“Jo!” shouted Kazue from across the market, breaking into a run as he caught sight of a pretty, dark haired peasant girl carrying a basket over one arm. At the sound of her name, she looked around curiously, but failed to catch sight of Kazue through the endless sea of city-goers, merchants, and government personnel that populated the immense Kaineng City marketplace.
“Jo! Over here!” he yelled again, waving his arms awkwardly as he avoided passersby. Jo continued looking around bemusedly, then shrugged and resumed scrutinizing the contents of a large barrel standing adjacent to one of the many stalls from which merchants peddled their wares.
Rolling his eyes, Kazue continued to make his way through the crowd in silence. Pushing passed a disgruntled pair of fisherman, he found Jo still examining the barrel, which, he could now see, was full of shiny red apples. Grinning roguishly, Kazue put on an annoyed tone and remarked loudly, “Excuse me, miss, some of us haven’t got all day y’know. Could you get a move on already?”
Jo jumped at the rude remark, whirling around to see who had spoken. Her face flushed crimson as she laid eyes on Kazue, though her expression was one of relief.
“Don’t do that!” said Jo, half amused, half annoyed, “You scared me. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Sorry, you know I can’t pass up an opportunity when it presents itself. I’ve got a bit of free time before, well, before I have to go, so I thought I’d take a stroll through the market,” he replied innocently.
“Liar,” retorted Jo, her eyes twinkling, “You knew I’d be here.”
“Well, that’s for the black moa to know now isn’t it?”
“Mhmm, sure,” she replied, rolling her eyes as they started meandering through the crowded plaza, “So what’s this top secret errand you won’t tell me about?”
Kazue looked sideways at her, but said nothing. Jo grabbed him by the arm and yanked into a narrow alleyway, her smile vanishing.
“You have to stop this, Kazue. Those people will get you killed one day!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Kazue evasively, avoiding her gaze.
“This isn’t a game, Kazue! It’s anarchy, and I don’t think I need to tell you what the ministry does to anarchists!” she countered, an expression of deep worry etched across her face.
“The Ministry of Purity is why I have to do this, Jo!” Kazue retorted beseechingly, “How many times do I have to tell you they’re pure evil? They’re poisoning Cantha with their lies and propaganda! Someone has to do something, even at the cost of lives.”
Jo closed her eyes as she waited for the tirade to cease. When Kazue finished speaking, she reached down and clasped one of his hands firmly in both of hers.
“I know, Kazue, I know. I know they’re liars, I know they’re killing people, everyone does. But what can we do? What can you do? Just don’t go, Kazue. Whatever you’re going to do, don’t.” Tears began welling in Jo’s eyes as she spoke, and Kazue instinctively drew her into a tight embrace, speaking gruffly into her shoulder.
“One day, I’m going to bring it all down. The ministry, the empire, the emperor himself, it’s all going to come crashing down. Then it’ll just be you and me, Jo. Just you and me. How does that sound?”
Drawing away, Jo shook her head in frustration, “It sounds wonderful, Kazue, but that’s just it. It’s an idea, a wishful fantasy, nothing more. There’s no winning against them. Why can’t you see that?”
Kazue’s gaze drifted from Jo’s, a faraway look in his eyes, “Because I can’t resign myself to this life. I can’t accept a life of fear and tyranny, and I know you can’t either. I’ll be fine, Jo. Don’t worry about me.”
“There’s no reasoning with you, is there?” Jo said, smiling sadly.
“Not a chance,” said Kazue with a grin.
“If there were ever a man more foolish than you, Kazue, I hate to imagine the state our world would fall into,” she replied, shaking her head wearily, “but, if you didn’t go, you wouldn’t be the man I fell in love with.”
Kazue smiled and hugged her fiercely, reveling in the warmth of the embrace. As they broke apart, he saw that her expression was cheerful once more, despite the consternation he knew she could not let go of.
“Well come on,” she said resignedly, pulling Kazue back out into the milling crowd, “I still have groceries to buy.”
“Jo,” Kazue began hesitantly, glancing at the sun.
She stopped walking and looked him in the eye, waiting silently for him to continue.
“I have to go. I just wanted to…to make sure I saw you,” He said lamely, not meeting her gaze.
Turning to face him, she met his gaze for several long seconds without saying a word. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she nodded once.
Giving her one last apologetic look, Kazue dashed off and was soon lost in the dense crowd.
Jo’s heart leapt into her throat as someone began pounding repeatedly at the door to her home. Terrified, she sat motionless by the fire, the pot of stew she had been tending now forgotten. After several seconds of ceaseless rapping, she heard Kazue’s voice from behind the door.
“Jo! Jo it’s me, open up! I need to talk to you right now!”
Springing to her feet, Jo hurried over to the door and flung it open. Kazue stood framed in the doorway, covered from head to toe in dark stains that could only be one thing. His tunic and trousers were torn in several places, and his hair was rumpled and unkempt. The sight brought bile to her mouth, and she bit her lip to keep from vomiting. But what bothered her most was the look in his eyes. It was a look of utter panic and despair, a look that told her all too plainly that something had gone terribly awry.
“Jo, thank the six,” Kazue said faintly as he staggered through the doorway and embraced her tightly, burying his head in her shoulder.
Taken aback, Jo began babbling frantically, unable to make sense of the situation, “Kazue, what the hell happened to you? What went wrong? Is that blood? What did you do? Is someone dead? Is the ministry after you? Is…”
“Jo, stop, now isn’t the time,” Kazue said urgently, “We need to get to somewhere safe. I wouldn’t have come, but depending on what they know, they could be after you as well. I’ll explain everything later.”
“Kazue, what’s happened?” Jo repeated, her sense of foreboding rising, “You need to tell me right now or I’m not going anywhere.”
Kazue sighed and sat down, running a hand through his soiled hair.
“Ok, fine, you win. I suppose if they knew about you they’d have you by now. You’ll want to sit down, it’s a long story.”
Stay tuned for Part Two!
Intrigued by the turmoil and unrest shaking present day Cantha? Be sure to check GuildMag’s new Cantha Issue for more information and speculation on the state of this mysterious, faraway nation.