TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5

A green tea meeting

Revelations and reveals

The tears of autumn

 

“When at last the bathing maiden saw Hayaoh on the shore, she did not move. When her eyes met his, he saw in her surprise, confusion, indecision… but not fear. Not a trace of fear.

“For what seemed hours, Hayaoh and the maiden in the lake gazed at one another. Neither moved, neither spoke. The moment between them hung suspended in time, growing more fragile and more priceless with every passing second, and neither could bear to be the first to break it.

“What Hayaoh did next would have horrified any who knew of him. The mighty, merciless samurai, known by all and feared by many, threw himself before her, head upon the ground. It was an old gesture, one of absolute supplication to another. Young students prostrated themselves when begging to learn from those who would be their masters. Unfaithful lovers prostrated before their mates to plead forgiveness. For a samurai such as Hayaoh, a warrior with no equal, the bow of supplication would have been seen as disgraceful to himself…

“The maiden only smiled. Slowly she waded to the shore, and spoke her first words to him: ‘O warrior, bow not your head so low, for you have done no wrong to me or mine.’

‘Milady,’ said Hayaoh, who did not move. ‘Please, absolve me of my shame! I dare not look upon such loveliness! I am not worthy of your company… A spirit you must be, from firmament or realms beyond this vicious mortal world, for I have never seen such radiance.’

‘A touch upon his chin, warm and feather-light, lifting his eyes to her face. ‘O warrior,’ she said, soft laughter in her voice, ‘I come not from beyond. I am as much of flesh and blood as you. Turn not away, for sacred is this night. Our meeting is a sign from Gods above…’”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

This was it, Hanami knew. It was more than the directions that Faun gave her, more than the familiar tang of oiled steel and old leather than hung in the air about the little cabin. There was a feeling in her heart, a warmth apart from that of the plum wine in her belly… A safe warmth, a blessed warmth. She knew, with no doubt at all, that this was where Zero lived.

It was not a particularly well-built cabin, nor was it pleasing to the eye. In fact, most would call it downright ugly. Resting against an ancient oak that served as its back wall, built out of a few dozen old logs cemented together with mud, it was apparent that the whole structure tilted slightly to one side; she noticed that even through her wine-fueled haze. Many of the logs bore deep nicks and divots, the kind that might be made by one chopping them with an old sword without much idea of what they were doing. It had clearly stood here for a while, judging by the thin carpet of moss growing up the walls. The roof was clay mud, clumsily thatched with threadbare straw. A few paces from the front door, there lay a pile of stones in an odd arrangement that she could not identify. It stood about a meter and a half tall, a little like an altar… a closer look confirmed that the stone on the top bore hundreds of scratches on its surface. About two meters away from that, there was something pinned to another tree by a heavy iron nail… now that she recognized. It was a straw doll in a roughly sentient shape, with many stray strands leaking out of its head and chest. A training dummy, and a well-used one. For some reason, she found it charming.

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 4

Chapter 4

Bonding among friends

Sweet and sour umeshu

As a parting gift

 

“There before him stood a vision from a dream, rising bare from the waters of the moonlit lake, her hair silver as the stars, her eyes dark as ink but warm as sunlight, a doe of such extraordinary beauty that Hayaoh feared his heart might stop at the sight of her. Around them, the forest grew quiet and still.

“Hayaoh could scarcely think. Some part of him knew that he must have interrupted the lady as she bathed. It was only polite to avert his gaze, apologize to her, and be on his way. And yet… try as he might, the words would not come. The mighty samurai who had shown no fear in battle after battle, war after war, was struck dumb by the thought that at any moment, she might flee and he would never see her again. Surely that would be a fate crueler than any death…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

Slowly, slowly. Faun fought to keep her breathing even as she positioned two chipped vials over a dented tin funnel, the narrow end poised over two empty halves of a bombshell, resting on a workbench hewn from an oak stump. An embroidered handkerchief, pickpocketed from a raccoon noble years before, was tied securely over her muzzle and snout. Faun didn’t often exercise caution like this when it came to making her bombs; she was no bookhead like Rowan, but generally she knew how various substances reacted to combinations of flint, gunpowder, and spellstones. When she didn’t know how they would react… well, half the fun was in experimenting. The risk made the end result worthwhile.

This mixture, however, was a bold new frontier in the development of her signature weapons. Bold and potentially painful, if she misjudged the balance of the ingredients. Get this wrong, and it would likely mean imposing on Hanami for a week or two while her own home aired out. If at all possible, that was to be avoided. The poor girl had enough to worry about, especially in the last few weeks. She couldn’t—

Faun scowled to herself and bit her tongue. No distractions. This mixture had to be perfect. Little by little, she tipped the two vials over. No distractions. No distractions…

Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh, pinch me!” Her ears flattened. Of course. Of course. She corked both vials and laid them down—carefully—beside the funnel, ripped off the handkerchief, and stormed to her front door. Whoever it was had best thank their lucky Godsdamned stars that she wasn’t currently looking for test subjects for the new bombs, she thought. Throwing the door open, she prepared to give the visitor a piece of her mind.

“S-sorry, is this a bad time? I’m sorry…” said Hanami, shrinking back from her friend’s fearsome expression.

Faun’s mood shifted like someone had flipped a switch. “Flowers, what a surprise! No, it’s not a bad time at all!” she said, beaming from ear to pointed ear. She visited Hanami far more often than Hanami visited her, so this was a rare pleasure indeed. “Come in, come in! Sorry about the mess.”

“A-are you sure I’m not intruding? I could come back later—”

“Pffft, don’t be stupid,” said Faun, putting an arm around her and pulling her through the threshold. “I wasn’t doing anything, just mixing stuff for a new bomb. Watch your step.”

It was sound advice. Somehow, impossibly, the vixen’s den seemed even more disorganized than the last time Hanami had seen it. The empty bottles littering the floor appeared to be multiplying at an exponential rate. Crumpled papers and various wrappings crinkled underfoot as Faun swatted portions of the morass aside to clear a space for her friend to sit. The pumice boulder was still there, but Faun now had it mounted to a display pedestal for Gods only knew what reason. A few of the ceiling-mounted nets holding stashes of her hoard looked ready to collapse from the weight of the mingled treasures and trash that Faun stuffed into them.

Hanami’s mouth fell open as she caught sight of a familiar watercolor painting emblazoned on a canvas scroll, stretched out between a meter-tall mound of dull, ordinary pebbles and what appeared to be part of an iron sewer grating. “F… Faun, is that Lord Aspen’s Night Elegy?! How—”

“What, that thing?” She barely gave it a second glance. “I guess so. I snagged it from a fence, this raccoon lady out in the far east shore. I know, it clashes with the rest, doesn’t it. Sit down, sit down!” From somewhere in the hoard she produced a battered straw mat and spread it out over the largest patch of clear floor she could find. “There you go! So,” she said, sinking to eye level, “what’s the occasion? Are you—”

Faun stopped as she took a closer look. Hanami had made an impressive attempt to hide it, but her cheek fur was still damp from a recent washing. Most folk would not give her appearance a second thought. Faun was not most folk… she noticed the swelling and lingering redness of her friend’s eyes, the fine creases gathering beneath her eyelids. “Flowers?” she said, her voice low. “What’s wrong?”

“N-nothing!” Hanami waved with one hand and scrubbed at her face again with the other. “The u-usual trouble sleeping…”

“Hanami,” she said, wrinkling her snout. Insomnia she expected, especially after the ordeal with the Soulsnatcher, but this smacked of a deeper problem. “If there’s anything you need to talk about, you know you can open up, right? I’ll listen, I swear.”

“I know. Th-that’s why I… I actually wondered i-if you’d like to drink together.”

Whatever Faun was expecting, that was not it. She goggled, wondering if she was hearing correctly. “Beg pardon?”

“Would you like to drink together?” said Hanami with a bashful smile. “With me? I… I can’t have anything really strong, but—” Squeak. The rest of her sentence was cut off as Faun threw her arms around her, drawing her in close and hugging her tight.

“Flowers,” said Faun, radiantly happy, her concern melted away by joy. “I honestly thought you’d never ask.” Her tail swished back and forth like a high-speed metronome. “Of course, of course I’ll drink with you! Anytime, anywhere! Gods, Flowers, but let me know sooner, I gotta get ready! I think I have at least one unopened bottle of umeshu around here…”

 


 

“— and that’s why foxes never core the pumpkin. Get what I’m saying?”

“Mmm-hmm,” said Hanami, taking another ginger sip from her cup of umeshu, the bottle still two-thirds full. The plum wine’s taste was a pleasant, citrusy mix of sweet and sour, cold on her tongue but warm in her belly, and it tasted nothing like the few drinks she had indulged herself in before. Its effects were soothing, a calm, balmy haze settling over her brain and making the world seem softer, less urgent. Something like this could change her mind about drinking… she only regretted not trying it sooner.

By contrast Faun was a professional. Already on her fourth Dead God Firewater and pulling it straight from the bottle, she waved the stuff at Hanami, sloshing a bit of fizzing cadmium-red brew over the lip. It dripped between the vixen’s gloved fingers and spilled to the floor, where it ate a few new marks in the soft pine floorboards. “Not because we’re picky. Because we’re smart,” she said, nodding to herself. “It’s just common… common sense.”

Hanami was not sure which confused her more: Faun’s rant, her lack of knowledge of botany, or literally any of the meaning of such a phrase. She was not sure it had meaning… but the company was even more enjoyable than the drink, so she smiled and nodded. Now she knew why Faun was so popular at the Fools Rush. The conversation over past two hours had been illuminating indeed.

“Like,” Faun continued, “if you wanted to core it, Gods know I’d never stop you. Core the shedding hell out of it if you want, go crazy. Foxes, though? We just don’t. Not worth the trouble, or the mess.”

“Mmm-hmm,” said Hanami again. “Pumpkins are tough like that. I don’t grow them often.”

Faun rolled an eye at her, halfway through another long swallow. “No, no, you don’t get it. The pumpkin’s a… whatsitcalled… mange, can’t think of the name. A thing that’s not really another thing, but it’s supposed to be. Stripes would know, damn his useless hide… He’s the best, a credit to his kind.”

“You mean…” Hanami scrunched up her features, trying to penetrate the haze. “A metaphor?”

“What’s a metaphor?”

She could no more help herself than stop the tide. A giggle slipped from her mouth before she could articulate the answer. “I-it’s for sheep and goats to graze in.”

Silence. Faun stared, the bottle paused halfway to her lips.

“Meadow… for?” said Hanami, trying again.

The vixen howled with laughter, spilling more of her drink. “Hot damn, she tells jokes! No wonder I love you!”

Now it was safe to laugh along with her. “I love you too, Faun. You’re my best friend.”

Faun groped for her shoulder with her free hand, missing by half a meter. “No, Flowers, I mean I love you. I’m nuts about you. Hee, nuts. Because you’re a squirrel.”

“Th-that’s nice of you to say,” said Hanami, her smile faltering a bit. “But I-I don’t really think it’s what you mean.”

“Whaddya mean, what I mean? I always say what I mean, unless I’m lying. It’s one of my good points.”

“I know.” Seeing her trouble, Hanami leaned forward and patted Faun’s shoulder instead. “It’s one of the things I love about you.”

“Aw, mange to that.” A goofy, bittersweet grin spread across her face. “Sh-shouldn’t waste your time on a mess like me, Flowers. We both know who… who your heart’s set on.”

The warmth of the wine spread out from her belly, filling her being. “He’s…” she said, her ears turning back. “He’s better than he thinks he is. Better than I deserve. That’s part of why I’m here… because I need to tell him.”

Faun stared, glassy-eyed. “You’re not serious.”

Hanami’s ears turned back as she turned away from her friend’s gaze.

“Good Gods,” Faun whispered. “You are serious. You’re really gonna—”

“Yes,” said Hanami. “Today. I have to at least try, so he’ll know. Before it’s too late.”

“Pffft!” Faun blew air through her lips. “Listen, Flowers, if some part of him doesn’t already know, he’s denser than lead. Takky’s thick, but he’s not that thick. Still…” A mischievous wink. “Can’t hurt to give him a little push, can it? Can’t hurt.”

“You’re right.” Her hands dithered in her lap. “I think it would be… nice.”

“More than ‘nice,’ kitto. You’re both adorable, you deserve each other.”

“I don’t—” Hanami stopped as a thought meandered through the haze of the wine. Perhaps it would be wiser not to trouble Faun with the rest of that sentence. Let her be happy, drunk and unburdened by any problems. Yes, it was better that way. “Never mind,” she said. “Thank you, Faun. For the drinks, and for the talk.”

Firewater sloshed from the bottle’s lip as Faun raised it in a cheerful, unsteady salute. “Anytime, kitto! Go get ‘im. I’m rooting for you. And be sure to tell me after how it—”

For once, it was Faun who was silenced by unexpected contact as Hanami hugged her tight. After a few seconds of sodden confusion, Faun returned the embrace, her ears swiveling back a few degrees. “Oi,” she said. “What’s all this?”

Hanami’s answer was hushed, barely more than a whisper: “I should not be here.”

It took Faun half a minute to decide what that meant. Extracting herself from the hug, she shoved Hanami toward the door. “Damn straight you shouldn’t! Go to him, kitto! Make your move!”

“I’m going, I’m going!” Hanami broke into another fit of giggles despite herself.

“You know where his house is, right? Little cabin just southeast of Campfire Rock? I’d draw you a map, but… room’s spinning, you know. I’m all turned around. Can’t find my own tail.” To illustrate the point, Faun looked down at herself and turned in a complete, if wobbly circle. “Wait. There it is.”

“Faun…” Concern for her friend briefly overtook Hanami’s thoughts. “Will you be all right? Maybe you should lie down…”

“Dijo, dijo. I’m telling you, this is normal. It’s just starting to kick in. Get out of here, Flowers, I’ll be fine by morning.”

Still Hanami lingered on the doorstep, chewing on her bottom lip. There were still so many things left unsaid, and to leave Faun in this state…

The tiny voice in her mind quieted her doubts. I should not be here. I should go to Zero…

That was that, then. Hanami smiled, bowed, and stepped past the threshold. “Goodbye, Faun. Thank you.”

 


 

Once the door clicked shut, Faun sagged against it, full and warm and satisfied with a job well done. It was unhealthy for people to suppress their feelings for each other like that, she thought. Especially when they were so obviously smitten with each other…

A pang went off in her heart, one she could feel even through the fog of the Firewater coursing through her. It was an odd feeling, a melancholy feeling she could not quite identify. She did not like it, not at all. Better to push it down and forget about it. Fortunately, Firewater was quite handy for forgetting things. Just like that, it was gone.

Sighing, Faun slid down the surface of the door, deliriously happy once more. It was not long before she began to snore.

In her drunken slumber, she failed to hear the repeated chimes from her message scroll half an hour later, which lay open on a battered footstool somewhere in the horde. Magical ink flowed across the scroll’s surface, scrawling the same words over and over:

From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent.

 

END OF CHAPTER 4

 

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 3

Chapter 3

Tenets and edicts

Worrisome developments

Autumn ponderings

 

“Hayaoh’s wanderings took him to the great forest of demons in the east, where few dared tread. He was not afraid; all the warriors of the mortal world had offered him no challenge, so why should he fear demons?

“By then, his legend had spread even to the land of spirits. Ghost, phantom, specter, and wraith alike fled at the sight of him. The very trees gave way, shuddering as they drew in their roots to form a path for him to walk. Hours passed, and as the day turned swiftly into night, Hayaoh grew weary with thirst. Coming across a mighty river, he followed the river to its source, a placid lake in a basin of granite, encircled by ancient oaks. The great samurai came to a halt and knelt at the water’s edge, removing his helmet to drink…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

“I hate this.”

It was a phrase that Sister Camilla Quarta Viviana had already heard many times that day. The jillrabbit sighed as she adjusted the fabric. “I know, Milady. Just a moment, I’m almost finished. If you could raise your arms, please?”

Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus scowled at the arched marble ceiling of her dressing chamber as if daring it to argue. With great reluctance, she did as she was asked, holding her arms out to her sides.

“Thank you,” said Camilla as she fastened each of the straps of Nadeshiko’s ceremonial stola. When finished, she let the pristine white linen drop, and it draped itself around the floris in a pleasing fashion. Pleasing to other people, not to Nadeshiko herself.

“I do not know how my mother tolerates this,” said Nadeshiko, picking at the linen between thumb and forefinger. She ached to be out of the accursed garment as quickly as possible. “For someone of her stature, appearing in public without armor or weapons is horrendously unsafe… any lunatic could attempt to assassinate her.”

“That’s why your knights will be with you, Milady.”

“Fie on my knights.” A less mannered sentient would have spit in disgust for emphasis. “I, at least, do not need protection.”

Camilla bit back a chuckle. “I’m sure you don’t, Milady, but it’s a formality.”

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 2

Speaking without words

A night of laughter and fear

Divine punishment

“Many a lonely year passed as Hayaoh wandered the world with only his sword for company. His heart of stone was hard and cold and heavy within his chest for so long that he grew to used to its burden; its weight became as much a part of him as his breath, as his soul. Young and hopeful bucks often dared themselves to cross his path as tales of him spread, hoping to challenge and defeat the samurai of legend. These he slew, one and all, and the countless faces of those that he cut down ran together in his mind like spilled paint, becoming indistinguishable from one another…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

 

“All right,” said Naole. The doe’s bush-like tail twitched back and forth, and her hazel eyes shone with anticipation. “One more time.” She pointed to herself.

Less than a second went by before the hybrid’s large hands and long, spindly fingers began to move. <Na-o-re.> His gestures were delivered with impressive skill and accuracy… save for that last syllable, which was the closest equivalent. Rendering her name in Old Standard had always been a tricky prospect.

“Good. And her?” Naole indicated their new companion, who sat tending the fire as she watched. The flames made contrasting patterns of shadow in her deep blue fur, and danced in the cloudy grey of her eyes.

<A-ri-a!> he signed.

“Good! What about you?”

Beaming, he pointed at himself and signed: <Re-gi-o-n!>

“Perfect!” Naole pounced and seized Legion in a hug, unable to restrain herself. She felt his fur bristle, and wondered if she had startled him… but then his long arms wrapped around her in return, and she laughed, delighted to hear the wheezing barks that meant Legion was laughing along with her.

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TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 1

BOOK IV: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING

Chapter 1

As dusk is falling

Dreams are dark and filled with dread

Debts must be repaid

“Long, long ago, when the world was wild, there lived a samurai of great renown. Some called him the Shogun reborn, others called him a demon in mortal flesh, but all lands knew his name: Hayaoh! His eyes were steel, his heart a stone, his sword an eternal razor edge that cut through the wicked as easily as air. Few approached Hayaoh and lived to tell the tale, for he was known to be as merciless in wrath as he was in resting. Like the wind, he seldom stayed in one place for long, wandering the hills and valleys in search of his next battle and his next worthy opponent…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]

At twilight, she wanders through a darkened forest, naked and afraid. When the hour slips between day and night, the ancient woods are cast in an eerie glow of dying orange light that chills her to the bone, for reasons she cannot understand. Nothing is familiar; even her body feels like that of a stranger. This hair, this fur, this tail, all wrong… she feels a powerful urge to tear at herself, at the flesh that slowly suffocates her like a living, breathing prison.

I should not be here. The thought trails behind her as part of her shadow, whispering to her the same words every time: I should not be here. No matter how she tries to shut it out, the thought oozes into her ears and sinks into her skull all the same.

Faces loom ahead out of semi-darkness. Awash with belief, she runs for her friends, calling out their names, desperate to escape the whispers and the night she knows is coming, closer and closer with each passing second, inexorable, unstoppable. They are her everything, they can shield her from the dark before it falls.

The first is a huge but gentle presence, forever on hand with wisdom and understanding, safe and comforting as the fires of a hearth. He smells of iron and embers, of ink, paper, and leather bindings.

The second is a bright light and a mischievous smile, sharp and daring, often teasing but always well-meaning, a source of laughter even in troubled times, always an adventure waiting to happen.

And the third… the third is dark and mysterious, but she feels for him as she does for no one else. He is her rock. A noble heart for one so troubled, one who faces pain and overcomes it in ways she knows she never can.

She calls their names, but there is no sound from her lips. No matter how she tries to shout for them, they cannot hear. In desperation, she throws out her hand. The flower she wears behind her ear twitches… Thorned vines creep down her neck and shoulder and snake around her arm, coiling tight. The thorns break her skin and draw blood… and the vines sail out through space and plunge themselves into the hearts of her three beloved friends.

Her blood turns to ice. She screams, but there is no sound.

Their chests burst in crimson fountains. Their eyes grow wide with shock and betrayal as they frost over like clouded glass. She can only watch them wither as the life drains from them, bit by bit. It seems to take years before they fall the forest floor… when they do, they strike the loam with impacts that sound like distant thunder.

It’s my fault. In the ringing silence that follows, she knows with absolute certainty that that thought comes not from the shadow… it is her own.

It’s my fault. I hurt them, just like I hurt everyone. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead. They’re dead, because of me…

I should not be here.

The thorns dig deeper into her flesh, and as she howls soundlessly in the twilight, they spread their poisoned roots through her every vein, growing, growing, unstoppable. Her nerves burn like the sun as a thousand thorns erupt from inside her flesh, tearing her apart—

Hanami sat bolt upright in her bed, every inch of her fur standing upright and her heart pounding a drumbeat in her breast. The last, fatal scream of her nightmare was still upon her lips. Heaving for breath in the darkness of her bedroom, she clutched herself tight, expecting to feel the prickling, burning sensation of the thorns erupting at any moment. Another dream. Another horrible dream. This was the fourth time in a week. And yet again, the thought chased her from the realm of sleep and lingered in the back of her mind:

I should not be here.

 


 

“Takky,” said Faun Muranaka in a hushed tone that was quite unusual for her, “this is insane.”

“It’s a debt,” said Zero Takaishi. One did not need to look at the buck’s bloodshot eyes to see the great weariness that clung to him like clouds. It was all there in his words, low and leaden with sorrow. “Debts need to be repaid.”

Faun’s gloved knuckles rapped gently against his skull. “You get us caught by the tin cans while you’re half-asleep, see if they care about your debt. We should come back when you’re not dead on your feet.”

“No.” Zero shook his head. “We’ve come this far. It’ll be one less thing to worry about.”

They crouched together behind an immaculately trimmed hydrangea shrub in the eastern courtyard of Aedis Centralis, the holiest temple of the Silver Order. Located at the heart of Unify, Aedis Centralis was a sprawling, majestic structure, resplendent with white marble and alabaster columns, spotless walls free of the accumulated grime of the rest of the central city, and clean-scrubbed ebony floors polished to an almost mirror-like sheen.

At least, that was how it was supposed to be. Three weeks after the Soulsnatcher’s terrible rampage through their most sacred grounds, the Order sistren and brethren still struggled to restore Aedis Centralis to its former pristine glory. It was an expensive and laborious process; scores of those beautiful ebony floorboards had to be torn up and replaced, for they were soiled by the blood of the three dozen that the Soulsnatcher murdered on that night. The Order’s edict for their temples demanded that any surface touched by unjustly spilled blood was forever desecrated and must be disposed of with fire. Squirrel temples had similar edicts, but the sight of piles and piles of floorboards stacked up to be burned on the way inside struck Zero as an awful waste.

A waste. That was what the last three weeks had been for him in most part. Though he searched day and night throughout all of Tasakeru for any sign of Naole, there was not so much as a brick-red hair. His little sister was nowhere to be found. If she was even still alive, she was out there somewhere… cold and alone in a hostile forest that even he, a resident of nine years, could barely survive sometimes. Hopelessness crept up on Zero like some insidious disease; it was only his unflagging determination (or stubbornness) that kept him going.

The trip to Unify to repay his debt was a diversion as much as anything. It was a way to keep himself going, to relieve himself of at least one burden. Faun insisted on coming along, telling him repeatedly that his constant worry and lack of sleep would lead to his getting caught without her help.

At last, after twenty minutes, the Order knights assigned to patrol the grounds left their routes to change shifts. Seizing the opportunity, Zero and Faun dashed across the lawn and pressed themselves against the temple’s eastern wall as if trying to melt into it. They were blocked from view for the most part by rows of flowering hedges, but both knew that it was best to never underestimate an Order knight.

“I think it’s this side,” muttered Zero to Faun. “From what I remember, Naole usually worked here, in the East Wing infirmary.”

Faun blew air through her lips, causing her auburn bangs to flutter with the draft. “You really think Little Lady Sunshine would be convalescing with the rest of the mortals? Takky, you are crazy. She’s probably got a private wing of her own, and a silver-gilded chamber pot or something.”

Zero blanched. “I really needed that image, Faun, thank you. Honestly, she’s not nearly as haughty and stuffed-up as you think she is. She gave me the dagger of her own free will, when she had no reason to. Against Lady Lily’s wishes, even.”

“I still don’t like her. People that rich make my fur stand up.”

“You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to,” said Zero. “All I need you to do is stand guard.”

“Fine, fine.” The vixen waved a hand. “Just get it over with so we can go back home and you can get some sleep.”

From inside there came a war cry, muffled by the thick marble walls but still sharp. It was shortly followed by another, and another, in a regular sequence with precise timing.

“That’s her,” said Zero, inching along the wall. “Keep watch, and swish your tail if you see anything.”

“Will do.”

Moving carefully, Zero stood to his full height and peered into the infirmary’s window. He could not help but grin and shake his head at what he saw inside.

Truly, only Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, Vice-Mistress and Field Commander of the Silver Order, would practice her swordplay in her infirmary room instead of getting the rest prescribed by her healers. A savage bite wound to the shoulder? To her, that was an annoyance at best. The healers would not allow the young skunk to wear her full armor while she practiced, of course, but Gods help anyone who tried to take her greatsword away from her. Zero watched her run through her form with some admiration, thrusting and weaving the massive silver-edged slab like a weapon a quarter of its size. Her piercing green eyes were set, her breathing even, her striped tail with its single wide white bar held high like a banner. It amused Zero to see that even when under the healers’ care, Nadeshiko took pains to not let a single platinum blonde hair escape from her braid. If it were not for the infirmary gown that Zero was quite sure she was being forced to wear, one might think she had never been injured at all.

That impression lasted until one high swing pulled a muscle in her bad shoulder the wrong way. Nadeshiko’s face twisted, and the greatsword fell from her grasp and clanged against the floor as she clutched the bandages on her shoulder. Something that was close to an obscenity formed on her lips, but with the effort of a lifetime of noble upbringing, she suppressed it.

As good a moment to interrupt as ever, Zero supposed. He knocked on the window pane.

Nadeshiko’s ears perked. Pain or no pain, she scooped up the greatsword and rushed to the window, holding it in a defensive stance. “Who’s there? Show yourself, coward!”

Zero tilted the pane inward. “Easy, Milady. It’s me, Takaishi.”

“Ta…” In a moment of genuine surprise, Nadeshiko’s bearing slipped. “Takaishi…? What in the Goddess’s name possessed you to come here? Need I remind you that you are forbidden from setting foot in—”

“I’m well aware.” Carefully, Zero slid the silver dagger through the window. “I’m returning this.”

It took a moment for Nadeshiko to register what she was seeing. It was her family’s blessed silver dagger, the one she gave to Takaishi three weeks ago as she lay wounded. The weapon bore a few scarce spots of blood that had not been there before, but someone had made an impressive effort to clean it. “You… you came all this way to…” She took the dagger and held it to her breast as if cradling a child. “Then… you did it?”

Zero nodded grimly. “Stalker’s dead. The dagger helped. Thank you.”

Conflicting feelings swam inside Nadeshiko. In truth, she never expected to see Takaishi or the dagger again… giving it to him was an uncharacteristic act of optimism on her part. Yet here he was, victorious, having braved arrest once again to return her family’s heirloom. A small part of her was touched. “I…” Her face grew warm, and her ears swiveled back. “I thank you, Takaishi, and I commend you for slaying that beast.”

“It was my pleasure.” Zero’s voice turned cold and hard as the marble wall he leaned on.

Nadeshiko inched closer to the window. Now she saw the redness in the squirrel’s eyes, and she knew that all was not well. “Your sibling, Sister Naole. Did you—”

Zero cringed as if struck. “No. I’m still looking for her. Stalker wouldn’t tell me where she was, what he did with her… or if she’s even still alive. I’ve searched everywhere, but…” His sentence trailed off.

She understood. Three weeks lost in Tasakeru with little food and little fresh water. The odds were not in Sister Naole’s favor. To her astonishment, Nadeshiko found herself hurting for Takaishi. Family was sacred to her kind, and he had been arrested dozens of times trying to care for his sister in her infirmity. She should know; many of those times she had arrested him and thrown him in prison herself. After checking to ensure no one was watching, Nadeshiko crouched down lower to the window and whispered, “I apologize, Takaishi. I truly hope you find her.”

“Not to put a damper on things,” said another voice, “but can you two hurry?”

All of Nadeshiko’s sympathy evaporated like morning dew, and her tail fur stood up until it resembled a bottlebrush. “You—” she sputtered. “You brought that guttersnipe with you?!”

“And good morning to you too, Milady,” said Faun, with a hard point on that last word. “Come on, Takky, finish up.”

Zero glanced to his right. “Do you see the knights coming back?”

“No,” said Faun. “We’re downwind, and I’ve got a sensitive nose.”

“Why you—” Nadeshiko sounded like a tea kettle as she hissed through gritted teeth, searching for an insult strong enough. “You harridan! How dare you say such foul things within my own home!”

“I’ll mock you wherever I please, thanks,” said Faun, flashing a savage grin. “Easy, Ginko. You’ll burst a blood vessel.”

Nadeshiko bristled and drew herself to her full height. “My name is Lady Nadeshiko Argenteus, daughter of the Argenteus House and—”

“And rightful bearer of the divine branch up your divine hind.” Faun made a show of yawning. “Takky, really, we should go.”

Zero rather thought they should. Faun and Nadeshiko had developed a profound mutual loathing of each other from the moment they first met, and if they stayed in each other’s vicinity any longer, things were likely to turn violent. “Right,” he said. “Milady, thanks again for the dagger, and I apologize for Faun. If I do find Naole… I’ll send her back to you as soon as I can.”

With considerable effort, Nadeshiko pushed aside her detest of the vixen to finish things properly. “S-she will be welcomed back with open arms, Takaishi. Good luck.”

There were no further words. Two shadows, one black and one orange, raced across the grounds, up the boundary wall, and out of sight. A great urge rose within Nadeshiko to call the knights to arms, if only to find and punish Muranaka for her rudeness… but then, she considered, they would catch Takaishi too. Just this once, she felt she owed him a clean escape. Debts had to be repaid.

END OF CHATPER 1

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