Dim light, moon-like, swinging back and forth as a gust of breeze blew in through the window. Sticky skinned, Emilia laid her head against Rachael’s chest and watched the lantern sway. Today was the end of the festival and she didn’t feel much like moving. It was hot and wet again as rain blanketed the Above and the communal bonfires lit the air.
A downpour filled the room with settling sounds, sweat beaded and ran down her brow. Rachael stroked her hair, gently pulling her head away from their stomach. She was starting to come to terms with her own failure, the fact that she couldn’t think. She had no imagination, no creativity. But she wasn’t sure she wanted to spoil what little time they had left together.
Even as the world was ending, she still needed to sleep, to eat, to lay down and listen to the rain with her girlfriend. Each and every second was precious, but she still had to waste it. If she only had an hour left, this was how she’d waste it.
Emilia had spent the past four days talking. Victorie, Anna, Karis, Kass. Rachael.
“I have a passport.”
Rachael’s hand slowed, fingers tangling in her short hair, “I was given it five years ago, when I first came to town.”
Rachael’s fingers stroked through her fringe, gentle. Despite herself, she had ruined the moment.
“I would of left.”
She laid her hands across her stomach, “I almost did. I was looking for an excuse to stay.”
“And then you met me, right? Like, this was all some kind of fate.”
“Fate,” the word was ash on her tongue, “that was when I met you, but you’re not why I stayed. It was Victorie.”
The story of how Victorie came to power was a secret that only Karis knew she had been a part of. The common story that everyone accepted was that it had been Victorie’s charm and charisma that had united the town to rise up against the old Baroness.
“I was part of her coup, only she never knew it. I came to town months before the rebellion looking for my mother. Karis was just a washed up old hunter back then, but she had been working with a trader to get arms to a group of rebels to help take out the old Mayor.”
Rachael’s hand faded away from her.
“I stayed to help Karis, then left to follow the trail my mother left. I didn’t find a single thing so I came back, I was going to keep going back north to the capital and find work. Karis had become the captain of the guard and Victorie had appointed herself mayor, with a pretty little consort to rule by her side.”
Rachael tensed against her, “I-” the argument died on Rachael’s lips, they knew fully well she was right.
“It’s alright, we all make dumb mistakes. Mine was meeting a girl named Kass. She was one of the old Mayor’s lot. Which meant that she was scheduled to be executed. I hid her away until they gave up looking for her, then I helped her escape. Victorie was the one who ordered her executed and I found out why.”
She sat up, sick of staring at the ceiling, “Kass used to work for Victorie, until the old Mayor got a hold of her. Karis wanted to pardon the girl, she had helped pick apart the old Mayor like they had done to her. She’d been through a lot, but Victorie was spiteful and wanted the girl buried with the rest. Claimed they were a cultist, that they had sided with the rebellion to save themselves.”
“And now she’s back? Why doesn’t she think Vicky will do something now?”
“I don’t know. When she left she told me she was going to join the church, maybe she came back for that. Tonight’s the last night of the festival, the fire sea.”
Rachael sighed, “You had to ruin it.”
Rachael pulled her back down against the bed, “Just enjoy the rain. I don’t care if you stayed to save someone or to stalk me. I’m just happy you stayed.”
They placed a hand against her forehead, clumsily feeling for her lips, “Don’t say anything, just give me another half-hour before we need to get up and do something.”
As the day moved on, Anna became more and more intrigued by the strangeness of this place. The Sanctuary was a world in of its own. It followed a set of rules seemingly alien to the rules the outside followed. The central purpose of this place was meditation and cleansing. As mass began, the fourteen priestesses assembled around a central fountain. They wore masks to hide their faces and did not speak. Instead they guided the congregation with a voiceless chant, it rose and fell as groups of women stripped bare and bathed in the communal bath at the foot of the fountain. There was no men allowed in this room during the ceremony, they were all relegated to wait in the rooms surrounding the hall.
Kass sat beside her in silence, head bowed and hands holding their knees as they showed her how to sit cross legged on the stone benches.
Kass was a temple prostitute, after this she would go aid in the cleansing of the men. According to the scriptures she had been offered to read, men could not attain a clean slate through meditation alone. She understood enough to know what that meant, as when the ceremony was over and Kass left to perform their duties, two different priestesses had approached her asking if she too needed help purging herself.
She had asked out of curiosity.
Purging was apparently their vernacular for ridding unwanted feelings. There was six poisons that needed to be purged. She noted that they were the six remaining paths; power, greed, lust, intoxication, fear, faith.
She was curious as to how each was purged but for once let that be. She didn’t need sordid details.
Once Kass returned, they cleansed themselves to relieve the burdens she had taken from others… as she politely referred to it, and joined Anna again.
Kass returned to prayer and the men were allowed into the main hall where the mass truly began. One sat down beside her, the young librarian boy. He said nothing but nodded to acknowledge her and the high priestess gave the sermon.
Anna struggled to pay attention, the thoughts of this boy being in that room. He smelled of the same perfume Kass wore, and blushed deeply as he realised she was staring at him. She had not taken the boy for that kind of person, religious. To submit to this strange pageantry. Or perhaps he was like her and here for the experience – to learn about things he did not understand.
She sat beside him through an hour of the high priestess’ preaching, listening to none of it. Feeling her skin bristle over the distaste in her mouth, he breathed so loudly. At one point his arm accidentally grazed her elbow and she withdrew her arm to rest her hand in her lap. When it finally ended she stood with the rest of the congregation and then, was mortified to find out that standing was another ritual. Kass turned to her and smiled, then hugged her tightly.
“Live with love in your heart, sister.”
She sank against the woman’s chest, they were very soft and… she regained her composure when Kass released her and turned to face the woman on their opposite side. Instinctually, and annoyed when she realised she had done it, Anna turned to face the young boy. Her mind raced as she tried to remember his name, searching through her brain, dredging up all the information she had learned in the past month. He stared at her awkwardly, looked away. Oh, of course – she realised he was male and as she had observed males were not usually allowed to be in charge of these rituals. She wrapped her arm around him, wondering exactly how a one armed machine is meant to hug someone, and avoided thinking as best she could.
Somewhere in the recesses of her mind his name came back to her – Simon. She did not like his name. Her chest tightened as he hugged her back.
“Live with love in your heart, sister.”
She repeated it hollowly, and let him go. For a long moment they stood blushing at her. She tilted her head as she observed him, then stopped him as he turned to leave.
“Please, do not go just yet. I would like to ask you something, if you have time.”
He stammered, “I-I, uh, I should get to work.”
“Oh, can I walk you there? Would that be acceptable, I could ask you along the way.”
“Um, I, yes.”
She turned to Kass, who was no doubt soon to be back to work helping others and saving souls, or whatever they believed was the benefit of being purged of their sin. She wished them luck with their day and followed Simon out of the Sanctuary amongst the rest of the crowd.
Once they were out on the street, Simon straightened his shirt and started off as the crowd dispersed through the town. He didn’t look at her, but walked slowly enough that she could keep up.
“You wanted to ask me something?”
“Yes,” she glanced at him, then watched where she was walking as the crowd of the festival thickened, “perhaps we should wait though.”
She realised how loud the crowd would be. She was not wrong as they moved further through the crowd. Dancers, singers, street performers. The smell of food roasting on the bonfires. The people of the town placed food on the edges of the fires, and threw notes written to the Lost God into the flames. The food was given to everyone freely, heavily spiced and made with love and care. She was offered food as she passed by, she took a few loaves of the bread she was offered and stuffed them down her top, so she could take one of the drinks another woman offered. She jogged to catch up to Simon as he neared the mayoral manor. She caught up to him when he was inside, it was dead in the main hall. She could hear a woman humming a tune, she assumed it was Victorie.
“What did you want to ask?” he reminded her as she sipped the boiling hot drink.
She nearly put it down, the bitter taste of it disturbed her greatly, but curiosity made her take another sip. Simon eventually turned to face her.
“Do you believe in God?”
“Yes,” he told her flatly.
“Interesting, you do not strike me as the type.”
He very suddenly huffed and turned away from her. She followed him as he stormed his way into the public library. The tall shelves towered over them, they reached to the ceiling and were lined with books and ladders locked into the floor and the roof so they could roll about. As she learned when she touched one and it moved.
Her heart skipped a beat until she realised it was on wheels, then she ran to catch up to him.
“I meant no offence. You seemed the kind that would not believe in those things.”
He reached a counter he could distract himself with. She stepped up beside him to look at the books on the counter, they were all worn and damaged. Someone was in the process of repairing them.
“Where I came from, we did not believe in needing to purge yourself of sin in those ways.”
“What? Oh…” he blushed again, “I uh, I have to, or they won’t allow me to pray.”
“They require you to?”
He picked up a book to inspect the damaged cover, “All men have to, some women choose to.”
“I do not understand why that would be the case.”
“Men are too weak to do the purge alone, we require help.”
“Ah, I see,” that made no sense, but she did not pretend to understand this religion yet, “so does this religion make you happy?”
“Religion? You mean does believing in God make me happy?”
“I, uh, it isn’t really a happiness thing. I believe it because it’s true.”
“I see, of course,” she looked at him, “So you believe I am better than you because I am a woman?”
“It is a simple question. If I am strong enough to purge myself of sins without help, then I am morally superior to you, correct?”
“I… suppose so?”
“Interesting,” she wondered idly to herself what this meant in the grander picture.
He shifted his way around the counter, away from her, “I understand you’re not from here, but please don’t mock my beliefs.”
“I am sorry. I did not mean offence.”
He smiled, “Maybe one day I can teach you more about the church.”
“Perhaps you can teach me about this purging.”
He turned scarlet, and she realised what she had said.
“I- never mind, I didn’t-”
He picked up another book and set off away from the counter, “I have to get back to work.”
“My apologies I did not mean it like that!” she called out as he scurried into the library.
She left him to his work, not sure if that answered any questions or why she particularly desired him to share her sensibilities. The main hall of the manor was still empty, the kitchen was closed today due to the festival. She sipped her drink, bearing no great love for it she placed it down on the stairs and sat down beside it.
She ruminated on the boy, pulling a loaf of bread from her top to gnaw on as she chewed over her thoughts.