In the far reaches of the Himalayas, in the rivers of ice and never-melting snow and air thinner than paper, a lone palace of stone stood. Battered by ever-blowing winds and temperatures reaching below zero nightly, the castle was no less amazing than those who guarded it. Along the wall, lining the gates and patrolling the grounds were animals standing and moving like humans.
They spoke to one another quietly in Latin or hushed growls. Donned in armor the color of stone, they each wore a gun about their waist and a sword upon their back. Built powerfully and with fur and features of the Clouded Leopard, the guards of the stone palace were warriors of cold power. In the blinding light of the sun, a human would easily loose track of them. When at a stand still, they could be taken for carved statues.
Deep within the palace, in a windowless room, sat two humans and a muscular, scarred creature like the guards. Her ice blue eyes were cold and intelligent. There was an ‘x’ on her shoulder. A single ear was split, and scars lined her muzzle. The humans sat in chairs of pine, facing the female beast-human nervously. Between them was a desk hand-crafted of the same material. The two humans were clearly Japanese, but when they spoke, it was in Latin, and with deep respect.
“We apologize for disturbing you so late, High Lord.” One of them said quietly. His fingers twitched.
She answered with a slightly animalistic growl, gravelly voice heavy with age, but discernibly female. “Speak, human, or be gone. I have more to do than entertain you.”
The other man spoke. “We have come in reply to our request three months ago…”
“Yes…” Her features remained emotionless – almost bored. “You fair poorly in your war, then.”
“Indeed, High Lord; Russia is close to taking Kunming.”
She cocked a brow, looking unconcerned. “Yes…so I’ve heard. Kunming…was that not the property of the Nation of China before the Fourth War? It is far from our lands, human. It concerns us not.”
She waved her paw-hand.
“Would it concern you to know that Russia enslaves or slaughters all Demis within the stolen lands? They plan on coming to Japan next. Do you think it would any different, cat?”
“Watch your tongue, human.” Her growl bore fangs. Anger flashed for a mere second in her gaze. She signaled her servant, who brought parchment, ink and a seal. Removing a single claw and dipping it in the ink, the High Lord wrote in clear Japanese that would read English;
Emperor Haruko which becomes love,
In case of the Japanese falling, the Demi Great Cats sigh. We inquire about your suit; concede to those of condition of a certain specification. We send in six troops of elite Demi soldiers. They possess loyalty in Japan only in accordance with their commanders. Many depend upon our alliance and our victory.
Your sibling of arms, Ren High Lord of the Demi Nation.
The High Lord folded and sealed the paper, handing it to one of the men.
“It will take time, humans, to gather the forces and for them to arrive. Hold your ground until they arrive. When they do arrive, let your emperor know that they will follow orders from their commandants and none other. Their religions and customs must be allowed or they will be withdrawn immediately.” She stood wearily. “Now, leave me in peace. The night is late and you give me much to do.”
The men rose and left, guards flanking them.
“Get my six best messengers.” The High Lord growled.
When they arrived, only hours before the short dawn, she faced them with grave, tired eyes. She stood and handed them each a message.
“Each of you carries a message for a general or the descendant of a general from the Old Wars. They are far spread, and some may not be willing to serve. This journey will be long and treacherous.” She looked each in the eye in turn. “But, in Gaia’s name, get these delivered – even if it costs you your life. Tell nobody. Give them to the general in person. Then return to me. This time…” She shook her powerful, Leopard head. “This time, you cannot fail me.”
The Winds of War
Hot, dry winds swept the grass of the plains. Bright morning sunlight already baked the earth. The skies, a deep blue, were free of clouds. In the distance, a hawk road air currents lazily. Standing upon a large gray rock jutting from a hill with her eyes glued to the skies was a young woman no older than eighteen. She had closely cut and spiked jet black hair and glowing amber eyes. The girl’s skin was a lightly tanned. Though petite, she was muscular. Her cotton shirt, goat fur vest, thick leather pants and thick, knee-high boots gave her a wiry appearance. There was a single earring in her left ear. A pistol was securely clipped to her belt.
Eyes on the sky, she didn’t see the strange creature pelting toward her through the open savanna. It was in the sleek form of a Cheetah, but as it reached the rock it stood. The stranger’s amber eyes glowed with an intelligence that rivaled humans. It wore similar clothes to her, but a necklace hung to her chest. It was twine and oak, a small pendant carved in the shape of a woman.
“Kasumi!” Her voice was soft and musical but for the animalistic growl as she spoke in Latin. “We’re ready to disembark!” Startled, the girl looked down and smiled.
She leapt from the rock, and when she landed she was a creature very similar to the stranger. She was slightly stronger and shorter than the arrival, and scars lined her muzzle and along her thighs that had been covered in human form with makeup and clothing. Her pelt was slightly thicker, too. Kasumi carried herself with an air of a warrior and leader, while the taller Demi seemed almost frail. Their tails entwined.
“Then it is time we moved on, Akira.” Kasumi spoke not in Latin, but the grunts and growls of a Cheetah. There was a gleam in her eyes as she added “We’ll walk there.”
As they walked, only their entwined tails touched. Neither spoke, though their shoulders and gait were completely relaxed. It took no time at all for them to reach their destination. Pausing by three gnarled trees surrounded by thick, tall grasses, they peered upward at a huge, sleek ship. A ladder fell to the earth from the deck above. Climbing it with ease, the two heaved themselves onto a busy deck. Inside, people, animals and half-animals rushed about. The humans had a similar sleek appearance with dark hair and amber eyes. It seemed to be chaos; everybody was running around, mopping, setting this, pulling that into place. But there was an ordered air to it as people shouted back and forth, or paused long enough to salute the new arrivals.
On the deck, people checked ropes, polished boards, checked sails and shouted commands for checking or setting parts. A slender, young woman approached the two in the middle of the deck, holding something electronic in her hands. She saluted in a military fashion to Kasumi and bowed formally to Akira.
“Is everything ready, Kaide?” Kasumi inquired her animal-like face impassive.
“Yes, Captain.” She replied quickly.
“Good. Set sail for Rajasthan!” Kasumi ordered loud enough for the crew to hear.
The crew cheered as they manned their stations, apparently very happy with the decision.
“Left anchor!” Kaide shouted, and men and women rushed to her order.
There was a shudder, and the aircraft broke free of the land and began to climb the sky, reaching for the heavens above.
“The sake, right?” Akira made a rough purr similar to a human’s laugh.
Kasumi looked at her with gleaming eyes. “Not at all. It’s the rice cakes!”
They laughed together as they headed for the Captain’s cabin. Kasumi paused and glanced at Akira.
“What?” She asked, looking puzzled.
“I’ve got some thinking to do. Would you mind watching the recruits to make sure they don’t get hurt?”
The smaller Demi flinched.
"Common, Akira. I need some time alone. Summon me only if you need me." She gave a gentle touch on Akira's cheek and disappeared into the cabin, not giving her a chance to protest.
Half-way to dock, after Akira had dinner with her, somebody knocked on the door. Kasumi answered in frustration; everybody knew it was their time. But when it was Ryu, her navigation master, the frustration quickly turned into alarm. He handed her his telescope and pointed north.
She looked in the direction and gasped. There, just a few kilometers away, was a huge war vessel. She would have begun to give orders to prepare for battle if she hadn’t seen the flag. It was dark green, with a scarlet red paw print in its center, claws fully extended. The edges were brown.
"Another Demi ship...can you tell who’s from here, Ryu?” She asked quietly.
“No. There isn’t any writing; only the pawmark. It’s a Great Cat fleet for sure. They’ve been hovering around us for a couple of days.”
“Tell the helmsmen to set course for them, then. They obviously need something. If they’re a war ship, they'll give us some fresh news on what the hell is going on. I just hope they’re not from the High Lord." She made a face like she'd smelled something awful. "I really wish they would come up with a different symbol to mark them.”
“That’d be very dangerous, Captain. Pirates would be after them for sure.”
“Then they should travel armed with escorts. What if I hadn’t seen the flag or if I’d decided that an unnamed ship was suspicious and ordered us to arms? This is dangerous!" She paused, and then growled in frustration. "Hell, get me the arms master! I’ll need to have our soldiers ready to fight just in case.”
He saluted and obeyed, giving orders to the helmsman and retrieving the arms master.
“Reporting for duty, Captain.” A scared and fit young Demi around twenty years approached Kasumi. Two years older than her captain, she always surprised her leader when she gave her respect and only advised her when asked. She was always there to listen or to obey a direct order. Her name honored her calm wisdom; Chika.
“We need boarders and swordsman on deck and ready to defend. The ship appears Demi, but it is unnamed. They could be pirates or rouges. If not, they will understand our caution. I will be prepared.”
“We will be ready, Captain.” Chika saluted and began to give out orders. Kasumi remained on deck. Akira came out, hearing the commotion, and came straight to the Captain.
“What is going on here?” She asked quietly. There was no fear. She was actually frustrated. Kasumi smiled. She was never happy about being robbed of spending time with her.
“No worries, meus amor; we’re just taking precautions. That ship is Demi, but nameless. We’re making sure we’re ready for pirates.”
“What? Pirates would take a royal ship unmarked?”
Kasumi looked at her with a look demanding an explanation.
“Gaia gave me a dream; the royals come in an unmarked ship. There will be danger. This is all I have figured out. I don’t know the danger, but I do not believe it is pirates. Pirates do not travel in the hundreds.”
“This does not bode well. But I will keep the warriors here, just in case the danger is on that ship. What if Russia has finally gone nuts and taken our people hostage? They don’t think highly of our people; they will consider a royal ship dangerous, perhaps.”
The priestess suddenly tensed. Her ears went back against her head, and her tail twitched wildly behind her. Akira leaned anxiously against Kasumi, breathing heavily. With eyes wide as oven plates, the Demi looked as if she’d just had a heart attack.
“What is it?” Kasumi demanded, holding her lover tightly as a few solders glanced at them in confusion.
“The danger…the men marching…they wore Russia’s mark.”
This didn’t bode well…
Within the hour, the ship was made clearly royal. Solders were asked to stand down. It took an hour to convince the royal Demis aboard to allow Kasumi and Akira to board them, and only after the Captain saw Kasumi herself. It was as if they were afraid it was a trap…
Kasumi wouldn’t come aboard alone, and so it was permitted that Chika and Akira to accompany her – and only them. In a foul mood, the Captain of the merchant ship found it hard to keep an emotionless face. Helping her priestess onto the vessel brought strange looks from what appeared to be landsman instead of a proper crew. When she saw High Lord finery and rankings, she scoffed. Who would bring these people aboard a fighting vessel?
“Lady Kasumi I presume?” A nervous Demi in his human form asked, clearing his throat.
“I’ll speak to the captain of this vessel and none other – especially not those from the High Lord’s Council.” She looked him up and down with disdain. “And my arms master and priestess will join me.”
He blinked, taken aback.
“I’m over here, Captain Kasumi.” A large, older African Lion Demi with a huge, black mane and many scars called roughly. His voice bespoke his age, and Kasumi bowed her head slightly in respect. The three followed the aging warrior Captain to his cabin, where Kasumi alone was offered to sit. Chika remained by the door, while Akira stood right behind Kasumi tensely.
“Forgive us for not openly claiming ourselves. I was informed that if I were to do so to the wrong ship, and were to kill the passengers of the Council, then I myself would lose my job – and possibly my life.”
She waited, reframing from the first choice words that came to her mind.
“We weren’t sure about the ship’s safety, you see.” He went on, sensing her rage. “If they’d gotten the name right, or if your vessel had somehow been overrun or traded off to others, it would have been suicide to proclaim ourselves. The Council has a message for you, Captain Kasumi. And it’s one of vital information.”
He handed over a piece of paper.
“That is the briefing, but I will do this my way.” He cleared his throat. “The High Lord has declared war on Russia and America, allying with Japan. The Union has called the GCDW into action. The Lions will be lead by me. The Jaguars by Commandant Sauda, the Tigers by Commandant Anaya, the Leopards by the High Lord’s own Commandant Tonya. The Cougars are headed by their Commandant Samantha.”
Kasumi shook her head. “Cougars? They’re an American race.”
He nodded. “Indeed. But we are mobile, Captain – they have loyalties to the Union more than any one place. They will fight for our people before they fight for a piece of land.”
Akira had begun to shake.
“Where will the Cheetah Demi force be?”
He gave a cough. “Along with the Jaguars and Tigers, you will hold the palace.”
At first she was confused. The palace would be far out of Russia or America’s sights, as they didn’t even know where to look.
Then it hit her.
“In Japan?” She growled. “You want me sitting in a damn palace in Japan?”
“There will much for you to do!” He rebuked. “You are the Ambassador of our people! Loyal through and through to Gaia and our Empress, with troops who will take their own lives at your word and a high priestess devoted only to Gaia more than you, there is no reason for it to be any other way. You are a fair leader, but won’t be pushed aside like an old, defiled pelt. You know the customs of the Japanese because you do trade with them.”
“You’re a male; you would fare better over there.”
“I cannot even speak the language. Besides, what would they think of a male Ambassador? When we’re a matriarchal society, we send females to do the politics – or to kick some Russian and American male ass.”
“I apologize, Priestess. My language gets out of hand when I am emotional.”
And there’s a third reason he can’t go.
“What of the other generals?” Kasumi caved on him.
“Depends; some of them, like the Cougars, don’t know Japanese at all, or their customs. Others, like Sauda, don’t have the patience you do. And there’s Anya, who has a temper and an I-don’t-give a shit-attitude. The majority will know nothing of the actual customs and culture of Japan as well as you do, and then there are the male Commandants, who would misrepresent our culture.”
At least he had his reasons.
He looked between Kasumi and Akira.
“The third reason is your relationship; a slap in the face and a challenge to the Japanese Empire to respect our people, as well as a useful one. An Ambassador who is lover to a High Priestess is a powerful connection; especially when both are female.”
Kasumi felt Akira’s embarrassment was as strong as her own. But she had a feeling it was more obvious in Akira; the girl wasn’t trained to hide her emotions like Kasumi had been, and the Loin Commandant and Captain was looking at her carefully. His stare began to make her feel uncomfortable.
Kasumi half growled, half cleared her throat. He got the hint, looking away from Akira to the newly promoted Ambassador.
“You’ll need to rally your troops to the oceans outside of Japan. We do not care how you do it, just that you do it as quickly as you can.”
“Fine; what is the deadline?”
“Since it’s the palace, Ren wanted you there the moment your troops were gathered. They should be close, but you will be expected to be there in one month or so.”
“I assure you it will not take that long. My troops always know where I am and remain on the same routes as I do. They are a loyal army. What Legion are we?”
They spoke for a time after that as Captains of the trading, and then did business. They were, after all, merchants as well as warriors. Both left satisfied and in relatively good moods – at least the best moods they could be in when their people had just entered a ten year long world war.
Royal Growing Pains
It was around midnight when a ruckus woke Kasumi. She growled foully when she realized not only was her entire crew sounding like drunken landsman, but Akira was gone from her bed. Rising with a snarl in the back of her throat, she waded through shouting and bickering Demis in all three forms to reach the center of the deck.
To her shock and displeasure, the familiar scent of a particular Leopard Demi washed over her senses. Hiding behind Akira, shouting defiance with the High Priestess, was the High Lord’s daughter. Small and lean for a white leopard stood the royal blood that caused the commotion. Eyes of steel amber and fur thick and white with black rosettes, she was around Kasumi’s age – and had more than her attitude.
Kasumi got in her face, staring her eye to eye.
“She is too the child of the High Lord!” Aki shouted with fury just before it became silent at the sight of the Ambassador and Captain.
“It isn’t exactly etiquette to wake the captain, priestess and crew of a ship currently headed off to fight your war.”
The fear in her amber eyes subdued the furious cat. Handing her roughly to Akira, Kasumi growled at the crew.
“You all know very well who this child is. Treat her with kindness and respect.” She then turned to Aki. “Get her in warm, clean clothing and give her a warm bed to sleep in. She will need a hot bath and some food. If she isn’t cared for properly, it won’t bode well.”
Aki blinked, looking at the child awkwardly.
“What?” Kasumi demanded, wondering what the Priestess was doing just standing there. “Is there something else I should know?”
She shook her head and went off toward the crew cabins. Shaking her head, the Cheetah-human went to her cabin and slammed the door shut.
She didn’t see or hear of Aki for the remainder of the night, and her dreams were filled with the memories of a bloody war…
Akira didn’t return to the bed again until dawn. She was in a foul mood and made it clear to Kasumi she wasn’t to be disturbed – especially to care for the child. Rising in the same mood, Kasumi left Akira to their bed and went to give orders on deck.
The first face she saw was Azoic’s. She had Akira and Kasumi’s breakfast in her paw-hands and looked miserably sorry.
“I will take it to her. In the mean time, you will wait right here. I need an explanation now.”
“Of course, Captain – err…Commandant…err…uh…”
“Stop that. I am not your Captain or Commandant. I am Kasumi.”
“I will hear no more of this. You are older than me, and my Lord’s daughter. If you speak to me thus, we dishonor ourselves. Understood?”
She nodded, handed her the tray and stepped back, looking thoughtfully at Kasumi as she limped back to the cabin.
If she isn’t a healer by now, I’m a Human! She is probably scheming which pills and plants she’s going to convince Akira to shove down my throat!
When Kasumi brought in the food and informed Akira of her thoughts, she laughed. But Kasumi didn’t miss the glance at her knee and knew medicine was eminent. But she’d eaten and made Akira laugh. That was enough to uplift her mood somewhat. She rose from the small desk by the bed where they’d sat to eat. This time, however, Akira pulled her toward her, making Kasumi face the priestess. They melted into their human forms. Just as they kissed, Kaide walked in. Kasumi whirled, a growl rising in her throat.
“What is it, Kaide?” She demanded with a feral snarl.
“I’m very sorry, Captain, but the crew is restless, but to deport I need your orders.”
Were they raised in a barn?! By Gaia! What if we were…?
“Fine. We sail to the Himalayan Mountains; right above the city. We don’t port. I will send the message to my remaining warriors later. I need to bring miss runaway home before mommy comes knocking.”
“In the mean time, please learn to knock.” Akira growled, actually more aggravated than I was.
“O-of course. I’m sorry.” She hesitated for a second, and then whirled on her heels “I’ll give the orders now.” And she disappeared, shutting the door behind her. She began to give orders immediately. The ship began to move.
Akira sighed. Kasumi waited, unsure on whether she should let her alone or ask what was wrong. She’d never been good at this kind of thing…
“It’s not you, Kasumi. It’s Azoic. She’s too hot in everything I give her, hates our food, won’t drink anything but sake and was ordering around the crew like servants!”
“It’s fine. She’ll be gone in no time. We’re only a week from the High Lord’s palace.”
“Do we have a week, Kasumi? We’re on a war mission! We are needed in Japan.”
“But Azoic isn’t a warrior; she’s not a part of my legion. In fact, she’s pissing you and the rest of the crew off with her high life antics and Lady Ren will be so infuriated I’ll be lucky if I’m alive if she’s not back safely.”
“Then send her on her board with a warrior or two. She’ll reach the messenger ship in a day or so.”
“And what happens if she isn’t good on a Caelum Board or they are taken or killed by pirates or militia? We’re worse off; we didn’t make sure she returned safely.”
Kasumi was thinking hard when she realized there was simpler – though more painful – answer to this.
“I could Reach for her…and Mindspeak with her…”
Akira looked at her as if she were insane.
“Come on, Kasumi, I know we need a solution, but the Himalayas are quite a distance away for you to be using Mindspeak, aren’t they? You’re very talented, but we need you able to command this ship.”
“Kaide is perfectly capable of getting us to the Islands, and signaling my warriors. If not her, than I know you can do the later, and they can guide us to the palace.”
She sighed again, not happy but less willing to argue with her stubborn lover.
“I will be fine before we reach the Islands, especially if we must first deliver the princess.” Kasumi purposely didn’t use Azoic’s name; it was clear Akira didn’t need to think she knew the healer personally.
“Alright. But I am watching you during and caring for you afterwards, understood?”
“I would have it no other way, meus amor.”
The scent of lavender and sage filled Kasumi’s lungs. She lay on her bed, an hour later, Akira’s hand in hers. The cabin window was open, giving her scents of the open sky and the sea breeze. She could see and hear the gulls calling to one another, zipping about the ship with interest and hopes of a meal. It relaxed her, easing her tense nerves.
Akira began to chant a protection spell to guide her spirit as Kasumi slipping deeper and deeper into meditation, her mind focused solely on her desire to speak to High Lord Ren. She began to feel light headed and weak. Breathing slowed. Slowly, she felt her mind drift from her body.
Kasumi let her mind push into the mountains of snow and ice that harbored the palace of her High Lord. She snaked her way through, finding Ren in a deep cavern. She was alone, and on a bed covered in thick, heavy blankets. Sickness spread through Kasumi’s mind. Ren was ill, and nobody but her would ever know. She slipped into the Lord’s mind, bidding her to awaken, to become aware of her.
She sent her apologies for entering her mind, and showed her images of what had occurred last night, and a feel of confusion.
Ren’s eyes shot open. They looked the Ambassador’s spirit in her eye and sent images of soldiers, blood, Russian colors and the scent of death. Then she showed the American flag, and the Canine Demi Legion enslaved under their “alliance”. Finally, the lord of Demis sent her an image of her daughter and Kasumi’s ship above the Japanese Islands. Pain ripped into Kasumi as their link was abruptly broken and all went black.
The Emperor of Japan
Bright light and a throbbing head woke Kasumi. She looked around and saw Akira beside her, in a position of prayer. In her hands was poppy, explaining the queer dreams she’d been having. But what surprised her were the willow bark tea and the scent of burning white sage. She was performing a cleansing – on Kasumi.
“Akira…” Kasumi whispered; her voice was weak from days without use.
Her eyes opened slightly, but she didn’t break prayer. I waited until she had finished.
“What do you think you’re doing, dearest?”
“Cleansing you. You needed it. You’re dreams were haunted by battles gone past.”
“Now Akira…you understand better than anybody that poppy can do that to people…especially warriors. Why didn’t you just use something else?”
“Apparently, Azoic thinks humans have better medicine than her own people; she saw you like this and gave you something else in your drink.” She growled low. “I told her not to use chemicals like the humans. You’re not human; you’re a Demi. But she wouldn’t listen. If she’d let me care for you, I wouldn’t have needed the prayer. Oh…she called it useless, by the way.”
“A healer that doesn’t believe in Gaia?”
“She says Gaia is there, but science is the healer, not her.”
Kasumi rolled her eyes. “The chemicals in the herbs can only do so much…” She muttered.
I smelled something strange.
“Where are we?”
“Above the Japanese Emperor’s palace. We just repaired our ship, too.”
I stared at her in alarm.
“Oh. Because you were ill, Kaide was left in charge. Our helmsmen fell ill, though, and led us right into a storm while she was sleeping. She was doing great until then. I had to keep the crew calm, though.”
“Are you kidding me?” Her voice was rough and her throat sore.
Then another thought hit her. “Why are we still aboard the ship? Are the legions not here?”
“Oh. They got here before we did, actually, thanks to that damn storm.”
“How long was I out?”
“You were very, very ill, Kasumi. You were hardly conscious and not quite sane when you were awake.”
She tried to sit up, but Akira laid her back down. “I don’t think so! That stuff is vile and I want you to be fully healed before you go down there! They’ll put more horrid chemicals that don’t belong in a Demi into your blood!”
“I need to organize the troops, speak to the Emperor and the other Commandants. I have no time to be ill.”
Aki slapped her.
“Ouch!” She rubbed her cheek in shock. “What the –“
“Stop thinking about war and think about your health for once! You almost died!”
Kasumi sighed. Seeing her face dropped Kasumi’s heart. If she were in her human form, she would be crying. The Captain and Ambassador relented. “Fine. But I must speak with the Emperor as soon as possible. Are all three legions here?”
“Yes. Anya came last night, and Sauda was here on trade route anyway.”
“Then I need to speak with them.”
“No. You need to take this poppy and go to sleep. No visitors. You have been out of it too long. You’re pale, you’ve lost weight and you’re still broke out in that rash. How does your head feel?”
“It is fine, Akira. I’m just tired. I can sleep without the poppy, thank you.”
Kasumi wasn’t lying; she drifted back to sleep.
For several more days, the only added routine was eating and grooming. Both Kasumi tended to enjoy, because she had one-on-one time with Akira.
Then, Akira allowed her to stand. Three hours later they were in the palace.
Kasumi paced back and forth in the garden. It was the only place where she could see the sky. The heavily maintained gardens – neatly trimmed plants, perfectly placed rocks, a pound with ducks trained to swim in a certain fashion – made her anxious and restless. Being away from her warriors while they lived on the ship made her jumpy; if it wasn’t a dire insult to the Emperor, she would be on the ship now.
It would have been alright if they hadn’t have taken Akira from me and placed her in different quarters, or allowed Azoic to enter the palace. But it is too far; they are insulting Ren as much as I. If I do not meet with the Emperor tonight, I’ll be forced to inform Lady Ren…
The echo of boots and the overpowering scent of Humans drug her from her thoughts. The gardens were silent; it was long past dusk. She met them at the door. They stopped abruptly and stared at her. There was an alarm in their gaze. There were only two of them, but both were dressed in a servant’s attire. They had the royal mark to them. Kasumi had her meeting.
“What is it?” She asked in a smooth growl. They flinched.
“We are h-here to escort you t-t-to h-his ma-ma-majesty’s qu-quarters.” The braver of the two stuttered. The scent of their fear and the feel of their nervousness made her adrenalin pump. Their stammering frustrated her. All in all, she wasn’t in her best mood.
What the hell do they think I’ll do? Sacrifice their hearts to Gaia?
To prove she wasn’t going to rip their throats out and eat them for supper, Kasumi slipped into her human form.
“Then let’s go.” She answered quietly. Her clothes, magiked by Akira’s spells, still fit. The shirt was thick cotton, dyed brown. It was long sleeved. The pants were thick brown leather, as were the boots. She also normally wore leather gloves and an air-tight hat, but she had taken them off as she left the ship so she wouldn’t overheat. Still, the servants stared.
“What is it? I am prepared to meet with him.”
“O-of course.” The more nervous one began to walk down the hall. Kasumi followed him, and the first one to speak followed her. “Thank you.” The leading servant said quietly, embarrassed.
“It is rather frustrating when you cannot even speak competently around me.”
“We are not accustomed to speaking to your people, Lady Kasumi.”
She held herself back from screaming ‘then get used to it, fools’ and instead replied “I understand. Humans tend to fear the unknown. I assume our stay will acclimate both of our races to one another and be beneficial for everybody.”
They seemed so shocked and subdued from her words that they completely missed the fact that she had undermined the entire Human race. They walked silently through the richly decorated halls. It disgusted her to see that many of the walls and belongings were gold or silver. Most of Japan lived in wood huts with just enough to survive. The only way many of them received fruit and vegetables was through the trade Demis offered. But their empire spent thousands on war and their palace while they lived off the land and traded goods.
They arrived only a few minutes later at a double gold-plated door where four guards stood in the Emperor’s colors, with two on each side. They paused long enough to allow them to open the door. Then the servants preceded her to announce her presence, in their over-complex, formal manor. They entered a high ceiling room with so much rich décor she couldn’t absorb it all. But what she did see was a large bed, a table in the center with several chairs and the food upon the table. It disgusted the warrior. The finest food in their world was set upon that table.
Tiger’s paw was one of those dishes.
“Emperor Haruko.” The men bowed. He sat at the head of the table. His plate was currently empty, awaiting me. “We present to you Ambassador and Commandant Kasumi.”
“Ah. Kasumi. Welcome to my palace.”
His tone was too gentle, as if she were frail and stupid. She was a woman and from a barbaric nation. She couldn’t allow those thoughts and still work with him.
He’s insulted our nation enough!
“I am honored to be here, Emperor of Japan.” She spoke his title without a name, as if it were beneath her to even learn it. “It grieves me that we have to meet on such terms, and less barbaric food were served.”
Instant confusion and abrupt surprise.
“I will not eat the paws of our people’s ancestors any more than you would your father’s hands, Lord.” She approached him, even bowing slightly. “I speak your language, honor your ways by entering your palace rather than be at peace aboard The Storm. I call you by your title. I eat most of your food. Yet you continue to insult me and my people. It is as if you thought we were not a people, as if you believe we have no culture of our own.”
His shock tripled. He was speechless.
“I must apologize, young Commandant. I am afraid I do not understand how I have slighted your people as you now slight mine.” He managed to say, trying to gain the high ground.
“You have separated me from my lover and High Priestess, served food of horror and confined High Lord Ren’s daughter to a ship she has never seen but for a few weeks. You speak to me as if I were a child, though even your science has made it clear that I am older mentally than a Human of twenty-eight. There are many more insults to my people, but those even my High Lord will find offensive. I thought to meet with you and find the source of your reasoning for these affronts. It seems that though I know much of your people, you have bothered not at all to learn of mine.”
He paled. “I do apologize. I was not informed that you remain with your Priests and Priestess, or that you even remained with your lovers. Please forgive me, for I did not even know that Lady Ren’s child would accompany you. Give the names to my servants and I will have all three of them moved to your quarters at once.”
She thought a moment. “I must have misspoken my Japanese, Lord, for I mentioned only two Demis. The Priestess is my lover.”
There was a tense silence. It was clear, however, that he was not willing to make the same mistake twice of underestimating my customs. He nodded. “Of course. Give the two names to the servant. She will be placed in your room and Ren’s child in a comfortable one as well.”
“Your servants know my Priestess. Azoic is High Lord Ren’s daughter. She is a healer, and the only Snow Leopard Demi upon The Storm.”
After a moment’s silence, Emperor Haruko offered with a wave of his hand my place at his awful table.
“I hear you are found of fine sake. If I have the Tiger Paw removed, will you yet join me? I will attempt to understand more of your customs and honor your ways as you do mine.”
“Ah. And when you show me and my people honor, I shall repay you thrice fold. Until then, I bid you goodnight. This day has been one of many horrors, and I have lost my appetite. I take my leave, Emperor of Japan.”
She walked out with her head held high. The doors hadn’t even had time to shut. She followed her nose rather than the servants, who were no longer behind her. Once inside, she slipped back into her Demi form, frustrated by her human’s incapable, small body. She lay on the silk bed and drifted to sleep.
She woke to the sound of Human footsteps; bear this time, within her room. The scent of a Human was heavy, as was the tangent reek of cleaning supplies, mixed with fine sake and rice balls. An apology snack, of course.
“I can clean my own room, servant.”
He jumped, whirling around in terror. He was only around twelve.
“It is alright, boy.” She snarled. “I will not eat you.”
“I apologize, Lady, but this is my job.”
She sighed, rising.
“Then you should tell me if you know of Akira’s coming.”
“Within the hour, Lady.”
“Good. Leave as soon as you’ve finished your pesky task.”
He bowed low and returned to cleaning. He left about twenty minutes later. Kasumi ate the rice balls, then drank a little of the Sake before giving herself a good grooming. Akira arrived suddenly, carrying with her a sense of frustration and agitation. Servant men carried all of her belongings; that always pissed her off. Kasumi took the bags and shooed the servants away. Then she closed the doors, set down the bags and went over to Akira to wrap arms around her Priestess. She breathed in her sweat, herb-filled scent deeply.
“Damn those Humans! Damn them all to their eternal Hell!”
Kasumi didn’t say a word, letting her love relax in her arms.
“Never mind them. Humans are arrogant creatures; especially the Japanese. It is unfortunate that they are the ones to create us. After all, they worship the sun and the moon. How intelligent can they really be?”
She leaned back into Kasumi’s arms. Then, she turned to face Kasumi and wrapped around her that way, burying her face into Kasumi’s chest fur. She asked “I’ve been complaining all day. How in Gaia’s name did you manage to do so?”
“I complained to the Emperor himself for all the slights he’s made to our culture. They even still eat Tiger Paws!”
“With you there?”
“He was ready to remove it at once to get me to forgive him by the end. Overall, it went well – at least for such men as he.”
“They are not but barbarians!”
“They think that of us, you realize.”
“Oh. So I suppose I am dishonoring their every custom?”
“We are lovers, and female.”
“What’s wrong with that?” She growled.
Kasumi purred “According to Gaia or the sun and moon?”
Akira’s playful smile seemed impossibly alluring. She purred wordlessly into Kasumi’s chest as she leaned into her further. She rubbed against her. “What inspired you so to bring me so urgently here, my love?” She asked in Demi. Her tone was luring. Kasumi buried her muzzle into Akira’s neck. But Akira playfully pulled away, shifting toward the bed.
“Tired already, my dear?” Kasumi teased.
“Not at all.”
Kasumi followed her. Just as they lay down under the covers and their Demi forms dissipated as fast as their clothes, there was a sharp, loud knock, knock, and knock.
Kasumi snarled several swear words in Demi as she ripped the blankets off, thrust up and practically tore her robe as she put it on and yanked the door open, expecting another servant. Instead she saw a huge, broad shouldered Demi with fire orange fur and shadow black stripes. It was female.
“Good Gaia!” A familiar voice growled. “They weren’t yanking our chains after all, Sauda! It is Kasumi!”
A black shadow moved and formed a slightly smaller but equally powerful black Jaguar Demi. Kasumi gasped.
“Anya! Sauda! You have made it at last!”
Anya and Sauda
Akira was furious when she heard Anya and Sauda’s voices at the door. The two of them had always meant Kasumi had some kind of business; trading, military, expeditions for the High Lord. They always seemed to have the wrong timing; they always prevented Kasumi from spending time with her. Aki recalled the day they had gone to get a rare herb for trade on Mount Kilimanjaro. The Russian Border Guard had spotted them and they had come back half dead on stolen Caelum Boards – which were Russian issue. Akira had had the most awful time mending them because they wouldn’t take the medication until Kasumi threatened them.
“Do I smell Akira?” Anya’s deep, loud voice irritated her ears and gave her an instant headache. Akira saw Kasumi’s tail twitch irritably.
“Yes, you do. We’re trying to enjoy some time together and relax. I am glad you two have made it, I really am, but this is not the time for a friendly visit.”
“That’s fine.” Sauda’s voice wasn’t as brass, and held less of a growl to it. It was less irritating to Akira’s sensitive ear fur. Her voice, however, had the effect of pissing her off. “This isn’t a friendly visit. We were told to come up with a strategy with you, but figured it would be more of a briefing by you. We came by to hear it and perhaps add something.”
“I’m in no mood to brief anybody right now. I have had a long day, you two, and just wish to relax. If dawn is alright, we can discuss this over a meal tomorrow.”
“Sure. I bet you’re exhausted. From this little stir you cause, the Emperor will have to consider us independent allies. That’s some big shit to have your shoulders.”
“We’ll discuss this later, Anya. Dawn tomorrow and no sooner or later. Now leave us in peace.”
They muttered their apologies and good-byes. Being a few years younger, they were a little less experienced and tended to look at Kasumi for guidance. Especially military guidance. Sauda was more of a merchant than a soldier, but she was one hell of a leader. And Anya had a problem with controlling her temper around almost anybody else.
Akira turned away from Kasumi when she returned to bed, making absolute sure that she felt her frustration and headache. Kasumi sighed.
“Look…I’m sorry; love, but I need this information. I can’t fight a war without a strategy, and I’m obviously the head right now.”
“Why do you need it so early? Can’t we spend the morning together?”
“Why spend the morning together when the afternoon sun is so much warmer on the fur? I promise that I will not spend all day in the briefing.”
“Or playing catch-up?”
“With whom do I have to catch up with? I know those two well. I don’t need to hear about the prices of silk or wheat; we are merchants only during peaceful times. I do not need to know their personal life; we are comrades in war, not lovers like you and I.” She curled around Aki. “And besides, that will leave you time to sleep. Dawn is quite an early time to awake for somebody who may need to stay up all night at any given moment.”
I don’t want sleep! I want time with Kasumi!
There was frustrated, tense silence as there always was after Anya and Sauda brought news about leaving or partnering up. Just as Aki was becoming restless and preparing to rise, Kasumi did. Curious, the Priestess watched the Commandant as she dug through her belongings. Somehow, they had managed to remain packed. Eventually she pulled out a rectangular oak case. Aki’s spirits rose instantly as she recognized Kasumi’s violin case. It was rarely played for anybody else.
“I truly am sorry.” Kasumi told her. “Let me prove it with our favorite song.”
She popped open the case to pull out a violin made from the same tree as the case; it was a tradition dating back to the days when wood was their most valuable thing in their world. Gaia was represented by trees, as they are a symbol of earth – life, death, survival, eternity. Aki admired the work. Trees were sacred; especially in her heart.
“I love that violin…” She said quietly as Kasumi situated it.
“I see! That explains why you have remained with such a proud, stupid fool as I.” Kasumi answered right before she began to play the song that had brought them together. It was a song few people could play even on the traditional flutes; the song of the Demi’s creation and rise.
It began with slow, long notes that make it seem as if the very violin was crying. There were purposely rough notes that would draw out to sound like a cat’s scream or a wolf’s sad howl. The beginning was within breeding factories within Japan, which were full of pain and sorrow, of experiments on animals and Humans alike. Then, slowly, the song picked up speed and became almost violent and rapid. This was when the Demi fought the Humans and one another. There was a long period of this, though there were lulls as if the races were asleep. For centuries, Demis fought one another and Humans. Demis massacred Humans to prove they were superior, or Humans would burn forests or camps of the Demi to drive them out and kill them. Then, there was a sudden shift in the song. It rose and rose and rose in violence until all of sudden, it stopped rising and fell suddenly until it even out. Then order came into it, and the song took on a peaceful sound. It was now the time of the war and then government and the sudden appearance of Human realization that Demis were sentient creatures. The Demis had been forced to ally themselves against the Humans to prove this. The end of the song usually was a note that meant “to hail Gaia and live for eternity” from the bards, for this was when Demis found Gaia’s true acceptance of them as a people. That is when religion as well as government and science began to take real shape. But Kasumi played haunting notes that gave an impression of insecurity, and a plea of help to Gaia, before ending the song customarily.
But none-the-less, when the music ceased, both were relaxed and in a pleasant mood. Kasumi silently put away her violin and climbed into bed. Aki curled around her, enjoying the feel of her fur and the scent of her, and both of them fell fast asleep. For the first time in months, Aki did not dream.
Kasumi woke as faint light filtered into the room. She carefully untangled herself from Akira and dressed. She gave her lover a gentle kiss on the forehead, smiling when she sighed and rolled the other way, toward where Kasumi would normally be. Aki sleepily felt for her warmth, then stirred.
“I wanted to tell you I was going.”
Or else there would have been a fight about it. Poor Aki. She works and works for me and all I do is leave her here by herself…
“Good. But you’re not leaving yet!” She pulled me back into bed. “Not until I fall back asleep.” She gave Kasumi a gentle kiss on the lips, who definitely accepted it.
“Of course not.”
Kasumi remained beside her until she was asleep, then rose and gathered her maps and terrain notes on both Russia and Japan. She’d been expecting this for about a year, when Japan first began to take a dive. Overall, then it had been just-in-case notes and strategies. For months, however, she had been privately forming strategies on these maps. She’d highlighted the weak points of Japan, Russia and America. But they now needed updates. With only the Great Cats in Japan and the Reptilians (known as the Drakes by most) not even in the war, most of her tactics fell to suicide missions, fool’s play or impossible feats. Kasumi had never thought that The Union would play as individual lords so soon after its birth. They weren’t fighting, but they weren’t working together either.
And High Lord Ren’s heart was failing her. If she fell, Azoic may have to take lead. Kasumi shivered at the thought.
As she left the room she nearly ran over the twelve year old servant who had been cleaning just last night. He screamed, making her hiss at the high pitch that pierced her sharp ears. She shoved him against the wall and snarled in a crude form of Japanese “Shut up, boy, before I tare out that larynx of yours!”
He shut up. She let go.
“What are you doing, standing around outside my room?”
“I’m sorry, lady.” He almost whispered the words, but not so quietly it was hard for her to hear him. “I didn’t know what you two would want to eat for breakfast, and was trying to figure it out when I heard you moving about. I realized I was late, and lost my nerve. It won’t happen again, Lady Kasumi. I’ll be on time from now on.” His voice shook, and the fear in it and eyes haunted and confused Kasumi. Then she realized he was her assigned servant; royals had that luxury, and apparently now they did. Akira would be relieved she didn’t have to cook her food or buy all of their meals. So long as he wasn’t a bother, anyway.
“You listen well, boy. First thing’s first; I don’t beat servants unless they become a threat. But that doesn’t mean the punishments won’t be harsh. A fist may be the first thing in mind, but I find it rather ineffective for boys like you. Now, second thing; do not wake her when you go in, and never look her in the eye. Cheetah Demis don’t appreciate it when servants don’t know their place. Third of all; I am leaving to discuss military tactics with my Commandants. I expect this place to be clean and lunch to be waiting, warm and fresh with some tea. Lastly; serve her lightly in the mornings, without meat and with green tea. Never with sake.”
He bowed. “Of course my Lady.”
Surprisingly, he was calm now. It seemed he was more comfortable when he was told what to do – and that he wouldn’t be beat by his new mistresses. Kasumi knew Akira wouldn’t beat the boy; she wouldn’t even like to tell him to get her a glass of water or watch him mop the floors. She was a Priestess of life, and it had always seemed cruel to her. Kasumi didn’t completely disagree, but she wasn’t going to try changing him; it would only make his job more difficult to do.
“Do you know where Sauda’s room is?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
“Alright, repeating that is already getting on my nerves. Look, I have a problem with that title. I’m a Commandant, not a High Lord. Call me Kasumi or mais. Same for the priestess in there; call her Priestess, Akira or mais. Understood?”
He nodded with a smile in his brown eyes. She let him take the lead.
As they strolled through the silent and huge halls of the dawn morning, Kasumi felt amazed that the Humans had enough time to sleep so late in the middle of a war. The only other people she saw were the royal servants and the guards as they changed shifts. She was amazed, and disgusted. Royals treated everything like it rightfully was theirs, and that everybody else was less than them – simply because they and their families had the money, which somehow gave them power here.
Why don’t the peasants revolt? I highly doubt the farmer that supplies their meat has a servant to harvest and plant their fields, or feed and butcher their cattle. This isn’t right.
But their culture was their own, and if she was to get respect, it wouldn’t be by causing a revolt during a time of war.
“Here we are…mais.” The boy muttered. He opened the door for her.
She shook her head but thanked him and entered the room. Anya and Sauda were there, but there were two humans present as well, and things weren’t exactly peaceful.
“I’m not going to send half my best warriors down there to get massacred!” Anya snarled. Her black pelt gleamed nearly purple in the unnatural lighting that stung the eyes. Blinking several times, Kasumi stood by the door silently, listening to get a feel of what was going on.
“We’re not some kitty-cats to send in to play with rats!” Sauda agreed, surprising Kasumi. Usually, she was slightly less hostile in politics.
“You’re stronger than our men, and far greater numbers.” A huge, burly human snapped back like some kind of rabid mongrel. “And you’re here to help us, not the other way around.”
“We aren’t disposable!”
“He never claimed you were.” The other man, wiry and cold in the eyes with a feel of wisdom and the scent of magic, commented smoothly.
“Now…children…” Kasumi spoke with a thick African accent, the one she’d been born and raised with, getting everybody’s attention. “No need to throw sticks and stones at one another. Play nice.”
Even Anya and Sauda looked surprised. Kasumi rarely spoke her accent. It reminded her days she’d rather forget – days of hunger, heat and the sorrow of losing her family to Drake warriors.
“What in the…?” The big, burly man growled. “Who let the African Princess in to play?”
Instantly, the powerful man was against the wall with claws digging into his jugular.
“Human pigs don’t need to stink up the room, now.” She snarled furiously. “Shut your damn mouth or this ‘African Princess’ will play a game you’ve only seen in training and in the war zone.”
He swallowed, the fear lit in his eyes.
“I may be small, ass whole, but I’m no push-over.”
She released him, whipping the blood on his white general kimono.
“Now listen up.” She looked the general and then the mage in the eyes. She looked at Anya and Sauna; if they started this, they were going to pay. “I don’t play around in a time of war. Either we get along nice and there is equality or I’m taking my plans, maps and strategies right to my High Lord’s door. There will be no suicide missions for the Demi people. If you want to kill men uselessly, send out your own.”
The mage helped his general to his feet. Kasumi took her seat at the head of the table.
“Demis don’t play games, humans. Take your seats or Sauna and Anya will be forced to assist you.”
The mage did quietly. Still pale, the general followed. Anya and Sauna sat down with subdued looks on their faces.
Kasumi took to her human form and shot glares at the two Demis who remained as cats. They quickly corrected their mistakes.
“Now. What in Gaia’s name is this arguing all about?” She demanded.
“This.” Anya handed the Cheetah Demi sketches and rough maps. Kasumi looked it over, keeping her face blank as she forced her anger aside.
Humans are volatile and arrogant. I’m going to have to solve this.
“The information is good, and I’ll add it to my maps, but the plans we can throw out the window.”
“What did you expect? Us to send our own men there?” The general demanded.
“First of all, I’ll have your names before you speak to me.” She kept her tone even but firm. “I will not speak to a nameless man.”
“Fine. Commandant Hiroto Tyzokien.” The general replied crossly.
“Commandant Daichi.” The other man said quietly.
“Quite small to be a general, aren’t you?” Anya teased.
“Enough.” Kasumi rebuked quickly. “I am Commandant and Ambassador Kasumi Adel.”
“Commandant Anya.” She gave no last name.
“And Commandant Sauna Pythia.” Sauna stated hers proudly. When there was no reaction, it only darkened the young leader’s mood.
“Family heritage aside, let’s get on with this.”
“You’re the Ambassador, not the leader.” Hiroto rebuked.
“I’m not just Ambassador, Hiroto-san. I’m the most experienced general the Japanese have seen since the Samaria. You may take pride in your strategy to use us like disposable guard dogs, but it is only as Equals that will fight. If you do not allow me to lead the armies that I was commanded to lead, I will withdraw and order the same for every legion of the GCDW. That’s every troop that will fight for The Union you people choice to insult daily – hourly.”
“I suggest working with them, Hiroto. Emperor Haruko will not be pleased if you mess this up because you can’t be polite to somebody with more experience than you.” It was Daichi, who spoke in his usual quiet voice. Kasumi held some respect for him, and had to wonder if this mage had some common sense unusual to the human race. She nodded in thanks to him when his counterpart shut up.
“Now then...we must work together to get this right. I will give you men a list of stats of each race. It has become clear to me that humans do not bother to learn about their environment, let alone those who inhabit it. Because of this, you know nothing of our people or our ancestors – unlike yours. You will learn our culture, as we have learned yours.” She looked at Hiroto, meeting his gaze sternly. “This is part of the briefing. We will meet tomorrow at noon for those papers. I need a list of weapons and what kind of training your soldiers have. No names are necessary. Now…here are my maps and strategies.”
She placed them all on the table, and the discussion began. Maps were modified, strategies taken out and information was swapped. No new moves were decided, other than to halt an attack with a small group of elite Japanese men with a handful of Jaguar Demis. It was to protect a rice farming town. They would remain there to protect the supply. Also, Kasumi added some of her warriors to the guard on palace watch and arranged for her arms master to be a part of the Barracks to give the humans more martial arts training – Demi martial arts.
“We’re done here.” Kasumi growled as Hiroto insulted their fighting style again. “In the name of Gaia, walk with peace and live in prosperity.”
“Gaia…” Hiroto scoffed. “Right. I’d bless you with God, but that’s reserved for non-pagan cultures.”
She ignored his blasphemy and walked out, Anya and Sauna on her heels.
“I would not speak to somebody who can out spar you, Hiroto.” The mage commented coolly as they shut the door, making her smile.
“I’ll see you two tomorrow at noon. List those stats. We’ll be busy.” She ordered professionally. The two looked a little put off by her attitude.
“Have a problem?” She asked.
“N-no.” Sauda stepped in before Anya could say something she’d probably regret.
“Good.” Kasumi turned away, heading for the palace door. They were allowed rights to temple any time they weren’t busy, as long as the sun was above the horizon when they returned.
Akira will be there, instead of this palace. I just hope that Azoic didn’t go with her, and a couple of decent guards did. Nobody that would comment about pagan gods…
The temple was cool and quiet. The sound of ancient flute played gently in the background, relaxing Akira. It was the familiar scent of Demis, lavender, sage and other ceremonial herbs that loosened her muscles and soothed her nerves. Ivy and vines grew up the pure stone walls, and a giant tree grew in the temple’s center.
“Welcome, Priestess.” A Canine Priest made the Mark of Gaia on his forehead and chest. “It is a great pleasure for you to return to us.”
She made the same gesture, feeling at home – among her own kind, who thought the same as she.
“Glorious day that Gaia has given us. There have been no deaths in the war today and the sun is strong.”
He led her to a quiet place by the roots of the tree, said the welcoming rites, set up the right cleansing herbs and left her to pray.
The Goddess of the earth, I pray to you that Kasumi finds the light in her soul and the strength in her heart to end this war alive.
She lit the sage and ate a piece of the poppy, and fell to sleep under the tree. Images of blood, both human and Demi, filled her mind. Screams, guns and the clang of metal roared in her ears. The smell of healing herbs burned her throat, and she was exhausted. A trail before mankind. A knife in the back of a man unknown…
Akira’s eyes shot open to see Kasumi standing over her, watching her sleep with an anxious look on her face. She shifted when she saw her awake, but didn’t come to her.
Rising slowly, Aki came into her lover’s arms.
“The war frightens me.” She told the strong warrior.
Kasumi looked at her, smelling her hair. Both were cats now. Aki realized she’d Shifted in her sleep. The merchant captain and warrior of Gaia held her tightly.
“Meus amor…it frightens me as well.”
Blood of the Pauper
As Kasumi left the meeting room with Anya and Sauda behind her, tail flicking in irritation, she wasn’t surprised to hear a growl in Anya’s throat as she tried to dismiss them. It wasn’t exactly easy for her to treat them like war commandants instead of friends, but Aki was stressed enough without involving them.
“Come on Kasumi.” Sauda surprised her. “Have a drink with us. We’re not underling soldiers; we’re all Commandants here.”
“Aki is stressed out.” She told them quietly. “Do you think that’s a wise idea?”
“Isn’t she at temple?”
“No. We have lunch plans. The servant is dressing her.”
They stared at me.
“You’re using the servant?”
“He makes our lives easier, and he enjoys it. The boy is sharp and quiet – for a human, anyway. I actually worked out an agreement that he will come with us. His real masters beat the shit out of him daily to ‘keep him in his place’. He needs a bit of coaching in the way a Demi servant behaves, but…”
“Wow.” Anya looked shocked.
“Hey…he could make a great cabin boy when this damned war is over. And in the mean time, I don’t have to prepare baths, food or clothing. I can leave a message with him that I would have had problems getting to Akira or you two before.”
“So that’s who the boy was…”
“Telling us that you’d be a little late…”
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have lunch plans.” She paused in turning around. “Though…I will send for you with him if I wish to sit and chat with you tonight. Perhaps Aki will join us for supper.”
They looked slightly more hopeful as their ambassador strode away with her head held high and her stride full of a warrior’s pride.
Anya sighed, shaking her head.
“Why couldn’t she be a little more sociable?” Anya wondered allowed. “She used to be so much fun.”
“Nah. She was always in it for some real reason – never fun. The goods, the experience, the mission, the honor…” Sauda reminded her – again.
They were quiet again, each in their own thoughts. Anya yawned, exhausted.
“What’d you do that was so tiring?” Sauda laughed. “Eat too much at the party?”
“No. I was getting around the lists that you failed to provide Kasumi because you went to a party.”
Sauda rubbed the back of her tiger-stripped neck. “Oops.”
The door opened to allow Hiroto and Daichi out. They paused and said something in Japanese.
“Hey, asses.” Anya growled in Latin. “Speak Latin.”
“No, no, it’s alright, Anya.” Sauda quickly pushed her out of their way and toward the dining hall.
“Why’d you do that?”
“For one, we’re in Japan. We speak Japanese. For two…you don’t want to know what they said.”
“I didn’t really, but I sure as hell do now!”
She whirled around, only to be corrected by the far stronger Sauda.
“Keep walking. You don’t want to piss them off and put Kasumi in a bad political hold.”
Anya looked back with vengeance in her gaze. Sauda grabbed her by her chest and stared her in her eyes.
“You don’t get it, do you? If we act like brutes, they will start treating us like pawns and not warriors.”
“Just tell me what they said.”
“They said ‘blood of the pauper’. In Japan, that’s a huge insult.”
“Because my father was born in the slums instead of the military, they have a right to say that?” She made a face, as if she’d tasted or smelled something nasty and she was heated about it. “That’s honorable! That we aren’t of the blood and still got in!”
“In our world, yes, it is. Unlike me, Kasumi and you had to fight just to prove yourself. Kasumi had to fight to stay alive.” She shook her head. “It was a blessing that you two made it at all, and nothing more than Gaia’s will that did it.”
“But they think it’s a bad thing?”
“Yes. Heritage matters a lot here.”
“That pisses me off!” She pounded her black fists together in furry. “To judge everybody by their forefathers gives them no room to live!”
“Keep walking.” Sauda told her. “Keep walking and fighting and we’ll get through this.”
She growled furiously, but nodded and kept walking. They came to the dining hall.
“I’ve worked hard for what I am today. How can I just lay down to humans now?”
“You don’t. But you pick your battles. Let Kasumi fight the Japs with words, and we’ll fight the enemy with swords and guns.”
Anya growled, but said nothing else as they ordered their meals. They ate in silence.
Sauda watched the younger Commandant carefully, willing her not to do anything rash.
Though Akira wasn’t happy that her lover was late, she was content to see the ambassador arrived alone, and in Demi clothing rather than her kimono. It was amazing how much those clothes changed the warrior merchant. From duty to personal were almost two different people.
But the look of thoughtful rage on her face didn’t ease Akira’s tense nerves. Kasumi wasn’t going to come out and say it, but something happened today in the meeting. Something she didn’t like.
I really hope she gets in a better mood. We haven’t much time together during war, and things aren’t going to get easier.
“I am pleased to see you in such fine attire.” Akira said formally, allowing Kasumi to pick the mood as she sat down on the blanket the boy had brought and set in the grass under a lotus tree, right beside a Kio fountain.
Kasumi flinched. “I apologize, Aki, that I am late.” She grabbed the priestess’s hand and kissed it gently. “Perhaps some wine will soothe your nerves?”
Aki saw her tail flick and purred when the boy servant came with her favorite wine – a wine Kasumi personally hated. The chilled wine was poured carefully into their glasses.
“Would you like your food?” The boy asked Kasumi quietly. She smiled almost affectionately, surprising Akira deeply.
“First, perhaps you should ask what Aki wants?” The warrior asked patiently, a single eye brow cocked.
His little face became red with embarrassment. “R-right.” He turned to Aki and formally asked what she would like to eat, listing a few of her favorite lunches. She ordered a roasted hare with a handful of blue berries. Kasumi ordered rice balls with raw salmon in their center.
She wasn’t surprised to see a disdainful glance at the wine before the warrior took a small sip – probably out of desperation for something to wet her throat.
“You could have ordered a different wine.” Aki smiled, purring.
“Never mind it. The wine is good enough.” She waved the courtesy aside. “The boy can’t carry more than one wine, and it’s a bit early for sake.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“Anya and Sauda are having a hard time, Aki. Would you mind supping with them?”
She tensed. “Over work?”
Kasumi shook her head. “No. It will not be for work. It won’t have anything to do with the Emperor or the war. We will not discus the market, either. They see me as a friend, I suppose. And as a guide. We will train together soon, but this is not about that. It is about companionship.”
A bit surprised – and instantly a bit jealous – Aki wasn’t sure what to think.
“If we continue to behave like this, then the other Commandants will see it as a weakness.” Kasumi reassured her that it was less personal than she would have thought.
“So it it’s about appearance as well as giving them something productive to do?”
“Not to mention reassuring them that I am there when they need me – as a warrior, a merchant and a friend.”
She relaxed. “So long as Anya isn’t loud, I suppose I can accompany you. I don’t want to hear a word about the war, Empire or trading.”
“They wouldn’t have that.” There was an ironic gleam in her eyes.
Their food arrived quickly, they boy struggling but still with decent balance. The two ate while talking quietly about things that shouldn’t have made either of them smile, but did. They spoke in Latin rather than Japanese, so their conversations were private. It was the first time they’d ever eaten in the garden and not their room, and people walked past them staring.
Honestly, it was nice to feel the breeze and hear the insects and birds. The Kio fountains soothed Aki more than anything but the temple. Well…and Kasumi’s voice.
Suddenly, Anya and Sauda rushed into the garden, their faces pale and their eyes wide with urgency.
“What is going on?” Kasumi was on her pawed feet. She was there in a second, trying to calm the younger Commandants. “Keep your heads, you two! You’re warriors of the GCDW!”
“R-right. The Lions have lost too much ground! They need assistance. Their Commandant is injured and half their troops are in the ground.”
With a glance as Aki, who nodded her to go, she departed to the meeting room. Aki heard her call the boy to tell him to take care of her, and then she was gone.
Aki sighed, feeling alone. At least they’d finished eating…
“She really loves you.” The boy startled her. “Is she your sister?”
Aki purred at his innocence. “We’re very, very close friends.” She told him quietly.
“I’m supposed to protect you and care for you!” He said with pride in his brown eyes.
“I feel safer already.” She assured him, acting relieved. “A big strong boy like you will definitely keep me in good hands. I bet you could clear this mess much faster than I could, even.”
“Right away!” He began to clear the blanket off as quickly as a lad his age could. She watched with a smile, trying to stay relaxed.
“Thank you very much.” She said in Japanese once he was finished. “Now, will you fetch some escorts to take me to temple? It is time I prayed.”
“Sure! Meet me by the palace gates on your assigned horse!”
Akira stood and headed for the stables, her only desire to pray for the fallen and for those still alive. It was a sad day indeed that the lions couldn’t hold their ground or their lives…
It took too long to get to the meeting room, and for the other two generals to meet them there. They had taken their time, and lost more Demi lives as they did so. Politics pissed Kasumi off in these situations. Anya was pacing endlessly, refusing to sit down. Sauda fiddled with her knife. Though Kasumi wished to show those signs, she sat in her chair motionless, her face carved of stone.
The other two came in.
“Let’s get this over with.” Hiroto commented, sitting in his chair. Daichi sat in his seat. Kasumi cleared her throat, and Anya got the hint. She sat down, a silent growl rumbling through her chest.
“Lion Demis are powerful and intelligent.” Kasumi began. “They rely on team support and coordination. If their leader falls, so does some order, but not all, as their second-in-command quickly takes charge. It seems that the second-in-command is a stickler for political rules, and isn’t very experienced in the field. This is why the coordination is slightly off, and some team work has been lost.”
“So send in Cheetah troops. They’re independent.”
“Are you insane?” Kasumi snarled. “It’d be a fucking massacre. Do you want to lose this damn war?!”
“What are you talking about? They’ll add speed to the power and independence to the patched team work.”
“Look at the region, human!” Anya growled. “The only way they’d be able to fight is in their human forms, and Cheetah Demis are no faster in that form than humans. As for independence, that would ruin the Leon troops! They need another group who relies on teams. That’s not happening with the other Great Cats. They’re the only team-based military in the GCDW. We use them in those situations because they’re the greatest in number and don’t rely so heavily on their Demi forms.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Daichi asked in his quiet voice, looking at the three Demi leaders.
“We actually don’t have any troops here that can stand the conditions. They do need a Priestess to send away the souls and heal the wounded or ill. Lions tend to keep their priests, healers and tech men out of battle, because they are often the first ones killed or injured in the brutal fights. If we can get about a hundred organized troops who can combat with Demis and keep up, then I can go there with my priestess and re-organize their troops, as well as get the second-in-command some courage.”
“Leaving your post is dishonorable.”
Kasumi looked Hiroto in the eyes and spat at his feet. “If it is honor we fight for, I will drop my blade and fall to my knees; I fight to survive, and to keep Aki alive.”
He stared at her with huge eyes, shocked.
Daichi cleared his throat. “I can give you a hundred of my best troops. They don’t mind working with Demis at all, and use elemental magic as well as guns and bows. They aren’t for the front lines, mind you, but they can provide the support the Lions need. My men are trained to fight in units themselves, so they will fit into Lion Demi strategy.”
Kasumi nodded. “The Lions will thank you. You have just saved many lives, Daichi.”
“Then we will move now. I will send the troops to the front gate. Summon your priestess and meet me and my troops by the east gate.”
“No. We’ll go by ship, not horse.It’s faster.”
“It took you months to get here!” Hiroto complained.
“We hit a storm, and I had allergic reaction to some human medication I was given by a visiting healer. My helmsmen tend to push himself to exhaustion when I’m not watching him, and my second in command can’t do everything.”
“Fine. We’ll go by your accursed flying ship.” He growled. “But if anything happens, it’d on your head, not mine.”
“I don’t run from bad situations, Hiroto.” Flicking my tail, I walked out. Anya and Sauda followed at my heels. I turned to them. “That is how you handle humans.”
“What do we do?” Anya looked a little taken aback.
“Simple. Monitor the situation from here. Make sure the humans can keep their end of the bargain.”
They bowed just as the human generals appeared. Then they rose and left, splitting down the hall to march opposite directions.
“I will prepare with my Priestess. My ship will be ready upon the hour to depart. I hope your troops won’t slow us down.”
Without waiting for an answer, Kasumi hailed a servant boy to show her to her room.
Aki had just returned from prayer when Kasumi rushed into the room. Instantly, the relaxed feeling the temple had brought her vanished. The stress, anger and urgency surrounding the ambassador were enough to make Aki want to scream.
“What in the world is it, Kasumi?” She demanded.
“The boy has been sent with a message to the ship. We’re to depart within the hour. Gather your prayer candles, Aki. We must depart soon, and you’re coming to send off their dead and heal the injured.”
Horrified, Aki obeyed.
Magic of the Goddess
The cold of the Russian weather forced every Demi on the ship to revert to human form and dress into tight, warm human clothing. The human troops dressed as thus from the start, for the cold of the high latitude was too much for them from lift off.
Aki observed all of them for ship-sickness or chills, but only ten of the hundred became ill. Most of them had been in such ships before; they’d been selected from the best, after all.
The only person who had kept Aki was busy was actually Kasumi. She was so busy that it was impossible to keep her in good health for the four days it took to get to the location. She’d refused to sleep or eat for two of those days. And her stress was overwhelming…
And now she was shouting orders to her crew to prepare the ship for landing on the frigid plateau. Aki listened anxiously.
Why wouldn’t she just listen to me and have her helmsman handle this?
As they landed, the human warriors – soldiers, rather – evacuated as if they were robots given a command from the mainframe computer.
Kasumi was suddenly behind her with a backpack of leather.
“Here are your supplies Aki. I’ve made sure you have everything you asked for.” She kept her face stone-passive. But the anxiety was clear in her eyes.
“Thanks. Lead the way, My Lady.” Aki understood when the time was to be formal. She wasn’t stupid.
Kasumi nodded. The cheetah demi shouted over her shoulder to the troops as we left. “Keep her at port and hunt when needed! Keep a guard posted and send the new cabin boy with a message if you need me.”
“Yes Captain!” They shouted in uniform.
“Are you ill?” Kasumi demanded. “Do you need more coats?”
“N-no. The air is tense.” She was almost frightened by the emotion in her eyes that her voice lacked.
“Tell me if you need anything. We’re still a few hours from the camp.”
And her lover and war leader led the way from the ship to stand beside the troops. They were getting on sleds with large white and black dogs.
“I hate dogs.” Aki heard her leader-lover mutter.
I agree fully.
But she hailed down a man and had a team brought to them. After glaring at the alpha until he looked away, Kasumi helped the priestess into the sled. “Stay on the sled.” She ordered. “And hold on tight.” Then she got on and gave a shout. The men and their dog team rushed into the failing light.
It was around midnight when Aki picked up the scent of lion’s blood. The dogs stopped abruptly and refused to go on, snarling even at the masters they were loyal to. Kasumi growled in exasperation and directed the human soldiers to follow her. They all obeyed easily, all too accustomed to submission.
She pulled Aki down and kept her close as they drew nearer to the camp. Aki could feel a wave of sorrow; confusion and grief engulf her as they spotted the tents.
The humans who greeted them around the boarders were large and dark skinned. They were mostly male, as the Leon worked.
The women will be here hunting. I wonder how they’re fairing, without their natural forms…
“Commandant Kasumi!” One of the guards sounded amazed – and pleased. “We didn’t expect you for a few more days!”
“I’ve brought relief.” Kasumi said formally. She waved to the troops falling in line. “And my Priestess, Akira, is here for the injured and dead. She will lead a ceremony first.”
“Thank Gaia!” A new voice sounded across the ice from the camp. A tall, broad shouldered man appeared. His eyes were full of fear and he reeked of it. “She blesses us with her light!”
Kasumi stepped up to him. “You are the second in command here, I assume?”
“Indeed I am. Regneric at your service; it is an honor to be in your presence.” He bowed to Aki formally when she stepped forward.
“While we discuss incorporating the human troops and saving this mess, she must see to your wounded. Tonight, we’ll hold a Ceremony of Last Rights. Gaia will welcome her children home…”
“Of course.” Sadness touched his bronze gaze. “The Commandant is the worst. See to him first, Priestess Akira.”
A woman appeared. She was lean and agile, her body lithe and scarred. Aki took one last look at Kasumi before following her. She could hear the Ambassador work her magic already.
“You’ve done a fine job thus far keeping the camp guarded. Perhaps these Jap mages can add some magic to your defenses…”
She will undeniably make a leader out of that man. And from what I’m seeing, he’s not far from it…
When she reached the tent with the injured and was shown to a large black Lion, Aki felt a shiver run down her spine. She immediately began to work. He was too thin, and there were gashes bound so they didn’t stop the blood. Infection was set in, and she could smell illness. Not only did she re-bandage the wounds with a mixture of comfrey and marigold, she also covered the Lion up and fed him a mediated meat broth, adding sage and borage. Next, she told him to drink feverfew and catmint tea in hopes of reducing fever and ridding him of the on-coming repertory illness.
I may have to do more…I may have to heal with magic. But…what if Kasumi is injured…? I must stay fit and strong!
As he drifted off to sleep, Aki said a prayer over him and moved on to the next worst case. He was young, and his wounds weren’t as terrible. But they, too, needed treatment. As the Priestess waded through a sea of injured Lion Demis, she wondered how her fearless leader was handling the second in command.
Kasumi watched again as the mages demonstrated their power. Walls of fire raged with amazing winds long enough for waves of once-snow water quelled them. The rivers were directed with moving boulders, which were sealed back in place quickly.
“They’re excellent.” The general told her with a smile. “Great for guarding the camp – and if they can handle guns, then perhaps they may be able to help the women hunt!”
“They’re soldiers, not hunters.” Daichi told him. Kasumi flicked her ear in irritation.
To the Demi people, there wasn’t much difference.
“I see.” Regneric sounded edgy and confused. “I thought I saw women…”
“Women are excellent mages, with more open minds. They do know how to handle a gun though…”
Kasumi nodded and signaled for the soldiers to pull out their weapons. They were armed in a second, but didn’t move.
This is going to become irritating.
“They have to be told to fire?” She asked irritably.
“Yes. Don’t your troops?” Daichi sounded a little surprised. Though he was tense and anxious, even the human was calmer than the second in command to their left.
“No. They are smart enough to know what an enemy is.” She retorted; her voice was laced with honey.
Daichi ignored it and gave the command to fire through a walkie-talkie.
Humans are still obsessed with those things?
Like robots, the soldiers pointed at targets and fired. Their aim was well and true, though not as impressive as their magic.
“They’ll do, right?” The Lion Demi asked anxiously, looking over at Kasumi.
This can’t do.
“Daichi…get them food and rest. Set camp around the boarders of the Leon camp.”
“You’ll have to guard the camps alone tonight.”
“What?” He actually sounded angry.
Kasumi sighed. “We’re sending the dead to Gaia tonight. We won’t fight until dawn. That’s the end of it.”
The mage saluted with a look of distaste on his face and began to order the troops. Why he had come along still eluded her. Soldiers weren’t loyal to anybody in particular.
They aren’t real warriors, after all.
“What’s wrong, Regneric?” Kasumi demanded, bringing her mind away from the humans. “Why are you looking to me for the decision of your own people?”
“I’ve never been in battle before, and know nothing of the Japanese. I worry for the Lions around me. Most of all, I worry for our leader. He’s a man of great honor and skill in battle…”
“And your father, correct?”
The Lion bowed his head. “Indeed, Kasumi, Leon is my father.”
“Then what do you have to worry of? Aki is caring for him. She will pray for your dead, and tomorrow will be a blood bath the Russian Empire will never forget.” The Ambassador put a delicate hand on his shoulder. “But in order for that to happen, Regneric, you must prove that you are your father’s son and lead your people into battle. It is in your blood. Prove to us all that you deserve the position you were born to hold.”
His fear slowly eased as she spoke, though it didn’t completely go away. The terror in his gaze slowly became determination, however, and Kasumi knew she’d gotten through.
Though there will always be fear in his heart, he will work hard to keep them alive. Leon will be proud. As long as Aki can keep the old Lion alive long enough to see his son’s eyes gleam with pride and hear his people roar in victory one more time, that is.
“Blessed be the Breath of the Goddess.” Aki’s voice wrapped around the silent camp; it seized the attention of those around her. Kasumi watched as she walked around in flowing green robes. “The Light of Her gaze is upon us. The Eye of the Sea opens full to welcome the souls of the Lost.”
Candles that puffed out sweet-smelling smoke surrounded the outskirts of the camp. Standing just inside them were Lions in their half-forms. Their heads were raised to the full moon.
“She who gave us Life…”
Bodies lay in every form, eyes closed and laid so they appeared as if they were asleep. The scent of lavender and sage emitted from them. Beside each head was a single candle that burned off the scent of oak leaves.
“And She who takes it…”
As Aki walked the camp in her robe of ceremony, she bent down and touched each body. Kasumi heard her pray to each one, then blow out the candle flame. As her hand moved away from each and the flames flickered out, a small glow followed it. Soon, many white wisps danced around her like lost dogs.
“Blessed be those who walk Her path…blessed be those who Die at Her feet…”
Feeling hallow, Kasumi lifted her violin and began to play. It was a song, slow song. Anger and sorrow gripped her very soul as the Ambassador watched Aki begin the Dance of Death. The souls followed her every movement, which matched the violin’s rhythm exactly. Flutes and African drums beat with her instrument, adding an eerie tone to the music and tears to Kasumi’s eyes. The memory of those drums...it was the memory of the death of her parents…
Something made Mother scream. She threw me into a reed-choked stream. I heard snarling and laughing. Swords clashed. I brushed past the weeds and froze to see my mother fall into a pool of blood. A huge scaled half-human winged beast stood over her bloodied body. I froze. It sniffed the air and tensed.
The souls slowly disappeared, as if swallowed by the very shadows. There were less and less, until the dawn’s rays began to creep above the horizon and there were none. The drums died down, and the memory slipped away.
The Demis stood and came to stand one by one before Aki, taking her hand and bowing their heads. They made a gesture that showed reverence, gratitude and grief. It showed she was their Priestess, that she was the road to Gaia.
Only Kasumi, however, saw past her gentle words and smile. Only her lover saw Aki’s tears, held back in glistening amber eyes. And only the Priestess of the Cheetah Demis saw the tears that ran down the powerful war leader’s pink, human cheeks.
A Meaningless Victory
The smell of smoke and sound of crumbling earth split Kasumi’s ears, even from several miles away. The Commandant paced, furious that she’d been forced to stay behind. Daichi was at the table, sipping hot tea that Aki had brought him. He was calm and attentive.
“Stop pacing. It’s not like they’re your troops.”
“So? I was to lead them, no? Why aren’t I with them?”
He sighed. “You’re a leader, not a warrior.”
“Where I’m from, that’s the same damn thing!” She snapped. “What warrior would trust their lives to a man or woman who can’t lift her own blade and die for you?”
“A human soldier isn’t fighting for any one man; he’s fighting for an entire nation. He is to understand that we’re doing our part here.”
Even Regneric understands! He’s gone with his people!
“Please, Kasumi, listen to him.” Akira’s voice surprised her. Cursing her dull human ears, Kasumi turned around to look at her poor lover.
She was still dressed in healing garments, and smelled strongly of healing herbs.
“He’s faring well. If you’re concerned for the troops, cast your mind’s eye out and see.”
“She has.” Daichi laughed. “Four times now. My mages don’t even have to use their walkie-talkies now! She’s constantly giving them mind-orders.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
The leader sighed. “I guess I’m just used to fighting…”
“I know. But can’t you be grateful when you’re not?” Aki’s tone was harsh. The Commandant looked closely at her.
“You’re glad I’m safe with you, right?” She soothed. “Come here, meus amor. I’m sorry for all the times I worry you…” Kasumi wrapped around the concerned Priestess. She slipped inside of her mind, trying to ease it, when something caught her attention. Aki tensed. “Why haven’t you…?”
“Later.” She told her lover quickly. “I’m trying to understand them.”
She’s not telling me her visions now? What’s going on?
The ground shook slightly. Kasumi braced herself and Aki until they stopped.
Another bomb had fallen.
Kasumi let her mind reach out for the soldiers and warriors. She found a mind of the enemy aiming for Regneric’s head. Growling, she sent feelings of fear – of terror – something was watching him. It was against him, and it was malicious. The man began to shake and quiver. He dropped his gun and ran screaming.
Regneric turned and shot him in the back. The man fell dead.
She reached into his mind and sent a feeling of warmth and strength; everything would be okay, so long as he fought hard. The Lion Demi sent her thanks; he’d felt her.
“Kasumi?” Daichi sounded confused and irritated. It broke the trance a little roughly.
“You just gave me a migraine.” She snarled. “Thanks.”
“Oh. You were doing it again. How fares it?”
Aki was leaning against her, purring. Kasumi let her joy wash over her before answering. “From what I saw, we’re winning. I’m going to go see Leon.”
“Are you sure?” Akira sounded uneasy about it.
Is she losing him?
“I need to speak with him about his second in command.”
She frowned. “Can’t something like that wait?”
The leader sighed. “He’s a friend, Aki.” She told her quietly. “Is he that bad?”
“I don’t want him getting stressed out.” She looked at the table. “And you’ve not drank your tea!”
Grumbling about it, Kasumi grabbed the blasted cup and downed the honey and feverfew tea in a few gulps. “Is that better?” She asked, only slightly irritated.
“Yes. Now you can see him.”
She began to head off.
“Um…I was wondering…” The man began before she could follow the Priestess.
“What?” She snapped.
“You keep saying meus amor. What does that mean?”
Sighing, she growled out “Not that it matters to you, but it means ‘my love’ in Latin.”
Then the warrior-leader followed her lover to the tent quietly. Kasumi stared in shock at the man on the cot. The powerful, sure man she’d known since her cadet hood laid beneath four blankets. His skin was pale, and his face was hollow. The scent of infection hit Kasumi’s nose.
“Leon!” She gasped. Kasumi looked to Aki for explanation.
“Whatever I use, the infection won’t heal. I’ve prayed to Gaia, but…”
Perhaps…this is his time.
“Come over here, Kasumi.” The Lion leader waved her over, his voice rough with more than age now.
She bowed low in respect to him and obeyed his request. Kneeling, the Cheetah Demi wondered at how their races were enemies once, when he was such a good friend now.
“We fought once, you know…” The man began roughly. “And have killed many of our comrades…”
“And now we fight as one, in a war that will unite man and Demi.”
“I hope so…”
Aki cleared her throat.
“Right.” Kasumi sighed. “I come here to tell you that your son fights bravely. He seems certain now.”
The Lion looked over at the cheetah with pride. “Thank you for showing him courage.”
“It was the same courage you once showed me, Leon.”
The image of another bomb splitting the Leon ranks from the Mages made me shiver.
“What is it?”
He nodded. Rising, Kasumi left the tent and returned to Daichi.
“The bombs separated Rank 4 and 2.” She informed the mage. He sighed.
“Great. Just perfect. Alright…can they regroup?”
“I think that’s what they need us to help them with.” The Ambassador barely held the growl from her voice.
“Here.” She showed him how they’d been separated on the map sitting on the table. “What if they move this way?” The Commandant drew on the map with coal slits – as most Demis preferred during war. “And re-group here? Medics will tend to the wounded and dead. They will need to bring them back, and can take this route here…” She finished.
He stared at it thoughtfully. “The medics will be better going this way, won’t they?”
He countered her line.
I swear, he’s doing this because he wants to argue! That doesn’t even make sense!
“Why? That would take longer.”
“But they’ll meet up with more groups.”
“Who are in process of winning?”
They glared at one another for a moment. Then it clicked.
“I know. We’ll go both ways; half the medics will circle around and take the injured from the far group. The other half will take the injured from the Ranks of 2 and 4.”
Compromise. Wow. I didn’t think humans were capable of it!
Kasumi passed on the message to the right troops. Then she surveyed the area with her mind.
We can definitely still win this. It looks like we’re gaining ground.
She tried to push on coldly from the dead. It was something that wasn’t avoidable. War meant losing men and women to the enemy, as it meant killing the enemy and removing comrades that felt the same about their side.
“Commandant Kasumi?” A female Lion Demi asked, bringing her out of her contemplation.
“Yes?” She shook her head, clearing it of the cobwebs thoughts.
“There’s a boy requesting you at the border. He’s wearing your colors, but isn’t Demi.”
“Ah. Show me where; he’s a servant I saved from an abusive palace master.”
She nodded and escorted her across the snow-laden camp to where two male guards were watching Alex. The kid had a look of both resolution and terror.
“Alex?” Kasumi called. “What is it?”
He rushed over to her, bundled to the tooth in warm clothing and still pink-cheeked.
“There was a message from the palace!” The boy told me without formalities.
“Oh, really?” She snorted when he paused.
He looked around nervously.
He’s shivering and exhausted…
“You know what?” Kasumi picked him up and put him on her shoulder. “You need to warm up before Akira scolds me for letting you end up sick.”
There. Now I won’t be crossing any of our master-servant lines, but he won’t get sick.
“Oh…shouldn’t I walk?”
“I won’t risk her tongue, child!”
The others around them chuckled in both the truth and the fact that Kasumi clearly loved Aki. Kasumi quickly took the human child into her own tent. Then she poured him hot chervil and feverfew tea, adding a little sweet leaf for flavor and any tummy ache he had.
“Any bruises?” She asked quietly while he took the tea, looking confused but relieved.
“No. Um…shouldn’t I be doing this?”
She shook her head. “No way. You’re cold and tired. But that tea will warm you up and give you energy. Now drink it while you tell me the message.”
“Well…” He blew on the tea. “This one lady came aboard. She was panting really hard, and looked kind of like you, except that she was really strong, and didn’t have the tear stains. Oh, and she was white.”
“A Snow Leopard Demi?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But she had a name…um…uh…Tonya. That was it!”
“What?” Panic spread through her.
“Yeah. That was it! She said that the Princess is to come back to the palace! Whatever means possible. She also said that ‘her troops were holding their own.’ She told me you didn’t need any more information, and even though I told her you’d want to know why the Princess needed to come back, she wouldn’t tell me! All she would give me is that it was important for the High Lord to see her daughter.”
“Thank you, kid. Is that all she told you?”
“Yep.” He took a sip of his tea just as Akira came in. Behind her was Regneric.
“We won; the Russians pulled out after your plan worked.” The Lion looked exhausted, and was bleeding from wounds Aki hadn’t had the time to look at.
“How many are gone?”
“One third of the Mages are injured or dead. There were half of the injuries from the Leon troops.”
“Good. Let Aki tend to the Lions, and work with Daichi to arrange proper healing with the troops from Japan. Then see to your father. Aki, I need to speak with you before you start treatments. It’s about the High Lord.”
She nodded. Then she turned to the Leon second-in-command.
“Gather all the worst in my tent. Take those who are injured but not critical to their own tents. Those who aren’t bad need to rest tonight; I’ll see them tomorrow.”
“Alright. I’ll split them into groups.”
And he was gone.
“What is it?”
“The High Lord is ill. She’s so ill that she’s requesting to see her daughter.”
“I need to get back to Japan. Quickly. And to send a message ahead. This battle…the only thing it did was cost us planning…planning and time.”
“But nothing has changed.” She growled. “Except the health of the very Leopard that is running this war.”
She paced for a moment. “Tend to the ill. We’ll need to talk about your vision on the way home the moment we can leave.”
Akira glared at me.
“It’s chervil and feverfew tea. He’s not hurt; just cold and tired.”
“You’re not sending him back tonight.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” She lied.
I probably would have. And she would have chewed me out…
“I thought not. Because you won’t want me angry, will you?”
She turned and left without another word.
Fine. Be that way.
“Where do I sleep?” Alex asked quietly.
“In this.” She indicated her cot. “Because Aki has been treating patients, she’s taken up another tent. We’ll share a bed tonight; there’s not one free and you’ll fall ill alone.”
He finished his tea while I wrote a message quickly. She handed him the letter.
“Leave when you wake up with this and give it to the woman named Kaide. Understood?”
“Good. Now get your ass to bed.”
He curled up and was asleep in no time, even with the chervil running through his veins.
He’ll be up in a few hours, ready to go. I’d better get some sleep, too. It’s late...what a meaningless game these humans play. What was the point in the Russians fighting today? It gained nothing for either side. It just cost the both of us time we can’t afford to lose…
The Americans Strike
Sauda scented the air, tense and uneasy, in the palace halls. Behind her were two other Jaguar Demis, their fur a dark orange with rosette black spots instead of black, but their features were close enough to hers. They watched her for signals.
Sauda flicked her tail at the male on the left. He came to her.
“Scout ahead. We need to find the Emperor.” She ordered quietly.
Humans are so imprudent! Separating the men the way they did…
He nodded and took off stealthily, hugging the shadows. A few minutes later, Sauda heard gunfire. Then there was a thud and silence.
“Stupid Americans.” The black demi growled softly. Then she signaled to the other Demi and continued down the hall in the opposing direction. For a time, they walked with the sound of gunfire outside and the stench of blood, humans and gunpowder covering all other scents.
This is impossible! Where the hell is Kasumi when I need her?!
Then another thought hit her.
Azoic! They might be after her! Shit! I have to double back!
The Jaguar whirled around and rushed down the hall, sniffing the air occasionally. As she raced, more Jaguars stumbled upon her and quickly followed, feeling the urgency. Even a group of Tiger Demis tripped over her.
“Follow!” She’d order.
They’d shrug and trail after her, knowing what trouble they’d be in if they didn’t obey – from Anya, her and Kasumi.
The reek of American soldiers – gunpowder, steel and a peculiar composite of plants she’d never smelled before – grew stronger as she drew closer to the room Azoic was placed in. To her shock, when they arrived Anya stood at the door with a look of rage. Three Americans lay dead at her paws. She was in full Tiger form, making her appear far more demeaning than even Kasumi.
“What’s going on?” Sauda demanded.
“They’ve been tryin’ ta get into Azoic’s room since they got here! They knew where she was!”
“Ya. I couldn’t believe it either! I came here before the attack, so I had no idea what was goin’ on ‘til my second-in-command came rushin’ in for orders. Then all of a sudden they were all over!”
“For whatever reason, we’ll need to prevent them from getting to her.” Sauda looked over at the twenty-six warriors who’d followed her.
“Half of you are with Anya. Help her protect the princess. The other half, follow me.”
What’s going on here?
“Where are you going?” Anya asked, calming down a little.
“I’m finding the Japanese Emperor. We’ll need to tell him this.”
“You can barely understand him!”
“But his generals should be surrounding him, and they know Latin. I think he should, too, since we are fighting his war for him!”
“Right. See you after this stupidly is over with.”
She saluted and took off, knowing that thirteen random warriors were following her.
Anya watched the leader of the Jaguars leave. The thirteen warriors she’d left behind were mostly Tiger, both Bangle and Siberian. She growled angrily to herself, not willing to admit that she didn’t feel like she deserved help. Not willing to admit that she’d almost let Azoic be taken on purpose.
“Slip inside and guard her from there.” Anya pointed to five of them “Two of you at the door inside, and one warrior at each window.” She commanded everything in Latin, knowing most of them knew no Japanese at all and having no reason to speak it.
I can’t believe I was willing to give her up…so easily.
They nodded and obeyed.
“You four…guard that side of the hall. The other four take the other side.”
They quickly took positions. Of course, that would help, but she was still itching to fight.
Still, I think this is better than following some random Japanese human’s orders…
There was gunfire from her left. She raced over and saw seven human Americans on the floor, dead.
I guess I’m going to tell them what to do more than do it though…
“I’ll check on the others.” She said quietly to her warriors. They were the female special opts that usually went with her on these missions, so she knew they would be fine.
“Who’s in charge while you’re in there?” One of them asked.
She scanned the group and spotted her arms master. “Ruki. Who else?”
“Yes, Captain!” The Demi saluted. Then she turned back to work. Anya went into the room. There was a gun and a sword in her face.
They were removed.
Anya looked around and saw Azoic in a corner. She was in full form, and the look on her face told the Tiger commandant how frightened she was.
She reeks of fear. This is my fault.
“Oh, Anya, this is so scary! Why are there men all over trying to take me?”
“Because Americans don’t know what honor is, Azoic. They take prisoners to get an edge. Now calm down and let us do our job.”
Why don’t I hear gunfire?
Moving to the window, Anya gasped. The fighting had stopped. In the middle of the courtyard was a human and a what could only have been a Snow Leopard guard. The white Siberian Tiger stared as the human turned around. Then, there was a single shot. The Leopard fell to the ground, dead, and the fighting continued.
What’s going on?! They just killed royalty!
There was roaring from the halls. Anya stormed out, and smoke greeted her. Coughing, confused, she heard the sound of swords and gunfire. Then the smoke was clearing, and a human man stood right in front of her. There was no time to react. He hit her on the temple with the butt of his gun and stabbed her in gut with a knife. Shock and pain filled Anya as she fell to her knees.
Darkness crawled over her as the sound of her other guard being overwhelmed horrified her. The last thing she saw was Azoic being hauled away, screaming for her to get up, to help.
Kasumi gave orders to dock and impatiently waited. Akira paced beside her. Neither of them spoke as Kaide followed them off the ship and into the palace, as well as the two strongest Demis on board. Kasumi, Aki and Kaide were all in Demi form, while the two warriors were Cheetahs.
The guards let them in with wide eyes without a word. They were clearly terrified of Kasumi. The look on the Ambassador’s face cleared a path all the way to the throne room. The servants moved opened the door and moved aside, bowing to them with quivering legs. The five of them marched into the room of luxury.
The emperor was in his throne, talking with Hiroto and a tall man with black hair. It was spiked, oddly enough. When the three looked back with surprise, there was a bit of humor in his puppy-dog brown eyes that pissed Kasumi off instantly. But she brushed the two aside and stood without bowing before the man she currently hated more than those who had killed her parents long ago.
“What is going on here?” The royal man demanded, his eyes blazing with fury.
“How can this be allowed to happen?!” Kasumi demanded. “This palace had two thousand human soldiers and over six hundred Demis, and the Americans came in with only three hundred, killed over a hundred Japanese men, a hundred Demi warriors and robbed us blind of a princess?! What the hell were you idiots doing while I was gone?! Drinking sake and writing fucking poetry?!”
They stared at the usually level-headed general and Ambassador with wide eyes. The Emperor blinked, looking unnerved and even angrier.
“My men were guarding me –“
“Yes, even after you knew that they weren’t after you, right? Even after you gave them her room?”
“She should have been defended by the Leopards, Tigers….”
“There weren’t any Leopard Demis here. They’re all in the middle of the snow-covered mountains.”
He growled “The big cats with spots following the black general!”
Kasumi took a deep breath and slowly released it, trying her hardest to cool down. “Sauda is the general of Jaguar Demis. They aren’t here to die for you. They aren’t here so you can keep a major army around you while your allies are left protecting the rest of the family. From what I heard, they were after her in the first place. Why didn’t you help? You had plenty of men to spare.”
“The princess of your nation doesn’t concern me.”
“Then neither do you concern us.” Akira growled. “None of you do. In fact, we’re pulling out. We must go to America and retrieve the princess. Her mother requires her safely at the palace.”
“You can’t do that! You’re –“
“We’re following our laws, and the order of our Empress.” Kasumi snarled. “We are allies, not your dogs. We’re not here for you, Emperor. We’re here because we were told by our leader to fight. And not to fight so you can be safe, but so Russia and America doesn’t overwhelm our nation. The agreement for us being here was that we weren’t treated like this.”
The man looked thoughtful for a long time. Kasumi flicked her tail and turned to leave.
“Wait. Hiroto, give Kasumi two hundred of your men. Haru, locate the palace of America and devise the best route. Get me my advisor. You have until dawn three days from now to get everything ready.”
The two bowed and left. Kasumi paused, but didn’t face the royal bastard again.
I’m not happy with this!
Kaide leaned into her ear and whispered “This isn’t a time to be stubborn. He’s listening. We need his men, too, you know.”
The Cheetah leader sighed, knowing she was right. Turning back to him, she became a little more formal and kept her voice nicer than she wanted it to be.
“Thank you for reconsidering. We’ll be ready by dawn. Aki and I will be in the infirmary with Sauda and Anya until dusk. Kaide will train your men for real combat.”
“I mean it. We won’t be fighting Russians, who don’t have any Demis. We’ll be fighting the CDL. They are Canine Demis. That includes wolf and fox Demis. They use martial arts and pack mentality.”
“So what will you be teaching them?”
She laughed – a very rough laugh, since she was in her half form. “Our way of fighting, of course – the Cheetah’s number one way. It’s a fighting style that is quick, cunning and elusive.”
Then she signaled the others and left.
Publication Date: 03-21-2011
All Rights Reserved
To my family and friends, who inspire me to write crazy things.