In the private chambers of the Daimyo of Ta no Kuni, she danced. One delicate foot placed in front of the other, a slight bend of the knee as a small hand twists to snatch an expertly tossed fan from the air. This trick earns her a ripple of applause from the assembled spectators: petty nobles, rich merchants, intellectuals, professionals – the social elite of her country - present at the behest of her father, who watches her performance from his seat, apprehension apparent in every line of his face. Behind her easy, laughing smile, she cannot help but worry. For she knows how much this night means to her father. She knows she must make a good impression.
"Tonight, my daughter, you must dance for him. Dance for him and win his heart. Be beautiful and merciless, and with him you shall want for nothing! He is rich and powerful and has promised to make our country strong again. You, my daughter, shall be the silken thread that binds him to us. Now go, and do not fail!"
Amaterasu is her name, and in Ta no Kuni, her grace and beauty is legendary. Upon her birth, some declared that to give an infant such a name was an audacious act, presumptuous – an unjust burden – and they pitied her. But, whether by accident or some divine design, the child grew into a pretty girl and, eventually, into an astonishingly beautiful young lady, beloved by all. Her skin was white as the fine silk of her kimono, her lips ever painted a deep berry red. Her long black hair fell thick and long to her waist (teased up this night in pins of mother-of-pearl and creamy jade) and her eyes were blue as the dawn sky, ever filled with joy and mirth.
Those eyes which had captivated many now stray towards the man sitting to the right of her father; the man with skin pale as her own and strange yellow eyes – the man who, her father insisted, would save her country from ruin. She lets her gaze linger upon him just a little long before she smiles a coy smile and spins away, opening the pair of fans with a snap that startles a gaping teenaged boy.
A moment of silence follows. She stands in the middle of the polished floor, poised and perfectly still. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the man with the strange eyes tilt his head ever-so-slightly. He is watching her, she knows it, as the corners of his thin, bloodless lips had curled into an odd, sickle sharp smile. And that was good. It was what she was meant to do, after all. She was destined for him now, and it was right that she should please him. Was it not?
A pale hand slips with subtle grace towards the folds of her kimono and her fingers entwine themselves around the long strip of ribbon with which she will finish her performance, gripping it with sudden determination. Her audience are at her mercy; expectant, wilful, hungry for the almost painful beauty of her dance.
She does not disappoint.
At once, the drums begin, beating an ancient, arcane rhythm - and she begins to move. Her arm shoots out, and the ribbon uncoils, hisses through the air and strikes it like a snake. In a flash, she turns to the pounding beat of the drums, again and again and the strip of silk coils itself around her body. Her father's minstrel begins to pick out a melody upon his beautiful, lacquered koto, and it becomes more frantic as the drums gather pace and as Amaterasu twists and writhes, her ribbon spiralling out above her, behind her, in front of her, around her. It is the Hebi no Mai – the dance of the serpent. It is not one of her preferred dances, nor one of the most spectacular in her repertoire, but her father requested it specifically. Why, she does not know - but her audience seem to find favour in its subtlety – and as she moves, her gaze drifts once again towards the strange man. His smile is all the proof she needs that her father's choice was a wise one.
The music becomes faster now, and she is forced to look away. The rhythm, the pace is almost frenetic and Amaterasu's skill is tested to breaking point. Faster, faster still she dances, poise and propriety cast to the wind as she loses herself in the melody. This is when she is at her best. In her mind, she becomes the snake; envisions the ribbon as an extension of her self, lets it envelop her, caress her, whisper to her in a strange language she does not understand.
The music rises to a crescendo now, the drums pound and the final few steps of the dance of the serpent see Amaterasu ensnared as she deliberately entangles herself in the ribbon. She feigns distress and her father's minstrel scrapes his nails along the koto, eliciting from it a keening, desperate cry. Then, to the last beat of the drums she falls to the floor as though in a swoon and the hall plunges into sudden silence.
The beauty and power of her dance is such that the audience delay in their applause, stunned and moved as they are by her performance, men's eyes locked upon her prostrate form filled with wonder, awe, love, lust. Not a sound could be heard after her dance ended, and that was why Amaterasu heard the strange man's words so clearly when she saw him lean towards her father and say, in a voice that brooked no refusal:
"You will give her to me."
- - - -
- - - -
An hour later, and Amaterasu stands in the middle of the lush, finely furnished room her father had offered to the strange man, to their honoured guest. It appeared that no expense had been spared, despite the fact that her family wanted desperately for money. Beautiful tapestries and wares adorned every surface of the room, the bed linen was of the finest cotton and silk, the walls had been freshly painted the week before with a coat of expensive gloss of a deep sensual red. As she looks around the room, she smiles slightly and consoles herself with the thought that things like this would become a common occurrence were she to be accepted by this man, that she would bring honour to the family by becoming his, that he would make her country strong again.
Still, she is nervous.
After her performance, her father had ushered her away and into a room where she was promptly set upon by a team of maids who began to smooth stray hairs into place, reapply her make-up and drape her in the white gold and jewels such as her family possessed. As the women had pulled and hauled at her with practised precision, she had taken a moment to observe her father as he stood at the doorway watching her. He had not looked himself at all, the proud, upright man she had come to recognise as her father, the Daimyo of Ta no Kuni. His face was pale and drawn, and he had seemed as though he were about to weep.
"Father?" she had called out hesitantly, a strange ominous feeling settling in the pit of her stomach. "Are you well?"
He did not answer straight away, but when he did he managed a broken sort of smile. "I am, daughter," he replied. "I am merely sad that another man will be taking you away from me so soon."
She had smiled then at her father's concern and had said, "Do not worry, father. I am sure I will be permitted to come and visit."
At her words, her father's mouth had twisted suddenly and he turned away. "Yes... I am sure you will," he whispered, his hand resting upon the doorframe. "Go to his room and wait upon him, my daughter, when you are ready. He should not be long."
With that, her father had disappeared down the corridor, leaving her alone with the maids.
And now she was alone here in this grand room, waiting for a strange man to come take her away. Her heart began to flutter in her chest and she dearly hoped that her nervousness would not show.
She yelped and jumped backwards at the sound of a low, rasping voice and whirled around on her heel to be confronted with the image of the man for whom she had been waiting. Almost at once, his glittering yellow eyes filled the whole of her vision... and she felt inexplicably light and free as all apprehension floated away, like the petals of a cherry blossom borne upon a sudden breeze...
"My lord?" she said faintly.
"Will you have me?" he said, holding out a white hand, his smile cold and razor sharp like the blade of a kunai.
"Yes," she heard herself saying, wanting to hesitate but unable to find the strength.
She took up his hand in hers. The man's was like ice, like a corpse's hand, but for some reason, this did not unsettle her in the slightest.
"Will you submit to me, Amaterasu, and give the whole of yourself to me?" he said, his words echoing in her mind, banishing all else save the sound of his lilting, sibilant voice.
"Yes," she whispered, and a small tear escaped from the corner of her eye.
The man smiled again, letting her hand fall away. "Good," he said. "Then we may begin."
Though she had dabbled in the ways of love in the past, having had several dalliances with a few lucky courtiers, Amaterasu had not yet ventured down the forbidden path, as it were, for she knew how important it was to her father that she remained untried until her wedding day. She knew how these things were supposed to go, though, and with a trembling hand she peeled away the silk that clung to her shoulders so that her flawless skin and neck lay exposed. She gazed at the strange man with her clear blue eyes, imploring him to be kind, to not hurt her.
It puzzled her when the man began to laugh.
"Poor child," he said, his eyes glittering with amusement. "Do not take it off. For if you do, I will not be able to put it back on when I am finished."
An insidious creeping feeling of dread began to worm its way into her heart, making her stomach churn. This was wrong. What was this man doing? Why was he saying such things?
A shiver of fear ran up her spine as she felt the man's cold hand wrap around her forearm, enclosing it in an iron grip, pulling her towards him roughly. The fear turned to terror as she looked up into his eyes and then found that once she did, she could not look away. She began to weep then, silent tears streaming down her cheeks as his yellow eyes held her in thrall. Then she heard his voice in her mind: insistent, demanding, merciless.
With all her might she tried to answer him, to spur her lips into forming the words which might save her. But his eyes were there before her; above her, behind her, all around her, inside her – compelling her to be silent, to submit, to give her whole self to him. She could not look away.
No... No, please. Please have mercy, my lord. Have mercy...
"Amaterasu... I will now take your body."
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