Great Ice Sea
(4th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
The ghostly vessel docked in a remote shore with no settlement in sight. As they disembarked, leading Himawari by her tether, it quickly grew insubstantial, and dissipated in a cloud of fog.
“Anywhere you recognize?” Zolin asked her, and Kaileena glanced around, trying to remember what she’d seen when she left.
“Somewhere in the South District.” she decided, “I see no mountains, and the West District is all golden plains.”
The foggy, marshy terrain they stood in simply didn’t suit anywhere else.
“North, and we will cross the border. Teikoku in its entirety isn’t too much larger than Rasheman, and the eastern half is all impenetrable bamboo forests. A day or two, little more, if we ride.”
“Once we’re out of this bog.”
They took to horseback a few hours in, when the elevation rose above the clusters of small lakes and the soil wasn’t so saturated. They found an old dirt road and followed it to a large village; more a pair of long stretches of buildings around a thick river vein about a bowshot across.
A weathered signpost was embedded into the soil beside the road, and she squinted at the familiar calligraphic symbols, drawing her cloak tighter around her and masking her snout with her scarf.
"Higoi." she read, Golden Carp. A fishing village she’d heard of only once or twice.
“South District.” she confirmed, “Near the border to Central. Closer than I thought. We can skirt Kazeatari tomorrow, if we’re quick about it.
Kaileena gulped, “...Only one problem. The road leads right to the river and across a bridge. We’ll need to cross.”
“You think they’ll give us trouble?” Zolin asked, wary at the unease she couldn’t quite hide.
“I was a fugitive, Zolin. Worse, I was and am a very, very recognizable fugitive. I’d rather only Gatsuyu know I’ve come back.”
Grunting, Zolin led Himawari around the fortifications of Higoi, slight that they were. Wooden gates about shoulder-height. A shallow trench system, and a few guard towers which looked unmanned. They weren’t even questioned before entering through a narrow alleyway.
It was very clear that this was not a place of strategic military importance; bisected by the river and not ideally placed on higher ground.
How unfamiliar it was, Kaileena thought, how surreal, to again see the distinctive pointed rooftops of stone shingles, to read Nihongo on the signs outside each store and many residences, and to hear her native language in the shouting and cursing of the fishermen.
Scores of them were situated at either side of the river, manning nets or a pulley crane not unlike the ones in Aglarond, hauling in squirming masses of golden carp. Their cash crop, no doubt.
“What kind of fish population could withstand this?” Zolin asked, incredulous, and Kaileena smirked.
“This river is fed by a great lake on the border of the South District and the bamboo forest, and flows into the sea. There is a great deal of space for them to breed, and most of the bears that preyed on them have been hunted to extinction in all the districts generations ago. This is the only thing that keeps them from overrunning the other creatures of the water, I’d guess.”
Wide-eyed, Zolin led them through densely packed merchant stalls and a steady crowd, which sensed that they did not belong and parted to let them pass.
A few guards in ornamental armor and armed with naginata and longbows eyed them with naked suspicion.
One in particular, his boots padded and a great black cloak mostly concealing his thin plated armor, took notes, scribbling them down on parchment nailed to a board. His face, obscured by a half-mask of black cloth, nonetheless betrayed the suspicious narrowing of his eyes.
“Karyudo Kisai.” she whispered, “The Hitorigami’s secret police. They are enchanter-hunters, but they also single out bandits and outlanders.”
“Ever since the Reclamation, they are imprisoned or killed on sight unless blessed with the approval of either the Hitorigami or one of the Four Lords, which govern the districts.”
“How do you know all of this?”
She blinked, confused, “We were all educated in history in our village. Even me.”
“I’ll steer clear, then.”
They passed him by, and nobody pursued them, but Kaileena remained tense.
“Karyudo Kisai sometimes possess enchantments. I’m not sure he didn’t notice me.”
“I thought they hunted magic users.”
“It isn’t illegal to use magical items here. Only to create them.”
They reached the bridge without incident; Zolin had the sense of leading their horse around corners, backtracking around several side-streets to bewilder pursuers. The northern lip of Higoi beyond the docks was all living quarters; houses, inns, and a longhouse that must have served as barracks.
From there, they reached the walls, and trotted out a few bowshots before accelerating into full gallop.
Hopefully, their presence had not drawn attention...
When nightfall set in and it was too dark to clearly see the road, they put the horse to graze and set camp well out of sight of the trail. Though it was cold, they didn’t dare light a fire. Kaileena assured him that travelers were questioned when found on the road by patrolling bands of soldiers.
“I just wish we didn’t have to stray so far from the road.” Zolin noted dryly, “This is how we went afoul in Rashemen.”
“No Orcs in Teikoku. No Dragons, Goblins, or Ogres either. Just Humans and a sprinkling of Elves. The occasional highwayman.”
“Teikoku is heavily isolated from the rest of the world.” Kaileena assured him, summoning another meal of soup and watered wine, “The surrounding sea is naturally protected by rocky shallows, ice floes, and unpredictable weather. It doesn’t surprise me that Anastasia had never heard of it.”
“How’d you manage to get out on a raft?”
They tasted the soup; as always, it was a little bland, but hearty.
“Guardian’s protections were very thorough.” she replied, eyes to the road, a distant smile on her face, “He had me memorize the spell for days.”
She frowned, sullen, “He was always the cautious one.”
Kaileena set aside her bowl, seeming to shrink into herself.
“Hey...” Zolin prodded gently, setting a hand on her shoulder and pulling her back against him. He always seemed to be her tether, bringing her back to the present.
“I wish I knew what happened to him when the lamp was broken.” Kaileena said, barely above a whisper, “I wish I knew for sure if...”
She shivered, but came to a rest against him. He forced her to take another spoonful of soup, before attending to his own meal.
“I wish I knew he was alright, too.”
Nodding, Zolin finished his soup, daring a long quaff of wine, “To partings, and to...hopefully, eventual reunions.”
She toasted him, awkwardly due to the angle, and they drank a little more than their usual before pulling the horse to just outside their tent. Her warmth would keep them from catching cold, at least until they reached her brother...and hopefully he wouldn’t mind offering more comfortable lodgings.
Masahiro scouted the perimeter of the camp, checking for tripwires. Satisfied, he set a few of his own, with a thin, woven metal cord, before approaching the tent and horse. Thankfully, the mount was placed upwind, so he could go right towards the opposite, covered end, without spooking it.
His tanto slid from its sheathe; a thin, single-edged length of steel half as long as his forearm. He didn’t expect a fight, but these outlanders, for he’d easily identified them as such, were traveling too certain a path to have simply washed ashore.
It was a paradox. If only he’d clearly seen their faces, or the state of their armaments, he’d have a better idea of their intentions.
No matter. Kill one, and subdue the other for questioning by the Karyudo Kisai before likely finding a summary execution. He’d silently cut the flap of the tent, then a throat, and the other would come quietly enough, armed or not.
Outsiders were not welcome in Teikoku, and it was his duty to carry out their laws.
Three more steps. He could hear breathing, shallow. They were asleep. A woman, groaning as she stirred.
He paused. Two steps.
She shifted, rustling the material she was atop, likely a bedroll, and sighed.
He waited a ten-count before closing the distance, beginning a thin vertical incision. Then another.
Once across, the thin canvas parting with ease, affording a clear view...
...Of the wide and very alert purple eyes of a strange lizard creature. She flicked her wrist, and something small and black thudded into his chest, and suddenly Masahiro felt himself lifted from the ground. Before hitting something hard, the air pushed from his lungs, he surreptitiously hurled a throwing dart with his left hand, and even without seeing, he hit his mark, as it sank into something soft accompanied by a pained grunt. A man’s grunt.
Feeling the earth beneath him, he ignored the disorientation, and found his feet, reaching for another blade strapped to his waist.
Another thud. He was standing up, back to a tree. Then his legs gave out. Again, and he was on his side, and knew no more.
“And that’s why I asked the War Wizards to teach me the alarm spell.” Kaileena noted dryly, pulling herself out of the tent and walking casually towards their intruder, “Once we actually stop moving, its invaluable as a precautionary measure. Told me the moment he was within a bowshot of us.”
Zolin nodded, pulling a small dart from his side, steel drawn, approaching first and hastily kicking aside the fallen dagger. Then he pulled bound the man’s wrists, then his ankles.
Despite the thrashing of three admittedly mild concussive spheres, the Karyudo Kisai agent they’d passed in Higoi recovered quickly, groaning.
“Blindfold him.” Kaileena snapped, “Quickly.”
He did, but the agent laughed.
"A blue lizard..." he said in harsh Nihongo, ”Couldn’t keep well enough away, even with the bounty?"
She cursed again. He knew her.
Nothing for it, she removed the blindfold.
"Bounty?" Kaileena asked, perplexed, ”What bounty? I’ve been gone for years."
"Don’t know." he replied, and with Sune’s blessing, Kaileena knew he spoke no falsehoods, ”Some rogue enchanter named Lenao based near Kazeatari. An iron tower north and east. Minamoto was backing it too. They renewed it every month on the day since you defied Minamoto and fled your brothel. A hefty sum, to get you alive."
"I wouldn’t have expected Minamoto to take such measures."
"It’s more Lenao’s bounty than his. Says you’re some person of interest. I’d guess a missing experiment. Who knows what a free enchanter might do in his exile."
The agent spat, ”Damned disgrace, letting him run free, but with Minamoto backing him, the bounty is legitimate. Word will travel quickly. You’d best just go right back the way you came."
"Was that dart poisoned?" she asked, unnecessarily, judging by Zolin’s pained expression. A golden corona engulfed him, and he stood more stably in its light, and no longer held his wound so tightly
The agent gasped, horrified, ”You are both enchanters?!"
"Priests." Kaileena clarified, ”Agents of the divine; Kotoamatsukami of distant lands."
Thoughtful, Kaileena considered her options, and found herself increasingly frustrated. It would be too dangerous now to reach her brother. They couldn’t kill an unarmed prisoner, and they couldn’t bring someone this dangerous with them. It would attract too much attention. They could leave him, but he would report them to the guards. A bounty would bring casual mercenaries as well as soldiers. Zolin would be killed on sight...and what might this Lenao want with her? Was her journey ended, now, so close to its end?!
"I don’t suppose-"
"No." the agent replied immediately, ”Whatever it is you ask, no. You will find no barter with me, filthy enchanter! Outsider!"
"Please..." she implored, ”I am only here to-"
"I don’t care."
Hissing, Kaileena drew her holy symbol.
“Lady Firehair...” she prayed, “What must I do?”
The lady kept her counsel.
She prayed for a spell that would charm him into submission. It came quickly, but even as she began its incantations, she knew her folly.
Karyudo Kisai were conditioned to be extremely resistant to magic. That was their edge against rogue enchanters, their foremost enemy. The charm fell upon him and broke like water on a rocky shore.
She tried again, more insistently, pressing every ounce of her will and attention into its potency.
The agent winced, but gave no other response.
He would deny her this reunion with her brother. He would deny her justice for the crimes against her family!
Hissing, her eyes watering, Kaileena readied a cutting sphere.
“What are you doing?” Zolin asked, alarmed.
The agent smirked, ”You intend to kill me, then? Won’t do you much good. Someone like you is bound to attract notice."
"I don’t have to kill you." She snapped, hyperventilating, ”I just need to cut out enough of your brain that you don’t remember."
At that, he could only blanch.
“Kaileena, stop. Now.”
Zolin now stood directly beside her, his blade sheathed but his hand closed into a fist.
"You will keep word of this from your superiors or I will carve the memories of this day from your flesh."
His face defiant, the agent spat at her feet, ”You can try."
There was no threat that would cow him. She knew, everyone in all of Teikoku knew. Karyudo Kisai were fanatics, and trained with withstand pain.
“He will report us to his superiors.” Kaileena hissed, turning back to face him, “They will know to search my brother’s home. If they find us there...”
“Kaileena...” Zolin said grimly, his fingertips touching her shoulder, “This man is doing his duty, as must we. Put it away.”
Frustrated tears ran down her face, Kaileena hissed again, lower.
The man’s eyes betrayed no fear.
She shrieked, hurling the sphere into the nearest tree. Unlike the ambush of Orcs, she wasn’t acting on irrational instinct, so it gouged a neat line across its bark, but didn’t permanently wound it.
For the first time in her life, she honestly cursed her pacifism. But she collected herself, returned her attention to their prisoner.
"I know you will report us." Kaileena noted coolly, ”And I know what will happen because of it. You have your duty, and I cannot threaten your life to make you ignore it, just this once..."
It was half question and half statement, but she didn’t give him time to reply, ”In return for your life, I only ask for a tenday. A tenday of silence, on your honor."
The Karyudo Kisai agent scowled, but she didn’t give him time to reply, ”I will do what I need to, and then I will leave. Forever. A tenday, without looking at the road behind me. On your word. On your honor.”
Invoking a warrior’s honor was no idle thing. Not in Faerûn and especially not in Teikoku. Zolin might not understand the full of it, but she did. The spoken word from the right people was as concrete as deed.
"On my honor, I will give you a tenday." the man conceded, ”Unhand me this instant."
"A tenday, on your honor. We will be on our way, then."
They left immediately, not waiting for morning. Zolin had no interest as to whether or not the agent would keep his word and not call for reinforcements. North, and at Kaileena’s insistence, slightly east, and the marshy terrain gently sloped into grasslands and patches of dense forest. The trees, predominantly oak, were nearly barren, bereft of fall leaves, which formed deep pools around their ancient, weathered trunks. They kept their cloaks tight, and encountered few along the road, mostly farmers carting in the last of their harvest.
It was well into midday before they found the next settlement.
It was still too distant to determine much; he intuited a large castle along the eastern end, and a smaller manor some ways distant. The rest was all indistinct shingled rooftops just over the fortifications, which easily rivaled Suzail, replete with battlements and guard towers.
“This place is meant to withstand a siege.” he said idly, curious.
Kaileena nodded, “Before the Reclamation, it was one of the last bastions between the Enchanters and the Capital.”
They stopped beside a weathered signpost, marked with the odd calligraphy that composed the native written dialect. Having only learned a few terms and common phrases, Zolin couldn’t’ begin to decipher it.
“Fusestu.” Kaileena noted meekly, “Capital of the Central District, Holdings of Lord Minamoto.”
She paused, swallowing, and Zolin might have thought her reminiscing, were it not for the stiffness of her back and the way her tail lashed across the soil. Its swift, erratic motions betrayed her distress.
Suddenly her tail coiled, angrily, and she hissed, swiping her hand and calling a small, black orb. When it struck, the signpost splintered apart.
“This is where they brought you...” he noted, not really needing to.
Kaileena sighed, seemed to collect herself.
She nodded, distant, “I spent almost two years here...and I never really saw the city itself. I don’t think I want to.”
Taking a deep, deep breath, then sighing again with sheer, helpless resignation, Kaileena turned back to him, and they continued on their way.
From Fusestu it was a day’s ride to Kazeatari. They skirted it broadly until the forest became dense enough to brave the road. When Himawari no longer consented to bear their weight, they took to walking, changing direction on a much smaller path.
They crossed more familiar grounds, well within the perimeter of forest she’d hunted in. She remembered and located a thin stream filled with small colorful fish, and a cairn that likely held a passed traveler.
It felt like a dream; like she’d fallen asleep and was awash in her memories.
Eventually...they neared the cabin. Every part of her was tense as a bowstring.
Zolin was there, right beside her, a hand in hers, and its weight and warmth was assuring.
With the house in sight, Kaileena marveled at how different it looked. Minamoto must have paid for renovations; an entire section had been raised up to the right, more than doubling the size of the house, and the garden had expanded a stone toss at least. A small structure that must have led to a cellar stood in front and to the right of the door, which was reinforced and of foreign make, opening by a knob and hinge rather than sliding along a base.
Kaileena gulped, took a few more tentative steps. There was smoke rising from the chimney. Its occupants were home, though they likely hadn’t detected them yet.
A strong urge to bolt gripped her.
The impulse wasn’t coming from her. Not entirely.
She gripped her holy symbol, thankful for this support as well, went to the door, and knocked. Each impact of her hand on the door seemed deafening, made it feel impossible to run now even if she wanted to.
After what seemed an eternity, long enough for her to hope she was wrong, that nobody was home and she wouldn’t have to face this yet, someone stirred on the other side. Furniture was moved about. Footsteps, right on the other side of the door.
She could feel her heart. Her right hand, which held her holy symbol, clenched.
It was a woman that answered the door. She was plain, but very attractive, with fair skin, a thin, shapely neck, large, almost diagonally lidded eyes, and rich, vibrant hazel brown hair tied in a bun.
Their expressions must have been equally shocked, but something about her thin lips and small button nose evoked a distinct familiarity.
"Nagomi, yes?" Kaileena asked sheepishly, her voice breaking.
They nodded, mutely.
"Who is it?" a man asked from another room.
She was wrong. Gatsuyu must have sold the house. Must have moved into the village. Maybe-
The man turned around a bend, approaching the door.
It took time to process the changes that had come over him. He had grown. Thickened. His brow was heavier, as was his chin, and he wore his hair in a messy, uneven cut, which was much longer than she remembered. He looked more a farmer now, with sun-bronzed skin, and the type of thick muscles earned by dragging a plow across the soil. It took time to recognize this man, but she knew it was Gatsuyu.
They were quiet for so long that she realized they were waiting for her to speak.
She swallowed, tried to, but the words caught in her throat. Her tail lashed the ground.
And then Gatsuyu seemed to recover from his trance, and lunged forward, locking her in an embrace. His entire body trembled.
"You’re back..." he gasped, ”I thought... By the Kotoamatsukami, you’re here!"
"I missed you so much!” Kaileena cried, weeping into his shoulder, ”I’m so sorry, Gatsuyu. It’s all my fault!”
Something caught in her leg, and she felt herself pulled down, her brother in tow.
"No." Gatsuyu interrupted her, ”No words. Not now, please..."
He swallowed, pulling himself back enough to lock eyes with her, ”Come inside."
When Kaileena had calmed enough to move her indoors, Zolin led her beside her brother, and set her down in a strange cushion low to the ground, in front of a wood burning stove. Nodding at their hosts, he took a spot beside her, legs stretched towards the heat, and set aside his pack, cloak, and sword.
As the woman, Nagomi, went to collect something to eat, judging by what he knew of their alien, clipped dialect, Gatsuyu sat opposite them, studying Kaileena intently.
Which gave Zolin ample opportunity to study him.
Like most natives Zolin had seen so far, he was shorter than an average Cormyrean, stockier, with pale skin, slanted eyelids, and thin lips. He was clothed in a simple wool tunic, but of an odd layered design, a synch holding it together. Nagomi, for her part, wore a gown of similar make; layered wool, white on the inside and a muted brown on the outside.
She carried over a tray of rice balls and a weathered ceramic teapot, and he accepted a measure of both food and drink with a respectful nod and a strained smile.
Kaileena didn’t take any. She still seemed in shock. Her tail had curled around her own thigh, its end making little circuits in the air.
She was thinking, then, he decided. She had quite a bit to think about.
"Made ha ’ari masen." Gatsuyu replied hastily, Not now, perhaps, following with a shorter phrase he couldn’t quite identify.
Tiring of this already, Zolin fingered a small talisman Kaileena had commissioned for him just before their departure; a miniature horn, it was meant to be placed against one’s ear, and would translate specific languages by way of a subtle enchantment. He didn’t really have a way to speak Nihongo, but this way he could hear it, if nothing else.
He held it up, and waited for one of them to resume speaking.
Gatsuyu managed first.
"So..." he dared, as nervous as she was.
"So..." Kaileena replied in turn, eyes to the floor, her tail now lashing from side to side.
"You are well, I see."
She nodded, ”And you too."
"Minamoto has been generous since-" he paused, grimacing, ”Since it happened. I guess he feels remorseful."
"The house looks better." Kaileena admitted, sheepish.
"It has been empty since you left." Gatsuyu dared, motioning to Nagomi, ”But we have done our best to try and fill it."
"As of the spring." Gatsuyu noted happily, ”It took a good deal of effort, but her father was swayed by the renovations to the house."
"I look forward to being an aunt, then."
Gatsuyu nodded, not quite meeting her eyes.
Then, ”I’m so sorry, Gatsuyu."
He winced, as if struck.
Kaileena looked entirely away, hissing, but in the way that told Zolin she was in pain, ”I never meant for them to-"
"Not your crime.” Gatsuyu snapped, ”Theirs. I’ve never held you to what happened to my-"
He paused, apologetic, “-Our father."
Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes, and he set his hand on hers.
She looked to him. As did Gatsuyu.
But Zolin said nothing else. He didn’t need to, because Kaileena nodded, “I know. Thank you.”
"What is this tongue you use?"
"A long story, for I have made a long journey." Kaileena noted, offering a plaintive, weary smile, ”I’ve walked the breadth of the lands beyond the sea. I’ve battled the Dark Elves in the forests of Rashemen, been taken prisoner by the Dreugar and Skulkers of Skullport beneath the ground, endured the ministrations of the Yuan-ti in the deserts of Turmish, and...with Zolin beside me, made my home in a land called Cormyr."
"I know of none of these things, but it sounds indeed like a journey."
"Imagine all of Teikoku as a speck floating in a great sea." Kaileena said, hands in her lap, now leaning forward towards the stove, her eyes distant, ”And beyond that sea is a land many hundreds of times its size. Filled with beings nearly and sometimes even more strange than me. Lands of magic, lands of many kingdoms, lands of earth and sand and water and mountain and shadow."
Their hosts absorbed this, then looked to him.
“Zolin Naran.” he explained, and hand to his heart, elbow bent, in a military salute, “I cannot speak your tongue.” he motioned to his mouth, then to his ear, smiling, “But I can hear it.”
Kaileena translated for him, repeating verbatim, or what sounded that way, thanks to the trinket.
Gatsuyu inclined his head, ”I thank you then, for helping my sister return home."
Zolin nodded in turn.
"We will only remain for a tenday.” Kaileena noted sadly, ”Then we must leave. One of the Enchanter Hunters discovered us."
Gatsuyu blanched, and even Nagomi, who had not intruded in the conversation, seemed to turn a shade paler.
"No." Gatsuyu snapped, ”I’m not about to lose you again. Not about to spend another score of years wondering if you’re alright, or even alive!”
"Minamoto will come, or if not him, the Enchanter Hunters, or even the Exalted Male’s soldiers! I’m not about to risk the only family I have left."
She held up her holy symbol, and began to chant. As their hosts shifted nervously, a gentle crimson ray of light passed in from a window, and bathed the space around her in a gentle, rosy glow. The entire room smelled like freshly picked flowers.
"What are you...-"
"I have found a magic in Cormyr." she explained, ”One that flows from within. I’m at peace, brother, in the embrace of the Goddess Sune, Lady Firehair, and Gaelyse, her chosen agent."
She frowned, ”But yet I was not at peace, not knowing what had become of you. Not knowing if Minamoto had remained true to his word to protect you. I was wrong. I am so happy to see what you have done in my absence, but I cannot allow myself to jeopardize that for the sake of my own selfish attachments."
"We are family, Kaileena. You cannot simply-"
"I must." Kaileena interrupted, ”I left my home and my family behind so you could be safe. I must do so again, and soon."
"But..." she added, more gently, ”I intend to spend our tenday together, and try to make up for lost time."
Gatsuyu considered, then sighed, ”It was always your way. Holding the world’s weight atop your shoulders. We will gladly accommodate, that you may do just that...I’ll send for Hana in the morning."
Her expression darkened a moment, then, "Please do. There is much we need to discuss."