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.
.... There is more of this story ...