My first mistake was falling in love with her. My second mistake was not revealing who I was sooner. I was the cause of her death. It was all my fault.
I was just a pup when I saw her for the first time. I was trapped in a hunter’s snare, dying, when she stumbled upon me. She was young, only five or six at the time, not much younger than I was. My family were gone, hunted by the Shogun’s men, and I alone was all that remained. A pup so young I’d yet to learn the human tongue. I snarled and snapped as the energy drained from my body, calling the girl all manners of names my tongue could not yet form. Yet she was deaf to them, or could not understand them, and when she freed me she smiled. It was an innocent smile, unlike the leers of the Shogun’s hunters as they stood over the dead bodies of my family, and it threw me off.
The sound of dogs barking reached my ears, but I was spent. I used all my energy trying to escape the snare, and all I could do was lie in the grass and wait to join my family. But the girl had other ideas. She picked me up and ran into the nearby trees, cradling me like a broken doll. Perhaps to her childlike mind I was. She kept running, like she knew exactly where she was going, and the angry calls of hunters faded in the distance. When she finally stopped, we were standing before a small river.
She scooped some water in her hands and offered it to me. “You need to drink!” I blinked, both unable to move and unsure of what to do. She did know who I was, right? What I was. I was young, and unlike my family I only had one tail, so I could still pass for a regular fox, but how could she not tell? I didn’t realise at the time that she couldn’t understand me when I spoke to her. In my mind I was speaking her language; to her, I was just barking.
“Leave me be,” I told her. “Just let me die. There’s nothing left for me now. The Shogun will never stop until he’s killed us all.”
She forced some water down my throat, then scooped up some more.
“I told you, just let me die!”
But she ignored me, and she wouldn’t let me die. As night fell the girl took me home, sneaking me into her room. She brought me leftover tofu from dinner and nursed me back to health. Within a few days I was good as new again; physically, anyway.
“I can’t stay here,” I told her after another week had passed. She smiled, as she always did when I barked. I growled in frustration. Why couldn’t my tongue form the correct sounds? My mother and father could speak in the human tongue, even my brother was able to from a young age. So why couldn’t I?
I wanted to tell the girl thank you. I wanted to express my gratitude for her saving my life, even when I no longer wished for it. I wanted to thank her for the care and dedication that no human had ever afforded me, and I wanted to thank her for her companionship during the long nights after my family were taken from me. Day by day she nursed me back to health, first physically, and then emotionally. But I knew it couldn’t be forever, and the longer I was around, the more likely she was to get caught. Even for a child, keeping a kitsune was a death sentence. I could not allow what happened to my family to happen to her as well.
“I’m serious,” I said, repeating my intention to leave. “If I stay here, they’ll just come for you next. I won’t have that. I won’t allow them to take you too.” Yet it broke my heart to leave her. She petted my head, ran off to dinner, and I made sure to leave before she returned. I couldn’t write; that was not a skill my parents had yet taught me before they were murdered. I could leave no farewell note, but I could leave something; my hoshi no tama. It sparkled like a pearl. It was the most precious thing in the world to me, and all I had left. But I wouldn’t even have that if it weren’t for her, and so I left it on her bed, a little piece of my soul, and escaped out the door.
I was an adult with my second tail before we met again, one day out of the blue. The year before I had mastered my human form, choosing a face and body I felt others would respond favourably to. Yet the moment I saw her, dragging a sack of rice with a basket of nuts under her other arm, I realised I could never hope to create anything as beautiful as the sight before me. Long, dark hair, beautiful round eyes, graceful lips that smiled at everyone she passed. I followed her, unwittingly, until I ended up before a tiny, rundown house I knew all too well. That was when I saw it. My hoshi no tama, dangling from a rope around her neck. It was her. I didn’t even know her name, but it was her. She’d kept my hoshi no tama all these years. It vibrated in my direction, and she turned. My heart stopped in my throat.
“Can I help you?”
I opened my mouth but could say nothing. I was at a literal loss for words. I’d never experienced anything like it before in my life. The busy village faded away. All I could see was her.
“Are you lost?” Her eyes grew concerned. The memories of the first time we met washed over me; the fear, the anger, the defeat, the frustration, and finally the love. This time, however, I was able to speak in the human tongue, but ironically I was unable. I must have looked like a dying fish. I cleared my throat.
“T-that’s a lovely necklace you have there.” The words came out broken, heavily accented. I berated myself for my foolishness. I wanted to shift and escape the situation as fast as possible, but that wouldn’t help matters.
And yet she smiled, taking the small pearl between her thumb and forefinger and gazing at it. “Thank you. I received it from a good friend when I was a child.”
A good friend. She considered me a good friend. My heart jumped.
“That good friend must have loved you a lot.” My tongue was finding its way around the words once more, my accent a little less broken.
“Perhaps.” She smiled, a hint of sadness in her eyes. “But I haven’t seen them for a long time now.” She looked up again, making my skin crawl under her gaze. “Excuse my prying, but you don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
So she did notice my accent. I forced a grin that no doubt looked more like a grimace. “I’m from up north,” I lied. “My husband passed away, so I’ve come to stay with relatives here until I find my footing again.” The lies tumbled out before I could stop them. Lies and tricks were the foundation of my lifestyle, but it felt wrong to say them to her.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry to hear that.” She looked to the door and then back at me. “And how rude of me, keeping you out here on the streets like this. Would you like to come in for a while? I just bought some new tea.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. My skin crawled as I resisted the urge to shift and run away as fast as my legs would take me. Instead, I said, “Yes, thank you,” and swallowed as I followed her inside.
She lived alone. Her parents died a year earlier, and though it was strange for such a young woman to live alone, she was promised to the local lord. He was away on business for the Shogun, but they were to be married when he returned, she said. She was supposed to live in the lord’s residence until that time, but she preferred her childhood home, and spent most of her time there instead. It was just how I remembered it. There was a fresh pang of pain in my heart.
“Tell me about this friend of yours.” I pointed towards her necklace. It shimmered and glistened, feeling my presence nearby. It wished to rejoin me, and my soul clamoured for it back.
She smiled again. “I found her injured by the woods one day. A beautiful little fox pup. I was out playing when I heard the hunters talking, and I accidentally stumbled upon her. She looked so sad, I couldn’t let them kill her. So I brought her home and took care of her and then one day she left. I found this on my bed when she did.” She touched it again, a wistful look on her face. “I miss her sometimes, even now. I hope she’s doing okay.”
It took everything I had not to shift right then and there. I could talk in my fox-form now, although it took many years of practice without my parents to teach me, but I had no idea what she thought of kitsune. The Shogun paid a hefty price for kitsune tails, and they were supposed to be killed on sight. There was no way to know if she might do the same.
“I’m sure she’s very grateful for what you did for her. She wouldn’t have left that for you otherwise.”
“I hope so,” she said. She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. She smiled instead. “More tea?”
We spoke long into the night. I learned everything I could about her and did my best to weave a convincing tale about my ‘human’ life. We parted ways in the morning and, exhausted, I ran to the nearby woods on four legs and slept the day away. As night fell, I found myself on her doorstep again, and she invited me in with a smile. This went on for weeks as we drank tea and told each other tall tales, ghost stories, and memories of our past. We spoke about everything and anything and I had never felt more content in my life. It was like we were two halves of the same soul. We spent all night talking, and then I spent all day sleeping in the woods where we first met.
Then one night I kissed her. She was halfway through a tale about how one of her elderly neighbours was found passed out drunk in a rice field by some children on their way home when I leaned forward, grabbed her face and pressed my lips to hers. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it until it was too late, but she didn’t pull back. On the contrary, she pulled me closer, like she’d been waiting all this time for me to work up the courage. I knew she was betrothed to the local lord, but I didn’t care. The little she spoke of him made the man sound terribly unpleasant, and it was not a marriage of love. Far from it.
We made love, and as the sun rose that morning I stayed. I never once thought I would experience such joy, such ecstasy, such stillness. As I lay in her arms, listening to the sound of her breathing, I knew I had come home. After all my years of searching, it was here all along.
The next day the rumours began. Not about us; not exactly. A fox with two tails was seen running near the woods a few mornings earlier. The lord was already on his way back, but word was given that anyone who captured the kitsune would get a year’s worth of rice… one year for each tail.
Just like that, my world came crashing down around me again.
“The lord will be back soon,” I said, crawling into bed after a silent dinner.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“I can’t stay here.” Memories of earlier times flashed through my mind, bringing pain I didn’t want to deal with. Was this our fate? To repeat this cycle over and over until one or both of us died?
“Do you love me?” she asked. They were the hardest words to say, both as a human and as a kitsune.
“Do you trust me?”
They were the second hardest words.
“I will always protect you,” she said. “Always.”
I looked up at her and she smiled, but her eyes told a different tale.
A kitsune needs to shift. It’s impossible to stay in human form forever. It’s not our natural form and the longer we stay in it, the bigger toll it takes on our bodies. For three days I did my best to remain as a human, to not draw unwanted attention as the lord approached home, and people had their sights set on that reward. The lord was not expected for another three days. I needed to hold out that long, then I would disappear into the night once more and all would be well. At least, that was the plan.
Things didn’t go according to plan.
I was woken up around midnight by the sound of swords being drawn. The lord, expecting to surprise his wife-to-be a few days early, instead found her in bed with another woman. Naked and wrapped in her arms. I heard the swords before she did, but it was too late. Men dragged me from the bed, kicking and screaming, while the lord sauntered over to his betrothed.
“I’m disappointed,” he began, tapping the hilt of his sword as he paced the bedside. “I thought I might surprise you, and yet it is you who has surprised me.” He looked in my direction. “Quite thoroughly.”
“Don’t you touch her!” I screamed. Panic filled my accent, making it heavier than usual as I almost reverted to my kitsune tongue. He raised his eyebrows in response.
“You seem to be mistaken about a great deal of a lot of things, young lady. First of all, if I want you to speak, I’ll ask you to.” He nodded and one of the men holding me hit me with the hilt of his sword. A cut opened on my brow and warm liquid poured down the side of my face.
“Secondly, you are the least of my concerns.” He turned at looked at his betrothed, naked and cowering in the bed. Her eyes, wide with fear, flickered in my direction. He slapped her.
“I’ve played along with your fancies, you know? You said you didn’t want to have sex before we got married, even though I could force you and nobody would care, but I agreed. You said you wanted to spend time in your family home before moving into the residence after marriage, and again I agreed.” He cast me a cursory glance before continuing his rant.
“I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most handsome man around, sure! But I’d like to think I’m not entirely hideous, and there’s a lot I can offer a woman. My family has served the Shogun faithfully for generations, and we’ve never wanted for anything. I’m able to provide strong, healthy heirs, and by extension my family would also be able to live a life of luxury. I mean, isn’t that what anyone dreams of?”
I struggled, and the lord drew his sword, pointing it at my neck across the bed.
“And yet you give it all up for this whore. No, I’m sorry, ‘whore’ might be a little excessive, I’m sorry.” He tapped the side of my face with his sword. “What do you have that I don’t, hmm? Well, I mean, I know what you don’t have, but…” He gave a snide laugh. “Maybe that was the problem all along, huh? My beautiful, beloved bride-to-be.” He moved the sword to her throat, towering over her as she trembled.
“It’s not that you don’t like me, it’s just that you don’t like men. Is that it? Why didn’t you just say so? Instead of crawling around behind my back like some vapid whore we could have come to some sort of arrangement! As long as you provide me with heirs and keep the residence running I don’t care who you fuck in your free time!” He sighed and shook his head. “Such a waste.”
My skin tingled. Something bad was about to happen. The atmosphere in the room changed, imperceptible to the humans yet like tiny blades all over my skin to me. I pulled, breaking one arm free, but I was too late. The lord thrust his sword through his fiance’s heart, and mine died at the same time.
I screamed. The transformation rippled throughout my body, dying to get out after so long in my human form. The men shrieked and ran into each other in a panic. “Kitsune! Kitsune! Kill it!” But they were not trained hunters. They were barely trained soldiers. My claws ripped through them like a carp through water, and as the lord swung for my tails, my jaws latched onto his throat. I tore it out, tasting his blood on my tongue as he gasped and fell to the floor. His hands grasped for his neck, blood gurgling through the open wound, and I hunted down the men who tried to escape. None left the house that night. Not a single one. By the time I was done, 10 men in total were lying in puddles of their own blood. I had defaced her house. It was no longer the safe place I once knew it to be.
I returned to the room, tears rolling down my face. She was still sitting on the bed, blood rolling down her breast like a boat down a river. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, and I could smell death in the air. But not that of the men I’d just killed. It was hers.
She looked at me in fear and I felt ashamed. This was who I was. My true form. A cold-blooded murderer who was consumed by blood lust. She should have let me die that day. She should have let me join my family. It would have been a mercy on us all.
She held her hand out and coughed. Blood trickled down her chin. “P-please…” She was struggling to breathe, struggling to talk. “C-come.”
I padded forward and went to shift into my human form, but she held a hand up to stop me.
“It’s okay. I… I always knew.”
Tears rolled unbidden down my face.
“How?” The word sounded foreign and clunky. It was the first time I’d spoken human tongue to another in my natural form. She grasped the pearl… my hoshi no tama, tied around her neck, and smiled.
“The moment you arrived…” coughs racked her body “…I saw your tails.”
Of course. I should have known it would let her see that.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked.
“I… was so happy to see you… again…”
I couldn’t keep the tears back. The air tasted bitter. Death was coming for her, and I was unable to stop it.
“Thank you.” She smiled. “Thank you… for coming into my life. I said…” her eyes were closing, “…I’d protect… you…”
I buried her in the woods with my hoshi no tama. I didn’t need it, not anymore. Part of my soul died when she did, and I would never give it to anyone else ever again.