Many things had been written about fox spirits.
From what he heard, they were to be worshipped, prayed to for a good marriage and healthy children. From what he read, they had a long history of being wicked and capricious tricksters.
But when he saw the unmoving figure of a snow white fox laid out in the dirt, he had no time to think about such trivial things. The crimson red that stained its pelt was an affront against beauty itself.
It was ice cold despite the summer afternoon and heavier than expected, lying unmoving against his chest. Still, though he could not quite explain why, he needed to carry on. He needed to save it. He felt as though his own soul was on the line.
He ignored the odd stares he must have attracted as he returned to the inn, taking the steps two at a time. He laid it out on the bamboo floor mat of his room, and bent over to examine it closer. There were no visible wounds, and blood was still dripping from the creature's snout. It had coughed it up.
When he looked up at the fox, it was staring right back at him. It shouldn't have been possible, but he felt as though those beady eyes were calculating, trying to take in his character.
He buried his hands into the fox's fur, feeling for any other wounds he could not see. But as his hand came to rest against its still cold skin, he realised where he had gone wrong.
This fox was not natural at all.
Its fur was impossibly soft, and his hand stopped just shy of its tail - or tails - that looked to be as big, if not bigger than the fox itself. It was one thing to be touching a spirit, but it was another to acknowledge its unnatural form. He did not need to count to know that there would be exactly nine tails.
His hands drifted to its ears, brushing them softly, and suddenly he missed the cat that he had left behind when he set out on his travels. It hadn't moved its eyes from him, and behind those glassy orbs it was still calculating, calculating, calculating.
He eventually left the room to retrieve hot water, and wiped the fox clean reverently, careful not to offend. It was a beautiful creature, with dark honey eyes, and he suddenly understood why someone might pray to these beings.
By the time he was finished the sun had just dipped past the horizon, but he was far too exhausted to contemplate eating, choosing to snuff the candle and collapse into bed instead. The fox had finally decided to move, pacing over warily and settling into a tight curl beside his ankles. It seemed to have gained back some of its energy and even some of its size, and it looked like a wolf hound had crawled into his bed. He didn't dare to shift his legs.
"If you decide to kill me, you really shouldn't have made me go through all that trouble," he called out instead, already halfway to slumber.
He wasn't sure, but he thought he heard the fox scoff.
He dreamt that night, and it was a dream like no other.
It was more sensation than thought, and he felt as though he had been thrown into a lake in winter, pitch black yet numbingly cold. From that bleak nothingness came touch, at his lips and hands and chest. It brought the sharp relief of heat, but even that did not last for long as the it crawled under his skin and threatened to devour him whole.
If he could have moved he would have trembled, and his helplessness was an agonising thing. His skin crawled, and he felt the tension build into something akin to pleasure but with an edge of fear. This must be hell, but where was the judge or jury? There was only the executioner, who had him firm in a molten grip.
Then everything released at once like a resounding crash of a wave, and he opened his eyes to the merciful light of day. He was drenched in his own sweat and his blanket was tangled messily around his torso. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes and looked around.
The fox was gone.
It was five years later, in the rain, that he met her.
It had been cloudy all day and he had brought an umbrella with him, so he took the time to savour the sudden drop in temperature the rain brought. He had been visiting a friend at a small town a short distance away, and he was certainly in no rush to get back home.
She had been hiding underneath a tree by the side of the road, looking like she wanted to curse the sky to hell and back. He had stopped and offered to share the umbrella with her, and when she turned to face him he discovered that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her brown eyes were wide, curious, as they stared into his face. Her skin was like porcelain.
They walked, talking about this and that, and he found out she was from the capital.
"I would like to visit Chang'an" he sighed wistfully.
"What do you do?"
"I write poetry," he said with no small amount of pride.
"Oh?" She inclined her head, interest peaked. "Men like you are appreciated in the capital."
"I would like to hear one of your poems," she said after a pause, gaze fixed forward. It had not escaped his attention that her clothing was made of silk, embroidered with gorgeously bold flowers, and sleeves that were made even more sheer by the rain. She had walked straight out of a painting.
He wished he had drunk more alcohol.
So he told her a poem, one made up on the spot, of a woman so beautiful that she brought a kingdom to its knees, so lovely that a flower would weep at its own inadequacies in front of her. His eyes never left her face.
She smiled in appreciation as he finished, and her eyes glittered with suppressed mirth.
"You have a way with words," she muttered.
"I am not worthy of such praise," he replied bashfully.
"My only wish is that you celebrate beauty rather than treat it as a warning," she said enigmatically, and her gaze was distant.
She was brought back to the present, but she didn't elaborate. They were soon back at the city, and she directed him to the gates of a large manor.
"Thank you for accompanying me," she said with a small, captivating smile, before turning and sweeping past the guards.
A month later, he received summons from the imperial palace.
The Emperor liked him, thank heavens. It was difficult to tell why he was so well-received, but the Emperor seemed to be in a good mood and liked his witty answers well enough. By the end of it, he had even called for an imperial banquet with a hearty laugh, a high honour indeed for a mere poet.
The banquet hall was glorious - he had never seen such a large room, supported by towering pillars that boasted golden engravings. He mingled with the officials of the court, speaking politely as they awaited the Emperor’s arrival.
There was one subject on everyone’s lips, which was how the Guifei was feeling, what she had eaten, which member of her family had just been promoted within the court. He had heard of her too, of course. Stories of her had travelled far and wide, the capricious Guifei that was beloved by the Emperor, by far the most beautiful woman in centuries.
Soon enough, the Emperor swept in with his highest ranking consort by his side, who received the same affections as an Empress in all but title alone.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but he still felt it like a slap across the face. If she had been exquisite when he first met her, she was unparalleled now, clad in volumes of luxurious silk and hair decorated with intricate floral pins.
The court rose and bowed deeply, taking their seat when the Emperor gave his leave. He had been seated near the front of the room, and he could barely pay attention to anything going on around him with how his attention was fixed on her. She was in her element - charming, flirtatious, beautiful - and it was easy to see how she had caught the Emperor’s attention.
And then her eyes turned to rest on him. With a small smile, she whispered something to the Emperor behind a raised sleeve, and now the Emperor’s attention was on him as well.
He rose. The Guifei enjoyed his work greatly, the Emperor said. Perhaps her beauty will move you to write something for her as well, the Emperor laughed. He laughed as well, and bowed deeply in feigned appreciation.
When he straightened and resumed his seat, he found that her eyes were still on him.
It was raining again when he met her the second time.
It had been months since he had arrived in Chang'an, a vibrant and noisy city like no other he had ever been to. The Emperor enjoyed his writing, which was heartening, but it meant that he would always be in the presence of those calculating brown eyes. The Emperor was spending time with the Guifei to the point of distraction, and the whispers predicting an inauspicious ending only multiplied with time.
It was late in the night, and a slow drizzle had picked up into something more insistent, something that would surely last the entire night. He had been working by candlelight, as he often did when he was unable to sleep, when she had pushed open the door to his room and stumbled in unceremoniously.
She was unsteady on her feet, and he stared at her, completely at a loss. If the Emperor discovered she was here, his head would roll .
“ Guifei niangniang, ” he croaked in greeting.
Her glassy eyes focused on him and she nearly tripped over her own feet trying to get to him. He rose hastily to catch her, mostly so that she would not over turn the candle in her stupor. He sat her down on his bed and went to close the doors gently. He returned to her and stood a respectful distance away, bowing deeply.
“ Guifei niangniang,” he repeated cautiously, “It is my duty to return you to the palace.”
She stood up stubbornly, much too fast, and fell right into him.
“The king is too busy with another concubine. Men are all liars,” she spat from within his embrace. Her touch burned, forbidden, but still he could not let go.
“No,” she continued, voice dipped, “You did not lie to me. You saved my life and I took something from you without your approval. I am not someone who is content to live in debt.”
He had no adequate response, so he simply tightened his arms around her. Her eyes were unfocused and wet with tears, and his heart broke for her.
“You owe me nothing,” he comforted softly. She shook her head violently, decision already well made.
“I owe you everything,” she breathed, and allowed the tears to fall. He wiped them gently with his thumb. He had very little to his name, but there was nothing he would not give up for her.
“ Guifei niang -”
She silenced him with a kiss, pulling him impossibly close. It was difficult to forget that she was the Emperor's property.
“ Enough ! Do not call me that, not tonight,” she bit out, pressing her forehead against his.
“Then what should I call you?”
Then, within his arms, she began to change, face morphing into another woman’s. And another, and another, and another.
He gripped her jaw and lifted it to look at her face. It was one he had never seen in his life.
“Is this a game to you?” he hissed.
“What’s wrong? I can be whoever you want me to be,” she smiled nervously. The hand on her face gentled.
“I want you ,” he said openly, much too honest.
She looked at him assessingly, those same gorgeous eyes never staying still. This time her body changed along with her face, and he found a man staring back at him. The kiss this time was immediate, inevitable, and they both pulled away shyly.
“I’m most comfortable in this skin, but pretty women are much more useful political pawns.”
“Tell me your name.”
He told him.
“And this? How often do you look like this?”
“Only on my own,” a pause, a breath, “and now with you, of course. If I had known you’d prefer me like this, I would have changed earlier.”
“You are lovely in every form you take.”
The fox spirit had come to him in much simpler attire than usual, a modest black hanfu with a sheer white robe over it. It was simple, understated, a clean contrast like the glow of the moon against the pitch black night.
It looked even better, of course, when it had been taken off hastily and tossed onto the floor.
Their lovemaking was a precious, fragile thing, as though they were both afraid that one wrong move could cause this to dissipate into smoke, an overly-elaborate dream. When they finished they lay against each other heavily, sticky with sweat and both their come. They held each other close as they drifted off into sleep, warmed by the softness of the fox’s many tails.
When he woke up the Guifei was back, and she had been awake for long enough to be properly dressed, hair pinned neatly into place. It was still early, and the sunlight that filtered in through the windows was grayish in tint.
She walked over as he woke up, and sat next to him on the edge of the bed. When she looked down at him, her expression was complex.
“You must leave,” she began, caressing his cheek with the back of her hand. “There will be great unrest soon. You should not be here.”
He caught her delicate wrist and brought it to his lips.
“And if I refuse?”
“Then you will have to forgive me for using the tools at my disposal.”
He paused, and looked at her in consideration.
“Then promise me one thing.”
“I cannot, you must know I cannot.”
“Promise me you will be safe.”
“That especially I cannot promise.”
“Then promise me you are happy.”
She pulled away her hand with reluctance and a sad smile.
“I will be happy knowing you are safe.”
There was the muffled swish of her robes as she swept out of the door, and then she was gone. He missed her immediately.
The imperial court was a fickle thing, where one could rise and fall within the same day. A court official had visited him several hours later, speaking with regret about how the Emperor had requested for him to leave the city. When he asked further, the official’s expression turned painful.
“It cannot be helped. The Guifei has taken offense at one of your poems.”
It was only appropriate that the grand empire fell in a grand way.
There was an uprising in the North, purportedly by the Guifei's own adopted son. Poetic justice , the people whispered.
The rumours trickled in, and it was difficult to know what to believe. First it was said that the Emperor stood his ground and launched a counterattack, then it was said that he had fled long before the enemy appeared on the horizon, taking his royal entourage with him. Did they flee to the south, or the east? Had he made it safely or did he die on the way?
Everyone had their own answers to what had happened, but there was only one question he cared about. Yet no matter who he asked, no one could tell him for sure if she was alive.
Gossip swirled, an ugly thing, and talking to anyone now was a nauseating experience. She had been strangled , everyone proclaimed confidently, betrayed by the Emperor's own army.
He left the next day, riding his horse at a punishing pace to Yanzhou in the hopes of finding a willing captain to take him to Chang'an. The journey by boat was breathtakingly scenic - it had always been - but he barely noticed it at all.
The chaos had yet to reach Shandong, but it was clear that the Imperial forces stood no chance when he landed in Bianzhou, just east of Luoyang. It seemed that every other person he came across was a rebel troop member.
It was impossible to find someone crazy enough to bring him to Chang'an, the heart of the war, and he had resolved to travel there on horseback after an afternoon of frantic questioning. It had been less than an hour before he had been stopped by a band of rebel troops.
"State your identity," the leader of the band questioned, refusing to give way.
"I am a merchant, and my wife is in Chang'an," he ground out, anxiously calculating his chances against five of them.
"Half the city is no longer at Chang'an," the soldier continued, eyebrows raised. It would be impossible to outride them - he had pushed his horse far too hard even getting here.
"But I must know if she is alive."
"You can follow us back to Luoyang, and we can get you on a ship after confirming your identity."
Perhaps it was his exhaustion, perhaps he had long given up hope of her being alive, and with that his own will. Perhaps he knew that his time had come, and he'd rather not look his killer in the eye as he left this earth.
He tugged at the reins urgently and forced his steed into a sprint in the opposite direction. He knew it was a futile attempt, and had almost expected the dull thuds of arrows burying themselves into the ground beside him, followed by a sharp stab at his shoulder.
He tried to hold back the tears, because he would not die crying , and he clung tighter to the reins, pressing his face against the horse's mane, eyes screwed tight. Surprisingly, there was hardly any pain, only a numbness that spread from his shoulder to the rest of his body. He didn't know how much time had passed or where he was, but it was increasingly impossible to keep his grip.
He couldn't help but slide off his horse pitifully, hitting the ground with a bone-deep exhaustion. He was tired, so tired, and he wanted to rest. Finally he could rest.
His final thought before his vision blacked out was a terrible regret that the gates of Hell did not permit spirits within them.
When he opened his eyes he was not sure if he had just left a dream or entered it. It was bright, excruciatingly so, and when he turned to hide his face from it, a dizzying pain bloomed in his shoulder.
"Stay still," a soft voice chided, "you will hurt yourself like that."
Ah, so this must be a dream.
He tried to speak but his voice came out as a low croak, and he felt the blissful relief of water at his lips. He drank and continued.
"This was not what I had imagined Hell to be like at all."
There was a hand in his hair, and he shuddered. He kept his eyes closed, afraid of what he might see if he opened them. He realised slowly that he was lying in someone's lap.
"That is because you are not in Hell."
His eyes fluttered open and he squinted against the light. He felt as though he had fallen into the Yellow River and had been spat out mercilessly after travelling through its perilous length.
He had not seen the face above him since they had made love in what seemed like an eternity ago. If this were a dream, he could wake up in peace.
"Your kind are notorious for being tricksters," he said lovingly.
"It is a good thing, then, that I am no longer of my kind."
"I serve a powerful mistress, and the Emperor had insulted her. She promised me immortality if I were successful in ensuring his downfall.
"But I was greedy, as I have always been, and asked for something much more bold. I asked for your life, and to make me mortal."
"You gave up your life for me."
"So did you, silly man. And I would not be here if it were not for you."
"Your mistress is kind."
"She is, but more so in somethings compared to others. I am lucky she believes in the enduring nature of love."
Their eyes met. Though he had never been particularly religious, he knew there was a reason people worshipped foxes.
"And I am lucky to have met you."
"You flatter me."
"And what now?"
"I sold all the jewellery the Emperor gave me. We are free to do whatever we wish. We can live in anonymity by the countryside for the rest of our lives."
"I would like nothing better."