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Kuro set upon the sofa listening to his father and uncle talk. He was disappointed with how the night had progressed. Hiko and his father were fighting which was not entirely unexpected, but now he had the burden of knowing a truth he was probably not ready for. His uncle Jee spoke, “You speak to that Kari boy like he is your own son Jin.”

“Don’t read into it.”

A casual shrug as he drank from his glass, “I get the boy needs guidance. The future of the Kari is as uncertain as ever. They would be perfectly content if our world transgressed to the days of horses and swords.” He laughed, “How quaint. I wonder though, why she picked him.”

“The Tylo do every little thing for a reason. Every action has purpose, every word has meaning, every step is calculated. This boy has something special and we need to figure out what it is before he does.”

“Well, perhaps we should ask the expert in all things future related.”

“Mikio does not seem to know the answer either.”

“Oh,” Jee chuckled, “How interesting. This situation might bring a little excitement to these rather boring days.”

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“This isn’t a joke,” Kuro finally spoke up. “He is my friend and you are talking about him as though he is some sort weapon to use against the Kari.”

“What the Kari hold with the Kari Foundation is an asset more valuable than any other within Aslann. Under the care of Tadayoshi, for a time it flourished, but since has seen better days. He simply does not have the vision needed to lead it. There are many who intend to take advantage of this weakened state. We Ishi are simply seeing this as a potential opportunity. You have to understand Kuro,” His father spoke, “That girl chose him over any other for a reason. He has something of value. If this were a game of Bagola, those with Tylo blood would have played the game millions of times already. There would not be a move you could make that they have not already seen. Yet, this girl did something that not even your mother or brother had anticipated.”

Even as he said those words he thought about how the situation between Hiko and Tationy came about. He would hardly say she chose him. It was more like he chose her.

Jee spoke up, “Situations like this are dangerous, boy. Some Tylo, like Hayato and Miroku know their place and stay out of the business affairs of Aslann. There have been a few though that thought themselves kings among men. Handled swiftly they were. This girl requires a little more delicate….” He smirked, “Manipulation.”

Kuro felt the pit of his stomach lurch. He did not understand why this was happening. He wanted to regret telling his family about her, but the looks upon their faces when he told them spoke volumes. They already knew and in the shadows they had been planning. He was certain Hiko realized something was wrong, but how could he tell his best friend that a war was coming and they were going to be on opposite sides?

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He heard the laugh of his brother Bak, “The child forgets we are Snakes of the Ishi. Don’t worry little brother, Mikio will not hurt that pretty little flower.”

Kuro stood, “If we are really doing this, why does it have to be him?”

His question only made Bak laugh harder, “You think you got something to offer a girl like that. Unlocking the passion of a Tylo woman is like prying open a safe with a toothpick. It takes a delicate hand to coax that door open. That boy even noticed what is between them, it is tangible. She saw it and could not even look into his eyes.”

“That is all the more reason it shouldn’t be him. If she saw it, then she knows what will happen. So, why is she running from him?”

“That is enough,” Jin spoke. “Kuro we are not heartless we understand where you are coming from. He is your friend. Maybe you should start by telling him the truth. Sever that link between you, before she does.”

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If he had wanted to respond he did not get the opportunity because their conversation was ended rather quickly when Kuro’s mother told them all that they had spent enough time talking business. It still did not sit well with Kuro so he found himself heading toward his brother Mikio’s room. He announced himself by closing the door a bit forcefully, “Do not look at me that way child.”

“Why are you doing this? Why are you going along with this plan to bring down the Kari?”

Definition: Tearra – The Queen of the Gods and ‘wife’ of Kazuma in several Aslann religions including the Kari religion of Osog and the Ishi religion of Esspersset. In the Ishi religion, Tearra was referenced as having foresight which was often coveted by the other gods especially the God of Death, Rin. In many ancient text believed to be written by Rin himself he refers to the Tylo eyes as the eyes of the goddess.

Kuro expected that flippant response of ‘who knows’, “We are the same, she and I. Our value is what people place upon us. I am the favored son because of these eyes, this knowledge, this intellect. If I was like you, they would not be asking me to pursue her. When I looked upon her I could see what could be. Belonging and being; I wonder what that would feel like. A child like you would not understand the torment caused by these eyes. Very few things move you when you know what is going to happen. In the past, the Ishi have always coveted the eyes of the goddess; now is no different.”

“But why? Isn’t it obvious she does not want to be with you?”

“Is it? What fun would it be if she laid down and asked me to take her? No, this is how she wants the game to be played. Instead of asking me why, maybe you should be asking her. The quickest way to protect your friend would be for her to come to me, but she doesn’t. Perhaps her eyes cannot see the paths before her as clearly as mine can.” Mikio gestured toward the desk, “There is a box of candy, take it to her.” Just like that, Mikio had turned his back to Kuro and ended the conversation.

He was annoyed as he moved toward the door and responded, “Deliver it yourself if you are so keen on doing this.”

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His brothers words lingered in his thoughts long after he departed his room. With the library empty he found solace in the keys of the piano. “You are still missing the e,” His mothers voice broke through his thoughts. “Your father said you are displeased. Things will work out as they are meant to Kuro…”

“Mother, respectfully I say this. Don’t read my future.”

“Forgive me. I see you struggling I only wish to help.”

“I am struggling because my father has decided that taking the Kari Foundation is more important than my feelings. You are already aware of that though, seeing you and Mikio are the ones that told him of the vulnerable state the Kari are in. Between that and the fact that Mikio intends to…she is your brother’s daughter.”

“Miroku and I only share a father. That relationship is inconsequential when it comes to the purity of a union. They would have a powerful child. No matter how closely related she might be, such a union cannot be overlooked. This would not even be an issue for you had your father chosen you.”

“He never looks to me for things that matter.”

“Mikio is capable of delivering. Bak is just happy being. Your voice Kuro, is one always filled with respect and yet you are the one that protest the most. Your father loves you, but he also understands that you are the son who feels the deepest and is conflicted. He respects your individuality, but when the Ishi need to stand united you are always the one fighting it. If you truly want your father to look to you, then you need to do as he tells you. Sever your connection with that boy, it will make this easier.”

“Like you did with the Tylo?”

“I might have Tylo blood, but they are not my family. I am the wife of Jin. Mother of Mikio, Bak, and Kuro. I am loyal to the Ishi. That girl Tationy is no kin of mine regardless of our shared blood.”

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Kuro stopped playing suddenly as he stood and moved away from the piano. His mother had taken a step back. She was always like that. It was what she called a ‘proper’ distance. His father had always told him that the coldness from both his mother and Mikio was because of the eyes. The Tylo were burdened with the future and being close to someone was a luxury they could not afford without getting hurt. “I see your displeasure is not just limited to your father. Of my three sons, you Kuro are my most beloved. Please understand that what we want to be is not always meant to be.”

“Hiko told me all the time that he never understood what was expected of him from his father. I know what is expected and I find distasteful. When I was little you told me that when you were pregnant with Mikio you asked the goddess for a child with the eyes the color of grass and hair the color of the mist at dawn, with Bak you said you asked for a child full of life and spirit, and me you only asked for a child with integrity. I have plenty of that and this is wrong. Don’t misunderstand, I am as much a Snake of the Ishi as Bak or Mikio, but I will always do it on my terms.”

Even though he spoke his mind he felt guilty talking to his mother like that. The saddened expression upon her face the way she kneaded her hands. His words disappointed her. As he stepped away she responded, “Your father wishes for you to attend a meeting with him at the Kari Foundation tomorrow. You should try and rest. Going after that boy, serves no purpose.”

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Kuro hated to admit it, but his mother was probably right. What would he even say if he went after Hiko and Tationy? He had a restless night, which was sadly not much different from any other night. There was hope that a little reading would help, but in the end he still ended up laying there for several hours before finally falling asleep. Some days, he wished he was like Sadamitsu. That guy, the moment his head hit a pillow he was snoring.

When his mother woke him that morning he was ill-prepared to deal with much of anything. He hardly said any words to anyone in his family and only told his mother that he loved her after his father told him to stop being disrespectful to the woman that gave him life. The ride to the Kari Foundation was met with a lot of silence and his father only spoke after they entered the building, “This meeting is very important. The Kari have been reluctant to do business with us, but we have monopolized the shipping industry of Aslann and dominate the majority of the ports. For them to ship anything at this point, it has to go through us unless of course they want to sink money into using planes which are going to be rather costly.”

“Why isn’t Mikio here for this, he is running the company these days?”

“His business is elsewhere. This is a great opportunity for you to get your feet wet. Mikio will not always be able to run the company, you understand this. Admittedly Bak would be a better choice, but his frivolous nature is unpredictable. That leaves you….”

“Well when you put it that way, sure makes me want to do it even less.”

“Don’t sass me, Kuro. I understand your position in this matter. Do not think me blind to the troubles of my sons.” Jin paused, “Let’s not lose sight of why we are here. This is just one step toward what we want.”

Kuro was almost tempted to correct his father and say ‘what you wanted’, but he forced himself to bite his tongue. He disagreed with the thinking of his family, being brave and taking risks were not enough. Discretion was the better part of valor. He was certain he could not be the only Ishi that felt that way. He often saw his brother Mikio in deep pensive thought. He doubted it was entirely due to the eyes of the goddess. The part of him that had integrity did not understand or want to have any part of this and yet he was Ishi. That part of him; the snake that slithers and waits to strike was ready for war. He felt a sense of deep self-loathing and conflict as they moved toward the elevator.

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When they arrived at the executive suites they informed reception that they were there to meet Tadayoshi Kari. The Kari were prompt and Kuro noticed that they were not even asked to wait as they were brought to an office, though it was not the one they expected they would be in. The man standing near a desk was talking on the phone.

“Hiko, this is my tenth message. A carrier brought over an envelope for you from Yuudai Waichia. Get back to me.”

The man drew his attention toward the two Ishi after placing the phone down and walking around the desk. Kuro spoke before the man could, “That might be a bit difficult. Hiko informed me last night that he broke his phone.” Nothing, not a smile or even a look of annoyance. That was about the best poker face Kuro had ever seen, “I believe you can reach him on his girlfriends cell. Her name is Tationy. I can give you the number…”

He was waved off rather suddenly, “That is unnecessary.” The Kari before him directed his attention upon Kuro’s father almost completely ignoring Kuro as he offered his hand, “Jin Ishi, I presume.”

“Correct. I thought we were meeting with Tadayoshi Kari,” He spoke as he took the offered hand.

“Our CEO is busy dealing with some other business matters and he asked that I relay his sincerest apologies.”

Kuro could tell his father was not happy. It was a slight against the Ishi. A show of disrespect. Of course, Kuro thought how ridiculous it was to take it as an insult considering Mikio was not there either. Despite his father’s obvious annoyance with the situation he introduced him, “This is my son, Kuro.”

“I am aware of whom he is,” The Kari said as he offered his hand.

Blinking Kuro felt slightly foolish because he had no clue who this Kari was. Was Hiko talking about him? He looked down at the ground and realized that the man was standing on an upraised floor. It amused him slightly as he met the gaze of the man and took his hand. Even though he tried to hide it the amusement was in his voice, “Oh, this lowly Ishi is humbled and honored that you know of him. However, might I ask how?”

That stare. This Kari was hard to read. “I taught physics for a term at Sofore, when you were a freshmen.”

Kuro stared at him slightly bewildered as he tried to recall. Well aware his father’s eyes were on him there was a heaviness. His next words could make or break the conversation. If he lied and pretended he recalled, it could backfire. If he said he did not know him the Kari might take it as a slight against him, “I barely remember that year. I was so focused on basketball. I apologize I do not recall meeting…”

“We never met.” Never met, yet he knew who he was? Kuro suspiciously eyed the man as the Kari responded, “Zen Kari, Chief Design Officer of the Kari Foundation. I am head of the Design Division and responsible for product, user experience, industrial, and package design as well as, advertising, marketing, and engineering. While Tadayoshi is away on other business matters I am filling in for him.”

Kuro was shocked. The Chief Design Officer of a mega conglomerate that had their hands in everything including aerospace, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, and even semiconductors was not that much older than he was not to mention he taught physics for a term at Sofore. Was this Kari some sort of genius? “I am deeply impressed. If you do not mind me asking did you attend a university?”

“I attended Harvard at twelve. Graduated Summa cum Laude with a degree in Engineering at sixteen. Did two years of graduate school, went on to get my Ph.D. in Engineering Physics, and took my place here at the Kari Foundation shortly after,” He explained as he gestured for the two Ishi to take seats. Kuro found he was staring trying to decide just how old the Kari man was. There was no way he was older than twenty-five, but even that looked too old. He wanted to ask, but instead took a seat and waited for the conversation to pick up momentum again.

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Allowing his eyes to move around the room he found himself impressed with the decor. The Kari had certainly prospered though if what his father said was true they were struggling these days. “I will get straight to the point, Mr. Ishi. The items we are looking to ship are very large and very delicate. They need to be handled with care. We have noticed that the Ishi have been slowly gaining momentum within the shipping industry. Almost all of the ports of Aslann are controlled by your family. Very simply, we are looking to do business.”

Definition: Heroska – Kari “Pride” Bracelet. Kari boys begin their journey into manhood with a rite of passage called the Kari trials. In Modern Aslann, the earliest recorded trial was given at the age of eight. When they complete the trial tasked by the Elder and Shield they are considered a man with a voice among the Kari. If they fail they have no power and no voice among their kin. Kari men that have completed the trials are given a bracelet made of Osmium. Some say the bracelet is magic because it appears to be indestructible.

His father was cautious which was never the way Jin Ishi did business. It told Kuro that the man sitting across from them with the young face, short stature, and thin build was far more dangerous than he appeared. “That crane you have on your table is quite unique.” Kuro’s eyes shifted quickly to the little paper bird as his father continued speaking, “I noticed you have about thirty-seven scattered around this office. Many countries have respect for this exotic bird. In some it is a symbol of longevity. Among the Ishi though it has a history that extends back to the days of Ancient Aslann. The Kari are known to be the most traditional yet I find myself surprised and slightly disappointed. Your appearance suggests you have modernized, yet you still wear the heroska of the Kari. Your body language tells me you embrace tradition and yet I see none of that. Has your company forsaken itself? Has your clan forsaken its traditions?”

The little paper crane was old, but telling. No two Ishi made paper cranes the same way so he had no doubts that his father knew he was the one that made it. Which meant he was assuming that this man, Zen Kari and Kuro were courting each other and lying about it. He inwardly groaned, this could not be worse. Kuro quickly interjected, “My father is just curious why you do not dress in the traditional clothing of the Kari. We noticed when we entered that many of your employees are dressed in the ‘old ways’, but your appearance is far more modernized.” When he noticed that same unmoved look he thought, “Damn, he is hard to read.”

As he waited for some reply he thought it odd that this man had so many cranes. Kuro could tell, just gazing around the room that they were all made by him. It led to an important question, when and how did he get them? None of them looked recent, in fact the one sitting upon the table looked to be the newest. It was made with a white construction paper, which in truth was not the best material to make paper cranes because it was heavy, thick, and did not crease well. He had spent seven hours making that crane three months earlier and had numerous failed attempts. The only person he had seen that day was Hiko. Had he given the crane to Zen? Why?

“Mr. Ishi,” Zen finally spoke in a monotone voice, but never once directed his attention upon Kuro. “It would be ignorant to divide things into dichotomies. A Kari man can embrace both modern and traditional ways. All life needs a balance. We Kari are not ignorant or foolish. We understand that in this day and age a change needs to be made. While some might be slow to accept there are others willing to move forward. My appearance should not be a concern. I assure you, I am more than capable of handling you.”

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Kuro had to force himself not to laugh. It was obvious by the look upon his fathers face that he was surprised and displeased, “Handling me? A child such as yourself…”

“Are we exchanging petty insults, Mr. Ishi? You look at me and see a child, but I have been a man of the Kari since I was eight years old.” The atmosphere suddenly got heavy, “I know power hungry men like you. I have met hundreds of them. You are not going to intimidate me. In fact, for an Ishi….you are the child and a hundred years to shy to give me lip.”

He could not help himself and the damn burst forcing a laugh to leave his mouth which elicited hard stares from both his father and Zen. “Sorry,” He apologized between laughs. Zen had not been wrong. The Ishi were long in life. If you compared their ages to the normal cycle of men, Jin Ishi, father of Kuro was still a twenty something wet behind the ears pup instead of a grown man nearing fifty with three adult sons. Admittedly, Kuro had thought Zen was some persnickety Kari. Surprisingly he had bite.

His father had taken a breath which almost instantly calmed him as he carried on as though none of that conversation just happened, “Have you received the information sent by our company?”

Much to Kuro’s surprise Zen had done the same, “I did and have looked it over, but please tell me about what you can offer.”

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As his father began speaking, Zen reached to the table grabbing up a pair of glasses and an ipad. It was not that he was ignoring his father, in fact he was willing to bet that Mr. persnickety was looking over the information sent him again. “Shipping is your companies heartbeat. Even if the brain is active if the heart is not, your business is essentially on life-support. Pull the plug and you’re dead.” A crude analogy, but Kuro was certain that his father was using that one for a reason. “The Kari Foundation needs to ship around the world. This takes enormous patience, organization, and attention to detail. Ishi Shipping is licensed bonded and insured. We are capable and willing to ship your products anywhere in the world. As you can see in the information we had sent over we have included references for companies that we ship for. We are in contact with you throughout the process guaranteeing you the service you deserve at the price you expect. Our rates are competitive with other companies around the world and should also have been included in the information sent you.”

“It seems that you understand that service starts with listening,” Zen responded his eyes never leaving the ipad.

“Listening is important for addressing the needs of our clients. We want to make certain that the process goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible. At the end of the day, making certain your items are delivered in pristine condition is our highest priority.”

“I see you have plenty of contingency plans if something unforeseen happens. Do you have a crisis management consultant working for you?”

“Nothing like that. My son Mikio is very capable and feels that the best way to avoid a crisis is to plan for any and everything that could happen.”

“Something we agree on,” Zen responded. “I am impressed with your companies attention to detail.”

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Kuro found this entire thing boring so he could not be certain how long he had toned the two of them out. His fingers drummed along the arm of the sofa his eyes fixed on Zen. Mr. persnickety was all business. Never had Kuro ever been called good-looking. Certainly not by women and definitely not by other men. He was just not that type of guy that appealed visually to people. His mother always told him how handsome he was, but he did not look like his brothers Bak or Mikio. In fact, compared to them he considered himself a bit of a mutant, but this Kari was probably even more unremarkable in looks than he was.

Was Mr. persnickety passionate? He had known Hiko for years and he really only seen two emotional responses, annoyed and angry. It was not until Hiko met Tationy that he started seeing a softer side of him. So, Kuro doubted the Kari had much in the way of enthusiasm. Were the Kari even capable? Would this dull, Mr. persnickety ride him and show him an erotic face he had never seen before?

He told himself not to imagine it, but that was exactly what he did. That skinny little body of his. Was he even strong enough to fight back a little or would he just let Kuro take him? He was probably one of those guys that protest a lot and shows off their erotic face after a little bit of heavy petty. Kuro closed his eyes a moment thinking he would probably stand there in his little tighty whities, after all a dull guy like him would never wear anything else, and wait to be directed. It was alright, he did not mind being in control.

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When he heard his name called he realized that both Zen and his father were staring at him. He inwardly sighed, when did he become Sadamitsu? Was he really just thinking about sex during a business meeting? He was annoyed with himself. He knew why. This had to do with Tationy and Hiko. If he was honest with himself, he wished they would ask him to join them even if it was just for one night. Sure Kuro had been attracted to people before, but he had been physically interested in Hiko for years and Tationy caught his attention the first time he saw her. They both had forms that he found pleasing and inviting, yet he was picturing Mr. persnickety in his underwear. He thought to himself, “Sadamitsu you are right, I need to get laid.”

His father asked again, “How does that sound to you Kuro?”

“Great, just fine,” He responded though had no idea what they were even talking about.

“Good, then it is settled. Kuro will serve as the liaison between the Kari Foundation and Ishi Shipping. If you need anything, Mr. Kari please direct your questions to him and he will handle it personally.”

He felt like all the color drained from his skin. Kuro managed to respond, “I am at your disposal, use me as you wish.” His father gave him an odd look and he realized what he just said. Even if he tried to correct himself he was too late and thankfully, Zen Kari kept that unreadable poker face and said nothing.

To Be Continued

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