Long, long ago, a storyteller adopted a baby girl. The storyteller was quite young himself, with his hair still raven-black and not a single line on his face that showed any wears and tears of time. Robbed of sight, he wore a white cloth over his eyes. It was the infant’s cries that brought his attention to her. In a robe mostly white with scarce blue lines, he walked to her. He hesitated for only a minute before picking her up into his arms. Oddly enough, as soon as he took her into his arms, she stopped crying.
“I can’t give you a good life,” the young man murmured, “But it’s still better than being out on the street, right? Shall I call you…Azka?”
Indeed, an abandoned baby could only starve to death on the street. There was nothing in the world that could help them—except, perhaps, a kind passerby. The blind man lived alone; fortunately for him, he was gifted with the art of storytelling. Almost every day, either he visited restaurants, plazas, and other populated areas to tell his tales, or eager listeners visited his place for them. As time passed and as he gained a name for himself—Master Leica—he seldom had to venture far anymore. Instead, he told stories in the comfort of the yard in front of his own home.
It was in this environment that little Azka grew up.
“Azka?” One evening, Leica strode through the hallway, one hand trailing along the wall. He was following the voice of a sobbing girl. When he found her, he knelt beside her. “What’s wrong?” he asked gently.
“I don’t know…” came the surprising response of the girl.
“Then,” Leica suggested, “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“I was playing with other kids. We got into a fight and…and…fire came out of my hands.”
The girl wiped her eyes, then looked up to see if he would even believe her, or if he would merely laugh and say that she was not making any sense. To her disbelief, Leica began to reach out to her. She flinched, evading his touch.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Master.”
He shook his head, a soft smile on his lips. “Come on.”
Reluctantly and certainly slowly, Azka placed her hands in his. Although she was not producing fire at the moment, his hands still felt so cold in comparison to hers—almost as if the cool of his skin was also somehow capable of holding in her flames.
“Fire can destroy,” Leica said, “It can also warm. You have something that others do not; you are special. How you use it is up to you.”
The sobbing ceased. Azka made no sound, but Leica waited a minute longer before speaking again.
"What will it be, Azka?" he asked.
“I’ll keep us warm in winters,” she answered, “You’re always so cold.”
“…thank you. Yes, I am.”
“Why? Are you sick?”
This time, it was the storyteller who showed reluctance. He lowered his head, feeling the young girl’s gaze piercing through him without seeing it.
“…no, Azka. I’m…special.”
“Special? Like me?”
“What can you do?”
“I will tell you when you are old enough to understand. Now, it’s time to sleep.”
With a light tug on her hands, Leica stood up. He led her into her room, feeling her burning gaze the whole way through.
Soon after the first incident at age five, Azka began practicing swordsmanship. She didn’t know why it was that she could wield fire, but she practiced with it until she could control it, always keeping in mind what Leica had told her all those years ago: how you use it is up to you. As she had promised before, she kept the firewood burning during winter. Just in case anything should happen, she practiced with the sword so she could protect them both if need be. She fused flames into her sword, failing a few dozen times before finally succeeding in lighting the blade up without completely ruining it.
At times, Leica would ask, “What are you doing?”
“To protect us. Weren’t there some burglars just the other day when I went out? You were almost hurt.”
Leica sighed. “Just please be careful.”
“I am, don’t worry.”
One day, when she returned, the house felt unusually cold. All was dark—but that was nothing out of the ordinary; Leica did not need the light after all—and the fire had gone out. Azka lit the lamps. Once her world became illuminated, she headed for the fireplace to light it back up as well. When flames shot out from her hand at the firewood…all remained dark.
It wasn’t her, since her flames seemed to be working just fine. Taking one of the lamps, Azka brought herself closer to the firewood—it was damp.
Did Master put it out on purpose? Thinking thus, she called, “Master, I’m back!”
But there came no response.
Did something happen to him? Did somebody break in again? Or did he get sick after all?
With each passing second, more possibilities emerged in her mind. Azka hurriedly searched the house, looking first into the study, Leica’s room, and then her own room. Having searched the interior of the house, she still couldn’t find him.
Still she moved faster, her heart racing.
Does he have enemies? Speaking of which…I don’t know anything about him at all, do I…I should have asked. I should have asked more. He would tell me some things even if it wasn’t everything.
The truth was, after her first attempt failed, she hadn’t yet asked again what made Leica “special”. Perhaps because she didn’t ask again, or perhaps because he really didn’t want to tell, Leica did not bring it up either.
At last, the girl found the man by their pond, lying on the ground and dangerously close to falling in. Fortunately, it was deep in the winter and the water had almost frozen. Unfortunately, it was deep in the winter—when Azka reached him, Leica himself seemed to be almost frozen.
Rushing to him, she cradled him in her arms, balling a small fireball in one hand, shielding the bare flames from him while placing her fist near him so that the warmth could reach him regardless.
He was breathing, but did not respond.
Please be okay.
A little while later, Azka carried him on her back and brought him back into the house. She replaced the firewood and lit it up properly. Still, another hour would pass before Leica stirred.
His first movement was to lift a hand over his eyes—to the cloth over them. Then, he sighed weakly.
“What happened?” Azka asked, “Who did this?”
“I can’t tell you,” Leica admitted directly, “I’m sorry.”
Leica reached toward her with an arm. Seeing the gesture, Azka brought herself next to him. He pulled her into an embrace, holding her in silence for a moment before speaking again.
“I love you, Azka.”
Despite the fact that it was said in a voice barely above a whisper, she heard it clearly. She also heard the certainty in that short phrase. Yet, she only found herself more puzzled than before.
“But I was asking—”
“—and that is my answer.”
“You can’t tell me who hurt you…because you love me?”
“Are you…protecting me from something?”
“And myself as well.”
She looked up, without pulling away. It was always more difficult to read Leica’s expression than that of anyone else’s, if only because there was no gaze to be read. At this moment, nonetheless, she decided that there was no better time to ask.
“You’re special,” she said, “Why is that?”
He brought a hand to her cheek. She smiled, knowing that this was Leica’s way of informing himself of the slightest changes to her expression—meaning he was about to tell her something important.
“I can see,” he said, “With my spiritual eye. I can predict the future.”
“…did you know this would happen today?”
He nodded once.
“I cannot tell you what I see in the future. I made that mistake long ago, and became cursed. That was how I lost my sight.”
“By the divine. This is my punishment.”
“But if it’s a curse, can it be broken?”
“It can,” Leica answered calmly.
Azka’s brows furrowed, once again in bewilderment. If it could be broken, why wasn’t it? Furthermore, why did he sound as if the possibility had nothing to do with him?
“Then, if…oh, you can’t tell me.”
This time, he chuckled lightly.
“But if we can break the curse, you can see what I look like,” Azka suggested, probing for any reasons he may have that he was not voicing.
“I know what you look like, Azka,” said the fortune teller, “I saw you in my future long ago. Would you like some proof?”
“Sure—I mean, I don’t need it, but…it would be fun.”
“Light brown hair, reddish brown eyes. Your skin is just a bit darker than mine.”
“Would that suffice?”
“Yes, but…Master, I’ll ask another question. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“Why does time evade you?”
“Why does time evade you?”
“It is part of my curse. I have existed for almost a thousand years.”
He would not say more; maybe he could not say more. Whichever it was, Azka decided to respect his will and let the matter. She pondered at the new concepts to which she was introduced afterwards on her own: Master Leica had so many stories to tell because he had lived almost a thousand years. He made a mistake that many years ago and had been cursed ever since…to blindness, and…what? Was it eternal life? That seemed too strange to be a “curse”. Was he waiting for something? Was the entity that cursed him the same as the mysterious intruder who attacked Leica only when Azka was out on an errand? Most importantly, was he in imminent danger?
She thought day and night about those questions, knowing that she would not reliably be able to find an answer without Leica’s confirmation. At the same time, she understood that most of the questions were ones he could not answer even if he wanted to.
Six years later, Azka looked about the same age as Leica.
The more she pondered at those questions, the more she worried for his safety. She began to take him along on her errands just to keep him close. What use was her swordsmanship if his attacker only came when she was absent? At that decision, Leica seemed pleased—though he didn’t seem to do any better under the sun than he did in the cold.
Then, the day came when Azka finally found all the answers she sought.
It was late afternoon, and the two had just come home together.
“I wonder what it will be like when I get old,” Azka was saying as she placed her sword back in its proper place. “You will still look so young.”
“It matters not,” Leica said, “Not to me, anyhow.”
“…nor to me, actually,” she admitted, “I’ll take care of you until I can’t.”
Once she put the blade away, Azka turned around with a smile—only to find that Leica had vanished.
Alarmed at his sudden—very sudden—disappearance, she whipped back around to grab her sword…only to find that it had vanished as well.
In an instant, the house felt so much colder.
Azka searched the house, but nowhere did she find him. She ran to the pond—sure enough, there he was. This time, however, he was not lying on the ground, although he staggered. She rushed to him, holding him before he could fall. At his feet, there lay her sword.
“I’m fine,” he reassured her. “Let’s go back.”
When he began to walk back, she stared at the sword on the ground.
I’d just put that down inside…
She looked up at him, intending to raise that point; but when she glanced up from the ground, she saw that the sun was almost completely set.
Azka stood rooted to the spot, gripping Leica’s hand so that he could not continue on his way back into the house.
“It was me, wasn’t it?” she whispered, fearing that her voice would tremble if she spoke any louder. “It was me all this time, wasn’t it?! I was the one…”
Leica did not answer immediately. That singular moment of hesitation was enough for Azka to come to the conclusion that she was, indeed, the culprit she had been training against all her life. The fire, the swordsmanship—all that she practiced with so that she could protect him, she probably used against him.
“But I don’t remember…” she mumbled.
“You are the one…” Leica said, just as calmly as he said everything else, no matter how sinister the subject matter.
I guess when you already know everything, nothing surprises you, Azka thought.
“…who broke my curse just now. Come with me, Azka.”
Her mind stopped. In a daze, she picked up her sword and followed him into the house and then to his study. Along the way, he started to tell her all the things he could not before.
“The phoenix in you was born to end my life. She hates humanity for its reluctance to yield to divine power, and I am just one of many that she wants dead,” Leica explained as he pushed the furniture in his study to the walls.
“You said you saw me in your future. You already knew I was…or the phoenix was…going to…”
“As I said, the phoenix hates humanity for its reluctance to yield to divine power.”
The fact that Leica repeated the exact same sentence caused Azka to force herself to silence her own mind. Leica, too, halted in his movements to face her.
“I do not believe that the future I see is the only possibility. The truly and purely divine believe the opposite. That is why…the way to break my curse is for my foresight to be proven wrong.”
“To be proven wrong…I haven’t killed you, but I’m still alive, so I still could, so…no, I don’t understand.”
“Were you not always curious about my eyes?” Leica asked.
“Take it off.”
He strode to her, stopping just a step in front of her. Bemused, Azka untied the cloth over his eyes. As the white cloth fell, his eyelids fluttered open, revealing a pair of crystal blue eyes. His eyes were focused, his gaze fixed unequivocally on hers.
“You…you’re looking at me.”
“I am.” Leica smiled. “Something changed her mind, I know not what.”
“…I don’t know either.”
“Just to confirm—you do not remember anything from anytime that you have been the phoenix?”
Azka shook her head. “I just thought…time flies.”
Leica chuckled. He retrieved a scroll from the bookshelf and handed it to her. “Careful, now, these are very old,” he warned. “Humanity, as it is now, is less informed about the world as it used to be. Sometimes, our souls are born into bodies belonging to someone else. We feel misplaced our whole lives, never able to find out why.”
Azka unrolled the scroll. The language was an ancient one, but Leica had taught it to her when she was younger—difficult it had been, too, when he could only describe from memory and she was…a child.
“Master, you are saying…?”
“That sometimes, we are misplaced by a thousand years and a day.”
For only the second time in her life, their eyes met. Her lips parted in surprise.
“Me…and you? Have you been waiting all this time for a slim chance that the person that’s supposed to kill you would somehow not, so that we can both be where we belong?”
“I have faith, Azka. Do you?”
“The phoenix, then…”
“She stays with the body, not your spirit. It was not you.”
“It was still these hands that hurt you.”
“But it was not your will.”
“Do you…know how to switch us?”
“What happens with the phoenix?”
“I cannot tell you, but you need not worry.”
What happened next was something Azka had never seen before. Leica drew a peculiar shape on the ground with what seemed to be purple sand, instructed her to stand at the center with him, and mumbled something in an ancient tongue.
“Shut your eyes,” he whispered right after his chant.
She did. Then, she felt very different—free, although unaccustomed. Azka opened her eyes to find herself looking…at herself, the young woman with light brown hair.
Leica had become Azka, and Azka had become Leica. Along with their bodies, their roles too had been swapped, as did their names. The calm gaze of Leica became temporarily confused as the soul within adjusted to what it meant to be able to see the future. He saw what would happen in a minute’s time, and he took a step back, shutting his mind’s eye for now. He knew he would only be distracted if he were looking into two spaces at once—as an amateur, at least.
“Did you see what I just saw?” Leica asked, troubled.
“If you mean what I am about to do, yes,” said Azka. “Speak no further, lest it curses your sight again.”
“You…I trusted you.”
“…you should look further.”
In spite of that advice, Azka gave him no such time. Her reddish brown hues became solely red, her hair burned into gold.
So that’s what the phoenix looks like, Leica thought to himself. It’s too late now. If they can communicate, that means…Azka was the phoenix all along. She just got split into this weaker body. I was stupid.
Azka drew her sword. It took no time at all for her to familiarize herself with it—she held it as if she had done so all her life. Her body, undeniably, had done just that.
I even trained just for that to happen.
“Finally,” Azka said, “I have waited a thousand years. Earlier, you asked why I took you in despite seeing you deliver my death in the future. I told you I did not believe there is only ever one possibility.” In a smooth swing, the tip of her blade was pointed toward Leica’s throat. “That is the truth—I do not lie.”
“You wanted to pacify me so that I wouldn’t want to kill you,” Leica surmised, speaking slowly. “Your future would be changed, you would get your body back easily because you raised me to trust you…and then…”
And then what? You told me before that the phoenix hated humanity. Do you want everyone dead? If it’s true that you don’t lie…
In his mind, Leica ran quickly over everything he had heard his Master say. Although his memory was not intact, he could not recall a single lie.
How did you avoid getting killed all those times?
The frozen pond, the dampened firewood…
Azka charged with her glowing blade. Leica only dodged.
If this body is as weak as it seems, there’s no way it would have survived.
“Did you keep this body weak on purpose?” he asked.
Is that a lie?
He dodged another blow.
I know you can straight-up burn me without that sword. Why aren’t you doing it? Why strike in a way that can miss?
“You do not lie, you say,” Leica noted.
“I did say so.”
He dodged another blow.
“I love you, Azka.”
“Then is it me that you hate?” Leica questioned, “Or is it the part of yourself that hates humanity? You haven’t targeted anyone else. Are you really trying to kill me, or…”
I got it now.
Ice coated the floor, freezing Azka’s feet to the ground.
I always wondered why this house was always so much colder.
Azka smiled faintly. “I am the phoenix,” she said, “There is only one consciousness in this body now that you are where you belong. Without my wrath, I do not exist. It defines me.”
“You can tell the truth about your opinions and be wrong about what opinions you hold,” Leica said, “The phoenix changed her mind, remember? That’s why we’re here now. She changed her mind when…”
The last thing I remember was me saying I’d take care of you until I can’t.
A beam of fire was cast in Leica’s direction. He raised his arm, turning it into ice upon contact.
“I think you can love me and hate me at the same time,” he concluded, “I’ll take as many blows as I need to, whenever you feel the rage. For someone who’s lived that long, you must have a lot on your mind.”
It was then that Azka sheathed her sword. The ice around her feet cracked.
“…let me tidy this place up,” she said.
“…a thousand years of waiting, huh?” Leica asked, sitting next to Azka under a tree.
“It is a long time indeed,” she agreed, smiling softly to herself.
“Tell me your stories. As long as you speak, I’ll listen.”
“…it is a lot of stories. Not all of them are nice to hear.”
“I’ll still listen. If it’s you, I’ll listen.”
She shifted in her position to lean against his shoulder. Ever since the right soul returned to the body, Leica became less feeble, and Azka became less rough.
“Long, long ago…”
~ fin ~
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