She appeared within his dreams, as she always did, her two bare feet perched flat upon the stone in the middle of the wading pool. The vision perfectly recreated their secret meeting place, where they used to escape the political struggles between their people, if just for a little while. He never returned to the place after that day, but every detail was etched into his memories.
“JouKa,” his voice spoke her name, sounding just as he had on that day long ago.
The girl turned to him, her once luxurious hair cropped short in a symbol of her defiance. Or, perhaps, it was a sign of her acceptance of what was to come. Her green eyes were haunted as they searched his face. His name was the only word that crossed her lips.
The pair of snowy wings unfurled from her shoulders, the twin arcs of feathers just as clear in his mind as the day he last saw her. The sunlight caught and leapt from the plumage, casting a hazy illusion of rainbowed light. KoGuRai had seen this vision unfold so many times now that the shock of the memory had long since worn out. However, his awe of the beauty and grace draped over his memories, unchanging with time.
“I’m still looking for the answers,” he told her. “The reports are so inconclusive.”
He had stopped asking her questions when he realized she could not answer them. The wings. Her transformation. What it meant. How it came to be. His first instinct was to ask her these things. What happened? What did this to her? How? Why?
It took so long before KoGuRai finally realized JouKa didn’t have any more answers than he did. Here, she was only a shadow of a confused moment from his past. It was then he decided that he would have to search for the answers on his own.
“I ‘ave to go,” she told him, speaking the words that she repeated each time. “The Gatherin’… if they see me like this… they’ll call me one of the Cursed.”
JouKa paused, looking down at her reflection in the water. Her expression was of one who was watching all hopes and dreams shatter before her. She would leave her home, family and the one she loved most, and vanish to a place where KoGuRai could not find her.
“Do you think I am… one of the Cursed? A creature of the Bane?” she finally asked.
“No, of course not,” he swallowed the lump in his throat. No matter how many times he heard the question, he still choked, because she believed it about herself. “If only you knew how much I’ve miss you… how much I wish I could find where you’ve gone.”
“I can’t tell you that,” JouKa turned away. It was a pre-determined statement, he knew. She wasn’t responding to his words, only playing out the actions of a time that came before.
“I won’t stop searching until I find you,” he told her.
“I love you,” she said, reaching one hand out to him with a longing look.
KoGuRai reached to her in return, “As I do you.”
Where their fingers met, the dream-vision began to warp and distort. He could feel reality drawing him back to waking world. Sometimes when he was sleeping heavily, the dream continued off in other directions. Today, he was merely stealing a short nap, and woke from the dream with a heavy heart.
KoGuRai glanced at the Time Guide on his desk with sleep-itchy eyes, then rolled forward in his chair with a jolt. The next Council meeting would happen shortly, and he had no chance to sort his reports and get his notes ready. Not that anything constructive would come of the meeting. He would make sure of it.
The Council is nothing but a group of old fools. I own half of their votes and have the other half squabbling amongst themselves to make sense of it all.
It would only be a matter of time before what passed as Nefolian leadership cracked. When it did, KoGuRai planned to be there to take up the reigns and usher the city into a new, better era.
I just have to find a way to get those annoying Ya brothers off my back.
SoYa was a pushover, no doubt about it. Meek and quiet-spoken, he took up the trade of a healer where his father and brother were at least warriors. It didn’t take much to convince the traditionalists within the Council that a city founded upon strength required a new leader with equal strength. SoYa was anything but strong.
TsuYa would pose more of a problem if he wasn’t such a firecracker. His low tolerance and quick anger were often easy to use against him, especially when he blew his temper in front of the Council. Though he did appear to have much of the determination and will of his father, he lacked the wisdom, cunning and experience to make much of it.
When the two sons of the former High Guide failed, KoGuRai could rise to power. His own father, JinRai, had also been a founder of the city. The right-hand man to ZenToYa and a former Clan Leader, JinRai’s battle skill and knowledge of the wild lands surpassed most of the new Nefolians, who were pampered within the illusion of safety and city life.
I am the next logical choice for leadership. However, I must ensure that I am the only choice.
A soft knock at his door drew KoGuRai’s attention away from his thoughts. Turning his head, he murmured, “Enter.”
XaNi appeared in the doorframe, stepping through without hesitation. Though a few turns older than KoGuRai, she was still one of the youngest members of the Council, other than himself. Women weren’t a common sight within the Council room, but she inherited the position from her father, similar to his own situation.
She proved to be quick witted, even quicker with the tongue, and wasn’t all that bad on the eyes, either. There were a few rumors that said she could handle a blade as well as any man. And that was how KoGuRai liked them. There was a time, before he met JouKa, of course, when he would have certainly made a pass at XaNi. Or at least wrote a few lines of poetry about her.
“KoGuRai,” she angled her familiar, sharp-eyed glance at him, as if she could tell what he was thinking.
“Is there something I can do for you?” KoGuRai offered a winning smile before standing to cross his room. He fixed his attention on the empty drink glass and began to rectify the situation. “Something to drink?”
“No thank you,” she told him, voice edged, yet polite. “I bring a new report.”
“Ah,” he set down the drink instantly, focusing on her words.
She was one of the few who knew of his tireless search for answers. Ever since JouKa’s disappearance, KoGuRai sought to discover the meaning behind her transformation. She was not the first person he saw with wings, and hers was not the only incident that the people of the Gatherings spoke about. There were more. Increasingly more. Frustratingly more… Still, he couldn’t find where they all went after gaining their wings.
Only a few members of the Council seemed to know or care about the reports. Most probably dismissed it as uneducated ramblings of superstition. KoGuRai knew better. He knew that the answers were the only things that would lead him to JouKa.
“Please continue,” he nodded to XaNi.
“I know what you’re expecting. This is not one of your normal reports.” The way she spoke the word “normal” hinted her own thoughts on the matter.
“All right,” he prompted, leaning back against the wall. “What is it, then?”
“There’s been an event at the Host Gate,” she told him quietly. “It involves the girl, AsaHi. The one Promised to SoYa. It also involves TsuYa.”
“Oh really?” KoGuRai leaned forward. This was certainly not what he was expecting, but it appeared to be far more delicious.
“AsaHi attempted to summon Lord Zemi,” XaNi said, voice so devoid of emotion, he couldn’t get a sense of her thoughts.
In response, he attempted to curve his own facial expression, “Are you certain?”
“Yes. I’ve learned as much as I could before bringing this to you,” her eyes never left his gaze. “Witnesses also confirm that TsuYa was the one who brought her back to Nefol after the event.”
This… could be it. What I’ve been waiting for.
“Did he also aid in the summoning?”
“That’s something we don’t know yet,” she answered. “We also haven’t been able to find a trace of AsaHi or SoYa within Nefol.”
Running scared, perhaps?
“That’s unfortunate,” he looked down. “The Council may have to make a ruling on this without their representation.”
“Yes. We may have no other choice,” XaNi agreed with a soothing sound to the dark words.
KoGuRai stood in silence for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then, he turned to address her again, “How many others know about this?”
“Not very many,” she answered quickly. “I felt that you would know the best course to take with this information. Perhaps even approach TsuYa about it. We know you have a… persuasive manner.”
Persuasive? With TsuYa? Not the word that I’d choose.
“Approaching TsuYa sounds like an excellent idea,” KoGuRai couldn’t hide his spreading smile at the thought. “Why don’t we pay him a visit before our next meeting?”
“It would be my pleasure,” XaNi bowed her head slightly.
He grabbed his cloak and slung it over one shoulder before heading to the door. Today looked to be a good day, indeed.