Central District, Teikoku
(7th of Eleint, 1491 Dalereckoning)
Kaileena woke with Zolin pressed against her, still asleep. Gatsuyu had offered them the guest room, another new addition to the house, and they’d accepted eagerly.
Wriggling out of bed, Kaileena crept outside, gingerly sliding the door open, then to the stove, and set a kettle. Some morning tea would do wonderfully. Her pack was by the table, and she withdrew a few pouches of dried and crushed leaves, fortified with ginger and lemon. She had to bend over; the table was not accompanied by chairs, and meant to be used only with thin sitting cushions. It reached only to her knees.
The stove was already lit; its embers were low, but she kindled them with a small log atop the pile beside it, and they sprang to new life. Turning a crank, which moved a small plate between the fire inside the stove and the heating plate atop it, under the kettle, she could feel the heat passing up, where it would warm the water until it began to boil.
Just like she remembered, though this one was new, a little nicer than the one they’d enjoyed. With nothing but to wait, she glanced about, looking for her brother or his wife.
The main bedroom door was open. Confused, she took a few steps towards the window and peered out.
Oh. By the course of the sun, it was well into midday. Gatsuyu and Nagomi were tending the garden. He noticed her, and waved.
Nodding, embarrassed but not overly surprised they’d slept in for so long, Kaileena turned to the kettle, which had heated quickly. She tried to lift it before it came to a full boil and belched a column of steam with a loud hiss. Too late. Zolin stirred in the other room, and he came out just as she filled their mugs and stirred the leaf packets.
“Morning, sleepyhead.” Kaileena jested, offering a mug, “You missed your communion, I’m afraid.”
She sat down; with her tail, she had to more or less lay to the side. She could kneel too, but it never felt very comfortable. Zolin joined her, yawning.
“Amaunator understands. It’s been a long journey.”
“Not too long.” she noted, “In a few months time we’ve crossed the bulk of Faerûn. Quite an accomplishment.”
“Skipped the Hordelands, which would have in themselves taken that long.”
She sipped her tea, tongue forking out from the heat. The ginger created a pleasant aromatic.
She shrugged, “Go help them with the garden, first. In the next couple of days I plan to give this Master Lenao a visit. See why he’s offering a bounty on me, and how he knows of me at all.”
“Might be dangerous.”
“It will certainly be dangerous. But I have to go regardless.” Kaileena said, daring another, longer sip, followed by a contented sigh, though inside she was very nervous at the prospect of confronting a rogue enchanter, “It can’t be coincidence that he lives so close to here. Maybe he knows where I come from. Or if...”
Or if she had been created, not born. If she was some kind of experiment gone missing. It also couldn’t be a coincidence that she could eat the Blue Fire of Mystra without dying. Her appearance, not in line with any known species. Her uncanny ability to consume magic by touch.
“Whatever it turns out to be.” Zolin pressed her, “You’re still you.”
Nodding meekly, Kaileena drew her shift about her, its thin linen offering little protection from the cold. The tea, however, had provided an inner warmth.
For a time, they said nothing.
“They are good people.” Zolin eventually said, his eyes to the window, though at that angle, he could likely only see the sky.
“Gatsuyu? Yes.” she noted distantly, “Father raised us right. And Nagomi would have proven a fast friend, were it not for her father.”
Goddess, there were so many memories; her very first, playing atop Father's lap before the heat of the stove. Climbing the hanging racks of cutlery as he cursed and tried to catch her. Their regular visits to a natural hot spring, when Gatsuyu and her were old enough to swim. Their infrequent visits to Kazeatari to trade, where he would leave them with the schoolmistress.
On days separate from the older children, she remembered bitterly. She took a larger sip of tea, as if to wash away the unpleasant thought.
“I miss him.” she admitted to herself, not on the verge of despair as before, “There is so much of him that I remember, but...there was so much more of life I wished to experience with him watching over me.”
“Perhaps he watches over you still.”
Kaileena shook her head, “Teikoku is not like the mainland; we have no gods here. No afterlife.”
“The absence of gods does not equate to absence of soul.”
She looked to him, bewildered.
Zolin shrugged, “It doesn’t take religion for goodness. Just look at all the evil gods and their followers. This place, by the looks of it, has been peaceful through the Sundering and probably all the world-shaking events before...it says something of this land and its people. Maybe they don’t need gods.”
“All I’m saying is that...if your father was half of what you’ve told me, I think he had something wonderful waiting for him on the other side.”
Kaileena held back the grief, accepted the praise and what it implied for what it was.
“Thank you, Zolin. For everything.”
They finished their tea, and she rose, collected the mugs, and rinsed them off with well water, “Well...let’s get dressed. I’m sure Gatsuyu will appreciate some help.”
“Farm work for a Sunite?”
“Sune requires loving acts.” Kaileena clarified, grinning, “Nothing out of character in helping my brother finish his daily tasks.”
It felt right, Zolin thought, as he raked the soil tilled by Gatsuyu’s plow flat, that a paladin take a moment from sermons and vanquishing evil to enjoy the simpler things. A pity so few of the faith took it to heart.
After hours of working the garden, collecting the last harvest before winter as the women gathered feed and tended to the few livestock, he’d accumulated a coat of cold sweat that soaked through his shirt and dirt that caked under his fingernails and about his palms, yet somehow he felt right as rain.
Winded, he paused to lean against the nearest wall, daring a long draught from his wineskin. Gatsuyu motioned for it, and smiling, he tossed it to him.
“Maybe I should have asked Kaileena for an ale.” he mused, chuckling, “Would sit so much better.”
Not comprehending, Gatsuyu tasted the wine, experimentally at first, but with increasing enthusiasm.
“Somewhat.” Zolin noted, for he was quite familiar with the local rice-wine. In his pack was some mostly-spoiled grapes from Rashemen, “But with this instead.”
Gatsuyu nodded, pointed to the submerged rice patty fields along a lower-elevated section of his yard. The drink passed between them a few times until nothing remained.
How quiet it was, this forest hideaway. How serene. He understood a little better how peaceful Kaileena’s upbringing must have been. Why she harbored such pleasant memories, despite what had happened.
“I hope this whole bounty business works itself out.” he noted, mostly to himself, “It seems a shame to spend so little time here.”
He looked over to the animal pens; a few fowl, a goat, and a small fishery, manmade by the looks of it. Kaileena was busying herself with the animals, not seemingly overly affected by the threat of the Karyudo Kisai.
It still amazed him, her perseverance.
“No matter what happens, though...I’m very glad to have met you, and your wife.”
Gatsuyu only shrugged helplessly.
"Oaidekite ureshī desu." Zolin said in broken Nihongo, offering his hand, I am very glad to meet you.
The fellow nodded at that, as if this short sentence cued him in on everything else Zolin had said. Maybe it had.
Rested enough and sadly out of wine, Zolin grunted, stood back up, and went back to the rake. Still a little to be done.
Zolin said a few more things in his strange tongue, and while Gatsuyu understood none of it, his sister’s name came up a few times.
Strange fellow, this outlander. He looked a warrior, with his knitted metal armor and odd, double-edged sword, but he didn’t act like one. Gatsuyu wasn’t sure what to make of the man.
Still, the work of the week finished up quickly with thei help, and for this he was grateful. They could spend the next few days at rest, and his sister could tell him more of her adventures and they could...discuss their next steps.
Mercenaries...Karyudo Kisai... Those types would be a threat now no matter what she decided. They didn’t discriminate between targets and their loved ones.
So be it. His family was whole again, and Gatsuyu would fight to defend it if he had to. He’d expected someone to come to the farmstead years ago, looking to cause trouble. He’d prepared for it the moment he heard she’d fled Fusestu.
It was a rare thing, a rare, expensive thing...but he’d managed to smuggle a weapon into his house.
He was no good with a sword, and a hand axe was too clumsy, so he’d settled for a crossbow. Nock, point, shoot. Quick and easy. It could hold up to three bolts at once, and reloaded quickly. He’d hidden it in inside a special fold in the wall of their bedroom.
He’d expected trouble...but After Minamoto’s men had come to question him and search the house, nothing else had followed.
He would need it now, he feared. Gatsuyu sighed, and like his father before him, he accepted the things he could not change.
When the field was set and the vegetables were gathered up and loaded onto the wagon he would use to cart them into Kazeatari to trade, and when any stray seeds were stored away for use come spring, they joined the women inside for supper. They’d started cooking over an hour ago, and so, the meal was already nearly ready to serve; stove-cooked stew and dumplings, rice balls, and a little bottle of sake; a festive addition to celebrate his sister’s return. He’d also told Nagomi to splurge with a few lengths of yakitori, a skewered chicken dipped in a thick, sweetened sauce.
As they ate, he prodded Kaileena for more of her adventures, and she described the great deserts of a place called Turmish; endless seas of golden sands and towering mountain ranges, noticeably glossing over its peoples and exactly what she did there.
“And then there was Starmantle...” she continued, distant, “Like a frontier city, between a bog and a great coast dotted with other, larger cities.”
“A great many peoples, then.”
“Oh yes.” Kaileena replied distantly, “Humans, some bronze-skinned and stocky, others lean and darkly tanned, and others still from the north, fur-clad, pale, and heavily built. Elves, like the ones you see with the pirates from time to time, but mostly peaceful, and taken to forests. Dwarves, like humans but shorter, thicker, and craftier. They live under the ground. And even Lizardfolk, which look a bit like me, but with a coat of dull scales. Cormyr is a bit more...consistent.”
“Similar and yet more different than you can imagine.”
“What do you do there?” Nagomi asked, offhandedly.
Kaileena smirked; it was hard for most to read her face, but having grown up with her, he saw what his wife could not. She was embarrassed, if only for a moment.
“Imagine a Kotoamatsukami for just about everything.” she explained, “The sun. Time. Nature. The sea. Now imagine more for more specific things; knowledge, tinkering, magic...and revelry. I worship a Kotoamatsukami; a goddess, and her name is Sune, the Lady Firehair.”
She brandished a small jewel...no, more a glass necklace, almost coin-shaped. A face of a red-haired woman on either side.
Made sense, and he nodded in turn.
“Her worship is...specific. She is a goddess of love, and craft, and revelry.”
“And...” he asked, not understanding.
Kaileena smiled sheepishly, “I oversee the revelry part of it. I dance, play instruments, and I smile, and laugh, and talk, and sometimes more.”
He paused, flummoxed. How to pose this without offending her...?
“How is it any different than the brothel?” Kaileena asked for him, laughing, “They don’t see pairing the same as we do here. It’s no prison; you choose to be in their employ, and you choose exactly what that means. What I do there is no offering; it is an equal exchange from both parties. And...as you have seen, it is a worship that is answered both ways.”
Remembering that strange enchantment she wove, with the light and the smell of flowers, Gatsuyu could only nod dumbly.
“It’s not so bad, brother. Mistress Gaelyse treats us very well.”
A woman ran a brothel? Strange indeed, but it made much more sense.
“Well I’m glad you’re happy, at least.” Gatsuyu added, even if he didn’t really understand, “What is he then, to you?”
Again, Kaileena smirked, and looked over to Zolin. They took each other’s hands.
“He is my mate, and we’re...working on the rest.”
Now that was a recipe for disaster if ever he’d heard it; a gaisho and her lover warrior, but if Cormyr was so much different, maybe the rules applied differently.
And she was more like a geisha, anyway. An important distinction.
“So...how did you get out?”
Kaileena frowned, accepting the change in subject, “I had help. Magic, and a good, good friend, who I wish I had better known before his time.”
From her pack, she withdrew a small, golden lamp, cradling it to herself.
He didn’t press; it was disturbing enough that she knew magic...but that she’d learned it in Teikoku disturbed him far more. Umeka’s lessons ran deep, as did the customs of the land.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re here now.” she told him, weary but content, taking his hand in hers, “Together.”
She blinked, confused, then, “Ah yes. Hana.”
“I’m sure she’ll stop by tomorrow. She has another in reserve to assume her duties in Kazeatari.”
“What duties? Wasn’t she retired?”
“Oh, right! I didn’t tell you. Hana is the new School Mistress. Umeka retired about four years ago. ”
“Is she now?”
Kaileena puzzled over that, seeming to draw into herself. Unless he was mistaken she looked...troubled by that.
“I guess it fits.”
She sipped her sake, distant, “So much has changed. I’ve been away for so long...”
“...But I’ll remedy that. I’m not leaving. Not just yet.”
She looked up, and something had sparked in her eyes, “I won’t be chased from my home again. I will return to Cormyr on my terms.”
“Yes.” she replied, “The bounty. And then Minamoto.”
Kaileena woke, and as she had not since leaving Suzail, she performed her morning stretches, meditation, and prayer. By the time she’d finished, Zolin was awake, and knowing they were alone in the house, neither wished to waste the time.
After their lovemaking, she set tea and rice cakes and they broke fast at the table. Though while it was not yet midday, morning was well and gone by then.
Gatsuyu and Nagomi, if they left early, could have easily reached Kazeatari by now, and likely taken much of the journey back. It was nearly time, and she was ready.
But then she heard the door open, and Kaileena almost hoped that Gatsuyu and Nagomi had come empty-handed.
"Hello, Kaileena." a soft, motherly voice echoed from just inside the entry hall, and Kaileena turned, swallowing a hiss.
Unlike Gatsuyu, Hana; her and her brother’s godmother, had changed little. Her hair, already nearly silver even when Kaileena had been a child, was now a uniformly pale grey, tied in a traditional shimada mage, composed of waxed tresses braided into tight bun. Her kimono, threadbare cloth, was a dull yellow with a white synch. Her hands, thin but firm, were hidden in the folds of her heavy sleeves.
Still, the circles under her eyes were much thicker, as were the wrinkles on her cheeks.
Her eyes, old and weary and, beneath that, a little fearful, assured her that she had not guessed incorrectly.
Very well. She’d thought about this for months...and she was ready to confront her.
"Hana." Kaileena said, gently, ”It is good to see you are well."
They shared a bow, but Kaileena did not offer her a place at the table, very poignantly. Gatsuyu raised an eyebrow at her lapse in etiquette. Zolin, not fully understanding, only stared blankly.
"You were not expecting me." Hana said, ”I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. My duties at the school keep me occupied."
Nodding, though she wasn’t really listening, Kaileena gathered her courage.
"Is something wrong?"
All eyes were on her now.
Her brother gaped at her, ”What is it, sister? What’s wrong?"
She hissed, flexing her claws, ”I know you told the authorities my father would try to free me from the Fusestu Brothel."
There. She’d leveled that single, horrible accusation upon the woman who’d raised her. Raised both of them.
Gatsuyu blanched, ”What is this?!"
"I didn’t even consider it when I fled." Kaileena said, her ire rising, enough for Zolin to sit forward, ready to come to her aid, ”I was young. Innocent. Unknowing of the potential for human treachery. Time, and my travels across entire kingdoms, has given me insight. Father was always so careful, always planning everything in advance. He might have considered my rescue in short order...but that night when he offered me the tools to escape, he was likely already planning where we would settle for the rest of our days; him, Gatsuyu, and myself. And perhaps, one other..."
Hana’s skin paled. Grief, and guilt, weathered her normally stony expression.
"Shinabi always trusted you. You were his wall, his shield. A woman he might have taken for a wife, had either of you been able and willing. He would have told you what he intended, but no others. Not even Gatsuyu, who would have been collected after he’d smuggled me out of Fusestu. There was no other he would have so much as given an inkling."
She grimaced, remembering that night. He’d given her a small portion of acid, that she might destroy the lock on the main door of the brothel. Slip away in the small hours, meet him in a hostel, and be away before morning.
Instead, the same men, the outlanders that had accused her during the hunt, had been waiting for her, had bound her father and pulled a sack over his head. Not guards, alerted to some mischief. Not soldiers. Land faring pirates.
They’d beaten him, badly, and her too when she’d fought back.
That had taken time, and planning, to stage, even if they’d already been in the city.
She was shaking now. Unwittingly emitting the energies she’d drawn in during meditation. Her flesh spat purple flame. Her brother and his wife rose from the table, backing away nervously. Hana merely stared at her, as if wishing she’d just incinerate her and end it.
"You told them what he planned, so they’d be waiting. So he’d fail."
"Is this true?!" Gatsuyu asked, horrified, ”Hana, did you...?"
It finally undid her.
"I...I thought that they would be lenient." She cried, hands at her waist, ”I thought they would stop him, and send him home, and that would be that. I thought-"
"You thought what?" Kaileena snapped, ”That they would just let him go free? Those men took what they pleased, and had made it their business to torment me. I even had to..."
She looked away. Every one of those men had come to see her in the brothel, especially Gruuth, their leader. The man with the hooked, cold-reddened nose, crooked teeth, and hungry eyes. The vulture in human skin, its beak bloodied with a fresh kill. He’d made her a frequent stop in his travels, boasting of how her father had squirmed before one of Minamoto’s men had cleaved off his head in a single stroke.
"Why? By the Kotoamatsukami, why!?"
"Because she couldn’t let him risk himself for me." Kaileena answered for her, ”Because his life was more valuable than mine."
And that was the crux of the matter; Shinabi was human, and Kaileena wasn’t. She wasn’t his daughter by birth. He had always considered her so, but she wasn’t. But nonetheless, she had been worth the risk to Shinabi, to free her from that horrible place. She hadn’t been worth the risk to Hana.
"I remember playing with Gatsuyu by the stove." She said, distant, ”Father picked me up, and brought me to you. You hadn’t seen me as of yet. You told him I would be a danger to him, to his family. When I grew up, and the world began to take notice of me."
"You were only two...how could you possibly-"
"I’M NOT HUMAN, HANA!" she snapped, ”And that’s your point exactly. Shinabi couldn’t risk himself for me. You couldn’t allow him to risk himself for me."
Shamefaced, Hana averted her eyes.
"You were always there for me." Kaileena continued, past the lump in her throat, past the sheer denial that this was truly happening, ”You were like a mother to me. You cradled me in your arms when they cast me from that room with the other children. I loved you."
"And you killed my father."
"You killed my father."
"I never meant-"
"Get out." Kaileena said flatly.
Hana stood rooted, but it looked at that moment that a stray gust might have collapsed her.
"Get out!" she screamed, a surge of magic bursting from her flesh, hurling her godmother off her feet, towards the door. A cutting sphere formed in her hand.
"OUT!" she screamed, and Hana was indeed gone. The sound of her cries muffled with distance, and ceased altogether.
Numb, Kaileena stared blankly at the wall, before a surge of white-hot anger overtook her. She drove her hand into it, and the sphere cut a hole through Gatsuyu’s wall.
Zolin caught it mid-swing, and she screamed, the strength gone from her legs. He held her up. Neither spoke, nor did Gatsuyu or Nagomi.
She didn’t cry. There were no tears anymore. Only numbness.