Reaching to the sky
A most ominous omen
Thinned and thickened blood
“Skunk culture confuses many. How, people wonder, can a completely matriarchal society possibly function in today’s world? ‘So many females are small and delicate,’ they say. ‘How can they be fit for the traditional male duties of defending one’s home and providing for one’s family?’ And, ‘Is it not oppressive for females to dictate what rights males have, decide what they can and cannot wear, and prohibit them from holding certain jobs?’
“Based on many conversations with skunks I have known, they ask themselves the same questions of us in reverse… the squirrels’ treatment of their females in particular is baffling to them. As their philosopher Sister Laurel Saltus once wrote, ‘Do not ask of us, ‘How can you do this thing?’ Ask yourselves, ‘Why do we not?’ One’s way is one’s way.’”
“To begin with the basics: skunks revere Life, Family, and Motherhood. Alone among the sentient species, their sect of Tritheism elevates their Goddess of Life, Greatmother Rose, as superior to the other two. Time and Death are also Goddesses, but of far lesser stature. Unsurprisingly given these beliefs, the skunks have adopted a largely agrarian lifestyle, seeing it as their duty to tend the fields, cultivate all things that grow, and produce nourishment for the world’s population. Of course, it is the florises that do that tending and cultivating, as well as defending house and home. Who better, they ask, to enrich and safeguard Life than females, the bearers of the young?
“That is not to say there is no place in their society for others. Male skunks (or florins) take on many of what are otherwise traditionally feminine roles, the care and upbringing of children and food preparation among them. Traditionalist florins wear distinctive concealing robes when outside the home, an expression of modesty and devotion to the mate who has chosen them (or mates, as the case may be… polyamory still being popular and accepted in the culture). The life of a male skunk is seen by many outsiders as luxurious, idyllic, and uncomplicated… though the florins I have spoken to maintain vociferously that ‘uncomplicated’ is a gross exaggeration, particularly in regards to child-rearing. They are far less kind in speaking of those who see their treatment by the florises as ‘slavery’, a cross-species argument that has raged for centuries and shows no sign of abating.
“The Silver Order was a natural outgrowth of such beliefs, which began with the skunks and spread to the other species. It is a proud tradition, headed by the daughters of the Argenteus House since its inception sixty generations ago…”
[An excerpt from Parts of the Whole: A Guide to World Cultures, by Ash Caeruleus]
Back and forth. Back and forth. A depressed furrow in the rug marked the area where the Silver Order’s Vice-Mistress and Field Commander paced, her armored hands clasped tight behind her back. The waiting room outside of her mother’s business chamber in the heart of Aedis Centralis was not very large, so every few seconds, Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus did a sharp 180-degree turn on her heel to go back and pace in the opposite direction, her flawless platinum blonde braid whipping around to follow her. For such a young florin at only seventeen years, the skunk’s face bore such a serious, even grave expression… as if she was known to wear any other kind.
Doubtless, it would not please Nadeshiko to know that some of the lower ranks referred to her in private with the sarcastic nickname “Lady Sunshine”. Never to her face, of course… not that she would react with anything other than her usual cold stare.
It wasn’t quite fair to expect Nadeshiko to conform to the norms of skunk society. After all, her upbringing was hardly normal. From the moment of her birth, she was destined to become Grand Mistress of the Silver Order one day, to inherit command of the sprawling church and all its thousands of knights and followers, just as her mother and grandmothers had done before her. Growing up, Nadeshiko had the best of everything: the best tutors, the best food, the best training, both physical and mental. And train she did, with a drive that some called admirable and others called obsessive. She refused all offers of companionship along the way, and turned down all of the proposals of the many florins brought before her. That in particular raised more than a few hackles; skunks were supposed to be social by nature. Who ever heard of a floris refusing company?
The truth was, Nadeshiko saw no need for friends, or mates, or much of anything save for her duties. If people called her cold for that, so be it. She was raised to lead the Silver Order, and by Goddess, lead it she would. No one would ever accuse her of taking her station in life with anything but the utmost seriousness.
Behind the teak desk at the back of the room, her mother’s personal attendant spoke up again. “Vice-Mistress, please, there’s no need to wear yourself out,” said the older floris. “If you would like to take a seat while you-”
“No thank you, Sister Iris,” said Nadeshiko, starting on her next turn. “As I have said, I am perfectly comfortable.”
Iris tried not to sigh. Wearing full armor would be uncomfortable regardless of sitting or standing, she supposed. “Whatever you say, Milady.”
Finally, finally, the door to her mother’s office slid aside, and Rune Burnham emerged. The fox Representative’s trademark cocky smile was rather muted these days. Of course, that was due to the injuries the todd sustained during the wood spider attack on the Crown a month before. His arm and shoulder were still swaddled in bandages, and the heavy steps of his favorite boots now had a noticeable delay… the unknown venom from the monster’s fangs left an effect that lingered long after it was flushed from his blood, a limp that likely wouldn’t heal for quite some time. “- still in preliminary talks with the Bureau of Representation, of course,” said Rune over his shoulder as he emerged from the doorway. “But I have confidence in Ophelia. She’s a firecracker of a vixen… I’ll vouch for her any day.”
“I am sure you will.” Lady Lily’s voice drifted from inside the office. “And you are quite certain your recommendation is not based on other factors, Lord Burnham?”
The ever-present piece of straw Rune held in his teeth jumped upward as he grinned. Now he looked much more like his usual self. “Would be lying if I said ‘no’, but putting aside her, ah, other talents, Ophelia’s not one to be crossed. If anyone’s fit for the job, she is, Milady.”
Lily sounded faintly amused. One could almost hear her eyebrow rising. “If you say she is not to be crossed, she must be impressive indeed. Very well, I shall confer with Great Lady Azalea, and we will keep you informed of our decision. Losing Sister Ophelia at the temple will be unfortunate, but if she can do more good elsewhere-”
“Oh, she can, believe me.” Rune laughed, and then winced, clutching at his injured shoulder. “Damn. Still have to watch that. Anyway, Milady, go well.”
“Go well, Lord Burnham. I wish you the best of luck.”
“I don’t need it, but I’m grateful regardless. Evening, Vice-Mistress,” said Rune to Nadeshiko, taking notice of her as he hobbled out of the door frame. His torso tilted forward in the deepest bow he could manage. “You’re looking… driven today. Everything suiting you?”
“No,” said Nadeshiko, never one to mince words. “Excuse me, Lord Burnham. I must speak with my mother. It is a matter of great urgency.” Without waiting for a response, she brushed past him, her great striped tail streaming behind her. The moment she was through the door, she the sliding panel closed so hard that it nearly skipped its groove.
Behind the teak desk, Iris gave Rune an apologetic smile. “You’ll have to excuse her, Lord Burnham… You know how she is.”
Removing the straw from between his teeth, Rune pointed it at the door panel. “You know,” he said, “any one of our healers could diagnose exactly what she needs to loosen her katsuyakukin a bit.”
The attendant bit back a wince. Foxes were so forthright, no subtlety at all. “I’m sure they could, Milord.”
Despite holding the highest of positions, Lady Lily’s office was quite typical quarters for her kind: soft, calming pastel colors, many windows and open spaces, smooth surfaces, great sheets of hanging translucent fabrics, a scattering of fine satin pillows and cushions, hanging pots of ivy and flowering vines, and of course, the emblem of the Order displayed prominently: a single all-seeing eye bordered by thorned rose vines. The Argenteus House provided its lineage with great wealth and luxury, but Lily preferred not to flaunt it in her workspace, electing to keep it as simple and modest as possible. One’s stature was only to be touted at the appropriate times… hence, why she preferred simple white cotton robes except on formal occasions.
Lily herself was still radiantly beautiful at forty-eight years. Her hair was worn in a simple bun, the platinum color of her youth not so much whitened as turned silver as her family’s namesake, and the luminous green eyes she shared with Nadeshiko were as sharp as ever, disappearing into deep laugh lines whenever she smiled. Parallel stripes of white fur began at her snout, extended up to her hairline, then down the back of her neck bordering her spine, finally widening into great strokes that painted the tip of her tail. The increased desk work that came with middle age had its effects on her figure, making her not quite as slender as she once was, but she made sure she remained fit enough to strap on the old white and chrome plates whenever the need should arise. Anyone who thought of her as old or soft would have that opinion corrected post-haste.
Though both were strong-willed and famed for it, Lily was as warm and outgoing as her daughter was cold and prickly; were it not for the family resemblance, one would find it hard to believe they were related. With typical grace, she rose from her great hawthorn desk to embrace Nadeshiko as she strode in. “Little One, why such a face?” she said as she spread her arms wide.
Nadeshiko grimaced; she hated that pet name, and only tolerated it in private. “It has to do with Sister Naole, Mother,” she grumbled, offering her mother a quick hug before resuming her pacing.
“What about Sister Naole, dear?” Lily suspected that she knew already, but…
“She requested an early dismissal from her superior today. Again.” The younger floris made the first of what would be many lightning turns as she reached one end of the office. “You know what that means.”
“Ah,” said Lily. It wasn’t hard to see where this was going.
“She must be meeting with him again, Mother. Her brother, Takaishi the ronin. The Outcast.” Nadeshiko ground her teeth. “The criminal! And after the Magistrate showed them both leniencies last month! We must put a stop to this, Mother!”
“And you have proof that this is her intent?”
Nadeshiko’s claws dug into her palms. “I have a strong suspicion.”
“But not proof.”
“No, not proof.”
“Little One…” Heaving a sigh, Lily sat on the edge of her desk. “While I do admire your zeal, perhaps your time would be better spent hunting more… dangerous elements?”
“You cannot be serious, Mother!” Nadeshiko’s tail went ramrod straight. “I delivered the incident reports from last month to you personally! In the course of two hours, those ruffians caused hundreds of tri worth of property damage, frightened countless civilians, injured half a dozen knights, broke out of jail-”
“Yes, yes. I am well aware, my dear. However…” The elder floris’s lips curled into a gentle smile. “We of all people should recognize the bonds of blood and the importance of family. Young Lord Takaishi is trying to care for the wellbeing of his sister in her illness, and while that does not excuse his actions… as long as he stays out of sight and causes relatively little fuss, I see no reason to prevent them from seeing one another on occasion.”
“But Mother, if we do nothing, it will be seen as an invitation for him and his kind to flaunt the law!”
“They are already exiled, Little One. What more can we do? Trying them again would do little but waste time, money, and resources. Attempting to keep them imprisoned would be futile, especially given Muranaka’s skill at escaping custody. That leaves but one option…” Here, Lily’s smile disappeared, and steel crept into her voice. “… and that option goes against the foundations of everything you, I, and the Silver Order stand for. We protect Life, Little One. In his own peculiar way, Young Lord Takaishi is trying to do the same, so we must leave him be.”
“But-!” Nadeshiko wanted to argue the point, of course. Arguing was one of her specialties. However, no one argued a decision made by the Grand Mistress, not even the Mistress’s daughter. One of the perks of the position: her word was final and absolute.
“That’s that, Little One.” Lily wound a long scroll back onto its spool as she spoke. “I realize you are upset, but perhaps a nice cup of green tea would-”
Slam. For the second time in five minutes, the sliding door was thrown aside with tremendous force as Nadeshiko stormed out.
Lily put down the scroll and kneaded her brow. On days like this, she needed some tea herself, if not something a bit stronger. No doubt one or more of the training dummies in Nadeshiko’s quarters would be losing quite a bit of straw in the near future. “Oh, Hollis,” she said to the empty room. “Whatever am I to do with her?”
The oldest parts of Unify were the homes and businesses in the center, built among the roots and around the trunk of the gigantic cherry tree called the Shinju. Over the years, as the population swelled, construction built outward in an ever-expanding circle. When the threat of a new Species War forced the Magistrate to split the city into eight portions and erect the great walls between each species’ partition, only the centermost area, now the Marketplace, remained mixed as it once was. Each successive generation built from there, expanding the circle even further and employing earth mages to grow, alter, and reinforce the great walls between them as needed.
As a consequence, each partition’s older areas, or “Inner Rings”, maintained a majority of Unify’s wealthy and upper-class citizens, with the concentration of wealth gradually decreasing as one traveled out from the center. Towns and villages on the “Outer Rings” had very little in the way of wealth or privilege… Homes there were rarely more than tiny hovels, ramshackle stone cabins, or rice-paper shacks of two or three rooms at most, with roofs commonly made of tin or crumbling clay tiles and supports of flimsy balsa or pine wood.
It was in one such shack in the squirrels’ territory, Tachi-cho, that Zero Takaishi knelt at an old and pockmarked table, almost choking on his tea. “She wanted to what?!”
On the opposite side of the table, his younger sister heaved a sigh that blew her brick red bangs upward. “Of course she did, aniki! What did you think she wanted?!”
The porcelain tea cup tilted dangerously in the older squirrel’s grip. “But… why would Hanami want to… with me?”
“Terra preserve us,” said Naole, putting her face in her hands. “I cannot believe I’m having this conversation. Aniki, you’re a buck. She’s a doe. At regular intervals in a doe’s life, she goes into Phase, which means-”
“I know what it means!” His ears pressed down so flat that they might have been glued to his skull, perhaps an attempt to prevent him from hearing any more. “That doesn’t explain why she wants to do… that… with me!”
“Because she likes you. Because you’re handsome. Because you saved her life, helped her find a home, and treated her better than that poor thing has probably been treated in her whole life.” Naole shook her head. “A real squirrel mage… No wonder she sounds so timid. Whatever happened to out her power, it must have been awful for her.”
After draining the dregs from his cup, Zero set it down in its saucer and slumped over the table. “I don’t know what to do, imouto. Hell, I’d rather fight the spiders again than go through this.”
“I’m sure Hanami would love to hear that,” said Naole. Her nose wrinkled as she gathered the cups and saucers. “You’re making it so much harder than it has to be. Just talk to her like you normally would. Tell her about the things you like.”
“That’s what started this mess. She saw me with a book I was borrowing from Rowan-”
“Oh Gods.” What was clearly a suppressed laugh slipped into his sister’s voice, and the cups rattled. “No wonder you bolted. If she found out that you liked-”
“Naole. Enough.” Zero shot his most withering glare over his shoulder… not that it worked on her with any frequency. “Besides, I intend to stay out of her way until her Phase is over, for both our sakes.”
Another sigh. Naole slipped out of her sandals and stretched, trying to push one of the saucers onto a high shelf that was just out of her reach. “I still think you’re just running away from the problem. If you do like her-”
“I do, I do! I just don’t want Phase to push either of us into something we’re not ready for!”
“Nnng. Then tell her that. Be honest. Otherwise, you’ll just be hurting her feelings. If you’re both living in Tasakeru, you can’t afford to have… have…”
The saucer wobbled, fell, and crashed to the floor. An instant later, so did Naole.
It was well past sunset when Faun stopped, leaning against a white cedar to catch her breath. True, there wasn’t much chance she was being followed; Hanami most likely hadn’t noticed the Mage Flower was missing yet, and even if she did, she didn’t know Tasakeru well enough to pursue her for long… but old habits died hard.
The vixen’s ears swiveled, her senses on high alert. Nothing in the immediate area but the usual woodland animals… birds coming in to roost, buzzing insects, and a few frogs. She was alone.
Fair enough. Time to deliver the payload and claim her prize. She fished out the necklace Seker gave her from the pocket of her boom belt, and-
“Iya! Godsdammit!” Faun swore as it dropped from her fingertips. The necklace’s golden links were white hot, and vibrating at high speed. She could feel the searing heat through the material of her gloves; it was a wonder they didn’t set her whole bandolier on fire. Good thing, too… with all the explosives she carried, that would have been a very messy and unpleasant way to go.
The necklace shook itself, rustling the old leaves sticking out of the loam of the forest floor. Faun frowned; how was she supposed to find the jackal now? It wasn’t as if she could pick it back up again without a pair of tongs or-
“You have succeeded?” Seker’s bass voice boomed from directly behind her.
Faun nearly jumped out of her skin, her every hair standing on end. By instinct, her hand flew to one of the boom belt’s grenade pockets. Her heart hammered a drumbeat against her ribs. “D-don’t do that!” she hissed. “Pinch, just because you don’t have to worry about heart attacks…!”
The jackal’s inert golden mask tilted to one side, gleaming in the fading light. “I… apologize,” he said, with just a touch of meekness. “That was rude of me. Are you well?”
“I will be, just give me a minute…” After several deep breaths, Faun’s fur settled back down. “How the hell did you find me so fast?”
“I followed the magic signature of the necklace,” said Seker, bending low to retrieve it. “As I told you, it was designed to activate once you-”
“Once I got my hands on a source of powerful magic,” Faun finished. “Yeah, it definitely did that. Why’d it go crackers, though?”
Seker paused. “‘Crackers?’”
“It’s buzzing like a wasp and as hot as a live coal! Can’t you feel-” She stared. Judging by the heat shimmering off of it, the necklace was searing hot as ever… which made for a bizarre sight when Seker picked it up and looped over his bare finger. Faun swallowed. “R-right,” she said, unnerved more than she was willing to admit. “Immortal. I guess you wouldn’t feel it.”
“Where is it?” The blank rock crystal eyes of the mask stared down at her impassively. Clearly, the jackal was in no mood for more idle conversation. “Show it to me.”
“H-here.” The vixen’s fingers fumbled with another pouch. She withdrew the Mage Flower, brushed a few stray threads off its petals, and laid it gently in Seker’s massive outstretched hand… making it look like it was sized for a child’s doll, not an adult doe. “One source of powerful magic, as promised.”
Trunk-like fingers curled around the stem. Something deep within the flower’s blossom pulsed with light… Faun actually felt it, an aura she couldn’t identify, but which made the fur rise on the back of her neck.
“Yes,” said Seker, nodding. There was deep satisfaction in his voice. “This is exactly what I need. I may not be able to tap its full power, but it will be more than sufficient for my purposes.”
“Huh? You can’t use it all? Why not?”
A low, rumbling chuckle. “This flower is almost pure creation magic, which I cannot harness… for a number of reasons. I can rechannel its energy, but only a proper silver mage could draw out its full strength.” His head tilted again as he peered closer at it. “Even if I were able to do so… I am not the bearer it has chosen. It attempts to resist me.”
“Wait, it chose Hanami? It’s just a flower, how could it-” Her voice trailed off as her eyes grew wide as saucers. When she stole it less than an hour ago, she was positive that the flower’s stem was smooth… now, it had sprouted a number of wicked thorns with blood-red, oozing tips. “Um.”
Unbothered, the jackal closed his hand around it. “Thank you, Faun Muranaka. Once my work is complete, I shall honor my promise as you honored yours. I shall grant you the greatest treasure this world has to offer, and more besides.”
That put any concerns about whatever it was doing out of Faun’s mind. With that much, she could buy Hanami a hundred magic flowers… and an apology, hopefully. “Lead the way. What kind of work did you have in mind?”
For a few moments, Seker held so still that he once more resembled a gold and onyx statue. “This forest… Tasakeru, you called it? I sense many energies coursing through it. A strong connection tying it to the other planes…” Before he could explain what that meant, he made a sharp turn southeast and began walking in that direction. “Come, follow me. My work requires a proper location.”
Faun followed. And followed, and followed, until with a growing sense of dread, she and Seker crossed one of Lake Juniper’s many tributaries. That was the dividing line marking the more hospitable parts of Tasakeru from the dark, wild, overgrown depths… the untamed forest that still belonged to monsters, spirits, and Gods knew what else.
Trying and failing to keep from shuddering, Faun drew closer to the jackal’s back as he marched on. “L-listen… whatever it is you want to do, I’ve got to warn you about doing it around here.” She rubbed her arms as she spoke. “We ran into a lot of trouble in this place about a month back.”
“Mmhmm. Giant spiders, really unfriendly. One of them could talk. She didn’t like us.”
Seker paused, so abruptly that Faun bumped into him from behind. “Perhaps that is why…”
Another long silence as he peered into the forest’s gloom. “I sense… you could call it an opening. Somewhere, not far from here, the walls grow very thin indeed.”
“M-maybe it’s one of those gates?” Faun swallowed; her throat felt tight. “L-like the one in your place.”
“A gate?” She could almost see him raise an eyebrow under the mask. “Within my crypt?”
“Yeah, a big white shrine gate. No markings. Like this.” Faun traced the rough shape of it in the air with her fingertips. “I s-saw one here in the forest, and one down there, just before I met you.”
A long, hard, silent stare. Then, finally: “There were no such gates in my time, and no one in my crypt to build one once it was buried.”
Ice coursed through Faun’s veins…
“It does not matter,” Seker continued. “This place is good. I suggest you stand back.”
“I can’t believe her! How could Faun do this?!”
That was the sixth time in the last thirty minutes that Hanami had asked that question. He knew by now that it was meant to be rhetorical, so Rowan felt no pressing need to answer it again. The first three times he made an effort, but by the fourth, it was clear that she was capable of carrying on the conversation without his input. The badger sat at his writing desk, nursing a cup of strong chamomile and browsing a volume of ferret magical theory, while behind him Hanami paced back and forth before the front door.
The course of emotions on display over the last hour was astonishing. Rowan had seen Hanami shift from uncharacteristic vehement rage to despairing tears to sheer terror and back, in every possible combination. It was difficult to comfort someone in such a state, but on the bright side, he now had some excellent ideas for a few new psychology papers.
His honey-brown eyes wandered back to the book and the diagram of mist magic runes therein. The best treatment for emotional hysteria, in his opinion, was to let the subject vent in a safe environment until it was all out of their system and they resumed a level head. Any moment now, he surmised, the doe would calm down and be ready to address the problem with sound judgment.
There was little danger of Hanami leaving in the meantime. Doubtless her pacing would have taken her right out of his sett’s door, were it not blocked by an upended bench of dark ironwood, so heavy that only Rowan could remove it. Not to say that Hanami hadn’t tried to move it by herself; the effect was a bit like an ant trying to move Campfire Rock. One had to admire her vivacity.
This was her first time in Rowan’s sett, and in normal circumstances, she might have found it a far more calming place. Hollowed out from the side of a high, mossy hill, there were shelves lining every available wall, and on those shelves were the contents of Rowan’s library… Books of all sizes and shapes, old books, new books, thin books, thick books, bound books and books on scrolls, rolled up in cylindrical containers. Books were piled high to the point of overflow, some of them threatening to spill over onto the pine floors. There were books dedicated to every subject imaginable: historical texts, volumes of every species’ Godlore, novels and short stories, maps and atlases of the explored world, sheaves of plays and dramas, neatly folded diagrams of the various styles of armor… it looked as if Rowan was trying to outdo his beloved Ubamegashi library in Unify in terms of breadth and scope, and he was well on his way to succeeding. A person might mistake the sett for one of that library’s storage rooms, were it not for the forge in the back.
At first it seemed at odds with the rest of the sett, but the forge was where Rowan indulged his other passion in life, with just as much enthusiasm. It was the one place in his home where there were no books; they would have been in danger from the heat of the expansive ironworks nestled in the back wall. There was a fire within the chamber now, but a small one, for warmth rather than work. Sitting in front of the forge was a gnarled, timeworn anvil, pitted and scarred from many a project, but maintained carefully over the years. To either side, Rowan’s tools hung from the earthen walls: blackened tongs, work gloves, a protective facemask, a lead jar containing inactive fire spellstones, and of course, a massive hammer suitable for flattening and shaping molten ore. In lumber baskets and sconces were the results of his work… instruments and weapons of wood, iron, and steel, ranging from crude to expertly crafted. Mostly they were simple pikes, staves, armor plates, and a fishing rod or two, but here and there were more complex creations: a few daggers, an attempt or two at a longsword, and an early version of his favored morning star.
The sett’s many treasures escaped Hanami’s notice for the moment. The thought of what Faun might do with her Mage Flower was so terrifying that it pushed out everything else. “She lied to me, took advantage of my feelings and my Phase, and for what? For my Mage Flower? What if she loses it, Rowan?” The doe wring her hands and started on another circuit of the room. “Or worse, what if she sells it? I can’t just stay here and wait, I have to-”
Rowan’s eyes glanced over the top of the book again. His brows rose in alarm. “Milady, be careful of the-”
Too late. One of Hanami’s foot claws caught in a particular spot on one of the floorboards. With an awkward squeak-cry of shock, she toppled out of sight behind one of Rowan’s favorite overstuffed armchairs. THUD.
“- knothole,” Rowan sighed. Putting the book aside, he rose from his desk and crossed the room to find Hanami flat on her face behind the chair. The badger extended one large hand, his eyes soft with sympathy. “All you all right, Milady?”
Hanami took hold of his finger, sniffling and alternating between rubbing her sore nose and stretching her equally sore toe. “No.”
“Exactly,” said Rowan. “You were in such a state that you blocked out everything else. If you followed Faunelle like that, you would have far worse than an aching snout by now. Remember the words of your Hayaoh: ‘A warrior’s virtue is in keeping a burning heart and a cool head.’”
Hanami was never much for samurai stories, but she saw the point. “I know, I know, but… Faun doesn’t understand how important the Mage Flower is to me! I need it back!”
“We will retrieve it, once we are all gathered back together… minus one, of course. I have already sent word to Lady Naole’s message scroll, so Zero should see it before he leaves Unify.”
Casting a longing look at the door, Hanami fretted. “Should we scroll Drake as well? He led us to the spiders, he might be able to track-”
“A good thought, but I doubt he would comply,” said Rowan. “As you have no doubt noticed, Drake prefers his privacy, and his days as an Order scout are long behind him.”
That was enough to draw Hanami’s attention from her plight. “Drake was in the Silver Order?” she said, in awe. “I… but wait, I thought there had never been a wolf in the Order before! I’m sure I read that once…”
“There was at least one,” said Rowan. “I know little about it, and Drake only mentioned it once in passing. I imagine the experience must have been a painful one, if there is no record of it.”
For the Order to conceal the service of the only wolf in its history, “painful” had to be an understatement. Hanami had no direct experience with the Silver Order herself, but she knew plenty about it in passing… it was large and influential enough that the Grand Mistress’s decisions affected every sentient in the world, not just those in Order service. Devotees insisted that the official word of the Order was absolute truth, and even the unaffiliated considered it trustworthy at the very least. The mere concept of the Order spreading untruth, hiding the existence of someone who was surely a momentous figure, if indeed he was the first wolf in the Order… the thought was terrifying in its foreignness. “He’s…” She swallowed. “He’s been out here longer than any of us, hasn’t he? Drake, I mean. That’s what Faun said.”
The badger nodded. “Indeed. He was here when I was first exiled, twelve years ago.”
That statement almost sent Hanami to the floor again. “T… twelve years?!” She goggled at him in shock; one month of life as an Outcast was already strange beyond measure. The thought of Rowan spending what had to be almost half his life here…
Rowan actually laughed at the expression on her face, the deep sound rebounding off the walls like the beat of a drum. “There is no need to feel sorry for me, Milady. I chose exile for myself, rather than give my kind the satisfaction of forcing it upon me. A statement, if you will. When this is over, remind me to tell you the story.”
“Then that means-” The pieces came together. “That means you must have been here when Zero first arrived, right? You must know all about him…”
A heavy sigh. “Less than you would think. I know passing details, and I suspect much, but I have never thought it appropriate to pry. There are precious few people with whom Zero will share his problems.”
“Like his sister.” Now she was more curious than ever; when would she meet this Naole?
“Indeed. I am aware that Zero’s mother died shortly after Lady Naole’s birth, and that his relationship with his father is… estranged, to say the least. Beyond that, you will need to ask him yourself. What I am certain of is this: if there is one sentient whom Zero trusts completely, one in all the world he cares for and will protect above all others, it is his sister…”
In a heartbeat, Zero was on his feet, his pulse thundering in his ears, his tail on end. He crossed the small room in one bound and lifted his little sister from the floor, careful to keep her head level. The forgotten saucer lay in two pieces next to her. “Dammit, imouto, speak to me!”
A dry, tired chuckle. Her arms encircled his waist… they felt so thin, so small and weak… “First fainting spell I’ve had in seven weeks,” she said in a throaty whisper. “I should’ve known… it couldn’t last forever…”
Zero squeezed his eyes shut and held her close. This was an all too common occurrence. The first time it happened was still fresh and vivid in his mind, when he was just a kit and she had barely started walking… They were playing outside on a fine summer afternoon when her eyes rolled backward and she toppled over in the grass, not screaming or crying like she normally did when she fell, she just lay there, deathly quiet and unresponsive…
It was an inherited condition, the healers explained hours later. Chronic anemia… thin blood. No cure, nothing to be done about it except to keep close watch over her, make sure she ate right, and avoid stress and overexertion. Even when following those directions to the letter, she was prone to dizziness, fainting spells… or worse.
From then onward, keeping Naole safe and healthy became Zero’s first and foremost duty. He still heard the words the healers told him that night: “Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t make Naole sick, this is something she was born with. You did the right thing, you did everything you could.” Mange to that; he was the one who took her outside, he was the one who sat there frozen in terror while the healers took her away to the medical cart on a stretcher, her body just a tiny shape under white linen sheets that were far too big for her… Though he knew he was being stupid and stubborn, part of him still refused to believe that her illness wasn’t somehow his fault…
It was as if she could see his thoughts written on his face. “Oi,” she said, a bit stronger. Her fingertips came together and pinched him hard through his jacket. “I know that look. Don’t you dare start feeling sorry for me… or for yourself. You know I hate that.”
“Easy for you to say, stupid.” There was bitterness in his smile… not directed at her, of course. Never at her. “I’m the one who has to catch you all the time. Think about what you’re doing to my poor back.” He stooped to pick up one of the halves of the saucer.
“Leave it,” said Naole, waving a hand in its general direction. “I’ll get it later.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re sure you’re positive?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Start that stupid joke again and I’ll pinch you harder.”
“Now I know you’re feeling better.” Zero chuckled. “Here, let’s get you to bed before you break something else.”
“Ha ha. As if you’re one to talk.” There was that mischievous grin of hers. “Who broke Papa’s favorite heirloom vase when he was pretending to fight off a horde of evil shinobi with a stick? What was it you told him? ‘They were throwing shuriken, Pa!’”
His ears flattened as he cringed. “Casualty of war.” Gods, she was incredible at recalling the most embarrassing moments of his life quick as a wink. Just like a little sister. Maybe it would be better to keep her from meeting Hanami for as long as possible.
Zero pulled out of his reverie in a hurry. “What is it? Do you feel like standing?”
“No,” she said, her voice catching in her throat. “Look.”
Following her eyes, Zero looked down and saw the halves of the porcelain saucer. It took him a moment to see what was wrong. They were moving, no, slowly vibrating themselves across the rough wooden surface. “What the hell-”
A tremor shook the floor… and the walls, and the ceiling, and the Takaishi siblings along with it. Cutlery and dishes rattled in their cupboards, the shades drawn over the windows clacked against the walls, the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling swayed back and forth, and from the rear of the shack, Zero heard the sound of what was probably a mirror breaking.
“Aniki!” Naole’s fingers clutched at his robes as she huddled to his chest. “What’s happening? Is it an earthquake?”
“Keep your head down!” The tremor became a rumble, then a roar as Zero bounded across the room to the doorframe leading to Naole’s bedroom. If the shack came down, that would be the safest place… he hoped. “It’s going to be all right,” he said, drawing her as close as possible, his tail wrapping around them in a useless attempt to shield them both. There was an alarming creak from the roof, and clay dust rained down on them…
And then, as suddenly as it began, the tremors stopped and all was quiet.
In his arms, Naole sneezed and shook some of the dust from her fur. “Gods, what on earth was that?”
Zero held still. If there were aftershocks coming, it wasn’t safe to move yet. “I don’t know. Once we’re sure it’s over, I’ll see if I can get a look.”
Aedis Centralis was in full-on crisis mode. Mere minutes after the quake, frantic messages poured in on the scrolls from all corners of the world… the tranquility of the evening ceremonies had broken into a full-on storm of activity. In the eye of that storm was Lady Lily, an ocean of calm, striding through as the sistren and brethren on the scrolls all gave their reports.
“Reports of severe fractures from buildings in Tachi-cho, Kyon-cho, and Viridia Arborum, Mistress! Few casualties, but we’re still waiting on reports from the other districts and outlying areas-”
“Dispatch healers and knights as needed, Brother Beryl,” said Lily to the hobferret that had just rushed to her side. “See to it that they are well stocked with salves and bandages.”
One of the knights’ squad captains stepped forward to replace Beryl. The captain, a fox who had made the odd decision to dye his dark hair with lime green stripes, snapped into a salute. “Mistress,” said the captain, “Squad 87 just got word. They felt tremors as far away as the fishing villages on the western shore. Most of them have reported no serious damage.”
“Good to hear. Thank you, Captain Stockwell.” Lily nodded and raised her hand to wave him away.
“Milady,” Stockwell continued in a softer tone, “we still haven’t heard from Manolin, the village where I grew up. If I may-”
“Say no more.” Lily’s smile grew warm as summer sunlight. “Captain, you are hereby ordered to dispatch to Manolin by boltpath. Go well.”
“Aye, Milady! Thank you!” Stockwell failed to suppress a relieved grin as he saluted once more, and then took off for the spellstone depository, his white-tipped tail disappearing around the edge of the door frame.
The next to approach and report was Nadeshiko. Lily felt a stirring of surprise; normally, she would be the first to leap into any situation. There was a glimmer of cold triumph in her eyes. “Mistress,” she said, following speech protocol to the letter in front of the ranks, as usual. “I have word from the watchers stationed on the Shinju’s branches. They have spotted what they believe to be the source of the quake.”
Lily raised a cool eyebrow. “And, Vice-Mistress? What have they found?”
Nadeshiko pressed a scroll into her hands. It was still warm, its edges steamed. A barely noticeable quiver of repressed excitement trembled in her words. “See for yourself.”
Curiouser and curiouser. Lily unwound the scroll from its spool… she could tell by the warmth and steam that it was a flash scroll, the product of a skilled lightning mage who could use magic to capture images on parchment in an instant, preserving them in perfect detail. Of course, such scrolls were fragile and had to be produced and handled with utmost care, lest the entire scroll be reduced to ash.
Burnt into the parchment, the scroll depicted a distant sea of trees on the horizon… and from within those trees, a vertical line of solid black reached far above even the tallest branches, standing out against the dark of the night sky. For it to be visible from the center of Unify, it had to be enormous, a hundred meters high at least.
“A tower.” Nadeshiko’s voice broke as her famed composure faltered, cracking under the force of her pride and her suspicions confirmed at last. “A tower, somewhere in Tasakeru. Someone in that forest raised it in seconds.”
The elder floris’s hands clenched the flash scroll tight. Her expression was unreadable. When Lily finally spoke, there was steel in her tone once more, steel that raised the fur of everyone who heard her. “Iris,” she said to her attendant without looking, “prepare my armor. Vice-Mistress, you are to assemble three of your best squads for an expedition to Tasakeru. We depart within the hour.”
END OF CHAPTER 4