Chapter II: Around the Neighborhood [Foxtrot]
Zuru does go on, and trots on over to Lorne’s. Lorne is an elderly human who lives on the edge of the forest. He is a huntsman and keeps fox hounds. He claims to know where Kuni no Kori is, and firmly believes that the love of his life was killed because of the Kitsune no Youkai. He ruthlessly traps foxes for this reason. He makes a pretty penny on selling their pelts, something the Kitsune no Youkai greatly resent him for. Many of Zuru’s people feel that the humans are rewarding Lorne for murdering their people. Some of the extremists want to converge on the humans and punish them. So far, they are a small group, however, and Zorro has been able to stop them from moving.
Zuru always finds some humor in the fact Lorne’s name means “fox” in the local human tongue.
He trots into Lorne’s yard, unafraid of the dogs as they bark and bay. A simple swish of his tails will be enough to keep them at bay. A true fox might have been at a terrible disadvantage, but a demon fox was cleverer and more powerful.
Before announcing himself to Lorne, he trots over to the compost pile and digs through it. Lorne feeds his scraps to his dogs most often, but sometimes, there is a morsel or two for those who would dig deep for buried treasure. Zuru knows this, and noses through it. He finds a bit of egg, and some rotten berries that the dogs refused to touch. Zuru doesn’t mind. Food is food, after all.
The dogs are still barking at him. He’s still in his guise of a red fox, so they believe he is but that. He ignores their snuffling noses. They snarl and growl at him. He leaps off the cement casement surrounding the compost pile and trots over to the birdbath. The dogs follow, barking and snapping.
Zuru hops up onto the birdbath and begins to drink the water. It’s an old thing, and Lorne never changes the water in it. Zuru’s not even sure why he has it there. Lorne is no lover of birds.
Zuru can see his reflection in the rusty water. His sharp eyes look back at him, even as his tongue sends ripples across the calm surface. The dogs are barking still. Zuru wonders if Lorne is out; if not, he must be getting hard of hearing.
Fed and watered, Zuru leaps back off the birdbath, then trots across the yard to the door. He sits down on and barks, loudly, waiting for Lorne to appear. The dogs have grown wary of him now, and sit farther back, still snarling. They won’t let him go easily, but they’ll let their master pass judgment on him first.
Lorne still doesn’t appear. Zuru backs up a little bit, and wails. It is a haunting sound, sometimes known among humans as the “vixen’s wail.” It is not as eerie as the wolf’s howl, but it is enough to make Lorne come to the door. He knows the call well.
The door bangs open, and the man stands there, disheveled and armed with his rifle. Zuru smirks, yips, and leaps about. He runs straight at the dogs, who bark and turn to snap at him. He bounds over their heads, then continues dashing back down the overgrown path. He pauses at the fence, wagging his tail. Lorne has taken aim at him, so he barks, then dashes away into the woods.
He makes his way toward the river; Zorro will meet with Lorne there. Zuru suspects that there must have been a kill, and Zorro wants to know if it was Lorne or another hunter.
He wends his way between trees, listening to the dogs barking as he trots along. They’re getting closer, so he picks up his pace. He runs up and down knolls, and doubles back in places to confuse his scent.
He can see the creek when Lorne comes out of the bush at him, rifle poised to fire. Zuru startles, then ducks behind a tree and blends. He hears the gun click, then lower. Lorne swears and looks around for his quarry. Even when he ducks behind the tree, even when the dogs help him search, he cannot find Zuru.
It doesn’t matter much, because Zorro’s barking at him. The Nine Tails is standing at the edge of the creek, but when Lorne and his dogs arrive, they find not their foxy quarry, but a tall, blond man.
Zuru takes that as his cue to leave and trots off through the woods, heading more toward the source of the stream, away from Lorne’s home. He smacks his lips as he thinks about the chicken coop old farmer MacRaleigh keeps, some five miles away from the edge of the forest and Lorne’s little establishment. He’ll take a boo around there, after he pops on over to the lodge.
The lodge is a sort of hotel, located at the other end of the stream. It’s not directly in the forest, but it borders on it as the terrain gives way to higher cliffs. It was built sometime in the past, by whom, Zuru does not know. It was built even before his time, making it the oldest building in the area, according to Umisen’yamasen.
What Zuru does know about the lodge is that it is currently owned by an old couple, by the surname of Ruse. They are friendly people, but they rarely see visitors since the town is so small. Most of the time, there is just themselves. They do not appreciate Zuru’s frequent visits, but they leave him well enough alone.
Today, there is a strange vehicle parked in the gravel lot of the lodge. Zuru trots up from the woods, just in time to hear old man Ruse telling his new guests to “be wary of the fox. He’s been hanging around here.”
Zuru smirks and makes his way into the woods again. He watches from the cover of the underbrush as the newly arrived make their way to their assigned room in the lodge. He grows bored of waiting for them to come out, so he makes his rounds.
The Ruses are an incredibly wasteful couple, and, though they don’t keep a compost pile, they do keep a pile of garbage about five hundred yards from the lodge. Why, Zuru does not know. He thinks them somewhat stupid; honestly, what kind of people live out in the middle of the forest, leave garbage lying around, and expect not to attract animals? He thinks they are lucky they haven’t attracted any bears. Yet.
Zuru noses through the pile, his ears twitching. He knows Wolf and Lynxie like to lurk here. While he is disguised like this, he does not want to risk an attack by them. While he might incite Lorne’s dogs, Wolf and Lynxie are different. They will not hesitate to attack him.
Zuru does not much like other animals, and Coyote is no exception. Zuru knows that Coyote sometimes make the trip from their favorite hunting grounds in the farmers’ fields to scope out the Ruses’ garbage pile. When he scents Coyote’s stale trail near the garbage pile, he decides to go. Coyote has not been gone long and might still be near.
Zuru trots back toward the woods. He trots across the porch of the lodge. He hears the humans talking to each other, however, so he sits down by the door and listens. He sits there for several minutes before the door swings open. The human woman startles at seeing him there. He gives her a bored look, then looks back out at the woods.
He has no desire to go inside. He has been inside human dwellings before. After seeing Lorne’s home, however, he has no more desire to go inside than he would have desired to walk into a trap and be shot.
The woman takes a step toward him. Without batting an eye, he moves aside for her. It is common courtesy in the realm of Kuni no Kori that a todd move aside for a vixen, for it is vixens that give life. His mother, Kuai, had been the most respected vixen of all while she lived. Even his father had moved aside for her. He lets the man pass him as well, for he knows if he causes a disturbance, Ruse will have Lorne come up and hunt him.
The couple head round the porch, toward the lot. Zuru watches them go, then trots back into the woods. The scent of Coyote is still fresh in his mind and spurs him to move faster.
The afternoon shadows are growing long. Zuru makes his way down through the woods. He crosses the road and heads out to MacRaleigh’s. He makes sure to avoid the creek at all costs. One can never predict how a meeting between the King of Foxes and the most infamous fox hunter in Kuni no Kori will go.
Zuru makes his way out of the forest, into the meadow. This is the flood plain of the creek, and the area is marshy. Zuru splashes through the water, never minding the mud, because he smells Coyote thick in the area. He doesn’t really want Coyote to come out to play. It’s not that he couldn’t take those dogs, but he doesn’t really feel like playing now.
He comes out of the marsh and trots through the dried ears of corn. They stand much taller than he does in his current form, so he is unseen as he moves through them. They swish and brush against his fur. He might steal some later, if he lurks long enough. The stench of Coyote is getting thicker.
He turns sharply to the left and trots out of the cornfields, into the backyard of MacRaleigh. The farmer keeps his chickens close, just for cases such as Zuru, who would try to steal the poultry. MacRaleigh is ever-vigilant, even in the dead of night. His ear is always tuned to the sound of his hens, and if the rooster crows before dawn, he knows something is wrong. If a creature gets away with one too many birds, it is not uncommon for the farmer to invite Lorne down to shoot anything that moves near the coop.
Lorne is occupied today, Zuru knows, so he boldly trots up to the coop. He knows the farmer might shoot him as well; MacRaleigh is no slouch with his rifle. He simply likes Lorne to come up, because Lorne has nothing better to do, and Lorne also tends to traps better than MacRaleigh does.
Zuru presses his eye to one of the cracks between the wooden boards. A hen’s black eye stares back at him, before she bwaks loudly and flaps her wings. Zuru licks his lips and trots about the front of the coop. He pokes his head in the open door and licks his chops again.
MacRaleigh is in the coop, and he’s now tending to the upset hen. He must feel the fox’s eyes on him, for he turns. He takes in the creature standing there, before he grabs one of the tools—a spade happens to be closest to him.
He comes at Zuru, stomping his feet, and swinging the spade menacingly. “Go on!” he cries in a booming voice. “Get! Get away from my chickens, you scoundrel!”
Zuru contemplates the metal flashing back and forth in the sunlight and lays back his ears, much like a cat trying to locate a noise. MacRaleigh’s face is sweaty and red, with a bit of stubble and a lot of dirt. He seems to be growing more concerned that Zuru doesn’t flee.
Well, Zuru is not a stupid fox, and he will not let MacRaleigh catch him so easily. So, he turns when the man steps on a creaky board and flees. Tonight, he will not eat chicken. Perhaps he will tomorrow.
The shadows have grown even longer as Zuru trots back across the corn fields. He hears sharp barking nearby, and he moves faster, plunging into the marsh. Coyote is beginning to come out into the night. Zuru would do well to be back in Kuni no Kori before the sun has set completely.
Zuru arrives home in the moonlight of the night. The Kitsune no Youkai have gathered in a thicket. Some of them are gnashing their teeth together. His father is standing in their midst, trying to call them all to attention. Somehow, his voice seems weak and inadequate.
“That human! He has no prudence!”
“Killing the kits!”
Ah, so that is what this is about. Zuru had heard that some of this year’s kits had gone missing quite suddenly. Zorro had promised that he would look into the matter. He must have suspected Lorne.
“And to add insult! He shoots our Emperor!”
“He will heal,” Umisen’yamasen says, but his warbling old voice is ignored. “He will not die.”
Zuru snorts; of course Zorro will not die. He has nine tails; he has attained immortality. Zuru trots closer to the crowd, dropping his disguise. His blond fur shimmers in the moonlight, and his three tails wave in the air, signaling his arrival and his rank.
“Make way for the Crown Prince!” cries one of the vixens, and he wades his way through the crowd of vulpine bodies to Zorro’s side.
“Lorne has shot you then?” he asks, frowning at his father, admiring his nine tails and looking for the wound.
Zorro’s paw is red with blood. “A wound,” he says. “But it will not kill. It will not maim. It shall heal.”
“You might limp,” says Kuenai. She is Zuru’s grandmother, Zorro’s mother; she is the vixen of Umisen’yamasen. She no longer rules, but she holds great status among the Kitsune no Youkai. She looks at her son disdainfully.
“The bullet is not lodged,” Zorro replies, raising his head. “With proper care, and without infection, it will heal and no damage will have been done.”
“Your pride,” growls one of the lower-ranking foxes. “It hurts your pride to be shot at by a human! And as your kinfolk, your subjects, it hurts ours as well.”
“We must avenge the kits!” one of the vixens wails. She is one who lost her kits.
“We must make it clear that the Emperor of the Kitsune won’t stand for this kind of abuse.”
“Why do we not take their children and see how they feel?”
“Now!” Zorro cries. “Hear! That is not the way to stop Lorne—Lorne has no children to take, and taking others will only turn the humans against us. We must not anger them, or they will employ Lorne in his demonic work.”
There is some yapping, some growling, but eventually, the dissenters are silenced by Umisen’yamasen’s warbled, “Heed your Emperor!”
The group slowly dissipates. Zuru turns into his father’s side, letting his tails tangle with the older fox’s nine. Zorro looks down at him, then looks at Umisen’yamasen. “Coyote is drawing near again,” Zuru tells his father in a hushed voice.
Zorro sighs. “Perhaps Lorne will take to shooting them?” He looks disdainfully at his paw. To think, the great Nine-Tailed Emperor, wounded by a petty human!
He takes a step, and he limps. Zuru knows that he was lying; perhaps it will not be a pronounced limp, but there will be something off his movement from now on. He will no longer be quite as graceful as he once was.
“We will warn the Kitsune no Youkai,” Zorro says, and his tone is defeated. He sounds very tired. Even Umisen’yamasen does not sound as tired, and he is many years older than his son.
“Lorne is getting on in years,” Zuru tells his father. “He is only mortal, like all humans. Perhaps his day is coming sooner than we might think.”
“When it does,” Zorro growls, “we must dance upon his grave.”
Zuru notes that the older fox is dragging his tails, as if he cannot hold them up straight any longer; they have become too much of a burden to bear. Zuru walks close to his father, flank to flank at times, in case the mighty Lord of Kuni no Kori should stumble and fall. There is something melancholy about the way the detritus of the forest floor collects in the Emperor’s luxurious fur, and Zuru aches a little at the sight of the pine needles, the dead leaves, the burrs, clinging to his father. The older fox looks defeated, so very broken.
Lorne has done more damage than he knows.