Naoko did not know how the fox had found its way into the garden, but it was easy to see how he'd found the snare. It was meant for rabbits and other animals that might be less than respectful towards the plants the students grew for lessons. The snare had been laid by the matron, Grand Dame Morley, hidden by the bushes and by strokes of a basic concealment spell, so it was no mystery how the fox had stumbled into it unawares. How he had gotten into the garden in the first place was another story.
It was possible there had been a gap in the fence, but that gap should have been closed by the thousands of warding spells that her instructors had written around the house. She had helped strengthen those spells herself. It was one of her first lessons, as one of the Witch Queen's Special Class, a thing that was meant to be a source of pride to any young witch worth her salt.
The fox must have slipped in between the lines of magic. How he had done it, Naoko didn't know. He didn't look or feel like a special fox, like the messenger foxes she remembered from home: the sleek, small, elegant little creatures with shining white fur and charms hanging from their necks. It was said Inari, the god of the shrine where Naoko was raised, sent them to the most devout of followers. They carried instructions, spells, gifts, and sometimes little reminder memos that water needed to be spread over the stairs at exactly six in the morning. It was considered very lucky to encounter one.
Naoko did not think Inari would have chosen this fox. He was a red fox, and not a particularly elegant one. He was too thin, for starters. She could see his ribs and some of the knobs of his back as he bent against the snare. His paws were too large for his body and his neck was too narrow, giving him a gawky, half-grown look. This was probably the case, based on his size and the fact he had been foolish or prideful enough to try and slip into a witch's estate.
Still, for all his roughness, his coat had some luster of health. It was summer, a good time for foxes. He wasn't missing any fur, he wasn't embedded with ticks, and he was smart enough to not toss his head against the snare. He knew it would only grow tighter the more he struggled against it. Instead, he was trying to work his paw through the wire under his jaw. The wire cut him, and his paw bled from the effort. It showed enough intelligence that Naoko bent beside him, and wondered at how he had gotten here to begin with.
"Naoko!" called a girl behind her. It was Antoinette, who had been tending to the strawberry patch. "Naoko, are you coming? They'll put lunch out in ten minutes, and music lessons will be done in twenty."
Antoinette was warning her. Caterina — a girl who Naoko did not like very much — took music lessons, and if she arrived at lunch before Naoko, she would probably lock the door. Despite the heat, Naoko pulled the collar of her knit sweater over her chin and turned to face Antoinette, so that her body blocked the fox bent behind her. Antoinette's family owned considerable amounts of land and considered foxes a sign of poor luck and empty chicken coops.
"Thank you, Antoinette," said Naoko, in her careful English. They all spoke English, in the Special Class. This was because they were in England, where the Witch Queen of this century had chosen to live. "I will not be long, and if I am, it is all right. I am not so hungry."
Antoinette was not fond of talk like this. She dropped her hands and rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine!" she said. "Rearrange herbs in pleasing ways or whatever it is you like to do, but see to it no one blames me if you starve! I can only take so many biscuits from the tray. And don't expect any jam!" She said this last part especially fiercely. Antoinette could make her peace with crumbs, but she could not abide by jam in the scarf her grandmother had bought for her in Paris. It was dyed purple and blue and she wore it around her neck with great pride. She had convinced the matron to let her wear it over her uniform, so long as she tucked it back for lessons.
"Thank you, Antoinette," said Naoko, because Antoinette was always unusually kind.
"You always say that." Antoinette stomped her foot and walked away.
Naoko waited until she had turned the corner around the greenhouse before she turned back to the fox. He was frozen in place with one ear up, as though he had taken a great interest in the conversation — or was perhaps possessed by a great terror of Antoinette, which would have been a healthy response.
"You are very lucky," Naoko said to him, in English, because he was probably an English fox. "If she had been the one to find you, she would have killed you. She does not like foxes very much. "
The fox cocked its head to one side, then returned to trying to push the snare over his neck. Naoko sighed. She supposed it was too much to hope that it would speak with her. Nothing liked to speak with her in this country. She rubbed her neck and reached for her bag. She pulled out her warding slips, a comb, her notebook, some pencils, and, finally, her pocket knife. She flicked it open. This, the fox seemed to understand. His pupils grew large and he bared his teeth at the sight of it.
"I don't mind foxes so much," she said. "Please don't growl so loudly, and hold still."
She shoved her palm across his snout and pushed his head down, so he could not bite her. His raggedy body jerked once in protest, but then fell limp as the knife came close to his neck. It may have been he was smart enough to understand her good intentions, though more likely it was the spell of subjugation written into the slip of paper she'd slapped against his face when she'd touched his head. Cast in its country of origin, and by a witch in her full power, the spell would have put him into a full sleep in an instant. Cast in England, and by a witch who hadn't even summoned her first familiar before the International Board of Review, it only set the fox into compelled sense of calm. He watched as she edged the knife between the wire and his neck. He panted softly, his blue eyes glassy and half-lidded.
None of the foxes Naoko had seen growing up had blue eyes. She supposed that was another thing that was different about this place.
"You shouldn't sneak into a witch's garden," she said, sawing through the last shred of wire. "Whatever you are looking for is probably not here, and witches are not as friendly as shrine maidens, even if they use the same word for them here. Although I do not think you know the difference. That is too bad. If you worked in a shrine for Inari, we would feed you, and you would not be so thin."
Her hand looked thin, resting on his head. The paper in her palm began to smolder slightly, meaning that the spell had nearly run its course. Naoko pulled the wire clear of the fox's neck, just as the hair across his head came alive again. He began to growl again.
"No biting," she said. "I have a knife."
He didn't bite her. She let him go, and held her hands away. The fox rose sluggishly to his feet, rolling his head uncertainly, as though half expecting the snare to still be there. He put his front paw on the ground and raised it again, the pads were red from the wire. The wire had cut his neck, too, but the wounds were shallow, and the blood was already crusting in his red fur.
"You should leave the way you came," Naoko told him.
The fox stared at her. It was then that Naoko decided English foxes just weren't very bright. He sniffed the air, and glanced over his shoulder, tottering carefully forward. He turned in a cautious circle. Naoko cast a quick glance over her own shoulder, checking to see that they were not caught.
"Go," she said, shoving her hand forward in a hurrying motion. "I wish you the best, but go."
The fox went. He went quickly, as she'd asked, his body a slim, red blur shooting off into the tomatoes the cooks grew for supper.
Naoko picked up her warding papers and realized her comb was gone.
"Oh!" she cried. He had taken it, of course he had. She had assumed he was duller than the foxes of her home, and he had punished her for it. She could see him on the other end of the garden, scrabbling along a hedge. The handle of her old comb, the one with birds painted on it, stuck out of his mouth.
If he had taken her pencils or the notebook, she might have let him go, even if it would have meant explaining to the matron why she had lost them.
If he had taken her knife, she would have let him go, even if she would have to give money to a gardener to find a new one from the town on the other side of the hill.
If he had taken her warding slips, she might have let him go, even if it would have meant a night of writing them out painstakingly by the light of a lamp. It was not so easy to make them, not without a familiar. The tutors had told Naoko it would be at least another year before she could call one. Still, if he had taken the slips, she would have let him go.
But he took the comb. It was the one thing they let her keep, when they took away her suitcase full of her clothes, and her uniform from the shrine, and had given her sweaters and long skirts instead. She hadn't raised her voice when they had taken those things, but when Morley had dumped her handbag onto a desk and picked up the comb, Naoko spoke up.
"I need that," she had said. "It is important for my magic."
It was not a lie. All objects were inherently important for magic. If the matron did not understand that the comb was as equally important as a wand, a bowl, or a desk pen, it was not Naoko's fault. "Oh, that's right. You're our Japanese witch. Shintoists. I forget how things need to be a certain way."
That was really more a description of the art of Feng Shui, but Naoko considered it best not to correct her. The Matron slid the comb back across the desk. "Very well. You can keep this while we get you settled, but do realize you must learn other forms of magic if you're to be presented to Her Majesty next fall."
Naoko had closed her hand over the comb and thanked her. Now, the fox ran across the green with that comb in his mouth. Naoko grabbed her warding slips and ran. She swerved to avoid the strawberries and leapt over an arugula patch.
"You won't be able to run far," warned Naoko, fanning her warding slips in her hand. She'd never used them while running before, and she would have to be very careful which ones she threw. As though he were listening to her, the fox gave up on the wall and shot towards the stile located at the far corner of the garden, the part of the wall that looked out on the hills.
It was an old fashioned stile — just a series of steep stone steps made up of the same slate that had been used to build the wall, back before the house was converted. The fox froze at the blocks. He turned to face Naoko with his ears pricked high. She saw then why it had been so easy to catch up with him. His front paw, the one that had been cut by the snare, didn't touch the ground. Naoko shuffled the papers, choosing a strip that had the weakest bindings.
He must have been awful young to pen himself in like this. A grown fox would not make the mistake of entering a chase with no exit. Even a beginning witch understood that the warding spells over the main house were strongest where the physical wall grew thin.
"I am sorry," she told him. He backed away as her shadow fell over him. "But you will have to give it back."
"It makes your face look fat," said the fox, and, while Naoko was reeling both over his crudeness and the fact he could speak after all, he held his teeth tighter around the comb and leapt across the stile, passing out into the fields with little more than a tuft of red catching in the spells.
'There's a hole!' realized Naoko, in a panic. She could see it: gnawed raggedly into the spells just above the stile. It hadn't been there during morning lessons. It wouldn't be there during tomorrow's lessons — the gardeners renewed them daily. He must have made it himself, chewing and smearing the spell until it gave under the pressure. It was how he got in. It had to be. Now, it was how he made his escape, hobbling down the hill, comb still in his teeth.
He had had an escape route after all, and Naoko had hers. She clambered after him, holding her skirts so that they wouldn't catch in the stone. The spell tugged at her hair. Her nose, ears, and the line around her neck felt oddly hot, but the burning didn't come. No alarms sounded as her feet touched the ground. She wasted no time pondering the remarkable luck of it: a fox that could break a witch's warding could not go on believing he could do it again.
She kept her eyes trained on him. The land here had once been for grazing, and the grass was short. It was not so hard to see the fox, the white tip of his tail bobbed as he wove his way down the fell. Every ten feet he did a little half jump, as though troubled by the pain in his injured leg. Naoko swerved to avoid the sinkholes and roots that appeared in these places. Foxes, even the civilized ones, were skilled at the raw, untranslated magic. It was the kind of magic that made you trip in a chase or follow them into the wrong set of bushes. It was also the kind of magic that, if read right, could be translated, named, and transcribed into the best misdirection spells known to man. An older fox could have escaped her with ease, but the fox was young and counting on Naoko's unfamiliarity with unnamed magic: she didn't trip, and she didn't slow down.
"Stop!" she called. "I only want my comb! If you return it, I won't take you to the Matron for sneaking!"
The fox didn't care about the Matron or about being punished for sneaking. He put on speed. She could see where he was headed: at the bottom of the hill, there was a set of trees. It didn't look like much from the house above, but it was a sizeable grove, undeveloped by the farmers or the town that sat a few more miles on.
The fox tripped. He leapt over a stone and his hind leg caught one of the outcroppings. He went rolling, and so did the comb. Naoko bent tucked her head forward and put on speed. She had the warding slip between her fingers when something black flocked in from the corner of her eye. She stumbled just out of the way of a force that flew past her cheek. It left a stinging line across her face, and something pulled at her hair. A second flocking thing struck her shoulder and pulled at her clothes. She stumbled out of the way of that too, tripped, and fell against the same outcropping that had caught the fox.
Above her, she heard laughter. It wasn't human laughter. It wasn't even the fox's laughter. It was a loud, raucous cackle, the sort she'd sometimes heard walking up the steps of the shrine on a dim afternoon, the kind before a storm when the skies were yellow with pressure and raw magic.
'Crows!' thought Naoko, and as she named them, she saw them for what they were: two dozen crows, circling overhead. There must have been a roosting spot nearby, and the fox must have known it. He had led her straight into their territory, and they were none too happy to see her. They weren't like the city crows, who sat on the wires and on the steps and watched her calmly. These were wild, natural crows, the kind that had never been named by some bored shrine attendant, and the kind who wouldn't want those names anyway. They angled their wings and came down for the kill.
Naoko slapped her warding slip against the air. It stuck flat in midair, just barely. The first six crows struck the spell head on. It was one of the first she'd been taught, and she'd explained what it said to Antoinette: 'Wall.'
The crows thudded and slid off the side of it as though it were a solid wall, some of them scrabbling, some of them knocked cold. Naoko wasted no time in dealing with the remaining crows. She shuffled her strips until she found the one that said 'Flower' — at least, that was what she'd told Antoinette it had said. It was only a literal translation of what it really meant, and it had been the strip that had recently saved her life, now it would do so again. She slid her fingers over it to make the paper flat and stiff.
She tossed it the way she had been taught at the shrine, with a sharp, firm flick of the wrist. It flew straight up, exploding amidst the waiting crows. Naoko tried not to let her throat catch too much at the sight. It was her last Flower slip. The other had gone off unexpectedly in her room last night, and she had very nearly been punished for it. The crows scattered to escape the spidery red flash of light.
This far from home, and written in the original language, the spell would only be light.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another red flash, one much more mundane — the fox. He'd reclaimed his stolen prize and was presently limping off the last few steps towards the grove. He would leave the crows to their prize, it seemed. He would be generous like that.
"You're a coward!" Naoko cried, rolling to her feet. She hoped the words caught him and stuck. She threw another Wall. It would only last so long. Her only choice was to follow the fox into the cover of the trees, where the crows couldn't flock her in such numbers. Now she understood why the school kept their gardens behind walls. It seemed the land itself wished to wage war on witches. The fox crossed a ditch into the first jutting of trees. Naoko leapt the ditch just as the last Wall faded. The crows dove again. Naoko could feel the nearest rip at the ends of her flying hair. She heard the thrashing of its wings close to her ear, but never felt its claws in her back. It didn't come in for another pass.
After taking a few more steps into the shadows of the trees, Naoko understood why. She stopped, panting, her hand on her chest. The cut on her cheek hurt. Her knees hurt. The grove around her was hushed and dark, as though not even sunlight would follow her through the trees. It was only a grove, but when Naoko looked up, she might as well have been in the center of a deep and ancient forest.
"...Dark Wood," said Naoko, but the words were weak on her lips, barely audible and shaking under the force of the great, unnamed magic around her. She could have shouted at her foolishness, but she knew that neither words, nor spells, nor anything spoken by humankind could help her now. A Dark Wood. The cowardly fox had led her into a Dark Wood, one of those ancient stores of magic too deep to accept definition under a witch's spells. Only the most raw and wild of magic existed here.
Natural magic of the world was greater than the whole of man could ever understand. Naoko was not the Witch Queen, who subdued it. She was not a professional translator, who redirected it. She was only one witch, and not a fully grown one. She had no familiar, and her one weapon was some paper spells written in a language her teachers had warned her wouldn't work. Not here.
Naoko folded her cards and held them carefully against her chest. "I beg your pardon," she said, quietly. "I'll go now."
She turned the way she came. She took slow, respectful steps. She walked directly into a bush that hadn't been there before. Naoko pushed the leaves aside, trying to ignore the way they grasped at her arms. A fallen tree lay in her path. She tried to step over it, but it had more branches than she'd guessed and her skirt caught on it. She turned to unhook it. Her heel came down over a log wedged under the leaves. It came up through the loose, wet earth. The sharp pieces of it caught the inside of her ankle. She fell painfully into a bed of sticks and leaves.
She lay on her back. She couldn't see the sun through the trees.
Too late, she realized. It was much too late. It had been too late the first moment an axe had been taken to a tree trunk.
Naoko rolled over. Her cheek brushed soft moss and the scratchy coverings of the dorm mattresses. It creaked under her. It always creaked. It made it very hard for her to sleep. The beds back home in the shrine had been low. She was not used to sleeping at such a level and on springs. Lights off had been four hours ago and Naoko had not slept at all. She simply lay on her stomach, staring blearily off into the forest of beds where the other girls lay. The last whispered conversation had died away an hour ago. The last secret light had gone off two hours ago.
Naoko heard a rustling. It sounded like someone coming through the brush — except no, it was feet on the floor boards. Naoko thought nothing of it, thought it was simply another girl staggering her way to the bathroom, until the mattress of her bed shook. Naoko shook leaves and the blanket out of her way and sat up, thinking it was Antoinette, who slept in the next bed over.
The girl was on her with a rustle of cloth that sounded like the wings of an angry crow. Naoko felt a knee push into her back like a branch. A strip of fabric settled around her face and neck. It was soft, and light, until the other girl jammed her down into the grit of her mattress, crossed the ends of the strip behind Naoko's neck, and pulled those ends as far as they'd go. She did it so quickly Naoko couldn't scream, only squeak like the bed as her throat closed. Caterina. It must have been Caterina. She had not liked that Naoko had done better at her in their warding lessons the day before, and now she had come to fix that.
Caterina was heavier than her. It was hard to move. The world was growing very dark and narrow in her vision, and that also made it difficult, but Naoko struggled. She struggled against the grasping of branches and the cloth around her neck. She could feel the other girl's hair tickle her like a fox's whiskers.
'Ah,' thought Naoko against the dimming of her mind. 'That's right. I saw a fox in the garden the next day.'
But the memory of the girl's harsh breathing was still louder than the wind in the trees. Naoko struggled against her weight, against the fabric which cut into her neck. She reached, her fumbling fingers brushed around the bars of her bedframe. They scratched her knuckles like the bark from a tree. When her hand slammed the bedside table, it felt more like a moss-covered log than polished wood, but it shook with her touch. The lamp tipped over. It landed across the warding slip she had left beside it. It said 'Flower,' and, as Naoko bumped it with her desperate palm, it went off with a loud, red crack.
Naoko closed her eyes and took a breath. She thought about the next day. She did not smell smoke, because there was none. She lay face down in the forest, in her school uniform. Her sweater hid the bruises on her neck, which had already begun to fade an hour before noon, when they had been called to the garden.
Something rough brushed her hand. It wasn't leaves or bark, but twitching and alive. Naoko looked. It was the fox, back again. She could make out his pointed ears and his white chest and, after a moment, the brown smudge of blood from the snare. The glint in his eyes must have been from satisfaction, because he still had her comb in his teeth.
That was quite enough, as far as Naoko was concerned. "I remembered something unpleasant," she said quietly, and lunged like a cat out of a crouch, no longer caring if her skirts tore in the wood.
The fox started, but much too late. He had not expected her to move so quickly. He tried to escape under the bushes at the far end of the clearing, but Naoko threw a piece of paper at him. It went off close his bony flank. He yelped as the strip gave off sparks. Naoko didn't care if it hurt. She fell on him, her hands closing over his back, but no sooner did she have him by the scruff that the ground gave way under her shoes. He had led her to an incline, and they fell: fox, girl, and comb, all down the slope. Naoko landed at the bottom of a wet ditch, her sweater was stained with mud.
"Argh!" cried the fox, from underneath her. "Geroff! I need that kidney!"
He said it more loudly than Naoko had expected. This was because he was larger than she had expected. In fact, lying in what she realized was the bank of a small pond, she could see that he was in fact larger than her: he had two long arms, two long legs, was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and was in fact no longer a fox at all, but a very muddy, very miserable boy. He groaned loudly, and Naoko scrambled away. His breath was bad and he smelled of bog. Scooting into a crouch, she got a better look. Only his wispy red hair connected him in any way to the fox she had chased into the grove. That, and the red line that ran around his gawky, pale neck.
He stumbled to his feet, rubbing his side. He was as thin as the fox had been, the collarbone jutting aggressively out under his loose shirt said as much. He said a nasty word.
"Bastard promised no projectiles," he snarled. "This is balls. What was that?"
"So you are this kind of fox," said Naoko. She'd been right about his age, though. He couldn't have been more than two years older than her.
"I'm not the kind of fox with anything," said the boy, forcing himself to stand straight in spite of the way his joints cracked to do it. "I'm just here because my ol' Da wanted a favor. 'It's simple, Gerard,' he says. 'It'll just be an hour, Gerard,' he says. He said nothing about electric paper, and he said less about the crows! Were those friends of yours, or did you make them out of paper, too?"
"You... didn't call them?"
The boy's eyes bulged at her in confusion. They were very big for the rest of his thin face. "...On their own then," he concluded. "Lovely. Just lovely. So whatever this is, it's big enough for the old bird to want in on it, and YOU DIDN'T TELL ME THAT EITHER. THANKS FOR THAT. I REALLY MEAN IT. THANKS." He yelled this across the pond. Naoko had to assume that he was not speaking to her.
"Why did you want my comb?" she asked carefully.
The boy sighed. The whole of his body seemed to lose two inches of height as he slouched in defeat. "Why'd you follow me for it? Don't answer that. You're mad as a hatter. I don't want your comb. I don't know what I'd do with it. Don't exactly want to do my hair. I just did what I was told."
"Yes, and I'm done with it. Take it." He thrust out his hand, and in it was Naoko's comb. A little muddy, but otherwise entirely undamaged. He smiled, thinly. There was still a great deal of the fox in his face, and Naoko hesitated.
"Take it," he said again, rolling his eyes. He stretched his hand a little further. He had long, alarmingly bony fingers. "I don't want it."
He had a cut across his palm, from the snare. Naoko reached for the comb. The boy's smile split into a vicious, gawky grin before he swept his arm to the side and dropped the comb into the pond. It vanished with a faint plop.
"Hold on!" she cried. "Oh, you—!"
She rushed for the water, hoping to catch it before it sank too deep, but the boy grabbed her by the arm. She twisted against his grip, but he held fast.
"Oh, get off," he growled, ducking out of the way of her elbow. "It's not deep. Just look."
Naoko looked, and when she did, she saw that he was right. Her comb had come to rest in the gravelly bottom of the pond. It lay in less than an arm's length of water, and that water was clear and clean — hardly the brackish still water she'd expected. She also saw other things in this clear water, like the pair of huge, yellow eyes that opened behind her and the boy.
She gasped. The boy let her go. She swung around to look, but she saw nothing but the slope. There was nothing there. She looked back. The reflection of large, yellow eyes stared up at her, almost expectantly.
"I know a poem," she said, catching her breath, "about the reflection of the moon, and how it can trick people."
The eyes in the water crinkled in amusement. She saw her comb shift under a great shadow that was shaped vaguely like the elegant paw of a very large beast. "I know a story about the reflection of a fox," said a voice from the pond. She had to assume it came from the pond. It echoed all around the grove. "Ah, Inari. Your messages come in such strange ways, but it's good to hear from you."
"Inari?" Naoko had not heard anyone say that name since she'd left home. "You know Inari?"
"One of the great named powers, trapped by that self-same name to be in the service of Man," said the voice. "Or witches, really. Man's much less specific about what they want. Yes, I know Inari. What do you take me for? I don't send messages to your little goblins. The ones with the buckets on their heads."
Here, Naoko could not help but jump. A huge, white smile had split open behind her reflection in the pool. It was full of many pointed teeth. It sat in the faint reflected outline of a face with pointed ears, and it looked like it might have swallowed her whole, had anyone been behind her.
"Do you mean kappa?" she asked, but that wasn't the important thing. She shook her head. "What messages?"
Laughter swayed in the trees behind her. She jumped, feeling a prickle behind her. She didn't dare look. "Yes. Messages. Mail. Communication. Years ago I sent Inari a... hm. A letter, I suppose. About an issue that had concerned us both for some time. I asked Inari to think carefully about it, and now you have brought me an answer. Thank you, Miss Naoko Kiragi. You must be a very interesting person, to be chosen as an emissary to such a proper being like Inari. I trust you to take my reply back with great speed, not like my Gerard — although, I suppose, he deserves thanks too, for showing you the way."
The fox-boy grunted and kicked a stone into the water. "You might've warned me 'bout the crows."
"My children take care of themselves," said the voice, the gold eyes in the pond narrowed.
Naoko felt a chill catch in the air, and Gerard went pale, but the chill passed, and the eyes focused back on Naoko, reverting to their fond half ovals. "You must be hungry. We've got plenty to eat. Some grapes? Or maybe some cheese?"
As he said it, the items in question appeared beside the comb in the water: a bunch of grapes, swaying back and forth, and a wheel of cheese wrapped in wax paper.
"No, thank you," said Naoko over the rumble of her stomach. The eyes blinked at her. She drew back. "I'm sorry. You say that I have come as an emissary, but I don't remember being asked to bring anything. Are you sure there hasn't been some sort of misunderstanding?"
'And you may be lying to me,' thought Naoko, but it didn't seem wise to point that.
But whether or not her suspicions were clear, the voice took no offense. "Old souls like Inari aren't very good with words, are they? Besides, we couldn't risk the witches knowing you for who you are."
"I don't understand."
"Miss Kiragi, you left the school on your own free will, didn't you?"
Naoko shot Gerard a look, but Gerard only raised his eyebrows at her. He scratched the back of his cut neck with a thumb. "Don't look at me," he said. "It was just a comb."
And he was right, she realized. It was just a comb, hardly a reason to risk the trouble she would surely be in when she returned. Naoko looked back into the pond with a frown. Whoever this being was, they were clearly very strong, and clearly expected certain behavior.
"What is the message you'd like me to return?"
The wood seemed to grow brighter around her. "I'm glad you asked! Why, my commitment to fight against the Witch Queen! And my request to use you as an intermediary to this end. With your permission, of course."
"Ah," said Naoko. She felt her mouth go very dry. "Would... there be a reason for me to decline?"
"There is, but I don't see why you would," said the beast's reflection. "Inari says you are quite like us, you see."
"If you believe so." Naoko drew a breath. She couldn't run. It would take too much time to get up the slope, and he would see her reach for her warding strips. "May I ask who exactly this message would be from?"
"May you—" the reflection vanished in a great ripple of laughter. Gerard winced and covered his ears. It took a minute for the eyes to return. "You may! Please, ask all the questions you'd like, but isn't it obvious? I told you already: I'm a fox. The fox. But long ago humans called me Renard, and the name sort of stuck. Does that help?"
"A little, I think," admitted Naoko.
A breath of wind skittered across the pond like a sigh. "No. Not one of your stories, I suppose. But I am like you, and I am like Inari."
The mouth broke open wider than ever. He could have gulped down her and Gerard, now. "Why, I am a hostage of Her Royal Majesty, just like you."
"Hostage?" The word made Naoko's stomach go cold. "It's nothing like that. I am a student. I've come as part of a program. It's an exchange program. It means—"
"So why did my son have to gnaw a hole in the wall to free you? And why did you hop through?"
'Because he took my comb,' Naoko nearly said, but when she touched the collar of her itchy, ruined sweater, she knew that wasn't exactly true. She'd wanted to go. She'd wanted to go since she'd stepped off of the plane.
Naoko bowed her head. "Mm. It is true my instructors are strict, but they are teaching me many things."
"For your benefit, or theirs?" asked Renard the Fox, and Naoko must have paused for long enough because she heard laughter behind her. This one was simple, human laughter — Gerard, who'd come to stand at the edge of the pond, his hands thrust into his pockets.
"Oh, stop wasting time. You hate it here. They're a lot of back-biting bitches who want to do things their way, and the ones who aren't doing the ordering are just looking for ways to get ahead," he said. He bent his head at her. "What? Takes one to know one. A snare in an herb garden, fair enough, but who the hell puts one in a girls' dorm?"
Naoko felt her neck burn. It was an unfair question. She thought of Caterina, who had probably locked her out of the lunch room hours ago now. She thought of Antoinette, who was keeping biscuits for her. "They aren't all like that."
"Whatever you say. You've got something on you," Gerard reached behind her head. He did it quick — so quickly that Naoko didn't have the time to stop him. His hand brushed her neck and next thing she knew he drew a piece of thread out of her hair. It was short, light, finely spun and dyed purple and black. He brought it to his nose and gave a sniff.
"Looks like silk," he said. "Smells like Paris. S'pose they treat you well for now."
Naoko thumbed the red skin under her collar. She thought of Antoinette, and how she hadn't asked why Naoko wore her winter uniform on an early summer day. She thought of Antoinette, and how she would never let another girl wear her scarf, and how long and bright and beautiful it was, perfect to wrap around your neck, so long as you didn't pull the ends too tight.
Naoko knelt beside the pond, and reached out her hand.
"May I have my comb back?" she asked.
The comb floated to the surface. Naoko took it. The teeth bit hard into her palm.
"I will take your message back to Inari," said Naoko. "I am sure your sentiments will be strongly considered. The next reply won't be so long in coming."
"No," said Renard, as the light came slanting through the wood. "I don't expect it will."