Scott McGough: Outlaw:Champions of Kamigawa

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Scott McGough Outlaw:Champions of Kamigawa
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    Outlaw:Champions of Kamigawa
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Scott McGough


Outlaw:Champions of Kamigawa

PROLOGUE

The Daimyo's child was born at sunrise. Lady Pearl-Ear of the kitsune-bito looked at the wailing, red-smeared newborn and then to the first spears of daylight streaming in from the open window. Which omen would prove more powerful, she wondered-a baby born in concert with the dawn of a new day, herald to an age of light? Or a dire warning that the Daimyo's legacy would be drenched in blood?

Amid a cluster of bustling servants, the midwife wrapped the infant in fine Towabara linens. She handed the child to Lady Pearl-Ear, then drew the bedclothes up to the mother's chin.

The unnamed baby went quiet in the fox-woman's arms. Lady Pearl-Ear's long ears stood up straight as she tried in vain to isolate the infant's aura. As a kitsune, Pearl-Ear's shallow muzzle had no visible nose or mouth, but her senses were still sharper than a real fox's. To her, a person's scent was inextricably bound to disposition-industrious people smelled of clean sweat and wood shavings while layabouts gave off waves of stale air and mildew. In this case, all she could sense was a normal, helpless infant in need of succor. She cradled the princess's head against her heart, the soft texture of her fur seeming to soothe the tiny child.

Pearl-Ear tried to relax as well. She had lived among the humans of Eiganjo for almost a decade, but their offspring still struck her as remarkably small, too quick to cry, and distressingly hairless.

Nearby, the new mother lay exhausted. Lady Yoshino was the Daimyo's most favored concubine, and carrying his child was a special honor the bachelor ruler had bestowed upon her. The labor had been extremely difficult, and now Yoshino barely breathed as she slept among the sweat-soaked sheets. Pearl-Ear said a silent prayer as she looked down on her friend. She knew this appeal joined thousands of others, an entire kingdom beseeching the most powerful of the kami for the sake of their great leader's child and the lady who bore her. Pearl-Ear's own people in the woods honored the same spirits as the citizens of Towabara, and together their voices were a grand chorale that rang across the spirit world. The kitsune-bito knew the power of such prayer, and Pearl-Ear also knew that without them, Yoshino might not have survived at all.

The midwife's apprentice began cleaning up as the midwife herself bowed before Lady Pearl-Ear. "Mother and child are alive," she said. "Daimyo Konda must be told."

Pearl-Ear glanced down at the baby. "A child," she said, "but not a prince."

The midwife shook her head and smiled sadly. "Perhaps this princess will confound tradition and succeed her father." She glanced at the bustling servants, then added, "But no time soon, of course.

Long live the Daimyo."

"I share your hope," Pearl-Ear said. She held the infant out with both arms, staring deep into half-opened eyes that had not yet learned to focus. "I would not put Lady Yoshino through another ordeal like this one for the sake of gender."

Pearl-Ear handed the infant back to the midwife. "Make mother and daughter comfortable. I shall inform the Daimyo." The fox-woman's ears folded back around her head and she gathered the sleeves of her voluminous robe around her. With a nod to the sentries outside the midwife's chambers, Lady Pearl-Ear stepped out into the storm.

It was a short walk from the rear corner of the Daimyo's stronghold to the main entryway, but the winds were fierce and the sky was a scowling mass of grayish-yellow clouds. From the great stone parapet that overlooked the lower courtyard, Pearl-Ear could see that only a few hundred of the faithful maintained their vigil, awaiting the arrival of the Daimyo's child. Eiganjo's citizens had gathered in their thousands the night before, but fatigue and the growing tempest had forced most to withdraw. She wished she could spare a moment to tell them the news they had been waiting for so patiently, but they were so distant and the storm so loud that they would never hear her words.

The retainers on the central level's main gate recognized her and waved her on. She had made many visits to the top of the Daimyo's tower over the past two days, even though she had never spoken to Konda himself. His advisors received her cordially, but they would not interrupt their master, who had given word that the future of the kingdom depended on his not being disturbed.

Once the great gate closed behind her and the wind was at bay, Pearl-Ear let out her ears and loosened her robes. She paused, sniffed the air, and rotated her ears towards the main stairwell. Satisfied, she folded her ears back and darted forward, scaling the seemingly endless steps so lightly that her padded feet barely made a sound.

She passed dozens of courtiers and servants on the stairs, but most were too busy to take a second glance. Those that weren't never got the chance. She ran easily, weaving around obstacles and darting between soldiers and shadows alike. She could run this way for a week if she had to, with scarcely any sign of exertion, and she made excellent time as she ascended to the upper reaches of the stronghold.

The higher she went, the more sentries Pearl-Ear encountered. Twice she was ordered to halt and identify herself, but each time the Daimyo's symbol on a slip of parchment allowed her to go past. Thankfully, these sentries were all familiar with the kitsune-bito in general and with Lady Pearl-Ear in particular. They knew she was no threat and that she came bearing news from the midwife.

Pearl-Ear slowed her pace as she drew near the uppermost chambers of the tower. She smoothed wrinkles from her robes, hoping that this time she would receive an audience with Konda himself.

Lady Pearl-Ear opened the door, which led to a small antechamber crowded with armed retainers. She recognized some of the Daimyo's most trusted warriors, including Captain Nagao, hero of Konda's second campaign against the bandits that plagued the southern countryside. Nagao came forward and saluted.

"The child is born?"

Lady Pearl-Ear's whiskers twitched, and she bowed. "I would tell his lordship first, gracious Captain Nagao."

Nagao smiled. He was a lean, leathery man with a hard, square face. "Do you think me a palace gossip, O fox maiden?"

"Never, sir. But Daimyo Konda is most particular about how things are done. I would hate to be the cause of a shadow on his esteem for you."

Nagao jerked his head, and the sentries behind him uncrossed their spears, leaving the exit behind them clear.

"Deliver your news, honorable Lady Pearl-Ear." Nagao bowed. "I will hear it soon enough from the palace gossips anyway."

A small laugh rose among the retainers but died just as quickly under the captain's withering glare.

She returned the bow. "Thank you, Nagao. I will tell the Daimyo how safe he is in your care."

Nagao's face tightened, and Pearl-Ear sensed a mild surge of frustration. To her, it smelled of burning hair.

"If you are able speak to him directly," Nagao muttered, "I will thank you for your praise."

Pearl-Ear hesitated for a moment, but Nagao had already turned away. Her ears swiveled after him, but she said no more and went into the chamber.

The huge square room was lit by a single torch in each corner. Sumptuous bolts of cloth hung from the ceiling beams like sheets of silver spider's silk. Even in the dim light Lady Pearl-Ear recognized two of the three tall figures at the center of the room.

General Takeno, commander of the Daimyo's cavalry, stood alongside an elderly, white-bearded wizard named Hisoka from the Minamo Academy. Beyond them was a hooded person facing away from Pearl-Ear. From the haughtiness of his posture and the scent of cold, pure rain, she immediately placed him as one of the soratami moonfolk. The three turned as one to face her, standing between her and the darkened doorway beyond.

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