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The Tale of X

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The young lord does not go to court. He remains in the summer estate on the mountainside; his only neighbors are the monks at the nearby temple; and were it not for the low peal of their bell, he might think himself alone.

But he knows he is not.

***

There is a shrine up the slope. He thinks even the young acolytes, prone to mischief and wandering the woods, do not know of its existence.

Indeed, when the young lord first came upon it, he felt sad, certain that the shrine’s guardian had long been forgotten. The hewn gate was weather-worn under his soft fingertips, the sacred rope wrapped around a large rock nearly disintegrated.

He was moved by pity or whim -- afterwards, he cannot decide which it was. But he drew a peach out of his sash and left it on top of the rock, in case the gods of the mountain still came there to rest.

There was a sudden, foreboding silence in the forest when he did so, as if something had taken notice. The young lord gathered up the heavy weight of his layered robes and made his way quickly down the mountain, back to his estate, his heartbeat fluttering hard in his chest.

***

The young lord’s sister is a favored lady at court. She can change her appearance like the kitsune, although she is not one. The young lord has verified this in every illustrated scroll, every manuscript he could find during his short tenure in the capitol.

He tells his sister he has no taste for politics, that he prefers the quiet of the summer estate for his scholarly pursuits. He does not tell her that he hears whispers in his head, and that the scrolls all say one thing about this.

His sister may not be a kitsune, but there is every possibility that the young lord has been possessed by one.

***

One evening, not long after he leaves his paltry offering at the shrine, the young lord pauses in his writing.

The screens are open, light from the candles around him spilling out onto the veranda. His brush is poised over the paper as he strains to hear the sound of someone playing a flute. For a moment, he thinks it is one of the villagers from the valley that he has engaged to see to the estate, but this is foolishness; the sun has long gone down, and no villager would tarry on the mountainside after dark.

Who, then? Acolytes playing truant, perhaps? But they are even less likely to disturb the woods at night. When he had gone to the temple and spoken with the head priest, he had been warned that something stirred in the woods, something that occasionally carried off young men and returned them, heartbroken and thoroughly mad.

Ink drips from his brush onto the paper, and the young lord curses himself for letting his attention wander so.

But he can’t stop thinking about it. Was he carried off as a boy? Was he left mad? There’s no one to ask. His parents were taken by the last plague, and his dear sister was too young to remember him before the whispers began.

There’s a creak, then, of the veranda floorboards, and the young lord is startled. He turns his head to see a dark shadow on the other side of the screen.

“Did it please you?” comes a low voice the young lord does not know.

He pulls his robes more tightly around himself, and with a bravery he does not feel in his heart, carefully sets his brush down. “Did what please me?” he asks, thinking to buy himself some time. He owns a knife, handsome with a lacquered handle and sheath, the kind of weapon that low-ranked nobles such as himself usually carry in their sash, but of course his lies on the low table in his sleeping chambers, gathering dust.

“The song,” the stranger says.

“I barely heard it,” the young lord confesses. The forest has gone silent again, and he can’t help the shiver that runs down his spine. There is no one else at the estate; he is alone, save for a visitor who does what wise monks and ordinary villagers will not, by venturing up the mountainside after the sun has set.

“Do so many offer you music, lordling, that you are no longer moved?” There is danger in that question, like a serpent disturbed from its rest.

“It was for me?” the young lord asks, shocked.

The floorboards creak again, and the stranger makes a noise in his throat. “Of course it was for you. After all, there’s no one else here.”

It is not a comforting reminder, and the young lord can only hear the sound of his own ragged breathing. “Why have you come?”

More silence, and then the stranger says, “I dislike being indebted. The song was payment.”

“You must be mistaken,” the young lord says with great care. “There can be no debt; I do not know you.”

There is the sound of something rolling across the floorboards, then, into his chambers and coming to a halt nearby. It takes him a moment to realize that it is a peach pit.

“It was delicious. Thank you for the meal,” the stranger says.

The young lord’s breath catches in his throat, and just then, a sharp wind guts his candles, and the clouds uncover the moon. The stranger’s shadow becomes clear; a human shape, but with what can only be wings and a long, long nose.

The young lord stares, open-mouthed in surprise and fear. His visitor is a tengu.

***

The young lord reasons that he should have realized it sooner. The mountain is the tengu’s home, and if he carries off acolytes foolish enough to wander his domain, it is surely because the monks and the villagers have neglected to appease him.

The tengu could have carried off the young lord the night before; there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, save for his sense of obligation. Tengu were fiercely independent, prideful creatures. Some tales held that they were once human, but transformed by overweening arrogance.

The young lord’s robes are heavy, more suited for the twilight life of court than picking his way up the slope. He finds the shrine again, just off the path, and this time, he leaves a small bottle of sake on the rock, and hopes it meets with the tengu’s approval.

Perhaps, the young lord thinks, they can all live together peacefully.

***

The young lord thinks of asking one of the caretakers from the village to remain behind. He thinks of shutting the screens and secluding himself in the interior of the estate. He even thinks of asking the maiden at the shrine down in the village to lay more protections on his thresholds.

He does none of these things.

He can lay part of the blame on his possible kitsune possession; he shies away from contact with others, avoids them when possible. The whispers are too strong and make his head ache.

That the screens are half-open is entirely because the young lord is too curious for his own good.

As both expected and feared, the tengu arrives with only a creak of the floorboards, not even so much as a whisper of a wingbeat. The scroll the young lord is reading tells that the tengu are fearsome warriors, capable of stirring up great winds with their feathered fans.

“Lordling, do you think to try my patience?” the tengu calls from the veranda.

“Was the sake not to your liking?” he replies reflexively, as though he were still at court and not addressing a dangerous monster-spirit.

“I will owe you nothing,” the tengu says. “You will come drink with me.”

The young lord swallows once, but obediently takes two dishes to the threshold, kneeling just inside, the papered screen hiding him from the tengu’s gaze.

“You will pour,” the tengu says imperiously, and places the bottle on his side of the threshold.

The young lord reaches out for it, and the tengu swiftly grabs his wrist and pulls him out onto the veranda. The young lord struggles, but the tengu pins him on his back with seemingly no effort at all.

“You should not take me,” the young lord says, desperate. “I am already mad.”

The tengu, he realizes with surprise, appears to be wearing a mask. His eyes narrow in the mask’s painted slots. “Mad?”

The young lord nods swiftly. “I have been possessed by kitsune.”

The tengu considers this, then leans down, long false nose sliding against the young lord’s hair until the tengu’s mouth is just under his ear. The tengu sniffs him, then says, “Someone has been telling you lies, lordling. You are untouched.”

“That cannot be,” the young lord protests.

“You bathed in the purified spring during the harvest moon, and allowed the shrine maiden to perform an exorcism,” the tengu says, his breath warm against the young lord’s ear. “I watched. It was well done.”

The young lord shivers.

“But the scent of kitsune lingers even after banishment, and there is none of it on you.” A pause, and then the tengu licks the sensitive skin under the young lord’s ear. “No taste of it, either.”

“What?” the young lord says, nearly soundless.

“It would not have been able to resist. Make no mistake, a kitsune would have eaten you up.” The tengu licks him again, lingering this time, and the young lord cries out.

“Please,” the young lord says. “Let me go.”

The tengu pulls back, so that the young lord can see his eyes again. “I am a monster, not an animal,” the tengu says with disdain, and releases the young lord’s wrists.

The young lord sits up, tries to pull his robes back into some semblance of respectability. He is surprised to see that in their struggle, the sake bottle remained upright.

According to the tengu, he cannot claim madness, and so has no one to blame but himself when he reaches out one shaking hand for the sake bottle, and pours for them both.

***

Thereafter, the tengu visits the young lord every night, well after the sun sinks behind the mountain. There are no whispers when the tengu is near, and no reports of acolytes being carried off. The young lord allows himself to cautiously hope that they have arrived at a congenial arrangement.

Mostly congenial, that is. The tengu is still himself. “This is worse than monkey piss,” the tengu complains one night after taking a sip from his dish.

The tengu could rip him limb from limb for impertinence, but the young lord knows by now that he will not, and therefore rolls his eyes. “I have another bottle, and if that one does not please you either, an entire storeroom. Would you be so kind as to set up the board?”

The tengu enjoys shogi, and is prodigiously talented at it. The young lord says so, and the tengu preens. “You are not completely unskilled,” the tengu concedes. “Perhaps when you have had as much practice as I, you will be an interesting opponent.”

The young lord declines to point out that he has won half their games. “How much practice would that be?”

The tengu looks distant, then a bit puzzled. “I no longer remember.”

The young lord pours for them both, then moves his first piece on the board. “Who were you?” he dares to ask. “Who were you before?”

Taking a long sip from his dish, the tengu smiles at him, all teeth. “A man who avenged his family.”

The young lord blinks. “Surely it was justice?”

“It was not enough. I realized that when it was over,” the tengu says, sounding thoughtful. “It was never going to be enough.”

“The monks say that vengeance will not bring you peace.”

“Peace?” the tengu scoffs. “What a useless notion.”

***

He leaves sake for the tengu every day, until the morning when he picks the last of the pink-blushed peaches from the courtyard and leaves that instead. They have come so far since that first, terrifying night.

The tengu arrives at his usual hour, and scowls at the young lord from the veranda. “I like sake better,” he says.

“So demanding,” the young lord teases. “The nights are growing cooler; come inside.”

Even in the dim lighting, he can see the tengu’s eyes widen. The young lord has never offered this before. The tengu shakes his wings once, and then they disappear from sight as he steps over the threshold.

The young lord pours sake for them both, and is surprised when the tengu kneels down next to him and takes a bite of the peach. It is nearly overripe, and the tengu looks a little wry when the juice runs over his fingers. “Sake is also easier to share,” the tengu says pointedly, and then holds out the peach to the young lord’s lips.

The young lord licks his lips once, then holds the tengu’s gaze as he leans forward and sinks his teeth into the tender flesh of the peach. The juice wets his lips and spills down his chin, and he has only a moment before the tengu growls and tears his mask off, and the young lord cannot say which surprises him more: the tengu licking the juice from his skin before licking into his mouth, or the whispers that have returned full force.

I can hear you, the young lord thinks, full of wonder.

Of course you can. Pretty, pretty lordling, the tengu croons without speaking. Touched by the gods, like I was, I knew it.

The tengu bears him down, and the mask goes sliding across the floor, and soon the young lord cannot think, because the tengu is possessed of more magic than he knew, and he feels no pain at all when the tengu joins them together. His robes have been laid open, his legs wrapped around the tengu’s waist, and the sounds they make as he clutches the tengu’s shoulders, as the tengu drives into him faster and faster, spill out into the forest.

***

The young lord wakes the next morning to find that the tengu has remained. Furthermore, the tengu appears to have been watching him sleep.

“I remember,” the tengu says, stroking the young lord’s hair. “It was during the White Empress’ reign, the last time I felt anything but vengeance in my heart.”

The young lord calculates that in his head. Nearly fifty years, then. “You said we were both touched by the gods. What did you mean?” he asks.

The tengu’s mouth curves into a smile. He looks entirely human this morning, and distressingly beautiful. “Watch,” the tengu says, and crooks his finger at the metal pot on the nearby table. It slides across the surface.

The young lord gapes.

“This is what impresses you? Until last night, I could fly,” the tengu says dryly.

“What are you saying?”

“I am a tengu no longer. If I were, I might let you name me and bind me to your service.”

The young lord shakes his head. “I would not want that.”

“I know,” the tengu-no-longer says, and smiles again. “You hear the voices of hearts, and that is no madness, no more than my command of metals.” He leaned down, touching their foreheads together.

“Tell me,” the young lord begs. “Tell me your name, and stay.”

He whispers it in the young lord’s ear, then kisses the sound of it from his lips, and the forest is silent no longer.