CHAPTER ONE: Yukiko
As the iron war club scythed toward her head, Yukiko couldnt help wishing shed listened to her father.
She rolled aside as her cover was smashed to kindling, azalea petals drifting over the onis shoulders like perfumed snowflakes. The demon loomed above her, twelve feet high, all iron-tipped tusks and long, jagged fingernails. Stinking of open graves and burning hair, skin of polished midnight blue, eyes like funeral candles bathing the forest with guttering light. The club in its hands was twice as long as Yukiko was tall. One direct hit, and she would never see the samurai with the sea-green eyes again.
“Well, thats clever,” she chided herself, “thinking about boys at a time like this.”
A spit-soaked roar pushed her hard in the chest, scattering a cloud of sparrows from the temple ruins at her back. Lightning licked the clouds, bathing the whole scene in fleeting, brilliant white: the endless wilds, the stranded sixteen-year-old girl, and the pit demon poised to cave in her skull.
Yukiko turned and ran.
Trees stretched in every direction, a steaming snarl of roots and undergrowth, stinking of green rot. Branches whipped her face and tore her clothes, rain and sweat slicked her skin. She touched the fox tattoo sleeving her right arm, tracing its nine tails in prayer. The demon behind her bellowed as she slipped away, over root and under branch, deeper into the suffocating heat.
She screamed for her father. For Kasumi or Akihito. For anybody.
And nobody came.
The trees erupted and toppled in front of her, cleft to the heartwood by an enormous ten-span sword. Another oni appeared through the shower of falling green, tombstone mask for a face, lips pierced with rusted iron rings. Yukiko dived sideways as the great sword swept overhead, clipping her braid. Strands of long, black hair drifted down to the dead leaves.
She was rolling to her feet when the oni snatched her up, quicker than flies, its awful grip making her cry out. She could read the blasphemous kanji symbols carved on its necklace, feel the heat gleaming from its flesh. The first oni arrived, bellowing in delight. Her captor opened its jaws, a black maggot tongue lolling between its teeth.
She drew her tantō and stabbed the demons hand, burying six inches of folded steel to the hilt. Blood sprayed, black and boiling where it touched her skin. The oni roared and hurled her against a nearby cedar. Her skull cracked against the trunk and she crashed earthward, rag-doll limp, the bloody knife skittering from her grip. Darkness reached up to smother her and she desperately clawed it away.
Not like this.
The first demons laughter reminded her of screaming children, burning on Guild pyres in the Market Square. Its wounded comrade growled in a dark, backward tongue, stalking forward and raising its sword to end her. Lightning glinted on the blades edge, time slowing to a crawl as the blow began to fall. Yukiko thought of her father again, wishing for all the world shed done what shed been told for just once in her life.
Thunder cracked overhead. A white shape burst from the undergrowth and landed on the onis back; a flurry of razors, broken blue sparks and beating wings. The demon shrieked as the beast tore into its shoulders, ripping mouthfuls of flesh with a blood-slick beak.
The first oni growled, swinging its war club in a broad, hissing arc. Their attacker sprang into the air, tiny whirlwinds of falling leaves and snow-white petals dancing in time to the thrashing of its wings. The demons tetsubo slammed across its comrades shoulders. Bone splintered under the war clubs impact, the onis spine shattering like dark, wet glass. It crumpled to the ground, its last breath spattered in steaming black across Yukikos terrified face.
The beast landed off-balance, digging bloodstained claws into the earth.
The oni glanced at its companions corpse, shifting the war club from one hand to the other. Howling a challenge, it lifted the weapon and charged. The pair collided, beast and demon, crashing earthward and tumbling about in a flurry of feathers, petals and screams.
Yukiko wiped at the sticky black in her eyes, tried to blink away her concussion. She could make out blurry shapes rolling in the fallen leaves, dark splashes staining the white azalea blossoms. She heard a crunch, a choking gurgle, and then a vast, empty silence.
She blinked into the gloom, pulse throbbing behind her eyes.
The beast emerged from the shadows, feathers stained black with blood. It stalked toward her and lowered its head, growl building in its throat. Yukiko groped toward her tantō, pawing through the muck and sodden leaves for the blade as her eyesight dimmed. The darkness beckoned, arms open wide, promising an end to all of her fear. To be with her brother again. To leave this dying island and its poisoned sky behind. To lie down and finally sleep after a decade of hiding who and what she was.
She closed her eyes and wished she were safe and warm at home, nestled in her blankets, the air tinged blue-black with the smoke from her fathers pipe. The beast opened its beak and roared, a hurricane scream swallowing the light and memories.
Darkness fell completely.
CHAPTER TWO: Hachimans Chosen
It was on a sweltering morning two weeks earlier when Yoritomo-no-miya, Seii Taishōgun of the Shima Isles, emerged from his bedchamber, yawned and declared that he wanted a griffin.
His elderly major-domo, Tora Hideo, fell perfectly still. His calligraphy brush hovered over the arrest warrants piled on the table in front of him. Blood lotus smoke curled up from the bone pipe in his left hand, and Hideo squinted through the haze at his master. Even after seven years as Yoritomos chief minister, there were still days when he found his Shōgun impossible to read. To laugh, or not to laugh? That was the question.
“My Lord?” he finally ventured.
“You heard. A griffin.”
“My Lord refers to a statue of some kind? A monument, perhaps, to celebrate the bicentennial of the glorious Kazumitsu Dynasty?”
“No. A real one.”
One traitorous eyebrow rose toward Hideos hairline.
“But, my Lord . . .” The old man cleared his throat. “Thunder tigers are extinct.”
Dirty opalescent light filtered through the sitting rooms tall bay doors. A vast garden stretched out in the palace grounds below, its trees stunted and sickly despite the multitude of servants who toiled beneath them every day. Faint birdsong drifted from the greenery like mist; the mournful cries of a legion of sparrows. The birds were imported monthly from the north at the Shōguns request, their wings kept clipped so they couldnt flee the reek.
The sky hung heavy with a pall of fumes, sealing in the days already oppressive heat. As the Ninth Shōgun of the Kazumitsu Dynasty stalked to the balcony and looked out over his capital, a sky-ship rose from Kigen harbor and started its long trek north, trailing a suffocating plume of blue-black exhaust.
“The cloudwalkers say otherwise,” he declared.
Hideo sighed inwardly, placed his calligraphy brush aside with care. Smoke curled up from his pipe to the ceiling; a vast dome of obsidian and pearl reminiscent of the once-clear night sky. The silken sokutai robe he wore was abominably heavy, layer upon layer of gold and scarlet, and he cursed again at having to wear the confounded thing in this heat. The old mans knees creaked as he rose. He inhaled another lungful of lotus and stared at his Lords back.
Yoritomo had changed much in the seven years since his father, Shōgun Kaneda, had passed on to his heavenly reward. Now in his twentieth summer, his shoulders were broad, jaw chiseled, long black hair tied up in the style of manhood. As was custom among all the great bloodlines of Shima, he had been adorned with beautiful tattoos on his thirteenth birthday: the fierce tiger prowling down his right arm venerating the guardian spirit of his clan, and the imperial sun over a field of blood lotus flowers down his left declaring him Shōgun of the Four Thrones of the Shima Empire. As the major-domo watched, the tiger tattoo blinked, flexing claws as sharp as katana across his masters skin. The totem seemed to stare right at him.
Hideo squinted at the pipe in his hand, deciding hed smoked enough for one morning.
“These cloudwalkers were men of the Kitsune clan, hai?” He exhaled a plume of narcotic midnight blue. “The wise man never trusts the fox, great Lord.”
“You have heard the rumor, then.”
“Nothing escapes my spies, great Lord. Our web is spun across the entire Shōgunate.” The old man moved his arm in a broad arc. “Fox, Dragon, Phoenix or Tiger, there is no clan and no secret that—”
“You did not think to report it to me?”
Hideos arm fell to his side, the faintest shadow of a frown creasing his brow. “Forgive me, my Lord. I had no desire to trouble you with the superstitious babbling of peasant folk. If I roused you every time the taverns or brothels crawled with some fancy about flying tigers or giant sea serpents or other yōkai—”
“Tell me what you know.”
A long silence fell, punctuated by the calls of choking sparrows. Hideo heard the soft footfalls of a servant roaming distant hallways, ringing ten notes upon an iron bell and announcing in a clear, high voice that the Hour of the Crane had begun.
“A fantasy, great Lord.” Hideo finally shrugged, “A crew of cloudwalkers arrived in port three days ago, saying that monsoon winds drove their sky-ship off course beyond the cursed Iishi Mountains. While praying that their inflatable would not be burned to a cinder by the Thunder God Raijin, several of the men claimed to have seen the silhouette of an arashitora among the clouds.”
“An arashitora,” Yoritomo repeated. “A thunder tiger, Hideo. Just imagine it.”
The minister shook his head.
“Sailors are fond of their tall tales, my Lord. Those who sail the skies most of all. Any man who spends every minute of his day breathing lotus exhaust sooner or later finds himself possessed of an addled mind. I heard of one crew who swore they saw the blessed Maker God Izanagi walking among the clouds. Another group claim to have found the entrance to the Yomi underworld, and the boulder great Lord Izanagi used to seal it closed. Are we to believe their demented fictions also?”
“This is no fiction, Hideo-san.”
“My Lord, what—”
“I have dreamed it.” Yoritomo turned to face Hideo, his eyes alight. “I have seen myself riding among the thunderclaps astride a great arashitora, leading my armies to war overseas against the round-eye gaijin hordes. Like the Stormdancers of legend. A vision sent from mighty Hachiman, the God of War himself.”
Hideo covered his mouth and gave a small cough.
“Great Lord, equal of heaven—”
“. . . Shōgun, there has not been a confirmed sighting of a thunder tiger since the days of your great-grandfather. The lotus fumes that claimed the sea dragons have claimed them also. The great yōkai beasts are gone forever, back to the spirit realms that once bore them.” Hideo stroked his beard. “Or to the realms of the dead.”
The Shōgun turned from the window and folded his arms. The tiger tattoo paced around his bicep, crystalline eyes glittering, pausing to roar silently at the now sweating minister. Hideo fidgeted with his pipe.
“The beast will be captured, Hideo-san,” the Shōgun glared. “You will visit my hunt master and send him forth with this decree: he will bring me back this thunder tiger, alive, or I will send him and his men to dine with dread Lady Izanami, Mother of Death, and the thousand and one oni demons birthed from her black womb.”
“But Lord, your navy… all of your ships are either engaged in the glorious war or have been allocated to the lotus farms. The Guild will—”
“Will what? Deny their Shōgun? Hideo-san, the only will you should be concerned with at this moment is my own.”
The silence gleamed like an executioners blade.
“. . . Hai, great Lord. It shall be so.”
“Good,” Yoritomo nodded, turned back to the window. “I will feast before breakfast. Send in three geisha.”
Hideo bowed as low as his old back would allow, the tip of his thin beard sweeping the polished boards. Retreating a respectful distance from his Shōgun, he turned and hurried away, closing the elegantly decorated rice-paper doors behind him. His sandals beat a rapid pace along the nightingale floor, boards chirping brightly beneath him as he scurried through the sleeping quarters. The thin walls were adorned with long paper amulets the color of blood, scribed with protective mantra in broad, black strokes. Spring-driven ceiling fans were affixed to the exposed beams overhead, fighting a futile battle against the scorching heat. At each doorway loomed a granite statue of the Tora clans totem; great and proud Tiger, fiercest of all the kami spirits, his claws raised and fangs bared.
Next to each statue stood two members of the Shōguns personal guard, the Kazumitsu Elite. The samurai were clad in golden jin-haori tabards that reached almost to the floor, their armored hands clasping the hilts of chainsaw katana. The guards watched Hideo depart, as motionless and silent as the statues they stood vigil beside.
Hideo mopped his brow with the long sleeves of his robe as he shuffled out of the royal wing, his trail marked by the blue-black smoke still drifting from his bone pipe. He wheezed, his walking stick tapping a crisp beat across the boards. His stomach was busy turning somersaults.
“So now hes receiving visions from the gods,” he muttered. “Heavens preserve us.”
CHAPTER THREE: Red Saké
Masaru squinted through the pall of greasy smoke at the cards in front of him. The dealer watched him through half-closed lids, a blue-black wreath coiled in the air around his head. Masaru lifted his pipe and inhaled another lungful of lotus.
“Dont let the dragon steer the ship, my friend,” whispered Akihito. It was the traditional warning for a lotus smoker about to make a very bad decision.
Masaru exhaled, tendrils of smoke wafting up through his graying mustache, past bloodshot eyes. He took a sip of red saké and turned to his friend, eyebrow cocked.
Akihito was a mountain carved out of solid teak, harder than a seven-pipe hangover. His hair was drawn back in diagonal cornrows across his scalp, blond streaks bleached through the black. Four jagged scars ran along his chest, cutting across the beautiful phoenix tattoo on his right arm. The big man was handsome in a rugged, weather-beaten kind of way, dark, clear eyes regarding his friend with concern.
“You worry too much,” Masaru smiled.
Six men sat in a semi-circle around the low table of the gambling house, their cushions torn from some abandoned motor-rickshaw. The walls were rice-paper, painted with figures of exotic women and even more exotic animals: fat panda, fierce leopards and other extinct beasts. Low light flickered in the overhead globes. A sound box sat above the bar; crafted out of dull, gray tin, its speaker cans connected to the main unit with frayed spools of copper wiring. Guild-approved music spilled from its innards; the thin wavering notes of shakuhachi flutes, accompanied by the clicking beat of wooden percussion. The growl of a struggling generator could be heard somewhere downstairs. Fat, black lotusflies swarmed among the rafters.
Each man had stripped to his waist in the sweltering heat, displaying a myriad of irezumi— tattoos—in all colors of the rainbow. A few of the players were Tiger clansmen, sporting ink from the hands of minor artisans that marked them as men of moderate means. Two others at the table had no kami spirits marked on their flesh at all, just simple patterns of koi fish, geisha girls and wildflowers that singled them out as lowborn. Known as Burakumin, these clanless types lurked at the bottom rung of Shimas caste system, with little hope of ascending. Unable to afford elaborate ink-work, a straight razor and a smudged handful of cuttlefish ink was the closest any of them had come to a real tattoo parlor.
The intricate imperial suns radiating across Akihito and Masarus left upper arms had been noted by everybody in the room, and not for the fact that the irezumi marked the pair as the Shōguns men. There was no shortage of desperate folk in the streets of Downside, some perhaps even desperate enough to risk Yoritomo-no-miyas wrath, and the simple fact was that the more elaborate a mans ink, the fatter his purse was likely to be.
Hushed conversations could be heard from the thugs and lowlifes skulking at other tables. Rumors of last weeks refinery fire, news of the war against the round-eyes overseas and whispers about the latest attack of the Kagé rebels on the northern lotus fields all drifted in the air with the smoke.
Masaru cracked his neck and touched the exquisite nine-tailed fox design sleeving his right arm, whispering a prayer to Kitsune. Fox was not as fierce as Tiger, brave as Dragon, nor as visionary as Phoenix. His people were not great warriors or explorers, nor lauded artisans; among the clan kami spirits, he was the easiest to discount. But Fox was cunning and quick, silent as shadows, and in long-forgotten days when the kami still walked Shima with earthly feet, Fox had imbued his people with his most precious gift. The gift of a desperate, uncanny luck.
Masaru rolled a kouka coin between stained fingers; a two-inch rectangular braid of dull gray iron stamped with the seal of the imperial mint. The game was oicho-kabu, a pastime older than the Empire itself. It was Masarus turn as first player; he would determine how many cards were dealt to each of the four fields in front of them. He pointed at the second field on the table, asking for another card, and left the others alone. The assembled gamblers glanced at each other and muttered, each bidding his stake a reluctant goodbye.
The dealer was a blubbery slug of a man, his fat, shaved head gleaming in the dirty light. The serpentine design spiraling down his right arm declared him a member of Ryu, the Dragon zaibatsu; once a clan of seafarers and raiders in the dark, uncivilized days before the unification of the Empire and the rise of the Lotus Guild.
Irezumi across his left arm heralded his allegiance to the Sasori-kai; a gang that ran the illicit card dens across the toxic portside slums of Kigen city. To find a blooded clansman among the yakuza gangs was a rarity, but from the quality of the dealers ink, the syndicate of cutthroats, pimps and extortionists was doing very well for itself.
The man-slug placed Masarus declared card on the unfinished wood, and taking the fourth card from the deck, he added it to his own hand. A gap-toothed grin spread behind his braided mustache, and he turned over a maple and chrysanthemum. The gamblers scowled and sipped their drinks. One gave Masaru an unappreciative shove.
Masaru held up a hand, tapped his cards with his forefinger.
“Whats the point?” moaned Akihito. “He has nine, dealer wins ties.”
“Fox looks after his own.” Masaru brushed a lotusfly away. “Turn them.”
The dealer shrugged and turned the first field: pine and silver grass for a total of nine. The second field revealed three cherry blossoms, also for nine. The gamblers perked up through the lotus haze; if the third field also flipped a nine, every man would receive triple his bet.
The field already held five points. Akihito prayed aloud, promising to perform several implausibly acrobatic feats on the Lady Lucks nether regions if she delivered. The dealer turned the final card. Everyone in the room caught their breath. It was a card sent from Uzume herself. A wisteria bloom. A blessed, miraculous four.
The gamblers erupted in a deafening cheer.
“You magnificent bastard!” Akihito clasped Masarus face with a pair of meaty hands, planting a kiss squarely on his lips. Masaru grinned and pushed his friend away, holding up his hands for mercy as the other players slapped him repeatedly across his back. He hoisted his saké cup and roared.
“To Kitsune! Fox looks after his own!”
A broad hand slapped the cup away, and it smashed into glittering fragments against the opposite wall. The dealer rose, flushed with anger, hand on the studded wooden club at his belt. Masarus new friends began studying the bottoms of their glasses and the fixtures in the ceiling. The serving girl gathered up the tip bowl without a sound and sank behind the bar.
“Damned Kitsune,” spat the dealer. “Cheaters, one and all.”
Masarus eyes widened and he swayed to his feet, flipping the table over and sending the cards and coins flying. His skin had the pale gray hue of all lotus addicts, but his body was lean and hard, muscles coiled tightly across long, sharp lines. He wrapped his fist around the polished nunchaku in his belt and glared with red, weeping eyes.
“Typical Ryu,” he growled. “Why do you Dragons always squeal like corpse-rats when you start to lose?”
“Bastard Foxes . . .”
“You cut the godsdamned deck. Another insult to clan Kitsune, and Ill do the same to my face.”
The dealer raised an eyebrow.
“. . . I mean your face.” Masaru blinked, stumbling slightly.
“You can barely stand, old man,” the thug sneered, glancing down at the nunchaku. “You really think you can swing a pair of those?”
Masaru paused for a moment, eyes roaming the dirty ceiling.
“Good point,” he nodded, and introduced his fist to the dealers nose.
Yukiko walked up to the entrance of the gambling den, took a determined expression from the rack and slapped it on her face. She paused to frown up at the noonday sun, its sickly red glare reflected on her goggles. A sky-ship sputtered through the perpetual haze of lotus exhaust fumes overhead, dull light glinting off its filthy, smoke-stained hull.
She wore an outfit of sturdy gray cloth, unadorned save for a small fox embroidered on the breast, cut simply for the sake of utility. An uwagi tunic covered her from neck to mid-thigh, open at the throat, long, loose sleeves with folded cuffs rippling in the feeble breeze. An obi sash of black silk was wrapped tight around her waist, six inches wide, tied in a simple bow at the small of her back. A billowing pair of hakama trousers trailed down to her feet, which were covered by a pair of split-toed tabi socks. Long hair flowed around her shoulders, midnight black against pale, smooth skin. A gray kerchief was tied over her mouth, polarized glass lenses trimmed with thin brass and black rubber covering her eyes.
The cobbles around her were awash with people, a tumbling din of voices and the occasional growl of a motor-rickshaw swelling amidst a sea of sweating flesh and colored silk. A chattering flock of neo-chōnin merchants and their stern, silent bodyguards were gathered nearby, haggling with a junk dealer about the price of scrap iron. Gloved hands pawed through ledgers and fingered purses full of coins; Upside men skimming the surface of Downside streets. The entire group wore face-length breathing apparatus to protect themselves from the burning glare of the sun and the exhaust fumes hanging over the city like a shroud. The masks were sculpted of smooth brass, corrugated rubber and twisting filter pipes, the round glass windows covering their eyes filmed in a fine layer of soot and lotus ash. Like Yukiko, most of the grubby crowd around them made do with kerchiefs tied over their faces, goggles crafted from rat leather and cheap, polarized lenses, or perhaps an umbrella of colored rice paper.
Yukiko heard glassware smashing, loud cursing. A man crashed through the doorway in a rain of splinters, nearly knocking her over. He landed face first in the dust and started bleeding the road red, broken fingers twitching. The crowd ignored him, most skirting around without a glance. The gaggle of neo-chōnin merchants stepped over him on their way to whatever it was they considered important.
“Not again,” she sighed, and stepped inside.
She screwed up her nose at the reek of lotus and sweat and red saké. Pulling her goggles and kerchief down around her throat, she squinted into the gloom. She recognized the shape of a giant, sweat-slicked Akihito. Two yakuza were in headlocks under his arms. His headbutt smeared a third gangsters nose all over his cheeks. Masaru was being held in an armlock by a fat, bloody-nosed bald man. A rat-faced fellow was punching him repeatedly in the stomach to the brittle tune of a shakuhachi flute. Masarus salt-and-pepper hair had come loose from his topknot, splayed across his face in dark tendrils wet with blood. As she watched, he craned his head around and sank his teeth into his captors forearm.
The bald man howled, released his grip, and Masaru kicked the rat-faced man square between his legs. The fellow let out a high-pitched squeal and sank to his knees. Masaru dropped a hook across the bald mans jaw, sending him backward into the bar to land on a pile of broken beach glass. He was picking up a table to clobber the rat-man when Yukikos voice rang out over the chaos.
“A little early in the morning, isnt it, father?”
Masaru paused, squinting bleary-eyed in her direction. He brightened when he recognized her, and took one unsteady step forward, a grin breaking out on his face.
“Daughter! Just in—”
A saké bottle sailed into the back of his head and he crashed across the upturned gaming tables, out cold. The bald man picked up his war club from the wreckage and stalked toward Masaru, wiping his bleeding nose on the back of one fat, greasy paw.
Yukiko stepped forward and held up her hand.
“Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai?”
“Not nearly,” he growled. “Get out of my way, girl.”
Yukikos hand drifted to the tantō hidden at the small of her back, fingers slipping around the knifes lacquered hilt. With her other hand, she pulled up the loose gray cotton of her uwagis left sleeve. Even in the guttering tungsten light, the elaborate imperial sun inked across her bicep was plainly visible. Her long, shady eyes glanced down to the identical tattoo on her fathers arm, then back up to the face of the advancing yakuza.
“Please, sama,” she repeated, the barest flicker of warning in her voice, “if this insignificant servant of Yoritomo-no-miya, Ninth Shōgun of the Kazumitsu Dynasty, has caused your house offense, we humbly beg forgiveness.”
The fat man paused, breathing heavily, drool and blood dripping down through his goatee to spatter on the floorboards. He surveyed the wreckage of the room: the unconscious bodies, broken furniture and braided iron kouka coins scattered across the floor. The serving girl peeked over the bar, squeaked and dropped back into hiding.
The fat man pouted, brow creased in thought.
“We keep his winnings,” he finally grunted, motioning to her father with the business end of his tetsubo. “Call it even.”
“That is more than fair.” Yukiko gave a small bow, releasing her grip on the knife. “Amaterasu bless your kindness, sama.”
She turned to Akihito, paused mid-brawl, his arms still locked around the necks of the two smaller, rapidly suffocating men.
“Akihito, give me a hand please?”
The giant raised an eyebrow, looked back and forth between the purple faces stuffed into his armpits. Shrugging, he clobbered the mens heads together and tossed them over the bar. The crash of shattering glass and the sound boxs tune were drowned out by the serving girls shriek.
Akihito stooped down and hefted Masaru over one shoulder, flashing Yukiko a broad grin. She frowned in return.
“I asked you to watch him.”
Though he towered a good foot and a half over the girl, the big man looked slightly abashed. “Hes still in one piece, isnt he?”
She scowled and rolled her eyes. “Barely.”
“So where to, little fox?”
“The harbor.” She stalked over the broken furniture and out the door.
Akihito frowned and stumbled after her. Emerging into the blast-furnace heat, he tugged his goggles up over his eyes with his spare hand. People swarmed about them in the street, lotusflies swarmed about the people, all buzzing to and fro beneath the glare of that burning scarlet sun.
The big man pulled a gray kerchief up over his mouth, a conical straw hat onto his head.
“What the hells are we going to the harbor for?”
In answer, Yukiko produced a scroll from the inner breast pocket of her uwagi and slapped it into the big mans palm. Akihito shifted Masarus bulk across his shoulders. The rice-paper made a sound like brittle bird wings as he unfurled it, scowling over the symbols painted on the page. The kanji were written in a thin, spidery hand, difficult to read through the film of grime and ash covering his goggles. It took a few seconds for the color to start draining from the big mans face.
“This is an imperial seal,” he said.
“So it is.”
Akihito was pale as old bones by the time he finished reading the orders.
He drew a deep breath, stared at Yukiko for a long, silent moment, then screwed the scroll up in his fist. Blotches of color bloomed at his cheeks.
“The Shōgun is sending us after an arashitora? A godsdamned thunder tiger?”
A trio of passing sararīmen shot them curious glances as the big mans temper flared. Yukiko took the crumpled scroll from his hand, rolled it up as best she could and tucked it back inside her breast pocket. Akihito scowled around the street, lowered his voice to a furious whisper.
“Why is he doing this? Is he angry with us?”
“He wants a thunder tiger, Akihito.”
“Well, I want a woman who can touch her ears with her ankles, cook a decent meal and keep her opinions to herself. But they dont fucking exist either!”
Masaru groaned as Akihito shifted him to his other shoulder.
“Do you feel better now?” Yukiko folded her arms. “Got it all out of your system?”
“We cant hunt what doesnt exist, Yukiko.”
“You dont think I know that?”
“And what do you think is going to happen if we fail Yoritomo-no-miya?” The big man punctuated his questions with his free hand. “What do you think will be waiting for us when we come back empty-handed? Orders for Masaru to commit seppuku, for starters. You want to watch as your father is forced to disembowel himself? Who knows what theyll do to the rest of us . . .”
“Maybe you could tell the Shōgun how you feel. Im sure hed understand.”
Akihito drew breath to retort, blinked and swallowed his words. He gritted his teeth and ran one hand across the back of his neck as he glanced about. The streets around them overflowed with people; layers of the social strata heaped one on another, brick upon cracking brick. Neo-chōnin merchants with fat bellies and fatter purses; sararīman wageslaves with their modest lives and honest coin; sweating farmers with half-empty wagons; gomimen with their salvage carts and recycled wares; traveling peddlers with their lives and livelihoods stacked on their backs; beggars in the gutters, fighting with the rats for the tablescraps the rest had left behind. Countless figures jostling in the oily haze, none of them paying anyone else the slightest heed.
Yukikos expression softened, and she reached up to lay a gentle hand on the big mans arm.
“Every word youre saying is true. But what choice do we have?” She pulled her goggles on and shrugged. “Try to deliver the impossible, or defy the Shōgun and just die right here and now. Which would you prefer?”
Akihito exhaled, shoulders slumping like a flower wilting in the scorching heat.
“Come on, lets go.” Yukiko turned and began walking toward the docks.
Akihito remained motionless as the girl slipped away into the throng. Screwing his eyes shut and juggling his unconscious friend, the giant pinched himself on the arm hard enough to leave a bruise. He waited a long moment, then opened one eye, glancing around the street. Against all hope, the world remained exactly as hed left it.
“Izanagis balls,” he muttered, and hurried after the girl.
Copyright © 2012 by Jay Kristoff