The Fox and the Ki-rin (Zuihitsu)

This was co-written by Mal and Arielle. It takes place several years before the main story of Shadows in the West. The story of Shinjo and Kitsune was borrowed from The Way of the Minor Clans, and generous liberties were taken with it.

“Obaasan! Please tell us the story of Shinjo and Lady Kitsune again.”

The door barely slides open before Inari is upon her. She is almost as tall as her grandmother now, even at seven winters. The old woman laughs and smiles, allowing herself to be guided into the room by a granddaughter much more sprightly than the one who looms behind her.

“Inari, you ask this of her each time. I’m certain she is as tired of telling it as I am of hearing it.”

“Tomei! You must treat your sister with your respect!” Softness lurks beneath the hard edge of their grandmother’s voice. “I will tell it to her as many times as she cares to hear it, and you shall hear it as many times as it is told. Be tired of it if you will; we all must make the most of what is given to us.” She waves a hand, gnarled like an ancient sugi, and moves creakily inside.

“Yes, obaasan.” Tomei mumbles, her glower burning against the back of Inari’s skull. All the same, she helps their grandmother to her seat by the fire. It is an old, well-used chair, heaped with embroidered silks and soft hides. Each winter, it takes longer for her to settle.

“Ah, let’s see, let’s see…”

Inari settles on her knees and waits patiently, while Tomei stands across the room, gaze to the floor.

“Long ago, Shinjo and her band of retainers set out to explore the vast forests far to the south. All was well and quiet—until one day, the bellowing of ogres drew them deep into the wood, where they found a small woman, clad in red and white silks, dodging  blows from two of the great beasts.”

Her fist collides with her palm as she mimics the bellowing cry of an angry ogre, her voice hoarse with age. Pantomiming has grown more and more difficult as the years roll on, but Inari is enthralled all the same.

“Concerned for her safety, Shinjo drew her sword and prepared to ride to her aid...”

-----

Another day at the damned oden house.

It has been a month since Crow arrived in Kitsune Mori, and she’s found herself at this counter every day since. Part of it is the food. Part of it is Hasako, the woman who cooks the food. A potent concoction of innocence mingled with a dash of smoldering temptation eats at her each time she leans across the counter, grinning at Crow, and asks sweetly:

“Another Kitsune Oden?”

Hasako is pretty. She is too pretty. Crow has come to suspect that the twin fox tails peeking from beneath her yukata are not fake, that they are somehow to blame for the compulsion to stuff herself full and leave exceptional tips. In the end, all the suspicion in the world isn’t enough to keep her cheeks from flushing every time their eyes meet, and it’s certainly not enough to keep her from sliding another too-generous handful of zeni across the counter in exchange for a second heaping bowl of tofu, rice, and broth.

Crow finishes it—with difficulty. Panic sets in when she sees Hasako turn, ready to take the empty bowl, that devious, awful, wonderful glimmer in her green eyes.

“Another Kitsune O-”

“Sumimasen! I must go! It was delicious, but I must go!” Mustering all her willpower, Crow presses her palms together and bows several times as she backs away from the counter. It is a genuine apology as much as it is a desperate plea for her to stop. Generously, Hasako only smirks, winks, and turns to another customer.

Both relief and guilt weigh heavily when she is finally free of the oden shop, stepping into the late afternoon. It is best, she decides, to distance herself from Kitsune Mori Mura for a while, so she retrieves her belongings from the inn and sets off into the woods to find solace—and separation. There is a remote spring in a small glade to the north of town that she stumbled upon some weeks past, and that is where she goes. There, half an hour's walk from the nearest wooden hut, Crow can let her guard down.

The water is warm on her sore feet, and the bed of moss even softer than the cushions at the oden house. She rolls up her hakama and shrugs off her kosode, settling back against a boulder and carefully removing her morin khuur from its bag. She is far enough from the village to play it here, and the bow across the strings soon eases into a slow, rhythmic melody. Even this far from Kitsune Mori Mura and its villagers, she doesn’t sing from her throat, for fear that a wanderer might mistake her for some ill-meaning yokai. But the fiddle is enough, and the droning hum nearly lulls her into a trance over the course of the next hour.

Thokk. An arrow sinks deeply into a nearby tree. Crow’s fiddle makes an ugly sound as the bow grinds to a halt. She stands upright, looking this way and that.

Footfalls on the forest floor. Arrows flying in the distance. Not the sound of battle—the sound of a hunt. For what quarry? She listens hard, squinting into the undergrowth. The rustle of grass, the parting of snapping branches, thudding footfalls—it does not have four legs.

-----

“The flicking snap of the woman’s sword draw a few drops of blood with each twisting strike, but her blows only served to enrage the brutes further—”

“Utaku was there!” Inari is quick to pipe up, “She is the one who stopped Shinjo.”

“Inari! Let her tell it as she will.” Tomei’s voice, barely a hiss, cuts to the bone. Inari shrinks and looks away, occupying her fretting hands with a sheepskin she’s tugged off the pile by the fire.

“Do not speak to your sister so, Tomei! Especially when she is right.” Their grandmother’s smile warms the chill in the wake of Tomei’s glare, but the silence that follows turns Inari’s stomach. She pulls the sheepskin tightly around her shoulders, avoiding Tomei’s gaze.

“Now, where was I? Ah, yes! Utaku. Before Shinjo could interfere, she was stopped by a hand on her shoulderUtaku’s. She bade her stop and watch, and Shinjo did so with reluctance as the woman danced about the furious ogres. Trees uprooted and crushed! Bamboo splintered! Shinjo gasped as the lithe figure darted between them as though she were light as air!”

-----

The approaching rustle of underbrush and frantic pounding of feet on the forest floor drowns out disant, hoarse shouting. Crow stands to face it, but what emerges from the treeline is unexpected: a woman dressed in a red and white yukata, coated in mud, hair whipping as she looks frantically behind her. Small, slight, white-haired—Crane? Her pale face is criss-crossed with thin cuts, and a bright red line of rope burn encircles her neck. She collides with Crow in the next instant, and when their eyes met, she stares into wild, pure panic.

Green eyes. Green like the forest. Not a Crane, but a fox; the realization strikes her as the cries of the hunters grow louder, and the woman’s face tightens into terror.

Stay here.” Crow whispers as she ushers the kitsune to sit. Wide-eyed, the woman crouches low, reaching out, parting her lips as if to speak, but finding no words. Without hesitating, Crow slides her sword from its saya and turns to face the treeline.

Silence. There is only the whistle of wind through the trees, the footfalls of four, maybe five, men. Dusk has settled over the forest now, and thunder rumbles distantly as a few drops give way to warm, steady rainfall. What feels like an eternity passes before a large, tall man with a face like a craggy hillside erupts from the underbrush, pronged spear clenched in his hands, a frayed top-knot atop an otherwise bare head. He has the stink and dishevelment of a poacher, bearing no mon on a drab kimono. A strand of small foxes hang by their tails from his wide obi.

"Out of the way."

“Fox hunting is dangerous in Kitsune Mori, is it not?” Crow narrows her eyes and tightens her fingers around her katana’s hilt, but the desire to demoralize him shrinks as the silhouettes of three other men appear among the trees. “This woman is under my protection.” She says, her teeth set on edge.

“Woman?” The poacher rumbles a laugh and grips his spear, a chain rattling on his belt. “Do you know what she is?”

Crow stands steadfast, still and silent. Another emerges into the clearing, as thin as the first is large. Two more follow, both broad of build and scraggly of hair, wielding curved swords. Dented and nicked, not made of the well-cared-for steel of a katana, they nonetheless gleam dangerously in the falling rain.

Will she die here? The kitsune’s heavy, panicked breath quickens behind her. As long as she stops them, Crow decides, it doesn’t matter.

“You’re a fool, ronin.” The first, largest man—presumably their leader—looks Crow over and spits. He advances on her quickly, a brute in an unclean kimono that may have once been white, and the sound of their kiais fill the forest with the cadence of singing steel.

“With a thud and a snap the two ogres’ blows landed... each killing the other! Shinjo’s eyes went wide, but Utaku only smiled.”

When the last of them crumples, minutes feel like seconds. Twilight has settled over Kitsune Mori, and the song of crickets mingles with Crow’s ragged breathing. That she has survived at all is a miracle, but she is not unscathed; it’s difficult to tell her blood from theirs. Her kimono is wet with it, and pain sears across her arms, her face, and her back where their blades have struck.

Later. She will deal with it later.

Summoning the strength she has left, she forces herself to stand and face the kitsune, still crouched behind her. Her eyes are wide in shock, her palms and feet covered in dirt and grass, but with the poachers dead, she rises all the same.

“Thank you.” Her voice is light, as pleasant to Crow’s ears as the rain to her cuts. Pale fingers, smudged with mud, reach for her face and come away with blood. “You are hurt.”

“It is nothing.” Crow shakes her head. Her hair is soaked through, and when she bows it parts like a ratty curtain framing her long face. White-hot pain blooms in her back, but she hides it behind a tight smile. “What is your name, little fox?”

-----

“‘Who are you?’ Shinjo asked. As light as a hawk’s feather, the woman pivoted and dropped to the ground. ‘I am called Kitsune, most powerful Kami-sama!’”

-----

The woman’s gaze falls to the ground. Her eyes dart around the glade. A short silence passes before a quiet, tentative reply: “Jiaying.”

Crow’s smile softens. A peculiar name — it nearly sounds Ki-Rin — but she does not pretend to know the ways of foxes. As her breathing slows, she allows herself a moment to study this Jiaying more fully. Small and slight of build with skin as fair as her hair: she is beautiful. How had she not noticed? Crow bows her head.

“I am called—”

“—Inari.” Jiaying finishes for her. It is a name Crow has not heard for years, a name she expected to never hear again. She strains to tighten her face, to conceal the shock. Her eyebrows raise and the corners of her eyes burn with tears.

“That is not– It isn’t–” Crow’s throat goes dry, strangling words that will not come. Jiaying waits for them all the same. “I haven’t–.”

-----

“Shinjo dismounted her horse and approached Kitsune. ‘You know me, then?’ she asked.

‘No, my lady.’

‘Then why do you name me Kami?’

Kitsune blinked and smiled, opening her arms upwards. ‘Because you smell of the sky, my lady!’

Shinjo had a new vassaland a new friendwhen she rode from the wood.”

Inari sighs, nose buried in the old sheepskin, her cheeks flushed and her brown eyes bright.

“It is so romantic…”

“It isn’t, Inari. Have you forgotten the ending?” Tomei is quick in her response, so quick that Inari is sure she’s been waiting for the chance to say it. She has not forgotten the ending, but each time she wishes her grandmother would.

A silence follows, their grandmother watching them; Tomei glares at her sister, who in turn stares into the fire. Outside, the winter winds howl.

“No, oneesan.” Inari mumbles sheepishly, even though that is what Tomei wants. She runs a hand through her messy hair, following the motion through to rub the back of her neck. She can’t bring herself to look at her.

Their grandmother’s gaze is unmoving.

-----

For all her questions, Crow asks none, but her wounds don’t allow the luxury of lingering on thought. A dull throb of pain in her back crests abruptly into sharp agony, and she grits her teeth hard as she swallows it. Her muscles give out beneath the exertion and she falls to her knee, palm pressed to the moss. Jiaying cries out, bracing her hands against Crow’s shoulders.

“You are hurt!”

“I am fine...” Crow lies. With the effort of righting her posture comes a fresh gush of blood from her back. Her head feels light. The forest spins. There is a sense of falling and then cool, damp earth against her face as the ground rushes up to meet her. Jiaying’s voice, soft like the summer rain, is distant—and then there is silence.

-----

Tomei moves from where she stands to settle on her knees, across from Inari. “Then how can you call it romantic?” There is something else parallel to the irritation in her voice: frustration.  When finally Inari looks at her, her sister’s brow is tightly knitted.

“Because…”  The words don’t come. Inari has always known the answer, deep in her heart, but as she tries to voice it, to give it life, her mouth forms around syllables she can’t find. She huffs and shakes her head. Tomei rolls her eyes.

When no words come for some time, their grandmother continues.

-----

The smell of dirt and damp underbrush stings her nose. Hands brush her kimono. She cannot tell how many carry her, but they whisper frantically as they drag her, and soon the coarse twigs on her thighs and back give way to the softness of moss. Her head swims and she feels as if she might freeze to death; all around are vague shapes, clouds of white and red and green.

Jiaying!” The shuffle of feet, then a woman’s voice. Deeper, older, but still young. “Humans cannot be here!

“She is dying, oneesan!” Jiaying’s voice. Higher. Frightened. The hands go tight around Crow’s shoulders.

“Do you intend to bring every human you see into this wood? Grandmother will not have it!”

“Please, Sakiko, look. Look at her face, can you not see it?”

Silence. Footsteps, close, barefoot.

“It is not my place, Jiaying. It is not our place.”

“Would you leave her, then? Leave her as you left Yasuo!”

There is a sharp, loud slap above her. Crow drops to the ground. She is numb, and then everything is black.

-----

“...but when Shinjo set out to explore the world for Togashi, Kitsune went to Shinjo with downcast eyes.

‘What troubles you, my love?’ Shinjo asked.”

-----

She wakes with a start and a wet, ragged gasp, sloshing in a pool of water up to her chest. Her limbs are as stone, too heavy to lift. A warm hand rests against her forehead, wiping away sweat. She is too weak to lift her chin, but when her eyes roll upwards Jiaying’s face is blurry against a backdrop of red leaves high above. She is human, but also fox: her ears are tall, white peaks, and there is an alien slant to her features. Her eyes are piercing, bright green, as bright as the forest.

“She saved her, obaasan.” The other’s voice, not Jiaying’s. It’s calm, a quiet stream in an early spring bloom. “The poachers would have killed her.”

“Saved her. Why was she alone?” An older voice, a woman’s. Older and warm, like her grandmother in her grand yurt on a cold winter night, but difficult to focus on. They speak. The are fighting, but their voices grow muffled and Crow can't understand them.

Time passes. She cannot tell how much. When she wakes, it smells of sugi and of pungent, medicinal poultices.

“Rest.” Jiaying says as she presses her hand firmly against Crow’s forehead. Her lips part to protest, but nothing comes. Her hand, still drifting in the shallow pool, brushes a lily. She nudges it into Jiaying’s palm. Her head falls back into her lap. All is dark.

-----

‘Oh, my lady!’ Kitsune threw herself into her arms. ‘You know that some of us... some of us must stay behind.’

‘I know that some have chosen to. There is no dishonor in it.’

Utaku only snorted.

‘My lady, I am... I am one of those who must stay.’

‘What? Kitsune, when did you decide this?’”

-----

Crow stands in the forest. Birds sing, but it is dark; the trees around her grow too densely to let the light in. She can see clearly, but all is black and green and brown. Bamboo drifts in the breeze like wooden windchimes.

Jiaying is with her. She is close; she is in her arms. Crow's nose is pressed against the top of her head and she feels a warm tear slide down her cheek, onto white hair. Why is she crying? Where is she? What is happening?

"I am sorry, Inari." Jiaying says, muffled against her chest. Her small frame is slowly wracked with sobs. "Grandmother says you must leave. You must forget."

Jiaying pulls away and her green eyes glisten with tears. She holds her palm to Crow's right temple, and before she can ask what she means, what this is, her mind begins to fray. It unravels. It falls apart. Her mouth opens, but words fail her. There are no words. She hears Jiaying's voice.

"But please do not forget me."

Then, there is nothing.

-----

“‘Before I was born, I think. The emperor will need the Ki-Rin before you find what you seek. And the Ki-Rin who stay will need me.’“

Tomei scoffs. “Kitsune was a coward.”

“If she had not stayed, the Ki-Rin could not have returned to Rokugan!” Inari nearly cuts her off, and a harsh glare is her prompt reprimand.

“There is no proof of this, Inari–”

“They would not have remembered! We would have been branded gaijin and the Emperor would h–”

“Tomei! Inari!” Their grandmother thumps her walking stick against the floor once; it is enough to silence the pair and to draw their attention back to her. “Shall I finish the tale? Or shall I listen to the pair of you bicker all night?”

Both bow their heads and mutter their apology before Tomei answers meekly

“Please finish the story, obaasan.”

-----

Gulls crying. The crashing of waves.

Crow's head is pounding when her eyes open, but the pain is soon eclipsed by confusion. Palm pressed to her temple, she sits upright and takes in her surroundings: a modest, unfamiliar room. An inn? Workers shout outside. She stumbles her way to her feet, lumbering toward the door opposite. It slides open into a shallow deck overlooking a steep, rocky cliff above the ocean, and the docks below swarm with sailors going about their work. The torii at sea is painted the deep blues of the Crane.

Where is she? How did she get here? She remembers the forest. The oden. A beautiful woman with hair like snow...it fades into bits and pieces like a half-forgotten dream. Has it all been a dream?

Her back aches and her limbs are tired as she makes her way down the stairs, where a young peasant girl tucks her cleaning rag into her obi and bows deeply.

“Samurai-san.” She says, staying bowed. Crow’s is comparably shallow in return. She runs a hand through her hair and rubs at the back of her neck.

“Where are we? Can you tell me how I got here?”

The eta is confused by the question, judging by the look on her face. Crow gives her as apologetic a smile as she can muster.

“L-Lonely Shore City. You came in last night. Do you not remember?” She pauses before continuing, choosing her words carefully. “You were very drunk. Forgive me, samurai-san.” She bows several times and Crow shakes her head, rubbing at her face.

“Thank you.” She says it half-heartedly, bowing her head before pushing off towards the exit. She makes it to the doorway before the girl calls out.

“Samurai-san!” Crow looks over her shoulder. “If you need food for your fox, we have scraps in the kitchen that you are free to take.”

“My fox?”

The girl looks embarrassed.

“Forgive me, samurai-san, but there was a fox with you last night.” Crow stares. The girl waits a moment before pressing on. “You really don't remember?”

Pieces fade in. Glimpses of faces and sounds and voices and pain. Crow frowns, her gaze softening to the middle distance. They sting with fresh tears. She presses the heels of her hands into her eyes and breathes. She is so tired and confused and sore, but why?

“Thank you.” She says distractedly. Sleep. She needs to sleep. Clumsily, she stumbles back inside, past the bewildered girl and up the stairs to her room.

Perhaps if she sleeps, she can dream again and find her.

-----

“When Shinjo departed, all of the Ki-Rin who remained in Rokugan swore fealty to the house of Kitsune. Some say it was to give unity to those who would preserve the Ki-Rin lands while their champion wandered, but there are others who say Utaku insisted that cowardice should have a single name.”

Inari is quiet. She has never liked the ending, and worse yet, her sister’s bitter satisfaction steeps in the  silence that follows.

“Utaku was right. They hide in their forest to this day, far from Ki-Rin lands.“ There is a sneer in Tomei’s voice that does not quite creep into her face. “I wonder if the Fox tell this story with the same ending?”

"Who says that is the end, Tomei?" There is a playful incredulousness to their grandmother’s tone. The old woman leans forward in her seat, silvery braids falling over her shoulders, and squints. "The end of a chapter, perhaps. But the Ki-Rin have returned, have they not?" She turns a smile to Inari, who is too embarrassed to reciprocate.

“Do you think Shinjo and Lady Kitsune will ever find one another again, obaasan?” Inari has always wanted to ask, but has always felt too small, too foolish. Her grandmother’s smile widens.

“I think that is for you to decide, Inari.”