Due to some unforeseen health issues, I had to delay the release of the latest Mages novel. Rest assured, it is completed, but I want to go through it one more time to edit it to make the transitions smoother. Unless I make extensive cuts, the novel will top out slightly above 100 K.
To reward the patience of our fans, I wrote a Christmas story for you. This story takes place after the events of the Mages in Manhattan book. Thanks for following the adventures of Scott, Kitty-Sue, and Akiko.
A Kitsune Christmas
Princess and I were in the living room of my Tokyo apartment. This Christmas Eve was bitterly cold and windy, but with no snow, the standard for Tokyo.
An old movie was on the large screen TV: Highlander, one of Princess’ favorites. She loved movies with swordplay. As the characters fought on screen, Princess imitated the sounds of clashing swords. It was peaceful, even with Queen blasting out of the speakers and Princess humming along.
I was seated on a small cushion on the floor, and Princess was reclining on a rack in front of me. I carefully ran a whetstone down her spine, over and over. Later, I would oil her up and sheath her. Since I had started these sessions, she had stopped trying to kill.
She just needed a little bit of attention.
As the movie ended, she hummed in happiness. I put away the stone and got out the oil.
As I wiped off the last of the oil, we heard the door open. It could only be one person, Kitty-Sue, my kitsune girlfriend, lover, bodyguard; whatever, labels don’t matter much. She had been gone for two weeks on “family business.” I had been very careful not to ask exactly what her business was.
“Hello, Kitty-Sue,” I said loudly, then paused the movie credits. “Merry Christmas.”
“Hello, Scott,” she replied.
I looked Kitty-Sue over carefully; From the tips of her fox ears to the tip of her fox tail, she was beautiful: with a firm acrobat-trained body, red hair (usually hidden under an illusion), and yellow oval fox eyes. It took me a second to see the difference. Where she had once only had a single fox tail, she now had two luxuriant tails.
I rose from my seat and hugged her. “Congratulations on your promotion! Two tails! Soon you’ll be running the kitsune kingdom.” Stroking her two tails with my hands, luxuriating in the softer-than-mink texture, I was lost for a moment. Then I realized something was wrong. Hmm, no hug back, stiff body– I felt a chill.
I stepped back and looked at her. There was something off in her stance: toes pointed inward, a hesitation to come forward, mouth slightly open as if she couldn’t get some words out. My ninja assassin girlfriend seemed shy. I’d seen her face down monsters with less nervousness.
I sniffed suspiciously; her moods were reflected in the scents she gave off. Although we had been together many months, I still hadn’t cataloged all of her perfumes. Now, I scented nothing, indicating she was keeping something from me. In the back of my mind, a voice said, “She also does that when she’s in assassin mode. Be careful.” Yeah, I hear voices; it’s something that magicians do.
“What are you doing with Princess?” she asked as I returned to my seat on the floor and continued stroking Princess with a chamois. Kitty-Sue remained standing by the door as if expecting to make a quick escape.
“Quality time,” I replied as I finished cleaning the blade and put Princess on her stand. Oh yeah, Princess is a sword, a magical sword, gifted to me by a dying fae prince. “Honing and oiling. She likes the attention.”
“Isn’t she made of a metal tougher than diamond?” asked Kitty-Sue sharply. “Isn’t it a waste to try to hone her? She could probably cut through that whetstone.”
I leaned back and considered; where had I heard that tone of voice before? The not-quite-nagging, short-tempered tone? I suddenly realized that Kitty-Sue wanted to start an argument.
Answering a question with a question, I said, “Should I stop giving you massages just because you don’t need them? After all, you’re an inhumanly strong ninja. A few rubs on your back probably don’t do anything for you.”
She looked at me with pursed lips, then changed the subject. “And what is this stand for?” she said, pointing at the display rack that held Princess. “Can’t you just stuff her in a closet?
At that, Princess made the zing sound of a drawn blade, her way of warning others. Damn, I had just gotten her calmed down, I thought.
“It’s her Christmas gift,” I said. “I give all my friends gifts for Christmas.”
Looking around the room, at the tiny artificial tree, with two wrapped boxes underneath, and the new Yamaha electronic piano with a ribbon on top, Kitty-Sue said, “Who is the piano for?”
“That’s for Euterpe,” I replied, smiling at the memory of my encounter with the muse of music.
Kitty-Sue crossed her arms, and her tails stood erect. “You know I don’t believe in her. If nobody can see her, she doesn’t exist.”
At that moment, the piano turned itself on, and the keys moved as if touched by the hands of a talented musician. An old break-up song started playing: “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart. A warning from my muse.
“Really?” I asked. “Then who’s playing the piano?” As I spoke, I removed Princess from her stand and slid her into her sheath. I didn’t want her to get upset at our argument.
Shaking her head, Kitty-Sue said, “That’s just a side effect of your magic. Everyone knows that weird things happen around magicians.” She nodded her head as if to convince herself.
I saw her glance at the two packages under the tree. “Are those for Akiko-san?”
“No,” I replied. “I already gave Akiko-san her gift this morning.”
Finally showing some interest, Kitty-Sue approached and sat opposite me. I noted she sat perfectly still, in that position she could hold for hours before leaping into attack mode.
“And what did you give her?” asked Kitty-Sue.
“An iPad,” I said.
“An iPad?” repeated Kitty-Sue. “She’s a ghost. She can’t use physical objects like that. Her fingers would go right through it.”
“I transferred it to the ghost plane,” I said, “and set it up to communicate with my server on this plane. I threw in an Apple iTunes account, Netflix, and Hulu. Now she has something to do on those long sleepless nights.”
“Better than going out haunting regular people,” said Kitty-Sue.
She continued, “She once said it wasn’t possible to set up a link between the ghost plane and the mundane plane.”
I gave her my modest smile. “Magicians take statements like that as a challenge. It took a lot of spell-work, but I got it to connect.”
“Where is Akiko-san?” asked Kitty-Sue.
“She’s spending the night watching over her family. She likes to stay there sometimes.”
“Haunting her family,” muttered Kitty-Sue.
“Watching over her family,” I corrected.
I crossed my arms and leaned back while glancing at one of the elaborately beribboned boxes under the tree.
Kitty-Sue followed my glance, her foxlike curiosity (never use cat metaphors with a kitsune) making her ears prick up. “So,” she said slowly, as if the question was forced out of her, “who are the other boxes for?”
“I’m glad you asked,” I said, reaching for the largest box and setting it on my lap. “Why, look at this. It has your name on it.” I slid the box towards her.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and her tails stiffened back up. “Scott-san, I cannot accept your gift,” she said as she pushed the box back into my lap.
The piano finished Rod Stewart and started another tune, Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love.” Euterpe had a theme going.
“Is this a Japanese thing or a kitsune thing?” I asked. “Afraid of making a deal with a magician? It’s a gift, freely given. No obligation is implied.”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “I can’t stay with you anymore.” I was surprised to see tears in her eyes. My tough-as-nails ninja assassin bodyguard emotional?
“Did your queen order you to leave me?” I asked.
Kitty-Sue shook her head. “No. She ordered me to continue staying with you.”
“So,” I mused, “the queen wants you to stay. I want you to stay. You say you must leave.”
The piano started playing Meat Loaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
“I must leave,” she said flatly.
“Is this because your queen wants you to stay with me so you’ll be in position to kill me if she decides I should die?”
I had never seen her shocked before; the look on her face was anguish, and a new scent emanated from her. “How long have you known?” she asked in a surprised whisper.
“Ever since you came back to help me after my fight with the spider-slut Jorōgumo,” I said.
A grudging look of respect came over her face. “So you knew I was”—here she paused—“asked to help you so the queen could find out more about the foreign magician in her domain?”
Nodding, I asked, “So the queen is unhappy with me living here in Tokyo?”
“She is not”—here she paused again, searching for the right word—“displeased with you,” she said. “But knowing her nature, she will eventually ask me to choose between you and my clan.”
Duty, fucking duty. There was no way to fight her bonds to clan and family.
The piano started playing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Having lived decades beyond my expectations, I have learned to take bad news. But dammit, I liked Tokyo. I liked my life there.
Looking down at the floor, Kitty-Sue said, “However, you could still swear fealty to her. Then I could stay.”
“I can’t do that,” I said with reluctance. “Eventually, the queen would ask me to do something that would break a vow. Something as simple as lying; that would destroy me.” I would never put myself under another’s rule again.
Reaching across to touch her hands, I said, “She can swear fealty to me. That way she could never give me an order.”
Kitty-Sue tilted her head skeptically. “A nine-tailed kitsune queen can never swear to a human. Even if he is a powerful magician.” A long pause, then she added, “A knight.” An even longer pause, followed by, “A lover to her niece.”
“And why can’t we leave it the way it is?” I said. “I have no intention of going against your queen. Our detente is going well.”
Pulling her hands back, Kitty-Sue said, “Someday your plans will conflict with hers, and she will send her best assassin to stop you.”
“I’m pretty hard to kill,” I said. “I once beat an alpha werewolf with both hands chained behind my back.”
Then I realized that Kitty-Sue was the queen’s best assassin. It would be her coming after me. Oh, crap.
Fondling the package, I said, “Are you here to kill me now?” while preparing a spell to blast her far enough away to let me escape. Why did all my relationships have to end with the woman trying to kill me?
“No,” she said, looking down to avoid my gaze. “I haven’t been given that order yet. But it may come one day. I don’t want to be close to you when it comes.”
I mentally began preparing for my departure. So much to do. Where to go? Back to New York? Las Vegas? All those places would be cold and lonely without my friends, without Kitty-Sue.
“OK,” I said. “I understand the bonds of duty.” I pushed the box back to her. “Consider this a going-away gift. It was made especially for you.”
Holding the box reluctantly, she shook her head. “I can’t accept…” She tilted her head in curiosity and sniffed the box. “I smell glass and magic. Dragon magic. Very rare. What is this?”
“Open it and I’ll show you,” I said. I was depending on her curiosity to get the better of her.
She shook her head again. Oh yeah, the Japanese reluctance to open a gift in front of the giver. I stood and said, “I’m going to make coffee. Would you like some tea?”
She knew I was giving her space to open the box without me watching. “Yes, please,” she said, “the jasmine tea.”
I spent several minutes in the tiny kitchen making our drinks. I heard the rustle of paper, the tiny squeak of the hinges as the box was opened, followed by a gasp of surprise when she saw the gift.
Back in the living area, I set the tray with our drinks on a low table. Happily, her tails were in a relaxed position, indicating a better mood.
Kitty-Sue was admiring her gifts. In an inlaid wooden box, set into red velvet cutouts, were five crystal knives. Small throwing blades, two on each side, flanked a larger ornate dagger with intricate runes carved into the glass. The translucent crystal of the larger knife had a golden tint.
Kitty-Sue stroked one finger across one of the throwing blades and licked her lips. Glancing at me for permission, she pulled the blade from the case. “These are balanced just like my steel blades,” she said. “Perfect for throwing.”
I sat across from her and picked up my coffee cup. Taking a sip, I said, “These blades won’t set off security alarms at the airport. You’ll never have to fly unarmed again.”
She juggled two blades for a moment, testing the feel and balance. “And if they break?”
“They’re much stronger than steel,” I replied, shaking my head. “Almost as strong as Princess’ blade.
“There’s more,” I said, sipping my coffee. “They have some magical properties.”
She looked closely at the blades, looking for traces of magic, then looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “What? Do they explode?”
“No,” I said. “There’s a boomerang spell on the blades. You can call them back after they hit the target.” I spent a moment showing her the gestures to make the knives return.
She flicked her wrist in an inhumanly fast throwing gesture, and the blade zipped towards my TV. I winced at the imminent destruction, but she called the blade back before it hit the screen. The handle of the knife made a satisfying slapping sound as it hit her waiting palm. She made the two knives disappear before taking the remaining two out. “These are the same?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said as she made those two disappear also. Then, between one blink and the next, she had all four throwing knives back in her hands.
Setting the blades back into the case reluctantly, Kitty-Sue pointed at the large dagger. “And this?”
Squinting at the blade, she whispered, “Another Artifact of Power? How do you get these?”
“How can you tell it’s an Artifact?” I asked, to change the subject.
“That realer-than-real look,” she replied. “Like Akiko-san’s ring or Princess.” She leaned closer to the case. “It smells strongly of dragon magic.” Looking me in the eyes, she asked, “What does it do?”
“Do you remember the tattoo artist, Terri?” I asked.
With a frown and narrowed eyes, Kitty-Sue said, “The woman who screwed you, tattooed you, and then tried to kill you. Her hands were dangerously close to the new throwing blades.
Holding both hands up, fingers spread in a magician’s sign of surrender, I said, “Let’s not talk about her! Let’s talk about the dagger I put through her heart.”
Relaxing slightly, Kitty-Sue reached for her tea and sipped slowly before asking, “Wasn’t that an imaginary dagger? You faked it with hocus-pocus to make her think it was real and if she ever hurt you, the phantom dagger would materialize and kill her?” Setting her cup back on the tray, she continued, “For someone who doesn’t lie, you sure have a way of fooling people.”
“I do my best,” I said.
“Didn’t you say you got the idea from an old story?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Larry Niven wrote the story What Good Is a Glass Dagger? For a mundane, he came remarkably close to describing real magic.”
Stroking the hilt of the dagger with my forefinger, I said, “This dagger can be stabbed into the heart of an opponent. If it’s a mundane, he dies. If it’s a supernatural, the dagger pierces their heart and then fades away. After that, if the one who was holding the hilt dies, the blade rematerializes, and the victim dies.”
Leaning back, Kitty-Sue said, “So it will kill anything? Ghosts? Shifters?” I nodded twice. After a long pause, “Magicians?” Again I nodded.
She took a deep breath. “Even a kitsune queen?”
“It’s pretty lethal,” I said.
“My queen,” said Kitty-Sue slowly as she looked at me from under lowered brows, “would be displeased to know that such a weapon exists.”
Pushing the box her way, I said, “That’s why only her most trusted assassin should have it. She knows you would never betray her.”
Looking at the weapon, probably thinking of the best way to use it, Kitty-Sue said, “Akiko-san said such a weapon was impossible to make.”
“With all respect to Akiko’s expertise, I’m still the master magician,” I said. “Anyway, I told you magicians like challenges.” Rubbing the wooden box that sat between us, I continued, “But it was almost impossible to make. The ingredients were very rare. There will be no more made.”
“So,” said Kitty-Sue, “this Artifact of Power you created is unique.” She gave me that slight smile that meant she had scored a point.
I had to run the conversation over in my head for several seconds before I realized I had just told Kitty-Sue that I could create Artifacts of Power: perpetually energized objects that never ran out of magic. They were incredibly rare, and making them was a lost art. If word got out about that, I would soon be chained in some entity’s dungeon, slaving away at making more and more of them.
Looking at my “oops” face, Kitty-Sue said, “Your secret is safe with me.” She reached over and held my hand for a moment. “I’m glad you trusted me.”
Ever practical in matters of murder, Kitty-Sue asked, “Can you reverse the spell? Pull the dagger out of the victim?”
“No,” I said. “Once the two lives are entwined, even I can’t undo the spell. The only way to break it is through the death of the victim.”
Taking the box into her lap, Kitty-Sue said, “A very powerful weapon, indeed. But…”
“But it changes nothing,” I finished. “You still can’t stay.”
Tilting her head over the box, Kitty-Sue hid her face behind her veil of hair; I was surprised to see teardrops stain the red velvet. It was nice that she would miss me, but fate decreed that we separate.
Face still hidden by her long hair, Kitty-Sue said, “Show me how it works.” Her hands tightly clasped the wooden box.
“OK,” I said, taking the dagger from the box and holding the hilt in my right hand. “See how it glows with my touch? That’s because it’s attuned to me right now. If you hold your fingers on the hilt like this and then press these runes in order, it will attune to you.”
“Attuned to you?” she said. “Interesting.” She wrapped her fingers around mine on the hilt.
The piano started playing the theme song to the old TV series, MASH.
“It occurs to me,” she said, looking up finally, face calm as if she had made an important decision, “that my queen has put me in an impossible position.”
Her inhumanly strong hands squeezed mine on the hilt of the dagger as she pulled the point towards her chest. I tried with all my strength to stop her, but could only watch in horror as she plunged the glass dagger into her chest. Sparkles of kitsune magic raced across her form in self-defense, gathering around the blade in an attempt to push it out before it pierced her heart. But I had wrought too well; the dagger sank in down to the hilt.
Her face was a rictus of pain, and she gasped. A tiny rivulet of blood darkened her white silk top where the blade had entered. Her hands slipped away from mine on the hilt. I called up all of my magic, desperate to remove the dagger, only to feel the hilt fade away like a piece of fog under sunlight.
“Why?” I screamed. “Why did you do that?”
She shivered a moment, then opened her blouse to look at the wound. It was rapidly healing. In seconds, the mortal wound was gone, leaving only a scar where the blade had entered. She stared at the scar in wonder. Up until this wound, she had been able to shape-shift all injuries away.
“I didn’t think it would hurt that much,” she sighed.
I stood and started pacing, muttering to myself. “Unicorn horn? No. Dragon blood? No. Angel breath? No, I haven’t seen an angel in decades. Beard of an unlucky leprechaun? No.” Turning towards her, I said, “I can fix this. It might take a long time, but I’m sure I can find a way. Nothing is impossible.”
Kitty-Sue tilted her head in question. “You’re not happy that our lives are entwined?” She continued to remove her blood-stained blouse. She stood and slid down her pants, revealing an intriguing flash of red fur. Kitsune don’t have much use for modesty.
Poor, romantic fox girl. Didn’t she realize that even though magicians could live a long time, we rarely do? The piano started playing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
“Of course, but this just makes it worse. When the queen separates us, you’ll live in fear every day that I might die on the other side of the world.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Now that injury to you will kill the queen’s most trusted assassin, she will have to let us stay together.” As she spoke, she shifted: first to her fox form, then to her four-breasted fifty percent form, and finally to her ninety percent human form. In each case, the scar remained. As differently colored fur in her animal forms, and as a scar in her human breast.
“Strange that the injury follows all of my forms,” she muttered as she walked up to me, close enough to look up into my eyes. My eyes strayed to her breasts, where her nipples were growing more erect.
Her tails waved behind her, and her scent changed to her “happy” smell. “I’ll tell the queen that you tricked me,” she said, nodding to herself. “That you were too clever for me.” At this, she smiled and winked at me before continuing, “That I must stay to protect you from all threats.”
Sitting on my cushion, I picked up my almost empty coffee cup. “So you’ll stay?”
“Only if you want me to,” she said, with a little pout. At my enthusiastic nod, she came over and sat across from me.
“And our”—I paused before finding the right word—“relationship with Akiko-san?” I would hate for my ghost apprentice to be pushed out.
“No problem,’ said Kitty-Sue. “I’m not jealous of Akiko-san. I enjoy our time together.”
Kitty-Sue’s eyes darted to the last package under the tree. “So, who gets the last gift?” she said.
“It’s for you,” I said, pulling the box down and handing it to her, “and for me.”
Sniffing the box, she looked at me with a question in her eyes.
“Have you ever heard of Victoria’s Secret?” I asked. “Although I don’t know if it will fit, what with your new tail and all.”
She bounced from her seat and suddenly was on my lap, her sweet weight a comfort to my soul. She brought her nose to mine in that kitsune kiss she liked. Her breath was scented with the jasmine tea she had just finished.
Looking deep into my eyes, she said, “Why don’t we find out?”
The piano played John Denver’s “Country Roads, Take Me Home” as I carried Kitty-Sue to the bedroom.