Authors: Megg Jensen
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #sword and sorcery, #Sci-Fi & Fantasy
“Becca knows what she’s doing,” the old lady said. “She’s willing to give her life for the Chosen One. That, my dear, is you.”
I rolled my eyes. That again. “I am not the Chosen One. There is no such thing. Every ten years lives are lost to a ridiculous notion that some absent gods will come back and save those poor girls. They never do. It isn’t real. Why waste another life for it?”
A sigh slipped out of the old lady’s lips and she shook her head. “I had hoped your beliefs were less caustic.” She raised her eyes upward. “Why did you have to choose one so skeptical?”
“Nothing up there will answer you,” I said. I skirted the table. Grabbing her shoulders, I shook her until she looked at me. Her eyes were clouded over and for the first time I realized she was blind. My hands dropped to my sides. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“That I’m blind? Pish posh. The eyes offer little that I cannot see without the aid of the gods. Yes, Eloh, they are real. They told me they have chosen you, but the ritual is corrupted. The girls die because it’s performed wrong. They have told me to save you.”
Her hand found its way to Becca’s shoulder again. “Becca believes and she’s willing to give up her life so you can survive.”
“If this is all true, then why haven’t the gods taken me yet? Why does anyone else have to die?”
“People die,” she said with a shrug. “It is the nature of the world. Can you imagine how crowded it would be if we all survived? Life would become meaningless. Without an end, there would be no appreciation of the things we have been blessed with. Who wants to live a life like that?”
No one, but I wouldn’t tell her that I agreed. I wasn’t sure if I wanted her to think I was on her side. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
“Why me?” I slid back down to the bench. Ben’s hand found its way to my shoulder. His reflection gazed at me in the mirror. He watched me intently, protecting and loving. I felt a swell of strength build up in my chest.
“No one knows why anyone is chosen. You just were. But they are not ready for you yet. There must be something you are supposed to accomplish before they claim you. All I know is that now is not the time. Due to your parents’ eagerness to be rid of you, someone had to take your place. Becca does this of her own free will.”
“Is that true, Becca?” I reached out and placed my hand on hers. She set the makeup down on the table and smiled at me. With her face only half painted, she looked like a freak from a traveling circus - beautiful on one side, hideous on the other. Not that Becca was an ugly girl, but the contrast was stark. I knew I wasn’t any kind of beautiful prize before she worked her magic on me.
“I am honored to serve the Chosen One. I told you that back at the palace and I’m telling you again. My faith is more important to me than anything else. You are the Chosen One. My life is yours.”
“What if I tell you I don’t want you to die for me?” I had to challenge her. I couldn’t let her step blindly into death.
“Then I’d still do it. Even the Chosen One isn’t flawless.” Becca winked at me, withdrew her hand from mine, and went back to applying makeup. “Don’t touch your hair yet, either. I’ll need the feathers one-by-one so I can recreate the look exactly.”
“Do you really think anyone will know the difference?” All the other cosmetae had been so busy with their girls. I couldn’t fathom how they’d had a moment to look at me, much less memorize the angle of each individual feather.
Becca laughed. “Of course they know. We’re professionals. You may have thought I was pausing at times to inspect my work. I was actually sneaking glances at the other girls’ work. We’re highly competitive. You can bet they know exactly how your makeup looked.”
“Then how do you explain us sneaking out to them?”
“Ben was the talk of the slaves yesterday. If you haven’t noticed, your boyfriend is gorgeous. I told everyone I would try to sneak you out for a little alone time with him before the ceremony. Yes, you’re allowed to see him - publicly - before the ritual begins, but not privately. I told them he paid me.” Becca pointed at Ben. It was obvious the palace slaves knew little about us peasants. Ben didn’t have two coppers to rub together, and certainly not enough to bribe anyone for an audience with one of the initiates.
“You’re a good liar,” I told Becca. “Doesn’t that conflict with your beliefs in the gods?”
The old woman smiled, her lips parting and her jagged teeth sticking out in wonky angles. “Lies are not lies if they are for the good of the people and the gods.”
She raised her arms in the air, muttered a couple unintelligible words under her breath, and dropped her arms. Her clothes fell off and her gray hair tumbled to her shoulders. Instinct told me to avert my eyes, to protect her modesty, but I didn’t. Instead I stared at her body - skin smooth and porcelain, glowing brighter than the candlelight in the room.
Nothing inappropriate showed through the golden haze emanating from her body.
“Who are you?” I whispered. I glanced back in the mirror, but Ben stood frozen behind me. Across the table Becca’s arm held stiff in midair.
Her eyes were no longer hidden under the veil of blindness. Instead, huge orbs of blazing sapphire engraved a mark on my soul, one I immediately knew would change my life forever. My mouth opened, ready to profess my loyalty and confess every sin I’d ever committed. The words stuck in my throat. I’d been wrong my whole life. While everyone around me worshipped, I scoffed. Their beliefs were ridiculous, the dreams of fools.
I was the fool.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Eloh,” she said. “I find sometimes that the ones who question are the most faithful. Why trust in something you’ve never seen? Those who do sometimes miss the point because they don’t dig deep enough. Though I must say, there’s nothing wrong with that either. It takes many different kinds of people to keep the gods alive. We need some who are willing to serve without question, but it never hurts to have followers who are prepared to make the hard decisions.
“We need you, Eloh. But we aren’t ready to claim you yet. You must understand how important it is for you to escape tonight. I may be a goddess, but I cannot make choices for you. Do you believe now? Do you believe enough to do what has to be done?”
I wanted to scream at her. It wasn’t fair. How could I be asked to blindly follow her orders, knowing that Becca would lose her life?
“You don’t know what will happen,” she said.
“Stop doing that. Stop hearing my thoughts. They’re mine. I don’t care if you’re a goddess or not. It’s intrusive.”
“Don’t try to reason everything out in your mind. Listen to me for a moment. Becca has made her choice. Leave her be. You, on the other hand, still have a choice to make. Do you believe what you see before you?”
I expected her to continue, but she only stared at me pointedly. It wasn’t a question I could easily answer. I had gone from atheist to believer in mere moments ... and yet ... how could I change my reactions so quickly? I couldn’t. I still didn’t want Becca to die. I didn’t want to wait around for some inevitable moment when the gods decided to claim me.
I didn’t want to be the Chosen One.
“Can I decide not to accept the gods’ invitation?”
She laughed, a sound like the melody of the wind through the trees on a warm summer day, standing in stark contrast to the cackle she had as the old woman. “You cannot tell the gods what to do. At least, not yet. Once you are chosen, then you might have an audience with them. But for now, no.”
“No matter what I do they will claim me?”
“Becca will die?”
“I do not know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is not mine to decide.”
“Is she really your niece?”
“In a way, yes. That is not pertinent to our discussion. Will you cooperate and allow Becca to take your place?”
I glanced at Becca. My stomach tumbled in circles as I thought of what awaited her. A burning fire, licking at her body, ripping it to shreds in the tiniest pieces as she suffered and cried. How could I allow it? How could I live with it? And if I went ahead with it, would there ever be a way to make it up to her? Would I ever be able to live with myself?
"I don't have a choice, do I?"
The goddess shook her head. Her blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders, drawing my eyes down and reminding me again that she stood before totally nude. I silently thanked the gods for hiding her body from me with well-placed beams of light.
"Then I will allow Becca to choose her own fate. But don't expect me to be happy about it."
"Do you think we spend our existence taking pleasure in the sadness of humans? Quite the opposite. We often see the consequences long before they do. We suffer far more than they do. I can assure you of that. It is not enjoyable being a goddess. If you think we're giving you some kind of wonderous gift, you're wrong. We are bestowing great responsibility upon you, Eloh. You are not a random choice. You are here because you can make the decisions and live with them. Many could not handle the weight we will lay upon you."
"But with unlimited power, I can do anything, right?"
"Nothing is unlimited. Everything has a price. The decisions are made whether you accept them or not. I won't toy with you any longer."
The room erupted in a blinding light, far greater than any I'd seen yet today. Pain rushed through my eyes, searing torture. I opened my eyes once again, expecting everything to be black with blindness, but instead the scene laid itself out before me, just as it was before the old woman turned into a goddess in front of my eyes.
Becca continued with her makeup application. Ben stood behind me, his caring face smiling at mine in the mirror.
“I’m almost done. Can you start handing me the feathers one by one?” Becca asked.
I pulled out a feather and handed it to her. When our hands touched, a vision grabbed hold of me. Flames licked at my arms and screams echoed in the background. A blackened hand reached out for me, its jagged fingers curled around the air, grasping for something just out of its reach. Fire ripped through my stomach. Ben’s grasp tightened on my shoulders.
“Eloh! Are you okay?” He fell to the ground next to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. My head dropped to his shoulder. I rested there for a moment, feeding off his strength.
“It’s begun,” the old lady said, staring at me with her cloudy, white eyes. “Becca, you need to finish up quickly. Then you two have to exchange outfits.”
“What will they do to her when she comes back without me? I mean, when Becca’s pretending to be me and she comes back without herself?” I cast my eyes at Becca, hoping she understood what I meant.
“I’ll tell them I ran away. It’s not the first time a cosmeta has deserted her charge before the ritual. Sometimes the queen takes her anger out on the cosmetae. It’s not unusual for us to die too. You see, my life isn’t fully in your hands. I’m choosing my path to death. It’s more empowering than you realize.”
I pushed away from Ben, straightening up. The vision and the fire in my stomach disappeared as quickly as it started. My stomach and my head spun. I braced myself on the table and waited for the nausea to dissipate.
“Another feather, please.”
I pulled the second-to-last feather from my hair and handed it to Becca. While I sat uneasily across from her, Becca stared into the mirror, intent on getting the feather situated in her hair.
She held out her hand, beckoning for the final feather. I withdrew it and handed it to her. Becca’s fingers expertly maneuvered it into place. She took one more glance in the mirror, and then looked at me.
I felt like I was staring into a mirror. She’d done an amazing job. I hadn’t even noticed until that moment that our eyes were the same unusual color. Had that been a trick or were they always that way?
“I need to get back. I’ve been gone too long.” Becca stood up. “Can we switch outfits now?”
I nodded and grabbed her hand. We walked behind the large partition in the corner. I turned my back to her, not because of an overstated sense of modesty, but because I couldn’t bear to let her see the tears forming in my eyes. Even though I held them back, I knew from experience that my eyes would still be swollen and pink. I handed her my white silk gown, with my eyes downcast, and grabbed her rough, woolen brown work dress. She slid her arms in the sleeves and grunted.
“Can you help me with this? I don’t want to mess up the feathers.”
“Sure.” I grabbed the neck and stretched it open. We maneuvered her head through the hole, making sure it didn’t touch her face. The gown floated down and clung to every curve of her body. Becca was perfection. It had never been me who was beautiful. Every detail was a credit to Becca’s talent as a cosmeta.
“You’ll need to wash your face,” Becca said. She reached up and traced my cheek with her finger. She pulled it back, showing me the chalk. “Don’t worry, it will come off quickly. No one will know.”
I grabbed her hand and squeezed. Hard. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Becca looked me in the eyes. She didn’t even blink. “Of course I’m sure. It’s my choice, not yours. Don’t ever feel guilty about it. Move on with your life, Eloh, knowing that a better world will come of it all. The gods are back. Magic won’t be far behind.”
Her eyes lit up. Joy spread across her face. I had never understood that level of faith. I didn’t think I ever would.
“Okay.” I nodded and let go of her hand. “Thank you.”
Becca leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “No, Eloh. Thank you for giving my life purpose.”
She turned and walked away from the screen. I heard her kiss her aunt and mumble a few words. I don’t know if she made a gesture toward Ben. The door opened and then it closed. Everything was set in motion. There was nothing I could do to stop it.
The heat from the flames spread out among the mob. Ben and I held tight to each other’s hands, as if letting go would mean falling over a cliff and drowning in the vast ocean. People around us knelt on the ground, chanting prayers. They beseeched the gods to return, choose an initiate, and return magic to us. Their blind faith tore at my heart. I knew not one of these girls would be saved by any gods. If I believed the old woman, I was the only hope for our people. Everything rested squarely on my shoulders. All of those girls sacrificed in the rituals before today died in vain because the gods were waiting for me.