Chapter 69: The Betrayal
Hong Kong, 12 years ago¡¦
The Li Main House garden in springtime was famous throughout Hong Kong for its beautiful lush peonies of every shade of pink, from deep coral to pale rose.
For the little girl with jet-black hair pulled back into two buns, tied with her special occasion red ribbons, with a matching silk scarlet cheongsam, it was a special treat to be allowed to come to a Main House function. Because she was deemed not ¡°gifted¡± and was from a minor branch of the illustrious Li Clan, there was no way she would ever be the one standing in the procession going down the gardens.
Instead she was doomed to stay in the stay in the sidelines, at the bottom of the hill, watching the formidable row of men clad in the Clan¡¯s deep green walk along as a Li Clan Council meeting commenced. Li Meilin knew this even at the age of four.
Like most of her cousins, she was delegated to shoving each other to try to catch a glimpse of the boy who was called the ¡°Chosen One.¡±
Peony petals were blowing about one spring day in the fragrant gardens that Meilin first saw the infamous young Syaoran walk up the Li gardens, the winding path up to the Main House where the Great Elder awaited to greet him. Behind him was an older boy, around 11 years old, with coppery-brown hair and smiling aqua eyes.
¡°Look, it¡¯s Leiyun. He¡¯s so handsome. I want to marry him when I grow up!¡± squealed one female cousin, who thought herself high and mighty because she was in the fourth grade.
¡°Look, there¡¯s poor Syaoran,¡± whispered some older women of the clan. ¡°He¡¯s a spitting image of his father—they say that he has potential to become even greater than Li Ryuuren the Chosen One.¡±
¡°Well, the Great Elder has taken him under his wings,¡± said one of Meilin¡¯s uncles. ¡°And they said he would not be taking on any more trainees after Leiyun and Jinyu.¡±
¡°Who is that boy? Why is he so special? He doesn¡¯t look older than me,¡± stated Meilin, nose in the air.
¡°That¡¯s Li Syaoran. Only son of Li Ryuuren, the Chosen One. Do you remember Uncle Ryuuren?¡± said her mother.
Meilin nodded. He was a vague memory now, but he had been a tall intimidating man with dark brown hair and eyes blue as the Hong Kong oceans. She had been scared of him because as the Chosen One, he was one of the innermost in command of the Clan, and he was always brisk and in a hurry.
But he had once picked up a ball she had dropped in the pond of the Main House gardens and patted her on the head. ¡°How old are you, Meilin?¡± he had asked her.
¡°Three,¡± she had replied shyly, for even then she knew that the Chosen One was special.
¡°Three. Then you¡¯re about the same age as my son, Syaoran. I hope you can grow up to be good friends.¡±
She gazed up at the big, brusque man with round amber eyes, clutching the wet rubber ball with both hands. He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling, and he petted her on the head. That was the last time she ever saw him.
But she still remembered because though his dark slanted brows made him look like he was perpetually scowling, his smile was gentle and kind.
Shortly afterwards, she learned that he had died. He had been on a mission far from home. It had created a huge ruckus in the Council of the Elders. Apparently, Syaoran¡¯s father had been the man who was supposed to succeed Great Elder Renshu to head the Li Clan.
Afterwards, his son, Li Syaoran, was doted upon even more by the entire clan. It had always been the case ever since she had been old enough to recognize his name.
Because he was the only son of the Li Ryuuren, the Chosen One, a main branch of the family, and apparently more gifted than anybody his age in a century, he was going to be the Chosen One.
That day, everybody stepped back along the long road leading to the Main Estate, watching the little boy with a sword strapped to his back almost as tall as he was, walk up to the tall wily man standing atop the hill.
¡°It¡¯s not fair,¡± she said to her mother. ¡°Why do we have to step aside for him? Why is it only Syaoran who gets to train with the Great Elder?¡±
¡°Don¡¯t point,¡± said her mother, wrapping her hand around Meilin¡¯s shoulder. ¡°Maybe when you grow older, you¡¯ll develop powers. And you can train with the Great Elder too.¡±
Even then, Meilin knew her mother was lying. ¡°How can I develop powers when both you and father don¡¯t have any?¡±
¡°There always are exceptions,¡± said her mother. ¡°You have Li blood in you. If you practice harder than anyone else, then you¡¯ll surely be recognized by the Clan someday.¡±
And practice Meilin did. She ran faster than anyone else in her nursery school. She could throw harder punches than her cousins who were in elementary school. When others were playing with dolls, she was outdoors, practicing the staff, martial arts and climbing walls.
¡°You¡¯re getting quite good at your side kicks,¡± said cousin Leiyun, nudging Meilin¡¯s shoulder back and twisting her torso slightly. ¡°I think you might give Syaoran a run for his money.¡±
¡°I¡¯d be able to beat Syaoran any day of the week,¡± replied Meilin haughtily.
¡°You may be right.¡± Leiyun smiled, patting Meilin on the head. Her ebony hair was rolled into two tight buns on the side of her head, to keep them out of the way. Leiyun fumbled in his pocket and fished out a bag of sugared jellies.
Leiyun was her favorite cousin—he was everybody¡¯s favorite cousin. He had bright aqua eyes and sandy brown hair that curled slightly at the ends. He seemed very old and venerable as he was all of seven years older than her. But he sometimes came down to her house to watch her practice and give her pointers. He always gave her a piece of candy or toffee, rare treats since her mother strictly regulated her diet—a Li warrior needs to have a healthy body, Meilin had been told since birth.
After that, a strange thing occurred. Wei, Syaoran¡¯s family butler came to their house often to help her practice. Back in those days, Wei was stricter, firmer.
¡°The young master is training with the Great Elder today,¡± Wei said. ¡°I hope he¡¯ll be all right—the Demon Trainer is what they call the Great Elder you know.¡±
Wei would oftentimes tell her random things about Syaoran. ¡°The young master likes animals. He got a puppy for his birthday. Young master Leiyun bought it for him.¡± Sometimes, Meilin thought she knew Syaoran as well as if they were close friends. ¡°The young master is learning to play the violin. I am sorry to say all his four sisters have bought earplugs.¡± That made her giggle.
Most times she ignored Wei¡¯s comments, but sometimes she grew curious of the boy. ¡°What kind of training does he do with the Great Elder?¡± she asked once.
¡°The same things you do with me,¡± replied Wei.
¡°Liar.¡± Meilin scowled, kicking the straw dummy that was adjusted to her height.
One day, she almost tripped over her own feet when a silver-haired man in regal black robes came to watch her practice, standing underneath the shade of a cedar tree. Li Leiyun, age 12, stood beside him. ¡°It would do good for Syaoran to have someone his age to practice with. I can¡¯t spend as much time with him since I¡¯ll be starting junior high. And Meilin is the best in martial arts out of anyone her age. In fact, she¡¯s better than most of the older kids as well.¡±
¡°Go on, do as you usually do,¡± said Wei, prodding Meilin.
And Meilin knew at that moment she was being tested. Well, she¡¯d show them. She might never get an opportunity like this again.
She¡¯d never forget the kind smile on Li Renshu, the formidable Great Elder of the Li Clan, after she completed a series of drills that she had heard no one else in her age group had mastered yet, including Syaoran. He told her ¡°good job,¡± and it was notorious that the Great Elder never complimented anyone.
The next day, she was sent to Syaoran¡¯s house, a huge mansion with extensive gardens that rivaled the Main House. She was met by Syaoran¡¯s giggling four sisters, who ranged in age from 9 to 12.
¡°Young master, I thought it might be helpful to have a practice partner your own age,¡± said Wei to the small scowling boy with brown hair, dressed in a jade-green cheongsam and loose ivory trousers. ¡°What do you think of practicing with young mistress Meilin?¡±
Meilin held her breath. She was sure he would refuse.
¡°I don¡¯t mind,¡± said Syaoran brusquely, not even looking up.
But those were the warmest words Meilin had heard from him.
From that day on, she was designated Syaoran¡¯s practice partner. Every day after school, she would go to Li Syaoran¡¯s house and train in their courtyard with Wei. Some days, she would get called to the Main House and the Great Elder would train them. Sometimes, Leiyun and some older cousins would join them as well.
As long as Meilin remembered, the Great Elder had been old. His long silvery hair was tied back with a silver clasp, and he was robed in black and gold, with the Li Clan emblem embroidered on his back.
She should have been terrified of him, having been told stories of how the Great Elder was a demon trainer.
But the Great Elder, who seemed so formidable and unapproachable sometimes smiled, sometimes laughed at her, sometimes gently scolded her. She had heard him growl commands at other members of the Li Council. But to her, he used a soft, gravelly voice.
Not long afterwards, Syaoran rescued her bird for her, the bird that Leiyun had given her for her birthday. The following day, she climbed on to the Great Elder¡¯s lap. No other cousin would dream of doing something so bold as that.
¡°Great Uncle, I¡¯m going to marry Syaoran when I grow up,¡± she said. ¡°I¡¯m going to be the strongest fighter in the Li Clan and always be partners with Syaoran. I will protect him with my life, forever and forever. So promise me, when I grow up, you¡¯ll let me marry Syaoran and no one else.¡± If her mother had heard her, she would have been spanked for daring to make such a brazen request to the head of the clan.
But the Great Elder merely chuckled, a rare moment he did, and patted her sweaty head like a grandfather might. ¡°If you keep your word, I look forward to seeing that.¡±
For near seventeen years of her life, Li Renshu had been an indelible force in the Li Clan.
But Li Meilin was never going to see the Great Elder, who had of recent years become so wrinkled and gray and frail, so different from the ominous iron-willed leader she had known of past years, ever again.
Tears rolled down her face as she set down the living room phone into its receiver in the Tomoeda apartment.
¡°What¡¯s wrong? Is it your mother?¡± asked Mizuki Kai, still in his form-fitting tuxedo from the Tamemura Asuma and Akagi Arima wedding. He had lost his bowtie and loosened his collars as he watched Meilin¡¯s stricken face.
¡°It¡¯s the Great Elder. He¡¯s dying.¡±
It was one of the rare days that Kai had a silk handkerchief folded into his tuxedo breast pocket, for the wedding, and he handed it to her. ¡°Does Syaoran know as well?¡±
She nodded, clutching the silver handkerchief splashed with acidic cologne. ¡°Aunt Ielan called him already.¡±
¡°No wonder he disappeared right after the wedding,¡± said Kai. ¡°It must have come as a hard blow on him.¡±
¡°We¡¯ve all known he¡¯s been ill for a long time,¡± Meilin said, voice muffled in his silver silk handkerchief. ¡°I won¡¯t be surprised if the Great Elder¡¯s probably been hanging on for Syaoran¡¯s sake.¡±
¡°Perhaps.¡± Kai awkwardly stood, hands in his pockets. Usually suave with words, he didn¡¯t know how to comfort Meilin at a time like this.
¡°I wonder if Syaoran caught the last flight back to Hong Kong today,¡± said Meilin.
¡°Most likely. No one¡¯s seen him around, after all.¡±
Meilin sank down on the carpet, her knees giving away. ¡°I can¡¯t help recalling how the Great Elder used to let me sit on his lap and told me stories about my Great Aunt when she was young. Yunhua was her name. The Great Elder met her when she was five, and he was seven. He said that he loved her and only her all his life, since the moment he met her.¡±
He crouched down next to her and murmured, ¡°So even the Demon Master once loved.¡±
¡°Everybody remembers the Great Elder as being fearsome, the Demon Training Master, silent and meditative. But to me, he was kind and told me tales of past Li warriors.¡± Meilin swallowed hard. ¡°And I don¡¯t think I ever thanked him for choosing me to train with Syaoran. For making me feel like I was worth something in the clan. If the Great Elder didn¡¯t allow me to train with Syaoran, I wouldn¡¯t even be here today. He¡¯s the first person to believe in me.¡±
¡°We can get you back to Hong Kong in time,¡± said Kai. ¡°I wasn¡¯t joking when I told you I have a pilot¡¯s license.¡±
Meilin shook her head. ¡°Mother warned me not to go back. She said if I do, I might not be able to leave again. Once the Great Elder dies, the factions will start moving. There will be a shift of power within the clan—possibly bloodshed. She said to stay here because I¡¯m safe with you guys.¡±
¡°She¡¯s right about that. You will be safer here.¡± Kai wrapped his arm around her back. ¡°I¡¯m sorry Meilin. I know how important the Great Elder is to you.¡±
¡°Still, Syaoran has to go back,¡± Meilin murmured into his collar, handkerchief wrapped into a tight ball in her fist. ¡°But even at this time, is it selfish of me to wish that Syaoran also doesn¡¯t return to Hong Kong? What if¡¦ What if they don¡¯t let him come back?¡±
¡°He¡¯ll still find a way back.¡±
She had seen the frantic look in those deep amber eyes when he received the phone call from his mother.
His voice had been low and strained when he told her that the Great Elder was dying.
And she had promised him she will get him back to Hong Kong in time. To see the Great Elder one last time.
She didn¡¯t know if it was possible to reach Hong Kong in the first place let alone if she would truly be able to keep her promise and get there in time.
But the Unicorn surpassed expectations.
When the two lifted off into the Tokyo night sky atop the black unicorn, Kinomoto Sakura had no idea had no idea which direction she was flying towards. But she was glad that the Unicorn apparently did. All she knew vaguely was that they had to head westward.
Because Li Syaoran was sitting behind her, she did not know what expression he was making. If not for the warmth against her back and of his breath which tickled the nape of her neck, she would not have known he was there, for he hadn¡¯t spoken since they had departed Japan, after he heard the news about the Great Elder.
Though they were silent for the entire flight, it was not a long one. The Unicorn had exceeded expectations, and they had made it across the ocean before an airplane might have taken them and saved them the hassle of checking in and out of an airport. The Tokyo cityscape shifted to a vast blackness of water below them. Then, the vague blur of neon lights as the Hong Kong Islands came into view indicated they were back in civilization.
It was Sakura¡¯s third time in Hong Kong, but her first time arriving with Syaoran. The Unicorn swooshed down, hooves barely making a sound as he landed.
Luckily, there was nobody on the streets at the hour, and even if there were, they were veiled by a thick, smoky fog. Syaoran stepped onto the pavement, in a daze, as if he could not believe he was back in his homeland, perhaps in record time.
Grabbing the ends of the long rose-colored chiffon bridesmaid dress she had worn for Tamemura Asuma and Akagi Arima¡¯s wedding, Sakura hopped off the Unicorn¡¯s back after him. The two newlyweds would now be on a flight to the United States, on their honeymoon.
Little did she know, several hours ago at the wedding that she and Syaoran also would be out of the country as well.
She could see the dim outline of the harbor of western Hong Kong Island in the lamplight. It was misty, but not cold. While it was too dark to see Syaoran¡¯s face as the moon was veiled by dark cumulus clouds, she could now sense how tense he was, his head bent over. She wanted to take his head into her chest and stroke his chestnut brown hair and tell him everything was going to be all right. Except, it wasn¡¯t.
It has been almost exactly been a year since Syaoran left her on these very harbor. She could still see his straight, broad shoulders, in that navy blue trench coat, back turned to her, walking away, not looking back. She truly thought then that she would never see him again.
But all had changed since then.
¡°I don¡¯t know what I was thinking, bringing you here,¡± said Syaoran finally, looking around at the scenery he had grown up with. ¡°I¡¯ve just brought you straight to the lion¡¯s den. I wasn¡¯t thinking.¡±
¡°I think I¡¯m the one who brought you here. And I think the whole of the Li Clan would be preoccupied right now,¡± Sakura said, placing a hesitant hand on his arm. ¡°Don¡¯t worry. I¡¯ll be fine. Hurry and go. The Great Elder is waiting.¡±
Syaoran¡¯s palms were sweaty. ¡°Sorry, Sakura. I don¡¯t want to leave you here by yourself. But I need to go alone.¡±
Sakura nodded her head. ¡°I know. Take your time. I¡¯ll be waiting right here.¡±
¡°I¡¯ll be back. Don¡¯t go anywhere. Stay right here.¡± He took off his black jacket and wrapped it around Sakura¡¯s shoulders. It settled over her like a cape.
Without the jacket, his shoulders turned to her seemed even more hunched, and he seemed so forlorn and weary. She wished she could run up to him and hold his hands, offer to go with him. Yet it was dangerous for her to be in Hong Kong at this moment, she knew. Just like a year ago, when she had carelessly showed up here, without considering Syaoran¡¯s position.
She figured they were quite close to the Li Clan headquarters, as Syaoran melted away into the wispy mist, just like he had on that day.
Even if she wanted to, she wouldn¡¯t be able to return to Japan. She was drained from the flight to Hong Kong. It would have been impossible to reach Hong Kong at that speed with the Fly Card. Because the Unicorn was a special force, with strong powers of its own as Lord Landon Reed¡¯s patron animal, she believed they were able to arrive in Hong Kong at a record time, as if the Unicorn inherently understood the emergency of the situation.
Right now, the Li Clan would be distracted because of the Great Elder¡¯s impending death. But recalling her last experience here, Sakura knew that if they realized she was here, there was no guarantee that she would be safe this time. And frankly, she had no energy to fight them off even if she did, especially not without the bulk of the Sakura Cards.
And standing on this very harbor, just like a year ago, she was utterly alone again.
Strange cityscape lit a blur of red and blue and yellow and stranger gray-black sea with waves whispering on the shores a sigh of forgotten lore.
More than a century and a half ago, the Li Clan had settled upon the island, led by Chosen One Li Shulin, who had abandoned her son and husband in England. The family soon grew to be powerful and prosperous under her leadership.
Why did the Li Clan, who had already been so established and esteemed for centuries in Shanghai under the Qing Dynasty moved its base to Hong Kong, she had once asked Cerberus. She had already learned in history class that as a result of the First Opium War, Hong Kong Island was ceded to Great Britain through the Treaty of Nanking, a humiliating blow on China.
Cerberus told her that the Li Clan had foreseen the fall of the Qing Dynasty and predicted that Hong Kong, even under British rule, would become a huge commercial center. Because Li Shulin, as the wife of Lord Landon Reed, had been admitted into elite circles in her years in England, despite also being shunned by some for being foreign, she was the ideal person to lead the Clan in Hong Kong. Using the Reed name and her infamous beauty, she was able to make friends with top British officials and granted access to classified trade and investment information, and thus the clan prospered.
But Syaoran had once vaguely told her that the Li Clan had no choice but to leave Shanghai since they were politically prosecuted for being too powerful and were exiled to Hong Kong.
Sakura gazed up back towards Victoria¡¯s Peak. She had been to Syaoran¡¯s house twice, once when she was ten and once again last year. When she had first visited his house, high up in the Peak, she had been in awe of the sheer size of the mansion, the spacious botanical gardens overlooking the vast harbors below, complete with a pond and palm trees. Back then, she had not known that Syaoran lived in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. And in her second visit, she had learned that the Li Clan¡¯s Main House was even grander, comparable to a small palace. It was only on her second visit that she became acutely aware of the gap between her and Syaoran—for she was just a small town girl at heart while he was a city boy, raised at the palm luxury, trained to become the leader of financial and political empire. And she would never have known this had she not come to Hong Kong.
Because she was sure she would fall asleep if she sat down, she kept moving—it wouldn¡¯t do to fall asleep in a strange place—her brother would never let her hear the end of it.
The long chiffon and lace-trimmed skirt tangled around her legs as she walked, and the soles of the thin pink slippers she had worn for Arima and Asuma¡¯s wedding did little to protect her feet. Her heels began to blister. The air here was much more humid than back home, and the careful curls that Tomoyo had arranged her hair in for the wedding hung in limp strands against her cheeks.
She had never met the Great Elder, and Syaoran so rarely shared his past, so all she had were brief sketches of the man who was deemed most formidable in the Li Clan. She knew enough now that if the Li Renshu died, the Li Clan would undergo and overhaul. Everything would change. And what position would Syaoran be in? She knew better than anyone that all his life he had trained to lead the Li Clan—but she had always thought it would be many years from now. Would he ever be able to return to Japan then?
But she could not fret. All she could do was pray that Syaoran had reached the Great Elder in time.
Lost in worries, she collided into a large man dressed in a black cheongsam. He glowered over her with slanted eyes. ¡°What have we here?¡± Then, he eyed her up and down, amused. ¡°A little princess out of fairytale, eh?¡±
¡°S-sorry,¡± stammered Sakura.
¡°She¡¯s not from around here,¡± said a second man, shorter, with a toothy grin. ¡°She¡¯s Japanese.¡±
¡°What¡¯s she doing prowling in the back allies at this time of the night dressed like that?¡± said the first man.
They spoke in slurred Cantonese, but Sakura found that she understood the gist of what they were saying. Lingering effects from the spell Syaoran had cast on her years ago, perhaps.
Sakura tried to bow and quickly dash around them, but the second man grabbed her by the wrist. ¡°Where do you think you¡¯re going, princess. Come have some fun with us.¡±
¡°No, please let me go!¡± Sakura said, trying to snap her wrist away.
¡°She looks no more than a high schooler,¡± said the first man. ¡°But those eyes. I think the boss is going to like her.¡±
¡°The Black Dragon?¡±
¡°No, dumbass, I¡¯m talking about Zian.¡±
¡°But the Golden Leopard¡¯s not really our boss,¡± muttered the shorter man. ¡°Yet.¡±
¡°The Black Dragon hasn¡¯t been back in half a year—what¡¯s he been doing in Japan for all this time? He abandoned the Triads, I tell you. He¡¯s a coward, he knows Wu Zian will end him if he sets foot in Hong Kong again. So choose your allegiance wisely—many gangs have been currying favor with the Leopard—it won¡¯t hurt us to do so as well.¡±
¡°Can¡¯t we have some fun with her first?¡± The second man suddenly peered down at Sakura¡¯s face and yanked her chin up, so close that she could smell his reeking breath. ¡°She¡¯s a cutie.¡±
If she had her Sakura Cards, she would have summoned the Firey on him. Or the Thunder. But she didn¡¯t have her cards. None of her friends were in the country. And Syaoran was with the Great Elder. She was utterly alone.
¡°I guess we can,¡± replied the larger man with a leer, yanking her closer to him. ¡°Hey, girl, we¡¯ll show you a good time.¡±
Sakura was stopped by a third voice. ¡°What¡¯re you two doing here gadding away when I told you to keep an eye on the Li¡¯s quarters?¡±
¡°Zian!¡± The two men bowed, without letting go of Sakura. ¡°What are you doing here, in person?¡±
¡°If I had more useful runners, would I have to be here myself? Have you heard the Great Elder died?¡± asked the man called Wu Zian.
Sakura swallowed hard. Had Syaoran made it in time after all? What if it had been too late?
¡°N-no! When?¡± asked the first man.
¡°Well, he¡¯s as good as dead—he won¡¯t last the night,¡± said Zian. ¡°This is a sign—we¡¯ve got to mobilize our men—any news that the Black Dragon¡¯s returned? I would imagine he would for the funeral.¡±
¡°Well this is our chance to bash his brains out,¡± said the first man. ¡°And take down all the nasty Lis with him—they think they¡¯re all high and mighty when they¡¯re just wannabes.¡±
Sakura had been trying to sink into the shadows to escape the notice of the men—but they were talking about the Li Clan, and she wanted to listen, to catch some sort of news. The man called Zian, unlike his voice, seemed much younger than she had first anticipated—perhaps younger than Li Jinyu. She could tell why his moniker was the Gold Leopard. He had long gold hair that settled loosely over his shoulders and pale brown eyes. At first appearance, he seemed almost graceful and princely, unlike Jinyu who was dark and brooding, but she saw that Zian¡¯s lips were hard and his eyes cold, as if he had a distaste for the world.
¡°We¡¯ve got men posted at the airport,¡± said the first man. ¡°Only Leiyun returned earlier today.
¡°Well, if Jinyu comes, we¡¯ll finish him off,¡± Zian said.
Sakura let out a short gasp.
And Zian turned his catlike eyes on her finally. ¡°And who is this?¡±
Unlike Jinyu, the Gold Leopard seemed to prefer western clothes and wore a white silk blazer over white trousers and a gold leopard print shirt, open at the front. He said, ¡°You have time to flirt around with a girl when the rest of the triads are in a state of emergency?¡±
¡°N-no!¡± stammered the second man—they were clearly intimidated by the younger man.
¡°Green eyes.¡± Zian suddenly bent over and tilted Sakura¡¯s chin, peering into her eyes. ¡°Where have I seen green eyes before?¡±
¡°S-see? We were going to bring her to you!¡± exclaimed the first man.
¡°Humph, bring her back to the den,¡± said Zian. His phone buzzed, and he brought a sleek gold cellphone up to his ears. His brows furrowed down. ¡°What did you say? What do you mean she¡¯s missing? No. Don¡¯t. I¡¯ll come right away.¡±
¡°What is it Zian?¡± asked the beefy man.
¡°That dratted sister of mine. What has she done this time?¡± muttered Zian.
¡°Wait, what about the girl?¡± said the second man, pulling at Sakura¡¯s arm.
¡°Do what you want,¡± snarled Zian, and a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz pulled up to the side of ally.
Sakura didn¡¯t want to stay and figure out what the urgent matter was. She quickly slammed her knee into the man¡¯s side, and yanked her wrist away as he recoiled from the shock. The second man made a grab at her, catching hold of the hem of her skirt.
In a move that Syaoran had taught her ages ago, she elbowed him hard on the shoulder, where she knew it would hurt, and gathered her long skirt and ran down the alley, not bothering to look back. She kept running until she could not hear their voices any longer—without the element of surprise, she was no match for triad members. And these were not simple underlings—she had recognized the crest on the first man¡¯s cheongsam—it was the same as one she had seen back in Japan of men in black who followed Li Jinyu around.
Finally, Sakura paused at a back alley to catch her breath. Cold sweat ran down her spine—she hadn¡¯t realized she had been terrified. Not so much of the mafia, then the prospect of being in a completely foreign country, where anything could happen to her and nobody would know. One year ago when she came to see Syaoran, she didn¡¯t have such fears. But she knew now the cruelty the Li Clan was capable of.
Though it was not the best idea to head back towards the harbor so soon, she didn¡¯t want to stray too far lest she miss Syaoran. Neither had brought with them cellphones. In fact, she didn¡¯t have any cash on her either.
She did pass by a policeman, who frowned at her. She was afraid he might come up to her and start to ask questions, so she ducked around into another alley.
So the triads had an eye on the Li Clan—was Syaoran in danger as well? The Golden Leopard, as they called him, was not unlike Jinyu. But with Jinyu, she felt a sense of codified principle, a quality she also saw in Syaoran and Meilin. With Zian, she hadn¡¯t sensed that straight-laced sense of honor.
For what seemed like hours, she walked along the port listening to the lull of the ocean laced with the occasional whizzing of cars in the streets above. As time passed, she was soothed slightly by the sound of waves crashing upon the shores.
And she realized the Unicorn, black coat camouflaging with the darkness around, kept silent watch. So, she hadn¡¯t been entirely alone after all. She smiled slightly at the Unicorn, who had kept in hiding. The Unicorn gave her a look as if stating, ¡°Silly Card Mistress, did you really think any harm will befall you while I was by your side?¡±
The sky was lighter, gray dark clouds high overhead. It was slightly chilly, and she drew Syaoran¡¯s jacket closer around her shoulders. Her lids were heavy, but she could not doze off. Her toes and fingers were numb. She sat on the limestone wall, overlooking the harbor, in what seemed like the longest night of her life. This time, she was not going anywhere.
There¡¯s nothing else I can do for him at a time like this.
The only indication that timed had passed was the first fishmongers appearing on the docks, heading to their boats bobbing up and down in the sea. They took no notice of the pale girl in a crinkled pale rose dress, long skirt tangled between her legs like some strange forlorn princess stranded in the midst of the Hong Kong harbors.
Instead, they hauled in their anchors and cast their nets, like every other morning of the week.
Sakura clutched Syaoran¡¯s jacket closer around her shoulders, eyes heavy, ready to close, but she couldn¡¯t sleep. After her narrow escapade from the mafia, she could not let down her guard.
And through the smoky fog, as silver light pierced through the horizon, she saw a sole figure walking slowly to her.
¡°Syaoran.¡± She sat up from the wall, realizing for the first time her legs were cramped, needles prickling up from her feet to her knees and thighs. She stumbled towards him. And when she glimpsed his ashen face, her voice locked in her chest.
He stared at her with those wildly forlorn eyes that shifted from gold to the color of deeply brewed jasmine tea.
¡°He died. He was smiling.¡±
It was the first time in all the years she had known him that she saw his amber eyes moisten. He quickly turned his back to her, to face the gray-cast harbor.
He looked so lonely standing with his stooped shoulders, she stepped behind him and wrapped her arms around him, placing her head against his broad back. He flinched, but she tightened her arms.
For a while, he stood, without speaking, without moving, only feeling the strange warmth from the seemingly frail pair of arms that encircled him. But it was as if these pair of arms was the only things keeping him standing, that if they let him go, he would crumble away.
He felt wetness seep into his back.
¡°Why are you crying?¡± he croaked.
¡°For your sake. Because you won¡¯t,¡± she replied softly.
He clasped the cold, trembling fingers that clenched his chest holding them to his heart. And slowly, his breath slowed and the wrangling knots within his stomach eased as the crimson sun lifted through the clouds and tinted Hong Kong a dusky rose.
Some time later, though it took all his will power to say it, he told her slowly, ¡°I have to get back to the Elders.¡±
¡°I know,¡± said Sakura.
¡°It might take several days, perhaps weeks.¡±
¡°The Great Elder, even in his poor health these past years, has been a great pillar here. Now that he is dead, it¡¯s going to be even more dangerous because the Li Clan no longer has a stable, strong leader,¡± said Syaoran. ¡°Even back in Japan, it¡¯ll be dangerous. So be extra careful.¡±
He was still watching her with his bloodshot eyes. They both realized it. If they turned away, they did not know with certainty if they would be able to see each other again. They only held the conviction that they would definitely see each other again.
¡°I realized after futilely trying to run away from the Clan that I wasn¡¯t going to be able to defeat it by running away.¡± Syaoran was staring off into the distant red horizon. ¡°I¡¯m going to have to fight the Clan, and to do that, I have to become more powerful.¡±
She knew this day would come someday, but she had been hoping it would not be for a long time.
Syaoran took her hands and turned to face her. Sakura stared at him. Here Syaoran was, his chestnut brown hair swept back in the wind. His amber eyes were looking directly at her. It was at this moment that Sakura realized that Syaoran had left behind childhood forever. He had become an adult, and he was going to leave her behind.
¡°I¡¯m sorry I¡¯m not able to return with you,¡± he said. ¡°But as soon as everything is sorted out, I promise I¡¯ll return to Japan, to you.¡±
She didn¡¯t hold out a pinky. Because the look in his eyes said all. Instead, he reached over and clasped her right hand in his hands.
¡°I¡¯ll be waiting,¡± she said with a small smile. He didn¡¯t let go of her hand, so she slipped her hand out. ¡°You can go back now. Your family will be waiting for you.¡±
He shook his head. ¡°You go ahead. I won¡¯t turn around until I can¡¯t see you anymore.¡± It was the least he could do. He looked over her shoulder. ¡°Take her back safely.¡±
Sakura turned around and saw the Unicorn prod her back gently with his head. Syaoran hoisted her up on the Unicorn¡¯s back.
¡°See you, Syaoran.¡± And she took off. Sakura did not have to turn around. Even without looking, she knew he was standing there on the Hong Kong harbors, staring up at the sky, until she would appear like a tiny speck before disappearing into the clouds.
¡°I¡¯ll be waiting for you, Syaoran.¡± This time, I¡¯m going to be here for you.
Seijou High School¡¯s class 1-2 Monday morning was somber as their freshman year drew to an end.
¡°What¡¯s with this dismal attendance rate?¡± remarked Yanagisawa Naoko, staring at the slew of missing seats.
Akagi Aki yawned, sprawled over his desk like a corpse. ¡°I¡¯m never ever going to get married. Who knew weddings would be such a big fuss.¡±
Just the previous day, his older sister Arima had married her long-time boyfriend and childhood friend, Tamemura Asuma, who was recovering from a horseback riding accident. Though Asuma¡¯s spine was not completely healed yet, doctors hoped that special rehabilitation would help him regain most of his mobility. While the newspaper critic in him barred him from being a true romantic, he could not help feeling rather misty-eyed seeing his sister walk down the aisle in a bedazzling mermaid-silhouette dress designed by Tomoyo that flared out into a train foams of lace, especially when he saw the way Asuma¡¯s blue-green eyes had lit up as he lifted the veil from Arima¡¯s face.
It was strange thinking Asuma was his brother-in-law now. Arima had called earlier that morning to say that they arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
¡°Well, we pulled together everything in less than a week, which is quite impressive,¡± remarked Mihara Chiharu, staring at her bandaged fingers from poking herself with a needle while beading Tomoyo¡¯s ridiculously elaborate wedding dress design for Arima. She and the other girls had been recruited by Tomoyo and sewn so many beads that they never wanted to see a Swarovski crystal again. But they had also said that during the Star-Crossed musical costume making process last year.
¡°Thanks to Tomoyo-chan,¡± Aki remarked, watching Daidouiji Tomoyo who was staring out the window at the front gates. ¡°Sakura-chan¡¯s not here yet?¡±
¡°Maybe she slept in. She overworked herself preparing for the wedding,¡± said Chang Eron, recalling Sakura in that wispy rose chiffon dress yesterday, that bright smile that lit up her eyes like green lamps. His twin Erika scowled—she had not been invited to the wedding. Since she had never been to a wedding before, she was a bit miffed at being left out.
¡°Li-kun and Meilin-chan are not here yet either,¡± said Sasaki Risa. ¡°And neither is Kai-kun.¡±
Hiiragizawa Eriol leaned over and whispered something into Tomoyo¡¯s ear. She nodded. ¡°Yes, I heard from Meilin-chan already.¡±
Naoko sighed. The usual crew was being mysterious again—she hated being left in the dark, but sometimes, she thought it better than she didn¡¯t know what was going on in Sakura¡¯s mysterious double-life.
Nobody thought it was particularly odd when Sakura walked into class in the middle of second period, even though her blouse was half untucked and her hair was a nest.
Luckily it was Mizuki-sensei¡¯s history class, and she merely nodded and let Sakura take her seat.
¡°Hoe! I overslept,¡± said Sakura to her desk mate Eron, smoothing her ruffled golden-brown hair.
¡°Figured,¡± murmured Eron. ¡°And you looked practically presentable as a bridesmaid yesterday. But you¡¯re just an ogre dressed nicely, that¡¯s all.¡±
Sakura was too tired to even scowl at him.
To everyone¡¯s surprise, Mizuki Kai also showed up to class a little while later, sunglasses on, but without his normal careless grin. They watched him actually take notes through math class. Until today, nobody knew he owned a notebook.
During lunchtime Tomoyo bent over and whispered to Sakura, ¡°Have you heard already? Apparently the Great Elder passed away last night. Meilin-chan told me.¡±
Sakura blinked slowly. ¡°That¡¯s terrible. Is she going back to Hong Kong?¡±
Kai stared down at Sakura. ¡°I thought you might have heard from Syaoran already. No, her mother told her it¡¯s safer to stay here. And I agree.¡±
¡°Is Meilin doing okay?¡± asked Tomoyo.
¡°Yeah. I finally got her to sleep a while.¡± Kai looked somber. He finally had to hypnotize her so that she would get some rest—but he was worried she was going to get sick from the way she had paced about the whole night.
Tomoyo frowned. ¡°How about Syaoran-kun?¡±
Eron glanced at Sakura. ¡°Has anyone seen him since the wedding?¡±
Sakura convened a meeting of the Alliance of the Stars at their unofficial headquarters at Eriol¡¯s parlor after school. Even her brother and Tsukishiro Yukito managed to sneak away from the hospital for an hour during dinnertime—luckily the Clow Reed mansion was a ten-minute drive away from the hospital.
Her voice was shaky as she addressed the group, minus Meilin. ¡°Some of you might have already heard, but the Great Elder Li Renshu passed away yesterday. Meilin has been updating us on the situation.¡±
¡°It¡¯s about time that old geezer died,¡± stated Akizuki Nakuru, still in a tight-fitting white nurse uniform. She had gotten a ride from Kinhoshi Hospital with Touya and Yukito. ¡°How long has he been Great Elder anyway?¡±
Kinomoto Touya, who still hadn¡¯t quite figured out what the big fuss about the Li Clan was, stated, ¡°So, how does this affect us?¡± He had visited Syaoran¡¯s house some seven years ago, and frankly, he had been impressed by the sheer size of it. But he had been more than distracted by the Brat¡¯s four sisters, each one more annoying than the next. It wasn¡¯t until he was employed at the Kinhoshi Hospital that was sister hospital with the Li Group Medical Center that he realized that Li Syaoran was a Li of the same Li Group, a top Hong Kong conglomerate that dabbled in banking, hotelier, hospitals and trade.
¡°It¡¯s a boon,¡± stated Kero-chan. ¡°The Li Clan is unstable, so this would be an opportunity to take back the Sakura Cards while Leiyun¡¯s back in Hong Kong.¡±
¡°What about the Brat?¡± asked Touya.
¡°Meilin said that her mother told her Syaoran¡¯s already in Hong Kong. He will be there for the funeral,¡± said Kai slowly. ¡°I¡¯m sure he will be back though once it ends.¡±
¡°You can¡¯t be too sure though,¡± remarked Eron, chin on his hand. ¡°With the Great Elder, the supreme head of the Li Clan gone, there will be an internal power struggle within the Clan.¡±
¡°What makes you say that?¡± asked Miho.
Eron replied, ¡°The Li Clan as much as it has wielded absolute power in Hong Kong for the past decades has earned many enemies. That also means that many have been waiting for its power to shake. And now that the Great Elder has died and the Clan is internally divided, it is at its most vulnerable, and those who would attack would attack.¡±
¡°Is Syaoran-kun in danger then?¡± Tomoyo asked.
¡°Not as much as Li Jinyu, perhaps,¡± murmured Kai.
¡°Why is the Black Dragon in danger?¡± asked Nakuru, bemused. ¡°I would think he¡¯s the one who will be best able to protect himself out of any of them.¡±
¡°Whenever there is political and economic struggle, it¡¯s always the underground organizations that move first,¡± said Kai. ¡°The Li Group stocks have plummeted on the Hang Seng Index. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange was in a panic this morning. The triads have tolerated young rookie Jinyu because he had the almighty Li Clan backing him. But truthfully, it is ridiculous that the head of the Hong Kong triads should spend so many months abroad, even for seeking alliances with the Japanese yakuza.¡±
¡°How do you know so much inside information on the Li Clan, Mizuki-kun?¡± Touya said, now with a small frown.
¡°You¡¯re talking to someone who has plotted on how to take down the Li Clan for a good five years.¡± Kai looked over the rim of his sunglasses at Eron. ¡°Though that doesn¡¯t beat someone who has planned his entire lifetime and several generations before to beat the Lis, I guess.¡±
¡°If you hate the Li Clan so much, why are you dating one of them? And why haven¡¯t you done anything?¡± Eron asked.
¡°Figured after extensive plotting that I didn¡¯t need to do anything—that it would self-destruct by itself,¡± replied Kai with a sardonic smile, one that always made Sakura shudder slightly.
It wasn¡¯t like Sakura didn¡¯t understand the grief Kai had with the Li Clan. She had pieced together that the Li Clan¡¯s meddling and her grandfather and uncle of the Hoshi Group had conspired together to take down Tanaka Keisuke. As a ploy to steal the Mirror of Truth. Perhaps Kai too secretly thought the Li Clan deserved to fall. ¡°Kai-kun, what happens if the Li Clan loses control over the triads?¡±
¡°Bloodshed, most likely,¡± said Kai. ¡°There are many who hold grief over the Li Clan, yours truly included. When the Li Clan held power of the big three—politics, economy and the underground world—it was invincible. But any sign of it imbalance would be prime opportunity to strike.¡±
¡°If the Li Clan falls apart, it¡¯s nothing it doesn¡¯t deserve,¡± remarked Eron darkly. ¡°The Clan has caused much pain to many over generations. Didn¡¯t they try to kill your father?¡±
¡°But I don¡¯t get it—if the Li Clan wanted to kill our father, why didn¡¯t they?¡± Miho asked. ¡°We were always told that otou-san had a car accident in Hong Kong. That wasn¡¯t true, was it?¡±
Kai said shortly, ¡°When father was in Hong Kong on a business trip, an assassin from the triads was supposed to take him down. But that assassin didn¡¯t.¡±
¡°Why?¡± Eron asked.
¡°I don¡¯t know. Father won¡¯t say, so there¡¯s no way we would know the details—I don¡¯t know if it¡¯s because of his memory loss or because he doesn¡¯t want to recall but he said he doesn¡¯t remember the events of that day,¡± replied Kai. ¡°We were not the only victims. There are many others who would want to take down the Li Clan, or what has become of it, given the chance.¡±
¡°Did Leiyun take the Sakura Cards back to Hong Kong with him then?¡± asked Miho.
¡°No,¡± Sakura said. ¡°They¡¯re still here.¡±
Yue stated, ¡°They may have been able to take the Cards, but it would be pretty hard to take them out of the country, away from Sakura, so long as she remains their mistress.¡±
¡°They shouldn¡¯t have been able to take it in the first place, if Sakura was doing her job properly,¡± drawled Nakuru, who was rewarded with glares from the rest of the Alliance.
¡°I didn¡¯t think that they¡¯d just leave the Sakura Cards here,¡± remarked Miho.
¡°Well, it¡¯s an important indicator,¡± stated Mizuki Kaho to her cousin.
¡°That they would be back to get the cards,¡± Kaho replied. ¡°And that Sakura will be in danger when they do—because they will want a means of taking the Sakura Cards out of the country eventually when they return to Hong Kong.¡±
¡°Syaoran-senpai¡¯s not really on their side though,¡± said Miho. ¡°Right? I mean, he¡¯s eventually going to help out Sakura. Right?¡±
¡°Who knows,¡± said Suppi-chan somberly. ¡°Will he really let the Li Clan fall apart when it¡¯s most vulnerable? I have not yet seen a Li Chosen One that could live to abandon his name.¡±
¡°Well, I think this is all just preemptive fuss about the Great Elder¡¯s death,¡± yawned Nakuru. She yanked the white nurse cap off her long red-brown hair and sank into the couch, turning on the television. ¡°We haven¡¯t heard any news from the Li Clan all day.¡±
¡°They will be still until the funeral¡¯s over,¡± replied Suppi-chan, practically. ¡°They¡¯re not barbarians, you know, feuding when the body¡¯s not yet cold.¡±
¡°So what¡¯s our plan then, Sakura-chan?¡± asked Kero-chan.
Sakura sat cross-legged on the floor, fingering a thick leather-bound book that she had picked up from Clow Reed¡¯s study.
¡°This might be the perfect time to counterstrike and steal back the Sakura Cards, when Leiyun and Syaoran are distracted by Li Clan affairs,¡± Miho pointed out.
¡°If you overlook the fact that the Black Dragon and Kara Reed are guarding them,¡± said Kai.
¡°Wow, a day when sister suggests stealing and brother turns it down,¡± muttered Suppi-chan, turning on the television set as if deciding arbitrarily the meeting was over.
¡°Look, it¡¯s Arima-san at a press conference in New York,¡± said Tomoyo, looking up from her design sketchbook at the television screen, the one jarring electronic devise in an otherwise Victorian parlor.
¡°Why are they on national evening news? Turn up the volume,¡± said Touya.
The news cut to Akagi Arima and Tamemura Asuma seated side by side in a midtown Manhattan hotel press room and blinding flashes of photography went off.
Arima bowed her head and looked up at the cameras. ¡°Hello everybody. Greetings from the Big Apple. I apologize for the sudden notice. I have a very important announcement to make today.¡±
She glanced at Asuma, and he put his hand on top of hers. Arima held up her hand to reveal the heart-cut diamond ring. ¡°Asuma and I got married.¡±
There was a buzz amongst the reporters.
¡°And I am not in New York to begin shooting for a new film. In fact, I am here to take a break from acting.¡±
There was an even bigger gasp from the reporters.
When Asuma opened his mouth to speak, Arima shook her head. Asuma was not used to speaking at press conferences. She looked up at the reporters. ¡°Tamemura Asuma has been recovering from a horse racing accident and will be in rehabilitation here in New York. And I will be studying acting and English.¡±
¡°So you are not permanently retiring from acting?¡± called out a reporter.
¡°No, as I said, I am taking an indefinite break. I love acting. But I think there are areas I can improve on. I want to break into Hollywood someday. I think now is the time for me to prepare myself to become a more versatile actress in the future.¡±
Another reporter asked, ¡°When will your return then to acting?¡±
¡°I do not know yet,¡± said Arima. ¡°It can be one year, two years, maybe ten years. When I feel like I am ready, I will return, more humble, dedicated and ready to start from the beginning again.¡±
¡°There have been rumors that it¡¯s a shotgun wedding?¡± stated another tabloid reporter.
Asuma looked like he was going to curse out the reporter, but Arima squeezed his hand. ¡°Well somebody was bound to ask. No, I¡¯m not pregnant. I married Asuma because I wanted to. I knew I wanted to marry Asuma since I was seven. No, we did not meet through a business arrangement recently--we were childhood friends. The records are all out there—we used to be junior horse racing rivals. You all know my childhood racing career.¡±
¡°When will you be having children?¡±
Arima blushed and glanced at Asuma before mumbling, ¡°We do want children someday. I don¡¯t know if we are quite ready at the moment.¡±
The reporters seemed to have gotten over their initial shock and some called out, ¡°You two make a wonderful pair!¡±
Others called out to Asuma, ¡°Hurry up and recover so that you can compete again!¡±
A few male reporters grumbled, ¡°How can you take away our nation¡¯s sweetheart?¡±
But they were drowned out by the congratulations.
And the press conference cut off to be replaced by an entertainment announcer panel.
¡°Well, that was a quite unexpected turn of events,¡± said the female announcer. ¡°The nation¡¯s top actress Akagi Arima and horse racing champion Tamemura Asuma have gotten married over the weekend and moved to New York.¡±
The male announcer interjected, ¡°We recall during the Tokyo Cups, Tamemura Asuma got into a racing accident and reportedly had serious spinal injury and may be leaving the sport for good. Some medical experts doubted he will ever be able to even walk again. But call it miracle, or the power of love, it seems that he has been recovering well. I hope best for his rehabilitation in the United States.¡±
¡°Will he be able to race again?¡± asked the female announcer.
¡°It is too early to tell,¡± replied the male announcer. ¡°But all the same, I hope the best for the two in their marriage. And maybe we will see Arima-chan star in a Hollywood film in the near future.¡±
A commercial of Arima¡¯s latest perfume endorsement flashed on. Arima, in a brilliant violet satin dress, dashed down a flight of red-carpeted stairs. She pushed through golden doors into a garden where a white stallion awaited, then hopped on with grace befitting a former junior horseback riding champion, long purple skirt trailing behind her like foam. A lavender-shade crystal perfume bottle zoomed on. She whispered in a low voice, ¡°Dash—catch me if you dare.¡±
¡°It just shows how those two really are national stars,¡± said Sakura, dazed. ¡°With no privacy at all.¡±
¡°But she is a pro,¡± said Kai.
¡°She has Asuma-san by her side. I¡¯m sure he was great support for her,¡± said Tomoyo.
¡°I¡¯m surprised that they did a press conference in the first place,¡± remarked Nakuru. ¡°I thought they wanted to keep things private.¡±
¡°I heard from Aki-kun it was last minute—they tried to go to New York incognito but I guess reporters spotted them in the airport, and there was a big uproar and all sorts of rumors stating that Arima-san had a Hollywood love call, that the Asuma-san and Arima-san eloped, or that she was pregnant,¡± Miho said.
¡°So they held an official press conference to squash all rumors,¡± Tomoyo murmured.
¡°It¡¯s tough being a celebrity,¡± remarked Miho.
¡°Yeah,¡± nodded Kai. When his friends stared at him, he shrugged. ¡°What? Kaitou Magician is a celebrity in his own right, with a fan club, press coverage, calendar and collectible figurines.¡±
Eriol spoke up finally. ¡°So, Sakura-chan, have you decided what you are going to do next?¡±
¡°Wait,¡± replied Sakura. ¡°Wait and see.¡±
Everybody collapsed over their chairs.
¡°Why in the world did you convene an emergency meeting for then?¡± asked Nakuru.
¡°To tell you what I think of the situation,¡± said Sakura staidly. ¡°It¡¯s the Li Clan. The Li Clan won¡¯t collapse so easily. And secondly, Syaoran-kun is Syaoran-kun. I¡¯m sure we can have some faith in him. He¡¯s probably going through a hard time right now, so we¡¯ll wait and see.¡±
¡°Well, you are right about that,¡± Kai remarked. ¡°Meilin¡¯s having a tough time around, but once she gets better, we can ask her more about what¡¯s next for the Li Clan.¡±
Some, like Eron and Touya looked dubious, but majority of the Alliance members nodded in consent.
Most of the Alliance members had headed off home, but Sakura stood in Clow¡¯s study, staring out the window. Less than 24 hours ago, she had felt the warmth of Syaoran¡¯s arms around her as they soared through the night sky on the Unicorn on their way to Hong Kong, unsure if they could make it on time. If she closed her eyes, she could still see the silhouette of his shaking shoulders as he gazed out into the misted Hong Kong horizon. Her hand pressed against the cold glass of windowpane could feel his clammy fingers covering her own, drawing them against his chest. She jumped when the door to the study swung open.
She saw the gleaming white reflection in the glass of the window. ¡°Yue-san.¡±
¡°You are too trusting, Card Mistress,¡± said Yue. ¡°Though I admire that quality of you, to see the good in everybody, you also do not see the coexisting darkness in people.¡±
¡°Syaoran is strong.¡±
Yue gazed at Sakura. ¡°Humans are frail creatures.¡±
¡°But I thought humans are more resilient than anything else.¡±
¡°It is human nature to wish, to desire, to dream,¡± he replied. ¡°That makes humans frail.¡±
¡°But it also makes us strong.¡± Sakura stared up at Yue, lips set in a firm line.
¡°Perhaps. At least, most start out that way, even the Great Five at one point was strong and pure.¡± Yue paused. ¡°But why are there so many deranged sorcerers? Clow Reed was no exception.¡±
¡°Then, Yue-san, do you believe I am capable also of becoming one of those deranged sorcerers?¡± asked Sakura.
If Yue was peeved by her question he didn¡¯t show it. ¡°Magic has often been considered the vehicle through which wishes can be carried out. Yet, oddly enough, throughout history there have been very few magicians who seem to be happy.¡±
¡°I find it hard to believe that Clow Reed was indeed as miserable as everyone portrayed him to be,¡± Sakura said. ¡°He created so many beautiful things in his lifetime.¡±
¡°You¡¯re right in a sense. Level One magicians are cable of breaking the limitations of humankind. Someone as powerful as Clow Reed was able to break the barriers of chronology, dimension and mortality.¡± Yue had a distant look in those pale eyes. ¡°While it is impossible for a human to gain immortality, high-level magicians are able to gain a much-extended lifespan. Some who choose to can live on for hundreds of years without aging.¡±
Sakura blinked. ¡°How is that possible?¡±
¡°You have already learned that the mortal body is limited. For regular human beings, their lifespan ends when their mortal body fails them. But it is different for those with an extreme level of power within their body.¡± Yue¡¯s tenor voice was chill. ¡°Even when the mortal body fails them, their powers can sustain them so long as those powers are in tact. It is the same concept as ghosts. What are ghosts? They are usual spirits who have a strong desire or will which keeps them from passing on to the next place along with their mortal body.¡±
Her brother had told her something similar before, perhaps a belated attempt to placate her unreasonable fear of ghosts.
¡°Humans have a finite amount of time to live and carry out their desires. That is the beauty and tragedy of mortality. That¡¯s why the greatest sacrifice of all is time. On the one hand, it is admirable to be able to live life striving for one¡¯s desire in the limited span of a lifetime. On the other hand, it is pitiable when one realizes that lifetime was not enough to actualize the dreams. Thus, most magicians do not seek to extend their lifeline unless they have a strong motivation to do so. Unfinished business, one might call it.¡± Yue paused. ¡°Or an obsession, as was in Clow Reed¡¯s case.¡±
¡°To bring back one from the dead.¡±
¡°You mean Mizuki Mika-san. But he did not succeed.¡±
¡°No, he did not.¡± Yue paused. ¡°Am I not a testament to his failure? Young Edward Cleau Reed after losing his loved one tried many different experiments in bringing back the dead. He finally came to the realization that ¡®Clow Reed¡¯ in his lifetime will never be able to be reunited with his love.¡±
It was strange thinking of the young Clow Reed, someone who had not been much older than herself when he lost the love of his life. ¡°What sort of experiments do you mean, Yue-san?¡±
¡°Humans are greedy creatures. It is natural for humans to desire what cannot be attained.¡± Yue¡¯s lips curled into a thin grimace. ¡°And Clow Reed knew he was powerful, and he was semi-successful in recreating a mimicry of Mizuki Mika¡¯s soul in the form of ¡®Yue.¡¯ However, quickly, Clow realized that a soul replica was not enough to recreate the person he loved. To recreate the human being, there are three basic components: a vessel—the physical body, the soul and the heart—or as humans call it, memories. However, Yue was not even a successful replica of the soul though the body and memories can be replicated whether through means of illusion or imitation. The paradox is, while the soul is the most difficult to replicate, it is the only entity that has a possibility of naturally being reproduced.¡±
¡°You mean reincarnation?¡± whispered Sakura.
Yue nodded. ¡°The trouble with reincarnation is of course is that there is no guarantee that two souls will be reborn again into the same generation and dimension and even then, be able to meet and connect.¡±
¡°So you mean that there really is no means for the dead to be brought back to life,¡± she murmured.
¡°Yes, there has been one cardinal rule since the beginning of time, and that is one who is dead cannot be brought back to life.¡± Yue¡¯s pointed face was expressionless. ¡°Clow Reed at one point finally came to the realization that even though he was the greatest sorcerer in the world, there was no way that his wish to be reunited with his lost love would be possible. A reincarnation may share the same soul as one deceased, and if lucky, sometimes the soul retains some imprints of the memories of a former lifetime. However, a reincarnated person has a new body, hence cannot be the same person.
¡°So, Clow gave up on his ¡®immortality¡¯ and chose to reincarnate himself into two beings, Kinomoto Fujitaka and Hiiragizawa Eriol, firstly so that he would no longer have the burden of being the greatest sorcerer in the world, which was the impediment from him finding happiness, and secondly, to double the chance that at least one half of his soul will be able to find happiness. If Hiiragizawa Eriol the half-soul container that retained the memories of Clow Reed does not find the reincarnation of his loved one, at least let the other half of his soul, the one that is completely separated from Clow Reed find happiness. And Kinomoto Fujitaka did.¡±
Sakura murmured, ¡°By meeting my mother?¡±
¡°In a sense, Amamiya Nadeshiko can be a soul that can be considered similar to that of Mizuki Mika¡¯s. Not same, of course, but similar. To look at things objectively, it is not surprising that having lost his mother, Kinomoto Touya was attracted to Mizuki Kaho, the reincarnation of Mizuki Mika. Neither is it surprising that Touya later was drawn to ¡®Yukito,¡¯ one whose soul imitated that of Mizuki Mika. Yukito once asked if you were not drawn to him because he reminded you of your father. More technically, he should have reminded you of your mother. Similarly, you probably are drawn to Mizuki Kaho because she too should resonate with your mother.¡±
Sakura opened her mouth to protest. It all made sense to her why Mizuki-sensei and Yukito-san always triggered a similar response in her, and they felt so similar to each other. It was more than that they both were users of the power of moon. They had similar souls, close enough that six years ago, Cerberus, who had spent nearly a century with Yue, had been confused between the two of them when Yue was still in concealment.
¡°I know you don¡¯t like to think humans are so simply predesigned, that our hearts are so predictable. You want to believe in free will.¡± Yue stared at her with ice-blue eyes. ¡°You once asked me why Clow Reed chose you as his successor over Syaoran, a descendent of his mother¡¯s line. You¡¯re right. Clow Reed did not select you to become the new master of the Clow Cards randomly. It was inevitable. He became the greatest magician of the East and West because he shared the bloodline of both a Li and Reed. His lost love was of the Mizuki line and for various complications regarding the Chang line, as you already know, it would not be wise to make a Chang the successor to the Clow Cards. So the descendent of an Amamiya, the only arbitrary line, was the only logical choice to choose as the new Card Master.¡±
¡°An Amamiya started it, so let it end with an Amamiya,¡± murmured Sakura more to herself than to Yue. ¡°Yue-san, do you have such a strong wish as well?¡±
¡°No. I am not human, hence I do not have desires. I exist for the will of my master,¡± replied Yue. He closed his silver eyes. He knew it and his mistress knew it as well, that he spoke a lie. Once, he loved Clow Reed, a cruel yet caring master whose eyes were always set on a goal beyond human attainability. He was created to be this twisted magician¡¯s plaything, yet he had been treated as a companion. And though he was but an incomplete vessel, not human, not beast, one who shouldn¡¯t have emotions or dreams, he once had a wish. Once, long ago, he had a wish. He wished he was human.
And Clow Reed had done his best to grant Yue that wish. When Clow died, he had given Yue a chance to be reborn into the vessel of ¡°Tsukishiro Yukito,¡± a new chance to love and be loved in return. The personality of ¡°Tsukishiro Yukito¡± was completely opposite of that of Yue. Yet, vexingly enough, there were traces of Yue¡¯s wish from a long time ago. Yukito was caring and warmhearted. Human things make him happy, like bunny rabbits, sweets and flowers, things that Clow Reed, despite his otherwise quirky hobbies, had liked. His blood type, like Clow¡¯s, was AB, and he even donned round spectacles as his former master had done.
Yet, though Clow had done the best he could, it did not change the fact that ¡°Yue¡± was not human. When his new Card Mistress¡¯ power was not strong enough to sustain him, he had begun to disappear. Then, Kinomoto Touya had given up his powers in order for ¡°Yue¡± and ¡°Yukito¡± to survive. But all this, he did not tell his new mistress. Because he knew very well what she would tell him.
¡°You look quite perturbed,¡± Eron remarked to Sakura, joining her on the wooden bench at school the next day during break time. It was his somewhat polite way of pointing out that Sakura had uncharacteristic dark circles under her eyes, as if she hadn¡¯t slept in days.
¡°I think I had my first sort of argument with Yue-san,¡± Sakura replied. ¡°He was angry at me for some reason, but I¡¯m not sure why.¡±
¡°What did he say?¡± Eron asked with a bemused smile.
¡°He said I was too trusting.¡±
¡°And he said that humans are frail, that after time, we all will succumb to our dark sides. That no strong magician can remain pure.¡±
Eron nodded. ¡°Well, he has a point.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t believe that,¡± said Sakura. ¡°I would rather give up my powers before I let it make me become miserable as he said it would.¡±
¡°I¡¯m sure the Great Ones were like you once when they started out, even Chang Ruichi-sama,¡± said Eron. ¡°Maybe especially so for him. All he really wanted was to protect his twin sister, Risa-sama.¡±
¡°I met them once, in the Fantasyland,¡± Sakura said. ¡°Did I tell you that? Ruichi-sama and Risa-sama helped me out when I had to escape Fantasia. They were warm and kind people.¡±
¡°It was your Fantasy. Maybe that¡¯s how you wanted them to be,¡± said Eron with a thin smile.
¡°No, it was complicated. Things were not within my control at all in the Fantasyland,¡± said Sakura. ¡°But I saw everyone. I even saw Ryouta-san and Reiji-san and Eri-san.¡±
¡°H-how were they?¡± asked Eron in spite of himself.
¡°Eri-san was nice and pretty—she looked a lot like Erika, especially the way her eyes sparkled when she talked about Reiji-san. She said she dreamed of living in a house that Reiji-san built and having a family. Ryouta-san was not like what I expected. He was impatient but strong and confident. And Reiji-san, he said that he and Eri-san wanted me to tell you and Erika-chan that he loved you. He called you two his son and daughter.¡±
¡°Would I that were true,¡± said Eron with a half-smile. ¡°And how pathetic I am feeling somewhat reassured of a scene coming out of your disturbed imagination.¡±
¡°It¡¯s not my imagination,¡± said Sakura with a pout. ¡°I still don¡¯t understand how such wonderful, bright people fell into so much darkness. Ruichi-sama and Risa-sama—it¡¯s hard acknowledging that they are the Dark Ones that has brought everyone so much pain over the years.¡±
¡°Perhaps,¡± said Eron, his long lashes cast down. ¡°How much do you know about their backgrounds?¡±
¡°Barely nothing,¡± Sakura replied. Chang Ruichi had been the most elusive out of the Great Five. ¡°What can you tell me about them, Eron-kun? You would know best.¡±
¡°I would start out at the very beginning, but even that is not known clearly. They were the only ones that started out with nothing—they had everything to lose. They were orphans, their father a Chinese seaman, mercenary or convict—nobody knows anymore. Their mother was a Japanese village woman he met perchance that he abandoned when his next project came along. But she still gave them his name, Chang.¡± Eron took a moment to swallow. ¡°There are many versions of the story and even I do not know so far back. But they were riffraff unlike Amamiya Hayashi, who came from a samurai line dating back to the greatest shoguns in Kanto, Mizuki Mayura who came from an ancient line of Shinto priests, Lord Landon Reed, from British landed aristocracy on his father¡¯s side, French noblewoman on his mother¡¯s side, and of course Li Shulin of the notorious Li Clan of Shanghai with imperial connections.¡±
Sakura murmured, ¡°I always wondered how such different people from all over the globe gathered in one place to meet.¡±
¡°It was inevitable,¡± said Eron. ¡°Perhaps Ruichi-sama and Risa-sama felt they met in such different people what they could call a family for the first time. But, that would never change the bond that those two had for each other. There are many things I still don¡¯t understand about Ruichi-sama—but I never doubt the love he had for his twin.
¡°The tragedy of the Great Five all stems down to the same premise. You already know that Chang Risa, twin sister of Chang Ruichi took her own life. At that time, she had been married to Amamiya Hayashi, ring-leader of the Great Five. Chang Ruichi wanted to bring her back to life. While bringing back one from the dead is strictly forbidden, with the joined forces of the Great Five, nothing should have been impossible. The other four refused to bring back Chang Risa, and thus, Chang Ruichi fell into the black arts trying to resurrect his sister.¡±
Sakura couldn¡¯t tell Eron that she had witnessed the very scene on the cliff side when Chang Risa hurled herself into the rapids below after her miscarriage.
Eron¡¯s pretty golden eyes were downcast. ¡°But for every wish you make, you must sacrifice something equivalent in return. And for him, perhaps it was his humanity. Chang Ruichi fell deeper and deeper into black magic in his attempts to bring back Chang Risa. Some theories of bringing back one from the dead include sacrificing lives. He did not hesitate in killing off innocents for the sake of his project. Bloodshed. Disease. Dark magic nobody should have touched. None of the remaining Great Four could stop him. Hence, they joined forces to bring an end to him. It was difficult to kill a great magician. High-level magicians have an accelerated ability to heal, so a regular injury enough to kill a human being was not enough. And Ruichi-sama at that point had delved into dark magic that even the other four had never heard of or even conceived of before.¡±
And Sakura shuddered as she saw the haunted shadow in Eron¡¯s eyes—she wondered how much Eron had explored into that same dark magic to reach where he was now.
But Eron continued, ¡°The only way to properly kill a magician of Chang Ruichi¡¯s caliber was to completely destroy his body. They cast a trap. Mizuki Mayura was sent to lure him, for she was perhaps his last remaining ally. The others laid out an intricate spell to immobilize him—he didn¡¯t have a chance to realize that he had been betrayed. It is said that Mayura burned his body with her fire magic and scattered his ashes so that he no longer had a physical body to return to.¡±
She had not known this—that Mizuki Mayura had been the one to send him off. And Sakura breathed in hard, as if she could hear voices of the distant past.
¡°Why, Mayura—how could you betray me?¡±
¡°I¡¯m sorry, Ruichi, I¡¯m sorry. Please forgive me.¡±
¡°Mayura, I—I won¡¯t forgive you, any of you. I will never let you nor your bloodline rest in peace. Amamiya, Reed, Li¡¦ and Mizuki¡¦ For Risa and my sake, I will never let you go. You will curse the day you ever set eyes on me.¡±
that of course didn¡¯t stop his soul from living on because his hate was that
strong—it will never let him sleep until his vengeance is sought.¡± Breaking
off, Eron saw Sakura¡¯s eyes glistening. ¡°Now what did I do to make you cry
again? Did I say something I wasn¡¯t supposed to?¡± He looked genuinely troubled.
¡°No, it¡¯s not you,¡± said Sakura. ¡°It¡¯s just when the dark forces started to appear in Tomoeda three years ago, before I really knew about the Dark Ones, it was easy to just fight without thinking. I¡¯ve always thought that I was doing right. But the Great One¡¯s histories are so entangled, I do not even know against whom or for what I am fighting for anymore? Are the Dark Ones truly the enemies or were they simply victims also? I don¡¯t know.¡±
¡°Are you talking about the Li Clan?¡± Eron asked, astute as usual.
¡°The Li Clan too. Even Clow Reed,¡± said Sakura. ¡°I never doubted Clow¡¯s intentions and also thought him a kind man of years past no matter what people said of him. But that was me only trying to see what I wanted to see. I know the sorcerer Clow but I always refused to see the man Clow Reed. Like the Alliance of the Stars—it was originally Syaoran¡¯s idea. I thought it might be wonderful to unite everybody, just like the Great Five. But I wasn¡¯t thinking of what this sort of contract, bond, might do to us in the future. I wasn¡¯t thinking of what the purpose of the Alliance was at all. I thought it was simply enough to beat the Dark Ones. But I¡¯ve gotten it wrong. It¡¯s far more complex.¡±
¡°And here, Leiyun comes into the picture as he¡¯s up to no good, separate from the rest of the Li Clan but playing along the game,¡± remarked Eron. ¡°I haven¡¯t been able to pry out of Erika what he¡¯s plotting. Sorry.¡±
Sakura frowned. ¡°I don¡¯t want you in the Alliance to have to spy on what Erika is doing.¡±
¡°And truthfully, I don¡¯t really trust that Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation is up to nothing either,¡± Eron said. Then he stared at Sakura. ¡°In fact I am probably the least trustworthy one of all as a Chang, and you should not be sharing your worries with me.¡±
¡°If I start mistrusting everyone, how will the Alliance of the Stars ever work?¡± said Sakura, closing her eyes. ¡°I am the Card Mistress. It is part of contract that when you join my circle, I will unconditionally trust you.¡±
¡°Even if someone stabs you in the back?¡± whispered Eron. ¡°I might one day. Because the Dark One¡¯s blood flows in me.¡±
Sakura¡¯s evergreen eyes, flecked with shades of emerald and peridot seemed to penetrate into him. ¡°I¡¯m not afraid of betrayal. I have good friends watching my back. But I am afraid of living in fear, fear of my good friends. Eron, I did not give you my trust blindly. You trusted me first, you stepped towards me and for giving me your trust, I am reciprocating it.¡±
And Eron had an uncharacteristically tender look. ¡°Sakura, when I joined the Alliance of the Stars, I knew it was not enough to redeem the pain that the Dark Ones and I myself have inflicted. But one thing I know is that Chang Ruichi¡¯s soul remains restless, and I feel it is my duty to vindicate him, no matter what it takes. I have learned to stand up against him, but it is not enough with me alone to defeat him. If I have a selfish request to ask, that is to let Ruichi-sama and Risa-sama¡¯s souls rest in peace, set free so that they will never curse another born of the Chang line again.¡±
thought you said you never will have children,¡± Sakura said with a slight
¡°Yes, but Erika might want to someday,¡± said Eron.
¡°I promise, Eron, I¡¯ll end the curse of the Dark Ones once and for all,¡± said Sakura, clasping Eron¡¯s hand. ¡°And I¡¯ll make sure justice is brought to them as well.¡±
¡°One more,¡± said Eron, his voice low. ¡°I want to save Erika.¡±
Sakura¡¯s eyes met his levelly, lips curled into a gentle smile. ¡°You know there has always a spot open in the Alliance of the Stars for Erika.¡±
¡°Yue is right—you are too trusting,¡± Eron said, slipping his hand out of hers and pinching her cheek gently. ¡°She used to stick needles into voodoo dolls of you because she despised you that much.¡±
Sakura blinked her pale brown lashes. ¡°Voodoo dolls that you probably made.¡±
¡°Tomoyo-chan would probably like to see them.¡±
¡°You know I¡¯m a horrid artist.¡± Eron grinned. ¡°More ogre than human, I would say, was my creation. Maybe that¡¯s why it didn¡¯t work.¡±
Sakura was surprised to find Chang Erika waiting for her in front of the girls¡¯ restroom before classes started.
¡°What were you and onii-chan talking about earlier?¡± Erika asked.
¡°Why is that any of your business?¡± Sakura replied coolly. Maybe three years ago, Erika might have intimidated her. Not so anymore.
¡°I won¡¯t forgive you for brainwashing him,¡± Erika said. ¡°I don¡¯t know who he is anymore. It¡¯s all because of you.¡±
¡°He¡¯s still the same Eron. He¡¯s waiting for you to open up to him again,¡± said Sakura.
¡°You think you know everything, that everyone¡¯s got your back.¡± Erika glared at Sakura. ¡°But you¡¯re just a foolish coward.¡±
Sakura just smiled at Erika, as if to aggravate her.
¡°You are waiting for him.¡± Erika tossed back her violet curls. ¡°I¡¯m talking about Li Syaoran. You know better than anyone, this is the moment that he has been training for all his life.¡±
Sakura stared at Erika levelly. ¡°He will come back.¡±
¡°What, to your side? Do you seriously think one of Syaoran¡¯s ambitions will be content with just being the Chosen One, the puppet of the Li Clan?¡± Erika laughed out loud. ¡°No, he has much higher aspirations.¡±
¡°And they are?¡±
¡°If you¡¯re so close with him, shouldn¡¯t you know as well?¡± Erika shrugged. ¡°He was just biding his time at your place till Kinomoto Touya and Hiiragizawa Eriol comes up with a way to restore his powers. He was just using you guys.¡±
¡°Erika, don¡¯t you see? It doesn¡¯t matter if he is using me. It doesn¡¯t matter if his ultimate goal is to become the Chosen One or the Great Elder or the strongest magician in the world. I believe in him. I trust he¡¯s going to do the right thing and choose the best path for himself and those around him.¡±
¡°But what if that decision in the end will turn him against you?¡± She gazed at Sakura with her feline hazel eyes.
¡°If that is his decision, then I will face him to my fullest. If that decision leads him away from me, then I will try my best to get him to stay.¡±
¡°In other words, you are willing to mold yourself to him. Why?¡±
¡°Even now, I¡¯m trying to understand my feeling towards him,¡± said Sakura. ¡°But that feeling of wanting to be there for him never has stopped, not once these past six years.¡±
¡°Even when you dated onii-chan.¡±
¡°Eron knew. That is why he ended things with me,¡± said Sakura.
¡°Stupid onii-chan.¡± Erika stared at Sakura. ¡°I will never forgive you for breaking his heart.¡±
¡°I care for Eron too,¡± said Sakura.
¡°Like you care everyone in your silly Alliance of the Stars,¡± snorted Erika.
¡°You know Erika, there will always be a spot for you as well,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Eron is waiting for you too.¡±
¡°Are you kidding me?¡± Erika snapped, taking Sakura by the shoulders and shaking her. ¡°I¡¯m the Dark One. Do you think I will wag my tail in gratitude and join that pathetic Alliance, all thankful? Just because you brainwashed my brother doesn¡¯t mean you¡¯ll get me.¡±
Sakura reached over and grabbed Erika by the wrist. Her jade green eyes met Erika¡¯s gold-flecked eyes. ¡°You are not the Dark One. You are you. And you have no reason to side with Li Leiyun either. I don¡¯t know what he promised you, but the Li Clan should not be trusted.¡±
Erika shook off Sakura¡¯s grip. ¡°Are you in any position to say that, seeing your beloved Syaoran is at the core of the Li Clan? He will turn his back on you when it comes to the vital moment—just like all the Lis before him. You¡¯ll see.¡±
Chang Erika still found the Li mansion¡¯s basement creepy, refurbished to Kara¡¯s whim with its medieval tapestries hanging from the stone walls, the dark oak round table in the center scattered with Tarot cards and a yellowed skull leering at her with its hollow sockets.
And in the center of the table was the Sakura Cards contained in its pink and gold tome. Leiyun wasn¡¯t here, and there was no one to stop her. Just once, she would like to see the book up close. If she became the Card Mistress, would that make her powerful enough for Eron to return to her, and have the likes of Sakura and Syaoran bow down to her?
¡°Don¡¯t touch it,¡± growled a voice from the dark.
And Erika jerked back as the Black Dragon stepped out from the shadows—he must have been working in the adjoining chamber, where he spent most of his time when he was at the house.
Erika scowled. Why wasn¡¯t Li Jinyu in Hong Kong with the rest of the Li brood for the Great Elder¡¯s funeral? She hated those odd ruby-red eyes, always watching her every move, as if he was suspicious of her. Or maybe Leiyun made him spy on her.
Kara Reed, her pale purple eyes gleaming in the candlelit chamber, said, ¡°Don¡¯t mind him. It¡¯s for your own safety.¡±
¡°What sort of spell did Leiyun cast?¡± Erika asked. In all the months she had known Leiyun, he had been very careful not to perform any magic of consequence in front of her.
¡°His type of spell,¡± replied Kara. ¡°Your fingers will likely burn off if you try to pass the barrier. Or it might be the one that makes your skin fester and melt off to the bones—I haven¡¯t cared to test it myself.¡±
Kara glanced at Jinyu, standing with a deep frown cast over his brows, rendering him positively frightful.
She couldn¡¯t help recalling the conversation Jinyu had on the phone yesterday with Leiyun. She had seen Jinyu argue back at Leiyun for the first time. Jinyu had wanted to return to Hong Kong, for the Great Elder¡¯s funeral. ¡°I wasn¡¯t there for his passing. I should at least be there for the funeral rites.¡±
But Leiyun had said coldly over the phone, ¡°Don¡¯t be foolish, Jinyu. You can¡¯t come back. You know there has been unrest in the triads ever since the Great Elder¡¯s passing. If you come back, it¡¯s a suicide mission.¡±
¡°Then it all the more my duty to return,¡± Jinyu had replied. ¡°I am the head of the Hong Kong triads. I have to protect my subordinates and remind the insurgents who is their boss.¡±
Leiyun had laughed out loud. ¡°Don¡¯t you get it, Jin? Without the Li Clan¡¯s backing, you¡¯re nothing. If you come back, you will be killed. And I can¡¯t have you dead yet.¡±
If Jinyu was furious, Kara couldn¡¯t tell. No, Jinyu wouldn¡¯t get mad at Leiyun over some trivial words. Because Leiyun spoke harshly because he wanted to protect Jinyu, and Jinyu knew that. Jinyu, the fearsome Dragon King, was trapped in Japan. If he returned to Hong Kong, he would be killed. But if he remained here, he would soon enough be overthrown. There was no solution in sight.
With a grunt, Jinyu walked upstairs, perhaps to go on his nightly prowl.
When she was sure Jinyu was out of earshot, Erika asked, ¡°And why didn¡¯t the Black Dragon return to Hong Kong with the others?¡±
Kara tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ears, studded with a skull-shaped earring linked by chains to two hoop earrings. ¡°Well, someone¡¯s got to guard the Clow Cards while Lei¡¯s gone. And protect us gals.¡±
¡°I can take care of myself very well, thank you,¡± snapped Erika.
And Kara blinked her long pale lashes. ¡°And even if you can¡¯t, I can guard the house plenty well. But don¡¯t take it personally. It¡¯s engrained in him, you know.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t get it—how can he be head of the Hong Kong triads and still be expected to protect the clan?¡±
¡°It goes hand in hand. Make the criminals and underground society your own. And the triads tolerate him even though they know he is not one of them, though he¡¯s been with them for years. They know that worse comes to worst, the Li Clan¡¯s backing could come very useful.¡±
¡°If he¡¯s such an important member of the Li Clan, why is here, not at the funeral?¡±
Kara gave a tight, knowing smile. ¡°It¡¯s probably tougher on Jin than anyone else, you know. Because Li Renshu was perhaps the closest thing to a parent that Jinyu ever had.¡±
¡°Does that mean Jinyu is an orphan?¡± asked Erika with a frown.
¡°I don¡¯t know a whole lot about Jin, since he keeps pretty mum all the time, and Lei doesn¡¯t really talk about the clan too much.¡± Kara paused. ¡°Some say Jinyu¡¯s the son of a concubine and one of the minor Li businessmen and shunned by the clan, that his mother ran off with another man when Jinyu was a child, abandoning him. Others say that his mother was actually a main branch Li. But when she got pregnant with some nobody¡¯s child, the family disowned her and struck her name from the Clan records. They took her child though. And she allegedly committed suicide not long after.¡±
¡°So, what is the truth?¡±
¡°Who knows, he never talks about himself,¡± replied Kara with a careless shrug. ¡°But Lei likes to take riffraff likes you and me under his wings for some odd reason.¡±
¡°Who are you calling riffraff?¡± Erika scowled.
¡°You¡¯re an orphan, and your father was the Dark One,¡± said Kara, reaching over with her long forefinger and lifted up Erika¡¯s chin. ¡°He caused the death of his own brother, Amamiya Nadeshiko, Li Ryuuren, everybody in their circle.¡±
Erika glared at Kara. ¡°I don¡¯t have any memory of Chang Ryouta—it was Uncle Reiji who raised us when we were born. Until he died.¡± Then, Eron and she had been sent to the orphanage. They never heard any news about Chang Ryouta, and he made no effort to reach out to them if he were alive. That was until they turned seven and the Dark Ones told them that Chang Ryouta¡¯s estate had been left under their name. That they no longer had to stay in the orphanage.
¡°Well, my father was a thief and my stepfather was an alcoholic debtor. He beat my mother and me. I thought of taking the pistol to his head in the middle of the night, and still regret I haven¡¯t,¡± Kara said. ¡°If that is of any solace to you.¡±
Though she had never liked the older girl, Erika had to admit that she grudgingly admired Kara for truly not caring about anything in the world.
¡°All we know for sure about Li Jinyu was that he was passed from relative to relative as he grew up. And if Leiyun did not take him under his wings, he would have grown up to be a nobody.¡± Kara¡¯s thin lips curved. ¡°But, Leiyun chose Jin to be his right hand man for when he ascended to power in the Li Clan. And there is nobody more loyal to Leiyun than Jin.¡±
¡°And here I thought Leiyun had been blackmailing Jinyu into servitude,¡± muttered Erika. She truthfully doubted Leiyun would be able to beat Jinyu in a fight—Lei seemed utterly fragile and helpless next to the Black Dragon.
¡°But the Great Elder is a wilier fellow, more so than people give him credit for,¡± said Kara. ¡°If you think about it, he always intended to have Syaoran, his favorite protégé Ryuuren¡¯s son become the Chosen One. But he groomed Leiyun, the older, trusted figure alongside as the spare Chosen One, just in case. After all, Syaoran was but three when his father died, and it would traditionally take another fifteen years at least before he would have been ready to become the Chosen One. But as Syaoran grew older it became evident that he was a talent that comes along once in a century. And then suddenly, Leiyun became a threat. Leiyun was sixteen and some of the Elders were eager to appoint him as Chosen One. But if he becomes Chosen One, Syaoran¡¯s position would be lost. So they decided to get rid of him.¡± Kara paused.
The Leiyun with the impermeable aqua eyes and sloth-like smile that Erika knew could very well be threatening. But to be abandoned by his family—how much could she trust Kara¡¯s words?
¡°It¡¯s the same with Jinyu and Meilin. The Great Elder trained Jinyu to become Clan Protector. But he also had Meilin as a backup. If Meilin showed more potential than Jin, he would not have hesitated to switch her out. That is why he made sure Jin was placed as the head of the Hong Kong triad. It¡¯s a double-edged sword. It makes the Li Clan more secure, and it also makes it easier to eliminate Jinyu. But, lucky for Jinyu, Meilin, though talented, was more interested in becoming Syaoran¡¯s bride than the Clan¡¯s Protector.¡± Kara smiled.
¡°I¡¯m not interested in the happenings of the Li Clan,¡± said Erika. ¡°But if what you say is half true, the Great Elder is some demon worse than any of my kin.¡±
¡°He is called the Demon Master for a reason,¡± said Kara.
Erika shuddered. ¡°And yet you all insist on calling my lineage the Dark Ones.¡± She stared at Kara Reed¡¯s smiling face. ¡°So what happens if Meilin decides she wants to be Clan Protector?¡±
¡°Well, she¡¯ll obviously have to prove she¡¯s better than Jinyu and beat him in a classic old duel,¡± replied Kara.
¡°That will never happen,¡± snorted Erika.
¡°People may surprise you,¡± remarked Kara offhandedly.
¡°She¡¯s not in your book of favorites,¡± said Erika. ¡°Maybe it¡¯s because you and Kai dated?¡±
¡°I wouldn¡¯t exactly call the relationship we had dating,¡± replied Kara.
¡°Well, you loved him?¡±
¡°Why so nosy all of a sudden?¡±
¡°You don¡¯t seem like the type of person who will easily fall in love with anyone,¡± Erika said.
¡°I¡¯m not.¡± Kara stared up at the gray-blue sky through the parlor window, the amethysts set in heavy cross earrings catching the light.
It dawned upon Erika as she glimpsed a vulnerable expression on Kara¡¯s face for the first time. ¡°You still love him?¡±
¡°What does it matter now? They say love is all about timing. I missed my timing, so be it.¡± Kara closed her eyes.
¡°He still cares for you.¡±
¡°Of course. Though he will never admit it, he has a deeply caring, devoted heart.¡± Kara fiddled with the silver skull ring on her forefinger. ¡°Too bad I didn¡¯t see it back then. Or perhaps I did and it suffocated me.¡±
¡°How did you miss your timing?¡± Erika asked.
She didn¡¯t think Kara would answer, but the older girl smiled crookedly. ¡°I hurt him terribly. He was always there for me when I needed me. But I wasn¡¯t there at times he needed me most. Twice.¡±
Erika frowned. She had always thought that Kara and Leiyun must have a romantic link. But Kara¡¯s feelings for Mizuki Kai were far deeper than she had expected. Well, they said first love never really dies. And yet, she had not in 16 years experienced a first love, though she had dated dozens of boys. Even what she felt for Mike Kant, months afterwards, seemed futile, worthless. For the first time, she felt jealous of Kara and even her own twin brother for knowing love and loss.
¡°I never thought I¡¯d be the one saying this, but you¡¯ve got to get out of bed,¡± said Kai, dragging the duvet off of Meilin¡¯s hunched form on the bed.
¡°Go to school,¡± mumbled Meilin, as Kai drew the curtains and sunlight streamed into the room. ¡°Too bright.¡±
He forcibly dragged her out of bed. She protested slightly but he carried her out of the room over his shoulder, as if she was a sack of rice.
¡°Are you going to wash up, or do you want me to do it for you?¡± asked Kai as he deposited her in the bathroom tub.
Meilin stared at him blankly.
¡°I¡¯m going to strip you then,¡± Kai said, reaching over to the pajama button at the nape of her neck.
She slapped his hand away. ¡°Gross. Get out. I¡¯m taking a shower.¡±
The warm trickle of water did clear her head, and Kai even had prepared some burnt toast and soggy scrambled eggs for her afterwards. It was the first time he had cooked for her, and everything tasted like sawdust anyway. And then he ushered her out of the door and to the parking lot.
¡°Where are you taking me?¡± asked Meilin, glaring at Kai who had snapped the seatbelt across her chest into the front seat of his black convertible.
¡°You¡¯ve been cooped up indoors for days. You need to get out and get some fresh air,¡± said Kai.
¡°I don¡¯t feel like it,¡± mumbled Meilin into a mouthful of wet black hair that she hadn¡¯t combed after showering.
Finally, Kai parked his car. He hopped out and went to her side of the door and opened it. ¡°Get out.¡±
She did not have enough energy to protest. And she did.
Her loose ebony hair whipped back in the ocean breeze. A tangy, salty smell she had grown up with filled her nostrils.
¡°He¡¯s just on the other side of this ocean,¡± Kai said. ¡°Even if you can¡¯t be there physically, he will know you are watching from here.¡±
She was wearing a long-sleeved black dress, as she had been since three days ago when her mother had called to tell her that the Great Elder had passed.
Today was the day of the Great Elder¡¯s burial. He was going to be cremated, and his ashes scattered into the Hong Kong seas, just like his wife, Yunhua, who died some twenty years ago. He was finally joining her after all those years.
The sound of the waves crashing upon the shore, rhythmically, with the seagulls crying overhead was just like home.
¡°I should be there,¡± said Meilin. ¡°I was one of his last pupils. Me and Syaoran.¡±
¡°You know it¡¯s dangerous for you to return home. You said if you go back, they might not let you return,¡± said Kai. ¡°
At least Syaoran had made it back in time, she heard from Aunt Ielan, to see the Great Elder one last time. He must be seeing off the Great Elder this very moment. Her throat clenched. And what was the last word she had said to the Great Elder?
Yes, she had snuck in to see him because he was not allowed to have visitors. She had clung to his frail arms as he lay in his canopied bed.
¡°Great Elder, you¡¯ve got to do something to save Syaoran. I don¡¯t know what Uncle Wutai and the Elders are doing to him, but there¡¯s got to be a way for Syaoran to be able to use his sword arm again.¡±
From his bed, the Great Elder had smiled up at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling into what seemed like hundreds of tiny wrinkles. ¡°Still hung up over your fiancé?¡±
Meilin sighed. ¡°He¡¯s not my fiancé anymore. I¡¯ve gotten over that. But there must be a way to protect Syaoran.¡±
¡°You¡¯re the one that will protect the boy, my Meilin,¡± said the Great Elder.
¡°How can I protect him when I am this powerless? They don¡¯t even let me see him,¡± she had replied with a long sigh.
¡°Haven¡¯t I been training you all these years? Of course you have the power to protect him and those that you love, if you believe in yourself.¡±
Such gentle words were uncharacteristic of the Great Elder. Had he known that would be the last time she would see him?
¡°You did promise to show me the Tiger Claw move,¡± said Meilin. ¡°The one that you didn¡¯t even teach Syaoran.¡±
¡°I¡¯ve taught you many things that I haven¡¯t taught Syaoran, and many things to him that I didn¡¯t teach you,¡± he responded. He began to cough. She was about to call Aunt Ielan when he stared up at her with twinkling amber eyes. ¡°So, Meilin, what is this I hear about a new suitor? When were you planning to tell this old man? Apparently he¡¯s a thief. One that stole the Li Clan treasures.¡±
¡°W-who told you that?¡± she had stammered.
¡°Li Clan women choose men that make them cry. Don¡¯t make the same mistake,¡± said the Great Elder, almost chuckling to see Meilin wrinkle her nose. ¡°Bring him to me next time, and we¡¯ll set him straight.¡±
Why hadn¡¯t she tried to visit the Great Elder more often? Had she ever thanked him for everything he had taught her? Had she ever told him that not only did she respect and admire him, but that she loved him?
¡°You can cry if you want to, you know,¡± said Kai. ¡°I won¡¯t look.¡±
¡°Why are you trying to be so nice to me?¡± Meilin lashed out. ¡°I¡¯m not your little sister or something. You don¡¯t have to feel sorry for me.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t feel sorry for you.¡± Kai stared at her. ¡°He was old. He lived a fulfilling life. And he will be remembered as a legacy in the Li Clan for years to come. And he passed peacefully, in a bed, surrounded by loved ones. What more is there to ask for?¡±
And Meilin was silent. She wondered if Kai was thinking of Leon Reed, his former mentor.
¡°If you were my little sister, that¡¯s what I would have said,¡± Kai continued. ¡°But because you are not, I will say, I can feel your pain. I know how much you cared for him, in your own way. I too have lost a mentor-figure in my life before. And though I could not tell anyone or share my pain then, I wished I could.¡±
She knew he was telling the truth, for she had seen him grieve at the nameless tombstone. She had seen him struggle to hold back tears standing before the grave. She had yearned for him to tell her what was weighing him down and yet feared to share his burden.
His lean yet strong fingers brushed her cheeks ever so softly, not quite in a caress but just enough to make her aware he was there. They were fingers quite unlike Syaoran¡¯s which were rough and calloused from years of training with swords. These were magician¡¯s hands, smooth except for the very tips, which were hard, wily yet gentle. The unusual tenderness touched her a little. Maybe he is here to stay.
¡°I knew he was ill for a very long time.¡± Meilin stared up at the blue sky, so bright and clear when she wanted to hide behind the gray shadows of the clouds. ¡°In a way, I sensed he was hanging on for Syaoran¡¯s sake. To wait till Syaoran was ready to take over. Last year, when the Great Elder fell ill, I panicked. I didn¡¯t know what would happen to the Clan. Syaoran was so broken, not just because he couldn¡¯t use his arm and he had lost his magic, but he was mentally, spiritually broken. For the first time in my life, I doubted him.¡± Meilin paused. ¡°I hated myself for doubting him. But the Syaoran then could not fight against the Elders, against Uncle Wutai. The Syaoran then could not lead the Clan.¡±
¡°But now, he can?¡±
looked at Kai. ¡°Yes, I believe so.¡±
¡°And you would support him.¡± Kai paused. ¡°You would be his Protector.¡±
¡°If he asked me to be so, I would gladly,¡± said Meilin. ¡°That was what I was training for all my life.¡±
¡°What about the Alliance of the Stars?¡±
Meilin smiled. ¡°I¡¯ve always been a place holder. My position here will end once Syaoran returns.¡±
¡°That¡¯s not true. You will always have a position in the Circle.¡±
¡°Yes, you¡¯re right. I will always have a position in the sidelines, and I will always be supporting Sakura from the sidelines,¡± said Meilin.
He couldn¡¯t help asking, ¡°But what if they choose opposite sides? Which side would you choose then?¡±
She looked at him staidly. ¡°Both Syaoran and Sakura are important to me, and I will do what ever is in my powers to support them.¡±
Because he didn¡¯t want to distress her further by pointing out that may someday be impossible, he gave her a teasing smile. ¡°So I come in only third still?¡±
¡°You¡¯re aiming too high, Kaitou Magician,¡± said Meilin, glancing at Kai¡¯s handsome profile. Leave it to Kai to be able to cheer her up at a moment like this and take her mind off matters home.
¡°It¡¯s always more difficult for the people who are left behind more so than the people who leave,¡± said Kai, looking out at the ocean. Or maybe, it never did cross Meilin¡¯s mind that Syaoran might not one day choose the Alliance of the Stars. ¡°I don¡¯t really agree with everything that the Li Clan has done, but Great Elder has left great successors to carry on the Clan like you and the Syaoran. And he will be remembered and venerated by many for decades to come. I don¡¯t think he could have asked for a more fruitful life.¡±
She turned to Kai, as if she was seeing him for the first time. ¡°Hey Kai. Thanks. For being here for me.¡±
He only smiled crookedly, and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, forcing her to lean her head against his broad shoulder. She breathed in the musty leather scent of his jacket mingled with spicy, citric cologne that seemed to cling to her body as well. She didn¡¯t even mind that he distractingly ran his fingers over her tangled long hair, as if trying to smooth out the knots—he did it so carefully, as if he treasured every strand.
Maybe it was all the tragedy he had dealt with in his life. Maybe he was just being a dutiful boyfriend. Maybe he was just darn more considerate than she had ever thought him to be.
But at this moment, she felt nothing but love and gratitude for this person standing beside her right now. And she thought the Great Elder would approve.
Erika nearly jumped out of her skin as a black shadow passed through the hallway outside the Li mansion parlor. Leiyun was not back yet, and Kara had been cooped up in the basement chambers reading Tarot cards.
The figure paused, staring into the light streaming into the hallway from parlor. Amber eyes fixed upon the violet-haired girl staring up at him in a cream-colored cotton nightgown that came to her knees.
Erika glanced up at Jinyu, taking a closer look at his ashen face. A black blazer caped his shoulders but underneath, she could see his right shoulder was hunched.
¡°Jinyu-san, are you injured?¡±
He didn¡¯t reply and tried to brush past her.
¡°Wait, let me have a look,¡± she said, hazel-gold eyes narrowed.
¡°It¡¯s nothing,¡± mumbled Jinyu, wincing ever so slightly at her touch.
¡°You Lis don¡¯t have any sense of self-preservation, do you?¡± said Erika, grabbing Jinyu by the arm. She felt wetness and looked up at him. ¡°Your sword arm is bleeding heavily! This won¡¯t do.¡± She pulled him over to a couch.
He stared up at her with slanted eyes.
No, he wasn¡¯t glaring at her. He was questioning her. ¡°Let me take a look,¡± said Erika resolutely. He tried to tug his arm again, but she pressed him down on the seat again. ¡°I know what I¡¯m doing—I was once a candy striper you know.¡±
She knew where Wei kept the first-aid kit. She washed her hands then tied her hair back from her face. She propped Jinyu on the couch, and though normally he might have resisted, he seemed to weary to protest.
First she dabbed the dried blood off of Jinyu¡¯s forehead. He didn¡¯t have a concussion, it seemed. He flinched ever so slightly when she tried to roll up his sleeves. A little hesitantly, she said, ¡°If you don¡¯t mind, Jinyu-san, I think you will have to remove your shirt so I can take a look at your injury.¡±
Erika watched Jinyu clumsily reached over with his left arm to unbutton his shirt collar, unable to bend up his right arm.
¡°Let me do it,¡± she said, leaning over and unhooking the clasps of his cheongsam, from his neck down to his waist. She had to help patients before when she was forced to volunteer at Kinhoshi Hospital with the journalism club in junior high, but she realized her fingers were shaking. Get a grip. This is a patient. He has to be treated. She carefully peeled off the sleeves as not to disturb his injured arm. She blinked.
A majestic black dragon lacing around his wrist to his shoulders was tattooed on both his arms, and if she didn¡¯t notice the deep gash on his upper right triceps which continued across diagonally across his chest, she would have liked to examine the details more carefully. It was not a shallow flesh wound, and Erika grimaced at the salty smell of blood filling the room. She wanted to ask him how he got hurt like that. It looked like someone had tried to gouge out his heart with a saber and failed miserably. ¡°You were just going to walk around bleeding like this?¡±
¡°I didn¡¯t notice,¡± was his stoic reply.
¡°You only have one body; you must take care of it,¡± said Erika, shamelessly quoting what her own twin had often told her. ¡°A broken heart can be healed, a lost soul can be reincarnated and battles lost can be fought again. But you only have one physical body, and you have to cherish yourself a little more even though you seem to think that the Li Clan owns your body.¡±
As she prattled away, more out of nervousness than anything else, she elevated his arm on an Italy-imported embroidered brocade cushion and pressed on the cut with a cloth till the bleeding ceased. Then she applied some antiseptic ointment and took a deep breath. ¡°The cut on your arm¡¯s too deep. I¡¯m going to have to stitch it.¡±
Erika¡¯s eyes widened. She had never stitched up a wound before. ¡°Are you sure you don¡¯t want to go to the hospital?¡±
¡°You said you what you¡¯re doing.¡±
Because she didn¡¯t want to admit she actually didn¡¯t, she boiled a needle in hot water and threaded it with black surgical thread she found in the emergency kit. Did he notice her hand was trembling? She took a deep breath. The first stitch was worst, as the point of the needle pierced through his flesh. But she had watched the doctors sew up deep wounds and knew how to make simple interrupted stitches, neat and lined up as to prevent scarring. And he didn¡¯t flinch even though her heart dropped every time she pulled the needle through the skin. Finally she snipped off the long end of the thread then bandaged his triceps tightly.
It was more difficult to bandage across his chest which wider than she had thought, and there was the embarrassing moment where she had to reach around him almost in an embrace as she wound the gauze across his chest. She found herself staring at his deep collarbones. Before she could feel heat creep up to her cheeks, she tucked the ends of the bandage in. ¡°There, all done!¡± she announced.
Jinyu looked down and examined his right arm, then lifted it and put it down again.
¡°You can get Li Jingmei-sensei to have a look at it later, but it¡¯s important to stop the bleeding for now,¡± said Erika. ¡°The cut across the chest is not too deep, luckily.¡±
¡°Jingmei¡¯s in Hong Kong.¡±
Of course, with the rest of the Clan. ¡°Well, try not to use that arm too much, and elevate it a bit when you sleep. Go get it properly checked up in the hospital tomorrow.¡± Before, she had been so intent bandaging him up, that she had not paid attention to him. But now, she felt oddly awkward sitting in the room with him. Her favorite nightgown was splattered with his blood, drying into rusty brown streaks.
She pointed at the black dragon tattoo up his arm. ¡°I was extra careful so that the wound won¡¯t leave a scar—or else your tattoo might get marred.¡±
Jinyu stared down at his arms and at the winding tattoos.
¡°Is that some sort of symbol from the Li Clan? Or is it related to the mafia?¡± asked Erika. Then she laughed nervously. ¡°Or maybe you¡¯re not supposed to speak about it?¡±
¡°They¡¯re protection seals.¡±
¡°I see.¡± Erika glanced around the room nervously, unsure where to place her eyes. It had not been a good idea to draw attention to his bare body. His shoulders were broader than any other guy she knew, and his body was covered in tiny scars, battle wounds of his path to becoming the lord of the Hong Kong underworld, undoubtedly. ¡°Do you need help with your shirt?¡±
He shook his head and pulled on his black shirt and buttoned up to his neck. His dragon tattoos were covered again.
He looked up at her strangely. ¡°Thank you, Erika.¡±
¡°You actually know what my name is?¡± Erika smiled slightly. It was strange having the Black Dragon call her first name. Just like that. He did not bother with honorifics and made it sound foreign.
Mizuki Kaho was proud of her class for passing their freshman year final exams with flying colors. Sakura did much better than expected. Kai did worse, as if he intentionally answered just enough questions to pass. She walked into the study to spot a silvery head bent against the Tudor window, deep in thought as she had often seen Eriol.
¡°You are worried for your Card Mistress,¡± remarked Kaho. ¡°Because of what happened last time the boy left to Hong Kong.¡±
Yukito¡¯s eyes were shielded by the glare of his glasses catching the light. ¡°She will be all right,¡± he said. ¡°Because she is Sakura.¡±
¡°But Touya is worried. He doesn¡¯t want a repeat of last year,¡± said Kaho. ¡°But I told him the Sakura now is much stronger than before, that he has nothing to worry about.¡±
¡°I think I know Sakura better than you—I¡¯ve been by her side for the past eight years.¡±
¡°Correct me if I am mistaken, but I¡¯ve always thought it, ever since our archery competition six years ago, that you seem¡¦rather hostile towards me,¡± remarked Kaho. ¡°Even when you and Touya came to London, and now that we are both in the Star Alliance.¡±
Yukito had never been anything but smiling and polite to her whenever they met, so it took someone with as uncanny intuition of Mizuki Kaho to have sensed that animosity. ¡°I wouldn¡¯t say hostile.¡±
Kaho tucked a strand of long auburn hair behind one ear. ¡°Since we have so many mutual acquaintances, I find it odd that we still are not better acquainted with each other.¡±
¡°That is true,¡± said Yukito.
¡°We have many similar interests as well. Archery, math—your favorite subject is mathematics, is it not? I used to be a substitute math teacher though I ended up teaching history.¡±
¡°I hear you are an excellent teacher from Sakura,¡± said Yukito. ¡°And Touya too. After all, you taught his class shortly when you were a teacher in training. As you said, we have many mutual acquaintances and interests. After all, we were similar enough that luckily your presence completely masked mine in the days before Yue¡¯s judgment, and Syaoran and Sakura never suspected who I really was.¡±
¡°Does my power of the moon repel you as it did for Syaoran?¡± Kaho asked, bemused.
¡°Well, like does not always attract like,¡± Yukito replied with a smile.
¡°That¡¯s a pity. But you know you can ask me the question you had always wanted to ask,¡± she said, her marigold eyes staring into his marigold eyes.
¡°And what is that?¡±
¡°How much of me is you, and how much of you is me,¡± replied Kaho. ¡°Yue was created to mimic the soul of Mizuki Mika. How much of your heart is your free will?¡±
¡°And you. You are her soul¡¯s reincarnation,¡± said Yue, silver-blue eyes glimmering.
¡°That is what I¡¯ve been told,¡± said Kaho, staring at the figure standing before her with long silver hair, and magnificent feathered wings like an archangel. ¡°What makes a human a human?¡±
¡°The body. The soul. The memories. The heart,¡± murmured Yue, more to himself. ¡°And the name.¡±
¡°Ruby Moon once told me that she was created by Clow Reed to physically resemble Mizuki Mika,¡± said Kaho. ¡°And you were to resemble her soul.¡±
¡°Do you remember your past lifetime?¡± asked Yue.
¡°Brief glimpses, very vaguely,¡± said Kaho. ¡°More as in dreams than anything else. For I am not her.¡±
¡°Clow Reed was a very cruel man. Perhaps between the three of us, we could have created the perfect Mizuki Mika, the sixteen-year-old girl that Edward Cleau Reed once fell in love with,¡± said Yue. ¡°But perhaps that still would not be enough. We are all fragmented, are we not? Because there is one taboo, and that is, you can never bring back one from the dead. So he would never in his lifetime have been content, be happy.¡±
¡°Perhaps you know Clow Reed better, since you have spent many decades with him. I have never met him,¡± said Kaho.
¡°And would you say he is happy now?¡±
And Kaho paused for a long time. ¡°Clow Reed split his reincarnation into two so that he would no longer have to bear the burden of being the greatest sorcerer in the world. But I think he had another reason as well. He attached his memories to only one reincarnation. By doing that, he was able to give his other self, Kinomoto Fujitaka a true shot at happiness. And I believe Kinomoto Fujitaka has a peace in heart that Clow Reed nor Hiiragizawa Eriol can never have.¡±
¡°But he was given the same trial that Clow Reed was given. His most loved one was taken away from him,¡± said Yue.
¡°Indeed, Kinomoto Fujitaka was given the same trial, losing the love of his life, but perhaps the Clow Reed in him had learned from mistakes of a past lifetime. Or perhaps, he was lucky because he was left behind with a loving family in Touya and Sakura, who kept him grounded,¡± said Kaho. ¡°Perhaps Clow Reed was a cruel sorcerer. But he was still a loving man.¡±
¡°What makes you say that?¡±
¡°He gave you a second chance as Tsukishiro Yukito, for you to seek happiness,¡± said Kaho. ¡°You are not wrong in saying that because Clow Reed is your creator, you have an unbreakable tie to him. But Yukito¡¯s heart is Yukito¡¯s heart. Clow gave you the choice to accept the new card master, to love, to live. Eriol told me you were furious at him when he first reappeared in front of you. But you chose to forgive him.¡±
¡°Did I have much of a choice? He had filled my spot already,¡± said Yue dryly. ¡°In order to for me to move on. But I have always wanted to meet you. The reincarnation of the one that I was created to resemble,¡± said Yue.
¡°And I, you. Because I truly believe that there were many who loved Clow Reed but no one as much as Yue did. And he knew that too. Because you were the only one who knew the real Clow.¡±
¡°Who is gone forever.¡± Yue sighed.
¡°You know, we share some mutual interests,¡± said Kaho from the doorway. ¡°But we are not very much alike at all.¡±
¡°No, we are not,¡± he replied with a faint smile as she walked off down the hallway to join Eriol in the parlor. The woman that Clow Reed had reincarnated himself to meet. If he were human, perhaps he would have envied her.
With a sigh, Yue walked towards the back of Clow Reed¡¯s study, where once, another lifetime ago, he had spent many evenings talking with Clow, hearing stories of strange places overseas, sometimes watching him read, or doze in his great leather and mahogany chair, always watching him. Without Clow, there was no Yue.
He swung the chair around, revealing Sakura curled into a tight ball, nose buried in a book.
¡°Sorry, I didn¡¯t mean to overhear,¡± she squeaked. ¡°I was already sitting here, but you and Mizuki-sensei started talking without noticing me, and I thought it would be rude to get up in the middle of your conversation. But I wasn¡¯t really listening carefully—I swear. I was reading.¡±
Yue patted her head. ¡°It¡¯s all right. Though I didn¡¯t want to show you my uglier nature.¡±
Sakura shook her head rapidly. ¡°You keep to yourself so much, Yue-san. I wish you would share things with me. Like you would have with Clow Reed.¡±
With a thin smile, Yue replied, ¡°What makes you think I shared things with that sadistic master of mine? We were never equals, he and I. He was my creator and my captor.¡±
¡°Then what would you talk about with him?¡± Sakura asked.
¡°Everything and nothing,¡± said Yue. ¡°About new cards he would seal, spell ideas, traveling, scheming. Everything except what he really thought and felt. He often talked about death. I think his last decade, he was morbidly interested in how he was going to end things. Sometimes he talked about bringing about ultimate destruction and going out with a bang to be remembered as the greatest sorcerer in the world. Sometimes he talked about going back to his homeland and just fading away from existence. Sometimes, he pleaded to me to kill him and end his long misery. But most times, he was very content, more so than I had seen him ever before, more reclusive than ever. He spent lots of time gardening, was kinder to Cerberus and me, pampering us. Ultimately, we never saw his end because he sealed us before he ever reincarnated himself.¡±
¡°You truly did not know he was going to reincarnate himself?¡± said Sakura.
¡°Ultimately we should have seen it coming—but he never mentioned it before he simply announced it was time for him to die,¡± replied Yue. ¡°Which is why Cerberus and I both felt so betrayed by him. We should have known better. It is true that when I finally figured out who I was, six years ago, I went searching for evidence of his death. Because I could not believe he truly did die. But I knew I wouldn¡¯t find any trace of him, either way.¡±
¡°Why is that?¡±
¡°Because there is too much evil that can be done to the remains of a powerful magician—you already know what can be done with artifacts and relics left by magicians. You can imagine what can be done with the physical remains—the corpse, the bones, or the ashes—in wrong hands,¡± said Yue. ¡°Powerful magicians when they die never leave behind their body—unless they want to be brought back of course.¡±
Sakura suddenly recalled how Syaoran had once told her that his father had died far from home, and that his body had never been recovered. She had thought it tragic—but perhaps, it had been his intention.
¡°What are you thinking of?¡±
¡°Of how Li Ryuuren-san never had a proper burial. Syaoran said that he died for far from home, and they never found his remains,¡± murmured Sakura.
¡°But Li Ryuuren probably intended it to be like that,¡± said Yue. ¡°I¡¯ve see too many cases of remains of an evil sorcerer turning wrong. The Dark Ones a prime example. Though their case is one of their souls remaining long after their physical bodies disappeared.¡±
Eron had told her something similar—how Mizuki Mayura and the others had to burn Chang Ruichi¡¯s body to keep him from returning.
¡°And Sakura, I was wrong to tell you were too trusting,¡± said Yue. ¡°One can¡¯t trust enough. Clow trusted no one, and he was miserable. I think your trust will be all of our salvation.¡±
Sakura blinked up at the silver-haired Yue, who had an unusually gentle smile. ¡°Thank you, Yue-san.¡± And Yukito who had to return to the hospital for duty headed off—and she knew all was good with her and Yue again.
¡°Well, that¡¯s the closest I¡¯ve ever seen Yue admit that he¡¯s wrong about something,¡± remarked Suppi-chan, slipping out of a cabinet.
¡°Suppi-chan!¡± exclaimed Sakura. ¡°You were in here the whole time too?¡± Somehow because she had the power of the moon, Yue, Kaho and her presence had masked Suppi-chan¡¯s moon power.
¡°He¡¯s wrong. The Great Magicians—especially Mayura-sama—kept trusting Chang Ruichi until it was too late. If they learned their lesson earlier, they could have saved generations of pain and treachery.¡±
¡°But why does history portray Chang Ruichi-sama as the evil one?¡± implored Sakura. ¡°The most frightening person is not a person who is cruel and ruthless. It is one who derives pleasure from being cruel and ruthless.¡±
¡°True, Chang Ruichi was a man driven into insanity by vengeance. His heart had been eaten away by the pitch-blackness of desperation and wrath.¡±
¡°But the vengeance was the result of a wish, the same wish as many,¡± said Sakura. ¡°To bring back one from the dead, the taboo. Even Clow Reed was eaten away by the same desire.¡±
¡°Perhaps. But he did not massacre masses of innocent lives. And he certainly did not plant a curse on all the successors of the Great Five.¡± Suppi-chan stared at her with beady back eyes. ¡°What is the purpose of the Dark Ones? As you said, Chang Ruichi had a wish. He wanted to bring back his dead sister who had died from a broken heart. And he wanted vengeance on Amamiya Hayashi and Li Shulin for firstly causing her to die and secondly, refusing to bring her back; he desired justice and to bring to all their descendants the same misery cast upon him and his twin. The eternal curse. So long as the descendants of Amamiya and Li exist, his soul would continuously resurrect.¡±
¡°So to get rid of the Dark Ones, all the existing Amamiya and Li descendants have to die?¡± said Sakura.
¡°Perhaps not all,¡± replied Suppi-chan. ¡°It really depends on Ruichi-sama¡¯s will. I personally don¡¯t see why you haven¡¯t destroyed Erika and Eron long ago. Though I admit Eron might have his uses later on.¡±
¡°Suppi-chan, I can¡¯t have you talk of my friends like that,¡± said Sakura. ¡°Even if you are joking.¡±
¡°I am not joking. What do you take me for? That awful yellow lion-creature?¡± Suppi crossed his black paws. ¡°I¡¯m not a big fan of sugar-coating things. Eriol is far too detached to say anything of use, Yue and Cerberus are blinded by their devotion to you, and everybody else wants to protect you from harsh reality. But I am not in the Alliance because of my allegiance to you—I am because my master Eriol chose to be on a whim. I am probably the most well-read next to Clow Reed on spells and ancient lore and magical history. And the way you conduct business appalls me. You leave gaping holes in your defense everywhere, you make others in the Alliance vulnerable as well. Luckily, you have powerful allies, so you have been able to last till now. You couldn¡¯t do anything when Tomoyo was kidnapped by Leiyun.¡±
Sakura jerked back.
¡°Don¡¯t look so shocked,¡± Suppi-chan stated. ¡°It¡¯s not too late to amend for your mistakes, since thank goodness nothing drastic has happened yet. But remember, Card Mistress, you have a lot of responsibility, I know, which is why you have to be always prepared for the unexpected.¡±
¡°You¡¯re right, Suppi-chan,¡± said Sakura. Kero-chan and Yue would not tell her such things because they were too keen on protecting her. Eriol didn¡¯t because he never meddled unless he had a choice. And Mizuki-sensei was too kind and perhaps not as versed in battles. ¡°But what can I do?¡±
¡°Practice barriers,¡± said Suppi-chan. ¡°It¡¯s a shame that Eron is a better barrier-maker than you are. Don¡¯t you know barriers are the first thing Clow Reed mastered before he delved into the complex stuff? And should anything happen to you, who will be your successor? Clow Reed assigned Yue and Cerberus as Guardians of the Clow—you know that¡¯s why he created them in the first place. Should anything happen to him, Clow designated that Yue judges a successor. Have you given them any such instructions? Oh wait, you lost the Clow Cards to the Brat. Perhaps he would have made a better Clow Master—at least he¡¯s had his priorities straight for all these years.¡±
¡°And of course, powerful magicians have to make sure that they do not leave behind any trace of their existence that can be abused,¡± murmured Sakura.
¡°Yes, it was a careful practice of magicians to make their bodies disappear after death, because much abuse can be done with a soulless corpse of such a once-powerful being. Some went as far as to destroy all their artifacts and belongings.¡± Suppi-chan paused. ¡°But even more abuse seems to result from the soul of a bodiless being. Even those without special powers as mortals can live on as powerful spirits that haunt the human realm—so those who once were powerful can do even more damage.¡±
¡°I wonder if Clow Reed knew that he was going to reincarnate himself all those years,¡± murmured Sakura.
¡°Silly, it was a last resort, couldn¡¯t you tell?¡± said Suppi-chan. ¡°If he could have, he would have ended things with his life as was. But towards the end of his life, he was filled with complete regret. He¡¯d led a miserable existence.¡±
¡°But he accomplished so much.¡±
¡°Sure, he did. As a magician, he was the most innovative, rule-breaking and most sought after being of the century. But as a man, he had failed.¡±
¡°Failed in what?¡±
¡°To find happiness.¡±
The two both jumped when they realized that Eriol had appeared before them without making a sound. ¡°Now, what sort of nonsense is Suppi-chan filling your head with?¡± asked Eriol pleasantly. ¡°Yue told me I¡¯d find you here.¡±
¡°N-nothing,¡± stammered Sakura, petrified at the thought of Eriol thinking that they were talking about him behind his back.
Eriol chuckled. ¡°Clow Reed, I think, would have wanted to end his days in his gardens here in Tomoeda, peacefully. He probably wanted to see his children and grandchildren running about beds of flowers. And one day, he would have just faded away into cherry blossom petals and become one with the earth. Then he would have been remembered as the magician that once was. No burial, or anything too cumbersome. Just his legend to live on.¡±
¡°Then why didn¡¯t Clow-san do that?¡± Sakura paused. ¡°Not to mean—I mean, I¡¯m so glad that you are here, Eriol-kun. And otou-san too.¡± Then she looked appalled. ¡°If Clow-san didn¡¯t reincarnate, I would not have been born?¡±
And Eriol¡¯s eyes twinkled. ¡°No, Kinomoto Fujitaka still would have been born. And if he was born, chances are, he could still have met your mother and had you and your brother.¡±
Sakura frowned. ¡°What about you?¡±
Eriol merely smiled languidly.
There was a shriek that echoed through the corridors of the Li mansion. ¡°Cockroach! Eww! Cockroach! Kara-san, come here and do something about it!¡± Erika jumped onto her bed. She had been staying over at the Li¡¯s since Leiyun left for Hong Kong.
Of course, Kara did not respond—she probably skulking in the basement chamber scouring her crystal ball. And the huge, shiny black cockroach scampered across the floor, towards the bed. She shrieked again. ¡°Get away. Shoo. Get away!¡± This house was filthy since Wei had left—there was no way she was going to stay here another day. ¡°Disgusting!¡±
Then, she heard a loud bang from the doorway. The cockroach had been annihilated by a sizzling bullet and a black stain spread on the cream-and-gold Persian carpet.
¡°Jinyu-san!¡± Erika squeaked, clutching her blanket closer to her nightgown, then stared at the splattered black bug juice on the floor. ¡°You d-didn¡¯t have to shoot the cockroach,¡± she said weakly.
He pulled a trigger again with his left holding a shotgun. A bullet whizzed past her head.
She swallowed a squeal and turned around. Another mashed cockroach was splattered across the floral wallpaper. Wobbly kneed, she jumped off the bed, careful to circle around the dead cockroach on the floor. ¡°I don¡¯t think Leiyun¡¯s going to appreciate having bullet holes in the wall and floor.¡±
He blinked at her with his catlike amber-red eyes. ¡°They reproduce rapidly.¡±
Erika almost guffawed. ¡°Are we really talking about cockroach reproduction at this hour?¡± She was surprised to find him in—he rarely came home at night. Or perhaps, he was not in a condition to go on one of his nighttime escapades as usual. She walked over to Jinyu at the doorway with a frown, cockroaches all forgotten. ¡°Jinyu-san, have you changed your bandages since last night?¡±
Jinyu looked down, as if he had forgotten about the flesh wound. ¡°It usually closes up on its own.¡±
¡°Not if it festers and gets infected,¡± snapped Erika. ¡°You know an injury can last twice as long if you don¡¯t take care of it correctly.¡±
¡°Jingmei gave me some ointment that helps wounds heal quickly.¡±
¡°And did you put some on?¡± Erika asked pointedly. He shrugged. ¡°Where is this magical ointment?¡±
¡°In my room,¡± replied Jinyu.
¡°Well, we¡¯ll go over there, and I¡¯ll help you change the bandages,¡± said Erika.
He didn¡¯t protest, a sign that his arm probably had been in discomfort. She noticed that he had already snuck away the shotgun out of sight and they walked down the hallway to Jinyu¡¯s room. She had never seen inside before, and she had to admit she was the slightest bit curious.
Inside was neat and tidy, with a bed, desk, bookshelf full of Chinese books—nothing remarkable indeed.
¡°I don¡¯t keep jars of pickled ears and fingers that I¡¯ve sliced off of dissidents here,¡± remarked Jinyu.
She turned around, ears hot, as if he had read what she was thinking. By here, did he mean that he kept it elsewhere, like the Black Dragon¡¯s den back in Hong Kong? Since there was no couch in the room, they had to sit on Jinyu¡¯s bed with the first-aid kit—the other option would have been to sit on the floor, and with the cockroach infestation, she wasn¡¯t taking any risks. The ivory sheets were crisp, as if they had not been slept in.
¡°Didn¡¯t I tell you to go to the hospital?¡± said Erika, as she deftly unraveled the bloodstained bandages. To her relief, the gash had not festered, and though it was still an angry red, it seemed to be closing up fairly well with the stitches.
¡°Well, you did a good job.¡±
She tried not to be flattered. She wet some cotton swabs with antiseptic, gripping it with a metal tong and dabbed the wound with it. ¡°It¡¯s going to sting, but bear with me.¡± Then she opened the jar of ointment, Jingmei¡¯s homemade remedy. She smeared on the greenish ointment across the long cut on Jinyu¡¯s arm and across his broad chest. He didn¡¯t even flinch—surely he was used to even worse injuries. ¡°Goodness, what did she put in here—it smells wretched.¡±
¡°Boiled toads and crushed up beetles,¡± murmured Jinyu. When Erika looked like she was about to drop the small pot, he added, almost looking bemused, ¡°It¡¯s Chinese herbal medicine spelled with healing charms.¡±
With a scowl, Erika proceeded to bandage up Jinyu¡¯s arm again, tightly, trying not to stare at his tanned bare chest and chiseled abdomen. Every inch of him was hard muscle. He pulled on a fresh loose black button-down shirt.
¡°Are you sad because the Great Elder died?¡± Erika found herself asking, then mentally chided herself for bringing up a sore topic.
Jinyu looked at her as if he was seeing her for the first time. ¡°What does it mean to be sad?¡±
Erika gazed up at the Black Dragon, perplexed. As if she was the best person to describe emotions about. ¡°I don¡¯t know. Something in your heart feels hollow. You feel like crying your chest feels stuffy.¡±
And he just stared at her with those piercing vermillion eyes.
¡°You have no idea what I¡¯m talking about.¡± She sighed.
He asked her an odd question. ¡°Have you felt sad?¡±
¡°Of course. When I was at the orphanage, and I was in the hospital, I was sad because I was sick and made Eron worry. I was sad when Eron started dating Sakura. No, I was probably just jealous. I was sad when my ex-boyfriend broke up with me. But probably more furious. He hurt my pride.¡± Erika scowled. ¡°I don¡¯t know. You can¡¯t really describe sadness in words because it¡¯s not a vivid emotion but a dull sort of ache. Like, when I am awake at night, and think, it would have been his birthday, and I wonder, why he has not called once since he left to New York. And I realized, my existence was that insignificant to him. Like it has been with any of my boyfriends of the past—they all certainly seemed to find another girlfriend quickly. It¡¯s when I think that onii-chan, the only person I ever cared about, abandoned me and joined Sakura¡¯s alliance. Sorry. I¡¯m not good with words—my brother is. He¡¯s quite poetic, actually.¡±
Jinyu seemed pensive. Or perhaps he was distracted. Finally he said stiltedly, ¡°The Great Elder. He was the first person who accepted me and took me into the Li Clan.¡±
¡°From what it sounds like, he seems like a manipulative old geezer,¡± said Erika. ¡°If he truly cared about any one of you, he would not have died leaving the Li Clan in such a mess.¡±
For a second, his garnet-like eyes flashed. She had made him angry. And Erika frowned. She had been mistaken. Jinyu did not simply venerate the old man, he actually cared for him. The emotionless Jinyu had cared for the Great Elder, who probably also made his life miserable.
¡°I never had anyone I love die,¡± she said. ¡°My mother and father, Uncle Reiji. They all died before I could remember them. So, in a way, I¡¯m glad I don¡¯t have any other relatives that can be taken away except Eron.¡±
He didn¡¯t respond, not that she expected him to.
¡°Why aren¡¯t you at the funeral with Leiyun?¡± Erika dared to ask.
He again didn¡¯t respond.
¡°I heard that there is unrest with the Hong Kong triads. Aren¡¯t you afraid of someone taking over your spot as the head of the triads in your absence?¡± Erika questioned.
¡°I do not know what fear is,¡± said Jinyu.
¡°True. How could you? Fear is only for those who have everything to lose. You¡¯re like me. You have nothing to lose, don¡¯t you?¡± Erika gazed up at him through her long lashes. ¡°There¡¯s nothing I am afraid of because should I tell you a secret? I¡¯m the one who was born with a heart disease. So, there¡¯s no way Eron¡¯s going to die before me. I¡¯m selfish like that. I don¡¯t want to be the one left behind.¡±
She expected him to again stare off at the wall, but his amber eyes were fixed upon her. What was that look? Scorn? Annoyance?
Erika suddenly recalled what Kara had said about Jinyu¡¯s mother either abandoning him or killing herself. Both sounded pretty awful, but no worse than having to grow up in an orphanage. After all, at least he had the Li Clan who took him in. Eron and she had no one. No, that¡¯s not true. They always had each other.
It had been a guess, but perhaps Jinyu had no one. He had always been an outsider in the Li Clan. The Hong Kong triads would stab their king in the back the moment they had a chance. As for Leiyun, was there anyone who could trust Leiyun?
¡°You can stay here,¡± said Jinyu.
Erika stared at Jinyu sharply.
¡°You probably don¡¯t want to sleep in a room full of dead cockroaches.¡±
That¡¯s what he meant. ¡°There are a dozen other unoccupied rooms in this house,¡± Erika replied coolly. That haven¡¯t been cleaned since the 19th century and were filled with cobwebs. ¡°Or I can always go back to my house, you know, couple blocks down. You don¡¯t have to leave.¡±
¡°I¡¯m going out.¡± Jinyu looked out the window. ¡°I have business to take care of.¡±
She watched Jinyu grab a black trench coat with sleeves loose enough to hide his injuries, and head out the door. With a long sigh, armed with swaddles of toilet paper, she returned to her room to clear the massacred cockroaches.
It was startling to see Li Jinyu at school in uniform wearing the sky-blue blazer and a necktie. He looked more out of place than even Kai and Kara at school—at least those two merely looked like teenage delinquents. With his ink black hair tied back in a long, thin ponytail with a narrow red ribbon, Jinyu seemed more like a teacher than a student, more like he stepped out of a 19th century Shanghai than 21st century Tokyo. Where he walked, he seemed to blend in with the shadows, but when he stood still, he was menacing, and students veered away from him.
Erika squinted her eyes. Jinyu¡¯s eyes met hers. He did not avert his gaze as usual. ¡°How is your arm, Jinyu-san?¡± she called out.
He moved his right arm up and down to show her it was healing fine.
It was humiliating thinking how much she had blabbed the other day, on the day of the Great Elder¡¯s funeral. It wasn¡¯t like her at all. But awkward conversation was worse than no conversation.
And it took her by surprise when he walked up the stairs to her. It was the first time he had properly acknowledged her at school.
He spoke. ¡°No more cockroaches, I believe?¡±
¡°No, I think you scared them off the other night,¡± she responded solemnly. ¡°What¡¯re you doing at school? I thought the seniors already graduated.¡±
He looked perplexed. ¡°Makeup exams.¡±
Erika looked aghast. ¡°They made you take those? You, the Black Dragon of the Hong Kong triads?¡±
¡°Try telling the teachers that,¡± said Jinyu with a sigh.
¡°You should go to school in the States,¡± said Erika. ¡°Mi—someone told me that special-talent students are cut all sort of slack.¡±
Jinyu¡¯s slanted amber eyes flickered. ¡°And have you heard from Mike Kant the photographer from New York recently?¡±
How did Jinyu know that she had been talking about Mike last time? Erika smiled crookedly. ¡°I thought you weren¡¯t listening all those times I was ranting.¡±
She recalled, rather shamefully, scolding the Black Dragon back when she had been dumped by Mike, and she had ranted at everybody she could get a hold on, which unfortunately was Jinyu. She had told him something along the lines of, ¡°I know you don¡¯t care one tiny bit about my trivial concerns—I mean why should you? But don¡¯t you think it¡¯s sort of rude to ignore me completely—I¡¯m not asking for sympathy or anything, but at least pretend to listen or something.¡±
Jinyu didn¡¯t walk away. Instead, he stood beside her, not facing her, but staring at the floor. ¡°If you have any questions regarding fighting or need to take somebody out without a trace or blackmail someone, I can help you. But there is not much advice I can give regarding relationships—unless you want an ex-boyfriend assassinated.¡±
Because this was the longest sentence she had ever heard him speak, Erika peeped up at him. ¡°Wow, Jinyu-san, you actually do know how to talk!¡± His voice was low and soft, and he spoke slowly, as if to pronounce words succinctly since Japanese was not his native tongue, yet he had a commanding tone which she had not been expecting from him. But of course. He was the Dragon King of the Hong Kong triads. ¡°I always wondered how you can be mafia boss with so little words.¡±
¡°The former boss once told me that I seem more menacing with fewer words,¡± said Jinyu.
¡°Well surely you have more relationship experience than my useless brother or that crazy Leiyun?¡±
Jinyu shrugged, suddenly looking like a teenage boy for a split second. And she realized how guarded he had been around her all this time, especially when Leiyun and Kara were around.
She stood up and turned around, hands crossed behind her back. ¡°I mean, don¡¯t you have girls throwing themselves at you because you¡¯re the Hong Kong triads¡¯ boss?¡±
Jinyu replied, ¡°I have no time for relationships.¡±
¡°You seem to lead an awfully boring life. Even onii-chan and I have some fun in spite of all the Dark Ones business. Haven¡¯t you already reached the top? Now you can relax and enjoy yourself a bit.¡±
Jinyu blinked and stared at her.
¡°Yes, have fun. I mean, what do you like to do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?¡±
¡°I train in my spare time,¡± replied Jinyu.
¡°Do you like books? Video games? Movies?¡± Erika asked. There was no response. ¡°How about baking—Syaoran seems to like cooking, so I figured all Lis must be good at cooking.¡±
Jinyu shook his head. ¡°Never been near an oven.¡±
¡°Playing sports?¡± Erika suddenly recalled Jinyu almost killing a student with a soccer ball and then mentally crossed that out. ¡°Music—everybody likes music. No? Dancing? Snowboarding? Knitting?¡± She raised her arms in despair. ¡°Goodness, you are a boring person. No wonder you don¡¯t have a girlfriend. You¡¯re like an android. You wake up, carry out all your duties, train, and then sleep and start another day.¡±
¡°That¡¯s how I¡¯ve always lived.¡±
¡°And you¡¯re okay with that?¡± demanded Erika.
¡°It¡¯s the only life I know,¡± replied Jinyu.
¡°And you¡¯re happy with it?¡±
Jinyu stared at Erika. ¡°Are you happy?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± she replied. ¡°But I bet I¡¯m happier than you.¡±
¡°Then why are you always discontented?¡±
Erika frowned. She was about to deny it, but it was true that she was always complaining in front of Jinyu. He must think of her as a nagging bother. ¡°At least I do what ever I want to do.¡±
¡°And I do everything I am supposed to do,¡± said Jinyu. ¡°And I am satisfied with things as they are.¡±
¡°Satisfaction is not happiness,¡± Erika stated.
¡°But is not happiness relative to the person?¡±
Now scowling, Erika remarked, ¡°I think your old boss is right—I like you better when you don¡¯t talk.¡±
¡°Well I don¡¯t mind hearing you complain. I may not be able to answer, but I will listen,¡± replied Jinyu. His lips curled into a half-smile before he stood up abruptly and left the room.
It was the first time she had seen him smile. And it did wonders for that mask-like stoic face. Erika turned around, clutching her chest. What a frightening person, the Black Dragon was. She had always thought he was in the shadows of Li Leiyun. But no, he was just suppressing himself. Why?
¡°Good to have you back, Meilin-senpai!¡± exclaimed Miho as the usual crew gathered at the Clow Reed mansion.
¡°Well, it was quiet without you,¡± muttered Kero-chan.
Tomoyo gave her a reassuring squeeze on her shoulder, and Meilin smiled gratefully. She was wearing a long-sleeved black blouse and a black pleated skirt. Her hair was pulled back into her usual pigtails with black lace ribbons.
¡°So, what are the updates with the Li Clan?¡± asked Touya. ¡°Are we in any danger over her?¡±
¡°It¡¯s not news that the Li Clan has been shaken to its core with the Great Elder¡¯s death,¡± said Meilin. ¡°Part of the problem is that the Great Elder did not announce his successor to the Council of Elders before he passed away. Of course, the expected appointment would have been my Uncle Wutai, who is currently functional Head of the Li Clan and is acting as interim leader. But amongst the younger Lis, there are many who do not like the direction the Clan is going, so focused on profiting and political scheming. There has been a lot of rallying behind cousin Leiyun. Leiyun has always been a ringleader, especially in the days when everybody thought he would become the next Chosen One. But Leiyun shows no inclination of wanting to take on a leadership position at the moment.¡±
¡°And where does Syaoran fit into all of this?¡± asked Eron dryly.
¡°The anti-Wutai faction thinks Leiyun is in cohorts with his father and recognizes only Syaoran as the Great Elder¡¯s ideal successor as son of Li Ryuuren, who is still recalled as a hero by the Clan. The problem is, he is currently a probationary Chosen One—he has been restored in graces with the Clan since he has stolen the Sakura Cards.¡± Meilin paused. ¡°Because of the internal division, the Li Clan is currently in a very vulnerable position to be attacked by our rival clans in Hong Kong—mainly the Tang Clan, who probably comes second in terms of political and economic influence. The Wu Clan cannot be ignored either because though they are newer, they initially started in the underground business and have grown considerably in recent years.¡±
Sakura looked up. ¡°Wu Clan?¡±
¡°The Wus are traditionally one of the founding Hong Kong triad syndicates while the Tang Clan was a merchant family that originated from Beijing,¡± said Meilin.
¡°So the Tang Clan is still around,¡± remarked Kero-chan. ¡°I remember the water fortune-teller that was in love with Clow Reed. Sakura-chan fought against in Hong Kong many years ago. She was from the Tang Clan, wasn¡¯t she Eriol?¡±
Eriol looked up. ¡°Who are we speaking of again?¡±
¡°Madoushi,¡± murmured Sakura, recalling her first trip to Hong Kong six years ago. Madoushi had transferred her powers to a book because of her hatred and love for Clow Reed. She hadn¡¯t even realized that she was dead. But when she finally accepted that Clow Reed was dead, she had melted away into water vapor. ¡°But Clow Reed wasn¡¯t really gone after all.¡± The irony. ¡°Clow Reed once gave her a hair ornament for her birthday.¡±
¡°Tang Xiuyin,¡± murmured Eriol distantly.
Kero-chan, arms crossed, stated, ¡°Clow Reed left many women with broken hearts over the years. He was considered cruel because of his kindness. Anyhow, the way things ended with the Tang fortuneteller after Clow came to Hong Kong made relations even worse with the Tang Clan—for they all knew that Clow was the son of Li Clan Great Elder Shulin.¡±
¡°Is the Li Clan vulnerable to an outside attack?¡± asked Touya.
Meilin looked up. ¡°No, I don¡¯t believe so. The Main House is fortified well both with armed fighters and magical spells. Even if the Li Group¡¯s stock falls, I¡¯m pretty sure Uncle Daifu will manage to save the corporation. And we have enough Lis in the Executive Council of Hong Kong and other government offices to make the Li Clan still feared enough. The problem is internal strife.¡±
It was strange that all the members of the Alliance had turned silent, and all eyes were focused on her. They were listening to her every word. That had never happened ever before, here or in the Li Clan.
For the first time, she felt like she was of use to the Alliance, and sure of what her role was. ¡°There¡¯s the traditionalists and the reformists,¡± said Meilin. ¡°Uncle Wutai, head of the clan, is the leader of the traditionalist faction—they believe that the Li Clan is select and special, that all members of the clan must dedicate themselves to making the clan invincible. The reformist faction stems from Uncle Ryuuren, who gathered a lot of popularity from the younger members of the clan who were fed up with the stiff regulations, greediness and corruption within the clan. But after Uncle Ryuuren died, some fourteen years ago, the reformists splintered off into different groups, hence never gained momentum to overthrow the Elders¡¯ iron rule.¡±
¡°What about the Great Elder?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°The Great Elder was above any of the internal clan clashes,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°But his favorite was Uncle Ryuuren. Leiyun also emerged as the new leader—he was a proponent of magic-users being supervisors of society. He believed that magic should be used for the good of people, not for the profit of the Li Clan.¡±
¡°That seems to clash with his father¡¯s view,¡± said Kai dryly.
¡°Which is why some theorize that Uncle Wutai sent Leiyun away,¡± Meilin said.
¡°To be killed?¡± whispered Miho.
Meilin paused. ¡°What we do know is that after Leiyun was announced to be dead, the reformists fell apart. But that changed when Syaoran returned to Hong Kong last year. Many of the core reformists had been biding their time, waiting for Syaoran, the son of Ryuuren and the Great Elder¡¯s last protégé, to become old enough. Of course many were disappointed to find that he had lost all his powers, sword arm crippled.¡± Meilin shot an apologetic glance at Sakura for bringing up old wounds.
But Sakura seemed to be listening to her words intently—Sakura always did when Meilin spoke of him.
¡°He was demoted from his position as Chosen One and his name stricken from the Li book. He¡¯s not the first one to have his name stricken. But it was new for someone whose name had been erased to stay on in the clan, a visible symbol of rebellion against the Elder¡¯s rule. He was supposedly the invincible Chosen One, ordered to capture the Clow Cards. But not only did he give up the cards to Sakura, but he gave up his title, his powers, for the sake of the enemy of the clan. Sorry—not my words—that¡¯s what the Elders call you, Sakura.¡±
Sakura just shrugged and smiled.
Meilin continued. ¡°And so he sparked a new branch of the reformists—he had defied all the Elder¡¯s orders though he was Chosen One, hence he in his broken state, had made a statement for the first time. Before, he was considered simply a puppet of the Great Elders. Part of the reason why the Elders allowed Syaoran to return to Japan again was to get him out of Hong Kong before he sparked an uprising within the clan.¡±
¡°What confuses me is where this Li Leiyun falls into all of this,¡± stated Kero-chan.
¡°Of course, Leiyun¡¯s return triggered another group of reformists, mainly the younger generation who wants a leadership change within the clan, not a complete overhaul. And because of Syaoran¡¯s demotion, many think that Leiyun is most likely to be the candidate for the next head of the Li Clan.¡±
¡°So, what are we supposed to do then?¡± asked Kero-chan. ¡°Sit around and twiddle our thumbs until the Li Clan self-destructs?¡±
And Meilin¡¯s eyes flashed. ¡°The Li Clan is not so fragile that centuries of tradition will collapse because of a leadership transition.¡±
¡°Make up your mind, girl, are you trying to take them down or defend them?¡± Suppi-chan stated.
Meilin stood up. ¡°Well, we can¡¯t just sit around and do nothing while the Li Clan is shifting. How often is it that Leiyun and Syaoran are gone?¡±
¡°What do you propose to do?¡± asked Kai, somewhat relieved to have the usual spontaneous Meilin back.
¡°If there is going to be a fight, we¡¯ve got to be well-prepared,¡± said Meilin.
¡°And. What¡¯s your plan?¡± Kai stared at her.
¡°Umm¡¦¡± Meilin had spoken with gusto but she realized she hadn¡¯t really thought through what was next. ¡°To be prepared to battle, we need to be well armed.¡±
¡°We have magic,¡± replied Ruby Moon with a shrug.
¡°Well, I need a weapon. One of my own. Just like Syaoran had the Five Force Sword and now Hien, and Sakura, Eriol and Miho have their staffs, I need my own weapon.¡±
¡°Eriol doesn¡¯t have a staff any longer,¡± muttered Suppi-chan.
But Miho drowned him out. ¡°Where do you plan on getting your weapon?¡±
Meilin stared up at the group. ¡°From the Li Mansion armory.¡±
¡°There¡¯s an armory in there?¡± asked Miho.
Tomoyo nodded. ¡°Well, I guess if it has a dungeon, it¡¯s not surprising to think that there¡¯s an armory there.¡±
¡°Well, it¡¯s nothing compared to the one back in Hong Kong, in the Li Clan headquarters, but it is to my understanding that when Shulin-sama lived in Japan, she had to keep her mansion well-armed. And I know that she left her very first pair of swords in the armory here—she didn¡¯t take it back with her to Shanghai because she became the Chosen One and began to wield the Five Force Sword. Those are going to be my swords, Shulin-sama¡¯s double swords—Ryuuga and Shura. With Leiyun in Hong Kong, this is the perfect chance to break into the armory.¡±
¡°That¡¯s a terrible idea,¡± interjected Kai. ¡°Isn¡¯t Jinyu still here?¡±
¡°Sources tell me he is occupied with the triads uprising which has an effect on the yakuza here,¡± said Eron.
¡°And Kara still lives in the house,¡± reminded Kai.
¡°Well, you keep her distracted then,¡± said Meilin.
¡°Talk some sense into her,¡± said Kai to Eriol.
Eriol pushed his glasses up his nose. ¡°Since Meilin does not have any special powers, it¡¯s not a bad idea for her to have an extra level of protection. And besides, she is a Li. Even if she is caught, I doubt that Jinyu will harm his cousin.¡±
Clapping her hands, Meilin said, ¡°Well, I¡¯ve gone some stealing to do.¡±
And Kai clambered after her, calling out, ¡°You can¡¯t just break into the Li mansion—there¡¯s something called meticulous planning and—¡±
Miho giggled. ¡°Only Meilin-nee-chan can keep onii-chan on his feet.¡±
Cerberus glared at Eriol. ¡°Terrible idea to let her walk straight into the lion¡¯s den like that. Why didn¡¯t you stop her?¡±
¡°But that¡¯s the most cheerful we¡¯ve seen Meilin-chan all week,¡± remarked Tomoyo, casting a knowing glace at Eriol. And yet, Eriol had torn down the first floor of the mansion last time he thought Leiyun had kidnapped her. Would Meilin truly be safe?
Mizuki Kai found himself chasing after Meilin—he had often been chased but rare it was that he was doing the chasing. She strode up—no sprinted straight towards the Li Mansion, just a couple blocks away from the Clow Reed mansion, with determination. He could barely keep up on his motorcycle.
¡°Okay, Meilin, you win, you get to have your own way, and I will help you,¡± he called out. ¡°But as someone who has trained for many years to become a pro thief, it¡¯s a horrible idea to just break into the house in broad daylight like this, without a blueprint of the house, without a plan.¡±
Meilin swirled around, jet black pigtails almost slapping his face as he caught up to her on foot after parking haphazardly outside the Li mansion gates. ¡°Truly, Kaitou Magician, I thought you would be a little bolder, considering your reputation.¡±
¡°The lock—¡± Kai stared at the front door. ¡°There¡¯s many layers of spells, and the lock is the complex kind that will take hours to pick. ¡°Perhaps the window¡¯s a better shot.¡±
¡°Oh Kaitou-kun, and they call you the second Arsene Lupin?¡± said Meilin. She took out a brass key from her pocket.
¡°W-where did you get that?¡± he sputtered.
¡°From Syaoran¡¯s trouser pocket,¡± replied Meilin. The heavy wood door swung open. ¡°Looks like no one is home.¡±
Kai glared at the hallway, as if the walls would shoot out electric lasers, but Meilin passed through heedless. They passed through the long corridor—there was no indication anyone was home. Meilin couldn¡¯t help walking into the main parlor to have a closer look at the painting of Li Shulin, her great ancestor, with ivory skin, scarlet lips and haughty amber eyes that seemed to stare out from the painting.
Meilin turned around in front of the painting as the afternoon sunlight streamed through the bay windows. She saw Kai with a dumbfounded expression. ¡°What?¡±
¡°You look a lot like her. Li Shulin-sama.¡±
¡°No I don¡¯t,¡± replied, Meilin, tossing back her long black pigtails. ¡°Shulin-sama would be insulted if she heard that. I heard that there were legions of men in two continents in love with her, and they wrote her love poems, sang serenades and even committed suicide over her.¡±
Kai walked up to her and lifted her chin up with his forefinger, looking into her amber eyes and whispered, ¡°Don¡¯t underestimate yourself. I would die for you, you know.¡±
Meilin jerked back, startled by his unusual intensity, and stammered, ¡°You know, I think I like this portrait of her better than the one back at the Li Clan headquarters in Hong Kong though.¡±
¡°I think I do to,¡± remarked Kai offhandedly.
¡°You¡¯ve seen the portrait in the Li Clan main house?¡± Meilin asked.
He nodded absentmindedly, apparently not going to give her any further response.
¡°Well, the one in Hong Kong makes her look so dazzling and beautiful, like some sort of deity. But this one makes her look more vulnerable. Maybe it¡¯s because she¡¯s younger.¡±
¡°No, it¡¯s because it was painted by Lord Landon Reed. He loved her. So you can see that in his work,¡± Kai said.
¡°Landon-sama was a painter?¡± asked Meilin.
¡°He was a British nobleman. He dabbled in painting, music, poetry—anything that caught his fancy,¡± said Kai dryly. ¡°Because he had nothing better to do.¡±
¡°Well, that¡¯s where Eriol-kun gets his artistic talent from,¡± said Meilin. She turned to Kai. ¡°You¡¯re a surprisingly good artist as well. I should have known when you were painting the scenery for the Star-Crossed musical set that you were Shing-san¡¯s son.¡±
¡°I can copy real photos or paintings a little. But can¡¯t draw people or anything original for the life of me,¡± said Kai.
¡°Are you being modest?¡± Meilin laughed.
He blinked. ¡°Modest? Moi?¡±
The two found the stairwell to the basement. They heard the front door swing open.
¡°Shoot, Kara¡¯s back. We wasted too much time,¡± said Kai. ¡°You go down first—I¡¯ll distract her.¡±
Meilin nodded and quickly hurried down the stairwell.
Meanwhile, Kai ducked as a knife whizzed past his head.
¡°What are you doing here, Kai?¡± asked Kara, holding up another knife that she had drawn from her black lace garter belt, skirt lifted enough to reveal her toned thigh.
¡°Checking out if there¡¯s anything worth stealing here,¡± said Kai.
¡°Why, because Leiyun¡¯s gone? Kara twirled the knife hilt around her forefinger. ¡°I wouldn¡¯t have minded if you said you came here to see me.¡±
Kai stared at Kara. ¡°Why are you here? You don¡¯t have to stay with him. You hate being bound to one place. It¡¯s not like you to be working for someone so manipulative and warped as Leiyun. I thought you wanted to be independent, your own person.¡±
Kara yawned. ¡°You came all the way to tell me something so boring. I¡¯m content as things are now. Do I idolize Leiyun? No. But with him, I am freer than ever before. Freer than when I was Kamura Karin, living with my mother and that man she married, freer than when I was a runaway trying to make it on my own in Tokyo, freer even than when I was with Leon.¡±
It was something he could very well understand. Yet, it pissed him off that she had that solace with the slimy, underhanded Li Leiyun. ¡°Why is the security in this house so shoddy?¡±
¡°There¡¯s no need for extra security when I am living with mafia,¡± replied Kara. ¡°And I know how to fend for myself anyway.¡± She threw him a sly smile. ¡°All the important things are in the basement anyway, where Leiyun¡¯s set up powerful barriers.
Shoot, Meilin wouldn¡¯t be able to sense it.
And there was another sound, scuffling of shoes—Kai grabbed Kara and ducked. A bullet sizzled past their heads. ¡°Karin. The house is under attack!¡±
Kara sighed, adjusting her leather skirt, ignoring that he called her by that name again. ¡°They¡¯re at it again.¡±
¡°Who?¡± demanded Kai.
¡°Local yakuza. They¡¯ve been attempting to take down Jinyu for a week.¡±
He felt like shaking her. ¡°Yakuza and assassins have been targeting the house all week and this is the level of security you have here?¡±
¡°It¡¯s better to let them attack so we can spot the enemies,¡± said Kara with a shrug. ¡°And you guys are the ones who left the front door open.¡±
¡°And where is Jinyu?¡± his jaws ached from clenching his teeth too tightly.
¡°Probably sniffing down the rats in their headquarters somewhere,¡± replied Kara. ¡°If you want to stealing something here or go to your girlfriend¡¯s assistance now is a good time to do so while I¡¯m distracted fending off the intruders. That is, besides yourself.¡±
For a second, Kai debated whether to give her a hand or not—then he hurried down the basement stairs. Kara had handled them all week, she said—she could handle them today.
Meilin had a good idea that the armory was in the second-level basement, past the dungeon. It was not before she passed a strange den, a round table with a gazing crystal ball, decks of Tarot cards scattered about, a skull—was it real she wondered—and half-burned scented candles.
And there, on the table was the Clow. Just lying there. All she had to do was snatch it back. She glanced around furtively for some booby trap. None was seen. And she reached for it. She yelped as a rose flew over her hand, startling her, and in a matter of seconds was reduced to ashes that settled over the Sakura Cards tome.
She shuddered when she realized that it could have been her hand.
¡°What did the world¡¯s greatest magician thief tell you about making sure not to set off traps and touching unnecessary things?¡± came a suave voice behind her that held the tint of edge, as if he was panicked.
¡°Took you long enough,¡± replied Meilin, trying not to think her fingers could have been sizzled off. ¡°What happened to Rido-senpai?¡±
¡°Charmed her, and she let me go.¡±
¡°Well, that¡¯s vexing,¡± muttered Meilin, flicking a Tarot card towards the barrier. The card was devoured by blue flames.
She wondered if it was a barrier that someone like Kai could break. She doubted it.
¡°Don¡¯t try anything foolish,¡± said Kai. ¡°I know a bit about barriers, and Leiyun made sure that if he can¡¯t get into the Sakura Cards, no one else can. We came here for a reason. Stick to it.¡±
¡°Fine.¡± Meilin scowled, knowing Kai was right but furious because he was. She passed the dungeon than finally came to the iron door leading to the armory. She tried the handle though Kai was about to protest. Locked. She examined the brass lock. ¡°What century is this from?¡± she muttered.
¡°Beautiful craftsmanship,¡± said Kai with approval. He gave a low then two high whistle notes.
¡°Can you open it?¡± Meilin asked doubtfully.
¡°Give me a minute—no forty-five seconds,¡± replied Kai, producing a picklock kit from his pocket. He procured several wires of several lengths with hooked tips then set to picking the lock. It was oddly fascinating to watch him work at the lock, crouched on the ground, focused, almost looking as if he enjoyed himself. It took him all of thirty seconds before she heard the latch click.
¡°I¡¯m impressed,¡± she said. ¡°Maybe it¡¯s not so bad to have a thief as a boyfriend.¡±
He opened the door and peered around suspiciously. They both sneezed at the dust. ¡°No elaborate spells?¡± I¡¯m disappointed,¡± muttered Kai. The thief in him got the better in him and Meilin saw him disappear into the depths of the chamber, leaving her to track down Shulin¡¯s swords.
There, she spotted it, hanging crossed on the wall. She gripped both swords and lowered them. She tried swinging them—they were just the right weight—slender, as if designed for a female user, much lighter than Syaoran¡¯s Hien and the Five Force Sword, but still hefty enough to be powerful. She unsheathed Ryuuga and Shuura, afraid the blades would be completely rusted. But they gleamed even in the dim light.
¡°Found it!¡± called out Meilin. As she passed out, she saw a pretty jade and onyx comb and grabbed it, along with a small bejeweled dagger. ¡°Hurry, let¡¯s get out—is it just me but do you hear lots of footsteps upstairs?¡±
As they hurried back up the stairs, Kai peered over the rim of his sunglasses with a grave frown. ¡°Meilin. I think I¡¯ve been a terrible influence on you.¡±
Clutching the swords, comb, dagger and several ropes of pearls to her chest, Meilin retorted, ¡°Don¡¯t take too much credit. I simply took back what is rightfully mine. I¡¯m a Li too. Leiyun does not own the armory. We have our own fair share to it too.¡±
He couldn¡¯t chide her any further, not even to remind her he had used some of those words verbatim on her before, as they emerged in the first floor corridors again.
¡°This is the Black Dragon¡¯s headquarters!¡± called out a raspy voice. ¡°Find him, track him down!¡±
¡°What¡¯s going on?¡± Meilin said as she heard more footsteps from upstairs.
¡°Yakuza. I think they¡¯re after Jinyu,¡± replied Kai.
¡°How did they get in?¡± demanded Meilin.
¡°There¡¯s someone here,¡± called out a man with a katana slung behind his back.
¡°Take ¡®em down!¡± replied their boss.
¡°We should sneak out the back door,¡± whispered Kai.
¡°Look at this place. It¡¯s loaded. We should take some of these vases back—they look like antiques.¡±
Meilin crossed her wrists behind her head and drew out her twin blades. ¡°Well, so long as I¡¯m a Li, I won¡¯t allow them to ransack Shulin-sama¡¯s house.¡±
¡°What, there¡¯s some girl with swords!¡± cried out a man.
¡°Must be Jinyu¡¯s cronies. No need to hold back!¡±
A man dashed out with an unsheathed katana.
¡°Meilin!¡± called out Kai.
¡°One, two,¡± murmured Meilin, and with a flick over her wrists, the blades fanned out into two steel semi-circle fans. The man¡¯s katana clashed on the fan.
¡°How did you do that,¡± murmured Kai in awe.
Meilin dashed forward and with her right-hand fan and knocked the katana out of his hand. Another man dashed forward and she jabbed the folded left fan into his forehead, and he toppled over.
Another man in a blue yukata escaped down the hallway, up the stairwell.
¡°Kara!¡± exclaimed Kai.
Meilin called out, ¡°I¡¯ve got downstairs under control. Go upstairs and check on her.¡±
She glanced over at him briefly. ¡°I¡¯ll be fine. I¡¯m a Li.¡±
Kai nodded and ran upstairs. The man in the yukata realized he was being followed.
¡°Hurry, I think there¡¯s someone in the end room,¡± the man called out over his shoulder.
¡°I¡¯m not one of you guys, moron!¡± cried out Kai, smashing his fist into the man¡¯s face. The man looked rather befuddled before collapsing over the carpeted floor.
Kara, from her doorway, poked the man with the tip of her leather motorcycle boots. ¡°I don¡¯t blame him for thinking that he was one of them. You look just like yakuza with the ridiculous bleached spiky hair and leather jacket.¡±
¡°I thought you said you have things under control,¡± said Kai. ¡°How can you be so careless allowing them to enter in the first place? What if you were alone? What if they caught you? They could have hurt you—or even worse.¡±
¡°Still worrying about me?¡± Kara smiled. ¡°I¡¯m not the weak Kamura Karin that needs protection anymore. I lured them in on purpose. I thought I would skin myself a scalp and send it back to their boss to give them a message. Your girlfriend¡¯s quite a thing, isn¡¯t she?¡±
¡°Crap, Meilin.¡± Kai peered over the bannister. ¡°Watch out!¡± he called as he saw another yakuza dash forward with an unsheathed knife at Meilin¡¯s head, slicing through her red ribbon.
But he didn¡¯t need to, for Meilin spun around, her jet black pigtails swirling around her like ebony tails, and the back of her blade, knocked the knife out of his head. Her right pigtail swished down like a curtain, then she leaped up and slashed down her left blade at a man charging at her with a bat, slicing it in half like it was a cucumber. Without skipping a beat, she kicked out and knocked over the last of the men.
For a moment, she stood in the dark hallways, her red-amber eyes blazing, breathing heavily, swords drawn out. And Kai watched in a daze, thinking he had never seen anything quite so wild, so ferocious, so beautiful.
And a jarring female voice shrieked, ¡°Imbeciles.¡±
A tall young woman with teased pink hair, wearing a leopard-print jacket over a belly-baring red bustier top and tight red leather shorts stormed in. She glared at the man sprawled on the floor and stamped him with the heel of her stiletto red leather boots. ¡°Is this the best you can do? Die.¡±
The man howled as she ground her pointed heel into the back of his hand.
The flashy woman sized Meilin up and down, then without any warning slammed Meilin against the wall, her forearm pressed against her chest and a knife pointed at her throat. ¡°You. You must be a Li.¡±
But before Kai had the chance to unsheathe his own pocketknives, Meilin had ducked, slamming her shoulder into her attacker¡¯s stomach, then slipped away, her double swords crossed in defense position.
Instead of retaliating, the pink-haired woman crossed her arm, and her scarlet lips curling into an amused smile. ¡°So you singlehandedly took down all my men?¡±
Kai reached over to cover Meilin instinctively, cellphone in hand. ¡°Hey, give me some credit. I called the police—they¡¯ll get here any moment.¡±
The woman finally turned to Kai with a droll expression. ¡°Police? Well they did take you off the top 100 wanted international criminal list, I did hear.¡± She snorted. ¡°Where¡¯s the Black Dragon? He¡¯s hiding behind an amateur thief, a Li chit and police now? What a laughingstock.¡±
And to Meilin¡¯s relief, she turned around, stepping over her own underlings and stomped out of the house. ¡°Who was that?¡± murmured Meilin—and she thought Kai dressed flashily.
¡°Don¡¯t you know her—heard she¡¯s quite a legend back where you¡¯re from. The Hong Kong mafia princess, the Flaming Flamingo as they call her,¡± replied Kai.
¡°That¡¯s not really her, is it?¡± Meilin had of course heard of the Flaming Flamingo of the triads. ¡°She knew you were Kaitou Magician.¡±
Kai sighed. ¡°Yeah, we¡¯ve crossed paths before—I¡¯ve had run-ins with the Hong Kong triads back when I was tracking down what happened to my father.¡±
She couldn¡¯t be another one Kai¡¯s old flings, Meilin mused. ¡°Did you really call the police?¡±
¡°Yeah, I reported that a bunch of ruffians broke into the Li mansion.¡± Kai glared up towards the stairs. ¡°And let ¡®em deal with the aftermath.¡±
¡°You¡¯re quite something,¡± said Kai to Meilin. ¡°Taking on a dozen full grown men singlehandedly.¡±
¡°I just wanted to test out these swords,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°It feels like Shulin-sama was with me. It was exhilarating.¡±
¡°I see you¡¯ve been going easy on me all this time,¡± muttered Kai.
¡°Hmm?¡± Meilin glanced up at Kai and saw that he had a golden bow slung over his shoulders. ¡°What¡¯s that?¡±
¡°Oh, I found this in the armory.¡±
¡°Kai. You can¡¯t let go of your thieving tendencies, can you?¡±
¡°It had M.M. carved on one end. Though it might have been Mayura-sama¡¯s,¡± replied Kai. ¡°Don¡¯t know if it still works—I¡¯ll probably have to string the bow again. Your blades seemed pretty dull—you might need them to be sharpened.¡±
¡°No, I¡¯m not planning to kill anyone. It¡¯s safer that they aren¡¯t sharpened so I don¡¯t slice anyone by mistake,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°It¡¯s disappointing that I couldn¡¯t steal back the Sakura Cards. But at least we discovered where it is kept.¡±
Kai called out upstairs. ¡°Keep the doors locked and do set some better barriers. It¡¯s not like you don¡¯t know how to.¡±
Kara gazed down bemusedly as the two most dangerous intruders walked out of the house, carefully stepping over the unconscious gangsters.
Erika narrowed her eyes as she brushed past a tall woman with wild pink hair and pale brown eyes lined with black kohl, dressed in red leather and an oversized leopard-print jacket—she was pretty sure the flashy woman had come out of the Li Mansion. Maybe she was one of Kara¡¯s acquaintances.
Hurriedly, she ran towards the house, almost run over by an infuriatingly ostentatious gleaming black Harley-Davidson.
¡°Sorry Erika-chan!¡± cried out Meilin from the backseat of the motorcycle, with what seemed to be two swords strapped to her back.
¡°Didn¡¯t mean to run you over!¡± called out Kai, his black sunglasses gleaming, one hand cocked to his brows in apology.
¡°Watch where you¡¯re going, idiot Kai!¡± shrieked Meilin, arms wrapped around his waist tightly as they zoomed out of the front gate.
¡°That obnoxious thief and annoying accomplice!¡± Erika choked at the exhaust and rushed inside.
¡°What happened to this place?¡± she demanded, as she saw trails of blood on the wooden floor of the first floor hallway. There were smashed vases, pictures were hung crooked, and there were quite a few dents in the wallpaper.
¡°More yakuza broken in,¡± replied Kara.
¡°You took them down by yourself?¡± Erika glanced around. ¡°Or is Jinyu back?¡±
¡°No, Meilin and Kai took them down,¡± said Kara.
¡°Oh yeah—just saw them leaving. What were they doing here?¡±
¡°Stealing weapons from the armory.¡±
¡°This place has an armory?¡±
¡°And you just let them. Why?¡± Erika frowned.
¡°Leiyun won¡¯t miss them.¡± Kara tilted her head. ¡°It¡¯s the first time I noticed, but Meilin resembles Li Shulin-sama quite a bit.¡±
¡°Well, she is a Li.¡± Erika narrowed her eyes. ¡°And do you not hold Li Shulin in disdain?¡±
¡°She is the woman who ruined the Reeds,¡± replied Kara. ¡°Landon Reed held a grudge against Lord Laurence Reed and his Lady Katherine, my direct ancestors, I once heard. Eventually the noble Reeds were led to destitute because of the curse Landon put on our bloodline.¡±
¡°Oh yeah, who was that other woman who seemed to walk out of the house. The one with the crazy pink hair?¡± Erika asked.
¡°Shoot,¡± muttered Kara. ¡°Someone should probably let him know.¡±
¡°What?¡± Erika frowned.
¡°The Flaming Flamingo,¡± replied Kara. ¡°Current third in the triads.¡±
¡°I thought you were the second,¡± said Erika with a shrug.
Kara scowled. ¡°As if I would ever be mafia. Jin¡¯s in trouble. The second, Gold Leopard¡¯s been eying Jin¡¯s spot for ages, but he¡¯s cautious and conniving. But his sister Wu Zilai is plain psychotic.¡±
¡°She¡¯s come all the way to Japan—she¡¯s out for blood.¡± Kara¡¯s lavender eyes were actually filled with worry. ¡°And Jin doesn¡¯t know she¡¯s here yet.¡±
¡°Is she that strong?¡± Erika said dubiously.
¡°She¡¯s only third because she has no reason to beat her brother—but everyone¡¯s more terrified of her than the Leopard. She¡¯s calling flaming because of her fiery temper, you know.¡±
¡°She¡¯s not of the Wu Clan, is she?¡± Erika asked. ¡°Li Clan¡¯s rival?¡±
¡°Yeah, the original mafia family,¡± said Kara. ¡°Zian and Zilai¡¯s older brother was the Dragon King of the Hong Kong triads before Jin—you know, the one he killed to become head.¡±
Kai had everyone clutching their stomachs and howling in laughter as he related Meilin¡¯s break-in of the Li Mansion and magnificent takedown an army of mafia, with a few embellishments here and there.
¡°And I¡¯ll say, she learned from the greatest master of all,¡± Kero-chan remarked dryly.
¡°I say the best heist since I stole the Five Force Sword from the Li Clan. Or maybe the Five Force Scroll from the Dark Ones,¡± stated Kai, grinning from ear to ear finally because Meilin was out of earshot, off for training after he had scolded her for her reckless behavior to her face.
¡°I always meant to ask you, Kai, how did you steal the Five Force Scroll back from the Dark Ones?¡± Sakura asked.
Eron scowled at the thief. ¡°Yes, do tell us.¡±
Kai winked. ¡°Well, a thief can¡¯t give away all the secrets of his trade, can he? Besides, how did you get it stolen from you, you careless girl?¡±
With a pout, Sakura said, ¡°As if I would know.¡±
¡°Where did you find the Five Force Scroll in the first place?¡± Kai asked. ¡°In my thieving days, I¡¯ve been trying to track the scroll for ages without any luck.¡±
¡°We found it in my mom¡¯s chest in my basement,¡± said Sakura. ¡°She and Ryuuren-san many years ago stole it from Clow Reed¡¯s mansion.¡± She blinked and turned to Eriol. ¡°I hope you don¡¯t mind.¡±
Eriol smiled demurely. ¡°I¡¯m sure Clow Reed placed it somewhere safe but readily accessible.¡±
Sakura sighed. ¡°The results were disastrous. My mom and Ryuuren-san fought over the scroll and tore in two. And Moonstone scolded them terribly—that¡¯s how they were forced to work together.¡±
¡°Moonstone?¡± asked Miho curiously.
¡°Yes, Moonstone-chan. Moonstone said that Clow Reed-san created him to guard the Five Force Scroll,¡± said Sakura.
¡°What a pretty name. What did Moonstone look like?¡± Miho asked.
Sakura giggled. ¡°Like an overstuffed bun with bunny ears—he was like Kero-chan in my mother¡¯s days.¡±
¡°I would like to meet this nefarious Moonstone,¡± remarked Suppi-chan.
¡°Yes, why did I never hear about this Moonstone before?¡± Nakuru asked Eriol who looked merely amused.
¡°If you think about it, if the Five Force Scroll was sitting in Sakura-senpai¡¯s basement all along, it would have been very useful when you guys were capturing all the released Clow Card,¡± remarked Miho. ¡°Too bad you didn¡¯t think of looking or sense its presence.¡±
Kero-chan scowled. ¡°Well, I think I was plenty enough help when Sakura-chan was capturing the Clow Cards.¡±
¡°Of course you were,¡± said Eriol. ¡°Besides, what¡¯s the fun in following directions off a decrepit old scroll? Trial and error¡¯s the way to go.¡±
And Kero-chan grumbled, ¡°Easy for you to say.¡±
¡°Well, Clow Reed left me you, Kero-chan, thank goodness,¡± said Sakura. She frowned. ¡°Clow-san was really well prepared, wasn¡¯t he though? He also left instruction for my mother and Ryuuren-san in the scroll.¡± She took out the Five Force Scroll, to the section written in Chinese.
The Five Force Scroll. This scroll is the key in finding the long lost Clow Card Book, so that mortal guardians may keep it safe till the new Card Mistress arises.
¡°Don¡¯t give Clow all the credit--the Five Scroll preexists the Clow Cards,¡± stated Eron shortly. ¡°It started out as a record for the Great Five to list every dark force out there. And that¡¯s where Clow Reed got the idea to for a contract with some of the dark forces listed in the scroll and create the Clow Cards.¡±
Sakura blinked. That was news to her. She turned to Eriol. ¡°Is that true?¡±
¡°Yes, I suppose,¡± said Eriol. ¡°When Clow Reed acquired the Five Force Scroll, he was fascinated by what Chang Ruichi had done in terms of binding the dark forces to do as he bids—but that was always a dangerous gamble because dark forces are wild and unpredictable. They could be controlled to a certain extend with the power of darkness, yet they were still independent. But Clow Reed wanted something more stable, more equitable, so he created a contract with select dark forces. In return for safety and an unlimited amount of power of darkness, the dark forces would answer to its master¡¯s bidding. So Clow selected 52 dark forces to correspond with the 52 card deck.¡±
¡°So the reason why the Clow Cards scattered when I first opened the Book—was it because they had gone so long without a master and a stable source of the power of darkness?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°Yes, the contract with Clow had become unstable because so much time had passed without a proper master,¡± said Eriol.
¡°You put the Windy on top so that it would be the first awakened and scatter all the Clow Cards when Sakura¡¯s powers triggered it,¡± Kero-chan said accusingly.
¡°But Clow-san also knew that the Windy would return to me and help me capture the other cards,¡± murmured Sakura. ¡°And of course, Clow-san also knew it was important that I seek my own relationship and make my own contract with each individual dark force all over again to have them accept me as their master. It was a triple-judgment, first by the Clow Cards and then by Yue-san. And of course, by Eriol-kun as well, when you had me convert them to the Power of Stars. That is how my Clow treasured the cards. I can never measure up to Clow Reed as their master—seeing that far ahead and planning in advance like that.¡±
And Eriol gazed at Sakura with an odd expression. ¡°Yet you and Syaoran have sealed many dark forces that Clow never would have been able to seal. And you have formed an Alliance parallel to—no surpassing that of the Great Five. You may well have already exceeded Clow in that manner—and you¡¯re not yet 17.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t flatter her so—it¡¯ll get to her head,¡± Eron drawled. ¡°You¡¯re a dismal Card Mistress who lost the cards to the filthy Li Clan, an impossible head of the Alliance who has no clue of the larger vision, no understanding of history, contracts and spells. Oh, and you did not even recognize the value of the Five Force Scroll when you found it.¡±
¡°What is its value—it¡¯s just a dingy old parchment with lots of lists,¡± stated Miho.
Eron scowled. ¡°Perhaps that¡¯s what it was in the beginning. Ruichi-sama¡¯s handwriting is what you would see in a lot of the dark forces, and he initially began recording the dark forces he encountered, some that he mastered, some that he didn¡¯t, and the other members of the Great Five pitched in.¡±
¡°I did notice there were different handwritings through the scroll. Does that mean that I can add to the scroll too?¡± asked Sakura, wondering how many people the scroll had passed through before it got to her hands.
¡°Yes, despite all the people that it passed through they couldn¡¯t record every single dark force out there,¡± said Eriol. ¡°So you can add to the list dark forces that are not on it our information that might be helpful. Of course, you have to realize that it is very dangerous to document such information about how to recognize and capture the dark forces in one location.¡±
¡°That¡¯s why it¡¯s written in ancient rune,¡± said Sakura. ¡°You can¡¯t decode it without Moonstone¡¯s approval.¡± She was pensive for a moment.
¡°Yes, Ruichi-sama had to make the scroll hard to decode because as he fell deeper and deeper into black magic, he recorded darker and darker forces,¡± said Eron. ¡°The Five Force Scroll was passed into the hands of his son. From whom Clow Reed eventually stole the scroll from.¡±
Sakura quickly glanced at Eriol. This was the first time she had ever heard of Ruichi¡¯s son—though of course he must have had a child for the Chang bloodline to pass on—and to think that Clow Reed had been acquainted with the Dark One¡¯s son. And then, she though queasily that there was a sudden dark glitter in Eriol¡¯s impassive blue eyes.
Eron continued, ¡°You may have noticed burn marks or blank spots throughout the scroll, especially through the latter half. Clow Reed probably purged most of the black magic content from the scroll.¡±
¡°Censorship?¡± murmured Kai. ¡°To protect his successors? Or just in case the scroll got in the wrong hands before it reached Amamiya Nadeshiko or Li Ryuuren?¡±
¡°Well, if Clow Reed wrote down the instructions to find the Clow Cards in the scroll, where did Nadeshiko-san and the others find the Clow?¡± asked Miho. ¡°Mother told me that she wasn¡¯t with them when they found the Clow.¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know,¡± said Sakura with a slight frown. ¡°I don¡¯t think we¡¯ve ever learned that information. It must have been one of their last missions. Because I do know that shortly after the Clow was found, Ryuuren-san gave it to my mother for safekeeping and left Japan.¡±
And Sakura stared down at the scroll which she had always thought was just old or incomplete. Clow had destroyed information in the scroll. And either her mother or Ryuuren had gotten rid of the passages in the scroll that Clow Reed had left them to help them uncover the location of the Clow Cards. Why? Or, when Eron and Erika stole the scroll from her, they might have also concealed information on the scroll because she had not even looked through the entire scroll at that point. Had Syaoran done so—he probably had. Had he pointed out any differences between the scroll before it was taken by the Dark Ones?
Miho scowled and turned to Eriol. ¡°So, where did Clow conceal the Cards? I know he wouldn¡¯t have left it lying around because it could have easily fallen into the wrong hands.¡±
¡°But if he hid it too well, he risked his successor not being able to find it,¡± remarked Kai. ¡°Nothing screams unlock me more than the best set of padlocks. The best hiding locations are the ones out in the open.¡±
¡°Of course you would know,¡± said Miho, rolling her eyes.
¡°Well, censored or not, the Five Force Scroll has certainly been useful in capturing dark forces,¡± said Kero-chan. He turned to Eron. ¡°Why didn¡¯t you steal it back?¡±
Eron, looking bored, replied, ¡°I already read through it and got all the information out of it that I would.¡±
¡°Eron-kun¡¯s really smart—he can memorize everything he¡¯s read once,¡± said Sakura.
Kero-chan sighed. ¡°I don¡¯t think you should be praising the one that caused you so many problems for skills that made your life tougher. Both him and Erika.¡±
Drat, what am I doing¡¦ What he does is none of my business. Chang Erika hurried along the allies, furtively glancing around her shoulders. She could hear shuffling footsteps and guttural cries. Clutching her jacket closer around her, she muttered to herself, ¡°What was I thinking of coming out here at this time to this stinking place?¡±
But she recalled what Kara had said. She¡¯s out for blood.
Of course, Erika doubted that the Black Dragon would let a mere chit of girl defeat him.
But any sort of strenuous movement could make his gash worse—if the scabs ripped opened, he¡¯d have to go to the hospital and get it stitched again.
Well, the sooner she found him, the sooner she could warn him that the psycho Flaming Flamingo person was after him.
From the guttural cries in the darkness, she found him. She took a shortcut through a construction site and emerged on the other side to see a hulky man topple over at her feet. In the lamplight, she saw his mouth foaming, eyes rolled back, and she took a step back as a dark wetness spread across the concrete.
And she looked up at the Black Dragon land on his feet with the grace of a panther, his thinly plaited black hair swirling around him like a long tassel. What was that look in his crimson-lit eyes. Yes, she knew that look. Blood thirst. She shuddered. So this was the true face of the Dragon King.
The Jinyu she had seen quietly shadow Leiyun, wordless, was simply a shell. He was a demon too.
And he turned to see Erika, his sword still unsheathed. Blood had splattered across his chiseled left cheek. She did not know if it was his or an attacker¡¯s. His voice was metallic. ¡°You shouldn¡¯t be here. It¡¯s dangerous.¡±
¡°I am the Dark One,¡± said Erika.
¡°This is not your battle. Go.¡± It was not a question but a command. As was expected of the Black Dragon. She reproached that tone.
Another man came hurdling forward. With one clean strike, she though she saw an arm fly out and black blood spurt out from the remaining stub.
Erika covered her mouth with her hands, afraid she would scream. She staggered backwards. These were all assassins sent from Hong Kong. If Jinyu did not kill them, he would be killed. She understood that very well.
But Jinyu grabbed Erika by the wrist and dragged her along. ¡°We¡¯ve got to go. Reinforcements will come.¡± Bloody fingerprints streaked the sleeve of her ivory blouse. ¡°Hurry.¡±
¡°Wait, the Flaming Flamingo is after you,¡± she stammered, trying to catch her breath.
¡°I know. That¡¯s why you have to leave before she gets here.¡±
She knew he wouldn¡¯t have retreated if she hadn¡¯t been there. He would have remained and gladly faced them all off, until there not a single one remaining. She couldn¡¯t question his methods. For if he spared them, they would only come after him again. That was the way of the mafia.
It was not until they had reached the street leading to the Li mansion that he released her.
She yanked her arm back. His grip had been like iron, not because he wanted to hurt her but because he didn¡¯t know that he had been crushing her wrist.
She thought he was going to get angry at her for following him. Instead, he wiped the streak of blood off his cheek with the back of his sleeve. His ruby eyes glinted in the dark as he stood in front of the iron gates of the house. ¡°Well. Are you frightened of me now? Do you think me a monster?¡±
Erika stared at the tall dark man standing in front of her. Yes, he was a beast. And she was terrified of Jinyu as she had been of no other person before. ¡°Yes.¡±
Jinyu was expressionless. ¡°Then why did you not run from me? You saw me kill those men.¡±
¡°Because I am a monster too. I¡¯ve killed too. With the Plague. When Eron and I could not control the dark force, it took many lives,¡± said Erika. ¡°Not just ones of assassins and vile people out to get us. Of innocent people. Of children too.¡±
¡°But you grieved over their lives,¡± said Jinyu. ¡°I feel no guilt, no remorse for the lives I take. Never have.¡±
¡°You are mafia. I know that¡¯s what you do.¡± Erika paused. ¡°But that¡¯s not the right way, either. Someday, those lives you take will come back to haunt you.¡±
¡°The Great Elder said something similar to me once,¡± said Jinyu. ¡°As the Protector of the Clan, my first and foremost duty is to protect the Lis. Even if it means sacrificing everything in order to protect the Clan.¡±
¡°You must do what you have to do to live,¡± said Erika. ¡°I don¡¯t judge you for that. But I disagree with that Great Elder of yours. If your first and foremost duty is to protect Li lives, then you must protect your own first before you can protect anything else including that horrid Li Clan of yours. Tell me, why is the Li Clan so important to you when it would turn its back on you the moment it needs you no longer?¡±
¡°I was in debt to the Great Elder, and I was only paying it back.¡±
Erika stared up at the tall, dark man. ¡°Isn¡¯t what you¡¯re saying pretty sacrilegious coming from the Clan Protector?¡±
¡°I am not like Leiyun or Syaoran,¡± said Jinyu, in a clipped voice. ¡°I never had blind love for the Li Clan, the clan which turned its back on my mother and. I never had illusions of the power and wealth and grandeur of the name of Li. I saw it for what it was. All I wanted was a means to survive. But I will still protect it not because of my pride and devotion but because of the obligation that was engrained in me since I was a child.¡±
¡°Why—you can walk away from it,¡± whispered Erika. ¡°You can save your life.¡±
Jinyu gazed at her with level vermillion eyes. ¡°There is no life for me without the Clan.¡±
And she knew he meant that quite literally. Look what they did to Syaoran when he tried to leave. But she asked casually, ¡°Why, because this Flaming Flamingo person is after you?¡±
¡°No, not just Zilai.¡±
¡°Who else is after your life then?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t know. Perhaps the Tang Clan assassins—though they would probably be more discreet. Very likely Wu Zian. Or Minato Abe or any of his underlings after what happened last time with the Yamamoto-gumi. Maybe even Taoka Yoshinori.¡±
Erika paled as Jinyu listed off people who wanted his life as he would a grocery list, and he would have continued if she didn¡¯t interject, ¡°But you helped Taoka last time.¡±
¡°What have you done so that so many people want you dead?¡±
His eyes gleamed like garnets. ¡°I was born.¡±
There was only one person she could turn to, when she was scared, when she needed a shoulder to cry on. From outside, she could see that the living room light was on in their house.
¡°Erika, what happened to you—you¡¯re bleeding!¡± exclaimed Eron, looking up from the book he had been reading in the living room of their house.
Erika stared down at her stained ivory blouse. ¡°No—it¡¯s not my blood.¡±
¡°What have you been up to this late at night?¡± demanded Eron. But then he saw the terror in Erika¡¯s eyes—something had frightened her. He had not seen such an expression since they had been young, at the orphanage.
¡°I¡¯m scared, Eron,¡± said Erika. ¡°Dark forces don¡¯t frighten me. Even Ruichi-sama and Risa-sama don¡¯t frighten me anymore. But humans frighten me. I¡¯m scared of what humans can do to each other.¡±
¡°Shh, Erika, it¡¯s all right. I¡¯m right here by your side,¡± Eron said. ¡°I won¡¯t let anything or anyone hurt you.¡±
¡°Onii-chan, you can¡¯t abandon me. Never,¡± whispered Erika.
¡°Erika, leave Li Leiyun. Come back to me. Join the Alliance,¡± said Eron.
And suddenly, Erika drew back. ¡°No. Never.¡±
¡°Erika, you know all this feuding between the Great Five is foolishness. We¡¯ve got to break the cycle.¡±
¡°You leave the Alliance then. If you leave the Alliance, I¡¯ll leave Leiyun.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t. Don¡¯t pull ultimatums on me. I¡¯m your other half. You can¡¯t manipulate me,¡± said Eron, brows furrowed down. ¡°Don¡¯t be like the Dark Ones.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t you yet it? No matter how you run, we are the Dark Ones,¡± said Erika. ¡°I will destroy the Alliance, and if you are a part of it, I¡¯ll have to destroy you as well. So leave so we can go back to how thing used to be.¡±
¡°I can¡¯t leave,¡± said Eron. ¡°My place is with Sakura.¡±
¡°Well then, you no longer have a twin or a sister. From now on, we¡¯re strangers,¡± stated Erika, trying to swallow a huge lump in her throat as she spun around and ran out of the house.
Soon enough, she found herself back at the Li mansion. Erika was surprised to see a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz parked outside in the driveway
She rushed in with a sense of dread.
A silver-haired man with aqua eyes turned around when he saw her. ¡°Long time no see, Erika. What happened to our house while I was away? This place is a wreck.¡±
The end of the school semester wrapped up with Eriol, Tomoyo, Eron and Rika leading the grade. Sakura pulled much higher grades than the previous semester, much to her pleasure.
Tomoyo looked a bit stunned that she had placed second this semester, and then stared at Eriol.
Miho later remarked, ¡°Kaho-san told Eriol that it¡¯s a disgrace he is not scoring better in her classes, and that she felt insulted as if it¡¯s a reflection of her teaching skills.¡±
But Sakura thought that it was Eriol to let out his competitive streak just when it mattered. He could care less about the mid-semester reports and little quizzes—but when the new school year started next year, his name would be at the top, as he had naturally scored highest in their year.
Eron peeped over Sakura¡¯s shoulder at her, cocking an elegant brow. ¡°Does living with Li Syaoran make that much of a difference in your math grades?¡±
Sakura quickly turned over her report card and stammered, ¡°No! I studied hard on my own merit.¡± She smiled lopsidedly. ¡°And with you as my desk mate, there was little room to slack off. I can¡¯t believe freshman year is over.¡±
¡°Why, are you disappointed that I won¡¯t be your desk mate anymore?¡± Eron murmured.
She looked up at the long-fringed golden eyes. At the beginning of the school year, she had absolutely dreaded having to sit next to Eron. Now, she really would be a bit sad that she would not have to hear his sarcastic barbs muttered under his about their teachers, their classmates and whatever lesson they were learning. She had even grown to appreciate his acerbic sense of humor, one she never even noticed when they had dated so briefly.
¡°We¡¯ll still be same class again next semester,¡± Eron said lightly. ¡°I know Mizuki-sensei favors putting all us troublemakers into one class that she can manage.¡±
¡°Strange, Li-kun has not come to school for a week,¡± remarked Mihara Chiharu. ¡°And the semester¡¯s over.¡±
¡°Is Li-kun going to be here next semester?¡± said Naoko.
Everybody remembered last year when Syaoran disappeared close to the end of the semester, with no news. While they had been genuinely concerned, they had gotten accustomed Syaoran randomly appearing and disappearing.
¡°Well, I asked Mizuki-sensei, and it seems like Li-kun hasn¡¯t withdrawn from the school,¡± said Yamazaki Takashi. ¡°Yet.¡±
¡°Sakura, did you hear anything about Li-kun?¡± asked Chiharu before Rika nudged her hard.
But Sakura shook her head. ¡°I think he has some family issues.¡±
¡°Oh no, I hope it¡¯s nothing too serious.¡±
Sakura smiled weakly.
The class cleared out their cabinets—they would move on to the classroom upstairs next semester, to start their second year of high school. But this classroom would hold many memories, such as the tea café they held for the culture festival, the hours of makeup math classes held by smelly-breath Yamaguchi-sensei, the blossoming of Eron as he made snide comments about each and every teacher and their classmates much to everyone¡¯s bemusement, Kai flunking a grade suddenly to join their class after months of model behavior, and of course, Li Syaoran, suddenly transferring to Seijou from Eitoukou Academy after Christmas break.
Tomoyo stared hard at her best friend. ¡°It¡¯s okay to say you are worried about Syaoran-kun, Sakura-chan. That you miss him.¡±
Sakura looked up at her, startled. ¡°No, I wasn¡¯t thinking of him.¡±
¡°He will return.¡±
¡°You don¡¯t have to hide your feelings for him from me. And the rest of the Alliance understands too.¡±
With a faint smile, Sakura said, ¡°First Kero-chan, then Yue-san and onii-chan, and now even you. I am a failure as Card Mistress if I make everybody worried for me. Don¡¯t worry, I¡¯m stronger than I was last year.¡±
¡°Nell'illusione ho creduto alla mia forza inesorabile e inevitabilmente sono diventata debole¡¦¡±
Li Leiyun heard a soft, childish yet sorrowful voice fill the hallways. ¡°Ora sento gli eventi si transformano e so già di emozioni che aprono ricordi lontani¡¦¡± He walked towards the music room to see the violet-haired girl strumming simple chords on the grand piano. What language were the lyrics? ¡°Nell'anima ritrovo la speranza che nel corpo stanco ormai ha smesso di vibrare come un fuoco spento dal mio pianto¡¦¡±
¡°And who would have thought you are not just a songbird,¡± remarked Leiyun. ¡°But you¡¯re an accomplished linguist too.¡±
From my soul I retrieve the hope which in my tired body now has stopped beating, like a fire quenched by tears¡¦
Tomoyo swerved around on the piano bench. ¡°Li-sensei.¡± When had Leiyun returned—did that mean Syaoran was back too?
¡°Call me Leiyun. After all, school¡¯s out,¡± replied Leiyun with a smile. ¡°When did you pick up Italian?¡±
¡°I don¡¯t speak it very well,¡± said Tomoyo stiffly.
¡°Ti sono mancato?¡±
¡°Why would I?¡±
¡°So, you didn¡¯t miss me?¡±
¡°Frankly, I didn¡¯t even realize you were gone,¡± replied Tomoyo frostily.
Leiyun smiled thinly. ¡°Of course you did. You were wondering, when Li Leiyun would return for the Clow. If Syaoran would also be back. If by the time I return, would I be the Chosen One or Syaoran or neither of us. You also were wondering, what I have done with Clow Reed¡¯s staff key.¡±
Tomoyo just smiled up at him pleasantly. ¡°You flatter yourself too much, Leiyun-san. I have far more important things to worry about. Like what to get Sakura-chan for the birthday or what color scheme outfits I am going to work on for the next Alliance outing. I was thinking of mauve or chartreuse.¡±
¡°Mauve —it goes better with your hair,¡± Leiyun said. He reached over and captured a lock of her long curl in his fingers.
Tomoyo stared up at to those piercing ice-blue eyes, frozen. She realized it was the first time she had seen him dressed in the stark black of mourning, and it suited his silvery hair. ¡°I am sorry for your loss.¡±
¡°So am I. So am I.¡± Leiyun circled around the piano. ¡°But you can make it up for me.¡±
¡°What do you want from me, Leiyun-san? I think I made it clear before, I won¡¯t join you for your nefarious plans.¡±
¡°Would you think I am lying if I say, I merely enjoy your company?¡± said Leiyun. ¡°You fascinate me—you are cultured, talented and intelligent, a rarity in this century for someone your age.¡±
Tomoyo smiled slightly. ¡°But unfortunately, I find you crass, unpleasant and somewhat unsettling.¡±
¡°I¡¯ll take that as a compliment, that you find me unsettling,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°Because I want to believe you are far too refined to insult someone to his face. But this is an aspect of you I like as well, one that no one else can appreciate. Your dual nature. Nobody knows the twisted, perverse mind beneath that composed, genteel demeanor, do they? Because you are also his descendant. You are more like Amamiya Hayashi in that aspect than anyone else. You foster a dark side that you keep well repressed within you.¡±
Tomoyo stepped back.
¡°Don¡¯t look too shocked,¡± Leiyun said. ¡°It¡¯s because you are intelligent and observant—you can only gain so much insight before you figure people out and they begin to bore you. But you can¡¯t figure me out. I fascinate you because you can¡¯t crack into me.¡±
¡°No, I can—I know you are trying to get me to join you because you need my Amamiya bloodline, and I¡¯m the easiest target, being powerless,¡± said Tomoyo.
¡°No, you are not my first choice for the very reason you cited,¡± said Leiyun thinly. ¡°But I had a change of plans when I realized something very interesting. You enthrall Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation. And it made me curious as to why. And I think I know the answer now.¡±
¡°What do you mean?¡±
He circled Tomoyo slowly. ¡°I can see it. First you were the best friend of his precious Card Mistress. I can imagine, you might have been somewhat of a nuisance with your penetrating observational skills. He probably tested you, though you wouldn¡¯t have known. Then, he begrudgingly grew to respect you. Soon, you grew to have a mutual understanding, that of equals. And then, the inevitable happened. You grew older, and he returned, and you began seeing that there was no one quite like him. You began to be drawn to him because no other guy around you really matched your intellectual capacity. And like many before you, you fell under that enigma. Then came the inevitable heartbreak. Your keen sense of intuition helps you see others but serves as a double-edged sword as you can also see your own situation clearly. You knew he had another person important to him. But here comes the paradox. He unexpectedly is drawn to you like a moth to light.¡±
¡°You are mistaken. Eriol loves Mizuki Kaho-sensei.¡±
¡°And how it must break your maidenly heart to say that with such a straight face,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°And I have no doubt that he does love Mizuki Mika¡¯s reincarnation. They will always have a deep, impregnable bond. But you should know it too. You don¡¯t mean nothing to him. And that¡¯s a lot coming from Clow Reed¡¯s reincarnation.¡±
¡°Of course. He cares about the Alliance deeply—especially Miho,¡± said Tomoyo.
¡°Don¡¯t play with words to me, Tomoyo, for it won¡¯t work on me,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°You shouldn¡¯t have fallen for him—but you probably know that better than anyone else. You will spend every minute of your remaining life regretting that you did.¡±
Tomoyo felt a chill wash over her—Leiyun, who had seemed to have paid no attention to her, who had only seemed to care about the Clow Cards—when had he been watching her, scrutinizing her, infiltrating into her deepest, most hidden secrets?
¡°It doesn¡¯t feel nice, does it, having what you always do to others done to you?¡± Leiyun said. ¡°You don¡¯t want people to read into your thoughts, the darkest secrets buried in your heart. I wonder what Eriol would say if he knows how much you love him.¡±
¡°Don¡¯t—he can never know,¡± said Tomoyo.
¡°Why is that?¡±
¡°Because it would trouble him. And he would leave,¡± she whispered, not wondering why she could not lie her way out with Leiyun.
¡°Smart girl,¡± said Leiyun with a smile. ¡°But so long as you don¡¯t say anything, he will continue to watch out for you, seek your advice and value you as a one-of-a-kind companion. You want to indulge in that sort of special treatment, justifying that is enough, that a man like Hiiragizawa Eriol is not the kind for love.¡±
¡°What do you want from me, Leiyun-san?¡±
¡°I was alone for a very long time,¡± said Leiyun. ¡°There was no one to talk to. I didn¡¯t know humans were not meant to be solitary creatures. But trapped alone with only my own mind for company for long enough—it was enough to make anyone break.¡±
¡°But you lived, and you are here now.¡±
¡°True. It took a toll on me though,¡± Leiyun said. ¡°It stripped me of any sort of rose-colored illusion of the world I had once. I see people they are, nothing more, nothing less. My own family abandoned me and left me for dead. But I can see why they did that.¡±
¡°How did you escape?¡±
¡°Kara came and rescued me. A complete stranger, and a Reed for a matter of fact. How ironic is that.¡±
¡°So, you could not have lost all faith in humanity,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°Because I am sure you were hurt and angry and bitter for a while. But you surely haven¡¯t returned for revenge on those who had abandoned you.¡±
¡°What makes you so sure that I am not just out for bloodthirsty revenge?¡± said Leiyun.
¡°Because you are far too logical for that,¡± Tomoyo replied.
¡°And I thought all of you had decided I am a psychotic lunatic, out of my wits,¡± Leiyun said, drawing nearer to her to whisper in her ear. ¡°Maybe I am--nobody can be alone for that long and be completely sane.¡±
¡°Nobody in the world is completely sane—but you pretty much came back from the dead if what you said is true. You would not waste your second shot at life on something as petty as revenge on your family,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°You would not have spent so much time provoking Syaoran to get him back on his feet.¡±
¡°And you think I actually helped Syaoran?¡± Leiyun smiled. ¡°Well, they did say you have a perverse sense of humor and enjoy blackmailing the poor boy with humiliating videotapes. By the way, can I get a preorder too?¡±
Tomoyo blinked. ¡°Yes, in a strange way, I think you did help Syaoran. Whether for his own benefit or yours, I do not know.¡±
¡°This is why I believe your talents are wasted in the Alliance,¡± said Leiyun softly. ¡°You are a schemer, like me. I¡¯ll appreciate your brains.¡±
¡°Well, I think I¡¯ll stay where I am appreciated as a person,¡± said Tomoyo, turning around. ¡°Goodbye. Hope I do not have to see you next semester.¡±
¡°Congratulations on surviving freshman year of high school,¡± murmured Leiyun, almost wistfully. ¡°Just two more years to go before you can bid good riddance to the drudgery of school all together.¡±
¡°School is very fun for me, thank you, and I plan to attend college with all my friends,¡± said Tomoyo. Then she stopped short. Leiyun had been sixteen when he had been sent on his deadly mission. He had never completed his freshman year of high school.
¡°Why is Eriol in such a foul temper?¡± grumbled Miho as she plopped into the Reed mansion parlor couch, clutching her report card—she had done exceedingly well for her grade but nobody was complimenting her.
¡°He is? I can¡¯t tell,¡± remarked Kai, watching Eriol take down a white rook on the chessboard. He was beating his opponent Suppi-chan by several pieces.
¡°And Tomoyo-senpai is unusually distracted,¡± stated Miho.
¡°She¡¯s brooding,¡± said Kero-chan. ¡°Tomoyo-chan never broods.¡±
They all looked and saw indeed that Tomoyo had a sketchbook on her lap and with her pencil was drawing a black circle that bore deeper and deeper into the sheet of paper.
But they were interrupted as Meilin entered the room, out of breath.
¡°Meilin, where were you all day?¡± Sakura asked.
¡°Syaoran¡¯s back,¡± whispered Meilin. ¡°Not just Syaoran. The whole Li delegation arrived in Tokyo.¡±
¡°What do you mean by Li delegation?¡± asked Miho.
¡°Syaoran, Leiyun—and some Elders and Council members, a business delegation and bodyguards,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°At least 20 men. And there¡¯s another two dozen based in Japan—Osaka, Hokkaido, as well as the Kanto region—and they¡¯ve all come too.¡±
Everybody turned to Sakura, who was relatively calm, though her fists were tightly clenched on her lap.
¡°What do they want?¡± asked Miho.
¡°To reclaim their turf, I would imagine,¡± muttered Kai.
¡°This is our turf!¡± exclaimed Miho.
¡°I was speaking rhetorically,¡± Kai sighed.
¡°You don¡¯t look surprised,¡± said Meilin to Tomoyo. ¡°Did you already know they were back?¡±
Tomoyo tensed. ¡°I saw Leiyun earlier.¡±
¡°Where? Did he give you trouble again?¡± demanded Kero-chan.
¡°No, it was at school.¡± Tomoyo paused. ¡°Meilin. This mission that Leiyun was sent on eight years ago. Do you know what sort of mission it was?¡±
Meilin replied, ¡°Well, it was sort of hushed up so I never hear the full details. He was sent away—
all I know it was very far away. And that he never came back.¡±
¡°Why did no one go find him, to check he was alive?¡± asked Tomoyo.
¡°Because it was so far away—it¡¯s very dangerous to get there, is what I heard,¡± said Meilin. ¡°It was apparently the same mission that Syaoran¡¯s father was sent on and never came back from.¡±
¡°Why this sudden curiosity about Leiyun?¡± asked Kai, bemused. ¡°Don¡¯t tell me you¡¯ve developed a sudden infatuation for him?¡±
¡°Disgusting, don¡¯t joke about something like!¡± exclaimed Miho. ¡°Tomoyo-senpai has better taste than that.¡±
¡°Well, Lei is pretty popular among the high school students,¡± remarked Meilin. ¡°He¡¯s still devastatingly handsome, though his eyes have a cold look, and he was well-liked back in Hong Kong, both in school and with all our female cousins.¡±
¡°He is quite dashing,¡± pointed out Nakuru. ¡°On par with Touya.¡±
¡°He¡¯s psychotic—check. Appreciates Tomoyo¡¯s sense of fashion—check. And he even likes to torture Syaoran for fun—check. Perfect for Tomoyo,¡± said Kai, counting down with his fingers.
Kero-chan bit Kai¡¯s forefinger. ¡°Don¡¯t even joke about something like that. As if Tomoyo-chan would ever—¡± Then he trailed off as Tomoyo had a distant look. He had always wondered what sort of guy Tomoyo would end up falling for. It would definitely not be any ordinary guy.
¡°Meilin, tell me, before Leiyun went off on this mission, what was he like? How was his relationship with Syaoran?¡± Tomoyo asked.
¡°He was like an older brother—he looked after Syaoran,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°At school, Syaoran was sort of an outcast because—well you know what he¡¯s like. And he was really withdrawn especially in first grade. He had private tutors through kindergarten so never really learned how to socialize properly. And Leiyun would come over from middle school and stick up for Syaoran. And you all know that Syaoran adored Leiyun too.¡±
¡°So was all that back then an act—or did he really change that much?¡± Miho asked.
Meilin paused. ¡°I know you guys see Leiyun as the enemy who made Syaoran steal the Clow Cards. But I still see traces of the Leiyun I used to know in him. I guess he went through a lot. But has he really hurt anyone?¡±
¡°He locked Syaoran up and tortured him,¡± Kai muttered.
¡°I don¡¯t want to sound like I¡¯m defending him—I¡¯m not—but it¡¯s no worse than what the Great Elder used to do to us for training,¡± said Meilin.
¡°He stole the Sakura Cards. He kidnapped Tomoyo,¡± Miho listed.
¡°Well, technically Syaoran stole the cards,¡± remarked Tomoyo. ¡°And I walked into his car on my own—he didn¡¯t force me.¡±
¡°Oh my goodness, I can¡¯t believe we¡¯re having this conversation!¡± exclaimed Miho.
But they were spared from an argument as there was a knock on the front door. Yukito came in with a cream-colored envelope into the Reed parlor. ¡°Someone delivered a letter, it seems. It¡¯s addressed to Kinomoto Sakura.¡±
¡°How did they know we were here?¡± whispered Miho.
¡°They¡¯ve set a spy network on Sakura and the rest of the Alliance since arrival,¡± replied Meilin shortly.
¡°Be careful, it could be a trap,¡± said Kero-chan.
Sakura nodded, and she took the letter. Carefully, she pried the envelope open. A cream-colored card fell on her lap. She read it.
¡°Well, what is it?¡± Kai asked.
¡°A challenge letter,¡± Sakura replied shortly.
¡°What?¡± Miho peered over her shoulder and read Syaoran¡¯s unmistakable bold handwriting out loud. ¡°I, Li Syaoran, accept Kinomoto Sakura¡¯s challenge to a duel.¡± She blinked. ¡°The date¡¯s set for two days from today, April 1st, 5 p.m., at the park.¡±
¡°What the heck is the Brat thinking?¡± demanded Kero-chan.
¡°It¡¯s the answer to the challenge letter Sakura sent last December,¡± stated Eron.
¡°That was addressed to Li Leiyun!¡± exclaimed Kero-chan.
¡°No, it was addressed to a Li—it didn¡¯t specify which one,¡± Eron said.
¡°Well, you can¡¯t accept the duel,¡± stated Kai.
¡°No, she has to accept it,¡± said Eriol. ¡°Because she sent the challenge letter first, she is obligated to carry out the duel if the other side accepts. If she doesn¡¯t, that is accepting forfeit and by default she loses.¡±
¡°So what—let her lose then—what¡¯s the point of defeating Li Syaoran?¡± Kero-chan said.
Yukito shook his head. ¡°You forget, if the Card Mistress is defeated by Li Syaoran, that means that she cedes the Sakura Cards to him. She has to accept the challenge and defeat him.¡±
¡°Why did you send the Lis a challenge letter in the first place?¡± demanded Miho.
¡°So that I can get back the Sakura Cards, fair and square.¡± Sakura smiled tightly. ¡°This is a good thing. I can reclaim the Sakura Cards once and for all.¡±
¡°This is folly!¡± Kero-chan exclaimed. ¡°Do you understand who you are up against? Li Syaoran. Not Leiyun. Syaoran, the boy who fought by your side for all these years. Do you seriously expect me to believe that you are capable of defeating him? Do you know what it entails to defeat him.¡±
Sakura said wearily, ¡°Yes. I know his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else.¡±
Yukito pointed, ¡°Without his magical powers, it will be difficult for Syaoran to defeat Sakura.¡±
¡°Well, Sakura doesn¡¯t exactly have her Sakura Cards either,¡± said Kero-chan, shaking his fist at Sakura. ¡°So you can¡¯t really rely on much except the several new cards you have sealed—and fat chance the Pride or the Magnet is going to do you in a battle with one of the best swordsman of this generation!¡±
And Sakura smiled slightly. ¡°Did you just call Syaoran one of the best swordsmen of the generation? He¡¯s going to have a ball when he hears that.¡±
¡°You seriously are joking at a time like this?¡± Kero-chan demanded.
Sakura stood to her full height and stared at her friends square in the eye. ¡°You all knew it was going to come down to this sooner or later. I was going to have to fight Syaoran. And at least it will be in a one-on-one with the duel. This will prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Don¡¯t you see this is the only way? There are more Lis here in Japan than ever before. It¡¯s warning to us—if I do not comply, they will use all their forces to fight us. And Syaoran knows that too. If we carry out this duel, the Li Clan will be obligated to comply with the results and step back if I win. If he wins, the Li Clan would have won the cards fairly.¡±
It was a rare Saturday that Sakura met with her friends for a day out in Tokyo. She wore a new pink-and-white checkered pinafore and a new white leather shoulder bag that Naoko, Chiharu and Rika had chipped in for her birthday present.
¡°Are you sure this is all you want for your birthday?¡± asked Tomoyo doubtfully, tugging on the end of her long violet curls, half tied back with a blue ribbon.
¡°Of course,¡± said Sakura. ¡°I just want to spend a normal day with you guys. You said I could choose to do whatever I want today.¡±
¡°But we can watch a movie, go to the arcade and chat at the café any day,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°Today, we¡¯re celebrating your birthday.¡±
¡°Well, technically Sakura¡¯s birthday is tomorrow,¡± said Meilin.
Kai nudged Meilin. But tomorrow was the day of the duel with Syaoran. So, they decided to celebrate Sakura¡¯s birthday a day early.
The five started off the day by watching a sappy romantic film of Sakura¡¯s choosing. ¡°Rika-chan recommended the movie to me,¡± she said. When Kai who had wanted to watch an action flick grumbled, Meilin kicked him in the shin.
¡°How beautiful,¡± said Meilin, dabbing her eyes coming out of the theater two hours later. ¡°I¡¯m so glad Asou-sensei returns Hina¡¯s feelings.¡±
¡°Of course Rika-chan would recommend a teacher-student love story,¡± muttered Kai.
¡°But if I were Hina, I wouldn¡¯t have forgiven Asou-sensei for lying to her when he was nice to her only because he actually was a paid bodyguard,¡± stated Miho. ¡°And the first girl he loved—if she got shot protecting him, why did he let her go? Shouldn¡¯t he have stayed by her side?¡±
¡°He had to let her go because he felt guilty,¡± replied Kai.
¡°I wonder if Hina would have taken a bullet for Asou-sensei,¡± remarked Meilin.
¡°Asou-sensei wouldn¡¯t let her, I would think. He wouldn¡¯t make the same mistake happen twice,¡± replied Tomoyo.
¡°I still think that Hina was naïve. He was only nice to her because she was his client,¡± Miho stated.
¡°Sister of mine, how have you grown to not have a single romantic bone in your body?¡± said Kai.
¡°Brother of mine, how have you grown into a big old wussy—I saw you dabbing your eyes under your sunglasses while watching the movie,¡± retorted Miho.
The group squabbled about the movie as they headed towards the arcade.
¡°Oh, I want to play that!¡± exclaimed Miho, pointing to a shooting game, not noticing her brother¡¯s face pale. ¡°Onii-chan, play it with me.¡±
Meilin slipped her arm into Miho¡¯s. ¡°Oh, I wanted to play that game. Let¡¯s play it together.¡±
With a lopsided smile, Kai watched the two girls battle off with plastic guns.
¡°She knows you very well,¡± remarked Sakura. ¡°Meilin-chan.¡±
¡°Yeah,¡± remarked Kai.
¡°You¡¯re like her trustworthy bodyguard,¡± said Sakura.
Kai tilted his chin down, peering over the top rim of his sunglasses. ¡°No, she¡¯s more like mine.¡± He knew he had an unbecoming smile while watching over his little sister and girlfriend bond over an arcade game, but with Sakura, it was all right. ¡°You¡¯re feeling all right about tomorrow?¡± Meilin had promised him to make no reference to the duel on this day, but he thought otherwise.
¡°Yeah, I think I am,¡± said Sakura.
¡°We¡¯ve got your back,¡± said Kai. ¡°All you¡¯ve got to worry about is getting cards back. And perhaps knocking some sense back into Syaoran¡¯s brain.¡±
Sakura smiled at him slightly. ¡°Is this your way of saying you¡¯re actually concerned for me, Kaitou-kun?¡±
¡°No, Cherry Tart, I¡¯m worried about Syaoran¡¯s brain.¡±
The group had wandered into a side ally as they searched for a sticker photo booth.
¡°I¡¯ve never taken a purikura before,¡± remarked Kai.
¡°You two haven¡¯t taken a commemorative couple purikura yet?¡± asked Miho aghast. ¡°Isn¡¯t that what all couples do as soon as they start dating?¡±
¡°We¡¯ll put a prison stamp right on it,¡± said Meilin with a sinister snicker. She took her wallet out and showed Miho the sticker photo that she, Syaoran, Tomoyo and Sakura had taken more than six years ago—the color had faded somewhat.
¡°You were all so young!¡± squealed Miho.
Tomoyo looked over Meilin¡¯s shoulder. ¡°Wow, you still have that?¡± Hers was stored in her treasure box.
¡°Of course, it¡¯s the first and last purikura I ever took with Syaoran,¡± replied Meilin.
¡°That¡¯s it, I¡¯m going to find a machine right away!¡± said Kai.
They almost collided into a tall girl with huge feathery pink hair, wearing tight red leather shorts and a leopard-print halter-top, with tall black boots.
¡°Oh gosh, it¡¯s that girl we saw at the Li mansion!¡± exclaimed Meilin. ¡°The Pink Flamenco!¡±
¡°The Flaming Flamingo,¡± corrected Kai. ¡°Where is she off to?¡± There was an unmistakable glint of murder in her pale brown eyes.
¡°I love her hair,¡± remarked Tomoyo.
Sakura shut her eyes. ¡°I hear them.¡± She ran through an old building and emerged on the other side of the ally.
The others chased after her. ¡°Where are you going, Sakura-chan?¡± exclaimed Tomoyo.
For a second, Sakura¡¯s eyes flickered across the abandoned ally, then she ran down the opposite end, to a narrow twelve-story high building. She ran up the flights of stairs, the others chasing behind her. They emerged on the rooftop, and they heard the clambering of voices across on the other building.
It was Jinyu, all in black, knife in hand, glaring at a group of yakuza and triad thugs mixed amongst them. Jinyu shoved one man over, ducked and dug the hilt of the knife into the stomach of another, knocking him unconscious, then flipped around and kicked the chin off a man attacking from behind.
¡°That¡¯s foul!¡± exclaimed Meilin, when she realized who was at the center of the crowd. ¡°You can¡¯t have 30 men attacking one person!¡±
¡°When did mafia have any sense of honor?¡± said Kai dryly.
And a red-pink blur flashed out from across the other end of the roof, and Sakura gasped as she realized the flashes of silver were two broad dao, butterfly swords.
But Jinyu spun around and stopped the young woman by gripping her arms.
¡°Black Dragon—how long are you going to avoid me?¡± said the Flaming Flamingo—flamboyant as her name. ¡°I¡¯m going to carve your face up and carry your eyeballs back home as souvenir. I¡¯ll become the head of the mafia.¡±
Jinyu seemed unfazed, however, ducking as Wu Zilai swung her butterfly swords around rapidly. She thrust forwards, and he countered by drawing out a slender saber with a black and silver tassel. There was clash of metal, and then Jinyu had to duck as three men charge at him from all directions as Zilai dashed forward with her swords that suddenly burst into flame. She shot out a pink jet of fire from her sword. It missed Jinyu and singed one of the triad thugs in a red silk suit.
¡°Idiot!¡± Zilai called out in Chinese. In Japanese, she added, ¡°I got this—get out of my way.¡±
Meilin frowned, drawing out two red tassels from her pocket. ¡°I¡¯m going to help out!¡±
¡°You can¡¯t!¡± exclaimed Kai.
¡°Oh, I can¡¯t? That¡¯s my cousin there, and I won¡¯t let him get beaten when I can go help.¡±
¡°Your so-called cousin is the Hong Kong mafia¡¯s Dragon King. He¡¯s well capable of fending for himself.¡±
¡°Under normal circumstances, yes. But can¡¯t you see he¡¯s injured?¡± said Meilin.
Kai looked and saw through a slit through Jinyu¡¯s cheongsam that he was bandaged across his chest and arm, and blood was seeping through.
Without any hesitation, Meilin jumped the two-meter gap between the two buildings and rushed out with her double swords unsheathed.
Kai cursed under his breath—he couldn¡¯t very well let her face the ruthless Hong Kong triads by herself. He slammed his dark sunglasses up the bridge of his nose and leapt to the next rooftop with a grace befitting the Prince of the Night, Kaitou Magician.
Jinyu looked surprised when he saw Meilin¡¯s lithe form join his back.
Meilin said, ¡°I¡¯m not helping you. I just can¡¯t stand when 20 men attack one person. Because I¡¯m a Li, and I¡¯ve been taught by the Great Elder that Lis have to uphold honor and justice.¡±
¡°You.¡± Zilai blinked her long lashes. ¡°Good to see you again. I was itching to slash up your pretty face.¡± The Flaming Flamingo dashed forward with her butterfly swords.
Meilin barely blocked by crossing her two blades over her head. Her arm muscles rung, as if they had been yanked out of her shoulder sockets, and she shuddered—how could a woman be so powerful? And the Flamingo came back down again—Meilin knew for certain now—Zilai did not have the years of refined training and technique that she did. All she had was brute power and speed. And magic.
She ducked a jet of rose flames that nearly singled her hair. It wasn¡¯t fair—Meilin knew she was more skilled at the swords than Zilai, but she was not able to draw near because of the magic. How could she beat an opponent that she couldn¡¯t get near?
Meilin countered another blow with her left sword and swung low with her right arm. They were both armed with twin blades—her double-edged Ryuuga and Shyuura were slimmer and longer. Zilai¡¯s single-bladed dao were broader and shorter—but sharpened. Zilai had the advantage of height and power, but Meilin knew she was quicker and had more endurance.
Meilin shuddered as one man dashed forwards with eight knives tucked between each finger—and she saw them fly out towards her. There was no way she could duck all of them.
Eight other knives came out and deflected them all deftly. She looked up. Kai. Kai seemed to have worked his way through the other end of the roof, taking down the Japanese yakuza who seemed to be riffraff left from the crumbling Minato-gumi, once the second largest mafia clan in Japan.
And to her surprise, Sakura had also jumped over and was smacking a man with her staff. Sakura wasn¡¯t going to be much help in this fight. Miho and Tomoyo watched from the other rooftop, knowing staying out of the way was helping.
Meilin knew already that she and Kai fought well together—and Jinyu was a formidable force to reckon with. The other side had the strength of numbers. But Zilai was the wild card. A woman wearing a brown yukata, wielding a katana dashed at her, and Meilin served around and knocked her sword out of her hand. Two men dashed forward and she leapt up into the air, the sunlight catching her hair as she swooped down and kicked over three men as she swooped down in a triple somersault.
Because the others were busy fighting, only Sakura noticed that a man with long gold-brown hair in a powder-blue suit had walked up to the rooftop with two men. She gasped when she recognized the pale brown eyes and ducked behind a brawny man.
But he had spotted her. ¡°Well, if it isn¡¯t Miss Green-Eyes,¡± the Golden Leopard murmured.
Meilin was too busy swirling around, taking down another batch of men with a series of complicated swords maneuvers with red tassels swinging around her like a ribbon dancer.
¡°And who is that glorious, fiery creature?¡± murmured the Gold Leopard, stepping towards the sunlight, mesmerized by the girl in red with long silky black hair fanning out behind her.
¡°She¡¯s the Li girl—the other protector candidate,¡± replied his first subordinate.
¡°Yes, the one you refused as your fiancée some years ago.¡±
¡°Why didn¡¯t anyone tell me how sublime she was?¡± asked Wu Zian.
¡°Well, she was supposedly engaged to her cousin—Syaoran—and refused you as well.¡±
¡°No one refuses me. Not even for the Chosen One.¡± Zian smiled thinly and walked over to the fight. Meilin panted as she found herself staring up at an unfamiliar face. She swung her sword arm down, but he didn¡¯t deflect. He reached out and grabbed one arm, then as she turned around to escape, he grabbed her other wrist, knocking both swords to the ground and pinning her to him. And he peered carefully at her flushed face, her brilliant eyes gleaming like garnets in the crimson late afternoon sun.
¡°Let go!¡± she said, prepared to kick him in the balls.
He asked her lowly, in Cantonese, ¡°Do you know who I am?¡±
She looked up at the brook brown eyes and felt chill. ¡°Yes. You are the Gold Leopard.¡± She, Kai and Jinyu could take down two dozen men and Zilai. But with Wu Zian as well, they stood no chance.
Meilin saw Kai struggling as four men charged at him, pinning him over the roof edge. Sakura had been knocked over on the ground and looked dazed. Where was Jinyu? And she saw the pink-haired woman dart out from nowhere.
¡°I¡¯m going to kill you, Li Jinyu, for once and for all!¡± cried out Zilai, sprinting forward and jumping on top of Jinyu, knocking him back to the ground.
If he wasn¡¯t injured, Jinyu would easily have been able to duck. Zilai pinned him down, a blade pressed against his throat. She flinched as a cold metal barrel pressed against her forehead. He had swiped out his pistol and had the look of death in his amber eyes.
¡°You wouldn¡¯t dare,¡± she said, pressing the blade down on Jinyu¡¯s throat, drawing the faint trickle of blood. She heard his fingers pressing on the trigger. ¡°This is your fault. Why did you leave?¡±
¡°Halt!¡± called out a low voice that seemed to hold an authoritative tone. Zian released Meilin suddenly, and she scrambled to pick up her swords.
¡°Zian!¡± Zilai looked up, and Jinyu took the chance to shove her off him and stand up. ¡°What are you doing here? This is my fight.¡±
¡°And as the Head of the Wu Clan, I said, let¡¯s retreat!¡±
¡°Retreat? We¡¯re winning here,¡± Zilai exclaimed.
¡°Jinyu still is our head,¡± said Zian, looking at Jinyu. ¡°Even if he chose to abandon us.¡±
Zilai shot the Black Dragon a disgusted look. ¡°I¡¯m not retreating—this was a draw!¡±
¡°Sure,¡± replied Jinyu, expressionless.
¡°Long time no see, King,¡± said Zian, staring at Jinyu. ¡°Apologies for my unprincipled older sister. We¡¯ll see each other again soon enough.¡± Zian, Zilai, and their subordinates jumped over to a lower building and melted into the allies below.
Kara emerged from the stairwell and spotted Jinyu. ¡°If you ran into trouble, you could have called you know. Leiyun is looking for you.¡± And Kara glanced over at the grimy Meilin, Kai and Sakura. ¡°Or are you hanging out with the likes of them now?¡±
¡°You¡¯re supposed to stay with Syaoran,¡± said Jinyu.
Tomoyo glanced over at Sakura as she picked herself off the ground and brushed the dirt off her dress.
¡°Syaoran¡¯s with the old geezer Wutai—you know I can¡¯t stand that vile man,¡± said Kara.
¡°Exterminating cockroaches.¡± Kara chased after Jinyu, down the emergency stairwell.
¡°Are you sure you¡¯re not injured?¡± Miho asked Kai.
¡°Yeah, I¡¯m fine,¡± said Kai, wiping the smudges off his sunglasses with the bottom of his shirt. ¡°Meilin, you?¡±
Meilin was bruised here and there, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.
¡°Why did you help Jinyu?¡± Meilin asked Sakura. ¡°He¡¯s my cousin—but you didn¡¯t have to step in.¡±
Sakura said, ¡°No, I didn¡¯t. But he¡¯s your cousin.¡±
The group looked out from the rooftop at Tokyo Tower glowing as if set on fire at sunset.
¡°Well, that was a nice distraction. What next, birthday girl?¡± asked Kai.
Late afternoon, the group finally found themselves at Shiba Park, at the foot of the Tokyo Tower. They gazed up at the 333-meter red-and-white lattice structure once more.
¡°Well, we did a good job fixing that wreck of a structure up,¡± remarked Kai.
¡°It¡¯s been looking somewhat off ever since we sealed the Metal,¡± stated Miho, wrinkling her nose.
¡°It¡¯s your imagination,¡± replied Meilin. ¡°Looks the same as ever.¡±
Sakura turned to her friends. ¡°Last request for my birthday. I want to go up to the observation deck just once.¡±
¡°What are we, in grade school?¡± said Kai, rolling his eyes.
Meilin chuckled. ¡°Oh yeah, last time, back in elementary school when we all came here together, we never got past the front door because of the Dream Card.¡± Syaoran had spotted the Clow Card and saved Sakura from the Dream.
The five friends bought tickets and stepped into the elevator which zapped them up to the main observation deck.
¡°Wow, look at the view!¡± exclaimed Meilin, running up to the glass windows, staring at the magnificent city scape.
Tomoyo watched Sakura, who walked slowly through the crowds of people, circling the observation desk, taking in the panoramic view of Tokyo.
Meilin stood at the lookdown window, staring down at the clear glass floor which could see all 150 meters below to the ground. ¡°I feel dizzy,¡± she said.
¡°Too bad, we came all the way here and the special observatory is closed off for renovations,¡± remarked Miho.
¡°Most likely we just did not do a very good job with reparations after the Magnet,¡± stated Kai. ¡°The television satellites were quite a bit wonky afterwards.¡±
¡°That was your task,¡± said Meilin.
¡°Hey, I was under duress,¡± replied Kai.
And Tomoyo sighed as a group of tourists blocked her perfect shot of Sakura on film. There was a class of elementary students, many lovey-dovey couples and clusters of families.
¡°Tomoyo-chan is sulking,¡± remarked Meilin.
¡°Why?¡± asked Kai.
¡°Because she wanted to throw Sakura a fabulous birthday celebration now that she¡¯s turning 17, but Sakura wouldn¡¯t let her.¡±
Kero-chan nodded understandingly from Tomoyo¡¯s handbag. ¡°After all, Tomoyo always wanted to throw Sakura a fabulous celebration for her sixteenth birthday, but last year, with Syaoran gone and losing her powers and all, nobody was quite in the spirit to hold a big party.¡±
¡°Well that won¡¯t stop Tomoyo for holding a small celebration, nonetheless,¡± remarked Meilin with a chuckle.
Tomoyo watched Sakura walk over to the windows and stare out at the orange-red Tokyo sky.
Are you lonely Sakura, even though all your friends are here with you, she wanted to ask Sakura. Will we ever be able to fill the hole left by Syaoran? Are you looking out the window, looking out at the city, wondering where he is right now?
But Sakura turned around, as if she knew that Tomoyo had been watching. ¡°Tomoyo-chan, come look over here. When I was on the Fly Card, sometimes I flew higher. Both most of the time, I wasn¡¯t really looking out at the city. But standing here, I feel so small and insignificant.¡±
Tomoyo stood beside her and looked at the sinking sun. Soon, dusk fell and the nightlights flashed on. ¡°Should we leave now?¡±
Sakura nodded. ¡°Thanks for coming with me.¡±
¡°That was fun,¡± said Meilin. ¡°I think this is the most normal day I¡¯ve ever had with Kai.¡±
Sakura blinked. ¡°What do you two usually do on dates then?¡±
Meilin shrugged. ¡°We never really do anything twice. But I think this is the first time I¡¯ve been to the movie theater with him.¡±
¡°Where did Kai go anyway?¡±
Meilin shrugged, pushing her towards the other end of the main observatory floor.
¡°Where are we going?¡± asked Sakura.
¡°Close your eyes,¡± said Tomoyo.
Before she could, a silk handkerchief slipped over her eyes. ¡°Hoe?¡±
¡°Careful, watch your step,¡± whispered Kai into her ears, nudging her towards Club 333.
And she felt Tomoyo¡¯s cool hands lead her towards a table, and she was pretty sure she heard Suppi-chan snap, ¡°Ouch, you¡¯re crushing my tail.¡±
And Kai slipped off the handkerchief.
¡°Surprise!¡± called out a flurry of voices.
And she saw a bunch of familiar faces lined up at the table, and a huge banner hung up stating, ¡°Happy Birthday Sakura!¡±
All the Alliance members were there, including Eriol, Mizuki-sensei, Nakuru and Eron. Her brother and Yukito were wearing cone hats and her father waved at her from the end of the table.
¡°Happy Birthday Sakura!¡± called out her friends and family.
¡°W-what? How are all of you here?¡± stammered Sakura, looking around at Tomoyo.
¡°It¡¯s your surprise birthday party!¡± Miho exclaimed. ¡°Tomoyo booked out the club.¡±
¡°When did you¡¦How did you¡¦¡± Sakura trailed off, speechless. Club 333 was usually bustling with crowds of people who came to listen to jazz and other music performances over drinks in the evening, especially so on Saturdays.
Tomoyo said, ¡°My mom pulled a few strings, and Kai did the rest.¡±
¡°What did you this time?¡± Sakura asked her thief friend almost alarmed.
Kai blinked. ¡°Nothing illegal! Okay, I did cancel another corporate party booked here by hacking into their database.¡±
¡°Kai!¡± exclaimed Meilin.
¡°Oh, and I did bribe the manager to allow us to bring our own outside caterer because the food here¡¯s not too great,¡± Kai added. ¡°And I hooked the band supposed to be performing here tonight with a better gig.¡±
The group indeed enjoyed a five course meal of light avocado and shrimp cocktail salad, crab bisque, mushroom risotto, sirloin steak with mashed sweet potatoes and grilled eggplants on the side and finally a dessert of homemade honey milk gelato. There was sparkling champagne for the adults and apple cider for the students.
¡°So, how did you know that Sakura was going to choose to come to Tokyo Tower in the first place?¡± asked Eriol to Tomoyo.
¡°Just,¡± replied Tomoyo with a smile. ¡°And I gave her a nudge, choosing a movie theater nearby here.¡±
¡°You know Sakura very well, don¡¯t you?¡± Eriol remarked.
Tomoyo stared down at the floor. ¡°I thought I did. But last year, I realized, the person I thought I knew the most could be the most distant from me.¡±
¡°But she trusts you above anyone else. And you trust her too above anyone else,¡± remarked Eriol. ¡°Trust is more valuable than anything else.¡±
For a second, Tomoyo thought he sounded envious. Clow Reed had not trusted anyone. Not even Cerberus and Yue, his most faithful vessels. Even now, she wondered if he had learned to trust. Perhaps he did Mizuki Kaho.
¡°Now it¡¯s time for the presents!¡± exclaimed Miho, who seemed to have presided over the night¡¯s events. ¡°First up is Ms. Tomoyo Daidouji accompanied by Mr. Eriol Hiiragizawa with a birthday tune.¡±
Everybody clapped enthusiastically. When in the world had the two had time to prepare a song, they wondered.
Eriol looked handsome in a crisp button-down blue shirt with white pinstripes, sleeves rolled up, over dark slacks looking more casual than usual.
Tomoyo too wore a wispy sky-blue dress—had the two coordinated outfits, wondered Miho briefly. To her surprise, they sang in a foreign language. Miho trained her ears—having lived for years in England, she recognized it to be Italian. How odd, yet pretty, she thought.
¡°I do, I do emergere dal fondo per lottare e poi, salire in alto più che mai¡¦¡± It was a somewhat gloomy song that only Tomoyo could pull off with her siren-like voice, Miho decided.
But Sakura looked delighted as she clapped her hands.
Of course, afterwards, Tomoyo presented Sakura with a huge box, filled with three complete outfits including a magnificent white dress trimmed with black ribbons and a maroon sash and white lace-up ballet slippers. Tomoyo shrugged, ¡°I couldn¡¯t decide which one to give you for your birthday so I put everything in.¡±
Eriol presented Sakura with a book of spells, and Miho rolled her eyes. ¡°Thank goodness you played something on the piano to make up for such a boring present,¡± she muttered.
¡°What, it¡¯s a magic book written by Clow—who wouldn¡¯t want that?¡± asked Eriol.
¡°That¡¯s on Syaoran-senpai¡¯s list of most wanted items, not Sakura-senpai¡¯s,¡± hissed Miho.
¡°Well, I¡¯m not sure she wanted an illustrated leather-bound Shakespeare play either,¡± pointed out Suppi-chan. Miho had given Sakura a rare collector¡¯s item copy of her second favorite Shakespearean play, ¡°The Winter¡¯s Tale.¡±
¡°But it¡¯s beautiful,¡± said Miho, stroking the embossed leather and breathing in the musty smell of paper.
¡°Next up, is the illustrious and magnanimous Kaitou Magician and his lovely assistant Li Meilin!¡± exclaimed Miho.
Meilin had slipped away for the previous performance and walked up on the stage looking very uncomfortable in a sleeveless bunny girl costume with a formfitting red leotard over black fishnet stockings, black high-heels and a white bunny tail and ears.
¡°I told you I¡¯m not wearing this,¡± she hissed to Kai under her breath.
Kai, dapper in a black tuxedo and a tall top hat, bowed elegantly and performed a bunch of tricks such as drawing out a real live bunny from his hat, making Meilin turn into a real bunny, as well as the good old audience favorite, guessing the correct card.
¡°And,¡± he said, to Sakura, who was clasping a card to her chest. ¡°Do you have the Queen of Spades?¡±
¡°H-how did you know?¡± squeaked Sakura holding up the card for everyone to confirm it was true.
And Kai made a grand show of drawing his present out from his top hat. He surprisingly gave her the most practical gift of the day—a picklock set. Meilin gave her a new perfume.
¡°I love the scent!¡± exclaimed Sakura, as Meilin spritzed it on her wrist. It was a light florally sweet scent.
To her surprise, even her brother and Yukito-san had prepared a performance. Touya mumbled rather shyly, ¡°I¡¯m really out of practice, but please bear with me. Sakura, this is a tune that our mother used to like.¡±
Yukito accompanied on the piano—she had never heard Yukito play before. Though he was only accompanying, she was convinced he was probably every bit as skilled as Eriol.
Sakura closed her eyes. Yes, she seemed to recall the tune. Vitali¡¯s Chaconne. It had been one of Syaoran¡¯s father¡¯s favorite tunes.
Touya gave her a new leather book bag—he must have noted her old one¡¯s straps had frayed over the past year. Mizuki-sensei gave her a new stationary set with her initials engraved in rose-gold on pale-pink lined paper. Her father gave her a new set of rollerblades. Eron gave her a surprisingly useful gift— a fountain pen that had allegedly belonged to Chang Reiji. She protested that she couldn¡¯t possibly accept a sentimental gift, Eron pointed, ¡°You made me promise not to spend money on you, so I¡¯m giving you something that was lying around the house that nobody would ever use. Heaven knows Erika barely knows how to write properly—she won¡¯t manage in anything other than pencil.¡±
And Yukito gave her a brown teddy bear with a red ribbon around its neck. When you pressed its stomach, it said, ¡°Happy Birthday Sakura!¡±
¡°Is it too childish?¡± asked Yukito with a slight frown.
Sakura felt her eyes blurred and she buried her head into the huge teddy bear, squeezing it into a tight hug. She mumbled into the soft fur, ¡°No, it¡¯s not. I love it, Yukito-san. Thank you so much. Thank you so much everybody. I am so happy that all of you are here today with me.¡±
¡°Darn it, she¡¯s making my sunglasses mist up again,¡± grumbled Kai, watching Sakura¡¯s emerald eyes glisten even though her lips were smiling.
Meilin snickered, though her nose was red, ¡°Look, we moved her to tears. Surprise party worked!¡±
Sakura, set down the teddy, swallowing hard. ¡°I¡¯m going to the restroom. I¡¯ll be right back.¡±
¡°Good timing, we have to get the cake from the kitchen—it¡¯s nearly midnight,¡± whispered Tomoyo.
¡°We have to light the candles—all seventeen,¡± said Meilin. ¡°Does anybody have matches?¡±
Kai handed her a heavyset silver S.T. Dupont lighter as Touya brought in the magnificent three-tier cherry-vanilla cake from the kitchen.
Meilin tried to light it and failed. She glared at Kai as if it were his fault.
Eriol solved the problem with a snap of his fingers, and the candles lit up instantly.
¡°Oh, Tokyo Tower illuminations are going to get turned off soon,¡± Miho said, staring at the clock.
¡°You¡¯ve heard about the lights down legend,¡± said Kai.
¡°What¡¯s that?¡± Meilin asked.
He blinked. ¡°Couples that gaze upon the Tokyo Tower the moment the lights are turned off are thought to gain eternal happiness.¡±
Meilin stared at him. ¡°What nonsense has Yamazaki-kun been feeding you this time?¡±
¡°We all learned this on our elementary school field trip,¡± replied Kai solemnly.
¡°Well, too bad we¡¯re indoors.¡±
¡°Hurry—it¡¯s midnight. Sakura¡¯s walking back. Are we ready?¡± exclaimed Kero-chan.
¡°Too bad Syaoran¡¯s not here,¡± sighed Tomoyo, setting down her camcorder. ¡°That would have made the night perfect.
She was awarded by glares from half the table.
Miho chided, ¡°Syaoran-senpai is a betrayer.¡±
¡°I know, but it¡¯s Sakura¡¯s birthday,¡± said Tomoyo. ¡°Surely he hasn¡¯t forgotten.¡±
¡°He forgot last year,¡± replied Meilin sullenly.
¡°He was in Hong Kong,¡± replied Kai. ¡°Now he¡¯s here. Surely he remembers. How can anyone forget April Fool¡¯s Day?¡±
¡°Hush, Sakura-chan¡¯s back!¡± stated Meilin, nudging Kai. ¡°Firecrackers ready?¡±
Yukito came out, holding the luscious pink-frosted heart-shaped cake with seventeen candles.
And as Sakura stepped towards them, they burst out in song, half off-key. ¡°Happy Birthday to you!¡±
Sakura stared at all her friends, her brother, father, and Yukito, eyes blurring all over again. ¡°Thank you everyone!¡±
¡°Make a wish!¡± exclaimed Tomoyo.
Nodding, Sakura leaned over and blew out all seventeen candles.
¡°Happy seventeenth birthday Sakura!¡± cried out her friends, for the moment blissfully forgetting what awaited them that day.
Anybody walking past King Penguin Park on April Fool¡¯s Day would have seen a rare spectacle. That is, if they could have broken through an impenetrable barrier set by Hiiragizawa Eriol and the Li Clan¡¯s best magicians.
On one end of the clearing in the park was lined a row of grim men in black cheongsam, including a gray-haired bearded man with a gold-edged wood staff who stood at the center. Next to him stood a smiling young man with silvery hair in a white-and-silver embroidered robe over white silk cheongsam and breeches, holding a heavy pink book with a gold beast¡¯s head emblem embossed on the front. Beside him was the so-called Black Dragon, wearing a black robe with a magnificent gold dragon embroidered up the back, and beside him stood two strikingly pretty girls, one with chin-length marigold hair, wearing tight black leather shorts and a metal-studded black motorcycle jacket, and the other with luscious violet-red curls, wearing a deep navy blazer and matching skirt.
Their opponents on the other end of the park was an even more eclectic bunch, including a girl with long black hair pulled into the pigtails in a cream-and-red colored battle costume with gold trims with two swords strapped to her back, a tall young man in black with spiky hair with a sweeping slate black cloak studded with gold trims on the shoulders, and a blue-haired man with gleaming glasses in a midnight-blue robe with a golden sun embroidered on the black. Behind him stood an auburn-haired woman in a miko¡¯s white kimono and red hakata and a short auburn-haired girl in a short golden kimono with a blue sash. Then were the strange angelic creature with feathered wings in white and a beautiful woman with fuchsia hair with black butterfly wings next to a tiger-like golden beast and leopard-like black beast.
A tall man with black hair fidgeted, as if ready to step beyond their line, but a girl holding a camcorder shook her head.
And at the center were the two figures all eyes were focused on.
Syaoran was in his dark green battle robes, with the Li emblem, a black circle with three white strokes. His sword, the Five Force Sword, was unsheathed, and the red tassel whipped back in the wind.
¡°Syaoran,¡± murmured Sakura. Her white dress, skirt cut short in the front and long in the back, fluttered in the wind. Her pink moon-star staff was released in her hands.
Touya¡¯s fists were clenched in a fist. ¡°This was such a bad idea—why did we agree to this duel? Sakura, come back here—you don¡¯t have to do this!¡±
But he could not move forward—there was a double-layer barrier around the park. One was around the entire vicinity of the park to prevent pedestrians from walking in. The other was around Sakura and Syaoran themselves, drawn up to prevent interference with their duel.
Li Wutai, the head of the Li Clan, smiled thinly. ¡°Well, why don¡¯t we let the duel begin? Remember, the winner of the duel will be the rightful master of the Clow Cards.¡±
¡°Sakura Cards!¡± called out Miho from across the battleground.
Wutai raised a thick gray eyebrow. ¡°What?¡±
¡°I said they are called Sakura Cards now. And if Sakura-senpai wins, you have to promise to accept her as Card Mistress, as chosen by Clow Reed and approved by Yue, and leave her alone!¡±
¡°Very well,¡± Wutai replied disdainfully.
¡°Wait, how will the winner of the duel be determined?¡± Meilin asked.
¡°Well, traditionally, a duel was till death,¡± said Spinel Sun.
¡°But there is no need for that—in medieval times, it was whoever knocked down the opponent first. Or drew first blood,¡± said Cerberus.
¡°Let Guardian of the Clow Yue judge the best master for the cards,¡± said Wutai.
¡°Wait, that¡¯s not fair,¡± said Li Daifu. ¡°Of course he would choose his mistress.¡±
¡°We will have a judge on our side too—let Yue and Leiyun reach a decision together.¡±
¡°What if they can¡¯t agree?¡± asked Kai with a frown.
¡°Then the duel will continue on until the judges do come to a consensus,¡± replied Wutai thinly.
¡°That¡¯s dangerous!¡± protested Cerberus.
But Sakura turned around and shook her head. ¡°I, Kinomoto Sakura, agree to the terms.¡±
Syaoran looked up. ¡°And I, Li Syaoran, agree to the terms.¡±
¡°No, Sakura!¡± Touya called out. ¡°Yue—you¡¯ve got to stop this!¡±
Yue shook his head. ¡°They¡¯ve already sealed the deal.¡± In a louder voice, he raised his hand. ¡°With the witnesses standing before us today, I, Yue, commence the duel.¡±
And yet, after the start was called, Sakura and Syaoran stood on the far ends of the circle barrier around them, unmoving.
¡°C¡¯mon, we haven¡¯t got all day here, Syaoran,¡± jeered one of his cousins from the Li battle line.
¡°What is that Brat thinking?¡± muttered Cerberus, crouching down, teeth bared.
¡°They haven¡¯t spoken a word to each other since they¡¯ve entered the battlegrounds,¡± said Meilin. ¡°What¡¯s Sakura going to do—she¡¯s not going to win the battle without using magic.¡±
¡°But Syaoran¡¯s not thinking of raising his sword against Sakura, is he?¡± Kai said, craning his neck.
¡°Hurry, Syaoran, or else, we¡¯ll do the job for you,¡± sneered Wutai.
And Sakura looked up at Syaoran. ¡°Let¡¯s get this over with.¡±
Syaoran stared at her with somber amber eyes. He waved his sword around his head and to his side effortlessly, as if warming up his arms.
And Sakura called out, ¡°Metal! Forge!¡±
¡°What¡¯s she doing?¡± murmured Miho.
¡°Look, she transformed her staff into a rapier with the Metal and Forge,¡± said Ruby Moon. ¡°Smart—since she doesn¡¯t have the Sword Card on her.¡±
Meilin frowned. ¡°She¡¯s got to come up with something better than that—she¡¯s never going to beat Syaoran in a battle of swords—that¡¯s his forte.¡±
¡°But if she uses full-out magic, Syaoran can¡¯t beat her,¡± Kai pointed out. ¡°Besides, she—¡± His sentence was cut short as he watched Syaoran charged at Sakura full speed, gleaming blade point at her heart.
Sakura blocked, barely, with her pink sword. She slid over to the side, chest heaving, arms trembling.
¡°He¡¯s going all out on her!¡± exclaimed Meilin.
This time, Sakura charged forward with her rapier, which Syaoran deflected easily, and without giving her a chance to recover, he struck down his blade, knocking her rapier from her hand.
She rolled over, ducked as he slammed the blade down. She strained over to grab her staff, which had transformed back to its original form when knocked out of her hand.
¡°This is no match,¡± remarked Wutai to the other Elders watching. ¡°It¡¯s painful to watch.¡±
¡°Why isn¡¯t she using magic?¡± remarked Erika.
Sakura had scrambled to her feet and dodged the swing of the blade. She called out,¡± Magnet!¡± This deflected Syaoran¡¯s sword, made of steel.
¡°Smart,¡± said Ruby Moon.
¡°She¡¯s not going to win with defense,¡± Eron said grimly—he had dueled with Syaoran before and knew his true strength.
And Syaoran leaped back, then charged forward again, striking down as Sakura met the blade with her staff braced above her head. She slid back at the sheer force. Before she could recover, he rapped her wrist with the back of his blade, knocking her staff from her fingers, then kicked it away from her reach when it struck the ground.
His grip wobbled, as he held up the sword to her throat as she slowly stood, chin pointed up. ¡°I¡¯m sorry.¡±
She gazed up at him with staid evergreen eyes, not a look of fear or reproach. But one of immense sorrow, as if she pitied him.
¡°Hurry up and finish her!¡± called out Wutai.
¡°What?¡± Touya exclaimed. ¡°That was not a part of the deal! Yue, call the duel off.¡±
¡°Touya, step back,¡± said Kaho.
Spinel Sun said, ¡°Don¡¯t you see, all the Li men are armed—if we call off the duel, that will give them a legitimate excuse to take us down. Sure, we have Eriol, but even you can see that we are grossly outnumbered. And don¡¯t be fooled, those aren¡¯t just your typical neighborhood oafs—those are full-fledged Li Clan warriors and magicians, trained from birth to battle. We will be outmatched, especially without the Sakura Cards on our side.¡±
¡°We can fight them,¡± said Touya through gritted teeth.
¡°Don¡¯t you see, that¡¯s what Sakura wanted to prevent.¡± Kaho stared at the line of Lis across the battlefield. ¡°We can fight them, but at what sacrifice? She didn¡¯t want bloodshed. By accepting the duel, if she won, she would have regained the Sakura Cards. But if she lost¡¦by oath, the Li Clan still wouldn¡¯t be able to attack us, at least not right away.¡±
¡°Syaoran, that¡¯s enough!¡± called out Meilin.
¡°Is the betrayer Meilin speaking?¡± said Wutai. ¡°Maybe you want to join your mother and father in the Main House dungeon?¡±
Meilin¡¯s eyes widened. ¡°What did you do to mother and father?¡± She would have tried to leap forward, but Kai held her back.
¡°Leiyun, do you see a winner yet?¡± Wutai demanded.
¡°It is too early to determine,¡± replied Leiyun.
¡°The only way to become Master of the Clow is to utterly defeat its current mistress. Finish her off, Syaoran.¡± Wutai paused. ¡°Or else should I get Leiyun to finish off for you, and he can be Clow Master?¡±
Everybody watched aghast, as if they were watching a scene from a horror movie. It happened all in a split second, but they were yet frozen.
One minute, Syaoran¡¯s grip had been wavering, his sword blade pointed to Sakura¡¯s chest. The next second, Sakura lunged forward, the tip of the sword piercing through her bosom and emerging through her shoulder blades. And a vivid crimson stained the front of the white dress like a blooming peony.
Syaoran¡¯s eyes widened. ¡°Sakura¡¦¡±
Tears trickled from her eyes. She had a smile on her face as her lips moved, as if to say something. But her eyes rolled back and she collapsed forward.
Syaoran withdrew the blade from her, an animal-like noise caught in his throat as he saw the scarlet smeared across the steel blade, dripping on the soil, and caught her limp body in his hand.
Her blood seeped into his clothes, and he croaked, ¡°Sakura—no—Sakura,¡± cradling her body in his arms.
And as if the heavens were too jealous to even grant him the last remaining warmth of her body, she crumbled away in his arms into myriads of white-pink cherry blossom petals, till he was left holding thin air.
As the sakura petals fanned out where Sakura¡¯s body had lain, it slowly registered what had happened as the onlookers stared at Syaoran¡¯s pupils horrendously dilated, mouth agape as if in a silent scream.
¡°He¡¦ killed¡¦ Sakura¡¦¡± Cerberus¡¯ voice trailed off. ¡°He killed her.¡±
¡°NOOOOOOOO!!! SAKURA!!!¡± cried out Touya, rushing forward and banding at the barrier which separated him and Syaoran. ¡°SAKURA!!!¡±
Tomoyo¡¯s step wavered, and she was wordless, in disbelief.
¡°No. Syaoran could not have down that,¡± said Meilin. ¡°This is just a bad joke.¡±
But Syaoran looked up at them, his hands and green robes stained in Sakura¡¯s blood.
Cerberus and Yue were too stunned to even say anything.
It was Eron who pierced through the barrier first, and he grabbed Syaoran by the nape of his robe.
¡°You bastard! How could you? You out of all people?¡± Eron¡¯s golden pupils darkened. ¡°You killed her. You killed Sakura.¡±
And Syaoran said nothing as Eron collapsed on the ground with a sob caught in his throat.
But Li Wutai cleared his throat. ¡°We¡¯re not finished. Syaoran, you¡¯re now rightfully Clow Card Master. Get the Guardian of the Clow to name you so.¡±
A cold, moribund look washed over Syaoran¡¯s sheet-white face. He turned to face Yue. ¡°There is something you have to do. Name me Master of the Clow Cards.¡±
¡°Sakura Cards. It¡¯s Sakura Cards.¡± Cerberus growled. ¡°I don¡¯t believe it. Is Sakura really dead?¡±
¡°You saw with your own eyes. I felt her pulse cease,¡± said Syaoran flatly.
¡°How can you speak as if nothing¡¯s wrong? You murdered her!¡± hissed Cerberus.
Touya woken from his stupor slammed Syaoran on the floor, hands clenched over his bare throat. ¡°How could you? I trusted you I took you into my home. She trusted you with all her heart. I knew from the beginning¡¦ I knew¡¦¡±
But it was Yue who pulled him away. ¡°Touya.¡±
¡°Let me go. I¡¯m going to kill him. I knew I was going to the moment I saw him. Let me kill him. LET ME KILL HIM!¡± Touya thrashed as Yue gripped his arms with an iron hold. Yue tilted his head at the line of Lis who all reached to the hilt of their swords.
¡°Well, well, I didn¡¯t think you would be able to do it, Syaoran,¡± said Li Wutai, head of the Li Clan. ¡°Now that the Card Mistress is dead, have your powers returned? Or is it too early to tell?¡±
Syaoran picked up his sword and held it up to the air. The blood-smeared blade crackled. He pointed at a nearby tree, which splintered in half as blue lightning struck down on it.
Wutai had to unceremoniously leap out of the way before the tree toppled over where he stood seconds ago. ¡°Well, I guess point is proven.¡±
And the last glimmer of hope in Touya¡¯s eyes faded. ¡°She¡¯s dead. My sister¡¯s dead. His powers returned—that means she¡¯s really gone.¡±
With a wooden voice, Syaoran said to Yue, ¡°Name me Master of the Cards.¡±
¡°No Yue-san, you can¡¯t!¡± exclaimed Miho. ¡°You can¡¯t do that.¡±
¡°I am the Guardian of the Sakura Cards,¡± said Yue. ¡°So long as I am awake, it is my duty to find a new master for the cards. That is the last task Clow Reed bestowed on me.¡±
Cerberus boomed, ¡°Yue, you can¡¯t truly mean to accept Syaoran as your new master?¡± He turned to Eriol. ¡°Eriol, do something.¡±
Wearily, Eriol said, ¡°Yue is only doing his duty—if the Sakura Cards do not have a master, they will run free again and that will be disastrous.¡±
¡°But this is not right—we don¡¯t know—Sakura may not be—¡± Cerberus broke off. ¡°She disappeared. Unless I see with my own eyes¡¦¡±
¡°Oh god,¡± muttered Spinel Sun. ¡°Don¡¯t you remember how she was asking all about what happens when a magician dies? How most powerful try to disseminate the body? I even helped her to find spell books on it. I thought it was simple curiosity.¡±
¡°Why was she researching something like that?¡± demanded Kai.
¡°It¡¯s my fault,¡± said Yue. ¡°She asked, and I told her that powerful sorcerers usually do not leave behind their remains for fear it may be put to evil use.¡±
¡°It¡¯s almost like she knew¡¦¡± murmured Kai, hands on the soul dampened with blood, thinking of the ominous Angel and Warrior series that his father had painted. The one where the Warrior pointed his unsheathed sword at the throat of the Angel had always morbidly fascinated him.
Meilin sank on the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks. ¡°She¡¯s gone. Sakura¡¯s gone.¡±
¡°Go on,¡± said Syaoran to Yue lifelessly. ¡°By contract, you have to name the new card master. The master either passes your test or defeats the previous master.¡±
¡°You are correct.¡± Yue¡¯s ice-blue were expressionless. ¡°So the judgment ends.¡±
¡°Yue, you can¡¯t!¡± exclaimed Cerberus.
Yue closed his eyes, white wings fanned out, kneeling before Syaoran. ¡°I, the judge Yue, accept Li Syaoran as my new master.¡±
Syaoran held out his hand and the pink tome of cards containing the Sakura Cards that Leiyun had been holding levitated and landed on his outstretched palm.
His voice was hoarse as he turned to face the Li delegation. ¡°I am the Master of the Clow, as you have summoned. Now, name me Chosen One.¡±
And Wutai smiled thinly. ¡°Well, it seems like your powers are back better than ever, and you have accomplished your quest to become Master of the Clow Cards. Which makes me glad to say, I, as the Head of the Li Clan and speaking on behalf of the Council of Elders, pronounce Li Syaoran as Chosen One again.¡±
The row of Li men dropped to their knees and bowed to him.
¡°Congratulations Syaoran,¡± drawled Leiyun. ¡°Didn¡¯t think you had it in you. To destroy Sakura.¡±
¡°You murderer! I¡¯ll kill you with my own hands, Li Syaoran!¡± cried out Touya, lunging forward.
Yue saw the line of Li bodyguards all reach for their swords and punched Touya in the stomach. Touya crumpled over into his arms.
Eriol raised his arm above his head, and a bubble formed around the Alliance. ¡°We¡¯ve got to retreat for now.¡±
¡°No!¡± Eron said. ¡°I¡¯m going to find her!¡±
¡°Can¡¯t you see?¡± cried out Kai, holding Eron back. ¡°Sakura¡¯s dead. We saw with our own eyes.¡±
¡°She can¡¯t be! She¡¯s Kinomoto Sakura!¡± stated Cerberus.
¡°But that look on Syaoran¡¯s face,¡± Meilin said, hot tears flowing down her cheeks. ¡°Did you see his eyes, as if something in him died when Sakura collapsed into his arms? I wouldn¡¯t have believed it if I wasn¡¯t watching his reaction.¡± She paused. ¡°It was almost like she died on purpose. To protect him and all of us.
Wish-chan (July 2013):
This was the single most difficult New Trials chapter I¡¯ve written to date. I¡¯ve worried a lot about it, and of course, it took a year to write mainly because I¡¯ve been busy in real life, but also because maybe I was a bit reluctant to write it. Apologies for the long wait, but the good news is probably over 70% of the next chapter is done. Something really is wrong with a chapter if my favorite scenes were those with Erika in it.
I have about a year¡¯s worth of email to catch up at firstname.lastname@example.org, but I am right back on track. Without emails, I wouldn¡¯t have lasted for 14 years, and am appreciative how one-on-one communication has blossomed in from of the Yahoo New Trials Ring at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/newtrialsring, the Facebook page, and also my blog, where you can find the latest New Trials updates and other news, at http://wishluv.blogspot.com. Also, you can find my artwork at http://wishluv.deviantart.com. I have a bunch of artwork I need to upload now that this chapter is finished.
It sounds horribly wrong to say this at this point, but Happy Birthday Li Syaoran 2013.