This is a tale that my ancestor told me, one of mischief and love.
Rain-shadow was a curious character, the true embodiment of a fox. Clever, cruel, acerbic, but possessing dignity, honor, and nobility (when it suited him, of course).
Many of the animal spirits were paradoxes. He was no exception. I tell you now the tale of his marriage, a most bewildering affair.
Rain-shadow was out hunting one day, ranging far to find rabbits, his favorite food.
He came upon a warren of fat, slow lopers, ripe for the taking. Rain-shadow set upon them in his fox form, snatching a particularly young and juicy-looking morsel.
"Please, lordly fox, do not kill me!" she squeaked in fright, wriggling in Rain-shadow's jaws.
"Why not? It seems a waste to let walking meals spoil." he asked through the fluff, ready to devour the little animal.
"Because I am a princess among my kind, and my father can reward you richly if you but release me!"
Rain-shadow thought awhile. It did seem cruel to kill her, and if she was who she claimed to be he would be amply recompensed for her life. So he stated, mouth still full of fur,
"My lady, I cannot in good faith let go of you. Direct me to your father's warren and I shall release you. After the ransom, of course."
She nodded frantically, pointing with her little rabbit paw to a nearby burrow. Rain-shadow trotted to it and entered, changing his shape as was necessary.
The walk was long and twisting, but the rabbit-princess directed him true; he saw the dim light of small torches ahead, and knew he was approaching the throne-room.
Rabbit was an old acquaintance of Rain-shadow's, one of the few that could match him in wit. They maintained a friendly rivalry, trading jibes whenever they saw each other.
Rabbit was asleep in his bed of down and grass when Rain-shadow entered. So, a fox being a fox,
"It seems unfitting, Rabbit, that a lord should doze while his people are routinely so slow to hop that I needn't even use my powers to catch them. You ought to teach them proper rabbitry, such as you were in the young days, not skulk about like some fat old rabbit."
Immediately, Rabbit's tired and irritated voice answered the fox.
"And it seems to me that you've lost your talent to hunt, my dear Rain-shadow, if the prey you elect to pursue cannot afford you challenge. You are older than me, Fox, and I see the skin of your eyes drooping more every time I see you. Come, what's your business? That appears to be my daughter in your mouth."
Rain-shadow laughed, still holding the rabbit-girl gently in his mouth.
"I see you've not lost your famous temper all these years. Yes, this is your daughter. I was informed, perhaps erroneously, that you would provide me with a reward for her life."
Rabbit stood, shaking his fur out and hopping up to Rain-shadow and his daughter.
"Aye. Let her go, Rain-shadow. I've already got a reward in mind."
But Rain-shadow was no rabbit's fool.
"You'll permit me an old fox's cunning, but I will keep your daughter until I reach the surface again. You will not tell me the way back, old friend, and if I let her go I will not see the sun for many a year."
Rabbit smiled grimly.
"You've not lost your wit, Rain-shadow. Very well; follow me."
The rabbit king hopped off, the fox following him.
They walked a distance down, descending deep into the warrens. Eventually they came to a stop at a solid wall of earth, a seeming dead end in the tunnel.
Rabbit walked up to it, and tapped the stone thrice in the exact center, mumbling curse words under his breath. Rain-shadow thought he heard the stone chuckle at the sound of the old rabbit, and it opened slowly to admit them.
Inside was a vast heap of gold and gems, weapons and armor uncounted. Rain-shadow's eyes grew wide at such wealth, bringing a smile to old Rabbit's face.
"You never know when you'll need to bargain with a demon. Or a god. Or a fox." he said, hopping through with Rain-shadow following.
"Pick any two things you like, only let my daughter go. We will call this score even at that."
"Thank you, my friend. Your offer is most generous."
Rain-shadow walked forward, casting his gaze around at all the myriad coins, the mounds of gems, the trinkets and artifacts.
One caught his eye. A necklace, made of finest gold and bearing a sapphire carved in the shape of an eye.
This Rain-shadow took in one paw, the first of his ransom. Rabbit was sore distressed at heart; he had had the fortune to pick a powerful magical pendant from his pile.
But then something else caught Rain-shadow's gaze; a ring of what looked like water, flowing and twisting in its shape.
This he picked up with the other paw, surveying it curiously. Rabbit loped over and cocked his head.
"That is a ring I have found little value for. It is naught but glass containing water, a pretty sight with no application."
"I wish to have it, brother Rabbit. It has entranced me," replied Rain-shadow, not looking at his friend.
"If you wish. Now, daughter, lead Rain-shadow back to the sunlight."
And Rain-shadow departed that place, bearing the Eye of Fantasy and a ring with no name. He reached the surface of the world quickly with the princess's guidance, and set her down gently onto the grass. She straightened slowly, regaining her dignity as soon as mortal terror had fled.
"You know, I did not expect you to let me live," she said, regarding Rain-shadow curiously.
"A deal is a deal, even to a fox. Your father is an old friend. It would be… wrong to betray him so," Rain-shadow replied, turning around and beginning to walk back into the forest.
"Thank you, Rain-san," she said, bowing and loping back.
Rain-shadow smiled. It was rare to hear a fox designated as respected.
He figured out the powers of the pendant quickly. He gained command of illusion so great that he could make a being believe what was happening in their mind truly happened in life.
But the ring remained a mystery, sitting on top of Rain-shadow's pile of trophies, swirling and doing nothing. He quickly forgot about it.
One year, a contest was issued across the land. The daughter of the Emperor of Japan, descendant of Amaterasu, had been born a fox spirit at the whim of a god. Now, as by their own admission being horrible rulers, she had at long last promised her hand to any suitor who could undertake five tasks.
Naturally, Rain-shadow entered the competition.
He presented himself before the Emperor and his court on the first of what is now May, the very picture of a wanderer. He knelt before the emperor in a rain-darkened cloak, hood thrown over his head, pendant securely hidden in his fur.
"Your August Wisdom, your Imperial Highness, Son of Heaven. I beg that you cast your bright gaze upon me, one who is not worthy to attend your shadow."
Rain-shadow had to fight very hard not to laugh as the court erupted into whispers of appreciation and favor.
The Emperor smiled and bade him rise.
"You have the look of a traveler about you, stranger. But I know your purpose; you seek the hand of my daughter," said the Emperor, staring into Rain-shadow's storm-grey eyes with lordly intensity.
"My great lord, I do. I have heard many tales of your daughter's excellence and virtue. I wish to undertake her five tasks, for great is my love for her, and if I cannot win her… I will be content with having seen such beauty," said Rain-shadow, still fighting very hard to contain a grin.
"It pleases my ears to hear this," said the Emperor. But his eyes were grave when next he spoke.
"Stranger, hide not your nature to this court. The eyes of heaven pierce all disguises, save one. I knew you were a fox spirit the moment you walked into this hall."
The court exploded into shocked whispers, the councilors and officials gazing on Rain-shadow with incredulous eyes.
No spirit had dared enter the hall of the Emperor for a very long time.
Rain-shadow bowed his head and swept off his hood, revealing his face to the court. It seemed to them that he was man, albeit with a handsome fox touch to his features.
"Forgive me, my lord," Rain-shadow said, kneeling again, "but I could not anticipate how a court would receive my person."
"And for this reason we forgive you. But come, you are here for the tasks. My house is your house for the duration of the contest," said the Emperor, gesturing to the guards on his flank to lead Rain-shadow.
The guards escorted Rain-shadow to an apartment of the palace, neither luxurious nor peasant-like, but somewhere between grandeur and poverty.
"You will see the Emperor's daughter tomorrow, kitsune. You are not the first to arrive today," said the guard as he departed.
"My friends…" called Rain-shadow to the guards. They stopped.
"What is the penalty for failure in the five tasks?" Rain-shadow asked, dreading that he knew the answer already.
The guards sighed, closing the door behind them as they said,
The night was not easy on Rain-shadow. The image of his head rolling across the courtyard kept him up all night, jerking him from sleep with fear.
He was not in a good mood as he tramped to the presentation.
The day was dark and overcast, reflecting the kitsune's thoughts with near-perfect accuracy. The jewel-eye was rough against his chest, an irritation that served only to aggravate the fox further.
He took his spot at the end of a file of five suitors, dark thoughts concerning the Emperor's daughter racing through his mind. He was beginning to speculate on her weight when the horn sounded.
He sank to one knee with all the other suitors, head bowed and eyes scanning the floor for anything interesting.
Then he heard a whisper from the front of the line.
"…this I promise you, my love. This I can give you."
Rain-shadow had to resist the urge to raise his head. He knew that such a thing was not done in human courts.
The whispers kept coming down the line to him, his supernatural hearing picking up more and more words of love and devotion from the other suitors.
One promised her a nova of the northern sky, which he had caught in a bottle, 'the brightest flare of a star's fire known to man, with great power and beauty therein."
One promised her power over the efreeti, the djinn, and many others, spirits of a faraway land, 'spirits of fire and sand, ready to destroy their liege's enemies and serve her every whim'.
One promised her riches uncounted, locked in a vault beneath his palace, "Diamonds and pearls beyond counting, gold immeasurable, rings of strange metal and raiment of finest thread'.
The one next to Rain-shadow promised that his father would not invade them if she would but consider him, 'Else he will grow wroth and send forth his armies, my love, and your nation will suffer at his steel. I do not wish this; therefore keep me, and let us join our nations in a true alliance.'
Then came Rain-shadow's turn.
He felt her silken hair brush against his skin, heard her soft, melodious voice whisper in his ear,
"Raise your gaze to my face, last of my suitors. You have a strange look about you. Perhaps you will outdo the others of this competition."
Rain-shadow raised his head, and his eyes sought hers.
And in that moment, Rain-shadow, the kitsune of infamy, a being of chaos and trickery, found himself totally, irrevocably in love.
"What is your name?" she asked softly, kneeling before him and gazing into his eyes with orbs of pure emerald.
"My lady, my name is Rain-shadow."
His voice sounded slightly dazed, and he found it very hard to focus.
"Why are you here?"
"Because I wish to wed you and to love you."
"What can you offer me?"
Rain-shadow was silent. She waited.
Then, in a madness that Rain-shadow had never felt before,
"I will give you all that they offer, my love. I will give you a nova, plucked from the sky by my own hand. I will give you power over the spirits. I will bring you riches uncounted, wealth undreamed of. And I will keep our nation from disaster."
The vehemence in his voice shocked her. And for some reason, she believed him.
"And for myself," continued Rain-shadow, the fire in his eyes never dimming, "I will love you with all my heart, cherish you for what you are, and teach you to be so much more. We are kin in nature, my love. For I am a fox spirit, a kitsune, just as you are."
She was silent. Rain-shadow waited.
Then she swept off, walking back to the her chambers in the palace.
The kitsune rose to his feet with the others, quietly joining the file back into the palace. His mind was awhirl.
What have I just done?
He had fallen for her. Him, a kitsune of age and power, six tails to his name. It was unthinkable, insane.
But the fact remained.
He was in love for the first time in his life.
Back in his apartments, Rain-shadow sat down on the bed, fiddling with the eye pendant. He would need it if he wanted to succeed.
A nova, control of spirits unfamiliar, wealth, and an army to fight the northmen. You are a fool, Rain-shadow.
"But the prize... Never such a beauty lived in Japan."
He lay back, sleep stealing over him. Every dream was of her face, and every though consumed by her.
Thus ended the first day of the contest.