CHAPTER 16

The small party slipped out of the kitsune village quietly, without incident. Silver-Foot had provided three kitsune samurai that he claimed were the equal of an entire company of human retainers. They were brothers, he explained, and they had been training together with swords for fifty years. Now, at the end of their adolescence, they were both well disciplined and at their physical peak.

The brothers seemed mature, but lighthearted and full of energy. They were called Dawn-Tail, Blade-Tail, and Frost-Tail, though even Lady Pearl-Ear had trouble telling them apart. It helped that one marched up front with Sharp-Ear, one stayed in the middle with Michiko, and one brought up the rear. Pearl-Ear began to think of them according to these positions, Dawn-Tail up front, Blade-Tail in the middle, and Frost-Tail at the back.

Michiko and Riko were concerned for the villagers, but once they accepted the situation they became eager to reach the snakefolk as quickly as possible. Choryu was less sanguine. The water wizard still looked as if he were marching toward his own certain doom, and he muttered complaints with each misstep, each pang of thirst, and each rest stop. Pearl-Ear watched him closely, as his eyes rarely left Michiko and he seemed on the verge of running off at any moment.

After several hours, Sharp-Ear and the samurai finally relaxed. They remained vigilant, but once clear of the akki horde they were able to spread themselves out and go at a much brisker pace. The brothers questioned Sharp-Ear about the battle in the forest, and he answered them in short, terse sentences.

Her brother’s face clouded when Dawn-Tail asked about the fireball-shooting kami. He tossed his head and avoided Dawn-Tail’s concern, but he also chanted a quick prayer of good luck for the village as they marched.

As the light of day waned, the forest became thicker and harder to navigate. The deeper they went, the more trees and less light there was. Decades of storms and kitsune colonization had thinned out the edges of the forest far more than she realized. It had been years since she had ventured into truly wild country, and despite the danger and the colossal burdens her mind carried, something deep inside Pearl-Ear responded to her surroundings.

Her sandals chafed and she felt oppressively warm in them. By the time they made their first camp for the night, she had packed them away and removed her outer layer of clothing. Barefoot, arms exposed, and dressed only in a knee-length shift, Pearl-Ear’s body began to pick up on subtle changes in air temperature, soil consistency, and even the weather that lay ahead. How had she lasted so long in Towabara, where the landscape was all dry dust and dead ruins?

They dined on jerked meat and dried fruit. The samurai insisted that there be no campfire, and everyone but Choryu agreed. The wizard kept more and more to himself, eating alone, walking alone, and even dining alone despite repeated invitations from the girls.

“How far have we come?” Michiko asked.

The kitsune brothers looked at each other and shrugged.

“We measure distances differently in the deep woods,” Sharp-Ear said. “Here, a journey is not a matter of miles, but of time.”

“It took us all day to cover this much flat ground,” Frost-Tail said. He seemed to be the oldest of the brothers, but Pearl-Ear would not place any of them more than a few years apart. “Tomorrow, we will climb hills and scramble over massive cedar roots. It will take all day, though we will not go as far in one direction.”

“Hex you all,” Choryu said. “At least tell her how much longer we’ll be in this leafy green hell.”

Sharp-Ear growled, but his tone was more questioning than angry. He nodded to the brothers, who had all turned to face him. To Lady Pearl-Ear, it seemed they were waiting for Sharp-Ear to act, like soldiers watching their captain.

“We have walked for almost a full day,” Sharp-Ear said at last. “We have perhaps another three days to go.”

“If you’re not willing,” Blade-Tail said, “we could leave you here.”

“We could bind you and leave you helpless,” Dawn-Tail added. “That’d be fair, wouldn’t it?”

“And if you don’t want to wait for something to come along and eat you,” Frost-Tail added, “we could cut your hamstrings so that the blood and your cries of agony would bring a predator more quickly.”

Sharp-Ear nodded again. “The more bile you vent, wizard,” he said, “the more attractive that option becomes.”

Choryu’s eyes sparked blue. “Are you foxes threatening me?”

Frost-Tail stood and crossed his arms. “Yes,” he said. “Yes we are. You can sulk in silence, stay behind, or we can render you speechless. But we’re not interested in your opinion.”

Sharp-Ear strode up to Choryu. He waved his hands around, indicating the entire group behind him. “We are assisting the princess.” He pointed at the lone figure of Choryu in front of him. “You are little more than luggage.

“Pay attention, student, for this is a most vital lesson: You used up all my forbearance when you stranded me in the tower. We all know you don’t want to be here and that you still want to pursue your ridiculous goal of researching the Kami War out of existence. That plan is gone, dried up and blown away.” He dusted his hands together in front of Choryu’s face. “Gone for good. Now, as Frost-Tail says: Be silent, or be gone.”

Choryu stared angrily at the foxes for a moment. Then he said. “I have made grave errors in judgment. I admit that. I have overestimated myself. I admit that, too. For this, I humbly apologize.

“But I am right about this ill-advised jaunt into snake country. I am right and you are wrong. She’s not safe here, none of us is safe here. Your elder’s vision must have some other interpretation.”

Dawn-Tail coughed. “Now he insults Lady Silk-Eyes.” He stood next to Frost-Tail while behind them, Blade-Tail also rose.

“I’ve done no such thing. I’m only trying-“

“Choryu, “Michiko said. “Apologize and finish your meal.”

The wizard evaluated the three kitsune samurai, then dropped his chin to his chest. “Excuse me, noble warriors,” he muttered. “It seems my judgment has not yet improved.”

Michiko nodded to the kitsune brothers. “And you would do well to remember that Choryu is with me. I will take it hard if you continue to bait and threaten my friends.”

Pearl-Ear smiled inwardly, pleased. At least Michiko understood the gravity of their predicament. It was also gratifying to have someone else be the adult for a change when it came to dealing with young male kitsune.

They finished their supper in silence and the kitsune brothers worked out their sentry shifts. Pearl-Ear watched and waited for Michiko, Riko and Choryu to fall asleep, and then she herself closed her eyes.

Three more days before we’re even in orochi territory, she thought. And no guarantee of the reception we’ll receive once we get there.

Lady Pearl-Ear said a quick prayer to the patron kami of the cedars and drifted off to sleep.

*****

The second day was much as Frost-Tail described it: a physically demanding slog through the dense woods with frequent vertical climbs. There was not enough energy for bickering over dinner that night, and everyone slept soundly.

The third day brought dryer, more level ground, but it also came with clouds of buzzing gnats. They didn’t sting, but they flew into open mouths, noses, and eyes with alarming frequency. A mid-morning shower cleared the bugs from the air, and when it was over the sun warmed the trees so much that steam rose from the bark.

In the gnat-free sunlight, Sharp-Ear’s mood visibly improved. He sang softly to himself as he hiked and fairly bounced from step to step. Michiko broadened her stride to catch up to Sharp-Ear, with Blade-Tail keeping pace beside her.

She tugged on Sharp-Ear’s sleeve as they walked. “Sensei,” she said. “How did Lady Silk-Eyes become elder?”

“By being older… elder-er than everyone else.” Sharp-Ear continued his jaunty gait as he spoke. “You don’t get to be old by being a fool. The longer you live, the more you learn. We kitsune live long, but the elder has lived loo-ooong. She has learned quite a bit more than any of us… perhaps more than all of us put together.”

“And when she… steps down, who chooses the elder?”

“My money’s on Lady Pearl-Ear. If you ask her, she’s already right about everything and we should just leave it in her capable hands. But to answer your question, the village holds a meeting to decide. Anyone who wants the job can stand for it. Qualified candidates get a chance to make their case. Unqualified candidates are usually laughed down.” He turned and winked. “Mind you, I’m speaking from a position of some authority here. Maturity and wisdom are hard to fake, and my people are expert at spotting fakers.”

“That’s mostly because we’re all such fakers ourselves,” Frost-Tail called from the rear.

Michiko laughed. “And why is that, sensei? In Towabara, we are taught to treasure the truth. At Minamo, Riko and Choryu learn to think dispassionately in order to keep their opinions from clouding the facts. This should be an obstacle in communication between our tribes, yet the kitsune are trusted allies of us humans.”

Sharp-Ear did not look at Michiko, but he shrugged. “I am just an archery tutor,” he said. “You should direct all civics questions to your actual sensei.”

“Don’t drag me into this,” Pearl-Ear called. “Answer her yourself.”

Sharp-Ear craned his head and winked at his sister. “Remember you said that.” He turned to Michiko and said, “Governments always lie, Princess. It’s part of how to govern. Your father is a noble man, a stalwart and straightforward one. But even he cannot tell everyone the entire truth all the time. Take his battle plans, for example. Wars are won largely by deceiving the enemy into thinking your strengths don’t exist and your weaknesses are more important than they are. If he told everyone in the tower what he told his generals, he wouldn’t ever win a single battle.”

“I see,” said Michiko. “But there is a difference between a secret and a lie.”

“Very true. And your father knows that. So do the masters at Minamo. But a lie is often the best way to keep a secret. It’s like the walls outside the Daimyo’s tower-sort of a first line of defense. Without it, your tribe is much more vulnerable.”

“But if people know you protect your secrets with lies, won’t they work out the lie and the secret it protects?”

“Good question. We’re entering into advanced territory here. Luckily, I am an expert.

“The best way to keep a secret is to let it out. Don’t conceal it, but rather flood the environment with conflicting stories. If the Daimyo is planning an attack to the north, he spreads the word. He also spreads the word that the attack will be to the south, east, and west. One of these has to be true, but among the chorus of lies, it’s impossible to tell which. You can make your goals well known, as long as you also release a host of false ones so that your true intentions are lost in the competing voices.”

Michiko wore a look of deep thought. “Is this how Lady Silk-Eyes runs the village?”

Sharp-Ear laughed. “Probably. Who knows? She’s the oldest and craftiest of us all. No one but her knows what she knows, and she likes to keep it that way.

“For example, she knows that your father rarely leaves his tower. Does she know why?”

Michiko didn’t answer, so Sharp-Ear went on.

“Probably not. Oh, she may know a few facts that could lead to an answer. She might know that the Daimyo keeps something in the tower that he won’t leave alone. She doesn’t know what it is, just that it exists and the Daimyo treasures it.”

“Sharp-Ear,” Pearl-Ear said quietly. “Do not speak to the princess of her father’s secrets. They are for him to tell.”

Her brother went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Now, this valuable thing could be gold, or a magical scroll, or a shrine to his ancestors. It might even be his dog.”

“Or his daughter.” Michiko stopped. “Am I the Daimyo’s secret? The thing he values most?”

Pearl-Ear’s voice grew strong. “Sharp-Ear.”

“I didn’t say the Daimyo had a secret. I was speculating. But of course he treasures you above all things,” Sharp-Ear said. “You’re his daughter. He sent an entire yabusame company to retrieve you once he learned you were gone.”

Mollified, Michiko nodded and resumed walking.

“But he didn’t leave the tower,” Sharp-Ear said. “I’m sure he has a hundred duties that keep him from traveling freely. But I can’t help but speculate… what could keep him in the tower if you were not there?”

“That’s enough, Sharp-Ear. She doesn’t know. Nobody does. Why are you badgering her?”

“Now you are manipulating the truth, sister. You know what’s in the tower. I’d even wager that you’ve seen it. Do you know what it is you saw? Can you solve this mystery?”

Michiko slowed, falling several yards behind Sharp-Ear. She turned and glanced back at Pearl-Ear, her eyes wet. Pearl-Ear’s own face was hot and she fought the urge to growl at her brother.

“I cannot,” she said at last. “But the next time we stop to make camp, I will tell Michiko what I do know.”

“Oh, splendid. Because tomorrow, we may run into the orochi-bito. We should all pool whatever information we have, so that we ask the appropriate questions.”

Pearl-Ear found herself staring at the back of Sharp-Ear’s neck, imagining the feel of his scruff in her clenched fist. “You’ve said enough for now, brother,” she said. “Save your breath for the hike.”

*****

They continued on. Michiko kept her head down as she walked.

The sun had gone below the horizon, but the sky was still bright pink through the forest canopy. As the kitsune samurai scouted out the area to make sure it was safe for a night’s rest, Riko and Sharp-Ear rested in the shade of an ancient cedar.

Michiko followed Lady Pearl-Ear away from the group. The princess had not spoken since Sharp-Ear’s provocative lesson in falsehood.

When they were out of earshot, Pearl-Ear sat on a pile of dried leaves. She bid Michiko to join her, and the princess gracefully folded her long legs and faced her teacher.

“Do you know what is in my father’s tower? Because it is not me. I am not the thing that he treasures.”

“Michiko. I do not know.” Pearl-Ear extended her hand, and to her great relief, Michiko took it.

“On the night you were born,” Lady Pearl-Ear said, “Your father performed a ritual in the highest reaches of the tower. He was attended by wizards from Minamo and some moonfolk. When I came to tell him you had been born, he already knew.”

Michiko’s face was pale as wax. “What was the ritual for?”

“I do not know. He claimed to have achieved something important, as important as what your mother accomplished bringing you into the world.” She squeezed Michiko’s hand. “As important. Not more so. That was the first time I saw his eyes as they are now.”

Michiko nodded. “To me, his eyes have always been like that. That’s how my father sees.”

“It was not always so. That is another thing that no one speaks of in Eiganjo.”

“What else changed that night?”

Pearl-Ear inhaled, gathering her courage. She had dreaded this conversation for twenty years, and she would not forget she had Sharp-Ear to thank for it.

“There was a statue,” she said. “A fetal reptile or dragon, curled in on itself. It was in the space usually reserved for the shrine to Justice. But the next day it was gone, and I have not seen it since.”

“What does it mean?”

Pearl-Ear was pondering an appropriate answer when footsteps interrupted her. They were heavy feet, but the tread was not clumsy. She quickly calculated the size of the walker and decided her conversation with the princess would continue at another time.

“Michiko,” she said. “Get back to the campsite.”

The princess quickly stood and turned, but before she could withdraw, a smooth but obviously annoyed voice called out, “Wait for me, you great lumpy ox.”

A deep, throaty voice answered. “My apologies, oath-brother. I thought you were right behind me.”

Pearl-Ear relaxed somewhat, but she still motioned Michiko behind a stout tree. These wanderers were certainly not sneaking up on them, but there was no way to tell if they were hostile.

Pearl-Ear folded her hands into her robes as the footsteps approached. She looked back over her shoulder, and to her relief Sharp-Ear and two of the brothers were quickly making their way to where she and Michiko stood.

As she turned back, a huge bald man burst through the dense undergrowth. He was dressed in the manner of the budoka monks and he wore a gigantic pack across his broad shoulders.

“Greetings, traveler,” Pearl-Ear said. “Have you lost your way?”

The giant looked down at Lady Pearl-Ear. His misshapen face spoke of a lifetime of abuse, though his eyes told her he was hardly more than a boy. He stood rock-still, steady on his feet as if the pack on his back was filled with feathers.

Behind him, his much smaller companion stepped into view. “… don’t know how we’re going to get out of here even if we do find-“

The smaller man stopped in mid-complaint. He was clearly an adult, but next to his massive companion he seemed small and childlike. He wore samurai swords on his belt. His long black hair was pulled back from his face and tied behind his head so she could see his face and his sharp, clear eyes.

Those eyes widened and in a flash he drew a jitte from his belt and held it out to Pearl-Ear.

“Just passing through,” he said. “Don’t want trouble? Don’t start any.”

Pearl-Ear cocked her head. He was quick to take arms and threaten, but at least the jitte was a defensive weapon. If he had meant them harm, he would have drawn his sword.

“I am Lady Pearl-Ear of the kitsune,” she said. “We are travelers, like yourselves.” She spread her arms out, and the samurai brothers stepped out on either side of her, hands on their blades. “We do not want trouble. But as you can see, we are prepared for it.”

Actual mirth crossed the man’s face, as if two armed kitsune were amusing to him.

“Hello, Lady Pearl-Ear. I’m Toshi,” he said, twirling his jitte around his finger. “And this is Kobo.” He sheathed his weapon and smiled dazzlingly. “We seem to be a bit lost. Seen any budoka tribes lately?”

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