Inches from the paper divider, Kuro dug his heels into the tatami. “A shrine? For me?”
He couldn’t have heard the onmyouji right. The only thing the Shogun wanted to give him was a swift execution.
But he’d never found out why his black fur was so terrible. No one had ever paused in the middle of murdering him to explain, and Kuro had more important things to worry about then.
“Yes, for you.” The onmyouji muffled a laugh that bristled Kuro’s fur. “It would be convenient to have another god on hand.”
Kuro glanced back over his shoulder. The onmyouji smiled from the shadows. Water tinkled in the courtyard garden, filling the bamboo water flute, and then rushing into the pond with the thwack of bamboo meeting stone.
“Forget it, foolish mortal,” Kuro snapped. “I’m not living in your cage.”
“Not a cage,” the onmyouji said. “It’s just so terribly inconvenient that while the Night Parade pounds at our barriers, you should be weakening one of our shrines. But adding a shrine, on the other hand, would be of service.”
Kuro stomped his foot into the mat. Why was he even hesitating to tell him off? The Shogun wouldn’t promise him any such thing. Humans lied. They betrayed. They didn’t care one whit about anything or anyone besides themselves.
“Yes, you could run,” the onmyouji said. “And I’ll have to set every samurai in the Capital after you. Oh, and strengthen the barriers around the Eastern shrine so even you can’t pass them.”
He bristled. He really hated that phrase.
“Or you can deign to listen to me a little bit longer, and end up with your shrine. No samurai, no struggle, no dogs.”
His breath hissed in, the dogs barking in his head. “Why should I believe you?”
“Because you’ve put us in quite the quandary,” he said. “As I explained, you’re weakening the barriers protecting this city. But adding another local god as strong as yourself, well, that could only be to the Shogun’s benefit. He would also like a favour. A favour that only you in all the empire can accomplish.”
A favour. The tip of Kuro’s tail swished. And once he finished the favour, the samurai would chase him with their dogs.
Or grant him a shrine. The thought rose up in his chest like a warm ball of mochi fresh from the fire, and like mochi, stuck in his throat.
“What’s the favour?” The words were out of Kuro’s mouth before he could bite them back. As if he could trust any human to follow through with their promise.
“To take care of a little pest,” the onmyouji said. “Nothing that would trouble a god-to-be.”
Visions of red gates and shrine buildings danced in Kuro’s head. He shook them away in a full-body rattle. “No god grants vague prayers.”
The onmyouji chuckled. “This is fate. Inevitable fate.”
Kuro bared his teeth. He was a spirit. Fate was what he made it. “Tell me.”
“The Shogun only needs you to kill the Sun Prince.”
He stumbled to the side. Kill the Sun Prince? The onmyouji had to be joking. “The Sun Goddess will scorch anyone who lays a hand on her descendants.”
“Any human or spirit or demon,” the onmyouji corrected. “But you’re special. You’re a Dark Kitsune.”
“So what if I have black fur?” He sniffed. “How does the colour of my fur make me any better at killing humans than one of your thugs?”
“So you don’t know.”
“Of course I know.” His fur meant he’d learned early not to trust anyone, human or spirit. They were cruel at the slightest chance. “You don’t need me. Just send your thugs, and let me go.”
“Except for that little fact you just mentioned. My ‘thugs’ would be boiled alive by the Sun Goddess if they even attempted it.”
And yet the onmyouji thought he could? More like hoped that a fox would last long enough to finish the job before the Sun Goddess finished him. The skin between his shoulder blades shivered with the need to demand an explanation. To beg the onmyouji to explain to him once and for all. But he’d already handed the onmyouji too much power. “Still, I don’t see why I must.”
“You’d be doing a favour of incalculable value for the Shogun,” he said. “You must see the value in holding such an obligation.”
“Perhaps.” Red gates, and a purification pond, and offerings, offerings, offerings.
“The citizens will be begging for your execution, of course. News of you has spread throughout the Capital already. They’d be greatly relieved if I killed you. But that would be a waste of an opportunity. If you don’t agree to this humble request, then I’ll let you run.”
Kuro hunched his shoulders, nostrils flaring.
“I’ll let you run all the way to the forest.”
“I’ll strengthen the barriers so you’ll never be able to return. How long do you think you would last?”
Kuro’s breath was as hollow as a dried snake skin.
“We’ll go now.” The onmyouji looked over his shoulder to the sliding door. “Allow me a moment to—”
“Don’t!” Kuro clapped his hands over his mouth, stepping back.
But it was too late. The word was out. The onmyouji knew the effect he’d had, the power he held over Kuro.
Kuro couldn’t agree to the request. He couldn’t trust that any human would fulfil their end. Breaking promises to a spirit was a futile proposition. Stories abounded of humans foolish enough to try to trick a demon, always ending in a collection of body parts and casualties. But those were only stories.
If he refused, though, the onmyouji would truss him up and throw him into the tree line. Ten years before, the forest had been infested with demons. It had only grown worse since.
“Perhaps you require another demonstration.” Gracefully, the onmyouji rose to his feet.
“No.” Kuro looked back to the sliding doors. He could run. He could hide in the Capital, until their dogs sniffed out him and every other fox and tanuki in the city.
The onmyouji slid the door closed behind him. Kuro swung back around. The barrier clicked back into place, descending them into darkness and leaving him alone with the onmyouji and no escape. How had he forgotten about the door?
The human slid one socked foot forward.
He could dodge. He could run around the room, evading the onmyouji. If he kept it up long enough, he might frustrate the onmyouji into reopening the door enough to see.
The onmyouji stepped again. Blue spiritual power crackled like lightning. If only Kuro could trust his foxfire like that. Kuro jumped back, but then the power ran through the tatami mats in a circle.
A circle that Kuro was in. He only had time to blink before the circle hidden beneath the mats activated. Kuro screamed.
The circle sputtered out. Kuro dropped to the mats. The onmyouji slid forward in that peculiar noble’s gait.
“Fine,” Kuro spat. “I agree.”
He had no other choice. At least this way, the onmyouji would have to let Kuro go. Kuro could figure out a way to dodge his promise later.
“But,” he added, “I want three — no, six torii gates in front of my shrine. Painted red.”
“We wouldn’t expect any less.”
“And I want the main shrine to be six rooms big.” Six, because it seemed like an auspicious number. He might as well ask for six of everything. “With tatami mats.”
“Six to each room?” The onmyouji sounded like he was teasing Kuro.
“Too small. My fox form is very big.”
“But you would use your half-form more often, wouldn’t you?” The form Kuro was in now, halfway between his real form and his human one.
“Eh. But naps are so much better as a fox.”
He grinned. “And I want a daily offering from the Shogun. A tray of mochi everyday — no, scratch that. Mochi is for rabbits.” He stuck his tongue out like he bit something nasty. As if rabbits needed mochi when they pounded it themselves. “A tray of inari-zushi. Oh, and coin.”
“We are experiencing a rice shortage.”
“But just think how much more grateful I’ll be,” he said. “You were the one lecturing me on the benefits of obligation. Shouldn’t you be trying to take advantage of me?”
“Three inari-zushi daily,” the onmyouji countered.
He sighed in relief. The tone hadn’t been mocking, but negotiating. Perhaps the onmyouji and the Shogun meant to keep their promises. Otherwise, the onmyouji would have just agreed to make Kuro happy. “Six.”
“Planning to become the god of sixes?”
Kuro only grinned, though the onmyouji couldn’t see it in the pitch black. “Plus six yen every day.”
“Yen?” Probably not even the Shogun traded with yen, the currency was so large.
The onmyouji tapped his closed fan against his chin. “That is feasible. So are you agreed?”
“Trying to cap me already? The Shogun’s so stingy.” He smiled wide.
“We have an empire to run,” the onmyouji said, “and fox to hunt.”
Either snatch up this agreement, or be hunted, the onmyouji meant. Kuro spread his feet and rested his chin on his fist, pretending he couldn’t feel the shiver running up his spine. When enough seconds had passed, he said, “Agreed.”
A rap on the jamb cut through the silence. “Excuse me,” the onmyouji said, and Kuro even heard the rustle of cloth as he bowed. Finally, the humans were giving Kuro the respect he deserved.
The onmyouji shifted the door open, letting in a trail of light. Kuro shoved himself up into a respectable position, kneeling with his feet tucked under him. A servant with their face hidden by the screen door handed the onmyouji a paper.
He read quickly, his smile broadening even as his eyes disappeared into shadow. “The Shogun completed his preparations.”
“For my shrine?” Kuro’s tail wagged.
The onmyouji only smiled, shadows swallowing his eyes.