SoYa and AsaHi sat in silence once Father and Kudako left. The forest around them dripped with twilight mists brought on by strange heat that rose from the mossy floor. The fading sunlight streamed down in small pin-prick patches, dappling the ground around them.
His head was growing clearer as the day passed. Still, he found himself dozing in and out of awareness from time to time, dreaming along with the haze of passing light. And his body still seemed too watery to obey commands to move.
During all that time, AsaHi had remained next to him. She seemed unflinching at the thought that the warriors were now far away and they were left to their own devices.
AsaHi always seemed to deal with fear better than he did, which was why SoYa was drawn to her. She had a sense of strength that he, in all his Mind Magery, could never seem to capture for himself. Even when she came to live in Nefol, a city filled with magic far away from her home, AsaHi made her stand. Simply to come be with him.
“You know, I thought it was really wonderful of you,” AsaHi said, straight out of nowhere. Her voice rippled through the flow of streaming light, sending his daydreams scattering off among the leaves.
SoYa peered up from under the folds of his blanket, taken aback. The words were an echo from the past.
“Talking to Zento like that. You should have seen how relieved he was,” she continued, as if to clarify herself.
But he was still intent on discovering the mystery behind the strange familiarity he felt from her first statement. It took him a minute or two of floundering through his thoughts before he could pin-point when he had heard those words before. It came in a rush of blurred memory, sparking a slurred reply, “Do you remember the first time?”
AsaHi wrinkled her brow in confusion, as if trying to piece together what she said to bring about the unusual question. “First time? First time for what?”
“When we first met…” SoYa’s voice was wispy with memory.
She smiled. A bright smile that touched the light behind her eyes. Obviously, she did remember, and it was fond. “Yes, you were traveling, weren’t you?”
“Yes… I was Searching…”
It was a number of years ago when SoYa set out from Nefol as a Searcher, one who traveled the lands in order to find others who were magic-sensitive. Searching for new students to bring to Nefol was one thing SoYa was good at. Knowing who was gifted with magic and who was not came naturally to him. No one knew the real reason for his “intuition” stemmed from his Athrylith powers.
“I was at the Gathering near the lake with my family,” AsaHi pursed her lips, thoughts of long ago flickering over her face.
During this journey that SoYa found the little Gathering, nothing more than a tented circle set up at the side of a lake. Gatherings were becoming less and less common. The idea of settling in a city made a profound change on the Inner Realms. However, there were still clans that did not give up the way of the Gatherings.
AsaHi’s family was one.
“That’s right. I remember I was surprised to see a Gathering there. It had been so long since I last visited one,” SoYa scratched idly at his cheek. “I think that’s why I decided to stop there.”
“We were forever grateful that you did,” AsaHi’s voice quavered a bit. A gloomy expression fell across her face – darker memories coming to mind.
The first thing SoYa noticed upon approaching the Gathering was the lack of movement. Though Gatherings didn’t have the sheer number of people a city had, there was rarely a time that life didn’t bustle within the circle of tents. Children playing and sporting through the dust. Women keeping the wash, fixing food for the meals or mending clothes for the family. Young men in practice or out to hunt. Older men fishing along the lake.
There was none of this. And the silence was unnerving as SoYa approached, calling his hallos.
A sallow-faced woman came to meet him, holding a young child. SoYa approached to bring his greeting, stopping when his eyes fell upon the face of the little boy. Instantly he knew the reason for the silence.
“What else was I supposed to do?” he peered at AsaHi, eyes searching her face. “Your people were infected by Crugo. And I was supposed to be a Healer…”
Crugo was a fast-acting and highly contagious disease. In the older times, it often decimated string of Gatherings as it spread through the countryside, carried on the backs of the wanders. The survival rate after catching such a disease was low, but the mages managed to cure such things by magical means after years of research in Nefol. Though it wasn’t SoYa’s area of expertise, he had enough knowledge in the ways of a Healer to identify the illness.
“You knew what it was and that you would almost certainly catch it,” AsaHi said softly, her eyes locking with his. Looking deep into his gaze.
But the sorrow in the eyes of the mother. The child, dying in her arms. And the thoughts of others that may be contained in the grim, silent tents…
“I just couldn’t leave,” SoYa shook his head slowly. The motion made him dizzy. “Not when there was a possibility of healing them.”
He remembered there were less survivors in the Gathering than he expected. Despite that, he feared that he wouldn’t be able to tend them all. SoYa never dared to ask how many already passed. He simply began to make his rounds, healing those who still had enough life in them. Instructing the others on what herbs to cook, how to make the droughts to bring strength and to ease pain. Comforting those in loss until the early hours of the morning.
“Then you fell sick, too,” she frowned deeply. Concern at how close they had all come to a terrible end.
“But we were close enough to Nefol to make the ride back before the first real symptoms hit me,” SoYa reminded her. As if to point out that he had everything under control.
The ones who were strong enough to make the journey helped to bring him back to Nefol for treatment. The healers rushed to his aid and to contain any of the disease that might have come with the travelers from the Gathering. They were kept under watch in the city, though treated kindly as guests.
“I remember wanting to see Nefol for the first time,” she gave him a meek face. “I guess it seems awful of me… after everyone being so sick… But I really wanted to go. And I think Father wanted us to go, too.”
Seeing their people healed sparked something within AsaHi’s father. He became determined to seek out training for any of his children who had magic talent. It just so came to pass that all of them did show some sign of ability.
All except the youngest. The girl called AsaHi.
“It was because you came to Nefol that we talked for the first time,” he gave a quiet grin.
SoYa remembered that day. Sitting in his bed, after having finally begun to recover from Crugo. People came to visit him from time to time. There were dangles of flowers and books brought to keep him entertained.
Then, a knock came at his door. He acknowledged it quietly, and the door opened.
Her first look had been shy. A young girl peering through the dim crack between the wall and door. She was poorly dressed and a little thin from a life hard-lived in the Gathering. But she had strength, too, due to the very same thing. Her green eyes reflected the sunlight that streamed through his windows with gentle warmth.
SoYa recognized her as one of the people from the Gathering and encouraged her to come in. She did, staring at his room with a sense of awe. He never considered his possessions to be fine, not until he saw them through the reflection of her wonder.
She stammered quiet words, looking for something to say. He hadn’t been much better. There was something about the girl that drew his fascination. Something that his senses felt from the very start.
“The first thing you said to me…” SoYa tilted his head slowly, “Was ‘I thought it was really wonderful of you’.”
“Really? It was?” AsaHi couldn’t hide the surprise in her voice.
“Yeah. It was,” he smiled.
“You remember that?” she laughed. A musical sound of pleasure. “I don’t even remember that!”
“How could I forget?” SoYa wrinkled his nose. “I just met the love of my life.”
“A scraggly little girl from the woods, you mean,” AsaHi teased.
He shook his head, “That didn’t matter to me.”
“And here I was, puzzled for years, trying to figure out how a mere commoner girl captured the eye of the eldest son of ZenToYa,” she teased him more, scooting closer. Her eyes shimmered in mirth. “SoYa, next in line to be High Guide of Nefol…”
“You were the only one who never thought of me like that,” he replied, dolefully.
That’s when AsaHi laid her head against his shoulder, snuggling close and peering into the deepening sky. For a moment, SoYa was surprised. Quickly, the surprise melted into pleasure, his arm finding its way around her shoulder.
“It’s because you couldn’t tell anybody,” the girl said finally.
SoYa drew in a quick breath. There was little doubt what she was talking about.
She must have sensed she was on the right track because she pressed on, “No one ever said it out loud. But everyone expected you to be some great mage like Zento. And when you weren’t…”
“I was a failure in the eyes of the School,” he added with a long, labored breath.
“But it wasn’t true,” AsaHi murmured softly, as if musing the ideas for the first time. “Here it was, all along, you were a great mage. Athrylith are powerful and you’re strong with that talent. Zento has said so himself.”
“Well, I…” SoYa’s face began to flush.
It was hard for him to hear the word Athrylith, the one thing he had spent years of his life covering up. Yet, she talked about it so easily.
“It must have been awful,” she whispered.
Something in his chest wrenched and tightened, his breath sharp in something akin to a gasp. A reaction to the impossibility of sympathy, the one thing he did not expect to find in anyone. Not even AsaHi. Not after he had lied to her the way he had.
“How can you say that?” his voice was thin.
“SoYa, how long have I known you?” AsaHi gave him an impish grin.
“And in all that time you knew nothing about the Athrylith,” he pointed out, working against himself.
“Maybe not,” she admitted. “It’s one thing measured against a thousand things about you that I know are true.”
“I’ve thought a lot about it, SoYa,” AsaHi leaned back, tapping his nose playfully to interrupt his words. And it worked. “Things make a lot of sense now that I know the truth. Things that you did. Things that you sometimes felt that I couldn’t understand. I know you’ve lived with this and it’s caused you a lot of pain.”
SoYa was stunned to silence.
“I’m not going to hurt you more because of it,” she looked him in the eyes.
As the young moon broke away from the horizon, SoYa leaned towards her. His voice was thick with emotion that threatened to spill over, “AsaHi…”
Plain, some people called AsaHi. Unremarkable, the mages of Nefol would ‘tsk.’ But SoYa knew better. He had always known better.
“I love you,” he leaned in closer. And they shared a simple kiss.