Every year she went to the grave. She brought flowers, because they appealed to her sense of beauty and righteousness and a bottle of the finest wine she could buy, borrow or filch from the cathedral wine cellars. He would have appreciated the wine. Only the second anniversary of his death and yet already it seemed like an eternity. She missed him. She missed him in any guise he might have taken -- and she mourned. But she did that quietly, privately for she was never one to blindly show the world her inner most feelings. She got on with her life, as if she had any choice what with the rebuilding and the expansion of the city and the joining of kingdoms into one greater force that might not ever again be splintered and so devastated. Meta -Rikan was the new capital of the Southern kingdoms. Her king the elected regent of all the provinces which had been destroyed by the path of destruction made by the armies of the Four Lords of Havoc, in their quest to take the seals that bound Ansasla. And even when the Four Lords themselves had been turned from their path of destruction the world had had to deal with the god of Destruction itself.
Two years since that final, fateful moment when power met power and good men died and the most powerful wizard the world had ever known destroyed himself to save her world from being devoured by pure evil. And she left flowers and wine under the tall, obelisk grave marker that perched on a hill in the cemetery that had once been outside the limits of Meta-Rikan, but now sat nestled within the sprawling outreaches of a city that had almost doubled in size. She was the only one who came. No one else wished to remember the anniversary of that brutal victory that rid the world of Ansasla. Not even the surviving members of his shitino -- his generals -- even though they had all loved him.
Yoko came and she would always come for as long as she lived. She would never abandon him to vague memory and legend. A portion of her heart -- her very soul -- would always rest with Rushie. Rushie. Dark Schneider the wizard who had almost destroyed the world himself in his 400 year campaign to gain power unto himself. But he had changed after his defeat at the hands of Prince Larz and the circle of High Priests some twenty-one odd years past. He would always be Rushie to her, because that was who she had grown up with -- the little boy who had carried the sleeping persona of Dark Schneider within him for fifteen years before the seal had been broken by her to release him.
But now he was dead -- truly dead -- and the world went on. A new temple had been built within the boundary of the new city. A great sprawling cathedral to equal the one that sat atop the cliffs of the palace proper. A new Temple for a new religion. Not a new religion exactly, but one that had spread but recently -- over the last handful of years to the southern kingdoms. The worship of the High God -- the god that sat over the other gods that Meta-Rikan worshipped and called on for support and guidance. It came from across the sea and for many years had been practiced in small gatherings within the kingdoms. It was not until the advent of the Prophet that the devastated people of the southern empires began to embrace it. After all, their own gods had done nothing to protect them, despite all their desperate prayers. The teachings of the Prophet promised comfort and salvation and a realm of everlasting peace and tranquillity on the other side of life. A tired and frightened people flocked to the temples of the high god that sprouted up in every city and the smaller shrines that graced almost every town and hamlet. The Prophet himself was followed like he was a god walking the earth, though he discouraged the adoration. He was only the mouthpiece of the high god. Only the man the god spoke through to have his words heard.
Angelo was his name. It was the only one he went by. He had come to the south not long after Ansasla's defeat and began his teachings. Two years was all it had taken for the worship of the high god to spread to almost every person in the south. Two years for them to place the symbol of the high god above those of the lesser gods they had worshipped all their lives. Even the priests -- even her father the High Priest of Meta-Rikan found solace in the new faith. They had welcomed Angelo with open arms and invited him into their most privileged circles. The old king loved him. The crown prince was enthralled by his words. Yoko found him intriguing. A man of many layers. Intense and devoted and powerful. Not unlike the man she honored today, sitting in grass before his grave. Only the devotion was different.
She would have liked to linger longer, but today was a busy day. The city was bustling with visitors come to be present at the royal wedding that was only a week away. Even the expanded boundaries of Meta-Rikan were hard pressed to house all the well-wishers. Princess Sheela was to marry the Prince of Judas. He was prince by default, a distant relation to the royal family of that once great trading city. But he was the only surviving member of the royal blood, all the other having died when the city had been taken by the Four Lords of Havoc some seven years past. It was a political coup on both kingdoms parts. It would align Meta-Rikan irrevocably with its northern neighbor, the strategically located Judas, and it buffered a weak Prince's power among a court full of nobles wishing to take it from him.
She poured the wine onto the ground below the marker and watched the hungry earth soak it up. Then rose, brushing off her knees and made her way back into the maze of narrow streets of the new city. She passed the Temple of the High God, because all streets of the new city lead towards it and found it bustling with activity. Workmen hung on scaffolds on its high walls, finishing stone work that had been in progress for almost a year. People rushed in and out bringing decorations for the wedding ceremony which the old King had decided would be performed by Angelo himself. The temple guard and the kings Dragon Guard stood at posts about the square, watchful of all the traffic, keeping the curious who did not have business here out of the way of those who were frantically trying to prepare the not fully completed temple for a royal wedding. She saw a Dragon Guard Lieutenant she knew well, conferring with a group of the Dragon Guard and changed her path his way. Linden glanced up at her approach, dark eyes under a fall of dark hair. He had been there at the final battle. One of those who had fought bravely and selflessly and almost died because of it. He had survived unlike so many others and was revered among the Dragon Guard because of it. And as people tend, who share terrible experiences, he and Yoko were great friends.
He finished his conversation with the guard and moved to meet her. She looked up at him with excited expectation, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet.
"Have any of them arrived yet? Any word?"
"Not yet." He smiled down at her, a boyish, charming smile set in a fine face. He shifted and the leather of his armor squeaked. "But I do believe our scouts to the north have reported a large party on the road towards Meta-Rikan. That might possibly be one of them."
"Due when?" She demanded.
"Tonight perhaps if the weather holds."
"Ha, if it is one of them, then the weather will be very polite." She grinned at him, clasping her hands before her. "I've got to go make sure all their suites are ready. See you later, Linden." She bounded off and he shook his head fondly at her enthusiastic retreat.
Up through the old city, climbing the winding streets that led up the hill towards the palace, Yoko was in fine spirits. A royal wedding was just the thing to revive the gaiety of a city which had been sadly lacking in it for years. She passed the guards at the drawbridge who nodded at her passage, well familiar with the daughter of the Great Priest Geo Note and proceeded into the palace proper. Finding the major dormo of the king's household was not an easy task in the confusion of the wedding preparations. But, she eventually tracked the middle-aged and stern faced woman down and demanded to know if the three suites of rooms set aside for the sorcerous guests they were expecting were ready. The hectic woman waved a maid to take Yoko to see for herself and told her explicitly that if anything were not her liking she would be expected to see it taken care of herself. The major-dormo was busy seeing to the royal guests already in residence.
Of course the rooms were immaculate. The major-dormo was not so inept at her job that she would let such a thing slide. There was little for Yoko to do, so she found herself back in the halls of the palace momentarily at a loss. Her own dress was ready and she only had to make certain her father's dress robes were pressed and waiting for him. Her own wedding gift to the couple was almost ready to be picked up from the glasssmith who she had commissioned to make it. She might have been welcome in the fluttering court of ladies that revolved around the princess, save that for the most part she couldn't abide their gossip and useless chatter. Besides, there had been a distance between Yoko and Princess Sheela since Schneider's arrival into their lives that did not quite delve into hostility -- far from it -- but did not invite closeness. Women who coveted the same man were not necessarily the best of friends. And Rushie had attracted anything remotely female and naturally there were conflicts. It had not restricted the princess from asking Yoko to serve as one of her twelve honor maids. It was just as much a political move as one indicating friendship. Yoko had a fair bit of status, not only as the Great Priest's daughter, but as one of the those responsible for Ansasla's final defeat. She was held in high regard by the people of Meta-Rikan as well as the nobility.
She had decided to return to her rooms to make certain all her wedding finery was in order. Her rooms were in the cathedral dormitory in the wing belonging to her father. She had left the palace walkways and entered the courtyard between palace and cathedral when she noted a trio of men strolling about the gardens. With fall in full swing, the leaves of the ornamental trees were a tapestry of reds and oranges and yellows. The autumn flowers were in bloom. It was a lovely place to walk in this season before winter would strip all the beauty from the garden.
She walked down the path and the men walked up it, their course destined to cross. They were a trio of great status. The Dragon Prince Larz walking side by side with his soon to be brother in law, Prince Haden of Judas. And beside him, twirling a stem of autumn doise flower between his fingers was the Prophet himself, Angelo.
"Yoko." Prince Larz hailed her with a inclination of his head. She bowed respectfully, conscious of the dirt on the knees of her trousers from kneeling in the dirt of Rushie's grave, and the tangled, wind-blown state of her long red-golden hair.
"Your majesties. Your holiness."
Prince Haden looked down his nose at her, seeing only the dirty clothing and the lack of ornament that told him she was not of royal lineage. Angelo smiled at her warmly, pausing to take her small, smudged hand in his large, immaculate one. There was a holy signet ring of his faith on the middle finger of that hand. She had not declared herself to be a devout follower of the High God yet and was not required to kiss the ring, as the Faithful gladly did. She merely lowered her eyes modestly and blushed at the attention. The Prophet had always gone out of his way to show her kindness. To speak with her when they chanced to cross paths.
"Lady Yoko, you grace this garden with your beauty. Nature as always smiles upon you."
"Your Holiness, you're too kind." The blush spread. He was a magnetic man, the Prophet Angelo. A tall man, but slender, his angled face handsome, his brown hair receding and pulled back into a well trimmed tail at his neck. There were strands of gray at his temples that lent him a distinguished and trustworthy look. As if his brown eyes, so deep and thoughtful, were not enough to drag a body into his influence.
"Majesties, I will catch up with you later to discuss matters further. " The Prophet smiled at the two princes, indicating they might go on without him. "I think I might walk with the lady for a bit in the garden, if that is acceptable to her?"
Goddess, she could not rid herself of the blush. She nodded minutely, eyes downcast, hands folded demurely. The princes walked on, she could hear their footsteps receding down the stone pathway. Angelo lightly touched her back with one hand, moving her forward again.
"I look forward to seeing you in the garb of honor maid. You will be beautiful, I'm sure."
"Thank you." She murmured, watching her feet move across the paving. He intimidated her with his charisma and his benevolent gaze. Meeting his eyes was like looking into a mirror of her own soul. It was small wonder people called him the Emissary of the High God.
"Did you go today, to Dark Schneider's grave?"
She blinked and looked up at him in surprise, shocked that he might know of her pilgrimage. When she didn't answer immediately, he picked up her hand and gently patted it.
"I've heard rumors that you went at the last anniversary of his death and thought you might have ventured there again on this day -- it is the second year since he died, is it not?"
"Yes." She whispered.
"And you loved him?"
She drew a shaky breath, not wishing to delve into those feelings with the Prophet or anyone. "He meant a great deal to me."
"You have a kind heart, Lady. A tender and forgiving heart to honor a man so devoid of sanctity towards the god -- the gods we all worship."
She had defended him for so long, his name, his memory that reflex made her lift her chin and retort. "I honor a man who saved this world, your Holiness. He was a friend to me." Then she realized how tart that rejoinder had sounded and lowered her eyes again. "Forgive me."
"Oh, forgiven, Lady. I know a passionate heart when I see one. You will never be one to meekly follow the flow of general opinion. Not if your heart sees otherwise. But it is a pure heart and a pious one, I think. You are most assuredly forgiven."
They came to the place where the path split off to the cathedral dormitory and she stopped uncertainly. "Your holiness ---"
"Angelo, my dear. When we are not at prayer, please call me by my name."
She opened her mouth and shut it nervously, not quite brave enough to utter his name without an honorific attached. "This is my path. I've -- I've tasks to do before -- before the dinner bell."
He inclined his head generously. "Of course, Yoko. I will see you tomorrow at the Temple for rehearsal, shall I not?"
She nodded and he gave her leave to depart with a lift of his hand. She hurried down the path to the dormitory. She entered the shadow of the doorway with relief, past his line of vision. Somehow she was lighter of spirit once out of his potent presence.
She was at the gates flanking the main road leading into the city from the north with Linden when the company arrived. Twenty men and women in armor, riding fine high stepping war horses with a pack train trailing behind. It was a small force to accompany a former Lord of Havoc, but an impressive one. Yoko recognized some of the faces. Most prominent among them was the lady that rode at the fore of the company. A dark and beautiful face framed by long, black hair and most definitively by the large, pointed ears that slanted out from her skull proclaiming her elven blood. The Lady Arshes Nei. The Thunder Empress. And of the surviving Lords of Havoc the one Yoko was least friendly with. It all went back to the Rushie dilemma. If he had had a passing interest in Sheela, it was nothing to what he had shared with this woman. Arshes Nei he had truly loved. Loved for more than a hundred years. A century long love affair was a hard thing to compete with. She hadn't at the end, even tried, not overtly. She could not fault Arshes for loving him.
The party stopped at the gates and the Dragon Guard Linden had brought stood at attention. Yoko stepped forward. "Lady Nei. Welcome back. I hope your journey went well."
"As well as any journey." The lady's eyes drifted about the new boundaries of the city. There was something distant and preoccupied in her gaze -- and Yoko thought, there was still a certain sadness.
"You're the first to arrive. Gara and Kall are expected soon."
A half smile touched Arshes lips, then drifted away like leaves on the autumn wind. "I look forward to seeing them."
There was so little to say in the face of Arshes Nei's disillusion, that Yoko floundered for words and ended up lamely saying. "We'll escort you to the palace. I've arranged quarters for you and your party."
They all rode back, a spectacle of formidable warriors that drew the attention of pedestrians. Children ran after them, excited and curious at this latest grand visitor to pass through the city towards the palace. Arshes did not speak, but when they passed the hill where the cemetery stood, her eyes strayed that way and stayed there until they were well past it.
"I can take you there -- if you'd like." Yoko suggested hesitantly. Brown eyes turned her way and the dark elf shook her head.
"No. I've no need."
There seemed nothing else to talk of. Idle chatter about the wedding seemed so far below the Thunder Empress as to be insulting. Yoko rode silently, occasionally exchanging glances with Linden. The dinner hour was past and Yoko arranged for trays to be sent to all of Arshes Nei's party. The lady herself went to her suite, declaring that she was tired from the journey and wished to retire. She would play the formal part of Thunder Empress on the morrow. Yoko, to be quite honest was glad to leave her to her dark mood. She was more than happy to join Linen and those of the Dragon Guard who were acquainted with some of Arshes Nei's lieutenants in the plainer and more down to earth barracks dining hall. They drank and socialized well into the night until she was so dizzy from strong guard room ale that she could barely walk straight on her way back to her rooms.
She was on the path back to the dormitory, with Linden's uncertain support as escort through the night when out of the darkness a large shadow appeared at her other side. She yelped. Linden swore and pulled her out of harms way, fumbling drunkenly for his sword. Out of the darkness a man's laughter sounded and Linden's wrist was caught and the sword forced back down into the scabbard before he had fully managed to draw it.
"Never draw steel if you can't even stand up without staggering, boy."
Yoko gasped, recognizing that voice and squinting through the darkness at a broad and shadowed face.
"You blackguard." She cried, not at all angry. "You always come upon me from the shadows. Have you no manners?"
"Not that I've ever noticed, Yoko."
"Gara?" Linden gasped even as Yoko threw herself into the big man's arms. He picked her off the ground effortlessly, swinging her about, so that she was dizzy when he finally set her feet back on the ground. She caught at his thick arm for support.
"When did you get here?" Linden asked, sounding annoyed at being so disarmed.
"Just now. I don't care much for fan fare and the front gate had a gaggle of nobles about it that I couldn't stand the thought of having to talk with."
"So you sneak in like the assassin you are." Linden said, with slightly improved humor.
"Are you alone?" Yoko demanded. "Why didn't you come in the spring? You promised to return in the spring."
"Trouble on the border. Damn beast-men are crawling all over the mountains. I've had a lot to keep me busy. But I wouldn't miss this. Seeing the princess marry -- seeing you all dressed up as a honor maid."
She giggled, somehow when Gara said the same thing Angelo had, it delighted her. Compulsively she hugged him again, her head barely reaching mid-chest. "I've missed you so much. There are old friends in the guard room. Arshes Nei is here, but she's in her rooms. I think she's still terribly sad."
Gara's brows drew. His face grew solemn. "Still? Where are her rooms, Yoko?"
"She's probably asleep. She said she was tired."
"She's not asleep. I'll find them myself, just give me a clue, girl."
She took a breath, trying to recall the exact location through the fog of drink. She told him. And he patted her on the head like a favored dog. "It's a good thing I'm a friend," he remarked. "This place is as open as a whore's booth during carnival. Take care of her, Linden."
Ninja Master Gara moved through the shadows as if he were a part of them. A fluid extension to their velvety darkness. No one knew he passed that he did not wish to know. He passed the castle guards at their posts and slipped into the hallways of the palace proper with none the wiser. Down halls dimly light at so late an hour and up colonnaded stairs to the guest wing. There were rooms, no doubt that had been sat aside for his own usage, but he sought another. He sought an old friend whom he thought had strayed from a course of ever enjoying life again. Gara was not a man given to deep emotional ponderings. It was not the way of the warrior and warrior he was down to his very bones. Perhaps, the finest swordsman alive, some might say. If you asked him, he might say it was as much the sword, the Murasumi blade he carried, which had more magical power than any inanimate object had a right to.
He paused at a door, leaning in to sense for a presence. Not the one. The next and he felt her within. There were certain people that had an aura that could not be disguised or hidden. He was a master of scenting auras. The door wasn't locked. He slipped inside. The room was darkened, no single candle burning, but the windows were open and a cold breeze blew in. He stayed to the shadows even in this room, searching her out. Found her by the window, slouching in a padded window seat, her knees drawn up, her face turned towards the night. For a moment, all he could do was watch her, drink in the sight of her after so long an absence. They had all planned to meet in Meta-Rikan each spring. The first spring she had not shown and this spring he had been busy keeping the wilder remnants of the their former army across the border to the east.
As always his heart hammered at the first sight of her and as always he forced it to calmness and locked away the stirring in his heart that she brought. She would never return it. Her own heart had been given away long ago, and it was too broken and injured a thing ever to belong to another man.
"What are you doing, sitting here in the dark?"
She gasped, turning, the scant moonlight silhouetting her thick hair and the tips of her ears which flicked back at his question. She did not move from her seat otherwise and he knew her elfin eyes were adjusting to the shadows to search him out, so he stepped forward into the moonlight to make it easier on her.
"Don't you ever knock?" She asked quietly.
"Only when I'm invited. Answer the question Arshes."
"Don't presume to order me, Gara."
"Then tell me what you're doing, still mourning over him?"
Her breath drew in through clenched teeth. She swung her legs over the side of the window seat and stood to face him. "That's not your business. Leave me be, Gara!"
"Sorry, Arshes, but I can't do that."
She stood there, fists clenched, long lovely legs spread, pale ivory trails of night gown waving in the breeze. In the darkness they stared at one another. Then she said softly. "Don't make me regret coming here. Don't make me regret seeing you again."
"What kind of friend would I be if I didn't try and help you. It's been two years, woman. You got over it quicker than this the last time he died on us."
"Shut up! You know nothing of what it is to love."
Didn't he? He looked away from her then, pressing his lips. "I loved him too. Not the way you did, but I loved him just the same. You loose people and you go on, Arshes. You don't waste your life away mourning. What have you been doing these past years? Helping the abandoned, the orphans, like you said you wanted too? Or brooding and sulking and crying away the days? Have you built anything?"
"Gara, leave me alone." There was something quiet and final in her voice that told him he was on the verge of pushing it too far, that she was about to tune him out and keep him tuned out until she could get as far away from him as possible. He didn't want that. He wanted the Arshes back that had been spirited and impulsive and full of righteous indignation over the plight of all the helpless in the world. Like she had been helpless so long ago, abandoned by her people because of her half blood, left to fend for herself - a tiny elfin girl. Then Schneider had found her and she had become a woman of power and of strength. And Gara damn well knew that it hadn't all been due to the wizard's influence.
He held up his big hands in surrender. "All right, all right. Just do me the favor of smiling once or twice while we're here. I miss your smile."
She sniffed at him, not quite mollified. "I don't recall ever smiling that much. What memories do you have that I do not?"
"Maybe it was all in my mind." He grinned. She didn't. Gara sighed, lowering his hands. "I haven't made my formal arrival. I'll show up in the morning for breakfast. I left my men in the hills outside the city. I think I'll sleep there tonight rather than here. Too many stuffed shirts."
He started to leave, reached the door and her whisper paused him. "Don't waste your concern on me, Gara. I hardly think I'm worth it."
It hurt not to turn back and respond to that. He forced himself out the door and into the shadowed hall. Yes, he would find far more comfort in the hills with his ninja's than he would in the palace tonight.