HE HAD his name and he had his sword. Some would say that was enough for any man. Better to be a ronin than to serve an unworthy master. Fujiwara Ryuichi’s master had been unworthy in the extreme, so Fujiwara left that service, even knowing that it might mean he would never rise to serve a great house, and he struck out on his own. But there was no work at all for a samurai who had deserted his master, even a bad, corrupt master. No work, no respect, no honor due him. He had chosen the wrong master; the burden of honor was on him whether he chose to stay in service or walk away.
He reached Nagoya, masterless and reduced to manual labor in exchange for food and a place to sleep, feeling as if he was coming to the end of himself. Yet he had it in his heart to see Fuji-san once more, so he walked east into the blaze of the rising sun. By the time he had crossed the river and the sacred mountain was looming above, his heart was heavy. Even the sight of the snow-capped peak did little to lift it. His katana, once so much a part of him, had grown heavy too. “Lay me down,” it seemed to say to him. “Lay me down and take your leave.”
So on the morning when he set out on the last leg of his journey, the one that would bring him to the foot of the sacred mountain—realm of snow and fire—he knew what he must do, what he should have done to begin with. Honor demanded that he surrender his own life.
He reached the base of the mountain in the early afternoon. There, amidst the flowering almond trees, he sat down to meditate on his life and to plan his own ending, for if his life had not been lived well, at least his ending should be good. He washed himself and donned his best clothes. Then he composed his death poem, a short one for a short life:
The honor of death
Wipes clean the dishonor of
A brief life wasted.
He rolled up the page and set it aside on his carefully arranged armor where no blood could fall upon it. Then he knelt on the soft mat of grass and opened his robes. He took up his wakizashi and spent a moment in contemplation of the fine blade. It was then that a voice pierced the silence.
“Is this truly the only end you can imagine for yourself, Fujiwara-san?”
Ryuichi looked up in surprise. “Who’s there?” he demanded, seeing no one close enough to speak to him. “How do you know my name?” Had someone followed him from the Matsuda castle?
“I know many things, Fujiwara-san. The kami brought you to this mountain for a reason.”
Ryuichi grabbed for his katana. “Show yourself!”
There was a rustling among the vivid blanket of purple irises that grew along the bank of the stream. He had chosen that spot so the sound of the stream and the sight of the irises would be with him as he passed out of his life. He watched as the mass of purple and green parted and a sharp little red-furred face appeared. The fox’s bark sounded like laughter. “Do you know me, now, Fujiwara-san? I am called Kaji-no-Shita.”
Ryuichi knew this was not the kitsuné’s true name, for such knowledge would give a human great power over the little creature. But kitsuné were kin to the great dragons and were dangerous spirits in their own right. With a nickname like “Tongue of Fire,” this kitsuné was undoubtedly one of the fire clan and doubly chancy to ignore or insult.
“Forgive me, Kaji-san. I did not know what to think.”
“Indeed.” The fox trotted up to him and sat down next to his pile of armor. “I appear to have come upon you at an inopportune moment. You have lost your honor?”
“I fear so.”
“And yet you treat me with respect in spite of having no need of my goodwill. This doesn’t speak of a dishonorable nature, though I could be wrong.”
“I deserted my master,” Ryuichi said simply.
“And the reason?”
“Is my own.”
The fox nodded. “Truly. And yet the course on which you propose to embark is a rather permanent one. Would there be harm in putting it off for an hour while we discuss your options?”
“I should have done this while yet in his service, as a protest. Instead I ran away. I have no options.”
“Everyone has options.”
“There is no work for a samurai who has deserted his master, no matter what that master was.”
“So then do you propose to die for the sake of honor or because you are unemployed?” the fox asked with a tilt of its head.
Ryuichi had no answer and so gave none. It disturbed him not to know the answer.
“Well… how if I told you that I could find you a master? A good, honorable master whom none would hesitate to follow? Would you still wish to die?”
“How could an honorable master wish to employ a dishonored servant?” Ryuichi asked.
The kitsuné seemed to frown, though that might have been a trick of the light. Animals had never struck Ryuichi as having such expressive faces. “Of course it would depend on the circumstances. If you had served a master he deemed unworthy of your high standards of honor, then he would almost certainly feel that you had acted correctly in leaving that service. May I know the name of your former master?”
Ryuichi hesitated, but then he wondered why it should matter at all. His employment had been public; anyone who wanted to know its details had only to ask. “Matsuda-no-Ichiro,” he replied, “whose castle lies near Osaka.”
“Oh, Matsuda-san; yes, I have heard of him.”
Ryuichi was curious. “What have you heard?”
Again, the slight tilt of the head. “It is the province of my kind to gossip, I suppose. I know Matsuda-san to be a corrupt man and one who has cheated and angered some powerful spirits. He will not retain his power much longer. It is well for you that you are no longer in his service. Now, as for your situation, I say again: how if I find you a new master?”
“If I can serve him in good conscience, and if he accepts me in spite of what I have done, then I would be content not to die today. But forgive me, Kaji-san; what would you ask in return?”
The little kitsuné seemed offended. “Can I not do these things out of the kindness of my heart?” But upon seeing Ryuichi’s stricken look, he barked with laughter again. “Oh, Fujiwara-san, the look on your face! Yes, I have a request, and it is not a small one. If I do this for you, I would ask you to become my husband.”
Ryuichi was stunned.
“You are not married, Fujiwara-san?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Does the idea of becoming husband to one of my kind disturb you?”
Ryuichi thought about it, thought about the reputation of kitsuné women for being beautiful and the reputation of fox families for being very fortunate. “Not at all,” he said truthfully. “I am honored, in fact. It seems that you will give me two gifts instead of favor for favor.”
“Prettily put. Well, as you are dressed in your finest, shall we marry now? Then I will take you to your new master, and you may begin your service.”
Ryuichi agreed. While Kaji-san went off to summon the other guests, he tore up the page upon which he’d written his death poem and cast the pieces into the water of the stream, watching as the cold, clear water washed them away along with his despair. How quickly luck changes, he thought as he straightened his clothing and made himself presentable. An hour ago I was preparing to die. Now I am preparing to be married.
The wedding guests assembled, and a tall, distinguished kitsuné in the gorgeously embroidered robes of a priest beckoned Ryuichi. “You are prepared to marry?” he asked.
“And to be a loyal and loving spouse?”
He looked down at the little fox who had appeared at Ryuichi’s side. “And you are prepared to do the same?”
“I am,” said Kaji-san.
“Then let us begin.”