Cover by A. R. Shellnut
This is the first chapter of a novel I will be serializing here on this blog. If you like what you read please consider visiting my Patreon! The novel will be completely free to read on this blog, but becoming my Patreon will allow me to spend more time focusing on my writing.
Rina knew that she was a rather methodical studier. While most undergrads would gladly be up half the night watching Youtube videos and generally goofing off with their friends until it was too late to even bother making an effort to study, she very much enjoyed the calm state of mind she could attain while delving into the material for one of her classes. Her love of studying was what had spurred her to apply for a single dorm room this year. As much as she loved her friends, she needed this alone time for her own peace of mind, and even the most understanding of friends rarely managed to keep themselves from being a distraction for a satisfactory length of time. Hanging out with friends was something she liked to plan for, it did not have to be a long term, standing date or anything of that sort, but she did not like to have her personal time interrupted by spur of the moment flights of fancy that she could not gracefully turn down without seeming like a total spoil sport. Having a single dorm room saved her from the worst of that.
This room was a haven for her, and a buffer between her and a social circle that was, well, much more social than her. She considered herself to be a prime example of an introvert. While she was not necessarily shy in most social situations, she did need a substantial amount of alone time to recharge from any amount of socialization. The solitude of her study time was refreshing and she guarded it carefully from the constant siren’s call of the myriad of social activities offered on the college campus.
Tonight the plan was to stay in. Studying was the first order of business, but she allowed that she would probably watch some television as a break later on. Not even food was going to lure her out into the world tonight. She had a reasonably healthy meal tucked away within her mini fridge for later.
First on her list of projects for the night was a rather lengthy reading for her anthropology class. The subject matter was interesting enough, but the reading was rather dry so she thought it best to get it out of the way as soon as possible.
As the night wore on she found herself growing tired. She checked her phone. 10:27. Still early by most standards, but she did have a morning class the next day. Going to bed now might mean she could have something more than coffee for breakfast. That seemed like motivation enough for her.
Now it officially was bed time.
She could not remember the last time she went to bed this early, but sleeping made more sense than fighting to stay awake and failing to be productive. A lot had been accomplished tonight and she would not be going to class unprepared the next day. All was well and she could sleep.
Tending to the garden was not one of Yuzuki’s favorite tasks. She lacked a green thumb. Plants did not whither and die just because they were under her care, but they did not flourish as they did under the attentions of some. She supposed she merely possessed ordinary, flesh-toned thumbs.
While she might not want to be in the garden, she also knew there were other places she could be that were far worse than the garden at this time. At least she was not at home for a few hours today.
The garden was made for function more than beauty. Rows and rows of crops filled most of the space — these were shared by everyone in the community, which was why every family was expected to contribute to their care. Some of the more horticulturally inclined did grow plants that served no real purpose other than decoration. Yuzuki was far from that level of skill. She did not know enough to even feel that she could fully appreciate the amount of skill those sorts of plants took to grow properly. As far as her knowledge went a plant’s success could be determined by whether or not she could harvest some sort of food from it.
Today she had been handed a packet of seeds when she showed up at the garden and was gruffly told to plant them by Ren, one of the older gardeners. She set to work in one of the empty, freshly tilled rows. She did not even know what she was planting. Most of the grown plants were easy enough to identify, but going off the seeds was beyond her abilities as well as her inclination to learn.
“You’re planting those too deep in the soil, you know,” a silky, smooth voice said from not far behind her.
She jumped and turned around to face the one who had managed to sneak up on her. It might not be the most enthralling of tasks and her mind may have been wandering a bit, but she still liked to think that she had a basic awareness of her surroundings. That was not to mention the fact that startling a person was not a very polite thing to do. She was already preparing herself to tell off Mr. Sneak-up-behind-her — the idea fit right in with her goal of trying to be more assertive with people outside of her home in hopes that she would learn to be more assertive with her family.
Once she turned around and noticed the silver-white hair of the one talking to her and all boldness drained right out of her. Only one person around here had hair that color and he would never talk to her. Souma had never so much as said a word to her, even though they had lived in this village together for as long as Yuzuki was able to remember. He was older than her — not so old as to be quite a full grown adult yet, but he was old enough that he never had a reason to socialize with someone her age. When she was younger, still too young to be doing much more than playing games and being underfoot, she remembered her older sisters whispering about Souma as though he were both alluring and somehow a bit dangerous. Her mother only reinforced the belief that he was dangerous by forbidding any of them from having anything to do with him. Everyone said he looked like a tenko, but Yuzuki had never seen a real tenko before so she had no idea whether such a label was accurate.
All she knew at this very instant was that talking to him would end up being bad news for her. But there was not really a valid way out of it. Of course she could try to act like she did not hear him, or just ignore him, but she had already turned around and that would ruin any attempts to play this off as temporary deafness.
Finally she found the ability to speak again. Fortunately it returned to her before she flapped her jaw at him like an idiot.
“I was just told to plant them. It’s not my fault if no one bothered to explain how to do it properly.”
“You should have asked if you didn’t know. Most people here at least know how to plant seeds.”
She wanted to be able to say that he spoke with acid in his voice, that he was trying to be cruel, to make her miserable, but there was none of that. He was failing to meet nearly all of her expectations. The only one he managed to live up to was his absolutely hypnotizing good looks. He was even better looking up close than he was from a distance. She had to wonder if tenko were all as eye-catching as him.
Finally she had to avert her eyes or she knew she would never manage to say anything at all.
“I thought I did know. No one told me I was doing it wrong before now.”
He sighed. “Let me show you.”
He knelt down next to her and held out his hand. She just stared mutely down at him for a moment before realizing he wanted the seeds she was clinging to like a lifeline. She handed them to him and watched as he showed her the proper way to plant the seeds.
“You’re little Yuzu, right?” He asked after he had planted about a half dozen seeds for her.
“Yuzuki,” she insisted. “And I’m not little.”
He glanced up at her.
“No. I suppose you aren’t. Your sister Motoko always called you Yuzu. You were little back then.”
“So I am.”
“My mother told all of us not to speak to you.”
For some reason that made him smile. She could not fathom why. Social isolation was nearly as good as a death sentence for young kitsune. Their abilities took a long time to develop and until that time they were vulnerable to pretty much anything and everything out there in the world. Souma and his mother lived on the very fringes of the community. The threat was readily apparent to anyone living here. They were one wrong step away from losing their place and being utterly isolated.
He was toeing the line by having this conversation with her right now. She had warned him. She told him that her mother did not want her to speak to him. That should have been his cue to leave, but he stayed.
Technically they were no longer defying her mother’s wishes as long as they said no more words to each other. It was a loophole and would probably do nothing to save her if her parents found out what she was doing, but she was honestly enjoying her little secret rebellion, and she was not ready to give it up just yet.