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Her brother took a long pull from the bottle, glanced at her.
"So how was work?"
"Talk of clan war is all over the kitchens," she shrugged. "Dragon clan are gearing up to attack the Foxes. Rumor has it the local bushimen are going to kick out all the gaijin merchants in Docktown today. Tell the round-eyes to sail back to Morcheba or have their ships burned into the bay."
"Do you do anything in that place beside gossip?" Jurou smiled.
"I don't gossip," she pouted. "I just listen."
Daken prowled up to the table, sharing his evil, p.i.s.s-eyed glare with both boys, lamplight glittering in dirty yellow. The cat sniffed, as if objecting to the smell of the booze, then jumped up on the window ledge to stare out at the dawn, half-tail swishing.
Jurou held out the bottle; a lethal brand of brown rice wine the locals affectionately called "seppuku."
"You know that won't happen."
The boy shrugged, placed the bottle back on the table. In the distance, the trio heard six tolls upon an iron bell; an automated Guild crier trundling the streets on rubber tank tracks and ringing in the Hour of the Phoenix. No One leaned down and turned on their little soundbox, started trawling the shortwave frequencies.
"Izanagi's b.a.l.l.s, not the Kage again..." Yoshi moaned.
"They transmit once an hour, one day a week," she growled. "And I have to listen to your serial melodramas every other day, so up with the shut."
Yoshi adopted a mocking tone, spoke into his fist. "You're on rrrrrradio Kage. We'll be telling you how wonderful your lives are now the Shgun's dead for the next five minutes, or until the Guild kicks in our door and we scatter like fleas when the dog comes scratching. Thanks for listeniiiing."
"Least they're doing something," she muttered. "At least they stand for something. They're fighting to change the world, Yoshi."
"Girl, if you were any more full of s.h.i.t, your eye would be brown."
"I'm supposed to point out my eye is brown now, right?"
"Oh my G.o.ds, when did that happen?"
She met his lopsided grin with a sour glare.
"Oh, come on now, sister-mine." Yoshi leaned over and gave her a hug, planted a noisy kiss on her cheek. "You know it's just in fun."
Jurou took the bottle from Yoshi. "Seriously, girl. The way you glue your ears to those broadcasts ... You'll be telling us you're joining up with those fools next..."
"Mad though she is, she's not quite mad enough for that," Yoshi smirked.
No One pursed her lips, said nothing. After a long search on the radio, she found a scrabbling s.n.a.t.c.h of low-fidelity static. Eye narrowed with concentration, she adjusted the dial in tiny increments until she latched on to the signal.
The transmission was distorted, awash with faint white noise. Turning the volume down, she leaned close to the speaker. She didn't recognize the voice-truthfully she hadn't been with the Kage long enough for introductions to more than a few members, the one safe house on Kuro Street. Less risk that way. For them and her. None of the local cell even knew each other by name-everyone went by some kind of handle to lessen damage in the event of a capture. When Gray Wolf had asked her what she wanted to be called, she'd considered something romantic-something exotic or dangerous sounding. The name of a hero from some childhood story. But in the end, "No One" seemed to fit best.
She licked at dry lips, listened hard to the tiny voice.
"... curfew still in effect eight weeks after Yoritomo's death. How long will this government continue to make its citizens prisoners in their own homes? Do they beat children and old women caught after dark without permits for the sake of your safety? Or because their slave state is crumbling? Because their fear of their own people is at last justified?
"Even now the Stormdancer is in council with Kage leadership, planning their next strike against the murderous regime that has strangled this nation for two centuries. She is the tempest to wash away the dregs of the Kazumitsu Dynasty, and give birth to a shining new..."
The sound of heavy iron boots and screams in the street outside made her flinch, and she turned the volume down to a whisper. Orders to halt in the name of the Daimyo were followed by scuffling and a wet crunch on cobblestones. A sharp cry of pain.
"Might want to turn that off for a bit," Yoshi said. "Unless you want to invite the bushi' up here for a drink?"
No One sighed, flipped a small switch and silenced the soundbox. She settled herself on the cushion next to her brother and Daken jumped down into her lap. The girl ran her fingers through the big tom's smoky fur, across the nubs where his ears used to be, the scars crisscrossing his body. The cat closed his eyes and purred like a motor-rickshaw.
"He stinks of dead rat," Yoshi scowled.
"Funny that." She gave the cat an experimental sniff.
"He s.h.i.t in our bed again last night."
The girl laughed. "I know."
Yoshi brandished the iron-thrower. "He does it again, he might find himself divorced of more than ears."
"Don't even joke like that." She scowled daggers, held the cat close to her thin breast. Daken opened his eyes, stared directly at the boy. A low feline growl rumbled in his chest.
"You don't scare me, friend." Yoshi waggled the weapon under the tom's nose.
She made a face. "Little boy with his big toy."
"Been telling stories about me again, Jurou?" Yoshi raised an eyebrow at the other boy, took another belt of rice wine. No One watched her brother drink, lips pressed shut, radiating faint disapproval. Even with one eye, she could stare down with the best of them, and Yoshi avoided her gaze. Draping Daken over her shoulder, she stood with a sigh.
"I'm going to bed."
"What?" Jurou cried. "You just got in!"
"I'd rather sleep than watch you two get drunk and s...o...b..r over each other."
"Well, you should go out and find yourself a pretty man." Jurou waggled his eyebrows. "s...o...b..r over him instead."
"I've already got a man, don't I, Daken?" She planted a kiss on the cat's cheek, shuffled toward her room. "Yes, I do, my big brave man."
"Mreoooowl," Daken said.
Yoshi stared at her back, a sour look on his face.
"Makes a fellow ponder gouging his eyes out just thinking on it." He scowled at the cat flopped over his sister's shoulder, waved the bottle in his direction. "I mean it, you little b.a.s.t.a.r.d. You s.h.i.t our bed again, I'll feed you to the corpse-rats."
The big tom blinked once, a broken-gla.s.s glint dancing in his eyes. His thoughts were a purr inside the siblings' heads, the whisper of black velvet on silken sheets.
... would not sleep with your mouth open tonight if i were you ...
A PALE INFERNO.
Whether it's a reeking pit in the heart of Kigen city, or a comfortable house with barred windows amidst the branches of an ancient sugi tree, a prison is a prison is a prison.
The room was divided down the center, thick bamboo bars separating the jailed from the jailers. Ayane sat against the far wall, her spine curved to accommodate the silver orb affixed between her shoulder blades. The long, thin spider legs sprouting from the bulbous hub were curled up against her back, motionless save for the broken limb trailing on the floor beside her. It had stopped spitting sparks once they'd come in from the rain, but still twitched occasionally, like a gutter-child stricken with palsy.
Kin stood outside the cell, hands wrapped around the bars. The forest air was cloying, sweat gleaming on his body. Ayane still wore the uwagi he'd given her, though she'd torn a hole in the back to accommodate her extra limbs. Someone had fished out a pair of oversized hakama to cover her legs, grubby and threadbare. Her feet were filthy, toes curling against the floorboards. The rain drummed insistent upon the ceiling.
"You need not apologize, Kin-san." Ayane smiled despite her grim surroundings. "You cannot blame them for being suspicious. If I were a Kage who had turned myself over to the Guild, the Inquisition would have arranged far less comfortable accommodations."
"The Inquisition." Kin sighed. "I haven't thought about them in a long time."
"Do you still dream?" Ayane's eyes were wide. "Your Awakening, I mean?"
"Every night since I was thirteen."
Ayane sighed, stared at the floor.
"I hoped ... once I unplugged..." She ran a hand over her bare scalp. "It might stop."
"What do you see?" Kin's voice was soft as smoke.
She shook her head. "I do not want to talk about that."
"Your What Will Be can't be any worse than mine."
She looked up at him again, and he saw sorrow welling in her eyes.
"There are secrets, and then there are secrets, Kin-san."
Ayane drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. The delicate limbs at her back unfurled, one pair at a time, folding around her, coc.o.o.ning her in five-feet lengths of sharpened chrome. The clicking of a hundred wet mandibles filled the air, cutting through the chilled hum of the wind amidst the trees, the paper-dry conversations of falling leaves. The broken limb twitched, illuminating her face with faint bursts of blue-white.
"It feels so strange to be out of my skin." She rubbed her knees as if savoring the sensation. "And First Bloom help me, the smells. I used to get skinless alone in my habitat, of course, but it was nothing like this..."
"Can you ... feel them?" Kin pointed to the spider limbs. "Like your flesh?"
"No." She shook her head. "But I feel them in my mind."
"Does the broken one hurt?"
"It is giving me a headache." A rippling shrug. "But I will have to live with it."
Kin looked around the tiny cell, the moisture beading on her skin, slick upon the iron padlock. He remembered his own time in here, the agony of his burns with no anesthetic to numb him; fear and uncertainty intensified by physical pain. Empty hours alone, listening to the sound of his own breathing and counting the endless minutes in his head.
"I've got a tool kit here." He pointed at his belt. "I could try fixing it?"
"Will that not get you in trouble?"
"They said you weren't to leave the cell. You're not."
"Kin-san, I do not wish to cause you grief..."
Kin was already selecting tools from his belt. He gave her a small smile, held up a screwdriver. "Turn around. Let's see what we can see."
They sat together, her within the bars, him without, the hushed metallic tones of the tools and metal between them. As his fingers flitted over intricate clockwork, he realized how much he'd missed it-the language of the machine. The poetry of it. The absoluteness of it. A world governed by laws, immutable, unchangeable. A world of ma.s.s and force, equations and calibrations. So much simpler than a world of flesh, with all its chaos and complexity.
He murmured around the four screws pursed in his lips. "It feels good to be working with my hands again."
"I am surprised they are not worked to the bone."
"What do you mean?"
"... Forgiveness." The girl shook her head. "I speak out of turn. It is not my place."
Kin pulled the screws from his mouth, frowning. "No, Ayane. Say what you think."
"It is just ... your knowledge could make life up here so much easier..." The girl shivered, shook her head. "But no. I am a guest here. I do not understand their ways. I will be silent."
Kin's frown deepened. "Ayane, the Guild can't hurt you here. There are no Inquisitors waiting in the shadows, no Kyodai to punish you, no Blooms to answer to. You're your own person. Your choices are your own, too."
"Then it is my right to choose to remain silent, is it not?"
"But why? You're free now. What's to be afraid of?"
Ayane glanced over her shoulder, spider limbs rippling.
"The girl all Guildsmen fear."
Kaori's glare was the color of water on polished steel, sharp at the edges.
"I cannot believe you brought it here."
Four figures knelt in a semicircle around the fire pit in Daichi's dwelling, lit by crackling flame. The a.s.sembled faces belonged to the Kage military council; hard eyes, cool expressions, sword-grip calluses on every hand. There was Kaori, of course, fringe draped over her face, clad in simple clothing of dappled green. Maro and Ryusaki sat together-broad, flat faces, nut-brown skin, deeply lidded eyes that seemed almost closed even when they were fully awake. Ryusaki had a shaved head, a long plaited moustache, his occasional smiles revealing gums bereft of most of his front teeth. Maro's hair was bound in warrior's braids and he was missing an eye, the left lens on the goggles slung about his neck painted black. The brothers were former samurai who'd served under Daichi's command, following him from Kigen city into the wilderness. Maro usually led the arson crew attacks on the southern lotus fields, and seemed perpetually wreathed in smoke. Ryusaki was a swordmaster, Michi's sensei, and the man had been teaching Yukiko some bladework in the few moments she found spare.
Daichi himself knelt in the center, a cup of tea before him, fists on his knees. He ran his hand down through his long faded moustache, eyes the same blue-gray as his daughter's. His old-fashioned katana rested in an alcove at his back, sibling to the wakizashi Kaori carried-a scabbard of black enamel, embossed with golden cranes.
Yukiko put her palm to her brow, headache digging its boots into the back of her eyeb.a.l.l.s. Sickness swelled in her stomach, the floor of Daichi's house rolling like the deck of a sky-ship in a storm. She'd tried to close off the Kenning, but could still feel Buruu waiting on the landing outside-a pale inferno burning in her mind's eye.
"It was either bring her with us or kill her, Kaori."
"So kill her," the woman snapped. "Where is the issue?"