Attack at twilight
Sixteen eyes watching
“As one might surmise from the various grumblings of more vocal members of society, the Magistrate Representatives are not typically held in high regard by the average sentient. The Magistrate is a noble idea in theory: a governing body in which each species has an equal voice and equal influence… but in execution, sadly, it leaves something to be desired.
“To begin with, each Representative is appointed or elected by their species in whatever manner their culture sees fit. The rabbits and badgers, for example, choose their Representatives by popular vote, while the squirrels delegate that responsibility to the heads of their noble families, the Shichi Meimon, with the common folk largely excluded from the process. For skunks, the Representative is chosen by the Grand Mistress of the Silver Order herself, and the wolves select theirs by convening the various packs and praying to the Gods for guidance. Foxes, to my knowledge, pass the position on to whomever wants it, and does not mind wading through the massive amounts of paperwork required to obtain it. Ferrets divinate to find their Representative, and as for the raccoons… like almost everything else in their culture, their method of choosing a speaker for themselves is a mystery to the rest of us, unlikely to ever be solved.
“It is diverse, yes, but just because a Representative is popular and well-liked by his or her own kind does not necessarily mean that he or she will interact well with the others. Thus, frequent arguments, dysfunction, and stagnation… all legitimate reasons to feel cynical about the entire enterprise.”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
“This meeting of the Magistrate Representatives is called to order. Takaishi Reimaru, step forward,” said the battle-scarred buck from his perch, using the Old Standard naming order. The vermillion rays of the setting sun lit him from behind, giving him an almost divine appearance.
After a hard push from the two samurai flanking him, Zero did as he was told, grimacing as he did every time someone not of his family or close friends used his given name. He had been “Zero” for so long now that being called “Reimaru” left a bitter taste in his mouth… it reminded him too much of the past. Funny, there was a time he hated the nickname “Zero”, and now he found himself preferring it. At least “Zero” didn’t imply as much familiarity… Then again, being called that by the Representatives would have an additional, unwelcome meaning: “Zero”, meaning “nothing”.
The people calling him by his given name doubtless would have found that meaning appropriate. The Representatives sat so damned high up above the common people like him, both literally and figuratively: they were perched among the topmost of the Shinju’s branches in the open-air chamber called the Crown. The oaken dais that held each of their chairs was raised well above the floor, so that the accused was forced to see their disapproving gazes looking down on them, belittling them. The chains didn’t help that impression either; he had already been stripped of his weapons and personal effects, there was no reason they had to shackle his wrists and ankles… no reason, except that the Representatives apparently all thought that nine years of living in Tasakeru had turned him into some kind of savage, sub-sentient animal.
The stenographer, a dusty-colored jillrabbit, raised her eyebrows at him and prepared her pen and scroll. “You are Reimaru Takaishi, eldest child of Lord Tesshin and the late Lady Naoko Takaishi?”
“Yes,” said Zero flatly. “May we get on with this, please?”
“Watch your tone, boy.” The creaky, cantankerous voice came from the haggard, elderly rabbit above and to Zero’s left, from somewhere within a beard and whiskers so thick and white that it looked as if several cotton plants had taken root on his face. This was the current Legatus Maximus, speaker for the rabbits since the days of Zero’s grandfather. Each rabbit who took on the role of Representative also inherited “Legatus Maximus” as both name and title, with the individual presently glaring at Zero being the sixty-seventh to bear them. The Legatus thudded a heavy iron walking stick against the dais floor in irritation… his legendary stubbornness would not even entertain the thought of trading it for a lighter wooden one, he viewed it as a status symbol. Rheumy brown eyes narrowed at the young squirrel with evident distaste as he leaned forward on his stick to see better, despite the groans of protest from his back. “It’s only by our good graces that we’re giving you a chance to explain yourself.”
Zero rolled his eyes. “What good will that do? You’ve never listened to me before. Why would you start now?”
The next response came from the boar badger directly above and in front of Zero. “If you would please attempt to be civil, Takaishi.” Like the Legatus, Oakrunner had little patience for this Outcast or his flippant attitude, and would much rather one of the others speak for the group. The twin stripes marking his broad face were grey with age, and too many more of these pointless trials would surely turn them white in short order. He shifted his large body in his chair, his elbows on the edge of the ring-shaped marble bench that all the Representatives shared, his hands clasped and folded over his mouth to hide his expression. Occasional rays filtered between the Shinju’s uppermost branches and caught the round spectacles that sat on the tip of his muzzle, making them glow scarlet. “We are all well aware that you detest these meetings as much as we do,” he sighed. “Now then, I believe this is… what, the sixteenth time this year you have been caught trespassing within the city walls?”
At that, Zero couldn’t help but grin. “It’s the sixteenth time this year that you’ve caught me, sir,” he said, without a trace of shame. “By my count, it’s at least the fortieth time this year that I’ve come to the city.”
Fine silk rustled to Oakrunner’s right as Great Lady Azalea groaned and put a hand to her temples. “Wonderful. And are we to assume that you still feel no repentance, no sense of remorse for your actions?” Azalea was exceptionally beautiful even for her kind, with glossy fur that was almost pure black with very few white stripes, and flowing hair dyed a light shade of lavender to match her stunning, deep-set eyes. The other skunks revered her; a victim of tragedy, losing her mother and her mother’s mate, her home, and most of her family’s wealth to a violent storm many springs past. Despite her hardship, by force of will alone she rose back up in society, fighting and clawing to earn respect and influence for herself. Now held the most powerful position a floris could attain… short of being born to the Argenteus House and groomed to take over the Silver Order, of course, but the idea of someone from outside that illustrious family becoming Grand Mistress was laughable at best.
“None whatsoever, Milady,” said Zero, nodding in her direction and taking grim pleasure in the way Azalea’s lips tightened at his dismissal.
“Boy,” said the Legatus, his bony knuckles standing out as he gripped his walking stick. “If you don’t curb that tongue of yours…”
“Much as I hate to admit it, the old fellow is right, Takaishi,” said Rune, seated to Azalea’s right. In contrast to most of his fellow Representatives, Rune Burnham was young, bright eyed, and usually cheerful, a disposition that seemed to annoy the older ones. Even his pose was more relaxed than the others: the todd had his boots up on the bench and leaned back in his chair, a piece of straw clenched in his teeth. Often Zero thought that in other circumstances, he and Rune might be a pleasant enough to have as an acquaintance… though it could have been that spending so much time in Faun’s company had rendered him more accepting of foxes’ eccentricities. “This won’t go any faster if you make it difficult, you know.”
“Fine. You want to know why we all came here?” Zero stopped to glare at each of the Representatives in turn. “We needed food. Our supplies have almost run out, again, because the wood spiders keep stealing our—”
“Not this excuse again!” The Legatus kneaded his brow. “Boy, do you honestly expect us to believe such ridiculous stories?”
“Easy, Legatus.” That voice came from Quartz, the speaker for the ferrets. He was of no great age, but he had half as many wrinkles as the elderly rabbit to his side, and his muzzle was flecked with grey. Quartz was a nervous, cautious type, even for his species, and of the eight of them, he was the most inclined to believe Zero about “the many-legged problem”, as the ferret referred to it in private. “Have you seen the news scrolls? Why, just in the past month, I’ve read at least three reports of creatures matching young Takaishi’s descriptions.”
“Quartz, you and I both know that most news scrolls these days aren’t worth sheep dung…”
“Regardless.” Quartz sighed. There was no talking to the Legatus sometimes. “You may continue, Takaishi.”
“Honestly, my Lords and Ladies, it wouldn’t matter if the spiders were gone, or if we were starving or not,” said Zero. “I came to the city today, and I’d do the same again a hundred times more. Whether I’m an Outcast or not, no one will keep me from taking care of my little sister.” He shrugged, an action made more difficult by his shackles. “If you want to punish me for that, go ahead. Take my dignity, ban me from the city, throw me in prison, I don’t care. It won’t stop me, and you know it.”
“I’m just saying,” said Faun. “If you had bothered to, you know, actually fight the knights off instead of turning yourself in… maybe we might be home by now and having a nice dinner, yeah?”
Rowan sighed and shook his head. “Faunelle, I told you, I had no intention of creating any more disruptions for the library’s patrons. Madam Bristlecone is a dear friend of mine, and I cause her enough trouble as it is.”
“But Gods, Stripehead, you carry around that huge spiked ball thingy—”
“My morning star?”
“Yes, that, and you don’t even use it! So what’s the point of lugging it everywhere you go?”
“It’s meant more as a symbol than a weapon. I do use it, but only when absolutely necessary.”
“Maybe you could have symbolically smashed in a few heads and helped us not get caught…”
On the badger’s right, Hanami groaned miserably and leaned back against the granite wall of the cell, shivering from its cold. The cell was scarcely big enough for the three of them; in fact, there had been talk among the guards of jailing them separate from each other once the Magistrate decided their sentences. “M-maybe if we keep quiet and don’t cause any trouble, they’ll let us go in a few hours?”
Faun laughed, but it was a bitter sound quite unlike her usual one. “Never been in trouble with the law before, have you, kitto? It doesn’t work that way.” Seeing the doe’s face fall, Faun grinned and tried to shrug. “Dijo, after a while they’ll more or less forget we’re even here. We’ll get free bread and water the whole time, and after a week or so, I’ll break us out and we can go home.”
That didn’t seem to console her much. If anything, she looked even more nervous. “A week?! But Faun—!”
The flat of a sword blade rapped against the cell bars from the other side. “Quiet in there!” barked the Daigundan samurai acting as their guard. A demonic visage was sculpted into the faceplate of the buck’s helmet, and he glowered at them through its eyeholes. “Don’t think I haven’t been warned about you, Muranaka! Any smart moves, and I’ll make sure you don’t see the sun for a month.” For good measure, he turned his glower on the badger as well, and then to the new one, the frightened doe with the golden hair. His eyes narrowed, and lingered on her for a few long, uncomfortable seconds…
Hanami’s heartbeat thundered in her ears. Oh no—
“Oh, go sit on your tail,” Faun grumbled, breaking the spell. “Gods, it’s like they pour you people out of a mold. What, do they make you rehearse lines like that at the Gakuen?”
Again, Rowan sighed. “Faunelle, if you would use the energy you put toward wreaking havoc and insulting people toward something constructive…”
“What, such as sitting around with my snout in a book all day?” There was that barking laugh, this time sounding much more like herself. “Like that would help us get out of here.”
“One’s mind is a powerful tool, if used properly.”
“Are you suggesting mine isn’t used properly?!”
“Did I suggest your mind is being used…?”
“QUIET!” roared the guard, clanging the bars even louder.
Chains rattled as Hanami curled into a ball, wrapped her tail around herself, and put her hands over her ears. “No, please, no…”
“Kitto?” Faun craned her neck to see around Rowan’s bulk. Her temper evaporated out of concern for her new friend. “Hey, kitto? It’s gonna be all right. Honest, we didn’t mean to upset you…”
Likewise, Rowan raised a hand. “Lady Hanami, are you unwell? Shall we call for a healer?”
The only response was a whimper, a despairing sound, as she turned her back to them both and huddled tighter.
“Gods,” sighed the guard. The doe’s distress would have concerned him more, had Muranaka not faked serious illness to escape prison on more than one occasion. Just because it wasn’t her this time, that didn’t mean she hadn’t taught this new girl the trick. “Fine, I’ll go get Lady Nanako. If this one is sick, we don’t want her infecting the rest of the ward. None of you move, you hear me?” After shooting the three of them another fearsome glare for good measure, he stomped down the hall and was lost to sight.
Once he was gone, Rowan leaned closer to Hanami’s shaking shoulder. “I have some knowledge of the healing arts myself, Milady. If you tell me your symptoms, I may be able to—”
“I’m n-n-not sick,” stammered Hanami, flinching away from him. “We h-have to get out of here, now!” There was a shrill, sharp note of panic in her voice.
Faun blinked. “Well, yeah, we have to get out, but what’s the big hurry?”
A series of four metallic clicks echoed off the cell’s granite walls, one after the other… and Hanami stood up straight, her manacles falling away. She still shook like a leaf, her ears were pressed flat, and her fur was raised on end… but there was something different, something determined, in her pale blue eyes. “We have to go. Before the guard comes back,” she said, softly but urgently. “Faun, if I let you loose, can you take Rowan’s chains off without your belt?”
Faun couldn’t answer right away, as her jaw was hanging open in abject astonishment. “H-how… how the hell did you do that?!” She had never seen anyone, not even a master escape artist like herself, pick a set of locks that quickly.
“There isn’t time!” Hanami shot a terrified glance down the hall where the guard had gone. “Can you get us out?”
“Yeah,” said the vixen, exchanging a baffled glance with Rowan. “Should be easy.”
“Then don’t look.”
“I am not certain I understand what is going on,” Rowan began, his brow furrowing. “Lady Hanami, if there is something that you wish to tell us—”
“I can’t!” There was raw desperation in her voice now, her eyes were pleading. “Please, I can’t, we have to leave before the guards come back! Just trust me, and don’t look!”
Another mystified look was exchanged between Faun and Rowan. Of course, neither wanted to stay in prison if given the choice. A jailbreak this soon after being captured, however, with the guards on heightened alert, and with their group split up… it was a risk that even Faun found a bit excessive.
But whatever it was that frightened Hanami so…
Rowan nodded and closed his eyes. “As you wish, Milady.”
After a moment, Faun shrugged and did the same. Her ear flicked as she heard Hanami cross the cell and draw very close to her. She had a nice scent… a warm, startlingly earthy scent, very natural… Faun didn’t figure her for the type to go out of the way for perfume. The doe’s breaths came in short, sharp bursts as she worked, and there was a soft rustling sound underneath that… then two mechanical clicks, and Faun’s manacles sprung open. “How about that? Way to go, kitto, you’ll make a great accomplice someday. Can I look now?”
“Not yet.” Hanami’s footsteps retreated to the cell door. “All right, now.”
The vixen stood, stretched, and blinked… giving the cell’s other occupants a very clear look at what her bandolier normally covered. “Right. Stripehead, let’s see about you.”
“I shiver with anticipation,” Rowan deadpanned, cracking an eye open.
Cutting an almost comical figure, Hanami danced from one foot to the other at the cell door. “Hurry, please, hurry!”
“Dijo, just give me a second or two. Good thing they never think to take my gloves.” Faun knit her fingers together and flexed them. Her knuckles made a series of cracking sounds… and from each finger and thumb, small iron blades slid out of hidden seams in the black fabric, rather like a set of artificial claws. Her tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth as she poked two blades into the keyhole of Rowan’s manacles. “Heh. Same old shoddy locks. Just a—”
A sudden clang nearly made her slip, which could have cost her a finger. “Oi!” she snapped. “Let me focus!”
Hanami shrank back bashfully. The cell door was now unlocked, only held closed by her hand. “Sorry! I… I just wanted to—”
“Dijo, dijo! Calm down, didn’t mean to scare you, kitto. There, Stripes, you’re a free boar.”
“Thank you.” Rowan rose to his full, towering height and rolled his shoulders to ease the kinks from his neck. “Shall we collect our belongings and take our leave?”
“Yeah, let’s, before the kit has a heart attack.”
Hanami needed no further prompting. She was out of the cell and darting for the end of the hall before either the vixen or badger could step outside.
“What do you think’s got her fur so on end?” said Faun.
“Hmm.” That was all Rowan would say.
Minutes later, when the guard returned with a healer (and two more samurai, should Muranaka try to take advantage), he found himself staring at a completely empty cell. “I don’t understand,” he kept saying to no one in particular. “They were just here. Muranaka, Longstripe, and the new one, the doe with the golden hair… I know the vixen’s good, but she’s not that good!”
“Golden hair,” mused one of his squadmates, staring thoughtfully down the hall. “Huh, strange. Didn’t the inquiry yesterday have something to do with a doe with unusual hair?”
“You mean the inquiry that put Matsuda and Katou in the infirmary?” said the other. “You could be right…”
The Representatives argued, bickered, squabbled, and argued some more while Zero waited patiently for the farce to run its course. The manacles weighed heavy on his wrists and ankles; he wished that someone would think to offer him a place to sit down while this all went on. His two guards, proper Daigundan samurai to the core, didn’t show the slightest signs of discomfort, though they had stood just as long as he had, and were wearing all that armor besides. For lack of anything else to do, he wondered what squad they were from.
Snatches of the Representatives’ voices floated down from their raised dais, and every so often, Zero made out words. It was all typical talk: “… too damned stubborn for his own good…” “… unruly…” “… shouldn’t be so easy on him…” As usual, none of them even entertained the thought of considering his side of the issue.
It didn’t matter. Whatever token punishment they were about to mete out, it would be cut short thanks to Faun in short order. He and the others would escape back to Tasakeru, and around a month later, he would return to Unify and the cycle would repeat itself anew.
Except that this time around, there was a new factor in the mix: Hanami. Zero frowned to himself. Odds were that she was with Faun when she was arrested… but could she have escaped by herself? Would she have escaped, leaving the three of them behind? Honestly, he couldn’t much blame her if she did. Less than one day as an Outcast, and she was already tangled up in their problems. It wasn’t fair to her, and she had every right to—
Zero stopped, holding very still. He heard something over the discussion of the Reps, a familiar sound, and as he looked up to confirm it, he thought he saw a shadow of something moving among the Crown’s thick upper boughs. But that wasn’t possible; why would they be here…? It had to be his imagination, that was the only conclusion that made sense.
“Ahem.” The voice came from Smoke, the Representative raccoon who sat swaddled in midnight blue robes, so well concealed beneath them that his figure was impossible to make out. The only uncovered parts of his body were his ringed tail and his oddly bright shining eyes. “We of the Magistrate have reached a verdict,” he said, in a quiet and breathy voice that never raised above a heavy whisper, no matter what he spoke about. “The sentence shall be delivered by the Representative of your species. Lord Hayashi, if you please…”
“Hmph.” Once again, it was the old buck’s turn to speak. Hanzo Hayashi was once the greatest of warriors, an unequaled samurai whom all in the Daigundan aspired to be like. Even Zero himself had held him in high esteem, once upon a time. Age was the one foe that Hayashi could never defeat, though… as the years went by, he felt more and more pain from the old wounds that crisscrossed his every inch, until there was no question of his ever returning to the battlefield. He wasn’t happy as a Representative, Zero knew, but he was good at his job. Stern, even-handed, and relatively fair… quite unlike some of the other Reps. “Takaishi Reimaru,” he said, “as you have repeatedly demonstrated, you have no regard for the punishments we have imposed upon you, or the terms of your status as an Outcast. Not only do you show no remorse for your actions, but you seem to relish flaunting the law.”
“That’s not true, my Lord,” said Zero, his tone as even as he could manage. Another shadow moved above, and the fur on the back of his neck rose. “You’re mistaking me for Faun.”
Offended grumblings went up from several of his least favorite Reps at that remark… from the Legatus in particular.
“Therefore,” Hayashi continued, “we of the Magistrate have decided that as penance for your crimes, your sister, Lady Naole Takaishi, shall be dismissed from her position in the Silver Order.”
That pulled Zero’s attention away from the shadows. “You—” he sputtered, his mind crashing to a halt. “You can’t. Naole has nothing to do with this. She’s innocent. You can’t!”
Lady Azalea looked none too pleased by the verdict herself. “Much as I detest exerting Magistrate authority upon the Order, Hayashi,” she said, with a pointed glance in the squirrel’s direction, “I must agree with the decision in this case. Takaishi, you do not care if we punish you, and your sister seems to me to be the primary reason you continue to break the law. The logic is sound… Lady Lily shall be informed by message scroll tomorrow.”
“Why wait?” said the Legatus with an unpleasant sneer. “I move that she be dismissed immediately. I’d scroll Lady Lily myself, if I could.”
“Legatus…” Quartz sighed.
“Overly harsh, perhaps, but sensible given the circumstances,” said Smoke, nodding beneath his hood.
“Sensible?” Oakrunner leaned forward, raising an eyebrow. “Hardly the word I would use.”
“And what word would you use?”
“No,” Zero whispered, tuning them all out and staring down at his chains, feeling himself drifting away in disbelief. He was prepared to suffer fines, imprisonment, hell, even flogging if it came to that. Naole, though… Naole still had a future. She had a decent job, a possibility to do good in the world and restore the family’s honor. For them to take that away from her… it would be worse, far worse, than simply losing her career. Her reputation would be fatally soiled. Once word got out, and word would get out, she would likely never work again, nor would she be able to keep her home, or her independence from their father. Even more than that, no one would rake the daughter of a twice-disgraced family as a mate… Damn them all, the Reps had gone too far this time. He glared back up at them all and opened his mouth to tell them exactly that… but the words wouldn’t come. There were no words that were vicious enough to express his anger at the unfairness of this decision.
Damn it! My mistake, my family’s ruin… Why is this happening again?!
Tycho, the wolf Representative, took note of his distress, but there was little sympathy in his dark eyes, ringed by indigo tribal markings in elaborate patterns. Support of family was all well and good, and wolves understood that more than most… but the law was the law. “We have no other choice, Takaishi. There is no—”
He was unable to finish, as a many-legged shadow dropped onto the Legatus from a high branch with an ear-splitting screech. A second fell from a different angle, landing upon the stone table in front of Rune, who froze in terror as it raised its forelegs, fixed him with its inkblot eyes, and hissed…
Pandemonium broke loose. The Representatives scattered, Smoke and Hayashi moving to pull the first spider off of the Legatus, and the second tackling Rune, who vanished from sight with it beneath the table. Oakrunner shot to his feet, but seemed unable to move from the spot, torn over which of his comrades to help. The rest fled, or pressed themselves against the outer walls of the dais. Lady Azalea howled for guards… but it would take time for them to get up there in their heavy armor, time that Rune and the Legatus didn’t have…
No other choice. Zero grasped the arm of the guard on his right, digging his claws in between the hardened plates. “You!” he said, looking right into the samurai’s frightened eyes. “Let me loose, and give me your sword!”
“Are you mad?! They’ll have my hide for—” he sputtered.
“Listen!” roared Zero, pulling him closer. “My own weapons are gone, and your people can’t reach them in time! I can stop them, but I need you to trust me!”
The samurai and the ronin stared at each other… and found common ground in each other’s gazes. A shared sense of honor, of a need to act on what they thought was right… No words passed between them, but the samurai understood. His hand darted for the keys on his hip…
Obscene, helpless terror raced through Rune Burnham’s veins. Terror, and something else, something cold and foreign, injected into him by the fangs digging into his shoulder. The todd struggled feebly underneath the monster’s hairy weight, raising a hand to someone, anyone, for help… A strange, leaden feeling made moving his arm difficult… what was it doing to him? Something warm and wet seeped through his fine silk robes… it took him longer than it should have to realize that it was his own blood…
Then a much louder screech than before, a blur of motion, and the weight atop him was gone. Rune sucked in a greedy breath, clutched his good hand to his shoulder, and opened his mouth to thank the guard…
He stared in astonishment. It wasn’t the guard standing over the monster’s corpse, withdrawing a stained blade. It wasn’t the guard who moved like lightning clear across to the other side of the dais where the Legatus fell, who lifted the blade and brought it down twice, to the accompaniment of another terrible screech. The sun’s fading rays caught its deadly edge as it raised one more time, and fell… then silence.
The Representatives watched in shared disbelief as Zero Takaishi extended a hand and pulled the elderly rabbit upright. The Legatus was badly shaken, his fur and beard disheveled, his rheumy eyes wide with shock… but he was alive, wheezing and clutching his bony chest through bloodied robes. He was alive, and so was Rune. Takaishi had saved them both.
As the edge of the sun sank over the horizon, both guards and Representatives alike kept their eyes on the ronin, no one saying a word. It was Zero who finally broke the stillness, leaping back down to the sentencing floor and handing the sword back to the guard, who nodded.
Hayashi was first to speak, his voice strained. “We are deeply grateful to you, Young Lord Takaishi,” he said, “You do realize, however, that this will not change your status…”
Zero smiled a sad, bitter smile. “Of course not. I never expected it would. My Lords and Ladies.” He gave a curt bow to them all… then ran for one of the Crown’s branches and dove off the side.
A mad rush to the edge of the dais ensued. The Representatives watched the black blur racing down the Shinju’s trunk, growing smaller and smaller until he finally vanished from sight somewhere in the tangles of her ancient roots.
“Unbelievable,” said Tycho, shaking his head. “Hayashi, what should—”
The old warrior’s voice was gruff. “Let him go.”
Legatus grasped at his heart, in legitimate concern that it might give out. “Those… those things likely followed him here, and you want to—”
“Let him go,” Hayashi repeated. He sighed and rubbed his scarred brow. “Let them all go… I suspect the vixen and the rest have escaped by now in the commotion. Strike the current record,” he called down to the stenographer, who was only now crawling out from under her desk. “Let the new record state that Takaishi left of his own volition, upon hearing our warning against further interactions within Unify. Come now, you and Rune need Healers, Legatus.”
Lady Azalea swallowed. Conflicted feelings swirled in her belly. “Shall… shall I still inform Lady Lily of Young Lady Takaishi’s dismissal?”
“I would suggest not,” said Oakrunner at her side, shaking his head. “I say the Takaishi family has earned one reprieve, at least.”
“Hmph.” Tycho crossed his arms. He spoke to the badger, but his eyes were locked on one of the corpses bleeding out on the dais’s wooden floor. “You’re too soft on them, Longstripe. Don’t you ever get tired of your son and his Outcast friends causing trouble?”
Oakrunner Longstripe’s lips curled into a sad smile, one oddly similar to the one that Takaishi wore moments before. “More than you know, my friend.”
“What do you think happened?” said Faun as she climbed out of the haycart, brushing loose pieces of straw from her orange fur. “I didn’t see any guards after about ten minutes. They’ve never let us go without a fight before.”
“Who are we to question good fortune?” Rowan shrugged his massive shoulders, then passed a few tri to the cart’s driver. “Thank you, friend. We shall walk from here.”
“If you call ‘good fortune’ losing all of our food,” Faun groused. “I can’t believe they confiscated it all. We even paid for it this time.”
They stood at the border to Tasakeru, the sea of oaks dark, foreboding, and more mysterious than ever in the twilight. However it was that they escaped Unify with such ease, none of the Outcasts much cared… to Faun and Rowan, the forest was a welcome sight, an assurance that they were almost home.
To Hanami, who had been quiet for most of the cart ride out from the city, she still felt faint stirrings of anxiety. It took constant mental reminders to herself that the sight of Tasakeru no longer meant fear and the unknown, but a place of safety… and of friendship, as odd as that friendship was. Of course, there was still more than enough anxiety from other things, things that made her shiver to think about. Such as how close she had come to losing it all again just hours before… but that worry could be pushed down and buried for now.
She hung behind the others, scanning the horizon. “At least you all were able to get your things back.” As the cart trundled away, she bowed to the driver, tucking her flower more securely behind her ear on the way back up. “Besides… there’s still those strawberry vines, and I’m sure we can find more if we look hard enough.”
“There is that.” Faun had to admit, the thought of more of those strawberries was a tempting one. “What’re you looking for, kitto?”
“I was… worried about Zero.” Hanami sighed, her ears drooping. “He didn’t escape with us. What if they’re still holding him? Will he be all right without us?”
“Dijo!” Faun let out a barking laugh and clapped her on the back. Squeak. “I taught Takky everything he knows about how to break out of prison. He’s not as good at it as me, but he’ll be fine. Odds are we’ll see him by tonight.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right! Aren’t I always?”
Rowan coughed politely.
“So,” said Faun, rubbing her hands together. “Let’s go find those strawberries again, and—”
The rest of that sentence was lost in a deafening thunderclap of displaced air as Zero appeared a few meters away, hovering off the ground. Before the echoes finished rebounding off the trunks behind them, he stumbled forward and almost fell…
“Easy there,” said Rowan, rushing to his side to catch him. “Well met, my friend. Was that a—”
“Boltpath stone.” Zero moaned the words, his stomach churning like an angry storm. “I hate those things… but I had to get back quickly, so I borrowed one of Naole’s. I need to tell you what happened in the Crown…”
“Must be important if you put up with a boltpath,” said Faun, drawing close. “What happened?”
“Wood spiders,” said Zero. “They were there, they attacked two of the Reps.”
The reaction was immediate: Rowan swallowed, Faun swore, and Hanami clapped her hands to her mouth in a silent scream.
“I don’t understand how it happened either, but they’ve seen the spiders for themselves,” said Zero, tottering unsteadily as he attempted to find his footing. “Damn, my head’s still spinning…” He took a moment to shake himself, then faced the group. “This has to stop, now. We need to find where those things are coming from… just because the Reps know they’re real now doesn’t mean they’ll stop blaming us for them.”
“Suppose you’ll need this, then,” said Faun. Grinning, she reached under her cloak and passed the old, battered sword into Zero’s hands. “I picked it up for you on the way out.”
A remarkable change came over Zero as he took hold of the sword… the sickness and light-headedness of boltpath travel melted away. Using another samurai’s sword back at the Crown was necessary, but it didn’t feel right. This one was his, and his alone. He knew every nick in the hilt, and every scratch upon the blade… despite the painful memories associated with it, holding the sword, his sword, always made him feel stronger… like nothing was impossible.
Hanami stepped forward, a quiver in her voice. “Y-you’re going to find them? Stop them?”
“We have to try.” Zero looked back, into the depths of the forest that grew darker by the minute. “If they’re bold enough that they’re appearing in Unify in the open, we’ll starve if we don’t do something. Hanami, I can’t ask you to come with us… this has been difficult enough for you as it is.”
“I-” She swallowed, her throat tightening. “I… want to come with you. I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you, Hanami,” said Zero. He smiled, with no trace of bitterness this time, only genuine warmth and gratitude. “We all will.”
“That’s all well and good,” Faun crossed her arms. “But how are we gonna find their nest or whatever? It’s not like we can follow one back to its home, and there’s no trails…”
“I wouldn’t say that, vixen.” A wheezing growl of a voice came from one of the oaks at the forest’s border, giving them all a start.
Out of habit, Zero drew his blade and moved in front of Hanami… and only relaxed when the stooped, withered figure of the white wolf emerged from behind a trunk. “Drake?”
Behind him, Hanami drew in a sharp breath. She had never seen a wolf so close before, and couldn’t imagine any living creature being so old. His fur was so pure white, like fresh snow, and he had so many wrinkles that she was reminded of pieces of dried fruit…
“What are you doing here?” said Zero, sheathing his sword.
“Looking for all of you, believe it or not,” Drake said, leaning forward on his walking stick. Something danced in his golden eyes, a spark that made him seem more alive than he had been the previous night, somehow. “If you’re trying to find a trail, I think have something that can help.” From behind his back, the wolf drew something and tossed it at their feet.
This time, there was nothing silent about Hanami’s scream.
Laying in the soil before them was the lifeless body of a wood spider, mangled almost beyond recognition, its insides all but hollow, and its three remaining legs clinging to its sides by a scant few sinews.
“There’s a few more like that where I found it. Looks like they tried to eat something they shouldn’t have. Something vicious,” said Drake. “Follow me, I’ll show you the way… but best be careful.”
END OF CHAPTER 7