The Puppeteer: Part Five
General Tzu's idea of kidnapping Chiroki was clever, but at the time such a crime was one of the most dishonourable things he could have done. The only thing that made it acceptable was that no-one wanted Shuva turned against them. Any pet who saw him fight would think twice about being on the side opposing him. That, and the fact that Tzu kept it a tight secret from his own warriors was what made the ploy so successful. While it lasted.
Ajuro had not been lying when he had boasted about sneaking in under the pets' noses. Kai watched from a cluster of trees as a blot of darkness detached itself from the shadow between two hills and melded with another. If he even so much as blinked he would have missed it.
There was another cluster of trees further on, and this was where the pets' camp lay. He thought he saw a Pteri perched in the branches of one tree, but there were half a dozen guards on the ground, weapons held ready as they scanned the landscape.
Kai stared up at the sky, where a crescent of moon obliterated the light of the stars around it. He watched the constellation that Ajuro had pointed out, waiting until it lined up with the moon. He had read about the stars in Samih's books, but they had never really interested him as they didn't have much to do with his magic.
Ajuro was by now only ten metres away from the sentries and was silently debating whether he should try and sneak past or simply take out the pets. He decided on the former, figuring that even he couldn't fight six pets silently, especially with one up in the trees. He waited until the Bori in front of him turned away, then silently glided past him, ducking into the shadow of a tree and praying that the spell on his cloak still worked.
The Bori quickly spun around, looking for the source of the mysterious breeze he had felt, but he didn't see the Zafara and soon turned away again. After several seconds Ajuro chanced moving to another tree, and then he was far enough away from the sentries that it didn't matter.
The pets had chosen their campsite well. The trees were clustered against a sheer cliff, so that there was only one direction attackers could come from. The trees also helped to conceal their presence, but they were surrounded by open hills with barely any cover. A good captain might place a second line of sentries, but very few would think it was necessary for this spot.
There were still a few pets awake and walking through the trees, but none of them were expecting a stranger in their midst, so they didn't see him. He crouched behind the grey and red canvas of a tent and watched. There were dozens of tents spread in a clearing, with several small fires burning, barely visible from outside the trees. The largest tent also happened to be next to the largest fire, which presented a bit of a challenge. He decided to hunker down and wait, staring up at the stars.
At the precise instant that the constellation was in position he heard a commotion by the edge of the trees, and glanced over to see what kind of distraction Kai had thought of. But his view was obscured, and as half the pets in the campsite had stampeded away he was loathe to let the opportunity to pass him by.
The tent he was aiming for had no guards, but the flap opened and a well-muscled Tonu stepped out holding a club. He shouldered it and strode away, and Ajuro took the opportunity to dive inside.
He quickly went into a roll and came back to his paws, to face the Techo that was had been waiting inside, determination mixed with wariness on his face. The other pet took in his lack of weapons and then gave a grim smile, raising his sword.
With very little effort, Ajuro ducked past the sword, into the area of reach where it would have no effect, and launched a powerful kick that sent the Techo flying. Before it had time to recover Ajuro had reached down and pressed a pressure point on the scaled neck, and the Techo went limp. He scanned the tent for any other pets that might be hidden, but all he could see was a foldable wooden table covered with papers. There were two pieces of cloth hung from the centre of the tent to either wall, quartering it, and Ajuro casually scooped up the papers on the table before opening one.
It turned out his instincts had been right, as he found himself almost nose-to-nose with a white Kacheek, who stared at him defiantly. He stared right back, waiting until the moment that she recognised him.
"Oh, Ajuro!" she exclaimed, leaning forward and pulling him into a tight hug. "How on Neopia...?"
"Hello Chiroki," he said with a cheeky grin, hugging her back. Then he pulled away and looked her up and down, paws on her shoulders. "They haven't been mistreating you?"
"Well, no, actually," she replied. She looked quite well-fed, and the clothes she was wearing were luxurious silk. "It's just been terribly dull, listening to all their war meetings."
Ajuro grinned even wider. "You can tell me all about it later. There's someone that you have to see."
"Is Shuva here?" Chiroki looked so hopeful that it made Ajuro feel bad.
"No, it's Kai," he said.
Her hopeful expression slowly changed to one of amazement, but before she could say anything the Tonu who Ajuro presumed was the captain entered the tent and spotted them.
Ajuro spun around, holding a ready stance as the Tonu did a remarkably athletic leap, swinging his club. Ajuro danced out of the way, then while the pet was still in the air Ajuro took a fistful of clothes in either paw and spun him around, throwing him into the side of the tent. It was a move that was much more effective when the wall was solid, as the Tonu quickly picked himself up again.
Then the Tonu went limp as Chiroki brought down what looked like a wooden plate on his head.
"I like him better like this," she observed, and Ajuro laughed.
"Me too. I'm glad he didn't get a chance to shout: we have to leave now. I'm not sure how long Kai can hold out."
He quickly draped his cloak around her shoulders. She was slightly shorter so it did drag on the ground a bit, but it would keep her obvious white fur from sight. Ajuro wasn't worried about his own shadow fur, as he had survived quite well with it before acquiring the cloak. He took the unconscious Techo's sword and used it to slice a hole in the back of the tent, and they made their escape, looping away from the commotion which was somehow still going on.
No one saw them leave, or they were too confident in the captain to worry about their prisoner escaping. The two pets soon made it out of the trees, and they glanced back. Chiroki gave a delighted laugh and Ajuro was impressed until he saw the silhouette of a Hissi. He groaned. Hadn't he told Kai to stay put?
At least a dozen trees on the edge of the clearing were moving seemingly with a life of their own, and several pets were already ensnared in the branches. The trees were clearly winning, as the weapons of the pets weren't suited to hacking at wood, and for each branch they severed, another branch would reach forward. Ajuro thought he heard Kai's voice amongst the sounds of fighting, then the Hissi turned away and slithered towards the trees where he had been sheltering previously. Ajuro and Chiroki went to meet him.
The Hissi looked faintly surprised as he was engulfed in a hug by the white Kacheek. Ajuro saw that he had taken off the clothing he had been given and was now in all his transparent glory. Chiroki stood back, and then punched him in the chest.
"That's for disappearing," she said. "And this is for making my brother cry."
Kai rubbed his sore chest, then frowned. "Doesn't this scare you?" he asked, gesturing down at his body.
Chiroki was in the process of glaring at him, but her face softened at his words. "Of course not. You're still the same pet. Look." She poked him in the chest again, and he winced as she hit his newly forming bruises. "It doesn't matter how different you look: That's the same heart as far as I can tell, and that's all that matters."
Ajuro was busy watching the pets back at the camp. Despite the distance and seemingly without effort, Kai was still forcing the trees the move, although they didn't seem to be trying to trap pets anymore, just waving their branches randomly. He turned to Kai.
"Why did you take your clothes off?" he asked. "I thought you didn't want anyone to see your colour."
Kai shrugged. "I wanted to scare them, and you made me think that maybe the Puppeteer is a pet known even in Shenkuu. So I told them who I was and that I was supporting the Emperor. They looked suitably scared."
Ajuro didn't like how satisfied Kai seemed with scaring other pets, but he made no comment on it, only shuffled the papers he had swiped and put them in his pack to peruse later.
"Let's move as far as we can away from here. They'll soon find that you're gone, Chiroki, and then they'll start searching. You have a lot to catch up on. Shuva—"
"I know he's fighting for Tzu," she said sadly. "I wish he wasn't, but he was always very protective of me."
Ajuro smiled, remembering the seven year old Chiroki who had stomped on the paw of a pet who had said something mean to Shuva. She was just as protective of her brother. Kai also seemed amused by her remark, and he was already pulling back on the clothes. The trio quickly made their escape and were soon camped in a tiny cleft in the mountains that hid them from view of those below. It was a hidey-hole Ajuro had used numerous times, and the entrance was so well-hidden that he would probably congratulate a pet if they happened to find them.
After the inevitable catch-up and exchange of information, Ajuro interrupted the two pets' conversation. Kai had been the most animate the Zafara had seen yet, almost as chatty as his sixteen year old self.
"Well now that we're all together, we can finally do what the Emperor's armies have been trying to do for the better part of two years: we're going to get Shuva back."
To be continued...