CHAPTER ONE

*

"Come back here!"

The princess's call was ignored. The gray kitten scampered over the tree roots and across a narrow streambed. Without looking back, it slithered under a heavy wooden gate and into the long, waving grass.

Frustrated, Yoshiko pushed open the gate. She could see a little streak of silvery gray slipping like a ghost through the grass. Fortunately the kitten was little more than a baby; he never strayed very far. But in the grass, he might get lost and have trouble finding his way back to the garden.

Yoshiko grabbed the sides of her layered kimonos and began running after the kitten, to the edge of the forest. She glanced back at the castle, to see if anyone had seen her go. The only person was the ancient, half-blind gardener who pottered around the magnolia trees at odd hours. He was raking the gravel paths, humming tunelessly to himself.

I'll find the kitten and be back before anyone notices, she thought.

A narrow path overgrown with weeds wound into the woods. Yoshiko went as quickly as she dared. Branches caught at her thin silk clothing, and vines tripped her up. She steadied herself on a tree branch and called, "Where are you?" A rustle in the underbrush was her reply. She saw a pale gray streak dart under the leaves and into a ditch. But when she reached it, the kitten was gone.

After awhile, Yoshiko glanced over her shoulder. She couldn't see the castle anymore, although the overgrown path wound back the way she had come; at least she wasn't really lost. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, feeling uneasy. A cold breeze blew through the woods.

Then she heard a scratching noise from behind a massive tree. "There you are," she called. "Come on out!"

In response, a dark shape stepped around the tree. Yoshiko froze. It wasn't her lost kitten.

At first she thought it was a man, although he would have been the tallest man she had ever seen. He was wearing richly-embroidered clothing edged in red, and light silver armor over his shoulders and chest. A long, worn sword hung from his waist. At first glance, he looked like a nobleman, perhaps a wealthy warrior. But he wasn't a human. A mane of silver hair fell down his back, and his stern face was bone-white, except for thin purplish stripes running up his cheekbones. His ears were long and pointed like willow leaves. And his eyes were the color of gold -- staring straight at her.

A demon.

Her breath caught in her throat. For a moment, Yoshiko was too afraid to move, too afraid to speak. The demon did not move or say anything, just continued staring at her with those piercing yellow eyes.

Then Yoshiko turned and ran as fast as she could. She flew over the tangled vines and weeds, not looking back for fear of what she would see behind her. Her breath came in little gasps and whimpers. Suddenly her foot slipped, and she stumbled to her knees. She staggered back up and ran over the winding path, until she burst back out into the sunlight.

Yoshiko didn't slow down until the wooden gate had banged shut behind her. The old gardener looked up and scratched his head. "All well, m'lady?" he asked, pausing in his raking.

"Yes," Yoshiko said breathlessly. "I'm fine..."

But she wasn't fine. She was still frightened. Her father had told her about demons like that one. They weren't like the little kitsune tricksters, or the dumb beasts like that giant centipede that had ravaged some nearby farms a few years before. They could be savage and cunning, with power that could destroy dozens of humans in one sweep. Yoshiko had never thought she would actually run into one face-to-face.

She wrapped her arms around herself. "Well, it doesn't matter now," she murmured. "I don't think he followed me. I just hope I don't see him again..."

TO BE CONTINUED