GENRE: Gay Historical Fantasy Young Adult Romance
LENGTH: 148 pages
Hyabusa Jao needs a holiday. It’s winter, he’s tired, and his ribs are busted from his last job with the Good Men assassins. Jao’s boyfriend Hitori Masahiro wants to get out of Okatsu, as well, to rid himself of his opium dependency. Since money isn't an object with Masahiro, he can afford to book them into the exclusive Okina Kibou Onsen, a warm water spa in the mountains. Unfortunately Jao has been there before, for a job, and the place carries bad memories. But he can't tell Masahiro that, so they set off with family, friends, and servants in tow.
When they arrive, the problems begin. First Jao runs into his least favorite person in the world, his ex-boss Kazematsuri. Then he thinks he sees the ghost of the man he killed at the onsen, and Masahiro becomes ill from opium withdrawal. Also, the two sons of the Daimyo of Okatsu, Kazuya and Daijiro, are there to hunt, or so they say. Jao tries to stay out of their way, but the two VIPs are disturbingly interested in both Jao and Masahiro, for different reasons.
Then Kazuya, the younger and slightly nicer of the two brothers, is discovered torn almost to shreds by something big and catlike, an animal the like of which does not occur in the wilds around the onsen. While Kazuya is recovering, Jao is determined to find out what beast is sneaking around at night ... and keep it from killing anyone else.
Masahiro’s about to say something when suddenly Hyan yelps. Jao sees him stumble. He drops the lamp and the flame goes out. The grey almost-night closes around them. There a sound of gravel scattering and the heavy thump of someone hitting the ground.
“Hyan,” Masahiro says, “are you all right?”
Jao can hear Masahiro stepping carefully along the gravel path toward Hyan.
“I’m fine,” Hyan says. His voice sounds strained, like maybe he mashed his nose when he fell. “Just tripped. There’s something on the path.”
Jao lets his eyes adjust to the gloom. Masahiro’s got good eyes for distance, no good in the fog. Jao doesn’t have a problem in the darkness. Maybe it’s because he’s not so used to depending on his eyes for everything. He takes Masahiro’s sleeve and leads him toward Hyan.
Hyan’s right, there’s something lying in the middle of the path, maybe the twisted trunk of a tree that fell under the weight of all that snow. They step over the log that obstructed the path and by the time they get to Hyan, kid’s righted himself and he’s putting the lantern back together. “No permanent damage?” Jao asks, taking Hyan’s shoulder.
“I’m okay.” Hyan knocks away Jao’s hand. “I’ve got a flint and steel somewhere.”
They’re silent while Hyan strikes the flint. It takes a few tries to get the spark to jump to the soaked wick, but eventually the lantern does what it’s designed for. In the light, Jao can see Hyan’s nose is bleeding. He must have fallen face-first when he tripped. Behind them is what he tripped over. Not a tree trunk, but a pair of legs.
* * * *
“Sacred Ise,” Masahiro whispers when he figures out what it is.
Jao curses quietly, and then kneels down to have a look. Even in the dark, and even with the tangle of brush that clambers right to the edge of the trail, Jao can tell there is still a body attached to the legs. Small blessings. He looks up at Masahiro.
“Help me pull him out.”
He takes one side while Masahiro takes the other. Hyan positions himself above them, one hand cupped under his nose as if he thinks he can push the running blood back inside, and the other hand holding the lamp high enough to cast decent light on the scene. Jao counts and on three, he and Masahiro tug the man out of the brush and get their first look at him.
A bear or something just as big must have found him alone on the trail and decided he looked like a tender morsel. Gods only know why the bear should have changed its mind part way through its meal. The man isn’t split open, but his kimono is in ribbons, and the fabric is shiny with blood. He must have tried to fight the animal off; the flesh of his arms looks like shredded meat. Even in the lamplight, Jao can see his right hand is mangled; two of his fingers abnormally short, and the joint of his thumb laid bare, the bone as white as a pearl in the lamplight.
Jao hears Hyan hiss in a sympathetic breath, and at that moment, the man’s mouth opens and something half-way between a gasp and a groan comes out. Jao looks from the gory hand to the bloodied face.
It’s Kazuya. Oh goody. Masahiro must recognize him too, because he stops breathing for a minute, then he stabs one finger at Hyan. “Go!” he shouts. “Go get Yun!”
Hyan stares at him, speechless and stunned.
“And Akai,” Jao adds. He doesn’t shout, but he’s not feeling any calmer than Masahiro. “Tell them a man’s been badly hurt and they need to bring a plank.” He gives Hyan a little push to get him started. “Go!”
Hyan spins on his heel and runs. He forgets to leave the lamp, so Jao and Masahiro are left to sit in the fog and the dark with the mangled man.
“We shouldn’t have let him go alone,” Masahiro whispers as Hyan’s lamp vanishes into the darkness like a shooting star.
“He’ll be faster on his own,” Jao answers. It sounds sensible, but now he’s worried about Hyan too. Sure, the kid is street smart and quick, but he weighs about as much as a sack of rice soaking wet, and he’s no match for whatever made such a mess of Kazuya.
“Besides, that little scrap of a kid isn’t even a mouthful. He’ll be fine.” Jao says it with more conviction than he feels.
After that, neither of them speak. It feels like a long wait, and both of them jump at every noise.
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