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by Haikasoru

Saya walked along the river for one last look. Tomorrow she would leave. It was a clear, early summer evening before the start of the long rainy season. The willows with their leaves unfurled swayed in the wind and frogs croaked. The breeze already smelled of summer, heavy with the fragrance of deep green leaves and the scent of grass from the warm fields. The last rays of the sun rested on the tips of the mountains, and downstream the water gleamed red where it reflected the sky. Standing on the stones at the edge of the water with not a soul in sight, Saya strained to see the river’s end.

How often she had played here; how often she had dreamed of places unknown, people unknown, gods unknown. On little leaf boats she had set her dreams sailing, never once thinking that she would leave this village. Mahoroba was said to lie far to the west of the end of the river. She had never before thought of its location in relation to her village. She had only imagined a misty palace somewhere far away in the direction she would now journey.

She gave a small sigh and removed the magatama on its cord from around her neck. The sky-blue stone, warmed by her skin, seemed to breathe. She laid it in her right hand, as she had done so often, against the birthmark on her palm. She found it difficult to believe a baby could be born with this squeezed in its tiny fist. But she could not deny its testosterone beauty. How proud she would have been if only it had been a betrothal gift.

“I’ll throw it away.”

She had already made up her mind. That was why she had come to the river. She would return the Water Maiden’s stone to the water. She did not need it. She could not carry this shadow with her if she was to become a handmaiden at Mahoroba. She must bury all connections to the people of Darkness here.

Grasping the magatama in her right hand, she raised her arm. Like this, as far as I can! she thought.

But she could not throw it. It was almost as if someone was holding back her hand. She faltered in stunned surprise, and then glanced furtively around as if she had done something wrong.

Dusk was beginning to creep along the river. Her sharp eyes detected a figure coming down the path from the bank farther upstream. She hurriedly concealed the magatama in her sleeve. She would have been ashamed to have someone discover her trying to throw it away. The figure seemed to be approaching her. Who can it be at this time of day? she wondered, peering intently. It was not difficult to guess. Although the person’s face was hidden in the twilight, the outline was unmistakable: the hair piled high; the long skirt reaching to the ankles, which no ordinary villagers wore; the thick short figure, shoulders rounded by middle age. It was the shrine maiden, keeper of the mirror. Saya bowed hastily.

“Good evening,” she said, puzzled. She had never seen the shrine maiden walking alone. If that was true of the daytime, how much stranger was it to see her walking like this at dusk.

The shrine maiden halted and looked down at Saya haughtily. She was always like that, even looking scornfully upon the head chieftain at times, but now her gaze was particularly frigid. And the words she spoke took Saya by surprise. “I am no longer the shrine maiden. I have returned the mirror.” An icy fury filled her voice. Saya shuddered and stared at her in astonishment.

“So suddenly? But why? You’re the only shrine maiden in the village.” Standing stiffly erect as if the hair piled on the top of her head would fall should she bend, the woman replied, “Because you, Saya, received Prince Tsukishiro. It was you who made obeisance before him, you who offered the sake, you who received his ritual words of greeting and you who were chosen as handmaiden. And I? When the Prince of Light came to our village, I, the keeper of the mirror, was unable even to attain his presence, and received not one word of acknowledgment. How could I remain meekly guarding the mirror after that?”

Without thinking, Saya took a step backward. The shrine maiden continued. “I’m leaving this land. But before you go to Mahoroba, there is something I want to tell you.” She took a deep breath and suddenly her expression changed drastically. Her eyes dilated and her mouth split grotesquely wide. Unaware that the woman’s face was now filled with murder, Saya stared fixated with horror, thinking that she was undergoing some strange transformation.

The shrine maiden shrieked as one possessed, “You are evil! You are of the Darkness! Did you think I did not know? How cleverly you have tried to deceive Prince Tsukishiro. Do you think that I will surrender you to him? Do you think that I will let you go?”

With surprising speed, she drew a dagger from inside her robe. The fading light glowed dull red along the short blade.

“I’ll send you back to the Darkness here and now!”

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