Vulpine Imperium

Submission Gallery

Beyond the Horizon's Edge (Part 1)

By Anithias A. Freedom
A Foreword

Here at the Vulpine Imperium, we commit to providing a safe place for writers of various backgrounds to collaborate. As such, we avoid sensitive topics such as politics and religion on principle. However, as writers, we are also committed to exploring the human condition and testing its limits. It is in that spirit that I submit this story.

The following depicts relationships between persons of LGBT identity. If this offends your sensibilities, kindly do not read. Comments or complaints can be directed to any admin.


Bezine stepped off the ship, setting footpaw on her ancestral homeland for the first time. Varangia, to her surprise and disappointment, did not look radically different from the Imperium. The trees were a little different, shorter and more rambling in their branches, and there were mountains in the distance. Mountains. Now that Bezine saw them, she knew that there was nothing in the Imperium meriting the word; it was almost flat compared to the magnificent, snowcapped peaks in the distance, towering over the vista of the sprawling, bustling port city.

Beyond that, the differences were minor; slight variations in architecture and the materials used, as well as lots and lots of ferrets. Apparently they formed the ethnic majority here, much as foxes did in the Imperium. No one was giving her much of a glance either, except at her rather male-styled clothing, which told Bezine that attitudes toward Erlani, or at least weasels, had loosened over the last hundred and fifty years.

As Bezine watched the crowds go by, a creeping sense of paranoia came over her that she was being watched. She was using an alias on the ship's manifest, and the ship had been chartered specifically because it lacked a messenger bird service, but still, she couldn't help but worry that, in spite of all that Misanthropy had done to get her there in secret, some beast had anticipated her arrived.

The entire trip to Varangia had come out of the blue. Dawn, Minister Nicolas' new assistant (or keeper, as Bezine privately thought), had unexpectedly come to see Bezine down at the Dusk Watch office one day. After thoroughly checking the room to make sure they were along, she locked the doors, including the hatch to the Minister's office, and then forcefully say Bezine down in a chair.

And then Dawn told Bezine her mission.

Bezine left on a ship that very afternoon, with no provisions save for what Dawn had arranged for her ahead of time, along with a heavy bag. After glance inside once, Bezine decided not to look inside again for as long as possible. She didn't want to know where Dawn had gotten it, or how the vixen had known her measurements.

Standing at the top of the gangplank, Bezine took a deep breath and focused on the instructions that Dawn had given her. First, find the inn. Dawn had specified she stay at the Dancing Sailor, but that first she call at the Faithful Maiden and the Wandering Flute. "You must be seen looking for a place to stay," Dawn had explained. "Use the time to make sure you aren't being followed."

Bezine dutifully followed these instructions, seeing in time the veracity of Dawn's ascribed cover. The Faithful Maiden turned out to be a seedy establishment, with far too many jills waiting around than made sense for simply waiting tables. Quite an ironic name for this place, Bezine thought in amusement before moving on, affording only one glance to the assembled femmes.

The Wandering Flute, in contrast to the previous establishment, was perhaps too respectable for Bezine's tastes. Half of its main level was a stage alive with song and dance, with a second-level balcony to hold the overflow of all the raucous patrons. Bezine's ears flattened back against her head as a round of cheers went up and she had to duck back into a doorway to avoid a loose spray of wine. Certainly not her scene.

The Dancing Sailor proved to be a welcome middle ground between the two previous locations; clean, quiet, and with rooms to spare. Bezine rented a room and went up to it, eager to wash up after the journey. Water had been in scarce supply on the ship, and after travelling a month in the company of sweaty, burly sailors, Bezine was determined to scour every drop of body odor from her fur and clothes.

After bathing herself with a basin and cloth the landlady provided her, Bezine paused in dressing herself and glanced out the window, looking once more to the distant mountains. Clouds obscured the peaks, making them appear even more distant and mysterious. For some reason, Bezine shivered as she looked at them. She decided that it must be the air on her damp fur, and she returned to dressing herself.

She spent the few hours before sunset relaxing on her bed and readjusting to sleeping on a solid surface rather than a hammock on a rocking ship. When the sky outside turned to pinks and blues, she got herself up and went downstairs. The put was busier than it had been at her arrival, but not so busy that she could not other a drink at the bar.

"Put it on my tab," a voice down the bar called. Bezine glanced down the way to see a weasel jack grinning her way. "Anything for as sweet a sight as you, estella mia," he called to her.

Normal Bezine would have rebuffed him, but today was different. Today she had orders. "Oh?" she challenged. "What makes you tink I am sweet, Signor? For all you know, dis apple is sour."

The jack grinned back at her. "Even so, I would sweat that after tasting such fruit, I would cut out my own tongue for knowing that nothing else could tasty so well."

Bezine had to admit, he was good. She almost felt sorry he was wasting his effort. She gave him a coy grin. "Dat might be a welcome change," she teased.

The jack staggered in his chair, his look of shock and his paws clutching at his chest both miming being shot with an arrow. "Sweet and sour one, you wound me," he bemoaned his condition. "How can an arrow from an angel of love hurt so?"

There. That was the code phrase. Bezine smiled at him, reached over, and put a paw on his 'wound'. "Per'aps I can find a way to mend your broken 'eart," she told him slyly.

The jack looked surprised at her forthrightness. "My Lady," he intoned, "do lead on!"

Bezine led him up the stairs, giving him all the smoldering glances she could muster. The moment they were inside her room, however, she dropped his paw, crossed to her window, and closed and latched it securely. She turned to face the jack, noting his demeanor had turned more serious.

"Down to business," she stated. "De Ministry said you 'ad information on de V- Target 23." Dawn had been very specific that she reference the Verfolger only using a code name, as well as to avoid referencing any Ministry member by name. "Compartmentalize as much as possible,” the vixen had stressed. "Always assume that you are being spied upon." Bezine thought it was a bit paranoid, but Dawn was the spy, not her; she probably knew what she was talking about.

The jack noticed, padding over to a small table and setting himself. "Yes," he agreed, "but I'd prefer to discuss payment first."

"Our agents are already in motion," Bezine stated immediately, reciting from memory. "You will find everyting arranged to your satisfaction upon completion of our objective."

The jack chuckled drily. "They told you to say that, didn't they?" He sighed, a look of resignation on his face. "Very well then, it looks like I'm stick with you for now. The information that sent you here is this: we have found a Verfolger base."

This was not news to Bezine; Dawn had said as much when she handed Bezine her assignment. The jill clicked her tongue impatiently. "You tink I said 'alfway around de world and no know why?" She gave him a scathing glare. "Please tell me someting actually new, or maybe I find dis place myself."

The jack chuckled at her threat. "Good luck with that," he told her. "You could wander Varangia for years and not find it. I only know because I knew somebeast who found it first. They told me what they knew- and then they were deal the next day. I am the only beast who knows where the Verfolger are."

Bezine gave him a challenging glare. "And if de Verfolger find you?" she challenged. "What good dis information do you den? Maybe you should tell me where day are and den go collect your reward."

The jack shook his head. "My job is to get you there," he said stalwartly. "Otherwise I don't get my pay. Your boss made that clear. So, for now, I know where we're going and you don't. Trust me," he added. "I'll get you there safely."

Bezine's eyes narrowed. She had little more trust for this jack than she did for the vixen who had arranged this whole trip. It would be just like Dawn to send her on a suicide mission. Still, Bezine did not see what choice she had in the matter. "Very well," she reluctantly agreed.

"Excellent!" Her guide stood, "We leave at dawn. Don't be late."

As he went to leave, Bezine called to him, "Wait!" When he turned back to her, she asked, "What is your name?"

The jack laughed at her. "You're new to this, I can tell," he remarked. "We don't do names. Still, you can call me... Bernardo," he decided. "And I will call you Esmerelda." Bezine's expression only seemed to egg him on. "Esmé for short," he added. "Now, sleep well; we leave at first light."

---------------------------------------------

They travelling four days into the countryside, across hills and mountains, past arbors that put the orchards of Resolution to shame, and passed the occasional walled city. Armöst may reign to the north, Bernardo informed her, but down in the central valleys, it was rule by whatever more the cities decided upon. Some were ruled by a few rich families; others, a duke or lord; still others, ruled by a major chose by the citizens themselves. Bezine thought of Mayor Freedom back home and wondered just how wise this system was.

On their right, the mountains always arose, their peaks either lost in the clouds or covered in show and ice that made them almost impossible to look at directly in the brilliance of the midday sun. The further they traveled, though, the stronger was Bezine's sense of foreboding whenever she looked at them. She had note several bundles in their supplies were wrapped in heavy coats. Thus, when Bernardo stopped at the foot of a high mountain, Bezine was not entirely surprised.

"This is where we climb," he told her. "The Verfolger are based in a mountain castle can into the side near the peak. A couple Erlani were scouting out a new mountain crossing into Hanshima and stumbled upon a hidden path up to it. A few days later, their caravan found them dead. They probably have the path guarded now, so you-" he pointed up at the peak, "-will have to climb."

Bezine turned on him with a glare. "I?" she asked. "Not 'we'?"

Bernardo shook his head. "Sorry, my beautiful Esmé," he told her with a grin, "but here we part ways. I know the path up no more than you do. Just climb and keep going up," he advised her. "From what I heard, you won't miss it."

Bezine glanced up at the peak. It was almost dizzyingly high. "When I am done, where should we meet?" she asked.

Bernardo shook his head again. "My job is to get you here," he told her. "Now my job is finished. Your boss said that once you got there, you would be able to find your own way back."

Of course she did. Bezine made a note to have a frank conversation with Dawn once she got back to the Imperium. She unslung the bag from around her shoulder and knelt to rifle through it. "Well, tank you for dis much, Bernardo," she said grudgingly. "Maybe next time I see you, we do dat 'ole 'cutting out your tongue' ting, okay?"

Bernardo grinned at her. "But I still haven't tasted your fruit," he teased her. "I pray you allow me a taste."

Bezine rolled her eyes as she pull out a mask made of dull iron. "Dream on," she said shortly before fitting the mask to her face.

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The climb up was the most difficult experience of her life. There wasn't even the semblance of a path, forcing Bezine to scramble along the rocks as best she could. That was a difficult enough task normally; in the armor of a Verfolger, it was nigh impossible. Bezine could barely maintain her pawholds in the gloves, though as she climbed higher and the rocks grew sharper and colder, Bezine found them more necessary.

There were some unexpected benefits to the armor, though. It was much warmer than she might have thought, to the point where she soon abandoned the extra cloak. The mask, surprisingly, did not restrict her vision either, though considering the Verfolger emphasis on martial prowess, she supposed it made sense. Still, it was heavy gear and the wind grew dangerously strong as she climbed, such that she had to pause and take whatever limited shelter she could.

By the time she saw the castle, she was almost right upon its walls. It blended right into the stone of the mountain; had Bezine not been activity looking for it, she might not have recognized it as a structure. Panting, exhausted and surprisingly hot for all of the cold around her, Bezine pulled herself into a crevasse formed by the intersection of mountain and castle to rest and consider the problem before her. She could see no entrance on this side, and taking such an entrance would be a bad idea anyway; even with her disguise, the guards would most likely spot her as an impostor. She would have to find another way inside.

She glanced along the wall, her gaze following it a ways before finding the thin outline of a balcony. It was high on the wall, far from an easy climb. Still, the only other option was the ramparts high above. Groaning at the protest of her muscles, Bezine pushed herself onto her footpaws and swayed unsteadily under the influence of exhaustion and vertigo. Then, slowly and painfully, she began to climb.

Somehow, climbing the stones of the castle wall was more difficult than the climb up. Perhaps it was because of the cold, or because of her own exhaustion. Several times Bezine hung on the wall, frozen between carrying on and climbing back down to seek out whatever rest she could manage at the foot of the wall. She didn't know how she found the will or strength to climb on; it was mostly a matter of mustering the sheer determination to climb one more block.

When she pulled herself onto the thin balcony, Bezine had to lie on its surface for a while, panting and heaving for breath. The icy air scalded her lungs as she gulped it down, and she worried for a moment that she would freeze from the inside out. Still, she managed to grab the handle of the door and pull herself up with it. Once standing, she heaved a breath and turned the handle.

It was locked.

Bezine stood there for a moment, caught up in a mad desire to roar with laughter. Of course it was locked. Here the Verfolger were, in a secret mountain castle with a nearly inaccessible balcony, and they'd locked the door to it.

Once she recovered from her giddiness, Bezine's spirits came crashing down. It was getting very late, the night was coming on, and the air was growing frigid. Worse, from the clouds it looked like a storm was coming. She had to find a way in or she would die out there.

Bezine knelt, peering at the frame of the door as best she could. She couldn't see much, but it didn't look like a deadbolt. That was good; if it was deadbolted, there wasn't a thing she could do to save herself. Drawing a dagger from within her cloak, Bezine carefully slid it into the door frame and began to saw at the bolt. It was slow going; fortunately, her dagger was made of stronger stuff than the bolt. By the time the bolt finally broke, night had fallen and Bezine's paw was cramped and pained, but she had access.

As quickly as she could, Bezine pulled open the door, fighting the wind in the process. As she pulled it open, a gust of cold air followed her into the castle, and the wind shut the door quickly behind her. Bezine's heart thudded in her chest, certain the whole castle must have heard the noise and felt the cold air come in with her. She froze, looking carefully around the chamber. It looked like some kind of officers' quarters, with an impressive desk, a large bed, and all kinds of standards and ornaments hanging on the wall. To Bezine's great relief, it appeared to be empty.

Bezine cautiously moved to the desk and started pawing through the papers, looking for anything of note. She peered at the words on a document before groaning. It was in Raulish. Of course it is. Nothing stood out to her, so Bezine moved on to the door at the front of the room. Kneeling, she pulled her hood to the side and put her ear to the door. She didn't hear anything on the other side. Taking a deep breath, Bezine slowly turned the latch and pulled it open.

Mercifully, it seemed she was in luck again. The corridor was empty when she stepped out into it. Carefully Bezine closed the door behind her and began to softly tread her way down the hall. When a beast turned the corridor, Bezine had to fight the impulse to duck and hide; as it was, she got a strange look from the beast, a marten who was wearing the outfit of the Verfolger but not the mask. Bezine realized, to her humiliation, that the Verfolger must not wear their masks all the time. Even they had to relax from time to time.

She continued her way through the castle, exploring hallway by hallway. She didn't encounter anyone else in the halls, but she did overhear snatches of conversation in a variety of languages- Raulish, of course, but also Varangia, Callisparian, and, surprisingly, Vulpinsulan. Bezine listened in on these as best they could, but they turned out to be disappointingly mundane discussions- what was being prepared for dinner, who was changing shifts with who, and so on. The most interesting discussion was on politics in Armöst, which Bezine would have liked to listen to a little more simply because it was an interesting topic, but she had to move on for fear of being discovered.

It was dark outside of all the windows, and Bezine was beginning to worry. She had yet to find any intelligence justifying the trip, and if she left empty-pawed, it would seem like she hadn't even tried. She was just considering heading back to the officers' quarters and grabbing whatever she could when she passed a room with an open door. Through the door, she could see a large table with a map spread across it. Creeping forward, Bezine glanced around inside to make sure she was alone before entering. The room had thin windows and another door on the opposite side, along with a large number of chairs, tables and maps on the walls; to Bezine's eyes, it looked like some sort of planning room.

Cautiously she approached the map on the table, noticing tiny, carved wooden masks dotted across the continents. Her eyes followed the coast of Varangia up to Raul, finding a mask there; another one she found on the mountain ranges to the south, where she was now. Her eyes scanned the map, shocked by the sheer number of masks across the world, on every continent and every major nation; and finally, she alighted upon the Imperium. Her heart nearly stopped beating, and it felt like it might drop out through her stomach.

There was a mask on Bully Harbor.

"See something that scares you, little one?" a voice missed from the corner. Bezine whirled to see a Verfolger emerge from behind the door, towering above her. Bezine slowly backed away as he advanced on her, his motions slow and unhurried. "Little kits should not play in the dark," he warned her. He drew a sword from his side, the metal hissing as it left its sheath. "Dangerous things lurk in the night. And night is failing, little one," the Verfolger told her. "It falls on your island even now."

Bezine backed away from the table, carefully keeping her eyes on the Verfolger as she moved toward the door on the opposite side. She had no idea where it led, but it had to be better than here. "You tink you can scare me?" she challenged, her defiance undermined by the frightened squeak in her voice. "I am a Watcher of de Dusk. I guard de Imperium against de 'orrors of de night. You are not so scary."

The Verfolger chuckled throatily. "Bravery," he mused. "A good quality. You might have made a good Verfolger. Your loyalty is misplaced. Your employer sent you here to die; your guide sold you out before you arrived. Do not fear," he added, seeing the fire in her eyes. "Betrayal is a crime deserving death. He will die for his treachery, even for betraying you to us. We cannot trust such a beast either."

"Well, at least someting good came of dis," Bezine muttered to herself, still backing toward the door. Just a few more steps...

"Do not think you can escape," the Verfolger warned her. "We led you here to corner you. Why do you think we let you in so easily? Did you think we leave our plans lying out? You are here because we wanted you to be. Go on, open the door."

Bezine had just edged her way back to the door. At his words, she seized the handle and flung the door open-

To find herself on a balcony. Out to the distance, the land rambled away, infinitely before her. The wind howled about Bezine as she peered over the edge. She couldn't even see the end of the drop down.

"Make your choice, Imperial," the Verfolger called to her. "Choose which darkness you will face today; the night that falls, or the fall into the night."

Bezine felt herself growing dizzy as she looked over the edge, a horrible realization hitting her. She was not going to survive. One way or another, she would be killed this night.

She turned back to the Verfolger, mustering all the glare she had to shoot at him through her mask. "Dat's where you're wrong," she told him defiantly. "I am no Imperial; I am Erlani."

With those final words, she turned to the balcony, climbed up on it and dropped.

Her wits just about few out of her as she hung in the air, and then in a jarring impact she hit the mountainside. Immediately she was flying down the steep, icy slope, sliding out of all control. Soon enough, the ice gave way to rock, and Bezine was tumbling, pounded from all sides as she collided with stones and rocks. Even her armor could not save her from some of the more painful collisions. Finally, she was sliding through rough brush, which was just smooth enough that she could right herself and see where she was sliding.

There was a river right below her.

The last thing Bezine managed to think is 'This is going to hurt'.

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The Dark Forest was soft. Soft and dark. Bezine had expected the last one, really, but she hadn't expected soft. It felt like soft blankets wrapped all around her. And it was warm, too. Warm like a nice fire, only smaller and all around her, warming her up. And there was a smell, too. It smelled like... spices?

With what felt like a world of effort, Bezine fluttered open her eyes. She couldn't see much of anything at first; the ceiling looked strange and distant. She squinted, trying to see it clearer. It was strange and distant. It looked like a bunch of octagons stacked on top of one another, going up for ten or so felt before it ended in a tile roof. The whole place seemed to be painted red, but the light was all soft and orange.

With an effort that left her a pounding headache, Bezine tilted her head to the right and squinted as soft, glowing orange lights filled her view. Candles, she realized. Moving her gaze to the corner of her eyes, she thought she could just make out a bunch of sticks stuck in a hanging pot above her, wafting smoke. And beyond that...

Bezine felt a scream bubbling up in her throat, but it couldn't get out past the fluid filling her throat. On a stand above her, staring down at her with empty sockets, was the mask of a Verfolger.

Wooden doors in front of her opened and a short, bald ferret in an orange robe poked his head in. He took one look at Bezine, his eyes grew wide, and he ran scouting from the place, his words incomprehensible to Bezine. Bezine tried and failed to sit up; her chest hurt to the point she could barely move. She lay there, waiting, staring up at the mask above her. She'd come so far, gone through so much... And now she was back in the Verfolger's clutches. She just couldn't seem to win.

She heard the sound of pawsteps, a lot of them. She lifted her head up a little to look and see what was coming. What she saw surprised her. A lot of ferrets, wearing rough homespun clothes and wide, conical straw hats, were approaching. Bezine watched as they set down bags of rice and baskets of vegetables at the steps of the small building Bezine was housed in, until there was a small mountain of gifts covering the whole steps. Then, they lined themselves up in rows and columns in front of the building, in some kind of village square. Then, to Bezine's astonishment, they knelt and began to bow, touching head to the ground.

It was only when she glanced at a hook beside the door, where a battered iron mask and a set of ripped and dirtied black robes hung, that it clicked for Bezine. These people worship the Verfolger. They must have found me and thought I was one.

I just became a village god.


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Once the bowing was done, an ancient ferret with a long, long goatee was called for. He came into the structure (a shrine, Bezine had now realized) and pulled back the heavy blankets covering Bezine. To her embarrassment, she had been completely stripped while she was unconscious, and a mess of herbs and dried pastes now covered her. She could see exactly why it hurt so much to move as well; her ribs were a mess of black and blue beneath the healer's ministrations. She felt relieved to be alive at all, now she saw the damage.

The healer, for his part, did not seem the least bit embarrassed by Bezine's state. When an elderly ferret approached with the priest and asked a question, he grunted back a short, muttered answer in their language. A moment later, he turned toward the other villagers and barked some kind of order. A group of femmes came forward, carrying a pail of water that steamed in the cool morning air and a set of towels. Bezine's eyes widened in surprise as they began to wet the towels and lay them all over Bezine's battered chest. This is... nice.

The village elders went their way, still discussing amongst themselves, and Bezine was left to enjoy her bath, which was surprisingly pleasant, given the heat of the towels and her wounds. It didn't hurt that she was being bathed rather than bathing herself. I'll have to see about becoming a god back home as well.

Once all of the paste and medication was washed away, the femmes carefully helped her stand, which was an arduous process in and of itself; it was really closer to being lifted by them. They wrapped her in robes of some kind of smooth, luxurious material of which Bezine had never felt the like; then, slowly, they began to process out of the shrine.

A small procession of village-folk were waiting outside, some of them carrying odd musical instruments made from reed pipes. As Bezine was carried into the procession, they began to play on these instruments, giving short blasts that echoed unharmoniously against each other. Bezine winced, trying not to show her discomfort at the noise. When they began to walk at a snail's pace, she had to restrain a groan. It was going to be a very long walk.

They wound their way through the village, which Bezine had a chance to look at for the first time. It seemed like the whole place was sprawled across the side of a mountain- not the same one she'd fallen down, to her relief. Those peaks she could see in the distance a few miles away. She could also see a river winding through the valley below, past some small houses on the bank. She must have floated down, unconscious, until somebeast had pulled her out.

The houses were an interesting sight themselves. They were all simple constructions, one or two stories, really little more than big wooden boxes, but the architecture was interesting. The roofs all had a strange slant that flanged up a bit at the end, and there was a surprising amount of detail. For example, every single roof tile, at its end, had a molded image of a Verfolger mask. Again, Bezine wondered just what she'd gotten herself into.

The procession wound its way to what Bezine assumed was the village chief's dwelling. It was twice as large as any other building, and it seemed as if the whole village was waiting inside. The moment Bezine was walk-carried inside, villagers rose from around low tables, put their arms cupped out in front of them, together intoned some sort of greeting that Bezine couldn't understand, and bowed. Bezine tried to mimic their movements, but even putting her paws out in front of her nearly sent her to the floor; the femmes escorting her had to catch her and hold her up. Carefully they guided her to a table at the front of the room, where the elder, the priest and the healer were all waiting. Bezine could hear anxious muttering from the room, and she thought she knew why. Gods aren't supposed to bleed.

The femmes helped her to sit down upon a small cushion, and two remained to help her while the others went to join their families. Bezine looked at the placement of dinnerware in front of her. There were two bowls, a small cup, and two strange sticks. She wasn't given time to contemplate their meaning, as a clear liquid was being poured into the smaller of the two bowls. The same was given to everyone else at the table, and simultaneously to all the guests as well.

The village chief picked up this bowl, holding it up to the room. Bezine tried to pick up hers, but her arms were still protesting, so one of the femmes held it for her. The chief started to give some sort of speech or toast, Bezine couldn't quite tell which. She tried to pay attention, but not knowing what he was saying, it was easier to just watch the room. She saw all ages in the room, sorted apparently by family. She also noticed one table sitting completely empty. Who was supposed to be here but wasn't?

Suddenly the speech came to an end, and the village chief shouted "Ganbei!" The room echoed his cry back, and Bezine followed suit a second late. One of the femmes lifted the bowl of liquid to Bezine's mouth, and Bezine took a gulp. That was all she managed before her stomach rebelled and she was doubled over, coughing and spraying the liquid all over the floor. She could still taste the horrible, burning liquid in her mouth, its thick, cloying taste obscuring everything else. She could feel the entire room watching her and felt her face burn. That had to be some sort of breach of protocol.

Fortunately, the healer saved her. He turned to the village chief and began scolding him in his thick, grunting accent. The chief's cheeks burned with embarrassment, and he turned and bowed repeatedly to Bezine, mumbling some kind of fervent apology. Bezine waved her paw, trying to dismiss his apology as she recovered from her fit. The healer stood and started rearranging the dishes on the table, placing one that seemed to be full of nothing but bird meat and peppers closest to her, and moving the pot of terrible liquid far away. He gave a grunting shout to the room, and an elderly femme came running forward with another pot. This the healer poured into Bezine's cup, a steaming amber liquid filling the earthenware. One of the femmes raised this to Bezine's lips, and she cautiously sipped. To her great relief, it was tea, and actually quite good tea. Bezine drank as deeply as she dared before waving her paw to take the cup away. Despite all of her internal injuries, it seemed to hit the spot; the pain felt a tiny bit less intense than before.

The meal proceeded uneventfully, to Bezine's relief. Every so often the chief would declare another "Ganbei!" and the whole room would toast in response, but fortunately they seemed content to let Bezine drink her tea. Eating was quite difficult, however. It turned out that the villagers used those sets of sticks in order to pick up food, using them much like Vulpinsulans used a fork. Bezine tried to pick them up and emulate the hold the village chief had on his set, but it was difficult, first because she was left-pawed, and second because they kept springing out of her paw. Fortunately the femmes interpreted this as Bezine's injuries hindering her and began to feed her using their own set.

All in all, the meal was pleasant. It turned out the healer had picked out the spiciest and hottest foods for Bezine to eat; fortunately, it was not so far from the level of spice the Erlani regularly consumed, and so she was able to down the food easily enough. Eventually, however, the moment she had been dreading arrived: the chief turned to her and asked a direct question.

"Scusi?" Bezine hoped that at least someone would recognize the Callisparian tongue. If any Erlani had been this way, there might even be someone in the village who knew how to speak it.

No dice. The chief looked perplexed and turned to the priest, the two muttering together for a while. The villagers seemed to have noticed the commotion and had grown very silent. Bezine felt her ears grow hot with embarrassment. "Sorry," she apologized, giving Vulpinsulan a try.

This didn't work either. The elders all looked perturbed by this development, sitting and muttering together. Bezine was left to sit in silent embarrassment. The femmes kept helping her eat and the banquet proceeded, but there was an uneasy feeling in the air. Whatever welcoming spirit had been there before was damaged.

After the meal, the femmes brought her back to the shrine and helped her into the makeshift bed there, but they no longer seemed as at ease around her either. They helped her out of the robes, covered her up, and the left, closing her in. Bezine was left alone with her thoughts and the spirits of the Verfolger.

For the next few days, it was the same story. Everyday the femmes would bring her food, usually something spicy, help her to eat, and then leave as soon as she was done. Her attendees had shrunk down to two now; a thin, pretty ferret who smiled a lot, and who always wore a flower blossom above her ear by sticking the stem through her many earrings; and another one, a little more plain and quiet, who rarely spoke except in low tones.

The healer came once a day as well to inspect Bezine's wounds, grunt and mutter to himself a bit, and administer some kind of paste. Then he would leave, and Bezine would be alone again until her next visit.

Being alone so often, Bezine occupied herself as best she could. She did small exercises, simple things like lifting her arms or bending her legs, just to get her muscles working again. It was difficult, especially since her chest still hurt so much, but she could feel herself improving bit by bit. By the fourth day, she was able to slowly stand up and walk herself around the edge of the shrine, using the wall as a support.

It was during one of these walks that the doors to the shrine abruptly opened, and Bezine turned her neck as best she could to see who it was. A ferret jill she didn't recognize was standing there, her mouth hanging open a little bit. Bezine realized, to her embarrassment, that she'd left her blankets behind, since they were too troublesome to carry on her walks. In any case, she hadn't thought it would be a big deal; it hadn't bothered her caregivers, so she'd just assumed no one else visiting her would be surprised.

The jill seemed to recover her wits, looking away from Bezine as she spoke. "I am' Àilín, bu't you may call' me Eirene," she told Bezine. Her voice sounded strangely familiar to Bezine, and as she watched the ferret jill's face, thin, grey-furred with a black mask, Bezine had the stange feeling they'd met before. When she voiced as much, however, the jill emphatically shook her head. "Bu'shi. I no 'ave been to your lan'd."

"Den 'ow do you speak Vulpinsulani?" Bezine challenged. She began working her way back to the blankets, hoping to grab one and cover up.

"I wor'k in de por't," Eirene answered, still avoiding looking at Bezine. Bezine noticed her face was flushed red, and her words seemed clipped. "I haf' to s'peak' wit' many beas't."

Bezine picked up the lightest of her blankets with great effort and tried to wrap it about herself. To her disappointment, her arms were still too weak to reach around to her back. "Can you 'elp me?" she asked of the jill.

The jill gave her one scathing glance before moving to the door and shouting out it. "Suyun! Meihua!" A moment later, the two femmes who had been doing the most of the tending to Bezine came rushing in. Bezine realized Eirene must have shouted their names, and felt bad for never learning their names. She had privately been thinking of them as Silent and Flowers this whole time.

Suyun and Meihua pulled the blanket away and helped Bezine into one of her robes instead. Eirene stood facing away as Bezine was dressed. "Zeh erders' wan't answers' as' to who you are, an'd why you come here," the jill said.

Bezine considered shrugging, but Eirene wasn't even looking and it wasn't worth the back pain in her estimation. "Knowing where 'ere is would 'elp me answer," she replied. The femmes tied the sash tight around her waist, and Bezine grunted a bit with the pain of the sudden constriction. Eirene took that as her cue to turn around.

"You are in Fushan Villa'jeh, in Hanshima," she replied. Bezine felt like smacking a paw to her own head. Hanshima. Of course that was where she was. She must have come out the opposite side of the mountain and slid right down the other side. No wonder everything looked strange.

Eirene was watching her carefully. "Why were you d'lessed as a gua'dian spi'lit when dey foun'd you?" she asked, her tone slightly accusatory. "You no are our spi'lit. You no even spea'k Hanshiyu."

Bezine had been considering how to answer that for a while now, and thought she had come up with an answer. "I am a guardian spirit," she said immediately, "but no for 'ere. I am a guardian spirit of de Erlani tribe."

Eirene's eyebrows shot up. "Erlaniren?" She sounded skeptical. "Why de Erlani ge't a gua'dian spi'lit? Dey no p'lac'tice our way."

Bezine tried to sound magnanimous as she spoke. "Every village 'as its own guardian," she replied, "and its own way. No is always de same way, no?"

Eirene grunted noncommitally, a characteristic Bezine was increasingly noticing among these Hanshimans. "Den how you ge't here?" she asked. "Di's is fah f'lom Falanjiya. Why you no gua'd your t'libe?"

Bezine had composed an answer for that as well. It was a long shot, and way playing on a lot of assumptions about local mythology, but it just might get her home free. "I was called to guard 'Anshima," she claimed. She pointed in the direction of the mountain where the Verfolger base was located. "Demons attacked de crossing, and all de guardian spirits of de land fought dem dere," she claimed. "We drove dem away, but I was injured in de fight and fell to eart'. Dat is 'ow I get 'ere."

Eirene gave another noncommittal grunt. Bezine had the feeling she was the village skeptic. Still, she replied, "I will tell dem da't, an'd we see dey say wha't."

Bezine did not have to wait long. Soon enough Eirene was back, the three village elders in tow. Bezine noted they looked slightly less wary of her than they had after the dinner.

The village chief stepped forward and began speaking. Eirene listened politely before translating. "He wehco'me you as a gua'dian spi'lit an'd dan'k you for leafing your t'libe to defen'd our lan'd. We offer you hospitalidy an'd care, until you can leaf to defen'd your t'libe."

Bezine nodded and, putting her arms out in front of her and cupping her paws, gave a bow that nearly dizzied her with pain. Suyun and Meihua had to grab her by the arms to support her.

The priest spoke up, and the elders and Eirene all listened for a bit before replying. It sounded to Bezine's ears like an argument was brewing, and judging by Eirene's protesting tone, the ferret jill was on the losing end of it. When the jill turned to face Bezine, her expression was angry and her tone was resentful. "Wu Seng say because dis is temper of rocal gua'dian, you no can stay 'ere, bu't since I spea'k wit' you, you stay wit' me."

It took Bezine a moment to decode Eirene's accent, but when she did, she could immediately see the predicament. Eirene looked about as eager to play host as Kaden would be. "Maybe I should stay wit' de doctor," Bezine suggested. Eirene translated this suggestion and the grunted answer came quickly. "He say you no nee'd doctor," Eirene said, her tone clearly displeased. "You nee'd moof'men't. Oderwi'se you no wah'k righ't. I lif' fah f'lom villa'jeh, so he tin'k is goo'd."

Bezine took a deep breath. She could see that this was going to be a very long stay indeed. "I graciously accept your 'ospitality," she told Eirene, bowing to her again. This time Suyun and Meihua did have to catch her from falling. Eirene grunted again, looking less than pleased.

"Joi."

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Eirene's house was quite far from the village. To get there, they had to go down a thin trail that zigzagged down the mountain, cutting across terraced fields and ponds with rice growing in it. Bezine was amazed by some of the places these villagers seemed able to farm. She counted five fields just in the space between one narrow bend in the path and the other. With Suyun and Meihua supporting her the whole way, they made a bit of an ungainly six-legged beast, but somehow they got their way down.

The house was quite small compared to the others, only one floor, and it looked from the outside as if it couldn't have more than three rooms. Upon entering, this proved to be the case: there was a front room with a large, iron pan set into a standing fireplace, which Bezine guessed was the stove; a second room with a table and cushions set off to the side; and then a third room beyond, which Bezine guessed was Eirene's bedroom. The whole place looked surprisingly clean for belonging to someone who traveled for work, and this suspicion was confirmed when Meihua grabbed a broom and dustpan from the corner and started sweeping up.

Suyun helped Bezine follow Eirene into the bedroom. There was one small bed there. Eirene went into a closet and emerged a second later, pulling out a folding cot. She began dragging this to the door, but as she passed Bezine, she gestured to the bed. "Di's is where you s'leep'."

Bezine immediately felt horrified. She hadn't realized staying here would make her an imposition. "I no can," she began to protest, but Eirene cut her off.

"Fir'st lesson of' staying in Hanshima," Eirene said shortly. "If' I no gif' you my be'd, I am' bad hos't. So, be quie't an'd accep't." Bezine shut her mouth. She didn't want to step in it any more than she already had.

Suyun helped Bezine to a set of cushions and set her up there. Meihua had already finished sweeping and was setting up a small table in front of them. Suyun went off to make tea and Meihua joined her as soon as the places were set, leaving Bezine alone with Eirene.

Bezine awkwardly avoided looking at her host, who was giving her a small glare from the corner of her eye. Carefully she reached over and rearranged her place at the table, putting the sticks on the left. A sigh escaped her lips, and she looked over to Eirene with an annoyed expression on her face. "Did I say someting wrong?" she asked bluntly. When Eirene looked away from her, Bezine pushed the matter. "I no know why, but you treat me like I do you wrong. I no like being 'ere eitter, but I no 'ave choice. If I 'ave choice, I gone already. You understand?"

"Hmph." Bezine's eyebrows shot up at the grudging tone in Eirene's voice. The jill glanced over at Bezine and scoffed slightly. "You ha'd a choi'ce to come here," she said grudgingly. "I no haf' deir supehs'tishun. I know if' you come here, you haf' reason."

Bezine barked a laugh at that. After everything she had been through, the idea of this trip ever having had a purpose suddenly seemed hysterical to her. "If dere is a reason, somebeast forgot to tell me," she mused. "Bad luck seems as good a reason as any."

At that moment Suyun and Meihua came back into the room, bearing tea and a small feast of food. Eirene took the teapot and poured out a cup, offering it to Bezine with a overly-sweet smile. "To your ba'd luck'," she toasted.

"Ba' la'ke!" Suyun and Meihua enthusiastically chimed in, raising their cups.

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Bezine wasn't sure why she awoke. The entire room was dark, no windows to let in moonlight from outside. Everything was silent; Eirene was sleeping in the next room over, and Suyun and Meihua had gone home hours ago. There should be no reason for her to wake up so quickly.

And then she felt the thin metal edge pressing against her throat.

Oh.

From out of the darkness, a mask loomed before her. An iron mask, with glowing, malignant yellow eyes behind it. "Leave," the Verfolger hissed. Bezine was acutely aware of the sharp edge pressing against her throat, how in a second it could slice her open, and-

And then it was gone. The blade was gone, the beast was gone, vanished in the darkness.

Bezine sat up in bed, a painful action if ever there was one. She peered about the room, searching for any intruders. She could see none. Moving gingerly, she swung her legs out of bed and slowly put weight on them. Her knees wobbled dangerously, but she managed to stand- for a second or two. Then she had to lunge for the opposite wall to find support.

Slowly, she worked her way to the door, pulled it open and peered out. Eirene was still in the other room, asleep on her cot, the blanket rising and falling in time with a soft snore. Bezine watched for a moment, considering the jill. She looked far more peaceful and serene while asleep... and beautiful, too. When she wasn't trying to scowl a hole in Bezine, at least.

Bezine worked her way back to the bed, gingerly laying herself back down to rest. It was a bad dream, she told herself. There were no Verfolger here, just her. Still, she thought of the shrine and wondered, for a chilling moment, if the guardian of the village had come to warn her away... before he drove her away.

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The days in the village were very long. Every morning, Eirene seemed to devise a new torturous way to wake Bezine. The first morning, Bezine awoke to find a gigantic spider sitting right on her chest.

Bezine must have screamed for ten seconds continuously before Eirene opened the door, rolling her eyes. "It's fine, you stupi'd girl'," she rebuked. "Da Chong no is poiso'nous'. Anyway, 'e no bite." Bezine was so furious she would have thrown a book from the nightstand at Eirene, but her arms still hurt too much and she wasn't actually sure whether or not she trusted Eirene about her pet spider not being poisonous. In the end, she waited half an hour before Eirene finally came and scooped the spider off her chest.

Bezine stumbled half-dressed into the dining room just in time to see Eirene lifting her spider back into a massive cobweb in the corner. Bezine stared at it, wondering how on earth she had missed it the night before. "You let your spider live 'ere, in de open?"

Eirene shrugged. "Why no dis' way? 'E ge't his' own foo'd, effen I away he s'till' kee'p it clean'. Is a goo'd pe't for me."

Bezine couldn't fault the logic of it, though she still was planning retribution for the fright she received that morning.

The front door opened, and Meihua came in, her signature flower on display in her earrings; today, a rose with the thorns trimmed off. She gave Bezine a dazzling smile as she shut the door and chattered a question her way. When Bezine looked nonplussed, Meihua imitated a high-pitched scream, then pointed to Bezine with a questioning smile.

So the whole village heard that. Wonderful. The guardian spirit, afraid of spiders. "Da Chong," Bezine said shortly by way of answer.

Meihua giggled, but her expression was sympathetic. She began nattering at Eirene in a gently chiding tone. Judging by Eirene's grumpy response, she was having none of it. When Meihua got a broom and started moving toward Da Chong's corner, the roar of fury from Eirene was unearthly- and strangely familiar to Bezine. She was left to frown and ponder where she'd heard it before as Eirene chased a giggling Meihua around the room, trying to snatch the broom away from her.

The next day, it was to a massive beetle poised on her forehead, and the day after that to some bizarre bug that she had never seen in her life but which nonetheless terrified her. All of these, Eirene declared after the fact, were completely harmless and she was just being "s'tupi'd". By the fourth day, the shock value had worn off somewhat, and Bezine just flicked the next bug across the room, rolled over and went back to sleep.

The fifth day, it was Eirene who came into the room, holding a pawful of crushed and mangled cockroaches. "T'ly hah'der," Eirene said shortly, threw the pawful at the giggling Bezine, and turned and left the room.

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Life in the village swiftly settled into a routine. Bezine would awaken to whatever torment Eirene had devised, smash it, get breakfast, and then start training with Suyun or Meihua. Suyun was good enough company; she didn't talk much, but she seemed content that way. Trekking with her was usually productive; Bezine noticed that Suyun was always pushing her right to her limit, and her limit was improving now.

It was with Meihua, however, that Bezine had fun. Meihua was constantly chatty, animatedly talking away to Bezine regardless of whether she understood or not. Bezine enjoyed it, though; Meihua's enthusiasm was infectious, and it was hard not to get lost in her wide, doe eyes sometimes. She also would point out plants along their path and tell her the Hanshiman names for them. Bezine would pronounce them back to her, and Meihua would laugh at Bezine's terrible pronunciation before correcting her. Sometimes Bezine would deliberately mess up her pronunciation in humorous ways, just to hear that laugh one more time.

One day, Bezine returned home from one of these trips to find Eirene waiting at the door. Her eyes narrowed at Bezine as she approached, still arm-in-arm with Meihua.

"I wou'd spea'k wit' you," she said, her tone dangerous. She took Bezine's other arm and led her quite forcibly inside, leaving Meihua at the door. Once inside, she all but threw Bezine to the ground. Bezine felt her muscles protest at the impact, and she loosely rolled over to see Eirene glaring fire and brimstone down at her.

"If' you dare to mis'lea'd Meihua," Eirene said dangerously, "I no wi'll care abou' being goo'd hos't. I wi'll trow you down de mou'ndain myse'f."

Bezine stared up at Eirene, frightened by this sudden attitude. "I no know what you are saying!' she protested.

Eirene rolled her eyes, as if Bezine were being slow. "If you flir't wit' her," she said plainly, "den I kill you. And no p'leten'd," she said harshly. "I see how you loo'k at her. You leaf her alo'ne."

Something clicked in Bezine's brain. Suddenly this whole thing made sense. "You're jealous," she said. She started laughing, amazed by all of this. She was the freak in the Imperium, the one with the dirty secret to hide, and somehow she'd stumbled on the only other one of her kind.

Now it was Eirene's turn to look panicked. Her eyes widened, and fire filled them. She strode forward and viciously kicked Bezine in the gut. As the jill doubled over, Eirene shouted down at her, "I am no ting like you! No ting!" She gave another sharp kick and then exhaled, her rage apparently sated for the moment. "If you know no ting, say no ting," she warned softly before turning and walking away. The front door slammed, and Bezine was left there, curled up alone on the floor.

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The next time Suyun showed up to escort Bezine, she had a kit in tow. A young jack, maybe five seasons old, bounded in the door, shouting, "Liu Ayi! Liu Ayi!" To Bezine's shock, Eirene came out of the back room, knelt with a welcoming smile, and swept the kit up in a hug. Bezine stared at the site; for some reason, she had never conceptualized that Eirene could give hugs.

Suyun strode forward, linking arms with Bezine. She called something to the kit, and Bezine recognized the Hanshiman name they'd given her, 'Duo Beixin'. Immediately the kit wiggled his way out of Eirene's arms and came forward, stopping in front of Bezine. He cupped his arms out in front of him and declared, "Duo Ayi, nin hao." He gave a small bow, which was almost amusing coming from one so young.

"Ni hao," Bezine returned with a smile, practicing one of the few phrases she knew. She turned to Suyun, puzzlement upon her face. "Ayi shi shenme?" she asked, practicing one of the few other phrases she knew.

Both Suyun and Eirene laughed at the question. It was Eirene who answered for her. "Ayi is auntie," she explained. "It is... zenme shuo... affe'shun."

"Ah." A beat. "How do I say 'nephew' then?"

Eirene translated this, and Suyun chuckled appreciatively. Eirene explained, "It no wo'k li'ke da't. You ca'll him 'Xiao Du'. Da't is affe'shun name."

"Xiao Du, ni hao," Bezine greeted the kit, leaning down as best she could. The kit giggled and hid behind Suyun's skirts. Suyun patted him on the head and gave him a smile.

Bezine felt herself smiling as well. "Ta shi ni de ma?" she asked, practicing some of the basic vocabulary she had picked up- 'Is he yours?'

"Shi," Suyun answered immediately. Bezine felt a twinge of surprise- she hadn't thought Suyun was old enough to have a kit. Then again, she'd noticed, everyone here looked younger than they really were.

"Na ta baba shi shei?" she asked, practicing more basic vocabulary. She hadn't realized that Suyun was even married, and she hadn't noticed her sitting with any jack.

Immediately the whole room grew cold. Bezine could feel Eirene's murderous stare on the back of her neck and the awkwardness in Suyun's fidget. When the door opened and Meihua came in, even she seemed able to sense the tension; her smile faltered off her face, and her big doe eyes grew wide with worry.

It was Eirene who broke the silence. "We no discuss da't," she said firmly. "If' you are s'mar't, you d'lop' it."

"What?" Bezine asked, looking among them. Meihua had moved forward and was ruffling Xiao Du's headfur. Suyun was standing close by, one paw on her son's shoulder. Neither of them were looking at her. She couldn't figure out what had upset them so much.

It was Meihua who broke the silence. Bezine didn't understand what she said, but it was spoken as much to Xiao Du as it was to Bezine. Eirene translated for her. "She say she no know where Xiao Du fah'der is, bu't she sure he loff him fe'ly much'."

At last Bezine understood. "Duibuqi, duibuqi," she apologized profusely. Cazzo, I am an idiot.

Suyun waved her paw dismissively. "Mei guanxi." She patted Xiao Du on the back and the two went to the kitchen to start preparing breakfast.

Bezine glanced at Eirene, who was still giving her a glare. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I should 'ave listened to you."

Eirene gave a small hmph. "Ac'tually," she said, "I tin'k da't is firs't smar't ting I hear you say."

It was a backhanded compliment if ever there was one, but it seemed to make a difference. The next day, when Bezine awoke, there was no monstrous bug waiting for her. She waited a moment to see if something would jump out at her; when nothing did, she smiled, rolled over and went back to sleep.

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Bleurrr, bleurrr, bleurr-bluegh-buegh-buh, bleurrr, bleurrr, bleurr-bluegh-buegh-buh, bleurrrr, bleurrrr, bleurrrrrr...

"Cazzo!"


Bezine swore as the steps of the dance changed on her again. Every time she seemed to get the hang of it, the pattern would abruptly change, leaving her to awkwardly stumble to make up the difference. All the while those reed pipes were blaring the same annoying refrain, never varying by a note. Bezine had to keep herself from having vengeful thoughts about where she'd like to shove those pipes.

The village was hosting some sort of ceremony to commemorate a good harvest, and Bezine had been roped into participating. The village healer had apparently decided that joining in the dance would be good exercise for Bezine, and the priest had agreed that her presence, as a visiting guardian spirit, would be most beneficial to the ceremony. Judging by the amount of smiles and laughing at the ceremony, for them Bezine's purpose was purely to amuse.

Bezine was given no chance to object to her participation. Eirene woke her in the morning by flinging a set of clothes onto Bezine's face and announcing that she would be dancing in an hour.

Bezine peeled the clothes off her face and looked at them. They were made from some kind of black velvet and embroidered with flower designs in bright pinks and greens. A sigh escaped her lips and she tossed one arm over her eyes. "Is Tursday," she complained. "I sleep extra on Tursday."

"No on dis Turs'dey." Bezine felt the sheets pulled from her, and she curled up her legs, trying to recover something of the warmth. A moment later, Eirene grabbed her by the ankles and started dragging her to the edge of the bed. Bezine growled in annoyance and flopped over, grabbing the edge of the bed and holding on, digging in her claws. She heard a grunt of frustration from Eirene. "You are mos't stu'bohn girl in de worh'd," Eirene seethed. Suddenly Bezine was flung up in the air by her ankles, and she shrieked in surprise as she flipped over the bed and landed on the opposite side, only just managing to land herself on her footpaws.

After that, there was no arguing with Eirene. Since the outfit was too complex for Bezine to put on by herself, and since Suyun and Meihua were busy helping each other, Eirene had to help Bezine get dressed. Bezine noticed that Eirene turned pink when Bezine undressed and looked away. Bezine rolled her eyes at this. "Per l'amour dell'inferno," she criticized, "you see me like dis before. You no need to be embarrassed." When Eirene didn't look up, Bezine pressed the matter. "Meihua and Suyun 'elp each otter, it seem dey no are embarrassed."

Eirene shook her head, still keeping her gaze at footpaw level. "Is di'fu'len't," she said evasively. "Dey are close, an'd I-"

"Ni xihuan nuren."

Bezine wasn't sure what shocked Eirene more- Bezine's flat statement about her identity, or hearing it in Hanshiman. Bezine rolled her eyes at Eirene's obstinate attitude. "Is okay," she said dismissively. "I no tell; I am same way. You should be careful, dough," she warned. "Is very obvious you like Meihua."

Eirene's face burned hot. "I no do!" she protested, but Bezine waved a paw in dismissal.

"You are jealous when I 'ave fun wit' 'er! Of course you like 'er."

Eirene's expression turned dark. "If you know no ting, say no ting," she warned. She turned and headed for the door.

"'Ey, where you go?" Bezine protested, holding up the shirt. "I still no am dressed!"

"D'less yoursehf' or go wi't no clo'tes," Eirene shot back, slamming the bedroom door behind her.

In the end, Eirene relented and helped Bezine into her outfit with just five minutes to get to the ceremony. Her bad mood had not dissipated, however, and all Bezine's attempts to apologize were met with grumpy hmphs. By the time they both were ready, Meihua and Suyun were just arriving at the door to see why the pair hadn't shown up to the ceremony yet. Together, they all walked up to the ceremony. Bezine had gotten well enough that she could walk by herself now, but Suyun and Meihua lingered nearby, just close enough that they could support Bezine if necessary.

They arrived at the village square to find the entire village assembled and waiting in front of the Verfolger shrine. Bezine still felt chills when she saw it; she couldn't help but worry about how it got there, and what it would mean for her when the local guardian spirit finally did show up.

The opening ceremony was simple: the village leader held up an iron gong and the priest banged on it every two seconds or so. After a minute, the reed pipes joined in, the pipers slowly circling around the gong in procession. Then came the worst part: the dancing.

Bezine swore again as the steps changed once more, and she heard Suyun's throaty chuckle and Meihua's high giggle from down the row. Bezine turned and stuck her tongue out at them both, and then had to rush to catch back up with the steps. It really wasn't that complex; mostly it was just moving one's feet slightly forward. Left, right, left-right-left-pause, right, left, right-left-right-pause. Still, she found herself tripping up enough to be frustrating. This isn't dancing, she thought. This is torment with a rhythm.

Eventually the song wound to an end, and Bezine was surprised to find that she still had energy. It hadn't been a hard dance, she supposed; still, it felt good that after all of this, she wasn't in pain or spent. Bezine glanced over at the healer and saw him nod in approval. She was making progress.

Suddenly a kit's voice called out, "Duo Ayi!" Bezine looked over to see Xiao Du grinning at her. The villagers caught on and took up the call: "Beixin! Beixin!" Bezine meekly tried the wave away the call for a performance, but suddenly she found herself lifted up by the arms and carried into the center of the circle by Suyun and Meihua, both grinning with mischief. Bezine had to admit, they were much stronger than they looked.

As soon as Bezine was set down, she held up her paws in acknowledgment, and the cheers died down. She waved to Eirene, who came over and listened as Bezine explained what she needed. A few minutes and a supply trip or two later, they had what she needed. Suyun was seated at some kind of long zither, carefully tuning it, as Bezine shuffled a deck of Hanshiman playing cards, feeling their weight and adjusting her paws to compensate.

A moment later, Suyun started to strum a quick, plucky tune that somehow reminded Bezine of spring. She had to actively focus on her dance, trying to adapt to the unfamiliar beat and song. After a moment of holding her paws aloft, the cards suspended between them, she found the beat and started her dance.

The cards split, cascading through the air, but Bezine was already in motion. Her paws snatched at cards, flicked them about, wafted them into the air, keeping them up with the precision of a practiced dancer. She had grown, but the dance had not changed; it was still as natural as breathing to her. She could hear the appreciative gasps and laughs of the villagers, the thrill of performing before a crowd-

A sharp pain tore in her side, and Bezine found herself collapsed on the ground before she even knew she had fallen. Cards fluttered about her, floating to the ground, the dance abandoned. All she could feel was the remnant of that pain, like a gash torn open in her side.

A set of paws slipped around her and helped her to sit up, and it took Bezine a moment to comprehend who was holding her. Eirene. The jill was almost nose-to-nose with Bezine, and the weasel jill could clearly see the anxiety in her caregiver's eyes. It was extremely shocking to see.

Then Suyun and Meihua were there as well, helping her to her footpaws. Bezine struggled to stand, the pain still making every motion on the right side of her body an agony. The village healer pushed through the crowd and immediately was poking at her side, his busy eyebrows furrowed. When he touched the spot where she was injured, Bezine flinched violently, and his jaw set, his goatee quivering with the motion. He began to mutter at Eirene, his accent still incomprehensible to Bezine, though Eirene seemed to understand well enough and translated for him. "You hu't yourse'f," she said. "You nee'd to res't."

"You no say," Bezine replied tersely through gritted teeth. She could barely stand; she was worried she might have to be carried back to the house.

Just at that moment, a commotion arose. A kit came running into the village, shouting a word Bezine didn't recognize. Immediately the villagers all began shouting and moving in a flurry. A good number of them flocked to the shrine and knelt, bowing fervently to the Verfolger statue. Others were running to their houses, fleeing the square as quickly as possible.

Bezine glanced about at all of this. "What is it?" she asked. "Shi shenme?" Suyun looked grim, and Meihua seemed actively worried- she was whispering in fearful tones to Suyun, and Bezine felt Meihua reach past her to put a paw on Suyun's back, drawing her close as possible without squashing Bezine. Eirene had vanished; Bezine looked around for her, but couldn't see her in the chaos.

A minute later, the source of this disruption marched into the square. Ten soldiers in old-style Hanshiman armor came up the path, swords displayed prominently over their rattan armor. The lead one appeared to be their officer, judging by his more impressive helm and his arrogant swagger as he marched into the village. The soldiers spread out across one end of the square, leaving the officer to step forward.

Bezine didn't understand his words, but his tone was apparent- arrogance and superiority. As far as he was concerned, he owned the town now. Bezine felt a chill of mixed fear and hatred. She knew from reading a Ministry briefing on Hanshima that it was trapped in a civil war, with warlords vying for power and their soldiers often preying on the smallfolk. This seemed to be just that type of soldier.

The officer was halfway through his tirade when he caught sight of Bezine. Immediately his words died, and he stared slackjawed for a minute. When he recovered his wits, he strode forward and stared intensely at Bezine's face. Bezine considered biting his face off, but decided against it; she didn't have a plan yet for dealing with the other nine soldiers, and she doubted they would all line up nicely for her to sink her teeth into them.

The officer stepped back and roared a question at the assembled villagers. When silence reigned, he spoke again, louder and more demanding. Someone in the back of the crowd called an answer, and the officer gave Bezine a searching glance once more. After a pause, he started laughing out loud, and Bezine's spirits sunk. So much for being a guardian spirit.

The officer pointed at Bezine and spoke, and two of the soldiers strode forward toward her. Bezine felt panic as they closed in. No no no no! When they tried to grab her by the shoulders, Meihua screamed, and the soldiers tussled with the two femmes to grab Bezine. The other soldiers started moving forward, and there was sudden confusion as the villagers began shouting at the soldiers and surging forward. There was a commanding shout and suddenly swords were drawn from scabbards, causing the villagers to pull back. The officer and his soldiers pressed forward, swords out, and forced the villagers back and away. Meihua and Suyun were wrestled away from Bezine by two soldiers, and another grabbed Bezine by the arm and all but dragged her forward.

Bezine lunged at the soldier and dug her teeth into his shoulder, and he cried out in pain. Something hard struck the side of Bezine's head and the world went red for a second. When she recovered, she found herself on the ground, the officer standing above her. She tried to move and couldn't; her head and chest hurt too much for her to more than stir. She could only watch as he raised his blade above his head, preparing to bring it down on her.

There was a flash of light, and suddenly his head wasn't there anymore. Bezine blinked instinctively and felt blood sprinkle her face. The body collapsed, and another figure moved into her view: a figure robed in black, wearing an iron mask, a blood-stained tri-bladed halberd in their paws. A Verfolger.

The next minute passed in front of Bezine's eyes without her understanding any of it. She saw flashes of combat as the Verfolger stood over her, fighting away the soldiers and protecting Bezine. She couldn't count the soldiers who fell, or the times the blades clashed. All she could do was watch that masked figure, the way they moved, and the blade they swung.

When the battle ended, the Verfolger knelt over Bezine and reached one paw behind Bezine's head. Bezine felt her head gently cradled, raising her just enough to look the Verfolger in the eye. She was surprised by what she saw there: fear, anxiety, concern. But most of all, what surprised her was the eyes. Those distinctive, familiar yellow eyes.
Just as she passed out, Bezine finally understood.