The little girl lay still in her crying mother’s arms. Purple blotches dotted her skin like moldy spots in an old jug.
Shinobu waved his hand over her. A subtle energy passed from him to her and back again. Each splotch stung his hand with its corruption.
“Your daughter has Selkie Pox,” he said in a soft calm voice. “No doubt she caught it playing in the river.”
“Can you save her?” The child’s mother asked.
The desperation in her voice rang in Shinobu. He nodded, “Please lay her on the table.” He pointed to the only table in their small cottage.
He focused the energies in his body so he could pull the sickness from the child as the girl’s distraught mother carried her over to the table and gently lay her down.
Shinobu walked over to the little girl. She was awake, but her eyes couldn't focus due to the fever.
“Relax, child,” Shinobu said, and flashed her a practiced smile. “This may feel strange, but when we’re done, you will be well.”
After nodding to the girl’s mother who stood on the other side of the table from him praying, he waved his hands over the girl’s tiny body. The disease called to him like a carcass summoned carrion fowl. With a sharp inhalation, the corruption in the girls body rose from her and entered his hands.
The magic's old familiar sting splintered his bones and tore Shinobu's skin. The world took on a red hue as blood filled his eyes. He smiled at the sweet pain, his oldest friend. He had never known joy in this life, but he lived on without it. The sweetness of existence soured under the weight of pain and time.
The girl's suffering seeped into his bones and burned like coals. Agony echoed like breaking glass as the thorns grew, ripping through his muscles and piercing his skin. He reeled in the throes so close to pleasure. His muscles tore, and he collapsed to his knees.
He locked eyes with the sweet, little girl he healed. They swelled with tears as her suffering ended, then twisted to fear as the blood ooze from the fresh wounds on his face.
She screamed and reached for her mother, who picked her up and ran from the cottage.
Hikaru rested his hand on Shinobu's back, warm and radiating with love.
Unable to hold himself up anymore, he collapsed limp to the ground. The stone floor cooled his face where it could touch. The thorns scraped. He forced a trembling breath.
Heat faded from his bones. Everything froze within him. He shivered. The thorns scratched against the stone.
He couldn’t keep his eyes open. They closed, shrouding the world in darkness.
If only death would take him.
She cradled him in her arms like his mother never had, and brushed his short, black hair out of his eyes.
“Sweet, Shinobu,” Death whispered tenderly. “You’ve done well.”
Her icy fingers caressed and soothed his forehead.
A tear clung to the corner of his left eye, but even it was too tired to move. He found comfort in her embrace. If only she would take him with her this time and not leave him to his life, but he doubted he would be that lucky.
Pain shot through his body as he slid onto the soft bed. A cozy blanket covered him. Death cradled him in her maternal arms. This was a dream...
Even asleep his ever watchful mind wouldn’t rest.
If he had the energy, he would have cried, but release wouldn’t come even in his dreams. Let me rest.
Weaving between the bleak dream and the warm bed, Shinobu tried to count the days, but the words jumbled and lost their meaning. Time flowed different in the dreams. Pain distorted his few waking moments and stretched minutes into hours. As he looped between the two, he lost the ability to track either.
What’s the point of wallowing in misery? He was born thornkin, and there was no treatment or cure. He didn’t have to save that girl, but he couldn’t let her waste away and die, besides healing was a good business. Why should the Sawyers be the only ones who profited off the other's misery? This way he took their pain and their money. It was a good deal for them.
After all these years, he hadn’t grown callous to suffering no matter how much it hurt him to bring release. Care motivated him, but it also ripped at his spirit and flesh. Compassion cost him more than it would anyone else. His life would be easier if he refused to help, but his soul would rot and fester from that decision. Nothing was easy. No. Nothing that mattered was easy.
A frivolous life was the simplest thing in the world, but it was devoid of meaning or purpose. The thorns wouldn’t kill him if he took time to recuperate. Hikaru and Chuy would make sure he rested.
His life would have ended a hundred times by now if he wandered the world alone, but the Breathless Sisters ensured he would never be alone when they entrusted him to Hikaru’s family.
The midday sun reddened his vision and prevented him from falling back to sleep. It didn’t matter. Sleep wasn’t rest. It was more time to contemplate his life and the pain in his body.
Despite his own desire to sleep, he opened his eyes.
The wooden joist ran across the plastered ceiling. The room smelled like boiling soup and his own sweat. Fever must have accompanied the sickness. The girl was closer to death than he believed when he examined her.
As the rest of his senses awoke to join him, Hikaru sang a soft prayer to Yanshiro, the holy mountain, somewhere in the corner of the room. His voice soothed his aching muscles. Against his will, he smiled. His skin stretched tight over the bone protruding from his cheeks and chin.
“How long was I unconscious this time?” Shinobu asked, speaking burned his throat.
“Two weeks,” Hikaru said, “Chuy helped me change your bedding every day. Don’t even think about trying to get up. I don’t want the thorns on your legs to bleed more than they already have.”
Shinobu hadn’t considered even sitting up. His wounds were tender lying still, but they would rip and bleed if he tried to move. His mind slipped away. Sleep crept over him, and he lost himself in his thoughts again.
Hikaru stirred the hardy vegetable soup in a clay pot set atop the glowing coal stones. He hated when Shinobu over exerted himself so much. The Breathless Sisters prescribed a series of meditations and other practices to strengthen him, but no one could tell Shinobu what to do. He smiled. What strength Shinobu possessed in his spirit not to break under the suffering wrought by his nature? He absorbed the pain of complete strangers. Thorn splintered from his bones and pierced his skin. It couldn’t be an easy thing to endure. He couldn’t do it.
Saans was better than most of the villages they visited. The people were grateful for the services they offered. They even loaned them a cottage to work from. If they hadn't, they would have lived on their airship, the Kurenai, not that it wasn't comfortable. He saw enough of it when they traveled. Maybe they could settle down and have a life here. The villagers would love to have a resident healer. Shinobu might make friends, and he would be able to take care of them properly. Chuy would be the only one unhappy if they stopped traveling.
Hikaru gave the finished soup one final stir. He wasn’t hungry. He put a lid on it and moved it to the table, setting it on a trivet.
Shinobu drifted back off to sleep. He would be out for a couple hours at least.
Hikaru faced his sword on its stand on the mantle above the fireplace. Its long, slender blade matched the shape of its lacquered scabbard. The guard fit into the mouth of the scabbard extending out on either side in rounded wings pointing down the blade. It bore his family crest, a tetractys wreathed in stylized flowers. Its worn black leather grip showed its long legacy of use. The pommel resembled the holy mountain Yanshiro where the gods dwelled.
He steepled his hands in reverence as his eyes lingered on the sacred image. He had neglected his practice over the last couple days. The village had been peaceful since they arrived, but unlike Shinobu, he didn't neglect his practice.
Walking over to the table, he whispered a prayer for guidance and picked up the tsurugi by its scabbard and grip. His family owned the blade for generations. When his father gave it to him, Hikaru's hand warmed as its spirit reach out to him. Overtime, he learned it was less a blade, and more an extension of himself. Just as he was a continuance of his family, the sword was a part of him. He strapped the scabbard to a belt and fastened it to his waist.
Since the village was in the foothills of the Vaim Mountains, it would be a short walk into the woods so he could practice unseen.
After he exited the cottage, he locked the door. Saans was the quietest village they visited in a while, and it was unlikely anyone would even consider breaking in while he was out. One can never be too careful.
The streets changed over night. Wooden and clay skeletons littered them. Every building had one lying on the ground propped against the wall. They weren't decorations. They filled the street like a simulated slaughter, but why?
Amulets and talismans adorned the lintels and door post of every house. Richly enameled and lined in either polished brass or gold, each one must have cost a quarter of what each family made in a year. Shaped like a downward facing hand with an eye emblazoned on the palm, the talismans watched from the doorposts. Hikaru recognized them as the hand of the Kindly Mother, Thalia.
Red and gold multi-winged butterfly amulets crowned the lintels. They were also a symbol of Mother Thalia. They represented her saving wings of grace and furious wings of vengeance.
There must be a holiday coming. Hikaru wasn’t one of the Kindly Folk, but he familiarized himself with them since they arrived in Saans. The Almanac mentioned their holidays, but nothing in the Tenth Month. As he imagined the face of the Bookbinders when he submitted a correction, he smirked.
The Endless Brothers in their burgundy robes tied at the waist with a golden cord prayed at various cottages, blessing the amulets and the doors. Light shone from their hands as they prayed. The butterflies flickered to life and glowed with an inner light. The Mother’s Hands glimmered, and the eye watched the priest finish their blessing before scanning the streets for danger.
Hikaru decided to buy a set of charms for their cottage to show their respect for the locals’ faith.
He walked toward the nearest Endless Brother.
Something chugged in the distance. Music accompanied the mechanical noise. The Sawyer Imperial Anthem...
Hikaru studied the sky.
An enormous airship loomed on the western horizon. The black Sawyer flag with the gold double X in the center flapped in the wind above the mast. It was an imperial cruiser, black and sleek with the Sawyer Crest, comprising the flag shield flanked on either side by mermaids and topped by an eight armed typhon, emblazoned on the side. Gold Pretannian letters shown on the bow bearing the name of the ship, the Caliburn Stone.
His chest tightened as the airship approached. The blood red diamond in the center of the flag came into view. The festival must be important if a Sawyer cruiser came to attend. Unless they were here to quell sedition.
In their time in Saans, the village was calm with no signs of unrest. That was strange for a Sawyer village, but the empire had left them alone. Maybe the garrison hadn't arrived yet.
Hikaru made his way to the town square. A crowd joined him, pointing at the airship as it came to a stop overhead.
Four block anchors descended, two from either side of the bow, and two from the aft. Three egg shaped balloons inflated off the side of the cruiser atop a set of air skiffs. They sloped toward the ground as the final refrains of the Sawyer Imperial Anthem sounded.
Each skiff contained four praetorian guards, whose red galea, lances, and oval shields stood out against their oily, black armor. Two black and gold armored halberdiers stood at the front. Behind the soldiers, on two of the skiffs, younger men dressed in black jackets, high round collar shirts, and pants waved at the crowd. On the third skiff, an older man in a black and gold uniform stood with his hands behind his back.
When the skiffs landed, the elder raised his hand to silence the crowd.
“People of Saans,” he said in a gravelly voice infused with an almost preternatural authority. “Proconsul Nicholas Austin has heard your pleas and sent me to protect you. I am Quaestor Cedric Rootham, and I have come with my curates Jacob Abbot and Jared Cook to aide you in the dark time.”
The crowd cheered.
Hikaru glanced around at the joy on the people’s faces. The quaestor’s words confused him. The last few weeks in the village were uneventful. Whatever dark times they experienced either occurred in secret or hadn’t started yet.
As the quaestor continued his speech, Hikaru turned to the street behind him. Overnight, they spread fake corpses and attached protective amulets and talismans to their homes. A storm was coming.