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|All's Fair in Love and Thievery|
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All's Fair in Love and Thievery
A Touhou Project fanfic by Achariyth
Chapter 1: Monday's Child
Monday's child was feeling blue...
Kaguya Houraisan threw open the doors to her private chamber and hurried to a small basin by a full length mirror. She splashed her face and water beaded down her cheeks like tears.
Outside her window, the last revels of the Lunar Festival soaked in moonlight and sake. The songbird youkai choir of Mystia Lorelei and a couple of crow youkai from the mountain had started a rousing rendition of a drinking song whose tune had remained unchanged since her first days on Earth, even if the words hadn't. Proper guests would have left earlier, but the bunny girls hosting the festival always found another bottle, song, or game to keep the festival stretching later into the night.
As the liege of Eternity Manor, Kaguya should have reigned in the courtyard until the last guest departed and the last rabbit passed out. Instead, she huddled next to her open window and cast furtive glances out whenever she thought no one watched. At the edge of the courtyard lights, a resolute young man walked away. Kaguya was glad to see him leave, but not in the presence of the long-eared inaba, even if it was her duty to guide guests through the labyrinthine Bamboo Forest of the Lost.
A shadow passed over her window, blocking the moon. Kaguya yelped and stumbled away from the window into the tangled embrace of the curtains. She thrashed and spun, ensnaring herself tighter into its folds.
The nightingale hall chirped outside her door. Kaguya bit back her shriek and turned until the twisted rat-tail of drapes shrouded her from view. The moon princess bit her lip and waited, straining to hear past the blood rushing in her ears. The off-key warbling from the Drunken Avian Youkai Choir drowned out the song that footsteps made in the singing wooden hall. As she waited, Kaguya couldn't help but cast another look out the window.
Her heart fell. The young man and the moon inaba were gone.
Kaguya flinched, cowering further behind the taut bundle of curtains. A matronly silhouette hovered outside her door. The moon princess bit back a sigh of relief. At least, it was only Eirin Yagokoro, her seneschal, and not murderous Mokou. Yet the princess stepped into the shadows and prayed to the Unnameable Name of the Moon that her friend would leave her alone.
"What's the matter?" Eirin stepped into the room leaving the raucous singing and drunken dancing behind her.
The moon princess stepped away from the window. "What makes you think something is wrong?"
Eirin's laugh was short and bitter. "I've raised enough fosterlings over the years to know that when a woman runs out of her own party, it's not over nothing. Especially if she's caught hiding behind the drapes. You of all people should remember that." For a moment's breadth, the veil that hid the Sage of the Moon fell away and Eirin shone with reflected light. Kaguya winced as the ethereal woman spoke a name centuries forgotten, known to only her parents and her foster mother. The glory faded and Eirin Yagokoro stood in the room once more.
Like many of the kingdoms of Earth's past, the nobles of the Moon entrusted their children to chosen lords and ladies to educate them in the ways of the court. Not only did the practice expose the children to different ways of administering a demesne, it helped keep peace between the nobles. In many ways, a fosterling differed little from a hostage, except in prestige. For centuries, Duchess Yagokoro was sought after by kings until she provided fosterage to all the princesses of the Moon. At least until the day when Princess Kaguyahime fell from the Moon to the Earth like lightning.
"It's a man, isn't it?"
Kaguya laughed and waved her hand. "I'm not Yorihime. I just had to attend to something I had forgotten about." For the first three years of Yorihime's fosterage, Kaguya had to drag her fellow princess out from the curtains whenever a certain young man so much as looked towards her. It had taken the patience of a saint, but the prince eventually coaxed her from her hiding place and into a wedding dress.
Eirin walked out and stared out the window. "Udonge is back. Would that set your mind at ease?"
Eirin stared at her liege woman and nodded. "Very well, I shall tell anyone who asks that you have taken ill. A small matter of a weakness of heart. Any idea how long it will take to recover?"
The moon princess sighed and her shoulders fell. "Not soon enough."
Eirin curtsied and walked out the door. But before she left, she called out over her shoulder, "You do realize that you could have told him 'no.'"
The moon princess sighed. "If only it were that easy."
Kaguya waited until the nightingale floor stopped singing before she glided over to an unadorned fusuma room divider. The princess ran a finger along the lacquered wood and cloth panel. She would have preferred the elegance of paper, but cloth held up better against the joyful mayhem that the inaba girls brought every day. The fusuma panel slid away on its rails, revealing a cast iron strongbox swirled with dusty orange.
This was her treasure box, where she kept items too precious to remain in her curio cabinet, including jewelry that she had caught in the inaba girls' hands, letters from emperors and princes of the Moon and the Earth, a drink recipe only used twice in her life, and six treasures that had made her famous throughout the world.
The first of these treasures, a rough-hewn bowl worn smooth by hand and coin, shone with a pale light. If anyone learned of the Enlightened One's begging bowl, Abbess Byakuren would lay siege to Eternity Manor within the hour. She set two silver branches on either side of the bowl, each sprouting gold leaves and abalone shell flowers. To this day, Kaguya could not tell which branch came from Mount Hourai and which had been crafted by Duke Fuhito Fujiwara's silversmiths. The fake branch was a perfect copy, and had almost forced her to the altar.
Kaguya picked up a midnight red pelt and rubbed the silky fur against her cheek. The mink robe was her favorite, and she loved to watch the golden highlights ripple over the fur. She had seen rubies by the cartload in her long life, but no stone gleamed as bright. One of these days, she would wear the delightful robe freely. A pity she could not do so now, since a young man could be so cute when his cheeks matched her robe.
The princess fished a pearlescent cowrie shell the size of her fist out of the bowl. In the days long past, such a shell could buy an entire demesne outright, and its immense virtue in folk magic was heightened from its origin; a swallow's nest. Eirin had her eye on this treasure; she constantly reminded Kaguya that the shell would aid childbirth. The moon princess shuddered and set the shell inside the bowl.
A black pearl the size of an apple filled the princess's hand. Flawlessly round, the opalescent jewel turned shades of blue, red, gold, and green as light played over it. So small compared to the other treasures, it would be child's play to slip it into a young man's pack as he walked by. Kaguya's cheeks burned and she almost dropped her prize. It joined the cowrie in the bowl before Kaguya clutched a sheer gossamer veil, her last resort to escape kings. She was sure that her people on the Moon had forgiven her, but she loved the Earth too much to test that.
"I should have known that you wouldn't keep them in your storehouse."
Kaguya spun around, backing into the strongbox. The princess jumped as the lid thumped shut, still clinging to the Moon-woven cloth in her hands.
Perched in the window just like the shadow of her father had centuries earlier, Lady-in-name-only Mokou Fujiwara smirked and cracked her knuckles. Her father had longed to introduce Kaguya to the little death, but Mokou desired to help the moon princess make a more long-standing arrangement. It had taken deft maneuvering to outwit both. While the vice-chancellor had laughed away the slight of Kaguya's refusal, his daughter had sworn a vendetta that lasted to the present.
The intruder's face was paler than her wisteria-dyed hair. "You're not leaving, are you?" Mokou pointed to the veil.
Kaguya waved away her rival's question. "I was just feeling a little sentimental." She folded the veil and set it on top of the iron strongbox. "The moon festival brings back memories."
Mokou dropped from the windowsill into Kaguya's chambers. Color rushed back into her cheeks. "Like lying to my father?"
The princess stepped away from the strongbox and slid the fusuma divider shut behind her. "For a hundred thousand times in a thousand years, he lied to me first."
Anger and heat crackled off of Mokou as she clenched her teeth and fists. Kaguya slipped a hand behind her back and grabbed the knife tied to her sash. Noblewomen carried one to defend their virtue with a quick cut to the jugular. If Mokou took one step closer, Kaguya would use it on her nemesis's neck instead.
"You never intended to keep your word," Mokou said.
"I don't intend to marry."
"What's it like to be a foresworn oath-breaking liar?"
"What's it like to still be an unbroached child?" Heat waves rolled off of Mokou. Kaguya smiled and kept a firm hold on her knife. "Don't you think that fourteen hundred years is long enough for your little temper tantrum?"
"Don't you think two thousand years is too long to play hard to get?"
The banter wore on, neither witty nor lively, like an ancient play rehearsed a thousand times prior. Kaguya didn't have to think about her next response; like Mokou, she had said all she needed to centuries prior. But Mokou drew a deep breath and wrung the hem of her dress shirt. "I didn't come here to trade deaths."
Kaguya's eyes narrowed as she adjusted the grip on her knife and slid it from her sheath. "That's a first."
"I heard that you're up to your old tricks. Since there's no Emperor here for you to lie to, why did you drag your Impossible Requests into the moonlight?"
Kaguya hissed through her teeth. Try as she might, the princess could not keep Eirin or the inaba girls from talking to Mokou. Why should they? The wild child of the Fujiwara clan kept her rage focused solely on Kaguya's person and took great pains to spare others from her wrath. The inaba actually liked her. A single inaba girl barring a path could keep Mokou away. Then again, it only took a single inaba girl to gossip about what had happened in the courtyard during the festival. "Why do you care? Your family isn't involved."
"I won't let you run away from your duty."
"If marriage is the duty of a noblewoman, why are you still a spinster?"
Mokou yelped and chewed on her lip, biting back more than words. Her cheeks matched her pants and her name; scarlet. Turning her cheek, she coughed. "Who are the unlucky men this time?"
"Just one. Yori Motoori."
Mokou whistled through her teeth. "The printer's son with the broad shoulders and the soft hands? You gave him all five?" Her smile turned into a predatory leer as she ran her hands down her sides. "You know, if you don't want him, you could just send him my way."
Kaguya rushed forward and seized Mokou by the lapels. The pale-tressed woman stared at her quivering, wide-eyed rival. Behind the princess, an unsheathed knife thumped into the tatami mat. Kaguya paid it no mind; she couldn't hear anything over the blood rushing in her ears.
The two rivals stood frozen, an image of reflected fear sculpted in alabaster. Finally, with a gentleness she found unfamiliar, Mokou took Kaguya's hands and pried them off of her shirt, finger by finger. "Good night, Princess. Sleep well. I won't kill you in the morning."
Kaguya stood riveted to the tatami mat at her feet while her mouth and her mind struggled to meet. As Mokou climbed up onto the windowsill, the exiled princess finally found her voice. "Where did that come from?"
Mokou crouched on the narrow ledge and looked back over her shoulder. "There isn't anything I can do to you now that compares to what you're doing to yourself." She winced and lifted her foot long enough to pull a lock of hair from under her boot. "All I have to do is sit back and watch."
"Stay out of my life," Kaguya snapped.
"Keep your promises." Mokou leaped out into the courtyard.
Kaguya flourished a spellcard in her hand and dashed towards the window. The slim card shone as she whipped her arm back, but out in the last dregs of the party, the Drunken Avian Youkai Choir clustered around Mokou.
"Show me the way to go home. I'm tired and I want to go to bed." The songbirds tugged on Mokou's arms and dragged her toward the Bamboo Forest of the Lost. Since the moon inaba was out helping another set of guests through the forest, Mokou was the only guide left who could take them home.
The card fizzled in the princess's hand. Mokou wasn't the only one to keep others out of their bloody game. Kaguya reached out and slammed her window shut. Sighing, she shuffled off towards her bed. Hopefully, Eirin hadn't sold the last of her Butterfly Dream Pills to that doll of a puppeteer.
Inside the Suzunaan Lending Bookstore, a pint-sized tempest raged through the bookshelves, shattering the morning calm. Backing away as Kosuzu Motoori leaped on to the counter, Mamizou Futatsuiwa adjusted the leaf barrette in her hair. It would be a disaster if her human guise fell away, especially while the bookseller's daughter stormed about like a Fury.
"?I know that you're familiar with the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter; you're the one who first read it to me." Kosuzu stood on her perch and planted her fists on her hips. The preteen towered above her brother, a broad-shoulder young man busy packing a heavy rucksack. "Yori, look at me!" she shrieked.
Mamizou managed to cover both her visible human ears and her invisible tanuki ones with her hands. Not for the first time since Yori Motoori dropped his bombshell on his family did the disguised tanuki wonder how someone so small could create a shrill, harrowing scream.
Yori rolled his eyes and dropped a heavy journal into his rucksack. "Are you done acting like a child?"
"You know those requests are impossible-"
The bookmaker's son shoved a bundle of clothes into his sack. "They aren't."
"Are you so blinded by this Kaguya that you can't see reason?" Mamizou shook her head. Kosuzu had yet to learn that such words would only stoke Yori's determination. She wasn't about to say anything, however. One wrong word and the tanuki woman might have to gnaw off her leg just to escape the feud.
Yori stood up and glared at his sister. "They aren't impossible. The stone bowl of the Buddha, the Jeweled Branch of Hourai, and the Fire Mink's Robe? Kaguya used them to power her spell cards during that weird moon night a while back."
"Whoever told you that was lying," Kosuzu said.
"It was Reimu."
Kosuzu's eyes flashed wide before she coughed and turned up her nose at her brother. "Well it seems like a lot of work for some floozy who stuck her chest out at you."
It was Yori's turn to grow red. It was tough being a breast man in Gensokyo. The entire village knew about the day when he had followed Patchouli Knowledge around after one of the librarian's rare visits to the village. Her friend, Meiling Hong, had tried to scare him away, but he had transferred his puppy love to the more statuesque guardswoman. Mamizou still couldn't fathom the attraction or why human females bothered to keep their mammaries when they weren't nursing, unlike any proper mammal. "It's not like that. Her eyes-"
A mischievous sparkle lit up Kosuzu's eyes while she laughed. "What color are they?"
Yori rolled his eyes. "Dark brown."
"Well..." Kosuzu huffed. The little bookseller glanced over to Mamizou. The disguised tanuki gave a slight nod. "Why her? Why not someone else like Mamizou?" She pointed towards the tanuki.
Mamizou's already strained smile slipped. If she were human, Yori might well be a choice for her mate. The gentle printer certainly made a better match than the longshoremen, roughnecks, and dissidents of her homeland. She'd leave loving human males to the fox maidens, just like a tanuki should. While he would make some lucky human girl a fine match, Yori couldn't compare with the tanuki men of Sado. He didn't have a tail, to begin with. Admitting that, however, would be as disastrous as removing her leaf barrette. Kosuzu still didn't know that Mamizou wasn't human.
"This isn't like those romance novels that you sneak up to your room when Dad's not looking," Yori said.
Mamizou's smile returned. So that's how Kosuzu hid her beloved youkai books. "Love at first sight doesn't happen to everyone."
"It happened to him." Kosuzu pointed at her brother. "Why couldn't he have picked someone I like?"
"I don't recall you ever getting a vote." Yori closed his rucksack and cinched the straps tight. He frowned and tied up the dangling ties and straps. "And it's not like I got much of one either."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You'll find out when you grow up."
Mamizou shook her head and watched the brother and sister fight. This was her fault. She had noticed that Kosuzu had grown more secretive than usual. Then matchmaking books had appeared in the Suzunaan's shelves. After Kosuzu had started talking about being sisters with Mamizou, the tanuki had discerned the bookseller's plan. She had to entangle him in a relationship before plucky little Kosuzu enacted her matchmaking schemes.
She had tried to steer Yori towards a number of girls at the Lunar Festival, but certain realities kept cropping up. Reimu refused to look at any man until after she had her dowry built up. Alice's insistence on playing with dolls made her seem childish in potential suitors' eyes, even though the girl could have been an exotic model on the Outside. As a maid, Sakuya was too low in status to marry the future head of the Printer's Guild. The noble Lady Akyuu had the opposite problem. No man in the in the village would consider Marisa for anything besides a fling, but all feared the consequences of trying the old Pump and Dump on her. Letty would just kill him outright; snow women like her found most men clingy and obsessed, but hand one a pry bar and she'd swing it like a club. Only Keine had seemed receptive to a young man of modest means but strong potential, but before Mamizou could introduce Yori to her, Kaguya had walked by.
He had been poleaxed the first moment he had seen her. Grace, glamour, and mystery had hooked him when girlish enthusiasm and Mamizou's own worldly sophistication had not. But unlike the other young men rendered mute by her presence, he had walked up and spoke with Kaguya.
Mamizou had watched from a distance, ready with a liter stein to commiserate and a suggestion to court the teacher instead. She had almost spewed her own beer when Kaguya's cheeks had matched her dress. She outright choked on her drink when all five Impossible Requests from the fairy tales returned, spoken by a woman who could not meet her suitor's eyes.
Mamizou recognized what Kaguya was doing; she had used the technique herself. How did Nue indelicately put it? "You must be at least this awesome for my ride." Either the princess wanted to be left alone, or she was holding out for a standard of perfection that gods would have difficulty matching. In Sado, the tanuki elders would have pulled a woman as picky as Princess Kaguya aside and disabused her of her pretensions. But Kaguya had been indulged since birth.
Yori scooped up the rucksack and slung it over his shoulders. "Tell Mom and Dad that I'm sure I'll see them around. Gensokyo's not that big, after all." He reached out and ruffled his hand through Kosuzu's hair.
His sister shrieked and batted at his hand. "I hate it when you do that."
"I know. Mind the store for me; I won't be gone long." Yori looked at the shelves and his eyes narrowed. "And don't use this as an excuse to make the romance section any longer. It's already half the store."
"Don't expect your sports manga section to be here when you get back."
"I expect I'll have other concerns. Later, sis." The little bell on the door jingled as he stepped outside. Kosuzu rushed to the window and waved frantically. Yori turned and waved once before starting his journey with his head held high.
Through the glass in the door, Mamizou watched Yori walk down the road and shook her head. She slipped back into the Suzunaan's shelves.
Kosuzu climbed out of the store's window and dropped in front of Mamizou. "How long have you been pining for Yori?" She looked up at her idol, starry-eyed.
Mamizou fixed a smile on her face. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"There's no need for secrets between us girls," Kosuzu said. Mamizou bit back a laugh; she knew that Kosuzu was sheltered, but if she believed that, the book seller needed to get out from her beloved books more often. "So when did you know he was the One?"
"You might want to lay off the romance novels."
"I only keep them around for Lady Akyuu's 'research.'" Kosuzu giggled and grabbed Mamizou's hand, dragging the older woman towards a table. A steaming teapot sat it the corner, surrounded by simple earthenware mugs. "For situations like this one, I have my great-grandmother's matchmaking journals."
A chill ran down Mamizou's spine. "Really, there's no need." She suddenly realized where Kosuzu's love for youkai books came from. Mamizou hoped those journals didn't have the same power as Kosuzu's normal faire. The last thing she needed was for some ancient busybody to reach out from the page for one last triumph.
"Don't worry." Kosuzu pushed her friend into a chair and poured tea into the cups. She had none of the elegance or ceremony of Lady Akyuu or even Reimu; Kosuzu's training in the traditional feminine arts had been delayed by the needs of her family's business. "Yori will stop chasing his floozy as soon as he realizes I'm right. In the meantime, we'll plan. Great-grandmother recommended lots of time together with little else to do."
That sounded like a recipe to make children to Mamizou's ears, not a marriage, but she hid her thoughts behind a practiced smile. As Kosuzu detailed increasingly complicated and implausible schemes, Mamizou's pulse quickened. The arms of the bookseller's trap were closing faster than she had realized.
Ran Yakumo sat in the middle of a field of red and white flowers and endured the luxury of a morning's silence. On most mornings in Mayohiga, Yukari's snores or Chen's caterwauling interrupted the fox woman's meditations. Out in the field, the devout fox maiden should have found it easier to concentrate. But as the breeze swirled through the fur on her tails, Ran could not detach from the world around her. It was a two part silence, or so the latent poet thought of it. Beneath the normal quiet lay the patient skin-crawling silence of a woman waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She put the odds of trouble at a certain one hundred percent. Chen had slipped away during the Lunar Festival. Ran could have summoned her at any time, but dealing with a surly Doomkitten was almost always more trouble than letting her run wild. Until Chen dragged trouble back home to Mayohiga, the fox would practice her breathing meditations and seek serenity in the morning light. Maybe she would finally let go of the dread teasing her mind.
The vixen closed her eyes just enough to block out the distractions flying through the field but not enough to tempt sleep. She slowed her breathing and concentrated on the moment. An easy four-count breathing pattern spiraled into complex calculations including the width of the Sanzu River and the depth of the Avici hell before the cares of the world sloughed away.
"Let me go!"
Ran's eyes snapped open and her silky tails swished through the flowers. For a moment, she saw two specks against the horizon but after she rubbed her eyes, only one remained. The grey blur drew closer in a twirling mass of mewling until two mouse ears poked out. Ran shook her head. Not this again.
"In the name of Bishamonten and Avatara Toramaru, release me."
The vixen pursed her lips into a moue of distaste. Not only would Ran have to chant the proper sutras and leave offerings with Abbess Hijiri to settle the disharmony between fellow Buddhists, she'd have to pick up Avatara Shou Toramaru's bar tab for the night. To Abbess Hijiri's stern disapproval, the tiger woman's taste for top-shelf liquor was only exceeded by her capacity to put it away.
"Look what the cat dragged in." Chen pranced in front of Ran, holding high a grey mouse girl taller than the Doomkitten. The mouse squirmed and thrashed in the kitten's arms. "Isn't she perfect?"
Ran scowled at the mouse girl. A diviner, if the oversized dowsing rods on the girl's back weren't for show, yet the vixen could sense another power inside. "She might be too much for you. Maybe I should take care of her."
The mouse girl froze at the sight of the stern fox. A sputtering shriek keened from her lips. Chen covered her ears and dropped her prize. But before the mouse could dash away, Ran leapt forward and grabbed her shoulders.
The mouse spun around. "I'm sure I taste horrible. You want the girls down at the village. They spend all day gorging on corn. I'm sure they'd taste better. I warn you, if you eat me, you'll be calling a mess of trouble down on your heads." She froze again and shrank away from the fox.
Ran stopped smiling, or at least hid her teeth behind upturned lips. "I'm not going to eat you. I prefer poultry."
"And fried tofu." Chen tackled the mouse around her waist, jolting her free from Ran's grasp. Both cat and mouse staggered through the flowers. "Can I keep her?"
The mouse tore at the kitten's hands. "I'm not a pet."
Ran massaged her eyes and groaned. "She wants a familiar, not a pet."
"And a familiar for her as well." Chen snuggled her cheek against her captive's. "Just like Ran."
The mouse toppled over, pulling Chen down with her. Pursing her lips, Ran hurried over to the trembling pile of limbs and tails. She reached down, but stopped when she heard laughter. The little mouse wiped her eyes and pushed against the cat on her back.
"Let her up, Chen." Ran knelt in front of the mouse. "What's so funny?"
"I am Avatara Toramaru's servant. Your friend has good taste, but she'll need to look elsewhere." The grey girl squirmed in her seat. Her tail rippled and twitched as she tugged at Chen's two-handed grip. "Let me go."
"Show our guest the proper courtesy," Ran said.
"I did bring her to meet you," Chen said. Ran turned and leveled a glare at her familiar. The Doomkitten sighed and let the mouseling go. "Alright."
A grey blur dashed through the red and white flowers. The Doomkitten bounded after her, hot on the mouse girl's heels.
"What do you think you're doing?" Ran held out a thumb against her middle finger. With a single snap, the fox maiden could summon Chen back, even if it meant dealing with a moody Doomkitten pouting for the rest of the day.
"I'm going to make a deal with Avatara Toramaru. If that doesn't work, maybe Mousey has a sister," Chen yelled over her shoulder.
Not for the first time since Yukari had given her permission to take a familiar, Ran wished she had chosen a dog instead. She lowered her arm and watched grey and orange streak out of sight. At least she could console herself that Avatara Toramaru loved quality liquor. Not only did it make matching shots with the insatiable tiger bearable, it made waking up the next morning easier. And she really believed that those grapes in that old fox's fable were actually sour, too.
Ran sat back down and closed her eyes until they were slits once more. It took focus to pare away the jumble cloud of thoughts now that Chen had added a fresh layer of complications, but the fox managed it by concentrating on her breathing. For fifteen minutes, the vixen's world condensed into the coolness of air rushing in through her nose, the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, the prickly sweetness of flowers in bloom, and the dusty char of ash. "What do you want?"
A shadow fell in front of Ran's eyes. "I want to talk to you."
Ran opened her eyes. Lady Mokou Fujiwara stood in front of her, blocking out the sun. "'Desire leads to suffering,'" the vixen quoted.
The pale-tressed immortal laughed. "Good. I'm looking to spread a little of both around."
Lady Ran Yakumo unfolded to her full height, her golden tails crowned around her like a fiery aura. "We will not be dragged back into your murderous games." Granted, the fiery phoenix girl had been the victim when Kaguya had tricked Reimu and Yukari into trying to kill her during the Moon incident. While the immortal had gotten better, it was common knowledge that she lived for payback.
"If I wanted her blood, I could have had it forty times today." Mokou knelt down and picked a small bouquet. "My family owes her a debt. A wedding, to be precise."
"I fail to see how that is Lady Yakumo's concern." Ran turned up her nose and walked away.
"I think it might be yours." Mokou arranged the flowers into a crown and slipped it on her head. "How odd that a beast like you would be a follower of the Enlightened One."
"Odder still that one higher on the Scala Natura would not. Good day, Lady Mokou."
Mokou stamped after Ran in those heavy boots that the disgraced noblewoman turned forest scout favored almost as much as those ridiculous pants she wore. "You know, I've often wondered why you haven't made an attempt to get it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I thought you had seen it. Or didn't your master tell you about it?"
"Speak plainly or take your leave."
"The Buddha's stone bowl."
Ran stopped and doubled over, shaking with laughter. "You came all this way to speak of fairy tales."
"Take care. What you call fairy tales, I call my life." A blast of hot air rolled off of the prickly noble.
"O Venerable Great-Grandmother," Ran smiled and her voice took on the sing-song lilt of her master at play. She brought her hands together until the flowing sleeves hid both and bowed to Mokou. "Certainly your own great-grandmother wasn't even a twinkle in her ancestor's eye when the Enlightened One sat under his tree." The vixen slipped spell cards into her palms.
"If you were around when Kaguya was making her stupid demands, she would have called for your fur instead of that fire mink's."
Ran's smile vanished. "Don't you have somewhere else to be?"
"Then, if you'd excuse me, I do." The kitsune familiar turned away.
Mokou threw back her head and laughed. "You've been housebroken. I'd hoped to find a mastermind trickster, not a tamed Inari fox."
Ran growled and crushed the spell cards in her hands. She wanted to wrap her hands around Mokou's throat and feel the crunch of bones in her teeth. Even in her rightful form, much was demanded of a thousand year old fox, but more when she was in human guise. No vixen with nine tails could afford to run around like a troublesome kit just weaned from her mother. The Enlightened One's breathing exercises forced down the baying kit within.
"You're good." Mokou whistled and planted her hands on her hips. "But you still feel it. The veneer of culture only hides it, but the beast wants to be free."
Ran's eyes narrowed and she snorted a quick breath. "How would you know?"
"Beasts aren't the only ones who go feral." A shadow fell across the ancient noblewomen's face. "Let the trickster run free, and you can have the Buddha's bowl. I need a mastermind; this will require subtlety and I'm only good at direct."
"I suppose you want the Fire Mink's Robe?"
"I want her Lunar Veil. A treasure for the kid, her veil for me, and the bowl for you."
Ran stared at her and sniffed. Mokou hid it well, but even the firebrand couldn't cover her smell. "If we're going to be partners, shouldn't you level with me?'
"I meant it when I said that I owe Kaguya a wedding. There's a young man that she's laid her Impossible Requests upon. I just want to level the playing field and make sure she cannot escape. Maybe I'll give the veil to you as a bonus. I don't care either way just as long as Kaguya doesn't have it."
"What do I get?" Chen popped up between Ran and Mokou. The immortal phoenix girl shrank away from the bouncing Doomkitten.
"Nothing," Ran snapped. She grabbed her familiar's shoulders and pulled her close. "I thought you were chasing your friend."
Chen looked straight up into Ran's eyes. "Mousey ran really fast, so I was going to have a cat to cat talk with Avatara Toramaru, but I saw Miss Mokou heading towards you. I wanted to make sure she didn't try to hurt you." Her tails lashed out and flicked the hem of Ran's robe. "But she wouldn't if she's offering you a bowl. I don't understand why; you're already Auntie Yukari's-"
Rolling her eyes, Ran slid her hand over her kitten's mouth, but she only muffled the stream of questions.
Mokou smiled and scratched the Doomkitten's ears. "So are you a pampered Inari fox or a kitsune?"
The Doomkitten squirmed out of Ran's grasp. "She's a kitsune!" Ran clamped her hand over Chen's mouth again.
Mokou pulled her hand away. "Really? I thought I had found a shrinemaiden's pet." Her eyes went wide with the same feigned innocence that Ran saw on Yukari's face when her master tried to be clever. "Reimu would be thrilled. Inari's blessing would mean so much for her shrine."
Ran bit her lip. She was not like her wastrel sister who sat in shrines and played as goddesses for food offerings. Inevitably, the proud fox maidens became simple pets, indistinguishable from the skulking curs begging for table scraps. Yet the light yoke Yukari had set on her shoulders felt like the jeweled collar of the Inari foxes. Obedience might be a familiar's source of strength, but the wild kit deep within howled to be set free. Despite desire and suffering, sometimes the beast had to slip its leash.
"I'll do it." Underneath Ran's hand, Chen bounced and squealed. "But Chen stays out of it." To Mokou's visible amusement and Ran's longsuffering exasperation, the Doomkitten pouted and grumbled underneath Ran's hand.
Chapter 2: Tuesday's Child
?Tuesday's child, who noticed you?
She should have sent an inaba instead.
As Kaguya walked through the Village's market square, she longed to take leave of the throng of well-wishers and gossips pressed around her. She preferred Patchouli's quiet and honest hostility to the bored housewives that tried to live vicariously through her. With a little determination, they could have choked themselves on the bitter forbidden fruits they longed for. Worse still were the grey-haired matriarchs. Those women stared her up and down, their aged and hawkish eyes cataloging each curve of her body more exactingly than any stripling in the first throes of manhood. The "worthies" lusted for grandchildren, making bets on the princess's fecundity. So Kaguya sheltered in the company of girls like Alice, who all had questions about the mating dance, even if they were still too young to attend. And Alice had a host of questions from the innocent to those that made Kaguya blush to hear them in public.
"I'm not engaged." Kaguya flashed a plastic smile and held up her unadorned left hand to the host of well-wishers as they paraded by. But without fail, the next in line always asked the same question. And in her mind's eye, the princess saw a figure in blue and red hiding a smile.
Eirin had to have known that this would happen; there was no other reason why the apothecary and sage would have asked her to buy a list full of reagents from the Village square instead of the inaba. Kaguya had agreed immediately on a whim. Now she wished that Mokou would strike her dead, but the Fujiwara wild child had vanished after making her odd promise.
"Stay away from my brother."
Kaguya snapped out of her musing and stared at the preteen scowling at her. She had seen plenty of Daddy's Little Princesses just like this precociously cute girl with bells in her hair; Daddy usually pickled his liver in spirits long before they reached adulthood. Although if half of the rumors about Kosuzu were true, Mr. Motoori was looking at cirrhosis by the year's end. "This is a change. Normally, young women like you hound me to marry their brothers." Mokou certainly had.
"I've read the tales." Kaguya knew better than to trust the girl's bookish appearance. The bookseller held a bound codex in her arms, not like a young woman trying to hide behind it, but like a certain puppeteer in the moments before she set the world on fire. "Disgrace and death follow in your wake. Why can't you tell Yori no like any decent woman?"
The princess hid her smile behind a sleeve. "Life is more complicated than your books, little one."
Kosuzu hissed and clutched the codex's spine. "Just stay away from Yori." She stalked away, her bells ringing as she tossed a haughty glare over her shoulder.
Kaguya rolled her eyes. It wasn't her fault that she had been placed on the a pedestal ever since she was born or that she had been fawned over like a goddess incarnate since she first wore the traces of womanhood on her slender frame. Nor was it her fault that men abandoned their good sense to climb the heights of stupidity in hope of a single smile from her. And, yes, some of them fell from those great heights. But no matter how Kaguya tried to explain to girls like Kosuzu, it felt self-serving and it usually infuriated the young woman. The best the princess could hope for in this situation was that Yori would keep enough wits about him to be safe in his folly. That way Kosuzu wouldn't follow in Mokou's murderous footsteps.
A titter ran through the ring of well-wishers, which parted before her like an ancient sea. Kaguya ignored the whispers and murmurs around her, grateful to be on her way once more. Eirin still needed her herbs and a stern talking to as well.
Kaguya's breath caught in her throat. Yori stood by a booth at the far end of the market with a heavy pack hanging from his shoulders. Eirin would hear sterner words when she returned to Eternity Manor; Kaguya had hoped to avoid Yori as well as the pink gracing her cheeks. And then his companion stepped out of his shadow.
Her face was as radiant as her platinum braids. Kaguya recognized the too-tight blue dress smothered in ruffles and the metal flickering underneath the skirt's hem. She had seen both underneath the falselight moon just before the knives flew. The moon princess had stood her ground before eight magicians that night, but only the maid had matched Mokou in cruelty. Now Sakuya stood by Yori's side, glowing like a schoolgirl addled by puppy love.
Kaguya grabbed her skirts and hurried towards Yori as fast as the princess's dignity could bear. At least Sakuya had the good grace to vanish as soon as the maid saw her. "What are you doing with Sakuya?"
Yori picked up a clear jar of home-brew shochu moonshine and held it up toward the sun. Kaguya fumed and stamped her feet. Just when she reached out to shake him, Yori turned towards her. "My search had to start somewhere."
"With that," Kaguya said, her lips twisting as she searched for the right word, "that odalisque!"
Yori smiled and tousled Kaguya's hair. To her surprise she found herself leaning into his touch. "You're cute when you're jealous."
"What is there for me to be jealous of?" Kaguya brushed Yori's hand out of her hair, her fingers lingering against his. She basked in his wry half-smile and blushed. She had never needed such courtesan's tricks before. Men came to the aloof princess, not the other way around.
Yori's half-smile deepened. "Odalisques, hetaerae, courtesans?" Concubines, whores, and dalliances.
"Perhaps your books, then." Kaguya wished she had brought her fan. It was so much easier to play to coquette when all a young man could see was her eyes. She hid her smile behind a sleeve. "For that must be the only way a busy apprentice could know such words."
Despite himself, Yori blushed, yet his eyes flashed with mirth. "How strange that a fairy tale would be jealous of a dictionary."
Kaguya's smile froze. The banter was refreshing, but such lines as Yori's last usually unleashed a deluge of flattery that only smothered her interest as it had with Mokou's father and the emperor so many years ago.
Yori looked at his watch and scowled. "Are you worth my labors?"
"Where did that come from?" Kaugya sputtered. She wished she had a fan that she could snap shut while she spoke.
"You promise little and demand much."
Kaguya's eyes widened and she felt the stares of Yori and all the well-wishers clustered in earshot. "I've never been talked to like this!"
"I reckon not. Your previous suitors made all sorts of promises instead. You were right not to marry them. You would have been nothing more than the newest bauble on a lord's arm, discarded when another caught his fashion."
"Tell me you're different," Kaguya whispered.
"I want a wife, not a trophy." Yori set the shochu back on the counter. "But I need a trophy before I can get a wife." He shrugged his shoulders and tightened the straps of his rucksack.
"You know I can't." Yori walked away.
Kaguya burned under the eyes of the world. The crowd demanded fairy tale gestures. She darted forward and pressed a clean white handkerchief into Yori's hand. "For luck." She pulled her hand away, ensuring that her fingers brushed against his. More courtesan tricks. Eirin would not have approved.
Yori smiled but continued his journey. Her mind racing as she stood, Kaguya could not take her eyes off of the young man walking away from her. She hoped that he would look back over his shoulder at her. She also hoped that Eirin would not find her hidden among the curtains again.
Neither seemed likely.
No matter how many times Ran visited the Road of Liminality; she never grew used to the festive flea market. Try as she might, the devout fox could not understand why dead sinners trapped in debt bondage would throw an unending party. However, she regularly said blessings for the unnamed chef that made the most divine fried tofu that she had ever tasted.
Not all the stalls lining the Road were filled with criminals paying off the exponentially spiraling fees needed to cross the Sanzu River. Many kappa, youkai, and human shopkeepers plied their wares as well, drawn to the crowds of shoppers. Today, however, Ran sought the company of the larcenous.
"This is perfect," Marisa said between bites of a pork dumpling the size of her hand. "You almost never get Mystia, Meiling, and Tewi up here at the same time." The witch stood next to the fox at a standing counter tucked inside a wide wooden stall. A tower of paper trays filled with grilled lampreys, steamed dumplings, and pickled vegetables sat at Marisa's elbow.
Ran nodded and sighed as she savored her way through her own more modest stack. "At least every day is fried tofu day."
Marisa cleansed her palate with a healthy swig of paint thinner. She claimed that the clear swill in the earthen crock came from apples, mostly, but Ran had seen the kappa use the same drink for rocket fuel. "Level with me, Foxy. I appreciate the meal and all, but what's really on your mind."
"I've got a little job I need some help with."
"Don't you have Chen?
Ran's grin grew as enigmatic and strained as her master's legendary uncanny smile. "I need a few more hands."
"So what's the job?"
"I need to know if you're in or not. Yes or no."
"One of those jobs, I see. Can I brag about it afterward?"
"I'd rather this one stayed under wraps."
Marisa shook her head and pushed away from the counter. "Forget it."
Ran raised a single eyebrow. "That was quick."
"You're freelancing. This offer has none of Yukari's subtlety, so you're hiding this from her and most likely Reimu as well."
"How do you know that I haven't talked to the shrine maiden?"
"You don't have her Yin Yang Orb imprinted on your cheek. This has the feel of an incident waiting to happen, and there's more fame in solving it than playing along with whatever you've got planned. Just so you know, there's nothing personal about the Master Spark coming your way." Marisa drained the crock and smiled. "Actually, keep doing what you're doing. The guys still talk about our last fight."
Ran rolled her eyes. "I let you win."
"Foxy, they all say that." Marisa scooped up her stack of tracks. "Thanks for the meal. And when you do get in trouble, try not to let Reimu find you first."
Ran watched the witch walk away and chewed on a stick of friend tofu. It hadn't taken long to calculate the odds of success with only her and Mokou. She needed more people to get past the hundred rabbits that made Eternity Manor their warren. Unfortunately, Marisa's was the third rejection as many approaches. Mystia had been too proud to run another person's caper, and the kappa mob ran by Nitori and her friends had been hired to upgrade the Moriya Shrine Cable Car. At this point, Ran was tempted to hire fairies. She really wanted Tewi, but the con-rabbit would be playing for the opposing team. The numbers kept crunching away in Ran's mind.
"What were you talking to Marisa about?" Mokou slid next to Ran at the counter, chewing on a chicken yakitori skewer like an oversized toothpick.
Ran's mouth watered at the smell of grilled chicken. She should have ordered some with her thick atsuage deep-fried tofu. "We're going to need help."
"I hope you didn't tell her anything incriminating."
"I am the soul of discretion. I do work for Yukari after all."
"Is your master going to interfere?"
Ran laughed into her sleeve. "I don't see any reason to disturb her sleep. Or her beauty rest or her power naps."
Mokou swirled the skewer around in her lips. "That's not a resounding no."
"Be glad that it's not a certain yes." Ran dipped a tofu stick into a small cup of dashi broth. "She might decide to count coup against Eirin and help us, or she might decide that Gensokyo is better served by marrying you off to the dogcatcher. I've given up trying to guess what she'll do. I always get it wrong." She bit into the fried tofu and her eyes lit up. Bacon dashi and proper western bacon at that.
"Can you keep her from finding out?"
Ran eyed the dashi cup. She longed to drink it like tea, but her master's etiquette training held firm. "I can't. Yukari is my master and I am her servant. If she asks, I will answer. If I dither, she will compel my answer. Such is the life of a familiar." She looked up and chuckled at Mokou's crestfallen face. "Relax. She does let me keep some secrets."
The skewer swirled in Mokou's mouth once more. "I don't care who finds out, just as long as it's after Kaguya can't try for an annulment. I won't give her a chance to slip out of her promises." Her mouth twisted and she spat the skewer onto the ground. Mokou adjusted her crown and flashed a coy smile. "If I have to expunge my family's disgrace alone by sheer force of will, I shall. I don't need to, though. I seem to remember watching a golden blur plague the local farms during the past summer's nights. How many chickens and quails were spirited away?"
Ran licked her lips. "Forty-seven, including one wonderfully plump duck. But I paid for each one in silver and hatchlings. I've already agreed to help you, so there's no need for blackmail. Besides, Kotohime already knows of my arrangement."
Mokou closed her eyes and shook her head. Her pale hair shimmered in the sunlight like water. "I meant to say that your skill impresses me."
"Be that as it may, we will need more than my skill and your determination. Have you talked to anyone else?" Caution tempered Ran's hope. The immortal was slowly being drawn back into proper Village society by her friends. Unfortunately, one was the guardian of the Human Village and she had declared Kaguya human, protected like all the rest from the snares and schemes of youkai.
Breath hissed from between Mokou's pursed lips. "I know better than to ask Keine."
"Try to think of someone. I'm running out of leads myself." Ran scooped up the last trays of tofu and bobbed a curtsy at Mokou. The phoenix girl nodded and strolled towards a Chinese health and medicine stand, her hands in her pockets.
Humming a lively melody in fugue with the voicings in her mind, Ran made a beeline towards the fried tofu booth for a liter of the savory umami-filled dashi broth. As she drew closer, the fox maiden noticed a shadow following her own. She cast a glance over her shoulder but saw no one dogging her steps.
"Look at what I got!" Ran winced and looked in front of her. Chen bounced in front of her, holding up a brace of chicken yakitori skewers in each hand. "I just smiled at the guy behind the counter like this."
Ran looked down at her familiar and groaned. Chen's toothy smile, filled with innocence and enthusiasm, would be catnip to any man with a pulse. "Who taught you to do that?"
"Auntie Yukari." Chen bit into a skewer, worrying the chicken with her teeth.
"She would." Not only had Ran watched Yukari pull the same scam with a hint of d?colletage when needed, she remembered a certain younger fox-maiden that ran her master ragged as she leapt from one man's embrace to the next. She had come to her senses after a time, but Yukari still teased Ran about her wild child days, reminding her that Chen would be ten times as bad when she grew up. "You shouldn't listen to everything Yukari says."
Ran sighed and shook her head. "I'll tell you when you get older." However, with the way that the Doomkitten grew, the fox knew she might have postponed the discussion by a week. "What are you doing out here?"
"Following you. This isn't Auntie Yukari business, at least not with Miss Mokou," Chen said between bites. The cat swallowed and her grin grew predatory. "I want to help."
"No." Chen was already prone to mischief. Ran had to put her foot down so that when the Doomkitten was her age, she might have the wisdom to turn away from a fool's errand like Mokou's.
"Isn't it for a good cause, though? Weddings make people happy and you and Auntie Yukari both say the making people happy is a good thing-"
Ran looked at the crowd eyeing the bouncing Doomkitten. "Don't make me say another word." The next one would be the familiar's command, compelling instant obedience. "Go home. I'll meet you there shortly."
"Can I get more yakitori first?"
The vixen shooed her Doomkitten away. "Only if you pay for it this time."
Mamizou watched her reflection rippled on the surface of her gyokuro tea. The color of unpolished jade, the pale tea and its mellow, delicate flavor represented the heights of quality Japanese tea. She had yet to find anything as savory without involving meat in some fashion. Only the teahouse in the Human Village served it, and only rarely from the rooftop patio. Normally, gyokuro tea was reserved for the ceremonies held downstairs, but the mistress of tea ceremonies had been forced to concede the appeal of good tea, sunshine, and a calming breeze.
A small crowd packed out the roof. Most drank the sweet and flowery roasted green tea that was nearly ubiquitous throughout Gensokyo, but here and there, Mamizou caught a whiff of black tea. Not many in Gensokyo drank it but the few Europeans who had slipped across the barrier. The tanuki looked around and saw Alice Margatroid and one of her dolls sitting under a parasol with Marisa.
The doll, Hourai if Mamizou wasn't mistaken, dropped a chunk of rock candy into her mistress's cup before soaking it in turn with tea and heavy cream. The tanuki woman winced as she held her own cup; she preferred her tea straight with an occasional pinch of salt to heighten the flavors.
She leaned back in her wicker chair and watched the clouds float past nearby Youkai Mountain and sipped from her cup. Lingering over good tea was almost as good as meditation, and more enjoyable to be certain. But as her mind cleared of all distractions but the moment, Mamizou's raccoon ears couldn't help but overhear snippets of conversation from the other tables.
"Look, all I'm telling you is to be careful around Ran." Marisa's boyish voice raised itself above the patio's din.
"When did you start thinking you could ever tell me what to do?" Alice's soprano was colder than Marisa's. In her human guise, Mamizou would have missed her low hiss.
"I didn't mean that." The normally confident witch actually stammered. "She's up to something, and she's not as sneaky as she thinks she is."
"Have you ever thought it might be because of Kaguya's pronouncement? Every treasure hunter in Gensokyo is stirred up right now. Some hope to charge the Motoori boy exorbitantly, while others court those who would wish him failure in his quest. I would have thought you would have looked for the treasures by now."
Marisa snorted. "Going up against Patchi and Sakuya ain't nothing like going up against Tewi and Eirin. At least you can wait until Little Miss Perfect Maid gets all twitterpated before making your move."
"I wouldn't mind having that dragon's jewel, though. Maybe I could wear it like Okuu wears hers."
Mamizou hid her smile behind her cup of tea. Foxes could never keep secrets, not even to save their lives. Fairy tales were littered with the wreckage caused by inattentive fox maidens whose masquerades as human women had been discovered. But Ran's supercomputing abilities still made her mind attractive to any would-be treasure hunter.
A shadow fell across Mamizou's table. She looked up at a young woman in a severe governess's dress. The waitress held out a platter with a broad leaf centered on a paper doily. "The Mistress suggests that you make yourself decent. You have a guest waiting downstairs," she said. The fur on Mamizou's tail bristled, but her species was only a secret to a handful of people. "A little belle."
The tanuki's eyes widened and she scooped up the leaf. Setting it on her head, she scrounged around nearby chairs for a hat. Growling at the ascot cap in her hands, she pressed it down on top of the leaf and her raccoon ears and concentrated.
Her body flushed with warmth. By the time she could feel the breeze on her skin again, Mamizou's tails and ears had vanished. Unfortunately, the transformation did little to help her eyesight. She sipped her tea and winced; the savory flavor had diminished along with her other senses.
"Shall I bring your guest to the table?" the waitress asked.
Bells jimgled at the edge of her hearing. The disguised tanuki looked up and saw an outstretched arm wave as its owner tried to bounce above the seated patrons. Mamizou fixed a smile on her face and returned the wave. As Kosuzu neared, the disguised tanuki motioned towards an open seat.
"I appear to be too late." The waitress walked away.
"What are you having?" Kosuzu squirmed her way into the wicker chair.
"Jade dew tea." Mamizou poured a cup from the kettle and placed it in front of her guest.
Kosuzu's thin nose wrinkled as she inhaled the steam rising from the cup. "Shouldn't there be honey?"
"Some things should be enjoyed as they are."
The little bookseller made a face and set her cup down. "It tastes like grass clippings."
"It takes some getting used to." Mamizou's smile flashed wider.
"Like Yori?" Kosuzu looked up at her idol with a sly smile.
"Brothers often do."
"That's not what I meant." Kosuzu folded her arms across her chest and pouted. For once, she had left her eponymous merchant's apron at her shop.
"Shouldn't you be supportive of him?"
"Why? He's my brother. If he had any taste in women at all, we could be sisters." Kosuzu's eyes glazed as she squealed and seized Mamizou's hand. The idea had some appeal; Mamizou's littermates had all been male. The little bookseller's bliss faded. "But, no, Yori had to pick like the oldest woman on the planet."
Mamizou bit her lip as she smiled. "Be nice. She might become your sister-in-law."
"That would make her my aunt, then."
"No, her." Kosuzu shuddered as she pointed down towards the street below where a girl in a secretary's blazer carried a wide basket from store to store. Her coltish friend in a similar blazer walked next to her, laughing at the taller girl's stories. In the Outside, such a sight would have been commonplace, except for the girls' rabbit ears, their cotton tails, and the twin cat tails flicking out from the shadows behind them.
Old instincts of predator and prey bayed to Mamizou. In between the stalking cat and the rabbits, a blond woman that could have been Yukari Yakumo's "I'm only sixteen"-year old cousin danced through the throngs in the road, always keeping an eye on the tall rabbit with the plantain flower ears.
Mamizou rolled her eyes and stood. "I'll be right back. In the meantime, order what you want." She cut through the tables on the patio, bounded down the stairway, and burst out the door onto the Village street.
It only took a moment to find the kitten in the shadows. Ran's catgirl pet spent too much time in human form to really vanish from sight. Mamizou couldn't blame her; life had become so much easier after she had learned how to use a knife and a can opener. The kitten's tails kept pointing towards 'Yukarin.'
Praying that her instincts were right, Mamizou darted forward, hooked the blonde's arm with her own, and pulled her into an alley.
"Stupid tanuki, what do you think you're doing?"
Mamizou strong-armed the pale woman against the wall and covered her mouth with a hand. She could feel teeth snapping together beneath her fingers. "None of that, silly fox. I've got some questions and then you can play as your master's sister all you want."
Animal eyes glared out from behind the porcelain Yukarin mask. "Do you realize how much work you're ruining?"
"I'm such I can ruin even more. Word has it that a certain fox wasn't as circumspect as she should have been when she announced her entry into the treasure-hunting business."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Ran slid off of the wall.
Mamizou clicked her tongue and shook her head. "So you weren't following Eternity Manor's bunnygirl knockout? The one that's as close to a friend Princess Kaguya has among youkai? Or was it the bunnygirl's younger sister?" She smiled as Ran turned her head. "Are you trying to help the boy or frustrate him?"
Ran sighed. "Help."
"I want in."
"Meet me in Mayohiga tonight." Ran looked down and smoothed her purple skirts. When she looked up again, her eyes were deep ocean blue and human. "How did you find me?"
"Here, kitty kitty." Mamizou spun away laughing and left the alley, ignoring the spitting catgirl in the shadows on her way back to the teahouse.
Kosuzu poked her head over the patio railing. "Hey, Mamizou, who were you meeting? Was it Yori?"
To Mamizou's chagrin, first Alice and then what seemed like the entire patio crowded the rail. With iron poise worthy of the haughtiest of foxes, she kept herself from running into the building.
As the night rolled back the last trace of day, Ran leaned against the courtyard gate to Mayohiga, the Wandering Village. Little more than a countess's manor surrounded by fields of flowers, it hardly seemed worthy of the title of village. Even the gate was a mere formality, for when attacked, the manor disappeared.
No one lived here. The manor occupied the same no man's land as the Hakurei Barrier. However, many thought that Clan Yakumo made its home in the manor. It served Yukari's interests to maintain the illusion, if only to keep the legion of tengu newspaper solicitors away from the real front door.
The vixen drummed her fingers against her wrists and looked to the night sky. Arcturus in the Herdsman was to the west, Venus had just dipped below the horizon, and the moon was low to the south. That made the time 8:19 PM. Ran drew back her sleeve and glanced at her watch. Scowling, she twisted a dial. The cheap knockoff lost a minute every month.
Trust a tanuki to be late to her own funeral if there was a fox to inconvenience. That conflict started long before man crawled out of Africa, over some pettiness that even Keine Kamishirasawa could not divine from history. Ran would have been happier frogmarching Mamizou back to her island than waiting in the moonlight.
She shivered and wrapped her tails around her body. A light breeze whistled through the gate as more stars twinkled into view, including the Milky Way. More to count, at least; she had tallied the first 1500 within minutes. Ran now counted 8532 of them five times in a row, until the faint aroma of tea wafted out of a ribbon-bound portal behind her.
"She was never going to show up anyway." Aesop got one thing right in his story about the fox. Ran growled at the sky, pivoted, and smacked into what felt like an iron gate. She backed away, holding her swelling nose.
"Someone left her fox eyes in. It's not like you to make that mistake." Mamizou appeared out of the shadows.
Ran blinked and cursed her fox's eyes. A blink later, red stars appeared in the night sky and she could see Mamizou even when the tanuki stood motionless. "Before we go any further, tell me how you're going to screw me over." She placed a leaf under her cap and shifted away her injury.
"Shouldn't business be discussed over tea?"
The vixen groaned. Until Yukari rousted from her slumbers, Ran wore the mantle and responsibilities of Clan Yakumo, including the duty of hospitality. If Ran pitched Mamizou into the fields as the tanuki deserved, she would be lucky if Yukari didn't lend her to Lady Yuyuko for a round of percussive maintenance. "If you must. The portal is behind you. Trust me, you can't miss it."
Mamizou laughed until she spun around. Even in the starlit night, it was hard to miss the cavernous maw of a rift in space held in check only by two red bows. "'And when you gaze long into an abyss-"
Ran shoved the tanuki through the portal before stepping through herself. She had learned to ignore the eyes that studded the portal's void.
She dropped into a European-style parlor, complete with vaulted ceilings covered in murals and frescoed walls. Near the head of an ornate oak table, an armless statue stood on a pedestal, naked from the waist up. Yukari claimed that it was a copy of a statue of a western love goddess, but Ran had been to Paris. The original didn't have the long flowing hair, the prominent breasts, or the mischievous grin of one Yukari Yakumo.
Mamizou stood in the center, her eyes raised to the ceiling as she turned around and around. "Where are we?" The bristling fur on her tail belied the tanuki's calm.
"In the years before the Barrier, Yukari and I took the Grand Tour of Europe." Ran paused for a moment and smiled as she remembered the hunting accidents strewn in her wake. "The Louvre and the Doge's Palace left an impression. We don't use the room to entertain much, but I thought a sophist of a university girl like you might appreciate it."
"You mean sophisticated." The tanuki's hackles rose as Ran smiled and shook her head. Mamizou's fur settled. "So, a palace. Your master styles herself as something of a queen?"
Ran's eyes flickered towards the statue. "Something like that. Please, take a seat." She pointed towards the table, before taking her position at its head.
The scent of roasted sencha tea filled the parlor. Chen scurried in, carrying a full platter in her hands. She slid it onto the table and hovered by Mamizou's shoulder. "You look strong. Want to be a familiar?"
"No!" Ran snapped. She knew she had taught Chen better than to choose a bespectacled ring-tailed thief.
Chen slinked away. "It doesn't hurt to ask."`
The room fell silent wile Ran poured tea into brass cups. Even without formal ceremony, there was a practiced elegance to her motions as she set a full cup and a tray of sugar cubes in front of Mamizou.
"Where were we?" Ran asked. "How are you going to stab me in the back?"
Mamizou chuckled as she dropped a pair of sugar cubes into her tea. "Not everything is about you. While I do dream of the day that you'll flee from this land with your tails tucked between your legs, I have other pressing concerns to deal with first. Our goals are just very temporarily aligned." She waved her hand in the air. "It's a fluke, really."
"'The enemy of my enemy-'"
"'Is my enemy's enemy, no more and no less.'"
"Why should I believe you?"
"The day our little rivalry comes to a head, you'll have a clutch of spell cards, you'll be facing me, and there will be an audience to watch your shame."
Ran's eyes narrowed and her fingers interlaced into a pitched tent in front of her eyes. "Let me rephrase that. What do you get out of this?"
"Shouldn't the real question be just how desperate you have to be to even think about accepting my help?" Mamizou sipped at her tea, grimaced, and dropped another sugar cube into her drink.
"Tell me how you would sneak into a manor surrounded by hundreds of rabbits with only two people." Ran sat back in her high-backed chair. Her full teacup cooled in front of her.
Mamizou's eyes narrowed. "I wouldn't. You'd need at least three-"
Something thwacked hard into the underside of the table, lifting the heavy oak slab into the air. As Ran and Mamizou slid their chairs away, Chen poked her head out from under the table. "I can help." The catgirl's smile grew strained as she rubbed her head. "Please?"
Red flashed in front of Ran's eyes. She leapt to her feet and slammed her hands against the table. Metal cups rattled against platters. "No. Go to your room."
Ran's fur shone with a luminous nimbus as she drew upon the familiar bond. She pointed to the open doors. "To your room." Wide-eyed, Chen fled the parlor.
After a moment's silence, Mamizou cleared her throat. "So who's the third?"
Ran sat down and the rushing of blood past her ears faded. She coughed demurely and looked away. "Lady Mokou Fujiwara."
Mamizou's face froze. "I don't see how murder would bring Kaguya to the altar."
The fox hid her smile behind a sleeve. So that was Mamizou's goal. Trust a tanuki to trip herself up in her own cleverness. "Who said anything about murder? She just wants to tip the scales to favor of the young man. It helps that she's seen the treasures in person-"
"So have you, if your owner's stories even approach the truth."
Ran glared at the tanuki but continued her thought. "-and the lockbox Kaguya keeps them in. Apparently, it's in some sort of closet near her chambers. That gives us the advantage. All the treasure hunters are looking in Youkai Mountain caves."
"At least until she moves it because her rival knows where it is."
Ran shrugged, hiding her pleasure. It was good to work with competent people, even if one was a tanuki runt even a furrier would avoid. "That's why I need more people."
A piteous yowl pierced through the parlor, low and mewling as it climbed in volume. Ran's eyes snapped wide and a shudder ran through her entire being. The Doomkitten, living up to her nickname as always, would certainly wake Yukari. If Ran didn't stop Chen, she might as well pack her bags for a trip to the White Jade Paradise. "I have to take care of Chen. The portal outside is over there. Let's discuss plans later."
"Just meet me at Muenzuka at nine tomorrow." Mamizou set her cup down, pushed her glasses higher on her nose, and stood up. "Bring Mokou as well."
"What do you want for your help?" Ran's eyes darted between the portal and the open parlor doors as the yowling crescendoed.
Mamizou paused in front of the portal. "Whatever plan you've got, don't screw it up." She stepped through and out of sight.
As she basked in the morning sunlight on the edge of the Forest of Magic, Ran gave silent thanks for her master's power. Even when asleep, Yukari created portals for her servants. A few whispers in the sleeping youkai sorceress's ear, and Ran and Mokou avoided an hour long hike through the thickest parts of the forest, where sunlight fought to enter.
A meadow filled with scarlet resurrection lilies, known also as Higan flowers, spread out from the forest's edge. Ran sniffed and blew her nose. The Higan flower miasma was thicker than normal.
Gensokyo's barrier, a mishmash of wards cobbled together from various human and youkai folk magics, somehow managed to seal away a preserve from the Outside. In many places, the barrier worked like a sieve instead of a fence. Along the Road of Reconsideration, it bordered the infamous Aokigahara Sea of Trees, a forest known for a legacy of suicide. Of the many distraught Outsiders that visited, most found their death at the end of a rope or in a youkai's gullet. Only the very lucky found their way through the forest into Gensokyo to find renewed purpose. The humans from the Village avoided the road whenever possible, yet still sent work parties to collect the bones of the lost to inter them at a wooded copse at the end of the road. The lingering misery could be felt well into the Forest of Magic-
Ran's sneeze was a shotgun blast that sent creatures scurrying through the underbrush.
-or it might only be the pollen from the Higan flowers.
Next to her, Mokou mumbled a blessing as she crouched nest to a mass of brush beneath a tree. Instead of pulling free the crimson berries that studded the ground cover, her fingers stripped out the white flowers from bloodroot and boneset plants.
Ran sniffed while the immortal twisted the flowers into her hair wreath. "Why don't you add a Higan flower or two?"
The immortal shook her head before crowning herself with the wreath. "Eirin uses those petals in her dream pills. You've got to be crazy to think I'm going to wear those against my skin." She sniffed the air and then her fingers. "Ginseng!" Smiling, the forest guide dug at the brush mound.
"I'm sure Kaguya didn't hide anything down there," Mamizou said. The tanuki appeared and wrapped her long traveler's coat around her body.
Mokou counted plants before she tugged out roots. Even to Ran's untrained eye, the immortal left more in the ground than she harvested. The phoenix girl held up six roots before pocketing them. "Eirin will give me 3000 yen. Seiga and Miko, probably more." Ginseng made for potent medicine and powerful magic.
"We're going after priceless treasure and you stop for 3000 yen." Mamizou shook her head. "Humans."
Mokou brushed off the tanuki's complaints as readily as the dirt from her pants, yet she froze as the underbrush nearby rustled. Ran dismissed it as one of the rodents that made its home in the forest. Understandably, none of them liked to stick around a fox or a tanuki. The vixen couldn't fault the critter; she could have used the snack.
"I wonder who would live out here," Ran said. "Normally Higan flowers are planted to keep the vermin away."
Mamizou tried to bite back a smile but the grin won out. She staggered over to a tree, clutched the trunk, and doubled over in laughter. The wind shifted, bearing the sweetness of the Higan flowers and coughing fits for the tanuki trickster. "This way." Mamizou rubbed her throat before setting out from the forest's edge.
Mokou followed, tucking her long hair underneath her still pristine flower crown. A red and white cloth covered her nose and mouth like a bandana. For once, the immortal walked through Gensokyo without her prominent bow.
Ran knelt down and stripped a patch of bloodroot of its white flowers. Crushing the petals, she daubed her upper lip with the oil. The bloodroot's sweetness masked the Higan flowers' fragrance. She scurried to catch up.
"So what's your plan?" Mokou asked.
"I'm thinking we could use another person. Three against hundreds isn't good odds. So there's a treasure hunter that I've used before." Mamizou looked back at Ran and snickered. "Wipe that sludge off your lip. You look like a girl that's just discovered lipstick."
Ran muttered a curse and her form shimmered. An immaculate fox-maiden appeared, almost doll-like in her perfection, indistinguishable from the real Ran except for the lack of red staining her lip. "Just take us to your treasure hunter."
The three women journeyed down the Road of Reconsideration in a silence punctuated by staccato sneezes that wracked all three, even if the sniffles hit Mamizou and Ran hardest. Ran even thought that she heard sneezing from behind her, but saw nothing when she checked over her shoulder. Between the bloodroot and the Higan lilies, the vixen couldn't even use her sense of smell.
At last, they reached the end of the Road of Reconsideration, where Muenzuka, the graveyard of the unknown, waited. A wooden copse in the middle of the field of scarlet lilies, the villagers laid to rest the bones found along the road into its cold earth. Year by year, the mound grew ever higher and wider until it had become a large hill in its own right.
Mamizou led them to a smaller mound nearby. The three women skirted the scarlet flowered mound until they came to a circular wooden door set in a wooden wall complete with wide shuttered window. "In this hole, there lives a treasure hunter." Mamizou rapped her knuckles against the door.
"You can say burglar if you like," a shrill small voice called from inside. Metal slid against metal and chains rattled within.
"How about hobbit?"
"You've been insufferable ever since I found that book for you." The door opened inward and Ran drew in a hissing breath. The grey mouseling from Chen's misadventures two days earlier stared back at her. "You!"
The door slammed shut and a heavy weight thumped against the wood.
"What did you do to her?" Mokou lunged forward, throwing herself against the door. Embers showered past her each time she hit it.
"It wasn't me, it was Chen." She fought back a grimace as she recalled Chen's most recent attempt at gaining a familiar. Red flowers rippled in the field behind her.
"Stay here," Mamizou said. She jogged around the back of the mound. A clamor and a yelp rang out from the far side, punctuated only by Mokou's metronomic drumming against the door.
"I think you can stop that now." Ran held up her hand. Mokou collided with the door one last time and slid down to the stone porch, attending to the loose rivulets of her hair.
Mamizou walked back into view, marching the mouse youkai in front of her until both stopped in front of Ran. The girl looked back at her tanuki captor. Mamizou nodded and pointed towards the vixen with her chin.
"We didn't introduce ourselves last time." The paling mouse curtsied. With a slow gulp, she looked up at Ran. "Nice to meet you. My name is Nazrin."
"Lady Mokou of the Fujiwara."
"Chen!" The Doomkitten burst forth from a thicket of spider lilies. To Ran's mortified embarrassment, Chen threw her arms wide and swept Nazrin into a bone crushing hug.
Ran had toured a host of underground dwellings in the course of Yukari's myriad schemes, from cozy beast dens scratched out from the dirt to the adobe walls of the earth spiders. Even the grandest, the Earth Spirit Palace of the Komeiji family, sported stone halls and stained glass. Unlike the rest of Gensokyo earthy homes, Nazrin's hillside burrow resembled a buried English cottage, complete with an odd mix of whitewashed wainscoting and heavy timbers framing the walls. It was quite cozy, even if it was lined heavily with gilt.
She clamped a heavy hand on Chen's shoulder. The Doomkitten pulled her hand away from a bronze of a cat leaping into the air after a flying songbird. "Don't touch."
"What about them?" Chen pointed to Mamizou, who fussed over a shelf of signed first-edition novels. Behind her, Mokou primped and turned in front of a heavy glass case until the silver and turquoise earrings hung from her reflection's ears.
"Yukari expects more of us." As she spoke, Ran kept her head turned away from a stack of colorful coffee table books sporting exquisite Venetian masquerade gowns. Actually, Yukari would likely keep an appraising eye as she went about the room, not only for novelties, but for what could fall from a pile of knickknacks into a waiting portal. Ran would keep her servant to a higher standard. Desire had cost her master more trouble than it had been worth. Chen shouldn't have to learn that the hard way, but the Doomkitten went wherever she wanted?
"I don't have much for meat eaters. Shou rarely comes this way." Nazrin called from inside the walk-in pantry. The mouseling's voice pulled Ran away from her musing and the others from their treasures. "There's pickles and rice and a jug to wash them all down."
"That would be most gracious." Ran ignored the growl that rumbled from Mokou's stomach. "These days, we're more human than not."
"Speak for yourself, little pet," Mamizou muttered.
"Some ring-tails, no matter how hard they try, can't manage civilized-" Ran stopped and canted her head. At the highest edge of her regrettably human range of hearing a squeaked chatter called out from behind her. Chen's ears twitched as well. The smiling Doomkitten rolled on to her toes as her head pivoted throughout the room, looking for the sound.
"Mamizou, put that book back on the shelf." Nazrin emerged from the pantry with a stack of bowls in her hand and scowl on her face.
"How did you know?" The tanuki slid a faded hardcover onto a shelf.
"Who else would take a signed copy of Triplanetary instead of the illuminated Journey to the West?" Nazrin fussed over the table settings in the dining room.
Ran's ears perked up like Chen's. She'd have to take a closer look at the mouseling's library. Perhaps she'd find an illustrated Kushan copy of the Lotus Sutra, assuming Abbess Byakuren hadn't already claimed it.
Nazrin squeezed past the fox on her return to the pantry. "Don't anyone else get any ideas. I've got my eyes on you." She snapped her fingers.
From behind shelves, between books, and under chairs, they came, colored in steel, chestnut, and snow. An entire mischief of mice crawled into the light, crowding around Mokou while giving the beast youkai a wide berth. Most were field mice, barely worth a swallow in the lean times in the past when Ran stalked the forests on furry little paws. But two great beasts loomed over all the rodents. Giant mice, larger than the cats that haunted the grimmer sort of nursery rhymes and horror movies. No vixen would want to stumble blindly into these dire mice in a burrow, not unless she had grown her sixth tail.
Chen squealed, clasping her hands together as she rushed towards the larger of the two, a chocolate furred mouse the size of a small hound. Lesser ice scurried away as the Doomkitten scooped up the dire mouse into her arms. To Ran's abject horror, the mouse twisted out of Chen's hands, choosing instead to run up the giggling girl's arm. It settled around her neck like a stole. Ran steeled herself for the next conflict; whether or not Chen could get a pet.
Nazrin waddled out with a stone crock half her size. One glance at her guests and she cast her eyes to the sky. "Ringo, you would be friends with a cat." She glowered at her visitors and lifted the vat higher. "A little help here?"
Ran stepped forward, but Mokou beat her to Nazrin. The immortal grabbed the earthenware vat and inhaled deeply. She smile, hugged the crock tight against her chest, and hurried towards the table.
"Why are you here?" The mouseling planted her hands on her hips.
Ran licked her lips and drew in a breath, but another spoke before she could.
"Miss Mokou wants to get those treasures that the rabbit princess has," Chen said. One hand scratched at Ringo's ears. "But she needs help, so Miss Mamizou brought us here for a treasure hunter. Is that you?"
Ran's face burned crimson as her familiar spoke. When Mamizou elbowed her side and whispered, "Can't you keep any secrets?" the fox's cheeks grew incandescent.
"I don't see you trying to raise a kit," Ran hissed.
Nazrin laughed. "You could say that I'm the best there is." She pointed towards Ringo. "Let her down."
Pouting, Chen pulled the dire mouse away from her shoulders and set her down on the floor. She giggled, however, when Ringo sat up and pawed her leg. Chen knelt down to pet the mouse and Ringo leapt into her arms.
Nazrin rolled her eyes. "Five treasures, right? One for the boy, so that leaves four for me." She leveled a cold stare at Ran.
"The bowl is spoken for." Ran hid her own glare behind a well-practiced version of her master's enigmatic smile.
"That still leaves three. A fine collection, assuming that the fairy tales weren't exaggerating. I'll take them all."
"I can't speak for Mokou." Actually, Ran could have. Mokou only cared about her family's honor, not treasure, but Ran would not quickly set aside the Buddha's bowl.
Mamizou chuckled and idled against the wall. One finger caressed the spine of Triplanetary. "She gets only one. Maybe the rat robe for a rat."
Nazrin drew herself to her full height. "It's a treasure hunter's market right now. If you need my help, you'll pay my price." She looked over to where Mokou ladled a growing mound of pickles into a bowl. "Plus a vat of Tewi's finest pickles to replace what she's taking."
"You don't know where to start looking."
"I have my ways." Nazrin reached out and patted a pair of metal dowsing rods set against the pantry's door frame.
Mamizou barked out a laugh. "I can cut a Y-shaped branch and get the same results. Ran, she's not even worth the price of the pickles. Tell me, does Byakuren know just how much in alms she'd raise if she sold everything in this burrow?"
Nazrin bent over in laughter, clutching her sides. "She views my talent as a blessing from the bodhisattvas. Besides, the avatara has the jeweled pagoda." The treasure of the Myouren temple could create gems at will. Not that the temple needed it; Avatara Toramaru gathered treasures around her by her own grace, often without realizing it.
Ran glanced over at Chen and her new friend and smiled. "One, and I won't give you to Chen for a familiar."
The Doomkitten's ears perked up. "You really mean it?"
"No!" Ran and Nazrin called out in unison.
"Forget it." Mamizou waved and walked towards the table. "I'm sure we could get the avatara for cheaper. Maybe even for a case of beer."
"Fine," Nazrin sighed. "One is better than three shares of nothing. But not the cowrie shell. I have no need for its magic."
"I was thinking the jewel," Mokou said as she walked over, carrying the bowl of pickles in one hand and chopsticks in the other. "But know this; I will see Kaguya married if that jewel is all we find. My family's honor will be satisfied."
"What would I get if there's only one treasure?"
"Borrow the pagoda for a day for all I care. You'd get more that way, if riches are all you care about." Mokou paused for a moment, her lips curling into a moue as she thought. "Speaking of the pagoda, why are you hiding out here instead of living at the temple?"
"You don't know what it's like to live at the temple. At least here I don't have to listen to Shou chant her new mantra..." As the mouse prattled on, Ran's smile matched Mamizou's, faked, while Mokou ate. Only Chen sat enraptured by the mouse girl's gossip, accompanied by Ringo, her new mouse friend.
Chapter 3: Thursday's Child
Thursday's child is dressed up with no place to go...
Mamizou rounded the last corner of the mountain trail to the Moriya Shrine Cable Car terminal. Nestled in the foothills of Youkai Mountain, a small hamlet had grown around the station where kappa and tengu stores hawked the latest goods, meals, and sacrificial offerings to travelers making the pilgrimage to the Moriya Shrine. The hamlet even had a combination saloon and hostel, the first of its kind in Gensokyo. The tanuki found it odd that the crossroads resembled an American West boomtown from the movies, complete with danmaku showdowns in the middle of the street, since most in Gensokyo hadn't heard of the Wild West.
She looked over her shoulder, her raccoon ears twitching as she looked behind her. Mamizou smiled and slipped a leaf barrette into her hair. Instantly, the tanuki turned human. She hated hiding her tail, but she had worn human guise the first time she had met Kosuzu, and had maintained it throughout her dealings with the Motoori family. The hamlet was not a place for a young girl, but Kosuzu had been given the full run of Gensokyo, protected by threat of retribution and the full fury of Reimu, Marisa, and Mamizou. Lately, the bookseller had found time every day to carry a homemade lunch to her brother, filling his ear with the praise of Mamizou's virtue while he ate. Fortunately, the village girl stomped through the wilderness with all the subtlety of an oni.
As Mamizou strolled through the hamlet's sole street, she noticed feathered veils flying from the clutch of buildings. At first, the worldly tanuki thought they were festival decorations, but the wooden storefronts had none of the bustle found during the Moriya holy days. But the storefront shutters clenched tight against the windows, as though the town waited for a shootout. Despite herself, the tanuki cast a look over her shoulder.
Stopping in front of the general store, she reached out for the nearest veil. It vanished, pulled inside the building faster than Aya chasing a scoop. Mamizou blinked and watched the storefront's facade. A minute later, a veil pushed its way out a window. Mamizou pursed her lips and studied the feathery shawl. Hadn't she read about something similar in some tengu upstart's broadsheet?
She pushed her way inside the store. A gaggle of fair-haired Celestial maidens swimming in lace, ruffles, and ribbons flocked to the storefront windows, giggling as they peered through the blinds. Heaven's girls looked up from the window and eyed the disguised tanuki before returning to their vigil.
A hand clamped down hard on Mamizou's shoulder. "You'd best move on out of here. Either up the mountain or down it. I don't care which." Mamizou looked over her shoulder and glowered. Tenshi Hinanawi, Heaven's sole dark-haired maiden, smiled back and twirled a keystone on the tip of her finger. The Celestial's eyes lit up. "You fought in the religious tournament. Please, do me a favor and resist."
"You sure you want to do this?" Mamizou's mind flashed to the storefront she had seen moments earlier. There had been five veils flying but only four Celestials huddled against the windows. Unlike the others, Tenshi had forgone lace for a seamless diaphanous dress that left only one mystery about her: whether a man would kiss her ruby lips before a woman slapped them. "It's hard to catch a man looking like a cinder girl."
Tenshi let go of Mamizou, threw the keystone into the air, and caught it. Red crept through the Celestial's porcelain cheeks. "You're not welcome here, beast." The throng of interchangeable blondes in the window fell silent and stared.
Mamizou bit back a snarl. Most beings couldn't see through tanuki magic, but there were no secrets from Celestials. Some beasts loved that someone could tell what they were thinking; Mamizou just wanted her secrets to remain so. "Another time, then." She left the store, carefully thinking about nothing. Celestials weren't known to be mind readers, but until the caper was over, she wasn't going to take the chance.
She strolled down the main street, past the teahouse, the skyway terminal, and the score of husband-hunting veils flying in the wind. Mamizou stopped in front of the last building on the dirt road, a two-storey wooden building from another time and another place, even if few western saloons were decorated with an eye that seemed to follow her every step. She shook her head and pushed through the swinging saloon doors.
It wasn't a large saloon, just a bar, a half-dozen round tables, and a stairway to the hostel rooms. A mob of kappa gadget girls swarmed around a card game at one table, while the elegant elder Tsukumo sister tuned her biwa on a stage barely worthy of the name. Behind the counter, a short woman with a coppery pixie cut wiped down a glass mug with a towel. Mamizou was impressed that the woman could move without disturbing the web of ribbon surrounding the red rose on her breast.
"Welcome to the Wandering Eye." The "rose" winked at her.
Mamizou's breath hissed as she inhaled. The bartender was a satori, and a well-to-do one, if the black velvet vest over a pearl silk shirt and ruby skirt was any indication. No mere carnival mind-reader could afford such finery, not in satori society.
The bartender held up her hand and waved the disguised tanuki over. "He's upstairs. Be warned; I don't allow any of that foolishness outside in here. If you're trying to get into the fairy tales, you'll just have to wait until he leaves. But then, your kind has fairy tales of their own." She smiled as Mamizou's eyes flashed towards the still swinging doors. "For those precious flowers outside, it's not about him, but about being the woman who can steal Princess Kaguya's suitor for herself. Take a seat."
Mamizou sat down at the gilded counter, carefully not thinking of Ran or Mokou or their fairy-hatched plan. She hated how satori just looked at her and answered her thoughts before she could finish thinking. They always answered the most embarrassing thoughts. But the bartender's third eye fluttered shut. "Sounds like a sucker's game to me." She flashed her fingers at the bartender.
The satori poured a pale ale from a wooden barrel's tap. "'Certainly, the game is rigged. Don't let that stop you; if you don't bet you can't win.'" She slid the mug across the polished counter.
Mamizou's eyes widened as she caught the beer. "Heinlein?" She knew she had the only copy of Time Enough for Love in Gensokyo wrapped tightly in her handbag.
The bartender nodded. "I first read the Master on my first travel Outside. I'm Nanami Komeiji, the white sheep of the family, and seventh in the succession." The copper-haired satori faded for a moment. She opened her third eye and snapped back into focus. "I don't grok it, but you're the only woman up here that doesn't want to play the game."
"Someone has to think of his happiness."
"Because it ensures yours. Enlightened self-interest."
"More like a win-win scenario." Mamizou sipped her mug and nodded. "This doesn't taste like Kirin or Asahi."
Nanami chuckled. "Homemade, using an American-style microbrewery kit. I got used to foreign beers on my travels, but got tired of them turning on the boat ride here whenever I order them."
The tanuki's eyes widened. Almost no one in Japan brewed beer except for big conglomerate companies. "Can I have another?"
Nanami set two mugs down in front of Mamizou. When the tanuki raised an eyebrow, the satori bartender said, "I think you'll enjoy these better over at that table." She pointed behind the tanuki.
Mamizou looked over her shoulder. The kappa mob and the Tsukumo performer shot frosted glances at her as Yori Motoori waved from his table. Mamizou scooped up her mugs and strutted her way over.
"As much as I appreciate the show, was that necessary?" he asked as Mamizou sat down.
"When you turn me down, it'll cause them to think." She nodded over her shoulder towards the kappa mob and slid a beer to Yori. "Might even get the mob to leave you alone."
Yori raised his glass. "And the musician?"
"You're on your own there. Might want to lock the door tonight..." She looked over at the stage.
"...loving you is just like breathin' in and breathin' out." Benben sang before she took exaggerated breaths designed to draw a man's eye to her heaving chest.
Mamizou rolled her eyes. "...or barricade it."
He rolled his eyes and drained the mug. "Is this one of Kosuzu's tricks to get us together?"
Mamizou winced. "Do you really think she'd plan something like this without spying on us?"
Yori laughed before wetting his throat. "Not at all. So why are you really here?"
Mamizou sighed and leaned closer to Yori. "I have a line on Kaguya's treasures."
Yori sat up. "Did Kaguya send you?"
Mamizou stared down her nose at him. "Do you really think Kaguya would just give you her treasures?"
"I had hoped." Yori slumped in his seat and gulped his beer. "After all, if a lady's into a guy, she'll make any excuse to be with him. And if she's not, she'll make any excuse to stay away."
Mamizou's eyes narrowed. That didn't sound like the innocent Yori she had led around at the Lunar Festival. Either the girls had been keeping him busy or he had the ear of someone more experienced in courtship. She looked over his shoulder. Benben licked her lips and fluttered her eyes towards the one man in the room. Probably both. "You haven't been looking, have you?"
" Kaguya's hidden them somewhere. She'll give them to me or she won't. If she doesn't, I'll have to marry another. But before that happens, maybe the treasures will just turn up." He smiled at Mamizou hopefully. "In the meantime, I'm working on my journeyman studies with kappa and tengu broadsheet printers. I can further my trade and hear every single rumor about the treasures at the same time."
"What type of rumors?"
Yori shrugged. "I know every place not to look."
Mamizou sipped her beer and pursed her lips. She'd have to see if Nanami would sell her some bottles on the way out. "I got a different sort of rumor for you."
"I've heard that before." His eyes flickered towards the musician on stage.
"Fine, I got my information from Mokou. She saw them the night that Kaguya gave you her requests. The treasures are in her private chambers."
Yori waved two fingers toward Nanami. "That sounds more likely than what others have said. But it's not like I can get them myself."
"You're probably right. Mokou said that her idiot father and his idiot rivals kept idiotically trying to sneak into that idiot's bed. That's almost a word for word quote, by the way."
Yori stared into the dregs of his empty beer, pursing his lips as various thoughts played across his face. It wasn't until after Nanami swapped the empty mug for one filled with her choice reserve that he finally looked up. "Please don't tell me that I suddenly have fairy godmothers."
Mamizou laughed at the thought of Mokou with wings. "Give me some credit. We're more competent that that." Of course, that was damning herself with faint praise; she was desperate enough to take orders from a fox. "Let's just say I represent a private interest that's willing to help."
"What's it going to cost me."
"Marry Kaguya. Nothing more."
"Assuming this isn't too good to be true, Fairy Godmother, how long will this take?"
"I'd stay up here for a week. Try to avoid the cupcakes until then." Mamizou nodded towards the kappa mob. "By that time, I should have good news."
"Alright." Yori stood up. "Try to look crestfallen. The mob looks like they're getting over their shyness." As he walked away, Mamizou pouted and sniffled. Looking lovelorn was easy, all she had to do was act like a fox.
The Bamboo Forest of the Lost stretched out in all directions in a diffuse maze of poles that looked identical no matter where Ran looked. Yet Mokou led her through it with unerring purpose, even if it seemed like the forest guide dragged her around in circles every time that the underbrush rustled.
"Another gathering party." Mokou crouched low to the ground and pointed towards a flash of pink. The rabbits of Eternity Manor gathered bamboo for food, medicines, and timber for sale throughout Gensokyo. Working parties combed through the culms daily.
Ran's ears twitched; although there was visible movement ahead, she could hear rustling behind her. "How many are there?" She cast a look over her shoulder. The view hadn't changed, except for one darker shadow.
Mokou scowled at the vixen and covered her lips with a finger. Backing away from the rabbits, she stepped around the thicker piles of underbrush. Ran sighed as her guide led her through yet another set of circles indistinguishable from the last. Eventually, Mokou's wanderings ended at a thicket at the edge of Eternity Manor's courtyard.
She pulled off her cap and stuffed it into her robes. Crouching low against the ground, she pulled herself under the dense shrubs. The vixen would have preferred to slink around the manor in her natural fox form, but even a nine-tailed fox would be hard pressed to survive if the warren found her.
"You didn't need to go quite that far." Mokou knelt nearby, peering through the leaves into the courtyard. "The forest had many secrets. Some, I've put here on purpose." Her hands swept around a small canopy in the thicket.
Ran's glare could chill an ice fairy. "Why didn't you stop me?"
"You looked like you were having fun." Mokou held up an open hand. "Quiet."
Out in the courtyard, in the center of a churning mass of pink dresses and white lop ears, Kaguya walked though the paths of her manor. Chatting with the nearest of the rabbit girls, a tall mini-lop in a Lunarian blazer, the princess always seemed to have time to scoop up a bunny girl in a hug. A swirling line formed as the warren gathered, each waiting with outstretched arms for her turn.
Ran's tails swished through the bush while Mokou stoically watched the heartwarming spectacle. Only Ran's animal ears could pick up the immortal's sighs and whimpers. "How long does she do this?" the vixen asked.
"Most of the day. Whenever she's not sleeping."
"Does she ever leave the manor?"
"Sometimes. Mostly to kill me back after I get her. She's cautious now, though. I taught her to be." Pride dripped from Mokou's voice.
For a moment, Ran's eyes grew distant as she grappled with numbers, probabilities, and equations. Decision trees and flowcharts unfurled in her mind, growing and pruning away while figures and matrices cascaded past. Ran's fingers played with her neckline, brushing against a braided gold necklace looped through the signet rings of Clan Yakumo and House Saigyounji. Her hand grabbed the rings, worn only when the vixen served as an emissary for either house, and the solution set collapsed down to a single answer.
It was an idea worthy of Yukari herself; oblique, with a touch of whimsy. Not that Ran would ever share the idea with her master. At best, the sorceress would shut down the entire heist. At worst, she'd insist on running it.
Ran shook her head and set that thought away. She'd have more time to fan the ember of her idea when her turn at the watch had ended. "Let's hope that Kaguya has fallen behind on her lessons." Shimmying into the dirt, Ran settled in for the long watch.
As the forest shadows grew long, the bare earth beneath Ran stole away heat, leaving only a growing chill in her bones. Even so, the vixen had willed herself motionless over the course of her watch. To her surprise, Mokou had done the same. The courtier's daughter never flinched or fidgeted, even when the walking-stick bug had crawled across her arm while the bunny girls had harvested the nearby culms. The hothead had a core of cold iron discipline.
As the afternoon air cooled to match Ran's skin, Mokou leaned over and tapped the vixen's shoulder. "We can relax now."
Ran eased herself into a sitting position and frowned. "What makes it safe?" Muscles and joints screamed as she forced them to move.
"Teatime, I guess." Mokou met Ran's scowl and flustered. "All I know is that every day at this time, everyone stops what they're doing to head inside. Whatever they do sure smells good, though." The rumbling of Mokou's stomach was louder than her voice.
"You ever try to find out?" Ran winced as she forced herself to her feet. A numb prickling worked its way up from her toes into her legs. The fox clung to Mokou's shoulder while she worked feeling into her limbs.
"It's not like I get invited to anything at the manor."
"Can't the two of you set aside your baggage?"
"I think we're trying to, in our own bloody way. But as long as my family's honor lies between us, I won't be able to. Not completely." Mokou led Ran step by ginger step out of the thicket and deeper into the forest.
"What will happen between the two of you after this?"
But Mokou spoke no more as she guided Ran through the eerie sameness that dominated the forest. To Ran's eye, shadows followed their every move.
Nazrin met them at the forest's edge. She held up three wicker baskets, one in each and a third balanced precariously on her tail. Mokou reached for the closest one, but the mouseling pulled it away. "This one's for me." The mouseling turned, and with her tail, dropped another basket into Mokou's hands.
"Where's Mamizou?" Ran asked.
The mouseling's sudden smile set the fox's teeth on edge. "I told her not to come."
Ran's hackles rose. "Why-"
"I don't care who pulls the watch, just as long as someone watches the manor," Mokou growled. Her hands struggled with a metal thermos.
Nazrin chuckled and took the thermos. "Funny you should say that." The air filled with the scent of hot chocolate and she passed a steaming cup to Mokou.
"I have to deal with enough guessing games from my master; I'm not going to tolerate them here." Ran's tails bristled and lashed from side to side.
"You going to be alright in there by yourself?" Mokou sipped the cup and smiled before she drained it. "It always helps to have an extra set of eyes."
"How about a hundred extra?" Nazrin knelt down and flipped open the baskets. Roiling waves of mice hopped out, flowing away from the baskets like spilled water before vanishing into the undergrowth. "Any one of my friends can get into places we can't, and they gossip just as much as those rabbits. With a hundred, I can draw you a detailed map of that manor in a day. Give me more time, and they might just find our treasures for me. So do you still hate surprises?" Nazrin flashed a toothy smile at Ran.
"Not if they make our lives easier." Mokou finally figured out the secret of the thermos. The immortal drained another cup. A pleasant flush settled on her cheeks.
Ran sighed and the bristling fur on her tails settled. "At least this one's pleasant, even if I should have known about it sooner."
"Good." Nazrin scooped up the baskets with her tail and rubbed her hands. "Now we can get to proper plotting over a proper meal, just as the gods intended. Hope you like catfish and pumpkin tempura; Mamizou should have it ready by now."
Sitting at a letter desk beneath the shadow of the love goddess's statue, Ran dripped wax from a candle onto the backs of two envelopes. She pressed a signet ring into one red pool until the picture of a fox under a fluffy cloud set firm in the wa. The Saigyounji cherry tree emblem marked the other. Spinning around on her stood, she shouted, "Chen."
The Doomkitten, in feline form, leaped from a tall hutch onto the top of the desk. Her twin tails thrashed through the neat stacks of stationary. Ran snapped her fingers and the black cat dropped to the mosaic floor before taking her human form. Chen bristled and glared at her master. "What do you want?"
Ran bit her tongue and counted to one thousand. "I need you to take these to the Wandering Eye." She held up the sealed letters.
"You don't even talk to me all day and then you want this? Give them to the crows." Yukari kept a murder of crows for various errands.
"I can't, not since someone taught them to dive bomb fairies."
A corner of Chen's mouth turned upwards. "You never let me do the fun stuff."
"If you don't do this, there won't be any fun stuff."
"So you're finally letting me into your secret club?"
"I don't see why I should do it then." With one word from Ran, Chen wouldn't have a choice. The Doomkitten knew it, too.
Some days Ran wished she had listened to Yukari's advice and taken a dog for a familiar. "Because this is important and if I can't do it myself, I don't know who I'd trust more." If Yuyuko's interests were truly involved, the vixen would have chosen Youmu instead. But the exaggeration should sate the Doomkitten's pride. "Important isn't the same as fun."
Chen reached out and plucked the envelopes from Ran's hand. "So when will we add a cat to the clan emblem?"
Ran hoped that she'd find the legendary numerological equation that magically made dealing with cats bearable "You can wake Yukari and ask."
"Forget it." The catgirl prowled away, tucking the letters under her cap. "The Wandering Eye, right?"
An image of Chen clutching a bottle and caterwauling her way through drinking songs flashed through Ran's mind. "Hurry back when you're done."
"Perhaps," Chen called over her shoulder.
"And no peeking!"
Eirin Yagokoro stood in front of a full length mirror and turned to her side. She looked her reflection up and down before pivoting to examine her other side. As she spun, she said a simple phrase, "The quick brown fox," in clipped staccato tones. The doctor repeated it constantly, modulating the phrase into a booming drawl before settling on an alto Yamanashi accent with grace notes of Occitan.
She stopped her twirl and faced the mirror, rubbing her throat. The Lunarian scowled at the stars on her dress and shook her head. The constellation Vulpecula, the Little Fox, graced her breast instead of vain Cassiopeia. Both sets of stars resembled the Latin letter M, but Vulpecula was flattened compared to the more vibrant Cassiopeia.
Ran appeared at her side. "You do realize I'm better at this than you."
Eirin reached up, tilted her cap, and shook her hair. A slender leaf floated away and Ran appeared in the Lunarian's place. "Really? Last I counted, I have nine tails, not seven." She craned her neck over her shoulder. "Yep, still nine. Tell me why I should take shifting lessons from a tanuki?"
The doppelganger shifted into Mamizou. "Your tails were showing."
Ran's face burned read and she clamped her hands over the back of her skirt. She spun around, looking over her shoulder for the briefest flash of gold.
Mamizou laughed as she slipped out of the room.
Ran stepped back from the grim faces huddled around Nazrin's dining table. Her hand swept up a high stemmed wineglass and she wetted her lips with the bitter white grape wine. Outside the dining room, Chen's squeals as she played with the overwhelmed the certain mutterings that sour-faced tanuki made.
Mamizou shook her head, stopping only to slide her glasses higher onto the bridge of her nose. "How like a computer."
Mokou leaned back against her chair. "I didn't see anything wrong with the plan." Her glass of wine remained untouched.
Nazrin rapped her fingers against the tabletop. "Of course not. You see the world in straight lines, not curves and angles." Her hand slid across the table, drawing out her words as she spoke.
The phoenix girl crossed her arms and pouted. "It's still better than what I could have done."
"It doesn't need to be better, it needs to be perfect."
"Plans only stay perfect until the shrinemaiden arrives." Ran sat down in her seat, shifting until her tails were no longer pinched against the wood. "So, what can be improved?"
"Style. Artistry. Flair." Mamizou flashed a maddening cryptic tanuki smile at her rival. "Didn't you watch any of the Moriya Shrine's movies?"
Ran made a moue of distaste, amplified by another sip of her wine. The Moriya shrine seemed to show nothing but stale melodramatic romances heavy on maid and butler dialogue and lovestruck maids in general. "I'm sorry that we're not dressing up like housecleaners so we can ransack the manor."
Mamizou slapped her thigh and laughed. "That right there would be a better idea."
Mokou scooted away from the table. "I draw the line at ruffles." She huffed as her flower crown fell over her eyes.
"The plan's too direct. Kaguya expects direct, thanks to her." Nazrin's grey tail pointed towards Mokou.
"What would you suggest?" Ran asked.
"Well, if your boss won't spirit the lockbox away-" Ran shook her head. Nazrin shrugged and tapped a drawing of Reisen. "Tie her up."
Mamizou raised an eye and lowered her voice into a husky brogue. "Does the Abbess know you're into that?" Despite herself, Ran collapsed into a fit of giggles.
The mouseling grew scarlet as she waited for the laughter to die down. "In her clinic, I mean. If she's too busy at her clinic, she won't stop be the manor while we're there. And if we present her with a vexing enough problem, like an unknown illness, we might be lucky enough to draw Eirin and Tewi from the manor." She looked at Mamizou. "Just like that butterfly-"
Ran froze. "I am not asking Yuyuko for help." She forced each word through bared teeth.
"I was thinking of someone closer to home." Nazrin's tail flicked towards the door. Chen had eased it open just enough for the Doomkitten to poke her head through. Ringo sat on the familiar's head. Both shrieked before they vanished, slamming the door shut in front of them.
"No, no, no. A thousand times no!" Ran slapped her hands against the tabletop.
"Slow down there, foxy." Mamizou stood and held up her hands. "We're just brainstorming."
"I'm not." Nazrin shrugged and sipped her wine. "We need more misdirection."
Mokou's eyes grew steely. "Will that help me get what I want?"
"If it works."
"Get the kitten." Mokou stood up and strode towards the door.
Wreathed by a halo of bristling tails, Ran sputtered, glowering at the inevitable. She had spent considerable effort keeping Chen on the straight and narrow, a task complicated by the capricious whims of their sorcerous master. The vixen rushed in front of Mokou and howled like the wind.
The daughter of Japan's mightiest courtier family planted her fists against her hips, weathering the fox's protests like a stone wall. She spoke in short demands, aided by Mamizou's occasional bursts of logic. Nazrin, however, picked up a thick hardcover book and read.
The wind howled at the stone wall, swirling and coiling, gathering its power for another blow while the wall answered with unmoving will. Through the tumult, Mamizou spoke common sense between the snarls. Slowly, the wind's howls wound down into pleadings and then into whispers until Ran glowered and wiped her eyes. Sighing, she stepped aside and slumped against the wall.
Mokou at least had the good grace not to smile. She pulled the door open. "She finally said yes."
An orange blur burst into the room and collided with Mokou, knocking the immortal back a pace. "Thank you," the Doomkitten repeated, nuzzling her cheek against Mokou's midsection.
The chancellor's daughter froze, her lips drawn back in a pained smile. Chen looked up and beamed at the immortal. Despite herself, Mokou began scratching the Doomkitten's ears. "I told you that she'd come around." Her lips eased into a true smile as Chen purred.
Ran shook her head and muttered under her breath. The Doomkitten played on the phoenix girl's emotions more deftly than a Prismriver on her instrument. "If anything happens, it's your fault." She tried to stare down Mokou, but the immortal was lost in the Doomkitten's joy.
A book slammed closed. "Are we ready to plan again?" Nazrin asked, dropping the hardcover onto the table. "Or should I get the sequel?"
"I don't see why I need to do this." Mokou crossed her arms and spun away from Ran. A bundle of damp straw rested at her feet.
"I need to know for my calculations." The vixen dashed around and stuck her nose in Mokou's face. One hand pointed to the straw.
Mokou rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers. A spellcard appeared in her hand and she flung the glowing paper on to the bundle. The straw smoldered and belched puffs of black smoke. She snapped her fingers again and orange flame flared into a tall pillar. Ran stepped back to ensure than her fur would not get singed. One final snap of the immortal's fingers, and clear blue flame engulfed the pile, shriveling straw into ash before the breeze bore both ash and flame away.
"Any questions?" Mokou flashed a wolfish grin.
Ran matched her stare, holding her gaze firm. "Can you do that again? And this time, far slower?"
At the edge of the Bamboo Forest, Mamizou, Mokou, and Nazrin sat on a picnic blanket, gossiping as they ate bowls of rice and vegetables. A basket pinned down each of the blanket's four corners.
"Did you see Ran last night?" Nazrin said. The mouseling leaned in close enough that the pungently fowl fish sauces that she ladled onto her vegetables between bites made Mamizou's eyes water.
Mokou giggled. "Never mind that. Did you see Yukari?"
Mamizou bit back a guffaw and wiped her eyes. The tanuki wished that she had a camera so she could relive the haughty fox's shame.
The night before, Ran had grilled everyone again and again until every one of the little band of thieves knew their part of the heist by rote. Not just parts, each had to recite plan, contingencies, options, and emergencies. Chen had fared the worst, but over time Ran had badgered her familiar until the little Doomkitten could rattle off her responsibilities with the best of them.
Then a door had squealed open. A young woman, hardly a day over seventeen, had walked in. It had taken Mamizou a full minute to recognize the bleary-eyed and coltish teenager in pajamas as the normally glamorous and stately Yukari. Some women relied on makeup to blur the line between youth and beauty; Yukari leaned hard upon her sorcery to turn youthful charms into mature glamour.
Ran had frozen, her cheeks blanching as her mouth had worked silently. But instead of stern words, Yukari had greeted her by stumbling over and sweeping up her familiar like a pampered pet about to be carried off towards a night's sleep. The cherry red fox had vanished in her master's arms, keening in embarrassment.
The three women laughed together in rolling fits. As the mirth died down, one of them, usually Mokou, made a face, renewing the laughter once again. Finally the giggling died away as each woman basked in the glow of joy.
"How much longer do we have to wait?" Mamizou asked.
"It takes time for the signal to spread." Nazrin squeezed more of the nauseating fish sauce on her rice. Her ear twitched and she turned toward the forest. "Not long, though."
Mamizou scowled while the mouseling's tail reached over to a basket and flicked it open. It wasn't often that the tanuki caught a case of tail envy and almost never for a scrawny one like Nazrin's.
The wind shifted, carrying the thick musk of mouse out of the forest. It was only thick to a beast's senses; Mokou didn't notice it over the funk of Nazrin's food. Yet underneath it all, Mamizou swore she had caught notes of wet dog.
The forest erupted in a cacophony of shrill squeaks unnoticed by the silly human woman with the flower crown. Nazrin smiled and her tail flicked out once more, knocking open another basket.
A carpet of mice scurried from the forest chattering as they ran into the light. Mokou shrieked and held her bowl high into the air, but the rodents dashed towards the baskets instead of her food. One basket filled, then the second, leaving a dozen field mice clawing at the one nearest Mamizou. The tanuki flipped the basket's lid and the mice darted inside. Mamizou glanced over at Nazrin, half expecting to see the mouseling piping a tune.
"I thought you only brought two baskets full last time." Mokou shoveled the last of her bowl into her mouth.
"I can't help it if I make friends wherever I go." Nazrin shifted in her seat, preening. "And now, thanks to my friends, I can tell you that the strongbox isn't in the storehouses."
Mokou snorted and rose to her feet. "I could have told you that." She lifted one squirming basket.
"You knew where Kaguya had it a week ago." Mamizou hoisted another basket. "A lot can happen in a week."
Nazrin balled the blanket in her hands and shoved it into the last mouse-free basket. "I'll need some time to talk to them to see what else I can learn." She sighed and dragged her baskets down the road towards Mayohiga. "Do me a favor, though. Keep Chen far away until I'm done."
Mokou Fujiwara passed beneath the Hakurei Shrine's torii gate. Bottles clinked as a cloth bag swayed in her hand.
In front of the wooden shrine, a maiden in red and white swept the stone walkway. Reimu Hakurei looked up at her visitor, noticed the bag in her hand, and frowned. "I'm not helping you this time."
Mokou walked past the shrinemaiden without a word.
Reimu's eyes widened. "I mean it. Last time-" She shuddered and covered her chest with her arms.
A stream of copper and nickel coins drizzled into the shrine's donation box. "That's fine. I want this to be private." Underneath the shrine's awning, Mokou set two bottles of sake alongside a pair of wide serving bowls onto the patio and sat down on her knees. For once, the wild child composed herself with the full dignity expected from a daughter of a courtier family.
"Fine by me. You can have your fill of the old goat." Reimu hurried away and locked herself inside the neighboring storehouse.
Mokou smiled, poured two cups of sake, and waited in the morning breeze.
Glass clinked, and the wind no longer played on her skin. "I wish that you would set aside your rivalry," a man said. His words reverberated with wisdom and power. "My clan has grown into five. Emperors marry my granddaughters. Any disgrace caused by that debutante's refusal to marry my son has long been swallowed by glory."
Mokou smiled and threw her arms around the neck of a man in statesman's robes. "Grandpa!"
Lord Kamatari Fujiwara, the deified founder of the clan bearing his name, wrapped his arms around his granddaughter. He held Mokou by her shoulders and looked her up and down. "It's been too long. You look well. The flowers are a nice touch."
Mokou beamed and played with the flower crown in her hair. "Gensokyo has been good to me." She scooped up a serving bowl and held it out in front of her.
The god took the sake from her. "Enough to leave old grudges in the past?"
"Almost. I have stopped killing her." Mokou blushed and looked away.
"What would it take to put this feud behind you?"
Lord Fujiwara sipped his sake. "You were always a stickler for honor, more so than the most rigid of warriors. You can't force others to act like you."
Mokou met the god's eyes. "She's promised to wed again. I will make sure she keeps her promise. After that, honor will be fulfilled."
"And then what?" Lord Kamatari poured himself another drink. "Will you write again, 'Lady Murasaki'?"
Mokou grew as red as her pants and shifted in her seat. "Sei Shonagon goaded me into that."
"I can find a Satori nearby that would help motivate you."
"Kaguyahime must wed first." Mokou looked at her wristwatch and sighed. "Grandfather, may I have your blessing?"
Lord Kamatari smiled. "You always have."
Mokou gave her grandfather a quick hug and stood up. "I must go. If this works out, I promise to abandon my vendetta."
"I will keep you to that promise. In the mean time, if that shrinemaiden from last time is still around, could you send her in? They didn't make them like her back in my day." Leering, he cupped his free hand and squeezed. Divinity had yet to quench some appetites.
"I think she might pass on the honor, Grandpa." Mokou laughed and bowed.
"Pity. Go with grace, granddaughter. May you find freedom from your oaths."
Mokou smiled, bowed, and walked away. As she crossed the torii gate, she turned around to wave. Instead, she laughed as her grandfather blew a kiss toward the storehouse's window.
Inside her chambers, Kaguya clung to the akari shoji lacquered paper shutters, one eye peering through the slit separating the panels. Outside, a clutch of bunny girls gossiped and pounded short-grained mochigame rice into sweet cakes. A lop-eared inaba visiting from the moon looked up, pointed towards the manor, and whispered to her neighbor. With a loud clack, Kaguya slid the shutters closed and dropped to the floor.
As her cheeks matched her dress, the moon princess reached up and eased the panels apart. Before Kaguya had secreted herself away from Earth and Moon, a platoon of suitors crowded around her window panting for a glimpse of her silhouette. Now, only the inaba came to her chambers and then only to finish chores.
"Where is he?" Her one suitor should have tried to sneak into her bed by now. Her earlier ones had, including Mokou's father. She had thrown them all out, just like she would Yori if he tried. In a way, the attention had been flattering; after all, none of the other princesses of the realm had to worry about midnight gentleman callers. These days, however, the men of Gensokyo chased a schoolteacher and a mere child priestess from the Outside instead of refined beauty.
"At least Yorihime at her worst could bear to leave her room." Eirin stood over her liegewoman with her arms folded under her breasts.
Kaguya scooted away from the window, her face matching the darkest pink of her skirt. "I am not like my cousin."
"You're right. She married her suitor."
The immortal princess stood up and planted her fists against her hips. "You're the last person I'd expect to badger me about marriage."
The moon sage and avowed spinster shook her head. "If I was that type, I would have marched you to the altar myself during your little dalliance with Vice-Chancellor Fujiwara. He would have your best match, better than your printer's son." She sighed. "It's a shame that Shotoku turned out to be a princess instead of a prince."
"I turned down an emperor to fulfill my filial duties." Kaguya harsh glare was as cold as the lunar seas. "As you well know, 'Grandmother.'"
Eirin smiled and her gaze went distant. It had been no accident that a kindly elderly couple had found Kaguya after her fall from the moon, even if Grandfather and Grandmother had slept in different rooms. "How long are you going to pretend? Before she got married, the only time Yorihime had been angrier than in the presence of her husband was when she wasn't."
"I'm not my cousin. How many times do I have to say it."
"Until I believe it. You've always managed to navigate the currents of society without getting swept off of your feet, so we've never had some of the conversations that I've had with Yorihime and Toyohime."
"And just how many more times have you been married than I have? What makes you think you have anything to teach me?"
Kaguya flinched as Eirin threw back her head and laughed. "Let me know when you're ready for those talks. Here's a quick one, though. I wouldn't spend too much longer in your chambers trying to make up your mind. You might lose the boy. Or is that what you want?"
The princess bristled, crushing her skirt with her hands. "Leave me." She used Eirin's Lunarian name, which no human could hear or pronounce.
The sage of the moon curtsied. "Don't think that you're fooling me. I see the rabbits as they scurry about."
A real lady of noble virtue didn't chase her retainer out of her room with thrown pillows, no matter how satisfying the act might be. Kaguya sighed and eyed the fusuma door as it slid shut. Kneeling in the refined seiza position, she sat on her heels, smoothed her skirts into a wide circle around her, and waited.
Many of the girls in the Village fretted over a flower between visits from their beloved. While Kaguya could see the appeal, it gave the hands something to do while the mind spun, she didn't need schoolgirl magic to discern her suitor's dedication. He ventured through Gensokyo on her hopeless errands, after all. Granted, Yori should have been camped outside her window, mooning over her in the hopes of a smile or a laugh. The rich and powerful had all waited outside her house, save for the emperor. The handful who had sent themselves out on her quests never returned, taken by calamity and death. Even then, they had departed in a flurry of flowers, poems and promises. Yori had left her at the festival with nothing more than a simple country assurance and the confidence of youth.
So small compared to the other treasures, it would be child's play to slip the dragon's jewel into the young man's pack as he walked by.
Kaguya basked in the warmth of the conceit, buoyed by pleasant dreams of a young man with broad shoulders who could call down the sun, moon, and stars. An idle fantasy to be certain; not even Chang'e and her consort together could change what had been spoken into the firmament of the heavens. But pleasant dreams turned sour as she remembered a wooden casket slipping into a tomb, its head pointed to the west, towards the Pure Lands. Kaguya had forgotten his real name, the fairy tales called him Lord Isonokami, but he had fallen from a bird's nest never to awake again.
With a speed that would have been the envy of the Konpaku clan, Kaguya lunged forward, placed her hands against the paper and wood shutters, and peered through the crack. The inaba warren in the courtyard had grown. Pairs of lop-eared girls pounded heavy mallets into wooden crucible barrels. Instead of the traditional songs to the Lord of the Moon, a different work song was on the lips of the girlish inaba:
"If you talk about your baby,
You tell me he's so fine.
Lord, honey, I might sneak up
And try to make him mine..."
The moon princess bit back a harsh laugh. If Yori settled for a mere inaba child, she'd be better off without him. But if Yukari or Yuyuko made a pass, he wouldn't be settling quite so much.
Kaguya's hands burst through the paper of the shutters. She sighed while the inaba warren laughed. They redoubled their chants, this time about some girl Jodie who had her man. The princess stepped away from the window. She'd have the long-eared inaba patch the shutter. That would keep one potential rival out of sight-
"Your man's still holed up at the Wandering Eye."
The little inaba landlord swung head first from the ceiling and dropped to the floor in a flash of pink.
"He's not mine."
"Oh? Should I stop checking up on him then? That might be a relief to a youkai singer who has an eye on him."
"She's not going to try to eat him?" Kaguya's heart raced. Even though Reimu and Marisa had all but eradicated youkai predation of humans, a few still clung to the old ways.
"I think she has other ideas for when she got him alone." Tewi flounced across the room, rolling her hips. She spun around in mid-flounce and looked up at Kaguya. "Although she might not get that chance."
The princess's eyes narrowed as she followed the trickster's cavort through her room. "What do you mean?"
"That tanuki girl was there. You know, the one whose disguise fools no one. The kappa cupcakes, the satori princesses, Heaven's little angels, even the youkai dames, he won't give them a glance. But she gets more than a second look. I've never seen him share a round of drinks with any other woman."
The princess fixed a gentle smile on her lips and tuned out the chattering inaba. Most of the local men placed the women from the Outside on a pedestal of worldly sophistication. The tanuki woman revealed their charming naivet?. One only had to glance at Sanae and Mamizou together to see which woman had true sophistication, yet even the tanuki would have been seen as just a provincial bumpkin at the Court of the Moon, where, until her expulsion, Kaguya had been its delight.
Tewi's words cut through her daydream. "His little sister favors her, too."
Kaguya shuddered. The precocious little bookseller reminded her of another young girl with short hair almost fifteen centuries prior, down to the prickly hostility. Her lips twisted into a moue of disgust. The last thing Kaguya needed was a second Mokou.
Tewi's eyes brightened as she counted on her fingers. "Oh, and Nanami told me that her saloon has been getting reservations from other women. Quite a crowd's gathering around your beau. Kasen, Komachi, Yukari?"
Kaguya's skin crawled at the names. Lesser beauties to be certain, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to drag Yori to his proper place outside her window. Yet she recognized the inaba landlord's pregnant pause. "Who else?"
Even an apostate Lunarian exile would hiss at the dead woman's name. Death was pollution to Kaguya's people, an impure poison to be avoided at all costs. To make things worse, the cheerful courtesan ruled over a land of the dead. Some called it paradise, but it might as well be Hell to the long-lived people of the moon. Lips that touched Yuyuko would never touch Kaguya's.
Finally, Yuyuko collected lovers like a magpie. An invitation to "go back to her place" tended to be permanent with her power over death. Not only would Yori be defiled by her touch, he'd be taken beyond Kaguya's reach if Yuyuko gave him her full favor. Forever.
And then Mokou would have a little sister-in-arms?
"How long would it take to go to the Wandering Eye?" Kaguya ignored Tewi's growing smile.
"About three hours. Less on horseback. Should I tell Yukimi to get one ready?"
Kaguya grimaced and opened her armoire. She'd send the entire race of horses to the knackers if she could; the capricious beasts loved to kick, bite, and trample a Lunarian if they could. Yet the fragile mounts loved the inaba. She searched through the shelves and pulled out a simple white robe. "That won't be necessary. I have something else in mind."
Chapter 4: Friday's Child
...Friday's child and Saturday, out there running wild...
Gossip normally flew through Gensokyo on great black wings; now tiny mouse feet bore it through the fields. Princess Kaguya had left her manor. The word travelled through walls of bamboo, past fields of ripened grain, and across hills of scarlet flowers before reaching the ear of the Mouse Queen in her cozy underhill palace.
Nazrin giggled as Ringo's whiskers tickled her ears. She slipped the dire mouse a slice of apple after Ringo finished squeaking. The chocolate mouse settled around Nazrin's shoulders like a stole. "She's gone."
The room came to a halt. Ran looked up from a tablet of sutras that looked just as mathematical as they did sacred and Mamizou, from an illustrated codex called Awake in the Night Land. Mokou and the Doomkitten's game of cat's cradle ended in a tangle of knots and fingers. Thanks to Mokou's boasts and Ran's tales of the False Moon Night, everyone knew who Nazrin meant. Compared to Kaguya, Eirin and Tewi were mere vexing problems.
"Alone?" Mokou untangled her fingers from the snarl of yarn and rushed over to Nazrin.
Ringo dipped her head and sneezed. Nazrin reached up and scratched between the dire mouse's ears. "She said yes."
All eyes turned to Ran. The fox maiden flipped over her tablet and scrawled a series of numbers in chalk. Pursing her lips, she studied the numbers as though they were cast oracle bones. "'Be in readiness for favorable winds.'" She mulled over the wisdom of the Chinese proverb while the others crowded tight around her. With a toothy animal smile, the vixen said, "Let's go."
Kaguya couldn't help but grow hungry as she walked along the road to Youkai Mountain. Roasted wheat and farro filled the morning air. The farmers were threshing the still green stalks with flame, imbuing the kernels with a smoky flavor not normally found in the udon noodles ubiquitous throughout Gensokyo. She'd already directed the ever present inaba attendants to buy up as much of the grain as the manor could afford. Even Eirin would appreciate the larder full of the delicacy.
And it made it easier for Kaguya to disguise herself as a Village girl without her inaba minders. No makeup would fool anyone into thinking that she was innocent Tamaki from the Village, even with the blue robes favored there, if the inaba attended her every whim.
She had wanted to make this journey dressed like a man, just like the traveling princesses in the fairy tales. But those girls somehow managed to charm their princes without breasts or hips. No matter how Kaguya had tried, she couldn't hide her nature. Flesh could yield, but only so much, and bone not at all. Even the fairest bishounen pretty boy looked like a paragon of masculinity compared to her. Instead, she had settled on another tale, that of the disguised king walking through his demesne unrecognized by his people. Although 'Tamaki' drew eyes wherever she went, no one had recognized the moon princess, and that was all that mattered.
Eventually, the roasted grain fragrance faded and the fields gave way to brush, forest, and hills. Kaguya resolved to walk the trail again. The fields of drying farro and wheat awaiting harvest were beautiful, and the people went out of their way to help a new girl from the Village. To Kaguya's delight, not all her helpers were starry-eyed youth hoping that the beautiful Tamaki might linger a moment longer. She wondered if the farmers treat her any different if they knew her identity.
White and green flashed between the trees. Kaguya slipped off of the trail and hugged a sturdy oak. Peering into the trees, she held her breath. Sunlight glinted brightly, alerting Kaguya to the liveried swordswoman surrounded by mist as she flowed through her forms. The hidden princess bit back a snarl.
Normally, Youmu Konpaku would be a welcome companion for a pilgrimage or a day's hike. The ghostly girl was pleasant company since Kaguya had forgiven her for their duel underneath the false moon. Unfortunately, Youmu was Yuyuko's retainer, so Kaguya longed to seize the petite girl by her collar and sweat Yuyuko's designs on Yori out from the fairy-like ghost. But Tamaki wouldn't accost a fellow traveler, no matter how much Kaguya wished to. She'd just probably catch Youmu's sword in her gut anyway. It wouldn't kill Kaguya, but it'd burn for days and force her into her bed until she healed or Mokou took advantage of her weakness. Meanwhile, Yori would be at Yuyuko's mercy.
Kaguya dusted off her robe and padded away through the trees like she did whenever she stalked Mokou. She breathed a sigh of relief as she reached the first switchback of the mountain trail. On the second, her smile faded as her calves and thighs burned with each steep step. By the fifth, Kaguya wished that she had picked up a walking stick in the forest. But when she shuffled up the final turn, she smiled and made her way to a rock bench. Kaguya smiled as she flopped down onto the seat. Eirin would have scolded her, but Tamaki cared little for the silly rules of fashion. For one of the few times in Kaguya's life, neither did she.
She pulled out a small compact and scowled into the mirror. Kaaguya brushed sweated salt from her cheeks and grimaced. She knew she should have just gone up to the Moriya shrine, cleaned off the road dust, and then taken the sky car down to the saloon. There was no way she could see Yori in her unkempt state.
"I haven't seen you around here." A cobalt-haired beauty in a white blouse and blue dress strode towards her. Some might have been charmed by her porcelain features. Kaguya though the woman might be the only female in Gensokyo who could successfully disguise herself as a man.
The princess snapped the compact shut and rose to her feet. "My name is Tamaki-"
The woman shook her head. "I know who you really are, Princess."
"How did you-?"
"'Nothing is hidden except to be revealed, and nothing concealed except to come to light.'" She folded her arms and smirked at Kaguya. "You can't keep secrets from a Celestial. The name's Tenshi. You'll have cause to remember it."
"What do you want?"
Tenshi drew closer, grinning as she held the princess's eye and tried to make her yield. "It should be obvious."
Two could play that game. "You can't have him," Kaguya said, inches away from the Celestial's face.
"Last time I checked, he's not yours until after the wedding night." The Celestial's smile grew wider and more feral. "Assuming any man can bring himself to bed a crazy rabbit lady."
"You would dare fight me for him?" By the way Tenshi's hands clenched, the princess knew this duel would be without spellcards. Kaguya couldn't help but chuckle. Silly Celestial, maidens never won men's hearts by acting like men.
"Very much so." The cobalt doll licked her lips, spun around, and hiked her nose in the air. "Alas, there's just one rule around here. Don't cause the shrine maidens to intervene. So I won't be planting your face into the mud in front of Yori, more's the pity."
"I'm surprised that you would handicap yourself, little stick figure."
"My dowry is Heaven itself for eternity. What do you have that compares?" The Celestial called over her shoulder as she strutted away.
Kaguya bit back a snarl and shuffled off in pursuit of water, a brush, and a decent mirror.
Trailing behind Mokou as the forest guide barreled through the Forest of the Lost, Mamizou cursed all humans between gulped breaths. The phoenix girl had set off towards Eternity Manor in a strange staggered shuffle that chewed up ground, even as she dodged the whipstaff branches and iron poles of the bamboo grove. Only a human would make the long run from Muenzuka to Eternity Manor, and, worse still, the crazy immortal loved every moment.
"Let's stop." The tanuki hunched over, clutching her knees as she sucked down great lungfuls of air.
Mokou shuffled to a stop. "You had a break a half-hour ago." Her hands slid up a green-grey culm.
"I'm not built for this," Mamizou said. One on one, humans couldn't match the strength of beasts and youkai; likewise few creatures could match humanity's endurance. "How much farther?"
Mokou smirked. "This isn't the right spot."
"You said that a half hour ago." Mamizou looked at the green poles scattered in front of her. "It's all wood. What's the difference?"
"This is still living bamboo." Mokou stepped from culm to culm, scowling. "I want to find a grove that's dead, even if it doesn't know it yet."
"A tree is a tree is a tree." The burning in Mamizou's lungs died down and she straightened up. "You do realize that everyone is waiting on you?"
Mokou stalked off, fortunately not in a run. Her hand trailed against the culms as she passed them by. Heaving a sigh, Mamizou shuffled after her.
The forest closed in around them as green poles thickened into brown walls. Mokou pursed her lips, knelt, and brushed the soil away from the base of the bamboo wall. She pointed to a set of grey splotches that ran throughout the full length and height of the grove. "In six years, this fungus will finish toppling everything around us. However, there will now be new growth here by the end of summer." She wiped the dirt from her hands and stood up. Squaring off against Mamizou, the immortal rolled her shoulders and stretched her arms high overhead. "Shall we begin?"
Mamizou gasped as ephemeral scarlet wings unfolded around Mokou. With a flick of the phoenix girl's wrist, a glowing spellcard appeared in her hand. After a quick flourish, she threw the spellcard at Mamizou's chest.
"Mount Fuji Volcano."
The world around Mamizou ended in fire.
In another forest thicket far downwind from Mamizou, Ran's nose twitched at the first hint of ash in the air. She looked up through the leafy bamboo canopy. The wind bore a thickening plume of steel-grey smoke towards the clouds.
"I'm surprised she hasn't burned the entire forest down." Nazrin tied a white kerchief over her nose and mouth. Picking up her dowsing rods, she pointed to where Ringo chattered impatiently ahead of her. The dire mouse turned on her heels and bounded further into the grove. "Then again, she just got started."
Ran rolled her eyes. Mokou was fiercely focused on her goals, downright obsessive even, but never carelessly destructive. But Ran had checked with Sanae just in case. The Moriya priestess had a knack with wind and weather. High winds weren't expected in Gensokyo for a week; the proper sacrifice to Kanako had assured it.
Mokou had made the sacrifice herself, as well as ones to her grandfather, the deified Lord Kamatari Fujiwara, and the teraph Suwako, among others. As the only Shintoist, she was the only one of the group who would, even if no one else in the group recognized Laverna or the Crooked Warden as among the eight million gods. No one complained; it didn't hurt to ask for blessings and success. Ran had hedged her own bets by meditating with a prayer wheel in her hand, even though she felt awkward praying out of a desire that she normally strove to eliminate. Either sacrifice or prayer must have worked; Kaguya was no longer in her manor. Now Ran only had to worry about two crafty women who could rival her master, an unsupervised Doomkitten caterwauling through the Human Village, and where Kaguya had hid her treasures.
The vixen wished that she had brought her prayer wheel along.
Numbers welled up unbidden in Ran's mind, each representing a variable in a plan. She sighed and pushed them away, humming an annoying tune that the Doomkitten had brought home from the Moriya shrine. It was too late to change; they were committed to the plan and Ran needed to keep her mind clear and ready to deal with the unexpected. She had to trust that the others would do the same.
The fox cast a look behind her towards the Human Village. Her lips twisted into a moue of concern.
"Hey, are you going to do your part in this mess?" Ran spun around. Nazrin and Ringo reflected each other's impatience, complete with matching frowns, crossed arms and tapping feet. "I'm not keeping you around just for the heavy lifting."
Ran smirked and touched the leaf hidden under her cap. Her form shimmered in a burst of foxfire until she was a white eared mini-lop youkai no taller than Nazrin. "A good thing too, for death would await you with nasty big pointy teeth." The new made rabbit pointed to her teeth.
"Will you keep out of my movies?" Nazrin snapped her fingers and Ringo bounded through the forest once more.
Ran smiled enigmatically as they plunged deeper into the bamboo grove.
Mamizou backpedaled away from twin gouts of flame, bellowing as the heat licked at her skin. Her arms flailed about, flinging dense danmaku grapeshot from her claws. The fires swept away from her, trailing rising tendrils of smoke. Mokou stood impassive in the center of the growing inferno, wreathed in the glow of scarlet wings.
The tanuki's hand grabbed a spellcard. "Playtime's Over," Mamizou howled. Her features shifted into the spitting image of Lady Miko Toyosatomimi as she grew in stature.
Before the spellcard consumed itself in incandescence and sent Lady Toyosatomimi's visage bursting through the forest's smoke and leaf canopy, Mokou vanished, leaving only a scarlet aura of spreading hawk wings. The immaterial wings dove at Mamizou, passing through fire and bamboo. The aura surrounded her, flaring brighter as it seized Mamizou as firmly and inescapable as a mother tanuki holding her kit by the scruff of her neck.
"We have no time for this." Mokou's voice whispered in Mamizou's mind as an unbidden thought.
Magical safeguards embedded within the spellcard's glyphs blew; venting sparks and shot behind Mamizou. She shrank to her normal size as the magic drained from her spellcard, although she continued to wear Lady Toyosatomini's form.
"We must hurry. The summer was dry. If we lose control of the fire, the entire grove and the fields around it will go up in flames." Mokou's voice waivered at the end. The wings faded and the grip holding Mamizou in place released. The phoenix girl appeared suddenly, staggering away from the tanuki. Clutching her head, Mokou spun around before dragging a bucket through the dirt. She upended the bucket over a pile of burning underbrush. "Stir that."
Mamizou stripped a thick branch from a nearby bamboo culm and stirred the remaining embers into the earth. "Couldn't you have picked another distraction? Something that can't kill us all?"
Mokou showered another fire with earth. "The fire will help the forest in the long run as long as we can contain it. Besides, a forest fire is about the only way to get a gaggle of rabbits to work together. Herding cats is easier." She pulled a heavy sheath knife from her belt and hacked into a burning culm. "Speaking about that, you might want to transform now before you forget."
"How about I don't tell you how to fight fires if you don't tell me how to scheme?" Despite her words, Mamizou shifted into the pink dress and white ears of an Eternity Manor rabbit.
"Only if I can turn crow reporters into yakitori." The urgency of Mokou's actions belied the ease in her voice. She snapped her fingers, showering sparks into wet leaves. Within moments, the first wisps of smoke reached skyward towards the crescent moon high in the sky.
High above the streets of the Human Village, the Doomkitten padded her way through the shadows as she searched for her prey. It sounded cooler that way, like she was in one of those thin paperbacks of Auntie Yukari's. Ran always blushed whenever she tried to throw them out. The Doomkitten never understood why, but then she always skimmed past the kissing parts. She did like they were full of secret meetings at night behind closed doors, though.
Compared to those novels, the Human Village didn't have much in the way of shadows, hiding places, or closed doors; the Doomkitten had mastered lock picking when she was younger. At least it had rooftops to hide on, providing a kitten was fleet enough of foot to keep from sending shingle chattering to the street below. The more cautious kittens stayed in cat form whenever prowling the roofs, but the Doomkitten never bothered to transform. The silly humans below never looked up, not even the ones drinking tea in the rooftop cafe. She hoped the rabbits would be smarter. The Doomkitten craved anything that would break the boredom of waiting.
She looked at the watch on her wrist. She shouldn't have to wait for long. Ringo said that the bunnygirls always walked through the Village around this time of day. Actually, Miss Nazrin said it for her, since Ringo could only squeak. But she had never been wrong as long as the Doomkitten had known her. The little mouse would make an excellent familiar-
The Doomkitten's tails stood on end and she pulled herself over the slight peak in the tiled roof. Out in the middle of the busy (for the Village) street, two white ears cut through the crowd like sails through the seas. The crowd parted before the tall bunnygirl and the smaller rabbit at her side. At least the girl in the pink dress checked the windows and roofs while she walked.
A feral grin lit up the Doomkitten's face. She eased away from the rooftop's peak, scampered across the brick tile to the awning, flipped over the gutter, and slid down the drainage pipe head first. The ground rushed towards her, but she kicked out from the wall into a front handspring. Bouncing to a stop, she spun around and pressed herself against the alley wall.
One hand swept across her belt and tapped a pouch. The Doomkitten's tools were safe. Auntie Yukari had once warned her about relying on props, but the little odds and ends inside the pouch would add to her scheme instead of being her scheme.
Holding her breath, the Doomkitten waited for her prey to walk by. She resisted the urge to peak around the corner. All that did was attract attention. She had learned that the hard way, trying to eavesdrop on Ran and Auntie Yukari any number of times. Instead, the Doomkitten eased further away from the corner and froze.
The two bunnygirls strolled past the alleyway, giggling about their princess's silliness. For all the short one's care, she did not look into the alley as she passed. The Doomkitten's smile faded for an instant. The chase just wasn't fun if there wasn't a chance to get caught. They disappeared around the corner.
Counting to five, the Doomkitten filled her lungs and pounced. Leaping out into the middle of the street, she dropped to a knee as a loud crack resounded through the street. A pregnant pause later, and the Doomkitten belted out a forlorn yowl so piteous that husbands searched for their wives, mothers ran for their children, and mice everywhere squeaked a triumphant toast to their eight million rodent gods. She fell onto her side and clutched her leg.
Immediately, the long haired bunny spun around. Her red eyes grew wide and she hopped towards the fallen Doomkitten. "Get a stretcher!"
The short one took one look at the mewling catgirl and rolled her eyes. Yet she trotted towards the clinic.
For the next few moments, the tall bunny, Reisen, fussed over the Doomkitten in the same way that Ran fussed over every scrape and bruise. Eventually, the nurse straightened out her legs and splinted them together with cravats from her nurse's kit. The Doomkitten couldn't help but eye the medical kit; vanilla, mint, rabbit tobacco, and catnip filled the air whenever Reisen opened it. At least the Doomkitten remembered to squeal and shriek accordingly, even if her wracking sobs were really silent peals of laughter.
Finally, the little bunny, Tewi, came back carrying a bundle of poles wrapped in a cloth net. With a series of swift strong kicks that brought a shiver to the Doomkitten's spine, Tewi opened the stretcher and locked it into place.
As the bunnygirls carried the Doomkitten away, her hand fell limp from the stretcher and dropped two halves of a broken stick onto the road below.
Ran would be so proud of her.
A second fire burned in the Bamboo Forest of the Lost, at the very edge of Eternity Manor. If the bunnygirls caught up in their alarums had the presence of mind, they might have noticed a pale blue shimmer, transparent as the hottest gas flame, in the copse by the princess's chambers. Possibly. Most wisps of foxfire could only be seen at night.
With her pet perched on her head, Nazrin spun carefully within her foxfire wreath and watched the tip of the Y-shaped witch hazel branch in her hands. Occasionally, the point jumped whenever it swept past the princess's room.
Ran would have been more impressed if Ringo's tail didn't have a tendency to poke Nazrin in the eye right before the dowsing rod bucked. "You're making me dizzy," she said. The foxfire burned in a circle around her. The illusion magic in the flames concealed all who hid within it.
"I'd be done quicker if you would let me use my normal rods." Nazrin nodded toward the twin steel dowsing rods on her back. Ringo scampered for her balance and settled down.
"My foxfire only reaches so for." Ran's eyes never left the courtyard. "And it only lasts so long."
Nazrin slipped the witch hazel into the basket dangling from her tail. "I'm done."
Ran rolled her eyes. "You found the lockbox?"
"No. I've got to get closer. Wood has little affinity for iron."
"You've bragged that that mind is more important than materials."
"It keeps the competition away. Besides, we know that the treasures are in Kaguya's room. Ringo says so." Nazrin reached up and scratched the mouse behind her ears. "Isn't that right?"
Ran ignored the mouseling's coos. Out in the courtyard, a large clutch of the warren gathered like bees in a swirl of frenetic spontaneity. Although no one visibly corralled the bunnygirls, a striking amout of buckets and tools spread through the group. Occasionally, pairs left for the billowing tower of smoke that dwarfed the forest.
The vixen wished she could sniff out what was happening. Her foxfire shrouded too many of her sense as it burned, leaving her too close to human for her tastes.
"You do know I have a meeting with another client after this." Nazrin folded her arms and glared at Ran.
"Another day won't hurt Patchouli," Ran said. Of all of Gensokyo's worst kept secrets, Patchouli's efforts to reclaim her books had to top the list. Marisa had kept some of the librarian's books for months and neither witch was shy about the cat and mouse game played over them. Yukari had taken to calling the librarian the Dove, after a Christian saint. Ran had been amused until she had learned that the Church Dove had started a war over a disputed book.
Ran held up her hand and leaned forward on her tiptoes. The foxfire tickled her nose, but she bit back a sneeze. Out in the courtyard, the rabbits stopped their Brownian dance, pivoted towards the wildfire smoke, and stampeded. Each member of the warren ran as fast as her overburdened legs could take her, but an already disorganized mob grew even more so as stragglers fell behind.
It was a predator's paradise. Had Ran been brought up on rabbit chops as a kit, she'd had licked her lips. However, her mother had raised her like a proper fox should, on poultry and fowl.
The last rabbit shuffled into the opposite tree line, wheeling a barrel in front of her. Ran waited ten heartbeats and dropped her foxfire shroud.
"Finally." Nazrin darted forward.
Ran tugged at the mouseling's wrist. "Not yet." She nodded out towards the courtyard. Her free hand brushed against a broad leaf on her belt.
"All this caution's going to get you caught some day." Two sets of mouse eyes glared at the vixen.
"Would be a change for once." Ran had followed Yukari's audacity into a trap on the moon, complete with rope bonds while one of Kaguya's crazier sisters gloated over them both. The vixen's nose twitched. The same otherworldly tang that permeated the moon wafted by.
Out in the courtyard, a door grated shut. Four bunnygirls ran out of the manor and chased after their sisters.
"Don't even think about saying 'I told you so,'" Nazrin hissed. The mouseling fiddled with her iron rods. Ringo dropped to the ground, looked up at the two beast youkai, and squeaked.
Ran sighed as the lunar fragrance faded away. It had been nothing more than a memory. An annoying memory, one she would have rather had stayed forgotten, but she had collected worse in her years of servitude. Tapping the leaf at her side, she transformed into the lunar sage. "Shall me make an end of this?" she said in Eirin's strange mix of Japanese and French.
Drifting in by ones and twos, a grim platoon of bunnygirls set sand, water, and hatchet against the spreading blaze. Some dragged debris away from the flame while others smothered the fire with buckets. Still others hacked away the dying culms in the hopes of building a firebreak.
The chaos overwhelmed Mamizou. She had expected to match wits against a subtle Lunarian sage, not conscripted by a warren of prey. Whenever the disguised tanuki pulled away from a bucket brigade, another bunnygirl would drag her into the next work party. She kept an eye out for Eirin's tell-tale blue and red dress, but only rabbit youkai came from Eternity Manor.
Mokou, on the other hand, flourished in the wildfire's glow and the ashen haze. She threw herself again and again at the hottest parts of the blaze. Rabbits scurried behind her, leaping in obedience to her bellowed orders as though she was the true rabbit princess of Gensokyo. No one seemed to notice the sparks flying in her wake.
Mamizou shook her head and gripped the wooden stalk in front of her. Short bunnygirl arms just didn't have the leverage to pull a toppled bamboo tree out of its neighbors' branches, even with a half-dozen of the warren lending their strength.
One snowy white bunnygirl hauled herself hand over hand up a nearby pole until she vanished in the leafy canopy overhead. With a yell, she stomped hard on the stuck culm. Mamizou and the other bunnygirls hopped away as it bucked in their hands. Snowy kicked again. Wood splinted and the stalk fell free.
Another team of pink-clad rabbit youkai rushed in and sectioned the trunk with hatchets. The disguised tanuki slipped away before she joined the work team pulling the now manageable portions from the firebreak. Leaning against sturdy bamboo, she looked into the sky. Stormcrows circled around the pillar of smoke and cawed to their rivals:
"This is my scoop. Go get your own."
Mamizou smiled, raised a canteen to her lips, and sipped. Amid the soot, ash, and heat, there were few pleasures. Even as she savored every quenching drop, the tanuki kept an eye on the bustle in the widened clearing between the fire and the forest.
True to Mokou's word, the bunnygirls of Eternity Manor poured out of the courtyard to save their home. Not even kappa worked as hard. But "bad luck" kept the winds shifting whenever the youkai made headway against the wildfire.
Mokou hid her hand in that matter well.
Mamizou capped her canteen and closed her eyes. At least that part of Ran's plan worked out. There was still no sight of Eirin, even though Ran had calculated that the sage would rush to the wildfire in every scenario imagined by the group. Mamizou never agreed with her, but this wouldn't be the first time that a fox tripped herself up in her own cleverness. If her own pelt wasn't on the line, she would have stood back and watched as Ran sent herself off to the furrier's. And if Eirin wasn't lured away from Eternity Manor, the sage would skin and scalp the entire team.
Well, maybe not the Doomkitten. Cats always managed to purr their way out of trouble.
Sighing, the tanuki sidled away from the firebreak on what she hoped were lucky rabbit's feet.
No matter wherever Kaguya went on Earth, she could not escape the cloying scent of the wisteria flower. Vials of the wretched perfume lined the sink of the portable washroom that some bright-eyed but mercenary kappa merchant had dragged up to the bustling boomtown hamlet. She couldn't even blame the perfume on kappa frugality; the black-haired kappa had stocked the washroom with cherry, peach, and rose fragrances, but none remained. Even the raw salacious fragrance of the prickly pear cactus, only worn by the most shamelessly forward, had sold out, leaving Kaguya with the flower that had hounded her since she first stepped foot on Earth.
She picked up a vial that was little more than a glass capillary filled with fragrant oil and sighed. Kaguya knew she should have been grateful for the chance to freshen up prior to seeing Yori, but that usurious kappa mobster had shaken her down until her teeth rattled. Tamaki, Kaguya's assumed identity, had blanched at the price for the last chance to primp and preen prior to the Wandering Eye and the Great Marriage Sweepstakes. Not that she had much of a choice after walking three hours in the sun and the smoke. Covered in road dust, Kaguya had taken her place among the line of Yori's suitors and waited for her turn.
Kaguya slipped the vial behind her ear, cupped cold water onto her face from the washroom sink, and rubbed the last of the road dust away. The chill soothed her skin. The hidden princess prayed that her cheeks weren't flushed with the raw red of sunburn. She toweled herself dry with the fluffiest towel she had ever felt. That kappa mobster might have charged top prices, but she delivered on the expense.
After running a turtle-shell comb through her hair, she retrieved the perfume from behind her ear. Casting a glance behind her, she snapped the thin tube between her fingers and thumb. Oil beaded from the broken ends, flooding the washroom with a sweet mix of the accursed flower and soap. She had better not run into Mokou at all while she wore the wild child's clan scent. But Kaguya hadn't seen Mokou, not since she had made that strange pronouncement on the night of the lunar festival. The princess dabbed the oil drops behind her ears and on her wrists.
The door rattled open. "You might want to hurry up. The kappa girl outside is talking about charging you double." Kaguya jumped at the cheery contralto's voice and dropped the glass from her hand. A coppery satori woman in velvet walked into the washroom and latched the door behind her. "Kappa can be so cute when their eyes are full of yen signs, Princess Kaguyahime."
Kaguya groaned and knelt down. Raking her fingers across the cheap linoleum, she picked up the glass fragments. "Does everyone know I'm here?"
"It's hard to keep a secret in this town." The satori ran her fingers along the outside of her third eye.
"I remember you, Lady Nanami," Kaguya said. The copper peregrine had been one of the few to pierce the shroud that had hid Eternity Manor from the Outside world in the years before the False Moon Night. Unlike the others, she had just wanted to see what was beyond the next turn. It had been a soothing respite to talk to a guest without getting murdered, kidnapped, or pushed into marriage.
Nanami waved a lace-fingered hand. "This isn't the Palace of the Earth Spirits. Just Nanami is fine. And as far as those outside know, I'm here to run off another girl with delusions of fairy-tale romance. However, I should thank you for the recent windfall in my business-"
"He shouldn't even be here to begin with." Wide eyed, Kaguya covered her mouth with her hands and stood up.
Nanami smiled. "Of course not. Not out here with the vultures."
"Or that Tenshi," the princess muttered.
"At least she's more sincere than most of the girls out here. That circus outside's not really about the boy. A month ago, most of them wouldn't have even acknowledged his existence." The satori pursed her lips. "Well, except for Tenshi and the other Celestials. To them, a merchant's son is a meal ticket, however, not a love match."
Kaguya frowned. "If I wanted a lecture-"
"Time's up." The door rattled and then shuddered as something heavy beat against it. Kaguya rolled her eyes and pitched the towel into a linen hamper. The beating on the door grew more insistent. "Thirty seconds or five-thousand yen, your choice."
Nanami opened the door. Holding out her hand, a smiling kappa with her hair in a bob cut shouldered a wrench as tall as she was. Kaguya dropped a handful of coins into the mobster's hand as she walked by, hopefully enough to cover the perfume and the towel. Since she didn't find the kappa's wrench in her ribs, it must have been enough.
"We're heading to the same place." Nanami ignored Kaguya's scowl and led her down the hamlet's street. "We should hurry; Kasen will be worried."
Kaguya blinked in surprise. "You left an ascetic hermit in charge of your saloon?"
"She's the only one there that I can trust not to walk out with my beer or my customers."
Kaguya laughed despite herself. "Why did you really come out to meet me?"
"I have my reasons."
"I thought you said there were no secrets here."
"That's true, unless I'm the keeper." Nanami quailed under Kaguya's glare. "I have a bit of a soft spot for the boy. Stop looking at me like that; I don't want him, nor would I wish Her Royal Bookwormishness, my niece, on him. But none of the girls that stop by are really thinking of him. He's just a prize or a pawn in their games."
"You're lecturing again."
Nanami chuckled as they reached the saloon. "It's an occupational hazard. I've had to console a lot of distraught young women lately."
"Just tell them 'he's just not into you.' That should save you time." Kaguya pushed the saloon doors open and walked in to a boisterous crowd of women. The rambunctious saloon froze. All eyes turned toward Kaguya, and then, as Benben choked the last twangs from her biwa, the eyes of at least a dozen red-faced kappa, youkai, and humans flickered towards a corner of the serving room.
Behind a cascade of lustrous blue hair, Tenshi had seized both sides of Yori's collar. Pressing him against the wall, she rocked up onto her toes and kissed him. She opened a red eye long enough to stare down Kaguya. The Celestial smiled hungrily, closed her eyes, and deepened her kiss.
Chapter 5: Saturday's Child
...Frightened by each Saturday, so long since you've smiled...
A veil of red fell like scales from Kaguya's eyes. She found herself sitting in the now vacant Wandering Eye, surrounded by overturned tables and chairs. A galaxy of yellow star danmaku smoldered in the wood and the walls, filling the room with just enough incense to mix with the aroma of spilled beer. Yet underneath the cloying scents, a layer of musk lingered.
The last upright barstool toppled over with a clatter. Kasen Ibaraki strong-armed Tenshi through the swinging doors. Kaguya rose to speed the tawdry stick figure on her way with catcalls, but an iron bar clamped around her stomach pinned her in her seat. She turned around and flushed. Her comfortable chair was actually Yori's lap. He smiled at her with ruby-stained lips, a reflection of the stick figure's, and the gorge rose in Kaguya's throat. Her hand reared back-
Another caught it and squeezed. Kaguya looked back into Nanami's stern eye. The petite satori might have been the size on an inaba, but her strength was equal to Yori's. "Let's not do anything else you might have cause to regret." Her third eye stared down the princess. "Next time you demolish my bar, do a better job so I can claim the insurance."
Kaguya shook her arm free and shifted in her seat. Yori's arms wrapped tighter around her. One look back at him, and she saw red, ruby-red, and squirmed out of his embrace.
Nanami rolled her eyes and threw a beer soaked cloth at Yori. "I told you to clean up." She mimed scrubbing her lips.
Yori flustered and turned away, smearing the damp cloth against his lips. Kaguya relented and remained on his lap, facing him.
Lightning pulses of pink, green, and blue flashed through the window, followed by the ringing twang of like a metal string snapping under tension. Kaguya hid a grin behind her sleeve as Kasen walked back inside. The ascetic hermit brushed soot from her bandaged arm. So much for the stick figure.
Kaguya's eyes flickered towards Yori, smoldering through long lashes. He dabbed at the corner of his mouth and the last of Tenshi's lipstick vanished. Jealousy rekindled in the eternal sinner's heart. "You kissed her."
Yori covered his wince with a maddening smile. "Yet you're here with me and not her." He reached out and brushed an errant strand of hair from Kaguya's shoulder.
"How many other of the girls here have you kissed?" Kaguya's voice could have frosted the drying puddles of liquor.
Yori toyed with a lock of Kaguya's hair between his fingers. "Does Kosuzu count? Mother always forced us to kiss and make up after a fight."
"You know what I mean."
He shrugged. "None."
"You don't really expect me to believe that." Kaguya planted her hands against his chest and pushed away. "Not with the kappa and the other girls here." She clapped a hand over her mouth after Yori raised an eyebrow.
"It wasn't for lack of trying on their part." He turned and called over his shoulder. "Miss Nanami, how many times did you catch Benben trying to sneak into my room?"
The satori knelt by a toppled table and grabbed its edge. "Six." She cocked an ear towards the stairs. "Soon to be seven." The ceiling rumbled as someone ran through the upstairs hall. Kasen sighed and marched up the staircase.
Kaguya pursed her lips into a moue as her eyes cut skyward. First the stick figure, now the sultry songstress; she could no long leave Yori alone. "That's not reassuring. I've heard stories-"
"So have I. I'd hate to be measured against them." Every boy wanted to be the prince and not to be measured against him.
Kaguya turned as pink as the cherry blossoms were that day when Mokou caught her kissing Vice-Chancellor Fujiwara back when she thought he was different from the fawning hordes. They all fawned over her in the end, like a goddess enshrined in a porcelain shintai icon, never noticing when or understanding why the woman walked away.
Glass clinked and shattered. Kaguya jumped and threw herself into Yori's arms. Shaking her head, Nanami tossed another broken mug into a burlap sack. "Y'all are cute and all, but I do have to clean up her mess." She stamped out a fizzling star with her foot.
"I'll help," Yori said. He tried to rise to his feet, sending Kaguya swaying in his lap until she clung to him.
"Stay with me," she breathed.
"This has been my home for the past few days." Yori slipped one arm around Kaguya's shoulder and the other beneath her knees. She bit back a squeal as he lifted her into a bridal carry. "I can't leave it like this." He set her down on his stool.
Kaguya sat as still as an artist's model, watching while Yori flipped the nearest table upright. Her heart pounded in her ears. If she had any doubts as to the strength of a merchant's son, they were banished, replaced by new ones about herself. Her charms had never failed before.
As Yori walked by she reached out and brushed her fingertips against his shoulder, simpering with just enough of the coquette to hale him away from his work. He just covered her hand with his, gave it a quick squeeze, and walked on by. Kaguya turned her head and glowered.
Nanami shook her head and chuckled as she swept past, pushing a growing pile of broken glass across the floor.
Whenever Yori turned around, Kaguya met him with an ever shifting array of husky smolder, coquettish pout, radiant beaming, and sad puppy dog eyes. His eyes tracked her every move, but he never stopped cleaning. Behind the welcoming mask, she fumed. From the rich to the powerful to even the most average of everymen, every other man she had met would have fawned over her by now, and she would have moved on to the next. However, a genuine smile spread across her lips as she warmed up to the challenge. But before she could unlimber her most devastating sly come-hither stare, Nanami shoved a list into Yori's hand and ushered him into the saloon's storeroom. Kaguya huffed and spent the delay preening in front of her compact.
Kasen drifted down the creaking steps and towards the bar. Fishing out a beer from the reach-in cooler, she raised the bottle to her ashen lips and drained it in one long pull. She set the bottle aside and made a beeline towards Kaguya.
"Did Nanami send you to get rid of me?" Kaguya's compact clicked shut.
"No, but I think you might want to leave all the same." Kasen grabbed Kaguya's shoulders with strength unexpected in an ascetic monk and spun her about. A single bandaged finger pointed out the window. A cloudy pillar rose over the Bamboo Forest of the Lost.
Kaguya had seen such pillars before, usually up close after she and Mokou had sated their rivalry with blood and fire. She had almost lost Eternity Manor to similar forest fires in the past. Any fire among the bamboo worried the princess. She stood up and started towards the doors, stopping in mid-stride to cast a glance towards the storeroom.
"He'll understand," Kasen whispered.
Kaguya sighed and slipped out the saloon doors. As soon as the princess reached the street, she hurried towards her imperiled home.
Ran tried not to gawk as she stepped inside Eternity Manor; Eirin would not be overtaken by the sight of her own home. Compared to most houses in Gensokyo, even the Hieda's manor, Kaguya's home was profligate with sheer open space. But where others would have sectioned off the expanse with furniture, the vast foyer was austere. Only a small heated kotatsu table covered by a quilt and a porcelain tea set broke the stark lines of tatami straw mats and fading paper and bamboo walls. The vixen smiled; the table had been placed off center so that no line of symmetry dividing the room could pass through it. Someone in the princess's household was a fan of the wabi-sabi aesthetic of transience and imperfection.
Nazrin poked her head around the sliding door. Her eyes lit up. "This would make an awesome storehouse. Do you think they'd sell it?"
"Philistine." Ran tugged on her disguised form's thick platinum braid.
"Would Your Grace kindly get out of the doorway?" Nazrin poled at the ersatz sage with a dowsing rod.
Ran glided away, keeping the Lunarian's stately poise. "I would have thought that you had known the proper customs and courtesies."
"Take it up with my boss." Nazrin's cheeks dimpled as she set Ringo down on a tatami mat. "You know, the tiger."
Ran wished she could roll her eyes. Petty annoyances were below Eirin's notice, so they must be for her. Minor annoyances got to play with Chen. She smiled and vowed to chant a sutra afterward to atone for her desires.
Ringo ran into the middle of the room, sat up on her hind legs, and sniffed the air. The chocolate dire mouse sneezed once before darting off towards one of an identical series of akari shoji sliding doors. She scratched at the wood trim and looked back at Nazrin.
"Just a moment." Nazrin gripped the L-shaped rods by the short arm and swung them around. Ran sidestepped away as one whipped by. But before the metal stopped, Nazrin shouldered the rods. She clicked her tongue and fished in a belt pouch as she walked towards Ringo. "Good girl."
The mouse reached up and took a chunk of carrot with her teeth from Nazrin's hand.
Ran reached past the mouseling and slid the door open. Instead of the storage room walled off by fusuma dividers commonly seen throughout Gensokyo, it opened up to a long corridor studded with akari shoji doors. Ringo choked down her carrot and bounded down the hall.
"After you, Your Grace." Nazrin swept an arm down the hall.
"Would you stop that?" Someone would find herself in the middle of a play date with the Doomkitten when this was over, complete with extra servings of sugar and catnip.
The floor chirped beneath Ran's feet. She grimaced and glided across the mat covered floor as lightly as possible, but the dry teak planks below the woven tatami straw sang with each step. Her mind spun, calculating probabilities that shrank after every protest beneath her feet. "A nightingale floor? Why weren't we told about this?"
Nazrin toed across the floor, jumping at every tone. Her eyes darted through the hall. "Mice aren't heavy enough to trigger it," the mouseling whispered.
"Let's fly-" A glimmer along a gossamer strand revealed a web of razor twine splayed across the ceiling. If Ran flew into that, only pieces would come out the other end. She remembered a certain hotheaded courtier's daughter and her boasts. "What have those two done to each other?"
Ringo stood up at the end of the hall and squeaked, long, shrill, and insistent.
"Well, this is the first time I've been scolded by a mouse," Ran said.
"You obviously haven't been paying attention." Nazrin pressed against a wall and sidestepped down the hall, keeping to the edge of the floor. The nightingale floor still sang, but in a muffled pianissimo.
As Ran passed by a series of storerooms, she considered searching them for catnip. She hummed another sutra and contemplated building another prayer wheel to work off the karma she was amassing with every criminal moment. Unlike Nazrin, the shrouded fox strolled down the middle of the hall, ignoring the chirps rising from under her feet.
"Shouldn't you try not to announce our presence with every step?" Nazrin said.
"This is my house. Why should I care?" Ran said in Eirin's Yamanashi-Occitan timbre.
Even the stairs cried out. Ran couldn't figure out how; there was a drawer under every step. Not that she would stop to check; according to the rumors and Mokou's own confession, she visited Eternity Manor too often for Kaguya not to have booby trapped everything. Part way up the staircase, Nazrin dowsed with her rods. To their relief, the metal pointed skyward.
Where the first floor had been a warren of closets hidden behind a cavernous foyer, the second was one colossal room. Ran hadn't seen its kind since Yukari's European Grand Tour stopped through the Doge's Palace in Venice. Unlike the spartan entryway below, this room was covered in rumpled futons, discarded pink dresses, and the assorted clutter that built up during an eternal slumber party. Fusuma panels had been thrown open, revealing the hidden storage closets built into the walls. Ran had seen similar messes in the Doomkitten's room.
Through a pair of open shutters, a column of smoke billowed skyward. She'd give the rabbit youkai the benefit of the doubt. They'd been given more pressing concerns.
Nazrin's dowsing rods urged them upward. Ran watched each step up the staircase; Ringo no longer ran ahead but stayed underfoot. The one time Ran took her eyes off the dire mouse, she stumbled and Nazrin tumbled into her.
The third and final floor was sectioned off into three rooms around a wide common area. Like the rest of the house, classic Japanese style dominated. Nazrin pointed towards the middle room, the largest of the three. Ran didn't need the dowsing mouse to know that Kaguya would have the largest for herself.
The vixen flushed with anticipation. The Bowl of the Enlightened One rested somewhere beyond that door. Even if it graced her hands for a moment, she would be the most fortunate of women. Ran stepped forward. By now, the singing floor no longer surprised her.
Nazrin tugged at Ran's starry red sleeve. "Did you hear that?"
Ran held her breath and willed herself to hear beyond the pounding of her heart in her ears. There was nothing but silence. Taking a single step-
Two peals of birdsong notes rang out, one an echo of her own. "Is that you?"
"We'll have to hurry." The echoes were hushed. One of the bunnygirls must have left something downstairs. If not, they'd find out just how good Ran's Eirin impression was.
She moved to the princess's door in a cloud of birdsong. Nazrin glanced at the iron following Ran, then down the stairwell before she ran to the opposite side of the door. Ringo skulked at her mistress's feet.
Ran pressed herself against the wall and slid open the akari shoji door. She waited ten heartbeats for the inevitable trap. No siren wailed and no danmaku shot burst into the common room. Perhaps she had overthought the traps; with a large warren of bunnygirls, there would be a myriad of false alarms. Then again, Lunarians were more subtle than the danmaku-slinging teenaged darlings that ran throughout Gensokyo. She peeked into the room.
Wabi-sabi filled the room, from the flowers in mid-bloom and the time-stained wooden alcove in the wall to the cloudy patina creeping into a full-length mirror from its edges. An eternal moment frozen, yet at the verge of slipping away.
Yukari needed to stop treating every new arrival like a veiled threat. Ran thought back to the night of the false moon. Then again, it wasn't completely unjustified-
"It's there!" Nazrin bounced on her heels as a metal rod held by the long end pointed towards Kaguya's alcove. While the mouseling stood all aquiver, the iron remained steady in her hand. She stopped just long enough to scoop Ringo into the basket at her tail.
Ran toed her way inside Kaguya's chambers. It was hard for her not to feel like she was trespassing in Yukari's room instead. At least the floor no longer sang underfoot, although it was impossible to know exactly what was underneath the heavy tatami straw.
Nazrin pushed past her and darted towards the dowsed alcove. She ran her hands over every centimeter of the wood, poking and prodding every carved decoration.
Ran sighed, although the continued faint birdsong set her teeth on edge. She slid the door behind her, even though the chirping was of a higher pitch, more songbird than teak planks. The vixen waited by the door, where she could keep her eye on both Nazrin and the entryway
The mouseling pulled herself up to the highest shelves and slid the vases and assorted knick-knacks around. She scowled and dropped back to the floor. Backing away from the shelves, Nazrin tapped her feet and pursed her lips.
Even with the years of practice mimicking Yukari, it took effort to radiate the air of unruffled serenity expected of women in Eirin's station. Ran had always disliked how untidy an actual caper was compared to its plan, but a certain measure of delays had been built into the plan. That margin, however, wore away while she waited.
Nazrin's eyes lit up. "Could it be that easy?" She reached out towards the fusuma panel by the alcove and slid it aside, revealing a storage crawlspace that wrapped behind the wooden shelves. The mouseling stepped into the space between the walls. "I thought you said that this would be a challenge."
Ran just smiled and counted to a trillion. It only took eight seconds; she counted logarithmically. Nazrin vanished behind the alcove and bundles of clothes flew out into the room. The vixen smiled, counting to ten trillion to keep visions of mice, Doomkittens, and catnip from her mind.
"Found it!" Nazrin groaned for a moment, her tail flailing out from behind the shelves. "A little help here?"
It took the combined strength of the two beast youkai to haul the rust streaked iron out of hiding. As she wiped orange powder from her hands, Ran gave silent thanks that she had not been made a human on this turn of the wheel. It would have taken Reimu a small squad of her friends to move the lockbox into the room. Or one Suika, if the oni could be pulled away from her own grifting.
Sprouting an impressive array of rakes and picks between her fingers and lips, Nazrin knelt in front of the lockbox. Her eager glow faded and the mouseling spat a trio of dental picks from her mouth. "Combo lock. This one's yours."
At this point, Ran would have loved to have just carried the chest straight out of the manor, but any attempt would have exhausted the two youkai before they left the stairway. Kaguya might like to watch time ravage the veneer, but the princess bought to last. Fortunately, Ran had planned to leave the lockbox behind if needed.
She sat on her knees in front of the chest and spread her red and blue skirt around her. Humming a jaunty tune, Ran surveyed the puzzle before her. Seeing a simple combination lock with four well-oiled dials from 0-9, she wondered why Kaguya hadn't chosen something more secure, like a key lock. Then again, Mokou would have stolen it from her corpse centuries prior. Only ten thousand combinations kept Kaguya's treasure from Ran, a task far simpler than calculating the width of the Sanzu River. She turned a single dial, feeling the clicks beneath her fingertip. A shadow fell over the lock. "You're in my light."
Nazrin sidestepped away, then sat down and leaned towards the dials. "I want to see how you do this. Life was easier when all you needed was a deft hand with the hooks and rakes."
Ran ignored her and played with the wheels. After a couple of slow spin on each dial, she could visualize the combinations in her mind. With each click of the final dial, the probabilities collapsed, leaving only one option.
The lock sprung open.
"You've got to show me how to do that." Nazrin reached out and heaved the lid open just high enough to prop the short end of a dowsing rod underneath.
"How are you at complex math?" Ran peered inside and gasped. She lifted a bolt of shimmering pearlescent cloth up to the light. "I can see why Mokou wanted this."
Nazrin rubbed the gossamer veil between two fingers. "No fair. You didn't tell me she had this."
Ran set the cloth next to the chest, placing it aside along with all thoughts of how the moonlight cloth would set off her golden tails. Next, she pulled out twin metalwork branches, wrought in silver and gold.
"Two?" Nazrin asked.
"One came from Chancellor Fujiwara's silversmiths." Ran turned each branch in the light, watching the blue, red, and purple highlights glimmer across the faceted abalone shell fruits. "It was supposed to be as close to the real Jeweled Branch of Hourai as could be made. Close enough that Princess Kaguya actually had to make wedding plans before the hoax was revealed."
"I remember that part of the fairy tale. It's a favorite of Shou's." Nazrin's eyes narrowed and she tapped the branch in Ran's left hand. "This one's the fake. It's a masterful job, but someone couldn't completely polish out this hammer mark. It's such a slight flaw, though. We should take both, just to make sure."
Ran shook her head. "We're not renegotiating your fee."
"You speak for Yukari, not Mokou."
Ran wondered where the expression "as quiet as a mouse" came from. Nazrin prattled more than Chen. She really needed to get the two of them together after this mess. The fox maiden looked back inside the lockbox. Her breath caught in her throat.
A stone bowl radiated a diffuse glow. Ran ignored the fist-sized pearl and the cowrie shell; the Enlightened One had touched neither.
"Gate gate paragate parasemgate bodhi svaha." Ran murmured the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit. All have gone, gone beyond, all have gone altogether beyond. Oh, what an awakening!
"It's the Enlightened One's bowl, not the Enlightened One. Revere the creator, not the creation," Nazrin said.
"When did you start sounding like a priestess?" Ran asked.
"Spend enough time around the abbess and the avatara, and you tend to pick up things."
The door to Kaguya's room grated open. Both thieves spun around and saw a shrouded figure in the doorway. "You're not Eirin," she said.
The Doomkitten sat on an exam table in the middle of Reisen's clinic in the Human Village. Her eyes darted around the room like a fairy. She had never been to a doctor or a nurse. Whenever she got hurt, Ran would sit her down, say a number, and the Doomkitten's body would heal itself in an instant. Ran's number magic could do anything. After all, Auntie Yukari taught her. She promised to do the same for the Doomkitten, but the lessons always turned into story time.
Auntie Yukari used to regale the Doomkitten with tales of doctors' offices that resembled charnel houses instead of houses of healing. She always loved a good scary story. So far, the Doomkitten was disappointed. There hadn't been any scream or scent of blood to greet her when the bunnies carried her inside, and while there were plenty of mysterious bottles and cartons on the shelves, all were labeled in big bold kanji. The only thing remotely unsettling in the sunny room was the tingling scent of rubbing alcohol.
The Doomkitten loved to listen to Auntie Yukari's stories, but she had started to realize that most were nothing more than catnip dreams.
Fingers snapped in her ear. "I need you to stay with me," Reisen said. She shone a penlight into the Doomkitten's eyes.
The Doomkitten turned her head, clenched her eyes' shut, and wiggled away from the light as best she could. Reisen and Tewi had splinted her legs together with wide cravats. "Do you really need to do that?"
"Yes." Reisen reached out and pried the Doomkitten's eye open. The penlight shone like a second sun before the nurse clicked it off. "No obvious signs of shock."
"It wouldn't hurt you to show a little compassion." Tewi handed over a cup of water to the Doomkitten.
Reisen rolled her eyes and tore at the knots holding the Doomkitten's legs in place. "Most people want me to be right."
"There are more opinions out there than just Eirin's-" A red eyed stare cut her off. Tewi shrugged it away and returned to her perch on a nearby stool. The Doomkitten fought back giggles until the red eyes settled on her.
Reisen pulled off the last cravat and tossed it into a hamper. The Doomkitten couldn't help but shy away from the nurse's cold touch. "I'm not seeing any swelling, bruising, or deformity, and the patient isn't complaining of numbness or intense pain?" The nurse kept muttering to herself as the Doomkitten's moved her legs. Her eyes narrowed as she patted up the Doomkitten's legs.
The Doomkitten mewed piteously. She didn't want the nurse to think that her efforts were unappreciated. Not that she'd ever return to the clinic. It was taking Reisen minutes to find out what was wrong with her. Ran could do it faster. Then again, Ran and Auntie Yukari were smarter than just about everyone.
Reisen stopped her examination and sat back in her chair. She tapped a finger against her lips as those scary eyes stared into the distance. "I don't get it. I hear her bones snap out in the street..."
"It's obvious," Tewi drawled. The shorter rabbit examined her nails yet her gaze never left the Doomkitten.
"Just who is the nurse here?"
"Technically, neither of us, Miss Trainee."
As the rabbits bickered, the Doomkitten's hand slid towards a belt pouch. Reisen had to be smart to be a nurse; she was starting to see through that snapped twig in the middle of the street. A little sleight of hand moved the contents of the pouch to the Doomkitten's cup.
Tewi's nose wrinkled. "I smell oranges."
"You really need to lay off the 'barley tea.'" Reisen rolled her eyes. Before she turned back to her patient, the Doomkitten choked down a gulp from the cup. "Let's try something different. Can you stand?"
The Doomkitten's cheeks bulged out and her stomach heaved. It wasn't too hard to fake; she never liked eating oranges when there was fish or meat nearby. Her eyes widened as she gagged on the pulp until she spotted a trash can by the table. Rolling over, the Doomkitten noisily spat a thick stream of mashed orange pulp into the basket. Her cup followed.
Reisen ran over and shoved the Doomkitten onto her side. "Stay like that."
The last of the orange dribbled from the Doomkitten's lips. "Water," she croaked. Anything to get the fruit taste off her lips.
"Not yet." Reisen rushed over to a bookshelf and pulled a thick leather tome from it. She tore through the pages. "I wish Master had more books on cat youkai. There's so much about the predatory beasts that's different." The nurse trailed off, flipping pages as she set the book on the counter.
"You're overthinking this." Tewi watched the moon rabbit dart between journals and medicines, never settling on just one.
The Doomkitten hid her smile behind a wince. Ran would be so pleased of how she kept the nurse rabbit chasing her own tail. Maybe the next time her master had a scheme she wouldn't leave the Doomkitten out of it. In the meantime, she basked in the chaotic worries flooding the room.
Reisen stopped in her tracks, her ears twitching as she canted her head as though she were listening for a voice far in the distance. The Doomkitten could see pink rush into the rabbit's cheeks just before she turned away and walked to the sink.
Her ears still twitching, the nurse rabbit dunked her hands into a stainless steel bowl. After a quick scrub, she flicked her fingers dry, grabbed the metal sides, and flung the bowl's contents at Chen. A wall of icy water splashed into the Doomkitten. Light flashed and a sputtering black kitten shook herself dry on the examining table.
"Did you really think you fooled anyone with that orange pulp trick?" Reisen loomed over the kitten, her red eyes burning.
Tewi shrugged and hopped off her stool. "It worked on her last week. You should have seen Honey Bunny's face when I did it."
Reisen's glare would have curdled milk. "You're coming with-"
The black cat leapt from the table, bounded from a chair, and scampered her way onto the medical counter. Bandages, acupuncture needles, herbal tinctures, and compounding powders flew everywhere. Reisen shrieked and dove after both the kitten and the falling goods. A cloud of pills and powders billowed across the floor.
Tewi toed her way through the spreading mess and slid the door shut. As an afterthought, she picked up a fallen broom and waited.
The kitten launched herself over Reisen's hands and ricocheted off the wall onto the bunnygirl's head. With a heroic leap, she clawed her way to the top of the cupboard, upending a box of gauze and an open tin. White talcum powder cascaded from the shelf, turning Reisen's clothes as white as her ears. The rabbit sputtered, darting out of the way as the kitten batted over another box of compounding powder.
"Stop that! Master will make me pay for everything," Reisen said.
The black cat tilted her head, wrinkled her nose, and sent a carton of latex gloves flying. Reisen hissed and dragged over a stool, ducking a shower of cotton balls and tongue dispensers along the way. The black cat wedged herself tighter between the corner and the ceiling and lashed out with her claws. Any time Reisen found the nerve to climb onto the stool and reach for the kitten, a paw would swipe out and add to the piles of medical supplies growling on the clinic's floor.
An uneasy stalemate developed between the cornered kitten and the soon-to-be destitute moon rabbit. It lasted until a broom reached into the cat's hiding place and swept her into a burlap sack. Tewi rolled her eyes and tied off the squirming bag. "What came across the party line?"
Reisen dropped off of the stool and collapsed against the table. "Something's going on at the manor. A shape-shifter's dressed as the mistress."
"And we have a black cat." Tewi held up the yowling sack. "Is Yukari involved?"
"Too soon to tell." Reisen lifted her head and looked at the clutter heaped through the clinic. She reached for a hand broom. "Can you give me a hand?"
But Tewi had vanished, taking the Doomkitten with her.
Mamizou breezed through the bamboo forest on nimble rabbit feet, weaving through the giant grasses. Normally, she would have worried about losing her way, but a constant stream of hurried bunnygirls guided her towards Eternity Manor.
None of the rabbits stopped her. She liked to believe that her transformation into a rabbit youkai was perfect, but she chalked it up to the way she moved through the forest that fooled them. Mamizou had learned in Sado that if she moved like she had a purpose, people believed she had one. It had kept the roughnecks and miners on the island from bothering her, and it now kept the bunnygirls from pressganging the disguised tanuki into another of the bucket brigades bounding past.
They probably thought that she had orders from Eirin.
She still hadn't caught sight or scent of the lunar sage, not that she could smell much over the dusty ash and roasted bamboo permeating everything. Mamizou skipped to a stop and held herself upright with a nearby stalk. A small vial of star anise oil on her belt, forgotten in the press of the work parties, would mask the scent of the wildfire. It would also send her into sneezing fits from the black licorice fragrance, especially while she panted for her breath.
Another in the series of identical bunnygirls bounded by and shook her head. She never stopped, not that Mamizou expected her to. The tower of smoke in the sky had widened since she left Mokou.
Her breathing slowed as the dull burning in her lungs faded. Opening her canteen, Mamizou dumped one of her last packets of powdered sports drink mix into it. She'd have to go back Outside for more. In the meantime, she needed the energy. Showing up in front of Eirin addled by fatigue wouldn't help anyone, and she still had a long run to go.
She shook the canteen and raised it to her lips. Her now white mini-lop ears twitched. Mamizou froze. Not a single sound could be heard. No bunnygirls crashed through the undergrowth, nor birdsongs nor fairy laughter filled the air. Not even the hushed chatters of insects sounded. Mamizou capped her canteen and craned her neck. Only one thing caused complete silence in a forest: the passing of an apex predator.
The tanuki in her lusted to drive off the lurking intruder from her territory. But Mamizou was in rabbit guise. Prey hid and, and any number of rabbit youkai could have taken to the trees around her. She had to assume that they would still notice a bunnygirl acting against her instincts. She slipped behind a wall of bamboo and waited.
The wind stank of wolf.
A chill ran down Mamizou's spine. Only willpower and clenched hands and teeth kept her from transforming. Even a human would be better equipped to fight than a rabbit youkai.
A shadowed lupine figure padded into the clearing. By the time Mamizou recognized that it was the size of a medium dog, the wolf stood on its back paws and stretched. A debutante in a white-moon ball gown stood in its place. Bloody highlights ran through her long flowing black hair. Her dainty nose wrinkled.
Mamizou threw her vial of star anise oil at the woman's feet. The heavy aroma of black licorice covered everything, including the wildfire smoke and Mamizou's own scent.
The woman held her nose and fanned her free hand in front of her face. "Was that really necessary?"
According to the Discworld books lining Mamizou's shelves at home, it was customary whenever dealing with a werewolf. Not that Mamizou had ever expected to run into one. They were myths, just like the thunderbirds, skinwalkers, and chupacabras of the West. The disguised tanuki backed away, keeping the wall of bamboo between her and the werewolf. Dried leaves crushed underneath her heel.
The woman's wolf ears perked up. "Now, now, sugar, don't be dragging this out any longer that it has to be. If you're who I've been watching lately, I reckon I have words for you."
Mamizou continued to creep away. Her fingers brushed against the spellcard she had used to taunt Reimu as the shrinemaiden's mirror reflection. Most youkai shied away whenever they saw red and white in the fields. She drew the card and pivoted around. The star anise oil wouldn't last forever.
The werewolf stood in front of her and stared Mamizou down with her red eyes. Instinctively, the disguised tanuki drew herself to her rabbit form's full height and matched the debutante's cold gaze. Her blood called to make the werewolf submit. There could be only one Alpha female in this forest.
"I knew you were no rabbit." The werewolf's red lacquered claws danced through the shadows. "There's no need for this charade, little fox."
Mamizou laughed, chill and mirthless, and shifted into the comfort of her own skin. "This doesn't concern you. Run along." She flashed her teeth as she spoke.
The werewolf's eyes narrowed. "So you aren't her. My business with you doesn't change because you're a tanuki."
"I don't have time for a na?f silly enough to think that showing a little shoulder is a daring fashion statement." Mamizou took a step closer to the werewolf. She knew she shouldn't waste her time; Eirin was still on the loose. But the ancient ways of her people called out. From the werewolf's bristling posture, they called out to her as well.
"Better that than a Bohemian beggar who flunked out of art school." The werewolf drew closer until her nose almost touched Mamizou's. "I'm Kagerou Imaizumi and I'm going to school you on the rules here. Rule One: leave the bunnies alone."
"What's Rule Two? Stay off your bad side?" Mamizou wondered if humans were as enthralled to their instincts as caninids.
"It's too late for that. Leave now and the bunnygirls won't wear your tail for a cap."
"You take orders from prey? Then you'll have no problems taking orders from me. Get out of my face." Mamizou was lost to instinct. Whenever two caninids met, one must lead and the other must follow. Neither was willing to give way to the other.
"Touch one of those rabbits and we're both dead." Kagerou never blinked once through the posturing.
"I was thinking something more traditional."
"And here I thought that you'd be scared of ruining your dress." No one who came across the two women would confuse their shown teeth for smiles.
Kagerou telegraphed her strike. As her hand whipped out towards Mamizou's cheek, the tanuki shifted into her animal form and dropped out of the way. Kagerou's wolf form dove onto Mamizou like an arctic fox after a mouse. Sharp teeth snapped at the werewolf, who rolled out of the way. Snarling, the tanuki and the wolf stood centimeters apart. Their open jaws bobbed and weaved, seeking a path to the other's throat that was not blocked by fangs.
Mamizou's forepaws lanced out. She shifted and one hand shoved Kagerou's jaws away while the other slammed into the wolf's ribs. Kagerou shifted and stomped her foot into Mamizou's thigh, driving the tanuki to her knees.
The melee devolved into a dervish of teeth, nails, claws, skin, and fur as the two women changed forms throughout the brawl in search of a moment's advantage. Slowly, despite the tanuki's reach and tricks, the wolf forced her to give ground.
Mamizou stepped away from yet another of Kagerou's snap kicks, lunged forward, and shifted. The tanuki landed behind the werewolf, shifted back, and wrapped an arm around her opponent's throat. She stepped on the back of the werewolf's knee and both women collapsed. Mamizou hissed as they hit the ground; Kagerou had managed to squirm an arm inside her chokehold. She bellowed as teeth clamped down on her arm. Kagerou let go and wormed out of the tanuki's grip, spitting all the way.
Mamizou spun around, searching for Kagerou. She froze as blue and red flashed in the trees nearby.
Kagerou leaped onto her back. An iron arm wrapped around Mamizou's neck. The tanuki clawed at the werewolf, but the pressure against the sides of her neck grew.
"I didn't want to do this, but you made me," Kagerou hissed in Mamizou's ear. "Eternity Manor doesn't let predators run loose in this forest. There's rules. So, if the bunnies give you a next time, I suggest you follow them." She squeezed, and Mamizou fell limp.
The werewolf stripped off the leaf from the tanuki woman's hair and let go as Mamizou shifted one last time into a beast. Lifting the limp animal by the scruff of her neck, Kagerou set out towards Eternity Manor.
"I know you're not Eirin."
A wordless squeak escaped Nazrin's lips as she knocked over the dowsing rod holding the lockbox open. She squeaked again as the heavy lid thumped shut. By sheer force of will, Ran kept her composure. As she had seen Eirin do before, the vixen turned, flashing the half smile that the lunar sage greeted everyone with. Her illusion never wavered.
An odd rabbit stood in the doorway. Unlike the other bunnygirls, she was a coltish girl of long lines pressed into a petite package like a swan desperately trying to be an ugly duckling. Try as she might, the rabbit couldn't hide the otherworldly air about her. Her ears moved in a series of long and short twitches as though the wind buoyed them away from her short lavender bob cut.
Ran's smile froze into a tight mask. Not another moon rabbit. There was only supposed to be one at Eternity Manor, and Chen should have had her well and truly frustrated. "What are you doing in the Princess's room?"
The moon bunny gulped but stood her ground. Yukari had named her type of hiding beauty a reverse firecracker. Ran just wished the firecracker would stop trembling. "You don't smell right."
"You're awfully brave for a moon rabbit." During Ran's trip to the moon, she had seen a number of the rabbit girls that made up the defense corps. As long as they had a Lunarian officer present, they seemed sturdy enough. As soon as the officer left, however, the squads fled at a mere sneeze.
"I only have to be brave for a short time."
"She's waiting for me." The chill and proper voice resounded behind Ran. The disguised fox turned her head and saw her reflection glare back. Eirin Yagokoro loomed over her, as stern and unyielding as the night Ran first met her, only without the clouds of danmaku. "Who are you, and why are you here?"
Nazrin shrieked and ran towards the rabbit girl. With a flick of the true lunar sage's wrist, all the doors, shutters, and dividers in Princess Kaguya's room slammed shut.
Fingers of coral and amber stretched across the sky as the sun set beyond the haze that settled over the bamboo forest, Kaguya pursed her lips and hurried through the fields of wheat and farro. She gave thanks to Chang'e for her disguise, an ineffectual habit for an apostate sinner, but the village girl's garb gave her the freedom to dash back to her manor. Eirin's draconian training held firm. Princesses never hurried, but a villager trying to make it home before nightfall could.
She wished she could scoop down from the mountain like a tengu in flight. But all the magic in Gensokyo had yet to yield the secrets of sustained flight to any of the witches or magicians in the valley. A bicycle like the ones in Sanae's pictures of the Outside would have been useful too, even if Eirin hadn't yet figured out the Right and Proper way for a noblewoman to ride one. Kaguya might as well have wished for the Outside's strange wheeled palanquins instead. She would have settled for any way to get to Eternity Manor faster just so she would no longer be alone with her fears.
Fire, Mokou, Yori, men; each had ample opportunity to play across Kaguya's mind like a string quartet's fugue. One note resounded underneath it all. Nothing ever changed.
Without constant attention from the inaba, the forest smoldered to ash with a depressing regularity. Mokou always lurked in the corners, slinking away only when she had something particularly nasty planned. And all men fell simpering from her grace. Even Yori would-
Kaguya tried to drown out her doubts with song, but only troubadour romances graced her lips, stoking her fears ever higher. She shuffled faster until her shuffle gave way to a jog, then a run, and finally a breakneck dash until the bamboo forest loomed overhead. The disguised princess stopped and collected her shattered poise in case Eirin waited for her.
Kaguya jumped as a bunnygirl hared out from the bamboo. "Princess, where have you been? Mistress Eirin sent a bunch of us out looking for you," the inaba said.
"What's the matter?" Kaguya looked down at the soot-stained bunny. A shock of snow white hair gleamed underneath the grime. "?Yukimi?"
The swaying youkai beamed as clutched the princess's arm. Kaguya smiled as well. There were so many of the inaba at Eternity Manor that it was near impossible to keep all of the names straight. After an embarrassing string of mistakes, Kaguya rarely bothered, but getting one right was a special treat from inaba and princess alike.
"Fire? Mokou?" Yukimi wheezed between panting breaths.
"What?!" Kaguya cast a look towards Youkai Mountain.
Yukimi's color returned. "Come with me please." Dancing a jig, she tugged on Kaguya's arm and led her into the forest.
More inaba came one by one as Yukimi and Kaguya walked past thickets and curtains of bamboo. Each newcomer took her place in the growing dance until a dozen laughed and sang and hopped in circles around the princess. Kaguya joined in the song. Her smile didn't reach the eyes that darted between Eternity Manor and Youkai Mountain. Grateful for the company, she nevertheless wished that one of the moon inaba was near. Maybe she should call them reisens instead, now that they had two of them. Regardless of the name, she could have used their ability to communicate with their kind over long distances to find out just what Mokou had done to her home. If only the earth inaba had a more useful ability than dancing in unison. Then again, the reisens were never this carefree.
The inaba sang simple songs of hearth and home, lifting Kaguya's spirits until the living fences of bamboo gave way to the edges of Eternity Manor. As soon as Kaguya crossed into her home demesne, they spread out and trailed behind her like Lunarian ladies-in-waiting. Yukimi claimed the station of honor at the princess's right hand.
As the procession wound around a line of storehouses, Kaguya breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever fire and that hot-headed wisteria flower had done had at least spared her home. But when Kaguya rounded the corner of the manor, she stopped, wide-eyed, and not because Eirin's protocols demanded that the princess's arrivals and departures must be announced. The entire warren stood assembled in a loose semi-circle gaggle in the courtyard. She never called the entire warren for anything except dinner. Eirin would have preferred military precision; the sage had to settle for clumps of whispers and gossip.
In the center of the assembly, the two reisens stood ramrod straight. Each held a parade ground rifle Kaguya had last seen at the Lunar Court. The coltish reisen towered over a menagerie crowded around a saucer. Kaguya would have expected the tanuki, the cat, and the mouse to tear off after each other; instead, they lapped milk together in peace. The plantain blossom reisen waited behind a line of kneeling figures. The princess barely registered the other prisoners; she only had eyes for Mokou.
"What is happening here?" Kaguya said. She flinched as Eirin bellowed commands from the manor. Silence fell throughout the warren, broken by the occasional murmur.
Kaguya glided into the courtyard, her retinue in tow. Fighting against instinct, she forced herself to look beyond her rival. Yukari's tamed fox and a gray mouseling sat on either side of Mokou. All three wore bracelets of thick Lunarian rope knotted together, unbreakable by men, demigods, or gods. Tight spirals wound down their bodies and legs. In front of the prisoners-
"What is my chest doing out here?" Kaguya rushed to the rusted strongbox at the center of the entire assembly. "Who opened it?" She caught the briefest flicker of the mouseling's eyes towards the fox. Kaguya knelt down and rustled through the iron chest. Her treasures were all present, to the quiet regret of a single still small voice in her mind.
"They've held their tongues ever since we caught them in the act," Eirin said. The seneschal had taken Yukimi's place in the train. She nodded towards the two beast youkai.
"What's Mokou doing here? And those beasts?" Kaguya pointed to the saucer. "What's this talk about a fire?"
"Youkai helpers. As for Mokou, she set a fire far enough to draw us way from the manor. No one got hurt. She does have some control." Eirin waved her hand towards the ground. The inaba sat down on the grass. "I never expected her to turn treasure hunter, though."
"You could have let the inaba tell me." Kaguya tried to keep the petulance out of her voice.
"By the time Yukimi found you, the story would have grown until all of Gensokyo was on fire," Eirin said. Her arm swept out towards the inaba. "The girls do love embellishing tales."
Kaguya pursed her lips into a moue and studied the inside of her lockbox. "What would you do with my treasures, Mokou?"
"Give them to your suitor." Mokou tried to stand, but the cords around her body pulled her back to her knees. "
Kaguya held up a hand and tried to keep her face as still as a noh mask. "Why? You've done everything you could to frustrate me since we met."
"My family owes you a wedding." Mokou ignored the murmurs of the inaba.
"He's not from your clan." Kaguya gave silent thanks to Chang'e for that, even though the Fujiwara had bred like rabbits until they were no longer one clan but a family of clans. "Why do you care?"
"Honor demands it." Mokou met Kaguya's eyes. "I don't expect you to agree. I don't even expect you to understand."
"Have you been in my books as well?" If Mokou even touched her favorite copy of The Tale of Genji? But the Fujiwara girl just smiled. Kaguya forced down the gorge that rose in her throat and turned to the fox. "What is your mistress's concern in this?"
"She has none. I'm a free agent." The vixen would make an excellent card sharp.
"They forced me into it. I was blackmailed. They were going to give me to the cat!" The mouseling rambled through a litany of abuses, but her eyes hungered after Kaguya's lockbox.
"And if we let you go, what would you do?" Eirin said with saccharine serenity. The two reisens blanched and backed away from the sage.
The mouseling gulped and turned greyer. "I'd be back tomorrow for a different client. The heavenlies have been asking-"
A chill ran down Kaguya's spine as she cut off the mouseling with a wave of her hand. Would she ever be rid of that turbulent Celestial? "I thought that you were blackmailed." The mouseling paled further and choked on her words. "Eirin, send for the shrinemaiden."
The fox laughed loud and free. "Are you sure you want to do that?" The incident's over, so Kotohime has jurisdiction. She'll demand to know what we tried to steal, and she won't settle for pretty lies. You might as well tell Aya that the treasures your suitor seeks are right here."
Kaguya bit her lip and looked back to the mountain. None of this would have happened if Yori had taken his place beneath her balcony like I should have. But if he had, she would have already tired of him.
"Tell me; what would be worse, if Yori Motoori found out where your treasures are, or if he never found the treasures because Nazrin's comrades got to them first?" The fox wore the same maddening smile that often graced her mistress. "I can calculate the width and depth of the variable Avici, and I can see that there's just one optimal move. You have to let us go."
"But he'll be back again, and so will Mokou," Kaguya said.
"We do have empty rooms. They could be our guests until this blows over," Eirin whispered.
The fox's ears twitched. "My master would take offense to that. I don't think you wish to court the enmity of Clan Yakumo over a schoolgirl's stiff-necked pride."
"We should have had those conversations," Eirin whispered. She glided forward with all the regal bearing of millennia spent in the Lunar Court and stopped in front of the fox. "Do not think you will escape the consequences of your intrusion."
"Only a fool would expect that there would be no penance." The fox shrugged as best as she could in her bonds. Her golden eyes bore into Kaguya's. "But then again, I can admit when I'm caught."
While the inaba murmured, Kaguya turned whiter than a reisen's ear. She looked down at her treasures. The dragon's pearl gleamed in the last rays of sunset, so small compared to the others.
Long years of practice in Lunar and Japanese courts allowed Kaguya to hide her thoughts behind a serene mask. She had always played hard to get. In earlier times, men played by her rules, and she had been ringed by suitors. Now she only had one, who refused to play her games and rivals crowded around her for the first time in her aeon of life. She hated the loss of control even as she reveled in a man that could actually surprise her. The contradiction tangled her wits.
She flared her ability for one eternal moment, forever lost to history.
Her power faded. Kaguya rejoined time. Her face an expressionless mask, Kaguya stalked over to Mokou and yanked the rebellious noblewoman to her feet. She tore at the knots bound around rival's hand and glared at the plantain flower Reisen. The bunnygirl quailed, slung her rifle, and unwound the cords from Mokou's body spun her about, grabbed Mokou's hand, and flipped it palm-side up.
The rabbits flinched away from the loud smack that echoed throughout the courtyard. The fox nodded. For once her smile was filled with mirth. Mokou stared unblinking at the heavy black pearl that filled her hand. She yelped as Kaguya swatted her back.
"Do not tarry."
Mokou gulped and ran out of the courtyard towards Youkai Mountain.
Kaguyahime glided past the mute thieves, the hushed rabbits, and her amused seneschal and proceeded with stately bearing towards the manor. Inside her chambers, the princess slipped into a spotless white dress and waited.
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