Authors: Sally Beth Boyle
In Her Shadow
by Sally Beth Boyle
Copyright 2016 5
Day of May Press
. . .Britta pushed a finger to his lips, shushing him. He didn't understand why until she stood tiptoe and pressed her lips to his own. He let her. Some part of him, long trained to bury such grotesque displays of emotion, stirred. Britta's soft lips smooshed against his own hardness. She wrapped her arms around him, holding her warm body against his as their tongues met, twined and twirled. Lucius wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. He wanted to cease, lose himself in that most secret void of her so that there was no more he or she, but one person between them. All this swirled around inside him, made him dizzy. Was he even breathing? Was she?
Table of Contents
The city was never this bright at night, and the scent wafting up from the sea was burning wood, not old fish. The girl wanted to stand and watch the sparks fly up into the sky like fireflies at dusk, but her mother clutched her hand and dragged her through the empty streets.
No one was out tonight. The mother could remember when the city was filled with life. People came and went at all hours – especially after sunset. Ankshara and its people belonged to the night; they swore fealty to the shroud of darkness that had always defended them.
Not anymore. Ankshara's fleet, trapped by foreign ships, burned in the harbor, and all the city's sailors rested at the bottom of the sea.
They were lucky.
The little girl stumbled. Barely clothed, dirty, stomach bulging from prolonged hunger, the mother hated seeing her child in such a desperate state. A year ago, the girl would have cried, but now she lacked the energy to do anything but sit in the mud and stare at the scrape on her knee.
"You must get up," the mother said. She stretched a hand down to the girl who neither moved nor reacted. Somewhere in the distance, back towards the harbor, the sound of screams rose in the air. "Please, baby. You can't give up."
"I'm tired, momma."
"I know, baby."
The girl stuck her arms out, wanting to be carried. The mother looked down at her own spindly arms. Once strong from weaving nets for fishermen, they had been whittled to bone by the knife of starvation – a knife that continuously stabbed her in the gut. She was tired too. Every joint ached and her gums bled. Even walking this short distance had been torture. But she hadn't let that stop her, and she wouldn't let it stop her now. She bent down and scooped the little girl up. The girl was so light, a little bundle of kindling, not a child. The soldiers could use her to start their fires, the mother thought as she straightened up, daughter tucked safely in her arms.
The world spun around her. She felt like all the blood inside her had drained out. The Regnal devils knew what they were doing when it came to starving a population into submission. The mother had been on the walls that day, part of the crowd looking down on the imperial delegation as it arrived. Their leader, the admiral now setting the city's wharf aflame, had stood below them, a scroll unwound in his hand, his wreathed head high as he shouted his warning: "Ankshara will be gutted like a fish. We will overturn the altars of your goddess and bring light to the darkness. Surrender and all can stay the same. Fight and be destroyed."
The city had chosen to fight. In response, the Regnals had endeavored to keep their promise. They laid siege. For a year, the Regnal navy kept the Anksharan fleet under interdict. All the fish in the harbor had been eaten, and all the stores used up. Now, everyone was hungry all the time. The only people with food were the wealthy magnates, smugglers, and the priestesshood of the city.
That's where the mother carried the girl now, up the hill to the abbey overlooking the city. Step-by-step, foot-by-foot, she forced herself to keep going, motivated only by sheer willpower, by sheer love. If it had been anyone else, the mother might have let them die. Not her little girl, though. Not hers. She had to get her baby there. The priestesses could feed her little girl, give her shelter. Maybe, just maybe, the Regnal forces would have mercy and leave the abbey alone despite their promise otherwise. What other choice did she have? Ankshara had fallen. The city was lost. She either stayed at home and waited for the soldiers to loot, slave or whatever other terrible things conquering soldiers got up to, or find a safe place for her daughter.
If this worked, if the priestesses took the girl, she was confining her daughter to a life of. . .
The mother shook the doubts from her mind. Even if the priestesses made her little one a divine escort, at least she'd be alive. What was worse? Prostitution for the Goddess, or a lingering death at the hands of the Regnal Empire?
She wanted to tell the girl she was sorry for signing her life away like this, but there was no other choice. Even so, she didn't have the energy to do anything but keep trudging forward up the hill. She didn't even have the energy to look over her shoulder as the screams behind her grew louder, the smell of burning stronger. All she could do, would do, was push forward until, at last, she came to the foot of the path leading up to the building.
"Almost there," she said to the girl whose only reply was a glassy stare. The mother stopped at the first step and looked up at the abbey towering over her. It was dark, silent, mysterious as the Goddess Herself and all the things She hid within Her. Usually, this time of night, there would be people on the balconies of the twisting spire that rose out of the abbey like a horn. Men and women would be coming and going – sailors, merchants, drunken revelers, thieves, and priestesses. Now it sat quiet and holy as the night it was meant to symbolize.
The mother wanted to sit under it, rest in its protective shadow. But she couldn't, not yet. Not with the sounds of boots clomping in the distance behind her, or screams on the wind.
She pulled the girl tighter to her chest. The girl shivered and the mother shivered. There wasn't enough meat on either to warm them, no blood to pump fire through their veins. The mother took a step forward, then another, struggling against the weight of the boney talons she'd once called feet. Part of her wanted to give up. A small voice inside told her it was okay to lie down and die. Surely, if she set the girl down this close to the abbey door, the priestesses would take her in. Surely.
The shouting grew nearer. Now it wasn't just the screams of the dying, but men with strange accents yelling orders. Now it was the sound of doors being kicked in, women and children – half dead and unable to fight – dragged from their beds.
The mother couldn't stop now. She had to make sure her girl was safe. She forced herself up the stairs of the abbey as someone below shouted for her to stop. But she didn't stop, didn't even look back. She would have run the rest of the way if she'd had the strength, but her body was give out. A leaky boat ready to capsize, no shipwright could fix her. The girl though, she had to keep going for the girl.
The mother dragged herself to the large wooden doors that separated the abbey from the light of day. She'd never heard of it being shut at night though, not that this was the first time in the last year the people of Ankshara had been forced to change the way they lived.
The mother grit her teeth against the pain of raising her arm, and smacked the door with the palm of her hand. Slow, methodical, rhythmic. Each knock brought danger nearer, but salvation, maybe, too. The soldiers were so close now, she heard the joints of their metal skirts rub together. One of them grabbed her by the upper arm.
"Come along," the soldier said. "No need to fight. We'll get some food in you."
The mother swallowed what little spit her mouth could manifest. "Slavery," she said, her voice a dry croak.
"Yes, but you'll eat."
She turned back to the door and slapped it one more time.
"Please, ma'am, don't make this harder than it has to be. We'll feed you and your child. You'll be slaves, but you'll live."
The mother jerked away from him just as the door to the abbey creaked open. In the doorway hunched the Abbess of Night, swallowed in her black cloak. The slightly sunken cast to her face proved the priestesses had eaten better than the people, but not much. "What is the meaning of this?" she said, her voice imperious, demanding despite the situation of her fallen city.
"I apologize for the disturbance, Abbess," said the soldier. "We'll just take her and be on our way."
"No!" The mother tried to push forward, past the Abbess into the abbey, but there was no more fight in her. She fell to her knees. The girl tumbled out of her arms to the ground where she lay, moaning softly.
"Let them go," said the Abbess.
"We had an agreement," said the soldier. "We leave your abbey alone; we keep slaves."
The Abbess frowned, the lines of her face shaded by the dark behind her. "Take the mother then."
The Abbess spun around and snatched the girl up in one smooth motion, her cloak swirling around her – a void that absorbed the girl beneath it. "I take you, child, in the name of Eventide, the Night of Starless Sky, the Dark and all things done therein. May She hide you in Her shadow."
The mother rose to her knees. She'd done it. She'd succeeded. If the soldiers killed her now, she was alright with that. "May She hide you in Her shadow."
The soldier frowned. "Did you just make her a priestess?" he asked.
The Abbess, girl hidden beneath her cloak still, stepped back into the doorway, the shade of the abbey enveloping her. "Begone," she said, and closed the door.
Hands grabbed at the mother, lifting her to her feet. One of the soldiers threw the mother's arms over his shoulder and held her upright. The lead soldier stood in front of her, eyes narrowed as he took her in. "You've sentenced your daughter to a life of prostitution or thievery. Was it worth it?"
The mother wanted to cry but she couldn't. There was nothing inside her able to cry anymore. She wanted to sleep the eternal sleep, go into the eternal darkness from which everyone came and everyone returned. "Yes," she said in a willowy rasp. "Yes."
Britta leaned out over the balcony, squinting her eyes to catch the movement of the people below. The smell of fried fish wafted up to greet her, along with the cries of fishwives desperate to rid themselves of the day's catch before the sun went down. It was Britta's favorite time of day, when the sun, setting in the hills over her shoulder, cast its glow on the water and turned the harbor a dull pink-red.
"New Moon," her handmaid said from behind her. "If they catch the sun on your face, you'll get in trouble. The Abbess doesn't like it."
"You worry too much, Weboshi."
Weboshi strode across the room. Her dark hair and eyes glistened in the flickering candlelight. She set a tray on the small table in the center of the room before going back to close the secret panel in the wall she'd emerged from. "It's blasphemy for the New Moon to see the light of day."
"Fine," Britta said with a sigh. It didn't matter. The Abbess of Night was old, ancient even. Soon, the Goddess would hide the Abbess forever in Her shadow. When that happened, Britta would become the new Abbess. Ending the taboo against sunlight was the first in a list of changes she intended to make.
Weboshi pulled the lid from the tray she'd brought, revealing a plate of food beneath. "Here, New Moon. You must eat."
"Don't call me that. I am a person, not a title. I have a name."
"I will call you whatever you want, so long as you eat."
Britta rolled her eyes, but picked up a strawberry from the tray. Weboshi sat down opposite her and watched her chew. Not so odd a habit, considering she was a survivor of The Siege. To this day, that's what the people of Ankshara called it, "The Siege." The same way one might say "the wound," because that's what it was. All these years later, the memory of The Siege was still as fresh, ripe and blood red as the strawberry Britta nibbled at.
"Why are you so concerned about whether I eat or not?"
"Because I'm your mother."
"No, you're not."
"But you're not."
Weboshi sighed. She leaned back in her chair, eyelids low with the weight of years. "When your mother – your real mother – died, and the abbey took you in, I was the one who nursed you back to life. You were nothing, just a bag of bones in a sack. There wasn't enough food to go around and you didn't have the strength to chew. My own little baby had died from camp fever not two days before, so I fed you from my own breasts. You were too old for that, but there was no other way. You may not accept me as your mother, but you'll always be my daughter. So yes, I will worry about your wellbeing. I might not be able to stop your marriage but. . ."
"You don't approve of my marriage?"
"You're being sold like a herd of cattle to ensure peace with our oppressors."
"So, 'no' then."
Weboshi pushed the tray across the table so it pressed against Britta's stomach. "Eat."
Britta pushed the tray back to the center. "Don't avoid the issue. If you're my mother, then be honest with me."
"You really want to know what I think, New Moon?"
Weboshi's chair screeched as she slid back from the table. She went to the door and cracked it to peek out. When she closed it again, she leaned against it, blocking it so no one could barge in or listen without her knowing. She didn't do the same with the secret passage because, Britta suspected, Weboshi was the only person in the city who understood the network of them crisscrossing the city. "The Abbess is making you a ransom, a bribe, a payoff. She collaborated with the Regnals to end the war, and she's collaborating with them now to marry you to one of theirs in the hopes it will bring about a lasting peace. It won't, New Moon, and the Abbess knows it. This deal is our doom. Once you're bound to the Regnal aristocracy in marriage, they'll have all the power in Ankshara. You'll be the last New Moon, the last Full Moon. The Abbess doesn't want to go down in history as the last. She's setting you up to fail by making you a Regnal whore."
"How dare you?" Britta said, but coolly as she dabbed the edges of her lips free of strawberry juice. "How absolutely dare you? My waxing was ordained by the Goddess, the Abbess, and all our sisters. Unanimous – that includes you. You say it's blasphemy for me to watch the sunset, but you use the word 'whore' as an insult. Tell me, Weboshi, before you became stewardess to this abbey and handmaid to the Twin Moons, how many men did you spread your legs for?"
Weboshi's gaze fell to the floor. It wasn't deference, not that Britta could tell, but something else, something furtive. "The difference is, I had a choice. You don't. I spread my legs because I wanted to. You will because the abbey demands it of you, because you were raised to. You never had a choice. When you showed up at our door, the Abbess made such a compelling argument your arrival was a sign, we all voted for you to be the New Moon."
"You're saying it wasn't a sign? You're saying you all made a mistake?"
"I'm saying I know you better than anyone in the world. You think you want this, but you don't. And if you do want to lead the abbey, to marry a man whose people laid your homeland to waste, a man whose people killed your real mo–"
Britta yanked the tray of fruit from the table and tossed it across the room. Weboshi flinched when it hit the wall beside her with a tooth rattling clang. "Get out," Britta said between clenched teeth.
Weboshi gave a curt bow of the head, her eyes never rising from ground. "As you wish, New Moon. May She hide you in Her shadow."
When she was gone, Britta sat on the edge of her bed and cried in the darkness.
Ankshara: ancient, decadent, dangerous; Lucius hated everything he'd heard about it. The rest of the world called it "The Wicked City," but they should have called it "Whore-heaven," or "Thieves' Home." But any place was better than being aboard ship one moment longer. It didn't matter if it was the finest beef or the freshest bread, everything at sea tasted like fish and salt. His cabin always stunk of galley rowers' sweat. He couldn't sleep at night because of the incessant pounding of waves against the ship. He had those complaints and more, not that he'd ever let anyone know about them. He hadn't said a word about his misery for the entire trip. Others might have assumed from his practiced lack of reactions, but no one could know for sure. That was the beauty of being a Disciple of the Sun Triumphant, people never really knew where they stood with one. It gave Lucius an advantage in dealing with others he wasn't afraid exploit.
Lucius collapsed the telescope in his hand and tucked it away. "How long?" he asked the ship's captain beside him.
"A few minutes, Dux Lucius."
Lucius kept his expression flat, unconcerned. A man whose emotions could be read was a man who could be dominated by others. "But?"
"It will take several hours to unload the ship, Dux Lucius. The city is dangerous after dark. We should anchor in the harbor until dawn."
Lucius pointed to a flag flying on the pier in the distance. Deep purple trimmed with yellow, it fluttered in the breeze. "The imperial flag. The Governor and his party are waiting for us."
The captain frowned. He swiveled on his heel to his first mate and shouted for the slaves in the galley to steer the boat to berth, listing off his instructions for the safety of ship and crew before the docking was complete. The ship lurched forward at his command. "Before we dock, Dux Lucius, I must ask: are you armed?"
Lucius pushed back his heavy oil skin cloak to reveal the hilt of the short sword hidden beneath. "Always, captain."
The ship sailed into port a few minutes later, gliding the last few yards under its own momentum like a bird coming to rest. The crew scurried about, hopping here and there, jumping from the boat to the dock and back again as they tossed ropes around, working to secure the ship in place to the pier. When it was, they set planks across the gap. Longshoremen hustled aboard and began carrying out the various supplies the ship had brought with it: casks of wine, wheat, olive oil, mail from all parts of the empire. They worked quickly, more efficiently than Lucius had ever seen longshoremen go. Was it that they were in a hurry to get home before the sun set, or was it they hoped to take part in the nightly revelry? Even with an armed guard waiting for him at the end of the pier, and despite his own personal bravery, Lucius preferred to be safely inside the walls of the Governor's manse before nightfall.
Not for his sake, but for hers.
Lucius ducked under a low beam as he made his way below decks, past the stinking rowers at their oars, into the darkness of the ship's bowels. He knocked on the door to his cabin. First one knock, then a pause, then three more.
"That's not right," said the tiny muffled voice from the other side.
He caught his smile before it escaped on to his face. "No time for games, Ava. We're here."
The sound of shuffling came from the other side, then the clanking of the door's heavy lock opening. Ava peeked out one sharp blue eye – her mother's eye. "We're here?" she said.
She flung the door open and jumped past him.
Lucius tried to catch her, but she was so small and quick his fingers missed her by the width of a thread. "Ava!" he said, loud enough to hopefully get her attention but not in a way that might speak to anger. He wanted to curse as she raced towards above decks. He wanted to chase after her, grab her, protect her from the city, but he couldn't. To chase after her, to run calling her name, would expose his concern to the world. That simply wouldn't do. So, instead of running, he walked at a steady, determined pace.
"My daughter?" he said as he neared the first mate who was busy making sure the galley rowers were fed.
Lucius gave him a pat of approval on the shoulder as he passed. "Make sure the longshoremen see to my luggage."
Before the first mate could respond, Lucius was halfway up the stairs to the deck. When his head surfaced from the darkness below and the sea spray hit him full in the face, he realized it was dark above too. He stood, hand over his eyes trying to make out where Ava might have gone. Was it permissible to beat her for running off? Or would that expose him as an angry man? Still, she had to learn. Better a beating than knifed in a dark alley.
Then Lucius saw her, on the dock down from the ship. She had her arms thrown around the Governor's neck as he bent to embrace her. The Governor's household guard chuckled at the sight.
From their slack stances, bored expressions, and idle conversations, it was obvious the guards' giggling was a manifestation of how little they respected the Governor. This was how mutinies foment. Lucius had tried to warn him in letters against hiring mercenaries, to depend on the local imperial garrison instead. The Governor had argued the political situation in Ankshara demanded he distance himself from the military. He'd also hinted at friction with the local garrison commander – the man Lucius had come to replace.
Not the only reason Lucius had come to Ankshara, of course. There was the wedding, but taking over as garrison commander was most important in Lucius's mind. His impending marriage to the heiress of the local priestesshood was a mere formality, a trifle, an inconvenience. He hadn't even bothered to explain it to Ava. He should have, perhaps, but hadn't found the right words.
It was silly. He'd hoped to raise Ava as a Disciple of the Sun Triumphant. To avoid teaching her the ugly truths of political marriage wasn't the best way to go about that. He'd have to eventually. It was vital he instill in her the lessons of the Disciples before the Wicked City corrupted her. Having a priestess of the city's notorious abbey as a wife was sure to complicate his efforts to preserve Ava's virtue. He intended to keep his future wife at arm's length. That did nothing to prevent him from wondering who she was, what she was like, what she looked like. He crushed each question in turn before it fully formed in his mind. It was the only way to keep his guilt at bay.
Lucius took a deep breath to center himself. All this standing around thinking a way to avoid the inevitable. No putting it off any longer, he thought as he stepped off the boat onto the pier.
A broad smile broke across the Governor's face. He wrapped one arm around Ava, and as he straightened, lifted her so she clung to his neck. "Son," he said, "it's been too long."
Lucius kept his expression rigid. It had been too long, but he couldn't make it seem so. The only proper response to the situation was a polite but non-committal act of filial piety. "It has," he said.
Father and son stood mute as they took each other in. After a moment, the Governor turned to his guards and said, "Come along. We've preparations to make and the city streets are dangerous after dark."