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Shadow of the Fox, Page 2

Julie Kagawa

  Lady Satomi was a nightmare, a beautiful nightmare of silk, makeup and heady perfume. Nothing Suki did suited the woman. No matter how she scrubbed or cleaned, the laundry never met with Satomi’s satisfaction. The tea Suki brewed was too weak, too strong, too sweet, always too something. No amount of cleaning sufficed within Lady Satomi’s chambers—there was always a speck of dirt to be found, a tatami mat out of place, an origami creature in the wrong spot. And each failure brought a little smile from the lady and a shockingly powerful slap.

  No one cared, of course. The other maids looked away from her bruises, and the guards did not look at her at all. Suki did not dare complain; not only was Lady Satomi a great and powerful lady, she was the favored concubine of the emperor himself. To speak poorly of her would be insulting Taiyo no Genjiro, the great Son of Heaven, and would result in a flogging, public humiliation, or worse.

  The only thing that saved Suki from complete despair was the thought of running into Daisuke-sama again. He was a great noble, of course, far above her station, and would not care about the troubles of a lowly maid. But even catching a glimpse of him would be enough. She looked for him on the verandas and the paths to and from Lady Satomi’s chambers, but the beautiful noble was nowhere to be seen. Later, she learned through servant gossip that Taiyo Daisuke had left the Palace of the Sun not long after she arrived, heading off on one of his mysterious pilgrimages across the country. Perhaps, Suki thought, she would catch a glimpse of him when he returned. Perhaps she would hear her father’s flute again, and follow it until she found him on the verandas, his long white hair flowing behind him.

  A ringing slap drew her from her daydream, knocking her to the floor. “Oh dear. You are such a clumsy girl.” Lady Satomi stood over her, resplendent in her stunning silk robes. “Get up, Suki-chan. I have a task for you.”

  In her arms, the lady carried a coil of fine silken cord, bloodred in color. As Suki staggered to her feet, the rope was thrust into her arms. “You are such a feebleminded little thing, aren’t you? I despair of ever making a good maid out of you. But surely even you can take care of this one small task. Take this rope to the storehouse in the eastern gardens, the one past the lake. Surely you can do that much? And do stop crying, girl. What will people think of me, if my maid goes around weeping everywhere?”

  * * *

  Suki awoke to darkness with a throbbing in her skull. Her vision swam, and there was a weird coppery taste in the back of her throat. Overhead, thunder growled, and a sharp, ozone-scented wind blew into her face. The floor beneath her felt cold, and hard, stony edges were pressing uncomfortably into her stomach and cheek. Blinking, she tried pushing herself upright, but her arms would not respond. A moment later, she realized they were tied behind her back.

  Ice flooded her veins. She rolled to her side and attempted to stand, but her knees and ankles were bound as well—with the same rope she’d brought to the storehouse, she realized—and a rag was stuffed into her mouth, tied with a strip of cloth. With a muffled shriek, she thrashed wildly, writhing on the stones. Pain shot up her arms as she scraped along the ground, cutting her skin on rock edges and leaving bits of flesh behind, but the ropes held firm. Panting, exhausted, she slumped against the stones in defeat, then raised her head to gaze at her surroundings.

  She lay in the center of a courtyard, but not the pristine, elegant courtyard of the Sun Palace, with its swept white stones and trimmed bushes. This one was dark, rocky, ruined. The castle it was attached to was also dark and abandoned, looming over her like some great sullen beast, tattered banners flapping against the walls. Dead leaves and broken stones were scattered throughout the courtyard, and a samurai’s helmet, empty and rusting, lay a few feet from her. In the flickering light overhead, she could see the glint of eyes atop the walls—dozens of crows, watching her with their feathers spiked out against the wind.

  “Hello, Suki-chan,” said an eerily cheerful voice somewhere behind her. “Did you finally wake up?”

  Suki craned her head back. Lady Satomi stood a few paces away, her hair unbound and tossed by the wind, the sleeves of her red-and-black kimono fluttering like sails. Her eyes were hard, and her lips were curled in a tiny smile. Gasping, Suki flopped to a sitting position, wanting to cry for help, to ask what was happening. Was this some terrible punishment for disappointing her mistress, for not cleaning, fetching, or serving to her standards? She tried pleading with her eyes, hot tears leaking down her cheeks, but the woman only wrinkled her nose.

  “Such a lazy girl, and so fragile. I cannot abide your constant weeping.” Lady Satomi sniffed and moved a few feet away, not looking at her anymore. “Well, be happy, Suki-chan. For today your misery will come to an end. Though it will mean I must acquire yet another maid—what is it with all these serving girls running away like mice? Ungrateful wretches. No sense of responsibility at all.” She gave a long-suffering sigh, then looked at the clouds as lightning flickered and the wind picked up. “Where is that oni?” she muttered. “After all the trouble I went through for suitable compensation, I shall be very cross if he does not arrive before the storm.”

  Oni? Suki must’ve been hearing things. Oni were great and terrible demons that came from Jigoku, the realm of evil. There were countless stories of brave samurai slaying oni, sometimes armies of oni, but they were myths and legends. Oni were the creatures parents threatened wayward children with—don’t wander too close to the woods or an oni might get you. Listen to your elders, or an oni will reach up from beneath the floorboards and drag you down to Jigoku. Scary warnings for children and monstrous foes for legendary samurai, but not creatures that walked Ningen-kai, the mortal realm.

  There was a blinding flash, a boom of thunder, and a great horned creature appeared at the edge of the courtyard.

  Suki screamed. The gag muffled it, but she kept screaming until she was out of breath, gasping and choking into the cloth. She tried to flee and fell hard against the stones, striking her chin on the rock, but she barely felt the pain. Lady Satomi’s lips moved as she gave her a withering look, probably chastising her shrillness, but Suki’s mind couldn’t register anything but the huge demon, for it could only be a thing of nightmares, prowling forward into the torchlight. The monster that shouldn’t exist.

  It was massive, standing a good fifteen feet overhead, and just as terrible and fearsome as the legends described. Its skin was a dark crimson, the color of blood, and a wild black mane tumbled down its back and shoulders. Sharp yellow tusks curled from its jaw, and its eyes glowed like hot coals as the demon lumbered forward, making the ground shake. The tiny part of Suki’s brain not frozen in terror recalled that, in the stories, oni dressed in loincloths made of great striped beasts, but this demon wore plates of lacquered armor; the red shoulder pads, thigh guards and bracers of the samurai when they rode into battle. True to the myths, however, it carried a giant, iron-studded club—a tetsubo—in one hand, swinging it to a shoulder as if it weighed no more than an ink stick.

  “There you are, Yaburama.” Lady Satomi lifted her chin as the oni stopped in front of her. “I am aware that time in Jigoku doesn’t exist, and it is said that one day is akin to eight hundred years in the mortal realm, but punctuality is a wonderful attribute, something we can all aspire to.”

  The oni grunted, a deep, guttural sound emerging between his fangs. “Do not lecture me, human,” it rumbled, its terrible voice making the air shiver. “Calling on Jigoku takes time, especially if you wish to summon an army.”

  Behind the demon, spreading around him like a colony of ants, a horde of smaller monsters appeared. Standing only a few inches above the knee, their skin different shades of blue, red and green, they looked like tiny oni themselves, except for their huge flared ears and maniacal grins. They spotted Suki and began edging forward, cackling and licking their pointed teeth. She shrieked into the gag and tried wiggling away, but got no farther than a landed fish.

  The oni gr
owled a warning, deep as distant thunder, and the horde skittered back. “Is that mine?” the demon asked, glowing crimson gaze falling on Suki. “It looks tasty.” He took a step toward her, and she nearly fainted on the spot.

  “Patience, Yaburama.” Lady Satomi held out a hand, stopping him. He narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth slightly, but the woman didn’t seem disturbed. “You can have your payment in a moment,” she went on. “I just want to make certain you know why you were summoned. That you know what you must do.”

  “How could I not,” the oni replied, sounding impatient. “The Dragon is rising. The Harbinger of Change approaches. Another thousand years have passed in this realm of horrible light and sun, and the night of the wish is nearly upon us. There is only one reason a mortal would summon me into Ningen-kai at this time.” A look of amused contempt crossed his brutish face. “I will get you the scroll, human. Or a piece of it, now that it has been scattered to the four winds.” The burning red gaze slid back to Suki, and he smiled slowly, showing fangs. “I will do so, after I collect my payment.”

  “Good.” Lady Satomi stepped back, as the first drops of rain began to fall. “I am counting on you, Yaburama. I am sure there are others who are scrambling to find all the pieces of the Dragon scroll. You know what to do if you meet them. Well...” She opened a pink parasol and swung it over her head. “I leave it to you. Enjoy.”

  As sheets of water began creeping across the courtyard, Lady Satomi turned and began walking away. Suki screamed into the gag and threw herself after her mistress crying and begging, praying to the kami and anyone else who would hear. Please, she thought desperately. Please, I cannot die like this. Not like this.

  Lady Satomi paused and glanced back at her with a smile. “Oh, don’t be sad, little Suki-chan,” she said. “This is your proudest moment. You will be the catalyst to usher in a whole new era. This empire, the whole world, will change, because of your sacrifice today. See?” The lady tilted her head, observing her as if she were a whimpering puppy. “You’ve actually become useful. Surely that is enough for someone like you.”

  Behind Suki, the ground trembled, and a huge claw closed on her legs, curved talons sinking into her skin. She screamed and thrashed, yanking at the ropes, trying to writhe out of the demon’s grip, but there was no escape. Lady Satomi sniffed, turned and continued on, her parasol bobbing through the rain, as Suki was pulled toward the oni, the minor demons shrieking and dancing around her.

  Help me. Someone, please, help me! Daisuke-sama... Abruptly, her thoughts went to the noble, to his handsome face and gentle smile, though she knew he would not be coming. No one was coming, because no one cared about the death of a lowly servant girl. Father, Suki thought in numb despair, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you alone.

  Deep inside, anger flickered, momentarily snuffing the fear. It was terribly unfair, being killed by a demon before she could do anything. She was only a servant, but she had hoped to marry a good man, raise a family, leave something behind that mattered. I’m not ready, Suki thought in desperation. I’m not ready to go. Please, not yet.

  Clawed fingers closed around her neck, and she was lifted up to face the oni’s terrible, hungry smile. Its hot breath, smelling of smoke and rotten meat, blasted her face as the demon opened its jaws. Mercifully, the gods decided to intervene at that moment, and Suki finally fainted in terror, her consciousness leaving her body the moment before it was torn in half.

  The scent of blood misted into the air, and the demons howled in glee. From Suki’s mangled body, unseen by the horde and invisible to normal eyes, a small sphere of light rose slowly into the air. It hovered over the grisly scene, seeming to watch as the minor demons squabbled over scraps, Yaburama’s booming roar rising into the night as he swatted them away. For a moment, it seemed torn between flying into the clouds and remaining where it was. Drifting aimlessly higher, it paused at a flash of color that gleamed through the rain, a pink parasol heading toward the doors of the castle. The sphere’s blue-white glow flared into an angry red.

  Zipping from the sky, the orb of light flew soundlessly over the head of the oni, dropped lower to the ground and slipped through the door to the castle just before it creaked shut, leaving the oni, the demons and the torn, murdered body of a servant girl behind.


  The Fox in the Temple


  The shout echoed over the garden, booming and furious, making me wince. I’d been sitting quietly by the pond, tossing crumbs to the fat red-and-white fish that swarmed below the surface, when the familiar sound of my name bellowed in anger rang from the direction of the temple. Quickly, I ducked behind the large stone lantern at the edge of the water, just as Denga stalked around the opposite bank, his face like a thundercloud.

  “Yumeko!” the monk shouted again as I pressed into the rough, mossy stone. I could picture his normally stern, placid face turning as red as the temple pillars, the flush creeping all the way up his bald forehead. I’d seen it too many times to count. His braided ponytail and orange robes were no doubt flapping as he spun, searching the edges of the pond, scanning the bamboo patches surrounding the garden. “I know you’re here somewhere!” he raged. “Putting salt in the teapot...again! Do you think Nitoru likes having tea spat right in his face?” I bit my lip to stifle the laughter and pressed against the statue, trying to be silent. “Wretched demon girl!” Denga seethed, as the sound of his footsteps turned from the pond and headed farther into the garden. “I know you’re laughing your fool head off now. When I find you, you’ll be sweeping the floors until the hour of the Rat!”

  His voice drifted away. I peeked around the stone to watch Denga continue down the path into the bamboo, until he was lost from sight.

  Blowing out a breath, I leaned against the lantern’s weathered body, feeling triumphant. Well, that was entertaining. Denga-san is always so uptight; he really needs to try out new expressions or his face will crack from the strain. I grinned, imagining the look on poor Nitoru’s face when the other monk discovered what was in his teacup. Unfortunately, Nitoru had the same sense of humor Denga did, which was none at all. Definitely time to make myself scarce. I’ll steal a book from the library and go hide under the desk. Oh, wait, but Denga already knows that spot. Bad idea. I cringed at the thought of all the long wooden verandas that would need a thorough sweeping if I was found. Maybe it’s a good day to not be here. At least until this evening. I wonder what the monkey family in the forest is doing today?

  Excitement fluttered. A dozen or so yellow monkeys lived within the branches of an ancient cedar that rose above all other trees in the forest. On clear days, if one climbed to the very top, one could see the whole world, from the tiny farming village at the base of the mountains all the way to the distant horizon. Whenever I found myself at the top of that tree, swaying with the monkeys and the branches, I would gaze over the multicolored carpet stretching away before me and wonder if today would be the day I’d be brave enough to see what lay beyond the skyline.

  I never was, and this afternoon would be no different. But at least I wouldn’t be here, waiting for an angry Denga-san to shove a broom into my hands and tell me to sweep every flat surface in the temple. Including the yard.

  Drawing back from the statue, I turned around...and came face-to-face with Master Isao.

  I yelped, jerking back and hitting the stone lantern, which was bigger and heavier than I and obstinately refused to budge. The ancient, white-bearded monk smiled serenely under his wide-brimmed straw hat.

  “Going somewhere, Yumeko-chan?”

  “Um...” I stammered, rubbing the back of my head. Master Isao wasn’t a large man; thin and spindly, he stood a head shorter than me when he was wearing his wooden geta clogs. But no one in the temple was more respected, and no one had such control over his ki as Master Isao. I’d seen him chop a tree in half with a flick of his hand, and punch a giant boulder int
o rubble. He was the undisputed master of the Silent Winds temple, able to quiet a room of strong-willed ki practitioners just by appearing. Though he never raised his voice or appeared angry; the harshest expression I’d ever seen him make was a mild frown, and that had been terrifying.

  “Ano...” I stammered again, as his bushy eyebrows rose in patient amusement. No use in lying, Master Isao always knew everything about everything. “I was...going to visit the monkey family in the forest, Master Isao,” I confessed, figuring that was the least of my crimes. I wasn’t exactly forbidden to leave the temple grounds, but the monks certainly didn’t like it when I did. The amount of chores, training and duties they imposed on me when I was awake indicated that they tried to keep me busy whenever possible. The only free time I could get was usually stolen, like today.

  Master Isao only smiled. “Ah. Monkeys. Well, I am afraid your friends will have to wait a bit, Yumeko-chan,” he said, not sounding angry or surprised at all. “I must borrow your time for a moment. Please, follow me.”

  He turned and started around the pond, heading toward the temple. I dusted off my sleeves and fell into step behind him, down the bamboo trail dappled by sun and green shadows, past the singing stones where the breeze hummed playfully through the holes worn into the rocks, and over the red arched bridge that spanned the stream. A drab brown bird flitted to the branches of a juniper tree, puffed out its chest and filled the air with the beautiful, warbling song of a nightingale. I whistled back at him, and he gave me an indignant look before darting into the leaves.