Morning came, but Bryant did not. Adan and Lord Kashi waited; when the sun had been up for an hour and Bryant had still not appeared, Lord Kashi strode out.
“Where’s he going?” the ranger asked.
“Do you see the fanged little bundle of joy and birdsong?”
“...No.” The ranger looked uncertain of whom Adan spoke.
“Neither do we. He should have come back by now.”
“What do you think might have happened?”
“Hopefully nothing, but you know what lurks in the night.”
They waited for Lord Kashi to return, but he came back without Bryant. “I need your bird,” he said. “He’s not anywhere in the vicinity.”
Adan whistled, summoning Karenyen from the sky. “Find Bryant,” he said, and she flew away as quickly as she had come.
“Thank-” Lord Kashi began, but he was cut off by a loud screech. He frowned. “That was fast.”
“Not anywhere in the vicinity, is he?” Adan said.
“I thought someone would have seen him if he were in the village.”
“You underestimated him. You should have asked his friends.”
“Which ones are those again?”
“The only two of the others he’s ever seen with.”
“Ah, yes. I remember them. Now-” Lord Kashi took off to get Bryant. What he found was his grandson and Mikael at the forge; Mikael held a scoop filled with hot coals and wore a skeptical expression.
“Are you sure? Your hair will get filled with soot-”
“--Right now it’s filled with this-” Bryant pulled off his hood-- “and it won’t wash out, and it reeks!”
Mikael gagged. Bryant’s hair and part of his face was masked underneath an oily mass of clotted black gore, giving him the grim appearance of some apocalyptic man-beast warrior. “At least I know how to get you to take that hood off,” he quipped queasily.
Bryant flopped facedown into the fire with a muffled comment that might have been “Just do it!”
Shuddering at the sizzling of the already-burning congealed blood, Mikael dumped the coals onto his friend’s head, adding more until the only hint of the mess was the smoke gushing from the pile. Unable to keep his breakfast in any longer, he dropped the scoop and raced behind a bush to throw up. Karenyen, unreadable, remained perched in the tree above. The scent of the smoke drifted to Lord Kashi, and he too nearly vomited. The stench of the burning beast blood caused his stomach to churn, but he forced himself to step up beside Bryant, who was apparently oblivious.
“What happened?” he asked Mikael once the boy was done throwing up.
“I’m not sure,” Mikael replied, picking up the scoop and hanging it in its proper place. “He came through my window last night when it was too dark to see. If he got that stuff on anything, my mother’s going to kill me! And he slept on the floor; that isn’t so bad, but it leaves greasy stains and the floor is light wood-- Oh no!” He turned to run, but turned back before he finished his step. “I can’t just leave with him like that. Well, you’re here, so-” and he fled.
When Bryant finally began to stir, Lord Kashi had been joined by Adan and the ranger. Adan, ignoring the grimacing of the other two men, pulled on a pair of light gloves and raked ash and embers from Bryant’s hair back into the fire. He pulled the boy upright by his shirt and turned him around, pushing him against the wall so he couldn’t run. To the ranger’s disappointment, Bryant had managed to pull his hood up, hiding his face once again.
“What does he look like?”
Adan said, “When he’s clean, a lot better than this-- not that you can tell.” Then, addressing Bryant: “What are the problems?”
Bryant signed a flurry of words.
“Slow down. We can’t all track movement as quickly as certain of your relatives.”
“What does he mean by three years?” asked the ranger.
Adan looked at Lord Kashi, who nodded.
“There are certain things we don’t communicate to outsiders,” Adan said. “I now have permission to discuss one of these with you, provided you only speak of it to people who absolutely need to know.”
The ranger nodded. “May I talk to him first?”
“Proceed,” Lord Kashi said, “at your own risk.
“Bryant, stay. Let him go, Adan.”
Released, Bryant remained motionless.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Ranger--”
The ranger was taken aback. “You know my name?”
Don’t you know mine? Bryant signed.
“Yes-- but hold up. I thought you were going to speak to me.”
One word is enough noise.
“Is he usually like this?” Gerhard asked Lord Kashi.
Lord Kashi shrugged.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Adan. “Nobody will blame you if you back out of the conversation now.”
“Well, I won’t beat around the bush. Do you have any idea what the, ah, recent disturbances are about?”
I might, but I don’t think I should tell.
“What? Why not?”
Mother said not to.
“If Ketsen knows about it and is trying to implement a plan to weaponize it, I doubt it would disrespect her to share it so we can prevent that from happening.”
If you want that information… you should talk to the Maelstroms. I don’t have authority over it beyond keeping it to myself.
“Thank you. Can you tell me what happened five days ago?”
It is written. This is all I will say on the subject. Speak with the smith if you want more details.
“Thank you again.” Gerhard turned to Adan. “What does he mean by ‘it is written’? I don’t know how the record system works here.”
“Family records,” Adan replied. “He must have written it down in his household book. Go get it, Bryant.”
Bryant dashed out of sight.
“He’s fast,” said Gerhard.
Lord Kashi left, tracing Bryant’s path.
Adan said,“He shouldn’t be running.”
“The Lord Fallenson?”
“No, Bryant. He ran from here to Rasen City when the mechs were after him.”
“That’s impossible! That couldn’t have been done between sunrise and sunset of the same day!”
“I’ve learned not to say impossible when talking about Bryant. Few things are certain with him, although I can say for certain he won’t be bringing back that book.”
“Look. He’s fainted— he won’t be doing anything for a while. The late arrivals startled him.”
“Late—” Gerhard leaned farther from the building to widen his field of view.
Several people were making their way into the village via the opening in the vines. Dressed in gray, they contrasted sharply with the villagers who had not vanished. They approached Lord Kashi closely, casting suspicious glances at the unconscious Bryant, and the apparent leader said, “You left with little warning and did not provide a statement as to where you were going.” He paused. “Again.”
“I was in a hurry,” Lord Kashi replied calmly.
“Not as much as him.” Lord Kashi nodded in Bryant’s direction.
“Did he attack you?”
“No, he fainted, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“What is it, then?”
Lord Kashi picked Bryant up. A wash of reddish-brown rippled across the boy’s clothing, revealing the Fallenson crest on his shoulders. “Passive agression, general stubbornness, he wanders off without warning, things like that.”
“It must run in the family.”
Lord Kashi frowned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The Maelstroms are generally very well-mannered.”
The man snorted. Bryant stirred and faded to the usual half-visibility, then twisted and bit Lord Kashi’s wrist without warning. Lord Kashi dropped him, and the young ninja made a break in the opposite direction. One of the strangers attempted to seize him and recieved a hard knee in a soft place.
“I forgot to mention that he doesn’t like physical contact,” Lord Kashi said.
The man who had been kneed wheezed faintly.
“Are there any other details we need to know to prevent more… casualties among your guard?” the other man asked dryly.
“Obviously, he dislikes strangers. He’ll pick your pockets if you smell like food, and as you should know, his bite can be very dangerous if he’s agitated. That’s all.”
“He bit you.”
“He hardly left a mark. I, personally, wouldn’t call it a bite when he didn’t break the skin.”
“Nevertheless, he could have harmed you. It is our duty to protect you, even from your own family.”
“And I could have harmed him. What would you have done then?”
“That is beside the point. We—”
“Will now protect Bryant, by my orders. Go. Try not to agitate him further.”
The man, obviously working hard to hold back objections, nodded and signaled the others to follow. The fellow who had been kneed, looking thouroughly unhappy, went to the rear of the party as they set off after Bryant.
“His voice is gone again.”
The man’s eyebrows drew close together. “Explain.”
Adan patted Bryant on the head. “He was mute for years, since he was— four, wasn’t it? Four. Just last year, he started speaking again— of course, he still had the habit of signing most everything— but in the most stressful situations, he wouldn’t speak or would even lose his voice while speaking. He could screech, snarl, and growl, but language? It wouldn’t work. He was getting better, but with everything that’s happened recently, his voice has abandoned him again. Bryant, try to say something.”
Bryant tried his hardest to form a sentence aloud and failed.
“He doesn’t seem to be faking it.” The man leaned in closer.
“Not so close,” Adan said as Bryant managed to push out a garbled phrase.
“What’d he say?”
“That is beyond my abilities of interpretation.”
“I can’t imagine such an unusual speech disability being taken well by the villagers.”
They find it amusing, Bryant signed.
“Do they?” the man asked. “I don’t. It’s my head if you get hurt. How are we supposed to do our job if you can’t ask for help?”
“He can still make noise,” Adan said.
“Obviously. But if he acts like this all the time, how do we determine which situations to keep him away from?”
“If he acts like what?”
The man sighed. “This conversation is pointless. Bryant—” He looked around. “Where did he go?” He directed a questioning look at Adan.
Adan shrugged. “I thought you were watching him. That’s your job now, isn’t it?”
The man gritted his teeth. “He’s the worst I’ve ever had, and it hasn’t been an hour. May I leave to do my duty?”
Bryant had cleaned up and subsequently busied himself in an attempt to wheedle some lunch out of Lisa; by the time his new bodyguards found him, he was up in the infirmary’s storage room’s rafters hanging herbs to dry to earn the meal. When the last bundle was tied on, he simply laid on a beam and watched them watch him. Lisa walked in with two fried eggs and said, “I’ll melt cheese on them if you come down.”
Bryant dropped to the floor, landing silently on his feet like a ghostly cat. He slipped between the guards, but before he could leave the room, the leader put a hand on his shoulder to stop him. Bryant looked the man in the eyes, and he stiffened as if he’d been shocked. He removed his hand, and Bryant walked out as if nothing had happened.
“What was that?” the second-in-command asked.
The man looked at her and said simply, “He has his father’s eyes and his mother’s stare.”
Lisa smacked Bryant on the back of the head. “That’s for jumping down. You were told to take it easy.” When he nodded in acknowledgement, she gave him the eggs. Once he had eaten, she gave him a standard check (he passed) and left him alone. His four guards filed in and stayed, following him when he left. Instead of trying to ditch them again, he went and laid in a patch of sunlight, dozing off as if they weren’t there.
The guards were wary, of course. There was no way to know whether the boy had already begun to enact a scheme to get away from them or was simply napping in the sunlight, an act typical of fire kitsunekage. Whichever it was, they had nothing to do but wait for him to wake up. A shadow passed over them. There was no reaction from Bryant, but the guards were slightly alarmed by the samurai van until it was met in the air by Lord Kashi himself. Then they relaxed somewhat, satisfied that for the moment there was no danger.ns 22.214.171.124da2