Rattle and bump. Regular. Soothing. None of the rapid-fire teeth-clacking vibration that meant Yukina was pushing the Koutetsujou to its limits, or the extra thump of momentum from pulling another train full of Hunters and Kabane. Just the normal rumbling hum of their home on intact tracks, making good time away from disaster.
Home, Ikoma thought fuzzily, blinking through the dark at the metal shelf above his bunk. Had to be the locomotive, he knew that little nick in the steel overhead. Just as he knew the breathing from hammocks around him, or the silent presence, sharp as a blade, standing near the head of his bunk. Who’d have thought home would be somewhere on wheels....
Shift in vibration. The first soft hiss of brakes tapping on. “Why are we slowing down?”
“You’re awake again?”
Kurusu. Indigo hair properly up again, if a little ragged at the ends; he should tell Kibito to go at it with scissors. Properly dressed - and that was definitely Kurusu, fighting-formal even in the middle of the night. Ikoma blinked, feeling as if he were missing something. “Again?”
“You’ve been in and out a few times.” Kurusu unshielded a candle lantern, turned aside just enough to not blind either of them. “Lady Ayame has ordered a stop so the survivors can pray for their dead.” His face was set in grim resolve, just a little crinkle of eyes giving away that the bushi was well and truly fed up with someone. “So... both groups of survivors can pray.”
“The Hunters.” For a moment Ikoma’s whole world flashed red; how dare they take refuge on the Koutetsujou after Iwato Station, and Kongokaku-!
“Uryuu traded Lady Ayame a safe route out, for passage,” Kurusu stated. “And where to find us.”
That... made sense. Damn it. Lady Ayame had to put lives first. “Just keep them away from Mumei.”
“We’re keeping them away from both of you.” An amused flick of dark brows. “It’s not hard. Uryuu’s settled what’s left of his men in a car away from Kongokaku survivors. Eight Hunters, some of them wounded, all of them exhausted... they know when they’re outnumbered.”
Hah. He’d just bet Uryuu did. The Hunter might have been crazy enough to follow Biba through unleashing Kabane on helpless stations, but he wasn’t an idiot.
But there was something much more important than hate-blind murderous Hunters on their train. “I need another restraint-”
“Mumei found you a ribbon.” That might have been a hint of a smirk on Kurusu’s face. Maybe. “It’s green.”
So that was the silky tickle at his throat. Not nearly as strong as the steel neck-guard he’d worn, but if it worked for Mumei...
How did the restraints work, anyway? It didn’t make sense. He wasn’t a doctor, but he’d studied what was known of how the blood carried viruses to build his life-saving rig. Anything that really kept the Kabane virus from reaching their brain ought to stop blood as well. Which was exactly what he’d counted on.
There are reasons people think it’s a curse.
Sometimes the Kabane infection spread slowly, over days; maybe from a bite, maybe a cut hit by fresh flying blood, no one was quite sure. But most of the time it spread fast, washing over its victim in purpled skin and glowing veins in a matter of minutes. Far too fast to be disease, or even most poisons.
Fast as a catalyzed chemical reaction. Like dropping pyrolusite into hydrogen peroxide. Whoosh.
And if it was a chemical reaction, then if he could just halt the blood to the brain until the reaction ran out, and the virus had used up everything it needed to kill....
He’d gambled. And it’d worked.
Well. Sort of.
But if he hadn’t cut the strangulation the moment the infection retreated, he wouldn’t be a Kabaneri. He’d be dead.
The steel collar he’d worn until yesterday, the ribbon he was wearing now - neither of those would keep anything from reaching his brain. So... why was he still himself? Was the virus dormant, the way Mumei thought? Had it just used up whatever it catalyzed, and his current diet of blood and water hadn’t put more back into his system? Were the virus and the Kabane even the same thing, once you’d been infected?
More things to ask Mumei. If she knows. “I was thinking of something a little more sturdy,” Ikoma muttered. “In case someone tries to take my head off.”
“Worry about it tomorrow.” Kurusu held out a familiar red-banded bamboo tube.
Didn’t I just have blood yesterday?
But the hunger was there, if only a low growl through his nerves. Sitting up, Ikoma reached out-
The sling caught at the stump of his right arm, stinging a little. The Kabaneri sighed, and reached out with his left hand.
Not warm like soup; though salty copper was free-flowing in a way that meant it’d been in someone’s veins just a few minutes ago. Likely Kurusu’s, given the extra wrap on his wrist.
A different sort of warmth. Like an extra blanket draped over him on a long watch, or sweet buns offered with a wink and a grin.
Like Tanabata, with everyone sprawled together to sleep and not caring, because... we’re family.
Blood was caring. He wasn’t sure he ever wanted to admit that.
Well, maybe to Mumei... Hozumi. Have to ask her what she wants us to call her....
Ikoma grimaced, and shook his head, fighting the urge to let his eyes slide shut. “Sorry. Sleepy... is everyone okay?”
“We’re healing.” Kurusu’s eyes narrowed. “So are you. Sleep. And stay in the locomotive.” He paused, as if the next words had to be dragged out with tongs. “Lady Ayame needs her rest. She’ll sleep more soundly knowing you are safe.”
We’re healing. But not all of them would. “Takumi....”
“We’ll pray for him.” Kurusu took back the empty tube, tucked an unbanded tube of plain water in with his sling, and pulled the quilted coverlet up to his shoulders. “I’ll wake you in time to add your prayers. Later.”
He wanted to keep his eyes open. At least long enough to take more than a sip of water. But the blood was warm. And they were home. “You need sleep too....”
“He’s right, you know.” Kibito kept his voice low as Kurusu moved away from Ikoma’s bunk. The younger bushi’s ears were good, and sometimes he thought the Kabaneri could hear a bat whisper. “You do need sleep.”
“Now,” Kibito said firmly, catching his friend’s shoulder before a stray track-jostle could take Kurusu off his stance. “Or don’t you trust us to look after him? He’s trusting us to look after you.”
From the blink he got back, more felt than seen in the lantern-light, Kurusu hadn’t even considered that.
Steamsmith, samurai - they’re more alike than they ever want to admit, Kibito thought, amused. “You need to set an example for the men. Everyone knows steamsmiths live on burnt tea and gear grease, but bushi are supposed to be a little more refined. You know, not passing out right on top of your lord’s heir just because you fought your way through two hordes of Kabane, an army of vengeance-mad soldiers, and a Nue in the last two days.” He paused. “Though I think Lady Ayame just wishes she could have caught you all by herself.”
Oho, there went the glowing blush. Those two were so much fun to watch.
Well. Sometimes fun. Sometimes a little sad and worrisome. Sixteen, noble, her uncle Dogen Makino one of the Elders of Kongokaku itself - Ayame should have had swarms of offers for her hand by now. But the lone surviving heir of Aragane Station... no lord’s son had wanted to marry into the Yomogawa family as a yoshi for a station so close to the front lines against the Kabane.
Now Aragane Station was fallen, and Yashiro, and they were all ronin, borne up on the steel wave of the Koutetsujou. So far the Yomogawa name and the crew’s fierce determination to keep their Hayajiro running had buffered them from being cast out as penniless refugees, but....
Keep everyone alive first. Then we’ll worry about how to evade lordly proprieties.
Heh. They were already evading full inspections, after all. What inspection team would believe a Kabane had stabbed Kurusu with a sword, and not left a lingering infection behind?
Over a week healing, but it’s still obviously from a katana thrust, not an innocent little repair accident, Kibito thought. Every station so far has had bushi doing the inspections; there’s no way they’d believe it was from anything but combat. Damn it. We can’t let someone lock Kurusu in for three days. He’s our best sword, and Ayame needs a bodyguard now more than ever.
...And at that, we’d be lucky if they believed it was from the Kabane. If station lords thought Kurusu got that stab in Kongokaku, they’d wonder who he was really fighting, and that’d just be the perfect end to all our days, wouldn’t it?
Kami, please don’t let our bad habits breach quarantine.
Thank the kami for the Kabaneri. With Mumei and Ikoma able to sense the virus before a person fully turned... everyone slept just a little easier.
Huh. And thinking of. Two steps, and Kibito sat down on Kurusu’s bunk with him, the better to keep the younger man from fleeing sleep. “Is there more in that sling than yesterday?”
A slight nod. “Mumei thinks with enough blood, he’ll heal.” A dark scowl. “Which is why we need to keep him here. Out of sight. Those idiots from Kongokaku-!”
Kibito thumped his shoulder. Gently. “We were idiot refugees too, once.”
“Not like them.”
Oof. There went the hard blue eyes that were Kurusu as bristly aggravated bushi, facing a threat to his lady and men. And crew, too; though Kibito wasn’t sure his friend realized how entwined the bushi and steamsmiths had become. They were Koutetsujou’s crew now, all of them; and if anyone hadn’t picked up a wrench or a steam rifle, it was only a matter of time.
Cut one, and all of us bleed.
Worse, Kurusu wasn’t wrong. In Aragane Station... well, no one had liked to think about the Kabane swallowing them. But everyone knew it could happen. When the Fusojou had breached the wall, Aragane’s survivors had followed the wisdom hard-earned from the few rescued souls of other fallen stations: pick up all you can carry, flee to the lord’s manor. And when Mumei had opened a path to escape, they’d run.
We had a plan. We knew what to do. But Kongokaku, the Shogun’s own city - they thought the Kabane would never touch them.
Some of the Kongokaku survivors were all right, if shaken. Others... Kibito had issued quiet orders to the crew to keep an eye out for knives and panic. Kongokaku had prided itself on being pure. Untouched by the Kabane. People who ran Hayajiro, who had to face and fight the hordes through every mountain pass and abandoned station - they were as far from pure as a child of Kongokaku could imagine.
If they realize the Kabaneri are onboard, if they have any idea what Mumei and Ikoma are....
The noble citizens of Kongokaku had nearly burned the crew alive when they knew they were human. Lady Ayame had shamed them into stopping. But it didn’t exactly speak well of their new refugees’ chances of calmly, thoughtfully deciding that two souls tainted by the Kabane could be allowed to live.
“We have to get them off the Koutetsujou,” Kurusu muttered.
Kibito raised dark brows. “Them? Not the Hunters?”
Kurusu gave him a searching look through the predawn gloom. “You said Uryuu told you where to find us, after Lady Ayame had already agreed to let his survivors on.”
Point. Kibito might not want to give Uryuu a steam rifle and a free shot at his back, but with Biba gone, the surviving Hunter leader had dealt honorably with them. So far. “Lady Ayame’s going to discuss that more with everyone. Tomorrow.” Kibito gave his friend a wink. “Come on. Ikoma’s got enough sense to sleep until he gets better. And I know you’re more sane than a mad steamsmith.”
That won him a resigned growl. But also a too-stubborn bushi tucked into his bunk to drowse, at least for a few hours.
Take what I can get, Kibito sighed, pulling a coverlet around himself for a nap. Good luck getting him to sleep while we’re stopped.
Near the rail, Mumei snuggled deeper into tattered red hemp, watching the first pale-blue and gold streak the sky. Even for a Kabaneri, the winds on top of the moving Koutetsujou were chilly before dawn. But it was nice and quiet and free of idiots-
Mostly free of idiots, Mumei amended, rolling her eyes at the silver-haired Hunter following Lady Ayame out onto the deck. “Oh. You.”
“Oi, little mosquito.” Uryuu planted gloved fists on his hips. “That any way to talk to someone who brought the extra blood so your crazy stray Kabaneri can heal up faster?”
“It’s not as good as Koutetsujou blood.” Mumei fingered her kunai, wondering if Ikoma would want him stabbed. She’d have to ask, the next time he woke up. “I’ll drink it. Ikoma should have better.”
Ayame drew in a sharp breath, violet eyes sad as she stared down the Hunter. “Uryuu.”
“Oi, oi!” The Hunter held up empty hands, blinking fast. “There’s nothing wrong with it! We fought with Kabaneri, Princess. You think I’d let the doctors play when it came to keeping them fighting-fit? My men are wounded. The Koutetsujou was their only shot and I knew it. I wasn’t going to take anything on board that would hurt the best fighters you’ve got.”
Oh. That sadness was Ayame defending their crew. Mumei straightened in her borrowed cloak, warm all over. “He’s right. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s like the blood I always got with the Hunters. Koutetsujou blood is just better. Warmer inside.”
“Inside?” Ayame looked between them, shoulders relaxing a little.
“The hell should I know?” Uryuu shrugged. “Kabaneri... they were the doctors’ problems. And Biba’s. I knew the basics. Feed them blood, stay out of their way.” He slipped another wary glance Mumei’s direction. “So. You’re the one who said you wanted to talk in private-”
“Mumei is as private as I can let you have.” Ayame gripped the rail with one hand. “If my bushi thought I didn’t have any guards to speak to you, they’d be up here with swords drawn. But they know Mumei is here, so they won’t.”
“For a princess, you’re a lot more bushi than you look,” Uryuu muttered.
Ayame waited, sliding down the rail next to Mumei to take in the brightening dawn.
The Hunter huffed a breath. “Our deal was, you let us on board for a way out of Kongokaku. We’re out. And a lot of your bushi aren’t happy with us. What do we need to do to earn our keep to the next station?”
Mumei blinked. The way he was shifting on his feet, more than he needed for wind or rail-vibration-
He thinks the Koutetsujou would throw them off. Alone. Wounded. Without any help.
Two weeks ago, she would have thought that too. What use was a Hunter, or a Kabaneri, who couldn’t fight?
The Koutetsujou is different.
“There are limits to what we can do for your men.” Ayame was watching the Hunter, intent as Kurusu about to deliver a never-seen-before strike. “We were able to restock supplies at Iwato Station so everything would look normal, but with the refugees from Kongokaku.... We can probably refill water at a tower or river. Other supplies will be tight. We have some medicine, and we have people who’ve learned to treat wounds.” Violet eyes met hazel-gold. “But if you have any of the virus and poisons Biba’s men used on the shogun’s audience, they need to be destroyed.”
“Lousy way to die,” Uryuu muttered, after a long stare. “I had anyone carrying that junk ditch it before we drove for the station. Last thing we needed was someone cutting themselves by accident.” He straightened. “If you want our weapons, I want my men protected-”
“We’ll check your weapons,” Ayame cut him off. “Once we’re sure they’re clear, you get them back.”
That stopped him again. Mumei leaned on the rail, interested. This was a fight like Kajika in the market; words and intent, not bullets.
Ayame’s stronger than she looks.
“Most of your men are injured, but some of them can still shoot,” Ayame went on. “We can’t isolate and protect any of the cars, there are too many people on the Hayajiro. We need steam rifles in every car, and people who know how to use them. If you want to stay in a car away from those of Kongokaku, then help defend it.”
From the way Uryuu’s eyes widened, Ayame had pinned him in a very nasty hold. Interesting. What had he been expecting? The Hunters were trained, the Koutetsujou needed every steam rifle they had, it wasn’t like they were idiot townsfolk who’d cheer the Hunters one day and shut the gates the next-
The Koutetsujou... aren’t townsfolk anymore.
Mumei hugged herself in Ikoma’s cloak, feeling oddly adrift. But if they’re not townsfolk, and not Hunters - what are they?
Well. They were hers. And if Uryuu crossed them, he’d find that out the hard way.
“Our maps show there’s a tower close,” Ayame stated. “If it’s clear, we’ll stop for water. And prayers.” She paused. “We have wood to spare for a second fire.”
Gut-punch, Mumei realized, as Uryuu stiffened. He never saw it coming.
“You’d let us build a prayer fire.” Uryuu rolled the words around in his mouth, like they tasted funny. “After Iwato, and Kongokaku-”
“What you did was horrible.” Now Ayame’s gaze was hard. “I know how the stations treat those who face the Kabane. But there were innocent people inside those walls! You had to know what would happen.”
Uryuu looked away first, chafing bare upper arms. “Yeah. Well. It’s done.”
“Yes, it is,” Ayame agreed sadly. “But Biba’s gone. Your men are still alive. And none of us will last through the next Kabane attack if we can’t trust each other.”
“You....” Uryuu wiggled a finger in his ear, as if he couldn’t believe what he’d heard either. “What?”
“Of course, we couldn’t expect you to trust us right away,” Ayame went on. “Many of my people are very angry with you. Ikoma wants your Hunters to stay away from Mumei. And - we all miss Takumi.”
Yes. We do. Mumei fingered the edge of her kunai, wanting to stab someone all over again. She missed the panicky steamsmith. More than she’d ever thought. And Ikoma missed him like a hole in his heart, missed him enough to leave his glasses, and that was just not right.
Kurusu might be stuffy and fussy sometimes, but she could forgive a lot, seeing him leave clear and green glass in with Ikoma’s things.
“Sahari was an idiot.” The Hunter was eyeing both of them up and down, like he was trying to see them for the very first time. “You don’t shoot a guy brave enough to stand in front of his friend. You point them both at the Kabane-” He cut himself off, shifting on his feet. “There’s no way you can trust us, Princess.”
“Can I trust we have a deal until the next station?” Ayame raised her chin, fearless. “We don’t know what might have been radioed out of Kongokaku, and there are limits to what Hayajiro personnel being examined can do without getting shot. But if you leave the Koutetsujou, you have my word that we will try to make sure you leave it alive.”
“Wait,” Ikoma protested, having given up trying to keep Kibito and Kajika from fussing with his sling. Even if the bushi was now adding a padded glove to just peep out at the end, which was absolutely ridiculous. Unless, of course, Mumei’s smirking explanation actually was meant to explain. “What do you mean, it’ll grow back?”
“We are half-Kabane.” Mumei gave him a frown of this should be obvious. “With enough blood, we regenerate.”
“Which makes me think twice about your habit of collecting parts.” Sukari lingered on the locomotive stairs; from that upward tilt of blond brows, all too glad to not be the victim of Kajika’s fussing. “Not to mention all those Kabane our bushi beheaded and tossed out. Are they still wandering around out there like headless ghosts?”
“Parts don’t grow whole new Kabane,” Ikoma muttered, flexing his stump against the padding. Maybe it was a little longer than yesterday... but that could be wishful thinking. “I did my research before I ever started picking up pieces of blood vessels. Once the heart’s destroyed, the Kabane is dead.”
“But beheaded Kabane aren’t dead.” Mumei tapped a finger against her lips, dragging up yet more obvious facts that no one who wasn’t a Hunter would have ever heard of. “They can’t see, and they can’t bite. But if they can tear someone open and pour the blood down the stump, they’re still dangerous.”
Ikoma froze. Traded a glance with Kibito, who looked almost as unsettled at the thought of Kurusu’s beheaded Kabane wandering the tracks behind them.
“Good thing you reinforced a sword for him,” Kibito observed. “We’ll all feel better if he stabs them through the heart.” He grinned at Sukari. “You’re saving heart-cages for more, right?”
“When we find them....” Sukari frowned at bits of glinting metal Kajika had just fished out of Ikoma’s bunk with wet eyes and a hmph. “What are those?”
“Someone being an idiot.” Kajika swiped at her eyes, brandishing bits of steel. “What were you thinking, bolting on the piercing gun?”
“...That I had to?” Ikoma tried.
Kajika’s flat look would have shriveled a market farmer like a dried-out lemon. It made Ikoma want to hide. Or find her that one green tea she liked as a change from steamsmith-black, because if he’d had a series of bad days Kajika had obviously had worse.
Takumi died. I nearly died. And that boy, I couldn’t save him.... She’s hurt inside.
“Your arm’s growing back just fine,” Kajika huffed, leaning in to poke at his streak of white. “Too bad your hair isn’t! You’re not going near scissors ever again!”
“But,” Ikoma tried.
“No! You look horrible. Like a bushi tried to cut your head off, and missed.”
Mumei was stifling a giggle. The brat.
Kibito didn’t try to stifle his chuckle, apparently finally satisfied with the glove. Dusted his hands off, standing. “Come on, we wouldn’t miss by that much.”
And Sahari had short hair, too. Ikoma tried not to grimace in the sudden silence. “Next time, you can trim it.” Oh, ouch, that wasn’t what he’d meant to say-
“There’d better not be a next time!” Kajika fluffed his hair one more time, then reached into the toolbag someone had stashed in his bunk, and brought out a shine of clear and green.
My glasses. But - I left them.
“Kurusu brought them.” Mumei looked hopeful. “He knew you’d live.”
Right. As if Kurusu was ever that optimistic.
It hurt, having Kajika tuck his glasses on instead of Takumi. The three of them had been together almost since the moment he’d made it to Aragane Station.
Takumi. If you see my sister - tell her to wait. Just a little longer. I can still help people here. I can still fight the Kabane. So... I will. As long as I can.
It was odd, being on the prow of the Koutetsujou when it wasn’t moving. Ikoma looked across the wye’s tracks to the last car, noting the gap in their defensive curve around the water-tower. On the one hand, the extra space would make turning the Koutetsujou faster if they did have to bolt. On the other - no caboose meant that much less space to jam everyone in, and he’d heard quarters outside the locomotive were tight.
The reasons why space was so tight were down praying at the fire near the third car of the Hayajiro, mixed in with those folk of the Koutetsujou who’d lost kin to the Kabane at Kongokaku.
Why so far from the locomotive- oh. Right. All they’ve known is walls. Being able to see the tracks, to see outside with nothing between them and the Kabane but our steam rifles... it must be terrifying.
That, or Ayame had put the Hunters’ funeral fire by the locomotive so their bushi could watch them.
Or both. Or maybe some other reason he hadn’t thought of. His arm didn’t hurt, exactly, but it twinged and ached. Distracting. Especially when eating meant falling asleep.
Sleep later. Praying now- “Oof!”
“Ikoma!” A horde of grabbing hands; small and warm, the way Kabane never could be. “Ikoma’s okay!”
“He won’t be if you knock him over.” Kibito waded into Kajika’s throng of orphans, plucking up one of the smaller ones to sit on his armored shoulder. “He’s still on the injured list. And what did your big sister Kajika tell you about the injured?”
One of the taller youngsters, part of his dark hair caught aside, straightened and nodded. “Let ‘em rest, even if they look bored!”
“Ah!” Kibito winked at Kajika. “She’s so smart.”
Kids. Ikoma blinked, bemused, as the mini-horde swarmed him just long enough to pat him down and check he was really alive, then sat down for some serious praying. Was I ever that happy?
Though he wasn’t sure happy was the right word. Not with the sobs mixed in with the prayers, the youngest bar Kajika’s back-slung baby cuddling up to Mumei like she was soft and warm as a kitten.
But at least they had each other. And Mumei, and Kajika. Not to mention, Kibito was just one of the bushi willing to get lessons in child-jutsu since Tanabata. Because they were going to hope again, and dream again, and build a place to raise families....
Takumi never got to court even one wife.
Whole hand raised before him, Ikoma prayed for their dead.
Sunlight blazed with the fires, and maybe he was guiltily glad to have his glasses after all. The green lens cut the glare, the odd too-brightness of the world through his right eye; even becoming Kabaneri hadn’t touched that wound. The same glare he’d faced since he’d woken among the dead in a swallowed station, blood on his head and his sister’s corpse finally at peace.
Got too close to the charge. Idiot.
Though given what Ikoma now knew about the Kabane, being knocked unconscious all those years back might have saved his life. Kabane chased their prey. They were looking for people running. And screaming.
So much screaming....
Ikoma started, blinking away a daze as Kibito stood, gently setting his borrowed youngster back on the deck. “I need to trade off watches,” the bushi declared. “You kids look after our steamsmith for me.”
“I do not need looking after,” Ikoma muttered.
Oh great, there went Kajika’s folded arms of disbelief, echoed by at least four mini-terrors and Mumei. What’d he done to deserve this-?
It was the silence of the vibration that caught his attention. The Koutetsujou was too massive to shudder when it was still, even if a howling windstorm had been bearing down. But he knew steel was moving, ever so slightly, as someone or something climbed the stairs.
Someone, Ikoma told himself, trying not to reach for a gun that wasn’t there. Kabane aren’t that graceful. And I’d have felt them.
Kurusu climbed over the edge of the top hatch, silent as a shadow.
Kajika started, then breathed a sigh of relief. “Lady Ayame?”
“Most of the rites are done. Kibito can guard her for the rest.”
Ikoma watched that bushi deadpan, and wondered when Kurusu had become so easy to read. “Couldn’t stand them anymore?”
A twitch of indigo eyes told him he was right. “The lines are drawn harder than they were for us, even in Aragane.” Kurusu sat on steel beside them, sword propped at his shoulder. “Bushi. Steamsmith. Townsman. Those from Kongokaku....”
“They’re being silly,” Kajika said firmly. “If maintaining your guns doesn’t damage a bushi’s honor, how can maintaining a Hayajiro do worse? You need that to fight, too!”
“Brother said they were stupid.” Mumei reddened. “I mean....”
“It takes time.” Kurusu’s glance was level, serious as if he addressed one of his bushi. “When you find out part of what you always knew was wrong.”
Not an apology, Ikoma thought, oddly warmed anyway as Mumei relaxed. You can’t know what you don’t know. Not until you have proof.
Kurusu looked at the main funeral fire, and let out a slow exhalation. “He was brave.”
Ikoma’s breath caught.
“Bushi are born to be brave,” Kurusu went on. “We’re trained for it. Taught our duty all our lives. But Takumi was brave. Even when his teeth were chattering.”
“Of course he was brave,” Kajika nodded. “He had to keep both of us looking at reality. Back in Aragane, a steamsmith....” Her shoulders hunched, as she looked down.
Wouldn’t ever be a teacher, Ikoma finished silently. Maybe a master of apprentices, but someone who taught children to read, write, and figure? That was a town job, or a bushi one. Steamsmiths were too busy keeping everything running to trust them with building a future. Everyone said that.
Which was half the reason Takumi had thought creating jet bullets would never work. Any steamsmith who’d spent that much of his time inventing something instead of fixing Hayajiro and pressure canisters was automatically suspected of being not quite right.
Er. That, and the whole, trying to shoot a Kabane point-blank is freakin’ insane.
“He was a good shot.” Mumei leaned her chin on her hand. “Eventually.”
One of the kids clapped her hands. “He knew how to make pinwheels!”
Ikoma leaned back, listening to how they’d all seen his best friend. It was good to know other people had loved him too. Even if it hurt, knowing he’d never get to trade another elbow-jab again-
“Terrible form!” Three of the kids chorused.
Oh, kami. Could he just sink through the hull now? Ikoma knew Takumi had been telling the tale of their encounter with the idiot bushi in Shitori Station, how could he not, but he’d somehow hoped that Kurusu hadn’t heard it....
The samurai actually looked amused. “So you were paying attention. Good. In a few days, you start training again.”
From the look on Mumei’s face, Kurusu had just handed her the best guns ever.
“What?” Ikoma blurted out. “I mean, kenjutsu is bushi-”
“From what I’ve seen, one day you’ll end up in a swarm with an empty pressure canister.” Kurusu looked completely unruffled, as if he hadn’t just suggested upending all bushi custom without Mumei pushing him into it kicking and screaming. “Also, Mumei says it took you several shots to hit the charge in Yashiro Station. Your aim needs work.”
Kajika’s hand flew to her mouth. “Kurusu!”
“No, he’s right,” Ikoma admitted. “I maintain rifles. I ought to know how to shoot them better.” Though Mumei being here reminded him of something important. Something he almost remembered about the fight with Biba, like trying to grasp shreds of a dream. Or maybe it was just the prayer fire, reminding him of the Shitori temple where Mumei had remembered her real name; the one her mother had given her before the Kabane had come and Biba had lied to sway a child into believing only the strong survived. “Did - did you still want us to call you Mumei? Or Hozumi?”
Brown eyes went very wide. She blinked, and looked away.
“It’s okay,” Ikoma started, “I shouldn’t have-”
“You could try Hozumi.” She looked a challenge at everyone else on deck. “Only with us. To everyone else, I’m the Koutetsujou’s bodyguard!”
Which got the kids huddling closer. Weird.
Better her than me. Because now eyes were on him, expectant....
“I wish he hadn’t been that brave,” Ikoma whispered. “He said... he wished he’d stood in the way of Kurusu’s bullet the first time, that he was ashamed he hadn’t... but I didn’t want him to! Why should he try to die for a Kabane? And we didn’t know I wasn’t. We didn’t know.”
“But he knew you were a friend.” Kurusu nodded. “Ikoma. You cannot choose another man’s honor. No one can.” He paused. “Not even a bushi.”
Funerals are done, Yukina says the repair crew’s checked all of the undercarriage so we don’t have any more problems with the accelerator, and the water-tower is full, Ayame ticked off in her mind as she and Kibito climbed up to join their somber friends. Sukari’s going to check if that needs maintenance; who knows who else might have to divert this way with Kongokaku destroyed....
“Lady Ayame.” Kurusu stood and bowed as she approached.
“It’s good to see you all.” She waved the others back down; Mumei was spending more time than usual sleeping, and Ikoma still looked pale as a ghost.
And they all miss Takumi. I miss Takumi. I didn’t know him well, but - oh, the stories about Shitori Station’s bushi made everyone laugh. We needed that.
Though hopefully Minister Yamazaki hadn’t taken that incident too badly. They needed to find another station for supplies soon. Shitori might be one of the closest.
If it’s still alive. After what the Hunters did to Iwato Station... we didn’t see anything wrong when we left, but would we have? We’ll have to ask Uryuu - but even he might not know. Biba was smart. Damn him.
Very unladylike. But somehow, she didn’t think her crew would care. “So long as there’s no threat, I think we should just stop for a few hours. I know, we should be making time to the nearest source of supplies... but with Kongokaku swallowed, all the Hayajiro runs will be in disarray. We need to take some time to look at what maps we have, and decide what the best route is. I don’t want another mountain run.” Ayame smiled at them, though it felt bittersweet. “Even with jet bullets.”
“I think that’s something we can all agree on,” Kibito said wryly. “We’re set for ammo for the moment, but too many big fights without time to make reloads, and we’ll be down to coated katanas.” He hmphed. “Right now, the only treated blades we have are Kurusu’s sword and Mumei’s bayonets. If the maintenance crew didn’t find enough pieces cleaning under the Koutetsujou, we might have to go looking for a small horde to shoot. We need more of those heart-cages.”
Hand on the first rungs up the locomotive’s ladder, Dogen Makino tried not to sputter. He was a hardened samurai, an Elder of Kongokaku who’d survived years of war before the Kabane appeared, and all the long bloody years after. He’d kept his head in artillery barrages, horde swarms, and Biba Amatori’s own insane assassination of his father and shogun. He did not flinch at mere words.
But what little he knew of Kibito had shown him a very steady, plain-spoken young samurai, not prone to wild flights of fancy. If Kibito had said that - had suggested deliberately hunting Kabane - and no one was laughing....
Loudly clearing his throat, Dogen climbed the rest of the way, exiting into the sunlight to face wary and worried gazes. “As the surviving Elder of Kongokaku, I would prefer not to bring my people near any more Kabane. Even if you are confident in these jet bullets.”
“Don’t worry.” The young brunette wrapped in tattered red hemp looked at him as if she were deciding how fast she could take him down. “The Kabane will find us.”
Cold-blooded youngster. How had his niece picked this girl up?
Though for the moment, there were more important things to discuss.
“Elder of Kongokaku?”
And Ayame had hit on one of them straight off. Good. “This is a good spot to talk,” Dogen mused. “Everyone below can see us, but not hear us... Ayame. I know as well as you do that the Koutetsujou follows your command. But we both know my people look at your age, and your lack of rank as heir to a fallen station, and wonder why I haven’t taken the master key yet.”
Not that he had any intention of trying. Even if it hadn’t already been a bad idea, the amount of lethal intent currently staring at him might have rocked a Kabane back on its heels. Child to bushi, those atop this locomotive meant to protect Ayame with their lives.
Which was incredibly odd. Bushi were trained to be that fierce. But the look he was getting from the pale young man with a blue sling, an odd green ribbon at his neck, and what had to be a townsman’s borrowed shirt... where had a steamsmith learned to project lethal intent?
“Lack of rank?” Kurusu had the calm, furious look of a samurai deciding it wasn’t worth his time to draw his sword. Yet. “Did they miss what happened to Kongokaku?”
“I still have a hard time believing it myself,” Dogen said frankly. “It will take time. Things might go more smoothly if I could provide an explanation for some of Koutetsujou’s odder ways. For one... even in the short time I’ve seen you work together, my niece, it’s obvious you’ve knit them tightly to your loyalty. It doesn’t surprise me you would go to great lengths to retrieve lost survivors.” Especially Kurusu; though Dogen had no intention of opening that cage of birds until he’d had more time to work out Ayame’s possible marriage prospects. There might be a better match for his surprising niece among the living stations. Maybe.
Dogen cleared his throat again, looking at the three the Hayajiro had gone to such lengths to rescue. Kurusu, the steamsmith with mismatched glasses and an odd lock of white hair, the cold young girl with orphans and a female steamsmith huddling close to her, even in warm sunlight. What could they possibly have in common? “I know all three of you were inspected. But I and my people do wonder how you came to be lost in a Kabane-swallowed city... and survived.”
“We came to stop Biba’s monster.” Ikoma’s voice was low. Matter of fact. “The Koutetsujou wouldn’t have escaped the Nue alone. So we destroyed it.”
Short. To the point. Slightly insane. Which was beginning to sound like the Koutetsujou all over. Dogen had seen that monster assaulting Kongokaku, eerie glow sprouting from it like wings in the night. And three people had stopped it?
“Kurusu was knocked from the Hayajiro when Biba took us by force at Iwato Station.” Ayame settled her hands demurely, a lovely young bushi lady who would no sooner bend than steel. “Biba drugged Mumei there; she was one of his fighters, and he wasn’t pleased that she had ties to people who wanted nothing to do with his insanity. And Ikoma was thrown from the Kokujou when he led the assault the night before we reached Kongokaku.”
Not nearly enough of an answer... wait. A steamsmith had led the breakout attempt? And Ayame’s bushi had followed him? Dogen had heard pieces of that story, but he hadn’t believed it. Wary, obviously injured and ill; Ikoma didn’t look like a man anyone would follow. Even if he had been bushi.
“Fortunately, Ikoma’s injuries weren’t as bad as Biba’s men believed.” Steel glinted in Ayame’s gentle eyes. “They expected him to die. But he made it to shore, and Kurusu found him.”
“I had taken one of Biba’s researchers captive, so we knew the thrust of his plans,” Kurusu stated. “We bound our wounds, and went to stop them.” He drew a breath. “We couldn’t catch up before the monster was unleashed.”
Which was neatly avoiding how they’d caught up at all. “The city was surrounded by Kabane,” Dogen pointed out.
“We were armed.”
That was the most bushi non-answer of an answer Dogen had heard in a long time.
“Kurusu’s the most skilled samurai we have,” Kibito said heartily, “and Ikoma figured out how to give us an edge.”
Dogen raised a wary brow. So, under Kibito’s calm and level exterior lurked a sly sense of humor-
With a bow, Kurusu presented his blade for inspection, exposing two thumb-lengths of lava-veined black metal.
Dogen stared at that newly-familiar glow, and shuddered. “This... is from an iron cage?”
“You have to refine it, or the coating won’t be strong enough to pierce the heart cage,” Ikoma stated. “And it’s not just iron. There are other metals, and something organic. If we had a proper metallurgist....”
“We have you,” Ayame said firmly. “Find out what we need to do it better, and we’ll look for that at the next station.”
Kurusu sheathed his blade, calm as if he weren’t carrying a weapon made from dead enemies. “With these, close combat is possible.”
Close combat. With Kabane. Dogen didn’t know whether to give his blessing on the spot or lock his beloved niece up until she found someone far less insane. “And... the two of you...?”
“We shoot them.” Mumei smiled. “With jet bullets, it only takes one shot.”
“We avoided as many fights as we could,” Ikoma said practically. “If you’re not screaming, sometimes they don’t notice you.”
At least one of those three had a sense of his limitations. So Dogen could reassure his people what Ayame’s lost trio had done was unlikely, and ill-advised - but certainly not impossible.
Though that did leave one worrying loose end. “You said you had one of Biba’s doctors,” Dogen noted. “Where is he?”
Kurusu had a very thin smile. “He created the monster. He wanted to see it. We let him go.”
In the middle of Kongokaku, infested with Kabane. How... appropriate.
Dogen didn’t try to hide his relief, even if it was half a growl of frustration. “If Biba weren’t dead, I’d shoot him myself. That insane broadcast, that there were Kabane undetected in the city! It’ll take weeks for us to kill the rumors.”
He carefully hadn’t asked too many questions on exactly how Biba had died. It was enough to know someone in Ayame’s service had solved the problem. No need to cause any more trouble for the refugees than they already had.
Ayame sighed, white sleeves fluttering. “I’d hoped the Kongokaku people would realize that wasn’t true, once we were away and no one else turned.”
As if mine were the only ones listening? Dogen gave his young niece a disapproving frown. “It’s not just my people. Your own seem to have latched onto it even more tightly. What the bushi won’t say, what your steamsmiths stop talking about when my warriors come by - even some of the seamstresses were talking about Kabaneri.”
He wouldn’t have heard that if he hadn’t been deliberately eavesdropping. He’d been so proud to know Ayame’s folk were making her a new dress even with everything else that had gone wrong, properly offended that the shogun had made their lady dress in death-color, and they were going to fix that-!
And then some low-voiced mention of a youngster who couldn’t keep a shirt on, it was going to get him shot - and that frightening, rumored word.
Kabaneri. Corpse-person. Yes, townsfolk can be superstitious, but how can they think that’s even possible?
And why had it seemed as though the two steamsmiths flinched?
Red fluttered as Mumei huffed. “That’s completely different....”
Not his imagination, Dogen realized, horrified. Ikoma had definitely flinched, the lady steamsmith had shifted so she was between Dogen and her companion, and everyone else was giving Mumei a look of mingled worry and utter exasperation.
Mumei shrugged, and gave him a brilliant, young smile. “Oops?”
“Ayame.” Dogen couldn’t ask. He had to ask. His people’s lives depended on it. “What is a Kabaneri?”
Ayame braced herself, and any hope he’d had it was just a rumor died.
“They’re the Koutetsujou’s protectors,” his niece said steadily. “They’re part of our crew. If it weren’t for them, no one would have survived Aragane’s fall. They’re not dangerous, Uncle.”
From Kibito’s mostly-hidden smile, Dogen doubted that.
“We’re keeping it quiet so your people don’t panic,” Ayame went on. “I don’t want them being shot at!” Her voice caught. “They’ve been hurt enough already.”
Dogen drew himself up, determined. “Ayame, I need to know-”
“We are existences between human and Kabane.” Mumei stood, dark eyes watching him as intently as a samurai gauging her first strike. “We can strike with their strength. We can sense them coming. But our minds are human.”
Impossible. It couldn’t be true.
But - Ayame had said Mumei was one of Biba’s warriors, and she’d helped fight through an entire infested city.... “Biba was researching the Kabane,” Dogen said, shocked. “Ways to defeat them, to fight them on their own ground... did he create you?”
Mumei stared a moment more, then nodded. “I survived the operation. Ikoma, too. We are Kabaneri. We exist to destroy the Kabane.”
“He was insane,” Dogen breathed.
The brunette steamsmith’s fingers clenched on her uniform. “Don’t say that!”
“Kajika,” Ikoma murmured.
“Well, he shouldn’t!” the female steamsmith said fiercely. “It’s not your fault, or Mumei’s! There’s nothing wrong with living when everyone else thinks you should have died!”
Fierce young woman. Though Dogen was rather more concerned about the two bushi carefully not eyeing him as if they wanted to cut him up for stew. Whatever these Kabaneri were or weren’t, they’d apparently convinced the leaders of Ayame’s bodyguards that they were loyal.
They went with Kurusu to face a monster that would have doomed us all. They may well be loyal.
Even so. Part Kabane. “If word of this gets out, there will be a riot,” Dogen said flatly. “What can I possibly tell my people-”
“You tell them nothing.” Kurusu’s eyes were cold. Dangerous. “He’s our steamsmith. She’s one of our rifles. That’s all.”
Mumei squinted. “Why not tell them? If they’re fools enough to want to die.”
“But it wouldn’t just be you fighting them,” Ayame said gently. “Everyone of the Koutetsujou would protect you. People would get hurt.”
Mumei frowned, but nodded. “Then we won’t tell them.”
So the vicious little creature would rein in her bloodthirst for Ayame’s people. Good. That left the... steamsmith. The half-monster who’d armed Kurusu with a blade that could kill Kabane, and apparently meant to craft more. A steamsmith, touching a samurai’s honor. Dogen didn’t know what to think.
Ikoma’s pale hand came up, rubbing at the bridge of odd-lensed glasses. “I wish we could just get it over with.”
“Well we can’t,” Kibito folded his arms, a cheerful armored end of discussion, “so get used to Kurusu thumping you with a bokken.”
Dogen choked. Surely, they couldn’t mean that!
“It will kill the rumors,” Kurusu agreed.
“It’s hardly appropriate!” Dogen sputtered.
Ayame hid a smile with her hand, politely demure. “But riots are so very inappropriate, Uncle.”
“And it will stomp the rumors,” Kibito put in. “Who’ll have time to whisper about hidden Kabane when there’s a Koutetsujou steamsmith beating up Kongokaku bushi with a wooden sword? How unseemly, Aragane Station was part of the front lines too long, none of them know what’s proper anymore.”
The most annoying thing about that, Dogen realized, was that Ayame’s bushi was likely right. A steamsmith learning kenjutsu would be an outrage, a scandal - and a real and present human to stare at. What were a few odd words, next to that?
Ikoma buried his face in his hand. “You act like you think I can beat them.”
Kurusu shifted his shoulders, not taking his gaze off Dogen. “You will.”
Kami, they were planning to go through with it. Which meant as an Elder, it was his duty to bring decades of experience to this mess before it went any farther. “Ayame. I trust that whatever your... allies... require, you ask no more than your people can bear. But I cannot allow you to ask it of mine.” Because the two half-Kabane must need something unnatural, or the Koutetsujou wouldn’t be forced to defend them so fiercely. Whatever it might be - he was better off not knowing. Gratitude and honor only went so far. “And someone will talk. You can’t hide them forever.”
Ayame drew in a sharp breath, shoulders stiff. But held her ground.
“We don’t have to, Elder,” Kibito said bluntly. “Just long enough to get your fire-loving citizens off our train.”
So that was how the wind blew? Best to remind all the younger ones of reality, then. “Your train?” Dogen arched a brow with all the capital’s elegance. “This is a Hayajiro. Where are you planning to go?”
Ayame shook her head slightly, bewildered. “That’s what we need to talk about, Uncle, to plot the route to the next station-”
“No station,” Dogen said deliberately, “will take in two half-Kabane.”
Mumei tensed, as if the girl wanted something to fight. Kajika reached out to her, the youngsters echoing her move until the Kabaneri was surrounded by defiant eyes.
Dogen nodded slightly, grimly satisfied. Perhaps now his niece would see what she risked. “And if word should travel that you carried them among you - no station would let you enter, any of you.” He raised an open hand, all too aware that Ikoma and the two bushi watched his every twitch. “So I will do my best to quell the rumors, for my own people’s sake. I agree; those of Kongokaku should certainly leave this Hayajiro. Before it becomes a deathtrap for you all.”
Credit to Ayame’s training; she hid most of her flinch, though that had to be a blow to the heart. “The Koutetsujou has kept us all alive!”
“And how long can that last?” Dogen said gravely. Somewhere near the base of the tower he heard a yelp, but what the steamsmiths might be up to was nowhere near as important as making Ayame listen. “Kongokaku has fallen, and other stations; all the schedules are cast awry. Even if you can keep them hidden, fewer and fewer stations will risk supplying hungry strangers. Your engineer carries no cargo, you have nothing they want-”
Ikoma blinked, head jerking toward the water-tower, and suddenly Dogen knew he’d lost them.
“Kabane?” Kurusu asked swiftly.
Ikoma shook his head, but kept staring, puzzled. “Something... moving?”
“Small. Yellow. A lot of them.” Mumei frowned, peering toward the bottom of the metal tank, and then the agitated group of steamsmiths backing away from the foot of it, as an odd droning hum whispered through the air. “Are those-?”
“Lady Ayame!” A blond steamsmith hit the ladder, climbing halfway up before shaking out one of his hands with a vicious curse. Dogen could see a red welt blooming on skin even from the top of the locomotive. “We’ve got a problem!”
It was good to get out of the locomotive for a while, Yukina thought, peering up at wing-covered wavy bumps of waxy comb suspended from the bottom of the water tank. Even for something as crazy as wild bees.
She wasn’t the only one taking the chance to gawk. At least half of those who’d been praying at the fires were staring up, some gaping. Yukina frowned, then glanced outward, to the rifles standing guard on the circling steel of the Koutetsujou. One or two of them stole a glance toward the swarm, but even they turned their attention back to a proper watch after a few seconds to be sure no one was dying. And from the locomotive, Mumei waved.
No Kabane yet, then. Good. The Koutetsujou’s conductor shook her head, taking a step back to eye Sukari as he wrapped one stung hand. “You’re off fight cleanup until after that heals.”
The blond steamsmith squinted at her. “It’s fine-”
“We haven’t lost anyone to a contaminated wound since Shino. And I want to keep it that way.” At least they all hoped that was how Shino had been infected. If she’d been bitten in the escape from Aragane Station and hidden it....
No need to think ill of the dead. Yukina sighed. There are reasons for the inspections. Sometimes, if you’ve come too close to the Kabane, even ordinary wounds carry the virus. Sometimes they don’t. I wish we knew why.
So far the Koutetsujou had been incredibly lucky. Not one soul lost to anything but the Kabane, and human evil. Of the two, Yukina preferred the Kabane. No lord complained if you shot them.
Sukari blinked, then smirked. “Does this mean no more climbing into the undercarriage?”
“Wear gloves when you do that,” Yukina deadpanned, catching a glimpse of blue armor next to too-fragile white silk and a longing violet stare upward. “Lady Ayame?”
“...Honey.” The Yomogawa heir caught herself before she licked her lips.
Kurusu, Yukina noted, amused, was carefully looking anywhere else. Aww.
“We can get some of it, can’t we?” Ayame went on, eyes still fixed on the buzzing mass. “I mean, I know you can’t leave the hive there, not if we want to be sure the tower’s maintained - and we have to do that, it wouldn’t be responsible to leave a problem for a Hayajiro that might be in worse shape than we are - but we could save some of the honey? For the young, and - well, everyone.”
Yukina’s brows climbed. Honey. Huh. She hadn’t even thought of that; just a big, waxy, stinging problem. But here they were on short rations with no sure date for resupply... and honey was food.
Not to mention if she could sneak off - er, secure a pound or so for Suzuki, the engineer would quite possibly hug her to death. He hadn’t had a chance to make a good mead in ages. Not that anyone would be drinking it until they were off-duty. But when they were - the Koutetsujou’s steamsmiths had earned some drunken hangovers.
Movement caught her eye, a swagger of leather, and Yukina made her smile slip away to an engineer’s neutral cool. And here comes part of the reason why.
Uryuu, and the sad Hunter with a sling and a bushi ponytail, strolling up to peer at their buzzing problem. “Huh. That’s a big one.”
Ayame finally looked away from the promise of sweets. “You’ve seen hives like this before?”
“They like shelter and water.” Shading his eyes, Uryuu studied curves of darker wax. “Yeah, not the first one we’ve snatched off a water-tower.”
That raised Yukina’s eyebrows. But the Hunters were Lady Ayame’s problem. Unless they went after another steamsmith. She almost hoped they would.
“Snatched?” Kurusu gave the Hunters a cool look. “It would be useful to salvage some of the comb before it’s destroyed-”
“Bushi. Shoot and burn everything.” Uryuu smirked, but gave Ayame a cautious glance. “Why not just take it? A good hive can be worth a lot at a station.”
Yukina kept herself from drawing a sharp breath. Funds. Money for parts. Repairs. Medicine. Everything.
Ayame drew herself up straight. “How do we do it?”
“We don’t,” Uryuu said flatly. “Grabbing a hive is tricky to do right. Not something you can learn all in one shot. You help us.” He squinted up again, like a steamsmith calculating tensile strength on a crucial piece of wire. “I need part of a car we can screen off, some time to talk to my men... and a really big box.”
“All right.” Uryuu looked over what was left of his flying squad. Of all the Hunters Biba had led. There’d never been many, but eight still alive out of over three hundred... it hurt. “Is there any reason we shouldn’t give the princess and her crew honest work for our keep? I want to know.”
Adjusting his sling, Masahide shook his head.
One down. Not that Uryuu had expected otherwise. Masahide might have left being a bushi behind to follow Biba with the rest of them, but Ayame Yomogawa was a lord’s heir. And the way she’d pulled everyone together to rescue her strays had to have anyone raised on bushi loyalty perking up.
Not to mention, cute. If not armed enough for Uryuu’s interests. Though he had overheard something about a steam bow....
Still. Masahide was in. The others, Uryuu was less sure of. Choki, Asao, Hirosada; they all had a stare like they were a thousand yards away, and jumped at odd shadows. Asao in particular worried him; hair straying out of neat bangs, a few tears leaking when he thought no one was watching. Nariaki... eh, Uryuu planned to keep an eye on the guy’s stubble. If it got worse, he’d talk to the older man. Tomio was twitchy, fingering his tuft of beard almost every time he adjusted his headgear, but at least the guy was here and now. And Eishun, who’d been a steamsmith once, still wore a scarf, but definitely wasn’t just a gearhead anymore-
“The Kokujou,” Eishun said fiercely, touching the toolbag at his side like he wanted to take a wrench to someone’s skull. Or maybe just rush back to their poor abused bikes. You could never be sure.
Yeah. That was the big grudge; the one Uryuu’d honestly expected to come up sooner, only every last one of them had just been too bone-deep tired to care they were riding on the Koutetsujou. Riding with the people who’d destroyed the Kokujou, the Hunters’ own home base; Biba’s black steel Hayajiro, deadly and massive as a bolt from the heavens. Stuffed to the gills with weapons, ammo, crazy doctors, and one beating Kabane colony heart.
Uryuu hadn’t seen the Kokujou derailed. He’d been too far away, getting the wounded he could out... which was the only thing that’d saved them.
Too far to see, but not too far to hear. He still wanted to shiver, remembering that unearthly, impossible screech as inhuman power flung the whole damned Kokujou up and off the tracks-
Everybody had heard the explosions. Hell, Kabane the next station over had probably heard the boom.
So whenever the press of bodies on the Koutetsujou got too much, whenever Uryuu looked at station folk and overheard whispers about murdering Hunters, he caught himself and beat the anger back into its cage. Because harsh as it was, Ikoma had done the world a damn good turn. When the Kokujou went, all Biba’s crazy scientists had gone with it. No scientists, no colony heart, no Black Blood. And between the Nue and Ikoma, he never wanted to see another Kabaneri on Black Blood as long as he lived.
“Sahari threw the Kokujou against one really ticked off stray Kabaneri,” Uryuu said flatly. “You don’t have to like Ikoma. But if you go after him, make sure it’s just you who’s stupid. Don’t be like Sahari, and bet everybody’s lives that you’re tougher than one crazy steamsmith.” He swept them with his gaze. “Anything else?”
“They can’t trust us.” Tomio straightened his headgear, as if he were getting ready for a combat ride. “They’re station folk. They saw what happened to Iwato. And Kongokaku.”
Yeah. And wasn’t that the rock they were all trying to swallow? One thing to know people who lived in stations were cowards, hiding behind their walls and bushi lives. But having to shoot a kid who’d been bitten, because kami damn it, there was nothing else you could do....
He must have been quiet too long. They were all looking at him. “Boss?” Masahide asked.
“Aragane Station died before they ever ran into us.” Uryuu touched his harness, glad for the reassuring weight of steel against his back. Much better than that weird itchy feeling that the bushi princess meant it: on the Koutetsujou, they were safe. “Yashiro, too. The stations we led Kabane into - they weren’t their stations. The Koutetsujou lost people because of us, but... not like the Kongokaku did.” He grimaced. “Now, those are station folk. Don’t turn your back on them.”
Nariaki ran his fingers over his steam rifle, apparently not quite sure he’d triple-checked it enough since the Koutetsujou had given them back. “Boss. They’re all station folk.”
“Oh yeah?” Uryuu jerked his head toward the rifles standing guard on the steel ring of the Hayajiro around them. “What’s that look like to you?”
Because he knew exactly what those guards looked like. Station bushi would all be facing outward, sure the walls would keep any Kabane from biting their backs. Station bushi wouldn’t be watching the ground, the gaps between cars, stray lumps and bumps of terrain that might dislodge a slumbering Kabane that’d suddenly scented prey. Station bushi wouldn’t always have one guy keeping a friendly eye on the Kabaneri, waiting for the twitch that was the first warning of incoming horde.
Most damning of all - station bushi would be up there with the rifles. Right now? About a third of the Koutetsujou’s armed guards were steamsmiths.
“The princess’ people may hate our guts, but they know they need to survive out here,” Uryuu declared. “That’s what we wanted. Make the station folk face what’s out there. Make them fight the Kabane. No walls. No excuses.” He sucked a breath through his teeth. “Well, they’re fighting.”
That got even Asao to blink. Good.
“I say we help them,” Uryuu forged on. “I say we teach them. Show them what it takes to fight. To live. Because if a bunch of station refugees on a Hayajiro can learn that....”
Memory rose up and choked him. A night drenched in blood, and the screams of dying children.
“If they can learn that... maybe they deserve to live,” Uryuu finished.
Maybe we all do.
“Easy... easy... lower it!”
Kurusu stood upwind of the smoke with Ayame and Kibito, deliberately ignoring stray bees buzzing by as he kept an eye on Hunters and Kongokaku refugees alike. So far there hadn’t been any trouble as Uryuu’s men and a dozen of the more venturesome Koutetsujou townsmen went to work; smoking the nest, using pole-strapped saws and ropes to cut away honey-rich outer combs, and now carefully sawing down the inner core of queen, brood, and what Uryuu said should be enough honey to support the hive in their new woven-bamboo box of a home.
“Should we just stand here?” Lady Ayame asked under her breath. “We could help-”
“We are helping, Lady Ayame.” Kibito’s voice wasn’t any louder. “As long as you look like you’re sure there won’t be any trouble, then there won’t be.”
Kurusu kept his face set, bodyguard neutral, and hoped Kibito was right. Smoke, flying bees, the ever-present reality of being outside the walls - all it would take was one dropped comb to set off a panic. And if the Kabane showed up....
He blinked away a stray skirl of smoke, updating his mental map of exactly who was where and how many people he’d have to knock down to drag Ayame into the locomotive. His lady would hate that - but of everyone on this Hayajiro, the Yomogawa heir was the one soul they could not lose.
I need to go over that with Ikoma and Mumei. They’re not bushi. They don’t understand. Yet.
And speaking of the Kabaneri... Kurusu glanced up at that still-visible blue sling, and decided. “Kibito. Start loading everyone.”
His old friend’s brows rose, but the burly samurai didn’t argue. “Better let Uryuu know we’re not leaving them,” Kibito said casually, moving off. “The Hunters are twitchy.”
“Of course we’re not leaving them!” Ayame kept her voice down, glancing between the lowering comb and the locomotive. “What’s wrong?”
“Possibly nothing.” Kurusu inclined his head, falling in as escort as Ayame headed for the Hunter leader.
“Down, a little more....” Uryuu waved a hand their way. “Don’t get too close. Not until the lid’s on. What?”
“We’re loading,” Ayame informed him. “Please don’t worry. It just takes time to load people who aren’t used to Hayajiro. So we have to start sooner than you would have.”
Uryuu let a breath pass as most of the mass of angry bees finally vanished into bamboo confines. “Lid on, don’t squash any if you can avoid it.” Lower, “I’m going to guess I should be worried.”
“We’ve been stopped a long time,” Kurusu said bluntly. “Ikoma’s wounded. His friends should make him rest. But he’s still up on watch.”
Now Uryuu did glance at them. And past, checking what ears were listening. “If he sensed any Kabane, he wouldn’t just be watching. You’re being twitchy.”
He would not grit his teeth. “Twitchy,” Kurusu said flatly.
Uryuu shrugged. “We’ll speed it up.”
“You will?” Ayame looked between them, brows creased as she read the unspoken clash of wills.
“Twitchy’s enough,” the Hunter declared, peering up at the angle of afternoon sun. “Didn’t realize how long we’d been stopped. Better to move.”
“Thank you,” Ayame said honestly. “I’m glad you show so much concern for all of us.”
Kurusu kept his face straight, even as amusement, irritation, and pride in his lady all fought for ascendance. Ayame was as dangerous as any bushi. That her blade was words and a smile made it no less deadly.
Kurusu at her side, Ayame stood just inside the hatch of their sixth and currently last car, watching the Hunters and her people satisfy themselves that the buzzing box was secure against any sudden shift or near-derailing. Refugees who’d been in this section hadn’t been eager to move, and those in other cars had been even less happy to crowd up to take them... but the first pieces of sweet comb offered to those boarding had smoothed most of the rough edges of pride. And gotten folk boarded faster, which made her breathe a silent sigh of relief. Maybe it really was just Ikoma and Kurusu being twitchy. But she remembered their last night at a water-tower herself, and in some moments it was all she could do to hold a calm smile and ignore the clutch at her heart of we’ve been still too long.
Odd. For the first sixteen years of her life she’d never gone anywhere save by horseback or her own two feet. Now... if the surface under her feet wasn’t shifting, wasn’t a rumble of tracks-on-gravel or the comforting echo of tracks-over-bridgework, it felt - strange. Uncertain.
Is this how Yukina and Suzuki feel when we stop?
She didn’t know all her steamsmiths yet, not as well as she knew her bushi. Though she was starting to learn them. But from words dropped here and there, Suzuki had been a young apprentice taking shore leave off a foreign freighter when the Kabane had first swarmed over the countryside. He’d never made it back to the harbor. A wave of refugees had swept him onto a Hayajiro, and he’d stayed with the armored trains ever since.
According to Sukari, Suzuki actually thought he’d come out lucky. After all, if even one Kabane made it onto a ship at sea....
Ayame pictured the nightmare that would have unfolded, and held back a shudder.
It’s past. Focus on now. “How did you learn to do this?” Ayame wondered. Caught Kurusu’s own subtle twitch of curiosity, and pressed on. “We never knew much about the Hunters, but... none of what we heard said anything about bees.”
“I’ll just bet they didn’t,” Uryuu said darkly. “Your stations were glad to see us fight the Kabane, Princess. Oh, they cheered a lot. Even gave us ammo, sometimes. Why not? Meant they didn’t have to use it. But feed a bunch of scruffy ruffians that staggered in off a train? Well... I’ll just bet you know something about that, by now.”
That... hurt. Because it was true. Feeding her people was a constant worry; and if it gnawed at her after only a few weeks, how had it been for the Hunters? If it hadn’t been for Ikoma’s jet bullets, who knew how negotiations might have gone at Shitori Station.
“So we learned a few things,” Uryuu shrugged. “Kept us going. Kept us fed.”
“Especially bees.” Eishun’s voice drifted out from under one of the extra boxes of honeycomb, as the Hunter’s steamsmith helped a Koutetsujou cook make sure every nook and cranny was bee-proofed with glue. “Should have seen Biba’s face the mornings he couldn’t get his sweet tea. Scary as a Kabane!”
“Worse,” Uryuu smirked. “Kabane don’t get sarcastic.” The half-smile faded. “I should have known something was wrong when they had us sell the hive a few stations before Shitori.”
“I should have known,” Uryuu said harshly. “He never meant to get out of Kongokaku.”
Ayame tried not to let relief wash over her face. We can trust them. At least until the next station.
Because that was honesty. Painful, but real.
He’s still blaming himself, not Biba. But Mumei... Hozumi needs time to believe that, too.
One step at a time. First, she should give Uryuu a moment to recover. Something all the Hunters could take pride in, and step away from Biba’s shadow. “You must have found more to live off of than honey,” Ayame reflected. “What else did you do?”
That won her looks of surprise from the other Hunters in the car. Asao and Choki, Ayame thought they were called; from the distance in their gazes, she wouldn’t have put them up on watch with rifles, either. She just hoped Masahide would be careful to strap on if they had to move. She knew well herself, the top of a Hayajiro was no place to be with an injured arm.
Hazel-gold gave her a narrowed look, as if Uryuu thought the question had to be a trick. “We’re Hunters. We don’t just hunt Kabane.”
“We didn’t hear anything about you in Aragane Station,” Ayame said mildly. “I’ve asked my people; Sukari’s one of the few who knew anything before we got to Shitori, and he didn’t know much.” She paused. “And I don’t want to ask those from Kongokaku.”
Uryuu’s gaze drifted a little. Checking Kurusu’s reaction to her truth, she was sure.
It is true. But can they see that, after Biba lied to them so deeply?
“We hunt,” Uryuu said, a little less gruffly. “There’s plenty of game out there if you’re a good shot. Some herbs and farmer’s plants gone wild, too; we look for those if we’ve got a spot with a clear field of fire. But mostly we hunt. Meat’s always good, and if you get hides to a town they’ll trade back finished leather.”
More honesty. Ayame smiled, feeling a spark of hope. “Good. We were planning to stop on the next bridge if we can; it’ll take a lot of cable, but some of our townsfolk have ideas for casting fishnets with the crane. But meat would be wonderful. Can you help us learn how to do it?”
Uryuu stared at her.
“We survived Aragane,” Kurusu stated, low and quiet. “We survived Yashiro. We survived Kongokaku. We will not fail our people now.”
Uryuu planted a fist on his hip, and gave them both a wry look. “Are you sure you’re bushi? You sound way too practical.”
Ayame tried not to giggle. Kurusu had his pride. Even if it had been tempered a bit. “Then you must not have known true bushi, as I was taught we were meant to be. I am the heir of Yomogawa. My first responsibility is to protect my people. How can I do that if they starve? I will protect them, if I must slaughter wild beasts with my own hands.”
“You would....” Uryuu shook his head. “Damn. I bet you would.” He huffed a breath. “We can’t do it now. It’s tricky, my men are tired, and the blood always draws the Kabane. When you stop a Hayajiro, hunting is always the last thing you do, and you make damn sure everyone’s packed and ready to pull out first. We’re going to want to check the bikes, find some good, steady shots from your people to help, and plan out exactly who does what-”
“Lady Ayame!” rang out of the car’s speaking tube; Kajika, tense and determined. “Kabane!”