The Luminous Pearl


or, The Second Tail of Sora
by Gene Breshears


“’Twas the morning before the solstice, the longest night of the year,
“The streets of Sealth City overflowed with holiday cheer.
“Every shop was adorned with mistletoe and holly,
“On every street corner someone sang something jolly.
“Except for one otter at his workbench engraving,
“Sora found no delight in tinsel or ribbons waving.
“While others looked forward to family and feast,
“Sora grumbled and growled at his coworkers like a beast!
“Why, you may ask, was he so bitter and dreary,
“Indulge me, and I’ll tell you my theory,
“The reason this otter can neither giggle nor purr,
“Is because he’s never been at home in his own fur.”

The irish setter that had been performing the impromptu rhyme paused to take a breath.

Sora, the otter in question, interrupted, “If I killed you now, no jury anywhere in the empire would convict me.”

Alyssa, a middle-aged mouse bent over a ledger book, chuckled and added, “I’m willing to swear that Anth’s antics would try the patience of a saint.”

Willy, a badger wearing ink-stained coveralls, was carrying some proof sheets from the press room to the front office. He observed, “Some days he’s so cheerful I just want to punch him in the face!”

Anth, a tall irish setter, put one paw to his forehead and leaned back. “You all wound me!”

Sora snorted.

Anth shook his head. “I just don’t understand how anyone can be gloomy on such a glorious day!”

“It’s cold enough to freeze the twiddles off a brass monkey,” Sora replied. “And we have a ton of work that all has to be done yesterday, if not sooner. We’re all going to be working late, again, and by the time I get home tonight, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to feel like celebrating.”

“All the more reason to share a little joy and cheer now!” Anth explained.

Sora set one tool down and picked up another. “I don’t feel much like sharing, all right?”

Anth opened his mouth to argue further, but was interrupted by the boss, a cantankerous weasel by the name of Cyrus. Cyrus leaned through the doorway to the front office. “Sora! Got a customer here wants to talk about the proof.” He pointed an accusatory finger toward Anth. “And you! Stop goofing off and get back to work!”

Sora grabbed a rag to wipe his hands as he hurried into the front office. He barely suppressed a groan when he saw the customer.

Mr. Valade claimed to be a Mannaean ibex, his ancestors having been merchants who crossed the ocean in search of new trade. To Sora, he appeared to be simply a plump goat with wooly brown fur and extremely long, curling horns. Mr. Valade always dressed in expensive clothes, with jeweled rings on all his fingers and a gold and pearl medallion round his neck. Despite his opulent dress, Valade was always looking to squeeze a bit more of a discount out of any project. At the moment, Valade was peering at the proof sheet through a monocle with a decidedly unhappy expression.

Cryus motioned to Sora as he stepped through the door. “And here he is! I’m sure that Sora can fix it.”

Sora tried to smile. “Is something wrong with the handbill?”

Valade pointed to the proof sheet. “It is a truly beautiful thing you have made,” he said. “But why are these words so small?”

“It was the only way to fit all of them into that space,” Sora explained.

“Isn’t there some trick you can do?” Valade asked. “A way to make larger letters fit into the smaller space?”

“Maybe a wizard could do it, but I’m just working with paper and ink here,” Sora answered.

Cyrus cleared his throat. When Sora glanced at him, the weasel was giving him a glare that promised a very unpleasant conversation later if he continued to bother the customer with such trivialities as the truth.

Sora added, “Perhaps we could make your club emblem a bit smaller?”

Valade looked scandalized. “But how will my customers know this is a genuine handbill for the Garden of Delights without our emblem?”

“I didn’t say remove the emblem,” Sora explained, “though since we have it on the handbill three times—”

Cyrus interrupted. “I’m quite sure that Sora could engrave letters that are, oh, maybe taller, but skinnier, so that they look bigger, but all the words take up the same space.”

Valade frowned, held the monocle closer to the page, and peered more intently. “That will do nicely, I’m sure. And while you’re at it, can you do something to emphasize the word ‘girls’ more?”

“Which of the, uh—” Sora quickly counted, “—fourteen occurrences of girls do you mean?”

“All of them, of course!” Valade answered. “The girls are what draw the customers to the Garden, after all.”

Sora nodded. “Right. Emphasize all of them. Maybe we should print the word ‘girls’ in the second color, then?”

Valade stared at the proof for a moment, then shook his head. “No, that would be a bit much, I think.” He tapped the monocle against the side of his snout thoughtfully. “Also, while you’re at it, can you emphasize every appearance of the word ‘drinks?’ And ‘food,’ too.”

Sora blinked. “Emphasize every occurrence of girls, drinks, and food.” He glanced down at the proof. “If you want to emphasize those words, why do you have all these other sentences here? I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense to just say ‘Girls! Drinks! Food!’ Along with the name and location of the club and leave out all this other stuff?”

Cyrus’s eyes bugged out as he threw an arm around Sora’s shoulders. “Ha ha!” he said, much too loudly. “Always joking, this one!” He gripped Sora so tightly, his claws were digging into Sora’s arm.

“I wasn’t—” Sora began.

“Brilliant!” Valade exclaimed. “Oh, that is brilliant! Yes, just girls, drinks, and food!” He peered at the proof again. “And girls, again, at the bottom!” He waved his hand at the proof. “All we need is the name, the address, and those words.”

“Let me get my sketchbook,” Sora said.

Valade waved his hands. “No need for that! I can tell by the look in your eyes that we understand each other.” He tapped the proof. “I want it just like this, except get rid of the extra words. Keep the club name, our address, and of course, all three of the emblems. Then just put the words girls, drinks, food, and girls again in as large a type as you can.”

“I really think I should make a rough sketch for you to sign off,” Sora protested.

“Nonsense!” Valade tapped his index finger against Sora’s forehead. “You have the vision, I can sense it!”

Sora felt a chill run down his spine. He couldn’t stop himself from stepping back, to put a little space between himself and the old goat.

Valade reached across the counter and grasped Cyrus’s hand in both of his. “He is a brilliant young man, Cyrus. Be careful someone doesn’t hire him away!”

Sora didn’t hear Cyrus’s reply. His attention had been drawn to the medallion hanging from Valade’s neck. The largest pearl in the center seemed, now, to be glowing with an inner light. And the light from the medallion cast disturbing shadows across the goat’s face. Sora closed his eyes and shook his head.

When Sora opened his eyes and was paying attention once more, Cyrus and Valade were arguing about price.

“But there are fewer words now!” Valade protested. “Surely that makes the handbill cheaper!”

Cyrus shook his head. “Sora is going to have to make a brand new plate. And you had signed off on the earlier design.”

Valade’s smile turned into a frown. “But I can make changes after reviewing the proof. That is how it has always worked.”

“I’m not saying we’ll charge you extra for the changes,” Cyrus explained. “I just can’t give you another discount.”

Valade’s frown became a glare. “If that is the case, then I expect delivery of the entire print run tonight, rather than a quarter tonight and the rest later in the week.”

“We can only run the press so fast,” Sora explained.

“Yes,” Cyrus said quickly. “We can’t deliver the full press run by sundown, but we could deliver a quarter then, as originally promised, and we’ll just keep running the press and deliver another quarter a few hours later. You’re going to be too busy to deal with the entire shipment tonight.”

“Solstice is one of our busiest nights,” Valade agreed. “Lots of lonely men wanting to forget they are lonely. However, the nights after are also very busy. Lots of family men wishing to pretend they are lonely, if you know what I mean. I need to have new handbills on the street.”

Cyrus nodded. “And you will!”

“Very well,” Valade turned to leave. He stopped at the door and fixed Sora with a stare. “Don’t forget to emphasize the words!”

“Emphasize which—” Sora began.

Valade rolled his eyes. “All of them, of course!”

As soon as the door closed behind Valade, Sora exclaimed, “Emphasize all of them! That’s not possible!”

Cyrus sighed. “Just do what the customer wants, no matter how stupid it is.”

Sora shook his head. “But it isn’t possible!” he said. “It is not possible to emphasize every word. Something has to not be emphasized in order to something else to be—”

Cyrus grabbed Sora by the elbow and propelled him into the work room. “I don’t care! Just get it done! We have to get that plate on the press as soon as we can. So you have to make it. Now!”

“And the other customers?”

Cyrus nodded. “After you get this one on the press. Stop wasting time! I have to go explain things to Willy.” He stomped out to the press room.

Sora plopped down on his chair. “Why does he always do that?” he asked. He rubbed at his forehead, feeling a headache growing.

From the next bench Anth said, “He’s a salesman at heart. That’s what they all do.” He pointed to the half finished plate on Sora’s bench. “Why don’t I take that one while you work on Valade’s masterpiece?”

Sora nodded and handed the half-finished plate and sketches over.

After some shouting in the press room, Cyrus came back to the work room. “We’re all going to be working late tonight. So I’m going to get us some dinner.”

As Cyrus disappeared out the front door, Sora caught Anth’s eye. “This is why I don’t giggle and purr, by the way.”

The irish setter nodded without a word.

* * *

Later that day, after he’d finished designing and engraving the new handbill plate, Sora told Cyrus he needed to clear his head and ducked out of the workshop. He was going to have to come back to help with the trimming, among other things, but there was time for a short walk. And his head had been hurting ever since the conversation with Mr. Valade.

He went straight to the old shrine. There were many stories about how a Shinto shrine had wound up in Sealth City. Sora didn’t really believe any of them. He had wandered into the place by accident a few years before. He found the quiet garden and even quieter hall of worship a peaceful respite from the bustle of the surrounding neighborhood.

He sat on a stone bench in front of his favorite tree, an oddly shaped old pine. He pulled a small sketchbook from his pocket, turned to a blank page, and began drawing. Minutes later he stopped and sighed. “Why do I always do that?” he asked.

“Do what?” a voice asked.

Startled, Sora nearly jumped from the bench. He turned around to find a very elderly fox leaning on a walking stick behind him. The fox was dressed in a dark colored robe, which was a sharp contrast to the silver and white of his fur.

“I’m sorry,” Sora said, climbing to his feet. “I didn’t mean to disturb anyone.”

The fox smiled. “You are disturbing no one,” he answered.

Sora glanced toward the dark building behind the fox. “I thought this place was deserted.”

The fox shook his head. “Not quite, though I think you are the only one who has visited us in a very long time. You asked a question, and before I can answer it you must answer mine.”

Sora frowned, confused for just a moment. “Oh! It wasn’t really a question. I mean, I was just…” He gestured to his sketchbook. “It’s a mistake I make all the time. I start drawing, and the next thing I know, I’m drawing off the end of the paper.”

The fox nodded, but said nothing.

Sora opened the book and flipped to one of the pages. “See, I keep starting at the wrong place, and then I run into the edge.”

“Why do you think it is the wrong place?” the fox asked.

Sora blinked. “Well, because I hit the edge. If I’d started farther over, see, I wouldn’t hit the edge.”

“But the edge of the page isn’t the end of the world,” the fox explained. “It’s just where that piece of paper ends.”

“I know, but I can’t finish the picture because—” he started to explain.

“If you put another piece of paper beside it, you can keep drawing,” the fox said.

“Well, yes, I suppose,” Sora said. “But it’s kind of… I work at a print shop, see, and the press is only so wide, so when I make plates, I always have to stay within the boundaries, right?”

The fox shrugged. “I do not know about presses or plates, but I do know that the moon and all the stars can be reflected in a single drop of dew.”

“I suppose so,” Sora said.

“And I know, from watching you, that when you draw, when you lose yourself in the picture, your mind becomes a mirror,” the fox said. “It is a level of enlightenment that many seek, but few find.”

Sora blinked. “You’ve watched me before?”

“Every time you have visited the shrine,” the fox said, “I have watched you.”

Sora frowned. “But I never saw, or heard, or….” He paused and took a sniff of the air. All the familiar scents of the garden were there, along with the faintest hint of incense, and the faint scent of the elderly fox.

“I did not wish to disturb your contemplation,” the fox explained. He started to turn, as if to return to the hall. As he did so, light from the setting sun shone brightly on a pearl hanging from a string around his neck.

Sora felt a throb of pain in his forehead. “That pendant!” he exclaimed.

The old fox turned back. “What?” he glanced down. “Oh, this.”

When the fox lifted the pendant, Sora could see he had been mistaken. It was not a pearl. It was simply a pale round stone, with a hole drilled through so it could hang on the string. “I’m sorry. In the light it looked like a pearl I had seen earlier.”

“The light can play tricks on our senses,” the fox said. “Especially when the turning of the year is almost upon us. An ordinary white stone can appear to be a luminous pearl. Perhaps even the one luminous pearl, no?”

Sora frowned. “The one luminous pearl?”

The old fox nodded. “A wise teacher once told his student, ‘The whole universe in ten directions is one luminous pearl.’”

“Right,” Sora said. “I don’t know what that means.”

The fox smiled. “Neither did the student. Every time he asked the master what it meant, the master said, ‘What is the point in trying to understand the meaning?’ Eventually, the student turned the question back on the master, ‘What is the point in trying to understand this?’ And the master smiled and said, ‘I see that you have been struggling with a demon in the cave of a black mountain.’ And then, finally, the student understood, and went away.”

Sora shook his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Because you have not yet struggled with your demon,” the fox replied. Then he frowned. “No, that is not quite true. I see that you do struggle with demons of futility and waste. But you do not yet struggle to win.”

“Isn’t that the definition of futile?” Sora asked. “You can’t win?”

“Just because it can’t be done, is that any reason not to try?”

“Um, actually, it is,” Sora said.

“Perhaps I’m just a foolish old fox spouting nonsense,” the fox said, “but when you look at something with your heart, the truth is revealed.”

Sora gave the apparently insane fox his most polite smile. “Ah! I see, very enlightening, yes.” He nodded toward the gate. “I must get back to my own version of the cave in the black mountain.”

The fox nodded. “Go, and take care of your demons.”

* * *

Sora spent most of the next several hours helping with Mr. Valade’s job. Facing and trimming wasn’t his usual task, but as Cyrus kept saying, everyone had to pitch in if they wanted to get paid. And that’s how Sora wound up unloading boxes with Cyrus at the Garden of Delights. The club was in one of the sketchier parts of the city, in a sprawling stone building which loomed over the street like a small brooding mountain. The building itself housed a number of businesses in addition to Valade’s club, though the shutters were latched over most of the windows, the businesses presumably closing early for the holiday.

Cyrus and Sora carried the boxes through a back entrance, past a busy kitchen to Valade’s office. The walls of Valade’s office were covered in posters advertising performers in his clubs. Most of those performers were scantily clad dancers. Several of the posters had been drawn by Sora, though it was clear that Valade spread his business around. Valade’s desk was covered in very neat piles of papers, with little lewd stone carvings sitting atop each as a paper weight. The sound of music from the main club was barely audible over the cheers, whistles, and catcalls of the crowd.

Cyrus stood nervously in front of the desk while the ibex looked over several of the handbills from the first box. Sora stood behind Cyrus, fidgeting near the doorway.

At last Mr. Valade looked up. “Excellent!” he exclaimed.

“I’m glad you like them,” Cyrus said.

“Truly they are works of art,” Valade enthused. “Your young artist is to be commended!”

Cyrus half turned, put his arm around Sora’s shoulders, and pulled him forward. “He does good work!”

“This is more than good!” Valade said, smiling. “It is brilliant! You have done very well, young man.”

“Uh, thanks,” Sora said.

“No, thank you!” Valade took a set of keys from his pocket, unlocked a drawer, and lifted out a bag that jingled. “And here is the first payment.”

Cyrus took a peek at the gold coins in the bag. “This doesn’t look like the half payment we agreed.”

Valade smiled and gestured at the boxes. “You have brought me one quarter of the press run, I pay you one quarter of the price. Bring me another quarter later tonight, and I pay you another quarter. I will not pay in full until you deliver the entire press run.”

Sora groaned. He hated even being in the same room when they discussed money.

Cyrus said, “We have a contract. A signed contract. Half payment with the first delivery.”

“I think you are mistaken,” Valade said coldly.

Sora started to edge out of the office, planning to go out and wait at the cart. He felt a sudden pain in his forehead.

Cyrus started to argue, “Mr. Valade, you’re a good customer, but….” His voice trailed off.

Sora glanced back in the room and saw that the pearl on Valade’s medallion was glowing again.

Valade said, “You delivered one quarter, I am paying one quarter.”

Cyrus nodded. “That’s right,” he said, no longer arguing.

Sora felt a chill run down his spine again, and decided to get as far away from Mr. Valade as he could. He hurried down the hall, toward the sounds of the kitchen. He must have taken a wrong turn, because he found himself in a doorway looking into the club’s main room. It was dark, filled with dozens of small, round tables. One or two men sat at each table, nursing tankards of cheap ale and calling out enthusiastically to the dancing girls. A group of cat girls was just leaving the stage. The lighting changed, revealing a vixen who had been hidden in the shadows in a corner of the stage. She was dressed in a silk kimono of sapphire blue. She plucked at the strings on an instrument on her lap, and the raucous crowd suddenly became quiet.

Without looking up she started to sing. Sora didn’t understand the words, but the song wound around him while a warm, comforting embrace.

The vixen raised her face to the light, but her eyes were closed. She continued to sing, and all other sound in the room ceased. There was no sound at all except her voice, and the delicate plucking of the strings.

As she sang, the headache that had waxed and waned ever since Valade had tapped Sora’s forehead faded away completely. His fatigue and discontent faded as well. He could think of nothing but the promise of that song. It made him think of a quiet forest, with a gentle breeze and the scent of dew drops on leaves. He could almost see the sun setting behind a mountain, casting a shadow on the twinkling surface of a lake or bay.

As she reached the end of the song, she opened her eyes. They were the color of jade, and they seemed, for a moment, to be looking directly into Sora’s soul.

The stage lights went out and the men erupted in applause. There was also the sound of many coins clinking, as most of the patrons threw money onto the stage.

The pain suddenly returned, like a sharp stab in the center of his forehead, and he could smell Mr. Valade—a mix of musty wool and stale tobacco. He was not at all surprised to hear Valade’s voice, an intimate murmur right behind him.

“She sings beautifully, doesn’t she?”

Sora took a step away before turning around. “I got lost,” he said.

Valade smiled, the light from the pearls casting the disturbing shadows over his face, giving his features a decidedly demonic look. “Yes, your employer is looking for you. I am glad I found you first.”

Sora couldn’t pull his eyes from the medallion. It looked different than before. There was still the big pearl in the center, just as he remembered, but he didn’t remember the second, smaller pearl beside it. “Oh?”

Valade closed the distance between them. “I hadn’t had the chance to thank you properly for your excellent work. Only a truly gifted young man could have found a way to emphasize every word.” His smile broadened. “I ask for the impossible on purpose, you know. Because every now and then, someone takes my impossible request and does something extraordinary.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sora said, trying to edge around him to flee into the hallway.

“You are too modest,” Valade said. “Though I suspect it is not so much modesty as a lack of confidence. I think what you need is someone to encourage your talent. Someone who will challenge you to do your best, rather than demand constant mediocrity.”

“I have challenges enough, thanks,” Sora said, darting into the hall. “Have to get back to the shop, or the rest of your handbills won’t be finished!” he called over his shoulder.

His escape was thwarted when he collided with another person in the dark. “Sorry,” he gasped.

“The fault is entirely mine,” the other person said, looking up at him with jade green eyes.

Sora froze in his tracks. It was the vixen from the stage, though she was wearing a plain, somewhat frayed robe at the moment, and not carrying her musical instrument. “No! I wasn’t looking where I was going. Sorry.”

From behind him Valade said, “Ah! And now you have met Zena in person!”

The vixen flinched at the sound of Valade’s voice.

“Um,” Sora began.

“Zena!” Valade continued, “this young man has lost his way. Show him to the tradesman’s entrance. His employer should be awaiting him there.”

“Yes, sir,” Zena replied, head down and ears flat. “Please, follow me,” she said.

Sora wasn’t sure which made him happier, getting away from Valade, or having a moment alone with the vixen. “You played so beautifully,” he said. “I’ve never seen or heard an instrument like that.”

“It is called a shamishen,” the vixen replied. “My mother taught me to play.”

“I don’t suppose she gives lessons?” Sora asked.

Zena’s head dipped lower. “She died, all of my family is gone,” she said quietly.

“I’m so sorry!” Sora wasn’t sure what else to say.

They had reached a door. Zena said, “There is no need to apologize. You had no way to know.” She unlatched the door.

“I still feel bad,” Sora said. “I should do something to make up for it.”

Zena opened the door, revealing the dark alley. She shook her head, “No, it is a dangerous thing to be in another’s debt.”

“But—”

Cyrus’s voice interrupted. “Where in the nine hells have you been!”

Sora frowned at his boss. “Just a minute!” he turned back to Zena and noticed, in the moonlight, that she seemed to be wearing a collar around her neck. “Why are you—” he began. Then his eyes followed the shadowy shape of a leash going from the collar and disappearing into the shadows.

“You have business elsewhere,” Zena said, closing the door.

“Wait!”

Cyrus’s hand landed on Sora’s shoulder just as the door closed. “Stop flirting with the strippers and let’s get back to work!”

Sora shrugged off the weasel’s hand. “She’s not a stripper!” he replied. “She’s not even one of the dancers. I think Valade is holding her prisoner.”

Cyrus rolled his eyes. “Did you hit your head on something? You sound like a hero in a cheap adventure story.” He pointed to the cart. “Forget about her. All women are trouble, but women in trouble are the worst.”

Sora rubbed his forehead. He really wished this night would end.

* * *

Sora volunteered to deliver the next shipment at midnight. Most of the rest of the crew was grateful to get their pay and finally be heading home.

“Remember, everyone in early the day after tomorrow!” Cyrus said as he was handing out the money. “We still have lots of deadlines to meet.”

Cyrus talked the whole way from the print shop to the Garden of Delights. Sora was used to Cyrus babbling, and had long ago learned to tune out until an answer was needed. As they were pulling into the alley Cyrus asked, “So you’re not going to do anything stupid, right?”

Sora smiled and said, “Absolutely! Let’s just drop these off, get our money, and go.”

They carried the boxes of handbills into the office. The noise from the club was louder than Sora remembered. His headache was in full force the moment they entered the building, but he didn’t care. He was determined to talk to Zena again and offer to help her. He had no idea what help she wanted, but he felt in his bones that she needed him.

Valade was in an exceedingly cheerful mood when they arrived in his office. “Ah! Good evening, gentlemen!” He grabbed Cyrus’s hand and shook it energetically. “So wonderful to see you both again.” He grabbed Sora’s hand and shook it.

“We managed to squeeze out a few hundred more fliers than we hoped,” Cyrus was saying. “I know how anxious you are to get more of these out on the street.”

Valade nodded, still shaking Sora’s hand. “Yes, it is always amazing what people will do when properly motivated.” He finally let go of Sora’s hand and headed behind his desk.

Sora wiped his hand on his pants and started edging toward the door.

There was a louder jingle of coins than last time. “Here’s the next quarter payment,” Valade said, “along with a bit extra, as I have another proposition for you.”

“It’s always a pleasure doing business with you,” Cyrus said.

“I would like young Sora to come work for me,” Valade said.

Sora was halfway out the door when he heard it. He stopped up short. “What?”

“You want him to work for you?” Cyrus asked.

Valade nodded. “A talented artist such as he can be a great help for my businesses,” Valade was saying. “And he’s so highly skilled that I assume you have him under contract. I would like to buy it.”

“Wait,” Sora said, “I’m not for sale.”

Cyrus held up one hand in Sora’s direction to forestall any more arguing. “You’re offering him a job, and you want to compensate me for the loss of my valuable employee?”

Valade nodded. “That was the idea.”

“That seems very fair,” Cyrus said.

“Hold on!” Sora protested. “I haven’t agreed to—”

Valade tapped the smaller of the two pearls on his medallion. The moment he did so Sora stopped talking. It was as if he forgot what words were, for a moment.

The ibex smiled at Cyrus. “So, the bonus I offer you is a fair price for releasing the young man from his contract?”

Cyrus nodded. “Oh, yes, a very fair price.” Cyrus turned from Valade. He patted Sora on the shoulder. “Good luck,” he said. And he walked out of the office.

Sora stared after him for a moment. His mind was reeling. He had been arguing about something a moment before, he was sure of it, but he couldn’t remember what it was. And the buzzing in his ears was so annoying, almost as bad as the sharp pain in his forehead. He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to remember what he had been talking about.

“You’re going to love working here,” Valade was saying.

Sora opened his eyes and turned to the ibex.

The two pearls on Valade’s medallion glowed brightly, casting an eery light over the entire office.

“What?” Sora asked, finally finding his voice. He wanted to leave, to turn around and walk out that door, but his feet seemed stuck to the floor.

“You don’t belong in that sad little shop,” Valade explained. “We both know that.”

“I don’t mind,” Sora replied. “It’s not great work, but the people… well, some of the people are great.”

Valade smiled. “You have never belonged there,” he repeated. “In fact, I am sure that you have never felt you belonged anywhere. You don’t even know who you are, do you?”

Sora frowned. “I’m Sora of the Ryke Clan,” he answered. “Son of Sam and Priscilla.”

Mr. Valade shook his head. “That’s where you are from, not who you are.” He reached up to the medallion and caressed the pearls. Sora felt a chill run down his spine. “When you look at your future what do you see? Years of working in that shop, engraving posters and handbills for other people? Maybe you hope someday to own a shop like it? Or perhaps you plan to take over your family business some day.”

Sora shook his head. “No, I don’t want to do that.”

“What do you want, then?” Valade asked.

Sora opened his mouth but he had no answer.

“When I look into your future, do you know what I see? I see an entire army, stopped in its tracks when confronted by you.”

Sora frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he murmured.

“I see a dragon at your side,” Valade continued, “I see the legacy of entire nations entrusted to your care. I see students coming to you, begging to be taught. I see you advising dukes and imperial princes. All of that and so much more await you, if you would only seize your destiny.”

Sora blinked. “You’re completely insane, aren’t you?”

Mr. Valade’s smile became a smirk. “Even when I have taken control of your soul, you find it within yourself to be defiant. Oh, what a precious jewel you are. You will make an excellent addition to my collection. Don’t you agree, Zena?”

There was movement in the corner and Sora saw that the vixen stood there, dressed in the tattered robe, a thick collar locked around her neck, with a leash attached to a heavy iron ring in the wall. She looked at Sora with sorrow in her eyes. “I do not know, sir,” she said quietly.

“You can’t chain people up like that!” Sora protested. “Slavery may be legal back in Klanchia or wherever you’re from, but not here!” He walked over to the vixen and reached for the leash.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Valade scolded.

Sora felt as if he were struck by lightning. He was hurled across the office and crashed into the wall. Stars filled his vision. By the time his head cleared Mr. Valade stood over him, holding a cane carved with runes.

“I didn’t give you permission to touch Zena,” Valade explained. “If you behave, some day I might let you work with her. Or more.”

“I never agreed to work for you,” Sora gasped.

“But you are already in my power,” Mr. Valade explained. “I don’t ask permission, I take what I want. I have a particular fondness for kitsune.”

Sora blinked. He peered over at Zena. Now he could see that there were multiple tails sticking out from the hem of her robe. He glanced up at the desk. Many of the stone figurines were foxes.

“I’m not a kitsune,” Sora said.

Valade chuckled. “They aren’t the only things I collect. Anyone with talent and an extraordinary destiny attracts my attention.”

Sora glared up at him. “I don’t have a great destiny, either,” he said. “I’m just an otter with a sketchbook. Hell, I don’t have half the talent my friend, Anth.” He immediately regretted mentioning Anth’s name, and clapped a hand over his mouth.

“I will get to him soon enough,” Valade said.

Sora tried to climb to his feet, but it felt as if an entire mountain was weighing him down. “I still don’t understand what you want from me.”

“Your destiny,” Valade answered. “I’m going to sell it, you see. Not all at once, of course. A destiny like yours can be broken up into so many valuable pieces. Meanwhile, you can work for me.”

“Meanwhile?”

“Until the last bit of your destiny is sold off, yes,” Valade explained. “Once you have no more future left, well….” He looked meaningfully at some of the figurines on his desk.

Zena sobbed.

Sora looked from the figurines to the vixen. “Your family,” he whispered.

She nodded, not looking up.

“Come, come now!” Valade said. “Everyone dies, eventually. Most people go from the cradle to the grave without leaving any lasting impression on the world. Whereas you, as I sell off pieces of your destiny, you will be responsible for many people achieving greatness.”

Sora struggled. He wanted to grab Valade by the throat and squeeze the life from him, but the invisible force held him fast.

“It’s pointless to fight it,” Valade said. “Just ask Zena. She fought, oh, how she fought! She was even more fierce than her mother and her father combined!” He tapped the larger pearl on the medallion. “But I hold her power. Just as I now hold yours.”

Sora growled and thrashed. “I’ll kill you!”

Valade laughed. “Why fight the inevitable? What is the point?”

Sora glared. “What is the point?” he snarled back.

Valade just stared back at him.

Sora’s gaze move to the pearls. They seemed to be the same size now. Sora tried to think. If the pearls represented Valade’s power over him, it made sense that his had grown to nearly the same size as Zenas, as he seemed to be nearly as helpless to resist Valade as her. How could he possibly defeat an enemy that had already beaten him?

“What’s the point?” Sora repeated. That’s what the crazy fox at the shrine had said was the answer to the master’s riddle, right? What’s the point? But what did that mean? He stared at Zena. What was it she had said earlier? “It is dangerous to be in another’s debt,” Sora said. He looked up at Valade. “I said thanks, and you said, ‘no, thank you.’ You’re in my debt.”

“It was a mere social formality,” Valade said, waving one hand dismissively.

“What is the point?” Sora asked. “Answer me, Mr. Valade. What is the point?”

Valade frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Sora shook his head. “No. You don’t. And I don’t. And she doesn’t. And no one does.” He threw back his head, laughing. All the talk about destiny and power had been mere distractions. Out loud he said, “The whole universe in ten directions is one luminous pearl. One pearl. Only one!” He climbed easily to his feet.

Valade took a step back, brandishing the cane. “I didn’t give you permission to stand!”

Sora bared his teeth. “The whole universe in ten directions is one luminous pearl,” he repeated. He snatched the cane from Valade’s hands.

Valade grasped the amulet tightly with one hand, while with the other he made a mystic gesture. He was chanting words in a language Sora didn’t recognize.

“I said the whole universe in ten directions is one, and only one, luminous pearl!” He swung the cane like a club, striking Valade in the head.

As the ibex fell to the ground, he gestured at Zena. “Stop him!” he snarled.

Sora whirled to face her.

The vixen had leapt to her feet. All sign of the leash was gone, and in place of her robe she now wore banded armor. Her claws and teeth gleamed, looking far larger and sharper than was possible.

Sora pointed a finger at her. “What is the point?” he demanded. “There is only one pearl. Only one!”

The vixen stopped in her tracks, looking confused.

“He’s just babbling nonsense!” Valade shouted. “Kill him, now, and I will set you free!”

Sora repeated, “There is only one pearl.”

Zena blinked. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Sora felt like laughing, and wondered if this meant he had gone completely insane. “Maybe I’m just a foolish otter spouting nonsense, but when you look with your heart, the truth is revealed.”

Zena looked from Sora down at the cowering ibex. “I….” Then her eyes went wide. “Of course! I don’t need him to set me free. I have the same power as he does! And you have the same power. And—”

Sora nodded. “The whole universe—” he began.

“Is one luminous pearl,” she finished.

A wind seemed to billow through the room, and suddenly, more than a dozen ghostly beings stood beside them, encircling Mr. Valade.

“No!” Valade shouted. “I took your power!”

The pearls floated up from the medallion, glowing brighter and brighter. The blinding light became a single ball of energy for a moment, then separated into several small, pearl-like globes or stars. The small stars spread out, until there was one floating in front of each of the ghosts, as well as Zena and Sora.

Zena carefully closed her hand around the star floating in front of her. As soon as she did, several of the ghostly foxes each grasped their own stars. Zena called out, “Mother! Father!”

Two of the ghosts smiled. Their mouths moved as if they were speaking, but Sora could not hear them.

After a moment, Zena said, “Yes, I will. I promise.”

And then the foxes all faded.

Sora reached out to grasp the star in front of him. As soon as he did, the headache vanished. There was another whoosh of wind and the other ghosts were gone. “I was hoping for some words of wisdom,” he muttered. He looked askance at Zena, who had a pensive expression. “I, um, I wish we could have saved your parents.”

“They died a long time ago,” she said. “But I got to see them one more time.” She pointed down at the floor. “What are you going to do with him?”

Sora looked down. He had expected to see Mr. Valade’s body on the floor. He had heard enough fairy tales that he wouldn’t have been surprised if Valade had aged dozens of years, or perhaps wasted away entirely leaving behind only bones. He hadn’t quite expected to see a small, stone figure of a goat. Sora picked it up and turned to the desk. He felt a little odd, but wasn’t sure why. “All the other figurines vanished when we freed the ghosts,” he observed. “I guess it makes sense that he’s turned to stone.”

“Should we smash it?”

Sora frowned. “That seems like a bad idea. Probably better that he’s stuck like this.” After a moment he said, “Maybe he should be put in a graveyard, you know? Laid to rest so he can’t haunt anyone?” He took a step toward the desk, then stopped. “I must be a bit dizzy,” he said. “I feel off balance.”

“I think that’s because of the second tail,” Zena observed.

Sora twisted around to look at his tail. There were now two tails—two thick, slick otter tails—rather than one. He wiggled his tail. Both tails moved. “Where did that come from?”

“All kitsune earn a second tail when they come of age,” Zena said.

“But I’m not a kitsune!” he protested. He wiggled the tails again.

“You may not have been born a kitsune,” Zena said, “but things change.Think about it. You defeated an evil sorcerer, you set a kitsune free—”

Sora interrupted, “And I set free the ghosts of a whole bunch more. Right. Okay.” He concentrated and the two tails merged into one. He turned to Zena. “So, um, what now?”

Zena smiled. “I promised my mother I would return to our homeland. She said that since the veil between worlds is thin tonight, I can go the fast way.”

“Oh?”

Zena started to become transparent. “But I have to go quickly,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can’t stay and repay you!”

“You don’t owe me anything,” Sora said. “It’s dangerous to be in someone’s debt, right?”

“Which is why I must repay you somehow,” she said, continuing to fade. “My shamishen. It’s over there in the corner. It was my mother’s, and her mother’s before her. Keep it.”

“But I don’t know how to play!”

Zena smiled. “Find a teacher,” she said.

And then she was gone.

* * *

Two days later, Sora stepped into the hall of worship of the old shinto shrine. It was deserted, as it had been nearly every time he visited. He spent some time sweeping up and cleaning the altar. He had borrowed a book that described the rituals that should be performed at such a shrine. He consulted it as he set up candles, a bowl, and the donation box. He dropped some coins in the box, poured some wine into the bowl, and lit the candles.

He suddenly heard whispering voices all around.

“Ah, there you are,” he said aloud. “The book says that the shrine should be full of spirits. I suppose you’ve been trying to talk to me every time I visited. Sorry I didn’t hear you. Well, most of you, until the other night.”

The whispering became more vigorous. “Now, don’t everyone talk at once! I’m new at this.”

He turned around to look over the empty hall. “It’s supposed to be a kitsune who takes care of a place like this. But the only one I know personally has gone away. So you’re stuck with me.”

The whispering rose in volume, then receded somewhat.

“I don’t suppose the one that talked to me the other night wants to step forward?” Sora asked. After a moment of silence he said. “I would like to thank him. I know his advice is what helped me beat the bad guy, though I have to admit I’m not completely sure how. It made sense at the time I was doing it, but now, now it just seems like a lot of nonsense.”

The whispering came back. And suddenly he felt a pinch in his ribs.

“Hey! That’s no way to treat your new caretaker!”

The whispering got louder.

“All right, all right! Settle down! I have a lot of work to do if I’m going to make this shrine presentable. And I’m meeting some friends for lunch. Well, former co-workers, anyway. One of them is a friend.” Sora looked around the hall again. “The edge of the page isn’t the end,” he said.

The End



“The Luminous Pearl“ copyright © 2014 Gene Breshears.
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