Pearl-Ear stood looking out a window from the mezzanine of the Daimyo’s stronghold. With a short turn of her head, she could change her view from the rich, crowded splendor within the tower and the blasted devastation without.
Towabara had changed dramatically in the twenty years since she went up into the tower to announce the princess’s birth. Then, the view from this height would have shown a horizon dotted with villages and towns, with good clear roads and vast, unbroken fields.
Now, from her window, the fox-woman could still see nearly all western Towabara, from the fortifications at the base of the tower past the skeletal villages and towns, all the way across the smoke- and mist-blanketed wasteland to the vague horizon. Campfires burned below, and sentry patrols carried lanterns out in the haze, tiny pinpricks of light struggling against a field of dismal gray.
Once, the stronghold had been the center of Konda’s vast holdings, the keystone of his kingdom. Now, the tower and its immediate grounds contained virtually all Konda’s domain. His lands had been devastated by the Kami War, his people dead, driven off, or crowded behind its walls like rabbits in a warren.
Daimyo Konda’s stronghold still soared hundreds of stories over the rest of his domain. Where it had once crowned a gleaming and vibrant society, now it was one of the few large structures still standing. The tower was begun as the young lord’s first great act as sovereign, and it had served as both fortress and palace once the outer defensive walls were complete. From this powerful seat, Konda drove the bandits out of the Araba, consolidated a dozen different local warlords under his banner, and established his nation as the greatest power in Kamigawa.
The tower’s foundation was carved into the very roots of the rocky mountain. It was called a tower because it stretched up so high, but it was broader even at its midpoint than any other castle in the kingdom. It had taken a great deal of powerful magic, thirty thousand laborers, and over a decade to complete. By the time the final spire was set in place, Towabara was a nation that deserved such a grand capitol and Konda had earned his right to rule it.
Pearl-Ear looked down at the rolling clouds of dust that roamed the ruins like a predator, then up to the sun, muted and faint behind an endless ceiling of yellow clouds. Twenty years of war had bled the entire land white, draping it in despair and pallid, sickly hues.
Far below, her sharp ears caught the sound of soldiers shouting. She peered through the haze and saw a company of warriors converging, moving, circling around an indiscriminate mass. The kami had come again, as they always did. Konda’s retainers and soldiers had gone out to beat them back, as they always did.
Inside the building, a loud brass gong sounded, calling all Konda’s top advisors to their weekly assembly. Despite the trouble inside the gates, Konda was determined to conduct affairs of state normally.
Pearl-Ear dreaded this meeting more each passing week. The bickering between diplomats was almost as painful as the tales of akki unrest and bandit raids that poured in from around the kingdom. If she were free to do as she pleased, she would have returned to her people in the forest years ago.
Lady Pearl-Ear gathered her robes and padded down the mezzanine stairs, to the great hall where the assembly took place. She was not free. She was bound by duty to her people, her position, and her beloved friends. Her greatest joy in Eiganjo was also her greatest burden-how she wished she could simply pack up the things that mattered most and go. To the forest, to the countryside, even to Numai. Anywhere but here, in the cursed kingdom of Daimyo Konda.
As Lady Pearl-Ear reached the final step, a pair of human girls approached her. The smaller of the two was dressed in a floor-length blue robe with wide white sleeves, the traditional uniform of the Minamo
Academy. The student wizard had short, straight brown hair that framed her face and accented her wide brown eyes. She was lean and ropy, with arm muscles that rippled like a soldier’s. Pearl-Ear could sense an aura of varnished wood and bowstrings on her. The Minamo trained its students as kyujutsu archers as well as mages, and that this one, Riko-ome, was at the top of her class in both. The student archer’s face and figure were both quite feminine, but compared to the young woman next to her, Pearl-Ear thought Riko seemed rather plain and boyish.
The fox-woman chided herself for unkindness. She was predisposed to think well of Princess Michiko, the Daimyo’s daughter, and it was unfair to make comparisons. Further, everyone at court agreed that Michiko was blessed of divine beauty, as breathtaking and impeccable as a dove in flight. She was tall, long-limbed, and she moved with an easy grace that was almost hypnotic. Her face was wide, open, and inquisitive. Her smile was a warm reward, her tears a bitter punishment.
“Lady Pearl-Ear!” the princess whispered excitedly. “Riko says that some important delegates from her school will attend today’s assembly.”
“Indeed they shall, Princess.” In looks, in voice, and in demeanor, Princess Michiko reminded Pearl-Ear very much of Yoshino. “I saw them arrive myself earlier this morning.”
“Do you think the scholars have brought good news?”
“That I do not know. But come now, and we shall find out together.” She bowed to Riko. “You must excuse us, Riko-ome. If you wait for us in your chambers, I will send word when the assembly has ended.”
The student returned the bow. “Thank you, Lady Pearl-Ear. I will be waiting.”
As Riko went up the stairs, Pearl-Ear took Michiko by the hand and led her down the hall.
“What have you two been studying today?” Pearl-Ear found it was easier to separate the two girls if you kept one of them talking.
“We were reading about the soratami. If I am to rule by my father’s side one day, I must learn about all the tribes of Kamigawa.” Even as Michiko answered, she craned her head to wave to her friend.
“That is an impressive task, Michiko-hime.” Pearl-Ear tugged gently, and the princess turned to face her as they walked. “The moonfolk are a mystery unto themselves. Few outside the tower have ever seen one. My own people have had cold but cordial relations with them for generations, and even we know very little about them.”
“Riko says the academy has frequent dealings with them. She thinks there may even be records in the school archives dating back a thousand years.”
“The academy’s resources are indeed vast.”
“Someday, we will go there together and research the soratami properly.”
“You and I, Princess? Or you and Riko?”
Michiko smiled. “All three, I pray.”
So like her mother, Pearl-Ear thought. “Quickly now,” she said. “The assembly cannot start without you.”
Together, they crossed the great hall and moved into a smaller suite in the western annex. The room had high-backed chairs lining one wall and a row of tables lining the other. Though there was all manner of food and drink on the tables, no one ate and no one sat.
Instead, roughly twenty of the most esteemed members of the court all stood in small groups, talking in urgent whispers. Lady Pearl-Ear recognized General Takeno, weathered, worn, and bent from twenty years of war. The moonfolk ambassador who had been outside the Daimyo’s chambers on the night of Michiko’s birth was there, flanked by a robed wizard and a boy with white hair and blue eyes. Pearl-Ear recognized Choryu, another student from the academy and a friend of Riko’s and Michiko’s. He was older and more advanced in his studies and often attended to high-ranking academy officials on their visits to Eiganjo.
The rest of the assembly included soldiers, ministers, merchants, and other prominent humans from the Daimyo’s kingdom.
Michiko suddenly pointed at one of the corners. “Look, Lady Pearl-Ear! A kitsune-bito, like you.”
Pearl-Ear started and quickly scanned the corner. There was a fellow kitsune in the room, a male with a small, compact build. His gray eyes laughed as they locked onto Pearl-Ear’s. Then he disappeared behind a cluster of army officers.
“Do you know him?”
Pearl-Ear nodded, not taking her eyes off the spot in the corner. “I do. But I think he has taken to using charms from the marketplace outside. I would have sensed him otherwise.”
Michiko’s eyes became excited and she whispered, “Who is he? Is he a spy? Is he checking up on you?”
Pearl-Ear patted her shoulder. “Nothing so furtive, Princess. My people are a playful lot, given to tricks and jests. I imagine he was sent here by my village elders to provide or obtain information. And he is hiding from me only because he is very childish.”
“I think he’s handsome,” Michiko said. “What’s his name?”
“Let’s just call him Sharp-Ear for now.”
Michiko wrinkled her nose. “I don’t understand.”
“My sister is indulging in a little wish fulfillment.” The male kitsune spoke from behind the two women. He slid in between them and draped an arm around Pearl-Ear. “Lady Pearl-Ear is hoping that I’m not here to stay.”
Pearl-Ear forced herself to speak calmly. “Princess Michiko, my brother. Bow before the princess, Sharp-Ear.”
The lithe fox-man stepped back and bowed low, sweeping his arm dramatically out behind him. “Forgive me, Michiko-hime. I meant no disrespect.” Still bowing, Sharp-Ear swept out his leg as well, balancing on one foot with his tail waving side to side.
Michiko laughed. “None taken. Lady Pearl-Ear never said she had a brother.”
Sharp-Ear straightened up and took the princess’s hand. “She has seven,” he said, and then he knelt with Michiko’s hand pressed to his furry gray forehead. He bobbed back up and released her hand. “And nine sisters. We kitsune go in for big families. I think I have two or three siblings that I’ve never even met.”
“That sounds like a beautiful dream.” Pearl-Ear had crossed her arms and was glaring reproachfully at Sharp-Ear.
“No, Princess, pay her no mind. Sharp tongues are also a mainstay of the kitsune-bito.” He leaned in and nudged Pearl-Ear’s cheek with his shallow vertical muzzle. She turned her own face away, offering only her cheek.
Sharp-Ear seemed unfazed. “I have missed you, sister. The entire village plagues me incessantly for news of your exploits here at court.”
“You won’t have anything to tell them if we don’t let Princess Michiko begin the meeting.” Pearl-Ear turned to Michiko. “If you would?”
The princess nodded and made her way up to the front of the room where a small dais had been erected.
“Why have you come?” Pearl-Ear whispered.
Sharp-Ear kept his eyes forward, fixed on the princess. “I have come, like everyone else, to share news of the war.”
“What news? I am special envoy to the Daimyo, and I-“
“Shhh. The princess is about to speak.”
A servant rang a chime and the chatter in the room died down. Michiko raised her arms and called out, “Honored guests. Loyal retainers of the realm. Representatives of all Kamigawa. On behalf of my father, Daimyo Konda, I bid you welcome.”
The room answered in unison. “Long live the Daimyo.”
“He already has,” Sharp-Ear whispered. Pearl-Ear elbowed him through his robes.
“This meeting,” the princess continued, “is for the
Daimyo’s benefit, and yours. If he is to address your problems, he must know what they are. All entreaties will be heard. But first, General Takeno will speak on the recent progress he has made in defending this stronghold.”
Michiko stepped down and the wizened general mounted the dais. His hair was white and thinning, his fingers trembled, but his eyes were clear and his voice strong.
“The kingdom continues to suffer intrusions from the spirit world.” A rough murmur started to rise, but Takeno silenced it with a stern look. “There have been no casualties for almost a month. We have a limited area to defend and our troops can respond in a matter of seconds. We have mastered the art of containing them in these confined spaces, with only minor wounds on our side. The situation is stable.”
“Forgive me, General, but that is not the case.” To Lady Pearl-Ear’s horror, the voice was her brother’s, speaking from directly beside her. All around the room, nobles and generals and dignitaries stared and whispered behind their hands.
Takeno peered down at the kitsune-bito male. “You speak out of turn, sir. Who are you, with such dramatic pronouncements and no regard for procedure?”
Her brother winked at her before stepping forward. “I am Sharp-Ear.” He bowed again, sweeping his arm back. “Of the kitsune-bito.”
“The Daimyo already has a foxfolk advisor.”
“Who resides in this stronghold, sir. I bring news from the edge of the forest, far to the east.”
“And? Deliver your news and be done with it. This is not a theater for you to practice oration.”
“Two days ago,” Sharp-Ear said, “my sainted mother was praying at the family shrine. She called upon the kami of her favorite tree, an old but insignificant spirit who dwells among the cedars. She asked it for a blessing. Instead, the tree attacked her. She escaped with a nasty wound across her throat and a ruined robe.
“Later, on the other side of the village, a mother was singing a lullaby to her toddling kits. She sang of bees, and flowers, and sweet summer days. A cloud of insects appeared suddenly and swarmed over the family as a single entity, stinging some of the children until they nearly died.
“And during an elder’s council, where it was being decided to send the brightest and most handsome of us to tell this sad tale, a kami shaped like a triple-headed fox with the body of a yak and the tail of a serpent appeared. He spat upon the council table, igniting it. He struck at our most revered elders, splintered a sacred stone, and tore the roof off the building.”
Pearl-Ear gasped, and she was not alone.
Sharp-Ear bowed again. “That is my tale. We thought the Daimyo should be told.”
Takeno stared at the fox-man, considering. “If your words are true…” he began.
“I have also seen it,” interrupted a merchant from the floor. “My sons were in the counting house, and they claimed the coins rose up and pelted them like hailstones. When I went to see what they were screaming about, I saw the face of my fortune, sneering at me and hurling abuse.”
One of the Daimyo’s most decorated retainers stepped forward. “I placed my clan’s ancestral blade in the hands of my infant son. The blade curled and cut him across the stomach.”
Sharp-Ear raised his voice over the growing chorus. “The Kami War is no longer a matter of territorial intrusions against the Araba. It can no longer be contained within these strong walls by swift-armed response. The most common household spirits have joined the fight, and they are every bit as vicious as those who wage war against the Daimyo’s people.”
The moonfolk leaned and whispered to the wizard, who nodded. Then both soratami and the mage turned and headed for the exit, with Choryu the student close behind.
“Order,” Takeno barked, thumping his foot on the floor to calm the nervous and increasingly loud dignitaries. “This is exactly why we gather in this way, to discover-“
A dull wave of pressure compressed Pearl-Ear’s ears against her head. Silence preceded a tremendous clap of thunder that shook the entire room. Dust fell from the ceiling beams and General Takeno stumbled from the dais.
The chamber was suddenly full as a huge, symmetrical shape appeared at its center. It was as tall as the room and half as wide. A thin stem at its center connected two huge, bulbous growths that formed the bulk of its body. It was hunched slightly, looking like great mushroom on the edge of a reflective pool. Spidery limbs grew out of its center, flexing and probing like skeletal fingers, and white energy crackled along its surface.
The air around it was filled with glowing packets of light, like lanterns in a fog. Those spear-like appendages skittered across the floor and waved grotesquely in the air, and several of them straightened out and began to shudder.
Pearl-Ear sprang past the horrific kami, reaching Princess Michiko in three quick leaps. Though she was smaller than Michiko, Pearl-Ear scooped the princess up as if she were an infant, cradling her in both arms.
With a noxious puff of white smoke, the bulbous kami fired a series of its sharp fingers like a volley of arrows. Some shattered on the finely masoned walls, others became lodged in the spaces between the stones. One soared through the space beside the dais, exactly where Michiko had been standing.
Pearl-Ear curled her wiry arms around Michiko and sprang for the door, careful to keep a watchful eye on the kami’s twitching limbs. She could not move at top speed while carrying the princess, but she could move far faster than Michiko could.
Then Sharp-Ear was beside her, taking half of Michiko’s weight. Her brother still had a mischievous gleam in his eye, but the rest of his face was deadly serious. They locked eyes, nodded, and then dashed from the meeting chamber with the princess held aloft between them. Barely a second had passed between the time Pearl-Ear sprang forward. They carried Michiko to safety, with long, skeletal spears shattering close behind with every step.
Once clear of the chamber, the kitsune flattened themselves against the stone wall, covering Michiko with their bodies. Many of the chamber’s residents flew past them in a panicked rush to safety. Some were bleeding or carried spear tips in their flesh. Two lay face-down with spreading pools of red beneath them; they were trampled without hesitation by those fleeing behind them.
Those that made it out of the room quickly ran headlong into a phalanx of soldiers rushing to get in. Sharp-Ear tightened his hold on Michiko and Pearl-Ear, and she responded in kind. In the confusion, the princess was safest where she was.
Pearl-Ear tilted her head and risked looking into the chamber. The terrible swollen kami held several of the meeting attendees in its scrabbling limbs. Its appendages were sharp, and they clicked together like knitting needles. When two or more of these limbs touched, a thin strand of silver thread shot out, snaring the wounded as well as those who had stayed to fight or were too scared to run. The silky thread crawled over its victims, muffling their screams and drawing them in. Those that weren’t speared or smothered by the silk were torn open by the flailing insect arms.
Takeno and the samurai who spoke at the meeting both had their swords out, slashing at the spirit invader. They did not stop the creature, but they slowed its advance and tore long rents in its pillowy mass. More soldiers came in and, under Takeno’s direction, began hacking the cocooned dignitaries free.
Slowly, the soldiers cleared the room and then drove the bulbous horror across the ichor-stained floor. The creature began to scream as the last of its arms was lopped off. It was growing new limbs as it fought, and it could not replace the arms it was losing fast enough to remain a threat. It tried to surge forward, to crush the soldiers, but they kept it at bay with naginata halberds and the U-shaped blades of their sasumata pikes.
Pearl-Ear turned back to the princess. Michiko was wide eyed, stunned, and muttering to herself. She listened closely and heard the princess praying to her father.
The fox-woman looked at her brother, and the amusement was completely gone from his eyes. Sharp-Ear shrugged helplessly.
“My father,” Michiko said, her eyes suddenly alive and earnest. “My father must be told. He’ll know what to do.”
It was a girlish thing to say, a child’s wish for her parent to make everything right. Lady Pearl-Ear wasn’t sure if Daimyo Konda was capable of that, but the princess was right about the one thing: the Daimyo must be told.
“I agree, Michiko-hime. We must go to Daimyo Konda.”
Michiko stopped, gaping as if she had only just noticed the foxfolk protecting her. “Yes. Let’s go now.”
Another hideous shriek sounded from the meeting chamber, and a bloody sword flew out the door.
“In a moment,” Sharp-Ear said.
Lady Pearl-Ear nodded, and they cradled Michiko between them as the horrible hacking sounds went on, until the kami’s cries were no more.