The young woman leaned out of her room and looked back and forth, making sure the hallway was clear, before picking up the small basket and tiptoeing her way through the house to the front door.  She moved so quietly that the boards didn’t even creak, and she inched the door open with glacial slowness.

“Aruna, where are you going?” her father’s voice came from behind her.  She rolled her eyes skyward, caught literally in mid-step, and turned smartly on her other heel.

“I’m going to the springs,” she said, holding up the basket of soap and towels and other such things as she met the eyes that she knew were a shade lighter than her own dark-amber.  Her father’s hair had faded to an almost ginger shade rather than the rich auburn luster of her own hair, and lacked the curly texture as well, but no one who saw them together could mistake them for anything but sire and daughter.

“Do you know what time it is?” he inquired politely.

“It’s late enough that nobody’s likely to be there,” she answered.

“Which is rather my point,” he said ominously.  “I don’t like you wandering off on your own.”

She turned just a little more to show her hip; despite the light bathing robe, she wore two swords snugged into her normal waist sash.  One longer, one shorter, the polished white oak scabbards swung lightly from the blue cords that held them to her side.  “I think I’ll be all right, Father.”

The old man eyed her with a distinct expression of doubt, but he finally nodded with a sigh of resignation.  “Unless I lock you in your room and put bars on the windows, I can hardly make certain you’ll stay put.  Go on, then, but don’t stay out too long.”

Aruna kissed his weathered cheek affectionately.  “I’ll be careful,” she promised brightly before turning to scoot out the door, nudging it closed with an elbow.

The hot springs were set quite some distance back from the village; they had started out as a natural feature, of course, but generations of Lopayzom had had some effect upon the surroundings.  The trees had been carefully cut back enough to prevent too many leaves from falling into the waters, and a fence of neat boards had been produced from the fallen trees.  Just inside the gate, a small shed had been constructed to let people hang up their clothing and possessions for the duration of their visit.  The full moon was so bright that Aruna could scarcely see anything at all in the darkness of the shed, but she toed her sandals off and slipped out of her robe without a second thought, keeping only the basket in one hand and the two swords in the other.

The springs were not all on a single level, but rather a four-tiered arrangement shaped by nature out of a granite outcropping.  The topmost pool, where the hottest water was, lay a good eight feet above the large bottom pool, with a pair of step-down pools at nearly equal levels.  Low, wide waterfalls spilled over shallow shelves at the edges of the top three basins in an attractive cascade.  The bottom pool was a good twenty feet across and six feet deep at its midpoint; the two mid-level baths were not much smaller, albeit shallower, and the top was perhaps ten feet wide and four deep. 

Laying her swords down on the stone, Aruna stepped down into the largest pool and waded lazily out toward the middle.  The night air was cool enough that wisps of steam rose even from the surface of the large pool, and she sighed quietly as the heat lapped up over her skin.  Drawing her feet up off the smooth stone of the bottom, she lay back, drifting, her hair spreading out in a dark fan around her face.  Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, she let herself sink down until the surface closed over her.

It was so peaceful, the blood-warm water shutting out even the natural sounds of the forest.  Aruna hung suspended in perfect quiescence, every sense detached, until her chest twinged and she had to come up for a breath.  With a smile, she dog-paddled over to the second pool and pulled herself up over the smooth shelf of rock that let the water pour down, intent upon reaching the highest pool with its delicious heat.  Clambering up, she hauled herself up to her knees on the brink of the high bath, hot water pouring over her thighs, and stopped dead.

She hadn’t been able to see into the little shed, or she’d have seen another set of clothes.  Provided that the person she was staring at even needed clothes; he didn’t seem quite real.  He was too beautiful to be real.

He was quite tall, at least six feet, with fairly broad shoulders that tapered down in a narrow V to his waist, and had the lithe muscularity of a dancer or acrobat or a Fox swordsman—that is, his muscles were well-defined beneath taut skin, packed tightly to his frame rather than bulging so much as to nearly distort the clean lines of his body.  His arms were raised as he pushed his hair back from his face.  His long, long hair.  Long enough that even dry, it fell straight down his back and still drifted around him in the water, and so pale that it looked like frost in the moonlight, a cloak of silvery-white silk.  His hands had been wet, which let him smooth shaggy bangs back against the sleek curve of his skull, revealing the breathtaking sculpture of his face.  He had amazingly high cheekbones, slender pale brows to match his hair, and a full-lipped mouth that seemed almost too soft to be a man’s.  It was a mouth made for laughing, for whispering wicked things in the night, for long deep kisses.

His eyes were captivating, large and well-shaped, and even in the bleaching light of the moon they shone like molten gold.  The irises were almost too big to be human, or perhaps it was simply that his eyes were so utterly arresting that they only seemed larger than normal.  If it weren’t for the eyes, he’d have been a perfect example of the physical traits that characterized some of the Lopayzom.  Green eyes went with the platinum hair of the “silver foxes”; golden eyes went with the rest of the Lopayzom, appearing in combination with hair from bright red to a russet-brown

A thought finally tore through Aruna’s mesmerized admiration.

If I can see his eyes, he can see me.

 

The young woman kneeling on the edge of the stone basin was hardly short of spectacular.  Her water-darkened hair lay in sleek ripples over her shoulders and down her back, clinging to smooth fair skin over tautly defined muscles.  Though generally slender, she was unmistakably female, with high full breasts and curving hips.  Her lips were a bit hard to categorize, as she was gaping slightly at him, but they seemed rather promising nevertheless.  Her large eyes were like dark honey, a deep burnished amber framed by long, water-pearled lashes, and her admiration of him shone clearly in them.

A moment later, those lovely eyes widened in sudden horror as she realized that the situation was rather less than socially acceptable.  They were two young people meeting for the first time, in the middle of the night, at an isolated location, stark naked.

She let out a high-pitched shriek of mortification and tried to either cover herself or push back off the shelf to drop into the lower pool, out of immediate view; trying to do both at once promised to result in a very nasty incident, as she was apt to fall over backward with her arms wrapped around herself.  In a single swift movement, he leapt forward and caught at her hand, snatching it away from her breasts and pulling her toward him instead.  Rather than let her flop face-first into the hot water, he caught her up against his chest with his other arm around her waist.

They stood frozen in tableau—one of his hands holding one of hers at his shoulder, his other arm circling her waist, pressing her so closely against his torso that moonlight couldn’t have slipped between them, the hand that had gone down to shield her groin suddenly trapped most intimately between her thigh and his own.  Their faces were so close that she could see the individual strokes of his surprisingly dark lashes.  A stray night breeze ruffled his silver hair, the only thing that moved for a long moment.

Then she screamed and writhed against him in a way that made his eyes roll upward in an involuntary flutter of delight, which lasted for only a split second before one slender hand hooked behind his knee and yanked forward as the other curled around his shoulder and shoved, hard.  Wrenched off-balance, he toppled inelegantly backward with a startlingly fox-like yelp—but he failed to release her, which meant that she came down on top of him as he hit the water back-first.

Not one to pass up an advantage in a fight, Aruna yanked her hand away from his shoulder and slapped it down on his forehead, dunking him underwater even as she shrieked for him to get his hands off her.  He attempted to answer out loud, resulting in a string of bubbles, and then flung his arms wide in a wild gesture to indicate that he wasn’t trying to hold onto her.  Struggling upright, she leapt away and down into the lower pool where she was only visible from the shoulders up as she clutched the edge of the stone basin and tried very hard to forget what his touch had felt like.

Who are you and what are you doing here?!” she demanded at the top of her lungs.

The young man surfaced, spitting out water along with a soggy, warbling sound reminiscent of “ararara”; it seemed more indicative of surprise than anything else.  Propped up on his hands, his hair sleeked back from his face, he stared at her with an expression that reminded her of a puppy who’d been yelled at without knowing exactly why it was in trouble; she could almost see fuzzy ears flattened in confusion.  The look was so cute that she nearly forgot to be outraged for a moment.  “I could say the same to you,” he replied, still looking like a chastised kit.  His voice was melodic, low, built to tease and entice just as much as his lips were.  The almost musical but decidedly masculine tones were nearly enough to make any woman shiver thinking about that voice whispering sweet nothings into her ear.  “But I assume the answer for you is the same for me:  I’m a Lopayzom and I’m taking a nice, relaxing bath.  I thought these springs were open to all Fox.  I didn’t realize they were your private domain, milady.”  That last was said in a mildly sarcastic tone, and he performed an exaggerated bow before her from his sitting position, long hair swirling in the heated water.

“I’ve never seen you in town before,” she shot back.  I would have remembered seeing you, that’s for sure.  “So you’d better start explaining.  Quickly.”  The threat would have been more effective if she hadn’t still been staring at him like someone dying of thirst who had suddenly been dropped onto the edge of a spring-fed pond of cold, crystal-clear water.

Those molten gold eyes looked back up at her, though the youth remained bent over.  The strands of his frosty hair swayed around him like snowy seaweed in the lightly steaming water.  “Why?  You don’t look like the local constable to me.”  He straightened up, gaze piercing her.  “You’re an Avatar.  I know you can sense I’m a Fox, just as you are.”  Again came the impression of silvery fox ears perched atop his head like a regal crown, while it seemed as if a fluffy tail swirled in the hot springs like the end of his magnificent wealth of hair.  But it had to be a trick of the moonlight; the moment she tried to focus on them, the ghostly ears and tail were gone.

“I may not be the local constable,” she growled in return, “but I am the Swordsmaster’s daughter.  And yes, it’s obvious that you’re a Fox, but I’ve never seen you here before.  Visiting from another settlement?”

Zanzipatru’s daughter?  Ah, no wonder she’s so lean, and sleek, and  He shook his head suddenly, catching himself zoning off at her beauty, his gaze focused on where her cleavage ought to be.  Sadly, the view was blocked by an arm, the edge of the stone shelf, and the soothing waters of the hot springs.  “Yes, I am, as a matter of fact.  And if you’re the Swordsmaster’s daughter, then you must be Aruna.  It’s . . . quite the pleasure to meet you.”  He grinned then, his voice taking on a suggestive slyness.

She blushed, the color dark enough that it couldn’t be mistaken for the pinkness that the water’s head brought on, and caught herself trying to stare at a location she’d had only a moment’s glimpse of as the stranger leapt to the shallower water in his attempt to keep her from falling off the ledge.  She wrenched her gaze up to meet his own instead.  “Likewise, I’m sure . . . ?”  Her voice trailed off, prompting for his name.

“I’m called Yazkaru,” he replied, grinning more at her blush.  Among other things, like “Trickster” and “Thief”, he silently added.

The name held the meaning of Powerful or Glorious Sword, and as an epithet of their clan totem, it was a favored name among the Lopayzom for their sons.

“Yazkaru,” she repeated, and her voice purred over the name in a way that made his pulse jump.  “Come here to see relatives, or just passing through?”

“Passing through,” he replied.  Lifting a hand up, he waved toward the village.  Silvery droplets caught the moon’s light and fell into the pool below.  “Every so often, I travel about the clan-holds and see how people are faring.  It’s just something I enjoy doing.”

“Are you one of Lord Sikitu’s advisors?” Aruna persisted, her mouth running by itself for a moment as her eyes followed the light, sparkling rain pattering into the water’s surface from his arm.

“Yes.”  That’s true enough.  “I’m also a distant relation of both him and your father’s heir as Swordsmaster, Lord Arjunayazu.  But you probably could tell that already.”  He lowered his arm back into the water, then settled into a more comfortable position.  He’d been too wrapped up in his thoughts of a nice, comforting soak in one of his favorite places to visit to really pay more attention to the auras around him.  As a result, he’d been uncharacteristically caught completely off guard.  His startlement over, he found himself truly appreciating the young vixen’s beauty.  Long a connoisseur of the fairer sex, he knew true beauty when he saw it—and this girl had it both inside and out.

“I can see that you’ve got the usual traits of the silver fox, except for the eyes,” she said, a curious lilt to her voice.

“Hmm, yes.  A rare anomaly that. but it occasionally happens.  Just as there are, equally rare, red-haired Lopayzom with blue, green or violet eyes.”

“I suppose so.”  She kept staring at him.  “Arjuna’s cousin or something, hm?”

“Yes,” he replied, staring back at her.

“I can see the resemblance,” she said, knowing that she sounded completely stupid and somehow not caring one bit.

He gave her a grin.  “Does this mean I get to keep my head after all?”

“I wasn’t going to kill you in the first place,” she answered huffily.  “I mean, I can see that you’re a Lopayzom.  I just didn’t know who you were.”

He shifted in the water, scooting just a bit closer to the enticing woman.  The gorgeous grin remained on his handsome visage.  “Oh?” he purred.  “Then what were you going to do if I hadn’t started explaining . . . ‘quickly’?”

Aruna wasn’t sure what she wanted to watch the most.  That sinfully long hair swirling in the water?  The wicked golden eyes?  That enticing smile?  The way his muscles played under his water-beaded skin as he moved?  It seemed terribly, terribly unfair that she couldn’t watch everything all at once.

“I said I wasn’t planning on killing you,” she emphasized.  “I didn’t say anything about not cutting my name into your kidneys and kicking you from here to the Kamarya border.”

Again came that funny little “ara” sound, and the youth’s expression shifted to a definite pout.  “That’s not exactly hospitable, now is it?  Do you always go around threatening other Lopayzom from other clan-holds?”

“Only when I meet them unexpectedly in the middle of the night, so the answer would really be ‘no’.”  She was caught between wanting to laugh—he looked so cute when he pouted, and she could just imagine the fuzzy ears again—and wondering if his mouth was as soft as it looked.

He scooted forward just a bit more, seemingly so casual about it.  “Well . . . I’m sure you’re used to having this place all to yourself when you come here in the middle of the night.  But aren’t you even a little bit worried, despite being in home territory?”  Another shift forward, and his voice dropped to a low, sensual purr.  “After all, there are rather unsavory elements out there in the world . . .”

“I can normally sense anybody who’s close enough to be a problem,” she said haughtily, brushing aside the fact that she certainly hadn’t sensed him.  Which was beginning to bother her a lot; she wasn’t usually so oblivious.

“Ah, well . . .  He lowered his head in slight embarrassment, his cheeks pinking a bit.  “I’ve gotten quite good at making sure no one can sense me when I don’t wish them to.”  As a demonstration, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, concentrating.  There was a momentary glimmer of pale gold before his aura flickered out completely.  To Avatar senses, he just . . . wasn’t there, though his presence was obvious to regular sight.

Aruna blinked, then actually reached out and ran her hand just over his arm, not touching but close enough that she could feel the heat of his skin . . . and she still couldn’t sense him at all.  “That’s a new one on me.  I’ve never known anybody who could do that.”

He lifted his head, the molten gold staring back at her in amusement.  Just like that, his pale gold presence could be sensed again, the silver fox totem playfully smirking.  “Most of the ones who can do that don’t let it get around that they can do so.”

“Good point.”  She realized that her hand was still hovering just over his arm, and she snatched it back as if he’d bitten her.

His gaze flicked from where her hand had been back up to her face.  He smiled at her again, lifting a hand out of the water.  Silvery drops fell to the pool again as he reached up and lightly touched her cheek.  “I must say, it truly is a pleasure to meet you, Aruna . . .”

Her eyes widened; it took a supreme effort of will to make her voice sound even remotely normal.  “The situation’s not exactly what I’d have picked for meeting somebody, but I suppose the sentiment’s still mutual.”

Encouraged, he scooted forward just a bit more and rested his hand on her cheek.  “It’s not?  Whyever not?”

“Because we’re both stark naked in the hot springs, in the middle of the night, without anybody else around within at least half a mile,” she said in one breath.

“And?”

Her jaw dropped.  “What do you mean, ‘and’?  This isn’t what most people would think of as a perfect social situation.”

He grinned at her, quite the playful expression.  His thumb stroked her cheek gently.  “I’m not most people.  And I’m sorry, but I’ve always been able to appreciate a beautiful woman—especially when she’s warm, wet and naked . . .”

Those lovely eyes widened, her lips parted in a deliciously longing way, she leaned into the caress . . . and then she grabbed his wrist.

He was lying flat on his back in the lowest pool before he was entirely sure what had happened; when he got his head back up above the surface, he immediately wanted to submerge it again just to muffle the sound of her outraged voice heaping curses on him.  He yipped and rolled aside as she leapt down after him, narrowly missing his abdomen with both feet, clearly intent on pummeling him silly.  It was more than obvious that the Swordsmaster’s daughter had picked up more than a few fighting maneuvers—if he weren’t her target, he might have enjoyed watching her move with that quicksilver grace.

“Ara!” he yelped in dismay as another of her swings came far too close for comfort.  Even so, he deftly dodged her enraged attacks, wet hair clinging to his equally wet, bare skin.  He scrambled completely out of the pools, taking up a fighting stance despite his lack of armor—or anything else.  Golden eyes narrowed as his pale gold aura flared slightly; if she meant a serious fight, then he too could become grimly serious.  He had a feeling that she wasn’t intent on actually killing him; her swords were right there on the edge of the pond, in plain sight and easy reach, but she was still coming after him empty-handed.  Her aura was the same dark-amber shade as her eyes, rich and mellow, like something that would melt over one’s tongue with a heavy sweetness.  She was evidently outraged to the point of forgetting that she wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing, and she stood in the shin-deep water at the edge of the pool with her weight evenly balanced, just long enough for him to get a marvelous eyeful of her magnificent figure before she lunged.

He held his ground; normally such a sight would have him practically drooling in admiration, but she was earnest in her attempt to do him some harm—and he possessed a very strong sense of self-preservation.  At the very last moment, he darted to the side, lithely twisting so that she jetted past his front.  Quick as lightning, he reached out and caught her by the wrist.  An expert jerk and he used her own sudden stop of momentum and gravity to help him fling her onto her back on the ground. He stepped back then, waiting for the next assault—if one would come.

In a smooth ripple, she kicked herself up to her feet and spun, one heel leading in a spinning back kick.  Oh yes, the Swordsmaster hadn’t neglected his daughter’s education one bit.  He grimaced as he realized he hadn’t stepped back quite far enough.  He stumbled back, her foot just grazing him; one of lesser skill would have been sent tumbling back or winded at the least.  Lashing out with his off hand, he grabbed her ankle and twisted her to the ground with brute strength.  He was far stronger than he looked.  She caught her weight on her forearms and hands, slapping them down hard against the stone to absorb the impact, and drove her other foot almost straight back, flexed into a straight line with her shin and toes pointed like a dancer, aiming for a nerve point in his thigh.

The silver-haired Fox hissed as she connected.  He staggered back, but didn’t drop as most men would, the leg too numb to bear his weight.  “Are you sure about this?” he growled.  He really didn’t want to have to hurt her, and he was having a hard time believing what he said was really that bad.

“You are an utter, shameless pervert,” she told the world around them at the top of her lungs, and rolled herself in what would have been a backflip if she’d been standing; it bore more of a resemblance to a back-bend combined with a somersault in her current position.  It was interesting to watch, but it wasn’t done for entertainment purposes.  It was done so that she could kick his other leg out from under him.

He softly growled.  He dodged her incoming attack, then wrapped his arms around her upraised leg at the moment she attempted to connect.  By just a hair’s breadth he kept her from striking him.  Hyaaa!” he shouted as he twisted.  This time, he used his own weight to bear her down.  The two of them slammed down hard onto the ground, the lithe warrioress pinned beneath his suddenly immobile frame.

Pale gold energy glowed in his now-dangerous eyes.  There was a sense of the feral around him, as if he were somehow a bit more than just a Lopayzom Avatar and skilled warrior.  “What does it make you, so willing to wrestle with a naked male you just met?”

There was a look on her face that approached a grin, her eyes bright.  She was enjoying the fight despite herself, her blood singing with fierce exhilaration.  His body against hers was like having lightning rolling across her skin, raising the fine hairs on the back of her neck.  It was rapidly becoming obvious that he was an exceptional warrior, not someone she could easily overcome, but the eternal curse of the Lopayzom—that sense of playfulness and mischief that ran through all of them—made her almost laugh out loud with sheer delight at the fun she was having.  Her voice bubbled with merriment, despite his weight pinning her to the stone, as she replied, “Given that you’re the first naked man I can recall wrestling with, I’m consoled by the fact that you’re at least moderately presentable.”

“Hrmph.”  It took him a moment to back out of his warrior’s focus; she’d seemed truly out to hurt him rather than playing rough for the fun of it. He decided she needed some sort of chastisement—and quickly, before he gave in to the almost overwhelming situation of having a breathless, warm, soft, nude woman under him.  He shifted his hold on her slightly, his face losing the dangerous expression and turning somewhat sly.  He then began tickling her ribs, hoping she was weak against such a playful attack.

Aruna had fully intended on giving him a sound thumping at first, but Yazkaru’s obvious skill—and the constant view she had of his gorgeous body—had turned her from her original goal.  He wasn’t disappointed in his hopes as she let out a giggling shriek and squirmed very distractingly, batting at his hands.

“Oh, ho!” he crowed, pleased at discovering such a weakness.  “What do we have here?” he chuckled, continuing to tickle her.  He couldn’t help himself; it was really . . . interesting having such a beautiful naked woman wriggling under him and laughing.  She squealed and tried tickling him right back, hoping that he was just as vulnerable.

Apparently so, since he uttered that cute little yip and let go of her, rolling away to get out of range.  His long silver hair was just barely starting to dry; a few wisps of frost-white silk floated about his face as he gracefully rose to his feet.

She rolled neatly backward and splashed down into the warm pool, sinking herself down enough to cover herself fairly modestly with the shimmering water.  She couldn’t help but steal an intimate peek at him, wondering if he was having the same kind of reaction to their prolonged contact that she was.

He smirked at her as she returned to the water.  Aware of her eyes on him, he took his time walking over to another part of the pool before sinking in.  It was enough to show her that he too had found the situation a bit exciting, though he certainly was more aroused before she’d tried to beat him up.  “Well, then,” he purred, sitting back down in the somewhat shallow pool, the moonlight reflecting off the steaming surface and making his slightly flushed skin and water-slicked hair faintly glow in the night.

“You should be more delicate in addressing a lady, you know,” she announced in her loftiest tones.  “It’s most improper to mention one’s state of undress like that.”

“Mmm.  I’ll keep that under advisement.”  He playfully leered at her.  “Honestly, however, most ladies are quite appreciative of my interest in such a current state of undress . . .”

“I’ll just bet they are,” she sniffed.  “You know, it’s fellows like you who give our entire clan a certain reputation.  Rather like Lopayzu himself.”

“Ara?” he blinked at her, surprised.  “What’s the matter with our totem?  Most people find him cute and lovable.”

“It’s a rather well-known fact that he also has a strong tendency to conduct himself in a fairly . . . mmm . . . lascivious manner.”

“Only with the willing.  Honest.”  He leaned back, folding his arms over his gracefully-muscular chest, a faint pout on his lips.  “If two adults want to play, nothing wrong with that.”

“Oh, I didn’t say that he was inclined to use force in any way,” she demurred, waving a hand casually.  “But from all the stories, it’s clear that he’s prone to try all manner of schemes and tricks when he’s bent on seducing a woman.”

“Mmm.   Most women enjoy the tricks as well as the treats, though . . .”

“And how many of those cautionary fables end with the poor woman in a delicate condition and her divine suitor scampering off to his next tumble without a care in the world, hm?  No wonder he’s gotten a certain reputation.”

“Bah.  You believe everything they say about him in the stories?  If it were all true, he’d have a bunch of kits running about among all sorts of clans, but have you ever met anyone saying they’re an actual child of the Fox Spirit?”

“How many of them are apt to know?” Aruna demanded.  “After all, from most reports, Lopayzu has a tendency to go about his seductions in one disguise or another.  Quite often the poor girl who’s surrendered to his coaxing has no idea of his true identity.”

“Hrmph.  I think the children so produced would be obvious to an Avatar . . . or at least seem stronger than most.  I wouldn’t know for sure, after all.”

“Perhaps.  Though in most cases, he apparently commandeers a normal human body for his little escapades, so any offspring are likely to seem quite normal.”

Yazkaru stared balefully at the Swordsmaster’s daughter.  “You certainly seem the expert on Lord Lopayzu’s adventures . . .”

She blushed a little.  “I like hearing the stories.”

“Oh?  What did you like about them?”  His slight animosity gave way to that other Fox curse:  curiosity.

“Well, they do tend to be very exciting and full of action and adventure, and some of them are very romantic.  It’s only in some of the more pointed stories directed at adolescent girls that the consequences of one’s actions are emphasized.”

“Well, that’s to be expected.  What father wants their daughters fooling around, adding to the clan with nothing in return to support them?”

“You’d think that Lopayzu would keep that in mind, too,” she said darkly.

“Hrmph.  I’m certain he does, despite what you’ve heard.”

Aruna was trying very hard to concentrate on the somewhat heavy-handed moral lessons of those stories in order to keep herself from noticing just how shockingly, sinfully gorgeous the young man sharing the pool with her happened to be.  “Perhaps.  The tales say that he’s not actually malicious, just a bit . . . carefree.”

“He is that.  But really . . . The spirits can’t interact as freely these days as they once could.  The time of any totem just casually siring children on unsuspecting adolescent mortal girls is long past.”

“Lopayzu’s notoriously freewheeling when it comes to the rules,” she said darkly.  “It wouldn’t surprise me if he decided to dodge around the limitations that the spirits are supposed to follow now and then.”

“Well, you’re a Fox.  Tell me, do you dodge around your limitations now and again?”

“Well . . . yes,” she admitted in a small voice.  “But I try to make sure that I won’t get anybody else hurt when I do.”

“So what makes you think Lopayzu is any more careless than you are?”

“If he happens to be, I hope he never gets within my reach.”  She proceeded to explain exactly what she’d do to Lopayzu if he should happen to try indulging his baser appetites with any of the local girls without benefit of clergy.  The details were extensive, often quite graphic, and many of them sounded terribly painful.

With each new horror of feminine retribution, the elegant Yazkaru skooched just a bit further away from the warrioress.  Not only did they sound painful, they sounded very much something he never wanted to experience to see if they truly were the agony they seemed to be in his imagination.  “Arara . . .” he muttered under his breath, wincing at the latest one.

Aruna, it seemed, was good friends with virtually every girl her age in the entire town, and she seemed to take slights to her friends very personally.  The general conclusion was that if Lopayzu ever decided to cast his eye toward any of the local girls, he had best opt to do so with intentions to observe the usual little social rules and hold off on satisfying his urges until after a wedding was conducted, or else he would quickly find himself in no condition to disport himself in such a manner for the foreseeable future.  Aruna took a very dim view of men—even divine ones—who made their conquests and then went off on their merry way, leaving the girl all alone to deal with the hardship and scorn that often fell upon women who bore children out of wedlock, especially when the father wasn’t from the same clan.

Yazkaru sighed, then shook his head slightly.  Well, that sure put a damper on my mood.  “I’m sure every youth around here’s probably scared to death of you now, if you’ve made it as obvious to them as you’ve made to me.”

“After the third or fourth time some tipsy young farmer decides that my pleasant manner and cheerful nature are invitations for them to paw me as they please, I tend to get a little irritated,” she answered sweetly.  “It was either start thinking up creative things to deter them, or start lopping off their hands.  My father prefers it if I don’t carve up people whose only real crime is being chemically influenced by alcohol and the various exotic things sloshing around in their bloodstream when they hit adolescence.”

“But still . . . Doesn’t it make it hard to get a man’s attention that way?”

“If a man’s really worth my time,” she pointed out, “he ought to share at least some of my views.  I wouldn’t want to have a man’s attention if he doesn’t even have some common decency and a sense of responsibility rather than focusing exclusively on his own pleasure.”

“Common decency and sense of responsibility mean more than your own pleasure?”

Aruna looked at him quite directly.  “If all I want is physical pleasure, I’ve got two functional hands,” she said in the bluntest terms he’d ever heard from a woman.  “That doesn’t involve anybody else, or hurt anyone at all, or have any lasting consequences.  The other thing does involve someone else, and can have consequences that last for sixteen years or so.”

“I suppose if that’ll do for you . . .”

She pulled her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.  “I want a relationship that’s more than just that.  You can’t spend the whole time in bed, after all.  I want one that has laughter in it, and love, and two people working together to do everything they want to do in the world, and taking care of each other and their children without feeling as if they’re somehow giving up too much and getting nothing back in return.”  If it were possible for someone to be romantic and practical at the same time, Aruna seemed to be trying for it.

The gorgeous young man looked faintly thoughtful as he relaxed in the water under the silvery light of the moon.  “Ah.  You’re one who believes in that one perfect someone out there for them. I see.”

“Something like that.  I like to think that people can find the ones who are best for them without needing to be led around by the nose, or having the spirits forever meddling around to make things work out right.”

“You really think the spirits are meddling around that much?”

“Oh, you know the stories I mean, where the spirits are constantly interfering to make sure that the ‘right’ woman and the ‘right’ man get together no matter what.  The stories never really mention if the two people are even compatible--all that’s important is ‘the spirits said so’, and then there’s a ‘happily ever after’ tacked onto the end.  Following the dictates of fate might be a good idea, but I think mankind’s grown up enough to be trusted to find the’ right’ way on our own.  There’s no point in the Goddess giving us free will if we don’t have any choices to make.”  It was a surprisingly wise statement from such a young woman.

Yazkaru softly chuckled.  “Indeed, but sometimes there’s greater patterns that need a tweak here and a push there.  Still, for the most part, the right people finding one another is usually all up to them.”

“I hope I manage that someday,” she said, just a bit dreamily.

I’m sure you will.  You have such a fine spirit, and those are the ones that tend to draw to them their fondest desire . . .  The silver-haired Fox gave his unexpected bathing partner a smile.  Luxuriously stretching, he murmured, “I’m sure you shall, some day.”  Relaxing with a sigh of languorous pleasure from the stretch, Yazkaru added, “If not, you have the fire and spirit to beat up even the Celestial Court if you don’t get what you want.”

“My father says much the same thing,” she said dryly.  “Only he seems to sigh a great deal when he mentions it.”

That made her nighttime visitor chuckle again. “If I know Master Zanzipatru, he’s done very well for you.  He’s regretted a bit the fact that a woman can’t be Swordsmaster and that he had to take in a foster son to step in when the time comes—but I think you’re happier this way.  You know how much duty and ritual binds the Swordsmaster’s life . . .”

“I’d have done it, if I could.  I hate feeling as if I’ve disappointed my father.”

“I’m certain you haven’t.  Lord Arjunayazu’s well-suited for the position, and you’re free to pursue whatever makes you happy.  And your happiness is what your father most wishes for you, after all.”

She made a small face.  “I realize he’s your cousin or whatever, but I just can’t call him ‘Lord’ Arjunayazu.  He’s like a brother, with all that entails.  It’s hard to call someone ‘Lord’ anything in that sort of situation.”

Another soft chuckle.  “That’s understandable.  But he deserves the proper respect, even from someone like me, so I’ll call him ‘Lord’.”

“Someone like you?”  She had caught that odd wording rather neatly, and looked at him curiously.

“Yes, like me . . . related, but distantly so.  Don’t exactly rate the familiarity like you do,” Yazkaru answered, a slight grin on his face.

“Oh.”  She frowned faintly, turning that over in her head; it sounded like he’d got it backward.  Surely someone more distant should be expected to pay proper respect, while someone closer wouldn’t?  He’d said it as if he were somehow more significant than most, but . . .

Then he shifted, the moonlight glowing on his skin, and she went back to staring fixedly at him.  His hair was still wet, but she’d seen just how long it was when he’d gotten out of the water entirely.

“Well, it’s been a nice conversation, but I fear I must be going.”  He turned his back to her and stood up.  Silvery light washed over him as water trickled over his smoothly-sculpted form.  “I’m sorry to have disturbed your soak, but I did enjoy your company.”  Amazingly, his pale mane seemed to cling to him as far down as his knees.  This was a fact easily seen as he clambered up out of the series of ponds.

“I hope you’ll come by to visit Father while you’re here.”  Her mouth actually watered as she watched that moonlight hair cling to his wet skin, sleeking down the planes of his back, over the curve of his bottom, and even down the long taut muscles of his thighs.  He was simply the most spectacular man she’d ever seen, and it was hard to keep higher ideals in mind with that breathtaking physique in view.

“I’ll be certain to,” he promised.  He paused for a moment, looking over his shoulder at her, the golden gaze as startling as ever.  It seemed as if he were smiling as he turned away again and walked off toward where he’d left his clothing.

She blushed, caught staring again, and bit her lip slightly as she met his gaze.  When he finally turned away to go to the shed, she let out a long silent breath.  Whoof.  What a story to tell the girls down at the river tomorrow when we’re doing the laundry.

 

The Raven captain swore, parrying another stroke, and started to wonder if he truly fought a human, or some otherworldly creature bent on his destruction.  The woman had been wounded a dozen times at least, blood streaming down her skin and being flung in crimson arcs as she swung her weapon, but she showed absolutely no sign of slowing down.  He was one of the finest swordsmen the Kaykolom had, but he was being pushed to his very limits by a woman, and not even a full-blown female warrior; that he could have understood.  This woman didn’t wear a single piece of armor, yet she’d killed no fewer than fifteen of his men, and she moved like she danced to some wild rhythm in her head.  It was beautiful to watch, if one discounted the bloodied swords that whirled around her in a flashing web of steel.

She’d lost her longer blade only a few moments before, but the captain was hardly reassured by the fact; he was fighting a woman who used only a short blade, and he was being hard-pressed to keep his ground.  She fought with a sort of distant, faraway expression, a faint smile on her face, her eyes drowning pools of glowing amber.  Her curly auburn hair was clotted with blood—her own and her enemies’—in patches, but what could be seen in the light of the now-burning houses nearby was bright with sparks of red-gold like the flames themselves.

The captain had been immersed in his own battle-rage, his arms bloody to the shoulder with the slaughter he’d been engaged in, but he was being shoved into the cold, pitiless realization that he was fighting an opponent far, far more dangerous than the ones he’d been murdering.  And murder it had surely been, for elderly Lopayzom and children hardly old enough to walk were not soldiers, not enemy warriors to be honorably slain in combat.  A few of his warriors had broken into a house with the obvious intent to disport themselves upon the women inside, and when the door had come down, it was as if they’d shattered a wasps’ nest, unleashing this female typhoon onto the Kaykolom soldiers.  The two other women inside had taken advantage of the distraction provided by their tigress of a protector to flee toward the surrounding woods, one of them carrying a small bundle.  The would-be rapists had died in a blaze of steel and a lurid spray of blood, and the commotion had drawn the attention of some of the other soldiers.  They’d been laughing at first when they closed in on the woman, but after the first few of them dropped, the rest of them didn’t laugh any more.  The captain had come face-to-face with the terrifying creature when he’d followed the unexpected shouts of his dying men, and now he was seriously wondering if he’d be following them into the afterlife as well.

Succeeding in getting her longer weapon away from her had given him a burst of confidence, but even that was rapidly evaporating as his every attack was countered by the shorter blade, and his attempts to counter her own strikes were not entirely perfect; he wore a flowering of gashes along his arms to prove it.  He was feeling the loss of blood from those relatively minor wounds already, but this—this inhuman creature before him had been fighting longer with deeper wounds and seemed not to feel them at all.

“I’m going after those two bitches who ran!” one of the soldiers shouted, heading for the edge of the trees.  The distant expression on the woman’s face changed suddenly, sharpening, and there was hardly any hesitation at all.  She leaped back from the captain, spun lightly on one foot, and hurled her short blade in a long overhand cast.  Like an arrow, it sped from her fingers and plunged into the back of the soldier’s neck above the back plate of his armor, and he dropped in mid-step.  She completed her spin with no fear at all in her face, just a sort of serenity that froze the captain’s heart in his throat even as he lunged smoothly and drove his sword between her ribs.

They stood like that for just a moment—his sword a third of the way through her body, surely piercing heart or lung or both, while she only stood there and looked at him with that unnatural calm.

Then she moved.  Not to fall back off the sword, but rather stepping forward, walking toward him without the slightest flicker of her expression as she deliberately forced his weapon through her body.  It scraped on bone as it emerged from her back just under her left shoulder blade, dyed a solid crimson, but she never even broke step.  Immobilized by sheer horror and shock, the captain stared into her face as she finally came to a halt, the guard of his sword pressing against her flesh, the soft weight of her breast touching the edge of his hand.

“How many?” she asked him, and even though her tone seemed idle, blood welled bright and fresh, frothing over her lips.  “How many did I kill?”

The captain’s eyes darted around, making a rapid count.  “Twenty-two,” he said finally, dazedly, looking back into her pale face.

“Twenty-three,” she answered.

He blinked, and looked around again.  “No, there’s twenty-two—” he began, and felt her long-fingered hands suddenly curl around his head—one cupping the back of his skull, one gripping his jaw.

“Twenty-three,” she stated again in that sweet, calm tone even as the muscles of her arms surged.

The sound of the Raven’s neck breaking was loud enough to be heard over the roar of the flames and the clash of steel; the soldiers who had been watching could only stare, superstitious dread turning them to scarcely-breathing statues, as their captain fell in a boneless heap, staring horribly over his own shoulder like some morbid owl.  His hand opened as he fell, his sword remaining through the woman’s body, and she turned a slow circle, smiling at the watching soldiers with teeth dyed carmine by the blood that spilled over her lips.  Shocked into mindless terror by this woman-monster who seemed to refuse even to die, the men literally ran, screaming, like a flock of birds sent into sudden flight by the pounce of a hunting predator.

Aruna couldn’t feel any pain at all, no fear, no grief, just a light, fierce, cold tingle that ran through her entire body.  She took hold of the sword’s grip, but couldn’t seem to pull it entirely out.  She was suddenly on her knees with no idea how she’d gotten there, and her arms were too heavy to lift.  Her head sagged forward, and she saw the blood pouring from her own mouth; she struggled to lift a hand as if to wipe it away like someone who’d nearly fallen asleep and found an embarrassing trickle of saliva running down their chin.  She prodded again at the sword’s grip, and frowned a little in confusion, not understanding why it was there.

Then she was lying on her side, her head and one shoulder resting across the chest of the man whose neck she’d broken like a twig.  The Kaykolom insignia painted on his chest guard vanished under the steady flow of her blood, like a drawing in the sand washed away by the incoming tide.  Even as she watched, the vision blurred, fading, paling into a colorless light.  She could feel warmth coming from that light, a warmth that pushed away the cold sluggishness of her body, beckoning her onward.  For the first time since she had learned of Yazkaru’s death, she felt absolutely calm, almost happy, the suffocating weight of her grief stripped away.  Her infant son was out of the village now, and even if the mother and daughter who’d taken him were slain, surely he would have some chance to live.  A great drowsiness came over her, the sort of exhaustion she had felt after a long day’s training or a long night’s lovemaking with her beloved silver-haired husband, and a smile curved her lips at the pleasant weariness.

She gave a long, deep sigh, and did not take another breath.

Darkness closed in around her, but still that silvery star beckoned.  A sense of floating, drifting forward, enveloped her as the light grew bigger, brighter.  Aruna, called out a voice that could only be her beloved Yazkaru’s.  She’d know that voice anywhere; her heart sang at finally hearing it again.  She wanted so very much to be with him once more.

The light resolved itself into a form.  Yazkaru’s familiar features stared back at her, but the being before her was something more than her husband had ever been.  He stood taller than she remembered her beloved being, perhaps three inches shorter than seven feet.  His long, silvery mane still hung down to his knees, the hair around his face caught up in the topknot he preferred while the rest swirled loose around him, but a pair of soft, fuzzy white fox’s ears crowned his head.  Behind him, a bushy tail of silvery fur flicked here and there.  He was dressed in clothing worthy of the Imperial Court, rich silken robes of silver and white glittering here and there with fox-rubies; a long and short sword of highest quality were at his waist, thrust under his long, red sash.

The being before her had to be Lopayzu himself, the totem spirit of the almost extinct clan—yet that gorgeous face and those molten gold eyes were clearly Yazkaru’s.  She hesitated, confused, torn between showing proper respect for her clan totem and throwing herself into her husband’s arms; the indecision was suddenly pushed aside by a much more important thought.

“My baby,” she said helplessly, looking around and seeing only the velvet darkness against which her companion glowed like a lone star.  “Is my baby safe?”

“Watch,” the tall, silver-haired totem murmured, turning to face the same way she was.  He waved a hand, the long sleeve of his ornately-decorated robe sweeping elegantly.  The darkness shimmered before him even as more images began to appear around them—the others of the village, lying now still, seemingly asleep, their bodies pale shimmering forms unmarked by the violence that had ended their mortal lives.

The shimmer solidified into what appeared to be a scrying mirror.  The burning village was reflected in the glimmering area, a lone figure walking through the devastation.  Shielded by his silver energy, the lone Lopayzom warrior looked grim, heartbroken, beaten.  The figure was easily recognizable as Arjunayazu, the Swordsmaster of the clan and de facto chieftain since the slaughter of Lord Sikitu’s entire family.

Lopayzu’s silver ears remained laid back in a gesture of hurt or sorrow as he watched Arjuna discover the still-living infant.  “The golden thread,” the totem murmured; no hint of emotion colored his rich, deep voice as the elegant warrior carefully picked the baby up and took him away from the destroyed village.

“It’s . . . that’s Arjuna,” she murmured, watching intently.  “If he’d gotten there earlier . . .  She shook her head, hard, and wiped a hand across her eyes.  “He might have died too.”

“Yes, it’s your foster brother.”  The image shimmered slightly, apparently focusing on a point a bit earlier in time.  The fight in the village was raging, the flames swiftly gaining in intensity.  And to the side, watching, tears glimmering in the firelight, stood the Raven Herald.  “For her sake, her chieftain made certain Lord Arjunayazu would not be there.”

“Lady Chaiya,” Aruna said thoughtfully.  “That’s . . . odd.  Iryasitru’s been so relentless in his pursuit of the Lopayzom, but he indulged his Herald in such a way.”  She bit her lip.  “I want to see what he’s going to do with my baby.”

Lopayzu nodded, the silken ears still laid back.  He waved his hand again.  This time the image shimmered, showing Arjuna riding through the night-shrouded forest with the infant carefully cradled in the crook of his off arm.

Silence remained around them as the Fox warrior rousted a married couple from their sleep, explaining to them his dilemma.  Though the gruff Bear seemed unhappy about the situation, the gentle Crane accepted the child into her keeping.  As Arjuna began to leave, the boy safe in the custody of a couple newly deprived of their own offspring, they heard the question asked of the name of the boy.

“Karavasu, Arjuna.  His name is Karavasu,” Lopayzu said to the image; the totem’s voice cracked with emotion.

“His name is Karavasu,” Arjuna responded, seemingly pulling the name from the very air.  The silver-haired chieftain then rode off into the night.

“He’s going to be all right,” the Fox woman whispered, pressing both hands to her mouth and rocking back and forth slightly.  “He’s going to be all right.”  She shut her eyes tightly, tears spilling over her lashes.  “He’s safe.”

“Yes, he’s going to be all right, Aruna.”  Lopayzu turned toward her, the scrying mirror fading away.  Tears streaked his own face, the golden eyes far too bright; he held his arms out to her, but he seemed hesitant, as if he was uncertain how his gesture would be received.

She knew that she really ought to be showing a full measure of respect and decorous behavior toward her clan’s totem spirit, but the resemblance between him and her lost husband was simply too overwhelming at the moment.  The detachment she’d felt while fighting was shredded away, unleashing the emotional torrent that had been bottled up inside her.  With a sob, she threw herself into his arms, clinging to the cloud-soft silk of his ornate robes and burying her face in his chest.

There came a soft sigh of relief.  He hugged her to him, his presence warm and comforting--just like that of her lost husband.  He nuzzled a cheek against her hair, a hand stroking the rich flame-red tresses; it was faintly dismaying that even as a disembodied spirit, her hair utterly refused to behave—as usual, it was a mass of independently-minded curls that went springing off in all directions.  Even his touch, his scent, the very psychic feel of him reminded her strongly of Yazkaru.

Aruna let herself have a very good cry, not particularly upset that she was getting Lopayzu’s elegant clothing rather soggy.  When she’d cried herself out, she stood quietly for several minutes, drawing a profound comfort from the strangely familiar sensation of his arms around her, his cheek against her hair, his fingers combing deftly through the unruly curls without snagging.  When she finally lifted her head, she looked almost shyly up into the face of the totem who held her, one eyebrow arching quizzically.

His own eyes were red, face uncharacteristically puffy from his own crying.  He shifted his hand forward, lightly running a fingertip along the line of her jaw.  “I see a question in your eyes,” he softly murmured.

“Is this what you really look like?” she asked curiously, sounding almost shockingly normal in the wake of the dreadful events she’d experienced.

He nodded in the affirmative.  The ears perked forward slightly, the tip of his bushy silver tail swaying ever so gently.

“So you’re not making yourself look like anybody other than who you really are?” she persisted.

This time his head shook in the negative.  His hand cupped her cheek; a flash of memory went through her of her gorgeous husband doing the very same thing when she’d first met him—right before he’d said one of the most outrageous things she’d ever heard in her life.

Molten gold eyes stared at her, longingly—almost hungrily.  “You may not believe this from me, but I’ve missed you so very much . . .”

Her hand curled around his wrist, but happily, she didn’t seem intent on hurling him over her shoulder like she had that first time.  “Then would you please explain to me why you and Yazkaru look so much alike that you could use each other for shaving mirrors?”  Her eyes suddenly widened; the realization had just come to her, but she bit back what she might have said to let him answer instead.

“I think you just realized why, beloved,” Lopayzu murmured.

“You wouldn’t have to,” she said in a very small voice, “because you’re the same person.  You are Yazkaru, aren’t you?”

“I am.  ‘Yazkaru’ is one of the names given to me—along with many others, some of them not flattering at all.”

“You tricked me,” she murmured in an unnervingly sweet tone.

The ears flattened, quickly.  He recognized that tone; it boded serious danger.  “I did not.”

“Yes, you did,” she persisted.  “You pretended to just be an ordinary Lopayzom.”

“Only that first time you met me.  For those days and nights, I was an ordinary Lopayzom Avatar.  I lived as a mortal, and died like one.  The flesh and bone you buried was every bit as real as your own.”

“I must have scared you out of your skin that night at the spring when I mentioned what I’d do to some randy totem spirit who came along intent on seducing a poor mortal girl,” she remarked, far too casually.

“It’s closer to the truth that you scared me into a skin, but that isn’t exactly true either.”  His ears remained flattened.  “I love you, Aruna.  I still do.  Ever since I had to leave you, I’ve longed to be near you again.  But I can see you’ll never believe me.  You’ll only punish me somehow and leave, certain I meant nothing more than a casual fling in a long line of such.”

Astonishingly, she grinned the devilish grin that he’d become quite familiar with in the time he’d spent wearing a mortal body.  “I won,” she crowed suddenly, exultantly.  I won!  All those affairs and seductions, but I’m the one who caught you!”

Those silken ears flicked forward as a stunned expression settled on his almost impossibly beautiful face.  “Ara?” he yipped.

Her attention was caught by the flicker of movement; curiously, she reached up to touch one of the pointed, furry ears.  The ear was silky soft, much like his magnificent wealth of silver hair; it was also just as real, being warm as the rest of him and twitching slightly in reaction to her tickling touch.  “Ara,” he yipped again.

“Oh, they’re so cute!” she cooed, putting up the other hand and vigorously scratching the base of both ears.  This meant she was plastered up against his front, but she hardly seemed distracted by the fact.

“Ararara,” he groaned.  He was well aware of the feel of her form pressed against him; frustration became dumped atop the grief filling his soul.  He yanked himself away, ears flattening.  “That tickles!” he complained, voice grumpy.  “Besides, there’s more important things needing our attention.”

“I’m distracted from being annoyed at you by those adorable ears.  And this wonderful fluffy tail!” she giggled, catching it about six inches from the end and brushing the luxurious fur across her cheek.

The tail twitched against her, the fur also as soft and luxurious as the rest of his hair. The totem seemed to be built specifically to entice the sense of touch. Had it been free, it would be lashing a bit in annoyance.

     Lopayzu sighed as if he were a doomed man heading for execution, but allowed her to remain holding his nether appendage.  “Aruna . . . Would you be upset or happy to remain my wife?   Here, in the Celestial Realm?”

She looked up at him, her eyes wide.  “Of course I’d be happy.”  Another roguish giggle.  “Especially since you look so adorable now.”

A flicker of a myriad of emotions shone within his still-reddened golden eyes:  love, desire, relief, sadness, frustration.  “How much is it worth to you, beloved?”  No hint of the bouncy, sly trickster stood before her.  For once, one of the rare times outside of deadly combat, he was entirely serious.

Seeing just how serious he was, Aruna let the bushy tail slip between her fingers and straightened up, a trickle of unease sliding down her spine.  “What kind of a question is that?  ‘How much is it worth’?  Just about anything.  You should know that.”

He reached out, taking one of her hands in his gentle grasp.  “I had hoped, but I wasn’t sure.  There’s already been so much sadness and pain . . .”

He shook his head, then raised her hand to his lips.  The kiss he gave the soft skin of her hand was longing, lingering.  “In the normal course of things, your spirit would sleep until it was reincarnated.  But you can choose another path, one that will end with you as the divine consort of the Fox Spirit.  But to travel that path, you must walk it without me until the Celestial Court is pleased with your manners and presence among them.”

She blinked a few times; it took her a moment to process what he’d said, the caress of his lips against her hand occupying most of her attention.  Then she stared at him.  “What exactly does that mean?”

He straightened, tail swishing from side to side.  Still holding her hand, he stared down at her.  “It means that your soul must be transformed into something more than what it is, and while that takes place, you’ll be taught the customs and duties of the Celestial Court.  Mostly it means you’ll be alone in the Celestial Realm for fifty years, watching over my estates and being taught our ways, while I remain exiled to Limbo and the mortal realm.  Once we part ways, I can’t see you until the fifty years are up; my presence is too much of a distraction.  It is the sacrifice required of us for the transformation.”

Her jaw dropped.  Fifty years?!” she yelped.  “I wouldn’t get to see you for fifty years?!

He nodded, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.  “But it’s not as bad as it seems, not for you.  In the Celestial Realm, time isn’t the same; though there’s cause and effect, a sense of permanent ‘now’ permeates the place.  Half a century in the mortal realm can seem only a day in the Shining Lands, and I’m certain your tutors in our ways will keep you busy.  Of the two of us, I will probably have the harder time of it.”

Her lower lip trembled.  “It’s not fair,” she complained softly.  “I’m supposed to take care of your estates and everything and you won’t even be there?”

“I can’t be there.  Not for this, not until the time is over.  Believe me, if there was some way other than this, I would take it . . . but this means so much to me, I’m willing to suffer the exile.  At the end of it all, nothing will ever separate us again.  Ever.”

“I can’t ever see you, during the whole fifty years?”

“Not in person.  You can’t see me, speak to me, or contact me in any way.  But in my mansion, there’s a mirror that has the power to show the silent images of those known to you in the mortal realm.  With it you can watch me or our son, whatever we’re doing in that moment.  There can be no interaction, but such scrying is allowed.”

“It’s not fair,” she complained again.  “It hurt badly enough when Yazkaru died.  Now I can’t be with you again for fifty years?  Who makes up these rules, anyway?”  She was clearly warming up to a good burst of high temper.  “What a horrible idea.  How am I supposed to run your estates if you’re not there?  The way I do things might not be the way you’d want them done.  Then the first thing we’re apt to do after half a century is argue over how I did things.  How stupid.”

He smiled, taking the edge off his subdued, sad mood.  Combing his fingers through her enticing hair, he murmured, “If you truly think the first thing I’ll do after the time’s up is argue with you, then you don’t know me well at all . . .”  His voice hinted at the many memories of them lying exhausted in one another’s embrace, drowsy and satiated.

She blushed suddenly and turned those dark amber eyes up to him; he could tell that the same memories were chasing through her mind at the seductive purr of his words.  “All right,” she acknowledged in a somewhat breathless tone.  “Maybe not the first thing, but probably the second or third.”

“Aruna, I love you and I have faith in you.  It will all work out, if you believe in your relationship with me.”

“Why did you die?” she asked suddenly, softly, and there was a wounded note in her voice, a look on her face like an abandoned child’s.  “Why did you leave me?”

He pulled her to his chest.  Hugging her tightly, he nuzzled against her.  “I had no choice.  My mortal life was not one of those destined to continue.  I would not have left if I’d had my wish; I would have willingly stayed until the end with you.”

“I tried,” she whispered, hiding her face against his chest again.  “I did my best to fight the Kaykolom, but there were so many . . . and I-I hadn’t really wanted to live very much since you left me.  I knew I had to stay alive for our son, but when the Raven attacked the village . . . I knew I couldn’t run.  There was nobody to cover my escape.  I was the only one who could fight to let someone else get away with my baby . . .”

She lifted her head suddenly, her eyes full of tears again, a mingling of grief and anger overlaid with a helpless lack of understanding.  “Why is this happening?” she nearly shouted at him, her fists clenching in the front of his rather abused robe.  Why?   Why aren’t you stopping this?  They’ve been killing us!  All of us!  All of the Lopayzom!  Why didn’t you help?  Why did you just let it happen?”

“I know you tried.  I’m very, very proud of you.  And our son will live on.”  He hugged her tighter, caressing her back.  “I’m so very sorry I had to leave you alone with him.  I wish I’d been allowed to see him grow, and for him to know both of us.”  His voice hitched slightly; the silver-haired totem fell silent, unable to say anything more as he too wept again.

“What did we do?” she demanded.  “What did we do that displeased you so much that you’d let them kill us all?  How could you stand by and do nothing as the Raven murdered us?  How could you?

Aruna raged at him, alternating between sobbing and shouting, pounding with both fists on a chest that felt like a stone wall.  He was made of something that a mortal spirit simply had no hope of harming at all, even if she’d truly wanted to.  It was utterly childish of her—she knew that she was behaving very badly, but all of the frustration and anger and sorrow that she’d held inside couldn’t be held in check any more.  She said things that she would have been horrified to hear someone else say to the shining god-being that held her in his arms; she let all of those pent-up emotions pour out on him, making accusations and biting out curses so vile that they nearly turned the air blue.  And yet he simply stood there and took it, not even trying to justify or deny anything she said, not letting her go or pushing her away.  He just stood there with the sparkling tears sliding down his pale cheeks, suffering stamped onto his flawless face.

He let her spend herself, until finally all she could do was sob against him.  The pain and sorrow he felt were nearly unendurable, made even more poignant by his own experience as one of them, a mortal slaughtered by the blood feud that had raged between the clans.  In the beginning, it had seemed so academic.  This was how it had to be if the whole of the Pattern was to survive, yet it hurt, and he didn’t even have the luxury of her company to assuage his sorrow and guilt.  He could only hold her tight in the time he had left.  Touching her again felt so good, the barriers of flesh stripped away so that he could truly feel her, everything that made Aruna who she was.  There was so much strength in her; he had chosen well his mate.  Feeling the emotions rolling through her made it possible for him to just stand and let her scream at him, because he could tell that she wasn’t entirely as angry at him as she seemed to be.  Some part of her knew that Lopayzu wouldn’t have allowed his clan to become nearly extinct without a reason, and that knowledge made her furious accusations hollow.

The Fox-lord shifted his grip and lifted her off her feet, cradling her against him in his arms, against his chest, so that she could lay her head on his shoulder.  It let him press his cheek to her wild curls, or bury his face in them and breathe the scent that was so uniquely hers; she was already becoming “real” in this place, and the spirit was always most comfortable keeping the shape it was accustomed to, including all the tiny details—such as her unruly hair, or the fragrance of her skin, or the tiny scar on the underside of her chin from a childhood mishap on a flight of stairs.  In all the time he’d existed, dallying with this mortal or that, playing his pranks, he’d never known anyone who captivated him as Aruna did.  Even her stormy emotions drew him to her, making him want to comfort her when she cried, laugh with her when she was happy, soothe her when she was angry.  The relatively short time he’d spent separated from her had been a quiet torment.

And he had to forsake her for fifty mortal years.  Only the knowledge that the end of that half-century exile would mark the beginning of an eternity with her took the sting out of the thought.  That wasn’t quite enough to help him through the absolute anguish of feeling them die, his mortal clan.  The quiet natural passing of individuals was one thing, only a small twinge.  The mass slaughter that had been perpetrated was like feeling pieces of his own body sheared away, their prayers begging for his help like needles driven to the bone.  He had thought that he understood what the whole plan entailed, but in truth, he had understood nothing at all.

“My lord,” came a patient voice from behind him.  He turned and looked down, not caring about the tears streaking his face.  The vixen who sat there was a fine example of the red fox breed that was so common, aside from being about the size of a pony.

“Jenbuka,” he replied.  Aruna had lifted her head from his shoulder, sniffling, and she looked curiously down at the creature sitting so patiently before them.  “This is Jenbuka,” Lopayzu said, looking from the woman to the fox.  “She is one of my retainers.  She’s agreed to take on the task of helping you with the things you must learn.  Jenbuka, this is Aruna.”

“My lady,” the vixen murmured, inclining her graceful head.  “It is my honor to serve you, and I will strive to aid you in every possible way.”  Her eyes flicked back to Lopayzu.  “My lord, time is passing.”

“What does that mean?” Aruna inquired, and Lopayzu’s arms tightened around her.

“It means that I have to go,” he answered gently.

“What?  No!” she cried, clenching her fingers in his hair.  “You can’t!  Not so soon!”  Her voice broke, and it took her a moment to regain enough composure to speak again.  “Not so soon,” she repeated, her voice full of pain.  “Please.  Please.  Just a little longer.  I need—I need you.  You have to tell me why this happened.”  She buried her face in his hair.  “You have to tell me, Yazkaru,” she whispered, reverting automatically to the name she had known him by in his short time as a mortal.  “I want you so much, but it’s . . . it’s all right if we can’t . . . do that yet.  But you can’t leave without telling me why this happened, why you didn’t save us.”

“I fear anything I could say to explain will only make you hate me, and existence would be bleak indeed if all that you feel toward me is animosity,” he murmured, voice still broken with emotion and weary with sadness.

“I still need to know, Yazkaru,” she insisted.  Please.”

The totem sighed, then gently set her back down on her feet.  He stepped back from her; though she instinctively grasped at him, a feeble attempt to keep him from leaving before she knew, he pushed her hand away.  “I’ll try to explain,” he reassured.

Aruna clutched her hands to her bosom, eager to let him do as he wished since his release of her hadn’t been an indication he would leave just yet.

The shining Fox-lord held his hands out to either side.  Between his palms, the darkness-shrouded air began to shimmer.  “The whole of Creation—Heaven, Hell, and Earth—is a great tapestry of thread and Pattern.  Only perhaps the Sun Goddess Herself ever knows the whole of the Pattern or the threads within.”  An image formed between his hands, of what looked like a gorgeous, intricately-patterned tapestry.  “Even the Tapestry itself within the Sun’s palace doesn’t reveal the whole of itself to any of us who look upon its ever-changing play of color.  But there’s one thing we know well—the Tapestry is how Creation is, how it was, and what it could yet be.”

The image shifted, zooming in on one section of the Pattern.  Before Aruna’s wondering eyes, a seemingly random tangle of multi-colored threads glimmered out at her.  Silver and shades of gold, orange and red, they sparkled and shimmered through the image between the Lopayzu’s hands—until they began to end.  First a few here and there, then wholesale—until all that emerged from the seemingly tangled mess were two solitary threads that shone far brighter than any of the others had.  One was silver, the other gold.

The image shifted again, tracing the two solitary threads as they ran through many more of the hues of the rainbow.  Another snarl caught the two of them up, but what caught Aruna’s attention was also in that area a void, a frightening nothingness.

“Spaces in the Pattern like that are indicative of Chaos leaking through, trying to reclaim the whole of Creation back into itself,” the Lopayzom spirit murmured.  Onward the silver and gold strands ran, now joined by white and violet.  The image zoomed out slightly—and there before the strands lay far more small holes in the Pattern, many more than Aruna had seen previously.  Yet each space was contained, kept small, the silver and gold threads branching out from the twin survivors all in key places to keep the encroachment of Chaos from getting larger.  Other threads of other hues also held keystone positions, but the image was clear:  every single one of the Chaos-leaks had some bright silver or gold thread involved in keeping the integrity of the Pattern.  “This is how it stands now, the most probable way free will shall flow,” Lopayzu murmured.  This,” he added, the image he held braced in the air shimmering, changing, “was how it had been . . .”

Again the wealth of silver, red, orange and gold ran their courses among the other strands.  Aruna recognized the pattern of that which had led to the tangle where so many of the strands the Fox-lord focused on were lost.  This time, however, they continued on.  Some ended, others began, but overall their numbers remained stable.  Then came the Chaos-breach . . .

The Pattern tried to maintain its integrity.  Though many threads ended, and the void was finally contained, the grieving mortal saw that the hole was much larger than previously shown.  Onward the threads rushed, into more and more such areas of emptiness, each one devouring up far more precious space, unable to be contained—until at the last, the whole of the Pattern disintegrated into nothingness.  Darkness reigned supreme in the area between the Fox-lord’s hands.  His expression full of sadness and suffering, Lopayzu lowered his hands.

“They were not strong enough, not as they were.  I agonized for hours, sorting through threads and Patterns, looking to find the combination that would save as many as possible—and all I could find that would work was what you first saw.  All of us have run many different scenarios through the shifting image of the Pattern—we each can only touch and trace the threads of our own people—and what you first saw was the least disruptive path to the whole.  All of us checked again and again as the Pattern flowed on; again and again, this was the solution we kept achieving.”

Aruna pressed her hands to her mouth, blinking back the tears that threatened to continue.  “We weren’t strong enough,” she repeated numbly.  “We . . . failed . . .  Her eyes widened in sudden surprise as she remembered what he’d said as Arjuna picked up the baby.  The golden thread.  “Arjunayazu and Karavasu,” she whispered, looking up into his face; all of the laughter and merriment was gone, leaving his liquid-gold eyes dark and somber.  “My foster brother and my baby.  They were the ones who had to survive.  The rest of us weren’t . . .  Weren’t good enough, she wanted to say, but the look of grief that already lay on his face stopped her.

It was obvious that Lopayzu might have known that this was necessary, but he took no joy in it whatsoever.  Knowing now why her clan had died made her earlier outburst even more selfish, more childish.  Surely Lopayzu blamed himself in no small part for whatever it was that had made his clan unfit for the task of holding back the tide of Chaos that threatened the existence of everything.

When she reached out this time, it was to put her arms around him, holding him tightly, trying to give him some measure of comfort as he had sought to soothe her when she wept and raged in his arms.

“Don’t ever—ever—think any of you weren’t good enough,” the Fox-lord hissed next to her ear.  “The souls of the others lie here, sleeping, awaiting a time to return.  But that which threatens the Pattern was too much for the old way of the clan.  A new way has to be forged, one that can withstand what’s to come.  ‘For every gain, a loss of equal value must be suffered.’  The old way cannot work and thus it must be swept aside for a new one.  All those lost—save you and me—will live again, this time a part of ways that can preserve the whole.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered into his chest, and the sheer inadequacy of the words made her wince.  “I shouldn’t have said any of those things to you.  I didn’t understand.”  Her hands stroked down his back, sinking through the satiny weight of his hair.

“I was afraid . . . I thought you’d hate me.  That’s the last thing I’d ever want,” he whispered, the words breaking with emotion.

“I could never hate you,” she whispered back, closing her eyes.

“My lord,” Jenbuka coughed, looking embarrassed at having to interrupt.

Lopayzu sighed.  He felt so weary, so hurt and lost.  The silver-haired spirit leaned back, staring down at the beautiful woman in his arms.  “This time, at least, I can properly bid you farewell.”  He swooped down, catching her in a passionate kiss; his own need easily matched hers.  Long silver hair slid forward, tickling against her skin, but she could only truly feel the heated, longing kiss.  He clung to her, memorizing the feel of her, her enticing scent, and the way her aura and emotions responded to his own.  For the next century, these alone would be what he’d be allowed.

But at the last, it had to end.  He gently pulled back, the sad, sad golden eyes opening again.  “Never forget that I love you, Aruna.  We will meet again, and next time will be forever.  Forgive me for the pain I’ve caused.”

His hands caressed her as he released her.  He gave her one last melancholy gaze before he turned away.  Head bowed, shoulders slumped, his magnificent bushy tail dragging on the ground behind him, he walked away from her.  Her hands remained outstretched as if to pull him back to her, as if he’d turn and say it was all a joke, he didn’t have to leave at all.  But the darkness swallowed him up, leaving her alone with the vixen and the sleeping spirits of the dead of the clan.

Aruna sank to her knees and wept again, but her sorrow was far less heavy than it had been when he had left her before; now she knew that she would see him again, that he was not dead, only . . . away for a while.  It was the sorrow of a temporary parting, not the soul-killing grief of permanent loss.  Jenbuka moved closer, nosing at Aruna’s hair, making soft whining sounds in the back of her throat just to let the woman know she wasn’t alone.

When she finally wiped her eyes and looked up, the vixen was sitting quite close.  “What now?” she asked, sniffling a bit.

“Now I’m to escort you to his lordship’s manor,” Jenbuka intoned.  “For the next few days, you’ll have time to familiarize yourself with the estates.  Your presence is expected at Court soon, however.”

“Me?” she asked in a slightly strangled voice.  “Why me?”

“Because Lord Lopayzu will not be able to attend.  Your earthly marriage, however, is acknowledged here as well.  As his consort, you will technically be representing the Lopayzom at court, and overseeing Lopayzom interests.”  She coughed slightly behind one politely raised black paw.  “Currently, though the clan has been severely reduced, Lord Lopayzu’s sacrifice is being greatly honored by the other nobles.”

“I would hope so,” Aruna muttered.  “Have any of them ever had to do such a thing?”

“Not to the extent that Lord Lopayzu has had to endure.”

“What do I need to know in order to conduct myself properly there?”

“First things first, my lady,” Jenbuka said firmly.  “Instruction on Court etiquette can wait.  But if it helps ease your mind . . . just remember that all those you will see are there because they work to maintain the Pattern.  They will maneuver and plot and scheme like the nobles in any mortal court, but ultimately they all strive for the same goals.”  The huge vixen crouched down.  “If my lady will entrust herself to my back, we can depart for Lord Lopayzu’s manor.”

Aruna got to her feet, looking around sadly at the sleeping forms of her clansfolk.  Her eye was caught by two in particular, and she walked over to look down at the two women who had taken advantage of her attack on the Kaykolom warriors to escape into the woods.

“You saved my baby,” she whispered.  “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I want to tell you how grateful I am for getting him away from the village.”

There was no answer, but the atmosphere around her felt somehow warmer, lighter, like an unspoken acknowledgment of her words.  She turned back to the vixen, clambering uncertainly onto the creature’s furry back.  “Will this be a long trip?”

“Not as such, no.  I thought you might like a look at some of the surroundings of the manor on the way there, or we would reach our destination in a heartbeat.”  Jenbuka’s muscles bunched, and she sprang into a swift run.

The darkness whipped away, and the vixen was running smoothly across a broad meadow scattered with flowers, bordered by trees on three sides, a magnificent estate house rising at the fourth side.  The first thing that Aruna truly noticed was the sheer intensity of color around her.  It was as if she’d seen everything through a thin veil for her entire life, and only now had that veil been stripped away.  The flowers, the trees, the grass, even the red fox that carried her—the colors were so much richer, clear and bright, and it was as if she could see textures just as she could feel them with the touch of a hand.  The sun poured its radiance down on her, but she could look directly at it without the expected ache in her eyes.

The manor house was huge.  Rather than having a wall around it as she might have expected, a flowering hedge encircled the place.  There was no gate, but the opening where a gate should have been was marked by two tall stone pillars; the hedge had sent twining vines up around both posts, bright with blossoms.  Each pillar was crowned with a beautifully sculpted white stone fox.

The lawn inside the hedge-wall was neatly manicured, looking like plush green velvet.  There was no road, as she might have expected; neat slabs of a deep honey-colored stone were laid out to form a walkway that extended about five feet from the edge of the decking.  The house was mostly white, with accents of red, orange-red, and gold.  The deck itself was lacquered a dark, rich red.

Jenbuka stopped at the edge of the deck to let Aruna slide off her back, then padded up the two broad steps.  The doors slid open without being touched as the big fox approached.  “If my lady will follow me, I will show the way to his lordship’s suite of rooms.  Unless you wish to take up residence elsewhere in the house, that is.”

Aruna shook her head wordlessly, following the vixen.  She was listening with about half an ear as Jenbuka kept up a steady stream of commentary on the manor and its immediate surroundings, but she didn’t need to listen to realize that it was the most beautiful house she’d ever seen.  And it felt good to be inside it, a warm, comfortable sensation that instantly converted it from simply “house” into “home”.  This was a place where she would be completely safe, completely welcome.

Lopayzu’s quarters were nothing short of luxurious.  Rather than a simple bed, it seemed that the Fox-Lord liked to sleep on a sprawling heap of pillows and cushions and silken sheets, and Aruna couldn’t help but smile wryly at the sight of the disordered pile.  Yazkaru had always seemed confused by her insistence on making the bed neatly every day.

Jenbuka paused near one wall and pointed a paw up at the ornately-framed mirror that hung there.  “This is the mirror which his lordship mentioned.  You may use it to view any place in the mortal or near-mortal realms, whenever you choose.”  She moved on and indicated a set of slatted doors.  “Your dressing room and closet, my lady.  His lordship endeavored to supply you with such garments and ornaments as appropriate to your station, but should you find anything lacking, you need only mention it and the household staff will see to the matter.”  She looked over one sleek shoulder as she padded on to another door.  “You have no actual need to eliminate, as everything you choose to consume here—if you choose to consume anything, and I recommend you do—shall become part of your substance with no waste material.  However, should you choose to bathe, the bathhouse is through this door.”  She sat down, curling her tail around her feet.  “It will likely take some time for you to become accustomed to the nature of your new form.  You will feel the need for food, drink, and sleep for some time, until you have adjusted; it may help your transition if you endeavor to maintain a similar routine to the one you followed as a living mortal.  Furthermore, the things that you eat and drink here will help speed the transformation.”

“Transformation?” Aruna asked, one eyebrow rising slightly.  “Lopayzu mentioned that too.  Can you explain it?”

The vixen scratched briefly behind one ear with a hind foot.  “Of course.  At this moment, you are still composed of a mortal’s soul-substance.  It is transient at best, and tends toward a certain inertia.  Most souls, left to their own devices, will sleep in limbo until it is time for them to be born into flesh again.  Everything you see here, from myself to the table there to the trees outside, is composed of divine matter.  Over time, a soul in the Celestial Realm will change, its substance transforming into the same divine material.  Each breath you take is furthering the change, as you absorb more of this realm’s nature.  When you eat and drink, those things will also become part of you in the same way.”

“Does it hurt?” she asked, knowing that it was a rather dumb-sounding question.

“Not a bit,” Jenbuka assured her.  “You have been in no pain since you arrived here, have you?”

“No,” she admitted.

“The change takes a great deal of time unless it is deliberately hastened along by one of the totem spirits.  The Goddess—may She be praised!—can accomplish it with a single thought.  However, in this case, it was agreed that you would be allowed to undergo the transformation without such assistance, as you have other things to occupy your attention in the meantime.  When the change is complete, you will know it, as it will permit you to share in Lord Lopayzu’s power.  A mortal soul would be shocked into quiescence or even shredded to nothingness if that power were channeled into it.  Only a spirit, an entity composed of the divine matter, can safely contain the sort of energies which the clan lords control.”

“Oh,” Aruna said faintly.  “I suppose that makes sense.”  She looked curiously at the vixen.  “What are you, then?  I mean—did you start as a mortal, too?”

“In a manner of speaking.  I am fully of the divine matter, however, and that is partly why Lord Lopayzu chose me to be your guide and companion.  Though you are technically in charge while he is in exile, your mortal soul-stuff bars you from using his power.  I am under no such limitation.  You have but to give an order, and I will enforce it.”

“He must trust you a great deal,” she murmured.

“I am pleased to serve,” Jenbuka intoned.  “I have been in his lordship’s service for a very long time.”

Aruna studied the fox carefully.  “How long?  And what did you mean, that you started as a mortal ‘in a matter of speaking’?”

“I suppose we have time for a bit of a history lesson,” the creature remarked, fluffing her tail.  “I confess to being just a touch wounded that my name was not familiar to you, though it’s certainly been used any number of times throughout the existence of the Lopayzom.”

Aruna stared, her jaw slowly sagging open.

“When the world first came into being and the Goddess arose to bring order to Chaos,” Jenbuka began in a sonorous sort of voice, ignoring the awed stare, “there was no difference between flesh and spirit.  The entities who would become the totems moved freely upon the earth, no different from their fellows, aside from perhaps being just a little stronger or smarter.  They took mates and produced offspring, just as others of their kinds did.  Over time, these individuals gained in status and power until they could truly be considered leaders of their kind in general, rather than simply the head of a pack or herd or flock.  When the Goddess extended Her offer, those leaders agreed to follow Her to the newly created Celestial Realm, where they would comprise Her court and oversee their people.  However, such a separation made it necessary that each of the new clan totems choose a successor, someone to rule the clan in the mortal world and act as a bridge between the two realms.  They established their criteria and selected the ones who measured up.  Some chose their successors based on their strength, or their intelligence, or their cunning.”  She sniffed.  “Or even their beauty.”  It was fairly clear that Jenbuka had a somewhat low opinion of using such a silly concept to select one’s successor.

So far, this was all the sort of thing that Aruna had heard in stories before, though with different wording.  The next part was new, however.

“As I mentioned, the individuals who became the totems had produced offspring,” the vixen continued.  “In some cases, the totems found that one of their own children had the traits they desired, and those children were selected.  I was one of those.”

Aruna gaped.  Jenbuka.  The first chieftain of the Lopayzom.

“I see from the somewhat fish-like expression on your face that you have finally made the connection,” Jenbuka noted.  “When my time as a mortal was over, I asked my illustrious sire to allow me to continue in service to him without the inconvenience of reincarnation.  He agreed, and so I joined him here in the Celestial Realm.  In those days, the division of flesh and spirit was nowhere near as strict as it is now, so the transition of my awareness from soul-stuff to divine matter was accomplished quickly, needing no outside intervention.  Whenever Lord Lopayzu goes to the mortal realm, I am usually the one who governs in his place.”

“You must . . . resent me being here,” Aruna said hesitantly.  “I mean, if I’m taking over the things you’ve always done before, that sort of pushes you aside.”

“Not at all,” the being who had once been a Lopayzom chief assured her.  “I am content with matters.  In truth, after all this time, I much prefer to have someone else giving the orders.  For one thing, it lets me get a lot more sleep.”

Aruna giggled, relaxing.  “But I thought you said that spirits don’t really need sleep—or you implied it, anyway.”

“I didn’t say that I needed sleep, now did I?”  The vixen gave a vulpine grin and twitched her tail.  “You do not have to fear that I will resent you at all, Aruna.  Frankly, it’s past time for Lord Lopayzu to settle down and behave himself.  All those flings were probably a great deal of fun, but the reforging of the clan gives him a good reason to be more serious about things.”

The unsaid comment was that Jenbuka was probably fairly glad that her father was finally growing up.

 

The next few days were very busy.  Aruna discovered that Lopayzu controlled some fairly extensive tracts of land and was quite well-liked by his tenants and vassals, which startled her at first; she hadn’t expected such an arrangement to exist in the Celestial Realm.  After Jenbuka explained, however, it made a great deal of sense.  Heaven was technically limitless, but the totems were the only entities with the power to shape it.  In mimicry of the mortal realm, where lords controlled vast territories and commoners were granted land and privileges at the lord’s word, lesser spirits had to go to the totems if they wanted a home or protection from enemies.  Heaven was just as real to spirits as the “real world” was to mortals—it was subject to adverse weather conditions and natural upheavals just as the mortal realm was.  Here, however, storms and earthquakes were not caused by interactions of air masses and the venting of pressure from deep layers of stone, but by the actions of Chaos.

Chaos, Jenbuka explained in turn, was not actually sentient or evil.  It was simply the formless, swirling randomness that had existed before the universe.  It didn’t actively hate anything or seek to destroy things out of maliciousness, because it didn’t have the ability to hate or be cruel.  Ultimately, Order was a sort of aberration, something imposed upon the randomness of Chaos to freeze part of it into a structured existence.  Except that Order wasn’t quite as rigid as it really seemed, because Chaos still infused it in a thousand tiny ways, making it possible for things to be uncertain, which in turn made it possible for living things to make choices and set their own paths, for that which was material to develop on its own.  As long as a careful balance was maintained, Chaos and Order could coexist peacefully.  But if the hand was taken off the scales, the balance could tip and result in disaster.  Order could not be allowed to freeze things into total stasis, and Chaos could not be allowed to run rampant and absorb things back into itself.  Ultimately, that was the purpose of the Celestial Court—to maintain that careful, precise balance.

“That is why there is war, and disease, and suffering,” Jenbuka told Aruna gently.  “People cry out to the totems to end wars, to protect their people from illness and strife, but that would push the balance too far toward Order.  Humans can only see the small picture, while the lords of the spirit realm must keep an eye on the entirety of the Pattern.  The totems cannot interfere with free will too much, for that would threaten to repress Chaos completely.  They do what they can, but always being careful not to push things too far one way or another.”

“What about demons?” Aruna asked, chin on her fists as she sat behind the elegant desk in Lopayzu’s library, which appeared to contain every book ever written.  “What are they for?”

“They’re spirits, of course, but they’ve chosen to think like many humans do.  They concentrate only on their own gratifications, ignoring the larger picture.  They seek to push the balance toward Chaos, often out of the sort of malice that makes people do things they shouldn’t—they ‘just want to see what happens’.  Spirits have free will too, so they can make their own decisions.”

Aruna frowned, struggling with the idea.  “Are you saying that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ don’t really exist, ultimately?”

“Not at all.  But I am saying that one’s perception of those concepts is created and limited by their circumstances.  ‘Evil’ is doing what is wrong.”  The vixen shook her head a little.  “Caught in my own explanation.  Let me rephrase that.  It can be stated that ‘evil’ is deliberately choosing to do things which will hurt others in some way for no reason other than one’s own gratification.  Stripped of all detail and reduced to its most basic element, that is what ‘evil’ can be described as.”

The young woman’s brow crinkled.  “But that means that things aren’t really absolute at all.  A man who steals food is evil because he’s doing it to feed himself, even if he’s taking it from a household that won’t suffer from the loss.”

“Not exactly.  You forgot the part about hurting others.  If a man steals to feed himself and the household won’t suffer, it’s still evil, but not as evil as a man stealing from a poor household that can barely feed itself already.”

“And a man who steals someone’s last loaf of bread to feed his family isn’t evil?”

“Again, not exactly.  He is doing so because feeding his family brings him some form of personal gratification.  There are degrees of good and evil, Aruna, because Chaos is always there to keep things moving and changing.  If a bandit kills someone, is it wrong?”

“Of course it is!”

“Why?”

She hesitated a moment, sensing that the vixen was going somewhere specific.  “Because the bandit is deliberately hurting someone for his own pleasure, one way or another.”

“Is it wrong to execute the bandit for killing someone, then?  Isn’t that just killing him back, as it were?”

Aruna bit her lip a moment, then shook her head.  “Not in the same way.  You’re not making enough of a distinction between ‘kill’ and ‘murder’.  The bandit killed for his own gratification, whether it was to steal his victim’s money or just take pleasure in ending someone’s life.  That’s murder.  Executing the bandit is less evil because it’s not being done to please an individual, it’s being done to protect other people from being murdered.”

“You’re learning.  Back to the subject of demons.  Many of them claim that they work to advance the ‘cause’ of Chaos, but you can see the flaw in that from what I’ve already told you.  Some grow powerful enough to claim that they’re ‘Chaos incarnate’ and go about making threats and speeches about how much they want to destroy everything.  Demons are real, but they aren’t born from Chaos.  They were made by Order, and have made choices to fight against Order for their own reasons.  They’re as necessary as the ‘good’ spirits—they keep things stirred up, keep Chaos from stagnating.”

“This is making my head hurt,” Aruna admitted, rubbing her temples.

“I’ll try to avoid the subject of comparative morality in the future.”

“Thank you.”

“We do, however, need to discuss the subject of court etiquette.”

Aruna groaned faintly.

Mortal courts were often quite elaborate and formal in their own right, but the Celestial Court was, of course, in a class all its own—as the young Lopayzom was discovering with each lesson.  She had thought that she knew quite a bit about proper comportment.  It was, however, becoming clear that compared to what was considered appropriate to the Celestial Court, she was just about capable of remembering not to pick her nose in public and how to tie her own shoes.  It was all rather excessively complicated and overdone.

“Of course it is,” Jenbuka said when Aruna pointed this out.  “The totems tend to be every bit as pleased with themselves as any mortal lord.  They all used to be mortal, remember?  The only individuals who might be above such things are the three who occupy the big throne, and even they have picked up mannerisms and habits from watching humans all this time.  The thing you need to keep in mind is that even without direct control of his power, you are Lord Lopayzu’s proxy.  That means you are either superior or equal to nearly everyone you’ll see.  There are really only four tiers within the Court.  The Sun Goddess, the Moon Goddess, and the Sky God are on the top tier.  Right under them stand the four elementals.  The other clan totems are just below them, and everything else comprises the fourth tier.”

“Then why am I learning all of this stuff if I can basically make my own rules to some degree?” Aruna demanded.

“Because although you may technically be equal to the other clan totems, there’s still a social pecking order in place.  Some of the totems are more dominant in behavior than the others.  Lord Verku comes to mind—he’s a bit abrupt, but as long as you don’t directly challenge him on his own ground, he’s tolerable.  Lord Kwanu is similar in temperament, if a bit more approachable.  Lady Mayura is all right once she rearranges things in her own mind so that she’s the prettiest.  As a general rule of thumb, the totems who are tied to animals with pack structures will behave as one might expect a pack alpha to behave.  The totems whose animal followers are herd creatures are the same way, only to a slightly lesser degree.  The ‘predators’ tend to be more forceful and dominant than the ‘prey’.  All of the clan totems listen when one of the elementals chooses to speak, and even the elementals listen when one of the Three speaks.  When the Sun Goddess speaks, everyone listens—even the other two of the Three.”

“I think I can remember that,” Aruna mumbled.  “My clan’s reduced to two living members, and the real totem’s off somewhere else.  I don’t think I’ve got much of a position of power to work from.”

“Wrong,” Jenbuka said calmly.  “Every other totem respects the terrible sacrifice that Lord Lopayzu chose to make in order to help maintain the Pattern.  Every totem.  Even Lady Mayura will recognize that distinction.  Anyone who so much as says a disparaging word about you is likely going to have the entire Court turning on them.  They all saw how his lordship suffered as his clan was destroyed, and none of them will make light of that suffering.”

“I imagine the Raven totem’s a different story,” Aruna muttered.

“What gave you that idea?  If anything, Lord Kaykolu is going to be the first one to challenge anyone who dares insult you.”

“Why?”

“Do you think it made him feel at all good to know that his clan was the one destroying the Lopayzom?  He and Lord Lopayzu have been friends and playful rivals for a very long time.  The circumstances that stirred up the conflict were restricted to the mortal realm, Aruna.  It was Chieftain Iryasitru who chose to take out his grief and rage on the Lopayzom.  Lord Kaykolu, knowing the Pattern’s path, could not intervene.  Like the others, he had agreed to stand by and let it happen as it must.”  Jenbuka shook her head.  “No, he took no pleasure in what occurred.  The Goddess Herself had to reach out a hand to restrain him when he would have broken the agreement and put an end to the slaughter.”

Aruna blinked in astonishment.  “He was going to stop it, and the Goddess prevented him?”

“That’s what I just said.  It was almost shocking, given that he normally maintains a certain reserve and poise.  In the middle of Court, he rose to declare that he would not permit his children to slay the children of his friend any longer.  He truly was about to go forth and manifest himself to Chieftain Iryasitru and command that the slaying be halted immediately, and it was the Goddess who raised Her hand to stop him.”  Again, the vixen shook her head.  “No, he will not be your enemy, Aruna.  He suffers from deep guilt and feels that he owes the Lopayzom a great debt.”

“But he knew it had to happen,” she argued.

“That changes nothing, in Lord Kaykolu’s mind.  He feels that the ends have a great deal of work to do in order to justify the means.  He sees the larger picture, but he is also trapped by the details.  His children did kill Lord Lopayzu’s children.  Necessary or not, he feels that his clan, and he personally, are deeply shamed by such an act.”

That thought hung around in Aruna’s mind, distracting her slightly from the worst of the fussing by the dressmakers as she stood obediently still to let them measure and pin and tweak over the next two days.  It would not do for the mate of a totem to be clothed in anything less than the finest available.  About the only thing that really startled her away from her thoughts was being awakened on the morning of her first Court appearance by a familiar voice coming from an only partly-familiar figure.

“Rise and shine,” Jenbuka’s voice told her briskly as the curtains were pushed back to let light into the room.  Aruna sat in the middle of the heap of cushions and stared at the human figure that still wore a fox’s head and tail.

“Is that you, Jenbuka?” she asked in surprise.

“Of course it is.  Did you think I only had one form?”  The fox-woman stepped over and reached down to catch Aruna’s hands, tugging her up to her feet.  The vulpine head seemed odd atop the human shoulders, the line where one merged into the other covered by the ruff of red and cream fur.

“I didn’t think about it,” Aruna confessed as the vixen pushed her firmly toward the door which led to the bathhouse.

“Think about cleaning up instead,” Jenbuka advised her.  “You’ll want to be fresh and sparkling for your visit to Court.  I’ll help you get dressed.”  With a flick of her tail, the vixen went into Aruna’s dressing room.

Curiously, the young woman stopped in front of the mirror on the wall, reaching out to skim her fingers over the bright surface; she left no smear on the glass when she touched it.  “I want to see Lopayzu,” she whispered, uncertain of how this was really supposed to work.

For a moment, the bright, smooth surface reflected back to Aruna her own image and the surrounding room.  Then the images began to shimmer like reflections on a wind-ruffled pond.  They melted away, darkness filling the whole of the mirror.

A new picture took shape, focusing around a silvery point of light.  It grew closer, resolving itself into the form of the Fox-Lord.  He knelt before what appeared to be a mass grave, freshly dug.  Charred timbers here and there dotted the scorched area surrounding Lopayzu.

His long hair was pulled up in his customary topknot, but the bright strands looked tangled, slightly unkempt.  The once magnificent robes he wore were dirt- and soot-streaked; his head was bowed, his face showing evidence of crying.  His fluffy tail lay flat against the fire-scarred ground; it too looked as if he’d not taken much care of it since she’d watched him walk away.

She cried out softly, involuntarily, reaching out as if the mirror would open to let her touch him, comfort him.  The cold glass against her fingertips remained unyielding, and she bit her lip, watching him with silent anguish.

He did not move, sitting on his heels, his hands lying lax on his thighs, his hair spilling down over one slumped shoulder.  His ears were flattened against his head, his tail not even twitching as it lay on the battered ground in the dirt and ash.  His eyes were closed, but his face was not peaceful; it was twisted with his grief, as though he’d run out of tears but not out of the pain that had brought the tears in the first place.

“Yazkaru,” Aruna whispered, falling back automatically on the name that was most familiar to her.

“He can’t hear you,” Jenbuka said gently.  The fox-woman was standing in the doorway of the dressing room, watching with somewhat flattened ears and listless tail herself.

“We can’t do this!” Aruna burst out tearfully, staring at the image as her vision blurred.  “He’s in so much pain, and there’s nobody to comfort him!”

“It was the bargain, Aruna,” the vixen answered.  “Lord Lopayzu seemed to think it was fair enough—”

It’s not!” the mortal woman half-shrieked, and the wall actually shuddered as she smashed her fist into it; Jenbuka’s ears went flat back in surprise.  “It’s not fair!  Hasn’t he suffered enough?  He agreed to let his entire clan die with only two survivors left behind, he had to ignore the cries of the Lopayzom as they were murdered, all for the sake of this ever-precious Pattern, and what is he getting?  Fifty years wandering, with no comfort and no peace!”  She hit the wall again, and the image in the mirror actually shuddered as if the glass were actually water, disturbed by the tremors caused by Aruna’s blows.

“He knew what he was agreeing to,” Jenbuka replied softly, but there was an undercurrent in her voice that Aruna immediately latched onto.

No, he didn’t!  I saw his face when he came for me!  Look at him now, even—he didn’t know!  He had no idea what it was really going to be like!  He thought he understood what he was sacrificing, but it’s as different as just being told that a gut wound hurts, and actually having someone run a blade into your belly!”

“But he knew why he had to do it, Aruna.  He agreed to let it happen for the greater good, for the benefit of the many.”

At the top of her lungs, Aruna suggested that the “many” do something anatomically impossible to themselves, repeatedly, without benefit of lubrication, clergy, or chiropractic assistance.  Jenbuka stared at her, momentarily struck mute by the sheer scope of the vulgarity that the young woman had just used.

Ignoring the fox-woman’s shock, Aruna raged on.  “Anyone, anyone who looks at him now and can sanctimoniously spout things like ‘it’s for the greater good’ and ‘he knew what he was giving up’ without even a hint of doubt would have to be the most profoundly retarded crab louse living on the shriveled, disease-riddled gonads of the stupidest drooling half-blind village idiot in the entirety of creation!  He’s given up virtually everything that really mattered to him, and so far he’s gotten nothing but agony in return!  Is this how the Goddess repays someone for such a sacrifice?”

“Spirits see time differently,” Jenbuka tried, and was cut off short.

Oh, really?  Aruna pointed a shaking finger at the image.  “Is he ‘seeing time differently’ right now?  Or is he feeling every minute, every second like boiling brine being scoured across his flayed flesh with a wire brush?”

“He realized that there would be a span of time that would be painful for him, but he accepted that, knowing that it would pass,” the vixen replied, and felt like biting down on her own tongue.  It really did sound so stupid, empty platitudes being mouthed as if they actually meant something, as if they could change the fact that Lopayzu was suffering an agony that transcended any mortal pain.

“We keep coming right back to the fact that when he agreed to this, he had no idea what it was actually going to be like for him!”  Aruna hit the wall yet again.  “If I were a more selfish person, I’d point out that I had my husband, whom I loved with all my heart and soul, killed in this stupid war, and saw the rest of my clan—my family and my friends—slaughtered around me, and finally died myself without even knowing if I’d accomplished anything worthwhile . . . and now I’m forced to remain apart from the man I love when he needs me the most!

Jenbuka took refuge in the eternal tradition of vassals, advisors, and servants who were on the receiving end of far too much venom; she passed the buck.  “My lady, I can see how much this wounds you and my lord, but in truth, it is not I that you should be convincing.  I was not the one who set the rules for this bargain.  If the Goddess will grant you a private audience, perhaps you may convince Her to relax the strictures.”

“I’ll do that,” Aruna said through her teeth.  She looked one last time at the heartbreaking sight of her beloved, kneeling and mourning over the grave that held the last of his people—save two—and then turned on her heel and stormed into the bathing chamber.  With a silent sigh of relief, Jenbuka watched the mirror go blank, then become nothing more than a reflecting glass again.

If I survive this Court, the vixen thought grimly, I’m going to treat myself to a short visit to the mortal realm and see if there are still people in Aizhou who know how to brew real alcohol.  I need a drink.

 

Rather than riding on Jenbuka’s back, this time Aruna was seated in a graceful, light-looking two-wheeled carriage, drawn by a pair of white foxes that were even larger than Jenbuka.  Still in that strange, part-human form, Jenbuka sat beside Aruna on the comfortably cushioned seat; her garments were simple, even severe, when compared to Aruna’s highly ornamented appearance.

“All of this should weigh more than it really does,” the Lopayzom grumbled after they’d been traveling for a while, smoothing a fold of her long sleeve before reaching up to tug one of the silk tassels that swung from the splendid coronet she wore.  For once, her hair was behaving itself, drawn back from her face in a sleek, elegant style.

“Aren’t you glad it doesn’t?” Jenbuka inquired.

“Well, of course, but it’s just . . . strange.  I’m wearing about forty yards or so of silk, brocade, and satin, ten pounds of precious metal, and who knows how many gemstones—and I feel as though I’m hardly wearing anything more than a night robe.”

“One gets used to it.”

“I’m not really complaining,” Aruna was quick to say.  “I’m quite happy that everything’s so light and easy to wear.”

“I would hope so.”

“If I ever tried wearing this much in the mortal realm, I’d . . .  Her words trailed off as her mouth fell open.  Jenbuka was hardly startled; most spirits, mortal or otherwise, had that sort of reaction upon first seeing the Palace of Heaven.  She had seen it hundreds of times herself, and it still had some of that effect on her.

There simply weren’t words to describe it adequately.  It was like a place seen in a dream, composed of silver mist, pale jade, and pure sunlight.  There was nothing about it that was not perfectly in harmony with the rest of the structure, and it was nestled into a sprawl of gardens like handfuls of brightly-colored jewels scattered from a playful hand.  It looked so fragile, as if a good breeze would blow it away, and yet there was a sense of permanence, of a place more solid than any fortress of granite and iron.

In the infancy of the world, the Goddess Herself had been as a child, and She had played with Her pale sister in those gardens, the most beautiful ever made.  There had been no palace then, for as a child, She gave no thought to such a thing.  Later, when She agreed to wed the Sky God and established the Celestial Court, She had looked about those perfect gardens, heart singing with love for Her new husband and those who had become Her children, and, with a thought, created the Palace of Heaven.

Or so Jenbuka had been told.  That was a bit before her time.  When she came to the Celestial Realm to enter her father’s service, Lopayzu had been living in what amounted to a very large, somewhat smelly hole dug into the side of a hill.  He’d seen nothing wrong with the situation; as he explained it, the early humans were still dwelling in caves, and of course foxes had always made such dens to raise their young in, so having something of that sort was surely appropriate.  Jenbuka had kept at him for over a hundred years until he finally changed the literal hole in the ground into a proper house, which had evolved gradually with time to its present form.  No doubt it would change again in the future, as the mortal realm discovered new building techniques and new styles came into fashion.

The fox-spirit was distracted from her reminiscence as the carriage came to a smooth halt before the great doors of the Palace.  Aruna was a bit pale, obviously nervous, and the vixen comfortingly patted the hands clenched in the woman’s lap before descending from the carriage and turning to help her down.  Aruna wobbled slightly as she stepped onto the smooth surface of deep green jade that served as flagstones and flooring.  There were no guards at the huge entryway—at least, no visible guards—but the double doors, plated with polished silver, swung open silently before them nevertheless.  The hallway beyond was softly illuminated by some light that filtered through the pale green jade of the walls, and a long golden runner formed a pathway down the center of the hall.

“There are four entries into the Palace,” Jenbuka murmured, hoping to ease some of Aruna’s nervousness with what amounted to simple trivia.  “They correspond to the secondary compass points.  Each opens into a hall like this one.”

“There aren’t any side doors,” Aruna noted.  “I mean, no rooms opening off this hallway.”

“Not at the moment, no.  If extra chambers are needed, they appear, with whatever contents are required—tables, chairs, couches, refreshments—and when there’s no longer a need for the rooms, they disappear again.”

“Convenient.”

“Quite.”

Another pair of doors rose before them, somewhat smaller and less overwhelming than the entrance portal; Aruna found that she was breathing so shallowly and so quickly that she was becoming lightheaded.  Jenbuka gripped her upper arm to stop her in her tracks.

“Breathe,” the vixen advised.  “Relax.”

“What’s going to happen?” Aruna whispered, staring at the doors, twisting her hands nervously in front of her.

“The Court has been in session for a short while already, handling minor matters.  When you enter, everyone’s attention is going to be on you.  Your identity will be announced, and someone will escort you to Lord Lopayzu’s regular place.  I’ll be with you, just a few steps behind, so don’t worry.  The important thing to do right away, in the very first moments after the doors open, is pick something stable to look at.  The floor, the ceiling, the Throne, something like that.  The Court can be overwhelming at first, and you’re still mortal enough that it could literally shock you senseless if you allow it.  And don’t try to count noses!  Every clan totem is sitting in there, and the gallery level is probably crowded with lesser spirits.  You’ll have time to look around and take it all in after you’re seated.”

“What happens after I sit down?”

“Things will move on to the important matters,” Jenbuka said cryptically.  She eyed Aruna up and down, smoothed and tweaked her robe slightly, and nodded.  “Ready?”

“I think I’m going to throw up,” the girl admitted faintly.

“No, you’re not.  Let’s go.”

The doors ahead were plated in gold, rather than silver, and a pattern of lotus blossoms had been etched into the surface.  Aruna, stepping up to them, thought that was rather pretty.

Then the doors opened, and she stopped thinking entirely for a moment.

The first impression was color and movement.  Recalling Jenbuka’s advice, she fixed her gaze straight ahead, toward the center of the huge chamber.  Her eyes nearly watered at the intense light that emanated from that center point, but it was a steady, unwavering glow that didn’t churn and ripple the way the other colors and lights did at the edges of her vision.  The floor was inlaid with ray-like bars of different shades of yellow in varying widths; the ceiling appeared to be made entirely out of glass or crystal, shimmering with rainbow facets that framed the clear sky above.

She caught the very tail end of some introduction, hearing only her own name, spoken in a rich, feminine voice.  Keeping her pace fairly slow and dignified, she walked forward into the vast open space.

The light seemed to resolve itself as she approached, and Aruna found herself looking directly into the face of the Goddess.

She was beautiful, in a way that had both nothing and everything to do with bone structure and symmetry.  Even this close, it was hard to make out Her exact features, aside from the brilliant, pupil-less golden glow of Her eyes.  Her hair was very long, rippling in waves down over Her shoulders, varying from a pale blond at the crown of Her head all the way down to a dark sunset-red at the ends of the tresses.  If She were standing, that amazing hair would likely brush the floor.  Sitting, it pooled around Her chair and feet, almost merging with the pale golden mist that wreathed Her in lieu of any gown made of cloth and thread.  Her skin, too, was a pale gold, and She glowed with that warm, steady light; Aruna could feel the heat on her face and hands, a gentle, soothing heat.

She sat upon a dais unlike any Aruna had ever seen in the mortal realm.  Carved of white jade, it had been fashioned to resemble an immense lotus blossom; the Throne itself couldn’t be seen, between Her light and Her rippling hair.

On one side of Her sat a man as dark as She was radiant.  His hair was long, but had been brushed behind his shoulders and Aruna couldn’t see exactly how long it really was.  She could clearly see that it was black, so black that it drew in even the Goddess’s light, and flecked with silver.  Not from age, she saw at once, but because his hair reflected the depths of night, spangled with tiny stars.  In contrast, his eyes were a heartbreakingly perfect blue.  He wore black, including a long cloak, but a glimpse of the cloak lining seemed to show a swirling dark grey.  A golden circlet held a gleaming dark gem at his brow.

To the other side of the Goddess sat a young woman who shared the same sort of indistinct, yet beautiful, features.  Her hair and eyes were silver instead of gold, braided and beribboned in an elaborate coiffure, and she wore a silvery gown that seemed fairly substantial, glittering with pearls and diamonds.  In her lap lay an oval mirror, which currently reflected only the bright glow of the Goddess.

Aruna knew them, of course—or at least, knew who they had to be.  The man in black was the Goddess’s Consort, the Sky embodied.  The girl in silver was the Goddess’s younger sister, the Moon.

It didn’t require any thought or prompting to sink into the deepest genuflection she could manage, bowing her head, the silken tassels on the coronet swinging gently against her cheeks.  From the corner of one eye, she glimpsed Jenbuka, who was also showing profound respect for the Three who occupied the dais.

“Rise, Lady Aruna,” came that beautiful feminine voice again, and Aruna straightened slowly, lifting her eyes back to the dazzling figure.  “You have Our deepest thanks and sympathy for the sacrifice which your people have made for the sake of all.”  The words sounded stilted, almost formulaic, but Aruna was looking directly into the pools of sunlight that formed the eyes of the Goddess, and she knew that as formal as the words were, the Goddess was sincere.  Swallowing hard, she bowed her head again in acknowledgement, not trusting her voice.

“Please, take your seat,” She said gently.

Aruna darted a quick glance around, and was saved from having to try to focus on anything by the approach of a tall, dark figure.

He was very tall, at least Lopayzu’s height, and seemed even taller thanks to the rather quaint hat he wore.  It had a long, wide brim, pointed and curving downward at the front edge, shadowing his face.  He wore a cloak that looked black at first, but shimmered with fascinating iridescence—green, blue, purple—and his dark hair flowed in waves over his shoulders.  He came to a halt in front of her, pushing the brim of the hat back to reveal fair skin and very dark eyes with long, thick lashes.  This close, she could see that the cloak wasn’t fabric.  It was made of feathers.

Raven feathers.

Aruna felt the first stirrings of rage and hatred and no small amount of fear, until she actually met that dark gaze.  Lord Kaykolu looked very nearly as agonized and sorrowful as Lopayzu had looked, and he could not seem to meet her eyes directly for more than a moment.

With a graceful flick of one hand to sweep the cloak out of the way, he knelt in front of her, which caused a ripple of gasps and murmurs from the otherwise hushed assemblage.  Even though they went quiet again, obviously trying to hear what he said, he spoke so softly that Aruna was surely the only person who actually heard him.

“I am sorry,” he whispered in a voice ragged with emotion.  “I am so sorry, Lady Aruna.”

Her heart clenched at the grief-stricken, profoundly shamed sound of his voice.  Jenbuka hadn’t been exaggerating; Kaykolu truly was suffering from what his clan had done to the Lopayzom.  Before she even thought about what she was doing, she dropped down onto her knees as well.  “I forgive you,” she answered, looking again into those tormented dark eyes.  “Lopayzu explained it to me.  It had to happen.  I wish that it hadn’t, but blaming you for it won’t make anything better.”

The Raven drew a deep, shuddering breath and tentatively held out a hand, palm-up; Aruna laid her own hand in his.  “You ease my mind, Lady Aruna, but even your forgiveness cannot erase my guilt.  Though it will not make up for what I had to do to my friend, I will stand as your protector if you will permit me.  Any who dare to offend or threaten you will answer to me.  You have my word.”

She nodded a little, and let him draw her to her feet as he rose.  He inclined his head respectfully toward the Throne, then laid Aruna’s hand on his forearm and escorted her across the huge chamber.  She felt a moment of panic as the fixed point of the Throne left her field of vision, but Kaykolu guided her easily, and her eyes began to focus on what was ahead of her.

The first thing she thought of as she distinguished the shapes was a household shrine—a square alcove, but this was not recessed into the wall.  Rather, it had been set against the wall like a booth in a good inn’s dining room, with its own side walls, floor set about two feet above the actual floor of the chamber with a small step up, and a sort of roof.  More such cubicles ranged on either side of it, fitting tightly together.  It was perhaps ten or fifteen feet square, the walls draped in fox furs and swags of silk in the familiar shades of crimson, cream, red-orange, and white.  The floor of it was carpeted with more fox furs and piled with cushions in the clan colors.  Above the open front, a small square flag hung, embroidered with the Lopayzom crest.

Kaykolu remained beside her, letting her brace her hand on his arm as she stepped up into the sort of miniature chamber, and bowed his head once more before moving away.  Jenbuka stepped up and took up a position not far behind Aruna, waiting for the mortal to sit and make herself comfortable before she did the same.  Aruna managed not to collapse onto the pillows, but only just.  She busied herself by smoothing out the material of her gown before she dared to lift her head and look out again into the great chamber.

The first thing that really caught her eye—beside the breathtaking form of the Throne and its occupants, at least—was a cubicle on the far side of the room.  It was at least twice the size of those around it, and rather than polished wood, the walls seemed to be made of fine pale-blue stone with water sheeting down its face.  The colors were white and shades of blue; the occupant was a man who sat with his legs folded tailor-fashion, garbed in azure and silver.  His hair fell past his shoulders and it was white, striped with black—literally striped, not streaked as a human’s hair might be, and even from this distance his eyes were the most perfect shade of blue she’d ever seen.

Aruna stared at the Tiger-Prince, the Lord of Water, Master of the West, and felt a strange deep calm wash over her as he gazed back.  One of his hands rested on the broad, furred skull of the massive tiger that sprawled beside him, its head lying in his lap as if it were a housecat, eyes squeezed shut in contentment as its master scratched behind its ears.  She tore her gaze away and tried to focus on the other totems who occupied places along the wall to either side of the Tiger.

Kaykolu had taken a seat in one of those cubicles; his cushions were black and white and a deep steel-grey, the walls hung with swags of silk in the same colors.  Farther along the wall, a woman with shimmering white hair, startlingly black brows, and the most graceful neck Aruna had ever seen smiled gently at the mortal.  She wore white, and indeed her surroundings seemed at first glance to be starkly white as well, but Aruna looked long enough that she could discern different, subtle variations.  Not just pure snow-white, but bone-white, ivory, and pale cream.  There was a sense of deep, profound serenity about the woman, who could surely only be Haesa, the Swan.

A bit further along the wall to the northern side, Aruna’s gaze was caught by a pair of eyes that nearly matched her own for color.  The man was tall and heavily muscled, lounging in a sort of barbaric splendor among polished trophy skulls and thick-furred pelts.  Though he was as elegantly clothed as his fellows, there was a sense that he would be much more at home in simpler leather garments; his face was long and strong-boned, every strand of his long nearly-black iron-grey hair tipped with a lighter shade that created an almost silvery sheen.  The color carried over to the alert ears and brushy tail that he sported, and a huge wolf sat beside him with an almost aloof air.  Lord Verku cocked an ear, and Aruna blushed, realizing that he’d easily caught her staring.

The more she looked around this most unique of Courts, the more surreal it all became.  Everywhere she looked, she saw what would first appear to be a perfectly normal lord or lady, clothed in the most elegant and luxurious garments—and then the animal features would become evident.

The androgynous, sensual creature who lay indolently on a lavish divan, black hair shaped into a complex style, swags of silk wrapping the upper body and jeweled ornaments glittering from wrists, fingers, neck, ears, and tresses, had vertical-slit pupils in solidly green eyes, and the graceful torso melded seamlessly into a long, powerful serpent-body at the waist, its coils shifting and sliding.  A stunningly beautiful woman with bronze hair and a dazzling smile wore the blues, greens, and golds of a peacock’s tail—including the tail itself, an opulent spill of feathers that flowed behind her like a train as she sat in her little pavilion.  A lithe, smiling young man sprawled in the midst of three or four pretty, buxom girls, the long velvety ears of a rabbit perking from the artfully tousled locks of his hair.  A truly huge man, so powerfully muscled and broad-shouldered that even his well-tailored clothes looked too tight on his frame, sat with his chin propped on one large hand, elbow on one knee, as if the great curving bull-horns adorning his head were almost too heavy for his thick neck alone to support.

But seeing the Tiger-Prince had prompted her to look around for his equals, and she had very little trouble actually finding them.  Jenbuka’s words about the arrangement of the court came back to her, and she looked first to the north.

The largest pavilion at that side of the room seemed constructed of smooth-polished dark-green stone.  Small, exquisitely shaped trees occupied delicate pots in each corner, and the floor appeared to actually be carpeted in lush, living grass.  The man who sat comfortably in this charming little pavilion was dressed nicely enough, quite clean and sporting a well-groomed chin-beard and long drooping moustaches, but given that he seemed to virtually personify the squinty-eyed, gap-toothed, balding, leering, “dirty old man” of the sort that Aruna’s father had warned her to keep well away from.  For a moment, he looked to actually have a hunched back, but then she realized that he was wearing a well-polished set of partial armor that covered his shoulders and back in a smoothly domed layer of tortoiseshell.  Old Man Kaurmathu, the Tortoise-Prince, the Ruler of Earth and Master of the North, grinned broadly at Aruna and roguishly winked one startlingly young emerald eye.

She looked to the south, and immediately saw what she was hoping to see.  This pavilion either had the most elaborate drapery of breeze-stirred silk on its interior, or it really did have true, living flames licking across the walls and ceiling in long, rippling waves.  Given that the polished jade of the floor was glowing with color in front of the pavilion, the latter was evidently true.  The woman who sat inside was clothed in reds and golds, the long trailing sleeves embroidered and cut to suggest wings; she had luxurious red hair, the strands tipped and streaked with gold, bound up in an elegant coiffure.  Long, slender, vibrantly-colored feathers swept out behind her from the back of her head, trailing to the floor of her pavilion, and her long nails were exquisitely manicured.  Her eyes were large and clear, the color of flawless rubies; Aruna had once seen an albino who’d had red eyes, and had always thought that the effect was eerie.  On Houtha the Phoenix-Princess, the Eternal Flame, Mistress of the South, the scarlet eyes looked quite natural.  Rather than the translucent pink-red of the albino’s eyes, hers had far more depth and a richness of color, like a fine wine.

Aruna realized that since she was sitting in the eastern quarter of the room, she was going to have a lot of trouble seeing the fourth elemental, but no sooner had she thought of it than a most startling creature poked its head around the edge of her pavilion.  It was no bigger than a housecat, but shone and sparkled like a thing made entirely out of precious stones, and it blinked huge bright eyes at her as it bowed gracefully.  “My mistress requests the pleasure of your presence, Lady Fox,” the miniature dragon said in a high, sweet voice, reminiscent of a flute’s song.

Aruna looked around, worried that responding to the command might be some breach of protocol, but it appeared that the court was going into a sort of temporary recess; some of the totems were leaving their own cubicles to visit with others, just as any group of nobles might do.  She nodded hesitantly and rose, following the small creature with Jenbuka trailing behind her at a polite distance.

The pavilion it led her to seemed to have walls hung with near-transparent silks, rippling and moving over pale golden marble.  Derkonta, the Dragon-Princess, Ruler of the Winds and Mistress of the East, wore clothing that was primarily gold in color as one might expect, but was accented with other brilliant colors that made her look as if she were swathed entirely in jewels.  Her hair was a light reddish-blonde, almost a coppery hue, and her eyes were a pale yellow like sunlight through a perfect topaz.

“I’m glad to see that Lopayzu’s finally chosen to settle down,” the Dragon murmured as Aruna rose from her deep obeisance.  “And such an excellent choice of mate, as well.  I am pleased to welcome you among us, Lady Aruna.”

“I-I am honored,” the young woman stammered slightly.  “I never dreamed that this would be happening to me.”

“Well, he never did tell you who he really was, did he?” Derkonta remarked pragmatically.  “Indeed, I believe he’d started to forget who he really was, too.  If Kaykolu hadn’t taken the necessary steps, things might have gone awry rather badly.”

Aruna blinked uncomprehendingly.  “My lady?”

“Oh, you didn’t know?  Kaykolu kept trying to remind Lopayzu where his duties lay, but Lopayzu had run into the problem that so many do when they take on the flesh for an extended period of time and get deeply involved with mortals.  He was forgetting that he’d ever been anyone or anything other than the man you married.  But he still had all of his skill, and none of the mortal swordsmen who were likely to encounter him could hope to best him.  Kaykolu finally had to take on flesh himself and confront Lopayzu.”

The young woman went pale, staring at the Dragon, one hand coming up to her mouth.  “He . . . he did what?”

There was a gentle compassion in the cool, assessing stare of the elemental’s eyes.  “Kaykolu struck down the being you knew as Yazkaru—though the Raven’s mortal body took a fatal wound as well.”

“His clan killed mine—and he personally killed my husband?”  Aruna’s voice was somehow empty; she felt light and shaky with shock.

“He had to,” Derkonta said gently.  “There are few even in Heaven who can successfully duel Lopayzu.  Kaykolu succeeded only because he knows Lopayzu so well, and because he had none of the instinct for self-preservation that mortals have.  Lopayzu had been in the flesh long enough that he’d developed that instinct.  He wasn’t prepared to fight someone who had absolutely no fear of death.”

“He killed my husband,” Aruna whispered.

“Are you listening to me?” Derkonta asked, a trace of impatience in her tone.  “He had to.  If he didn’t, one of the rest of us would have done it.  Kaykolu is your husband’s closest friend.  Everything that’s happened to the Lopayzom at the hands of the Kaykolom has happened only because of the agreement that was made when the inevitable shape of the Pattern became apparent.  There is no ‘Yazkaru’ as you knew him.  He was an anomaly, a means to an end, and he could not be allowed to continue on.  There was too much risk involved in letting Lopayzu remain in the flesh and continue to fight for his clan.  He’s simply too powerful.  It’s not terribly overstating things to say that he could have won the war single-handedly.  Kaykolu did what had to be done to ensure that the sacrifice of the Lopayzom wasn’t wasted.”

Aruna looked over her shoulder.  In his pavilion at the far side of the chamber, Kaykolu sat gazing at nothing, his expression smooth and contrasting sharply with his tormented eyes.

“Kaykolu freed Lopayzu from the bonds of the flesh,” the Dragon said patiently.  “Although he was deeply saddened that he had to leave you and his son behind, Lopayzu was not angry at the Raven for ‘killing’ him.  He was relieved that the design had not been ruined by his own mistake.  He had not intended to linger so long—he had planned only to sire a son and return to Heaven.”

The young woman stared at the spirit, wide-eyed.  “Are you saying,” she began very carefully, “that Lopayzu only came to the mortal realm to get someone pregnant and then he was going to leave?”

“That was the original plan, I believe,” Derkonta agreed, idly scratching her jawline with long gilded nails.  “You’ll notice that that isn’t the way it turned out, however.”

“I’m going to throttle him.”

“What for?  You won, remember?”  Derkonta’s expression remained downright innocent as Aruna shot a startled glance at her.  “Whatever his intentions were, you changed his mind.  The fact that you’re here now is evidence enough of that.  Lopayzu actually married you in the mortal realm, and he’s chosen you as his consort.”

“He lied to me,” she insisted.

“No, he didn’t.  He just didn’t tell you what his original intentions were.  A sin of omission, perhaps, but he didn’t lie to you.  The boy’s miserable enough without having you biting his head off for something that didn’t actually happen.  He fell in love with you and wound up jeopardizing all the arrangements because he didn’t want to leave you.”

Aruna bit her lip.  “I know he’s miserable,” she whispered.  “I saw him in the mirror.  This isn’t fair!  Hasn’t he suffered through enough already without being separated from me for fifty years?”

“You could take it up with Her,” Derkonta suggested, nodding slightly in the direction of the throne.

“How do I do that?  I can’t just walk up and open a conversation, can I?”

“Not really, no.”  The Princess made a small gesture with one hand, and Jenbuka stepped up to Aruna’s shoulder.  “But you can dispatch your retainer there to ask for a private audience.”

The mortal looked hesitantly at the fox-woman.  “Will you . . . ?”

“Of course,” Jenbuka answered, bowing slightly and turning to approach the Throne.

“You’re not very accustomed to command,” Derkonta observed.  “Most would have issued that as an order, not a request.”

“I was the Swordsmaster’s daughter, not the chieftain’s,” Aruna muttered.  “Asking is more polite.”  She looked sharply at the Dragon.  “Why did he pick me?  Out of all the girls in the clan, why me?”

“I’m not at all certain that he actually had any sort of decision made,” the Dragon answered dryly.  “He tends to think on his feet rather than making anything resembling a rational plan of action.  Though given what we’ve managed to pick out of the Pattern, it would seem that a warrior’s needed.  You are the product of generation after generation of Lopayzom Swordsmasters.  Swordsmanship’s literally in your blood.  I don’t know if Lopayzu consciously chose a mate who would pass on that sort of bone-deep heritage to his son, or if it had more to do with seeing you, wearing nothing but a bedazzled expression and a sheen of water, in the hot springs.”

Aruna blushed furiously; even the tips of her ears felt hot.  How do you know about that?!

“Don’t be dense.  I was watching.  Several of us were watching, in fact.”  She nodded slightly toward the Silver Maiden who occupied one side of the Throne.  “It was a full moon, remember?  Her Mirror was showing us everything quite clearly.”

The girl slumped down onto the floor of the pavilion, her skin feeling as if it were going to sear off from the heat of her embarrassment.  “You all saw that?!”

“Mm-hm.  Quite an interesting way to introduce yourself, by the way.  It’s not terribly uncommon in a few other clans, but I didn’t know that the Fox chose to make romantic overtures by beating each other up.”

“I wasn’t making a romantic overture!  He made a rude comment and I was paying him back for it!”

“Oh, yes.  Which is why you were grinning and giggling and, I surmise, greatly enjoying the opportunity to touch him as much as possible.”

She sat mutely, well aware that the Dragon was silently laughing at her, and watched as Jenbuka bowed deeply before the Goddess and began to speak to that radiant presence.

“He’s a gorgeous thing, I’ll admit,” Derkonta remarked casually.  “And there’s just something so endearing about his combination of physical magnificence and little-boy charm.  That’s part of what lets him get away with virtually anything, I think.”  She tilted her head.  “Well, that and the fact that he’s simply spectacular in bed.  Mayura didn’t even stay angry at him for very long after he seduced her and then made off with her favorite necklace.  She evidently thinks she got at least fair value.”  The Dragon nodded toward the stunningly beautiful woman with the bronze hair and the peacock feathers, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Aruna was choking a bit at the bluntness of the Princess’s words.

“Have you and he . . . ?” she finally managed.

“He tried, but my attention was elsewhere at the time.”  The corners of Derkonta’s lips curled upward.  “So he disguised himself, of course . . .”

Aruna almost put her hands over her ears to block out the details.  “Are there any women in the Court that he hasn’t slept with?” she demanded.

“Jealousy is unbecoming, dear.  He wasn’t mated, and neither were his conquests in the Court.”

“What about the mortal conquests?”

“That’s a bit of a different matter.  He’s got a soft heart—and a soft head—where unhappily married ladies are concerned.”  The Dragon glanced at her.  “Don’t be a silly girl.  You won.  If it helps stop you from getting angry or weepy at the sight of any female here in Heaven, keep that fact permanently in mind.  No matter how many flings Lopayzu’s indulged in, you’re the one he chose for his consort.  Besides, his affairs may have been numerous, but he’s been a cloistered monk compared to Shashu.”  She nodded in the direction of the young man with the rabbit ears, who was being fed grapes by his giggling bevy of maidens.  “You’d think that every bed he ever visited had a catapult in it, given how he bounces around.  Incidentally, whenever you speak with him, I’d keep Jenbuka quite close until you’ve changed enough to be able to hold some of Lopayzu’s power yourself.  A subtle reminder that you’re a fox ought to make our amorous rabbit mind his step.  Hm.  I’m sure that Jenbuka’s given you an outline of the situation, but perhaps I ought to fill in some details about my illustrious fellow spirits . . .”

Jenbuka’s access to Court gossip was quite reasonable, but Derkonta’s was mind-numbing in its scope and volume.  Aruna was beginning to wonder if there was anything that the Dragon didn’t know about her fellow spirits by the time the fox-woman returned from the Throne.