The girl was the crow king’s now. She should not have any memory of human things. And yet, she did. The sky flowers had sparked something. Fireworks meant something. As Sumi watched the fireworks rocket and bloom again and again a spindle of red light stretched from the ground like a thin rope reaching out for the crescent moon. The hypnotic dance and sway of the ribbon of light caught on the wind and tangled through the clouds that had gathered above the grounds.

“I’ve never seen those fireworks before,” Sumi marveled at the red line scribbling itself into existence.

“That’s not…” the girl began, “that is magic.”

Sumi’s feathers raised as a chill coursed through her at the word: Magic. She opened her beakish mouth to ask the girl more but a low hum filled her head and her crow eye, in the center of her brow, opened. The crow king’s voice filling her, summoning her, summoning all the brides. He wanted his murder to attend him. And they would. They must. Always the call was too strong no matter how Sumi wished she could fight it. The girl had no crow eye yet, but the vibration of the crow king’s will shook in her bones and she hugged herself until she was crouching and small. The quicker they assembled the quicker the pain would end. Sumi led the girl back into the heart of the cryptomeria so that they might hear the king’s decree.

Bones crunched beneath Sum’s talons and cut the bride’s bare feet as the two crossed the throne room where the king sat upon his thorny perch. He was magnificent and terrible. He always was. A puddle of shadow pooled beneath him, the color of fresh spilt blood. The low light of the throne room reflected gold off if his otherwise black feathers. The claws of his three legs squeezed the branches that held up his overflowing bulk. And he looked at the eleven brides gathered with five eyes like glistening rubies. One of their murder was missing.

“I have felt death among you,” his voice rumbled and scratched, raking coals against broken souls, “a burst of red mine eye spied when she was cruelly killed.”

The ribbon of red light. Sumi kept her tongue and hoped the girl would do the same. Although, if the crow king asked they would be forced to answer. No bride could disobey their lord.

“Who among my brides will avenge their sister? Who will find the murderer and bring him before me so I might pluck his heart from his chest and shit upon his corpse?”

Feathers ruffled and beaks clacked. Three brides raced forward, heads bowed and bobbing. Volunteers to go into the human world and hunt for the killer. Sumi stood, eyes averted from the king, she nudged the girl to her feet and sucked air into her lungs until they burned, ready to explode.

“My king and my master, pray allow me to take the youngest bride. She must see why the humans are our enemy. She must yet learn their only purpose is to sate our hunger with their flesh and slake our thirst with their blood. Let me teach her this.”

Sumi had spoken in the crow king’s presence. She had spoken without permission. Some of the other brides hissed at her reproachingly. The king’s claws tightened on his perch and the thorny wood splintered. He could kill her for speaking. He might. But death was one way to be free. Sumi didn’t fear death. She didn’t flinch in the silence of her sentencing.

“Will you swear to keep her from harm? You will protect her no matter what? For she is new and yet unformed. She is imperfect.”

“I swear it upon my eye.”

“Then take her. Teach her our ways and the bestial way of mankind. But you may take her no farther than the spread of our castle’s roots. For that is as far as I can see through your eyes.”

Sumi bowed in reverence and the girl followed suit in a clumsy wingless fashion. But this too pleased the crow king. They would leave at dawn and find the source of the light ribbon that had killed one of them. Sumi would lead the girl into danger all so that she may learn a way to die. A human under the fireworks held the key.

(I) (II) (III) (V) (VI) (VII) (VIII)

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