My OC Kirikizu, drawn by the incredible-amazing-fantastic Lauren, aka CielaRose on DeviantArt.
Usually, I’m an obsessive NaNo poster. I post every few days with updates – snippets, character biographies, what-have-you. This year, though, I seem to have abandoned the ‘obsessive poster’ persona for ‘completely absent blogger’ persona. I’m getting a lot done – I’ve passed 32,000 words (which is pretty modest compared to some of my friends who have already passed 50,000 like the superhumans they are) and the novel is still behaving. It makes me suspicious. I’ve realized that I probably won’t be able to complete the novel this month – if I kept writing like it was NaNo for another month, maybe. In one month? Probably not, but at least I knew when I undertook this novel that it wasn’t going to be small. Ah, well – it’s a good thing I love it.
[In other news, my mom and baby sister are in Oregon this week for my niece Seleia’s 13th birthday. Also, potato nachos are my new favorite food.]
ONWARD TO SNIPPETS
“If we can’t take temporary transportation, we’ll have to buy some.”
Shi squinted at him. “With what money, exactly?”
Saizou clapped his friend on the shoulder. “With the money in my bank account.”
“Oh,” said Shi dryly. “I forgot. You’re independently wealthy.”
The front door opened again and the second guard stepped out ahead of a man Saizou had never seen before. He was a tall, slender and pale-faced, with delicate features and a distinctive edge in his eyes that warned Saizou not to judge him by his appearance. His wavy, shoulder-length hair was pulled back to the nape of his neck, and his eyes went from Saizou to Shi and back again with lengthy deliberation before he said, “So you’re Saizou Akita?”
Shi stepped forward, but Saizou held up a hand, stopping the imminent attack. “The last time I looked, health had nothing to do with whether a Lord had control of his daimyo. What kind of lame trick is this?”
Matahachi gave Saizou another slight, insincere smile and held up a hand. “The last time you looked was five years ago. Enough things change in the blink of an eye, and you expect things to stay the same for five years?” A breathy, one-syllable laugh pressed against his lips. “It’s only a formality. I wouldn’t worry.”
Tsuki – the Tsuki he remembered – was warm and alive, a bonfire around which people gathered as naturally as moths drew to a flame. The woman in front of him held none of that warmth. It was like looking at a portrait drawn by a different artist than the one he recalled – the same person, but rendered so differently that, after the initial recognition, they had almost nothing discernible in common.
“Saizou, you recall my bodyguard, Kiba?” Tsuki clarified, and suddenly Saizou remembered catching scattered glimpses of the man years ago, before. In the days when Tsuki would coax him to run across the hills and watch the miners carting gold from the yawning open cave-mouths. In the days when Tsuki would convince Saizou to take her into Tokyo, where they would spend the day throwing coins in fountains for good luck and sampling kebabs and fried pastries from vendors lined along the streets.
The Shadow. That was the name he had called the silent figure, never in the foreground; but always there. Saizou had not thought of him in years, and he was surprised to see the man still serving the same purpose.
“There’s more to him than he lets on.” Saizou watched the doorway Matahachi had disappeared through. “But I’m not sure whether he’s a deliberate enemy or a circumstantial one.”
Saizou allowed himself to smile, and nodded toward the wide bed. “Looks like we’re doubling up.”
“Only because you don’t want to sleep on the floor,” said Shi.
Tsuki shrugged one shoulder. “Not exactly, but there are guesses. He has assassins and bodyguards and a personal army.”
“The men haven’t been conscripted?”
“No. Those who serve the Prince-Regent are exempt from entering the Emperor’s service. It makes it easy to find people willing to flock to his side.”
“Nobody wants to leave their friends and family behind to fight someone else’s war in another country.”
Lord Saizou Akita, you are hereby called to the Palace of the Sun at high noon. You will appeal for Akita Domain directly to Prince-Regent Mamushi, who will personally oversee your case and make a fair and wise decision regarding the ownership of said domain. Failure to respond to this summons will result in the automatic forfeit of Akita domain. Hail the Sun.
Saizou sat on the edge of the bed, reading and re-reading the note until Shi plucked it from his grasp so he could read it. After a moment, Shi said in a dramatic voice, “You’ve been summoned.”
“I don’t have anything formal,” Saizou said. “I’m assuming Matahachi put my belongings in storage, if he didn’t burn them on a bad day.”
“I guessed as much,” said Shi, and flung a long, leather Nehru jacket at Saizou. “Wear that. At least it’s in better shape than the clothes you have.”
Saizou turned the jacket around and held it up to himself. “You seem to have forgotten the fact I’m five-foot-eleven.”
Shi glanced up, his eyes narrowing. “And?”
Shi folded his arms and leveled a challenging stare at Saizou. “It will fit you. If you don’t like the fact it doesn’t reach your feet, deal with it. The arms are long enough.”
“If I wear this, what will you wear?”
“Don’t be such a woman, Saizou. They won’t be looking at me, and if they do, it’s not like they ever look beyond my face anyway.”
Tsuki’s voice came over the intercom with a single word – “Breakfast.”
“Speaking of women,” said Saizou.
Shi blinked at the intercom. “Don’t tell her what I said.”
No songs rang from the mines, although he could hear the faint, metallic ringing of work floating over the crisp breeze. Black smoke rose from chimneys, mingling with dust from the mines, and smudged the storm-swollen clouds above, turning everything into a grim, bleary haze.
Saizou blew out a deep breath and whispered back, “Try to relax. Remember, we also have brains and diplomacy on our side.”
“No,” grunted Shi, “I have brains and diplomacy. You only have me.”
The other figure stood on the Prince-Regent’s right, tall and slender, with his hands folded in front of him and his head tilted to the side. While not as strange a creature as the dog-man, he was a curiosity, if only for the thing fitted around the lower half of his face. It looked like a cross between a gas mask and a muzzle; a sleek, elegant thing still somehow barbaric when attached to a human’s face. He wore a split skirt over close-fitting leggings and boots, and a sleeveless jacket that went high up his neck was cropped high enough to show several inches of lean, hard stomach. His detachable sleeves were openly carriers for knives; a long, thin blade decorated each of his forearms, and even more circled the sash around his waist.
The men turned to see their motorcycles tearing across the courtyard toward them, riderless.
“That’s weird,” said Shi. “I have the keys.”
“If there was no panic,” the man continued, his unblinking gaze still focused on the bartender – whose name, apparently, was Honey, “then why did you push it? It is called a ‘panic’ button because it is intended for times of panic, not mild concern.”
“Kai,” said Honey, putting the glass she had gotten out for Saizou back where it belonged, “when have you ever know me to panic?”
“Never, and that is why your decision to install a ‘panic’ button still confuses me.”
“All right, then we’ll change the name and call it a ‘mild concern’ button. Does that help?”
“It does make more sense, yes,” said Kai.
. “What should I do with this man?” He indicated Saizou with his free hand.
“I think he has a friend bleeding out in the bathroom,” said Honey, leaning her elbows on the counter. “I’m going to go help. You guard the door.”
“I always guard the door,” said Kai. “It’s my job.”
“I don’t mean guard it like a bouncer. I mean guard it like someone who’s preventing the Shinsengumi from entering the place. Keep people from coming in instead of throwing them out.”
Kai gave Saizou a curious look before releasing his arm. “Yes, Honey.”
“The Prince-Regent says forty-eight hours is the most you have. He would prefer Lord Akita and Shi Matsumoto to be caught before then, if possible.”
Haka rolled his eyes. “Yes, well,” he began, but cut himself off. “Of course. The Prince-Regent should see them both in prison before tomorrow evening.”
“Don’t roll your eyes,” said Kirikizu in flat tones.
Haka’s eyes widened and he pulled the telephone away from his ear to give it a startled look before putting it back. “I would never do such a thing. Also, how did you know I did?”
“I heard it,” said the assassin, and hung up, a click signaling the end of the call.
A man stood on the other side of the broken bridge. Saizou could not make out the expression he wore, but his stance was angled and his head lowered, still and observing; a heron standing in the shallows, waiting for a fish to swim near.
Those in the cages were not human at all; but mutts – mutant animals, created to the Prince-Regent’s requested specifications. Large, hulking beasts with grotesque muscles, twisted features, and six legs maximum strength and speed; some with switch-like tails, some with three or four eyes, and all disgusting, in Haka’s personal opinion.
They were dangerous, too, of course; ruled by the growl in their stomachs more than the brains in their thick skulls, and it took someone with a special touch to oversee them, much less control them. Haka knew of only one person who had the ability to make them listen, and by all appearances, she was unlikely.
“Otter,” Haka bellowed, reaching the bottom of the stairs and stopping where the cages and cells began. He disliked walking between them – mutts on one side, sometimes humans on the other. He shuddered. “Otter!”
“Shhh!” The fierce hiss reached him, although it not close by. “Lower your voice, for crying out loud! No, wait, crying out loud cancels the whole ‘lower your voice’ thing. I’m in Violet’s cell.”
Haka blinked. “And that cell is?”
“The last one, commander,” the loud whisper replied, with an added “Geez.”
“Do whatever you do to get them ready.”
“You could stay and watch,” Otter offered.
Haka gave her a sharp look, noted the mischievous glint in her eyes, and leaned down until his face was just inches away from hers. “Don’t push me, Otter.”
She watched him, unblinking, for a long moment, before lifting a finger and pressing it against his chest. Then she pressed, and just as quickly tucked her hands behind her back. “Never again, commander.”
“Your tongue is yours, to form your own words, and I don’t care what those words are,” said Winter finally, “as long as they are minimal, and don’t waste my time.”
Saizou squinted, trying to feel out an appropriate response to the other man’s statement. “So…an apology is a waste of time?”
“Yes,” said Winter.
He could hear General Isao’s voice in his head as he walked; not harsh, but reprimanding nonetheless. ‘A leader who cares for his soldiers is a good leader, but a leader who cares more for his soldiers than for victory can only go so far. You will not be promoted until you learn the unfortunate lesson.’
Saizou had bowed deeply, grinding his teeth until he thought they would turn to powder. ‘Please tell me the lesson, General.’
He could remember the look on General Isao’s face – a sudden sharpening, a fierce light – vicious, with just a hint of regret. ‘Every victory flag is red.’
He lifted his wakizashi and watched the pale winter light glint off the fine edge. “Come out where I can see you,” he said in a loud voice. “To be honest, I’m too tired for hide-and-seek.”
A laugh split the air; loud and half-crazed. “That’s disappointing. I like games.”
Saizou frowned and tensed, lowering the wakizashi. From the stand of bamboo trees across the bridge, a tall figure emerged, his all-black clothing separating from the shadows where he had previously gone unnoticed. The man reached up and pushed his hood back, revealing a shock of wild, unnaturally red hair.
His face split in a wide, white-toothed grin and he lifted a hand, motioning with his fingers as if to say ‘come at me.’ “Who told you I was here? Was it the monk?”
The Prince-Regent turned around. His upper lip trembled, as if to form a snarl, but he smiled instead and drew closer, his hands still clasped behind his back. “Sometimes I think you are the only subject I can trust,” he said softly, standing a few feet away. “You don’t let me down. Do you? Do you let me down, when I’m not looking?”
“What do you think, Prince-Regent?”
The Prince-Regent took one long stride forward and stopped, now just inches away from the other man. They were the same height, and the Prince-Regent’s dark, bloodshot eyes were intense with scrutiny.
He released a sigh. “Kirikizu, my deadly flower, you will never betray me. Do you want to know why?” Before the other man could answer he urged, “Ask me why.”
Kirikizu breathed deeply through the muzzle and listened to the sound that left the filters; a monotone buzz. He was used to it by now, in the way a person got used to chronic pain or bad vision. “Why, Prince-Regent?”
“Because I’ve been good to you,” the other man said, a hollow smile on his face.
The doors slid open with a whisper and a girl stepped into the room – or he assumed it was a girl. Her top half was obscured by a pile of white blankets. He moved to stand up and help her before she tripped over her own feet, but one of her hands shot out and motioned for him to stay where he was.
“Do you need help?” he asked politely, watching in bemusement as she approached him and dumped the blankets beside the mat in an unceremonious heap.
“No,” she said. “I’ve got it.”
“I see that now.” Shi eyed the blankets, then the girl. She was pretty, he thought – or maybe ‘cute’ was the right term. “Nice sweater,” he added, and then mentally slapped himself. I shouldn’t be allowed to talk when I’m not fully cognitive. Who knows what I said to Saizou. I probably talked about puppies.
My OC Shi, as sketched by yours truly.