The Dark Sacrifice
In the Land of Shin, an offering is made and accepted.
Amas gave up–not another! Her husband and daughter lost in the same month. The villagers whispered about her luck, as if they had any right! The village had not fared well in years. The baby did not move as she wrapped him. He barely seemed to breathe. Had she waited too long? If not for her son, she would have followed her husband and daughter to the grave.
The early snowstorm caught the villagers by surprise. They would be huddled around hearth fires. Not that they would stop her, but it was better if no one saw her.
The wind bit exposed skin. The snow made every step difficult. She pulled the baby closer to her breast. Head down, she ground her teeth and kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Only children and the village gossips spoke of the hermit. The younger children frightened each other with tales of the hermit eating them. Older boys talked bravely of killing him, while silly girls and women, who should have known better, whispered of love potions. No one spoke their thought, worshiper of the Dark Creation, within earshot of the village elders though; it would not be the hermit the elders punished.
Tears froze on her face. Legs grew numb. Maybe it would be better if she stopped, allowed the storm to finish what the ocean started. The baby moved. She remembered her husband’s joy the first time he felt the kicks. He called their daughter, Ami, over so she could feel her little brother’s movement.
“Why, Lady? Why both of them?” she sobbed. Her husband died in the embrace of his true love, the ocean, as she had always known would happen. In youth, he spent more time on his father’s boat than on land. Other girls did not pay attention to him, but she was willing to be second in his love–no other man smiled like her husband.
Ami’s death had been a paralyzing shock. Her daughter died saving another child. What idiot let a boy who could barely walk play with fishing nets?!? Ami saw the panicked children. Instead of getting an adult, she investigated. Ami freed the child but had gotten tangled.
“Too young,” Amas whispered. “Too young, Lady!”
Anger strengthened her legs. She had been soulless after Ami’s death, unfeeling until the baby stopped crying. Rage came as her son grew more and more ill. She would not watch another grave be dug for a child of her body! She stumbled as she stepped into the clearing. There was barely any snow on the ground. She looked behind her in disbelief, between one step and the other, the storm’s strength was blunted.
She carefully pulled the blanket from the baby’s face. Her husband’s eyes stared at her. Ami had borne the almond shape and color of her mother’s eyes, but everyone commented on the ocean’s blue of father and son. She took a deep breath before approaching the hermit’s hut. The door swung open at the lightest touch. The hermit sat on the opposite side of the fire. He watched as she hesitated before taking the final step of her journey. Looking around the hut was a way for Amas to delay saying the words.
“You could close the door,” the hermit said brusquely. She pressed her lips together tightly before doing as he asked.
“There are blankets for the baby.” He nodded towards a corner. “You can continue thinking while we eat.”
Amas wanted to scream, instead she grabbed the blankets. The Dark Creation provided, so she was not surprised the hermit slept on blankets better suited to a daimyo’s bed. After folding them, she placed the blankets near enough for the fire to warm her son. Nodding towards the baby, the hermit passed her a bowl. He handed over another bowl for her. If she were not in the presence of a Dark worshipper, the baby eating healthily would have surprised her. Her son had fussed over food for so long she almost forgot what it was like to see him eat like a normal child.
“Do you have more for him?” Another bowl waiting when she turned.
“I should not feed him so much,” she whispered.
“He will stop when he eats his fill,” the hermit said. “You should eat. You also need strength.”
They finished the meal in silence. She took the bowls and his cooking pots outside to clean them in the snow. The Dark Creation did provide! Stepping out of the clearing proved the rightness of her choice–the storm had grown fiercer. The hermit watched as she placed his things away. She sat down and stared at her son. He looked like a well-fed, warm baby and not the sick child of a mother enslaved by grief.
“You worship the Lady,” the hermit said.
“Surprising! The village pays homage to the Child, like most who live by open water.”
“Sea elves worship the Lady,” she replied, meeting his eyes.
“All elves worship their creator.” He set another log in the fire and studied her, “Why have you come here, woman?”
She had given the inevitable question much thought, but all the practiced words choked in her throat, “My husband and daughter are dead.”
The hermit was the first not to give her words of condolence. It made her feel better somehow, like he understood her loss was inconsolable.
“My son is sick. I will not watch him die.” He waited for her to finish; she had to say the words. “I offer him to the Dark Creation.”
“You do not have to choose this path for your son, Amas,” he said. “You can walk in darkness.”
“Even with Dark Luck, that choice does not mean my son would live.”
“You could take the boy to Gallis.” A smile flitted across the hermit’s lip.
“He has not been called to serve,” she replied between her teeth.
The hermit studied the child, “You seal his death by bringing him to me.”
She feared those words; but like her husband’s death, with such a young offering, they had been the most likely so she was prepared for them. It was still a long time before she could speak. “Is it true? He will be rewarded.”
“There have not been many like what your son will become. Not many at all,” the hermit said. “A daimyo rewards. The Emperor rewards. The Dark Creation…”
The hermit shook his head and sighed “Enough! The offering is accepted.”
She made herself watch as he picked up the small jars beside him and approached the blankets. The baby giggled, as if the needles tickled him. Someday, her son would pay for the choice she made; in the meantime, he would live.
Kyouyu Anis gave up; the boy fascinated her. She heard the whispers since arriving at the village: the death of his father and sister, the sickness, the early snow storm, and what everyone believed, a Dark offering.
The village prospered after the storm. Few of the daimyo’s lands enriched his coffers like the fishing village. Their catch had a place at the table of every noble-born. The village had been chosen because of its prosperity. Lord Kinjo’s plans required the right seeding ground. Villagers not struggling for day-to-day survival would be more willing to give a few hours of their children’s time to Lord Kinjo’s school. She smiled to herself. The village elders were as subtle as sharks. The boy’s mother had intervened, not necessarily to save the kyouyu. The woman’s curiosity was for Lord Kinjo’s purpose. The boy being the first student signed up guaranteed other parents would deliver their children to the school too.
No one spoke of it, but anyone could see if they looked. The boy was a loner and left alone. The would-be bully avoided him; the children’s obvious leader made no attempt to bring him into the fold; girls ignored him.
Kyouyu Anis must have caught the boy’s burgeoning male attention. With her history, there could be no other explanation. Lord Kinjo was the only other living soul who knew what happened to her. Salo was Lord Kinjo’s best friend since childhood. The boys played at daimyo and swordmaster for years, yet Lord Kinjo believed Anis. The duel surprised everyone; Salo hesitated when faced with the naked blade of his friend, Lord Kinjo did not.
“What did your mother do to you, child?” Anis whispered.
She tried to feel after the rape, even offered her body to Lord Kinjo, only to flee rather than remove any clothing. She had not felt this heat with the man who killed his best friend and never told anyone why he did it. The boy must want her! She was not given a choice but to want him too.
She approached slowly. Whatever else he might be, he was still a teenage boy.
“You should be outside.” She leaned against a desk. His blue eyes took her in. He never said much, just sat or stood in a place he could watch his surroundings. The boy reminded her of Lord Kinjo’s new swordmaster; if not for the deadliness of that one’s steel, most would still call him a boy too.
“The other children would let you play,” she said. “You’d be good!”
The boy’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said hastily. “I…”
He stared out the window at the children playing the chasing game. His fingertips were at her face between blinks. Tracing the line of her cheekbone, he looked into her soul. Those who sheltered the boy would be rewarded. The village was proof, the kiss too. Heat spread like he infected her blood: from lips, across her face, down the neck, fierce points at her nipples, burning the sorrow and anger from the pit of her stomach, and continuing down.
Her hand settled on his groin. He was hard, ready for her to stop thinking of him as a boy. She created space between them and stared into his eyes before standing up. There were blankets under her desk where she placed them the night before. She laid the blankets out one on top of the other. He watched as she removed the layers of her kimono and placed them on his desk. She did not feel shame when she stood naked. Spinning slowly, she let him look upon all that was now his.
Sitting on the blankets, she leaned to the side and smiled joyfully.
Amis gave up. Her daddy was too fast! Well, not really gave up. If she pretended to give up, she could catch him by surprise. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she waited patiently. Ooops! She was not waiting! She concentrated on not thinking about waiting or pouncing. Pretending was hard work! Maybe if she thought about something else. She had told mommy she wanted to be kyouyu. It meant she would have to leave the village to study at the cap-, cap-, at the big city. It wasn’t a good thought–leaving her little brother, mother, grandmother, and her daddy!
Maybe it would be better to do what her little brother never stopped talking about, own a fishing boat. Her daddy was not a fisherman, but every boat owner wanted him to go out with them. When they thought nobody in her family could hear, everybody said her daddy was good luck.
Amis did not think it was rude to hide someplace where she could hear people talk, no matter what her mommy said!
Don’t think about it! Don’t think about it! She screamed as she stood up, ran along the top of crates, and flew at her daddy. He wasn’t fooled for a second; he plucked her out of the air.
But the second part of the plan still had a chance…
“AIIEEEE!” Her daddy stepped out of the way and grabbed the back of her little brother’s shirt as he charged by. Little brothers! Daddy put each of them over a shoulder and headed home.
“Silly!” she said to her little brother. “You don’t scream at people when you attack them.”
He giggled and stuck his tongue out at her. She was too mat-, mat-, too old to return in kind, instead she sniffed and looked away. The new baby just had to be a little sister! She needed a smarter sibling if she was ever going to catch her daddy by surprise.
Aya gave up and laughed. The other woman in the room looked at her. Aya nodded at something outside the window. The other woman sidled over, stared out into the street, and also laughed.
“You think it’s funny!” the soldier said snidely. Aya heard he was important, the Captain or something. “We’re dicing for your virginity!”
There were three soldiers in the room. She thought soldiers were supposed to be clean, but these smelled like a careless fisherman’s boat. Not that anyone in the village was one of those, at least not in years.
“What did you do?” Aya asked the Captain. “We thought we’d wake up someday, and he would be gone. Maybe we would hear about what happened. Instead, he was put here for you.”
The other woman nodded and studied the soldiers with the curiosity of a child pinning a butterfly down by its wings.
“We are the Emperor’s Chuutai!” one of the soldiers growled. “Be careful how you speak to us.”
“It’s hard to believe the Emperor’s Chuutai would worship Sammel,” the other woman said. “But for a Dark Sacrifice, one offered nearly at birth, to be waiting for you?”
“A Dark Sacrifice?” The soldiers straightened. Grabbing their weapons, they ran to the window and looked for what amused the women. It seemed like every villager in the street had stopped to stare at two soldiers approaching a door. The Chuutai arrived an hour before; they swept the streets for women and when those had been parceled out they kicked doors in looking for more.
“Maybe it is the Emperor,” the other woman said thoughtfully. “The Chuutai would only be on Kinjo land by his order.”
“The Dark Creation would not get involved in Shin politics,” Aya scoffed. The Captain slapped her. She hoped blood colored her teeth as she smiled at him. As one, the women turned to the window and watched.
The two soldiers were backing away from the door. It was too late! The soldier to the left spun around, grabbing at his throat. Aya could see his hands turning red. The other soldier was struck at the base of the neck. His legs gave out, but he was held up for everyone to see.
The other soldiers in the street turned toward the noise. Like Aya, they recognized death–the tattoos darkening his eyes and traveling in waves across the face, the array of knives, the two shortsword hilts extending above his shoulders, and the Dark Creation’s will.
“The stories are true,” the other woman said to Aya. “The tattoos on his face weren’t there this morning.”
He moved towards the closest living soldier. The women turned away; a Dark Sacrifice had one purpose and all their stories ended the same.
“Though you worship Sammel, you can die like a man,” Aya told the Captain. “Face the Dark Sacrifice with a sword in your hands, instead of making him run you down.”
Okugata Kinjo (Okugata Kinjo! Okugata Kinjo!) gave up.
“Get my horse!” she ordered, throwing open the carriage door. Her new husband would have to get over the fragile bride thing. Considering Kinjo tradition, the carriage had probably been for show in the capitol. By now, her maids must have shared with her husband how she heroically (she had been very clear about using that exact word) beat the other girls to be the first Minami okugata to attend him.
A couple of the fights were particularly vicious. Luckily, none of the other families who earned their title from the Dwarven King had daughters willing to leave Minami. The Elf Queen’s human nobility had been her strongest competition. Truth be told, some of the older girls were better fighters, but human females raised with dwarven girls learned to keep swinging until knocked unconscious.
The attendants brought horses for her maids too. She smiled, the request must have been expected. Lord Kinjo might even be disappointed she waited so long to take to horse. All that time she was trying to show proper behavior by staying in the carriage! She got in the saddle and pointed the horse towards the entrance of the fishing village.
The way her husband accepted the maids’ duties to his pleasure had to be proof the Kinjo honored Minami duty. He did not blink when she told him her virginity was taken as Dragon Right (a truly wonderful summer that had been too).
“Okugata Sa… Kinjo!” her maid said, pointing towards where her husband and his swordmaster stood surrounded by villagers. A cemetery? She passed the horse reins to one of her husband’s personal guard and waved for her maids to stay. Minami religious traditions differed from the Shin; people would be injured if they looked askance at her maids’ honoring the Three-Faced Goddess on holy ground.
“Husband?” She really liked saying that ‘Husband!’, ‘Husband’, ‘Husband’. The Shin would probably think it inappropriate if she walked around yelling it though. She stood next to her husband and looked around the cemetery.
“Okugata Kinjo,” a woman said, bowing deeply. She held a baby in her arms while a girl and a younger boy stood at her side. An older woman knelt at the foot of a fresh grave.
“I told you about my project with children, wife,” Lord Kinjo said. “This is the Kyouyu Anis. She grew up with me at Kinjo Kyassuru.”
The Okugata looked between the kyouyu and her husband; there was more, but the secret belonged to the woman and not Lord Kinjo. “What happened here?”
“The Emperor’s Chuutai came to the village for a little…” Swordmaster Ginaz shrugged. He was young for a swordmaster–too young she would have said, if he had not been raised in Gallis or his younger sister called to serve.
“The Emperor allows it?” She did not need Ginaz to finish; the signs of trauma were evident on the faces of a few women around them.
“We cannot say,” Lord Kinjo replied. “There is evidence at least some of the soldiers worshiped Sammel.”
Placing a hand over her stomach, Okugata Kinjo closed her eyes. No one had to tell her she carried a child. If she told Lord Kinjo now, he might agree to let her live in Minami. She sighed and shook her head. No Shin would chase her off, not even Sammel worshipers.
“There is nothing to worry about, Okugata,” Anis said. “A Dark Sacrifice was sent.”
Everyone stared at the horizon, the sky, the ocean, anywhere except each other or the grave.
“They say the Dark Sacrifice was once my husband,” Anis continued.
“Did he get all of them?” one of the Kinjo guards asked.
“Don’t be stupid!” Swordmaster Ginaz barked. “A Dark Sacrifice is certain death, as bad as offering offense to the Three-Faced Goddess when you’re standing next to a Sword of Gallis.”
“Who is going to tell the Emperor his pet soldiers were slaughtered?” Okugata Kinjo asked.
“I have no doubts the Emperor knows what happened here,” Lord Kinjo replied.
“The worship of Sammel!” Okugata Kinjo said. “Even the Dark Creation abhors it.”
“More so than the Three-Faced Goddess.” Ginaz shook his head. “The Emperor will not be happy, my Lord. He will strike out against you.”
“No,” Lord Kinjo declared, getting a raised eyebrow as reaction from his wife. “The Emperor will have to consider that the Dark Sacrifice was sent because his soldiers invaded Kinjo lands.”
“They worshiped Sammel, my Lord!” Ginaz protested.
“The Emperor will not admit it,” Lord Kinjo said. “And if he does not, the only explanation is the Chuutai invaded my lands. The other daimyos will be happy to accept a Dark Sacrifice being sent as a rebuke to the Emperor.”
“You will feed that fire,” Okugata Kinjo said with a proud smile.
“Those who give shelter to a Dark Sacrifice are rewarded.” Her husband smiled. “This is a Kinjo village.”
“My Lord, the form of the law must be followed,” Swordmaster Ginaz said.
“Of course,” Lord Kinjo stated. “Who trained the Dark Sacrifice?”
“A hermit,” Anis answered. “He died last winter.”
“In that case, everything is done here,” Lord Kinjo said. “The village will have to adjust to a life without their secret.”
He looked out to the ocean and something beyond before speaking again, “You will be raised to okugata with dominion over the village and the surrounding land, Anis. In celebration, the village’s tax burden will be reduced until my first daughter can walk.”
“My Lord, I am carrying a boy,” Okugata Kinjo said before realizing the trap. The guards were stunned by her declaration. Men! Lord Kinjo spent the better part of the winter in Minami; certainly enough time for her to conceive.
Obviously, her husband knew, as did Swordmaster Ginaz. Brother to a Sword of Gallis and raised in the town, Ginaz must observe the strictest worship of his chosen aspect of the Three-Faced Goddess. For her husband to know (and he definitely knew) meant the Kinjo family were not like other Shin nobility; she would not be surprised if Lord Kinjo planned to have the Naming Ritual for their children.
“Congratulations, Okugata,” Anis said, smiling widely.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Anis,” Lord Kinjo said.
“My husband was a good man, my Lord,” Anis replied. “A good son. A good father. A wonderful husband.”
Okugata Kinjo stared down at the grave. A Dark Sacrifice! She would have to make time to visit the village and talk to Anis about husbands.
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