GARGOYLES:

LIFE GOES ON

And in Ishimura: Just When You Thought

By Kimberly T. (email: kimbertow AT yahoo etc.)

Author's notes & disclaimer:

My apologies for taking so very long with this installment! RL issues, you know how it is…

Like nearly every fanfic writer, I don't own the canon characters, and I'm not making a dime off this. Also, any mistakes in portrayals and interpretations of Japan and Japanese culture are mine; I admit that it's been a very long time now since my days overseas.

While everyone's favorite blue female gargoyle thinks of herself as Demona at all times, in her human form she is referred to as Dominique, and the Ishimurans know her as Di-mono and Dominiko respectively; spelling/pronunciation will vary throughout the story according to POV.

In my faniverse's timeline, this story starts a week after "And in Ishimura: Secrets and Surprises," and just before the New York events of "Deadly Moon."


Demona had never seen the knot in her obi, since it was tied behind her, but she knew it was a complex one. Even after four weeks of tying it on a nightly basis, it had still taken Taiju nearly two minutes to tie the knot in the thick black obi binding her wings shut after sunset.

But untying the knot took only a few seconds, as she crouched in the center of the courtyard an hour later. After untying the knot and pulling the obi away, Taiju made a point of tossing the long black strip of cloth far to one side of the courtyard, as Demona slowly stood upright again.

She stretched luxuriously; first the left wing, then the right, stretching each out into the chill December air as far as she could before refurling them. She finished with a mighty flex that sent both wings out to their full span, and a shout of pure joy in their freedom.

Perched on the temple roof and atop the walls of the courtyard all around her, the watching Ishimuran gargoyles said nothing in response to her shout. But while silent, many of them were smiling indulgently at her obvious delight in having the use of her wings again. Their leader Kai also smiled, as he gestured for her to climb up the wall to where he was perched, saying, "Come glide with your clan, Di-mono-san!" Demona grinned from ear to ear as she nearly scampered up the wall, Taiju climbing up behind her.

Once she had reached the roof, Kai flipped his wings out and launched, and she followed him into the air a split-second later. That was the cue for everyone else to leap from their perches, and soon the clan was soaring through the night sky, with Demona in their midst; her punishment over, a full member of the Ishimuran clan once more! Her heart was so full of joy, she thought it might sprout wings of its own and fly out of her chest, to soar up to the moon.

Kado, the Ishimuran clan's healer, maneuvered to glide up alongside her and called out, "How do your wings feel?"

"Wonderful!" she replied, still grinning from ear to ear. She was tempted to prove it by doing a barrel roll on the spot, but managed—barely—to restrain herself; she was closely flanked on all sides by clan members, and it wouldn't do to crash into anyone in her ceremonial escort if they weren't ready for her aerobatics.

But the ceremonial flight of the clan was over all too soon; Kai banked and began a slow spiral back to the temple courtyard, and most of the clan mirrored his movements. Reluctantly, Demona also banked in flight and began to descend. But Kai looked over at her and said with a smile, "Di-mono-san, it occurs to me that you never did have the opportunity to explore the boundaries of our territorial lands. Yama-san, will you show her around?"

"Gladly, Kai-sama," Yama said with a wide grin, from his position on Demona's left flank. Other clan members, overhearing, shifted in flight and created an opening for them to slip out of the descending spiral, to glide off to the south.

Once they were off gliding on their own, Demona gave in to her earlier impulse and did a barrel roll, laughing for sheer joy. "Oohhhh, so wonderful! Yama, you can't know just how sweet it is to simply glide, until after you've been denied the sky for a full moon's cycle," she said as she leveled out again.

At first Yama said nothing in response, his face expressionless; then his mouth twisted into a painfully wry smile as he said, "It is even more wonderful after having been denied the sky for over five full moons."

Startled, Demona stared at him. "Over five moons?! What happened?" Yama looked away and said nothing at first, and so she hurriedly added, "I don't mean to pry; if I have overstepped the bounds of courtesy, please tell me."

After several long seconds of silence, Yama finally said, "Actually, I am somewhat surprised that you have not heard gossip about it already. I was aware that Kai, Sakaki and Hiroshi had all quietly asked that no one talk about what happened in front of you newcomers, but I truly did not expect everyone to agree, and to keep their word this long... Not so long ago, I listened to the lies of a human that I should have known better than to trust, and I placed the entire clan in danger. Thanks to my foolish idiocy, we were trapped inside a giant dome; caged for displaying, like beasts in a zoo! Only by the grace of the gods and the timely arrival of Goliath and Maza Elisa from your former clan, did we all survive what that hentaishinri, hiretsukan, usotsuki Taganaka Taro did to the clan, with my stupidly gullible aid!"

The mere mention of Goliath and that Maza slut filled Demona with such instant hurt and rage that she almost missed what Yama had said after that. But her attention was refocused by the sheer venom in Yama's voice, and the insults he used to describe that human... She asked, "You said Taganaka Taro… was he the son of Taganaka Takeo and Hiromi?"

"Hai," Yama said shortly. Then he followed that abrupt answer up with, "Understand, the clan does not blame the parents for the way their son turned out. They did the best that human parents can ever do, and their daughter Satsuki is a fine example of an honorable villager and daughter."

"I understand," Demona said, and she did. That explained part of a conversation she had overheard much earlier, just a few days into her punishment:

While walking with Hiroshi from the jail to the gatehouse as sunset approached, with her wrists bound together by a simple white ribbon, she'd passed three villagers standing in the entrance to the village's sole clothing store. One of the villagers was Ebisawa Takemi, owner of the clothing store; another was Taganaka Takeo, who owned the grocery store. The third was a young human she hadn't seen before; she'd later learned that the young man was Ebisawa Saburo, Takemi's son and a student at a university in Kyoto. Takemi and Takeo had politely ignored her passing as they talked about rising fuel prices, but Saburo had openly gawked at her until Takemi had hissed, "Did you leave your manners behind in Kyoto? Don't stare!"

Saburo had instantly averted his eyes from her, but quietly asked the two elders, "My apologies, but… she really turns into a gargoyle by night?"

"Yes."

"And as a gargoyle, she attacked poor Jiro?"

"Yes. But it was a mistake brought on by her sutoresu, after seeing most of her clan in America massacred; she thought Jiro was attacking the hatchlings! And she truly regrets her mistake; I heard that yesterday, when Jiro went to see her in the jail, she sobbed and begged his forgiveness for nearly a full hour!"

Overhearing their whispers, her cheeks had burned in humiliation, and she'd been tempted to turn and harshly correct them. Her—small loss of composure, that's all it had been! And it hadn't lasted more than a few minutes; certainly not even close to an hour! And she'd never begged Jiro's forgiveness; he'd granted it to her even before she'd said a single word to him!

But she'd known better than to give any indication that she'd overheard them at all. She'd just kept on walking with Hiroshi, to the gatehouse where she could return to her natural state in privacy. And just before she'd passed beyond earshot, she'd heard Saburo say, "Wow… it's too bad that Taro--"

And Saburo had been harshly interrupted by Taganaka Takeo. "Taro is dead! So speak no more of him!"

For some time after hearing that, she had wondered what that Taro person had done, to merit such treatment after his death. Japanese culture had the same custom that most human cultures seemed to have, of speaking no ill of the recently dead.

Now she knew: Taro had betrayed the Ishimuran gargoyle clan. And he'd been executed by the clan leader, since mere banishment wasn't enough to really get rid of human scum; or perhaps he'd been killed in the heat of anger by a betrayed gargoyle even before they could hold a trial for him. Either way, after his death, both the gargoyles and the humans of the village—a village that highly valued their alliance with the gargoyles, so very unlike the humans at old Wyvern!—all residents would naturally prefer to speak of him as little as possible. Besides the cultural taboo against saying bad things about the dead, what possible good things could they ever say about Taro that could even begin to balance his betrayal of the clan?

Yama continued, "After we put an end to Taro's scheme, my wings were bound and I was banished for three moons, for my part in what happened. In truth, it was a merciful punishment; I deserved to be banished forever."

"But… you said you were deceived by Taro into endangering your clan!" Demona protested.

"Deceived or not, I was responsible for my own actions," Yama said. "Indeed, my shame and regret for what I'd done were so great that I would have committed seppuku… Do you know that word yet?"

Demona stared at him wide-eyed. "To kill yourself."

"Yes. But Kai commanded me to live, and to return to the clan after three moons. And I did, but when I returned, my wings were broken and useless; the obi that bound them shut had been accidentally tied too tight."

"…Bound by Taiju?" Demona guessed. "That must be why he was always so careful about binding my wings."

Yama nodded. "After the obi was removed, it took several surgeries and much physical therapy—ah, do you know those words as well?" he hurriedly added; the somewhat anxious look in his eyes said he sure hoped she did, because he didn't know the right words in English.

Now it was Demona's turn to give a pained and wry smile. "I believe so, from listening to others describe what poor Jiro has been going through. 'Surgery' is when the body is cut open by a healer, and 'physical therapy' is moving limbs to help them heal better, yes?"

"Correct," he nodded again. "And it took three surgeries and two full months of physical therapy to restore my wings enough that I could glide again. So yes, I know well how joyful that first flight is. And I also know that sheer joy can make one want to do more than the wings are really ready for, after being confined so long," as he gave her wings a meaningful look. "Di-mono, there is no shame in returning to the village before we have seen all the boundaries, if you begin to tire. Indeed, Kado and Kawa were looking rather anxious when we left, though they did not countermand Kai's suggestion."

Demona smiled. "I appreciate the concern, but I am sure my wings are up to gliding the distances. It might have been improper, but after going into the gatehouse each sunrise and before coming out each sunset, I would flex each wing once, as much as the small space would allow. And the spell that turns me to human and back is very painful, but it does heal minor injuries, much like stone sleep. So there are no ill effects at all from having my wings bound; I could glide all night!"

Yama chuckled. "Sorry to disappoint you, but it will take only a few hours to glide the boundaries of the lands we protect. In fact, we are already approaching the southern edge of our protectorate." He pointed towards the horizon as he continued, "See in the distance, that large boulder with a small stand of cedar trees next to it? We use that for a boundary marker…"

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After the ceremony, most of the clan dispersed to their normal duties. As they were storing their ceremonial robes in the temple until the next formal occasion, Kai commented to Taiju with a smile, "No need for sake tonight, eh? Our Di-mono is out getting drunk on thin air, with a grin as wide as her wingspan. Did you see that barrel roll, once she was in the clear?"

"I did indeed," Taiju smiled back. "I admit, I'm relieved to know that the wing-binding did her no harm at all. After Yama…"

"Yama's banishing was the first time either of us had ever dealt with more than a minor punishment, and the scrolls we read said nothing about what could happen if the obi was tied too tight. Yama glides as well as ever now, he bears you no grudge for your mistake, and it's long past time you forgave yourself for it," Kai chided his second-in-command.

Fukuda Hiroshi and Sakaguchi Jiro had also witnessed the ceremony, and were talking outside the temple with Sakaki and the elder gargoyle Morin, who taught history (of Japan in general, and the Ishimuran clan in particular) to the gakuto. Morin was saying to Hiroshi and Jiro, "You and Kai were right; it's better in this case to hold the two ceremonies separately. Di-mono was so very glad to be given the sky again, that keeping her on the ground for a tea ceremony after her wings were freed would not have been good; she likely would have fidgeted all through the ceremony."

"And there is another reason for holding the tea ceremony during the day," Jiro put in. "The whole village saw her Dominiko self in the jail, as a prisoner; to have her at a tea ceremony as Dominiko, allows Di-mono's other form to gain face once more."

Morin smiled ruefully. "If that kitsune's gift of human-by-day carries through to any future generations of hatchlings, we're going to have to come up with a whole new set of traditions for them."

Sakaki asked Jiro, "Will you come to the rookery to see the hatchlings? They've been asking about you…"

Jiro smiled, though it was hard to tell under the bandages still covering more than half his face. "How kind of them! Yes, I'll come see them. By the way, I believe my niece and nephew brought back some souvenirs for the hatchlings from Disneyland Tokyo, but they haven't been unpacked yet."

Kai and Taju came out of the temple and joined the small gathering. "Jiro, it is good to see you!" Kai said with a smile. "How went the surgery in Tokyo?"

Jiro shrugged as he leaned on his cane. "The doctors say it went well, but no one will see an improvement for at least a few days, until after the swelling goes down. And there are two more surgeries yet to go, but they say that when they are done, I will look even better than I did before."

"And the whole village will appreciate the improvement," Hiroshi teased him.

"Yes, indeed! I will be a movie star! So handsome that women will come running from hundreds of kilometers away, just to fall at my feet!" Jiro said as he struck a dramatic pose, and everyone laughed.

"And your arm and leg?" Taiju asked Jiro, after the chuckles had died down. "I had thought the injuries to your leg were minor, but if you still need a cane…"

"Eh, my leg is fine now; the cane is there only because healing takes much of my energy, so I grow tired faster," Jiro said with a shrug. "And my arm is much better; before the ceremony, Kado came to see for himself how much the physical therapy has improved me. I asked him when I would be able to play and win baseball games again… but he said that he didn't know, since I'd never played it well before!" he finished, garnering a few more chuckles.

"Where is Mayor Masamune?" Kai asked, looking around. "I thought I'd seen him here before the ceremony, but he wasn't in your section when everyone was assembled."

Hiroshi frowned. "That new cell phone of his rang, just before the ceremony, and he went off to answer it privately. He expected it to be concerning… something unpleasant."

"Unpleasant?" Morin echoed, with a mild frown on her wrinkled features. Her frown was of confusion, but Sakaki's frown was definitely worried.

Kai glanced at the clan elder, then at Jiro, and said aloud, "I can trust everyone here to be discreet. Go ahead and say it, Hiroshi."

Hiroshi nodded to the clan leader, then said for everyone's benefit, "The phone call was probably concerning… the dome built by Taganaka Taro."

At mention of that name, everyone in the group frowned, or even bared their fangs in scowls. After his scheme to trap the gargoyles and use them for an amusement park attraction had failed, Taro had fled not just Ishimura but the entire prefecture, retreating back to his corporation's headquarters in Tokyo.

Taro's company had suffered after the newspapers had ruthlessly mocked his amusement park and the 'imaginary gargoyles' that Hiroshi and their visitor Maza Elisa had cheerfully lied to the press about, but the setback hadn't lasted long. Taganaka Inc.'s stocks had begun climbing again, after two of his closest competitors had also suffered disastrous setbacks; one company had lost their main warehouse in a fire (arson was suspected but could not be proven), and another company's CEO had died in a private plane crash (reason for crash still unknown.)

After Hiroshi had found the tapes that Taro had made to deceive Yama, splicing together the innocuous conversations of several villagers to make it seem like they wanted to be rid of the gargoyles, at least half the adults in the village had sent Taro letters condemning him for his actions and challenging him to answer for what he'd done. Hiroshi had sent him a copy of the arrest warrant that had been filled out on him; if Taro ever set foot in Ishimura again, he'd be arrested on the spot on charges of fraud.

Taganaka Takeo, Taro's father, had dealt the worst blow of all: he'd sent formal notice of a death in the family. The death of Taro himself; the Taganaka family had held a funeral for their son, declaring him dead to them.

After such dishonor, public shaming and bitter condemnation, anyone with even the slightest trace of honor would have committed seppuku. But Taro had apparently ignored them all as not worth his attention; not worth even a moment of personal concern. And the bitter truth was, there was nothing that the village could actually do to him.

The arrest warrant for fraud charges could not be sent to the Tokyo police, to have Taganaka Taro arrested and extradited to the village; any official questions about who had actually been deceived would lead to exposure of the gargoyles for sure. The half-dozen villagers who'd been attacked by Taro's team of hired ninjas, those who had stolen the gargoyles' statues and transported them to the great dome, had asked if Taro could be at least arrested on charges of assault and battery. But only Maza Elisa, who had left the country, had actually seen Taro directing the assault; everyone else had been taken from behind and knocked unconscious before they could see who was in charge, and none of the ninjas had been captured and made to talk about who they were working for. And again, any questions about the reasons for the assault would lead to exposure of the gargoyles. All the village could collectively do was condemn him from afar, and fervently hope that he never tried any other schemes concerning the gargoyles, ever again.

And for most of the last eight months, Taro hadn't done anything that meant ill towards the gargoyles, at least not that they could tell. Everyone had begun to relax, thinking that Taro had decided that the gargoyles were far more trouble than they were worth as tourist attractions, and would stick to strictly human business dealings far from Ishimura from then on.

Then three days ago, Hiroshi had driven past the great dome that Taro had built, which had been abandoned after his scheme was foiled… and seen signs of work done there recently.

An immediate search of the public databases had revealed that the property had been sold by Taganaka Inc. to another company; a foreign-based business that went by the odd name of Light Lime. They had offices in Great Britain, Japan, Switzerland and the United States, and were involved in shipping… and that was all anyone could find out about the privately owned company. Hiroshi and the village mayor feared that Light Lime was just a shell corporation that Taro had created for the purpose of publicly distancing himself from his failed scheme, while secretly starting his scheming again.

Hiroshi, the mayor and Kai had all agreed to keep the news about the dome quiet for now; they didn't want to cause unrest and new worries in the populace, when there might be some entirely innocent reason for the foreign company to buy the dome. Kai had already confided in Taiju and his mate Sakaki, so Hiroshi brought Morin and Jiro up to speed, then told everyone, "The mayor knows someone in Osaka who knows someone else, who might be able to find out more about the Light Lime company than is available to the public. An information broker; someone who makes their livelihood from uncovering others' secrets and selling them."

Kai scowled. "Not an honorable profession."

"Regrettably, no. But to protect everyone in this village, we may have to resort to dealing with less than honorable people. The mayor told me he was trying to get in direct contact with the information broker, to negotiate a price for the information we need."

"Here comes the mayor now," Taiju said as he looked over to the left, from where the mayor was approaching.

Mayor Masamune Ichiro joined the small gathering, apologized to everyone for missing the ceremony that freed Di-mono's wings, and asked if it had gone well. "I would invite you to see for yourself, but they have glided out of your range of vision now," Kai said as he gestured skywards with a brief smile. "Her wings are in perfect condition, so Yama is showing her the boundaries of our protectorate."

"In perfect condition? That's good news… and I wish I had good news to share in return. Has Hiroshi told you about my seeking an information broker, to get news of who is behind the recent work on the dome?"

"He told us about it just now. Were you able to contact him? And if so, what price is he asking?" Kai asked.

The mayor frowned. "Yes, I've just been in contact with him… and he wants one hundred fifty thousand yen.* For that price, he guarantees he'll provide us with the full plans for the dome, what purpose they are rebuilding it for, as well as the names and home countries of every executive in the company."

"That much?! …Well, we already knew he was less than honorable, just by his profession," Kai said, shaking his head.

"Can we afford to pay that much?" Taiju asked Kai and the mayor together.

"Can we afford not to?" Kai retorted. To the mayor he said, "We can scrape that much out of the budget, but please try again to negotiate for a lower price. We don't want this seller of secrets to know just how badly we need this information, or he might become curious as to just why we need it. If he decides that this village has a secret of its own that might be worth selling…!"

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When he had finished showing her the boundaries of the clan's land-based territory, Yama half-expected Di-mono to request that they glide out to sea, so he could show her the rest of the clan's protectorate. Since much of their food came from fishing, the clan included in their territory an expanse of the ocean that was easily twice the size of the land they protected. But she didn't, for which he was glad; the clan had strict rules about no one going more than a few meters offshore until after they'd proven themselves good swimmers as well as gliders, and Yama had no idea if Di-mono could swim at all. If she'd asked, he would have had to tell her it was forbidden to her until after she'd passed the head fisher Hyoukai's swimming tests, and that would have ended the tour on a sad note instead of a happy one.

Di-mono glanced up at the position of the moon as they turned back towards the village, and Yama surmised that she was gauging the time. "It is not yet midnight," he told her. "There is still time for you to call your company in New York."

She seemed about to protest, then gave in and smiled ruefully. "Am I that obvious?"

He chuckled. "Not by your expression, if that is what you mean, but while you were wing-bound you were allowed to call your company each night at midnight, just before coming to me for language lessons. It is not surprising that your employees in New York are now expecting you to call them at that time."

Di-mono nodded, then admitted, "It bothers me, that I've become so… so bound by my human guise's business affairs. A few years ago, if anyone had told me I would be running a human corporation and concerned with profits and business assets, I would have laughed in their faces."

"A few years ago, you hadn't met that kitsune that called himself Puk, or been in need of his help to stay sane and alive. And I'd say you have adapted quite well to the gift he gave you, the spell to turn human by day; we all survive by adapting to changes," he reminded her. "As for worries about profits and assets, do you think you're the only gargoyle that thinks in those terms? Every quarter-year, Kai sits with the mayor and the village's accountant, to determine what changes need to be made in the budget. Even if we live in secrecy from the outside world, we Ishimurans are no strangers to money matters."

Yama idly wondered if her company Nightstone would open branch offices in Japan, now that Di-mono and her human side Dominiko could speak the language passably well. She really was learning Nihongo at an astonishing rate, far faster than Yama was learning English; after just five weeks of study, she could understand and be understood in most conversations, and only rarely had to ask the meaning of everyday words. Several people in the clan had complimented Yama on his teaching skills, but he thought the credit really belonged to Hiroshi and the human villagers who had been teaching her during the daylight hours.

They parted ways, once they passed over the village walls; Di-mono to go to the constabulary, and Yama to head for the artists' workshop, to check on his charges there. Before the wings-freeing ceremony, Kai had let him know that if Demona's wings were up to gliding long distances, he'd be the one to show her the boundaries. But that conflicted with one of Yama's other duties, one he had been given soon after returning from America: Kai had made him the primary instructor of Bushido to the clan's human students, Deguchi Maseo and Yugebe Mikiko.

The elder Jado had been teaching the human children Bushido, but had gladly stepped aside, saying that Yama's experiences in the last year had made him a much more suitable sensei for Bushido and besides, he was too old to keep dealing with such rambunctious youngsters. Yama loved teaching, and found that Maseo and Mikiko were excellent students; they had settled into a schedule of learning Bushido with him every weekday evening until midnight, at which time he would send them home and prepare for his language lessons with Di-mono.

Since showing Di-mono the boundaries of their protectorate would take up most if not all of the time he normally taught Bushido to his students, Yama had asked whom Kai had selected to teach in his stead that night. But Kai had decided that instead of lessons in Bushido, tonight the two human children would be allowed into the artist's workshop, to serve as helpers to the clan artists and to make some artwork of their own. "Eh… Kai-sama, I was not present in the village the last time they were allowed in the workshop, but I know what happened then because people were still talking about it when I returned from exile!" Yama had said. "Has six months been long enough for Yanagi's temper to cool down?"

"It had better be long enough," Kai had responded with a raised brow ridge. "What happened was an accident, one that any hatchling in the same situation might have caused; there is no reason for her to carry a grudge past the time it took to replace what was ruined."

Yama had been very tempted to retort, "Since when does Yanagi need a reason?" Their rookery sister was both stunningly beautiful and a brilliant artist, and when she was in a good mood she could brighten a room just by walking into it. But she was also notorious for being quick to anger, and slow to forgive. But Kai was right about the circumstances, and besides, human children grew so quickly that both Maseo and Mikiko had matured a little in the last few months. And they surely wouldn't make the same mistakes twice, not after experiencing first-hand one of Yanagi's infamous tirades.

So Yama had gone out with Di-mono (and it had not been a courting flight, despite that faint whisper he'd heard on the breezes chasing them as they'd left the clan behind; he and Di-mono were just friends! Besides, he'd only been following his clan leader's wishes!), with no real concerns about how Maseo and Mikiko were doing. Now he was looking for them only because he was curious to see what the children had drawn or painted, with access to finer art supplies than they were apt to have in the human primary school. Mikiko had the average amount of skill at drawing for a human child of her age, but Maseo was already exhibiting real artistic talent, with his sketches of samurai and gargoyle warriors that he showed to Yama on a regular basis.

The night before, Yama had ended their Bushido lesson on a playful note by telling them the old rookery story about the River Dragon and the Laughing Kirin, and the children had both been greatly enamored of the story, if disagreeing about which character was better. Mikiko had insisted that the kirin was totally awesome, while Maseo had staunchly defended the river dragon's superiority. Yama had a bet with himself that he'd find the two children had not only behaved themselves perfectly in the workshop, they'd each drawn their favorite characters from the story.

But he should have known better than to make bets with anyone, even himself; he almost always lost. Even as he stepped through the doorway, he heard Yanagi's voice raised in anger: "…are you determined to get yourself in trouble with your parents, and with the clan leader?! Or are you color-blind?! Or perhaps merely stupid?! You--"

Before Yanagi could finish her next insult, Yama leaped forward and snapped his wings out, interposing between her and the cowering Maseo. "Enough, Yanagi-san!" he barked right in her face, as his wings hid the child from her view. "Kai-sama made me the children's sensei, so I am responsible for them; if you have an issue with them, you talk to me!" He bared fangs at her until she backed off slightly, then said with forced politeness, "Now, what seems to be the issue tonight?"

"Your student has ruined one of our paintings in progress; that is the issue! Just look at this!" as Yanagi led him over to an easel, then pointed at the half-finished painting of a three-tailed kitsune dancing. "I sent Maseo to get more of the 'Sweet Ginger' color for this painting from the storeroom, after I ran out. And I graciously allowed him to paint the kitsune's third tail while I worked on another painting, after he swore on his ancestors that his brush wouldn't stray outside that one strip. Now see what that willful child's oath is worth! Even after the paint has dried, the third tail doesn't match the others; it's a different shade! He used the wrong color, and the painting is ruined!"

Yama held out his hand. "Let's see the paint tubes. The one you started the painting with, and the one Maseo got from storage." Both tubes were fetched, one from the wastebasket and the other from where it had been thrown violently into the sink used for cleaning brushes. Yama examined them and said, "They're both from the same manufacturer, and both have 'Sweet Ginger' written on them. But the manufacturing dates are over six years apart. Sometime during the last six years, the paint manufacturers must have changed the formula, or even changed their minds about what color sweet ginger should be. The fault is not Maseo's."

"But the painting is ruined!"

Yama slapped the tubes into Yanagi's hand. "That's your problem. And you should know as well as I do that the painting might be fixed by squeezing out the dregs of the old tube to blend with the new paint, and redoing all the tails. Perhaps if you'd stopped to think for a moment before you started shouting, my students would have helped you blend the colors together, but now you can do it all yourself! Come, children," as he turned his back on the fuming female and beckoned to them. "I have heard that Shoufuu has made a new variety of dumpling, and is looking for taste-testers…"

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When Demona arrived at the constabulary, Hiroshi was waiting for her with a welcoming smile. He informed her that if she'd come for the fine bed linens that had been in her prison cell, she was too late, because Mrs. Yugebe had already collected them; they would be laundered and put back in the family's spare room that 'Desatina Dominiko' used for sleeping in during the day. "Yugebe Haruko is really too kind to me," Demona said with a smile. "But for now, may I use your telephone again?"

"Of course," Hiroshi said as he gestured for her to go to the back room that she used for privacy during the long-distance calls with her assistant Candace about Nightstone's daily operations.

Nightstone Unlimited had prospered in the last month, despite the CEO's absence from everyday affairs. Every report that Candace had given her over the last five weeks had been generally positive, with only minor setbacks or issues that her executives were usually able to resolve within a day or two. But tonight, Demona's feeling of overall joy was dampened by bad news from the Research and Development division: the research scientist Anton Sevarius and one of his lab assistants were missing.

Another of Sevarius's assistants, Thomas Landry, had reported to work as usual that morning but almost immediately gone home again, with a raging case of diarrhea and stomach cramps. Several people in the building had come down with the illness, which had been traced to the biscotti's that had been sold by the coffee vendor outside Nightstone's main entrance; the city health inspector had already suspended the vendor's license.

Three hours after Landry had left, the security cameras in Research & Development Lab 6 showed Sevarius's other lab assistant, Clifford Stiger, suddenly doubling over after drinking from a water bottle. Doubling over and crying out in pain, while Sevarius, instead of going to his assistance, quickly ran to the other side of the laboratory… and then the camera had shut down.

At the same time that the camera had shut down, over two dozen computers on the floor directly over R&D 6 had shut down, some of them with showers of sparks coming from their CPU's, and the automated sprinkler system had come on. The building maintenance supervisor had theorized that something had generated a fair-sized EMP, an electro-magnetic pulse that had shut down or burned out all the sensitive electronics within range.

It had taken over an hour for the resulting chaos to be restored to order. By the time anyone had thought to check on the laboratory one floor down, there was no sign of either Sevarius or Stiger. Much of the equipment and the walls were spattered with some black viscous fluid; the head of R&D 3 was analyzing it now…

Demona did not say it to Candace, but she had a strong hunch that the black viscous fluid was all that was left of Stiger.

Landry and Stiger had been on the payroll as lab technicians, but were really highly educated and ruthless security guards. She had hired them to keep an eye on Sevarius and make sure he did nothing in his experiments that would sabotage Nightstone, and to prevent any attempts to escape the on-site 'gilded cage' that Dominique Destine had put him in. But Sevarius must have come up with a plan of escape after all, and been waiting for the right opportunity to use it.

Demona silently berated herself for not having killed Sevarius while she'd still been in America. If the human hadn't been such a genius of biochemistry, she would have done it months ago! But he'd been clever enough to come up with the CV-1000 carrier virus, and he'd been her best hope of finding some way to accelerate the healing/rebuilding process for the Praying Gargoyle, to restore it to full function in far less time than 60 years…

Her bad mood persisted through the rest of the phone conversation, despite nearly all the other reports Candace had for her being of good profits and successful business deals. Still brooding after ending the phone call, she went outside and nearly ran right into Kai, who had been outside the constabulary waiting for her. "Has something unfortunate happened in America, Di-mono-san?" he asked with a raised brow ridge as he took in her scowling face.

"Yes, but there is nothing that I can do about it over the telephone… and ultimately it is only a minor business matter; Nightstone will recover soon enough," Demona said, realizing its truth even as she said it. "I hope my human guise's affairs didn't keep you waiting long, Kai-sama?"

"Not long at all," he assured her. "Now that your punishment is over, it is time to discuss and decide upon your normal duties within the clan. Have you any preferences?"

Yama had discussed the subject with her before, while giving her Nihongo lessons. The clan could always use another fisher, but going out to sea on a regular basis would interfere with her phone conferences with Nightstone. She had no real artistic talent, so joining the crafters and artisans that created artworks for selling in the big cities was also unfeasible. The same went for joining the gargoyles who prepared meals for the clan; in all her centuries of living, Demona had never bothered to learn how to cook. Even if she was so inclined, it was the wrong season to help the farmers in the fields, pulling weeds by night and keeping vermin from plaguing the crops; during the winter months, the farming gargoyles helped other clan members in their duties. And after attacking and nearly killing Sakaguchi Jiro right in front of the hatchlings, Demona already knew she wouldn't be welcomed back into the rookery, not that she had the patience to be a rookery keeper anyway. So she said to Kai, "I would prefer to be a warrior; patrolling the protectorate that Yama has shown me tonight."

Kai nodded and told her that he agreed, and that he'd already picked out a patrol partner for her. Demona gave a small smile as she guessed aloud, "Yama?" It had not escaped her attention how so many people in the clan seemed intent on pairing them together.

But to her mild surprise, Kai shook his head and said that instead he had chosen for her partner the young warrior Kaze. "Kaze volunteered nearly three weeks ago to partner with you, if you chose to be a warrior. I believe she is also interested in learning English, which you could help her with on those nights when you are standing as sentries instead of patrolling the lands." Then he said with a twinkle in his eyes, "However, Kaze's patrol and sentry duties end at the same time of night as Yama's regular duties. There will be plenty of time for you and Yama to see each other, if you are inclined…"

So Demona went off to find Kaze; Kai had said she would probably be found in the artisans' workshop, as her best friend Mizuumi was an artisan and was currently working on a complex tapestry. And sure enough, Demona found Kaze chatting with Mizuumi while helping to sort out threads for weaving into the tapestry. The two young females didn't notice her entrance, being bent over the basket of threads with their heads together, deep in conversation… about her and Yama, as she found out when she came close enough to overhear. Mizuumi was saying, "…still too soon for Yama to start courting Di-mono, even if she turns out to be the right one for him."

"Of course she's the right one for him!" Kaze insisted. "It's like the Seven Lucky Gods arranged for them to meet; they have so much in common! It's not just that she's a Yankee, and Yama has always been fascinated by Yankees. They've both been banished by their fellow gargoyles because of what treacherous humans did to their clans…"

"That's really stretching the point, isn't it?" Mizuumi said. "Di-mono went on a vengeance hunt after most of her clan was murdered, hunting for the human who betrayed them, and she didn't stop until after she'd caused the death of an innocent human as well. That's not at all like Yama, who was deceived by the lies of a treacherous scum-eater and all the false evidence he'd concocted; Di-mono didn't help betray her clan in the first place!"

Demona winced.

Still unaware of the eavesdropping, Kaze conceded, "Yes, their circumstances were different, but they were both banished, and they were both dismated in the process! They've both been so lonely, but now they can help each other find happiness again!"

Demona paused when she overheard that. Yama had been dismated when he'd been banished? But who had his mate been? Surely a mean-spirited and harsh female, to not take Yama back after he'd been clearly welcomed back to the clan with full honors, and was now held in high regard by the average clan member. Or had she been ready to welcome him back as well, but tragically died while he had still been in exile?

Just then, another female passed brusquely by Demona and strode right up to the chatting youngsters. A slender and ivory-skinned female of Yama's generation, with delicate features, dactyl wings and a spade-tipped tail; Demona had just remembered her name was Yanagi, when she spoke in an ice-cold voice. "Kaze, is it not time for you to begin your patrol duties? You have been in here distracting Mizuumi—and the rest of us, with your magpie chatter—long enough for tonight."

Mizuumi and Kaze both flushed, as Kaze scrambled to her feet and profusely apologized for the distraction, before noticing Demona with chagrin. But Yanagi ignored both the apology and Demona's presence as she leaned close to inspect Mizuumi's work. The tapestry was of a landscape, with a flock of cranes flying over a temple that was surrounded by cherry trees in blossom; Demona thought it looked lovely. But Yanagi scowled as she pointed at one small spot on the tapestry, near where Mizuumi had been working. "What is that supposed to be?"

"It is a crane, Yanagi-san," Mizuumi said timidly.

"A crane? The neck is too short; it looks like a long-legged chicken!" Yanagi scoffed. "Do you intend to insult the intelligence and artistic appreciation of the people who buy our work? Or do you intend for this tapestry to not sell at all?" Mizuumi blushed even more, bowing her head as Yanagi continued, "You are lucky that I found this error while it can still be fixed—and you will fix it tonight, before your dinner!"

Yanagi was still on a tirade as Kaze wordlessly urged Demona outside, and they left as quickly as they could. Once they were outside, Demona felt compelled to ask, "Is Yanagi always so… strict, about the art the clan makes?" She remembered well being on the receiving end of such tirades from the Archmage, when she had been his apprentice, but the circumstances had been different; a tiny mistake in a magic spell could have disastrous, even fatal results. But Mizuumi's work was just a wall hanging, and over a dozen cranes in flight had been woven into the tapestry already. Did one small and barely-noticeable mistake usually merit such harsh treatment?

Kaze nodded glumly. "She has good reason for it; the humans who take our work to sell in galleries have said how much competition there is among artists. If not for such high standards, we would sell very little art or none at all, instead of making enough money to help feed the clan. So Yanagi demands perfection in every brush stroke and every thread, and she does not forgive mistakes. And if she overheard Mizuumi and me talking about Yama just now, well, that probably made her even more angry…" Demona was about to ask her what she meant by that last remark, when Kaze turned unexpectedly. "Please pardon the detour, but I must stop by the kitchen and ask the cooks to set a tray aside for Mizuumi to eat later. It will take her hours to unravel the tapestry enough to fix the mistake, then restore all her later work; she'll miss dinner for sure."

Demona went with Kaze to the kitchen, where Kaze explained Mizuumi's situation to the cooks. The head cook Shoufuu nodded and agreed to set a tray aside, clearly used to such requests, before urging each of them to have a dumpling before leaving on patrol; Shoufuu had been experimenting with the recipe, and wanted a few more opinions on the results before making large enough quantities to feed the whole clan. Neither Kaze nor Demona could figure out what the added ingredient was, but they both agreed it was very tasty and asked for seconds, as Shoufuu beamed with pride.

After leaving the kitchen they went to the temple, where they picked up a two-way radio that would be used on patrol. But on their way out, they met an elderly gargoyle that Demona recognized as Miya, the one who had given her a kimono to wear during the welcoming party when she'd first arrived in Ishimura. Miya bowed to them, and they both bowed very low to her to show their respect for the elder. After straightening up, Miya asked pleasantly, "Di-mono-san, would you care to join me and my mate Setsu for tea in the hour before dawn?"

"I would be most honored, Miya-dono," Demona said with another bow.

As they continued on their way to the village's northern wall and the common launching point for patrollers, Kaze offered, "I can help you fix your hair for the tea ceremony, if you like. And is the kimono that you were given on your arrival all clean and ready to wear? If not, we can run to see Udo, and ask him to clean and press it while we're on patrol. Or I could loan you my formal kimono, but it would be better if you could wear the one you were given."

"How formal will this tea ceremony be?" Demona asked.

"Miya would say it's not formal at all, but you need to look your best anyway!" Kaze assured her. "You see, Miya was once our head rookery keeper, and when he was a hatchling Yama was one of her favorites." When Demona looked puzzled at the apparent non-sequitor, Kaze explained further, "Now that you can understand us and be understood, Miya wants to talk to you and find out for herself if you and Yama are truly compatible with each other."

Demona rolled her eyes. Again with the matchmaking?! "Kaze-san, I… pardon me, but I must say this. I find Yama very nice, he is clever and kind and an excellent warrior, and he has become a good friend. And perhaps someday, just possibly, he and I might speak of being more than friends. But the Breeding Moon is not next week, and I do not see any reason for us to rush into an agreement to breed an egg for the clan, let alone become lifelong mates!"

Kaze blushed slightly as she allowed, "True, there is some time left before the Breeding Moon. But it is coming soon, less than a year away now… and in any case, you do not want to have Miya cross with you, for any reason. She has great influence over more than just Yama."

Demona ruefully reflected that as much as she had missed having a clan around her, she hadn't missed the internal politics. And while she was still tempted to ask Kaze who Yama had been mated to before his banishment, she kept her mouth shut and her curiosity at bay. She had the sinking feeling that if she showed any interest in Yama's past at all, everyone would take that as a sign of incipient romance.

After they had reached and scaled the village's north wall, she and Kaze leaped out together to begin their patrol. Two clan members who had just finished patrolling the northern sector, two she recognized as Kumo and Kyuuka, waved to them as they passed each other in midair. "All quiet," Kumo called out in report, adding, "Welcome to warrior duties, Di-mono!"

Demona had expected Kaze to keep up her silly chattering about romance, but found to her pleasant surprise that the youngster was actually a good patrol partner, who took her duties seriously and kept her mind focused on the patrol. While Yama had pointed out the major landmarks on the earlier tour, Kaze showed Demona all the minor landmarks and details that they had to pay attention to in the northern sector.

After centuries of peace, the clan was not overly worried about attacks by marauding bands, but they were always on guard against thieves and individuals who meant harm, and against strangers in general. "Tomorrow, ask Hiroshi to give you the list of car models and license plate numbers you'll need to memorize," Kaze advised her. "We keep track of every car in the village, so if we see a stranger's car approaching on either of the roads leading in, we call the temple on our radios; then the drummers will beat the taiko, that drum in the temple that's nearly as big as Kai, in the rhythm that tells everyone to get to cover."

"And if someone doesn't get to cover in time, and a stranger sees a gargoyle?" Demona asked. "What do you do with the bodies?"

"Bodies?!" Kaze was so startled by the question, she almost glided into a treetop. "Great Buddha, we don't kill anyone if we can help it! We haven't executed anyone just for discovering us in well over a century! No, instead we slip them some genkakuzai –ah, that is a drug that makes people see things that aren't there—and then everyone around them acts crazy, but so calmly and in such an ordinary fashion that instead the strangers think they're the ones who've gone crazy. Then they're drugged completely unconscious, so when they wake up the next morning, they think that they just dreamed up the whole thing."

Demona frowned, but said nothing as they continued on their patrol. They saw no strange vehicles on the road that night, nor any strangers lurking in the woods; the only incident of note was when they saw and smelled a plume of smoke rising from behind a boulder. They cautiously investigated, then quickly put out a small fire that had been burning in the pine needles on the lee side of the boulder, where no snow had fallen.

Kaze scowled as she found the fire's source, a cigarette that hadn't been stamped out, then sniffed and peered closely at the footprints leading to and away from the boulder. "It's the Asuhara twins again! Their parents have told them not to smoke and everyone in the village knows it, so those little tengu snuck out here to do it! If there wasn't so much snow on the ground right now, this could have spread to the trees and become a bad fire indeed… This time we won't just tell the parents; they'll have to kneel in front of Kai and explain themselves."

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Kumo walked into the kitchens, looking for Shoufuu; the clan's head cook was also one of the most knowledgeable people in the clan about the current gossip, since people often chatted while they ate. When he found Shoufuu, he asked without preamble, "What happened to Yanagi tonight? When I left my mate to go on patrol, she was all sweet moonlight, but now she's a thunderstorm!"

"Why not ask her yourself?" Shoufuu said as he looked up from the pot he was stirring.

"You're kidding, right?" Kumo rolled his eyes. "I did ask her, and what was her response? The most dangerous utterance of 'nothing's wrong' that has ever been heard. You know; the 'nothing's wrong' that means 'of course something's wrong, but I'm not going to tell you, and if you ask me again you're in deep trouble'." Shoufuu nodded, knowing exactly what he meant, as Kumo continued, "Which means I have to find out what happened and fix it now, before I end up being told to perch somewhere else for the rest of the week!"

"You might as well start scouting a good backup perch. One of Yanagi's paintings in progress was changed slightly from what she'd intended, by Yama's student Maseo. When she lost her temper and started chewing Maseo's ears off, Yama said the child had been doing exactly as she said, so it wasn't really Maseo's fault." When Kumo winced, Shoufuu added, "It gets worse. Yama was right, and everyone in the workshop knows it."

"Oh, chikoshou," Kumo groaned, rubbing his brow ridges. He loved his mate dearly, but he also knew her too well. She was always slow to forgive those who offended her, but what was hardest for her to get over was being publicly caught in the wrong, about anything. He privately thought that was one of the reasons Yanagi had chosen him for a mate instead of Yama; they'd both been courting her when they were all gakuto together, but Yama had made the mistake of correcting Yanagi's mistakes in class once too often. But getting a physics question wrong was worth only a minor huff. To be caught in the wrong when it concerned art… "It's going to take a lot of sweets, to get her smiling again. No, it'll take sweets and some poetry, and a fresh kill caught just for her!"

Shoufuu nodded in agreement. "You get the fresh kill; I'll have some sweets ready for giving to her by the time you get back. I don't suppose you've written any new poems that you've been holding back for occasions like this?" When Kumo miserably shook his head, Shoufuu suggested, "Go see if Yasou has any new books of poetry in her library…"

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After their patrol was over they returned to the village, and Demona, with a longsuffering sigh, let Kaze help her prepare for the tea ceremony. The kimono was clean and ready, and Kaze gave her two under-garments to wear with it; the specially-padded hadajuban and a heavy nagajuban, both modified for a gargoyle to wear. Kaze helped Demona put all the layers on, then told her to hold still while she tied the obi in place with some knot that must have been extremely formal, since it took over ten minutes and three tries to get just right. "I'll be having tea again this afternoon, with Jiro, and I already know that will be a formal ceremony," Demona commented as Kaze worked on her red mane, wincing as the comb was dragged through yet another tangle.

"Oh, that will be much more formal than this one!" Kaze assured her. "You should ask Mrs. Ebisawa if she'll let you borrow her furisode kimono; it's the fanciest in the whole village, and since she doesn't have any daughters to pass it on to, she sometimes lets the girls from the poorer families borrow it for special ceremonies. And you should ask Mrs. Yugebe to wake you up from your flesh-sleeping at least two hours ahead of time, to get dressed and ready. Oh, and if he's home in the afternoon, ask if Mr. Yugebe would help you with the obi; it's funny, but he's even better at obi-tying than Mrs. Yugebe is. He taught me how to tie an obi in the Yanoji Musubi style…"

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Kaze had been right; when Demona had shown up for the tea ceremony with her wild red mane bound tightly in a traditional Japanese style, and wrapped in so many layers of clothing she could hardly breathe, Miya had protested that Di-mono-san hadn't needed to dress up so much for just having tea with two old people. But she and her mate Setsu were also wearing excruciatingly formal attire for the occasion, and the first ten minutes of the party were spent in the carefully precise rituals of brewing and serving the tea.

Demona watched closely every moment that Miya made; Hiroshi and the schoolteacher Mrs. Uematsu had been coaching her on how to properly brew and serve tea ever since the date for the tea ceremony with Jiro had been set, but she'd never seen the ceremony performed by gargoyles before. But Miya's actions perfectly mirrored the ritual the humans had been doing. She was slightly disappointed once more that the gargoyles had chosen to imitate the humans they lived with, instead of coming up with their own version of the ceremony.

Once the tea had been served in the delicate ceramic cups and the first sips had been taken, Setsu settled back and visibly relaxed, plainly glad that the most formal part of the ceremony was over. Miya also relaxed slightly… but Demona marked the way the elder's dark eyes were fixed on her, and knew in her guts that the formal ceremony had been the easy part.

And she was right; for the next half hour, Miya grilled Demona on how she'd been brought up, and for details of her adult life and duties in her former clan. Her mind shifted into high gear, spinning a fine web of half-truths and white lies that supported the impression the clan already had of her; that she was just over threescore years of age instead of well over a thousand years old, and her clan had lived in secrecy and in an uneasy peace with some humans in modern America, before the slaughter that had occurred only three years ago. She knew she had to instantly memorize every detail she made up, so she tried to keep the false details to a minimum, without being vague enough to raise suspicions.

Demona also countered Miya's grilling with questions about Ishimura, and about Miya's life as a rookery keeper and Setsu's life as a warrior and martial arts instructor. Fortunately, the old male was susceptible to flattery and needed very little persuasion to begin talking about the martial disciplines he had mastered, and about the students he'd taught. Miya was more stubborn in her focus, but eventually she too began to talk more about her rookery keeper days and the hatchlings she had raised, including Yama.

"He was such a little scamp, always curious," Miya sighed in reminiscence. "Always running here and there, wanting to know everything about what was going on, and more often than not, dragging Kai along with him. Those two were nearly inseparable as hatchlings. The only times Yama wasn't with Kai, were when he was running after Yanagi, trying to get her attention and show her some new wonder he'd found. Yama and Yanagi were so cute together… I remember the very first poem that Yama wrote was for her, praising her delicate features… Well. Di-mono-san, are you fond of poetry? Have you ever written any poems?"

Demona replied quite truthfully that she'd never had a talent for writing poetry, then half-lied that she did appreciate poetry and particularly the elegant grace of the haiku (which would indeed have been her favorite type of poem, if she really liked poetry; at least haikus were mercifully short!) And she filed away in her mind, what she'd just deduced from Miya's ramblings:

Yama had been mated to Yanagi. It made sense now… The two had grown up together and chosen each other, in the way of rookery generations all around the world, and presumably been reasonably happy or at least content with each other for many years. Then Yama had been deceived by a treacherous human, and put the clan in danger as a result. And after his mandatory banishment—and the inadvertent breaking of his wings, the poor dear!—after all that was over, the clan in general had forgiven him his error… but as Kaze had said, Yanagi did not forgive mistakes. After a 'mistake' that massive, she'd probably declared her intentions to be dismated from him even before he'd been banished, and their scent markers had dissipated during their time apart.

Demona knew that Yanagi had been technically within her rights to dismate from Yama. In the old Wyvern clan, the mate to a soon-to-be-permanently-banished gargoyle would be offered the choice of either dismating or accompanying the mate into exile, with subtle encouragement to dismate rather than lose them both. But since everyone knew Yama truly hadn't meant to hurt anyone, and the banishment hadn't been permanent, the dismating had really been unfair. Really, it was a wonder she hadn't overheard any gossip about that dismating, scandal that it had surely been… but then, until that night she hadn't overheard any gossip about Yama's temporary banishment, either. She supposed the dismating had been considered just part and parcel of the other horrible events that had happened concerning Yama; the events that he'd said the clan leader, the leader's mate and the town constable had all asked everyone to keep silent about, at least when the newcomers were around.

So out of respect for their community leaders, and sympathy for Yama—and possibly out of the desire to avoid having Yanagi's sharp tongue turned on them, as she defended her decision to dismate from Yama---everyone had complied, and kept silent. Everyone except for one pair of young, indiscreet females who were hopeful that the moon was shining brighter on Yama's future, now that 'Di-mono' was in the clan. And that happy gossiping, with the clear implication that the two girls sympathized with Yama more than with her, must have felt to Yanagi like a slap in the face. A feeling that Demona could truly sympathize with, considering her own history with Goliath and that cursed Maza slut… No wonder Yanagi had been so harsh with Mizuumi!

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The tea ceremony ended roughly fifteen minutes before dawn; enough time for Demona and the elders to take off their formalwear and prepare for the day, each in their own ways. After putting all the fancy clothes away in the storeroom they were kept in, Demona walked past a courting couple perched atop a wall of the temple courtyard. Even without looking up at them, Demona knew they were courting, just by the sound of the poetry the male was reciting and the purrs and sighs of the female as she encouraged him to continue. Smiling, she looked up—and was surprised to find out the couple was Kumo and Yanagi.

Kumo had his tail twined around Yanagi's, and was looking at her with an adoring expression whenever he wasn't looking down at the book of poetry he was reading from. When she wasn't smiling back, Yanagi was daintily eating raw a good-sized fish that must have been caught just for her, while a small red box sat in her lap. Demona caught a whiff of a familiar sweet scent, and deduced that the box contained chocolates.

So that was why the clan hadn't succeeded in persuading Yanagi to take her ex-mate Yama back; there'd been another unmated male in their generation. Kumo, who had clearly decided that Yama's loss could be his gain, and probably started courting Yanagi as soon as decorum permitted. But… didn't Kumo already have a mated scent marker? She hadn't really been around him that much, but she thought she'd smelled a marker on him that one time he'd stopped by during her language lessons with Yama.

Well, the breeding season was less than a year away, as Kaze had already reminded her. And they were both mature adults, not youngsters who weren't quite trusted to know their own minds yet. They had probably asked Kai for a mating ceremony after only a few months of courting, and he'd granted it, declaring them mates before Yama had gone to America and brought her and the Guerrero gargoyles back with him. But they were still in their honeymoon period, still giving courtship gifts and each swearing the other was the most beautiful or handsome gargoyle to ever spread wings. It was really rather sweet… Demona smiled to herself as she walked past.

Greeting other gargoyle returning for dawn and stone sleep, she spotted Malaquita, who towered above the Ishimuran gargoyles she was walking with. Malaquita spotted her too, and came over to say with a wide grin and heavily accented Nihongo, "Good to glide again, eh?"

"Very good indeed!" Demona agreed with a wide smile. "How do you like being a fisher now?"

Malaquita snorted. "Will be better when I really go fish! But first I must balance better, not fall from boat so much! And swim to big rock and back, and… and…" she struggled to recall the right words in the language she was still learning, then finally came up with, "and I win other water challenges. Then I go out and fish, not just practice throw nets."

Demona had seen one of the tests Malaquita had to pass, while she'd been down at the docks two nights ago cleaning up around the boathouse. Malaquita had been out in a large dinghy with two other gargoyles; her standing at the bow, another standing at the stern and a third in the middle pushing a pole to get them out of the shallows. Once they were far enough away from shore, the gargoyle at the stern had begun jumping up and down and hopping from side to side; violently rocking the boat. Malaquita hadn't kept her balance for more than three seconds before going head-first into the water. She came up sputtering, but also grinning fiercely and shaking her fist while swearing in her native Spanish that she'd stayed in the boat a full second longer than the last time, and one of these nights her opponent would be in the water instead!

"You will pass the tests soon, I know," Demona said with a smile. "And then you can bring back a big fish to show Cuarzo and Galena the new challenges you have mastered!"

"I will bring back a fish bigger than Galena!" Malaquita boasted. Then she grinned slyly and said, "Anyone give you fish for gift, now you wings free again? Yama, maybe?"

Demona rolled her eyes as she groaned, "You, too? It seems everyone expects me and Yama to become mates before the next full moon!"

Malaquita shrugged. "Would not be bad choice, I think. He is not… uh, good face? Not handsome, but face not so important. Other parts much more important! He has good heart, good head—ah, is smart, and is good warrior—very good warrior! I hear he fight even clan leader in practice fights, and win! In my old clan, any female happy to have him for mate. And I heard about mate he had before," as her lip twisted with scorn.

"You did?" Demona looked at her in surprise. "I hadn't heard anything about that, until tonight!"

Now Malaquita scowled. "This clan likes secrets too much. Did you hear about another clan in Guatemala? Eh, no matter now," as she waved her hand dismissively, before Demona could give more than a start of surprise. "We not go there, no good for Galena. I hear of Guatemala clan and many other things from Anzu; Anzu talk a lot, think only little, so can't keep secrets. He also tell me about female who was mated to Yama; I know you much better for Yama than her!"

Then Malaquita excused herself, hurrying to go see Cuarzo and Galena before dawn. Leaving Demona with a thoughtful expression as she made small talk with other gargoyles she passed, heading for their perches, while she headed for the gatehouse that she used for privacy each sunrise and sunset.

After sunrise and her usual agonizing transformation, and leaving the gatehouse in human form once more, she went yawning to the Yugebe home. She was surprised but happy to find that the whole Yugebe family had made a fancy breakfast for her, to welcome her back under their roof again. Dominique just couldn't stop smiling and thanking them all for their kindness to her, even bringing her fresh flowers to brighten her cell while she'd been a technical prisoner in the village jail.

After Dominique smothered a yawn for the third time, the mother Yugebe Haruko urged her to go to bed and get her daily sleep, assuring her that she'd be woken in plenty of time to get ready for the tea ceremony. Sweet little Mikiko, one of the clan's students in Bushido, begged her mother and Dominique to be allowed to help prepare for the ceremony. The two older females gave nearly identical indulgent smiles as they agreed Mikiko could help, before Dominique went off to bed.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

That afternoon, Dominique walked through the village on her way to the teahouse, once more wearing so many layers of clothing that she could hardly breathe. The brightly patterned kimono she was wearing, Mrs. Ebisawa's furisode kimono, had turned out to be nearly six inches too short on her; Dominique towered over all the other ladies in the village. So Mrs. Yugebe had improvised an extra underskirt of the same color as the kimono's lower border, to properly cover her ankles. Yet another layer of clothing to go with the hadajuban and nagajuban, all under a kimono that looked pretty but was made of even heavier material than the one she'd been given as a gargoyle. The December air was freezing cold but Dominique wore no overcoat; she thought that if she had one more layer of clothing on, she'd start sweat until she melted into a puddle.

The mayor Masamune Ichiro greeted her on her way to the teahouse, giving her a wide smile as they exchanged bows. "Dominiko-san, I hope your sleep wasn't disturbed by the sound of heavy machinery and men working? The engineers from Tokyo arrived this morning with the new pump and filtration system for the main well, and installed everything in just four hours! Such amazing speed… and the new system works perfectly, with a 20% increase in water pressure!" He bowed again, saying, "The entire village thanks you, for your most generous gift to us all."

"I am just pleased that I can be of help to everyone," Dominique replied with a smile. She was mildly surprised to realize that she meant it; she enjoyed being able to help these people, who were truly friends—not just allies, but friends—with the gargoyles. Besides, the gargoyles drank from the village's water supply too. When the main well's archaic pumping system had shown signs two weeks ago of needing repairs again, Dominique had offered to simply buy a whole new system and have it installed by professionals, and the mayor had put up only token resistance before accepting the offer.

After much discussion in the first week after Demona's arrival, it had been decided between the mayor and Kai that they would not include Dominique Destine's considerable income from being CEO of Nightstone in the village's budget, despite her offering to give them half of her monthly salary. They explained to her that if her company in America began to truly suffer from not having their CEO there at the helm every day, they knew she'd want to do the honorable thing and retire entirely from Nightstone, handing the company over to an executive who could be trusted to do right by the company and the employees. (I would, eh? Demona had thought sarcastically to herself, but she had known better than to say so aloud.) And if that time ever came, they wouldn't want her to worry about depriving the village of an income that they had grown to depend on. But while not including her income in the budget, they had hinted that donations of funds for this-and-that would not be unwelcome, when the need arose.

Other villagers also stopped to thank her for her generosity, as she made her way to the teahouse. And several of them also complimented her on how lovely she looked in the furisode kimono, as well. Her smile as she accepted those compliments was maintained with gritted teeth; she had learned from Mikiko's chatter while dressing that the furisode was worn only by unmarried women. Its bright colors and designs were essentially an advertisement, saying that here was a woman available for marrying. She had no doubt at all that Kaze and several other gargoyles would like her to wear a furisode kimono for Yama's benefit, but she'd been spared at least that much in her true form; furisode kimonos were so costly to make or buy that the gargoyles stuck to plainer kimonos for formalwear. But if even one human so much as hinted that she was wearing this blasted heavy outfit and announcing 'I'm single' for Jiro's benefit, heads would roll!

But thankfully, none of the villagers she met along the way had the audacity to even begin to hint something so outrageous. She exchanged greetings with so many people that she was almost late for the tea ceremony, but she made it to the tea house in time, and bowed to Hiroshi and Jiro before they all went into the teahouse together.

Tradition dictated that when an unmarried man and an unmarried woman had tea together a chaperone must be present, so Hiroshi had volunteered himself as chaperone for the ceremony. But everyone knew that he was really there to make sure the ceremony was conducted properly, and discreetly coach Dominique if she faltered; she'd only had a week's worth of lessons in how to perform a ritual that had been honed to a fine art over the centuries. But she had an excellent memory for even the most minor details of rituals, a skill honed by centuries of practicing magic; she brewed and served the tea exactly as she'd been taught.

While it was obvious that Jiro still had more surgery and physical therapy to go through, the tea ceremony signified to the entire village that he had completely forgiven her for the attack last month. As Jiro bowed to his hostess and took the first sip from the delicate china cup, Hiroshi's smile combined both pride in Dominique's performance, and relief that the slate had been officially wiped clean at last.

When the ritual was over, they all left the teahouse together. Once they had all cleared the small doorway, Jiro said unexpectedly, "The tea was wonderful, but I'm still hungry. Why don't we all go down to the bakery for some pastries?"

Feeling happy—not as ecstatic as she'd been last night when her wings had been freed, but quite happy--Dominique laughed and said, "Sugoi! My treat!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

After thanking Desatina Dominiko for her generous gift to the village, Masamune Ichiro returned to his office, confident that the tea ceremony with Sakaguchi Jiro would go well and harmony would be completely restored to the village. He knew that Fukuda Hiroshi, with whom he'd been friends nearly all their lives, would ensure the ceremony went perfectly. Smiling as he came into his office, he was surprised to find that his secretary was wearing a worried frown. He asked her, "What has occurred?"

His good mood rapidly evaporating, Ichiro half-expected Miyazaki Akiko to tell him that something had gone wrong with the well's new systems, only a few hours after installation. The foreman for the workers had said they had been promised a hefty bonus by Desatina-san if they got the system installed and running in only one workday, and it was an ancient truism that work done in haste often had to be redone later. Or if the problem wasn't with the well itself, then with one of the main pipes leading away from the well; they were also old, and if one of them hadn't been able to manage the increased water pressure…

"I just received a phone call, from the secretary for a Kyoto businessman, Takahata Hayao," Akiko told him. "She called our chamber of commerce to find out if we have any hotels in town. And after I told her that we did not, that the nearest hotel was over fifty kilometers away, she hung up before I could ask her if and when her employer was planning to visit us."

Ichiro frowned; that was not good news at all. They had no hotel, for the same reason that Dominiko had offered the work crew a hefty bonus for coming to Ishimura, replacing the well systems and leaving all in one day; the village did not wants strangers in town after dark if it could be at all avoided. Inquiries about a hotel meant that some stranger was intending to visit them… and why did that businessman's name sound familiar to him?

Then he remembered that Takahata Hayao was the name of the businessman who had bought the ancient yari and naginata that he had taken to Kyoto; two of the three ancient weapons he'd brought with him to sell to the antiques collectors there, in order to raise funds to send Hiroshi and Yama to America. Mr. Takahata had wanted to buy the tessen too, but had been outbid at the last minute by another antiques collector. And two weeks after his trip to Kyoto, Ichiro had received a phone call from the businessman asking if he had any other antique weapons he was planning to sell. He'd politely but firmly said that the village had no other antiques that they planned to sell, and he'd thought that had been the end of it. But judging by the phone call, perhaps not…

"Tell the constable," he advised his secretary. "We must ensure everything is made ready for strangers intending to visit the temple. Who is our 'mad genius' this year?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

While eating pastries at the bakery with Jiro and Hiroshi, Dominique had an idea and asked the baker, Hiroshi's son-in-law Kadono Tomio, if he could help her. Tomio willingly agreed, and when Dominique said she'd pay triple the usual price to have all the goods freshly baked and ready at sunset, he hustled to the back of his shop to start the baking immediately.

Two hours later, Demona stood outside the entrance to the rookery with a covered basket in her hands. And when Sakaki came to the door, she asked respectfully, "First Rookery Keeper, may I enter? I swear under the Star Clan's watching eyes that I mean no harm and shall do no harm to anyone within; may I be denied the sky forever if I am proven false."

Sakaki blinked at her words, which she had translated from a very old ritual of the Wyvern Clan; one so old that it had scarcely been used even in medieval times. In far more ancient times, there had been even more of a division between warriors and rookery keepers; after being accepted into the warrior ranks, a gargoyle could not enter the rookery where the clan's precious eggs and hatchlings were kept unless the warrior swore to keep his or her violent nature in check.

Demona had heard the oath only once as a hatchling, spoken by a grizzled old warrior who was at least two centuries old and who had reportedly killed dozens of humans in his youth, before the alliance pact had been made and Castle Wyvern had been built. She couldn't remember anymore why the warrior had come into the rookery that night, but the solemn way he had spoken the oath, and the head rookery keeper's equally solemn response, had made a lasting impression on her. And considering what had happened the last time she'd been in the rookery, the ancient ritual seemed appropriate.

"Of course you may come in," Sakaki finally said. It wasn't the ritual response of "I accept your oath, under the Star Clan's watching eyes; enter in peace," but Demona hadn't really been expecting that. So she went in, and rapidly found herself the center of attention; those hatchlings who'd still been bounding about playing when door had opened had turned to see what their rookery kin and keepers were staring at, and stopped to stare at her too.

Demona said softly in the silence, "What I did last month was very, very wrong, and I am sorry for it. Last night, Kai and the other adults of the clan forgave me for what I did. This afternoon, Sakaguchi Jiro forgave me. But I still ask all of you in here to forgive me… and I offer you these, as a token of my apology," as she pulled the cover off the basket.

"Cookies!" the four closest hatchlings cried in delight, and the chorus was taken up by the other hatchlings and even a few of the adults. Forty-four almond cookies, each as big as the palm of her hand and all freshly baked; two apiece for every hatchling and rookery keeper. Demona was fairly sure that the number was just right for each hatchling to have a snack and a pleasant memory to associate with her, without giving them a real 'sugar rush'; the rookery keepers would notappreciate it if they became too rambunctious.

The cookies were quickly and fairly distributed, and while the hatchings were gobbling them Sakaki said with a smile, "Your gift is very much appreciated, Di-mono-san. Would you like to have tea with me?"

Demona barely managed to suppress her groan. Another tea ceremony? Another round of having to wear all that ridiculous heavy clothing, and do everything just so? "I… I thank you for the honor, Sakaki-san, and I accept. May I know the time of the tea, so I can dress for it?"

Sakaki gave a slight giggle, probably at the expression of dismay Demona hadn't been able to completely wipe from her face. "Oh, not a formal tea ceremony! I meant, would you like to have tea with me right here and now?" as she gestured to her office in a corner of the rookery. "I brewed some tea just before you came in."

Greatly relieved, Demona accompanied Sakaki into her office, and they sat down together to share tea and cookies. Sakaki told Demona that the cookies had probably not been necessary; after seeing her accepted once more by all the adults in the clan, the hatchlings would probably have stopped shying away from her in just another week or two. But the cookies had certainly been appreciated, and would hasten their forgiveness and acceptance considerably. "But please, don't make a habit of bringing cookies with you whenever you come in here; if you do, the hatchlings will come to expect it from every warrior!"

Demona grinned as she imagined how well that demand would go over with the warriors of the clan. "I promise; no more cookies or other sweets will be brought in without your permission."

"May I compliment you on your extraordinarily quick grasp of our language?" Sakaki said warmly as she poured another cup of tea. "You are learning it faster than even Galena, and I understand that children usually learn to speak a foreign tongue faster than adults."

Oops. Demona thought fast, and looked a little embarrassed. "Ah… 'compliment'? Pardon me, but does that word mean praise?"

"It does; it means, gentle praise," Sakaki said with a wry twist to her lips; it was plain that she hadn't meant her compliment to Demona to end up showing how much language the gargoyle evidently had yet to learn. "I apologize for my assumption that you already knew the word... and I compliment you again on your so quickly guessing its meaning, from the rest of my speech. Yama is right, you are as clever as you are brave."

Demona told herself that she was not blushing from the compliment; it was simply a delayed reaction to Sakaki's earlier remark, and her quick cover-up. Aloud, she said, "Yama is too kind. And I have a… ah… leverage? Ah, advantage that even Galena does not have. English is not all I spoke before coming here. In my youth, I learned to speak and read a language called Latin as well as English. Once a person has learned one foreign language, learned how to hear and speak and think differently, all other foreign languages are easier. But please, just because I am learning to speak your words, don't think I know how to read them! I find your kanji and kana to be elegant, but most of it is still utterly bewildering."

"But that too will change in time," Sakaki said with assurance. "I know Yama well, and I am sure that he will be teaching you to read and write as well as any of us in time. There are few things he enjoys more than teaching, except for learning new things for himself; that is why Kai originally declared him our clan's teacher of mathematics and science."

Demona stared. "Mathematics and science?"

"Yes. Oh, silly me, you probably haven't heard those words in our language before! Ah… Yama taught our gakuto how to work with numbers--that is mathematics--and, ah, the way things work in nature and in machines; that is science."

"Ah… I see, thank you." But Demona was utterly bewildered. There was no question that Yama was an excellent warrior; she'd seen him fight the Quarrymen in New York, and she'd watched from the doorway of the dojo last week as the warriors had their combat practice. In New York he'd proven himself skilled with both katana and shuriken, and at the unarmed combat session, he'd just wiped the mats with the gargoyle he'd been sparring with. Malaquita had said she'd heard of Yama even beating the clan leader Kai in combat, and nobody would spread that story unless it were the solid truth, and Yama was one of the best warriors in the entire clan. And the clan leader and elders had decided Yama should be a math teacher?

"He stopped teaching the gakuto over ten years ago, when…" Sakaki paused for a moment, then continued, "Ah, when the northern walls needed to be torn down and rebuilt, and Kai put him in charge of the entire project. The rebuilding took a few years, and by the time it was finished Taki had become settled with teaching the gakuto, so Kai assigned Yama to warrior duties. But now he spends two hours each evening teaching our human students Bushido, and Kai has already promised him that once the current clutch of hatchlings become gakuto he will be allowed to give up his warrior duties entirely, and take the classroom to teach mathematics and science again."

A warrior voluntarily giving up warrior duties--asking to be taken from warrior duties--while still young and hale… Demona found herself disappointed in Yama. Then she silently scolded herself for having such a biased attitude about warriors. In the old Wyvern clan, nearly every gargoyle strove to be a warrior, unless their natures were just too gentle for combat. But there had been battles and threats aplenty for those warriors to deal with; even when the Vikings were far from their shores, there had been roving bands of thieves and marauders to protect the castle from.

But the Ishimurans had been living in peace, not experiencing any direct threats to their village and clan in over two centuries, until that recent incident that Yama had been dragged into by human treachery. With just constant patrols and sentry duties, and no battles to heat their blood, it shouldn't be surprising that some warriors would eventually prefer other duties that they might feel made them more useful to the clan.

After having tea with Sakaki, Demona left the rookery and went to find Mizuumi so they could go rabbit-hunting together, as the young gargoyle had promised before Demona's wings had been freed. Mizuumi proved to be a good hunting partner for small game; they took turns in flushing out the prey, each sending it running towards the other's talons. Demona was pleased at how easily she caught and killed four rabbits, noting that her last few years of living among humans hadn't dulled her hunting instincts at all.

After returning to the village and delivering the rabbits to the clan's kitchen, Demona cleaned up just in time to go on patrol again with Kaze. Another patrol without any real incidents; it was already beginning to become a comfortable routine.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next afternoon, Dominique was just waking up when she heard, coming faintly through the Yugebe family home's walls, the heavy beating of a massive drum. Elsewhere in the house, she heard the clatter of a wooden bowl being dropped on the floor and little Mikiko shrieking in dismay, "The gargoyles!"

"Sit down, Mikiko-chan!" Haruko said firmly.

"B-but the drum--"

"Yes, I heard it too… and so did everyone else in the village. Your father and the other men know what to do, and they have the strong backs needed; you would only get in their way!"

"In the way of what?!" Dominique demanded as she stood in the doorway to the kitchen, wearing only the panties she hadn't taken off before sleeping. "What's happening?!"

Mikiko stared at her wide-eyed for a moment before she started giggling in embarrassment, but Haruko said calmly as she cleaned up a bowlful of spilled rice, "A stranger has come to the village, and wants to visit the temple; that is the meaning of the drum rhythm you just heard. But there is nothing to fear, as it was not the signal for an attack; merely a curious stranger, and the village has long known how to deal with them."

But Dominique didn't like the idea of any strangers getting too close to the gargoyles when they were locked in stone sleep, utterly helpless; she threw her clothes on and hurried towards the temple. But while still four blocks away, she nearly ran into Ebisawa Takemi, who had flipped the sign on his clothing store from Open to Closed and was trotting in the direction of the temple as well. "Going to the temple?" he asked her rhetorically. "Come with me, the back way; the mayor will be keeping the visitor busy out front!"

As they rounded the corner of Takemi's store, Dominique saw ahead of them a steady stream of people; nearly every able-bodied man in the village and several of the more sturdy women, all moving swiftly in the direction of the temple. But they were all turning left instead of right, at the fork in the road that led up to the temple gates.

The beating of the taiko drum had stopped some time ago, but as Dominique approached the temple she heard a new sound; someone playing a shamisen. Badly. And singing a harvest song, even worse than he was playing; his voice was bad enough to scare crows away. And may the Dragon save her ears, now the bad shamisen player was being joined by more bad musicians, including a drummer who couldn't keep the beat!

Takemi was wincing too, but he was also grinning as he told her, "That's the Sakaguchi brothers; they can make any tune, even the sweetest ballad, bad enough to frighten oni away!"

"And how is that a good thing?!" Dominique demanded as she covered her ears while still heading, now reluctantly, towards the temple and the source of the racket.

"It's good in that our visitors will be so busy trying not to hear them, that they won't hear what the rest of us are doing," Taganaka Takeo said with a grim smile, turning to face Dominique as she and Takemi caught up to him while trotting. "Dominiko-san, I once heard our constable say that even in your human form, you have a gargoyle's hearing. Do you also have a gargoyle's great strength?"

Dominique shook her head. "Unfortunately, no."

"Then, if you will forgive my impertinent suggestion, perhaps you may best help your kin and our friends by joining the musicians while the rest of us work. We have practiced this many times, but you have not yet had the opportunity."

"B-but I can't play any sort of musical instrument!"

"All the better!" Takemi threw in with a grin, as he ushered them through a back door into the temple.

And so Dominique soon found herself standing just behind the closed gates in the courtyard, with an hourglass-shaped tsuzumidrum strapped in front of her. She spent a few seconds trying to figure out how to change the tone of the drum by squeezing and releasing the tsuzumi's cords, as she'd seen real players do. Then she gave up and just started beating time, while faking her way through a folk song about a mythical rabbit that lived on the moon. Next to her, Jiro gave her a wink through his bandages as he blew into his nohkan flute, and his older brother Nobuo also acknowledged her as he played the shamisen. The other drummer, Jiro's younger brother Tadao, grinned at her as he deliberately hit a flat thudding note on the tsuzumi drum he was holding. Together with two village teenagers armed with stringed instruments and still-cracking voices, they cheerfully butchered the traditional song and hung its innards out to dry.

Behind her, the temple courtyard was a virtual beehive of activity. A swarm with a purpose, and every movement synchronized:

Four hydraulic lifters, industrial-grade machines resembling those Demona had heard called "cherry-pickers" back in America, were all in operation at the same time. Each machine was running on enormous rechargeable batteries instead of combustion engines, and so moving much quieter than she would have thought as they raised and lowered from the temple walls. The lifts did not have rails on them, just large flat platforms with control pedestals mounted on them. And each lifter was occupied by two strong men, standing with a small wheeled platform between them.

Hiroshi directed the operations, trotting back and forth from lift to lift as he assigned gargoyle names with a hissing voice that barely carried even to Dominique's sharp ears. At his directions, each lifter went up to the temple walls where the gargoyles had perched and stopped just inches away from their designated stone figure. The two men in the lift stepped off and got firm holds on the torso or other sturdy limbs of the gargoyle, and grunting and straining with the effort, lifted him or her up just enough to move onto the wheeled platform. Then they brought the lifter back down to the courtyard, where four more villagers were waiting. Once the lift was on the ground, two villagers swiftly nudged a shallow sloping ramp into place, while small brakes on each wheel of the gargoyle's platform were released. With two men guiding it carefully away, the gargoyle was rolled down the ramp and away across the courtyard, while two more villagers plunked another wheeled platform into the lift and set the brakes, before the lift went up again.

The humans were moving so quickly, with such precision, that Dominique thought the walls would be completely cleared of gargoyles in less than an hour. But not every gargoyle being removed from the walls was being taken away, into the temple; in fact, at least half of them were being left in the middle of the courtyard. And the walls and roofs weren't being cleared of every gargoyle, either; Hiroshi was apparently directing them to take only four out of every five, leaving a few still perched high on each wall and rooftop. Why?

Then she noticed that only the smallest adult clan members, and those who had perched on the half-dozen flat squares that had been mounted on the roofs here and there, were being left up. Perhaps there had been enough reports of 'statues on the roofs' in Ishimura that the humans had to leave a few gargoyles up high, rather than answer questions about where the statues had gone, but tried to make it seem as if they'd been put up there just to make more room down in the courtyard below.

Then a series of large draped objects were wheeled out of the temple, after several gargoyles had been wheeled in. Demona had seen those tarpaulin-covered objects many times while she'd been cleaning the temple, but had ignored them after Taiju had indicated that they didn't need dusting. But now the covers were being removed, to reveal—statues of gargoyles! Not true gargoyles sleeping in stone, but true statues that hadn't been fully carved; they were still rough blocks of stone from the waist down, or in other clearly unfinished stages.

Yama's statue was one of the last to be moved from his perch, where he had taken that sitting position he favored for greeting the day instead of a properly fierce pose. His cat, Manekineko, had been tensely crouching in his lap for most of the operation, and had given warning hisses and yowls at the humans working to remove the gargoyles whenever they got close. But Hiroshi had fished a cloth ball out of his pocket and tossed it to a lift operator, and directed him to toss the ball into Yama's lap. Manekineko had snarled at the ball and swatted at it when it had landed next to her. Then she'd paused, and leaned in to sniff at it… and by the time the lift operators got to Yama, the cat was happily sprawled in Yama's lap, stoned on catnip, and came down with her already-stoned friend without any fuss.

When all but a dozen of the gargoyles had been taken down from the walls and rooftops, Hiroshi directed the industrial lifts to be put back in the locked shed they'd been in, on one side of the temple. And as the lifts were put away, the gargoyles on platforms that had been clustered in the middle of the courtyard were hurriedly spread out and parked here and there, and the statues-not-gargoyles were scattered in with them. Then Asuhara Bunjiro, who had been one of the men moving gargoyles, put on a heavy work coat that had stonecutting tools, chisels and such, conspicuously poking out of the pockets. And once he had put it on and most of the villagers had quietly streamed out the back way again, he held out his arms, screwed up his face and howled; sounding like a little like a gargoyle and a lot like a human driven mad.

That was evidently the cue to stop playing; Jiro put down his flute and gestured for Dominique to stop drumming, while everyone else in the 'musical' band lowered their instruments. Nobuo didn't stop entirely, but he softened his shamisen strumming considerably while complaining very loudly, "Aw, c'mon, old man; I know we need more practice, but we aren't that bad!"

"You are too that bad!" Bunjiro shouted back at the top of his lungs. "The hideous sound of your wrecking good music is enough to make Buddha weep! If my stone oni could hear you, they'd either eat you on the spot to silence you, or run howling for the hills to save their ears! Why do you think you're only allowed to practice here, instead of in the village square? Because no one can stand your noise! You're lucky we have no visitors to the temple today; if they heard that cacophony you call 'practicing', it would bring shame on the entire village!"

"Oh yeah? Well, you're lucky we don't have any visitors today, because your craziness always brings shame on the village!" Nobuo shouted back, while Jiro silently urged Dominique to follow him and his younger brother out the back way. "Carving all these stupid, ugly statues, just because of some stupid dreams you keep having--"

"They are not stupid!" Bunjiro screamed with rage. "Every statue that I finish, traps inside it the oni that it resembles! I keep the oni from wandering the countryside and wreaking havoc on the spirits of men! It is my genius that saves us all! And if you dare, you dare even pretendto break a statue again, if you even touch one, I swear I'll take this chisel and drive it right– through– yourSKULL!!"

Tadao snickered and quietly explained to Dominique, "By this time, the mayor should be finishing the tea ceremony with the visitors, inside the gatehouse where they can hear all the shouting. Now he will ask them politely to please not touch the statues."

"Very clever," Dominique said with real admiration. It really was an ingenious way to ensure the gargoyles' stone forms would not be harmed, without telling strangers what they really were. "And you do all this every time a stranger comes to the village?"

"All the ones that insist on seeing the temple during the day, anyway," Jiro said, glancing back over his shoulder at the temple they'd just left, as Dominique heard the courtyard gates slowly creaking open. "It doesn't happen often, but we hold drills for moving the gargoyles and playing the 'mad genius stonecutter' every season."

Tadao said proudly, "Jiro was the mad genius four years ago, and he scared away no less than eight tourists on three separate occasions; that is a record for this decade!"

Jiro nodded in acknowledgment, adding a bit sheepishly, "I still feel a little bad about four of them, a family whose mother had made a vow for some reason to visit every temple and shrine on Honshu. Their children became so scared of me, that Tomio had to give them free pastries to get them to stop crying…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Everything had gone perfectly, just as they had practiced, Hiroshi thought with satisfaction as he sat at a table in Izumi's restaurant and was served a well-earned drink. Even Manekineko, and the cat's habit of attacking anyone that she thought threatened her beloved Yama, had been dealt with easily; he congratulated himself on having had the forethought to grab the catnip ball before leaving the constabulary.

Then his smile turned bitter as once again, he forced himself to acknowledge the debt the village and the clan owed to that accursed Taganaka Taro.

Decades ago, the village had relied solely on the 'mad genius stonecutter' routine as a way of explaining the gargoyle statues to strangers, and had a devil of a time explaining how and why all those statues had been mounted up on the roofs and atop the walls. Clan leaders had been forced to assign nearly a third of the clan to staying on the ground in the courtyard during the day, for the sake of any visitors who might come. And those forced to quell their instincts and stay low while their brethren perched up high, tended to become ill-tempered; particularly when waking up to find other gargoyles' shards and gravel raining down on them.

Then twenty years ago, soon after leaving the village to work in Tokyo, Taro had spent nearly every cent he'd had on a down payment on the four hydraulic lifters, and presented them to the village and clan as a solution to their problem. Everyone had rejoiced and praised Taro for both his cleverness and his generosity, and the mayor had readily agreed to the village contributing half of each monthly payment for the lifters for the next decade, until they were paid in full.

The gargoyles had happily gone back to perching up high, and the villagers had run drill after drill in using the industrial lifters (using true statues at first, till they were confident in their skills), until they had worked out a routine for moving the gargoyles swiftly and easily. The village had been so grateful to Taro, it had taken several years of hearing reports of not-entirely-honorable behavior in Tokyo before anyone had suggested that perhaps he should brush up on his lessons in Bushido and the ways of honor. But no one had said that aloud on those times that Taro had come back to the village; usually on designated drill days, so he could watch everyone working and rejoice in how well they were able to take care of their friends…

And learn the best and fastest ways to move all the gargoyles from their perches, so Taro could do it with his own crew someday. Hiroshi had realized that and felt sick in more ways than one, when he'd woken up in the courtyard that day last spring to find all the gargoyles had been kidnapped.

After Taro's scheme had been foiled and the gargoyles had returned, a few clan members and villagers had threatened to smash the industrial lifters. But cooler heads had prevailed, pointing out that regardless of what Taro had intended them for—had he really been scheming to use the gargoyles to make him richer, a full twenty years ago?—the lifters were useful to them, and should be kept ready instead of destroyed. And they'd proved their usefulness again today…

Hiroshi was drawn from his musings by Dominiko coming into the restaurant; he smiled and waved her over to come sit with him. "So, what did you think of our performance?"

"Very well done; everyone was so swift and efficient!" Dominiko said with a smile; then the smile turned rueful. "And all I could do was beat on a drum, and sing songs I didn't really know…"

"And I thank you for doing so! The bad music is an important part of the operation; the lifts are quiet but they are not silent, and the more noise that can reasonably be made to cover their movements, the better. You did well," he assured her.

Dominiko laughed. "Never before have I been thanked for making such an awful noise! This village is unique in so many ways; here, the worst musicians are the most valued!"

"Actually, two of the Sakaguchi brothers are very good musicians; you should hear them play at festivals! Nobuo deliberately detuned his shamisen before playing today, and Tadao probably loosened a cord or two on his tsuzumi as well. Jiro is perhaps not a master of the nohkan flute, but he does quite well when performing with his brothers at the festivals… and he knows how to play it badly when needed, too."

"And the other two, the Asuhara twins? Are they also secretly master musicians?" Dominiko said with a mischievous smile.

Hiroshi grinned and shook his head. "No, they're really that bad. But when you're a young teenaged boy, it's fun to make even a terrible noise, and even better to be useful while doing it."

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

While enjoying a companionable late lunch with Hiroshi, Dominique asked, "So who are the visitors to the temple; what sort of people are they? Did you see them when they arrived in the village?"

"Only one visitor; a businessman from Kyoto, a dealer in antiques." Hiroshi frowned. "Evidently, he bought two of the antique weapons the mayor had sold to raise money for the trip to America, and now he's come to see for himself what other antiques we have that he could buy, despite being told we weren't going to sell anything else. The mayor told him so again when he arrived, but he insisted on being given a tour of the temple while he's here, and we didn't dare refuse him; temples are supposed to be open to all."

Demona had seen the weapons in the clan's armory more than once while she'd been cleaning, and had noted the great age but well-preserved states of many of the weapons. She herself cared less about the age of a weapon than about how well it worked, but she knew that humans, who often placed more value on things than on their own kind, thought many things grew more valuable with age. If that antiques collector saw the clan's armory, he would probably start salivating with greed, and almost certainly be very hard to persuade to leave. And if that collector had any of the talent that she'd heard referred to as 'second sight'…

She was proven right about the greed, at least; as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky, the stranger's car remained parked on the village's main street. "What is taking so long?" Hiroshi fretted. "Is that greedy fool inspecting every last square centimeter of the temple for its antiquity? He can't be hurried along; he might get suspicious. But we can't let him stay in there…" He went to the mayor's office with Dominique, and demanded of the mayor's secretary, "Akiko-san, call the mayor on his cell phone and make up an emergency. Tell him the well's stopped working, or his grandson climbed inside the washing machine and got stuck again; anything to get him away from the temple, and the antiques collector with him."

Akiko picked up her phone, and dialed a number… then looked in dismay at the mayor's desk, as one of the drawers started ringing. "He didn't take it with him!"

Hiroshi scowled. "So one of us will have to go up to the temple and get him. Which means we must make up an even more dire emergency, to send someone running all the way there."

"Why make it an emergency for the mayor?" Dominique said with a nasty smile. "I can think of a few things that will make that antiques collector come running back here…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Inside the temple, Ichiro was trying very hard not to fidget like a nervous schoolboy. But the clock was ticking, and the sun was getting low in the sky…

And that cursed stubborn Takahata Hayao was taking his own sweet time in inspecting every last item in the temple. Everything, even the gargoyles; he'd actually offered to buy several of them, including Kai's sleeping form! But Bunjiro had put on a truly awesome display in response, screaming about how trapped demons were not to be trifled with, and proclaiming dire threats to not only the businessman's life but his very soul until he'd withdrawn the offer.

Honor demanded that Ichiro answered truthfully every question their guest had about the ancient statues, weapons and other items in the temple; every question that could be answered without giving away the secret of the gargoyles. And in truth, it was pleasant to be able to talk about the long and rich history many of the items had, to someone who could appreciate them; most of the village schoolchildren that had been brought up here for history lessons were far more interested in videogames and other such foolishness.

But Takahata Hayao wanted to know the history and provenance of everything. Everything, as he took picture after picture… Fortunately, Bunjiro's ravings had dissuaded him from taking any pictures of the gargoyles; if he had, Ichiro would have had to come up with an excuse for wrecking the camera, or at least the film. But still, all this picture taking and talking of historical significance was using up precious time.

Ichiro had said once already that while he was of course honored to show their visitor around, he had duties to attend to, and needed to head back to his office… and had been dismayed when Takahata had politely said that the mayor could of course leave whenever he pleased, while Takahata looked around the temple on his own. Ichiro had hurriedly said that he wouldn't dream of doing so, and leaving their guest without a guide; how else would Mr. Takahata find out the history of each item, since the village had foolishly never thought to make display placards for everything?

So they had moved on, from relic to relic, and time had marched on as well. And now it was less than half an hour till sunset…

Just then, someone came running up behind them; Ichiro turned and saw it was young Uematsu Toshio, breathing heavily as he skidded to a halt next to them. "A thousand apologies for the interruption," he panted, "but there has been an accident in the village. Takahata-san, please come and inspect the damage to your car."

"My car?!" Takahata Hayao stopped taking pictures and headed swiftly for the temple doors, so fast that Ichiro and young Toshio had to trot to keep up with him. After keeping pace for a few moments, they fell back and let the Kyoto businessman pull ahead, so Ichiro could whisper to the teenager, "Is this… a true accident?"

"Yes and no," Toshio whispered back, his eyes dancing with mischief. "Come and see!"

When they reached the spot where Takahata had left his car, Ichiro gasped in dismay. The parked car had been rammed into from behind—by Hiroshi's own car! While he certainly appreciated getting their unwanted guest out of the temple, this action was rather extreme

And Dominiko was standing next to the cars, waving her arms at Hiroshi and shouting something at him in the American tongue. From the handcuffs that Hiroshi was holding up and his thunderous expression, Ichiro gathered that Dominiko had been the one to ram the cars together, and was now being placed under arrest—hopefully just as a show for Takahata's benefit; Ichiro really didn't want to explain to Kai why one of his gargoyles was in jail again.

Takahata inspected his luxury sedan and pronounced with some relief that the rear bumper had taken most of the damage, as it had been designed to do; the car's body was basically undamaged, and even the trunk still opened. (Hiroshi's car was rather in worse shape; it would need not only a new fender but new headlight assemblies at the very least, and the mechanics would be wise to inspect for further damage to the frame.) But Takahata assured them sternly that his insurance company would certainly be in contact with the gaijin woman's insurance company!

"If you will pardon me, it may take some time to determine how the woman is insured," Hiroshi said apologetically. "My English is out of practice, and she doesn't speak Nihongo at all. If I understood her correctly, she says she is in town only because she got lost while trying to find Ishinomaki!"

"Ishinomaki?! That's over a hundred kilometers away! How can even a gaijin get that lost?" Takahata said incredulously. (Something Ichiro and the rest of the village had wondered before, but Garegarino Bini had proven it could be done, with just the right combination of ignorance and irrationality.)

"For Buddha's sake, I do not know! But one other thing this woman seems to be saying is that she wants to pay for the damages to your car," Hiroshi told the businessman. "She does not seem to understand that she is being put under arrest for reckless driving, regardless of the damage to your vehicle; she keeps insisting that she has plenty of yen--"

And at mention of the word "yen", Dominiko perked up as if that had been the only word she'd understood, then rudely thrust her way between Hiroshi and the businessman. She opened her purse, pulled out a thick wallet, then began drawing out and setting ten-thousand-yen notes in the startled businessman's hands. More and more bills, until she'd given him enough to not only pay for the minor damage to the luxury sedan, but possibly buy a cheap commuter car as well. After piling all the money in his hands, she said something else in her native tongue; an impatient query that Hiroshi translated as, "Is that enough for you?" Adding in his own words with a raised eyebrow, "If I may observe, Takahata-san, that certainly appears to be more than enough…"

"Ah--Yes, it is enough; thank you, and I shall consider the matter closed from now on," Takahata said as he hastily bowed to Dominiko. Then he got into his car, started the engine, and drove off; heading for the highway, Ichiro saw with satisfaction.

While the businessman had been driving away, Hiroshi and Dominiko had been pantomiming her arrest, but once the car has turned the corner and gone out of sight he immediately took the handcuffs off her. "As we thought; he just took the money and ran," Hiroshi said with a wry smile. "And just in time; sunset is only a few minutes away."

Ichiro looked at the front end of his old friend's car, shaking his head at the damage. "I'll talk to Komoto, and arrange for the village to receive the garage's bill for repairs."

"That won't be necessary," Dominiko said, blushing till her face was nearly as red as her hair. "I've already paid in full for any repairs the car might need." Ichiro wondered if she'd given Hiroshi as much money as she'd given the Kyoto businessman; if so, the repairs were indeed covered in full, and Hiroshi could probably also afford to have the car repainted and get that noisy old muffler replaced as well. Or just trade in the wreck for a better car, at the auto dealership in the next town…

Now that their unwanted visitor was gone, little Maseo and Mikiko came running out of their houses, heading for the temple; they always tried to be there to watch the gargoyles wake up at sunset. With nods to each other, the adults trotted along behind the children to the temple; when the gargoyles awoke in places that weren't their usual perches, they'd want to know what had happened in the temple while they were asleep. And Dominiko wanted to get to the gatehouse that she used for privacy during her transformations, where her traditional gargoyle attire was waiting high on a shelf.

But just a few meters away from the gatehouse, Dominiko suddenly doubled over and cried out. Ichiro watched in fascinated dismay, unable to turn his eyes away, as the screaming human woman writhed while turning blue, wings burst out of her back through her clothing as her feet expanded and shredded her shoes… and Di-mono, gargoyle once more, panted as she stood up again, leaning on Hiroshi's arm.

Eyeing the tatters of clothes she was wearing, Di-mono snarled in disgusted anger, "I liked this outfit!" She glared back in the direction that Takahata had driven off, and Ichiro had the distinct impression that she was considering the idea of gliding after him and taking the price of a new outfit back out of that wad of cash… or out of the stranger's hide.

"My mother can make you a new one; one even prettier, if you like! She's a very good seamstress!" Mikiko anxiously assured her.

They could already hear from inside the walls, amid the roars of awakening gargoyles, surprised exclamations as the first ones to shed their stone skins and look around realized they had been moved. One voice—belonging to the gaijin female Marakita, Ichiro guessed—was particularly strident, sounding very upset and worried as she demanded to know what had happened. But Kai was already bellowing for silence, and now he was assuring Marakita and everyone else that he was sure it was nothing to worry about; they'd just had some tourists come by during the day again.

The children ran through the open gates into the courtyard to join the gargoyles, but before rejoining her clan, Di-mono went into the gatehouse to remove her ruined clothing and change into her gargoyle attire. Before walking through the gates themselves, Ichiro quietly asked Hiroshi, "When I asked Toshio if what had happened to our visitor's car had been an accident, he told me 'yes and no'. Why did he say that? What happened, exactly?"

Hiroshi whispered back, "Dominiko came up with the idea of doing damage to the businessman's car, staging an accident to draw him away from the temple, then giving him more than enough money to repair the damage. She agreed that the damage would be minimal, as he would need to drive the car out of town, so I drove my own car over for her to use. But I was not aware until afterwards, that Dominiko does not know how to drive a car!"

"Really? But she's from America; I thought everyone over there drives cars, if they travel more than a hundred meters!"

"American humans do, but I should have realized that American gargoyles don't. I thought she would tap the cars together just hard enough to leave a small dent in the other car's rear bumper; just enough damage to warrant calling the visitor away from the temple. Instead she started the car without pushing the clutch in, while stomping on the gas pedal! And…"

Ichiro fought to keep a straight face as he pictured the scene: Hiroshi's car lurching violently forward, to ram into the car in front of it even as the engine died. And the village's normally unflappable constable shouting in dismay, while Dominiko got out of the driver's seat looking bewildered at what had happened…

They went through the gates together, and Kai hailed them over. It took a few minutes for them to explain together to Marakita just what had happened during the day; when she couldn't understand some of the words they used, Kai simply opened the storage shed to show Marakita one of the lifts used for moving gargoyles. Di-mono joined them while they were still explaining, and also assured Marakita that the villagers had been very careful while moving their statues, and with coming up with a story to explain them to strangers. By the time Di-mono was pantomiming Bunjiro's performance as the mad genius stonecutter, Marakita had relaxed enough to laugh along with everyone else.

Then Maseo, who had been watching from his bedroom window, excitedly described how Dominiko had crashed Hiroshi's car into the stranger's car, to force him to leave the temple before sunset. Di-mono's azure face turned purple from blushing as Hiroshi hastened to add that all damages had been paid for, and the stranger had left satisfied, so there was no more cause for concern.

Clearly seeking to change the subject, Di-mono asked, "So what inside the temple was so interesting to the visitor, that he stayed in there for hours? I know that there are many fine weapons in the temple and many beautiful sculptures; I saw them all while I was cleaning them. But I know so little of your history, so I do not know what might make something even more interesting to a visitor…"

"Then I believe that tonight is an excellent occasion for learning!" Kai said with a smile. "Come, Ichiro-san; let us see together to her education. Show us everything that the stranger showed such interest in, and together we can tell her each item's true history, and about the humans or gargoyles that made them or wielded them…"

Ichiro happily agreed, and he and Kai took Di-mono on a formal tour of the temple, pointing out all their most valued relics; everything that Takahata Hayao had taken pictures of, and a few items that he hadn't. There were a few times while they were talking that Di-mono's eyes seemed to glaze over, but she asked enough questions that they were assured she was truly interested, so they gave her a full tour of the armory and of the many relics that had been donated to the temple over the centuries.

After they'd told her the history of a vase that had been carved from jade over 600 years ago, Di-mono pointed to a palm-sized stone pendant that was hanging from a peg on the wall. "Pardon me, but I am curious… what is important about that pendant? Did our visitor show great interest in it?"

"He barely glanced at it, being much more interested in the vase here," Ichiro said with a wry smile. "Which is just as well, because I could never tell him its true significance."

"That pendant wouldn't be particularly valuable to an antiques collector, but it has sentimental value to the clan," Kai told her. "We're fairly sure that it's actually made from a gargoyle; has anyone yet told you about Matsu the Weird—ah, that is, Matsu the greatest warrior of the Edo period? He was undefeated in battle, and on one patrol he personally killed or drove off a roving clan of at least twenty bandits, before they even came within sight of the village! Matsu had a human mate named Fukuda Masako, and their love was so great that when she died of old age, he perched next to her tomb at sunrise and simply never woke up; his heart died with her."

Ichiro added, "The village built a small shrine around his stone form, so the elements would leave his statue as untouched as the clan and the village did out of respect for him, but a century later a violent windstorm blew down the shrine and his stone form finally crumbled. The Fukuda family put most of the gravel and fragments inside Masako's tomb, but they kept a few of the larger fragments, with the permission of the clan leader at the time. We believe this pendant was made from the largest fragment, by Fukuda Takemi; great-great-great-grandfather to our good constable Fukuda Hiroshi. He was a stonemason and sculptor, and when the clan and village decided to make the gargoyles' existence a secret, he made the very first of the unfinished statues, created to fool strangers into thinking all the gargoyles are mere statues. Soon after making that first statue, Takemi was found dead on the floor of his workshop, of a heart attack. And this pendant was on the table next to him; it is his last creation."

Kai pointed at the tiny script that had been so carefully chiseled into the surface of the stone pendant, as he picked up the narrative again. "Understand, this was not long after the clan had learned of the destruction of another clan, the Yastushiro Clan that once lived on the island of Kyushu. Everyone was very worried that the same disaster would befall this clan. So Takemi made of his last creation a Zen blessing; these words say 'clear the mind of that which worries'."

Ichiro said with a smile, "It is a good reminder for us all, even in these, ah, somewhat calmer times. The priests leading the temple wore the pendant for two generations, before it was finally retired and hung here."

Di-mono leaned towards the pendant, peering closely at the finely chiseled words even though they all knew she couldn't read them yet, as she hesitantly recited, "clear the mind of that which worries." After a moment she said the words again, just as softly but with more sureness in her pronunciation; then she smiled as she stood upright again. "It's lovely; such beautiful simplicity…"

And on a generous impulse, Ichiro took the pendant down from the peg and handed it to her. "And it is made to be worn… why not worn by you? We all owe you a great deal; let this be a token of our gratitude."

"An excellent idea, Ichiro-san," Kai said approvingly. "You in particular might benefit the most from it, Di-mono-san. I have seen how you are sometimes greatly worried by what happens to your company back in America; let this pendant aid you in meditating to ease your worries. Come, let's find a good cord for stringing it on, so you can wear it."

Di-mono had stared open-mouthed first at Ichiro, then at Kai as they'd presented her with the pendant; now she gave them both a wide smile and two deep bows. "Thank you both, so much! You have no idea how much this means to me… thank you, thank you!"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next morning, after making sure his fifteen-year-old Toyota was still drivable despite the damage done to it, Hiroshi drove it to the auto dealership in the next town over. And he came back that afternoon with a wide smile and an Isuzu that was only three years old and in excellent condition. The salesman had reportedly tried hard to get him to buy a brand-new car, but Hiroshi had decided instead to fill the backseat of the car with a brand-new hourmongi kimono for his daughter; the formal attire that he hadn't been able to afford to give her when she'd gotten married and set her furisode aside. He also had in the trunk two full sets of top-quality stoneware baking sheets and pans for his son-in-law's bakery, and a sizeable mound of toys for his grandson.

After Hiroshi's return, the Asuhara twins begged their father Bunjiro to offer Dominiko the family car for driving lessons. Dominiko almost declined the lessons at first, then decided the skill might be useful someday.

The Asuhara family car was an automatic instead of a stick-shift, and Hiroshi sensibly had the block cleared of all other vehicles for the first few lessons. It took only two afternoons of practice for Dominiko to learn to maneuver the car through the streets of the village reasonably well, though parallel parking was still a problem for her. While she saw no need to register for a driver's license, Hiroshi declared the basic driving lessons a success, and was pleased to note that the Asuhara family car hadn't suffered a single scratch in the process. (The twins, on the other hand, were not too skilled at covering their disappointment.)

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

For all her experience in combat, all her prowess on the battlefield, it had been a very long time since Demona had been in a combat practice session. And the Ishimurans fought very differently than the warriors of the old Wyvern clan that had first taught her how to fight. It was humiliating, how quickly she found herself face-down on the mat, not twenty seconds after the sparring match had started—and brought down by a youth barely of breeding age, yet! She'd started the bout thinking to herself that she would have to hold back, to avoid seriously hurting young Kaze, her opponent for the match. That had been a big mistake… Kaze reached down to give her a hand back up—then quickly backpedaled, her eyes wide with alarm; probably at sight of the red glow of humiliated anger that Demona knew was flashing in her own eyes.

Then Kusa was there, with calm words and cool firm hands, emanating 'instructor' from every pore and swiftly cooling Demona's ire. "Di-mono, you actually lasted ten seconds longer than I had thought you would. Your old clan does not teach judo, but they have taught the basics of grappling, and the moves you made just now tell me that it will not take long for you to learn our fighting styles. Kaze, well done; your throw was perfect. But Di-mono's punch came within a hair's breadth of laying you out on the mat instead; you were almost too slow in dodging it. Remember what you were taught about anticipating moves by observing your opponent's torso; the energy flows from the center. Now clear the mats; let Kyuuka and Yama spar in your place. You will have a rematch later, but for now, Di-mono, watch and learn…"

Demona had watched Yama fight before, first in New York when they were all battling for their lives and later from the door of the dojo, glancing in while doing the menial duties the clan had assigned her as part of her punishment. But this was the first time she'd had the opportunity to really observe him in combat up close, without any distractions. And he was very good indeed… lightning-quick, every move sure, every dodge and every blow perfectly timed. Kyuuka was also clearly skilled in the martial arts, but still lasted no longer against him than Demona had against Kaze.

Goliath was very strong, incredibly tough, and reasonably quick as well; he'd been the greatest warrior of their rookery generation. Demona wondered idly how a match between Goliath and Yama would play out. If Goliath could land one solid punch, the match would be over immediately, but if Yama was too quick for him to land a solid blow…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Two nights later:

The air was clear, and the winds coming from the sea were gentle and steady, with few unexpected gusts; good weather for gliding. Kaze leaped off the walls to start patrolling with Di-Mono, both of them in a good mood after watching the hatchlings' gliding practices earlier. Hatchling antics nearly always provided the clan with humorous moments to gossip about, and tonight's practice had been a fine example. Little Koeda had missed gliding through a hoop in the obstacle course that had been improvised for the hatchlings, then tried to double back for it, but dipped too low and nearly ran right into the elder who'd been holding the hoop up high for her. When he'd dodged in alarm and let go of the hoop, it had ended up neatly looped around Koeda's neck like a giant necklace!

Garena, the newcomer hatchling, had proven herself to be an incredibly talented glider for her age; she'd flown the obstacle course without a single error, and in nearly half the time of any other hatchling in the rookery. Marakita and Kuwarzo had been puffed up with pride over her performance, and while the clan still quietly wished those two would shut up about her being their direct offspring, everyone had to admit that they had taught Garena very well indeed.

"When Garena's grown, she'll probably be able to match Kumo in flight, and he's the fastest glider in the whole clan," Kaze commented to Di-mono as they soared towards the edge of the clan's territory, gliding parallel to the main road to the village. "In the old times, she'd probably be trained as a special courier; one of the gargoyles that carried messages between the clan and the daimyo, or between here and the clan on Kyushu. But nowadays, she—hmm? Look!" as she pointed down. "Those are tire tracks, heading off the road and into the woods!"

"And there are no skid marks on the road," Di-mono concluded after looking at the asphalt. "No one lost control of their vehicle here; this was deliberate."

"And if we haven't seen any sign of tire tracks leading back out…" they exchanged grim looks, then began following the tire tracks as best they could from above the trees. Most of the evergreen trees in this part had been planted many decades ago, as part of the reforestation project created by Kai's predecessor Shourou; the clan had hoped that increasing the size of the forest would bring back some larger game for them to hunt. No deer or other large animals had returned in the decades since, but the rabbit and small game population had boomed, and the trees had grown into a thick canopy that covered the tire tracks from their view for several meters at a time.

Kaze's alarm grew as they followed the tracks; whoever was driving the off-road vehicle, was heading in the direction of the temple. She didn't hear the engine operating, and on a clear night like tonight she should be able to hear it from quite a distance, even through the tree cover. They were less than four kilometers away from the temple, and the vehicle was still far ahead of them; how close was it to her home now, with its still-unknown occupants?

"You'd better radio the temple," Kaze called over to Di-mono, who was gliding two wingspans away with the two-way radio in her talons. "Tell them to beat the taiko and get everyone to cover; better safe than--" and then she stopped, as she heard humans muttering and hurried movement from the forest right below them. Instead of being far ahead of her, the strangers were close by; they must have stopped their car for some reason—and they'd heard her!

"LOOK OUT!" Di-mono shouted, as a flicker of red light appeared, gleaming through the leaves. Startled, Kaze pulled back and up, even as Di-mono twisted to throw herself in front of Kaze's glide path

and the flicker of red became a thin beam of red light that hit Di-mono's wing

and cut through the blue membrane

and the wing

came off

and Di-mono, screaming, fell crashing into the trees below them.

Kaze shrieked in horror as she wheeled away to flee, to glide as fast and far as possible—

But caught herself a moment later, after she'd gone barely thirty meters. Stupid scared hatchling! And Kaze was no hatchling, as she harshly reminded herself; she was a warrior! And a warrior did not run from battle!

But how could she fight a foe she still hadn't seen, especially when they had distance weapons and she didn't?

Kaze perched in the upper branches of a tree, panting and glaring fiercely in the direction of that—laser, it must have been another one of those cursed lasers like the ones Taro had used against the clan, but made to kill instead of just stun—while she forced herself to think of strategies and options.

Fighting the invaders by herself was just not an option. They were on the ground but the visual advantage was on their side, not hers; they probably even had night-vision or infrared goggles on, to have been able to see her and Demona gliding above the tree cover. And with that laser they could kill her before she could lay a talon on them. She couldn't call the clan for help on the radio; that had gone down with Di-mono (oh, the poor gaijin! She'd been with them for so short a time… stop that, grieve later, think now!) Nor could she just glide past them to get help; the invaders were between her and the village walls. But the clan had to be warned, before the invaders reached their home!

She'd have to go the long way around them, gliding fast but keeping to the treetops instead of the open sky, so she wouldn't be silhouetted against the stars. And she'd keep her oni-damned mouth shut this time, instead of calling out like a brainless hatchling and giving her position away!

She spared a moment to pray to that Di-mono had died in that terrible fall from the sky; Bushido said it was better to suffer a swift death, than to fall still living into the hands of the enemy! Then she launched, heading west-southwest. 100 meters in that direction, until there was no chance they could see her through the trees even with night-vision goggles; then she'd head straight as an arrow for the temple. Please, Great Dragons, lend speed to her wings…

And she heard more screaming behind her. Oh Dragons, no; they had captured Di-mono still alive! She was screaming in pain—

But the screamer had a man's voice!

And now she heard Di-mono; that was definitely a battle-roar! And if Di-mono had one of the invaders screaming, that meant she was fighting them! Fighting them even after she'd lost a wing; incredible!

Kaze wheeled about again, heading straight for the sounds of fighting. She would not abandon her new clan-sister in battle!

Following the screams and roars, she burst through the tree cover just in time to see Di-mono and the humans she was fighting with. Ninjas, armed sneak-thieves or assassins; three of them! No, four, or there had been four; there was a black-clad form lying on the ground against that tree. She reminded herself to think strategically; take out the nastiest weapon first—where was the laser?! Which foe was holding it?! It probably looked something like a rifle—

There, on the ground! That rifle-like weapon, a few meters away from where lay the man Di-mono had already taken down; she must have taken it from him!

But now one of the three ninjas still on his feet—no, only two still standing, as Di-mono punched the third so hard he went flying backwards like he'd been shot from a cannon; what a punch—Kaze berated herself to stay focused; keep them from getting that laser! She swooped down on the ninja that was running for the laser rifle, and did the maneuver Kusa had taught her; grab the opponent's shoulder while passing in flight, let the sudden drag swing her around with her other fist up and ready—impact, right in the face!

The ninja dropped in his tracks as she tried to twist around and push off with her legs straight from the ninja's torso, shoving him further back while sending herself further towards her goal. But she didn't time it right, and ended up tumbling to land on her side in front of the unconscious ninja—terrible landing, Kusa would scold her for that. But that made three down, with only one left to deal with—and that laser rifle still lying loose; could she use it to get the last one to surrender? As Kaze got up on all fours and scrambled for the weapon, she thought to herself that she'd never used any sort of gun before, but if she just aimed it at the ninja and snarled a lot, maybe he'd be scared enough to surrender instead of calling her bluff…

Kaze's mad scramble slowed to a halt, as she sat back on her haunches and stared at the laser rifle right in front of her.

And at the human hand still clutching it. And the arm attached to the hand.

A black-clad arm that ended at the shoulder, and now she stared over at the first ninja she'd seen, the one Di-mono had… had literally disarmed. Blood had spread out nearly two meters away from the one-armed corpse; so much blood, she'd never seen so much blood...

Another scream ripped through the night air, and she whipped around just in time to see Di-mono grab the last ninja from behind; he'd been running away. As he was swung around to face Di-mono, the ninja begged, "Please, let me go! It wasn't my idea to use the laser on you, I never wanted to hurt anyone! I swear I'll leave and never return; I won't tell anyone that oni really exist! Just let me go, please don't kill me!" But Di-mono only snarled at him—something in the American tongue, Kaze thought, but she had no idea what—and then Di-mono lifted her right foot high, with her knee to her chest. Then she snarled something else in her foreign tongue, but this time included one word that Kaze knew; hara-kiri. And then the foot came down

and talons sunk into the ninja's torso, ripping through clothing and flesh

and the ninja screamed again, a death-cry, as his innards were ripped out to spill upon the forest floor. Intestines and blood and so much gore…

Di-mono scornfully let the corpse-to-be drop, his last moans muffled as he bled out face-down on the forest floor.

Her mind gone numb, Kaze walked over to the fourth ninja, the one she'd seen get punched so hard he'd gone flying backwards. Yes, that one was dead too; unseeing eyes stared back at her above a chest that had been visibly caved in.

They… they had been armed with deadly weapons, and heading for her home. The old warriors of legend would have slaughtered them without a second thought. She should be glad that they were dead; they were enemies, they'd proven their evil intentions by—

By hurting a gargoyle, crippling her in one of the worst ways possible! Kaze whipped around again, to find Di-mono, panting now that the battle was over, leaning on the frame of the off-road vehicle while rummaging through the contents of the back seat. With Dimono facing away from her, the left wing—or what was left of it—was in full view…

"Ju ban kami," Kaze moaned, staring at the seared stump of the wing. To be denied the sky forever, so soon after regaining it… Di-mono would commit seppuku for sure, but the clan couldn't lose her now! "Y-Yama will love you no matter what, Di-mono! He will! And, and Kai will honor you above all, and everyone will sing praise of your fighting skills; you've just proven you're even deadlier than Setsu!"

"Just… find my wing," Di-mono rasped, bent over and panting harshly from pain, while wiping some of the gore off her body with a canvas sack she'd grabbed from the vehicle. "It must have fallen somewhere near here…"

"Y-your wing? Oh, of course! Yes, that's it; if it was a clean cut, then maybe it can be attached again! Why, I read just last year about a human who lost an arm in an industrial accident, and got it surgically reattached!" Kaze babbled as she began searching high and low for the rest of the wing. "And Kado's the greatest healer the clan has ever had; between his skills and stone sleep, your wing will be good as new by next sunset!" And she tried hard to ignore that little voice inside her head, from Kado's biology and anatomy lectures years ago; the one that reminded her that sunrise and stone sleep were several hours away, and that severed wing would turn to gravel long before then…

Finally, she found the wing; still stuck up in a tree, looking like a child's kite that had been handled carelessly and broken. She carefully got it down, trying hard not to look at the seared edge where the laser had burned right through it—seared like from a fire, and fire scars were so awful, she knew they never healed right--then ran with it over to Di-mono. "See, here's your wing! Now let's get you back to Kado, and he'll fix you up good as new!"

"I… don't need Kado's help," Di-mono muttered, as she took the wing from Kaze's trembling grip. Di-Mono grimaced as she brought the left stump as far forward as she could, then jammed the severed strut of the wing against the stump; Kaze heard a muffled, awful clacking sound as the pieces of bone banged together. "Just help me hold it all in place… yes, I mean it! Help me, now! Match the edges together, all the way down to the bottom; do you want me to have a great gaping hole in the middle?!"

Kaze found herself kneeling behind Di-mono, numbly holding the severed edges of her ruined wing together. Poor Di-mono, she was going insane from the loss of her wing, and all Kaze could do was humor her until she finally fainted from shock…

And as she held the edges together…

right in front of her eyes…

It was impossible, it was completely impossible. But the edges were slowly growing together, becoming one flesh again, with just a thick scar to show where the wing had been severed…

And even the scar was becoming thinner and thinner and now it was gone!

Kaze became aware that she'd scooted several feet backwards and away from Di-mono, while still on her knees. She lurched to her feet, fighting the impulse to scramble very quickly indeed up the nearest tree, away from the impossible. "H…how did you do that? Di-mono, how did you do that? I-I've never heard of… even in the legends, only the oni can—Di-mono, are you an oni?!"

Di-mono flapped her wings once or twice, testing them both, before refurling them as she turned around and sighed, "No, but it's hardly the first time I've been called a demon."

"W-what are you?!?"

"I'm a gargoyle, just like you. Kaze, please…" Di-mono reached out a hand to her imploringly, but Kaze couldn't help flinching away; after being ambushed with lasers, the bloody battle, and what she'd just seen happen right in front of her eyes, her nerves were utterly shot. And finally, Di-mono sighed, lowering her arm as she shook her head. "I just can't deal with this tonight."

Di-mono couldn't deal with this?!

And then Di-mono touched the big stone pendant Kai had given her, and her eyes flashed red as she said in oddly ringing tones, "Clear the mind of that which worries…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

While they were on the last leg of their patrol, Kaze flexed her hand in mild puzzlement. Why did it feel a bit sore tonight, like she'd been sparring again? She didn't remember hitting anything…

Just before they came to the village walls, Di-mono slowed in the air as she said to Kaze, "Would you mind making our patrol report by yourself, Kaze?"

"Since there's basically nothing to report, of course," Kaze said with a shrug and a smile. "Still feeling the need to embrace the winds?" It was a rhetorical question; Kaze knew that if she herself was ever denied the sky for an entire moon's cycle, she'd surely spend most of the next few weeks airborne, just for the sheer joy of it.

"Yes… and the need to practice my hunting skills more. I did catch a few rabbits when I was hunting with Mizuumi, but I still let two of them escape me; I used to be a much better hunter than that! So tonight I'm going to hunt for my own dinner; my old mentors always said that hunger is a swift teacher. Would you let the others know; tell them that I need to do this alone?"

"Of course," Kusa said with a nod and another smile. She'd done the same thing herself, nearly a decade ago; most gakuto did at one point or another. With most of their food coming from fishing or farming instead of hunting, the clan had long since done away with hunting trials as part of the adulthood rites, but nearly every gakusei still felt the need to prove himself or herself a capable hunter in the eyes of their peers. "Good hunting, and may your prey be fat and juicy!"

They parted with a wave to each other and Kaze headed in to report, and to let the next patrol know to steer clear of Di-mono while she was hunting. Kaze remembered fondly her own solo hunt, and how she'd brought back two juicy rabbits to share with Udo. And two nights later Udo had gone out hunting and brought back two rabbits and even a good-sized gopher, which was a rare prize indeed for a gargoyle. And while she'd been eating the gopher, he'd finally gotten up the nerve to invite her to the formal tea ceremony… Ooohh, there was a thought; after Di-mono caught her own dinner, would she bring back a rabbit to share with Yama? The gaijin female kept insisting that she and Yama were only friends, but Kaze had seen how avidly she'd been watching him during the sparring session…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Demona sighed with relief, as Kaze headed for the village. Right after casting the spell, she'd kicked herself good and hard for not practicing it on a human first; what if it completely cleared the mind of her young friend, and made Kaze forget everything she'd ever known?!

But the spell embedded in the amulet had performed just as she'd thought it would, after Kai had told her what the words inscribed into it meant. With her sorcerous talent and training, she'd sensed the magical energy imbued in the amulet the very first time she'd seen it on the temple wall, but hadn't known what it could do; she'd only sensed that its creator had meant it to be used for the protection of gargoyles. But with clearly a lot less power than the Praying Gargoyle, and having been made by someone from an entirely different school of magic than she'd been trained in, she'd decided then that she wouldn't take it down from the wall and experiment with it until after she'd learned more about it.

Fukuda Takemi had clearly been a self-taught mage, practicing his powers in secret; if he'd been properly taught, his mentor would have told him about the hazards involved in imbuing a talisman with magical power. With no mentor, he'd made the usual fatal mistake of not installing magical limits and partitions, and the act of imbuing the amulet had taken all his physical energy as well as all his magical energy, in that way the old Archmage had scornfully called 'suicide by talisman'. And since no one had known of his magical talent or apparently had any such ability themselves, no one in the clan or village had suspected that the amulet was anything more than a stone pendant with a few words chiseled into it.

It was really ironic to think that the clan had been forced for the last two centuries to make do with hallucinogenic drugs and acts of craziness, to fool strangers who discovered them into thinking they hadn't actually seen living gargoyles… when a talisman that would make the strangers forget them entirely had been hanging on a wall all that time, just waiting for someone to use it!

And even more ironic that this pendant, created for the protection of gargoyles, had first been used against a gargoyle. Demona still felt a little bad about that, even now that she knew that Kaze hadn't been harmed by the spell of forgetfulness. But she just didn't want to deal with it all right now; with the stares and suspicion and fear and even hatred that she knew everyone would treat her with, once they knew about her immortality. Even if she hadn't put the wing back in place and let the Weird Sisters' spell reattach it, the secret would have been out before sunrise; the last time that had happened to her, during the Inquisition, new wings had started to grow outwards within hours of those cursed humans having ripped them from her back.

Once the clan knew about her immortality, it wouldn't take long at all for someone to make the connection between her and the blue-skinned, red-maned foreign gargoyle that had been involved in the massacre of the Yatsushiro clan. And then the thin tissue of lies and half-truths she'd created would fall apart, and Kai would cast her out; she'd be without a clan once more. She knew that eventually, at the very least when she didn't age alongside the others in the coming decades, the truth would come out… but she preferred to stave that off for as long as possible.

And in the meantime, she had something else to deal with. Once she was sure that none of the sentries on the walls were looking in her direction, she glided straight back to the site of the battle.

The jeep that the humans had been driving was right where she'd left it, with the corpses piled in the back. The one that Kaze had left alive was still sitting in the front passenger seat, bound and gagged with strips that Demona had torn from his dead comrades' clothes. He was awake now, his eyes wide with fear, and making muffled noises through the makeshift gag.

"Trying to say something?" she asked him with a smile that showed her fangs, as she landed next to the jeep, tucked her wings and climbed into the driver's seat. "Rest assured, I'm very interested in what you have to say… but first, let's go somewhere that we won't be disturbed by anyone more… soft-hearted."

The driving lessons she'd just had served her well; she was able to maneuver the car back through the trees to the highway, retracing the tire tracks the intruders had made. After making it to the highway, she parked the car on the roadside just long enough to climb a nearby evergreen tree, break off a few branches and shake them vigorously over the tire tracks leaving and returning to the highway. The snow fell off the branches and scattered over the tracks, not quite obscuring them but making it look like they were from before the last snowfall, two days ago, instead of fresh. That would do for a quick cover-up, though she'd have to scatter a lot more snow afterwards, and hope in the meantime that the next patrol didn't come close enough to smell the blood drenching the spot the battle had taken place in.

Fortune was with her still, as in the middle of the night and so far from any sizeable cities, there were no cars coming in either direction; she had the road all to herself. She got back in the car and drove further south for another two kilometers, well past the southern border of the clan's territory. When she'd judged they were well out of hearing range of a gargoyle patrol, she pulled off the highway and drove into the woods again.

Once they were out of sight of the road, she turned off the ignition, then turned to her captive and said sweetly, "Do you want to talk now, human?" When the human just stared at her wide-eyed over the gag, she continued, "Not that it matters what you want, really; you'll still tell me everything you know. You see, I've learned a lot from what you humans have done, to me and to your own fellow humans, over the centuries. Including the many, many ways to make someone talk when they're not willing. Let me show you…"

And the human did indeed talk, a great deal. Actually, he did a great deal more screaming, but that didn't bother her in the slightest. In between useless pleadings and worthless details about the family the man had left behind in Tokyo, she learned that he and the other three were professional thieves, who had been hired by Takahata Hayao to clandestinely loot the Ishimuran temple of many of its smaller heirlooms and treasures. They'd been told that the temple had many statues of hideous or fearsome-looking creatures, but had no idea that the statues turned into living gargoyles at night. The thieves' plan had been to approach the temple from the forest instead of going through the town, and use the industrial laser to carve themselves an entrance in the temple's back wall. Once inside the temple, they had been provided with a sketch of the temple layout and a sheaf of photos of the items they were to steal.

While the human mewled in agony on the ground—he had no more voice left for screaming, but the latest technique Demona had used on him had still evoked a response—Demona leafed through the sheaf of photographs, noting that none of the targeted items were gargoyle statues; evidently they had been judged too large and heavy to steal easily. Nor was the stone amulet in any of the photographs; she took that as evidence that Takahata Hayao had no sorcerous talent, just typical human greed.

After she'd learned how and when the thieves were to contact Takahata again once the theft had been accomplished, she put the human out of his misery by kicking him over onto his back, then raking her toe-talons across his throat. Blood spurted out as he gurgled his last breath, and she cleaned her foot by wiggling her toes in a snowdrift, then contemptuously flicked the crimsoned snow flecks off her foot onto the still-warm corpse.

Two days, she mused to herself. The thieves' leader had agreed to meet with Takahata Hayao in a restaurant in downtown Tokyo in two days, prior to handing over the temple's treasures in exchange for huge sums of cash. Two days didn't give her a great deal of time to come up with a plan… but if there was one thing that she had learned as a businesswoman, it was that time is money. And if one is willing to spend enough money, two days can be more than enough time.

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

The next afternoon, Masamune Ichiro was sitting at his mayoral desk, reading the sports section of the Tokyo newspaper, when Fukuda Hiroshi walked in. "Greetings, old friend; have you had lunch yet?" he asked as he glanced up from an accounting of the latest sumo tournament—and set the paper aside when he saw Hiroshi's grim expression.

"Thank you for asking, but I have no appetite at the moment," Hiroshi said. "You asked me yesterday to discover any news that could be found of Fubitobe Wataru..."

Fubitobe Wataru was the information broker in Osaka, the one Ichiro had contacted about buying whatever information he could secretly uncover about the Light Lime company and their plans for the dome. It had been two days since the deadline that they had agreed upon, for obtaining the information; Fubitobe had said at the start that he would call to arrange a meeting for buying his information, but the call had not come. Ichiro asked, "You found out something? I suppose he's been arrested?" It would be just their luck if Fubitobe had been arrested by the Osaka authorities for corporate espionage…

"No, not arrested; he's dead. He was found dead in his office three days ago. His secretary returned from lunch to find him on a white cloth that had been draped over the carpet, with an ornamented letter opener buried in his guts. The Osaka authorities are calling it hara-kiri."

"The Osaka authorities are calling it hara-kiri… but you are not?" Ichiro asked, as he studied Hiroshi's cold grim face.

"No, I am not," Hiroshi said with a sharp shake of his head. "The detective I spoke to said that the letter opener was a valuable European antique, and the man's secretary told them he'd owned it for many years. Only his fingerprints were on it, and it was certainly sharp enough… but Fubitobe had a katana and wakizashi, real weapons instead of dull replicas, mounted on a rack behind his desk. Why would he use a gaijin antique to take the last path back to honor, when weapons that his ancestors would surely be more approving of were close at hand?"

"Why, indeed," Ichiro agreed, frowning.

Hiroshi continued, "And while Fubitobe was publicly a trader in antiques, we both know he was also engaged in another business; trading other people's secrets for money. A dishonorable business that he had been in for many years, from what your contact in Osaka had told you of him. Such men typically would no more think of committing seppuku, than they would of giving up everything they owned and becoming Buddhist monks."

"So you believe it was actually a murder, set up to look like a suicide?"

"Hai. The only way I would be more sure, is if Fubitobe's ghost appeared and begged me to avenge his death. Someone killed him or had him killed, probably to silence him. The question is, who did it… and what information were they willing to kill to keep secret?"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

During rush hours in Tokyo, the subways are typically packed to nearly 200% of their designed capacity with people going to work in the morning, and going home again in the evening. So crowded that the subway lines hire attendants at the peak hours, white-gloved 'tushy pushers' whose job is to literally shove people into the cars, packing them in like sardines. People have been known to faint from the stifling crush of humanity, but remain upright because there is simply no room for them to fall over until some passengers get out at the next stop.

At other times of the day, such as midday, the subways aren't quite that bad. But they're still crowded enough to make the typical New York subway look practically empty in comparison. The 11:30 train on the Saikyo line was packed with people from every walk of life:

Mononabe Yone glanced at his watch, wondering if he'd have enough time after getting off the subway to stop at a soba-ya stand for a quick lunch before meeting his next client. His stomach was already rumbling, but he didn't dare be late—

On one of the seats reserved for women with young children, Kijibe Fuyuko sat on her mother's lap while clutching her Hello Kitty doll, a birthday present she'd been given just that morning. This was the best birthday ever! They were going to meet Father for lunch, and then they would go to the aquarium! She hoped she would see—

Ayabe Tamako glanced at the mother and child, and her heart fluttered in anxiety as she again thought of the pregnancy testing kit in her purse, bought in the pharmacy that was between her office and the subway station. She was desperate to use it and have her suspicions confirmed… but what would she do if the test was positive? She was—

That young lady was scandalously dressed; her skirt ended above the knees! Young people nowadays just had no sense of modesty; that was the problem with society these days. Just one of the problems, really, Masahashi Yume thought to herself with an inaudible sniff of disdain. Why, back when she'd been a young lady, there had been—

The old woman looked far too much like his own grandmother, and Eikawa Juniro looked away, as his heart tightened in his chest. She'd been dead for over a year now, but he missed her more than ever. She'd been the only one in the family to support him when he'd switched majors in college, from computer programming to acupuncture; his father had threatened to not only beat him senseless, but cut off his funding unless he changed his mind—

Yugebe Isamu quietly drew back, as the young man whose pocket he'd been about to pick turned in his direction. Had he been detected? Perhaps not; the youth's face was grieving instead of outraged or fearful. But still, while they were now face-to-face was hardly the best time to try anything. And they were packed in too tightly for him to go find another victim, without drawing attention to himself; he'd have to wait until the next stop, when people started moving again. That was the best time to pick pockets; when people were preoccupied with getting on or off, or trying not to get shoved out the doors by everyone else. But that bulge in the youth's pocket promised a nice fat wallet for his efforts, if he could just get him distracted and looking in the wrong direction again. Maybe if he—

Tabe Masaru knew that guy, had seen him around for the last few months, and was pretty sure by now that he was a pickpocket. Should he say something to the others on board? He snorted to himself. Yeah, right; who would they believe, the well-dressed man or the one who looked like he'd slept in his clothes? Which he had, but at least he'd washed them and had a bath last week—or was it the week before? They all ran together after a while. But he'd make it, he'd be on top again one of these days; he just needed a lucky break, that's all—

The wino in front of her stank to the heavens of cheap sake, but Yamamura Fumiko could deal with that. It didn't bother her nearly as much as the humiliating groping she'd endured from a chikan that morning; one of the notorious subway molesters who took advantage of the crowded conditions at rush hours to grope and fondle women who couldn't get away from them. The first time that had happened to her, three years ago, she'd complained to the subway authorities and police, but it had done no good. When the crush of people had lessened enough for her to finally turn around and confront the bastard who'd been groping her from behind, she'd found herself facing three middle-aged men all looking impassively back at her; there'd been no way to prove to the authorities which of them had done it. She hadn't been able to turn and identify the chikan this morning, either; wedged in by people on either side, unable to turn around even while a hand was slipping inside her blouse and unhooking her bra! When she got off work, she was going to buy an entire new outfit and then throw the clothes she was wearing in the trash; she'd never again wear—

Osabe Tadashi tapped his pocket once more, checking that the small box was still securely tucked away. He and his wife were celebrating their tenth anniversary, and he couldn't wait to see her face when she opened the box and saw the necklace he'd bought for her. He'd had to get by with eating nothing but rice for lunch for nearly six months straight, to scrimp and save up enough money for the necklace. But it would all be worth it when she saw—

Takeshima Tsuruko nervously smoothed her skirt, and fought the impulse to once again check her briefcase and make sure her portfolio was perfect. She'd already checked it twice that morning, and now was certainly not a good time to check it again, while on a crowded subway. But she was so anxious for the interview to go well; she really needed this job! She'd been downsized at her last company after they'd lost that big contract to the Koreans; if she didn't find another job soon, she'd have to go back to living with—

Takahata Hayao glared at the young female worker who'd bumped his leg with a briefcase, and shuffled back another foot. One of the many reasons why he preferred to stay in Kyoto, rather than travel to Tokyo; Tokyo at its best was still far more crowded than Kyoto, except on the biggest holidays. And it seemed that whenever he traveled here, instead of at its best he saw the city at its worst. Massive crowds, people forgetting their manners, streets too clogged with traffic to even think of driving his own car around, and garish modern advertisements plastered on every surface as people disdained their own rich heritage in favor of gaijin toys and junk. Why hadn't the thieves' ringleader agreed to meet him in Kyoto to hand over the goods, instead of insisting he travel to Tokyo? Probably because he—

Stressed. Calm. Outraged. Grieving. Happy. Angry. Preoccupied with their own thoughts, most of the people aboard the subway didn't even look up when the next stop was announced, unless it was their own. Ninety-five people got off at the stop, including a very tall woman who wore a scarf over her black hair, and peered at the world through thick glasses (Osabe Tadashi had noticed her and thought she might be beautiful, even a fashion model, if she just switched to contacts.) One hundred thirteen more people got on, filling the subway train to well past its official capacity of 1,200 people, as the doors closed and the train began to rumble down the tracks.

Thirty seconds after leaving the station, WHOOOOMPH!!!! as the subway's third car exploded.

One hundred thirty-eight people died instantly, in the first massive fireball; blown apart limb from limb, beheaded by flying chunks of debris, crushed into a crimson chunky stew by their flying impact against the walls of the cars or the sides of the subway tunnel.

Three hundred seventy-two people died a little more slowly, as the wreckage of the train tumbled to a burning halt. Screams dwindled to whimpers and finally stopped, as some bled out from various mortal wounds. Others were burned alive in the inferno that had swallowed the third car and was spreading to the others. Still more people asphyxiated, suffocating in the smoke and fumes of burning metal, plastic and human flesh.

As the newspapers would later recount, ninety-seven of the people who were pulled alive from the wreckage died before arriving at the hospitals, or while waiting for care in the suddenly overloaded emergency rooms and trauma wards.

Four hundred sixty-nine more people survived with injuries, ranging from minor to crippling and/or permanently disfiguring. Amazingly, over a hundred more people were only shaken up by the wreck, and determined to return to work, their studies or their families as soon as the police and the paramedics allowed them to depart.

But all that Dominique Destine cared about, as she read and listened to the news coverage of the event, was that Takahata Hayao was not one of the survivors.

Dominique had long since changed clothes and discreetly disposed of the dress she'd been wearing, as well as the scarf, the black wig, the fake glasses, and the detonator for the bomb. She'd been quite sure that the explosion would kill him, as the bomb had been planted not ten feet from where he'd been standing before she'd left the subway car. But it had still been good to confirm the kill, a third of the way down the list of bodies that had already been identified. (Some humans were notoriously hard to kill, such as the Maza slut; that bitch would probably outlive a nuclear holocaust, like the cockroach she was inside.)

Takahata Hayao was dead, and as the explosion had claimed so many other humans, there was nothing about that one particular death to make the police suspect it had anything to do with Ishimura. Indeed, as she'd been counting on, a terrorist organization that called itself the Bright Path was already taking advantage of her deed, claiming it as their own. The newspaper reported that the Bright Path was threatening to unleash more explosions, unless Japan severed all contact with the West and returned to a more traditional way of life. Fools indeed, but if there was one thing she could count on, it was for humans to be foolish.

Well, that was one threat to her new clan that had been quite thoroughly dealt with. She'd taken the precaution of killing the man who had sold her the bomb and detonator, on the off chance that he would have an attack of conscience after seeing the news and tell the police about her. The thieves who'd seen her and Kaze were already buried, and it was extremely unlikely that their bodies would be found. And now Takahata Hayao wouldn't be sending anyone else to Ishimura, to plunder the temple's treasures and even indirectly threaten to expose the clan and their precious hatchlings.

But speaking of the hatchlings, she still had to think of some suitable souvenirs to pick up for them all; she'd promised before leaving yesterday (on a business trip, to see about possibly opening a branch of Nightstone Unlimited in Tokyo, she'd told those who asked) that she'd bring them back some souvenir of the big city. But what would be suitable for souvenirs? It would have to be something sturdy, to survive hatchlings' talons for more than a night or two. But nothing too expensive, either; she didn't want to be accused of spoiling the dears.

She finally decided to just wander through a multi-storied shopping mall, from top to bottom, until something suitable caught her eye. And while she was at it, to find a souvenir or two for little Mikiko, such a sweet human child. Mikiko's favorite color was fuchsia; maybe a new dress in that color? But if she guessed the size wrong, if it was too small or too big… perhaps something for her hair, then. Or the latest album of that band she liked so much; what was it called again? Oh, and she should pick up something for Maseo, too. Yama had told her the boy was a promising artist…

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Hundreds of miles north of Tokyo, but some distance away from the city walls of Ishimura, a burly form loped through the forest while dusk fell as softly as yesterday's snow. Another snowfall was forecast, for the wee hours of the morning; the tracks that were being made would be covered before sunrise.

Nose wrinkled, as a familiar scent wafted by. Sniffing, sniffing… then digging, digging with sharp claws at the base of a boulder. After determining that the boulder had been moved recently, muscles bulged and grunts of exertion were heard as the boulder was slowly heaved and rolled away… to reveal a pit, narrow but deep, and filled with human bodies.

One of the corpses was pulled out and looked over. A deep chuckle, as the three-taloned slashes on the bodies were identified. "Yup; killed by gargoyles. And they'd told me that the gargoyles 'round here had gone all soft… This makes it more of a challenge. I like a challenge!"

More sniffing confirmed that the kill was fairly recent; only two or three days ago, and the cold weather had preserved the meat quite well. "Still pretty good. And waste not, want not…"

00oo00oo00oo00oo00

Footnotes & Glossary:

* December 1996 exchange rate: 115 yen = 1 US dollar. So 150,000 yen = approximately $1,300.00, which was worth a lot more in 1996 than it is now.

Chikoshou – an exclamation of dismay or disgust, equivalent to 'oh shit'

Furisode –a type of kimono, very colorful, worn by unmarried women once they have reached adulthood.

Genkakuzai– a hallucinogenic drug.

Hadajuban - the first undergarment worn in the kimono attire, worn next to the skin. Specially padded, not to emphasize female attributes but rather to minimize them, and make the torso more cylindrical.

Hai – yes

Hourmongi – another type of kimono, worn only by married women on formal occasions.

Nagajuban – the second undergarment worn in the kimono attire, to give more definition to the collar.

Oni – Japanese demons

Soba-ya – a lunch stand with a menu specializing in soba noodles.