The Puppeteer: Part Three
There are few ancient customs that are still practiced in Shenkuu. Many have faded away from impracticality or because they are deemed too archaic. We are all too busy with our lives now to bow before every picture of the Emperor we see. Nor is a legal challenge decided by a fight before the spirits, but rather through reason and evidence.
But one tradition which has never left us and never will is anareto. It is an unspoken law that anyone seeking anareto must be taken in and sheltered. Some see it as an admission of weakness, but it can also be a way of saving face, or settling an argument in a reasonable way. It is an old word meaning 'full shelter' and once invoked, once the host has allowed the guest over the threshold, any harm that comes to them represents a stain on their honour. In turn, the guest cannot do anything that will harm the host or his family, or his honour will be stained.
Even now it is used, by the common folk as well as the nobility. One may refuse to offer anareto without losing face, but only if they themselves are in desperate circumstances. It is not something invoked lightly.
The clang faded away into silence, and Ajuro was left waiting nervously outside, something he was not accustomed to. Then the doors slowly creaked open. His first look at Kai shocked him. He had heard the stories, but not really believed them to be true until now. The Hissi's skin looked invisible, but at certain angles there was an unexplained gleam of light playing off a transparent surface. The picture of a carefree young spotted Hissi was instantly obliterated by the cold, forbidding figure in front of him.
Kai's cloak hung open, revealing his beating heart, and Ajuro wondered whether or not he had done that on purpose to intimidate pets. He waited for the Hissi to say something, but those empty eye sockets bore into him, the face without expression. It took him far longer than it should have to realise that Kai didn't recognise him. It had been too long, and his new shadow colour had probably confused him. He was about to say something when the Hissi spoke.
"What do you want?" His voice was deeper, as was to be expected, but also harsh and strange as what happened when a voice was used very little.
Ajuro stared at him, then he gave a warm smile. The transparent skin made it impossible for Kai's expression to change, but he thought he threw the Hissi a little bit with that smile.
"I come seeking anareto/," he said. He hoped that Kai would still remember the customs, so ingrained that after eight years they should still be tucked into his memory. And the mansion was surely large enough that he could not refuse.
He watched as Kai's head jerked slightly, but other than that there was little emotion to be gleaned. Ajuro waited patiently now. That jerk had been enough. Kai remembered the word.
"I offer it," said Kai at last, his voice sounding slightly puzzled. He moved slightly to the side, and Ajuro stepped neatly over the threshold. Despite himself he felt some tension melt away from his shoulders, though he never thought his old friend could scare him. "Follow me," Kai said again, and this time his voice was expressionless.
The décor of the mansion inside was less sinister than the outside. In fact it would have looked luxurious, if only the red carpets and faded tapestries had been replaced with new. It was surprisingly free from clutter and dust, and Ajuro was confused until another one of the cloth Puppets drifted past with a broom. Those Puppets scared him more than Kai's appearance, and now he realised how Kai had gotten his nickname.
They entered a huge room with a vaulted ceiling, and Kai lifted his wings. Instantly the mess in the centre of the room - which consisted of a bed, couch and numerous books – flew to the side in a messy heap. There was no way Kai had been able to do that eight years ago. He had barely been able to move a chair. The next instant the long table that had been pushed to one side slid into the centre of the room with a screeching of wood, and the chairs underneath shot out and arranged themselves.
"You're just in time for breakfast, stranger," Kai said.
The stranger intrigued him. He had a confident air about him, as if nothing could truly touch him. And the way he moved, graceful but as if he could launch himself into a fight at any second, as if he was prepared for anything. He had even tried to trip the stranger up with a piece of carpet as they walked along the hallway, but the Zafara had simply skipped over it without appearing to notice that it had suddenly leapt up several inches.
But there was something niggling at the back of his mind. That face was familiar. Maybe a daredevil who had visited once before who had somehow guessed at his Shenkuu heritage and used it to gain safe entry into the mansion. Those strong features were somehow important. At least the stranger seemed somewhat impressed with his powers.
A door to the left banged open as the Puppeteer seated himself and a spindly Puppet made entirely out of metal clattered out, holding two plates of food which both looked and smelled horrible. It placed them on the table, and gave a short bow to the Zafara, who he was pleased to see looked slightly pale at its appearance. The Puppet then stomped out again, resembling a Spyder more than any pet.
"Sit down," the Puppeteer said, his voice layered with some menace. The pet was an enigma he could not solve, and that meant he was a problem. But the rules of anareto were clear, and he could not do anything for the moment. He hoped for the stranger's sake that he did not break the rules either.
The Zafara seemed to have recovered. He slipped into a chair and then they both contemplated the meal in front of them with distaste. It was quiet except for a fire crackling in the grate.
"So what do you do here, stranger?" the Puppeteer asked finally.
"Good manners would require that you ask my name, Kai," the Zafara replied, then his eyes widened slightly as he realised what he had said.
The Puppeteer sat still for a full five seconds before he leaned forward. At the same time the floorboards creaked and exploded upwards to snare the stranger. Only the Zafara had already leapt out of his seat and rolled out of reach. The speed with which he moved was astonishing, and try as he might the Puppeteer could not catch a hold of him with his new Puppet.
"How do you know my name?" he asked as a tapestry flowed down the wall to try and ensnare the Zafara.
"You don't recognise me?" the Zafara cried. "Shame on you, Kai! We spent every day together as children."
"Ajuro?" The tapestry fell limp and the floorboards melted back into the floor as the Puppeteer stared hard at the Zafara. How could he not have recognised that face and that voice?
"Kai," the shadow Zafara replied.
"No doubt you're trying to think up some excuse for not coming back to Shenkuu, Kai. But there are none. As far as I can see the only thing wrong with you is that you were too stubborn to find help. You could have come back to us. You know we would never turn you away. We could have gone to the Capital together and found a cure. But instead you abandon us for eight years. Eight years. Shuva was so devastated he couldn't leave the house for months. We thought something was terribly wrong.
"As soon as I was old enough I went to the Capital to found out what had happened, and what I could do to help. I'd heard rumours of 'The Puppeteer', of course. But I could barely believe it."
Kai was silent. All his memories came flooding back. He could probably go to his old room and find the letter he had begun to write to Shuva. Or perhaps it had already crumbled away. And now Ajuro was here, the daredevil who enjoyed getting the better of others, and he felt ashamed.
"Would it be possible to say that I'm sorry?" he asked.
"It's possible to say it. But you'll need to do a lot more than that. You need to apologise to Shuva, but that will be difficult at the moment."
"What do you mean?' Kai asked, sinking back down into his seat and prodding at his food.
"You've been holed up in your mansion with no interest in the affairs of Shenkuu, so you couldn't know. There's a civil war going on in Shenkuu at the moment. Some distant cousin of the Emperor, who has fashioned himself the title General Chang Tzu, is leading a rebellion, claiming to be the rightful ruler."
Ajuro was glad to see Kai looking angry at his announcement. So, there was still some pride for his land in there, after all. The Tsing Dynasty had been ruling Shenkuu for generations now, but the upstart general could trace his lineage to them, and some fools were gullible enough to support him.
"So Shuva is in the army, now?' Kai asked. He gave a dry chuckle, which slightly unnerved Ajuro with the lack of humour in it. "I always knew he was a great warrior, but I could never imagine him hurting other pets."
Ajuro felt his chest tighten as he went over the news in his head. "Kai, don't get angry, but Shuva is fighting. Only he's fighting for General Tzu."
Kai went still, and his eye sockets narrowed. "Go on," he growled.
"Do you remember Chiroki?" Ajuro asked. After Kai looked blank he went on. "Shuva's sister? The white Kacheek who was ever cheerful and could never say a mean thing about anybody?"
Kai nodded, and Ajuro thought he was smiling. "I remember her. She was only seven or eight... when I left."
"Well Shuva's skills somehow made their way to the ears to Tzu, and he tried to recruit him. When Shuva refused Tzu got some of his men and they kidnapped Chiroki in the night. After that Shuva couldn't refuse. He's probably the only reason Tzu is still gallivanting around the countryside. Very few dare to face Shuva because he's so skilled and also the largest pet I've ever seen in Shenkuu or any other land."
"Where is Chiroki?" Kai asked, and there was a smouldering anger in his voice.
"She's being well taken care of, otherwise Shuva would not be fighting with Tzu, but she's off the map. I-The Emperor's spies have been searching for her, knowing that Shuva is one of Tzu's greatest weapons, but no luck so far. I came here hoping to find you. Perhaps together we can convince Shuva to leave. If he did, Tzu's army would lose moral."
"He would never leave his sister," Kai said. "And is he truly fighting in battles? I never thought he would harm anyone."
Ajuro nodded. "He made one condition before he joined Tzu. His katana has been made with a reversed blade, so the worst he can do to a pet is bruise them. The sharpened edge is on the inside, facing him. He's determined that no one gets hurt. And he has made Tzu invoke tarsha for this fight. Do you remember tarsha?"
"An honourable warrior in a war, once defeated, will lay down all weapons for a year if his opponent so wishes, otherwise he will lose all honour." Kai shook his head in wonder. "It's all coming back now. But what has that got to do with this?"
"The Emperor's armies are being depleted because every pet that Shuva takes down is forced to lay down arms for a year. The Emperor wins some battles, of course, but the more that Tzu wins, the more pets are willing to aid him. So you see, you have to come back. At the very least your... impressive abilities would be of great use. We don't have as many magicians as we would like." Ajuro eyed the Puppet that had just glided into the room warily, but it simply began polishing the table further down.
Kai stood up and drifted over to the window, and while Ajuro couldn't tell by his expression that he was thinking hard his entire mood was pensive.
"I don't like company," he muttered after a while. "I only let you in because you surprised me with anareto, but I wouldn't have let you stay long. After all these years, finally go back to Shenkuu?"
"No one will mind your colour, not now. We have too many other things to worry about. Besides, if there are enough rumours floating around about the Puppeteer, perhaps you can be the blow to moral to Tzu that Shuva is to the Emperor's armies.. And you can always cover yourself up. Come on Kai, I need you, and so does Shuva."
Kai continued to stare out the window at the stars. He had not been the only one that the passing years had changed. Ajuro was more assured, and much more calculating then he had been before. He must have been working on behalf of the Emperor. He had come here for more than just a reunion.
Finally he turned around. "Well if you put it like that, I suppose I have to come. I never was able to refuse you or Shuva anything."
"Good, we—" Ajuro peered over his shoulder. "What's going on?" he asked.
Kai whipped around, and Ajuro saw his heart beat visibly faster. Specks of light could be seen through the trees, and it appeared as though someone was setting the trees to the south on fire. The Hissi narrowed his eyes.
"It's the townspets."
To be continued...