Chapter Two - Translucent Dreams

The rain drummed against the roof, weaving the most ancient of rhythms, as Amaya moved about the kitchen. It was the only room in a house of silken tapestries and painted fans where she felt at ease. Stark as the stone which had crafted it, the kitchen was for producing beauty, not admiring it.

The girl was thinking about Sakuran, who had returned twice already to offer his assistances. Though she grew less polite as he remained adamant, Amaya thought he would be at her door again soon, professing good intentions.

And there it was - the sound of footsteps, muffled by pattering raindrops, but still distinct in Amaya's ears. Words were flying from Sakuran's mouth before he had even crossed the threshold, or removed his shoes. Amaya frowned her irritation and interrupted the healer.

"You must think my will is weak and supple," she told him. "I have given you my decision."

"No," he returned immediately. "If anything, it is stronger than mine, which has been worn down by years."

"Then why are you here?"

Sakuran sighed, the sound of wind touching and turning silver leaves. "Because you have worth that you refuse to see."

Amaya's lips were still, as was every muscle in her face. Her expression was perfectly composed.

"You have intelligence," Sakuran continued, pressing his point.

"No one will ever linger to hear it."

"You have beauty."

--Lecherous old man,-- Amaya thought, but said only, "I can not see it."

"You have the will you are so proud of."

"Neither you nor any other respects it." There was a note of finality in Amaya's tone, and perhaps a hint of satisfaction in the upturned corners of her mouth.

A quiet filled the room when Sakuran made no answer; it intruded the dust laden corners, echoed from the slanted rafters overhead. It lay thickly, heavy as new fallen snow, before Sakuran dared disturb it.

"What do you dream of at night, before you fall asleep?" he asked softly.

This time the silence seemed to spread across the floor, through the crevices in the walls, over the fields of rice, where grasses bent and huddled together before the flowing grey rain. It might have spread its fingers to the chill, unforgiving mountains in the north or to the perpetually green lands of the south, had Amaya not finally answered:

"I dream of dreaming. That is the time when I see, when I leave this place, when I'm free." She looked up at Sakuran, and somehow her sightless white eyes found his. "I will go with you."

* * *

Nari stood in front of a red door, with the comfortable weight of silver resting against her hip. It had been a rare good day; she had defeated three challengers, and all had paid what they owed. In the slums of a city like Heijo, money was a more valuable commodity than honor.

Now she stood smiling before an inn with a graceful, steepled roof, beating its brass gong and anticipating a warm, full night. The red door was opened by a round woman, whose ancient eyes were almost lost within crinkling folds of age and fat. (A/N: for it is the unwritten rule of writers that all innkeepers must be fat. ^_~)

"Nari-san!" the innkeeper exclaimed, smoothing her faded, worn kimono. Nari had never seen her without it; the elderly woman put more pride in that garment than in all the rest of her small establishment. "I hope you've not come to beg, you know times are hard for me."

Nari only laughed, too content to be embarrassed by memories of emptier days. "No, Lady Ku, I have good coin. Is there an empty space here?"

"Of course," Innkeeper Ku said, stepping aside so that her large frame no longer blocked the way. With a slight bow, Nari was inside and free of her tattered shoes.

Thin ribbons of smoke curled towards the ceiling, so that the air was interlaced with scents of pipeweed, human bodies, and fresh fish. Men and women, most of them lower class merchants, knelt around the room on soft white floor mats. Their voices wove a soft medley, which hummed in Nari's ears as she settled near the whispering fire.

Barely a moment later, a hot breath reeking of sake crawled down the back of Nari's neck. She became very still, willing the tiny serpent to vanish, but it only squirmed faster. And so she turned quickly, fluidly, with Tear in her hand.

Her eyes found only a drunken man, kneeling low and leaning close, with a grey bandage tied around his head. A small fount of pity for this sagging, weary creature rose within her; it was gone as soon as he spoke.

"Ha," he leered, in slurred tones, "Here is the girl. Yes, and she's still well. Remember what I told you, inoshishi? No one walks away from Akitari unharmed."

"I have heard many such claims," Nari said levelly.

"This one will be made good," Akitari promised her. "And you will even help, with a smile on your face."

"I'm afraid not. But if I may suggest it, you should have that head injury examined more closely. Good night." Nari began to move away, slowly and without fear.

Akitari reached out; with a motion both lurching and eager, he caught Nari's wrist. His grip was warm, damp, like a dragon's skin. "Nari Nakutai," he hissed, the words suddenly lucid and sharp, "Daughter of Mai Nakutai. Holder of Shakurana. You are not leaving here tonight."

"All these long names," Nari murmured, her voice a low monotone. "I am Nari of the streets. I do not know my mother, though I know what she must have been. My sword is Tear." She raised the weeping blade, allowing the firelight to dance on its polished surface. When she lowered it, she did so with control and grace, until it rested lightly upon Akitari's left shoulder. "Is this not so?"

"It doesn't matter if you kill me," Akitari laughed softly, and Nari flinched, almost imperceptibly. He spoke the truth; it was written within his bearing. "I have a friend in the Emperor's Watch. We are old comrades, and we rooted out the story of your past together. He knows it as well or better than I. And if I die... it will not stay quiet."

Silence. Then, guardedly, Nari stepped back and placed Tear in front of her, driving its deadly point into the floor. "What do you know?"

Akitari smirked. "That she was a failure, that you are her child. That the Emperor will pay more than that sword is worth for your head."

"He is not a cruel man; they all say so." Nari was struggling, quietly, to keep the fear from her face. But it was paralyzing, and at the same time alive with motion, pulsing through her body. "A long time has passed."

"Old grudges die hard. You should know that, Nakutai."

"Only in weak men." Nari spat, overcome with bitterness; she knew that she had lost. "What do you want?"

When Akitari smiled, his teeth were the same color as his yellow eyes; and there was a bitterness there too, although it was older and viler. "Come with me."

* * *

After Akitari had had his way with her, the beatings began. They carried the rage and force that only a broken man can bring; he strove to banish humiliation with her screams. But those screams came only from clenched teeth - hour after hour while the sun struggled towards the horizon, time and time again, Nari drove the agony back inwards. Her skin burned red first, stinging and burning; then it colored with a mosaic of blue and purple and black. When she went numb, she cried with relief. He did not know the reason for her tears, but they filled him with a deep and savage satisfaction. He licked them from her face with a sick, pale tongue.

And all through this, a mirror of seething anger flared inside her. Even when her body was exhausted so that she could not tense her muscles, it did not fade.

* * *

Nari awoke on a thin mat in an empty, dark room, where even the dust breathed decay. Tear was not beside her, and she was alone. There was blood on the sheets, which she thought was her own, but it had already dried and blackened into running stains. A weak stream of light fell through the one high window. It illuminated, however dimly, a single piece of parchment marked by sweeping black lines.

She bent over it, calling back knowledge that had lain stagnant for years. It read:

"The city is dead for you. Leave it and your memories. You will find me, and Shakurana, by the west gates at dusk.

Shakurana is all that is left of Nari Nakutai."

Nari moved, hesitantly, and found that she could stand. She could walk too, if only as far as Heijo's west trade gates.

A/N: Okay, sorry this took so long; there won't usually be such long gaps between chapters. Hope you liked it, please review. ^_^