Chapter Eight

‘River Bluefate’

 

Give me your fantasies wrapped in sugar and sin.

 

 

 

            “This looks like a good of a place as any,” Tabitha announced, inspecting the small clearing. “There should be a lake to the west, if my map’s not wrong.”

                “It hasn’t lead us astray so far,” Evangeline assured the older woman, taking a seat on the huge log in the middle of their small clearing. It wasn’t so much a log as a fallen tree; it took the cleric’s entire prowess to clamber up the six-foot height.

            “I guess I can start a campfire here.” River set the Ooshi Bowl in the grass, looking back to where Maroshi stood, just at the clearing’s edge. “Can you go get some wood, Mar? And not fall asleep in a tree?”

            “Uh, sure.” Maroshi nodded to his friend, then looked warily to his left where Celintra stood, gazing at the clouds in silent thought. Ever since she had caught up to them after Berryshire—the samurai hadn’t thought a magician would have been able to run that fast, but perhaps it was magical transportation or… forget it, he’d never understand the arcane in this lifetime—she had been like that, not making any conversation.

            “Eva, do you want to help me?” he shouted up to the cleric on her perch. He didn’t like the idea of leaving her anywhere near Celintra.

            Evangeline looked down at the young man and pouted. “But I just got up here!”

            “Don’t worry,” the samurai chuckled. “Just drop; I’ll catch you.” To show he was serious, he walked over to where her white boots dangled off the log, holding out his arms in readiness.

            All the while, Tabitha had found a shady spot under a tree to watch the on goings of her company. As River joined her, she asked the boy a question.

            “What do you think of her?”

            “Hmm?” River looked away from the scene, missing the chance to see Eva fall ungracefully onto Maroshi, knocking them both to the grassy floor. “Who?”

            “The magician.” Tabitha nodded to where Celintra stood, giving the samurai and her sister’s spectacle a distasteful look-over. “Do you think she will murder us in our sleep?”

            River shuddered. He closed his eyes, the blurred vision of a rainy night coming into his mind unwelcome.  “I doubt it,” he replied, opening up his eyes.

            “Why?”

            “If she wanted to, she could have last night.”

            Tabitha chuckled.

            “HEY!” Eva yelled at them, interrupting the conversation. Her cheeks were red from embarrassment and Maroshi stood behind her, brushing the dirt off his pants.  “What do you think you’re laughing at!?!”

            “Certainly not you,” Tabitha grinned.

            Before anyone else could say another word, Celintra interrupted, way off-topic. “I have a question.”

            “Heh?” Maroshi turned around, surprised the mage was even there. Yet she was, black cloak fluttering in the breeze and mysterious white bundle at her side.

            “What is it?” Eva inquired, her tumble and embarrassment forgotten in light of her sister’s newfound talkativeness. “What do you want to know?”

            “I know you, Evangeline, are on a quest, for a tournament of some sort. Your redhead friend informed me last night while you slept, Sister. So,” the elf looked over at the other three, her eyes resting finally on Maroshi, “why are the rest of you here?”

            Maroshi’s eyes narrowed. To protect Evangeline from the likes of you… “I am part of the same tournament,” Maroshi instead replied. “A few months ago, I was given a letter with a green insignia. What does it matter to you?”

            The magician smirked, reaching into her ceremonial dagger’s hilt. “Because it would seem that I am also a part of that tournament.” Celintra held out a paper folded into threes, a familiar green marking on its center.

            Tabitha sighed.

            “No,” Maroshi hissed, biting his lip.

            Eva did not hear her friend’s curse. She was too overjoyed. “Celintra! You’re on our team! That’s great! How long have y--”

            “Come on, Eva,” Maroshi interrupted, pulling her wrist and leading the cleric into the forest. “River asked us to get some kindling so he can cook dinner… Let’s go.”

            “But I--” Evangeline was whisked past her sister, trying to get in a word edgewise.

            “Let’s go,” the samurai repeated, firmer this time. “It will be dark in a few hours and we can’t do it then.”

            Eva shrugged, finally getting her wrist free. She looked back to her still sister, shrugging and mouthing ‘I’m sorry’ to the elf.

            As soon as the duo left her sight, Celintra tucked away the note and turned towards the two remaining members. “Now that that’s clearer,” she broke the silence, sitting down six feet away from them, “I’d like you two to answer the question.”

            “Could you repeat it,” Tabitha yawned, picking at her teeth with a twig.

            River glanced at the redhead beside him. What the hell’s she being so rude for? Wasn’t she the one that was worried Celintra would kill us in our sleep?

            Celintra smirked, amused by the woman across from her. “I was inquiring as to why you three were going to the tournament with my sister. The samurai gave me his answer, and it’s a valid one. Though I don’t see how he could hope to compare to anyone’s strength,” she added as an afterthought.

            River bristled at the elf, trying to keep his tongue in check.

            “Well now, I can’t say I’ve ever really seen him in his full glory,” Tabitha mused, “but I doubt he was invited by accident, ya know?”

            Celintra nodded. “That is true. Since it has been established the warrior has a valid reason, why don’t you tell me yours? Are you a part of my sister’s team as well?”

            The redhead shrugged, closing her eyes and putting her hands behind her head. “I’d never want to fight in tournaments. Don’t think I ever have either.”

            “Then why are you here?”

            Tabitha opened up her left eye and grinned a feral grin. “Because I can be.”

            Celintra laughed.

            That’s a laugh to send chills up your spine, River thought.

            When she finally stopped, the elf had an evil look in her purple eyes and a smirk on her lips. She let them fall upon the redhead who was still lounging against the tree.

            “I don’t like you.”

            Tabitha gave a dry laugh. “Good. I’m not here to be friends with you.”

            Celintra ignored the woman, having had enough of her for one day. She turned to River, who was most confused by what he had just witnessed. “And you, with the blue hair and summoning bowl.”

            The kid with blue hair gulped slightly.

            “His name’s River-kun,” Tabitha muttered, letting her eyes fall shut again.

            The elf didn’t care. “Why are you here?”

            River was at a loss for words. Maybe instead of following their conversation he should have been searching for an answer to the question that was sure to come.

            I don’t think she’ll take ‘Because I can’ twice in a row…

            Finally the boy shrugged, hugging his knees to his chest. “Because I want to be.”

            Celintra frowned. “That’s not a good answer.”

            Brown eyes narrowed despite the brain’s plea for composure. “And why should I give a fuck about what you say?”

            Tabitha’s ears twitched, yet she said nothing. Let him get it out…

            “Watch your tongue, human,” Celintra snapped.

            “Maybe you should watch yours,” River muttered, rising quickly from his seat. Before another word could be uttered, he stormed off into the forest, opposite direction of Maroshi’s earlier path.

            There was a long stretch of silence as the only two people left in the clearing eyed each other up. Purple and green met, not liking what they saw.

            It was Tabitha who spoke first. “Before you think of petty revenge for mere words thrown at you by an impetuous young lad,” she began, “there is something you should take into account.”

            “And what’s that?” Celintra’s tone matched Tabitha’s evenly. Flat, raw, truthful, and not caring for tact.

            “If you touch one hair on that boy’s head, you will have a very powerful, very angry necromancer to deal with,” she finished. With that, the redhead shut her eyes and said no more.

            Celintra’s eyebrow rose, but no words came to challenge those spoken.

            No one would die in his sleep tonight.

 

 

 

 

            River wasn’t sure how long he had been walking until the gigantic trees began to thin out, revealing a sparkling lake in the middle of the forest. Angry thoughts had raced through his head, a few choice images of a dead elf, and silent curses under his breath.

            He hated people like Celintra.

            But now, as he stood looking at the glittering blue lake, like a sapphire amidst a sea of trees, the anger melted away. Or at least, went down to a more manageable level.

            The lake was perhaps half a mile across with little islands nary a foot wide trailing a path to the center. There, on the largest green island, was a tower of pillars and stone. However, the odd thing was, the tower leaned on its side at an almost impossible angle! At the top, a steady waterfall fell down from the tower’s top story into the lake below.

            River came to the edge of the lake and looked at the water, seeing his own reflection surrounded by the sky’s drifting clouds, all tinted with the liquid’s blue. The lake didn’t have much of a shoreline; the water just started at the grassy edge. Over the tops of the trees that had hidden the tower earlier, the young man could make out the tips of snowy mountaintops in the distance.

            River took off his wooden sandals, hopping onto the closest island. He hopped again and again until he finally reached the large island, proud not to have fallen into the lake. He sat a few yards from the tower, the waterfall’s sound reaching his ears. Dipping his feet into the water, River enjoyed the sun that warmed his back.

            I really should get my temper under control one of these days, the brown-eyed boy sighed. The master said it always gets me into trouble.

            I wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed at the temple… River lifted his left foot out of the water, watching the sunlight dance upon the beads of moisture. This wasn’t the first time he had entertained this particular thought.

            The teenager laughed to himself dryly.

            No, his life was basically just a bunch of ‘what-ifs’.

 

 

Eleven Years Ago

 

 

            “It’s so sad,” the woman whispered to her sister. “He was the best mayor we’ve ever had. At least, the best one in my lifetime.”

            Another couple passed the ceramic jar, kneeling before it in prayer.

            “Oh yes,” the sister nodded. “Terrance Bluefate was most definitely the best.”

            Before the jar, amidst the flowers that perfumed the air, was the portrait of a man with combed blue hair, a stately mustache, and a look of dignity and intelligence.

            “He straightened out the economy after that recession, took Icetai off the list of cities with the highest crime rate, disposed of that corrupt Statesman of the Treasury, lowered taxes…” She ticked off numerous reasons on her painted fingernails.

            The couple got up, finished with their prayer, only to have another one take their place. It would be at the very least another five hours before everyone in line got his chance to pay respect.

            “Such a pity,” the younger one tsked. “The Vice-Mayor will have a set of very large shoes to fill.”

            The temple maiden brushed past them, a jug of holy water in her arms. It was the sixth time that day she had to refill the Blessing Bowls outside.

            “You mean sandals, Sister,” she joked, moving forward in the line. Other people around them chuckled. The mayor was infamous for wearing the antique clothes of years long past. Only when winter came did he not wear those wooden sandals.

            “I wonder where the mayor’s son and ex-wife are. I haven’t seen them in the temple. Did they come to an earlier viewing?”

            The temple maiden filled the bowl, an old man dipping his fingers into the water and wiping them across his forehead and eyelids.

            “Didn’t you hear?”

            “Hear what?”

            Alice left on another one of her fabulous spur-of-the-moment excursions two days ago for Drowensburg up north. She took little River with her; they won’t be back for at least another week and it takes just that long to get mail up there as well.”

            “So?”

            “So? Don’t you understand? They don’t know Terrance is dead, silly girl!”

            “Oh my… Poor River. They’ll have buried the ashes by the time he returns home.”

            “Such a sad thing.”

            “It really is.”

 

 

One Year After the Death of Terrance Bluefate

 

 

            It’s only been a week since she dumped her last boyfriend, River scowled at his plate of half-eaten food. Why does she bring another loser to the dinner table?

            “River,” Alice looked over to her son, “did you know Thomas is training at the Temple of Tiger in town? Isn’t that interesting?”

            “Sure, I guess.” The eight-year-old poked at his food, not looking up into his mothers brown eyes.

            “Well, maybe you should join the temple,” the black-haired man chuckled, ruffling the child’s blue hair. “It would be good for a squirt like you to learn something useful and put some meat on those bones!”

            River glared at the older man. His mother swallowed nervously, noticing her son’s malice.

            “Uh…” Thomas withdrew his hand quickly as if he touched a burning stove. “So… When did you say your dad bit the dust?”

            Alice sighed.

            The young boy screeched his chair loudly against the dining hall’s floor, getting up in an instant. He turned his brown eyes to his mother’s blue pair. “I’m going out for a walk.”

            Alice nodded, staring down at her empty plate, not looking up until she heard the door slam.

 

 

 

 

            One year ago. One year ago, that’s how long, you stupid cock! River kicked a rock violently, sending it flying. He had wandered into Steelhaven,—the city part of Icetai—going deeper and deeper into the ghetto, though not fully realizing it. Hands shoved into the pockets of his leather jacket, River continued down the sidewalk.

            It was dangerous for a young child to be out alone in the ghetto, especially at dusk. A year ago, Alice would have refused to let her baby out of the house any minute past six. Yet after the death of her ex-husband, Alice had become soft, letting River do whatever he wanted. It wasn’t that she felt pity for him; Alice felt guilty for taking River’s last opportunity to see his father away from him.

            The child wrapped his jacket around him tighter, his black school uniform not keeping out the autumn chill.  Everyone in town saw him; they saw his ashes in the jar at the temple. Everyone saw him one last time, everyone but me! I told that stupid woman I didn’t want to go with her on a stupid vacation. She didn’t listen. She never listens!

            River trudged down the empty streets, wallowing in his bubbling hatred. His black shoes kept heading forward in a straight line showing no sign of stopping. The youngster passed an alley, not taking notice of it any more than anything else in the ghetto.

            “So, you think you’re better than us cuz you passed the entrance exam, eh Maroshi?”

            River stopped in his tracks, the hate-filled voice matching the one in his head.

            “I don’t want any trouble; I just came out here on an errand for Sister Ja—“

            “Shut up!” Smack.

            The young boy crept back to the alley, curiosity heightened to an unbearable degree. Watching the shadows dance off the faces of four older boys, River poked his brown eyes around the corner to the dimly lit dead-end.

            “Ch’,” the first one spat. “How could some scum like this pass the exam? I only gave him one punch to the gut and he’s almost out!”

            Three of the boys crowded the fourth up against a brick wall, trapping him there. He gripped his stomach in pain, his amber eyes shining with anger.

            River was about to back away from the scene when a shard of glass shattered under his foot.

            “Hey!” Another boy spun around, his scarf covering his mouth and muffling the sound. “Who’s there!?!”

            The blood from the blue-haired boy’s face drained and his heart sunk along with it. River stood frozen as the first boy rushed over to him, grabbing his jacket and throwing him into the amber-eyed youth.

            “OW! Damn it!” River grimaced, both at being thrown like a doll and being found out like a rat. “Let me go!” He struggled against the arms holding him, only to discover it was the amber-eyed boy keeping him upright.

            River fell silent as he looked up into that face; the light from the alleyway’s torch cast a god-like glow upon him. His medium-length ebony hair fell around his face, golden eyes piercing like an eagle’s.

            “So, what do we have here?” the third boy inquired, cracking his gloved knuckles.

            “Looks like some rich pig by the uniform,” the scarf-clad one answered. He paced towards the two boys pinned by the wall to get a better look at River. Upon getting that look he stopped short in his tracks. “Shit! That kid’s got blue hair!”

            The boy holding him—was Maroshi his name?—looked down, piercing gaze replaced with an inquisitive one. River glared at the offensive boys; he hated being picked on for his hair-color.

            The boy that had tossed him shrugged. “So what, Randy? Who gives?”

            “Tom! Don’t you remember the mayor that died a year ago!?” Randy turned, his voice tainted with nervousness. “The one everyone loved and elected seven times in a row?”

            The gloved hooligan’s blue eyes narrowed, a breeze ruffling his dusty brown hair. “The one that disbanded our old gang…”

            “He had blue hair…” Tom’s voice trailed off, black eyes flickering to his two comrades and back to Maroshi holding River upright. “Just like this brat.”

            “You remember, Al?” Randy turned to the boy in gloves. “So how many people do you think have hair like that in Icetai?”

            “Not too many.” Al smirked, taking a step closer towards the captives.

            River’s heart sank for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. Strong hands gripped his shoulders, pushing him away. Before he could protest—or thank him—Maroshi placed himself between the three boys and River, his hands clenched into fists.

            “What do we have here?” Tom snickered. “You think you can take on all three of us, Maroshi?”

            The black-haired adolescent scowled hard at them. “I do.”

            “I’d like to see you try!” Al snarled, charging Maroshi. The other two delinquents followed suit, rushing with malice in their young eyes.

            Before anyone made contact, River clapped his hands over his eyes, shutting them tight. He didn’t want to think about what he’d see when he opened them; although he had just met Maroshi, River couldn’t help but liking him right off the bat--probably because the boy was defending him without even knowing River personally.

            The sound of punches, yells, kicks, and bones crunching reached River’s ears.

            Does everyone around me have to die? Is this what you want for me, Tiger!? River’s mind screamed out, almost drowning away the thud of a body being thrown to the ground and someone coughing up blood.

            Suddenly, a new sound emerged amidst the yells and punches. It crackled like a campfire and sent a wind over River’s hands and through his short hair. The crackles got louder and earsplitting, sending River’s pulse and fear through the roof—what was happening? Did one of those boys have a weapon? What weapon could even make that sound?—until finally… It stopped.

            River sat frozen to the ground. He wasn’t sure when he had slid down the wall, but his knees still felt weak and wobbly. The young boy sat like that for a minute or two, eyes still clamped shut. He expected to be picked up and hurled against the bricks by one of the hooligans, but no such thing came.

            He sat.

            Then a noise reached his ears.

            It was a very soft one, but something no human being could ever mistake for anything else. It was the hum of someone breathing.

            The breath was heavy as if the person had just run from the dogs of Hell. As River slid his hands away from his face and finally opened his brown eyes, he was shocked at what he saw.

            Randy, Albert, and Tom—while they were still breathing—probably wouldn’t be moving for a little while. Each was in a small pool of pain, fingers broken, arms twisted the wrong way, eyes shut to the alley’s dim light. In the middle of all that was Maroshi, hunched over with his hands on his knees, breathing hampered and body worn.

            How did he--!? I… I don’t believe it. River gaped at the black-haired boy. Turning around, Maroshi returned the look with a small smile. But then the adolescent staggered over to where River sat, looking as if he had something important to say.

            Before any word could come out of his mouth, Maroshi collapsed.

 

 

 

 

            “Mom, I’m going to the temple,” River called out, throwing a jacket over his uniform and tossing his books to the ground.

            “All right, dear. Mary’s going to have dinner made by six tonight, so make sure you--”

            The slamming door cut off his mother’s voice; River didn’t really care for anything she had to say. It was only by virtue of a good mood that he even told her where he was going anyway. She shouldn’t get used to it.

            Saying hello to the hired gardener working on the azaleas, the brown-eyed boy trudged down the mansion’s large stairs. He swung open the silver gate, heading down the road.

            River did like living in Hilltop; the houses were rather pretty. Each mansion sat on a little hill, a line of stairs traveling down to Brick Street, a lantern by each silver gate, and a mailbox shaped like a swan or goose. It was only a ten-minute walk to Fieldsend, the farming district of Icetai. That was also where the Temple of Tiger was located.

            It had been a few months since that night he had gone into the ghetto and found Maroshi. After the boy had passed out—and saved his skin—River had hauled the older youth’s dead weight back to the temple from which he came. It had taken an hour, but proved something that River never considered—he was actually pretty strong for an eight-year-old.

            The master of the temple had been shocked to open the temple’s doors and find his favorite student—as he had told River—unconscious. After tending to Maroshi’s wounds and listening to the tale of heroism, the old man had insisted that River spend the night—or what was left of it.

            Knowing his mother wouldn’t care—or that he didn’t care if she did—River accepted.

            The next day, the aroma of pancakes and rice awaked him. When at last River’s eyes did open and adjust to morning’s light, he found a bandaged—yet smiling—Maroshi with a tray of food and tea for them both.

            Ever since then, River had been visiting his newest friend almost every day at the Temple of Tiger where Maroshi trained. River was thrilled watching Maroshi learn new techniques, pass tests of skill, and get into trouble once in a while for being a klutz.

            And just last month, the master had told River that he might as well become a student since he was there so often anyway.

 

 

Eleven Years After the Death of Terrance Bluefate

 

 

            “That paralyze-cure technique seems pretty retarded, Mar.”

            “Why do you say that?”

            “I dunno. I just don’t see what use it would be to me if we were both paralyzed. Then who would cure us, ‘specially if we were all alone?”

            Maroshi chuckled, polishing the tip of his bronze katana. “So what do you propose?”

            “Something that can cure my own paralysis.” River yawned.

            “I don’t see how you’d be able too, since you’d be frozen, Riv.”

            “I heard the master saying something about how the ninjas over at the Temple of Dragon have some crazy techniques,” the younger man replied. River rolled onto his stomach, the floor’s cool tile singeing his bare chest. “Like they flex their muscles or some shit like that and they can bust out of it.”

            Maroshi frowned. “We’re not ninja; we’re warriors.”

            “Same diff’, Mr. Samurai.”

            “There is a difference. Ninja are stealthier than warriors but hit for less damage. Now,” Mr. Samurai continued, standing up from the marble steps, “what weapon are you going to use?”

            “Haven’t thought about it,” River replied. The two were in the temple’s weapon shed, which was big enough to be a bedroom. The shed held many of the extra weapons that didn’t fit in the main weapon hall located in the temple. It was in the middle of a grassy field, a few hundred yards away from any other buildings. Two oak trees stood a couple yards from the shed, serving as in impromptu battleground.

            “Well, pick something, Riv,” the warrior said, balancing his own katana in his hands.

            “What do you want to practice against? It doesn’t matter to me.”

             “You know, not everyone has your talent...”

            River grinned. “I know.”

            “Well, what do you know how to use that’s about my level with the katana?”

            “Everything.”

            “Riv.” Maroshi gave him a look.

            “Fine, fine.” River shook off the look, standing up and dusting off his black pants. The shed’s marble floor felt chilly against his bare feet as River inspected his options

            “What’s there to choose from, Riv?”

            “Hmm… Flail, broadsword, staff, scimitar, pike, tonfas, club, two-handed axe, aaaannndddd… Is that a fucking scythe? Who the hell uses a scythe?”

            “I’m not sure.”

            “I wanna try it.” River smirked, picking up the long weapon from its rack. The wood was worn and soft enough for the perfect grip. Sweeping into a deadly arc, the blade was four feet long and made of steel.

            “You’ve never used one before,” Maroshi half-pouted. “I’ll beat you too easy.”

            “Just give me a few minutes alone with her.” The blue-haired youth continued to grin, stepping outside into the fresh spring air. “Oh yeah, I like this…” River swung it around a few times, sweeping over the long grass, cutting off the tips.

            Maroshi shook his head, beaming at his friend. River would be lost in his own little world for half-an-hour until he learned the basics and more of the scythe. The eighteen-year-old had an unbelievable gift; River could learn how to use practically any weapon without anyone showing him how.

Maroshi sat down on the stairs, content to watch his friend in motion.

           

 

 

 

            Dammit! It happened again! River sighed and continued to walk up Brick Road, his house just in sight. A rogue breeze sent the edges of his black gi flapping, the tips of his hair moving along with it.

            Every time he gives me that fucking look I feel like I’m going to die, the eighteen-year-old thought, hopping over his silver gate. Disgusting; no way I’m in love with Maroshi. He’s my best friend!

            After their sparring session—in which River had lost, but only because of his scythe-ignorance in comparison to Maroshi’s savvy katana skills—he’d been absolutely beat and fell back onto the grass to watch the clouds.

            Maroshi had laughed at his childishness and walked over to help him up. River accepted the extended hand that pulled him upright. Perhaps Maroshi had pulled a little too hard or fast, but River found himself pressed right against the samurai-in-training.

            For a moment their bare, heaving chests had touched, sharing heat and dampness. Of course Maroshi hadn’t thought anything of the action and just stood there, smiling as usual before walking to retrieve his sword. Then the stupid bastard had the audacity to turn around and flash River a brilliant smile and say ‘Good job’ or something like that.

            It made River absolutely humiliated for feeling that intense pleasure from such a small action.

            Pushing open the front door and welcoming the cool air inside the mansion, the young man sighed once again. He would take an extra-long bath today; that was for sure.

            “Oh, good, you’re back.” River’s mother called out as soon as she heard the door shut. River thought the voice came from the parlor room. “We’re going out to dinner tonight with your grandmother. That is, if you want to go, River.”

            The young boy stepped into the parlor, the light from all of the windows bouncing off the silver tea set beside his mother. Reading a leather-bound book, she sat on a popasaunt chair, her blonde hair tied back so it wouldn’t get in the way. Alice looked over her reading glasses at her son, not wanting to say anything until he spoke.

            River swallowed a lump in his throat. “I’ll go. What would you like me to wear?”

            Surprise quickly masked as gratefulness passed over the woman’s face. “Whatever you want to, dear.”

            “Is it a casual restaurant?”

            “No, but I can change the reservations if you’d rather not eat at someplace fancy instea--”

            “That’s fine, Mom,” River interrupted, giving her a small smile. “I’ll wear one of Dad’s old outfits since I don’t have anything.”

            At the mention of her ex-husband, a wave of pain washed over Alice’s face. She lifted up the book and obscured her face from her son. “All right, that sounds good.”

            “Ok,” River quietly replied before stepping out of the parlor. Instead of going upstairs to his room, River pressed himself against the wall by the parlor’s doorway, listening.

            In a moment it came.

            Soft sobs drifted out of the parlor and fell upon pained ears.

            River clenched his fist so tightly; his nails dug into flesh as he squeezed his eyes shut too. The teen rested his head against the wall, wanting to collapse like he had in a certain alleyway ten years ago. He wanted to clap his hands over his ears and get the horrible sound of his mother’s tears out of his mind, but he did not.

            River stood like a statue, forcing himself to listen to what he had done to his mother these past years.

 

 

 

 

            The blue-haired youth poked at his sushi, not entirely interested in what was going on around him. He thought he had been at the sushi restaurant before; the booth they sat at looked vaguely familiar. Then again, he couldn’t remember having dressed up so nicely for dinner before.

            His grandmother sat across from his mother—who was beside him—dressed in a green kimono and chatted on about nothing. Alice nodded along to the stories, adding a bit about who and what. All the while she was eating her own meal, inquiring if River was too cold or too warm sitting in the isle seat. River would shrug; his dark blue kimono kept him warm enough and he was sure her aqua one did the same.

            I haven’t seen Mom this happy in a long time. River glanced over to where daughter and mother chattered on about nothing and everything. Grandma should come up from Lubei more often.

            At that thought, a pang of guilt bit at the young man. When he was ten, Alice had mentioned something about packing up and moving down south to Lubei to live with Grandma. River had kicked and screamed about just joining the Temple and missing his friends and all that crap. Finally Alice had recoiled, never bringing up moving from Icetai again.

            River sighed. Damn it all. I was such a spoiled brat. She should have smacked me right then and there.

            At noticing her son’s sigh, Alice left her previous conversation about gardening and turned to him. “River? Is something the matter? Don’t you like your sushi? If not, we can just send it back or leave. Maybe you’d rather do vegetarian tonight or--”

            “I’m fine,” he interrupted. Perhaps his tone was a bit snappier than intended. Alice clamped her mouth shut and looked away, folding her hands into her lap.

            His eyebrows knitting together, River swallowed. I’ve done it again. I should let her enjoy her night with Grandma.

            “I’m just not hungry tonight, that’s all, Mother,” the young man comforted, his voice in a much more soothing tone. “I’m going to go out for a walk and I’ll meet you both back home, ok?” River leaned forward and gave his mother a small kiss on the cheek, climbing out of the booth and leaving the restaurant.

            Whether Alice smiled, nodded, or had some objection he would not know.

 

 

Twelve Years After the Death of Terrance Bluefate

 

 

            Groaning, River awoke to a nasty sunbeam assaulting his eyelids. Where was he? What had happened last night? Oh, yes… The party for Maroshi. What was it again? Maroshi had received a letter a few weeks ago about a tournament of some sort. He’d be fighting in a tournament on Mount Yukito. If Maroshi was to get there on time, he’d have to leave the morning after the party.

            Ah. That made sense.

            Wait…

            River jolted wide-awake, sitting up in bed as stiff as a board. “The morning! What time is it!?!” Ripping the covers from his body, River grimaced. He hadn’t changed out of his clothes from last night. Did he have enough time to change? The blue-haired adolescent glanced at his clock—it was nine a.m.

“No time,” River scowled. “No stinkin’ time.”

 

 

 

The young man sprinted down the road with total abandon. He only had time to accomplish three objectives before he left his house this sunny morning. Grabbing his new summoning bowl as he slipped on his father’s old sandals, River kissed Alice. His mother had still been asleep when he tiptoed into her room.

Maybe after I leave, there won’t be any tears on your face in the morning, he thought. Even now as he ran, River’s heart still ached for his poor mother who had a bratty demon of a child. Now it will be different; but I can’t come back. I can’t make her cry.

Dashing down the dirty road, River finally made it to the outskirts of his city—Icetai. The sky shone a brilliant blue as the fields contrasted with earthy tones, sun washing everything so pure. Up ahead there was a man with long black hair and a sword. He was traveling away from River, his back all the young man could see.

As River scurried closer to Maroshi’s oblivious form, he picked up a rock to alert his friend. Now in range, River let the stone fly from his fingertips.

           

 

Present

 

 

            “Hey, River-kun. It’s time to come back now—they’ll get worried if you’re not there when they return.”

            Startled, the brown-eyed youth glanced up. How long did I let my mind wander? The sun’s almost set. “You didn’t have to come after me, Tabitha.”

            “Sou ka? Really?” Tabitha’s eyebrow shot up, mostly because the brat had called her by her name.

            “Quit talking in that stupid language I can’t understand,” River scowled. Standing up, he brushed off his legs, grass fluttering to the ground. He turned back to Tabitha. In front of him, standing on one of the hopping-rocks, the woman was a few feet from the main island. Behind him, River could still hear the waterfall’s steady roar. “It’s annoying, you talking like that.”

            “Old habits are hard to break,” Tabitha smirked. “Let’s go—this lake’s a sacred place. It’s best not to dawdle in such areas for long.”

            River jumped to the first rock, following the redhead back to shore. “Hmm?”

            “That tower on the island is old—very old.”

            “Older than you? Amazing!”

            “Kid, you are two seconds away from a knuckle sandwich.”

            “I’d like to see you catch me, hag!” Sticking out his tongue, River dashed past Tabitha.

            “You brat!” she seethed, glaring at River’s retreating back.

Into the forest he went, laughing all the way. After a minute, silence fell once again, save a sacred waterfall’s song.

            “Hn. Looks like River-kun’s back to his bouncy self. Everyone needs some alone time, I suppose.” Tabitha smiled to herself, then addressed the tree to her right. “What would you say, Xyo?”

            “I’d say I don’t care,” the tree replied. Scratch that—to any other person it would have been the tree speaking. To Tabitha, however, it was the man lounging in the lowest limb that spoke. “I’d also say,” Xyo continued, “I’m rather impressed you can see though my invisibility spell.”

            Tabitha’s voice lost its usual joking edge. “Don’t forget who I am. Don’t forget what I am. Don’t forget your place.”

            A smirk. “I wouldn’t dare.”

 

 

 

 

            “Oh, you’re back!” Maroshi smiled at his friend who had just burst through the forest. “We can start to cook dinner then—Eva is just tending the fire. Tabitha and the magician wandered off, but I guess they’ll be back.”

            “Uh… huh.” Panting, River sat down on the cool grass and promptly collapsed. He thought he heard Maroshi talking to him, but the stars in the dark sky seemed to… Envelope him.

            …They look like Mother’s tears.

            “River? Riv?” With his sheathed katana, Maroshi poked his friend’s ribs. “What’s wrong, buddy?”

            The adolescent smacked away the sword with the back of his hand. “Can you promise me something, Mar?”

            “Um, sure?”

            “Promise me I don’t have to go home.”

            The samurai blinked. “…That’s an odd thing to promise, Riv.”

            River’s foot shot out and caught Maroshi’s ankle, the latter tumbling down to the ground. “Just swear it to me, stupid.”

            Maroshi picked a twig out of his long hair. Amber eyes glowing in the dark, Maroshi cast a sideways glance at his ally. River was still gazing up at the canopy of stars and sparkles, a far away look in his eyes. Sighing, Maroshi replied.

“I promise.”