Razea swung the cradle, looking over at the tiny babe that slept in it. The child was a miniature of her husband, with a dark head of hair and a pout on her sleeping face. She didn’t know babies so young could frown or pout before she saw her daughter doing so. Satin sheep were hung above her cradle, but Razea imagined her daughter dreamed of other, more serious things.
“Is she still sleeping?” her mother-in-law asked.
Razea looked up at the lady in front of her. Her mother-in-law Taro wore all black. Razea had exchanged her mourning clothes for modest grey dresses befitting a widow, but Taro still wore black and swore to do so till the day she died, which Razea half-heartedly hoped was not long.
“Yes, mother,” she said. “She’s just fallen asleep.”
“I’ll watch over her for a while. You look weary and it is late,” Taro said. It was not a suggestion. Taro spoke in a mildly worded orders, and Razea rose from her chair. She didn’t want to leave the nursery. The small room was warm and comfortable. Her own chambers now felt empty and too large. The room had been built for her husband, and every inch of it reflected his identity. Now, without him, the place was purgatory. Razea had taken to sleeping on the narrow cot in the nursery after sending the nurse away.
She stepped out of the nursery and into the cold darkness of the hall. She considered going back, pleading loneliness or any other excuse to stay in the room. But her mother-in-law detested weakness, and while Razea would be allowed into the room, she would forever lose Taro’s good standing.
The night was long and torturous. She lay awake in the enormous bed built for her husband’s tall frame. The bed now dwarfed her. The light blankets he preferred offered her insufficient warmth, and the giant fire burning was too far away. She stared up at the ceiling as the fire died in the hearth, and into the darkness even afterward. Beyond the wall, she heard her daughter’s cries. Razea listened until the wails subsided.
Her mother-in-law wasn’t the kind to pick up the babe and comfort her. If Razea had been with her, she would’ve taken her child into her arms and comforted her. Grandchild or not, Taro’s stony exterior would not melt.
Razea heard the child’s cries a few more times in the night, and she whiled the night wishing calmness to her daughter, praying for whatever sorrow plagued her innocent heart to disappear.
When the sun rose she held herself back until she could hear the bustling of the servants in the hall. The door to the nursery was open, and Razea rushed through the open door. It was too cold to leave the doors open, and it was out of character for Taro to wake so soon.
A tall figure stood inside the room, holding the baby in their arms. The figure’s red cloak was too large for their narrow shoulders. It was impossible for a stranger to get past the guards outside the manor, but none of the servants were so tall. And none of them would take such liberties with her child.
“Tis a girl,” the cloaked figure said. Razea walked forward and craned her neck, trying to see the person’s face. Their voice gave nothing away. It rested on the balance between masculine and feminine, graceful speech unmarred by any dialect.
“Who are you?” Razea asked.
“I am Reizim,” the figure answered. “I am here to protect you.”
Razea moved to grab the child, and the figure slipped out of her reach. Reizim’s hood slipped off, revealing their nearly empty face. Their head was devoid of hair, pale and shining, and the emptiness was on all sides, interrupted only by a thin mouth with pale blue lips.
“You are afraid of me,” Reizim stated. “I mean you no harm.”
The figure might have had a name, and their speech might’ve been refined, but Razea was raised on the stories of the creatures that snuck in during the night and magicked children away. Reizim was a demon, and demons were not beings one welcomed into their homes.
She spotted the shackles around the demon’s wrists and relaxed. An imprisoned demon was bound to rules. Rules that prevented them from eating mortal children and other such nightmares Razea didn’t have the energy to think about. She looked behind Reizim’s cloak, trying to find some hint of her mother-in-law.
Taro wouldn’t be afraid if she was in her place. She would demand her daughter be handed over to her, and perhaps give the demon a sharp slap across the face for being so impudent as to touch the child in the first place.
“May I have my daughter?” she asked. The words came out weaker than she intended, but Reizim held out her daughter, and she took the infant into her arms. She checked her child for hurt and magic, for missing fingers or scratches. Some of the demons weren’t shackled properly, bound with magic that had loose ends. The kind of magic that didn’t let them swallow children, but let them have a taste.
After she was assured of her daughter’s wholeness, Razea looked back up. Reizim stood in front of her with their arms clasped in front of their body.
“A promise was made with my master,” Reizim said. “The child’s father promised my master his services in exchange for the safety of your kingdom and family.”
“My husband is no more,” Razea said. “He died in the war.”
“Yes. A pity he did not think to ask for his own safety. However, the promise still stands.”
“Will you bring him back?” Razea asked.
“Magic cannot undo death,” Reizim said. “But his blood lives on.”
Razea looked at the bundle in her arms. The baby was starting to stir.
“She’s a child.”
“Of course. Master is very patient. We will seek the child’s services once she is grown.”
Her husband was a knight. He was a seasoned warrior and archer, trained in everything from hand-to-hand combat to battle strategy. The little girl in her arms was not built for such a life. She would break if she endeavored to attain such a violent education.
“The promise shall be kept,” Taro said fom behind her. She stood at the door with the wet nurse.
Reizim looked at the older woman and nodded. “I shall inform the master of your agreement. He will be pleased.”
“I’ll take my husband’s place,” Razea said. “Let me take his place.”
The demon looked over her frail frame, and her pitying smile extended from one side of her empty face to the other.
“Master will not accept you.”
“Why in the goddess’s name not?” Razea asked. “She will not need to wait if it is me. I will do all she asks or die trying.”
“Yes,” Reizim said. “You’ll only die trying.”
The demon’s long arms extended towards Razea and ran a finger along her daughter’s cheek.
“Master will take the child. If you refuse, the safety your kingdom and your family has received as a result of your husband’s bargain will no longer exist. All will be brought crumbling down to how it would have been if the promise had not been made.”
“We will keep the promise,” Taro said. “Please convey our agreement to your master.”
Reizim bowed and disappeared, their red cloak evaporating into red smoke.
“Mother!” Razea exclaimed. “How could you agree to such a ridiculous thing?”
Taro took the infant out of her arms. “What was the alternative, Razea? Should we have refused and let our kingdom fall to ruin? That demon was strong. The kind of demon that it takes an extraordinary sorcerer to enslave. I do not know how my son came to make a bargain with a sorcerer, but if we do not follow his orders he will rain nightmares upon this land until we are all dead.”
“But my child–”
“Your child, if she fails, will die when she is grown. If we refused now, she would die much earlier, in a bloodbath with most of our people.”
Razea balked at her mother-in-law. The war had been hard on their little kingdom. They didn’t have the wealth or the armies of their larger neighbor, and as they fought to keep their freedom they exhausted themselves of all they had. They were slowly regaining their resources now. Their enemy was being plagued by a sudden illness, their army and their royal family struck down by it.
It had been seen as a miracle, a sudden illness that rendered their enemy powerless. It wasn’t a miracle, but magic. Razea feared magic. She feared the mysterious, dangerous practices of its wielders and shied away from spells and enchantments. Her magicless life had been good to her so far. She wasn’t as beautiful as the women who bought antiaging enchantments in exchange for years of their life or as lucky as women who promised their first child to a witch or sorcerer.
She had made no bargains and no promises, yet her firstborn was no longer hers.