Author's Note

Been a while, I know. I entered graduate school in August, so this update took even longer than normal. Graduate school is really sucking the life out of me so far. Still, writing this in the brief periods where I don't feel like my brain is completely fried has been relaxing, so I hope you enjoy this. Thanks for reading, and an early "Happy New Year" to you all.

Chapter Seven: Evening Calm

Seeking the strength to defend,

Their freedom ceded for greater things,

Such was the sacrifice made,

That they left parts of themselves behind.

-The Founding of Anterei, Book Four, Verse Twenty-Seven

"Well now, don't you look different?"

The question from Kurou caused the rest of those seated at the table to look up at the person it was directed towards. Jaren was standing in the doorway wearing a bemused expression as he met the gazes of everyone. Replacing the uniforms they had grown accustomed to seeing him was a set of loose garments that would more likely be seen on a well-to-do man who wanted to make a favorable impression on his hosts. Instead of the usual set of coat, belt, pants, and boots, Jaren was wearing a loose mid-length kimono over pants and shoes similar to Touka's. The kimono was a grey color with a lighter-colored trim on the edges and held closed with a dark blue sash. His loose pants followed a similar grey with lighter contrast motif, and brushed against the well-made but otherwise unremarkable shoes he was wearing. The change in clothes was very noticeable as it was in fact the first time that anyone in the room not from the Free Company had seen Jaren in something besides a uniform since his arrival. The surprised looks from everyone present helped to confirm this.

"How does this look?" Jaren spread his arms slightly and looked down at his new clothing. "I have to admit, it's been some time since I was out of uniform, and even longer since I wore anything quite so refined."

"You look well-dressed, sir," Kyr said, following Jaren into the room. "I picked up enough from having a seamstress as a mother to know something about clothes."

"I don't think I can argue with that, then," Jaren said in response to Kyr's reassurance. "May I ask for opinions from the ladies present?" Lynia leaned back slightly from her seat at the low table and gestured towards Jaren with a silent nod. She had been speaking with Touka, who looked up to Jaren a bit shamefacedly before her eyes darted back down to the table in front of her. Lynia shrugged and let out a sigh, patting Touka gently on the shoulder as she did.

"Mmm, I think you look good!" Kamyu made her cheerful presence known, letting Jaren know her thoughts without the slightest ounce of hesitation or insincerity. Jaren grinned inwardly.

"You look very nice," Eruruu said with a friendly smile. "Is there a special occasion?"

"Far as I know, he made Karura angry yesterday and he's trying to make up for it," Kurou said, smirking. Eruruu held a hand up to her mouth and laughed nervously, looking at Jaren. Jaren strained to put on a smile, although the tightening of his mouth betrayed his best efforts as he sat at the table across from them.

"Is Jaren a mean person?" Aruruu had spoken up, and looked to the older women next to her. Jaren's ears twitched upon hearing her question, and he glanced over, concerned.

"Aruruu!" Her older sister turned to her sternly. "Jaren's a guest, you should be more polite!" Aruruu shrunk back towards Kamyu's seat. Kamyu grasped Aruruu's hand in her own. "No Aruruu, Jaren's a good person, it's just that there's something inside of him that makes things a little harder than for the rest of us."

"Something inside of him?" The dark-haired girl looked at Kamyu, not understanding.

"Yeah, like how I used to be," Kamyu said, looking at her. Aruruu let out a small noise in surprise, but nodded in understanding. Eruruu frowned worriedly. "I'm sorry she made you bring that up, Kamyu."

"No, it's not a problem," Kamyu said, shaking her head as she spoke. "I just felt like I should say something about it since I know what it's like." She looked to Jaren, a sympathetic look on her gentle features.

"Such was the sacrifice made," he said softly. Jaren smiled back, although his expression seemed tinged with a definite sadness to Eruruu. She looked up to glance around the table, finding herself locking eyes with Touka whose face revealed a similar set of feelings.

"Jaren." This time it had been Lynia. She was staring hard at Jaren, her facial expression and posture in a place between concern and genuine fear. Kyr looked at Jaren intently as well. Kamyu quickly leaned over the table to place a hand on Jaren's arm. Everyone else at the table watched the scene unfolding before them, unsure of what exactly was occurring.

"I'm alright, I'm alright," Jaren said, shaking his head. "Really." His two teammates relaxed, although they continued to keep their eyes fixed on him. Kamyu gazed into his eyes, searching for any signs. Finally, Jaren looked up to meet Kamyu's eyes, and clutched her hand in his gently.

"Thank you, Kamyu," Jaren said. "I apologize for you needing to say so much on my behalf. We Straserts are hopeless that way."

"You know the Onkami Yamukai are always willing to help, even if you don't ask for it," Kamyu said, her face unusually serious. "There's too much that's been shared between your bloodline and ours for it to be any other way." With a final look into his eyes, she let go of his hand.

"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Treyar remarked as he entered the room. Jaren, Lynia, and Kyr quickly jumped up, only for Treyar to motion for them to sit again. "Did something happen?" Kurou and the others shrugged or otherwise avoided eye contact.

"Those kinds of reactions are never good," Treyar mused. "If it's something I have no business knowing, I won't pry any further."

"Jaren and Kamyu were having a brief discussion on ancestor spirits," Lynia said sharply before anyone else could say anything. "Kamyu was gracious enough to share her knowledge on the subject."

"I see. Anything I should worry about?"

"No, Captain," Lynia said, her voice firm. Treyar's eyes flicked over to the other team members, Kyr shaking his head briefly, and then to Jaren who did the same.

"If that's the case then, I will take your word for it," Treyar said, satisfied. "None of you has ever given me reason to doubt you." He sat down across from Kurou. "I hope our selection process hasn't caused any problems with your men."

"Oh, it's nothing to worry about," Kurou said. "If anything, I'm glad you're all here, I feel like the Free Company just being here has gotten my forces more motivated to train hard."

"Hmm, yes, routine garrison duty can be a drain on morale," Treyar said thoughtfully. "In any case, I'm glad to hear our presence here is helpful. Maybe it's too early to bring this up, but how do you feel about continuing to run selection within your own forces some day?"

"You mean using our own men?" Kurou looked surprised.

"That's right," Treyar said. "If the current cohort in training experiences actual combat with us, I think it's a very real possibility that they could form their own training cadre in the future. I would need to have some advisory staff sent over to supervise its formation, but it would lead to Tusukuru having its own scouts within four years I think."

"Really? My gut says it's a great idea, but I'll have to run that by the Regent first," Kurou said. "I say we definitely have the people, but I don't know about the resources."

"Ah, you're right, I'm getting ahead of myself," Treyar said with a chuckle. "At the very least, I think I could persuade the capital to at least rotate a few units in from time to time, break up that routine a little. What do you say to a company or two of disembarked Marines?"

"Eh?!" Kurou was surprised again, but this time with the addition of a worried look on his face. "Is that really okay, for them to be here for training?"

"It's fine, it's fine," Treyar said laughing. "Their Commandant likes to get them out of familiar waters from time to time, or should I say lands in this case?"

"That sounds good, but I'm worried whether or not they're going to wear out my men training. We hear the stories out here too, you know." Kurou frowned, recalling something unpleasant.

"We can get them orders to hold off on some of the more, shall we say, extreme measures then. They make for excellent training staff though, I guarantee after a month or so of a Marine-run garrison, your soldiers will all be in top form!" Treyar was grinning widely at this point. "Why don't you share some of your experiences, you three?"

"Ummm, experiences, you say," Jaren said, trailing off as he looked to the other two. Lynia had folded her arms over her chest and looked up to the ceiling as if trying to conjure something fit to share with Kurou. Kyr smirked with a decidedly fiendish glint in his eye, which Jaren caught sight of. "Kyr, please tell me you remember something appropriate to share, given our present company," Jaren said, emphatically jerking his head towards the Kamyu, the two sisters, and Touka.

"Ahem, well, uh... how do I put this? They're really not so bad as their reputation makes them out to be, General. They're in the habit of giving you a hard time if you're not one of them, but it's something of a friendly tradition they have." He stopped for a moment to think, and suddenly his smirk grew even wider. "If you can keep up or beat them in anything, they'll treat you as one of their own."

"Really? I never heard that before," Kurou mused. "What did you do to change their minds?" Treyar looked to Kyr with raised eyebrows as well, clearly interested by a story he had yet to hear.

"Back when we were in Second Division, we were on a training tour with them. We had been at sea for a month, and when we got into port we went..." Kyr came to a stop, noticing Jaren drawing a flattened hand across his throat energetically and Lynia attempting to fix him to the wall with a piercing glare. Treyar cleared his throat. "Perhaps another time then, Kyr."

"Very well, sir," Kyr said sharply, trying not to meet Lynia's eyes. Luckily for him, a distraction came in through the door in four-legged, striped form. The four Free Company members in the room stared as Mukuru casually plodded in and sat by Aruruu. Lynia drew back slightly, as her seat next to Touka was also directly next to Aruruu's and now her large companion.

"Don't worry about this guy," Kamyu said, having noticed Lynia's discomfort. The winged girl wrapped her arms around Mukuru's large frame energetically and rubbed her face against the striped tiger's fur. "See?" As she did, there was a faint squeak. Kamyu let go suddenly and looked over at Mukuru's back. She scooped up what looked to be a white and blue ball of fur.

"Sorry, Gachatara, I didn't notice you," she said to the ball. It turned out to be a small animal, the group of soldiers saw as it uncurled itself sleepily. The twin-tailed animal squeaked again as it scratched itself with a hind leg.

"Oh, now there's something I haven't seen in a long time," Kyr said with a nostalgic tone. "I caught a Miykuum a few years back when I was mountain-climbing in Reshon Province. That was real lucky, that was. Got a good sum from the merchant I sold it to, sent it back home to my folks. Looked kind of like this one now that I think about it." Reaching over to pet the animal, he quickly pulled his hand so he could cover both his ears as it let out a piercing noise that echoed around the room, making it all the more worse.

"You had to go and bother the thing, didn't you," Lynia shouted over the noise. Touka had nothing to add except a pained groan, as she was sitting next to Aruruu and Kamyu and hence very close to the source of the irritating sound. Everyone else was in a similar state of distress their hands over their ears, including Mukuru, who let out a very unhappy growl as he flattened his ears against his head and buried it in his paws.

"Why do I have the feeling that is the same Mikyuum you caught," Jaren added while cringing with his eyes closed.

"Gachatara!" The sound came to a sudden halt, and everyone looked up to see what had happened. Aruruu was staring at the Mikyuum unhappily, with her finger in his stomach from where she had prodded him. It squeaked again, and curled up in an almost sulky manner as it stared cautiously at Kyr from across the table.

"Well, that was interesting. Thank you for that one, Kyr," Treyar remarked dryly, rubbing at his ears. "I'm surprised a Mikyuum made it's way out here, how did you get your hands on it?"

"From a merchant who does a lot of business around here, name's Chikinaro," Kurou said, putting a finger in an ear and wiggling it around slightly.

"Eh, is that so? That would explain it then, Chikinaro's always managed to get around," Treyar said offhandedly.

"You know him?"

"Free Company's done business with him before," Treyar said with a wink. "A lot of business, it'd be fair to say. He's good at getting what we need at short notice."

"That he is," Kurou said. "Still, it really amazes me just how far your peoples' influence reaches."

"A coincidence of our history, that is. Or something we've gotten used to doing, if you like. You don't exactly build a nation, lose it, and then start building it back up again for nothing, I'd hope." Treyar laughed as he finished.

"I hope so as well, for my brother's sake if nothing else," Karura's voice announced. She was casually leaning against the hallway entrance, a perfectly natural action for her it seemed. Her eyes looked to have an especially happy glint to them, and the reason why was made clear as she glided over to where Jaren was sitting. Kyr subtly moved off to the side to give her room, a cue which she took with a smile directed his way before she placed herself next to Jaren's side. Lynia frowned, seeing the potential for further trouble in the near future.

"Don't you look the example of a well-dressed guest," Karura said happily. "Your clothes are of the Reshon style, if I'm not mistaken?"

"You are not," Jaren said. "You have a real eye for these things."

"Oh, you spend enough time in busy cities and you learn a few things," she said. Stealing a glance at Touka, she suddenly leaned in very close to Jaren.

"I think she likes how this looks on you, even if she hasn't said it yet, the naïve girl," Karura whispered just loud enough for those across the table to hear. Kyr could be heard stifling a chuckle by trying to disguise it as a cough, and from the other end of the table Jaren could see Treyar shake his head while suppressing a smile.

"Karura," Touka blurted out, thoroughly exasperated. Her cheeks colored slightly as all eyes centered on her and she realized that her voice had been a bit on the loud side. Lynia gently nudged her in the side with an elbow. Touka started slightly from the contact, and cleared her throat before she spoke again, this time more quietly. "You've been trying his patience ever since we met, can't you give it a rest just for one evening?"

"Hmm, well, when you put it like that I have no choice," Karura said lazily. "As you wish."

Touka blinked, at a loss for words. "Uh... well then... good, good," she said hesitantly. She looked to Lynia, who in turn looked at Karura quietly sitting next to Jaren acting as if she had just met him. Thinking to herself silently, she tilted her head as she regarded the two, feeling the distinct impression she was forgetting something. She looked to Jaren, seeing nothing unusual aside from his clothes. Her thoughts halted slightly; why was he dressed up anyways? Karura's content features caught her eye. A corner of Lynia's mouth twitched as she remembered what Jaren had said earlier that afternoon.

"Damn it, Jaren," Lynia muttered under her breath. She felt a surge of annoyance at his actions, even though she knew he hadn't tried to get himself into this particular woman-related situation. For as long as she had known Jaren, the problem was that they tended to find him. In the meantime, she had to distract Touka long enough that she didn't go poking around and find Jaren being too close to Karura in order to prevent any further problems.

"Touka, I know you just fought a duel earlier, but do you think you could spar with me, say an hour after dinner? I'd really appreciate being able to practice against someone of your fighting style."

"Oh, of course," Touka said earnestly. "To be honest, seeing you fight in the woods the other day was exciting, the way you used your entire weapon and your gauntlets."

"We're interesting like that," Lynia said with a grin. "There's never such a thing as an ordinary Free Company soldier."

"Truer words never spoken," Jaren added, overhearing their conversation. His face took on an apologetic expression as he looked over to Touka. "How's the hand? Not too painful I hope?"

"It, it's fine, really," Touka said. She pulled back her right handguard slightly to show a bandage. "Eruruu put a salve on it for me, there's nothing to worry about, really."

"I see," Jaren said. "Well, I'm glad that it won't be a problem. I spoke with Kyr on the way back, and he and the Captain were thinking that it'd be good to take the candidates out for a field exercise in the forest. You're invited, of course, as are you Karura."

"I accept," Karura said politely. "If we're to fight together, it'd only be proper to spend more time traveling together as well." Touka stared at Karura incredulously, visibly bothered by her unusual seriousness in sticking to the matter at hand without adding any extra comments or flirting with Jaren. Lynia shifted her weight nervously, clearly hoping Touka didn't reach the same conclusion that Lynia herself had come to earlier.

"Actually, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself," Jaren interjected. "The exercise will be for three days and two nights. We'll leave tomorrow in the morning at first light, and spend the next two days hiking and sleeping outdoors before heading back to the castle. We'll likely be back a little before noon on the third day."

"It can't be helped," Karura said with a shrug. "I'll still accompany your group."

"Sorry for not saying that sooner," Jaren said. "And you, Touka?"

"Most surely! It would dishonor the Evinkuruga not to accompany Anterei soldiers when offered to!" Touka was now at a rigid position of attention, sitting up straight with her legs tucked neatly beneath her.

"Please, no need to be so formal," Jaren said. "I'm just glad both of you are willing to come along considering you both just returned the other day after traveling for so long, and now I'm dragging you along on an outdoor excursion."

"I must confess that I'll miss the comfort of my bed, but I'll manage," Karura said. Jaren winced and waited for the teasing follow-up to her statement, but it never arrived. Flicking his eyes over to Touka, he could see the same thwarted expectation on her face as well and the frown that quickly followed. He really needed to keep his visit to Karura's room later in the evening unmentioned and unnoticed for the time being, he thought.

Catching a meaningful look from Lynia, he glanced over to see her to slide a hand along the table in Touka's direction and make a barely noticeable nod. Jaren responded by way of a smile, and received a hint of a frown that signaled to him Lynia didn't consider this a freely-given favor . Winking at her, Jaren saw Lynia roll her eyes before breaking eye contact and casually brushing at the part of her coat that was touching the ground.

That idiot owes me for this one, Lynia thought to herself grimly. She pushed the thought from her mind, lest it show on her face and perhaps make Touka think of things other than what Lynia was trying to steer her towards.

The door slid open again, this time with Benawi stepping through. Treyar and the rest of the Free Company soldiers rose, sitting down just as quickly as Benawi gestured for them to relax.

"Please, no need for unnecessary formalities," Benawi said, sitting down. "We'll spend all day on them if we keep this up."

"Sorry, a force of habit," Treyar said. "We visit more than a few countries and their ruling officials, after all. Our general rule is that it is best to be more polite than necessary on such occasions."

"I see," Benawi replied. "Well, in any case, please do not feel that you need to worry about that here. You are our long-term guests, so feel at home as long as you stay."

"Thank you, we will keep that in mind." The reply from Treyar marked the end of the formal conversation around the table, as the food arrived shortly after. Jaren spent most of his time talking to Kurou about the readiness of the Tusukuru forces since the last time he had personally been in the area. Benawi and Treyar interrupted from time to time to ask their own questions or clarify matters. Touka and Karura were kept busy by Kamyu, who had asked them to share their experiences traveling over the past two years. Eruruu and Aruruu listened intently as Karura related one incident or another that she and Touka had found themselves in during their travels.

Eventually, Karura got to some stories that were embarrassing at Touka's expense. They could tell Evinkuruga woman was irritated despite her best efforts to not make it seem quite so obvious. Lynia silently breathed a sigh of relief, her job made easier by this turn of events. As Karura was in the process of recounting a choice bit of a blunder Touka had found herself in, Lynia scanned Karura's face for any clue as to her thoughts. Karura didn't appear to notice at first, although Lynia thought for a moment a wink directed at Touka was meant for her as well. She made a mental note to herself to have a talk with Karura later to see if her suspicions were right.

As everyone around the table finished up their food, she made sure to capture Touka's attention, trying to keep her focus off of Jaren. The ploy worked, as Lynia's questions on how Touka wanted to prepare for sparring kept her busy enough for Karura to slip out of the dining room and head towards her own room, followed by Jaren going the opposite direction to his own a few moments after. The only two who seemed to notice or at least give a sign that they had were Mukuru, who looked at the two curiously before settling his face on the ground in between two massive paws, and Treyar who ventured a brief wave to Jaren before turning the hand he used into a fist and casually resting his chin as he propped his elbow against the table. Lynia allowed herself an inkling of a smile as she flicked her eyes back to Touka's enthusiastic recommendation for warming up after a brief rest to let their stomachs settle after the meal.

Even if there was no sense in worrying about it, she hoped that Jaren wouldn't land himself in too much trouble. Given past events though, perhaps it was too much to ask.

----

Jaren stopped at the entrance to Karura's room, setting down the bundle containing his gift. He looked down at his clothes, checking to make sure nothing was out of place. Reasonably sure everything was where it was supposed to be, he took a deep breath and knocked on the door. After waiting a few moments and hearing no response, he knocked again. Still hearing nothing, Jaren folded his arms across his chest and frowned. Mulling over what to do, he finally picked up the bundle again, and knocked on the door once more but this time sliding it open as he did.

"Sorry to bother you, but I'm coming in," Jaren called out as he slid the door open, looking down at the floor as he turned to slide the door shut behind him. Jaren's motivation for behaving as such was to try and head off any potentially embarrassing situations that might arise if Karura still happened to be dressing. His intuition told him that such a thing was entirely likely as well as being entirely staged by Karura, given her whimsical nature up to this point. Not hearing any startled rustling or a gasp of surprise, he turned around. The first thing he saw was a grinning Karura standing only a few paces away from him.

"My, so polite," she said with a soft laugh, raising a hand to cover her mouth. Looking over her, Jaren found himself at a loss for words. While he was well aware of Karura's beauty, he was not fully prepared to see her dressed as she now stood before him. Jaren was surprised to see her clothed in an eastern style, something he saw more frequently near home or in more cosmopolitan cities such as the Noseshechikan capital. Like most eastern style dresses, Karura's was slimly cut, the design emphasizing her figure. The fabric was light brown in color, with a finely-printed pattern of amber wheat stalks running across the torso, while the edges of the short collar of the dress and where the top of the dress fastened across from the right shoulder to the left side were embroidered with a white thread. The dress itself was sleeveless, cut just above the shoulders and the hem just above the ankles, although with slits along the side ending just above the knee, both contrasting with the cream-colored stockings on her legs and a long-sleeved, half-coat she wore in the same color. Her lion's tail brushed loosely against her left leg, waving lazily as she shifted her weight from one leg to another. Karura had also braided her long hair more loosely, and draped it over her left shoulder to dangle against her side. Overall, Jaren found her stunning.

"When I heard from your Captain that you were all from the east, I thought to dress in a manner you were more used to seeing," Karura said, still smiling as she noticed the effect it had on Jaren. "Is it to your liking?"

"How... how could it not be," Jaren stammered. "You didn't have to spend so much effort." Karura held up a hand and shook her head at the statement. "It would be rude of me to do anything less. Besides, I have to admit I like seeing how you look at me while I'm wearing this." Jaren flushed and coughed nervously, embarrassed at having been staring at Karura enough to be noticed.

"I... I have something for you," Jaren said quickly, holding the bundle out towards Karura with both hands. "You can open it, if you like."

"Thank you, I think I will," Karura said, accepting the present. "Let's go to the balcony then." She padded through her room quietly before reaching the balcony, the light from the room lamps extending just beyond the threshold and fading away before the light of the full moon in the sky. Jaren followed her, grateful for the momentary reprieve it gave him to try and compose himself. Karura carefully sat on a woven mat she had laid out earlier, and waited until Jaren had done the same on another one next to hers before she opened the bundle. Unwrapping the cloth revealed a lacquered wooden box. She lifted the lid, and found a large jug of liquor inside along with a set of dark blue serving flasks and flat, shallow drinking cups.

"They're lovely Jaren, thank you," Karura said happily. "Will I like the contents of the jug as much as the box, I wonder?"

"I venture that you will," Jaren said confidently. "The merchant I bought it from was rather energetic in letting me know that it would match your tastes." Jaren reached over for the container, and pulled the stopper out of the mouth of the jug with a pop. Karura held one of the flasks as Jaren carefully transferred some of the liquid between the two. They repeated the process with another two flasks before Jaren set the jug down and replaced the stopper.

"Please, try some of it," Jaren said, motioning for Karura to pick up one of the drinking cups. She grasped one and held it out as Jaren filled it from one of the flasks, the flask clinking against the rim of the cup as he did. He raised the flask back up after he finished, and earnestly watched Karura as she raised the cup to her mouth. She closed her eyes, her breath just audible as she inhaled the scent of the liquor before draining the cup. Karura opened her eyes in genuine surprise as she exhaled. "It's quite good!"

"I'm glad to hear that," Jaren said with a measure of satisfaction in his voice. "Does the merchant at the corner stall where I bought this from know you? He seemed to already know who it was I was getting this for, and I don't recall telling him anything."

"The corner stall?" Karura set her cup down and looked up into the sky reflectively. "Was it owned by an older man? Tall, thin, graying hair?"

"Yes, that's the one," Jaren said. "I'm guessing you're a familiar sight around there?"

"You could say that," Karura said with a playful grin. "I gave him a lot of business in the past, so I think he's been waiting for me to show up again. The man's old, but his mind is still young."

"That explains it then. He must have seen us together when we were going to the castle and passed through." Jaren filled Karura's cup again, which she picked up and sipped from. The two sat silently for a time, the nighttime sounds of the forest around them and the distant market drifting in occasionally on a light breeze. Karura looked over to Jaren, seeing his face take on a distant look as he stared out past the balcony's low railing and into the horizon. Although she felt the urge to ask him what he was thinking about, she stifled it and instead set her cup down to fill a cup for Jaren. As she finished and reached to hand it to Jaren he stirred slightly in his seat, noticing her actions.

"Sorry I ignored you for a moment there," Jaren said. "Something about today has got me in a strange mood." He took the cup from her hands and drank it in one gulp. "Phew. Been a while since I've had anything as nice as this."

"Oh? Tell me about it, why don't you." Karura reached over with the flask to fill Jaren's cup again. "Ah, thank you," Jaren said as he raised his cup to let Karura fill it more easily. He took a brief sip before setting it down, resting his elbows against his upper legs to settle in a more comfortable position.

"Where do I start? Lynia mentioned the militia training we all went through years ago, do you remember that?"

"Yes, the one you all did very well in," Karura replied.

"The same. The team that was at the finish before us became close friends with ours. Lynia and Kyr got along with them as well as I did. They didn't stand out like us at first, but over the years when we were all in Second Division, they became some of the best around." Jaren paused for a long while, staring off into the distance again. Karura sat patiently, waiting for him to begin again. Jaren took another sip from his cup, this time emptying it and Karura refilled it as he held it out. He carefully placed the cup on the wooden floor of the balcony before continuing.

"Their team was two women and one man; Tersea Vian, Len Selem, and Altin Cerse. All of us did well enough in militia training to earn advanced standing, and during the two year break in between militia and our eligibility for Second Division enlistment, the six of us were always in close contact. We all studied at the state academy for those two years, and it was a wonderful time."

Jaren placed his hands behind him, propping himself up with his palms as he leaned back with a smile. "We all used to joke that Altin was my long lost, more serious brother. We were definitely close, and always finding ourselves in some predicament together, a lot of things that two boys on the verge of becoming men would get themselves into. Altin was a lot quieter than I ever was, but he had a way of really bonding with the people he did open up with." Jaren took a sip from his cup. "Lynia, especially, I should add."

"Len was a sweet girl, the one who seemed completely out of place in our group of military-minded rabble. She was a small one, but that never stopped her. Most people thought it was the funniest thing to see her carrying around a spear so much taller than she was, but once they saw her wield the thing they didn't laugh anymore. I guess we all treated her like a little sister of sorts, or at least that's how I saw it. I'm probably biased though, having an older sister myself and wanting to act like the older sibling for once."

"What about Lynia and Kyr? They're only children as well, aren't they?"

"Right. Personally, I think they saw Len as the little sister they never had. Kyr's a very easygoing person, but that changed if anyone started hassling Len. She was hanging around Lynia as often as she could, so that was rare, but it happened every now and then. Lynia was definitely an older sister figure, the one who could make strong-willed Len listen to her most easily." Another pause in Jaren's story was punctuated by another sip.

"And Tersea? What was she to all of you?" Karura had asked the question innocently enough in an attempt to keep the conversation going, but she felt a sense of regret for asking it when she watched how Jaren's face changed. A very obvious sadness had replaced the nostalgic gleam in his eyes, and the noticeable droop in his posture carried the feeling further.

"Tersea was... she was many things," Jaren said hesitantly. Karura could tell that was struggling to express himself, which was unlike him. "A great soldier, leader, and a friend to all of us. She meant the world to me, and I'm sure Lynia and Kyr would tell you the same." He ran his free hand through his hair absentmindedly, looking like he was considering what to say next.

"I take it she passed away some time ago?" Karura asked the question delicately, a nod from Jaren confirming what she had guessed was the case, based on Jaren's shift in behavior earlier. The two of them sat quietly for a while, neither of them saying anything.

"There's always someone out of all the people you know who really has more of an influence over things than you really understand until they're not there anymore," Jaren mused, finally breaking the silence. Karura thought to herself of Hakuoro, who fit that description perfectly, but said nothing in response. Jaren looked into the distance again before continuing.

"After Tersea was gone, her team fell apart. Len moved to a Sergeant-Instructor post in the capital at the state academy, swore off of combat operations. Altin transferred to the Marines, so he's off fighting pirates, slavers, and bandits who knows where. I wish I knew how they were doing, it's been too long since I've seen either of them."

"And, well, the three of us here in Tusukuru just kept on going like we had always planned to, like how Tersea had wanted to. She had some grand plans, not just for herself, but for all of us really. I seriously think she could've made Marshal, but she always told us the only way she was getting anywhere close was with our help."

"Sorry," Jaren said with a look down at Karura. "All I'm doing is talking about myself and ruining your evening again." Karura shook her head. "No, it's fine, Jaren. I'm happy that you share these things with me."

"I'm relieved to hear that," Jaren replied. "Will you tell me something about your past?" Karura sat up, lifting herself off of Jaren, albeit with some hesitation. Turning to face him while still seated on the floor, her face showed an uncharacteristic amount of sadness, which Jaren noted with concern. "It's fine with me if you're not comfortable talking about it," he said, placing a hand on her arm. "I know I see things differently than most, being willing to talk about these sorts of things so easily."

"Why is that, anyways?" Karura looked at Jaren's face with curiosity.

"I've thought for a long time now that memories are often all we have of those most important to us, whether we know it or not," Jaren said looking out over the balcony. "Some of the people I've known the best out of any in my life, who I never really thought twice about being without turned out to be the ones who I ended up being separated from. Whether it's in terms of distance, or feelings, or life and death, I had the idea that maybe separation would be lessened if I kept my memories of the time we spent together alive."

"Isn't that just painful? Being able to recall things clearly but having those experiences just be locked within your memory?" Karura was still watching for the effect of her words on Jaren, and she felt a pang of regret as Jaren's face took on a saddened look and his ears lowered.

"It is, but it's what I have left and what I chose," Jaren said after a moment's pause. "It's why most people who take on the spirits don't choose the way I took. I would think the opposite is easier, going from having no memories, knowing no one at first and having those left come back into your life again. Most people who go through the process choose that method because it's less painful to forget those who are gone."

"But you didn't."

"No, I did not. I had lost much, but I valued those memories I had of the fallen enough to think that simply erasing them would be a disgrace to the people within them."

"You're going to have to explain this whole concept of spirits to me," Karura said. "I have to admit I know next to nothing besides the rumors."

"I don't know as much as others, but if I had to try and explain it simply, I would tell you it is something like heightened intuition," Jaren said. "As if you had done something new many times before. It's more than that, really. I don't think I can fully explain it."

Jaren broke eye contact with Karura momentarily, as he moved himself across the floor, still sitting. He picked up and moved all of the drinking cups and bottles closer to Karura and himself before returning to his seat. Jaren filled both of their cups, placing one in Karura's hands before taking his own. He looked down for a moment before looking into Karura's eyes again.

"To those who have gone before us," Jaren said, raising his cup towards Karura.

"To those who have gone before us," Karura said, repeating the toast before they both drank. Reaching for the flask again, Karura picked it up to find it noticeably light. Shaking it, she could feel there was only a small amount left, which made sense at the rate they had been drinking from it. She emptied the portion into her own cup, and grabbed an untouched flask to refill Jaren's before topping hers off.

"Already? I wonder if I should slow down a little," Jaren said.

"Oh? Does that mean you get drunk easily, then?" Karura asked the question in her usual playful tone, trying to steer their conversation back to a less somber mood. "Maybe," Jaren replied with a smirk.

"Hmmm, that's dangerous Jaren, underestimating what a woman might do to a man if he's too drunk," Karura teased.

"Ha, I'm not sure if that scares me too much or not enough," Jaren said with a bit of a flinch.

"Well, we'll see."