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Under the Blade (Swordbreaker Chronicles Chapter 10)

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Florica dropped the knife with a frightened gasp, and the vision faded, though the burning interior of the airship was still seared against the inside of her eyelids. She blinked rapidly several times, gasping for breath, feeling disoriented, her heart and mind racing. 

You stole them from us. From Nero. Though he never spoke of it, Florica knew that that loss had set Nero into a tailspin of anger and grief that had stolen most of the brightness from her aquila’s life. Being orphaned was a pain they shared, one that they never had to explain to each other, because they both just knew.

But it didn’t have to be like that for him. Florica pressed the cold heel of her hand against her forehead as a sharp headache blossomed. She felt conflicted, guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t have healed you after all. What would Nero say if he knew? The thought that her brother might take it as a betrayal suddenly terrified her, sending ice more potent than Frost’s bite crawling over her flushed skin. 

Swallowing hard again, she shook her head, pushing the dark thought away. What’s done is done. And she knew she would do it again, even now. Marcus may have done terrible things, but she knew he was not evil. She could never have just let him die. Nero would understand. Maybe not right away, but he would come around. He was always willing to show her that bit of extra grace.

Whether or not he would give his older brother the same consideration was a question Florica could not answer with any confidence, though. The Banjari girl pursed her lips and rubbed the side of her face with a tired sigh, thinking of them out there in the world, chasing each other like daggers in the night. Part of her hoped they would just never find each other, but she knew the chances of that were slim. She grimaced. Just please don’t kill each other, she prayed. There’s few enough of us as it is. 

She thought back to the glimpses she’d had of Cato and Anne, and a sense of aching longing filled her. In another world, she might have known them. They might even have been like parents for her. She closed her eyes, recalling Cato’s booming laugh, how it filled the room with a fierce, unstoppable burst of joy, and found herself smiling despite herself, despite her headache and the tears still muddying her sight.

She found herself wishing she could somehow share that memory with Nero, though even as she had the thought, she felt just as worried that it might only re-open that old wound. She sighed. Maybe one day. For now, she would treasure these precious memories of the elders of her brother’s tribe. Cato, Anne, Antonius, James, and Elise. I will remember you. She nodded, picked up Frost, and stood to face the day.
 

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With substantial financial investment from the Chibas, along with several other local families and even the city itself once the mayor had been brought to see reason, the Swan project was back on track. Sai started spending most of his days on site, placing himself under the foreman’s direction and quickly learning the basics of carpentry and masonry. The fine black kimono the Greys had gifted him was left at the Chiba’s, though he still wore it for the evening meal they shared, on the rare days when he was home in time for dinner. At the worksite he wore plain, sturdy grey pants he’d picked up at the market, and a white Athynian-style shirt with a frayed seam, though the latter he’d often shed by midday, kept warm enough by his enthusiasm for the work in spite of the growing winter chill in the air.

More than anything, he wanted to be able to move back to the Swan. The Chibas would probably have hosted him forever without batting an eye, but he couldn’t stand to be living under the same roof as Amy any longer. She was a daily reminder of the part of his life he’d never be able to rebuild, having gone back to treating him with the cool, distant respect that was the polar opposite of the fiery, laughing girl he remembered. Many times he looked at her long, or even opened his mouth to try to bridge the coldness between them - but each time, a look flashed across her face that stopped him cold. A look of warning, anger, and hatred. 

And then she would turn away from him and pour her attention on her child, or her husband, or whomever was conveniently at hand. A few times this was Florica, and he suspected he saw pity on the Banjari girl’s face as she glanced to him before turning to Amy and answering her with a smile.

Yes, it was time to move.

It felt like months upon months, but it was not yet midwinter when the Swan’s main structures rose proudly in her city lot, the fresh-cut beams gleaming in the sunlight and smelling of forests. Though it was perhaps the less logical choice, Sai had insisted that they prioritize getting the residential suite and studio to a livable state. As soon as it was ready, he wrote to Claire letting her know it was prepared to be warded. The pretty blond Athynian showed up a few days later, but she was not able to stay so long this time - Claire’s Cookery, after all, wasn’t really Claire’s Cookery without her in the kitchen, no matter how good the chefs she hired were. She completed the warding the same day she arrived, stayed one night with them at the Chibas’, and set sail for Athynia again the next morning.
 

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By the end of that week, Sai had furnished the main living area of the Swan, along with two of its bedrooms - one for himself, and one for Florica, as he had promised Nero. 

Rising early the next morning, he went to go speak with the quiet Banjari girl. He was surprised to find she had already left her room. Early riser, I guess. Half-smiling at the thought, he was on his way to the kitchen to see if she was there, when he spied her through a window, kneeling before the trunk of the slender willow that presided over the southwestern corner of the courtyard.

Florica was staring up at the branches, but her mind was not on the prayer-stones gathered in her hands. She was remembering another prayer-tree, in a city lot in Athynia's peaceful streets. Where a hurrying stranger had glanced at her, and lost his footing. Despite all that followed, the innocence of that first moment still brought a wistful smile to her lips. Sweet, clumsy Nathaniel.

She sighed, and looked down at the stones in her hands again, little prayers of safety for her family. She didn't know whether it would help in any practical way, but it soothed her, and filled time which would otherwise be idle. Leaning forward, she carefully placed them on the ground at the base of the tree, adding on to the spiralling rows of small, smooth stones that had been slowly taking shape beneath her care, branching out from the trunk like whimsical roots. By the Dance, the Road, and the Wheel, she whispered in her heart.

It wasn't much, perhaps, but it was all she knew to do for them. And like fae-lights at the corners of her vision, vanishing if she looked too closely, she saw the paths of the miada winding between the stones, sanctifying the little ceremony.

Satisfied, she sat back, took a slow breath, and gracefully stood, dusting her hands on her long dress. She turned to head back inside, but stopped when she saw Kimura-san, standing a respectful distance away and watching her like a puzzle, while the morning chill clouded his steady breathing.

The Banjari girl tilted her head questioningly, and, after a moment, remembered her Nikaidan manners and offered the young man a bow, along with a sleepy smile.

He returned both, and then walked over to her, hands sliding into his pockets. "I hope I didn't disturb your prayers," he remarked, surveying the site. "It's been a long time since I've seen a mendina."

Florica blinked in surprise. "You s-speak Banjaro?"

He chuckled and shook his head ruefully. "Nothing like fluently, I'm afraid," he answered humbly. "I picked up a few phrases in Selemath - many Banjari tribes follow the miada there, and the mendina around the Mother Tree is like nothing you've ever seen. But I was too busy dancing to learn much." He grinned wryly.

Florica returned his smile and nodded, glancing shyly back at her little stone garden again. For someone who doesn't speak it, your pronunciation is amazing, she mused, but, like most of her thoughts, she found she didn't quite have the energy to try to force the praise past her uncooperative lips.

Thankfully, Sai didn't seem to mind her silence. After a moment, he changed topics. "I'm moving back to the Swan, today," he said cheerfully.

Florica nodded, looking back at him and smiling again.

"Do you still want to come live there? I know that's what we talked about originally, but I'd understand if you'd rather stay here. You seem to be fitting in well, and, well, it'll be pretty lonely at the Swan a lot of the time," he explained, trying to make it sound like he didn't care. He had thought, in fact, that it made no difference to him, right up until he opened his mouth to ask her. But now he found himself watching her intently, holding his breath while he waited for her response, hoping desperately that she would choose him instead of Amy and the Chibas.

He wasn't expecting her giggle, which was a little too knowing for his taste, yet somehow didn't rankle in the slightest. She met his questioning gaze without a shade of doubt in her green eyes. "I s-still want to c-come," she assured him, amusement colouring her soft voice. "It's.... n-nice here, b-but it's.... n-not...." she trailed off and shrugged.

"Home," he finished the thought, nodding, relieved that she felt the same way.

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For one last afternoon, Florica joined Amy in supervising the little ones while they ran about in the garden, constantly losing hats and mittens as they tumbled around the lawn, playing catch-me to keep warm. The afternoon was almost over before Florica gathered her courage and broached the topic. “Kimura-san is m-moving back to the Swan, t-today,” she said carefully, bending down to tie little Mimi-chan’s green scarf back beneath her ruddy chin.

“Mm,” Amy grunted, betraying no emotion as she glanced over at the Banjari woman.

“I’m g-g-going, t-too,” Florica explained.

That elicited a reaction, as Amy’s dark brows drew together. “Why?” she asked, sounding offended by the idea.

Florica blushed a little, and glanced away from the lithe young Nikaidan’s searching gaze. She shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s a-always b-b-been…. Th-the p-plan.”

“Well sure, but that was before you moved in here,” Amy pointed out. “Don’t you like it here?” The question came out a little rude, but Florica didn’t mind her candor. The two girls had grown close enough over the weeks that they’d spent together that Amy no longer minced her words around the Banjari woman like she did around the rest of the household, and the girl’s natural bluntness was refreshing, most of the time.

The young Lady Caesar sighed, releasing Mimi-chan to scamper off and rejoin the game. She watched the children playing for a long moment, searching for the right words. "It's... n-nice, here," she said slowly. "But..." He needs me more than you do. The thought came unbidden, and was entirely unhelpful. "I'll... a-always b-be a g-g-guest here, Amy-chan."

Amy frowned, sitting down on a large boulder and stretching her legs out in front of her for a moment. "Well if that's how you feel...but why would the Swan be any different?" she asked practically.

Florica sucked her lips into her mouth, smoothing out the ridges where they had begun to chap from the cold. She gave a small, awkward shrug, sitting down beside her friend. "I d-d-don't know," she answered honestly. "It m-might n-not be...."

"So then stay with us, Rica-chan," Amy implored, resting a hand on Florica's knee. "You're so good with the little ones, and it's so nice to have someone to talk to!"

Florica smiled wryly, shaking her head. "I'll s-still v-visit," she promised consolingly.

Amy pouted at her answer, but her expression was only half-serious. "Oh, fiiine. You better, though," she warned, throwing an arm around Florica's shoulders and hugging her tight for a moment, pressing a kiss into the Banjari's brown cheek.

Silence fell in their part of the garden, as parents and older siblings appeared across the yard to collect their little troublemakers for the evening.

"I'll miss you, Rica-chan."

"I'll m-miss you too, Amy-chan."

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“Watch your step, now,” Sai cautioned as he opened the Swan’s front door and stepped aside to let Florica pass in ahead of him. “The floor is sound, but there’s still plenty to trip over.”

Florica stepped inside carefully, looking around as she shrugged her small sack of clothes higher up on her shoulder - all the possessions she had left in the world. Gifts from the Countess, mostly. All of her old things from Athynia had burned. In a way, it was probably for the best. Clean start. A clean break. Sai had offered to carry the bag for her, but she had smiled and shook her head, and he hadn’t pressed. She was grateful for it. They still didn’t know each other very well, but she already felt more comfortable around the soft-spoken Nikaidan boy than she did around many whom she counted as family. 

Of course, the way he had managed to draw her out of herself at the Grey castle, dancing with her until she could stand on her own, had been a big part of that. Letting their auras connect to guide her in the movements of the dance had exposed him to her in a way that she usually only experienced when healing someone, and left her with a certain instinctive understanding of what lay behind his gentle smiles, even if it was nothing she could have put into precise words.

She looked around the Swan’s atrium curiously, awed by the transformation that had taken place since the battle. The holy garden was still there, presiding quietly, but it was separated from the front of the building now by flooring and staircases and doors and paneled, Nikaidan-style walls. The workers had all gone home for today, and the space was tranquil and bright, with evening sunlight streaming in through the rows of windows. Straight ahead was a ticketing counter, and to the right a hallway with doors at regular intervals leading into the theatre proper.

Sai locked the door and came to stand beside her, grinning with obvious pride and excitement. “Still lots to be done, but… it’s starting to feel like home again.” Not just a graveyard. A living, breathing home. “I wish my parents could see how far it’s come.”

Florica offered him a crooked, chiding smile and walked forward, leaning against the railing which ran alongside the holy garden. “They d-do see it,” she answered softly, surveying the soft, mossy turf interspersed with small purple and ivory flowers, glowing with more than just reflected sunlight. She offered a respectful bow to the resting place of Sai’s family, and then straightened and glanced over at him. He was studying her again, with the same look he had given her that morning - like she was a puzzle to him, and one he was determined to solve. But then he returned her smile with a grateful nod and turned aside, heading through the dimly lit theatre towards the back.

Florica followed him, picking her way around the neat piles of construction materials, and he led her out the back door of the theatre into the small courtyard, warmly lit by the evening sun. “This all needs to be redone, still,” Sai commented, waving towards the wintering garden and the cracked tiles lining the ground. “Most of it will have to wait, but we could plant a prayer tree somewhere here, if you like.” He flashed her a grin, teeth gleaming in the evening light, and then continued on his way.

Surprised by his offer, Florica blinked, and her steps slowed for a moment before she hurried to catch up with him again. “Th-that would be n-nice. Th-thank you, Kimura-s-san,” she said softly, watching him unlock the door to the low, broad building at the other end of the lot. “If you’re s-sure you wouldn’t m-mind.”

“Not at all,” he assured her, sliding the door open.

The entryway of the home was a narrow hallway stretching away to their left and right, divided by rice screens from the home proper. They both left their shoes there, and stepped into the soft grey felted house-shoes that sat waiting for them - a larger pair for Sai and a smaller pair for Florica. Several more pairs for guests peeked out of a basket sitting nearby.

Moving straight ahead, Sai slid open the next door, and stepped through into the main living area, closing the door again once Florica had joined him. It was noticeably warmer here, with the hallway they had just left providing some insulation from the chill outside, despite the thinness of the walls. 

The room was broad and roughly square, with a recessed cooking pit in the centre. It was circular in shape and several feet across, filled with clean white sand which rose nearly to the level of the floor, raked in a smooth spiral pattern. In the centre of the sand, the remains of an old fire still smouldered slowly, radiating warmth throughout the room. From a metal chain hooked to the ceiling above, a cast-iron kettle hung suspended a few feet above the pit, ready to be lowered when boiling water was needed.

Near the four corners of the room, skystone lanterns had been hung, their cold, pure light warmed and softened by delicately folded ricepaper encasements, and supplemented by the last of the daylight, creeping in through the layers of rice-screen walls.

Against the wall to the right was a small kitchen, with a faucet and sink, a cold-box, and rows of shelves stacked neatly with dishes and dry foods. A low dining table sat between the kitchen and the fire-pit, though most of the table was covered with paperwork and architectural diagrams, along with a few opened packages of household wares, neatly labeled in the complex, angular Nikaidan calligraphy.

Sai had knelt by the last embers of the fire while Florica looked around, leaning forward and tenderly nursing it back to life. Straightening, he brushed his hands off on his pants. “Bedrooms are this way.” He led her through a door on the left, which opened into a short hallway with two doors on either side, and a fifth at the end. “Bathroom’s at the end there. You’re on the left, there,” he gestured to the further of the two doors on the left side of the hall, “and I’m right across from you if you need anything."

Florica walked down the hall and slid open the door to her room. Like the bedrooms at the Chibas', it was furnished in the simple, practical Nikaidan style, with a futon layered with thick quilts against the chill, a low dresser with a mirror sitting atop it, a chair, and an empty set of shelves for her use. The only window was a small, frosted-glass rectangle set high on the west wall, looking out at the alley separating the Swan from the next lot.

She walked inside and slung down her pack of clothes, resting it on the dresser as she looked around thoughtfully, and then up at the smooth ceiling.

She blinked, and looked again.

Centred above her bed was a broad skylight, through which an indigo square of starry sky was visible.

The Banjari girl chuckled under her breath, and went to stand beneath it, crossing her arms as she stared up at it. Nero… No one else would have thought of it, she was sure. She had never so much as seen a skylight in any Nikaidan building before. Still looking out for me, brother. Despite her resolve to make her way independently, she couldn’t help but feel a surge of warm gratitude for the thoughtful gift. She had a sudden urge to run and find him, to hug his broad chest and feel his arms close around her as she whispered her thanks into his shoulder.

But of course, he was gone.

She let out a long sigh, uncrossing her arms and thumbing Frost’s cold hilt instead. Wherever you are, aquila mea, please, please be safe. She sniffed and rubbed away a rogue tear from her eye, and then glanced back at the open door, but Sai had retreated back to the living area, giving her space to get settled in.

If he noticed her eyes were a little red when she rejoined him a few minutes later, he made no mention of it, greeting her with a quick smile as he carefully poured steaming water from the iron kettle into a waiting teapot. He had cleared off his paperwork from the low table, stowing it on one of the shelves at the edge of the room, and a dish of baked sweets had taken its place.

Florica knelt gracefully at the far end of the table, returning his smile as she watched him prepare the tea. The fire was crackling merrily now, filling the room with warmth and casting long, dancing shadows across the floor.

"How is your room? Is there anything you need?" Sai asked eagerly, glancing up at her again.

"It's p-perfect," she assured him.

"Oh, good, I'm glad. Well, if you think of anything, please don't hesitate to ask," he said earnestly. "I want this to feel like home for you, for as long as you want to stay."

"Th-thank you, Kimura-san," she answered softly, and then smirked with amusement as he reached forward and grabbed three cookies at once from the plate, gesturing with his other hand for her to help herself as well. After a moment she reached forward and took one, nibbling on it slowly, though she wasn't really feeling hungry.

"There's really no need to call me that, Lady Caesar," he said humbly. "Just Sai-kun is fine. Or Sai, if you prefer the northern way." He scratched his chin thoughtfully, glancing over at the shelf where he had stowed his papers. I should probably get a second table for those. Or a desk.

"A-alright..." Florica said shyly, drawing his attention back to her. "Th-thank you... Sai. A-and you c-can call m-me Florica, i-if you want. Or Rica-chan, l-like..." she trailed off. Like Amy does. "...Like s-some of the Chibas do," she finished after a moment.

"Whatever will make you feel most at home, Florica," Sai agreed smoothly, though he knew well enough which Chiba she had meant. Sitting up a little straighter, he leaned forward and started pouring the tea. He filled her cup first, and then leaned forward to pass it to her before pouring his own.

"I hope you won't find yourself too bored around here," he commented while she blew on her tea and took a first sip. "I mean, there's no kids who need looking after, or anything like that."

"I'll b-be fine," she reassured him with a smile. "I c-can h-help with m-making food, l-like I d-did when I l-lived with m-my b-b-brother. And m-maybe help w-with th-the Swan?"

Sai grinned at that. "Yeah, that could work," he agreed cheerfully. "Another pair of hands is always welcome. There's plenty of little things you could do during the construction phase, and of course once the theatre is running I'll need all the help I can get, especially if I'm going to be running a dance school, as well. But I don't want you to feel like you're obligated to do that kind of thing, just because you're living here. If you ever want to do something else, just let me know, and I'll make it happen," he promised.

Florica smiled, a little crookedly, and nodded, taking another sip of her tea. "You're a g-good man, Sai," she told him softly.

The Nikaidan boy shrugged modestly, taking a sip of his own tea. "I try. Doesn't always work out, but I try," he murmured, thinking of Amy.

Florica wrinkled her nose, grinned, and nodded. “I know th-the f-feeling,” she assured him wryly.

Sai scoffed gently. “You? But you’re so…” He paused to search for the right word, and it came to him as he snagged another cookie off the dwindling plate. “Sweet.”

The Banjari girl giggled and shook her head ruefully. “D-doesn’t m-mean I h-haven’t d-d-done things I’m n-not p-proud of.”

“Mm,” Sai grunted in agreement. “I suppose not.” He studied her curiously again for a moment, and then raised his teacup as though it were rice wine. “To new beginnings, then.”

Florica raised hers in answer. “To n-new b-b-beginnings,” she agreed, and they both drank.

The next few minutes were spent in companionable silence as they finished their tea, and then Florica rose and stretched. Sai rolled to his feet as well, and went over to the fire. At the edge of the firepit there was a low grate on one side, and on it, two objects that looked like little pillows, only about a handsbreadth wide, though as long as his forearm, sewn of undyed linen. 

He picked up one and tossed it to Florica, and it made a noise something like rain as she caught it in her hands and the contents shifted around. He chuckled at the confused look on her face. "It's a kairo," he explained. "My family has always used rice instead of  ash for them. Uncooked, of course. Take it with you - it'll stay warm for hours under the blankets. These rooms get chilly in the winter." He bent down again to bank the fire for the night, using a small rake to bring the glowing coals together, and then covering them in a low blanket of ashes. "Sleep well."

With the hot kairo keeping her cozy beneath the covers, Florica fell asleep quickly, watching the stars drift through her skylight. She slept soundly for a few hours of blissful unconsciousness, before passing into the lighter dream-state that characterized most of her nights.

She dreamed that she was back in the kitchen in Athynia, making pancakes with Nero.

"So, do you like him?" her brother asked, a knowing smile on his face.

"Who?" she asked innocently, though she blushed a little as she busied herself with stirring the batter together.

"You know who, Little Poet," he chided.

Sai's friendly grin flashed into her mind's eye, but after a heartbeat it was overlaid with another face, far more serious, with silver eyes and a perpetually sheepish look. Nate... "No, I... I d-don't," she stammered, taking a step back. 

Her elbow caught her coffee mug, and it fell to the floor, shattering into a hundred pieces. She stared down at the pale blue shards in shock. Terror suddenly filled her as she remembered that they shouldn't be here at all, that this home had been destroyed. She looked up to Nero, to warn him, but the words stuck in her throat as he watched her with gentle concern. 

And before she could find her voice, everything exploded in fire and violence.

Florica woke with a start, covered in a cold sweat, her heart pounding. She covered her mouth with shaking fingers, swallowing back a whimper. Her bones felt weak and icy, and the darkness of the room pressed in around her. She held her breath for several moments, closing her eyes tight. Just a dream. It was just a dream. But she could still feel the power of that explosion, could still hear the screeching of wood, metal and glass as it shattered the front wall of their home. With a soft whimper, she pulled the blanket over her head, hiding from the world, listening to the terrified pounding of her heart. Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream…

Finally her heartbeat returned to something like normal, exhaustion replacing the terror, and she fell back asleep.

She dreamed she was standing in the Swan's holy garden, the flowers whispering around her ankles. Over the railing, she could see the thing Nathaniel had become, lying near death, his blood staining the smooth new flooring. Claire and Nero were bent over him, trying to revive him.

"N-no, d-d-d-d-don't, y-" you can't, she thought frantically, fear stealing her voice again and rooting her feet to the ground, though she longed to flee. She watched helplessly as her lover took a gasping breath, and then another, sitting up, his many wounds closing with a whisper of power. And then he looked over at her, and smiled, and she knew that it was the Master. No...

With a casual backhand, he slammed Claire and Nero back into the darkness of the theatre, and then got to his feet, limping over to the railing, both eyes golden and hungry. "Come here, slave," he commanded.

She tried to run, tried to resist, but her feet moved forward, step after step, crushing the flowers underfoot, until she stood before him, with only the railing between them. He bent down over her, one hand sliding possessively around the back of her neck, and kissed her. You're mine. You will always be mine, he whispered into her mind as he drained her of her strength, replacing it with wicked pleasure and numbness. The world around her faded as her eyes slid shut, and she remained aware of only his lips burning against hers, and a feeling of falling into a bottomless, lightless pit.

She woke with a disoriented lurch, her heart pounding again, and stared at the grey patch of sky above her, the last of the stars fading as dawn began to brighten the sky.
 

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The tapping at her door came again, and she realized it was what had woken her from the nightmare. She glanced over at the door as the shreds of the dream slowly began to fade. "C-c-c-c-come.... in," she said haltingly, and then swallowed hard, frustrated by her voice's disobedience.

Sai slid open the door partway, and their eyes met. He searched her face. "You alright?"

The Banjari girl sat up and nodded, rubbing sleep and tears from her eyes with the heel of her hand. "J-just a.... d-d-d-dream. D-d-did I.... w-wake you?" she asked forlornly, glancing up again.

"Nope," he lied cheerfully, stepping into her room and sitting down beside her. He had pulled on his work pants and shirt before coming to check on her. He placed a warm hand over her cool, clammy one. "Want to talk about it?"

She shrugged and looked away, in the direction of the theatre. "I w-was dreaming of w-when we.... f-fought n-Nathaniel. B-b-but in my d-dream, he...." She blushed more deeply, her jaw clenching with remembered shame. "He w-won." She shuddered, and swallowed hard. 

"Well, that's not how it happened," Sai reminded her gently, thumbing the back of her hand as he studied her blushing face. "Why do you think you dreamed that?"

Florica shrugged helplessly, her green eyes flickering to meet his for a moment, and then dancing away again. "Dunno. Always have... n-nightmares," she whispered, rubbing her blushing face tiredly with her other hand. She sighed and shook her head. "S-sorry. I'll t-try to b-b-be quieter."

"There's no need for that," he admonished, squeezing her cold hand a little. "I'd rather hear, so I could wake you. Anyway, it's morning now. Shall I make you some tea? It's Saturday, so no work crew today. I might do a bit of work myself later, but I thought before that maybe we could stop by the plant nursery and you could pick out a prayer tree."

Florica nodded slowly, starting to feel calmer. "Th-that would b-b-be n-nice." She licked her lips in frustration; her stutter seemed determined to get the best of her this morning. "Thank you… Sai. I'll… be r-right there," she said slowly and carefully, wrestling each syllable into submission.

The Nikaidan boy nodded, rolling smoothly back onto his feet. “Good, then,” he said with a friendly smile, and headed out of the room, sliding the door shut behind him to give her her privacy.

But he paused for a moment in the hallway, his hand resting on the closed door, his smile falling away, replaced with a troubled frown that deepened the shadows staining his eyes. He could not begin to name all the emotions he’d glimpsed lurking behind her tearful face, but the undercurrent of despair in her voice as she dismissed her night terrors as a mere fact of life had shaken him deeply.

Rolling his jaw thoughtfully, he dropped his hand and padded softly down the hall to wake the fire for their tea.

Florica let out a long sigh once she was alone, easing back down onto the futon to stare up at the neat square of pale, perfect blue sky. Same colour as my mug.

She wanted to tell Nero. But he was gone, just like the mug, and the home that had sheltered both. She clenched her jaw, and turned her face to the side, burying it in the pillow to muffle a sob. What am I doing here? She had seen the worry on Sai’s face. Not a full day had passed, and already she was bringing trouble into his life. I have to do better. Have to be stronger. Her hand slid down beside her bed to clutch Frost’s handle, letting its electrifying cold wash over her for a moment, freezing away the hot lump of emotion in her throat. She shivered, and then took a long, deep breath. You can do this, she told herself. You’re a Caesar. On your feet, girl. She tossed the blanket aside, and got up.
 

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By the time she entered the living room, two cups of tea were cooling on the low table, steam rising from them in lazy swirls. But the master of the house was nowhere to be seen. On a hunch, she headed for the courtyard, sliding open the door dividing the living area from the foyer, and carefully sliding it shut behind her to keep the heat in before sliding the outside door open.

There was Sai, standing with his back to her, his arms crossed as he stared in the direction of the holy garden, tension written in the lines of his muscular shoulders beneath the thin shirt, his breath forming a dragon cloud around his head from the biting chill in the air. Florica hesitated for a moment, and was about to step down into the garden and go to him, when he started dancing. She stopped, and hung back in the shadow of the door, watching, her eyes growing rounder as the moments passed.

She had never seen him dance, not really. She recognized a few of the movements as forms he had taught her at Grey Castle, but she saw now that they were only baby steps compared to true dancing. He moved with all the grace promised in the elegant way he always held himself, and then some. She forgot there was no music; the shuffle of his well-worne shoes on the cracked paving stones provided a beat as compelling as any drum circle, and the song was held and conveyed in his every limb, in his movements and pauses, advances and retreats.

And then, within the space of a few heartbeats, the intensity of his movements redoubled, as though what had come before was only a warm-up. He seemed to fly above the paving stones, no longer tethered to the ground at all, spinning and leaping and slashing at the air as though doing battle with spirits and spectres. It was electrifying to watch. The sinuous grace and speed of his movements reminded her of the Kharn, and she had no trouble believing that his teacher had been of Elvenkin. 

When he finally halted, panting, steam rising from his glistening skin, Florica let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding, released from a spell that had taken hold of her as surely as any miada vision.

She slipped on her shoes and stepped out to join her host in the sunlight as Sai straightened and rubbed the sheen of sweat from his brow. He turned towards her and offered her a grin, half-sheepish, half-proud, and set to retying his long, dark hair into a tail at the nape of his neck while she approached. “Sorry for abandoning you,” he commented cheerfully, his voice richer and deeper than the soft whisper that had comforted her in the bedroom. “I had to… well. I guess you saw.” He shrugged one shoulder, and turned to walk back inside, suddenly remembering their tea.

She walked beside him, still trying to digest what she’d just seen. “Th-that was… a-amazing.”

The Nikaidan rubbed the back of his neck bashfully. “Thank you,” he murmured as he slid the door open for her. “It’s… really the only thing I know how to do,” he confessed. “I’m relying on Claire-san for the business side of things. My father taught me a few things, but…” He sighed and shook his head, closing the door behind them. “We thought we would have more time.”

The wistfulness in his voice lingered over them as they exchanged shoes for slippers and entered the living room again, sitting down to their tea, and Florica found herself curious about the people Sai had lost. They would have been the same generation as Audric and Nero’s parents, and her own. How much richer would their lives have been, if they had parents to guide them into adulthood? Bitterness rose in her chest once more, and Marcus was an easy target for it. You sacrificed the past to save the future… But it wasn’t the future we could have had, if they had lived. She sighed and took a sip of her tea. “W-what happened t-to your p-p-parents, Sai?”

Thumbing the rim of his teacup, he remained silent for so long that she thought he wasn’t going to answer, and she looked away awkwardly. But finally, he spoke, and when he did, his voice was calm. “They died in the Black Pox of sixty-seven.” 

The Black Pox… Florica winced. She had read about it, while she was working at the hospital in Athynia. It had happened the same year that she had first escaped Eshdraemoir and made her way to Wildhaven. No one knew where the disease had come from - some blamed the Ryujin River, while others had pointed the finger at birds or rats, or even called it witchcraft from their enemies in Athynia or Kushan. Wherever it had come from, its results had been swift and deadly, killing the weak and the strong alike, and resisting every attempt at both mundane and magical healing methods. It showed itself in the form of black spots, first on the hands and feet, and then spreading to the tongue and eyes, causing blindness and fever-madness that could last for weeks before the patient expired.

It had started here in the East Quarter, and the city had locked the gates, quarantining the entire quarter, sending food and medicines over the walls but refusing to let any citizens into the rest of the city or out into the villages beyond, no matter how healthy they seemed. In the first few weeks, as many were killed trying to escape the death trap as by the disease itself. It had been harsh, but it had worked - the black pox had never spread past the East Quarter.

"I'm s-sorry," she said softly. "How d-did you escape?"

The Nikaidan shook his head, taking another sip of his tea. "I wasn't here. I was at school, in Selemath. I started for home as soon as I heard what was happening, but... it's a journey of several weeks. By the time I got here, the pox had mostly run its course. They still weren't letting anyone out of the Quarter, of course," he said bitterly, "but they didn't care if someone was stupid enough to want to go in." He sighed, rolling his jaw in remembered frustration. "When I got to the Swan, it had already burned down. I don't know how the fire started - perhaps a doctor had left a candle burning, or perhaps the neighbours did it, to try to stop the disease spreading. From the way the doors and windows were boarded over, I think that's more likely. There are many burned properties in this Quarter."

He shook his head, and continued, the words spilling out once they had begun, coaxed by Florica's quiet, wide-eyed attention. "I buried my parents, and became the ghost that haunted the Swan. I felt as though I had died as well, or passed into a dream. It wasn't until I met Claire-san that I began to wake up again." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Five years... just... gone."

Florica nodded sympathetically. "I know w-what that's l-like," she said softly. "That's... how l-long I was a s-slave. You l-lose a lot m-more than just.... t-time."

"That's for sure," Sai agreed, putting his empty cup down with a sigh. "In some ways, I'm still just that lost kid. I don't know how I'm going to make the Swan successful again, or the dancing school. But everyone's counting on me." He smiled crookedly and shook his head.

"You d-don't have t-to do it alone," Florica reminded him gently. "You've got l-lots of help."

"True," he agreed. "And I'll certainly have to bring on more staff once everything's up and running. I was hoping Aki-san and Amy-san would be able to help with the school, maybe the performances too, but..." He sighed and shook his head. "Now, I don't think that's such a good idea. They've got their own lives, and I've disturbed them enough as it is."

Florica nodded slowly. It was certainly hard to picture Amy being able to work peacefully with Sai, after how explosive their last argument had been. But she knew that Amy wasn't really happy being stuck watching the little ones of the Chiba clan every day, either. The Banjari girl's brow furrowed in thought, and she sighed. "M-maybe you should ask them," she suggested gently.

"Maybe," Sai echoed without much enthusiasm. And then his stomach growled, and he grinned sheepishly, dismissing the topic for the moment. "Breakfast?" he suggested, already rising to set the three-legged pot stand over the fire, placing a cast-iron frying pan on top of it to heat up.

After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and toast, all skillfully cooked over the small open flame, they set out for the plant nursery. They walked in silence through the chilly morning with the sun at their back, passing through several streets that all looked similar to the one the Swan was on - boarded over buildings, weed-filled lawns, gaping broken windows where shops and homes had been looted for anything of value. Now that Sai had mentioned it, Florica noticed that several buildings had been burned like the Swan, their roofs caved in and their windows and doors stained black from smoke. She shivered and drew her cloak closer around her, wondering if any of them had been set on fire while their residents yet lived.

Crossing through the open gate into the Central District brought them into a whole different world. Even at this early hour it was bustling with life, people going about their days with energy in their step, walking through clean streets lined with manicured gardens and well-maintained buildings.

Sai led the way to the plant nursery, and they arrived just as the store was opening its gates for the day. It consisted of a small building which housed gardening tools, seeds, and other supplies, a large glass-walled greenhouse which sheltered houseplants and next year's seedlings, and a large open-air lot filled with rows of hardier plants, young trees, pots, fencing, and statuary. 

They made their way over to the collection of saplings, and Sai gestured around them. "See anything you like?"

Florica walked slowly down the aisle, examining the various species. Some had broad leaves, some narrow, while others had only needles. Many had shed their leaves for winter, leaving only smooth, graceful naked branches stretching to the sky.

She reached out and gently touched their branches as she walked by each one, feeling the mana that ran through them. The gentle, pure energy brought a smile to her face.

After she had walked down the whole row, she turned back, and knelt before one near the middle. It was a sapling nearly as tall as she was, its slender branches drooping down almost to the ground around its trunk, clad only in the small buds that promised next spring's leaves. "This one," she said decisively.

"That one it is," Sai agreed cheerfully. "I've always liked willows. They were my mother's favourite." He bent down and picked up the sapling by its pot, and they headed inside to make the purchase.
 

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That done, they headed back through the East Quarter gate, nodding respectfully to the guards as they passed through. Sai had come and gone through this particular gate on his errands often enough that he was given a smile of recognition, and while they stared curiously at the gypsy-looking girl at his side, they raised no objections.

The rampant poverty of the East Quarter seemed even more bleak after the time they'd spent in the Central District. The few busy streets were populated with more beggars than shoppers, and the smell of burning trash drifted out of many alleys as they passed. "Stay close," Sai murmured to Florica, keeping a brisk pace as they headed back towards the Swan.

-

Ikeda resembled a monk more than a street thug, his plain white shirt and dark trousers tied with a length of rope, his head bald and tanned from years in the sun. He was clean shaven, though his face was well lined with the wrinkles that spoke to the thirty five years he had lived in Nikaido. He was no taller than those he moved brusquely through, but the scarred and weathered flesh of his arms was taut with whipcord muscle, and he kept a firm grip on his staff as it rested on his shoulder. 

At his side, Wufei gnawed noisily at a half eaten chicken wing as they walked, grease and debris smearing his untidy black beard. Here and there a beggar gave him a disgusted or envious glance, but the short, straight jian blade thrust haphazardly through a steel ring at his side gave them pause. His dark red shirt was half open, a mass of ugly scars knitted into the dark skin beneath, but one could still make out the leaping tiger of the Wushin Triads peeking from the left.

Ikeda had learned long ago that Wufei cared little for his appearance, but his blade was always clean and sharp, ready to dart and slice the enemies of the Triad at a moment's notice. Frankly, it irritated him that he was tied to such a slovenly excuse for an enforcer, but they had been short-handed for years now. No, Wufei was too good a tool to simply cast aside for some rough edges. Ikeda scowled at him for a moment for good measure anyway, and then he glanced ahead at the woman and the young man with his hands wrapped around a potted tree of some kind.

The Kimura family had once been a jewel in the East Quarter, their son, a star pupil of an Aeldamiran master somewhere the city the elves. At least, until the Pox had struck, tearing through the district with the hunger of a ravenous lion until all that was left were the unlucky dregs of humanity. Loud chewing noises beside him drew a growl from his throat. "Throw the damn thing away, already." Wufei gave an amused snort and carried on happily, licking his lips. They were perhaps twenty paces from them now. He gave a sharp nod in their direction and sped up, bring his staff down, using it like a walking stick. As they caught up, he moved to the Kimura man's side, and then he thrust it out suddenly towards the pot. It was time to send a message.

Caught by surprise at the jab from behind, Sai lost his hold on the pot. It slipped through his hands, and he was only just able to reach out and grab the sturdy base of the sapling's trunk before the whole thing went flying. He turned to face the bald man, his initial expression of concern and confusion replaced by a hard wariness as he realized this was something more than an innocent jostle. He slid a half-step to the right to position himself between Florica and the two men he now found himself facing, and his free hand fell to Thorn's hilt. "Sorry about that, my pot seems to have got in the way of your walking stick," he said pleasantly, though his heart was pounding in his chest. "Everything alright?"

“You should be more careful,” Ikeda admonished, his eyes flicking down to the sword at Sai’s side. “Getting in people’s way can end badly for you here.” Wufei leered at them both, the bone moving animatedly around in his mouth. “You might have forgotten the way that things are around here, Kimura Sai. But the Triad does not.”

"I'm not trying to get in anyone's way," Sai said cautiously, studying the man's face. He offered a polite bow, though his eyes lingered on the man's staff, wary of another jab. "Just bring more prosperity to the East Quarter. Surely that is something we can all agree on."

Taking her cue from Sai, Florica stayed behind him, and bowed when he did, pressing her clammy hands to her sides. She didn't like the bald man's tone, and the expression on his friend's face made her skin crawl. She shuddered and looked away.

"You want to bring prosperity." Ikeda snorted derisively. He leaned casually on his staff as Sai bowed, scowling all the while.

Wufei remained uncharacteristically silent, though he did bow fully and precisely, matching the level of respect that had been shown to him. He spat the chicken bone onto the street and came up, folding his arms across his scarred chest. The effect would have been intimidating, were it not for the stray spittle that clung to his messy beard. 

"A noble ideal," Wufei remarked politely, "but one our masters believe will bring misfortune to us." He wiped his beard clean with one hand. "I am afraid our interests do not align, Kimura-Sensei. Bringing prosperity into the Quarter will feed our families for now, but it will inevitably draw hungrier wolves than we, and I fear to see what tragedy will befall us then."

Ikeda blinked hard for a moment. His upper lip twitched. "We tigers have no quarrel with you if you leave. But should you stay, your safety cannot be guaranteed." He glanced meaningfully at the dark girl beside him. "Or anyone else who helps you." His grip on the staff tightened. "You're a good dancer. Don't risk your health. Go somewhere else. Leave this bitter, dead place to its own devices." He could feel eyes on his back now, the watchful eyes of the city guards manning the gates, the eyes of the passers by and beggars wondering if blood would be spilled. 

"I'm not going anywhere," Sai replied firmly to Ikeda's suggestion. "The Swan has belonged to the Kimuras for five generations. It's my home." 

Wufei gave Sai a sympathetic look, but then their attention was commanded by another newcomer.

"Far from the south side, aren't we," called a cheerful man of mid twenty as he stepped from the corner. He was unmistakably Nikaidan, his eyes a light brown and canted, his long black hair tied artfully in a high tail. He wore a dark blue hakama and a gi with one shoulder hanging bare, and a pair of short, curving blades rested at his hips. His nose had been broken several times and healed crookedly, and he sported an impressive set of dark circles beneath his eyes, but he seemed unmistakably alert as he approached them. 

Wufei's expression turned grave. The newcomer stopped ten paces from them, well outside of Ikeda's range, but certainly close enough to tower over the other two. "Can't say I appreciate you bothering friends of the Family, Chiang." The man smiled gamely, but there was real anger in his eyes as he glared at the disheveled fighter. "Take your parlor tricks and your little pet somewhere else before we start having problems." He casually rested his left hand on the scarlet grip of his sword.

Ikeda slowly turned to the side. Wufei reached up, his fingers appearing to sink into the flesh of his face above his temples before he made a ripping motion. With a sound like tearing cloth, his face appeared to shift and change, and his hand came away with a blackened hanya mask. The man beneath was shaved clean, his hair closely cropped and peppered with early gray. His eyes were as dark as night, his face gaunt and angular. He gave a slow, almost theatrical bow. "Toshi. I'm merely giving our young friend some advice. The advice you should have followed." He scratched his chin as he placed his other hand on the jian's hilt.

Sai paused as the newcomer approached, initially eyeing him with as much wariness as the other two. But as the man spoke, it became clear that he saw himself as a friend, though Sai was sure he had never met him before. What exactly is going on here? he wondered, feeling more and more out of his depth as the conversation continued and the bearded man revealed the face beneath his mask. Chiang and Toshi... as in Toshiro? Leader of the Twelve Sons? Why the heads of the two most active gangs of the East Quarter were fighting over him was utterly beyond him, and he could only hope that his confusion wasn't written clearly over his face.

The rest of the passers-by were giving their little circle a wide berth, now, sensing trouble. Sai stepped slowly back towards Toshiro without turning his back on Ikeda and Chiang, knowing without looking that Florica was moving with him. Despite the outer calm of the conversation, his heart was still pounding in his chest, and he was ready to drop the sapling and draw Thorn if things continued to escalate. His first priority was to protect the Lady Caesar, as he had promised. He gritted his teeth, cursing his stupidity for thinking they could just stroll through the East Quarter as he had been able to as a child. So much has changed... I should have known. I should have foreseen this. The thought that his poor planning might leave Florica caught in the crossfire made him feel sick.

Chiang frowned slightly as Kimura and his friend made their way closer to the leader of the Twelve Sons. "Seems your territory doesn't extend quite as far as you thought, Toshi." He waved a hand to the side casually, his other still resting comfortably on the jian's grip. 

"You brought real steel this time. Do you intend to settle things here and now, little Tiger?" Toshiro sneered, shifting to stand beside Kimura. 

"Not today," Chiang answered politely, and he glanced up at the gate walls. Toshiro took a look from the corner of his eyes. The guards at the top of the gate were watching them intently now, and with them was a figure that sent a slow chill down his spine. The black clad figure wore a haori with a single crimson stripe that ran diagonally along both shoulders. They wore a mask of black, polished steel carved into the smiling face of a long dead warrior, and their hands were wrapped around a slim white spear that seemed to shudder ever so slightly in the breeze. The infamous Squad Four. They were too far away for him to see the gold number inlaid into the top of their mask, but he figured it was Number Eight - Hachi.

"Not today, Chiang," Toshiro agreed bitterly, standing more straightly. "But these two are under my protection. See to it that your men stay out of their way or we'll make sure they never get in anyone's path again."

Chiang gave him a long, hard stare. Toshiro returned it, setting his jaw, his thumb a hair's breadth away from pushing the blade from the spacer and readying it for a strike. But Chiang merely shrugged, and then he made a proper bow to Sai and Florica. "I wish you both luck." His gaze shifted to Toshiro and grew colder. "I already know you'll need it." And with that, he turned on his heel. Ikeda stopped to gawk for a moment before he too turned on his heel. 

Toshiro watched them as they moved through the onlookers, engaged in what appeared to be a one-sided barrage of questions on the monk's behalf. He slowly removed his hand from the hilt of his sword and let out a heavy sigh, pinching the bridge of his broken nose. "Uncle's going to be unhappy about that. Especially with those numbered psychopaths watching us now." 

He shook his head wearily. "I'm sorry you had to deal with that. Seems we have a difference of opinion on what's best for the Quarter." He smiled thinly.

Sai felt a surge of relief as Chiang elected not to fight, and let out a long, silent sigh, relaxing a little as he sent a prayer of thanks to his ancestors for watching over them. He and Florica returned the gang leader’s bow in kind. It grated on him to bow to someone like that, but if a little extra courtesy could keep the fragile girl behind him safe, it was well worth the cost to his pride.

He let go of Thorn’s hilt and turned fully to Toshiro as the leader of the Twelve Sons addressed him, setting down the precious sapling and dusting his hands off on his pants. Florica came up to stand beside him, eyeing Toshiro with silent, wide-eyed curiosity. She looked a little pale, but calm, holding her head high.

“It seems we do, Toshiro-san,” Sai replied. “I appreciate you stepping in. I’m sorry if we have caused trouble for you.”

Sai’s words sent a flicker of irritation across Toshrio’s features. “No, if anything I think we may owe you one. Claire-chan asked us to keep an eye on you and the Miss, but I think it’s drawn the wrong sort of attention.” He brushed a hand along his stubble, frowning all the while. “It’s been.. hard.. since Sixty Seven. Even the Wushin are hurting. But they seem to think that trying to rebuild will only encourage the other Clans to sweep in and wipe us all out.”

Toshiro waved off the thoughts that ran through his mind with an irritable slash of his hand. “Anyway, I’d like to accompany you home. I doubt Chiang will try anything, but his idiots are another story. Rather get back to where my idiots can keep watch on you both.”

Sai couldn’t decide what surprised him more – that Claire had requested the Twelve Sons to watch over him, or that its leader referred to her as Claire-chan. An old friend… or something more? he wondered. But under the circumstances it would hardly have been polite to ask. He nodded in agreement as Toshiro noted how hard the last several years had been for the Quarter.

“Thank you, Toshiro-san.” He carefully picked up the sapling by its pot again, and the three of them started off towards the Swan. “This is Florica-san,” he added, inclining his head towards her. He wasn’t sure how much Claire had told the gang about his companion, but he figured it was best to avoid calling her Lady Caesar in public. The Caesars seemed to have more than their fair share of enemies, and these streets always had ears. “Florica-san, Toshiro-san.”

The Banjari girl peeked around Sai, offering Toshiro a shy smile. “P-pleasure to meet you, Toshiro-san. Th-thank you for c-c-coming to h-help us.”

“Ah, the Banjari girl,” Toshiro said, giving her a quick bow. “Pleasure to meet you, Florica-san. I am Yamamoto Toshiro, but you can call me Shiro if you like.” He reached down and twisted his left sword back into a more acceptable stance, with the edge tilted towards him, although he left the other where it was. “Think nothing of it. I owe her more than a few favors, and that goes double for my Uncle. I believe you two have already met.”

Florica promptly returned Toshi's bow, and her smile broadened. It was a small thing, but it always made her feel a little more at home when her people were referred to properly as Banjari, rather than the "gypsy" slur that was so common among the gadje

Sai's brow creased in confusion as Toshiro said he'd met his Uncle, and he glanced over at Florica, opening his mouth to deny it, only to do a double take as he saw her nodding. 

She grinned sheepishly at the look on her face. "B-briefly," she clarified, amusement warming her tone. "I d-didn't realize he was that Sojiro-san. Though I suppose there were c-clues." She looked back up the street, and her expression turned thoughtful as she wondered how deep Claire's involvement with the Twelve Sons ran. Not just anyone could ask them to look out for a friend and have that honoured, and here Toshiro was calling her "chan" and saying he owed her. Something to ask her next time she's in town.

“He’s supposed to be retired now.” Toshiro snorted. “Doesn’t stop him from meddling. Or from being too damn loud in the mornings.” He have a broad shrug, and sidestepped to allow an elderly lady to pass.

"Well, I hope you'll allow us to offer you tea, Toshiro-san," Sai offered. It still felt rather odd to be associating like this with a gang member, but if Claire trusted him, that was a good enough voucher for him. "If you can spare the time, I'd appreciate some pointers on how to avoid a repeat of that little encounter. I'm afraid my knowledge of this side of 'politics' is sadly lacking." He rubbed the back of his neck ruefully.

Toshiro barked a laugh.  “I accept. I figure the more you’re informed, the easier it will be to keep my promise to Claire-chan.”

Sai nodded his agreement. "Exactly." He shifted the pot in his hands, turning it to grab a different section of the rim. It wasn't particularly heavy, but the gently swaying branches made it a little awkward. He was glad that it didn't seem to have suffered any damage from when he had nearly dropped it before. It wasn't particularly expensive, but Florica had chosen it, and that made it special.

He glanced over at the woman walking beside him, wondering what exactly the circumstances of her meeting Sojiro-san had been. The more I learn about you, the more I realize I don't know, little dancer.

Feeling his eyes on her, Florica glanced over, answering his puzzled look with another quietly amused smile. "N-not a morning p-person, Toshiro-san?" she enquired, looking past Sai at their new friend again.

Toshiro gave a wry laugh. “No, not usually. Business has been rather trying as of late. Particularly during the night.” He met Florica’s glance and chuckled. “I’m probably the last person you expected to see on your side. But this is our home. For fifteen generations, my family has lived here, fought here, died here. I’ll be damned if mine is the last to do so.”

“Least until I get some little Toshiros of my own. Then it’s their problem.” He ran his fingers along his chin. “But we need to bring life back here. Bring money and jobs. Then the Quarter lives and breathes again. Chiang is being too stubborn. We might be poor here, but we’re strong all the same.”

"It was a surprise," Sai admitted, "but it's a welcome one. Hopefully Chiang-san will come around to your point of view in time."

The road they were on sloped gradually uphill, broadening as they neared the Swan. This had once been a thriving business and entertainment district, with large lots apportioned to each property - restaurants, theatres, and the warehouses and store-fronts of merchants, craftsmen and the like. But for the past five years it had been all but a ghost town, as the few business owners who had survived the black pox had abandoned the area in search of brighter prospects.

Now, the Swan gleamed with fresh wood and paint, and across the street from it, Gunma Carpentry showed signs of life as well, with the weeds cleared away from the store front and new green shutters on the wide windows. They had been the first after the Swan to take advantage of the new incentives that the government was offering to businesses that were willing to give the East Quarter another chance, lured by the promise that they would be the exclusive supplier for the Swan's extensive lumber requirements.

Sai unlocked the front door of the theatre, and they headed back through to the residence. On the way, he gently placed the little tree in the courtyard to let it enjoy the bright sunshine, and then they headed indoors. "Please, have a seat," he gestured for Toshiro to sit at the head of the table, as the honoured guest. 

He then turned towards the fire pit, but Florica rested a hand on his arm, smiling. "I'll m-make the tea. You sit," she directed, her voice firm in spite of her stutter.

Sai blinked in surprise, confounded by the Banjari girl for the second or third time that morning. There was an art to making and serving Nikaidan tea, and where she might have learned such a thing was utterly beyond him. He decided to trust her, in spite of his misgivings about what the results might be, and allowed himself to be herded back to the table. He watched her curiously for a moment as she woke the fire, and then forced himself to look back at his guest. "So... What can we do to stay out of Chiang-san's way?"

Toshiro watched the abandoned and decrepit buildings of the quarter as they passed, a taciturn look across his features. His lips drew into a smile as the Swan came into view along the slope, bright and fresh. The workers making their way across the street were fresh faces, for the most part, although he could spot a few familiar figures carting lumber and tools around. They would be the first signs of the revival of this place - like wild grass after a forest fire. 

And with their money, more business would come back. Food. Supplies. Gambling and drinking, all the things a man could ever want. Opportunity at the right time would draw them like flies to honey. His smile faded as his thoughts dipped back to Chiang's unyielding, stoic belief that their interests were best served by laying low and slowly rebuilding. Some could afford to do that. It would be a death sentence to the Sons and his family. 

He followed Sai and Florica into the theatre, and paused for a moment to marvel at the ongoing work. It would be beautiful once it finished - different to the Swan of his youth, but no less so. His mother had brought him here to watch a Noh performance when he was only a boy. It had been marvelous, the sights, the sounds of music and laughter. There were some things worth living and fighting for.

Toshiro slid his swords free as he sat at the table, resting the kodachi to his left and the wakizashi close near his right leg. "Thank you, Kimura-sensei." He arched a brow as Florica spoke, surprised that the Banjari would know the rituals for serving them. But it had hardly been the first time one of Claire's associates had surprised him. She did keep rather interesting company, after all.

Sai's earnest question drew a bitter laugh from him. He sighed, and shook his head. "He believes our interests are opposed here. Chiang worries about a clash between us and the other clans if they believe we might usurp their power and status. They grew as we bled," he added sardonically. "So I can't imagine they're going to be happy about the Quarter's revival." He stroked his chin. "No, I think I'm going to station more guards here. He may resort to more bold measures now. The Sons may need to go to war if we are to survive - the Swan included." There was a grim finality to his words.

"I hope it doesn't come to that," Sai replied gravely. "But I will fight for my home if I must. I'm a beginner with this, still," he patted Thorn's scabbard where it now lay on the ground beside him, "But Claire-san has been kind enough to teach me a few tricks."

Toshiro nodded, a frown crossing his features. His dark eyes slid down to the sword and he arched a brow in surprise. “Some tricks indeed. That’ll be a nasty surprise should anyone make you draw it.” He gave Sai a quick smile. “Just don’t let anyone know it’s name. That blade has... something of a reputation here.” 

"I won't," Sai promised. "In the meantime, which areas of the Quarter would it be best for us to avoid? I still have ongoing business needs in Central, but if that gate is a problem I can go via the South Quarter easily enough."

Listening without comment, Florica had woken the fire and set a fresh pot of water to boil. While she waited for it, she shuffled over to the little kitchen and put together a tray of some more of the cookies Sai had put out the night before. She brought it over to the table, knelt down gracefully, placed it between them, and then stood just as gracefully to tend the fire again.

Toshiro leaned on one arm and picked up a cookie as Florica brought the tray out. He tried one, nodding appreciatively as she went back to tending the fire. “Definitely the South Gate from now on. And I’ll have someone tailing you discreetly when you leave. Central... Central should be safe - I doubt Chiang would dare cross the Mayor at this point.”

Sai nodded, and fell silent for a moment, mulling things over. The fact that Claire’s blade already had a reputation in Nikaido didn’t surprise him as much now as it would have a few hours ago, but it still raised a number of questions about his ersatz sister and whatever her relationship might have been with the Twelve Sons and the other gangs. “Is there merit to Chiang’s concerns?” he asked, studying Toshiro. “Will the other gangs move against us?” 

Toshiro grimaced at the question. "Perhaps," he admitted after a moment. "There is... an order to the way our world works. We don't exactly care to spill blood needlessly, particularly when many of our comrades are also our families." He leaned back, and traced a finger along the grip of his kodachi. "But I admit, they probably won't pass up the chance to take something if they feel like we can't offer any meaningful resistance. Bringing life back to the quarter will bring growth, but... it'll also draw their eyes here. They'll be watching for weakness." 

The kettle's growling drew a quick glance from him. "Chiang is a shrewd man. His wife, even more so. But I believe we can hold fast here. But I fear we may go wind up having to go to war with him eventually." Toshiro's expression hardened. "We won't let him ruin this. Not when it might bring our home back to life. Even if I have to kill him to do so." 

Kneeling by the firepit, Florica watched the flickering flames as she listened to Sai and Toshiro talk. Toshiro and Chiang... The two powerful young men had been the subject of constant gossip among the young women at Madam Sekhira’s, though as far as she knew, neither of them had ever paid the establishment a visit. They had been friends once, so the story went, until they both fell in love with the same woman - some highborn from Central. Maya? No, Saya. That was it. Saya-hime, as the envious girls had mockingly referred to her. There had been a lot of sake and commiseration going around the week she married Chiang.

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The kettle hanging over the fire started to growl as the water inside it reached boiling, and it trembled and shook on its hook. Florica reached out and gingerly rotated the system of rods it was hanging from, swinging the kettle back to the edge of the firepit, and then left it to cool for a moment while she went back to collect the rest of the tea things from the kitchen.  She gathered the teapot, teacups, box of tea and tea scoop onto a sturdy wooden tray, and carefully folded the deep purple cloth napkin that was reserved for making tea, tucking it into the slender belt at her waist which supported her dagger.

She then brought the tray over to the fire pit, knelt down, and set it on the floor mat for a moment while she used the purple square of cloth to move the kettle over to the tray as well. Bringing everything over to the table, she sat down across from Sai, bowed to the two men, and began to make the tea. 

First all the tea things were wiped down with the purple cloth. Then the water was poured into the teapot, and then from the teapot into the three cups, to warm the cups and at the same time cool the water so that the tea would not become bitter from over-brewing. In the few seconds while the water sat in the cups, she dropped three heaping scoops of dried tea leaves into the empty pot, resealed the tea box, and balanced the tea scoop back on its lid. Then she poured the three cupfuls of water back into the teapot over the tea leaves to brew, and put the lid back on the pot.

Each movement was smooth and deliberate, ingrained through endless practice at Madam Sehkira’s. The other girls had delighted in teaching her such things, both for the novelty of having a ‘gypsy’ perform the tea ceremony, and for the fact that she was so obedient and attentive to the tasks she was given, leaving them free to lounge about idly on the couches whenever the Madam was not at home.

After the count of four slow breaths, Florica picked up the teapot with both hands and began to pour the tea. She filled each small teacup less than a third of the way, paused for a moment, and then added another small amount of tea to each cup, moving back and forth between them in a steady pattern to ensure that each serving was evenly brewed. At last, the tea had all been poured, down to the last drops that clung to the sides of the pot. She passed Toshiro-san his cup, placing it into his warm hands with another shy smile and bow, and then did the same for Sai, giggling inwardly at his ill-hidden amazement. At least something good came from my time at that place, she thought wryly, confident that the tea had been brewed perfectly.

Toshiro watched from the corner of his eye as Florica moved around, her motions a precise imitation of those he had sat through hundreds of times. He accepted the cup with a grateful nod, taking a sip and nodding. "You're superb. Where did you learn?" he asked, looking at her with renewed curiosity. Toshiro pointed at Sai. "Him, I understand. You were quite the toast of town at one point. Makes sense Claire-chan would find you interesting." He glanced back to Florica. "You, though... she didn't say much about. Only to make sure to stay out of your way if you draw steel."

The unexpected question sent a sudden chill through Florica’s veins, and she managed only a weak smile at the mention of Claire. She took a careful sip of her own tea before responding, stalling for time as she felt both men's gazes burning to her with equal curiosity. Finally she put the cup down, but her hands remained circled around it, her eyes downcast as though her tea was suddenly the most interesting thing in the room.

“Another...life,” she finally broke her silence, her tone cool. She looked back at Toshiro, feeling Sai’s eyes on her like coals from across the table as she offered their guest a brittle smile. I’ve had too many, she thought, the weight of them pressing down suddenly on her chest, making it hard to breathe. She knew she should say something else, do something to dispel the awkward feeling that hovered between them now, but the panicked racing of her heart made it impossible to think.

Sai frowned at the Banjari girl, disturbed to hear her using the same resigned tone with which she had spoken of her nightmares. Wherever she had learned the art of tea, it was clearly tangled up with some unpleasantness from her past, as so many things seemed to be. The glazed look in her eyes worried him deeply, but all he could think of to help was to shift the conversation elsewhere. "You seem to be quite familiar with Claire-san, Toshiro-san," he noted, tearing his eyes off the troubled young woman. "Old friends?"

Toshiro winced a little at the brittle smile she gave him. Something about the way she froze troubled him, but the gangster merely gave a polite nod. He was thoroughly relieved when Sai managed to give him a different topic. One he was intimately familiar with. A broad smile crossed his lips. He took a sip of his tea, and then set it down carefully. His eyes flicked back to Florica, and then to Sai. "Old friends. A little more than that, at one point, although it's ancient history now." 

He stopped to consider his words for a moment. "But we did business together here. She, like you, was the toast of the town years ago. I don't think they knew who she really was. Few of us did." He brought the cup back to drain it, and then took a few seconds to admire the fine details of the cup as was polite. "Beautiful," he noted, before he set it down and proceeded to wipe it clean. 

"I know she doesn't talk about it much. Whether shame, or just good sense. But she's spent a long time chasing after the ghosts of the past." Toshi gave a wry smile. "Made the future hard to see."

Sai nodded thoughtfully. Ghosts of the past... It was certainly an apt description of the way she had reacted when the Lord Caesar had come back from the dead. "Seems like we all have a few of those," he responded seriously, finishing his own tea.

Florica's hands had slid down to her lap, and outwardly she looked relaxed once more, but her fingers were digging into her thighs like claws as she fought to listen to the conversation and not be dragged away by the intrusive thoughts and memories warring for space in the stage of her mind. Visions of Kharn, of laughing painted girls, of Baldric and Peter swam before her, leaving her dizzy and ill.

"Indeed," Toshiro agreed. He lapsed into pensive silence for a few moments, his gaze focused on the upturned cup before him. "I wasn't expecting him to make a move so soon. He should have been focused elsewhere." Toshi stroked his chin. "I made sure to stir up a little trouble near our borders as a diversion. But he knew where you were. Knew what we were doing. Something about that disquiets me a little." 

He made a sharp wave. "Forget it. That man's always been hard to read." He turned his attention to Florica then. "Thank you for the tea, miss. It was delicious. I can only hope to return the favor someday."

"You're w-welcome," Florica managed to respond, smiling politely.

Toshiro folded his arms over his chest. His eyes danced around the room, noting the fresh construction, the quality of the materials, the angles of entry and exit. "Well designed. And intended to wrong-foot intruders from the start. Your doorways are uneven. Off by just enough to catch a swordtip, or trip someone. I can sense spellwork wrought into it, too. Seems like Claire-chan was busy here. You two have to be important to her." He snorted. "She never did any of that for me."

Sai nodded his agreement as Toshiro noted the design and enchantments of the house, grinning a little. "Claire-san's help has been invaluable in bringing the Swan back to life; it would never have happened without her. But the push to make this as much a fortress as a home came more from the Lady Caesar's older brother," Sai noted, inclining his head towards Florica, who smiled and took another small sip of her tea. "He's very protective of her."

“I can see that,” Toshiro agreed, furrowing his brows. “Definitely makes my task a little easier. The spacing is enough to throw off anyone using something longer than my kodachi if they’re not aware of it.” He chuckled. “That man never fights fairly if he can help it, does he?” 

Toshiro slipped his hands behind his back and stretched for a moment, closing his eyes. His hands came back to rest on his sword. “Kimura-sensei, Lady Caesar, thank you. I’ll station some more of my men around here. They’ll stay out of sight, but close enough that if trouble starts they won’t be far behind.” He stood, picking his blades up and sliding them through his belt at either hip. He took a few seconds and adjusted them so they would be easy to draw. “One of them will know how to contact me if you need me.”

 

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Sai nodded his agreement as Toshiro noted the design and enchantments of the house, grinning a little. "Claire-san's help has been invaluable in bringing the Swan back to life; it would never have happened without her. But the push to make this as much a fortress as a home came more from the Lady Caesar's older brother," Sai noted, inclining his head towards Florica, who smiled and took another small sip of her tea. "He's very protective of her."

“I can see that,” Toshiro agreed, furrowing his brows. “Definitely makes my task a little easier. The spacing is enough to throw off anyone using something longer than my kodachi if they’re not aware of it.” He chuckled. “That man never fights fairly if he can help it, does he?” 

Toshiro slipped his hands behind his back and stretched for a moment, closing his eyes. His hands came back to rest on his sword. “Kimura-sensei, Lady Caesar, thank you. I’ll station some more of my men around here. They’ll stay out of sight, but close enough that if trouble starts they won’t be far behind.” He stood, picking his blades up and sliding them through his belt at either hip. He took a few seconds and adjusted them so they would be easy to draw. “One of them will know how to contact me if you need me.”
 

-

Sai stood to see Toshiro out, and after a moment, Florica stood as well, moving with more slowness than was necessary even by the demands of Nikaidan gracefulness. Her limbs felt heavy and sluggish, as though she were moving through water instead of air, and her heart still raced erratically in her chest, making her feel dizzy and breathless. She trailed after the two men, fighting to maintain the appearance of calm, and bowed politely as their guest took his leave. Some words of farewell were exchanged, but they might as well have been spoken in Old Mirian for all the sense they made to her.

The door slid shut, and she realized that Sai was staring expectantly at her. Oh dear. Had he asked her something? Taking her best guess, she shook her head and murmured, "I'm f-f-fine," and turned away to head back to the table, uncomfortable with the perceptiveness of his gaze.

He caught up with her halfway to the table, and reached out from behind to place a hand on her shoulder. He had opened his mouth to ask again what was troubling her, but the words died before they left his lips as she flinched away from his touch with a frightened gasp.

Feeling awful for scaring her, Sai shoved his hands deep into his pockets, where they could do no further harm, and watched as she knelt at the table to clear the tea things, her hands shaking so badly that the delicate cups clinked and clattered on the tray.

He approached her again, making sure she could see him this time. "Here, let me," he said very gently, as though speaking to a skittish mare, and took the heavy tray out of her hands. It took her a moment to relinquish her hold on it, and then her hands fell to her sides, and she looked away again.

"That was pretty scary when Chiang and his man were trying to make trouble, wasn't it?" he commented conversationally as he turned away to bring the tea things over to the sink, giving her space and taking his best guess at what might have upset her so. "My heart was pounding so loud I thought everyone in the East Quarter would be able to hear it." He chuckled self-deprecatingly. "You seemed so calm, though. I'm glad we got your tree home safe. Maybe after lunch we could plant it." He chanced a glance back at the Banjari woman as he started to wash the tea things. She was still standing where he had left her, but she met his gaze, and nodded.

He breathed an inward sigh of relief, and looked away, continuing to wash the dishes. "Good. That will be nice, it's a beautiful day for it." He knew he was rambling, but he hoped the cheerfulness in his voice would help her regain the inner peace she seemed to have lost. "The northwest corner of the garden gets the most morning sunlight, so that could be a good spot for it. That's the closest to your bedroom too, though there's the outer hallway between you and the garden."

He glanced over again, only to find that she had padded silently over and was now at his elbow, reaching for the clean cups to dry them with the towel. He watched her hands for a moment to make sure they were no longer shaking, and then left her to the task. They worked in silence for a moment before he spoke again, more quietly. "I'm sorry for startling you just now. That was foolish of me."

Florica shook her head, and let out a heavy sigh. “N-n-not your f-f-fault.” She chewed fretfully on the inside of her lip, still wrestling with the irrational feeling of impending doom that had been hanging over her since their walk home. “S-sorry I’m…. l-like this. I… t-t-t-t-try n-n-not to b-b-be, b-b-b-but it….. d-d-doesn’t always w-work.”

Sai shrugged easily. “Not your fault either,” he pointed out gently.

Florica nodded in response, but the look on her face was still troubled.

The Nikaidan boy finished washing the teapot, and set it down, turning to lean with his back against the counter as he gave her his full attention, resting his elbows on the polished stone. 

She felt his eyes on her, but she kept hers downcast as she focused on carefully drying the delicate tea set.

"I want to help you," he said finally, his gentle voice tinged with frustration.

Florica smiled crookedly and glanced over at him. "You a-already h-have," she attempted to reassure him. But his words had struck a nerve. I'm so sick of needing rescuing. Sick of using up the people around me. The feeling of breathlessness returned, along with a panicked racing of her heart and a feeling like the room was closing in around her.

She carefully put down the last dish. "I'm f-f-f-fine," she said, meeting his gaze and putting as much enthusiasm into the words as she could.

From the look on his face, he didn't buy it. "It's okay if you're not," he said, standing up straight and dropping his arms to his sides as he turned to face her fully, searching her face. "Getting threatened by a gang lord would be enough to shake up anybody. It's okay to-"

"It's n-not okay!" she snapped, interrupting him. "You d-d-d-d-don't u-understand. I h-have to b-b-b-be s-strong." She felt sick to her stomach, and gritted her teeth against a wave of anxiety-induced nausea.

He frowned. "You don't have to be strong all the time," he argued. "The battle's over. We won, remember?"

Florica barked out a bitter laugh at the naïve statement. "The b-b-battle's n-never over." Not for me, anyway. "E-excuse m-me, K-Kimura-san." She gave him a sharp bow that somehow conveyed even more bitterness than her stuttering voice, and shuffled past him, retreating to her room and sliding the door shut behind her.

She slid to the ground with her back against the door, and buried her burning face behind her cold fingers, letting out a shaky sigh. Why am I like this? she demanded of herself, feeling miserable. The concerned expression on Sai's face was burned behind her eyelids, silently mocking her efforts to avoid dragging others into the endless turmoil twisting beneath her scarred skin. "Fuck," she whispered, and her hands curled into frustrated fists, pressing against her forehead.

Not for the first time, she wondered how much easier all her friends' lives would have been without her. If she had never found her way out of Eshdraemoir, or if she had ever had the strength to end things herself. It was a dark, awful thought, and one she knew she'd never be brave enough to act upon, but nevertheless, the idea of ending it all had a way of coming back to her each time she thought she had put it away for good. After all, what was she but a collection of ugly scars and uglier impulses, a burden and a curse upon those unlucky enough to take pity on her?

She gritted her teeth, pushing the thought back into the darkness where it belonged. "I am Florica Caesar," she whispered to herself fiercely. "I swear to live unbowed beneath the sun." She took a deep, shuddering breath, and thought of her brother. The effect it would have on him if she took her life didn't even bear contemplating. I swear to live, aquila mea, she vowed.

She heard the quiet shuffle of Sai's feet in the hallway behind her, and then a quiet knock at her door. "Florica? Lunch is ready," he called gently.

"O-okay," she answered, and after a moment, she heard his footsteps return to the living room.

Sai… She crossed her arms over her knees, frowning in thought. He was trying so hard to be a good host, to make her feel at home. Even now, after she had snapped at him so abruptly, his response had been simply to make their next meal. Guilt gnawed at her. I don't deserve his kindness, or his patience. She sighed heavily and rubbed her face. But what can I do? Leave? Where would I go? She thought of the burned husk of the home in Athynia, overshadowed by the spectres of Peter and the Grimmholts. And further back, to Madam Sekhira’s house, and the cloying despair that had hung over her while she worked there. No… there was nowhere for her to go. Nowhere befitting of a Caesar, anyway.

She thought of Nero again, and suddenly felt guilty at the direction her thoughts had taken. Was it really so awful to rely on Kimura Sai, just a little bit? We do what we have to do. Words she had spoken to both of her brothers, at one time or another. She remembered the sight of Marcus, lying facedown in the dirt because he was too proud to accept a hand up, and she smiled wryly. Not so different from me, after all.

Whatever Sai had made for lunch was smelling delicious. The Lady Caesar stood, carefully straightened her dress and her posture, and opened the door.
 

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