Hiro didn’t think anything could amaze him more than his brother’s revelation that their family’s prosperity comes from the favor of the kami Inari. Yet Hiro soon learns that Inari’s kitsune, fox spirits who act as messengers, watch over his family in exchange for yearly tribute—and this year, Hiro has been requested as an offering by one of the mysterious fox spirits. Hiro’s brother takes him to a strange mansion one night, and Hiro is left at the mercy of Masaki Kitamura, who has yet to reveal what he has planned for his young visitor…
Hiro sat in the back of the Rolls Royce Phantom beside his brother, very comfortable, yet at the same time not feeling quite at ease. Sending the fancy, chauffeur-driven car to pick them up seemed over the top to Hiro. Despite feeling that way, he ran his hand over the leather seat again. While he appreciated the special treatment, he imagined Mr. Kitamura had done it to show off.
He bought your art and obviously wants more. Don’t mess this up. Rich guys like to show off. You can deal. He glanced at Akira, who hadn’t even blinked when the driver had arrived and immediately taken Hiro’s bags and his portfolio and placed them in the trunk. “Where does this guy live? We’ve been driving a long time.”
“Far outside the city. A private estate.”
Of course. Hiro looked out the window, though it was already dark and there was little to see. They slowed soon after, turning down a narrow road, and he tried to see where they were. They came to a complete stop about a mile later. When they moved again, the car passed through a large wrought iron gate. The estate seemed to be surrounded by a very tall stone wall, and blue flames adorned the pillars on each side of the gate. Hiro stared, trying to see the source of the colored flames. It had to be gas, but the orb-like flames seemed to hover just above the pillars. He blinked to clear his eyes of the afterimages and sat back.
Blossoming cherry trees lined the drive, but the rest of the land within sight was open space covered in recently mown grass. Petals of various shades littered the drive and the area surrounding each sakura. More pillars topped by flames dotted the area. They looked eerie somehow, now that he really studied them. The house soon came into view, set back against what looked to be a dark, thick forest. The design was simple, everything made of plain gray stones, but the structure itself was huge and seemed to go on forever in each direction. It had a slanted roof covered in dark shingles, and it reminded Hiro of houses he’d seen in British period dramas.
Once they’d stopped, Akira let himself out of the car, so Hiro followed. The chauffeur took his luggage and moved to a side door while Akira mounted the many steps that led to the main door, a heavy slab of oak covered in carvings. Hiro didn’t like being parted from his portfolio, but he didn’t say anything. He examined the carvings on the door as Akira reached for a chain and rang the bell. Hiro faintly heard a gong sound inside the house. The door took his breath away, the carvings seeming to tell an intricate story. He saw a tall figure and a nine-tailed fox together, and as the panels progressed, he saw that the fox’s tails had been cut off by the other figure. Nine smaller foxes ran away, scattering.
This guy likes foxes. Hiro had given Akira’s tale a lot of thought. Why would his brother make up such a weird story? It made no sense. Hiro’s stomach flipped as he looked at the door and then glanced back at the pillars on the lawn. Foxfire could be blue, couldn’t it? He shook the thought away. The setting seemed right for a supernatural event, but gods weren’t real. Neither were kitsune. He took a deep breath as the door opened, telling himself to stop letting his imagination run away with him.
They walked into the large entryway, but Hiro only made it one step past the threshold. Sitting at the bottom of a large staircase in the candlelit foyer was a giant white fox, which towered above them even in a sitting position. It sat calmly with its bushy tail curled around itself and watched them. Akira kept walking, but Hiro grabbed him.
“This isn’t funny! What’s going on?” The creature was bigger than a tiger or a bear, bigger than any animal he’d ever seen.
Akira smiled faintly. “I told you what’s going on, but you didn’t believe me. Now, the proof is before your eyes.”
“That … that thing looks like it wants dinner, not a painting.” Hiro raised his eyes once more. The fox gazed at him, one ear twitching slightly. That mouth looked big enough to chomp him in half.
“He won’t harm you. I swear it. He’s our benefactor and protector, and you’re being rude.”
Hiro kept squeezing his brother’s arm, unable to look away from the fox. Rude? How could anyone act normally after seeing something like the monster Akira tried to pull him toward? It was beautiful, but nothing so large could be anything but terrifying. The fox stood and took two steps forward, and Akira yanked Hiro toward it, the doors behind them slamming shut as soon as he was completely past the threshold.
“Forgive him, please. I told him everything, but he didn’t believe me.” Akira went down on one knee, jerking on Hiro’s arm and making him do the same. Then Akira bowed his head. “Your tribute, great Masaki.”
Hiro still stared at the fox, its large black eyes mesmerizing him. The fox bowed its head as well in acknowledgment. Despite himself, Hiro started shaking, and the creature noted this, a sound almost like a whine coming from it.
And it vanished. Hiro blinked, and in the fox’s place stood a handsome man in an expensive navy blue suit. He had shoulder-length, dark brown hair and piercing brown eyes. He sported a short, well-trimmed beard, which highlighted strong cheekbones. He licked his lips as he stepped forward, and Hiro fought his attraction, just as he always did when he saw any good-looking man. Shame filled him as he imagined what that broad-shouldered body looked like without a suit covering it.
The man bowed low to Akira and gestured for him to rise. Then he extended his hand to Hiro, who had no choice but to take it. He’d already been rude enough, but he told himself he had good reason. The hand felt human enough, yet Hiro could not forget the giant fox.
“I frightened you. Please forgive me,” Masaki said. “It’s tradition, something you will soon see is important to everything here.”
Hiro pulled away as soon as he was on his feet. The man’s hand was too warm, too soft and strong. “I don’t understand.”
Masaki smiled. “I’m Masaki Kitamura, and everything your brother told you is true. I’m a fox spirit, but I promise to stay in human form if that frightens you.”
Just thinking about it frightened Hiro. He backed away, his resolve to go through with the arrangement evaporating. “I’ve changed my mind. This is just too weird. Pick something else. We’ll get it for you.” Hiro turned and made for the door, yanking on the knob but finding the door locked. He pulled and pulled, searching for a way to get out. There was no keyhole, no lock of any kind. He rested his head against the wood, his heart racing as panic took over.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up! This has to be a dream!