Chapter 8 Daylight Meetings
It was a place that she really never expected to be.
The air was redolent with the musk of the great cats, and curious, even threatening eyes had followed her progress here. But as they lead her into the audience chamber, she held her head high and walked with pride.
The person she had come to visit was already in the audience room, sitting on his dais. His eyes followed her every move; they were cold eyes, green and intense, yet she could sense his curiousity, his weighing of advantage and disadvantage, his questioning why the daughter of his enemy would seek him out.
Nyoko, well-schooled and determined, carried herself like a person of power. She was dressed exquisitely, in delicately layered robes of silk. Her outer jacket was of a fine figured brocade, cranes and foxes chasing each other in a brilliant red pattern. Her train was of navy edged with red. She settled down on the proffered mat with great grace, her skirts making a lovely pool of color around her. Her long hair cascaded like a ebony stream until it reached the floor. Handling her fan with the dexterity that showed her status, she acknowledged him, and waited.
There was a very soft murmur from his attendants, then the air grew silent. After a brief time, he spoke, “Nyoko-hime, you have graced me with your unexpected presence,” he said.
He adjusted his posture on the low dias he knelt on. He too was dressed immaculately, in blue silk robes. His eboshi cap was flawless placed upon his head, and his shoulders were intimidating with the wings of his vest. He sat regally, knowing he was master. In front of him, he had rested his sword as symbol of his rank and power. Several retainers sat near him, in subservient positions, to reinforce his station, and to make it clear who was the power in this room. She could make no mistakes.
“Neko-sama,” she said, choosing his title, rather than his name, bowing her head perfectly. “You are too kind to allow this poor outcast a place to rest.”
“The poor accommodations we offered you - are acceptable to you? “ he questioned.
“More than satisfactory,” she replied. “I did not know the Neko clan had such discriminating taste.”
“The maids I have assigned you?” His face was a mask, giving little.
“Most excellent, Dono. They put my feeble skills in courtesy to shame.”
“I am pleased that their humble skill has been of some small service to you, Kitsune-hime. It is so rare that one of your family has deigned to grace us with their presence.”
“It is truly an oversight on my father’s part,” she said. He raised an eyebrow. For a moment their eyes met, exchanging knowing looks.
One of the attendants whispered something to another, hiding it behind their fan. The Neko lord gave them a sharp look, then returned his attention back to Nyoko. “I was truly saddened when I heard of your....unfortunate turn of events.”
The fox woman dropped her head and hid her face behind her fan.
“Forgive me for mentioning it.” He looked out to the garden beyond. “Life can be cruel when there are these types of...misunderstandings within the clan.”
Nyoko took a deep breath, and lowered her fan. “No, Neko-sama, it is appropriate. You are most gracious, even though you and my father have so often been at odds.”
She reached into her sleeve, swallowed hard, and pulled out a small box. Taking a deep breath, her eyes grew distant and unfocused. “Yashuo, for you,” she whispered. Then her look hardened.
“Let me give you a token of my appreciation for what you have done for me, Neko-sama, a small gift. Although it is only a trifling thing, I thought you might find it of some small interest. You could call it a key,” she said, leaning forward and placing the box on the mat in front of her.
His face tightened even more as he looked at the container. She opened it, let the aura of the jewel within escape the confines of the box. Even with his control so good, his eyes widened at the implications of what he was doing, but he was a creature with honor. He wished to make certain. “Are you really sure, Kitsune-hime” he said. “Truly sure? You know how I will use this.”
She met his look. There was nothing coy or shy or soft in it. Her eyes grew harder, glowing, and her face predatory. “Yes. I am counting on it.” She closed her fan. “Let the sky fall.”
Excerpt from Tale of the Last Feast by Sachio Hayashi writing as Michael Mitsuo
A cloud of dust announced the passage of a car on the mountain road ahead, coming his way. Sukeo slowed his Outback down and looked for a wide place in the road. The dirt road he was on wasn’t a bad road as Forest Service roads went, but it was meandering up the side of a moutain, and there were not a lot of places to pull over. Sukeo reached the pullout, a niche cut into the rock face decorated with roots from the tree above, balsam and vines, and he waited. Not long after, a green pickup came barreling past him, the back filled with tent and kayak and other camping gear. It was only the second car he had seen since he got more than a mile off the main road. Once the dust settled, he eased back onto this wide ledge cut into the rockface, surrounded by a pine forest that they used for a road..
The drop off to his left held a stream. From time to time, the water peeked out from its cover of willow and cottonwood, and he could see it glinting in the light. Once he saw a golden eagle fly off into the drop off, and decided to take that as a good omen. Another time, he saw deer across the river and up the hill. Large deer with big ears. The road began to dip into a valley and the stream drew nearer. Eventually he reached a point where the road was in a fairly level meadow, surrounded by pine and hilltops rising in different directions. Another road joined the one he had been following. Sukeo, ready for a break and not sure which road he should follow, pulled over and parked, got out of the car, and walked around, sniffing, looking, sensing. Somewhere, not too close nearby, he could smell a touch of wood smoke. This time of year, it was probably a sign that someone was camping. The air smelled of water and animal life, earth, and pine. Nature, not city smells. It was very quiet here. He had forgotten how quiet it could be away from the city and the traffic and the endless parade of humans and their machines and their sounds. No wonder the Guardian decided to stay in the woods.
Sukeo rolled his shoulders to get the stiffness out, and then locked his car. Walking down one of the paths, his booted feet crunching on the dirt and dry vegetation on the trail, he took a deep breath. This forest smelled differently than the woods back home, pleasant but different. He looked up at the tall ponderosa pines swaying in the breeze. It could be good to live in this part of the contry. The taste of the air, the scent of the wildlife, even the feel of Shinkiro was different, so much less sullied by the pain and karma of willful human greed and grief. Much less intentional blood spilled. He let the energy of it sweep over him, touching him. So little to hide here.
Something teased his mind, making him relax and think foxy thoughts, about how it would feel to run though the woods, not as a human, but as his animal self. It became harder and harder to resist the urge to change form. Suddenly, he found himself on all fours, his nose sniffing, his ears twitching with the new sounds they could catch, his bushy fox-tail following proudly behind him. Tasting the air and listening, he heard the sound of a small creature in the underbrush. His curiosity caught, he focused his eyes in the direction of the noise, and saw a flash of movement, which darted deeper into the growth, down a small ravine. Unable to stop himself, he followed. He had to know what it was, and maybe taste it if he caught it.
The ravine, a dry streambed, led down to another meadow. The creature that drew his attention barked at him angrily, and darted up into a tree.
He looked around him. His thoughts were simpler in his fox form, less concerned with jobs to be done and people to find, more interested in the basic things that mattered to foxes, food, water, play, safety. Even though he remembered that it needed to be done, it didn’t matter as much when he could feel the sun on his back and the air in his ears. There was a spring bubbling nearby, which flowed into the stream bed. He walked over to it, took a long drink of water. He wanted to find a nice safe place to curl up and take a nap, and forget about the thoughts that were nagging him in the back of his mind. He began to scout.
Sukeo didn’t hear the shape walk up to him. A shadow passed over him, and he tried to run, but found he couldn’t move. Something, some magic froze him in place.
A shape, a man’s shape knelt down next to him. The figure was tall, dressed in grey clothing. He had long braided silver hair and shining dark eyes and an aura that was extremely strong and frightening. His face seemed familiar, his scent was familiar, but the frightened fox form Kitsune couldn’t remember why. He whined.
“Fox, fox, you are a Kitsune, far away from home. What are you doing here?” said the man’s voice. “I see you triggered the guardian magic.” It was a strong voice, commanding, but not angry. The man lay his hands on the fox’s head, and suddenly, the magic reverted, and Sukeo began to regain his human form and sensibilities.
The man looked at him. “Sukeo, is that you?” The voice sounded familiar.
Sukeo shook, then lifted his head. His eyes widened. “Yoshikata?”
The door they stood in front of was stout, well made wood, colored with a dark stain. A single small window was cut into it.
Slowly, the door opened. Sachio stood there, dressed in a blue Yukata, decorated with white cranes. A shiver went through Ayume as she saw recognition in his eyes. Sachio’s aura always felt so...intimidating.
She took a deep breath. “It’s good to see you, Uncle, “ she said at last, as Sachio moved out of the doorway to let them enter. “It’s been too long.”
“It has been awhile. I am glad you came. And you, too, Ichisuke. Still terrorizing them in the classroom?”
Ichisuke laughed as he ushered his two guests into a front room. For a western style room, he had made it as Japanese as possible.
A low table sat in the center of the room. A built in set of shelves with writing desk and alcove rested against one wall. Against the other wall, was a Buddha-shelf, where a small statue of Benzaiten sat. In the alcove was a single wall scroll, and a small flower arrangement. The floor was covered with tatami. Cushions in dark blue rested around the table.
“Please remove your shoes, “ he said as he entered the room. On the table was a small tray of sweets. A teapot and cups were waiting. Sachio poured hot water over the tea. Ichisuke and Ayume took their seats.
“I trust your trip across the mountains was not too rough,” Saicho said.
“No, no. It was very smooth and easy,” said Ayume.
“It has been a long time, niece,” he said, pouring tea for each of his guests.
“Too long. I didn’t realize so much time had gotten away from me,” she said, taking a sip.
“And you, Ichisuke. It’s been four or so years since your last time here.”
“Yes, Sensei. We have managed to stay busy since you chose to come here.”
“Eh, that’s good.” He sipped his tea and took one of the cookies. “Well, enough small talk. I’m not good at it, you know. I was raised by a mountain sage who gave me no practice in it. So what is it that brings the two of you here?”
“We believe that the Hunter and the Guardian are both in or on their way to Boise,” Ichisuke said.
“Yashuo and Yoshikata. So, perhaps it’s coming to an end. That’s going to be interesting to see. Shame Nyoko won’t be here to watch.”
They all sipped their tea. “About Nyoko, Uncle...” Ayume said.