Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox – Forthright

“There must be some mistake.” Tsumiko finished the solicitor’s letter of introduction and rechecked the name of the firm embossed on the heavy gray envelope—Watanabe, Wada, & West. “I’ve never even heard of Eimi Hajime-Smythe.” “She is … was your father’s grandmother’s half-sister.” The firm’s junior partner turned to his yawning briefcase. “If you’d like proof, I can produce the family registry.” “Yes, please.” Tsumiko dropped the letter on the table between them and curled cold fingers inside the bunched sleeves of her school cardigan. “Mr. West, I don’t understand why I should inherit anything. There must be other, closer relations?” “Quite true, but none of them met Mrs. Hajime-Smythe’s particular requirements.” Tsumiko didn’t like empty answers. They tasted too much like lies. “Are you from the same place as the last people?” Mr.

West stopped sifting through file folders. “Can you be more specific?” Tsumiko slid to the edge of her seat and pointed a toe so her loafer touched the marble floor. The parlor still smelled faintly of lemon oil, and pristine beveled windows scattered prisms on dark wood and white walls. In all her years at Saint Midori of the Heavenly Lights, Tsumiko had only ever entered these guest rooms in order to clean them. However, this was the second time in six weeks that Sister Magdalene had summoned her from class because someone was looking for her. “There were two women. One was grim and gray, and the other was … strange.” While the old woman had asked questions about Tsumiko’s hometown and extended family, the one with fiery red hair had merely stared at her over the top of steepled fingers. Tsumiko would never forget those hungry green eyes. “Yes,” said Mr.

West. “They were here at our request.” “Why?” “Research. We needed to make sure that you met Mrs. Hajime-Smythe’s particular requirements.” Tsumiko was losing patience. With a tight little smile, she asked, “Can you be more specific?” He had a pleasant laugh. “I promise I’ll explain everything, Miss Hajime, but it really should be done in an orderly manner.” “Maybe I should call Sister Naomi.” Although the sisters of Saint Midori’s had granted Mr.

West a measure of privacy for this meeting, they’d left a guardian outside the door. The lawyer raised his hands in surrender. “Lady Nona was here under escort because she can sense what normal humans cannot.” “You make her sound like a psychic.” Mr. West laughed again. “No, no, nothing like that. She needed to check on the state of your soul.” The antique pendulum clock on the far wall made the only sound for the better part of a minute. Tsumiko fiddled with the tiny golden cross on her necklace.

“I’m not sure I understand. They didn’t ask me about my faith or beliefs or morals.” In point of fact, the women had neither explained why they’d come, nor why they needed to leave so quickly. Distant bells sounded, signaling the end of second period. With a slow shake of his head, Mr. West said, “Perhaps we should back up. You have— of course—heard about the recent revelations regarding the inhuman races.” Tsumiko took a moment to ponder the sentence he’d reeled off with such assurance. Saint Midori’s was a very closed-off community. Yes, she’d heard the staff whispering in the corridors, and her younger brother’s most recent letter had been full of fanciful stories about a boy who could turn into a bird.

But the sisters took their duty to their students quite seriously, and that meant protecting them from outside influences. “Do you mean …?” Tsumiko searched her memory for the right phrase. “Are you involved with the outbreak?” Mr. West grew solemn, but his tone remained mild. “That’s the first time I’ve heard the Emergence called that. Aren’t you following the media coverage? It’s been headline news for months.” “We don’t have television.” “Phones? Tablets? Surely you have internet access.” “Distractions from a life of simplicity and study are banned.” Incredulity plain on his face, Mr.

West said, “That could prove problematic. It’s too much to explain in the time we have, but I’ll pull together the information you’ll need and send it … unless … would they prevent the documents from reaching you?” Tsumiko couldn’t figure out why the lawyer seemed so concerned. She wasn’t a prisoner. And students knew which rules they could bend. For instance, one of the cooks kept a television in her room. She’d let the older girls visit in the evening to giggle and swoon over romantic dramas. They weren’t completely cut off; they were simply encouraged to live with different priorities. Finally, she said, “This is a school, Mr. West. Learning is encouraged.

” He accepted that with a nod and made a note for himself. “Please place the highest priority on learning about the Rivven.” “The inhuman races.” “Yes.” “Why?” “Lady Nona was a member of their fox clans, and her companion was a reaver.” Could that have been the source of the strangeness she’d felt? Tsumiko said, “They both looked human.” “Many of the Rivven are able to take human form. Reavers are human. For millennia they’ve served as gatekeepers and guards, protecting the boundaries between us and the Rivven races.” He pulled a hefty stack of papers from his briefcase, “As I said, it’s too much to explain now.

We need to finalize your inheritance.” Tsumiko frowned. “You still haven’t told me why I’m the one to inherit.” Mr. West held up a pale blue envelope. “This is a personal note from Mrs. Eimi. Sign this first page, and I can release it to you.” At her continued hesitation, he resorted to wheedling. “I’m quite certain this will shed more light on the situation.

” She could see her full name written in dark blue ink. Her distant relative had composed a letter before she died? Tsumiko grudgingly accepted the pen and scanned the release form. “Will this make you my lawyer?” “In essence, yes.” With something as simple as a signature, she’d make a formal claim on this man’s time and attention. Daunting. But Mr. West didn’t make Tsumiko uneasy. Trusting herself as much as him, she signed her name. He took back the paper, added his own signature, the date, and even the time. Pressing an official-looking seal with a floral crest to the bottom corner of the page, he slid it into an envelope.

“Thank you,” he said with satisfaction. “As a member of Watanabe, Wada, and West, legal representatives of the estate that now rests in your hands, please rest assured that I am at your service.” For a moment, Tsumiko thought she’d been tricked into signing away her right to refuse. But her pique never made it to fit status. Yes, she wanted more information, but no one in their right mind turned down a bequest, even if it came from an unknown source. Yet the terms had changed. Up until now, Mr. West had only spoken of an inheritance. Tsumiko had assumed that meant money. “Did you say estate?” “Yes.

And we’ll go over those particulars next—house, properties, investments, and other extensive assets.” She watched him riffle through the small mountain of paperwork she’d probably have to sign. Mr. West continued. “I have yet to pay a personal visit to Stately House—the primary Hajime-Smythe estate—but I understand that it’s quite old, quite large, and … unique. I’ll make the trip the day after tomorrow to ensure that everything is in readiness for your arrival.” “I need to go there?” “You need to live there,” he corrected. “I will review the particulars with you, but first …!” Tsumiko took the blue envelope with both hands and studied its seal. Hydrangea blue wax held an impression of a five-petaled flower with a starry center. The single sheet of paper inside was delicate as tissue and dated three weeks ago.

A quick peek at the end of the letter confirmed that the sender was Lady Eimi HajimeSmythe. Returning to the first lines, Tsumiko’s pulse quickened. So they’ve found you at last. I knew there must be another reaver in the family . TWO Last Wish Food held no appeal for Argent, but Sansa pressed a porcelain cup into his hands. When its tepid contents left an unpleasant taste in his mouth, he sniffed belatedly at the dregs. One of her medicinal teas? Or perhaps she’d finally had enough of his airs and poisoned him. Yet Argent clung to life. Longevity might be considered a mark of his race’s superiority, but death wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. He was accustomed to outliving his tormentors.

But this time was different. There was no triumph in his continued survival. All he felt was … empty. Sansa quietly refilled his cup. The brew reeked of bark and bitterness. “Are you trying to kill me?” Without batting an eye, the woman said, “If that was my goal, I would use surer methods.” Not exactly an idle threat. He’d been inside the garden shed she’d repurposed as an armory. Once. Adopting a maternal tone, Sansa said, “Drink your tonic, Argent.

It will help.” He clucked his tongue, a very human response, but useful in communicating derision. Argent relied heavily on an arsenal of nonverbal attacks since—for the most part—he couldn’t be held accountable for words left unspoken. After centuries of testing his bonds’ limits, he’d learned that while obedience was necessary, nothing compelled him to be nice about it. Sansa held her ground until he tipped back the second dose. Taking the cup, she lingered long enough to touch his elbow, a signal borrowed from his people. Like all reavers, she was fluent in the subtleties of Amaranthine body language. He wearily accepted her promise of support with a nod and excused himself. The day dragged by as he moved automatically through his duties, as meticulous as ever. But without direction, without thanks, and without a scrap of satisfaction.

Eimi’s death left him bereft of ties, but if this was freedom, it was a paltry one. The seal on his soul was very much intact, and it was punishing him. If left much longer, the constricting bonds would kill him. An ignominious demise for one of his lineage, but it would end this maddening cycle of servitude. Yet his instincts rebelled. He couldn’t protect Eimi anymore, but she’d asked him to watch over the other members of Stately House. Her last wish. His solemn duty. Rubbing at his aching forehead, Argent struggled to keep himself together until Michael returned with a new mistress. Her arrival would signal an end to his current role.

Eimi’s Argent had played the part of family butler—genteel, attentive, restrained. And as a member of her household, he’d known something akin to peace. But her fleeting existence had ended, and he would fall into another’s hands. Each new mistress—or more often, her master—had forced him to comply with their ideas and ideals. He hardly knew himself anymore. It was only in the brief span of time between the old and the new that he allowed himself to remember. Historically, the gap was a matter of hours, but he’d been moping around Stately House for nearly a month. It was the first time since the first time that he’d been permitted to grieve. Argent wasn’t sure if it was for Lady Eimi or for himself. She’d met death with a measure of grace, a sigh of thanks, and soft assurances that his future was secure.

Nothing would have to change. Argent had held her hand and reassured her with similar lies. Eimi was by far the kindest mistress he’d served, but she was blind to the falsehoods she told herself. Older and wiser by many centuries, he was in a position to understand that everything would change because nothing had changed. Bound to the whims of his next mistress, he would be remade as her Argent. Again and again and again. Unless Michael’s plan worked. THREE Inherent Rights Less than a week after their meeting, Mr. West presented Tsumiko with a thick packet of printed articles, a new phone, and a chauffeur. Staring out the window of a long, black sedan, she watched the landscape shift with every passing kilometer.

Fields, orchards, pastures, paddies—utterly unlike the urban crush that surrounded Saint Midori’s. The sky was larger here, and Tsumiko kept a wary eye on it, very much the mouse who must beware of hawks. “Did you grow up in Keishi?” asked the driver. His Japanese was perfect, but his name and his green eyes suggested foreign parentage, if not provenance. “Yes.” He tried again. “This is a big change for you.” “Yes.” She could feel his concerned gaze in the rearview mirror. “An unwelcome change?” Tsumiko toyed with her necklace.

“I don’t really know, Mr. Ward. Everything’s happened so quickly.” “Please, call me Michael. Ward is really more of a job description than a surname.” “You’re a … ward?” That brought up unsettling images of wardens and prisoners. “I thought you were Aunt Eimi’s driver.” “That’s certainly why I’m behind the wheel,” he said lightly. “But in a household as small as ours, having more than one skill set is essential. My wife Sansa served as Mrs.

Eimi’s cook as well as her nurse.” “It will be the three of us, then?” “If you’ll pardon my asking, Miss Hajime, did you read all the information from your solicitor?” “I didn’t make it very far through the legal documents. The wording is difficult.” Extracting the blue envelope from Lady Eimi, he held it up for Michael to see. “This one was simpler, but just as confusing.” “Oh? Maybe I can help. Which part gave you difficulty?” “The part about flowers.” She shook her head. “I don’t know anything about gardening.” Michael’s brows drew together.

“The grounds are extensive, but you needn’t worry. We employ a gardener.” “Is that so?” “Perhaps if you were to read the pertinent passage aloud …?” Tsumiko unfolded the letter she’d read so often she could have recited it from memory. Running her finger along delicate rows in blue ink, she found the section that puzzled her most. “Tending to our Amaranthine—my most precious bequest—falls to you.” Expression clearing, Michael said, “I understand. Mrs. Eimi isn’t referring to flowers, miss. She means Argent, your butler.” A gardener and a butler—bringing the household tally to five.

“Is he a foreigner? I’ve never heard of a country called Amaranth.” Michael slowed, turning off onto a road that was barely wide enough for the sedan. “You know about the Emergence of the new species?” At her quick nod, he continued, “They’re not actually new of course, but every nation has been working for the last six months to raise awareness about the so-called Rivven races.” “Yes. Mr. West explained that much.” “For starters, Rivven is a name coined by an American reporter, and it stuck. It’s a play on words, I suppose, since we are reavers.” Tsumiko leaned forward. “You’re a reaver?” “That’s right, miss.

A fifteenth-generation reaver, ward class, originally from England.” He met her gaze in the rearview mirror. “I’ve lived at Stately House most of my life.” “Are you a relative of Aunt Eimi’s husband, then?” “No, miss. In a way, I was also chosen to ‘tend to our Amaranthine.’ You see, while they’re not offended by the Rivven label, these ancient people refer to themselves as the Amaranthine.” “My butler isn’t human?” “He is not.” “And my aunt is giving him to me.”



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