Ren is a halfbreed, and the son of the oni empress, making him an unlikely heir to the throne. His comfortable life as a prince changes, however, when he meets Madara, a boy about his age, and a tsuchigumo - a species known for their brutality and xenophobia.
Through their unlikely alliance, Ren and Madara discover a plot to destroy the oni city of Akamachi - one that involves Ren's brother, Daijiro, the true heir who was kidnapped when he was just a baby. But when tensions between Ren and Mada
I stared through the glass cell wall at the boy with the spider’s body. I think at that point I had been staring at him for a while, but either he didn’t notice I was watching or he was scared shitless and didn’t want to notice. He had woken up only a half-hand ago, anyways.
There wasn’t much else to look at. The other three cells were empty and the shackles in each hung from the back walls like morbid festival decorations. There was a leak in the ceiling in the cell in the far corner, too, and the water dripped into a metal bucket on the floor. Plip. Plip. Nobody had ever bothered to fix the leak. It’d been that way every fucking time I’ve been down here and it drove me up the wall.
The spider-boy didn’t seem to hear it, though. His own sobbing probably drowned the noise out. He’d been crying since he woke up. Nobody had talked to him yet - apparently a farmer knocked him out with a shovel and turned him in to the cops - so nobody knew what got him so upset.
But in the end, he was a tsuchigumo, and tsuchigumo were a bunch of evil, traitorous territory-hogs. Oni shouldn’t concern themselves with their emotions. For all I knew he was crying because he got caught trying to steal a baby’s rattle.
Of course, this was all shit I’d heard secondhand.
I felt my ears perk as the steel door creaked. Saburo's wooden sandals clanked against the stone steps in rhythm with the dripping water, plip, clank, plip, clank...
"Hey, Ran." Saburo came up behind me and put a calloused hand on my shoulder. "Ready for another interrogation?"
"My name is Ren." I dug my claws into my palms. "And if you want to keep your job when I'm in charge, you should probably work on getting it right."
Saburo took his hand away, and I heard him take something out of one of the pockets on his hakama. "I didn't take my job to be mouthed off at by the prince. So much for trying to be friendly."
I got up and pushed the wooden stool I had been sitting on aside. It hit the wall and fell over, rolling a few horns of distance before finally wobbling and coming to a stop.
I looked back at the stool. Sometimes I wish I had inherited the gaki's dexterity and light touch from my father. It'd be nice not to crush flimsy paper cups just by grabbing them, but wooden furniture like that was what really got me.
"Come on, Ren, let's go." Saburo stared into the shatterproof glass cell, jotting down notes on a small spiral-ring notebook. His face reflected strangely in the glass, and from where I was standing, it looked like he had aged a few decades since the last time I had seen him. Of course, that wasn't possible; I had just seen him last week. But I guess that's what stress'll do to an oni.
I grabbed the cell keys out of my own hakama and fiddled with the lock. "Good cop, bad cop?," I asked.
Saburo just grunted, which I had learned to take as a yes. In the month or so we had been working together I'd picked up on a lot of things about him, like that he had probably fought in the Gaki Uprising. That was around 20 cycles ago, and I was born the cycle after it ended. Saburo was at least twice my age, and he looked every day of it. His hands were calloused and wrinkled and his blue skin was heavily scarred. The bags under his eyes were worse than mine, which always made me wonder if he had insomnia also. In my head I always liked to think that he did.
The door swung open and the tsuchigumo prisoner looked up at us. He sniffled, but his tears kept flowing and snot dripped from his nose and down his lip. He shook his head violently, probably the best chance he had of cleaning his face off without the use of his hands, which were held above him in shackles attached to the wall.
"Permission to clean the prisoner's face?," I said. Tsuchigumo or oni, nobody looks very nice after they cry. Not that I'd know, personally.
"No." Saburo flipped one of the notebook pages over, almost ripping it in the process. “Well, wait. Let me hold him so he doesn't bite you."
"Bite?" I looked at Saburo then back to the prisoner. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Saburo carefully brought his hands around to the tsuchigumo's rounded ears, clutching the boy's jaws with his thumbs and forcing them open. The boy's muscles all seemed to go limp and he looked up at Saburo with watery eyes. Set in his upper gums alongside a group of blunt molars was a nasty-looking pair of fangs.
"Now, there's a certain way you can hold 'em where they can't get to you," Saburo said. "But it takes a bit of training on a corpse before you can figure it out."
A corpse. Normally I wouldn't be opposed to working with one, but the idea of seeing the pup in front of me dead, probably bruised and bleeding on the ground just got to me. If I was going to guess, I would think he was a few cycles younger than I was. He looked a lot like me a few cycles ago, too. I was scrawny, like him, but still proud of what muscle I had. Pup's wearing an open shirt. For such a thin guy, he's got a lot of spunk.
Maybe being the "good cop" all the time was getting to me.
I took the red handkerchief around the prisoner's neck and wiped down his face while Saburo held his jaw, careful not to get my hands too close to his fangs. When his pale skin looked clean enough I untied the handkerchief and threw it in a nearby bucket. The pup's eyes watched it fall into the empty bucket, and he started sobbing again.
Saburo quickly snatched his hands away. "Oh, stop crying. You're acting like a pup." He turned his head to me and raised an eyebrow. Good cop time.
"Stop it, Saburo. He's scared and upset. Of course he's going to cry," I said. "What's the matter? What happened to you?"
"You had to know that this was an oni city. There's no way you couldn't know!" Saburo growled at the prisoner, who shrunk back until the end of his gold abdomen hit the wall. Saburo inched closer, and before I could intervene the boy screamed an answer.
"How the heck am I supposed to know this was your city? I'd never seen an oni before in my life!" We were all silent for a moment after his outburst, but then the prisoner started wailing. "I... I want my bandanna back!"
Saburo grabbed my shoulder and we pretended to deliberate on what would happen. We didn't actually talk at all, but Saburo pointed to the bucket and nodded. He'd get the handkerchief and we'd go from there. He snatched the handkerchief from the bucket and held it just out of reach of the prisoner's mouth. "You want this back?"
"One of my brood-brothers gave it to me for hatching day, okay?" The tsuchigumo took a deep sniff. "It's really important to me."
I had no idea what he was talking about but I knew this was a good opportunity to get some information out of him. I gingerly tugged on the handkerchief and Saburo must've understood me perfectly because he let it go.
"I'll give you your handkerchief back, okay? All you have to do is tell us how you ended up here."
Saburo grinned at me, the way he always did when he wanted to say "good job, pup" during an interrogation but couldn't. He pulled out his notebook and pencil again and wrote down what looked like several more sentences of notes.
The boy nodded and took a deep gulp of air before starting what must have been the weirdest story I had ever heard a prisoner tell -
"My name is Madara, of the Lycosid brood. And as of yesterday, I'm also the only Lycosid left alive."