This story is based on the XWP episodes The Debt - Parts I & II. The characters of Lao Ma, Xena, and Gabrielle belong to MCA. The story is mine.
THE FOX OF CHIN
by Bongo Bear
March 30, 1998
Listen to the Audio Version or Download mp3
When a fox is fifty years old, it can transform itself into a woman. When a hundred years old, it becomes a beautiful female capable of the most ardent seduction. Such beings can know about things at more than a thousand leagues away. Their sorcery can poison men, or possess and bewilder them, so that they lose their memory and knowledge. And when a fox is thousand years old, it ascends to heaven and becomes a celestial.
- Guo Pu’s book of fox lore
When the world was young, the land of Chin was a mystical place where everyone believed in the Gods and in Magic. Spirits and demons of every kind filled the dark voids between Heaven above and Hell below. Wonderous creatures had their places in that world. We gleefully haunted your homes and romped in your dreams. Most importantly, we faithfully served our mistresses in good times and bad.
Perhaps you know of my kind; I am a Fox. Not just any common breed of fox, mind you. In the land of Chin, we Foxes stand well apart from our wild brethren. I am a humble servant to the House of Lao. My esteemed mistress was Lao Ma. Ah, perhaps you’ve heard of her? If not, do not despair, for history knows Lao Tzu, her alter ego and husband in name only.
My family served the matriarchs of the House of Lao for a one hundred generations. After I die, there will be no more Foxes from my den for the House of Lao is no more. My dear mistress, who could see into your very heart, blinded herself to the darkness within her son. I have often wondered how a good woman could bring forth such evil from her loins. Perhaps she wondered, too. By her son’s own traitorous hand, she crossed over to the Heavenly Plane long before her time. I shed many tears at her loss, but not as many as under her brat’s cruel authority.
The Green Dragon, as the brat wished to be known, declared war upon my kind. He knew our allegiance to the House of Lao, his ill-gotten House, was severed the moment he executed his mother. My kind were potential traitors in his midst that he could not abide. So, he offered gold for every Fox’s hide. Soon, the fluttering red fur of my feral brethren and the white fur of royal retainers grimly festooned nearly every village and even the Great Wall itself!
But just when I thought all was lost, my mistress appeared to me in a dream.
She told me of a woman who lived far away in the land of the Western barbarians. This warrior woman had within her the power to make the Green Dragon small again. My mistress’ emissaries brought the warrior to our land. Despite her beloved’s naive treachery and overwhelming odds, this magnificent warrior shrank the mighty dragon into an insignificant lizard, barely fit for snatching mosquitoes out of the air. I awoke from the dream and traveled to the court just in time to see the spectacle with my own eyes.
The supreme happiness I felt upon seeing the hair pin quivering in his temple like some black insect set me dancing wildly about the ruins of his throne room. The evil that corrupted his soul quickly corrupted his flesh. Before my eyes, his face caved in upon itself. His body collapsed into a pile of dust and bones, leaving an empty silk robe to sit upon the throne. No one dared remove the bones or repair the room. Everyone feared the latent power that still emanated from every crevice, every brick, every frescoed wall. I didn’t care.
Parts of the ceiling collapsed during the warrior woman's assault on the Green Dragon. The gaps allowed many kinds of light to fall through. At night, I bathed languidly in the cool silvery moonlight. During the day, I slept in the shadows between warm shafts of golden sunlight. The timelessness of settled ruin had come to the land of Chin and I didn’t care.
The Green Dragon ruled for no fewer than five thousand days. I resolved to celebrate his death with a dance for each one of them. On the seventh day of the seventh week, the impromptu festivities ended abruptly when a sudden swirling of dust made me cough and sputter. When the dust cleared, the motes pressed themselves together to form the likeness of my mistress! Even though the spiritual body of Lao Ma pointed her finger at me accusingly, her eyes still glowed with the same kindness and understanding she had in life.
"How dare you revel like some filthy drunkard while the land comes to ruin?" she told me sharply. She advanced toward me until I could back up no further. Then she snatched me up from the floor and brusquely shook out the dirt and filth that matted my once gleaming alabaster fur. "Look at yourself," she chided. "Is this how my Fox retainer presents herself?"
Oh, I should have cared at least a little.
Despite the scolding tone of her voice, she cradled me comfortingly in her arms like a dear pet. I did not realize how much I missed her warm embrace until then. She tickled my ears and caressed my belly. I affectionately licked her cheek and tasted the salt. I never wanted to leave her side ever again. But she gave me no choice. She came back for a reason. Of course, her time here was limited.
"I have a mission for you, my Fox," she said. "If this throne is left empty for too long, warlords will vie for it. They will waste the land and her people to claim a stick of furniture. Warlords know nothing of statecraft." She sighed deeply. I felt her pain, knowing that all her life’s work poured into the Great Book would come to such a bitter end if something was left undone.
"There is a chance, however, for a proper ruler to come to power. A child from an honorable house has been born this night," she said.
"Where is this child, Mistress?"
"I cannot say, for to do so would compromise her safety."
"The child will be an Empress?"
"Yes! There are so few in the world. But yes, if she survives, she will rise and rule Chin."
"What must I do?" I breathed.
"An Empress must have the mandate of Heaven to rule, as do the Sons of Heaven. The mandate is evident in this stone." She produced plain looking river rock. Nothing about it indicated any heavenly power whatsoever. I looked at my mistress questioningly.
"Until a woman of power and honor, a leader of her people blesses this stone, the mandate of Heaven is incomplete and the child cannot sit on the throne. You must find her. I once knew of such a woman. Now you know her. You dreamt of her."
"The warrior of my dreams?"
"Yes, she is the warrior of many a dream." She smiled, perhaps more to herself than to me. "Find her and you will fulfill the mandate. Secure her blessing upon this stone and bring it back to me. But do not reveal that I sent you."
"To secure Chin’s independence, the child must mature without outlander influences. It was a foolish attempt before to allow barbarians into our land in the hopes of pitting them against rival houses. Our kingdom is even more fragile now. If the warrior knows who is asking to fulfill the mandate, she will come. I won’t make that mistake again."
"But why involve the dream warrior at all?"
"The lands of the West imbue a critical vitality in its people. The best warriors can wage death because they love and live life so intensely. Chin needs a touch of that passion, just a touch, to bring balance to our Way. That is the treasure I gained from their visit before and wish to have again."
Lao Ma dropped the rock into a tiny leather pouch and hung it around my neck. Then she pointed my moist nose towards the setting sun.
First, I became a vapor so the winds could carry me to my destination. The Magic of Foxes can do that, you see. This is how: I focused on the chi inside and willed it free of its host. Once freed, its natural state is a thick mist that can be squeezed into any container, into any body, through any crack. As I exhaled, I watched it flow from my nostrils and hang suspended before my sharp snout. My body grew more and more transparent until it became entirely mist. Even the pouch around my neck transformed into vapor. All was ready. I turned to see my mistress wave goodbye, then I threw myself into the winds blowing toward the Western lands.
The lands of barbarians. The lands of people of many hues -- some swarthy, some fair, and all shades in between. Rumor has it that their eyes can shine iridescently like fire opals or glow warmly like well-rubbed mahogany. All of them possess an exuberance, an energy, so different from the people of Chin. Whereas we value harmony and the steady rhythm of living, these barbarians thrived on dynamic changes and the play of passions. Despite my proper upbringing in the House of Lao, I secretly desired a sampling of that passion. I wished to ride the highs of life’s joys and lows of its sorrows, all while risking the subtle harmony of my wa. I hate to admit it, but to follow the Way is to sometimes trade life’s sweet rapture for numbing tranquility.
Perhaps if I were born human, the Way might give me peace. But the Gods made me a simple beast with a beast’s appetites. My feral nature would guide me to my mistress’ goal.
From my perch in the wind, I heard the voices of the people below. Most of them chattered about mundane things. Deciding which chicken to pluck for the evening repast. Chasing the chicken in the yard. Hearing the unfortunate bird’s last squawk. Finally, after careful spicing and cooking, the smacking of satisfied lips. Ugh! My stomach reminded me with a growl that even an insubstantial Fox needs sustenance. In my haste, I forgot to pack a lunch.
I know I should have planned better and stopping stole precious time from my mission, but I was so hungry! Surely, my mistress would have understood. So, I looked down to find a suitable landing spot. I guided the wind lower and lower until I could materialize and leap out of the air stream. My misty form rolled like a tumbleweed as it separated from the wind. With each rotation, my body coalesced into substance: bone, sinew, flesh, and fur. Finally, my solid paws touched the earth.
With my upturned nose, I breathed in the air as if for the first time. I scented the fragrant smoke of cooking fires nearby. On its tendrils was someone’s dinner being turned slowly on a spit. Rabbit? Chicken? Frog? Before letting my imagination run completely wild, I decided to seek out some game.
I trotted through the forest listening for any rustle that could be a meal. As luck would have it, I spied a pheasant pecking at some grain scattered at its feet. I slowly stalked it from behind, keeping my scent well downwind of my prey. Then I pounced on the hapless fowl. As my forepaws landed on either side of the bird, a rope immediately tightened around them and jerked me into the air. I looked down to see my hind legs dangling several body lengths above the ground. I howled. I snarled. I squirmed helplessly. I struggled until I was exhausted. Of course, my dinner was long gone. I hung there wondering whose dinner I had replaced. Dusk was coming soon.
The Gods were smiling that night for the full moon’s cold light flooded the landscape. Its quiet strength filled my being and gave me the power to change form. Now, the warrior woman could only be approached with stealth and great care. My form needed to be one full of complexity --- guile and gentleness, strength and beauty. Naturally, I became a woman. A woman with a Fox’s tail. My kind can’t quite hide every aspect of our nature.
My human form was long enough to touch the earth. Once my bare feet were planted on the ground, the rope had enough slack to loosen the coil around my wrists and escape the snare. Sniffing the air again, I walked deeper into the forest in search of the source of the mouthwatering scents.
Eventually, I came upon an encampment of several tents staked out beneath the forest’s canopy. I could see the moving shadows of people cast upon the tan canvases. After a few moments, it became obvious that all the shadows were of women in feathered head dresses. This was a hunting party’s camp of women you know as Amazons. My tail twitched in anticipation.
Stunned by my good fortune, I accidentally stumbled into a laundry line of sun-bleached robes. I quickly donned one and tucked my tail under the robe. The small leather bag was still safely hung around my neck. I tucked that into the vee of the robe as well. Feeling somewhat presentable, I barked a piercing cry for help.
The Amazons came pouring out of their tents with torches and weapons toward the washing area where I stood. They pointed their spears and arrows at me as I raised my arms high above my head in surrender. Clasping my hands made it a greeting they immediately recognized. Seeing that I was unarmed, they lowered their weapons. Cautiously, they approached me with ropes to bind my hands and led me along on a leash into the largest tent.
Two women were on a dais in the center of the tent. One was lounging on simple cushions while the other stood off to the side. The one standing was tall, dark, and well-armed. Apparently, she was the seated one’s personal guard. I could only assume the woman casually lounging on the cushion was the hunting party’s leader. She radiated a golden hue visible to my preternatural eyes.
The guard holding my leash said, "Pardon the intrusion, my Queen! The royal guard found this thief stealing our laundry." She tugged at the borrowed robe. I was looking demurely down at my bare feet. I briefly glanced up, then fell to my knees to bow as deeply as possible, hoping my posture in human form would be seen as a supplication.
The tall one stepped off the dais to approach me. "Who are you? Why are you here? Surely, you weren’t just here to steal clothing." She grabbed me under my chin to force me to stand and look into her eyes. Crystal blue eyes as such I had never seen before. She looked me up and down. When her eyes fell upon my feet, her left eyebrow rose on a sudden realization. "You skulking around … naked?"
"Ye-es," I stammered. "I am a simple traveler set upon by, um, robbers. Yes, robbers. They stole all my provisions and possessions. They left me naked. Right. Naked by the side of the road with not even a sandal. I humbly ask your assistance so I may continue on my way."
"On your way to where?" the Queen asked.
"I seek a Queen and her consort. I’m not exactly sure where."
"I am Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon nation." She spread her hands, palms up. "And this is Greece. My friend who has you by the throat is Xena. I suppose you could say she is my consort."
Xena looked over her shoulder at the Queen. "So, I’m just your consort now? I used to be known as a Warrior Princess." Although the Queen merely shrugged, I could see a sly smile play upon her lips.
My ears perked up on Xena’s last two words. Lao Ma once said she wanted to rule Chin with the Warrior Princess by her side. I knew for sure then I had found them. These were the right Amazons, not the ones of the steppes.
"Again, who are *you*?" Xena tightened her hold on my throat and wrapped the slack end of leash still around my neck around her other hand.
"I am called Fox," I croaked out, standing on my tiptoes as she pulled up on my chin. The warrior of my dreams was hell bent on throttling the messenger.
"Xena, let her go. Can’t you see she’s harmless?"
Xena growled, "I seriously doubt it." She dropped her hand. "One wrong move." She drew the nail of her thumb across her throat.
The Queen clapped her hands. "Bring in some food and drink. Fox, sit down." She patted an extra cushion on the dais. "And tell us everything."
As I started to tell the tale, the Amazons brought in a large plate of fruit and cheese with pitchers of strong ale to wash it all down. This is where things got ugly. Because, you see, Foxes from the East are easily lost in the cups. We’re beasts after all. Put food in front of a Fox and we’ll gobble it all down. Put strong drink in front of a Fox and we don’t know how to stop.
Well into the third round of ale, I watched my long bushy tail slip out from behind my legs. To the Queen’s dismay, and perhaps to mine, it wrapped around her ankle and began caressing her calf. What can I say? A Fox’s tail has a mind of its own.
Before it could reach the inner sanctum of the Queen’s upper thigh, Xena hauled me up by the tail and growled, "What foul, rude creature are you? You’re rattling my wa, Fox!" The warrior drew her sword and poised it to sever my foxhood.
"Wait!" I cried. "Did you say ‘wa’ ?"
"What of it?"
"But you know of wa," I said quickly. "Only my people from the land of …"
"Chin! I know of wa from Lao Ma. You’re from Chin! You said you were from Japa, you little liar!"
The warrior whacked off my tail with a single blow. I fell from her grasp. Oh, you should have seen how wide her blue eyes grew when another tail instantly took its place. I had earned nine tails in the decades of service to my mistress. Even so, I didn’t want to lose them all at once to the warrior’s rage.
"Foxes have spread beyond to the Land of Japa as well. My cousins there call themselves Kitsune. We both value wa. But yes, I am a Fox of Chin. I was devoted to Lao Ma during her life and still am after her death."
With that I returned to my true form, a pure white Fox with eyes of gold. With eight tails and counting down. I hoped to keep most of them before this night was over. I quietly sat on my haunches while the Queen and her consort regarded the transformation.
"I knew it, Gabrielle! This creature is a trickster. We can’t trust a word she says!"
"Now we know why she was naked when she first came." The Queen let wry humor soften her tone. As her slow grin creased around the jade of her eyes, I decided to make my case to her and hope for the best.
"My Lady, ‘tis true that the Foxes of Chin can be tricksters when we need to be and we don’t wear clothes in our natural form." I stepped out of the robe that piled where I fell. "But I assure you my purpose here is honorable." As I bowed a deep apology to both the warrior and her queen, I feared they could see the fresh tail twitching nervously.
"So, you *can* speak in this form," the Queen noted. "Speak now. Tell the truth, the whole truth, this time." She cocked her head over to Xena.
Xena nodded as she palmed her ever present, ever sharp sword. She already decorated her armor with my lost tail. "Beware. I can collect tails all night long."
An odd look passed between those two. Then the Queen motioned to me to speak. I recounted my mission. This time leaving nothing out and adding nothing more. "And yes, Lao Ma needs your help once last time."
"We already know she’s dead. How can she possibly want anything?" the warrior asked.
"My mistress’ unfinished business has made her a Hungry Ghost. She can only be satisfied when a just ruler can sit on Chin’s throne. Your Greek hero, Ulysses, spilled blood in Hades to call forth the dead. Likewise, the unsettled dead groan with hunger in my land."
"You know of our epic stories?" The Queen was surprised.
"My Lady, I have read your scrolls. Did you know that scribes copied them and now they are scattered everywhere you have been?" The bard turned queen beamed at this revelation.
"But Lao Ma doesn’t want either of us to set foot again in Chin. I’m trying very hard not to take offense. It was only a few months ago that I dealt with Ming Tien." I could see Xena’s accusing glare just barely overshadowing the hurt in her voice.
I thought furiously about how to salvage this mission. Foxes aren’t known for our diplomacy. At best, we eat. We drink. We know a few things. But not this. I called upon the Magic and exhaled a heavy mist from which some part of Lao Ma’s corporeal substance could form. Slowly, the mist coalesced into a semblance of her face. Then she spoke.
"Hear me, oh Warrior Princess. Fox is my retainer with whom I am mostly well pleased."
Xena snickered, "She only said ‘mostly’."
"Do not harm my servant any further," Lao Ma’s spirit commanded. Xena looked non-committal. I involuntarily yipped.
"Hear me, Queen Gabrielle. I never demanded perfection from Xena when she was my apprentice nor do I demand it now of you. I once told Xena this: ‘Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things.’ You are filled with the desire to make Xena someone she is not yet ready to be. Xena’s debt was only partially paid because of your intervention. She struggles constantly to balance the darkness and light within herself. Let her strike that balance at her own pace, in her own way."
"But I saw and heard Xena tell Ming Tien no one would follow him anymore," Gabrielle said.
"I don’t think Ming Tien heard her," I said quietly. "Surely, the hair pin in his right temple affected his hearing."
"Xena is already the person you wanted her to be," Gabrielle said to Lao Ma. "She is the person I want her to be and I love her for that." Gabrielle looked at me. "Wait, what did you say?"
"Xena didn’t tell you everything, did she?" Lao Ma said. "I knew the throne was dangerously empty as soon as Ming Tien entered the afterlife. Everybody knows everybody else’s business there. There are no secrets in Hell."
"I had to kill him," Xena explained. "He had nothing but contempt for his own mother. I loved her. I wanted to kill him. That’s the truth."
"You said you loved me and then you lied to me!" Gabrielle shouted at
"I wasn’t lying about loving you," Xena whispered.
"You Greeks have this saying about how the dead can hear your thoughts," Lao Ma said. "In Chin, the living listen to the dead. I’m long dead. Hear my thoughts. Ming Tien’s death left the land in turmoil, crying out for a new leader. The child who would be empress needs the mandate of Heaven. Otherwise, the warlords of Chin will never accept her claim. Xena, take the pouch from Fox and breathe on the stone within."
The Warrior Princess poured out the contents into her palm after blowing into the pouch. The unremarkable river stone my mistress gave me before the journey was re-shaped into a cabochon. Even though Xena was not yet the woman Lao Ma needed her to be, she was able to prime the stone. Xena held the power. She passed the stone to Gabrielle.
When the Amazon Queen brushed the stone across her lips, the plain rock turned into a brilliant jade cabochon with the Moon Dragon carved on its face. Gabrielle held the honor. She placed the cabochon, now called the Dragon Stone, back into the pouch that had hung around my neck for so long.
After I returned to Chin, Lao Ma’s spirit appeared to the child-empress and placed the Dragon Stone around her neck. Then she appointed a Dragon of Chin to serve as the child’s regent. But that’s another story. When the child came of age years later, she became the greatest Empress of Chin.
Now the debt was finally paid in full.
The world is old now and so am I. The spirits have faded away leaving the Earth more emptied than ever. Xena’s pogrom against the Gods of Olympus spread throughout the world. You no longer believe in many Gods, but in the many incarnations of One. Everywhere, science and calculations have replaced magic and the mysteries. You cannot comprehend what you cannot measure with your scales and calipers. There is no place for wonderous creatures these days. Like the Gods of Olympus, we faded from history into myth.
My mistress once said, "Heaven endures and the Earth lasts a long time because we do not live for ourselves. Therefore, she who lives a long time should live for others. Serve others." I am down to the last tail in Lao Ma’s service and will soon lie down by her side forever. The Amazon Queen Gabrielle and her magnificent Warrior Princess, Xena, love and battle on.
Return to Bongo Bear's FanFic Page
Return to The Bard's Corner