Though she did not have the hard beak of a full-fledged crow bride the hatchling bride wore the same stifling mask as the others. It smelled of death and mildew; the stink only worsened by humid breath condensing on the inside like the beads of sweat dotting her brow. The masks themselves were ugly things: red with bulging eyes and elongated bulbous noses, which were of course used to hide the deformity of the other women. Even Sumi, who she had come to trust, could not make herself look truly human. But she had come closer than the other two brides. Together the four of them–behind the safety of their masks–entered the bustling festival rife with humans and life and danger.
Even behind the cloying stink of the mask she could smell the sweet, inviting aromas around her. Even from the small spots she could see the vibrant, enchanting colors. All around her swirled the soul of what she hadn’t even known she was missing. This is where she belonged. Maybe not this town–but somewhere. She had belonged somewhere once. She had been alive not so very long ago. It dawned upon her then. She had truly died to become a bride. Could Sumi and she even become human again? What hope could there be for two wretched dead things?
“We’ll split into two groups,” croaked one of their sister-brides, low and conspiratorial. “Sumi, our husband gave you leave to watch the brideling and so you must. Find the murderer, sisters. Return here within the hour.”
And then the two brides she had feared would chaperone their every move were gone with a flutter of their black cloaks. As soon as their shadows had faded between the waves of people Sumi was drawn away from her side to the shiny booths. The tips of Sumi’s fingers–feathered knuckles hidden under long sleeves–brushed across baubles and twisted wire. In spite of the reproachful look of the merchants’ Sumi was too enraptured by every sight to know shame. Her blackened fingernails reached out to touch a necklace but a cry escaped her before she touched it.
The girl rushed to Sumi, inspecting her fingers with care. Angry, red blisters puckered over the pads of her hand. She brushed her own human hands over the painful welts and turned back to the trinket that had injured Sumi: A pendant, just a ring of white around a ring of cerulean around a dot of lapis lazuli. It looked as though it was a giant, unblinking eye staring at the both of them. And after a moment staring at the piece of pretty jewelry the girl felt a strange twinge of pain enter through her eyes and shoot through her body.
“Good to see one’s wares are workin’,” said a voice older than time. A haggard woman peered up from the charms while she scribbled another spell upon the back of a different amulet. “The Eye keeps away evil. I’ve no mind to what the two of ye are but with them masks ye look evil enough.”
“No, please,” Sumi began, her gaze angled away from the cart of magic now, “we seek aid.”
The old woman kept on with her long brush, dipping it in ink and writing short strokes of elaborate characters, as though neither of them existed at all. Sumi took a step forward only to recoil when the woman looked up at last. The brideling rushed to Sumi and kept her balanced.
“Stop, you’re hurting her,” she cried. “Tell us what we must trade for a spell to become human once more and we shall leave you. Please.” Tears trickled from the chin of her mask and fell upon Sumi’s blistered hands.
“Well, bless me thrice. Evil which wants to be human; and evil which can cry.” The old woman put down her brushed and stared long at the two women. “That which can cry true tears is not as lost as one might think.”
“Then you’ll help!”
“Nay, I’ve no tricks to turn the dead livin’ but–” she scratched her head and flecks of dry skin fell like snow, “Seimei might could do the job. But he’s an old goat of a bastard. Will you try?”
“Yes, anything.” The brideling answered, still holding Sumi through the pain forming at the base of her skull as she watched the old woman.
“Hmm, the spell on ye,” she pointed at Sumi, “says ye can’t travel much farther beyond these bounds, and this little one is tied to ye. Hmm, nothing for it. I’ll take yer eyes while ye visit Seimei.” Before either could say a word the woman blew a thick dust in their eyes, penetrating even the small holes of their masks, and drew it back to her hand. She funneled the dirt into a small vial and sealed it up. She hobbled out from behind the stand, her back crooked with age. “Come now, follow me. Yer eyes will watch me stand.”
“We haven’t much time,” the bride said.
“Good never does.”
The woman took off into the crowd meaning for them to follow. Sumi stumbled and clung to the girl’s cloak. All too late she realized that the woman had taken Sumi’s sight so that the crow king would not see them through Sumi’s eyes. She held onto Sumi’s arm tight and led them both after the old woman. Through multicolored stands and stalls where not a single shopkeep gave them a second glance, out of the festival to the scattered tents of the vendors. At last their hostess flung open the dusty flap of a scummy tent.
“Seimei. Customers. Wake up, useless lump.”
From the bed–collection of rags and indeed lump-shaped–came a moan and a human arm waving them away.
“Not today, Baba. Hangover.”
Baba picked up a bucket of water nearby and dumped it over Seimei who came up cursing and choking. “Special customers, send them back to me when ye finish.” She turned to the two brides with something like pity in her gaze, “If he cannot help ye he can at least kill ye.”
And then the brides were alone with Seimei, their supposed savior if Baba were to be believed. He shook his shaggy black hair and rubbed a hand over his stubbled jaw. He stood up and groaned. After fighting back vomit–for which the bride was thankful–Seimei put on a long white coat that made her think of the word ‘doctor’ . . . whatever that was. Another word without meaning from a life no longer hers. Seimei lit a stick of incense and stared hard at the both of them.
“Special customers all right.”
“We need–” Sumi began but he cut her off with a raised hand.
“I’ll let you know what you need.” He stared at them long, “Take off those silly masks and show me your true forms.”
It took the bride a moment to take off her own mask and then Sumi’s for her blistered fingers and blindness. Once freed of the masks she could breathe again only to smell the alcohol fumes rolling off of Seimei. She doubted this drunkard could help them. But for Sumi’s sake and her own she would keep hold to hope. Sumi took her crow form without difficulty. Sleek and ebony, feathered from head-to-toe, her shiny black beak caught the dim light of the tent. The bride however, try as she might could barely make herself grow any feathers. A few feathers along her brow and back.
“When did you hatch?”
“Hmm, that gives us–” Seimei calculated on his fingers, “four, maybe five days before your third eye opens. After that your king will have consumed your humanity completely.”
How can you know any of that? We hadn’t told you a thing?” Sumi became heated.
“The crow demons, valravn, have to take a bride every hundred years. He consumes her life to prolong his own and when her third eye opens it means her soul has been digested. And there you have it: recipe for a crow bride.”
Sumi cringed. It had to be a lie. If a bride’s humanity was lost when their third eye opened her own had been lost centuries and centuries ago. She would never be human. But there was still hope for the girl . . . Surely this man could restore her humanity and then kill Sumi at the very least. If possible he might be able to stop the crow king from claiming more women as his brides and eating away more lives. Even without her vision she could feel the human knew she understood her fate. She accepted it.
“Well, ladies–your time is almost up, isn’t it? What’ll it be? Do you want to proceed?”
“Yes.” Sumi answered for the both of them.
“As you wish, Lady Crow,” Seimei said, grim and sobered. A different man from only moments earlier. He stuck his head out the tent flapping limp on the dying breeze, “Kamo.” It was barely spoken yet it had been heard.
A giant of a man, apparently Kamo, ducked down to enter Seimei’s tent; a small girl in a bright red dress clung to his leg, staying close and hidden. Kamo looked from the brides–a twist in his brow–to Seimei and nodded with seeming understanding.
“Another service, is it, Master Seimei?” Kamo’s sonorous voice thundered quiet as though coming from far away. It rumbled inside Sumi and discomfited her. “And what is the suicide plan this time?”
Seimei sighed. “I’ll be running in to the nest of a valravn–How many of you are there now?” He looked to Sumi.
“She is the twelfth.”
“A twelve-hundred-year-old valravn. Fantastic.” Seimei rubbed at his stubble, “This might actually be suicide–even for me.”
The young bride cried, “But you’re our only chance! Please, you must–”
“Aye, I said I would and I mean to do it. But I can only do so much.” Seimei plopped down on his mess of a cot and covered his face with an arm. “Unless Kamo has a day for me to go I’m not going. End of story.”
Tension hung in the air. Seimei on his tangle of booze-stained sheets, Kamo and the girl still at the entrance, and the crow brides huddled in the corner like refugees seeking succor, all three with their own thoughts in the silence. Until Kamo rumbled.
“Worry not, ladies; Master Seimei may be a bit brusque in his manner but he is nevertheless the successor to our school. We have traveled far for him to find all manner of tasks to challenge his skill–the opportunity you present us is the very challenge a master exorcist seeks.” Kamo smiled, “He needs only an auspicious day for which to draw out his powers to their fullest.”
Kamo lowered himself to the dirt floor and sat with his legs crossed. He pulled a wooden plate, a mirror at the center, from the satchel at his back. Arranging it carefully on his lap Kamo bowed his great body over it and spoke in low words the brideling could not understand. The mirror seemed to reflect everything, the tent, the fair beyond it, even their cryptomeria tree and the crow king’s terrible gaze. And just as fast it became a normal mirror once more.
“Two weeks.” Kamo said, “The best time for your shikigami bonds will be in two weeks.”
“Can’t.” Seimei replied petulantly without lifting his arm from his eyes. “Has to be in the next five days or these two become lost.”
The words rang hollow to Sumi. But he had meant them for the brideling. There was still hope for her. Sumi listened to Seimei and Kamo argue over a proper date while she clutched the bride’s human hand. She could be human still. Sumi would make sure the girl returned to a human life.
The room went quiet as though all the air had been sucked out of it. Sumi strained her eyes to see but the old woman had been thorough in her work of taking away Sumi’s sight. A small hand took Sumi’s other. The fragile hand of a human child.
“No one is lost forever.”
The touch slipped away as quickly as it had come. And with it breath returned to the small tent. But a magic still lingered over the men who had been struck silent. Kamo scooped the child up into his arms, Sumi could feel his bulk looming in front of them.
“Shigemi speaks only to prophesy.” Kamo turned back to Seimei. “Five words, the best day for this idiot mission is in five days. Eighteen letters, the hour of the late rooster. That’s when you must go.”
Kamo’s words had a finality to them that invited no argument, not even any questions. That was the day and the time, and that is when Seimei would wage war against the crow king. Sumi heard the savior-to-be exhale deep and run a hand through his dry hair. He stood, lifted the back flap of his tent, and rang a bell that tinkled clear and distant.
“I was wonderin’ when ye’d be done.” It was Baba. “Time’s just about up for the spell on that one. We’d best hurry.”
The brideling led Sumi after Baba, through stifling tents and back alleys once more. Voices swirled in cacophony around them and more than once Sumi wished to cover her ears. The din swelled and rose. Sumi’s legs ached from their walk back to the festival; could they make it back before an hour expired? They had to be over time already. The king would know what they had plotted and kill them once more.
“Here.” Baba pressed something into Sumi’s hand, her vision returned immediately. A pair of ruby earrings, small as drops of blood. “Ye give these to that fancy kind o’ yers and everythin’ will be good in the end. Ye’ll have luck or death, and either’d be a boon to ye. This old Baba guarantees it.”
She pushed Sumi and the brideling forward and they stumbled back into the festival crowds. Sumi looked back to thank the old woman but all was only a butcher’s stall behind them as a bulbous man hawked his cuts. The miles of tents, the old woman, Seimei, Kamo, and Shigemi . . . nothing remained save the blood droplet earrings pressed into Sumi’s palm.