Authors: Paul Kidd
Alright boys. We’ve got corpses in the house! Technically, this whole inn is unclean. But I’m so glad you’re all here! We have a long, long evening of prayer and soulful meditation planned. Ceremonies – some sutra readings. Ritual baths in ice cold water… We can count on you guys joining in – yes?”
The grand, alien presence of the fox was almost a physical shock. Men fell back away from her, utterly amazed.
Moving to the fore of the students came the tall, cadaverous man. He gave a deep, formal bow to the fox priestess.
priestess, please forgive us, but we shall not be attending the ceremonies. Our presence would intrude on the village.”
Suit yourselves!” Sounding sadly disappointed, Sura pushed back her sleeves. “The corpses are rolling in now. We’d better get busy. But the rooms at the back are ready for you if you want to turn in for the night.”
Hamada Bunji was still clearly looking for a fight. But the dour
man forced him to back down. The students abandoned the gardens and moved in a surly, drunken body off to the rear of the inn. Peace and quiet finally descended over the night.
The monk’s meditation bell rang. Sura took off her tall c
ap and threw it over to Tonbo.
down, all with one blow of her tongue!” She gave a false sigh of regret. “Sadly, the little red fox is forever cursed by having to deal with inferior intellects!”
Kuno eyed the fox with great disapproval. “
Deception is beneath the honour of a samurai.”
That must explain the casualty rate!” Sura helped herself to Kuno’s pickled plum. “Never mind! You’ll get the drift eventually!”
They returned to their table, where Sura stowed
the white robe, fan and hat back in her backpack – the hat being carefully folded flat between stiff leather sheets. She sat back down, and helped herself to another piping-hot bowl of terrapin.
Right! Anyway – back to business. We have two murders, and possibly another one last year. Missing blood – possible black magic. Can’t say I have any real clues. So – thoughts! Kuno?”
Kuno shook his head. “
The rat seemed astonished to be asked. “Oh! Ah – no!”
Tonbo gave a shrug, and ate noodles. No one seemed to have any real ideas. Sura looked from one to the other.
“Right – so what’s our plan of action?”
Chiri timidly cleared her throat.
Forgive me, Sura san. You – you have no set procedures for this type of case?”
The fox leaned back in her seat, looking utterly confident.
“Oh yes – yes, of course we do!” She airily waved a hand to Kuno. “Kuno? Tell her!”
The samurai looked at Sura in irritation,
then straightened his robes.
We must immediately report it to the magisterial authorities in Ayamejo. These matters may require further investigation.”
joyously drank black plum wine. Her cheeks, neck and cleavage were distinctly pink: she apparently had no head for wine at all. “That’s a plan! And quite coincidentally, it gets you to Ayemejo for the tournament.”
“Just saying! Just saying!” Sura fanned her cleavage with her hands, loosening her robes. “Is it hot in here? And is that monk’s bell getting louder?”
Tonbo relieved her of the bottle. “The ringing is in your ears.” He passed a bamboo canteen. “Drink water.”
The maid Kiko came bustling quietly over. She deposited a bill into Sura’s hands. Sura looked at the numbers at the bottom of the reckoning, and
instantly put on a great, white toothed, innocent smile.
Tonbo shot her an inquiring glance.
A deep, velvet darkness lay across the forest. Somewhere close by, a stream trickled merrily. Drifts of leave
s lay all around, ready to rustle under the feet of an intruder. Four bed rolls had been lain out: four packs leaned against the tree. A string draped across Sura’s pack held a mere two copper coins.
“So you’re saying we can’t even afford a single room in the inn?”
Sura had tu
rned into her animal form. As a long, lithe, pretty fox, she trod around and around on her bed in circles. She stopped and waved a paw.
“Don’t look at me like that! W
hen they didn’t give me a bill for the first drink, I thought the meal must be on the house! You know – thanking the bold investigators!”
So how much have we got left?”
The fox waggled her head. “Aaaah – we’re broke!” She seemed in no way concerned. “But hey!
Maybe we’ll find another swamp hag.”
Chiri’s air elemental sat on a twig overhead, shedding a gentle blue light.
Tonbo lay himself down in the ferns, pillowing his head upon his arms. He had made himself perfectly at home, with his helmet hanging from a branch beside his bed.
It’s a fine night.” The big man had chosen the campsite with care. “I like it here.”
Kuno settled himself into bed, making certain that his sword was at hand. S
ura burrowed under her blankets and curled into a fuzzy ball. Above Tonbo, the air elemental shut off its light and settled quietly down to watch over the camp.
began settling herself as well, pet rock snuggling in beside her. Tired after a long and eventful day, the rat girl gave a yawn. She tied her long white hair into a careful pony tail for the night, then snuggled down under a worn old quilt. She lay still for a moment, then spoke quietly into the dark.
Thank you all, for looking after me. You have my deepest gratitude.”
Tonbo gave a yawn. “
You’re welcome.” He settled happily down into bed. “They were good noodles.”
lay quiet for a while. Water trickled through the nearby stream: the night sounds were soft and gentle. But after a few moments, Chiri cleared her throat again.
“Please excuse me.
Should we set a guard? What if we all get murdered?”
Sura stretched in her bed
and yawned. She sounded tired.
Oh, I think the area’s had its quota for one night.” She nestled deeper into bed. “I’ll keep a foxy ear cocked. We should be fine.”
Kuno sat up. With no campfire, the area was utterly dark. He could hardly see his hand in front of his nose. “
You are certain? I could remain awake on watch.”
The fox yawned.
“Hey, you’re with animal spirits now! Sharp senses, razor sharp instincts.” Sura vanished amongst her blankets. “Trust me – I’m a fox!”
Kuno lay irritably back down.
“I hate it when you say that.” Kuno gave an exasperated sigh. He ruffled out his quilt, then made a respectful bow of his head towards Chiri. “Goodnight, Chiri san.”
odnight, Kuno san. Rest well.”
ll seemed quite safe and secure. Nestled in the leaves, they drifted off to sleep, while above them the air elemental spread its beautiful blue wings.
The first grey hint of dawn filtered through the trees, gently dappling the forest floor. A few great fuzzy caterpillars dined upon the lush green underbrush, enjoying their breakfast in the morning quiet. Far off in the distance, a woodpecker hammered away at a tree: the forest seemed a place of perfect peace.
Kuno arose just after dawn, looking about the peaceful little camp.
Sura lay snuggled in her bedding nearby, curled nose to tail. Still in her animal form, she slept peacefully – aside from the occasional little
of sound. A fire had been laid, smoking quietly just downwind of the sleepers. Chiri’s bed had already been rolled up and tied into a neat pack around her belongings. The strange little elemental creatures had vanished, and Chiri was nowhere to be seen.
Rising quietly, Kuno changed his clothing, dressing neatly and swiftly. He
combed back his long hair and pulled it back into a queue. Threading swords into his belt and elegantly draping the sheath cords, he looked out across the nearby woods.
Chiri had not yet
Dew silvered the grasse
s and fallen leaves. Little footprints had disturbed the dew, leading off towards the stream. Making certain that the camp was secure, Kuno left his companions sleeping and followed the trail. He ducked beneath silver spiders’ webs, and moved quietly forward into the ferns.
Walking beneath the trees, Kuno passed
into a sparkling world of deep green herbs, moss and great brown stones.
The air felt wonderfully sharp.
It was filled with scents – damp earth, wet stones and fresh water. Kuno walked forward with a heart that seemed to forget all of its burdens. Here there was only the beauty of the world, bright and new.
He reached the
water at last – a bright, clear forest stream with a bed of speckled stones. The current softly sang amongst the tree roots, rippling across old fallen logs. Willow trees hung down to caress the water with green fingertips. Glittering specks of mica shimmered in the gravel, making the stream bed sparkle with countless points of gold.
Kuno paused, drawing in a breath, savouring the day.
The leaves whispered – the air shivered to the rhythm of the splashing stream. The world suddenly seemed filled with amazing possibilities.
The stream formed a broad, clear pool just up ahead.
Feeling his way gently through the ferns, Kuno stopped beside the water and closed his eyes. His skin tingled to the feel of moisture dancing in the air.
What was it the fox has said, when first they met?
“Concerned with place and with ambition, we fear failure. Concerned with dignity, we fear ridicule… The sage realises that self worth comes from within. By releasing anxieties, he embraces the freedom of the Tao.”
Standing amongst the ferns, caressed by dappled sunlight, Kuno felt the weight vanish from his soul.
Despite her faults, the fox was oddly free. It would be a startling world if it turned out that she was wise, and Asodo Kuno a fool.
Somewhere at the edge of his hearing, Kuno sensed a faint splashing. He opened his eyes and searched about, finally moving forward to
peer through the bushes in puzzlement.
quite substantial fish lay glimmering on the grass beside the stream. As Kuno watched, a white shape flickered at the shore: a white rat speared into the water, and there was a flurry of motion in the deeps.
After a while, t
he rat surfaced, awkwardly towing a fish through the water with her teeth. She dragged the fish up onto the gravel, where it lay, still twitching, next to the other three.
rodent returned to the pool,long pink tail trailing sinuously behind as she swam. On a tree limb above, the graceful blue insect shape of her air elemental gleamed. The rock elemental kept watch from the banks, noticeable amongst the other rocks because of its frown. The white rat swam around and around in the pool, making lazy circles, then came up onto the banks and vigorously shook dry her fur. She was met by the rock and air elementals, who caressed against her in absolute affection.
Creeping up out of the water came another small being – part eel, part frog,
but seemingly made entirely from transparent water. Another tiny creature, this one made from new-grown fern, crept forward. The rat conversed quietly with them all, thanking the water creature. She then walked a few steps away, shimmered, and transformed.
In human form, Nezumi Chiri was small and delicate – her back long and smooth, and her skin a delicate pink-white
, all the way down to the tip of her tail. Her long, wet hair trailed pure white down her back. Demure, innocent and heart-breakingly beautiful, she wrung out her long hair. Light reflected from the stream chased gently back and forth across her skin.
Chiri deftly scaled and cleaned her catch, using the broad blades of her kama
, then washed both hands and kama in the stream, before arising once more. She reached for the clothing that hung across a nearby bush, dressing quietly.
Kuno was utterly lost. He stared, entranced – unable to see anything else in the world. Chiri combed her hair, and the air elemental whirred up to knit and groom, pulling some strands back and draping them in place. Chiri called to
the rock elemental, and bent down to retrieve her straw sandals from the ground.
Kuno blinked – and suddenly realised that his position lacked all possible decorum. He looked about in panic, and hastened to duck beneath the bushes. The rock elemental whirled about and glared at the forest path in suspicion. Kuno crept backwards, and made his way hastily back towards the path.
Long moments later, Chiri came walking down the path towards the camp. She carried four fish hanging from a twig, and a bunch of crisp roots gathered from the stream. Kuno had reached the path, and Chiri called out to him, full of joy.
Kuno san! Good morning!”
– aware that the rock elemental was glowering at him. He nervously cleared his throat.
Ah – good morning, Chiri san. How – how are you this morning?”
“Better, Kuno san. Much better.” She held aloft her catch. “
Look! Look what I found! Perhaps my luck has changed at last.” She looked about the forest, adoring the sun-lit trees. “I love the forest. It is so much kinder than people.”
They walked side by side through the dew-speckled trees. Chiri’s hair, skin and clothing gave off a marvellous herbal scent – warm and enchanting. Kuno could not help but smile.
“What are your plans now, Chiri san? Are you travelling onwards?”
“I shall not remain here, Kuno san. Too much has happened here. I believe I shall head towards Ayamejo.
I thought perhaps I might stay with you for a while.” The girl held out two fingers, and her floating rock elemental came sailing in to land upon her hand. The creature scuttled up her arm to ride upon her shoulders. “Forgive me for clinging to you all. I thought perhaps I could repay your generosity with breakfast.”
They walked a little while longer. Kuno was painfully aware of the strained, embarrassed silence. Her cleared his throat, and
risked a glance at the nezumi girl.
Please forgive my curiosity, Chiri san. But your hair is extremely – extremely striking. I know too little about nezumi. Is white colouration common to your kind?”
The girl made a rueful face.
“No, Kuno san. It is rare. It marks me as a ‘
– a child of the moon. Supposedly it means the gods intend a special destiny.” She made a gentle gesture. “I am afraid that this destiny has so far failed to manifest itself.”
“Perhaps you must simply give it time.”
They reached the camp site. Tonbo was partly awake – sitting up and working his chops. Sura still slept happily, her feet jutting upwards and paws flexing into the dawn sunlight. She gave an almost dirty chuckle in her sleep, smiling at something in her dreams.
“Heh! Blue bauble
! Smash blue bauble, go sideways!”
Kuno could only shake his head.
Chiri sat down with her catch, laying the fish out upon a clean, flat rock. She sprinkled them with powdered herbs and spice, then placed them in a cooking pan and set it carefully above the coals. Soon the fillets were sizzling gently, sending a tantalising scent up into the air. Chiri smiled, pulling back her long hair as she spoke with Kuno across the fire.
“No. No indeed.
intend to compete.” Kuno sat himself down upon a fallen log. “Tonbo believes swords to be mere toad stickers, and prefers arms more… monumental in scale.” He motioned to Sura’s bed, where the fox was still happily asleep. “And the fox is going to Ayamejo in the hope of starting up her business.”
Chiri looked around, deeply intrigued. “
“She calls it
The rat spirit sat back, rolling the concept across her mind.
She blinked, rather liking the sound of the words.
…” She was intrigued. “Spirit Hunters?”
Tonbo was up. He sat on his bedding, tying on his sandals. His massive
was never out of arm’s reach.
Kuno straightened his back.
“Most certainly not. We are temporary companions.” Kuno graciously accepted a cup of tea. “I am serving with the imperial commission of justice. Direct servants
emperor and imperial law. They promoted me to the position of
Tonbo gave a chuckle.
“Who did you offend?”
Asodo Kuno mustered up his dignity. “
They gave me a roving commission, so that my talents would be of benefit to the empire in general.”
Tonbo nodded to Chiri over his tea. “
When you have heard his poetry, you will understand.”
“Friends. Allies.” Tonbo rolled up his camping gear with a careless, practiced efficiency. “We were homeless, long, long ago, wandering away from a famine. Mere refugees. As the families came to the very last of their food, they sat down to eat together, knowing that tomorrow they must begin to starve.
“A hungry stranger with green eyes came to their camp, and asked if they would share their last morsels of food with him in exchange for a story. Seeing that hunger had left the man unbowed, and believing that generosity in adversity is the mark of honour,
my ancestors invited the man into the camp. He told stories of adventures in the far lands of heaven – of tricking strange creatures in far off realms. The people listened, fascinated, and forgot that they were hungry. At the end of the evening, the strange man bowed and departed. Children followed after him, but the stranger had vanished into thin air.