the cat is mightier than the pen
Wataru palmed a smooth, flat stone and rolled it from hand to hand. The sky had darkened to a dim orange as the late afternoon sun dipped behind the hills. A few streaks of light still struck the lake, which glinted like a silver plate in the middle of the valley.
"Riii," Toku trilled softly from where she lay draped around his neck.
Wataru felt the weight of the stone one last time, then lobbed it across the water. It skipped twice before it sank. He watched as the circles danced out.
"I know," he said. "But it doesn't matter. They won't miss me if I don't go."
The evening was warm and muggy. Birds still chattered softly in the trees. He could spend the rest of the night here, watching the moon light the lake. Maybe, if he was lucky, the gyarados would come out to dance.
"Ow!" Wataru's hand leapt to his ear, where Toku had bitten him lightly. He pulled her off his shoulders and held her up so their eyes were level. "You really want to go?"
Before Toku could answer, a shout caught his attention.
"Wataru!" The sound was distant, but his name was clearly audible. "Wa-ta-ru."
He and Toku exchanged a look. When the miniryu tilted her head pointedly towards the hills, Wataru bit his lip. "Fine."
Louder, he called out, "I'm over here, Ibuki!"
Ibuki took some time to crest the hill, but at last he saw her silhouetted against the dusky light. "What are you waiting for?" she shouted down. "Can't you see it's nearly sundown?"
Of course he could see it was sundown. But Wataru didn't want to bother explaining why he'd been shunning the celebrations. Ibuki had a way of turning his reasons stupid just by listening to them.
Setting Toku back on his shoulder, Wataru jogged up to meet his cousin. She was already in her festival clothes, Wataru realized as he came closer. She had to hold her newly-made cloak up with one hand to avoid it trailing the ground.
"You're not even dressed!" Ibuki exclaimed when she'd gotten a good look at him. "We're going to be so late. Father's going to kill me. Come on."
She grabbed him by the wrist and tugged him forward. It was either run or be dragged, so Wataru followed her into a run, stumbling slightly as he tried to keep pace. It wasn't fair. Ibuki was only a year older, but she was already so much taller.
And tonight, she would dance the hakuryu odori.
~*~By the time they reached the village, the sky had turned a deep red. The thatched huts were completely deserted. Everyone had already left for the third valley, where meetings and celebrations were held.
Ibuki waited outside as Wataru changed into his festival clothes, drumming her hand impatiently against the outer wall. The light blue headband was a struggle to pull over his bushy hair. Wataru wrestled with it for a minute, frustration welling up in his chest, before he gave in and asked Ibuki for help.
His festival clothes didn't fit right. When he'd first danced the miniryu odori at the age of eight, they'd been too big for him; now the legs were short and the cloth of his tunic stretched tight across his shoulders. Even Wataru's clothes knew he was too old for this—why couldn't Uncle figure it out?
"Finally," Ibuki muttered when the headband sat level across his forehead. They made their way in stony silence up the sloping hills.
Wataru smelled the bonfire smoke before he saw the lights. Ahead of him, Ibuki's pace quickened. As they came down the rocky path, she sprang ahead without looking back to see if he was following.
Wataru approached the pavilion at a slower pace. The scent of roasted meat and berries hit his nose, setting his stomach rumbling. He'd missed dinner, Wataru realized, and now it was too late to eat. Everyone was splitting off into their groups: Ibuki had already taken her place with the other blue-cloaked dancers. Glancing around, Wataru found his fellow miniryu dancers gathering in a disordered circle to the left. They seemed even smaller than usual in their silly-looking blue headbands.
But Uncle was looking impatient as he cut through the crowd, so Wataru slunk over to his group and sat down. Excited chatter bubbled up around him—some of the children were dancing for their very first time tonight. This was Wataru's fourth time dancing in the Ryu Odori, and the novelty had long since worn off. His eyes wandered over to the final set of dancers, greedily taking in the bold red of their capes. The kaiyru dancers. One day, Wataru would stand with them.
The high, mournful call of the long horn cut through the small talk, signalling the start of the ceremony. Uncle stepped into the firelight. He wouldn't be dancing tonight, but he wore red all the same—his privilege as the clan's leader. The shadows from the firelight made caves and caverns of his long, stern face. Wataru found himself straightening as Uncle waited for the crowd to come to complete silence. Only then did he speak.
"Every spring, we hold the Ryu Odori," Uncle began. His voice had the low, lulling cadence of a story-teller. "We dance to celebrate the passage of life. The ryu have taught us this, as they have taught us many things.
"As our celebrations begin tonight, we look to our children. The miniryu's dance is a simple one—playful, sometimes clumsy. We welcome that imperfection in this dance of beginnings, as we celebrate the vibrant energy of youth, the boundless potential of our children."
Wataru scowled, tugging at the blue band, which pressed too tightly against his forehead.
"The middle dance, the hakuryu odori, is the dance of adolescence. Those that dance the hakuryu's dance can no longer be considered children. We admire the elegance and refinement of their movements, while acknowledging their continued striving. After all, the hakuryu has achieved much, but there is much that awaits her yet."
Uncle paused for a moment, his lips curving up faintly, and Wataru wondered if he was thinking about Ibuki. Glancing over, he found her among the other hakuryu dancers. Sweat beaded on her face, even though she wasn't seated too close to the fire.
She's nervous, Wataru realized, amazed. But she was Ibuki! There was no way she wouldn't dance perfectly.
Wataru set his chin forward. "You'll be the best one," he whispered.
A solemn note entered Uncle's voice as he continued, "Last of all, we dance the kairyu odori. The honor of this dance is reserved for adults at the peak of their potential. In the kairyu, power and peace are realized without contradiction. The energy of the miniryu is harnessed with the grace of hard-won wisdom. Not everyone can dance the kairyu's dance."
As Uncle paused, the crowd began to murmur syo-syo, sending strength to the dancers who waited at the edge of the firelight, their red cloaks flashing.
"Well," said Uncle, making a show of turning his face to the sky, "the moon is full, so enough from me. Let's get this underway."
The drums began to pound loudly and the elders shook their rattles, creating a sound like wind passing through dry leaves. When Elder Kyo stood and lifted her hands, the children began to rise. Wataru jumped to his feet and raced to the front of the waywardly forming line, ignoring the dirty looks he received. He was the oldest in the group; he had a right to go first.
Elder Kyo's quiet clap signaled the start of the dance. On the downbeat of the drums, Wataru stepped out into the clearing. For a single moment, it was like he was standing entirely alone, the whole village staring at him in judgement. Then the familiar beats of the dance began to fall and Wataru was jumping into the air, his body twisting automatically to the tune. Leg over leg, clap and turn, touch the sky and fall and spin.
The miniryu odori was a children's dance, but as he moved, Wataru forgot to resent that fact. It was fun to spin and leap in the torchlight, forgetting the eyes beyond it. When he jumped, it was just him and the night sky, and the brief, soaring moment where the jump almost felt like flight.
Wataru was breathing hard as the music cut out and the night filled with cheers from the audience. They weren't applauding for him, not really, but Wataru still held his head high as he filed back to his place. He and the other children plopped down on the grass as the dancers of the second circle filed into place.
Again, a quiet clap signaled the start of the dance, but this time the drummers waited, their hands held high above their instruments. Wataru caught the distant call of a hoothoot as the dancers raised the ends of their cloaks in unison. One by one, they spun outwards, positioned like the overlapping petals of a poppy. As the drumbeat picked up, the pace of the dance grew more rapid. Ibuki and the others spun and ducked, their dark blue cloaks extensions of their arms.
Wataru held his breath when Ibuki shifted to the front for her solo. Had she managed to shake off her earlier nerves? Standing in the shadow of the bonfire, her expression was impossible to read. A lull fell in the music, and Ibuki brought her arms up slowly, the gesture meant to mirror a hakuryu's new potential for flight. Suddenly, the drums crashed down and Ibuki spun to the side, her cloak completing a graceful arc behind her. On the grass, Wataru released his breath as the solo performance picked up speed. All of Ibuki's moves were perfectly timed to the beat as she acted out the determined ambition of the hakuryu.
Once the dance had ended and the second circle dancers joined the audience, Wataru crawled over to Ibuki.
"That was amazing," he whispered. "Your dancing was the best."
Ibuki didn't say anything, but she lifted her chin just a little, and her eyes sparkled. Wataru flopped back on the grass, satisfied that he'd made amends for earlier.
The excitement was tangible as the third circle took their places. Dressed in resplendent oranges and reds that caught the moonlight, the kairyu dancers instantly outshone everyone who had come before. They leaped, cartwheeled, and spun, always seeming on the verge of a collision that never occurred. Wataru imagined dancing with them, extending his arms in their sharp energetic movements. By the end of the dance, he was grinning, his legs still tapping out the fast beat even when the drums cut out. He almost wanted to leap up and perform the miniryu odori all over again.
But the audience was quieting down again as the stage cleared. A lone dancer stepped into the light of the bonfire. Wataru recognized her as Kana, a dragon master of about thirty. She must have done something exceptional this year to receive the honor of the tamer's dance. The only sound as she began was the click of the orange beads braided through her blue-black hair. Even the usual sounds of the nocturnal pokemon seemed to have faded away. Wataru imagined the hoothoot from earlier standing stock still on its perch, yellow eyes alight with anticipation.
When he was younger, this particular dance had always left Wataru uneasy. It looked wrong, somehow. All the movements seemed incomplete and unsatisfying, as if they were missing an essential part.
Of course, Wataru knew now why that was the case. The dance of the dragon-tamer was not complete on its own. Only the presence of a kairyu could turn the dance into what it was truly meant to be. The performance was a call; most years, that call was left unanswered.
As Kana flipped masterfully through the air, Wataru found himself leaning forward. Every movement was seamless. Surely she wouldn't be left to dance alone?
But the wood was nearly burned through now. Wataru watched the fire shrink, fighting back his disappointment. When the last ember flared out, the celebration would end. Kana was running out of time.
Suddenly, a murmur ran through the crowd. Wataru craned his head upwards to see a kairyu passing overhead. As they watched with bated breath, the kairyu swooped down, hovering just meters from the dancer and the dimming firelight. Did Kana realize she'd just gained the only audience that mattered? Lit mostly by moonlight now, the dragon master didn't falter. She ducked and weaved around her invisible partner, every gesture calling out to be completed.
Wataru kept his eyes fixed on the kairyu, whose tail whipped lazily from side to side. There was something in the way the broad muscles of its back tensed, the stilling of its tail—
"It's going to happen!" Wataru blurted out, just as the kairyu let out a tree-rattling roar and entered the flickering circle of fire-light.
And the dance . . . changed. All the halted movements and strange turns transformed into a dance of perfect harmony. This was a wild kairyu, Wataru knew. It had never danced with Kana before tonight. But the two moved together as if they'd spent the last month in rehearsal. The dancer spun fearlessly, trusting the gigantic ryu to turn in time to avoid a collision.
The crowd watched in complete silence. Even the small children, who usually began to cry this late in the ceremony, hushed to take in the dance.
Wataru let out an unconscious sigh when the last flickering ember of the bonfire went dark. He wished the dance could have continued all through the night, into the early morning. But Kana was bowing now, dwarfed by the kairyu, who returned the gesture, proud head bent for a moment in recognition of her skill. Letting loose another, almost triumphant roar, the wild kairyu took off into the night.
"Thank you," Wataru whispered, as the kairyu passed beyond the hills.
He followed Ibuki home in an unusually thoughtful mood. Wataru had seen many talented dancers perform to an empty stage. Their performances hadn't lacked anything that he could notice. So what had made Kana's different? And how could Wataru hope to one day dance in her place if he didn't know?
It was a problem for another day. Wataru ignored the excited chatter from the other boys as he undressed and folded away his festival clothes. As he stretched out on his sleeping mat, all his musings were subsumed by one satisfying thought.
This is the last year I'll wear the miniryu's blue.
Wataru woke to someone's foot in his face.
"Sorry," the other boy murmured, as Wataru shoved the offending limb away with a grimace. Bright sunlight cut in through the curtains. Wataru guessed it was already mid-morning. The elders must have given them extra time to sleep off the festival's excitement. Stifling a yawn, he started to sit up. Toku's whine from her place nestled against his stomach made him pause. He removed the miniryu gently from his chest and started on his morning stretches.
When he returned to his sleeping mat, he found it almost entirely monopolized by Toku's long, thin body. She'd wriggled into the place his torso had been, no doubt eager to take in the residual body heat.
"I've got to roll this up, Toku," Wataru said. The hut was almost empty now; most of the other boys had taken off in the direction of their morning lessons. "Come on, don't make me late again . . ."
Toku's wide, dark eyes latched imploringly onto his own. With a short flick of her tail, the miniryu communicated that she was still exceedingly tired.
Wataru sighed, sitting down next to her. The elders always complained that he spoiled Toku, but in Wataru's opinion, she deserved the rest. The hours they'd spent by the lakeside yesterday hadn't been wasted. Toku had finally managed to generate a thin electric wave that didn't fizz out the instant it left her ear fins.
Besides, what mattered more to him? The scowl Elder Kyo would wear when he showed up late, or Toku's contented trill as he said, "All right, five more minutes"?
It wasn't even close.
Sure enough, when the two of them finally arrived at the fourth valley, Elder Kyo was mid-sentence: "After completing these great journeys, Master Kaisho at last returned to the Dragon's Clan."
Wataru sunk cautiously onto his knees at the back of the group, hoping his late entrance would pass without comment. But today, luck wasn't on his side. Elder Kyo's eyes snapped onto him like a spearow spotting a juicy caterpie. "Since you know Master Kaisho's story well enough to skip out on its beginning, perhaps you can tell us how Master Kaisho made his return, a return still memorialized on the walls of Dragon's Den."
Wataru scrambled for an answer. Only, there were so many murals in Dragon's Den. The few times he'd been to the inner sanctum, he hadn't paid them much attention, busy imagining the ceremony when Toku finally became a kairyu.
He didn't even remember who Master Kaisho had been.
"He flew back," Wataru guessed. "On his kairyu. He flew back with two kairyu," he added defiantly. That sounded like a return worthy of a dragon master.
Elder Kyo's mouth hung slightly open. "Correct," she said after a moment. Regaining her balance, she continued, "His kairyu were named La and Ri. Yes, by returning with two kairyu, he showed the whole clan the depth of the expertise he had gained in his travels."
Letting out a soft sigh, Wataru tuned out Elder Kyo as she continued with her lecture. It was another unbearably fine spring day. The blue of the sky matched Toku's back, the sun was full, and he couldn't spot a single cloud. It was a day meant for battling, not for listening to droning history lessons.
"—to battle." Wataru's ears perked up at the word. By the time he got to his feet, the other children had already split off into groups of two. Wataru was left standing alone at the center of the clearing.
"I made the battling assignments before you arrived, Wataru," Elder Kyo called out. "You'll just have to join a group and take turns. Which group would like Wataru to join them, please?"
Silence fell, and a tight feeling took over Wataru's chest. No one was meeting his eyes.
Elder Kyo cleared her throat. "I said, which group will take Wataru and make a group of three?"
"Not three . . ." The comment was whispered too softly for Elder Kyo to catch, but Wataru heard it loud and clear. "Two and a hafu doesn't make three."
Wataru's face flushed horribly. He managed to choke out, "Looks like they're all too scared to face me."
Then, before Elder Kyo could chide him for his rudeness, Wataru spun on his feet and took off up the hill. He knew from experience that Elder Kyo wouldn't bother with chasing him. Uncle would chide him and he'd get extra chores for the week, but all that seemed like a small price to pay to get away from the other children. He came to a stop, panting, only when he had reached the edge of the village.
"So what if I'm hafu?" Wataru demanded of the clouds. "It's not like I'm any less than them. If I were, how come I always beat them? They're just mad, 'cause I always beat them." His voice didn't match the surety of his words. It cracked as he spoke, causing Toku to let out a concerned trill. "They're just mad there's not a single miniryu as strong as you, Toku," he said, hugging her close. He felt a raspy tongue lick his cheek in answer.
Wiping his face in case any embarrassing moisture had snuck out of his eyes, Wataru made his way over to the river, where the festival clothes were being laundered.
"Toku," he whispered, ducking behind a tree. "Get Ibuki, will you?"
Toku let out an affirmative chirp and snaked away through the grass. Wataru occupied himself with peeling off some old bark from the trunk as he waited, trying to think about anything but the morning lesson.
"Wataru?" Ibuki's whisper came out more like a shout. He grabbed her arm and dragged her behind the tree, out of sight.
"Let's battle," he said.
Ibuki sighed. Her black-blue hair was tied back from her face and a thick bar of soap was clutched in her left hand. "Wataru, I'm on laundry-duty right now. I have chores to complete today and entertaining you isn't one of them. Besides—" Her eyes narrowed "—aren't you supposed to be in class?"
Wataru hated it when Ibuki got like this, like she thought she was his mom just because she was a single year older. "None of your business," he shot back. "But listen, Toku mastered her thunder wave. Fight me, and we'll show you."
"Don't be ridiculous," Ibuki snapped. "We're just starting that move in my class and I only ever showed you the first steps. There's no way you can do it, so quit lying."
"I'm not lying!" Wataru heard his voice rise and tried to get a handle on himself. "I'm not lying," he said in a quieter tone. "I'm not. Let's go have a battle by the lake and I'll show you."
The offer came out more desperate than he'd have liked. Ibuki's eyes softened for a moment as she looked at him. "Did something happen in class?" she said finally.
Wataru looked away. If he told Ibuki, she'd probably storm back there and tell Elder Kyo. Then Elder Kyo would halt the battling practice and make them sit for an hour while she explained that discrimination based on blood was wrong. It was ritual and practice that made one a member of the Dragon's Clan, not birth alone. And Wataru would have to sit there, his face flushing the same color as his hair, as thirty accusing glares burned into his back.
And then they would know that the words had gotten to him.
"Nothing happened," Wataru said firmly. Ibuki held his gaze for a moment, her brow furrowed, but at last she shrugged.
"Okay, then. I'm still not going to battle with you. I'm not a kid anymore—I danced the hakuryu's dance and I've got duties today. I can't go goofing off with you."
She took off without a backwards glance, towards the washers arrayed along the river.
"Ryu-a?" asked Toku. What now?
It was a good question. Wataru picked out a path towards the outer-valley ridge. No one went that way and from up there he could see everything else.
"Ibuki thinks she's so mature now that she's danced the hakuryu odori," he muttered as he walked. "But she's just being stupid. Imagine, Toku! Choosing laundry over battling."
The miniryu's trill echoed his disbelief.
"And she's not my mom," he said, settling on the ground, where he began to pull up and shred blades of grass. "I don't have a mom. And Uncle's not my dad, either," he continued, picking up steam. "So where do any of them get off telling me what I should do? I—"
But his rant was cut off by Toku's sudden trill. The miniryu had slithered up a rock and was craning her neck out over the ridge. Joining her, Wataru saw a ponyta-pulled wagon making its way along the dirt road that fed into the first valley.
A trader, probably. They stopped by every month or so and Wataru knew some of the rarer dyes and finer cloth came from their wares. But Wataru had never seen a trade take place up close before.
His eyes met Toku's and he knew the miniryu shared his idea. "All right, let's investigate!"
When they raced into the village, flushed from the quick descent, the trader was already closeted away with Uncle. Disappointed but undaunted, Wataru decided to explore the wagon instead. He wandered closer, stopping to give the ponyta a quick pat along its neck.
As Wataru rounded the wagon, he ran right into another boy. The boy had a nose and mouth and eyes, and seemed about Wataru's age, but other than that, he looked odd. His hair was fully black, not the black-blue of everyone in the clan except Wataru. His cheeks were big and puffy, and his clothes were startlingly bright, a yellow shirt paired with tightly cut blue pants like it was still festival day. If those indicators weren't enough, the weird sheen of his vest marked him a complete gaijin.
"Hey," the boy said. His eyes fell on Wataru's shoulder. "Wow, is that a dratini?"
The accent was a little hard to parse, but Wataru figured he was asking about Toku. "She's the strongest miniryu in the whole village," he said. Toku preened at the words.
"Miniryu? Oh, that's the name you have here for dratini. I'm a trainer too." The boy angled his head towards the wagon and called, "Hey, Koge, come over here!"
A large bug with spotted red wings buzzed out from the back of the wagon. It chittered a light greeting to Toku, who responded in kind.
Wataru stared at the two foreigners, struck suddenly by an idea. "Do you want to have a battle?" he asked.
The other boy's face brightened. "Sure! I never get to battle anyone when we're on the road. Koge and I are full power, ready to go!" To emphasize the point, he pumped his fist through the air.
Wataru blinked, a bit surprised at how readily the other boy had agreed. He glanced around cautiously. The village was quiet, with everyone out at lessons or chores. But there was no knowing when someone might wander by and witness their unsupervised battle.
"Let's go somewhere where we won't be disturbed, okay?" he said, and took off without checking to see if the other boy was following. The confirmation came soon enough, the buzz of the bug pokemon's wings mingled with heavy breathing behind him.
Wataru waited impatiently by the small den he and Ibuki had used for their secret battles, back before she got all rule-abiding. Really, he'd have thought a world traveler like the gaijin boy would be in better shape.
"I'm Airi, by the way," the boy said with a short bob of his head when he finally reached the rocks.
"I'm Wataru," Wataru said, returning a fuller bow. "Right, let's get started." He clasped his eyes shut and chanted, "Once, the ryu fought with fire and ash. Now we are free, that time is past. I fight for my skill, I won't aim to kill. Ryu, bless this battle before you."
He opened his eyes to find Airi watching him with his mouth agape.
"Blessing's all done," Wataru said. "Ready to go?"
"Y-yeah. Koge, start off with a tackle!"
Wataru frowned as the bug started towards them. It was so slow.
"Leer at it, Toku." The miniryu's eyes flashed red. The bug fluttered to a nervous halt. "Great. Now let's see if you can do a thunder wave." Toku began to gather static from the ground. The sparks danced and flitted around her body. "I think you've got it. Try the attack now!"
As Toku closed her eyes in concentration, the bug shook off its daze. It started forward just as a thin line of sparks shot from the miniryu's head. With an alarmed cry, the bug sank to the ground, shivering from the static charge.
Wataru eyed their downed opponent in disappointment. Ibuki and Masako would have put up much more of a fight. Still, he was glad they'd had the chance to try out Toku's newest move for real.
"Do you want to keep going?" he asked the other boy.
Airi shook his head. "Nah, we're beat." He lifted the bug pokemon carefully in his arms, flinching as a small spark met his finger. "You two are pretty strong."
Wataru gave what he hoped was a modest shrug, but inside he was beaming. It was nice to hear someone admit it, even if that someone was gaijin and really weak.
"There's a cheri berry bush nearby," Wataru said. He smiled as Toku crawled up into his arms. "You did so good! By the time Ibuki fights us, she's not going to know what hit her."
"A cheri bush?" Airi repeated, his face a picture of confusion. "I think Dad's got a paralyze heal back in the wagon."
"Cheri berries are a paralyze heal," Wataru said, a little annoyed. "Just follow me."
The cheri bush wasn't empty when they reached it. A hakuryu was curled in the branches, munching away at the small red berries.
Wataru bowed deeply. "Honored hakuryu, may I take a berry to heal our friend?"
The ryu's soft trill was clearly in the affirmative. Wataru plucked the nearest berry and held it out to the bug pokemon. "Eat this. You'll feel better."
The pokemon gulped the berry down in a single swallow. Its trainer was still staring at the berry bush in amazement. "T-that's a dragonair, right? Do they really just run wild around here?"
Oh, so he'd been staring at the hakuryu in amazement. "Yes?" said Wataru with a shrug. "But if you think a hakuryu's impressive, you should see a kairyu." Catching the hakuryu's narrowed eyes, Wataru mumbled, "No disrespect meant, of course."
"A kairyu?" Airi's eyes suddenly went wide. "Wait, you don't mean a dragonite, do you? Big, orange, flying dragon? Only the rarest and most powerful pokemon in all of Johto?"
"I don't know about rare," Wataru said, giving his new acquaintance a funny look. "Most powerful, no question." He fell silent for a moment, thinking. "It's a nice day. I bet we'd find a few sunning in Dragon's Den if we looked."
"A few dragonite?" Airi's eyes were still comically wide. "You can't really mean dragonite . . ."
"You want to see them?" Wataru asked. He figured he owed the gaijin boy something for beating him so soundly. And it was kind of fun to imagine what his face would look like when he saw a kairyu, if this was how he reacted to a hakuryu.
Airi sounded dazed as he said, "See them? Do I ever!"
It was only when they neared Dragon's Den and Wataru caught sight of one of the villagers standing guard at the entrance that he felt a pang of doubt. He wasn't really supposed to enter Dragon's Den without permission. And to bring a gaijin along . . .
"Is it much farther?" Airi asked from behind him. The other boy's eyes shone with excitement.
Wataru brushed aside his hesitation. It was a stupid rule, anyway. And he did know another way in, though it involved some climbing.
"Not too far," Wataru said. He eyed the sweat already beading on the boy's forehead. "Uh, just try and keep up."
The descent down the side of the cavern proved worse than Wataru's lowest expectations. He had to coax the other boy through every bad handhold and short drop. Wataru kept glancing up nervously, worried someone would take notice, but their luck held.
Every painful moment from the climb was worth it, though, when they finally dropped to the ground in the lush field that stretched out behind the pools of the den. Sure enough, three kairyu were taking in the sunshine, their scaled chests rising and falling slowly.
Wataru turned to his companion, satisfied by the gobsmacked look on his face.
"They won't attack us, will they?" the other boy whispered, once he'd remembered to shut his mouth.
Wataru shook his head. "Just stay quiet. The kairyu won't bother us if we don't bother them."
The sunlight warmed their backs as they sat in silence, watching the kairyu doze. A light breeze stirred the blossoming koiking grass. Wataru inhaled happily, tipping back his head. Toku was stretched out in his lap, as content in the sunlight as her twice-evolved form.
It was a perfect moment. So of course, someone had to ruin it.
"There they are!" Wataru had barely registered the shout when a firm hand descended on his back. The noise caused the kairyu to stir. The nearest one blinked open an enormous eye and took in the proceedings lazily.
It was Uncle's hand that was gripping so tightly against Wataru's shoulder. A few other men and women from the village were with him. One grabbed Airi and jerked him roughly to his feet.
"Uncle—" Wataru began, but was cut off by a sharp squeeze.
"Save it, Wataru." His uncle turned to the others. "Let's get out of here. We're disturbing the kairyu." He bowed deeply, though his grip on Wataru didn't lessen. "Please excuse the interruption, Great Ones."
Then they were heading back through the cavern—being dragged, really. Airi's face was pale and Wataru guessed the hand tugging him along wasn't much kinder than Uncle's. The boy tripped over a jutting rock and nearly tumbled headfirst into the shallow water.
"Don't make him go so fast, he doesn't know the way," Wataru felt compelled to shout, catching the miserable look on the gaijin boy's face as he got to his feet.
"Then how did he get in?" Uncle asked icily. He didn't seem to be looking for an answer, so Wataru kept his mouth shut.
"Take the boy back to his father," Uncle said as they neared the exit. The last Wataru saw of Airi was his pale face craning back, before he was dragged out of sight.
Uncle finally removed his hand from Wataru's shoulder. At once, Wataru reached up to massage the sore spot where Uncle had been gripping him. He recognized that now was the time to speak, but he couldn't think of anything to say, so he preserved a mulish silence.
"Wataru," Uncle said after a long moment, "do you have any idea how much trouble you're in?"
He didn't sound mad anymore. That was the scary part. That was what made Wataru finally look up. Uncle's face was crinkled into one giant frown, his bushy black eyebrows drawn close together.
"All I did was show him the kairyu," Wataru said. He knew at once it had been the wrong thing to say.
Uncle passed his palm over his face. "All you did. That's a pretty big 'all you did', Wataru. Do you know why we have that rule? Do you know why it's so important?"
When Wataru didn't answer, Uncle said, "Think about it. And you'll have a lot of time to think, because you're grounded, until we figure out what your punishment should be. Kana will keep an eye on you for now. I need to speak with that trader."
Uncle took off without another word, leaving Wataru alone with the dragon master. She didn't say anything either, just widened her stance to something more comfortable and fixed her gaze on the mural past Wataru's head. He'd admired her, last night, dreamed of dancing in her place. Now she was watching him like he was some kind of baby. Thoroughly humiliated, Wataru sank his head onto his knees and tried to think.
Outsiders weren't supposed to see the kairyu. Only those dragon-blessed may witness the ryu at rest. Wataru had grown up hearing those words, but he'd never given them much thought. It wasn't as if many outsiders came by in the first place. There were a few traders, but that was about it. Why shouldn't a gaijin get to see the kairyu, as long as they were respectful and didn't do anything stupid, like flicking acorns at them?
He didn't know the answer, but he did know the look on Uncle's face.
Wataru wriggled around for several minutes, trying to find a comfortable position on the ground, but the cold rock bit into him however he sat. Shivering in the cool wind that gusted through the cave, he hugged Toku close and settled in to wait.
By evening, Uncle still hadn't returned and Wataru was chilled all through. Kana hadn't moved more than to shift her posture occasionally. He desperately wanted to ask her what was happening, but that felt somehow like admitting defeat. Toku had already burrowed deep inside his tunic to escape the chill. Wataru felt anger worm its way through his chest as Toku trembled. Toku hadn't done anything wrong—why was she being punished too?
He'd just made up his mind to ask Kana to let Toku go home, when footsteps began to clatter through the cave. Wataru jumped to his feet, stumbling slightly on his numb limbs. He tried to straighten his back as Uncle came into sight, flanked by a battalion of distinguished elders and masters. Wataru didn't think he'd seen them all in one place before, except at celebrations and council meetings.
Soft mats were set down for the elders. Along with Uncle, the masters remained standing. Wataru realized that they'd fanned out in a semi-circle, with him at the center. The arrangement made him uneasy. He swallowed, wishing that someone would say something.
But Uncle's words, when he finally spoke, offered no relief. "We are gathered here to discuss the punishment of Wataru, son of Riku." Wataru narrowed his eyes when his mother's name didn't follow. "A recommendation has been presented to me by the council. I respect their wisdom, but wish to question Wataru myself. Is that acceptable?"
"It is," said Elder Io, the oldest person in the clan. Wataru flinched as her milky eyes settled on him. "The boy is your nephew, but we trust your judgement. We trust you will rule in the best interest of the community."
"Wataru," Uncle said. "I asked you a question when I left. Can you answer it for me?" When Wataru didn't immediately speak, Uncle's voice hardened. "What question did I ask you?"
"You asked why we have the rule about gaijin not seeing the kairyu," Wataru said. He'd meant to speak firmly, but his voice came out small, almost a whisper.
Uncle nodded. "Correct. Well? You've had at least three hours to think about it, by my count. What's the answer?"
But Wataru's mind was as blank as it had been that morning during his lesson. Only this time, he doubted he'd guess lucky. "Because —because —" They were staring at him, that same stare he always got. The one that said he didn't belong. "I don't know!" Wataru finally shouted. "Why shouldn't they see kairyu? Airi didn't bother them. He didn't throw stones . . ."
Wataru's voice trailed off as the elders traded significant glances.
"What have you been teaching this boy, Kyo?" Elder Io demanded.
Looking flustered, Elder Kyo adjusted her shawl. "Hard to teach this boy anything, when he's always running from class."
"Is it true you skipped class this morning, Wataru?" Uncle interjected calmly.
He must already know the answer, Wataru thought, so why's he asking?
"Yes," he said, "But—"
"Maybe if you'd stayed through your whole lesson, you would have learned about the Battle of Five Fires," Uncle said, cutting Wataru off. "Well?"
"That was when—" Wataru knew the name, of course, knew the mural, even. "People attacked the valley. The masters and their kairyu fought them off."
"And why did they attack, Wataru? What did they want from us?"
"They wanted—" What had they wanted? What would make people do a thing like that? It was called the Battle of Five Fires because the invaders had set every valley aflame. "I don't know what they wanted."
"Ignorant boy!" Elder Io said sharply. "Do you have no wits at all—"
But she subsided at Uncle's quick glance. "Wataru," he said, "do you know what happened after that? What resolution the council passed, all those years ago?"
"No," Wataru said dully. "I don't know." He was cold and he was tired and the stares were increasingly hard to take. From inside his tunic, Toku let out a short whine. "Sorry," Wataru added, for good measure.
"I don't see how you can be sorry," Elder Io muttered, "if you don't know what you're sorry for."
"Elder Kyo, can you please fill in the gaps in my nephew's memory?"
The old woman gave a short nod. Pulling her shawl a little tighter around her, she said, "Long ago, it was known far and wide throughout Johto that no pokemon could best a dragon, and that these dragons dwelled in our valley. At the time, our clan lived separately from the mass of warlords who fought over Johto's land like two spearow at work on the same fruit. The clan bothered no one and asked for nothing. But these warlords were greedy for the advantages offered by the kairyu in battle. One bold tyrant gathered his troops and advanced war against our borders. His purpose was to capture the kairyu for his own use.
"We were victorious, in the end. But the battle was a costly one. The council realized that our numbers were dwindling, as the numbers of our enemies grew. We had no wish to violate the philosophy of the ryu by seeking out needless conflict. So the council resolved to completely close our borders. We retreated deep into the valleys and hid ourselves whenever outsiders came, until they assumed we'd abandoned this place. In this way the knowledge of the ryu's home faded from the world. Our current peace is the hard labor of many centuries."
"—And we cannot have it endangered by a foolish hafu boy!" Elder Io cut in. "These gaijin have big mouths, especially these traders. Tell one and you might as well have told the whole world."
The cold feeling wasn't just in Wataru's arms and legs now. It had sunk deep into his chest. "They'd come for the kairyu?" he whispered. "I don't, I didn't know—"
"Clearly you didn't know," Uncle said wearily. "And plainly, you didn't think. Worst of all, it seems you didn't care."
"I care!" Wataru shouted, stung at the accusation. "I'd die to protect the kairyu, you know I would!"
A look crossed Uncle's face that Wataru couldn't parse. It was gone a moment later, his features flattening to the same blankness he'd held since the beginning of what was feeling more and more to Wataru like a trial.
"No one's asking that of you," he said levelly. "However—" He glanced at the assembled members of the council. "It has been impressed upon me that your reckless behavior is part of a long and disturbing trend. We would like to think that the gravity of your actions today will mark the end of this behavior. But some believe your actions merit more than a reprimand, however strong. I was not initially inclined to agree. But your willfulness, your disregard for the precarity of our situation, I find very disturbing. Perhaps Elder Io's remedy is the correct one."
The old woman inclined her head. "Well-reasoned."
"The remedy proposed is exile," Uncle said. He turned abruptly to the dragon master who had stood silent throughout the proceedings so far. "What do you think of that, Kana?"
Exile? The word sent an icy tremor down Wataru's back. Slowly, his eyes rose to meet the appraising gaze of the dragon master. Her face betrayed none of her thoughts.
Wataru wished, suddenly, that he'd spoken during the three hours they'd waited together. She danced with dragons—maybe she would have understood the fire that took him over sometimes, the drive to prove that he was better than the others, to defeat them so decisively they'd never taunt him again.
But it was too late now. He'd sat there and he hadn't said a word.
"He's a stubborn boy, Chief," Kana said slowly. She seemed to be choosing each word with care. "A stubborn ryu only learns by ice."
"Thank you for your wisdom, Kana," Uncle said. He stared down at Wataru for a long moment. "Is it the will of this council that Wataru, son of Riku, be sent into exile?"
The answering murmur was low and chaotic. But every voice Wataru could make out said yes.
"Then I accede to the council's will," Uncle said heavily. "This session is dismissed."
Wataru sat numbly on the ground as the masters helped the elders to their feet, and the whole party made their way out of Dragon's Den. He squeezed his eyes shut as Uncle dropped to the ground next to him.
"Look at me, Wataru. Look at me."
But Wataru didn't want to look. If he looked he would cry and at the moment, all he had left was the fact that he hadn't yet cried.
"Are the ryu going to be okay?" he finally managed to whisper. "Is the valley going to be set on fire again?"
Uncle sighed. "I don't think so, Wataru. I've had a long talk with the boy's father. He's a good man and understands our need for secrecy. If his son talks, his words will be dismissed as a child's nonsense imaginings."
Wataru cracked open his eyes, but kept them fixed on the hard black rock of the cavern. "Is it because of my mom you're sending me away?"
This time, Uncle's sigh was pained. "I know sometimes you have been made to feel unwelcome here because of what your mother was. But this is a consequence of your actions, not your blood. Do you understand, Wataru? This is a consequence. It's not—I know it may seem to you like the end of the world. But perhaps you'll take to life outside these valleys. My brother—" Uncle's voice suddenly cracked. "My brother seemed to."
Wataru's third question came to him as the miniryu wriggled restlessly under his tunic. "Toku. She can come with me, right?"
When Uncle didn't answer, the icy pit in Wataru's stomach tightened.
"I've explained the need for secrecy, haven't I, Wataru?"
"Yes, but . . ." Toku had been with Wataru since he was five. She'd chosen him. "Toku's a ryu. You can't make her stay behind if she doesn't want to."
Wataru's certainty fell away when Uncle's expression didn't budge. He'd been wrong about so much today already. Please don't let me be wrong about this, too.
Toku poked her head out of his tunic. She stared up at Uncle, her eyes glinting with the red light of a leer attack, like he was an enemy they were facing in battle.
"Toku's only a miniryu," Uncle said at last. "I'm sorry, little one," he added, looking down at Toku. "You can't go with him. We can't allow it."
Toku let out a hiss, which was more than Wataru could manage at the moment. He gaped up at Uncle, trying and failing to put into words the impossibility of parting from Toku. Ryu and their tamers were supposed to be bonded for life. That was the rule.
"But—" Wataru tried again.
Uncle cut him off. "I'm sorry. I didn't want it to come to this."
You could have stopped it, though, and you didn't. You didn't speak up for me. No one did.
Wataru squeezed his eyes shut to prevent the wetness there escaping. Warm, strong arms hoisted him up. "Let's get you home, nephew," Uncle murmured. "You need to rest. Tomorrow will be a big day."
Home? Wataru blinked open his eyes as they left the cave. Wetness blurred the sky above into a smear of yellow stars. But it's not. It's not my home anymore.