Hi all, I know I’ve been silent for a long ass time… I built a house, have been working from home and teaching my kids while my wife, an essential worker, is out there keeping the country going. But I’ve still been writing! I’m honored to be one of the authors included in this Cyberpunk Anthology “Neo Cyberpunk” alongside the most prominent Cyberpunk authors in the business. Go get your copy, you will not be disappointed! Check out the epic trailer… I’m completely floored to be working with such talented people.
Author: Mark Everglade
Hemispheres, the new science fiction novel from Mark Everglade, is about a planet where half of it is always dark, and light itself is used as currency. A group of activists try to increase a tidal-locked planet’s rotation to bring light to everyone, so no one will be forced to live in darkness. They are opposed by powerful forces who desire to keep the light and dark sides as locked in their struggle against each other as the planet’s orbit.
Hemispheres Is a cyberpunk novel that paints itself across your mind in a landscape of descriptive metaphor. The stories of Severum Rivenshear, a mercenary hired by the government of Evig Natt on the planet’s dark side, and Thalassa Latimer,a rebel working to get the tidal-locked planet spinning faster to bring it daylight cycles, grow together into an adventure where allies and enemies are often interchangeable and the puppeteers pulling the strings are rarely seen. The novel has its own compelling slang, drawing you deep into its cable choked Darkside alleys with the Forever Glitched, and soaring above the Dayburn light side of the planet’s vistas of sun-bleached Windstone.
My first question for Mark was about something that, love it or hate it has been pivotal in the last few years; divisive politics. “Everything in this book centers around things that seem to be black and white at first, but then you present a third angle that shows innumerable shades of gray. The planet is harshly divided, light and dark sides, rebels and an authoritarian government, friends and enemies, but we quickly see that these absolutes are anything but. This seems to be a commentary on the current political and cultural conversation in the United States, was it your intention to draw that comparison?
Mark: Absolutely, Ben! Although I began writing the book 25 years ago, it has become more relevant every year in this regard. My goal was to show that any ideology taken to the extreme results in dystopia. Maybe it’s religious zealotry, maybe it’s conservative or liberal politics. When we cling to 100% right and wrong beliefs, then democracy dies and aristocracies capitalize on that, capitalize on our fear. In typical cyberpunk fashion, there are no 100% good guys, just anti-heroes trying to find their place in an oppressive system, but they each have to be willing to compromise something, and if they can’t, the planet will literally be torn asunder. It’s about the need for communicative action.
Severum anchors a foot behind himself for support and readies his arms. The bulge of weight hits him as he lowers his arms to absorb some of the impact. “Hopefully, you broke something, but something like your head. In other words, nothing too important,” he bends over to snatch the letter. “See you at work.”
“Go hack yourself, Sev! Sev? Hey, wait, my HUD’s out. I can’t phone for help! I can’t move! My leg…” he pleads, trying to bend it.
“I’ll make you a deal. I can either call for help and turn you into the Enforcers; I have the video right here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Or I can keep both the Enforcers and their medics out of this if you get some help for this addiction.”
“I don’t bargain. The law doesn’t allow you to shoot me down the way you did and I’ll turn you in. How about that?”
“Then maybe I should erase your datafeed,” Severum bluffs, bending down next to him with his Pulser drawn to his temple and grabbing his crumpled jacket.
“No, no, you’re right. Just leave. I’ll get help,” Trahiro replies, biting his lip until it bleeds.
“Tryin’ to assist here. No one’s answering your screams yet. City don’t care, see? But here, this’ll get you by for now,” he says, throwing him a couple temporary neuralmods the military offers so he doesn’t completely lose his mind. “I don’t want them. Have the pills call the medics for you.”
Trahiro’s fingers jump into Severum’s open palm, grabbing the mods as if they’ll vanish and popping them with a gulp. He clears his throat, jerks his head thrice, and says, “Medics? I don’t need no glitchin’ medics now. I don’t need your help or nothing, not nothing at all, not—”
The above excerpt from the first chapter led to a specific question about “modding” yourself. One of the things that struck me about the culture of the world you created is the danger posed by dangerous, addictive cybernetics. The people, even children, seem to take it for granted that some implants will fail, some software is inherently addictive and will lead to the eventual mental destruction of the person foolish or unlucky enough to get a bad piece of hardware or hack one too many neuralmods into their system. What role to you see cyberdrugs or mods or hacks having in society?
Mark: The current position of psychology is to over-medicate. This stems from pathologizing human nature itself, as if we, sculpted by millions of years of natural selection, are somehow dysfunctional at birth, which just isn’t true. In the book, these neuralmods basically mix the chemicals already in the human brain together to create drugs. When you build a pharmacy into someone’s mind, and you can order everything from an abortion pill, to the Sarah drug (named after serotonin), it can’t help but be tempting to download a quick fix, or chip-trip, just to avoid facing your deepest emotions. This quick-fix mentality leads to addiction and, while meds can be important, they don’t substitute for honest introspection and meditation. So yeah, it’s a growing issue even today.
Mark composed music specifically for the book, something rare and interesting, so I had to ask about it. I found the soundtrack you composed to accompany the first chapter, how does music influence your writing and is composing similar, different or totally entwined with writing for you?
Mark: Interesting question. When I need to write an action scene I need it to have a certain rhythm, so I blare Red Hot Chili Peppers. When I need a cold sounding scene, I blare Pineapple Thief. When I write a sex scene, well, people don’t need to know what I listen to in that case (laugh). Writing my own music, the songs inspire the emotion of the story, and then the emotion of the story feeds back into the music, so it’s a give and take between the two, a synergy.
The book ends neatly, tying up the loose ends and giving the reader a good feeling of closure, although there is room for a sequel. I asked Mark about his future projects. First, are you thinking of writing a sequel? The world you’ve created is an interesting one, and it would be interesting to see how the characters develop in the aftermath. Your writing style and your ability with multimedia makes me wonder if you might make this into an audiobook, maybe even a Graphic Audio style book with sound effects, voice actors and music. Do you have any plans along those lines? I know I’m hungry for more of your writing, and I’m sure your other readers will be as well.
Mark: I have actually just finished a very distant prequel called Digital Enlightenment which will publish in about 18 months, but it takes place on Earth and is more solarpunk, centering around our obsession with social media and our vulnerability to misinformation. A sequel would be cool, but the world of Hemispheres is a very dark place, and to write it, I have to visit that place in my mind over the course of 4,500 hours (the time it took to write). I’m not sure I want to live in that world another 4,500 hours for a sequel (laugh), but we’ll see… As for audiobooks, maybe, and a graphic novel – only if I met the right illustrator.
If you’re interested in reading Mark’s masterpiece, it is available for a limited time for free this weekend.
“Pardon the intrusion Mistress.” Tan Son Shu knelt outside the door, sliding the rice paper covered panel aside a few centimeters.
“Son Shu, you are a welcome intrusion.” Sai’Li said, “Come and have some sake with me.”
“Mistress, there is a man who claims to be from one of the Houses.” He said, still kneeling. “He wishes to respond to an offer?”
She moved a hand slightly and a black pearl the size of her thumb rolled from her sleeve. Even as it stopped rolling, it swelled into a glistening black spider the size of a Labrador and silently skittered out of the open window. Son Shu felt cold sweat break out on his forehead.
Sai’Li poured sake into a pair of beautifully lacquered cups and reclined on her couch, running her hands though the tiger’s fur that lay next to his own large dish of liquor. Her kimono was loose, showing the alabaster white of her legs all the way above her knees and parts of an intricate tattoo coming over her left shoulder.
“Come drink with us Son Shu.” She said with a smile, “Our guest will join us shortly.”
Not being able to ignore a direct command, he came and knelt at the low table. Lifting the cup, he took a sip and savored the exquisite taste. Sai’Li packed her kiseru with tobacco and struck a match, lighting it and exhaling a cloud of fragrant smoke. Son Shu found it easier to relax than he had anticipated, his mistress’s easy manner was infectious.
The elevator chimed and Son Shu looked to his mistress. She inclined her head and he went to the door. “Please master Yashida, won’t you join us for a drink?” He asked, sliding the door aside.
Tanaka was wearing a rumpled black suit and had an unlit cigarette clamped between his lips. Son Shu extended a lighter on reflex and Tanaka seemed to respond on reflex as well, leaning in to light his cigarette and bowing slightly to Sai’Li.
“Lady. Circumstances have caused me to reconsider your offer of patronage.” He said, stepping into the room.
“Please Tanaka, come and have sake with us.” Sai’Li said, “Let us discuss whatever troubles you. But I insist that you drink with me. I find sake to ease difficult conversations.”
He hesitated, but removed his shoes and came to kneel at the table. Sai’Li herself poured him a cup of sake. She waited for him to settle, taking the opportunity to refill her pipe.
“I find myself in need of assistance.” He began, “I am not certain what made me think you could offer it, but I had the idea that your offer of protection was genuine.”
“Indeed.” She said, exhaling smoke from her nostrils in curling trails. “I do not make promises lightly Tanaka Yashida, nor do I take them lightly. What promise are you making?”
Tanaka backed from the table and bowed from a kneeling positon, pressing his forehead to the floor. “If you can save my people, I swear fealty to you Lady. My blood shall be spilled at your whim. My life spent at your desire.”
“I do not spend the lives of those who swear themselves to me without cause.” Sai’Li said, “Although I must confess that blood may be a significant motivator. Do you promise me your blood?”
“I do.” He said without hesitation.
Sai’Li shivered and licked her lips. Tanaka noted that her canine teeth had grown long and sharp. “I claim you and your clan once more as mine. This pact shall be sealed in the old way, the ancient way. My way.”
“If it will help my people, I consent.” He said, “Please hurry.”
“In this matter, I shall take my time.” Said Sai’Li, she stood and swayed across the room, eyes smoldering. “You have my word that no more harm shall come to what is MINE.” At this last word, her eyes turned blood red
Her mouth opened wide and he saw those elongated fangs descending on his throat. He wasn’t just powerless to resist, he wanted to feel them pierce his skin. Tanaka Yashida lost himself in the terror of his new Lady’s kiss.
“We can’t keep having these losses boss.” Lon finished, shaking his head. “Five of our last six deposits got jacked, Shinji and Li got shot in the head in broad daylight and someone got into one of our bases last night and did something. Something weird. Must have been like a biological weapon or something.”
Tanaka poured him a glass of whisky, lit two cigarettes in his mouth and passed one over. “What do you mean weird?”
“They’d been melted boss.” He shuddered and took the drink with a nod of thanks, “I ain’t seen nothing like it. Like their flesh had been turned to jello.”
Tanaka poured whisky for Asahina and himself and took the opportunity to exchange a glance with her as she took the glass. She nodded slightly, it was magic.
“I dunno what to tell you, boss, I’m sorry.” Lon bowed his head, “I’ve failed you.”
“You should have brought this to me sooner Lon.” Tanaka said, “But I made you a captain because of your independence, so the failure is mine, not yours.”
Lon kept his head bowed until Tanaka slapped him lightly on both cheeks, “I need you at your best, not feeling sorry for yourself. Get back out there and keep your men vigilant. You can rely on me to handle the rest.”
“Yes boss. Thank you boss.” Lon said, standing and bowing deeply before backing out of the room.
“What do we do about this?” Tanaka asked Asahina, “Can you do anything to defend against whatever magical attack this is?”
“Let’s look at the facts.” Asahina said, “It appears most of these attacks have happened at night, other than the ones that seem to be from sniper fire. Since it seems Lon didn’t vary his patterns much, I think it may be time to put out some bait and see if we can catch ourselves a rat.”
Tanaka’s mouth spread into a humorless smile. “An excellent idea.”
The trap had been set, the bait dangled out for their enemy to see and all had been in readiness. Tanaka had been waiting on a rooftop with a sniper rifle and night vision scope. Asahina had been across the street on another rooftop, waiting to attack or defend with her magic as needed. Men had been positioned in cars and cafes, waiting to move in when their attacker fell into the trap.
That’s when everything went wrong.
Tanaka sent a perfectly spaced pair of bullets into the head of the first would-be assailant. He quickly turned his scope toward another figure and shot it in the chest, knocking it backward. Asahina’s voice sounded in his earpiece.
“Tanaka! Get out! GET OUT!”
He saw the flash of magic from the rooftop where she was stationed and saw a half dozen figures converging on her location. Before he could get a clear shot, a scrabbling sound made him look down. Figures were clawing their way up the side of the building with unnatural speed. Cursing under his breath, he dropped the rifle and took out his phone.
“I’m extracting, route three.” He said.
“Negative sir!” The voice on the other end said, “We’re being hit, use-“ The voice cut off to the sound of screaming and awful crunching sounds.
The first of the things climbing the building pulled itself over the edge of the roof and Tanaka put a bullet through its head, but the thing only seemed to find it a momentary inconvenience. A thrill of fear went down his back. He turned and ran, pulling a pair of grenades from his belt, tossing one behind him and dropping one as he ran through the door.
When the explosions shook the building he didn’t stop running until he was at the underground parking garage. He paused, catching his breath and loading a fresh magazine into his pistol. Looking through the small window, he could see several people who he was certain were waiting for him or his associates.
Tanaka opened the door and walked briskly out, ignoring the men who moved to flank him. When the first one was close enough to be an easy target, he shot both of the man’s kneecaps out. He knew the bullets wouldn’t kill whatever the things were, but nothing could run with the use of its legs. The momentary distraction was enough for him to run to his car. Silently cursing the necessity, he abandoned his men and ran.
Hey all, I’m home too. This pandemic has stranded me at home without social contact. I’m lucky enough to live in the middle of the woods with trails to hike and a forge where I can go and make axes and knives out of steel other people were throwing away, but I know some folks are stuck in cities and unable to even leave their houses for fear of exposure. So. I’m offering 50% off on ALL MY BOOKS at Smashwords. Here is the code for if you wanna buy my books for cheap. All you need to do is use the code PJ64N and you can get any or all my books for half price. I’m sitting here drinking a delicious glass of Irish Whisky, I raise it to your heath. I love my fans! Much love. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay sane.
“If you do be finding Cerioth, your best option do be running.” Durrak said, “If I no did be a fool, I no would be looking to fight with her. But she did be destroying Farenholm, killing all my people and taking up residence in the halls of my ancestors. For that, I do be owning her.”
“She ate my Master.” Callindra said, “I plan to cut her open and see if he’s still inside.”
With that, she turned and walked from the table. Lorin watched her go, eyes searching for a hint about what possible danger she thought she could pose to a fly, let alone a dragon.
“Did you be noticing her hands?” Durrak asked, “She do be a left handed fighter, light blade, fast footwork. She do be wearing that ‘lady’ disguise well.”
“You really think she’s dangerous?” Lorin asked, still mesmerized by the sway of her hips as she walked away. “Beautiful as a naked blade, but other than how she moves, I would never have guessed…”
“Oh, I do be certain, Lorin.” Durrak took a cigar from his pouch and blew a plume of dull red smoke to curl through the air. “If there do be one who might beat me to Cerioth, it do be her. We should be working together, but I no do be knowing if we can be trusting her.”
Abruptly, Lorin stood and hurried in the direction Callindra had gone. “What the hell, why don’t we ask her?” He said, giving Durrak a grin.
Callindra was worried about her friends after they hadn’t followed her in, but even more, now that The Order had threatened her in public. If Ellen Eth allowed this type of behavior at a ball, there was little doubt that worse was to come for guards and servants. She also wouldn’t be at all surprised if knives in the night were next.
As she walked toward the stairway where she’d come in, a guard stepped forward from an alcove where he had been watching unobtrusively. “Pardon Lady, but my Lady ‘Orien would like to speak with you.” He gestured toward a raised dais where she could see Ellen Eth sitting at a low marble table. The woman was staring at her.
“Of course, I would be delighted to make her acquaintance.” She said with forced enthusiasm. “I wouldn’t have thought she would want to meet me personally.”
“My Lady meets with all of her guests personally.” He said, “She only invites those with whom she wishes to speak. Lady ‘Orien finds these casual parties to be far preferable to a formal audience.”
“I see.” Callindra said, “It makes sense to wish to meet informally first.” It certainly did make sense. In this setting, most of her potential enemies would be unable to carry a weapon, and if they did, it would be difficult to conceal anything in formal wear.
With a nod to the guard, she made her way toward the dais. She saw movement out of the corner of her eye, glancing back she saw the Elf Lorin walking toward the guard with a purposeful stride. If he was following her, she decided to deal with him after Ellen Eth.
Callindra approached the table and curtseyed deeply while keeping eye contact. “Lady ‘Orien, it is a pleasure to meet you.” She said as she rose.
“Charmed, I’m sure.” Ellen Eth said, giving her a smile that did not touch her eyes. “I must say you are not at all what I imagined you would be.”
“We are rarely exactly as expected, Lady.” Said Callindra with a slight inclination of her head. “I trust the differences are positive ones?”
“Based on the exploits I’ve heard of the Adamantine Brotherhood and the reputation of battle mages from The Order, I rather thought you would be more martial in both appearance and manner.” She said, “I was surprised when you did not send Rrayu away and even more so when I heard the reports of your drastic changes in appearance and manner the evening you arrived.”
Callindra hesitated but decided that the truth was as likely to work as anything. “When my life required me to know how to be a warrior, I became a warrior. When I had to be a Lady, I learned to be a Lady.” She shrugged, “Off hand, I would say being a warrior is easier and less dangerous.”
Ellen Eth blinked, the only thing betraying her surprise. “Ah, well. I suppose your training to become The Sol’Estin could hardly have included courtly arts.”
A laugh burst from her before Callindra could stop it. “Oh, gods and demons no.” Just thinking about Glarian trying to teach her how to wear stays or walk in skirts nearly made her dissolve into helpless laughter again.
“Of course. Rumor has it that he was a bit of a recluse?” She gestured, and a servant stepped from the shadows with goblets and a pair of bottles. “Is it true that The Order disbarred him?”
“I don’t know all the history, but from what he told me, they could not remove him without trial by combat, and none of them had the skill or power to defeat him,” Callindra said, watching as the servant poured her a goblet of mead.
“Why would he break the bylaws and train a student after being forbidden to do so?” Ellen Eth mused, accepting a glass of dark red wine from the servant.
“I’m sure he had his reasons,” Callindra said, taking a sip of the excellent mead. “But I saw him practicing the Korumn and wouldn’t stop begging him to teach me the Sword until he agreed.” Her head felt lighter than it should. She’d never told anyone that before, and it seemed as though she should be thinking more before she answered.
Sai’Li paused at the entrance to the boardroom, stepping out of her sandals and padding on stocking feet to the spot at the low table they had set out for her. Everyone stood as she approached and they exchanged cautious bows and pleasant introductions before kneeling on the cushions. An attendant offered tea which she accepted, setting the porcelain cup on the table.
“Your invitation was most courteous and your hospitality likewise.” She said from behind her fan. “May I know the reason you asked me here?”
Tanaka opened a lacquered box on the table and withdrew a cigarette. He offered them, but Sai’Li instead reached into her sleeve and withdrew a jade and gold kiseru. She carefully tamped tobacco from a small golden box into the bowl and leaned forward to allow Tanaka to light it for her. The smoke smelled sweet and exotic, making Tanaka’s cigarette seem harsh and uncivilized.
“It seems as though there’s a bit of tension between you and the Yashida clan.” Tanaka said, “I’d like to put that to rest.”
“Disagreements are bad for business.” She said, exhaling a stream of smoke and taking a sip of tea.
“We sent two of our people to see you.” He said, “They never reported in.”
“Is that all this is about?” Asked Sai’Li, “I do have to congratulate you on the loyalty of your subordinates, they have been refusing to break their word despite not being allowed to depart while still in your service.”
“You have them?” Tanaka demanded, “Release them to me at once.”
“Now my dear Tanaka, I cannot allow disrespect to go unnoticed or unpunished.” She chided, “They are being treated well and I expect we shall have the opportunity to reunite you soon.”
“You are hardly in a position to negotiate.” Snarled Tanaka, “You came here without any support, for all that pet tiger of yours would be able to do against us.”
Her fan snapped shut with a crack and she fixed a glittering green eyed stare on him. “Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am in any way threatened by what little resistance you can offer.” Her kimono shifted color, becoming a pristine white with delicate black and gold spider webs covering it.
“You aren’t going to distract me with petty tricks and idle threats.” Tanaka said, “If we do not allow it, you will not leave here alive.”
“You do not have a choice whether I live or not Tanaka.” Sai’Li blew more scented smoke into the air. “I’m sure little Asahina has told you what I am.”
“You expect me to believe that line of shit?” Tanaka laughed, “I’m not-”
“I do not tolerate disrespect,” Sai’Li said calmly, taking another sip of her tea. “Please moderate your language. I am not offering any threat, nor do I intend to do so. Also, I am your guest who has kindly agreed to travel in order to meet you in person after you rudely sent your subordinates in response to my earlier request.”
She drew more smoke into her lungs and let it trail out from her nostrils. “Furthermore, I am sitting before you alone. A single woman surely does not provoke such a fearful reaction from a strong and powerful man like yourself who has a half dozen armed gunman itching to see what the color of my blood is.”
Tanaka brought himself under control with a visible effort. “Apologies for my outburst. If I may be so bold; as a gesture of good will would you return our retainers to us?”
“Perhaps.” Sai’Li tapped the ashes out of her kiseru and refilled it, lacquered nails clicking on the jade as she tapped the tobacco in. “I wish to ascertain your loyalties first.”
“I am loyal to my family,” Tanaka said.
“Who does your family owe loyalty to?” She asked, letting him light her kiseru.
“We are our own family.” He said, “We do not owe loyalty to anyone.”
“Is that what you believe?” Sai’Li raised an eyebrow, “If you read your histories I think you will find something different.”
Tanaka opened his mouth to answer, but Sai’Li moved her hand blindingly fast. Her fan snapped open between his head and the window. The sound of a bullet ricochet was followed almost immediately by the sound of a rifle shot. The delicate looking silk of her fan was unmarred, but the bullet clattered to the table mangled and bent. The guards leaped into action, two tackling Tanaka to the floor, one shouting instructions into an earpiece and another drawing a pistol and pointing it at Sai’Li.
Asahina waved a hand, stepping between the windows and Tanaka. A second gunshot glanced off an invisible shield that surrounded her before a bolt of black energy lanced from her finger to punch through the window of a building across the street. Tanaka snarled curses and his guards stood up but kept themselves between him and the window.
“It appears you have some things to deal with,” Sai’Li said calmly, tapping the ashes from her kiseru and stowing it. “As a benevolent gesture, I will return your people to you.”
She stood and took a ring off her finger, stretching it into an oval five feet tall. Looking through it, Tanaka could see a well appointed room with barred windows that looked out onto a cliff over the ocean. Ichi and Shinobu turned from the window to look at the portal in surprise.
“Your master has convinced me to be lenient.” Sai’Li said, “You are free to go.”
After they stepped through the portal cautiously, Sai’Li collapsed the ring and put it back on her finger. She turned to leave, “Come Ignis.”
There was suddenly a six hundred pound tiger in the room. It looked around at them all contemptuously before it began to fade from view again, starting from its tail until only the mouth and eyes remained. Those faded as too as they walked through the door.
“I appreciate you calling me with this Asahina.” Arclight said, “What has this so-called ‘Jade Lady’ done thus far?”
Asahina sipped whisky and frowned at the small figure standing above her communicator focus. Arclight was one of her contacts in the British Council where apparently taking a new name as a Journeyman mage was still in fashion. He didn’t sound very worried about the situation; but then again, he didn’t have much reason to be.
“I told you what she has been doing.” Asahina said a trifle impatiently, “She’s taken over an entire island, infiltrated every aspect of its business, politics, and set herself up as some kind of queen on Izu Oshima. We sent some people to talk with her and we lost contact with them as soon as they debarked from the airplane. That was eight months ago and we haven’t heard from them since.”
“So she is very good at organizing support, has a bit of money, and is probably a mind mage of some sort. You don’t have any evidence that the pair you sent to meet her met bad ends at her hand do you?” Arclight said, “I don’t see what’s gotten you so worried. This isn’t like you.”
“One of them was a former apprentice of mine.” Asahina said, “She was an accomplished death magic user and I can’t imagine her getting in over her head if there was combat involved. Her ability to see through the intricacies of political rivalries took her a long way in our society, so I find it hard to believe she’d be caught out by any sort of gamesmanship either.”
“Which begs the question of what could have possibly kept her from reporting back for a day, much less half a year.” He said, “Also not like you to let your people go missing for that long without following up.”
“We have.” She said shortly, “That’s why we know how deeply she has sunk her fingers into every aspect of Izu Oshima.”
“Have you thought about going there yourselves?” He asked, “It’s not likely that she would take overt action against a recognized Council mage and someone with Tanaka’s contacts.”
“You don’t know much about the Jade Court do you?” Asked Asahina.
“Only a little. Had a coffee with a Knight of the Cross one afternoon about ten years ago.” Arclight said, “He seemed to think they were more mysterious than any of the other courts, but I took that in stride since by all accounts they more or less vanished around two hundred years ago. Pretty easy to be secretive when you’re gone through the entire Information Age wouldn’t you say?”
“She has been here for more than half a year and the only reason I know what her face looks like is that we strapped tiny cameras to a flock of pigeons.” Asahina said, “We don’t know where her fortune came from, but she rebuilt a CASTLE in three months, made the island energy independent in four months and by our current estimate will have made it food independent by the end of the year.
“She sent one envoy to us requesting that Tanaka come to pay his respects.” She drained her glass and ran her hand through her hair, “Other than that there has been no attempt at contact.”
“Seems to me you need to make an overture.” Said Arclight, “If you won’t go to her, perhaps invite her to visit you. If she’s as powerful as you say she won’t turn down the chance to show how much stronger she is than you by coming to your stronghold. At very least you won’t have to deal with her pet tiger if you don’t want to.”
Asahina laughed, “I still think that’s one of the most compelling arguments for her being a mind mage. Even the most talented with animals don’t get the kind of control she seems to have with her beast.”
“Well, keep me informed.” Arclight said, “I have another meeting to get to. Best of luck.”
His image faded from the focus and Asahina poured herself another two fingers of Santori. “Well shit. Now I have to convince Tanaka that this is the best course of action. We also need to prepare a warm welcome for our ‘Jade Lady’ just in case things go sideways.”
The boardroom was prepared perfectly, the staff had been informed and only the most loyal and trusted people were present. Asahina looked around and smiled to herself, this was as perfect as they could manage. The clock chimed 11:00 and she saw the video feed outside the front office. A black limousine pulled up and the driver opened the door.
A parasol opened before the lady exited herself. The silk of the parasol was colored black with a beautiful pattern of sakura blossoms scattered across it and the kimono the woman who stepped out of the car matched it perfectly. The spray of cherry petals looked like blood splatters as the Jade Lady stepped out on her platform sandals, holding the hem of her kimono out of the dust of the street.
She paused, adjusting her garments before stepping forward and allowing the driver to close the door. Asahina flinched slightly as Shiriasau Sai’Li looked directly at the camera trained on her and smiled slightly before snapping a fan over her face and delicately walking toward the door with measured, tiny steps.
The doorman held the door wide for her and she paused to thank him with a slight inclination of her head. “May I leave my parasol with you?” She asked, folding the item and offering it to him handle first.
“Of course.” He said, accepting it and setting it behind the small desk at his station after she had entered.
For no reason she could directly define, Asahina began to feel anxious. Was it really a good idea to invite such a being into the Yashida stronghold? The elevator chimed and the click of wooden sandals on the marble floor echoed around the room.
Soft music drifted into the room, delicate and precise. Tanaka Yashida and Asahina Ito sat at a low table, watching a video feed on a large screen mounted to the wall. A young boy sat in a chair nearby, legs crossed and eyes closed in meditation. It had been six months since their information gathering attempt had failed, the moment Ichi and Shinobu had set foot on Izu Oshima they had lost all contact. Asahina saw it as a diplomatic snare. Tanaka saw it as a declaration of war.
Using his contacts on the island, he had first tried to remove the Jade Lady from the hotel she had taken up residence in, only to find out that she had indeed purchased the Miharayama Onsen hotel. She had also paid twice the market value with cash. He’d tried to get local suppliers to stop selling their wares to the hotel, but he’d only managed a temporary pause in their business.
From there, Tanaka had widened his efforts to disrupt life on the island itself. He had undermined the reliability of the power grid by cutting auxiliary power lines, sabotaged the ferry and bribed the local traffic authorities to undertake major repairs on the only bridge that connected to the mainland. The Jade Lady had responded by constructing solar and tidal power generation that made Izu Oshima energy independent and helping to revive the local farming and fishing communities. The need for people to leave the island dropped dramatically.
Eventually, the amount of influence they could enact to change things on Izu Oshima had dwindled to almost nothing. Councilors and officials politely declined bribes, business owners ceased responding to threats, and even locals who owed him favors only grudgingly agreed to do small things in return for being released from their obligations. He had finally resorted to magical means.
One of the people who Asahina had helped him recruit was an Adept who had an affinity with animals. Together with Tanaka’s tech department they had outfitted a few dozen pigeons with small cameras and deployed them to the island for spying purposes. Now they watched in disbelief at what was happening in the city of Motomatchi.
The Jade Lady was walking the streets in formal dress from centuries ago. She wore a flawless kimono of white embroidered with sakura trees, wooden sandals with high platforms to keep her feet out of the road dust and carried a parasol. A huge Bengal tiger walked next to her like an obedient hound, everyone seemed to take its presence in stride.
She exchanged pleasantries with every person she passed, calling them all by name, giving some gifts and accepting small tokens from others. Children occasionally begged rides on the tiger’s back in exchange for small dishes of liquor that he lapped up with apparent relish. The townsfolk weren’t being forced or intimidated into obedience, they actually loved and respected her.
“It can’t be real,” Tanaka said, looking at Asahina. “Looks like you were right. She is using some kind of mind control.”
“As strange as it seems, I don’t sense any kind of magic.” She said, “But I’d have to get closer to be sure.”
They watched as the lady walked into a small town square. A gang of young men with masks over their faces ran from alleys in front of and to either side of her. Most of them had knives, but their leader and two others had pistols.
“Tsung, please move one closer so that we can hear,” Asahina said, and one of the images on the screen came closer to the square as one of the pigeons landed on a fountain.
“-you stupid bitch?” The leader was yelling, “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but you don’t get to tell us what to do! You might have a pet tiger but that’s not gonna help you against bullets!”
“You are being most uncouth youngsters.” She said, snapping her fan open in front of her face. “One should show more respect for one’s elders.” A low rumble of a tiger’s growl rolled through the air. It cut off when she put her hand on his head.
“The Tonda gang has run this town for longer than you’ve been alive.” He pointed his gun at her, “We don’t take anyone trying to get a piece of the action. We sent you warnings but you just wouldn’t let it go.”
“Izu Oshima is my island.” She said calmly, “No gang of young fools can alter that. Your guns cannot help you accomplish your goals. The only way you will be able to remain here is to agree to serve me and obey my commands absolutely. I will not allow you to further trouble my people.”
The gang began laughing and their leader shook his head. “You’re outta your goddamn mind. I’m gonna paint the walls with your blood!” His gun fired, and a bright splash of blood began to stain the Lady’s pristine white kimono.
A hail of stones flew as Sai’Li fell to sprawl on the grass in an expanding pool of blood. Dozens of the citizens ran forward, throwing more rocks, carrying bats, sticks and carrying other improvised weapons. Shopkeepers still wearing their aprons, servers from restaurants, students, housewives, and fishermen filled the square, skirting around the tiger where he stood protectively over his mistress.
“You boys leave now.” A man in a business suit said, pointing at them with a golf club. “Lady Sai’Li has done more to ensure our prosperity in the last two months than anyone in my lifetime. You always said you were helping us but I never saw you do anything but demand free drinks and cause trouble.”
A group of teenage girls ran up to Sai’Li, stopping nervously a few feet away from the still bristling Ignis. “Lady!” One shouted, “We need to help you! If we don’t stop the bleeding you’ll die!”
The tiger looked at them with a baleful glare but moved to put himself between her and the gang. More rocks flew and the gang leader brandished his gun, causing some of the people to flinch.
“I’ll shoot you just like I did her!” He yelled, “Nobody fucks with the Tonda gang!”
A rock struck him in the face and he stumbled back, blood running from a broken nose. The businessman ran forward, smashing his golf club into his gun hand, sending it flying. One of the others aimed his pistol but went down under a half-ton of angry tiger before he could pull the trigger. The remaining gang members fled.
“Something’s not right,” Tsung said, his voice soft and dreamlike. “No! They’re dying!”
The video feeds closest to the square changed perspective and the ones further away caught the motion of small bodies falling. The birds that had been carrying the cameras had fallen over. The leaves of the trees in the square turned brown and began to fall off in the light breeze.
A white Mercedes arrived, and a group of figures sprang out. The Lady struggled to her feet, and the man in the business suit seemed to be talking to her. Despite her injuries, she bowed to him before allowing the new arrivals to help her into the back of the car, leaving a trail of blood behind her.
“Well, that was unexpected,” Tanaka said, running his fingers through his hair.
“Yes, she seems to have truly captured the hearts of those people.” Asahina said, “I did not think that kind of tactic would be what she employed.”
“I was referring to how she tricked them all into thinking she had been hurt defending them,” Tanaka said, tapping a cigarette out of a pack and lighting it. “After word of that little display spreads there won’t anyone in that city who wouldn’t die for her.”
“If she doesn’t die from being shot.” Asahina said, “That wasn’t a trivial injury.”
“She uses some kind of life magic.” Tsung said, “Or if it wasn’t her, someone else drained the life from everything around her. The people were strong enough to stay alive, but the plants and smaller animals all died.”
“What does that?” Tanaka asked, looking at Asahina.
“Oh no.” She said, her face going pale. “We thought they were all dead.”
“You thought WHO were all dead?” Tanaka snarled, “What have you been hiding from me?”
“I thought she was laying claim to the Jade Court out of ignorance or because none of them still lived to dispute her words,” Asahina said, her face pale. “If my fears are accurate she may be an ancient evil returned.”
“What?” Tanaka looked caught between anger and surprise. He’d never seen Asahina frightened before.
“Remember when we first met? When I was hunting that creature and found out it had been stalking you?” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Remember how hard it was to kill?”
“Once you told me how dangerous it was and we ganged up on it with the proper tools, it wasn’t that hard.” He said, but the memory of the thing she had called a Black Court vampire still sent a thrill of fear down his spine. “Garlic, crosses, and stakes through the heart, a scene right out of Brahm Stoker.”
“That’s why the Councils around the world worked to propagate that story,” Asahina said, pouring a glass of scotch with shaking hands. “That’s one of the only times the wizarding world has used the power of normals to defeat a supernatural enemy.”
“I remember your history lesson from last time.” He said, “What’s this got to do with her?”
“The Jade Court left a few centuries ago.” Asahina said, “They weren’t driven out, they weren’t forced to go, but it was right before the first war between vampires and mages began. At first, we thought it was because they were weak, there never were very many of them and nobody knows how they’re actually created.
“I haven’t been able to find more than rumors, but it seems as though this was a strategic move based on divination or maybe even advice from a dragon. Either way, it was not due to any weakness that I could find.”
“So we should stock up on crosses?” Tanaka asked, lighting a cigarette.
“I looked through all of our records back then.” She said, “After we drove the Black Court from our lands I wanted to research the other courts so that we could defend against them if need be. I couldn’t find one single instance of a Jade Court vampire being killed. Not one.”
“What’s this Jade Court nonsense?” Tanaka Yashida asked, lighting a cigarette. “Does this ‘Lady Shirasiau’ really expect us to come to her like supplicants?”
“There are different thoughts on that subject.” Asahina said, “According to the Council there was once an Eastern vampire court. They were said to have been exterminated centuries ago, but there have always been rumors that they simply retreated into another realm to wait for a time when they could return.
“Others think that she’s just an imposter, albeit a clever one. She has supposedly modeled herself after a character from the pages of fifteenth-century legend, complete with the pet tiger.” She poured herself a glass of whisky, “My opinion is that she’s an opportunist. I’m sure she has some power, but it’s likely mind magic or illusion, nothing more.”
“Well, if that’s true what do you suggest we do?” He asked, annoyed. “I didn’t hire you for cryptic history lessons. What’s the wizard angle on all this?”
“As of now, neither the American or British Council bodies are concerning themselves with a single woman, no matter what her supposed influence is.” Asahina said, “So you’re free to operate without stepping into Council politics.”
“Good. She’s taken over the top floor of the Miharayama Onsen hotel. I even heard a rumor that she bought the entire building.” Tanaka said. “I think it’s time to send someone to pay her a visit.”
“I suggest Ichi and Shinobu.” She said, “A good combination of strength and intuition.”
“My first lieutenant and your former apprentice.” Tanaka stubbed out his cigarette, “I agree, that is a strong combination.”
“Ichinose, we must approach with caution,” Shinobu said, looking at the building with a squint that told him she was using her mage’s sight. “There has been magic used in and around this place, although I do not see any wards.”
“Mages.” He grunted and adjusted his shoulder holster.
“You should have brought your sword.” She said, “It would be more fitting here.”
The door opened and a young man in a perfectly tailored suit looked them over. “May I be of some assistance?” He asked.
“We are representatives from Master Yamazaki, here to pay our respects,” Shinobu said.
“You may call me San Shu.” The man said, bowing at the waist, “I am Lady Shirasiu’s assistant.” He held the door and followed them into the elevator. When the door opened on the thirteenth floor, Shinobu caught her breath.
The room was huge, the entire top floor was one enormous room. All four walls were windows, showing spectacular views of mountains and ocean; the steam from hot springs and thick jungle. A garden of bamboo grew on one side, a steaming pool of water sat on the other and in the center was a raised dais upon which sat a large throne that seemed to be carved of a single piece of green stone. The most striking woman Shinobu had ever seen sat on comfortably on the Jade Throne, wearing a red kimono embroidered with golden thread smoking a kiseru and looking down on them with an indulgent smile.
“Ichinose Irigani and Shinobu Kiri of the Yamazaki clan. Tell me, how is your Tanaka?”
“Miss Shirasiau,” Shinobu said, bowing. A sound shook the floor beneath her with a subsonic rumble. Although she couldn’t see the animal making the noise, Shinobu could tell it was big and feline.
“Please address her as Jade Lady if you wish to refer to her directly.” Tan said, “Lord Ignis is a might protective.”
Shinobu’s eyes flicked around nervously, but couldn’t see anything.
Sai’Li exhaled a cloud of aromatic smoke and tapped the ashes out of her kiseru into a bronze brazier. A servant took the pipe from her and refilled it with tobacco before handing it back. She put it delicately between her lips, drawing on the pipe while the servant held a match over the bowl.
“Jade Lady.” Shinobu began.
“Why did your master send you here?” Sai’Li interrupted, “Are you gifts?”
“Gifts?” Shinobu was off guard, this was not what she had anticipated.
“What do you mean?” Ichi asked, reaching under his jacket.
“I told them all to come pay their respects to me.” Sai’Li said, exhaling smoke from her nostrils, “I did not tell them to send their servants, so I am left wondering why they would do such a thing.”
Shinobu put a hand on Ichi’s arm, interrupting his move to draw his pistol.
“Child.” Sai’Li said, “I have heard of these ‘guns’ that you favor in this age. I am excited to see what you think they can do.” She handed her kiseru to the servant and waved him away.
Ichi held very still, not removing his hand from his gun. “My master did not send me here as a gift. I will not be your creature.”
“No?” Sai’Li asked, “Why did you come here if not to submit to my will?”
“We came here to offer our respects.” He said, “Our family wishes to –“
“Do not lie to me, child.” Sai’Li said, “Only curiosity has kept me from feeding you to my tiger.”
“Just what is that supposed to mean?” He asked, “I have been sent here with my counterpart to give you the honor of the Yashida Clan.”
“What do you know of honor?” Sai’Li asked, a gentle smile on her lips. “What would your master know of honor and duty when he sends you here instead of coming on his own?”
“I am willing to die for the honor of my master.” He said.
“Any fool can die.” Sai’Li said, “What use are you to him dead? I desire followers who are willing to live for me.”
“I will keep my oath to serve the Yashida Clan.” Shinobu said, “They have not released me from that oath and I will not forsake my sworn word.”
“This is precisely why I told Tanaka to come himself.” Sai’Li said, “As you took the trouble to come this far and are ignorant of the insult your master has given me, I am willing to allow you to leave.”
“I’ve heard enough.” Ichi said, “We answered your request to come even though you treated it as a command. We have sat through insults and arrogance that go beyond what my honor will tolerate. If you apologize I-”
He cut abruptly as Sai’Li snapped her fan open with a sound akin to a whip crack. “Let me clarify. I did command your master to come here. It was not a request, nor should it have been treated like one. One way or another he will come before me and he will have the same choice I give to everyone else who dares dream of opposing me.”
Her eyes locked on Ichi’s and he felt an involuntary shiver run down his spine. “Serve me or die.”
Ichi drew his pistol with nearly inhuman speed and began firing in less than a half-second. An orange blur moved between them and the bullets struck Ignis’s thick hide. The tiger roared and slashed claws tipped with jade and diamonds across his stomach. Ichi dropped to his knees, trying to hold the wound closed and gasping in pain.
Shinobu threw her hands out and a lance of black energy flew from between them to strike Sai’Li in the chest. A look of disbelief crossed her face and she stammered, “How can you? That should have killed you!”
“You are several centuries too late.” Sai’Li said, “You cannot kill what is already dead.”