Chapter 3 – The Mikado's Onmyoji

"H-human!" Kuichi shrieked, leaping to his paws; "T-t-there is a human here!"

Every face turned to stare at Kuichi and the strange fox. Once their notice had been drawn to the mask, the illusion it had held over the entire gathering of foxes was broken as well. In an instant, the silence was split; the hew and cry was soon taken up by many throats – "Human! It's a human!"

At that moment, the stranger-who-had-been-the dark-furred-fox raised his human hand to his face, which was momentarily obscured by his wide sleeve. When he lowered the hand again, the mask had been peeled away; he discarded it upon the dirt floor.

The face he revealed beneath it made every fox shudder with fear; it was white and red and black in colour, with bushy brows set in a terrible scowl, and the brown eyes beneath them blazed with fiery light, like the eyes of a thunder-god. This terrifying figure raised his hand, in which there was now a sword with a red tassel hanging from its hilt; whirling the blade about the ears of those nearest him, he boomed in a voice so loud and terrible, it seemed to shake the very bowels of the hills itself –

"Flee, little brush-tails! Flee if you value your lives!"

This voice was so fear-inducing – seeming to carry on it the baying of the hunters' dogs – that every fox who heard it instantly turned tail and run. In a simultaneous mad scurry, they hurtled up through the door in the tree-roots and out into the night, pouring like tea from the spout of a kettle down the hill and out into the woods, disappearing among the shadows of the trees. Only Kuzunoha-hime remained. She had started back in alarm in spite of herself, so taken unawares was she by this human's infiltration, and the whites of her eyes showed, betraying her nervousness. Yet she faced the human quite calmly, her eyes cold and clear, her hackles slightly raised in what on a human would've been a sneer of disdain.

"You were clever to get in here unnoticed," she told the stranger in a clear voice that cut through the space between them like a blade itself. "However, false faces will neither deceive nor scare me. So we meet at last; I believe I am right in thinking that you are the onmyoji the Mikado sent."

The stranger regarded her for a moment, his frightening black-and red countenance now obviously another mask. He slowly lowered the blade in his hand; its outline shimmered, like a puff of smoke dispersing, and it changed back into the fan with the red tassel. The onmyoji bowed low and said, in a thick, rough voice not befitting a court official: "It is an honour to stand in my lady's presence. I am indeed Abe no Yasuna, the Mikado's onmyoji. Forgive the intrusion, but I had urgent need to achieve an audience with you, and this appeared to be the only way to possibly do so."

Kuzunoha-hime sniffed derisively. "It is all very well to say so, but I have heard that rather than merely speak with me, your true intention is to kill me."

"You should not believe all that you hear, milady. You of all creatures should know that humans so often twist the truth. I would not think you so naive as to believe local gossip. My true objective is not to destroy you, but to merely defeat you."

"Then surely, sir, it is you who twists your words, for in order to defeat me, you must destroy me; I will not give up my quest for vengeance, not until the expiration of my very life."

The onmyoji was silent for a moment, as though he was momentarily stunned by the vehemence of her words; then he respectably replied: "I am truly sorry to hear that, Kuzunoha-hime. I had hoped to reason with you, but it seems that this is now quite impossible."

Kuzunoha-hime acknowledge his words with a slight inclination of her fair head, then regarded him with a curious look – a look that may have held some amount of remorse. "If you can turn and leave now, without engaging me in conflict, you are welcome to do so; if you were to turn towards the door, I would not attack you from behind. You could tell the Mikado that you feared that I would inflict a curse upon his Imperial Majesty, and so you hurried back to the capital to protect him. It would serve you no great dishonour to part here peacefully, rather than have the misfortune and shame of losing your life in a fox's den."

The onmyoji seemed to consider this for a moment, then slowly shook his head, making his long mane of dark hair wag from side to side. With his expression hidden by the fearsome mask, it was impossible to tell what he was really thinking or feeling. "You contradict your reputation. Although you claim your attacks on human establishments are unbridled in their cruelty, you have hitherto abstained from taking a life. By offering to spare my life without bloodshed, you honour me by revealing your true heart; it is a heart that possesses still some kindness and benevolence. It pains me to think that I cannot in return save you from your tortuous path of vengeance and hatred."

"Again I assure you, to do so without tearing my life from my body would be impossible, and I implore you to leave here now, else I inflict a similar fate upon your person." For the first time, a hint of real ferocity entered Kuzunoha-hime's voice; she raised her arms before her, her hands hidden inside her sleeves, as though she were preparing to hurl some hidden spell at Abe no Yasuna. The onmyoji didn't seem to see the warning; he continued to speak in a calm, unhurried tone of voice.

"What you say is surely no mere jest or idle threat; and yet, I still believe your words ring false. The mien you attempt to impress upon me is not your true self. There is another truth that dwells within your heart, one that I know to be correct beyond all certainty. And yet, I cannot fault you in that regard; for I too have aimed to trick and deceive you. Nor was tonight the first time I have had the opportunity to do so. Though you have now learnt my true name, you have met me another time - when I wore my true face, but called myself by a false name. I observed you then, back when you lived as a human woman; and during that time, I learnt how to disarm you with ease. The weapon to do so, I discovered within the depths of your own heart."

At these words, Kuzunoha-hime eyed him sceptically, but something like fear alighted in her clear green eyes, clouding them with uncertainty. "Surely you jest, sir; but I would have thought that such a cowardly and obvious bluff was beneath you."

"It is no jest, and no bluff; only look upon my true face, and surely you will see that I speak the truth…"

Having spoken these words in a new voice, one that had lost some of its ragged edge, the onmyoji raised his hand again to his face, and Kuzunoha-hime tensed, warily watching his every move. For a moment, his face was hidden from her view by the fan he still held in his right hand; then it moved away again, and the mask with it. It fell to join the other fox-faced mask on the floor.

Kuzunoha-hime staggered back with a gasp, visibly affected by the sight of the face he had revealed to her. It was a face very different to the two he had previously worn. It was the face of a handsome young man, barely over the age of thirty; it was a face with slender, fair features, and strong lines about the jaw and brow. The onmyoji's eyes were the same shade of brown, yet now they held a new warmth, like sunlight on oiled wood, and which seemed to emanate from his very being. Kuzunoha-hime observed this face, and indeed, it seemed to disarm her; it was a face she had encountered before, a face that she knew well.

"H-husband…" she murmured softly.

His firm lips twitched into a smile at this single word. "Indeed, it is I, who was once your unworthy husband." His voice was very different now that he had removed the mask; before his age and identity had been hidden by a feigned gruffness, but now he used his true voice. It was a voice that was as clear and as handsome as his looks. "I spoke the truth when I said that I know your true heart. However, I regret that I was forced to conceal my own heart from you for so long. I knew you as soon as I saw you in your human form for what you really are; I knew also that if you knew my true name, and that I serve the Mikado as onmyoji, you would flee and never return to me. And so with the inherent selfishness all humans possess, I hid my true name and vocation from you and proceeded to live in the town under an assumed name, so strongly did I desire to keep you by my side. Many were the times when I myself hid your true nature from others, so that people would not notice the shadow of a fox cast by a lamp upon a screen, or the reflection of a fox caught in a bright surface. When you thought your true identity to have been 'discovered', I had no chance to explain myself to you before you fled; and so I sought to draw you out. When the Mikado, who had recalled me to Edo, questioned me on the best way to rid Izumi Province of you, I offered to travel to my former homeland and handle the matter personally. Having arrived here with my equipage, I donned the kitsune mask and ran amongst your fellows for a month; I soon learnt that Kuzunoha-hime was holding a meeting beneath Hake-saki-oka. You know all that has proceeded since then; although it seems, in your own account, that you have made a grave omission. When you recounted your tale earlier, you left out an important event: the part of the story where you stole into my – our – bedchamber, and left a poem written in ink upon a paper screen."

He reached into his sleeve and from it drew a thick sheet of rice paper. Kuzunoha-hime uttered a wordless cry as she recognized it. Watching her all the while with a steady gaze, Abe no Yasuna unfolded it, though he did not read; he instead recited the words written on it purely from memory.

"If you think of me with love,

Come seek me in the forests of Shinoda,

And you will find a kudzu leaf."

"Kuzu-no-ha," he repeated, "a kudzu leaf; and your namesake. Thus I sought my Kuzunoha, and found it growing, beautiful and strong, upon the hillside of Hake-saki-oka; not just a leaf, but a beautiful flower." And he bowed low as he paid her the compliment, gesturing as he did towards her kimono; for it was indeed embroidered with a floral pattern, delicate purple flowers scattered among the pointed kudzu leaves. A drop of water fell upon the delicate silk, turning a single spot a darker shade of grey; tears streamed down the kitsune's face, sliding through her smooth fur. Abe no Yasuna smiled at her; his eyes were alight as he spoke again.

"I spoke the truth when I said I know your true heart – it is the heart of a devoted wife and mother. Come home with me, Kuzunoha-san – Doji, your son, is waiting for you."

He extended his hand towards her. With a tear-filled cry, Kuzunoha-hime darted forwards. Slim white hands raised the hem of her kimono so that her steps would be unencumbered by the heavy cloth. Beneath it, he caught a glimpse of two human feet, followed incongruously by a long bushy tail, its downy plume completely white except for the very tip, which was as black as though it had been dipped in ink; this was the brush which had written such a tender farewell-poem upon the paper screen.

When she leapt from the dais, Kuzunoha-hime was no longer a white kitsune in a woman's clothes. Instead there stood upon the straw-strewn floor a woman dressed in that same kudzu-patterned kimono; a woman of seemingly unearthly beauty. Her smooth cheek was of a white so pale and flawless, it was tinged almost blue, like the colour of the first fallen snow. It was an exquisite face; slender, with high, thin eyebrows, a pointed chin, and vaulted cheekbones. Her eyes were still wet with tears, like drops of dew upon the first green leaves of spring; a colour filled with gentle tenderness. On swift feet, she crossed the space between them; in a moment, she flew to his breast, clinging to him, and the arms clad in gold-and-blue brocade enfolded her completely. For a long time, they stood like this; then he drew her to his side, and taking her arm, he led her towards the doorway of the den.

"Come," he said, "let us start for home. Our son is waiting for us."

Author's Note: So, it took more than a year since the last chapter (almost a year and a half since I posted the first), but this story is finally complete! I had to go back and change the name of the hill to 'Hake-saki-oka'; in my first attempt, I got the Japanese wrong. Sorry!

The nobleman Abe no Yasuna and the fox-spirit Kudzunoha were purported to be the parents of the real-life, legendary Japanese figure, Abe no Seimei. Seimei holds an almost Merlin-like status within Japanese folklore; he was an onmyoji, or 'yin and yang master', a sort of Eastern equivalent of a sorcerer. He has been immortalized in numerous media, such as novels, manga, anime and films, the best-known of which is the Onmyoji series, in which he is portrayed by Mansai Nomura.

Like a lot of extraordinary real-life figures who lived in superstitious times, Seimei's story passed into legend. His supposed 'supernatural' abilities were attributed to him having a kitsune for a mother. Although not often portrayed in modern-day stories, many kabuki plays were written featuring the fox-spirit Kuzunoha tearfully leaving her human family, her true identity accidentally discovered. I was intrigued by this origin-story, and by the characters of Seimei's parents themselves. I particularly wanted to give them a happy ending, since the end of the original legend was somewhat ambiguous. I also wanted to create more of a character for Seimei's father, who was often overshadowed by his mysterious wife and famous son. I thought that a man who can accept a fox as his wife must be quite remarkable, so I made him a skilled onmyoji in his own right. More than anything, I wanted to create a twist on the old stories – rather than a fox being discovered in the human world, I thought it would be interesting to have a human disrupt a gathering of foxes (in that sense, I realize some credit must go to Neil Gaiman and his wonderful book, Wolves in the Walls).

Anyway, after the story itself and then this long-winded explanation, I hope you have enjoyed reading this, as much as I have enjoyed writing it, and all of us have enjoyed the rich world of Japanese folklore.

~ W.J.