“Truth or dare?” JouKa prodded him.
“This again?” TsuYa grumbled, eyeing her from where he sat, back leaning against the base of smooth white building. The afternoon sun was growing warmer as summer came on. Not so warm as to be uncomfortable, but warm enough that they prefered sitting in the shade of the compounds.
“Truth or dare?” she repeated firmly, eyes glinting in challenge.
Those were the first words that JouKa spoke since the incident under the tree. The incident that nearly gave everything away… when she saw first-hand the grey spot of skin that turned TsuYa’s dark dreams into waking nightmares.
All of his fears did not come to pass, however. JouKa appeared to keep the situation to herself because no one approached him about it. She could have told… but she didn’t. And it might be for that reason that his level of toleration for the winged girl rose – if just a bit.
TsuYa remained silent for many days after the incident. JouKa gave him his room for a short while. But then, on the third day, struck with boredom, she intoned the fateful words: “Truth or dare?”
So it was for the past week or so. JouKa figured out how to get a rise out of him — TsuYa would never back down from a challenge to his pride, especially not to a girl. Having nothing better to do when Suzume was napping or playing in the gardens, and knowing that they could get a few jabs in at each other, they volleyed rounds of truth or dare. They both always chosen dare.
It started small. But soon enough, the dares got evil.
Stealing peoples’ clothes from the bath house and hanging them in the trees on the other side of the island. Releasing a hundred squeak bugs inside the sleeping quarters of one of the compounds. Raw eggs under pillows of unsuspecting individuals. Freezing glasses to the trays in the dining hall. Gluing a random shiny object to the connecting island bridgeways to see how many people stopped to try and pick it up.
The topper was when TsuYa put a large gathering of Rhawn droppings inside a package, lit it on fire, knocked at the door and ran, leaving it on the door step. To watch what happened when the random victim emerged from the room and tried to stamp the fire out… was simply priceless.
It was just a wonder that neither were caught in the act so far. And somehow, the random pranks, as childish as they knew them to be, helped to alleviate some of the discontentment that they both seemed to share about being locked up in Ceiswyr.
Even though TsuYa wouldn’t admit to sharing anything with JouKa. It was bad enough that she began to hang around him, even on days when they weren’t in charge of watching over Suzume.
Like today. Get rid of one, then the other comes. Can’t get any peace and quiet around here!
“Fine… fine…” he finally caved in with a grunt. He added, turning the tables, “But I get to ask first today.”
“Alright. Go fer it.”
“Truth or dare?” TsuYa gave a little smirk. He knew exactly what to expect. And he had the perfect prank in mind for her that afternoon… it took him the better part of the evening to think up something to rival the flaming pile of droppings.
Her expression was totally composed as she shot his plans down in the dust with a single word, “Truth.”
Is she serious? There’s gotta be a catch.
His mouth fell open as the statement struck him, unprepared. She seemed amused by his sudden turn of awkwardness, watching him carefully as he fished for a question to ask. Then it came to him. “Okay, what do you have against the people of Nefol?”
You opened yourself up for that one.
Her answer came quite frank, “They are the ones that spread the Bane through our lands.”
“Ya know, that power they say they control.”
“You mean magic?” TsuYa furrowed a brow and wiggled his fingers unconsciously.
“Yah,” JouKa grimaced at him, turning her head away. “Magic. Bane. It’s the same thing.”
“Wait a sec, magic isn’t unnatural,” he disagreed. “If anything, it’s an innate force in this world, something that we all play a part of balancing. There’s nothing unnatural about something that’s already a part of our very essence.”
Boy… does she have her head on wrong. Where is she getting this stuff from?
The girl narrowed her eyes back at him. “And I’m sure you were fed that load of crock since you were born. Yer father just happens to be the one that brought the Bane into our world.”
“My father is a great man!” TsuYa bit his words sharply. Both hands spread wide, motioning to the Islands. “Without him, we’d all be living in those little hovel of Gatherings, scraping a crummy life out of the Upperlands! He brought our world the concept of society! He founded Nefol and the teachings there. He founded Ceiswyr and everything you see here! If it wasn’t for him, then–”
JouKa waved her hands in his face, looking impatient, “Yeah… yeah… I’ve ‘eard this story all before.”
TsuYa clamped his mouth shut with a huff of frustration. But he held on to his anger, if only to hear out the rest of her story. Curiosity gnawed at his insides – it was the first time he had ever heard an outsider to Nefol talk such a way.
“And fer yer information, I just ‘appen to ‘ave been raised in one of those little ‘ovel of a Gatherings,” she growled, jabbing a finger at his nose. “So afore a pampered brat like yerself says anything ‘bout my ‘crummy life’, ya better live it for a little while!”
He pursed his lips, bringing the conversation back to the topic of his interest, “Who in Light’s name is spreading all this ‘bane’ idiocy anyhow?”
“It’s what we were all taught as kids. The comin’ of the Bane and how it will lead to the shatterin’ of our world,” JouKa jutted her chin out.
“And you believe everything they tell you?” TsuYa snorted.
“Do you?” she challenged.
“Well, of course I do,” he leaned back with a casual hand on his hip. “Simply because everything taught at Nefol is true.”
“And ‘ow do you know that?”
“Because I’ve been there. I’ve lived in Nefol all my life! The School has been around for how long… and I haven’t seen a crack in the face of the earth for it yet,” his tone began to wear in patience.
“Isn’t the School jus’ somethin’ that follows yer father’s teachings?” she eyed him.
“The teachings that Lord Zemi gave to my father, yes.”
“And ‘ow is what yer father said to you ‘ave any better chance of bein’ real than what my father said to me?” her teeth were grinding.
“Because my father is far more educated and refined than any Gathering nomad could ever hope to be,” TsuYa smirked. Straight into her face.
JouKa’s hand twitched, held pinned against her side. As if she was fighting the slap that wanted so much to plant itself across his cheek.
Somewhat surprised that she had held back at all, TsuYa let his smirk fade. “You really believe in what they fed you, don’t you?”
There was a spark of uncertainty. She turned her head away so that he couldn’t see it. But it was too late.
“Truth,” he pressed. “The whole story about why you hate Nefol.”
“I already told you,” she avoided his eyes.
“There’s more than that,” he crossed his arms, dark eyes watching her reactions closely.
JouKa had begun to suck on her bottom lip, seemingly a nervous habit. Her voice was flat when she spoke again, “The people of my family believe in the Bane and the destructive Deep Magics. The Gatherings we live in believe that our world will fall to darkness because people are dabblin’ in forces they ‘ave no right to be playin’ with. They want nothin’ to do with Neffies of any kind – they see people with magic as the ones that will destroy us all. And it ‘as already begun by the building of Nefol.”
TsuYa crossed his arms, listening in silence. Much of this was new to him — he never heard that the rustic tribes believed in anything so bizarre.
“So this is how you see it, then?” he leaned back, watching her reaction carefully. What he expected was a quick, biting affirmation. But it wasn’t exactly what he got.
“Me? Well, I…”
“You… what?” TsuYa pressed a bit, sensing that he was hitting somewhere close to home.
“I was born a magic user,” the words caught in her throat as she turned away from him. Words that held a sense of impending doom. Words that seemed to have rarely passed her lips, if ever.
Inadvertently, TsuYa pursed his lips, bringing his hand to his chin as the full impact of the situation dawned on him.
“My mum knew… she was the only one,” JouKa frowned at the sky. “She chose to protect me. Not tell anyone.”
“Why? What would they have done if they found out?” he asked.
“Killed me, no doubt,” the girl muttered, making it sound as if it had been the most obvious conclusion to draw.
“That’s… stupid!” TsuYa’s voice was incredulous and disgusted. He just stood there and shook his head. “Stupid…”
“Maybe to you,” JouKa met his eyes. “But to my people, it is the Bane. I am one marked to bring ‘bout the destruction of our world. If they can fight back at that fate, even by removing one source, they are gonna do it.”
“But, one of their own clan?”
“Yeah, even one of their own,” she squinted, face flushed in pained. Her fists clutched the sides of her trousers.
TsuYa just shook his head again. He couldn’t find the words to express how preposterous the whole thing was.
Suddenly, JouKa’s expression cracked, her eyes fixing on the ground. It all came out in a rush of shivering breath – sorrow, fear and uncertainty that marked her thoughts from the first day that her terrible truth became understood to herself, “I never ‘urt noone. I’m a ‘ealer… I can cure sick people! Tell me ‘ow that is going about bringin’ the downfall of everythin’?”
His dark eyes peered over at the strange sound of her dismay, voice quiet and measured. Bordering on sympathetic. “It won’t.”
She covered her face with one hand, sucking in a small gasping breath. As if she realized how far her mask had slipped.
“They’re wrong,” he added. Words of experience that he learned long ago – the truth about the people of the world around him. “Don’t you ever let anyone else define who you are. They’ll always tell you wrong.”
She simply stood there, unresponsive to his wisdom.
“Listen,” he urged further. Something about her emotion was too close… to close to his own anger. “You’ve got two eyes to see with. Use them. Judge things for yourself because you’re the only one that you can really trust in this world. See yourself for who you really are — not for who they want you to see.”
When JouKa peered back up at him, her eyes were misty. Her voice fought for strength, “Well, now the Neffie knows a pretty string o’ poetry. The sky might jus’ fall afterall.”
TsuYa fell silent with a grimace.
So much for trying to be helpful.
“I better go see what I kin do to ‘elp with lunch,” the girl got to her feet and began to walk away. Her steps were shaky, almost hurried. As if she needed to put as much distance between herself and the person who had seen behind her mask, though it had only been a peek.
“Yeah,” TsuYa said and watched her go. Leaning against the wall of the compound, he muttered to himself, “You’re welcome…”