CHAPTER 9

Princess Michiko rode confidently atop a huge white stallion, standing in the special stirrups as she had been taught. She carefully nocked an arrow onto her longbow, stretched the cord tight, and let fly, missing the target by a clear foot.

Sharp-Ear of the kitsune-bito sighed. It was bad enough that Pearl-Ear had left him to mind the children while she went off on her secret mission of self-discovery, but she had also left him to do so under an assumed name.

“Try again,” he called, as Michiko rode past in the other direction. She nodded and spurred her fine steed.

Not that assumed names were a problem for the kitsune. They were a playful people, and that playfulness often concealed taciturn, even secretive personalities. Pearl-Ear herself was a good example-she had been keeping secrets from her people and the Daimyo’s alike. She hadn’t told any of the kitsune elders about her concerns regarding Michiko’s birth. She apparently hadn’t told anyone in the tower about her rare meetings with the Daimyo, though she was one of a small handful that still saw Konda face to face.

The fox-man smiled. The residents of the tower didn’t even know that Pearl-Ear wasn’t her real name. Still, if she could spend years as Lady Pearl-Ear for the good of human-kitsune relations, he could be Sharp-Ear for a few days for the same good cause. He just wished the princess had someone else to mind her so that he would be free to explore.

From his raised observation platform, Sharp-Ear watched as Princess Michiko exchanged a few words with the rest of her little class. Two members of the

Minamo Academy stood at the far end of the courtyard, offering encouragement and advice between runs at the target. The girl, Riko, was a promising student, but she had been taught to shoot from her own two feet and would have to unlearn quite a bit before she was comfortable on horseback. The boy Choryu showed little aptitude for archery and less interest. He was quite keen on the girls, however.

Sharp-Ear dropped his hand, and Michiko began her gallop. She maintained a good stance and balance as she thundered past Sharp-Ear and sank an arrow in the target’s second ring, a foot or so away from the center.

“Good enough,” Sharp-Ear called. “Again.”

Riko cheered and Choryu waved. Michiko treated him to one of her dazzling smiles, then reined her horse in and headed back to the starting area.

Sharp-Ear followed Michiko with his eyes, keeping the young male wizard in his peripheral vision. Choryu was the white-haired youth from the assembly, the one beside the moonfolk before the kami attacked. Relations between the soratami and the kitsune-bito were cordial, but distant. Sharp-Ear hoped he could use the boy’s familiarity with the moonfolk to garner an introduction. They might have valuable information to share. Besides, he had never interacted with moonfolk personally, and he was curious.

Michiko rode by his observation platform again and scored on the outer rim of the bull’s eye. Sharp-Ear nodded to himself, then waved Michiko in. He noticed that she was still standing tall in the stirrups to keep her eye and arms steady, even though she had no arrow nocked.

“I think I’m improving, sensei.”

“That’s because you are. How are your legs?”

“Hmm? Oh, fine.” She eased herself down into the saddle, wincing slightly.

“A little stiff, perhaps?”

“A little,” she admitted.

“Well, hop down then and we’ll start the next exercise.”

Michiko shouldered her bow and swung her legs over so that she was sitting sidesaddle. She dropped to the ground and stumbled, but she recovered her balance before she fell. She looked concerned for a moment, then she smiled up at Sharp-Ear.

“So far, so good,” he said. He stepped off the platform and landed gracefully next to the princess. “Come,” he said. “Let’s collect the others.”

Michiko took one step forward, and as Sharp-Ear expected, almost fell again. Her legs seemed half-stuck in the standing saddle position, her feet spread wide and her knees locked. She could only manage an awkward duck-like waddle, which Sharp-Ear found both amusing and endearing.

Michiko noticed his smile and stopped. She crossed her arms and said primly, “Perhaps more than a little stiff, sensei.”

Sharp-Ear laughed merrily. “Don’t worry, Princess. You’re still a novice. To master yabusame school archery, you have to train your legs as well as your eyes and arms. Another week or so and you’ll be as limber as… well, as this.”

Sharp-Ear pressed his heels together with his toes pointed outward. He bent at the knee, lowering himself almost to the ground. He held the squat for a few moments, his arms spread wide, and then he sprang high into the air. Twisting as he went, Sharp-Ear turned a complete somersault and landed silently next to Michiko, raising little more than a puff of dust.

Michiko clapped her hands. “I don’t think I’ll ever be that limber, sensei.”

“Then I must train you harder, Michiko-hime.” He offered the princess his arm and she took it.

“Now,” he said. “Let’s regroup.” Together, moving slowly to accommodate Michiko’s stiff legs, they walked to Riko and Choryu.

Riko rushed forward to meet them. “You’re doing very well,” she said. “I didn’t come anywhere near the center until I had been practicing for months.”

“You taught me how to draw and aim long ago,” Michiko said. “I’m still learning how to stand on top of a galloping horse, however.” She exaggerated her gait and made a great show of how stressful each step was. “Next time, I shall ride back to the tower.”

As they approached Choryu, he bowed. “Well done, Princess.” The wizard straightened and fixed his ice-blue eyes on Sharp-Ear. “You are a gifted teacher, sensei.”

“I have a gifted pupil,” Sharp-Ear said. “Three,” he added, with a nod to Riko. As he turned back to Choryu, Sharp-Ear’s smile widened. “Make that two.”

Choryu winked. “It’s true, I am not here to learn. But don’t be offended. What use are arrows to a wizard?” He cupped his hands over his chest and chanted softly. Sharp-Ear heard the phrase “your power flows through me” twice, and then Choryu looked up and opened his hands.

A stream of sapphire-blue water surged up from his palms, rising high over their heads. The stream maintained its shape and speed as it curved around and flowed back toward the ground. At eye-level, the stream bent again, orbiting Michiko’s head, then Riko’s, then Sharp-Ear’s. Both girls laughed, and Michiko slowly raised her index finger until it was touching the water.

When all three wore halos of blue connected by sapphire streams, Choryu spread his hands, drawing the water back into his palms.

Sharp-Ear clapped politely. “Impressive,” he said. “But is water a weapon?”

Choryu dusted his hands on each other. “Absolutely. You’ve seen how a drop of water can cut through a rock?”

“I have. With the help of gravity and several uninterrupted decades to do its work.”

Michiko giggled. Choryu scowled.

“Bad example,” he said. “How about, ‘you’ve seen how a wave can smash a ship?'”

“I have seen that, as well. Point taken.” Sharp-Ear bowed to the princess. “That is the end of today’s lesson. I will be in my quarters if you have any questions. Otherwise, I shall see you all tomorrow morning, right here.”

His students bid him farewell, and then Riko began an excited critique of Michiko’s archery. Choryu stood slightly apart, watching the princess intently.

Sharp-Ear followed the narrow path out of the courtyard and around the corner of the tower’s external walls. He pressed himself against the wall and disappeared into the shadows, listening to his charges. Like all students, they seemed to forget the teacher once he was out of plain sight.

As he had done for the past several days, Sharp-Ear planned to remain unnoticed as he kept close enough to hear what they were saying. If they held to their pattern, they would return to the tower, make their way to Michiko’s suite of rooms, and talk about things that were important to them. Michiko’s progress. Academy gossip. The state of the war. Lady Pearl-Ear at court.

Sharp-Ear excused this intrusion on the princess’s privacy as part of his promise to his sister. Pearl-Ear had told him to protect Michiko as well as train her, so he had not strayed more than a stone’s throw from the princess since Pearl-Ear had left. He was learning all sorts of new things, and while most of them were only useful to other twenty-year old girls, some of what Michiko said or didn’t say was extremely valuable.

And his sister was correct. Michiko’s aura was bright and considerate, but it had a terrible weight behind it. There was a vague inscrutability about her that loomed like a shadow and lingered like a sharp scent. It was neither benign nor malicious, but something else… something powerful.

The fox man sat silently in the shadows as his students made their way to the tower. His sharp ears easily distinguished Michiko’s whisper from the wizards’ chatter.

“It’s not safe to say more. Wait until we’re inside.”

Choryu and Riko continued to banter, more loudly than was necessary. The trio mounted the steps to the tower entrance and went inside, their voices becoming vague and indistinct.

Sharp-Ear’s ears twitched. Ah, to be a student again, he thought. Childish secrets and minor conspiracies, all to be kept from the nearest authority figure.

A plume of smoke drifted over the battlement and Sharp-Ear caught the scent of fire and blood. The kami were restless today, and there had been several skirmishes out in the wastes.

Sharp-Ear’s grin faded. Sticking close to the wall, crept up to the tower entrance and then stepped in.

As he followed their progress up and ever up, Sharp-Ear felt his heart beat quicker. He had a dire burden to bear on behalf of his sister, his people, perhaps the entire world. And he very badly wanted to know what the princess wouldn’t risk discussing in public.

*****

For the third time in as many days, Sharp-Ear worked his way into the rafters above the ceiling and navigated his way toward Michiko’s private reception hall. Below him, through a thin layer of plaster and stiff paper, lay a room full of comfortable couches and tasteful bolts of silk. The fox-man shimmied silently out to the center of the ceiling, balancing on a narrow beam.

“We can at least agree on one thing.” Choryu’s voice came clearly through the plaster ceiling tiles. He sounded restless. “They’re never going to let you out, and you’re never going to learn anything here.”

“I never agreed to that,” Riko answered. “I said that it’s crazy not to consult the Academy, because that’s where all the information is.”

Michiko’s voice was hushed, troubled. “But I did agree,” she said. “It is as I have seen in my dreams. Towabara suffers, and I am sequestered in this tower. All Kamigawa suffers, and I have never even seen the borders of the kingdom I must one day rule.” Her voice became flinty, sharper and harder than Sharp-Ear had heard it. “I have a responsibility to my people. I cannot fulfill it here, where I am held ignorant and aloof from the world around me.”

“The libraries and scholars at Minamo,” Choryu said, “have access to all the knowledge that has ever been. It’s there for the finding.”

The fire in Michiko’s voice faded. “But my father and Lady Pearl-Ear both bid me stay and learn from Sharp-Ear. Perhaps we should wait until she returns and petition my father again.”

“He’ll refuse again,” said Choryu. “Without explanation. Just like last time.”

“He is my father, and lord of this kingdom. He does not have to explain.”

“Of course not. Excuse my poorly chosen words. Long live the Daimyo.

“But with respect, Princess, I think your father’s armies have proven that force of arms is not the answer. The kami attack, Towabara defends, and the battlefield grows ever wider and bloodier. We need more information before we can begin to settle the war, and we’re not getting it here.”

“‘We,’ Choryu?” Riko’s words echoed Sharp-Ear’s own thoughts. “You and I have no standing here. We risk nothing, yet you ask Michiko to risk all.”

“We,” Choryu repeated. “I have not been Michiko’s friend as long as you, Riko, but that doesn’t mean I am less loyal. This problem is not just hers, it is the entire world’s. The Academy has always been dedicated to the greater good. I know there is something in the archives that can help us.”

“They could if we had access.” Riko’s voice was strong and even. “The largest and most extensive libraries are forbidden to all but the highest-ranking masters. Even if we reach the Academy, there is no guarantee that we will be allowed to find the answers we seek.”

“Oh, we’ll make it,” Choryu said. “We all ride well. My magic is powerful enough to protect us from bandits or wild animals, and you two have your arrows. If we go quickly and quietly, without fanfare, we can be there and back before Michiko is missed.”

“And once we arrive?”

“Once we arrive, we rely on Michiko to get us into the libraries. The Academy has been working quite closely with the Daimyo’s stewards. If we present ourselves properly, there’s no way they’ll refuse a polite request from Daimyo Konda’s daughter.

“Besides, it’s not like we’re researching powerful spells. We just want to know what’s going on around us. Maybe this has happened before. Any one of a dozen history books could tell us how it ended.”

Riko sighed. “I do not think it will be that simple. If the answers were so easy to acquire, why haven’t they been?”

Sharp-Ear nodded silently in agreement.

The female archer continued. “What do you think, Michiko? Before we decide if this is wise, tell me: is it even possible? Would you risk so much for the real possibility of nothing in return?”

Michiko’s voice was soft and hesitant. “Choryu is right. I could be gone for days before my father noticed.”

Choryu pounced. “And Lady Pearl-Ear won’t be back before then, either.”

Riko’s robe rustled as she sank into one of the couches. “And Sharp-Ear?”

Michiko responded immediately, “Sharp-Ear would notice.”

The fox-man grinned in the darkness. Pearl-Ear may have doubted his reliability, but he had at least impressed Michiko as an attentive instructor.

Choryu scoffed. “He currently has no standing at court. Who would he tell? Who would listen?” Sharp-Ear’s smile faded.

Riko stood up quickly. “Any fool can say, ‘Where is the princess?’ If no one knows the answer, someone will go and look.”

“Tell Sharp-Ear you’re sick,” the water wizard said. “Tell him you’re injured. Tell him anything that will make him look the other way for a few days. If he doesn’t raise the alarm, no one else will, either.”

Sharp-Ear would not have believed that Michiko would be childish enough, selfish enough, or dimwitted enough to agree to a secret jaunt into war-torn countryside simply because she was bored. But he heard her assent in her voice, sensed it on the air even as Michiko uttered the words. It was not restlessness but duty that drove her.

“I have decided. We will go to the Minamo Academy.”

Riko and Choryu both reacted, the former with concern and the latter with relief, but Sharp-Ear did not stay to listen. The fox-man immediately began inching silently back across the rafter.

“When do we leave?” Riko asked.

“Before first light tomorrow.”

“Excellent,” Choryu said. “This is for the best, Princess, you’ll see.”

Sharp-Ear crept along the beam, sadly shaking his head. Perhaps he had misjudged Michiko’s maturity. Perhaps he was misjudging her now, and she really did intend to make the journey as some sort of token effort to be helpful in these violent times. In either case, the princess had decided to quit the tower and slip away from his kind tutelage and expert supervision. Pearl-Ear had bid him “be responsible.” Here, now, it was clearly his responsibility to do something.

*****

Gaining entry to Choryu’s chambers was more difficult than Sharp-Ear had expected, but it was well within his abilities. There were very few locks or charms that could keep a determined kitsune out.

So when Choryu returned to his quarters and lit the lantern, he found Sharp-Ear stretched out comfortably on his bed.

“We must talk, wizard.” Sharp-Ear stretched and rolled to the foot of the bed, where he stood eye to eye with Choryu. “About this trip you have planned.”

The boy’s strange blue eyes betrayed nothing. Choryu stared at Sharp-Ear quizzically, his spiky white hair seeming to vibrate in the firelight.

“I’m surprised to find you here, sensei,” he said. “And disappointed.”

“I cannot let Princess Michiko leave the tower.”

Choryu stepped back and rebarred the door to his room. “No one is asking you to, sensei. We’re just need you to trust Michiko-hime’s judgment and step aside.” “It is your judgment I question.” Sharp-Ear flexed his ankles and bounded lightly to the floor. “What makes you think you and Riko alone can protect her all the way to your academy gates?”

Choryu smiled. “Are you offering to come along?”

“No, wizard. I am canceling the whole trip.”

Choryu shook his head. “We leave in the morning, sensei. You saw that thing at the assembly. It’s no safer here than anywhere else. At least at the academy, we can study the situation, research the causes, isolate a solution.”

Sharp-Ear scowled, and when he spoke, his voice growled from the back of his throat. “She thinks of you as her friend,” the kitsune said. “And you’re going to bring her before your masters so they can study her.”

“I am her friend,” Choryu flared. “And my masters are as concerned for her well-being as I am.”

The young wizard bowed, his tone imploring, “Please, sensei. This is what the princess wants. We all seek answers to the same questions. At the academy, we can seek them together.”

“No, my young friend. This is not the way. Wait for my sister’s return. Send an organized delegation, an official caravan to the school with Michiko-hime at its head. And if Konda will not let her go, I will lead another procession to the school and ask them on behalf of the kitsune-bito. But you are about to make a terrible mistake and endanger the very person you seek to assist. I will not let you do it.”

“I am sorry, sensei. But you cannot stop me.”

Choryu splayed his fingers wide, palms facing backward. Sharp-Ear rushed forward, confident that he could bowl the wizard over before he could summon a stream of water.

But Choryu raised not a stream, but a sheet of water that materialized like a wall between the wizard and the fox-man. Sharp-Ear splashed into the vertical curtain of blue liquid. It was thicker, denser than real water.

The kitsune dug his toes into the wooden floor and tried to surge forward. The thick blue water held him in place, however. It still flowed and burbled around him, even waving the fur on his arms back and forth like a lazy field of undersea grass. But Sharp-Ear himself was frozen in place, unrestrained but unable to make his limbs function.

“You won’t drown,” Choryu said. “Nor will you hunger. You are caught in a field that represents the precise moment when ice transforms to water. You are fixed, like the crystal, but flowing, like the droplet.”

Sharp-Ear had not taken a deep breath before entering the trap, but his lungs did not ache. Tentatively, he tried to let his air out, but nothing happened and nothing within him changed.

“It will preserve and protect you for weeks, months if need be. But the princess will be back in a matter of days. I will release you then, and make amends. Forgive me, sensei.”

Sharp-Ear watched in silent misery as Choryu painted several powerful charms on his door. The white-haired wizard blew out the lantern, bowed to Sharp-Ear, and pulled the heavy door shut behind him.

A whitish blue light crawled around the edge of the door in the doorjamb, making a complete circuit before sputtering out like a wet candle. Sharp-Ear was left alone, helpless, and quite possibly forgotten in the darkness.

His sister would certainly kill him if this went on much longer. He had best escape and salvage what he could of his reputation for responsibility.

*****

Sharp-Ear waited for several hours, until the square of sunlight from Choryu’s window had crawled to the edge of his liquid prison. The sun would set in a short while, but by then he would have gotten what he needed.

Choryu had obligingly explained the nature of the trap in which Sharp-Ear now languished, but the kitsune would have escaped the same way no matter what stasis/paralysis/immobility spell he had dredged out of the academy archives.

Sharp-Ear reminded himself not to underestimate the young wizard again. He had been much faster and much more powerful than the kitsune expected. But he was still young and foolish enough to trap a defeated foe rather than finish him off, and almost every trap involved keeping the target still.

The kitsune occupied a unique position among Kamigawa’s tribal society. They straddled the social world of commerce and civilization on one side and the solitary realm of harmonious nature on the other. Kitsune clerics healed using human medicines and mystic ritual alike; kitsune warriors came as disciplined samurai bushi on the battlefield and as free-roaming independent rangers in the deep woods. They were gregarious among their own kind but elusive and sometimes off-putting to outsiders.

One thing they excelled at was motion. Their minds and bodies were fast, lithe, and graceful. They lived long lives, matured slowly, and existed in near-constant motion most of the time. In a word, Sharp-Ear, thought, we are excitable.

Sharp-Ear repeated the words to a powerful mantra in his mind as he watched the sunlight slide into the edge of his prison. Sunlight had warmth, but light itself had motion, energy, vitality. He was trapped in a transitive moment when one thing becomes another… with a little light, energy, and motion, he could complete the transformation.

“Dance,” Sharp-Ear thought to the countless drops of blue liquid that flowed through the edge of the sunlit square. His vision fogged as the water seemed to boil around him. In his mind he repeated his mantra, focusing his mind, body, and spirit on channeling the power of the Great Sun Spirit.

Sharp-Ear heard a hiss and a watery pop, and then he fell forward in a great splash of cold blue water. Coughing, sodden, his eyes alight with triumph, Sharp-Ear stretched out his hand and reached into the vertical shaft of sunlight nearby.

“Thank you, old friend.” The fox-man sprang to his feet, shook himself, and went to examine the charms on the door while he planned his next move.

The water wizard was correct in that Sharp-Ear’s voice did not hold much sway with the rulers of Towabara. If he tried to report the princess before she left, she could simply deny it. If he tried after she left, she would likely be returned and punished severely… assuming she wasn’t waylaid on the road and ransomed by bandits. And then not only would Sharp-Ear himself be in the soup for letting her go, but Choryu would have succeeded in the first part of his misguided effort to help Michiko. Sharp-Ear was far too wet and far too annoyed to allow that.

His mind fairly whirred as he read the symbols on the door and traced his finger around the doorjamb. He doubted he could talk Michiko out of the trip as easily as the wizard had talked her into it. If confronted, she would most likely agree with whatever Sharp-Ear said then find some other way to get out undetected.

He could allow her to go, catch up with her himself, and chaperone the remainder of the trip. At least that way she would have a proper guardian. Pearl-Ear would tear his tail off, but Michiko would be somewhat better protected.

The lithe kitsune-bito bounced up onto Choryu’s table, pushed a square of ceiling aside, and darted up into the rafters. The wise thing to do would be to quietly sabotage the outing, make the travelers think that the spirits frowned on such a journey.

Sharp-Ear scowled, wrinkling his muzzle. Short of hobbling every horse in the Daimyo’s stable, he didn’t see how he could prevent them from traveling. Hobbling Michiko herself did cross his mind, but he rejected the idea and decided not to tell anyone he’d had it. He could put a sleeping draught in the wizard’s morning tea, but that merely delayed the problem. They would try again as soon as they were all up to it.

He tried to follow Pearl-Ear’s example, to think like her. What would a proper guardian, a responsible one, do? Sadly, a huge cause of the distance between himself and his sister was the fact that they thought nothing alike. It was like asking a fish to think like a bird, and he gave up that line of thought almost as soon as he opened it.

Then the fox-man’s eyes sparkled. An idea, born from pieces of all his other ideas cobbled together, was taking shape in his mind. He knew where they were going. Perhaps he couldn’t stop them, but he could steer them toward the safest possible course.

Sharp-Ear nodded happily. This was an energetic solution, one worthy of a kitsune trickster. His erstwhile students might think of it as a journey, but in reality it was just another training session in Sensei Sharp-Ear’s dojo.

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