“Thanks for letting me drag you out here,” said Embras. “This is a last-minute change in the schedule, based on an idea I had scarcely an hour ago, otherwise I’d have given you more warning.”
“Not at all,” Hiroshi replied with his customary unflappable calm. “It’s not as if any distance is an impediment when one can shadow-jump. And I quite enjoy the chance to stretch my legs a bit, and especially see new sights. Not that I’m not fond of Puna Shankur, but it’s pleasant to see more of the Empire.”
He made no mention of the fact that as his cult leader, Embras Mogul could send him anywhere on a whim with neither apology nor explanation.
“For instance,” Hiroshi added, nodding at the bustling crowd teeming in and around the double doors of the structure across the street from them, “what is going on in there?”
“Why, like the sign says,” Embras replied easily, “that’s the Mathenon Stock Exchange.”
“We can both read, Embras,” Bradshaw said wryly. “That doesn’t mean either of us has a clue what that is. If it were any other neighborhood in any other city, I’d think that was some kind of sporting event, the way those fellows are riled up.”
“It is peculiar to see men in business attire shouting at one another and drinking in public,” Hiroshi added, glancing once more over his shoulder at the heaving crowd as they passed further down the street.
“It’s the most ingenious thing, really,” Embras explained, smiling darkly. “First, trading companies and other businesses are organized so that shares of them, or stocks, can be sold as tradeable commodities. For instance, if, say, Falconer Industries sold stocks, we could just wander into that building back there and buy a share for whatever they go for, and be the part owner of one of the Empire’s most successful operations.”
“Does FI do this?” Hiroshi asked in a tone of fascination.
“Hell if I know,” Embras said glibly. “I’m only this up to date on the practice because, as you may have heard, I suffer a minor obsession with the Vernisites and their various schemes. But anyway, the whole idea of a stock exchange is first to divide a business into pieces which can be traded, and then to trade them. Once these imaginary slices of ownership become commodities, the laws of supply and demand come into play. People can make—or lose—money in trading them back and forth, and the companies in question can improve their fortunes by manipulating the market to increase their perceived value.”
“That is the barmiest thing I ever heard of,” Bradshaw snorted, shaking his head. “I give it a year before the government shuts that down.”
“It is rather ingenious, as you say,” Hiroshi mused.
“And so very Vernisite,” Embras added. “A whole lot of lies, nonsense and legal fictions committed to paper, used to create money out of thin air by manipulating human nature. I’m telling you, boys, as I’ve told you time and again, it doesn’t matter how many people Avei kills, Naphthene drowns or Omnu pompously lectures: it’s Verniselle who truly embodies the rotten, self-serving heart of the Pantheon.”
Bradshaw sighed. “Anyway. You were going to explain a bit more about our business here? I thought the matter in Puna Shankur was rather urgent.”
“Yes, of course. Hang a right here, lads,” Embras said, turning the corner onto a street which immediately proved itself to be much quieter. Not that there was much activity of any kind, with sunset fading rapidly into twilight. Mathenon was a very genteel place, or at least most parts of it were. Not very much happened after dark. “Before meeting with Hiroshi’s Sifanese expert, we’re going to drop in on an information broker who specializes in the diabolic. If anyone on this continent happens to have tips on how to tangle with a kitsune using infernal means, she will.”
“And how likely is that, do you think?” Bradshaw asked.
“Not very likely at all. In fact, not likely enough to be worth the trip on its own merits; I have a secondary agenda here. Our current troubles merely provide a perfect excuse to put it into play. I’ll explain more on the way back, fellas; we don’t want to be late to meet with Hiroshi’s friend. I already delayed to ask Vanessa if she wanted to come along. She didn’t.”
“Vanessa is busy wrangling our annoyed contacts in Calderaas…ah,” Bradshaw nodded, his pensive expression clearing. “I see. So this is where she scurried off to. I confess it didn’t really occur to me to wonder. Is this necessary, Embras?”
“Necessary? Probably not. But useful, definitely.”
He fell silent as a man lounging against a gate up ahead straightened, turning to face them and reaching into his coat. A soft footstep sounded behind the three men, another individual materializing out of an alley.
None of them faltered so much as a step. Embras held out a hand, palm up, and a seething orb of fire sprang into being above it, casting a sharp orange glow over the scene. Hiroshi flicked his wrists, two wands sliding neatly out of his sleeves and into his hands. Bradshaw simply walked on, acknowledging none of this.
To his credit, the burly man in the slightly shabby coat ahead of them hesitated only fractionally before turning his motion into a cough smothered behind a fist. “Pleasant evening, gents,” he said politely, tipping his hat.
“Right back atcha,” Embras replied cheerfully as they filed past him.
Mathenon’s founding, two thousand years ago, had been a mistake and a cause of much misfortune for everyone involved. Situated on the plains between the Golden Sea and the Wyrnrange, its location had nothing to recommend it except proximity to the Old Road and to the only significant source of fresh water in the area. The mountains provided scant ore and timber, there were few available native animals, and while the prairie did yield good crops if properly cultivated, it had been centuries before the then-kingdom of Mathenon had built up its forces enough to adequately protect its farmland from tribes of centaurs and plains elves. The city’s only true asset had been the road, the primary trading route between the dwarven kingdoms and the human lands in the south.
Two millennia later, Mathenon was known as the Gilded City—or, less charitably, as the richest place in the world that had done nothing to deserve it. With nothing to cling to but trade, the Mathenites had hurled themselves into commerce with a vengeance, and by this point in history had built up an empire of their own, whose reach exceeded that of Tiraas, even as it paid its taxes to the Silver Throne. Here were all the greatest guild halls, the trading syndicates, the merchant conglomerates and the banks which serviced all of them. The wealth of the world flowed through Mathenon, a goodly portion of which never flowed back out. And with little agriculture and no manufacturing to speak of, almost everyone living in the city was either involved in commerce, or in a less financially privileged class who made a living servicing the bankers and merchants in whatever ways they required. It was a city that infamously produced nothing, and took its cut of everything.
Unsurprisingly, it was also a thriving haven for those who profited less directly from the peccadilloes of the rich. Mathenon was unquestionably a stronghold of Verniselle, but the disciples of Eserion had a much heavier presence here than a city of its size could ordinarily support. To them, three men in well-tailored suits strolling the streets without guards as dark fell would seem at a glance like a walking gift basket.
But the Black Wreath did not pay the Unwary Tax. In most places, at most times, they would simply have avoided confrontations via stealth. Once in a while, though, Embras Mogul took a personal satisfaction in seeing agents of the Thieves’ Guild back down.
At the next intersection, Embras crossed the street to take a left down an even narrower avenue, this one lined with expensive houses behind walled gardens and lit by fairy lamps in elaborate brass sconces, which levitated three yards above the sidewalks, unsupported by poles. There was a grassy median down the center of the street, dotted with immaculately trimmed dogwood trees, each protected behind a wrought-iron fence topped with chrome accents. The whole neighborhood screamed of wealth.
“And here we are,” Embras murmured aloud, slowing as they came abreast of an open gate. The house beyond was quiet, but all its windows blazed with light; clearly there was a social event in progress despite the hour, but it was a demure sort of party, as befit the neighborhood. He turned at the path, Bradshaw and Hiroshi trailing silently behind, and strolled up to the house’s richly carved walnut door.
A servant stood at the top step by the door, dressed in a suit that was just similar enough to a Butler’s uniform to be evocative without being close enough to provoke the Service Society—which was a thing no sensible person did. She regarded them calmly from behind thick darkened glasses, which seemed incongruous at this hour.
“Good evening,” Embras said politely to her, tipping his hat. “I’m afraid we’re not expected.”
“I’m afraid you are not invited, Mr. Mogul,” she replied. “Specifically, and by name. Goodbye.”
“Now, now, let’s be neighborly to one another,” he replied with a cheerful grin. “A fellow deserves a chance to plead his case to the lady of the house, don’t you think?”
“What I think is that my job is, in part, to dissuade undesirables, a category in which you are emphatically included. You can spare me the charm, sir; you’re not charming enough to come between me and a steady wage.”
“Well, that seems to be all the grounds we need to reach an agreement,” he said smoothly, producing a decabloon from within his pocket and bouncing it on his palm.
The woman regarded him in stony silence for a moment, then reached up and pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose. Her eyes had golden irises which glowed in the dimness, with vertically slitted pupils.
“Sir,” she said with a cold smile, “are you attempting to bribe me?”
“Nothing so clumsy,” Embras replied, now tossing the coin back and forth between his hands. “There’s no reason the mistress need suspect you were paid to let us in, when she’ll find it perfectly believable that I threatened, enchanted, or otherwise coerced my way past you. Isn’t that right?”
“You’re right in that regard—I can hardly be expected to fight off the likes of you.” She glanced behind him at the other two men. “The same cannot be said of those inside the house, Mogul. You realize she’s just going to throw you right back out again.”
“That, my dear lady, is between her and me,” he said, holding up the decabloon between forefinger and thumb.
Faster than a flicker of lightning, her tongue lashed out, seizing the coin and drawing it back into her mouth. She leaned over to turn the door latch, and pulled it wide for them, smiling ironically.
“Enjoy your visit, gentlemen. I will see you again very soon.”
“Much obliged,” Embras said lightly, stepping past her. Bradshaw and Hiroshi followed him in, both nodding politely to the doorkeeper. She watched them with that same knowing smile, her dark glasses once again in place, and shut the door gently behind them.
The soft sounds of conversation and pianoforte music resonated through the marble-appointed foyer in which they stood. A staircase lined with deep scarlet carpet curved up to a landing ahead of and above them; to their left was a wide doorway, blocked only by velvet drapes, from which the sounds of the party could be heard.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” said the only person visible, a hethelax demon wearing a suit oddly tailored to fit over his armor plates. “I would offer to take your coats, but you will not be staying long.”
“That’s a likely outcome, yes,” Embras said with a sunny smile. “She’s in the salon, I assume?”
“Yes,” the demon said evenly. “I would advise you to depart rather than seek her out.”
“I appreciate the advice,” Embras replied, tipping his hat and turning to push aside the curtains, his fellow warlocks following on his heels.
The salon was large and displayed understatedly expensive taste in its furnishings. It was also full, occupied by over a dozen people whose attire and bearing spoke of wealth. They stood and sat, chatting, sipping glasses of sparkling wine and nibbling canapes, looking for all the world like any gaggle of rich people enjoying a house party, apart from a few unusual elements. Several were obviously half-demons; one young woman had finned ears and slowly writhing tendrils instead of hair, another had eyes that were featureless pits of crimson flame, and a man near the door had patterns of scales across his cheeks and forehead. There was also a katzil demon curled up asleep in front of the fireplace. In one corner stood a pianoforte, being softly played by a female hethelax. Her clawed fingers made faint clicking noises on the keys, just barely loud enough to be heard beneath the music.
The three had hardly made it in before being addressed by the lady of the house, who had risen from her chair near the fire to point imperiously at them. She was a young woman, well short of thirty, with elaborately coiffed dark hair and a pale complexion, attired in a gown in the latest fashion which emphasized her figure despite its modest cut.
“You are unwelcome in my house, Embras Mogul,” she said sharply, the music and conversation falling silent around them.
Embras swept off his hat and bowed deeply. “Be that as it may, it is a genuine pleasure, Madeleine, as always. I hoped I might implore you to—”
“You might not,” she snapped. “Leave, before I am forced to insist.”
He straightened, his expression growing serious. “Whatever you may think of me—of us—I do respect your wishes, and would not have bothered you if it were not important. We have an urgent need, Madeleine.”
“Good,” she said flatly. “May it devour you. Somewhere else.”
“I understand your dislike,” he pressed on, “though I do believe, as I’ve said, that it is born of a misunderstanding. Perhaps if you would deign to do business with me as with any of these fine people, we might make progress toward finding common…ground…”
He trailed off as she turned her back on him, stepping over the sleeping katzil to lift an ancient-looking oil lamp from its perch upon the mantle. She turned back to face them, languidly dragging her fingers along the lamp’s curved surface.
The violet smoke that poured forth made the room smell of myrrh and jasmine. It streamed from the lamp in an oddly twisted cyclone, resolving itself into the form of a woman with blue skin and aquiline features—at least from the waist up. Below the navel, her body was only a long tendril of smoke, connected to the lamp.
“I am summoned, and have come, as it is agreed,” she intoned, executing an elaborate salaam. “Gracious lady, I beg that you deign to tell this unworthy traveler how she may have the honor of serving you.”
“Qadira,” Madeleine replied, “the Black Wreath has entered my home, despite knowing their presence is unwanted. Embras Mogul, the high priest of Elilial, stands in my salon, having thrice refused my orders to depart. I would have you bear witness to his next actions, that the worlds both above and below may know how he comports himself, lest anyone find themselves holding commerce with a faithless brute where they expected a gentleman.”
“It is indeed a precious gift you bestow upon me, most honored one,” Qadira replied, turning a crafty smile on Embras and his companions. “The eyes of the djinn see all things, in every plane and beyond, but that I may watch firsthand as such as this unfolds will grant me prestige in the esteem of my kin. Again, lady, I am in your debt.”
Madeleine stared at Embras with a faint, smug half-smile; the others assembled in the room watched like an entire rookery of hawks, awaiting a signal to strike. As if alerted by the change in mood, the katzil uncoiled itself, raising its head to sniff the air.
After a very tense moment of heavy silence, Embras Mogul took a deliberate step backward, again tipping his hat to Madeleine. “Well. My apologies for intruding, good lady. Can’t blame a fellow for trying.”
“Not for the first time in our acquaintance,” Madeleine said icily, “you are deeply mistaken.”
“Do enjoy your evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he replied, turning and pushing back through the heavy curtains.
They made their quick way out of the house, not acknowledging the smug looks of the hethelax manservant and half-demon guardian. Bradshaw waited until they were out the gate and two houses back down the street before speaking.
“Well, Embras, since I know you as I do, I’m going to assume that was not as completely pointless as it seemed.”
“In fact, that simply could not have gone better,” Embras said cheerfully. “There was always the risk she’d summon a baerzurg to pummel us, or have that diffident fellow in the impossible suit give it a go, but really, that was remote. Madeleine’s never been one to go in for brutish tactics. Ill-considered and overdramatic, yes, but never barbaric.”
“And?” Bradshaw drawled.
Embras came to a stop, turning to face them. “And now, she has very obligingly gone on record before a djinn, refusing to help the Black Wreath when we came to her in need, hat in hand. Were the girl a hair less aggravated by my presence, I think she’d have thought carefully before doing something so rash, but it’s done now! At issue, gents, is these fence-sitters, of which Madeleine is a prime example.”
“You can’t possibly mean to start hounding every diabolist who’s not part of our organization,” Bradshaw said, frowning. “We’re stretched too thin as it is, Embras. After Tiraas this spring, it’s a challenge to stay on top of the demons and warlocks who need to be put down, in addition to our ongoing major commitments.”
“Of course,” Embras replied. “That policy hasn’t changed; we’re not going to go out of our way to smite anybody who does not absolutely need it. However, matters are careening toward a head, and a lot of these characters are unknowable variables that present a problem. We’re going to have to be ready to bring down Justinian when the alignment comes, and between his holy summoner program and having bloody Kheshiri in his stable of lackeys, he’s proved his willingness to draw resources from even the most deplorable places. Going forward, anyone in the infernal community who is not with us must be assumed to be against us. Take note of tonight’s events, lads, and find opportunities to repeat the performance. We are going to start putting each of these independent operators on the spot. Any time an opportunity arises, or you can create one, force them to declare either their support or opposition, as publicly as possible.”
“Ah,” Hiroshi said, nodding. “To burn away the fog of war with the light of hellfire, leaving no gray area in which Justinian’s creeping fingers can hide.”
“Poetic as always,” Bradshaw noted with a smile. “I hope you’re not proposing to trust all of these outsiders, just because we can coerce them into declaring their support.”
“Trust, no,” Embras replied, “but you know as well as I where their interests fall. That’s why that trick worked on Madeleine, and variants of the same will likely work on the others, even when we’ve used it enough that they start to see it coming. A warlock who betrays his word is hamstrung; the mortal community is too small and the demonic one too vindictive to do business with oathbreakers. If anyone does turn on us, they will pay the price even if we are in no position to extract it ourselves. Now, then! Hiroshi, my thanks for your patience with this little drama. I hope this isn’t going to make us late to meet your friend.”
“Indeed not,” Hiroshi said with a smile. “Uncle will be expecting us at some point this evening after dinner; it is nowhere near late enough to be an imposition, even on the east coast.”
“Splendid! Let’s not drag this out any further, regardless. Lead the way, would you?”
“Of course,” Hiroshi said, bowing. The haze of Elilial’s stealth settled over all of them—not that anyone was nearby, but one never knew who might happen to be looking out a window in time to see three men abruptly shadow-jump out of a public street.
Following the dimensional tunnel bored by Hiroshi, who knew their destination best, they emerged in a dirty, dark and cluttered alley. All three immediately set off for the lighted street at the end of it, unfazed by their squalid environs. Such alleys were the Wreath’s bread and butter, in terms of moving around cities undetected.
Night had fully fallen over the city into which they emerged, but this area showed no signs of going to sleep. Lights blazed forth on all sides, illuminating bustling crowds pushing through narrow, winding streets that made as stark a contrast to the orderly layout of Mathenon as their shabby cheerfulness did to its discreet ostentation.
Puna Shankur itself would be a contrast to most Imperial cities, lacking their organization, wealth, and omnipresent law enforcement, not to mention being lit by lamps and torches nearly as commonly as fairy lights. Punaji territory in general was wilder, poorer, and yet more festive, even in cities as far south as this one, where the locals were forced by the climate to bundle up more than the Punaji in general cared to. For that and other reasons, Puna Shankur was one of the less ethnically consistent outposts of Rajakhan’s realm.
This particular neighborhood was a perfect example of that; brown Punaji faces were less common among the crowd than paler complexions accompanied by tilted eyes. Embras and Bradshaw would have stuck out if not for the layer of misdirection they maintained; Onkawi and Stalweiss were almost totally absent from the passersby, and only here and there could the odd Tiraan be seen. The people here hailed from a dozen nations, and the signs were in nearly as many languages, but on the Tiraan continent such neighborhoods were often referred to as Sifantowns. In other parts of the world, this racial mix might have met each other with swords and wands drawn, but when surrounded by another domineering culture of people who couldn’t even tell them apart, those from that general region tended to cluster together. It was an imperfect familiarity, but it would do.
Hiroshi led the way down the bustling market street, then down a quieter one lined with ramshackle apartments rising four and five stories above. The streets here were scarcely wider than alleys, though most were better cared for by their inhabitants, and continued to wend this way and that with no apparent plan. Their guide strode confidently, however, well familiar with the territory.
“Is it safe to involve your uncle in this?” Bradshaw asked as they walked. “Most of us prefer to keep family out of the Lady’s business. Much healthier for them, unless they’re already part of the faith.”
“I would prefer that he not learn just whose business this is,” Hiroshi agreed. “Uncle knows only that I am bringing two friends who have questions about the kitsune. And he is not a relation of mine; everyone in the neighborhood calls him that. He is the man most dedicated to preserving the traditions of the old country in this one, and makes sure the Sifanese children who grow up in Puna Shankur know who we are, and where we came from. In fact, he seemed delighted at the opportunity to share his knowledge with interested parties who are not of Sifanese blood.”
He stopped before the door of a three-story structure that seemed positively squat beside its towering neighbors, and rapped, murmuring to his companions, “Remember, it is polite to remove your shoes in the entryway.”
“Noted,” Embras replied.
The door opened after only a moment, revealing a young woman with her hair tied back in a silken kerchief. A warm but restrained smile spread across her face.
“Sakamoto Hiroshi. Just look at you, fancy suit and all. Should I be honored that you’re still willing to visit us?”
“You may be as honored or as insulted as pleases you, Kiyoko,” he said, grinning more widely back. “As long as your mother makes those sweet buns of hers, you’ll just have to keep putting up with me.”
“Oh, well played,” she retorted. “Now I have to be the polite and traditional one, which rules out the excellent rejoinder I had about your obsession with my mother’s buns.”
“Does Uncle know you talk to guests this way?” Hiroshi demanded, planting his fists on his hips and glowering in mock outrage.
“Oh, please, you know very well who I learned it from. Come in, Hiroshi, come in. And your friends! Uncle’s expecting you; he’ll be right down.”
After a brief exchange of introductions, which notably did not include anyone’s surname, Embras and Bradshaw found themselves seated on the floor along one side of a low table in the living room. It was arranged in a very Sifanese style, rather bare of furnishings and decorations, but spotlessly clean and everything carefully placed. The sparseness was clearly a deliberate aesthetic, not due to poverty.
Scarcely had they had time to get comfortable when Uncle arrived; Hiroshi immediately rose, and both his companions followed his lead.
Hiroshi’s description had hinted at an older man, and Uncle was definitely that, but rather than the wise old master of archetype, he resembled nothing so much as a blackmith. Despite his gray and receding hair, and the thick lines which nearly hid his eyes, he walked with an unbent spine, and was of an incredibly powerful build, his arms thickly corded with muscle and shoulders almost too broad to comfortably pass through the doorway. He was also, they noted upon rising, rather short, the top of his balding head not quite reaching Embras’s chin.
“Uncle,” Hiroshi said warmly, first bowing, and then stepping over to clasp the old man’s hand. “It’s been too long!”
“And whose fault is that, boy?” Uncle replied, his Tanglish clear but with a distinct accent. “You know my house is always open.”
“And you know how life is, better than I ever will. I only wish I could still run around bare-footed, listening to your stories and sneaking sweet buns.”
“Don’t wish for the past, Hiroshi,” Uncle said, reaching up to pat his shoulder. “You’re right, as you well know. There is only forward. So! I hear your friends are curious about kitsune?” He turned his bright eyes on his guests inquisitively.
“Indeed,” said Hiroshi. “May I present Embras and Bradshaw, neighbors and colleagues of mine.”
“My apologies for the hour, sir,” said Embras, tipping his hat. “I’m very grateful that you would take the time to speak with us.”
“And it’s a pleasure to visit,” Bradshaw added. “Your home is beautiful.”
“Not at all, it’s only a humble place,” Uncle replied, coming to join them at the table. “Please, sit! Be comfortable. Kiyoko will be back soon with tea. I’m always pleased to talk of the old stories, but it’s very rare that someone not of our nation would come seeking to hear them.” He arranged himself cross-legged at the table, staring piercingly at Embras. “And with such a specific question, too. Why are you curious about the fox-goddesses?”
Embras glanced at Hiroshi, who nodded, before replying. “Well…the truth is, our interest is practical, sir. We seem to have drawn the attention of one.”
Uncle’s expression did not visibly change, but he stilled slightly, as if his very breath were held in abeyance. “Here? On this continent?”
“Here,” Embras replied, nodding.
Uncle let out a long, slow breath, shifting his gaze to Hiroshi. “And you are mixed up in this?”
“I did not learn of it until after the fact,” Hiroshi said. “These are my friends, Uncle; I consider their problems my own. But I’ve had no contact with the kitsune.”
“Nor have we, directly,” Embras added. “So far, she seems to be just…playing jokes on us.”
“Mm,” Uncle murmured, his brow creasing further in a deep frown. “And so, you wish to learn of their ways.”
“We would be extremely grateful,” said Bradshaw.
Kiyoko returned at that moment, carrying a tray laden with a pot of fragrant green tea and small cups. There was silence in the room while she poured, her manners notably more conservative in Uncle’s presence. The master of the house gazed thoughtfully at the center of the table throughout her deft performance. Only when she had departed again, and everyone had a cup in hand, did he speak.
“The story of the kitsune is the story of Sifan, and of the world,” he said at last. “Tell me, Embras, Bradshaw… Do you know of dryads?”
“I certainly know they exist,” Embras said, glancing curiously at Bradshaw. “I must say I’ve never considered them any of my business, either.”
“You’re suggesting they’re related to the kitsune?” Bradshaw said, frowning.
“That makes some sense, in fact,” Hiroshi said thoughtfully. “In the stories, kitsune are always seducing people or killing people. Sometimes the same people.”
“Hiroshi always loved the stories,” Uncle said, glancing fondly at the younger man. “But I don’t tell all the stories to the children. There are some it does not profit them to know. But if you have already drown the attention of a fox-goddess, you clearly need not worry about doing so. Very well, then.
“The dryads are spirits of conservation,” he said, his voice taking on the subtly rhythmic quality of a veteran storyteller. “Spirits of life, who dwell where they will and live in balance with nature. They are thus, as the youngest daughters of Naiya, because they were made to compensate for their elder sisters. Before them, the valkyries were spirits of death, and they reaped so vigorously and so well that the gods of the last age conspired to capture them, and expel them from the mortal plane, lest they unmake everything the Elders had wrought. It was this which led to the world we now know, for Vidius found a way to anchor them to the world, and to keep them engaged and able to interact, though in a limited way. For this, Naiya sheltered the young gods of the Pantheon in their war, and refused the slightest succor to her fellow Elders. If not for her aid, the new gods would surely have perished before ascending.
“The valkyries, like their sisters who came after, were created to balance an even older mistake. The eldest daughters of Naiya, the kitsune, are spirits of play, of passion, and of deceit. Even Naiya could not control them, and so she brought forth a land for them to call their own, and persuaded them to claim it at the expense of leaving the rest of the world to its devices. The kitsune are Sifan. They do not rule it; they do not care for such things. They simply exist, and all others who exist there are at their sufferance.”
“That’s fascinating,” Bradshaw breathed. “Did Naiya have another generation of daughters before them?”
“That is not part of the story,” Uncle said sententiously, and Embras hid a smile behind his teacup. That digression about valkyries hadn’t been exactly germane, either; if this wasn’t part of the story, it was because Uncle didn’t know it. “Unique among nations, Sifan has had an uninterrupted history since its founding after the Elder Wars. It has never been conquered, nor even invaded. Though troubled by storms, earthquakes and tsunamis, it has never been ravaged by a disaster so great that it could not recover. This is as it is because the Eternal Kingdom exists at the pleasure of the goddesses of the Twilight Forest. The first humans settled there because the kitsune allowed it. The drow of Nathloss sally forth to raid and keep our people alert because the kitsune find it amusing. The surviving orc clans dwell there because they asked the blessing of the kitsune and were given it, and the Queen’s government would not think to gainsay them, despite the conflict it caused with Tiraas. The dragons come to Sifan to meet because they come often alone, bringing gifts to the kitsune, and have earned a permanent welcome.”
“How amazing,” Embras murmured. “I’m increasingly puzzled that one would leave such a place, if it’s so apparently sacred to them.
“Wouldn’t you?” Uncle countered. “In Sifan, they are the highest, the most mysterious, the most feared, respected, and oddly beloved. The people respect their forest, and do not set foot within except by permission. We hold festivals during which they may walk among us to be honored, and sometimes lay blessings where they think them deserved. And if sometimes a kitsune’s playfulness results in a burned house or field, a daughter transformed into a cow or a son who never returns from the Twilight Forest…” He shrugged fatalistically. “Shou ga nai.”
“If anything,” Hiroshi began, frowning, but Uncle forestalled him with an upraised hand.
“To engage a fox-goddess in her own realm is to be a character in a story of which she is the author. They are older than the gods, and have powers which draw deeply from Naiya—and thus from the universe itself. And what they love above all else is play. Tell me, would you not be bored, staying in the same place for eternity, with nothing to challenge you? The kitsune are not bound to Sifan, but they rarely leave it. They have, however, now and again, and always when offered the chance to do something…interesting.”
“Hmm,” Embras murmured, stroking his chin. “This is altogether not encouraging.”
“You do not fight a kitsune,” Uncle agreed. “She plays with you, until she grows bored…or her toys are too broken to entertain her.”
Bradshaw drew in a deep breath and let it out in a slightly shaky sigh.
Embras, however, suddenly smiled. “Well, then. I simply cannot thank you enough for the insight, sir—I fear I was about to make a very serious mistake.”
“If you have drawn the attention of a fox-goddess,” Uncle said seriously, “there are few paths open to you which are not mistakes.”
“Indeed, I see how that would be so. If you can indulge us a while longer, sir, we would be deeply grateful to learn anything you are able to tell us about their habits. But in the broad strokes…” His smile widened. “I do believe I know, now, what to do.”