“Beware of leaning too close, little one,” Tanjirou’s grandmother warned him.
He peered into the murky waters while clutching his grandmother’s sleeve. “Why?” he asked, curious.
The old woman stared at the unforgiving lake and began the thousand-year tale. “Because the water god will drown you,” she said with daunting fear. “Because he might mistake you as his bride.”
Every ten years, the village would endure a devastating drought, one filled with locusts and death-inducing heat. A ritual would then commence, and the villagers would choose a young woman as an offering to the water god. The more beautiful, the better, and the family who sacrificed their daughter would be paid a hefty sum.
Tanjirou remembered when he first witnessed the ritual. The bride would be dressed in fine clothing as if prepared for a real wedding, but besides that, she would be led to a boat and drifted off in a lake until she drowned, meeting her untimely demise.
This year marked the tenth year, and with the failed crops last year, the village was out to find another contender as the water god’s future bride. He eavesdropped the moment his dear friend Zenitsu visited Nezuko, handing her six coins to cross to the afterlife.
“Must it be you?” he wept softly and held her close. “I can find a job,” he grasped for straws, “I can make enough money and save-”
“We both know more than anyone that I will be the next candidate,” Nezuko’s bottom lip trembled and pushed him away. “Please… Please don’t make this harder than it is.” At the ripe age of nineteen, Tanjirou’s younger sister was next in line to become the water god’s bride.
“Nezuko,” the fair-haired boy held her hands, hands he grew up with, hands he imagined holding forever. “I love you,” he confessed and lowered his head. Alas, this was the law of the land, and nothing, not even true love, can stop the village from sacrificing her.
After a hitched breath, Nezuko shook her head and slowly backed away to recede back into her room and weep in regret. Tanjirou’s heart panged in pity as Zenitsu eventually retreated back to his home, most likely beating himself to death for his weakness. In another time, in another place, the two could have married, but the drought was unrelenting, probably due to the water god’s fury.
“He is never satisfied with his bride,” his grandmother used to tell him before she passed away. “So he always need a new one.”
Tanjirou knew the fate of all the brides who were abandoned on that lake. In mere moments, the boat would collapse and the bride would drown, weighted down by her heavy clothing and accessories. Saving a bride from her fate was considered a crime and was rumored to anger the god even more, so the fool who dared to complete such a feat would be executed immediately.
Tanjirou knew what to do, for he was powered by the love for his family and his friends, so he hastily packed his essentials and carried a lamb on his back without a note.
Tanjirou trekked up the mountain without a falter in his step, for his conviction was strong and true. He scaled the distance in a day’s time, and when he approached the entrance to the shrine, a young girl with pale, turquoise eyes and shortened bangs greeted him. He assumed she was the priestess of the shrine, but she was odd. She wore the traditional red hakama and white kosode, but she also donned a strange fox mask atop her head, decorated with two blue flowers on the left-hand side.
“Hello Kamado-kun,” she greeted him with an eerie smile and an eerie stare.
Tanjirou took a step back, stunned, that she would know his name, but he cannot be deterred. He does not fully understand the celestial powers granted to the priestess, but he had come too far to turn around and leave.
“I wish an audience with the water god,” he bowed and presented the lamb on his back as payment.
Tanjirou’s heart was beating rapidly as the silence stretched out, unsure if he was given permission to stand or not. Then he heard footsteps approaching him, and the strange girl petted the lamb while placing her other hand on his head.
“How peculiar that a child of the sun would enter this shrine,” she giggled softly, blessing him with her grace. “You may enter, Kamado Tanjirou.” She then added, “I place my trust in you.”
Her words were as soft as sakura petals and silky as a refined kimono. Tanjirou raised his head to ask the girl about the meaning of her cryptic words, but his eyes widened when he realized she vanished into thin air. He whipped his head left and right, but there was no sign of her presence. The lamb was gone as well, and Tanjirou was left alone.
With no trace of the priestess, the young man stood up and dusted his knees. The shrine looked like a palace befitting for a king, he noted, as he pushed against the giant jaded doors. He must have been exhausted in his journey to miss such a magnificent building. It was as if he suddenly entered the land of the gods. Inside, the floors were shiny and pristine, as if no one had dared step foot into the shrine, and Tanjirou felt conscious for bringing in the grime of a day’s hard work. The area was decorated with lacquered artifacts, typically depicting the water god and his many victories. Tanjirou absorbed this with starstruck eyes and openly gawked to see such extravagant items. He cautiously walked forward to avoid bumping into anything precious or special.
A fog permeated the room, hindering Tanjirou from seeing what was beyond it. A cold rush of air breezed past his ankles, and before the brave, young man could make a sound, he smelled the familiar scent of the lake back home, including the water lilies that frequent its still waters.
“Human,” he was addressed. “What brings you to my territory?”
Tanjirou squinted through the fog, but he only saw a shadowy figure in front of him. He mustered his courage, swallowed the lump in his throat, and said, “Are you the water god?”
A beat later he collapsed to his knees from the gravity of the aura surrounding him, and Tanjirou gulped in lungfuls of air, fear seizing his core as he realized that the air had thinned. Head dizzying from the lack of oxygen, Tanjirou gritted his teeth and bore through the magnitude of the weight placed upon him. Images of his sister’s sweet smile flashed in his mind, feeding him strength to carry on.
He was the eldest son. It was his ultimate duty to protect his family’s livelihood. It was an honor to preserve that smile, even at the cost of his own life. This plan was suicidal, but it would be a greater shame as a brother to willingly sacrifice his own sister.
“I volunteer to replace my sister as your bride,” he said and looked up.
The fog parted, clearing the way for Tanjirou’s vision. The sight before him took his breath away because standing before him was the water god, and, if he played his cards right, his future husband.