Semei watched her, watching Kazuma. It had been four years since the day of the revelation that he was the King of the Kari. Knowing that his life was not his own was more of a struggle than anything he had experienced. He never told her. Even now, she did not know he was her king. It had been challenging to let his guard down and allow her in. This girl who was the epitome of everything he was against; modernization versus tradition. As the face of the Kari she could not stay away from Aslann for long so, there were days during those four years that she would come and go. After a while, he began to notice how lonely Meratoia seemed without her.
Tatsuya had been right; beating up Bingwen had repercussions that were long lasting. He was not the Shield of the Kari for very long and he relinquished his position to the former shield Zen. Being the Elder and Shield, required a Kari man to put the needs of the Kari above his own and beating up Bingwen came off as prideful and selfish; as though he was protecting what was his.
Tationy, amazingly enough had just accepted his words that Bingwen had it coming. It was actually the first thing he came to appreciate about her. She never asked questions she knew he would not answer and when she did, she accepted the answer without question. She had a very easy personality to get along with once he got to know her. It no longer surprised him that she was compatible with men like him or Hiko Kari. A girl like her was one in a million and was just about the only type capable of managing troublesome Kari men.
He leaned against the wall as he spoke, “You look like you want to cry.”
A very brief smile passed over her lips, “No. Just wondering where the time went. I wish Hiko could see him. Do you think he would be proud of him?”
“I can’t speak for Hiko, but I am proud of him.”
For a moment there was a somberness that graced her features which forced him to look away, “Thank you for being there. If it hadn’t been for you, I am not certain what would have become of him. Look at him now, a bearer of a mark of Kazuma. Not just any mark, but the first one; the one that Sesiago had. He accomplished his trials, received his heroska and now he is accepting the position of Osoma. Are you sure you are ready to retire?”
“I taught him everything I know. The Kari are in no finer hands. From here on out, he will forge his own path in this world and be a strong leader among the Kari. Where he and those that follow take the Kari, is up to them as for me, my time is quickly coming to an end. I am not getting any younger and there is one thing left for me to do. Which brings me to our bet.”
She laughed softly, “Going to hold me to that?”
“Well you did agree that if Kazuma managed to make it through a year without fighting anyone that you would take a trip with me.”
He watched her as she looked upon her son, “He really has matured hasn’t he?”
“You should be very proud of him.”
“I am. Alright enough of this talk or I definitely will cry. So, as a woman of my word, I will take this trip with you. When will we be leaving?”
“As soon as you tell him goodbye.”
He could see the surprise cross her features, but instead of saying something like ‘so soon’ or asking where they were going she simply nodded her head. This was a part of her personality he liked, but it certainly took some getting use too.
Before they departed, they talked a bit about what to bring and Semei told her to think of it as a pilgrimage; that they would be leaving the lands of the Kari with only the clothing on their backs. They said their goodbyes to everyone and he looked upon Tationy and her son knowing that leaving him was going to be a true test for her. He had expected her to be resistant, but Kazuma had whispered something to her and bid her goodbye. For the first thirty minutes of their journey she didn’t speak a single word, only cried.
They walked for several hours, most of their conversations were idle chitchat about what everyone was probably up to or even what they might be saying about the two of them leaving together. Semei really did not care to discuss other Kari, but he could tell she needed to talk about something. When they finally stopped walking it was only because it had begun to rain and they sought out one of the many small shelters available to the Kari around Meratoia. “This is going to slow us down. Still, if it lets up we should be there within the next couple of days.”
“You never said where we are going.”
“It is a surprise.”
He noticed how her nose wrinkled, “I hate surprises.”
“Really? To quote your son, I don’t believe you.”
Out of the corner of his eye he could see her bow her head, “Forgive me, Tationy. Had I known mentioning him would make you upset, I would not have spoken.”
She chuckled softly which took him by surprise, “You called me Tationy instead of woman. I think you might be starting to like me a little.” As much as he wanted to respond to her words he remained silent watching the rain fall to the ground, “This environment is fitting for someone like you. A quiet life away from the noise of the modern world.”
“I am sure you will not appreciate hearing it, but I think it is just as fitting for you. There are times, you do not even seem like the same girl that smiled and told me how she missed being called woman. I wasn’t sure what to make of you.”
“I scared you.”
“You still do, but any Kari man has a healthy respect for a woman like you.”
“Like me? Exactly what type of woman am I Semei?”
“A dangerous one.”
He could tell she was smiling when she responded, “I like it when you flirt with me.”
Semei had almost laughed. This girl had a little something about her that was almost charming, but she was definitely dangerous. Zen had described her as a chameleon; whatever she needed to be for the person she was with. That made her frighteningly dangerous because it was difficult to tell if she was genuine. Sometimes it felt like he was the hunter and she was the prey, but he suspected it was the other way around which was all the more reason he needed to show restraint and guard his emotions.
When the rain had finally stopped and they could be on their way again that silence had returned. Kazuma had told him once that Tationy was always thinking, it was something they had in common. He recognized the look; the stare off into the distance, the slowed breathing, and the way her lips pursed. Prepared to engage her in conversation to keep her from getting lost in her own thoughts he asked, “Do you ever feel alone because you are Tearra and Kazuma is not around?”
“It makes me sad more than anything. I thought I might get the chance to make things different for the Tylo and the Kari. Free them of the burden and pain caused by the reincarnation of the King and Queen of the Gods. Kazuma is stubborn and willfully refuses to be reborn. I would have thought he would have sought me out by now. I suppose, when the game is not played on his terms he doesn’t wish to play it.”
“What if he does return?”
“I hope I am still alive. I would not wish this burden to fall upon another.”
“Is that what Kazuma is to you?”
“I cannot answer that question. The truth is, he and I only spoke once and at that time neither of us could look past the nonsense to the heart of the matter. He was devouring the soul of Tadayoshi and I was defiantly destroying his queen. It was war; not fought with swords and guns. A battle of wills over living, breathing, vessels. Shame, that this is how it had to be. I wonder what it would have been like if they had found each other, centuries ago instead of being prideful.”
“Will you rise to the heavens with him?”
“I suppose that depends on him. Kari men can be quite a mouthful.”
Semei pondered her words and quickly looked toward her, “You just said mouthful.”
She chuckled, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Sssshh, if you want to change the topic just change it.” He stopped talking suddenly as his head filled with rather indecent thoughts.
“Teasing you is fun.”
“Teasing is that what you call it? I sometimes think you say things like that to get me worked up so I will take you.”
“Wow, that only took you four years to figure out.” Dumfounded Semei went silent and kept walking as she softly laughed.
The remainder of the trip was spent with Tationy complaining that she wanted a shower and a change of clothes, but they did manage to make it to their destination. As they walked the stairway toward the top of a small hill he spoke, “I wasn’t sure where to take a girl like you on our first date, but this spot seemed fitting.”
He stopped walking at the top, as she asked, “First date?” The words though were barely audible as they stood staring at the stone statues of the King and Queen of the Gods.
“These are the only statues that remain in existence. All of the others were destroyed long ago. This is what the Kari have been trying to protect. Somewhere, they lost sight of what was important and abandoned what they believed in. That is when Kazuma was lost to them. When I was lost to them.” He could see it, the tears welling up, “Don’t cry Tationy. It took me four years to work up the courage to say this to you, please don’t make it difficult for me. You should know I normally say whatever I please with little regard for how it comes out, but I don’t want to say the wrong thing here.”
It was evident she was fighting back the tears as he reached for her hand, “I am listening.”
“Rise to the heavens with me. Let me know your heart. I know you gave it away long ago to Hiko and I would never wish for you to feel the pain of betraying him, but to be at my side you have to let him go. It is a lot to ask of you, and I do not make this request lightly. You will never know my heart if you cannot do that and yours will always be locked to me. We lost our way and we have a rare opportunity to right the wrongs committed, but that will only happen if we leave the lives of mortals behind together. Please, walk with me.”
Her silence was disheartening. He had told her son Kazuma that he was going to finally tell her. Even as the two Kari men went over every worst possible scenario, silence was never one of them. “Have you devoured Kazuma’s soul completely?”
Semei was not certain why her question surprised him so much, but he nodded his head as he responded, “Yes, about a year ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I only found out because your son could see my real face. I didn’t want the responsibility. Had barely even said more than a few words to you. How was I suppose to be the King of the Gods; your king? I did not understand why Kazuma had chosen me and your son was quick to point out that I was like his father. The thought that I was the King of the Gods was hard enough to deal with, without knowing that the only reason I was chosen was because I was like Hiko Kari. It was a blow to my pride.”
Tationy shook her head, “It is true you are like Hiko, but you have something he never did.”
“What would that be?”
“Love for the Kari. Hiko will always be the same man, no matter the time or place. He loves his country and his work, but his people will always mean nothing to him. Kazuma, might have chosen you because you had qualities like Hiko that would attract me, but the most important reason was because you represent what it truly means to be Kari. You are who you are and make no apologies for it. I think Kazuma finally got it right.”
“So, you are not disappointed?”
“Only in the fact that I am not quite sure how we rise to the heavens.”
He whispered softly as he leaned in, “That is alright, I know the way.” Semei had to show restraint as he laid a tentative kiss upon her lips. The intensity had been building. It started out small, four years ago and now it was taking all of his willpower to keep from allowing himself to lose complete control. His hand rested to the small of her back as he deepened the kiss only once, before forcing himself to pull away. “Are you ready to leave?”
“We are going now?”
He could see the apprehension in her features and as the seconds passed he could read her. It was so clear. He felt foolish wondering if this was the power of Kazuma, but everything around him seemed so alive and vibrant. Semei could hear birds from miles away and even hear her heart beating wildly. He felt the tension overtake his body as he forced himself to close his eyes, taking a breath to steady himself, “Unless you have a reason you wish to stay here longer.”
“Will Kazuma be alright?”
“He was guided in this world by the King and Queen of the Kari. You do not have to worry about him. Can’t you see his future?”
He watched as she closed her eyes a soft smile passing over her lips as she whispered, “I can see it.”
Osa had been busy all day making arrangements for the funeral of Zen Kari, who passed away only a few nights before. The nation was in mourning and the Kari gathering so he was not surprised to look up from his messages to see a Kari woman and man. Both he recognized instantly, “I know I am trouble when both the Lady Shield and the Elder of the Kari stand before me.”
The woman laughed softly, “I had to bring your little brother all this way to lay down some Kari law just so I could get a second date.”
“Perhaps next time you will consider leaving him at home and picking up the phone instead.” The banter back and forth between Osa and the Lady Shield of the Kari, Okoi was normal. They had met when she was just a girl going through her trials. She had arrived in Aslann, a brazen firecracker ready to make her name. Much to the surprise of the Kari, she did just that and made certain to write it in permanent marker.
The considerably older Osa, found an unlikely kindred spirit in the young girl. Both had lost their parents at early ages and were raised by surrogates and were ‘outcast’ among the Kari. Okoi was a Saitama born Kari, her mother, Amaya had slept with her bodyguard Zixin Saitama. She was the first in the history of the Kari. Osa of course was Shima, adopted into the Kari.
The cold hard voice of his brother broke up the flirting, “Okoi, please leave us.”
“Of course, Elder Kazuma.”
Osa allowed his eyes to follow Okoi before they returned to his brother. Something was troubling him. He stepped toward him stopping at his side as he spoke, “I am sorry, Kazuma. I know Zen was like a father to you.”
“This gets harder for me with each loss. Did he say anything in his final moments?”
“No. He went peacefully in his sleep. Had I know that he was going to go so suddenly I would have told you to return home. He kept asking for you all day. He wanted to know when you would be home. I kept telling him soon, I should have known. I am sorry.”
“It is alright Osa. I am the Osoma and Elder of the Kari, I cannot just drop everything and rush home. I would have, though.”
“On the flight, I kept thinking about mother. I find she is in my thoughts a lot lately.”
“Sometimes I think she is there looking over my shoulder watching every little thing I do. I can hear her in my head saying Osa, do you really want to do that?”
“Kazuma, have you been fighting again?” Kazuma paused as he shook his head, obvious emotion in his voice, “I miss her so much and when we lose another Kari, it just brings me back to that moment twelve years ago when she left with the Osoma, Semei. I wanted to tell her to stay, but I knew she had to go.”
“Take comfort that you got to be with her before she departed. I am left with plenty of lingering regret; I wish I had been there.”
“Do you think…” Osa noticed how Kazuma hesitated trying to control his wayward emotions.
“She knows just as we know she loved us.”
Osa noticed that Kazuma closed his eyes a moment as he whispered softly, “I love you mom.”
While the two brothers talked lightly back and forth, the watchful eyes of their mother and her king looked on, “Tationy, you know we cannot stay here.”
“I know, I just wanted to see them.”
“You check in on them every couple of days. Theirs is the lives of mortals, this is not our place any longer.”
When she said his name it almost sounded like she was pouting, “Semei, you are always too serious. Didn’t they grow up well?”
Semei remained silent a moment as his scrutinizing gaze washed over the two young men engaging in a casual conversation about Osa relationship with Okoi. His voice softened, like that of a proud father, “They have grown into fine men of the Kari.”
She snuggled into him, “I miss them, Semei.”
“I know, but as the Queen of the Kari you will always be watching over them.”