“My lord,” Chiasa says, her voice emerging from the cluster of bushes on Ayato’s right. “The maple leaves scatter, and their shadows linger.”
“So they do,” Ayato says, arms remaining folded and eyes not leaving the area being set up for Zhenyu’s signing. “Tell me, how vibrant are they?”
“Exceedingly scarlet, my lord,” Chiasa says. “The sunlight illuminates them most brilliantly.”
“Such a lovely sight they must be,” Ayato says. “What a pity it is that they fall so swiftly. One must enjoy the view while it lasts.”
Silence answers him in the wake of his dismissal, and Ayato allows himself a glance through the gates, out over the Plaza. He had spoken briefly with Calx when the latter arrived in the early hours with a sketchbook in hand, and the artist has been lingering before the empty boards ever since, seemingly in deep thought. Seeing as Chiasa’s mission had succeeded, then today’s guest and the Traveller must be well on their way to look for him.
It is not long before their voices come within earshot. Paimon is not known for being subtle, which makes it easy to eavesdrop through the wall that hides Ayato from their view. To his satisfaction, Kaedehara Kazuha has already deduced his message and offered a solution for Zhenyu’s predicament. As Chiasa had reported, Kazuha sounds to be well and in good spirits.
Ayato has moved away from the wall by the time the small party leaves for Inazuma City, occupying himself with a conversation with some editors from Yae Publishing House, but he observes them out of the corner of his eye as they make their way through the narrow streets. Kazuha is far more tanned than when Ayato last saw him over a year ago, scrambling into a small Waverider under the pale cover of moonlight on the Narukami shores. His time away from Inazuma must have been most eventful.
By the time evening falls, Calx is ready with the portraits of Akahito and Sumizome. Once again, Ayato finds himself impressed by the amount of detail the artist has captured in such a short time, and how much Calx has already inferred about the story of the Five Kasen. Calx tells him briefly about the notes that they have received and how they have inspired his paintings, but is careful to make no mention of Kuronushi. All he says is that he is certain he will have enough material for opening day. Ayato does not push him on it; it is likely that Calx already has an idea of the truth behind the notes. In any case, Chiasa's report will tell him what Calx has omitted.
After they bid farewell for the night, Ayato sets off for the estate with Thoma in tow. Chiasa intercepts them on the way back, having spent the day shadowing Kazuha as Ayato had ordered.
Her report is short and swift: "Master Kazuha left for the former Kaedehara estate some time in the afternoon, and had dinner with the Yashimura household in Hanamizaka. He has returned to Ritou for the night, and is currently playing shogi with Master Calx." Ayato nods and dismisses her, with instructions to continue her mission tomorrow. To have pieced together the puzzle laid out before him so soon, Kazuha remains as sharp as Ayato remembers him being.
"A mora for your thoughts, waka?" Thoma asks as they enter Chinju Forest. There is a rare note of hesitation in his question: after all, the Kaedehara clan has always been a touchy topic for the Kamisatos, and Thoma has not been made privy to Ayato’s intentions.
"That we should have planned for a special Irodori milk tea," Ayato says. If all works out according to plan, he will tell Thoma everything. "Our borders have just reopened. It would be fitting to have a drink to celebrate the nation’s new beginning. It is a pity that I was occupied with other matters and did not think of it earlier."
"Yes…? Waka, if you wanted milk tea, you could have just told me so. " Thoma asks, sounding genuinely stumped. Ayato’s heart warms at how easily he allows the diversion and drops the topic.
He is very pleased the next day when Chiasa reports that she had tracked the group from the Tenryou Commission, to the police station, and finally to the beach across Amakame Island.
Calx comes to his makeshift office that afternoon, requesting a private audience. Thoma immediately excuses himself from the room to stand guard outside, and Calx tells him everything they had learnt, starting from the poems and ending with the letter.
As Ayato had guessed, Calx had figured out the identity of the poem sender early on. Just as one would expect from the Knights of Favonius' Investigation Captain. He asks for information about Kunikuzushi, which Ayato provides based on the intel he had received from the Guuji, and they discuss the usage of special ink on the final painting.
Before Calx excuses himself, he sets down his cup of tea and looks Ayato in the eye, in an almost surprising show of assertiveness. He asks: "Did you do it out of guilt?"
Kamisato Ayato is not one to have his intentions questioned, but there is earnestness in Calx’s question, a plain curiosity to be sated. It is no doubt this straightforward, nonjudgmental attitude in seeking the truth that had helped Ayaka and Kazuha arrive at the answers they found today.
"I wished for him and my sister to know the truth about our forebears," Ayato says. "It is an ugly truth, and to save his family is beyond my power now, but it is my duty to not keep them in the dark."
"Kazuha has the heart of a wanderer," Calx muses, sincere in the way he says the name. "Perhaps he sees it as a blessing that things turned out this way."
"I would not presume to speak for him," Ayato says mildly. The truth is that the Kamisato clan would have shared the Kaedeharas' fate, had it not been for the divine mercy they were granted with the Guuji’s intervention. Perhaps Ayato and Ayaka would have been happier for it, but Ayato carries no illusions about what might have been. He has not clawed back the Kamisatos' repute and protected his household by the skin of his teeth in these long years to dream of a life where he is not bound by duty, when such a life has never existed for him.
“Nor would I expect you to, Master Ayato,” Calx says. “Your life and his have diverged broadly, and the reality that you both live today is a result of it. Such is the burden of history on the present, is it not?”
Ayato inclines his head quietly in acknowledgement, and Calx begins to gather his notes and materials, saying, “The hour grows late. I will take my leave and proceed with the painting of Kuronushi’s portrait.”
“I will have the ink delivered to you in short order,” Ayato says, rising to show Calx to the door. “It was a pleasure speaking with you, Sir Calx.”
“Likewise, thank you for entrusting me with the knowledge of your past, Master Ayato,” Calx answers.
An hour after Calx leaves, the door to Ayato’s office slides open once again. Even through the shoji screen that blocks Ayato from direct view of the exchange, Thoma’s voice is clear from the side of the door as he says, “Good evening, Kazuha.”
“Good evening, Thoma,” Kazuha greets. “Is Commissioner Kamisato available?”
“Of course,” Thoma says. “The Commissioner was expecting you. This way, please.”
Two pairs of footsteps tread across the tatami towards Ayato’s desk; Ayato sets aside his paperwork and rises to receive his long-awaited guest.
“Pardon the intrusion, Kamisato-dono,” Kazuha says, well-mannered as always. "Forgive me the hour of this visit."
“Welcome back to Inazuma, Kazuha,” Ayato says. “I am glad to see you well.”
Once Thoma has excused himself, Kazuha drops into a deep bow to Ayato. “I am most indebted to the help and information you have rendered.”
“Please, spare the formalities,” Ayato says. “I wished only to share with you what I had learnt.”
“I do not refer only to these latest developments,” Kazuha says, straightening up and offering Ayato a smile. There is an ease to his shoulders that Ayato has not seen him carry since before the Vision Hunt Decree, when he still wandered the land with Tomo.
“Make no mention of it,” Ayato says, gesturing at Kazuha to take a seat. “It was the least the Kamisato clan could do.”
“Those were lengths you need not have risked,” Kazuha insists. He holds out his right hand to Ayato, showing him the bandages that wrap around its length. “It is thanks to you that my sword arm has recovered all function, and that Tomo has a place to rest.”
They fall silent as Thoma’s footsteps come into hearing, deliberately loud in the corridor outside Ayato’s office. There’s a bit of shuffling as he enters with a low greeting, then emerges from behind the screen carrying a tray with two cups, a freshly brewed pot of tea, and some konpeitou candies.
Both Ayato and Kazuha offer their thanks once he serves the tea, and Thoma swiftly excuses himself once more. The door slides shut behind him, no doubt to take up guard outside, and Ayato returns his attention to Kazuha.
“I take it that you have visited Tomo, then,” Ayato says, even though he already knows the answer. He had had Thoma convey the news of Tomo’s grave to Beidou, when the Alcor first returned to Inazuma after the Decree was lifted.
“Yes,” Kazuha says, eyes creasing slightly into a smile. “He rests right next to the ocean. He would have loved it, especially with how peaceful the waters have been, since the storm has passed.”
“I am glad to hear it,” Ayato says. Taking care of Tomo’s last rites was all he had been able to do as Yashiro Commissioner, when sheltering Kazuha had been out of the question.
They sit in silence for a while, Ayato studying Kazuha quietly as he sips at his tea. Kazuha’s perfect posture and graceful movements bely his noble upbringing, yet there is a notable absence of the arrogance and conceit that surround most aristocrats. Airs that Ayato himself has long learned to don, which Kazuha has long shedded.
As children, such posture had been trained into them. At the time, the Kaedehara clan still stood, and Kazuha was sent for etiquette lessons with the Kamisato heirs. Despite being younger, Kazuha had always been an excellent student, often earning praise where Ayato was corrected. In his childish naivete, Ayato had worked harder and sought to be more diligent in his lessons, if partially to make sure that Kazuha never got all of the attention from their tutor. They were hardly rivals, much less friends – but in hindsight, there was companionship in those days, forged from a shared solidarity and awareness of the expectations they were meant to grow up and fulfil.
Perhaps even then, Kazuha had already understood the true weight of the name and legacy that he carried, carved into the straight line of his shoulders. It was an understanding that Ayato himself had arrived far later at.
Kazuha has lifted his eyes to Ayato’s. “Is something the matter, Kamisato-dono?”
He regards Kazuha for a moment longer; the other does not shy away and meets his gaze levelly. “I told you the truth about our families, for you to do with as you deemed fit. A day might come where we have to confront it once more, whether on Inazuman soil or some nation far away. If such a day were to come to pass… I trust that you and I will be able to face up to it with courage."
Kazuha smiles at that. “You offer high praise, Kamisato-dono. Where the wind guides me, I will go. And if it brings me to face the past, I assure you, I will still look ahead to the future.”
It is at the quiet confidence in his words that Ayato nods, and they fall back into silence.
Time stretches between them, until Kazuha sets down his teacup gently. “Kamisato-dono, I brought with me some souvenirs from Liyue. Please accept them as a token of gratitude for all that you have provided me, both this time and all the times before, on my and Tomo’s behalf.”
The notion draws pause from Ayato for a moment. Is there anything to thank for actions driven by duty and a misplaced sense of obligation?
Kazuha retrieves three sachets from his small pouch and offers them to Ayato, the air immediately filling with the unfiltered fragrance of flowers. “For yourself, the lady, and Thoma,” he explains. “These are dried Liyuen flowers, preserved in the Fontaine-style art of potpourri. I would have brought fresh blooms, but it was unlikely they would survive the long voyage."
"Thank you," Ayato says, accepting the sachets and studying them curiously. They are made with fine Liyuen silk. He has never seen real Liyuen flowers before; perhaps he can open the sachets to examine their contents at a later hour.
"Your kindness ensured that I was able to see the flowers with my own eyes," Kazuha says. "And it was most reassuring to return with the knowledge that those I care about here remain safe and well, under your careful watch.”
“It is the people who make up a home, after all,” Ayato says. His thoughts drift to Thoma, holding an umbrella outside the estate gates to receive him in the middle of the night; Ayaka, her smile illuminated by fireworks. “It is my wish that Inazuma can remain some semblance of a home to you, no matter how fleeting your stay.”
Surprise flickers across Kazuha’s otherwise neutral expression, like gentle ripples breaking through still waters. “You are aware that I do not intend to linger.”
“I may have heard some whispers of a certain fleet getting ready to sail for Sumeru in the near future,” Ayato agrees. “In any case, you are not beholden to Inazuma. I only want you to know that there will always be a place for you, should you ever come back. You are always welcome to seek lodging at the Yashiro Commission.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your kindness and generosity,” Kazuha smiles at him, disarmingly bright and mischievous all of a sudden. “Then, Kamisato-dono, you need not send people to follow me. I would be happy to visit the Commission of my own accord, should an invitation be extended.”
“Far be it for me to call a wanderer away from his travels,” Ayato laughs, allowing himself a small smile. “But I will bear your request in mind.” After all, the maple leaves fall swiftly, and one cannot hope to make them linger for longer than they wish.
Even so, the candle on Ayato’s table has started to burn low by the time Kazuha excuses himself. Besides telling him more about Liyue and his plans to travel to Mondstadt with his newfound acquaintances from the last two days, Kazuha even shares what little he has heard about Liyuen merchant ships planning to open new trade routes to Inazuma. While not confidential, it is valuable information that has not officially reached Inazuma’s shores, which could greatly benefit the Yashiro Commission’s trade dealings if Thoma is able to make arrangements ahead of time. Ayato accepts the unspoken gift with gratitude.
As he walks Kazuha to the door, he ponders. Calx had said his life and Kazuha’s have far diverged. But where one would have assumed the fall of the Kaedehara clan had torn their destinies apart, it has done quite the opposite, bringing both of their fates closer together than ever before.
Today is but the first step to the future that each of them will carve for themselves, with their history now a shared weight upon their backs.
“It was a pleasure speaking with you today, Kazuha,” Ayato says, as he slides open the door. “I hope you enjoy the festival, and that we will meet again soon.”
“And I you, Kamisato-dono,” Kazuha says, bowing to him once more. “Thank you for the invitation, and for your time tonight.”
Ayato slides the door shut as Thoma escorts Kazuha out, and listens to the sound of their footsteps fade into the distance.
The festival goes without a hitch, other than an incident where Arataki Itto has a severe allergic reaction in the middle of the dining area. Thoma, efficient as always, takes care of it before Ayato even catches wind of it.
Since the Yae Publishing House is in charge of making sure operations go smoothly, Ayaka is free of duties for once, and she pulls Ayato out of his office to walk the festival grounds with Thoma. Ayato indulges her; it has been a while since they had the leisure to spend time together. The Mondstadtian bards sing songs of the seas and winds, and the attendees gush with abandon about the latest developments of their favourite light novels.
It is pleasant, seeing Ritou so lively once more. Even in Inazuma City, away from the festival grounds, there is a buzz in the air that has been missing for far too long. It is a promising first step for Inazuma’s recovery.
In the days after the festival wraps up, Ayato takes it upon himself to see off all his guests in person. As he had expected, Yoimiya and Calx’s adoptive sister have hit it off supremely well, and to Ayato’s amusement, he gets to bear witness to the otherwise-unfrazzled Calx and a frantic Yoimiya try to persuade the bawling girl to board the ship home, with promises that her new friend will visit Mondstadt soon. These are the unexpected bonds that stretch across oceans, which Inazuma would have otherwise lost.
The last to leave is Kazuha, who has been waiting for the Alcor to return to Inazuma’s docks. He had arrived in Inazuma with few belongings, and he leaves now with even fewer, having apparently distributed his souvenirs from Liyue to his newfound friends and old acquaintances in Inazuma.
Next to Ayato, Thoma chats with Kazuha as they wait for the ship to finish refuelling before it sets back off. “Not bringing souvenirs back to Liyue?”
“I have some in my bag,” Kazuha says lightly. “Mostly food. Tea leaves for a gentleman I befriended in Liyue Harbour who spoke of missing Inazuman flavours, some dango milk and sakura shrimp crackers for my crewmates and other friends in Liyue.”
Even as Ayato feigns interest in the setting up of the Alcor’s gangway, the smile in Kazuha’s voice is audible when he adds, “After all, they can now travel here safely for themselves. It is not necessary for me to bring such trinkets back, when none of them would hold a candle to Inazuma’s beauty.”
Thoma hums in agreement. “Nothing beats experiencing the land in person, huh?"
Ayato wonders for a fleeting moment what Thoma would say if offered a trip back to his own homeland. Would Thoma return as he had not years ago, now that the borders are open and the Kamisato clan is safe and well?
"Indeed," Kazuha says thoughtfully. "Although I fear my feet will take me far from here once more."
"You're always welcome back here," Thoma tells him, echoing Ayato's own words a few days ago. "Whenever you wish to."
"Thank you, Thoma," Kazuha says. "Commissioner Kamisato as well. I appreciate it."
"Hey, kid!" booms a voice from the ship's deck, interrupting their conversation. Ayato glances over just in time to see the way Kazuha's face breaks into a wide smile, expressive and open, as Beidou's figure comes into view. "We're right 'bout done! Ya good to go soon?"
"I've been waiting for you to let me on board, captain," Kazuha calls back. He is glowing as he banters with Beidou about losing his sea legs after being grounded for a week.
Some part of Ayato that he didn't know still existed, eases at the sight.
That in spite of his own failure to give Kazuha shelter in Inazuma, whether from his family's fall or from the Decree, Kazuha has found a home for himself.
It is the least he can do, to be happy for that.
So he smiles as Kazuha leaps onto the gangway, a spring in his step as he is immediately met by rambunctious seamen pulling him into rough headlocks of greeting, nothing like the stiff cordiality of aristocratic etiquette.
Go and be well, he does not tell Kazuha, as he raises his hand in farewell and wishes the ship a safe voyage. Inazuma will always be here for you when you return.
As the Alcor sets sail, taking Kazuha with it, so Ayato turns and sets back into Ritou, with Thoma by his side.