First chapter, y'all, hot off the keyboard.
The lion-dogs were playing in the clearing when Kini arrived at the shrine. The two rock-gray puppies tumbled through the drifts of early autumn leaves, more intent on chasing a red-winged flit than paying Kini any mind. Their thick curly manes were tangled with sticks and bits of leaves, and their pink tongues lolled. They weren’t much higher than her knees, about the size of small stone guardians.
That seemed fitting. It was a rather small shrine, after all.
Well, then. Her sister had said if the dogs were around, then the huokei would be, too. Kini shuffled through the rain-damp leaves, kicking them aside to find the stepping stones that marked the proper path. The shrine itself wasn't much bigger than the moss-eaten idol it housed, and it listed precariously to one side. Its roof-shingles were green from weeds taken root, and the carved doors hung askew on their rotting wooden hinges.
Behind and to one side lay the monk-house, now a jumble of rotting wood and broken roof-tiles. In the clearing's other corner stood the mountain-god’s home, a fancy term for little more than a hut on stilts. In Sizija, it was a mansion in its own right, three rooms only ever seen by the mountain-god and its attendants. Here, it was one room, maybe not even big enough for one person to sleep. No wonder the mountain-god had been so happy to move to the big shrine.
Huokei were shy, preferred solitude, and would play nasty tricks if they felt disrespected, but this huokei had been injured. The big shrine at Sizija would've given it proper hospitality, but that was two miles away. The two rooms in their house were already crammed with five children and three adults, so that wasn't an option, either. The only choice left was this forgotten shrine-yard, with the benefit that it was closer to where Sozu found the huokei. To Kini's mind, though, the shrine's solitude lay solely in being abandoned. She wasn't sure it qualified as being respectful to offer what no one else wanted.
Kini sighed. Now she was stuck delivering the offerings. She was about to slide her pack off when movement in the corner of her eye made her look up. In all her life, she'd never seen the doors opened to the mountain-god’s home. Now, not only were they open, someone sat in the doorway, too. Watching her.
Startled, Kini ducked her head, fighting the urge to back up several steps. When several heartbeats passed and she didn’t hear it approach— or run away— she raised her head a little. She could see its feet, both bare. One ankle and heel was bound in rough cloth. Sozu’s handiwork. The huokei's shins were wrapped in dark gaiters of some stiff material, shining dully in the dappled sunlight. The leg with the bound ankle was propped before the huokei on the hut’s little porch. The other leg hung down, brown toes planted in the beaten dirt.
Still no sound from the huokei. Kini took a deep breath, raising her gaze further, trying to look without being obvious. She kept her hands folded, hoping that passed for respect, even as she strained to see as much as she could. The huokei sat leaning forward, weight on its arms like she’d caught it in the act of hoisting itself off the god-house’s raised porch. Sozu hadn't said whether looking it in the eye was dangerous, so Kini studied its sleeves instead. They weren't wide enough to hold anything, strangely, and they were wrinkled up at the wrist, covering the huokei’s hand almost to the fingertips. The jacket-robe hung unbound and baggy. The skirt was long enough to drape over the huokei’s lowered leg.
Perhaps huokei got hand-me-down robes from older huokei, like she did from Sozu. The cloth, black in the doorway's shadow, revealed itself a deep green in the spots of sunlight. The color reminded her of deep water in a creek, in the shade; somewhere between green, gray, and brown.
Kini shifted her weight, not sure of the etiquette but getting tired of waiting. “Hello,” she said, right as the dogs burst back into the clearing. She had to raise her voice to hear herself over their excited tussling. “I’m Kini, Sozu’s sister. She told you I’d be coming, right? Sozu made you dumplings.” Slowly she brought the pack around to point at it, her gaze never leaving the huokei’s knees. “See?”
The huokei said nothing. Kini felt like a fool.
“I meant, there are dumplings in here. Obviously this is my pack, not a dumpling.” Kini tensed, waiting for a swirl of wind or a roll of thunder down the mountain. When nothing happened, she dared more. “I’d leave it here, but you see, Sozu told me to check your ankle. And your neck. Don’t play any tricks on me for that, alright? I don’t take care of you properly, Sozu will kill me.” Kini raised her head, adding with a smile, “you wouldn’t want her to…”
Her breath caught as the huokei leaned forward, bringing its face into a patch of sunlight. Its skin was the warm brown-gold of harvest fields, with wide, deep-set eyes under straight dark brows. Its nose was broad and tilted-up at the end, its lips wide and full and almost downturned at the edges, giving it a sulky look. All of Kini’s note-taking scattered at sight of the huokei’s markings. A dark line ran beneath each eye from temple almost to nose, a second line below it from temple but stopping at midpoint. From those shorter horizontal lines, three vertical scores ran down the outsides of the huokei’s face, ending with a gentle curve that echoed the huokei’s jaw. A tailed-dot sat above each of the huokei's thick brows, just above where the brows might curl when perplexed or angry.
Next to those distinctive marks it was almost unsurprising to see the huokei’s night-black hair was tangled curls, streaked with silver and reaching past its elbows. If the huokei were human, she’d have guessed it at a handful of years younger than herself. Seventeen at the most, but only the village’s eldest grandmother was that grey. The stories said huokei could live for centuries. Did huokei age slowly, too? She couldn’t recall.
The lion-dogs circled back from around the monk-house ruins, one shoving the other through a pile of leaves. The huokei clicked its tongue, startling her. The two dogs wagged their tails and settled down at its feet. Kini braced herself and took a step forward, hoping to remind the huokei of her good purposes. “I need to look at your ankle.”
The huokei glanced back at her, nodded, and carried through its halted motion. It put its injured foot down and came upright.
“No,” Kini cried and hurried forward, waving frantically. Sozu was going to throttle her. “Stay off it!”
There was no doubt the huokei understood. It gave Kini a wry look and just the barest roll of its eyes, and settled back into place.
Torn between apologizing and being annoyed, Kini set her pack on the god-house’s porch, tugging at the tight knot as cover for her failure to manage a polite greeting. “Sozu says if you don't let it heal now, it might never heal right." Inside the pack were two smaller bundles. She opened one, offering it to the huokei: three puffy dumplings. The huokei was still for a moment, then took the bundle. Its fingers barely brushed her hands, but the touch was enough to assure her that huokei were as warm as any human. For some reason, she'd been expecting its touch to be like snowfall.
“After I check your ankle, I’ll make tea.” She considered trekking up to the creek, then dismissed that. The huokei might be gone when she returned, or worse, try to follow. “I’ll use the shrine well. I don’t think the mountain-god would mind the sharing, do you? Unless that’s now you, in which case I guess you wouldn’t mind sharing with yourself. Would you?”
Well, if she wanted to prove the very level-headed Sozu had a younger sister with cracked brains, she couldn’t have done a better job. Kini forced herself to keep going, refusing to acknowledge the huokei’s raised brows.
“Is your voice any better? Have you been drinking Sozu’s tea every morning?” She paused, and the huokei merely stared at her, in the middle of tearing a dumpling in half. She waited, but the huokei only sniffed the contents, then clicked its tongue. The lion-dogs leapt forward, shoving each other in joyful excitement. The huokei waited until the dogs settled down to feed them the dumpling-halves.
When the huokei’s long fingers carefully picked up the second dumpling, Kini shook herself from her fascination and tapped her fingers against the huokei's swathed ankle. For a moment she thought the huokei had frowned at her, then it sighed around a mouthful of dumpling and raised its foot. Kini sat on the porch’s edge beside the huokei, helping it lay its leg across her lap. "What is this?" She poked at a metal tube running along the outside of the gaiter. "How do you get this off?”
The huokei snorted and leaned forward, gold-brown fingers appearing beyond the overlong jacket sleeve. It grasped the black tube, twisted, and with a soft click the item sprang free. It looked almost like the long knives gentlewomen wore for self-defense, but it had no bisecting seam to indicate where hilt met sheath. It had vertical seams running the length, but before she could ask or even reach for it, the thing was gone. A soft clunk told her it had been set down on the huokei's other side.
"Fine," she muttered as she figured out the gaiter’s little buckles, undoing it and setting it aside. "All Sozu does is lecture me and then yell at me when you don't even show up. Now here you are, and all you do is stare at me like a stone kasu. Am I hurting you?” When the huokei didn't even blink, she sighed and pushed up the huokei’s legging to unwrap the ankle. She eyed the damage. A bruise ran along the outside of the huokei's foot, brown skin turned yellow, tinted with purple. Kini whistled under her breath. “I bet that was nasty-looking for awhile."
The huokei just watched, chewing each bite slowly. The jacket sleeves had slid down, revealing wrist-guards like the gaiters. Kini unravelled the bandage, found the middle, and placed it against the huokei's foot. Almost instantly the huokei jerked, and Kini grabbed the ankle. The huokei made a soft sound and Kini just as quickly let go.
“Sorry!” Kini bent over, cheeks heated in mortification. She hadn't even realized huokei could be ticklish. She cleared her throat and tried again. “You’re a first, you know that? Sozu’s always taken care of hurt creatures, but never a huokei. Birds, raccoons, foxes, squirrels. Even a turtle, once. Our father wanted to make soup of it. Now Sozu’s got kids, they’re her most frequent patients.” Kini glanced up to see the huokei watching her carefully. “I’ve got two nephews and three nieces. Did Sozu tell you about them? One more due any day, too, though I guess you could tell that from looking at her.”
She brought the bandage-ends together, testing. “Too tight? Too loose?" When the huokei didn't respond, Kini yanked the bandage tight and asked again.
The huokei coughed around its bite of food and put up a hand.
Smug, Kini asked, “a little looser?” She adjusted the knot and the huokei wriggled its fingers. "Little more?"
The huokei nodded.
"Good. Only about a half-month more and you'll be good as new." Kini tied the knot, then wrapped the huokei’s legging close and buckled the gaiter around it. "When you're done eating, I need to check your throat." She pointed to her own, then the huokei's.
It made a face at her, then licked its fingers before reaching for the last dumpling. This time, when it tore the dumpling in two, it offered one-half to her. Kini almost accepted, mostly out of habit and sheer surprise, but she thought twice in time and pulled back. She and Sozu were the only ones bringing offerings. The huokei had to be starving. She put up her hands, touched but afraid her refusal was an error that couldn’t be mended.
“Thank you, really, but that's all for you,” Kini tried to smile, braced for the huokei to take offense. “I'm sorry it's not much, or that fancy.”
After a moment it nodded, almost sadly, and obediently ate one of the dumpling-halves. Kini stroked its ankle, hoping to smooth the awkwardness, and watched two red-winged flits come and go from the little shrine's roof. Once the silence had somehow become comfortable again, Kini spoke up.
"Sozu says you don't have a name, but you've got to have one. It just feels rude to just keep calling you 'you'." She pointed to herself. "See, I'm Kini." She gestured at the huokei with an expectant look.
The huokei quirked one brow, so fast Kini wondered if she'd seen the motion. Then the huokei leaned over and grabbed a stick from the ground. It carefully drew something and sat back for Kini to study the marks. Kini had to shake her head.
"I can't read," she said. “Sorry, I know Sozu said you can't—“ She broke off at the huokei’s whisper. "Did you just shush me?" This time, she managed to stay quiet long enough for the huokei to try again. It did sound like shhhh. Kini made a face and the huokei gave a silent laugh and motioned her closer, repeating the sound.
“Teh…suu?” Kini asked. "That's your name?"
The huokei frowned, coughed, and said it a third time. "Tsiu."
"So that's what it says?" She pointed to the scratches in the dirt. "What does it mean?”
The huokei paused, and Kini was startled to see it chew its lower lip, a human kind of action. It shook its head. The meaning was something that couldn't be pointed out. The huokei finished its last bite of dumpling, and Kini figured there was no putting off the next task. She wriggled out from under the huokei's leg and came up on her knees.
"You'll need to move your hair," she said. The huokei's lips twisted, but it lifted up the mass of silver-and-black. Underneath was more black than gray, much like Kini’s grandmother's hair had been. She carefully unwrapped the bandage around Tsiu’s neck, wincing when it caught on healing flesh. When it was fully off, Kini sucked in air between her teeth.
The wound was knitting, but it remained raw in parts. Sozu had made it sound like someone might've tried to take the huokei's head off, all the way around... with a knife that had a cutting blade two fingers thick. Kini thought it looked more like someone had tried to strangle the huokei with a burning ribbon, judging from the ripples at the edges of the angry red streak. Her father had gotten burns like that when he'd been alive and still smithing.
Tsiu hissed at the first touch of her finger, and Kini apologized, trying to apply Sozu's cream lightly. She really didn't have the knack like Sozu, and for the first time, she wished she did. She curled around the huokei to reach the front of its throat, using her knuckles against Tsiu’s cheek to make sure Tsiu didn't twist away and pull at the healing wound. It was then she realized the huokei had the smallest ridge in its throat, a bare shadow of the prominent lump in Sozu's husband's throat.
"Ah, you're a boy," Kini said, absently puzzled as to why knowing was such a relief. She pulled back a little to study Tsiu’s face. More square than long, really, with a strong blunt chin, it — he — had cheeks padded with lingering childhood, somewhere between girlish and a young boy. Neither fit with the silver in his hair, or the gaze too level and self-aware for an adolescent. That age, in Kini's experience, was anything but self-aware and never level-headed. She knew that first-hand.
She finished applying the cream and wrapped Tsiu’s neck with a clean bandage, tucking the ends rather than tying them. When she sat back, he busied himself twisting his hair up into a knot at the back of his head. He brought out a black cloth from his robe and with one hand wrapped it quickly around his head, until it covered his hair completely. He continued to make a show of getting it just right, and she suspected it was his turn to feel embarrassed for some reason.
She looked away, giving him the moment to recover. The puppies had given up on trying to dig a hole in the ruins of the monk-house and chased each other into the woods again. From the god-house's veranda, she could see the back of the shrine, and it was even more decrepit than she’d realized. A fox, or maybe a badger, had used it as a den some winter past, and several seasons of swallows had made residence under its eaves. Not that a decent mountain-god would ever deny such creatures hospitality, of course. She wondered who would show the mountain-god hospitality in turn. A few dumplings weren’t enough.
“Now that you’re here, people will probably come more often,” she said. When Tsiu flinched, Kini hastened to add, “not all at once! Even if we did, there’s only about eight, no, nine, people in our village. Not counting children, most of which are Sozu’s, anyway. You might see Auntie Toraka or Uncle Osu, though. They mostly live in the past, anyway, when this was the only shrine. They tend to come here for the festivals in Sizija, and then get annoyed because they were the only ones.” She laughed at the image, pleased that something like a smile flickered across Tsiu’s face. “Oh, and Uncle Mouzhakke comes pretty regularly. He makes the trip about once a month to sweep the path and neaten the place up a little.”
Tsiu looked around, his skepticism evident at her choice of words.
“Well, he can’t see much past his fingertips, so I’m sure he thinks everything’s fine,” she said. “Once he’s gone, I doubt Sizija will replace him. But if you’re here, they will. We won’t let our mountain’s god live here alone. The village will— What? What’s wrong?“
Tsiu had frozen, staring across the clearing. Kini turned her head to see Mouzhakke coming between the shrine's guardian-posts, leaning on his ever-present walking stick. She turned back at a movement from Tsiu. He’d caught up the metal object from beside him and snapped it open with a sharp clatter. In the time it took Kini to blink, Tsiu had launched himself off the god-house’s veranda.
He took two steps and his bad ankle turned, sending him to one knee with a grunt. That was just enough delay for Kini to realize his intent, throw herself off the veranda, and tackle him. She landed with one arm around his shoulders, her free hand reaching for that wicked-looking knife. He twisted in her grasp, struggling to keep the knife from her reach.
“Kini-jii? Is that you?” Mouzhakke called out, but didn’t come closer. “What’s going on?”
“Shame,” Kini hissed in Tsiu’s ear. “You can't go around just attacking strangers—“
Tsiu tried to throw her off, his breathing harsh against her cheek. The sun caught the knife-blade, reflection glittering and dancing. His hand shook so badly the blade couldn’t keep still. Kini wasn’t sure whether he was holding back or weakened by lack of food. Instinct told her the weak spot to hit.
“Ow,” she yelped.
Tsiu immediately recoiled, head swiveling around, expression guilty. Kini lunged across him and snatched the knife, tossing it into the leaves. Tsiu’s eyes went impossibly wide and he scrambled at his robes. She caught his wrist, not sure of his goal but doubting he meant well.
“Stay there,” she yelled to Mouzhakke. “Please, you startled the huokei. It's not used to people.”
“I heard you cry out--“
“I'm fine, just stubbed my toe,” Kini called. "Stop that," she added, to Tsiu, but loud enough for Mouzhakke to understand the situation. “There will be no running, no jumping, and definitely no disappearing. You'll undo all Sozu's work. It's alright! Calm down.”
Tsiu shook his head. His expression had lost its vicious cast, and now she could see his stark terror. He wanted out of her hold, away from the caretaker-monk. When she scowled at him, he hunched his shoulders, ducking his head like he expected to be hit. One hand grasped her robe, tugging ineffectually. He couldn’t have begged her more clearly if he’d spoken, but she still didn’t want him running away. She came up on one knee and wrapped her arms around Tsiu, blocking him from Mouzhakke’s view. She had to twist to see Mouzhakke over her shoulder.
“The stories all say they’re shy, and the stories are right,” she said, trying to adopt the authoritative tone Sozu always used when speaking with a patient's relatives. With one hand she held Tsiu close, startled and a little upset when he buried his face against her. He still shook, but he'd stopped fighting and begun clinging. For whatever reason, he saw Mouzhakke as a threat, and saw her as someone who could protect him. She wished she had his confidence. The only weapons she’d ever had were her wits and her big mouth.
“How do you know it’s a huokei? You must be careful, child. These creatures can be deceptive.”
Kini thought of the knife, lying somewhere out of reach. When did huokei use such simple weapons, in the stories? They always used trickery. Lies, illusions.
Implacable, Mouzhakke continued, “if it’s a charudikei—“
“It can't be, Uncle.” Kini forced a smile into her voice. “Sozu brought it fish soup a few days ago, and sat here while it ate the whole thing.” She thought she heard Tsiu whisper, uncle? Low enough Mouzhakke wouldn’t hear, she muttered, “We don't have be related for me to be polite.” Tsiu made a strange choking sound. She ignored it.
“Then a gaadikei,” Mouzhakke suggested, unaware of the side-conversation. “Has it taken the shape of a pleasing young nobleman? When it speaks, you should see a forked tongue.”
“Oh, no, it doesn’t look noble at all.” If he had, she wouldn’t have offered him food. She’d have run and not looked back. She might irritate her sister’s husband into daily fury, but she wasn’t stupid.
“What about a teskei?”
“Uhh,” Kini said, puzzled. “Don’t they live where it snows year-round?”
“No, those are taakei. Teskei are—“ Mouzhakke sighed noisily. “What does it look like, child?”
"Like a huokei, I guess.”
“But we need to know what kind.”
“It’s a homeless mountain-god.”
“No, huokei can be many things. If you ever listened to the teaching-stories…” Mouzhakke had the decency not to continue that complaint. The big shrine had never sent anyone to Kini’s village, even just wandering through. Everything she knew, she'd heard from her parents and the few elders, mostly to pass time on long summer evenings. The monk’s staff tapped on the ground impatiently. “Tell me what it looks like. I need to know if you’re in danger.”
What exactly would he do about it? Kini tensed at the quick shake of Tsiu’s head against her chest, and the tightened grip of his fingers in her robe. “Its head barely reaches my waist,” she said, not sure why she lied but disliking the old monk's questions. “It has hands and feet like you and me. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth where a mouth should be.”
“Scales? Feathers? A tail? What do its ears look like?”
“I can’t tell. It’s wearing clothing.” Which huokei had animal-ears, and were also harmless? Not the uuukei; those had droopy dog-like ears and stole people’s souls while they slept. “The ears look pretty normal to me.” She hoped that was safe.
“What about markings? Check its face, the backs of its hands, its wrists, and the soles of its feet.”
What did Mouzhakke expect her to do, pin Tsiu down with one hand while she stripped him? Kini swallowed the frustrated sigh. Tsiu’s wrist-guards covered his forearms, with an extra flap that covered the back of his hands, much like soldiers wore. At least his feet had no marks, which she relayed. Mouzhakke took another step closer. Tsiu kicked at the dirt, scrambling backwards. She had to knee-walk with him or be pulled off-balance. It moved them both about a pace further, regaining the distance they’d lost.
“Its face has red marks on its cheeks, from nose to ear,” she blurted, recalling some troupe exhibition she’d seen at a festival, years ago. The hero had worn a mask with red and gold. She struggled to recall. “There’s a yellow line right down its face from forehead to chin. It also has four black dots over each eye.”
“Hmm,” Mouzhakke said. “It might be ohinkei. Does it have red stripes down its neck?”
Yes, put there by someone whose hospitality for huokei was one of cruelty. Kini did her best to set that sudden anger aside and answer innocently. “No, but it does have red swirls along its collarbones.”
“I thought you said it was clothed.”
“Its robe has pulled open at the neck. Right now it’s trying to hide, Uncle. I’m sure it’d be much friendlier if it were just one visitor at a time. I think it’s been travelling a long time, and it’s not used to people.” When Tsiu shook his head again, Kini shushed him. If she told Mouzhakke to go away and never come back, he’d definitely be suspicious.
“It might have harmed someone and been driven from its home,” Mouzhakke said, quieter, half to himself. “If it’s wandering in exile, it would naturally be wary of people. Its kind would punish it further for breaking the exile…”
Kini wanted to scream. Was he absolutely determined to prove Tsiu an evil thing? “That can't be. It's a kind soul.”
“It travels with two companions, you said?”
She was about to answer, but stopped at the sensation that Tsiu had caught his breath. He no longer shook. He was fully intent on her answer, unmoving. She thought fast. Not only had she not mentioned the dogs -- not then nor when she’d met Mouzhakke on the mountain path that morning -- she was certain no one had seen the lion-dogs except Sozu. Fortunately those creatures were off chasing something, or each other, through the woods. At least if they did return, Mouzhakke could stand within ten paces of them and he’d just see white blurs.
“They’re around here, somewhere,” she replied, trying to sound casual. “I caught a glimpse of them. They’re big white mountain-cats, almost as tall at the shoulder as the huokei.”
“Well, that’s not a bad sign,” Mouzhakke allowed. “Given what you’ve said, it’s probably a heitosekei. As long as it’s a follower of Eikii, then it’d definitely be a powerful mountain-god.”
That sounded fine to her, but to her surprise, Tsiu’s fingers suddenly dug in twice as hard. He pulled back enough to raise his face to hers, eyes wide in panic. He was barely breathing, mouth open. His gold-brown skin was drained pale, and the marks on his cheeks stood out in sharp relief.
“Child, I need you to step away from the huokei. Smile, reassure it, and back away.” Mouzhakke brought out his prayer beads from the sleeve of his robe.
“It’s too scared,” Kini protested. “And it knows we're—“
“Hardly,” Mouzhakke said, his voice strangely calm. “They can’t understand our speech. Just smile and step back. I’ll need room.”
Kini didn’t move. “What are you going to do?”
“Child, I’m your elder. Stop questioning me and do as I say.”
Well, then. If he wanted to play it like that, she could answer him in kind. She dropped into formality to underscore her right. “Mouzhakke-jeyo, my sister said to protect this huokei as one of her children. She's my elder sister and I promised her. I can't walk away until I know what you're planning.”
Mouzhakke heaved another sigh and swung the string of beads. “I’m going to say a prayer to Eikii. When the huokei has accepted Eikii’s teachings, it’ll be able to converse with us. Then we can find out where it came from, its intentions, and so on.”
A distant memory darted through Kini’s head. “Oh, like the story of Muushudun and the three uzaakei? But that was horrible. The uzaakei nearly tore Muushudun apart.”
“There’s only one huokei here, and it’s injured. It shouldn’t give me nearly as much trouble. Child, don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”
But she didn’t, she wanted to say. She glanced over her shoulder, disturbed to realize Mouzhakke stood no more distant than ten paces. Maybe twelve. He'd been carefully moving closer while she'd been focused on Tsiu. She came up on the balls of her feet, readying herself, and put her mouth almost against Tsiu’s ear.
“Move. Slow,” she said, hoping he understood. When he shifted backwards, she knew he did. She moved with him. “Slow,” she reminded him. “Silent.” The leaves rustled faintly. A branch cracked under her knee, loud as a shout in her ears.
“Kini-jii,” Mouzhakke said, returning her formality with his right to speak to her as elder to child. “I really must insist—“
“Wait,” she said, “what happens if it hasn’t accepted Eikii’s teachings? In the story, the uzaakei were tormented horribly when the prayers were said.”
“They’re nothing more than animals. They can’t feel pain, not like you or I,” Mouzhakke said. At least he’d relaxed his hand with the prayer-beads, hopefully thinking he could reason her into agreeing. “It’s like training a dog, or breaking a horse.”
“I don’t know about breaking horses, but most dogs don’t try to bite you when you tell them to sit.”
“Some do. Especially if they think they’re stronger than you.” Mouzhakke waved a hand in her direction. “Move away, now.”
“Uncle,” she said, trying a different approach. “The huokei is injured. We’re not talking about a dog that grew up around people, we’re talking about a wild creature. It can’t run, and that means it’ll turn and fight. To the death, if it must. There’s only you and I here. What if things go wrong?”
That seemed to give Mouzhakke pause, then he steeled himself visibly and raised the beads. “I’ll have to make sure that doesn’t happen. Don’t worry, child, I’ve dealt with huokei before. My will is strong, and I’ve been following Eikii since before you were born. I won’t fail.”
“I don’t understand,” Kini said, scooting another half-step away. Tsiu had regained some color in his face, though his muscles remained iron-strong with panic, and he didn’t relax his death-grip on her robes. “If Eikii’s teachings are so wonderful, why did the uzaakei even fight? Why would the huokei?”
“They fight because they don’t know any better, and it’s their own ignorance that causes them agony,” Mouzhakke replied. His patience sounded brittle, and that time he didn’t bother to hide his step forward. His walking-stick thumped imperiously against the dirt. “Once they accept Eikii, then they’re free of their ignorance. Only then do they accept that their true happiness lies in serving Eikii.”
For the first time in her life, Kini stopped and thought about a monk’s words instead of just letting them pass by without question. Something in Mouzhakke’s explanation reminded of her father’s lecture, explaining to her that she did want to marry, that she only thought she didn't because she didn’t understand that being a wife was her purpose. Once she married — her father had said — she’d be happy to serve her husband uncomplaining for the rest of her life.
Kini hadn’t been too convinced, given how a day couldn’t go by without her parents arguing loudly. She found herself even less convinced by the monk’s version. Beating someone until they begged for mercy didn’t make them happy to serve. It only made them happy that the beating had ended.
“Of course it’s good if a huokei recognizes Eikii’s teachings,” she said, because that was what Mouzhakke wanted to hear, just like her father. “But even if an injured creature understands kindness, it can’t understand reason. Not while it’s in pain.” She tried to sound worried, to hide her growing fury. “Uncle, this doesn’t seem wise. Why must it be done right now? Shouldn’t we wait until the huokei has recovered?”
“And let it regain its strength to fight back so much harder?”
“No, to let it learn to trust me—“ The words came out and she could only hope they’d hit home. “And then I’ll bring it to Sizija myself. Then you’ll be able to deal with it with plenty of other monks around, instead of only me.”
“That is a good idea—”
Kini held her breath.
“—But it might try to escape before then. Best to do it now.” Mouzhakke raised his hand again.
There was a rock directly under her knee. She was tempted to dig it out and throw it at him. She took a breath and spoke brightly, even as she nudged Tsiu backwards another half-pace. “It hasn’t run yet, and it trusts Sozu. If it’s going to run, it’ll do it now, because you’ve frightened it so badly. But if you were to leave, it’d trust me as someone who could protect it. Then it’ll trust me enough to go with me willingly to Sizija.”
“True,” Mouzhakke murmured. He was silent for a long moment.
Kini ached for Mouzhakke to accept her proposal, even as she recoiled from the very idea of such betrayal. It felt wrong, down to her bones.
“Very well,” Mouzhakke said. “When will you bring it?”
Her mouth dry in relief, Kini managed, “Sozu says it’s not to walk more than a few steps for at least the next month. The autumn festival is a month and a half from now, right? I’ll bring it two days before that.”
“Then it’ll be present for the festival. That would be good,” Mouzhakke said. Kini’s knees nearly gave out when he tucked the prayer-beads back into his sleeve. “I’ll let Taitsawai-jeyo know, so we can be ready.”
He sighed and stepped back, most of his weight on his walking-stick. He really had braced himself for a fight, and he barely able to handle the two-mile hike from Sizija. She couldn’t see how he’d intended to take on a huokei and survive. In the stories, Muushudun had won, but there were other stories where it took two monks, sometimes three, to jointly subdue an angry huokei.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, child,” Mouzhakke warned. “Remember, these are dangerous creatures.”
“Thank you for worrying about me,” she said, keeping a dutiful child’s smile in her voice. “We’ll see you soon in Sizija.”
Mouzhakke murmured the usual parting blessings and departed. Kini waited until his walking-stick's tapping had faded into the distance. She stood, groaning at the cramps in her legs. She motioned to Tsiu to stay put, moving to the shrine-yard's gate in time to see Mouzhakke making his way around the bend in the narrow mountain path. He didn’t look back. When she returned to Tsiu, she was almost surprised he was still there.
Ashamed that she could've even suggested such an idea, she knelt beside him. “Did you understand any of that?”
Tsiu gave her an openly disgusted look, gesturing at his neck, his mouth, and then his ears. It took twice, but she got the message: he couldn’t speak very much, but he could hear just fine. She grinned for the first time since she’d arrived, heartened when Tsiu gave her a shy smile. A yip sounded in the distance, a crashing, and Tsiu clicked his tongue. The puppies yipped in reply, one of them yelped, the other managed an almost adult-like bark, and then they were gone again. Kini sat back on her heels, pleased. At least that meant less chance of the lion-dogs crossing Mouzhakke’s path.
“Don’t worry,” she told Tsiu. “I won’t take you to Sizija. I’ll talk to Sozu, and I know she’ll agree. You’ve got a half-month before you can walk again, and that gives us a little time to figure out what to do. Besides, we’ll have another month after that before anyone at Sizija is expecting you.”
Tsiu's brows furrowed in obvious disbelief, but he didn’t protest.
“And he never did say a word about needing to straighten the shrine,” she muttered, looking around at the piles of leaves cast aside by their crawling progress. Come to think of it, Mouzhakke hadn’t even been carrying his usual pack, nor had he brought his usual branch-broom. The implications made Kini frown, and Tsiu raised his brows, questioning. She shook her head at him and helped him to stand, supporting his limping progress back to the god-house. There was no reason to worry Tsiu. There was nothing he could do except stay out of sight, and she knew already that he was quite capable of doing that, even injured.
She had no idea what they’d do with Tsiu once he healed, but he wasn’t a dog. He could reason, he understood, and she’d seen enough of him to know that if he bit the one who beat him, he’d have every right. And she not only wouldn’t prevent him, she’d assist him. Decided, she gathered up Sozu’s medicines and shoved them back in her pack.
"I meant to make you tea,” she explained, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “But I need to get back and find Sozu before Mouzhakke does, you see? Once I’ve talked to her, I’ll come right back. I’ll bring more food, and you can eat while I clean the shrine." Sozu's husband couldn't complain about that. She held out the little box of cream. "Here, so you can put more on, later."
Tsiu accepted the box, turning it over in long fingers, and set it in his lap. Kini took it as a signal and stood, brushing off the seat of her robe. She pointed to his ankle.
"Stay off that." On impulse, she added, "you stay off it, and in a few days I'll show you where the hot springs are. Up that way." She started to point the way, then thought twice. Tsiu didn't need to get any ideas about exploring. "And that way," she added, waving vaguely around, just to confuse things. From Tsiu’s expression, she'd succeeded. She picked up her pack and threw it over her shoulder. “I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” she said with a slight bow, age-to-age.
She hesitated, wondering if she should bow deeper, if Tsiu’s young face were misleading and he was really an elder who deserved more respect. She didn't get a chance. Tsiu was already responding. One hand, palm down, the other hand laid upon it, fingers to wrists. His sleeves formed a straight line from elbow to elbow. She wondered if the overlong sleeves were designed to give that impression of unbroken cloth, as Tsiu bowed his head, just a little, towards his arms. It was more of a nod, really, but Kini instinctively understood and bowed again, politely.
“Alright,” Kini said, taking another step back. “See you in a little bit... Tsiu."
The huokei's smile flashed, and she turned away, waving over her shoulder. When she turned back to wave again from the entrance, Tsiu was nowhere to be seen. The door to the god-home was closed as it had always been. There was no sign nor sound of the lion-dogs. Kini realized for the first time just how silent the shrine was. Not even a bird sang. She shivered, hefted the pack a final time, and ran for home.