VIII

To Keep a Fox

Jett takes the splint off Zuru’s leg. The fox tests his paw hesitantly, then dashes around in an excited circle. It has been ten days since Zuru was first entrusted to Jett’s care. Zuru trots around the yard.

Ruse is keeping a weather eye on him. He doesn’t want the three-tails to escape. He still has his mind set on getting money for that damned pelt, if it’s the last thing he does.

Zuru headbutts Jett’s hand, then trots out into the forest. Ruse growls, then turns to his nephew. “Don’t let him go, you stupid—”

Zuru comes trotting back. Then, he trots away again. Then, he comes back. Each time, it takes him a little longer to come back. “He’s just readjusting, Uncle,” Jett says.

“Dammit, boy! Do you know how much money that thing is worth?! Keep him in a cage, but don’t let him go!”

Zuru doesn’t come back again. The weather has taken a turn for the worse. The sky is now overcast and dark, heavy with the coming winter. The wind is bitter and blowing in from the wicked north, tearing the last few leaves away from the deciduous trees. All the plants are dead and dry. The reeds in the marsh whistle as they brush against each other. The forest seems dead, especially considering all the life it teemed with during the summer.

Ruse and Jett stand there in the cold, waiting for Zuru to come back. The day is short, and the night draws nearer as they stand there. Jett’s cheeks are flushed apple red by the time Ruse says, “He’s gone.”

Jett watches his breath rise into the gray sky, then looks at his uncle. “Yes,” he says. “He’s gone.”

“You let him go!” Ruse thunders. “Dammit, Jett! I told you, his hide is worth a million—millions! We’d be rich, boy, and you—dammit.”

Mrs. Ruse pokes her head out the door and calls, “Jett! Father! Come inside. It’s nearly dinnertime. What on earth is taking you so long?”

Jett turns away. “Coming Aunt,” he says.

Ruse stares at the horizon for a moment or two, before he turns away and walks back to the house. “Goddamn, good-for-nothing fox, and a goddamn good-for-nothing boy … ”

 

The days grow colder, and the snow begins to fall from the sky, softly at first, scattered across the forest floor. Then, before anyone seems to realize it, there’s a blanket of snow lying thickly atop the world. Jett tries to track Zuru when paw prints become visible in the snow, but to no avail. The fox is cleverer and trickier than he thought.

The days march on, from wet October to gray November to glacial December. The snow piles up, and the wolves howl from further away at night. Jett goes to his window to see if one of those calling is the three-tailed fox, but never does he see anything in the blackness, except a pair of glowing golden eyes.

One clear, crisp morning, however, there is barking in the yard. Jett is woken by it, and he goes skidding across the ice-ridden porch in his bare feet and his pyjamas. He runs almost all the way round to the main house before he sees the blond fox sitting in the snow-covered driveway.

“You!” he cries, nearly tripping over a raised board in the porch; the winter causes everything, even the very earth, to heave.

The fox barks some more, then trots toward the dark-haired human. He is holding something in two of his tails; the bushy appendages have come together to cradle the object like a pair of hands.

The three-tails leaps onto the porch and yips happily at Jett. He settles himself down at the human’s feet and looks up at him with adoring eyes. He sets the thing he’s carrying down on the icy boards. Jett examines it curiously; he can plainly see now that it’s a glowing ball, like a large pearl. He picks it up and turns it over a couple of times.

“What is it?” he asks the fox, tossing it back to him.

Zuru catches it deftly in his mouth and glares at Jett. Doesn’t the stupid human know enough to be careful with precious things? He sets it down on the porch again and transforms. He continues glaring at Jett.

“Don’t they teach you to be careful with other people’s stuff?” he asks, tilting his head.

Jett shrugs. “What is it?” he asks again.

Zuru picks it up. “My hoshi no tama,” he informs the dark-haired human.

“Your what?”

“Hoshi no tama,” the kitsune-jin repeats. “My star ball. It houses a portion of my soul and my powers. I will die if I am separated from it for a long period of time.”

Jett wants to protest that Zuru was separated from this thing for quite a while when he was injured; he certainly never saw the thing on the fox. Instead, he says, “Why are you showing it to me?”

Zuru raises an eyebrow. He thinks Jett must be a little dense. “Stupid,” he grumbles. “I’m not showing it to you. I’m giving it to you.”

Jett looks quite surprised. “Giving it to me?” he asks. “But—why? You just said—”

Zuru’s ears flatten out in annoyance. “Because,” he growls. “Why shouldn’t I? I owe you much for your kindnesses.”

Jett turns the pearl over in his hand. “But you’ll die without it.”

Zuru nods. “This way,” he says, “we will never be far from each other. Friends fall apart once they separate. They dream of visiting one another, but without any reason, they fail to find the time …”

He nods at the pearl. “I will have to find you.”

Jett frowns. “I plan on moving back to the city come the spring,” he says.

Zuru sighs heavily. “I thought you might,” he murmurs. He holds his hand out, asking for the hoshi no tama back.

Jett drops the ball into the outstretched hand. Zuru stands up. “Well,” he mutters, “I will remain indebted to you.”

He looks at Jett; Jett notices his eyes maintain their vulpine quality even in this semi-human state. “I’ll give you another gift,” he says.

“What?” Jett asks. “What will you give me?”

Zuru’s smirk is coy. “My name,” he says. “By knowing that, you at least can hold power over me.”

“What’s your name then?” Jett asks.

“Zuru,” the fox says. Then he clasps his hands and falls to his knees. He grovels. “I beg you to reconsider leaving the countryside,” he says. “Should you stay, the hoshi no tama is yours, and I will be at your beck and call. It is the least I can do to repay your kindness to me.”

Jett sighs heavily. “Zuru,” he murmurs.

The fox’s ears twitch at the sound of his name. Jett frowns. “I can’t stay here. I have to go back to the city. I live there. I have a house, a job, friends. What’s out here for me?”

Zuru doesn’t reply. Offering himself as a lowly servant seems to be an inadequate argument. “I still beg you to reconsider,” he murmurs.

Jett sighs. “I’ll think about it?”

Zuru nods. He looks at the hoshi no tama. Then he sets it down beside Jett’s hand. “I will leave it in your care until springtime. If you decide to leave, you will return it to me, yes?”

Then he looks up; his eyes are red with rising anger. Jett, for the first time, is scared of the demon. “If you do decide to leave, and do not return the hoshi no tama, I will forever be your enemy, even after I die.”

“I will give it back,” Jett promises, in earnest. “If I decide to leave.”

Zuru nods, then transforms and trots away into the forest. Jett turns the pearl over some more, contemplating it. Then he gets up and heads inside for breakfast.

After the meal is finished and he has helped Aunt with the dishes, Jett finds a bit of chain and puts the hoshi no tama on it. He loops it about his neck. Ruse frowns and inspects it. “Where’d you get that thing?” he asks his nephew, eyeing it critically.

“A friend gave it to me,” Jett says.

“It makes you look queer,” Ruse says. “Take it off.”

“No,” Jett says. “He asked me to keep it safe for him. I don’t want it to be stolen.”

Ruse huffs and turns away. Mrs. Ruse is putting dishes away in the kitchen. “Oh,” she says, “it’s from the little fox, isn’t it dear? I’ve always heard that they carry those things on them. It houses his soul, doesn’t it?”

Ruse looks intrigued by that. “Does it now?” he asks.

“But why would he give it away?” Mrs. Ruse asks.

Jett shrugs. “He felt he needed to repay his debts for our kindness.”

Ruse goes to grab the pearl from around his nephew’s neck. “I’ll tell you how he can repay us,” he grumbles.

Jett jerks back from his uncle’s questing grasp. “No,” he says, “if you try to bargain with him, I think he’ll become quite irate.”

“He’ll die without it, won’t he?” Ruse asks. “If he goes without it for any great length of time?”

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Ruse says. “That’s how the legends go, Father.”

“Aunt,” Jett hisses.

Ruse reaches for the pearl again. “So, we just hide this on him, and he’ll do anything to get it back, right?”

“Uncle,” Jett growls. “I am sure that if I asked him to, he would show himself to people. He feels he owes me favors. There is no need to resort to dirty tricks.”

“Ah,” Mrs. Ruse says, “the old ‘give a fox a good turn, and it will repay.’ There is some truth after all.”

“I don’t care,” Ruse says. “That damned fox is a trickster, and I won’t trust him so far as I can throw him, good intentions be damned. No, this way, we have leverage over him. He will do what I say, when I say.”

The conversation stops when footsteps are heard on the porch; all three glance up to see Lorne standing there, in full hunting regalia. The hounds are with him. “What of your little fox?” he says.

He is a changed man, Ruse notes with some amount of remorse. It looks as though he has spent weeks in the woods, and he notes the man has barely slept. His voice is unused and rough. His eyes are glassy; Ruse would be quick to guess that he’s gone mad.

“Gone,” Jett says.

Lorne smiles. “Back in the woods,” he says, and he turns about. The dogs follow obediently at their master’s heels.

The three watch him go. Ruse says, “Mother, make sure you lock the doors tonight.”

Mrs. Ruse only nods numbly. Jett fingers the hoshi no tama, and silently worries about Zuru.

 

Zuru, meanwhile, has trotted back into the woods. The wolves have decided that Zuru served his punishment in the care of animal-haters. In their opinion, the Ruses could be nothing but—how else could they kill their leader?

He is half-way from Kuni no Kori when he encounters Zorro. The nine-tails looks decidedly dejected and stares at the snow on the ground. The tracks of one human and two dogs are clearly visible. It would seem that Lorne has been out hunting again.

Zuru sits down, just a little ways away from his father. Zorro looks grieved, he decides. “Father?” he asks at last, wagging his tails.

“Zuru,” he says, “I must apologize. You must understand that my actions were the only logical course of action. Yin Mi is yours once this season is out.”

Zuru nods. It is understandable. He was unable to satisfy his vixen’s needs, and so, she sought the nearest male. Zuru understands. Yin Mi will whelp in the spring, with Zuru’s half-siblings. He will be expected to help his father bring food to the kits.

Zorro heaves a long sigh, then says, “You have given away your hoshi no tama. You are a fool.”

“It is in good hands,” Zuru replies. “Jett does not know whether he will remain or if he will go when spring comes. He has promised to give it back if he goes.”

Zorro shakes his head. “What about Ruse? You never know. Perhaps this Jett has acted simply to gain your trust, and will work with Ruse to kill you.”

Zuru tosses his head. “I will be his bitter enemy then,” he says. “And haunt him until his dying days. You should not worry so. If I am killed, there is always the kits Yin Mi will bear for you.” \

Zorro shakes his head. “You do not understand,” he says. “You do not remember what it is like to lose family. You see the sorrow Lorne causes among our brethren; to lose you would cause me great grief.”

Zuru moves to his father’s side. The older fox stands so that they are flank to flank. Their tails touch and tangle, a clear sign of their affection. Zuru looks up, at the snow falling from the branches of the cedar trees. A finch hops from branch to branch, calling out.

“Who is Zora?”

He waits for his father’s reaction. Zorro grimaces, then frowns deeply. He looks more worried. “You visited Lorne, did you?” he asks.

“While I was playing my trick on the humans. Lorne saw my human form and called me ‘Zora.’ I am left to wonder who she was.”

He gives his father a stern look. Zorro takes a long time to reply. “This is why you should not interfere with humans,” he says at last. His face is tense.

“Why?”

Zorro laughs. “Why? Why indeed … to stop the trappings and the killings,” he replies at last. “Lorne moved out here after his father died. He was the only child, so he inherited the estate.”

He looks pensive, reflecting on times gone by. “Lorne never much liked any wildlife. He was attacked by a wolf when he was small—surely, you saw the scar.”

“Above his right eye,” Zuru replies without hesitation. “Why?”

Zorro shrugs. “It was an Interloper,” he replies, “not one of our wolves. The wolf came far from the Northwest and frothed at the mouth. The pack drove him off, so he went into town. Lorne was playing, and the thing attacked him.”

Zuru does not blame Lorne for not liking wolves; Zuru has been attacked by them, and he must say, he does not like them much.

“So,” Zorro says, “his hatred of creatures only spread. The only animals he likes are his hounds.”

The Emperor sighs and hangs his head. “The killings were a large issue. Our kindred dwindled. The humans’ town was expanding and more vehicles were coming through; we saw many of our kin get hit and die.”

Zuru does not say anything. He has seen many of his own contemporaries get hit and die. Zorro continues. “It was a great crisis. So, I being so young and clever, set myself about the task of stopping Lorne.”

Zorro closes his eyes. “I thought I would seduce him and become his wife. I thought that if his wife loved foxes so, that she might make him stop hunting those who live in Kuni no Kori.”

The older fox licks his chops. “Oh, it went well for a while. Lorne fell for Zora, he did. I think he must have loved her. But—I don’t think my love of foxes communicated to him well enough.”

Zuru frowns. “He has spent all these years killing foxes, waiting for Zora’s return. He has made clothes and sheets, rugs and wall tapestries, furniture throws, all from fox hides. He thinks Zora loves only their fur.”

He gags a little. “He has made a wedding garb for Zora, a dress with tails and a hat and muff and cape. He says that he and Zora should be married in the winter, like foxes.”

Zorro looks sick. His breath is shaking. “Then I am at fault for Lorne’s incessant trapping. That was never the intention, but I suppose he and I never understood each other fully …”

“Why did you leave him?” Zuru asks. They have almost come back to Kuni no Kori.

Zorro’s lips tighten. “It was during my sojourn there that he first got the dogs. He thought that my love of foxes was not for the creatures themselves, but for their furs. He bought the dogs to hunt them—and I was afraid they should discover me. They almost did, so I fled.”

“And Zora has never been seen to Lorne since?” Zuru asks, tipping his head to the side inquisitively.

Zorro frowns. “No,” he replies. “I face him now in kitsune-jin form only, or, if I must, through a dream. Only this once has he dared to shoot me.”

Zuru sniffs, then looks at his father. “I think then,” he says slowly, “that it is time Zora cleared up this mess. Perhaps if she will give Lorne her favor, he will take it to himself to stop killing the foxes.”

Zorro shakes his head. “Father! He loves Zora with all his heart! If she reveals to him what she is, and why she loves the foxes, and promises him a lifetime of good favor, should he only stop—”

“Enough of this,” Zorro growls. They have come into earshot of Kuai and Umisen’yamasen. They trot to the den, side by side.

He does not see Yin Mi. She is being guarded by his father. Zuru does not begrudge him this right; if Yin Mi were his vixen, he would not let her associate with other dogs. Zuru does not mind; for the winter, he has his own little human to toy with.

In the morning light, Zuru trots up to the lodge. Jett opens the door for him easily, and once it is closed, Zuru takes the form of a human being. He presses Jett back to the bed and growls, tails swishing. “I let you mount me,” he says, “I think you ought to return the favor.”

“Not now,” Jett huffs. “Uncle is out and about.”

Zuru blinks, then admires the hoshi no tama about Jett’s neck. “It looks good,” he tells the human. “As if it has always belonged there.”

Jett huffs again and sulks because the kitsune-jin is still atop him. Mrs. Ruse calls for breakfast. Zuru grins. “Perhaps we’ll have pancakes,” he says. He much enjoyed the treat, served with maple syrup, during his sojourn in the lodge.

He leans closer to Jett and hisses, “Then, perhaps, we can follow up with a little bit of sausage.”

He hops off the human and goes off, out on to the porch. Jett prepares to follow suit, but freezes when he hears the gunshots going off.

Zuru yelps and comes dashing back across the porch, trailed hotly by Lorne. The man is screaming wildly. Jett doesn’t know what, but he hears the words “filthy,” “vixen,” and “whore!”

Zuru clings to Jett. Lorne snarls at him, then lowers the gun. “Aye, so she got her hooks into you,” he snarls.

He takes aim. “Then I’ll kill ye both, and spare you the heartache brought on by her treachery!”

“What in the name of the devil is going—Lorne!” Ruse shouts as he bumbles around the corner. “Lorne, put down that gun, right now, you fool!”

“I’ll kill them both!” the man hollers.

“I’ll kill you!” Ruse barks.

“I’ll kill her, that rotten fox, and I’ll kill him—disgusting fox lover!”

“Stop it!” Ruse growls.

Lorne fires a shot, missing Jett’s head by a hairsbreadth. Ruse shakes his fist at the huntsman. “Lorne!” he bellows. “You filthy swine! Put down that gun, right now!”

Another shot pierces the air. Zuru cries out, and there’s blood spattered all over Jett’s clothes. The kitsune-jin slumps, and Jett manages to catch him before he falls. Ruse runs at Lorne, but the man fires again, startling the rotund man.

“Stop!” calls a feminine voice from the woods.

All heads turn toward the lone woman standing in the woods. She is dressed all in white, and her fox ears stand prominently atop her head. Her nine tails are swishing; the sun is at the right angle to illuminate the world behind her and set about her an unearthly glow. Her hands are folded; they look delicate, dainty.

All of them stare up at her. Lorne’s jaw goes slack. “Z-zora,” he stutters. The gun hits the ground.

Zuru’s claws are digging into Jett’s shirt. The human tries his best not to wince. “Fa-ather,” Zuru hisses, though it’s so quiet only Jett can hear it. He looks down at the kitsune-jin, but Zuru is too rapt with the fox-lady all in white.

Lorne looks struck. The fox-lady’s hands are nearly across her mouth; her words are but a whisper. “Lorne.” She closes her eyes. “This is not what I wanted from you.”

He stares at her, then roars, “What do you mean?!”

She doesn’t even flinch. “When I said I loved foxes, I didn’t mean that all I loved was their fur.” Her lips pull into a frown. “Lorne, we have had a grave misunderstanding.”

Lorne’s teeth gnash together. “You mean that you’ve tricked me, you disgusting vixen! You’re one of them—you tricked me, you tricked me!”

He grabs the gun. “No!” Zora cries. “Lorne! Please!”

Lorne takes aim at Zuru and Jett. Zora runs down the hill, and latches onto the old human, attempting to wrest the rifle away from him. “Don’t!” she cries. “Oh, Lorne, don’t! If you love me—”

She falls to her knees and weeps. “Oh!” she cries, hiding her face against some of the folds of her dress. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot him, Lorne!”

The hunter frowns down at her, but can’t be moved to shoot. He slowly lowers the gun. Zora continues to weep at his feet. “And what is he to you?” Lorne growls at last, then tosses Zuru a dark glare.

“My son,” Zora tells Lorne.

For a moment, the hunter looks enraged. His love, the love who abandoned him—a fox, a vixen, in love with someone else, enough to bear child! Then, he looks at the ground. He does not wonder why Zora left him any longer; a fox, living with a fox hunter? The idea seems unbearable. He spent all these years trapping and killing foxes; oh, how she must hate him!

The crushing weight of how much he has hurt her sinks him to the ground. He has hurt her, so she has hurt him in return. In the end, it was his own actions that drove her away from him. Is there any hope of forgiveness?

“Zora …”

She dries the tears from her eyes. “If you love me,” she whispers, “you will atone for these mistakes. I will forgive you.”

Lorne is torn between scorning her—how dare she offer him forgiveness, after she hurt him!—and begging for her forgiveness.

She looks up at him, and her eyes shine ethereal in the morning light. He remembers how she bewitched him in the first place. She leans much closer to him, and whispers something to him. Lorne does not know what to say to her. Wordlessly, he lets her take the gun from him.

She bows her head.

 

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