PART I - THE GAZE SEES ALL
The seagulls wheeled above in the blinding sun as the water taxi skipped across the deep blue swells between the islands of the Spontoon Archipelago, white slashes in the cerulean vault mirroring the grey green breakers notching the waves below. Countless boats and seaplanes of all varieties crisscrossed the expanse of the lagoon, dragging their own white lines on the vast blue chalkboard, bracketed by lush islands that rustled with life in the warm ocean breeze.
At the moment, all of
this tropical splendor held no interest for the female feline who sat
amidships, twisted around in her seat with her arm draped on the
railing, staring intently with bright, ice blue eyes that seemed to
glimmer faintly in the shadow of her black gauze veil. The spray from
the ocean dampened the velvet sleeve of her neatly tailored, charcoal
colored jacket. She carried herself like a lady, her only adornment a
lozenge shaped brooch on her grey cravat with a round gem in the
center that matched her eyes.
Her fur was a middle value brown, with the faintest tabby pattern that deepened the look of concentration on her face, which was somewhere far above plain and slightly below pretty, save for her striking eyes. Her faintly striped tail waved slowly back and forth, curling pensively in the tailspace between the hull and the uncomfortable bench seats.
She was half drawn out of her reverie by the voice of her traveling companion, a sandy tan furred rabbit doe who slouched beside her in a rather unladylike fashion, although with her close cropped hair and masculine clothing, it would have been very easy to mistake her for a young buck and pay her posture and splayed knees no mind. She nodded in the direction the tabby was facing. "Yo, Missus Pearl. Y'all seein' somethin' over yonder?"
The feline twitched a dark tipped ear. "What island is that one over there? The low one?"
The rabbit fished into the pocket of her slightly oversized canvas jacket and pulled a dog eared tourist guide out. "Mmm. Far as I can reckon, the folks 'round here call it Sacred Island. 'Sez in th' book it's a big no go zone."
The she cat nodded absently before tearing her gaze away. "I... I can certainly see why."
The rabbit cocked an ear and stared over her shoulder, squinting under the bill of her soft slope cap. "Y'all wanna gimme a hint, darlin'?"
Dorothy Pearl shrugged with a slightly apologetic smile crossing her face. "It's... It's rather hard to describe, Miss Early. I guess the spirits here don't quite move in as mysterious a way as they do back home. Whatever I'm seeing over there, it's doing nothing to hide its presence to someone with eyes to see it."
A smile flitted across the doe's features accompanied by a soft chuckle. "Guess the dress code's relaxed for everybody round these parts." She gazed across the boat at the muscular, grey brown body of a native otter dozing on the bench opposite them, a loincloth that left little to the imagination and a ragged brimmed straw hat the only barriers between his sleek pelt and the warm sunlight.
The feline pursed her lips and cast her companion a wry look as she replied in a low voice. "Well, no matter who or what it is, it's not polite to stare."
Jane Early snorted and rolled her eyes. "It is if'n it's yer job. Speakin' o' which, y'all scope out that feller at th' back yet? He ain't been exactly polite neither."
The somberly clad feline discreetly turned her head and looked past her lapine companion in the direction of the male who sat at the leeward corner of the boat's stern, gazing nonchalantly off toward the cluster of buildings piled haphazardly on the island known as Casino Island currently passing by off to starboard. As the tabby lines in her forehead furrowed in the shade of the black gauze curtain of her hat, more and more detail began to come to her.
It was plain he was a neko from the island nation of Kokoro, both from his demeanor and the black tipped bob tail that hung behind the seat. Between the neko and usagi, long tails were largely unknown in that far off land.
Cheap suit but decently tailored, linen, grey rayon lining with some sweat stains. Unassuming brown and tan tie with older art deco diamond and stripe pattern. Worn wingtips with black socks with the sandal ready separate big toe that was common in the far east. Cotton shirt, stained at the neck and armpits just like the suit, only more so. Straw fedora with garish floral brim, also sweat stained, probably bought right off of whatever boat or plane he'd come in on.
As she looked past the surface things got more interesting. Kokoro passport in jacket pocket. A notebook and stubbed pencil covered in hastily scrawled Usagineko characters. Some obscure brand of cigarettes from the Eight Kingdoms, with a smiling great panda sage in gold foil on the packet, containing three remaining smokes that looked as if they'd been wrapped in firecracker papers, and a bundle of blue tip matches bound with a rubber band. A small, zippered compartment in the lining of the coat containing Sylvanian and Brass Kingdom passports. Some papers bearing the striped sun crest of the Shintora Shogunate in with the passports. A special pocket in the right sleeve lining containing a straight bladed knife, maybe seven inches long with a sharkskin handle, in a reinforced leather sheath. A small laquered case decorated with a crysanthemum in mother of pearl, containing two chalky white pills. A photograph marked on the back with more Usagineko characters. When she gazed through the paper to the image on the other side, she caught her breath.
It was photo of her, that she recognised with a pang in her heart, a blurred print of the photo of a smiling bride to be that was published in the society pages of the Vale Reporter a long two years ago. She paused, reluctantly banishing the image of the other photo that had accompanied the announcement, and resumed her study of the neko. The unbidden memory caused her to be brief as she peered through the male's clothing, lingering just long enough to appraise without reminding her how long it had been...
He was thin to the point of scrawniness, but sinewy, with a slightly dingy, off white pelt with one brown ear. His malehood was upgirded by a traditional Kokoro loincloth, which she declined to peer beneath for both her own and her late husband's sake. As she had honed the use of her uncanny vision, she had developed a fairly unshakeable poker face, but some things still would cause her to blush hotly.
A red, black and blue tattoo of some sort of far eastern tiger demon or warrior was hidden under his fur, with bared fangs and glaring eyes scowling down over his left shoulder toward his heart. Some knife scars crisscrossed his forearms and belly, from superficial wounds. His hands, stuffed deep in the pockets of his slacks, were rough and and sinewy, with a broken claw on the right middle finger and a joint missing from the pinky on the left.
Gazing deeper, past the visual, she perceived the pulsing, invisibly glowing patterns of emotion and meaning that made up what those who had taught her to see such things called an aura. She had learned to read the unwritable heiroglyphs that orbited the core of a person's being, and could tell much about someone's intent and emotional state. In this furtive stranger, she saw caution and wariness, a bit of fear, but not of her and her companion. At his core she saw a simple creature of base appetites, uncaring of suffering and glad to inflict it, no value placed on life, even his own, overlaid with the arrogance and the debased, haphazardly rationalized jingoism that characterized agents of the Shogunate that she'd encountered before.
She looked away and the sea and sky and islands and rocking boat filled the world around her again, and she turned to the slouching rabbit doe sitting next to her with a guarded expression. "You're right, Miss Early. Seems like we have ourselves an admirer."
The doe let out an exasperated breath as she shifted in her seat. "That means somebody back in the States is flappin' their big mouth. Gonna haveta open up a can o'whoop ass once we git on back."
At this, a look of puzzlement flitted across Mrs. Pearl's face. "Open a can of..." She cocked an eyebrow at her companion and pursed her lips. "Honestly, Miss Early. Sometimes I wish I had the power to see through that impenetrable lingo of yours."
The rabbit doe's ears drooped as she furrowed her brow in thought. "Uh... I meant to say... give somebody the business... feed 'em a knuckle sandwich... play a little chin music... Um..." She let out an exasperated breath then flared a nostril, speaking in an exaggerated mock upper crust accent. "Engage in an educational bout of fisticuffs in hopes of improving improper behavior." She gave her companion a wicked grin. "That's what passes fer slang up in Noreaston, right?"
In response the tabby merely rolled her luminous eyes and looked away, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth. The tan furred rabbit shifted in her seat and stole a glance at their fellow passenger as he leaned an elbow on the railing and pulled his hat brim down over his eyes. "So... on th' subject of educational beatings, what're we gonna do about Mister Sneaky back thar?"
The dark suited tabby took a final glance over her shoulder at Sacred Island and shrugged at her companion. "I don't know. Lets see what he does when we get to South Island."
Miss Early hopped up onto the dock as the boat eased into position alongside, bobbing among a shoal of similar craft, disgorging boatloads of newly arrived tourists into the riot of souvenir hawkers and food venders awaiting them.
As she crouched down and extended a hand to help Ms. Pearl up the lurching steps and onto the solid planking, the neko who'd been tailing them tossed a wadded up shell note to the Spontoonie driver and lightly leapt over the rail, vanishing into the throng with the barest of backward glances. The rabbit doe cocked an ear and stared hard after him as the driver handed up a slim suitcase and then hefted a bulging duffel bag up to her from a luggage rack in the center section of the boat. Meanwhile, the tabby female opened her handbag and pulled a fiver from her wallet, passing it down to him with a gracious smile.
The Spontoonie, a chubby, shabby furred rabbit in a knee length lava lava and threadbare navy blue dress blazer, doffed his cap and thanked her profusely, only stopping in his stream of grateful, if broken, Westcommon to accept a tattered Spontoon shell note from under the otter passenger's hat, bump fists with him, and then make an odd gesture where the both of them extended thumb and pinky and waggled their hands a few times as the feline female looked on in bemusement. The sleek furred native mustelid pulled a line of freshly caught panfish from the steerage, slung them over his broad shoulder, and hopped over the rail. As soon as his webbed feet touched the dock he began to loudly shout in a mixture of Spontoonie, Westcommon, and Jardinais that he had fresh fish for sale to the milling tourists and native entrepreneurs around him. She saw quite a few female tourists' gaze linger upon him, often as their mates bristled slightly and dragged them along.
Mrs. Pearl pulled her attention away from this spectacle and crouched down with a final nod toward the water taxi driver, picking up her suitcase as Miss Early effortlessly slung the duffel bag over her shoulder.
The rabbit doe adjusted her cap with a free hand and leaned in to murmur to her veiled companion. "I lost sight of him. Y'all see him anyplace?"
At this, the feline looked around, her ice blue eyes glimmering under the black gauze before her eyes locked on a spot up the docks. All around her the thronging bodies of natives and visitors alike faded into ghostly outlines, leaving only her quarry as if he were walking briskly across a deserted boardwalk. "He's ducked around the corner of that hut over there. Probably waiting to pick up our trail after we fight our way through this mob of tourists." Her eyes narrowed as a faint smile played across her features. "I don't think he can see us yet. How about we keep it that way a little while. Take my arm and follow my lead, Miss Early."
With a grim nod, the rabbit doe took her cohort's arm and the two females began to weave their way among the tourists and venders. After a few turns and switch backs, unnoticed by the chattering crowd around them, the pair vanished into thin air.
Puzzled, the neko male's ears levered back over the brim of his straw fedora as he peered into the crowd from the shadows of the alleyway between a picturesquely thatched long hut and a looming boathouse with a faded billboard down one side bearing a painting of a sleek native canine with a garish flower in her hair smiling broadly and proffering an enlarged golden bottle of tropical fur oil.
He hissed a brief curse in Usagineko and turned to slip down the alley when he was brought up short by a fearsome black silhouette standing before him, a pair of ice blue eyes glaring out from its inky depths into the core of his being like steel blades slicing deep into his guts. The male's short, curled tail exploded into a rigid puff of feline terror, every follicle standing on end, and a whimper escaped his throat as the apparition spoke in a low, growling whisper. "The Gaze sees all. I invoke the ancient power of the Eye of the Guardians over all felines. You are in my power and can do nothing but obey me."
The neko's throat clenched as against every instinct he replied in halting, muttering Westcommon. "I can do nothing but obey you..."
The infinitely tall shadow stepped closer, looming over his cowering frame as the chill of the eyes stabbed into the depths of his gaping pupils. "You will forget that you saw the Sylvanian cat and her rabbit companion. They were not on the water taxi. You did not meet The Gaze in this alley. Do you understand?"
With a slack jawed nod, the light furred male replied. "I understand."
A note of satisfaction
crept into the the fearsome apparition's voice. "Good. Now hand
me the photograph, your dagger, your documents, and that little
container of pills."
With fumbling, nerveless fingers, the male cat complied, placing each item in the silhouette's shadowy grasp and numbly watched them vanish into the inky blackness. The ice blue eyes of the mysterious figure narrowed, glittering wickedly. "You don't remember where you lost these things. It must have been when you stumbled and fell off of the pier."
The neko nodded dreamily. "It must have been then."
At this, the icy eyed figure snapped its fingers and pointed. With slumped shoulders, the male turned on his heel and stumbled away, out the mouth of the alley and across the broad planks of the dock.
The looming silhouette
dissipated around the softening glow in Mrs. Pearl's eyes as she
pulled her veil back down into place. Behind her, with suitcase and
duffle bag in hand, Miss Early craned her neck to look around her
cohort with a mischievous grin on her face. In the distance, a loud
splash sounded out followed by a cacophony of voices speaking in a
melange of languages, surmounted by an angry male voice that hissed,
shrieked, and cursed in furious Usagineko.
With a barely suppressed grin, her sinuous tail waving behind her in satisfaction, the feline motioned her companion forward, and the pair of them walked out of the alley and briskly down the boardwalk in search of their hotel.
Receding behind them, a
gaggle of bemused water taxi drivers and other Spontoonie natives
pulled the bedraggled neko up onto the dock, his drenched suit
clinging to his scrawny frame as a stream of spluttering, spitting
invective poured out of his mouth along with the acrid sea water.