Shining Path


Chapter 28

In the Fall of Shoumei 18 a small pride of joneko showed up at WOMT Studios and tried to stir up politics. If they had been humanoids, they would have looked like union organizers, and the franchisees would have had them run out. Joneko don't unionize for obvious reasons, but this pride was nonetheless about as far left a political group as ever existed among joneko.

Records from the end of the so-called War of Succession of Shoumei 18 are fragmentary and confused, partly because Thirteenth Queen and her pride erased many documents in the final days of her reign; but it seems that that one was never able to command the same respect among her daughters as had Eleventh and Twelfth Queens. Many ignored her administration right from the start. After a few weeks of fighting, even the joneko who had had strong feelings about the question of succession became bored with that and stopped caring who won; they were more interested in dancing.

With the noble experiment of carefully-plotted oligarchy in ruins, some of the younger kittens who had just missed the good old days began listening to the messages of cooperation and sisterly love preached by characters like this new Fourteenth Queen; and their elders supported her just because she was a good dancer.

Fourteenth Queen herself was among the pride who visited WOMT. She was a spectacular classic tabby, painted all in carbon black and titanium dioxide and touched up with fluorescent dyes so she looked like a whole clowder of multicolored shining queens when she danced under UV light. She tempted the WOMT employees to follow her path – and they did admire her, and gratefully accepted the free tee shirts – but at the end of the day she left with only the friends she had brought, and several other ones' facetiously promised votes. Those were meaningless – joneko do not have elections. They did at least like the new Queen, though, even if they would not go as far as formally joining her Party.

Throughout the Winter and Spring the Queen and her pride worked to raise money. Thirteenth Queen had attempted to levy taxes – indeed, that was probably what lost her the throne, in the end – so Fourteenth Queen and her pride operated raffles instead. Humanoid workers, everywhere humanoids worked alongside joneko, quickly learned that there was no escape. At any moment they could be ambushed, in a corridor or a cubicle or break room, and invited to buy tickets. Some joneko used threats of physical violence to make their sales; others would just look so disappointed and mew so plaintively that even the hardest-hearted mark would think twice about refusing.

Miura Hitoshi got into the habit of buying one ticket every week, from a gray shorthair joneko with a British accent who used to come around and watch his baritsu classes sometimes. He wasn't entirely sure why the school management let her do that, but it wasn't his place to question. He didn't really care if he won or lost; he just liked the excitement and the stress release. And he needed a bit of stress release; beginner enrollment was up, but a lot of new schools were opening all around the city too, and the competition for students was fierce. Sensei kept giving Hitoshi and the other junior instructors pep-talks about how they had to remain "customer focused" or some such nonsense. "Rot," in the technical jargon of baritsu.

Hitoshi had no head for the business side of his art, and it never occurred to him to think about who might actually be behind all these anonymous partnerships starting martial arts schools. He couldn't follow the money trail from the ticket in his hand, into the gray joneko's pocket, through the black pipes of the banking system, and out again to what it would eventually pay for. He was not a big picture kind of person. He didn't see much of the new schools' advertising, either, because he never read Rurika's school books. He was not their target market.

Hirose Konosuke did not abstain completely from joneko raffles either – nobody really could – but he bought very few tickets. He had vague feelings of disapproval about gambling in general; he could never get a straight answer from anybody about just what all these raffles were really in support of; and besides, the prizes were seldom anything he wanted.

On 22-day 5-month Shoumei 19, when the ginger devised her plan to console him for the loss of Matoike Kumi, she found that securing the cooperation of the other studio queens in rigging a draw was the easy part. Convincing Konosuke to buy a ticket was difficult out of all proportion. She almost gave up and just presented him with the ticket as a gift – but that would have seemed too strange, especially when he won, so it was much better that he finally shelled out the money.

The draw was on 23-day. Konosuke won the second prize, and a purple from another studio showed up at the end of the day to deliver it. The ginger and her pride were warned in advance, so they hid where they could observe what happened. It wasn't much of a show, though; he just accepted the envelope, thanked the purple, and after she left, opened it. He made a sour face when he saw that the prize was accommodation for two for a night in a luxury suite – at an hotel that he would have called sleazy and the joneko (who never used hotels) thought was high-class. But he tucked the certificate into his pocket instead of throwing it away, and the ginger told the other ones that that was enough, this one could work with that. The ginger recused herself because of the conflict of interest, but the others immediately opened a betting pool on what Hirose Konosuke would do and whom he would do it with.

The ginger began pestering Konosuke non-stop, like an annoying little sister in a comedy anime. She made herself his constant companion. She gave up the parkour temporarily to accompany him to and from work on the subway, and she spent every trip pointing out young seru ladies who might be to his taste as she understood it. The Quarter was more crowded than usual with the Hanazono Shrine Festival going on, and there were plenty to choose from. She told him about the latest statistic that fully 11% of randomly-selected young women would say "yes" to a carefully-phrased offer – that's one in nine! – though in fact she had invented the number – and she told him loudly enough for her commentary to be clearly audible to the girls themselves. She spread the news of his win around the studio until the other employees started asking him about his plans too. Even Her Holiness made a comment at one point, something about "Hmf! I expect you to keep your business and pleasure well separated, Mr. Hirose!" At least the ginger had the delicacy not to bring up the subject with the others at home.

By the evening of 28-day, Konosuke was sitting in his room – alone just for a moment because the ginger was in the kitchen eating something disgusting she had killed – and he was staring at the hotel gift certificate. He wondered if tearing it up would be enough, if he'd have to go ahead and kill himself, kill the joneko, or if he might simply die of shame without needing to take any deliberate action. The last of those seemed most probable at the moment. He could almost feel his cels degrading, deep inside; soon his body would lose its cohesion and this would all be over.

Before that happened, his computer beeped and interrupted his train of thought. He sighed, took down the keyboard, and checked what was up. What was up was an alarm he had set for new results on "obedience school." It was not really a new hit at all – the agent had just flagged, again, that bulletin board where someone had once mentioned the name "Matoike" and he wasn't allowed to read it. But as he stared, frustrated, at the login screen that wouldn't let him in, he had an idea.

Hirose Konosuke was no kind of cracker. He didn't know about the simple techniques experts use to get into systems where they aren't invited; and he didn't even think through that there were probably easier and less embarrassing ways to get a woman's cooperation than offering to split his raffle prize. He just thought of a way he might use one problem to solve another, and his idea pleased him so much he couldn't think of anything else.

Though he knew there were many other challenges ahead, Konosuke felt as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He changed into his zoot suit, stopped in the kitchen, and bargained the ginger's letting him leave the flat alone for a promise that tomorrow he would invite Sakura Pochi to spend the night with him on the gift certificate. The ginger was surprised he would set his sights so high, and privately concerned about what would happen if the queen turned him down, but she was also comfortably stuffed with homemade pigeon-and-land-squid sushi rolls, and she let him go. She even purred. The kitten was finally showing interest in hunting appropriate prey for himself.

Konosuke met his friends and hung out on the sidewalk and in the cafes for a few hours. They saw he was happier than before, and they were happy for him, but neither he nor the other zoot suiters thought it necessary to talk about the details.