A raucous outing
Treasure in the back alley
Bonds beyond distance
“When it comes to the foxes, I regretfully inform the reader that this next chapter may lose its objectivity and sway into personal opinion. I have no doubts that some foxes are fine, upstanding citizens who are decent in their morals, obedient of the law, and respectful to other sentients. Unfortunately, I have yet to personally encounter any who meet most of those criteria, so I must therefore relate my information regarding the fox culture based only on research and hearsay.
“I theorize that the entire race centers on the twin concepts of excess in consumption and excess in expression. Foxes eat too much, drink too much, mate too much, celebrate too much, and above all, talk too much. When using the word ‘gluttonous’ to describe them, one demonstrates the versatility of the word; they overindulge not only in food, drink, and self-gratification, but in every kind of experience, especially of the debauched and depraved variety. They explain themselves to other species by claiming that they are, and I quote, ‘living passionately’. To which I counter thus: living passionately is one thing, and constantly debasing oneself for one’s own pleasure is quite another.
“However, though it pains me to admit, the foxes are talented at expressing themselves in a variety of ways. More art, music, literature, theater, and dance comes from their species than from all the others combined, as if creativity swells inside each one and might burst their bodies should they not let it out. The content of their creative works is… varied, shall I say. For every great and meaningful piece that they produce, there are ten pieces which tend to make decent-minded folk recoil in disgust.
“In the words of their noted philosopher, Maurier: ‘Life is beauty. Beauty is life. We are the most beautiful of all sentient species, and our beauty must be shared with all.’ My response to Lord Maurier’s words is to point out that foxkind shares quite enough already without his encouragement, thank you very much. One only hopes that the next great fox philosopher introduces them to the concept of self-restraint.”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
One constant in every species’ portion of Unify was the layout. In all eight of the great city’s walled-off districts, the richest and most powerful lived closest to the Marketplace, in the Inner Rings. These were the oldest sections of the city apart from the Marketplace itself, housing noble and influential families that dated back centuries. As one traveled outward from the center, one saw a steady decrease in signs of luxury: simpler clothes, smaller dwellings, and shabbier surroundings. The newest areas of the city and its subdivisions were by extension the poorest; those on the Outer Rings didn’t have much of anything at all.
Hanami thought of this as she walked behind Faun, two overstuffed wicker baskets of bread, meat, and vegetables under her arms. The vixen had offered to let her use one of her compression bombs to carry the load, but Hanami declined; they made her nervous.
Not helping her nerves was the fact that the same principle that applied to the rest of Unify seemed to apply to the Marketplace at a smaller scale: the further you strayed from the Shinju at the center, the dirtier, poorer, and more ominous their surroundings became. She shivered… she had always been taught to avoid these places. “Faun, if you don’t mind my asking…”
“I never do, kitto.” Faun turned and smiled, walking backward with her arms behind her head. It seemed she knew the way well enough that she didn’t even need to look where she was going. “Go ahead.”
“Um, two questions, actually,” the doe admitted. Her eyes darted back and forth… every alley seemed a prime place for someone to jump out and attack them. “First of all, just where are we going?”
“You’ll see. You’ll have a great time when we get there, I promise,” said Faun, grinning widely. “What’s your second question?”
“Who is- oh, I beg your pardon!” Hanami made a clumsy bow in the direction of the hooded, cloaked figure that had almost bumped into her. “Please excuse us, I’m sorry-” She stopped and stared. For just a moment, visible within the figure’s hood before they hurried away, she thought she saw a glimpse of blue fur. “Oh. Oh. Faun, was that really a—”
A twitch appeared in Faun’s cheek, her eyes hardened, and her ears turned back. “Don’t, Hanami. Just ignore it. Let ‘em go on their way and darken somebody else’s doorstep.”
Hanami drew back in mild shock. Seeing Faun wear such an ugly expression was a new experience, and she didn’t like it one bit. “F-Faun…! I… I’m sorry… did I upset you? Please don’t be angry!”
“Dijo, you didn’t know.” The vixen snorted in disgust and turned away. “It’s a sore spot with our kind, especially me. Just don’t mention it, and we’ll be fine.”
Something drew Hanami’s eyes back to the hem of the figure’s cloak, now vanishing around a corner. She had never seen one in person before… some claimed there were only a hundred or so left, or tried to ignore or deny their existence altogether. Running into one in the fur and flesh, though, right here in Unify… it was almost like catching sight of a dragon or a tiger, or another of the world’s great mythical creatures.
“C’mon, don’t dawdle,” came Faun’s voice from the end of the block. “We’re almost there.”
“Coming,” said Hanami, hurrying back to her side and trying to push the incident from her mind.
“So what was your second question? ‘Cause if it’s where I got my boots, I’m not telling.” Faun tapped the heel of one of her cherry red boots against a paving stone as she crossed it. This was more like the vixen Hanami was fast becoming friends with, and it was a relief.
“I just wanted to know…” Her ears pressed flat in embarrassment, and she averted her eyes. “I wanted to know who ‘Naole’ is. I heard Zero mention her name several times, and—”
The doe’s tail fur stood up as Faun put a friendly arm around her. Her voice was warm with understanding. “Dijo, kitto. She’s not your competition, she’s Takky’s little sister.”
“Oh!” Hanami almost missed a step. She had no siblings of her own, so the thought of an Outcast with a sister hadn’t even occurred to her. “So he’s going to visit her?”
“Yeah, he does whenever he can. She’s an apprentice healer with the Order. Really nice girl, quite the stubborn little firecracker.”
Hanami smiled at the thought. “They must be close, then.”
“Very. He’s been looking after her since they both were kits. Being exiled hasn’t stopped him one bit.”
“I see,” said Hanami, her smile fading. “But isn’t it difficult for them to be close if she’s here and he’s in Tasakeru with us?”
“More than you know. We’ve had a lot of tussles with the Daigundan and the Order because he can’t stand not being there for her.” Faun sighed. “You see, she’s got this condition…”
“The Silver Order, founded and led by the prestigious Argenteus House since its inception, is both the world’s largest religious sect and its largest organized group. The Order boasts tens of thousands of devoted Sisters and Brothers from seven of the eight sentient species, and due to its political power, it has a significant influence on most every sentient’s daily life, Order devotee or not.
“The Order was a natural outgrowth of the beliefs of the skunks that founded it: the Goddess of Life is held above the other two Gods, and all should strive to emulate her for the greater good of sentienkind. Four tenets form the basis of the faith: Protect the Weak, Feed the Hungry, Shelter the Poor, and above all, Preserve Life. There are of course many interpretations of those tenets, interpretations which tend to vary depending on which daughter of the Argenteus House is currently serving as leader, but those four core rules have remained unchanged since Grand Mistress Emeritus Lotus began her teachings centuries ago.
“It is not without controversy, of course. Order sistren and brethren feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor is all well and good, but some take exception to the Order’s knights enforcing law upon the land. While their public representatives claim that all knights are fair and impartial, there are more than enough stories of citizens wrongfully detained, or worse, to make one suspicious. It seems that the way the tenet to ‘Protect the Weak’ is interpreted varies greatly, depending on one’s personal definition of ‘weak.’”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
Dust motes drifted through the shafts of afternoon sunlight that shone down through the high glass windows and between the great old marble pillars that supported the west wing of Aedis Centralis. Walking through the alternating sunbeams and shadows was a doe squirrel with a somewhat boyish build, her arms piled high with a load of fresh linen sheets. Her shoulder-length hair was brick red and her eyes were hazel, and she looked significantly better fed and groomed, but in many respects she still quite resembled her older brother. The girl wore long white robes edged with pine green, the customary colors of an Order healer in training. It took practice to walk in these kinds of robes, especially when wearing high sandals or carrying big loads that obscured your vision. If you weren’t careful, one wrong step could send you stumbling to the mahogany floor, and if you were carrying clean sheets at the time… well, that meant going back and washing them all over again. Not anyone’s idea of a good time.
The sheets nearly went tumbling anyway when a voice spoke from the shadows, startling her. “Pssst! Naole, over here!”
“Aniki?” Naole Takaishi’s heart pounded hard against her ribs as she looked around for the source of the voice. “Gods, don’t scare me like that!”
“Sorry…” The voice came from the shadows behind the pillar in the northwest corner. There was a note of alarm in it. “Are you all right?”
“Dijo, I will be.” She glanced around to see if anyone was nearby. Finding no one, she set the linens down on the closest bench and ran as fast as her robes would allow to where her brother hid. With a gleeful smile she wrapped her arms around him, and the smile only grew wider as he tousled her hair. “I’ve missed you.”
Zero chuckled and returned the embrace. “I’ve missed you too, imouto.”
“What are you doing here? I thought you weren’t coming for another two weeks!”
“Change of plans. There’s a new arrival in Tasakeru, and she doesn’t have much of anything at all. We all decided to move up our usual food run and get her some clothes and essentials while we’re here.”
Naole’s hazel eyes met her brother’s deep brown ones. “A new Outcast? It’s been such a long time!”
“Mm-hmm. A doe, a little older than you, by the look of it. She calls herself ‘Hanami…’ just ‘Hanami,’ apparently.”
Her face fell. “Poor thing… Do you need any help?”
“That’s part of why I’m here. I also wanted to check on you. How did your assessment test go?”
“Nine out of ten marks,” said Naole, smiling upward. “My instructor said I’d make a fine healer, even though I’m not allowed magic.”
“That’s my imouto!” Zero tousled her hair again, beaming with pride. “You’ll be running the healing wing yet.”
“Oh, stop it!” she fumed in mock embarrassment as she gave her brother a playful punch in the arm. “It’s just an assessment test, don’t tie your tail in knots. Anyway, do you need some extra food? My stashes are a little low, but I should have enough.”
Out of habit, Zero glanced back and forth from one end of the hall to the other. It was safe for the moment. “Whatever you can give would be fantastic. Faun, Rowan, and Hanami are already here buying fresh fruit and vegetables, but if you could share some bread or cheese, or maybe some cured meat…”
“Yeah, I think there should be enough.” Naole chewed on her lip as she wracked her brains. “Let’s see, the closest stash with the kind of stuff you’re looking for should be on Wakaba-chi. I hid it inside a false wall behind the tailor’s.”
“The shop that belongs to that nasty old ferret with the bad teeth, right?”
“Thanks.” Zero gave her another quick hug. “One more thing… have you been all right?”
This time, Naole’s smile was significantly more annoyed. “I’m fine, aniki. I’ve been eating well, and there’s been no dizzy spells or anything for almost a month.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Ruffling her hair one last time, Zero grinned and moved backward into the shadows once again. Between his black robes and the darker shades of his fur, he could hardly be seen. “Go well, imouto.”
Her brief moment of annoyance melted into sadness as she raised a hand in goodbye. “Go well.”
That was all… Zero was gone like a whisper. Meetings between the Takaishi siblings were always briefer than either of them wanted, but such was life. They managed, as all people did.
Hanami nearly dropped her baskets, standing there staring at the grungy little two-story hovel in horror and disbelief. “This is the best place in the world?!”
It certainly didn’t look it from the outside. The building was made of crumbling clay brick, hastily patched in many places by what looked like cheap mortar. All the windows were fogged and dirty, the sloping, tiled roof had a half-dozen bare spots that Hanami could see, and doubtless more she couldn’t, and from inside came a fine selection of rude, bawdy noises. The place gave Hanami the distinct impression that it was a malignant growth between the other, slightly nicer buildings to either side, sitting there and glowering at them as if daring them to step inside.
Faun, however, looked at the ugly building with an expression of purest love and nostalgia. “You got it,” she said with a joyous sigh.
“A tavern,” moaned Hanami, wishing that her hands weren’t full so she could press them to her face. “You brought us all this way to visit a tavern.”
“And an inn. And there’s a few less legitimate businesses that run out of it occasionally, too… but the tavern’s the best part, by far.” Grinning a wild grin, Faun made for the door and put a hand on the huge, rusting ring of wrought iron that served as a knocker. “Let’s go inside and celebrate properly!”
“I’m sorry, but this really isn’t my sort of—” Hanami stopped as she got a look at the peeling, pitted wooden sign hanging from the eaves.
FOOLS RUSH INN
“CHECK YOUR SHAME AT THE DOOR”
NO BLADED WEAPONS NO FLAMMABLE LIQUIDS
ABSOLUTELY NO SHEEP!
“Sheep…?” Hanami felt her head spinning.
“Dijo, there’s a good reason for that one. Look, just watch.” Faun winked, flung open the door, and took a single step inside. There immediately followed a ear-splitting racket of cheering and applause from the tavern’s patrons, and a roar of voices chanting “Faun! Faun! Faun! Faun!” “See?” said the vixen with unmistakable pride. “I’m like a noble here! Oi, everyone! How’ve you bastards been?”
Whimpering softly, Hanami hesitated on the doorstep. “I’ll just stay out here, if you don’t mind. We can celebrate some other time in private, thank you—” Another squeak escaped her as Faun grasped her shoulder and steered her through the threshold. Once again, she almost dropped her baskets of food, but the vixen took them and set them down in the entranceway.
It took a few moments for Hanami’s senses to adjust to the sudden onslaught once she was inside. The smell was the first thing to hit her, and it did so like a battering ram: obscene amounts of alcohol mixed with the sweet, pungent odor of many unwashed bodies and plates upon plates of hastily-prepared food. Then came the noise: from the back, audible even over the cheers of the patrons, there was some kind of frenzied, formless tootling on a woodwind instrument and the constant echoing booms of someone playing a very large drum with far too much enthusiasm. Her vision was last to take it all in, and what she saw made her stomach turn. The Fools Rush Inn was a place where people mingled well, there was that much to be said for it… just by taking a quick look around, there were sentients from at least five species here, all enjoying themselves immensely with no thought of boundaries.
Boundaries were something the tavern could do with a lot more of, she thought, as Faun led her through the crowd of waving hands, slurred greetings, and tears of joy. Two rabbits were pressed against a side wall, both quite soused, doing something that really should have been taken upstairs to a private room. A pair of large skunks, males judging by their ornate, concealing robes, slumped over a table in whispered conversation, passing a bottle back and forth that exuded clouds of fragrant pink fog. In the back, accompanying the drummer and the woodwind player (both wolves), Hanami saw a black-haired vixen dancing sinuously on an upraised stage, showing even more fur than Faun did, and being showered with tri from her audience. She caught a few of the coins in an admittedly impressive manner, in the folds of the tiny scraps of silk that covered what could hardly be called her modesty, but Hanami averted her eyes before she could demonstrate any more of her talents.
Faun was clearly quite happy, though… in fact, she seemed in her element. “Good to see you, Marcus! How’s the mate and brood? Another one?! You don’t slow down, do you? … Oi, Triton! I see you over there! You still owe me fifty tri from that game of droplets last month, don’t think I forgot! I want money this time, not favors! … Easy, fella, there you go, up on your feet… Hey, kitto!” she called to Hanami, wildly waving a hand to guide her over to the head of the bar. “Make some room, dammit, make some room for my friend! Here, kitto, I saved you a seat.”
More nervous than ever, Hanami sank into a high-backed bucket seat next to Faun, pulling up the hood of her cloak to hide her face. “Faun,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the crowd, “are you sure none of these people will report us?”
“Who, these guys?” The vixen seemed shocked by the idea. “No way, they’re solid, they’d never turn us in! Not for free, anyway. Flint! Hey, Flint, over here!”
A ferret wearing a stained apron that barely covered his enormous, flabby belly waddled up to the other side of the bar, polishing a glass with a filthy rag. He smiled warmly at Faun, revealing several gold teeth. “Lovely to see you again, Lady Muranaka. What brings you ‘round here?”
Squeak, went Hanami as Faun clapped a hand on her shoulder and pulled her close. “Believe it or not, it’s this dainty little thing! She’s new, and she’s staying with me until she finds a place of her own.”
“Ah!” Flint turned to Hanami. She was a little surprised to see that he flashed her a smile that was just as welcoming as the one he gave Faun. “You’re in good company, Milady. I know Lady Muranaka, and she takes care of her own.”
Faun let out one of those barking laughs of hers. “Stop that, Flint, you’re embarrassing me! Just get us both a tankard of your finest, please. You know which kind,” she said with a wink, sliding a handful of tri toward him.
“Right away, Milady!” said Flint, ducking behind the bar with some difficulty.
“I’m… not very fond of alcohol, Faun—” Hanami began.
“Nonsense!” Faun clapped her on the back again. Squeak. “This is a special occasion. You’ve got to drink on special occasions. Don’t your kind do that with sake?”
“Sake is different, it’s for ceremonial purposes! This is—” Hanami stared at the tankard that Flint pushed in her direction. “This is-” She didn’t know what it was. The dim lighting in the tavern made it hard to tell, but from what she could see, the substance in the tankard was an alarming shade of blood red, and fizzing slightly. Hanami leaned over it for a closer look… and nearly passed out. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she drew back clutching at her nose as the fumes burned her sinuses.
Next to her, Faun had no such problems. To a fresh round of cheers from the patrons, she downed the entire tankard all at once, then held it high above her head and upside down as proof. Satisfied, she slammed an open hand down on the bar. “Ahhh, that’s the stuff! No one makes Dead God Firewater like you do, Flint, you old codger! Hey, kitto, what’s the matter?” Her grin slipped a bit as she leaned over to her friend. “You all right? Drink up, while it’s still cold!”
“I- I-” The squirrel could barely speak. “I c-can’t…” As she attempted to choke out more words, she saw a bit of the Firewater’s fizz spill over the lip of the tankard and slide down its side. Perhaps it was her watery eyes playing tricks on her, but when it reached the ebony surface of the bar, she swore that it began to eat into the wood.
“You can’t? Well then, no sense in wasting it, is there?” Faun snatched Hanami’s tankard and drained it even faster than the first one, then motioned Flint back over. “Whoooo! Hoo-yah… Flint, could I trouble you to get the kit a dandelion burdock? Make it light.”
“Right away,” said Flint, clearing away the empty tankards.
“Hey, sorry about that,” said Faun to Hanami with a sympathetic smile. “Shouldn’t have pushed Firewater on you before you were ready.” She leaned in close and whispered in her ear. “Though, to tell you the truth, it is a little dry when you drink it straight… I usually add a pinch of gunpowder to mine, gives it an extra kick.”
Despite herself, Hanami smiled back. The vixen’s good cheer was infectious… and regarding that last part, it was impossible to tell whether she was kidding or not. “I-it’s all right. Sorry. Thank you, Faun.”
“‘Attagirl, there’s that smile! Drink up and have fun, kitto, this is your celebration t—HEY!” The end of that sentence cut off in a shout of surprise as a pair of muscular hands groped Faun from behind.
Frozen in shock, too horrified to move, Hanami stared with her mouth open and her fur rising. There was a beady-eyed todd behind Faun, well-built despite his pronounced belly, with a long, pointed snout and dirty red hair. Half his shirt hung off his shoulder, and the other half was streaked with food stains. Keeping a firm hold on his prey, the fox turned and hollered over his shoulder: “Oi, Ben! Get over here, she’s back!”
Faun sighed and rolled her eyes, as if this were an everyday occurrence. “Stay calm, kitto,” she said as she caught sight of Hanami’s expression. “I know how to handle these two.” To the todd, she said, “Virgil, I’ve told you before, no touching. You don’t bathe often enough for my tastes.”
With a hungry leer, Virgil leaned forward. Even from several paces away, Hanami could smell the liquor on his breath. “Mebbe I’d take a bath if you joined me…”
“Pass,” said Faun with an exaggerated yawn. “Where’s the other one? I know he’s here, you two stick to each other like beans in natto. Hell, you’ve both got the same effect it does on my stomach… oh, there you are.”
Whimpering, Hanami watched in escalating horror as a short, stout raccoon with a pinched, smushed-in face sat down next to her with an identical leer. His eyes were barely visible behind scruffy dark bangs, and he wore a shabby grey overcoat. This one reeked of alcohol, as if he had been soaking in it rather than just drinking it. “Whass under that hood, sweetie?” he slurred to the doe as he leaned close. “C’mon, we’re all friends here… let’s have a look.”
Hanami pulled her hood down tighter in response, ready to run for her life. “No thank you!”
“Benson, who taught you manners? It’s rude to ask a lady to take off her hood.” Faun somehow wriggled out of Virgil’s grip and slid her stool closer to her friend. “And what are you looking at her for? I know I’m the one you’re really after.”
“Got that right,” said Benson with a shrug, forgetting all about Hanami. “How’s ‘bout a dance, Muranaka? I think you still owes us one from last time.”
“You know what, when you’re right, you’re right.” Faun put an arm around the raccoon and steered him away. “Wonders never cease. Fine, I’ll dance with you.”
“Faun, no!” Despite her fear, Hanami spun on her stool, turning pleading eyes to the vixen. She raised her left hand, about to reach under her hood…
“Dijo, kitto,” said Faun with a broad wink. “Like I said, I owe them one. Be back in a few ticks.”
Once more, Hanami could do nothing but watch as Faun helped Benson to the back of the tavern. Benson wobbled unsteadily every step of the way, but Faun somehow kept him from falling on his pinched face, even as she hauled him up onto the raised stage. The vixen dancer vacated the spot with a frosty glare tossed in their direction. Once her charge was relatively steady on his feet, Faun motioned Vergil to come join them, then tossed a few tri to the drummer and woodwinder.
The musicians, glad for pay no matter where it came from, struck up a jaunty tune with a steady beat. To the cheers of the crowd, Faun began to dance, rocking her hips from side to side and swaying her tail back and forth. Her two partners had considerably less grace; it looked as if it was all they could do to keep standing. Instead, they contented themselves with ogling the vixen as she moved.
What is she doing?! thought Hanami, mystified.
She got her answer soon enough… the next few moments swiftly became Fools Rush Inn legend. Faun held the patrons spellbound for a few minutes, then gyrated over to Benson’s side. Somehow, she made herself heard over the music and cheering: “C’mon, Ben, I’m doing all the work here! At least try to dance. Hey, do you know how to do ‘the Headache?’”
The raccoon’s eyes slid out of focus as he wracked his sodden brains. “… Um, no?”
“It’s really easy,” said Faun, grinning. She pulled Benson forward by the lapels of his coat and leaned in close. “Like this.” And with that, she drew back and slammed her forehead into his.
The tavern erupted in hysterical laughter. A warbling cry of agony came from the raccoon as he stumbled backward, fell into Vergil, and sent them both tumbling off the stage… directly onto the table of the huge male skunk sitting closest to it. The table collapsed with a thunderous crash, upending the florin’s drink all over him and drenching his fine silk robes. He stood, his tiny, bright, bloodshot eyes burning within his hood, musculature rippling and clearly visible even under the shape of the silk. “You had better be able to pay for my drink and my clothes…!” he growled in a basso voice, glaring blue murder back and forth from Faun to the two drunks.
Faun, barely even dazed from her attack, pointed down at her dancing partners-turned-victims. “I’m sure one of them would be happy to, fella.”
“That’s not good enough!” snapped the florin, narrowing his tiny eyes and flexing to attack. The other patrons, intoxicated as they were, were sensible enough to give him a wide berth. “You’re all going to regret ruining my—”
Faun moved like a bolt of orange lightning. In one fluid motion, she tore open a pouch on her bandolier, retrieved a few of the tiny black spheres from inside, and shouted a joyous battle cry as she hurled them down.
BANG. BANG. BANG. A series of thunderclaps split the tavern’s smoky air. The stage and the first few rows of tables around it disappeared in a cloud of thick, acrid white smoke. Hanami heard scuffling, a roar from the florin, yelps of pain that were quite clearly the sounds of two drunks being struck in unmentionable places, then a fourth bang and a torrent of furious, muffled cursing. Next thing she knew, Faun came streaking out of the smoke cloud, radiantly happy as she trailed wisps of it behind her. “No time for gawking, kitto! I think it’s time we made a discreet exit.”
A wild, whooping laugh was Faun’s only reply as she seized Hanami’s hand. Reaching into her bandolier again, she drew a fifth bomb and tossed it over her shoulder…
BANG. A fifth explosion sounded, far louder than the previous ones, enough to shatter a few patrons’ glass bottles. This time, the entire tavern filled with smoke. By the time it cleared, the squirrel and vixen were long gone.
Moments later, a passing squad of Order knights who had heard the noise stormed into the tavern, waving aside the thinning plumes of smoke with their broadswords. A bizarre sight met their eyes: before the raised stage in the back, there were three sentients struggling madly, stuck together by a clinging mass of viscous black tar and spewing curses through glued-shut jaws. A single tri was attached to each one’s forehead. At the bar there sat a small drawstring bag, which yielded several dozen more tri when one of the knights finally opened it after a brief but heated argument with his commander over whether it was safe to do so. Also inside the bag was a note, which read in a hurried scrawl: “Flint: for the drinks, and the mess. Love, Faun.”
“Ah, there we are.” Zero smiled to himself as he rapped his fist against the wall behind Granite’s shop, yielding a hollow thunk. He twisted the hidden panel out of place, and inside was a small compartment bearing a single basket of breads, cheeses… even a bottle of goat’s milk, with a little blue bow tied around its neck. “You’re the best, Naole.”
Now came the tricky part: storing the stash inside one of Faun’s compression bombs without being heard… or burning or breaking anything. Damned if Zero knew how the vixen’s gadgets worked, but only she seemed to be able to pull off the desired results with a consistent rate of success. He had tried smuggling a bottle of milk into a compression bomb before; what came back out were shards of glass and lumpy, foul-smelling curds. His drey stank for weeks after that… Faun, of course, thought it was hilarious.
This time, he wasn’t taking any chances. He piled the breads and cheeses onto his cloak, spread out on the alley floor, and hurled the first compression bomb at them. Bang. The detonation was a little too loud for his liking, but when the puff of smoke dissipated, all but one loaf of rye were sealed inside the tiny sphere… the outside of that one loaf was now burnt solid black. Zero rolled his eyes, but throwing it away would be beyond wasteful; every piece of fresh food was precious. It’s not like it can get more burnt, he reasoned as he tossed a second bomb at it. Success. Now for the milk.
He knew better than to attempt to store bottles inside a bomb again… his fur bristled at the thought of that horrid smell. Instead, he transferred the bottle’s contents into several thin flasks he had stashed in the pockets lining the inside of his cloak. After emptying the bottle, he drank the last few drops from inside with undisguised pleasure, then placed it carefully back inside the compartment and replaced the panel. Perfect.
Now all that’s left is to get out of—
Just as he thought those words, a clamor came from the street in front of Granite’s. Many stomping feet, weapons and armor clinking together, commanders shouting orders… something about “dangerous criminals loose in the Outer Marketplace” and “non-lethal force only”, and then “smoke confirmed, possible fire”…
Dear Gods, thought Zero with an exasperated sigh, shaking his head as he threw his cloak back on. Every single time… Faun, what have you done now?! Someone needed a severe reprimand once they got back to Tasakeru. He only hoped Hanami wasn’t involved… Scowling, he pulled the hood over his face and made for the alley entrance. A quick glance left and right confirmed that no one was watching at the moment. Good enough, he supposed. He took a step into the street…
“Halt! In the name of the Goddess, you are bound by law to stand down! Drop your sword and show me your hands, Takaishi… yes, I know that’s you under there!”
“Mange,” muttered Zero. There was now the edge of an enormous broadsword hovering close to his neck. His eyes flicked to the right…
The armored female skunk at his side looked far too young to be wielding such a fearsome weapon. Experience had taught him more than once that that was hardly the case, however. She was only seventeen, but when it came to Order knights, this one was as formidable as they came. And why not? She had received the kind of training and upbringing most sentients couldn’t dream of, and she took her duties with utmost seriousness… to the point of fault, some argued. The number of people who had seen her smile could be counted on one hand. Her chrome plate armor was spotless, flawlessly maintained, and not a single platinum hair escaped the tight braid she always wore. Sharp, brilliant green eyes bored into Zero as she addressed him, striped tail raised and tone like ice. “Drop your sword, Takaishi. Don’t make me beat you into submission again.”
Zero did as he was bidden, tossing his old and battered sword at her feet. Versus full armor, a broadsword that size, and a knight of her skill, his katana was little better than a toothpick. Even if he somehow disarmed her, he knew from many occasions in the past exactly how badly those small, armored fists of hers could hurt. “Evening, Lady Nadeshiko,” he said as pleasantly as he could to the Silver Order’s Vice-Mistress and Field Commander, the daughter of Grand Mistress Lily Argenteus herself. “How’s your mother been?”
“Shut up,” barked Nadeshiko, in no mood for small talk… as if she ever was. “Move forward, slowly. You are now under the eye of the Silver Order, and will be escorted to the Magistrate for proper sentencing. One false move and I shall carry out an improper sentencing on your hind, right here and now.”
“Nice to see you, too.”
END OF CHAPTER 5
 Aniki (ah-nee-key): Informal Old Standard for “big brother”.
 Imouto (Ee-moh-toe): Old Standard for “little sister”.