The Neko-Mata, a proud cat yokai who had spent his kitten years in the early Shogun Era, surveyed his establishment with a sense of cool pride. The bar, located in a shadowy corner of Hell’s Kitchen, had taken a few years off his considerable lifespan. He had wanted to make the place as great as the old one had been, eighteen years ago in Japan. Of course, eighteen years in New York could hardly compare to three centuries in old Japan. The rancid, fatty scents of New York were a hard press against the sweet blossoms of the old mountains. The clients were different too. The Neko-Mata’s bar had served the legends of yokai and mortals alike; great samurai lords (their names conveniently lost to history), minor goddesses of the spring and summer rivers, and once, a runaway dragon-prince. The current patrons were not nearly so high-born - or so rich. The Neko-Mata allowed himself one sigh of longing for the old days, when he was able to charge double his weight in gold for a cask of his famous sake, and then brought himself back to reality. He tried to take it all in stride. Coin was coin, no matter whose paw gave it forward.
The centerpiece of the new place was a huge L-shaped slab of polished mahogany to serve as the bar, surrounded by tall-backed chairs topped with red leather cushions. Small, neat-curtained booths bordered the cream colored walls which left the gleaming floor free for anyone who wished to dance without having to jostle elbows or drinks. His sake was fine and dark, the yakitori skewers grilled hot, and his maids were lithe and beautiful.
He scratched a battered ear with a huge yellow paw, and watched as one of his pretty maids (a rare combination of soft white fur and blue eyes), served sake to two Nopperabo, or No Faces. The pale, featureless heads sat atop skinny necks, pushed together like sticky, unformed dumplings. Nopperabo had always made him uneasy, even as a kit, but his maid did not seem to mind. She poured sake into their cups, placed a bowl of dried mushrooms on their table, and ended with a high purr of laughter before she sauntered off, tail flicking sensually beneath the pink silks of her kimono.
The bar had other patrons. The Nopperabo, had been drinking all morning, and the afternoon had ushered in the lunching regulars. He still didn't quite understand how the Nopperabo could drink, with their pallid, greasy, dumpling faces devoid of mouth, or eyes, or nose, but they had managed to put away two casks by the afternoon's start. A lone Kuchisake-Onna, white surgical mask clinging to her greasy chin, devoured a plate of beef skewers. She said she was waiting for a boyfriend, but she had said that every day for the last week. A ragtag pack of mixed demons were gathered at a little table in the corner, reading Japanese newspapers with glum faces. The Neko-Mata didn’t know why they bothered. News from home was grim, and there was nothing to be done except to steadily avoid it. The Lute Monk and the Living Shamisen played a light summer tune as the patrons ate. The Neko-Mata fell back to polishing his beer glasses, though his paws ached from standing. A good number of his uprooted yokai patrons had taken a liking to Western beer. He carried on for a few minutes, taking deep sips of his favorite hot tallow oil, letting the music soothe him. It could almost, almost, have been a lazy summer day in old Edo.
Then, the fox walked in.
The cat smelled the fox before he saw him, and cursed the kami above that age had not dulled his sense of smell. The scent of kitsune set his fur on edge, all that arrogance and rotten earth. The medley of ghost scents they carried because of their precious Dens. Instinctively his claws flexed from his paws, scuffing a freshly scrubbed beer glass. The Lute and the Shamisen did not stop playing. They knew their jobs. The pretty maid with the white fur had moved on to taking meal orders from the table, studiously avoiding the kitsune or her boss.
The Neko-Mata did not look up until the fox’s shadow had spread like a stain over his beautiful, polished mahogany. “I need information,” the fox said, grinning with too many teeth. “I have no information, kitsune-sama,” the Neko-Mata countered, forcing the honorific out through gritted teeth.
Any magic the kitsune might have used to pass as human in the New York streets had been stripped the moment he had stepped foot over the threshold. It was a handy little charm he had taken in a card game against a young, too-bold raven demon fresh off the mountain. The kitsune was young, with a cocky grin. He stared straight into the cat’s eyes with all the arrogance of a fox that belonged to a clan, insolent and bold as a prince. He wore light leather armor and knee-high boots. Two blades hung at his waist in fine scabbards of oiled leather. He wore his hair unusually short, and his black ears seemed vaguely overlarge. A mark of Inari, patron god (or goddess, depending on what the great kami felt like in the morning) hung in a russet fringe across his forehead. The kitsune’s right arm had been inked for his clan; a moon-white fox padding a field of blood.
The Neko-Mato turned his back, inhaled deeply, and spiked his tallow oil with a little brandy.
Gods preserve me, the cat thought, turning back to the fox. The Arashi Clan in New York. What did I do to deserve this?
“I’m looking for a girl,” the fox said.
This is all Hitomaru’s fault, and I will skin him for it. I will make a rug out of his damn tabby fur, and I will move back to the mountains.
“A girl, sama? I do not deal with youthful indiscretions. My greatest apologies.” The fox’s upper lip lifted from his teeth. It might have been a smile, or the beginning of a snarl.
“I’m not talking about that. The Den will back my price, and I think you can do with the money, old cat. I need information on this girl.” He placed his phone on the bar. The device was sleek, kitsune-crafted. The picture on the screen almost caused the cat demon to spill his drink.
The cat groaned inwardly. He knew the girl, of course. Every yokai of any consequence in the world would have known this girl. He gazed a moment on the sweet face, dark hair stained by a kitsune-red braid woven with Inari’s moon-white favor, then hardened his heart. The lure of money was pulling, but the cat was in no mood to help the thrice-damned, war-mongering foxes that had, when you came down to it, been part of the cause of his move from Japan. The kitsune lordling sighed, kitsune-bi, fox-fire, extending from his fingers like claws. Emerald flames singed the mahogany.
“Lord Akura-O will double the price, cat. Triple it, if need be. Triple your weight if you want it. We just need to know where to find her.”
“I will thank you for remembering your manners, kitsune.”
“I will thank you for answering my question, cat.”
The cat took stock of the half-empty room, the bare walls, and the black marks on his bar.
“Triple the price,” the cat hissed. “Triple the price, and one of those pretty glamour charms you foxes are so fond of.”
Afterward, once he had waited long enough to make sure the kitsune would not return, the cat went back to his beer glasses, sleeves considerably heavier by a few bags of gold, and a slip of rice-paper with a real kitsune glamour scribed in red ink. He quashed a vague feeling of guilt with thoughts of the commissions he could buy with his new gold. He could recreate Old Edo in the bar, if he wanted to.
Besides, he thought with a forced cheerfulness, they’re almost family. So if the rumors running around home are true, I’ve really done a good deed. Praise-worthy, really. Whatever the foxes are barking at, it’s got nothing to do with me.
* * *
The kitsune had left his brother and sister in the back alleys of the Neko-Mata’s bar. Flies buzzed lazily on an upturned take-out box. The afternoon sun melted moss from the bricks. The kitsune could hear the bustle of New York foot traffic for a mile off in either direction, and smell enough to make his stomach growl; hot dog carts, which persisted, like ants, on every strip of sidewalk at every corner of the city, the sweet mascarpone and fresh baked cannoli of Little Italy, and hand-pulled noodles sizzling in Chinatown. His brother, ever cautious, had kept to the thin shadows that ran across the grimy wall at his back. His sister, he found, had grown bored with the guise of a human girl, and had shifted back to a fox, curled up at his brother’s feet.
“What took so long, Kuro?” his brother scowled. “Minami, wake up.”
“Brother, you worry too much. Look what I got us.”
He dangled a bottle between his fingers.
“When was the last time you had the taste of Shogun sake, Edo?”
Kuro sighed. It was the long-suffering sigh of a harassed younger brother. He handed over the note the cat had given him.
“Yes, yes, I found her.”
Minami sprang up quickly, and by the time she was on her feet, the lithe red frame of a vixen had morphed to that of a girl just turned sixteen, with quick eyes and a shock of russet curls shorn just below the ear. Her copper-penny eyes brightened with a smile.
“She looks like Lord Akura.”
“Hardly,” Edo sniffed. “She is the right girl this time, I hope?”
“The cat is never wrong, brother. We should have gone to him in the first place, but the lords and lady will have their way.”
Edo scowled, rubbed at the two bands of iron cuffed about his wrists. For a moment, the engraved kanji glowed with crimson light. Besides a slight tightening of his thin lips, his brother did not let the pain show. He took the picture from their sister. He nodded once to Kuro, and then disappeared into the darkest shadow of the wall. “I hate it when he does that,” Minami pouted, crossing her arms. “It’s rude.”
“That just leaves more sake for us. Smuggle it back like a good little sister, alright? I want to have some fun before Hiro decides he needs me for another patrol.”
Minami took the bottle from her brother, rolled her copper-penny eyes. She muttered a prayer to Inari, the kitsune’s patron kami. “I wish I had a sister,” she muttered. “Don’t expect a full bottle when you come back. Try not to cause trouble, will you? Our illustrious lord brother gives me headaches when he barks.”
Kuro bared all his pointed white teeth.
“Minami, little sister, you know I never cause trouble.”