In Which It’s Clearly Meant To Be
I scratched the back of Sooni’s fox-like ears, and then, at her direction, stroked her bushy tail. It was… weird. Sooni was way into it. Her eyes rolled up into her head when I scratched hard enough. She was kind of whimpering, too. I wondered if this was something sexual to her? The phrase “heavy petting” seemed like it might apply. I mean, these weren’t actions I associated with intimacy, but most people didn’t have furry ears and tails in the first place.
“Um… do your nekos do this for you?” I asked, thinking this might be a good way to get some indication of whether Sooni thought of the act as intimate or not.
“Don’t be gross,” she said. That was probably a “yes” on the intimacy question. “Or I’ll kill you.” I froze, then withdrew my hand. “Hey, you stopped!”
“Sooni, you just threatened to kill me,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Why did you stop?”
“Sooni… you just threatened to kill me,” I repeated.
“Well, I wouldn’t kill you-kill you,” she said. She’d only had maybe one full glass altogether, but she sounded a little bit past tipsy. “Not until you die from it. I’d get in way too much trouble, and I wouldn’t have you to play with any more.” She paused and thought about it for a second or two. “I will stab you, though.”
“For being gross,” I said. I didn’t point out that she seemed to have left her poniard at home.
“I don’t know what you think ‘gross’ means,” I said.
“You know… gross,” she said. “Like saying I’d let the pretty nekos stroke my tail, or being a dirty lesbian.”
“Sooni… you gave me crotchless panties to wear tonight,” I said. “You booked us an inn room. You took my promise to have dinner together and turned it into a date, complete with champagne and naughty lingerie. Now you’re telling me you’re going to stab me for being a lesbian?”
“For being a dirty one,” she said. “If we do everything right, it will be okay.”
“Sooni, there isn’t a right and a wrong way to do these things,” I said. “As long as everybody’s willing and nobody is harmed, I mean.”
Sooni shook her head.
“There is always right and wrong,” she said. “And I’m going to teach you the difference.”
The carriage came to a stop. Sooni grabbed the bottle and the glasses and put them under her seat.
“You should get your ID out,” she said, and she pulled hers out of her handbag.
“Uh, I don’t actually have mine,” I said. I’d left everything in my jeans pocket when I got back from the shower.
“What? Why wouldn’t you bring your ID?” Sooni asked. “They check them at the gates, sometimes! Especially at night!”
“Well, I didn’t know I’d need it,” I said. “And I didn’t have any pockets… well, the coat, I guess, but Kai shoved me out the door so fast…”
“That awful, wretched little brat! She did this on purpose! I’m going to punish her so hard if we get turned away!” Sooni said.
“She didn’t do it on purpose,” I said. “She was trying to make sure I wasn’t late for our date. She was… she was trying to make sure everything happened the right way, for you.”
“How is it right if we get thrown out of town before we even have our dinner?” Sooni asked. She sounded like she was nearing hysteria at the thought that her orchestrated evening could be thrown so completely off the path she’d meant for it to follow.
“Worst case, we just go back to school and I run upstairs to get it,” I said. “You can let the restaurant know we’re running late and maybe they’ll be able to get us a different table or whatever.”
“But I shouldn’t have to because I did everything right and it was going to be perfect and now it’s all ruined and I’m going to…”
So wrapped up in her tantrum, Sooni didn’t even notice when the carriage started rolling again. She cut off abruptly as we passed through the gate and over the boundary and I felt the awful feeling of forced intrusion from the defensive probing spells.
“I hate that,” she said, quietly.
“You, too?” I asked.
“We thought it was just because we’re foreign,” she said. “Does it go off for lesbians, too?”
“Uh… I’m pretty sure it does it because I’m a half-demon,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, at least they didn’t stop us for ID. I guess that proves it… this date was meant to be!”
“I guess,” I said.
I looked out the window. It didn’t seem to be the same section of town that the school’s coaches went to.
“Where are we?” I asked. “This isn’t the way I usually come in.”
“Midtown,” she said. “The market gates are closed to unscheduled traffic after sunset, as are the high city gates. Otherwise, we would have gone in there.”
“The high city?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “The hills, on the other side of the river. You’ve probably never been…”
“Actually, I think that’s where Steff and I stayed last night,” I said. “In an inn there.”
“Oh,” she said. “Well, it probably wasn’t as nice as the one you’ll be staying in tonight.”
I decided not to say anything about the Havenwood and the Empress Suite. It seemed safest not to… anyway, I wasn’t interested in a game of oneupsmanship with anybody. It wasn’t a contest.
“So, where are we going for dinner?” I asked instead.
“It’s a surprise,” she said, smiling. “I think you will like it, though.”
I had half a second of fear that she’d gone researching appropriate cuisine for a half-demon and found out about Tender Mercy’s… but she’d said we were going to the high city. I was almost positive Steff had said that Mercy operated out of the low quarter.
Sooni had her head turned towards the window and was watching the shops and people as we passed by them. Strangely, she looked almost as enraptured by the sight as she was by her favorite TV show… granted, the storefronts were a little on the fancier side as we headed towards the river, and maybe the people were a touch exotic to her, but I couldn’t fathom exactly what it was that held her attention so completely.
The spell broke when we passed over the canal, and she turned back to me with an expression of pure contentment on her face.
“The streets are so pretty at night,” she said. “Don’t you think so?”
“They’re streets,” I said.
“Yes, but with the lights and the people and everything… just look. You can’t look and say they aren’t pretty.”
Okay, they certainly weren’t ugly, especially now that we were on the other side of the river, but I just saw a lot of people bundled up in jackets, doing their shopping or hurrying home or whatever. Actually, a lot of them looked underdressed for the Calendula night. I was getting cold just looking at them.
“You see?” Sooni said, and then she started humming to herself and looking out her own window. “I remember when Father got us our first coach. I was… I think I was seven? It was an Ereban import. They didn’t make good coaches in Yokan yet, though Father’s partners were working on that. Maliko and I used to go out and look at the villages and the countryside when he wasn’t using it. It was so exciting, seeing everything on the other side of the walls and all the different people for the first time… well, I’m sure you can imagine.”
“Not really,” I said. “We never had a coach, and if I wanted to see people for some reason, I could just go outside.”
“Lucky,” she said, still looking out the window.
Lucky? I thought. Which one of us had been able to take a private coach out whenever she felt like it?
“Maybe you wouldn’t say that if you knew my neighbors,” I said.
“There are such lovely people, back home,” Sooni said. “They always looked so happy when they saw the coach coming, and they were all very respectful to Father. And they love me.” She sighed. “But the villages are so ugly and dirty… not like this. The only time they look nice is at new years, and once when the emperor came.”
“You have an emperor in Yokan?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “We have a real emperor. He even stayed in our house once… can you believe that? I didn’t get to meet him, though. Father sent Maliko, Suzi, and I away to his house in the mountains for a week. It was fun. But they spent all spring and summer cleaning our village and fixing everything up new, and they put up lights and banners everywhere. They took those down afterwards, though, and everything was ugly and dirty again before too long. I asked Father why they couldn’t keep things nice all the time, and he said that it took a lot of time and money and the nekos had better things to do. I asked him if the emperor would ever come back, and he said he had been honored enough for one lifetime.”
“Is your emperor a kitsu, too?” I asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” she said. Her eyes flashed… she looked even angrier than she had been when I’d been “gross” about the nekos touching her tail.
“I’m not being ridiculous,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Well, he is not a kitsu,” she said. “The imperial family are tatsuyokai. Who else could even be an emperor in the first place?”
“Our emperor is a human,” I said. I decided not to risk another outburst by asking what the hell a tatsuyokai was.
“Calling him an emperor doesn’t make him one,” she said.
“No, but the fact that he commands an empire sort of does,” I said.
“I suppose,” she said. “I think we’re there.”
The coach pulled up to the sidewalk that ran alongside a large expanse of hilly green dotted with trees. I pulled the coat back on, buttoned it up, and muttered my way through my sealing enchantment before climbing out into the cold. It helped a little, but the fact was there were some parts of my anatomy that lacked any covering. I needed to learn how to make a shield without a physical barrier if I was going to wear that kind of thing. Sooni had slipped into a fur wrap that matched her dress.
There was nothing but parkland on our side of the street, so I checked the sparse traffic and then started across to the other.
“Wait, it’s over here,” Sooni said, grabbing my hand and pulling me back. I hadn’t realized how wobbly I was feeling until the sudden change of direction. Even though she was wearing gloves, I felt an undeniable tingle at the touch of her hand on mine.
“The park?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said, nodding excitedly.
“What, are we supposed to graze?” I asked. “Or did you want to catch a few rabbits?”
“There is a restaurant inside the park,” she said, dropping my hand like it had burned her. “And you don’t have to be so sarcastic all the time… or… or… racist!”
“Wait, who’s racist?”
“‘Catch a few rabbits’,” she repeated. “I know what your foxes do over here, but they are just dumb animals. I am a kitsu and I am civilized. I would never hurt a cute animal like that.”
I bit my tongue to hold back any of a number of obvious retorts, and instead just mumbled an apology. I hadn’t actually been thinking of the fox connection when I’d spoken… but I could see how it would come across that way.
“I think it’s this way,” she said, and she started down the sidewalk. We were both a little unsteady, so before too long we were leaning on each other. After a short while, a hard dirt path lined with small stones joined the sidewalk. We turned and followed it into the park.
“Is this place safe at night?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said. “It is a nice part of town… and anyway, nobody would dare to attack me.”
“Because I’m important,” she said. “My father is important, and very powerful.”
“Sooni, you know that whatever influence your dad has, it doesn’t reach quite this far?” I asked.
“Don’t talk about things you don’t know about,” Sooni said. “When I was younger, my father told me that he could ask his valet for the smallest pinfeather of a bird sitting on a certain branch of a certain tree on the other side of the world, and it would be on his desk by the afternoon. Can your father do that?”
“My father is a soulless killer abomination, Sooni,” I said.
“But could he do that?”
“No,” I said. “Probably not.”
“Then don’t talk to me about what my father can or can’t do!” she said.
I didn’t press the matter, but neither did I feel reassured to be within Sooni’s protective sphere. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to send any would-be muggers or other assailants running… if they sized me up as a human girl, they’d probably reconsider at the first sign of what I really was… but I’d rather avoid the confrontation. It was an open question whether I could win a game of he-said, she-said with the authorities even if the “he” was a mugger or rapist.
My fears seemed to be unfounded, though. The paths were well-lit, and there were other couples… other people, I mean… out and about as we crested the hill and continued deeper into the park. Sooni started to move faster when a bright light came into view on the other side of some trees. As we got closer, I saw it was coming from a big gazebo-like building. Sounds of dishes and silverware clinking together and dozens of conversations wafted through the night towards us.
“Did the coach let us off on the wrong side or something?” I asked, seeing the lights of another street and row of shops beyond the restaurant.
“Oh, no,” Sooni said. “I wanted to have a nice walk through the park first.”
“Why?” I asked. “It’s freaking cold out, and I’m freezing my… ass off.”
“Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.
I didn’t argue. I was noticing that when Sooni did something that could be viewed as almost being nice, it was usually because she thought it was the way things were supposed to be. It was when she went off her internal script that she started foaming at the mouth. Maybe she wasn’t coming at it from the healthiest direction, but it almost seemed like she was trying to be a better person than she was.
The restaurant seemed to be very open-air, but the people inside it seemed to have taken off their coats and such. I kind of hoped that they had an enchantment going like the one on the penthouse terrace, or else it was going to be a very uncomfortable meal for me.
Of course, there was uncomfortable and there was uncomfortable… the carriage ride had been pretty plush but I wasn’t sure “comfortable” was the best word for it.
“Welcome to Astral’s in the Park!” the hostess said when we stepped inside the pavilion. “How many tonight?”
“Just the two of us,” Sooni said, smiling and grabbing my hand. “We have a table under Hoshinotama.”
“Ho… oh, here it is,” the hostess said, finding it in on her tablet. “That’s an unusual name. Is it Chung?”
Some mixture of instinct and experience warned me what was likely to happen next.
“It’s Yokano,” I said, before Sooni had finished composing the angry snarl on her face. “Most people here don’t recognize it because it’s so exotic.”
“Oh, yes, it’s… it’s very pretty,” the hostess said, blinking at Sooni. “Would you ladies like to check your coats and hat?”
“We will keep the hat, please,” Sooni said with a small bow, suddenly the picture of courtesy and civility.
The hostess took our coats and handed them off, then grabbed a couple of menus said, “If you’ll follow me, your table is ready.”
We were on the perimeter of the restaurant, but as I’d hoped, there didn’t seem to be any cold air crossing the boundary. The temperature inside the restaurant was comfortable… not toasty, but not cool.
“Your server will be with you shortly,” the hostess said once we were seated. “Enjoy!”
“So many different things,” Sooni said, looking at the menu. “It’s supposed to be elvish-style, which I’ve never had. I looked for Yokano cuisine but there doesn’t seem to be any in this province… just Chung,” she said, making a face like it was a dirty word. Before encountering Sooni, my only experience of the east had been Chung food and products. The fact that it was attached to the mainland and Yokan was evidently an island probably had something to do with that. “I think I’m going to have some sort of chicken. Do you like chicken? Or fish. I can’t stand red meat, except for liver… oh, they have deer liver. I wonder what that tastes like?”
“Elven,” I said, when she took a breath.
“Elven-style,” I said. “‘Elvish’ is the language.”
“Oh,” she said, scrunching her face. “You know what I meant. Is deer liver any good?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “I can’t imagine any kind of liver being good. I’ll probably just get chicken.”
“Oh, pheasant!” she said. “That’s a bird, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I wonder what their rice is like here… hey, let’s get a bottle of wine!”
“They’ll want to see our IDs.”
“We’ll say we forgot them.”
“I did forget mine,” I said. “And they’ll say ‘sorry, can’t sell you any, then.’”
“But we’re dressed up like grown-ups!” Sooni said.
I fought the urge to giggle… that was actually a pretty perfect description, in my mind, for what we were doing. Here we were, two stupid kids dressed up like actual grown-ups and pretending we were on a date.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this… we’ll let fate decide. We’ll order some wine, and if they don’t question it then it was meant to be… but if they ask for ID, I’ll say I don’t have mine and we’ll forget about it, okay? No… you know… making a big deal out of it. Because that means we aren’t supposed to have it.”
As far as I knew, they were required to ask for ID, so it was pretty much a moot point. The problem was, if Sooni thought the restaurant was ruining her perfect evening, she’d throw a fit… but if she agreed to this, then she’d see it as being what’s “supposed to” happen.
“Oh, alright,” Sooni said. “I hope the waiter is here soon… I can’t wait to see what happens next.”