Chapter 14: Roku and Roku

The sea drowned out the whole world. Foam and salt in his mouth and nose, stinging his eyes. Only white spray and dark waters filled his vision, no land or sky in sight. But Meana pushed him onward, nudging him back to the surface when he began to sink, pushing his head above water. With quick gasps for breath, Yuki stumbled out of the water and onto sandy shores, legs shaking, unable to hold up his body's sudden weight.

Rain lashed down, as if the sky were trying to battle the sea. Yuki shivered, and felt a nudge at his side. Meana again, watching over him, before she turned and dove back into the water. "Meana!" But over the rain and wind, she couldn't hear his voice.

"Come on!" Tanu, who had been following, pushed him with his nose, up the beach and away from the breaking waves. Yuki stumbled but let Tanu guide him. Squinting, his eyes made out a dark barrier ahead where the first trees grew. Behind, Meana was a tan blur in the water, guiding others to shore. One by one that staggered to land, licking one another, or lying flat out on the sand, unable to move another step but filled with relief to have found firm sand under their paws. Tanu moved on to the trees, looking for shelter, but Yuki stayed back, counting them all. "Kois? Laana?" But there was nobody left to climb out of the raging sea.

He didn't care about the cold, or the rain battering his body, or the way his limbs wouldn't move and he was forced to stumble and flop over the sands. "Kois! Laana!"

Meana was by his side again, ready to jump back in, but she hesitated.

"They're gone!" Tanu turned away and skulked off to the trees. Meana, resigned, followed him. He was right. There was nobody out there for Meana to save. They were calling his name, trying to make him turn back, but he couldn't force himself to look away. Seafoam whipped at his feet. The waves threatened to pull him back into the depths. His breath was fast and shallow, as if the rain itself could drown him.

Someone nuzzled him, warm against the cold - Kirro, the lanky almost-seer. "Sorry," he said. "Come on back."

Yuki's ears fell and his tail dragged in the sand as he turned and let Kirro guide him up the beach. Maybe that was where Kois and Laana had gone. Maybe they'd be waiting, safe and warm.

Wind and rain lashed ferns and leaves through the air, whipping at his sides as he entered the forest and felt darkness close in over him. Sand turned to mud under his paws, churned with fallen leaves and debris.

Someone had found a hollow under a wide thorny bush, enough to keep out the worst of the rain, and they huddled together underneath, curled up and dazed. But still, Kois and Laana were not there.

"We couldn't find them," said Kirro."

"I'm sorry." Meana licked the top of his mane. "They said to stay with you."

Yuki said nothing. He couldn't cry out. They needed him, they had followed him here, and gods did not falter. He buried his face in his paws and huddled down in the mud by Meana's side. Rain drummed the leaves above, washing away his throughts. Too exhausted to move any more, he slipped into a deep sleep as the storm carried on overhead, beyond any power but its own.

He had a moment of cloudy, sleepy ignorance as he woke to faint sunbeams lancing through the trees, before the memory came crashing back and wiped away all possibility of further sleep. Yuki's eyes opened and his head snapped up. He was drowning - no, he was safe, but the air was damp and hot, like thick fur over his nose. Iskome, Meana, and the twins still dozed in the thicket, but the others had gone - were Laana and Kois back, and ready to greet him? No, they couldn't be. He lay back down, his body hurting all over from swimming all day, feeling as if every limb had been stretched until it was ready to break, again and again. Mud clung to his fur and stained it red-brown. Laana wouldn't like that - she'd take him to the water and wash it off.

He stretched and hesitantly rose to his feet. With every movement his muscles ached, but the thought of water made his thirst flare up, and in the thicket there was only that damp, clinging air that you couldn't breathe easily, nothing you could drink. Outside, he could finally see where he and his group had found themselves.

Yuki had never seen so much greenery in one place. Ferns and vines and flowers and trees and bushes, all of which he didn't know the names for, blended together in a tangle of leaf, stem, and bloom. Above his head a canopy of leaves grew, so big he could have sat on one with room to spare, and so thickly spaced he felt as though he had found not a forest, but a giant green cave, scattered with tree trunks for stalagmites. The air smelled of steam and leaf mould, and was still but not silent. The forest was full of chirping insects and calling birds, and in the distance the waves continued to break. They were calmed after the storm, no longer raging but slow and subdued. In the distance, someone was talking. He swivelled his ears in their direction, but could not make out the words.

He lost interest at the smell of fresh water, and found it pooled in the middle of a spray of leaves that sprang from the ground and made a hollow at about his height, where the rain had collected. He lapped it up, tasting a slightly bitter and leafy flavour, but not caring - it was fresh water, and in a few laps he gulped down the lot.

His thirst satisfied, he wandered in the direction of the beach, his paws leaving deep tracks in the rain-softened ground. He followed the voices, recognising more of his friends. The trees thinned out and the earth turned to sand. Sunlight shone intense and strong, forcing him to narrow his eyes as he left the dim embrace of the forest, but a breeze from the sea blew away the cloying humidity. Blinded for a moment as his eyes adjusted, he listened in.

"There's one here!" Yuki heard the sound of sand being pushed aside. The speaker was Kuku, who sometimes kept company with Tanu. Yuki opened his eyes a tiny amount to see. Kuku's distinctive coat, red with white spots, was easy to make out even with blurred vision, as was Tanu's dusky pink. A third nicheling, slender and white, must be Kirro.

"Can't you see anything?" Tanu said.

"I keep telling you, I'm not a seer." Kirro twitched his long tail.

Tanu made a grabbing motion. "Look, I'll open one."

Yuku trotted forward, trying to see what they were doing, and was greeted with the sight of Tanu trying to pry open a clam while Kuku muttered ", no, that's not how you do it..." and Kirro watched, swaying his tail. The beach looked peaceful, but the tideline was littered with debris thrown up by the storm - seaweed, driftwood, shells, all smelling of the deep. A few sand fleas scattered by his paws as he came closer. "What are you doing?"

All three looked up. Yuki waited for them to reply, but they all stayed silent. He pawed at his chest, mindful of the mud that was all caked into his fur and getting uncomfortable as the sun dried it out. But it wasn't that. These nichelings had crossed the sea to follow him, and they wanted him to tell them what to do. That couldn't be hard - he should know. He brushed some of the dried mud from his chest and it came away in nasty, dry flakes.

Tanu, who quickly went back to grappling with the clam, was the first to speak. "We were waiting for you. What's the plan?"

Yuki's eyes had adjusted a bit more to the light, so he could see some of the others wandering the beach further away. He couldn't tell them he didn't know. "Where's Laana and Kois?"

"They didn't come back." Kirro flattened his ears. "Didn't find them in the trees."

Kuku stepped forward and sniffed at Yuki. "But don't you know where the snow-"

"Leave him alone." Kirro lashed his tail. Kuku shrank back, and Tanu went back to glaring at the clam, which still refused to open for him. Yuki nibbled at the mud still lodged in his fur, but it tasted too awful for him to lick off.

"I need to... find where the snow is!" He didn't know if he'd convinced himself, let alone the others, but he left them to their clams and digging, and walked down to the breaking waves where he washed himself, rolling in the surf to get the dirt out of his coat. Even now he couldn't help watching over the brilliant blue sea, so far removed from yesterday's raging grey depths, as if he could see, if he looked long enough, two shapes emerging. Laana would find a clam and read it, and Kois would know all about snow and where it could be found. He splashed the water over his body - that he liked, at least, a refreshing contrast to the blazing sun. How could there be snow here?

Yuki turned away from the sea and let his wanderings take him back to the treeline and into the shade. The sun shone brighter by the moment, threatening to burn his skin if he stayed in it too long. Staying in earshot of the others, he sniffed around, trying to learn all the new scents and sounds. A movement caught his eye and he watched a black and yellow caterpillar bunch and stretch along a long leaf blade. It bristled with stiff hairs. Curious, Yuki watched, but from a safe distance - close enough that his eyes could still discern the shape, but not so close that Laana would warn him not to touch, as she surely would.

The caterpillar looped its way into the shadows and out of sight, and Yuki heard paws behind him, big paws, with claws. "What have we here?"

"Hello Rara." Yuki looked up from the undergrowth. Rara was another of the nichelings who had accompanied them, big and strong (not as strong as Kois of course, because nobody in the whole world was as strong as Kois). Her plain grey pelt contrasted with three gems of differing colours. Yuki had never been able to find out how she made them do that; he'd never met anyone with more than one colour before.

"You look so lost!" Rara came to sit by his side - but not as close as Kois or Laana would. He couldn't lean into her side and feel the rise and fall as she breathed in and out, and know that nothing could hurt him as long as she was there. But she wasn't unkind, either. "I saw the way they looked at you. It's not right."

"What do you mean?" Yuki tugged at a half buried root.

"You're a cub with one gem. They can't expect you to know what to do."

"But I'm Yuki!" Red earth cracked and heaved as he pulled, but the root held fast.

"That's still too much for a one-gem." Rara tilted her head down to look at her own multicoloured assortment. "I hunted with your mother, before you were born. I wanted to follow you out of respect for her memory. But we all dragged you here before you were ready, and now we don't know where we are."

"You don't know that!" Yuki left the root alone and licked the red dirt from his paws. "Laana said it was time to go, and Kois said mountains were..."

His memory flashed back to Kois on the crossing, reassuring everyone they hadn't gone astray because they could still see greenery ahead. For a moment he forgot about the heat and humidity, and pictured somewhere high and open, taller than the tallest hill, somewhere where you could see the whole world, and he imagined cold winds ruffling thick fur, paws stepping into deep, crisp snow, leaving behind perfect trails.

"Kois said mountains were inland!" He sprang off, out onto the beach again, where the others were waiting for him. "All we have to do is keep going, and we'll find them!"

Yuki wanted to leave right away, but the others took some convincing, even if they had all been waiting for him to guide them in some way or another. They were all still tired and sore and hungry, and tales of jungle monsters lurked inside their head. But after a little time to think it over, they conceded there was no other plan, and if Kois had said inland was where you found snow, then there was nobody else who knew anything about it.

But it was not so long into the exploration that Yuki began to wonder if his idea had been such a good one. They were all used to well trodden trails marked out by generations of nichelings and worn deep into the land. Where their home island had been overgrown, it was easy to push through with a little effort. None of them had seen such thick growth as they encountered in the jungle. Yuki could slip through, but the others had to force their way through snarls of vine and bramble, and after yesterday's exertion were soon ready to give up.

Yuki, who had found himself running head several times only to realise everyone was far behind, said "What if I went on ahead? I could see if it gets better."

Meana clawed at a thick vine blocking her path. "That's too dangerous for you."

"He's Yuki, can't he do what he wants?" Tanu sat down with a thump.

Meana strode forward to Yuki's side. "Then I'll come with you."

"I'll come too." Kirro stepped forward, ducking under a low branch. It was the first time Yuki had heard him speak since the beach.

With only three of them, they made faster progress through the undergrowth. Kirro's lithe body let him wriggle through with nearly the same ease as Yuki himself. Meana's stocky form still slowed her down, but she clawed through stems and thorns, never letting them make her lose sight of her companions. Still Yuki led them, scrambling through thickets and over moss coated branches and stones. Deeper into the forest they pushed, into a dark green heart where light was scarce and unfamiliar sounds echoed in the gloom.

In the shade of a great tree Yuki found his path blocked by a buttressed root taller than a nicheling, all gnarled and mossy and a deep red in colour like the earth from which it grew. To Yuki's eyes the tree perched on top of its roots as if they were legs it could get up upon and walk away. He put his paws upon its side and tried to climb, but found himself unable to gain a foothold until Meana stepped in, letting him balance on her head as she pushed him up and over the mossy ridge. A spray of slender leaves brushed over his head, obscuring his vision for a moment as he half jumped, half fell to the other side. Shaking his head, he took a moment to realise where he had ended up.

"Look, it's a trail!" Not the most well travelled of trails, a little overgrown with spots of greenery and tufts of leaves growing in the dirt, but a trail nonetheless. As Kirro and Meana clambered over to see, he sniffed at the pawprints left in the earth. Someone had been here not so long ago...

"Let's see where it goes." Meana brandished her clawed paw and stalked off. None of them needed to discuss it - a trail meant other nichelings, a tribe, and help. They might even know where Kois and Laana were - what if they were waiting for them right there - or where to find the snow!

Not far down the trail they came upon a stand of berry bushes and gave them a curious sniff. It had not been so long since they'd eaten, but pushing through the jungle was hungry work, and though Meana hesitated at first, but Kirro nibbled on one and she and Yuki followed, finding the fruit just as sweet as the ones back home.

"Shouldn't we go back now?" Kirro licked his lips and swept his skinny vine of a tail over the ground. "We found what we were looking for."

Meana picked a shred of pink berry flesh from her teeth with her long claws. "You're right. They must be wondering-"

"My berries!"

Kirro stood poised to leap, Meana flashed her claws and stood her ground... and Yuki stared. "You're green!"

The newcomer stood before them, yellow mane and bright green coat fluffed, but his wide, startled eyes crushed any chance he had of looking intimidating. Yuki bounced forward - he smelled like a nicheling even if he didn't look like one, and he had two green gems. "Yes... yes I am green!" The stranger sat down and licked a paw. "Now what are you doing with my berry bushes?"

Meana put down her paw. "I'm sorry. We're lost. We didn't know these were yours." She touched her gems. "I'm Meana."

The green nicheling glared, but touched his own in return. "Vankirvan."

"Kirro," said Kirro.

Vankirvan glared down at Yuki, twitching his long whiskers. "And who are you?"

Yuki opened his mouth, choking on his voice, and sputtered out "Roku!"

He didn't know why he said it. Laana had told him it was the name his mother wanted him to have, before he became Yuki, but such what-ifs had never crossed his mind as any more than an idle curiosity, until now.

Vankirvan pricked his ears. "No. You must be mistaken. There's only one Roku here. Ki-Roku."

"You mean a prince?" Yuki gaped. Just like in the stories!

"Yes, exactly. And he'll want to see you..."

No matter how frightening Vankirvan wanted that statement to sound, it was clear to Yuki, Meana and Kirro alike that he was no threat. The green nicheling had been even more startled to find there were even more strangers wandering the forest, and for a moment it was hard to tell who was more surprised by who. But he took pride in escorting them back to the Taimera Tribe's lands, fluffing up his fur and striding ahead. "You're all so lucky you found me!" he said. "This forest is full of apes!" He had another surprise waiting when he found out none of them had ever seen an ape, and happily set about describing "a huge hairy thing, with big teeth and a bad smell!" that put Yuki in mind of an even bigger, nastier bearyena.

Some of the others mumbled about whether Vankirvan was trustworthy, or if he was telling the truth about apes, but Yuki strode on ahead with Meana and Tanu close by, keeping close to their strutting guide. He gaped at the sights of the forest all around him, all lurid colours and twisted blossoms, and tried to hide his surprise at the sight of seeing other nichelings just as brightly coloured. Everywhere was something new to see and smell and hear! He would struggle to keep up sometimes, wanting to sit and stare, or wander off to sniff at the exciting new plants, but he kept up his pace, so the explorers would have someone to follow.

Vankirvan strode into the river cave with them all in tow, and Yuki gaped again at the sight of the sun taken underground. He longed to explore, to run and climb and sniff at the opening through which poured sunlight and greenery, but he remained still.

At the far end a group of nichelings, many with the same bright coats as Vankirvan, gathered to contemplate the cave walls. Yuki leaned forward to see what held their interest, but all he could make out were patches of colour - moss, perhaps? Did they read the future in stones, as the seers back home did for the sea?

Vankirvan dipped his head as he approached, and seemed to be about to speak when a blue nicheling turned her head and swayed her long, thickly furred tail. "Yes?"

At first Yuki thought she'd been annoyed by the interruption, but there was something in the blue's demeanour that spoke to him of a gentle sadness, her movements elegant and silent, graceful but pained with melancholy, that he knew - the way Laana looked distant and withdrawn when she spoke of Reko. You couldn't always help, so Kois had said - sometimes the grieving need time and nothing else will do - but in that moment he wished he could break away and sit by her side and ask what had happened to make her so sad.

"Ai-Relare, Ki-Roku," Vanikirvan said, further lowering his head until his whiskers brushed the ground. "I found intruders!"

A ripple of shocked mutterings rose and grew and multiplied amongst the explorers. Rara lashed her tail, growling "I knew this would happen!" whilst Meana snarled "We told you we were lost!" and Kirro pleaded "Stop, stop, can't we talk?"

Yuki, still adrift, watched as a nicheling with a pelt of gold turned from the dappled wall, his long ears slightly flattened. A pair of slender fangs gleamed in the borrowed, underground sunlight. Sleek, powerful, and tall, he regarded the explorers one by one, and crouched before Yuki, nose twitching, fangs shining. "Well now... what have we here?"

Yuki trembled, but stayed where he was.

"A little cloud!" The golden nicheling looked over his shoulder. "A little cloud come to the ground, Relare!"

A small intake of breath, and Vankirvan spoke again. "He says his name is 'Roku', Ki-Roku."

Ki-Roku watched Yuki shake before him, one paw raised in curiosity. Relare silently padded behind him, watching from a dignified distance. For a moment Yuki fought to stay in place, imagining that any moment now the big nicheling would bite, sinking those long fangs into his side...

...and then the prince purred in amusement, kneading the ground with his paws. "A little me!"

"But-" said Vankirvan.

Ki-Roku sat down. "Go and guard the berry bushes some more, Vankirvan."

"Yes, yes, of course!" Vankirvan dipped his head again and scurried away, into the open forest, paws tapping on stone.

"Please, do ignore him," Ki-Roku said, when he was out of earshot. "He means well, but his will to please is far greater than his ability to do the same."

"And his striving lacks elegance." Ai-Relare sat down, curling her fluffy tail around her paws, and looked at Ki-Roku. "But we still don't know why they are here, Roku."

"You really do mean no harm?" Ki-Roku lay down, his paws stretched out before him.

There was a chorus of "No!" from the explorers, Yuki included. He trotted up to where the gold nicheling sat. "Please, we all got lost. We weren't supposed to be here, but..." He looked back - the others were waiting for him again. "We swam over the sea. There was a storm-"

Ki-Roku's ears perked. "The one last night?" His gaze switched from Ai-Relare and back. They must have heard it raging, from the safety of their cave.

"We lost two of our number," said Meana.

"I see..." Ki-Roku closed his eyes, and Ai-Relare followed suit, as did the others listening in. A solemn silence fell over the cave, one that Yuki longed to break. Laana and Kois weren't gone! They shouldn't act as if they were! What little of his mane had grown in bristled.

"Such are the whims of fate," said Ai-Relare. At her words, every nicheling present opened their eyes again.

"But we're still looking!" Yuki said. He perked his ears, an idea rising in his mind. "If we stayed here, would they find us?"

The two brightly coloured nichelings exchanged looks again. Ki-Roku titled his head to one side. "It... wouldn't be right of me to refuse you," he said, eventually. "There is food here, take what you like." He lifted his paw to indicate piles of fruit stacked up by the terraces leading to the sunlight (ones that a few of the explorers had been making hungry eyes at). "You're welcome to the cave."

For a moment everyone waited, in case there were more words, or some catch that the golden prince had not spoken of. But soon it became apparent he had nothing more to say, and a few of the bolder members of the expedition began sniffing at the food stores, curious about the unfamiliar fruits, and while many of the cave's residents (Ki-Roku's court, as Yuki had started to see them) went back to their wall gazing, others broke away. Soon newcomer and local alike were mingling, learning one another's scents, swapping names and sitting comfortably as they nibbled their food. But Yuki still didn't move. Normally he'd have been the first to bound forward and introduce himself, but he felt himself stunned into silence, unsure why. He scratched at his ears with a hindleg.

"Do they really look to you to lead them?"

Yuki looked around, startled at the soft, quiet voice by his ear - he hadn't heard anyone approach. It was Ai-Relare, her footsteps even gentler than her voice.

"I think so," Yuki said.

She peered at him down her long muzzle. "How strange, for one so young."

She couldn't know who he was, Yuki thought, and without his name behind him, of course the way everyone looked for him to speak must look peculiar. A flash of inspiration broke in his mind - the reassurances Rara had given him on the beach. "My mother always wanted to go to a new island," he said. "I think they all look at me because she's not here any more."

"Oh..." Ai-Relare's eyes widened. Behind her Ki-Roki wandered up. Those long ears must catch a lot, Yuki thought.

"The storm?" he said.

"Oh, no, I don't remember her. That was a long time ago," Yuki curled his tail around his legs and stared at the floor, cold under his paws. "That was... that was my aunt, and her friend... we were swimming, and..." He closed his eyes and pressed his chin against his ruff, where his single gem sat. They didn't need him. It didn't matter if they saw this.

He felt a cold nose nudge him, someone nuzzling his side. "Little me?" A soft purring rose from Ki-Roku's throat, and Yuki pressed his face against the golden prince's, purring in return - not a purr of happiness, but the purr of a frightened creature trying to tell himself that all could still be well. A strangled, muffled squeak of a cry escaped his throat, hidden in the big nicheling's fur where nobody could hear. A soft paw over his back drew him into Ki-Roku's side. "Listen. Ai-Relare is my twin. Two months ago, we lost our father."

"Sorry," Yuki nuzzled into Ki-Roku's soft fur.

"No, little me, I'm not telling to make you sorry! I'm saying we all lose someone, when we're alive. But you know something? The river's still flowing, the trees are all reaching for the sun, and you're still here." With claws as deft as Laana's he combed through Yuki's fur, teasing out a few knots from his trails through the jungle.

They're not gone, Yuki thought. They're not gone and I know it. But he said nothing. The others couldn't hold him like this, couldn't nuzzle him and speak kind words in his ears as if he was just another cub. But here, he wasn't Yuki. He was Little Roku, lost and found again, and as he listened to Ki-Roku's heart, he let another strangled cry forth from his throat.