Chapter IXX. Cobwebs

...We're told that it's as easy to shed the past, our traumas, as simply deciding it. That time heals everything and the past is the past so we should forgive and forget about those who wronged us. But it's only a false reassurance, meant to trick us. If it were really like that, the world would be a better place, for we would be free of vengeance and pain.

They rode through the night. Yui shivered in her seat until Nakago flung his cloak over her. She thought she heard something about him having to protect her from "idiotic impulses" and she had to agree with him. Who else wandered through a heavy rainstorm to talk to a homicidal wolf? Seriously. She didn't even know what she had been thinking. And no progress had been made.

She wasn't sure how long they rode, but every so often, they stopped to take a break. During the first of those breaks, she changed into her dry uniform, and it made traveling much easier. Although she made some attempts to approach Soi, the other girl had convenient excuse after excuse to avoid her or simply outright ignored her words. Ashitare was no better, snapping at her immediately when she even accidentally looked at him. Yui missed the companionship she had shared with the twins. But no. She had promised herself that she wasn't going to keep thinking negatively. She needed to fight hard. Earn the trust of her seishi.

She would no longer take them for granted.

Somehow she managed to nod off during their tumultuous ride through the night, although her sleep was easily disturbed and rocky. However, the heat from Nakago's body cocooned her, and she sensed that he was doing his best to ride smoothly.

Dawn broke over the sky as they reached the top of the hill overlooking the capital of Kutou. The city was breathtaking from above. Obscured by a puffy blanket of fog, the sleepy city stretched before them, crowding the valley with shadowy structures. What Yui could see of the predominantly grey buildings had just a tinge of clear blue, and they clustered together in walled-off sections. The palace, the glory of the empire, bathed in the glimmering crimson glow of the sunrise. Intentionally or not, the sun served as a halo over the palace, creating the illusion of a safe haven.

But Yui knew better.

"We are almost there, Your Eminence," Nakago said. He spurred his horse and they galloped down the hill, Soi and Ashitare following closely.

The ride through the forest that separated them from Shunrou passed quickly, and they reached the outskirts of the city. Beneath the facade, grime and poverty were mired in the cracks. The veneer of wealth and prosperity had peeled.

Yui sniffed through the congestion in her nose. She wrapped Nakago's cloak tighter around her. Her hand slipped around the blue gem at her neck. As the horses clopped their way down the stone streets, the citizens of the city lined up to watch them. The stench of fear, of suspicion, was palpable.

They knew who Nakago was.

Did they know who she was?

No, there was no one paying attention to the bedraggled bundle sitting in front of Nakago. Their eyes were all lowered to the ground, the picture of a subservient population. She saw the ragged clothing, the disillusioned souls kneeling before her. They deserved better than this guilt-ridden Priestess before them who walked with the ghosts of the past. But she was all they had, and she would fight for them.

Yui and the three seishi made their way down the roads without incident. By the time they reached the palace, the palace guards had lined up before them, filling the courtyard except for a single aisle. Soi slipped off her horse, and both she and Ashitare walked alongside on either side of Nakago and Yui, who still rode their horse. The guards in their armor retained their solemn demeanor, although she picked up a quiver of anticipation from some of them.

They reached the foot of the palace too soon. It loomed before her, the cool blue roof rising above the dull brown building. Three levels of stairs, emblazoned with Seiryuu's emblem were all that stood between herself and her fate. The real test had begun; her earlier interactions with the twins and Ansu had only been the beginning. Now she would walk among her memories in a much deeper way than seeing a grieving boy imposed on the stubborn boy she had once known and met again. It was not just being around Nakago that rattled her, she realized now, but seeing the place where she had learned to channel the darkest parts of her soul. Here would be the walls of her past truly surrounding her, for the palace was where her heart had turned against Miaka. Yui took comfort in the knowledge that Seiryuu supported her, wanted her back despite her many mistakes. If he believed in her, if Amiboshi and Suboshi believed she could do it, she would prove them right.

Nakago helped her off the horse and the four of them ascended the stairs, Soi and Ashitare in front and Nakago and herself behind. The only sound that followed them was their footsteps. They reached the top, and the guards stationed there knocked their spears against the floor.

"Shogun, we welcome your return," the one on the left said. "The Emperor awaits you in his chambers."

The doors opened and they walked through the dimly lit hallways. No guards were around them now. Yui had trouble paying attention to where they were going.

Remember…

She remembered walking down these very halls with Miaka, turning her back on her, and walking away. Allowing the seishi who was now by her side to handle her best friend.

This was not what Seiryuu had meant when he wanted her to remember. She tried to shake the memories away, but they remained, cobwebs in her frustrated self.

The four of them came to a stop before the Emperor's chambers. Nakago raised his hand to knock when a scream escaped from behind the door. Muffled sounds of scrambling, then a guffaw of laughter. "Come here, pretty," a gravelly male voice beseeched. Yui felt the slightest flinch from Nakago, but his expression remained impassive. He knocked on the door.

"Enter," said the same voice from inside. Another laugh and then a whimper of pain.

They opened the door.

A middle-aged man with a scratchy black beard clothed in golden robes looked at them. The right shoulder of his robe hung halfway down his shoulder, baring part of his naked chest. His hat was askew. The wrinkles on his face, deeply lined with pettiness and excessive debauchery, revealed his cruel interior.

"Nakago! What have you brought me today?" the Emperor asked. "Have you finally brought me a friend?" He hurriedly slipped his robe back on over his shoulder and tightened the belt around his waist. The Emperor of Kutou readjusted his hat until it was straight and took his seat before them. A shaking bundle of a girl had collapsed by his feet. Small gasps emitted from her, and Yui's heart broke.

Soi and Ashitare stepped back, allowing Nakago and Yui to walk forward. Nakago knelt on one knee before the Emperor, and the three of them followed his lead, Yui on his left and Soi and Ashitare behind them.

"Your Imperial Majesty, I received the urgent news that was delivered to us. The Priestess of Suzaku has returned to Kounan," he said.

The Emperor frowned. "Yes, that is quite unfortunate. I suppose it was too much to hope that she would never return."

Nakago said nothing, only continued kneeling. The Emperor scrunched his nose as the gasps from the girl by him slowly evened into shallow breaths. She attempted to crawl away, but he shot an arm out to stop her, holding her fast, then he heaved a gusty sigh. "I hope you have returned with good news, Nakago?"

Nakago extended an arm towards Yui. "I have, Your Imperial Majesty." He took her hand and brought them to their feet, although her legs trembled greatly at the sight before her. "I bring with me the one who can stop the Priestess of Suzaku."

"And who would that be?"

He met the Emperor's eyes. "The Priestess of Seiryuu."

"The Priestess of Seiryuu?" the Emperor crowed. He slapped his knee, letting go of the girl and she pushed herself out of hands' reach from him. "You speak the truth?"

Nakago nodded.

The Emperor beckoned to her. "Let me take a look at her. She's all wrapped up."

When Yui did not move, he grunted and stood up. His hand grabbed the edge of Nakago's cloak and yanked it down. It crumpled into a pile, pooling around her feet. Yui shivered in her uniform, feeling the eyes of those men raking over her again, deciding that she was theirs. Her eyes closed and she squeezed the wrist with Suboshi's bandana around it. Despite this, she could still feel the Emperor's desire wrap around her, clinging to her skin like a wave of spiders.

"May I remind you that the Priestess must remain pure and virginal before the summoning," Nakago said with a hint of anger.

The Emperor grunted again and waved them out. Nakago draped the cloak around her again and the three seishi bowed to the Emperor before they left the room. When the doors closed, Yui found she could breathe again.

"Soi, take Her Eminence to her chambers," Nakago said.

Soi bowed and began to walk away. Yui glanced back at Nakago, but he had already turned his back to her and was heading in the opposite direction with Ashitare. She followed after Soi quickly to catch up. They left the dark hallways of the Emperor's wing and across the courtyard toward the concubines' wings. Yui clung to her backpack straps as they meandered through the many corridors. When they reached her old room, Soi stopped.

"We're here, Your Eminence," the other girl said.

"I'm sorry," Yui said before she could stop herself.

Soi's eyes widened briefly before she narrowed them. "For what?" she snapped.

"I got you in trouble, didn't I?"

Soi said nothing, only sniffed, and wheeled away on her heel. Yui would have described it as stalking off, but Soi was too graceful to stalk, the bearings of her courtesan training obvious even to Yui herself. Resigned, she pushed the door open to her chambers.

The room looked the same as before. Yui shut her eyes tightly to stave the onslaught of memories. Quietly she shut the door behind her and dropped her backpack on the floor. She sank to the floor and buried her head in her arms and knees.

She had been so sure that this time, after she talked with Miaka, all would go well. Hard as she tried, the doubts continued to plague her.

Someone knocked on the door. "Enter," Yui said as she pushed herself away. The door burst open and one twin piled in first, then the second one followed more slowly. Both of them hesitated when they saw her sitting on the floor.

"Amiboshi! Suboshi!" Joy cracked through the barriers she had erected in her heart and she climbed to her feet. Breathlessly they hugged each other tightly. All the words she wanted to pour out to them caught in her throat and she settled with giving them another fierce embrace. Suboshi pulled away first in embarrassment, a blush painting his cheeks. He sneezed and brushed it off as his "female allergy" before stepping back. Amiboshi lingered in her embrace a few seconds longer before Yui released him.

"Nakago said you were brought here, but I didn't expect to see you so soon," she said. The two of them no longer wore the old clothes she had seen before. Both had navy bandanas around their foreheads now. Amiboshi was clad in blue and Suboshi in the orange robes she was so heartbreakingly familiar with. She couldn't look at him, so she focused her attention on his older brother. Suboshi didn't seem to notice; he was instead venturing further into her room, making the occasional exclamation at the expensive furniture and rich decorations.

Amiboshi exchanged a smile with her. "We came as soon as we heard," he said.

"Thank you," she managed to say. "Nakago told me he spared Tessou and his group."

Amiboshi studied her. It was as if he recognized the doubts that plagued her. "A song to soothe your soul?" he asked, a now familiar question.

Yui managed to nod.

He put the flute to his lips and began to play, the same haunting lullaby as before. The roaring in her head quieted and her heart calmed. The words Amiboshi had sung to them the last time they had been together drifted through, intertwining with the flute's wistful notes.

Underneath the distant stars, I entrust a prayer to send a melody to your dreaming self.
Come over here, I'll hold your sadness, I'll embrace even your tears…

Exhausted by the events of the last two days, the last thing she remembered before she fell sound asleep was a warm back carrying her across the room to her bed.


A/N: I sincerely apologize for the delay in updating. I don't want to take up too much word count on this, but I started graduate school again, moved across the country to another state, and am now working as a teen librarian. School will be done at the end of this year, so I'll be able to think more about this story. Anyway, I've been working on outlining the story and hope to get another chapter or two out before the end of 2018. No promises, but I will do my best! (Note: Thank you backsliding cat for letting me know about the virus spreading through profiles!).

Anyway. Thank you for reading my story, new and old readers. Without further ado, an omake.

Fushigi Akugi: Yui Learns that Silence is Golden

She needed to say something. Anything. The tension between herself and Soi was so thick it couldn't even be cut with a butter knife. It was so thick she was making up idioms that didn't appear in the Japanese language. She halted in the hallway and balled her fists.

This time. This time.

In a rush of words, she blurted out, "SoiI'mreallysorryIgotyouintroubleIknowitwasallmyfaultpleasedon'thateme,Imeanit'snotlikeIcouldcontrolmysendmebacktomyownworldpowerswhichapparentlyareacursefromSeiryuu,likeyouguyscan,butyeahanywayIwanttobefriends,Ireallydo,willyoubemyfriend-"

Wheeeze.

She keeled over. In her zeal, she had forgotten to breathe (and her speed meant Soi had no idea what she said). It had all been for nothing.

Soi stared at the motionless Priestess.

"Really?" she demanded. "Really? Again?"

She shook her head. Lightning sparked between her fingers and snaked towards Yui, jolting her conscious.

Yui's eyes opened. She realized what had happened and took a deep breath. "Ohmygoodness-"

Zap!

Down she went again. Soi rolled her eyes. "Seiryuu, why did you send such a person to us?" She contemplated over whether or not she should leave Yui on the floor or carry her the rest of the way. "Some sleep won't hurt her," she said aloud and began to walk away.

A blast of chi knocked Soi towards the ground. She managed to catch herself and whirled around. "Nakago!"

Nakago glared at her, then walked off, muttering something about idiotic women.

Soi's attention returned to Yui. She narrowed her eyes. She did not like her Priestess, no she did not. She huffed, then heaved Yui over her back and headed toward's the Priestess's room.

When that girl was awake... ooooh she was getting her revenge.