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Chapter 6 Main Chapters Chapter 8

Chapter 7: Combination

We returned to the palace without further incident a few days later.

There was no indication that we were being pursued, so the excitement of our near escape had worn off. Haruhi had grown bored, but not enough to get us home.

I tried to talk to her about it a few days after we got back, but she insisted, "No, we're going to find the other warriors."

"So, we're going to search the other parts of the empire soon?" I inquired.

Haruhi groaned, "No, we already did that, it's way too boring to do it again."

Boring? Any more excitement and we might've died!

"Haruhi, we can't just expect the warriors to simply waltz in here on their own," I tried to reason with her. "They may have no idea who they are. We need to find them."

Haruhi leaned on a nearby railing, resting her cheek on a palm with a frown. She looked out at the courtyard which this walkway surrounded, and the buildings which surrounded the walkway.

I was prepared for her to continue doing that for a while, but I was proved wrong. She suddenly raised her head as she sniffed the air, then started heading inside. "That smells good!" she commented.

"We just ate," I looked at her.

"Honestly, Kyon," she shook her head at me, "you have no survival sense. This is an adventure! Who knows when we'll be able to eat again! We have to make the most of every opportunity!" So saying, she headed indoors, towards the food she had scented.

This was odd. I've never known Haruhi to be that interested in food. What was going on, I wondered?

I wandered away, trying to work out what to do next. I was going around a corner when I noticed something shiny on the ground. I paused and saw that it was a coin. As soon as I had realized that, I snatched up the coin like a magpie and examined it closely, clasping it tight in both hands. It was a coin all right, a real one of the Konan Empire. How much would it buy? How many did I have? Were there any more on the ground near this one?

Such were the thoughts that filled my head, and that was pretty frightening. What am I worrying about money for? We're all sponging off Koizumi while we lived at the palace. More accurately, we were sponging off Konan's peasants. So I didn't really need money. It's one thing to pick up a coin on the ground. It's another thing to pounce on it like my life depends on it.

Maybe, I thought, I ought to try to get us out of here before we all start losing our minds.

Then I remembered there was no need to worry. I'd been hanging out with not only Haruhi, but real-life aliens, time travelers, and espers. We were all already crazy.

A patrol of guards was heading my way, with someone in between them. At that point, I couldn't exactly say I was surprised to see that it's another classmate. Let me introduce Tsuruya, one of Mikuru Asahina's friends. Occasionally she hangs out with the SOS Brigade. Tsuruya tends to overexaggerate and will laugh at the slightest provocation. Not to imply that she's flighty. She's actually very shrewd.

"Sir Tamahome!" one of the guards called. Why was he looking at me, I thought? Then I recalled, Oh yeah, Tamahome's my Suzaku name.

"Just Kyo will do," I told him as I came closer.

He nodded smartly. "Very well, Master Kyon."

Great. Even in another world, I still couldn't get rid of that dumb nickname, "Kyon."

"Hello, there Kyon!" Tsuruya called to me. "You on this field trip too?" She began to laugh long and loud.

The guard paused a moment, then, when she was done laughing, told me, "This young lady asked us to bring her to the priestess, and said that she was one of the Suzaku Seven."

"Thanks, I'll take her from here," I told him. The guards saluted and left. I wonder if I was supposed to salute back?

Tsuruya looked around approvingly and commented, "This is a nice palace. We Suzaku Seven sure have a lot going for us!"

I nodded. "So how did you know you were in the Suzaku Seven?" I asked.

"I appeared in the middle of a country field in a flash of red light! The people were sure that was the only explanation!" she laughed for another good long moment. When she was through, she continued, "So the people told me that I should go to the palace. It took me a while to get here because I had to walk most of the way, but I finally made it today!"

As we talked, I lead the way towards the building where Haruhi had gone in pursuit of food. Tsuruya stopped a moment, held out her palm to me and asked amusedly, "See anything different about me?" She was barely containing another lengthy laugh.

"Other than the faint red Chinese character on your palm, no," I told her.

Tsuruya gave in and laughed, retrieving her palm and beginning to walk again. "The elder of a village I stopped in told me that means I'm Mitsukake."

I replied, "Interesting. So, do you have any special powers?"

"How would I know?" she spread her hands. "Do you have any special powers?"

"All of a sudden, I know martial arts," I informed her.

She conisdered me. "That seems more like a skill," she disagreed. "But it proves my point, you just wouldn't know about these sorts of things immediately."

I shrugged. "I'd settle for going home and never knowing. But right now I'm operating under the theory that we need to find the last Suzaku warrior to return, if we can."

She looked at me in surprise. "You guys already found six? You must've been working a lot harder than I give you credit for!" She laughed for a good few seconds at that joke.

"I have to admit," I said diffidently, "that every single one we did find, including me, we found by accident far more than by design."

"Don't worry," she said blithely, "can't be too much more trouble to find one more person. Especially since everybody knows you guys are looking for them."

We had finally found Haruhi, in some sort of kitchen area. She had just finished one plate of leftovers and was going to start on another when we entered. Haruhi ran up excitedly and asked, "Tsuruya! Is it you? Are you one of the Suzaku Seven?"

"Yep!" Tsuruya saluted, and said officiously, "Mitsukake at your service, Miss Priestess of Suzaku!" Tsuruya then doubled over in laughter, clutching at her stomach.

As usual, Haruhi was completely unoffended. "Excellent! We're getting more members every day!" she enthused. "Soon we'll have the largest public gathering of espers ever!"

Miss Asahina entered the room and looked radiantly at Tsuruya. "T-Tsuruya, it's you!" she exclaimed happily.

Tsuruya ran over and took Miss Asahina's divine hands. "You're certainly doing well here, Mikuru!" Tsuruya exclaimed. "You've even got new clothes." Oh, I guess Tsuruya noticed the fancy robes Mikuru got when she first arrived in this world. Tsuruya looked them over for a moment, then gave a thumbs up and announced, "I approve!" Miss Asahina appeared greatly relieved.

Later that evening, we were all at dinner. Tsuruya had just finished one of her stories about her adventures during her journey to the palace. Just when her last peal of laughter died away, we heard a swooshing noise.

This was followed by a thudding noise as a small black knife with some sort of paper tied around it thudded into the table from above. We all (that is, everyone except Yuki Nagato) looked around and up in consternation, and the guards raised the alarm throughout the palace, but we didn't find whoever had done it. Koizumi said later that he had an impression of something great and dark having been perched on the ceiling and then withdrawn quickly, like a puppet in a show being whisked offstage.

When the excitement had died down a bit, and Haruhi had returned from a breathless pursuit of the thing which had interrupted our meal, we considered the knife more closely. The blade was shaped like a diamond, the hilt was small, and the base of the hilt was a small metal ring. Tied around the ring was a short message. I couldn't read it all from my place at the table, but I could see it was written in Japanese.

Haruhi's eyes sparkled with excitement as she asked, "Is it a challenge?"

Koizumi's response was subdued. "I'm not sure why they felt the need to send it. If our neighbors in Koutou wanted, they could launch a major invasion right now. There've been troop movements near our border."

"W-W-What should we do?" Miss Asahina asked, frightened.

My little sister noted, "I guess we'll have to read it to find out, won't we?"

"Forget that!" Taniguchi disagreed. "Let's find the last Suzaku guy and get back to the real world! Preferably before someone stabs us at dinner tomorrow."

Haruhi, however, had already taken the paper off the knife and read it. "Why do they think we'd agree to this?" she asked, shaking her head.

"Agree to what?" Koizumi asked, curious.

Haruhi stuffed the paper in a pocket, huffing,"It's totally ridiculous and has nothing to do with anything!"

"They infiltrated the palace to deliver it," I pointed out. "They think it's important."

My little sister asked Haruhi, "Please, can I see it?"

"It's irrelevant," Haruhi pronounced. "As president of the SOS Brigade, I refuse their proposal."

Taniguchi wasn't interested in the letter from our unseen enemy. He was finishing his meal quickly and throwing occasional glances at the ceiling.

Yuki unexpectedly said, "The paper comes from Asakura, you know."

Koizumi looked at her with interest. "Fascinating. I take it you recognized her handwriting." He looked knowingly at her as he added, "In a manner of speaking." Yuki nodded.

Tsuruya snorted and joked, "Maybe it's a love letter!" She then collapsed into hysterics.

I remonstrated with Haruhi, "I find it hard to believe that Asakura is saying anything helpful, seeing as she does want me dead. But if she or someone working with her can sneak into the dining room, I don't think we can afford to simply ignore what she has to say."

"I've made up my mind," Haruhi glared at me.

Miss Asahina looked anxiously between myself and Haruhi.

Koizumi recommended, "In any event, I don't think anyone should move about alone. We'd be like scattered birdseed, easily snatched up and eaten. We should be accompanied by at least one other person at all times."

"Right." Haruhi agreed loudly as she came around the table. "Kyon, you're coming with me."

"I'm still eating," I said, gesturing to my plate.

She said firmly, "Come on," while she grabbed my collar and hauled me to my feet, then rapidly out of the room.

Needless to say, we quickly found ourselves in another hallway of the palace. Haruhi didn't appear lost, but she didn't appear to be going anywhere in particular either. At least she'd slowed down a bit, and now was striding purposefully to nowhere.

I decided to try a different tack. "The note really seems to have bothered you," I said conversationally.

"What makes you think that?" Haruhi asked argumentatively.

Which of her recent actions wasn't a clue?

Haruhi came to an abrupt halt and groaned, "You really aren't going to let it go, are you? Look, it's just some stupid demands on behalf of the Koutou Empire. They're nothing to worry about with our new esper powers. I don't care how unfriendly an alien Asakura is. She didn't turn out to be a match for the strength of the SOS Brigade!"

I held up my hands peaceably. "Hey, probably it's an unreasonable demand, just to make trouble. I actually think you're right for turning it down. We were just curious about what it said."

"I'm glad you understand," Haruhi told me, mostly mollified. She released my collar, looked slightly to the side, tapped her finger to her chin, and then decided, "That being the case, I suppose I can let you see the letter. Since I've already decided as the president that we're not going to agree to it."

With those words, she withdrew the now-crumpled note from her pocket and handed it over to me. It was written on a single, narrow strip, presumably to make it easier to attach to the knife. It read, "Please excuse this interruption of your meal, but this message is urgent. In exchange for not reclaiming the border villages that belong to the Koutou Empire, Kyon must surrender to us by presenting himself alone, outside the palace, at night. Your old classmate, Ryoko Asakura."

Haruhi was waiting with her hand out, so I gave the note back. I wasn't sure how I felt. On the one hand, it was obviously a bad idea to agree. On the other hand, I kept thinking of the old man who thought he was my dad, and all the other people we'd met who lived in villages near the Koutou Empire. How far would Asakura go to provoke a world-changing event from Haruhi Suzumiya?

"I'm starving," Haruhi commented as she took my wrist and returned to the dining room.

I was finally able to finish my meal, and was going to return to my room, when I was informed that it had been changed. I'd now been moved to an inner room, without a window, for safety. Haruhi, in the meantime, simply hung around, pacing back and forth in the hall, in front of my door. Eventually it got to where I couldn't sleep, so I opened my door and asked her to consider sleeping in her own room, like a normal person.

"Do you think we can simply allow this insult to the pride of the SOS Brigade to go unchallenged?" Haruhi asked incredulously. "We can't let mysterious assassins pick off any of our members with impunity!"

I argued sleepily, "Haruhi, there are two guards in here and two out there. This is as much protection as anyone can reasonably have."

"Of course, but I'm waiting to take out the mysterious assassin!" Haruhi explained with a wicked grin. "That coward will learn not to mess with the SOS Brigade!"

As usual, I lacked the energy to carry the argument any further, so I simply shut the door and collapsed onto the bed.

I think I fell asleep fairly soon after that, but then I awoke in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling above my bed.

If I didn't comply with Asakura's demands, who would die? The old man who thought he was my father? The other innocent villagers? Or would she send that "mysterious assassin," as Haruhi put it, to kill one of us? My little sister? Haruhi? Miss Asahina? Koizumi? Taniguchi? Tsuruya?

Of course, all that was assuming a lot. Maybe the old man and the other villagers weren't even real, although it'd be hard to convince them of that. And besides which, there was not really any indication that Asakura or the Koutou Empire she was apparently working for would actually keep their word. Koizumi had indicated that the Koutou Empire was a strong nation. So probably if I were to surrender, Asakura would kill me and the Koutou Empire would invade anyway. So surrendering myself would be a very bad idea, hurting far more than it would help.

It'd also be a horrendous error from a strategic point of view. Once we got all the warriors, we could go home. Or maybe Haruhi would get a wish and she would wish us back home, or at least wish us victory over Koutou. In any case, we only needed to find the last warrior to achieve victory. If we stuck together, we could be able to win this.

Chapter 6 Main Chapters Chapter 8