When Kamioka Hanako saw what was beyond the door, her heart sank. The stupid bunnygirl had listened to too much religious nonsense from joneko. When asked for the leader of the joneko, rather than picking an elder who bossed around the others, as Hanako had intended, instead she went all the way to the top. It made a sort of bunnygirlish sense. The room contained nothing but an altar with some incense burning on it, and behind the altar, a picture of a goddess. First Queen, she thought they called that one. What was she expected to do here, pray?
The painting behind the altar was arresting because its colors seemed impossibly bright, as if the paint were glowing with a light of its own. Hanako looked carefully at it and figured out the secret. One thing about joneko, they know how to put on a good show. It was painted on black velvet, so the background was about as dark as it could be, painted with some kind of fluorescent paint, and lit by tiny LED spotlights hidden in the alcove doorway and aimed so that they illuminated the painting only, to make the colors shine brighter than objects on the altar. The paint was probably seru vinyl, she reasoned, the same stuff joneko themselves are made with, so that the image really would be almost alive. They'd want that for a religious icon.
First Queen herself was rather surprising. Hanako had seen pictures of this being before, but had never looked closely, and the real valid icon in the dark cave-like room was a thousand years more advanced than the images one might occasionally see in popular culture. Great care had clearly been taken, and the painting was detailed and lifelike; but First Queen did not look much like a joneko. Evidently, she was not meant to look like a joneko. She more resembled a human woman, except for the addition of a furry tail and pointy ears on top of her head. Her lips were parted in a very joneko sort of expression, revealing little sharp fangs, but in skin and face and body structure, the joneko had depicted their goddess as a trashy humanoid imitation of themselves. First Queen was a nekomimi.
Kamioka Hanako was about to leave, but there was a loud angry hiss behind her and she froze. Someone unseen in the darkness declared that one does not turn one's back on First Queen. Okay. That made good sense, even if it might be irreverent to mention it right here in front of the goddess. These deities are after all very slippery customers. You're not even supposed to turn your back on images of the Buddha, and he's one of the more honest ones. Kamioka Hanako made a shallow bow to the painting and backed carefully out of the room. A yellow joneko with greenish markings on her paws, ears, and tail closed the door firmly. She smiled at Hanako, but her smile was no more friendly or human than the nekomimi smile of First Queen.
"Are you the joneko, uh, Queen?"
The yellow confirmed that she was a joneko queen. The distinction may have been lost on the human.
"Well, I'm here to ask you for your help."
Kamioka Hanako wasn't sure where to begin, even though she had thought about it a lot before coming here. She started out with a line about "What if I told you there was a place where human children are treated as worse than animals?" and then realized that it sounded too much like an SDL missionary's sales pitch for afterlife insurance, and abandoned that direction, and floundered looking for another line of attack. The joneko listened impassively for a minute or two before suggesting that they go find a better place to talk instead of standing here in the hallway. She conducted Hanako to another small room where there was a folding chair and a few office-lady props for joneko and their men who might be into that, and directed the human to sit on the chair. She herself rolled around on the floor.
Hanako tried to ignore the joneko's distracting behavior and started again, this time from the beginning of her own narrative: her father's death, walking the Shining Path at his apparent wish, leaving the school and finding out that she had been lied to about the will, and joining forces with the others, hoping to put an end to such things. The yellow seemed very interested in the legal details, which unfortunately the human girl only vaguely understood. The yellow kept asking for clarification – mew, was it the case that Hanako had been the rightful leader of the family, appointed by the previous leader, and others supposedly acting on her behalf had kept her isolated from her daughters? Preventing her from being queen and Queen when she was old enough?
Kamioka Hanako did not exactly have any daughters of her own, and she did not quite understand the special joneko meaning of queenship, but she guessed that the most truthful and diplomatic answer to that question was "Yes," and the yellow purred and said that now she understood why the human had come here. Yes, she knew one who would definitely wish to hear this story.
Then the yellow joneko called in a bunnygirl, and gave her a carrot to keep her quiet while she was bound to a wall computer to provide video bandwidth, because this chamber had only minimal wiring. Kamioka Hanako was disgusted at how the bunnygirl seemed to enjoy submitting to that, even though really, it should have been more disturbing if she had struggled and complained. These joneko were good at computer networking, of course, and as the bunnygirl's eyes glazed over and her jaw went slack, the computer lit up with perfect video of a dazzling titania-white joneko, with black stripes and touches of fluorescent dye in her fur. It was a much better connection than the average street-corner phone booth three and a half years ago, which was the last time and place Hanako had attempted video conferencing.
Kamioka Hanako started again from the beginning, and it came out better this time because now she had some idea of which parts would interest the joneko the most. When she got to the bit about the alumnae meeting, she told her starfish story, and the white joneko commented that starfish were tasty, mew, if perhaps full of sand and bony bits, and this one would be inclined to just eat them instead of throwing them in the ocean. But she understood the metaphor and it was a good point.
Fourteenth Queen had been washing herself for most of the time that Hanako talked, keeping just one ear pointed at the camera to convey that she was still listening, but as the human finished her summary of the situation, the joneko sat up, twisted a kink out of her neck, and faced the camera directly. She asked, in a way that sounded almost humble, in what way she and her daughters could assist this noble cause. It seemed a good sign that she had been the one to offer the idea of cooperation, before Hanako even asked for it.
"We'll get to that soon, I'm sure; but if we're working together I don't expect this relationship to be one-sided. I'd like to hear what you think I and the Shining Path Alumnae can do for you and the joneko."
Fourteenth Queen bared her teeth in something almost like a humanoid smile; and this time, Kamioka Hanako knew that it really was a smile. From that moment, they were friends and allies. They made their plans.
Later, on the subway back to her home, Kamioka Hanako started to think again about all the things that had not been mentioned in the recent interview, and she wondered about the joneko Queen's motivations and what the payoff really was for "that one" and her people. Everything seemed to have been just a little too easy – and she guessed, correctly, that what she was feeling might be a lot like what a rat feels in the last few moments before it becomes a sushi ingredient. She even wondered if Hirose Konosuke were what he appeared to be, or some kind of agent or plant intended to manipulate her into talking to the joneko in the first place. Should she trust them, any of them?
She did not sleep well. When she got up, she phoned her financial advisor and said she wanted to sell all her stocks. The robot tried to talk her out of it, then escalated the call to a seru who tried to talk her out of it. When she finally spoke to a human, he succeeded in convincing her not to liquidate her entire portfolio immediately – which had been her idea – because to do so would distort the market, causing huge losses, attracting inappropriate attention, and maybe even triggering some kind of panic. Instead, the stocks would be sold in bits and pieces over a period of two weeks, with many of the orders jitneyed and even a few decoy buys thrown in, to avoid the notice of market-watching AIs. But the broker ultimately had to follow his client's wishes, and Hanako was adamant that she wanted none of her family fortune on the TSE during the period of 14-day to 21-day, 9-month. She would not, and indeed could not, say exactly why.