Kuro crept under the bushes, rustling the dying leaves into crackling sounds. He paused and listened for the thumps of furred feet, but only the distant hum of the crowded streets reached him here. Excellent. He crawled over one more jutting root to the edge of the bushes.
Between the leaves, he had an excellent view of the offering box of the Eastern Shrine. A red and white bell pull hung above it. From this angle, he couldn’t see through the slats into the shrine building itself, but that was for the best. The house only enshrined an idol. The god was too important to confine himself to one little shrine for good marriages and births.
Really, the Storm God probably found the shrine ridiculous. He had destroyed the mighty Eight-Tailed Dragon and returned with the Imperial Sword. He had ravaged the heavens, and been expelled to wreak chaos upon the earth. How little could one shrine highlighting that he happened to marry a human woman who birthed eight children possibly mean to him.
The problem was the rabbits. He glanced down the flagged path to the road, flagged on each side not by the usual lion dogs, appropriately fierce for a god like him, or the heavenly messengers of the Celestial Kitsune, but white statues of rabbits. They were big rabbits, much bigger than any normal rabbit darting about in the forests, but still rabbits.
With big flat teeth and powerful legs. Kuro shivered, and checked on the rabbits painted on red paper lanterns. The largest, most fierce rabbit hid around the corner at the purification fountain. That one wouldn’t catch sight of Kuro before he made his escape.
The patter of lacquered sandals against stone made Kuro start. Damn it, he’d have to wait. He slipped deeper into the bushes, hiding his face from sight.
An elegant young woman in a red flowered kimono, sleeves almost trailing on the ground, came up the path. Her escort, a younger brother wearing two swords and looking bored by the whole thing, waited down the path. She threw a coin into the offering box, rang the bell, clapped her hands twice and bowed her head in prayer.
Unseen by the human woman, the rabbits chittered in glee. One more coin to line their coffers. Kuro scowled at them, though they couldn’t see. Idiot rabbits. He’d teach them.
“Miss Kuriozone!” A male human, a samurai proudly wearing two swords in his belt, clomped up the path. He even stuck his chest out, all puffed up with his own importance and freshly plucked head. As if that made him anything but a young brat. Kuro chortled to himself.
The lady agreed. Her back stiffened with each beat. When the samurai reached the step, she turned gracefully. “You.”
The samurai’s arrogance slipped as his jaw dropped.
If only they wouldn’t hear Kuro, he would have rolled around on the ground laughing. The boy samurai addressed her so intimately, and she couldn’t even bother to use his family name.
The younger brother pulled to attention, finally noticing the interloper, but his sister held up a hand to stop him.
“The gods have truly blessed me, for the fate of running into you,” the boy samurai said. He ran a hand over his bald head, as if begging her to notice that yes, when they’d plucked the hair off the top of his head, they’d plucked away his adolescence and made him a samurai of rank. Humans were so stupid.
The lady narrowed her eyes. “My sister-in-law is having difficulties with her pregnancy.” She left off the obvious, and you think that is fortunate?
“I…” The boy samurai searched around for inspiration. He waved his retainers forward. Both retainers also wore long swords. So he was from a good enough family that he could afford to have lower rank samurai at his beck and call. They carried a tray between them.
Kuro’s eyes bulged. Even the elegant lady gaped. Piled on top of the tray was at least fifty round mochi cakes. It must have cost him a fortune. Spoiled rabbits.
“I heard about your family’s difficulties,” the boy-samurai said.
“My family’s difficulties?” the lady enquired, the little patch of her eyebrow rising.
“Please do explain,” she said. “I have no idea what rumours have been spreading about my family.”
“Not rumours, but as you yourself just confided to me—”
“I did no such thing.”
Any sensible creature would have taken her brush off as a sign to move off and grumble about her bitchiness over sake to his friends. But this boy-samurai was no sensible creature. He bristled at her dismissive tone, but if he sold his pride at auction, pound for pound, he’d be more rich than the Shogun.
“I only hope this humble offering will bring this god’s favourable attention upon you,” he said. He didn’t sound very humble, at all. What sort of humble person brought a tower of mochi to give to rabbits?
The wind shifted, bringing the smell of the glutinous rice upon Kuro. His stomach growled and churned on empty. Why did rabbits get to eat such a feast while he had nothing?
“What was that?” the boy-samurai spread into an attack stance, his hand clasping the hilt of his sword. “It sounded like a ferocious demon.”
“Impossible,” the lady said. “This is holy ground. No demon would dare to tread it. A samurai of standing would understand this basic truth.”
The boy-samurai blushed heavily. He glanced once more toward the bushes Kuro hid in. Kuro sunk deeper, cursing at his stomach to stay quiet. The boy-samurai relaxed his stance.
“If I may accompany you to your next appointment,” the boy-samurai hinted.
Kuro rolled his eyes. Could he be even more heavy-handed?
“Are you not going to send your prayers to the Storm God?” The lady stepped past him. “Do not allow me to keep you.”
“Er, right.” The boy-samurai sent a longing gaze to the lady’s retreating back. He hurried up to the offering box in front of his donation. He quickly rang the bell and clapped. He dipped his head once and then rushed off to follow the lady. At least those stupid rabbits wouldn’t get his prayers too.
Or his mochi. Kuro grinned. The humans had waddled off to finish their meaningless human drama, leaving the shrine clear of interference. The rabbits hadn’t made their move yet. They’d regret it.
Kuro leapt out of the bush, landing on all fours on the step, and then stood on his hind legs. The humans had made it to the gate, but if they glanced back, all they’d see was a young man, poorer than the boy-samurai, but no less full of himself. But Kuro had reason to be prideful.
The mound of mochi reached up to Kuro’s chin. One or two cakes were easy. Five or six he could handle. But this heap?
The hair on the back of his neck raised. The rabbits were turning to their offering. They smelled the fox in their rabbit house. As soon as the humans left through the gates onto the street, they’d be upon him.
But nothing could defeat Kuro. He was about to become the god of this shrine, after he starved those rabbits into submission. Not even a stupid amount of offerings. He grabbed the tray. The top of the tower wobbled as he moved it, but didn’t crumble.
Rabbit screams filled the air. Shit.
He flipped the nearest lantern a dirty gesture. Holding the tray in both hands, he dashed for the gate. They couldn’t follow him onto the human street. The miasma of the human world would make them pass out.
The lady and the boy-samurai paused at the gate, even their dumb senses catching the screams of the rabbit spirits. They blocked the entrance. The boy-samurai stepped forward, one hand on his sword.
It was too late. Kuro couldn’t dodge him. He ploughed into him, knocking the boy-samurai, the tray of mochi and himself to the ground.
“My goodness.” The lady covered her mouth with a corner of her sleeve and laughed.
Kuro shoved himself onto his forearms and grinned down at the boy-samurai. “Thanks for the offering!”
“Shit!” the boy-samurai cried out. His eyes bulged, and his face went purple like a beet.
Kuro scrambled off him and gathered as many of the mochi cakes as he could fit into both arms.
The boy-samurai scrambled onto his feet, but tripped on the hem of his hakama to crash chin-first into the flagstones, to the delighted giggles of the lady. “Get him!” the boy-samurai yelled at his retainers.
Even in Kuro’s human form, he was faster than any low-ranked samurai retainers. He dodged between the two stunned men. The lady’s brother looked bored, too high ranked to bother himself with a lowly human thief. Kuro ran right past him and he didn’t even bother to put out a hand to grab Kuro’s collar.
“Get him! Make him pay for this affront!” the boy-samurai continued to yell against the tinkling of the lady’s laugh.
Kuro twirled around mid-step to flash the arrogant human a gesture, then ducked into a side alley.
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