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There's the jovial kind who takes to the bottle when he has cause to celebrate, who has a few too many at festival feasts and revels in the rush of blood to his cheeks. He slurs his songs and argues with his friends about the gaijin war or the last arena match, grinning to the eyeteeth all the while. And though he might swim deep in the bottle, he doesn't drown, and when he looks at the bottom he can still see his own reflection and smile.
Then there's the kind who drinks like it's his calling. Hunched silent over his gla.s.s, charging headlong toward stupor as fast as lips and throat can take him. He takes no joy in the journey, nor solace in company upon the road, but he keens for his destination with an intensity that leaves shadows under his eyes. Oblivion. A sleep where the dreams are so far submerged beneath Forgetting's warm embrace that their voices are a vibration rather than a sound, like a mother's lullaby in the blurred days before words had shape or meaning.
And then, there was No One's father.
Seven shades mean, the kind who saw the bottle as a doorway to the black inside. A solvent to peel the paint from his mask, the l.u.s.ter of bone and blood beneath. A mumbled excuse for what had happened the last time, and the unspoken promise why it would happen the next.
The bottle's lips pressed against his own like a mistress, a balm discovered in empty days after he returned from the war overseas. A tranquilizer to silence the cries of the gaijin that still haunted his dreams, numb the pain of the parts he was missing. And though he was a gambler too, hopeless and helpless, the bottle was his first and truest love.
But he loved her too, in his own stumbling, ugly way. He called their mother "b.i.t.c.h," her brother "b.a.s.t.a.r.d." But his daughter? His dearest? His flower? Even at his worst, he still called her by name.
Her earliest memories of her mother were of tears spilling from swollen eyes, irises of gleaming blue. Of slumped shoulders, trembling hands and broken fingers. Of screamed abuse. Open palms and b.l.o.o.d.y lips and spitting teeth. Long days without a crumb to eat. Brief periods of plenty, of laden tables and tiny toys (dolls for her, soldiers for her brother) that he would give them with his broad, broken-toothed smile, and hock to the p.a.w.nman a few weeks later.
Running in the gutters of Yama city with other orphans of the bottle or the smoke or the war, she and Yoshi, both harder than a Lotusman's skin by the time she was six. Violence and grime and b.l.o.o.d.y knuckles, wrapped in the stink of chi and s.h.i.t. Fistfights. Broken gla.s.s. Blacklung beggars rotting in drains, or coughing their last in the squeezeways where the children played and laughed and forgot, if only for a moment. But through it all, they had each other. At least she and Yoshi had each other.
Blood is blood.
And then Father bought the farm. Literally. A tiny crop of lotus near Kigen city, s.n.a.t.c.hed on a triple-nine hand in some yakuza smoke house. War hero turned man of the land. And so they left Yama, caught an airship south to Kigen; the first and only time in her life she'd ever flown. The engines were a thrum in her bones, and the wind a shower of gentle kisses on her cheeks, and she stood at the prow and watched the world sailing away beneath them, wishing they would never, ever have to come down from the clouds.
Yoshi hated him. Hated him like poison. But even when the beatings became too numerous to count, when the bottle had stolen all he was and would ever be, she loved him. She loved him with all her heart.
She couldn't help it.
He was her da.
She'd rolled out of bed before the sunset and dragged on her servant's clothes, the taste of stale exhaust b.u.t.tered on her tongue. Washing her face in their bucket of tepid water, she felt at her cheek, her eyebrow, the scar tissue smooth beneath her fingers. Her memory awash with the gleam of candlelight on broken gla.s.s. Spit and blood. She straightened the patch over her eye, smoothed her unruly bob down as best she could and prepared to inhale her night. A glance into Yoshi and Jurou's bedroom showed both boys asleep, sprawled across grubby sheets, mercifully free of cat excrement.
The tom was sitting at the windowsill, a black silhouette against the slowly darkening sky, watching her with p.i.s.s-colored eyes.
... careful ...
No One picked up the iron-thrower, lying amidst the empty bottles and scattered playing cards. She slipped the weight into a hidden pocket beneath her shoulder, patted its bulk.
I'm always careful. See you tonight.
... will see you first ...
Out the door and down the stairs into dirty streets and long shadows, hundreds of people scurrying about their business before the nighttime curfew fell. The city's stink was waiting for her-human waste, black seawater and chi fumes. Autumn's chill was a welcome relief after the blistering summer, but the scarlet sunset was still bright as a blast furnace, and she slipped her decrepit goggles over her eye to spare it the burn.
She could feel the noise pressing on her skin, the bustle and murmur of people hurrying to end their day, the hum of motor-rickshaw, generator growls. Beneath it all, more a vibration than a sound, she could sense the subtle ring of discontent. Of anger. Broken gla.s.s crunching underfoot, the straw-dry crackle of tinder, ready to ignite. Graffiti splashed over army recruitment posters; the same message on almost every street.
She walked over the tar-black Shoujo and Shiroi rivers, into the cramped symmetry of Upside. Here the mood shifted; neo-chnin merchants scurrying about, hunched shoulders and nervous glances, market stalls standing empty. The sun was kissing the horizon by the time she made it to the palace grounds, bowing low before the gate guards, proffering her permit with downcast gaze. The lowly s.h.i.t Girl was unworthy of evening salutations, of course, and the men simply opened the gate and stood aside. The thought of speaking to a Burak.u.min would no more have crossed their minds than the thought of addressing raw sewage floating in the gutter.
Courtiers gathered in multicolored knots, murmurs hidden behind breather and fluttering fan, watchful eyes narrowed to paper cuts as she made her way to the royal wing to begin her nightly duties. A trio of wretchedly thin tigers strained against their chains in the gloom-soaked courtyard, wheezing in the poisoned air. Once she entered the Daimyo's wing, everywhere she walked, the chirp and skritch and creak of nightingale floors followed like a shadow.
If the floors were not enough to dissuade potential a.s.sa.s.sins, the Guild had released a swarm of what were apparently called "spider-drones" inside the palace a week ago. The devices were fist-sized, set with a windup key and eight segmented legs, needle-sharp. They crawled the halls, the ceilings, delicate clockwork innards tick-tick-ticking. She'd picked one up out of curiosity when they first appeared, and it had vibrated in her hand and sang tang!tang!tang! until she put it down again. A fellow servant had warned her the devices transmitted everything they saw to their Guild masters, and from that day forth, No One had been looking over her shoulder for the accursed little machines. Between the floors and the Guild's eyes, Lord Hiro's claim to the throne was looking more secure by the day.
Stopping outside the Daimyo's suite, she bowed low to the Iron Samurai guarding his door. Their golden tabards declared them members of the Kazumitsu Elite-the guardians of the royal line, wreathed in the shame of failure after the Shgun's a.s.sa.s.sination. They stood seven feet tall in their suits of -yoroi armor, all pistons and clockwork and roof-broad spaulders, chainsaw katana and wakizashi crossed at their waists. In the days before Yoritomo's death, their suits had been enameled black, but now the armor was painted bone-white; the color of death daubed onto living men.
She'd heard rumors about the night of the Inochi Riots, when news of the Guild's atrocities against gaijin war prisoners had first broken over the wireless. Stories about a legion of pale ghosts issuing forth from the royal palace to crush the uprising into the dust. A young captain leading their charge, flames glinting in eyes as green as h.e.l.lsfire.
An almost imperceptible nod told No One she was allowed inside. Bowing low, she pulled aside the double doors, gaze downturned, shoulders hunched.
"Try now," said a metallic, sibilant voice.
She stepped into the room, taking in the lantern-light scene before dropping to her knees and pressing forehead to floorboard. Three Guildsmen were gathered around a hospice chair. The first pair were indistinguishable; vaguely feminine in form, clad in skintight, earth-brown membranes and long, buckle-studded ap.r.o.ns. Silver orbs were affixed to their spines, eight long, gleaming limbs unfolding in a razor-sharp halo about them. They had featureless faces and bulbous eyes, glowing heartsblood red.
She recognized the third Guildsman immediately-Kensai, Second Bloom of Chapterhouse Kigen, voice of the Guild in the Tiger capital. A hulking figure over six feet tall, muscular lines shaped into the atmos-suit of burnished bra.s.s covering his flesh. Eyes aglow. Mechabacus on his chest, stuttering and chattering the indecipherable language of the machine. Disconcertingly, the face molded into the Second Bloom's helm was that of a perfect, beautiful boy, segmented iron piping spilling from a mouth frozen in a perpetual scream. As always, the sight of him unleashed a slick of cold fear in the girl's belly.
"Lord Hiro, please." Kensai's voice was an iron rasp. "Try again."
No One glanced up swiftly, focused on the figure reclining in the hospice chair. Long dark hair and a pointed goatee. Piercing green eyes, like Kitsune jade. High cheekbones and smooth skin, bronzed and well-muscled, six small hills on an abdomen that seemed carved of kiri wood. She thought he could have been handsome in a different place, a different time. But sleepless nights had drawn gray circles around those beautiful eyes, and lack of appet.i.te (she'd noted his meals were always untouched) had left him gaunt and stretched.
Lord Hiro lifted his right arm, frown darkening his brow, closing his fingers one by one.
No matter how many times she saw it, she had to admire the artistry. The ball-joint digits with their case-hardened tendons. The intricate lace of machinery, at once awful and beautiful. A hissing, whirring construct, cogs and interlocking teeth, crafted of dull, gray iron.
A clockwork arm.
"Excellent," Kensai breathed. "Your response speed is most promising."
"Will I be able to wield a sword soon?" Lord Hiro's voice came from far away.
"Certainly." A spider-woman nodded, silver limbs flexing. "The prosthetic is far stronger than mere meat and bone. But the finesse with which you wield a weapon is up to you. Practice, Hiro-sama. Skin is strong. Flesh is weak."
"The lotus must bloom," Kensai murmured.
The Tiger Daimyo stood slowly, flexing the arm amidst the hiss of pistons and small bursts of chi exhaust. An iron cuff sleeved his shoulder, hiding the junction where metal ended and meat began. His other shoulder was tattooed with the imperial sun, burning across sculpted muscle, a newly inked cl.u.s.ter of lotus blooms beneath indicating his rank as a clanlord. A Daimyo. Master of the Tiger zaibatsu.
Impressive work for an eighteen-year-old.
Slipping on a loose, silken robe, he finally spotted No One kneeling on the floor, caught her in the midst of one furtive glance. Blanching, she pressed her head back to the boards, heart pounding in her chest. She should have waited until they were gone. Should have started with the ministerial chambers instead of coming here, falling under those b.l.o.o.d.y stares- "Be about your business, girl," the Tiger Lord said.
She stood swiftly, making her way into the dim bedchamber beyond. Kneeling by the chamber pot, listening to the drone of the Second Bloom's voice.
"The Phoenix clanlords have accepted invitation to your wedding, great Lord. The Floating Palace is already on its way here. We have it on good authority the Dragons will soon follow. With Ryu and Fushicho ratifying your claim, the Kitsune will soon fall into line. If not, any thoughts of rebellion will be crushed once the Foxes set eyes on your wedding gift."
"Hai. I will take you to Jukai province for an inspection. A week or so from now."
"I have never been fond of surprises, Kensai."
"Then this will be a first, great Lord."
No One stood slowly, frowning, chamber pot in hand.
Wedding gift? What in the Maker's name...?
She'd lingered too long for answers. Slipping from the bedchamber, gaze downturned, she carried her clay burden across the room. The a.s.semblage paid her no more attention than a stain on the floor. The spider-women were packing away their tools, the Tiger Lord standing on the balcony, staring out over his city as evening smothered it into silence. The Second Bloom loomed at his back, the smell of grease and chi thick in the air.
"Now," Kensai said. "We must speak of these ... funerary theatrics among you and the other Kazumitsu Elite..."
Out the door, ducking between the two towering hulks of death-white iron standing vigil. Her mind awhirl. She had to get to the Kuro Street safe house, report to Gray Wolf. But to avoid suspicion, she'd have to work her full shift, straight-faced, no pace in her step, no fear in her eye. The girl n.o.body wanted, n.o.body knew. An insignificance in human guise, no more worthy of concern or notice than a c.o.c.kroach crawling in the cracks.
Forcing those cracks wider by the day.
I am nothing.
I am No One.
The earthquake struck soon afterward-a thirty-second tremor shaking the palace walls, vases tumbling from their perches and tapestries from their hooks. The fitful tremblings of the ground beneath their feet provided momentary distraction amidst the mounting courtly intrigue, but of course, it was left to the servants to clear up the mess afterward. The house mistress was furious and No One, being who she was, wore the worst of her temper.
Lady Sun was perhaps half an hour from waking by the time No One escaped the palace. The girl walked slowly, straw hat pulled down low, through the grounds and out into the predawn still. She saw a beggar on an empty street corner, walking in circles, claiming the quake was proof of Lord Izanagi's displeasure at the impending royal wedding. As she watched, the poor wretch was beset by fresh-faced bushimen in Hiro's colors and treated to an impromptu boot party. When pressed by their captain, she showed her permit, and hurried on her way.
Across the river to Downside, daylight still an empty vow on the eastern horizon. Daken met her in his usual spot, slinking from the alley mouth like a blade from its sheath, the scent of freshly murdered corpse-rat smeared on his muzzle as he purred and pressed his face to hers.
... saw you first ...
Clever. You want to keep lookout for me again?
... we go to thin house . .?
Just for a little while. I need to see my friends.
... Yoshi come . .?
No, Daken. Yoshi can't know about them. My friends are a secret, remember?
... many secrets ...
You won't tell him, will you?
... have not told you his, have i . .?
The tom gifted her with a smug gaze, turned and dashed off into the gloom. For all his size, Daken moved like a shadow, silent as tombstones. From the tumbledown rooftops, he could see for miles-better than anyone who might follow her through the twisted labyrinth into Docktown. Hands hidden in her sleeves, the comforting weight of the iron-thrower beneath her arm, No One set off through the sprawl toward the bitter reek of Kigen Bay.
Doubling back. Checking at corners. Watching reflections in dirty shop-front gla.s.s. Just like they'd taught her. Her induction into the Kage had been swift; need dictating pace. After witnessing Yoritomo's death at the Stormdancer's hands, a tiny spark had flared inside her, dimly illuminating a formerly lightless corner of her mind. The notion of rebelling-of not only standing apart but working against the government-it simply wasn't something she'd ever considered possible. But it was surprising how the pillars of an unshakable worldview could be reduced to rubble when a sixteen-year-old girl murders the Lord of the Imperium right in front of you. Impossible notions become plausible in the face of an event that tectonic.
The problem being, of course, she had no way of tracking the Kage down. No ingress through the doors of the cabal. The spark inside her flickered and dimmed, no kindling to help it flourish. Yoshi kept her clear of the Inochi Riots-told her flatly the systematic murder of thousands of gaijin prisoners for the sake of a flower crop was none of their business. But when the Stormdancer returned and made her speech in the Market Square during Yoritomo's funeral, when the girl had looked into the crowd and stared right at her, No One had felt the spark burst into ravenous flame. As the Stormdancer had taken to the sky, despite the risks, despite knowing it was foolish, No One had found her fist in the air and tears in her eye and known, simply known she had to do something more.
The very next day, she'd been approached by Gray Wolf.
The safe house was an una.s.suming building, crammed between two warehouses, close to the towering sky-spires. Kuro Street was narrow, stubborn weeds struggling through the cracks into a life of suffocating exhaust. Boarded windows. Street courtesans beneath paper parasols stained gray by the toxic rain. Gutters overflowing with garbage, lotus fiends and blacklung beggars-just another stretch of Docktown real estate to any without eyes to see the truth of it.
No One nodded to one of the Kage lookouts (a twelve-year-old girl inexplicably named "Butcher," who had the most astonishingly foul mouth she'd ever heard) and walked up to the safe house's narrow facade. Knocking four times, waiting until a thin elderly woman opened the door. She was dressed in dark cloth, silver hair in a single braid, mouth covered by a black kerchief. Her back bent, fingers worn, old lines deepened by hardship at the corners of her eyes.
"Gray Wolf." No One bowed.
The old woman motioned with her head. "Come in."
They walked past a narrow dining area, descending creaking stairs into a dingy cellar. The walls had been knocked out, connecting the bas.e.m.e.nts of the neighboring buildings into one large room, multiple stairwells leading up into the adjacent structures. An impressive collection of radio equipment was arranged on a long table, maps of Kigen on the walls. A young woman with sleepy eyes was bent over the rig, at work with a soldering iron. A few others were scattered around the room, falling still as she entered. The biggest of them-a towering lump of muscle with shovel-broad hands-regarded her with an even stare.
"Our friend in the palace," Gray Wolf said. "Now come and say h.e.l.lo, you rude sod. You're not so big I can't take to you with the wooden spoon."
The man smiled, and favoring his right leg, limped over and offered a bow. He stood a good foot taller than No One. Strong jaw, thick neck, cheeks that hadn't felt a razor's touch in weeks. His right shoulder was tattooed with a beautiful phoenix, his left with the Imperial Sun (she'd learned quickly that city operatives didn't burn off their ink). He had a handsome face framed by tight braids, hard eyes ringed in shadow. A kusarigama hung from his obi, the sickle blade almost hidden by the folds of his grubby trousers.
"No One," Gray Wolf said. "We call this unshaven lump the Huntsman."
No One bowed. "Forgive my rudeness, but I have news."
The Gray Wolf's matronly smile evaporated. "What is it, child?"
"The Fushicho clanlords have thrown in with Lord Hiro. They will attend his wedding, and almost certainly support him as Shgun. The Ryu are apparently set to roll over and ask to have their bellies scratched too."
Gray Wolf sighed, shook her head. "So easily. I had hoped..."
"Their oaths bind them to the Kazumitsu," the big man said. "If the dynasty lives, so does their obligation. But without the wedding, there's no way in h.e.l.ls the Dragons would bow to someone like Hiro. Their army is huge. And the Phoenix hate bowing to anyone."
"The Kitsune still have not answered. Perhaps the Foxes will choose-"
"Forgiveness, please," No One interrupted. "But there is more. The Second Bloom was speaking of a wedding gift for Lord Hiro. An inspection tour in Jukai province."
The Huntsman raised one eyebrow. "What kind of gift?"
"I don't know. Maybe they're building something? A weapon?"
Gray Wolf turned to one of the men by the radio rig. "Sparrow, send word to the Iishi. Ask if the Stormdancer's Guildsman knows anything about this business."
"How's Michi?" the Huntsman asked. "Have you spoken to her?"
"Still under house arrest. All of Aisha's maidservants are. Lord Hiro has appointed his cousin as Lord Magistrate, a man named Ichizo. He's questioning the girls personally."
"At least she's out of Kigen jail," the big man sighed. "I told her not to go back there..."