The Whole Damn Thing

Ch. 1 –

Hideyoshi prowled through the halls and everyone he passed bowed low. He ignored them. Every ounce of his body language read controlled rage. The men standing guard at his wife’s chambers barely had time to push open the double doors before he strode through. He only stopped when he stood at the inner door to her bedroom. Three priestesses were there, heads bowed, praying. As he entered, one settled her hood over her shaved head and stepped out of the room. It would not do to have four in the space. Such a number was bad luck.

Hideyoshi grumbled under his breath at the closed door. He had never hesitated before. It was his right to be in there. He always gave her the respect of knocking, but he did not wait for a response. It was his house and his domain and his property.

He winced. No. Akane was not property and his mind would not accept the word, no matter how irritated. Still, it was his right and so he grasped the handle and tugged. The well oiled mechanism gracefully gave way to his frustration.

The scene on the other side was nothing like he had pictured. The mysteries of childbirth never interested him. He had never seen past the veils and barriers women built around the ritual. In his imagination, the process was spiritual and calm, full of chanting and flowers.

His wife squatted, feet braced on raised wooden blocks. A priestess crouched on either side of her, holding her by the elbows and offering balance. Their fingers were tangled with hers, every knuckle bone white from effort. Akane’s red gown was bunched up over her belly. The bulge shifted and roiled. Sweat poured down her beautiful cheeks. Her long silken black hair was plastered to her head and sticking up at all angles, as if someone had been repeatedly shoving it out of her way. Two priestesses stood behind her, one with a damp cloth, the other with a bowl of ice chips. Another knelt between Akane’s parted knees, ready to catch the babe.

In all, it was Hideyoshi’s worst nightmare. There was no chanting or the slightest hint of a flower to be seen. It was primal and feminine and messy.

His worry and dismay took hold of his tongue, “Beloved, please! The med unit is better prepared for this than these acolytes. They can make you comfortable. They have… monitors!”

Akane lifted her head, slowly and with what looked like a great deal of effort. She was weary. She was in agony. She was not happy to see him. Hideyoshi had yet to meet the man who could withstand his wife’s steady gaze. Such a creature may exist, but it was not him. He had a foolish moment and opened his mouth, then snapped it closed and turned away. Only an idiot crossed the Seer. Marital status held no sway over that universal rule.

As he pulled the door shut behind him, Akane broke her silence. It was the smallest of whimpers, barely audible. It pierced his heart. Rage stirred afresh and he reached for his sword. Of course, he wasn’t wearing a sword. He wasn’t armed at all. And even if he were, no weapon in his arsenal would defeat this foe. He couldn’t help her. He couldn’t take her pain or share her burden.

It was no wonder men weren’t allowed in the birthing room.

Hideyoshi was pacing the open garden when a priestess carefully approached him. He tried to summon her name, but he couldn’t tell one from another. They were all bald, all wearing rich blue robes. He supposed there must be some difference between them, but they could have been clones as far as he was concerned.

She stopped closer than most dared, “My lord. You have a daughter.”

Shame struck his soul. This was his first child and he had assumed the gods would smile upon him. No Kanto had ever failed to produce a male heir. It was tradition that the first born would inherit the family legacy. That first born had always been a son. Always. Generation after generation. How had he angered the gods? Was he so weak?

His mind raced with possible solutions. He could send the child away. Tell Akane she had died. Tell the world the first child was a stillborn boy. His reputation, his family’s reputation, would be salvaged. Akane would grieve and hate him for a while, but she was a sensible woman. She would come around.

Yes. That was it. He would send the girl away. He wouldn’t kill her, like so many of his ancestors would have. He would see that she was well taken care of. Somewhere else.

The priestess handed him a bundle of cloth. Without thought, he accepted her offering and found himself staring into impossibly golden eyes. His daughter was nearly weightless in his arms. He had held newborns before, granting blessings to the parents. Those babes had squirmed and cried and blinked, unable to see past their own nose. His daughter was still. Silent. There was no doubt that she was watching him, seeing him with perfect clarity. He pulled the swaddling cloth to the side, unable to help himself. He needed to see her just as clearly if he was going to send her away.

Without making a sound, she clutched his finger. He tugged, startled by the pressure. She gripped tighter and met his gaze, as if daring him to throw her away.

Hideyoshi Kanto stared at the delicate features and felt centuries of tradition dissolve into nothing. His wife was the one who bore the weight of prophecy, but Hideyoshi knew his child was born with a great destiny. He could set her aside and cling to his family duties, or he could trust the gods and raise her to be magnificent.

“Is my wife well?”

The priestess bowed deep, “She is resting, my Lord. The birth was not easy and she will need some time and attention, but she will rise to bear again. Perhaps a son next time.”

He waved a hand, brushing off the concern painting her words. She was half-heartedly holding out her hands, as if waiting for him to dash the girl to the stone path.

“A son. I need no son when I hold a golden-eyed warrior.” With great reluctance, he handed the babe over and tucked his hands in his pockets, “Her name is Amari.”

That evening, surrounded by friends and business partners and armed with sake, Hideyoshi watched the news play on the wall-sized vid screen. He raised a hand for silence as his logo flashed, then spun behind the anchorman.

“Kanto Weapons Systems and InterGlobal Conglomerate sent out a press release today announcing the birth of founder and CEO’s first child.”

The screen switched to Hideyoshi standing in the KWS IGC press room, “With the glorious arrival of an heir, the Kanto Empire is secure. There will be a public celebration and naming ceremony in seven days, as is appropriate. We ask you to join us in welcoming our daughter. Let none gainsay her inheritance and live.”

The anchorman’s smile was neutral as the camera cut back to him, “We are told mother and child are both healthy and resting well. We here at Stellar News Nine offer our heartfelt congratulations to the Kanto family.”


Ch. 2 –

Uba watched her charge playing on the rug in the nursery. The small girl was both the easiest child she had ever worked with and the most difficult. Easy in that she never cried, never threw a fit, never actively attempted to cause mischief. She was almost always serene, with a quiet eagerness to learn her world. But she was also stubborn and at three years old, already had a way of standing her ground that defied conventional training. Her vocabulary wasn’t up to carrying an argument and yet, Uba found herself on the losing end of more than one battle. But then Amari would look up and grin, golden eyes gleaming, and Uba’s heart would melt.

Her name wasn’t even Uba. That was a title. Uba meant “nanny.” When Amari started to speak, earlier than most children of course, “Jacqueline” was far too difficult for her to say. The intent was to start with Uba, then move on to the more difficult sounds. It wasn’t to be. Everyone picked up on the nickname and now it stuck. Another battle lost.

Today, she was watching Amari with a closer eye than usual. There was something off about the girl. In her less forgiving moments, Uba would call her creepy. A better word was uncanny. Or unsettling. Just the night before, Uba had been helping Amari out of the bath. As Uba reached for a towel, Amari ran around behind her. What looked like the start of a silly game turned out to be self-preservation as a small shelf fell from the wall and shattered jars in the spot Amari had been standing. She could have heard something, or seen the jars start to slide. But from Uba’s viewpoint, the child just knew what was happening and moved to safety.

It wasn’t the first time, either. Most often, it was a small moment. Fetching a sleeping baby for her scheduled feeding, only to find her awake and staring. Anticipating. When she was learning to walk, Amari would yelp a heartbeat or two before she tipped over. That could be written off as losing balance, but when Uba looked back and put those occasions together with other signs, it made her wonder.

Akane’s talent was not unknown, nor was it widely shared. Lady of the Kanto Empire or not, she would be constantly badgered if too many knew she had the Gift of Sight. Her staff was aware, though, so Uba wasn’t alarmed that Amari was behaving strangely. She had never heard of the Gift so young. But Amari wasn’t a normal child, additional talents or not. Watching now, as small hands were waiting to catch toys that hadn’t yet fallen, the nanny decided it was time.

Uba knocked gently on the frame of the shoji door. She could see the shadowy form of her mistress moving about, but was hesitant to intrude. Akane-sama had so little time to herself. But it was a warm and welcoming voice that responded with a simple, “Hai.” Uba moved gracefully to her knees and slid the door open.

“Akane-sama, please excuse my interruption.”

“Think nothing of it. What concerns you?”

“It is Amari-chan. I believe she is showing signs of your Gift.”

Akane set down the datapad she had been reading, “Show me.”

They crossed the house to the nursery, where Amari was playing with blocks. Each block had numbers painted on it, each side in a different character representing a different language. Amari wasn’t reading the numbers, though. She was stacking the blocks up, then knocking them down. Over and over. It was clear she was having a very good time.

Akane looked from her daughter to the nanny, “Uba?”

Uba took a small bottle from the nearby dresser and, without warning, threw it directly at Amari’s head. Eyes never leaving her blocks, Amari reached out and plucked the bottle from the air. She set it on the floor beside her and continued playing.

“Huh,” Akane’s head tilted ever so slightly. She knelt beside her daughter and ran delicate fingers through the tousled black hair.

“Hello, my love.”

“Okasaan!” Amari threw her arms around her mother’s neck and squeezed, “See my new blocks? Otosan brought them to me when he, uhm, visited yesterday.”

“They are beautiful. What does this one say?”

They ran through all the blocks, Akane asking out of order. Amari scolded her when asked about a block more than once. “Okasaan. I told you that one is three. Like me!”

After the scolding and giggling and a bit of tickling, Akane took her child by the hand and led her outside, stopping at the kitchen along the way. They took their time strolling to the koi pond. It was a huge structure, with a boardwalk criss crossing and a pavilion with covered seating. Heavy cherry blossom trees, blooming in shades ranging from white-pink to purple almost black, gave off rich embracing scents. The gardeners had spent years coaxing various strains to create the effects they were seeking. Their efforts had paid off. Kanto Blossoms were known across many worlds, but never sold. Occasionally, for the rare guests, branch clippings were given as gifts.

When Amari was born, part of the koi pond was redesigned so a child could explore without fear of tumbling over an edge and into water too deep. It was to that area that mother and daughter took their small bag of dried oat cereal. Amari clapped with glee and reached for the bag, wanting to feed the fish, but Akane stopped her.

“Wait, musume. I want to play a game. Would you like that?”

“Yes, please, Okasaan.”

“Good. Close your eyes. I am going to throw a bit of cereal into the air. Every one you catch, you can feed to the koi. They look hungry today, so be fast!”

Amari’s features twisted with skepticism, “With my eyes closed?”

“With your eyes closed.”

The child sighed, “Those fish are going to go hungry.”

Akane laughed, but said nothing until Amari stood perfectly still in the middle of the walkway and closed her eyes. Even then, she waited and watched, but the girl didn’t try to peek or cheat.

The first bit of oat was silent as it flew through the air. No sound at all gave away its location, or even that Akane had started the game. Amari’s hand snapped up, catching the small piece in delicate fingers. She opened her eyes, “Okasaan! I caught it! Can I feed them now?”

“Just that one. Did you see me throw it?”

“Noooooo. You said to keep my eyes closed, so I didn’t see anything!”

Akane processed that as she threw bit after bit to her daughter, watching her grab each one from the air. She sped things up, throwing more. Eventually, Amari missed one. But she caught the other six that were thrown at the same time.

“Very good, Amari-chan! Here, let’s feed the rest of these to the fish so no one knows we took them from the kitchen.”

Amari giggled, happy to share a secret with her mother. She didn’t know she shared more than one. Akane was going to have to think on this afternoon for a while. It would seem her child knew without Seeing or even being aware, and that was a very different talent to consider.

Akane laid her daughter down for a nap, gently admonishing the child to stay in bed. Even if she wasn’t sleepy, she could rest. Yes, she was welcome to look at her books, but she had to stay in bed. No, stay in bed. Rest. By the time she left the room, Akane herself was considering a nap.

Instead, she made her way across the estate to the small, quaint house on the outer edge of the property. The building had a long porch, but only two rooms. It was traditional in the extreme. They had to convince the resident to allow running water and electricity. It would have been a mistake to call him eccentric. Interesting was kinder. Unpredictable was safer.

Akane climbed the few stairs, staying one step below the porch. She knocked on a wood pillar and called out, “Jun?”

She didn’t hear his footsteps on the polished wood floors, or see his shadow behind the shoji screens. She only saw the door slide open, and then he was there. He wore a warm smile and his impossibly dark eyes gleamed with welcome. Short, trimmed black hair did little to hide the thin scar that ran from left temple to right jaw. That story was whispered that in his younger days, Jun had crossed swords with an opponent who switched from right to left hand mid-fight. Once, she had asked why he didn’t have it removed. He had smiled and said it was an old friend who reminded him to stay humble.

Akane didn’t know much about his humility, but she knew he had been with Hideyoshi since they were young boys. She didn’t know exactly what he did for House Kanto, but she was wise enough to admit that was because she didn’t want to. She trusted him with her husband’s life, with her daughter’s life. Even with her own life. She just wasn’t overly comfortable around him. Now, though, she needed his experience.

“Akane-san! How wonderful to see you. Would you come in?”

“Ahhhh, no. Thank you. I will feel better moving.”

“You are anxious.”

“I am concerned.”

He nodded and dropped onto the stairs as she moved away. One leg stretched out, the other drew up so he could lean both arms on his knee and focus on her, “Tell me.”

And so she did. All of it. The bottle, the fish. The things she herself had noticed since Amari’s birth, but was too close to actually see. She paused often and chewed her bottom lip raw. She knew what it had been to grow up with something so intensely different about you. Fortunately, her own mother understood her Gift, even if her father didn’t and died with the word “majo” on his lips. Witch. Amari would grow up loved and encouraged, but they had to know what they were dealing with.

“Predictive reflexes.”

Akane shook her head, “I’m sorry?”

“That’s what we call it in training courses. Someone who is so good, so tuned in to their environment, so absolutely aware of their own body that they seem to respond before an action occurs.” She started to speak and he held up a hand, “No, I know. Amari is too young and what you are describing is not quite that. But it’s close. Your Gift has been passed along to her, but not as expected. A little too much of her father, it seems. Monks of old would enter a sort of meditative state and achieve something close to what she displays, as if they were vibrating with the universe. Again, not exactly right. But close.”

“This isn’t making me feel any better.”

Jun smiled and bowed his head in recognition of maternal worry, “I do not see any danger, Akane-san. Quite the opposite. This altered Gift will serve her well, especially if she is trained to respond to it without being made aware of it.”

“Not aware? But why? That makes no sense.”

“She is a warrior born. She will live and breathe and move by instinct. If you teach her to wait for a sign or question her reflexes, she will be handicapped. You have learned to move through your world without thought. Allow her the same. There is research I can do for you. A variety of texts that speak tangentially of such skills. They may help you understand her better.”

Akane wanted to bristle at the idea that she needed lessons in understanding her child. But she heard the wisdom in his words as well and nodded. She was both thoughtful and relieved on her walk home.


Ch. 3 –

A soft lavender light covered the landscape. Amari crept through the quiet house, taking care with each step. If her Uba or any of the priestesses saw her, she’d be disciplined. Her nanny would take a paddle to her bottom and Amari didn’t like that. The paddle didn’t hurt, so it seemed a waste of time. If Otosan caught her, he would apply a cane. Amari didn’t like that, either. The cane hurt and she was expected to endure it silently. It was far more effective than the paddle, and she took great pains to avoid it.

The worst was if her mother discovered she was being naughty. Both her nanny and her father would punish her for the smallest slight. She understood they were trying to help her grow up with honor and wisdom, but she was rarely afforded the opportunity to explain herself. Okasaan had a way of looking directly into a soul and knowing. She just knew. If Amari had truly made a mistake, Okasaan would teach her the correct way. But if she was genuinely naughty, her mother’s disappointment stung worse than any cane. She would say, in a tone that held a quiet sadness, “Amari, we must learn to control our impulses, yes?”

At that point, there was nothing to do but agree and apologize. Not the apology reserved for Uba or Otosan, which was calculated to put an end to her current predicament. An apology to Okasaan was sincere. Not only because she would hear the lie, but because Amari couldn’t bear to see her mother sad.

So she moved as quiet as the mouse she passed until she came to a shoji door near the back of the house. She slid it open, one ear on the door, the other listening for the tell-tale rustling of the house staff awakening. Last night, she had placed her shoes on the other side of the door. She slid into them, grimacing as the chill of the morning dew caressed her feet. Next time, she’d be more careful where she hid them. So far, all other hiding places had resulted in her shoes finding their way back to her room.

She eased the door closed behind her, then dashed around the corner. A large ginko tree offered perfect cover. She crouched and peeked out around the trunk. Her breath caught, as it did every morning, to see Otosan and his sword. He was bare chested, wearing only black hakama. His katana flashed, catching the sun as it began a slow rise behind the mountains. The light bounced and snapped and to Amari’s young eyes, it looked as if he were dancing with sun. His stern face was locked in serene concentration. Her hands flexed each time he shifted, her feet shuffling in the damp grass. Flexing and shuffling became more fluid, until she was echoing her father’s routine.

She stayed, practicing with him, until she heard signs of life behind her. A scowl creased her forehead, but she didn’t dare linger. With the house awake, Tatsuo would be feeding the chickens. If she hurried, he would let her help and she wouldn’t be scolded for being outside.

After the morning meal, Amari bowed to her parents and left with one of the priestesses. Her days were fairly full with reading and writing, dance, and galactic politics. The last was a point of contention between her parents. Akane thought her too young to take on such dense topics, but Hideoyoshi argued that the sooner she started, the sooner it would all become natural. In the end, Akane relented, but she curtailed the time spent in stuffy rooms. For every class, there was an equal amount of time outside, learning to ride a horse or swim or tumble.

This day, Akane waited until her child was well out of earshot before smiling to her husband, “She still watches you each morning.”

He nodded, not bothering to withhold his pride, “I saw her. I have considered asking Jun to teach her stealth.”

His smile deepened as his wife sputtered and wiped tea from her lips, “I thought better of it. For now.”

The look she gave him would have chilled any other man, but he saw the mirth in her dark eyes, “She’s doing more than watching, koishii. She is mimicking.”

He nodded, “She is curious. This is good.”

“She is mirroring your every move, with near perfection.”

Hideoyoshi set aside his plate, “Impossible. She is only six years old and untrained. You were not watching properly.”

His wife bowed her head and offered a smile, rising from her seat. She summoned the maid to clear the table, then swept out of the room, her soft silks trailing behind her.

He was left staring at her empty chair. Akane would argue with him until the moon was high above them. She was as fierce as any tiger and doubly so about their daughter. Only one thing could produce that smile and a firm exit.

She had foreseen something.


Ch. 4 –

Amari was bored. Both of her parents were away for the afternoon and Uba was ill. She had been shut up in her room for days. Only the priestesses were allowed to enter. Akane’s personal priestess was overseeing Uba’s recovery. As much as Amari hated being under her nanny’s thumb, she hoped the woman would recover swiftly. Being ill was no fun at all.

Neither was drifting around the house by herself. Her mother had told her to stay out of trouble and keep herself entertained. Amari’s seven year old mind heard, “Do as you like, but don’t get caught.” Except there was nothing to do.

Two priestesses were deep in conversation as they passed her bedroom.

“Take the carriage into town and fetch more enshira tea. It seems to soothe her stomach.”

“I’ll get as much as I can find. Is there anything else I should look for while I’m there?”

Amari didn’t stay to hear the response. She was running to get her cloak. She could hide away on the carriage and go into town. That sounded like fun! She’d never been there on her own before, but she had visited plenty of times with Okasaan. She wrapped her black and grey cloak around her shoulders and pulled the hood up to cover her hair, and then she slipped out the back door and around to the carriage house.

House Kanto was one of the few estates that kept old fashioned coaches and the horses to pull them. Hideyoshi enjoyed the traditional flavour and Akane liked the serenity. Amari’s parents had taken one carriage. That left one remaining, which was good. It meant she didn’t have to guess which the priestess would take. The drivers and footmen were at the far side, playing dice. Okasaan would not approve if she knew. There was power in rolling the dice and power in untrained hands was dangerous. Again, though, it seemed fate was on Amari’s side. If they were involved with their game, they would never seen her sneak around to the back of the carriage and climb into the storage chest. It was a perfect hiding place for her small, slight frame. She made sure her cloak was tucked in with her, and then eased the lid closed. At the last second, she remembered to fold the latch against the cover. If it fell over the hook, she’d be trapped. As it was, she had to hope no one noticed the lid wasn’t secure.

The coach rocked as the priestess climbed into the cabin and the driver into his seat. Amari held her breath, waiting to be discovered. But seconds later, she heard the driver click to the horses and the carriage jolted into motion.

The ride was less than comfortable. Amari was bounced around in the chest like a sack of flour. She nearly bit through her lip when one of the back wheels hit a rut in the road. She was sure someone must have heard her bang into the side of the box. But the journey continued uninterrupted.

Eventually, they drew to a halt. Amari held perfectly still as the priestess climbed out of the cab.

“You might as well grab a drink. I have a few shops to visit and it might take me a little while. I’ll comm when I’m ready to leave.”

The carriage shook as the driver hopped down, “Hai. Be safe, priestess.”

Amari counted to one hundred. She could hear the movements of people passing by, but nothing of the people who would scold her. That was good enough. She eased the lid open and when there was no hue and cry, she climbed out of her hiding place and smoothed both cloak and yukata. Two minutes later, she was blending into the crowd and getting as far away from the carriage as possible.

Uchiko was a town wrapped in tradition, yet enjoyed all the technology currently available. The buildings were made of wood and slightly elevated from the ground. Sliding doors stood open, welcoming customers, but low level force fields kept the cool air in and the insects out. Anyone passing through would feel the barest hint of resistance. All the residents were used to it, but visitors to Amari’s planet were always just a little surprised.

Amari herself didn’t notice as she slipped into a bakery. The smell of the place reminded Amari that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. She placed both hands on the display case and leaned close until her nose was almost pressed against the glass.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

Amari looked up and into the eyes of a very large woman clad in all white. She had flour on her nose and what looked like icing smeared across her forehead. Amari’s stomach grumbled, making the woman shake with laughter.

“A sandwich is seven plats, but I suspect you’d rather a bit of cake, eh? Three plats, then.”

Another tummy growl, but Amari sagged. She knew of money, of course, but didn’t have any of her own. For a moment, she was confused. Okasaan didn’t always let her have what she wanted, but she never went hungry. She was never denied what she needed. To be standing in front of a case of cakes and sweets and not be able to even ask for one was an odd sensation.

Amari bowed low, “Thank you, but no. I am only exploring.”

It was difficult to keep the regret from her tone. Rather than linger uncomfortably, she turned to leave.

“Oh my! Miss Kanto!”

Amari froze, surprised.

“The marking on your cloak. You are Miss Kanto, are you not? Daughter of the Empire?”

She turned back and nodded, “I am Amari, yes. Does that… matter?”

Another burst of that bold laughter, “Well of course it does! What would you like, my child?”

Two cakes and delicious pastry concoction later, Amari was wobbling out of the bakery and wearing a bright smile. With each step forward and each shop visited, she grew more confident. Vendors were offering her flowers and toys and trinkets, on the promise she would tell her father of their generosity. But she couldn’t possibly do that. Her parents couldn’t know of her adventures.

All logic and fear went out of her head the moment she walked into the odd shop on the corner. It was darker than the others, with low, intimate lighting. There was a vaguely musty smell as if the place hadn’t been dusted in years. Heavy shelves stuffed with books filled every wall. Small tables filled the shop, covered in embroidered cloth and laden with incredible treasures. Statues, bowls, candles. Decks of cards. Sets of marble and stone tiles. Amari wandered through the shop, fingers trailing over everything. She picked up a small statue and turned it over, examining the details.

“Oy! Put that down before ya drop it now!”

Startled, Amari almost did drop it.

“Ah said put it down!”

She did, and backed away from the table, only to bump into another.

“Ya damned clumsy child, be careful!”

“Stop shouting at me!”

“Well are you going to buy anything or just blunder about?”

Amari frowned. She’d never been spoken to in such a way and wasn’t quite sure how to process it. She started to form a response when she was cut off, “This ain’t a shop for children. Get out!”

“No!”

“Why you little brat.”

Amari tensed and started to take a step forward when she saw it. The deck of Tarot cards was stunning. The artwork on the box was bright with jewel tones arranged into exotic shapes and figures. She’d seen some of her mother’s decks, but none of them were this vibrant. It practically hummed with colour. She picked it up and peered closely.

“Oy! What is wrong with you child? Are ya daft? Put that down!”

“Okasaan would love this! I am Amari Kanto, Daughter of the Empire. I will tell my father of your generosity.”

“I said. Put. That. Down.” The shopkeeper moved toward her, menace in his black eyes. Amari tried to dodge around him. He grabbed her cloak and yanked. Just before she fell against him, she reached up and slipped loose the clasp on the cloak. She bolted out of the store, leaving him holding a length of cloth.

With a howl of rage, he chased after her. Amari ran down the street, then slipped into an alley. She paused to catch her breath.

“I see ya, fecking brat. Get back here!”

He was at the end of the alley and moving toward her. Outside of the shop, he looked bigger. So much bigger. Amari ran again, but found herself facing a dead end. She spun, looking for a way out. She wasn’t quite sure what she was afraid of, but this man frightened her. Badly.

“When I get my hands on you…”

That was enough for her. Amari threw herself at a wooden ladder and scrambled up it. A shout of anger gave her speed. She kept going until she cleared the top, then raced along the tiled roof. The buildings were so close together, she could easily leap from one to the other, scrambling up, then sliding down. Up and down, across four roofs. She slipped once and twisted, bracing herself. Breathing heavily, she listened for sounds of pursuit. Nothing. The large man hadn’t followed her up the ladder.

Amari sighed with relief. She leaned back and stared up at the sky. Blue was beginning to fade to pinks and hints of orange. The sun was setting. Otosan and Okasaan would be home soon, if they weren’t already. She had to get back., She had to find the carriage and climb into the back before it left. What if it left already? What if she was trapped here? She didn’t know how to get home. She didn’t know where she was or how to get to the coach.

Panic stirred, but she pushed it down. She only had to retrace her steps. That was it. Hurry and get back to the bakery. The carriage was just down the road. Amari leapt to her feet and turned to head back to the ladder. A tile shifted under her foot and slipped loose. Amari yelped and fell. She began to slide off the roof, feet kicking and fingers scrabbling for a grip. Her frantic movements knocked more tiles loose to tumble to the ground below, shattering as they landed.

Amari slid closer to the edge. She kicked again and caught the lip of the roof with her toes. She was truly afraid now. What was supposed to be a fun day of exploring and entertaining herself had turned into a disaster. Tears stung her eyes as she struggled to find a way out of this mess.

“Hey! Up there! Hold on, we’re coming to get you!”

Amari glanced over her shoulder and whimpered. She couldn’t see who the voice belonged to. “Hurry, kudasai!”

Suddenly, the voice was closer. “That’s quite a predicament you’ve gotten yourself into, littlest Kanto.”

Amari looked up. A slender man with long black hair bound in a fishtail braid was on a small, hovering platform beside her. His arms were folded. A vicious scar running from the left side of his forehead to the right side of his jaw interrupted the smug expression he was wearing. Without asking, he reached down and scooped her up, then tossed her over his shoulder. She was too relieved to complain. Once they were on the ground, he set her on her feet and bowed low.

“Hajimemashite, Amari-sama. I am Jun.”

Amari returned the bow, somewhat unsteady, and the greeting, “Thank you for rescuing me, Jun-san. I am in your debt.”

Before Jun could respond, an older, round man in an official uniform bustled up, “Miss Kanto, please allow me to see you home! What a tragedy this could have been, you poor poor child!”

In moments, she was being pushed into the back of a shuttle car. She twisted to wave to her saviour, but the door was already sliding closed. Jun. She would remember that name.

If was full dark by the time they arrived at the Kanto estate. Her parents were waiting, Okasaan looking worried and Otosan far too stern and quiet for Amari’s comfort. Something dire was coming. She listened as the rotund Constable groveled and scraped, apologizing to Otosan for allowing his only child to be put in harm’s way. Her father nodded, accepting the apology as if it were in any way the politician’s fault. When the man was comfortable with his level of self-chastisement, Otosan murmured something about a medal and sent him on his way.

He glanced at Amari and simply said, “Go take a bath and then to bed. We will speak in the morning.

Amari bowed, grateful to escape the initial anger at her misdeeds. She was barely out of sight when she heard her father speak again. She slowed, then crept back to listen.

“She begins training tomorrow.”

Akane sighed, “I don’t think that’s necessary. I will speak with her.”

“No. I will not be swayed on this. If she is to be what we both know she will be, she needs this. I have already sent word to Jun.”

Hideyoshi opened the front door and stepped out. When he was particularly stressed, he often walked the grounds until his composure returned. Akane looked to the darkened hallway.

“Go take your bath, Amari. You will meet Jun in the morning.”

Jun! The man who saved her. Amari bristled with excitement as she dashed to her bedroom suite. In the bath, she wondered what sort of teaching he would offer her. As she crawled into bed, she wondered how he had gotten such a scar and why he hadn’t had it removed. As she drifted off to sleep, she remembered her lost cloak and the deck of cards that was still in the pocket of her yukata.


Ch. 5 –

The Momoyama Maru was the size of a city and built to behave like a battleship. The pride of the newly designed Edo-class, the ship surpassed all previous records. It had come in under budget and on time, as befitting a ship commissioned by Hideyoshi Kanto.

The center of the ship resembled a small moon. A world unto itself, it housed the manufacturing heart of not only the ship, but KWS as well. The very best scientists and creators found themselves on the ship, whether they aimed for a life in space or not. When generous offers and then bribery didn’t work, threats were deployed. There were even rumours of family members being kidnapped. After the first few rounds, refusals dropped to nearly zero.

The aggressive stance on staffing worked. Research and design born on the Momoyama Maru was sent to planetside partners. Once word got out, more companies wanted in on the riches and Hideyoshi’s legacy grew. The very first breakthrough had been increasing the speed of those communications. Wondrous new technology was no good if it took a decade to arrive, but solid, reliable comms also improved the lives of people throughout the known galaxies.

The true glory of the R&D was found in a sub department. Affectionately known as the Curio Case, the fabrication facilities lived smack in the middle of the moon. The department was entirely enclosed in glass. Anyone outside could peek inside and watch what was being created. Only those who lived and worked in the moon understood what was being created. As mysterious facilities go, the Curio Case held close every cliche, with glee. All their projects were given quirky names, reminiscent of ancient toys. Most didn’t get the joke, but the few who did were amused. Fortunately, Kanto-san knew a great deal about history and enjoyed the little game.

The rest of the ship was no less a wonder. Twin halves of a shell wrapped around the moon and spun clockwise to the moon’s counter-clockwise. The halves curved and stretched into sharp points at each end, slicing through the cosmos as it soared from planet to planet.

Much like a city, there were residential areas broken into class sections. The wealthy elite, who had paid handsome fees to upend their lives on the ground and take to the stars, were housed along the outer hull. They had sleek windows that allowed glorious views of stars and planets and mostly unseen anomalies. The best restaurants and shops were close-by, reducing the amount of time the elite needed to spend with the rabble.

On the other side, closer to R&D, but still held apart by metal and the vacuum of space, lived the working class. These were the restaurant and shop owners. The lawyers and doctors. Entertainers of the wholesome variety. Lower levels of the inner units held service workers. Mechanics and waste management lived in bunk setups with communal areas. A small percentage of units allowed for families, but there was a lengthy waiting list.

A full military lived and drilled at the tail end of the Momoyama Maru. One half held the ground forces, trained in various styles of alien combat and countermeasures and climate. The other half held the navy and a fleet of fukiya dart ships.

Eighteen months on board her father’s flagship had taught Amari a great deal. She had learned first where everything was. Not a single square foot of the ship had gone undiscovered. That included the off limits areas, the forbidden areas, the crew quarters, every office, and even the underbelly where the forgotten crawled to simply survive. When she told her father of the last part, he’d set an attendant on her to ensure she stayed where she belonged. The woman made her miss Uba.

He also started taking her to meetings and letting her listen in on how the ship and her passengers were maintained. If his officers and ministers thought it odd that a child was sitting at the back of the room, they didn’t mention it. After a while, she became part of the decorations and was privy to the most secretive of discussions.

So it was strange that Otosan had ordered her from the room before his next meeting. She didn’t buy his excuse that Jun was needed elsewhere that afternoon and had moved her training up. But she knew if she took her stealth sensei information, he would trade wisdom with her.

A year after her training began, Jun had added an unexpected layer. She had to find her sensei in order to learn from him. The hunt and the mysteries had been both difficult and frustrating. His clues had been tough to sort out. She missed several sessions and was considering a well placed tantrum when she solved the first one. That gave her the confidence to sort out the next and the next. It was still a few days before she found him, but they celebrated her victory with sweets and a sneak into a vid-screen showing. Amari had never seen an action movie before. She wanted very much to tell her mother about it, but somehow knew this was one of Jun’s tests. Could she keep a secret? And so she didn’t say a word.

Her first clue for today made her eyes roll. Too easy. But the next one took her an hour and four failures to sort out. Jun was feeling generous that day, leaving only three before she found him lounging outside the ship’s Department of Missing Persons.

“You are not funny.”

He laughed and patted the seat next to him, “Of course I am. Now tell me, little spy, what tidbit have you brought?”

“Otosan sent me away from his office and as I left, I passed a man I have never seen before.”

Jun leaned back and folded his hands over his belly. His eyes slid halfway closed, giving him a languid appearance.

“What was different about him?”

Amari summoned the image of the man, “His clothes. He was not dressed as finely as most of father’s associates.”

Jun tsked, an indication that her answer was either not correct or not complete. She closed her eyes and tuned out the crowds moving around them. The hallway formed in her mind and she was once more walking past the tall man in the common clothing.

“His smell! He smelled like metal. Like he had just been someplace with a lot of metal.”

“Like a mine, perhaps?”

Amari pondered what little she knew of mining. She’d listened at the meetings, of course, but she’d never been to an actual mine.

“Perhaps, yes. That could be it.”

Jun nodded and sat up, “Stonehaven. Remember the name, but do not mention it to anyone. That is not a conversation for you yet. Listen and learn and when the day comes, you will understand all. You have a different mystery to unravel this afternoon. Your warden will be waiting for you in her office. Go. I will see you tomorrow.”

And with that, he left her. She scowled after him. Their lessons were never long enough. For him to cut this one so short was unfair. It stung. She went to meet her attendant in a foul mood.

When they arrived on the ship’s garden deck, the attendant’s comm informed her that their guest was already in the gardens, somewhere. She pressed the deck intercom and spoke gently into it, “Miss Aichi, could you come to the entrance, kudasai?”

They waited a few moments before a rustling well off the path and a lilting squeal heralded the crashing arrival of a beautifully pale, red-headed child. The girl was dressed in a finely made yukata, nearly unraveled and completely covered in the dark rich soil of the ship’s garden. A few leaves were stuck in the wild mane of curly red hair. The playful gurgle of one of the pseudo-dragons could be heard, and the girl’s eyes widened. She looked as if she were about to dash off again.

“Miss Aichi!” The girl blinked and froze, seeming to remember where she was, and offered a slight bow.

The attendant nodded. “Much better. Now, Amari, this is Askani. Her parents are on board visiting with your father. Askani, this is the daughter of your father’s closest business partner. You two have the entire rest of the day to play in the garden while your parents conduct business. Oh! Did you know that you are both the same age? Isn’t that nice?”

The attendant looked nervous and uncomfortable. Most of the Kanto child’s playmates fared poorly, and quickly. She was not looking forward to telling Ieharu Aichi that his ward was in the infirmary by the hand of his best friend’s daughter.

Amari inspected the ginger-haired girl with a frankness that belied her age. A delicate hand reached out to brush against the copper curls, as if to see if they were real, plucking a leaf from the tangle. When she lifted her head, her gaze was met with the brightest green eyes she could ever have imagined. Her hint of a smile was rewarded with a bright grin from the gaijin girl as she reached to take Amari’s hand in her own, turning and tugging her along.
“D’ye wanna see a dragon, ‘Mari-chan? There be real dragons here, ya ken?”

The attendant stiffened and took a step forward, ready to separate the girls. Amari despised the shortened version of her name and she absolutely hated the pseudo-dragons that populated the ship’s gardens. To her surprise, the dark girl simply curled her fingers in the shared grip and returned the infectious smile as she nodded.

“Hai….Kani…chan.”

The attendant exhaled a breath she had not been aware she was holding as the two ran off together, laughing.

“Ye see, ‘Mari-chan? Dragons!” Kani’s finger stretched out and pointed between the trees where two dragons whirled around each other. One was flame red, with shots of orange and yellow painting its belly. The other was a stunning iridescent blue. Highlights of green and purple reminded Amari of a hologram she’d once seen. Okasaan had called the bird a “peacock” and Amari had giggled, repeating the word to herself at random. Now she pushed aside a flare of annoyance. She didn’t want to insult her new friend, but she was beginning to question the girl’s intelligence.

“Hai, I see. They are exceedingly useless creatures. I do not know why Otosan allows them here.”

Kani laughed, “Och, they are not! They’re verra useful, if ye know how ta pay attention. Otosan,” she stumbled over the word a little, “Otosan. That’s yer da, yeah? He seems a verra smart man. Look ye here, see what they’re eatin?”

The pseudo-dragons had calmed and were hovering lazy over a bush ripe with green berries. Amari stepped forward as if to chase them away, but Kani grabbed her arm.

“No, let em be! They’ll eat the berries, seeds an’ all. And then they’ll fly off and shite the seeds elsewhere. That’s how we get more bushes. And more berries! Yer da is a wise man. He knows the ways of nature,” the pale girl turned the brightest smile on Amari. “I think they’re awful pretty ta look at. Like you.”

Amari stared, startled. She’d been called many things, mostly by her parents. Smart, too clever, full of potential. But no one had ever complimented her looks. She wasn’t sure how to take it. Before she could form a response, Kani was grabbing her hand once more and dragging her.

“Have ye seen the waterfall? O’course ye have. I forgot how long ye’ve been here. Let’s go swim innit!”


Ch. 6 –

Amari raced through the corridors of the Momoyama Maru, dodging people and maintenance carts. Her hair flew wild around her and her yukata was coming loose. Her cheeks were flushed, eyes wide with both excitement and fear. She ignored the cursing that chased her as people jumped or stumbled out of her way. She didn’t care.

The guards opened the double doors to her parents’ suite as if they had been expecting her. Amari only skid to a halt when she saw her father staring at yet another set of doors. His left eyebrow slid high as he turned to look at her.

“Honoured daughter.”

Amari caught her breath, bowing low, “Otosan. Please, how is she?”

Hideyoshi took in her disheveled appearance. In her ten years of life, she had never come before him anything less than pristine. Given the seriousness of the moment, he forgave her.

“She is…”

A cry of anguish tore through the door and Hideyoshi flinched. Only his daughter’s presence kept him from ripping metal from frame.

“She is endeavoring.”

Amari’s hand clamped over her mouth. Tears wobbled in her eyes, threatening to spill over. Hideyoshi glanced at the door once more, then went to his child. The priestesses knew the penalty if his wife met with harm. No matter what else she was, Amari was a young girl in need of comfort. While Hideyoshi was not experienced in physical comfort, he understood the need.

“When did you last play chess?”

Amari blinked hard, taming her tears in a tumble of confusion. “It has been some time, Otosan.”

“Good. Fetch the board. It will be a distraction while we wait.”

It was five more hours before the doors to the bedroom opened. Amari had fallen asleep. Hideyoshi held a finger to his lips, requesting silence. He glanced at the priestess’s hands, then motioned to a different door.

She followed him into his own suite and stood to the side as he closed the door. When he turned to her, she nearly buckled under the desolation in his eyes. Before he could say anything, she hurried to offer reassurance even as she tucked her bloody hands into her sleeves. She couldn’t do much for the crimson stains on the blue cloth, but she could spare him a little, at least.

“My lord, your wife and the babe live.”

Hideyoshi Kanto, patriarch of an empire and master of the largest conglomerate in history, swayed and braced a hand against a tall wooden chest. Hope replaced terror. He let the moment wash over him and slide away, let his fabled control take hold. When he raised his eyes, the priestess relaxed, just a touch.

“The birth was difficult and both suffered greatly, but they will recover. When they have been tended, I will bring your daughter to you.”

He stifled a laugh. Another daughter. The gods would have their fun.

“You are the one who brought Amari to me, ten years ago, are you not?”

She nodded and he offered a slight bow. “I am grateful for your care of my wife. Tell me now, how bad is she?”

“Lady Akane is exhausted. The birthing took longer than is common and she lost a great deal of blood,” she paused, trying to find the right words. There was no easy way to say it and she knew Kanto-sama preferred his news direct. “She will bear no more children.”

He drank in this information as if from afar. Heard, acknowledged, filed away.

“I will make a contribution to your House, in gratitude for your efforts. You will remain with her?”

The priestess bowed low and held the pose, “Yes, lord. I am Akane-sama’s personal assistant and a certified nurse.”

He smiled. Of course she was. “Then return to her and express my pleasure. I will wake Amari when her sister is ready for an introduction. Do you need to send for clean robes?”

It was neatly done, his command to not stand before Amari stained with her mother’s lifeblood. The bow dipped ever so slightly lower. “No, lord. I brought extra.”

That, too, was neatly done. She could have changed before meeting with him, but she had wanted him to see, so that he would heed her words and know the price paid. He smiled once more and opened the door. When he confirmed that his eldest child was still sleeping, he stepped aside for the priestess to pass. It was as close as he would come to acknowledging and appreciating her wisdom.

Hideyoshi passed the next hour watching Amari. Even in sleep, there was a serenity surrounding her. He never imagined he would be this proud of his offspring. Had she been a boy, he would have expected the child to excel in all areas. Amari not only surpassed all of her lessons, she explored on her own. Each time she was discovered, they found a tutor to teach her properly. They often needed to find more resilient tutors who could keep up with her, but that was a tedium he was willing to accept.

Only Jun had been up to the task from the start.

Caught up in memories, Hideyoshi nearly missed the priestess returning. In her arms, she bore a familiar blanket wrapped burden. He reached out to gently shake Amari’s shoulder, whispering, “Child, wake and greet your sister.”

The priestess stepped forward and slid gracefully to her knees. She waited while Amari sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Her gaze widened. “Sister. I have a sister? May I see her?”

Amari looked up to her father. When he nodded his permission, the priestess pulled back the blanket to reveal a tiny, delicate face. Amari reached out to stroke the chubby swell of the babe’s cheek. Hideyoshi nodded again to the priestess and she laid the girl in her big sister’s arms, helping to settle her safely.

Amari stared, overwhelmed with emotion. She was at once caught up in wonder, love, and a fierce sense of protection she’d never encountered. In her life, she had only cared for people well capable of taking care of themselves. Even her best friend, Kani, didn’t need to be kept safe. That wild one could handle anything thrown her way. But this little bundle was helpless. This sweet, sleeping, beautiful infant would need everything done for her while she learned all about life.

“What is her name, please?”

“Hibiki.”

Amari bent to inhale the unique scent of a newborn, “Hibiki. She is perfect. Is Okaasan well?”

Hideyoshi laid one hand on her shoulder and brushed the other over the baby’s hair. “She is recovering. You can see her tomorrow. Right now, let the priestess take your sister so you can go to your bed.”

For a heartbeat, perhaps less, it looked as if Amari was going to protest. Her grip tightened, but she relented.

The next day, she was told to come back after her morning lessons. Her singing teacher quit and her dancing coach cut their class short. Her history professor took the opportunity to teach her new and creative ways to swear, on the promise that it would be their secret.

After her lessons, she was told to come back after lunch. Three different restaurants later filed official complaints, one closed the doors just before she arrived. The last one had enough warning to call in their calmest waitress and ensure they had Amari’s favourite dishes ready.

It wasn’t that she was unruly or cruel. She had never thrown a tantrum or a dinner plate. She didn’t scream at her teachers or use any of her newly found curse words. The trouble wasn’t that Amari was a bad child. The trouble was that Amari was an all too effective adult. When she was angry, she was an entirely unnerving ten year old. She met the eyes of adults and with one look, informed them of how much less they were. Her tone was perfectly even with the razor edge of a scalpel. She had yet to learn the fine art of hiding your temper. Because of her age and her family name, no one dared reprimand her. Instead, they quit their jobs or filed reports.

Had Amari known of these responses, she likely would have explored her part in the matter. But the reports never reached her father.

She was finally allowed entrance after lunch. She was cautioned to be gentle and stay calm. That stirred a panic in her chest, but she merely nodded. Otosan was not here and if her mother was in danger, he would have been. She squared her shoulders and stepped into the dimly lit room.

Akane was propped up in bed by dozens of soft cotton covered pillows. Layer upon layer of blanket covered her to the waist. Her cheeks were sunken and her colour was a pale bluish-green. Amari checked her urge to throw herself at her mother. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her stomach flipped, threatening her lunch.

A priestess motioned her over and once she was close, all her apprehension faded away. Akane took her hands and squeezed with a hint of her usual strength. Best of all, darkest violet eyes glittered with warmth and love. She was clearly tired, but not as bad as Amari had feared.

“My daughter! You look so worried. Don’t be. I am simply indulging in the joys of lazing about. You have met your sister?”

“Okasaan! She is so beautiful. I did not know I could love someone so quickly and so completely. I cannot stop thinking about her.”

Akane pulled Amari onto the bed and snuggled her close. “Would you like to know a secret? Yes? She is very special, Amari. She will change your life if you let her. Cherish her. Even when she annoys you, and she will… yes, she will… even then, treasure her. Promise me?”

Amari laughed, kissing her mother’s cheek. “That is an easy promise!”

The two talked and giggled until Akane grew weary and the priestess shooed the child out. Of everyone on the flagship, they were the most experienced with an unhappy Amari and were able to escort her to the hallway and preserve her joy.

When she had gone, Akane called over her personal nurse, “Bring me my cards, please.”

The other woman hesitated, “My lady, you should rest.”

“In a moment. I need clarity.”

Her shaking hands had nothing to do with childbirth. The cards, stark in their message and without mercy, reinforced the visions she had endured during labour.

She pulled the cards back into a single deck and set them on the nightstand.

“Treasure her, Amari.”


Ch. 7 –

((ADD HIBIKI TO THIS CHAPTER! She’s 4 yrs old – stayed behind with Uba.))

“Mari-chan! You’re here! You’re really here!” Amari had no time to brace herself as a whirlwind of redhead crashed into her. There was a moment when it seemed as if both would fall over, but Kani released her and danced back. “You look amazing! Wow, black suits you. I’m jealous. I look all pale and gross.”

“Askani!” The woman standing behind Kani, arms folded and a deeply stern look on her elegant features, made Amari feel unwashed and small. She was easily the most distantly beautiful human Amari had seen. She was tall and slender, dressed in a light coloured silk suit. Long blonde hair, almost white, tumbled down her back, but was gathered and pulled back from her temples. Her piercing blue eyes were locked on the now chagrined twelve year old chewing her lip and staring at the floor.

“Yes, Maman.”

“Is that how we treat important guests?” Her voice wore an accent Amari could not place. It was not a voice she liked. There was something removed about it. Something that attempted to place this woman above all others. And it was clear she was making Kani unhappy. Amari didn’t like it at all.

“No, Maman.”

“Then correct yourself, oui?”

Kani turned to Amari’s parents and dropped her hands to the sides of her legs. She offered a flash of a smile, then bowed low, “Hajimemashite.”

Akane smiled and returned the bow, though it was little more than a bob from her, “It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Askani. We have heard much about you. And your accent is perfect!”

Amari hid her own smile behind a turn of her head. It seemed her mother didn’t care for Maman, either.

Kani bowed again, “Thank you! Papa has been teaching me.”

A handsome older man, with hair as long as the blonde woman’s but raven-black, reached out and stroked red curls. The look of pride told Amari that this was Papa. She wondered how he had ended up with Maman.

“Your papa is a very good man. Do you mind if we steal him for boring adult conversation? You can show Amari around your beautiful home.”

“Oh, aye! I mean, hai. Yes. Thank you,” Kani bobbed again, then grabbed Mari’s hand and dragged her away.

“Wash before dinner! Mon Dieu, that child is always filthy.”

It had been four years since Mari last saw her friend. People can change a great deal in that time. Amari certainly had. So she wasn’t sure what would happen when they were alone and away from the adults. And yet, she thought ruefully as Kani leaned against a wall and slid to the floor in a fit of giggles, she should have known. Kani was exactly the same.

“Your mother does not seem to be very friendly.”

That brought another peal of laughter, “Och, that puffed up lizard’s not my mum.”

Amari winced inwardly, “No, of course not. I meant, your foster mother. Adopted mother?”

Kani shook her head again, “Nay, I know what ye meant. But she’s not. Papa wasn’t marrit when he took me on. He was friends with my mum and da and knew I had no one else. That witch came inta our lives two years ago.” The lilt was growing thicker and Kani’s eyes had darkened. Amari was trying to look sympathetic, but she was fascinated with the clues to the rising temper. “Cecile charmed Papa, then fed him a steamin pile o’shite about a young lady needin a mum around. She’s been a thorn in m’side e’er since.”

“But, you call her…”

Before Amari could finish, Kani flung out a hand and interrupted, “Aye, cuz she makes me! Maman this and Maman that. But Papa looks so happy, thinkin he’s done right by me, I won’t break his heart and tell him the truth. I’ll jest wait her out. Either I’ll grow up and leave or she’ll get bored and leave.” She pushed herself up off the floor and grinned crooked, “Come on! I’ll show ye the best spots.”

Already the lilt was fading. Amari felt a twinge of guilt at feeling sorrow for the loss. She’d never been around anyone as passionate as Kani. But that passion didn’t need anger to be effective, as Amari found out that day. By the time they were done exploring Kani’s home, they were both dirty, out of breath, and hungry enough to put up with Maman. They parted only to bathe and change clothes, then entered the dining room holding hands and grinning. They had planned to sit together, but seating had been arranged and Kani was across the table from Amari, beside her father’s wife.

Halfway through the meal, Cecile reached out and pulled Kani’s hair back from her face, “Why you don’t tame this mess, I’ll never know.”

Amari stiffened. Knowing what to look for, she watched Kani’s eyes slide from bright leaf green to a dull washed out shade. The colour of shame.

“Look at me when I talk to you, child! Mon Dieu, is that dirt behind your ear? I thought I told you to wash before dinner. You can’t even manage that properly. I will never understand what your mother taught you.”

When Kani flinched and blinked away a rush of tears, Amari felt Akane’s hand on her knee, under the table. The reassuring grasp tightened and Akane leaned to whisper, “Tread carefully, daughter. That one won’t be around long enough to make a scene worth the trouble.”

Amari cut her gaze away from her distraught friend to her mother. Ancient wisdom shone in her dark eyes. Amari nodded and picked up her fork once more to poke at the fish drowning in a heavy sauce. She could have kissed her mother in front of everyone when Akane said, “Cecile, I must get this recipe from you. I never would have thought to prepare fish this way!”

Throughout the meal, the men had been caught up discussing business. After, they dragged themselves away to chat with the women while the children dutifully performed for the adults. They moved from the dining room into a sitting area, where Amari knelt on a pillow and played her shakuhachi. She had begged her mother to let her bring her taiko instead, but the discussion had ended quickly. A light bamboo flute was preferable to the fat drums.

When Amari started on her second song, Kani’s voice joined in. Shy and hesitant until Amari nodded, then growing in strength. There were no words. She simply provided a harmony to the flute as the notes flowed through the room like a soothing river. As Amari brought the song to a close and set her flute in her lap, Kani’s song continued, but shifted. She began to sing, not just notes, but haunting words. No one in the room but her understood their meaning, and even she would be hard pressed to translate. The Celtic language carried the weight of centuries. Joy and pain, war, hope, love. Her eyes were closed as she gave herself over to the music. The last notes hung in the air and left the adults trembling. Amari was transfixed.

“Well, that was lovely, Askani. Just lovely. It’s late, though. You two girls should get to bed,” Cecile looked both uncomfortable and disapproving as she waved a hand toward the door.

Amari exchanged a glance with her mother, then rose and stretched with a bright but tired smile, “Of course, Mrs. Aichi. It has been a terribly long day. Kani? Would you please show me to my room? I fear I will get lost in this magnificent home.”

Cecile beamed, but Kani could hear the derision in every word. It took the sting away from the dismissal. Kani gave her father a kiss on the cheek and a whispered good night while Amari bowed to her parents. Cecile’s expression wobbled when Amari took Kani’s hand and led her out.

“I say we spike her champagne with laxatives,” Amari’s tone was conversational, as if she were talking about the weather.

Kani sputtered with laughter, “Mari-chan!”

“What? It would get her out of everyone’s hair for a day or two.”

Kani shook her head, smiling. She tucked her arm into Amari’s and snuggled close, “You are a good friend. I’m not tired yet. Cecile thinks anyone under eighteen should be in bed by nine.”

“That is ridiculous.”

“I think so, too,” Kani squeezed Amari’s arm, “Come on!”

Amari stopped, “No, wait. You plan for us to sneak out, yes? Go on an adventure? Then we must do this properly.” She grinned, golden eyes dancing with mischief. “Go to your kitchens and fetch us snacks and water. Do not be seen! I will meet you at the side door, by the garden.”

“But you said you would get lost.” Amari’s eyebrow rose. “You lied to her. How wonderful! Alright. I will meet you in ten minutes. Is that long enough?”

Amari watched her friend dash down the hallway. She slipped into her room and gathered a few items, then carefully made her way to the side door. It was fun, dodging staff and clinging to the shadows. Everything Jun had taught her became second nature. She didn’t have to think or consider. She just moved. When she heard footsteps, she easily found a hiding place. She stepped lightly across wood panels, testing each one for a squeak before placing her full weight upon it. Crossing the house was like Jun’s games and challenges, but better. The consequences for failing would be harsher, adding spice to her evening.

Kani was waiting with a small bag and two sleeves of water. Amari pulled her into a small, dark room where boots and coats were kept, and handed her dark pants and a shirt. They both changed and stashed their dinner clothes behind the coats. It wasn’t the cold season, so no one would have cause to stumble across them.

Amari led the way through the garden, with Kani pointing and whispering. She put her feet only where Amari did, pausing to listen often. Without the words being said, Kani knew her friend was teaching her. It was an adventure, yes, but it was also skill-sharing. How to move quietly, how to avoid dry leaves and branches. When to hurry past an opening and when to sneak. Once, when a bird called out, startled by their presence, Amari responded with the exact same call.

They got to the pool in less time than Kani would have expected, given their careful movements. It was far from the house, with no clear path, so they didn’t worry about anyone finding them. Without speaking yet, they slipped out of their clothes and into the pool. The water was cool against the overly warm night air and both sighed with relief. The pool had a natural ledge along one curve before spilling into water deep enough to swim in. The girls took their time relaxing at the edge, until Kani grew bored and dove into the center. Amari laughed, watching her.

The sound was cut off in a gasp as phantom hands grabbed Amari’s ankles and yanked. She went under and came up with an arm full of giggling redhead. “Oh, the look on your face! Did you think I was a… ack!”

Her teasing was lost as Amari shoved her back under the water. In no time, they were splashing and dunking and filling the air with their laughter. Eventually, they wore themselves out and pulled up to lay in the soft grass and nibble on the cheese and bread Kani took from the kitchen.

Kani pointed to a bright star, “One day, I’ll have my own ship and a small crew. Not too many. Friends. People I can trust, ye ken? We’ll go explore the stars and never ever worry about bedtimes and bad fish dinners.”

Amari laughed, “What was that concoction? It was horrible!”

“I have no idea! Cecile fancies herself a chef. She keeps coming up with these wretched dishes and Papa and I pretend to like them.”

Amari could hear the sadness in her friend’s voice. That would not do. Not tonight.

“Do you remember your mother?”

“Oh yes! Well. Not much, but enough. I remember her eyes. They were green, like mine, but so much prettier.”

“I am not sure that is possible.”

“Ye had to have seen her,” the lilt was sliding back, but there was no anger this time, just the soft joy found in memories. “Her name was Aisling and she was the most beautiful woman ever. I have been told that her name fit her perfectly. It means dreamer, ye ken? She had big dreams for us.”

Amari nodded to the star above, “Then we shall see your dreams come to pass, yes? In honour of your mother. The dreamer.”


Ch. 8 –

Tokugawa Military Academy. Amari’s pleasure at seeing her childhood friend that first day had surprised her. So much so that she spent the next week avoiding Kani. All her life, she’d been in tight control. How could she be anything else? A Kanto child was expected to perform at the highest levels in all things. There was little time for play and friends. Her memories of running around giggling always involved a redheaded wild child. But that wild child had outgrown her coltish ways and transformed into a beautiful young woman. Still wild, but contained now. Just the sight of her had rattled that infamous restraint. It took two days before Amari’s roommate requested a residence shift. That was a sort of record. Usually, it took three.

Two things happened to break the silence. The first was a call from the patriarch of the Kanto empire. Amari’s father was not pleased with his daughter’s progress. One week into the new year and she had yet to make herself known beyond the family name. This was, clearly, unacceptable. Their conversation consisted of a stern, even-toned lecture broken by “hai” and “sumimasen.” Yes, Amari understood. Yes, she was sorry. And finally, “No, Otosan, I do not need to come home. All is well.”

The second took a few more days.

Her mood was brooding as she stalked the Academy halls. In her opinion, the weekend was no excuse to not hold class. She needed something to distract herself. She needed action. She turned and headed for the gym and the small room dedicated to the finer arts; the martial arts. In moments, Amari had changed from uniform into keigogi and hamaka. One seemingly delicate hand was wrapped around a saya holding a black-bladed katana. The crafting of it had been a summer project and now she was ready to seriously test it. A burst of creative Celtic cursing spilled from behind the dojo doors. Amari halted, head tilting as she listened. She loved languages, particularly swearing, and there was something familiar about this particular cadence.

“Ah cannae do this shite! It’s useless!”

The clattering of a sword being hurled across the room to land on wood drove Amari through the door before she realized she was moving. “What the hell are you doing? That is not how you… ack!”

The sentence was cut off by a squeal of pure, undiluted delight and Amari’s arms were suddenly full of red hair and curves. “Mari! Mari Mari Mari! I didn’t know you went here! I mean, I should have, of course. It’s the best advanced Academy in the sector, but I didn’t think and we’ve been here a whole week and…”

She trailed off, the Irish lilt gone as joy replaced fury. Amari smiled, unwilling or unable to completely let go as Kani leaned back to look at her. Those same bright green eyes glittered, unchanged since they were eight. There was a long moment of silence as they stared at each other, and then Kani grabbed Amari’s hand and pulled her to the only bench in the room. Amari’s dark gaze floated over the discarded sword and her chest clenched. But she allowed herself to be distracted by her friend’s chatter. Kani had always been so full of life and wonder, it was hard to not give her your full attention.

“Did you get my letters?”

Amari frowned, dread creeping in, “Letters?”

“Aye. Papa said you likely wouldn’t.” Kani nodded, not looking the least bit put out, “He said, ‘My dear girl, you must understand. Summer playing is one thing, but the Kanto empire is what it is and there can be no scaling those walls.’ But I wouldn’t listen. I wrote to you once a month.”

“For how long?”

Laughter filled the air. “I sent the most recent two weeks ago! Every month, Mari. I thought about stopping, but I was sure that the letter I didn’t send was the one you would most surely get. So I had to send them all.”

Amari rubbed her forehead. That was some tangled logic, but she thought she grasped the point. “I am sorry I didn’t receive them. I would have liked to know what you were doing. I still remember that summer well.”

A pale hand squeezed hers. “That was the best summer of my life. But maybe now, there will be better ones.”

Unfamiliar emotion flooded Amari, tightening her chest. She nodded sharp and stood, “Well then. Let’s start with the proper way to wield a sword. Yashte, Kani, did you have to hurl it like that?”

Hours later, when Kani was begging for a break and Amari deemed she was no longer a danger to bladed objects, they were tucked into Amari’s room, catching up on three years of absence.

“How is Hibiki? What’s she like, then? Just like you or no?”

Amari practically glowed as she told stories of her sister, now a precocious seven year old, “She is nothing like me. She devours the world, but delicately, as if it were served to her on the finest of china. Where I was climbing buildings and chasing storms, Hibiki is painting and dancing. She is art in motion. She is delicate. I used to worry she would blow away, but her joy of life gives her weight.”

Kani listened with a deepening smile, “My nihongo is not as strong as I would like. What does her name mean?”

“Echo. At the beginning, it felt like an odd choice. But now, it fits her. She drinks in everything and echoes it back with her own voice. It is hard to believe she is already seven. She is almost ready to meet her best friend in a ship’s garden.”

“Ye gods, Mari, it really has been that long, hasn’t it?”

“It has. I will have to ask Otosan about your letters.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t. It’s history, aye? No sense stirring up a hornet’s nest when we can talk face to face instead,” Kani leaned over and pressed her forehead to her friend’s. Amari froze, then closed her eyes and inhaled.

The words were out of her mouth before she could swallow them, “You smell different.”

Bright laughter tumbled free. Kani dipped and dropped a quick kiss to Amari’s lips, then sat back. “I would hope so! I smelled like dirt and candy. I’ve learned to shower more and nibble less. You, however, grew up exactly the way I knew you would.”

Amari frowned, too taken aback by the casual kiss to catch up with the conversation. The best she could manage was an inquiring noise.

“You’re gorgeous! You grew into those strange golden eyes and the rest of you followed along nicely. I’d kill to have your sleek figure,” she lifted her breasts and shook them, “Do you know how much these get in the way of a sword? Or a gun? Feck. The next instructor who snickers at me is going to come away with a black eye.”

Amari’s lauded eyes grew wide as a giggle tickled her throat. She bit her lip and simply nodded, not trusting herself to respond without a snicker.

“Och, go ahead. Laugh. Ye won’t be the last. But ah’m serious. You’re wonderfully built. As if a perfect weapon were made human and given a soul.”

Two thoughts collided in Amari’s mind. The first was how Kani’s lilt seemed to come and go, driven by the depth of emotion in the moment. Her green gaze was sparkling, so it wasn’t only anger at miscreant swords that brought it out. The second was how hard Kani’s comment struck her.

“A weapon made human. Perhaps the creator forgot the soul.”

Kani sputtered, “Piffle. You just haven’t looked close enough. You’re too busy being the heir to the Kanto Empire. But I’m here now! Do you know when the student housing office closes?”

Once again, the conversation tilted. Amari shook her head, remaining quiet. Listening seemed the best way to solve riddles that spilled from those rosebud lips.

“I suppose requesting a room shift can wait til the morning.”

It was on the tip of Amari’s tongue to ask why Kani was moving rooms. She figured it out in the moment between thought and breath, “Would you like to bring your things over tonight?”

And just like that, seven years vanished. If Amari started to fall in love then, it was still outside of her scope to recognize it. She only knew that the idea of having Kani close brought her peace.


Ch. 9 –

Kani slammed her palm into the tatami mat, barely missing the jade green katana resting to her side. A frustrated scowl marred her otherwise beautiful features as her voice rose.

“It’s nae right, an ya bloody well ken it, Mari!”

Two years of Academy life had brought them closer and verified that the friendship forged as children was meant to be. It had also shown Amari the stubborn streak in Kani that ran a sector wide.

Amari sighed softly and placed her own ebony blade carefully to the side as her friend began yet another rant on the inequities of the iridium trade that ravaged her homeworld on a regular basis.

“It is business, Kani-chan. When your father’s company pulled out of Stonehaven, the warlords took control of the mines. Those who stand the most to gain will cling to what methods work to ensure profit.”

“Oh, ‘tis all well and fine for ye ta say, Miss “My family’s an interstellar business juggernaut!” Ye’d just shoot everyone, aye? What about the bairns in the mines, Mari? Ye cannae say tis right!”

This was not the first time they’d had this talk, and Amari understood why. Askani Aichi was born Askani Byrne, on the planet Stonehaven. Her parents had both been highly respected senior geologists with Aichi Heavy Industries, the megacorp responsible for pioneering modern iridium mining and processing. Kani’s early childhood was filled with exploring other cultures as they brought their methods to new planets. But Stonehaven was home, and so they always returned there. It was a rough and unforgiving planet, but Kani had loved it fiercely. That was before a cave in at an excavation site took both parents, without warning and without mercy. Their bodies were never recovered. Kani said goodbye to them at an empty grave, arms wrapped around herself because she wouldn’t allow anyone to touch her.

Her godfather, Ieharu Aichi himself, formally adopted Askani into his family. She was named for his sister, after all, who had been fast lifelong friends of Kani’s mother. The Aichi family was without heir and the doctors said they would remain that way. Taking Kani in had been an act of kindness. Adopting her and giving her the family name had been something more. The fiery-haired girl who’d spent her childhood running around excavation sites and mining camps found herself wrapped in tradition, honour, and schooling. Fortunately, she was young enough to accept the changes without conflict. She had swiftly taken to calling Ieharu her Papa. She also learned everything she could about Stonehaven, mining, and the politics around all of it.

What she learned did not make her happy. As she grew, Ieharu brought her deeper into the family business. It was her council that led to AHI closing out their interests on her homeworld. But that didn’t mean she stopped paying attention or stopped caring. The building war there struck a harsh chord in the young woman and while Amari couldn’t solve the problems, she was bound by love and duty to offer support. And perhaps some practical distraction.

“Hai, but you are no bairn mining on Stonehaven. You are here, and here requires your full attention, Kani-chan.”

“Ye’ll never ken it, Mari, you’ve nae been there and seen what I have. Yer pa is training you ta be a mighty warrior and that’s right. It’s yer destiny. Just promise me you’ll never shoot bairns.”

She thought a moment before answering, and then nodded, “I promise, Kani-chan. I also promise you I will visit Stonehaven one day, and see with my own eyes what you have shared. Now, however, we need to work on your form. If you fail Iaido this term, you’ll waste the entire summer taking it over and I am not having our travel plans to Gemini fall apart because your footwork is sloppy. Besides, after all the trouble I went through to make you that blade, the least you could do is learn to use it well, desu ka?”

“Fine, fine, but this is not over. Someone has to do something, Mari.” The flash of anger subsiding, her timbre and accent returned to the cultured tones expected on a young woman raised in a Noble House. The sincerity of her words resonated deeply with her best friend as they resumed their practice in the dojo.

Iaido finals passed without incident and the two put everything behind them on Gemini. The planet was famed for wide swaths of ocean, small intimate islands, and trees that offered truly forbidden fruit. Amari and Kani were stretched out on the pale blue sands, soaking up the sun when Amari suddenly jumped up and headed for the trees. It occurred to Kani that she’d never seen her friend run. She watched, admiring the long lean form and gentle flowing curves as Amari’s stride carried her swiftly. One didn’t need to run with such a ground-eating lope. Her crooked smile of appreciation lingered as Amari returned with an armful of gaudy purple and orange fruit.

“Tiny gods, Mari, that has to be the ugliest blob to fall from a tree since Yamun took that tumble in the garden. Remember him? Where was he from?”

Amari dropped gracefully to the blanket and dumped the most of the fruit, holding one out, “Vitran 4 and he was considered handsome by their standards. Here, stop scowling and try one.”

Kani wrinkled her nose, ready to hate the experience. But she leaned forward, meeting Amari’s gaze, and sunk her teeth into the bright skin. Her eyes widened, then rolled in ragged pleasure. A shiver skittered over her skin. When she swallowed the bite, after letting it linger a while on her tongue, she licked the remnants from her lips.

“Oh, that’s unreal. I’ve never tasted anything so sinful! Why haven’t you shared these before?”

Amari smiled, savouring her friend’s delight, “Because you cannot take these offworld.”

“Well. The unwashed masses may not be allowed, but surely you can.”

“Ie. I cannot. The fruit does not survive long after being plucked and no attempts to preserve it have been successful. There is no juice or jam. It cannot be dried. Within a day, it is a rotten mess with a lingering stink that takes months to eradicate.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to make this vacation a habit, won’t we?” Kani grabbed a fresh globe and spun around, stretching out. She laid her head in Amari’s lap and took a messy bite. Her eyes glittered as she grinned, “Mari-chan, I do love you so.”

Amari stroked a tumble of red curls off Kani’s cheek and leaned down. She wasn’t thinking when she inhaled the heady scent of fruit and warm skin. She wasn’t thinking when Kani’s eyes deepened from leaf-green to darkest emerald. She wasn’t thinking when she licked the taste from curling lips. In fact, it would be many hours before she formed a coherent thought, and by then the only words she could manage were a whispered, “I love you, too.”

When Amari woke the next morning, Kani was gone. Only a delicately written note remained where the tangled sheets had cooled. It read, “Someone has to do something.” A small Celtic coin, battered and ancient, sat beside the note. It was a token Kani carried with her at all times. Centuries had worn the edges until the coin was smaller than it had once been, but Amari could make out the horse and rider on one side. It had been a gift to Kani from her mother and there was no possession more dear. Even as her heart clenched at the abandonment, Amari understood the meaning. It was part apology and part promise.

Amari packed and made plans to return to the Academy. Her training was not yet finished. There was still a month left of summer vacation, which meant she would have most of the campus to herself. She wouldn’t have to endure the chatter and curiosity of classmates. She could focus on her studies while she waited. Her father would be pleased. She would take that month to craft a new katana, black and sleek. Perfectly balanced with a honed edge. She turned the coin over in her hand. What better way to protect such an honour than by adding the coin to the sword? As a menuki, placed with care and wrapped tight, it would be safe at Amari’s side and under her hand until Kani came back to retrieve it.


Ch. 10 –

The remaining month of summer vacation didn’t go as planned. Amari was en route back to the Academy when the message from her mother caught up to her. It was, as always, very calm and reassuring, but there was no doubt to the underlying intent. Amari was needed at home.

She wrote back that she was, of course, on her way. She would comm directly when she was in range. She didn’t have time to stop at the Academy for appropriate clothing, but she did have to change ships. She would be able to buy something more appropriate before meeting her family. Both her style and her shape had transformed since she was last home. Her current outfit consisted of sandals and a jade green sundress purchased by Kani. Wearing it eased the sting of Kani’s absence, but the idea of appearing before her parents made her cringe.

Amari’s ship docked at the Intergalactic Exchange Station. It was the largest, most annoying mall in existence. People planned vacations to the Station, which boasted several major hotel chains. One could find food to suit any palate and the shopping was unequaled. If it could be bought, it could likely be bought there. That included a healthy black market and a network for the ultra wealthy to purchase the insanely rare.

She had three hours until her ride to the Momoyama Maru left. That gave her plenty of time to shop and grab breakfast. She’d been so eager to leave Gemini, she hadn’t bothered to eat. The lack was catching up with her.

She made her way past the throngs of tourists to the elevators that would carry her to Deck 35 where there were fewer people and no children at all. It wasn’t exactly Amari’s personal level, but it may as well have been. All of her favourites were housed here, including access to the only hotel she would consider on the Station. It wasn’t one of the big chains, but rather a quaint spot with an almost colonial feel to it. Antiques and carefully chosen replicas lent an air of stepping back in time. Comfortable rather than cheesy, welcoming rather than cutting edge.

There was no time for a stay, though. She slipped into her preferred clothing store and broke into a smile as the owner stepped out from behind the counter.

“Amari-san! How wonderful to see you again! You are not due for a wardrobe update for another four months. What brings you to me so soon?”

The man was seven feet tall and nearly as round. He was completely bald, but sported a braided beard that fell past his impressive belly. He paused and bowed deeply, a feat that Amari never failed to appreciate. She returned the gesture, then rose with a soft, rueful laugh. She motioned to her dress, “Mother caught me returning from Gemini and requested I reroute to home. Andre, you have to help me.”

The giant bowed again and rumbled with amusement, “It is a lovely gown for Gemini, but I cannot see your mother pleased with your bare knees. Did you know she was here last month? I finally met the fabled Hibiki. She was a joy to dress!”

“Be careful. She will keep you on your toes. She loves fashion and all things feminine.”

“That she does. How long do you have before your trek home?” Amari held up three fingers and watched Andre pale, “Ahhh. That is unfortunate. Off the rack and tailored, then. You know, I may have the perfect thing. Or rather, things. I assume you will be home for a while? You will need more than one change? I had a customer place an order, but she canceled recently.”

To Amari, that was sheer blasphemy, “Why would she do such a thing?”

“Taken out by a rival assassin. She was about your size and I think you will like her aesthetic.”

“Of an assassin? Andre, really. What do you think I am?”

He smiled as he turned to head to the back of his shop, “A woman of rarefied taste. To the changing room, my girl. I will be right there.”

Andre was the only man Amari would strip for. He was the only man beyond her father and Jun to ever lay touch to her. He was also more removed and disinterested than any creature she’d met. Andre saw the body as art to be adorned. It was rumoured that he was castrated. It was also rumoured that his people didn’t procreate the way most species did and therefore had no interest in sex. Amari didn’t care. Her mother had brought her to him when Amari was twelve and he had been dressing her since. Twice a year, she put herself in his hands. Suddenly, she was privately gleeful that Akane had summoned her home. It gave her an excuse to be here. For the next hour, Amari set aside all worries and thoughts and turned herself over to genius.

Akane closed the door behind the elegant woman known only as Lady Z. She was immensely wealthy and had been one of the first to reserve a luxury suite. It was a lifetime booking. Lady Z had seen six husbands over the course of her years, all exiting her life by various means. None of those ways meant they could return to disturb her peace. She had come to Akane, asking the Seer to look into her future. She was growing lonely and couldn’t decide on a consort or another husband.

The Seer chuckled to herself as she moved around her private workshop, tidying up from the reading. She had no need for the incense and candles. The silk cloths and gently ringing bells provided atmosphere. Akane never charged for her talents. She had been warned as a child – gifts from the gods were not meant for profit and could result in loss of those gifts. And yet, all who were permitted into her chambers knew there was still a price to be paid. Lady Z would likely make a sizable donation to a children’s organization. It was her preferred charity to favour. Her offering this day would fund the group for the next year. She would consider it the proper thing to do before planning her seventh, and therefore most lucky marriage.

As she bent to blow out the candles, Akane’s knees buckled. Her jaw bounced off the edge of the table, driving her teeth into her bottom lip. She crumbled on the rich carpet and stopped moving. Her breathing slowed to a near stop. Her personal priestess rushed forward, then halted. Interrupting now would only cause more damage. Visions of this magnitude were different from friendly readings and should not be tampered with.

Akane forced herself to inwardly calm as the images she had suffered during childbirth came back to dance. They had never quite left her and each time, she learned something new. She watched them slide by and picked out fresh details. Just as she expected to rise from her fugue, other images rose. Amari, arguing with Hideyoshi. A porcelain vase tumbling through darkness to shatter. That vase held something precious beyond measure, protected it and gave it hope. The Seer shook with fear.

When Akane began to speak, the priestess grabbed a datapad and tapped out every word, exactly as it was said.

Steeds of Greed and Dust
Triskelion chariot
Rise to fight, Lost Child

Akane fell silent. Her breathing returned to normal. The priestess gently lifted the now sleeping form from the floor and carried her to the bedroom where she could properly rest. She stood guard outside, turning away all visitors. Only when a messenger arrived did she venture into the dark room to wake her mistress.

“Amari has arrived.”


Ch. 11 –

“Dust, Amari-chan. It’s all falling to dust,” Akane was still wrung out from the rapid-fire visions. Amari stifled a frown. She had seen her mother in the aftermath of her waking dreams before, but nothing like this.

She squeezed Akane’s hand, “Tell me what you need, Okasaan.”

“Intervene with your father. He will not listen to her. She’s trying to tell him and he won’t hear her.”

Akane’s voice grew soft as she drifted back to oblivion. Amari looked up at the tending priestess.

“Much was taken out of her. She likely will not remember this conversation. She will be better in the morning, child. Go settle in your rooms and let her sleep.”

Amari had to smile. No one called her “child” anymore, but the woman who literally guided her into the world was entitled.

“Yes, thank you. That is a good idea. You will wake me if she needs me?”

The priestess nodded and relaxed into a chair beside the bed, “Rest well.”

Amari bowed and left the bedroom, easing the door closed behind her. She moved across the suite sitting room with less grace and silence than usual, making it sound as if she were leaving. She counted to five, then bounced up onto the balls of her feet and eased her way to a small Shinto shrine set into one wall. With a last glance at the bedroom door, she reached out and pressed down on the small incense holder. She had been spying on her parents for as long as she could remember. One such session had found her mother opening a secret panel. Amari hadn’t been able to see what was on the other side, but she suspected it had to do with Akane’s gift.

She had been right. The wall slid shut as she stepped through and gentle lighting flickered to life. Amari had to bite her lip to keep from gasping. She was fairly certain the room was soundproof, but she wasn’t taking chances. This was a betrayal her mother would struggle to forgive.

The room was more cozy than spacious, and every inch of it was covered in wonder. From floor to ceiling, there wasn’t a bare speck to be found. The floor was covered in thick, overlapping rugs that invited one to take off their shoes and wriggle toes. Silk lengths clung to the ceiling in dark jewel tones. Heavy paper – actual paper – covered the walls. Paintings of Old Earth hung across lush wallpaper. It should have been chaotic, but it wasn’t. It was warm and inviting.

A fat pillow, made for sitting on, hunched in one corner of the room. A low table of dark mahogany and and inlaid blonde traskwood sat before the pillow. Both looked well-used.

Nothing in the room, though, was more stunning than the desk and hutch taking up most of one wall. It was crafted of a light wood Amari couldn’t identify. She approached it carefully, as one would an altar. Or a basket of hissing snakes. The surface held a stack of small notebooks, again made of real paper. Amari’s fingers itched to open one, but that would be taking her heresy too far.

The shelves above the desk had dividers. Each section contained its own collection of priceless heirlooms, the likes of which would not be found anywhere else on the flagship.

Decks of Tarot cards, graced one cubby. There were at least a dozen, including a purloined jewel bright deck. Like the pillow and table, they were clearly well used. In the dim light and without handling them, it was difficult to glean details. One deck sat aside, free of the box. That was the one she most wanted to examine. The one she dared not touch.

Amari turned her attention to the next cubby. A memory flashed, of sitting at Akane’s feet. There was a breeze blowing, carrying a soft scent of flowers. They must have been outside, though Amari was sitting on wood. On the porch, then. Deft young fingers played with discs of bone and malachite, onyx and silver. The discs were carved with straight-lined symbols. Even as a child, she understood there was meaning to be found. But she didn’t much care. She was more fascinated with the sound they made as she scooped them up and let them tumble from her hands. Without thinking, Amari reached for a set of runes.

“They are the same.”

Amari turned, hand dropping to her waist for the knife she always carried. Her motion shifted into a deep bow, shame bringing fire to her cheeks.

“Okasaan. Please, forgive me. I did not intend to intrude.”

Laughter reassured her more than words could, “You did not intend to be caught.”

Amari looked up before standing. The good humour in her mother’s gaze brought a wry twist to her own lips, “I am sorry.”

“Don’t be, daughter. I was hoping to show you this one day. Today is as good as any other. Go ahead. Nothing here is off limits,” Akane nodded to the desk as she settled into the chair. “Earth viking runes, Rominka gypsy tarot, Glessan I-Ching. Wodarn casting sticks. Various teas for leaf-reading. These are the tools of my craft.”

Amari rattled discs in her hand, comforted by the familiar weight, “I thought you dealt in visions.”

More laughter, “You make me sound like a mercenary! No, girl, I do not deal in visions. I am gifted with glimpses into what will be. These tools can offer more insight. Clarification, if you will. I have gathered them over time and travels. Had you inherited my gift, they would have someday been yours.”

A pang of regret twinged Amari, as if she had somehow let her mother down.

“It is no fault of your own, foolish girl. You are more than a mother could hope for. Do not let something you would hate to endure give you grief. Ahhhh, you smile. Don’t argue. Visions do not heed the bearer’s will and there is no control involved. It is not a pleasure for warriors. Come. We both need our rest before tomorrow.”

Akane reached out for a small symbol in the wallpaper and the door slid open. It occurred to Amari that had her mother not discovered her snooping, she would have been trapped in there, humiliated into banging on the walls and calling for help. Most of her world allowed her to move through space as a top predator. No matter her class at the Academy, she was always above others. Smarter, faster, more deadly. She was removed from the petty games and comfortable with her status. Less than an hour back home reminded her of her place. Her lips twisted in acceptance.

Amari stood before her father, tall and firm. Her chin was lifted, but her eyes downcast. Hands folded at the small of her back. Feet shoulder width apart. The suit Andre tailored for her was perfect. The slim black slacks and matching waist-jacket fit her as if they had been grown to her specifications. The snowy white shirt with its mandarin collar was both pristine and feminine. The suit quietly declared the owner mature, professional, and capable. Amari had been amazed at the movement in the fabric. Nothing pulled or strained. The cloth felt like a second skin. The entire experience, under Andre’s skillful hands and without her mother assisting, opened Amari’s imagination of what clothing could do. She was already planning sketches and requests for her future appointment with the tailor.

What she had not planned for was the fireball who tore into the office and hurled itself at her. Dexterity and training kept Amari and her heeled boots in place, but the sound that left her was part grunt and part loss of oxygen. Slender arms tangled around Amari’s waist and a dark head nuzzled close.

Amari watched fond frustration raise her father’s eyebrows. With a dry voice, he attempted to exert some control, “Hibiki. Let your sister breathe and greet her properly, kudesai.”

The sister in question simply tightened her grip. Amari wrapped her own arms around the young girl and squeezed. She bent to kiss the top of Hibiki’s head, murmuring, “Listen to Otosan, little blossom, lest he send you to your room and you miss dinner.”

Another squeeze, and then she relented and stepped back, “Welcome home, Oneesan! I didn’t know you were going to be here until Rebecca said she saw you get off the shuttle, but I told her she was stupid because if you were coming home you would have sent me word and you didn’t so you couldn’t be here but she said she wasn’t stupid I was stupid and I should go see for myself so I did and you’re here! What did you bring me?”

Before Amari could parse her sister’s eager babbling, a chime rang. She tucked Hibiki’s arm into her own and led the way to dinner.

Halfway through the second course, the conversation fell apart. Hibiki filled a momentary silence with a declaration.

“Oneesan, I’m going to the Academy soon!”

Hideyoshi very carefully set his fork next to his plate, “No, child, you are not. We have discussed this.”

Hibiki’s chin lifted, “I am so! I’m going to be just like Amari.”

“That is not your path. You will learn everything you need to here, with Madame Bernard.”

“Fuck Madame Bernard.”

After that, dinner was quieter. Hibiki had been sent to her room without desert or the privilege of adult conversation.

Hideyoshi excused himself to make a vid-call, leaving Amari and her mother alone. They retired to a smaller, more comfortable space to talk over heavy, rich drinks. Akane peered at her daughter, “Is there something wrong with your coffee?”

Amari smiled over the glass rim, “Just that these mugs are too small, Okasaan.”

Akane laughed, “Any more would eat the lining of your stomach. There is a reason we practice restraint with this blend.”

“Mmm. There’s always a second cup. What is it between Otosan and Hibiki?”

“You saw. Hibiki wants to go to the Academy. To follow in your footsteps. Hideyoshi believes her place is in a good marriage. Would you please speak with her? And him?”

Amari nodded, thoughtful. She smoothly changed the subject to Gemini and soon had her mother laughing. She didn’t tell Akane of Kani’s disappearance. It was still a private hurt and it wasn’t in her to share. Not yet.

Over the next two weeks, Amari spent a great deal of time with her sister. The one attempt at a conversation with her father was shut down so swiftly and so thoroughly that Amari wasn’t entirely sure it had even begun. Knowing better than to press, she tried to change Hibiki’s mind about military service, but the girl was more stubborn than expected. It was worse than trying to speak with Hideyoshi. There were tears, screaming fits, and insults. In the end, there were sobbing apologies and a pleading of understanding. Amari convinced her to wait another year before registering for classes. As a carrot for that hard to accept stick, Amari introduced Hibiki to Jun and made him promise to keep any training between the three of them. Of course, extracting that promise cost her.

“My katana? Why?”

“Because it is dear to you. Your first forging, yes? An oath bound by such an offering is unbreakable.”

Amari recognized the sly look in his dark eyes. She’d seen it every time he tested her. It was question laced with challenge and just the slightest hint of malice. Jun had not lived his life so long by being soft-hearted. She didn’t try to sway him. Pretty words didn’t work on mercenaries. She simply held the sword out in both hands and bowed. No further words need pass between them.


Ch. 12 –

“Kanto! Mail call! On actual paper.”

Amari looked up from the sword she was honing as a fist banged on her door. She waved her hand over a small wall panel and the door slid open. Tagnick grinned as he strode in. He stopped just out of reach and nodded to the weapon, “You finished it.”

“Nothing gets past you. My mail?”

He leaned forward to look closer, “Wow! That is gorgeous. Matte black. Nice! It’ll move like a shadow.”

“Tag. Mail?”

“Fine, fine, but I want your next sparring practice. Finals are coming up and I’m still weak,” he handed her a slim envelope bearing her name and the Academy address, and then left. Whistling.

“Baka!” Amari called after him as she set the blade aside and closed the door. Her heart tightened at the sight of the handwriting.

Dearest Mari,
I hope you have forgiven me for leaving you on the beach. I needed to do this, but I needed Gemini… and you… more. I know I don’t have to explain myself to you. You above anyone understand the drive of responsibility.
I won’t be returning to Tokugawa. I have found my place and a mentor to finish my training. He’s not quite as good as you, but who is? When I see you again, I hope you will be proud of what I have accomplished. I’ll be hard to get in touch with, but you know me and letters! I’ll write when I can. Andre will hold them for you. (You raved about him so much, I stopped to get appropriate gear. He’s a big fan of yours.)
Mari, I hold Gemini close to my heart. You are always with me, whatever the day holds. But you are particularly with me at night. I remain…
Yours,
Kani

Amari closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe. It was the first contact since Kani left six months ago, but she was safe and she was whole. That was all that mattered. Amari tucked the letter into a desk drawer and cleaned up her sharpening tools.

The next two years went by in a flurry of activity. Hideyoshi kept Amari’s downtime filled with political and then specialized training. She was far beyond her contemporaries in class, but he insisted she stay on the academic track to completion. If she chaffed at the pacing, she sometimes struggled to keep up outside of the Academy. Her father had warned the seasoned soldiers she worked with to give her no preferential treatment. She would succeed or fail on her own merit. Amari learned to hate her father just a little. She also learned to treat pain as nothing more than an inconvenience. The first time she was able to contribute to a mission rather than simply keep up, her unit celebrated by getting her roaring drunk. It was to be the one and only time Amari Kanto performed karaoke.

And now, graduation was upon her. She had hoped Kani would be able to attend. The last letter, sent several months ago, indicated there was a possibility. But it had been silence since then. All of Kani’s letters were on paper, as if she feared hacking or interception. The last was dirty and torn. Kani wasn’t corresponding from a lush hotel room somewhere. No matter. Her parents, Hibiki, and Jun would be in the audience.

Andre had brought her Ofurisode, the most formal kimono possible. They had spent months pouring over old family images and history to design a work of art. It should have been easy. House Kanto was gentle in its show of power. Muted colours, pure lines. Over the course of centuries, eons even, they had shown off by action, never by appearance. That meant there were no flashy dragons or sweeping cherry blossom trees to compliment the creation. And yet, Andre had manage to work magic.

The wizard himself stood over her, large hands deftly placing handspun silk layers just so. The han-eri collar was of the whitest white. Andre had sewed it in a clean-room and sealed it until this day. He hadn’t allowed for a fitting, knowing his skill enough to be confident. The kimono itself was opposite on the spectrum. Black so dark it swallowed light, there was still a shimmer when she moved. But if she stood perfectly still, she could have been wearing a soul-eating void. Sleeves tumbled to the floor where they would drag along as she walked, hands folded into deep crimson sleeve openings.

The obi was the one piece that showed a little flair. Shades of grey spoke to family tradition, but Andre had pulled a stunning range from that much-maligned hue. Threads with the barest hints of green and violet were heavily embroidered over subtle silvery-grey silk. Her obi bustle sash was the same crimson in her sleeves and a jet black obi-jime cord held it all in place.

As a gift for her mother, Amari had been growing her hair out since she had been home last. It was long enough to annoy her on a daily basis, but that meant it was also long enough for a traditional, elaborate upswept style. She vetoed the very idea of tucking flowers into ebony locks. Two simple steel hair pins, ruby tipped, would suffice. She had an appointment with her hair dresser for the day after graduation. It was all coming off.

The final touch was her katana. Tag had been right when he said the blade moved like a shadow. The only speck of colour from koijiri to kashira was Kani’s coin, tucked into the wrapping. She tucked the saya into her obi and eased it into a comfortable position, then stepped back and folded her hands into her sleeves. She bowed low, hiding a smile as Andre offered a long, appreciative whistle.

“You cut quite the figure, Amari-san. Your father will burst from pride.”

Amari rose, amusement quirking lightly glossed lips, “Otosan does not ‘burst’ and you know it.”

“Watch. It’ll be hard to spot, but you’ll see. I am never wrong about such things.”

“Andre, this is gorgeous. Thank you! Please bill my account, not Okasaan’s.”

“Not a bit of it. This is my gift to you. Hideyoshi won’t be the only one struggling with pride today. I should have hugged you before we dressed you.”

“Save it for later. I will need your help getting out of this contraption.” She held out her hands to his for balance as she stepped into her wooden shoes and wobbled a little, “It has been a minute since I tried walking in these. They take a moment to get used to.”

Both were laughing as Amari palmed her door open and nearly walked into Tag. He too cut a fine figure in his dress uniform. His expression, though, was grief ravaged.

“Amari. Sweetheart. The Commandant needs to see you.”

“What is it?”

“He’s waiting in his office.”

“Tag. Tell me!” Fear began to creep in. He looked devastated and refused to meet her eyes.

“I can’t. Please, just go see him,” he stepped back out of her way as she kicked off her geta and hiked up her silken layers so she could push past and storm down the corridors. After a nod from Tag, Andre followed.

Amari slapped the door open without knocking. She strode into the office she’d only seen twice before, remembering who she was standing before as he rose from his chair. Her pose adjusted as best she could in her kimono, shoulders and back straight, hands folded at the small of her back. Her chin lifted and golden eyes stared blankly ahead.

The Commandant cleared his throat. He had delivered this type of news more than once over his years of leading the Academy, but never to someone quite like this student. And never an hour before graduation ceremonies began.

“There is no easy way to say this. Cadet Kanto, your sister was involved in an accident this morning,” he paused and swallowed again, “She did not survive.”

The world tipped, then spun as she tried to process his words. On the walk to his office, she had considered the worst possibilities. Her mother was ill. Her father had a heart attack. She was missing a credit and wouldn’t be graduating. A host of nightmares had bounced around, but not one of them had been Hibiki. It wasn’t possible.

She felt Andre grip her elbow and she leaned into him slightly. Tears filled her eyes and a scream clawed at her throat. She was going to black out. She was going to go down howling like a beast in agony and then pass out. It was all right there, waiting for her mind to catch up and take them both into oblivion. Any second now.

Instead, she nodded once, “I will return home immediately. By your leave, Sir?”

The Commandant snapped his heels together and saluted, “There is a shuttle standing by for you. It has been a pleasure to have you here, Cadet. Your personal effects and graduation documents will be sent along. Please accept my deepest condolences. I… I met her once. She was a shining light.”

The tears threatened again and if she gave life to them, they would bring the screaming. Amari clamped down tighter and returned the salute, “Thank you, Commandant. I will never forget all that I learned here.”

Andre followed her back to her dorm room to help her out of the kimono. He packed it away carefully, remaining silent when she whispered, “I do not ever want to see that again.” He understood.

“Do you want me to return with you, Mari-chan?”

It was almost too much. Those words on lips that weren’t rosebud and lacked the barest hint of a lilt. Had Kani been there, Amari would have dissolved into the grief that so badly needed voice. She would have crumbled into loving arms and sobbed for her baby sister. But that was not to be and while she wanted to open Andre’s throat for his unintentional crime, she merely shook her head.

“No. Thank you.”

She returned his hug when he left, remembering that this was her friend and he was only trying to help. After he was gone, she gave herself a moment to be sure she was fully in control, and then closed the door and headed for the shuttle bay.

It took far too long to get back to her father’s ship. Instant travel would have been too long. Three ships and two shuttle hops were nearly unbearable. She wore her mood like a cloak that swung around her and warned all who drew too close. Disbelief and horror warred with rage. She had never been very religious, but thanks to her mother, she at least honoured the old gods. She had too much time to think and so, in her confusion, they were the target of her silent fury.

Amari would never again worship anything she couldn’t see and confront.

The Momoyama Maru was in mourning. Every bit of the ship was draped in black. An eerie quiet clung to the air, reminding people to speak in nothing above a whisper. Amari barely noticed the crowds parting to allow her passage. She was focused on getting to her parents. On finding out what happened and who was to blame. Someone would pay for this loss. Someone had to. The howling beast demanded sacrifice, in blood or sanity.

A woman stepped into Amari’s path, blocking her way. There was no doubt that the move was deliberate and Amari nearly pushed her aside. Only the sight of her old sword stopped her. The woman clutched it to her chest, hands shaking.

“He asked me to return this to you.”

The rage stirred again. Jun. He swore to protect Hibiki and he had failed. The beast smiled. Payment.

“Where is he.” Not a question, no matter how it was phrased. A command.

The woman dropped to her knees and cried out, “Please forgive him! He is gone.”

Amari’s hands curled into fists. Gone. The coward wouldn’t even face her. That was fine. She would chase him down and settle this. Whatever he had once meant to her was also gone.

She looked down and watched as the woman pulled blade from saya, halfway. Dried blood covered the steel.

“He could not bear the shame of failing you. And her.”

Disbelief shattered fury. Layer upon layer of grief dragged her down. The beast fell silent.


Ch. 13 –

Amari straightened her jacket and smoothed her hair before knocking on the door to Hideyoshi’s office. The guard looked unhappy when she told him she would open the door herself, but she needed a moment before facing her father. In the weeks since Hibiki’s death, the tension had only grown between them. It was understandable, of course, and Amari was old enough to know they were all processing their grief in their own way. Until she heard her parents fighting. She didn’t catch their words, but the raised voices were clearly tight with anger. Doors on the ship did not lend themselves to slamming, so she didn’t hear her father leave. But she heard her mother crying and Akane would never show her husband tears. Amari had stiffened with rage. This was something she didn’t know how to handle. Or fix. She hated the idea of her mother sobbing, alone and hurting. But nothing in her training had taught her the proper protocol. Should she leave Akane to her dignity? Offer a shoulder? Confront her father?

In the end, she had done nothing. Confusion and resentment deepened until she, too, was biting heads off. The second time she caught herself seeking Jun for training and distraction, she knew she had to get off the ship.

Which brought her to her father’s door. The collar of her cadet uniform was scratching the back of her neck. She focused on the irritation and let it take place of her more problematic emotions. She knocked once and the door immediately slid open.

He looked haggard. Hideyoshi always leaned toward slender, but the weight he had dropped was not healthy. Amari’s heart twisted yet again. She wanted nothing more than to blame him for everything. How easy it would be to lay all their hurt and confusion at his feet. He was the patriarch, the head of the Kanto Empire. It was his duty to bear such a weight. And yet, he looked as it he were being held together by the barest thread. Any further strain would break him. Would break them all.

She bowed low, once more taking hold of her warring thoughts, “Otosan. I hope you are well today.”

Hideyoshi snorted, “As well as you, honoured daughter.” It was an endearment he had used often. Now, it stung. Honoured daughter. Only daughter.

“I am sorry for disturbing you. I had hoped we could discuss the next steps in my training.”

The silence dragged on until Amari questioned the wisdom of being here. Perhaps it was too soon. Was she being selfish, wanting so badly to get away from this place? Wanting to fill her days until she fell over from exhaustion?

“Yes, that is a good idea. I had planned to send you to the Seventh after your graduation. They are currently in the field, so you’ll be going to Lyon City. There’s a job waiting for you.”

She knew better than to ask about her duties. It wouldn’t matter. If he wanted her to sweep floors, then that is what she would do. It never entered Amari’s mind to defy her father or set one foot off the path he laid before her. There was a job at Lyon City, at the KWS center there, and so that’s what she would do.

“I will send a message. There’s a ship leaving in two days. Be on it.”

Amari bowed and stepped back.

Hideyoshi stopped her, “Wait.” He rose from behind the desk and moved around to her. He placed both hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “I’ve never gotten over those eyes of yours. From the first time I saw them. You are everything a father could hope for, Amari-sama, and I am proud of you.”

She stared at him, words stuck in her throat. In her teenage years, she ached to hear praise from him. Any hint of disappointment hit her like a bullet. Now, still grieving, that praise was both nectar and ash.

“Thank you, Otosan. I will not let you down.”

He squeezed, then let go, “I know. I will see you at dinner tonight.”

It was her dismissal and she accepted it gratefully. Two days. She could bear two more days. She had been to Lyon City once before on the journey to the Momoyama Maru. It was a bright, bustling place that embraced every bit of technology available and ignored tradition. It would be perfect.

A seven foot tall behemoth leaned against the wall by the door to her suite. A thrill of joy, followed by a wave of guilt, washed over Amari.

“Andre.”

He smiled. It wasn’t his signature expansive grin that laughed at the Universe. This smile was sadder, but so full of comfort and forgiveness, Amari couldn’t help but be a little healed by it.

“Amari-sama, it is wonderful to see you.”

“And you, my friend,” she hoped the warmth of her tone made up for her cold distance the last time they met, at the memorial service. “What brings you all the way out here?”

He looked down the hallway, then motioned to the door, “Might we talk inside?”

She nodded and aimed for levity, “Indeed. All the furniture on the ship is reinforced.”

Deep, loud laughter echoed behind them as they stepped into her suite. It had been updated over the years and now reflected the growing tastes of a serene young woman. Black and shades of grey spoke to the House Kanto aesthetic, but small splashes of colour in throw pillows and artwork kept the space from being too austere.

Andre set a case on the couch and turned to her, “You look well.”

Small talk. Amari had never been good at it. The nicety seemed harder now.

“As do you. Are you going to answer my question now?”

He laughed again, “Business, then. I brought you a gift.”

Amari did her best to not flinch. His last gift had been the kimono. Hibiki wasn’t his fault, but the two were entwined and it would be some time before she was able to break that bond. She watched as he opened the case and pulled out sleek black pants, shirt, and jacket.

“Your father called me last week. He said you had a new assignment and would need appropriate clothing.”

She was startled and a little angry that her father had told Andre before mentioning it to her. What if she wasn’t interested in the job? She caught herself and nearly laughed. As if there was any doubt of her obedience. She offered Andre a genuine smile as she began to slide out of her uniform.

“Show me.”

Once more, the large tailor dressed her. When he was finished, he stepped back and sighed, “If only I could steal you away to be my model. You are a delight to work with, girl.”

Amari opened a closet door and stepped before the mirror. She barely swallowed a gasp.

The dark fabric clung to her while still allowing absolute range of motion. Stylish and comfortable was often a tricky balance, but in Andre’s hands, they were twin benefits. The jacket bore a simple embroidered patch on the left sleeve; the archaic character for strength, House Kanto’s chosen symbol, in white thread, surrounded by a rich green circle.

Amari’s fingers stroked the patch, “Nice touch. This is perfect, Andre, thank you. Did Otosan happen to tell you what the new assignment was.”

He nodded and handed her a small pack.

“A courier’s pouch? Really? I’m to be an errand girl?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way. Word is there has been a sharp rise in corporate espionage and informational theft. Critical correspondence is being entrusted to couriers rather than data transfers. Your father isn’t dumping you off, child. He’s putting the safety of his company in your hands. At least, that’s how a humble tailor sees it.”

She narrowed her eyes and looked at him in the mirror, “That long-suffering expression suits you.”

“I’ve been working on it. There are changes of clothing in the case. They vary a little, but not much. I didn’t want you getting bored with the same outfit day after day.”

“Are you not staying, then?” Disappointment twinged. Dinner would be a much more relaxed affair if Andre were there.

“Not this time. I need to consult with your mother, and then I have to get back to the shop. I’m booked on the next shuttle out. Be well, Amari-sama. Come see me in a few months, when you need something pretty.”

Something pretty rarely entered her wardrobe choices. She almost asked him if he was keeping secrets, but the door was already sliding closed.

“Akane, no. I forbid it.”

Amari paused just outside the dining room. Her parents were arguing again.

“It is not for you to give permission, my husband. I will be leaving once we see Amari safely to Lyon City.

“To become a shrine maiden? That is so far beneath you, I don’t know where to begin,” he waved a hand as if dismissing her.

“You may begin by setting your arrogance aside. Nothing is beneath me. This is what I want, Hideyoshi. I need a purpose and the Miko are my calling.”

“I am no longer your calling?”

“You have had no need of me for quite some time now.”

Amari watched her father change colours and land on an alarming shade of red. She stepped in before either parent could say more.

“Good evening, Otosan,” she leaned forward to kiss her mother on the cheek, “Okaasan.”

“Amari!” Akane beamed and patted her daughter’s arm, “Sit. Dinner will be here in a moment. Your father tells me you are off on a new adventure soon.”

It hurt Amari to see Akane try so hard for normal, as if they weren’t all aware of the empty seat. She was willing to keep the illusion, though, if it meant peace for an hour or so.

“Indeed. Andre brought me suitable clothes.” She smiled at her father, but he remained silent. Fine. She would get details in a couple of days. She could wait.

Idle chatter filled the space as food was served. The underlying tension seemed to grow with every bite. They were all trying so hard for each other.

Two days. She could manage for two more days.

As the plates were cleared, Hideyoshi rose, “Tell her, Akane.”

They both waited until they were sure he was gone.

“I heard, Okaasan. I think it is a wonderful idea. The maidens will be fortunate to have your expertise.”

“I saw it, Amari. I saw Hibiki’s death. The day she was born.”

Amari poured more wine, “I had wondered.”

“He can’t forgive me for not preventing it.”

A drop of wine spilled onto the tablecloth. A spot of deep purple on pristine white.

“He is not thinking clearly. Some time away would be good. Give you each time to forgive what could not be changed.”

Akane gazed at her daughter, “When did you get to be so wise?”

It was on Amari’s lips to say it was the day she lost both her sister and her beloved mentor, but she wouldn’t add more grief.

“I am my mother’s daughter.”

Akane laughed. It was a sound unheard for weeks and Amari was grateful, “Otosan leans too black and white. But he will miss you far more than he knows. Expect him to show up with some excuse to bring you home.”

She didn’t express her own fear. Knowing Akane was always home when she needed her had been a comfort at the Academy. Holidays were spent in the warmth of family. Her father’s approval was important, but Akane was a deep well of strength. Each time she boarded the shuttle to leave, Amari went renewed by her mother’s love. Now, everything was changing, in ways that could never have been imagined.

Two days later, Amari was finalizing her packing when there was a knock at her door.

“Come.”

Akane stepped in, carrying a small wooden box, “Are you almost ready?”

Amari grinned with genuine excitement, “Hai! My luggage has been taken to the shuttle. I’m just gathering the last few things to carry with me.”

“Do you have room for this?” Akane held out the box and opened the lid. Inside, nestled in silk cloth, rested an ancient and somewhat tattered Tarot deck. Amari reached out to stroke a finger across the cards.

“I… yes. Of course. But, Okaasan, that is your primary deck.”

“It was always meant to be yours. I know the cards don’t sing to you, but I will feel better knowing you have them.”

“I will take care of them. Thank you!”

“There is one thing more. Hibiki,” Akane’s voice broke. She breathed in deep and held out a thin bracelet of woven silver and copper. “Hibiki made this for you, for graduation. She didn’t want you to know she was learning this craft. She wanted to surprise you. You… should have it.”

The beast stirred. It was never far away, though she had managed to suppress the hunger for revenge. In unguarded moments the screaming and oblivion threatened, but she had gotten good at squashing that as well. Her hand shook as she offered her wrist to Akane. The weight of the metal was both a comfort and a shackle. She closed the door on the beast and hugged her mother close.


Ch. 14 –

Deep amethyst water swayed gently, making its way to the shore before easing back out again. As the day progressed, the water would become more fierce. By the end of the day, waves would be slamming inland and only a fool would risk so much as ankle deep exploration. For now, though, Amari could enjoy floating far from the flurry of Lyon City.

Her first steps here had been a breath of fresh air. Literally. She hadn’t breathed un-recycled air since Gemini. When she had emerged from the shuttle, tired but excited about her new job, she had nearly passed out. Richer oxygen, lighter gravity, and the simple high of freedom were near overwhelming. But wonder at her new environment won out and she managed to get her balance.

Lyon City was everything the Momoyama Maru wasn’t. Where her father’s flagship leaned on traditional aesthetics, Lyon City embraced the modern. The Momoyama was, by necessity, enclosed and at times confining. This city sprawled like a toddler on a king-sized bed. Structures soared into a sky that always seemed on the verge of sunrise colours, even when the day was bright and glaring. The buildings were all made of the same sleek, matte material and they all bore restrained and refined signs. No garish neon here, just soft backlighting to ensure the KWS tower wouldn’t be mistaken for Parable Foods.

Amari’s comm buzzed. She snarled and tapped earpiece, “Kanto.”

An amused voice rumbled, “Out becoming one with nature again? Get back here and dried off. We’ve got a rush delivery and you, my dear, drew the short stick.”

“I always draw the short stick.”

“Huh. Fancy that, newb.”

Minerva Tremaine ran the courier department. She had all the tact of a drill sergeant and the sympathy of a dead rock. But Amari had been fascinated from their first meeting. Minerva’s only political leanings were wrapped up in rum procurement. Her favourite past times included terrifying new employees and working her way through the entire female population of Lyon City. By Amari’s calculations, Minerva would be out of conquests within eight months.

The swim back was invigorating and by the time she had made her way to the briefing room, she was more than ready for the task ahead. Minerva was at the front, speaking with the most ridiculously handsome man Amari had laid eyes on. He stood a full foot taller than Minerva, which put him another six inches above Amari. Broad shouldered with a trim waist and an ass one could bounce coins off of. Long silky black hair fell alarmingly far down his back. The sides were held back with intricate braids and from the side, Amari could see perfection in nose and cheekbones.

She hated him on sight.

Minerva looked up and the stranger turned his head. Minerva’s hair was crew-cut short and her skin was darker than Mr. Perfect’s deep brown, but side by side, there was no mistaking the resemblance. Identical eyes stared at her. Since they’d met, Amari hadn’t been able to pin down Minerva’s eye colour. There was something about the woman’s race that stole away one’s memories of detail. It affected more than just the eyes, but after a while, certain features crystallized in the memory. For the first week, Amari could only identify her by voice. It made her a brilliant operative. Now, it appeared there were two of them.

“Ahhh, Kanto! Glad you could finally join us. How was your swim?”

“Rejuvenating as always, thank you. I apologize for keeping you waiting.”

She caught the amusement in Minerva’s gaze. She knew no one had been waiting long, but the best way to take the wind out of her supervisor’s poking was to meet it head on and appear contrite.

“Please, come meet my brother.”

Amari stepped forward and extended a hand. The fingers that wrapped around hers were long and well formed. His grip was light enough to be gentle, strong enough to offer competence. She squashed the urge to crush his hand.

His voice was smooth and silken, “Rune Tremaine. It’s a pleasure, Ms. Kanto. My sister speaks highly of you.”

“Don’t lie to the girl. Kanto, Rune is going to accompany you on this mission. He’ll play back-up and bodyguard if necessary. No, don’t tell me you don’t need one. Your runs have been simple pick-ups until now. This is a different mission and we can’t risk the package. Or your neck. I refuse to tell your mother I lost her only daughter.”

The beast, so quiet for so long, stirred and rose to golden eyes. Amari pushed it back with some effort, closing the door again. She nodded, “Of course. As you think best.”

Minerva nudged Rune, “See what I have to deal with?”

“Oh yes. She’s a handful alright. All respectful and accommodating.”

“You just wait. You’ll see. Kanto, Rune’s ship is in Bay 27-G. Grab your kit from supply and get over there. You leave in twenty.”

Amari bowed and stepped out. As she left, their voices dropped to a whisper and slid into the purring cadence of Minerva’s home language. Amari had made it a goal to learn the foreign tongue, but she had yet to find anything written. No books, no data. Nothing put down permanently. She wasn’t giving up, though. Maybe she could charm the brother into teaching her.

“What are you singing?”

Rune chuckled and the sound slid over Amari’s skin like a promise. Maybe it was a racial thing. Minerva had once turned a five-star general away from rage with a few whispers.

His voice rose, drawling lyrics, “He stood six-foot-six and weighed two-forty-five, kinda broad at the shoulder and narrah at the hip, and everybody knew you didn’t give no lip to Big John.”

His off-key vocals were met with a raised brow and nothing more.

“Twentieth century Earth? Some of that stuff holds up!”

Amari shook her head and returned her attention to her datapad. The drop point for the package wasn’t the usual type of corporate location she picked up from. If her map was correct, they would be meeting the messenger in a bar. That wouldn’t catch her attention, but the only images of the place were blurry and dark, clearly in a rough neighborhood. It meant a little more planning, a little more care. Rune’s voice once more cut through her focus.

“Those vids won’t show you what you need to know. I’ve been to Max’s a few times. Here’s how we’re going to handle the drop.”

They worked out all the details, including what they would wear. Amari was all for her courier uniform, but Rune laughed and tossed a small bag at her. It was small because there wasn’t much in it. She wanted to argue that there was no way she was shimmying into a latex miniskirt and matching sort-of top. The Asian print was garish and insulting. The heels would be a nightmare to try and walk in, let alone run if she needed. But she saw the challenge sparkling in his gaze and simply set the bag aside while they discussed the rest of their plan.

Amari soon found out why the images were dark and blurry. The entire planet was dark and blurry. Or at least foggy. It was a small moon-sized outpost that housed little of interest save the network of contacts and outsiders eager to spend their credits and strike backroom deals.

Rune whistled low as Amari stepped out of her tiny room. Unwilling to back down from his silent taunting, she had instead embraced the idea. If he wanted her to dress the part, she wasn’t holding back. The skirt was no less short and the top no less offensive, but she had paired the clothing with black spiked hair and an updated spin on the traditional geisha makeup.

Snowy white powder covered already pale skin to paint her face with an other-worldly cast. A fine stroke of kohl crafted a cat’s eye look, made even more striking by her golden gaze. Eyebrows, already elegantly shaped, became sharper with a kiss of the same kohl. Rich red was drawn precisely above her brows, sweeping up before gliding down at her temples to fade into nothing. The scarlet pigment cut a path down her nose, leaving a stripe of white and vanishing into the same fade. Only a dusting remained past her cheeks, completing crimson butterfly wings.

It was her mouth Rune was focused on. Outlined precisely and perfectly, cherry red lips glistened and begged for attention. His eyes widened as she strode toward him and laid a hand on his chest. He glanced down at the nails sharpened to points and painted the same shade of red.

Amari stretched, pressing herself against him as she brushed her lips over his ear, whispering in a husky tone, “Down, boy.”

He laughed and gently pushed her away, “Oh yes. You’ll be just the distraction we need.”

Their journey to the meeting was as uneventful as one could expect given their attire. If Amari looked like an expensive evening, then Rune was surely the one collecting credits. His suit managed to both complement and contradict her costume. The finest linen fell from broad shoulders and crept across a powerful chest. It would take only the barest motion for him to fade into the shadows, but he’d have to turn his back to hide the garish latex tie that echoed her top. Amari would have laughed at him if her breath hadn’t caught in her throat. She was beginning to learn. What could be ridiculous on other men was staggering on him.

Delivery of the package was easy. Rune’s request for her outfit became clear. The only women they encountered were commodities. Respect came from the quality of clothing. Amari was somewhere in the middle which made her easy to ignore. Her KWS uniform likely would have gotten her killed. Another lesson. Trust your partner.

Her contact was exactly where she was supposed to be. The hand-off was smooth. No one paid them any mind, assuming that Rune was making a deal for Amari’s talents. There were smiles and bows and Amari managed to not remove body parts when Rune patted her on the ass. In all, it was one of the most boring jobs she’d run yet. Only the location offered any interest, but they were already making their way back to the door.

A scraggly little man stepped out to block their way. Amari tensed as the memory of a kneeling woman in her path flashed across her view. She pushed it, and the beast, aside.

“Excuse me, please.” Adding a demure curl to her tone was difficult.

The man, well dressed but in dire need of a shower, sucked his teeth and looked her over with obvious longing. He looked past her to Rune, “How much for the chippy?”

Amari shifted. She may be unarmed, but she was still well trained and now irritated. Rune laid a hand on her shoulder and smiled, “She’s spoken for tonight, I’m afraid. For the week. But if you wanna leave me your particulars, I’ll get in touch. She ain’t cheap, but she’s worth every chit.”

Amari had to give him credit. He didn’t so much as twitch when her heel came down on the top of his foot, aiming above his expensive shoes and striking a soft spot.

Another suck of teeth. Too large eyes settled on her chest, “She ain’t spoken fer right now. Won’t take but a minute. She don’t even gotta get outta them clothes. Just get on her knees nice-like and get ta werk.”

Rune chuckled and was on the verge of responding when the little idiot grabbed a breast.

Amari exploded. She hissed a Jun-taught curse and started to crouch, ready to rip a throat out. She never got the chance. Rune’s left arm wrapped around her, just below the shoulders, and held her against him. His right arm stretched out past her and the barrel of a Mark-V pressed into the man’s cheek. The breaching pistol was generally reserved for blasting air locks. For someone of Rune’s stature, it made the perfect side arm.

“I think not, sir.”

Amari turned her head slowly, “You carry that monster?”

He gave her a small squeeze, keeping his gaze forward, “Now, just slide on out of the way and we’ll be gone, all nice-like.”

The man raised a hand and three giants stepped up behind him. Two of them cracked substantial knuckles while the third unsheathed a large knife. The next few seconds were a blur. Amari learned a new word, her first curse in the elusive language of Rune’s people, then found herself over Rune’s shoulder. The three giants were on the ground, clutching knees shattered by well placed kicks. She was deaf from the one shot Rune fired into the ceiling, causing chaos to erupt around them. From the way she was bouncing, they were running.

Her hearing recovered just as they were leaving the moon’s artificial atmosphere.

“Care to tell me what the hell that was about?”

Rune glanced sideways at her, then resumed sewing shut the slash on his arm, “What what was about?”

“Wh…” She took a moment, then continued on as if she were speaking to a half-witted child, “That little display of male superiority back there.”

“Saving your ass from a life of back alley business?”

She knew she was being baited, but she was tired and furious and, even though she wouldn’t admit it, a bit rattled. “I did not need you to save my anything.”

“Amari, what are you?” He set the first aid kit aside and yanked his sleeve back down. Mild irritation flashed as his finger traced the edge of the slice in the material. “Damn it.”

“I am a KWS operative, just like you!”

“No. You’re not like me. Tell me, what would you have done to him?”

Her chin lifted, “I would have put him in his place and ensured he never again thought to harm a KWS employee.”

“Great Zeus, Minerva didn’t tell me you were a zealot. So you would have beaten him to a pulp and made him remember your face.”

“Yes!”

“No. That’s not your purpose,” Rune poured a dark blue liquid into a short glass and handed it to her. “Just drink it. I’m not poisoning you.” He poured himself one then leaned back against the counter. “I need you to listen to me, because clearly Minerva hasn’t told you squat. You’re not meant to be a hammer. That’s me and a few others. We’re the muscle. The meat. We lumber in and wave our fists about and make people scared. I can’t land on any planet in nine systems without being instantly known. Arrested in a few, too. And you know enough of my people to understand what that means.”

Amari sipped, surprised at the smooth burn slithering down her throat. Rune had good taste in alcohol.

He nodded, pleased she was at least trying it, and continued, “I’m the hammer. You’re the scalpel. The goal is to allow you to slide into any setting, anywhere, and do whatever is needed, then get out again. If not unseen, then at least unnoticed. The perfect scenario involves rumours and legends and a slick nickname. The Ghost. Maybe The Micro-Terror. Oh good, you are listening. The point is, you’re not supposed to be remembered. Not the way I am.”

Amari bought time with another sip. She was not happy that once again her destiny was being decided for her, without the courtesy of a conversation. But she had to admit the idea was thrilling. She imagined herself moving through shadows, blending in, and slipping past people like the ninjas of old.

A thought occurred to her, “A scalpel. An assassin.”

Rune nodded and Amari felt the first stirrings of respect for this brute. He wasn’t sugar coating anything and he wasn’t trying to convince her. He was simply laying out the facts.

“Now scamper off to bed, Micro-Terror. I’ve got a report to write.”

And just like that, those stirrings died.


Ch. – 15

Lyon City was in a tizzy. That was the only word Amari could think of as she made her way to the beach. It was her day off and she planned to spend it on peach coloured sugar-fine sands and floating in lavender seas. No stress. No worries. No courier runs. She had thirty-two hours of absolute freedom. And so, she didn’t stop anyone to ask what was going on. She didn’t care. The ocean called.

She nearly made it. She was out the door and could see the water. The moon was large this morning, taking up most of the horizon. The warm breeze slid over her bare skin. She stopped to tilt her head back, close her eyes, and breathe in the sharp scent of salt. Muscles rippled, then eased as every part of her relaxed. She’d be back in her uniform tomorrow. Today, it was all bikini all day.

A familiar rustling sound interrupted her reverie. Amari straightened and opened her eyes in time to see an honour guard run by in full dress uniform, swords bouncing against their thighs. One young man glanced over at her and stumbled. Obviously, he recognized her. His misstep allowed her to see the patch on his shoulder. The ebon slash of kanji against a pearl grey background stood out stark against the black sleeve.

Amari’s towel dropped from her limp hand and she sagged. Her day on the beach ran off with the honour guard as they rounded the corner. She turned back into the building, a string of curses trailing behind her.

Minerva’s personal assistant raced up, out of breath, “Lieutenant Kanto! Major Tremaine sent me to find you.”

Amari nodded, “Yes, I am sure she did. He is here, is he not?”

The girl’s head bobbed a little too much, eyes a little too wide. She was clearly starstruck. Amari sighed and walked past her, “Tell her I will be there.”

She returned to her rooms to change and make herself presentable. It wouldn’t do to greet her father in a bikini.

When Amari arrived at the welcoming ceremony, the honour guard was no longer running. They were standing statue-still, eyes locked forward. They were standing in the KWS courtyard because they were the elite among the perfect. Amari would be happy to step onto any field with any of them.

The quad was nearly standing room only. As she took a seat beside Minerva, her eyebrow raised and a smile tugged at her lips. As quietly as she could, yet knowing it would still carry, she whistled a familiar tune. Three notes only. Enough to cause a single finger to bounce against a thigh in response. The middle finger. Her smile blossomed. She hadn’t seen Tag since she left Tokugawa.

The beating of drums started out soft, but Amari felt them vibrate in her chest the moment stick struck cowhide. Not synthetic. Oh no. Ceremonial taiko drums were authentic from base to head and the three giant dadaiko on the stage were of the highest quality.

Stick bounced off skin, growing louder, and the quad fell silent. Electricity crackled. There was ancient ritual here and even the youngest child understood it. The area was suddenly encased in an energy far older than the ground they stood upon. It made Amari proud of her heritage and proud of her father. No matter what had passed between them, he was a powerful man who commanded most of the galaxy and still managed to pay homage to his ancestry. Her golden gaze watched the drummers, knowing their guest wouldn’t step onto the stage until the right moment.

Rising, pounding, building until conversation was not only drowned in rhythm but beaten into silence. At first, heads bobbed and feet tapped. But even that drifted off as the audience lost themselves in the cresting harmony.

The courtyard was deathly quiet when the sticks suddenly stopped. No one dared breathe. All eyes turned from the ensemble to center stage. But the drums began again.

One strike. Two. Three. Silence. Again. And again. One, two, three. Amari’s smile deepened and as the ninth round of three began, she stood and bowed low. She felt Minerva rise beside her, bowing as well. Like a wave, everyone around them echoed the motion, some without knowing why.

The final beat faded. The call of an ally to battle was complete and Hideyoshi Kanto stepped onto the stage to see the citizens of Lyon City and employees of KWS bowed deep in respect.

He had aged since Amari saw him last. Her entire life, her father had seemed unchanged. Stable and consistent, not just in willpower, but in body as well. The loss of his child and then his wife clearly had an effect. He still stood tall and he looked magnificent in a suit. He could still guide a crowd, as he was doing now. His voice was strong. His choice of words perfect. He was both self deprecating – apologies for causing such a fuss with his surprise visit – and commanding as the leader of KWS must be.

But Amari could see it in the grey kissing his temples. She worried about the lines in his forehead and at the corners of his mouth. From her seat, she could see the dullness in his eyes. Her father was tired.

She barely registered a word he said and when the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, she used the moment of chaos to escape. She wanted to be waiting in his office when he arrived. She wasn’t interested in his formal mask and she knew damned well that’s all she’d get if she waited for a summons.

“Do you know…”

“Who you are? Yes, ma’am. But I still can’t let you in.”

It was the first time she’d ever tried that line and she wasn’t surprised that it didn’t work. It was stupid and arrogant, but she was getting desperate.

She drew herself up and squared her shoulders. There wasn’t much hope that pulling rank would get him out of her way, but she’d come this far. Might as well descend into full idiocy.

The door opened from the other side, saving her any more humiliation.

“It’s alright, Franklin. I forgot to put my daughter’s visit on my calendar.”

Hell and damnation. The mask was firmly in place.

“Come in, Amari.”

The amusement in his gaze eased her heart a little. It was the most emotion she’d seen out of him since…

Her smile tightened as he motioned to the chair in front of his desk. So much for warm family reunions.

“What brings you tearing to my office, honoured daughter?”

As she sat, her hands curled. Not quite into fists, but not far off. “I simply wished to see you, Otosan. I have missed your council.”

He wasn’t buying it, but he let her off the hook. Another sign he wasn’t himself. “That’s sweet. I’ve been hearing good things about your work here. Tremaine’s report was glowing.”

“Miranda is kind. I enjoy working with her.”

“Rune.” Something about his tone and the way he said that single word, both questioning and disapproving, made her stiffen. When she didn’t rise to the bait, his mouth curled, “He was most enthusiastic about your mission.”

“How is Okaasan?”

If she’d hoped to unsettle him, she missed the mark, “My people tell me she is settling in well.”

Verbal chess with her father was always risky. It had been years since she’d outright lost a match, but she had yet to win. At this rate, they would be in his office all afternoon. Asking what was wrong with him would get her no where.

“I am glad to hear it. I plan to visit next month.”

Hideyoshi nodded, “She’ll be happy to see you.” He leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled. He was planning to wait her out.

So be it.

“I have a request. Would you please contact Ojisan Ieharu and ask about Kani? I have not heard from her in many months.”

His mouth curled again, “I can, but you needn’t concern yourself with her. You have bigger tasks ahead of you. As I said, I have been receiving positive feedback on your work here.”

Amari tucked her hands into her lap. Anger flickered at the edge of her vision and she had difficulty focusing on what he was saying. Needn’t concern herself? If nothing else, Kani was her childhood friend. Her best friend. He knew that much. She remained quiet and attentive, filing the comment away for later examination.

“I had thought to make my annual tour of KWS holdings, but the new settlement on Renatta requires attention. I am sending you in my stead to the Shinji system. You’ll stop at three planets. One of them is new to us.”

Shinji. Stonehaven was there. She remembered Jun’s words, so long ago, “Listen and learn and when the day comes, you will understand all.”

It was impossible to keep the surprise from her expression, earning her an authentic chuckle and the smallest hint of light in his dark eyes.

“You are ready. But before you imagine honour guards and speeches, you’ll be under cover. I want eyes on what is really happening, not what they want me to see.”

“Why me?”

He scowled at her and Amari made another mental note. All her life, he had welcomed her questions. Inquiries showed him she was curious about her world and his business. She was one of the few who could ask without hesitation. Was he thinking of her less as a daughter and more as a subordinate? Was she becoming little more than an employee?

“Because you are best suited for the role. You have been trained in courier duties, so you know diplomacy. But you are also trained in stealth, so you can slip in unseen. Why am I explaining this to you? I expect you to think better on your feet than this, beloved daughter.”

A tool, then. A well honed weapon. The ‘beloved daughter’ didn’t fool her. Where once such words were uttered with affection, they now rang hollow. Unfamiliar pain tightened her chest. She had experienced ripping, tearing, brutal loss. She had known the loss that came with quietly waiting for a distance to close. This slow breaking was new. This growing distance, as if a vessel she needed to breathe were drifting out of sight across lavender seas. Perhaps this was what it truly meant to become an adult.

A memory rose, unbidden and unwanted, of her home before they moved to the flagship. She was running through thigh high grass, giggling, yukata flapping around her legs. Her father chased her, making outrageous monster noises. When he caught her, he swept her up and tossed her into the air. He caught her and nuzzled, then held her almost painfully close for a long moment. His face was buried in her hair as he sank to his knees. The breeze stilled. Even the insects and the birds held their breath, allowing the great Hideyoshi Kanto time to find his balance in the embrace of his child.

Tears stung Amari’s eyes and she plucked a nonexistent string from her uniform to cover her rapid blinking.

“Rune will be going with you. Work out the details with him.”

He nodded at her, then picked up a datapad, “Your mother is along the route. If you stop to see her, please give her my best. She is missed.”


Ch. 16 –

“Minerva, there has to be another way. I know he is your brother and I mean no insult but I will kill him.”

Mercurial eyes glimmered with amusement. Minerva lifted the mug, took a sip, and shuddered, “Sunara, Amari, I don’t know how you drink this. No, don’t tell me. It’s an acquired taste. The kick is certainly enough to keep me going for a week. Pour yourself a fresh mug and sit back. I have a tale for you.”

“Sunara? Another of your gods?”

“Goddess. We pray to her for mercy. She doesn’t often grant it. She was my favourite goddess when Rune and I were growing up.”

“Really? I would have thought your favourite to be Trenale or Anyza.”

Minerva grinned, “You have been paying attention. Adventure and battle are worthy, to be sure, but when you have a twin brother Nakala-bent on getting into the worst trouble possible, you learn the benefits of begging for mercy.”

“So he has always been this way?”

“Mmmmm. And what way is that? Brash? Arrogant? Annoying? No. That’s all a bit of a mask. Granted, he’s embraced it pretty hard. But there’s no one better to have at your side.”

Minerva paused, gathering her thoughts. She shifted into what Amari had come to think of as her storyteller mode; lounging on the couch, cat-languid eyes slightly glazed and staring into history. Amari settled in and wrapped her hands around her mug.

“We were nine turns old when the fire took our town. Four people died that day and we knew every one of them. Their faces are carved into our memories. Ellia was in our class. Jinae taught Rune to punch and then to kick. Have you seen him fight yet? It’s otherworldly. Brynna watched over us most days, with her son Halle on her hip. We often slipped the leash and left Brynna behind. Or at least, we thought we did. She always knew where we were and with her gift of sight, she knew what we were up to.”

Amari kept perfectly still, but Minerva smiled and briefly focused on her, “I have heard of your mother’s talent. This was different. Brynna didn’t see the future. She had no clairvoyance. But if she thought about someone, she could see them at any given moment. We knew, of course, but with the simple arrogance of children, we thought ourselves immune.”

A melancholy air slid through the room. Amari shivered, glancing at the door, then back. She froze at the look of utter devastation in Minerva’s storm-tossed grey eyes. Sadness and shame radiated from her.

“We were in the woods. Rune was showing me the techniques he had learned that morning. We practiced kicking the tree, higher and higher. Higher still, until my thigh burned. There was always competition with us. Ever the cliche twins, needing to be better than the other but ready to kick the ass of anyone who crossed one of us.

“It was one of those high kicks that knocked the stick loose. Rune laughed when it bounced off my head, but he held it out of reach when I tried to take it away from him. He was taunting me and waving it around when a light shot from one end. The forest shook and the ground rippled. We watched a beam of fire strike the dry grass. We watched it race over the field, zig zagging as a snake moves. We watched it strike one house and then another, moving through the town. Nothing was safe. Once the first house went up, warning bells sounded. That was Jinae’s home. Ellia’s was on the left side, ours was on the right. They didn’t have time to get out. We think Brynna was focused on Halle and didn’t see it coming. Everyone else escaped.

“Rune and I, we tried to get to them. We raced across that field. The fire hadn’t strayed from the path. You would think it would have feasted on the grass. If it had been natural, I’m sure acres would have been ablaze. When we reached our house, my brother screamed Brynna’s name and when I would have followed, he punched me. Hard. Jinae had taught him well. I went down like a sack of discarded flour.

“I woke up hours later, cradled in my mother’s arms. Father was bandaging Rune’s hands. My people, we heal quickly. Broken bones knit in a matter of days. Women recover from childbirth in hours.”

Minerva flicked her gaze to Amari and made sure she was listening, “Rune’s hands took seven months to heal. He was scarred. We. Don’t. Scar. He will bear the marks of tearing that house apart for the rest of his days. Father told me later that they found him sitting in the still burning coals, holding Brynna and Halle. What was left of them. We only spoke of it once. He told me he would never again let anyone die on his watch.”

She drained her coffee and nodded once, “No one better to have at your side.”

Amari considered her response. The silence stretched between them. Something needed to be said, but she had never been good, or comfortable, with platitudes. Words mattered and empty ones were an insult.

“What was the stick?”

Minerva pushed off the couch, the Tremaine chuckle floating back to Amari, “We never found out. The Elders looked for it, of course. Everyone wanted to know what happened. If the field hadn’t been burned the way it was, we might have been blamed. But there was no doubting something… other… had been behind the tragedy. When they searched, there was no sign of the mysterious stick with carvings that glowed.”

“Carvings?”

“Mmm. When the light shot out of it, unfamiliar markings lit flashed green, then blue, then red. It happened very fast, but you don’t forget something like that.”

Amari wanted to ask more but Minerva was headed for the door, “You’ll still want to kill him. But maybe now, you’ll understand him a little better. Oh, and I should warn you. He has an unhealthy obsession with Old Earth. Particularly the music.”

“Why is that unhealthy?”

Minerva smirked, “Because he a lousy singer.”

After planning their journey, arguing about every detail, and nearly coming to actual blows over time lines, they finally stood at the ship they’d share for the next two years. It would be Amari’s longest stretch on a mission. There would be plenty of ground time, but the ship that seemed so luxurious a few weeks ago now seemed far too cozy. She watched Rune walk around the vessel for what had to be the twelfth time. Had she not talked with Minerva, she might be inclined to leave without him. Take off while he was examining the shield emitters. Again.

But now she saw him with new perspective. His need to double and triple check their route made more sense. His inability to trust her assurance that they could pick up necessities on the way. His snarl when she suggested that maybe she make this trip solo. It all went back to a nine year old boy.

Rune waved a hand in front of her face, “Hey. Tatsula. You ready?”

She hadn’t heard him walk up. That was a problem. “Tatsula?”

He grinned, crooked and infuriating, “Little terror. Quit dawdling! We should have been gone an hour ago.”

He whistled as he climbed the ramp into the back of their ship. Perspective or not, he was still damned annoying. She followed, wishing it was Kani’s backside she was staring at and not Rune’s. She paused at the top of the ramp and looked back. There had been no word from her father since their conversation. She’d known when she left his office that he wouldn’t reach out to Ojisan Ieharu, but she had hoped he might offer advice or wish her luck.

The ship rumbled a warning as Rune began take-off procedures. Amari watched until the ramp closed, then she made her way to the front where she would test her navigation skills on a whole new level. A little research and careful inquiry had revealed Rune was one of the best pilots alive. Of course he was. She strapped in just as they began to lift from the tarmac.

“She is very quiet.”

Rune smiled and ran his hand over the instrument panel in a near-caress, “She’s a good girl, aren’t you, Sotiria?”

A feminine voice, both friendly and sultry, filled the small bridge, “Hanaji prilay, Rune-la.”

“Universal, please, Sotiria.”

“Of course, Rune. Greetings, Amari.”

“Konbanwa, Salia.”

“Hajimemashita.” The computer sounded both respectful and amused and Amari couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped.

“Alright, both of you. Knock it off.”

They cleared the planet’s atmosphere. Amari unbuckled, still laughing, “Coffee?”

“Sure. Some of that stuff you drink. Miranda said I should ask you to make it on the weak side. So, extra strong if you please. She’s a wimp.”

Amari was leaning on the counter, watching the coffee brew when Rune joined her in the galley.

“Smells nice and strong,” he tilted back in a chair, legs stretched out. The galley was snug, but not uncomfortably small. Still, it felt as if he were taking up far more than his fair share of the space.

She handed him a large mug, then went back to her lean. And waited.

Rune tipped the mug. She had to give him credit. He didn’t react immediately. He swallowed, carefully, and blinked a few times. She watched his throat convulse and the colour rise in his cheeks. He opened his mouth, then closed it. Cleared his throat. Still, she waited. This was her favourite part.

“That’s quite a drink.” Alarm crossed his perfectly handsome features. Alarm, and suspicion. His voice sounded like a high-pitched child with a penchant for scotch and cigars. He cleared his throat again, the sound echoing through the room.

“Have another sip,” she offered helpfully.

He glared.

“I’m not trying to damage you. Your throat is startled. Another sip should balance it out. Or you can wait for the effect to wear off. But I don’t recommend it. I’m not sure Sotiria would recognize your commands.”

His shifting gaze was disconcerting, locked on her as he lifted the mug. The warning was clear. This had better fix things or it might get ugly.

His reaction was calmer. He still winced. It had taken Amari a long while and many mugs to stop that. But when he spoke, his voice had returned to normal.

“That’s something else.”

A shrug, “You did ask for it ‘strong,’ did you not?”

“You could have warned me.”

Amari smiled and drained her mug in one swallow. She strode out.

Rune watched her go. He sighed and played with the handle of his cup. She didn’t trust him. She didn’t like him. It would be a very long two years with this kind of tension between them. As he sipped, carefully, he considered other options.


Ch. 17 –

“Kanto. Meet me in the galley.”

She looked up as Rune’s voice boomed across the intercom. The ship wasn’t so large that he couldn’t have walked down to the joint office to speak with her. With an impatient sweep of a hand, Amari shut off the screen and stormed down the slim corridor. Their enclosed quarters had only reinforced the irritation she had boarded with. This latest tactic of calling her by last name only felt like a swipe. Minerva hadn’t mentioned a mental deficiency, but if he wanted to keep pushing her, there would be plenty of planets to dump him on. Maybe alive. Maybe not.

“What do you want?”

She halted at the entrance to the galley, confusion momentarily winning out over annoyance. The ship’s kitchen was fairly small, but unlike most that simply offered a counter, a cooler, and heating equipment, this one had space for a table and two chairs. There was even a tiny, portable island that usually sat in the center and provided extra counter and storage room.

The island was gone, as were the table and chairs. A few boxes they had tucked into a corner were gone as well. If it wasn’t bolted to the room, it had been removed. The now empty floor was covered by padded mats meant to cushion the blow of a fall. Rune stood at the far end in loose fitting and low slung cotton pants and nothing else. His hair was held back in an elaborate braid that turned back on itself into a club; difficult to grip and use against him. He flashed that ridiculous grin and bounced on the balls of bare feet. He didn’t need to crook a finger or an eyebrow at her. Every line of his body mocked, “Come play.”

For the likes of them, “play” meant one thing.

Amari twisted, stretching her back and popping her neck. She kicked off her shoes and pulled her shirt over her head. If he reacted to the sports bra underneath, she didn’t see it.

As she stepped into the room and onto the mats, Rune moved forward two paces. He placed his hands at his sides and bowed low, holding her gaze. Lush lips twitched as she echoed the bow, not quite as deeply. She only felt mildly petty reminding him of his place.

In all their time together, they had never sparred. Rune had shown no interest and Amari didn’t trust herself to not damage him. But she had no intention of turning down his invitation. They circled a few times, each drinking in the motion and language of the other.

Rune struck first. They both knew he would, but neither expected Amari to so easily dodge. She pushed her surprise aside and focused on her foe. He wasn’t giving her many options to close the gap. His reach was far greater than hers and each time she ducked in to strike, she barely missed his embrace. She would lose a drawn out ground game in no time, but if she could get her hands on him, he was done.

Around and around they went, twisting and ducking. A few strikes landed. Amari’s lip was split at the corner and Rune’s eyebrow was enthusiastically spilling blood. But the longer they danced, the less he was able to connect with her. He moved like water, flowing and relentless. But Amari was wind, gliding over and past him. She wasn’t two steps ahead. She didn’t need to be. She simply wasn’t where he was.

The kitchen timer buzzed, catching her attention. Without warning, she was flat on her back and Rune stood over her. Laughing. A leg sweep brought him to the mats with her. Anger flared. That was a nasty little trick. She swung herself around to sit on his chest, one delicate foot pressing against his throat, the other braced on the ground. With that infuriating crooked grin, he slapped the mat twice, tapping out.

Amari relaxed and eased back, “You gave up easily. Worried I might crush that pretty throat?”

His grin deepened and he flexed. She should have seen it coming. Had she been watching his shoulders instead of his lips, she would have. Instead, she found herself once more on her back, but this time he was stretched over her, laughing again.

“Get off me, you idiot! You conceded!”

His laughter turned into a low, male chuckle. He lowered his head, whispering, “I did. Now it’s your turn.” Before she could question or protest, he was kissing her.

It was nothing like kissing Kani. Kani was soft and sensual. Eager, but tender as well. She was curves. Dips and swells. Rune was anything but tender with little about him curvy. He was planes and angles. The tensions that had been building between them exploded in fierce passion. He kissed, she bit. He laughed, she growled. He pulled back, she wrapped her legs around him and pulled him closer.

Impatient hands slid under her sports bra to drag the cloth up and over her head. She snarled as their kiss broke, nuzzling into his neck to bit in reprimand. Hips surged against hers, grinding. Her fingers raked down his back. Short, practical nails dragged precise trails until she hooked her thumbs into his waistband. He grabbed her wrists.

“Amari, are you sure?”

One eyebrow hooked upward. All the arrogance and swagger was gone from his violet gaze. She could easily see the child of Minerva’s story, defiant in the face of death and determined to protect what was his. She sighed. She could fuck him and still hate him, but this would make the first mean more and the second more difficult.

“Baka.”

He grinned at the affection in that one word and moved down her body, tugging her snug pants off. She gasped as his hands closed around her knees and parted her legs. She was about to protest, to claim she needed a shower, when he nuzzled the soft tangle between her thighs. Worry evaporated at the first swipe of his tongue. He groaned and slid his arms under her ass, pulling her up a little and closer. His mouth closed around her and both of Amari’s hands slapped the mat.

Rune lifted his head, that grin of his now impossible to bear, “See? I knew you’d concede.”

Warm laughter rippled over slick folds as he returned to his chosen task.

–*–

They were still long enough that even the low ambient lighting went out, casting them into the kind of darkness that can only be found on a ship hurtling through space. At some point over the last several hours, they had made their way from the galley to his cabin.

“This does not make us friends.”

“No, of course not.”

“I still do not like you.”

“Noooooooo. Why would you?”

“That thing you did…”

“Which one?”

“Seriously? You know.”

“This one?”

“Oh. Yes. That one.”

“Mmmm-hhhmmmm…”

–*–

Sotiria’s voice was softer than usual as she woke the lovers, “Approaching Stonehaven. Contact with ground control in ten minutes.”

Rune sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bunk. He stretched and groaned. It wasn’t a space made for two.

“Just call me Major Tom.”

“What?” Amari shoved hair out of her eyes and pleasant dreams out of her mind, “Did she say Stonehaven?”

“Indeed.” Rune pulled a shirt over his head, his voice briefly muffled, “Did you not promise your Askani that you would visit? So, we visit.”

The question of how he knew died on her lips. She wondered how much of her time at Tokugawa had been under surveillance. How many reports were faithfully made to her father? And what had her father passed along to Rune?

“It is a KWS holding. We will add it to the updates.”

He shook his head and palmed open the door, “Actually, it’s not. Hasn’t been for about 20 years. Probably best not to say anything. It’ll be our little secret.”

Amari blinked rapidly, processing that bit of information. Everything she knew of Stonehaven said the planet and her resources were controlled by Ieharu Aichi, and therefore fell under the KWS IGC umbrella. Instinct said to contact her father before exploring, but a deeper voice suggested caution. She’d never had a great deal of interest in intergalactic politics. That was Hideyoshi’s world. And someday, what advisors would be for. But she was beginning to think she should start paying closer attention.

Rune’s voice came across the intercom, interrupting her mental conversation. She ignored the shiver that skittered across her skin.

“Hop to it, Kanto. We’re headed down.”

She dressed quickly and buckled into her seat in time to see the planet stretched out before them. She was used to this sort of view, but this was Kani’s planet. This place was special and deserved her full attention.

When she stepped off the ship and onto solid ground, Amari’s lips twisted. From Kani’s stories, she should be looking out over green grass and dense trees. Not this desolate landscape of dust and rock. Any vegetation left here was cowering in a shadow, hoping to be left alone. What the hell happened?

“Cala na Creige,” Rune’s accent perfectly captured the ancient Gaelic lilt, “Nar laga Dia thu.”

Amari knew enough to recognize Stonehaven’s true name and the name of the old Christian god. She also knew enough to read the closed look on his face and not question further. This planet would benefit from any blessing murmured.

Without another word, he walked past her, headed to the bundle of ramshackle buildings leaning on each other. A vicious wind picked up, carrying tiny bits of stone that slapped and punished. Amari was cursing silently by the time they reached shelter.

“Rune?”

“Hmmmm?” Quiet. Tense.

“Did you know?”

“What this place was? Yes. I’ve been here before. Twice. Once, when it was lush and new and hopeful.” His tone never rose above a whisper that managed to dance between the rise and fall of the wind, “And once when it became this.”

“What happened?”

He signed and looked at her, his gaze nearly black with the weight of knowledge, “Wildfire. Took out everything so thoroughly, nothing could come back. Come on. Let’s find the foreman.”


Ch. 18 –

The ride to the mines was the most physically unpleasant journey Amari had ever experienced. She clung to a bar bolted to the door and did her best to not bounce over the side. The vehicle was entirely open and moved across the ground on oversized tires that could use a pressure check. Rune, of course, moved fluidly with each bump. She was starting to hate him again.

It wasn’t a trek that welcomed conversation, which meant Amari had time to think. Fire could easily decimate a planet. But to eradicate any possibility of recover? That took something else. Something deliberate. ((Expand more here))

“Ayup. Here we are.” The foreman stomped on the brake and ground the transmission into park before they had stopped moving forward. The sudden lurch didn’t improve anyone’s mood.

Amari knocked the dust off her black pants and shielded her eyes to look around, “What else is here?”

The foreman spit into the dirt, “On Stonehaven? Yer lookin’ at it, little missy. Mines. Dust. More mines. Out yonder, there be shacks for the miners. T’other side of this husk has a factory what processes the ‘ridium. First pass, anyway. T’real work is done off planet. We just drag it out.”

“What about the miner’s families? Do they live in these shacks as well?”

He chuckled without humour, “T’few that dragged their wimmin here, sure. But they all work t’mines. Kids, too, when they get old enough.”

“And how old is that?” There was no way this planet was under the care of Ieharu Aichi. Even if his honour would have permitted this level of neglect, Askani’s unrelenting rage would have worn him down. She thought again of speaking to her father, and again of Rune’s warning. Sparking violet eyes watched her reaction. When she met his gaze, Rune nodded, just a little. They would speak of this later.

“Old enough,” the foreman snapped and stalked into the mine entrance. “This is one of t’first dug, but it’s as stable as they get. Ain’t had no cave-in evah here. Last one were over yonder, eight months ago. That’s a record, that is!”

Amari swallowed her rising anger. The man sounded proud.

He stopped at the first set of heavy wood braces. The mine opened before them, a great gaping maw of darkness. Lights were strung up on the walls. Their glow barely reached past their own glass. Far below, Amari could hear the sounds of metal striking rock and a deep, resonating song. She couldn’t make out any words, but there was still raw emotion and beauty in the sound.

“What is that?”

Another spit, “Miners. Singin’.”

Rune pulled a hard hat off a wall hook and handed it to her. An equally battered hat sat on his head, tilted ever so slightly to the side.

“Will you be joining us on the tour?”

“Nuh, Sir. I don’t go down no more. Not since the last cave-in.”

Rune narrowed his eyes, “I thought you said this mine had never had an incident?”

“An’ I meant it, too! Don’t mean I’m takin’ a chance. Ye wanna go down, ye go right ahead. I’ll sit meself right here and fer ya.”

The trek down wasn’t difficult, but for the first time in her life, Amari felt twinges of claustrophobia. Growing up on a spaceship didn’t allow for discomfort in confined spaces. Everything was confined and even the great, wide open areas held the feel of a prison. You couldn’t just go stroll around outside when you felt like stretching your legs. This was different, though. The hard hats came with small lights attached to them, as useful as the bulbs on the walls. The ground tipped ever downward until the cool breeze from outside vanished. The air stilled and the walls seemed to close in. Knowing there was vast empty space on the other side of a ship was one thing. Knowing there was nothing but rock, rock, and more rock was another entirely.

She was about to declare this tour over when they encountered the first miners. Children sat on piles of rock, prying bits apart with small plasma cutters. Every now and then, a child would toss a glowing pale blue rock into a metal cart. A boy looked up as they paused. Amari smiled and crouched down next to him, trying to ease the blank fear she saw in his eyes.

“Hello. What is your name, please?”

“SB worker number 9537.”

“No, child. Your name. What does your mother call you?”

He blinked, “She calls me three-seven. My sisters are nine-four-eight-four and nine-four-eight-five. They be twins. My brother was t’oldest, but he died.”

Amari looked up at Rune. He patted the boy on his bare head and walked on, “Nothing you can do for them, tatsula. Not one by one.”

“That is not iridium.”

Rune’s tone was careful, “It is not.”

“This is an iridium mine.”

“It is.”

Amari stopped, “Rune, what is going on here?”

He looked further down the tunnel, then back the way they came. They were entirely alone, but he still lowered his voice to a bare whisper, “The technical name is PA302. It’s called boom juice. And Stonehaven is the only known source anywhere.”

“You must be kidding.”

“Nope. The crystals are amplifiers on a level that baffles the best techs. If it uses energy, PA302 boosts the output and reduces the power required. Wanna guess why it’s called boom juice?”

He watched understanding blossom and darken gold eyes to a rich amber. His own stung with tears as dismay surfaced and dipped behind the legendary Kanto mask. This revelation was going to hurt.

“Weapons.”

“Yup.”

“Otosan.” The word came quiet and still, without emotion.

“Come on. You should see the rest.”

Further down, men swung picks and knocked free large chunks. Women stood by, ready to pluck them out of the way. They examined each piece, placing some carts, careful not to spark the iridium. Other pieces were dropped onto the piles beside children. It was all very practical and mechanical. It was also hot, confined, and uncomfortable.

One of the men began to hum and others joined in. Wordless. It was the same song she heard from above. The women slid under the deep tones with lighter harmonies. One of the children began to whistle. As she listened, Amari saw Stonehaven as it once was. Green rolling hills, birds darting between trees, and a resonating strength that seemed to rise from the ground itself.

She turned on a heel and strode back towards the entrance, “This can not stand.”

Rune hurried after and grabbed her elbow, hissing, “What are you going to do? Berate your lauded father? What do you think that will do?”

“Something! Rune, damn it, someone has to…” She paused and sighed, a lilting accent crying out in her memories. “Someone has to do something.”

“And when he brings you back to show you a better mine? A place where the workers are happy with their tasks? Where everyone is well fed and rested and has a name? Will you nod and feel as though you have done something on your way back to your life?”

She wrenched her arm free, “Is that what this was about? What is it you want from me? Was this stop for me or for your own agenda?”

Anger rose and the beast stirred. This was an opponent who could take a beating and she was suddenly in the mood for an epic fight. She started to let the leash off her temper when everything felt wrong. Her skin itched. Fear danced across her back in a staccato of get-out-get-out-get-out.

“We must go. Now. Everyone.” Her head began to pound, “Where is the alarm?”

“Alarm? There is no alarm. What is it?” He shook his head. Snippets and rumours came back to him. “Never mind. Go.”

His voice carried deeper into the mine, yelling the only thing he knew would make people leave. He didn’t know if it was true or not, but his heart sunk under the belief of his own words, “Cave in! Cave in!”

Hoping they all heard, he turned and grabbed Amari’s arm once more. She was fast, but it made him feel better to think he was propelling her along.

They ran until they could see the entrance ahead. They both stopped and turned. The walls of the mine shuddered and Rune watched the tunnel, whispering to himself, “Come on come on come on!”

Amari focused on the floor, processing the fear still skittering over her spine. She wasn’t accustomed to the feeling and didn’t much care for it. A shout caught her attention. Dirt and smoke was pouring out of the tunnel. Men, women, and children ran for their lives, literally, as the walls behind them collapsed, closing off the way back.

Rune looked up, over his head. He turned to Amari, “Get the fuck out. Now!”

He bent his knees, then reached up and pressed his hands against a wood brace. He pushed, legs splayed, taking the weight of the ceiling as it crumbled and shook. The muscles in his arms strained under the weight. His face was a twist of determined agony. It was all going to come down. She knew it. Amari took a step forward, ignoring his command.

Miners ran past him in a near panic but still careful enough to not bump him. They knew he was saving them. Amari was dragged along in the rush. She called out to Rune, screaming his name as the dust billowed, blocking her view.

In moments, she was outside, breathing clear air. As one, the miners looked at the opening. Amari shoved her way to the front of the crowd.

“We have to go back. We have to get him out.”

She barely managed the last word before the front of the mine collapsed. Six months vanished and Amari could hear Rune singing one of his awful Old Earth songs, off-key and too loud.

With jacks and timbers they started back down
Then came that rumble way down in the ground
And smoke and gas belched out of that mine
Everybody knew it was the end of the line for big John

The beast howled. “No! We are going in. What do we need?”

The foreman laughed, a rueful sad thing that carried no humour at all, “Not a chance, little missy. We’ll raise a drink to your lad, but he’s done for.”

Amari closed the distance and grabbed a fistful of the foreman’s testicles, “If you ever want to disappoint your wife again, you will listen to me. We are getting him out out of there. Nod if you understand.”

The foreman was in no condition to do more than whimper, but his right hand man raised his voice, “You heard her, people! Backhoes and picks. Now! Tillie, go fetch t’doctor and O2 tanks. Jelque, I want all t’potable water you can find. This is gonna be hot work and we don’t need no one fainting.”

He doffed his cap at Amari, “Mind letting ‘im go? We’re gonna need ‘im.”

Amari gave the foreman one last squeeze, then stepped back, “How can I help?”

“Stay out t’way and let us do our jobs. Ya know how this is likely gonna go?”

She nodded, “Then I will return his body to his sister.”

The man spit into the dirt, then bobbed his head once and held out a hand, “Name’s Hank. Best you deal with me today. We’ll get your man, one way or t’other. You go find a cool spot to watch. We’ll hollar if we can use ya.”


Ch. 19 –

Amari sat in the courtyard, looking out at the towering mountains. Her eyes slid closed and she drank in a deep breath of bracing cold air. This was a good place to heal. To recover. To think. She hadn’t realized, until she arrived, how much she needed this sort of peace. A light snow was falling, painting her dark hair with specks of vanishing white.

“You’ll catch your death out here, musume.”

Amari smiled and shifted across the bench to make room for the robed Miko, “Tell me. Do you receive a Guidebook To Cliches when you give birth?”

Akane laughed, “Cosmic download. You have a visitor. She’s already caused quite a stir.”

It was Amari’s turn to laugh, “I wondered how long it would take her to arrive. Has she seen him yet?”

“No. That was what caused the stir. He is resting. She is not accustomed to being denied, is she?”

“That, dear Okaasan, is an understatement. This place will be good for her.”

“And you, child? How are you faring?”

Amari rested her head on her mother’s shoulder, “I am relieved. When they pulled him out of that mine, I was sure he would not survive.”

“It was wise to bring him here. The temple maidens have unique skills. He will recover and be whole once more.”

They fell silent, leaning on each other and taking comfort in the company. If there was still much to discuss, family matters and business matters, and personal matters, it could all wait. There had been no time when Sotiria had landed here. The ship hadn’t asked Amari where they should go. She simply took Rune’s medical readings and launched them all into the sky. Amari had been too busy wrapping bandages around Rune’s chest, holding him together, to do anything but trust. And when they touched down, and the door slid open to reveal Akane standing there, waiting with a cluster of maidens, Amari had collapsed into her mother’s arms. She had been led to a hot bath and a ridiculously fluffy bed.

That was three weeks ago. She spent most of that time at Rune’s side, alternately reading to him and cursing at him, each in a variety of languages. He woke one week ago. She continued to read and curse. This morning, he cursed back and she knew he would be okay. It was safe to leave him alone.

“Trenale’s tits, Kanto! Why didn’t you send me for me sooner?”

Amari rose with a smile, motioning to the priestess at her side, “Minerva, allow me to present my mother, Shield Maiden Akane.”

Minerva’s angry stride ground to a halt, a flush sweeping up over her cheeks. She bowed dangerously low, “Please, accept my apologies for the interruption.”

Amusement gleamed in Akane’s gaze, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Minerva Tremaine. Be welcome.”

For the first time in what felt like years, Amari laughed, “Okaasan, I do not believe I’ve ever seen her blush. This is quite the moment.”

Caught between twin bands of humiliation, Minerva had no choice but to gracefully give way with a chuckle of her own, “You win, Kanto. Hang on. This is Okaasan? Trenale’s… I mean… Lady Kanto, I apologize further.”

Akane shook her head and took both of Minerva’s hands, “There is no need. I can only imagine the trials my daughter inflicts upon you. Your poor nerves. Come, let me take you to your brother. He will be glad to see you, I think.”

Amari watched them leave, then settled back into her place, staring out at the mountains. When the chimes rang for the mid-day meal, she rose and made her way back into the temple. She paused at the entrance, both to let her eyes adjust to the much dimmer light and to pay quiet homage to the kami resting here. Okuninushi, ruler of the unseen world of spirits and magic, held sway over this shrine. Among the many legends, there was one of an unbeliever who found himself stranded in the mountains. He became desperate enough to pray to any god who might be listening. A small white rabbit led him to then small shrine, where the Miko tended his wounds. When he recovered, he vowed to build a palace dedicated to the rabbit. The maidens guided him to the better path of a proper temple for Okuninushi, who once saved a small white rabbit and won the heart of a princess.

While she wasn’t terribly sure of the wealthy idiot who got lost in the dead of winter, or of a hero bunny, Amari had a deep respect for the shrine itself. When Hibiki was old enough to walk and begin to wonder at her world, Akane brought her daughters to this place so that they may be blessed. It was October and Amari had been able to feel the power in the mountains the moment she stepped off the shuttle. Fourteen years old and all that entailed, she had been ready to keep her mouth closed about the entire trip. Instead, her jaw dropped and she tilted her head back to breathe in her surroundings. Later, she would discover that October was kamiarizuki. The Month with Gods, when all the gods met in this place.

October was many months away, but the power was still strong here. As she made her way down the long hallways, Amari felt the strain of the last weeks fall away. It was going to be all right.

“Amari-sama? Please forgive the intrusion.”

Amari stopped and turned a smile to the novice sister, “It is never so. What may I do for you?”

The girl looked uncomfortable and all of the tension raced back into Amari’s shoulders.

“Your father. He is demanding to speak with you.” At Amari’s look of alarm, the girl was swift to clarify, “It is a vidcom! In the office.”

“Ah. Now?”

“Oh, yes please. He was not happy when I put him on hold. As if I could summon you with a snap of my fingers,” the novice rolled her eyes, then gasped, “I am so sorry! I meant no disrespect.”

Amari laughed, and waved a hand for the girl to lead the way, “Do not fret. My father has that affect.”

Hideyoshi’s scowl was larger than life on the oversized screen. The office was the only space where technology was obvious. The rest of the temple as just as connected, but hidden behind panels and doors. Here, modern life reigned. The moment she stepped through the door, he exploded.

“Stonehaven? What the fuck were you thinking?”

“It is good to see you, Otosan. I trust you are well?” She was tempted to lounge in one of the comfortable looking chairs, but she wasn’t ready to push him quite that far. Yet.

His expression tightened. She hadn’t seen him this angry since the constable brought her home in shame. When he spoke again, his voice was laced with vicious sarcasm, “Honoured daughter. Of course it pleases me to set eyes upon my only child.” Surely that flicker in his gaze wasn’t satisfaction at causing her a sting of pain? “Now, if you would please tell me. What the fuck were you thinking?”

She shifted, feet shoulder width apart, hands folded at the base of her back. She stood a little taller, chin lifting slightly.

“I was unaware that my travel was restricted to KWS holdings only. To be fair, though, until landing there, I had thought Cala na Creige to be a KWS holding. Imagine my surprise.”

“Stonehaven,” he leaned on the name, as if correcting her, “is none of your bloody business. I hear your foolishness nearly cost Tremaine his life.”

He was pushing all the buttons. Amari shoved down the hurt and anger. In the face of his growing cruelty, she offered greater calm, “Nearly. Had we not been there, many lives would have certainly been lost.”

“You will stay away from that place, do you understand? It is none of your concern. I have cancelled the tour of my holdings. I will go myself, since I cannot rely on you to do as commanded.”

“As you like, Otosan. I will remain with Okaasan and Rune until I am sure he will recover, then I will return to Lyon City.”

His face twisted and for a moment, her handsome father was ugly and unfamiliar, “You will stay there until you hear differently.”

The screen went blank and Amari collapsed into the overstuffed chair, legs shaking. What just happened?

Jun’s voice crossed the years and whispered once more in her memory, “Listen and learn and when the day comes, you will understand all.”

Her eyes stung with tears, “I do not understand anything, Jun. I wish you were here.”

“Give yourself time. You can’t sort everything on the first try.” She was back on the Momoyama Maru, distraught over a puzzle he had presented her with. “Sometimes, you must let your mind chew on the problem for a while. Let your wisdom find the answers you cannot.”

“That makes no sense!” She had wailed at him and thrown her datapad across the room. Jun had simply picked up the tablet and left. It was weeks before he returned it to her, one corner cracked. She had solved the puzzle by then, without the benefit of her datapad.

“It makes no sense.” She sighed and closed her eyes. Perhaps it was best to let her wisdom take a pass.

“There you are!”

Amari lurched awake, then groaned as her muscles protested. She unfolded, stretched, and scrubbed at her eyes. Minerva stood over her.

“You missed lunch.”

“Whereas you never miss a meal. I think I will live. How is Rune?”

Minerva dropped into the other chair and smiled gently, “Cranky. The maidens say he’ll be here another few months, but they expect him to recover. He’s too busy trying to charm them to behave, so I think it’s safe to go home in a couple of days. He’s halfway in love with your mother. I can see where you get your strength and grace.”

“Tiny gods, what have they been feeding you? Are you feeling alright?”

“Stuff it, Kanto. Look, I want to talk to you about something. I want you to listen before you tell me no.”

Amari shifted and tucked her feet under her again. It seemed this was her day for listening. She wondered if the lessons of the gods were stronger here or if she were just particularly unlucky.

Minerva took her silence as invitation, “Have you heard of the Yurei? No? I didn’t think so. They’re pretty secretive. I’m sure your father has a few on retainer, but there’s no reason he would have told you yet. To the uninitiated, they’re known as planet killers. Don’t snort until you’ve heard it all. Yurei are highly trained. Assassins, mercenaries, spies, ghosts, demons. They are the final call to solve a problem. They are,” she paused, searching for the right analogy, “the Wild Hunt. Refined.”

“They sound like myth.”

“They do. But they aren’t. There are tales of them on Old Earth, but there are also stories of them in other places long before your people were exploring the stars. I learned of them around a campfire one night. It took me months to stop jumping at shadows.”

“Most cultures have stories of dragons and vampires as well. That doesn’t make them real.”

Minerva nodded and glanced into the dark corners of the room, “True. But I have met one. He tried to recruit me.”

Amari tilted her head, interested now.

“I thought that would get you. He thought my heritage would make me a good fit. He was wrong, but he left me his contact information in case I ever needed his help.”

“Why was he wrong?”

“I don’t have the control necessary. You do.”

“Excuse me?”

Minerva nodded again, “You do. I want to call him and arrange a meeting. You don’t belong under your father’s thumb, Amari.”

“Have you lost your mind? I am the last of the Kanto line. Until I have children, it all ends with me. I have to take over KWS. I can not go trotting off to interview with a mythological ninja.”

“There’s no reason you can’t do both. I know, your father will be angry at first, but he’ll come around. And Mari, you need to grow outside of him. You’ll be better for it.”

As always, she tensed at the nickname falling from someone else’s lips. It reminded her of how deeply she missed Kani. How worried she was. And as always, she pushed it aside.

“My father. Come around. You have not met him, have you? No. This is not a thing I can do. Thank you, though. You are a good friend, Minerva. A pain in my ass, but a good friend.”

Ch. 20 –

Amari lost every argument that evening.

“I must repair things with Otosan.”

“You mean stuff yourself back under his thumb and be a good little girl?”

“I cannot leave Rune.”

“My brother is the best possible hands and will heal faster if he knows you are safe.”

“I wish to remain with Okaasan.”

“You will go stir crazy in two weeks and you know it.”

“This is not my destiny.”

“How do you know? You haven’t tried.”

In the end, she consented to at least consider the idea. She wrapped herself in one of her mother’s fur lined cloaks and went for a walk in the cold, snowy air. She was surprised by both the warmth and the comfort of the cloak. It was clear why the maidens preferred tradition over more modern options. Of course, they had deep cold weather gear for the darkest of winter. But for now, in the spring, the cloak was perfect.

It occurred to her that she was waxing internally on hide and fur rather than face her own thoughts. She found a comfortable looking boulder and settled herself. There was no poor view here. But there was peace. She cleared her mind and let memories slide over her. The growing battle with her father, surely begun with Hibiki’s death, but now taking on a life and reason of its own. The break between her parents. Her mother had not asked about Hideyoshi and Amari had not mentioned him. The calm that engulfed this place was clear in Akane. Amari could not bring herself to disturb that hard won serenity, but the silence on that topic was apparent.

She was wandering again. Thoughts turned to Rune. She had peeked in on him before venturing out. His colour was much improved, but he was still confined to his bed, propped up by a few pillows. He was not yet allowed to sit up fully. Those chest wounds would take more time to heal. Technology could only do so much. A maiden had been reading to him and Amari slipped away without disturbing them. Her course of conversation would only strain him.

Rune.

There was a puzzle that would take some sorting out. After everything, she still couldn’t say if she liked him. He was too arrogant. There was too much swagger in everything about him. But she cared for him very much. He was strong and sure. Dependable. He was a delight in bed. He wasn’t Kani. He could never be Kani. But he was a nice distraction for the time being. And perhaps something like a friend for the long haul.

Like Jun’s the day before, Rune’s voice came back to her.

“I’m the hammer. You’re the scalpel.”

A scalpel. At the time, she had liked the idea. An assassin, cutting away what was damaging and dangerous. One stop on their journey and she had already seen a small part of what needed to be cut away. Why was she hesitating when the opportunity to become “a ninja of old” presented itself?

She had no good answer for that. And so, she said thank you to Minerva, behave to Rune, and fare well to her mother. And boarded a shuttle for Destination Unknown with nothing more than the clothes on her back and a name. Her discussion with Rune about what they saw on Cala na Creige, for now she would call it nothing else, would have to wait.

Lady Okiku, despite her name, was not of Japanese descent. Even though Minerva had indicated that the Yurei came from nearly every life form in the galaxy, Amari was surprised. Okiku was part human, part Entira. Ocean green hair fell loose to her knees, tucked behind pert cat-like ears. A fine dusting of silver fur covered her almost naked form. The clothes she did wear were intended for accent rather than cover.

Amari’s gaze lingered in appreciation. When she reached Okiku’s face, she paused to drink in the lush lips pulled ever so slightly up towards a very feline nose and whiskers. The amused teal eyes made her snap to attention, willing a rising blush to fade.

Okiku’s voice held less purr than Amari would have expected. It was there, but banked, much like Kani’s accent. A rebellious curiousity left Amari wondering what it would take to bring the purr into full force and she missed the Yurei’s greeting. Fortunately, her training carried her through mostly smoothly.

She bowed low and modulated her own tone into respectful formality, “Hajimemashte, Okiku-sama. It is my honour to be here. Please accept my gratitude.”

Breathy laughter, in short huffs, painted the air, “Minerva warned me you were uptight. Relax, Amari-oni. There is a great deal here to be serious about, but not just yet.”

She turned on a deft paw and waved a hand for Amari to follow.

“Oni? I am a demon, am I?”

“If we train you properly, you will be.”

Amari pushed down the questions wrestling for control of her tongue. Instead of giving them voice, she drank in her surroundings. There was something almost corporate to the setting and she was surprised to find herself mildly disappointed. The floors were tastefully carpeted. Mundane, non-offensive art hung on perfectly beige walls at precise intervals. Chairs that looked comfortable but were designed to cause fidgeting sat in an artificially quiet waiting area.

Okiku opened a nondescript door and motioned for Amari to go in ahead of her. When she followed, she closed the door behind her and leaned on it. The room was perfectly empty, painted that same dull beige. All of Amari’s instincts were in overdrive. There was no threat; not even the hint of a threat. She had heard horror stories about job interviews and how those in control tried to unsettle those seeking employment, but she’d never experienced it herself. Was that happening here? Was this an interview? If so, she had a job and a home to return to.

A man pushed off from the wall and stepped in front of her. How had she missed seeing him? He wore the long robes of a priest, hands tucked into sleeves. A smile touched his lips as he bowed to her, “Amari-oni. Be welcome.”

Before she could respond, he shifted into a classic monk’s defense pose. It took work to keep her jaw from dropping and her temper from rising. She glared over her shoulder at Okiku, “I am not fighting a blind man.”

Okiku shrugged, “As you like.”

Amari turned back to the priest, ready to apologize. The side of his bare foot connected with her left temple. It was not hard enough to knock her off balance, but the promise was there.

The next one would be coming faster.

She shook her head and took a step back. He took a step forward. His blank white gaze was slightly lowered, as if he were looking at her shoulders. But of course he wasn’t. He wasn’t looking at anything. She had heard legends, though, of ancient monks who didn’t need eyes to devastate an enemy. She sighed.

The priest exploded in a flurry of whirling arms and shuffling feet. It took all of her skill to deflect his blows. The next few minutes were spent dancing around the room, holding him off but not once scoring a strike of her own. By the time he retreated and bowed again, she was sweating and gasping for air. None of her training had prepared her for the tornado she had just faced.

The monk shifted his empty gaze to Okiku, “She has the gift, but she does not use it as she should. She will need much work to undo the poor foundation.”

The “she” in question bristled. Okiku nodded, “We were warned, but I do not see there being a problem. She will rise to the challenge. Thank you for your time, Master Corvaen.”

He stepped back against the wall and vanished. Amari clamped down on scathing emotions.

“Lady, I have questions.” Disrespect dripped from her words.

Okiku smirked as she opened the door and stepped out, “Of course you do. You will have many more before we are done with you. I will grant you the answer to one question a day. Choose well. If you ask more than one, I will decide which to answer.”

Amari followed and stopped cold, “This… this is not the way we came in.”

“It is not.”

The question rose to her lips and she swiftly bit it back. Okiku’s lips twitched in amusement, but she continued down the strange hallway. There was nothing beige or boring about the walls. They looked to be hewn from dark green marble. The veins running through the rough stone shifted colour, blending from one end of the spectrum to the other, pulsing and nearly writhing. She stepped closer and reached out a hand.

“I wouldn’t. Elsebeth isn’t fond of being stroked.”

Amari snapped her hand back, “Elsebeth?” She immediately regretted that one word, but Okiku burst into laughter.

“I’ll let you have that one for free. Just a little trick I play on the initiates. Yes, Elsebeth. She is a part of this world, very old and very cranky. But she likes us, so she lets us use her to get from one place to another easily.”

Amari dragged her tongue over suddenly dry lips. An odd worry tightened her throat. When she spoke, she was careful to not add anything that would resemble a query to her tone. “So we are walking through a living being.”

The laughter was softened, “No, of course not! The ground beneath us is just ground. Elsebeth creates tunnels and manipulates the space within those tunnels. She is silently telepathic. You think about where you want to go, she forms a path. And here we are.”

The space beyond the door was lush. There was no other way to describe it. Nominally, it was an office. There was a simple wooden desk with two cushioned chairs. The other side of the room held a luxurious looking couch, multiple gently coloured blankets inviting one to take a long nap. Several datapads scattered across the low slung table. Warm and welcoming, but not terribly unusual.

It was the rest of the space that made golden eyes widen. There were no walls to speak of. Instead, trees, bushes, and overgrowth created the footprint of a room. Amari tilted her head and caught her breath. A dark sky hung above her, stars twinkling and triple moons gracing the darkness. It was the shots of colour zipping from one moon to the next, over and over in a spectacular dance that held her wonder.

“Amazing, isn’t it? We affectionately call them moon-fae, but they are officially known as Illuminary Lunar Serpentines. Massive, snake-like creatures that move between moons.”

“They are beautiful!”

“You will find all the information you want on them in the library. Pretty much all the info you want on anything. Except your father’s company,” Okiku leveled a considering look, “I can give you access to add to the database if you care to correct that missing bit.”

Amari laughed, “I signed the most comprehensive non-disclosure agreement possible, about twenty-two years ago.”

Okiku sat at her desk with a rueful grin. The expression made her cat nose wrinkle and Amari had the most ridiculous urge to give her a scritch behind the ear. Instead, she folded her hands behind her back and settled into her formal stance.

“Oh, for Atalia’s sake, Kanto, sit down. This isn’t a tribunal,” Okiku opened a large tome, heavy with parchment paper. The scent of old ink rose, adding even more atmosphere to the odd room. “Before we go any further, you will leave your name here. For the duration of your stay, you will be Anjara. No surname. No connection to your past. You are no longer who you were, but not yet what you will become.” Clawed fingers deftly picked up a delicate quill and made a note halfway down a page.

She set the quill aside and closed the book, “Amari. Minerva could not have told you much, because she doesn’t know much. I can’t tell you anything. You must enter this training blind and with full obedience. That can be hard for most, but I suspect it will be nearly impossible for you. We know of your history and we know that your father has no idea you are here. If you wish to leave now, I will make the arrangements. We will have enjoyed meeting each other and you will never speak of this place.”

The heir to the Kanto legacy sat back and looked up. She watched the moon-fae dart back and forth, “Have they always been here?”

“The serpentines? They aren’t ‘here.’ You’re looking through a window to somewhere else.”

Somewhere else. Somewhere not here. Amari considered her life. She saw her future, precisely laid out before her, as it had always been. Her father’s rage at her rebellion would likely calm. Maybe.

“No. I do not wish to leave. Anjara? I can live with that.”

Okiku looked relieved, “Then go back through that door and I will see you in the morning. We have much to do, you and I.”

Amari rose, bowed, and opened the door. The path beyond pulsed with colour that seemed to beckon. She stepped through, suddenly eager and excited, moon-fae dancing behind her eyes.

Ch. 21 –

A young man was waiting when Amari opened the door at the end of the tunnel. She stopped and tried not to stare.

“Hello.”

He bobbed and smiled, both hands held up and pressed together.

“Please to be forgiving the intrusion. This is how my people speak.”

The voice, much deeper than one would expect, rumbled through her mind. Amari flinched and dropped her hand to her sword. The man held up both hands, “I am so very sorry. I have no way of warning. It is conversational only, Madam. You hear me, I hear you. I go no further. I am not capable.”

Amari could hear the fear and truth in his voice. She relaxed, offering a smile as she bowed, “It is I who should apologize. My mother would skin me for the disrespect.”

He chuckled and the sound warmed her. Only then did she take a moment to note details. He reminded her, oddly, of Akane’s priestesses. He shared their baldness, but where they were bare of hair only on their heads, he was entirely lacking. No eyebrows or lashes over orange eyes. His skin was the same blue as their robes, but shimmering with a soft gleam. He was small but very round.

“Do I need to speak aloud or should I just…?”

Again, he chuckled, “If you do not mind, non-verbal is more helpful. If you speak, I hear both, with the slightest of delays. It can be disconcerting in long conversations.”

“I am not given to long conversations, but your point is well made. I am Amari. May I know your name?”

“I am Tiron.”

There was more to his name than just five letters strung together. In that sound, she heard his dedication to this place and the people who lived here. She heard that he felt he was not important, not yurei. But his life was here and he was happy in his role.

“Well then, Tiron. Are you to be my keeper?”

His tone shifted to slightly fawning, “No! Oh no no no! I am not, I do not, I could not! No, I am to be your guide until you are comfortable making your way around. This place is convoluted and it is all too easy to get lost.”

“Then lead on, good guide. I am at your mercy.” She dipped into another bow.

If he had feathers, he would have been ruffling them as he turned and led the way through a maze of hallways. He walked them out a set of glass double doors and into a small garden. The pathway was lined with roses and bushes with tiny white flowers. The smell was almost heady. Amari paused to lean over and examine the flowers.

“Excu… excuse me, Tiron? What are these?”

“Night-blooming jasmine. Related to the jasmine grown on earth, but unique to us. They only bloom, er, at night.”

Amari smiled. Her guide was clumsy and awkward, but somewhat endearing as well. He was also walking away. She hurried to catch up and found him standing at the entrance to an enchanting little cottage.

“Here we are, then. These are your quarters.”

Amari never managed to find complete comfort in her cottage. It was beautifully decorated, but alien to her personal style. Each night, the overly fluffed pillows rested on the equally over stuffed chair in the corner. The puffy down comforter was folded and carefully set on the closet shelf. Each morning, she remade the bed exactly as she found it, in case that was her last day of training.

Her lessons were not precisely laid out, as they were at Tokugawa. She had no set classes. She met with Okiku every morning and they would discuss politics and philosophy. As some point, an hour in or four, someone would happen by and request Amari’s company. She spent many an afternoon with the monk, Master Corvaen, walking the larger gardens. He enjoyed the scents and could label every flower they passed. He was an encyclopedia of wonder and the topic of their conversation never ceased to amaze Amari. She had also learned to watch for the tiniest shift in his stance. It only took getting her ass kicked a few times to keep her guard up.

Conversations with Rhys taught her about cultures both new and long forgotten. She already had an impressive knowledge thanks to her father’s holdings. Rhys went beyond, into fashion and food and history. His passion for clothing reminded her of Andre. She offered once to introduce them, but he brushed the idea aside. Kindly, but firmly. She was not to speak with anyone about who she met here. “Besides,” he winked, “who do you think designed my suit?”

“Here” was never named. She followed Okiku’s advice and consulted the database often, but there was no hint of a location or a past. Those who lived there permanently had long ago given up their birth names and so could not be researched. The inability to pin anything down scraped her mood at first. She was used to knowing things. She had no contact with her friends and family, no way of knowing what was happening in the Universe. Before she left for this adventure, she had made Minerva promise to find her if anything happened. It wasn’t long before she began to wonder if anyone would be able to find her if necessary. She seemed to have stepped out of time itself.

On her third week of training, she returned to her cottage, exhausted, her head bursting with knowledge. Five minutes later, she was storming into Okiku’s office.

“Where is my sword?”

Her mentor didn’t look up, but infinite patience crossed her catlike features, “Tucked away safely.”

“Unacceptable. That sword means a great deal to me.”

Okiku motioned to a case behind Amari, “You are welcome to reclaim it on your way back home.”

“Full obedience.”

“Indeed. Take it and go, or return to your studies.”

Amari wanted to argue. She needed to argue. What kind of training would this be without her sword? That sword was as much a part of her as her arm. Her hand. It was an extension and leaving it behind was almost physically painful. Maybe she could take it back to her room. Swear to not use it, just keep it close.

The menuki. Kani. Did she know? Of course she did. One bit of slightly darker silver over a teal eye crept up, but Okiku’s gaze never left the screen.

“Make a choice, Anjara. You can’t stand here all day.”

Amari turned and left the room without a word. Or her weapon.

She spent the afternoon wandering the grounds. Her life had been regimented before coming here and the lack of a schedule still unsettled her. It was also tiring. She found herself constantly on edge, waiting for the next lesson. The stories Minerva told her combined with the little bit of research she was able to manage and what she had seen here made her want to stay. She wanted to see it all through. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask how long the process would take, and while Akane knew what she was doing, the extended time away from her world was beginning to wear.

Ah well. If she wasn’t going to get anything physical done, she may as well put in some cerebral time.

The library was dark when she walked in. Unnaturally dark. She paused, immediately on alert. A voice came through the darkness, formless and from all sides.

“You think too much.”

A rush of air passed her cheek.

“You worry too much.”

A flicker of sound to her left.

“You look, but you see nothing.”

She braced herself for a strike.

“Always waiting, never ready.”

There it was. The side of a foot tapped her abdomen. She spun towards her attacker, but of course, no one was there.

“Close your eyes.”

She tilted her head, listening. When the voice came again, she would strike.

“Stubborn child! This is why you learn so little. Close your eyes.”

She hesitated a moment too long and Master Corvaen stepped out of the darkness, hands tucked into his sleeves. Disappointment narrowed his gaze. He waved a hand and the lights came up, soft and diffused.

“Amari, you are an amazing warrior. You have more skill than I have seen come through this place in decades. But at this rate, that is all you will ever be. A warrior. A skilled tool. Do you wish to be more?”

Confusion and hurt flared, “That is why I am here. I am trying to be more.” She bit her tongue against a rage of accusations. She wanted to berate him for the lack of proper training and the utter despair of discipline. If there were classes and instructors and anything resembling a dojo, then she would have no problems.

Master Corvaen watched expressions cross her face. He smiled.

“That will be your hardest path, I think. Keeping every thought off your face. You can blame your surroundings or you can learn from them. You will start by learning how to see.”

He stepped back, and as he moved, the light went with him. Amari was once more cast into darkness and a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She wasn’t given to naps, but she wanted nothing more than her bed.

The room seemed darker than before. She made her way back to the door and stepped into the lit hallway. Except it was still dark. Memory took her to the main entrance. She pushed the heavy wood door open and felt the late afternoon sun hit her face.

But there was no light. Panic slammed into her gut. Her breath quickened and her heart began to pound violently. Every one of her senses shut down. She couldn’t hear the birds or smell the flowers. The wind stopped swirling around her. Her legs trembled and she reached out for something to grip, for balance. Nothing was there. She had stepped too far from the doorway and now she didn’t know where she was.

The panic rose, clawing it’s way up her throat.

“Learn to see, Amari.” She could hear the words, and with them, a return of the birds chirping nearby. It didn’t much sound like Master Corvaen, but she had no doubt it was him.

Fear gave passion to her response, “I am blind! Is this one of your lessons?”

“I am blind, yet I see. Learn, child.”

She was tempted to sit on the ground and stay there until he fixed this, but it was galling enough that he insisted on calling her a child. She didn’t need to prove him right. Fine. Learn to see.

She took a careful step forward, and then another. In moments, she was moving with something close to normal speed. That, of course, was when she drove her foot into the base of one of the many statues on the grounds. A burst of creative cursing filled the air.

The air. A light breeze danced over her bare arms. It carried the sweet scent of night jasmine beginning to open. Her senses had returned and that gave her the courage to calm herself and her temper. She took a deep breath. Between the flowers blooming and the slight chill crossing her lips, she guessed the sun was dipping down for the evening. What did that mean? Anything? No, but she filed it away all the same.

One hand reached out to stroke the statue. Immediately, she recognized it as her favourite. A hooded figure stood over a fallen soldier. The soldier wore armour that hadn’t been seen in centuries. She knew it from childhood history lessons. She drove her father to madness with her questions. What was a samurai? Why did his helmet look so fierce? What was the armour made of? Why? What? Why? The soldier in the statue had been felled by multiple arrows. The hooded figure was reaching down, helping the soldier’s spirit rise from his still body. The sculptor had captured movement in the vague shape of the soul, grief in the fallen body, and most miraculous of all, kindness in a faceless being.

Her fingers slide across the grey marble, her mind forming the shape. She had sat in front of this statue for hours, but seeing with her hands brought out new details. There was writing on the arrow shafts. She didn’t recognize the language, but she memorized what she was feeling so she could look it up later. She could feel the ripples in the spirit, ethereal and far more delicate than she had imagined.

When she slammed into the statue, the edges of the armour bit into her flesh and cut deep. She pushed off and spun to face her attacker, but the darkness held strong. Master Corvaen again, proving his point. A fist slammed into her nose and a sickening crunch brought stars bursting behind her eyelids. Hot blood rushed over her lips, splashing off her chin. She shook her head, trying to clear it. A punch to her abdomen knocked the air out of her. She doubled over, gasping.

Amari had spent her life training for combat, from sparring with Hideyoshi to formal duals at Tokugawa and dropping with KWS military units. At every point of her tutelage, there were rules. She knew what to expect and when she got her ass kicked, it was because she had not properly learned the previous lesson.

A blow to the side her head sent her stumbling back against the statue again. This wasn’t combat. This was a brawl. This was a street fight and new to her. Where duals and battles set her blood aflame, this felt personal. Intimate in all the wrong ways. This person didn’t want to score points. He, and it was definitely a man, wasn’t motivated by politics or missions. He wanted to hurt her.

All of her expertise fled. She lifted her arms and tried to block the strikes as they increased to rain down on her. Another hit to her abdomen brought her hands down and that left her open for a second blow to her already broken nose. She cried out and folded and he was gone.
“That was not a very good showing of your skills, child.”

Amari looked up, even though she couldn’t see. The voice was no longer directionless. Master Corvaen stood over her.

Tears stung her eyes and every bit of fight and anger went out of her. Her own voice was all too loud in her ears. Loud, worn out, and snuffly, as if she had a cold.

“Oh puck ofph.”

A deep chuckle answered and a hand took hers, tugging, “Come, child. Let us patch you up and talk.”

She rose, fingers tangling in his. She couldn’t see and her face was throbbing. She hadn’t felt this physically miserable since she was young. Letting him guide her felt good.

They returned to the main hall, then down a few corridors. Eventually, Master Corvaen sat her down on a table. She reached up to touch her nose, testing the damage. She winced as fresh stars burst. Gentle hands brought hers down to her lap.

“Don’t touch! This is going to hurt, so take a breath and don’t hit me.”

Before she could protest, his fingers pushed on her nose and she squeaked at a shock of pain. A warm damp cloth began to wipe away the blood, “What did this teach you?”

Amari wrinkled her nose and winced again, “That you are an asshole.”

Bright laughter shook the old monk, “I’m fairly certain your vocabulary goes deeper than that. Close your eyes, child.”

“Why? I cannot see!”

He ignored the petulant tone and simply repeated himself. She closed her eyes.

“Good. Now go back to the moment, right before Andriu shoved you.”

“I was touching the statue.”

“Impudent child! Go. Back.”

She sighed and summoned the memory, “I was standing at the statue, taking in the details I have never noticed before.”

“What else was happening?”

“The wind was picking up. It was getting colder.”

“And?”

“The birds. The birds ceased their song.”

“And?”

“And. And. And I heard something. A rhythmic thump. A familiar sound.”

“What was it?”

She turned her head slightly to the right, as if trying to listen in that direction. Her focus intensified. One eyebrow shot up, “A heartbeat!”

Master Corvaen patted her shoulder, “Go to bed, child.”

“Wait! Will you return my sight?”

He paused at the door, “When you stop running into fists, we will talk again.”

Ch. 22 –

Amari bashed her toes into her bed frame and snapped her lips shut before she could give voice to the pain. She was sure Master Corvaen was spying on her and making note of every stumble. Her nose was healed, but from her tender explorations, she now had a roguish bump. A visit to the Momoyama Maru would get that fixed. She considered keeping it, though, as Jun had kept his scar. A reminder.

Jun. He lived in the same hall as Hibiki and it was a place of dark wounds. She would peer down the hall from time to time, but never step foot onto its lush carpet. The hall was another poorly healed break. Another bump.

After four days of trying to find Tiron, she gave up. Either he was off on an assignment or Master Corvaen told him to leave her to her own devices. In her time at this Place Between, as she had taken to calling it privately, she had met others. Some were clearly yurei who lived their lives here. Others were learning their craft, and not every craft was the same. She had met star twisters, who bent space and opened windows to distant worlds, like Okiku’s ceiling. There were healers who made modern technology look outdated and quaint. Even the cooks were beyond imagination. She worked her body twice as hard to stay in prime shape. It would be all too easy to become round, but there was no way she was forgoing such exquisite dishes.

None of them were inclined to help her as she made her way around, still blind. Tiron was the only actually absent. Everyone else treated her as they always did, with no special exceptions for her sight. That made meals a little messy.

But each night, when she crawled into bed, more exhausted than she could imagine, she looked back over the day and wondered at what she had learned. The food became more amazing. Each nibble was a burst of layered flavour. She could navigate the garden based on the location of certain flower bushes, every one uniquely scented. She knew one hallway from the next from feel of wood or tile or metal under her feet and the give of the material. One wing in particular became her challenge and then her victory. Made of nothing but nightingale floors, the wing was meant to call out warning at an intruder. Amari could navigate one end to the other in complete silence.

Did all this mean she could see? What was Master Corvaen waiting for?

She was walking around the pond, listening to the duck-like birds make soft, trilling sounds. The quiet splashing was soothing and invited deep, meditative thinking.

A blow to her still swollen nose sent her stumbling backward in a flurry of agony. She slipped and went over the low pond wall. Cold embraced her, but she didn’t sink very far. Just enough to send water rushing up her abused nose. She flailed and sat up, frantically turning her head from one side to the other, seeking her attacker.

Laughter fluttered to her left. Amari pulled herself out of the pond and dropped into a defensive pose. Water dripped into a puddle at her feet.

“Tiny little thing, aren’t you? Blind, soaking wet, rumpled. You’re not yurei. You’re barely even a fighter.”

She lunged at the sound of the deep, mocking voice.

“Pathetic.” From the right now. She spun, striking out and hitting only air.

“I don’t know why Master Corvaen wastes his time with you.”

He slapped the back of her head. Not to damage. Just to let her know he could. That was more infuriating than a beating. Her temper rose.

Under it, under the fluttering of disturbed ducks and the throbbing in her face, rose something else. A familiar sound A rhythmic thump.

A heartbeat.

She struck at that sound and met the solid plane of a chest. Andrui danced back. It wasn’t a hard hit, but it was a surprising one. Amari swung again and met only air. Blind or not, she closed her eyes, focusing on the heartbeat. It had sped up and the rhythm was off. He was agitated. Good. She aimed for the sound, but shifted about a foot higher and put all her intent behind the heel of her palm.

She had felt her own nose break, but never experienced the sensation of bone splintering and bursting under her own hand. Andriu gasped and his heart raced into a frantic tempo. And then he was gone. She listened to his heart grow more distant and the sound of his footfalls pound away.

The pain in her nose raced back, breaking through her focus.

“Son of a bitch!”

“You’re getting better.” Delicate but strong hands on her cheeks, holding her head still while he once more set her broken nose, “But you’re still running into fists.”

Over the following weeks, Andrui and others tested her growing ability. She learned to recognize people by their gait, across various surfaces. She knew some by their smell, others by their pulse. The old cook had a passion for smoking some of his herbs and it affected his breathing. She had never noticed that before.

She had become comfortable blind. In part, because she knew it was not a permanent condition. Had Master Corvaen sought treatment, his eyes would be replaced with cybernetic implants. He claimed to see better as he was, and Amari was beginning to understand. She still wanted her own sight restored, but she also knew she was learning invaluable skills.

Before she could become too comfortable, or too arrogant, Master Corvaen himself stepped into her path and her training. She had fought him before and she recognized his style. That didn’t save her from tasting dirt more than she liked. He did not, however, attempt to break anything. His strikes were gentle, but relentless. One afternoon, she held up both hands and stepped where she thought was away from him.

“Please, Master. May we speak for a moment?”

“You need a break. Of course. Come, sit over here and have tea.”

She laughed. It did not surprise her that he had tea brought to a sparring match. She listened to the scrape of a chair as one of Master Corvaen’s many attendants held it out for her. Another scrape and he sat as well. She heard the tea being poured, cubes of sugar dropped into his cup. She longed for her mother’s coffee brew.

“You have a question. One you have not asked Okiku.”

Amari laughed, “She allows one a day and I have learned how she likes to wiggle out of answering anything.”

“She enjoys appearing mysterious. But if you had asked, she would have directed you my way.”

“You already know,” Amari sipped her tea, not surprised, “what I wish to ask.”

His cup made a soft sound as it was placed back on a saucer, “I’m only curious why it took you so long to ask.”

“Will you tell me more? Of this gift you think I possess?”

He snorted, “Foolish child. Careful child. I don’t think. I know. And so do you. That’s your gift, isn’t it? Knowing. You confounded your nanny and your mother. Jun was wrong when he insisted they keep you in the dark.”

Amari spilled her tea and scrambled for a napkin.

“Yes, child. I knew Jun. I gave him that scar. We remained friends until he perished. I knew what he kept from you. We argued more than once.”

The tongue of memory tapped the broken tooth of grief and she shied away from the ache. “And what was that? What did he keep from me?”

Master Corvaen leaned back and tucked his arms into his sleeves, “You are gifted with instinct beyond the norm. Tell me, how did you know the mine would collapse?”

“How did you know it did collapse?”

“I am Master Corvaen. Answer the question, please.”

“I do not know. There must have been a noise. A shiver in the ground.”

“There was not.”

“And how would you know? No, do not tell me. You are Master Corvaen.” Frustration bubbled again, but it didn’t take root. A calm had begun to suffuse Amari over the last weeks and she was finding herself more inclined to be still. “I honestly do not know. I just had a sense that something was about to be horribly wrong. Deadly wrong.”

“That is your gift. Your knowing. You go beyond instinct, but not as far as your mother’s Seeing. I would say your gift comes through her. But it is entirely your own. Jun was afraid the awareness would make you second guess yourself or make you arrogant. I believe the lack of awareness has held you back. You have become too clinical and too reliant on what you see rather than what you know.”

“Learn to see.”

“Indeed. You have picked up some useful skills and honed your senses, but it is your instincts that have been carrying you. Take what you now know and learn to listen. To yourself.”

His chair scraped and Amari heard him rise. She closed her eyes as the weight of his revelations sunk in. When she opened them, it was to watch him stride across the courtyard.

With the return of her eyesight came the return of Tiron.

“I apologize for abandoning you. I simply could not watch you stumble around, helpless and terrified, and not do anything.”

Amari embraced her new calm and didn’t roll her eyes at him, “It was not that bad, Tiron.”

“But your poor nose! You are forever scarred!”

“Is there something I can do for you?”

His fidgeting continued, but he calmed his mental voice and handed her a folder, “We don’t usually ask this of those training here, but given your talents and your connections, we would like you to consider the enclosed mission. There is a bioweapon that has already killed a couple of million and infected twice that many. Those were the test runs. We have learned that there is a multi-planet wide attack planned but the weapon has to be transported from one sector to another. If we can intercept it, take a sample and destroy the rest, we can use it to create a vaccine and put a stop to the slaughter.”

Amari read as he explained, only half listening to him repeat was right in front of her. The form of the weapon was unknown. In fact, not much was known. Without thinking, Amari spoke aloud, her voice a near murmur, “A child? Our contact is a child? How solid is this intell?”

“As solid as it gets. We have no doubt about this. Too many died gathering this information.”

“Mmmm. Alright. When do I leave?”

“Oh, thank you! I was afraid you’d say no. As soon as possible. Your sword has been placed in your home. A shuttle will arrive in an hour. That file has everything you need, including directions to come back.”

An eyebrow raised and she watched him turn a deeper shade of blue, “An hour? You were that sure of me?”

“I was that hopeful. There’s really no one else suited and you see…”

She waved him off, already moving towards her cottage, “Tell Okiku I will check in with her when I return.”

Ch. 23 –

The smell hit her first. Too many people in too confined a space with too little air circulation. The outpost wasn’t exactly filthy, but it definitely had a tenuous relationship with soap. Amari pushed her way past people trying to crowd into the shuttle she just disembarked. She found a small alcove to duck into and check her datapad. A quick flip through the station map laid out her path. She just had to get through the waves of of people. She found a crowd trudging in her general direction and joined them.

Everyone was dressed mostly the same, in the kind of outpost uniform found among those with limited resources. Flat coloured clothing in earth tones. Practical clothing, with frog enclosures instead of buttons that can fall off or zippers that break. Material that couldn’t possibly be comfortable but could withstand wash after harsh wash. Men and women both wore their hair military short. She knew there were children here, but they weren’t among the crowds shuffling back and forth.

Two wrong turns and a dodged streetfight later, Amari found herself in the correct zone. She stood out fairly clearly, but just to be sure, she flipped the collar up on her jacket, revealing a bright red strip. She wandered until she found a decent looking coffee shop and ordered their strongest brew. Surprise registered at the first sip. It wasn’t as bad as she had anticipated. It was actually pretty good. She ordered a second and claimed a chair outside the shop.

A whistle sounded. Within moments, the corridors were empty. Only a few stragglers remained, either hurrying to other districts or cleaning up after the rush.

Amari was questioning the wisdom of her fourth round when a scrawny girl stepped up, “Buy me one of those?”

Amari raised a hand to motion to a waiter. She requested a second cup and that he leave the pot.

The girl was more rumpled than most, but she was also the only child Amari had seen. Perhaps all the children were rumpled. She watched her companion fill her mug, then tilt it back, emptying it on one shot. “Would you like something to eat?”

A shrug, “The food here sucks.”

“Which does not answer the question.”

A snort, “Yeah, I’m hungry. Everyone here is hungry. The only good places are two districts over.”

“Well then. Finish your coffee and let us venture two districts over.”

If the girl was surprised, she hid it well. She drained her mug, then tipped it upside down and tapped the bottom, “Let’s go.”

Amari set her barely touched cup aside and rose, “Lead the way.”

They found a quiet table in the back of the restaurant and ordered a ridiculous amount of food.

“What is your name, please?”

“Shahreh.”

“Shahreh. It is my pleasure to meet you.”

The girl waved a hand, choking and laughing as she swallowed, “Serah. My name is Serah.”

“Serah, then. I am Amari.”

“Yeah, I know. I was told you were coming. I was told to be ready for you. You’re taking me away from here, right?”

Amari’s head tilted slightly, “I am taking the weapon away from here.”

Another bite, “Mmm. Naw. I can take you to it.”

This was not the plan. No portion of the mission brief indicated taking a child off her home. “What about your parents?”

“Nope. Don’t have those,” Serah set down her fork and leaned back, “I don’t remember my parents. I don’t remember my family or where I came from. I remember foster families and people who were paid to take care of me, but I’ve been on my own for a while now. When I heard that folks wanted this weapon, which is the only card I have to play, I jumped at the chance to sell the info. You’re here to help, but I’m not telling you anything. I’m not going to get screwed here. Got it?”

The fork was back in her hand and she dug into another dish. Amari watched her, considering her options. She could pay the bill, leave, and tell Tiron this had gotten too complicated. She could convince Serah to give up the location. The girl couldn’t be any more than ten years old. She had all the attitude of an adult, but she was still very much a child.

Or, she could take the girl to the weapon. Maybe she’d dump her in Okiku’s office. That would be amusing.

“Fine. We will go to the weapon. Do you need to pack anything?”

Laughter sputtered, “No, I’m good. We can’t leave til morning. No shuttles.”

Amari blinked. “I am going to buy my own damned ship.”

“Not here, you’re not. But there is a good hotel down the street. We could stay there tonight and grab the first shuttle out.”

The last of the plates was pushed aside and Serah eased back again, folding her hands on her bloated belly. Her eyes slid closed. She wasn’t sleeping, but she was enjoying the moment.

The restaurant was starting to fill up. Their waitress cleared the table and pointedly set a small datapad in front of Amari. She nudged it a little closer.

Amari glanced down, eyebrow twitching, “Serah. This is not simply a good place to eat, neh? It is the best place.”

Serah didn’t move but a blush crept over her cheeks.

Amari tapped the datapad, paying the bill, “And this hotel? It will be the same?”

“They have hot water!”

“One would hope so. Lead the way.”

Their room was better than Amari expected. It wasn’t her quaint spot on the Exchange Station, but it would do. Two beds with an over abundance of pillows. The bath was almost big enough for Serah to swim in, as Amari discovered when she insisted the girl make use of it immediately. She wasn’t going to spend the night with the lingering scent of street life. One look at the clothes on the bathroom floor sent Amari back down to the lobby where she found an open and overpriced store. She stared, horrified at the offerings. For a place where everyone wore drab, stiff uniforms, the store contained an alarming array of colour.

“May I help you, Miss?”

“Ahhh… I… yes. Please. I need night wear and a few appropriate outfits for a ten year old. A small ten year old. Very thin.”

“Yes, Miss! Boy or girl?”

It was on Amari’s tongue to tell the truth when her gaze landed on a frothy concoction of pink. It would serve Serah right if Amari took that back upstairs, but she couldn’t bear to look at it if the girl actually chose to wear the disaster.

“Boy. Very much a boy.”

The salesgirl deflated, “This way, please.”

A few dapper-young-man misses and Amari returned to the room with fairly generic pants, shirts, shoes, and pajamas. She deliberately kept thoughts of Hibiki from her mind as she waited.

Serah emerged swathed in towels. She cried out with joy when she saw the clothes and ran to hug Amari. The street smart kid vanished into a child delighted with new gifts. A moment later, she was just as delighted with the tray of desserts that arrived. An evening of sweets and vid-movies brought out the laughter in her. Amari allowed herself to relax and enjoy as well.

Late in the night, Amari woke to Serah crawling in to her bed. The girl snuggled into her, cold and shaking. Amari pulled her close and whispered soothing words of her native language until they both drifted back to sleep.

Serah sat on the edge of the cliff, legs dangling over the edge. She stared out over the ocean, watching the twin suns set. A quiet melancholy lay over her shoulders. Amari sat beside her, ignoring the waves crashed against jagged rocks so far below, one could barely hear them.

“Serah, where is the weapon? What have you not told me?”

“I’m sorry. I lied to you.”

“It is not here?”

“No, it is! You were sent to destroy it, right? Can I tell you my story first? And then I promise, I’ll give you what you came for. You don’t even have to take me with you.”

Suspicion rose, but Amari nodded, “Go ahead.”

The girl hunched her shoulders, eyes locked on the suns, “I told you I don’t remember my parents. That’s true. But I remember my foster family. They wouldn’t tell me what happened to my real parents. That’s a mystery I’ll never solve. I loved my foster family, though. Even my stupid older brother.”

She paused, as if trying to decide how to best tell her tale.

“I remember the day I got a nose bleed in school. Dry air or something. It just started gushing. All my classmates and my teach got sick. Not too bad, but it was everyone. Everyone but me. A couple of years later, I was playing with my brother outside. He was pushing me on the swing. I fell off and scraped my knee. He bent down to see how bad it was and passed out. From then on, he had breathing problems.”

Another pause. Her arms tucked around her waist, hands curled into tight fists.

“A doctor came to see us. He gave my brother some stuff to help with his lungs and he took some of my blood. A couple of weeks after that, he came back and gave me some medicine. An injection.”

“What kind of injection?”

“I didn’t know. Not yet. It glowed. A light blue. It burned when it went in, but it was okay. I didn’t much like it. But he said people would stop getting sick around me, so I didn’t complain. He came back once a week with the shot.”

She pushed backwards and stood. Amari watched as she began pacing, close to the edge, then away. Edge. Away. Amari turned and watched, but didn’t interrupt.

“About a year ago, I think, he gave me the shot, then stopped to talk to my parents. He told them the shot, the PA302, wasn’t working and I would need to go with him for testing. I was listening. They were talking about me, ya know? I wanted to know what they were saying. Mom said she’d go pack my bag and I ran to my room. All I could think was that they were getting rid of me. Even though I’d been with them for so long, I wasn’t their daughter and they were sending me away. But when she got to my room, she closed the door. She looked scared. She gave me all the credit chits she had and told me to climb out the window. ‘I love you,’ she said. ‘I can’t let them take you. I don’t trust them. You have to go. Run. Take the next shuttle and hide.’ She hugged me and pushed me towards the window. That was the last time I saw her.”

Amari had risen to her feet at the name of the injection.

“I’ve done some research then. Asked some questions. That’s probably why you’re here, huh? Someone figured out where I was.”

“Serah, where is the weapon?” Dread filled her.

A smile, far too old and heavy for those thin shoulders, “You know. They filled me with their boom juice and made whatever is wrong with me so much worse. They made me contagious. I didn’t land on Londici at first. I was somewhere else. I got a job in a kitchen and I cut my finger. The whole town got sick. Not all at once. It took about a week and a lot of people died. They had to quarantine the town. I ran. Ended up where you found me. Your friend Torin send word that you’d get me out. You’d help me.”

“You’re not here to help me, are you?”

Serah’s smile was sad as Amari put the pieces together. She reached out to squeeze Amari’s hand and pressed the back to her cheek.

“I’m glad it’s you and not someone else. You will care. You will remember me.”

Amari shook her head, a tumble of denials rising, but the girl cut her off.

“No.” She looked up and Amari saw tendrils of sickly green moving through the dull whites of her eyes. “There is no other way. Your file told you about the weapon, didn’t it? Told you it is explosive? It would scatter particles into the atmosphere and beyond? I feel it. Even if they don’t find me, I will destroy so much. And if they do find me?”

She shook her head. There were no tears, just a gentle sadness, “Thank you for last night. That bath was wonderful!” She smiled one more time, “Please. Do as you must.”

Strong arms wrapped around her slender body and pulled her into one of the few honest hugs she had known. She leaned in and returned the embrace. Her eyes were closed as Amari’s tears soaked into her hair and a gentle kiss pressed against her crown. Her eyes were closed when the end came, in the swift twist of a small head and the crack of a thin neck. Her eyes remained closed as Amari lifted her body, cradling her close.

Ch. 24 –

The shuttle doors opened. Tiron was waiting, wringing his hands. Amari descended the ramp. She ignored his wheedling questions. As she strode toward him, her sword flashed. She paused only to stab two fingers into his nostrils and lift his head from the hangar floor. She was at the bay doors before his body fell over.

Elsebeth’s tunnel trembled, but didn’t dare prevent Amari’s journey. She liked Amari and that was a rare thing. She also knew this was quite likely the most deadly yurei she’d seen in these halls. There was one who could meet her on the field and live, but at best, it would be a draw. No. She did not cross Amari. But her glittering lights faded to a bare glow.

Okiku looked up as the door opened. Her fur bristled in warning, but Amari only set the bald blue head and a vial of blood on the desk. The head oozed yellow over a fairly critical and rather old map. Okiku’s gaze slipped to the vial.

“You have what you need,” Amari motioned to the blood. “That should be enough to create a vaccine against this menace before it harms anyone else. The right people may be able to trace the disease’s creator. They tend to leave signatures.”

Amari stepped back and turned, then stopped, “I vowed to do as was needed and you sent me to kill a child. Know this. I will do so again, as needed. As many times as are needed. But from now on, there will be a price. My training here is done.”

Okiku lifted her quill and scratched a sentence in her tome, “Consider your warning noted.”

Amari left and the tunnel brightened once more. Okiku looked at Tiron’s still weeping head. She sighed and pressed a small disc to her temple until it bit down.

“It is done, but our messenger has been eliminated. Make sure it is noted that the next such request will result in the loss of an agent. What? No. He was no one of importance. Not this time.”

She pressed the disc again, waiting for it to release, then set it back into a carved wooden box. Her fingers rubbed her temples, trying to ease the flare of pain. The damned thing always gave her headaches that would last for hours.

She leaned back in her chair and looked at the closed door. A soft, tired sigh met the night breeze flowing through her office.

“Not done yet, young Amari. But you may be soon.”

Amari’s rage had calmed by the time she cleared the tunnel. The white hot, refined mental scalpel had been replaced with a deep distraction. She couldn’t get Serah out of her mind. Not so much her face, but the smell of her hair. The feel of her stiffening slightly, then collapsing in Amari’s arms. So limp. So light. So frail and thin. Amari was part way across the garden when she realized she wasn’t in the garden at all.

She stopped, one hand on her sword, the other ready to deflect a blow. She eased into a half crouch and turned slowly, all senses on high alert. Clouds drifted across the moon above. A low fog rolled in, bringing a bone-nipping chill. Her breathing dropped to near non-existent.

An owlish creature took wing and passed above her and she looked to the tree he abandoned. What had startled him? A deep, resonating howl rippled through the fog.

Rune had once made Amari sit through an old Earth vid. A very old Earth vid. Sherlock Holmes had been stalking around in the fog, sporting his ridiculous hat and overcoat, searching for a large dog. While she had appreciated the atmosphere, the fear it was supposed to engender had missed her entirely. Now, she was beginning to understand.

The howl sounded again and muted laughter followed, childlike. Happy.

Hibiki stepped out of the fog. A simple kimono of white glowed in the moonlight as clouds parted. The purity of the cloth reminded Amari of a han-eri collar and her graduation day. The day she lost her sister. She rose from her crouch, gaze locked on the apparition.

“Onesan! I have missed you so much.”

Amari shook her head, “You are dead.”

“No! I am here! Please? Hug me? I have missed you and I am so cold.” Her voice took on the pleading tone that almost always convinced Amari to cover for her or sneak her forbidden sweets.

“I do not know what you are, but my little one is dead.”

A small foot stomped soundlessly on the ground. The fog swirled in response. “I am not! Stop saying that! Father sent me away. They told you I died so you would be sad and not try to find me. And it worked! I waited and waited for you to come get me, but you didn’t. You didn’t even look for me, did you? You believed them. But I found you! And now you can take care of me! Onesan, I love you!”

She sounded so like Hibiki. Amari’s heart clenched and she took a steadying breath.

“Why are you wearing your funeral shroud?”

Hibiki’s lip curled and a trickled of blood slid down to her chin. Luminous eyes darkened until no whites showed, only the blackest of black, “Clever Onesan. Always too smart and cold for her own good.” Her voice began to shift, scraping over Amari’s ears, “Such a disappointment, honoured daughter.”

She flinched. She couldn’t help it. She knew this was some sort of sadistic test, and there would be a discussion with Okiku when she got out of here, but that hurt.

Hibiki’s head started to jerk from side to side until her features were a blur. Words spilled from her mouth in a frenzied miasma of sound. As Amari watched, horrified, she began to pick out faces, and with them, voices.

Akane. Hideyoshi. Jun, Uba, Tag, and Andre. Ojisan Ieharu. Rune, Minerva. Kani. Kani. Kani. Nameless others. Faces and voices only found in the depth of dreamlike memories. The longer the hysteria went on, the more clear it all became. The more real.

“…let me die…failed me…left…tried to kill my brother…because of you…because of you…”

On and on it went, battering. Amari tried to remind herself that this wasn’t real. She was alone. This was a test. Or punishment for Tiron. Or both. But it wasn’t real.

It didn’t matter. Words hurled as weapons sunk into her deepest insecurities and convinced her of their truth. She was everything they accused her of. Arrogant, cold, harsh, unfeeling. She had failed them all. As she started to fold under the onslaught, the chaos settled and Hibiki once more peered at her. The white kimono was gone, replaced by shorts and a soft pink top. Her long hair was tamed into twin fishtail braids. The trickle of blood disappeared. She looked young and vibrant and all too alive.

“I adored you, Onesan. You were my world and you abandoned me. You left me and I died.” Simple truths from a tired, lost child. Without the theater to focus on, the full weight of those quiet words dropped on Amari’s shoulders and drove her to her knees.

Where there had been rage, now tears flowed. The need for helpless revenge lodged in her throat, choking her. She clawed at her throat and sat back on her heels, arching and screaming in an agony she had refused to acknowledge. It would tear her apart and that was as it should be. The blame she picked up in the Commandant’s office had never left her. She had merely tucked it into a tidy box and set it on a shelf, then closed a door and walked away. If she did not acknowledge that it existed, she would not have to face herself.

Small arms wrapped around her and pressed her cheek to a white kimono-clad abdomen. Hands that would never grow any larger stroked her hair.

“You have punished us for too long. We were not to blame and we can not carry these burdens and move forward. Will you lay your guilt here? Do you have the courage?”

Amari looked up and drank in a deep breath. It was on her lips to say she didn’t know how when Hibiki’s hand plunged into her chest. She yanked, then scowled. “Tiny gods, Onesan, you are a stubborn one. Let go!”

She pulled again and Amari squeaked. A tearing sound filled the foggy grove and Hibiki held up a writhing mass of dripping snakes.

“That’s better.”

The child turned and walked away. At the edge, she stopped. Close to Amari’s ear, the beast whispered, “You sundered us that day. We will never be whole. But we are no longer broken.”

Okiku was lounging against the porch column, waiting, when Amari stepped out of nothing and into the garden. She watched the young woman look behind her, confusion and relief clear on her usually masked features. Until she saw Okiku.

Her pace quickened and Okiku braced herself.

“What was that?”

“‘That’ is why I am waiting for you. ‘That’ is something we have all been through. ‘That’ is intensely private.”

Disdain flowed through Amari’s voice, “A ritual cleansing, then? A rite of initiation? Am I full yurei now?”

Okiku’s tail snapped, but she held her own temper in check. Everyone was raw after the cleanse and Amari had more reason than most.

“You have been that since you chose to stay. What you are is ready to leave us. Our paths will not likely cross again, so I wanted to say… to say that it has been a pleasure getting to know you and I wish you luck.”

Confusion replaced weary anger, “I do not understand. If I am yurei, then we are of the same organization. Will we not cross paths often?”

Okiku smiled, her nose wrinkling, “Yes. And no. Yurei are independent. Word will make it’s way around that you are of us. You’ll get contract offers. Take them, don’t take them. Whatever you are paid is yours to keep. We only ask that you don’t tell people what you learned here. Show them, yes. Tell? No. We have many worlds and many centuries of secrets here. We prefer to keep them.” She pushed off the column, “So go keep them. Blaze your trail, Amari Kanto. Your trail. No one else’s.”

Ch. 25 –

When she left the Place Between, for she’d never discovered it’s true name, Amari was at a loss. She could go back to her mother, but she was too restless for peace and meditation. She could return to Lyon City, but someone would tell her father and she wasn’t in the mood to face him yet. There was no doubt he would know she had surfaced and she wasn’t planning to avoid him for long. Just a little while. A little breathing room while she sorted it all out.

She stood in the bustling hub, ignoring the people rushing past her. She stared at the destination board, names both known and unknown flickering. An exhausted breath slipped free. All her life, she had gone where she was told. Her father had defined the path of her destiny and, honoured daughter that she was, she had walked every step. Yurei training had been her only decision outside of him, but even there, she was guided. Now, completely on her own and unsure if she had a job, she couldn’t make a choice.

If only she had her own ship, she wouldn’t be bound by schedules and destinations.

There! The Intergalactic Exchange Station shuttle, leaving in 20 minutes. That gave her just enough time to make her way to the gate. The trip gave her enough time to formulate a plan.

Andre greeted her with an energetic joy that made her feel as if it had been both forever and no time at all since he’d last seen her. His hug corrected a few slightly out of place vertebrae.

“Amari-sama! I hear you have been having some wonderful adventures!”

She rescued her spine and smiled bright, “It is good to see you, Andre. Dare I ask how you know what I have been doing?”

“Your mother is a proud woman. Proud of her brilliant child! Your Minerva is proud, too.”

“Does my mother send everyone to you?”

“She is good for my business. Are you here for a new wardrobe? You are leaner than before. Most of your clothes will hang off you now, yes?”

“Yes, but there is something else I need to discuss with you. I am wondering if you would help me with,” Amari paused and chewed on the edge of her lip. She was headed down a path of defiance that would be difficult to explain. It didn’t matter that she was a grown woman or that she was exceedingly capable of taking care of herself. Her stomach still clenched with anxiety. “With a bit of subterfuge.”

Andre’s bold, encompassing laughter filled the shop, “My favourite type of fuge! Come, sit and tell me what you are thinking.”

He motioned to the comfortable corner where he held most consultations. She sank into the pillowy couch and gratefully accepted the mug of coffee he handed over.

“I need a ship.”

He laughed again, “I am good, but even I cannot craft a ship out of cloth.”

“No. But you can bill my account for a vast new wardrobe and give me the credits on the side.”

“Oh. That is wonderfully sneaky. Yes. I would be delighted to help. On one condition.”

“Of course.”

“We pad further and add actual clothing. You know how I love to dress you and you have a new swagger that must be addressed.”

She shook her head, but smiled, “I would be honoured.”

He motioned to a small child folding cloth, “Run to The Blackbill and tell Fiona that Ms. Kanto will need a room for a few nights. But bring me my sketchbooks first.”

Andre had a disdain for technology that baffled most people who first met him. When it came to the physical making of his work, he embraced all the latest gadgets. The process, though, was something sacred and he refused to trust it to “chips and bits.” Amari was accustomed to his quirks, but it still made her grin to see his hands fly across pages, charcoal creating gorgeous designs.

“Look. See how the ends of this long coat flow? That new tilt to your hips will set this cloth to dancing. Snug up top here, with a pseudo vest to keep it closed.”

“It does have a certain,” her nose wriggled, “attitude. I like it.”

“Black on the outside, Kanto grey lining.”

“One. But make another with a red lining, kudasai.”

“Ahhhh! Attitude indeed. Alright. Now this dress…”

They spent a pleasant afternoon arguing and sketching. If their voices rose and alarmed people browsing, neither cared. If Amari put her foot down and refused to wear a dress, Andre didn’t mind. He would make it anyway. In the end, Andre pinned all the designs on a wall and they stepped back to admire. Amari rubbed her arms as goosebumps rose. This was a style all her own. Thoroughly modern with hints of her heritage and a healthy caress of rebellion.

She loved it.

“Andre, you are brilliant.”

“Yes, I know. Go hunt for your ship. I’ll have some basics done before you have finished. Bring me the cost and we’ll sort out details. And don’t hold back. I won’t have you bouncing around the stars in a clunker. Your father has never questioned my prices.”

Guilt flushed her cheeks.

“Tsk! None of that. He has more money than he can ever spend and you are entitled to a little sedition. If you asked for a ship, he would give it to you, but with too many strings attached. Go get your wings.”

The child ran back in as she was leaving, stopping only to bob into a small dip of greeting before hurrying past, “Lady Fiona done said dat was fine!”

The door closed on Andre scolding the child for street urchin speak. She wondered if he was Andre’s son and the idea brought a bubbling giggle. She cleared her throat and focused. She had explored the Station, of course, but it was impossible to see the entirety of offerings in a lifetime. After half an hour or trying to find her way, she finally gave up and found a local tavern. As soon as she told the bartender what she was looking for, two dozen men crowded her, all shouting suggestions.

“Ehhhh, siddown, ya laggards!” The tender’s voice cut through the flurry and they all slunk back to their conversations. “Ya don’t be wantin none of their wares. Be lucky if ya break Station orbit without blowin a converter or somethin critcal fallin right off. What’s yer poison?”

It was a solid five heartbeats’ worth of staring at each other before she grasped that he was asking what she wanted to drink.

“House special, please.”

He nodded and set about mixing dark liquors. Her comm chimed a very specific chime and she sighed as she tapped the earpiece.

“Hai.”

“Honoured daughter.”

There it was. The call she had been dreading. Waiting for. Anticipating. She was half glad to get it over with. The other half was laden with guilt over her little adventure.

“It is pleasant to hear your voice, Otosan.”

“It has been a while. How was your training?”

He knew. Of course he knew.

“Surprising. Effective.”

“I am pleased to hear it. Take a couple of weeks to re-center yourself and then come to the Momoyama. I will be moving you out of Minerva’s team and into the House Special Projects division.”

The bartender returned with a tall mean looking drink, “House special.”

Her lips twitched.

Hideyoshi was still speaking, “There is no sense in wasting your new skills. This will alter your career path, of course, but I believe it is all for the best. Give Andre my best and try not to bankrupt the family.”

His voice was oddly teasing as he cut the connection. Her stomach clenched. He knew where she was. That wasn’t surprising at all. But did he know what she was up to?

As a child, she had often wondered if her father could read minds. As an adult, she wondered if he’s had a listening bug implanted in her someplace. It was a ridiculous thought, but her next purchase was a good way to test the theory. She could have a full body scan done, but what fun was that? Amari had been in an ongoing game of chess with Hideyoshi since he first taught her the game.

She had no intention of losing. When she had nearly finished her drink, the bartender nodded once, “Ye’ll be wantin to go down to Tortuga. Bottom level, get off the lift and keep goin right. Can’t miss it. Ask for Roma.”

Amari stood at the entrance of Tortuga, blinking slowly. The Station had a great gaping hole where there should be walls and halls. Instead, a massive forcefield curved out in a bubble. The flickering was mildly disturbing.

Ship upon ship upon ship hovered at various docks. Between them, haphazard planks of various materials served as causeways across not water but dead air. She watched a scraggly looking child run from one ship to another, planks bouncing in an alarming fashion.

“Scuse me, lass? Ye lookin fer somewhat?”

Amari looked over at the little man who managed to sneak up on her.

“Lass? Ye don’t look daft. Ken ye hear me?”

She smiled, enjoying the familiar lilt even if it wasn’t coming from a sweet redhead, “Sumimasen. Do you know Roma?”

“Aye, ah do. And what would ye be wantin with Miss Roma?”

He had shifted from friendly and helpful to curious and suspicious. Roma was someone of importance, then. That mattered, but for the moment, Amari was far more interested in his accent.

“Do you know a woman named Askani? Or Kani?”

His eyes narrowed, mistrust growing, “Nay. Can’t say that ah do.”

“Of course not. No, I do not know Roma, but a bartender at The Prancing Pony said I should come here and ask for her.”

The little man’s demeanor changed as if a switch had been flipped, “Och yes! Ye be lookin for a ship, then? I’ll take ye to Miss Roma meself.”

He strode off, a pronounced limp not slowing him in the slightest. Amari had no choice but to follow across the precarious walkway. Her own stealth and ease of motion helped her maintain balance on the sometimes too narrow boards. Nothing eased her apprehension. She had trained in space-walks. She had raced over thinner paths crossing water. Both of those offered at least the illusion of a safety net. A great expanse of nothing waited for her if she so much as tripped. In theory, the shield would prevent her death. The intermittent flickering yanked that comfort away.

The little man took a sharp left and Amari nearly lost him. She grabbed a light post and turned, pausing only to stare up at the outdated and quaint technology. She hadn’t noticed, paying too much attention to her feet and the hungry emptiness beneath her, but there were odd landmarks scattered around. All of them were from an older time, but not all of them were of Earth or human origin. She paused, forgetting for the moment that she really didn’t want to get stranded here, and drank in the details. Sectors were marked off, denoting different groups. No, that wasn’t right. Neighborhoods were marked off. As she watched, she saw people gathering on cobbled together decks, drinking and laughing, slapping each other on the back. A couple was fighting. She was throwing armfuls of clothing over the edge. Amari’s gaze followed their path. When they struck the forcefield, they sparked and vanished in a puff of black smoke.

Apprehension licked the back of her neck and her legs felt a little more unsteady.

“Oy! Ye comin or ye gawkin?”

Her guide drew her attention back. She walked away as the owner of the incinerated clothes launched into a screaming fit.

When Amari was absolutely certain she would never find her way back, they stopped at a sleek looking vessel, “Here ye go, lass.” He looked at the hatch, then back to her. He doffed his cap, “Mmph. God be wi’ ye.”

Before she could respond, he was gone, back the way they came. She thought.

The hatch opened. No one came out, so Amari stepped from wood plank to metal and ducked as she boarded.

The ship was as polished inside as it was out. Small, but with everything tidy in it’s place. A small panel across from the door kindly showed a diagram. Before Amari could sort out which way she should go, a voice drifted down the corridor.

“Back here! Just go right and keep walking.”

Roma was a dark, wiry woman with one blue biologic eye and one violet cybernetic implant. Most people took care to ensure the eyes matched and no one would notice the difference. Roma took care to make sure they would, right down to the wicked scar that crossed the socket. Tribal tattoos danced around the scar and down her cheeks. She motioned to a chair in front of her desk and Amari saw the tattoos on her fingers as well.

“Maidue? Anh ke shiu, ta?”

Roma smiled and dipped her head, “My cat is well, thank you.”

A blush swept over Amari’s cheeks, but Roma was laughing, “My language is not for the feint of heart. I appreciate that you know even that much. Anh is ‘cat’. Anheha is ‘you’. The Maidue believe we bear the souls of felines alongside our own. You are looking for a ship?”

As much as she wanted to ask about cat souls, Amari recognized a business woman when she met one, “I am. Something fast for a small crew. Singular crew if it came to it.”

Roma tapped on a datapad, then turned it so Amari could see. She instantly fell in love. [–Describe awesome ship here–]

“It is perfect. What is the cost, please?”

Roma reached out and tapped the datapad again. Amari blinked at the price, “That is impressive.”

“It’s a good ship. On the newer side, loaded with perks. And off the grid.”

“I am sorry? I do not understand.”

Roma smiled, leaning back, “I assume you don’t want your father to be able to track you.”

Amari flinched, but Roma’s smile deepened, “I knew you were coming before you left the Pony. You think people wouldn’t recognize Amari Kanto? You’re a walking legend, girl. Hell, if the stories can be believed, you could have just taken any ship that stole your fancy. I’m honoured you chose to pay instead.”

There was a blend of sarcasm and awe in Roma’s tone and it made Amari slightly uncomfortable. She moved through her world without consideration, sure on her path for the most part. Even the latest deviation still felt right. It never occurred to her that being the sole heir to the Kanto legacy would impact anyone else. Stories about her? That made no sense at all.

She filed the information away and nudged the datapad, “Is there room for negotiation?”

Roma’s laughter filled the space and echoed down the corridor, “There’s always room for negotiation.”

They haggled the price down to something a little less outrageous. She learned that the ship had all the legal documentation it could possibly need in any known quadrant and a perfectly clean history. And none of it was real. The vessel had been scrubbed, piece by piece, not only of grime and space dust, but of anything that could be a tracking or listening device. Even by KWS standards.

“My people are very, very good. If they were not, I would be out of business.”

“To be that good you would need to have a KWS employee on your staff.”

“Former employee. A couple of them. One current.”

Amari wanted to argue that possibility. Or call Roma a liar. Or call her father. All of that collided with her current situation, so she squashed it all down and merely nodded.

“That makes sense. May I see her?”

Ch. 26 –

While she waited for the Aisling Maru to be refitted per her requests, she gave in and enjoyed exploring the Station. Her father contacted her once to express surprise at the abundant wardrobe he was billed for. She pointed out that she rarely purchased anything or collected wages for her work. By the time she was done, he had not only agreed to the amount already spent, but padded her credit account. She thanked him and told him she would be taking a month’s leave.

Her hand was shaking when she cut the connection, but she felt good. In control. Strong. She left her comm unit in her room when she set out to see what else was available to buy.

When she returned to the Blackbill, Fiona was waiting for her.

“An urgent message came in for you, through Andre. You should take it in my office.”

Her tone was warning, but not enough.

“Mari! Och, Mari, where are ye?” The vidscreen showed an older, ragged, desperate Kani. She had lost weight and her green eyes were ravaged with fear. But she was still beautiful. Amari laid a hand on the screen, as if she could reach through both space and time to offer comfort. Kani grew less frantic, but the lilt remained, “The bairns are going to be slaughtered. I canna tell ye how I know, but ye must save ’em. They’re ta be made an example, ye ken?”

The image wavered and Kani ducked as the wall behind her exploded. She glanced back, then placed a hand on the screen, exactly where Amari’s rested, “I canna stay. I’ll reach out soon. Get the bairns, Mari! Save them! I… I love ye. I love ye, Mari-chan.”

The recording ended.

She returned to her room, where her comm unit was blinking frantically. Her heart grew heavier with every missed message from Kani, each more desperate than the last. By the time she had listened to them all, the shaking and fear had stopped, replaced by determination. It was another thirty seconds of chewing her lip before she had formulated a plan. She tapped her comm unit and waited for an answer.

“Tag?”

“Kanto! Hey, baby, how’s it going? Where the hell did you land?”

“Tag, listen to me. I need your help.”

“Get yourself in a spot of trouble, didja? Need old Tag to beat someone up?”

Any other day, she would welcome his boisterous laughter. Right now, she wanted to smack him.

“I need a team. Off the books.”

In her mind’s eye, she could see him straighten up and lose the frat boy veneer, “How many?”

“A transport ship and men to guard the ship while I pick up our cargo.”

He didn’t ask what the cargo was. It didn’t matter. Tag would walk through any fire for her.

“I heard a rumour that you’re now House Special Projects. True?”

“What? Yes. I am. Or I will be. Why?”

“You want this kept quiet, that’s good leverage. Ops don’t get any blacker than HSP. People spend their entire careers hoping to work with them, but everyone knows you don’t talk about it. HSP doesn’t file reports or budgets. They just get what they need. Where do we meet you?”

“No. I can not ask you to get involved any further.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

She thought about arguing. Tag was putting his career on the line and he was on a fast track to glory. He had so much to lose. She had a sudden flash of his grinning face, waiting for her no matter what she said.

“Meet me at the Station. We’re going to Stonehaven.”

“Sarge, who the shards is that? Is that a fucking sword?” Corporal Riley of the KWS Combat Assault Corps jerked a thumb towards the back of the dropship, where a lone woman wearing black armor had appeared from the cargo pods and began checking over unfamiliar gear.

“Shut it down, Riley. She’ll take your head off for looking at her sideways. She’s Special Projects. House Special Projects.” Sargent Sutton whispered that last, as if saying the words any louder would call down some unknown doom on them all.

Tag raised the visor on his combat helmet and glared at them both, “She’s our package for this drop. It’s our job to get her to the insert point, and then be there to recover her and the cargo when she gets back.”

Private Alphons Simpson, the squad’s commo specialist snorted, “Are you fucking kidding me, LT? There’s a full blown rebellion down there. Intel puts the wog numbers in the compound at 1,250 plus, not to mention all the land mines they’ve scattered. We’ve got five guys and some moody bitch with a fucking sword? We should just scrap the whole fucking planet. Nuke this shit from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

The sound of the Sarge’s palm impacting on the back of Simpson’s helmet rang loud, even over the constant thrum of the dropship’s engines. The flat crack made the woman’s eyes, glowing golden even at a distance, lift to consider the squad at the front of the drop bay before she slowly sheathed the black blade no one had seen her draw. Tag met her gaze and nodded. All was well.

Sutton grabbed Simpson by his combat vest, pulling him into the aisle as he leaned in and whispered harshly, “She negged on the nukes. Something about barns. I don’t understand, but I don’t have to. She’s Yūrei, you stupid shit.”

Every face but Tag’s paled at that one word. Simpson whispered, “Son of a bitch, Sarge. They kill fucking planets…”
Sutton nodded, “Exactly. Now shut the fuck up before you get us all killed.”

After the dropship lifted, she sat in the back once more, packing her gear with the same methodical precision she’d prepared it. The CAC squad was huddled at the front, watching the replay of combat on the sat scans. Only it wasn’t combat at all, it was a slaughter. When the scans stopped the last data read showed 38 life signs left in the rebel compound, 37 of them all under the age of 12. Everything else was dead. 23 minutes had elapsed.

“Fuck me,” Riley whispered as he leaned back, all the blood drained from his face. He turned to look at the woman again, only to find her gaze mere inches from his own. She had moved the entire length of the drop bay, over and through the children they’d lifted from the compound, and sat right next to him. None of them had seen, heard or felt a thing. It was all Riley could do not to squeak as she leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Not in front of the children.”

Riley would tell that tale to anyone who would listen until the day he died.

“The bairns are safe.”

Amari tapped the send button, then leaned back and stared at the screen. When Okiku showed her the yurei network, she’d been surprised. The idea seemed so prosaic. And hackable. But Okiku assured her it was secure and well-used. So far, she hadn’t put much time into it herself, but it did seem the most likely way to get a message to Kani. She had considered adding more, but after all this time, what else was there to say? She believed Kani stayed away for a reason. She believed she would one day see her again and learn that reason. She also knew it would be some time before she was over the hurt and resentment.

And so, she tucked Kani back into her box and moved on with her own plans.

She received word that her ship was ready and excitement replaced lingering concerns. The spring in her step as she made her way to Tortuga caused meandering shoppers to move out of her way with a smile. They saw a young woman happy with life. In her mind’s eye, Amari saw the weapons she’d requested.

Roma waited for her at the dock, looking like a proud mother. The Aisling Maru rose behind her. [[–ship description here–]]

Amari’s smile deepened and she folded her arms, satisfied beyond words. A weight shifted, then slid off her shoulders and evaporated. Never again would she wait on a shuttle or catch a ride on one of her father’s ships. She wouldn’t have to explain to him why she was going to be late to an assignment and why it was out of her control. She didn’t have to worry about him wondering what she was doing on Gemini or Ceta Three or that tiny little moon with the overpriced booze and decadent back rooms. The ‘verse was hers. She considered a leave of absence from KWS. Time to explore with no responsibilities.

“The cat is locked in your quarters. We didn’t know if he should have full run of the ship.”

Amari blinked, “Cat?”

“Mmmmm. He was delivered while you were away. There’s a note.”

Did no one wait to actually speak with her anymore? Roma handed over the folded piece of paper.

Rune’s handwriting was exactly as expected. Heavy, with a sharp slant, but precise.

“Now that I’m, as your mother says, properly healed and ready to be set loose on the world, I’ve been sent on a mission. Can’t say where or for what, but I suspect it’ll result in another warrant. I’ll be in touch as I can. We still have things to discuss, don’t we? Be nice to Herbie. Every ship needs a cat. It’s tradition. You two should get along great. He’s a grumpy pain in the ass, too. Mind your six, tatsula.”

She snorted and pocketed the note, then stepped on board and breathed in. The crisp, clean, artificial scent made her smile. She ran her hand along a wall, whispering gently, “Hajimemashte, Aisling-chan.”

“Hajimemashte, Amari-chan. Where would you like to go today?”

Ch. 27 –

Returning to Lyon City as a civilian was both odd and exhilarating. She was finally able to enjoy her day at the beach. The freedom to think, however, ate away at her. By the time she met Minerva for dinner, she had so many questions vying for attention, she barely remembered her manners.

Minerva didn’t have much in the way of manners. From the length and force of her greeting hug, she clearly decided she and Amari had surpassed comrade status and moved on to friends.

“Mythological Ninja looks good on you, girl!”

Amari shook her head as she sat at their table, “Incorrigible. Thank you, Minerva. I am deeply grateful for your enthusiastic guidance. It was… good for me.”

“Hah! Did you just call me a pushy ass? I swear, Kanto, if you ever relax and let that wit off the leash, we’ll all be in for a lesson. What’s next for you? Going back to Daddy’s command?”

She knew there was no malice in the question, but her tone was still icy, “And if I were?”

Minerva shrugged, “Then he’d be damned lucky to have you. Just make sure he pays you what you’re worth now. Word is already getting out about you. They call you the Black Blade. Your trip to Stonehaven has driven your price into legendary territory.”

“The Black Blade?”

“Yup. There are other names, but that’s the one rising to the top.”

“I will not ask. I do have other questions, though. Rune and I were supposed to talk, but he is unavailable. He gave me a cat.”

“Herbie? As cats go, he’s a good one.” Minerva’s nose wrinkled and her eyes slid from blue to green to near-ebony, “If Rune doesn’t get himself killed on this one, I’ll strangle him. So what do you think? Back into the warm KWS embrace?”

“I do not think so. I want to do some exploring on my own. And perhaps a little investigating. What do you know of Stonehaven?”

“Apart from your latest performance?”

“Mmmm. Apart from that.”

Minerva smiled at the waiter as he stepped up to take their orders. When he left, she slouched back in her chair and settled into storyteller mode.

“Cala na Creige.” She said the name much as Rune had, with intimate knowledge and a sad note of respect. As one might speak of a beloved mentor in their last days. “Now that’s a hotbed of hate and greed. It wasn’t always. There was a time that saw Cala na Creige peaceful and mostly happy. It’s always been a mining planet and that comes with a bushel of cliches. Rough men, rough speech, rough lives. But iridium isn’t so rare they were under anyone’s thumb.

“Until a couple of dumbasses with pistols got into it deep in a mine. The story goes that they were both drunk, so their aim was worse than usual. When they started shooting, everyone else got the fuck out. One shot hit a particular bit of stone and the whole damn thing came down. The explosion rocked the mine and blew out the wall. It caused a cascade of blasts, spreading through multiple tunnels. When it all settled, five mines were permanently closed and Aichi Heavy Industries lost its two best geologists.”

Minerva paused to gauge Amari’s reaction. It took everything she possessed to sit still and not squirm under that intense gaze. Age and rank vanished when one had Amari Kanto’s full attention.

The waiter saved her by placing plates of food in front of them and warning of extremely hot plates. But when Minerva looked up, Amari wasn’t eating. She was patiently waiting for the rest.

Minerva lifted her fork and poked at her meal, “The investigation that followed was one of the biggest clusterfucks since Old Earth’s elections. First came the arguments. Let it be. No, find out what happened. Let it be, but blame someone. It took Ieharu himself stepping in to get anywhere. He demanded answers.”

She took a bite, gathering her thoughts. Amari did the same, still not speaking.

Minerva continued, falling into a cadence, “Three of the mines were beyond scrutiny. By the time the concussions got that far, the earth had turned to liquid. The geologists were in the fourth mine. They left a precocious child behind. We’ll come back to her. The first two mines could be somewhat salvaged. Not reopened, but the bodies of the dumbasses who started it all were recovered, along with fragments of what they shot. And PA302 made a grand entrance.”

A few more bites. The energy she had at the start of the meal had evaporated under the weight of her tale.

“Rune explained boom juice? Yeah. Cala na Creige became a point of contention among every manufacturer within range. Areas that had been left untouched for environmental reasons were bought up, most outside of legal means. Minor scuffles become mediocre battles. Before long, though, everyone was at war. It was, however, the strangest war ever attempted. No one wanted to go too far and blow up the whole damned planet. If one shot fired in the wrong place took out five mines, what would one bomb do? Their war was reduced to assassinations of both character and life. Reputations were destroyed, knives were found in dead bodies. Through it all, Aichi Industries did their best to hold on to what they owned. But even that pristine company started to get dirty.

“That precocious child was your friend Kani. I’m sure you’ve heard some of this, but I suspect she didn’t tell you most. No? Not surprising. She adores her Papa and he didn’t come through smelling particularly nice. In his desperation to do the right thing, Ieharu made promises and mistakes. He was close to losing absolutely everything when Kani convinced him to withdraw completely. I think it broke a part of her, to walk away from it all. But it saved her Papa.

“Eventually, enough of the players had been assassinated that one company was able to slide in and take over. Bishop Enterprises came out of seemingly nowhere. They had been watching while the big guys took each other out. When the moment was right, they just slid right in.”

She paused in the telling to sip at her drink. Her appetite was completely gone. She pushed a bit of food around her plate and chewed her lip.

Amari interrupted the quiet pondering, “Why is there no stability? If Bishop took over, why was order not restored?”

Minerva snorted, “Because of the people working the mines. They’re a stubborn lot. Born and bred for centuries to a planet with unfriendly weather and body-breaking work. To a soul, they love that place and weren’t interested in letting uptight assholes in expensive suits tell them how to handle their business. Negotiations failed and Bishop tried to gain control. They called for town meetings across the entire planet. Brought everyone together in various chosen locations and offered a deal. If the good citizens of Cala na Creige would bow to the whims of the great company, they’d all prosper.

“The good citizens booed and threw their drinks at the uptight assholes. Vidscreens at every meeting flipped on and the horrified miners watched as a fire, red and orange but bright blue where it touched ground, swept across the planet. All of the planet. Every living thing was eradicated. Only the people in the meetings survived. The message was clear. Behave or die. The people went back to work. Everything they needed to survive had to be brought in by shuttle. Food. Water. Supplies. They were irrevocably reliant on Bishop Enterprises. Even the name of the planet was changed to Stonehaven.”

Amari nodded, pushed her empty plate aside, “And yet, the fighting continues.”

“Once word of the horrific conditions got out, interested parties involved themselves. The battles are skirmishes now. Bishop can’t afford to carry through on their threats. They’ll never get anyone else in to mine PA302. So both sides slap and each waits for the other to somehow change the game.”

She raised her glass to that uncanny, unwavering gaze.

“Minerva.”

She barely hid the flinch, “Yes, Kanto?”

“Are you one of the interested parties?” The question was delivered so casually one could be forgiven for missing the warning rattle.

“I am.”

“And Rune?”

“Yes.”

“Why did he take me to Stonehaven?”

Minerva kept her expression neutral, “To fulfill your promise to Kani. Didn’t he tell you that?”

“Hai. He did. Am I to surmise that Bishop Enterprises is a shell corporation for KWS?”

So careful now. “It is.”

“Otosan does love his chess. Tell me, my friend, how did Rune know of my promise?”

For the first time since they met, Minerva was afraid of the woman across from her. She was glad they were in a public place, but when she met Amari’s eyes, that comfort fled. Amari could easily end her and leave without causing the slightest stir. A tumble of lies and dissembling sprang to her lips but made it no further. Only bare honesty could help her.

“We’ve been watching you, hoping to learn where your loyalties would land as you grew.”

Amari shook her head, “Minerva. I will ask you one more time. How did Rune know of my promise to Kani?”

“Kani is with us.”

Ch. 28 –

Gemini welcomed Amari back with bright skies and warm seas. The manager of the resort took one look at her and started barking orders at the staff. In no time at all, she was settled on the beach, under a tree, with a cold endove drink in her hand. Her bags were taken to her room, dinner reservations had been made. She even had an appointment at the spa later. And then they left her alone.

Completely alone.

With her thoughts.

She sighed and sipped at the drink, memories of her last visit washing over her. Kani, swimming in emerald green waters. Kani, stretched out and laughing on pale blue sands. Kani, tangled in sheets, warm from lovemaking. Kani, smiling and whispering promises of love.

Kani. Gone all these years, so close and so closed off. After stilted explanations and apologies, Minerva had offered to send a message, but Amari declined. Kani knew how to get in touch and would do so when she was ready. Amari, more than anyone, understood the need to find a path. Understanding why that path led in a different direction was another mental tangle entirely.

Amari rose from the beach chair and hit the water at a run. She pushed herself with firm, strong strokes, hauling her body out into deep water where she had to fight the ocean. Waves battered at her, currents tried to steal her away. The water demanded her full attention and she gratefully gave it until she was nearly too exhausted to make it back to shore. That, too, was welcome.

For two weeks, she ate, slept, read, and swam. She ran from one end of the small island to the other, then around the perimeter. Anything to wear her body out until her mind shut down. When she could open her eyes and not see a redhead smiling at her, she turned her attention to the yurei message boards. Minerva’s comment about “legendary territory” had stuck with her.

Several of the contracts offered had already been fulfilled. That’s what she got for staying off the grid. There was even a comment suggesting she had been taken out by a rival.

She could, of course, continue to live on her family’s credits. Hideyoshi wasn’t likely to notice or care about what he considered small expenses. He certainly wouldn’t begrudge his daughter anything she wished for. She could likely even get away with ship refueling and maintenance. But there was a desire, a need, to establish herself apart. She never forgot her destiny. She would one day run KWS and she would make some sweeping changes, but that day was still far off. If she wanted to be an effective CEO, she needed to learn more of the ‘verse than her father was willing to subject her to.

For the next three years, Amari drove herself harder than any trainer would have dared. She accepted contract after contract. She quickly earned a reputation and more than one contract was paid in full without her stepping foot off her ship. “The Black Blade is coming” was often enough to quell a mutiny or provide an early retirement.

With experience came the ability to pick and choose what she accepted. Smaller, petty matters drifted away. It soon became clear that only challenging requests were met and fulfilled.

One misguided contract clinched her infamy.

A particularly virulent warlord was wreaking havoc in the Crimson Sector. When he wasn’t peddling poorly made drugs that killed half the addicts, he was pirating any ship that tried to land and do business at Timpany’s open markets. Several attempts had been made to take him down and all failed in a spectacular, embarrassing fashion. Eventually, various interests pooled their credits and a contract was posted, directed at Amari.

She accepted, eager to test her skills against a slippery predator. He wasn’t as difficult to find as she had expected, and yet, there was still a bolt of shock when she came face to face with him. It was no wonder that all the others had failed. He was no more than twelve years old.

Brutal, yes. Intelligent, to be sure. She would even go so far as to label him evil. The little shit had some of the harshest pirates under his thumb, trembling if he snarled. When she discovered the bevy of slaves he rented out for questionable activities, she had no doubt of her mission. She eliminated him with great precision and a touch of satisfaction.

As news of his death made way across the Sector, news of another kind followed. The parties interested in his removal had gathered for a celebratory meeting, only to find the head of their spokesman resting in the middle of their conference table. His body was never found. It only took a few inquiries to discover the reason and once learned, the information raced swiftly across merchant networks.

The Black Blade did not care for murdering children.

While her life was settling into an unusual but enjoyable routine, Amari’s parents stayed in contact. Her mother was steady as always. Amari kept her laughing with tales of adventure and mayhem. She smoothed over some of the more gory details. Akane was no shrinking flower, but Amari preferred to offer only joy. There was enough tension elsewhere and Okaasan remained a haven.

Calls from her father were rare and never without purpose. He hired her to take care of a few pesky problems. It was obvious to them both that he was testing her and she never once let him down. In every conversation, she considered bringing up Stonehaven and Bishop Enterprises. And in every conversation, she held back. She had no solution. She had nothing but rage and that would get no where with him. Always, she told herself she needed to think more. Talk more. Her relationship with Minerva was strained now and Rune was still deep in a mission. When he surfaced, she planned to beat the life half out of him, drag him to her bed, and interrogate him for a week. In that order. Neither of them could provide answers yet.

In the meantime, she gathered as much information as she could. She didn’t much like what she found.

Cala na Criege was the only location associated with Bishop Enterprises. The company appeared to have been formed for the sole purpose of purchasing an entire planet. She couldn’t find a clear path back to KWS, but a little creative paranoia showed her what she needed. Her father was at least aware of the happenings there, even if he wasn’t the architect. She couldn’t yet be sure of the last part.

When her comm chimed and announced Hideyoshi Kanto, she nearly ignored it. Instead, she closed her research and tapped her earpiece, “Hai.”

“Honoured daughter. Are you between jobs?”

No small talk. That suited her. His tone made her sit up a little straighter, though. Something was very wrong. Over the last few years, she had often wondered if he knew about the Aisling Maru. If he had figured out that she wasn’t using any listed transport to move between contracts. With one question, he put all her concerns to rest and created new ones.

“Hai. I am free for the moment.”

A sigh of pure relief slid past her ear and caressed the love of a child for her father. Her worry grew and everything else fell away. She wanted nothing more than to offer comfort and take some of the weight from him. A tiny voice tried to remind her that she was angry with him. She brushed it aside as he continued.

“I am gratified to hear it. I have need of your skills. I wish to offer you a contract. There is a small group on Coven Eight that needs removal. You’ll have everything you need. You’re officially listed as Special Projects, so requests will be filled immediately.”

He didn’t know about her cleansing on Stonehaven, either. Surprise flickered, but she worked to keep it out of her voice, “And what do you think I will need?”

“I’ll send you a dossier on the mission. There are details you need that should not be shared here. A courier will meet you at Lyon City. Go visit Minerva.”

Amari’s lips twisted. He had no way of knowing what he was asking.

“I will be there tomorrow afternoon. How do you want the results reported?”

“I’ll know.”

The connection cut off and the twist of her lips turned into a frown. Their relationship was spiraling into intractable territory.

Relief made Minerva’s greeting even more enthusiastic than before. For a horrifying moment, Amari thought the fierce warrior was going to burst into tears. When she started to apologize, Amari stopped her. Too much time had passed and she wasn’t interested in dredging it all up again.

“Coffee?”

Minerva laughed, “Of course!”

Clutching covered mugs, they caught up as they walked on the beach. The topics they had to discuss were too fragile to risk being overheard and Amari was certain that every inch of every KWS building was bugged. Minerva had heard from Rune, but through various sources. He was still deep in a tangle of intrigue and couldn’t tell her a damned thing. He was dancing on both sides, both on a contract for KWS but working with the rebellion as well. It was a narrow tightrope to walk. He was very good at it, but one strong wind could knock him over and Minerva wouldn’t relax until he was home.

“He needs to come get his cat,” Amari was just as worried, but giving voice to it wouldn’t help.

Minerva laughed, “Oh no. Herbie is yours now. Do you not get along?”

“Hai, well enough. He sticks to his portion of the ship and sheds on my wardrobe when I am not looking. I do not toss him out an airlock. We are finding neutral ground.”

As the suns dipped down behind lavender seas, a young man casually approached the two. He stopped and looked out over the water, then glanced at them. Two fingers tapped the seam on his pants.

Amari and Minerva continued their walk until the reached him.

“Gorgeous sunset.”

Amari tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, “I prefer the dark.”

“I’ve heard that,” he carefully withdrew a thick folder from his jacket and handed it to Minerva. She tucked it into her bag. “Enjoy the night, ladies.”

They spent another hour wandering aimlessly before settling on a restaurant. The tension that had eased flared again, each remembering the last time they ate together. Minerva opened the door and bent into an elaborate bow. Her arm swept a courtly flourish, “My lady.”

Amari bobbed a curtsy and walked past with her chin lifted high. Once inside, they both giggled and collapsed into seats. For most of the meal, they kept the conversation light. Amari told stories of Herbie. Minerva shared the trials and tribulations of a new crop of soldiers under her training. When they had carefully noted every person walking into the restaurant, when they were sure that no one was eavesdropping or paying too much attention to them, Minerva excused herself to the ladies room. When she returned, Amari did the same and found the envelope tucked under the sink. She slipped it into a pouch at the front of her shirt and returned to the table.

“Where’s he sending you?”

“Who?”

Minerva snorted, “Your father. Why else would you be here for printed mission briefings?”

“Too clever by half.”

“So? Where are you headed?”

Amari’s eyebrow crept up.

“Figures. Fine. Just be careful.”

The eyebrow slid higher and Minerva dissolved into laughter, “Akane pulled that same look on me.”

“She is better at it than I am.”

“Not by much. The student will soon overtake the teacher, I think. Alright, fine. Don’t say a word. Will you at least call me when you get back?”

Amari nodded and the final lingering barrier between them fell away.

Back on the Aisling Maru, Amari spread the newly acquired documents across a table.

Coven Eight was a mess. The planet was another iridium mine holding. For most of it’s history, it had been a quiet property, producing well enough to be left on it’s own. Sitting at her father’s side as she grew, Amari had learned that not everyone had her smooth life. There were people who worked, and worked hard, and she had learned to respect them. It meant she was grateful that their lives allowed hers. It also meant she was practical about their lives and what was possible. The basics were necessary; food, shelter, health care, good equipment. Anything past that was not the concern of the company.

The guerrillas she was being sent to deal with disrupted the calm order. At first, KWS was willing to see if the conflict would sort itself out. Local military and security was trained to handle small scale insurrections. But the fighting had ground to an unacceptable stalemate over the last 3 months. The loss of equipment was starting to bite into profits. The guerrillas had made several attacks on the mines in fast hit and run strikes that were devastating to production. They had been meticulous about only damaging KWS assets while not targeting the personnel, something that was noted when the board convened to discuss the stalemate and devise a solution.

They could have simply poured more credits and sent more bodies and gear to resolve the stand-off, but that was expensive, and sent the wrong message. KWS did not win conflict because they could afford to waste resources. They won because they destroyed their opposition in such final ways that no possible retaliation was possible. To do that, you needed a very specialized weapon, so the board did the only thing that made sense to salvage what profit could be made from Coven Eight. They approved the hiring of a trusted yurei. If there was one thing that Kanto Weapons Systems would not tolerate under any circumstances, it was leaving any profit on the table and this mess was starting to cost.

Amari set the report aside and sat back. There was a piece missing. Something that wasn’t in the report. She saw nothing that required the scalpel fine touch of a yurei. She was tempted to call Hideyoshi and ask, but if it wasn’t here, he wouldn’t tell her.

The snow the KWS armored personnel carrier kicked up when it slid to an abrupt halt was thick and blinding. The driver gripped the controls with a nervous tension for a few seconds after the sleek vehicle stopped. He whispered a silent prayer for having made it safely before his still shaking fingers toggled the side door open for his passenger.

“Trinity, Ma’am.” He said, finally finding his voice.

His passenger only nodded before unfolding her lithe armored limbs as she seemed to glide out of the combat car in a single fluid motion. Her custom armor was sleek and dull, the matte black seeming to capture every bit of light and daring any hint of reflection to avoid being swallowed whole. Andre had once again outdone himself.

“Stay here. Be prepared to leave immediately. If anyone tries to board, shoot them.”

The young pilot stammered a response, but Amari was already on the ground and moving toward the compound. Once the hatch closed behind her, she chuckled. When she told Tag she needed a discrete driver, he’d promised the perfect cadet. After meeting him, she couldn’t argue. The lad was so nervous, he could barely offer up his name. She had no worries about him telling tales.

A vicious wind blew across the flat, snowbound landscape. Amari closed her eyes and slid deeper into herself. In the space between one heartbeat and the next, she had blocked out everything but her task. The wind did not bite, the chill did not bother. The snow swirling around her did not hinder her view.

Boisterous laughter and masculine voices drifted out of the prefab buildings. She didn’t break stride as she reached the first, one hand drawing her sword as the other pulled the door open.

One man, more sober than the others, managed to trip an alarm before she took his life. His fellow rebels were already dead. She moved to the next building, where they were waiting for her.

It didn’t matter.

Amari paused at the last building, small and set near the entrance to a mine. The mine itself was closed off with concrete barriers. As she stared at the door, every one of her senses called for caution. She was already on high alert, already aware of every brush of air, every heartbeat. It didn’t feel like enough. Her usual awareness, however heightened, seemed to be failing her. She didn’t know what was behind the door. She didn’t know what would be waiting for her. That scared her.

She scowled and yanked open the door. The building was an open space. A bank of monitors took up one wall, showing security cameras. Dead bodies filled several screens. A single woman stood at the console, her back to Amari. A braid of red hair fell to her waist, tendrils curling free. Wild. The world tilted.

“Ye killed mah men.”

Amari’s tongue froze.

“They were good men, Mari,” Kani turned and leaned against the console, folding her arms. “Are ye here ta kill me as well?”

Ch. 29 –

Two young girls, as different as possible sat before Akane. One was perfectly still, her dark head bent in shame. The other was bouncing, legs swinging in the too tall chair, yukata once more falling apart at her ankles. Her red hair was a hopeless tangle. She nudged Amari and offered half a grin.

“Askani Aichi, do you find this amusing?” Akane’s voice was harsh.

“No, ma’am.”

“I would hope not. Beyond the damage you have done to the market, you’ve traumatized Fenwit’s poor bunalopes. He’s still trying to locate four of them. What bewitched you to set the pseudodragons loose? And at shift change?”

Amari sunk deeper into her chair. She had been in trouble before, but never for mischief. Kani seemed to be an expert, though. Her body language shifted into something related to contrition.

“I’m right sorry, Lady Akane. T’was a foolish thought. P’rhaps we kin help find the bun-buns?”

“I am sure you would enjoy that. No. You’ll both return to help set the market straight and then you’re on restricted movement for a week. You may move between residential and guest quarters and the gardens. That is it. Do you understand?”

Kani nodded, curls bobbing merrily. Amari nodded, misery painting every line of her form.

“Then go.”

The eight year olds slunk out, but as the door slid closed, Akane watched Kani grab Amari’s hand and whisper something that made her daughter giggle.

“Those two will be getting in trouble together for the rest of their lives,” Akane’s personal priestess laughed soft as she poured tea.

The Seer smiled and took her seat, “They will. If they don’t get each other killed or jailed first.”

“What are you doing here?”

It was all Amari could think to ask. She needed a moment to pull herself together and back down from the razor’s edge.

Kani laughed, but it wasn’t the sound Amari heard in her dreams. It was twisted. Ugly. “Yer Da didn’t tell ya?”

“What? No! Why would he?” All her elegance fled, leaving her bare and incredulous.

Kani pushed off the console and stepped closer. There was a new glide to her walk. She was more predatory. Danger wrapped around her and claimed her as its own. Amari drank in details, thirsty for new memories. Her inner alarms were still screaming, though, and it took her too long to understand why.

Kani was just out of reach when she stopped, “Didn’t he send you here to clean up a little mess?”

Get out get out get out

The familiar staccato of knowing beat in Amari’s head. This was not the woman she had laughed and loved with. Standing before her was something else. Something far different and yet so much closer to what Amari herself had become. Kani was yurei. And according to the primal panic licking Amari’s spine, she was very good.

Carefully, she responded, “Hai. He did. But he left out a few details.”

“Ye didn’t know? Truly?”

“That I was coming here for you? Yashte! No!”

“And now that ye do?”

Amari was quiet, her mind spinning. She barely heard the question as she tried to process the reality. Did Hideoyoshi know? Would he have sent her here to execute Kani? He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Could he?

Kani misunderstood the silence, “Tiny gods, Mari, are ye so much yer Da’s puppet? What would Hibiki think of her lauded big sister? Is this how ye honour her?”

The haze cleared. The fog that descended when Amari stepped into the room lifted and as it rose, so, too, did the beast. Amari had thought it long laid to rest, but it surfaced with a rage she could not hope to contain, training be damned. She had freed herself of choking guilt. Hurt and betrayal were something else entirely.

All questions, all thoughts of her father and and his spider-web dealings fled. When she found her voice amidst the fury, it came loose as a snarl.

“How dare you speak her name?”

Kani flinched and slid one foot behind her, turning her body slightly. It was a defensive stance. Amari’s lip curled, the predator satisfied with gaining the upper hand. Had she stopped to think, what came next never would have occurred. Had she stopped to remember who stood before her, she would have sheathed the black blade that sat so comfortably in her hand and given action to long-held wounds with words and an embrace.

She did neither.

Kani danced away from the slice aimed at her thigh. She swallowed her natural desire to curse and settled for not dying. There was a glint in Amari’s eye she had never seen and didn’t much care for. As the blade came for her again, she tapped her wrist and nearly sighed as a tingle swept across her skin. The personal forcefield covered her just as the deadly edge would have severed arm from shoulder.

“Damn yer soul, woman!”

Amari’s smile deepened as she pressed closer. Shielded or not, Kani didn’t want to get hit. Bones could still break, bruises would most certainly cause aches and cursing by tomorrow. She dodged blow after blow. Amari didn’t seem to be running out of steam. If anything, she was just settling in to her own storm.

The next strike hurt and Kani’s own temper rose. She had thought to let her lover work out a little rage, but she had no intention of coming out of this permanently damaged. With a string of Gaelic that would have made the most seasoned warrior blush, Kani stopped defending and starting responding. She had no weapon, but she could still strike. Bouncing on the balls of her feet, she ducked and feinted with less than natural speed. Her foot swept Amari’s ankles, but the ankles were no longer there. It passed through her mind that her lover would have been a perfect sparring partner during yurei training. She dropped low as the blade whistled by, fist slamming into a tight thigh. The soft gasp let her know she struck true. Not that it helped.

Amari connected and Kani stumbled back. This wouldn’t do. Words spoken so many years ago, in a high tech dojo at the finest of academies came back to her.

“Do not fight. End the conflict.”

Kani had naively pointed out that those ideas were the same. Later, as Amari helped tend a split lip, she explained the difference. As the memory surfaced, Kani took her eyes off the blade long enough to meet Amari’s eyes.

With a drop and a roll, she took herself out of range. Amari was playing with her. Extracting a pound of flesh. This conflict needed to end. Before Amari could close the distance, Kani spoke, “I am sorry she died, Mari. I’m so terribly, terribly sorry.”

The sword froze.

“You were not there.”

Kani flinched but kept her expression calm, “Aye. And for that too, I am sorry.”

“You. Were. Not. There.”

Deeper, then. Words weren’t going to cauterize this wound. Kani held up her left wrist. With her right hand, she tapped the spot spot below her hand. The slightest ripple of pale blue and the protection shield dropped. Kani’s arms fell to her sides, then extended slightly outward, palms towards Amari. It was a pose of pure vulnerability. It offered up everything and laid her soul bare.

“Mari, I am sorry, love. I failed ye and I kin never undo that. Take what ye must.”

When one breath tumbled into the next, Kani was sure she would die. It made her sad, but she understood. She knew Amari better than anyone, still, and had an idea of what could be forgiven.

The sword lowered. An eternity later, it found its way back to its saya. Amari retreated from the razor’s edge.

“I needed you.”

“I know.” More apologies wouldn’t help. Kani could only continue to accept the blame.

“Yashte, she was gone fast. Everything changed. I was alone.”

“Never that.”

Amari met Kani’s eyes, “I do not know how to forgive you.”

Kani smiled, the expression tired and worn, “Do ye want to?”

“Hai.”

“Well then. That’s the first step, isn’t it?” Kani turned away and opened a low cabinet. She pulled out two cups of questionable cleanliness and a dusty bottle of dark liquid. She held the bottle up, watching the light play off the rich colour, “25 yr old Scotch. The man who owned it is on the floor out there. I don’t think he’ll mind us indulgin.”

She handed Amari a cup and leaned back against the counter.

Amari sipped, nodding her approval, “Nice. Smooth. We must get you out of here. Once it is known that I did not fulfill the contract, others will come.”

Kani grinned, draining her cup, “I had heard you were joining us. In that moment, I knew I never wanted to face you, yurei to yurei. I don’t worry about anyone else.”

As the tension eased, so did her lilt. Still, “yurei” sounded more magical on her lips than anyone else.

“Do not be a fool. They will come in numbers if they need. If my,” Amari paused, a blend of grief and rage twisting her lips, “If my father sent me, he will not hesitate to send others. His reach is far. We do not have time to discuss why he would be so determined. Not yet. Pack what you need. We leave in two minutes.”

Soft laughter wrapped her in warmth, “That long, eh? Generous.” Kani tapped out a command on a keyboard. “Let’s go.”

“What was that?”

“Destruct sequence. All the data will quantum-strip and eat itself. When that is complete, the hardware will be flushed with acid. Carbon and nitrogen will flood the buildings, followed by a spark. In no time at all, there will be nothing here left to investigate. Given the buried tanks, I’m not sure how far it’ll all spread,” she offered Amari a wicked smile, “We have five minutes. Shall we?”

Amari’s eyes widened. She spun on the ball of one foot and raced for the door. As she ran, she heard Kani’s boots crunching the snow not far behind her. The walk from the transport ship had taken mere minutes. The run back took an eternity. After so long of caring only for herself, she was aware of the extra burden brought by loving. If she didn’t get to the ship in time, neither did Kani. That was unacceptable.

Cold air burned her lungs, but she didn’t slow. Snow and ice kicked up around the landing gear, the ramp already descending for them. Amari paused only long enough to wave Kani past. She glanced at the complex. Was it her imagination or could she see flames licking above one building?

She slapped the control to close the ramp and strapped herself in. Before she could tell the pilot to go go go, they were lifting off.

Ch. 30 –

“Brace yourselves. We’re coming in blind. Only way to stay off the sensor net.”

For the first time since she met him, Amari’s pilot sounded confident. Kani glanced out the window into the night. She smiled and leaned back. At Amari’s raised eyebrow, Kani winked. When she met her lover’s gaze, her left eye was clearly cybernetic.

“Someone is down there. We’re only mostly blind.”

“When did that happen?”

Kani winked again and the eye flickered, appearing normal, “Just after Gemini. I threw myself into the resistance, face first you might say. Minerva saved my ass, but this was the best she could do for my eye.”

Before Amari could ask more, the transport ship met the ground with a slight thump. The pilot lowered the ramp, but did not shut down.

“Ms. Kanto it has been an honour I gotta get this beauty outta here and back home. You ever need a lift, you let Tag know.” He tapped a finger to his forehead and began powering up for take off.

Minerva was waiting at the drop sight. She wrapped Kani in a hug, cursing with relief, “Sunara’s blessing, girl, I was sure I’d only be greeting one of you.”

Kani laughed, “And it wouldn’t have been me? Thanks for your confidence!”

Amari watched with amusement and a gentle sensation of grief, as if she were on the outside, looking in.

“And you! Bloody spy! Couldn’t be bothered to tell me where you were going so I could warn you. Jesse messaged me after you left the ship. All I could do was wring my damned hands and pace like a hen.” Minerva hugged Amari until bones cracked, “Come on. We can’t linger here. This is one of the few black drop sites Bishop Enterprises hasn’t found.”

On the ride into Lyon City, Kani and Minerva chatted while Amari started putting pieces together.

“How is your idiot brother?”

“Rune is fine, so far. He’s still on mission and there have been a couple of near misses, but he’s a slippery bastard. As long as he stays out of mines, he should come back whole.”

Amari tensed and Minerva laughed, “You are listening! I thought you’d wandered off back there.”

“It was not his fault.”

“Mmmm. Nor was it yours. But you know now that it was no accident, yes?”

“Do not be foolish, Minerva. Otosan is ruthless, but he would not slaughter innocents. Please do not look at each other that way. Mines collapse!”

Kani reached back to take Amari’s hand. It was the first touch since they’d reunited and by instinct, Amari squeezed. Her eyes grew dark, begging Kani to let her keep this one thought.

“I saw the reports. Why do you think I was so frantic for you to get them out? The first attempt failed. He wouldn’t fail a second time. He had to send a message, to try and crush our spirits. What better way?”

It was delivered gently, but honestly. Amari simply nodded. Another piece of the puzzle. She did not enjoy the picture that was forming.

“Is my ship safe?”

Minerva nodded, “The Aisling is fine. She’s under a holographic blanket, looking to all the world like a salvage junker.”

Kani turned, still holding Amari’s hand, “Aisling?”

“The Aisling Maru.”

“Mari.”

Amari smiled, “I did promise. Minerva, take us there.”

“No. Oh, don’t give me that look. I know, you have to get the hell off this planet, but you can stay the night. Rest. Restock. We’ll send you off with the tourist shuttles tomorrow. You’ll be noticed tonight.”

“Shhhhh! For the love of Nakara, Kani, I thought Irish blood meant you could hold your liquor. Stop giggling!”

“Och, ah kin hold mah sake jest fine, ye prude. I’m happy! I’ve got me Mari back, deadly beauty that she is.”

The beauty in question raised a brow, but a smile tugged at the edge of her lips. Still reserved. Still wary. And yet, it was hard to stay distant.

“Baka. Minerva, the Aisling needs a solid crew. Would you and Rune join us? When he returns?”

Kani poured another drink, “Oh, now I’m crew, am I? I don’t recall bein asked.”

“Hush. Minerva?”

“I’m flattered, Kanto, but I’ll be more use to you here. No matter how this falls out, you’ll need eyes and ears at the heart of it. And I’ve still got a rebellion to run. Rune may chase you down, though.”

“How long can you keep us hidden?”

“You want to contact others? That’s not a problem. Stay here. You can use secure lines and bounce signals. Maybe use Andre as a rendezvous point. You know he’ll make you all matchy-matchy uniforms.”

The next several days were both lazy and too fast. Kani and Amari stayed in Minerva’s quarters, making plans and reaching out to contacts. In the end, Riley and Sutton eagerly accepted the offer.

Kani had a long chat with someone she called Mr. Ian Woon. Amari ignored the twinge of jealousy at the warmth in the redhead’s voice. Her low chuckle implied annoying vague intimacy. She swore he was a genius with politics, history, and could make any computer system sing. When Amari scoffed at the need for a dedicated historian, Kani tapped her left eye.

“He created this. I can see infrared, ultraviolet, and thermal. I can take video and stills. Body and material scans. For combat, I’ve got dedicated range-finding, windage, and ballistic calculations. And you should see sniper mode.”

“Sniper mode?”

“Mmmm. He can show you the specs. You might want one for yourself.” Her tone was teasing, with a touch of a serious offer. “We need him, Mari. Trust me.”

Silence stretched between them until Amari nodded. “Mr. Ian Woon. Anyone else?”

“Everyone else is dead.”

Guilt flickered, but Amari pushed it away, “Then I have one more call to make. Vidscreen for this one. You should meet him.”

The large screen in Minerva’s office flickered and Kani muttered under her breath, “You have got to be kidding.”

On old Earth, Tagnick would have been called a frat boy. He had the classic good looks reserved for the well-heeled, with a perpetual roguish grin. The world fawned over him and he knew it. He leaned forward, sky blue eyes practically leaping off the screen.

“Kanto! Good to see you, babe. Who’s the firebrand?”

Kani snarled, “Babe?”

“Hush. Tag, you idiot. Are you alone?”

“Yeah. Saw the signature on your call, figured it was under the radar. What’s up, sweetheart? Another barn run?”

“Barns?”

Amari barely suppressed a grin, “Your bairns. No, Tag, something better. How would you like to leave all this behind and join us on an adventure?”

He sat back, rubbing his chin, “Will there be mayhem?”

“Quite likely.”

“Danger?”

“Most assuredly.”

“Spitting in Daddy’s eye?”

Silence answered that one.

“Will you make me a sword?”

“No. You barely passed Iaido. You and Kani have that in common.” She ignored the indignant gasp behind her.

“When do we leave?”

And with that, the crew of the Aisling Maru was complete. One space was left open, in case Rune was able to join. Plans went swiftly after that. Not as fast as Amari would have liked, but everything still had to be done very carefully. She was staying off the yurei message boards, but Minerva brought daily reports of inquiries about them both. She wasn’t able to gather many details. Only that the would-be assassins were growing less concerned about revealing themselves and the bounty was growing larger.

“Amari. There may be a contract on you as well.”

“Ie. He would not do that. He would bring me back broken and in chains, but I am his only heir.”

“Just as bad, then. You’re set to leave in four days. My techs are designing a mask to get you past the planetary security grid. Once you’re out of range, you should be good. The Aisling isn’t on any registry I could find. Docking at the Exchange Station should be smooth.”

“Roma told the truth, then. Good. Four days? We’ll be ready.”

Two days passed with Amari and Kani circling each other but pretending they were doing anything but. Without the distraction of planning their escape, their casual comfort vanished. Finally, Kani brewed a pot of coffee and a made herself a large mug of cocoa, liberally laced with rum. She handed a cup of coffee to a surprised Amari and folded herself onto the couch.

“Let’s have it, then.”

Amari sighed, “Have what?”

“Stop it. We’re about to be trapped on a ship, with no where to go when we inevitably snap at each other. Better we clear the air now. I let you down in the worst way and you’re still pissed at me.”

A cloak settled over Amari. Her shoulders straightened, her back stiffened. Golden eyes grew just a little colder.

“Aye, that’s what I thought. Will you hear me out?”

“I will.” Chilled, but listening. There wasn’t much more to hope for.

“When I left you on Gemini, I didn’t intend to disappear. I don’t know what I intended. I was driven by some foolish need to fix my home,” she sighed, the weight of memory heavy in her voice. “I went back to Stonehaven and tried to rally the miners to take a stand and fight back. They called me a fool, and worse. They threw me out of their meeting halls and homes. So I went after the mercenaries. They weren’t exactly subtle and I wasn’t exactly armed. When they tried taking what I wouldn’t freely offer, they went for force. I bit an ear off and lost my eye.”

Amari’s jaw clenched. She could imagine it all too clearly.

“It gets a little fuzzy after that, and not just because I couldn’t see. Someone threw a flash-bang. I was delirious with shock. I remember a large, dark man swathed in black pick me up and throw me over his shoulder. I passed out then. Woke up a week later with a new eye and a new path. Minerva caught chatter about an idiot redhead stirring up trouble and had sent Rune to pull me out. Had he arrived five minutes later, I would have been much worse for wear. Instead, I became a part of the rebellion.”

“He is good at the questionable rescues.”

Kani laughed, “He’s good at many things, but yeah. He’s not the most gentle soul. I was sent off for various kinds of training, Yurei included. I never learned to be very good with a sword, though I can hold my own against most. Okiku taught me to throw just about anything. Master Corvaen taught me hand-to-hand combat. Mostly defense. The personal shield? That was Ian’s creation. He trained me in stealth movement and politics. You are skilled in killing. I am skilled in infiltration. Getting in and out, generally without being seen.”

She paused, suddenly finding her mug very interesting. Amari waited. Both knew what was next and neither wanted to take the step.

“When I got word of Hibiki,” another pause, throat working around a lump of grief, “I was on a useless rock of a planet. I had just surfaced from deep underground and practically crawled back to my scout ship. An alert told me I had a brace of messages, but thanks to the ridiculous location, I couldn’t access anything. It would be months before I read the message. I made plans to come find you, but other matters got in the way.”

Kani looked up, meeting Amari’s wary gaze, “You’ll understand that I can’t tell you what kept me from you. In time, I heard you were with Okiku. By then, I was not sure you’d want to hear from me.”

“You would have been right. Then.”

“I am sorry, love.”

“I know. I will find a way to understand.”

There wasn’t much more either could say. But that night, they slept in the same bed.

Ch. 31 –

Tag grinned, “He’s calling again. I don’t think he’s going to stop.” They had been traveling away from KWS territory for weeks. Even though the ship was off the grid, Hideyoshi had found them and for the last hour, had been calling steadily.

Kani interrupted Amari before she could respond, “There’s a gift from Andre on your bed. Go put it on. Hideyoshi-san can wait a minute.”

When Amari returned, Tag whistled low, “Sir, yes Sir!”

Kani nodded her approval and pointed to a spot, “Sit there.”

A dark brow crooked upward in amusement, but Amari did as she was told. Kani tapped out a pattern on a control panel. The small bridge rippled, then transformed into a visually much larger space. Crew Amari didn’t know she had hired appeared, all looking very serious and very busy. Her amusement grew as she watched her quick, humble ship become a long range battle cruiser. The illusion wouldn’t hold for long, but through a vidscreen, it would fool even Hideyoshi.

Amari winked at Kani and straightened her jacket, then motioned to Tag, “On screen.”

Hideyoshi filled the forward view, looking angry and then startled. He leaned forward as if it would help him get a better look and drank in the vision before him.

“You are magnificent, honoured daughter.”

Amari lounged in her lush captain’s chair, scrolling through a data panel. She glanced up and pushed the panel aside.

“Otosan. What can I do for you?”

His gaze swept over her pristine uniform, sleek and black, without a speck of Kanto grey. Instead, shots of red served as highlights to the clever cuts and stitching. A logo all her own graced her lapel. The ancient kanji symbol for strength against a field of dark green celtic knots made Hideyoshi’s lip twitch.

“So formal.” His gaze flicked over the crew, lingering with displeasure on Kani, “Perhaps we might speak alone. In private.”

The words formed a question. The tone was a command.

“No need. This will do.”

“Very well. Come home. You are behaving like a child and it is beneath you.”

Amari smiled, recalling him saying those same words to her mother, “Nothing is beneath me, least of all this. Ie. I will not be returning.”

She carefully kept her expression clear of all her thoughts, of what she knew. She waited for his inevitable ultimatum.

It didn’t take long.

“I can have you brought back. There is no corner or hole you can hide in. You are the Kanto heir. You are the legacy. You are mine.”

Amari rose and took a careful step forward, aware of Kani’s mildly panicked glance. It wouldn’t matter if she broke the hologram, but she liked the illusion, liked tricking her father. The less he knew of her actual vessel, the better.

“Tag, send the list.”

She waited until Hideyoshi looked down at the chiming datapad.

“What is this?”

“That is a list of my demands. It includes a timeline for updating the mines, living conditions, and wages at all of your holdings. And an estimated cost.”

His lip curled further as he read, “I do not know what game you think you are playing at, but you have gone too far.”

“Not far enough for all you have done. You will withdraw the contract against Askani Aichi and ensure that no yurei ever come after her. You will let us both go.”

He shifted and she saw the look of a predator sensing a weakness. Smug and pleased with himself. “Come home and we will talk.”

Amari simply waited.

“Alright, child. I’ll bite. Why should I give in to these ridiculous demands?”

“Tag.”

With his signature frat-boy grin, Tag sent over a few more files. Amari watched her father’s face shift from superior to enraged.

“Because, Otosan, I have downloaded the entire KWS database, which I will release to certain interested parties.”

He seethed, but held his temper in check, “You would be destroying your own future.”

“Once more, Tag. With feeling.”

Hideyoshi’s datapad chimed.

“I also copied your personal files. The dimension-gapped ones, including Bishop Enterprises. Quantum locked, neh? The parties interested in those files are perhaps less forgiving.”

She had been preparing for this moment for longer than she cared to admit. She had to hope she had gone far enough and that he would not go farther. Everything hung on his response.

Regret stirred as she watched something akin to hatred move through his gaze, inky and dangerous. A tremble skittered over her back, bringing along a memory of Hibiki’s fifth birthday and a rare family trip filled with exotic animals and treats Akane pretended to disapprove of. It was a week of wonder and promise, cast into dust. She pushed the images and the twinge of guilt away. She was not facing her father. She was facing an enemy who would see her in chains and her friends dead.

“I know what you did, Otosan. I know about the children and the accidents. I know you sent me to kill Kani. I know all of it. You will do nothing to me or mine. You will not disown me, you will not prevent my movement. You will withdraw gracefully.”

“Honoured daughter.” He spat the words at her. “What have you become.”

“Fléctere si néqueo súperos, Acheronta movebo. I am what you made me.” Two fingers tapped the seam of her pants and Tag cut the connection.

The vidscreen went dark. Hideyoshi sat back and ran a hand across his eyes. If I cannot move heaven, I will raise hell. She would quote Virgil at him. His pride. His golden-eyed warrior. His scalpel.

What would she be now?

As the screen shifted to an outer view, Amari sagged back into the chair. It was nothing to her to stand up to warlord and queens and whatever Okiku was, but her father would unsettle her every time.

Kani pressed a steaming hot mug into her hand. The black coffee had never been so welcome.

Amari sipped, then tilted her head, “How did this get on board? I forgot to order it.”

Kani gave her a note, the handwriting distinctive and canted, “Send for more when you land, Kanto. I owe you more than I could repay. -M”

With a smile, she tucked the note into a pocket and waved her hand at the screen, “Take us that way, Tag. Until we get tired.”

Ch. 32 –

Akane sat up in her cot, both hands clamped over her mouth to trap the rising scream. Her priestess, never far from her side, was already reaching for the journal that held the Seer’s visions.

Akane shook her head as she reached for her robe, “No time. Hurry and tell the kannushi to contact Hideyoshi. I must speak with him. Go!”

The priestess was already opening the door and running down the hall, Akane’s final word giving her feet speed. She had never seen her mistress so distraught.

Hideyoshi was on the vidscreen waiting for her when Akane entered the dark room. His breath caught at the sight of her. Her hair was loose, tumbling to her ankles. Her robe was barely tied, offering a healthy glimpse of smooth, pale flesh. He missed her more than he would ever admit out loud. Ache added cruelty to his greeting.

“You pulled me from a board meeting. What is it?”

Akane gripped the back of the chair, “Amari needs us.”

“That child needs no one.”

Her hand cut the air, slicing through his ignorance, “Send a ship to find her, right now. Do not ask me foolish questions and do not second guess me. Just send help. Kudasai, koishii!”

He softened at that, sagging a little, “Akane, I do not know where she is. Her ship is not listed and she was not inclined to give me her itinerary. I cannot send help when I don’t where to send it. What did you See?” He did not tell her that he had spoken with their daughter. He did not tell her how much easier it would be if she never returned. He did not tell her of his agent on Hygard, the last known stop of the Aisling Maru.

She pulled the chair out so she could slump into it. Tears and exhaustion filled her gaze, “Fire. Terror. Kani, in shock and bloody.”

“And Amari?”

“I could not see her. Oh, Hideyoshi! I could not see her at all!”