Seiji calling him on deck was not to be ignored under any circumstances, but the urgency in his voice this time had Ryou up the ladder in a flash.
As he got out on deck though, he slowed to a stillness he usually couldn’t achieve outside of meditation. He was aware of muttering something, but outside of an oath he had no idea what; the thing before him was filling his thoughts as easily as it filled most of the sky.
After a moment, he shared a look with Seiji and headed below decks to get Touma. As he dragged the engineer up, he got some complaints, but as soon as he caught sight of the thing he was glued to the railing.
“How are they keeping it up, Touma?”
“I don’t know, Ryou. I honestly have no idea.” Touma’s hands were on the railing so hard Ryou almost thought the metal would bend, and his eyes had that far-off look usually reserved for the engines. “How soon can we dock?”
“Are you insane?” Seiji said, eyes narrowing. “We have no idea who they are, or what that thing’s purpose is. Why would we get any closer than we already are? We ought to move farther away and study it from a distance.”
Touma rolled his eyes. “We could stare at it for days and never learn anything, Seiji.” He paused for a minute, considering the flat look he was getting, and allowed, “Okay - with your eyesight, maybe we’d learn something. But never as much as we could just going up to ask, and besides - we’d look like we were spying on them, hanging around outside without introducing ourselves.”
“We’d be spying on them, Touma, and how do we know that’s not what they’re doing. And don’t tell me asking them is how we find out, because if we ask that, they’re only going to lie.”
Ryou shook his head, stepping between them with his eyes on Seiji. “If you really want to spy or ask questions, it’s better to be inside.” He gestured up at the city, which had drifted a bit closer - or maybe they’d gotten closer to it - even as they spoke. “I mean, look at that thing! I can see the walls from here, how big do they have to be for that?”
Seiji looked between the two of them, and glanced around at such of the crew as wasn’t gawking. He sighed, shaking his head - and lifted it grinning. “Well. If we’re going to do this, we’re doing it right. I’m going to get Xiu, Ryou can get Nasuti. Please don’t get any closer without us.”
The last sentence was distinctly not a request. “Hey! You say that like I don’t know...” Touma trailed off sheepishly as Seiji directed a pointed look from the engineer to their captain. “It was an accident, though.”
“Yes, and I know you Touma. You’re prone to the sort of ‘accidents’ that only seem to happen to geniuses. There is no way you’re going over there alone.” He turned to head below deck and Ryou hoped Touma didn’t hear him muttering, “Or even in the first party.”
* * *
He ducked down the ladder quickly, glad of the excuse not to end up in a conversation with Seiji about it. He knew when the guy was itching for a fight, and good luck to Xiu with that.
That was probably what had him so preoccupied that he nearly walked into Nasuti, wrapped in a robe with a towel around her head and a plate in her hands.
They almost mirrored each other jerking back, until Ryou had to shift forward to catch the plate - if the ship started shifting who knew where it would end up. “Ryou? What are you doing down here?”
“I was looking for you. We need you on deck, we may have found that thing you were looking for? The one you wouldn’t exactly describe for us?”
They looked at each other a bit awkwardly, until Nasuti smiled. “It’s like a giant city in the sky, isn’t it?”
Ryou shrugged. “Seiji called it a castle in the clouds, but yeah. It could be both, it’s huge and we’re not close enough to tell yet. - This is your expedition, though, so it’s your call what we do next.” He smirked a little. “Where you ever going to tell us what we were actually looking for, Nasuti?”
“Well... no.” She blushed a bit at his surprise, which was when he noticed she wasn’t wearing any makeup for once. “It could have been a perfectly ordinary country, Ryou - Grandfather was more technical than descriptive, and when he did describe things it was so poetic I couldn’t be sure whether he was being literal, too. That, and he was very young when he got lost.”
“So all we had to go on were calculations made by a guy with a busted ship who might have been imagining things.”
“He wasn’t imagining! He knew what he was talking about, but I wasn’t sure.” She rolled her eyes, heading towards the door of room and apparently forgetting that Ryou had her food still. “I’ll be up in a minute, hang on.”
“Ryou! I’ve barely had my shower and I’m wearing a robe. I’m not coming up there like this!”
He shifted and held out the plate without saying a word. Equally silent, though her expression spoke volumes, Nasuti took the plate.
He did note as he scurried back up the ladder that at least she hadn’t slammed the door.
* * *
They ended up getting close enough for Seiji to describe a series of signals for Nasuti, which turned out to be an invitation to come aboard. The second round of ‘who’s going over there’ ended with Xiu being dragged out of the engine room and Touma sulking.
Which didn’t really last long after Xiu rolled his eyes and looked at him. Arms folded with a stern expression seemed to say something to Touma that no one else could hear, and he tilted his head back. After a moment he flipped Xiu off. This eloquent response got a grin from Xiu and a disapproving frown from Nasuti.
As he headed back down to the engines, Touma called over his shoulder. “When you get back you’re telling me everything. Understand?”
Xiu only snorted, following Seiji and Nasuti onboard.
As they cast off from the Kenbukyo, Ryou muttered. “Are you guys sure I should be here? I’m not much of a diplomat. Unless diplomacy requires being able to kick the other guy’s ass.”
Xiu and Seiji just looked at each other for a moment. “Man, why do you think we wanted you here?”
Nasuti smiled softly. “You see, if this turns into a fight, we’ll need to be able to hold our own.”
Which just had Ryou feeling a little stupid. “I get that - on the street, most people don’t go after the guy who looks like he can hold his own. I just didn’t think that was part of diplomacy.” He shrugged, turning back to look at the floating island.
And told himself that since he couldn’t see any of them now, he had to be imagining the rolled eyes.
* * *
The guy who was waiting to meet them made Ryou worry that they’d been right. He had green hair, and he was watching them with his eyes half closed in a way that should’ve made him look sleepy.
Instead it was just menacing.
Before anything could happen, Nasuti was greeting the stranger in a language Ryou thought sounded almost familiar. They listened, actually a little stunned in spite of themselves, as the conversation grew more and more animated. All Ryou was sure of was that she was asking a lot of questions.
Eventually she turned back to them. “Everyone, this is Naotoki. He’s one of their guardians - I’m not exactly sure what of, I think it might be religious. Naotoki, this is Ryou, Seiji and Xiu - our captain, navigator and an engineer.”
Naotoki stared at them for a moment, blinked slowly, and muttered, “Did you mean to half cripple your ship when you came here?”
Which caused them all to start a little, having assumed that he’d only speak the language Nasuti had been using. It also set Seiji bristling. Ryou suspected he agreed with whatever thought was making his eyes flash like that, but none of them said a thing.
Nasuti frowned for a moment before speaking. “The remaining crew is perfectly competent to handle anything that comes up in our absence. And we weren’t expecting you to be hostile, considering my grandfather.”
“Your grandfather had a reputation for being eccentric before he vanished. He also never completed his training.” Naotoki shook his head, regarding them with some amusement. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. The Lady Kayura is waiting for you.”
* * *
For someone who told them to expect hostility, Naotoki wasn’t exactly being hostile himself. Sarcastic and visibly amused at their reactions to everything, yes, but once they realized it was his default expression the tension slowly eased. They’d all heard worse from Touma and Xiu arguing.
It was a beautiful place, once they got away from the walls and the howl of the wind. There were small fields of crops, and distant tiers that looked like rice paddies. The few people they saw seemed ordinary enough, mostly ignoring them and occasionally pausing to stare.
Which still left Ryou bothered about something, but he couldn’t understand it at first. It was only when they passed through an arch and came to an area that he would have sworn wasn’t there that he caught it, and fell back to talk to Xiu.
“Okay, is it just me, or is this place bigger inside than out?”
Xiu nodded, and replied quietly, “Yeah. I think Seiji has noticed too. We didn’t pass through any torii, did we?”
“None that looked like them. So, maybe they were disguised? Because this is absolutely not right.” Ryou flinched when Nasuti called for them to hurry up, but Xiu just nodded at him before responding to her as if nothing was wrong. Then he whispered again. “Just keep your eyes open, man. They might not mean us any harm, since Nasuti is one of theirs.”
Which is how they learned Seiji had been listening, since he paused at a corner to glare at them.
* * *
Their unexpected tour of the place ended in a courtyard with a beautiful pool, surrounded by swaying wisteria. Crossing it on a small red bridge, Ryou saw his reflection for a moment before a koi disturbed it.
He thought he’d been wearing armor.
The others had gotten ahead of him while he paused, and when he caught up they’d all been introduced to a young woman with the longest hair he’d ever seen. It looked like something out of a fairytale. Naotoki was obviously laughing at him, but what he said was simply, “And this, Lady Kayura, is Ryou. Their captain.”
She smiled serenely. “Thank you, Naotoki. And welcome to our home, Ryou. Everyone.”
Nasuti frowned again. “Thank you, Lady Kayura. We’re honored by your welcome. There are a few things I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind.”
Was it his imagination, or did her expression shift a little to disdain in response? “Certainly, Nasuti.”
“Lady Nasuti. If I remember my grandfather’s diary correctly, and I really am beginning to suspect I understood perfectly.” She made as if to stand, and seemed to struggle against some invisible force. “Why have you brought us here?”
Seiji, meanwhile, had managed to stand, and Xiu looked like he’d follow soon. Lady Kayura was looking between them and Nasuti with some shock.
Ryou felt like he should be a lot more pleased about that. Except that everything was kind of distant. “Guys? I think I might need some help here.”
He could tell Kayura and Nasuti were arguing, and Seiji was helping him up, but it all seemed fairly distant and not very important after all. Even though Xiu looked like he was about to get between the girls, and he couldn’t be thinking about hitting the Lady Kayura, could he?
She was like. A nun or something. He was pretty sure. Also a girl, but somehow he didn’t care about that. He cared about her not upsetting Nasuti.
In fact, he kind of felt like hitting her himself.
The next thing he was properly aware of was standing between Xiu and Kayura, glaring at her through the ringing headache in his ears, and her glaring right back at him from behind an older man. He knew someone had shouted “Enough” and whatever had been going on stopped, but other than that...
Then he really looked at the other guy, as the ringing began to fade, and saw that he wasn’t that much older at all. Which made the white hair something of a shock, though not as much as the utter lack of hostility on his face. He seemed more concerned than anything, watching Ryou’s expression carefully.
Whatever he was looking for, once he was satisfied he bowed. “My apologies for Kayura’s... mistake. She can be a bit overly enthusiastic at times.” He paused, shaking his head, and Ryou had the impression he was talking to her as much as them. “We did not intend any harm to come to you.”
Seiji’s temper was almost tangible, the light flashing in his eyes was so bright.“What did you intend, then? What was she doing!”
“Yeah, I’d like it if you didn’t lie, pal.” Xiu, by contrast, was surprisingly contained - Ryou had seen him lose his temper before, and it hadn’t been quiet like this. He felt for just a moment like whatever it had been was happening again, and Xiu was somehow more solid than any human being ought to be.
“Magic. We all have magic, somehow.” Ryou growled, and looked back at what was, very briefly, a giant spider. He flinched, but it was gone almost as soon as it had appeared. “Are you even human?” he asked, and smiled as he caught Nasuti’s approving glance.
Then something in her eyes shifted, and Ryou thought he could hear the faint sound of bells. “I’d like to know that as well. And your name.” she said, and of all of them she was the only one who sounded calm now.
The man who Ryou hoped wasn’t actually a spider frowned. “Kuroda Jirougorou. Jiro, if it’s easier. Things have been made difficult enough.” Kayura actually blushed at that, and a smirk flickered across Jiro’s lips. “As for your first question, not entirely - but then neither are you. Any of you, I think, which we were not expecting.”
Out of the jumble of responses, his own argument included, the voice that spoke the loudest was Xiu.
He laughed. “So, what? You were just going to eat whatever’s magic in us? Because I don’t think so.” The area around him seemed to darken, and Ryou felt as if something were dragging at him. Then the whole world seemed to tilt, and they were all yelling at him to stop.
As everyone picked themselves and each other up, Jiro hissed. “That is why you’re going to help, whether you think so or not. Because this realm’s magic is failing, and if we do not replace it somehow, the city will enter your realm completely before it falls.”
That sank in slowly, faces paling as whatever magic had been invoked ran out of the air.
Ryou took a deep breath and shook his head. “Okay, I don’t know what else is going on here and I don’t care. Xiu, whatever magic you’ve got is heavy, you have got to get off this thing. Send Touma over, we’ll see what he can do.”
* * *
The first thing Touma did when he arrived in the garden was radiate smug. Which really wasn’t fair, since none of them had known what they were heading into.
The second thing he did was demand to know where the engines were, and get irritated at the blank looks he got. “Nasuti, do you have any of your grandfather’s stuff with you? You mentioned diagrams, maybe if we show them.”
“No, we understand what you’re talking about.” Naotoki nearly hissed in irritation. “But there isn’t anything like that lifting the land, it’s all magic.”
“I call bullshit, guys. It moves too much like our ships to be completely different, there’s something around here serving the purpose of an engine.”
Nasuti nodded, looking up briefly from her grandfather’s diary. “I think I know the general area. Grandfather mentions being frustrated that he wasn’t allowed into certain areas, and wouldn’t be until. Well.” She stood, looking faintly amused at whatever page she was holding. “I don’t think Grandfather ever imagined a young woman would be reading that.”
For his part, Ryou felt vaguely uncomfortable hearing that, but Touma laughed and got a smile from Nasuti. “Where do we go?”
They both looked at him and then away from each other. Nasuti shook her head and went to their rescuer. “It’s somewhere to the south of us, I think. Jiro, are you familiar with this?”
If anything, he looked more embarrassed than Nasuti, but he nodded grimly. “We’re going to be hearing about this forever. Follow me please.”
* * *
This time the walk took them through far less picturesque areas, and yet Touma’s eyes got brighter the further they went. Past old halls that were showing the wear of time, down into tunnels where moisture condensed on the walls. “This place is ancient! How old is it, exactly?”
“We’d have to compare calendars for that.” Jiro said, and at least he seemed amused by the questions.
Ryou fell back while they were talking, to check on Nasuti and Seiji. He was watching ther surroundngs carefully at least, but she was absorbed in her grandfather’s diary almost to the exclusion of her surroundings.
Ryou gestured ahead. “Watch them, man. I’ve got her.”
He thought he heard Seiji mutter, “Only if Touma doesn’t first,” but he told himself he had imagined it. Mostly because he didn’t want to find out what would happen if he did start a fight with Seiji in this place.
Whatever he thought, Ryou had mostly wanted to make sure Nasuti didn’t get disturbed. He had a feeling Touma was going to need to know whatever she was learning here.
* * *
The minute they came into the place and saw an engine bigger than their ship, Touma balked and insisted they bring Xiu back. Nobody much liked that idea, but he insisted, climbing around and pointing out things he needed Xiu to do in complicated terms that no one except Nasuti and a couple of the natives present even seemed to understand. In the end he wore them down with it, and Seiji headed back, complaining again.
Ryou was glaring at his back and about to call something after him when Nasuti coughed. When he looked at her, she just smiled and said, “We’re not all as easy-going as you, Ryou. Some people have tempers.”
He smiled at that, but he still really wanted to have a word with Seiji. He just didn’t know when it was going to happen.
When Xiu got back, they’d lost Touma somewhere in all the pipes and steam and little pieces Ryou was really sure shouldn’t be where they could see them. Nasuti had stayed near the front though, with a harried expression. While she passed on the messages Touma had left, Ryou got fed up and went looking, mostly by keeping an eye out for falling tools.
He finally found him by nearly tripping over his legs, the rest of him buried out of sight under a pipe.
“Hey, watch it Ryou. Xiu here yet?” Touma called.
He wasn’t even bothering to come out, and Ryou just stared. “He’s here. You want him here, or what?”
Touma sighed, and squirmed back out of the pipes. “You just came looking for me because you couldn’t understand them, didn’t you.”
They both stared at each other for a minute, and Ryou tried not to smile but he couldn’t help it. Sometimes he thought Touma and Nasuti were the only ones who realized he was bored out of his mind with this stuff. “So?”
Touma sighed, pushing himself upright. “So come and help me shift this. We can fix it, you know. It’s gonna take forever, but it’ll work.” He walked off, and Ryou trailed after, feeling a bit like a puppy being minded. But hey, it kept him from driving people insane, right?
“The question is - what then?”
Touma flipped a hand before pointing out the pipe he wanted help with. “We’ll be here long enough to figure it out, man. Trust me on that.”
“Hey.” Ryou stopped, staring at him over it. “Of course I trust you, man. C’mon, let’s do this.”
“Yeah. Before Xiu sees it here, you have no idea how angry he’d get.”
Which was when they heard him yelling from somewhere not that far from them, and the sound of scurrying feet after it made them grin.