Nanami just couldn't sleep.
She was standing at her window, looking up at the night sky. It was beautiful, that night - not a cloud in the sky, just the full moon and a thousand shining stars. She smiled up at the constellations. She knew many of them by heart; they were almost like old friends to her. The ocean below moved constantly, and she heard the rushing sound of the waves as they crashed against the beach. It was usually a soothing noise, at least when she didn't look at the water. But it wasn't helping her tonight.
At least no one could have blamed her for not being able to rest. She was worried for her sister, Minayo; she'd be leaving for the shrine very soon, at sunset the next day. She would spend the day tending to the shrine, preparing sacrifices to the Pleiades, praying for strength and purity. Then she would leave for the Shrine of the Dragonsbane, where the ancient power that had once destroyed the monsters who had threatened to destroy the people of Yamato rested. Once she was there...
Nanami didn't know exactly what was going to happen. She only knew of stories and legends, things that had been passed down for generations. For countless centuries, maiden after maiden had made their pilgrimage to the shrines, all of them knowledgeable about the old legends and skilled in the magic of ancient Hai-Lan.
None of them had ever come back. There was no trace of them - not even their bodies remained in the sacred chamber. No one knew what had happened to them.
The legends of the Dragonbane and the wrath of the Seven Sisters were their only clue, and even they were sketchy. They said that the sisters had once taught the people of Yamato to fight against the dark dragons that had plagued them for generations. They had taught their mages to control the lightning, to somehow shape it into draconic form and send it against the dark ones. They had even forged the fabled weapon, which increased the power of its wielder tenfold and repelled evil spirits, and gave it to mankind as a symbol of their covenant.
But many of the mortals had chosen to abuse their power, according to the legend, and the angry spirits had stolen back their greatest weapon and hidden it in their ancient shrine. It would rest there until the day that one of their own blood, a pure-hearted young woman who could call down the lightning and who was fit to be given the ancient secrets, came to claim it. That was the only story about the Dragonbane that was left to them, and it offered little comfort.
Nanami had to believe that Minayo would come back. She couldn't let herself be afraid. She'd been so brave that morning, promising their parents that she'd do whatever she could to reclaim the lost magic. And it was more than simple courage; it was the amazing serenity, the calm demeanor and the determination in her eyes. Nanami had to try to follow her example. She couldn't just let herself worry that way.
Still, when she began to worry, it was difficult to stop. Maybe if she took a walk, she thought, she'd be able to calm down. She slipped on one of her robes and a pair of sandals, and quietly walked out of her room.
She wasn't sure if her parents would disapprove of her being out late; either way, she she didn't want to wake them. Especially her mother; Nanami knew that she'd been frightened too. She'd lost a sister to the trials. And her father had lost an aunt, although he'd only barely known her; she'd gone to the caverns when he'd been only a boy of four. They'd told her the stories countless times, and she had always been hungry to hear them. It gave her a past to hold on to, a feeling that she belonged. It had been important for her to know those things as a child, when she'd been lost and confused and conscious of her difference from the rest of the people of Hai-Lan at every moment. She'd been a stranger, then; she wanted a place in that new world.
She didn't even remember her past. Only the stories that her parents told. She had been found by the sea, near the wreckage of a large ship from the continent. Some of the townspeople said that it was a slaver ship and that Nanami should have died with them, bitter as they were; slavers from the continent had long preyed on the people of Yamato, taking their children and prisoners to be sold like fish in their markets. But in the end, none of them had been able to kill the tiny baby, and they'd given her to the keepers of the Shrine, who had one young child of their own but were perfectly willing to adopt another; they had a near-limitless capacity for love and warmth.
Nanami smiled in contentment. What kind of world would she have lived in if she hadn't crashed here? She'd asked herself that many times, unable to imagine anything but beautiful Hai-Lan. of place. She'd heard stories of dirty cities and cruel men who only wished to hold the people of Yamato hostage, to use them as slaves. She couldn't imagine men like that, either. why would anyone-?
A nearby splash brought Nanami out of her reverie, and she looked up, startled. She was standing in the garden, a clean and simple place that was always very pleasant and easy to look upon. She and her mother and sister had meditated there many times, on any number of subjects. There were dwarf trees and polished white stones, and a small, clear blue pond. It had once been a koi pond, but there were no fish in it now...
Nanami looked at the pond in disbelief. Was that her sister that she saw, standing waist-deep in the water and splashing about? No, it really couldn't be, she told herself. Maybe it was a child from the town who didn't know any better.
But then the dark, slender figure turned towards her and waved. Nanami's eyes widened. There was no mistaking it - she couldn't have mistaken her for anyone else in the world. She ran breathlessly out to the pool. "Minayo, don't!" she hissed, suddenly nervous; what if their parents saw them? They weren't supposed to disturb the gardens. "You'll disturb someone, and -"
Her foster sister laughed. "Oh, Nanami, stop it! You worry far too much. I come here at night all the time anyway, why should I worry?"
"But Mother and Father would be - hey! Stop that!" She held up her hands and tried to dodge a splash of cold water from her sister. In vain, of course; Minayo was much too fast for her and soon she was completely drenched.
Her older sister started giggling as Nanami shook her head and tried to push her damp hair out of her face. "Oh, Nanami," she finally managed, "you don't know how silly you look!"
Nanami couldn't help but laugh a little too. She must've been quite a sight, sopping wet in her fancy night-robe, her hair loose and falling in dark wet bunches around her face. Not so for Minayo - her hair was pinned into a tight bun, and her robes were much plainer. She looked like she belonged there, standing in the cool water.
But then, Nanami doubted she'd ever feel as at home in the water as her sister did. She'd helped to tend a shrine by the ocean for fourteen years, in a town of sailors and fishermen, but somehow she'd never learned to swim. It wasn't truly her fault - she'd been gripped by a strange and desperate fear of the water for most of her life, most especially the ocean. It was nothing she could explain in words, just a cold terror that arose whenever she saw the waves crashing on the shore.
Minayo smiled at her, as if she could somehow tell what she was thinking. "Nanami, do you remember when we were younger? I'd sneak out here at night and swim around, and half the time you'd sneak out with me just to scold me..."
Nanami had to laugh. She walked closer to the edge of the pool and knelt down. " Yes. I remember."
"I'd always beg you to come in with me, and you always said no. Even when I promised that I'd teach you to swim..."
"I... I know. I was too scared, Minayo. I couldn't help it..." She trailed off as her sister started to walk towards her, the sleeves of her robe trailing against the surface of the pool. Nervously she started to run her fingers through long, sodden hair, a habit she'd picked up long ago.
"I remember something interesting that an old fisherman told me once, when he visited here to pray," she continued, brushing an old willow leaf from her sleeve. " He said that anyone can swim; it's just a matter of learning not to drown." She shook her head. "I guess I just never understood why you wouldn't have wanted to learn."
"I... I guess I don't really know either, Minayo," Nanami admitted. "I don't even know why it scares me so much now. It's just... well, the water seems so dark and threatening sometimes, and I... I'm afraid I'll get lost in it, I think. That it might take me away, and I'll never come back. I'll never see my home again, or my family. "
Minayo had quieted as she'd spoken, and her face had grown very grave. "Minayo?" Nanami looked at her, suddenly frightened for her. She hadn't meant to hurt her.... "What's wrong?"
"Oh, Nanami," she answered quietly, trying her best to smile, but failing. "You're afraid of that too?"
"What? what do you mean?" Nanami took a few more hesitant steps through the water, approaching her sister. "I thought you weren't afraid of swimming."
"I'm not," she answered with a quick shake of her head. "I like to swim. I swim sometimes to forget being afraid... to forget that I don't know what's going to happen when I..."
Her sister's eyes were brimming with tears. Nanami reached out and took her hand, suddenly very afraid; Minayo almost never cried, not that she'd seen. "Don't," she said softly. "Please don't cry."
"I'm sorry. I can't help it. I'm so scared," she managed, then quietly started to sob. "I'm scared of what's going to happen after tomorrow. What if I'm not worthy? What if the dragon wakes up and I can't-"
"Please, Minayo, stop it! Don't even think things like that!" Nanami swung her legs over the edge of the pond and pushed herself into the water. She reached out to her sister and hugged her tightly, the way that she always had when she'd cried. Minayo was shivering, whether from the cold or from fear she didn't know. "Everyone knows that you're worthy. You've shown it again and again."
"But what if everyone's wrong? What if the Dragonbane won't accept me? No one's ever come back from there after they failed, and everyone thought they were all worthy too..."
"You'll come back," she said, although in her own heart she was afraid. She'd never seen Minayo so frightened before - her big sister had always been so strong and brave. "I believe in you."
"Really?" There was a certain desperation in Minayo's voice. "You believe that I can do this?"
"With all my heart," Nanami promised.
Minayo squeezed her back, the two of them swaying slightly in the pool. Neither said anything for a long time. Minayo was still sobbing gently, and Nanami just stood and stroked her hair. Her own fears and worries nagged at her, but she tried her best to push them aside and make them go away. It wasn't easy, but she just couldn't give into them, not then. She needed to be strong for her big sister, because she'd always given her strength when she needed it.
After a while the wind picked up, and Nanami felt Minayo begin to shiver again. It was chilling her too - going right through her soaked robe - and she hadn't been out there as long. She pulled back a bit. "Minayo, you must be cold. We have to get out of the water."
Minayo shook her head. "I... I don't want to go back yet..."
"We don't have to go back. Just out of the wind."
Finally Minayo allowed herself to be coaxed out of the pool, and the two splashed out, Minayo shivering harder than ever after they were out of the water. Nanami wrapped her arms around her chest, feeling her own body tremble from the breeze.
"C-come on, this way," Minayo stuttered. "We'll r-rest by the wall."
Nanami followed her down to where a large stone wall had been built, not far from the shrine. She vaguely remembered hearing stories about this wall, tales about the dozens of samuari who had died defending it from invaders who wanted to take Hai- Lan's wealth for its own. But now it provided a welcome shelter from the wind, and the two girls huddled against it in silence for what felt like a very long time. Nanami reached to take her sister's hand; it was cold and wrinkled from soaking in the water.
"Do... do you really think that I can do this, Nanami?" Minayo said abruptly, turning to look at her. "I mean, do you really believe it?"
Her face was terrified, and that same desperate hope was in her eyes. Nanami's words came out in a confused jumble, but she couldn't stop them. "Because you're kind and brave and strong and always stood up for me when I couldn't. Because... because you're my sister, and I love you, and I know that you deserve..." She trailed off as Minayo's head dropped slowly onto her chest. "Minayo? What is it?"
"Nothing," she whispered. "It's nothing. I just... I just hope I can be as strong as you think I am, Nami..."
"You don't have to. I know that you are, Mina," Nanami said, and she smiled. "We haven't used those names since we were children."
Minayo looked up at her and smiled back. She was not shivering nearly so hard as she had been before. "I remember when we decided we were too grown-up for such silly names... maybe we're not as grown-up as we thought."
"Mina... you'll come back," she said one last time. "And you'll bring the Dragonbane back with you. I'm sure of it."
Minayo was still smiling. "I... I think that I believe you, Nami."
They stood up and walked back to their home, whispering to each other. "I'm sorry that I splashed you, Nanami. I'll tell Mother and Father that it was my fault if you get in trouble for it."
"It's all right," she said. "It'll be ok. We just need to get some sleep now."
Minayo nodded. "I'm really tired... we've been out here a long time."
They arrived back at the shrine, snuck quietly to their bedchambers. They were mostly dry, at least; no water dripped onto the stone floor. Minayo paused before she walked into her room. "Thank you so much, little sister. Thank you for everything."
"There's no need; I wish that I could do more," Nanami answered around the lump in her throat. "I love you, Mina."
"I love you too." She smiled faintly. "I'll come back after tomorrow night. I promise."
"And I'll... I'll be waiting for you. I know that isn't much, but it's all I can do."
They hugged one last time, only for a second, before Minayo broke away and walked into her room. Nanami, still cold even in the shrine and worried that her parents might have heard their whispers, rushed back into her room and quickly changed into a plain, dry sleeping kimono. She lay back on her sleeping mat and stared up at the celing for a while, listening to the sound of the waves until she could finally sleep.
Their parents woke Minayo early the next morning, and only woke Nanami sometime later. Minayo had already begun her prayers by the time that Nanami had dressed and began to tend to the temple grounds.
She was not allowed inside of the shrine; Minayo needed to prepare herself, and she had to do it alone. But she often looked in through the windows, saw her as she knelt before the eyes of the gods. Her long black hair was tied up again, and her narrow brown eyes were puffy from lack of sleep, but nonetheless she kneeled and recited the old prayers with serene grace.
The sight bolstered Nanami's confidence - she would be all right. How could any gods or spirits look at her and not realize that she was worthy? Still, she prayed that the day would not pass too quickly. She wanted more time to think, more time to convince herself.
But time didn't wait for her - if anything, it seemed to move faster every time she wished that it would stop. Soon Minayo had to leave. She walked out of the shrine, went to the altar that her sister had prepared for her and knelt. Soon she was lost in prayer - entreating her ancestors, those who had tried before, to show her mercy and give her their strength for the coming trial.
Nanami couldn't disturb her. She could only watch, and hold back her tears. She walked into the shrine and watched as her sister stood and began her lonely pilgrimage, her plain white kimono fluttering as she walked, her head held high. Nanami stared after her until she had gone out of sight, and then walked back outside and sat down on one of the stone benches, determined to welcome Minayo home when she returned.
Hours passed - the sun set, and the sky above her grew dark. The full moon rose, shining behind a thin veil of clouds. She didn't know how long she sat out there; she might've waited until sunrise, had her father not come to speak with her. But she heard him behind her, his slow, unhurried walk, the gentle rustling of his robes. He sat down next to her, saying nothing at first.
"She'll come back," Nanami said quietly. "Won't she?"
"Nanami..." She felt his hand on her shoulder. "Please, come inside and get some sleep. Your mother worries for you."
"But I told her I'd wait for her, Father. I told her I believed in her. What if she comes back and thinks that I lied?"
"I'm sorry, Nanami. I'm very sorry."
Nanami turned to look at him - the careworn lines of his face, the haunted eyes, the pale, drawn mouth. And suddenly she knew. "It... it can't be," she said as the shock began, making her body feel dim and numb. "It isn't fair. I thought..."
"It is not our place to say what is just and what is not. We cannot know the ways of the spirits," he said automatically, as if trying to take comfort from the old words. "Your mother has read the fortunes. There is nothing we could have done..."
"But why would they..." Then something in her head seemed to give, and the tears rushed to her eyes all at once. Her sister... she'd made all of those promises to her. She'd been so sure that she'd be all right, and now she was gone to whatever fate awaited those who had failed. Pain and anger overwhelmed her, and for a moment she lost all control. "How could you let her go?" she almost shouted, not wanting to even look at her father. "How could you let this happen to her?"
"Nanami..." He rubbed her back, trying to soothe her. "She chose this. All of those who attempt to recover the Dragonbane chose to do so willingly. You know that ."
She did know that, but she didn't want to admit it. She refused to agree with him, or even acknowledge what he was saying. All she could do was keep her head down so that he wouldn't be able to see her tears.
After a while, when she'd cried herself back to numbness, she looked up at him. She saw the marks on his face where his own tears had dried, and immediately felt ashamed of herself. He was suffering too, and she had no right to blame him. "I'm sorry," she said in a thick voice.
He hugged her gently. "It is all right, daughter. But... please, your mother is concerned for you as well. You must go to sleep."
She nodded. He stood up, and offered her his hand; she took it gratefully, stumbling only a little as he helped her stand. She hadn't realized how horribly tired she felt until then.
They walked back to the their home. As they approached it, she looked up at the stars, and a sudden thought struck her; it was as if the spirits themselves had spoken to her. "Father... you've always told me that I'm your daughter... that being of different blood couldn't ever change that."
He paused, and looked down at her; it was impossible for her to tell what he was thinking. "Yes, Nanami. That is true."
She bowed her head. "I... I will go to bed now," she said, and walked away, half- expecting her father to shout after her. But he did not, although she could feel his eyes on her as she walked away.
As awkward as she'd felt... she simply couldn't have brought herself to say what she'd really been thinking. Was blood really as important as the legends said? Couldn't she go down there in her sister's place? Didn't she owe her that much?
It would be almost a year before she was old enough to go to the shrine without being challenged. And compared to the rest of her family, her knowledge of the old magic was sadly lacking. She would have to prepare herself; there would be no rest for her in the coming seasons...
She laid down in her bed without even bothering to change, plans running through her mind. She was curiously unafraid, and felt only determination. This was something that he had to do; she could not allow herself to feel afraid or worried for herself.
Minayo...I will claim the power that the spirits should have given to you, in your memory. If I can find you and save you from your fate, if the Dragonbane will give me that power... I will do it gladly, no matter what the cost may be. This... this is all I can do.
Her oath was her last thought as she slowly drifted off to sleep.