Tomo maintains his controlling grip on each of my shoulders, his fingers digging into my bones while he keeps a diplomatic smile upon his face as the General gives me a tour of the manor.
“In this wing we have the relocation workers’ quarters. They are the ones in constant communication with the neighboring ranches for when we need to purchase more humans. They are also in charge of keeping record of the escapees either from our ranch or another’s out in the fields which our guards monitor. Alongside that are the nutritionists’ quarters...”
Romano isn’t proud of his spotless mosaic tiles or detailed murals of his ancestors all along the walls and ceilings. He is proud of a centerpiece; something he calls ‘taxidermy’. It’s an old practice the swine learned from humans.
I see a girl not much older than me mounted onto a polished, wooden table. Her skin gleans and her eyes are wide open, but there is no life in them. She propped up in a pose of someone who is alive with somewhere to go, but she remains stiff.
“Do you like it?”
Before I answer, I feel Tomo’s grip tighten telling me to answer correctly or there’d be consequences.
“It’s certainly different. How does it work? I mean, how is it that you find the body to… preserve it as you said.”
“If you’re asking me if I took her life myself in order to turn her into art that would last forever, no unfortunately I cannot take the credit for that. It was Mr. Kobayashi actually, who found her – her body I mean. She was – where’d you say?”
“Just outside ranch borders. It looked like she was trying to escape from one of the neighboring ranches, but got caught in a magnum body-gripping trap. The thing was a bitch to get off of her. Her bones were broken too, so we had to reconnect those and stitch her skin back together. When you see the finished product, all those hours are worth it. Isn’t she a beauty?”
“She certainly is, Kobayashi. I appreciate you helping me with this passion project of mine. Now her beauty is preserved forever and put on display for all of us to admire.”
“How do you know that’s what she wanted though?” I interrupt.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s her body, shouldn’t she have gotten a say in what happened to it after she passed?”
“She should have thought of that before getting caught in that trap then.” The General chortles as if this girl’s life meant nothing.
So this is what Tomo has been doing when he isn’t around? I thought he was supposed to be rehabilitating mammalian mental patients and those with debilitating diseases. Apparently assisting the General in the desecration of female human bodies as a hobby must be part of his rehabilitation too. If it is, it hasn’t been working.
I remind myself to play along, that this is only a temporary situation I will have escaped from soon enough.
“That’s very true General,” I say with an unaffected smile,
Tomo looks towards me approvingly and lovingly, how he used to when we first met. This is who he loves; the submissive, agreeable Chinatsu. That is who I will have to be if I want to survive whatever comes next.
I decide to express more interest and take this façade to the next level.
“Have you any more around the manor?”
“Why yes, I have a whole collection of adolescent male humans in the west wing. Come now, follow me!”
This is the first time I’ve seen the General show any sign of amity towards me.
Tomo’s grip upon my shoulders loosens slightly, then altogether. He’s gaining confidence in me once again. He begins to hold my hand as he did earlier as we follow Romano’s lead to his next disturbing collection of stuffed humans and skin draped on armatures.
“If you keep up this attitude, the General might assign you a surname too in no time.”
“I’ve been just Chinatsu my entire life, it’s hard to imagine ever being more than that to be honest.”
“How about… Kobayashi?”
I stop dead in my tracks. He can’t be serious.
“But that’s your surname.”
“I know, but, you’re my family and I want to make sure that never changes.”
“That’ll never change, but, it’s not really up to us, is it? It’s whatever the General decides, just like with everything else. Just like with me even being here.”
“You underestimate my relationship with General Romano. Let’s just say… he owes me.”
How could our mammalian leader possibly be in debt with a human? This means Tomo must have done something unimaginable to help Romano maintain his power. I would rather not know. What else could he have possibly done that would make my disgust with him stronger?
“Why would you even accept his offer without resistance?”
“Like you just said, it’s not really up to us. So why make it harder on us than it has to be? If you can’t beat the system, climb to the top of it.”
He is really starting to scare me now.
“I thought if you were branded, you get to live the lavish life here. If you’ve been working so closely with him this entire time, how come you’ve slept in the coop every single night ever since I’ve known you?”
“Isn’t it obvious Chi? I stayed, because of you.”
It’s so hard not to hate him.
“Now that you’ll be staying here from now on,” he continues, “I’ll be as well. We’ll share the same roof, the same quarters, maybe even… the same bed.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Whether it is from fear or anticipation or both, I’m unsure.
“Are we the only branded humans at the manor?”
“No, you will get to meet the rest of the staff in time. Try to take it one step at a time.”
“I’m not eager to, trust me. I already miss the smell of blood and sweat from the med barn patients. Whether it was brownreds who had just lost a fight or it was swine that got injured trying to control the herds during feeding time at the mills. I knew my place there; I followed the same routine each and every morning. I was caring for people who actually needed it, whether they were human or mammalian. What’s my purpose here?”
“To care for and cure Aiguo of course.”
“I don’t think there’s any drug throughout all the ranches that could possibly cure what’s inside of that shoat.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Tomo, do you… do you believe in demons?”
“Sure, we all have those demons inside us that we battle every night. When things get too quiet, those negative thoughts can be tough to get rid of.”
“No, I mean literal demons.”
“Of course not!”
“I think Aiguo might be… possessed.”
I keep my voice low and look to Romano’s ears to make sure he isn’t intentionally listening as he guides us through the marble hallways towards the west wing.
“And when were you planning to mention this to the General?”
“I wasn’t – at least, not yet. Not until I’m absolutely certain.”
“And how do you plan on going about testing to be certain?”
“I haven’t figured out that part yet either. I’m more curious to know what his father thinks is wrong with him. I think he knows more than he’s letting off; almost as if he’s testing my abilities, or even just my transparency with information.”
“That would be the smart thing to do, especially with you.”
“You always have to defend his methods. And what do you mean ‘especially me’?
“You know you send mixed signals. You can be a bit vague when it comes to where you stand Chinatsu, that’s all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Being hard to read will help when you accompany me to the General’s next meeting with General Pol.”
“I’m not a negotiator; I’m a veterinarian, why would I need to attend their meeting?”
“The General likes to familiarize both his allies and enemies with his arsenal of human assets to make his security and abundance of labor known. I think he may want to introduce you to Pol and his family.”
“So much for the element of surprise. Do you know why they’re even having a meeting?”
“As we all know Pol’s rodent ranchers have been mysteriously dying off. Apparently, he wasn’t satisfied with General Romano’s last peace treaty and would like to negotiate to share some land and resources in exchange for access to specific drugs their specialists aren’t educated enough to manufacture.”
“You think they still believe we had anything to do with it?”
“They wouldn’t be totally false.”
“Wait, you’re saying we had something to do with it?!”
I almost forget that we’re being escorted still and have to lower my voice once more.
Tomo’s patience begins to run out with me, “And if we did?”
I’m speechless as we approach the display case full of “taxidermy” humanlets.
“The majority of these creatures passed away due to natural causes. There’s no need to be frightened.” General Romano tells me.
I find that hard to believe.
“There are a few who had their lives cut short by the evil machinery that ran rampant through the roads of a world that no longer exists. But you see, preserving them this way gives them a chance to exist the number of years that was taken from them and then some. It’s the only hard work I will do for free, isn’t that right Mr. Kobayashi?”
“It’s true, General.” Tomo chuckles in response.
They both laugh simultaneously at such a macabre sight. I can’t control my temperament for much longer.
“Will you stop calling him that already?!”
Their laughing ceases and the General’s smile vanishes from his wrinkled face as quickly as it came.
“And what would you prefer I call him?”
I look out my side vision to see that same unfavorable expression.
“I apologize for the outburst General. I’m just not used to it, is all.”
“Well, get used to it.”
His enthusiasm for his display of dead humans dissipates.
“Mr. Kobayashi,” he continues, “please show the veterinarian to her new living quarters. And please, get her out of that muddied uniform. She won’t need it anymore, so you can burn them or do whatever you like. As of tomorrow, she’ll be wearing our colors in allegiance with the Romano ranch.
Tomo bows, and then directs me down a hallway in the opposite direction.
“I hope you aren’t going to make my life more difficult now that you’ll be staying here Chinatsu. That isn’t why I suggested the General employ you.”
“I didn’t ask you to suggest anything in the first place, so if I fail, that reflects on you Tomo; nobody else.”
He doesn’t respond but instead opens a maroon door that leads into a beautiful, spacious bedroom. There’s a gigantic, chandelier hanging from the center of the ceiling. The bed is layered with crimson, silk sheets. The drawers and tables are all made of fine mahogany; also, a wardrobe. I step to the two handles and swing open the doors. I see the most beautifully designed uniform dresses I’ve ever seen. Burgundy and orange with golden details and Romano’s insignia sewed into the pockets. The loops, buttons, and bowtie are both golden as well. It isn’t only visually pleasing but is equipped with many pockets and a utility belt.
The craftsmanship is full of quality, made with such thought and care. I carefully pull one out and drape it in front of me, imagining how it would look on me in someone else’s eyes; in Tomo’s eyes.
“These are all mine?”
“Yes, they were customized for you from before you were even branded. I hope you’re satisfied with them and that they’ll be comfortable enough for you to work in.”
Tomo’s smirk returns to his face. He walks towards me slowly and whispers, “Just like you.” he kisses my cheek, his lips somehow finding their way to my neck.
The uniform falls from my hands onto the paisley-patterned carpet.
For the first time, I don’t wake up to ruckus and racket between my coop mates or the squealing of swine telling us to wake earlier so we can reach our quota. I wake up to warmth and rays of light peaking in through the curtains.
I sit up and notice I’m completely unclothed. It’s impossible to sleep unclothed comfortably in the coop without fearing another human, or even worse, a swine may try to take advantage of you physically. The feeling of being revealed is too overwhelming, so I hurry to change into one of my new, clean uniforms. I rush into the outfit so hastily, I can hear seam rip in certain sections as I adjust it to align with my body just right.
“Someone’s ready to take on their first day in the manor.”
I shriek forgetting that Tomo was still lying in the same bed I was just in myself; forgetting about the night before.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He says in his velvet voice.
“You didn’t,” I say, not trying to seem easier scared when I’ve never been more scared in my life.
“There’s no need to be scared Chinatsu.”
Can he read my mind?!
“I just told you that you hadn’t scared me. This is just going to take some getting used to. Like you said, ‘take it one step at a time.’”
“And the first step is, meeting with General Pol at breakfast this morning.”
“WAIT, THAT’S TODAY?!”
“Haha, don’t get so worked up.”
“THAT’S A PRETTY DAMN BIG FIRST STEP, DON’T YA THINK?!”
“I have faith in you.”
I wish I had faith in myself.
I hastily wash and comb my hair with the softest brush I’ve ever held and pin my bangs back. I begin giving myself a pep talk. You can do this Chinatsu, you’re just going to smile and nod. Smile and nod. That’s simple, you can do that.
I don’t realize how loud I’m speaking until Tomo takes notice.
“Haha, who are you talking to?”
I turn around to say, “Nobody – myself.”
He is finishing putting on his uniform. Being a rehabilitator’s uniform, it seems to have a lot of protective gear and material. It still has a bit of charm with maroon and golden tassels hanging from the shoulders and big, gold buttons. But there’s a hard shell underneath the fabric. It looks like an outfit made for going out onto the battlefield rather than aiding swine who might have damaged their spine taking a fall from the feeding mill.
He steps towards me taking the clips out of my hair and pushing my bangs to the side.
“That isn’t going to cut it anymore. You’ll need to work on your appearance more to fit the image of a branded human; a groomer should be here shortly.”
“A groomer? What’s that?”
“You were curious about the rest of the human staff, weren’t you?”
Suddenly, a girl around my age with a big, blonde ponytail comes rushing in with a variety of different shaped brushes I have never seen before, sheers, creams, and other items I can’t name in a bucket. She sits be down into a nearby hair and begins using the scissors at my bangs.
“I didn’t request this!”
“When you look kept, you don’t have to work as hard Chinatsu.” The blonde girl tells me.
“How do you know my name? Who are you?!”
She ignores my question. This is getting old.
She snips and snips as I see locks of my hair fall onto the bedroom floor. I never asked for any of this. She then yanks my hands away from my body and begins to clipping my nails and pulls out a clear polish to brush it onto each individual fingernail in a matter of seconds.
She then pulls out a smaller brush to shape my eyebrows and lashes. And to end things off, she taps her finger two or three times into soft, pink pigment and rubs it across my lips in two quick sweeps.
“Alright, that’s as good as it’s going to get for someone who’s been so… unkempt for so long. Good day to you both.”
She bows to me and to Tomo, then quickly leaves the room.
“So you’re ready then?” he asks.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
We walk down what seems like an endless hallway until we finally reach the breakfast area. There is a long, rectangular table already draped with a beautifully sewn cloth. It is already set with big, oval plates piled with foods I had never seen before in my life. Circular slices of bread with what looked like tree sap drizzled all over. Pastes with fruit mixed in spread onto what looked like the bread loaves we are rarely given at the mill, but the surface had a dark brown almost burnt look. There are also a few more indescribable food items that interest me, but before I can inquire as to what they are made out of, a bell rings.
I see another human female around Panacea’s age enter from the doorway across from Tomo and me; bell in hand.
“General Pol’s cart has reached the gates. He should reach the manor shortly!”
I try to make eye contact with her. She is the first human staff I have seen during my short stay here so far. Although, it seems she avoids looking at me. Then, when I open my mouth to speak, she quickly disappears back in through the doorway she came in from. How weird.
“Who was that?” I ask Tomo.
“Oh, that was Ima.”
“She seemed like she wanted to avoid introducing herself to me.”
“It’s been a while since a new human has been branded and brought to the manor. Her social skills might not be in the best of shape right now. Also, she was really close to Ricci’s mother; ever since her disappearance, Ima’s been really worked up about it.”
“And you’re not?”
“Worked up about it?”
“Why should I be?”
“Cause Ricci’s your best friend.”
“In the coop, yes I guess he was.”
All I can do is stay quiet. Nobody disliked Ricci more than me, but he was still somehow my friend. I thought he was both our friend, but when I spoke to Tomo inside the manor it’s as if he were a completely different human being.
My concentration is broken by the tapping of a cane that I could recognize anywhere. The General enters the room with his wife, who is holding Aiguo in tow. I cannot believe they would bring him here during a gathering like this!
I break free from Tomo’s grasp and approach Romano. Before beginning my rant, I make sure to bow to him and his wife.
“General, with all due respect, I don’t think it is such a good idea to bring your son around leaders of the enemy ranches when we still are unsure what exactly his condition is.”
“Then maybe you should have spent your first night here monitoring his condition instead of taking a roll in the hay with my most trusted human.”
Do the Tamsworths report every single thing they hear from the rooms they guard directly to him?!
“Whatever happens, happens,” he continues, “As you know, if worst came to worst, my son would be the survivor. That is all I care about.”
I continue trying to convince him of the consequences that can arise if we put his bloodthirsty demon shoat in an environment surrounded by strangers, but he refuses to listen.
Ima returns suddenly and announces the arrival of General Pol and his family. Tomo roughly pulls me back to his side, and all the six of us do is wait to face the hallway leading to the main entrance.
After what seems like an eternity, a giant, whiskered figure with grey hair covering his entire body steps through the doorway. He wears a blue uniform with black tassels and rodent insignia sewn into the bright, indigo shoulder pads.
Without saying a word, he bows to us and then pulls out a chair for him to sit. Following behind him are his wife and two small pups, for which Ima pulls out three more chairs from the table to sit.
Pol’s nose starts fidgeting and he goes to sniff every dish laid out before him. He takes in one, long, suction of air through his nostrils, then crazily scarfed down each plate one by one within a matter of seconds. He reaches the final plate of circular bread and tree sap, tilts the plate, and allows for all its content to slide off into the back of his throat.
He swallows and you can see the shape of the contents he has just devoured create shapes on the way down his throat.
He grabs a small cloth out of his uniform wiping the sap off his whiskers in long, thorough strokes, and finally speaks, “Now, where should we start?”
The General takes a seat at the extravagant table and his wife does the same shortly after handing Aiguo to Ima. Ima's arms are trembling as she cradles him and remains standing up in the corner. She rocks him back and forth with nothing but fear in her eyes and worry on her face. She must know what he’s capable of as well, I think to myself.
I continue to watch her quaking in place until I feel a hand yank my arm. I see Tomo has already sat down and is making me sit next to him.
“I see you’ve obtained a new face since we last met, Romano, a pretty one at that, at least, for being a human. What is her role?”
“Her role is being the one who saves your infected ranchers from the Black Death.”
My eyes widen. Why am I the only one who seems to be surprised by this?! I look to my side and see Tomo focused on the conversation at hand until I nudge him with my knee to get his attention. He ignores me until I nudge him again and he gives in. He flinches his hand up in the air and mouths, “What?!”
“Did you know about this?” I whisper.
“Of course I did. I’m the one who brought the idea to the General.”
“Why would you do that?!”
“Because I believe in you.”
I’m at a loss for words, so I decide to focus my attention back to the exchange between Romano and Pol.
“How desperate do you think I am Romano? That female hardly looks like an adult human. Do you think I am willing to risk the lives of all my ranchers on your word alone? What experience could she possibly have as a veterinarian to solve this issue?”
“General Pol, she has something that cannot be taught by any mentor, and that is intuition. She is highly observant and willing to take risks that vets with decades of experience are far too bitter and scorned to take.”
“I’m not convinced.”
“I didn’t agree to this meeting to convince you. You’re the one in need of aid before your entire species is wiped out. The provisions that you can offer me, any other ranch could offer me.”
“I could say the same thing. I could go to any of the neighboring ranches and I’m sure they’d have another wide-eyed, adolescent female human vet to throw my way along with false promises.”
“You could, and you already have.”
“How would you know that?”
“You need to not speak in order to listen, Pol. When I converse with other Generals, I listen. They’ve all told me how they denied helping you or how you denied what they had to offer. I’m fully aware that I am your last hope, your last chance. There’s no one and nowhere else to run to.”
The apprehension in General Pol’s eyes began to dissolve into acceptance. He took multiple, big gulps of the juiced oranges then slammed his glass onto the table.
“Fine, you win – this time. You’ll receive any additional medical supplies and pharmaceuticals you need only during and until your human here makes it where not a single one of my ranchers are infected. Do we have a deal?”
“It seems so.”
The conversation between the mammalians transitioned into small talk, giving me a chance to confront Tomo about the situation he put me in once more.
“How am I supposed to accomplish this? I’ve never even treated somebody for the Black Death, how am I supposed to rid an entire ranch of it? Do you realize the danger you’ve put me and so many innocent lives in?”
“You’ll figure it out. If you can’t, nobody can, which means we’re all going to die soon anyway.”
“What do you mean us all? This is General Pol’s problem. If his ranch perishes, so what? Romano could claim his land as his own at no cost.”
I make sure to keep my voice low as the two parties continue a combination of squealing and squeaking that covers up our conversation.
“This is our problem now too.”
“Remember the rumor about our own brownreds stealing supplies to sell them to his ranchers and keep the profits for themselves?”
“Yes of course.”
“Well, that part is true. It did happen. The real rumor is that one of the brownreds contracted the plague while he was there and brought it back here. It’s only a matter of time before the people on our ranch, humans, and mammalians alike begin dropping like flies.”
Before I can respond, the chatter at the table quiets down and General Pol directs his attention towards me for the first time since during this meeting.
“Do you have a name human?”
“Chinatsu, General,” I say with a slight bow.
“Jeez Romano, you haven’t even granted her a surname yet? When did you brand her, last night?” He says with a chuckle.
“The night before last, actually,” I reply.
He continues to laugh until he sees how I’m dead serious.
Tomo shifts his body in front of me to speak on my behalf.
“She has quite the sense of humor Chinatsu. But in reality, she does have a surname. It’s Kobayashi; Chinatsu Kobayashi.” He says as he looks endearingly into my eyes.
Not this again. He’s persistent.
“Well then, Chinatsu Kobayashi, I will have an escort come over tomorrow afternoon to borrow you indefinitely –“
“Indefinitely? As in you do not know when you’ll return me back to General Romano?”
“I know when, when you cure rid every single one of the infected on my ranch of this enigma disease, the Black Death.”
“But sir, I’m the Romano family’s designated vet at the moment. There wouldn’t be anyone to take my place while I’m away.”
“We’ll manage without you for as long as necessary.” The General interrupts, “This is only temporary, and I’m certain you’ll figure out a solution within a reasonable amount of time. Till then, there is a new, eager vet who might be a good addition to the manor. Her name is Fujita, have you two had the pleasure of meeting?”
My blood begins to boil. First I was replaced by her as Panacea’s apprentice, now I’m being replaced by her here too? What’s wrong with me? I don’t even want to be here, so why am I getting worked up about her giving me extra time away from this place?
“Yes, we have,” I say through a clenched jaw.
“Then I’m sure you’ve seen that she is fully capable of looking after us while you’re away. Besides, it isn’t like any of us are ill at the moment.”
Of course not, just possessed.
“As you wish, General,” I say with a bow of the head.
Romano stands up at the table and walks around to Pol’s side. They bow to each other, and Romano accompanies him outside to discuss further details of their arrangement. Their wives follow behind them.
“I’d say this has been a fruitful morning, wouldn’t you agree?” Tomo says casually while sipping juiced oranges himself.
“Are you kidding me?!”
“What’s the matter now?”
“I haven’t even been a vet at this manor for a full 48 hours! I was only kind of getting used to this new environment, and now Romano is going to throw me into the hands of a mammalian who has been his enemy in the past, onto a ranch that I’ve never been to before in my life?! I thought he wanted me to cure his murderous, little shoat! This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Aiguo was just a test. I don’t believe he actually wants to take away his son’s abilities. I think he just wants to keep them secret until he understands how he can control them, and maybe, use them to his advantage.”
“I should have ended that shoat’s life when I had the chance in the med barn.”
“You think you would have survived?”
I’m honestly not so sure.
“How am I supposed to survive Pol? I thought one General was bad enough, now I’m under the microscope of two tyrant mammalians. When do I leave?”
“What am I supposed to do until then if I’m not curing that shoat?”
“Explore the manor more, so you’ll have something to look forward to when your business at General Pol’s is finished. This is your home from now on.”