Making Aquaintances

by Tatsushu

Part 1

There is nothing like running the paces to put one in a good mood. Despite the cold air and the light covering of snow on the ground, the wind felt great in her hair as Rois raced around the parade grounds. Hooves clopped noisily against the frozen earth as she sped round the perimeter in a large circle. Her hooves weren't the only ones clopping along today, however. Another rider was out as well. Slowing her pace enough to comfortably turn her head, Rois looked around.

What she saw brought back memories, memories of her and Rakurai racing across the volcanic plains of her homeland, with only the spear in her hand and the sword on her side. The small, stocky, dexterous horse and its rider raced around the perimeter of the parade grounds, following much the same path that Rois herself had taken. The distinctive saddle and loose clothing identified the rider almost immediately. Rois slowed her pace some more and waited for the other warrior to close the distance.

As Ryuo closed the distance, Rois offered a greeting in their mutually comprehensible tongue. "Good day to you!" she exclaimed, "How goes it with you on such a fine, frosty morning."

Ryuo frowned only a bit, simply taken aback by the greeting in his native tongue. He sent back in a neutral tone, "Well, thanks to your presence." As he came up he reigned in his steed, so that soon he and Kaze were pacing Rois, just a little bit ahead of the centauress so that the two could comfortably talk.

"It is a good winter morning," Rois began, "What are you doing out and about?" The answer was obvious, but it was a fair enough and polite conversation starter. Rois, herself, had grown very used to the Western mannerisms and informalities, but she realized that Ryuo was still getting used to it.

"Yes it is a wonderful morning." Ryuo said, "I thought that I would take my steed, Kaze, out for a ride before it gets too cold."

"'Kaze', as in 'wind'?" Rois asked, "From the looks of things it is clearly a name he deserves." As hoped, talk about his steed brought a smile to Ryuo's face. His mouth opened ever so slightly as he relaxed his muscles, no longer quite as tight as before.

"Yes, this steed has been good to me. We've had more than our share of adventures, haven't we?" he patted his mount twice on the side of the neck, and Kaze nickered slightly, as though in agreement.

"I had a steed like that once." Rois went on, attempting to draw out the conversation, "He was called Lightning, because he seemed to move with the speed of a thunderbolt." Rois didn't mention that he had also been faster than any normal horse alive. He did not want to be too aggressive.

Ryuo, for his part, seemed to be confused. "But, how did you...?" Then he seemed to remember their previous conversation and understanding dawned.

Rois laughed, a noise that trailed into a high whinny. Changing the subject she said, "I don't suppose you'd care to join me for a drink? I know a place here in town where we can share a long, warm bowl of sake."

Two furry ears obviously perked at that last, although the fox's eyes revealed nothing. "I would enjoy that. I must admit that the winter has felt the colder without its warm touch."

"Come then. Let's go have a drink.!"

Leading Ryuo and Kaze through the streets of the town, Rois inquired about his homeland, explaining that she had not been back for some time. Ryuo explained about the new Emperor who had recently been instated on the throne. He seemed ambitious to return some control of the government to the royal family, but the Sokuhara Shoguns still held the reigns of the government. There were rumors that the old Fujina clan was trying to regain its position behind the Imperial throne; they were definitely in favor of returning the power to the Imperial Household, and thus to the nobles who would step in as regents.

He left out any mention of his own tragedy, however, unsure of exactly how much he could reveal.

The streets of the town were fairly clear of any snow, save for piles here and there and the occasional attempt at a snowman. Still, the snows were not quite deep enough yet, though they would surely increase as the season progressed. There were already some grumbles that the snow had come early this year.

Near the heart of town, Rois and Ryuo turned down a side street, and then another into an area built as a stable and carriage house, nestled neatly among the buildings. There was room for several horses and carriages here, although none of them were in use at the moment. Rois opened one of them.

"You might want to leave Kaze here. Although most places in the Keep have special allowances if they want any business from more awkwardly built patrons," the centauress motioned to her more equine half, "I doubt that Kaze would find it all that pleasant. Besides, the stables are kept at a nice, even temperature thanks to a spell I placed there for the owner."

Ryuo gave a questioning look, "A spell?" he asked.

"Well, it was more for myself, since they didn't have the accommodations for one of my..." Rois stopped and realized what the question had really been about, "Ah, yes, didn't I tell you? I picked up a little magic in my journeys. It was after the incident that left me half-horse. I'll have to tell you about it sometime." Rois tried to open the door while Ryuo dismounted.

The door didn't budge.

Rois looked at it and gave a few more tugs, but all that she got was the ring of metal from the other side indicating some sort of locking mechanism. Rois frowned slightly, and as she did so the back door of the tavern opened out and a blonde-haired woman stepped out.

"What's going on...? Ah, Rois, good to see you." she said in the common language of the Keep.

"Michelle, wonderful to see you as well." Rois answered, "I was just stopping by to show my new friend here your fine establishment. It seems you've changed a few things, though."

"Yes, the lock," Michelle tsk'ed, "You know how it is. People don't feel secure these days unless everything's locked up tight. Here, let me get the key."

As she dug through her pouches to fish out the big of metal that would open the stall door, Rois turned to Ryuo. "This is Michelle--originally Michael. She and her husband, Mark, run the tavern here. They are a rather nice couple, but don't speak any tongue other than their own."

"I see." Ryuo replied. He then turned to Michelle and said in his broken way, "Herro, it is bery nice tsu meet you." and held out a hand. Michelle finished opening the door and took the proffered hand.

"It's very nice to meet you, too...uh.." Michelle looked askance of Rois.

"I'm sorry, I forgot." Rois apologized. "This is Ryuo Musashinari from my own country of Yamato. He came a while back but has kept to himself a lot since he has trouble with the language yet, as you can see. Hopefully, I can help fix that."

"I see." She said, nodding her head, "It is very nice to meet you mister Musashinali." she finished. Rois tried not to wince at the mangled name, but Ryuo seemed to take it in stride, just pleased that he had been able to communicate on any level. He then let go of her hand and encouraged Kaze into the stall.

Entering the small enclosure, Ryuo could feel the difference in temperature--the room was kept pleasantly warm, but not too hot. He dressed down his steed, giving him a few brushes before he left the stall. Backing out he looked at the stall again.

Rois broke away from the conversation she had started with Michelle and looked at the staring fox. "What's wrong?" she asked as Michelle walked back to the door.

"Nothing. I was just noticing the difference in architecture." Ryuo commented, "The stables back home are a little different."

Rois nodded. So much must be new for the fox. "When you're finished staring, how about heading inside. Michelle is preparing some sake for us as we speak."

Ryuo nodded and left the stable, making sure to close it behind him. He heard a click, and the Rois came forward with the key to lock the gate. Inside, Kaze found he actually had enough room to lay down, which was definitely a bonus for the horse. He lay in the sweet-smelling hay and began to nod off.

Meanwhile, Rois led Ryuo to the large back door of the inn. It was clear from the architecture that it had been modified from the original frame. Now the door was easily as wide as the cellar doors next to them, and Rois only needed to duck slightly as she entered, making sure to dust of her hooves before entering.

Just inside the door was a long table, like the one at a shop or a bar, but with nothing on either side. Rois demonstrated its usefulness, however, as she sidled next to it, the table being just the right height for her and any other such inhabitant. Unfortunately, it meant that Ryuo was left looking up at the bottom of the table, his own short height not quite reaching up quite high enough.

Rois soon fixed that by bringing around a stool, which Ryuo had to just about climb into to sit down on. "Sorry about that," Rois said, rather sheepishly, "But I forget about the height sometimes."

"That's okay." Ryuo waved it away. Still, he wondered just how sturdy this perch of his was.

The steaming rice liquor was soon brought out, as well as some strips of dried squid and pickled fruits. Ryuo was truly amazed, having seen very little civilized food since he had come to the West. He wondered how they had imported it all.

Rois was thanking the waitress who had brought everything out. She was a dark-haired young woman, who seemed to be just starting through the change. Black fur covered most of her body that could be seen, and her face seemed to be extremely cat-like, although nearer to human than most of the people Ryuo had seen. It reminded him of his own ordeal and he shuddered at what he knew they must be going through.

Still, when he thought about it, perhaps it would not have been so bad as he had first thought. He had been surprised with the acceptance of the Keep and wondered if this was a local phenomenon, or something more universal. Perhaps his people had grown too isolated, too bound in their own glorious position that they viewed others as somehow less. Just as these humans had once seen the animals whose forms they now wore as their own.

Ryuo shook his head and pushed such thoughts aside as he watched the waitress leave. Instead, he looked at the low, shallow dish before him that Rois had already poured some of the rice liquor into. The scent of heated sake rose to his nostrils with a sweet perfume, but before he could indulge there were politenesses to take care of, and Ryuo poured a drink for Rois as well.

Lifting the shallow, porcelain dish to his lips, the fox put out his tongue ever so slightly and poured the contents onto it and into his throat. He held the warm contents for a brief moment, savoring the sugary sweetness of the rice flavor, accentuated by the heat. Then he swallowed it, feeling the hot liquor burn in more ways than one as it slid down his throat.

He set the shallow bowl down with a panting smile. Rois returned the grin, "I think it is about the best I've had since I left home." She commented.

"It definitely makes me homesick." Ryuo agreed, pouring another drink for Rois, who did the same for him. "I have not quite been able to accustom myself to the 'beer' they serve, or whatever it's called. I also tried some of their bubbled wines, but they have a strange texture that I don't altogether care for."

Rois laughed a bit, "Well, there isn't much like a good sip of sake to remind you of the finer things in life, especially on a cold winter day."

Ryuo shivered at the thought of the winds outside. "I take it you've been through some winters here already; what are they like?"

That question gave the centauress pause as she contemplated an answer. "It is much like the wild lands in the north of Yamato, if not harsher. Occasionally a 'blizzard' will hit--that's a storm with the ferocity of a typhoon, only filled with ice and snow. Those are fairly rare, however, and don't last more than a day or so, where we are situated. Being in the pass, most of the heavy rain- and snow-laden clouds come through here and dump on us, but they rarely stay for long."

"Does weather usually come from the north or from the south?" Ryuo asked.

"Actually, it depends on the season. During the spring and summer, rain comes from the south, but with the cold winter months, it seems to reverse directions, with cold winds blowing down from the north." Rois explained, taking a pickled plum and chewing on it. Her face winced slightly at the delectably sour taste. "We rarely get anything too bad, though. The mages here at the Keep tend to make sure of that, although there is only so much one can do to the weather before it turns around to bite you."

"Speaking of mages," Ryuo said, "Where did you learn magic?"

"Oh, here and there, after the incident." She said, "I realized that most of my training was going to be for naught when I was cursed to be a centaur. Not that I had been the most studious of youngsters, I must admit--there were my brothers, who stood to inherit, leaving me mostly out in the field with some small bit of land to myself. I don't imagine I left much behind, other than family. They wouldn't really have had me anyway, as I was, and even less now."

Ryuo nodded sympathetically as he chewed on a dried piece of squid. Similar thoughts had flashed through his own mind at the first, although he quickly realized that he didn't have anyone left to feel disgraced by. Sometimes he wished he had just become another human, with all the disgrace it brought, rather than remain the last of his kind.

"I guess it's my turn to ask the questions." Rois turned the conversation around. Even though the alcohol had not had any noticeable physical effect on either of them, it had already begun its work as a social lubricant, breaking down the barriers that stood between what one could and could not do or say. Already, their speech was less formal, being friendlier than previously. "I imagine that you, yourself, must have been rather shocked at what had happened. The change from an honorable samurai to a fox--often considered a demonic creature by many."

"Not exactly," Ryuo offered with the hint of a smile in his tone, his dark eyes flashing briefly in security of the secret they held in their deep pools. "I came to the Keep for a cure...and end up finding it in the Curse. I prefer not to think of myself as 'Kitsune'--tricksters and ne'er-do-wells all--but as one of the 'Inari'."

Rois was taken aback by such a brash and arrogant statement. "A messenger of the gods? Interesting." She could find little else to say on the matter, as even with the alcoholic cover she was not sure she had a polite way to respond to such a high-flown remark.

And then Ryuo began to laugh, the alcohol having fulfilled its lubracitive duty. Rois soon followed, sharing in the joke.

The two stopped laughing with another sip from their bowls. Rois wiped the tears from her eyes as she did so. "There was something else I wanted to talk to you about, though. I asked earlier if you would like some help with the local language. The offer's still out there, but..."

"I would truly appreciate that." Ryuo said, earnestly, "I have been learning the hand language for the patrols, but it is difficult I feel I have exhausted what simple vocabulary I have. I know there are spells, but I just don't know... I really don't want to rely on magic."

"Then we had better start as soon as we can." Rois said, "I'm already busy teaching three other students--which reminds me that there was something else I wanted to ask you about, later--but I think I can help you with the pronunciation. Meanwhile, I'll check and see if I can't get someone to teach you how the Western characters are printed. If you can read then you will go a long way to learning the language by yourself."

"That sounds excellent, if it is not too much trouble." Ryuo said, "I feel like a fool, stumbling around with half-words and phrases. It seems so undignified, and the openness of these foreigners is almost frightening."

"That is something you will get used to, with time." Rois laughed, "I don't think you will find it all that bad."

Ryuo answered with another sip of sake. By now the vessel was empty of any more transparent happiness, but it was doing its job well. The heat seemed to make the alcohol that much more potent as well. "What was the other thing that you wanted from me?" he asked.

"As I said before, I'm training three students, all of them who are skilled in the magical arts." Rois said, "I'm afraid that they are lacking in any martial skills, however. Unfortunately I cannot properly teach them what little I know, with this body, and I was hoping you could at least get them started."

"Why me?" Ryuo asked, "What about the Patrol Master and the military. I thought that everyone here received some basic training."

"They do at that, but it isn't very personalized. Besides, I was hoping that you could add a little discipline to their spirits so that they can learn to control themselves better. They are a bit of a handful as it is. Of course, if it's too much trouble..." Rois looked at Ryuo, waiting expectantly.

Ryuo seemed to consider it for a second, gnawing on the last piece of squid. "Of course, I would be glad to teach them what little I have learned. When can I meet them?"

"How about early tomorrow morning?" Rois suggested. "We could meet by the baths and then go to the practice room. I believe you know where that is."

"The practice room, I do." Ryuo said, "But the baths... are they truly that civilized?" Rois laughed out loud, familiar with the stereotypes her motherland tended to place on other people.

"Yes, they really are that civilized." she said, "They are pretty easy to find as well, since it is in the Lower Keep. Just head in whatever direction seems best, and you're sure to find it."

"Well, then, tomorrow it is."

Part 2

Ryuo sat before the candle flames and breathed in the sweet incense which hung in the cold morning air. Hardly a soul was stirring, but that was little consolation to the lightly dressed warrior. There was nothing to be done about it now; he had given his word.

Two tails twitched in anticipation of their discovery. That nobody had yet taken serious note of such an oddity could only be attributed to luck. Ryuo cursed the mouth that had put him in this predicament. A latent headache reminded him of the drink he knew he shouldn't have accepted, and acted only as another painful consequence of the previous night.

Carefully, he rose, pushing the hangover aside. The baggy, four-paneled hakama billowed about as the fox stepped into them, tucking his tails carefully into their immense folds. The knots pulled tight, cinching around his waist, and Ryuo slipped into the rest of his morning attire.

As he did so, the fox stepped couldn't help but notice a flaw. Torn in the lower corner of the left-hand sleeve was a small hole. It would remain mostly concealed for the time being, but it was just one more reminder of the hardships he faced. Ryuo was going to be forced to look around for a competent seamstress and some silk in this western land.

Outside, the Keep was yet quiet. The clack of wooden sandals upon the cobblestones echoed loudly against the walls of the slumbering structure as Ryuo made his way to the baths.

Walking about in the crisp morning air proved invigorating, and it chased away many of the worries that meditation had failed to cure. Although the ground was white with winter's snow, Ryuo hardly noticed the chill air about him. His breath came out in white clouds of steam with every breath, but he paid them no mind.

Ryuo had often traveled in the snow, and in worse conditions to boot. Often in his village there had been no clear paths from one place to another, the snows of the previous night having completely obliterated any trace of the roads that ran from one place to another. Further north, in the barbarian realms that remained unconquered on the northernmost tip of the main island, snows grew so deep that a man could easily be buried beneath them. It was said that the harshest storms would dump so much snow that afterwards the inhabitants would have to dig themselves tunnels just to get out of their houses.

Clearing the paths had been one of his jobs as a single-tailed kit. He was then training at his master's dojo, and there was not a single snowflake allowed on the path when he was finished. Some days the snow would start to fall in the middle of his chores, and he would be forced to continue working until it stopped. Being in the mountains that surrounded the Capital, such incidents were frequent.

Once it had snowed for three days without stopping. Ryuo had continued to work, although his teacher had given him leave to stop by the end of the first day. Still, he only halted when his teacher demanded it-and that was only to eat or sleep. He knew now how foolish it must have seemed, but he had been eager to honor his teacher and respect his wishes.

Sensei ???? had been an excellent teacher, those many years ago. Though hardly in his prime, he still fought with a youthful vigor that Ryuo tried even now to match. He had seen through the Inari's illusion-given to him by his clan so that he could travel safely outside the secret paths of the Inari-however, the old man had cared little for the fox's origins. "Honor lies with the spirit, not the body" he once said, "And the spirit is expressed through the sword."

There had been other students, but none had stayed very long. Even then there were other teachers spreading the Jitsuei-ryu of swordsmanship, and the old master had mostly retired from a world that was increasingly favoring youth and brash spontaneity to age and careful wisdom.

Ryuo paused in his thoughts as he rounded a corner of the Keep. The cold air and a slight breeze at his back had left him blind to the large, grey wolf that sat scratching an ear on the path before him. As Ryuo drew himself up to a stop the canine ceased his scratching and looked up, his head cocked slightly to the side.

The wolf must have been a Keeper, since it seemed far from a dumb, wild animal. Some of the Keepers apparently reveled in their ability to assume their 'natural' state. Yet, there was something about the eyes. It was as if the creature was wild, yet intelligent at the same time. There was a chaotic duality to the calm faćade.

The two sat there for a moment regarding each other. The wolf's eyes reflected an unexpected cunning, but it wasn't quite 'intelligence' as most sentient beings referred to it. Still, this was obviously not a normal wolf, Ryuo concluded.

Suddenly, the tail began to wag, brushing off the loose snow on the cobblestones. A pink tongue lolled partly out of the wolf's mouths and the ears perked up in a friendly, inquisitive manner. The sloppy tongue licked at the black nose and retreated back into its toothy cavity.

Ryuo felt instinctual responses well up inside of him, but he fought them down. The Inari worked hard to keep their ordered life, not resorting to their baser natures like the other, thrice-damned Kitsune. Still, Ryuo felt his ears responding to the friendly invitation. Slowly, Ryuo lowered himself so that he was more on par with the grey wolf. As he did so, the wolf came closer.

The canine's curiosity seemed to grow as he approached. Black nose wuffled as it took in the fox's scent. A puzzled expression flit across the furred face for a moment, and their seemed to be a second of thought. Then, it was over and the playful mutt returned.

Ryuo wondered what obscure thought had flashed through the wolf's head as he scratched him behind the ears, an act that was very well received. As he stood, Ryuo gave one last pat on the wolf's head. The wolf seemed unsatisfied, however, and pleaded with his eyes for attention. Ryuo ignored the plea, though. He had promised Rois he would meet her early and he hated being late.

Yet as he walked along, the wolf followed at his side. Ryuo looked down as he walked, only to see the wolf looking up. A wordless conversation seemed to follow between the two as they walked along. Ryuo, for his part, couldn't help but wonder what it was like inside that grey-furred skin.

As they came to another corner, the wolf stopped, ending the silent dialogue. He seemed to be listening to something out in the snows. With a mischievous toss of his head, the wolf wagged goodbye and took off away from the phantom voice. The strides were graceful as the grey body hurled itself across the white snow with a strange, artistic beauty. Perhaps he had been a poet in his previous life-or will be in the next, Ryuo thought. Then he turned and continued on his way.

The gym and baths were not much farther. Steam poured from the latter's orifice into the cold. The clip clop of wooden geta on the stones increased as the Inari hurried forward, into the marble structure that stuck out only slightly from the rest of the Keep. The architecture blended smoothly with the surrounding stones, and yet there was something out of place. Like Ryuo's own apartment, the faćade seemed to have been transported from another time and place and then added to its current position.

Ryuo removed his wooden geta as he entered, stepping lightly onto the tiled floor. The fox was surprised at its warmth, not expecting it despite the steam. As he walked his nails tried to find a grip in the stone, but it was worn and weathered until it was as slick as the ice outside, if not worse. Running would not be a wise idea.

To one side he saw an archway that led to the more familiar stones that made up the rest of the Keep. A wise addition since not everyone would appreciate hiking through the snow or worse, especially as the months rolled on and the weather turned even colder.

There was nobody else in the pool at the moment. Surely the nobles and other Keepers would begin to trickle in later, but for now Ryuo was alone. Ryuo felt relived to some extent; the fewer people, the better.

There were alcoves in the wall, which appeared to be for storing clothing and any other articles a person might have brought with them. Ryuo undressed and placed his clothes in a neat pile where he could keep an eye on them, then found a bucket and washed himself off. Once clean, he slipped into the pool.

Hot water lapped against the smooth marble sides. Steam rose from the water's surface, gathering in thick clouds around the nooks and crannies of the roof and eves. Ryuo sat and let the water soak through him. The effect was calming and he felt the tension slip from his body.

As he lay, relaxing in the warmth of the pool, he heard a sound like hooves on stone, followed by footsteps. Ryuo sat up as his anticipated friends arrived.

The first through the archway was a young boy, whom Ryuo assumed was a victim of the age regression spell. He was followed by another, older youth in the form of a dragon morph. Next came Rois, who had to coax in another young woman that Ryuo could only assume was the last of her students.

The two young boys seemed eager to enter the heated waters-most especially the dragon morph who seemed more than a little chilled from the frigid air. The young woman seemed shy, however. That was understandable, Ryuo reasoned, since she was of an age that this female form was certainly not the one to which she had been born. Ryuo politely turned his head and waited until the two women had entered the pool before turning back again.

"Good Morning, Ryuo." Rois offered in an informal and friendly tone. Ryuo was slowly growing used to the informality of the Keep, but it still caught him off-guard every once in a while. "How goes it with you?"

"Well, and how goes it with you?" he replied in question.

"Fine, fine. So, have you thought on my offer?"

"I would be more than happy to give your three students instruction. I assume these three are the youths in question."

"Yes, as a matter of fact, please let me introduce them to you." Rois said, turning and mentioning something to the threesome in the Western tongue that Ryuo could not catch. He heard "Musashinari-sensei" as she pointed towards him, but little else until she began to speak directly at him once more. "Ryuo, may I introduce Aisha, Drake, and Colin. They're triplets, with an odd talent, which they are learning to control. Quite powerful, really, but they need to learn discipline." Rois's eyes shot accusative stares at the three who had already gone back to talking amongst themselves.

Ryuo nodded, thoughtfully, crossing his arms in front of him. Without language it would be an interesting challenge, to say the least.

Rois took his nod as a yes and continued, "As for the lessons, I'd like to arrange some time if you're free. I've also arranged to meet with Sindia, the Duke's scribe. She said she would be free later this afternoon and you were welcome to drop on by. She had an idea of something that might help your reading and writing, although I'm not sure what."

Ryuo nodded again. It would be nice to learn more than the simple phrases he had so far learned. As for their system of phonetic symbols, he had harbored little hope of deciphering it. There were more symbols than syllables, and it was difficult to understand what sound went with which symbol. It obviously was not a pictographic language, though.

"Very well then, when do you want to begin the training?" Rois asked.

"Mine or theirs?" Ryuo asked in reply.

"Either one is fine." Rois told him in her relaxed manner.

Ryuo took some time to think. "Well, in truth I'll be studying some this afternoon, correct? Perhaps we should see how their skills rack up and then go from there, unless you would rather do it another way?"

"No," Rois replied, "That sounds great. Let's just give ourselves a few more minutes to soak and then we'll be off. We should be able to grab a bite to eat in the kitchens and then head up to the training room."

Ryuo answered with a smile. Together they sat and talked about trivial matters. Rois explained to Ryuo some of the strange customs of these westerners and Ryuo listened, taking in everything he could. In the steam-filled room, Ryuo could actually forget who and where he was for a time. Instead, memories welled up of the mountain springs of his homeland.

His village had not been far from natural pools of heated mineral water. Although there was always the smell of sulfur around the steamy waters, their comforting warmth had been thought to cure almost any stress or ill, and they were frequented often by all denizens of the forested mountains.

Often the Inari would share their relaxation with the semi-intelligent apes that would congregate in the waters when the winter snows blanketed the ground. During the spring it was often a place for more than simply bathing for the youth of the village.

Ryuo remembered with a sad joy his own young tryst with a young fox of a cream-colored complexion. Aoi and Ryuo had both just received their second tails, marking them as adults, and had immediately ignored their responsibilities to meet by the bath one summer evening, with the stars dancing overhead.

Her soft eyes and demure manner seemed to him as the perfect model of feminine beauty, and the lock of her fur was something he had kept with him as he traveled in the human lands. They had been hopeful that the matchmaker would find them a suitable pair, but that hope was now gone forever.

Ryuo closed his eyes and tried to hold her in his mind, but all he could see now was the blackened ruins of his villages. Shadows burned into the ground, and bodies blackened as though they had set to roast in an intense heat. He couldn't bear to think that one of those corpses had been hers, but he knew he was deluding himself to think that anyone had escaped.

Rois noticed her companion had grown silent and saw his eyes gazing off into some unknown abyss of his own soul. Attempting to break him from his sudden slump, she smiled and said, "How about breakfast?"

The warrior snapped out of his self-induced trance and looked around, taking a minute to concentrate on what Rois had said, he reached up and held his head as though to drive the demons of the past away. "I'm sorry, I lost myself in a memory of home. You go along, I'll be with you shortly."

Nodding, the centauress gathered up her apprentices and they all left into the Keep, leaving Ryuo alone with his memories. For a minute more he sat and soaked, and then the displaced Inari got out and found a towel with which to dry himself. As he began to dress himself, he heard the distinct click of claws on marble.

The slight tapping sound advanced on the Inari, who stood frozen in place, his hand hovering over his garments, but not far from his sword.

A shape resolved itself in the archway, stepping out from the steam. A grey head popped inside and glanced at Ryuo, then the toothy mouth dropped open in a grin.

A familiar pink tongue emerged as the wolf Ryuo had seen before watched him. His tail wagged in some sort of self-appreciation, and he gave a small yelp. Padding his way carefully over to the water, he lowered his head and began to drink.

Ryuo was about to protest, but what could he really say or do. Instead, he shrugged and finished getting dressed. Throwing on his kariginu he walked towards the entrance into the Keep's hallways.

Another yelp made him turn as a playful wolf rushed at him, nails struggling to find a grip on the marble. Realization flashed across the wolf's muzzled face as he tried to turn. Instead, his efforts were rewarded by more sliding, sending him shooting out into the snow.

With what dignity he had left, the wolf picked himself up and shook off the snow. He looked at Ryuo, inviting him to play, but the fox shook his head. There were other things he had to do. The wolf seemed to shrug--or maybe that was just the impression he gave--and then he bounded off into the snow headed who knows where.

Ryuo caught up with Rois in the kitchens. Savory scents filled the hallway nearby, especially the scent of freshly baked bread. That was one delicacy Ryuo wished he could take back home.

Rois and her students were at a table eating breakfast; because of her size, Rois had to kneel in order to eat, and she took up one side of the table. The triplets were seated on the other side, and there was a lonely meal at the one empty place that Ryuo assumed was for him.

The other half of the kitchen was busy as various Keepers went about preparing the morning meals. Pots boiled, pans rattled, and the air was full of activity. No doubt the varied diets of many of the Keepers kept the kitchen staff busier than they had been before the Curse.

The chair at Ryuo's place at the table slid out with only a slight grating against the stone floor. He sat down and began to work on the meal in front of him. Slowly, the food began to disappear, but not too fast.

Ryuo spoke little as he ate, listening instead to the dual cacophony of the triplets talking over the equally chaotic noise of the kitchen in the background. Both sounded similarly strange to his ears, although one had an almost musical quality the other lacked.

A few words jumped out of the conversation, but hardly enough to form any idea of what was going on. As soon as one word appeared another replaced it, but Ryuo found himself still stuck on the previous word. The process was painfully slow, but Ryuo tried his best.

Apparently, his attempt was showing on his face, because Rois stopped her eating with a chuckle. Swallowing she said, "Don't worry about it. Understanding will come with practice--and a little help. The Western tongue is difficult, but not impossible."

"It sounds like cackling crows." Ryuo commented in all seriousness.

Rois tried to suppress a smile, "Perhaps, but it serves well." She replied.

Ryuo shrugged and went back to eating and listening. Soon, breakfast was finished and the triplets were clearing the table. "Well," Ryuo said, "Let's see what they're made of."

"Gold." Ryuo declared, "They are all three pure gold-soft and heavy." He sighed, remembering his own training and wondering if he had ever really been so unskilled. Still, there might be something to salvage, and he said so. "If they apply themselves, however, there is a glimmer of hope. There might be a few shards of iron which we can raise to the top and refine into steel."

Rois grinned with a sideways smile, it was interesting watching the fox and his overcritical remarks. She had expected no less, truly. "I didn't think they would be much at first." He watched the three as they raced across the practice room floor, cleaning it with rags pushed in front of them. It had quickly become a contest to see who could race across the floor the fastest.

"All of them have their strengths and weaknesses," Ryuo went on, "Drake is the strongest of all, and already has a fair reach. If we could find a nodachi it may make a suitable weapon for him. Although the great sword is too unwieldy for most people to use, I believe that his strength will make it a viable weapon.

"In contrast, Colin will have problems with anything due to his size. He may be able to pick up a wakizashi," Ryuo suggested as he picked up the short training sword that Colin had been working with, "or perhaps a jo. The shorter staff is a good choice for one his size, but does not have the cutting power of a good sword.

"Finally, Aisha. She seemed most impressed with the gunsen demonstration. Unfortunately, the iron fan is hardly a practical weapon, although it is useful to know all one can. I think she would be well to take up the naginata, the woman’s traditional weapon. Such a glaive would give her a versatility the fans would not, and it has a greater reach. In truth, the naginata is one of the best, if woefully overlooked, weapons for the earthbound warrior on an open field."

"So that's it then?" Rois enquired.

"For now," Ryuo said, "How often did you want to train?"

"I was thinking twice a week with you, plus regular practice to learn more Western techniques." Rois told him.

"That is acceptable." Ryuo agreed. He had learned a healthy respect for the western shield techniques. Although he disdained hiding behind it, it gave a swordsman an excellent advantage.

"In that case, let's go meet Sindia for lunch, shall we?" Rois enquired. Ryuo agreed and set down the wooden practice sword. Together, they left the students to finish cleaning up and straightening out the training room.

Sindia, as it turned out, was a lithe and supple leopard-morph, somewhere in her twenties. She wore a simple, yet elegant dress that reached to the floor, and a jacket over that to ward off the cold. Her fingers were slim and delicate and fortunately still mostly human. Many Keepers had been cursed with paws that could hardly grasp a quill, although some inventions had been made to help them, they still missed much of the dexterity that comes with an opposable thumb. Sindia, however, held her knife and spoon with a delicate grace between her slim fingers, eating with a stately grace.

As fox and centaur approached, she began to speak. Rois acted as a translator for Ryuo. "Welcome, Ryuo, my name's Sindia, and I have been talking with Rois about introducing you to our language. I am happy to say, I may have something that will be of assistance. More appropriately, I think Father Hough might have one. It's a Follower missionary canticle, and I'm pretty sure he'd let you borrow it to practice your reading."

"Canticle?" Ryuo asked, unfamiliar with the term, which had no direct translation into Yamato-go.

"The Follower religion's holy book. It is the basis of their beliefs."

"Like the Books of War and the Sayings of the Enlightened One?" Ryuo asked.

"Similar." Rois said, unsure how to describe it properly. Sindia looked at the two and Rois explained the problem.

"It contains the words of our Lord and Saviour," she explained, "And the stories of our God. The one I am thinking about was meant as part of a mission to your land; what it is doing here I know not. It is written in your language, Yamato-go, and ours. I think it will help you learn the language."

"In addition," Sindia continued, "We have numerous books of lettering. I thought I would bring a few with me." She put the books out as Rois translated, "I think this should be a good start." She said.

"Thank you very much." Ryuo said sincerely, "This will be wonderful."

"Anything to help." Sindia smiled.

Days later, Ryuo sat in his small, dark room as the winds howled about outside. Sheets of paper lay to one side, all with practice letters drawn on them. He had only picked up a few, although he had his notes from the first talk with Sindia and Rois on the sounds of each one, and he was slowly working his way through a random passage in the huge book.

As one finger moved across the page, he wondered why the Westerners used such large and bulky texts rather than the much more convenient scrolls. In addition, the text seemed dull, in contrast to the illuminated scrolls of his home, with their elaborate calligraphy and dioramas.

Sighing, he began the painful task of sounding out the passage before him:"Y..Yea I wal..walk sur..sru..through za..zha..the obu..ovu..of.. Yea zough I walk srough za balley of dess..death.." Ryuo closed his eyes to collect himself. Taking a deep breath, he continued, piecing together the words into the long, dark night.