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Ren twisted and strained, but the spirit’s net kept tightening. She wormed over the moss to her bag. By poking a thumb and finger through the holes of the net, she could lift the flap of the bag and pull out objects one by one, but it was slow, frustrating work.

Finally, she reached her slate knife. She hacked at the net, but no matter how many times she tried to cut them, the tendrils merely stretched and snapped back.

Almost sobbing now with panic, Ren let the knife fall. She should have guessed and ordinary tool would not sever spirit bonds.

There had to be some way to warn Sandspit Town. Was it possible that Maruki had meant only to punish her, not kill her? If he would help now, she would humble herself, no matter what it would cost afterward.

She would, she thought, pray to Maruki as a mortal prays to an immortal: “Take pity on me, great one, rescue me from evil, divine one, grant me life.”

But as she lay there, another notion occurred to her. She was ashamed to act on it, but if she was going to beg an immortal for aid, better one who had never harmed her.

“Makoto?” she said, swallowing tears. She forced herself to speak louder. “Makoto? I know I have no manners and I acted like a child. But I need help now. Please help me one last time. I just need—I need help or my mother will die.”

She waited, straining for the sounds of her approach, but heard only the slow gurgle of water in the rocks. She should not expect her to come, not after what Ren had said and done.

If she did not come, Sandspit Town would be destroyed.

Panic and terror rose so easily out of her belly. She willed them down and tried to think. The immortals might never again intervene in her life directly, but she still had their gifts: the fish-skin pouch, the abalone mirror, the shoes.

The pouch was inaccessible right now, the net tightly binding it under her cloak, and she could not think how either mirror or shoes could help her. But the shoes reminded her of the knife-sharp leaves of the upper world, and that in turn reminded her of the leaf she had accidentally brought to mortal lands. That leaf now resided, wrapped in cedar bark, at the very bottom of her bag.

Ren returned to the laborious task of emptying the bag. Shoes, comb, awls, coils of spruce root: at last she reached the leaf. She rocked its bark wrapping against a stone until all the fibers fell off, then drew the leaf against the net. A tendril parted, and then the next one. She hacked at it, until she could put her hand through, and then she was able to slice in earnest. The net attempted to mend itself, tendrils reaching for each other and splicing themselves, but now she could slash it apart faster than it could mend. She discovered that she could use the knife to guide the re-knotting tendrils. After she cut away all of the net, she helped it tie itself into a hopeless snarl.

At last she was satisfied it could no longer harm her. She set to bandaging the cuts on her palm. A loud exhalation made her jump, and then Makoto walked out of the fog, frowning.

____________________________________________________

 

“Can’t your husband help you?” she asked sharply, without even a greeting.

“He’s not my husband anymore!” Ren said. The subject of Maruki made her angry and ashamed.

Makoto’s frown only deepened. “Did he treat you badly?”

It’s none of your business, Ren wanted to shout. At least Maruki had never been quarrelsome. He would have fussed over the wounds in her hand, the bloody lip Kamoshida had given her, her filthy clothes and disheveled hair. He would worry about how she had been frightened and in pain.

“No!” she said, and then, angry at herself for the tears that again spilled over, “Yes! But, Makoto—”

She sighed, deeply and impatiently, and nudged the wadded-up, wriggling net with her foot. “What’s this?”

“One of Bone’s servants trapped me in it. Please, Makoto—”

“Was that why you called me? You seem to have freed yourself easily enough.”

Had she come just to inflict her bad temper on her? “I asked for your help because my mother is going to die if I can’t warn Sandspit Town in time! Hundreds of warriors are headed there—”

“You don’t need me,” said Makoto.

“I said I was sorry. I really am. I was just scared to go into that forest. I know you have every right to be angry at me, but my mother—”

“Was that why you went with him? Because you were scared?”

She said, “I don’t remember why! He took away my memory!” But of course, Makoto was right. Maruki had given her what she wanted, and one of the things she had desperately wanted was to escape the horrors of his aunt’s house.

Makoto sighed again, and then she dropped down beside Ren, folding her long pale legs beneath her. She rested her arms on her knees. Seawater still dripped from her hair.

“Please help me, Makoto,” she said. “I’m not asking you to stop them! I just need to warn them, and I can’t. They cut loose my canoe, and I can’t paddle there fast enough anyway. They’re going to kill my mother or worse, and Shiho, and maybe my other aunt and her children, or they’ll be taken away as slaves, and they’ll be no one to ransom them. I know there’s no reason why you should help me, but please—”

“Ren—”

“Please!”

“Ren,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth. Ren tried to push it away, but before she could stop her, Makoto caught hold of her hand.

She reached forward to grab the spirit’s net and kneaded it into a slab of transparent jellyfish-like substance no larger than her hand. Then he unwrapped Ren’s blood-soaked bandage and applied the slab to her palm. It settled into her skin, immediately stanching the flow of blood. She rubbed the slab. “Makoto—” she began again.

“You didn’t lose my sister’s gifts, did you?”

“No,” said Ren, touching the fish-skin pouch through her cloak, “but—”

“Where is the canoe?”

“Canoe?”

She lifted the pouch over her head and pulled out a toy canoe made of burnished copper. Now she remembered seeing it on Sae’s palm. “I thought these gifts were for Huntress’s house.”

“What would you do with a canoe in the middle of the forest? It was a gift, plain and simple. Ren, I can take you to Sandspit Town. But this canoe will take you faster.”

Sae had given her a real canoe after all. “Am I stupid?” Ren asked. “I didn’t know what the gifts could do. I didn’t know the rules.”

“You’re not stupid,” she said. “Just unbelievably stubborn.”

“Stubborn?” Ren asked. “I really didn’t—”

“You’re stubborn! You won’t use any of the power in your grasp! Not what you were born with, not those little spirits who wanted to serve you, not my mother’s gifts. Why do you avoid it? It’s not because you’re a coward. Cowards like power. Did you even try to use the gifts in Huntress’s house?”

“I was stupid. I didn’t realize what she was until it was too late—”

“No.” she said. “It’s more than that.”

She looked toward the sea again. Probably to where she had left her canoe. She was tired, Ren thought, of her stupidity and stubbornness.

Or maybe she was tired of not hearing real answers. Ren always found it so difficult to condense feeling into understanding, into words. She had never been able to do it, not with Shiho or Ann, not with Sojiro, and certainly not with Maruki. But she did not want Makoto to leave as she had the last time. She did not want her to leave at all. In her company, she felt as if she might not drown after all.

She had been wrong about her, she realized. She was not asking the question of her imaginary princess, but of her, Ren the bear girl.

Did she even know the answer to her question?

Of course she did. “I just don’t want,” Ren said with difficulty. “to be like them.”

Makoto looked back at her. “Like who?”

“Like my father, and Kamoshida, and that dead wizard. That king from the Gull Islands. Akechi serves him now. Like Huntress. I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

“You didn’t know your father,” said Makoto.

“I know what he did,” Ren said. “I don’t want to hurt people. You don’t know what it’s like to be—without power. To be mortal. A slave. A girl no one wants to be alive. Or if anyone does, they can’t protect her, they just get hurt too, or killed. You’ve always been what you are. You can’t know.”

She was silent. After a long moment, she said, “It’s true I’ve never been a slave. But I know that it’s impossible to live without hurting someone, whether it’s yourself or other people. And you don’t stop anyone from being hurt by refusing all the gifts within your reach. I know you’re wrong if you think you’ll become evil by putting on your mask and becoming whole. You aren’t evil just because you’re big and strong.”

“But sometimes I—I want to hurt people. I’m afraid I’ll…” Ren stopped. She did not want to speak about this to anyone, did not even want to acknowledge to herself the terrible truth. But she did want to give her a real answer.

 “Sometimes I—get hungry,” she said. “For human flesh.”

Makoto nodded solemnly. “That happens to me, too.” Then she grinned. “But really, fish tastes better.”

Anger spiked up in her, hot and sharp. How could she joke about such a subject! How could Ren have expected an orca to understand? But then—

For some reason—perhaps it was the curve of her neck as she hunched there, or the spill of wet black hair across the muscles of her back—Cloud remembered her dancing in the house of the Lords of Summer, fierce and joyous.

“I have to go,” she said.

She stood in a single motion. Ren shoved everything back in Winter’s bag and scrambled to her feet much more awkwardly. At the waterside where Makoto’s own canoe waited, she gave her the pouch and the toy canoe. “Put it in the water, bow outward.”

She placed the toy in the water, and—there bobbed a copper canoe as big as her lost wooden one. “It doesn’t have paddles.”

“You don’t need any.” She held it steady so Ren could climb in. “The canoe’s name is Copper Orca. Say its name and then, ‘Take me to Sandspit Town.’” She stepped back.

“Copper Orca,” Ren said. She felt silly addressing a canoe. “Take me to Sandspit Town!”

Nothing happened. She looked at Makoto.

“You can call for me anytime, not just when you think you need help,” she said.

And then the canoe shot away over the water. “Goodbye,” she said, but the fog had already closed around her and she could no longer see the shore.