Excerpt for Caught in the Devil's Hand by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Caught in the Devil’s Hand

By Ruby Duvall

Second Edition, January 2019

Copyright © 2007, 2019 by Kathleen Alexander

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to person, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty


Excerpt: Drawn Into Oblivion

Also By Ruby Duvall

Chapter One

The dawn was cold and damp. With the sunrise came an overcast sky, which drizzled upon a struggling village nestled in a small valley. As the surrounding hilltops emerged from the mists with the rise of the sun, smoke began to billow lazily from the thatched roofs. Soon, those who were still of able body would leave their homes, wearily hauling their tools to prepare the fields for spring planting.

For the family in a scanty, weathered hut among a handful of homes near the northern end of the village, today seemed like it would be the same as the rest. They would rise, stiff from sleeping on thin bedrolls with hardly enough warmth to let them sleep at all. They would work in their isolated field, eke out a meager living selling herbal medicines, and return gratefully to their hard, narrow mats for another night of rest.

However, these past few weeks had seen many villagers succumbing to a disease so deadly it was catastrophic. The entire village, already at its knees, was now lying prone in the dirt. In her nineteen years as the only daughter of a family of apothecaries, Shumei had neither heard of nor seen so many people fall ill and die at once. She could only pray to the Divine One that the worst was over and the deaths would stop.

A muffled sound disturbed Shumei’s sleep. She swallowed past the itchy lump in her throat that bespoke of her overly salted meal last night, and took in a shaky breath while denying the urge to stretch, for she was already barely covered by a thin blanket. She opened one eye and realized with a mental groan that dawn had arrived.

She grudgingly lifted her head. Snuggled close within the curve of her body was her brother, only nine years old. He was sleeping peacefully enough despite his sickness. Beyond him at arm’s length, their mother slept upon the larger of their two straw mats. Her mother’s shoulders convulsed.

“Mama?” Shumei called, voice hoarse from sleep. She lifted herself onto her elbow.

“I’m sorry to wake you, baby,” her mother murmured. “Did you sleep well?”

“Well enough. How are you feeling?”

When her mother rolled over, Shumei had to hold back a gasp. A blood vessel in her mother’s right eye had burst, turning the white to red. Her skin was sallow and drawn. Mama was near the last stage of the disease.

“Well enough,” her mother repeated with a resigned smile. “Where’s your father? Already in the fields?” She shook her head. “That man works too hard.”

Shumei lowered her face to hide her expression. Father had been dead for four years. Such confusion was another common symptom of the fifth day. Most people remembered a time in the recent past, but a few reverted several years. Breath hitching, Shumei suppressed the fearful sob that threatened to bubble up.

“I don’t feel good today, baby. When your father gets back, ask him to rub my back.” Her mother sighed and turned away. “I think I’ll sleep a little longer.”

“Yes, Mama,” she said in a weak voice.

A month ago, an otherwise healthy boy suddenly fell ill. He didn’t know how he had caught the disease. Several of his close friends became ill a couple days later. Then their parents, then their parents’ friends….

Everyone began calling it the Burning, for the fourth day’s fever was often lethal. It had spread like deadly fog through their tiny, poor village. Those who hadn’t yet become sick, including Shumei, were counted as lucky, but they were a shrinking minority. Out of their tiny population of over a hundred fifty men, women, and children, over forty had died, and another fifty were still ill. The rest had either fought to recover from the disease or feared catching it.

The village leader and his wife had done nothing for the village except assure everyone they’d prayed to the Golden One—their preferred name for the Divine One. They didn’t even leave their home, too frightened of the Burning to help those they were charged with protecting.

Instead, Shumei and her family’s medicines had become essential to the village’s survival. The fuki plant they cultivated had saved dozens from the fourth day’s fever, although some had still gone on to the fifth day’s symptoms: severe coughing and difficulty breathing. Two unfortunate souls had coughed so violently they’d broken their ribs and had ended up stabbing their lungs.

However, the Burning seemed to have nearly run its course. And just in time, too, for her family’s supply of fuki was not only running dangerously low but also quickly growing stale. Her family still had the early-spring harvest of the herb to rely on, should the villagers have need of it, but picking it before it fully matured meant the medicinal properties of its large leaves would be less potent, and she would need to use more to produce an effective dosage. Doing so would also mean their supply for the rest of the year would be too small for comfort, and unfortunately, it was too late in the season to plant more.

Her lips trembled as she gazed at her brother’s sleeping face. Today was his fourth day. So far, not many young children had survived the Burning’s fever, and she could already see his cheeks warming to a deceptively healthy pink. He had cried throughout most of the first day, scared of dying and in a great amount of pain, making his initial symptoms much worse than they might have been otherwise.

He spent most of the second day silently weeping, body tense and occasionally convulsing as he endured a day-long headache. She managed to dull his suffering with a dose of kavua, but he still couldn’t bring himself to speak through the haze of pain. He ate well on his third day but vomited the last of it a few hours ago. She had woken to find him emptying his stomach on the floor, and had spent an hour cleaning it up and giving him medicine before they could settle back to sleep again. Thankfully, he had yet to cough up any blood.

A splash of moisture landed on his rosy cheeks. She quickly wiped at her eyes and hardened her jaw, determined not to let her anxiety show. She was practiced at hiding her feelings, and this latest crisis would not be an exception. Pressing her lips together, she pushed the fear to the pit of her stomach and sat up, then scrubbed her face with her hands as if wiping away the last layer of sleep still clinging to her.

A movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. A long-legged spider skittered across the dirt floor, headed toward the nearly dead fire in the center of their single room. Squeezing into herself, she felt the usual rush of fear and adrenalin as she silently panicked over what to do. A small mewling began in the back of her throat. Then her brother turned in his sleep, flinging out one arm and smacking the spider with the back of his hand, squashing it before it could even try to dodge.

Her jaw dropped. She sat there a moment, out of sorts, and her heartbeat slowed as she turned her mind to how she’d clean off Oka’s hand. Her revulsion of spiders was so great that she even hesitated to use a rag. Perhaps a sage leaf, which she could then toss into the fire?

If only life had remained as sweet as when she’d been Oka’s age. Her father had been alive, and his boisterous personality had overflowed their small house, leaving no room for despair. She had been his little garden imp, watching as he and her mother poured every bit of knowledge they had into caring for their field of medicinal plants.

Though the villagers and their thinly veiled animosity toward her and her mother for the color of their hair was always a deep wound, she was well shielded from their sneers and remarks by a loving father and well-spoken mother, both of whom could always make her feel better with a hug and a few words of wisdom.

Then Oka had been born. Even though neither of his parents was blond, he was, and the priests had proclaimed he’d been blessed by the Golden One.

Most of the villagers had brown hair, such as her late father. A small minority had black hair, like Shumei and her mother. Oka’s blonde hair, however, was as rare as brown hair was common, and it had always fascinated her. She loved washing and combing it until it dried as golden as late-summer wheat.

As a young child, she hadn’t yet understood the hierarchy of one’s hair color. She remembered this time as being the happiest of her life, a time when nothing was shut away from her, when the world held no hatred and no danger. But an incident had changed all that, and she had quickly learned the dangers around her. The memories were fuzzy now, but she knew never to leave the village after sunset.

Daylight was safe. The Divine One sheltered and protected his people with the warmth of the sun’s rays, so anyone with golden hair was more loved. Other than Oka, only two others in the village could claim to have been touched by the Divine One. One was the village leader, and the other was his wife.

The local priests taught that those with hair the color of the earth had been molded for the task of working with it, so most members of the village with brown hair tended the fields, save a few like the miller and huntsman.

However, those with hair the color of night were believed to have been tainted by the Damned One, also known as the Foul One. Her people’s god had infinite forgiveness and patience, so those with black hair were forgiven for their nearness to evil. Forgiven, but not accepted. Not even when the brother and son to women with black hair had been blessed with blond locks.

Shumei had adored her brother from the day he’d been born, but the atmosphere around her had quickly grown hostile. The comments whispered near her had grown viler with each passing day.

Then one afternoon, her father’s body had been found in the medicine field, and the cause of his death had been unknown. Sudden deaths weren’t uncommon, but the villagers had gleefully shared various cruel theories with Shumei and her mother, the worst being that her father had ingested a poisonous plant on purpose. Never mind the fact that the only plant in the field that could kill if one ate too much of it would leave behind telltale signs.

Thus, the last four years since his death had seen a change in her. Once, she had been cheerful, talkative, and outgoing, but now she was quiet and reserved. Without her father to protect her from the villagers’ contempt, their cruelty had grown exponentially. Their malice had forced her to close herself off and hide her emotions. Seeing any friendly expression on her face, let alone a smile, was now rare. Her eyes were always downcast, and she held herself closely, as if awaiting the blow of someone’s fist.

With Oka, she spoke in a calm, gentle tone, though never with a smile. She could no longer bring herself to act the cheerful older sister, even for him. As a result, Oka had taken to being nearly as soft-spoken as she was, though much more physically active. He greatly enjoyed swordfights with imaginary enemies while she and their mother worked in the medicine field.

Their poor mother. Father’s absence and the village’s ostracism had aged her incredibly over those four years. Her youth had disappeared with her happiness, and though she was yet forty-one, she looked well past fifty, hair almost completely gray.

Shumei scratched an itch on her exposed lower shin, which poked out from the much-too-short dress she hadn’t replaced since her father had died. Today was delivery day for the medicines they sold. Seeing as how both her mother and brother were sick, she knew the task of preparing and delivering the medicines to the households that had ordered them was up to her.

Selling herbal remedies was how her family made ends meet—the only way they were allowed to earn a living, scraping together enough money for food, clothes, and wood for the fire, but not much else. Even then, their food was always the cheapest and least nutritious, the bolts of cloth they purchased were of the lowest quality, and kindling was used sparingly.

The priests considered the medical arts to be “less holy” because only the Divine One could grant true salvation from injury and disease. But the benefit of properly prepared medicines could not be ignored, so they were declared a gift from the Divine One, who made his people from the same earth from which the medicinal plants sprang.

Shumei had never understood how something “less holy” was also a “divine gift.” Then again, many things about how she and her mother were treated made no sense. But tradition demanded that crows and their families tend the fields. For generations, her ancestors had provided the village with medicines for a fee almost too meager to live upon.

Many times, she had wished for a different lot. Surely, she thought, life had more to offer somewhere else. She could make friends, find better work, and walk among other people without seeing disgust on their faces when they saw her hair. She wished to live in a place that didn’t adhere to the caste system in which she found herself at the bottom, a place where she could find adventure, see new sights, and perhaps even experience love.

Even if she were attracted to any men in the village, which she wasn’t, none of them would have her, save one—and she’d rather go unmarried than tie herself to him. Lately, she’d taken to nighttime fantasies of a handsome stranger, such as a traveling merchant or perhaps even a mercenary, who would pluck her and her family out of this miserable village. He’d look past her faded, worn-out dress and her tangled mop of black hair, and he’d see a kindred soul, one ready for life and passion.

More than once, such musings late at night had resulted in heady dreams, but in the morning, she’d always wake to find nothing had changed.

Sighing in resignation, she tucked the blanket more securely around her brother’s feet and stood. She wiped his hand of spider guts, then prepared a variety of medicines in the corner of their hut, grinding together different mixtures of herbs and carefully packaging the results into small cloth bags. Her mother coughed a few more times but was otherwise still. Oka slept fitfully.

Upon confirming her list of orders matched her array of medicine bags, she packed everything into her delivery pouch and slung it over her shoulder. Before leaving, she knelt by her mother.

“Mama? I’m going out to deliver the week’s medicine,” she softly called. Nodding, her mother groaned a farewell. Shumei planned to make her deliveries as quickly as possible, purchase some meat to strengthen her ailing mother and brother, and return home to care for them. They were both at critical stages, and she couldn’t stay away from them for too long. Pushing aside the reed door, she ducked out of the hut and surveyed the morning scene.

The day seemed destined to be gray and chilly. No doubt her shabby clothing would do little to keep her warm. One of her neighbors, a married man by the name of Akito, was just now leaving his home to go to the fields, but no one else was about. She waited until he had gone some distance before heading to her first and most hated destination.

The village leader’s wife had been suffering stiff, achy joints ever since the onset of winter, and her condition was especially bad on days like today. She was taking a daily dose of white willow powder. Though Shumei was begrudgingly grateful the leader and his wife always paid for the medicine on time and in full, it was the same paltry fee everyone else in the village paid. The same medicines, she had heard, fetched ten times as much in the plains cities.

Of course, some villages had no crows to tend their medicine fields, so the task went to brown-haired farmers. Paying a brownie more for the same task was somehow equal to paying a pittance to a crow. Had her family known of this inequality before her father had passed, they would’ve asked for more money for his sake.

She hated delivering medicine to the leader and his wife. While other villagers openly displayed their contempt of her with sneers and rude remarks, the two blondies preferred to be condescending, lobbing insults at her from behind fake smiles. They always tried to make her stay and have tea so they could poke at her with their sharp tongues, but she wouldn’t let them today. She had an excuse to escape them, one even they couldn’t brush aside.

Walking quickly, head down, she took a path to the other side of the village that gave her the best chance of avoiding running into anyone. For once, luck was with her, and except for an elderly woman who simply turned her face away at Shumei’s passing, she made it to the other side of the village without incident.

Cautiously, she approached the leader’s front gate, two wood-paneled doors made of intricately carved whispering ash, and pushed open the left one because its hinges didn’t squeak. After slipping inside, she mounted the worn stone steps leading to the leader’s home.

While her family’s cramped, drafty hut had a reed door, a partial wooden floor made of the cheapest and poorest wood, and a leaky, thatched roof, the leader’s home was constructed of crimson cedar, cut and bundled in the famed city of Houfu in the plains to the west. It also had three glass windows, a finished wooden floor, and a solid front door made of stone oak. They never wanted for anything while Shumei and her family barely survived.

She wasn’t allowed to use the knocker, so she rapped on the door. The unforgiving hardness of the wood stung her knuckles, and she sucked on them while she waited. A moment passed before she heard the shuffle of feet. She took a calming breath, schooled her face to look as blank as possible, and let her head hang low enough to show the one answering the door that she was being respectful.

But beneath the folds of her delivery pouch, she made a vulgar sign with her right hand, curling the third and fourth fingers.

The door slid open, quietly and smoothly riding its track.

“Ah, Shumei. Come in, child.” Leader Kimen beckoned. His wife was nowhere to be seen.

“Thank you, Leader Kimen,” she answered in a clear voice, hoping to alert Akki. She hated the woman, but Akki was the only person Kimen feared, and Shumei loathed being alone with the man.

Nearing fifty, Kimen was lanky in his limbs and sported a heavy gut from his drinking. His mottled complexion looked especially sickly when the light hit his blond hair just right, hair that was thinning and streaked with gray. His deep-set eyes were spaced wide, and his equally wide mouth sat under a long nose that was too big for his face. Every time she saw him, she likened him to a frog and often imagined him eating flies.

“Wipe your dirty feet on the towel here. Goodness, Shumei, will you never improve your appearance with a simple pair of shoes?” he asked with a smile. She hoped the sting of his jibe didn’t show on her face, and couldn’t help curling her shoulders inward, as if that would make the insults bounce off her. She would gladly garb herself better if she were paid properly for her and her mother’s hard work, but the village would never pay them any better than they did now. She would never be able to “improve her poor appearance.”

As it was, her feet were covered with thick calluses and caked with mud that only temporarily came off when she scrubbed them with sand from the riverbed when bathing. Her wavy hair, without the luxury of anything but the harshest soap, was rough and impossible to comb when the only tool she had was missing half its teeth.

Kimen knew she was too underpaid to afford shoes, yet he still insulted her. With no way to talk back, however, she silently and obediently wiped her mud-encrusted feet on a damp towel pulled taunt over a block of wood to the right of the door.

“Where is the mistress?” she asked, fighting to keep calm. “I have her medicine.”

“Ah, then you should know that today’s weather is particularly harsh on my dear wife. She’s still in bed but will join us soon, child. Let us have some tea while we wait on her.” He gestured her forward.

The smooth wooden floor Kimen stood upon was a small step up into their home from the entryway, and she could smell the sweet fragrance of a previously prepared pot of tea. They had such a lovely house, with small but pretty paintings and modest but comfortable furnishings. She hated how much she wished for something similar.

“As you’ve surely heard, Leader Kimen, my family has the Burning. I beg you to take the medicine now and let me leave with the fee so I can buy meat for them and help them survive this critical stage.”

“Oh, a few minutes won’t hurt, dear child. And we’ve things to discuss. Come in, have some tea, and I may let you go unscathed.” His choice of words was not lost on her. She shuddered, an irrepressible flush of anger rising to her face. He would try it again today. She prayed his wife was hurrying her morning routine to interfere. Unfortunately, though, she may not even know Shumei had arrived.

Reluctantly, Shumei stepped into the leader’s home and followed him to the warm parlor by the entrance. A small ceramic pot, steaming with hot tea, already sat next to three small cups on a low table in the middle of the room. He had been waiting for her. The thick, woven rug felt blissful beneath her calloused feet. Kimen bade her to sit, and she gratefully knelt to sit upon her heels. Kimen sat diagonal from her on a cushion.

“How is your mother, Shumei?” he asked, a bit of hope lighting his eyes. She knew it was not hope for her mother’s recovery.

“Unfortunately, the disease has progressed with her. I shall try my utmost to keep her alive today, once I have finished delivering medicine,” she explained slowly, hoping her urgent need to return home would penetrate his thick skull.

He frowned insincerely and tsked. “Her chances are slim, my dear. I’m sorry for the loss you’re about to experience, and I would implore you to consider your next step after she passes. Akki and I know of a small handful of—well, somewhat reluctant men who are willing to take you to wife. You should consider their offers.”

Shumei made the vulgar gesture with her right hand again, clenching her jaw. When her mother had first become ill, Shumei had known Mama’s chance of survival was about one in five. She was nothing if not realistic. While her mother battled the disease, she had been preparing herself for the worst, if only to be brave in front of her fellow villagers, who were undoubtedly cackling with delight to hear a crow might die. She believed herself ready to accept what the leader predicted, but never would she give up hope.

“My mother may still recover,” she bit out despite herself. “And even if she passed, I still wouldn’t be ready for marriage.” Realizing the level of her anger, she ducked her head to hide her face, and briefly closed her eyes to chide herself. Even if Kimen had been rude, as he always was, she couldn’t let herself take his bait. She surmised that worry over her family had made her flippant.

The leader didn’t respond at first. She didn’t want to look up at him, for that would make matters worse, and hoped he didn’t start lecturing her on her lack of humility.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” he purred, putting her on her guard. She lifted her head a degree and stiffened as Kimen sidled toward her. “You’re aware of how greatly I desire you.” He spoke in a greedy whisper, leaning close to place his lips near her ear. She darted a glance at his wrinkly hand on her thigh and clutched her medicine bag to her chest.

“I-If I am to remain fit for marriage, I cannot accept your…advances. Besides, you are married, sir,” she reminded him.

He pressed closer, pushing his pelvis against her hip. She suppressed a gasp, fearing the hardness against her backside. His tongue flicked out to leave a glob of his disgusting saliva in her ear, and she jerked her head away from his touch. Her hopes for his wife to appear snowballed until all she desired to hear was Akki stomping down the hall.

“Akki wouldn’t know. I’d even compensate you for your time. You would like to eat more meat, wouldn’t you?” She tried to lean away from him, but he pulled her body closer between his spindly thighs. “And I’d be more than willing, for you, to spill my purifying seed into your evil little pussy. Shumei, I could save your soul if you let me fuck you,” he said, horrifying her with his confusing declarations. She knew of a physical act between married people, but he was using words she’d never heard before.

“I don’t understand what you’re saying, nor do I care to find out.”

“Oh, I don’t believe that. You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you, Shumei?” He began grinding against her. “Like this, right? I pump my cock, and you moan like the wanton little witch you are.”

“Stop it,” she whispered vehemently, doing her best to put space between them. She tried to pull away, keeping her pouch close to her chest.

Heavy footfalls sounded from the opposite side of the house. Shumei gave a loud sigh of relief, never so glad for Akki’s impending presence. Kimen was quick to put himself on the other side of the table. In record time, he straightened his robes and reverted to looking as innocent as possible.

“This discussion isn’t over yet,” he softly promised, catching her gaze for a fleeting second before Akki walked into the room.

“Why didn’t you tell me my medicine was here?” she shrieked at her husband.

“My dear, I wanted to let you rest a bit longer,” he cajoled, coming to a stand with a hastiness that was damning. Shumei could sense Akki’s deadly glare. She could feel little pricks of suspicion and hate upon her bowed head.

“I’ll rest better when I’ve had my medicine,” Akki scathingly replied, stomping forward. She reached down and jabbed two fingers into Shumei’s shoulder, her cue to bring out the medicine. Shumei quickly dug through her pouch to retrieve a larger cloth bag with seven small packets inside. “Pour the tea, you lazy bag of lard.”

Kimen was quick to comply, and Akki yelped in pain as she struggled to kneel upon the cushion he’d vacated.

“Shall I add the medicine, Madam Akki?” Shumei asked only as loud as the huffing woman needed to hear her.

“With my hands the way they are, you stupid child, of course I want you to put the medicine in,” she spat.

Shumei opened a daily dose, took a clean stirring stick, and mixed in the white willow powder, which quickly dissolved. Akki grasped painfully at the cup and attempted to down the steaming tea in only a few gulps.

This moment was one of the rare times when Akki’s contempt for Shumei was not shrouded in her usual, mean smile. Despite being the lowest-ranking member of the village, Shumei was oddly privileged to see this side of the leader’s wife, who always acted serene and spiritual in front of everyone else.

Akki had been a beautiful woman when she was younger, or so Shumei had heard from her mother. But despite her comfortable home and the power she held over the village, Akki hated her life, and it showed on her face. Lines of stress bracketed her mouth, which was nearly always pursed around her overly large front teeth. Permanent wrinkles furrowed her forehead. Her complaints, given “kindly” of course, were well and widely known, from the food she ate to the clothes she wore to the enviable amount of free time she enjoyed, time which she said was spent in “utter boredom.”

Kimen and Shumei were both silent as Akki returned the cup to the table, hands trembling. Her eyes were closed, so Shumei didn’t worry about being caught staring as she studied the older woman’s complexion, noticing how pale she’d become. All the blood was gone from her face. Akki rarely went outside anyway, preferring not to work, even if “work” was simply visiting and speaking with the other villagers, but even for a woman who hardly saw sunlight, her skin was much too thin and gray. Something else was wrong.

Shumei stared at her hands and searched her mind for what could make someone appear so deathly pale.

“Dearest?” Kimen leaned toward his wife, and Shumei put aside her thoughts for the moment.

“Pay her the fee,” Akki said flatly. Kimen reached into the fold of his shirt, pulled out a heavy coin purse, and withdrew a ten-kol piece.

Ten kols was enough to buy about three days’ worth of meager meals for one person. The small, rectangular currency came in several denominations, but she’d never held anything higher than a ten-kol piece. The one time she’d seen a hundred-kol piece, it had been in the hand of another villager gushing about finding it on the western road.

Eight or nine kols was enough to buy the cheapest pair of shoes, but over the last year, only four traveling merchants had come through their village. Two had come without any shoes to sell, and the other two had been required by custom to sell to crows only after the rest of the village had made their purchases, so they had sold out of any affordable shoes. A run of bad luck. But when had she ever been lucky?

Kimen tossed the ten-kol piece to her from across the table, and it landed on the medicine pouch in her lap with an unceremonious plop.

“Have you seen my symptoms, little Shumei?” Akki asked with a sneer.

“Yes, madam.” She closed her fist over the money in her lap.

“As observant as ever.”

Shumei didn’t respond.

“Find a cure for it, then.”

She nodded without looking up. Perhaps her mother would have some advice.

“Now then, I suppose you should be going, child,” Kimen said, making to rise.

“Not yet, idiot. We’ve yet to discuss her future husband,” Akki pointed out, swiping her hand through the air as if cutting off someone’s head. Kimen settled, nodding uncertainly. Akki turned her attention back to Shumei. “It’s pitiable someone like you cannot marry by virtue of her own qualities when you are so lacking, but the job of any village leader includes arranging a husband for you on your twentieth birthday. We’ve collected a few offers for your…hand in marriage,” she finished with a gulp, as if disgusted.

“If you please, Madam Akki—” Shumei tried to say, hoping to leave soon.

“Don’t interrupt when a Blessed One is speaking,” she snapped. “As I was saying, this village may have lost many of its finest members thanks to that cursed disease—and we may be temporarily abandoned by our neighboring villages who are too cowardly even to trade with us—but of the men here, three have said they’re willing to take you to wife. And because he asked to be mentioned first….” Akki paused, sighing and rolling her eyes. “Akiji has begged that you ‘accept his undying love and unending passions’ when choosing a husband.”

Shumei wanted to laugh but managed to keep her face still.

“The miller’s two sons also agreed to be candidates, though it was difficult to garner their acceptance. I actually had to praise you once to make them say yes,” she said, shifting uncomfortably. Shumei nearly couldn’t suppress a disbelieving scoff.

“Madam Akki, I know I’m not worthy of your efforts, but right now, my mother and brother are at critical stages of the dis—”

“By the dueling gods, child, calm down. We can talk of this next week. But be sure to save that darling brother of yours. If you fail, and a Blessed One is lost to the Burning, I doubt even my husband and I could find or approve of any match with you.”

Shumei nodded while silently fuming at Akki’s coldness toward her brother’s health. Blondies cooed at each other constantly for being so wonderful, but even that level of self-absorption was an illusion. Shumei was one of the few who knew the truth: blondies despised other blondies. The fewer of them there were, the more they were loved, appreciated, and worshipped. A spoiled blondie hated competition.

“I will take my leave, Leader and Madam,” she said as she stood.

“Yes, you should be off to deliver those medicines, I’m sure. Perhaps you’ll be able to afford some meat this week,” Akki said with a grimacing smile, one that didn’t reach her eyes. Not giving the woman the satisfaction of a reaction, Shumei showed none of the anger she felt as she forced herself to bow in respect before leaving.

Upon shutting the door behind her, she breathed in the fresh morning air and was only a little saddened to see it had begun drizzling, but she would rather be chilled and wet than remain in that house another minute.

Huddling over her pouch of medicines, she took the path that ran along the edge of the village even though it was a less-direct route to her next stop. It had the most trees and would keep her drier. A moment later, she knocked on the door of a family whose oldest daughter was pregnant and needed medicine for her morning sickness. After exchanging the medicine and fee, only two kols, the door was all but slammed in her face, but she paid it no heed. Two more families earned her six kols, and then it was time to visit her biggest customer.

The witch. At least, everyone said Majo was a witch. But no one had yet revealed any solid evidence to support such an accusation, or even to suggest it at a volume louder than a whisper.

In an obvious attempt to discover such evidence, Kimen and Akki had asked once what kind of plants Majo ordered from Shumei’s family—as if they would know which ones were suspect, which of course they didn’t. Knowledge of magic was forbidden. Even if they had conjured up a flimsy reason or a dubious claim, Shumei doubted they’d have the courage to confront Majo.

What Shumei knew about magic could be summed up in one word: nothing. But after dozens of weekly visits to Majo’s home, she had never seen anything she might think was any sort of magic, which was all she could say in response to Akki and Kimen’s questions.

Not that Majo wasn’t a strange person. She always asked for an odd assortment of herbs, fungi, and roots. When Shumei once asked why, the witch had merely smiled and said she liked to cook. For a woman of her years—Shumei assumed somewhere around forty—Majo was rather fresh-faced and beautiful compared to anyone else her age. Of course, no one knew her exact age, but no one was brave enough to ask, directly or indirectly, Shumei included.

Majo’s home was on the west side of the village and, like Shumei’s house, was set farther back because, also like Shumei, Majo had black hair—the only other person with black hair in the village besides Shumei and her mother.

Shumei didn’t know where the witch earned her income, but she always paid for her delivery in full and purchased more per week than the rest of the entire village did. Shumei had never seen her working on anything, so what she did with all those plants and extracts could only be guessed at. Perhaps she made and sold secondary medicines, but evidently not to anyone in the village as far as Shumei could tell. No one had ever mentioned buying anything from her—not that anyone would necessarily admit it.

The witch’s home was far sturdier than Shumei’s, having been constructed of yellow birch, a strange and rather paranoid choice. It was a type of wood that didn’t burn easily, but other people would have chosen a prettier, longer-lasting wood. Yellow birch was unfortunately vulnerable to rotting, and it was also an unattractive shade of yellowish-green, which made for a home that stuck out like mold on a piece of bread. Her front door, which swung rather than slid, was decorated with an odd arrangement of dried flowers.

Shumei raised her hand to knock, but before she could, the sickly green portal yelped and shuddered as it pulled free of a catch in the doorjamb. Slowly but steadily, it swung inward.

“On time, as always.” Majo draped one hand over the top of the door.

Shumei didn’t respond, though perhaps visibly swallowing could be considered a response. Strangest of all Majo’s habits was her manner of dress, and it was doubly so today.

With the exception of the leader and his wife in their relatively lavish home, most people in their village were of very limited means, including fashion. Men wore bland-colored, traditional clothing, which consisted of loose, dark pants that cinched tightly around the ankle, and thigh-length, robe-like shirts and jackets held shut with ties. The only real difference between what any of the men wore was the quality of the fabric and how well it fit.

Women wrapped themselves in long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses that closed at the waist with wide belts of cloth. If one could afford an under-robe, it was worn to provide extra modesty at the neck. Wealthy women wore bright, fine materials laden with intricate embroidery, but even Akki hardly wore her finest dress and was usually seen in more modest garb, albeit something finer than Shumei had ever owned or even touched.

Majo, on the other hand, had somehow acquired enough wealth to clothe herself extremely well. She always forewent the under-robe and cinched her belt to show off her cleavage, but her fine silk dresses boasted bold, beautiful patterns, such as red butterflies, black birds, or white roses.

Shumei was unavoidably jealous, but she wasn’t alone. All the other villagers sulked about how Majo had far finer clothing than they did, and this, however petty, was the real reason they believed her to be a witch. How else would a crow have nice things?

Today, Majo wore a red robe covered with a peculiar black pattern, and Shumei had to wonder why Majo would choose something as disturbing as spiderwebs. It was a beautifully made dress, but it made Shumei shudder all the same.

“Do you have time to visit with me this week?” Smiling, Majo took the hand Shumei had left hanging in the air and pulled her inside. “I have a surprise for you.”

“I’m sorry, Madam Majo, but my mother and brother are still both quite sick. I’d be glad to visit with you another day,” she offered, even though she disliked spending time with the witch. Majo had never been unkind toward Shumei, but something about her felt off. Even dangerous.

Majo closed the door, leaving Shumei fidgeting under the full effect of her home’s interior. There were no windows, only a small hole in the roof to let out smoke, so Majo’s solution for creating light was candles—but not just one or two. Half a dozen red candles, worth ten times what Shumei’s family made in a week, were always burning. And she had never seen them burned lower than halfway.

The floor of the hut was a cheap but smooth wood, and one threadbare rug covered a large, open area near the entrance. Majo’s cooking pot sat to the left beneath the roof’s smoke hole, and her thick sleeping mat lay to the right. All around were large cabinets and shelves filled with books and baskets of plants. A small, locked case sat in a far corner of the room.

Shumei had often stared at the books at the back of the hut, wondering what was inside. She couldn’t read well, but she still wanted to look. What people, ideas, or places did they describe? Did they all speak of real events, or were fables and epics mixed in with historical accounts?

“A few minutes is all I ask,” Majo pleaded, sandwiching Shumei’s hand between her own. Not wanting to upset her best customer, Shumei hesitated and wondered why she couldn’t bring forth her meager supply of courage in such a simple social situation.

But she had been away from her home only about forty-five minutes at this point, and she had five more deliveries. If she stayed at the witch’s house for a short visit, then made her deliveries, she estimated she’d be home within the hour. Surely her mother and brother could be by themselves until then.

“All right,” she said, giving in to Majo’s cajoling. The woman smiled in relief and led her farther inside.

“Have a seat here.” Majo swept her hand toward her sleeping mat, which was made up with a soft, woolen blanket. “Mind your feet, please.”

Shumei sat with her legs angled away from Majo’s clean blanket and tried to relax while Majo retrieved a jug and a cup from one of her cabinets. The witch rested on her heels on a cushion nearby and set her burden next to the still-steaming tea she must have been drinking before Shumei had arrived.

As Majo rearranged the items around her, Shumei dared to look a little closer at the witch. She saw only a couple of laugh lines around her eyes, the irises of which were nearly black. They sometimes crinkled as if she delighted in knowing something others did not, but more often they were cold and calculating. No doubt the reason Majo’s lips were usually painted blood-red was to distract from her piercing gaze. Shumei was tempted to wipe her finger across Majo’s lower lip and wondered how she might look with a painted mouth.

Such thoughts always led to wondering what it’d be like to actually be Majo. To be independent. Mysterious. Feared and yet desired. Shumei didn’t have to know much about sexual intimacy to understand the undercurrent to some of the villagers’ whispered comments about the witch.

“I’ve been trying my hand at distilling spirits and managed to make rice wine,” Majo revealed. Her long, unbound hair swept over her shoulders as she leaned forward to touch the jug. “I want you to be the first to taste it.”

Shumei nodded rather than return Majo’s smile, but her heart secretly raced with the bit of mischief Majo often brought out in her. A sip of alcohol today, a juicy piece of gossip last week. Mama had always strictly forbidden rice wine, even at village festivals, only one of which crows could attend, so to have an opportunity like this made Shumei feel lucky, if also a little guilty. She always tried to deny temptation in order to refute the bad reputation automatically cast upon her, but she had so easily nodded. Although, why shouldn’t she enjoy something nice once in a while?

Majo presented the small cup of rice wine to her, and Shumei bowed her head as she took it. The wine’s pungent scent filled her nostrils as she glanced up at Majo, who raised her eyebrows in question.

“Do I sip it?” Shumei asked.

A smile melted onto Majo’s face. “If you like.”

She raised the cup to her lips and took a small sip. Its smooth taste was a surprise. Whenever other villagers drank rice wine, they always winced after swallowing. “It’s wonderful,” she said, thoroughly enjoying the small flare of heat spreading inside her. Preening, the witch said her thanks.

When Shumei had finished her serving, she set down the cup and reached into her pouch to retrieve the largest packet, which was filled with roots, small bags of medicinal powders, and bundles of herbs. She laid it in front of Majo, who picked it up with yet another smile and inspected its contents.

“Wonderfully prepared, as usual,” she praised, setting it aside. Moving with enviable grace, she then went to the chest in the corner and unlocked it with a small key she kept inside the belt of her dress. The heavy bag she retrieved was no doubt filled with more money than Shumei could ever hope to have. Majo counted out the payment and locked the chest again before returning to sit on the cushion.

“Hold out your hand, dear,” she said. Shumei did so, bowing her head without thought. Twenty-five kols spilled into her hand, eight kols more than the expected fee. Shumei stared at the three coins in her hand with disbelief.

“For trying my wine and always doing such a wonderful job with my order, I wanted to give you a tip this week. Save it for yourself, okay?”

Shumei’s eyes stung, and though she was grateful, she couldn’t help feeling suspicious, which only made her feel worse. Majo was a crow like her and had always been generous. But Shumei just couldn’t shake the feeling the witch’s generosity, if accepted, came with a price. But what else could she do but accept what little kindness was given her?

With a quiet thank-you, Shumei put the money away and set her satchel aside. Majo poured more wine. “Have another before you leave,” she said, holding the cup out. Bowing her head yet again, Shumei accepted a second serving and brought it to her lips. She took larger sips this time and marveled at how light the wine made her head feel.

“It really is delicious. Thank you for sharing it with me.”

The witch smiled again, a little too slowly. Shumei couldn’t help noting the direction of Majo’s gaze: Shumei’s chest. Glancing down, she wondered if she had spilled the wine, but there were no wet spots on her clothes.

“I wonder why you haven’t yet purchased yourself new shoes, Shumei. You have enough money to afford a pair, don’t you? I hate to see your pretty feet in the mud all the time.”

Shumei curled her toes self-consciously, lamenting how calloused and dirty her soles had become since outgrowing her old pair of shoes. She wordlessly set down her empty cup.

“Oh, don’t worry too much about it, dear. Though I do hope you use my tip to buy some shoes, I’ll be happy as long as you use the money on yourself.”

“Yes, madam,” she murmured. She felt strange—in more ways than one. She was certain she was a little drunk, but more than that, she had grown reluctant to leave. Yes, she was dressed far more poorly than her host, but here she was warm and receiving small but highly appreciated gifts. She thought of her sick family at home, and guilt pulled her shoulders into a slouch.

“Shumei?” Majo softly called. She had leaned forward, hands out. Looking up with a bit of a start, Shumei straightened. Then her jaw dropped, for Majo cupped Shumei’s breasts as casually as if shaking her hand.

Shumei was so shocked she couldn’t move. All she could do was sit there while Majo tested the weight and shape of her breasts with the same sort of thoughtful and determined expression one would see from a physician.

The witch lifted her gaze to Shumei’s stunned reaction and gave her a sly smile. “Does this feel good?” she whispered, brushing her thumbs over Shumei’s nipples. At last, Shumei was galvanized to push the woman’s hands away. Face red, she wrapped her arms around her chest and turned away.

“Why did you do that?” Shumei asked, voice shaking. Majo hadn’t hurt her. In fact, the revulsion she felt around Kimen and Akiji was absent, but the witch had never given her any indication of such…interest before, and it had completely blindsided her.

“You’re going to be twenty soon, right?” Majo asked. Shumei nodded. “Then no doubt the leader and his wife have mentioned marriage.”

“Yes, not even an hour ago.”

Majo sighed. “They will probably force you to choose that bully, Akiji. He may declare his love for you, but he only wants one thing from you. You know that, right?”

Shumei did know and swallowed her unspoken anxieties. Like all young, unmarried people, she was quite curious about “the marital act.” She had heard of a body part on men that moved on its own, and positions the couple assumed. She wondered how much of it was true. Her mother had never explained much, and she had never felt she could ask.

“Why do I have to marry?” She sank into herself as sadness settled over her, and stared at a candle in the corner, its flame steady in the still air.

“No doubt they hope you’ll soon be with child. Another crow for them to exploit.”

“Is that why you refused a husband?”

“I had…many reasons.”

Shumei rubbed her arms, gaze falling away from the candle. She could now guess at least a couple of those reasons.

“You should be going now,” Majo said, dress rustling as she stood. “Your family is waiting for you, right?” Shumei grabbed her medicine pouch and stood. Though she faced the witch, she couldn’t look her in the eye and instead stared at the floor. “The same order for next week will be fine, dear.” Majo folded her hands together as if she were as proper as any other matronly villager.

“Yes, madam,” she said, backing up to the door.

“Oh, and Shumei?” the witch called. Shumei made the mistake of looking up. “If you ever want me to touch your pretty breasts again, come by anytime. I can do that and much more,” she said with a wicked grin, stroking her hand over her hip. Taken aback, Shumei could only stutter. She flung the door open and made a hasty exit. The last thing she heard before shutting the witch’s door was lilting laughter.

Shumei beat a fast pace to her next stop. Embarrassment heated her cheeks. Her nipples tingled. Majo had never done or said anything like that before. And to think Shumei had been trying to give Majo the benefit of the doubt.

The next four deliveries went by quickly and without a problem. However, her last stop of the day still loomed before her—a man who regularly bought medicine for his hangovers. Where he got his drink, or with what money, was a mystery, but her mother suspected he used part of his crop to distill whatever could get him drunk despite how little surplus their village could produce.

His son was the infamous Akiji, who had been pursuing her since she was thirteen. At first, Akiji’s overtures had been sweet, even thoughtful. But as everything else in her life, his attention had become something wrong and uncomfortable. That she had thus far escaped any serious incident with him was a miracle, for she was never surprised to see a new bruise on his face. He was always getting into fights, though she had never seen this herself, and his tendency toward violence seriously worried her, especially if she were forced to marry him.

She frowned when Akiji’s home came into view and looked around for any signs of him or his pockmarked father. All was quiet. She lightly rapped on the door, medicine packet in hand, and waited. Almost a minute passed before she heard noise inside, but she knew she had to be patient with this delivery. Knocking more than once earned far more ire than it was worth. When the rickety wooden door was abruptly whipped open, she was rather glad it was Akiji’s father, and not Akiji himself.

The man clearly had yet another hangover and had been sleeping until a moment ago. Where his wife was at this hour, Shumei didn’t know, but she could guess the woman was filling in for her husband in the fields until he could pull himself out of his drunken stupor long enough to go do his own work.

“What do you want?” he grumbled. He wasn’t in a good mood, so she meekly held out the cloth bag.

“Your medicines, sir.”

He thought for a brief moment, rubbing his bumpy face, and then told her to wait a minute. He disappeared inside his dark home and came stumbling back with her fee. After slapping the two rectangular pieces into her palm, he grabbed his medicine. She brought her hand back just as he slammed the door in her face.

Sighing, she placed the money into the only other bag in her medicine pouch, which now held the day’s earnings of exactly fifty kols. About half would go toward meals for her family this week, and another fifteen kols would go toward firewood because they had neither an ax nor the time to chop their own. That left ten kols, eight of which were from Majo’s tip, for Shumei’s use. She decided to take the witch’s advice and use them for a pair of shoes. That assumed, of course, that a traveling merchant would come through their village again anytime soon.

The week’s deliveries done, Shumei turned in the direction of the village huntsman, and she jumped in surprise to find Akiji standing between her and the path, arms folded and shoulder propped against the wall of his house. His smile was possessive, and a fresh bruise colored his left eye.

“Lovely to see you this fine morning,” he greeted despite how obviously poor the weather was.

“Did you get into another fight?” she asked without inflection, having recovered from her shock. She made to walk past him, but he caught her arm in a firm grip.

“You always misunderstand me,” he said, low and far too intimate. Compared to his father and most of the men in the village, Akiji was quite handsome. Straight teeth, light brown eyes, a strong jaw, and a fine figure. His sandy-brown hair was cut short and curled a bit.

But what value was there in good looks when she held absolutely no feelings for him, except perhaps pity and no small amount of fear? According to others’ opinions of his temper and her own experiences with his bullying nature, she had the strong feeling his future wife would have her own share of bruises.

“I misunderstand nothing. Please let go of me,” she said, attempting to jerk her arm out of his grasp. His grip only tightened. “My family is sick, and I cannot waste time here with you.”

“I merely wish to know if the leader and his wife told you of my marital intentions.”

“They did. Now let me go.” She tried to break free once more, but he only pulled her a step closer.

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