Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
Hanabi had to knock on the door three times before it finally opened a crack. “We’re… working on it,” Sam said weakly from behind the door, and darted a glance behind her. “Honest. We just need another minute. Or two.” She shut the door without waiting for a response.
The white haired girl groaned. “Come on,” she complained, loudly enough to ensure that Seo-yun would be able to hear her through the door. “You helped save literally everyone’s lives, you’re basically already a native as far as anybody cares, and we’ve all seen each other buck naked. How can you still be afraid of everyone?”
The only response was embarrassed silence.
Hanabi fidgeted impatiently as she waited in the temple hallway. Sam and Seo-yun weren’t the only ones using it as a temporary lodging, and she could hear movement and quiet conversation going on in every room (except for the one down the hall, where she pretended not to hear the rhythmic thumping mixed with whimpers of pleasure). By virtue of being an actual building and not being completely ruined on the inside, the temple had become one of the best places one could live in Hanei. That was why the two women had been given a spot here as a small token of everyone’s thanks… which was reason number one thousand why it was silly for Seo-yun to be feeling shy about going outside.
The population of Hanei had nearly doubled overnight with all the escaped slaves and displaced servants, many of whom had no home to return to. Even if the entire village was still standing, there wouldn’t have been nearly enough housing for everyone. A glance outside showed tents and other makeshift shelters spread all across the grounds. If it was summertime, the sight might have seemed somewhat festive, but in the dead of winter it was just a grim reminder of how much work was ahead of them.
Now that a few days had passed and the initial euphoria of their successful escape had worn off, it was hard not to feel pessimistic about the future. It was going to take a ton of time and money to rebuild Hanei, and they didn’t have much of either right now. People needed food not to starve and clothing and shelter not to freeze, and providing that for everyone was already taxing the village’s finances. In past times of hardship, the kitsune had been able to fall back on selling some of their valuables to get by, but that obviously wasn’t an option anymore.
The only reason people weren’t starving already was the money they’d taken from the Paradisium, and that was far less than she’d imagined it would be. Hanabi hadn’t realized how similar priceless and worthless really could be. For example, they had tons of original paintings by famous artists, but good luck convincing anyone that these were the real thing and that the ones that had been hanging in art galleries for centuries were the clever forgeries. It would be almost as difficult as convincing them that a small village in Japan had stumbled upon a never before seen Rembrandt or Michelangelo. With time, they would probably be able to turn them into resources, one at a time and carefully, but people were cold and hungry now, not in years.
In truth, very little of what they’d stolen could be easily converted into cash. The coins and jewels were the easiest, but they still weren’t the sort of thing you could just exchange at a bank, and they couldn’t risk attracting attention by flooding the market with them. Many of the other treasures they had looted had similar problems – They were all still extremely valuable, and Hanei would be able to spend at least the next century selling them off at a slow trickle to avoid suspicion, but they needed more than that right now.
At this rate, it was going to take years to get Hanei back to any kind of livable condition, if it even was possible. There was already talk about abandoning the place and scattering to live among the humans in secret, as most of their kind already did… scattered and isolated. It was just mutters for now, and no one was going to do anything while they still had all these refugees here, but the fact that it was even a possibility was depressing. The greatest kitsune village in the world, dead and gone.
Hanabi tried to force herself to wait patiently in the hall, like a proper adult. She managed it for about thirty seconds before giving up. “What if I show you around the forest after the boring stuff is over?” she eventually suggested. “I know a great spot for hunting rabbits even in the winter, and there’s a lake nearby that should be frozen over by now.”
“…You promise?” Seo-yun asked quietly through the door. From the sound, Hanabi guessed she was just behind it, trying to work up the courage to open the door and step out.
“I promise,” Hanabi confirmed. “But we can’t stay out past sunset, Aunt Ichika’s orders. So if you want to spend more than a few minutes out there we’d better get moving and get all of this over with.” There was little chance that any hunters were in the area, but the forest could still be a dangerous place at night, especially for escaped slaves that had spent so long cooped up indoors and possessed all the wilderness survival instincts of a soap bubble. The captain of the guard had had a long talk with Hanabi just yesterday about how much everyone looked up to her, and how it was important to set an example, and blah blah blah. The white haired girl figured she should wait at least a week before going back to ignoring all of the rules like usual.
The door slowly opened to reveal the nervous kitsune. In her human form, she didn’t radiate the same way she did as a fox, but there was still a slight glow to her fur that was more than just a trick of the light. She wore the green and white Korean outfit she’d first arrived in, slightly restitched to account for her full nine tails. “Okay,” she said, and stepped out into the hallway gingerly, as though wary of an ambush. “I am ready.”
There were a few hushed whispers as the fox strode down the hallway, flanked in front and behind by Sam and Hanabi – they hadn’t positioned themselves like that to keep her from running away, but they hadn’t not done that either. Even if the glowy stuff and red and white tails hadn’t been enough to make her stand out in a crowd, stories about what she’d done in the Paradisium had been making the rounds, and growing more impressive with every retelling. If Seo-yun wasn’t careful, she was going to end up with a statue or something.
The redhead wilted a bit under the attention, but gamely continued, clearly eager to just get this over with. They passed out of the hallway and into the temple foyer, where Hanabi’s eyes were drawn to Inari’s Flame like usual. It had been restored to its full glory and shone proudly once again.
In a way, it was only one of nine Flames now. After she’d woken up, Hanabi had learned from her fathers how they’d lit the eight braziers in the nexus. Apparently they’d needed divine power to work, and torches from the Flame had contained enough to qualify. From the way both Nobu and Kamio had avoided telling her how they’d learned about the requirement, she was annoyingly certain she had Ying Yue to thank.
All nine Flames were being carefully tended to now. The nightmare appeared to be truly gone from the nexus, but no one had any intention of extinguishing those braziers. After seeing how close the original Inari’s Flame had come to being lost forever, Hanabi wasn’t going to complain about having multiples.
Their destination wasn’t far: Kaede had set up a large tent as a sort of town hall near the top of the hill, where it could be easily reached by everyone. It held a wide assortment of chairs scavenged from various houses, some filing cabinets that were currently way over capacity, and a few wooden planks to serve as a combination desk and podium. The mayor was sitting at that desk when they came in, working through a thick pile of paperwork.
The dark haired woman looked up at their approach, and she looked more exhausted now than she ever had in the Paradisium. “Go ahead and sit anywhere,” she said, and made a weak gesture towards the array of chairs, where Ichika, Megumi, Dr Emi, and Astaria were already seated and waiting. “Now that you’re here, I believe we can get started.”
Seo-yun chose the seat furthest from anyone, and Sam and Hanabi joined her, the white fox giving the others an apologetic nod. “Today’s meeting is to discuss and organize the distribution of food, medical supplies, and other necessities among both the people of Hanei and the refugees who have taken shelter here,” Kaede declared. “I’d like to begin having daily meetings like this until the situation has stabilized.”
What followed was a bunch of boring talk that Hanabi only half listened to. She already knew the gist: they had nothing and were in need of everything. And it wasn’t like she had anything to contribute to the discussion. The only reason she’d been invited to this meeting was because she was now seen as an important figure in Hanei, like Seo-yun, and that meant they were both going to have to endure a lot of dull stuff like this from now on.
Hanabi’s only real contribution was when the subject of money came up. “Why don’t we just go hit up some casinos?” she said. “I could spend an hour playing cards and bring home more money than ten years worth of harvests. Heck, if we rotated through every casino doing one a month or something, I bet we’d never need to work the fields again.”
“You want to try and cheat a casino… with foxfire… in Japan?” Sam asked incredulously. “Trust me, kid, the average person on the street might not know anything about demihumans, but that doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want out there. Any casino in the world that’s managed to stay open for more than five minutes has people watching for that sort of thing. Me and Yip Yip nearly got ourselves killed more than once just for walking in the same city as a casino with a bit of her fur visible.” Seo-yun nodded without looking up from the floor.
“Oh,” Hanabi said dejectedly, and slumped back down in her seat. “That’s dumb. Casinos are dumb.”
The only part that was even slightly interesting was learning that one of the crates they’d brought in from the vault had been full of the artificial fox marbles that the vulpan used. They couldn’t very well be sold off, and had no use to the kitsune, but at the same time it seemed like a waste to just destroy them, especially when everyone had nearly been killed or worse for the sake of marbles like those. “I would like to recommend that they be placed in storage for now,” said Astaria. “I do have some ideas for how they might be put to use, but they are a long term matter and far beyond our current scope.” Kaede had looked uneasy about the idea, but she’d agreed to it.
Out of all of them, Astaria was the only one who seemed genuinely excited about all of this. She’d become the de facto leader of the refugees, and thrown herself into managing their needs. Hanabi wasn’t actually certain if the dragon had slept at all since their arrival. Meanwhile, the white haired girl was still so wiped that it was a struggle to keep her eyes open during what felt like an interminably long meeting.
“Now that we’ve covered the immediate matters and Hanabi has had herself a nap…” Kaede was saying. Hanabi’s eyes snapped open and her face flushed a little.
“I’m awake…” she muttered sleepily. “I’m the most awake…” Kaede wasn’t the only one smiling at her state. Even Seo-yun looked more amused than nervous now… which was exactly why she’d let her eyes close in the first place. Well, one of the reasons, anyway.
“As I was saying, now it’s time to discuss the bigger picture,” Kaede said. “Starting with what are we going to do with these refugees?” Everyone turned to Astaria.
The green haired woman rose to her feet and gave a formal bow. “We are eternally grateful for the assistance you have provided us with so far, both in freeing us from the Paradisium and caring for us after. For that, we owe the people of Hanei a debt that can never be repaid, and I personally swear to come to your aid whenever you should need it.” She raised her head to look at Sam and Seo-yun. “That extends to the two of you as well.”
Astaria straightened, and some of the tension in her relaxed. “We have no desire to be a burden for any longer than necessary. To that end, I have a proposal that I believe will be beneficial for both parties: the nexus.”
From the others’ lack of reaction, this was an idea that had come up before, but it was Hanabi’s first time hearing it. “You want to go live in there?” she asked in disbelief. She knew the nightmare was supposed to be gone, but the notion of settling down in its former home still seemed crazy.
Astaria nodded. “I have confirmed that the soil is still in excellent condition and the water sources are clean. After we have cleared the fields and restored the buildings, there should be no logistical problems in living there indefinitely. And given its size, it should be perfectly capable of supporting our population as we expand.”
Kaede frowned slightly, and Hanabi got the impression that the woman wasn’t familiar with this part. “What sort of expansion are you intending? Unless you plan to reopen the door to the Paradisium, any new arrivals would have to come through Hanei.”
“Which means they’d have to know about Hanei in the first place,” agreed Ichika, looking unhappy with the idea. “And how to get through our wards, once we have wards again.”
“I do not intend to open the way to the Paradisium anytime soon,” said Astaria. “I must assume that the place is already under surveillance by Paragon and other interested parties, and the last thing they need is to know of the nexus.”
“So you do intend to expose Hanei to the outside world,” Kaede said uneasily.
“Only in a very limited fashion,” Astaria said. “I believe that we have been granted a rare opportunity here. Hanabi has told me that the nexus was built to be a sanctuary for the gods, and after examining it, I can certainly believe that. It is hidden, defensible, and self sustaining. There are few places in the world that could better serve our purpose.”
“And what purpose is that, dear?” Megumi asked cheerfully.
“To use it as it was intended: as a sanctuary. But not for gods. There are demihumans all over the world that have been enslaved or forced into hiding. Far too many people for far too long have lived ruled by fear. Fear of the Paradisium or one of the many other cruel parties like them that hunt and hate all of us. Our kind lives among the dregs of society, surviving off whatever scraps they can find.”
Her voice hardened. “That is what makes them such appealing targets in the first place. There is no one who protects them. No one who seeks justice in their name. They are isolated and alone, easy pickings for anyone with the willingness to do harm. But for the first time in centuries, we have a real chance to change that. We can come together and build ourselves a true home.”
“It’s a noble idea,” Kaede said slowly, “and one that I’d be happy to help with, but not at the expense of my people. Those who are already here are welcome to settle in the nexus, but I cannot allow actively bringing in people from the outside world.”
“We will be discreet,” Astaria insisted. “I am not talking about advertising the location of this place for all to see. We will do the opposite: send people out to find those that are in hiding and convince them to come back here. No one will know about the location or even existence of Hanei until they have already been brought here.”
Ichika shook her head. “You’re still talking about sending folks out of here who know how to get back in. Our isolation is the only thing that’s kept us safe for so long. Please don’t take this the wrong way, Astaria, but your people are strangers. What if one of them gets captured and tries to give up our location in exchange for their own safety? Or worse, decides to sell that information to make themselves rich? It only takes a single weak link to break a chain.”
“Oh come on,” Hanabi complained. “That’s not fair! I’m not saying everyone we brought back is a saint, but it’s not like she’s talking about giving every last one of them a map back to Hanei, pushing them out the door, and telling them to come back with friends. I’m sure there’s plenty of people that we could trust not to betray us.”
“Not if they aren’t from Hanei,” Ichika said stubbornly. “We are a family, Hanabi. They are not. Our people suffered countless scars before we realized that. They won’t value our lives the way that we value each other’s. I’m not saying that because they’re bad people, I’m saying it because they’re not our people. We have to protect ourselves, and the way to do that is to stay as far away from the outside world as possible, not to expose ourselves even more to it.”
“Then let me be the one to go out and bring others back,” Seo-yun said, standing up. There was no more nervousness in her expression as she stared down the captain of the guard, only hot anger. “Or do you think that I will give in to cowardice and greed and betray you all?”
“No, of course not,” Ichika protested, “but you can’t just-“
“Long ago, my parents told me of this place,” interrupted the red fox. “They told me that you were a kind and wise people, but that you had learned to let your fear control you, let it blind you to all the good you could be doing. That is why they had to leave. It seems that not much has changed since then. Yes, what Astaria proposes would put us all at risk. Yes, the safer thing to do is to hide ourselves away from the world and pretend that we are helpless to make a difference. But what is the right thing to do?”
“That’s easy to say when you don’t have other lives depending on you,” countered Ichika. “You’re talking about risking your own life. I’m talking about risking the lives of everyone here, fox or otherwise. I have to weigh their lives, real lives, innocents that I’ve known for centuries, against the hypothetical ‘good’ you want to do.”
“Shouldn’t those people get a voice too?” Dr Emi asked softly. “Captain, I’m under no illusions when it comes to my ability to protect Hanei. I have no aptitude for stealth, or subterfuge, or combat. I spent the occupation and everything that followed as a helpless prisoner, and should our village be invaded again, I expect history will repeat. But that doesn’t mean I want to spend the rest of my life running and hiding to keep that from happening.”
“Especially when it didn’t do us much good this time,” Megumi added. “We spent the last seven hundred years trying to be careful and quiet, and from where I’m sitting, it looks like Levi Petrov didn’t give two shakes of a tail. If I’m going to go through something like that again before it’s my time to rest in the old girl’s flame, I’d like to at least know I earned it.”
Ichika hesitated and looked at Kaede, who nodded slowly. “I can’t unilaterally put everyone’s lives at risk,” the dark haired woman said, “but if the entire village agrees to it…I would not be against the idea myself. Where do you stand, Captain?”
“I still can’t go along with this,” Ichika said stubbornly. “If Seo-yun wants to volunteer herself to go finding other people, I can’t very well stop her. But letting the other refugees help would be a mistake. After they’ve been here for a while and become acclimated, things might change, but right now we have nothing but optimism as evidence that they won’t turn on us if things go wrong.” The blonde squared her shoulders and met Seo-yun’s gaze. “I know that makes me the bad guy here, and I’m okay with that. It’s my job to keep all of you safe, even if you’re going to hate me for it.”
“Then what if it’s not the refugees who go out to find people?” suggested Hanabi. “Not at first, at least. I mean, I don’t know anything about this myself, but I hear some foxes are real good at hiding and being sneaky and stuff. So it’ll be people you can trust, and we already know how to get through the wards and find our way back here and all that.”
“And if we’re the ones out there with our ears to the wind,” Megumi said, “then maybe we won’t get caught with our britches down again. Hanei will be safer than ever this way.” She smiled. “Don’t you agree, Captain Ichika?”
“I… suppose that could work,” the tall woman admitted. “But only people who volunteer, and only if there’s overwhelming agreement from everyone else. I suppose you’ll be the first to sign up,” she told Hanabi.
“Actually… I think I’ll sit this one out,” said the girl. “I still want to go out and see the world someday, but…” she fidgeted. “I kinda wanna get to know everyone else here better too…” Hanei no longer felt like the stifling prison that it had been for decades. She wanted to grow closer to her home, and to her people, and to have the chance to help both of them recover.
“Is this acceptable to you?” Kaede asked Astaria. “Hanei will not be the only ones shouldering risk here. Should we be discovered, your home will be in danger as well. Are you willing to put your people’s lives in our hands?”
Astaria nodded. “Yes, of course. That is to say, I am beyond grateful that you would offer us such assistance.” She bowed again. “I will strive to build something worthy of your efforts.”
Seo-yun had deflated now that the moment had passed, and sank down into her seat. Sam rubbed her back. “You did great,” Hanabi heard her whisper quietly to her wife. Seo-yun smiled a little and leaned over to rest her head on the woman’s shoulder.
There was still more to discuss after that. So much more to discuss after that. Enough that by the time it was finally over, the sun was already setting. They were going to have a meeting like this every day? It was almost enough to make Hanabi miss the Paradisium. “These shouldn’t take nearly as long next time,” Kaede assured them at the end, but even she didn’t sound like she fully believed that.
“I’m sorry,” Hanabi told Seo-yun sheepishly as everyone began to clear out of the tent. Everyone except Kaede, who just looked at the pile of papers still on her desk, sighed, and resumed working through them. “I know I promised we’d take a trip to the forest before sundown, but, y’know…”
The redhead smiled at her, looking much more at ease now that they were done. “It is not your fault. We will find time tomorrow…probably. Call it a rain check.”
“Snow check,” Sam corrected absently. “That’s what you call it in winter.”
Seo-yun stopped in her tracks and narrowed her eyes at her wife. “I have not heard any such thing like that from Morris,” she said skeptically.
Sam paused too, returning the accusing look with an innocent one. “That’s because he grew up in a temperate climate,” she said. “No snow, no snow check.”
“I do not believe you,” the fox said flatly. “Is this another attempt to take advantage of my ignorance of the human world, like when you tricked me into asking a waitress for ‘an ice cream without the ice’? Or when you tried to convince me that the book you gave me about that child attending a magical school was non-fiction?”
Sam’s eyes widened into an expression of shock. “Did I? Those don’t sound like anything I’d do. You know, maybe Jack is the one trying to trick you, by hiding his knowledge of a perfectly common and well used phrase that should be a regular part of your vocabulary. I mean, who do you trust more: me or him?”
“That is not fair and you know it,” said Seo-yun, now fighting a grin.
“God, I hope not,” said Sam, not bothering to hide her own smile. “I hate playing fair.” The two of them locked eyes with each other.
Hanabi wasn’t sure that they even remembered that she was still standing there. “I’m… gonna call it a night,” she said, stepping away from the couple. “You two, uh, have fun.”
“Mmm hmm,” Sam purred, without taking her eyes off of her wife.
“Good night and safe travels,” Seo-yun said, her attention equally focused.
Hanabi left them to it.
The walk home was clouded by heavy thoughts about the future, but the white haired girl’s spirits rose when she neared her family’s tent and smelled the dinner Nobu was preparing inside. “Our daughter, the city leader,” said Kamio dryly as she approached, reclining on a chair outside the tent. Once he’d found that seat to relax in and a few books that weren’t too badly burnt to read, he seemed to have lost all ambition about improving their living situation. “Fill out any interesting zoning ordinances?”
“Ugh, however boring you’re imagining my day was, it was even worse,” Hanabi told him, flopping down to sit on the ground next to him.
“If you want to skip tomorrow’s meeting, I could always tell Ichika that I need you for something important,” her father suggested. “She won’t believe me, but she won’t refuse either.”
“No…” Hanabi said, and sighed. “I should be responsible…” She sagged, letting herself fall onto her back to look up at the night sky. “Adulting is hard.”
“It gets easier when you’re older,” Kamio promised her.
“Oh yeah? How much older?”
“How would I know?” her father replied. “I’m just a young sprout of eight hundred years. But I’ll let you know when it happens.”
“Great, Dad.” Hanabi closed her eyes. “That’s really helpful.”
She heard him close his book and set it down. “Do you have any regrets about today?” he asked. “Do you wish you’d blown off the meeting and gone somewhere to have fun?”
“No,” she admitted. “It was worth it, sorta. I guess. I couldn’t really contribute much, and all the really technical stuff went over my head, but I still felt like I helped just a little.”
“Well, there you go then,” said Kamio, sounding pleased. “That’s the secret to happiness: try to have as many days as you can where you get to the end without regretting how you spent it.”
“You make it sound so simple,” Hanabi grumbled.
“Of course it’s simple,” he replied. “Most of the important things in life are, as far as I can tell. People just have a bad habit of thinking simple means easy.”
“Who’s ready for some dinner?” Nobu asked, stepping outside the tent to join them. He was balancing four bowls in his hands, and Jess trailed just behind him in fox form. Hanabi hadn’t seen the woman take human shape since the Paradisium. She rarely spoke a word either, or acted like she was anything more than an intelligent animal. It was easy to forget that she even was human, and not just some multi tailed fox who’d attached herself to them.
It was eccentric behavior to say the least, but Jess seemed happy, and the others didn’t mind the company. Besides, there were few people in Hanei who’d been through worse treatment than what she’d endured for the last three years. Hanabi sometimes heard the fox whimpering in her sleep as she relived it all in nightmares. If this brought her some measure of relief, so be it.
Nobu handed a bowl to the other two and set the third on the ground for Jess, who put her head down and began eagerly eating from it. After the harsh diet Levi had inflicted on her, she seemed excited by even the blandest and cheapest foods. Hanabi regarded hers more critically. “Instant stuff again?” she guessed, poking the contents with her chopsticks.
“It’s all we have left,” Nobu confirmed. “Even if the entire harvest had survived the siege, we’ve got too many mouths to feed and people who need fresh food more than we do.” He hesitated. “Flower, I don’t know if it came up during your meeting today, but people are beginning to talk…”
Hanabi nodded her head glumly, and what was left of her appetite disappeared. “Yeah, I know. Kaede said she was gonna try and ask people to give things a chance and stick around, but it’s not like we can force them to stay here.” She couldn’t blame anyone for it either: there was no food, no shelter, and plenty of bad memories.
It just felt so wretchedly unfair. They’d saved all the people of Hanei, but it was like the village itself had taken a mortal wound. There were plenty of people who were going to stick around, maybe even enough that this would still qualify as the largest kitsune settlement in the world, but there were hundreds more getting ready to scatter to the four winds.
Jess looked up from her bowl, which was already nearly empty, and glanced between the two of them. “Are… are you going to leave…?” she asked softly, her tone full of worry.
“If we ever do, we can take you with us,” Hanabi promised. “But no, I don’t think so. I mean, I know I don’t wanna leave, not until Hanei has been rebuilt. And I don’t just want to restore it either, I want to make it bigger and better than before.” She sighed. “I just have absolutely no idea how.”
“Would money help?” Jess asked.
“I mean… sure,” Hanabi said doubtfully. “But didn’t you tell me before that the dragon stole everything you had in exchange for letting Levi keep you?’
The fox managed to look offended. “Only what I owned publicly,” she said stiffly. “I kept a small nest egg in a hidden account in case of an emergency. I was an idiot, not a fool. It was a very small nest egg, only a few hundred million pounds, but you’re more than welcome to use all of it.”
“Even a little bit will help,” Hanabi began to say, and then paused as she processed what Jess had just said. “A few hundred… million?” In the corner of her eye, she could see Nobu and Kamio staring at Jessica, equally stunned.
“Yes, I know it’s not much,” the tiny fox said sadly. “But please consider it yours.”
This changed… Goddess, it changed everything. Hanabi felt a grin stretch across her face as her mind began to alight with ideas for how they could improve things around here. After today’s depressing meeting, there were at least a thousand she could list just off the top of her head. “Jess, you’re amazing, do you know that?” The red fox looked like she didn’t understand the source of the praise, but her tails wagged happily anyway.
The white haired girl couldn’t wait to share the news with the others tomorrow. She’d have to find a camera somewhere, of course. No way was she gonna pass up the opportunity to record the looks on their faces. She dug into her bowl, her appetite suddenly back with a vengeance. First thing they should do with the money was hold a great big feast for everyone, she decided. No, the first first thing was to get everyone some nice warm clothes and maybe even their own space heater or something. No, first first first…
All the money in the world couldn’t rewind time or bring back everything they’d lost… but it could buy them one heck of a future.
Eirene was beginning to grow nearly as worried as Batu by the time Astaria finally appeared in the tent. “I apologize for my late return,” the dragon said. There were some bags under her eyes, but she wore a pleased smile. “I don’t think any of us expected our discussion to go so in depth. It was rather wonderful, actually.”
“Does this mean they agreed to the proposal?” Batu asked from where he sat awkwardly on the green haired woman’s sleeping roll, trying to make as little contact with it as possible. The foolish man had insisted on standing at first, crutches and all, talking nonsense about how it would be disrespectful to use Lady Astaria’s furniture in her absence. He’d kept at it for a full hour and looked about ready to collapse by the time Eirene finally persuaded him to sit.
“Their response was not quite a ‘yes’,” Astaria mused as she began filing the notes from her meeting in with the others she kept, the disparate collection of papers scavenged from wherever possible. “But it was certainly not a ‘no’ either, which makes it better than I expected.” She rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn. “Do you have the structural assessments ready? I’d like to begin renovating the buildings in the best condition as soon as possible.”
It was painfully obvious to Eirene that the woman was utterly exhausted, and she could tell that Batu saw it too. Astaria had slept no more than a handful of hours since her escape, relentlessly pushing herself to make progress with preparing the nexus for habitation. She and Batu had both tried to convince the dragon to put her own needs first and take care of herself, but Astaria had rebuffed all of their advice. At this point, the sphinx was fairly certain that just about the only way of getting Astaria to rest would be handcuffing the unruly woman and tossing her onto her sleeping roll…and if she was going to do that, there would be far better follow-ups than sleep.
Eirene imagined riding the green haired slut’s face, feeling her buck and writhe beneath her as she unwillingly pleasured her mistress. Those fat, lovely tits of her would make for excellent teaching tools: tortured when the dragon misbehaved, teased when she was a good girl. And once Astaria really started behaving like she should, the sphinx would get to reward her by lavishing attention on her slut’s wet pussy. She’d probably end up climaxing before Eirene did. In fact, she decided, that would be a perfect sort of game to play.
“Mmm hmm,” she purred quietly as she stared at the dragon and muttered under her breath. “You’d better make me cum first, little cunt licker, because I’m not giving you permission to cum until I do, and you don’t want to know what happens to greedy sluts who orgasm without permission.”
Astaria wasn’t able to hold back the yawn this time. “Sorry, did you say something, Eirene?”
“N-no,” the sphinx said quickly, snapping back to reality. “Just talking to myself, Lady Astaria. Don’t worry about it.” She mentally berated herself for the slip. She wasn’t supposed to be entertaining thoughts like that anymore. That wasn’t who she was.
Astaria winced. “I will ask you again not to use that title, please. My bloodline is the opposite of noble, and I do not want or deserve such an appellation.”
“Yes, of course, Astaria,” Eirene said, feeling even more foolish. “I’m sorry, it was just a slip of the tongue. I’ll try not to do it again.”
Several days of actual sleep and real food had gone a long way toward restoring the sphinx’s sanity. She could remember much of her life from before her imprisonment, and the empty obedience that had once dominated her head was now just a dim echo that faded further with each passing day. But some of the effects still lingered, and those obscene thoughts were the worst of them.
Astaria was still looking at her, now with a hint of concern on her face, and Eirene forced herself to smile. “I am alright, La- Astaria, really. It’s just… noisy in here, sometimes.” She raised her hand to indicate her head. “Nothing for anyone else to worry about.” That’s right, those wicked thoughts were just noise in her head that she would ignore. They didn’t matter. She could want to hear the dragon slut squeal and cum as she was fisted, or feel her wriggle helplessly while the sphinx held her down and alternated between tonguing and biting her nipples, and none of it meant anything as long as she didn’t let it affect her behavior.
Batu stood up from the sleeping roll, but not before giving her a nervous look, as though he expected her to pounce on him as soon as he got on his feet. Silly man. All she’d done was offer to fellate his cock while he stood, to help take his mind off his discomfort. And she’d been joking when she’d suggested that if he fell and found himself unable to get up, she would be happy to allow him to mount her to get around the camp. His cheeks had turned a pleasant shade of red when she’d added that his throbbing cock would feel perfect wedged in her tight asshole while she crawled across the ground to transport him wherever he wanted, especially if said place was a secluded spot in the forest where no one would hear her screams while he fucked her brains out.
Okay, she hadn’t actually been joking about any of it. But it had worked, and she’d only been slightly disappointed that she’d spent hours alone with a man without receiving even a single load of cum, which was progress. His reaction was still inane; even at her lowest point, she never would have dreamed of physically assaulting a man. The only time a woman should ever cause a man harm was when she wore his cock out from fucking her too much, right? No, not right. She knew that wasn’t true. But it felt true, the same way it felt wrong to just let Astaria stand there unmolested when she could be forcing that beautiful green bitch to her knees and making her bark like a…
“I believe that Eirene’s condition would improve with some more rest,” Batu was saying. “She has still been exhibiting some irrational behavior.” Man or not, she very nearly glared at him. He was going to complain about her sleep schedule while Astaria was over there slowly killing herself? Maybe she wouldn’t let him mount her if he fell, after all… no, that wasn’t true at all. In fact, the idea of him badmouthing her in front of the dragon and then ravishing her afterward was even sexier. He could laugh at her while he rode her and tell her how worthless she was for anything but wringing out his cock. And then he’d claim he was going to help her become a better fucktoy by teaching her a new trick or two, starting with his full bladder… “I think it would help her recovery a great deal if you set a good example by taking better care of your own health.”
Eirene had thought the man didn’t have a scheming bone in his body, but she would have to revise her opinion of him. And the way his comment was making Astaria squirm was delicious. “I supposed I have been rather single minded since we arrived here,” said the green haired woman sheepishly. “I’ve just been so excited at the opportunity to set my mind towards something positive, after all these years of having to stand by and watch my father’s influence fester over the world.”
“I understand the appeal of creating something bigger than yourself,” Eirene told her. “But nothing in the world lasts very long if its foundations aren’t secure, and right now you are that foundation. Make yourself one that can weather any storm.”
“I am only in charge because you refuse to be,” Astaria said with just the slightest hint of petulance. “You are the one with the experience of leadership, Eirene, along with the wisdom and knowledge we need. My only claim to power is being the daughter of a tyrant.”
Eirene dismissed the fantasy of bending the woman over her knee and spanking that attitude out of her. “Don’t put yourself down, Astaria. Even if my reputation hadn’t been tarnished by your father, you’d still be the better choice. Your ambition and passion is what will make this succeed, not my ignominious history of failure.”
Astaria looked ready to keep arguing the point until she yawned again and blushed. “I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to continue insisting I should not be in charge while also ignoring the advice of my peers.” She turned to Batu. “I will retire to bed, just as you desire. You should get some rest as well. Now that we have permission from others to move forward, the real work will begin tomorrow.”
Batu nodded and bowed, then began shuffling out of the tent in a hurry. “Are you sure you don’t need assistance getting back?” the sphinx couldn’t resist asking with a smile . “My previous offer of transportation remains open. I also know a number of techniques that would help you relax and fall asleep quickly and soundly. I would be happy to demonstrate any or all of them to you tonight.”
“No thank you,” he squeaked, pointedly not looking at Eirene. “I will be quite alright.” She grinned at his departing back.
“I don’t know why you tease that man so,” Astaria said lightly as she began putting things away, starting with the stack of structural assessments that Eirene had spent the day drawing up. She’d gone through a decent section of the buildings in the nexus, indicating what parts could be left alone and what would need to be replaced or fixed before they could be considered livable.
“It’s only teasing if I don’t mean it,” Eirene countered, moving to assist her. “One day he’ll say yes…” She licked her lips. “And then I don’t think he’ll ever say no again.”
“What does this say?” Astaria asked while she worked, pointing to the Arabic script at the top of one of the papers. “It is written on all of them.”
“I decided that we cannot keep calling the place ‘the sanctuary’ or ‘the refuge’ forever,” Eirene told her, trying not to think about how close together their bodies were right now, how easy it would be to just reach out and grab… anything she wanted. “Like all things, it deserves a name, so I gave it one: Amala. It means ‘hope’.” She quickly added, “If that name is alright with you, of course. It should be your decision, not mine.”
“Amala…” Astaria repeated as she put away the last of it. “I like it. Tomorrow, we will begin the first concrete steps towards building Amala. But first, I should…” She yawned again. “…sleep…”
“I suppose I’d better return to my own tent and do the same,” Eirene said, trying to hide the reluctance in her voice. It was true that she could use some rest herself, but what she could really use was the dragon’s desperate tongue trying so hard to earn her mistress’s approval by granting her orgasm after orgasm… she froze, the daydream dissipating, as she became aware of a new sound.
Astaria snored slightly again.
“Astaria?” Eirene said very quietly, looking at the woman. She was slumped over in her sitting position, her eyes closed and head pointed down at the ground. “…Lady Astaria?” The dragon’s only response was another small snore.
The sphinx looked around, not even daring to breathe for fear of waking the other woman up. The two of them were alone in here, and Astaria’s tent wasn’t anywhere near anyone else’s – she’d chosen to set up in the half of the village that the former slaves and servants were using, and while they were grateful for her help in the Paradisium, they had too much experience with her father to feel comfortable relaxing right next to another dragon. The only other person who came around here was Batu, and he wasn’t going to be back until morning.
Her gaze drifted to a spare tent rope lying in one corner. Astaria would try to scream if anything happened, of course, and transform, but she couldn’t do either while she was choking. Karakostas’s collar had been a very fancy and elaborate way of keeping his daughter helpless, but anything that restricted her airflow enough would accomplish the same thing. If Eirene moved quickly and quietly, it would be no trouble at all to get that rope nice and tight around Astaria’s neck before the dragon woke up… and then she’d be able to do whatever she wanted to the sleeping slut. She’d fight back at first, but not for long; Astaria was already exhausted and in no condition to hold off a determined attacker.
Eirene could practically feel her own juices dripping down her thighs as she thought about the prize that had just fallen so easily into her lap. She could spend all night having her way with the woman, making all those delicious fantasies that had been running rampant in her head come true. And it didn’t have to end there: give the green haired bitch a proper gag to keep her quiet, tear apart her clothes and use them to bind her arms and legs, and Eirene was certain that she could haul her new fucktoy all the way out of Hanei without anyone noticing. She could find a quiet little spot somewhere and spend the next few years – no, the next few decades, at least – enjoying every sexy inch of Astaria’s body while training the woman to serve her. It would be perfect.
“You are far too trusting,” Eirene whispered as she gently laid the blanket over Astaria’s sleeping form. “It’s probably going to be the death of you someday. But not from me. I will never do anything to hurt you, Lady Astaria, or to make you regret your trust in me. I swear it.” Her darker urges didn’t matter; no matter how loud or insistent they might be, Eirene was the one in control, and she knew who she was, and who she was not. Astaria would never have reason to fear her.
The dragon’s eyes fluttered slowly. “Whuh… whuh did yuhh sehh…?” she slurred.
“I said that you really should take better care of yourself,” Eirene chided gently. “You were so tired that you fell asleep sitting down.”
“Mmm hmm,” Astaria mumbled, already falling back asleep. She was snoring again as Eirene rose and quietly left to return to her own tent for the night.
Jiemba crouched in total silence, watching the deer as it made its way across the clearing. It really was a magnificent creature, with a glossy coat and a crown of antlers as grand as any king’s atop its head. It seemed a shame to hunt such a specimen, but to eat or be eaten was the nature of life. The most he could do was honor the beast’s death, and make sure that nothing went to waste.
He hurled his spear and it flew straight and true, burying itself into the deer’s flank and making the animal cry out. Jiemba was running towards his prey even before the weapon had struck, eager to make its death as quick and painless as possible. He snapped its neck cleanly, and watched the light in its eyes go out.
The hunter prayed for the beast’s soul, and then began dressing the corpse.
Some time later, he returned to the village with his spear and prizes in hand. The guards watched him closely, as they always did, but his arrivals and departures had become a somewhat familiar sight by now, and they no longer gripped their weapons when he drew near, as though expecting him to turn violent at any moment. For his part, he did his best to look nonthreatening and show them that their fledgling trust in him was not undeserved.
He drew more looks as he went to the storehouse to deliver the deer and put back his borrowed weapon, and again when he headed for the shrine, but he paid them no attention, his mind already wholly devoted to his destination. It was early enough that the tapestry of this morning’s sunrise still graced the skies, which meant that his mate had likely not risen yet. That was good; he liked to be there when she first awoke. She was doing well adapting to their new circumstances, but he knew this was still an unfamiliar place with few allies for her, and his presence at her side offered a source of comfort.
Marcia Mackenzie was still asleep on their bedding when he entered their quarters, just as he’d hoped, though she stirred at the sound of his arrival and her eyes began to flutter open. A sleepy smile touched her features when she saw him. “My jailer returns,” she murmured, and made a clumsy but recognizable signing of ‘welcome back’. The yowie stroked her head with one hand and she leaned into his touch, purring contentedly.
Like the rest of the “animals” of the menagerie, he had been living within the nexus, taking residence in the lush forest near the Paradisum side. Ying Yue had assured everyone that the creatures were peaceful, their destructive urges soothed away by the mental bond they all shared. Few kitsune seemed in a hurry to test her assertion, but it was a problem they knew how to address. The villagers took every effort to keep them well supplied with food to ensure that they would not have to find out what hunger might do to their newfound pacifism.
His mate’s presence, on the other hand, had caused something of a commotion among the people of Hanei when it had been discovered. She was not the only free human who had ended up here, but her circumstances were different from the servants who had made the same trip. Most of them had been little more than house slaves in practice, and while the dragon’s intentions had not been kind when he’d lodged his servant’s families within his Paradisium – all the better to control and punish them – it meant that the evacuation had not separated them from their loved ones, and now few had much desire to return to Mongolia.
Marcia, however, represented a unique and uncertain threat to everyone here. Their safety hinged considerably on the notion that they were all dead. Should Miss Mackenzie return to her home and let people know that there were hundreds of kitsune and former slaves gathered within a small Japanese village, one whose defenses were still largely tattered and broken, Paragon would not be the last group to attempt an assault on the place. The kitsune leadership had been understandably loath to murder the woman in cold blood, but to let her roam freely was a danger they could not ignore.
And so, the village of Hanei had what was perhaps its first prisoner. Ironically, the need to keep her somewhere visible and secure had resulted in her being housed here in their temple, one of the best accommodations available. She was allowed to leave her room and wander the village, but only under supervision, and she had been warned that if she attempted to flee, they would have no choice but to seek a more permanent solution.
Marcia herself had accepted her situation with remarkably good grace. She was aware that without the efforts of people here, she would have been killed by Paragon just like everyone else. And as someone whose social circle included many conventional customers of the Paradisium, she was also cognizant of the fact that her treatment here could have been far harsher. Jiemba was fairly certain that he, and perhaps the qilin, were the only ones who knew that there was also a self-serving element to her submission. Her living situation here lacked many of the finer comforts that her wealth had offered, but was otherwise like an indefinite and glorious vacation as far as she was concerned. Perhaps once she’d been here for long enough, the novelty would wear off and she would find herself chafing against the restrictions she was under, but she’d told him that for now, she didn’t know if she’d ever been happier.
She’d had only one demand, in fact, and once it was granted she had acted as a model prisoner: him. And so, he had come to live here in the shrine with her instead, ostensibly to watch over her and ensure that she made no attempts to escape. Though he lacked the physical capacity for proper speech, she was able to understand him rather well even without words, and she was making slow but steady progress in learning the sign language that his people used to communicate. Soon enough they would be able to converse as easily as any other couple, even if no one who saw them side by side would ever expect them to be one.
Marcia snuggled against the yowie’s chest, seeking the warmth of his fur, and he embraced her in kind. She was a strange mate to be sure: willful, hotheaded, and more than a little spoiled. She wasn’t even the same species. But the kind and warm soul that he had seen in her had not been an illusion either, and he had no regrets about joining with such a spirited, confident, and adorable woman. And she certainly seemed to have none either… it was his turn to make pleased sounds as her hand slid down his stomach to encircle his cock, gently pumping the shaft until it had grown stiff.
“I think this is going to be the one,” she whispered as her other hand began to cradle his scrotum. “The seed that’s going to do it is riiiiiiight here.” In one smooth motion, she shifted to straddle him, one hand resting on his chest now while the other continued to slowly play with his balls. “All we need to do is help it get to its new home.” Neither of them knew if it was possible for a yowie to breed a human, but Marcia was very interested in finding out.
Her wet entrance slid down Jiemba’s shaft as she sank onto him, her insides as warm and welcoming as ever. Even as soaked as she was, it took a long time before the head of his cock kissed her cervix, her pussy fully stuffed and stretched around his throbbing member. She leaned down and gave him a slow, lingering kiss as her hips shifted, savoring the feeling of him inside of her. “And if this isn’t the one,” she said quietly, a wicked gleam in her eyes, “there’s nothing this poor, helpless slave can do to stop you from trying over and over and over, is there?”
No, he reflected as he kissed her back, feeling her warm and eager lips against his, he had no regrets at all.
After three hundred and fifty years, six months, eight days, eleven hours, forty four minutes, and thirteen seconds of her service to the Bloomdyne and Wilmingshire families, Celeste had believed herself incapable of further surprise when it came to frivolous orders from her masters and mistresses. And yet, Seo-yun had managed to cause such confusion that the winter fae nearly lost her entire composure.
“Mistress, I do not believe you understand the importance of those words,” the servant protested. “Being your sworn servant means that I cannot refuse to obey your directives, so you must take care not to make them frivolously.”
“You can now,” Seo-yun told her, and repeated the preposterous statement that had thrown Celeste into disarray. “I release you from your service.”
“But, mistress…” Celeste began.
“Seo-yun,” the fox said firmly. “You have no master now.” She looked around. “Is this really where you’re living?”
They stood on the patch of space that had been assigned to Celeste. There had been a tent here once, but she had given it away, just as she had the bed; she needed neither to sleep comfortably. She had no possessions to speak of anymore, so there was nothing here now but the snow covered grass. “It is sufficient to my needs,” the fae said. “Seo-yun, is this because of actions I took under the direction of Jessica Wilmingshire or Levi Petrov? Have I caused such offense that you cannot stand my presence?”
She wouldn’t have been alone in that regard. Celeste’s assistance in defending against the vulpan had gone far towards convincing many that she was no longer their enemy, but there were still some who regarded her with fear and suspicion. She did not blame them for their reactions. If she had been more capable in the first place, she would have evaded capture by Levi Petrov during their initial battle, and none of this would have happened. Even if the people of Hanei were not aware of this, Celeste herself knew that her failure had made her complicit, and so their aversion was not undeserved.
Her former mistress’s face flushed. “No, I, you aren’t to blame for what others made you do. I… I thought you would be happy to regain your freedom.”
“I am, mi- Seo-yun. I have wished for freedom for so long that even I cannot remember how much time has passed. But I believe you will regret this decision once you have realized its impact. To have unbridled control of a member of the fae court, even an exile such as myself, is a treasure that wars have been fought over. Men have sacrificed all their worldly belongings, their loved ones, even their own lives for the privilege you have now discarded.”
Celeste stopped herself from voicing the other half of that thought. Most of those seekers wanted that power to accomplish unjust ends, or to engage in wanton cruelty, or both as in the case of Levi Petrov. By comparison, having a mistress like Jessica Wilmingshire who had viewed her only as an exemplary member of the serving staff had been a relief, though even there her servitude had involved passively accepting and sometimes even aiding the abuse of others.
To serve someone like Seo-yun, a woman who might try to use the fae’s abilities for good rather than greed, was something Celeste had desired for a long time. To her, service to an honorable mistress had been the greatest fate she could aspire to. To receive the outright and irrevocable freedom that the red fox had so easily handed over… it was too much.
She said none of this, but Seo-yun seemed to pick up on some of it anyway. “I know how intimidating it can be to have to choose your own path,” the woman said. “But that does not mean you must walk alone. I would very much like to be your friend, and I’m sure that many here feel the same way.”
“You will support me in following the path that I think is best?” the dark haired fae asked.
Celeste took a deep breath, and decided. “Very well, mistress.”
“Seo-yun,” her mistress corrected again.
“Mistress,” Celeste repeated. “If I am truly free to act as I please, then I choose to freely bind myself to your service. I will not labor under a compulsion to obey your every whim, and either of us may terminate the relationship at any time, but you otherwise have my loyalty and may direct me as you wish.”
Seo-yun stared at her, and Celeste felt an odd sense of satisfaction that she was no longer the one confused. “But… you can do whatever you want,” the redhaired woman said weakly.
“Can I?” Celeste asked calmly, and held the woman’s gaze. “Because I believe that I have made it clear what that is.”
It was Seo-yun that looked away first. “Very well,” she mumbled. “We had better go talk to Sam.”
“Yes, mistress,” said the winter fae, and began to walk behind her, enjoying a sense of contentment that she hadn’t felt since before her sentencing. For now, all seemed right with the world.
The party that Hanabi threw to celebrate their freedom, safety, and newfound fortune was far larger and more bare bones than her birthday party just a few weeks ago. Hundreds of people with no cake, no presents, and not even a roof above their heads… but also no one serenading her or sharing any embarrassing childhood stories. As far as she was concerned, that made it a huge improvement.
Everyone was standing, sitting, or dancing around the bonfire, which was fueled by regular honest-to-goodness firewood and not priceless possessions this time around. There had been plenty of sunlight when they’d started, but that had been hours ago, and now the flickering firelight was their only illumination. Well, that and Seo-yun, who was still learning how to control that ridiculous foxfire of hers and glowed faintly in the dark.
Hanabi had spent the beginning of the party telling anyone who would listen all about what she’d gone through at the Paradisium, especially the dangerous bits. She’d also done a lot of dancing, and quite a bit of drinking. It wasn’t easy for a kitsune to get drunk, but just about the only booze left in all of Shirakami Sanchi was from Miku and Kumi’s home brew stash that had been safely hidden away in the forest, and their concoctions were strong enough to give even foxes a kick, strong enough that they’d had to warn the non-kitsune present to water their drinks down if they didn’t want a disaster. She vaguely remembered toasting pretty much everyone she knew at one time or another, and giving a few impromptu speeches that she was probably going to regret when she sobered up in the morning. But eventually, she’d quieted down and tired herself out and now sat by the bonfire – using her own tails, naturally, and smirking proudly at everyone who looked at her with envy-, pleasantly sleepy and happy just to watch everyone else.
To be sure, the atmosphere was far more somber than it once would’ve been. Everyone was more withdrawn, slower to laugh. There were people missing who should have been there. The physical wounds had healed, but the mental ones were still raw, and it would be a long time before the people of Hanei felt anything like ‘normal’ again. But still, there was joy and cheer to be found. Sakura was eagerly showing off her restored hair to everyone, and telling them how it had come back as a natural pink, without the need to be dyed. Tomo and Tobi sat side by side, propping each other up as they conversed with the others, and Hanabi had never seen her best friend looking more confident. Elsewhere, Sam and Ichika were drinking and swapping stories, while Seo-yun and Astaria had an animated conversation over what looked like some super boring papers.
The dragon wasn’t the only former slave of the Paradisium who seemed to be enjoying her newfound freedom. A woman with green hair and a small wooden necklace was having a conversation with Jenny; their voices were too quiet to be heard, but the way they stood so close together, casually intimate with one another, spoke volumes. As Hanabi watched, they turned away to exit the party, Jenny’s arm slung possessively around the girl’s waist, and stepped around Pet’s dozing body in the process.
Those disgusting goblins who’d been abusing her had finally left for good a few days ago, after making an agreement to never return, leave everyone alone, and share nothing of what they knew to anyone. They’d seemed smug and confident about all of it at first, no doubt certain that they could find some loopholes to exploit, until they’d seen who was responsible for writing up the contract. Hanabi still got the creeps around Celeste, but seeing those little bastards panicking at the sight of a high fae had warmed her heart. The contract she’d made for them was practically the size of a book, and they’d looked absolutely miserable signing it.
Celeste herself sat near Pet as though watching over her. As part of the contract, she’d gotten the goblins to agree to undo all the humiliating orders they’d placed on the poor woman… except for the most crippling of all, the one that hobbled her speech. That had been inflicted on her by someone with much higher status in the Winter Court than a bunch of mercenary goblins, and they were unable to countermand it. Hanabi hadn’t known that Celeste was even capable of cursing until she’d seen the winter fae’s reaction to learning that.
Despite her continued restrictions, and not even being able to tell anyone her name, Pet was lying happily on the ground, limp and relaxed. Dr Emi had been unable to erase the effect of the aphrodisiac in her system, but she was working on some medications to dull the effect, and what she’d come up with so far was good enough to allow the summer fae to sleep untroubled for the first time in years. For now, that was enough for her.
Hanabi looked down at the half empty bottle of wine in her hand. Most of the drinks were long gone by now, and she’d only gotten this one from Kamio after promising her father that she’d go to bed once it was empty. At the time, she’d planned to drink it as slowly as possible just to spite him, but now she was considering whether she’d rather just go to sleep than stay and finish it. On the one hand, the others were leaving bright and early tomorrow, and she wanted to be awake to see them off, a task that was getting harder to accomplish by the minute. And she’d drunk so much tonight already that this stuff was barely registering; it tasted about as alcoholic as fruit juice. On the other hand… there was still something she had to do before she called it a night. Hanabi rose to her feet and walked to the edge of the firelight, bringing the bottle with her. “I can see you over there, you know,” she said crossly. “Foxes are nocturnal.”
“It was my understanding that they are more commonly diurnal,” said Ying Yue, standing just outside the light and away from everyone.
“Whatever. Just get over here.”
The qilin shook her head. “I do not belong. I am not family, friend, or ally to anyone here. It was selfish enough to come here and observe.”
“Just give it a rest,” Hanabi said wearily. “I’m too tired and too drunk to think about that stuff right now. I just want to relax and celebrate; I can hate you again tomorrow.”
“You do not understand,” Ying Yue insisted. “I have not earned even your momentary forgiveness. I do not regret my choice, Hanabi. I am grateful that your people survived, but I would not hesitate to betray them again in the future.”
Hanabi sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Okay, two things. First, shut up and come over here. Second, I don’t…” She let herself slump down to the ground, too tired to even use her tails for support, and put the bottle down next to her. “I know I’ve got no right to be angry with you, even though I still am.”
Ying Yue looked like she’d been slapped. “You have every right to be angry with me. I betrayed-”
“Everyone I know and love, yeah,” Hanabi interrupted. “And so did I.” She looked down at the ground. “Back in the nexus, before everyone rescued me… I was ready to give up on them. It was only for a moment, but it happened. I knew that stupid nightmare thing wasn’t really going to leave them alone, but I wanted to stop hurting more than I wanted to protect them. And that was after just a few hours!”
Hanabi forced herself to look back up at Ying Yue and meet her gaze. “You were there in a hell like that for three years, and you thought your wife was in the same boat. And here I am, hating you for choosing her over a bunch of strangers?”
The qilin broke the stare first, looking away with an ashamed expression. “Your feelings on the matter do not change what I have done,” she said, though her voice sounded far less certain that it had been before. “I deserve to be punished for my crime.”
Hanabi shrugged. “Okay, so be punished. But do it right.” She picked up the bottle and tilted it to her lips to take a sip of what was left. “You know how I decided to punish myself? I’m gonna get to know everyone here better. Foxes, non foxes, doesn’t matter. I’m gonna grow close to all of them, until there’s no strangers left in my life, just friends and family, ‘s far as the eye can see.” She set the bottle down. “And then next time I get in trouble, and have to choose between them and me… things will be different. I will be different. Everyone here will mean too much to me to betray them, even if it’s only for an instant and only in my head. I’ll love ‘em all so much that I won’t even be able to imagine letting them down.” She blinked sleepily. “Except the jerks, I mean. Not gonna love them. But they can still tag along with everyone else, I guess.”
“And you think I should do something similar?” Ying Yue asked. She had inched closer to the white haired girl, close enough that Hanabi could have reached out and touched her if she wanted, though she was pretty sure the qilin would run for the hills if she tried. The girl felt like she was trying to calm a wild horse or something.
Hanabi shrugged. “Maybe. How the heck should I know? It’s what works for me, maybe something different works for you. You gotta figure out what’s right. Because this?” She swept the bottle to indicate Ying Yue, and nearly spilled its remaining contents “This is dumb.”
“Expressing remorse for my actions is foolish?” Ying Yue asked, a note of iron entering her tone.
“Standing around making yourself miserable is foolish. I’ve tried it myself, and it sucked. Zero stars.” Hanabi grimaced. “Go, like, do something with all that energy. Help out around the village, or help Astaria with her stuff, or I dunno, write an emo song about it. Whatever. Anything is better than just using it to beat yourself up.”
An expression that was almost a smile touched the qilin’s lips. “I am afraid I am not much of a songwriter.” She hesitated. “…May I have some of that?”
“This?” Hanabi held up the bottle. “Why the hell do you think I brought it over here? Just go easy on it; that stuff will knock you right out if you aren’t careful.”
Ying Yue hesitantly accepted it and sat down facing Hanabi, then cautiously took a small sip. The giant’s expression became confused. “This is fruit juice.”
“No,” Hanabi started to say, “it just tastes that way because…” Her voice trailed off. She recalled the smile Kamio had worn when he handed her the wine bottle. “Dammit, Dad,” she muttered, and then said louder, “Yeah, it’s fruit juice. You still want it?”
“It is quite delicious, actually.” Ying Yue took a longer sip and then handled the bottle back. “Where do we go from here?”
“I’m still angry with you,” Hanabi said, after taking another sip. “I know I shouldn’t be, I know it’s silly, but I am. I don’t know when that will go away. And you’re leaving anyway, right? I can’t imagine you want to stay here any longer than you have to when your wife is out there.”
“I have asked the dragon about passing along a message, so that she can eventually come here if she wishes,” Ying Yue told her. “It is the safest course of action. I no longer have faith in my ability to remain hidden in the outside world, not when it is Zhi Ruo’s life I would be risking.” She drank. “In the message, I will tell her everything I have done. If I am a person she no longer wants to be with, she will be able to simply continue living her life without interruption or danger. If she does still want me… then we will see.” A small smile touched her lips. “Either way, you may be stuck with me for some time. My apologies.”
They continued passing the bottle back and forth like that, until it finally ran dry and Hanabi rose to her feet. “That’s last call for me,” she said, and stretched. “You can stay if you want, but I’ve gotta go home, get some sleep, and then spend tomorrow planning how to get back at my Dad.”
The orange haired woman remained sitting, and did not look up. “Is it really alright for me to stay?” she asked.
“At the party, you mean?” Hanabi asked. “Or in the village?”
“Neither. In your life.”
Hanabi blew out a breath. “Yes. I’m… we’re not friends right now, Ying Yue. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never be, and we’ve still got months before those lakes thaw. So let’s see what happens.” She offered her hand.
Ying Yue took it.
It was early morning – very early morning – after the party when Hanabi said goodbye to Tomo outside the girl’s tent. “Don’t forget that you can always run away if you feel like you’re in danger,” she cautioned. “There’s no shame in doing it, I used to run away all the time even from, like, the harmless guys, if I got a bad feeling about them.”
“You’re worse than my mom,” Tomo complained cheerfully. “She and Dad gave me this whole lecture about double checking that my ears and tails are hidden every hour.” She changed her voice to mimic Tsukasa’s. “And don’t forget that just because they’re invisible, that doesn’t mean they’re gone, so make sure you don’t go accidentally touching people.”
“I’m not that bad,” Hanabi protested. “…I mean, they’ve got a point, sometimes my tails get super floofy and I’ve gotta be careful to keep them extra far away from people so I don’t give someone a static shock by accident, so you really should-”
“I’ll be careful about everything, Hanabi,” the brunette said. “I promise.”
Hanabi had to admit that she’d rarely seen her best friend in better spirits than today. Tomo was even standing up straight for a change; she had nothing on Aunt Ichika, but it still felt weird to have to crane her neck to meet the girl’s eyes. “I know you will,” the white fox said. “It’s just hard not to worry and… is this how people felt whenever I went out to the forest to play pranks?”
Ichika had been standing quietly to the side until now, waiting to escort Tomo to where the others were gathering at one of the village exits, but she snorted at that comment. “Imagine how much worse it would feel if Tomo kept insisting that there wasn’t really any danger at all and it didn’t matter how careful she was or wasn’t,” she said dryly. Hanabi blushed.
“I still can’t believe that I’m the one staying here and you’re the one going out to be, like, a secret agent,” the white haired girl told Tomo.
“We’re just meeting some people and then coming right back,” Tomo said. “I’m not even going to do anything beyond standing around.”
“Good,” said Hanabi. “I still have a bunch of tricks to teach you. I’m gonna make you the best secret agent fox girl in the world, alright?” Tomo nodded and the two hugged. “I love you, Tomo.”
“I love you too, Hanabi.”
Nobu and Kamio had just woken up when Hanabi returned to their tent, and were still snuggling on the thin futon they shared. “You say your goodbyes?” Kamio asked.
Hanabi yawned. “Yeah, and now I’m gonna sleep while I still can. I’m supposed to talk to Aya this morning about expanding the village grounds through the forest, and I’ve only got…” She looked up at the sun and cursed. “Never mind. I’d better get moving.”
“Let me at least fix you some coffee,” Nobu suggested. “You look like you’re about ready to fall asleep standing up.”
Their daughter yawned again. “Yeah, okay. Twist my arm, why don’t you?” She sat down on her futon and put an arm around Jess, who was curled up into a ball.
Kamio remained lying down and studied Hanabi carefully while she and Nobu chatted. Exhaustion had left bags under her eyes, but he didn’t think it was just lack of sleep from the party last night. She’d been running herself ragged for days now. “It’s okay to take a break if you need one, Flower,” he said. “Nobody is expecting you to work yourself to death.”
She looked at him quizzically. “Huh? No, this isn’t any boring council thing. I’m just gonna show her some good spots in the forest that I think we could probably make into farmland by spring. It’s gonna be fun! And then me and Sayuri are gonna plan where her cafe should go, and I’m totally gonna abuse my power and make sure it’s close to where we end up living. And Kaoru needs some help clearing out the buildings that are trashed but still structurally sound, which means I’ll get to break all kinds of things, and then…” She continued eagerly detailing her plans for the day between careful sips of coffee.
Kamio relaxed as he listened to his daughter. She had the same gleam in her eyes that she used to have while talking about her latest forest adventures. “Sounds like you’re enjoying yourself,” he observed.
Hanabi shrugged one shoulder. “I guess. I mean, Aya’s never been out of the village except for when the thing happened, so she’s never gotten to see all the really neat stuff in the forest. And Sayuri said she’s been wanting to open a cafe for years and years and now all this is finally giving her a good opportunity. It’s just fun to get to hang out and do this stuff with them, y’know?” She smiled. “It’s good to be home.”
Their daughter downed the rest of her mug and stood. “Yeah, that’s much better,” she said, stretching. “You guys wanna do lunch around noon?”
“That sounds good,” Nobu agreed. “Have fun out there, Flower.”
“Always do. You wanna come with me, Jess? Yeah? Race you!” The red fox got up and happily chased after the white haired girl, who was already sprinting away.
“You think she’s going to be alright?” Nobu asked, watching them go.
“Hanabi? She’s going to be fine. Rei, on the other hand, she’d better start watching her back,” Kamio said. His husband gave him a confused look. “Her mother’s not going to be in charge forever, and once that job opens up, she’s going to have herself some stiff competition.” He clapped Nobu on the back. “Now come on, old man, let’s not stand around. Didn’t you hear? We’ve got the tent all to ourselves until noon…”
“Batu told me I’d find you here,” Sam said to Astaria, walking up behind the woman. “Wanted to catch you before we left.”
The dragon was kneeling in what might have been meditation or prayer. “I have made a habit of coming here each morning,” she said without turning or opening her eyes. “I find it helps bring me focus.”
“It mostly just depresses the hell out of me,” Samantha told her. “But different strokes for different folks and all that, I guess.”
They were in the nexus, at a plot of land that had been set aside as a cemetery, with rows upon rows of grave markers. No one was actually buried here yet; there would be real graves here all too soon, but for now the markers were all honorary. They held the names of friends, lovers, family… people who had died long before the rescue, and whose deaths could only now be properly recognized and mourned.
“Are you certain you wish to leave so soon?” Astaria asked. “You have spoken before of your travels for the last few years, and the desire to find a permanent home. No one will fault you for staying here as long as you wish.”
“Nah, we won’t be gone for long,” Sam said. “A month, tops. Just popping over to New Zealand and back to see if we can find any taniwha. I’ve still got my fingers crossed that there will be some real hobbits down there.”
“How long or short your journey will be doesn’t matter,” said Astaria. “You deserve the opportunity to relax. You have both more than earned it.”
Sam sat herself down into a crosslegged position next to the winged woman. There were two grave markers in front of them, one with “ELEANOR” written on it and the other with just a photograph. “I do not know if Eleanor was her full name,” Astaria confessed when she saw the redhead glance at the first. “But it felt disrespectful to use a nickname. If I have guessed wrong, it will only be one more thing to apologize for when my time arrives.”
“It means a lot to us to know we’ve got a home here now,” said Sam. “Really. But me and her, we’re not very good at the whole… management thing.”
“No one expects you to be,” Astaria reminded her.
“Sure, but, like, we want to do stuff, you know? Neither of us is a fan of sitting on our hands and taking it easy.” Sam looked down at her left arm. “Well, I guess that particular concern isn’t one I’ve got to worry about anymore.”
“I am sorry,” the dragon said, her eyes drawn to the stump of Sam’s wrist. “You should not have had to pay such a price. If I had been better…”
Sam thumped her softly in the side. “Don’t go trying to hog the credit,” she said, her voice light and teasing. “I went and did this to myself, and I don’t regret it for a minute. Do you know how I feel when I look at my arm? Proud. I got to take revenge on both those motherfuckers, and all it cost me was a single hand. I never did anything half as awesome as that when I was Ember. Besides, I’m not the only one who lost something along the way. Is that horn ever coming back?”
Astaria touched her broken horn. “I have no idea,” she admitted. “Even transformation did not fix it. The only person who might know the answer is my father, and I am in no hurry to interview him. We shall have to wait and see.”
“Where’d you get that picture from, anyway?” Samantha asked, looking at the other grave marker.
Astaria smiled slightly. “I found it among her things while we were searching for supplies. She had the pieces in a small urn on the dresser. It took me some time to put them back together properly.”
The picture was an old Polaroid photograph that had been torn into little pieces, and was now restored thanks to copious amounts of tape. A young Nadia and Tanya Petrov smiled at the camera, their arms linked.
Both women looked silently at the picture for a time. “I’m pretty sure she failed miserably,” Sam said.
“In what respect?” asked Astaria, her tone carefully neutral.
“According to Yip Yip, she got Nadia all pissed off so that she’d save me as a kind of middle finger and go out despising her sister, right? But I was with Nadia when she died, and she wasn’t angry, she was proud. Happiest I’d seen her since that first night when she was hanging out with Belle, in fact. I think at some point, she figured out exactly what Tanya was trying to do.”
“You may be correct,” Astaria said. “Either way, I expect they have a great deal to talk about now.”
“You’re not wrong there. Assuming that they went to the same place, that is, and I wouldn’t be in a hurry to take that bet.” Sam stood up and stretched. “Alright, I should get moving before Seo-yun starts getting worried. We’ll check in when we hit land over there.”
Astaria rose with her. “Very well. I wish both of you safe travels and success in your search. My own excursion outside should be a short one, and I will endeavor to make good progress here while you are away. It is my hope that this will soon be more than just a hiding place. I will make this a place people will be proud to call home.”
The two embraced. “Oh, one last thing before I go,” Sam said after they broke off the hug. “Something that’s been bothering me a while. Back in the Paradisium, you told me that the entire world was doomed if things went wrong. I’m happy they didn’t, and I don’t mind adding ‘saved the world’ to my resume, but as bad things got that night, I don’t think they ever qualified as ‘apocalyptic’.”
“You should replace that compress,” Astaria warned. “A possible concussion is not something to be taken lightly.”
“Says the person who brained me in the first place,” Tanya grumbled from her seat on the couch, but she rose and walked shakily to the kitchen, returning with a bag of ice that she pressed against the bloody gash on her head. “In a few hours it won’t matter either way. Assuming I’m not just lying to you, that is. This could all turn out to be another game.”
Astaria had thought as much when she had assaulted the girl only a short while ago. It had been more of a symbolic gesture than anything; she’d been certain her attack on the oracle would fail miserably, or be revealed as yet another long anticipated piece of Tanya’s plan. But Tanya had seemed as surprised as she was by the physical outburst, and Astaria had very nearly beaten the girl to death before she’d realized what she was doing. Even when she’d demanded that the girl share her plans with her, she had been waiting for Tanya to respond with laughter or a mocking comment.
Instead, her reaction had been far more disturbing: she’d told the dragon the truth.
“You were not being deceitful,” Astaria said, sidestepping the issue of what Tanya intended to do soon. Regardless of the outcome, it couldn’t be called anything but suicide, and the idea of the girl’s death brought with it a tangle of emotions that she didn’t have the time to unravel right now. “You’re not as good a liar as you think you are. And if you were going to try and trick me, I find it difficult to believe you would have come up with a lie so ridiculous. I am, however, certain that you are mistaken: this cannot possibly be the best way to go about this. If you would instead be open with the others-”
“Gather up a little team?” Tanya interrupted, her tone caustic. “See what happens if we all pitch in together? Sure, I could do that. If you really want, I could go draw the attention of a Zenko or two while I’m at it, get Inari in on this. Hell, why not go all the way and get in touch with all the remaining gods? We could put together a force that would make the fighting tonight look like a couple snot nosed kids dueling with action figures. It’ll fail miserably, of course, but we’ll get tons of brownie points for trying.”
“So you have already said,” Astaria told her.
“And apparently I didn’t say it loud enough. There are no futures where the world survives what’s coming, Star. None. Zero. I didn’t see one back at the beginning, and I’ve never managed to catch a glimpse of one in all the years since.”
“If you truly thought that there was no hope,” the dragon pointed out, “you wouldn’t be doing any of this.”
“I didn’t say that there was nothing to be done,” Tanya said, “but I know that putting a spotlight on the situation isn’t it. The only thing we have going for us right now is that we’re invisible. We still have a few years before it all goes wrong, and we have them because he doesn’t think that anyone is working against him. In every future where we operate out in the open or alert one of the higher powers about what’s going to happen, his response is sudden and brutal. That’s why you can’t tell the others anything.”
“So I have already sworn,” Astaria said. “But you should at least share what you know with Seo-yun. If you are truly going to pin all of your hopes on her-”
“I’m not,” Tanya interrupted. “She can’t handle it, I’m certain of it by now. I’ve got no choice but to keep doing this myself. She’s too eager to give up, to find reasons why she can’t win. She’s fine when there are other people around who need saving, even if I have to damn near kill them to keep her going, but she falls apart when it comes to self-preservation, and that’s not good enough. We won’t get anywhere with someone who places so little value on her own life.” Her smile was ugly and sharp. “Take it from an expert.”
“Is that what your visions tell you?” Astaria asked, “or just your personal evaluation of the woman?” Tanya glared at her, but didn’t respond. “You are the one who said that the only futures where we seemed to have any chance at all were the ones where she became involved.”
“Yes, and maybe her shortcomings are why we still fail every time.”
“All the more reason to try and teach her to be better instead of…”
“Instead of killing myself?” Tanya asked bluntly. “We’ve been over this, Star. Even if you’re right about Seo-yun and she rejects my offer, she has no chance of succeeding yet. What we need is a brand new future, and there’s exactly one way to go about that.”
“The fact that you cannot see what happens after you die does not mean our chances improve without you,” Astaria countered.
Tanya must have seen something in the dragon’s expression, because her tone softened ever so slightly. “It does, though. I’ve had plenty of time to think this through. He knows what I can do, Star. He doesn’t think of me as a threat now, but once things come to a head, it’s my presence that convinces him to take us seriously. Nobody likes the idea of someone else knowing their secrets. The sooner I remove myself from the equation, the better our odds.” She hurried on without giving Astaria a chance to respond. “And anyway, neither of you needs me. I can’t teach anything except what not to do.”
“You could make sure that Seo-yun’s transformation happens as intended without leaving it up to the whim of fate. A controlled environment-”
“Would fail,” Tanya interrupted again. “If it comes to that, and it won’t, she’ll need more than just a near death experience. Every time we try and do it safely, it either doesn’t go far enough or she ends up dead. Even when I make her believe that I’m trying to murder her, either she or Jack Morris doesn’t have the sheer willpower to push through. The fact is, for this to work, they’re both going to need to be pissed, and if Levi is good at anything, it’s pissing people off.”
“It runs in the family,” Astaria said crossly.
Tanya ignored her barb. “Her transformation is the least risky part of this whole damn thing. She and my brother are both predictable to a fault. Once he believes she’s killed me, he will hunt her down and return the favor. I’ve made him strong enough that even the fae won’t be able to stop him from doing what he was meant to, strong enough that Karakostas won’t get in the way. But we don’t have time to waste talking about this. I need to get ready to head into the sewer, and you… you’re supposed to be in the middle of a crisis of conscience that ends with you turning your back on me.” She scowled. “What made you attack me like that anyway? It wasn’t in any reasonable future I saw.”
“You called me Star,” the dragon said simply. When Tanya gave her a blank look, she continued, “I wondered at first why you had chosen to use that particular nickname, when you had never used it before. And then I realized that a better question to ask was why you had avoided the nickname for so long.”
The dark haired girl let out a short, humorless laugh. “But there was no reason for it. I just didn’t.”
“Are you sure about that?” Astaria asked. “You can’t remember futures after they become impossible. What if you did have a reason, and then forgot about it after you rejected my offer of cooperation? So the next logical question was to consider what kind of future would be eliminated by that rejection. Would you like to hear my theory?” Tanya didn’t answer. “I think there were futures where you and I were together. Not as mistress and unwilling slave, but as true partners. That’s why you were never able to make up your mind about how to treat me, wasn’t it? You were supposed to be the wicked and capricious Tanya Petrov, but you found yourself slipping up over time, treating me more and more like a real lover, and that would not do.” She grimaced. “After all, I was meant to hate you like everyone else.”
Astaria glared at the other woman, her voice cold and professional. “I think that in those futures, I was your Star, and that is why you never called me by that name. It was your last line of defense to keep you focused: Star was the woman you loved, and Delphy was the woman you abused. A line that you forgot the moment those futures vanished completely. You pushed me away one final time and then you called me Star, because the woman that name belonged to no longer existed even in your head. Does any of this sound unreasonable to you?”
Tanya looked down. “…I don’t remember,” she said bitterly. “And that still doesn’t explain why you attacked.”
Astaria hesitated, trying to find the right words. “Because if there were futures where I loved you,” she said eventually, “then you must have had the potential to be someone worthy of my love. Somewhere beneath all your plotting and trickery, there was a woman who I could have trusted and cherished, and a future where I would have willingly chosen to be with you.” She allowed some of the anger she’d been bottling up this entire time slip out. “And you… you threw it all away. You betrayed what we could have had together before it even existed, and I knew that it wasn’t because your plans demanded it. It wasn’t some necessary sacrifice for the greater good. You abandoned everything we could have had together, Tanya, and stole that future from me, for the sake of nothing but your selfish desire to be hated. Am I wrong?”
There was silence as Tanya continued to avoid meeting the dragon’s gaze. “That is why I attacked you,” Astaria finished. “Not because I acquired some great epiphany that told me how to disrupt your plans. I did it because in that moment, I was too furious with you to do anything else.”
“Stop,” Astaria interrupted. “You were right before, we do not have time for this. I need to go see an innocent woman whose life you destroyed, and escort her into the hell you’ve set up for her. And you need to go kill yourself and run away from everyone who needs your help.” She rose from her seat. “Will we ever speak to each other again, Tanya Petrov?”
“If Seo-yun really is the woman you think she is, then no,” Tanya said quietly. “This will be the very last time.”
“Good,” Astaria said, ignoring the flash of pain and regret in her chest. She already knew that when she looked back on this moment, she would wish that she’d had something better to say. She’d wish that she’d found it in her heart to offer kindness at the end, or wisdom, or the opportunity for redemption and salvation. But what she said instead was “Then you can die knowing that you got your wish: I never loved you, and I never will.”
With a clear effort of will, Tanya grinned, hiding herself behind her familiar mask. “Thanks, Delphy. That’s exactly what I was hoping for.”
When Astaria finally responded to Sam, she spoke carefully, every word chosen with great deliberation. “You have made an error in your statement. I warned you about the possibility of the world ending. I said nothing about saving it. That night was an important crossroads, and many of the paths that were before us would have led to the end of everything. We have avoided taking those particular paths, but that does not mean we have changed our ultimate destination.”
The green haired woman held Sam’s gaze. “Be well, Samantha Morris. I believe we are still closer to the beginning of our trials than the end, and we will have great need of you and your wife both in the future.”
And no matter how Sam probed after that, she would say no more.