Vulpine Imperium

Submission Gallery

Beyond the Horizon's Edge (Part 2)

By Anithias A. Freedom
Bezine awoke with a pounding headache. The room was dark, the door closed, so she could not tell if it was night or day. She could feel a tight bandage about her head, all along the left side of her head where the soldier had struck her.

Bezine peeled apart her dry lips and let out a low moan. She heard the sound of movement from across the room and pawsteps rush to the side of the bed. She felt a soft paw on her face and heard a soft hushing whisper. "You are hu't," she heard Eirene's voice say softly. "Les't. You nee'd slee'p."

Bezine tried to make her tongue work, but it was difficult; she seemed to have forgotten how. "W... water," she croaked. Immediately she heard the sound of water being poured into a cup, and suddenly it was right there at her lips. The trickle was soft and slow, not fast enough for Bezine to choke herself trying to down it. Then the cup was gone, and Bezine swallowed, feeling the moisture sate her thirst.

Bezine cleared her throat before trying to speak. "You saved me," she said slowly. "Tank you."

There was a pause, and Eirene's reply came cautiously. "De gua'dian spi'lit safe you. I no do anyting."

Bezine coughed out a chuckle, the best she could do. "I remember you, Eirene," she said softly. "We fought in de tunnel in Bully 'Arbor. I insulted you, and you tried to kill me. I no saw you clearly den, but now I know. Your voice, your eyes, your blade, all are de same. It is you. You try to kill me and now you save my life."

There was a long pause. Bezine heard Eirene walk over to the wall, and a rustle as if she were leaning against it for support. "Yes," she acknowledged at last. "I t'ly to kill you. I still t'ly to kill you." Bezine squinted, and she could see a glint of metal in the darkness. A blade. It hung there in the air, raised up, poised to strike... and then slowly lowered back down. When Eirene spoke again, Bezine could hear her voice shake. "I shoul'd kill you," Eirene protested. "You t'ly to hun't me. You go to moun'dain to kill us. Why I no kill you? You are enemy." She sounded almost as if she were trying to justify it to herself.

Bezine squinted at the darkness. Eirene hadn't moved, as far as she could tell. "And still you no killed me," she noted. "If you wanted me dead, you could 'ave killed me a tousand times. You could 'ave let dat soldier do it. So, I tink you no want me dead. Dat is what I no understand." She tilted her head slightly. "Why you no want me dead?"

There was a pause in the darkness. Abruptly there was a flurry of movement and Eirene was right there. Bezine could feel the cool, hard edge of the dagger against her throat and Eirene's hot breath wash across her face. Bezine dare not breathe, not wanting to provoke the jill into carrying through on her word.

And then Bezine felt lips on her own. Soft lips, far softer than Vin's had been when he'd dared to claim Bezine's first kiss and she'd pushed him away, almost out of her life entirely. There lips were not daring; they were trembling, torn between staying and fleeing. Bezine did the only thing she could think to do: she returned the kiss.

And then Eirene was gone, the door flying open and a dark figure disappearing through it in a flurry. Bezine was left alone in the room, a dagger left abandoned on her bed and the trace of a kiss still lingering on her lips.

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

When Bezine awoke in the morning, it was to Suyun, not Eirene, opening the door. She bustled in, carrying a tray with a large bowl of soup on it, and set it on Bezine's lap. Meihua followed shortly, bearing a pot of tea and a few cups. Soon enough the two had set themselves up sitting on the sides of the bed and were helping Bezine to drink her soup.

As she ate, Bezine found a spare moment to ask where Eirene was. Suyun's response was direct: "Chu qu." She's out. Meihua's answer was, surprisingly, not much longer. From what little Bezine understood, she'd gone out early and left a note under Suyun and Meihua's door asking them to come feed Bezine.

Bezine nodded, unsure how to take this. She wouldn't be surprised if Eirene had bolted for good; in her place, Bezine would probably have done the same. She hesitated, unsure of how far to proceed. She trusted Suyun and Meihua deeply, and it seemed like Eirene did as well, but still, how far could trust go?

She decided to forgo caution. This whole ordeal was a mess, and she needed to share with someone just to get the madness of it out from inside her head. "Ta ai wo," she said plainly. She loves me.

The pair laughed at that, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Dang'ran," Suyun chuckled, patting Bezine affectionately as if she was a student who was just slow enough to be endearing. Meihua chattered a response which Bezine didn't quite follow, but which sounded as if it was something about not seeing clearly.

Bezine felt a small pit of frustration within her, all directed inward at her own situation. "Ni ting bu dong," she protested. "Ta... erm... she..." She found herself lost as to how to explain exactly now complicated the situation was.

It was Suyun who saved her. "I s'pea'k," she said, her accent more thick than Eirene's by far, but still understandable enough. Bezine's expression must have given away her shock, because Suyun explained, "Ài'lín tea'ch me."

"Oh." Bezine considered for a moment all the times she'd spoken things under the assumption that neither Meihua or Suyun could understand, and felt a flush of embarrassment. Suyun waved a paw dismissively, as if to say 'It doesn't matter'. She made a rolling motion with her paw, prompting Bezine to continue.

It took half an hour for Bezine to explain the basics of the situation, working past the language barrier as well as she could. When she finished, she saw Suyun and Meihua give each other a long glance, their eyes communicating silently. Suyun broke the silence. "You loff her," she said slowly. "Shi bu shi?"

Bezine felt frustrated at herself for not being able to answer that question. "Bu zhidao," she complained. "She no is 'oo I tought she is."

Again, the long glance between the two jills. Bezine watched, unnerved slightly. She couldn't tell what they might be telling each other. "Shenme?" she asked, looking between the two.

Some sort of decision seemed to pass between the pair, and Meihua took a deep breath before looking directly at Bezine. She could see all of the fear and worry in the jill's eyes as she pushed past them. "Wo shi Xiao Du de baba," she said plainly.

It took Bezine a moment to process this apparently nonsensical statement. How could Meihua be Xiao Du's father? It made no sense. Had she mispoke? But she'd said it in Hanshiman...

Suyun reached over and put her paw atop Meihua's, and yet again eye contact lingered between them. Suddenly all of their subtle, harmless touches made sense to Bezine; they were expressions of affection for each other. They actually were a pair. That's what Eirene was warning me about, she realized. She wanted me to keep out of their relationship.

Suyun slowly began to explain, using Vulpinsulan where they could and switching often back into Hanshiman, with many a comment or clarification thrown in by Meihua. They'd grown up together in a distant village and become husband and wife, as was the custom. They'd had a happy enough life there, and their relationship was strong. Still, there had always been some small problem, something they couldn't explain and couldn't fix. In time, they'd come to realize what it was: Meihua, then called Chenglong, had never truly felt male. In his heart, he realized he felt like a femme.

It had been a difficult decision, but one they'd decided to make. They quit the village and traveled, looking for a new one. At the same time, Chenglong began his change and Meihua took his place. Suyun had already been with kit, and once they settled, they began raising Xiao Du as his mother and aunt. They had never told him about his true parentage, only a simple truth: his father loved him dearly.

Bezine shook her head, trying to clear it. Even now looking at Meihua, she couldn't see a male. All she could see was the bubbly, compassionate femme with the flower in her earrings. She couldn't even pretend to understand it. As for Suyun...

"'Ow could you make de change?" she asked plainly. "She no was 'oo you tought. 'Ow you still wit' her?"

Suyun didn't even have to glance at Meihua. She calmly replied her answer. "I loff her. Dis ye is her. Two is one. If I loff one, I loff two."

Bezine nodded. The translation was a mess, but she thought she followed. "If I love Eirene," she replied slowly, "I should love all of 'er."

"Dui ya," Suyun said, her tone approving.

For the next two days, Bezine's routine was meals with Suyun and Meihua, with long stretches in-between of lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking. She was lying awake at night when she heard the front door open and close. A moment later, the bedroom door opened. Bezine could see a familiar silhouette in the door.

"'Ey," Bezine greeted softly. Eirene stepped inside and closed the door behind her. In the darkness, Bezine could hear her shallow, rapid breathing. She was still scared, Bezine realized.

Bezine reached over to the knife stand and picked up the dagger, holding it out by the blade. "You left dis 'ere," she said conversationally. "I no knew you still need it or no."

The sound of Eirene's nervous breathing came a little closer. "I nee'd to?" It was an odd question, one almost begging an answer.

Bezine reached out over the side of the bed and dropped the dagger. It clattered as it hit the floor. "No," she breathed, the word gentle in the air. Then, carefully, she scooted over, making room for Eirene to slip in beside her.

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

"Ju hua."

"Chu hua."

"Bu shi! Ju. Juuuuu."


"I 'ear no difference," Bezine complained.

"Maybe you nee'd to c'rean your ears," Eirene opined from beside her. The pair were taking a walk along a mountain path with Meihua. Despite Bezine being able to walk well enough on her own now, they still walked arm in arm.

"Maybe you 'elp me wit' dat," Bezine suggested.

"Bleugh." Eirene wrinkled her nose. "If da't is flir't, you sleep' ou't'si'de tonigh't."

"I no was even going dere," Bezine admonished. "Maybe you need to clean your mind." Eirene rolled her eyes, but seemed to be out of comebacks. Bezine glanced over to Meihua, who was giggling as she listened to the pair's tone. "Xia yi ge," Bezine requested.

"Mu ci ai."

"Musi ai."


Meihua giggled at this. "Bu shi, bu shi! Mu," she pointed at a tree. "Ci," she mimed driving a needle through cloth. "Ai." She pointed at Eirene.

Bezine looked at Eirene in confusion. "Tree-needle-pain in de tail? Is dat what she's saying?"

Eirene rolled her eyes. "Quie't, you," she rebuked. "She says is my name. Ài'lín de ài."

"Oh." A pause. "What is de meaning?"

Eirene shrugged. "Is jus't a plan't. No meaning."

Meihua suddenly chattered something, and Bezine perked her ears to try to follow what she said. "What is dat?" she inquired.

Eirene's ears turned a little pink, and her muttered answer was so quiet Bezine had to ask her to repeat it. "She says Ài is beautifuh," she explained reluctantly.

"Ohhhhh." Something clicked in Bezine's head. "So you are Ài'lín. 'Beautiful forest'." She paused before continuing in a dismissive tone. "No is very accurate. Beautiful, dat is. De forest is true, dough, if you mean all dat fur on your-"

"Tcch!"

Bezine fell quiet just as they turned the path into a clearing. The town healer, whose name Bezine had finally learned as Lao Tuo, was standing in the midst of a field of flowers, pulling up plants by the roots and examining them. Some he tossed into a basket rapidly filling with herbs.

When he spotted the femmes walking by, Lao Tuo raised a paw and grunted something which might pass for a greeting. They waved back in response and slowed when he started trudging across the field. He walked straight up to Bezine, grabbed her by the shoulders, and positioned her in the middle of the path. Even though Bezine considered herself to be reasonable at Hanshiman now, it took him three times repeating his grunted order and pointing down the path for Bezine to understand. She turned and started walking, keeping her back straight and her pace steady. She then turned and walked back to the group.

Lao Tuo grunted something, his tone approving. He turned to Eirene and muttered something unintelligible. Eirene kept a calm face, but Bezine could see a slight twitch in her eyelids which she knew meant the jill was feeling stricken. Without even waiting for Bezine, Eirene turned and started walking straight back down the path.

"Eirene!" Bezine called, trying to walk after her, but Eirene picked up her pace until she was all but running down the path. Bezine had no choice but to wait to walk back with Meihua.

When she arrived back at the house, she found Eirene curled up in the corner under Da Chong's web. Her eyes were red, and Bezine realized she'd been crying, or at least trying not to. When she spoke, her words were muffled by her knees, which she'd pulled close up to her chest.

"He sai'd you can go home soon," she said, her tone still wavering. "He say one wee'k."

Bezine felt stunned. She hadn't even thought about returning to the Imperium in so long. In fact, she couldn't even remember how long she had been there. Months? Seasons? Hadn't she arrived in Hanshima at the heat of summer, and now the last harvest was long complete?

She somehow found her tongue. "Maybe I wait a few weeks," she suggested. "Until I can run again."

Eirene looked up at Bezine, and now she could see the tears streaming from red, angry eyes. "Why you go at all?" she protested pentulantly. "Why you no s'tay here?"

Bezine scoured her mind for an answer to that question. "It is where I belong," she said eventually. "I 'ave friends dere, a life-"

"Wha't f'lien'd?" Eirene challenged. "Wha't life? You no care unti'r now."

Bezine felt stunned at the accusation. Of course she had friends! She had Kaden, she had Karath, she had... had... Shovah, that was it, and... She felt a wave of shock as she realized that the names she was reaching for weren't there, and the faces were fading as well. Still, there was a urge niggling at her, something important, some reason she absolutely had to go back.

Her decision must have registered on her face, because Eirene's anger turned to fury. She gave a scream of rage and stood in a fit. Before Bezine could blink she'd stormed into the bedroom and slammed the door so hard that Da Chong fell out of his web. Bezine picked up the spider and gently replaced him in his spot, letting him get back to his dinner.

Eirene didn't come out of her room the whole evening. When Bezine knocked, she was answered with furious shouted Hanshiman, and when she dared to open the door, a vase probably older than either of them exploded against the wall. In the end, Bezine wound up sleeping on the cot.

The next morning Eirene came out of the room, but things were hardly better. She wouldn't even look at Bezine, and spent hours sitting in a corner using her dagger to whittle a stick down to nothing. Bezine didn't even dare to go near her; in this mood, she might just change her mind about killing the jill.

Bezine was forced to go to Suyun for news during this time. It was also the first time she got to see her and Meihua's household. It was a simple place, but much bigger than Eirene's small shack, with three bedrooms in the house- "For look," Suyun explained. Bezine nodded, knowing that feeling very well. Always keeping up appearances.

It turned out, Suyun told her, that Lao Tuo had told the village chief his diagnosis regarding Bezine, and the chief had declared a feast for the day before she left, to celebrate her stay. It sounded exactly like the kind of thing Bezine least wanted to do, but it didn't seem like she would have a choice in the matter.

The day of the feast, Eirene finally broke her silence. "S'tay," she said quietly, so quietly that Bezine almost didn't hear it. "S'tay," she repeated, louder, looking directly at Bezine from her spot in the corner. Bezine could see the sadness in her eyes, and knew her anger was spent. "No go back'. Dey no nee'd you dere. Stay here, we nee'd you." I need you, her eyes said silently.

Bezine hesitated, then spoke softly. "If I ask you to quit de Verfolger, you do so?" she asked, almost rhetorically.

Momentary anger flashed back into Eirene's eyes, but it quickly died out; the kindling was turned to ashes, the fuel spent. All that was left was jadedness. "You no know wha't you as'k," she scoffed.

Bezine sat down, scooting closer to Eirene. When the jill didn't protest, she moved a bit closer and dared to put an arm around her shoulders. "De Imperium is part of 'oo I am," she explained, "like de Verfolger is for you. I no understand it, I no like it much, but I accept is 'oo you are. No is fair I ask you to give it up, and no is fair you ask me eitter."

Eirene gave a small, sad scoff. "If' you know no ting, say no ting," she said, but the venom was gone. She turned and curled herself into Bezine's embrace, resting her head against the jill's chest. They stayed there until nightfall, two jills hiding from the darkness creeping upon them.

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

"Ganbei!"

Bezine dropped her eating sticks and rushed to pick up her bowl to join in the clinking of porcelain. It seemed like no one in the village ever took a drink without declaring ganbei, which meant that everyone else had to drop what they were doing, grab their bowl of rice wine, clink edges with everyone else at the table (always competing to be lower than the other person, which meant that a fair amount of wine was sloshed into the meal), and finally drink. The substance was horrid and thick, and worse yet, it was strong. Bezine had only had two bowls so far and was feeling it strongly. When she held back her bowl and asked for water, the village chief laughed at her and reached over to pour more wine into her bowl, some of it sloshing into her lap.

Bezine glanced over at the far side of the room. Eirene, as a single-member household, had been put at a table with Meihua, Suyun and Xiao Du. The late three seemed to be having a good time, and on the surface Eirene seemed to be joining right in, but every so often she would look up and make eye contact with Bezine, and in those moments Bezine could see the sadness around the edges of her eyes.

The feast itself was quite grand by village standards. It seemed like a whole flock of birds had been killed to furnish the meat courses, and there were fish courses as well. Bezine was puzzled by this until she asked where they'd come from. She was surprised to be told that the fish had been in the rice paddies all along. She'd occasionally seen villagers out knee-deep in the water, feeling about with large wicker baskets, but had never figured out what they were up to. Now she knew.

"Ganbei!"

Bezine inadvertently dropped her eating sticks on the floor as she lunged for her wine bowl. She managed to join in the cheers and tip back her bowl, her face screwing up at the taste of it. If she ever came back, she decided, she would introduce them to Varangian wine. It would revolutionize their life. She finished her bowl and promptly placed it upside-down on the table. The chief laughed, turned it right-side up, and poured it full again.

By the time Bezine left, the entire room was spinning, she could barely think clearly (much less talk clearly), and she had to be supported home by Eirene, Suyun and Meihua, with Xiao Du leading the way. There were several dangerous moments where they almost stumbled off a cliff in the dark, but eventually they managed to get to the house and lay her down in bed. Suyun and Meihua immediately departed with their son, and as Eirene turned to leave as well, Bezine let out a mumbled cry. The jill turned, and Bezine looked at her, hoping she would understand.

After a moment, Eirene closed the door and walked back to the bed. Bezine felt the covers lift up and the bed shift, and then the jill's soft weight was pressing against hers. She drifted to sleep, venturing into the land of dreams, where she hoped never to leave.

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

Bezine stood in the village square, trying to blink back tears as she said her goodbyes. The village chief had tried to make a ceremony out of it, complete with the annoying reed pipes, but in the end it had devolved into hugging and crying, mostly between her, Meihua and Suyun. Eirene hung back, watching. Bezine could see the mixed emotions in her eyes- her resentment of Bezine for leaving, and her grief for the same reason.

After giving Xiao Du as big a hug as she could manage before he squirmed out of it, Lao Tuo came forward. He muttered something and pressed a cloth bag into her paws. Bezine opened it to see some of the herbs he'd administered over the course of her stay. She surprised the old ferret by stepping forward and throwing her arms about him, and judging by the laughs from Suyun and Meihua, his expression must have been quite comical.

Then there were other villagers, beasts whose names she had never learned or she simply hadn't gotten to know well, yet all of them seemed genuinely sad to see her go and embraced her, as well as pressing small gifts or bags of food upon her for the trip. Bezine thanked them each as profusely as she could, holding the gifts close to her.

Finally, Eirene came forward. In her paws she held a bundle wrapped in black cloth. It was only when she unwrapped it that she realized it was the Verfolger outfit she had arrived in, washed and repaired. The mask had also been repaired, the dents hammered out of it. Bezine looked from it to Eirene, her mouth hanging open. "I no deserve dis," she protested, but Eirene cut her off.

"No," she said firmly, "you no do. You no unders'tan'd de meaning. Da't is why you nee'd it'." She pressed it into Bezine's paws, stepping forward at the same time and whispering into her ear. "No gif' up' on unders'tan'ding us," she whispered. "No gif' up' on me." She stepped back, the bundle left in Bezine's paws. She wavered for a moment, tears dancing in her eyes, then turn and ran, fleeing for her cabin. Bezine had to swallow and blink back her own tears, hugging the bundle to her chest.

The priest took her by the arm and led her to an honored place in the procession out of the village. Bezine shuddered and steeled herself. She had to walk, she told herself. She had to walk and keep walking and not look back. If she looked back, she feared she might lose her nerve. Think of Kaden, she told herself. Think of the life you have to live in the Imperium. Below her thoughts was a silent command: don't think of Eirene. Don't think of Meihua and Suyun and everyone you're leaving behind.

They walked to the very end of the village path, where only mountains lay ahead. The procession stopped and parted, allowing her to pass through. Bezine walked slowly ahead, her eyes on the ground. She couldn't bear to see the faces she was leaving behind. Even seeing their footpaws was nearly too much. It was amazing how unique each footpaw was: Meihua's many rings on her dainty toes, Suyun's calloused footpaws, Xiao Du's tiny pair, Lao Tuo's ancient, wizened paws. Bezine felt tears threatening at the lids of her eyes, and she pressed a palm to her face, wiping them away. Then she was clear, and there was only road ahead.

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

Bezine rested atop a rocky ledge above the path, looking out on the valley spread out before her. She munched on a steamed rice bun, trying not to taste the rice. She'd woken up in the morning without any kind of headache, but her stomach had been threatening rebellion all day. She wasn't sure whether or not she wanted to give in to its demands.

She watched a distant bird of prey circle over the valley, seeing something beyond the bend. She observed its lazy circling, envying it the ability to fly. Had she that power, she would cross oceans, flying continent to continent, whatever it took to escape the feeling of loss. It had been much too present in her life for her tastes. Gian, Vin, Marquo, Onya, Kaden; she was always losing someone. Now she had lost Eirene as well, all to the promise that things were better beyond the horizon.

Suddenly the hawk let out a shriek, and Bezine saw it fumble in the air, arrows whistling around it. It fell from the air, down to the valley where Bezine could not see. Abandoning her lunch, Bezine scrambled back down to the path and jogged to the bend. Carefully she knelt among the grasses and crept forward, peering down into the valley. She saw soldiers there, filling the ravine beside the river. Some of them were gathered around the downed hawk, laughing as they baited it with their swords. Bezine tried to count them and failed; there must have been around a hundred.

She crept back, her mind racing. Why would this many soldiers be here? There was nothing nearby, so far as she knew. Nothing of note except for...

The village.

Bezine was on her feet and running before she knew it. She scrambled to her packs and pulled them apart, looking for something, the one thing that would help. She couldn't warn the village, she knew, and even then, there was no way they could fight off the attack; even Eirene at her best could never take that many. The village was going to be stormed; she had to decide what she would do about it.

By the time she pulled the iron mask from her pack, she had made her decision.

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

The village was a battleground by the time Bezine arrived. Houses were burning, and villagers were daring to run water crews to put out what they could. The village square was swarming with soldiers, as well as the wounded and dying. In the midst of it, her halberd whirling like a furious cyclone, was Eirene, all cloaked in the fierce black and the iron mask of a Verfolger. The guardian spirit, protecting her village.

Most of the soldiers were gathered about her, swords pointing in, one usually daring to dash in and bait her into making a response. When she took the swing, another would press in, and she'd be forced to counter that as well. Bezine could see she was already tiring; her blows were growing sluggish, and the soldiers were growing bold.

Bezine crept upon the outer circle and lodged her dagger into the back of his neck, then grabbed his dropped sword as he collapsed. The two beside him turned to see the commotion, and Bezine dashed through, joining Eirene in the center of the circle.

Eirene glanced at her, eyes widening under her mask. "You came ba'k?!" she said incredulously. She swung at a soldier who came too close.

"I no leave you," Bezine responded, guarding Eirene's back with her own blade. "I belong 'ere."

"You stu'pi'd girl," Eirene groaned, but behind her chiding tone, Bezine thought she heard something else- gratitude. The two of them crowded back-to-back, blades raised against the oncoming storm.

The next few minutes were nothing but steel threatening from every side. Bezine guarded as best she could, but her arm was growing tired, and she could feel Eirene slowing behind her as well. They needed a new plan.

"Eirene," she called behind her, "'ow you say 'we surrender'?"

She heard a hiss of breath from Eirene, and knew she was angered at the mere suggestion. Bezine shouted, "If we fight to de deat', dey 'urt de villagers. If we surrender, dey only punish us, yes?"

Eirene's answer was slow in coming amidst the clash of steel. "Dui," she said at last. Her halberd clattered as she dropped it. "Wo toucheng,” she called. Bezine followed suit, throwing down her sword.

A minute later, they were both kneeling, bound, in the center of the square as soldiers filed in. Other soldiers were going house to house, forcing the villagers into the square and dragging out whatever crops or provisions they found. Eirene glanced over at Bezine. “Is dere more to dis p’lan?” she asked drily.

Bezine shook her head. “I only really tought dis far,” she admitted. “I tought de rest would come to me. You?”

Eirene looked up, her eyes scanning the mountain ridges around them from behind her mask. “If hel’p were coming, it’ woul’d be here a’rea’dy,” she said in resignation. She looked over to Bezine and met her eyes. “Dan’k you for coming ba’k,” she said honestly. “Is goo’d, to no die alone.”

Bezine grunted in response, then chuckled at how very Hanshiman that was. “I only wish we no die at all,” she responded. “I never get you back for all dose bugs you put in my bed.”

Eirene rolled her eyes. “Such’ re’gle’ts you haf’,” she opined. “How your soul’ effer s’lee’p?”

They fell silent as the circle of soldiers parted, and a beast in armor covered in hawk feathers walked through. Bezine recognized the feathers immediately, and felt loathing for this beast. Shoot you full of arrows and drop you from the sky, and then we’ll see how you fight. The commander moved to the center of the ring, standing before the two would-be guardians and looking over them disdainfully. He raised his chin and spoke. Whatever he said, the soldiers all laughed at it. He turned to face the villagers and began to speak, his voice raised and commanding. Bezine had no idea what he was saying, but she could take a guess: this is what happens to those who defy us.

Two soldiers moved forward from the back of the circle and grabbed Eirene and Bezine by the hood. A moment later, the hood was thrown back and their masks torn away. Bezine could hear a gasp from some of the villagers, which she suspected was more for Eirene. She glanced sideways at her partner and saw her head bowed in shame. Bezine could only imagine what she was going through. There is nothing worse than failing before everyone you love, she thought sympathetically.

The commander continued to parade himself back and forth, his speech still full of grandeur. Bezine took the opportunity to feel her bonds. They were dismayingly tight. There was no way she could get herself and Eirene free, not while these soldiers were still watching. She glanced at Eirene and saw her eyes were still scanning the mountains around them, her expression almost desperate. “’Ey,” Bezine said softly, and Eirene looked over to her, their eyes locking. Bezine held her gaze to show the truth in her eyes. “Wo ai ni,” she said quietly, almost mouthing it.

Eirene looked almost startled for a moment by the words, and as she slowly exhaled, Bezine could see the words sinking in. The jill locked eyes with Bezine once more and paused, making sure she was looking. Then, she mouthed back her own response. “I loff’ you.” Bezine felt something between a laugh and a sob escape her. They’d barely been able to stand living together; now, at least, they had found a way to die together.

The commander seemed to finish his speech, and he turned, barking orders. Two soldiers stepped forward, drawing their swords. Another shouted command, and they rested the blades over the two femmes’ necks. Bezine turned her head to face her partner, knowing what she wanted her last sight to be.

Eirene, however, was looking past Bezine and up the mountain.

The moment that the commander opened his mouth to speak, all of the ‘Gates struck. The very same moment that an arrow struck him in the throat, two other arrows appeared lodged in the necks of the executioners. Bezine whirled to see a Verfolger clad in black crouching on the mountain, notching three arrows to some kind of dangerous-looking bow. Abruptly the soldiers all around the square started to fall, ranged weapons of every kind striking them down- throwing stars, daggers, darts laced with a toxin that seemed able to kill a soldier within five seconds. Bezine couldn’t even keep track of the number of the dead and dying. When the Verfolger leaped from the surrounding cover, the soldiers stood little chance.

Two of the Verfolger disengaged from combat and came over to cut the bonds on Eirene and Bezine. Bezine rubbed her wrists, looking about with wide eyes. She had never seen a Verfolger this close before, and not trying to kill her to boot.

She glanced back at Eirene. Well, she amended, at least never one in armor this close before who wasn’t trying to kill her.

The remaining twenty or so soldiers had grouped themselves into some kind of defensive formation and were holding off the Verfolger attackers. Bezine worried for a moment that they might actually recoup and take the day. Then she saw the doors to the Verfolger shrine swing open.

She recognized the Verfolger who stepped out immediately by his height: he was the one who had cornered her in the castle. Considering how much fear Bezine felt at the sight of him, she couldn’t even imagine what the soldiers were fearing. The ones closest to him balked and tried to push their way back through their fellows; none of them could make any headway, however, against the Verfolger ringing them in.

Bezine saw the lead Verfolger raise his arm. She squinted: there was some kind of metal thing around his hand and wrist, and what looked like a string running to something on his back. It was all in black, so she couldn’t see clearly…

Suddenly fire flew from the Verfolger’s arm, blazing out and washing over the soldiers. The screams were a terrible sound, the sight and smell even worse. Bezine had to turn her head and look away, trying not to even think about what was happening. By the time the flame died out, only two soldiers were left, panickedly pushing against the Verfolger hemming them in as they attempted to escape.

The lead Verfolger spoke in flawless Hanshiman, and the two soldiers cowered before him. He spoke once more, and the two soldiers glanced at each other, their paws over their head in surrender. When the Verfolger next spoke, his tone was harsher, and he raised his metal ring of fire in threat. The soldiers scrambled for their blades, but one was quicker: he stabbed his comrade right through the heart as the other was just freeing his blade. The slain soldier cried out in pain, the blade falling to the ground.

The Verfolger waited until the soldier shuddered a last breath before speaking. The soldier’s eyes widened at what he said, and Bezine heard an incredulous “Shenme?” When the Verfolger pointed at the path, the soldier hesitantly stood. After a pause, he dared a few steps. When none of the Verfolger stopped him, he took of running, abandoning his blade behind him. Bezine realized what the Verfolger had said: Go and tell your master this village is protected.

With the soldiers dealt with, the Verfolger fixed his gaze upon Bezine. Bezine felt her stomach drop out from under her as he considered her. “So, you didn’t kill yourself in the fall,” he mused. “Impressive. You are stronger than we took you to be.” His gaze turned upon Eirene. “Ardent Liu, why did you not inform us she had survived?”

For a moment, it looked like Eirene would kneel to him; then, she seemed to steel herself and she stood. “It’ no was impor’ten’t,” she declared. “She was no t’rea’t.”

“Oh?” The Verfolger looked over them both, his gaze lingering on their faces. “From what I can see, she knows who you are. She knows your face.” He motioned to one of his fellows, and they brought forth a blade, pressing it into Eirene’s paw. “And you know the law.”

Bezine felt fear grip her as she looked between Eirene and her commander. “Law? What law?” she asked.

Eirene bowed her head and took a deep breath. When she looked up at Bezine, there was an apology there- and regret. “We are de nigh’t da’t fa’lls,” she said slowly, like a mantra. “We weah’ de iron an’d haf’ no fa’ce. None sha’ll know us’ for who we are.” The comprehension slowly dawned on Bezine as Eirene explained. “If’ we are seen when we no weah’ our mas’k, den a li’fe is pai’d: ours or deirs. You or I.”

Bezine felt her heart seize up, and she was blurting out words before she knew their meaning. “No do this!” she protested. She waved a paw at the villagers looking on. “What about dem?” she asked. “You no can kill dem all! You just saved dem!”

“They are noncombatants,” the lead Verfolger said sonorously. “They will not be harmed. Since they know her face, however, Eirene will never be allowed to step footpaw here again.” Bezine looked to Eirene in horror, and saw her looking at the ground in shame. As she watched, tears escaped her eyes and fell to the ground. Looking to the crowd, Bezine saw Meihua and Suyun standing with silent tears streaming down their face; they might not have understood what was being said, but they understood what was happening too well.

Bezine looked to Eirene, her heart in her throat. Suddenly she looked so small; a tiny jill, barely four foot, and so scared. She was no longer the warrior in black, but the jill curled in the corner of the cabin, crying and scared of being alone again. Just as scared as Bezine had been throughout her life, and was now.

Eirene sniffled, pressing her sleeve against her cheeks, trying to daub up the tears. When she looked at Bezine, her eyes were red and her cheeks were puffy. “I ma’ke de deal,” she told Bezine. “I join de Ferfolger, dey kee’p de villa’jeh sa’fe. Is why we haf’ dis,” she pointed with her blade at the Verfolger shrine. She dropped the blade back to her side, looking at Bezine with bloodshot eyes. “I no am de gua’dian spi’lit,” she explained. “We are.” She motioned at the figures in black around them. “De Ferfolger.”

“And will continue to be,” the lead Verfolger assured her. “The agreement will be honored. But first, there is one last threat to deal with.” He turned his gaze once more on Bezine.

Bezine felt fear grip her, and she looked to Eirene, pleading through her eyes. The jill couldn’t even look at Bezine. Bezine turned her gaze to the villagers beyond her. Meihua and Suyun, standing with paws clasped, Xiao Du between them. Lao Tuo, the village chief and the priest, all looking on. Families, mothers and fathers and children, all kept safe by the figures in black. Kept safe… so long as I die, Bezine realized.

Bezine looked to Eirene, her heart in her throat. She knew now how it had to end. “Do it,” she said quietly. When Eirene refused to look at her, Bezine strode forward and lifted her face by the chin. They locked eyes, and Bezine spoke quietly, so only they could hear. “You are right,” she said softly. “I ‘ave notting in de Imperium. Dere is no life for me dere. ‘Ere, I ‘ave de village. And I ‘ave you,” she told Eirene gently. She trailed her paw down Eirene’s neck, then arm, until it clasped Eirene’s pawfingers. They locked eyes once more, and Bezine spoke earnestly. “Dis place is wort’ dying for,” she said, and paused. “…As are you.”

She reached down to one of the soldiers’ bodies nearby and pulled a knife from his belt. She pressed this into Eirene’s paw, and then pulled that paw up so the point was right before her heart. Bezine looked up into Eirene’s eyes. “Kill me wit’ a kiss,” she requested. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and leaned in to catch Eirene’s lips one last time.

It was the sweetest, saddest experience of Bezine’s life- the taste and feel of her partner, and the coldness just above her heart, waiting to end it all. Bezine savored every second of it, knowing that any second might be her last…

The coldness was gone. Bezine broke the kiss and opened her eyes as the sound of metal hitting stone tinged from her left. She found herself staring into Eirene’s defiant gaze. “No,” she said stubbornly. She turned and faced the Verfolger, repeating that same rebellious word. “No,” she declared. “I no kill ‘er. You no kill ‘er. She no is trea’t to us. I leave de villa’jeh an’d she neh’fer find me. All is sa’fe.”

The lead Verfolger tilted his head to the side. “She knows of the village,” he observed. “She could use that knowledge to threaten you, lead you into a trap.

Eirene shook her head vigorously. “Bu shi. You know why? Be’caus’ she jus’t t’ly to kill herse’f to sa’fe de villa’jeh.” She pointed at the knife lying on the ground a ways behind her for impact. She defiantly stared down her fellow Verfolger. “If she do da’t, she ne’fer endanger de villa’jeh. She ne’fer be’tlay me.”

There was a long pause. The lead Verfolger watched Eirene carefully, his gaze boring into hers. “When you meet again, it may be as enemies,” he told her. “Can you do what must be done?”

Eirene glanced over her shoulder at Bezine. She could see the decision as it was made in her eyes. “We will figh’t,” she said. “We may hu’t each’ o’ter. Bu’t we ne’fer are enemies.” Bezine nodded at her, agreeing with the truth of her statement.

The lead Verfolger sighed, sheathing his blade. “You once begged for the honor of killing her,” he noted. “Now your words have changed. It is a rare beast, who can tame such fury.” He looked to Bezine and spoke directly to her. “Go in peace. Travel west, and you will find a town on the ocean. From there you can walk north to a port, from whence you can return to your Imperium.” His eyes turned hard, and his next words were harsh. “You will never return to this village. If you do, you will die. Do you understand?”

Dong le.

Bezine couldn’t believe the words she heard from Eirene’s lips. She turned and looked at the jill in shock. She had retained some composure, but Bezine could see the tears dance at the corner of her eyes as she gave up her home. Bezine swallowed and met the Verfolger’s gaze as it turned upon her. “I understand,” she acknowledged.

The Verfolger waited a moment to make sure neither reversed their decision, then nodded. He motioned with one paw toward the on-looking villagers. “You may say your farewells,” he told them, and his tone was a little gentler.

The two jills walked their way to the crowd, each feeling the weight of their steps; taking them toward their home and yet ever more away from it. While Eirene explained the decision in Hanshiman to the village elders, Bezine walked immediately to Meihua and embraced her, catching the jill by surprise. After hugging her with all the strength she could manage, she gave the same treatment to Suyun, who returned the embrace with a motherly one. For Xiao Du, Bezine knelt and pulled him into a fierce hug. This time, the kit did not try to wiggle away… at least, not for the first five seconds. Then he was back clinging to his mother’s skirts. Bezine gave him a sad smile and cupped out her arms in front of her. “Zai jian, Xiao Du,” she told him, giving him a small bow. Xiao Du peeked out at her before reciprocating the gesture. “Zai jian, Duo Ayi,” he returned loudly. Bezine chuckled before standing.

The rest of the goodbyes seemed to take forever, and yet at the same time it seemed like there was no time at all before it was over. Somehow, the last beast Bezine found herself standing before was Eirene. She looked the jill in the eye, a sad smile passing between them. They stepped together into a hug, Bezine lifting Eirene up a bit to make up the height difference between them, and the jill laughed for a second before they both broke down into weeping. Bezine held Eirene too her until her arms grew weak, and gently set her back down. When at last their tears and energy were spent, they stepped away from each other, slipping out of each other’s arms. They held their sad gaze for a moment before Bezine turned away. They had nothing left to say to each other, or perhaps they had too much.

Bezine walked past the Verfolger to the trailhead, looking out at the path before her. She knew she had to walk down it and not look back, or else she would be tempted to stay. You have to go, she told herself. Still, she couldn’t stop herself from turning for one last look at the village.

There it was, all there. The houses, the villagers, her friends, her lover. All watching her with sadness as she left. In a rare moment of introspection, Bezine understood. All her life she’d been running, fleeing her worries in search of some perfect place just beyond the horizon. Once there, she’d told herself, she would be happy. She would have a place there. She would be safe. It was only now, as she was leaving it, that she realized: the village was that place beyond the horizon. It was the place she’d always wanted to be.

With tears in her eyes, Bezine turned back to the path and walked away from paradise forever.

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

Karath sat alone at his desk, the backdrop of red and blue glass casting an iridescent glow on the floor before him as it caught moonlight. He didn’t recall speaking to a beast who wasn’t of MAUL or one of his guards in days, for reports of strange things throughout the city and beyond kept him busy. It was a thoroughly lonesome place, but at least it was quiet. Even so, the silence had begun to wear on him, however good it was for working.

Silence, like many things in the Harbor, never seemed to last. There was a knock at the door, not unusual at this time of the night for an organization built around the graveyard shift.

Karath looked up towards the door, expecting a MAUL beast or another operative to bring him a folder, perhaps a scroll. “Come in,” he said.

The door opened, and two beasts walked in. The first was a familiar sight, the click of her heels on the marble floor almost a daily interruption for the minister. The other, however, was a sight long absent from these halls. After seven months, her cropped headfur had grown long and wild again, and her male-ish clothes had been lost somewhere along the way in favor of some kind of robe. Dawn led the girl in, proclaiming as she did so, “Minister, may I present the successful return of our Agent D’Oiravere.”

Karath blinked, at first not recognizing Bezine, and persisting his disbelief for a few seconds longer after his mind knew it was her. The way Dawn spoke seemed to suggest she had some part in her absence, but he would leave it be for the present. Seven months was a long time to drop from the face of the world.

“Welcome back,” he said. “Return from where, exactly?”

Bezine glanced at Dawn incredulously, then looked at Karath as if to confirm what she’d just heard. After a moment, she exploded, shouting furiously in a mix of Callisparian and some other language. Dawn winced at the outburst. “Originally, Varangia,” she explained to the minister, “although it seems that may have changed. Here, sit down dere,” she told Bezine as soothingly as she could, trying to lead her to a chair in front of the Minister’s desk. Bezine shrugged away her paw and marched her own way up, slumping into a chair and sullenly curling up her knees in front of her.

Karath passed a venomous gaze to Dawn, one that suggested there would be words between them later. He turned back to Bezine, knowing her story would be the least motivated by self-interest, or at least the most honest.

“Dawn sent you to Varangia? Looks like we’re going to have to start from the beginning here, since she was so kind as to not mention any of this even when I tried to find out what became of you.” His eyes lingered on Dawn.

Bezine hesitated, seeming reluctant to come out of whatever shell had formed around her during her travel. Eventually she uncurled her legs and began to recount her trip- arriving in Varangia, traveling to the mountain castle, finding out that her contact had already sold her out. Here the story diverged from the truth, however. “I find de place deserted,” she told Karath, not meeting his eye. “Dey know I am coming and go. I find a map, dough. All deir bases, more or less. A mask for each one.” She raised her gaze and met the Minister’s. “Dere was a mask right on de ‘Arbor,” she told him. “De Verfolger no are creeping into de city; dey already are ‘ere.”

Dawn leaned back onto one footpaw, her arms crossed as she listened critically to the tale. “That couldn’t have taken more than a month,” she pointed out. “What took you so long to come back?” Bezine’s mouth shut tight, and she looked away. She wouldn’t even look at Dawn or the Minister.

Karath ignored Dawn for the moment.

“Well, we already knew some were here, but after they have remained silent for so long, none of us thought it was any more than a scouting party, something to be wary of but not, perhaps yet, a direct threat. But it seems that may not be the case. Perhaps we would’ve know this sooner if our chief of intelligence spent less time sending beasts away on errands hundreds of miles away then neglecting to inform me of any of it. As if I do nothing but sit here behind this desk.” Karath’s eyes shifted to the rack of weapons beside his desk. He’d done more than a little of his own information gathering.

“The real question is, what took you so long to tell me of this?” He asked Dawn.

Dawn pushed out the other chair before the desk and smoothly sat in it, crossing her legs. Bezine pulled away into her own chair. “Foreign operations are my purview,” she said smoothly. “Miss D’Oiravere has had the most experience with the Verfolger to date and thus was the natural choice for the operation. We had no intelligence to suggest she was killed or captured, and thus it never became a matter worth reporting.” Bezine glared at Dawn, but said nothing in reply.

Karath’s claws began to drum on his desk.

“When I directly seek out the wherabouts of a beast, Bezine in this case, as my chief of intelligence it is your duty to tell me where in ‘gates that beast is.” Karath waved his paw dismissively, realizing the futility of his argument. After all, it would only create more of a rift between he and Dawn, and the vixen was good at her job, when she performed it without seeking to irritate him. He looked then to Bezine.

“But I am genuinely curious, we can get the matters of intelligence sorted out later, what did take seven months for you to return?”

Bezine glanced for a moment up at his eyes, then looked at the ground. She seemed to be searching for an answer there. “I go down wrong side of mountain,” she said eventually. “I ‘ave to wander in Hanshima and avoid soldiers to make it ‘ome. Eventually I find a port and come back.”

Dawn raised an eyebrow at this. “That’s all? Five months of wandering a war-torn wasteland?” she asked critically.

Bezine raised her eyes and met Dawn’s, and there was defiance there for a moment. “If you know no ting, say no ting,” she dared to challenge her. She held the glare until Dawn cleared her throat and looked away. Bezine looked back at Minister Nicolas. “You ‘ave questions?” she asked.

Karath knew Dawn well enough to realize he should pay attention when she suspected something, no matter who it was she was suspicious of, and he too caught a hint of untruth in Bezine’s hasty explanation for her absence.

“Well, of course I have questions. You were gone for seven months, after all. Since just after we saw the first Verfolger here. If you want to answer them later though, I understand. But I will ask, when did you get back here?”

Later” of course meant “Out of Dawn’s earshot”, though even Karath wasn’t exactly sure of the threshold of her hearing. She seemed to hear everything. He knew Bezine had told him the truth of what concerned the Imperium, he would have to get the full story on that later. The other months of Bezine’s journey interested him for other reasons, curiosity not the least of them, and news from any place beyond Vulpinsula was welcome.

Bezine blushed a bit at Karath’s insistence on her answering as to the missing five months, but seemed relieved that she would have time to draft a reply. She answered his next question immediately. “Dis morning. De ship come in early. I go to my apartment to rest, den come back ‘ere to report. I ‘ope dat no is problem.”

Karath smirked at her deliberate politeness. He wasn’t Nadia Darkon, for the sake of ‘gates, he was Karath. Even Dawn seemed to have stopped with that foolishness. Then again, Dawn hadn’t been gone for seven months. “Not sure why it would be a problem, I’m more curious to know what you encountered in your five months away from wherever it was Dawn sent you. Curiosity may be getting the better of me, I don’t really expect anything essential to security or anything like that. Far off places are just interesting. I haven’t gotten to travel the world as much as I would’ve liked, but I may yet.”

Bezine lifted her gaze, her resolve wavering. She couldn’t avoid answering his question forever. She would have to give him an answer, something close to the truth, or at least something he would accept. “I find paradise,” she said plainly. “I find a village, and dere is like I always belong. I find friendship, I find…” Her tongue tied as she found herself unable to say the most dangerous of all four-letter words. Dawn sat back in her chair a bit, her eyes understanding.

Bezine forced herself to carry on. “And den soldiers come and destroy de place. I flee, I no could save dem. Dat is why I come back,” she admitted tearfully. “Because I ‘ad nowhere else to go.”

It was as if a shadow fell over the room then, and it had, for the moon had slipped behind the clouds. For an instant, Karath felt vulnerable, as if everything he hid behind had caught up to him. His weapons on their rack could not defend him, nor could his skill or his wits, or the walls of stone surrounding him. Then it passed, as soon as the feeling had come. He was getting better at sending it away, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

“Sometimes you have to save yourself, aye. But what happens in the past you cannot change.”

Or run from, he thought.

Bezine sniffled, pressing one paw to her face and trying to stem the tears that threatened to run down her face. She tried to recover her composure, but seemed to be having trouble. Dawn sat up a bit and suggested, “Maybe we should give Agent D’Oiravere some time to rest and recover. I’m sure the rest of the briefing can wait.”

Karath’s claws tapped three times on his desk, an involuntary action. He stood up then, his chair nearly falling over behind him. He lunged across the desk at Dawn, nearly standing on top of it. “To the gates with you! This is all your doing! You’re nothing but a schemer, waiting for something to come along for your own gain. Get out of this room, or I may just kill you. ‘Gates knows you deserve it. Leave now and you may just keep your job, because you are useful on occasion.

He looked down at his paw, in it was a hopelessly crumpled piece of a map he had been pondering. He tossed it aside and turned to face the glass that looked out over the sea. He willed his breathing to slow. For an instant, he thought he might kill Dawn. It frightened him a little. Only one time before had he killed a beast in anger, and that beast had lead to the deaths of others.

Dawn looked absolutely shocked at the outburst. Her jaw dropped open, and she seemed to entirely forget herself for a moment. It was fair to assume that no one had ever spoken to her in that manner before. Slowly she stood, trying to gather her dignity about her, and then walked out of the room, her heels clicking on the marble. Bezine watched her go, wide-eyed.

“She deserved that,” Karath said simply. Bezine nodded vigorously, not daring to disagree.

“Though,” he said, finally calm.

“You could’ve told me.”

Bezine looked uncertain, and returned her gaze to the floor. She seemed chastised by his remark. “Was personal,” she muttered. “I no wanted to affect tings ‘ere.”

“I understand, though its now a bit too late for that. In the future, however,” he turned around, anger banished from his face.

“You could give me the slightest of hints that Dawn is scheming behind my back. I mean, of course she is. That’s kind of her job, to do scheming that I don’t have time for. But ‘gates, I don’t know how far she’s willing to go. I figure…” He paused, unsure why he was telling Bezine these things, but then again, he hadn’t found the beasts of MAUL to be great listeners.

“I think its best to keep her around anyway. If I lose track of her, I just might find a knife in my back. At least this way, I’ll see the knife coming at me in time to parry.” He walked towards his desk, where his dagger lie beneath his weapons rack.

“Speaking of which, I better keep this around if the Verfolger are coming.” He tucked the weapon into his jacket.

Bezine glanced up at Karath, then down again. She hesitated, then slowly spoke. “Maybe… maybe we should try to find out what dey want,” she suggested meekly. “I mean, dey attack us, we attack dem, but we still no know why. Maybe we understand, we no need for killing each otter.”


Karath had to stop himself from letting out a laugh. “If they were anything other than who they are, and from what I gather, ‘who they are’ is a death worshipping night cult, I would say the same. But they came into these tunnels to kill. I met a fox, looked like she was from the desert, who also encountered one of their kind. It’s like they exist only to slaughter. It took four to send him away, and the way she talked about it, it seems like he let them win. Called himself Sun Stealer. Who in their right mind has a name like that? Unless you know something I don’t, the time for diplomacy has passed. Do you know something I don’t?”

Bezine looked up at him, and there was something behind her eyes, something pleading for him to reconsider. “Only dat we don’t understand dem,” she said, “and dat is a problem. Maybe dere are tings dey do we no see, tings dat make sense of dem. All I say is,” she shrugged, “maybe we no give up on dem. Maybe no yet.”

“If I see Sun Stealer lurking in my tunnels, I am going to stop him. If he pleads for his life, I will let him live, in a cell. I try my best not to strike first in a fight, but they are making it exceedingly difficult. And they’ve already struck, here. If you think you could talk one of them down, by all means. But I will keep my blade sharp. And I think you should do the same. Speaking of which, do you actually have a weapon?”

Bezine nodded, reaching to her belt and pulling a dagger from it. It was a different make from Imperial daggers, thinner and with an odd shape to it- distinctly eastern. “I ‘ave,” she answered readily.

Karath sat carelessly back into his chair, throwing his right arm up on the desk and leaning on it.

“Why can’t beasts refrain from killing each other for five minutes? Five minutes would be nice. If they like the night so much, why not go out and look at the stars?”

Bezine sat at the desk, looking down at the blade in her paws, and quietly replied, “Dat is what I ask.” She paused, and then prompted the minister. “’Ai you shir, or maybe I go now?” The Hanshiman slipped unbidden from her tongue.

“As you wish. These doors are always open, that goes for coming in as well as out. Be careful and watch your back. And don’t lose your heart. We Vulpinsulans might need it come the storm that might be brewing.”

Bezine nodded and stood, turning to move toward the door. She paused, then looked back at the Minister. “No is ‘we Vulpinsulans’,” she reminded him. “I am Erlani. Is different.”

“And I am Scitherian. All of us might need it, then. I shouldn’t assign the name of an island to the concept of peace, you’re right. I sounded a bit like Darkon there.”

Bezine nodded. She hesitated for a moment, as if there were something she still wanted to say, then changed her mind. She turned and began walking her way to the door.

Karath’s footsteps echoed as he stepped across the polished black floor to where he had thrown the crumpled piece of paper earlier. He brought it back to his desk and carefully unfurled it, smoothing out the wrinkles til it lie flat. It was a map of old trade routes, of places he some day wished to go, or places he wished to establish contact with. In his rage, he had forgotten what it was. Leaving the map on his desk, he retreated to his study below the chamber and slept.

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

Bezine unlocked her apartment door and entered. She was grateful that the Ministry had funded the rent while she was away; coming back to find herself homeless would have been salt in the wound. Most of the furniture, what little she had, was still draped. She wasn’t sure she was quite ready to pull off the sheets; it would be acknowledging that she was staying here permanently. She wasn’t sure she could take that quite yet.

She shut the door and locked it, resting her head against the door for a moment. She tried to imagine for a moment that it was the rough, uneven wood of the door to Eirene’s shack, that she would turn and find herself back in that simple dwelling that had somehow become home. Sighing, Bezine lifted her head and turned around, facing the small room where she would henceforth live alone.

Her eye was caught by something on the table, blocking out the streak of reflected moonlight. Curious, Bezine crossed to the table and examined the object. It was a wicker basket, the likes of which she had seen all over the village in Hanshima. Cautiously Bezine picked up the lid and lifted it. Setting the lid aside, she tilted the basket toward the moonlight. Inside, sitting in the midst of a thick web, was a large spider.
Bezine smiled, blinking back tears. Carefully, she reached in and picked up the spider, then carried him to the corner of the room. Stretching as high as she could, she lifted him up and placed him gently on the wall. Da Chong crawled up a few inches, paused, and settled there. Bezine smiled, knowing a new web would soon populate the corner. “Dank you,” she whispered softly.