Prologue

Wish Tree

 

The University of Tokyo Hospital, July 7, 1996

 

THE FOX padded silently into the darkened parking lot, carefully avoiding the glittering golden pools cast by the streetlights. Making his way through the city, darting from one shadowed alleyway to another, had not been easy, and it had taken time, but he’d made a game of avoiding the humans. Some he allowed to see him, disappearing back into the gloom between the neon lights before they could get a second look, leaving them to ponder if he had really been there. Providing the humans a brief glimpse into the world beyond their mundane lives and making them wonder had always been one of his favorite entertainments. He especially enjoyed it when he could lead them on a merry chase, but he had no time for tricks tonight. He had barely reached the hospital on time, due to the people on the street celebrating the Star Festival, but he felt sure he hadn’t missed the momentous event.

He stalked around the massive building three times until he found the place where he felt closest to the magic. Then, sitting down on his haunches in a patch of dewy grass and letting the white tip of his brush curl over his dark brown paws, he looked up at the rows of small square windows. Some were dark and reflected the city beyond them, but most glowed with orange light.

The fox heard nothing as a familiar scent reached his nose. He inclined his head to sniff at the air, but no sooner had he recognized the aroma than the cat—a small white bobtail with patches of black and russet—sat on his haunches in front of the fox and licked his front paw. The cat took his time grooming, as if it were of the utmost importance at the moment, lapping at his paw and raking it meticulously over his face and small ears. Then he switched to his other paw, spread his toes, and licked between them. When he finally finished, the cat situated himself on his belly with his legs tucked beneath him and met the fox’s gaze with his luminous greenish-yellow eyes.

“Imagine running into you here,” the cat said. He blinked twice, very slowly.

“An amazing coincidence, I’m sure,” the fox replied. “As I am sure I’ll be wasting my time in asking why you have come to this place.”

“As I’m sure I’ll be wasting mine if I ask the same,” the cat said. “I’m not fond of wasting my time. But a moment with an old friend is never a waste. Provided it’s interesting. I think tonight will be interesting, don’t you, fox?”

“Will we really play this game?” the fox asked.

“Why not?” the cat said. “I like to play, and I know you like to play. Why not play until it becomes boring?”

“Because this is important.”

For one of the few times since the fox had known him—and he had known him for a very long time—the cat grew serious and narrowed his eyes to diagonal slashes. “Do you really think it’s him?”

The fox knew he had to be careful. Surely the cat had his own reasons for coming here. He would not be here if it would not benefit or entertain him somehow, and not even a cat would go to such great lengths for entertainment. The fox couldn’t let himself be deceived. Few could deceive a fox, but a cat, this cat—

“I believe you think so, or you would not be here,” the fox said. “Or do you find yourself here on a whim?”

“Cats do everything on a whim. We are like foxes that way. So we can agree. It’s him. He is in that building, about to be born.... er, reborn. And you want to witness it. Why? What do you want with him?”

“Perhaps I am just curious,” the fox said. “We foxes are like cats that way.”

The cat inclined his head in an almost imperceptible bow. “So the foxes do not have plans for him?”

“The foxes would not share their plans with you if they did. We know whom you report to, after all. Surely he is the one who sent you, and surely he desires this power for himself. You cannot deny it.”

“I can do anything I like,” the cat said, sounding unaffected, though the fox noted his annoyance in the twitch of his white whiskers.

“You can attempt it,” the fox conceded, “but you should know that if you or your master try to exploit or enslave this boy—if you try to influence him—you will have to deal with me. I will see he gets to make the choice for himself. You are clever, cat, but I’m a ruthless old bastard, and I have more practice at this game than you.”

“You make it all sound like such fun!” The cat’s pink tongue, bright in the shadows, flickered out to swipe across his little pink nose. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to convince me to try to take him from you.”

“Not from me,” the fox said. “He deserves to live. This time, in this life, he deserves to choose how he uses his gifts. He has suffered enough. If anyone knows that, it is you.”

At that, the cat fell silent and stretched out his paw to examine his claws. The fox knew it had been a cruel strike, but he had trouble finding much sympathy for the cat. The cat had made his decisions, after all, and the consequences rested on his shoulders alone. They had that in common.

“Will you try to take him?” the cat asked after a while.

The fox wished such a thing were possible. He could show the boy a happy and fun life deep within the most mystical parts of the forest, and it would be easier to protect him. He could teach him to hunt and play tricks and find treasure, to hear the voices of the trees and the breeze and the sky, and to use all the magic the foxes knew. But he looked down his long snout at the flat face of the cat and snorted. “He is human. He should be raised by his own kind. Will you—or the one you serve—try to take him?”

“I told you, I’m only here on a fancy. Maybe I like the pretty decorations the mortals hang in the trees. It hardly affects my life, what happens to one human baby out of how many millions.”

The fox didn’t bother arguing or trying to coerce the cat into saying this human was special and he knew it. Only the greatest of fools argued with a cat. One might as well try to convince the wind to change direction. “I’ll be watching, so keep away from him.”

“Only an idiot tries to order a cat around.”

The fox had to admit the cat spoke the truth. “But only a bigger idiot challenges a fox. I’m offering you a warning, as a friend, cat.”

“Oh, are we friends? It seems someone forgot to inform me.”

They might have continued the debate for the rest of the night, but the ground vibrated beneath the fox’s paws. Though the night was clear, a few splinters of lightning spread across the sky over the hospital, brilliant even against the bright lights of Tokyo. The fox’s hair stood out as miniature storms moved across his skin. His muscles tightened and trembled as the surge of magic washed over him like a tidal wave. For a second, less than the time it took him to stand, the entire world—the wisps of clouds moving lazily across the heavens, the grass bending in the wind, and the leaves rustling on the trees—seemed to fall still and wait. Creation seemed to pause and offer a small bow of respect to the returning soul. The cat got to his feet and arched his back, his hackles raised. The fox imagined the humans shopping, eating, drinking on the streets, and tying their wishes to tree branches in the vicinity would pause in their conversations and look at the sky, distracted, whatever they had been doing forgotten for a heartbeat. But unlike the cat and himself, they would not know why.

As quickly as it had erupted, the magic fizzled and faded away. The fox blinked and sat on his haunches while the cat yawned and stretched, his backside high in the air. The humans would be shaking their heads, disoriented like they’d just woken up, asking each other what they had been talking about or doing. They would forget the moment, would not know it mattered. The fox couldn’t do that. Now that he had confirmed what the other foxes and forest spirits suspected, he had to plan, and he had to watch. The cat and his master would not be the only ones eager to manipulate the boy if they learned of his existence.

“No mistaking that,” the cat said, looking up at the rows of orange windows. “I think we can assume he’s here. The question is what will happen next.”

The fox desperately wanted to learn what the cat and his master knew, what they planned, but if he asked, the cat would only lie, toy with him, and try to string him along. He had no desire to make himself easy prey, to bleed for the creature’s entertainment. Nor could he let his desperation show. He had already seen evidence of the changes in the world, in the places of the spirits and the shadows beyond what the mortals perceived, and he knew the need would be great soon enough. But that would not matter to the cat, and the fox could hardly hate the cat for his selfishness; it was his nature, and he couldn’t defy it.

The cat gave a huge, theatrical yawn, exposing his rows of pin-sharp teeth. He twisted his neck and licked his shoulder twice before leveling his glowing gaze on the fox. After watching him for a few moments, the cat seemed to decide he’d get nothing further from the fox, and without a word, he turned and bounded back into the darkness. The fox watched him go, and then he turned his attention back to the building. Inside, the baby would be bathed, wrapped in a blanket, and handed to his smiling parents. The fox wondered if they had any idea of the treasure they held. Probably not. Humans were so blind to the world and what went on at the edges of their vision that the fox wondered how they survived at all.

He huffed out a snort. He’d be satisfied if the common man and woman could keep the boy safe until fate determined their paths should cross. Then the fox would have his prize. Until then, he could only keep himself hidden and watch.

As he left, the fox’s brush grazed the ornaments the humans had hung in the trees—their simple wishes scrawled across strips of paper. He didn’t stop to read their aspirations, but he wondered if their wishes would change if they knew what lay ahead of them. If they knew, their only hopes would be to avoid the inevitable pain.