A Magical Imperative
Chapter 1: Called
DESPITE being a creature out of myth, Aurelie Dubois utterly disregarded nonsense like magic, the supernatural, and gods. No, that was misleading. Her faith in science and science alone was because she was a creature of myth.
The rickety wooden house where she had grown up had been ruled by stories, all of them false.
Humans may look like us, but they have snakes in their hair! That’s why it grows long.
Humans steal Unseen children. They leash us like dogs and force us to hunt for mushrooms!
Human breath is poisonous to Unseen. If they breathe on you, you will die in three days!
Aurelie had been terrified, and on the rare occasion that a human hiker wandered too close to the family homestead, she had immediately climbed a tree and call the branches close. (As a child, she had believed in magic, but she now realized none of them had been looking for a small child twenty feet up a beech).
When her mother had first declared that they were going to live among humans, Aurelie had vomited from sheer stress. Her mother had explained over and over that while there was a grain of truth to the stories, their essence had been warped and twisted. Yes, human hair grew strangely long, but no, there were no snakes in it. Unseen might very well have a better sense of smell than humans, but you couldn’t see how sensitive a nose was by looking at it. And the epidemic caused by the last human to wander into Unseen territory had indeed caused most of the clan to die, but the man had died of the same illness. Their breath wasn’t poison.
And yet, Aurelie’s mother had never dared expose her species and history to any human, not even to Aurelie’s stepfather. They had claimed to have been part of a wilderness cult (which was perhaps the truth), and even after they had gotten social security numbers, Aurelie’s mother refused physical exams for herself and her daughters.
As a teenager, Aurelie finally had the dubious pleasure of attending a public school, and she soon learned that she didn’t even need to put effort into misdirection and lying—people made up stories to explain away anything that was odd.
Her short hair? A life choice to indicate her sexual orientation. (This hadn’t bothered Aurelie at all, for she felt the same attraction for humans, regardless of gender, that she’d feel for a chimpanzee… None at all). The contradiction of her nearly black eyes and her white-blonde hair? Contacts, bleach, or both. Her impossibly waspish waist, due to the fact she had two less ribs than homo sapiens? A corset or plastic surgery. (Yes, in recent decades, some human women actually got rid of ribs in order to resemble a doll they idolized. Now there was a phenomenon that Aurelie had no desire to study further).
By the time Aurelie entered college, she understood how easy it was to be tricked, and she decided that she could no longer tolerate being fooled herself. At first, she had hoped to pursue her answers in biology, but when she realized the labs—with their blood tests, cell scrapings, and DNA sequencing—were impossible for her, she had turned to history. In fact, ironically, fairy tales. Countless hours in windowless library rooms (to keep sunlight off the delicate documents), her hands in white cotton gloves as she turned brittle pages, seeking truths buried in the folly.
And the truth was, human societies were often selfish. Just as Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother was unwilling to spare food for unwanted children, humans were unwilling to set aside land for unwanted animals. Oh, sure, in recent decades, most governments respected endangered species, but they still put profit above sustainability. If Aurelie petitioned the US government to set aside land for Unseen, that would last until coal was discovered in the mountains (at best) or they would all wind up in a lab so that humans could discover their secret to long life (at worst).
Admittedly, Aurelie would have liked to understand that better herself. She had plenty of questions about the Unseen, for as a species they had never been properly documented, tested, or studied. But she could live with the questions if the uncertainty allowed her to travel the world unmolested.
Even now, Aurelie stood brazenly in the early-autumn sunshine before an ancient Buddhist monument, a five-story pagoda. She was in Nara, Japan, the opposite side of the world from where she’d been born. The whole city exuded culture, refinement, and innocence (that too was the opposite of her birthplace).
Some Japanese did look at her a little long, but she was willing to cut them slack on account of her height (almost six feet), her hair (which verged on incandescent), and the fact it was the middle of a pandemic. She hadn’t seen another foreigner since escaping quarantine (at least, not an obvious one). Despite the stares, not even the immigration inspectors had suspected her true nature. This was aided, of course, by the US passport in her pocket and the Japanese visa glued inside it—how could two governments have missed the very obvious fact that she wasn’t human?
Even better than the lack of suspicion though, whatever speculation the Japanese did, they did it quietly. Aurelie was loving the polite reserve, the intentionality, and the order that permeated everything from customs lines to restrooms to the strangely cute warning signs about the Nara deer.
Oh, the deer! Delicate beasts that only reached Aurelie’s waist, with sandy brown fur and chocolate eyes, even Aurelie could almost believe they were descended from a mythical creature that had carried a god to this place.
Well, at least until the deer senbei came out! The ripping of a packet full of their favorite rice crackers drew Aurelie’s gaze—and a mob of deer—to a short Japanese woman wearing a pink mask and a floppy white hat. The senbei sharer (victim?) was already being nipped at by two extra pushy deer.
“Oh, oh,” she exclaimed and tried to back away—but the deer immediately followed, for she was still holding the senbei. Aurelie wasn’t much for strangers, but she knew animals, and the woman looked pitiful. She pushed her way to the woman’s side and stood her ground. The deer hesitated, vaguely confused by her intrusion. Aurelie bowed to them, as she had seen other visitors do, and was embarrassingly delighted by the begrudging head dips the deer offered in return. The Japanese woman bowed as well and gave half her crackers to Aurelie. Together they managed to distribute the senbei without further mauling, and laughter burbled up from a place Aurelie had forgotten.
She bowed to the woman when they finished, intending on taking her leave, but the woman asked, “What country?”
“Ah, sorry?” said Aurelie.
“You. Are. What country?”
“Oh—oh, the US. Um, Amerika-jin.”
The woman switched to Japanese. “Ah, ah, American, are you? How nice, how nice. You like Japan?”
“Oh, yes,” said Aurelie, “it’s beautiful.”
“Beautiful, yes, Nara is so beautiful. You know about the pagoda?”
“Um—no, not really…”
The friendly woman started an enthusiastic lecture, some of which Aurelie missed, but she managed to gather that the five-story pagoda was only in its sixth century. It really ought to have been in its thirteenth if the original hadn’t been destroyed in a war.
Aurelie started to comment that war or no war, it seemed unlikely a wood structure would last that long, but she realized in the nick of time that this was a humble brag, so she clasped her hands in awe, and said, “Amazing.”
And she meant it. From the elegant sweep of the eaves, so crisp against the blue sky, to the dark wood that had weathered centuries and the pristine white plaster, the pagoda felt special. And it was only one of dozens of centuries-old buildings, all feats of architecture, even if they had been built today. Despite the pandemic, there were several dozen visitors milling around, admiring the beauty. There was something deeply moving about the whole tableau.
Even though she didn’t believe in magic or the supernatural or gods, this whole place felt extraordinary.
The air almost crackled around her. Tension was building inside.
And, strangest of all, a scent of cardamom and cinnamon was seeping through her mask.
THE washer played its jingle, and Kazuki paused the film just as a man’s black-and-white face filled the MacBook screen, the whites visible around his eyes and sweat beaded on his nose and upper lip.
As he walked to his combo washer-dryer, Kazuki wondered if the actor really had been sweating or if he had been spritzed for effect. Probably spritzed—how else could he evince the pain of forced suicide?
A few of the damp clothes tumbled into Kazuki’s blue basket; he reached into the machine for the rest.
Those clan elders in the film were really something else. Judging a man as worthless because he couldn’t follow their tradition. Kazuki knew that humiliation personally.
He slammed the washer-dryer and immediately winced.
It wasn’t the machine’s fault that Kazuki, contrary to early expectations, had become a supporting character. No, worse: an extra. Unnamed, even in the credits.
He walked to his balcony and forced himself to open the door gently.
The warm autumn sunshine bathed his face, and the scent of roses and autumn leaves overwhelmed him, driving all thoughts from his mind. Setting down his basket, he grasped the cool aluminum railing and leaned forward, trying to breathe the scent more deeply.
Come to the park, something whispered to him. Kazuki tightened his hands on the railing, fighting the alarming impulse to jump off his balcony and run there. Not that he’d be doing any running if he did jump; Kazuki’s apartment was on the third and highest floor of his building.
The scent faded—and surely Kazuki had imagined it in the first place. Roses and autumn leaves? Well, maybe autumn leaves, but there were no roses in October.
Still, he really wanted to go to Nara Park. Kind of random, but his only plan had been rewatching the old samurai film. He might as well go to the park instead; he loved the primeval forest behind the Kasuga-Taisha. And it was a nice warm day; the park might be crowded, but it was perfect hiking weather.
Resolution made, he almost went to leave immediately, but his eyes caught on his laundry. He forced himself to hang it, but his fingers jerked and snapped impatiently, as if they had minds of their own.
When he finished the laundry, Kazuki grabbed a bentō at his neighborhood Lawson and took a bus to just north of the national museum. But instead of heading east as he’d intended, where the Kasuga-Taisha was nestled amongst the colossal trees, he turned west toward the five-story pagoda.
He was sure it would be glutted with tourists, but he—actually, he had no idea why he was going there.
And then he saw her.
A foreign Unseen.
THE tall pine to her right seemed to blur before her eyes, and Aurelie blinked rapidly. The sweet spice must be drifting up from the restaurants on Sanjo-Dori. Aurelie remembered seeing a curry place—or maybe someone was selling spiced nuts.
That scent! It was making her feel so strange! A little dizzy. Almost intoxicated.
Her blood sugar must be low—it was probably near lunch time. She had bought a couple onigiri so that she could picnic in the park. She’d just find a bench to sit on—she saw some past the pagoda, but two families were near them.
Aurelie’s heart tightened, as it always did, when she saw children—without a male Unseen, it was a physical impossibility for her. Her sister had tried with human males, “just in case,” but in the end, they really were too genetically distinct to have offspring together (more so even than donkeys and horses, who could at least bear infertile mules).
Aurelie yearned for a family, for a partner and child, even as she cringed from the idea. The life her mother had escaped still gave her nightmares sometimes; she’d never tolerate a binding.
Aurelie avoided children and lovers, and all that she would (could?) never have. She strode blindly away from the pagoda and the family, seeking a lonelier bench.
Not lonelier, just alone. Safe.
KAZUKI froze forty feet away from the foreigner. It was too far away to see details, but he knew. He was utterly positive that she was Unseen.
Even though there weren’t Unseen anywhere in the world but Japan. According to lore, the last of the Unseen had been driven to Japan by their enemies, and the fate of their family was the fate of the species.
Nevertheless, this female was an Unseen, and not one he had met. And Obā-chama had gone to great lengths to introduce Kazuki to every potential mate in the country.
Shortly after puberty finished, most Unseen were called and bound to their mate. Call it hormones or fate, somehow sexually mature Unseen knew exactly who they wanted to be with. They were drawn to each other, and then bound by sex. After, they had an almost telepathic connection.
But not Kazuki. He wasn’t the only one—there were four or so others in the clan who had never been called—but it was still considered odd.
And it eliminated him from positions of leadership.
If this woman was a member of his clan, Obā-chama would have introduced them. Unless... What if she’s already bound?
Her scent—impossibly, the roses and autumn leaves from earlier—reached him, and Kazuki practically swayed with desire. The idea that she might be off-limits, bound to one of his cousins, made him so furiously jealous that he decided it simply couldn’t be.
And—there’s no way Obā-chama would allow that hair. It was about the same length as Kazuki’s own—the longest length that Unseen hair grew—but instead of black, it was a blonde so pale that it seemed to glow. Unseen features tended to be sharp and narrow; combined with that hair, she would look too Caucasian. Kazuki’s hair was naturally dark, but he knew several of the family dyed theirs so that they blended in better with the human Japanese around them.
The woman adjusted her mask, and her bell-like sleeve fell back to reveal long, slim fingers and a delicate wrist.
Even for an Unseen, she was almost unbearably elegant. She wore loose, long trousers, concealing legs that would unsettle humans with their slimness, but a wide belt accented her tiny waist. Kazuki wouldn’t be surprised if he could span her midriff with his hands.
She pressed her hand to her forehead as he watched, then cast an annoyed glance behind her.
He followed her gaze to Sanjo-dori, the touristy street that led from the major train station to Nara Park, but he couldn’t tell what was irritating her.
She suddenly started striding away, deeper into the park.
Kazuki hurried after her, but he suddenly thought even if she was foreign, even if she was unbound, why should it be any different with her than it had been with the women of his clan?
Kazuki pretended to be easygoing, but he hated the pity, the disappointment, the rejection. As much as he wanted to talk to her, to find out where she was from, and how this was even happening, he feared her answers. So he stayed three meters back, not ready for the fantasy he was building to crumble down.
AS Aurelie went further into the park, the spicy, sweet, earthy aroma seemed to grow stronger. Guided by instinct rather than the cutesy map that was crumpled in her right hand, she came to a wide pond with a picturesque gazebo in the middle. It was empty.
She walked—or maybe floated, for all she could tell—over the blonde wood bridge and settled on the bench that wrapped around the outside of the gazebo.
After a moment, she shoved her mask and the worse-for-wear map into her purse and pulled out one of the onigiri. She was befuddled by its plastic wrapping.
An arm reached past her, and the scent of cardamom overpowered her.
Aurelie met the eyes of the Japanese speaker—they were as dark as her own, and Aurelie had no defense against them.
THE foreigner didn’t look back once as Kazuki followed her, nor did she pause, until she sat on a bench in Ukimidō, a small pavilion built over a pond.
He felt his face grow hot—he was probably blushing. There was no one but the two of them in sight: it was time for him to speak to her.
Despite his resolution, he walked as silently as possible on the thin wooden bridge to the pavilion and hung back as she settled on a bench.
She pulled a conbini onigiri from her purse and fumbled at its plastic wrapping.
Kazuki smirked; there was no way she was from Japan if she couldn’t figure out how to open the onigiri.
He suddenly realized how big this was. She was a foreigner. Discovering the first foreign Unseen—it was like a movie! No, there was too much material for that; their meeting was rich enough to support a twenty-episode drama.
He felt like a leading man again for the first time in years. So he tugged his mask down—Covid-19 didn’t appear to pose the same risk to Unseen that it did to humans, and even if it did... He wanted her to see his face.
He sat next to her on the bench and reached forward to show her the small tab at the top which would tear the onigiri wrapper in half.
But their eyes met, and he forgot how to speak.
They were dark pools, like all Unseen, and yet they were like nothing he’d ever encountered.
They scorched him, and the flush on his cheeks spread to his whole body.
She stared at him. He thought he asked her name, but her only response was to grab the front of his t-shirt—the still wrapped onigiri fell to the pavilion’s floor—and she pressed her lips against his.
The rose and leaf musk overwhelmed him in the best way, sweet with just a hint of spice. His hands, seemingly of their own volition, settled around her waist. Her lips left his to make a burning path to his ear.
Kazuki gasped, “I don’t think we should do this here.”
He didn’t let himself think too hard about what this was.
Maybe she didn’t speak Japanese because she didn’t seem to even register his words.
He stood up, and she followed him. He tried to disengage—he balked at the idea of leaving the onigiri on the pavilion floor—but her hands seemed to be everywhere.
That infamous woodcut, where a woman is making love with a squid, popped into his head. Only she was the squid.
Finally, he pressed her hard against one of the wooden pillars and kissed her so fiercely that their breaths became one.
She stayed there just long enough for him to collect their bags—and the rogue onigiri—and then she latched onto him again.
He no longer objected though.
Instead, he put a mask on both of them—he gave her a spare from his pocket, since he wasn’t sure where hers was. Then he led her to the bus. The whole park seemed to blur around him, while she gained a sharpness, a vividness that was intoxicating.
He was vaguely surprised when he realized they were both seated on the bus that would bring them to his apartment—he didn’t even remember swiping his pass.
In this moment of lucidity, he looked directly into her eyes and felt alarmed.
If he was having trouble keeping track of the rest of the world, she was even worse. If I sleep with her like this, won’t I be just like one of those human scumbags who take advantage of drunk girls?
But that thought fled as fast as it came; the only conviction he was able to hold onto was that they had to remain fully clothed on this bus, not kissing. He was grateful for the masks—they helped him remember that, even though the reason for waiting escaped him.
He pulled the masks off as soon as they exited the bus.
And then they were careening wildly on the rickety metal stairs that wrapped along the side of his building. He broke free from her to run—she followed, no worries about that—and he managed to key in his door code before she caught him. They practically tumbled over the threshold, and Kazuki kicked the door shut behind him. He heard it chime as it locked automatically, though if it had remained open to the world, he wouldn’t have been able to bring himself to care.
While he focused on removing their shoes, she stripped off their shirts. Their pants, socks, and underthings all found their way to the floor before the two of them found their way to Kazuki’s bed.
By the time they slammed into his soft futon, he couldn’t have said where he ended and she began.
We’re already binding to each other.
Kazuki stopped trying to think at all.
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