There was no bustle in the marketplace. Panic and concern engulfed the citizens of the great nation as word of war being upon them circulated. Normally, such news would bring Aslann to life, but with it came the darkened knowledge that the prince would set forth toward Shimragata with the bulk of the Emperor’s forces. Despite, the nations mourning, Tatsuya was calm.
At his side was one of his most trusted men. A brutal warrior from the Waichia clan. He said very little, but the prince considered him his greatest ally; the sword of the future Emperor or in a perfect world that would be how the fairy tale started.
The reality that laid before the prince and his right hand was that this journey would lead to their deaths. There was no changing that fate without it hurting the great nation they loved. Their story would not have a happy ending.
“This will be the last time we look upon these lands, our people, and walk through this market taking in the sites and the sounds. It feels heavy, does it not my prince?”
“The world does not stop moving simply because we are no longer in it. That heaviness you feel is your grip trying to hold on to what remains of your life; fear of withering away into non-existence with no legacy left behind. I feel no such burden.”
“We cannot all be the Prince of Aslann,” The Waichia stated flatly.
“Is it glory you seek, Chochi? I can promise plenty of that. You will be the most feared man on the battlefield and when the might of the great nation turns against us, you will become a beast spoken of in legend.”
“My ego does not need to be inflated by tales of my might. I am after all, the right hand of the Prince of Aslann.”
“Indeed you are,” The Prince stated quietly as they continued maneuvering through the market.
In his eighteen years of life, Tatsuya learned that certain things never change. There were always pretty girls in the market. Sometimes strolling casually and other times drinking tea. In the fall, the leaves would cascade toward the ground and enhance their beauty. Yet, his eyes never sought a pretty face.
However, the man at his side often took a quick glance in their direction, “It is not too late for you to leave something behind.”
Chochi briefly chuckled, “They are beautiful, but my mistress will always be the battlefield. She will call to me and no matter the comfort those beauties might be able to offer this old soldier, at heart they will never bring me the bliss that striking down my enemy will.”
“I had no doubt you would say that,” The Prince responded and then quickly asked, “What of the others?”
Bagola – Game similar to chess.
His brutal warrior never hesitated, “Sadoo is saying goodbye to his wife and children. Taku’s is spending time with his siblings. Sohma said something about playing bagola with his grandmother. Honestly, I have no idea what Otoha is doing.”
“I would not worry too much about him. Of all of my Elite Guard, he is the most prepared. His attachments to this world were severed long ago.”
“What of you my prince? Is there no one you wish to see before we depart?”
“Once I leaned of my father’s wishes, I visited my mother. Her sadness could move the coldest of men and yet, I was restrained. I might well be the monster my father thinks I am, but not for the reasons he has conveyed.” The prince paused momentarily, “We are men that have sacrificed ourselves for this nation that we love. Hated or revered it does not matter as long as Aslann does not fall.”
“Are things going as you wish, my prince?”
Tatsuya contemplated the question for some time as he took in the various patrons of the marketplace. There were some, far more dangerous than others. Vagabonds and fallen warriors who traveled to Aslann for one reason or another. Then, there were those creatures whose very existence defied the laws of men.
Boldly, the prince allowed his eyes to settle upon two of them. One, considered the most powerful man in Aslann. The other, said to be the first born son of the snake god, Rin. Certainly, there were plenty of rumors that circulated around these two monsters, but very few knew the difference between fact and fiction.
“I find it suspicious that the Emperor is sending them with us,” Chochi stated.
“The Sons of Rin are fine warriors. My father is wise to utilize them against the Shima Lord and his armies. His ulterior motives for sending them are obvious; the Ishi are loyal to the throne. However, those snakes are not. I cannot yet say, if this will go in my father’s favor or mine.”
“You almost seem delighted at the prospect, my prince.”
“How many men can say they stood against the sons of a god and bested them? I do not want to get ahead of myself, but this war has not even begun yet and I am savoring the taste of victory. The downfall of my father will be glorious when he strikes against me. My death will be well worth the sacrifice to ensure that Aslann rises under a new Emperor.”
The Prince glanced away from the Sons of Rin and allowed his attention to fall upon two soldiers of the Ruthlbahdo. It was not uncommon for Aslann’s military to police areas known for illicit activity. He could not mask his disappointment, “My only regret will be that the heart of Aslann will not join the battle until the very end.”
“Your father’s decision to keep Commander Kari within Aslann seems a disservice to a man with his skills.”
Taking a seat on a bench the Prince spoke openly, “That coward, keeps that demon shackled to protect himself. I will force his hand and give him no choice other than to send the Kari Commander to Shimragata.”
Prince Tatsuya’s words were bold and treasonous, but he no longer cared. His father intended to have him killed. The reality of the situation was that Emperor Miroku could not strike against him in Aslann. Doing so would bring him disfavor with his people. This darkened path was inevitable; father and son would always walk it and as the two men sat quietly in the market they reflected upon their journey.
Days, weeks, and even months passed as the military of Aslann converged upon Shimragata. Slowed by unexpected weather near Garvator, the Prince of Aslann ordered his men to set up camp. “This storm is massive,” Tatsuya stated. “It will swallow whole the might of our army if we continue forth.”
Chochi resigned, “We have no choice then. This delay will give our enemies plenty of opportunities to become aware of our approach.”
“Slowed is our movement, but this storm will not stop us from accomplishing our task.” The prince responded and then quickly added, “The bulk of our forces must remain here, we have no choice in that. However, there is another way.”
Chochi crossed his arms, “This path is dangerous?”
“There are always risk, but this one brings with it an opportunity.” The snow fell calmly as the Elite Guard waited for their prince to explain, “Chochi and Sadoo, take two thousand of our finest and travel the path through the mountains toward Mount Celiabai. There you will find the Saruwatari and the Zenaku.”
“What are we to do there, my lord?” Sadoo questioned.
“The Saruwatari will welcome you, despite the protest of the Zenaku. Convince them the benefits of siding with the Prince of Aslann in this war. You will find that there is a young leader among them, with a strong voice, and a thirst for battle. If regarded with respect and seen with a warrior spirit, he will do what is needed and show you a safe path through the mountains. However, the Zenaku must not be allowed to side with the Lord of the Shima. Are we clear?”
Rubbing his neck Sadoo quickly asked, “Are we to execute them?”
“If the need arises you have the full authority of the Prince of Aslann to do what is necessary.”
Chochi interjected, “What if the Saruwatari refuse?”
The prince simply shrugged his shoulders, “An unwise decision. However, if the young choose to be foolish and bold, then remind them the price paid for standing against the great nation of Aslann. Are we clear?”
“Yes, Lord Tatsuya,” Sadoo and Chochi responded in unison.
The prince continued in a hushed tone, “Some journeys we must set forth upon even when they are dangerous. This path is given to the two among you that can hide in plain sight. Taku and Otoha, you must weather this storm and make your way to Shimragata. The risks are many, but I need you to see and hear what I cannot.”
Otoha spoke in a concerned tone, “If my lords eyes are blinded, then that can mean only one thing. The Kari are close to the Lord of the Shima.”
“It seems a likely possibility, Otoha. The Kari are dangerous dogs that make great pets when leashed, but those close to Shimragata are bound to no lords. If they are moving among the Shima, it is because it benefits them. However, they are not the only monsters capable of hiding from my sight. Use caution.”
“What do you want us to do if we have an opening?”
“The Lord of the Shima will not turn his back so easily. Do not be careless or fooled. He has his own eyes and ears to steer his course and eventually, he will realize you are there. Do not overstay your welcome; observe, record, relay, and then disappear. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Lord Tatsuya,” Otoha responded.
There was a brief time where the prince waited for Taku to speak, but that moment came and passed leaving only silence. “I will meet with all of you before your departures, ready yourselves,” The prince said as he dismissed his men, “Sohma, please stay.”
The two men stood quietly as the others left to prepare for war and only when they were gone did the prince finally speak, “You disagree with my decisions.”
“My prince has eyes that see far beyond, but strategically you are putting us at a disadvantage sending Commander Waichia and General Takahashi on this….errand. If their mission is successful and they maneuver their way to Shimragata they will be on the front lines alone. How long do you think they are going to be able to withstand the might of the Shima?”
“Among my men you have the greatest mind, but not the heart of a warrior. Chochi and Sadoo, know nothing else and will keep fighting until they give their last breaths. The odds being stacked against them will simply fuel those men like flames being moved by the wind. All you can focus on is the massive numbers, Sohma. While I see two thousand of our finest soldiers led by my brutal warrior and the greatest general that Aslann has ever known. There is no army capable of standing against them except our own.”
Sohma bowed his head, “Forgive me my lord for not having the faith you do.”
The prince quickly dismissed his apology, “I have chosen the finest that Aslann has to offer to stand as my Elite Guard. Each of you were born for this path and at the end of it lays our demise. There is no changing that, but when given an opportunity to reach for the highest point we men must be reckless. One of the greatest moments in our battle starts with this errand; if they fall, they fall, but they will do so trying to ensure that we few men are successful in protecting our great nation. Do you understand, Sohma?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Prince Tatsuya paused before adding thoughtfully, “My task for you is of the utmost importance. At my side you will remain. I need your strategic mind to work battle scenarios. Any advantage the Lord of the Shima might have we must ensure we shut it down or we will fall long before this war reaches its peak.”
“I understand and will begin working as soon as camp is completed,” Sohma stated and then quickly bowed to his lord.
Tatsuya stood there for hours allowing his mind to focus upon the future and the impending war. He had seen billions of possible outcomes and yet, there were still far too many unknowns. Questions that lingered deep in his heart and mind.
Planning for every scenario was not possible. A single man with limited resources, no matter how mighty was still just one soldier. He had to look deep and pick and choose which outcomes were the most likely course events would take. It was risky, but he was the only Tylo with eyes powerful enough to stand against the might of the Shima.
“Forgive me my lord,” Sohma’s voice distracted his thoughts.
Soaked from head to toe, he turned to look upon his tactician, “Is something troubling you?”
“No, the Ishi are feeling restless….”
Tatsuya stopped him from continuing, “Bring them before me.” It took only moments to do as was commanded and both Ishi dropped to their knees in the snow and bowed their heads deeply.
Sohma took his place at the side of the prince while Tatsuya regarded them. At first he made them stay in that position; lowly and humbled were the Sons of Rin. Eventually, the Prince of Aslann spoke, “There is no need to bow before me. We are all but soldiers fighting the same war. Men we are; equal on the great battlefield.”
There was a certain amount of hesitation as both Ishi rose to their feet, “It must be quite a burden to have to wait for that perfect opportunity to strike me down. Is sacrificing your lives because my father wills it really worth it to the Sons of Rin? My blood on your hands; disavowed by the Ishi. Considered traitors by your nation. What a glorious future the Emperor has laid out for you.”
The two Ishi regarded Prince Tatsuya coldly, “Do those eyes even work, Mikio of the Ishi? The son of two gods stands before me; mighty he is among the great nation and yet he fails to reach his full potential.” Tilting his head he settles his gaze on the other, “The first born Son of Rin, Kuro of the Ishi….”
“Your words linger there like an old woman trying to recall a fanciful tale,” Kuro stated.
“Perhaps they do because there is nothing to say for someone like you,” The prince quickly retorted. “Considered unworthy by Rin to even be his son; you were born because the great goddess wished it. Nothing more. Lesser you will always be seen.”
“We stand before you Sons of Rin and what are you? A taint upon the very throne you pretend to value. There will always be men like you, Prince Tatsuya. Monsters that manipulate for their own agenda and destroy everything in their path.”
Sohma took a step forward, but Tatsuya quickly stopped him. “I will do whatever it takes and crush anyone that gets in my way to protect the great nation even the Sons of Rin. Causalities of war mean nothing to me; strike me down if you wish, but I will simply rise again and again and again to protect the nation I love. Some monsters are born from gods and others are created with a single purpose that death cannot extinguish.”
There was tension in the air as Tatsuya looked upon the Sons of Rin, “Sohma will go over our battle plans with you. His words are mine and you will follow them. Unless of course you would like to get your Emperor’s orders out of the way now. If so, draw your swords.”
A moment of consideration flashed in the eyes of the Ishi, but neither drew their weapons. The Emperor wanted Tatsuya killed on the battlefield against the Shima and the Ishi were to ensure that happened. As much as they wanted to strike him down, they would follow the orders given them.
Tatsuya had dismissed the Ishi with Sohma to go over battle scenarios and where they would be among the advancing troops for the first strike against Shimragata. They undoubtedly would be an asset, but Tatsuya had to be weary. As much as he would like to think he could sway them, the Sons of Rin could not be trusted.
The key to knowing them came in figuring out what they coveted, but they were not like other Ishi. Billions and trillions of possibilities; Tatsuya was no closer to understanding what he could offer the snakes to get them to switch sides. That meant there would always be a potential danger looming in the shadows and plotting the princes demise.
Spring was upon them quickly which allowed the army of Aslann an opportunity to pack up camp and begin moving again. The further they traveled the more the season came to life with vibrant greens and flowers in full bloom.
Word had come from Taku and Otoha that they had to abandon Shimragata while Chochi and Sadoo moved forward with ten thousand Saruwatari and some Zenaku toward the front lines. Battle was already being waged as the bulk of Aslann’s military quickened their pace toward war.
Not surprising to the Prince of Aslann, the Lord of the Shima made his first brazen move as word was delivered that there was a Kari waiting just off the beaten path. Tatsuya told Sohma to continue on with their soldiers while he along with the Ishi, intercepted the Kari.
There was nothing about him that stood out. Where soldiers had reported seeing him is where he was found. The Kari were an assassin clan, long known for despising the service of fallen lords, but they would certainly aide a cause if it benefited them. What moved them to join the battle of Shimragata was nothing more than self-preservation.
“The Lord Seiji Shima requests an audience with the Prince of Aslann,” The Kari spoke as he took a single step only to be halted when Kuro placed his hand on his hilt.
“A vulnerable and foolish lord I would be if I accepted. Walking into the den of a lion when he is hungry….”
“It was Aslann that drew first blood,” The Kari interjected.
“How impartial of you,” Prince Tatsuya stated clearly, “It is truly an honor to have the Lord of the Shima seek an audience with me so swiftly, but I wonder if this grand gesture is not laced with ulterior motives.”
The Kari kept a neutral expression; not hesitating, the messenger spoke, “The Lord of the Shima and the Prince of Aslann will travel with two retainers to Ospadoma where the Saza king will oversee this conference.”
Tatsuya questioned quickly, “If I refuse?”
“The Lord of the Shima will take your invasion as an unequivocal act of war and you will be crushed under the full might of his armies.”
There was silence that followed the messenger’s words as Tatsuya allowed his gaze to fix upon him. He was born Kyo of the Kari. A stout believer in tradition and value, but he had moved outside the ways of his people many times. A father, a widower, and the shield to the Kari elder himself. He was no ordinary messenger.
“Consider the message received,” Tatsuya stated and then brought his hand up when it was clear that Kuro of the Ishi was going to interject. “If there is nothing else you wish to say, be gone before the agitated snakes at my back decide to strike.”
A curt nod and the Kari faded into the brush of the wilderness, only then did Tatsuya allow Kuro of the Ishi to speak, “Letting him go is a mistake.”
“We are not allowing him to leave, simply giving him a headstart. One of you will pursue him; be unseen, strike quickly, and return with his head.”
“I’ll go,” the first born Son of Rin stated and moved quickly to pursue.
“Kuro of the Ishi,” He was halted when the prince said his name, “Once you have taken care of that Kari rendezvous with us in Shemata and….guard your left. That assassin is very good at exploiting weaknesses and he will find an opening.”
“Is that concern for this lowly snake, Lord Tatsuya?”
“Just keeping it interesting, Son of Rin. If you die against that man, your brother will not stand a chance against me.”
The snake laughed in obvious amusement as he quickly departed leaving his brother and the prince behind.
It would be a day and a half later before the firstborn Son of Rin would catch up to the advancing Aslann troops. He made himself at home in the imperial tent of the Prince of Aslann; crashing out quickly upon laid out bedding. “I see you did not guard your left,” The prince stated.
“That old Kari moved pretty quickly for his age,” Kuro responded casually.
It was clear he was unconcerned about the injury most likely because he was of the Ishi; it would regenerate with time. Still, the lips of the Prince of Aslann pursed before he stated, “Complacency took your eye; I hope that the Son of Rin learned a valuable lesson.”
“Oh, a lecture; I am a little too old to be told what for.” The Ishi paused a moment, “There was no lesson to be learned in fighting that Kari. He was weak. The fact that he took my eye was simply due to me losing interest in playing with him. There are none among men that can challenge the Sons of Rin.”
The question of what the snake brothers coveted was becoming clear the more time the prince spent with them, “It is true that there are few equals for gods among men, but I think you are mistaken. Perhaps, those that can challenge simply have not been born yet.”
Kuro propped himself up on a single arm, “I might die long before I get the chance to face an enemy worthy of my skills then.”
Despite his words, the Prince of Aslann did not believe Kuro of the Ishi really thought himself capable of dying. “No,” Tatsuya stated quickly, “Men like you have a lifespan that is endless. As long as your body can heal there will be no beast capable of silencing you.”
“Are you saying that my brother and I are like you; rising again and again and again?”
The prince shook his head, “We are different creatures. I will be reborn over and over again because it is the will of the gods, but you exist as long as you can heal. If you die, you will never walk the lands of men again.”
The Ishi laughed, “You speak as though I can be killed. I am a Son of Rin.”
“That you are, but you are only long in life and sharp in tooth. Immortal you are not.”
Silence overtook the tent for some time before Kuro of the Ishi asked, “Why is it your bed is always empty, Prince Tatsuya?”
“I have no need for sleep,” He stated as he stood and moved toward the entryway of the tent.
It was beautiful. Difficult to believe that those lands were being laid siege to, “The head…”
Kuro spoke quickly, “Given to that delicate Hamara commander of yours. What will you do with it?”
“The Maiba and the Kari are great allies. Together they strengthen the Shima. The last thing we need to contend with is two assassin clans. Sohma will ensure that the Maiba refrain from entering this war.”
Stepping out of the tent the prince began to walk and it was not long before the Ishi, Kuro caught up, “Walking around without your sword leaves you vulnerable, Prince Tatsuya.”
“There is no man here that can touch me.”
“Complacency, little prince?”
“My ego is checked; long have I seen my death. The place, the time, even the monster that will strike me down. The hesitation on his face is memorized and the conflict in his heart undeniable. I call him a coward and it enrages him. He mourns over my body and sheds tears of anguish. He fulfills the will of the Emperor, but at a great cost to his soul.”
“Sounds like you love this man,” Kuro stated.
“For the two of us there is no difference between love and loyalty. We both share the same heart; Aslann is our queen and there is nothing we would not sacrifice for her.”
“Why does your father want you killed?”
“Are you sure this is a question you really want the answer to, Kuro of the Ishi?”
Noticeably he sighed, “Probably not, but I am asking anyway.”
“His eyes are weak; blinded by selfishness and ego. He thinks himself a god among men and acts upon limited information. The Emperor understands that I am a threat to his kingdom because I will chose Aslann and its people over some self-indulgent heretic. Killing me, he ensures he remains ruler of Aslann and wipes out those that threaten his power. I am a tool being used as an implement of war because he is too weak and cowardly to stand. If I die on the battlefield, the nation will mourn and his hands remain clean.”
The prince paused a moment before quickly adding, “You and I are the same, Kuro of the Ishi. We are both being used and discarded. The difference between us, is that I intend to make sure that I am a martyr to my people and that my father’s rule ends with my death. What legacy do you want to leave behind? Traitor? Pawn?”
It was clear that the heaviness of the question weighed upon the shoulders of the Ishi because their conversation fell silent.
No matter how much energy the Prince of Aslann put into the end result in the final days, weeks, months, and even years there was always a chance that all of his hard work could be for nothing. It was easy to feel confined and restless when you were outside your element.
At the camp of the Saza lord, this heaviness weighed on his mind. He was so close and one wrong move in this pinnacle moment could have disastrous consequences. His Elite Guard was scattered; Chochi and Sadoo had been overrun by the Shima forces. Forced to withdraw. The prince could see them, evading the enemy, but they were outside his reach. There was nothing he could do for them.
Otoha and Taku were delivering a serious of packages to the Maiba. The Shima lord had sent several messengers all of whom suffered the same fate at the hands of Kuro of the Ishi. Their heads were being left for the tribal elders of the Maiba assassins. So far they had been cautious and refused to enter the war. It would not hold them back forever.
Sohma took the majority of the Aslann military toward the sea to assault Shimragata’s ports in the hopes of doing enough damage before the bulk of the Shima forces realized what was happening. Only a couple of thousand men were left to ensure that the Prince of Aslann made his way safety to the lands of the Saza.
Despite their late arrival they were shown great hospitality and informed that the Lord of the Shima had already departed; certain that Prince Tatsuya had refused. A messenger was dispatched which gave Tatsuya plenty of time to lose himself in thought at least initially.
“I have been considering what you asked me,” Kuro spoke as the prince trimmed the Ishi’s hair. “I have no interest in this feud shared between father and son. Maybe, I will just turn my back one night and the little prince can slip away.”
“Those fake snakes will strike against you if you fail to do as you are ordered,” Tatsuya responded.
“Don’t read my future little prince, it ruins the surprise,” The Son of Rin stated as he absently played with a leaf from a nearby plant.
Often Tatsuya was left with only the company of the Ishi. Mikio wasn’t a talker, in fact he barely said a word. Kuro on the other hand could be engaged on all manner of topics from politics to poetry.
Tatsuya would not describe him as a man of intellect, but he was no less intelligent. He didn’t speak eloquently and it was clear that there were a lot of things that amused his mind. Articulating in a simple and straightforward fashion, they had little in common.
“There,” The prince stated as he brushed off the back of the Ishi’s clothing before pulling himself away.
“Feels strange being off my neck.”
Tatsuya didn’t respond as he looked at himself in the mirror while meticulously adjusting the folds of his cuffs. He rather liked the time he spent with Kuro of the Ishi, but that didn’t change their circumstances. Quietly he spoke, “There has not been a single day that I have not gotten what I wanted. Rarely am I surprised; peoples secrets are unlocked and free for me to explore. For a long time, there was not a single thing in this world that meant anything to me.”
The curiosity was not hidden when Kuro spoke, “Clearly something changed that.”
“I met a man; a soldier who put loyalty and patriotism above even his own desires. He didn’t long for money, love, or the endless amount of superficial things that people pray to the gods for. This man was content sacrificing all of himself for his Emperor and his nation. It moved this soulless body, made this black heart beat, and before me the path that once laid in darkness was bathed in light.”
“Is he the man you will face when your end comes?”
“He is,” The prince stated as he turned away from the mirror and looked upon the Ishi. With a subtle bow of his head he asked, “Might the Prince of Aslann offer you a piece of advice, Kuro?”
“Humbled and honored this lowly Ishi would be.”
Whether or not that was true, Tatsuya could not say, “This journey has given me much to think upon. I admit that one of the several unknowns revolved around the Sons of Rin. Would they strike against me? I asked myself this question often and the answer was never quite clear. Even now it still lingers just out of my reach.”
“Oh and you still wish to offer me some advice?”
“I do,” For a single moment the prince remained silent. He was not contemplating his words or how to say them, but reflecting upon the journey he had taken with the Ishi. “The path before us is never a straight line. There are many roads that will lead us to an incalculable amount of possible futures. Soon, my journey will come to an end, but you and your brother do not need to share my fate. Live, explore, and watch the world as it grows.”
“Your words are appreciated, but…”
The prince raised his hand to stop Kuro from speaking further, “I am not asking you to not strike against me if that is the path you wish to walk. Sometimes all a man has is his word, the loyalty he holds for his nation, and his blood. Only you can decide which you place above all others.”
Solemnly the Son of Rin nodded his head though whether he agreed, Tatsuya could not say.
Several days would go by before the Prince of Aslann would meet with the Lord of the Shima. At his back were the two Ishi men his father had sent to ensure his death. Before him the ruler of Shimragata, an enemy to the great nation of Aslann.
They were not alone; behind Lord Seiji Shima stood two assassins, Sesiago and Semei of the Kari. Considered by many to be the strongest of their blood. Overseeing the war conference was the Saza king. Truly an unimportant man in the grand scheme of things. So, Tatsuya paid him barely an ounce of attention.
A contemptuous stare down lasted for sometime, but the Shima lord would be the first to break the silence, “Did you not think the atrocities of your crimes would go unnoticed by me, Prince Tatsuya?” Despite his question, he spoke in a calm and unwavering tone, “You have killed my messengers, terrorized the Maiba, murdered the Zenaku…”
Tatsuya interrupted him, “Forgive me Lord Shima.” His polite words caused Seiji to stiffen, “I have also had my people strike against the lands of your people. You may think me overzealous and reckless, but I assure you I am not bloodthirsty. Perhaps callous and apathetic, but every action I have taken was to get you here.”
“What end do you seek in this Prince Tatsuya? Are those snakes at your back here to strike me?”
The young lord of Aslann could feel eyes fall upon him, but they were not those of the men he was looking upon. Why was Mikio of the Ishi suddenly so unsettled? It made him cautious in responding to the Lord of the Shima, “It is not I, who has come before you with an assassin clan at my back. Perhaps, it would be in my best interest to pose the same question to you.”
“How dare you…” The Shimragata ruler stood suddenly. His hands slammed against the table, “I am Lord Seiji Shima. You have struck out against my people and have the nerve to suggest that I would come at you from the shadows.”
“I am not suggesting anything for I have already seen the will of the Lord of the Shima. Consider this a warning to you that if Sesiago of the Kari finds his way to my tent, the Ishi will strike him down….so, will you tell your dog to heel?”
The Kari men behind Lord Seiji Shima were frightening. Not even a hint of emotion adorning their features. They were impossible to read; that alone made them the most dangerous men at the war conference. Still, the Shima Lord could not hide his will and the leash he placed upon those Kari men opened their paths to the eyes of the Prince of Aslann.
What a shame, Tatsuya considered quietly to himself as he waited for the Lord of the Shima to respond to his words.
“Prince Tatsuya and Lord Shima, I implore you both to calm yourselves. Nothing is gained by bickering. We are here to end the conflict that has arisen between your two nations,” The Saza prince responded. “I am sure both of you have come to this meeting with other than honorable intentions. War is not romantic; posturing and indignation are not becoming of men like you.”
With resignation Seiji lowered his head, “Forgive me. I allowed my emotions to get the better of me. We are here to come to a mutually agreeable solution to end this conflict before it goes any further. Perhaps a break to collect ourselves before we continue is needed.”
“Would that be acceptable to you, Prince Tatsuya?”
Tatsuya only offered a brief nod, but no words before they were excused from each other’s company.
It would be less than an hour later that Tatsuya would find himself outside of the Lord of the Shima’s dwelling. His arrival would be announced by attendants posted at the tent and it would take several moments before Seiji would give his approval for Prince Tatsuya to enter.
“Come to kill me?” The Lord of the Shima didn’t hesitate to ask as he stared at the young Prince standing in the entryway.
“How callous of you, Lord Shima. Can the Prince of Aslann not visit without having ulterior motives,” Tatsuya questioned as he softened his gaze and made it obvious by outstretching his hands that he was unarmed.
Seiji’s arms crossed over his chest and the stern gaze that fixed upon Tatsuya told him that the Lord of the Shima was not amused. “You…” The word was held there for several long moments, “How dare you threaten my blood.”
“It would seem that my comment regarding Sesiago Kari has gotten under your skin. Forgive me that was not my intent, but you cannot deny your intention to strike against me.”
“If you give me no choice to do so, then I will without hesitation. You and your father are cut from the same cloth; a callous disregard for human life.”
“Do not act benevolent, Lord Shima it is unbecoming of you.”
Seiji’s frown deepened, “Why have you come before me?”
“Is it not obvious that I stand here welcoming of a resolution?” Tatsuya did not give the Lord of the Shima a moment to respond as he took a single step and added, “I have always heard of the wonderful hospitality offered by the people of Shimragata. It is my understanding that it is shown to everyone, even enemies. Yet, you have not afforded me the same compassion. Does my presence trouble you so much?”
Begrudgingly, Seiji stepped back and greeted Tatsuya with hospitality though no words. It would be moments before he would join him, “Why are you really here? I doubt very highly that you came to resolve anything. The people of Aslann are bloodthirsty just like their rulers.”
“Truly you believe that and yet you reached out to me. Why?”
“Let’s not pretend you do not already know the answer.”
Tatsuya spoke quietly, “Knowing the answer and hearing it spoken are two different things.” Moments later he added while changing the course of the entire conversation, “Conflict is a funny tool, Lord Seiji Shima. People believe that numbers win wars, but there are many instances where a small nation or group of people rose up in the hopes of change. Shimragata is a great nation under your rule; once upon a time, the Dragonlords of the Shima would not have hesitated to strike down an upstart nation such as Aslann.”
Seiji allowed Tatsuya to continue, “There are plenty of justifications for you to take an offensive stance; many fine reasons which no one would question. Certainly even one or two that might be legitimate arguments for striking against me. However, I implore you to hear me out.”
“You said earlier that all you did was to get me here. Why didn’t you just ask?”
“I could not risk the chance of my father learning of such a treasonous act.”
“So, you killed innocent people and waged war against my nation?”
“People are not innocent and it is delusional to think otherwise. There is no being, morally right. Even a pure child can be moved to take action. Causalities of war to ensure a single purpose; the end of Emperor Miroku of Aslann.”
“You…intend to kill your father?”
Calmly Tatsuya explained, “Nations will crumble in his attempt to rise to the heavens; Aslann and even Shrimagata will fall. Emperor Miroku thinks himself a god and there is nothing that can change that sort of grandiose thinking. Before us, the path is paved in blood; even my own.”
“Are you…will you fall against your father’s will?”
“Yes, though I have accepted my fate and have chosen to ensure that the Emperor of Aslann’s corruption does not taint our great nations. I do not expect you to believe me, but will you hear me out?”
“I imagine you understand why I would be skeptical,” Seiji stated and then paused as the Prince of Aslann reached into his coat pocket.
There would be a moment when no words were shared as Tatsuya placed a bottle upon the table. Inside crimson liquid that drew the attention of the Lord of the Shima, “A gift if you will assist me in the war against my father.”
“What is it?”
“Curious are you? The Sons of Rin did not wish for me to have it, but even they understand the importance of standing against the Emperor.” His words were a lie. Spoken eloquently and without emotion as they always were. The blood did not belong to either Son of Rin. “I will fall in this war against my father; my path is already laid out before me. With this, you could command the Sons of Rin and the might of the snake clan against Emperor Miroku.”
There was temptation from the Lord of the Shima. Blood from the Ishi could be used to bind them to the will of any man. It was a valuable gift; one not easily refused even for Seiji Shima, “I will listen to what you have to say, Prince Tatsuya.”
With his agreement the negotiations began. Taking weeks, the Saza king was tasked with keeping anyone from disturbing them. It left the Kari assassins and the Ishi snakes rather restless. Only when the two lords emerged from their conference was the entire camp put at ease. Though the uncertainty of their arrangement lingered.
Stepping into his tent, Prince Tatsuya was finally able to breathe. Though he hardly had the opportunity to rest and take in all that had transpired. “Your men were concerned,” Kuro of the Ishi stated as he entered. “I think it was an unwise decision to negotiate with the Lord of the Shima alone. Your Elite Guard never would have allowed it.”
“Do you think so?” Tatsuya questioned though it was clear by his tone that he thought the Ishi’s words were debatable. However, the prince felt no need to explain himself so he asked, “Where is your brother?”
“Keeping an eye on those Kari assassins,” Kuro responded quickly.
“That is no longer necessary, unless of course you wish to strike against them for pure enjoyment.”
“Is the little prince giving me permission?”
There was a long silence that followed the Ishi’s question. It was not as though the Prince of Aslann did not have an answer, but he was already well-aware of the response he would get. Thoughtfully he stated, “This conflict is over. The battles waged will end and Lord Seiji Shima will send word to my father gladly accepting his terms of surrender. Your services are no longer needed, but you should not return home. Not yet anyway.”
“What are you saying?”
“The Sons of Rin have not struck out against me. You squandered the valuable moments you had to do so long ago. Never will the two of you be able to kill me now. It will not be safe for you and your brother in Aslann. At least not yet. My last order is for you and Mikio to head toward the Forest of the Ancients and enter it.”
“The Garden of the Gods, why?”
“I cannot answer that. This is a decision the two of you have to make. Choose to go there and enter or do not,” Tatsuya took a moment before adding, “I release you both of your service to the throne of Aslann. No longer will the Sons of Rin be slaves to the whims of the monarchy.”
Kuro of the Ishi closed the distance far quicker than Tatsuya had anticipated. In the past week he had seen that moment play over and over again, but still there was no time to stop him from brushing his lips lightly against those of the young prince. The words sounded forced and rough as Kuro tried to whisper, “Come with me.”
Aggressively Tatsuya shoved him away. The surprised expression upon the face of the snake was telling, but Kuro’s shock only deepened when emotion adorned the face of the Prince of Aslann. “Don’t you get it. I’m a dead man walking. There is nothing for you here,” Tatsuya stated sternly.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” The snake tried to argue.
Separating them was Tatsuya’s hand upon Kuro’s shoulder. He snapped his arm into position, pointed his finger, as he coldly responded, “Don’t be confused by the moments we shared. At the end of this journey is still my death. I would never choose some snake over the great nation of Aslann.”
Only moments passed before Kuro stepped back and chuckled under his breath. With a defeated tone he spoke, “Oh, this lowly Ishi would never presume that the black heart of the Prince of Aslann could be moved by this snake.”
It was obvious his words were lies. There was nothing for either of them. Even if there was a tug of temptation, the Prince of Aslann would never be moved by anything other than protecting the nation he loved. It was painful, but the Ishi man seemed to understand that there could never and would never be a love shared between them. This was a journey the Prince of Aslann had to see through to the end.
Quickly and without speaking further the Ishi had turned and began to walk away. Only when he reached the entrance of the tent did he stop, “You said that you will be reborn over and over again….”
His words hung there as Tatsuya anticipated his question and responded, “Someday, we will meet again.”
Prince Tatsuya traveled with a small number of Aslann soldiers away from the lands of the Saza. His Elite Guard was moving to intercept, but it would be months before he would see their faces again. As it was things were as they were meant to be.
The Ishi had left his company, but there was some heaviness as Tatsuya watched them beyond the veil travel through Torgahdah. Truly, it would not have been a terrible journey to stand at their side. The things they could see and do together were many, but Aslann would fall and the nation that he so devotedly sacrificed everything for would be a pale imitation of what it once was and what it could be. That was not worth it to the young prince.
The quiet made it easy to hear soldiers in the background, discussing what they would do if they ever made it home. Truly they could not understand what had been set into play. For now, Prince Tatsuya allowed them to believe that they were still at war. The truth had greater consequences than any one man could imagine.
In that same spot, he stood. Day after day; Tatsuya knew what was coming, but could not say how long it would take for the news to arrive. Would it be early? Late? Everything at this point was left to the path chosen and the obstacles set in its way.
“Forgive me my prince,” A captain announced. In his hand was a message which he offered quickly before returning to his spot. Quietly he waited for any orders his prince might give to him, but at first there were none. Perhaps it was the somberness of the moment or the way Tatsuya regarded the message a little bit too long. Whatever it was the captain asked, “Is something wrong my lord?”
“No. Everything is as it is meant to be. Please rouse the men.” The captain nodded his head as he left Tatsuya standing there. It was rare for the prince to feel heaviness which was evident by the way it took him longer to gather himself and make his way toward the camp.
The soldiers, waited for some hint of what was to come, but initially the prince just stoically stood. Eloquently he finally addressed the men, “Word has come from our Emperor,” Tatsuya spoke, “The Shima have surrendered.”
Initially there was celebratory cheers that eventually died down as the whispers of question teased the minds of soldiers after all many of these men had barely engaged in any warfare. What had happened with the bulk of the forces to turn the tide of war? “Are we truly victorious? What of our other forces?”
So many questions being rattled off in rapid succession, “General Raita will lead us toward the rendezvous location at dawn. There we will be briefed on the full scope of our victories by High-Commander Waichia. I know that many of you are feeling the weight; this journey you have taken with me was not in vain. Perhaps your hands are not stained with the blood of many as others are, but you saw your Prince to the lands of the Saza unharmed and for that you are true men of valor.” The young prince paused, “Tonight, feel free to celebrate your victory for tomorrow we find our path home.”
The cheers enveloped the area and that heaviness that had been dragging the prince lifted for only a moment.
By morning, the camp was torn apart and men were already preparing to march. The hardest part of this journey had finally arrived. He had thought about this moment a billion times and what he might say to General Raita. Always, he kept his back to him, “Are you ready my lord?”
“Take the men on ahead,” Tatsuya ordered.
“Are you certain my prince?”
“I hear concern in your voice. Rest assured, I will see the dawn of this new age from the best spot in all of the world. Aslann, our beloved nation, will continue to rise and we few men have laid forth the path to a glorious future. For now, allow my eyes to take in the marvel that once was before we lead the way into what will be.”
The general’s voice lightened, “I understand my lord. Do not dally too long in your solace or I may have to send our men to find you.”
It was the first time ever that Tatsuya chuckled albeit briefly, “I will try not to get lost.”
Fall Season – 2 Years Later
It is said that every journey has a beginning and an end, though Prince Tatsuya never quite believed that. Some endings could also be a beginning depending on how it was viewed. Simple minds, close doors and long for a chapter that once was. So blind are they that the newly created path is invisible. Stagnation; the state of not flowing or moving. That was human existence.
Tatsuya had never been the type of man to just wait and see. He forged his own path, made his own history. Some would honor him a hero, while others would spit his cursed name as a reminder of what it means to betray your nation. As disheartening as that was, he did not mind being remembered as the man that betrayed Aslann for those that needed to know the truth, would.
A snarled face and ugly words were spoken, “You will go no further, traitor.”
Not for a moment did the Prince of Aslann backdown. This was as it was always meant to be. His death at the hands of the heart of nation; the Kari Commander himself.
He was a man born of Aslann. Against his blood, the young Kari had picked up a sword in the service of his lord. A sin among his people, but the fiercely loyal man rose through the ranks and was regarded by his monarchy and its people as a hero while his enemies saw as nothing more than a demon.
The monster before Prince Tatsuya would not hesitate to strike him down. Still, he was unmoved, at least until what he was waiting for happened. His eyes shifted away from the Kari Commander, “So, you have finally arrived.”
“Look at me when you are talking you piece of…”
It became obvious to the hangman before Tatsuya that the princes words were not meant for him, “That chill at your back Commander Kari is death.”
“I fear not Rin or his serpents, regardless the form they take,” The Kari Commander stated as his head shifted slightly.
It was obvious, what the death dealer was considering, “You are wondering if help is coming. There is none for me; the last two of my Elite Guard are killing your Emperor.”
Osik – Common curse word of Aslann.
“You traitorous osik,” The Kari Commander snarled as he drew his sword and the two men embroiled themselves in battle.
Tationy Tylo Perspective
She relaid the events to Hiko as she saw them. The battle between the Kari Commander and the Prince of Aslann was fierce. Even though the outcome was evident due to historical facts, Tatsuya had never once backed down.
Tationy would be lying if she said she didn’t admire his resolve, but the truth was that she really did not understand the Prince of Aslann. Why had he done all he did. Even seeing it play out there were still so many questions left lingering and the frustration was obvious to Hiko.
The Kari Commander had victory in his grasp, “Traitors to the great nation of Aslann are to be executed. No exceptions. Have you nothing to say for yourself, Prince Tatsuya?”
“I fear not your blade, but the only traitor here hides behind a uniform and follows the will of an Emperor masquerading as the divine. You are nothing more than death commanded by the will of a false god. Strike me down you coward.”
Truly there was no hesitation from the man often referred to as a demon. Never once did he stop himself from cutting down the Prince of Aslann and even Tationy was taken aback by the scene as the Kari Commander wept over his fallen lord.
Had that been the end of the tale? She thought it would be, but then she looked around her and felt fear. It became difficult to breathe as a voice quickly drew her attention, “Long has this place put terror in your heart.”
“How…how are you doing this?”
He ignored her, “The potential for great power is within you and yet you know nothing at all.”
“What the fuck are you talking about,” Tationy yelled. “How…where are we? Am I dead?”
“I exist within you just as the Kari Commander exist in him…”
“Him?” She interrupted the prince, “You mean Hiko? I don’t understand.”
Whether or not he would explain, Tationy could not say as Tatsuya stood silently looking down upon her. With a deep sigh he finally spoke, “Not long ago, you told the Kari Commander’s reincarnate about the veil. You were not wrong; the God Kazuma did call it the Land of Souls and it is a great archive of what was, what is, and what will be. It is the place between life and death where time doesn’t exist. Our connection, pulled you here while I cling between life and death.”
“Wait…are you saying you planned this?”
Tatsuya shrugged casually, “To be honest, I was starting to think you would not make it. Had the Kari Commander’s reincarnate been anymore stubborn we might have missed each other entirely.”
Her arms crossed over her chest and Tatsuya responded quietly, “Don’t be that way. We are going to be here for a while…”
“Excuse me? I am not fucking staying here. You release me right now….I demand it.” A brief chuckle escaped Tatsuya’s lips, “Why are you laughing at me?”
“I had a thought that had not occurred to me in years of a certain Ishi calling me a demanding little prince. Experiencing it for myself, I now understand why he thought so.” Tatsuya paused momentarily before continuing, “For years I have been trying to get you here and any time the memory would be pulled forth you would run from it. I have done much for this nation and that man, don’t you think you owe me a bit of your time after all, I am you.”
“If you are worried about him, there is no need to be. Right now he is sitting there watching you as you experience one of your many episodes. His concern is genuine, but all of this could have been prevented.” Another sigh and Tationy found herself wondering why the prince was so sullen, “When you were a child, I tried many times to bring you here. Unpredictable is your power and those drugs you taint your body with only make it worse.”
“I don’t need a fucking lecture from a dead man,” She responded.
Tatsuya brought his hand to his forehead in obvious frustration. Though Tationy noticed also that his appearance began to change as an ethereal glow hued his skin. Moments later she realized the same was happening to her.
“Here in this place we become one with knowledge. This is not simply an archive, but Kazuma’s library. It was here that he and the other gods commanded the fates, designed the universe, created mankind; it is a great repository of knowledge at our command. Everything; every path that has ever laid out before you exist here.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
Tatsuya bowed his head, “With those cursed eyes you do not see the whole picture. Even as you told my tale to the Kari Commander’s reincarnate, there were parts you could not access. Truths forever hidden within the veil because you are too afraid to get lost in darkness.”
“Do you think I really care about the past of some dead prince?”
She was cut off violently with a glare and stern words, “We cannot hide from who we are. This dead princes sins are yours to carry and if you ever want to see the path laid before you and the Kari Commander’s reincarnate again, you will heed every word I am about to say.”
Author Note: This short story leads into events for Chapter 16. As you can see, there are certain things I did not elaborate on and that is because they will be addressed later in Unbridled.