“I can’t believeit!” AsaHi stared at the map. She turned it upside down. She turned it backwards and forwards. No matter how she looked at it, it indicated the same thing. “The map says the place should be right here. But I don’t see anything at all!”
“Maybe it was eaten?”
AsaHi blinked at Kaze. He had a strange way of attributing the loss of things to being eaten. Considering he didn’t need to eat, she found it rather unusual. When the fire-maker disappeared, it was “eaten.” When her bracelet came up missing, it was “eaten.” When the hairbrush, which was ironically the item Kaze most disliked, vanished, it was “eaten.”
Each time she gently explained to him that things like that went “missing.” They weren’t “eaten.” Yet, it still seemed a mistaken phrase that he was fond of.
He looked at her, “I know. You’ll say, ‘Places aren’t eaten.’ Right?”
“Yes, that’s right. Places can’t be eaten. A city isn’t food.”
“Depends,” he beamed his trademark sly grin.
It really unnerved her when he smiled that way. It was as if there was something terribly important he knew that she didn’t, and he wasn’t about to tell her.
When the girl didn’t reply, a concerned expression replaced the clever grin, “What’s wrong?”
“I’m afraid that we’re lost,” AsaHi admitted. “I thought I was following the map exactly. I mean, this is where I was told to go, but nothing’s here.”
Kaze peered at the map from over her shoulder and studied it for a while. Then he leaned back on his heels, folding both hands behind his head. In a very deliberate way, he turned his gaze towards the blue expanse of sky. AsaHi was tempted to look up, too. When she did, she saw nothing more than the bottoms of the high-rising clouds.
He cracked another big fangy smile.
“Kaze, do you know something?” she prompted.
“Maybe,” his tone was teasing.
“Please, this isn’t a time to joke,” AsaHi frowned up at him.
His face remained unabashed. Then he pointed upwards. The girl’s eyes followed his indication.
“There are many people,” he told her with a curt nod.
“What?” She squinted upward, “How can that be? People don’t live in the clouds, Kaze.”
“Maybe they do now,” he didn’t seem to be joking this time.
Aunt SaRa said that the place I was going to was special. Maybe it really is somewhere up in the sky?
“Are you certain?” she asked.
“Many people are up there,” he reassured her quickly. “You don’t feel them?”
She shook her head. All she could do was peer up, squinting at the wide bellies of the clouds in wonderment.
What if he’s right? What if there are really…
The sound of an unfamiliar voice echoing across the hollow pulled her from her pondering, “It’s time for you to move along, strangers. This territory has already been claimed.”
AsaHi turned, taking an unconscious step closer to Kaze, “Who…?”
“He’s been following and watching us,” Kaze murmured under his breath. “Thinks he’s clever.”
A man stood on the crest of the hillside, framed by the blue behind him. He was tall and his white hair was streaked with the pale silver of weathered decades. Despite his age, his eyes were young and a brilliant, fiery green. His expression was fiercely intent, watching their every move with careful calculation. Between his clenched fists he held a strange weapon – a hooked metal blade attached to a silver chain.
Where did he come from?
“I’m sorry, but this is as far as you go,” the stranger held the blade up in one practiced hand, allowing them to get a good look at it. It was warning familiar to the people of the Gatherings, one that indicated the warrior was not afraid to defend himself and his land.
“What will you do if we want to stay?” Kaze answered, his tone turning droll. The subtle motion was obviously lost upon him.
“Kaze,” AsaHi tugged at his arm in concern. “Don’t fight with him. We can leave.”
“We’re not leaving. We’ve come to find the city in the sky,” Kaze’s eyes never left the stranger.
City in the sky?
“How do you know about that?” the stranger asked the very question that hovered on AsaHi’s lips.
“I know a lot of things,” Kaze answered mysteriously. “I also know your Patron wouldn’t approve of inhospitality, ZenToYa.”
The stranger’s face grew extremely pale, a watery reflection of comprehension, as if seeing something very important for the first time. There was a mysterious twinkle in Kaze’s eyes, a dancing dapple of silver-flecked teal. AsaHi wasn’t certain who made the first move, but the two men walked forward, coming together in a friendly clasping of forearms.
They know each other… but how? Kaze is… Kaze. And the stranger… he’s…
ZenToYa. She knew that name. Who in Nefol didn’t?
AsaHi never met ZenToYa — she only knew the tales of his great power and wit. Legends spoke of him as the first man to learn the teachings of Lord Zemi, the one that the Dreigiau chose to be his Champion. He was one of the founders of the School and the first High Guide of Nefol. He was said to be a man with a wild spirit that burned like that of his Patron. A great warrior and leader known for his powerful compassion of people. But, he died many years ago, the hero of a valiant battle in the Outterlands.
Could it really be him? He didn’t deny the name. And that weapon he carries…
She could feel her pulse quicken as she watched him. Instantly, she could see the striking similarities between this man and his son… TsuYa. The girl bit down on her lip.
He looks nothing like SoYa.
As if he could hear her very thoughts, the stranger’s gaze fell upon her. AsaHi took a long step back.
“You’ll catch a fly if you leave your mouth open like that,” a warm smile spread over the man’s face.
“Are you really…?” she heard herself ask.
The girl stood, staring. She was unable to finish her question.
“Really–” he continued to prod gently. Then he offered a suggestion to finish the question, “–really this good looking all the time?”
“Don’t worry,” ZenToYa gave her a quick wink. “That’s what all girls ask me.”
AsaHi’s mouth fell open again.
“Ignore him. He’s always this way,” Kaze gave a flickering grin of his own.
“Hey, what can I say? I learned from the best.”
The two gave barking laughs, their faces plainly speaking that they thought they were the most clever creatures in existence. AsaHi couldn’t help but screw her face up at the both of them.
Her voice was tremulous when it finally returned, attempting to break through the laughter, “Are you really Master ZenToYa?”
The stranger frowned, “Master? Is that what they’re calling me back in Nefol these days? That’s irony for you.”
“I, uh…” AsaHi stared down at her feet in embarrassment. That wasn’t the reaction she expected from him.
Why can’t I say anything right? I’m making such a fool of myself in front of him!
“Hey, it’s okay! No harm done, right?” ZenToYa turned to look at Kaze.
Kaze simply shrugged and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.
“See? It’s all good,” he assured her.
“How do you know Kaze?” the girl frowned at them both, her brow wrinkled.
“Kaze?” ZenToYa arched an eyebrow in return. Then he looked at the other man repeating, “Kaze?”
“It’s the name she gave me. I like it,” Kaze replied with an unruffled face.
AsaHi cleared her throat, “Why? I thought that Kaze was your name?”
Kaze gave a large fangy grin, “Names are just… names. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
That’s when she realized that they had avoided not one question, but two. She tried rewording the approach, “You two know each other?”
“Yes,” Kaze nodded finally. “We’ve been good… friends… for long time.”
ZenToYa exclaimed, motioning to Kaze, “And would you get a look at YOU! What happened? How?”
“You can thank her. She put up with me over a very long trip,” Kaze nodded towards the girl.
“I’m sorry,” the other man flashed a playful mock-pity face. His grin returned full force on Kaze. “Shoulda known it would take a woman to beat all the kinks out of you.”
AsaHi felt a huge flush rising over her cheeks, “It’s nothing like that! I’m already Promised…”
“Is that so?” ZenToYa’s face was still wolfish.
She nodded shyly, “To your son, SoYa.”
He suddenly looked as if someone just dropped something extremely heavy on his foot, “Really?”
Kaze’s expression had grown inquisitive as well.
“Please, no formalities. You can just call me Zento,” he lifted his hands to her, “I… don’t believe I ever caught your name?”
“AsaHi,” she blurted, mouth growing dry.
A deeply sad and wistful expression crossed Zento’s face, “SoYa… how is he? And TsuYa, do you know him too?”
“Yes, of course!” she was excited just to be able to hold some sort of conversation with this strange man of legend.
“Are they doing well?”
“Er, I may have left SoYa somewhat distressed. But other than that, both were well.”
Zento turned to Kaze, shaking his head, “Last I saw them, they were only boys. And now, SoYa… Promised already. How fast they grow up!”
“Heh. That’s what I said,” Kaze replied.
Zento then turned to her and gave a quick half-bow, “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Morh-AsaHi. I apologize for my blunt unwelcome. I didn’t know who you were, and we’ve had a lot of rather… unfriendly…. things around here lately. Lei’Igro have been the least of our worries.”
“Lei’ Igro?” she echoed slowly.
“Those without wings,” he translated.
She gave him a curious look, “Wings?”
“Ah, so you don’t know,” Zento pursed his lips. “Before I discuss that, can I ask you a question of my own?”
“How did you know where to find this place?” he asked.
The girl fumbled around in her pocket, finally fishing out the worn and wrinkled parchment map. She passed it to him with one quivering hand, “Aunt SaRa told me to come here.”
His eyes grew sharp in response, “SaRa?”
Zento took the map and unfolded it carefully, as if it was one of the most precious things in the world. His face was soft as he studied the page. Finally, he cleared his throat and gave a choked response, “I see. So she did.”
“She’s doing well, too,” AsaHi offered.
“I’m glad to hear it,” he paused. Gathering up the haft of his weapon and slinging it into a clasp at his hip, Zento motioned to her. “I’m sure you have a million questions. It’s not often that we lead Lei’ Igro into the city, but this is an unusual circumstance.”
The girl fidgeted, a feeling of discomfort churning in her stomach as his eyes fell on her. She wasn’t sure what all this talk of cities and wings was about. It seemed as if she just journeyed from one strange situation into something potentially stranger.
“Well, never mind that,” Zento took her gently by the elbow, his soft smile attempting to ease her fears. “Come with me, Morh-AsaHi. Some things in life are better seen than heard.”