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This time of year was always busy for Semei Kari. Four of the Marks of Kazuma were free to be placed upon new candidates so he was quite involved overseeing the trials. Just a year prior he and Tatsuya were made Shield and Elder, respectively. Tatsuya thought it was a righteous decision made by Tationy Tylo with great care and under trying circumstances. However, Semei did not agree. While Tatsuya had showed considerable patience during the four years prior to their anointing, Semei had little tolerance for the state the Kari was left in during that time. Ultimately, he had felt that Tationy’s hand had been forced because of the condition that Tadayoshi Kari was left in when the god Kazuma was done devouring his soul.

As he walked the path toward his home, he had time to ponder the state of the Kari. He found that he was doing it a lot more lately with the arrival of the queen just three months ago. Each step his muddled thoughts were distracted by the sounds of Kari boys at play. He shook his head, mumbling under his breath about how rowdy they were at that age. The closer he got to his home, the louder the voices were and it did not take him long to realize that those were no normal cries of youth.

He redirected his steps toward the hollering and in a short amount of time his eyes fell upon a violent scene; one boy stood arrogantly while two others were on the ground tussling. His voice was authoritative as he spoke, “That is enough.” He was not surprised when the young man quickly pulled himself away from the kid on the ground. Upon closer inspection Semei inwardly frowned, “Shiku and Tuhiko,” He said the names of two of the boys, “I intend to tell your father what I saw here. If you wish for him to hear your side you best head home and speak to him before I do. I do not want to see anything like this again.”

Apologetically, both boys bowed their heads, “Of course Osoma.” Semei was no fool and was acutely aware that the two were only sorry because they had been caught.

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As the two of them scurried away he directed his attention upon the boy who had taken the physical brunt of the attack. He noticed how he methodically picked himself up off the ground. At first he didn’t even speak to him, but eventually the young boy turned and glared disapprovingly, “I didn’t ask for your help.”

He could see defiance in the eyes of the small child. When the queen of the gods arrived she had with her one of her two sons. This one he knew was named Kazuma, but he was not the son of the king of the gods. No, this child belonged to another; one that Semei knew quite well. Tatsuya had told him that the boy had been getting into plenty of trouble and he had even heard Zen describe him as being worse in temperament than his father. Until this moment, Semei had doubted that there was anyone whom could compare to the rowdy brat that was Hiko Kari,  “I wasn’t helping you.”

That cold hard stare was reminiscent of his father, “Good.”

“Might I inquire as to why you were fighting with those boys?”

He noticed how Kazuma glanced away, his head bowing, his fists clenched. Semei could not be certain that the boy would even answer him, but he waited quietly for some sort of response even if it was the young Kari child telling him to get lost, “Why does it matter? It is not like any of you really care. You will just tell me to lock it away, bury it or something stupid like that.”

Semei’s lips pursed. It was clearly evident that instructing the small child in the ways of the Kari had not been effective which explained why Tationy had brought him to Meratoia. He considered how to respond before saying, “I won’t tell you that.”

“I don’t believe you.”

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Semei shrugged his shoulders as he turned, taking several steps toward a nearby bench. He sat himself down upon it as he spoke, “Then that is your right.”

Even though he was no longer looking at the Kari child he could tell that the boy had his eyes fixed on him. Quietly he contemplated, not rushing the boy to speak. There was certainly the possibility that Kazuma would take off, but he would wait it out and see. He felt the bench move after some time, “What are you thinking about?”

“Lots of things.”

“My mom always has that look on her face as well.” Kazuma’s words caught Semei off-guard. Admittedly, he knew very little about the queen of the gods and if he was honest with himself, he really did not care to know her. The silence was not entirely companionable, but certainly not awkward. Semei was perfectly content without having to say anything. He hadn’t wanted to be the Kari man to deal with this rowdy child, but the truth of the matter was, he was probably the only one capable. “I don’t like it when people talk about her.”

“Is that what that fight was about? Did they say something about your mother?” The silence that followed Semei’s questions ultimately gave him the answers. “What did they say?” In a low voice, almost a whisper the child repeated the derogatory remarks made by the two boys. From Kazuma’s tone, Semei could tell that this was not the first time he had heard such comments which ultimately explained the boys tendency for fisticuffs. He couldn’t really blame him, if the roles were reversed he would have killed those boys if they talked about his mother like that. “How long has this been going on?”

“As far back as I can remember.”

“Have you told your mother?”

“No, it will just make her sad. I don’t like seeing her cry.”

“So, it is your intention to protect her no matter the cost to you?”

“Yeah.”

The heaviness overtook Semei. He had been wrong, this child was nothing like his father. At the same age, Hiko fought because he liked it. He was short-tempered and looking for trouble. It was never about protecting his pride or his family, it was about doing things that would ultimately tick off his father. This boy, he was looking out for the person that meant the world to him, like any Kari man would. He considered that the child seated next to him had to become the ‘head of the family’ because no Kari man had been capable of rising above the shadow of his father, Hiko; even the former Elder of the Kari, Tadayoshi had failed. Semei tried to hide his disapproval with how this boys life was playing out as he stood, “We should get you home. Mothers cannot help worrying.”

Semei waited for the boy to join him, as they walked he asked, “Are you going to tell her?”

“It is not my place.”

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The silence that followed concerned Semei. It was not as though he had expected Kazuma to say anything, but he was left wondering what was going through the mind of the small boy as they made their way to the homestead he and his mother were residing. His thoughts were distracted by the smell of the food cooking and the sigh of the rowdy child, “Mom is in the kitchen.”

“Were you hoping she was not home?”

“A little. She never knows what to say and looks at me like she is disappointed, but it is not that really; something else. I don’t know. It is really hard to describe,” Kazuma explained.

Semei found the comment curious and wondered what expression it was that was indecipherable to this small child. As they stepped into the homestead Tationy spoke as she turned to face her wayward son, “I thought I was going to have to hunt you down.” Semei recognized it the moment the expression graced her features. It was not there for long and rather subtle, but it was disappointment. Not in Kazuma, but in herself. “You have been fighting again, did you drag Mr. Kari into your mess?” Semei could not tell if she was angry or not as she spoke because she hid her emotions after her initial reaction.

“He did not,” Semei responded.

She continued to stare at Kazuma and with a subtle shift of her eyes, the boy moved toward the other room. It was as though that single glance was telling him to leave. Her lips pursed the moment he disappeared from sight, “I apologize that he has burdened you.”

Semei allowed his gaze to rest upon her, “I assure you that was not the case.”

He half-expected her to say, I don’t believe you, much as her son had. As she lifted the knife he realized that she had not rushed to tend to Kazuma. Most mothers would have doted on their injured child, but he suspected she was probably use to him coming home looking like he had been in a brawl, “Son of …” His thoughts were quickly distracted when he realized she had cut her finger. Semei noticed how she kept her head down as she sucked on the small cut. He had no doubts now that she was quite upset as he stepped fully into the kitchen and moved toward her.

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She refused to let him help her, not surprising. His eyes closed as he sighed a moment before stepping in behind her. Understandably, she had tensed as he lifted the knife and continued prepping the food she had been working on. Her body was pressed against his, there was little room for her to move, and getting away from him would not be easy. He wasn’t even certain why he had done it. She wasn’t a petite girl, she was nearly as tall as he was, her body was shapely, and she smelled like flour and sugar, which told him she had been baking earlier. Semei wanted to tell her it was alright to feel, but he understood. As the face of the Kari she had to be just as strong, perhaps even stronger than a Kari man. She was both mother and father to Kazuma which meant that she did not have the luxury of giving in to unwanted emotions. His voice was practically a whisper, “You need a husband.”

“I keep hearing you Kari men say things like that, yet not one of you steps up.”

“You are pretty brazen to speak in such a fashion. Kari men are sensitive. Marginalize us and we behave badly.”

“I do rather like those bad boys.”

“Somehow that does not surprise me.”

For a brief amount of time the silence lingered as they remained like that. “So, Osoma of the Kari,” He should have been annoyed by her calling him Osoma, but she was certainly the type of girl that did as she wished. It was not surprising that she and Hiko Kari had gotten involved with each other, truthfully he could see few differences between them. Unhindered personalities like theirs would seek out those that were similar and everyone else, would simply not interest them. “Which are you? Bad boy? Good boy? Maybe a little of both? More importantly, what would your wife think if she saw us right now?”

“Hmf, what makes you think I am married?”

“Isn’t there some Kari rule that says, you have to be married by twelve?”

He was fairly certain she was joking as he responded with, “Hardly.”

As the silence overtook the two of them, Semei realized they were not entirely alone. Watching them, though not very stealthily was Kazuma, “Thank you.” He had stopped prepping the food a moment as he considered why she might be thanking him, “Kazuma has been angry a lot lately, but when he was standing with you he almost seemed calm.”

Semei rarely talked about himself which made this acknowledgement rather a big deal, “I was the same way when I was his age.”

Her laughter took him by surprise, “I cannot picture it.”

He ignored her comment and did not offer any explanation, “You should really check on the boy.”

Noticeably she sighed, “I never know what to say.”

“Just tell him you love him that is all any Kari boy wants.” When she finally gave in and excused herself to speak with Kazuma, Semei finished prepping the vegetables and then quietly slipped out of the home.

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The months that followed the encounter were relatively quiet. Semei had spoken with the father of the two boys and explained the situation to Tatsuya, who thought it was a wise decision for Semei to guide Kazuma. Not quite ready to take on the full responsibility of the boy’s training, he focused on overseeing the trials, his duty as the Osoma and the Shield of the Kari. It was only on the heels of the completion of the trials that he had begun to instruct the young Kari child, Kazuma.

For two hours each day, Semei would educate the boy. Today was no different from any other, though Kazuma had lasted considerably longer without getting distracted. For about thirty minutes, Kazuma sat quietly watching Semei. The previous times he had instructed him the result had always been the same; forced to redirect the boys attention back to the books on the table. The voice of Kazuma caught his attention, “Semei.” Despite his name being said and the child waiting for him to respond, Semei had refused instead remaining silent. The boy had no regard for the ways of the Kari, often referring to people by their first names instead of their titles or any form of respect for that matter. It took him a moment to correct himself and it was obvious he was not entirely happy about it, “Osoma.”

His attention drew away from his book, “Yes?”

“Do you think my mom is pretty?”

Semei’s scrutinizing gaze fell upon the boy only a moment before redirecting his focus upon the book he had been reading. “I do not think of your mother, one way or the other. Why do you ask?”

“That Bingwen guy came around again. I overheard him talking to my mom. He told her she was not pretty, but she was the Queen of the Kari so he would bed her. Why did the Elder of the Kari pick him for her?”

He tried to hide the frown as he responded, “I do not know.” Takuya had informed him that he had picked a mate for Tationy, a father for Kazuma. It was not as though Bingwen was a terrible choice. He could have easily have been the Elder of the Kari. Tact was not really his style. In that regard, Semei and Bingwen had a lot in common. They both generally said what they wanted too, so in a way he could respect the honesty of Bingwen, however, when dealing with the woman in your life telling her she is not pretty, but you will still bed her generally just makes for a hostile environment.

“I asked my mom to go back to Aslann.”

Closing the book, Semei’s attention fell completely on Kazuma, “What did she say?”

“She smiled and told me she loved me. I am not dumb, I know she plans to stay no matter what.”

“So, what do you intend to do about this situation?”

The look in the child’s eyes told Semei that there was something he intended to do, but the boy responded simply, “I don’t know.”

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It was no more than four hours later, when Semei was walking with the Elder of the Kari that he realized he had been thinking about the boys words. “I have been speaking to you for ten minutes and the most I have gotten is a grunt. You are far more distracted than I have ever seen you. Are the lessons with that boy not going well?”

As they walked toward their favorite spot to sit and talk, Semei felt a heaviness. “They are going as expected. I managed to convince him of the importance of traditional clothing and I almost have him capable of addressing his betters properly. He is still getting into fights, though I cannot see that ending any time soon. He is rather protective of his mother and when people speak negatively regarding her he automatically lashes out. He has a tendency of getting distracted from his work and asking me rather curious questions.”

“Oh, like what?”

“Why my hair is this way. Do I think his mother is pretty.”

“Do you think she is?”

Semei frowned, “I think I should be asking you that question. There have been moments when I noticed that you are watching her, not as the Elder of the Kari.”

The silence that followed forced Semei to glance briefly at his elder. It was obvious he was considering the words spoken. Tatsuya had never been the type of Kari man to rush his answers. After a time he responded, “She is my type. Truthfully, if I thought me a man capable of taming her I would try, but I follow the ways of the Kari and embrace discipline. I know restraint. She needs a Kari man capable of completely losing control. That is the type of man she likes. Bingwen is more suited to stand at her side.”

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After having considered his elders words for a time, he had been about to respond when a familiar voice caught his attention, “Stay away from my mom.”

Semei moved forward swiftly, toward the voice. In a small alcove he caught sight of Bingwen who had Kazuma’s collar clenched in his fist. With a forceful push the child was knocked to his butt and Semei, saw red as his anger bubbled over. He did not even consider for a moment what was transpiring and even the voice of his elder telling him to stay calm did not stop him from charging ahead and punching Bingwen. Once, twice, he was not sure how many times he hit him. Eventually, the voice of his elder broke through the anger, “Semei do not make me tell you again that is enough.”

He forced himself to pull away, his anger still clear as he turned his back to his elder. He told himself to get a grip as Tatsuya directed Bingwen to leave quickly and he spoke to the child, “Are you alright, Kazuma?”

“Yes.” Semei could tell that Kazuma was picking himself up off the ground.

“What were you trying to accomplish here?”

There was a silence that followed the question and Semei realized that the eyes of both his elder and Kazuma were on him, which ultimately forced him to turn.

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“I can see your real face,” Kazuma responded softly. A purse came to the lips of Semei when he realized that Kazuma’s words were directed toward him.

As his elder stepped to the side of Kazuma, Semei felt tension. It was rare for him to be able to read Tatsuya’s face so well and he knew there was no point in pretending that he misheard the child. Tatsuya questioned, “Did you plan this child?”

“I thought I saw something when he intervened on my behalf months ago, but I passed it off as my imagination. When I told him earlier about what I overheard Bingwen say, I saw it again. It was brief, but more pronounced. It was the same sensation, the god Kazuma was annoyed.”

“So, you thought if you got him angry it might force him to appear,” The elder deduced.

“Mmhmm. I can see him now. He looks different from Grandpa Yoshi, but it is the same overpowering presence; like moms.”

Semei could tell there were things that Tatsuya wanted to say, but instead he simply turned on his heels, “Semei, I will leave Kazuma in your care. Please take him home and speak with Tationy. I need to deal with Bingwen, I am sure this incident will have far-reaching repercussions.”

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It took Semei a moment to collect himself as he began walking he spoke, “Come along, Kazuma.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“No.”

“Are you disappointed because you do not think my mom is pretty?”

Semei considered the question thoughtfully. From Kazuma’s perspective, he deduced that if he thought Tationy was pretty then he would be happy to be the vessel of Kazuma, but because he did not appear to be happy that meant he did not think she was. Sighing he spoke honestly, “I really do not notice things like that. Whether she is pretty or isn’t has never crossed my mind. I am simply, disappointed because I do not want to be his vessel.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It is a responsibility I am not suited for.”

Kazuma picked up his pace slightly, “I am not surprised he picked you.”

The child’s words caught him off-guard as he questioned, “Why is that?”

“My mom says you are just like him, like my father.”

Semei held his breath a moment. It made sense. When the child had told him he could see his real face and he listened to the conversation between Tatsuya and Kazuma, he tried to understand. Why did the god Kazuma pick him? Hearing that Tationy thought he was just like Hiko, brought it all into perspective. Kazuma wanted his queen and Semei was the only one with a similar disposition to Hiko that held true to the ways of the Kari. His time spent with the former elder Tadayoshi would have given the God Kazuma insight into his personality, “Is your mother aware that I am his vessel?”

“No. I didn’t tell her what I saw. You have to make her see your real face. Telling her will not accomplish that.” The words of the young boy left a lasting impression. Semei had plenty to consider as he walked with the small Kari child to his home.

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“This seems oddly reminiscent. So, who did you get into a fight with?” Tationy asked as Semei and Kazuma stood in the doorway.

“No one, but the Osoma beat up Bingwen.”

Semei’s lips pursed as he went to protest, but Kazuma was already wandering off. After a moment of staring in the direction the child had gone, Semei noticeably sighed. His body felt tense, even though he tried to keep it off his features, but the moment she spoke he realized he was failing. “Are you going to explain?”

“No.”

She sighed, shaking her head. “Kari men, willfully stubborn.”

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Silently, they stared at each other as his scrutinizing gaze washed over her. He was certain she wanted some sort of explanation after all he beat up the man Tatsuya had picked for her to marry. His mind wandered to the words of the elder. She was Tatsuya’s type. As he blatantly stared he tried to figure out what it was that the elder of the Kari found attractive, but was quickly reminded of the words of Kazuma. She thought he was the same as Hiko Kari. There was a part of him that was annoyed by that fact. He turned away, “I should go. Tell your boy, I will see him at our normal time for his studies.”

“Is that how it is? I thought Kari men take responsibility for their actions. I am waiting for an explanation on why you beat up Bingwen.”

He refused to look at her. There were a number of reasons he could have given her, but in the end he began to walk away responding with, “He had it coming.”

 To Be Continued

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