Outside of Aohouseki’s gleaming white walls, Safaiananpou was a lush, but strange and abandoned, natural wonder. Wide valleys, looming mountains, dense forests, miles of deserted beach on its coastline. Inside Aohouseki’s sturdy defense, most of its civilization thrived in their day-to-day vocations, unaware of the untouched beauty just outside its walls.
To the sapphire demons, the city below seemed equally strange and abandoned. Not because they had never seen its citizens, homes, streets, businesses, arts, culture, or history. Rather, because it has been so long since they inhabited it. Inside the palace, the sturdy defense of Aohouseki’s white walls multiplied. Yet, it was not unknown or untouched. From within the palace’s keep, the moon viewing room provided a perfect vantage point to survey everything above and below. A large, ornate wooden desk with curved detailing provided a focal point inside the room, like many of Howie’s favorite rooms within the palace walls. Behind it, a full wall featured shelves lined with books, scrolls, and various instruments for observing and charting stars. To one side of the desk, a large painting of a star chart hung above two plush, equally ornate chairs. The wall opposite it featured a large doorway, as though it provided additional space for masses of hopeful celestial viewers to stand. The final wall opened to a large, full length balcony, open to the heavens above.
AJ leaned on the railing, staring at the busy city below him. It’s been so long since I’ve been here… I can barely remember what it was like to live in this country… other than knowing that I was happy and healthy.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Howie, did Aohouseki always have those tall walls?”
“No…” Howie glanced up from the scroll he was examining beside the desk. “We had them built after the siege. Our father treasured the peace in Safaiananpou, so we made it our purpose to uphold the safety of his prized city and country. When the citizens sought the refuge of the city, it enabled us to monitor their well-being and prosperity more regularly.”
“How do you feel being away from here?”
Howie glanced back at the scroll. “It is refreshing to focus on foreign relations in a more intimate manner, rather than border disputes and military campaigns. Though truthfully, we do miss the citizens. However, we trust our advisors to keep them prosperous and content while protecting our borders.” He rolled the scroll back up before walking toward the balcony. “Please be assured that we do treasure the moments we all have together. We had always hoped to be reunited with the other cardinal demons and fulfill the visions our father had held for our future.”
“I wasn’t worried.” AJ turned back to gaze over the bustling city. “I wish I hadn’t given up hoping to meet you all. I wonder if we could have avoided all of this if we were ready to be connected the first time. Or if we’d all been more prepared if the siege hadn’t happened.”
“It is simple to dwell on regrets, but history is behind us all. It is our duty to reflect on it and continue forward.” Howie leaned on the railing beside AJ. “That is the reason we had the walls constructed, to better defend against seizure in the future.”
“Don’t you worry about having everyone in the same place? Another campaign like that would wipe them out.”
“Perhaps a bit, but we do keep the borders heavily guarded in order to avoid that predicament.”
AJ frowned. “I haven’t seen any soldiers around…”
“They are well-hidden to maintain the image of tranquil peace. Though they are always aware of our traveling party inside our borders.”
AJ cocked an eyebrow as he stared at Howie. “You keep in contact with them?”
Howie winked, but said nothing.
“What did you tell them?” AJ swallowed as his bemused expression became a frown.
“Sapphire demons are trusted allies to be protected at all costs, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.” His warm tone contradicted his vague words.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera? Is that why Howie has been less worried about the ruby demons being here? Did he order a kill on sight for betrayal? That’s a whole new side of him.
AJ laughed. “You’re something else, Howie. They would all worry less if you mentioned that.”
Howie smiled. “There is strength in believing that you are the last bastion, though we do worry that Nick and Brian are beginning to fixate on that belief.” He frowned. “And that this alternate defense will be unavailable once we all depart Safaiananpou.”
“Brian, Kevin, and Nick have each other. They’ll figure out a way to be fine, no matter who tries to fight them.” He sighed. “Jacob and Erik seem less dangerous than Ashley, but do you think we should be worried about them? Erik’s wounded, but… we don’t know where Jacob is going or what the missing ruby demons are doing. And we don’t know anything about the topaz demons at all.”
“They are largely more silent than we would have expected.” Howie unrolled the scroll, holding it in front of AJ. “After hearing Elder Virgil’s recount of the tales our father passed down, we decided to research some of the history between the countries. It seems as though the northern countries were always more war-like than the more southern countries. This scroll describes a potential alliance between Topazuseihou and Safaiananpou as a ‘crossing that would cut through to truth,’ but laments that it is perilous when ‘bound and separated by the wars of the aggressors.’ It seems we both prize personal safety over potential alliances fraught with peril.”
“Those stories all sound like odd and vague metaphors.” AJ groaned. “Why can’t prophecies just specifically say things like ‘you’re going to meet the emerald demons and probably die unless you do this specific thing’ instead of poetically alluding to them? You would think whoever made them would want you to know exactly what to do. Who made them anyway?”
“It is unclear. It is possible that enough foresight existed to create a warning, but not to predict the outcome. Though that does create questions about the tangibility of fate.”
“Why we’re bound to this at all?”
“Whether our duties are sealed.” He closed the scroll again. “Though it seems abundantly true that the prophesied demons would use pale blue light in their powers as we all do and that Brian’s clan had yet to see a demon with pale blue light until Brian appeared.”
“They’re pretty devoted to preserving history.”
“Personal history at least. Otherwise, the vague records of the capital exist.” He gestured to the wall of books and scrolls behind them.
AJ laughed again. “Elder Virgil would love this. Walls of history. Minako probably would too, she’s always asking about our pasts.”
“And uniquely demonic characteristics.” Howie pressed his lips together as he surveyed the walled city below them.
“Are you worried about Brian’s request?”
“No.” Howie leaned on the railing again. “The effects of any item are typically negated once the item is destroyed.”
I wonder if the same thing would happen with Howie’s sword.
AJ briefly glanced at the hilt and scabbard, then fixed his stare on the ground.
“We could… never part with our sword. It is an extension of ourselves…” Howie fiddled with the pommel. “We assume your earrings are the same.”
AJ ran his thumbs on them, exhaling through his nose as a bright smile crossed his face. “I hated them when I first got them. The thought of having holes in my body horrified me when I was young. It didn’t matter how many times my father explained that it was tradition.” AJ laughed. “It’s hard… being a kid and not understanding that you come from this… history that’s bigger than you. That you’re only a small piece.”
A longing smile crossed Howie’s face as he stared at the city below them. “A small, but integral piece.”
“I still think it’s really vague… Demons who use pale blue light…”
“We understand.” Howie exhaled deeply. “When we created this sword with our father, our mother had been dead for some time, but we were still quite young. Young enough to still long for a mother. And yet, to be told that it is tradition to forget mothers in order to forge objects was extremely difficult…”
“You didn’t mention that before, Howie.” AJ frowned, but wrapped his arm around Howie’s shoulders.
“We presumed it was assumed.” He laughed quietly. “A mistake on our part. However, though it seems quite cavalier, the exchange that was distressing then is merely a fact now. Perhaps it was this indifference that frightened Minako initially. And despite that, we are trying to maintain an air of calm regarding our upcoming journey so that there are no further worries.”
“What worries you about Topazuseihou?” AJ slowly pulled his arm back from Howie’s shoulder.
“Primarily, whether we will be able to cross the desert successfully. If so, whether we will battle with the topaz demons and fail to ally.” A small, but comforting smile crossed Howie’s face as he turned to AJ. “Do you have worries as well?”
“I wish we weren’t splitting up…” AJ glanced at his feet. “But then I also worry what happens if Joseph isn't there or doesn’t want to join us? Or the topaz demons? We’ve been pretty lucky so far, but… Even with the ruby demons, we’re only one fight away from making new enemies…”
"And Nick is adamant that Ashley is untrustworthy."
"Honestly…” AJ fiddled with one of his earrings, then hunched over the railing. “I hate that we allied with them, but don't really pay attention to what they're doing. They’re probably feeling the same way."
"We agree. Though we cannot fault Erik for his injuries, it is disheartening that they did not join us in the capital to prepare."
"But sometimes I wonder, what if Nick's right, but it isn't only Ashley?"
Howie ran his hand on his chin. “We suppose that is always a concern. Do you have suggestions?”
AJ shrugged. “I don’t even know where we’d start planning for that possibility. But it’s just like those prophecies, they’d never come out and say it. I’d rather just know and get it over with.”
As they both stared at the city below, Howie laughed quietly. “We agree.”
Later that evening, the jubilant recognition for Howie’s return created the pretense that any personal worries remained nonexistent. The vast dining table had been decorated as though they expected to receive many guests with its immense spread of meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, and an assortment of other delectable foods. Each empty chair featured its own lavish place setting, complete with untouched luxurious crystal glassware. Howie held his head in his hand as he surveyed the table. I should have been more persistent in insisting that this is unnecessary…
He glanced up at Nick and AJ, happily tearing into equally piled high plates, more focused on the food than each other. Howie laughed quietly to himself. At least I can ensure that these two continue to eat something more balanced.
Nick glanced up at him. “What?” His speech was muffled by his half-full mouth.
Howie leaned back and took a sip from his goblet. “We were merely hoping that these portions were adequate.”
“Everything’s great, Howie. Thanks!” Nick shoved another mouthful in as he finished speaking.
AJ leaned back as he swallowed. “It’s really good, but what are you going to do with the things we don’t eat?”
Nick said something inaudible as he chewed.
AJ leaned closer to him. “What?”
Nick swallowed forcefully. “You don’t waste food, AJ.”
“I know that, Nick, but it would be pretty impossible for the three of us to eat this. I’d be impressed if you tried!”
Howie laughed quietly again. “We assume it will not be the last time Nick makes an attempt in order to ensure all the prepared food is consumed.”
Nick frowned. “Minako needed to make sure she ate everything on her plate.”
“As we said the first time, Nick, we will always ensure that you have food if you are hungry. However, if you are no longer hungry, we always ensure the palace staff distributes uneaten and fresh food to those who need it so that it is not wasted.” Howie took another sip from the goblet. Perhaps I should have ensured that more of this food started as that, rather than being placed on this table.
Nick glanced at his plate. “I remember you said that. Actually… I…” He squinted. “...vaguely... remember that being true outside of you saying it… but it… wasn’t allowed... Time or payment were the only acceptable trades for food. Or catching or growing it yourself, obviously.”
“Yes, that had been assistance our father had begun and we enjoy continuing and expanding his more citizen focused plans most of all. Happy citizens keep the country prosperous.” Howie swirled the cup. “Would it be of interest to you to assist with that this evening?”
Nick swallowed, blinked a few times, then stared up at Howie and smiled. “Yeah, I want to.”
“I’d love to help too!” AJ grinned. “Things were okay when I was here, but there were definitely some tough times in Rubiihoppou. And even though some things are hard now, each day is pretty easy. You’re always taking good care of us, Howie.”
Nick glanced at his plate again. “Thanks for that, Howie.”
“Think nothing of it. We enjoy assisting our friends.” Howie smiled, then took another sip. “Eat your fill and we shall all assist with distribution once you have finished.”
Nick started eating again as AJ fiddled with his utensils.
“AJ?” Nick asked with his mouth full.
“You’re starting to remember things from before in more detail. What do you remember about the ruby demons other than Ashley?”
Nick swallowed. “What about them?”
“Their powers… What else do you think would be good to know, Howie?”
Howie ran his hand along his chin as he set his goblet down. “Perhaps how they interacted with each other in the past.”
Nick pressed his lips together. “They’re a lot… simpler than Ashley… Erik’s is rocks or earth and Jacob’s is plants, which you know… Trevor’s is fire and Dan’s is water…”
“They are all elemental powers. It is interesting that they would be combined with a demon that removes powers…” Howie tented his fingers. “And their interactions?”
Nick frowned. “He seems like it here, but Ashley wasn’t really the boss of anyone… except me… Overbearing seems like a more accurate way to describe him…” He exhaled as a small smile quirked on his lips. “A teacher of many terrible qualities and decent hand-to-hand combat.”
“Madeline acts like he’s in charge of all their choices…” AJ crossed his arms. “But you’re saying he didn’t make decisions?”
“Not really…” Nick leaned his elbows on the table. “She wanted one thing and he wanted the opposite, so it probably felt like he was in charge of whether she got what she wanted… I wonder if she feels lonely seeing all of us make decisions…”
“During the journey, it seemed they were less argumentative than we expected.” Howie grabbed his cup again and stared at the liquid. “We wonder what has changed that they are no longer explosive?”
“Knowing you died probably does some weird things to you.” AJ shrugged.
Nick frowned. “Are you… okay?”
“I’m mostly mad that I wasn’t feeling like myself in the castle.” AJ smiled. “But I really believed that all of you would make some miracle where we’d be together again. And you did, eventually.”
“Yes, we would make that sacrifice as many times as it was needed. We believed in the possibility for a miracle beyond our imaginative powers. There is no bitterness in our heart, nor is there a desire to change because of death.” Howie’s smile was warm as well.
“It’s the same for me. If I have another chance, I want to make sure that I do what I can for all of you.”
“Precisely. We are sure Brian feels similarly.”
“Me too…” Nick glanced at his plate again. “Not that it’s reflecting on death, but…” He swallowed. “If there’s something I can do for my family… I can’t wait until it’s too late twice…”
Kevin would likely say the same. It seems all our hearts are synonymous. Perhaps it will be simple to reunite across the desert.
Howie continued to smile. “What else do you remember?”
Nick ran his hand on the back of his head. “If I had to say one of them was in charge… It was probably Dan? He was always quiet when they were fighting. Then he would usually offer a strategy that followed Ashley or Madeline and then everyone did that.”
A demon whose thoughts and opinions ebb and flow like water? That does sound dangerous…
He glanced at AJ, who nodded in response.
“Trevor was… fiery seems like the right word to describe him… I know he has fire powers so that sounds stupid. He wasn’t angry though, but he was energetic and loud. Jacob was quiet and did what everyone else wanted, like you’ve seen. And Erik was…” Nick pursed his lips. “I don’t really know… He was always doing whatever Madeline wanted… I’m sure he’s not only like that, but that’s what I saw. Always focused on Madeline.”
“That doesn’t remind you of someone else you know?” AJ laughed.
Nick shoveled in another mouthful of food and said something inaudible.
AJ leaned closer to him. “Was that a ‘me’ I heard under all that food?”
Nick swallowed. “Me? No. I didn’t say ‘me’...” He shoveled in more food and glanced away from AJ.
AJ laughed and began eating again.
“We appreciate you joining this preparation journey and acquiring some of our supplies even though you will not be joining us.”
Nick swallowed forcefully. “Sure thing, Howie. Brian really wanted me to leave and I’m happy to help you if I can. It was… weird running errands for you by myself though. Minako and I talked about doing that here after we got the box… I guess I’ll have to come back here with her after we’re back together again so we can.” He fiddled with his ring.
“What was that, ‘me’?” AJ laughed, then took another bite.
Nick wrinkled his nose and frowned as he stared at him.
Howie laughed quietly again. We must all make sure to appreciate these quiet moments when we have them. It is something I will miss when we separate.
Once the sun fully set, the three of them arrived at a gate behind the palace’s keep. Away from the lush gardens and finery at the entrance, this back gate was shrouded in the shadow of the colossal central building. Outside the palace walls, many citizens eagerly waited near the gate: all ages, all genders, families of all sizes, and lone people. As Howie approached, guards opened the gate and the citizens began to bow deeply.
“Stand. The gifts are bountiful today.” Howie stood in the center of the gate and picked up a package from the basket beside him. He touched the arms of the adults of the nearest family, then handed them the portioned food. “We hope this provides good nutrition for your family.”
AJ scanned the crowd, then adjusted the hood on his head as he walked toward Howie and began handing out food as well. Beside them, additional palace staff assisted with distributing the donations.
Nick watched them for a few moments, then scanned the crowd and frowned. You wouldn’t know it from the way Aohouseki… no... all of Safaianapou seems, but it’s not only a shining city. This world of war has created misery for so many… Howie does his best, but can he really combat so much sadness?
“Nick?” Howie glanced back at him.
Nick shook his head, tugging the opening of his hood down his forehead as he walked toward the gate. He scanned the crowd again and caught sight of adults pushing past a young girl with their hips as they formed a line. He kneeled down and waved to her. “Hi.”
The young girl trembled.
Nick smiled and cocked his head to the side. “Is your family here too or just you?”
She stepped forward hesitantly. “My mom is sick and can’t work. My brothers and sisters work, but doctors cost a lot of money.”
“I have a friend who’s a doctor and he takes care of me a lot. I hope the doctors who take care of your mom are nice too.” Nick picked up a package of food. “Do you have a few brothers or sisters? Or a lot?” He bit his lip. “Your mom is sick, so…” He picked up a second package. “Better take two to help her get stronger. Unless you need three?” He held them toward her.
The young girl’s face scrunched as tears welled in her eyes. She began crying, then threw her arms around Nick’s neck.
Nick flinched, holding his elbows wide as he clutched the food packages.
“They never ask about my family! They just give me a little for me because I’m usually last!” Her voice was shaky as she spoke through her tears.
Nick smiled as he set the packages down, then gave her a hug. “You’re very brave for coming here for your family and doing what you can for them. I’ll talk to How…” He paused. “...His Majesty and see if he can find a way to make it easier for children to get food for their families.”
The young girl tightened her arms around his neck and leaned toward his hood as she swallowed, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Everyone says demons are scary, but you’re not. You’re very kind.”
Nick laughed quietly. “Someone I love very much says the same thing. What gave it away?”
She leaned her hand in front of her mouth. “Your feet.” She hugged him tightly one more time, then pulled back with a wide smile on her face. “But I won’t tell anyone.”
Nick picked up the packages again and shrugged. “It’s just me. The cloak’s really for all of you.” He held the packages toward her. “I hope your mom gets better.”
“Thank you.” She bowed and skipped away from the gate.
As Nick stood, Howie leaned over. “A separate, earlier time for children may solve that issue, Nick. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.”
“Tell His Majesty that I was supposed to talk to him about that.” Nick grinned.
“We will make sure he is aware.” Howie winked, then turned back toward the line and beckoned an old woman toward him.
Nick picked up another package of food and stared at the line. I’ve been so focused on my own problems, but… there’s a lot of suffering here that has nothing to do with demons. When I’m so focused on the box… Justin… Ashley… Am I really doing enough?
He bit his lip, then continued handing out food for some time.
As the crowd dwindled, Nick glanced across the dark road at a boy shrouded by the shadows of a building, but visibly tall enough to likely be a pre-teen rather than the age of the younger girl. I see it so clearly... Drenched in rain, staring across the dark road, watching palace staff hand food to the people waiting at this gate. Always thinking the same thing… “They're hungrier than I am. I don’t really need it. We’ll get food some other way.” Pride is… hard to let go of, even when you need help.
Nick glanced at Howie, AJ, and the palace staff engaged with citizens, then strode across the road toward the boy. As Nick neared, the boy turned to bolt, so Nick put his palms up. “I don’t have anything, but I think I need your help.”
The boy froze and stared at him quizzically.
When he reached him, Nick leaned down so he was eye level with the boy. “You look like someone who knows everyone in Aohouseki. Is that true?”
The boy glanced away, but nodded.
“I’m leaving tomorrow and I’m not sure where to start looking. Is there someone skilled in town who can carve words into small things, like jewelry?”
The boy furrowed his brow, then nodded.
“Think they can do it before I go?” When the boy glanced away again, Nick smirked. “For the right price, I know. If you are willing to allow me to hire you for this errand, meet me here tomorrow morning so you can get to them when they open for me.”
The boy nodded.
“Thank you. By the way, what does your family do?” Nick smiled warmly.
“My mother is a seamstress and can launder. My father is a carpenter.”
“I see. Thank you for sharing that with me.” Nick stood. “I hope you will help me with this errand tomorrow.” He strode back toward the gate, then glanced over his shoulder and caught sight of the boy peering at him from behind the building. Nick laughed quietly to himself as he neared the gate, then grabbed a few more packages of food and handed them to a woman with small children still waiting in the crowd. He glanced back at the boy, smiling as he continued to hand out the food.
The next afternoon, Nick stood waiting at the back gate with his arms crossed beneath his cloak. At the sound of pounding footsteps, he glanced up to see the boy from the previous evening running toward him. A broad grin crossed his face. “Did they give you too much trouble?”
The boy held out the envelope of money. “They charged a reasonable price.”
“Good.” Nick took it. “And how does it look?”
“Good craftsmanship, as promised.” The boy held out a small parcel.
Nick opened the parcel and peered inside. As he closed it, his grin became a gentle smile.
“Why the rush?”
“My wife and I will be apart for a little while and she deserves nice things when I can give them to her.” Nick opened the envelope and dumped several coins into the boy’s hand.
“This is too much.”
When the boy motioned his hand forward, Nick quickly pushed it away and stepped back.
“She’s pretty great, that’s why I needed it fast. You made that happen for me.” Nick crossed his arms again. “You remind me of myself when I was younger. Staring at the gate, knowing I was never allowed to go over and ask for food I didn’t earn. So, I hired you for your knowledge of Aohouseki, the skill I assumed you had in bartering for what I wanted, and for protecting my gift in transport.”
“I could have just taken your money.” The boy mirrored him, crossing his arms as well.
“Children who remain loyal to their family’s wishes and don’t take unearned food are not thieves. Unearned money is the same as unearned food.”
“Why are you telling me this?” A frown crossed the boy's face as he stepped backward.
“It may not seem like it now, but you are making a difference for your family. Continue to support them the best way you can. I hope this helps.” He turned back toward the gate, then glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, the palace is expecting your mother first thing tomorrow morning for work as a seamstress. I believe they are looking into work for your father too. Thanks again for the errand.” Nick waved and began walking away.
The boy clutched the coins and gaped at him.
With his head held high, Nick smiled as he entered the palace grounds and the gate closed behind him. Maybe Howie’s right, the smallest things can make a difference. I’ll have to keep finding small things along the way.