Tasakeru

ETERNITY AWAKES, CHAPTER 3

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Chapter 3

A clever mind knows

How to take the advantage

When the Goddess calls

 

            “When examining the life and legend of Faun Muranaka, it is important to note a few things: first, that for all the enduring tales of her heroic deeds alongside the other Outcasts, that she was and is by no means seen as a purely virtuous figure. To the contrary, stories abound of her sneaking into Unify and leaving chaos in her wake. A comprehensive list of her crimes (apart from repeatedly ignoring the terms of her exile, of course) includes but is not limited to: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment, disturbing the peace, breaking and entering, destruction of property, vandalism, a host of assault charges, numerous accounts of fraud both major and minor, and violation of obscenity laws. This last one is particularly notable, as it was apparently us, her own kind, who placed obscenity charges against her. One might think it patently impossible for we foxes of all species to find anything to be obscene enough to place charges, but Faun Muranaka found a way.

            “Which leads us to the second point: Muranaka was, first and foremost, a thief. She was incarcerated more times for this than for any of her other crimes, in cases ranging from simple petty theft and shoplifting to grand mal larceny. Rumors persist that the forge that her comrade Rowan Longstripe used during his Outcast days was procured for him from one of Unify’s leading blacksmiths. The entire forge, so the legend goes, was stolen by Muranaka alone, and somehow smuggled out of the city without anyone noticing. Again, some might call that impossible, but Muranaka apparently found a way. Some variants of the story claim that she stole it piece by piece over a period of months, until the poor, baffled smith was left with nothing but an empty room.

            “Understanding Faun’s propensity for theft may be key to understanding why she did what she did during that early autumn when the last Titan reemerged from his prison. The subject puzzles many who study Outcast lore: by all accounts, Muranaka and Hanami were close and trusted friends, risking their lives for each other on countless occasions. Why, then, would Muranaka deliberately deceive her friend and steal her most precious possession? Was it out of greed? Desire to help the last Titan? A self-imposed challenge? We may never know.”

[An excerpt from The Outcasts in Fact and Folklore, by Hill Jakes]

 

This is stupid.

That thought occurred to Zero with such abruptness that he stopped his pacing in mid-step, almost twisting an ankle. The many papers scattered around his drey fluttered in the sudden breeze.

It’s stupid, he thought, frowning at himself. Why the hell should I be afraid of talking to Hanami? She’s a friend, for Gods’ sakes. Friends talk to each other. There’s absolutely no reason for how I acted. So what if she finds out what I was reading? It was inexcusable of me. Gods, I’m an idiot.

I’ll apologize. Zero nodded, straightened his robes and headband, and made for the door. The metal platings on his boots made decisive sounds, a series of purposeful clack noises as he crossed the wooden floorboards, tail held high. Right. I’ll apologize, and then everything will go back to normal.


This is silly.

Hanami had been sitting forlorn at her writing desk for the last hour, nibbling morosely at the blunt end of her pen and staring out the window at nothing in particular. The thought came to her so fast that she had to suppress a laugh; what was she doing?! It was a beautiful fall afternoon outside, the leaves were beginning to turn, and there was no reason not to go out and try to find Zero. Whatever she had done to upset him two days ago, it was an honest mistake. She would apologize, and that would be that.

All right. Hanami stood, smoothed out the folds of her tunic, tucked the Mage Flower securely behind her ear, and slid the pen back into its groove on the top of the desk. It was rather exciting, honestly… the thought of putting this awkwardness past them and becoming better friends, learning more about each other. What was so intimidating about that? Nothing, that’s what, she answered herself with a smile. I’ll tell him I’m sorry, and from there… we’ll see what happens.

            Satisfied, Hanami walked to her front door, stepped outside, took a deep breath to steady herself, and marched down the narrow path leading out of Haven Grove’s clearing.

It couldn’t have been more than fifty paces into Tasakeru proper before a black shadow dropped from a branch before her, scaring her half to death.

“Hanami!” Zero’s voice was just a bit too loud as he reached for her. “I’m sorry, did I scare you? I thought you heard me coming-”

“I… I didn’t,” gasped the doe, clutching at her heart with one hand and trying to hide her puffed-up tail with the other. “I-it’s all right, I’ll be fine… in just a minute…”

The forest fell still and quiet around them. As they stared at each other, each waited for the other to speak first.


Finally, she was back; she had never been so glad for Tasakeru’s constant shade. Hiking out of Kamen Desert without the aid of a cart or much in way of supplies was something Faun never wanted to try again… she didn’t think she’d ever get all the sand and grit out of her fur. True, Seker had offered to transport her anywhere she wished with the aid of that whirlwind spell of his. She declined as politely as possible, but after hours of walking over dunes with only the near-silent jackal for company, she came quite close to regretting that decision.

The few times they did speak to each other, she found their conversations supremely uninformative: she asked Seker what kinds of things he had seen through his magic mirror over the years (when he bothered to look, he found what he saw of sentient society to be so dull and trivial that he promptly forgot the details). In turn, Seker asked her what she knew of general history since his imprisonment (the answer was “not much”), and her personal history after that. Faun gave him the short version, glossing over the painful parts: early life on the street with her mother, turning to crime to survive afterward, then exile to Tasakeru.

It was after that that the only really interesting tidbit came up. “Wait, it was three thousand years, right?” she asked him after yet another uncomfortable silence.

Seker nodded. “Yes.”

“It’s Year 1349 now… One thousand, three hundred forty nine years since the Day of Three Gods,” said Faun, a spark of interest flaring inside her. “You said you can’t sleep. So you were awake on the Day, right? You must have seen the Gods, right?”

The black crystal eyes of the mask stared at her without comprehension. “Gods?”

“You know, the Three Gods,” said Faun, holding her first three fingers spread in the traditional Godsign for emphasis. “The God of Time, the Goddess of Life, and the God of Death. The Species War, the world splitting apart, Time and Life fighting with Death, raising Mount Fury and trapping him under it…”

There was a long pause as Seker crossed his arms and thought. “… Hrmm. I remember sensing something quite unusual, a long time ago…”

“Yeah?” Faun drew close to him, her eyes widening.

“A surge of awesome power,” said Seker. His bass voice grew hushed. “A power beyond mere magic, the likes of which I had never known. The sensation overwhelmed me… I remember that I looked into the mirror, and I could see only a great pillar of blinding light, rising to the heavens…”

“Yeah? And?”

“And that was all.” Seker brushed past her and climbed the next dune.

He was halfway down it before Faun found it in her to speak. “That was it?!” she sputtered. “A big pillar of light, that’s all?!”

Seker didn’t turn or even stop as he answered. “Vixen, I have been awake for over three thousand years. A mortal sentient mind, even one enhanced by magic, cannot hope to store the entirety of even fifty years of memories at its healthiest. My mind, you understand, is hardly healthy.”

The vixen came to an abrupt halt. An icy frisson plunged down her neck in defiance of the desert’s heat, racing down her spine and to the very tip of her tail.

“Spend three thousand years in one room, unable to rest or sleep, and memories will blur together and become lost,” said Seker. The hollow casualness of his tone was appalling. “I kept records of what I could, upon the walls, the floor, the ceiling, wherever I could find room… Perhaps I described seeing your ‘Gods’ in detail at some point, but at present I do not remember. You may go back and examine them at your leisure, but I have seen enough of that place for countless lifetimes.” His tone made it clear that he was finished discussing the subject, and that he now wished to be alone with his thoughts.

Hours later, they parted ways half a kilometer past the oddly smooth border of the desert, well into the Shiburi Grasslands. At the sight of a tiny ferret village on the horizon, Seker stopped and waved her onward. “Go. I think it would be unwise for me to be seen just yet.”

“Why?” asked Faun. “You’re invincible, what to do you have to worry about?”

Seker’s response was flat and unamused. “The last time I thought along those lines, it led to my imprisonment. Complete your task, and I shall rejoin you later.”

“Where, though? And how will you know when I’ve done it?”

In lieu of answering, the jackal bent down and scooped up a handful of dry, thin soil. Faun saw him do something with his hands, light poured from between his fingers, and…

“Holy mange,” she whispered.

Seker now held an impossibly fine golden chain, in the same style as the one that marked the trap door inside the obelisk. So that was how those were made. “Consider this something of a down payment… a small taste of the rewards that await you as thanks for your assistance. Within this necklace is a tracking charm, one that will alert me when you have an appropriate source of magic upon your person. Once it activates, I will find you. Is this acceptable?”

“You.” The vixen stammered and took the chain into her cupped hands. “You can turn dirt… into gold. Just regular dirt. Gold. Just like that.”

“A simple enough spell,” said Seker, tilting his mask to one side. “When one knows the basic structure of the elements, it becomes trivial to rearrange them to your liking. For an object like this, a dust magic reconstitution ritual is sufficient to-”

“Gold,” said Faun, staring at her distorted reflection in the chain’s links. “You. Can make. Gold.

“Yes, we have established that.” His already low voice dropped considerably lower. “And there will be more gold, and much else besides, once you complete your task. Go.

That caught her attention. Agrin from ear to pointed ear, Faun slipped the necklace into a pocket of her boom belt and gave a smart salute. Flaunting something like that in public was likely to get it stolen… not that she couldn’t steal it back, but that wasn’t the point. “Right away! Like I told you, I have a friend with just the thing for you. I can get it from her with no problem, she won’t even notice that it’s gone.”

“Good.” Seker nodded. “I shall await you.”

And that was that. Faun flagged down a passing cart to take her across the rolling plains of Shiburi, hitched a ride on a kago[1] by passing herself off as a diplomat from Unify’s Kyon-cho district to the appallingly gullible driver, and traveled the rest of the distance to Tasakeru on foot.


Now that she was back within the familiar territory of cool shade and twisting paths between gnarled, mossy roots, she could think clearly about her plan of action. One little magic flower, and that’s it. How to get it away from her, though? She always carries the damn thing everywhere, and if she notices it’s gone, I’m pinched. One by one, Faun ticked off her options as she cut through the undergrowth on the way to Haven Grove. I can’t prep a sleeping gas bomb without her noticing. She’d be plenty mad when she woke up, too, so that’s out. Maybe I could try getting her drunk…

One ear swiveled as she caught the sound of far-off voices in short bursts of conversation. Faun turned in that direction, breathing deep to catch their scents. One was rich, fertile soil and the sweet fragrances of countless varieties of plants. Among those more gentle smells was a tinge of sharpness from nerves that were usually on high alert… and something else, a thicker, more primal undercurrent of the scent that she couldn’t place. The other was more familiar: old clothes that perhaps weren’t washed as often as they should be, the metallic tang of steel with traces of polish, the mellow smell of old goatskin leather, a spicy, clinging whiff of fierce pride and stubbornness.

The second was Zero, no doubt about that, and the first had to be Hanami. What was going on with her scent, though? Frowning to herself, Faun veered off the path to follow the sounds and smells. As she drew closer, she moved with greater caution, redistributing her weight so as not to make noise walking on the old leaves that littered the forest floor. Once she caught sight of the shaggy tip of Zero’s tail, she slipped behind a thick white oak and held her breath, taking in every word.

“… more than just lunch,” Hanami was saying. There was more of a stammer in her voice than usual. “I-I mean, you could… stay, if you wanted.”

“That would be… nice,” said Zero, in a tone that suggested he was unsure if that was the right answer. “Your furniture is more comfortable than mine.”

“Oh! Thank you. Um, yes. I stuff my cushions with cotton…”

“Really!” The buck was duly impressed. “Not straw?”

“No, not straw. Cotton is much, um, softer. Harder to come by, and more expensive, usually, but-”

“Ah, right, right. Of course, you can grow it, can’t you?”

“Yes! Yes. Yes, I can grow it.”

“That would be… well, that would be something. To have cotton whenever you needed it.”

“It makes for good stuffing. For my bed.”

“I’m sure it’s better than my futon. All straw.”

“Er, yes. Not that futons are bad! They’re more… traditional. Sorry. I would… like to sleep on one again, maybe. Compare the difference.”

“Why?”

There was a long, long pause. “… For fun?”

“Ah.”

Faun wrinkled her nose in disgust. Eavesdropping usually yielded more interesting results… what was with these two? It sounded like they had both been eating myconum, but she doubted either of them was open-minded enough to try that.

“So,” said Hanami. “Stop by sometime. We can talk. Alone.” Then, in a panicked rush: “While we eat! I’m sorry! I’ll have things to eat, of course!”

“… I.” Wherever this conversation had gone, Zero had lost track of it… but now he sounded just as nervous as Hanami. That wasn’t like him at all. “I’d like that… but not today! I should go… I need to, er, polish my sword…”

“Can I-”

The rest was drowned out by the scraping sound of Zero racing up a trunk at top speed, and the angry rustling of many leaves as he fled back to his home.

Now Faun was more confused than ever. She knew full well that Zero could move through branches without a sound, so what made him so ungainly all of a sudden? Stranger still, she noticed a change in his scent as it lingered behind him. Now there was a trace of an undercurrent to him, very similar to the primal one she smelled in Hanami’s-

It clicked. Oh, Gods. Don’t tell me. She chanced a peek around the edge of the trunk…

Hanami stood there on the path, her ears pressed back in dismay and her tail limp as a rag behind her, looking up at the quivering branches with a forlorn expression.

“Mange,” Faun said under her breath. She could have kicked herself for not expecting that something like this would happen… but then, it had just been Zero, Rowan, and herself for such a long time. Hanami’s arrival had thrown everything off-balance. How could they-

Her ears perked straight up as a spark of an idea lit into a roaring flame in Faun’s mind. She could use this problem to her advantage. In fact, it would be perfect. It was all she could do to keep from grinning.

A few meters away, Hanami slowly turned and trudged back in the direction of her cottage. So occupied was she with her morose thoughts that she never noticed the orange shadow that was Faun, trailing behind her just out of sight, her mind abuzz.


 

            “Aniki:

            “I swear, sometimes you’re as dense as lead. No, you are not getting sick, and neither is Hanami. If you really need me to explain to you what’s going on, come by tonight and we’ll discuss it over tea. I’ll take the rest of the evening off. In fact, I insist that you visit tonight, so that I can slap you personally before I forget, and before you realize why you should want to do it yourself.

            “-Naole”

[Excerpt from the letters of Naole Takaichi, Year 1349]

 

Hanami’s hand was on her front door when she felt the now-customary thump on her back that was Faun’s favorite way of greeting her. Any other day, she would have stiffened up and made a small, sharp noise of surprise, but today…

Eyo, Flowers!” said Faun, making a show of being spontaneous. “What’s got you so upset?” As if I didn’t know, she added silently.

The corners of Hanami’s mouth tugged upward in something that was trying to be a smile. “Hello, Faun. What makes you think that I’m upset?”

“Your ears are back, your shoulders are slumped, your tail’s dragging a path behind you, and you didn’t even squeak when I said hi… and hell, I can smell that you’re upset. I’ve got a nose that’s as sharp as a hawk’s eye and much prettier.” Faun raised an eyebrow. “So don’t even think about pretending. I may not spend all my time in a library like Stripehead, but I can read you like a book, Flowers.”

Hanami put her hands over her ears in a feeble attempt to hide them. “Am I really that obvious?”

“You’ve practically got a scroll pinned to your back that says ‘Please help me with my problems’, kitto.” Faun swung open the door and steered her inside. “Lucky for you, I’m here. Come on, let’s talk while you have some tea.” The vixen knew from experience that the quickest way to get a squirrel talking was over cups of tea; it was like a ritual that preceded them baring their souls. Convenient, that… those sorts of conversations didn’t happen with other species unless the drinks were far stronger.

“Yes, some tea sounds lovely.” Needing no further prompting, Hanmi moved to the little offset nook that served as her cottage’s kitchen. Columns of shelves jutted from the living bark, and on the shelves rested a neatly arranged line of old, chipped ceramic cups and saucers…  a few of these were from Faun’s horde, while the others were gifts from Zero. There was a raised counter with a stone water basin, a battered copper teapot that once sat in Rowan’s forge, a tiny clay hearth for boiling water, and of course, the tea leaves. Half a dozen tea plants sat in their own little crannies circling the kitchen window, a round gap in the bark that had been filled in with a pane of glass. Tasakeru was no fancy teahouse in Unify, but thanks to Hanami’s power, there was nowhere in the world that one could find fresher tea leaves. The squirrel set to work, retrieving a few dried leaves from a stoppered glass bottle, and gently plucking the rest from the plant she judged as the ripest. Her fingers moved with no less grace than that of the finest seamstresses… even in picking leaves, she was soft and delicate, careful not to harm the plants more than necessary.

Faun, meanwhile, made a beeline for the couch with its furrowed cushion marking her favorite spot. The first few times she visited, she offered to help Hanami prepare drinks… but she quickly found that doing fine work filling her homemade bombs with gunpowder was not a skill that transferred well to tea preparation. Better to let an expert handle it. Faun made herself comfortable, sprawling across the couch with one leg dangling over the back of the seat. She craned her neck backward to watch Hanami’s tail move back and forth as she plucked and measured. “So what’s biting you, Flowers?”

A long sigh left Hanami’s lips as she tipped leaves into a mortar. “Well… It’s about Zero…” Just the thought of him made her warm, in a mixture of fondness and embarrassment… her ears turned back reflexively. “I can’t seem to stop thinking about him.” She thought about him now, in fact, spilling a bit of powder over the edge of the bowl as her attention slipped.

Of course it is. “Male trouble,” said Faun aloud with a sage nod. “That’s always tough. Males are tricky, no matter the species.”

“It’s becoming a problem.” Grunk went the pestle as she ground leaves with a bit more force than usual. Funny, doing this was usually so relaxing, but… “What I mean is, I think about him all the time. Like I’m… obsessed. My mind wanders… I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing. I’ll be planting, or writing, or trying to sleep, and…”

“And pon!” Faun spread her fingers, imitating a sudden puff of smoke. “He pops into your head, right?”

“Yes, exactly. I would love to know him better, but he seems-”

It wasn’t hard to guess where she was going. “Closed off? Yeah, Takky’s pretty private about himself.”

Hanami moved to the basin to fill the teapot from a water spellstone. “I’ve lived here for over a month, and I hardly know anything about him! What he likes to do, what brought him here to Tasakeru, who taught him how to use a sword…”

“I can help with at least some of that,” said Faun. “Takky comes from a long line of Daigundan samurai. His father was one, and probably all his grandfathers before him, too. I know Takky wanted to be one at some point, and he was enrolled at the Gakuen, but…” She shrugged. “Something went wrong. You’d have to ask him for the details.”

“That’s just it.” Another sigh. Water sloshed over the edges of the pot. “I tried talking to him today, but… how should I put it?” How, indeed? How to describe that warmth that kindled inside her in his presence, that bubbled up and filled her head with air, that made her mouth run of its own accord without input from her brain? “I made a fool of myself. I embarrassed him and drove him away. Faun, what should I do? What’s happening to me?”

Here it was, the moment of truth. Faun steeled herself and took a deep breath, determined to word this as if she didn’t already know the answer. “Let me ask you this, Flowers.” Turning herself upright, she stared across the room at her. “Are you in Phase right now?”

There was a low chink and rattle as Hanami dropped a saucer. Fortunately, it didn’t have far to fall. “I…” Her eyes went wide with terror. Why hadn’t she considered this before? She knew about Phase, everyone did, but normally it wasn’t much of a problem at all, she barely noticed it. Now, however… “Oh no,” she moaned, pressing a hand to her forehead. “Blessed Terra, no… the vitexite! I forgot about my vitexite!”

Faun blinked. “Your what?”

Wobbling on her feet, Hanami clutched the sides of the basin for support. “When I lived in Unify, I used to buy vitexite supplements at the apothecary. Mother taught me to take it for a few days before and during my Phase to lessen the effects. I’ve been taking it ever since I came of age, but now-”

Ah, that explained it. “Mange,” said Faun. “Now you can’t buy your vitexite, and you’re getting hit with full Phase for the first time. The Goddess is telling your body that it’s your season, and Zero-”

Zero.” Hanami squeezed her eyes shut tight. That warmth flared within her belly… now she knew full well what it was, and now that she was aware, it became that much harder to ignore. “Faun, I can’t. I can’t see him again, not until this is over.”

That didn’t make much sense to Faun. “Why not?”

“Why not?!” Hanami’s ears flattened against her skull as if they had been plastered there. “We barely know each other, it’s only been a month since we met! I can’t just go and… and…” One hand cupped the edge of her mouth as she whispered the dreaded word. “… and mate with him!”

The vixen sighed and scratched one ear. “Honestly, Flowers, that would make things a whole lot easier. When vixens go in Phase, we don’t worry about knowing the todd we’ve chosen well enough, or anything like that. We just mate, no fuss about it. You squirrels? Etiquette, rituals, love? Those just complicate it.”

Swallowing heavily, Hanami drew the Mage Flower from behind her left ear and held it close to her breast. “That may work for you, but… I just can’t.”

Fraught as her friend was, Faun couldn’t resist hassling her just a little. “So you don’t want to?”

There was the usual squeak that Faun had been missing. Tiny cactus flowers began budding from her flower’s stem. “No! I mean… well, yes, but… I suppose I wouldn’t mind, but-!”

“But you’d rather wait. Gods.” Faun sighed and shook her head. “No wonder you’re all so tight-wound. Listen, Flowers, the best advice I can give is still to just go to him and do it. After that, just make sure you have vitexite or whatever it is on hand. While you’re out, if you want an alternative just to relieve the tension, though…”

Hanami peeked through her fingers. “An alternative?”

“You ever try indulging yourself?”

Somehow, she didn’t think Faun meant buying strawberry daifuku as a treat for special occasions. “Wh-what do you mean?”

Faun told her.

The following shriek could be heard well outside Haven Grove’s walls, and disturbed a flock of nesting sparrows. The vixen’s laughter that followed that was loud and raucous enough to send them back to the winds.

Dijo, dijo!” Faun gasped for breath, wiping tears out of her eyes. “So you don’t want to do that, that’s fine! There’s always a way out, Flowers.”

Mortified, the squirrel uncovered her ears and unwrapped her tail from around herself. “Are you serious this time?”

“Serious as war,” said Faun, raising an eyebrow. “What’s vitexite made of? Do you know?”

“Hmm.” Screwing her eyes shut, Hanami searched her memory. “Alum, salts, and-” The light dawned. “Vitex agnus-castus, that’s temple pepper! Faun, I can grow it!”

There you go!” Satisfied, the vixen slapped her knee. “See? Maybe you can’t get the exact stuff they make at the apothecary, but you can make something close, right?”

Hanami’s whole body seemed to loosen with relief as she sighed. “I can,” she said with a smile. “Oh, thank the heavens.”

“And hey,” Faun added. Time to set bait on the hook. “As for the other thing, if you want to get to know Takky better… let me apply my genius to that, too.”

“Wh-” Her breath caught sharply in her throat. “You don’t mean-”

“No, no,” said Faun, waving a hand. “Just a nice little date. A meeting with him, at Campfire Rock. After sunset, once you’re feeling better. What do you think?”

Hanami bit. Now the Mage Flower sprouted a few tiny yellow tulips between her tightly clenched fingers. “With Zero? Tonight?

“It’ll be perfect,” said Faun. “I’ll just stop by his drey on my way back home, let him know you’re waiting for him. He won’t be able to resist, trust me.”

Emotions whirled across Hanami’s face in rapid succession: gratitude, hope, anxiety, longing, and a few that were less easy to identify. “I…” she stammered. “I have to get ready! Take a bath, and brush my hair, and groom my fur, and-!”

“And grow your pepper,” said Faun, rising from her seat. “You do that, I’ll handle Takky. Better hurry, it’ll be sundown soon…”

Golden hues moved in a blur across the room as Hanami shot across the kitchen and into the sitting room in a single bound, seizing her friend in a hug. “Thank you, Faun,” she whispered, holding her tight. “Thank you. I won’t forget this.”

A twinge of guilt plucked Faun’s heart… strange. She ignored it, and hugged Hanami back. “Dijo. My pleasure. Go get ready.”

“Yes! Yes, of course!” Extracting herself from the hug, Hanami fled for her bedroom in the back of the cottage and threw closed the door, forgetting all about her half-finished tea preparation. There came rustling behind the door, then the bitter smell of newly grown temple pepper leaves, and frantic chewing and swallowing.

Faun waited, fingering the flap of the pouch that held her sleeping gas bombs. She was confident this would work, that she had read Hanami correctly, but if she hadn’t… One always had to have a backup plan.

Finally, the sound she had been anticipating: running water. Still she waited, until the first tendrils of fragrant steam began to creep from under the door. Now was the time. The vixen crept to the door, slid it open, took in a breath…

There it was. The Mage Flower lay abandoned on Hanami’s bedside table. Faun made not a sound as she stole across the room and gently, gently picked it up… Now that she got a close look at it, it really was quite unusual, and beautiful. The unmistakable vivid red of a rose, but with the crinkly, folded-over petals of a carnation spiraling outward from its center. Its leaves were smooth and rounded, and its stem bore not a single thorn.

Just by holding it, Faun could feel its strange power, even through her gloves… she wondered if Hanami herself knew what secrets it held. That question could wait for another day, though. If all went well, Hanami wouldn’t even notice it was gone. Even if she did… well, it was for the purpose of a better life. Not just for Faun, but for all of them. She could deal with that.

In a flash of orange fur, Faun was out the door of the little oak cottage, down the path, out of the clearing, and into the forest, her heart hammering with excitement. Treasure. Rubies. Gold made from dirt. All hers…


The sun had set an hour ago, but still Hanami waited, oblivious to the time. She looked radiant in the light of the moon shining down on Campfire Rock, her fur sleek, her golden hair well-washed and pinned up at her neck with an ebony comb. A bit of powder to color her cheeks, in case Zero liked that. Nervous energy kept her squirming constantly on the log she sat on… her fingers traced furrows in her tail fur, nearly dislodging the white ribbon she had tied in it. Even having eaten the temple pepper, she still felt warm, happy… just not like that. What a relief. And soon, Zero would meet her here and they could talk, really talk. She wondered what they would discuss first. Perhaps his sister? Hanami still had yet to meet her, but she was looking forward to the opportunity. Yes, that would be a safe place to start. After that-

“Hanami?” said a baritone voice behind her. “Are you quite all right?”

Squeak. Hanami’s body did a revolution in midair as she turned to face the badger. “Yes! Of course! Wonderful, in fact!”

Rowan stared at her, perplexed. True, he had not known Hanami for long, but he judged her to be of a more simple, straightforward kind… not one for changing her appearance on a whim. Still, it was a very nice look by squirrel standards, very traditional… though something about her seemed… off. “Good evening, Milady,” he said, touching a fist to his breastplate. “You look splendid. May I ask what the occasion is?”

A bashful, happy, fluttery smile. “I… I’m supposed to be meeting Zero here. Faun said she’d help us get to know each other better-”

“Zero?” said Rowan, his broad striped brow wrinkling as he studied Hanami closer. Not just her look, but her scent was different. That, coupled with the new look, and that smile, and the fact that something seemed to be missing… “I see. A wise idea. When were you to meet?”

“Just after sunset, why?”

The pieces came together. “Hanami,” said Rowan, as delicate as if she might break with one wrong word. “Are you missing anything of yours?”

Pale blue eyes blinked at him without comprehension. “Missing anything? I don’t-”

“I ask because I know for a fact that Zero went to Unify to visit Naole several hours ago. He sent a message to my scroll this afternoon.” Rowan sighed. “I suspect the vixen was aware of that as well, and if that is the case… Regretfully, I must ask again. Are you missing anything valuable?”

Too stunned to answer him, Hanami reached up behind her left ear… and found nothing. She wore the Mage Flower there so often that she sometimes forgot it was there. In her excitement, in her anticipation, in the headiness of her Phase, she had left it on her bedside table, she was sure of it. Just as she was sure, with an awful, sinking feeling, that when she returned it would be gone… Her happiness came crashing down around her, her face slid into shock…

Something snapped.

Rowan moved a massive hand toward her. His heart ached for the poor doe who had not known Faun long enough to be wary of her tricks, or her greed. The Gods alone knew what she wanted the Mage Flower for, but Rowan was certain that greed had something to do with it. Gently, he put a heavy arm around Hanami’s shoulder, anticipating a storm of tears…

What he did not anticipate, not in the slightest, was Hanami’s expression contorting into one of livid, bilious anger, the likes of which he had never imagined she could possess.

Hanami’s hands clenched tightly in her lap, her claws digging into the pads on her palms. “Faun,” she whispered, flames dancing in her pale blue eyes.

END OF CHAPTER 3

[1] Kago (KAH-go) : A wheelless personal transport pulled by a sentient porters on foot, generally used by nobility. Also called a “palanquin”.

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