Kitsune Nights

Chapter 4: The Mercenary

Ara’s feet sprang from joist to joist, hastily traversing the length of the colossal mansion. At 151cm’s in height, she did not even need to duck under the rafters as she travelled. Below her, ministers and state officials scrambled about their duties oblivious to her flight.

As she neared the end of the corridor, she dropped to the ground. The door was locked, as it always was. Pulling a tool from her belt, she slid it into the release mechanism. With a slight movement of her wrist, she felt the lock unfasten. She slid through the portal, securing it behind her. The room she entered was carpeted in crimson and gold lanterns lined the walls. Tapestries from across the continent hung at equidistant intervals across the large chamber. She plodded over to the Kamian tapestry and peeled it away from the wall. Her hand found the small depression that served as the release for the secret passage.

There was a hiss as the portal clicked open. Ara crossed to the other end of the room, pulling away the Selkik tapestry. Her fingers grasped the edge of the door, tugging it open. Ara slipped into the dark hallway behind the tapestry, again ensuring the door behind her was firmly sealed.

She paused for a moment, calling on her innate magic to kindle blue flames. They surrounded her form, lighting the darkened passage.

The underground tunnel was seemingly interminable – stretching ever onward. It was, of course, an illusion. Even the door from which she had entered disappeared once shut. Before and behind her was nothing but a brick hall. No doubt, one could easily be driven mad in such a place.

Ara pushed her flames outward and began the trek through the narrow passage. Minutes stretched by and even though she felt her feet moving forth, it seemed she had made no progress.

Finally, the passage came into view. As she neared, her magic touched the portal entrance, outlining the door in azure flames. Allowing her own effulgence to fade, she reached out her hand. The passage was cloaked; without magic, one could wander forever in the darkness, feeling nothing but stale air and unending tunnel. Her hand reached through the illusionary bricks, feeling only a slight tug of resistance as though she were passing through water. She held her breath and closed her eyes as she stepped through the wall, finding the sensation most unpleasant.

He was already seated at the table when she entered the den.

“Is there a reason we must always meet in this gloomy residence?” She asked, a clear tone of disapproval in her voice.

Ignoring her question, he held a glass aloft and asked, “Wine?”

Ara raised a hand and shook her head. She seated herself at the table, crossing her petite legs into a lotus position atop her chair. “What is it you want?” she asked.

“It’s been three months without report,” he replied. “You assured me the task would be done hastily.”

Ara’s eyes narrowed, but she refused to acknowledge the obvious insult to her reputation. “And I would find success faster if you did not keep recalling me every few months.”

“Apparently, our definitions of hasty differ. When I said I needed the tanuki found, I meant immediately.”

“If the tanuki were so easily found, you would not need one such as I,” she countered.

He leaned back into his chair and tossed a grape into his mouth, “Have you made any progress?”

Ara studied her employer’s expression; she had not found success as a mercenary and information broker through loquaciousness. But even she was disappointed with her progress. And as cavalier as she might act, she had to ensure the satisfaction of her employer. Too much hinged on the success of this negotiation.

Carefully selecting her words, she told him, “I’ve been tracking a tribe through the northern tundra.”

“And?”

Ara gritted her teeth. There wasn’t much more to report. Pinning their location down to a specific geographic region had been trial enough. As the tanuki were a shape-shifting race, it was nearly impossible to locate them. To make matters worse, they had been hunted nearly to extinction. Those who remained had grown extremely adept at concealing themselves. So rare was it for a tanuki to be exposed that the humans had assumed them to be a myth.

“Is that all you have learned?” he pressed.

Piqued by his insolence, she responded thusly, “You’ve nearly extinguished their race, that survivors even exist is a credit to their powers of concealment. If you hadn’t attempted their extinction, they would not be so hard to locate!”

He tossed another grape into his mouth and chewed it noisily, unperturbed by her accusatory tone.

“Gah,” Ara exclaimed in disgust.

“It surprises me,” he observed, “that someone as passionate as yourself has found any measure of success in your occupation. Do you feel guilt as you assassinate your quarry?”

Ara frowned as she peered into his hollow eyes.

“Now let me be clear about something, little vixen, my contract with your Illyria was contingent on haste. You will bring me the location of the tanuki within the month or the Vulpine Isles, which you call home, will shortly find themselves under attack. For, unlike yourself, little vixen, I feel no remorse in crushing my foe,” he smiled as the next grape passed between his lips.

“Is that all you summoned me here for?”

“Mhmm,” he nodded.

“Send a letter next time, at least then I can continue my work,” Ara spat, rising from her chair. “Do not doubt I want this contract concluded as eagerly as you do.”

Without offering a farewell, Ara retreated. She let her footsteps thunder through the underground passage as she chanted curse words. Why Illyria had deigned to make a contract with such a despicable man she would never understand. So wrapped up was she in her musings, that she entered the crimson carpeted room without pause. Her first step took her face-to-face with a man.

All aggressive thoughts disappeared as Ara’s survival instincts kicked in. Her heart was yammering in her chest, but she bent into an athletic crouch. No one was supposed to know of her presence in this hall.

The man, however, hardly seemed perturbed by her presence. “Ah, sorry,” he apologized, bowing low. “I did not expect anyone to be visiting his King Kasai.”

Ara didn’t know how to respond; it was her mistake. How should she rectify it? If that despicable den-dwelling king realised her blunder, their deal would be forfeit.

If need be, she would silence the stranger permanently. Her eyes cast a hasty evaluation of the man. At once, she grew troubled over her predicament for his face bore a meek expression and though he bore the garb of a high officer, his shoulders slouched as though he were not comfortable with the weight of his position. This man, no this boy, had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Her eyes hardened, seeking to be dispassionate. Boy or not, he was a minister of an enemy government. No weapons were visible on his person, but much could be concealed within the voluminous state cloak he wore. If he were to disappear, how soon would he be noted? He was in the inner chamber, meaning he bore some import; enough to have the king’s trust. She supposed she could remove him, though not without trouble. That stark white hair of his – it was too notable. Any body found with that description would be easily identified.

Musing on his hair, she recalled having seen this particular minister before.

The man waved his hands in front of him, “No need to fret about my seeing you. I’ll not say anything,” he promised.

Abruptly, she recollected his familiarity. Though she had passed through the open joists of the main hall dozens of times, she had been seen only once. It had been during her last summons that she’d felt eyes following her as she made her way to the tapestry room. The odd sensation had caused her to pause and look down into the bustling room. There she’d met the gaze of this alabaster-haired young man. Tensing for an assault, she had awaited a cry of alarm. But after a moment had passed, the young man had looked away, resuming his business as though he’d not seen her trespass.

“Err, but perhaps you will allow me to escort you,” he said. “The, uh, roof of the great hall seems to have sprung a leak this past winter and they’ve started setting the scaffolding up for repairs.”

Ara blinked. Yes, this was the man who had witnessed her previous visit. She had to give him credit for his observation; she was not often seen when she wished to be concealed. But he had also kept quiet about her presence.

As if understanding her reticence, the minister continued. “It will be the safest way for you to exit,” he promised.

“And why are you concerned about me?”

“If the king wished your presence to go unnoticed, then I shall endeavour to assure his wish is fulfilled.”

This was the moment of decision. Spare this youth or spill his blood – she had to judge immediately. She nodded her assent, choosing mercy.

If he knew how near he had come to death, the young minister did not show it. Rather, he continued his speech saying, “Ah, but first, you will need to put this on,” he led her to a small antechamber and from a cupboard withdrew a white gown and a fox mask. When she frowned at his offering, he hastily explained. “You’ll be concealed wearing this,” he told her.

“I think, rather, I’ll be a spectacle,” she countered.

“Not so, this is the garb of the harem. Women do no freely come and go and certainly not in your shinobi garb. Your presence, however, will be altogether unnoted in this.”

Looking from the mask to the man offering it, Ara asked, “Who are you?”

The man blushed, “No one of renown,” he replied. “I do some scribing work, among other things.”

“A lowly clerk, eh? And yet, I was under the impression that the king’s den was something of a secret to all but a handful of his confidants.”

“Well,” the man continued, “I do a bit more than penmanship.”

Ara tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for a further explanation.

“Will you let me help you, or not?”

“Fine,” she snapped, grabbing the gown and mask. “But know this, if this is a trap. I’ll snap your neck.”

The minister gulped. At least now he knew what was at stake.

Lamenting the impracticality of women’s fashion, Ara stripped off her top. The minster’s face rouged as he sighted her state of undress. He spun around to face a wall as she fiddled with her garments. She turned her blouse inside out, revealing a concealed pouch along the back. She carefully folded her trousers and chemise into the blouse’s pouch. Then, taking the sleeves, she buttoned them to the bottom of her blouse.

Ara felt more naked in the floor-length empire waist gown than when she’d been pants-less. She tugged at the chiffon cap sleeves wondering why someone would bother wearing translucent fabric. But it was not the first time her work had required her to wear finery and after the initial discomfort, she acclimated herself to the sensation.

“Take this,” she instructed the minister, passing him her blouse, which, having undergone its transformation appeared as nothing more than a rucksack.

Ignoring his consternation at her luggage, she flicked her foot forward. The dress was too long; she’d have to walk carefully so as not to trip on it.

“That dress...” the minister stuttered, “suits you.”

Ara frowned at his compliment. “Let’s get out of here,” she insisted, tying the red and white fox mask into place.

“Errr, yes,” the bumbling minister replied, holding the bundle of her clothes in front of him. He skittered towards the door, opening it for her.

Ara took a deep breath as she stepped out of the tapestry room, ready to flee at a moment’s warning.

“Walk slowly,” the minister counselled as they entered the great hall. Ara nodded. She had to flick her feet forward slightly with each step, throwing the length of the dress beyond her step.

As the minister had reported, workers had indeed moved into the great hall and were hastily building scaffolding at various intervals.

“What an inopportune time for the king to summon me,” she muttered to herself, wondering how he could have allowed such a blunder if her secrecy had been so important to him.

“Indeed,” the minister agreed.

As they delved further into the great hall, it became more and more populated. Officials traipsed about while guardsmen wandered about their patrols. As far as Ara could see, there were no other women about. And though she expected to become a spectacle, the gazes of those who noted her passage did not linger. Eyes passed from her to her companion and then reverted to their previous occupation. She was willing to concede that perhaps the minister had been correct about the harem garb, though she still preferred subterfuge to openly parading herself, even concealed by a mask.

“So,” the minister said in a soft voice, “you must be a vixen.”

“Pardon?”

“You are female kitsune, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to find the king’s den.”

“Is this really the place to be having this discussion?” Ara hissed as they passed through a crowd of ministers.

“Right, sorry,” the minster apologized.

Grateful as she was for the help, she couldn’t help but feel he was a bit of a fool.

“Can I at least know your name?”

Growing impatient at his questions, Ara snapped back, “Again, I must inquire if this is the proper occasion for an interrogation?”

The minister blushed, “Sorry.”

Ara’s eyes bulged behind her mask. How foolish could this youth be?

When he spoke again, it was in a sharp tone. “Once we reach the courtyard I can no longer escort you,” he explained. “You’ll be free to wander as you please, but don’t expect the guards to permit your passage out of the gates.”

“That won’t be a problem,” she promised.

When they reached the exit, a pair of uniformed guards tugged the colossal doors open. The white-haired minister guided Ara down the steps to the courtyard path, but he halted at the bottom.

“You should keep that,” he gestured to her outfit, “in case you need to visit the king again,” he remarked.

Ara nodded, seizing her rucksack of clothes from him.

“Oh,” he added, “and if you ever want to see– err…if you ever need my help, come find me.”

“Sure,” Ara offered before making her hasty escape. “Thanks,” she called as an afterthought.

Selecting a path that would guide her to the palace gardens, Ara resisted the urge to slink into the shadows. Her eyes glanced up to the low roof of the stables that she had crawled across to get to the palace. Some of her tension escaped as she recognized the hushed tones of female voices. A trio of ladies bedizen in white gowns and hidden behind blue and red painted fox masks strolled by. At very least, she could be assured she hadn’t been deceived about her costume.

The hedge maze was one of the palace garden’s largest features. There was a constant stream of visitors coming in and out of the well-manicured labyrinth, so Ara’s presence went largely unnoticed.

Unlike most of the visitors, however, she slipped through the maze without hesitation. She turned east at the first fork, then south. By the time she had reached the third intersection, where she branched east again, she had lost sight of the other patrons. She made a final turn south and then followed the winding route around the maze’s perimeter. It was a long trek without an opportunity to track backwards and so most of the maze visitors grew disheartened about this particular route. Eventually, the path ended, rewarding those who persevered with a quaint gazebo, a trickling fountain, and a set of benches.

Ara ignored the frivolity of the scene and pressed a stone on the gazebo’s mosaic floor. There was a click as the passage to the underground tunnel unlocked. She stepped on the entrance slab, her weight causing it to ramp downwards. She slid down the slab to a staircase and the trapdoor sprang back to a locked position.

Erebella waited at the bottom of the stairs.

Erebella was a few centimeters taller than Ara and not nearly as slight. But she could hurl a dagger with greater accuracy than a tengu sharp-shooter could fire his bow. A skill she’d put to great use over the past hundred years.

The two of them were frequently sent out together under deep cover, as they were now.

“Why is he so obsessed with underground passages?” Ara complained as she summoned her innate fire. She gathered the voluminous length of her gown in her arms, tying it in a knot above her knees.

Erebella stared as Ara checked the flexibility of the gown’s new arrangement. “What are you wearing?” she commented.

“You don’t want to know,” Ara replied as she stuffed the fox mask into her pack. “Trust me, ignorance is preferable in this matter.” In truth, Ara would have liked to change attire, but that would mean staying in this underground passage for even a moment longer – something she did not wish to do. There were too many opportunities for treachery and she trusted her employer about as much as she trusted her quarry.

Finding herself adequately mobile, Ara led the sprint down the tunnel. Their feet pattered along, nearly silent, until Erebella couldn’t contain her curiosity. “Was there trouble?” she inquired.

“I... I don’t know,” Ara whispered, hoping to keep her voice from echoing.

“You will have to be more informative than that,” Erebella protested.

“Well,” Ara bit her lip, “I was caught.”

Erebella skittered to a stop. “WHAT?”

“Hush,” Ara slapped her hand over her sister’s mouth. “Your voice will echo in perpetuity down here.”

“What do you mean you were caught?” Erebella hissed.

“You know how I thought someone saw me last time. Well, someone did and he was there – in the king’s private space. But, I don’t think it’s something to worry about. I think he might be a little smitten by me. And, evidently, he didn’t report my last intrusion.”

Erebella didn’t bother to hide her displeasure at the news.

“There’s nothing we can do at this point,” Ara reminded her. “We’ve been entrusted with this negotiation.” She tugged her sister’s hand, pulling her down the corridor. “And now I have less than a month to find them.”

* * * * *

His royal highness, the illustrious King Kazai stared at the culmination of scaffolding traversing the length of the great hall. He seemed frozen as an alabaster-haired minister picked his way through the great hall. “Your highness,” the minister inclined his head in a gesture of obeisance, “is something the matter?”

Kazai’s snapped to attention at the disturbance to his ruminations. He fumbled for words, not quite able to recollect his wits. “I was just observing,” he gestured to the roof.

“Apparently, there was a leak,” the minister commented.

“Ah,” the king refocused his attention, “And has a time been selected for the next meeting?”

“As soon as he returns,” the minister replied.

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