Chapter 61: Fantasia in Memoriam
A boy lay flat on his back and opened his eyes to face a brilliant blue sky. White cumulus clouds floated ahead. He breathed in the scent of mildew and grass. His hands curled into the damp soil as he heaved himself up. With mild curiosity, he gazed around him. A butterfly landed on the tip of his nose before flying away again. He was surrounded by a field of verdant green grass swaying gently in the wind. How peaceful, he thought. White flakes showered down over him. Snow? Picking a petal from the grass, he turned his head to see a small tree, branches clustered with small white blossoms. How fragrant. And there, shielded by a veil of flowers, stood a person.
¡°Hey boy, what are you doing there?¡±
The boy¡¯s brown hair blew away from his forehead as he stared up at a tall man standing in front of him, arms akimbo. The man wore a navy blue tunic over a white long-sleeved shirt and brown trousers tucked into tan leather boots.
¡°You deaf? What¡¯s your name?¡± repeated the man, a little louder. He had piercing sapphire eyes, the color of the studs twinkling from his ears, and dark brown hair. His hand slipped to the sword hilt at his side.
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± replied the boy, shaking his head.
¡°Where are you from?¡± the man asked with a dark scowl.
¡°I don¡¯t know.¡±
¡°Well, get up—you have no right to be here. Useless kid like you—probably a runaway. Shame on your parents not keeping an eye on you.¡± The man¡¯s hand dropped from his sword and he took the boy¡¯s sleeve and dragged him up. ¡°Do you have anywhere to go?¡±
Again, the boy shook his head.
¡°So, no name, no home. You¡¯re just like a lost pup, eh? You sort of look like one too.¡± The older man¡¯s eyes were kinder now. ¡°Well, what do you want me to call you then, nameless one?¡±
The boy¡¯s amber eyes filled with confusion.
¡°Fine then. I found you under a plum tree,¡± the man said, staring up at the white petals. ¡°I¡¯ll call you ¡®Li¡¯ for ¡®plum¡¯ in my native tongue. Are you okay with that?¡±
The boy nodded.
With a half smile, the man said, ¡°You can call me Ryuuren.¡±
Finally, Li Syaoran, as he had once been called in another world, smiled. ¡°Ryuuren-san.¡±
¡°Come, Li-kun, I¡¯ll introduce you to the others.¡±
The man called Ryuuren led the boy down the hill to a fenced area in a clearing in the valley. Ryuuren glanced back several times to find the boy trotting behind him quite complacently. What a trusting boy, thought Ryuuren, observing that the boy did not seem frightened in the slightest bit whilst he had no idea where he was heading.
A tall man with shoulder-length golden hair greeted them by a wood cabin. He peered at Syaoran then at Ryuuren. ¡°Who¡¯s that kid?¡±
Ryuuren watched the younger boy trail behind him like a lost puppy. The boy didn¡¯t talk much but followed him quite obediently. ¡°He has nowhere to go to so I brought him along.¡±
¡°Humph. I don¡¯t think it¡¯s a good idea bringing in an outsider at times like this,¡± muttered the man, running a hand over his scruffy chin.
¡°Give him a break, Leon,¡± said Ryuuren. ¡°He seems to be harmless.¡±
Slowly, Leon grinned, staring between Ryuuren and the boy again. ¡°I know why you brought him. That kid looks like an exact younger replica of you, Ryuuren.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t see it,¡± said Ryuuren, dark brows furrowing down. ¡°He sort of looked like a stray little wolf when I found him—I couldn¡¯t just leave him.¡±
¡°What¡¯s your name?¡± Leon asked the boy.
¡°He doesn¡¯t remember his name,¡± Ryuuren interjected. ¡°I named him Li.¡±
¡°Well, welcome, Li no-name,¡± said Leon, patting the brown-haired boy on the back. ¡°You¡¯ll regret the day you set eyes on Ryuuren, the Dragon Master of discipline.¡±
Syaoran was introduced to the rest of the ¡°clan¡± and integrated in no time. At first, Syaoran suspected that the group of bawdy men were of dubious backgrounds, but he eventually let go of his suspicions. A group of twenty to thirty men, who ranged in ethnicity and age, resided in the roomy wooden barracks. Ryuuren seemed to rank highest and was referred by the men as ¡°Captain,¡± though he may have been younger than half the men. The men arose at the break of dawn and after breakfast in the mess hall, which usually consisted of a porridge of some sorts, they began their morning training. Ryuuren usually led the men into running laps around the large field. And then martial arts training commenced till lunchtime. As the youngest, Syaoran was assigned kitchen chores and cleaning duty.
¡°Hey, the quality of food has improved greatly since the new boy came,¡± remarked Leon, downing his vegetable stew.
¡°See, told you it¡¯s a good thing to keep him,¡± stated Ryuuren.
¡°Well, we¡¯ll see if the boy¡¯s any good at fighting,¡± stated a blue-violet haired man called Reiji that Syaoran knew was third in rank next to Ryuuren and Leon. The three apparently were close friends and ran the barracks. ¡°It¡¯s up to the boss to decide if he¡¯s worthy of staying, after all.¡±
By this time, Syaoran concluded that this group was a bunch of ruffians, mercenaries or a den of thieves. ¡°Who is this boss?¡± he asked as he cleared the dishes. ¡°And where is he?¡±
¡°Oh, you¡¯ll find out soon enough,¡± replied Reiji.
In the afternoons, the men focused on weaponry. Several blacksmiths worked in the barracks and the lower level soldiers were in charge of sharpening and polishing blades. Ryuuren seemed to specialize in swordsmanship but was rumored to be an expert in hand-to-hand combat. Reiji was an archer while Leon was an expert with pistols. One day, as Syaoran cleared the practice swords, Ryuuren tossed the boy a wooden sword. ¡°Hey Li, have you ever used a sword before?¡±
Syaoran, gripping the hilt with his right hand, replied, ¡°I don¡¯t know.¡±
¡°Well, let¡¯s see what you¡¯ve got there. You seem to automatically have the right grip—who knows, you might have once been a remarkable swordsman,¡± Ryuuren said.
Word quickly got around the barracks that the captain and the new boy were engaged in a duel. Onlookers gathered for a good laugh at the boy make a fool of himself. They were all surprised to find that Ryuuren had broken sweat and stood in one corner of the courtyard, breathing hard.
¡°The boy¡¯s got some moves,¡± remarked Leon to Reiji.
¡°Their fighting styles are remarkably similar,¡± Reiji said as Ryuuren lunged forward with his sword, only to be countered by the younger boy¡¯s quick block. Reiji and Leon turned to each other and chuckled; Ryuuren had finally met his match.
Somehow, Syaoran adjusted to life at the barracks with ease. This routinely, disciplined lifestyle was something he was accustomed to. He was allowed to train with the men and also voluntarily became head chef of the barrack kitchens. There was no time throughout the day to wonder where he had been before he came to this place and how long he would be welcome here. He wore his body out during the day that come night, he crashed into his bunk bed and fell into deep slumber without thinking, without dreaming. So the days drifted by.
But once in awhile, Syaoran would lie awake, suddenly feeling a quiet desolation as if he had lost his way, lost his path. When he tried to recall anything of this past, his brain felt numb. But when he tried to turn off his mind, he felt a sharp pain in his chest.
¡°Hey, boy,¡± called out Ryuuren from the top bunk one night. ¡°You¡¯re not sleeping?¡±
¡°No, Ryuuren-san,¡± replied Syaoran, staring at the wood plank of the bunk above him.
¡°Li-kun, do you not remember anything about your past? It seems like you¡¯ve had formal martial arts training, and your swordsmanship is better than any grown man¡¯s here. There is only one explanation for that. Either you were a trained knight or a trained assassin.¡± Ryuuren smiled. ¡°But you seem to be too good at heart to be the latter.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t remember—I do think I must have led a similar lifestyle in the past though. The training, this daily routine seems familiar,¡± said Syaoran slowly, clenching his right hand into a fist then slowly releasing again. Sometimes, he had phantom pains in his right hand that he tried to ignore. ¡°Ryuuren-san, I heard from Leon-san that you are from the country beyond the mountains. How did you end up here?¡±
¡°I have someone I have to protect here,¡± replied Ryuuren.
Syaoran sat up from his bed so suddenly that he bumped his head into the top bunk. An image of a girl with emerald eyes and golden brown hair flashed in his mind.
¡°What is it, Li-kun?¡± asked Ryuuren.
¡°I too have someone I need to protect.¡±
¡°Ah, you really are similar to me,¡± Ryuuren said, sinking into his pillow.
Ever since Syaoran came to grasp his first semblance of a memory, he had been feeling restless in the monotony of the barracks. Thus, he was surprised one day to see the men, usually wearing earth-toned tunics and breeches and worn boots, dressed in a livery of navy blue and silver. ¡°What¡¯s going on?¡± he asked Leon as the men polished their weapons and lead their horses from the stables.
¡°We¡¯re being dispatched to the capital,¡± replied Leon, saddling a white stallion.
¡°The capital?¡± Up till now, Syaoran had only been focused on these fields, the peaceful barracks where the men simply trained and rode their horses all day long. Once in a while Ryuuren, Leon or Reiji went off to town to bring back supplies. Syaoran had not envisioned life beyond the fences.
¡°Look there,¡± said Ryuuren, pointing to the eastern mountains. ¡°Behind those stone walls is the capital, where the queen and princess reside.¡±
Syaoran looked towards the distance at the marble towers gleaming opalescent pink in the sunlight. It looked so far off. ¡°And why are we going there?¡±
¡°You didn¡¯t know? We¡¯re the queen¡¯s special bodyguard unit,¡± replied Leon with a laugh. ¡°Our job is to protect the royal family with our life.¡±
At the dumbfounded look on Syaoran¡¯s face, Reiji remarked with a sly grin, ¡°Li-kun, you believed we were some group of dishonest ruffians, didn¡¯t you?¡±
¡°No, Reiji-san, not at all!¡± exclaimed Syaoran, furiously shaking his head.
¡°It¡¯s all right,¡± said Ryuuren, lightly slapping Leon on the back. ¡°This fellow here looks like and is a dishonest scoundrel.¡±
¡°And you, milord, are my accomplice,¡± replied Leon with a wink.
¡°If you are royal bodyguards, why are you here instead of at the palace then?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡°This is a relatively peaceful country and the queen does not like to have soldiers in the capital. So we stay out of the capital unless there are signs of imminent danger. The queen is a powerful sorceress—she can protect the palace.¡±
¡°Is the queen in danger then?¡± Syaoran asked.
¡°Perhaps, Li-kun. Leon is our spymaster, so he will keep us informed,¡± said Ryuuren. ¡°Hopefully it is just a false alarm.¡±
Syaoran noticed that Ryuuren looked eastward to the palace with a strange expression of longing.
A white eagle flew from the sky and landed on Leon¡¯s shoulder with a letter in its beak.
Leon looked grim. ¡°We¡¯re going to the capital.¡±
¡°So, the time has come,¡± said Ryuuren. He turned to Syaoran. ¡°Do you know how to ride?¡±
¡°Maybe,¡± replied Syaoran as Ryuuren walked towards the stables.
¡°Not good enough. Either you can ride, or else you¡¯re going to be left behind,¡± said Ryuuren, walking up to a black stallion with a whitish mark on its forehead. ¡°His name is Midnight Star. He¡¯s yours to ride.¡±
Syaoran gulped. He extended out a hand from Midnight Star to nuzzle. ¡°T-thank you Ryuuren-san.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t thank me. Nobody could break that horse because he¡¯s such a firebrand. It¡¯s up to you if the Midnight will accept you or not. If you get thrown off, don¡¯t blame me.¡±
Midnight Star threw Syaoran off his back only twice before letting the boy ride him. The other men rode their steed and looked strangely dignified in their blue and silver livery when just they day before, they looked like a den of riffraff and mercenaries. Ryuuren lent Syaoran his extra uniform and also his weatherproof navy blue cloak. Syaoran found riding to be pleasant as they passed through fields of green then galloped across the riverside leading towards the hills. He realized how beautiful and vast the land was. Everybody seemed happy. Deer, squirrels, rabbits and little creatures of the wood were not scared of the men and watched them pass by with beady black eyes. Farmers and merchants who spotted them smiled and waved. Young women swooned at the sight of the handsome men in uniform. Ryuuren rode at the head of the formation on an Arabian purebred and set the pace for the soldiers, a mix between a canter and gallop.
¡°Where is the boss at a time like this?¡± asked Syaoran to Leon, who rode up next to Syaoran on his dappled stallion, a long sword belted to his side. The usually scruffy Leon looked surprisingly gallant and noble dressed in the queen¡¯s livery with gleaming hair tied back into a short ponytail.
¡°He¡¯s riding right over there,¡± replied Leon with a laugh.
¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran stared at Ryuuren¡¯s broad back.
¡°Ryuuren¡¯s our boss. He formed the Queen¡¯s Knights and is our leader. Why else do you think you were admitted into the squad? You¡¯re his handpicked favorite.¡±
¡°I see,¡± murmured Syaoran, clutching his reins. ¡°He does have the presence of a leader.¡±
¡°Yes, he does. It¡¯s just the air around him. Remember how I once told you Ryuuren¡¯s not from around here?¡± Leon said, narrowing his violet-blue eyes. ¡°He¡¯s from the Dragonlands, beyond the mountain in the west. He was the heir to the throne there.¡±
¡°Then why he is a simple soldier in this land?¡± asked Syaoran to the older man.
¡°He fell in love with Queen Nadeshiko and gave up his country and title in order to become her first knight,¡± replied Leon. ¡°He doesn¡¯t look it, but he is an idealist and a romantic. So, he is stuck training a bunch of unruly trouble-making men that would have ended up in jail that our gracious queen was generous enough to pardon build into her special bodyguard unit.¡±
¡°Then, why is he here and not by her side?¡± Syaoran questioned.
¡°Because she is the queen of the land. The queen has duties to the land—she cannot love her bodyguard. And her bodyguard in return has to protect her. They cannot let their love become a hindrance to the peace of the land. Besides, the princess returned from abroad—the queen is busy spending time with her.¡±
¡°Yes. She has returned from her father¡¯s kingdom.¡±
¡°The queen has someone else¡¦ That¡¯s why Ryuuren-san can¡¯t be with her.¡± Syaoran sighed.
¡°Not anymore. It seems like the princess¡¯ old kingdom was completely destroyed¡¦ or is in the process of being annihilated. That¡¯s why she came here to Memoria. It¡¯s been peaceful around here, but it can happen here as well,¡± Leon said, staring at the crimson sun setting into the gray western mountains.
¡°What can happen?¡±
¡°The other kingdoms have begun to disappear. Ryuuren¡¯s land has long since disappeared, so he can¡¯t return even if he wanted to. A lot of us came from far off places, myself included. But this is our only home now, and we must protect it,¡± said Leon.
¡°Something to protect,¡± murmured Syaoran, staring at the river dyed vermillion by the setting sun. I have to find you¡¦
Princess Sakura leaned by the open tower window, gazing out at the green pastures spread into the distance. Little sparrows chirped on the windowsill. The wind seemed to carry a voice to her ears that faded into a soft sigh.
¡°Sakura-hime, what are you looking at?¡± said a woman with long violet curls woven into a long braid that hung down to her back. On her head was a golden-wrought coronet with emerald stones. She was wearing a long deep green gown with belled sleeves trimmed with gold. A long velvet train trailed behind her.
¡°Mother,¡± Sakura said, turning around with a bright smile. ¡°You¡¯re back!¡±
Queen Nadeshiko stroked her daughter¡¯s hair tenderly. The two looked like sisters with their identical green eyes, lithe, slender frame and soft smile. ¡°How have you spent the day, my darling Sakura?¡±
¡°I¡¯m almost done with my embroidery,¡± said Sakura, showing her circular wood frame holding a piece of silk cloth.
Nadeshiko traced the tight cross-stitches with her finger. ¡°How beautiful. A cherry blossom tree like the ones in our gardens. And is this a dog?¡±
¡°Hoe¡¦ It¡¯s actually a wolf,¡± said Sakura with a little pout. ¡°I based it off Wolfie-chan, so it didn¡¯t quite come out as I wanted it to.¡±
A golden puppy jumped off the princess¡¯ bed at the sound of his name and then leapt up onto his mistress¡¯ arms.
¡°Silly Wolfie-chan!¡± exclaimed Sakura as the puppy licked her face. ¡°That tickles!¡±
¡°Do you have a dress for the ball tonight?¡± asked Nadeshiko. ¡°You can borrow one of mine, if you would like—the maids can alter the hems.¡±
¡°I can?¡± asked Sakura with a squeal. ¡°Can you help me choose, Mother?¡±
¡°Of course. Let us go to my chambers,¡± replied Nadeshiko, arms around her daughter¡¯s waist.
Sakura beamed up at her mother, and Wolfie-chan trailed after the queen and princess, barking happily.
Ryuuren¡¯s squad reached the capital by noon the next day.
¡°We¡¯re entering the city—hoods up,¡± Ryuuren called out. ¡°Enter in intervals of two so that we don¡¯t draw attention.
Syaoran¡¯s eyes widened at the sight of the bustling stone-paved streets. Stalls selling all sorts of spices, fruits, textiles, weaponry and crafts lined the sidewalks. The city was paved in white-rose limestone, and Syaoran did not know how large the palace was until he stood before it. Even if he craned his neck completely back, he could not see the top towers.
¡°Handsome boy there, come, I will read your fortune!¡± cried out a mysterious woman in a black hood from one stall. ¡°Come, nameless one, come hither.¡±
Syaoran turned his head towards the fortuneteller.
¡°Poor boy. Poor nameless boy. You are doomed to wander as a lost soul,¡± said the mysterious woman in black.
¡°Keep riding,¡± said Ryuuren, urging the men forward amidst the crowd of the pedestrians. The men on horses rode up to the palace gates which swung open. They entered.
¡°Towards the back stables!¡± called out Ryuuren as the Knights of the Order of the Emerald Sash, simply called the Queen¡¯s Knights, circled around the palace walls.
Leon stated, ¡°There is a grand ball tonight at the palace. We need to double security and monitor who enters and leaves the palace grounds. Chances are, the Tomonoki Clan will infiltrate the palace when all the guests arrive.¡±
¡°Of course Commander Leon has disguises provided for all of us,¡± Reiji stated, pointing to a large bundle atop a horse.
¡°I will go over assignments,¡± stated Ryuuren. ¡°Remember, no matter what happens, keep post unless I give further notice.
Syaoran walked down the palace garden lined with trees of delicate pink blossoms and breathed in the fresh scent of flowers. So different from the musty smell of dirt and wood at the barracks, but somewhat nostalgic. He had been assigned to guard outside—in other words, he had not been entrusted with a serious job at all. As a newcomer, he knew he shouldn¡¯t have expected anymore. Nonetheless, he would have liked to see the queen and princess.
¡°It¡¯s beautiful, isn¡¯t it?¡± said Ryuuren, reaching out to catch a falling petal. ¡°It¡¯s the queen¡¯s favorite flower. Sakura.¡±
¡°Sakura,¡± repeated Syaoran to himself. The name rolled of his tongue, Sakura.
Ryuuren, who had a dark cloak covering his blue and silver livery, remarked, ¡°These trees were barren before the princess came.¡±
¡°What kind of person is she? The princess,¡± Syaoran ventured to ask.
¡°You¡¯ll find out soon enough,¡± remarked Ryuuren vaguely. ¡°Her name is Sakura.¡± For a moment, his eyes darted back and forth as he drew Syaoran into the trees.
¡°I thought we are the Queen¡¯s bodyguards,¡± Syaoran whispered to Ryuuren. ¡°Why do we have to sneak around like this?¡±
¡°Because we need to keep cover—the enemies would be less cautious if they don¡¯t realize the Royal Guard is in the palace. That way, we have a better chance of surfacing their plan.¡±
¡°What should I do?¡± asked Syaoran. ¡°I want to be useful.¡±
¡°Wait and keep watch—and don¡¯t get involved,¡± replied Ryuuren. Then he frowned, gazing up at the ivory tower. ¡°On the other hand, you¡¯re about the same age as the princess. She¡¯s rather headstrong and thinks she doesn¡¯t need any protection. She recognizes all of us, but you¡¯re new. You might be able to get near her without arousing any suspicion.¡±
¡°How do I get near her?¡± Syaoran asked.
Ryuuren cleared his throat. ¡°Leon!¡±
¡°Yes, Captain,¡± said Leon, stepping out of the shadows, silent like a cat.
¡°We need help disguising this boy as a diplomat from a foreign land.¡±
Leon fixed Syaoran into a red and gold blazer and fussed with his hair.
¡°You¡¯re welcome to familiarize yourself with the castle until the ball starts. If anyone asks, you¡¯re a part of the delegation from North,¡± Ryuuren said. ¡°If I were you, I¡¯d start with the ground level up—you will have access to everywhere except the queen¡¯s department and the dungeons. It will be to your benefit to befriend the princess.¡±
Watching the boy hurry off, Leon remarked to Ryuuren, ¡°Have you ever thought that the Li boy might be a spy?¡±
¡°No, he can¡¯t be,¡± said Ryuuren abruptly.
¡°Look, I like the boy too. But it can¡¯t be a coincidence that the Tomonoki Clan decided to move simultaneously with the arrival of that boy to our barracks.¡± Leon frowned.
¡°Li-kun has never left our sight. He cannot be in communication with the enemies.¡±
¡°I certainly hope he can be trusted too,¡± said Leon with a grim smile. ¡°I¡¯ve grown rather fond of him myself.¡±
At first, Syaoran had been intimidated by the luxurious engravings and mosaics on the ceiling of the palace. After his initial awe faded away, Syaoran began to scour the palace, memorizing the different exits and passages. He was pleased that Ryuuren had entrusted him with such an important task. Syaoran ventured to peak into the throne room. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life sat on a gold-gilded throne like a statue sculpted on a dais. She wore a deep purple-black dress decorated with an amethyst jeweled collar and sweeping bell sleeves. Her long violet hair flowed down her back in a tumble of curls woven with amethysts and peridots and a gold-wrought coronet with emerald jewels was placed on her smooth white brows. While she had the regal air of a ruler, her eyes were kind and observant. He withheld a gasp when he saw a familiar face walk across the throne room in bold steps. The queen stood up as if to greet the handsome brunette man in blue and silver.
Ryuuren stopped in front to the queen and knelt down before her. He took her hand and gently kissed her fingertips. ¡°I am back, my queen.¡±
¡°I am glad to see you again, Ryuuren,¡± she replied, lifting Ryuuren up. There was such tenderness in her green eyes towards Ryuuren that Syaoran was afraid to be caught watching. He hurried down the hall towards the nearest exit.
Before he reached the stairwell, a golden fur-ball darted towards him and began yapping at his legs.
He yanked away his cloak. ¡°Hey, shoo... What are you doing? Let go of my cloak!¡±
The creature bit harder into his cloak with its fangs and refused to let go.
¡°That¡¯s not my cloak; I can¡¯t have it torn—go away, pup!¡± exclaimed Syaoran, trying to pick up the little golden dog. The pup darted away from between his hands.
Then, he heard a peal of laughter; such a joyful, melodic sound he had never heard before.
¡°Come, Wolfie-chan. Leave the poor boy alone,¡± said the owner of that beautiful laughter.
Slowly, Syaoran turned around to face a girl his age with short golden brown hair framing her face, and shockingly bright emerald eyes. The same color as the queen¡¯s. But this girl had a carefree, spirited look in her eyes, as if she was up to some mischief. The image of her standing in that hallway in a pale green taffeta dress burned into his mind as if trying to imprint the memory of her face permanently into his memory. He whispered to himself, ¡°I finally found you.¡±
¡°Excuse me?¡± She blinked at him, tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear.
She spoke again, her eyes twinkling merrily. ¡°I¡¯m sorry—Wolfie-chan usually is shy around strangers. He must like you.¡±
¡°The puppy¡¯s name is Wolfie-chan?¡± asked Syaoran slowly.
¡°Yes. Doesn¡¯t he look like a little wolf?¡± the girl held up the pointed-ear puppy.
Syaoran smiled slightly. ¡°He does.¡±
From down the hallway, there were cries of ¡°Princess, princess, where are you?¡±
¡°I¡¯m sorry—I need to go.¡± Sakura dropped Wolfie-chan on the maroon carpet. ¡°Oh, I should introduce myself. My name is¡¦¡±
¡°I know. You¡¯re Sakura-hime,¡± said Syaoran, his eyes a warm amber-gold.
And Sakura tilted her head then smiled hesitantly. ¡°Will you tell me your name?¡±
A slight frown came over Sakura¡¯s forehead. ¡°Can you not tell me your real name?¡±
¡°I would if I could,¡± he replied somberly.
¡°You don¡¯t¡¦¡± Sakura stared up at the boy.
¡°Sakura-hime!¡± called out the maids.
¡°Will I see you at the ball tonight?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°I¡¯ll be wearing a pink mask. Come find me.¡± Then she ran off the hall, her green gown trailing behind her.
Ryuuren caught sight of Syaoran as he exited the throne room. ¡°You¡¯ve met the princess.¡±
¡°Yes, I have,¡± replied Syaoran. His brows were furrowed down.
¡°She knew that Li was not my real name,¡± said Syaoran.
¡°She would—she¡¯s the princess after all. She¡¯s the most gifted magician in this land,¡± Ryuuren replied. ¡°Next to the queen.¡±
¡°Then, would she know my true name?¡± Syaoran asked.
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± replied Ryuuren. He took out from his pocket a red mask gilded with gold. ¡°This is for the masquerade tonight. Keep by the princess¡¯ side all night long—we don¡¯t know when the enemy¡¯s going to attack.¡±
¡°How do I keep by her side at a ball? She¡¯ll be moving about,¡± said Syaoran, staring at the mask.
¡°I don¡¯t know—use your brains. Dance with her or something,¡± said Ryuuren impatiently.
¡°I don¡¯t know how to dance,¡± Syaoran protested.
¡°You said you don¡¯t know how to fight, but you wield a sword perfectly fine, you said you can¡¯t ride, but you ride a horse like a born horseman. Chances are, you can dance too,¡± replied Ryuuren, shoving Syaoran along. ¡°Now keep guard.¡±
Everything about the palace was brilliant and dazzling compared to the muted earth-tone colors back at the barracks, especially come nightfall. The crystal chandelier in the ballroom almost blinded Syaoran. His palms were sweaty as he stood in the corner of the ballroom, watching the guests weave in and out of the room. He was only looking for one person though.
When Princess Sakura stepped out in a pale rose dress made of layered sheer chiffon and lace, Syaoran had to catch his breath. Her white winged mask trimmed with rose-colored lace did not conceal the delicate beauty of her face. Syaoran, wearing his red mask, pushed through the crowds towards her.
¡°You did find me, Li-kun!¡± exclaimed Sakura, recognizing him right through his mask.
¡°Yes, Sakura-hime,¡± replied Syaoran.
¡°Please just call me Sakura,¡± said Sakura with a blush at the warmth in the boy¡¯s eyes that could not be concealed by his red and gold mask. ¡°Nobody called me princess back home.¡±
¡°Back home?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡±In my father¡¯s land,¡± Sakura replied shortly. ¡°A place I cannot return anymore.¡±
For the first time, Syaoran saw a shadow come over Sakura¡¯s eyes under the mask, and he regretted mentioning anything to remind the princess of something that brought her pain. He glanced to his side and then realized many of the masked men were from Ryuuren¡¯s squad and they were carefully circulating the ballroom. Queen Nadeshiko sat on a dais at the end ballroom, looking quite somber in the midst of a festive occasion. The refreshment tables were laden with grapes and cheese and little tarts and cakes. There was even a whole table dedicated to a yellow jiggling dessert. ¡°It¡¯s pudding!¡± explained Sakura, matter of fact.
The orchestra was positioned at one corner of the hall, near the throne. Syaoran was startled to recognize the brown-black haired man in a blue mask at first violin. Ryuuren, with his violin, caught his eye and signaled to Syaoran, raising his arms and mimicking a waltz.
¡°Sakura-hime, if it is not too forward of me, may I have this dance?¡± Syaoran asked, extending out his hand in the way Leon had instructed him to do.
Sakura looked surprised. Then she smiled. ¡°Of course, Li-kun!¡±
The violin struck out and began the waltz and the rest of the orchestra drifted in.
Syaoran found that as Ryuuren had said, he could waltz, same as how he could cook, fight and ride a horse. What else could he do? Or perhaps it was because the princess was an exquisite dancer. He could not take his eyes off her for a moment. Her rose-colored dress fluttered about her like frail butterfly wings, and her emerald eyes twinkled behind her mask.
¡°You know, Li-kun, it¡¯s strange but I feel like I¡¯ve danced with you before,¡± said Sakura, one hand rested on Syaoran¡¯s hand and the other gently on his shoulder.
¡°I¡¯ve never been to the capital before,¡± Syaoran replied.
¡°Before that?¡± murmured Sakura. ¡°Where were you before you came here?¡±
¡°I stayed in the barracks a day¡¯s ride beyond the palace gates.¡±
¡°And before that?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know.¡±
¡°I¡¯m sorry,¡± said Sakura suddenly.
¡°Li-kun looked sad for a second. Like you lost something very important to you,¡± Sakura said.
¡°How did you know that?¡±
¡°Because I am the same,¡± replied Sakura, shutting her eyes as the waltz came to an end. ¡°I lost something very important to me before coming to Memoria.¡±
Memoria. That was the name of this kingdom. At that moment, the lights in the ballroom flickered. A black streak caught Syaoran¡¯s eyes and he threw himself over the princess, covering her body with his back. He felt a sharp stab on his shoulder blade. The lights flickered on again and there was chaos. People shrieked as figures dressed in black with a strange symbol of an eye embroidered on their backs flocked into the room.
¡°Protect the princess!¡± shouted Ryuuren, flinging down his violin and drawing his sword.
Syaoran too drew his sword, the sword lent by Ryuuren, keeping Sakura behind him.
¡°Who are these people?¡± asked Sakura, tearing off her mask.
¡±I don¡¯t know,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°Ryuuren-san said they want to harm this kingdom.¡±
¡°Wait, you¡¯re with the Queen¡¯s Knights?¡± Sakura¡¯s voice had a tinge of anger to it. ¡°Ryuuren-san told you to protect me, didn¡¯t he? I can protect myself.¡±
¡°I¡¯m not protecting you because somebody told me to,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°It¡¯s because I feel compelled to.¡±
¡°Because my body moves on its own like it¡¯s hardwired to protect you. It¡¯s the first time since I awoke in this country that I feel like I remember something,¡± Syaoran replied.
¡°Why are you shouting at me?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°I¡¯m sorry. I didn¡¯t realize I was,¡± said Syaoran. He swung down his sword at a man in black who attacked with a curved sword and flung away the sword from his grasp. Then, he grabbed the princess¡¯ hand and said, ¡°Hurry, we have to leave the ballroom.¡± He grabbed her hand and began to run through the crowd, dodging the assassins and making sure the princess was following behind him. He barely knew how to navigate the palace but he continued to run, gripping Sakura¡¯s hand until they could no longer hear the clamor of weaponry and the shrieks of people.
¡°Why is this happening?¡± murmured Sakura, pulling her hand from the boy¡¯s. ¡°It¡¯s not supposed to happen here. This is a peaceful kingdom.¡±
¡°Keep walking,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°It¡¯s dangerous here.¡± He dragged the princess down as a dart whizzed past their head. He winced slightly—he had forgotten about his back wound.
¡°Are you hurt, Li-kun?¡± Sakura asked, touching his shoulder.
¡°It¡¯s just a scratch. Hurry now. It¡¯s dangerous in here.¡± He took her out the back gates of the palace. The night air was chilly, and Sakura¡¯s arms were bare. He drew off his crimson cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders.
He tensed as he heard a rustling in the bushes. Syaoran let out a sigh of relief as a golden-haired man emerged from the shadow. ¡°Leon-san.¡±
¡°Princess, you must hurry and leave the palace,¡± said Leon, leading out a saddled white mare.
¡°Why? I refuse to. This is my home,¡± stated Sakura. ¡°Besides, Mother—¡°
¡°You must go, Sakura. I have to protect the palace. I am bound here because of my magic. But you have to leave,¡± said Nadeshiko, coming out of the back gates with a bag. ¡°The horse will lead you to a safe place. You will be able to return once we seal the evil away from this palace. I promise.¡±
¡°Okaa-san, I don¡¯t want to leave you.¡±
¡°You must go,¡± said Nadeshiko, wiping the tears from her daughter¡¯s face. ¡°Please listen to me.¡±
A sapphire-eyed man in a navy blue cloak joined the group. ¡°Nadeshiko-sama, the ballroom is under control. But sources tell me that the dark riders have surrounded the palace gates—there isn¡¯t time. We can¡¯t hold off the back gates any longer. Sakura-hime has to leave now.¡±
¡°Thank you, Ryuuren. Go, Sakura,¡± said Nadeshiko, lifting up her daughter onto the mare.
¡°What about Wolfie-chan?¡± asked Sakura. ¡°I need to find Wolfie-chan!¡±
¡°There isn¡¯t time,¡± said Ryuuren. He slapped the mare¡¯s hind.
The white horse, carrying the princess, galloped out of the gates into the dark night.
Syaoran watched her disappear off into the road, her red cloak fanned out behind her, with a sinking feeling. I finally found you, and you have already slipped from my reach. ¡°What¡¯s happening now?¡± he whispered to Ryuuren, who looked grimmer than he had ever seen him before.
¡°The Queen will seal off the palace so that no one can enter and no one can leave,¡± said Ryuuren.
¡°She can do that?¡± Syaoran gulped. ¡°But there are enemies already inside the palace.¡±
¡°We can deal with them,¡± replied Ryuuren. ¡°Nadeshiko-sama is powerful. And we have something important we are guarding under this palace grounds.¡±
¡°Why did she send away Sakura-hime then?¡±
¡°Because if Sakura-hime is sealed inside the gates, if anything does go wrong, there would be no one to rule the land,¡± said Ryuuren. ¡°If the pillar of this country collapses, then this world, as well as all of its inhabitants, would disappear as well.¡±
¡°So long as Sakura-hime is safe, we will be all right. Meanwhile, you too have to leave now,¡± said Ryuuren. He unfastened his navy blue cloak and threw it over Syaoran¡¯s shoulder.
¡°I can¡¯t leave now. I will stay and fight with you, Ryuuren-san,¡± said Syaoran.
¡°Li-kun, you¡¯re a brave boy. A boy with much potential.¡± Ryuuren ruffled Syaoran¡¯s head. ¡°That¡¯s why I¡¯m entrusting you, and no one else, with an important task. You will be my messenger. You need to reach the House of Five and give them this letter.¡±
¡°Where is the House of Five?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡°Near the northern borders,¡± said Ryuuren.
¡°Where has Sakura-hime headed?¡± Syaoran ventured to ask.
¡°The southern borders.¡± Ryuuren smiled slightly. ¡°After you deliver the letter, if the Great Five does not bequest you of any other task, you will be free to join the princess.¡±
¡°I will remain here to protect the queen,¡± replied Ryuuren. ¡°Until the end of time if it be called. Remember, Li-kun, what is truly important to you. It is very easy to get astray in Memoria.¡±
¡°Hurry now, go,¡± said Reiji, guiding Midnight Star to the back gate. His golden eyes were pensive in the moonlight. ¡°By the way, if you meet a woman called Eri in your travels, let her know I love her and I will join her as soon as I can.¡±
¡°I will,¡± said Syaoran, mounting the horse. A golden puppy scampered down the backdoor steps and jumped on top of Syaoran¡¯s lap. ¡°You! What are you doing here?¡±
¡°Take Wolfie-chan with you. He might be of some help, and he seems to have taken quite a liking for you,¡± said Queen Nadeshiko with a smile. ¡°My best wishes for you, young knight.¡±
And Syaoran galloped outside the gates, taking the road northward bound, the opposite direction from Princess Sakura. He turned back one last time to see Nadeshiko and Ryuuren standing by each others side before the gates slammed shut.
Syaoran rode straight for three whole day and nights. Strangely, he did not tire nor feel hunger. Though he did not know whether he galloped through fields or hills or marshes or woods, his black stallion simply guided him, and Syaoran trusted Midnight Star. It was rather comforting to have a horse and the puppy as companion. They did not speak, but he knew that with them, he was not alone. When he first awoke in this peculiar land, he had been utterly alone. Once in a while, he thought about Ryuuren and Leon, but most of the time, he wondered if Sakura had reached safety and where she was now.
On the third night, he collapsed in front of a strange maroon pavilion and lost all consciousness.
When Syaoran awoke again, he was greeted by a pair of gray eyes. There was a wetness upon his cheeks. He shifted his head to find Wolfie-chan¡¯s nuzzling against his shoulder. He smiled, ruffling the puppy¡¯s fur with one hand.
¡°Are you feeling better?¡± asked a quiet female voice. ¡°We were surprised to find you collapsed at our gates.¡±
¡°Aw, he¡¯s so cute. Can I pinch his cheeks?¡± said another female voice, one that grated his ears.
Blinking again, Syaoran realized he was lying in a bed. The woman with the gray eyes and gentle voice helped him up. She had long auburn hair loosely tied back with a white sash. She wore a white kimono and red hakama. The second female had very familiar eyes the color of ruby-amber and long black hair that arranged into twists of buns at the top of her head held into place by a gold and garnet hairpiece that dangled whenever she moved. Unlike the plain, utilitarian garbs of the first woman, she wore a flashy scarlet silk cheongsam with gold accents.
¡°I treated your back wound,¡± said the first woman. ¡°It has healed very well, so you¡¯ll be able to move about in no time.¡±
Syaoran cleared his throat. ¡°I¡¯m sorry to have caused a problem. I—¡°
¡°Your horse is in the stables,¡± said a third voice belong to a tall, broad-shouldered man with wheat-gold hair tied back into a long ponytail down his back. His eyes were a cold blue and his demeanor was crisp and aristocratic. ¡°It¡¯s a very good steed.¡±
¡°So, do you have a message from Ryuuren?¡± asked the black-haired woman.
¡°This is the House of Five?¡± Syaoran said.
¡°It is. And you have come a long way to find us,¡± said a fourth person.
Syaoran glanced up to see the owner of the melodic, soothing voice to see a light-browned hair with bright emerald eyes.
¡°I am Hayashi. The miko-sama who healed you is Mayura. The one who wants to torture you a little bit more is Shulin. And the man who took care of your horse is Landon. There¡¯s one more of us, Ruichi, but he¡¯s on an errand with his sister.¡±
Syaoran fumbled to draw out the letter from Ryuuren and hand it to Hayashi.
The four read the letter silently and looked grim.
Absentmindedly, Syaoran scratched Wolfie-chan¡¯s stomach as he awaited their response.
Instead of remarking on the contents of the letter, Hayashi looked up. ¡°Let us have tea. You can get dressed and join us in the tea room.¡±
Syaoran found a fresh white shirt and brown trousers. His leather boots were still sturdy though and his cloak was folded to the side with his belt and sword on top.
When Syaoran entered the tea room, he was surprised to find a bamboo tatami, and Hayashi knelt on the floor, carefully mixing a green powder in a bowl. He carefully poured five cups of tea. Syaoran thought the blonde man called Landon looked strangely out of place in his fancy brocade waistcoat and silk vest, seated on the floor. The tip of his long hair touched the floor. He narrowed his blue eyes at Syaoran. ¡°What are you staring at?¡±
¡°Sorry—I was just thinking how I met someone who looked very similar to you,¡± mumbled Syaoran into his cup of tea.
¡°Nameless One,¡± said Hayashi. ¡°Where do you originally come from?¡±
Syaoran was silent for a moment. ¡°I am not sure.¡±
¡°You have had a long journey, and you still have a long way till your final destination,¡± remarked Shulin. She stared at Mayura. ¡°Now, can I please pinch his cheek?¡±
¡°Fine,¡± relented Mayura. ¡°Only if I get to pinch the other one!¡±
The two women dove forward and each grabbed Syaoran¡¯s cheek before he could let out a sound of protest.
¡°I wish he was younger,¡± sighed Shulin. ¡°It¡¯s no fun bullying someone taller than me.¡±
¡°Should we make him younger?¡± asked Landon, drawing out a staff. ¡°Around ten or so—perfect age to tease but old enough not to cry and make a big fuss.¡±
Syaoran cowered to a corner at the malicious smile on the man¡¯s face. This man is pure evil, he thought.
¡°Landon, you¡¯re scaring the boy,¡± said Mayura, clearing her throat. ¡°We¡¯re not making a very good first impression on him at all.¡±
¡°Eh, it¡¯s too late to make good first impressions,¡± stated Landon with a sigh. ¡°Well, he resembles you a bit, Shulin, especially the eyes. Hopefully he has a better temper though.¡±
¡°Oh shut up, Landon.¡± Shulin crossed her arms.
Only Hayashi remained silent, sipping his green tea. ¡°Ryuuren-san named you ¡®Li.¡¯ Li-san, what do you plan on doing once you leave this house?¡±
¡°I am going to find Sakura-hime,¡± replied Syaoran.
¡°May I ask the reason why?¡±
¡°Because I have to find her.¡±
Hayashi set down his tea and quietly ruminated.
¡°What an idiot of a boy your successor is, Shulin,¡± remarked Landon. ¡°He cannot go back to his world¡±
¡°He chose to remember her over himself. That¡¯s a noble thing to do,¡± said Mayura.
¡°Nonetheless, Landon is right; without his name, he won¡¯t be able to return,¡± said Hayashi. ¡°Li-kun, why have you entered this realm?¡±
Slowly, Syaoran said, ¡°I came here to look for someone.¡±
¡°And you have lost all your memories in exchange for you passage here.¡± Hayashi twisted his teacup. ¡°That makes things more difficult.¡±
Syaoran said slowly, ¡°But I am starting to remember her.¡±
¡°Whom do you remember?¡±
Hayashi blinked at him with green eyes. ¡°Sakura-hime?¡±
¡°No, Sakura.¡± Syaoran smiled slightly. ¡°I know I sound crazy. But when I close my eyes, I only have one image in my mind. And that is of her face. When I am asked a name, only her name comes to my lips. I don¡¯t remember my name or where I came from. Yet, when such a clear message is ringing out to me from within me, it must mean something.¡±
And Landon stared at the boy with a peculiar look. ¡°Maybe, maybe it¡¯ll work out all the same.¡±
Sakura continued riding on her horse, realizing she was getting further and further away from the palace. The hood of her cloak—the cloak that the boy called Li had given her—whipped back from her head. Seeing the sun rise over the verdant fields, she took a short gasp. The hills swept with golden and orange were so beautiful. Forgetting she was on the run, she felt very liberated galloping down the hill. She turned her head towards the direction of the palace, now only speck in the horizon. With Ryuuren-san by her side, surely her mother would be all right.
She rode through the woods, following the path of a merrily bubbling brook. Finally, she came upon a clearing in the woods to what looked like a shrine of some sort. There, her white mare halted. Hopping off her horse, Sakura called out, ¡°Is anyone there?¡±
She heard the shuffling of footsteps. Tentatively, she swirled around. A short figure hid behind her and tugged at her skirt.
¡°Hey!¡± Sakura spun around again.
¡°Beda!¡± A boy, no older than six or seven, with mussed brown hair and a mischievous grin stuck out his tongue at her. He then reached out and grabbed her cloak then swung it over her head.
¡°Hoee!!! I can¡¯t see!¡± cried out Sakura, flailing out her arms as her cloak covered her head.
There was a peal of childish laughter.
A gently chiding voice was heard. ¡°Su-chan! How could you to a guest? Hurry up and apologize immediately!¡±
Sakura struggled to unfasten her cloak to look up and see a girl with long auburn hair, half-tied back by a red ribbon. Shorter side bangs framed her heart-shaped face and her eyes were a lovely golden brook color. The girl looked no older than herself, but she wore the garbs of a miko, a white kimono and a red hakama tied to her slender waist.
She spoke up. ¡°I apologize on behalf of Subaru—he means well. My name is Mika. You must be Sakura-hime. I was expecting you.¡±
Mika extended out a slender finger. A large white bird with a long opalescent plume landed on her hand. ¡°I was informed by Leon-san that the sealing process has gone smoothly. But now, we have no means of communicating with the palace.¡±
¡°I see. But everyone¡¯s safe?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°I certainly believe so,¡± replied Mika with a kind smile. ¡°Come now. Let us get you rested. I will show you the rest of the shrine.¡±
¡°No way, she¡¯s the princess?¡± said Subaru, trailing after Mika. ¡°Why isn¡¯t she wearing a golden crown and a fancy dress? She¡¯s not beautiful or graceful at all!¡±
¡°Su-chan, that¡¯s rude!¡± chided a girl with a long flaxen braid down her back, holding a water bucket.
¡°I think she¡¯s bwootiful,¡± said a soft-spoken little girl with round hazel-gold eyes. ¡°Is she weally a pwincess?¡±
Bending up and picking up the toddler in her arms, Mika said, ¡°Hana-chan, do you want to say hello to Princess Sakura?¡±
The little girl hid her head into Mika¡¯s chest, then peeked out of the corner of her eyes again.
¡°She¡¯s a little shy,¡± Mika said to Sakura. ¡°Come, let me introduce you to the rest of the children. You already met that rascal, Subaru there.¡±
Young Subaru grinned, revealing a missing front tooth.
Back in the courtyard was a boy, slightly older than Subaru, with black-brown hair tied in a topknot at the top of his head and wearing a dark green kimono. He practiced with a bamboo shinai in place of a real sword.
¡°That little samurai-in-training in Hayami-kun,¡± said Mika.
Hayami set down his practice sword and bowed his head to Sakura. She smiled at the young boy; he was so serious, he reminded her of someone.
¡°The girl watering the flowers over there is Eleanor—she helps me out a lot,¡± said Mika.
The girl with wavy wheat-colored hair braided down her back and large violet eyes looked up. Though her frame was petite and she seemed around twelve, something about her face made her look older than her age.
¡°What a beautiful rose garden!¡± exclaimed Sakura, bending over to smell the red roses glistening with dew, out of place in the shrine environment.
Eleanor, wearing a simple lavender pinafore, plucked a flower and handed it to Sakura. While the young girl had the grace of a lady, she had a certain impish smile, like a mischievous young garden fairy. She remarked mysteriously, ¡°Edward seems to have chosen the right successor.¡±
Sakura blinked at the younger girl.
¡°Don¡¯t mind her—she has strange visions sometimes,¡± stated Hayami, walking over to Eleanor.
Little Hana had grown attached to Sakura already and clung at her legs. Meanwhile, Subaru crept up and placed a frog on Sakura¡¯s shoulder.
¡°Hoe-eee!¡± wailed Sakura when she felt something crawl down her back.
¡°Su-chan, go up and prepare Sakura-hime¡¯s room.¡± Mika picked the frog off Sakura¡¯s back and placed it on the ground. The frog hopped off. ¡°I¡¯ll show you to your room and you can change and rest. Ask me if you need anything, Sakura-hime.¡±
Sakura turned to the girl who seemed only around her age but so much more mature. She sighed happily, ¡°Hanyaan¡¦ Mika-san is so nice.¡±
¡°You can just call me Mika,¡± she said with a smile.
¡°Did she just go ¡®hanyaan?¡¯¡± said Hayami with a snicker. ¡°What a weird girl.¡±
The tip of Sakura¡¯s ears turned red. ¡°M-mika, then you must call me Sakura.¡±
¡°All right, Sakura.¡± Mika¡¯s eyes twinkled.
The days passed by, and Sakura adjusted to life at the temple as if she had never lived in a large castle with servants waiting on her from morning to evening. She helped Mika with household chores in the mornings and played with the children in the afternoons. Life was quiet and pleasant, and she did not think of what had happened at the palace. Sometimes, she missed her mother and wondered if she was safe, but Mika was good company.
¡°Where did these children come from?¡± asked Sakura one day as she rocked little Hana back and forth in her arms. ¡°How did they come here?¡±
¡°They have nowhere else to return to,¡± replied Mika. ¡°So they are here now.¡±
¡°Sakura-nee-chan, come play hide-and-seek with us!¡± cried out Subaru, jumping out and throwing his arms around Sakura¡¯s legs.
¡°Su-chan, did you finish your reading lessons?¡± Sakura asked. She was now teaching the boy to read and write—Hayami and Eleanor were already well-versed; Hayami was definitely better at calligraphy than Sakura and Eleanor seemed to be able to recite sonnets and epic poems by heart.
Subaru made a face. ¡°But it¡¯s so nice outside. Hayami-kun and I want to play!¡±
Mika straightened young Subaru¡¯s collar. ¡°Promise to study in the evening.¡±
¡°Me too!¡± cried out Hana, stumbling towards Subaru. ¡°Me too!¡±
¡°No, you¡¯re too little,¡± replied Subaru, arms crossed.
Little Hana¡¯s bottom lips began to tremble, and her large hazel eyes began to water.
With a sigh, Hayami bent over and picked up Hana. He patted her head and said, ¡°What do you want to do, Hana-chan?¡±
¡°I want to play with Hayami-nii-chan!¡± replied Hana, throwing her arms around Hayami¡¯s neck.
Hayami smiled gently, stroking the girl¡¯s violet hair.
¡°What is it, Sakura?¡± Mika said as she saw the soft look that Sakura had on her face while looking at Hayami and Hana.
¡°Hmm¡¦ Nothing,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°I was just thought of my own brother.¡±
Shulin was beautiful in a fiery, animated way that when she was in a room, she elicited all eyes upon her. Today, she had her long black hair tied back at the top of her head and pinned with a jade and gold ornament. She wore a deep green cheongsam and circled around Syaoran impatiently with her double swords drawn. Syaoran, also dressed in a green cheongsam, was sweating hard and held out his sword, carefully watching Shulin¡¯s movement.
Syaoran initially thought he would just serve as messenger and never imagined that the Great Five would detain him. He never found out what was written in the letter. Instead, Shulin took it upon herself to ¡°train¡± him. For what, he did not know.
¡°Again!¡± cried out Shulin, smacking him on the calves with the back of her sword. ¡°Your stance is wrong. Twist and slide your left leg—keep your eye on the target! Watch me.¡± She demonstrated the complicated maneuver.
Nodding, Syaoran lifted his sword and executed the dragon summon move to perfection.
¡°Humph better. Now, let us start from the top.¡± Shulin lifted up her sword then lowered her body so that her arms were parallel to the ground, and she crouched down for maximum balance.
Bowing, Syaoran faced off Shulin, gulping hard. Shulin began to attack first—it took all of Syaoran¡¯s wits to just fend her off. Till this day, he had never met a stronger, quicker opponent. Before he could even put into play any of the new maneuvers she had drilled into him, she had knocked his sword out of his hand.
¡°Weak!¡± she cried out, kicking his sword into the dirt. ¡°Weak, weak, weak! I have a useless successor. Even Ryuuren is better than you. Go pick up your sword, you worthless boy, and face me again instead of standing there like a nitwit!¡±
Still stunned by the verbal tirade, Syaoran scrambled to pick up his sword.
¡°Shulin, aren¡¯t you being too harsh on the boy?¡± said Hayashi, walking out to the courtyard. ¡°His right arm injury barely healed; you shouldn¡¯t make him put so much strain on it.¡±
Syaoran blinked. ¡°My right arm?¡±
¡°I noticed you dominantly used your left hand to do things, but it seems like your main sword hand is your right hand. Which means that you must have been recovering from an injury before,¡± replied Hayashi. ¡°Though it isn¡¯t unheard of left-handers to fight with their right arm.¡±
¡°We don¡¯t have much time,¡± said Shulin, looking a bit calmer. Her temper tantrums were known to her friends, but to a first-time beholder it was truly frightening.
¡°Time?¡± repeated Syaoran, blinking at the woman who seemed barely his age yet with eyes that seemed to contain ancient wisdom. She was so blazingly beautiful she was frightening.
¡°The longer you stay in Memoria, the harder it gets to escape from here,¡± replied Mayura, walking towards them, bow and arrow in hard. Her long auburn hair fanned out in the wind. ¡°The longer the princess stays here, the more she will forget about the real world.¡±
¡°The real world?¡± Syaoran asked, his heart thudding.
¡°Yes, the world she originally came from. The one both of you are from,¡± said Landon. ¡°The longer you stay here, the more difficult it will be for you to recall your real name, if it isn¡¯t already too late for you to remember it.¡±
¡°What will happen if I don¡¯t remember it?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡°You won¡¯t be able to return to the world you came from,¡± said Hayashi shortly. ¡°More importantly, if Sakura chooses to stay in Memoria, it will cause the destruction of the world she came from.¡±
At this, Syaoran paled. ¡°What can I do then?¡±
¡°You have to convince her to return,¡± said Hayashi. ¡°The entrance back is in the palace, however. Queen Nadeshiko sealed the palace in order to protect the gateway from the enemies. The enemies want to block the porthole to the real world in order to trap Sakura here forever. Therefore, you must find a way back into the palace before it gets destroyed.¡±
¡°How will she be able to return?¡± asked Syaoran. ¡°I saw the palace getting sealed off—there¡¯s no way to enter it from the outside.¡±
¡°That is why you must train yourself to be the strongest version of yourself possible in the limited time you have here,¡± said Shulin impatiently. ¡°You can see yourself how weak you are. You¡¯ve let yourself become weak because of the lack of certitude in your heart.¡±
¡°How can I be stronger?¡± asked Syaoran. ¡°Shulin-sama, please let me know.¡±
¡°When you can be truthful to yourself and to the ones you love, you can truly become the most powerful version of yourself,¡± replied Shulin.
Young Subaru had taken quite a fondness for Sakura and followed her around everywhere. The boy, who had previously shunned household chores, carried the laundry basket when Sakura collected the laundry hanging up in the sun. He would eagerly fetch pails of water from the well when she cooked and carry her sewing kit when she decided to embroider.
¡°Turning into a wimp!¡± declared Hayami, peeved at losing his obedient lackey.
¡°Not!¡± retorted Subaru.
Mika, as she swept the front gates, remarked, ¡°It seems like we have visitors. Hayami, go boil a kettle of water. Su-chan, go prepare an extra tea set.¡±
¡°Yes, ma¡¯am.¡± Hayami and Subaru dashed off to the kitchen.
Sakura looked up expectantly. They never got visitors. She was startled to see a man with golden eyes and violet-blue hair. ¡°Reiji-san!¡± she exclaimed.
The man stared at her with narrowed eyes. ¡°Ah, you¡¯ve met by twin brother already.¡±
A girl with dark hair braided into two pigtails walked up next to him. She was dressed in a simple flower kimono in maroon with a yellow sash.
¡°Eri-san!¡± exclaimed Mika. ¡°You¡¯re finally back!¡±
¡°Mika-san—we brought back yards of cotton, household supplies and some fresh fish from the market,¡± said Eri, smiling. ¡°Ryo-chan came along to help me carry the supplies.¡±
The man who looked like Reiji nodded his head. ¡°I¡¯m Ryouta, Reiji¡¯s older twin brother.¡±
¡°Ah, sorry for the confusion,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Now that I think of it, Reiji-san couldn¡¯t be here—he¡¯s back at the palace with Ryuuren-san and everyone.¡±
¡°So I have heard,¡± Ryouta remarked wryly.
Sakura thought that Eri looked rather wistful.
¡°Well, I have to go back to border patrol,¡± said Ryouta, setting down a great parcel down on the front steps. ¡°I think this temple is well-concealed, but there¡¯s been unrest in the country ever since the palace has been sealed. Sakura-hime, you have to stay safe, or else you will make the sacrifice the Queen and everyone made to protect you in vain.¡±
Mika turned to Eri. ¡°You¡¯ll be staying with us though, right?¡±
Eri nodded. ¡°For the while.¡± She bent over and gave little Hana a hug. ¡°Oh, I missed you little ones.¡±
Though Eri didn¡¯t speak much, Sakura took an immediate liking to her. She learned that Eri was an exceptional artist and often, she sat outdoors and sketched what ever caught her fancy. Sometimes she drew the children running about. Other times she painted flowers and trees. She even produced a lifelike portrait of Sakura. It seemed as if Mika and Eri were good friends. The younger children adored Eri because she drew them pretty pictures. Over all, life was peaceful and uneventful for Sakura, and sometimes she even forgot where she had come from. Her days were filled with laughter, as Subaru and Hana and Eleanor always kept things lively. Weeks drifted by, and Sakura thought she wouldn¡¯t mind staying here.
¡°Sakura-nee-chan, if you¡¯re really the princess of this country, why did you end up here?¡± asked Hayami as Sakura told little tales to the children about the palace and her mischievous puppy Wolfie-chan.
¡°It¡¯s sort of complicated,¡± said Sakura to the younger boy. ¡°It was dangerous at the capital.¡±
¡°So, you ran away?¡± asked Hayami.
¡°No. I was sent away,¡± replied Sakura softly. ¡°I didn¡¯t want to leave.¡±
¡±You did run away,¡± said Hayami, brows furrowed down over dark green-black eyes. ¡°You¡¯re the princess, yet you¡¯re a coward.¡±
Mika walked over to Sakura and put an arm around her shoulder. ¡°It¡¯s not your fault, Sakura. Hayami-kun, stop it. I¡¯m ashamed of you.¡±
Hayami shook his head. ¡°You are a coward, Sakura-nee-chan. You keep running away. You don¡¯t notice all the sacrifices people are making to protect you.¡±
Sakura sank down on her knees, trembling. ¡°You may be right, Hayami-kun. I am a coward.¡±
Arms crossed, Hayami replied, ¡°I come from a long line of noble samurai. My brother always taught me to never abandon the ones you love, no matter what.¡±
And Sakura found herself gazing northwards, to the capital of Memoria. I have been forgetting who I once was. I am just like these children, lost and without any other home, any past, any purpose. And for the first time since she had arrived at the temple, she recalled the boy with the amber eyes and his words to her. ¡°I¡¯m not protecting you because somebody told me to. It¡¯s because I feel compelled to¡¦Because my body moves on its own like it¡¯s hardwired to protect you.¡± She wondered if he was trapped back in the palace with her mother and the others, the boy who sprang into her life so suddenly and slipped away just as abruptly.
The children splashed about in the river while the older girls sat by the riverbank, enjoying the breezy summery day and sharing stories of their ideal guys.
¡°Eri-san, your most important person is Reiji-san who¡¯s protecting the capital, right?¡± said Sakura, finishing the stitches on the wolf next to the cherry blossom tree embroidery.
Eri smiled. ¡°That¡¯s right. How did you know?¡±
¡°He¡¯s the only person you ever talk about—you always complain about Ryouta-san, but when you speak of Reiji-san, you seem very very happy,¡± said Sakura.
¡°Ah, is that so? We were childhood friends. Ryo-chan and Rei-chan and me,¡± Eri said.
¡°Ryouta-san and Reiji-san look so alike—how do you tell them apart?¡± Sakura said.
¡°Oh, their personalities are completely different even if they¡¯re twins,¡± said Eri with a laugh. ¡°Ryo-chan is short-tempered and rash, while Rei-chan is ever patient and a good listener. Rei-chan likes building things and using his hands. Ryo-chan has always been more of a fighter, ready to see the world. Rei-chan promised me when we get married, he will build me my dream house. He¡¯s always looking for the perfect location. We want a large garden so the children can play.¡±
¡°Children?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°I want a daughter and a son,¡± Eri said with a blush. ¡°Rei-chan will make such a good father—he¡¯s really good with children. Hana-chan and Hayami-kun adore him—though it¡¯s been a long time since he¡¯s stopped by here since he joined the Queen¡¯s Guard.¡±
¡°What about Ryouta-san?¡± Mika asked.
¡°Oh, Ryo-chan will always be welcome in our house too—but he laughs at the idea of Reiji building me a dream house and us having a family. He said it¡¯s too boring and tame for him. He wants to ride out west to the horizon, embarking on adventures. I always told him he would some day have his name written in history.¡± Eri smiled. ¡°Enough about me. Mika-san, tell us about your ideal guy.¡±
Mika blushed and tucked her long auburn behind her ears. ¡°I don¡¯t know. I sort of like guys who have a mystery about them. Someone I feel like ¡®ah, this person knows a lot about the world.¡¯ I want a person who can protect me, who I can completely depend on.¡±
Sakura remarked wryly, ¡°He must be a mature, intellectual sort of person, the kind who is good at playing the piano and telling stories of ancient civilization?¡±
For a second, Mika ruminated and then looked at Sakura, startled. ¡°How did you know that was my ideal?¡±
Eri chuckled. ¡°Now, what about you, Sakura-hime? Tell us about your ideal guy.¡±
Little Eleanor leaned closer, chin on hands. ¡°I think Sakura-nee-chan will have a prince on a white horse that will come sweep her off her feet,¡± Eleanor said, her violet eyes twinkling. ¡°Someone fair-haired, gentle and cordial who can make Sakura-nee-chan go ¡®hanyaan.¡® ¡±
¡°Actually, that does fit my ideals very well.¡± An image of a boy with amber brown eyes and tousled chestnut brown hair flashed before her eyes. Sakura had a nostalgic smile. ¡°But no, my prince would have brown hair, and he would come riding a black stallion. He won¡¯t be gentlemanly at all—in fact he¡¯d be rather rude and crass at first. He would have a dark scowl and an awkward demeanor, but when he smiles, his entire face would light up.¡±
¡°Oh, a black knight,¡± said Mika said knowingly.
¡°And then, what would he say when he rides up on his great horse?¡± Eri asked.
¡°He would say, Sakura, I¡¯ve come for you!¡± Sakura hugged her legs to her chest.
With a grin, Subaru crawled over to the riverbank and stared at his reflection, running a hand over his mussed brown hair. He tied a sheet around his neck to mimic a long cloak. ¡°One day, I¡¯ll become Sakura-nee-chan¡¯s prince.¡±
Hayami, who had been inching closer to the group of girls stated, arms on hips, ¡°How stupid. Nobody would come take you away, anyway. You¡¯re such a crybaby, and you¡¯re not particularly good at household chores or feminine like Mika-san, nor do you seem to have any special talent for anything like Eri-san.¡±
¡°Hayami-kun!¡± exclaimed Mika.
¡°It¡¯s true,¡± replied Sakura with a shrug. ¡°But he¡¯s my prince so he¡¯ll come for me all the same and accept all my flaws as they are.¡±
¡°And you what would you say when he comes?¡± asked Eleanor, kneeling forward to Sakura.
And Sakura clasped her hands together. ¡°I¡¯ll say to him, why did you keep me waiting for so long?¡±
Subaru and Hayami made gagging noises and snickered.
¡°And he would sweep you off your feet and together you would ride into the distant setting sun,¡± concluded Eri with a sigh.
Mika shook her head—how like Eri to be lost in her daydream; it was her artistic temperament. Her pale brown eyes narrowed as she watched Sakura¡¯s expression change from dreamy to pensive. ¡°He¡¯s real, this prince of yours. Who is he?¡±
For a second, Sakura closed her eyes.
¡°I always thought you had someone enclosed in your heart,¡± Mika remarked.
¡°How could you tell?¡±
¡°You oftentimes stare up at the north, as if you are waiting for someone. Are you waiting for this person to come?¡± Mika asked.
¡°He won¡¯t come. There is no way he will come,¡± said Sakura.
At this, Mika turned to Sakura. ¡°What is his name?¡±
Slowly, Sakura shook her head.
¡°Was it love at first sight?¡± Eleanor asked with an impish smile.
Sakura smiled wistfully, shaking her head. ¡°No. When I first met him, I was quite scared of him, actually. He was mean, he called me stupid, and he always made me feel incompetent. We were only children then, I guess, no older than Hayami-kun.¡±
¡°Then, what changed things?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know. I don¡¯t when things began to change for us. But I soon realized that he might be gruff and his words may be harsh, but deep beneath, he had a kinder heart than anyone else. He never smiled, but he was always considerate and gentle. I grew to trust him and rely on him.¡±
¡°So, when did you start liking him?¡±
¡°It took me a long time to realize my feelings for him. I don¡¯t think I really could put into words my feelings until he had to leave.¡±
¡°Ah, you only appreciated him once you had lost him,¡± said Eleanor.
¡°No, I was really naïve. I had a second chance. He came back, and I was very happy. But he left again. That¡¯s when I realized that we really must not be meant to be. If we were, then why would we always be separated? Why would he have left me without a word?¡± Sakura¡¯s eyes were glassy.
¡°Don¡¯t worry, onee-chan. If he¡¯s really your knight errant, he¡¯ll come for you,¡± said Eleanor, pressing her small, slender hands on Sakura¡¯s hands. ¡°Everything will work out fine.¡±
Sakura smiled warmly at the younger girl. It had come rushing back to her like the rush of a high tide—she had recalled something she had long since pushed out of her mind. Things of the real world.
Syaoran never meant to stay at the House of Five for long, but somehow the days drifted by till he could not tell if he had been there for days, weeks or months. Every waking moment of the day, Shulin drilled Syaoran. Once in a while, Mayura and Landon took interest in his training, and Syaoran learned archery from Mayura and proper fencing from Landon. Syaoran was most curious about Hayashi¡¯s swordsmanship, since Shulin had mentioned that the one person that she could never beat was Hayashi. But Hayashi never drew his katana from its sheath.
¡°You¡¯re not focusing, boy! Look at me! This is how it¡¯s done!¡± Shulin held out her sword and took a deep breath in. ¡°Shenlung Taifeng!¡±
An electric blue dragon pierced through the sky and wrapped around her. Syaoran stood shuddering, watching in awe. It was a real dragon, not a concentration of light, not an illusion. Then, the dragon vaporized and disappeared.
¡°Your turn,¡± Shulin said.
¡°I can¡¯t do it,¡± Syaoran replied. ¡°I don¡¯t have magic.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t accept defeatists,¡± stated Shulin, slamming the point of her sword into the soil. ¡°When you have reached your limitations, exceed your limits. When you face a wall, break through stone.¡±
Hayashi walked out into the courtyard. ¡°Shulin, you can¡¯t keep the boy here forever.¡±
Shulin scowled. ¡°I know, but I still have so much more to teach him.¡±
¡°He¡¯ll be all right,¡± said Hayashi. ¡°What ever skills he lacks, his heart will make up for.¡±
¡°He¡¯s too weak now. He needs to grow stronger.¡± Shulin¡¯s amber eyes grew wistful.
Hayashi turned to Syaoran with keen forest green eyes. ¡°How about you fight a one-on-one duel with me. If you can defeat me, we will let you leave. If you lose, you will stay here and continue to be bullied by Shulin to her heart¡¯s content.¡±
¡°I¡¯ll take on that duel,¡± said Syaoran, a gleam in his eyes. Finally, a chance to leave. He wanted to learn more from the Great Five—but time was slipping away. He had to get to Sakura before he forgot his purpose.
¡°Humph, no way you can beat Hayashi,¡± Shulin stated. ¡°He¡¯s the most formidable swordsman of the kingdom.¡±
It was another lazy afternoon in the southernmost border of the kingdom. Sakura, Mika and Eri sat by the riverbank, folding laundry, chatting and laughing as usual. Unlike at the palace, fabric was a lot scarcer at the temple, and Sakura was dressed in a simple white dress made from the remains of the dress that she wore on the night of the ball and escape. Most of the untorn remains of the pink fabric had been used to make a layered dress for little Hana. But the remaining part of the under-dress could be modified for a simple everyday dress.
Sakura sat on the grass entwining dandelions with a long pink ribbon to make a crown for Hana. Eleanor sat braiding Hana¡¯s violet-black hair while Hayami and Subaru played samurai and ninja.
¡°Why the long sigh?¡± asked Mika sitting next to Sakura.
¡°I feel rather restless lately,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Don¡¯t get me wrong, I¡¯m very happy to be with you and Hana-chan and Su-chan and everyone. But I feel like I can¡¯t stay here much longer. I¡¯m so worried about what¡¯s happening at the castle.¡±
¡°I¡¯m sorry, Sakura. I really wish there was something I can do for you,¡± Mika said. ¡°I don¡¯t want you to feel like you¡¯re trapped here because of what Ryouta-san said.¡±
¡°No, I¡¯m horrible. I didn¡¯t mean to sound ungrateful,¡± said Sakura. ¡°But I just can¡¯t help feeling worried about mother and everyone.¡±
¡°Is there something else?¡± Mika asked with a sly twinkle in her gray eyes.
The image of a boy with dark brown hair and amber eyes came over Sakura¡¯s mind. She rapidly shook her head. ¡°No, it¡¯s nothing.¡±
¡°You can tell me. After all, I can¡¯t say I don¡¯t know what you¡¯re feeling. I too am trapped here in a sense,¡± Mika said. Her straight auburn hair fanned back in the wind. ¡°Remember when we were talking about our ideal guys? There was a man I used to love.¡±
Now, Sakura turned to Mika in surprise. Mika was so timid and quiet; she never spoke about herself.
Mika continued on her own. ¡°He was a man to do many great things. I first met him the spring I turned twelve. He was a tall, dark-haired boy with pale skin as if he rarely saw sunlight. He looked very unhappy, the first time I saw him. It was hard getting him to talk, and I was quite intimidated by him.¡±
Sakura smiled nostalgically. ¡°I know that feeling.¡±
¡°But I followed him around everywhere because he knew so much. He was a strange person. He would rarely speak to people, but he would bend over and talk with plants or animals. I thought, ah, that person sees the world in a different way than anyone else. Gradually, he opened up to me. He would tell me wondrous stories, made-up tales of far off lands which he describes so vividly that I could believe I was there.¡± A dreamy look came over Mika¡¯s eyes. ¡°Back then, I knew not of love, not of what it means to be man and woman. I just wanted to be by his side, forever. He was hostile to everyone, very sullen and brooding. He had visions which haunted him, knowledge of the world that burdened him. But to me, he was the kindest person ever. To me, he was gentle and patient.¡±
¡°What happened?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°We weren¡¯t fated to be, I guess,¡± said Mika, the smile dropping from her lips. ¡°If I were given a second chance, I wonder if things would have gone differently. If I were born again, I would hope to be able to stay by his side if nothing else. He was a man meant to do great things, and I didn¡¯t want to hold him back.¡±
¡°Wouldn¡¯t you want to be loved?¡±
¡°That would be nice. But rather than being loved and separated, I would be content just being able to watch over that person.¡±
Sakura glanced down at the dandelions getting crushed in her hands. ¡°Mika-san, was the person you loved Clow Reed?¡±
¡°Perhaps that is what he was called later in life.¡± Mika smiled slightly. ¡°How did you know?¡±
¡°Because you strongly reminded me of someone I knew,¡± replied Sakura, staring up at the sky.
¡°From the world you once came from?¡± Mika asked.
¡°Yes,¡± said Sakura with another long sigh.
In a quiet voice, Mika said, ¡°The longer you stay here, the more you will lose the ability to remember of the place you came from. One day, you won¡¯t be able to recall anything. And then, you will never be able to return.¡±
¡°I never wanted to return in the first place,¡± said Sakura.
¡°Is there not someone waiting for you back there? Someone you need to return to?¡±
Again, a strange pang struck in Sakura¡¯s heart. It was then that Hayami and Subaru came running to them from down the river bank, out of breath.
¡°They¡¯re coming,¡± panted Hayami.
¡°Who¡¯s coming, Hayami-kun?¡± asked Mika, setting down the laundry in the basket.
¡°The black riders with the crest of an eye on their backs. They¡¯re riding this way,¡± said Hayami.
Sakura stood up, flowers falling off her lap onto the ground. ¡°How did they find me here?¡±
Mika frowned. ¡°I don¡¯t know. I thought you¡¯d be safe here.¡±
Subaru blinked up with large brown eyes.
¡°It¡¯s all right,¡± said Mika, patting Subaru¡¯s head. She took Subaru¡¯s hand and Hana¡¯s hand and hurried back toward the temple. Eri, Eleanor and Sakura followed.
Hayami drew his sword. ¡°I¡¯ll fight. I¡¯ll protect you, Sakura-hime.¡±
Mika drew out her bow and arrows. ¡°I can protect this temple too.¡±
¡°Oh, I wish Ryo-chan comes back soon,¡± said Eri, frowning. ¡°Maybe I should send a signal.¡±
¡°Too late¡¦ They¡¯re here,¡± whispered Eleanor.
They heard the clip clop of hooves coming up the path. Sakura dashed forward.
¡°Wait, Sakura, what do you think you¡¯re doing?¡± called out Mika.
¡°I can¡¯t put you all in danger,¡± said Sakura. As she ran out to the front, she saw the black riders come forth. Without hesitating, Mika shot out arrows. Two men fell.
Sakura stood in front of the riders, arms outstretched. ¡°You can¡¯t pass me.¡±
She was pushed aside and the riders stampeded into the temple.
¡°Where is Princess Sakura?¡± demanded the leader.
Mika¡¯s brows were furrowed. ¡°We won¡¯t tell you.¡±
The leader, a red eye-symbol embossed to his back, grabbed little Hana and held a knife to her throat. The girl shrieked. ¡°Now, tell me, where is the princess?¡±
¡°I¡¯m Sakura! Let Hana-chan go!¡± stated Sakura, lunging at the man.
¡°Ha, so you¡¯re the cowardly princess?¡± laughed the leader. ¡°The one who ran away and abandoned the palace?¡±
¡°I didn¡¯t run away!¡± exclaimed Sakura. She bent down and grabbed a fistful of sand then flung it at the man¡¯s eyes.
¡°UGH!!!¡± The man screamed and released Hana as he rubbed his eyes.
¡°Hana-chan!¡± Sakura exclaimed, grabbing the child in her arms. ¡°It¡¯s all right, Hana-chan, don¡¯t cry.¡±
¡°We¡¯re surrounded,¡± said Hayami, giving the man he had knocked down a kick.
¡°Oh, Rei-chan, I wish you were here,¡± Eri said, closing her eyes and clasping her hands together.
Sakura glanced around her. Dozens, perhaps over twenty men had gathered around the temple. Instinctively her hands clasped the pink key hanging from a long chain around her neck. What could she do? It was as if her body had grown rusty spending these quiet days at the temple. She had to release her key. What was the summon spell? Her voice was caught in her throat and panicked rippled through her body.
Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Hayami swing out his katana—a real one, not a practice one—and bring down another man. The boy was no older than ten, yet he had not an ounce of fear in his body. But a young boy was not going to hold up against all these riders. And Hayami was pushed down to the ground, sword kicked from his reach.
¡°Hayami-kun!¡± shouted Sakura. She reached out to pick up a bow and arrow—Mika had been teaching her archery, but she was nowhere near good enough to fend off all these attackers.
¡°Wait, I hear the sound of hooves,¡± said Eleanor.
¡°More of them?¡± asked Mika, paling while her fingers gripping her arrow.
¡°No¡¦ it¡¯s a single rider,¡± replied Eleanor, hand behind her ear.
Sakura turned her head towards the woods. From the distance came a rider on a black stallion. Her heart leapt.
¡°Who is that?¡± whispered Eri.
The great stallion neighed, standing on its back legs before coming to a halt. The rider¡¯s navy blue cloak fanned out behind him and his brown hair caught the orange-golden rays of the afternoon sun. He held a gleaming sword in one hand, and the blade flashed like lightening as he slashed down the men in the black and red livery. He circled around the temple, knocking all the men off their horses. When the last man was down, and the rest fled, he swung his horse around and turned to Sakura.
Slowly, Sakura stood up, bow and arrow dropping to the ground. Her evergreen eyes met his amber-brown ones.
¡°Wow, Sakura¡¯s knight on a black horse really did come,¡± said Eri with dreamy violet eyes. ¡°How handsome.¡±
¡°He¡¯s real,¡± murmured Hayami in awe. ¡°I thought he was another one of Sakura-nee-chan¡¯s made up stories.¡±
The younger children stared up with round eyes and mouth agape.
¡°I¡¯m sorry I took so long to come get you, Sakura-hime,¡± Syaoran said. He was breathing hard as if he had been racing hard, nonstop.
When words came to her lips, she could only whisper, ¡°How did you even find me?¡±
¡°This guy led me to you,¡± said Syaoran. Out from behind his cloak jumped Wolfie-chan, into his mistress¡¯ arms with a happy bark.
¡°Oh Wolfie-chan, you¡¯re safe!¡± exclaimed Sakura, burying her face into Wolfie-chan¡¯s fur. Of course he couldn¡¯t be¡¦ A shadow came over her eyes with a certain realization. ¡°Li-kun¡¦ At the castle¡¦ Mother and everyone.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know. I left before everything got sealed off. But I think they¡¯re safe for now. Hayashi-sama said so,¡± said Syaoran.
¡°Hayashi-sama? Of the Great Five?¡±
And Sakura recovered her manners. She turned to Mika. ¡°Ah, Mika-san, this is¡¦¡±
¡°I know,¡± said Mika with a gentle smile. ¡°We were waiting for you.¡±
¡°Eh?¡± Syaoran blinked.
The children were quite taken by Syaoran and were reluctant to leave his side for a minute.
Baby Hana was too much in awe to go near him but peeped up at Syaoran from behind Eleanor¡¯s back, chanting, ¡°Pwince. My pwince.¡±
Eri was not making things better by nudging Sakura in the side and constantly giggling till Syaoran couldn¡¯t help but blush.
He stared at Eri and then finally spoke. ¡°Are you Eri-san?¡±
Surprised at being addressed by him, Eri squeaked, ¡°Yes, that is me.¡±
¡°Then, you must know a man called Reiji-san. He sends you his love and says he will join you as soon as he can,¡± Syaoran said.
And Eri dabbed the corner of her eyes with her sleeves. ¡°Thank you, Li-san. Thank you.¡± Mika patted her friend¡¯s back.
¡°Onii-san, how do you do that sword move?¡± Hayami said, finally catching Syaoran¡¯s attention. ¡°Can I try holding your sword? Can I?¡±
¡°Sure.¡± Syaoran knelt on the ground and unbuckled his sword hilt from his waist. ¡°You can try drawing it.¡±
Hayami staggered at the weight of the sword. With a determined frown, he drew the blade and held it up above his head. ¡°Whoa.¡±
¡°Me too, me too!¡± said Subaru, jumping up and down.
¡°No, it¡¯s too big and heavy for you,¡± said Hayami, holding the sword out of reach of the younger boy.
¡°I¡¯m as strong as you are,¡± retorted Subaru. Then, his eyes caught Syaoran¡¯s. He crossed his arms. ¡°So, you¡¯re Sakura-nee-chan¡¯s prince? I wasn¡¯t that impressed by your fighting skills or anything; in a few years, I¡¯ll be ten times, no twenty times better than you.¡±
For a second, Syaoran stared at the younger boy.
Subaru turned red. ¡°What are you staring at?¡±
The corner of Syaoran¡¯s eyes crinkled. ¡°Nothing.¡± He patted Subaru on the head in a fond manner.
And Subaru turned even redder. He leaped back then ran down the corridor to his room.
Sakura laughed out loud. Mika peered at Sakura curiously. She smiled to herself. ¡°Sakura, you know you look very happy ever since Li-kun came.¡±
Sakura¡¯s cheeks turned rosy.
¡°Well, I guess you¡¯ll be leaving us,¡± remarked Mika with a sigh.
¡°What do you mean?¡±
¡°He¡¯s clearly come to take you away.¡± Mika smiled. ¡°You¡¯ve been waiting for him to come all along.¡±
Sakura stood up and walked towards Syaoran, who had been grooming Midnight Star and her white mare, Daybreak. He had finished saddling them. Yes, she had always known that there was a day she was going to leave Mika and everyone. It was a peaceful haven here at the temple but she could not stay.
Syaoran looked up and extended out a hand. ¡°Are you ready to come with me, Sakura-hime?¡±
Sakura glanced around. The children stared back at her eagerly. Mika had a knowing smile. ¡°I can¡¯t leave all of you.¡±
Eleanor stroked Sakura¡¯s mare¡¯s white coat and fed it a sugar lump. Mika walked up and pressed her hands on Sakura¡¯s. ¡°Go, Sakura. You don¡¯t belong here. We will miss you, but you can¡¯t stay here forever.¡±
Eyes blurring with tears, Sakura bent down. Little Hana, Eleanor and Hayami ran up to her and gave her a hug. A sullen Subaru crouched behind a tree. Sakura stretched out her arms. ¡°Su-chan, please come here.¡±
¡°No!¡± Subaru crossed his arms. ¡°Go. I don¡¯t care if you leave.¡±
¡°Oh Su-chan.¡± Sakura walked up to him and enveloped him in his arms. ¡°I don¡¯t want to leave you. I¡¯m going to miss you so much.¡±
At first, Subaru squirmed. Then, he tried to swallow the lump in his throat. In a choked voice, Subaru said, ¡°Sakura-nee-chan, I really really like you. So, don¡¯t give up. Don¡¯t be sad. I want you to be happy.¡±
This brought tears into Sakura¡¯s eyes, and she squeezed Subaru into a tighter hug. ¡°I love you, Su-chan. I will always remember you.¡±
Finally, Subaru broke away from Sakura. Arms akimbo, he glared up at Syaoran fiercely. ¡°Onii-chan, if you hurt Sakura-nee-chan in anyway, I¡¯m going to take her away from you.¡±
Letting out a laugh, Syaoran ruffled Subaru¡¯s head in a familiar way. ¡°All right, kid. I accept that challenge.¡±
Wolfie-chan barked happily and jumped into Sakura¡¯s arms.
¡°Bye Sakura-nee-chan. Good bye!¡± cried out the children. Mika and Eri had tears in their eyes as they waved.
¡°Sakura-san, tell Rei-chan I love him and will wait for him if you see him back at the capital,¡± Eri called out.
¡°I will, Eri-san.¡± Sakura, with teary eyes called out, ¡°Good bye everyone, good bye.¡± Then she turned to follow her black knight.
Sakura rode beside Syaoran silently. The clip-clop of hooves on the dirt road was rhythmic and soothing. Slowly, the shrine disappeared from sight and they trotted through a dense forest where sunlight was sparse.
¡°I heard from Mika-san that you¡¯ve been waiting for someone for a long time at the temple,¡± said Syaoran as their horses slackened speed as dusk was nearing.
Sakura slightly behind Syaoran¡¯s horse, matching his pace. ¡°Yes.¡±
¡°It actually wasn¡¯t me, right?¡±
At this, Sakura stared up at Syaoran¡¯s somber side profile as he rode on Midnight Star, back straight, hands loosely gripping the reins. ¡°No, it wasn¡¯t. But it¡¯s someone who looks just like you, Li-kun.¡±
¡°Someone who looks just like me¡¦ Where is he?¡±
¡°He is in another world, far from here,¡± Sakura said. ¡°There is no way he can be here.¡±
¡°Why did you come away with me, when it isn¡¯t me you were waiting for?¡± asked Syaoran. ¡°Because I remind you of him?¡±
Sakura shook her head, the sunlight through the leaves leaving dappled shadows on the horses. ¡°I didn¡¯t think you would come for me, Li-kun.¡±
¡°Why not?¡± Syaoran absentmindedly patted Wolfie-chan¡¯s head. Wolfie-chan had curled into a tight ball and had fallen asleep on his lap, lulled by the gentle swaying atop the horse.
Sakura remained silent for a while. ¡°Why did you come and save me?¡±
¡°Because of my free will,¡± replied Syaoran. ¡°I told you before that it feels like I¡¯m hardwired to protect you.¡±
Again, Sakura turned silent.
¡°Why did you follow me if I was not the one you were waiting for?¡± Syaoran asked.
¡°Because you came,¡± replied Sakura.
And Syaoran turned to Sakura with a lopsided smile. ¡°I hope you¡¯re not always so trusting of strangers who randomly show up at your front door.¡±
¡°That¡¯s right. You¡¯ve always been suspicious of everybody,¡± said Sakura with a chuckle. ¡°You used to get mad at me for being too trusting.¡±
Syaoran¡¯s horse halted and Sakura almost collided into him. ¡°You mean the other me.¡±
The smile dropped from her face, and Sakura didn¡¯t answer.
Syaoran kicked his heels into his horse¡¯s side and rode on.
¡°By the way, Li-kun, where are we heading towards?¡± Sakura called out, catching up with Syaoran.
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± replied Syaoran. ¡°I rode straight here from the House of Five without really planning ahead much.¡±
Sakura finally smiled again. ¡°You¡¯re a very honest person, Li-kun.¡±
Nightfall neared and the two realized they needed to camp out. They came by a lake side and the horses took shelter underneath a tree. Midnight Star seemed to get along well with Sakura¡¯s Daybreak. Syaoran laid out his cloak for Sakura to sit on.
Sakura sat at the edge of his cloak, awkwardly hugging her knees to her chest.
Syaoran turned to glance at Sakura. Her long lashes were downcast. ¡°If you know you¡¯re not from this world, you also know that you eventually need to return to where you came from,¡± he said.
Watching the reflection of the moons flicker over the deep blue lake, Sakura drew her knees to her chest.
Sighing, Syaoran lay back down on the grass, hands laced behind his head, staring up at the starlit sky. Three moons glowed overhead. ¡°How beautiful,¡± he said.
¡°It is, isn¡¯t it? In my original world, there¡¯s only one moon,¡± Sakura said, also staring up at the sky. ¡°It was not always full, either. Sometimes, it becomes a crescent. Sometimes it completely disappears.¡± She too lay back down, on the cloak Li-kun had spread for her. ¡°But here, the three moons are always full and shining. The silver moon on the right side is called Yue. And the rose-colored moon on the left is called Ruby Moon.¡±
¡°And what is the large one in the center called?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡°It doesn¡¯t have a name,¡± replied Sakura. She held out her hand and reached out towards the moons. ¡°The constellation here is the same as where I came from, though. But the stars here are much larger; they feel nearer.¡±
¡°When I first saw you at the palace, I thought you were like a star,¡± remarked Syaoran, smiling nostalgically at the night sky. ¡°You see, the sun has a glaring light that you can¡¯t stare at for too long without going blind. The moon has a subtle, sad glow, as if it will fade away. But with stars, you barely notice them at first, but when you watch them, they¡¯re so many of them, all twinkling so merrily. It makes you think, ah, they¡¯re growing and growing. The more you look, the more stars you find. And before you realize it, when at first you barely noticed it, you realize the entire sky is covered with stars.¡±
Sakura smiled, turning to her side to watch Syaoran¡¯s glittering amber eyes. ¡°And what makes me like a star?¡±
¡°Well, at first, I just saw your face and thought, ah I want to see you again. But then, slowly, my entire thought has become overwhelmed by thoughts of you. Visions of you twinkled in my mind to the point I couldn¡¯t concentrate on training while I was at the House of Five, and Shulin-sama thought I was a big dunce. When Hayashi-sama told me I could leave, I raced full speed towards where you are with only the thought of seeing you again.¡± Syaoran¡¯s ears turned red. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, I said too much. Please ignore me—I¡¯ve never really been very good at expressing myself in words. But I just have so much to say to you that I¡¯ve been practicing in my head to say to you when I finally could see you. Everything¡¯s all coming out wrong, and now I¡¯m blabbering.¡±
And Sakura laughed out loud. ¡°It¡¯s all right, Li-kun. I like hearing you talk. You were so quiet earlier, I was scared. Please talk to me. Talk to me till I fall asleep because it¡¯s scary in the dark when it¡¯s all silent.¡±
¡°Are you still scared of ghosts?¡± said Syaoran with a yawn, leaning over to the side as his eyelids grew heavy. Strange, because he had never felt so sleepy all those days he had been riding to the southern borders. ¡°You don¡¯t have to worry. I¡¯ll protect you from ghosts and ghouls and monsters...¡± And he dropped into deep slumber.
Sakura heard his breath turn deep and slow. ¡°Liar. You fell asleep before me.¡± She rolled over onto her stomach, chin leaned on her hand, and watched Li-kun¡¯s sleeping face. It was such a familiar visage, the long brown lashes, the sharp nose, the prominent jaw line. His chest rose and fell rhythmically. She wanted to reach out and touch his face as if to check if he was real. He was so gentle and kind, the person she had always thought he would be. Though they had met only once before, he spoke as if he had known her all his life. Was it because she wanted this kind of person to be always by her side? Was he simply the manifestation of her desire?
Slowly, she drew her cloak tighter around her and sat up. She had to leave him. The more time she spent with him, the more difficult it would be to turn away. His existence was a trap. Quietly, she sat up. When he first showed up that night of the ball, she had been so startled to see him, and she hadn¡¯t known why. But when she danced with him, she began to recall why she had come to Memoria in the first place. To get away from him. Or one who had resembled him. All the time she had spent with Mika and the children reminded her more and more of her other life. The life she had lead before she came here. The more time she spent with Li-kun, the more things she remembered from the other world. Her heart began to ache and a dull sense of desolation washed over her. If she came all the way here to escape from the other place, then why, why did this boy have to show up in her life? And why did her heart pound like she was excited to see him? That moment he had shown up at the temple on the black horse, his navy blue cloak blown back in the wind, she had felt giddy like a girl in love for the first time, as if her dream had really come true. But she was already in a dream. Then, was he real? She had followed him because she knew she had to leave Mika and Su-chan and everyone before she grew too attached to them. No, she had followed him because he had showed up, as simple as that. She turned her head away. The only way to survive here was to leave everyone. So, she had to leave this person as well.
As Sakura was about to get up, a hand reached out and snaked around her wrist. Sakura stared down, startled to see Syaoran staring up at her with eyes that glowed amber-red in the dark like a wild wolf¡¯s.
¡°Let go,¡± Sakura said, trying to yank her hand away. His grip was iron.
And he did something unimaginable. He pulled her down towards him so that she lost her balance and toppled over him.
Sakura found her head buried into his chest, lying almost horizontally on top of him. Her heart was pounding so loudly that she was afraid that he could hear it. ¡°Let go of me,¡± she repeated, voice muffled into his shirt.
¡°No.¡± He wrapped his arms around her tighter. ¡°I finally found you.¡±
¡°I said, let go of me.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t leave me. Please.¡± One hand was tangled in her hair and the other had slipped under her cloak and gripped the small of the waist.
She couldn¡¯t move. She couldn¡¯t breathe. For the first time since she had come to this kingdom, she felt a tornado of emotions ripple through her body. But she could not think clearly in the moonlight. So she leaned against his body, no longer struggling. ¡°I can¡¯t stay with you, Li-kun.¡±
¡°But I need you, Sakura. Without you, my existence becomes in vain.¡± Syaoran shut his eyes, breathing in the sweet scent of cherry blossoms. ¡°So please stay with me.¡±
Slowly, Sakura exhaled. In the still of the night, not a single human was in sight. Only the stars bore witness to her words. ¡°I¡¯ll stay with you.¡±
The birds chirped merrily and the soothing sound of a trickling brook awoke Sakura the next morning. She blinked. The sun was high overhead—how long had she been sleeping? She felt surprisingly refreshed even after camping outside and waking up to be covered by a layer of chill dew. She snuggled into the warmth against her body. Then, she turned her head to find herself entwined in the arms of a sleeping boy. She blinked again.
A little while later, Sakura and Syaoran rode down the path on their horses. Syaoran lagged behind sulkily, with a red hand mark on his left cheek.
¡°I¡¯m sorry Li-kun, I didn¡¯t mean to hit you,¡± said Sakura.
¡°My face hurts less than my dignity for I never thought you would think the worst of me in that manner,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°I would never dream of doing anything dishonorable.¡±
Sakura laughed out loud. ¡°Li-kun! You¡¯re starting to talk like a medieval knight.¡±
¡°I guess I¡¯ve been around Landon-sama for too long,¡± remarked Syaoran with a chuckle. Whereas Shulin-sama and Mayura-sama had been intent on teaching him about fighting, archery and defense, Landon had invested his time advising on the steps of ¡®courtly love,¡¯ teaching him to bow properly, mount a horse so that his cape blew out behind him and speak like a gentleman. Landon also loved music and insisted Syaoran play the violin for him while he played the piano; hence Syaoran learned that he could play the violin and even sing a few tunes if he had to.
¡°Landon-sama?¡± Sakura said. ¡°Of the Great Five? Have you met all of them?¡±
¡°Well, I¡¯ve met Hayami-sama, Shulin-sama and Mayura-sama. I didn¡¯t get to see Ruichi-sama. Or Risa-sama.¡±
Suddenly, Sakura halted and Syaoran had to abruptly halt his horse in order to keep from colliding into her.
¡°What is it?¡± Syaoran rode up next to Sakura.
¡°N-nothing.¡± Sakura kicked her heel into Daybreak¡¯s side and peered ahead. They were far enough north that she could see the rose-colored castle in the mountains. She also noticed the spherical light barrier surrounding the castle. Okaa-san¡¦
¡°I learned from the Great Five that the portal back to your world is in the palace,¡± said Syaoran finally. ¡°You¡¯ve got to return.¡±
¡°But okaa-san sealed the whole castle. How will we enter?¡± Sakura asked.
¡°The only one as strong as the Queen in this kingdom is you,¡± replied Syaoran. ¡°Therefore, you will be able to break the seal.¡±
¡°But why did Mother send me away then?¡± demanded Sakura.
¡°There is a reason for everything, and the Queen must have had her reasons,¡± replied Syaoran.
¡°I don¡¯t want to go back,¡± Sakura stated.
¡°Even if it means the destruction of the world you came from?¡±
Sakura halted. She stroked Daybreak¡¯s silver mane and said in a dreamy voice, ¡°Where did I come from? I¡¯ve always been here. I am the princess of this land.¡±
At that moment, her horse neighed. Syaoran turned around. ¡°Horses. Someone¡¯s chasing us. Hurry, we have to go.¡± He kicked his heels in. ¡°Giddy up!¡±
Midnight Star and Daybreak broke out into a gallop. Sakura bend down, clutching her reins tightly. Wolfie-chan whimpered, clinging onto Sakura¡¯s dress with his paws for dear life.
¡°Are they still chasing us?¡± shouted Sakura, her hair whipped back by the wind. Her cloak was tangled around her arms and neck.
¡°Keep going—don¡¯t look back,¡± said Syaoran one hand on the reins and the other over his sword hilt. He then halted Midnight Star, and swerved around.
Sakura looked over her shoulders. ¡°No, what are you doing? Come back!¡±
¡°Keep riding!¡± Syaoran called out, dashing back towards the dark riders with his sword drawn.
¡°Li-kun!!!!¡± shrieked Sakura as her horse carried her further away from him.
Back in the real world Japan, in a bedchamber in the second floor Reed Mansion, a girl with long violet hair sat carefully sewing a ruffled skirt. She stitched mechanically, as if her life depended on sewing. And another girl with short auburn hair watched her, dumbstruck.
¡°Tomoyo-senpai, how can you sew at a time like this?¡± Miho said. She walked over to the beside, pushing aside the blanket. She gasped. ¡°Look, Sakura-senpai¡¯s completely translucent now¡¦ She¡¯s disappearing. Eriol, what are we going to do?¡±
¡°Miho, grab the other end of the skirt and start sewing the lace. I¡¯ll work on the sleeves,¡± replied Eriol.
¡°How can you joke at a time like this?¡± Miho demanded, stamping her foot down. ¡°Where¡¯s Eron-senpai? Maybe he¡¯ll do something.¡±
¡°Chang-kun is downstairs. I don¡¯t think he felt comfortable staying in the room with us,¡± said Eriol. ¡°I don¡¯t blame him—I don¡¯t think he¡¯d enjoy sewing.¡±
Miho heaved out a deep breath. ¡°Did Syaoran-senpai really go into the Fantasy?¡±
¡°That¡¯s what Eron-kun said,¡± replied Tomoyo. ¡°And I believe him.¡±
And Miho plopped down on the ground, next to Tomoyo, picking up the end of the Prussian blue fabric and the sewing kit. ¡°What are you making, anyway?¡±
¡°A new dress for Sakura to wear when she comes back,¡± Tomoyo said.
Eriol smiled, picking up the sketch that Tomoyo had worked on. ¡°It¡¯s a lovely design, Tomoyo-san—is this for the upcoming fashion show you told me about?¡±
¡°Yes, I only have a few weeks left,¡± replied Tomoyo. ¡°And I have so much left to prepare.¡±
¡°Well, if I can be of any help,¡± said Eriol, picking up the sleeve and threading a needle.
Miho glanced at Eriol then watched Tomoyo¡¯s cheeks turn a warm rose-color. She stood up again. ¡°I¡¯m going to take a breath of fresh air.¡± Then she hurried out the room. How could the two stay so calm?
There were more men gathering than Syaoran could count. They were all wearing black with the red eye symbol on their backs. What did it mean? What did they want? Leon had mentioned that the Tomonoki Clan had dispatched soldiers to attack the palace to capture princess. Yet, what was their motive, and how did they even find Sakura here? And how were there such a limitless number of soldiers? Even if he could handle this many attackers, while he was fighting them any one of them could ride ahead and overtake Sakura. And then what?
He furiously knocked down men left and right with his drawn sword, without looking, without counting, without thinking. Five riders surrounded him, all nameless creatures of darkness, without identities, without individuality. Did they have family and loved ones as well? Were they all souls that had gone astray after losing their memories? Syaoran swung out his swords, bringing them down. Five more surrounded him. He saw a rider sprint ahead, towards Sakura.
¡°NOOOOOO!!!¡± shouted Syaoran. Who could possibly want to harm Sakura? This was her kingdom. She was the princess—he thought everyone would love her. He struggled to break free from the ring formed around him. ¡°SAKURA!!!¡±
Two men lunged forwards, knocking Syaoran off his horse onto the ground. Midnight Star panicked and galloped away. Meanwhile, he was pinned down to the ground, helpless. No, I can¡¯t die here. He kicked up both legs, knocking the men over. Expertly toppling a man that lunged at him from behind, Syaoran picked up an extra sword with his left hand and now slashed out with two swords, a technique he had picked up from Shulin.
But it was endless—the rider could have overtaken Sakura by now. No, his sole purpose was to protect her. If only¡¦ If only he had magic. A sudden calm swept over his body, and Syaoran took a deep breath. Why shouldn¡¯t he have magic? Shulin-sama had berated him, mocked him because he could not conjure up any of the spells she taught him. But once, once, I could call up on the gods of thunder and fire, water and wind. Once I was capable of summoning a dragon. In this land, anything is possible. And Syaoran felt his hand tingle as his grip on his sword hilt, the sword Ryuuren had given him, tightened. His mind felt clearer than ever. I can do it.
He raised his sword up into the air. He felt an electric charge surge through his arm to the tip of his blade. It was a clear day but dark clouds formed overhead. In a low voice, he cried out, ¡°Raitei shourai!¡± He waved his arm forward and a current of electricity shot forward, crackling and weaving in and out of the flock of riders, knocking them all unconscious.
He was sweating hard as if his body was on fire. Sakura. He had to reach Sakura. Once more, he raised his sword. ¡°Shenlung taifeng!¡±
And through the dark clouds, an electric blue light pierced through. A large blue-black winged creature swooped down and landed beside Syaoran. The spiritual dragon-god had been summoned. For a moment, he gazed at Syaoran with eyes that glowed like smoky crystal orbs. Then, the dragon nodded, and Syaoran climbed on its back. The dragon spread its black wings and swerved up into the sky, and Syaoran hung on for dear life.
The land below was a great blur of green until Syaoran spotted a streak of white and red—Sakura. And close behind her was a black rider. Syaoran raised his sword in the air to charge it with lightening then zapped it down. The rider toppled over and his horse tore off into the woods. For a triumphant moment, Syaoran felt an adrenalin flow as if all the pent up energy within him finally had been unleashed.
Sakura turned around, halting her horse, then gazed overhead. Her jaw dropped as a gigantic blue-black dragon swooped over her and landed in front of her. She covered her head and squealed, and when she looked up again, she was stunned to see Syaoran hop off the back of the dragon. Then, the great beast flew up into the sky till it faded into the gray storm clouds.
¡°What was that?¡± Sakura asked, breathless.
¡°A dragon?¡± replied Syaoran, rubbing the back of his head with his hand.
¡°Oh!¡± Her voice came out in a squeak.
¡°Quite impressive. Shulin will applaud you,¡± said a new voice.
Both Sakura and Syaoran swerved around to face a beautiful man with level golden eyes. He had long, flowing violet-blue hair pulled back at the top of his head with a narrow crimson ribbon. They had not noticed him because he made no sound when he walked, but he seemed to radiate a sort of light from his body, a testament to his powers.
¡°Who are you?¡± demanded Syaoran, about to draw his sword again.
¡°Li-kun, it¡¯s all right,¡± said Sakura. Her emerald eyes were transfixed upon the man. Wolfie-chan jumped off Sakura¡¯s lap and yapped at the man¡¯s ankle.
The man smiled. ¡°It is all right. I do not mean harm. My sister found your horse and wanted to return him to you.¡±
And a woman with the same golden eyes stepped up. She wore a lovely blue kimono with red and pink flower prints. Her hair was parted down the center and long and wavy, the same shade as her brother¡¯s. She looked very similar to her brother, but she was much more petite and frailer in frame. With one hand, she lead Midnight Star.
¡°You have met the other Four,¡± said the man, stroking Midnight Star¡¯s black mane.
¡°You¡¯re Ruichi-san,¡± said Syaoran. The last of the Great Five.
¡°Yes. And this is my twin sister, Risa. She¡¯s shy and doesn¡¯t talk too much,¡± said Ruichi. ¡°I thought you might need a hand there, but you took down all those men single-handed. I¡¯m impressed, boy. Or maybe Shulin taught you well—she¡¯s a notorious demon-trainer.¡±
Syaoran had to agree—but it seemed to have paid off. His right hand still tingled from the exertion of power.
¡°The sun is setting. Why don¡¯t you two join us in our home? It¡¯s near by here, and you two probably need a place to rest,¡± said Ruichi.
Ruichi and Risa¡¯s house was surprisingly small and cozy, full of plants and colorful tapestry on the walls. It seemed as if Risa liked small, cute creatures as she kept pet tabby kittens, yellow chicks and fluffy bunny rabbits that scurried around the house when Wolfie-chan came and chased after them. Risa served tea and manju for everyone on pretty hand-painted ceramic plates and cups.
Sakura found herself to be starving and stuffed her face with the succulent manju. ¡°This is delicious, Risa-san.¡±
Risa smiled and pushed another serving to Sakura. She got up. ¡°I will bring out some more.¡±
¡°Oh, I¡¯ll help, Risa-san,¡± said Sakura standing up and following Risa.
Syaoran stared into his tea cup. ¡°I don¡¯t get it. Why is there so much danger and unrest in this kingdom?¡±
Ruichi swirled the tea leaves at the bottom of his cup. ¡°Because when you entered Sakura-hime¡¯s Fantasyland, you upset the equilibrium.¡±
¡°You mean, I caused this unbalance and chaos?¡±
¡°Your entering the Fantasy has changed the formation of this land.¡± Ruichi folded his hands in front of him. ¡°Those black riders aren¡¯t following Sakura. They¡¯re following you. Whenever you move, they find you.¡±
A furtive smiled curled on Ruichi¡¯s lips. ¡°Maybe the demon¡¯s within Sakura-hime¡¯s soul wants you eliminated.¡± He turned his head as Risa and Sakura carried in more dumplings and some dessert mochi.
¡°Risa-san, the tea you brew is so delicious,¡± said Sakura, breathing in the aroma of the matcha.
Risa smiled. ¡°Hayashi-sama taught me how to make it. And the dumplings are a recipe from Shulin-san.¡±
¡°Ah, I thought these tasted familiar,¡± Syaoran remarked, picking up a dumpling and examining the filling. He didn¡¯t quite trust Ruichi, though he was one of the Great Five, but he though Risa was genuinely a nice person. ¡°In fact, I think you make it better than Shulin-sama.¡±
¡°She¡¯ll throw a fit when she hears that—that¡¯s her only good dish,¡± remarked Ruichi with a chuckle.
¡°I¡¯m not surprised—it¡¯s Mayura-sama who seems to do all the housework anyway,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°Must be tough on her.¡± Landon thought household chores were beneath him, Shulin was not good at it, and Hayashi was simply too spaced out to be of much help. He would be sweeping the steps then think of a tune he wanted to play on his flute and go off to read a book instead.
Ruichi chuckled. ¡°But Mayura keeps everyone in place, doesn¡¯t she? You haven¡¯t seen her loose her temper yet, have you? She¡¯s the real demon hidden behind an angel¡¯s face.¡±
¡°Ah, you¡¯re all very close with each other,¡± Sakura remarked, thinking Ruichi¡¯s eyes looked slightly nostalgic when speaking of Mayura. ¡°I wish I was able to meet the others.¡±
¡°Well, I¡¯m glad to have you all to myself,¡± said Ruichi, patting Sakura on the head. ¡°You¡¯re like a cute version of Hayashi!¡±
Syaoran twitched and narrowed his eyes.
¡°Ah, your Nameless Knight doesn¡¯t like it when I touch you,¡± Ruichi remarked. ¡°Do I remind you of someone you don¡¯t like, hmm?¡±
Risa cleared her throat. ¡°Onii-sama, please don¡¯t pick on Li-kun—he¡¯s Shulin-san¡¯s descendent, after all.¡±
¡°Right—he might have inherited that horrible temper.¡± Ruichi shuddered. ¡°The Great Five. A narcissist, a firecracker, a sadomasochist and an escapist. A great bunch we are.¡±
¡°What would you label yourself as?¡± Syaoran asked. He wondered if Mayura-sama was the sadomasochist.
¡°I don¡¯t know. Psychopath?¡± Ruichi laughed out loud. ¡°Risa is the only sane one amongst us, our Angel. Or else, we would have been the Great Six, won¡¯t we have, Risa?¡±
¡°Onii-sama, you¡¯re so silly,¡± Risa said, clearing the dishes. ¡°I¡¯m not interested in gaining power or talking about complex spells and all that. All I ever wanted was to keep a home and lead a quiet life with my family and onii-sama.¡±
¡°And marry dear Hayashi-sama and bear his children.¡± Ruichi rolled his eyes. ¡°I swear, you¡¯re too good for someone as slinky and sly as Hayashi. I don¡¯t want my nephews and nieces to resemble that fox-like thing.¡± He sighed. ¡°You¡¯re such a silly dreamer, Risa.¡± He gently flicked Risa on the forehead. ¡°You even have a name picked up for your imaginary future children. ¡®Hanako¡¯ for a girl. ¡®Hayato¡¯ for a boy. Me, I never want children. Children are noisy, smelly and annoying.¡±
¡°Ah, you¡¯re like Ryouta-san,¡± Sakura remarked. She turned to Syaoran, ¡°He¡¯s twin brothers to Reiji-san.¡±
¡°Heh, you met that good for nothing?¡± Ruichi grinned. ¡°He¡¯s the bad seed of the family, the worst of the bunch I say. So, tell me, Li-kun, how did you ever manage to leave the House of Five? Shulin would never have let you leave, but I heard you beat Hayashi in a duel to gain your freedom. Which is remarkable since Hayashi is the strongest swordsman in the kingdom.¡±
¡°Hoe, Li-kun had a duel with Hayashi-sama?¡± Sakura squeaked.
Syaoran scowled. He had finally figured out what he did not like about Ruichi, who seemed to be a perfectly friendly, nice person. It was the simple sound of his voice, a very smooth, light voice that grated Syaoran¡¯s nerve for some reason because of the acerbic undertone under all the charm. ¡°We did have a duel, but it wasn¡¯t with swords. It was actually¡¦¡± Syaoran blushed then muttered, ¡°A music showdown.¡±
Ruichi¡¯s head rolled back as he laughed out loud. ¡°That sounds like such a Hayashi-like thing to do. Let me guess¡¦ Did he make you sit through his five-hour flute composition and make you come up with a counter-tune?¡±
¡°Something like that,¡± muttered Syaoran, thinking he should thank Landon-sama for all the musical drilling. In the end, his violin had been the key out of the House of Five; but he always suspected that Hayashi never meant to keep him there which was why he chose music as the medium for a duel.
¡°I wish I could have seen that,¡± said Sakura.
Then, Ruichi sighed. ¡°There¡¯s something inherently hilarious that we four are gathered here talking like this, but if the little princess finds it normal, I guess so be it. You best hurry towards the castle, my princess. The Queen cannot hold the entrance of the Fantasy open for much longer.¡±
¡°May I ask why you are not with the other Great Four up North?¡± asked Syaoran.
¡°We¡¯ve been waiting here for Sakura-hime to cross our path,¡± said Ruichi. ¡°I have a message from Hayashi. His voice suddenly turned deep and smooth.
¡°The eyes of the dragon will once more wake
When moon returns to moon and star to star
And splintered eye once more whole shall make;
Hence distance from earth and heaven afar
Be bridged in the span of time¡¯s lost domain
For two mingled bloods will never return twain.¡±
Sakura blinked. ¡°What does that mean?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know, I¡¯m just the messenger,¡± replied Ruichi with a shrug. ¡°Hayashi of the Third Eye is the struggling poet and prophesier—and he¡¯s not very good at either enterprise, in my humble opinion.¡±
Nonetheless, Syaoran repeated the words in his mind till he knew it by heart.
A gentle hand shook Sakura in the middle of the night. She rolled over on the soft bed. ¡°Hmm¡¦ onii-chan, five minutes longer.¡±
¡°Sakura-hime, wake up. You must leave at once,¡± said Ruichi, holding up a lantern.
¡°Ruichi-san!¡± exclaimed Sakura. ¡°What¡¯s the matter?¡±
¡°They¡¯ve got the cottage surrounded. You can¡¯t leave through ground,¡± said Ruichi, throwing Sakura¡¯s cloak over her shoulders. ¡°Li-kun is already up. Hurry.¡±
Sakura quickly got up and scooped up Wolfie-chan. She followed Ruichi and peeked through the curtains out the dark window. She could glimpse the silhouette of a swarm of black riders circling the cottage.
¡°Hurry up to the attic,¡± said Risa. ¡°You can¡¯t leave by ground—they¡¯ll get you for sure.¡±
Sakura climbed up the stairs to the attic, following Risa. The window had been flung open.
¡°Up to the roof,¡± said Ruichi, heaving Sakura up onto the windowsill.
Outside, the dragon hovered midair. Syaoran, atop the dragon¡¯s back, held out a hand. ¡°Grab on!¡±
¡°What about our horses?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°We¡¯ll take care of them for now, don¡¯t worry,¡± said Risa. ¡°Hurry and get away from here. My brother and I will hold off the enemies.¡±
Sakura stared at Risa¡¯s face, the pale, small face with large luminous eyes and masses of dark hair surrounding it. Ruichi had a protective arm around his twin sister. They looked similar yet were so different. ¡°Thank you, Risa-san,¡± said Sakura. Her eyes suddenly overflowed with tears. ¡°I¡¯m sorry, Risa-san. I¡¯m sorry. I¡¯m sorry¡¦¡±
¡°What are you sorry for, Sakura-san?¡± Risa asked out the window.
¡°For everything,¡± replied Sakura, her head turned away. ¡°I¡¯m sorry.¡±
Sakura was quietly sobbing into Syaoran¡¯s chest as they soared through the night air. Riding a dragon felt like simply floating on a cloud—they could hardly feel they were flying.
¡°Why did you apologize to Risa-san?¡± Syaoran asked, patting Sakura¡¯s back gently. Wolfie-chan was enjoying riding atop the dragon¡¯s head and howled at the three moons. The dragon seemed mildly peeved.
¡°It¡¯s the only words I could say,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Even if I get down on my knees and repeat those words to her over and over again, I could not apologize enough.¡±
¡°Is this another story from your world?¡± Syaoran inquired, wrapping an arm around Sakura to balance her. The dragon turned one eye towards him then gazed up front again. Though the night breeze was slightly chilly, Sakura was warm and breathing in his arms, alive, real. The three moons felt nearer than ever and shooting stars streaked down the sky, leaving tails of gold, silver and rose. The whole moment was surreal and slowly, the tears from Sakura¡¯s eyes ceased. Syaoran pointed up at the stars. ¡°That biggest star over there is part of the Summer Triangle and is called Vega of Lyra. Ryuuren-san told me that Vega fell in love with that star over there, across the Milky Way, the one called Altair of the Aquila.¡±
¡°Wolfie-chan¡¯s real name is Eagle, Vega of Lyra,¡± Sakura remarked. ¡°But we call him Wolfie-chan because he looks like a little wolf.¡±
¡°Wolfie-chan is a pretty silly name for a dog,¡± replied Syaoran with a chuckle. ¡°But it¡¯s a very Sakura-like name.¡±
Sakura did not respond for a while. She traced her fingers over the dragon¡¯s metallic blue-black scales in wonder and admiration. But more importantly, a little suspicion had been growing within her that she had chosen not to heed at first but now was impossible to ignore. Finally, the dragon landed them atop the mountainside just outside the gates of the capital, in front of a tiny wood cottage.
¡°Thank you, Dragon-san,¡± said Sakura, holding a sleeping Wolfie-chan in her arms.
The dragon seemed mildly amused by Sakura. Then it stared at Syaoran. And it spoke in a low, rumbling voice that seemed to reverberate through the mountains. ¡°Chosen One, your fate is a pitiful one. When the princess leaves, you will forever dwell in the realm of Memoria, nameless. Slowly, you will forget your sense of self; your entire identity would become lost to you, and you will become one of the dark riders, roaming emptily without a cause, without destination, without purpose.¡±
¡°So long as I remember Sakura, I will be okay,¡± replied Syaoran.
¡°But when she disappears from here, your memory of her will inevitably fade,¡± said the dragon. ¡°That is the curse of Memoria.¡±
¡°I¡¯m not going to leave Li-kun,¡± stated Sakura.
¡°Princess, the Queen is using her last strength to leave the door back to your world open for you. You cannot stay, whereas that boy cannot go back. But it is up to you mortals to resolve that.¡± The dragon then soared off into the air, a proud and fierce creature that reigned the skies from the beginning of time and would continue to till the end of the world.
It was still dark and Sakura and Syaoran found the cottage that they had landed in front of to be abandoned. Since they couldn¡¯t do anything until daylight, they decided to reside in the cottage for the remainder of the night. There was only one room with two narrow beds across from each other. They awkwardly folded their cloaks, and Sakura slid into their bed, turning her back to Syaoran. Wolfie-chan curled at the foot of her bed and fell fast asleep.
¡°Li-kun,¡± Sakura finally said, staring at the wood ceiling. ¡°You said you don¡¯t have any memories of where you¡¯re from or what your real name is.¡± She paused, asking the question she had dreaded to ask. ¡°Are you too not originally from this world? I mean, not this kingdom, nor the neighboring country, but actually from another dimension?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± replied Syaoran. He sat crouched on his bed, back against the wall.
¡°Li-kun, what is your full name?¡± Sakura said urgently. ¡°You have to remember.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t remember. I just remember you, Sakura. You¡¯re the only person I recognize. You¡¯re the only name I remember,¡± he said.
¡°You¡¯re so frustrating!¡± Sakura sat up from her bed, blanket slipping off. ¡°I came to this realm because I ran away from a person who looks just like you.¡±
¡°Why are you sorry? You¡¯re probably just another version of him that only exists here, in Memoria,¡± said Sakura with a twinge of bitterness—it was as if she wanted to hurt this boy sitting in front of her. This kind, gentle person who had been nothing but good to her.
¡°How much do you remember of the other world?¡± Syaoran asked.
¡°It¡¯s faded, my memory of my other life,¡± said Sakura. That was a lie. Everything came back to her mind more vividly than ever, especially since she had left the temple. ¡°I never think much about it and it¡¯s becoming more of a blur now. But whenever I look at you, I get really angry, and I won¡¯t know why.¡±
¡°I told you it¡¯s not your fault,¡± said Sakura.
¡°I wouldn¡¯t know,¡± Syaoran replied. He stared out the window at the starry sky. Was it wrong of him to have wished he could spend more time with Sakura, here in this magical kingdom where there was a strange mixture of Eastern and Western culture, where time seemed to flow relatively, where logic and reason failed? Was it wrong when he knew she had to return back home?
¡°Then, tell me, what do you know, Li-kun?¡±
Was it wrong of him to find her so beautiful even when she was annoyed at him like this? Was it wrong for him to wish she could always remain by his side? And his eyes met her eyes. ¡°I don¡¯t know anything else but that I love you, Sakura.¡±
Suddenly, Sakura had a flashback of another night quite similar to this one. She was with this person then, the real version, in a little cottage like this.
His voice had been so warm and tender. ¡°Guess what, Sakura. I¡¯m no longer the Chosen One. And the funny thing is, I don¡¯t even care. I used to think it was a matter of life and death for me. But I guess that was before I fell in love with you. Did you know that Sakura? I love you.¡± His hand had felt so warm against her palm. He had brushed a lock of hair covering her cheek, so softly. And when she opened her eyes, his face so close over her own that she could see her own reflection in his amber eyes lit in the dim moonlight. Before she could question him, he had bent over and kissed her mouth. Her mind had felt so numb, and she had so many questions to ask him, so many answers she had yet to hear. And when their lips parted, he had said, ¡°I wish you forget everything I¡¯ve said just now. This isn¡¯t the way I want to tell you, in here, in this surrounding—inside the Fantasy.¡±
And she had forgotten, until now. Why did that memory suddenly rush back to her clearer than any other words he had ever said to her? That liar. Why did he say he loved her when he would leave her like that? Sakura felt a chill run over her body, as if all the joy and delight she had felt here in Memoria had become nullified.
¡°What¡¯s wrong?¡± Syaoran asked, crossing the distant between their beds, placing a hand on her shoulder.
¡°I just remembered something I didn¡¯t know I forgot,¡± said Sakura, unable to meet his eyes.
¡°I didn¡¯t mean for my words to burden you,¡± said Syaoran.
¡°And are you going to wish for me to forget all this by tomorrow?¡± Sakura couldn¡¯t help asking. ¡°Like that other time?¡±
Syaoran looked startled. ¡°No, not this time. I won¡¯t mess it up again this time. I didn¡¯t think you would be awake when I said those words. Besides, I didn¡¯t want to say them under that circumstance. But I can say them now, clearly and loudly. Because if I don¡¯t now, I might never get a chance again.¡±
And Sakura stared at Syaoran incredulously. ¡°Li-kun, do you realize right now what you just said?¡±
¡°That I love you?¡±
¡°No. How do you know I had been pretending to sleep that other time you said it to me?¡± It had happened their first time in the Fantasy. Memoria Li-kun had no reason to know about it.
Lit by the moonlight, Sakura looked like a fairy creature. Syaoran was afraid he would crush her if he tried to hug her, or that she would simple dissipate like moonbeam between his fingers if he tried to catch her. The white slip dress that Sakura wore bared her collarbones and shoulders. Gently, Syaoran¡¯s hand slipped from her shoulder to trace her neckline. ¡°I don¡¯t remember that stuff. I just remember how angry I was when I discovered he hurt you. He bruised you here.¡± His fingers brushed the top of her shoulder. ¡°And here.¡± He traced down to her arm. His voice had a dead chill tone that Sakura had never heard before. ¡°I never had such murderous feelings towards a person before.¡±
Sakura shivered, perhaps because of Syaoran¡¯s words or perhaps because her skins tingled from the touch of his hands. Such gentle warmth that she had dreamed about and never thought she would feel again. If he could just hold her in his arms and time could just stop here and now¡¦ But it couldn¡¯t. This mixture of anxiety and tenderness in her heart reserved for only one. Her voice shook. ¡°Li-kun. Who are you talking about?¡±
¡°Chang Eron¡¦¡± A dark look flickered over his face. ¡°How could you¡¦ be with someone like him? After what he did to you?¡±
And Sakura could feel tears stinging in her eyes. ¡°Well, how could you leave me without saying a word? After you promised me that you would stay by my side. You could have said something. Why did you even come back to Japan?¡±
Now, Syaoran looked startled. ¡°Why did I make you cry, Sakura?¡±
¡°Do you realize your memories are coming back, Li-kun? They¡¯re your real memories, right? I can¡¯t figure out if you¡¯re real or just a figment of my imagination,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Why did you have to show up? Everything was perfect in the Fantasy before you came.¡±
¡°If my presence causes you only pain, I will leave you,¡± said Syaoran, rubbing the tear off Sakura¡¯s face with his forefinger. ¡°But if you need a shoulder to cry on, I will be by your side.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t say stuff that I would want to hear. It only makes me weaker.¡± Sakura stepped forward, leaning into his shoulder. ¡°Tell me, are you real? Why did you show up only now? It¡¯s too late. I ruined everything. I can¡¯t go back.¡±
¡°You have to return. Everyone is waiting for you,¡± said Syaoran slowly.
¡°What about you?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t have a name.¡± It was the price of his passage into Sakura¡¯s Fantasy, into Memoria. He remembered now, the Fantasy¡¯s last words to him. I¡¯ll be gracious and grant you one memory. You can choose to remember yourself. Or you can choose to remember her. I advise you to remember yourself, because you will never be able to return without knowing your own name.
¡°I know who you are,¡± said Sakura, a lump forming in her throat. She knew him, but why did his true name freeze at the tip of her tongue? Because I once swore that your name will never cross my lips again. It¡¯s a curse I set on myself. ¡°You¡¯re real.¡± Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper. ¡±I pretended you were not. No, I didn¡¯t even imagine you would really be here. But you are.¡±
¡°I know.¡± Syaoran smiled, taking Sakura¡¯s hand and placing it on his cheek.
¡°It really is you,¡± she murmured blissfully. ¡°But how did you¡¦¡± A suddenly realization dawned upon Sakura. ¡°You¡¦ To come here¡¦ You¡¯re such an idiot. You gave up your own name to come here, didn¡¯t you?¡±
Syaoran wrapped his arms around Sakura, holding her tightly to him as if afraid that she would slip away from him. ¡°But I remembered yours. Kinomoto Sakura, my first and last love. You are my existence. Without you, I am nothing. That is why your name will always be the first name in my heart.¡±
¡°Stupid.¡± Sakura swallowed the hard lump in her throat. ¡°Are you an idiot?¡±
¡°You look my lines right out me,¡± replied Syaoran, shutting his eyes and leaned his forehead against Sakura¡¯s slender shoulder. ¡°My most important Sakura.¡±
Sometimes in your dreams, you chase and chase after something only to confront a turned back. But sometimes, your feet sprout wings and you leap forward. And the person turns around with arms wide open. Sometimes, even though you know it¡¯s a dream, the arms around you feel warmer, more tangible than anything in the real world. While time never stops in the real world, sometimes, in the dream world, time freezes forever at that moment.
Tomoyo knocked on the yellow door. ¡°Miho, can I come in?¡± She walked into Miho¡¯s bedroom, which she had never seen before.
Unlike the antique Gothic style of the rest of the bedrooms, Miho¡¯s bedroom was bright and modern. The curtains were yellow cotton with white and orange polka dots and her furniture was painted in cream with tan trimmings. Tomoyo noticed the picture on Miho¡¯s nightstand of the Tanaka family. Young Miho was smiling blithely, arms wrapped around Mikai¡¯s shoulder. Their mother and father had a hand on each of their children; they seemed like a picture-perfect family, something Tomoyo never had. Her earliest memories of her parents were of them fighting.
Miho jumped off her bed, setting down her book. ¡°How is Sakura-senpai?¡±
¡°Her body stopped fading for a while now—in fact, I think she¡¯s less transparent than she was earlier.¡±
¡°That¡¯s great—does that mean Syaoran-senpai has found her?¡± Miho asked.
¡°I don¡¯t know. But Eriol-kun said it means that Sakura-chan has gained more time,¡± replied Tomoyo.
¡°I hate waiting,¡± Miho sighed. ¡°But then again, I¡¯m glad that I don¡¯t have any more powers than I do. I don¡¯t think I would have been able to bear the responsibility of fighting against the Dark Ones.¡±
¡°I understand what you mean,¡± said Tomoyo.
¡°It¡¯s funny though, sometimes in times of dire need, you are brought to your greatest potential. Eriol once told me that my power is the latent kind—if I didn¡¯t experience the trauma I did when otou-san died and ¡®nii-chan abandoned us, then my powers might never have awoken.¡± Miho smiled. ¡°And I¡¯m glad it did. It was fun learning about magic with Eriol and Kaho-san.¡±
Tomoyo¡¯s eyes lingered over to a photo frame on the wall. It was a picture from England with the Thames River in the background. Miho had her arms linked to Eriol¡¯s left arm and Nakuru to his right. Mizuki-sensei was also in the picture, standing next to Nakuru, and beside her was Yukito-san.
¡°Oh, that¡¯s a picture from last summer,¡± Miho stated. ¡°When Sakura¡¯s brother and Yukito-san came to study abroad in England. We barely saw them because they were so busy with the med school exchange program, but I think that was the day before they left. Touya-san took the picture.¡±
¡°Ah, you and Nakuru-san and Mizuki-sensei all look like sisters,¡± remarked Tomoyo. Her eyes lingered over the same heart-shaped faces and silky auburn hair.
¡°Right?¡± Miho smiled. ¡°We always make fun of Eriol, saying that he has a thing for red-headed women. Strange enough, British women adored Eriol—I think they found him dark and mysterious.¡±
¡°And he never showed an interest in any of them?¡±
¡°Nope. You know, I¡¯ll tell you a secret that I¡¯ve told nobody else before,¡± Miho said, hands clasped behind her back. ¡°I used to have a crush on Eriol too.¡±
Tomoyo turned to the younger girl. ¡°You did? When?¡±
¡°Back when he first rescued me,¡± replied Miho. ¡°I¡¯m too embarrassed at even the thought of it. But back then, I had just lost my father and brother, my mother pushed me away and my home was gone. I was in a foreign land and feeling vulnerable. And appearance-wise, Eriol seemed just like the prince of my dreams. Caring, cordial, like a gentleman from a different century. Though it was short-lived, he was my first crush.¡±
¡°Why did you¡¦ stop liking him?¡± Tomoyo asked.
Miho laughed. ¡°I got to know him better. He¡¯s a creepy sadomasochist in the guise of a gentleman. Besides, I realized I cannot deal with the whole Clow Reed past.¡±
¡°But Eriol-kun is Eriol-kun,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°Clow is a part of him but not him.¡±
¡°Do you think so?¡± Miho folded her hands in front of her. ¡°Because I learned early on that his heart belonged to another person already and had for a century and some more. I could not bear to stand in the shadow of Clow-san¡¯s first love.¡±
¡±Mizuki Mika-san,¡± Tomoyo said quietly.
¡°You already knew?¡± Miho said, taken aback. ¡°Eriol never speaks of her. I found out from Suppi-chan one day after getting him drunk on chocolate. Not much is known about Clow¡¯s first love. She was the daughter of Mizuki Keigo, younger brother of Mizuki Mayura-sama of the Great Five. She died at the age of sixteen.¡±
¡°So young,¡± murmured Tomoyo. Sixteen. That was her own age.
¡°Clow Reed was not the same after that, they say. Of course, nobody remembers Clow Reed from back then, so we don¡¯t know for sure what really happened.¡± Miho paused. ¡°Clow never got over her death, and he dedicated a good portion of his life to finding ways to bring her back. The Return. The Time. The Illusion. The Create¡¦ The Mirror. He broke all boundaries and learned how to create animate beings with a conscience.¡±
¡°Cerberus and Yue.¡± Tomoyo stared at her feet.
¡°But he could never bring back a being who had already passed on from this world. And he had to learn to accept that if he, the greatest sorcerer of the East and West, could not bring back the dead, it was not humanly possible,¡± said Miho. Not even Ruby Moon and Spinel Sun originally knew this much about Clow Reed¡¯s past though they had been with Eriol for all these years. Yue was probably the only one who knew about Clow Reed¡¯s youth, and the only reason she knew this much was because when Kinomoto Touya and Tsukishiro Yukito had come as exchange students in England, Nakuru and Miho had slipped a truth-saying potion into Yukito-san¡¯s tea cake. They had managed to get some juicy information from a drugged Yue before Yukito woke up again. She sighed. Maybe slyness did run in the family—it had all been her idea.
¡°Is he still hurting?¡± asked Tomoyo softly. ¡°Even though it was another lifetime ago?¡±
¡°He doesn¡¯t need to hurt anymore,¡± replied Miho. ¡°Because Clow Reed was not the only one reincarnated.¡±
¡°Mizuki Mika¡¯s soul has also been reincarnated.¡±
Sunlight poured into the cottage windows and danced over Sakura¡¯s sleeping profile. Syaoran knelt by her bedside and gently pulled her blankets over her shoulders and brushed her hair from her face.
Slowly, she stirred. She blinked up at Syaoran and smiled softly.
¡°Breakfast is ready,¡± he said. Wolfie-chan snaked around Syaoran¡¯s ankle and barked. ¡°We¡¯ve got to figure out a way to break the seal around the palace.¡±
¡°I wish we can just stay here,¡± Sakura sighed, rolling over and sitting up as Wolfie-chan jumped up on her lap.
¡°So do I,¡± replied Syaoran, without looking at Sakura.
¡°Why didn¡¯t you tell me earlier?¡± Sakura asked. ¡°That you were really you?¡±
¡°How could I?¡± said Syaoran. ¡°My memory has strengthened with you by my side, but before that, I had no idea who I was. I could have been anyone. But luckily I was the person you were waiting for, after all.¡±
Sakura sat up from the bed. ¡°You wanted me to return to the real world without knowing who you really were, didn¡¯t you? Because you were afraid that I won¡¯t go back if I found out what you did to come here to find me.¡±
Syaoran remained silent. ¡°No, I was afraid that you would hate me if you knew who I really was.¡±
¡°You know I can never hate you,¡± sighed Sakura.
The second time Syaoran entered the capital of Memoria was very different from his first experience. Whereas the first time, the city was bustling with people and the streets were lined with merchants and food stands, now the city was completely abandoned.
¡°It¡¯s because the castle is sealed,¡± said Sakura, inching closer to Syaoran as they walked down the empty streets. It had become a ghost town.
¡°How are we going to enter the sealed palace?¡± whispered Syaoran. It was so silent that his voice seemed to echo through the courtyard.
Tentatively, Sakura slipped her hand into his hand. ¡°I don¡¯t know.¡±
Syaoran gave her a squeeze in the hand and then replied, ¡°Let¡¯s try the gates.¡±
The two walked up as close to the palace walls as they could before they felt the invisible barrier. It was such a strong shield that they could feel a strong reverberation the nearer they got to it.
¡°They¡¯re coming,¡± whispered Sakura.
Syaoran swerved around. The castle was on a mountain so from an elevated perspective, he could see the black swarm coming towards them in all directions. He paled. There was no where to escape to—they were surrounded.
He raised his sword and shouted, ¡°Raitei shourai!¡± Lightening rolled down the hills. There was a shriek from the black riders as they looked around, searching for the source of the electricity. And they began to attack each other. More riders came forth, closing in around the mountain, while others began fighting each other, mercilessly, as if fighting for the sole purpose of survival. And Syaoran was about to send forth another wave of thunder when he caught glimpse of a boy in black with brown hair and a gleaming sword in his hand, tassel flying behind him. Blood trickled down his face and arms, and for a brief second, Syaoran¡¯s eyes met his wild eyes, one blue and one amber, void of all emotion as he sliced down everything in his way.
¡°Li-kun, they¡¯re drawing nearer,¡± called out Sakura.
¡°Sakura, you have accept that you¡¯re going to return back,¡± replied Syaoran, tearing his eyes away from his doppelganger, remembering an unpleasant story Sakura once told him, that when you saw your own doppelganger, it meant you were going to die. When he looked again, there was but a dark blur as the black riders¡¯ numbers increased.
¡°I know I have to go back,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°I know that.¡± She buried her head into Wolfie-chan¡¯s tan fur. Wolfie-chan licked her cheek.
Out in the streets, they saw a little girl crawling down the stone pavements.
¡°Watch out!¡± cried out Syaoran as a black rider swooped towards the toddler.
Sakura stared up, eyes rounded. ¡°Hana-chan!¡± She ran forward and shielded Hana-chan.
¡°Wait.¡± Syaoran frowned at the crying girl with violet curls and green-golden eyes. ¡°She¡¯s the child back at Mika-san¡¯s temple. Why is she here?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± said Sakura, stroking the girl¡¯s hair. ¡°Shh¡¦ Don¡¯t cry Hana-chan. Onee-chan¡¯s here.¡±
Narrowing his eyes, Syaoran said, ¡°Sakura, step back. That¡¯s not Hana-chan. She¡¯s a dark creature in disguise.¡±
¡°No!¡± Sakura said, holding Hana to her tighter. ¡°She¡¯s clearly Hana-chan—how can you say something like that?¡±
Syaoran watched in horror as he saw the shape of the little girl contort in Sakura¡¯s arms and turn into a formless black mass that snaked around Sakura¡¯s throat. He sprang forward and ripped the malformed creature away from Sakura, flinging it to the ground. He lifted up his sword and was ready to pierce down when Sakura blocked him.
¡°Stop it! Stop it, how can you do that to a child?¡± demanded Sakura.
not a child, Sakura,¡± replied Syaoran, hands on sword trembling. ¡°It¡¯s a
¡±She¡¯s not a monster,¡± Sakura said, kneeling down and placing her hands on her chest. ¡°She¡¯s not a monster, but just a lost soul that wants to find a place to belong. A soul that wants to have a name, a home, to be loved and remembered.¡± She spread out her arms and beckoned at the figureless form. ¡°Come.¡±
And the black form rippled again and a small child ran forward into Sakura¡¯s arms. Gently, Sakura wrapped her arms around a sobbing child and murmured. ¡°Ssshh¡¦ I¡¯m here now. You¡¯re not alone anymore.¡±
Syaoran had to shield his eyes as a golden light radiated from Sakura¡¯s body and spread across the streets, absorbing the castle and the gates. The black riders surrounding them contorted and then condensed into myriads of balls of light. When the brilliance of the light faded, Syaoran realized they were surrounded by a tornado of pure white feathers that swirled around them and then blew off into the wind.
The spell that Sakura had long since forgotten came naturally to her lips. ¡°Key that hides the power of the stars. Show your true self to me. I, Sakura, command you under contract. Release!¡± Gripping her star staff, Sakura cried out, ¡°Open!¡±
And slowly, the palace gates creaked opened. The seal had been broken. Sakura quickly ran into the palace, followed by Syaoran and Wolfie-chan.
Tomoyo stood completely still as she stared into Miho¡¯s steel-gray eyes.
¡°Clow Reed was not the only one reincarnated,¡± repeated Miho. ¡°Mizuki Mika¡¯s soul has also been reincarnated.¡±
¡°Then¡¦ he has met her reincarnation?¡±
¡°Yes. You know her too,¡± replied Miho. ¡°It¡¯s Mizuki Kaho-san.¡±
Tomoyo felt her heart plunge to her stomach. Of course. Why hadn¡¯t she guessed sooner? Of course Eriol loved Mizuki-sensei. It was painful enough to realize the one you loved another. Yet, it was even more heart wrenching to realize that all along, you stood no chance at all, that you were in the outside circle. How could you beat someone who is the reincarnation of Clow Reed¡¯s first love? They were meant for each other from the very beginning.
¡°Tomoyo-senpai, are you okay?¡± Miho asked, frowning with concern. She had debated whether or not to tell this all to Tomoyo. But Tomoyo was always level-headed and composed; Miho thought it would be okay, especially learning that Tomoyo already knew about Clow Reed¡¯s first love.
¡°I¡¯m fine,¡± replied Tomoyo with the same smile as usual.
Miho sighed in relief. ¡°I know you do care for Eriol. But Aki-senpai likes you—and so does a bunch of other boys. You deserve somebody who loves all of you just for who you are, someone who is not burdened by a dark past that people like us can¡¯t even fathom. Even I feel like I¡¯m trespassing at times when Kaho-san and Eriol are together. I don¡¯t know how Eriol feels, or whether he loves Kaho-san. Eriol and Clow are different people. Same as Mika-san and Kaho-san. Kaho-san doesn¡¯t have memories as ¡®Mizuki Mika,¡¯ and didn¡¯t even know she was her reincarnation until she was over twenty. But nonetheless, there must be a reason why they were both reincarnated and born into this century, a reason why their paths have crossed again.¡±
¡°Right, there must have been a reason.¡± Tomoyo reached for the door. ¡°Well, I think I need to go and check on Sakura-chan.¡±
Sakura ran down the palace garden to her mother¡¯s spread arms. Wolfie-chan barked excitedly. ¡°Okaa-san, I¡¯m back!¡±
¡°Sakura, my dear.¡± Nadeshiko hugged Sakura tightly. She looked up at Syaoran and smiled. ¡°Thank you for bringing the princess back safely.
Syaoran bowed down wordlessly, blushing hard. He felt a loud whack on his back.
¡°You brat, you have to say, yes, your highness, when addressing the queen,¡± said Ryuuren. He grinned at Syaoran.
¡°Ryuuren-san!¡± Syaoran exclaimed, fighting the urge to hug the older man.
¡°Well, good job the both of you. You made it back in time,¡± said Ryuuren.
Sakura frowned. ¡°Okaa-san, the reason I was sent away¡¦¡±
¡°Yes, it was for you to firstly be able to regain enough memories to return back home,¡± replied Nadeshiko. ¡°And secondly, it was for you to awaken your true powers. Staying in the castle, you would have been sheltered and safe, but you would have gradually lost all memory of the real world and it would have been impossible for you to return.¡±
¡°And you¡¯ve also set the Tomonoki dark riders free,¡± said Ryuuren. ¡°They were wandering souls who had once entered Memoria and have long since forgotten their names and identities until they became vicious, heartless warriors. They roam around searching for more lost souls and hunt with a savage sort of hunger to satiate their emptiness.¡±
Syaoran shuddered, recalling he had caught a glimpse of what he might have become without if he not found Sakura after entering Memoria.
¡°I never got a chance to greet you properly, Li-san,¡± Nadeshiko said, turning to Syaoran. ¡°Because the castle was under attack. You resemble your father greatly.¡±
¡°Father?¡± Syaoran blinked.
Sakura turned from Ryuuren to Syaoran. The dark brows, brown hair, even the stance. ¡°Hoe-e! They¡¯re so similar!¡±
¡°I knew it,¡± muttered Leon, walking up to the four, running a hand through his golden hair. Wolfie-chan jumped up into his arms and yapped at him.
Ryuuren wrapped his arms around Syaoran. ¡°I have such a cute son, don¡¯t I? We look like twins!¡±
¡°Father¡¦¡± Syaoran swallowed a gulp in this throat. ¡°Why did you not tell me sooner?¡±
¡°This is a strange place where memory either fades into oblivion or resounds loud and clear like a bell,¡± said Ryuuren.
¡°When you began to remember who you were, others¡¯ identities became shaped,¡± said Nadeshiko. ¡°When you start to forget, others¡¯ existences become annihilated.¡±
And Syaoran turned to Ryuuren. ¡°Father¡¦¡± The word seemed foreign in his lips. ¡°Do you remember my name?¡±
¡°I gave you half your name, the part that belongs to me. ¡®Li.¡¯¡± Ryuuren smiled crookedly. ¡°It is up to you to remember the name that is you, your given name. I won¡¯t know it unless you know it.¡±
¡°What happens if Li-kun doesn¡¯t remember his name?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°He won¡¯t be able to go back to his world,¡± replied Reiji, his golden eyes grave.
¡°Ah, Reiji-san.¡± Sakura stared at the peaceful looking man who had the same face as Ryouta but was different in every manner possible. ¡°Eri-san wanted me to tell you that she thinks of you and is waiting for you.¡±
¡°I know,¡± said Reiji with a gentle smile. ¡°And I want you to tell my son and daughter that Eri and I love them and miss them.¡±
¡°Wait.¡± Sakura frowned. ¡°I thought Ryouta-san and Eri-san¡¦¡±
Ryuuren interrupted them. ¡°There isn¡¯t time. The barrier¡¯s breaking.¡±
¡°Follow me,¡± said Nadeshiko. The queen led Sakura and Syaoran to the basement chamber which was carved out of rose quartz. Ryuuren followed behind, holding Wolfie-chan in his arms. Though they were still indoors, Sakura realized that inside the chamber, she felt a cool breeze as if she was standing outside. And in the center of the chamber was a large sakura tree, branches in full blossom. In the center of the tree trunk was an oval passage, no taller than herself.
¡°The passage back to your world gets smaller and smaller,¡± said Nadeshiko. ¡°The longer you stay here, the more difficult it will be back to return. You have to leave now, Sakura.¡±
¡°I have to stay until we remember Li-kun¡¯s name,¡± Sakura stated.
¡°You heard your mother,¡± Syaoran said. ¡°You have to go.¡±
She sank to her knees, burying her head in her knees. ¡°I can¡¯t even call you ¡®Li-kun¡¯ anymore. It doesn¡¯t sound right.¡±
¡°You can call me, ¡®hey, you,¡¯ instead,¡± said Syaoran with a crooked smile.
¡°How can you joke at a time like this?¡± demanded Sakura. ¡°Omae.¡±
Ryuuren bonked Syaoran on the head with his knuckle. ¡°Don¡¯t teach the princess such vulgar language.¡±
¡°Omae?¡± Nadeshiko giggled. ¡°Ryuuren, didn¡¯t you call me that in the beginning?¡±
And Sakura¡¯s bottom lips trembled.
¡°What¡¯s wrong, Sakura?¡± Nadeshiko asked, stroking her daughter¡¯s hair.
¡°I won¡¯t leave you, okaa-san, never.¡±
¡°Oh Sakura, I wish I could always be by your side. But just having your for a while has been a great bliss for me.¡±
¡°Okaa-san.¡± Sakura buried her head in her mother¡¯s chest.
¡°Yes, Father.¡± Syaoran stared up at his father.
¡°If you make Sakura-hime cry, the God of Thunder and Emperor of Dragons will come strike you down.¡± Ryuuren¡¯s sapphire eyes were clouded.
¡°Yessir.¡± Syaoran gulped. ¡°But you might have to put up with me a little longer anyway, till I can remember my name. By the way, what did you write in the letter to Hayashi-sama and the other Great Ones?¡±
¡°Oh, that. Nothing important. I wrote something along the lines of, ¡®Please take care of this cute kid and don¡¯t let him leave until he has become a worthy enough man for Sakura-hime. You are welcome to torture and tease him as much as you want, but please don¡¯t make him cry too much because that will break my old fatherly heart.¡¯¡± Ryuuren chuckled. ¡°Wasn¡¯t Shulin-sama a fiend? I shudder at the thought of you being trained under her hands—but you survived.¡±
¡°Barely.¡± Syaoran narrowed his eyes at his father, ¡°I heard from Shulin-sama that you¡¯re one of the few who had mastered the Spiritual Dragon Typhoon.¡±
¡°Not quite, son,¡± said Ryuuren grimly. ¡°But you can master it.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t have magic in the real world,¡± mumbled Syaoran. ¡°Anymore.¡±
¡°How¡¯d you lose it?¡± Ryuuren¡¯s eyes flickered over to Sakura then back to Syaoran. ¡°Ah. I see.¡±
¡°Sakura, time is running out. You have to leave,¡± said Nadeshiko, breaking from Sakura. ¡°Go.¡±
¡°Go, Sakura. I¡¯ll catch up,¡± said Syaoran.
¡°I¡¯m not going without you,¡± said Sakura.
¡°You¡¯re so stubborn!¡± exclaimed Syaoran. ¡°Hurry and go now before I lose my temper!¡±
A rippled prismatic light formed in front of them. The Fantasy circled around Sakura then Syaoran. ¡°How strange. I have never met individuals retaining so much memory after being trapped in Memoria for so long. In fact, you both have more memories than what you started out with. Peculiar indeed.¡±
¡°Give Li-kun back his name,¡± said Sakura through gritted teeth.
¡°Impossible. He gave up his name in exchange for his passage into Memoria. That cannot be undone,¡± replied the Fantasy.
Sakura¡¯s brows furrowed down. ¡°Then give me back the memory of his name.¡±
The Fantasy let out a laugh. ¡°I can¡¯t do that, my mistress. You entered Memoria with the intent of erasing him from your life.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t care. I still remember him. You told me I could be free from all my painful memories of him once I entered the Fantasy. But you lied. I remember all the hurt I felt, all the happy times too. I remember everything about him. So return to me his name!¡±
The amorphous rainbow mass swirled around Sakura¡¯s body. ¡°How can you make such demands of me when it is the boy who entered and disrupted your perfect world? You chose to forget him. You can remember him with your powers. It¡¯s not within my jurisdiction to draw up memories lost. After all, the memory does not reside in my mind, does it?
¡°Hurry, Sakura,¡± said Nadeshiko, beads of sweat rolling down her brows. ¡°I cannot hold the opening back to your world for much longer.¡±
¡°Okaa-san, I want to stay with you,¡± Sakura said, eyes blurring.
¡°Sakura, you don¡¯t know how happy I was to be able to spend time with my dear daughter. But you are needed in the real world, the living world. Your father and brother are there.¡± Nadeshiko¡¯s eyes were filled with tears as well. ¡°Go now.¡±
Sakura turned to Syaoran. ¡°I can¡¯t leave you here.¡±
¡°You must go,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°If you don¡¯t escape from the Fantasy right now, you¡¯ll be trapped in here forever. You¡¯re the Card Mistress—you need to fight the dark forces.¡± Syaoran held out the Clow and handed it to Sakura. ¡°Here, take it.¡±
¡°No, I¡¯m not going to be separated from you again,¡± said Sakura, shaking her head rapidly.
Syaoran pushed her into the rainbow orb, the gateway in and out of the Fantasyland.
¡°No!¡± Sakura shouted. She stretched her hand out towards the boy with the sad amber eyes. He said that he loved her. He had not abandoned her after all. She flung the Clow in her hands back at Syaoran.
He caught it, startled. Wolfie-chan let out a mournful howl.
¡°You¡¯re coming back too. You can give it back to me when we¡¯re both back home,¡± Sakura called out, feeling her body getting pulled in through the light.
¡°Don¡¯t be stupid!¡± said Syaoran, reaching out to hand her back the Sakura Cards.
Sakura felt tears stinging her eyes. No, they were finally together, and to be separated like this. If he remained trapped here, she would never see him again. Nothing that happened here would count then. She loved him. If she learned anything here, it was that she could not stop loving him even if he betrayed her, even if he had abandoned her, even if he had not come back. She would have continued to love him. Her love for him was not a dream, not a fragment of her imagination, not a wisp of childhood nostalgia. It was present and current. It was her existence.
And she understood now. Her heart was like a star. It blinked on and off, but it never stopped blinking. Hope came laced with despair, for without pain and sorrow, tears and heartache, she could not know the true meaning of love.
From her pocket slipped out the finished embroidery she had been working on of the cherry blossom tree and the little wolf. Of course. The answer had been there all along. Tears blurred Sakura¡¯s eyes and the name that had been banned from her lips for so long finally sprung out. ¡°SYAORAN!¡± The name echoed loud and clear in the void between two spaces. ¡°I remember you, Li Syaoran! I won¡¯t forget you. I won¡¯t forget your name ever again.¡± Her body floated midair as she reached out for Syaoran¡¯s hand. ¡°Syaoran¡¦¡±
¡°Syao-ran?¡± A light came into his eyes as he reached to clasp her outstretched hand. ¡°My name is Li Syaoran.¡± He smiled. ¡°Thank you, Sakura.¡±
Feathers whirled around Sakura and her body sped away, and Syaoran¡¯s hand slipped away from hers before she could grasp it. Sakura felt her body being ripped through a black void as Syaoran¡¯s figure faded into a blur. She turned her head—the image of the castle in Memoria, her mother, Ryuuren-san and Wolfie-chan was fading away rapidly, and she could see her own body lying in a room with a worried Tomoyo and Miho sitting by the big canopy bed. Where was Syaoran?
Her voice was caught in her chest. What were the words she had meant to tell him when she went to Hong Kong? ¡°Syaoran! Syaoran, I never got to tell you, I love you! I love you¡¦¡± Can you hear me?
And suddenly, in the midst of the multitudes of feathers flying about, a pearl-white girl materialized. In the pitch black, the glowing feathers gathered about at a rapid speed.
Sakura thought she could hear in the distance Syaoran¡¯s voice. ¡°Now, Sakura! Seal the Memory!¡±
Suspended midair between two dimensions, Sakura released her staff and called out, ¡±Spirit of the dark forces. I, Sakura command you. Return to a new shape under contract. Sakura Card!¡± Remember me, Syaoran. Remember me so that you can come back home safely. Brilliant light engulfed her.
A new card, on the face of which was a silhouette of a girl with feathers that had shaped into a large wing on her back, flew away into the black void.
Tomoyo, who had been dozing off on the armchair, the embroidery she was working on slipping off her lap, awoke with a start when Miho cried out, ¡°Look!¡±
The silhouette of Sakura¡¯s body glowed a multitude of colors and light spiraled from her back in the shape of large wings. When the light faded, they found Sakura lying on the bed, fast asleep.
¡°She¡¯s returned,¡± whispered Tomoyo, eyes glistening. ¡°Sakura-chan has returned from the Fantasy.¡±
¡°Where¡¯s¡¦ Syaoran-senpai?¡± Miho asked.
¡°Only Sakura¡¯s mind had been trapped inside Memoria—her physical body was here the whole time,¡± said Eriol. ¡°But Syaoran physically entered Memoria. To come back, I would presume he must sacrifice his memory of his time there or something equivalent.¡±
¡°Then, why isn¡¯t he back already?¡± asked Tomoyo, smoothing away the wisp of hair on Sakura¡¯s face. Sakura was back. Was everything going to be all right? Where was Syaoran? Why hadn¡¯t he returned already?
Eriol looked up as a prismatic oval materialized in front of them. A brown-haired boy, looking even wearier than he did when he first entered, collapsed on the floor. The entranceway to the Fantasy disappeared and the Fantasy Card floated down on the ground.
¡°Syaoran-kun!¡± exclaimed Tomoyo, kneeling down and helping Syaoran up.
Syaoran¡¯s eyes were dilated. ¡°Sakura!¡±
¡°She¡¯s here—she¡¯s sleeping,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°But she seems to be fine.¡±
¡°Thank goodness.¡± Syaoran slowly wobbled up. He was clutching a card.
Tomoyo caught a glimpse of the face of the card. A silhouette of a winged girl. ¡°The Memory.¡±
Eriol frowned. ¡°How did you make it back? What happened inside there?¡±
Syaoran glanced over to Sakura¡¯s sleeping face. ¡°She must have sealed the Memory and then transmitted the Memory Card to me so I can come back.¡±
¡°I see. I wonder if the price of sealing the Memory and your passage back was the memory of Sakura¡¯s time spent inside Memoria,¡± murmured Eriol.
¡°What?¡± Tomoyo looked up. ¡°What does that mean?¡±
¡°We¡¯ll see when she wakes up,¡± Eriol said.
Slowly, Syaoran slipped the Memory Card in his pocket and headed towards the door.
¡°Where are you going, Syaoran-kun?¡± Tomoyo called out. ¡°Aren¡¯t you going to wait for Sakura to wake?¡±
¡°You heard Eriol¡¦ She probably won¡¯t remember meeting me inside the Fantasy.¡± Syaoran¡¯s head was bent and his eyes shielded by his hair. ¡°Don¡¯t tell her I was here.¡±
¡°Why not?¡± demanded Miho, fist clenched. ¡°You came to save here, didn¡¯t you? How can you pretend like nothing happened? You still love her don¡¯t you? If you don¡¯t, why did you come in the first place?¡±
¡°Eron asked me to come,¡± said Syaoran in a low voice. ¡°It won¡¯t do for the Card Mistress to be sealed within a dark force when she¡¯s the only one who can seal it.¡±
¡°You horrid person!¡± Miho cried out, taking off her slipper and slamming it into Syaoran¡¯s back. ¡°We won¡¯t mention your name ever to Sakura-senpai again, so don¡¯t worry about that. You don¡¯t deserve her!¡±
¡°Miho, stop it,¡± said Tomoyo, drawing back Miho as she took off her other slipper.
Syaoran shut the door behind him, hurrying down the corridor of the Reed mansion.
At the doorway, he saw Eron leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Their eyes met.
¡°Thank you for bringing her back,¡± said Eron.
¡°No need to thank me,¡± Syaoran said curtly.
¡°I don¡¯t know what happened inside the Fantasy, but here, she is still my girlfriend. That won¡¯t change,¡± Eron said.
And Syaoran glanced away. ¡°Keep your promise then. Make her happy.¡±
¡°You don¡¯t need to tell me that,¡± replied Eron.
Chang Eron drew the curtains back to watch through the window Syaoran walking through the Reed mansion gates and down the street. His shoulders were stooped as he had been physically broken. But Eron had not missed that his eyes had regained a glimmer of the old Syaoran. The Syaoran with the will to fight. What happened in the Fantasy, Eron did not want to know, no, was scared to know. He could not even venture to ask if Syaoran had chosen to remember his own name or Sakura¡¯s. Eron suspected the latter, which lead to the mystery of how Syaoran had been able to return at all. All he knew was that somewhere in the midst of Fantasy and Memory, Li Syaoran had regained his lost self.
¡°Is Sakura going to be all right?¡± Mizuki Miara asked her niece.
¡°Yes, I think so,¡° said Kaho, sitting down beside Miara on the couch and taking out term papers to grade. She grimaced—Sakura¡¯s paper was below par, full of grammar mistakes and incomplete thoughts. ¡°Eriol and the others have things under control.¡±
¡°Miho mentioned it was the Fantasy?¡±
¡°So it seems,¡± replied Kaho.
¡°Reminds me of old times—it gave us quite a problem as well,¡± said Miara. ¡°Nobody really thought of returning to the real world once they got trapped by that dark force.¡±
¡°Same reason that Clow Reed never sealed it in the first place,¡± said Kaho. ¡°But I think the Memory has been sealed, and we¡¯re waiting for Sakura to awake.¡±
¡°She¡¯s a brave girl, that one,¡± Miara remarked. ¡°Like her mother. Nadeshiko always seemed like such a ditzy person, a perfect coward and a frivolous thing who liked sweet things, pretty things, things with feathers, flowers¡¦ She took such simple delight in living, in indulging. But when it came down to it, she was braver than any of us. She was not scared of death. Because she enjoyed living life to the fullest, she was never shadowed by doubt and fear. I was always envious of her though I had better grades, better education, more friends, a career, an ambition¡¦¡±
¡°When your life span is cut short, you have to compress all the joy, all the developments of the heart in a shorter period of time. Everything becomes accelerated,¡± said Kaho, closing her eyes.
¡°Dear Keisuke-san¡¦ If only I knew of the brevity of life then, how I would have done things differently,¡± murmured Miara with a sad smile, clutching a faded photo to her chest. Without her vision, she could only cherish the memory of his face imprinted in her mind forever.
When Kinomoto Sakura opened her eyes, she felt strangely refreshed, as if she had woken from a really pleasant dream. Sometimes, you don¡¯t remember what you dreamt about, but your heart remembers the emotions you felt. And when Sakura sat up from the bed, the heavy silk brocade blanket falling to her knees, she felt as if the strange twisted knot in her heart had loosened. And it was finally beating again. Thud thud. She placed a hand over her chest. It felt warm inside.
She glanced over. Eron was on a chair, dozing off. This unfamiliar room—she must be in the Reed mansion. What had happened? The last thing she remembered was confronting Syaoran at Eitoukou Gakuen. It had been pouring rain. Right, and she returned to school and the Fantasy appeared in front of her.
Syaoran¡¦ Why? All I can think of is him. And I¡¯m not even angry. Syaoran, Syaoran Syaoran. Syaoran. It feels good to think of his name so freely. Syaoran.
¡°Sakura.¡± Golden cat-like eyes peered at her in the lamp-lit room
¡°Eron-kun¡¦ What happened?¡± Sakura said, pulling up the blanket to her chest.
¡°You don¡¯t remember entering the Fantasy and being trapped in Memoria?¡± Eron asked.
Sakura shook her head.
¡°We were so worried,¡± said Eron. ¡°Tomoyo, Miho and Hiiragizawa-kun are cooking dinner. Hiiragizawa-kun seemed to think you were going to wake up soon and that you¡¯d be hungry.¡±
A rumble echoed in her stomach. Sakura blushed. ¡°I am hungry.¡±
¡°Well, you¡¯re back, and that¡¯s all that matters,¡± said Eron with a sigh. ¡°You really don¡¯t remember anything?¡±
¡°Nope.¡± Sakura smiled slightly. ¡°But I think I had a very good dream.¡±
¡°Well, I¡¯m going downstairs and letting the others know that you¡¯re fine.¡± Eron shook his head, his ponytail swaying back and forth. ¡°Don¡¯t ever scare us like that again. Though you seem to never run out of ideas to shock me.¡±
¡°Sorry, Eron-kun,¡± said Sakura with a sheepish smile. ¡°I won¡¯t do it again. And thank you for staying by my side.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t thank me for something that¡¯s obvious as your boyfriend,¡± muttered Eron, walking out the room.
When the door closed, Sakura slipped off the bed and walked towards the window. It was dark outside. The moon glowed eerily over the treetops. It was a strange, rusty color tonight. Who knows, once in a red moon I might be able to recall of a kingdom where there are three moons. One is called Yue, one is called Ruby Moon. And the large one in the center doesn¡¯t have a name. Will I remember my fading dream of a land where I thought someone who looked like you was there?
¡°Sakura-chan. You¡¯re up!¡± said Tomoyo, timidly walking into the room. ¡°Are you all right?¡±
Sakura smiled. ¡°I haven¡¯t felt better. I¡¯m sorry I made you all worried.¡±
¡°No, I¡¯m just glad you¡¯re okay,¡± Tomoyo said. She stared down at her hands. ¡°May I ask though what really happened? Why did you collapse in the locker room¡¦¡±
¡°I remembered everything.¡±
¡°I went to Eitoukou and met Syaoran. I told him that I despised him.¡±
¡°Eh?¡± Tomoyo gasped. ¡°You remember Syaoran-kun?¡±
Sakura smiled slightly. ¡°It felt good to finally confront him and get all that off my chest.¡±
¡°Do you really hate him?¡± Tomoyo asked slowly.
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± said Sakura. ¡°I¡¯ll decide that the next time I bump into him.¡±
¡°You¡¯re going to see him again?¡±
¡°Probably,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°He does have all my Cards, and so long as there are dark forces we¡¯ll end up crossing pants. And then, he¡¯ll probably make me angry again, and I¡¯ll hate him a little bit. And then forgive him because he is Syaoran, and I¡¯ve just stopped expecting anything from him anymore.¡±
¡°Are you really fine, Sakura-chan? I really don¡¯t know what¡¯s going on with the Li Clan but do you really think Syaoran-kun intentionally betrayed you?¡±
¡°It doesn¡¯t matter anymore. I learned from onii-chan when the body is put into physical trauma, the brain shuts down into a coma. And when the heart in too much pain, the memory is blocked out and amnesia happens. I spent all these months blocking Li Syaoran completely out of my memory. I tried to stifle something that was so inherently a part of me. No matter what, Syaoran is a part of identity, just like my family, Kero-chan, you and all my friends are. Erasing him from my memory is like erasing a part of me, and eventually, I was losing myself, what makes me ¡®Sakura.¡¯¡±
¡°Ah.¡± Tomoyo¡¯s violet-blue eyes glimmered. ¡°You seem to have matured all of a sudden, Sakura-chan.¡±
Sakura shook her head. ¡°It felt like I had months and months of time to recover while I was sleeping.¡±
¡°Do you remember anything from inside the Fantasy?¡± Tomoyo asked timidly.
¡°My mother was there. I thought, ah this is what it is like to have a mother always by my side. Because of that, I really didn¡¯t want to come back. I saw Su-chan too. He was as lively as ever. And¡¦¡±
¡°My dream brunette prince riding on a black stallion came and saved me, I think.¡± Sakura giggled. Perhaps it was just her wishful thinking, but¡¦ ¡°After all, it was inside the Fantasy, and everything I wanted must have come true!¡±
For the first time in over half a year, Tomoyo sighed in relief. Sakura was laughing again like the old Sakura, with the merry tinkle in her eyes.
In the kingdom of three moons, where flowers bloomed all year round, a beautiful queen sat by her beloved, not knowing of the passage of time or seasons, days full of sunlight and nights brimming with moonglow. It was late afternoon following the disappearance of a princess and a dragon-rider from the kingdom. The rose marble castle had crumbled away and the skirts of the land were fast turning gray.
Nadeshiko¡¯s long violet hair was unbound. It blew back gently in the wind like billowy purple clouds. Ryuuren sat down next to her on the golden grass. The watched over little hill over looking the pastures and woods in silence. Only the farthest edges had begun to decay.
¡°Do you think they went back safely?¡± Nadeshiko asked without looking up.
¡°Yes, I¡¯m sure,¡± replied Ryuuren, closing his blue eyes.
¡°Syaoran-kun has grown up to be a very dependable young man,¡± said Nadeshiko, twirling her finger in the grass. ¡°Must more trustworthy than his father, I say.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t think Sakura is half as clumsy and spacey as you are but definitely just as stubborn.¡±
¡°If it¡¯s the two of them, I think they¡¯ll manage.¡± Nadeshiko smiled. ¡°No, I¡¯m sure everything will be all right for them.¡±
Ryuuren smiled softly, turning to glance at Nadeshiko. ¡°I believe so too.¡± He held out a hand. ¡°Now, shall we return, my dear queen?¡±
¡°Yes, my noble knight.¡± Nadeshiko took Ryuuren¡¯s hands.
Together, they ran down the hill and jumped into a prism-colored entrance. The queen and her knight disappeared from the kingdom as if they had never been there in the first place. Where did they disappear to? Some stories say that they ran off together and lived a quiet, humble life away from the public eye. Other stories say they ceased to be, dying in each others¡¯ sweet embrace. Other stories still say that they parted ways after they entered through a magical doorway to another world. Who knows which story is true?
On the other side of the doorway, some twenty-four years ago¡¦
A violet-haired girl in a sailor uniform, holding hands with a tall boy with dark brown hair wearing a black high-collar seifuku of Seijou High School, stood on top of a hill overlooking the city. In the distance, they could see the red and white Tokyo Tower extended into the blue sky.
Amamiya Nadeshiko stared up into Li Ryuuren¡¯s piercing blue eyes. ¡°I don¡¯t think I¡¯m ready yet.¡±
¡°I guess the hour has come. We will be facing the deadliest of the dark forces,¡± said Ryuuren, suddenly pulling Nadeshiko into a tight embrace.
Closing her eyes and leaning against Ryuuren¡¯s chest, Nadeshiko said, ¡°When the hour comes, there is something I will have to do. And you must promise me, you won¡¯t stop me.¡±
¡°No.¡± Ryuuren¡¯s voice trembled. ¡°Don¡¯t make me promise you anything. I can¡¯t.¡±
¡°You must.¡± Nadeshiko remembered how Ryuuren had seemed so aloof and invincible when she first met him. Now, he was shaking, his voice was laced with tension and panic. In this situation, she had to stay calm. She had to reassure him. ¡°The only way we can conquer the Plague is to seal it within my body.¡±
Ryuuren¡¯s arms tightened around her so tightly that she almost could not breathe. ¡°No, there must be another way. We can find a different solution.¡±
¡°It won¡¯t work. No other bind will be strong enough.¡± Nadeshiko pushed away Ryuuren¡¯s chest slightly. She smiled slightly. ¡°I won¡¯t die. I can¡¯t die yet.¡±
¡°There must be another way. It¡¯s too dangerous.¡±
¡°Then, do you want thousands, maybe millions of people to suffer?¡± Nadeshiko shook her head. ¡°I have to do this, Ryuuren. For the future.¡±
¡°What future?¡± A rebellious flame came over his electric sapphire eyes. ¡°Who cares about the future?¡±
¡°I do,¡± said Nadeshiko softly. ¡°I want to live as long as I can and see how much I can see before my thread of life runs short.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t talk like that!¡± Ryuuren snapped. ¡°We¡¯re going to find another way to seal the Plague. You¡¯ll see. Say yes.¡±
¡°I can¡¯t hear you.¡±
¡°Yes¡¦Ryuuren.¡± Nadeshiko turned around, her back to Ryuuren. ¡°After we defeat the Plague, there¡¯s something I have to tell you.¡±
Ryuuren smiled gently. ¡°And I have something to tell you too.¡±
The pair stood atop the hill, watching the white clouds gently lull by, a moment of tranquility in the midst of a dark and turbulent storm soon to come.
The porch light was not lit, and Syaoran quietly crept into the Li Mansion, the very house that Li Shulin had built a century and a half ago for the Li headquarters in Japan. After returning from the Fantasy, his mind was sheet blank. He knew that if he saw Sakura waking, he would not be able to leave. Besides, the last time he had seen Sakura in the real world, she had been furious at him. Who knew if she would even want to see him? After all, the Fantasy was the Fantasy. This was the real world. He walked down the dark hallway towards the staircase.
¡°Where were you?¡±
Syaoran nearly jumped as he saw Leiyun standing at the end of the corridor, holding up a candle which cast a ghoulish shadow over his face. His eyes were a steel blue that gleamed in the dark.
¡°T-taking a walk,¡± replied Syaoran.
¡°At this time of the night?¡± Leiyun¡¯s thin lips curved slightly. ¡°You were never much of a liar, cousin.¡±
¡°You told me to collect all the sealed dark forces,¡± said Syaoran, feeling cold perspiration roll down his neck.
¡°True.¡± Leiyun stepped forward, lifting up Syaoran¡¯s chin to see into his eyes. ¡°So, what new card has the Card Mistress sealed?¡±
Syaoran took out the new card and handed it to Leiyun.
Leiyun held up the candle and read, ¡°The Memory. How interesting. We must try it out.¡±
¡°O-on what?¡± asked Syaoran, swallowing hard.
¡°I don¡¯t know.¡± Leiyun turned around. ¡°Do you have an idea, Jin?¡±
Syaoran had not even felt the presence of the Black Dragon right behind him until a tight grip clenched around his throat and wrist. ¡°Wha—¡°
¡°Do you know how much depends on this mission, Li Syaoran?¡± asked Leiyun. ¡°The Clan gave you a last chance. Do you know what it means to blow it? They would take your life, Syaoran, and they would do it mercilessly. That¡¯s the kind of family you belong to. You need to be grateful to me. I gave you an opportunity to redeem yourself. And you don¡¯t take it seriously? You blow it off for a girl. You¡¯ve become weak, Syaoran.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know what you¡¯re talking about,¡± said Syaoran in a dull voice.
¡°So, you brought one card back.¡± Leiyun¡¯s voice was crisp. ¡°Where are the other two new cards? And don¡¯t think I didn¡¯t realize the Heal is missing as well. The Elders were right—we have been too lenient on you. Maybe you need a little rude awakening to remind you of your place.¡±
Syaoran felt a hollowing punch in his stomach. He struggled against Jinyu. But this was not the Fantasy, after all. His powers were restricted here. He didn¡¯t have his magic. Half kicking, half writhing, he was dragged down the steps by Jinyu.
¡°Stop struggling Syaoran, or else we¡¯d have to bind you,¡± said Leiyun as they entered a bare room with stone walls.
¡°I¡¯m not some dog of the Clan. I stole the Clow for you. I do everything you ask for. I¡¯m watched every waking hour of the day,¡± lashed out Syaoran. ¡°What more do you want from me? My soul? Do you want me to become a soulless assassin like Jinyu? Or what about you, Leiyun? What have you become? You were different from them. Now, you¡¯re just the same. Have you been brainwashed too? Or were you always a part of them, and I was just too young and naïve to see it?¡± He knocked his elbow into Jinyu¡¯s stomach.
¡°Bind him,¡± said Leiyun.
Syaoran felt a sharp pain as Jinyu wrenched his arms up and ropes twisted around his wrists so tightly that he felt his circulation cut off. Deftly, Jinyu shoved him up against the wall and tied the loose end of the rope around a metal post above his head. He half expected the room to be full of torture equipment but it was completely bare.
¡°So, will you tell me what you were up to today?¡± asked Leiyun. ¡°Did you meet your precious little Card Mistress?¡±
¡°It¡¯s none of your business.¡±
¡°Oh? You seem to have developed a backbone overnight. What happened to the meek, lifeless Li Syaoran? You see, I don¡¯t really care what you do or who you choose to love.¡± Leiyun circled around the room. ¡°But when I report back to the Elders, it doesn¡¯t sound so good when I say Syaoran neglected all his duties and went off to rescue his precious Card Mistress in la-la-land.¡±
¡°What do they care?¡± Syaoran said through gritted teeth. ¡°They¡¯re sitting back in their mansions without lifting a finger to do anything about the dark forces.¡±
¡°True.¡± Leiyun chuckled coldly. ¡°But so long as you are the probationary Chosen One, you are under their orders. If they learn you are not doing your job properly, you¡¯ll get sent back to Hong Kong. You¡¯ll never be able to come back to Japan. In fact, they¡¯ll make it so that no one ever hears of you again. You¡¯ll simply cease to exist in the Li records.¡±
¡°My name may be wiped off the Li records, but I¡¯ll still exist,¡± said Syaoran.
Leiyun narrowed his eyes. ¡°You¡¯re very talkative today, Syaoran. Is that an annoying habit you picked up in Japan?¡±
¡°No, I think I picked it up from you,¡± muttered Syaoran, tugging his wrists. His right arm ached—it didn¡¯t ache back in the Fantasy. But here, he was still undergoing rehab to regain complete muscle mass.
Leiyun grabbed a fistful of Syaoran¡¯s hair and yanked up his head. ¡°I think I know what¡¯s wrong with you today. You¡¯ve lost the heart of a warrior. A boy in love becomes weak. But we can fix that problem, can¡¯t we?¡± Leiyun held up the Memory with his thumb and forefinger. ¡°I know how we can test out this new card.¡±
Syaoran¡¯s eyes widened. ¡°What are you trying to¡¦¡±
Drawing out the Five Force Sword, Leiyun chanted, ¡°Raitei shourai!¡±
A flash of blue lightening consumed Syaoran¡¯s body, and he screamed out in raw agony.
¡°Oops, sorry.¡± Leiyun smiled. ¡°I haven¡¯t tested out this sword yet, and I wanted to give it a try. Rumors are true—the Five Force Sword seems to magnify any spell immensely. I wonder how a ten year old boy could have managed such a powerful sword. Now let us get to the fun part. We¡¯ll erase Kinomoto Sakura from your memory. How about that? And you will be able to just focus on your task.¡±
¡°You¡¦ can¡¯t,¡± Syaoran said through gritted teeth. He saw white light in his eyeballs and his head felt fuzzy from being shocked.
Leiyun slammed the card against the flat of the sword. ¡°Memory!¡±
A white light wrapped around Syaoran¡¯s body and he felt a numbing throbbing in his head, as if his skull was getting pierced by a drill. Flashes of a girl with emerald eyes and a brilliant smile, rollerblading under sakura trees, crouching by the harbor in Hong Kong with tears in her eyes, standing on top of the Empire State Building in New York, silhouetted by the moonlight by the Kusakou beach, standing atop a cliff and watching the sunrise at Mount Kumatori.
The crystal clear voice rang in his ear. ¡°Li-kun¡¦Can I call you Syaoran-kun? Syaoran¡¦ I won¡¯t forget your name¡¦ Li-san¡¦¡± No¡¦ Call my name once more. Let me hear your voice again, Sakura.
Frowning, Leiyun lowered the sword. ¡°Perhaps it was too much. Syaoran?¡±
For a second, Syaoran, suspended from the wall, gathered his breath. He then rolled his head back and burst out laughing so hard his stomach hurt.
¡°What are you laughing about?¡± Leiyun demanded. ¡°Did you lose your mind?¡±
In between gasps, Syaoran said, ¡°You think something like that will work on me? I won¡¯t ever forget Sakura. Try all you want—you¡¯ll just make your voice hoarse.¡±
Leiyun frowned and slammed the Five Force Sword into the card again. ¡°Erase all memories of that girl from this boy¡¯s mind.¡±
An electric current rippled down Syaoran¡¯s bodies. His body was drenched in sweat. He bit his lips so hard that it began to bleed.
¡°That should work now,¡± said Leiyun, glaring at Syaoran. ¡°What are you smiling about, you imbecile? She forgot you. Weren¡¯t you hurt by that? You can do the same to her. This will benefit both of you. You will thank me.¡±
Syaoran¡¯s amber eyes were shining brighter than ever. ¡°Sakura, Sakura, SAKURA!¡±
¡°UGH!¡± Leiyun slammed the sword down again. ¡°Memory! Work!¡± He slammed his sword into the card over and over again and white light flared with ice blue engulfed the room. A hand gripped his shoulder.
¡°Leiyun, that¡¯s enough.¡±
¡°This card isn¡¯t working properly, Jin! It¡¯s broken. I¡¯ll make it work!¡± cried out Leiyun. ¡°Work, Memory, work! Delete time!¡±
Syaoran swayed limply from the rope binding his arms up. In a cracked whisper, he repeated, ¡°Sa¡¦kura¡¦¡± And his eyes rolled back.
Sakura gave her father an extra tight hug when she got home, and he seemed quite relieved to see his daughter bright and cheerful again. He did not know what had lapsed between yesterday and today, but he simply picked up a photo of his lovely wife and murmured, ¡°Thank you, Nadeshiko-san.¡±
¡°It¡¯s strange, Kero-chan. I thought I spent months, maybe even years inside the Fantasy,¡± said Sakura as she curled into her own little bed with pink cotton sheets. ¡°But only a day has lapsed in the real world.¡±
¡°Well, the flow of time is different in different dimensions,¡± replied Kero-chan, glad to have Sakura back.
¡°I sealed the Memory,¡± continued Sakura. ¡°I remembered everything. I won¡¯t run away anymore, Kero-chan. Even if Syaoran becomes my enemy, I won¡¯t run away.¡±
¡°Sakura-chan.¡± Kero-chan gave Sakura a little hug. ¡°I¡¯m glad you¡¯re back.¡±
I was hurt and sad when you left, I cried tears of sorrow when you abandoned me at the Hong Kong harbor. I screamed out in silent desperation when I remembered the reasons why I forgot you.
Syaoran, I don¡¯t care if it was a dream. I don¡¯t care if it¡¯s only my wishful thinking. I don¡¯t want to try to forget you any more. Even if it hurts, I¡¯ll try to remember you, because our time together, our six years, is too precious to forget.
Kinomoto Sakura, shut her eyes, and felt a heaviness lift from her heart. A Sakura Card floated down and landed on her lap. She turned it around. On the face was a woman with a sorrowful white mask with tears falling from its eyes. The bottom of the Card read ¡°The Despair.¡±
No more running away. No more despair. I¡¯ll remember everything, Syaoran, the good times and the bad, and I¡¯ll slowly heal. And one day, I can look back to the past without hurting anymore, and with a nostalgic smile say proudly, ¡°I loved Li Syaoran once.¡±
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAKURA 2009! We love you!
I mentioned before that this chapter is probably one of the last ¡°originally planned¡± chapters, a plot and card that I wanted to use from the way beginning when I first thought out New Trials. The Fantasy is my favorite card (if you can¡¯t tell because I¡¯ve used it in multiple chapters now.) It¡¯s a fun dark force to work with because it changes for each person and circumstance. Sakura¡¯s Memoria is sort of a mess of cultures and people and generations. Miho had a Western fantasy kingdom, elements present in Sakura¡¯s Fantasyland too, but Eastern elements were also mixed in. The Fantasy of course plays with many different themes, and I really wanted the chapter to unfold like a fairytale but things got messy pretty quickly. I realized recently that probably the earliest form of the Fantasy was in my one-shot fanfic ¡°The Right Choice.¡± I really wanted to touch upon the concept of ¡°true name¡± in this chapter. CLAMP has often referred to the notion of ¡°true name¡± which is quite popular in many works of fantasy literature. Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles employs it quite frequently, but I¡¯ve seen it used also in Hayao Miyazaki¡¯s works like Spirited Away (after all, he was influenced by Le Guin), and Michael Ende¡¯s the Neverending Story. I think the most prominent usage is in Ursula Le Guin¡¯s Earthsea chronicles.
It was really difficult portraying Sakura¡¯s memories coming and going within this chapter. Because Sakura¡¯s Fantasyland was a place where she wanted to forget everything from the real world, there wasn¡¯t anybody from the real world in Memoria. However, you might have recognized a lot of characters and elements from my various specials like the Legacy of the Five Forces and the Kaitou Magician Origins. J I really enjoyed writing about Su-chan again. Because I waited so long to write this chapter, I wonder if I did it justice. It¡¯s a chapter I wanted to write for almost 10 years, and when it actually came to writing it, I didn¡¯t enjoy writing it as much. Partially because I could probably write a separate novel on what happened in the Fantasy, and I couldn¡¯t expand on many elements I wanted to because I didn¡¯t want to interrupt the continuum of Arc 4. It was nice to finally be able to write some fluff—though in the end, I guess it didn¡¯t amount to much. I know I struggled with how I would portray the sealed form of the Memory and borrowed the idea from Sakura and her feathers of memory in TRC. Lol¡¦
Either way, it was a real pain writing about a heroine with partial amnesia, so I¡¯m glad Sakura has regained her memory of Syaoan. I¡¯m very excited about the next couple chapters. It would be fun to do some serious confrontations between S+S now that the Memory and the Despair are out of the way. Oh dear, but Tomoyo seems to have something up her sleeves again. But I¡¯m really excited about the chapters to come. ^_^
Reader feedback is what have kept this fanfic going for a decade, and have been always cherished at email@example.com Please check out the New Trials Group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring/ for the latest updates; I also have a new blog at http://wishluv.blogspot.com/ where you can find the latest updates for New Trials and my random ruminations (and an account of my meeting one of my favorite singers, Utada Hikaru!) Thank you so much for supporting New Trials!