Chapter 6 Loss and Found
“Why, Yashuo?” she asked. “You knew he was under my father’s protection.”
The young kitsune lay on the ground, wounded in ways that only magical creatures could be injured. His breathing was labored, his clothing, the bright silk of his hakama and hitoe was stained with dirt and mud and ripped. His head rested in her lap, half transformed between fox and human, shifting as the waves of Shinkiro rolled over it, dark magic fighting light as he sought to heal and escape a death by exorcist’s magic. One moment, his ears were fully human, another they slowly migrated and transformed into those of a black fox. His face lengthened and shortened from fox snout to human face and back again, the nasty gash he had on his forehead growing smaller with each tranformation. He groaned.
“For three weeks the man was missing. His family was frantic. For three weeks, they prayed and fasted and cried and called on the kami and my father and brought in priests. And what did we discover? You and your group of pranksters had him hidden in the storehouse crawl space there on his own property.”
Her beautiful face was dark with anger, and her eyes flashed towards red. “And now look at you, Yashuo! You’re hurt so bad you can’t walk. Dai and Akaitaro are dead, the Mountain sages are running around telling everybody about the evil Kitsune who can’t be trusted to honor their oaths, scaring all the villagers near and far, and Benzaiten-sama herself jumped into it to flush you out with that crazy sage. You are lucky she is merciful. If someone else had answered their petition, say Bishamonten-sama, Kami of war, you all would be dead.”
“Stop, Nyoko,” he pleaded. His eyes searched her face, looking for something, something besides her anger.
She sighed, glancing down on him with a sad longing, then lifted her face to stare into the distance. “My father has named all of you who survived outlaws, and stripped you from the clan. This has been clearly and publically announced. He has made it clear that if any Kitsune comes near the area not bearing his mon, that Kitsune is free to be attacked. If he saw me here with you now, he would have your head on a pike, and I have no idea about what he would do to me.”
Yashuo lifted a hand, burned and scarred, the skin transformed at places into black fox flesh, and lightly touched her face. Her eyes glistened with tears, and a small trickle had worked its way down her cheek. He touched the tears, lifted his hand and looked at the moisture on his fingertips.
“He was just a stupid merchant. All our dreams...” she said.
“It was Terume’s fault. She organized it. She heard him talking about wanting a woman because his wife was gone,” he said. “She was the first to die.”
“So you and her and your friends enchanted him, and pulled him in the crawl space so to teach him a lesson. You knew he was my family’s silk merchant, even if the others didn’t..” She covered her face with both of her hands. “He is a stupid, vain man.”
“Koibito, I am sorry.” Yashuo tried to sit up, but fell back down.
“They are sending me away,” she said. “Father is marrying me to Akaisawa Yoshikata. I have lost...everything I hoped for.”
“No...” he whispered.
“Everything but your life. Live, Yashuo. I have friends near Odawara. They will take you in if I ask. As soon as you’re well enough, you need to leave. Go there. Don’t do anything foolish. I don’t know how long I can keep this place safe.”
She reached down, caressed his cheek. “I’ll be back when I can. Be careful. Don’t leave me with nothing.”
Gently, she removed his head from her lap, stood up, and walked into the night.
Excerpted from The Last Feast
Lillian’s apartment was small, but airy and pleasant. She had decorated the place in a way that was calming and comfortable, neither too spare nor cluttered. The front room was done in all light blues, with a sofa and a chair and a small corner of plants. Instead of a television, she had a small curio shelf on one side. Opposite it, a painting of foxes watching distant hunters hung on one wall.
Nyoko walked up to the painting, her long skirts trailing behind her on the rich blue carpeting, red and rose against the blue. “She seems to have an attraction to foxes. Are you sure she doesn’t know?” Nyoko asked.
“I’m positive.” Daikokuten tugged on his beard as he looked around the room, and saw a small row of ceramic foxes on a shelf. “Perhaps it’s the surname we gave her this time. It does mean fox, after all.”
“Every surname you ever gave her meant fox,” Nyoko commented.
“True,” said the Kami.
They moved quietly through the house, gliding in the way those who access the ways of the Kami can, above the mundane and far above the threads of Shinkiro, past the neat, bright kitchen and the dining area, into a small hallway. On one side was a small workroom, filled with crafts and books and papers. On the other side, was Lillian’s bedroom. The door was closed.
“Ready?” Daikokuten asked, ready to put his hand on the nob.
“She won’t wake up until after we’re through?” Nyoko asked. She was twisting a corner of her obi’s tail, her face tense.
The Kami rubbed his hat against his scalp, and gave a little reassuring smile. “Of course not. Reach out and feel the charm. See for yourself. I know you can do that. I didn’t try to hide it.”
Nyoko closed her eyes, breathed deeply, then relaxing, nodded.
He crossed his arms. “I know you’re uncomfortable. But this is what you chose to do for her, remember that.” The Kami looked at his companion, not unkindly, but with a certain determination.
“Yes, I remember. I was so afraid of what he was going to do to her. But that was so long ago. Planning is one thing. Now the reality is here.” She took a deep breath, running long, graceful fingers along the door frame.“And I know there is so much that could go wrong.”
“It won’t, though. You are in the company of the Kami of good fortune. Where I walk and choose, there are not bad surprises. But we need you to do your part,” he said, touching the door nob with a finger. It clicked on its own, and opened widely. “You began this. You set the binding magic. It is you who must begin the conclusion.”
She nodded, straightened up into her full height, and walked into the room.
The room radiated peace. It struck the Kitsune like a wave as she walked through the door and entered. There was nothing special looking about the room. That was not the source of the peace. The room was simply furnished with a dresser and a bed, but in one corner, there was a small table with dolls and plushies. Near the table, a nightlight burned softly, casting a faint yellow glow behind the dolls. The peace didn’t come from them, either, Nyoko realized as she looked at them. A stray thought touched her, though, thinking of the dolls the woman should have had, and the wistful longing that things would have worked out differently swept over her. Her heart longed for the peace the room inspired. She needed to find its source. Squaring her shoulders, she turned around, to look at the sleeping woman laying in the bed, resting quietly beneath a light blue coverlet. The peace that radiated off of her was clear, and she longed for that feeling to permeate her. Perhaps, once this was all over, it would come to her again.
She stared at the woman for several minutes, looking at the play of energy that wrapped around her, the fine cut of her cheeks, the way her hair tumbled out over the pillow. “She...she’s beautiful,” Nyoko whispered.
“Reminds me of you once upon a time,” said Daikokuten.
“Was I ever that innocent?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” said the Kami. “And perhaps, where it matters most, you still are.”
She shook her head. “So much darkness. I never could see what it is you see, why you and Benzaiten chose to rescue me.”
He smiled. “There is a difference between how a Kami and how a Kitsune sees things, you know. At least for some of us.” He lay his hand on the young woman’s arm. The imprint glowed after he lifted his hand, the light slowly moving from her head to engulf the entire bed where she lay lying.
Something about her was changed as the light faded, something untamed and wild surfaced, yet still the warmth of the soul within was not disturbed.
“I have removed the barrier we cloak her in for the moment, Nyoko. It is your turn.”
The Kitsune woman pulled on her power, not the easy power of Shinkiro, the mirage that made seeming hide reality, but the light, which fed reality to make it more real. Doing this released her human form for a moment, and she shimmered, became pure energy, shedding her flesh, ghostlike, a less corporeal shape took her place. Reaching out a tendril of bright power, the tendril rested on the young woman’s forehead. Suddenly a shape, like a willow leaf took shape, at first looking like a tattoo, etched on her skin, then growing more solid, turning fresh and green like it was newly plucked.
Nyoko’s voice breathed like the wind, free from any fleshly throat, sighing each word.“I bound you once to hide you, Yurime, bound you to forgetfulness of who you were and what you could be. I bound you from the touch of magic or the use of darkness so none would follow you to do you harm. The long years hidden, now become minutes as the binding ends its course. The cord wrapped around your life begins to weaken and fray. This I say to you, and this is how it will come to pass. As the moon wanes, the binding threads will loosen. When the moon is half between full and new, the binding threads will break, the hiding will end and you will know. All shadows and hidden things will come to an end. Your true self will stand free.”
Suddenly, Nyoko’s glory faded as she let go of the white light of power. Lessened and diminished, she stood there, looking pale and frail, somehow smaller than when she entered the room. The leaf shape on Lillian’s head again glowed, and faded back under her skin.
“You have done well,” Daikokuten said, resting his hand on the sleeping woman, as he restored her to her previous condition. “Now, in a week, we will have an ending. And a new beginning.”
“For some, perhaps,” Nyoko said. She turned and left the room. She felt very old.
I sit here, almost naked beneath the just past full moon, and consider the strange twists and turns of my life.
This place is almost like a garden. I remember my mother’s garden. Sometimes, when I was a kit, I would shift form and chase the small life that ran through it: birds and mice and sometimes a frog or two.
Once I bit a frog. I still remember the bitter taste, nasty and stinging in my mouth.
Somehow, sitting here in the Idaho woods, waiting and watching the moon overhead, I feel like I have the frog in my mouth. I breathe deeply, following the flow of my breath in and out, expanding my consciousness, looking for the threads of light, trying to sort out which of the many roads I should take.
Someone, someone of strength and power is manipulating them. One by one, the threads glow, coalesce, braid into a chain of light. There are still a few ways to escape, but those escape paths turn from brilliant light into mist, and beyond that darkness. All the choices, all the chances for light lead to the city beyond this mountain. From there, I sense a great tangle, some paths grow black, some disappear, but some move on, bright, clean light until I can see them no more.
I hope can find my way through the knot. I will not walk the dark way on purpose. I am the Guardian. For her, the girl with the bright, o so sorrowful eyes, I will continue.
She pulls at my consciousness, asking to talk. I take her pouch out, roll the tama out into my hand, looking at it, glowing red and black and bright. Tama. Jewel. Bead. Soul.
The soft rustle of fabric touches my ear as she comes forth to sit beside me.
“You’re thinking of her again, aren’t you?” Tama says.
“Perhaps,” I whisper.
“You only met her twice. How does she rule you so well?” Her hand grazes my shoulder. I feel the nails of her fingers push gently into my skin.
“You would have had to been there to know,” I answer.
Her laugh is crystaline, edged with bitterness. Brittle. “But I was there, you know. Just not yet in this form. I still lived in – “
“We are near the end game, I think,” I said. “Does this make you happy?”
“How can I answer that?” she asks. “Part of me was jealous, angry. Part of me has lived with you so long, it’s hard to imagine life before. Will you disappear? Will I see you again?”
“I don’t know,” I say honestly. I cannot even begin to imagine life where I am not her guardian.
“Or will you seek her out?” Tama’s voice is bitter. In my mind’s eye, the only place I can see her, her black eyes flash. “All of this is her fault. If she hadn’t – “
“No.” I shift from seiza into crossed-legged position. I am tired, tonight. I have a long walk tomorrow.
“It is not her fault. I will not be able to seek her out. She walks a different path.”
“Forgive me,” she says after several minutes. “I am afraid.”
“I know, Tama. I know.”
“Don’t forget me,” she pleads. In my mind, I see her, tiny and longing and frightened.
“Never,” I say.
Soft lips that I shall never see brush across my cheeks. With a sigh, she returns to the gem, and I am once more alone.