Author's Note: Sorry for the wait, folks! Thanks for all your encouragement and suggestions. And your patience.

Special thanks to BlueTrillium, who beta read this chapter; and to fumblingwords, who has been very supportive.

xxxxx

Chapter 11: Braids

6 days later

Cerise District—or, to those who didn't bother with historical names, Warehouse District—was probably the oldest part of Selena Guzena. The name Cerise had its roots in the old civilization of north-western Guzena, which predated the empire to which the modern country owed its name. Now, six hundred years after that culture was supplanted by that of the Torakhan invaders, the capital of Guzena still managed to hold on to its ancient identity.

All was quiet in the last hours before dawn as two of the district's finest walked home after the graveyard shift. One was a street officer; the other spent his watch keeping track of their garrison's jail.

At the moment, the jail guard was holding forth about the strange events he had witnessed less than an hour before, talking fast and with great excitement. "So anyways, I'm just about 'a take a bit o' nap when this kid in Market's uniform walks in, and he's carryin' Keensilver—the Keensilver—over his shoulder. Asks if we've room fer a prisoner; that the Market cells are full up. Well, I'm not about 'a say we're too full fer Keensilver, so I opens a box fer 'im an' shows 'im where to write it down, an' when he's done I follows 'im out, friendly like. Then all 'a sudden—well, I don't rightly know what happened, but all 'a sudden there's two more a' Serrik's special hires passed out on the cobbles, and the Market guard's askin' me—cool as ye please, mind—he's askin' me if we'll take them as well's Keensilver. Then he just up an' leaves, sayin' his shift's over and he's to be gettin' home!"

The listener snorted, skeptical. His comrade was known for exaggeration. "'Course he did! Night shift in Market keeps the same hours as us in Cerise, and he had farther to go before he could sign out."

"That's not my point! What I'm sayin' is, this guy just looks like some kinda' pretty boy, but he laid out two of Serrik's best b'fore ye could blink—and he wasn't hardly breathin'!"

XI XI XI XI XI

At the Market District Garrison, the 'pretty boy' under discussion was just signing out when Sergeant Jul appeared from his quarters. Catching sight of Izark, the one-eyed ex-soldier stumped over to say hello.

"Well?" Jul croaked, his voice made raspier by sleep. "How'd it go?"

"Fine, but the cells are all full. If you don't get this bunch moved to the prison soon, you'll have no place to put new arrivals," the black-haired swordsman answered without looking up. His right hand made a quick, decisive motion as he finished writing. Izark straightened, acknowledging the Sergeant with a nod. "Good day, Jul," he said, and turned to go.

The old man stopped him, hobbling rapidly closer and placing a gnarled hand on his shoulder (Izark had a sudden insight as to where Alef had learned that particular mannerism).

"A moment, lad," the Sergeant grumbled softly. "You've another shift in the evening; wouldn't it be better to stay here for the day? It's not like we don't have beds. There's a kitchen so you won't go hungry, and if you need company, Sigurad should be coming in soon." Through his teeth he muttered, "I thought you agreed with me that it would be safer if you did not return to that house…" He trailed off as Izark shook his head.

"I agree with your logic," the young man answered in kind, "and I will be careful, but I don't intend to spend my off time here. There are—reasons," he finished vaguely.

"Harrumph," Jul grunted, scowling. "Then at least wait a bit so you can escort Ashre. The gladiator has agreed to live at the garrison for the time being, but that little chit says she'd rather sleep up there." The old man rubbed his forehead. "'Can't say I blame her; one little girl in a station built for men, with barely any women around. Still, I can't help but think she risks her life every time she walks out of here with nothing but that dog of hers."

When he put it that way, Izark couldn't see any way to refuse. "She doesn't like going over the roofs," he mused, having no real argument.

"Doesn't matter," said an accented voice. The Clan-girl trooped in behind Officer Sigurad, Ronan at her heel. "I don't like brawls much—or cities, now that you mention it. I'm getting used to them. Ronan, too." Automatically she reached out—as opposed to down—and scratched the huge gray dog behind one ear.

Sigurad cocked his thumb at the duo, smiling broadly. "You should've seen it, Jul. The big puppy grins and half of 'em head for ground. Those who don't—well, this kid's pretty handy with a club." The big guard ruffled the girl's straw-colored hair, earning himself an amber glare.

"I am not a kid," she snapped, "And I'm not the only girl, either. There's Katarina. And Wei—he counts, doesn't he?"

An ambivalent silence met her remark. Then Jul cleared his throat. "They are not guards, and you know it. Technically, you are the only girl," he corrected, frowning at Ashre. It was obvious that he was having second thoughts about having hired her. The crotchety veteran had admitted to wishing she and Ronan might help in the station rather than contribute to street duty, but there were so many injured guards who needed the lighter work—Sigurad's partner, for one.

Irate, the young Kilahb opened her mouth to defend her competence, but the old man held up his hand for silence. In the Clan, seniority ruled. With an act of will, she clenched her teeth to keep in a sharp retort.

The Sergeant continued. "Never mind. Izark, get out of here so you can get some rest before this evening. You too, Girl. Sigurad can make your report. Go on." Having accomplished all he could expect to, Jul limped off toward the training yard.

XI XI XI XI XI

Izark was growing accustomed to ferrying people over the roofs, just as Ashre and Ronan were getting used to being ferried. Or rather, Ashre was getting used to it; Ronan still shook like a leaf whenever they reached a gap too wide for them to cross without Izark's assistance.

Though they were still in uniform, there was little risk of being followed or attacked outside the Market and Cerise Districts. Rather than submit the dog to unnecessary trauma, the swordsman let the warrior-girl and her charge down a few streets from Zena's door, then continued on at his own pace.

He touched down in the garden and paused a moment, taking stock. Up in the attic, Noriko should have been sound asleep along with Anita, Rottenina and Katarina, unless the tribeswoman and her sibling were attending to their roles in the Market Guard's recovery effort. The warrior frowned. Noriko was sound asleep, but not in the attic.

He first headed for the room he shared with Dr. Clairgeeta, Wei, and Lori. Moving soundlessly so as to avoid disturbing anyone else at this early hour, he changed into a simple housecoat and breeches. Silently he thanked Gaya and Zena a thousand times over for understanding the drawbacks of packing light. The sisters had provided casual garments to supplement the sturdy traveling layers Clairgeeta's party had brought on their backs. The coat—a dark blue, with reddish brown trim—was more the philosopher's size than Izark's, but the younger man's shoulders had filled out considerably in the last year or so, so the fit wasn't too bad. The breeches were, admittedly, a tad short, but that was hardly unusual these days. He sometimes suspected that the height he'd gained since he was twenty had all gone to his legs.

When he was finished tugging on a pair of borrowed slippers, the warrior padded down the hall to the library.

Quietly he pulled aside the curtain and stepped into a well-lit study. Three full walls were devoted to bookshelves, though only one was in use at the moment. Books—luxuries whose production involved not only an original manuscript but also vast amounts of paper and leather, copying either by printing press or hand, and binding—were relatively expensive; the looting of past years had stripped Zena's collection. It was testament to the King of Guzena's remorse over having fired his best Seer that even that much had been replaced since her return. The remaining wall was dominated by a large south-facing window that caught a good amount of light throughout the day. Near this light source stood a desk, and at the desk sat Noriko, head down, the open pages of a massive old tome serving her for a pillow. The throw someone had draped over her was slipping off her shoulders, while the spent oil lamp standing beside her indicated that she'd been there all night. As he crossed the room, the grimace Izark wanted to make somehow turned into a smile. It was just like Noriko to worry about whether he was getting enough rest, and then stay up all night reading.

Gently the black-haired man tugged the blanket back up and tucked the edges under her elbows, then leaned over her shoulder to squint at the ancient text. He couldn't make out much; the girl's sleeping form covered much of the tiny, fading script. Still, he could see some accent marks being used in a way that was outdated by at least a century, so he guessed it was the kind of reading people often nodded off over.

Noriko stirred slightly. A long wisp of hair fell over her face, making her mutter and shift again. Guessing that it tickled, Izark lifted the strands away from her nose. The girl settled.

He let the wisp slide through his fingers, contemplating its length. Even with the regular trims she insisted on, Noriko's hair now hung to her waist. A smirk stole slowly over the young man's face. Most of the time she braided it back, but this morning it hung free—perfect for playing with.

Stealthily he gathered a couple more lengths and wove them together with the first, making a little braid at the back of the young woman's head. The piece looked a bit— awkward, but it was more elegant than the ones she'd given him.

He couldn't remember the details, but it had started with some comment on his part; some truism that had him doubling over with laughter at the sight of her stunned, scarlet face.

Noriko had pouted. She usually did when he 'teased' her.

In retrospect, he really should have anticipated payback. At least, he would think ruefully, she chose a private moment to enact her revenge.

Southern Evana was a quite place, affording all the benefits of peace. These included leisurely strolls through the foothills, just the two of them. It had been during one of these 'trysts', as Wei liked to call them, that they had taken a rest on a grassy riverbank. This was not unusual. Neither was the fact that Izark had chosen Noriko's lap as a head rest; nor the way Noriko played with his hair, finger combing his sleek black mane, brushing his bangs this way and that.

It was the taut feeling on certain parts of his scalp that told Izark something was up. How the girl had laughed at his expression as he'd felt around his head, discovering not one, but two—three—five little plaits sticking out in all directions, and slowly processed the fact that Noriko had played a trick on him.

Air was displaced in the hallway as a warm body moved toward the library. Izark spared it a fleeting thought, but no more as he started on a second braid; there was nothing threatening in the presence. He didn't look up until the person he'd felt snorted from the doorway. The warrior took a moment to identify the person's aura—and froze, having just experienced the sensation some poor, highly strung individual had termed 'jumping out of one's skin.' Steeling himself, he turned his head to let his eyes confirm what he already knew.

Noriko's father was grinning from ear to ear, a steaming tea tray in his hands. "No mind me," he said in broken Midland, ducking his head as he skirted around to a side table where he set the tray. Izark watched as the small-framed Japanese man poured himself a mug of the hot pinkish liquid, then sank down into a deep armchair that had made the hulking Barago look average-sized when he sat in it. Cozily ensconced, Daisuke picked up the sheaf of papers laying over the armrest, leaned into the light of a standing lamp and, for all appearances, proceeded to ignore everything else.

It was more than appearance. The swordsman felt the nuances in the other man's presence—the ones he'd come to equate with attention—shift so completely as to be disconcerting.

Izark hesitated a moment longer, studying the peculiar little man. He saw a wiry islander, forty-ish, wearing rumpled sleeping clothes that were at least one size too large. He saw arching eyebrows in a sharply planed, clean-shaven face; fine black hair pulled into a horsetail. Silver streaked sparse sideburns and threaded the shock of hair over the man's high forehead. His eyes—darker than his children's, but sharing that distinctive fold of the upper lids—were all-together too wide-awake, but once they were focused on something other than Izark, there didn't seem to be anything especially intimidating about them.

Noriko stirred again, and sighed. If he wanted to finish his little joke, Izark was going to have to do it before she woke up. He struggled with himself a moment more, uncomfortable in the presence of a third party, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.

The young woman's even breathing paused for an instant, then continued at a waking pace.

Izark? The query was blurry, half-unconscious.

Smiling fondly, the warrior rested his forearms on the desk, bringing his face into her field of view. "Here."

Noriko smiled drowsily back, eyelashes fluttering as her sight focused. The sleepy smile widened, and she reached up a hand to the young man's cheek. He flushed, startled by the feeling of her fingers moving over thin bristle—had he forgotten to shave yesterday? If so, then his upper lip at least would be looking a bit shadowy.

The young woman didn't seem to object; on the contrary, her fingers moved inquiringly along his jaw line and around the corners of his mouth. The warrior chuckled at the ticklish sensation, but found himself becoming increasingly more interested in the proximity of her palm to his lips.

Paper rustled in the background. The warrior stopped dead. He'd forgotten about Daisuke. Noriko was frowning—she'd seen him stiffen—a question in her wide brown eyes.

We have company, Izark answered, adding an image of the Japanese man swimming in cushions at their backs.

The girl lifted her head, twisting to look at her father. So? Otou-san doesn't notice anything when he's reading.

She saw one dark eyebrow lift ever so slightly. Nothing?

Nothing. She thought about illustrating her point, but never got that far.

Well then.

She managed not to gasp as his mouth seared the base of her thumb.

The hot spot where his breath had touched her skin was cool before Noriko realized that the warrior was talking out loud. "I'm sorry—what?" She could feel her ears burning; she could only guess what that meant for her face.

Izark managed not to smile, but his eyes danced with wicked amusement—and something else.

"I said, 'what's this?'" he repeated, tapping the pages of the book turned pillow. Privately, he was rather pleased with himself. He'd gotten the reaction he wanted, blush and all.

"Oh. Uh—" the girl fumbled, trying to remember the title, but at the moment she was at a loss recalling her own name. Closing one hand between the pages she'd been studying, she lifted the volume so Izark could see the characters stamped into the binding.

He read the title, blinked, and looked pointedly at Noriko. "A Treatise on the Oligarchy of Tazasina," he stated dryly. "You do know that the oligarchy is now the monarchy? That the Charujek line has spent the last two-hundred fifty years—"

"—stamping out the other ruling families," Noriko finished with him as she set the book down and reopened it to her page. "Dr. Clairgeeta told me. I just thought there might be a section on the Tazasina Kilahb. 'On the Wind' only talks about the seafaring clans, and then it's mostly hearsay." She indicated a much thinner but equally worn volume balancing on the far right corner of the desk.

The swordsman circled the desk and palmed the copy of On the Wind: Customs of the Kilahb Nomads. "But nothing on the land clans?"

The young woman shrugged. "It mentions them, but doesn't actually say anything about them—and I can't count on what it does say. The author writes that he researched authentic documents," she explained, "but he never names these documents, or who wrote them, or explains why they were written."

"Hmmm," Izark mused as he moved to return the disappointing title to its place on the shelves. "How about the 'Treatise'? Did you find anything in that?"

"Just the oligarchy's policy towards 'undesirables'. It was—kind of sick."

"The monarchy's not much better. Anything else?" Finding the shelf for culture and politics, Izark wedged 'On the Wind' into its place and scanned the books to either side of it, searching for something that might prove useful.

"Not that I can find." There was a dull thud as Noriko closed the heavy 'Treatise'. She looked up at him as he turned and made his way back to the desk. "I'm going to ask Glocia to take a look in the palace library. But really, shouldn't we just ask Ashre why she's here?"

Izark's smile was crooked as he replied, "We could, but there's no guarantee that we'd get an honest answer." He propped himself up against the desk. "She's not very trusting; actually, she's not trusting, period. But I doubt she's a runaway."

"Yes," Noriko agreed, her brow knit. They had talked about this, and concluded that the Kilahb girl was entirely too proud of her Clan's way of life to have renounced it. That much was clear in her demands to be treated as the adult her people believed her to be and in her badly disguised disdain for much of the sedentary culture that currently surrounded her. So then, what was she doing so far off her family's seasonal routes? "Izark?"

"Yeah?"

"I was wondering—you said the monarchy in Tazasina is almost as bad as the Torakhan governance. And there's that thing with Duke Jeida." Every time the young Kilahb so much as occupied the same room as the Grand Duke, all her natural arrogance seemed to desert her, leaving behind your typical fourteen-year-old in the presence of a famous dignitary: mute, diffident, and otherwise completely cowed. Even though the mild mannered nobleman had given up trying to make conversation with her days ago, Ashre still watched him and his family with that strange expression that was part worship, part terror.

It was the terror that caught Izark's interest. Then again, perhaps terror wasn't the right word. The anxiety the warrior felt from the young teenager was more akin to stage fright than actual mortal fear.

He met Noriko's concerned brown eyes. "Do you think she wants to talk to him?"

The quiet was broken by the distant chiming of first bell. It was dawn.

Izark sighed. The activity level in the house had jumped at the signal for morning. Ashre and Ronan would be arriving at any moment, putting further research on hold. It was time to clean up, eat, and sleep before that evening shift Jul had studiously reminded him of. He considered skipping the rest the Sergeant expected him to take, but decided against it. Sleep was difficult for the swordsman—naps were nearly impossible. On the other hand, Noriko would worry if he didn't at least make an effort, and besides, a full sun cycle was wearing on the edge of his mental, if not physical endurance.

There was a great deal of rustling and shifting as Daisuke attempted to wriggle out of the deep armchair. "[Noriko? Could you lend me a hand?]"

Laughing, the young woman stood up from her seat and went to her father. "[Otou-san! How on earth did you get up the other times? I know you went to get tea.]" While allowing Daisuke to haul himself up using her arm, she smiled at Izark, who was backing toward the door. "See you at breakfast," she told him, switching flawlessly to Midland.

The warrior managed a nod, then disappeared behind the curtain, leaving Noriko feeling a little puzzled. There had been something odd in his expression, something that made her think he was trying and failing to keep a straight face. Distracted, she almost overbalanced as Daisuke heaved himself into a standing position and his weight came off her arm. She turned to apologize, and saw that her father was looking at her, a similar—restrained smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

"[Otou-san? Is something wrong?]"

Daisuke grinned at his daughter. "[No. I just realized something interesting, that's all.]" Retrieving the tea tray, the Japanese man turned and headed for the door, saying over his shoulder, "[Nice braids.]"

Braids? Confused, Noriko brought a hand up to her hair…

"IZARK!"

xxxxx

Hmmm…I guess you could say this chapter is based on that picture of Noriko braiding Izark's hair—find it on a website called Everything for Kanata Kara (That's the name, not the address). Look in miscellaneous images. If anyone can read the script and tell me what it says, they shall have my undying gratitude.

However, I suspect my real inspiration came from another manga by Hikawa-san, a rather long one-shot called Choto Friday. I don't believe it's ever been published in English, but you should be able to find a good fan translation on Mangahere (.com). You can also try Mangafox––but I'd only suggest it for those who have a Mac, use Mozilla Firefox for their server, and/or have killer security software. It's riddled with viruses, pop-ups, and other nasty surprises. By comparison, Mangahere seems pretty safe.

Thanks for reading, and please review.

~Muse : )