Akina pushed her long hair back so her father’s visitors would be able to glimpse her pointed ears and golden eyes. Her father wanted them to see that she was the daughter of a kitsune–no other man alive had a daughter who was half fox, and Lord Kisho knew how to display his unique acquisitions.
Akina posed beneath a sakura tree in her father’s garden. Delicate pink petals floated around her. They settled in her black hair and in the folds of her pale blue kimono.
She tried to enjoy the sunshine, cool spring breeze, and her momentary privacy. She wasn’t hidden inside behind screens like her sisters. She reminded herself that there were good things about being less-than-human.
A flash of movement caught Akina’s eye. A three-tailed silver fox jumped onto a rock in the reflecting pool. It winked at her and bowed.
Lord Kisho had Akina’s mother stuffed and kept her on display, but Akina had never seen a live fox before. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was larger than her mother, and its pelt glistened like thick winter ice. It jumped from the rock and trotted up to Akina. “Hello, Akina.”
“You shouldn’t be here!” she whispered. She imagined him stuffed, on display next to her mother. “If my father catches you, he’ll kill you!”
The fox sat down by her feet. “We have a few minutes. I am here to rescue you.”
“Yes. Don’t you long to escape?”
“It’s impossible. My father has guards and hunters and the walls are too high to climb.” Akina imagined a life free of her father, free of the constant fear that if she didn’t please him, he’d stuff her just as he had her mother.
“And yet here I am.”
“You shouldn’t be!” Akina heard footsteps approaching. “They’re coming! Run! Hide yourself!”
The fox stood and bowed to her again. “My name is Yukio. You will see me again.”
“I have found a man who wants to marry you,” Akina’s father announced as he strode into Akina’s small room. “Come to my garden once you are presentable.”
Akina nodded numbly and let a maid dress her like a doll. She wondered if Yukio would follow to her new husband’s home. She wondered what sort of man wanted a wife who was not fully human.
Her throat tightened. She swallowed and patted a tear off of her cheek, careful not to smudge her face, then went to her father’s garden.
The man standing beside Lord Kisho took Akina’s breath away. He was tall and slender, with hair the color of midnight and eyes like storm clouds over the mountain.
This was the man who wanted her?
The servant behind him glanced up at her, and she glimpsed gold in his eyes as he winked at her.
Yukio? Could he have arranged for this man to take her away from her father?
“Daughter, this is Lord Botan.”
Akina smiled at the stranger without meeting his eyes.
“She is everything that you promised, Lord Kisho.” Lord Botan’s soft tenor sent shivers up Akina’s spine. Was it fear or desire? How could she not know the difference?
Akina stood awkwardly, unsure how to proceed. She’d never been trained in proper etiquette–her father had wanted her mannerisms to be quaint. The silence stretched, and when Akina couldn’t stand another moment, she blurted, “I’m glad that you find me pleasing, my lord.”
Lord Botan’s left cheek dimpled as he smiled.
“You are dismissed, Akina, my fox-child.” Lord Kisho said, his voice soft and tender in a way that Akina had never heard before. She wondered what he had received in trade for her hand. “Go and pack your things. You will be leaving at dawn tomorrow.”
Someone had already packed Akina’s few possessions. She threw herself down on her futon and buried her face in her pillow, unsure whether she wanted to laugh or cry. She fell asleep before she could decide.
Akina woke with a warm furry body curled underneath her chin. His fur tickled.
Yukio picked himself up and stretched. “Good morning, my lady,” he said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was sleeping.” The fox yawned and stretched again.
“Why were you sleeping here?” Akina looked around. The world outside was concealed by swirling fog, and they were alone in the room.
“I’m in love with you. I’ve been watching you for months. You’re so sad. So lonely.” The fox transformed into the servant she’d seen earlier standing behind her future husband. His human face still held hints of his true nature, with his gold-tinged eyes and pointed chin. He took her hands in his. “I know I can make you happy. Come, run away with me now. I can lead you out, and we can live the rest of our lives together in freedom.” He leaned forward and kissed her.
Akina had never been kissed before. It was awkward and wet and not at all like she’d pictured.
Yukio transformed back into a fox. “Come quickly! Change into a fox and we’ll escape!”
“I don’t know how to change into a fox.”
“But it’s becoming a human that’s the hard part. Changing back is easy,” Yukio said.
“I’ve always been a human.” Akina looked down at her hands and tried to picture them as paws. She couldn’t. “I don’t know how to transform.”
“I’ll teach you. We’ll just have to stay among the humans for a while longer.” Yukio transformed into a human again and squeezed her hand. “I’m a good teacher.” He kissed her, and this time it was less awkward. “You’ll see.” He transformed back into a fox and scurried to the door. He turned back one last time. “Don’t be afraid. I will watch over you.” He disappeared into the mist.
Akina stared after him, not sure how she felt. She’d let him kiss her. Twice. And the second time she’d felt something stirring in her chest. If she could change into a fox, would she go with him? She curled up on her futon. Her pillow smelled like cinnamon and mud. Like Yukio. She buried her face in the smell. She wanted to cry again. She wished she knew why.
The marriage ceremony was short.
She’d never had sake before. She didn’t like the sour taste or the way it burned her mouth and throat, but she did like the dizzy, dreamy way it made her feel. After the wedding, Akina was packed into a palanquin along with all of her belongings. She felt like another trunk. The idea made her giggle.
Something furry landed in her lap. “Yukio!” she exclaimed.
He looked up at her, his gold eyes filled with alarm. “Shhh! The servants carrying us will hear you! What are you shouting about?”
“I’m happy to see you!” Akina tried to keep her voice down to a whisper.
“I’ve never been drunk before.”
“Were you really happy to see me?” Yukio asked.
Akina kissed his cold nose. “I am.” Things seemed simpler now. Of course she could become a fox, and of course she’d go with Yukio. He loved her. He was nice. She liked the strange way he smelled.
“Lord Botan will come for you soon. You’re going to stop at an inn, and he’ll take you to his private room. Don’t–don’t struggle. And don’t fall in love with him. Please.”
The desperation in Yukio’s voice penetrated Akina’s happy haze. She stroked his furry cheek. “I’ll try not to.”
Before she could decide what he meant–that she wouldn’t struggle, or that she wouldn’t fall in love–the door flew open. Yukio vanished.
Strong hands pulled her out of the palanquin, and Lord Botan carried her to the inn.
They didn’t exchange a word. He was very gentle, and much better at kissing than Yukio. He smelled like grass and clean silk, and his skin was soft and warm. She fell asleep in his arms when they were finished.
She woke alone. The room was dark and cold. She pulled the blankets tight around her. She felt bruised and sore and lonely.
After another day of travel they reached Lord Botan’s estate. Akina was given a maid and her own private garden. Lord Botan visited her every night. He left her presents–a fan or a comb for her hair. He was kind and gentle. He wrote her poetry and told her stories.
Yukio came to her garden every afternoon to teach her to transform into a fox. “You have to change your mind, first. Then your body will follow.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It does, especially the first time,” Yukio said. “But it gets easier. I hardly notice any pain at all, now.” He transformed and grinned at her, then shifted back into fox-form.
Akina reached up and touched the comb in her hair. It was her newest present. She wondered if Lord Botan would notice that she was wearing it, and if it would please him if he did.
“You’re not paying attention,” Yukio said.
“I’m sorry, Yukio. I’ll try to do better.”
“You’re falling in love with him.”
“What? Yukio, don’t be silly. Would I try to transform into a fox if I was in love with him?” Would she? Was she falling in love? He did seem to be in her thoughts almost constantly. Was that love? Or was it the fluttery feeling in her stomach when she saw Yukio slip into her garden every afternoon?
“You’re not trying.”
“Yes, I am!”
“You are not! You’re falling in love with him and you don’t love me.”
“You’ve never told me how you feel about me, you know. You know I love you, but you’ve never even said that you care about me at all.”
“I do care about you, Yukio.”
“Do you love me?”
“I don’t know.” Akina’s throat tightened. “I don’t know if what I feel for you is love, or if what I feel for Lord Botan is, or if neither of them is.”
“Well, I love you. I always will. And I can guarantee you that even if Lord Botan loves you now, he won’t always. Eventually you’ll be just another possession to him.
“I’m giving you a choice–I won’t make you come with me, as much as I’d like to. I know choosing will be hard–you’ve never made a decision before. If you stay here with him, you’ll never have to again.”
“He’s not like my father.” Akina thought of Lord Botan’s gentle hands and his soft voice. His amazing eyes.
“I’m leaving. I will tell Lord Botan that I must go home. I’ve taught you enough that if you really practice, really try, really want to, you’ll be able to change. I’ll wait for you in the forest to the east every night when the moon is full. For as long as I live, I’ll wait there for you one night a month.” He transformed into a man and kissed her.
Even though she was used to kisses now–smooth experienced kisses from Lord Botan–Yukio took her breath away. He was kissing her with everything that he was. Akina closed her eyes. He still smelled like cinnamon and mud, and he tasted like honey. The kiss ended, and when Akina opened her eyes an instant later, he was gone.
Lord Botan didn’t notice that she was wearing the comb. But he gave her a delicate yellow kingyo blossom and recited a poem that he’d written about it.
When Yukio didn’t come to her garden the next day, Akina wept for the first time since her wedding. She didn’t want to choose. She wanted both.
She concentrated on thinking like a fox. She needed to see Yukio again. She wanted to tell him that someone loved her would never cause her so much pain. And she wanted him to kiss her again.
“Akina!” A voice like bells roared in Akina’s ear.
A glowing blue-white figure stood over her. It was both a woman and a fox.
“Yes. I am your mother. Your mother who worked so hard, who sacrificed everything to make sure that you would be human.” She knelt next to Akina and scowled. “And now you are trying to become a fox.”
Akina’s mother held up a hand that was also a paw. “Being human is better. Look at you! You’re wearing a silk kimono. You have combs made out of jade! You have servants to feed you and a husband to make love to you. Do you think foxes make love? No! They breed. Like animals. You are not an animal.”
“I’ve been trying to learn to be a fox for weeks. Why have you come now?” Akina asked.
“You played at it before. Now you are making progress.”
“I want freedom.”
“Life is a trap.” Akina’s mother rested her hand against her daughter’s face. It felt like a winter breeze against Akina’s skin. “You must let your silly fox-lover go, Akina.”
“But he loves me.” As Akina whispered the words, she realized how important Yukio’s love was to her.
“I loved your father. You’ve seen where that got me.”
“Yukio isn’t like my father.”
“He loves you because you are human–because you’re dangerous and strange and wonderful. He doesn’t love you for yourself. He cannot love. He is a fox.”
“But so are you.”
Akina’s mother’s eyes burned blue with anger. “I am a woman! I worked hard to become one. If your fox wants to be with you, he should rescue you like a man would! Instead, he wants you to give up your humanity to be with him.”
“He just wants me to be true to myself,” Akina said.
“You were born a woman. Becoming a fox is not true to yourself. Promise me you will stop.”
“I can’t promise that, mother.”
The ghost glared and faded away. Akina stared up at the ceiling until she drifted into nightmares. She ran on four legs, then two, then four again. She ran as fast as she could, but didn’t escape the hunters. She woke with the baying of dogs echoing in her ears.
Akina lay with her head pillowed on Lord Botan’s chest. She wanted the touch of his skin and the sound of his heartbeat to sooth her. They didn’t.
“I need you to sit in your garden tomorrow afternoon. Make sure that your ears and eyes are visible,” Lord Botan said.
She sat up, trying to conceal her alarm. “As I sat on display for my father?”
Lord Botan nodded. “Just so.”
“As you wish, my lord.” She could barely breathe. Yukio was right. His prophecy about Lord Botan had taken less than a month to come true.
Akina did as her husband asked. After his guests left, he told her that he had a special gift for her for playing her role so perfectly. Akina hoped for a new kimono, then felt ashamed. Was her love that easily bought? Would she let him use her as long as he continued to give her pretty things? Why did Yukio waste his time with her?
Lord Botan kissed her. Then he called for a servant to bring in her present. Akina took the silk-wrapped package and began unwinding the fabric. She found herself staring at her mother’s stuffed corpse. As she looked into the dead fox’s flat black glass eyes, it was all Akina could do not to retch and run crying from the room.
“What’s wrong, my flower? Don’t you like your gift?”
Akina tried to force a smile. She couldn’t force any sound past the lump in her throat.
“I felt that she belonged here with you,” Lord Botan said.
“Thank-you,” Akina choked out. Was this a warning? Or could he truly think that her mother’s corpse was a kind gift?
He patted her head. “Take her back to your rooms. I’m sure you’re tired.”
It would be their first night apart since their wedding. Akina saw winter in his eyes.
Akina went to her garden and burned her mother’s body. She kept the fire small and sat close to it, hiding it with her body. Harsh blue-white smoke swirled around her until her kimono, hair, and skin smelled like burning fur. Akina expected her mother’s ghost to rise from the flames and speak to her again, but the fire sputtered and died, leaving a pile of hot gray ash.
She buried them. She dug with her hands, not caring when the hard dirt ripped at her fingernails. Tears blurred her vision, and for an instant her hands looked like silver paws. “Rest, now. Sleep, and know that no one will look at your pain with pleasure ever again.” She wiped her tears away with dirty hands and stared at her broken nails. “I can’t follow your advice, Mother. I’m sorry.”
There was a bouquet of pale purple ajisai resting on her pillow when she reached her futon. She picked up the fragile-looking four-petaled blossoms slowly and held them to her nose. The flowers smelled like cinnamon and mud. “Yukio?” She looked around the room, hoping desperately. “Are you there? Please, you were right, I’m sorry.” After a few minutes, her hope faded, and she realized that she was alone. He was gone. She curled up on her futon and tried to think like a fox.
She dreamed of running through the forest on four silver paws. She tried to catch Yukio, but no matter how fast she ran all she could do was catch a glimpse of his silver tails.
The next day, Lord Botan left to attend to some business in the capital. He wouldn’t return until three days after the next full moon. As he rode away, tall and handsome on his dark horse, Akina found herself hoping to never see him again.
The world shifted when she managed to transform her eyes. Lines grew sharper, but colors jumbled together. The green grass looked the same as her yellow kimono. It gave her a headache that forced her to spend the rest of the day lying on her futon, sipping strong tea.
She tried again the next day and her sense of smell grew tenfold before pain stopped her.
Her maid fretted over her headaches. She thought that Akina was wasting away because she missed her husband.
Days passed. The morning of the full moon arrived, and she still hadn’t managed to transform.
She couldn’t face another month in her lovely garden. She feared that Lord Botan would return and be kind to her–that his presence might weaken her resolve. She did not want to be bought, even with kindness and gifts.
She closed her eyes and focused. Her senses changed. Then, her whole body began to shift. Her bones and muscles shortened and compacted. Her joints popped and crunched as they reformed. Her teeth grew sharp, her tongue thin. Pain screamed from every inch of her being, but she refused to stop. Her half-formed body slumped sideways, and she passed out.
She woke as the moon rose. The rock that she’d been sitting on loomed above her. She looked down at her body–at her four furry legs and dainty paws. Her fur was the color of moonlight. She had three tails, just like Yukio. She rolled around and laughed in triumph.
Akina stood on the wall that surrounded her husband’s estate. She looked down at her beautiful garden and her comfortable rooms, at the spot where she’d buried her mother’s ashes. Then she looked at the dark trees below her. She thought of Lord Botan–memories of their nights together still excited her, and she would miss her kimonos and pretty combs. But living with Lord Botan as a half-human wasn’t what she wanted.
She wanted the honey-taste of Yukio, the freedom and danger that went with being a fox and not having beautiful gardens or comfortable rooms, the safety of being with someone who loved her enough to let her make her own choices.
She slipped down from the wall and ran toward the woods a quickly as her new feet would take her. Yukio was waiting.
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com, and her debut novel, Left Hand Gods, is available from Hadley Rille Books. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
What a lovely, scenic story! I loved the contrast between Yukio and Botan, and the emotional turmoil of Akina. The storytelling was as delicate as the setting, with the feeling of a fable. The hopeful ending was both satisfying and fresh. I very much enjoyed it!