Almost a week since Ling had disappeared.
On Monday, I had stormed G’Hanir to rescue Robyn and find clues about Ling. Instead, I found a few renegades and shattered my shoulder bad enough that I spent two days in the toy box after Robyn managed to drag my mostly-dead body to her father.
It was Saturday now, and I had nothing to show for it.
Derek had the orcs, the warbloods, even Tecumseh himself, all running around the city searching for our missing paladin, but they hadn’t found anything. No sign of Mitchel St. John, no sign of General Brannigan, no sign of Soaring Eagle or her honor guard.
No sign of my roommate.
Why had she been kidnapped? None of this made any sense. Turgay was one of her best friends, and while she had some friction with Soaring Eagle, it shouldn’t have been enough to cause this. The fact that she had intentionally misled Adam on the day she was captured was another oddity, but that one made more sense. He did tend to be trigger-happy.
Laura said it probably had something to do with the renegades. That she had seen something they didn’t want her to see.
In which case, she was almost certainly dead.
Musashi’s sword, I had had them. I had three of those stupid Blackguards in my sights, and I let them go. I didn’t just let them go, I ran away from them. I ignored multiple opportunities to kill or capture them. I…
I had failed.
“Um…hello? Are you still here?”
I blinked and shook my head, bringing myself back to the present. “What? Yes, I’m here.”
Yuuki looked uncomfortable, squirming in his seat. “I was just wondering why you called me out here.”
I smiled gently. “It’s a rough time. I just wanted to spend some time with my nephew. Is that all right?”
“Yes, Honored Paladin.” He didn’t know I was one of the Paladins. He was just being polite.
“There’s no need to be formal. Just Akane will do.”
“Yes, Honored Akane.”
I smiled as best as I could. “Please tell me that joke was intentional.”
He shuffled a little bit more. “Maybe.”
“Yuuki, it was your idea to have lunch together at some point. Not that I’m complaining. I’m just saying…” He stared at me blankly, and I sighed. “I don’t know what I’m saying.”
He apparently didn’t either, because he was silent for a few minutes.
But not for long.
“Yuudai wants to become a demon.”
I had been reaching for my drink; I stopped and considered what he had said. “Okay…any specific subculture?”
My nephew shook his head.
“Well…the demons are a good starting point, I suppose. They tend to respect your wishes if you choose to change cultures later, or even go back to being baseline—”
“That’s not the problem.”
“Then what is?”
Yuuki looked even more uncomfortable than before.
I sighed. “Yuuki…”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up,” he said quickly. “I mean, you’ve clearly got a lot on your mind, and we haven’t know each other for too long and…” He swallowed visibly. “I should go.”
He got up to leave, but Lily appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and forced him back into his seat. “None of that, little one. I’m not letting you leave your aunt with the bill.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “He doesn’t have to stay if he doesn’t want to.”
She gave me a sideways look. “Kids never want to stay. That’s why you’ve got to remind them—” her grip on his shoulder tightened. “—that it’s a better idea to explain their problems to their elders.”
Elder? I was only three years older than him.
But she was right, as usual. Age has little to do with number of years. I was the last family these boys had; I needed to act like it.
“Yuuki, she’s right. Just tell me what’s wrong, and I’m sure I can help.” I shrugged. “And if not, Lily’s right here.”
The waitress snapped her tail in the air. “Don’t drag me into this, Akane.”
“His brother’s thinking of becoming a demon,” I pointed out. “Doesn’t that kind of make him your problem?”
The red-eyed girl sighed. “Yes, but that doesn’t mean I can help with every single—” She closed her eyes and slid into the seat next to me. The cafe was empty enough that she could do that without worrying about getting behind on her orders. “Sorry. Long day. You’re right—I can help with this one.”
I turned back to my nephew, all smiles, and waited for him to continue.
He looked even more uncomfortable than before, if that was possible, but did manage to find his words after a moment.
“Someone’s after him,” I muttered. It wasn’t a question. “Was it a ghoul? There’s this one—”
“No, no!” Yuuki shook his head violently. “It’s no one specific! It’s just…he, you know…” The teenager shrugged. “He doesn’t feel safe in the orphanage. He doesn’t really feel safe anywhere. Because of all the crazy Composer stuff going on.”
I was confused again. “What does that have to do with becoming a demon?”
“Not everyone is you, Akane,” Lily said with a sad smile. “Not everyone can fight off a half-dozen ghouls with nothing but a sword. Most people need some pretty hefty toys.”
“No, he just said there was no one specific.”
She rolled her crimson eyes. “That’s not the point. He’s scared, and he wants power.”
I turned back to Yuuki. “Is that true?”
Lily smiled at him encouragingly. “So he found a toy engineer who will mod him without asking too many questions.”
“But now he needs money. He either stole from someone, or is planning to.”
“Yes, Honored Devil.”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not a demon.”
My nephew looked up in surprise. “You’re not? But you’re…” He looked her up and down, obviously noting her horns and tail. “You’re…”
“You boys are trying to get toys, and you don’t even know who Lily is?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. “What are they teaching you in school these days?”
He waved his hands frantically. “No, I mean—”
“Focus, kiddies,” Lily said firmly. “Who does Yuudai owe money to?”
Yuuki shook his head. “No, no one yet, he’s just…getting desperate.”
Lily scratched her chin. “Someone might make him a bad offer soon.” She nodded at me. “That’s how the aves recruit, not to mention a lot of others. Find someone desperate, offer them everything, in exchange for loyalty. Works pretty well.”
That got me thinking. Maybe the renegades worked the same way. Sure, we knew Elizabeth had that hypnosis power, but some of the Blackguards seemed in control of their faculties. Maybe she combined the two methods.
But Yuuki just shook his head again. “It’s not like that. He hasn’t even seen a tech yet. He just met this girl, who’s talking to him about toys and stuff, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, you know?”
Oh. Well, I had heard this story before. “Boys like to impress girls, but he’s a good kid. Don’t worry too much about it.”
He nodded. “I guess I’m just paranoid. Sorry for wasting your time.”
“It’s not a waste of time,” I insisted. “We barely know anything about each other, there is nothing wrong with spending a meal to catch up. For example—how’s school?”
He snorted. “Lousy. Half the students have run off. The teachers almost did too, until the ‘sarians started posting guards everywhere.”
I had heard about that. When Flynn wasn’t teaching his shrinking class of kids, he was doing a little bit of that kind of work. I didn’t like it, but I guess it was better than when he was running around with the retinue.
“But you’re still going, right?” I pressed. “It’s not too long ago a free education in this city would have been impossible.”
“Yes, of course…” he muttered, not looking at me. “I’m not an idiot.”
I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t make an issue of it. “Look, I’m not your mother. I’m not going to force you to do one thing or not do another. Just make sure Yuudai thinks it over before doing anything extreme, okay? And I will talk to him if you want me to.”
My nephew nodded. “Okay. If you think it’s best.”
“It is,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “You should know, telling kids what not to do doesn’t always help.”
But I couldn’t help but feel that maybe this was one of those things I needed to be paying more attention to.
Before it went the same way as Ling.
Behind the Scenes (scene 196)
Another of those I’m not so sure about. I have trouble with Akane’s nephews.