamano arc. I'm writing a few short stories based on the adventures of Kurogane and Fai in Yasha territory (aka "Yamano") with a focus on the language barrier. Some spoilers for Kurogane's Rekourto / Library!World back story.
Rating: PG-16. For all the stories as a whole (language, some violence... and possible "adult situations.")
Word Count: 4322
Notes: I've outlined the rest of the story, and decided to wrap up the story within five more chapters.
The dragons were humming.
Kurogane blinked sharply, snapping himself out of the trance he'd been lulled into by Sharal's slow, steady gait and the constant heat of the sun beating down on his back. Surely he'd been imagining things.
The army had been traveling since daybreak and it was now well past noon, so perhaps it wasn't entirely surprising that he'd been drifting (although no less embarrassing for his ninja pride.) The humming didn't disappear as his senses sharpened, though. He placed a tentative hand on Sharal's neck. There was definitely a low vibration there, and the pitch she was producing was quite low, almost at the edge of Kurogane's auditory range. Kurogane contemplated the song for a moment: she wasn't singing alone. None of the dragons were; they seemed to be calling and responding to one another's songs, a sort of a conversation. If dragons were actually capable of such a thing.
The idiot mage, of course, would empathetically insist that yes, dragons were capable and then he'd proceed to manufacture a plausible-sounding "translation" of the dragons' song -- had he been conscious and not currently drooling slightly on Sharal's saddle. He'd fallen asleep over two hours ago, Kurogane's bruised ninja pride noted smugly, while Kurogane's pragmatic side reached for his handkerchief to dab at Fai's face. Silly dork.
Gion pulled his mount up beside Sharal, and gave him a knowing smile when he noticed Kurogane's fingers were hooked to Fai's belly plate. "So the idiot mage doesn't fall off," Kurogane mumbled, his cheeks growing hot, and he wondered why he needed to justify himself to Girl Hair.
"The dragons are singing because we'll reach the forests of the Yasha clan soon – see the hills ahead? That is their native home – they didn't enjoy living in the desert. The hot air and sand are rough on their hides." There was a relaxed air to Gion's face and posture now, as if he'd shed his tension like an unwanted second skin and left it behind in the desert.
"You're from the forests." Gion's expression was unmistakable, and a pang of envy shot through Kurogane. Would he ever see his own home again?
"Yes, I was born here. It's quite beautiful." Gion smiled fondly. "I can show you and Fai around Lord Yasha's keep. There's a river, and if you follow the river downstream, there's a city within walking distance. You know, you're lucky Fai's an archer."
"Most men have to share housing in the barracks. But people with specialized skills get separate quarters. The private housing is sort of an incentive to encourage to men to develop skills we lack in camp – like archery. Since you're Fai's partner, you get to share a private room with him."
Well, that would make camp life a little more tolerable. He hadn't had to suffer with shared living quarters since he'd first joined Tomoyo's Guard – it wasn't an experience he particularly cared to repeat. The default setting for single young men seemed to be "cave barbarian." He'd had more than one heated argument over whether or not it would actually kill a man not to simply drop his sweaty clothes in the middle of the floor (the arguments had been resolved rather quickly when he'd taken to hanging up dropped clothes on the wall. Using knives.) "So what unit are we fighting with, or do we fight alone?" Kurogane asked.
"I've watched you practice. You've got some nasty attacks," Gion said as he rubbed his chin contemplatively, and Kurogane grinned savagely, pleased at the thoughtful compliment. "I wouldn't want you positioned in the middle or the rear of the army when you cut loose one of those monster blasts. I want you to fight with me in the calvary unit, at the front line. So you can use those attacks to cause maximum damage to the enemy instead of us. Plus, it seems you're getting along well with Sharal; she's fought in the calvary unit before. When she puts her mind to it, she's very fast – one of the best as long as you don't piss her off."
"Her previous owner any good?"
Something raw flashed across Gion's eyes. "Yeah."
Kurogane pretended not to notice. Warriors had their own basic rules of etiquette: Don't touch a man's weapon. Don't touch his lover. And don't ask. "I've got no objection to fighting in the calvary," he said, steering the conversation back into more comfortable territory. "But Fai and I fight as a team, always."
Gion hesitated, looking at the sleeping man. "Usually we don't station archers in the calvary. They're too exposed in the front."
"We fight together or we don't fight at all," Kurogane said with a casual shrug. He'd agreed to serve Yasha, but he frankly didn't give a damn about the man's "eternal blood feud" and hitsuzen. Agreeing to serve never meant Kurogane would follow orders blindly. For that attitude, he'd been exiled from Japan and sent on a crazy journey by psychotic Time Space bitch. But he wasn't about to bend an inch.
"He feels the same?"
Kurogane grunted affirmatively.
"Very well. Be sure to take good care of him. Or you'll regret it."
Who the hell did Girl Braid think he was to boss Kurogane around--Souma? "Why don't you f--" Kurogane halted as Gion's tone registered in his brain. That same raw pain from before was leaking into his voice. Sharal's previous rider had been someone important to Gion, Kurogane realized. "Yeah, okay," he said quietly.
The conversation trailed off soon after, and they rode in silence as they neared the hills.
"Be sure to look up," Gion said as they rounded the first hill.
Kurogane started, blinking his eyes roughly to make certain he was seeing properly. A massive, curved... thing loomed in the horizon, so high that Kurogane had to tilt his neck back to take in all of it. The Thing appeared to be at least fifty meters tall and composed of solid stone. A tangled forest sprawled around the base of The Thing, but even the highest treetops barely rose to more than a third of The Thing's height.
"The Spire of Ran. I imagine you've never seen such a magnificent sight. The territory of the Yasha has many of these, but this one is my favorite because it's always the first one I see when I return home." Gion's chest swelled slightly, as if he had personally given birth to The Thing.
Kurogane arched an eyebrow, glowering at The Thing. It was certainly one of the oddest sights Kurogane had ever seen (which was saying a lot in his opinion, given that his current means of transportation was a talking meat bun.) But The Thing's curved appearance rather reminded him of something sinister: like the bent talon or tooth of a demon, reaching upwards to disembowel the sky. All in all, not the first sight he would personally want to see upon returning home – but Kurogane magnanimously chose not share that particular thought with Gion.
"Mmff..." Fai awoke with a yawn and stretched his lanky arms upwards, smacking his lips sleepily until he caught sight of The Thing. His eyes widened as he drank in the sheer size of it, like a child seeing his first really tall building. "Oh... it's beautiful!"
"No accounting for tastes," Kurogane grumbled, but Gion pretended not to hear and beamed and rambled on to Fai about the local flora and fauna the entire rest of the journey.
Kurogane was pleased to find that Yasha's keep was actually fairly decent, and located in a damn cunning spot to boot – the keep was approachable from only one direction, up a long, sloping hill. The other directions were rendered inaccessible to large numbers of men wearing armour or riding mounts because of the dense, tangled forests ringing the keep. The keep itself was well-designed to withstand a fierce assault or siege. Eight impressively high walls connected to form an octagon, and at each of the eight junctures rose a thick tower. The walls were solid and simply adorned with sparse carvings, and the windows small and practically high. The keep reminded him of an ancient castle he'd seen on a world named Spainizy or Spinizy (except for the insane plant growth everywhere.)
"It's nice, isn't it?" As soon as the army had arrived at the keep, Gion had pulled him and Fai away for a special tour of the keep and its grounds, complete with a rambling narrative, of course. "Does it meet your exacting standards?" Gion asked, one eyebrow arched teasingly.
"Reminds me of Yasha," Kurogane said after a thoughtful pause, and Gion agreed with a laugh. The keep was practical, simple on the surface, and solid. "I don't see why there's a need for separate quarters and barracks. That thing looks big enough to house three armies."
"Some soldiers do choose to live in the keep. But others find it too drafty – it's almost all stone on the inside, too. So the barracks and private quarters were constructed." Gion gestured towards the small, modest buildings that skirted the keep. "But the different branches are all in the keep: the healers' quarters, the armory, the strategy room, and of course the dining hall. We won't be eating in a mess tent anymore, thankfully."
The prospect of meals without a generous helping of sand was a welcome one. But Kurogane had more pressing questions. "Has the keep ever been attacked by Ashura?"
Gion started in his saddle, violently enough that his mount snorted in protest. "...why would you ask that?"
Kurogane regarded Gion through narrowed eyes, ignoring the flinch he'd felt from Fai at the mere mention of Ashura. "It's a logical question for a soldier. I want to know exactly what to expect here, and how well this keep's defenses hold up. Or is there something you're trying to hide?"
"No! It's just an... unusual question." Gion gestured placatingly with his hands. "I don't think I've ever been asked that before. You see, we don't know where the Ashura clan lives – and they don't know where we live."
"That's bullshit," Kurogane growled, leaning forward angrily. "These people are your 'eternal enemies' - have been for damn near forever, apparently - and you don't even know where they live?! What the hell kind of an operation is this?"
Gion bit at his lip. "Not for lack of trying, Kurogane. We've sent scouts traveling for weeks – months – in every direction, but we've never been able to ascertain the location of the Ashura clan. We can only assume they've done the same but failed as well – no one's ever seen one of his men in this land, and they would certainly stand out." Gion's eyes slid nervously away from him – from Fai - and Kurogane was struck with a cold, certain realization that sank like a rock to his stomach.
"You mean they all look like this guy," Kurogane hissed. No wonder Fai had encountered such hostility when they'd first been abducted by Yasha's men – it wasn't just a simple suspicion of foreign appearances. "When exactly were you planning to share this little piece of information with us? When the local idiots in that village had him strung up by his ears?"
"The villagers aren't violent," Gion shot back, his eyes now sparking with anger. "The people here might be isolated, but that doesn't mean they're ignorant and suspicious backwater hicks. I grew up here, I know these people and they know me. My family lives here. I was planning to talk to them about Fai before you two ever even visited the village. There was no need to worry either of you beforehand needlessly!"
Kurogane felt a familiar rage beginning to heat his blood and narrow his vision, but when he spoke his own voice sounded incongruously calm and icy to his ears. "You were worried, so don't lecture me about how sweet and cuddly everyone here is and tell me not to worry. And in the future, you'd better well damn tell me everything – I'll be the judge of whether or it's relevant to Fai's safety. He's my companion and my responsibility. Don't ever forget that."
Gion was forming a retort when he was interrupted by a painfully halting whisper from the subject of their argument.
"I... I want to go... to our place now. Please. I'm tired." Fai was still facing forward in the saddle so his expression was obscured, but the bent of Fai's drooping head and shoulders told Kurogane all he needed to know. Abashed, Kurogane held his tongue while Gion led them to the stables, where they unloaded Sharal and rubbed her down before leaving her in a stall with a bed of straw. Gion pointed them to the direction of their quarters. It wasn't difficult to locate: a pleasant, simple two-room house with large window spaces to let in the breeze, and a spacious back porch built of cool, wooden planks.
Fai noticed none of it, though, only casting a glance around in the barest effort to feign interest before he sat down heavily on the edge of the porch, his head still bowed like a broken reed over his bony knees. Kurogane sat down a few lengths away from him (not too far, not too close). Fai seemed disinclined to acknowledge his presence, so Kurogane turned his attentions to the thick forest that spilled out onto the outskirts of their lawn.
He sat silently for some time, his breathing slowing as he willed his mind to slip into a semi-trance as he focused on the sounds of the forest: the swaying of branches and rustles of leaves, the scritchings and skitterings of the smaller animals and the slow, ponderous steps of the larger ones. Any forest or lake or meadow, he'd learned as a boy, was comprised of many living entities, but everything also existed as a part of the whole. To understand the character of a place, one had to be aware of the both the smallest entities and the vastness of the whole. As Kurogane slipped further into his trance, he became aware of delicate beds of moss that lay in silent shadow beneath ancient, spreading trees and curved stone demons' claws. Somehow he knew with certainty that they were both stunningly beautiful and incredibly toxic.
Kurogane blinked himself out of his trance gradually, sorting through his sensations and mulling over how to interpret his impressions. Beautiful and deadly?
The sun had shifted noticeably downward; several hours had passed. Fai still remained crouched in the same position, his eyes distant and dull. With a sigh, Kurogane popped his stiff neck and rubbed it before breaking the silence. "Look, don't worry. Girly Hair was just being a fool. A well-meaning fool, granted, but he shouldn't keep stuff like that from us."
Fai did not answer, and after several minutes Kurogane let a long breath and walked back inside the house. He was halfway across the room when Fai's response finally came.
"I always make people unhappy."
Kurogane froze mid-step. The absurd statement had no relevance to the argument, but Fai had whispered it with complete, chilling conviction, as if he'd just said that the sun rose in the mornings and the moon rose in the evenings. Thoughts of silent, poisonous yet beautiful moss crept through Kurogane's mind, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose.
Then Kurogane swore at himself for acting like a foolish old woman, remembering his goal to check on the house's bedding situation. The idiot mage was just feeling melancholy; the journey had been tiring and Fai had never liked arguments. He would be better after resting and eating. Perhaps this place even had sake. A little alcohol, and Fai would be back to his usual annoying self. He'd probably even start meowing like a crazed cat again.
The sun had just slipped beyond the horizon, leaving streamers of pink and purple in its wake when Kurogane heard a light rapping on the front door.
Gion stood on the porch, his somber eyes hinting at an apology.
Kurogane sighed inwardly, schooling his own expression into something a little less fierce than his default before opening the door to invite the officer inside. Not wanting to hear an apology (he much preferred beating them out of people to receiving them unasked), Kurogane started before the other man could speak: "What you said earlier, about not knowing where the Ashura clan lives, and vice versa – there must be magic involved."
Gion's mouth fell open, then a pleased smile crept over his face. "I shouldn't be surprised you figured it out on your own," he said, slipping his boots off in the entranceway before following Kurogane to the small living room. They each claimed an old but sturdy chair; Gion sat in his backwards. Then Gion said, "I'll explain everything to you, of course – as I intended to do earlier - but if you don't mind, can you tell me how you figured it out?"
Kurogane shrugged nonchalantly. "These woods are full of magic, and so are those weird claw-things, and magic would also explain why the dragons were so happy to return here." Dragons were by nature magical beasts, no matter what world. "If you two clans have been fighting for years, at some point someone's scouts would manage to trail the other army home. Unless magic's involved. So I'm guessing that both Yasha and Ashura's armies are transported to a fixed point by magic, both to and from the battlefield."
Gion gripped the slats of his chair excitedly, leaning precariously forward. "Do you possess magic? You can sense magic, and your guesses are quite intuitive. That would also explain the force behind your attacks, if you've got magic enhancing it!"
The ninja arched his eyebrow, scooting his chair back loudly; he didn't want to be too close when the officer inevitably tipped his own chair over. Magic? Kurogane had never really considered his own abilities to be magical per se; yes, his mother had been a powerful priestess, but being attuned to energies - especially natural ones - was second nature to Japan's warriors. And his guess about the transportation was intuitive if "intuitive" meant using your own damn common sense. But he didn't care what Gion thought about his abilities. Just as long as the officer didn't get too curious about Fai, who did possess magic and a whole hell of a lot of it, if Kurogane's "intuitive" senses were correct. "I can't fling big fire bolts around or curse people, if that's what you were hoping," Kurogane answered carefully. "But I can sense if someone's sneaking up behind me and wants to chop my head off." He said that last part loudly, just in case anyone happened to be listening outside the thin walls of their quarters.
Gion didn't seem to notice the increase in Kurogane's volume. He let out a sigh of disappointment. "Ah, too bad. We haven't got any magic users, but Ashura's one, and he has a few men who are too."
Kurogane was willing to bet his sword arm that Fai's Ashura was a magic-user too.
"No." Kurogane met Gion's curious, innocent gaze firmly.
"Oh, he just looks like he could be one, you know?" Gion rapped his fingers against the chair slats. "Anyway, your explanation: as long as I can remember, or anyone can remember, we've been fighting against the Ashura clan. Whenever the moon is full, we're transported to the Castle of the Moon." Kurogane frowned in confusion, and Gion continued: "At night, you've seen that black object in the sky, floating near the moon, right?"
Kurogane nodded. "I thought it was some kind of asteroid, caught in the moon's gravity." Tomoyo was a moon priestess, so Kurogane had bothered to learned a bit of astrology and astronomy during his free time.
"That's the Castle of the Moon, our battleground. On the nights of the full moon, both armies are summoned there. We remain until the moon reaches its zenith. Then we're suddenly back in our own territory. Those of us who are alive... and those of us who are dead."
Gion made a small, bitter noise. "Who knows? All I know is that we're there and if we don't fight as hard as we can, the Ashurites are going to slaughter us all."
"You don't want to fight them."
"They haven't threatened my home or my country. I have no quarrel with them personally. But I am Lord Yasha's servant." Whether or not I agree, said the resigned expression in Gion's eyes.
Kurogane grunted. "And the other soldiers?" He didn't much care for the idea of serving with resentful soldiers. Amaterasu did not use conscripts for the army or the ninja corps.
"Most of them don't seem to think about it much," Gion said carefully. "They enjoy the excitement and the opportunity to test themselves against worthy adversaries."
A mindset Kurogane could certainly understand, and one he'd once shared. Lately, though, he'd found less joy in battle for its own sake. Now fights were just a means to an end: getting back home, and protecting the little odd band he'd fallen in with. "What about this calvary of yours?"
Gion brightened as if it were a favorite topic. "You've already met some of the men in the unit; they're a part of that group you two have been eating dinner with. They're all quite eager to have you join us. It seems you and Fai have won their respect. In about an hour, we'll meet to discuss strategy and run through a few practice routines. I want to see how well you integrate with the unit."
Kurogane rather preferred to think of it as how well the unit could integrate with him, but he decided to feign complacency for Braid Man since the officer had been decent to them. "Where?"
"We'll meet at the stables before we head to some of the practice grounds." Gion's gaze drifted to the back porch. Fai's hunched form was visible through the window. "Will Fai... be ready?"
"He'll be there," Kurogane said evenly. He did not want to discuss Fai's emotional state with a relative stranger, even a well-meaning one.
Gion nodded then politely excused himself. Kurogane waited a few minutes before walking out to the back porch to stand beside Fai. Fai had lifted his head from his knees to stare blankly at the first faint stars appearing in the evening sky.
"I know you heard that whole conversation, so I'm not going to bother to repeat it. But I do want to tell you this." Kurogane waited until Fai looked at him to finish. "It's bullshit to say you make people unhappy. I spend more time with you than anyone, and you don't make me unhappy at all."
Fai's breath stilled, the flat look slipping off his face, and Kurogane felt his chest hitch at the naked vulnerability there. His response actually mattered to the mage. A lot. Kurogane forgot the rest of what he had planned to say, so he simply acted on his desire not to see the man looking like a damn discarded doll and reached down and seized one of Fai's hands, tugging the man to his feet. Fai's long fingers had developed calluses, but the skin on the back of his hand was still smooth and soft. Kurogane thought of Kendappa's graceful fingers dancing across her harp at court while Tomoyo sang an airy, wordless song. He'd heard Fai playing that piano in the Cat's Eye Cafe, but every time Kurogane had entered the room, Fai had abruptly stopped playing, pretending he was suddenly busy with work.
"Kuro-pon." A flush had spread across Fai's pale cheeks, and he averted his gaze to the house.
Kurogane realized he was still holding Fai's hand. Struck by a capricious streak, Kurogane tugged the other man close. "You don't make me unhappy," Kurogane repeated. "You drive me mad, you idiot."
"Oh," was all Fai said, and Kurogane dropped Fai's hand then and stepped back quickly, wondering why he'd practically breathed that last bit into the mage's ear. He'd meant to deliver it with his usual growl. Kurogane crossed his arms sternly to disguise his discomfort. "Hurry up and get ready."
A sly grin spread across Fai's lips. "I didn't hear. Can Kurogane say again? Right here?" Fai tapped his ear.
"Get the hell ready already," Kurogane mumbled as he turned sharply on his heel, but he actually didn't mind the teasing right now, not when Fai had that comforted, gentle look in his eyes. Like Fai had finally decided to believe something he'd said.
Perhaps an idiot mage could indeed be taught new tricks.
Castel del Monte is what I based Yasha's keep on. Pretty nifty, eh? I can't show the image here, but you can Google it. :)
We never actually see Yasha's lands in the manga, so the description is based on what we see of Ashura's lands. Lots of wild jungle growth, and those strange horn-shaped objects. I decided, however, that Yasha's keep would look quite different than Ashura's gorgeous castle.
I'm very sorry this update was delayed so much. In part, it's because I've gotten wrapped up in writing a Hikaru no Go fic. The other part is that CLAMP continues to blow my poor fangirl mind with the weekly releases... it's a little hard for me to write what amounts to a basic fluff piece when the angst parade never stops in canon. Heh.
Feedback of all sorts, as always, is welcomed. Give me encouragement so I can occasionally pry myself away from the evil Hikago fic bunny!