Chapter 5 Hunted and Hunters
He looked at the young woman in front of him. She was dressed exquisitely, in delicately layered robes of silk. Her outer jacket was of a fine figured brocade, cranes and foxes chasing each other in a brilliant red pattern. She was very beautiful, with long hair cascading like a ebony stream until it reached the floor.
“Nyoko-hime, you have graced me with your unexpected presence,” he said.
He adjusted his posture on the low dias he knelt on. He too was dressed immaculately, in blue silk robes. In front of him, he had rested his sword as symbol of his rank and power. Several retainers sat near him, in subservient positions, to reinforce his station, and to make it clear who was the power in this room.
“Neko-sama,” she said, bowing her head perfectly. “You are too kind to allow this poor outcast a place to rest.”
“The accommodations are acceptable to you? “ he questioned.
“More than satisfactory,” she replied.
“The maids I have assigned you?”
“Most excellent, Dono. They put my feeble skills in courtesy to shame.”
“I am pleased that their humble skill has been of some small service to you, Kitsune-hime. I was truly saddened when I heard of your....unfortunate turn of events.”
The fox woman hid her face behind her fan.
“Forgive me for mentioning it.” He looked out to the garden beyond.
“No, it is appropriate. Let me thank you for helping me, even though you and my father have so often been at odds.” She reached into her sleeve, swallowed hard, and pulled out a small box. Taking a deep breath, her eyes grew distant and unfocused. “Yashuo, for you,” she whispered. Then her look hardened.
“I have a gift for you, Neko-sama. You might find it very interesting. It is a key,” she said, placing the box on the mat before him.
He raised an eyebrow, trying to still the racing of his heart, not about to let his excitement step above his honor.“Are you really sure?” he said. “Truly sure?”
She met his look. There was nothing coy or shy or soft in it. Her eyes grew red, and her face predatory. “Yes.” She closed her fan. “Let the sky fall.”
Excerpt from Tale of the Last Feast
I have tracked his progress for years. My partner and I know this killer as an old...not friend. Acquantance. Prey.
We have contacts in the most scattered of places. Sukeo, my partner, recieved the call the day after the initial investigation. It would be nice if sometimes they would call us before the forensics people got there, but that’ll never happen. We’re not even supposed to exist, so I won’t hold my breath for first dibs.
Leaving Sukeo to keep an eye on our primary assignment this quiet Sunday, I walked into the morgue, and our friend led me to her body. I looked at her and sighed.
It’s been a long pursuit. Everybody in my clan knows the story. At first, none of us realized he had survived. No one had ever heard of anyone lasting so long after being separated that way. Perhaps it was the unfairness of what was done to him that led the Kami to show him the way, but in the trail of death that followed in his wake, I wonder who it was who took an interest - Emna-o, perhaps? After all the tears had been shed, and the fighting was over, and the rebuilding started, we forgot about him. But as time passed, and the world changed, and we moved more and more into walking amid the humans, I heard the whispers. As I walked through the seedier streets of Edo, of Nagasaki, of Osaka, and later, the whispers started in the tea houses and other places where women went with men for profit. Later, walking down the streets of Seattle and San Francisco, I noticed the blurring undertones of horror going beyond the walls of the Asian community. A Bakemono, the whispers said, a bakemono haunted the best and the worst of tea houses, a ghost, a goblin, a vampire, a devourer of women who vanished to be found dried, empty husks later.
No one knew how they died. Their bodies were unused, and mostly unmarked. They still had their blood. The official investigations went no where, since no one really cared, nor could the human eye scent out the connection, No one but someone who understands Shinkiri and the ways of dark power could have even gathered a glimpse of a connection. Only occasionally recorded by the medical examiner, but a fact I found true after I had begun to track the deaths, I found that each and every one of the women was found with a fresh, soft willow leaf on their person. Each one found with their faces frozen in an O. Each one with two claw punctures on the jaw.
It was a while before I realized who was doing it. Word swept through the underworld of a soul eater, one who drank the souls of beautiful, troubled women. But willow leaves were the favorite way Kitsune made money out of nothing. And after I started on the chase, and found the bodies where they lay tossed on the grounds like some forgotten rag, I was shocked how they looked like her. All could have been her sister. I did not know her well, but she was my cousin. I had seen her before the dark day when everything fell apart. Each woman had a tragedy that marked them out and led them to their lives, secret griefs that were revealed in their passing, so much like hers.
This case, I suspect, is no different. I reach in my pocket and take out the small ivory case and look at the portrait. I look at the woman on the slap in front of me. And even though she is not Asian, even though she has no trace of magic, it is clear she could have been sisters to the woman whose image I hold.
“What did you see, Onna? “ I ask. Having been left alone, I release a smidgeon of Shinkiro, wrap it around her body. Suddenly, like a pale holograph I see what she saw last. Standing before me, coming towards me as if I were the woman, I see his image as she saw it last. Yashuo, hungry as ever, stands before me, intense, looking at her with eyes of desire and want and isolation. I hear him sing to her soul, words of want and love, and suddenly, the image evaporates, the vision turn to blackness, then blow away.
How many women has it been now? What will he do, being so close to Saicho?
The Kami waved his hand. There was a brief pulse of pure white light. Something dark shuddered, cried out, and disintegrated in a puff of blue smoke.
“Pesky Kara Kasa,” the Kami muttered. “Why umbrellas keep turning into youkai, I have no idea. I bet she hadn’t even noticed.” He straightened his hat back on his head, and kneeled down, gently tapping the floor with his hammer. “A blessing on this place,” he said, “And may all sleep soundly, with dreams of peace and plenty until the morning.”
He straightened back up, readjusted his clothes, a bright red shirt and yellow vest, and ran a hand over his beard. “Well, that should do it,” he said, turning to his companion. “She should be perfectly safe while we are here, and into the morning, when Sukeo and Masako get back on watch.”
Nyoko, dressed also in red, looked up at him, more than nervous. “You sure she won’t wake up?”
“I am positive.” said Daikokuten. “There are no dark threads near her right now, and all influence of Shinkiro are in abeyance. She is just as protected as you are at Benzaiten’s side.”
“You sure we can’t take her back to my Lady?” she asked.
The Kami of good fortune sighed. “No, I’m afraid not. Both Benzaiten and Inari have wrapped too many threads of light around her. She has a destiny. Your destiny was through when you gave the box to the Neko; that’s why Benzaiten was able to keep you with her. But Sasayuri here has yet to fulfill hers. But we will watch over her. She will be safe until it’s all over.”
“Safe,” whispered Nyoko. “What is safe?”
“She has three Kami as godparents. How much safer do you need her to be? Now come on. We need to do this thing.”
Daikokuten took her by the hand and pulled her into the apartment.
Sachio, dressed in a dark blue yukata, ready for bed, instead sat at his desk, with notebook and purple pen. Once long ago, when someone explained what purple prose meant, he grew rather amused at the idea, and decided from that time on to write all of his first drafts in purple. Therefore, all of his prose could honestly be called purple. But now it was mostly a matter of habit.
His study was spare, with a desk, a bookcase, and a comfortable chair. The room, this night, was unlit except for the lamp lighting his work. He felt uneasy, though, and kept looking up from his work and peering into the shadows.
Once long ago, he wrote, there was a village where the sons of three families had gotten out of control. In the hot days after rice planting when the rain came down day after day, the young men had begun to drink heavily and treatt the women at the local inn and at the only teahouse in the village in such a way that they refused to wait on them any more. In fact, they threatened to all run off to Edo, where they could get better wages for the work they did. This the inn owner and the teashop proprietor could not have. They sat a servant at their doors, and when the rowdy young men were seen walking in the direction of either establishment, the owners had taken to barring the door and having a guard with a club by the door so they wouldn’t have to serve them.
This didn’t suit the young men well at all. After two days of refused service, one of them remembered an abandoned shack used by the local hunters in the winter. Stopping only long enough to get a barrel of sake, they headed out for the shack. They got to the shack shortly before sundown. It was dark, ramshackle, but all four walls seemed to be holding up and the roof didn’t seem to need patching. As the walked through the door, even before they could pull off their sandals, they discovered there was a fox in the room. One of the young men got a wicked smile on his face, and he threw his straw raincloak over the fox, and he and his fellows cornered it, torturing it with their long knives.
“Oi, Fox. Transform for us and serve us!” the cloak owner demanded. “If you don’t, we’ll cut your throat and eat your flesh now.”
His friends laughed. None of them expected they had a magic fox, but a magic fox they had found. Suddenly, the fox transformed into a beautiful maiden with brilliant black hair and shining eyes. She pulled the cloak close around her, trying to hide the nakedness of her beautiful slim body.
“Ah, my friends, we have a real treasure here. A foxy tennyo, just for our pleasure tonight. Pour us sake, Onna,” he said, holding his throat to her neck. “And after that, we will have some real fun.”
He put down his pen for a moment, and looked thoughtful. “I will never understand how you got caught that way, Nyoko,” he said to the darkness. “How someone as powerful as you could have been overcome so easily. Were you looking for death?”
Suddenly, there was a blast of spiritual energy that made the very fabric of Shinkiro ring. He froze. It pulsed one more time, softer, gentler. It was a type of energy he hadn’t felt in a long, long, time.“That feels like Daikokuten. A Japanese Kami? Here in Boise?” he said. Shaking his head, he looked at the notebook.
“Ah Nyoko. I remember breaking into that hut just before they hurt you. And you took one glance at me, gave me a quick hug, transformed into a fox and fled. I always wondered why you were there, why you wouldn’t stay. But I got those bastards for you. Set fire to all three of their houses. Nothing they didn’t deserve. I heard the village elders kicked them out of the community after that one.”
He sighed, put down his pen, and turned off the light. “It’ll wait until morning,” he said as he left the room.