My first Story Recommendation of the Week of 2015 goes to "Two Will Walk With You" by Grá Linnaea, from the anthology XIII: Stories of Transformation edited by Mark Teppo.
"Two Will Walk With You" begins with 17-year-old Japanese girl Ayu desperately running from the keep where she has lived for seven years, learning Christian magic. She has killed a priest in self-defense, and she knows the punishment for her crime: a Socius, or Tomo, a demon companion that will never leave her alone.
Fleeing in a passing wagon, Ayu meets an old man named Hageatama who accepts her company, claiming to be "bored," even after he learns of her curse:
They trudged silently through the wet of the Azusakawachi swamplands toward the Maibara valley. The sun shone harshly, reflecting rainbows off the misty water. Canary grass grew close and sodden to the path they forged. Neither had spoken since the night before.Between the curse of the Toro and Ayu's sexual preferences, it seems impossible that things could turn out well for her, and yet she and Hageatama refuse to abandon hope.
Midday Hageatama broke the silence. "You have a Tomo on you, girl."
Ayu said nothing. They walked further.
"The Socius." Hageatama butchered the Latin. "The Tomo. No one escapes." He poked his walking stick at her back.
Ayu spun and slapped the stick away. "I know!" Her voice cracked. "No one knows more than I do! The Socius is woven to my soul, it won't stop—"
Hageatama cut her off, his voice loud and gentle. "It can't stop. It is made from your soul. It doesn't have one of its own." He pointed a dirty nail at Ayu. "And you can't escape."
* * *
Ayu's fear was replaced with a surprising feeling. "I almost feel sorry for it."
Hageatama's head shot up. "The Tomo?"
She rubbed her chest. "It must be awful not to have a soul."
"Two Will Walk With You" exemplifies everything short fiction can offer: well crafted language, a memorable setting, a main character we quickly come to care about, an engaging story. And—dare I say it?—a message. A message that has nothing to do with politics, a message that is conveyed with subtlety, and yet it's what the story at its core is all about. "Two Will Walk With You" grapples with how we can live our lives in a way that is satisfying and meaningful, even when fate has stacked the deck against us. It's the kind of subject, relevant to all of us, that I expect a top-notch author to examine, even if there are no easy answers. Linnaea does that beautifully.
Grá Linnaea is a fellow Writers of the Future winner whose work has also appeared in Shimmer, Apex, IGMS, Daily Science Fiction, and other places.