Alimentary, My Dear WatsonLawrence SchimelThe scene was unnervingly familiar as I called upon my friend Sherlock Holmes to wish him the compliments of the season. He was lounging upon the sofa in his purple dressing gown, his pipe rack within reach upon his right, and the morning papers in a crumpled pile upon the floor where he had dropped them after a thorough study. Save for the fact that it was the day after Christmas rather than the second day past, and that the hat under examination was a sharp-looking top hat rather than a seedy and worn hard-felt type, I would have thought I had stepped back into the events which I chronicled in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."And where, pray tell, is the goose?" I asked in a loud tone as I entered the room, hoping my attempt at humor might alleviate my uneasiness. "You have not, once again, eaten it before my arrival, I hope."Holmes set the lens and hat upon a wooden chair beside the sofa and smiled at me warmly. "My dear fellow, it is rabbit this time, rather than the goose of the case you allude to. Mrs. Hudson is preparing it as we speak. Meanwhile, tell me what you can deduce from this." He offered me his lens and I took the hat from where it hung upon the back of the chair. I recalled all that Holmes had been able to deduce of Henry Baker's identity and situation from that hat and tried my best to extrapolate similarly from the details I noticed upon the one I held. It was an ordinary, if rather large, top hat in all regards, save for a slip of paper tucked under the brim which declared: "n this size 10/6 and a small stain where a splash of tea had fallen against it. I pondered these facts, and at last declared, "He was not a very careful man, nor overly concerned with his appearance. He has bought himself a very fashionable hat, yet one which does not fit him properly and dips down over his eyes. Nor, having spilled tea upon his own hat, should he have then ventured forth unconcerned with such a prominent stain upon the velvet had he cared about the image he presented to the world. Unless, of course, there was an afternoon struggle which resulted in the stain, and in his haste to flee, the man simply donned his stained hat. Have we a crime to solve this time, or is this a whimsical inquiry?" I replaced the hat and lens upon the chair and waited for Holmes' judgment of my surmises. "Very good, Watson. You are losing your timidity in drawing inferences. However, one can also tell that the man is short in stature, since the angle of the stain indicates that the hat was being worn at the time it was acquired, rather than lying beside him upon the table or a chair waiting to be spilled upon. Therefore your conclusion that a struggle occurred is most probable. Only, the man did not retrieve his hat when he fled, since we have it before us. It was found in the residence of one Mr. Charles Dodgson, who is presently missing. Will you accompany me for a visit to his residence this afternoon?"I nodded my assent."Good, then sit and share a bit of rabbit before we go. I hear Mrs. Hudson upon the stair." "The police declared that insufficient time had passed to warrant an investigation," Holmes informed me as we walked to Dodgson's apartments, "but on the implorings of his landlady, Mrs. Bugle, and for the sake and safety of his young niece, Alice, who lived with him, I consented. I must confess, I was intrigued by the puzzle she presented: though he had had no callers, she found the unusual hat, which you have already examined, in his study, a large crack in the looking glass, though she heard no sound of either a struggle or of glass breaking, and the white rabbit of which we partook just recently, lying on the floor of the study, its neck wrung."We had arrived at Dodgson's apartments, and I mulled over the information Holmes had given me as Mrs. Bugle admitted us and led us up to the study, where she introduced us to Dodgson's niece, Alice. As is quite common for young girls, she had set up a tea party for some imaginary friends of hers, with whom she had been conversing as we entered. She stroked a large grey cat, who sat in her lap."That's a handsome watch you've got," Holmes remarked to the girl. "Was it your uncle's?"The girl pulled it out of her pocket to display. "My uncle's? No, it belonged to the March Hare."As if a premonition, my stomach began to growl at the mention of the rabbit, and I could not help wondering if we had just eaten the girl's favorite pet. "You realize that it is set fifteen minutes ahead of the hour," Holmes continued, while looking about the table where the tea service was set. "Yes," the girl answered, "he was always late, and thus had set his watch ahead in an attempt to arrive at the proper time.""Did the March Hare also wear this?" Holmes asked, showing her the hat Mrs. Bugle had brought to him."Aha!" she said, when she saw it. "So that's where his hat disappeared to. That belongs to the Mad Hatter. He's been frantic over it since yesterday afternoon, when he left it here. It's his only hat.""He came to tea with you?""It's the only way to get him to come, you understand, and he had to come, so they could help me. They had to bring it with them.""It?" asked Holmes, pointing to a little bottle that rested on the table. A paper label round its neck bore the words drink me in large letters. The girl nodded."And what would this do?" Holmes inquired."It makes one smaller."Holmes did not bat an eye at this outlandish remark. "Is there an antidote?""There is," the girl replied, and pointed to a cake in a glass box beneath the table. Bending closer to observe it further, I noticed it bore the words eat me written upon it in currants."I see," said Holmes, who proceeded to dip his finger into the bottle and taste thereof. He shrunk noticeably, around two or three inches, and all his clothing accordingly. "Curiouser and curiouser," Holmes declared after the transformation had taken place. He looked thoughtful a moment, considering the finger he had just tasted, then continued, "It has a sort of mixed flavour of cherry tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, and toffee.""And also hot buttered toast.""Yes," Holmes agreed, "and also hot buttered toast. And why did the March Hare and the Mad Hatter need to bring it to you?"The girl looked between Holmes and myself, her lower lip trembling. Trustingly, she decided to place her confidence in Holmes. Looking back to him, she began, "At night he would climb into bed with me and touch me and—" She broke down into such a fit of crying that she was soon surrounded by a puddle of tears. I cannot explain it, since she must have cried more water than her body could possibly have contained to produce such a puddle. But Holmes and I both witnessed it.I wanted to reach out and comfort the child, but, especially in view of the circumstances for her tears, forbore. Holmes steered the discussion onto a different matter. "That's a lovely cat you have." "Dinah?" The girl blew her nose delicately on the sleeve of her dress and patted at her eyes to dry her tears. "Why, yes, she is. Such a capital one for catching mice, and oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why, she'll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!""Or a man," Holmes asked, "shrunk down to the size of a mouse?" Dinah gave a large smile, and slowly vanished, beginning with the end of her tail and ending with her grin, which remained some time after the rest of her had disappeared. Holmes took these unusual occurrences in much calmer stride than myself. "You might," he even ventured to remark, when we were back at Baker Street, "write in your notes that he died of consumption, if you're willing to interpret the term loosely." He smiled, turned away from me, and began an alchemical distillation of the contents of that mysterious cake, in order to determine how much he should consume to return him to his proper height. I saw no evidence that his humor was an attempt to alleviate uneasiness, as my own earlier attempts had been. I was amazed at his lack of ponderings or attempts to explain the many inexplicable events we had witnessed that day. Justice had been done in the girl's favor, he had declared, and was content, evidently, to let the case rest, solved if unexplainable.I shook my head and stared at his back a moment while he worked. At this rate, I thought to myself as I began to prepare my notes, he'll have me believe in no less than six impossible things before breakfast! Fox TailsRichard ParksI was just outside of Kyoto, close on the trail of a fox spirit, when the ghost appeared. It manifested as a giant red lantern with a small mouth and one large eye, and blocked access to a bridge I needed to cross. While it was true that ghosts made the best informants, their sense of timing could be somewhat lacking."I have information, Yamada-san," it said."I'm not looking for information. I'm looking for a fox," I said and started to brush past it."A silver fox with two tails? Sometimes appears as a human female named Kuzunoha?"The lantern suddenly had my full attention. "I'm listening.""You're chasing a youkai pretending to be Lady Kuzunoha. You really do not want to catch it, if you get my meaning."I did. As monsters went, youkai ran the gamut from "mildly annoying" to "slurp your intestines like hot noodles." By the time you knew which sort you were dealing with, it was usually too late."How do I know you're telling me the truth?"The lantern looked disgusted. "The other rei said you were smart, Yamada-san. How? You can follow that illusion until it gets tired of the game and eats you. Or we can reach an agreement. That is up to you." The lantern pretended to look away, unconcerned, but having only the one eye made it very difficult to glance at someone sideways without him knowing it."You're saying you know where Lady Kuzunoha is? What do you want in exchange?""Two bowls, plus prayers for my soul at the temple of your choice.""One bowl, and I haven't been inside a temple since I was seven. I'm not going to start on your account."I knew it would all come down to just how hungry the ghost was, but I wasn't worried—I'd already spotted the drool. It was staining the lantern's paper. The thing grumbled something about miserly bastards, but gave in."Very well, but do it properly.""Always," I said. "Now tell me where I can find Lady Kuzunoha."The ghost knew I was good for it. Information was the lifeblood of any nobleman's proxy, and only a fool would cheat an informant once a deal was agreed. I wasn't a fool . . . most of the time."Lady Kuzunoha is in Shinoda Forest."I sighed deeply. "I don't appreciate you wasting my time, rei. My patron already had the place searched! She's not there.""If the idiot hadn't sent his army he might have found her. She had more of a romantic rendezvous in mind, ne? If you're really looking for her, that's where she is. Go there yourself if you don't believe me.""All right, but remember—I may not be intimate with temples but I do have contacts. If you're lying to me, I'll come back with a tinderbox and a priest who specializes. Do you understand me?""She's there, I tell you. Now honor our bargain."I reached inside my robe and pulled out a bag of uncooked rice already measured out. I took a pair of wooden chopsticks and shoved them point first through the opening of the bag and held the offering in the palms of my hands before the lantern."For the good of my friend . . . uh, what's your name?""Seita.""—Seita-san."The bag floated out of my hands and shriveled like a dead leaf in a winter's wind. In a moment the pitiful remnants of the offering drifted to the ground in front of the bridge and the lantern let out a deep sigh of contentment."Quality stuff," it said. "I hope we can do business again.""Maybe, if your story proves true and Lady Kuzunoha doesn't send any more youkai after me.""But Lady Kuzunoha didn't . . . ahh, please forget I said that." For a moment I thought the lantern was just looking for another offering, but that wasn't it. The thing was actually scared, and there aren't many things short of an exorcist that will scare a ghost."If she didn't send it, who did?"Just before it winked out like a snuffed candle, the lantern whispered, "Yamada-san, there isn't that much rice in Kyoto." The servant who had come to my home the day before claimed to be from Lord Abe no Yasuna. At first I didn't believe him, but I wasn't so prosperous that I could chance turning down work. I also couldn't risk the potential insult to Lord Abe if the servant was telling the truth; even the Emperor would think twice before courting the Abe family's displeasure.Like most members of the Court, the Abe family's ancestral lands were elsewhere, but they kept a palatial residence within the city to be close to the seat of power. Courtiers and supplicants waited two deep within the walled courtyard, but the servant ushered me right through. I didn't miss the raised eyebrows and muttering that followed in our wake. It didn't bother me; I was used to it.Technically I was of noble birth since the minor lordling who was my father lowered himself to acknowledge me. Yet I had no inheritance, no regular patron, and no political connections, so the main difference between someone such as myself and your typical peasant farmer was that the farmer knew where his next meal was coming from. Yet, if it hadn't been for that accident of birth, people like Abe no Yasuna wouldn't deal with me in the first place, so I guess I should count my blessings. One of these days I'll get around to it.I was ushered in to the Abe family reception hall. "Throne room" would have been a better description, and not too far from the truth. The Abe family counted more than a few actual royalty in their family tree, including the occasional emperor. The man himself was there, waiting for me. He was tall and imposing, probably no more than forty. Handsome, I would say. There was a peppering of gray in his black hair, but no more than that. He seemed distracted. Kneeling at a discreet distance was an older lady. At first glance I assumed she was a servant, but then I got a better look at her kimono, not to mention her face, and saw the family resemblance. It was unusual for a noblewoman to greet male guests save behind a screen, but perhaps the circumstances were unusual. I suspected they might be.I bowed low. "You sent for me, lord?"He studied me intently for several seconds before speaking. "Yamada no Goji. Your reputation for effectiveness . . . and discretion, precedes you. I trust it is deserved."It was all I could do to keep from smiling. A delicate matter. Good—delicate matters paid the best. "I am at my lord's service."Lord Abe turned to the kneeling woman. "Mother, I need to speak with Yamada-san alone. Boring business.""Family business," said the old woman dryly as she rose, "but do as you will. It seems you must, these days."Mother. Now I understood. I had heard of Abe no Akiko by reputation, as had nearly everyone in Kyoto. She had been a famous beauty in her day and, judging from what I could see of her now, that day was not long past. She also had a reputation for being a fierce advocate of her family's position at court and was rumored to have put more than one rival out of the game permanently. Still, that wasn't an unusual rumor for any courtier who'd lasted more than a few seasons. More to the point, she wasn't the one who had summoned meLord Abe was silent for a few moments, either collecting his thoughts or making sure his mother was out of earshot; I couldn't tell which."Have you ever been married, Yamada-san?" he said finally."I have not, lord.""I was, for a while, to a lovely woman named Kuzunoha. I rather enjoyed it, but love and happiness are illusions, as the scriptures say."I was beginning to get the drift. "Pardon my impertinence, but when did she leave?"Lord Abe looked grim. "Two days ago.""And you wish for me to find her?"Lord Abe hesitated. "The matter is a bit more complicated than that, as I'm sure you've already guessed. Please follow me."Despite Lord Abe's confidence, I hadn't guessed much about the situation at all, beyond the obvious. Wives left husbands for numerous reasons, and vice versa, and this wouldn't be the first time I'd been sent after one or the other. Lord Abe's position was such that he had apparently been able to keep the matter quiet; I'd certainly heard nothing of it. Still, the situation was unfortunate but not a real scandal. I followed as Lord Abe led through a small partition leading to a tiny room behind the dais where Lord Abe had received me. We came to a screen that opened onto another courtyard, and beyond that was the roofed wall that surrounded the entire residence complex. There was another gate visible.Lord Abe stopped at the screen. It took me a few seconds to realize that he wasn't looking beyond it but at it. Someone had written a message on the shoji screen in flowing script. It was a poem of farewell, but, despite its obvious beauty, that was not what got my attention. It was Lady Kuzunoha's confession, clearly stated, that she was not a woman at all but a fox spirit he had once rescued on the grounds of the Inari Shrine and that she could no longer remain with Lord Abe as his wife. The poem ended: "If you would love me again, find me in Shinoda Forest." The poem was signed "Reluctant Kuzunoha.""My lord, are you certain this is your wife's script?""Without question. She always had the most beautiful calligraphy. She could copy any text of the sutras exactly, but when writing as herself her own style is distinctive."That his wife had left him was one thing. That his wife was a fox was quite another. Pretending to be a human woman was a fox spirit's favorite trick, and Lord Abe wouldn't be the first man to be fooled by one. At the least, that could be somewhat embarrassing, and, in the rarified circles of court where favor and banishment were never separated by more than a sword's edge, "somewhat" could be enough to tip the scale."She knew I didn't allow servants in here, so none have seen this but my mother and myself. I will destroy the door," Lord Abe said, "for obvious reasons, but I did want you to see it first. I have already sealed the document granting you authority to act on my behalf in this matter." He pulled the scroll out of a fold of his robe and handed it to me.I took the scroll but couldn't resist the question. "What matter, Lord Abe? Pardon my saying so, but if this confession is true, then you are well rid of her. Fox spirits are dangerous creatures."That was an understatement if there ever was. One Chinese emperor had barely avoided being murdered by a fox masquerading as a concubine, and one poor farmer spent a hundred years watching a pair of fox-women playing Go for what he thought was an afternoon. They were tricksters at the best of times and often far worse."It wasn't like that," Lord Abe said quietly. "Kuzunoha loved me. I do not know what drove her to leave or to make this confession, but I was never in danger from her.""You want me to find her, then?" I had to ask. There were at least as many fools among the nobility as elsewhere, and there was always someone who thought the rules didn't apply to him. I was more than a little relieved to discover that Lord Abe was not that stupid.He shook his head. His expression had not changed, but his eyes were moist and glistening. "Lady Kuzunoha is correct that we cannot be together now, but she should not have asked me to give up Doshi as well.""Doshi?""My son, Yamada-san. She took my . . . our son."I was beginning to see what he meant by "complicated.""I take it you've already searched Shinoda Forest?" That was an easy supposition to make. I already knew what he'd found, otherwise I wouldn't be there.He sighed. "I should have gone personally, but I did not trust myself to let Kuzunoha go if I ever held her again. My mother suggested we send my personal retainers and in my weakness I agreed. They searched thoroughly, and I lost two good men to an ogre in the process. There was no sign of either Kuzunoha or Doshi." He looked at me. "That is your task, Yamada-san. I want you to find my son and return him to me.""Again I must ask your pardon, lord, but is this wise? The boy will be half fox himself. Isn't there a danger?"His smile was so faint one might have missed it, but I did not. "There's always a danger, Yamada-san. If we are fortunate we get to decide which ones we choose to face. I want my son back.""By any means required?""Do not harm Lady Kuzunoha. With that one exception, do what you must."At least my goal was clear enough. I didn't for one moment think it was going to be easy.* * *Another advantage of being of the noble class was that it entitled you to carry weapons openly, and Shinoda Forest was not a place you wanted to go empty-handed. The place had a deserved reputation for being the haunt of fox spirits and worse; most bandits even avoided the place, and any bandit who didn't was not the sort you wanted to meet. Yet here I was, for the princely sum of five imported Chinese bronze coins and one kin of uncooked rice a day, plus reasonable expenses. You can be sure I counted that payment to the red lantern ghost as "reasonable."There was a path. Not much of one, but I stuck to it. There was a danger in keeping to the only known path in a wood full of monsters, not to mention it might make finding Lady Kuzunoha even more difficult, but I kept to the path anyway. Getting lost in Shinoda Forest would have done neither me nor my patron much good.Even so, once you got past the fact that the woods were full of things that wanted to kill you, it was a very beautiful place. There was a hint of fall in the air; the maple leaves were beginning to shade into red, contrasting with the deep green of the rest of the wood. The scent was earthy but not unpleasant. It had been some time since I'd been out of the city and I was enjoying the scent and sounds of a true forest. Too much so, perhaps, otherwise I would never have been caught so easily.I hadn't walked three paces past a large stone when the world went black. When I woke up, I almost wished I hadn't: my head felt like two shou of plum wine crammed into a one shou cask. For a moment I honestly thought it would explode. After a little while, the pain eased enough for me to open my eyes. It was early evening, though of which day I had no idea. I was lying on my side, trussed like a deer on a carrying pole, and about ten feet from a campfire. Sitting beside that campfire were two of the biggest, most unpleasant-looking men it had ever been my misfortune to get ambushed by. They were both built like stone temple guardians, and their arms were as thick as my legs. Otherwise there wasn't much to separate them, save one was missing an ear and the other's nose had been split near the tip. One look at them and my aching brain only had room for one question:Why am I still alive?I must have moaned with the effort of keeping my eyes open, since one of the bandits glanced in my direction and grunted. "He's awake. Good. I thought you'd killed him. You know an ogre likes 'em fresh."There was my answer, though it went without saying that I didn't care for it. Maybe I could get a better one. "You two gentlemen work for an ogre?""Don't be stupid," said Missing Ear. "The ogre is just a bonus. Our employer wants you dead, and, since you're dead either way, we sell you to the ogre that lives in this forest. That's good business."He clearly wasn't the brightest blade in the rack, but I couldn't fault his mercantile instincts. "So who are you working for?""You're dead. What do you care?""If I'm going to die, I'd like to know why. Besides, if I'm good as dead it's not like I'll be telling anyone.""Well if you must know—oww!" Missing Ear began, but then Split Nose leaned over and rapped him sharply on the back of his skull."You know what she said about talking too much," he said. "What if she found out? Do you want her angry at you? I'd sooner take my chances with the ogre."Her. At this point there didn't seem to be much question as to whom they meant.Missing Ear rubbed his head. He had a sour look on his face, but what his companion had said to him apparently sank in. "No. That would be . . . bad.""So far we've done everything like she said. The ogre will see our fire soon and come for this fool, and that's that. We can get out of this demon-blighted place.""You two are making a big mistake. I'm acting as proxy for Lord Abe. An insult to me is an insult to him." It wasn't much, but it was all I had. I was still surprised at the bandits' reaction. They glanced at each other and burst out laughing."We know why you're here, baka," said Split Nose when he regained his composure. "Now be a well-behaved meal and wait for the ogre."The bandits obviously knew more about this matter than I did. It was also obvious that they had searched me before they tied me up. I could see my pack near the campfire and my tachi leaning against a boulder only a few feet away. It was the only decent material object I owned, a gift from the grateful father of a particularly foolish young man whose good name I was able to salvage. It was a beautiful sword, with sharkskin-covered grip and scabbard both dyed black. The tsuba was of black iron and the blade, I had occasion to know, was sharp enough to shave with. If only I could reach it, I could demonstrate that virtue on my captors, but it was impossible. As close as the tachi was, it might as well have been in Mongolia for all the good of it. Try as I might, I could not get free of the ropes. I flashed back on something Lord Abe had said."Love and happiness are both illusions."To which I could add that life was fleeting and illusory itself. I might not have been much for the temple, but the priests had that much right. The best I could hope for now was that the ogre was more hungry than cruel; then at least he would be quick.There was a very faint rustling in the undergrowth. At first I thought it was the ogre coming for his supper, but then I couldn't quite imagine something that large moving so quietly. A light flared and I assumed someone had lit a torch, but the flame turned blue and then floated over the campsite and disappeared. Then, almost on cue, thirteen additional blue fires kindled in the darkness just beyond the campfire.Yurrei . . . ? Oh, hell.Ghosts were just like youkai in one important respect—there were ghosts, and then there were ghosts. Some, like the red lantern ghost Seita, were reasonable folk once you got to know them. Some, however, tended to be angry at everything living. Judging from the onibi and balefire I was seeing now, all three of us were pretty much stew for the same pot. Split Nose and Missing Ear knew it too. The pair of them had turned whiter than a funeral kimono, and for a moment they actually hugged each other, though Split Nose managed to compose himself enough to rap Missing Ear's skull again."You idiot! You made camp in a graveyard!""Wasn't no graveyard here!" Missing Ear protested, but Split Nose was already pointing back toward me."What's that, then?"I was having some trouble moving my head, but I managed to see what they were seeing, not ten feet away on the far side of me. It was a stone grave marker, half-covered in weeds and vines, but still visible enough even in the firelight.When I looked back at the bandits the ghost was already there, hovering about two feet off the ground. It might have been female; it was wearing a funeral white kimono but the way its kimono was tied was about as feminine as the specter got. Its mouth was three feet wide and full of sharp teeth, its eyes were as big as soup bowls and just as bulging. One of its hands was tucked within the kimono, but the other, pointing directly at the cowering bandits, bore talons as long as knives.YOU HAVE DISTURBED ME. PREPARE TO DIE. The ghost's voice boomed like thunder, and the blue fires showed traces of red."Mercy!" cried Split Nose. "It was a mistake!"YES. NOW PREPARE TO ATONE!"Mercy!" they both cried again and bowed low.The revenant seemed to consider. BOW LOWER, DOGS.They did so. Then came two flashes of silver, and the bandits slumped over into a heap. In an instant the balefires went out, and the ghost floated down to earth, and then she wasn't a ghost at all but a woman carrying a sword.My sword.I glanced at the boulder and saw that the tachi was missing, though its scabbard still leaned against the stone. The gravestone was gone, but by this time I expected that. Fox spirits were masters of illusion. The woman turned to face me.I had never seen a more beautiful woman in my life. A master painter could not have rendered a face more perfect, or hair so long and glossy black that it shone like dark fire. She seemed little more than a delicate young woman, but the ease with which she handled my sword and the twitching bodies of the two bandits said otherwise. She walked over to me without a second glance at the carnage behind her."Lady Kuzunoha?" I made it sound like a question, but really it wasn't."Who are you?" she demanded."My name is Yamada no Goji. Lord Abe sent me.""I've heard of you, Yamada-san. Well, then. Let's get this over with."She raised the sword again, and I closed my eyes. I would have said a prayer if I could have thought of one. All I could manage was the obvious.This is my death . . . I heard the angry whoosh of the blade as it cut through the air. It took me several long seconds to realize that it hadn't cut through me. Not only was I still alive, but my hands were free. Another whoosh and my legs were free as well, though both arms and legs were too numb from the ropes to be of much use to me at first. While I struggled to get to my feet, Lady Kuzunoha calmly walked back to the bandits and took a wrapping cloth from one of their pouches which she used to methodically clean the blade. I had just managed to sit up when she returned the long sword to its scabbard and tossed it at my feet."I wouldn't advise staying here too long, Yamada-san," she said. "The ogre will be here soon.""I'm afraid he's going to be disappointed," I said.She shook her head, and she smiled. "Oh, no. Those two are still alive. We foxes know much of the nature of the spine and where to break it. They'll die soon enough, but probably not before they're eaten. The fools would have been eaten in either case, of course. Ogres don't make bargains with meat."Her words were like cold water. If they couldn't totally negate the effect her beauty was having on me, at least they reminded me that I wasn't dealing with a human being. An important point that I had best remember. I got to my feet a little unsteadily."My thanks for saving me, Kuzunoha-sama," I said, "but I'm afraid that I have some business with you yet.""So I assumed. The path is about fifteen paces ahead of you. Stay on it until you reach the river. You'll be able to hear a waterfall," she said. "I'll be waiting for you there."Lady Kuzunoha moved quickly away from me. In a moment her image shimmered, and I saw her true form, a silver fox bearing the second tail that betrayed her spirit nature. She ran swiftly and was soon out of sight. I gathered my belongings and hobbled along the way she had gone as best I could.I wasn't clear on a lot of things, not the least of which was why Lady Kuzunoha had bothered to save my life. After all, if she knew who sent me, then she knew why I had come and, if she'd been willing to surrender the boy in the first place, she could have arranged that easily enough while Lord Abe's men searched the wood. And if she wasn't willing to give up the child, why not just kill me? It's not as if I could have done anything to stop her, and if I had any doubts of either her ability or will in that regard, I had the wretched bandits' example to prove otherwise.A lot of things didn't make sense, and if I wanted any answers I'd have to go much deeper into Shinoda Forest to get them. Part of me wondered if I might be better off taking my chances with the ogre. Then I heard a large crashing noise in the forest back the way I'd come and decided not. I picked up the pace as much as the headache and my tingling limbs allowed.I'd been careless once and was lucky to be alive. This time as I moved down the path, I had my sword out and ready. I wasn't sure how much good it would do me against what I'd likely face, but the grip felt comforting in my hand.I came to the place Lady Kuzunoha described and followed the sound of rushing water. A cold-water stream rushing down the adjacent hill formed a twelve-foot waterfall into the river's rocky shallows. Lady Kuzunoha was in human form again. She stood directly underneath the rushing water, her slim fingers pressed together in an attitude of prayer, her long black hair flowing over her body like a cloak. Her hair was the only thing covering her. For a little while I forgot to breathe.I knew Lady Kuzunoha's human form was an actual transformation and not simply illusion, else she would never have been able to bear a human child, but I also knew it was not her true form. Knowing this did not help me at all. The only thing that did was the sharp and clear memory of what she had done to those two hapless bandits; that was my cold waterfall. That left the question of why Lady Kuzunoha needed one.When I finally managed to look away, I noticed Lady Kuzunoha's kimono neatly folded on to
of a flat stone nearby. I'm still not sure why I turned away. Maybe it was my common sense, warning me of danger. Or maybe I had come to the reluctant—and relieved—conclusion that this little show was not being staged for my benefit. Lady Kuzunoha was preparing herself for something, but I didn't have clue one as to what that might be.There was a small clearing nearby; I waited there. Lady Kuzunoha finally emerged, now fully dressed, her hair still wet but combed out and orderly. If anything she appeared more winsome than before. She looked sad but resolute as she approached the center of the clearing. In her sash she had tucked one of those slim daggers that highborn ladies tended to carry both as self-defense and a symbol of rank. She knelt beside me, looking away."I'm ready," she said. She drew the dagger and put the naked blade across her thighs.I frowned. Maybe Seita the ghost was right about me, since what came out of my mouth then wasn't very intelligent. "I don't understand. Ready for what, Lady Kuzunoha?"It was as if she hadn't even heard me. "I would send my love a poem but words are useless now. You may take back whatever proofs your master requires. Now stand ready to assist me."The light dawned. The waterfall was a purification rite, which would explain the prayer but not much else. "You think I'm here to kill you!"Lady Kuzunoha looked up at me. "Do not mock me, Yamada-san. I saved your life, and I think I'm due the courtesy of the truth. Did Lord Abe send you or not?""I have his writ and seal if you doubt me. But I am no assassin, whatever you may have heard of me."Now Lady Kuzunoha looked confused. "But . . . what else? I cannot return. He knows that."If Lady Kuzunoha was confused, I was doubly so, but at least I had the presence of mind to reach down and take the knife away from her. "First of all, assuming I had been sent to harm you, will you please explain why you're being so cooperative?"She frowned. "Did my husband not explain the circumstances of our first meeting?""He didn't have to—I saw your message. You said that he rescued you from hunters . . . before he knew that you and the silver fox were one and the same, I mean.""There was even more to it that he didn't know, Yamada-san. You see, I was already in love with Lord Abe, from the day his procession rode past Shinoda Forest three years ago. I came to the Inari Shrine in the first place because I knew he would be there. He already owned my heart, but from that day forward he owned my life as well. If now he requires that of me, who am I to deny my love what is his by right?"Now it was starting to make some sense. No one had ever claimed that self-sacrifice was a fox trait, but I knew love made people do silly things, and it was clear even to a lout like me that Lady Kuzunoha, fox spirit or no, was still deeply in love with her husband. I had suspected that Lord Abe was deluding himself on that point, but now I knew better."If Lord Abe didn't know you were a fox, why did you leave him?""I didn't want to," Lady Kuzunoha said, sadly. "I tried so hard . . . You know what I am, Yamada-san. The body I wear now is real, but it is a sort of mask. Sometimes the mask slips; that's unavoidable. Yet it was happening to me more and more. In my foolishness I thought I would be spared this, but the burden of pretending to be something I am not became too much, even for his sake. It was only a matter of time before my true nature would be revealed and my husband and his family shamed. I could no longer take that risk. I am a fraud, but I was honest with my husband about why I had to leave. He did not come himself, so I assume he hates me now.""He doesn't hate you, Lady Kuzunoha. He understands your reasons and accepts them, though he is very sad as you might imagine."Lady Kuzunoha rose to her feet with one smooth motion. "Then why did my lord not come himself? Why did he send his warriors? Why did he send you?""My patron said he did not trust himself to let you go if he ever held you again. I can not fault him in this."She actually blushed slightly at the compliment, but pressed on. "You didn't answer my other question.""He sent his retainers and me for the same reason: we were looking for Doshi.""My son? But why?""To bring him home, Lady. Lord Abe lost you. He didn't want to lose his son too. Maybe that's selfish of him, but I think you can understand how he feels.""But I do not understand," Lady Kuzunoha said, and now the gentle, sad expression she had worn since leaving the waterfall was nowhere to be seen. She looked into my eyes and my knees shook. "Yamada-san, are you telling me that my son is missing?"I fought the urge to back away. "But . . . you didn't take him?""I . . . ? Of course not! Doshi's blood may be mostly fox, but in Shinoda Forest that's not enough. He could never have made a home in my world! Doshi belongs with his father."I took a deep breath. "If that's the case, then yes, Lady Kuzunoha—I'm telling you that your son is missing."I'm not sure what I expected, but Lady Kuzunoha merely held out her hand. "Please return my dagger, Yamada-san. I promise not to use it on myself . . . or you."I gave the knife back, carefully. "Do you have someone else in mind?"Her smile was the stuff of nightmares. "That remains to be seen." I had more questions, but Lady Kuzunoha was in no mood to answer them, and I knew better than to test my luck. She was kind enough to see me safely out of the forest before she disappeared, but it was clear she had other matters on her mind besides my well-being. I, on the other hand, could think of little else.The bandit was right to call you a fool. You had no idea of how big a mess you were in.The youkai that Seita had warned me about should have been my first clue. Still, if Lord Abe had sent me chasing wild foxfire, there still might be time to get on the right trail. I didn't like where I thought it was going to lead, but I had given my word, and that was the only thing worth more to me than my sword. I just hoped it didn't have to mean more than my life.When I got back into Kyoto, the first thing I did was track down Kenji. It wasn't that hard. He was at one of his favorite drinking establishments near the Demon Gate. Technically it was the Northeast Gate, but since that was the direction from which demons and evil spirits were supposed to enter, the name stuck. Naturally someone like Kenji would keep close to such a place. He said it was good for business.Business looked a little slow. For one thing, Kenji was drinking very cheap sake. For another, he was in great need of a barber; his head looked like three days' growth of beard. I found a cushion on the opposite side of his table and made myself comfortable. Kenji looked at me blearily. He had one of those in-between faces, neither old nor young, though I happened to know he was pushing fifty. He finally recognized me."Yamada-san! How is my least favorite person?""Terrible, you'll be pleased to know. I need a favor."He smiled like a little drunken Buddha. "Enlightenment is free but in this world all favors have a price. What do you want?""I need to seal the powers of a fox spirit, at least temporarily. Is this possible?"He whistled low. "When all is illusion all things are possible. Still, you're wading in a dangerous current, Yamada-san.""This I know. Can you help me or not?"Kenji seemed to pause in thought and then rummaged around inside his robe, which, like him, was in need of a bath. He pulled out a slip of paper that was surprisingly clean considering from where it had come. He glanced at it, then nodded. "This will do what you want, but the effect is temporary. Just how temporary depends on the spiritual powers of the animal. Plus you'll have to place it on the fox directly.""How many bowls?""Rice? For this? Yamada-san, I'll accept three good bronze, but only because it's you."Reluctantly I counted out the coins. "Done, but this better not be one of your worthless fakes for travelers and the gullible."He sat up a little straighter. "Direct copy from the Diamond Sutra, Yamada-san. I was even sober when I did it.""I hope so, since if this doesn't work and somehow I survive, I'll be back to discuss it. If it does work, I owe you a drink."He just smiled a ragged smile. "Either way, you know where to find me."I did. Whatever Kenji's numerous faults as a priest and a man, at least he was consistent. I carefully stashed the paper seal and headed for Lord Abe's estate. I wasn't sure how much time I had left, but I didn't think there was a lot.There was less than I knew.Before I even reached the gate at the Abe estate, I saw a lady traveling alone. She was veiled, of course. Her wide-brimmed boshi was ringed with pale white mesh that hung down like a curtain, obscuring her features. I couldn't tell who it was but her bearing, her clothes, even the way she moved betrayed her as a noble. A woman of that class traveling unescorted was unusual in itself, but more unusual was the fact that no one seemed to notice. She passed a gang of rough-looking workmen who didn't even give her a second glance.Once, the density of the crowd forced her to brush against a serving girl who looked startled for a moment as she looked around, then continued her errand, frowning. The woman, for her part, kept up her pace.They can't see her.At that point I realized it was too late to keep watch at the Abe estate. I kept to the shadows and alleyways as best I could, and I followed. I could move quietly at need and I was as careful as I could be without losing sight of her; if she spotted me, she'd know that fact long before I did. I kept with her as the buildings thinned out and she moved up the road leading out of the city.She's going to the Inari Shrine.Mount Inari was clearly visible in the distance, and the woman kept up her pace without flagging until she had reached the grounds of the shrine. Its numerous red torii were like beacons, but she took little notice of the shrine buildings themselves and immediately passed on to the path leading up to the mountain.Hundreds of bright red gates donated by the faithful over the years arched over the pathway, giving it a rather tunnellike appearance. I didn't dare follow directly behind her now; one backward glance would have betrayed me. I moved off the path and kept to the edge of the wood that began immediately behind the shrine buildings. It was easy now to see why hunters might frequent the area; the woods went on for miles around the mountainside. There were fox statues as well, since foxes were the messengers of the God of Rice; they were depicted here in stone with message scrolls clamped in their powerful jaws. The wooden torii themselves resembled gates, and I knew that's what they were, symbolic gates marking the transition from the world of men to the world of the spirits, and this was the true destination of my veiled lady. I didn't want to follow her further but I knew there was no real choice now; to turn back meant failure or worse. Going on might mean the same, if I was wrong about what was about to happen.The woman left the path where the woods parted briefly to create a small meadow. I hid behind a tree, but it was a useless gesture."You've followed me for quite some time, Yamada-san. Please do me the courtesy of not skulking about any longer."I recognized the voice. Not that there was any question in my mind by then, but there was no point in further concealment. I stepped into the clearing. "Greetings, Lady Akiko."Lady Abe no Akiko untied her veil and removed her boshi. She was showing her age just a little more in the clear light of day, though she was still very handsome. "Following me was very rude, Yamada-san. My son will hear of it.""Perhaps there is a way we can avoid that unpleasantness, Lady, if not all unpleasantness. You're here about your grandson, aren't you?"She covered her mouth with her fan to indicate that she was smiling. "Of course. Family matters have always been my special concern."Someone else entered the clearing. Another woman, dressed and veiled in a manner very similar to Akiko. "You said you'd come alone," the newcomer said. It sounded like an accusation."It was not my doing that he is here," Lady Akiko said. "And it will make no difference. Surely you can see that?""Perhaps." The newcomer removed her boshi, but her voice had already announced her. Lady Kuzunoha. She glared at me as she approached. Now she and Lady Akiko were barely a few paces apart."Yamada-san, this no longer concerns you," Lady Kuzunoha said."I respectfully disagree. My responsibility ends only when Lord Abe's son is found."Lady Akiko glared at her former daughter-in-law. "And this . . . this vixen who betrayed my son knows where he is! Do you deny it?""Of course not," Lady Kuzunoha said haughtily. "I know exactly where my son is. As do you."Lady Akiko practically spat out the words. "Yes! With the person who took him!""Yes," Lady Kuzunoha said grimly. She drew her dagger. "Let us settle this!" "Pitiful fool!"It turned out that Lady Akiko already had her dagger unsheathed, concealed in the sleeve of her kimono. She lashed out and Lady Kuzunoha gasped in pain. She clutched her hand as her dagger fell uselessly into the grass. In a moment Akiko had Kuzunoha's arms pinned at her sides and her dagger at the young woman's throat."One doesn't survive so long at court without learning a few tricks. Or, for that matter, giving your enemies a sporting chance. Now prove the truth of my words, worthless vixen! Tell me before this witness where Lord Abe's son is, and do not try any of your fox tricks else I'll kill you where you stand!""You will not taste my blood that easily, old woman."The fight was far from over. Lady Kuzunoha's power was gathering around her like a storm; the air fairly crackled with it. Lady Akiko held her ground, but the hand holding the knife was shaking, and I knew it took her a great effort to keep the blade pointed at Lady Kuzunoha's throat."Tell Yamada-san where Doshi is if you want to live!" Lady Akiko said. "And no lies!""Why would he believe anything I say," Lady Kuzunoha said calmly, "if he does not believe what I have told him before now?"I knew that, in a few seconds, anything I did would be too late. I stepped forward quickly, pulling out Kenji's seal as I did so. Both women watched me intently as I approached. "Lady Kuzunoha, do you know what this is?" She nodded, her face expressionless.Lady Akiko wasn't expressionless at all. Her look was pure triumph. "Yamada-san, you are more resourceful than I thought. I will recommend to my son that he double your fee."I gave her a slight bow. "I am in Lord Abe's service." I concentrated then on Lady Kuzunoha. "If you know what this is, then you know what it can do to you. Do you truly know where your son is?"She looked resigned. "I do.""That's all I need. Please prepare yourself."Lady Kuzunoha went perfectly still in Lady Akiko's grip but before either of them could move again, I darted forward and slapped the seal on Lady Akiko's forehead."Yamada-sarrrr!!!"My name ended in a snarl of rage, but Lady Akiko had time to do nothing else before the transformation was complete. In Lady Akiko's place was an old red fox vixen with three tails. Lady Kuzunoha stood frozen, blinking in surprise.There was no more time to consider. My sword was in my hands just as the fox gathered itself to spring at Lady Kuzunoha's throat. My shout startled it, and it sprang at me instead. My first slash caught it across the chest, and it yipped in pain. My second stroke severed the fox's head from its body. The fox that had been Abe no Akiko fell in a bloody heap, twitching.I had seen Lady Kuzunoha butcher two men with barely a thought, but she looked away from the remains of her former mother-in-law with a delicacy that surprised me. "I-I still had some hope that it would not come to this. That was foolish of me.""She didn't leave me much choice."Lady Kuzunoha shook her head. "No, your life was already worthless to her. Doubly so since you knew her secret. Speaking of that, how did you know?"I started to clean my sword. "Lady Kuzunoha, I have just been forced to take a rather drastic step in the course of my duties. I'll answer your questions if you will answer mine. Agreed?"She forced herself to look at Lady Akiko's body. "There is no reason to keep her secrets now.""Very well. There were two things in particular. Someone put me on the trail of a youkai that was pretending to be you. Once I knew that you didn't send either it or those bandits, that left the question of who did. More to the point, you told me that Doshi was mostly fox, remember?"She actually blushed. "Careless of me. I did not intend . . ."I smiled grimly. "I know, and at first I thought you'd simply misspoken. But, assuming you had not, for Doshi to be more than merely half fox meant his father was at least part fox himself. How could this be? The simplest reasonable answer was Lady Akiko. Did Lord Abe know about his mother? Or himself?""No to both. Fortunately his fox blood was never dominant. Lady Akiko and I knew about each other all along, of course. She opposed the marriage but couldn't reveal me without revealing herself. We kept each other's secret out of necessity until . . .""Until Doshi was born?"She nodded, looking unhappy. "I knew by then I couldn't stay, but I thought my son's position was secure. I was in error. There was too much fox in him, and Lady Akiko was afraid his fox nature would reveal itself, and disgrace the family. The position of the Abe family was always her chief concern.""If the boy was such a danger, why didn't she just smother him in his sleep?"Lady Kuzunoha looked genuinely shocked. "Murder her own grandson? Really, Yamada-san . . . Besides, it's easy enough to dedicate an unwanted child to some distant temple with no questions about his origin. In preparation, Lady Akiko had him hidden within the shrine complex; the Abe family is their foremost patron, so it was easy to arrange. Once I knew my son was missing it took me a while to follow his trail and to arrange a meeting.""Duel, you mean."She looked away. "Just so. While I may have hoped otherwise, it was destined that either I or Lady Akiko would not leave this clearing alive. Her solution to the problem of Doshi was quite elegant, but you were an obstacle to that solution and, once you found me, so was I.""Which explains why she went to so much trouble trying to prevent me from finding you in the first place. Was she correct then? Won't Doshi be a danger to the family now?""Yes," said Lady Kuzunoha frankly. "Yet my husband already knows that. Perhaps not how great a risk, I concede, but I don't think that would deter him. Do you?"I finished cleaning my sword and slid it back into its scabbard. "No, but as grateful as he's going to be at the return of his son, Lord Abe is going to be considerably less so when I explain what happened to his mother, proxy or no."Lady Kuzunoha covered her mouth as she smiled. "Yamada-san, perhaps there is an 'elegant solution' to this as well. For now, kindly produce my lord's proxy seal and we'll go fetch my son."That proved easily done. The presence of both the seal and Lady Kuzunoha herself was more than enough to send one of the shrine priests scurrying ahead of us to a small outbuilding near a koi pond. There we found Doshi in the care of a rather frightened wet nurse. Lady Kuzunoha paid off the poor woman generously, thanked her for her solicitude, and sent her on her way. The baby looked up, lifting its little arms and gurgling happily, as Lady Kuzunoha smiled down at him."Probably time you were weaned, my son." She turned to me. "Please take him, Yamada-san. You'll need to get him back to his father quickly; he'll have to make his own arrangements for Doshi's care. I will give you some writing to take to my husband before you leave."I hesitated. "Don't . . . don't you wish to hold your son? This may well be your last chance."She smiled a sad smile. "Thank you for that offer, but I can only echo the words of my lord in this, Yamada-san: If I held him again, what makes you think I could let him go?"I had no answer to that, but I did have one last question. "One thing still bothers me: you were unable to maintain the deception of being human, but Lady Akiko had been in the family much longer than you. How did she manage?"Lady Kuzunoha laughed softly. "Yamada-san, as I told you before: the mask will slip, and we cannot control when or how. For me, my right hand would turn into a paw without warning. For Lady Akiko, it was her scent."I blinked. "Scent?"She nodded. "Her true scent, as a fox. But the human nose is a poor tool at best. Those close to her would either miss the scent entirely or at worst mistake it for . . . something else," she finished, delicately. "Lady Akiko was simply luckier than I was."That may have been so, but Lady Akiko's luck had finally run out. I was afraid that mine was about to do the same. Lord Abe received me in his private chambers after I placed his infant son back in the care of his servants."Yamada-san, I am in your debt," he said. "I-I trust Lady Kuzunoha was not . . . difficult?"From my kneeling position, I touched my forehead to the floor. "That relates to a matter I need to speak of. Lady Kuzunoha was quite reluctant, as you can imagine, but I was impertinent enough to acquire the assistance of Lady Akiko in this. They spoke, mother to mother, and Lady Akiko persuaded her.""I see."I could tell that he didn't see at all, but the die was already cast. I produced the scroll Lady Kuzunoha had supplied. "Lady Akiko told me of the . . . differences, between your wife and herself. That her intense desire to protect the family's name had perhaps blinded her to Lady Kuzunoha's virtues. To atone for this—and other burdens—she has decided to renounce the world and join a temple as a nun. She also sent a personal message to you."Lord Abe was a Gentleman of the Court, whatever else he might be. He concealed his shock and surprise very well. He took the scroll I offered and unrolled it in silence. He remained intent on what was written there for several moments longer than would have been required to actually read the words. I tried not to hold my breath."My mother's script," he said, almost to himself. "Perfect." He looked down at me, his expression unreadable. "I don't suppose my mother revealed to you which temple she had chosen to join?"I bowed again. "She did not so confide in me, my lord, though I had the impression it was quite far from here. She seemed to feel that was for the best. She hoped you would understand."He grunted. "Perhaps she is right about both. Well then, Yamada-san. I've lost both my wife and my mother, but I have not yet lost all. It seems I must be content with that."I breathed a little easier once I'd been paid and was safely off the grounds. I wasn't sure how much of my story Lord Abe really believed, but if he didn't realize full well that Lady Kuzunoha had written that message, I'm no judge of men. Perhaps that was another choice he made. As for myself, I chose to be elsewhere for a good long time. Hokkaido sounded best; I'd heard that it's very sparsely populated and only a little frozen at this time of the year. But first I went to meet Kenji by the Demon Gate, since I'd given my word and now I owed him a drink.I owed myself several more.