February 1. Fourteen and a half years old. Saishuu Riku.
‘Are ya gonna just stand there or are you gonna grace us with yer presence?’ The thick voice of the QM broke my reverie.
Warmth rushing to my cheeks, I stepped into the room to stand by Daisuke, trying hard not to trip on my own feet. I’m standing beside Daisuke! A thousand questions flew across my mind, yet it couldn't wrap itself around what was before me. Was it fate? Just timing? Something more sinister?
‘So-sorry,’ I said.
The QM grunted and shuffled some files. Right, I had to tell her about Ahio. Throwing off my anxiety as much as I could, I took a deep breath and--
‘So, it turns out one o’ yer teammates was kidnapped,' said the scowling woman.
The words died on my tongue.
Kaede gasped and cupped her mouth while Tsubasa seemed as if he might faint. Daisuke’s rosy cheeks paled to match the rest of him, and his frown grew deeper.
The lady watched us, seeming to enjoy our reactions while she took a breath out of her cigar and blew back a smoke ring. ‘I dunno why he chose a bunch of wimpy kids like you, but Minister Banji himself wants ya t’ rescue him. Y'all have t’ go along the forest road south o’ Chisaiki Son. Reports from Shoubaiba says that’s where they’re headed. But more details are in this here file.’ she said, pushing it forward.
Kaede, her face frozen with steely resolve, jumped over to take the file and strode out of the room. Daisuke followed with slower steps, and left Tsubasa and I to deal with the shock on our own.
Glancing up, the QM saw that we were still rooted to our spots. ‘Well, get on with it, will ya!’
I shook my head and walked out, hearing the pitter-patter of Tsubasa’s footsteps behind me. A few swordsmen rushed into the room before the door shut. This early in the morning, besides the young receptionist, we had the waiting room to ourselves. But the large empty white-walled hall seemed to constrict, trapping me in a bizarre situation.
‘K-Kaede, h-how did--’ Tsubasa tugged at his high collar, breathing fast. ‘That was-- Ahio was--’
‘Tsubasa, calm down.’ Kaede said in a low voice, giving the file to Daisuke. ‘Ahio needs us now and we have to be calm for him.’
Tsubasa dropped onto one of the chairs, clutching his head with his hands. Tayo mewed and nuzzled him, long ears drooping. I sat on his right, not knowing what to say. Maybe how it will all be alright? But I didn’t know that. It would be a tailored response and insincere.
‘How long would it take to go to Chisaiki Son, Daisuke?’ asked Kaede, her auburn hair shining pink in the sunlight flitting through the wide windows she stood by.
He was bent over the file, big grey eyes focused in a way that didn't suit his cherubic features. ‘Twelve hours on foot—‘
‘I-I can bring some horses.’ Tsubasa said, still gazing at the mahogany floor. ‘M-Ma has some, and they'd be much faster.’ He looked up then, eyes red but breathing normally.
‘Please go get them right now and meet us at the South road,’ Kaede said, then gave him a small smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. ‘Good job.’
Tsubasa’s cheeks turned into a russet shade. With a nod, he marched out of the hall, wiping his face with one hand.
Kaede sat on his vacated seat, rubbing her eyes. ‘I’m Kaede Touta, fighter and leader of squad eleven. I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but considering the circumstances…’ She let out a bitter chuckle.
‘It’s— It’s okay,’ I clutched my knees, the grey fabric of my pants wrinkling. ‘I’m Tahro Akagi, fighter too.’
‘Ahio is a fighter as well.’ She glanced up at the ceiling. Her eyes were a lovely bottle green, one that the manga had never done service to. She sighed and looked at me with a not too real smile. ‘I’m sorry, we’re not usually like this. The QM said you weren’t from here. Is that true?’
‘Yeah, um, I’m an outsider.’ I steeled myself for the impending questions that the curious kids who used to be my classmates had always asked. At least I had ready-made answers now. Thankfully, no one could ask me more than the basics and never the details as there was a law against pestering outsiders.
‘Cool,’ she said, looking down at her shaking hands. ‘Tsubasa’s mentor is also from the outside. Maybe you two could meet-up.’
‘Yeah.’ No. No, we should not!
While Daisuke read the file, each flip of the page marking the seconds we were losing, Kaede introduced me to the rest of the team, even Tayo. I nodded along, hoping she wouldn’t notice I already knew.
Daisuke sighed and shut the file, pursing his lips. ‘Something about this just doesn’t make sense.’
‘What do you mean?’ Kaede said, her high-set brows knitted.
‘Ahio was kidnapped three days ago in Shoubaiba. The only reason Shoubaiba would ask for swordsmen from Heikisato to take over a case in their own province is if they couldn’t handle it.’ Daisuke gestured with the file this way and that as he spoke. ‘But then, why would they ask us, third-grade swordsmen, to take the quest? And why did the Minister assign it?’
I frowned. He was right. As third-grades, we were the lowest, youngest, the most inexperienced. Why did the Minister give this quest to us, or at all? He never assigned a mission to anyone but special and first grades. There was something deliberate here, but I didn’t know what to make of it.
‘Whatever it is, there’s no time to think about it now.’ Kaede stood up, her face hard as though etched in stone. ‘If you’re done reading the quest guidelines, let’s get going. Pack up for a day, and I’ll bring some food for Tsubasa as well in case he forgets. We can plan more on the way to Chisaiki Son.’
As we walked down the cramped stairs, pushed our way through the noisy, packed entrance hall and strode across the blooming gardens, everything seemed to be hazy like I was in a dream. My stomach clenched with the thought of our quest and all the mysteries surrounding it. The weight of it pressed down on my shoulders.
But wasn’t an adventure what I’d always wanted?
Within half an hour we were all set and journeying away on Tsubasa’s steeds. Except for a short lunch, we didn't stop. Eight hours later, we reached Chisaiki Son. It was smaller than I’d thought, only about a tenth of Heikisato, and with little stone cottages spread apart instead of the crowded apartments I was used to. We saw only a couple of people on the roads, loading up carts with lumber, who stared at us as we made our way across. Tsubasa left to lodge the horses in the stables. The next part of our quest required stealth, and it'd be harder to hide with huge animals.
We ventured through the forest for an hour, keeping just close to the road, with enough foliage to shield us from the merchant carts that traversed it. The road was smooth and gray, one side flanked by a copse of spindly trees and the other running along the bed of a river, sloping into its depths as if to drown those who strayed to the edge. A dusty trail of a thousand wheels painted its surface.
The air around me seemed solid and with an intent to push me back for every step I took. It was hard to focus on the nervous chatter beside me when the sloshing river and my own paranoid thoughts kept distracting me. I jerked at every rustle, expecting to see the kidnapper behind a leaf or a tendril. It couldn't be long now before--
A shriek came from behind a curve of the path and raked my eardrums. My stomach swung low, and my mouth was dry like cotton. Everyone's footsteps faded away, and even the birds paused their song. Tinnitus rang in the air.
I clenched my teeth and let out the breath I had.
This was it. Just remember the plan. Just remember the plan.