Flames from the funeral pyre burned hot against Kenji’s face, but they did little to dry his tears. Even after having seen Waru pass over into the beyond, the finality of his separation caused Kenji’s heart to grieve. Perhaps it was not only Waru he grieved for, but his father as well. For everyone who had died in Han village that day.
He prayed that they too, had crossed over that black gulf safely.
The few that had gathered to pay their last respects consisted of Mei Ling and the men Kenji had worked with to build the pyre, Master Hu Dong and of course Shinoto and Chet Fai. The two youngsters wept as he did, Shinoto by his side. They knelt before a small altar in front of the funeral pyre and sent their prayers to the heavens with the sweet smelling aroma of burnt incense.
Waru, if you can hear me, Kenji prayed. Please tell me I’m making the right decision this time.
He glanced over at Shinoto, her face damp with tears.
Heavens forgive me.
Kenji thought back to the moment right after his failed attempt to imbue, when he’d made the decisions to sacrifice Shinoto’s future for his own. Perhaps it was out of shame or guilt, but he’d thrown himself into work with an abandon, determined to finish the rope before the funeral began.
He’d started by studying both the Han arts books and his father’s notes before embarking on creating a rebirthing rope that would instead do the opposite. It would work on the same principle but would accelerate time in lieu of reversing. He was unsure how long it would take to rust iron, but he’d selected a length of orange, twenty year rope to use. Combining that with the element of water, he hoped that would be enough.
That was all contingent on if he could get the glyphs imbued, of course. He still wasn’t certain if Shinoto could perform the needed techniques with proficiency, but he was willing to coach her all night if need be—once he shared with her his plan, that was.
The ceremony ended and everyone made ready to return to the mystic school. Mei Ling and her staff bid them farewell as they prepared to return to their respective homes as well.
“Thank you again, Master Mei Ling.” Kenji bowed to her before she left. “Once again I’m in your debt.”
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
He smiled. “I am well.”
She squinted at him and he wondered if she could perhaps somehow discern that he had tried to use his doma. Eventually though she smiled. “Please don’t push yourself. If you feel anything untoward, come see me right away.”
He bowed to her again in thanks and bid her farewell.
As he followed along with Master Hu Dong towards the mystic school, Kenji tried to find the right opportunity to speak with Shinoto privately, but Chet Fai was clinging close to her side. As they neared the steps, Master Hu Dong bounded ahead using Qinggong, climbing the steps with ease. He knew Chet Fai and Shinoto were about to follow suit. If he wanted a chance to speak with her alone, now was the time.
“Shinoto,” he said, just before she was about to bound up the steps. “Would you mind walking with me?”
She stopped and so did Chet Fai.
“Why?” her brother asked, narrowing his eyes at him. “What for?”
Defiance stirred in his gut. He might not have full use of his doma, but his body was full of Qi now. Qi far more dense than that of a rebirthed blue tier. Still, he was on the cusp of something that would require both stealth and subterfuge and stirring up Chet Fai would only add further complication to that.
He laid on a practiced smile. “Well… it’s dark and the lanterns are spaced far apart. I can’t climb the steps as easily as the both of you. It would perhaps be safer if one of you travelled with me, but it would mean a much longer trip.”
“Yes, of course,” Shinoto said and then reddened a bit. “I’m so sorry, Kenji, I should have considered that. I’ll walk with you.”
Kenji smiled sheepishly. “It’s a bit embarrassing. These steps were not constructed for dullards, it seems.”
“Exactly why you shouldn’t be climbing them,” Chet Fai said smugly. “This school wasn’t meant for the likes of you.”
“Chet Fai!” Shinoto said with a glare. “That was uncalled for!”
The adolescent scowled with disgust, shaking his head before continued up the stairs and leaving them both behind.
Kenji smiled in victory. Chet Fai was indeed easy to manipulate. No way was he going to lower himself to the standard of a dullard and endure climbing the steps using his physical strength alone, much less to help him. He was perhaps lucky Chet Fai wasn’t quick thinking enough to volunteer himself and use it as an opportunity to push him off the steps. Although hopefully something like that was below even him.
“I’m sorry,” Shinoto said. “I honestly don’t know why he’s acts like an idiot most of the time.”
“Its fine,” Kenji said, ensuring Chet Fai was ahead far enough before starting his climb. “I’m sure it’s not an act.”
Shinoto burst out laughing and clung to his arm as they climbed the stairs together.
* * *
They reached about halfway when Kenji finally stopped. “Shinoto, I’d like to ask you something…”
She looked up at him quizzically. “Sure.”
He ignored the sickness in his stomach as he prepared to ask her for a favor for beyond what was reasonable. “I need your help imbuing something.”
“Imbuing?” she said intrigued. “What?”
“A rope...I plan on freeing Olja and leaving the village with her tonight.”
Her mouth hung open. “What?”
“I know this sounds sudden but it’s a bit hard to explain,” he said. The last thing he needed was her learning about who he actually was on top of all this. “She needs me to go north with her.”
Kenji swallowed. “I don’t actually know...yet.”
Shinoto’s face suddenly curled into a scowl. “Absolutely not!”
Kenji blinked. “What?”
“I’m not helping you do something as foolish as that! You don’t even know her. What did she even say to you?”
Her face was flushed and heated. He certainly didn’t expect a reaction like this.
“We just went through the worse ordeal of our lives, Kenji, but at least we’re safe here now. Why would you want to leave?”
“It’s not that I wasn’t to…” he started, but she immediately cut him off.
“Are you still worried about that demon or something? About it coming after you?”
His face was now the one to flush red.
“Waru gave his life to ensure we got here. Why would you leave and throw that all away?” Her eyes glistened and her tone became pleading. “We have the chance for a future here, Kenji. Please don’t go.”
The way she looked at him when she it, seemed like she was referring to more than just the three of them who had survived Han village. His heart stirred and he wondered once again what he would be giving up by leaving her behind. But then again, Shinoto was still rebirthed as a child…what future could they possibly share together?
Despite that, he tried to put himself in her place. Without understanding everything, this would perhaps seem like more than a simply unreasonable request. It would seem like abandonment, like suicide even. But he still needed her help. He thought back to what Waru had said, about keeping his secret. But if he couldn’t tell Shinoto, then how else would she understand?
The guilt crept back in as he prepared to burden her with far more than he had originally planned. “All right, Shinoto… I suppose I owe you at least an explanation as for why I’m asking this of you. But you may not like what you hear. And please, you can’t tell anyone else. Especially not your brother.”
Her throat flexed in a swallow. “All right…”
He sat down on the steps and Shinoto nervously joined him, her tiny legs trembling.
“I’m not who you think I am,” he said. “I’m not even sure exactly what I am …”
She looked at him with even more concern. “You’re scaring me now, Kenji.”
“Perhaps you should be scare of me,” he said. “Because apparently…I’m the Bloody Duke.”
* * *
Kenji went into the details of his own self-discovery, starting with his father and then what he’d learned from Waru. Shinoto remained quiet the entire time, staring at him in perpetual shock and disbelief; or what he assumed had to be so. Her eyes shimmered as if with tears and her lip trembled.
“Is all of this real?” she finally said. “You’re some king of legendary warrior?”
“I think so,” he said. “I even met him, I believe.”
“Met him? How?”
Kenji described that encounter next, the black beach and the celestial city. Those towering demons and the people fleeing for their lives.
“It sounds like a vision,” Shinoto said. “Like the kind you’re supposed to have when you ascend.”
“Maybe it was. Or something like it anyway. I saw Waru, you know?”
Her eyes widened. “You did?”
“He was on that beach. I saw him make it across to the city though. He’s safe.”
“Did you see anyone else?”
“No one I recognized… except for the Duke… He looked just like me, Shinoto, only older and he had the markings of the Tsu. Like the ones that attacked our village.”
“And you think they came for you now?” she asked. “Those warriors?”
“Yes,” he said. “And the demon too. It’s what they were using to find me.”
Shinoto looked down and stared into nothing. “This is all too much to take in.”
Kenji exhaled deeply. “I’m sorry Shinoto…I know it is.” Tightness caught in his throat as he prepared to speak further. “Everything I had feared turned out to be true. I’m the reason all of this happened. I’m the reason our parents are dead…that everyone is dead.”
Sickness filled his stomach. Saying it aloud was perhaps even worse than just thinking it inside his head. He paused to see how Shinoto would react, but she just kept staring at the ground.
“I hope you can understand now why I need to go,” he said. “Why I need to keep those people away from you and everyone else. I need to understand why Olja came for me. She’s the only link I have to my past. And perhaps my future.”
Shinoto still didn’t say anything. He thought she might be crying but he wasn’t sure. Eventually she spoke. “So you’ll head north then… beyond the wall?”
“Well… eventually I suppose.”
“There’s something else.”
Kenji then told her about the sapphire soul stone, sheathed around his doma and how Mei Ling had helped him crack it. “But now it’s leaking Qi,” he said and explained what that meant. “She gave me the name of a gem smith in Kurogane. She said he might be able to remove it completely.”
Shinoto’s eyes suddenly grew wide. “She said he can remove it?”
“She thinks he might be able to …”
She grabbed hold of his forearm. “Kenji, if that thing is killing you, then getting to Kurogane is more important than going north or anything else!”
He knew that was true, but he hadn’t really thought that far ahead as yet. “There’s no way for me to get there without Olja’s help, though. I’m still a dullard with a broken doma, who has a demon and three Tsu warriors out to kill him.”
“Then we’ll free her like you said.” Shinoto’s nodded and her eyes filled with a sudden resolve. “What is it you need me to do?”
“So you’ll help me?”
“Of course, I will!” she said.
“But do you realize the risk? If you get caught with me, it could ruin your future here at the school.”
She looked at him incredulously. “The school?”
“You have a future here, Shinoto. Once I leave with Olja you’ll be safe. You can still follow your dream.”
Shinoto shook her head at him. “You think that after telling me a story like that, that there’s anyway you’re getting rid of me?”
He sighed. Curse my fate. “Well…to be honest. I was kind of fearing you’d say something like that.”
She gave him a scowl, but a playful one. “You’re a real scoundrel, you know that?”
Kenji chuckled. “Seriously, though Shinoto. I want you to think about this. I have to run, but you don’t. You could be throwing away your chances at joining a mystic school for good.”
“By the heavens, Kenji…” Shinto shook her head at him. “You truly are a dullard, aren’t you?”
“You think joining a mystic school and becoming a warrior is my dream?”
He shrugged. “Isn’t it? It’s all you ever spoke about.”
“I wanted to see the world Kenji. That’s my dream.”
Thinking back, he supposed her words did ring true.
“Becoming a mystic warrior was always my best chance for making that happen,” she continued. “But even that wouldn’t have mattered, if I couldn’t see the world with you.”
His insides grew warm as his stomach fluttered. He looked into the eyes of the little girl staring at him, and saw the gaze of the young woman he’d fallen in love with staring back. He wished she’d never donned that yellow rope now. That he had been bold and perhaps selfish enough to let her know his true intentions beforehand; just like Waru had said.
But it was too late now.
“Everything has changed, Kenji. Our families are gone. The only thing that matters to me is that we stay together. No matter where we go.”
“You really mean that?”
She grinned. “With you being some 80th dan legendary warrior? Are you kidding? How could I pass up on that?”
She burst into a laugh and he did as well. He knew she’d say yes, but never did he think she’d do so in a way that would bring him no guilt at all. She wanted to come with him, to be with him. And if she did, it would be up to him to grow strong enough to protect her.
But there was one further complication to consider.
“What about your brother?”
“Chet Fai?” she made an irritated face. “Don’t get me wrong. I do love my brother, but he’s an arrogant, selfish pig who acts like a child less than the age he looks. If there is anyone that needs to stay in Amatsu village, it’s him.”
Kenji laughed. He couldn’t argue with that.
“Come on then, Kenji,” Shinoto said, standing. “Let’s figure out this plan of yours. Now exactly what do you need me to do?”