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15: Whipping Boy

The back door of the Rolls opened and an oni warrior, face painted for war, gazed down at herbound hand and footas Sparrow murmured something in the Oni tongue. The warrior grunted, took out a whistle, and blew a single long note that jumped from shrill to inaudible. Somewhere close by, small dogs broke into excited barking.

Sparrow said something about Tomawaritomo, and the warrior pointed off into the darkness. She walked away without looking back.

The warrior reached into the Rolls with huge gnarled hands and lifted Tinker out, passing her like a hissing kitten to another guard. Oni warriors were emerging out of the night, faces painted and heavily armed. Apparently her escape had been noticed, and the oni had been on the hunt, now called back by the silent whistle.

Without the kitsune's deception, the airbrake plant was a collection of massive, old buildings, heavy with the sense of otherworldliness where men did the works of gods and sneered at the concept of magic. Yet rising up in the moonlight beyond the great buildings was the wild primal forest of Elfhome, and all around Tinker, smelling like wet dogs, were the brutish oni warriors.

Tinker was carried into one of the mile-long buildings. The first section was a garage, holding a host of hoverbikes and cars; Riki's motorcycle sat to one side, as singular as the tengu. The second section was a kennel, filled with steel cages. Many of the cages held yapping little pug dogs. In one cage was a muzzled warg, its glowing eyes lighting its corner with icy rage, its bulk filling the cage.

Beyond was empty warehouse. A shallow, narrow channel cut down the center of the vast room; oily water flowed in the cement drain. On one side was the bare skeleton of a freight elevator. There was something disturbingly familiar about the space. They passed a dark stain of old blood on the floor, and there, in the dust on the floor, were her bootprints and Riki's footprints, where he had held her still and made her watch the deboning that first morning. This was the true appearance of the courtyard garden with the gazebo.

At the far end, they caught up with Sparrow. The elf female was coming to a stop beside an oni male. Riki knelt on the ground in front of the male, head bowed until his forehead nearly touched the dusty floor. To one side, the wizened-dwarf torturer sharpened his boning knives.

"I caught her before she could do harm," Sparrow was saying to the oni. The guard dropped Tinker onto the ground, knocking the breath out of her. "Really, Lord Tomawaritomo, I had hoped you could contain her more than three days."

"The kitsune let her slip away." The oni male reached down to catch Tinker by a handful of shirt and bra and lifted her up to dangle in mid-air as he inspected her.

So this was Lord Tomawaritomo. Tall and lean, he towered over Tinker; even the long thin sword strapped to his side was taller than her. He was striking in appearance, but not beautiful; his cheekbones and chin were too sharp, and his nose too flat. The gold of his pupil filled his eyes, with an iris a dark vertical slit. He had a mane of white that spilled down over his back. His ears were more than just pointed: they were white-furred, and cupped forward, like a cat's. He wore a kimono of vivid purples and greens, and a fur of pristine white that matched his snow-white hair. The pelt was wrapped over one shoulder and pinned in place by his shoulder guard of ridged bone. The fur looked to be white wolf or warg, though larger than either species. The origin of the bone, however, Tinker couldn't guess, except that the body part involved was the jawbone, hinged midpoint at the oni's chest.

After inspecting Tinker closely, Tomtom grunted. "Such trouble in a little package."

"It seems to be a universal constant that keys to doorways are usually small." Sparrow smiled at her own wit.

Tomtom grunted again. "Perhaps I should put this one on a chain to keep it from being lost."

"Whatever it takes," Sparrow said.

Perhaps it was just as well that Tinker didn't have breath to talk; she had a feeling that she would be saying things that she'd regret later. She comforted herself by thinking choice insults.

Tomtom clicked his tongue and Riki looked up. "Take this." The oni lord held Tinker out to Riki. "See that it doesn't slip away again."

So Tinker found herself handed off again like a child's doll. Annoyingly, she couldn't help but feel somewhat safer with Riki, perhaps just because he was familiar. He, at least, balanced her upright and stooped to undo the ties around her ankles. "Stay still. Stay silent," he whispered to her without meeting her eyes. Yeah, right.

Tomtom's cat ears flickered from Riki to a distant wail. "Ah, my warriors have found the vixen."

"You'll have the kitsune killed." Sparrow said it as a disinterested statement, not a question.

"One normally has to be diplomatic with the kitsune," Tomtom said. "This presents possibilities"

A moment later frantic cries became audible, growing louder. Chiyo was dragged into the vast room, struggling in the hold of two oni warriors. Her fox tail stuck out of a tear in her kimono, and her doglike ears were laid back in distress. At a signal from Lord Tomtom, the warriors released Chiyo and she flung herself at Tomtom's feet. As the kitsune begged in frantic Oni, the corners of the oni lord's mouth curled up into a grin.

"Her Oni is worse than mine," Sparrow said. "What is she saying?"

"She says she'll do anything to avoid the knives." Lord Tomtom motioned to one of the waiting oni. "This will interest you."

Sparrow gave an exasperated sigh. "My time is limited."

Tomtom gazed at Sparrow hard. "Stay and be instructed."

He put out his hand and one of the warriors gave him a leather lead and slipknot collar. Tomtom dangled out the lead, clucking as one would to a dog. Chiyo cringed but sat up, canting back her head to lay bare her throat.

"Many of the lesser bloods have the spells to manipulate them threaded through their genetic pattern," Tomtom explained to Sparrow as he slipped the collar over Chiyo's head. He pulled the slipknot tight, winding the lead around his fist. "I could reduce her back to fox if I wanted."

Chiyo whimpered in fear.

"What use would a fox be to me, little kitsune?" Tomtom purred, wiping away Chiyo's tears. "I've decided to breed you. No, no, no." He murmured as Chiyo glanced at the surrounding warriors. "Your mate will have to be fetched. Now hold still."

He growled out a word, and strange runes gleamed to life on Chiyo's skin. In a low dull drone, Tomtom chanted out a spell, and her very skin began to glow. After a minute, he fell silent and the light vanished, and Chiyo panted quietly.

"I've put her into season." He loosened the lead and handed it to one of his warriors, pointing back across the warehouse and saying something in Oni.

Chiyo cried out as if struck. "Warg?"

Sparrow made a face of distaste. "Oh, beat her and be done with it."

"The lesser bloods are socketed so they can breed with anything," Tomtom said. "I want to introduce the warg abilities into the kitsune line."

Sparrow scoffed at this. "You don't change the genome directly?"

"Breeding for pups is a simpler method," Tomtom said.

"This is a waste of my time," Sparrow said. "I must be gone before I'm missed."

"Speak then," Tomtom said absently, watching the kitsune be stripped of her kimono, bent over a bale of bedding, and tied into position.

Tinker turned away as warriors took advantage of Chiyo's helplessness; the males laughed as their manipulations made the kitsune in heat moan wantonly. Remember what she's done to me. I hate her. I should be glad she's being punished.

Sparrow took no notice of the events with the kitsune. "I told you at the start of this that Wolf Who Rules needs to be eliminated."

Riki caught Tinker before she could launch herself at Sparrow, muffling her stream of curses at the elf.

Tomtom glanced at Tinker struggling in Riki's arms and a smile quirked at his mouth. "I have done all I will do in that regard."

"You failed miserably," Sparrow said.

Damn right, bitch, Tinker thought fiercely, still muted by Riki's hand.

"Exactly," Tomtom said. "I will not endanger my position by fruitlessly striking at him. The dogs were expendable, but I will not risk my warriors."

"He suspects that his domi's disappearance is not an untimely accident," Sparrow said. "He plans to return to the citywide search."

"And you will take the river edge as before," Tomtom waved aside her concern. "Avoid this valley as planned. If you can not, call your contact first and we'll trigger the greater cloaking spells."

"Wolf Who Rules loves this little piece of trash!" Sparrow cried, making Tinker's heart do a strange little flip in her chest. "He's not being swayed from the truth. He knows we took her, he just doesn't know how or where we're hiding her."

Tomtom turned to look at Sparrow full on, wordlessly.

Sparrow visibly needed to steel herself against his cold look. "You are failing to see how dangerous he is."

"And you are overestimating him," Tomtom said flatly.

"Your people have never dealt with a domana lord on his own land," Sparrow said.

"A knife in the spine," Tomtom said. "An arrow through the eye, or a sword through the heart, and he will die like everything else in this universe."

"No!" Tinker cried into Riki's palm, and the tengu held her tighter still.

Tomtom turned away dismissively as the massive warg was brought in, muzzled, on a stout stick lead. The beast strained against the handler, heading for Chiyo.

"So arrange the knife!" Sparrow refused to be ignored. "Or the arrow or the sword! Kill him!"

Tinker wriggled in Riki's hold. Shut up, bitch! Shut up!

Tomtom's tone grew flatter, colder. "I will not stand here, repeating myself, or do you wish to go after the kitsune?"

Sparrow looked then, as did Tinker. The warg loomed over the kitsune, erect, proportionally wrong for the female, seeking an entrance in her slight body. Tinker looked away, desperately concentrating on anything but Chiyo and her sharpening whimpers. Sparrow watched, not even flinching as the kitsune gave a scream of agony. Tinker hunched against the sound of the big animal laboring, and Chiyo's now endless, shrill barks of terror and pain. She wanted to cover her ears, but Riki wasn't loosening his hold.

Sparrow tore her gaze away from the godless union. "So be it then. Let Wolf Who Rules be the domana you cut your teeth on. If you're to take this land, you'll need to face them eventually."

"Ah, good, he's tied with her." Tomtom ignored Sparrow in favor of the breeding. "If she brings a litter to term in two months, I'll breed her again next season." Tomtom glanced down at Tinker. "This one has the domana genome? Perhaps I'll get my own litter on her. She's tiny, but I suppose that gives her a certain childlike allure."

Tinker shrank away from his clinical gaze.

"You can breed her later," Sparrow said. "The queen's seer says she's the key to our plans regarding the gate."

"So it was reported to me." Tomtom knowing obviously threw Sparrow; Chiyo must have told him earlier, after reading Tinker's mind.

"The seer said," Sparrow continued, "that the only way to bind her was with ties of her own making."

"Which means?" Tomtom asked.

"You'll only be able to hold her with promises freely given," Sparrow explained. "How you'll manage that, I do not know, nor do I care. Torture her if you must, but bind her. Obviously she'll slip away if you do not."

Sparrow nodded then and swept away, leaving Tinker with her enemies without so much as a glance. Tinker had thought she hated Riki and Chiyo; she understood now what a shadow of hate that had been.

With a look from Lord Tomawaritomo, Riki released his hold on Tinker.

"You were human, the weakest of us." Tomtom studied her with his cat eyes. "If the elves had left the gate between our worlds open, we would have long since enslaved the humans. Weaklings, all."

"You don't need muscles when you have brains," Tinker snapped.

"The question is, how elfin are you now?" Lord Tomawaritomo said. "If I have you punished as you should be, will you survive it? The human didn't."

He meant Russell, whittled down by inches. Her arms tucked tight to her chest, and he laughed. She tried not to think of those bright sharp knives, the blood, and the white of bone.

"The risk would be great that she wouldn't survive," Riki murmured.

Lord Tomawaritomo glanced at Riki, eyes narrowing in speculation. "If you helped it escape, death would be preferable. You are being spared right now only because I myself called you away."

It took Tinker a moment to realize that Tomtom was referring to her as it as if she was a thing, not an intelligent being. Only a warning look from Riki kept her silent.

"Chiyo doesn't have the brain to keep her deluded," Riki explained.

"See that this is secure," Tomawaritomo growled softly, pointing at Tinker. "Then get me a whipping boy to use against it."

Riki bowed low, caught Tinker, and hurried her from the room, while Tomtom turned back to supervise the end of Chiyo's breeding.

* * * | Tinker | * * *