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Sacrificial Dances

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All Adrianne could see when she looked up was the wavering blue of the ceiling through the water, and she pulled in a mouthful, holding it until she was surrounded completely by water, inside and out. When finally she surfaced, lungs bursting for air, she didn't feel like they had promised her she would feel— cleansed and ready to perform the preparation of the sacrifice. Genevieve, she said to herself, the forbidden word, and it felt like the word tainted her tongue, as though she should duck down and drink more of the holy water she'd just been bathing in.

The water was cold, as it should be, with no comfort to be found in it, but Adrianne had never skimped on her oblations. When she was a child she had prayed the longest of her class, knees on the cold stone floor, head buried in her hands, no thought of anything other than the god, of the mysteries of this world and the next. This was all she'd ever wanted to do: to serve. She knew that the cold water cleansed, that the oil with which she would anoint herself would purify. She knew that it was necessary that she be correct in every particular so that when she touched Gen—the sacrifice, she corrected herself, for one slip can be forgiven, but two was trouble—she would purify in her turn.

The oil was warm and slick on her skin and smelled faintly of sandalwood, a clean, fresh smell, and when she was anointed and ready, she donned the prescribed heavy robe of unbleached cotton, tied back her damp hair into the traditional queue, and uttered the prayers that would sanctify her sufficiently. When she was ready and prepared, she lit two candles in gold holders and carried them through to where the sacrifice waited, ready to be tended to.

Adrianne had not imagined this in all her years of serving the God, picked as she had been as a young girl to be the new priestess. She hadn't imagined that in this year, her first, she would know the sacrifice. They had gone to the same village school together, until Adrianne had bled for the first time when she was twelve and been named in the night as priestess. Genevieve had woken in a similar fashion, blood on her thighs and the touch of the God on her lips, but instead of the gold chain hung around Adrianne's neck, Genevieve’s wrists had been clasped with brass cuffs, the ones that warned every boy in her village not to touch her under punishment of death. Defiling the sacrifice was a greater sin than murder. She had been taken to the sacrifice house where she lived with the five other devotees, as they were named, drawn from the whole country, who spanned the ages from eighteen to thirteen, male and female both, replenished each year as one of them went to the God. Adrianne hadn't seen her from that moment to this, remembered her only as a dreamy girl, head in the sky, undevout and laughing in the chapel when all others  bowed. She wondered if that was why she had been chosen, before she reminded herself that to be chosen was not a punishment but a gift.

The girl who met her now shared only the bountiful dark hair of the girl Adrianne remembered. She had grown and changed and become beautiful as the sacrifices always did. But in her face was none of the soft compliance that marked those bound to the stake, honoured to be taken by their God for whatever purpose he chose for them. There was clear-eyed anguish, and her lips were bitten raw as though she had sought to stifle her own cries of grief, knowing that they would go unheard. She had, Adrianne had been informed, tried three times to escape over the years, slipped from windows and doors lithe and silent and ran, until she was caught with ease - no-one willing to give succour to a sacrifice, knowing the consequences. Without her death, the land would not blossom, and God in his anger would come and lay waste to all about him. The fourth time she had not tried to escape and instead offered herself to the first young farmer she came across, knowing that virginity taken rendered her impure. He had seen her brass cuffs, though, and unheeding of her pleas had returned her to the house. Adrianne knew all this, and unwillingly it had stirred pity in her heart. Was not a willing sacrifice better?

That in its own way was heresy, though, and she thrust the thought aside as she advanced towards the sacrifice, and placed the candlesticks carefully on the mantelpiece, filling the room with a flickering light that highlighted the dying traces of defiance on the other girl's face.

"I'm Adrianne," she said softly, and wondered if she would be remembered from the school they had attended together. There was no recognition on the sacrifice's face, however, and she turned away from the hand that Adrianne extended.

"I'm Gen," she said eventually when Adrianne didn't speak, as though she needed to fill the silence. There was a peculiar defiance in her voice, as though her name was all she had managed to retain and she would not give it up.

"Gen," Adrianne repeated, even though she knew it was stupid, that there was a reason she had been warned by her mentor not to ever call a sacrifice by name. That name was no longer theirs— they were dedicated to the God, and it was not only their bodies which belonged to him but their name also. They were to be referred to only by the casual monikers the temple gave them. Still, Adrianne argued to herself, a name was only a small thing. She hesitated for a second, then gestured towards the pool in the floor, the water as cold as the water she had bathed in. "I have to wash you," she said awkwardly — and wished that this part of the ritual could be conducted with others, terrified as she was that she would do something wrong on her first time.

Gen snorted, the most real thing Adrianne had heard since she came in. "I'm aware of that," she said dryly. "Three days, and on each day you wash me, you cleanse my degenerate soul, you oil me, pray over me and then on the third day you truss me up so I can die. It's not a lot of information to retain.” She stepped towards the water, shedding her clothes as she went with the ease of someone who had spent a lot of time in an environment where nudity was accepted, and Adrianne fought to keep her eyes from lingering too long over Gen’s slim form stepping towards the water. Instead, she rolled up the sleeves of her robe, wondering why they were so impractical when this ritual had been going on for such a long time, and began.

Gen didn't fight her, not physically. Adrianne was taller and stronger. One shout from her, and the guards would come running. That didn't still Gen’s tongue, though, and over the next three days she tried everything she could to convince Adrianne to help her, to let her go, to change something about her situation. Adrianne had never heard of this before. Her mentors had never told her what to do when the sacrifice wasn't glad to serve the God. She'd never imagined that there would be arguments, that there could be anything that would make her waver in her chosen path, but the more Gen spoke, the more Adrianne found her hand creeping to the gold chain around her neck, as though to reassure herself. She had been touched by the God. She had been hand-picked by him to carry out his will. Would she falter now when faced with her first real test?

 

On that first day, as Adrianne used jugs of hot water to wash that wonderful hair and rubbed soft soap into smooth limbs, Gen used reason to dissuade her. She told her things that should be told to no-one, of the work the sacrifices were engaged in, in those long years between being chosen and death. She told her of the visions they saw, how they were used as seers, inhaling the bittersweet smoke and then speaking of what came to them in their dreams. She told Adrianne terrible things that she had witnessed, how the God had spoken to her and gloated that she would soon become his.

"Would a true God say that?" she asked, but not as though expecting an answer: as though this was something she had pondered for all too long, and as though she knew what the response would be.

Adrianne knew she should stopper her ears, or gag Gen so that further blasphemies wouldn't issue forth, but she couldn't make herself do it, helplessly fascinated as she was by the stories and the vigour with which Gen spoke.

"You have to have trust," she said weakly and as she felt once again the warm gold of her own chain, her faith was renewed. "There's a plan, Gen. You have your part in it, and so do I." Gen relapsed back into a gloomy silence as Adrianne rinsed her down and passed her a robe similar to her own. She didn't open her mouth as Adrianne anointed her with the sacred oil, on forehead, wrists, heart and feet, instead focusing her eyes over Adrianne's shoulder as though she imagined herself to be somewhere else entirely. The next time she spoke it was when Adrianne was saying the traditional prayers of sanctification.

"Do you even realise what you're saying?" Gen asked, and her voice was tired and small, as though this entire ordeal had taken its toll on her already. "You're offering my body and soul to something you don't even understand, when it's not your body and soul to offer. You're stealing whatever sins I've committed, expunging them from me, when they're not yours to take."

That, Adrianne could ignore, because it was mere foolishness. Who would desire to wear sins on their soul if they didn't have to, after all? Instead, she finished her prayer and led Gen to a bed tucked away in an alcove. In theory, Adrianne should have sat up all night with her and continued the prayers, but in practice that was only necessary on the third night, when they would keep vigil for the God together. Adrianne matter-of-factly lay on the bed, outside the covers, a foot away from Gen. She didn't expect Gen to shift closer until her breath was hot on Adrianne's cheek, her body clean and fresh and beginning to warm beside her.

"Have you done this before?" Gen asked, the first thing she had inquired about Adrianne since they'd met.

"No," Adrianne said softly. Removed from the lamps and the candles of the main room, there in the dark, it felt too easy to be honest. She closed her eyes, feeling less like a priestess preparing a sacrifice and more like the timid schoolgirl she'd once been, curled up with a friend under thick woolen blankets as they whispered of their lives ahead.

Gen didn't reply for a long time. "Adrianne," she said, then, quietly, softly, into the darkness. "Haven't you ever wanted anything else?"

Adrianne didn't reply, kept herself angled away and breathing steadily as though she was sleeping, kept the thought which had bubbled up unthinkingly and almost made it to her lips inside: What else is there?

 

The second night, Gen wasn't reasonable. She didn't offer logic of any sort that Adrianne could grasp. there was nothing of the leashed self-control that had characterised her so thoroughly the night before. Instead she let her tongue loose, cursed the cruelty and evil of people who would sacrifice her for their own interests. She did not address herself to Adrianne specifically this time, but instead spoke as though in the lack of any other audience, she would do.

Gen didn't stop until Adrianne uncovered the tray she'd brought with her — the scanty food deemed appropriate for a sacrifice, and a small bowl of figs that Adrianne had added herself in defiance of protocol. It seemed a shame to her that the meal was so lacking in sweetness, and it seemed like Gen appreciated the thought, at least if the eagerness with which she reached for one of them was anything to go by. The figs were just ripe enough to peel with nimble fingers and Adrianne watched with a less than objective gaze as Gen licked the juice from her fingers with no trace of self-consciousness.

That time when she bathed Gen, Gen didn't look away or fix her attention elsewhere. Instead she stared at Adrianne with a thoughtful expression, and maintained it through the prayers and anointing. When they took their places on the bed for the second time, Gen's anger had burnt itself out, even her frustration a lower simmer, as though she could not maintain that pitch for too long. When she spoke, again, it was so entirely the opposite of what Adrianne had expected her to say that she could only hold her breath and listen.

"I might have done it if they'd asked," Gen said softly. "Tell an idealistic child that if they die they'll save a country and there's a not impossible chance that they'll say yes. Tell an adult it's the only way and they might. But wake that same child up bound as a slave, cuffed in the night, and there's no chance they'll go willingly." Adrianne was not sure if she believed that. Would anyone not chosen to die for a country? She doubted it, but Gen seemed to believe it was possible.

"You mean," she said, not quite able to keep the disbelief from her voice, "That you would have chosen to fulfill being sacrifice if they had asked you to?” Despite the honour and the worthiness of such a role she struggled to believe it. There was a reason why the God marked those he wanted.

"Maybe," Gen replied. "I can't know, but I think I might have. Or somebody else would, at least. There's always that chance. Shouldn't it have been taken?"

"It's not about choice," Adrianne said. "What if the person who offers is not the one the God wants? What if two people have to die, then, because he's been angered?"

"Then that's his evil, not ours." The blasphemy fell easily from her lips, and Adrianne shuddered, unsure if the tingle down her spine was fear and uncertain of how to reply to such blatant and extreme heresy.

Steering away to only very slightly safer ground, Adrianne tackled what Gen had said first."Is it any more right to ask someone to die for their country?" she asked, testing the marshy grounds on which she stood, "There's still death at the end of it. In this fashion at least there is a meaning. You've been found worthy by the God, and, if that is not enough for you, surely there must be satisfaction in knowing you have served a purpose, that you've saved those around you even if not by choice."

"I wasn't born with a purpose," Gen said and the anguish seeped through her voice and infected Adrianne with a nameless, formless dread, "Don't try claiming that this is all I was ever meant for." She rolled over and faced the wall as though despair had found her at last, her back stiff and unyielding, poker straight in the dim light, and Adrianne knew she should leave even now, knew that, though she had been instructed to stay with the sacrifice during the nights, she was risking herself by staying. She thought of the man who had been her mentor, the priest before her who had since passed away, and wished she could ask him for words to convince Gen, to soothe her doubts, to reconcile her to her fate, and to reassure Adrianne herself. She was shaken in ways she didn't like to think of, not so much by Gen's words but by her earnest refusal to stop trying to convince Adrianne that she was right. She made Adrianne think of things she hadn't contemplated in years, made her question the nature of sacrifice, consider things that shook her to her core with fear. But instead of fleeing, instead of praying, even, she stared at the ceiling with blind eyes.

"Are all the sacrifices like you?" she asked.

"I'm an orphan," Gen said in an apparent non sequitur, "The others’ families benefit from having a sacrifice in the bloodline. It soothes the blow for some of them to know that they've helped their families, I think." That didn't really answer Adrianne's question, but she knew better than to push. As far as she knew, Gen was the only one who had tried to run, but that didn’t mean that she was the only one who had ever thought about it. Gen was eighteen, the oldest sacrifice, and the one with the most sway over the rest. Adrianne didn't look forward to the years ahead if this was how it felt every time.

Much later, when she supposed Gen thought she was asleep, she heard a quiet sob, bitten back and reluctant, reabsorbed so fast Adrianne almost thought she must have misheard. She didn't touch Gen or say anything, just let her stifle the sound of her despair, and when Adrianne departed in the morning, she didn't look at Gen, as though the sight could undo years of hard won resolution.

 

On the third night, Gen neither reasoned nor fought. She sat there numbly, endured the bathing, face set and distant, breath coming in wavering gulps audible in the silence, and Adrianne could not endure it. Could not stand the silence, how Gen was sealing herself off, even as part of her recognised that breaking into Gen’s thoughts would be the result of a selfish impulse. It would be better for Gen if she did not fight after all. It would be pointless for her to reason when the God came. Yet Adrianne could not face the silence alone, filled the air with empty words even though she knew Gen wasn't listening. She repeated the doctrinal evidence on where Gen's ascended soul would be at rest, how grateful everyone would be, how the land would blossom and everything prosper, on and on until the silence swallowed her words right up and made them part of it.

Adrianne began at the feet this time and anointed Gen, slow and soft, lingering more than she ought, and still Gen didn’t speak. Once again they lay together in the bed, sharing body heat, and Adrianne couldn't bear it. She counted off the hours until the morning with the tick of her blood through her veins, and only barely heard what Gen mumbled into the bed.

"What did you say?" she asked, taut and breathless, afraid all of a sudden.

"I've never even been kissed," Gen said bleakly. "We used to play at it in the house. Press a piece of paper between our lips and touch our mouths together, pretending it was the same thing." Then even quieter she added, "I've never done anything," and that clearly hurt more. Gen’s was a short lifetime whiled away in obscurity, and then a swift devouring.

Adrianne couldn't bear it, as she couldn't stand the silence. She allowed the frightening force inside her to spill up—all the doubts, all the fears, all the repressed longing for something she barely knew how to conceptualise, as she'd touched and cleansed what could not be hers—and she did not heed the small voice within her that counseled her against this. She could recall how the priest before her had advised her to be unswayable, but she remained poised on the precipice. It could not be a sin, her nature argued, to comfort in final hours, to touch the sacrifice in such a way that she should remain pure, and if part of her disdained such sophistry, the rest of her welcomed it.

"Should you like me to?" she asked, and her voice sounded strange and rough, unlike her own. She longed at once to snatch the words back and deny all knowledge of them. Was it likely that Gen should want to touch her, opposed as they were?

"Yes," Gen said, without a pause. Adrianne closed her eyes, unseen in the faint light of the solitary candle, and moved closer to the warmth of Gen in the sheets. They pressed alongside each other, skin against skin, matched touches, hip against hip as they lay there chastely, and Adrianne realised that she had as little clue as Gen about these things. A priest or priestess must be without stain as well. Only such were suffered to approach the God in any form. Still, she had memories, not merely from her youth but from the hurried flirtations of the undedicated around her.

With more assurance than she felt, she propped herself up on her elbow and went to kiss Gen. When she missed her mouth and landed on her cheek, Adrianne felt her own skin flush and burn at her mistake, until Gen turned a little and now they were kissing, long, still moments of mouth pressed against mouth. Adrianne felt the fine tremors running through them both., kissed Gen again and again, thrilling at the shock of Gen's mouth falling open a little and the gentle touch of their tongues.

She had not expected the heat that flickered between them, as though in between the softness of their touches a fire was being stoked, igniting in her belly and spreading down until she felt as though she could not be contented with kisses, as sweet as they were. She wound a finger into the soft damp fall of Gen's silky hair, and following a muted, long dormant instinct, she bit at the strong curve of Gen's neck, kissed the mark she left, and let herself memorize the sound Gen made at the touch of her teeth.

She felt light-headed, almost feverish, at Gen's touch. The warm trail of Gen's fingers burnt through her skin as they pressed into her back and then caressed her, long and lingering, as though this first and last time that she would touch another human being in this fashion was something infinitely precious. Startling grief welled up in Adrianne’s throat, choked her and brought her almost to tears. She buried her face in Gen's breasts, so the other woman need not see the foolish dampness in Adrianne's eyes, tucked her head down and traced the firm curve of her breasts, first with her fingers, then with her mouth, curious and inexperienced. She swallowed back the tears and concentrated only on this.

Gen moved under her fingertips and her mouth, arched her back almost involuntarily as Adrianne touched her, her hips shifting restlessly, her legs moving apart so Adrianne could nestle between them. She was torn between touching every inch of Gen as it lay before her, recording every bit of her skin and her scent and her urge to wring something from Gen that she could never have experienced before. Her sense of the time reminded her of the obvious –there was little enough time between now and dawn, and the memory of her duty nagged at her uneasily, even as she relished the indrawn gasp Gen made when Adrianne drew the brown tip of her breast into her mouth.

She knew she should instruct and prepare Gen as she had been taught, long lessons remembered in this moment. She thrust the thought away and bent her head to her task more fully. For something she had seen more than once so fully, had anointed and washed with her own hands, Gen's body was a mystery, as though she had been made anew in the moment.

It was with cautious fingers that she followed the natural curve of Gen's thighs, brushed lightly over the soft fuzz of hair where they joined, followed down between them to where Gen, wet and eager, was waiting for her. The book from which she had been taught and her old master, had only spoken of how a sacrifice might be made impure by the touch of a man, by the joining of their bodies together, or if it was a male sacrifice, by lying with a woman.

Still, Adrianne dared not breach Gen's body with her fingers, just as she had not dared with herself on cold winters nights when, with a hand trapped between her legs, she closed her eyes and listened to the soft sigh of the wind. Instead, she touched her as she would touch herself, a steady, circular motion, exploring, cataloguing, every restless movement of Gen's hips against her hand noted, the sheen of Gen’s body catching the dull light of the only candle. Under her mouth Gen tasted clean, only a little perfumed. Adrianne kissed her stomach, the flat plane of it tense under her lips, and then followed where her fingers had blazed the trail, down the slight indent of the curve of her hip, across the soft flesh of her thigh, her other hand still working at Gen’s slick softness and brushing against the hardness of her clit.

Gen gasped at the touch, eyes shocked and still when Adrianne looked up, as though poised to thrust her away, to bring this sad desperate outreach to an end. They were locked in a moment, until Gen threw her head back and unhooked her fingers from the sheets and wound them in Adrianne's hair, pulled her even closer. Adrianne felt the tug of the fingers in her hair, sharp little flares of pain if she moved back too far, a sobering influence on the madness she felt, or it would have been if those sparks hadn't almost seemed to race down her spine and join the desire that already filled her belly and made her squeeze her thighs together as though to attain some release that she had no clue how to reach. It was as though by instinct that she spread Gen apart a little more, held her legs apart with her shoulders, and yielding to her own impulse, bowed her head and took a taste, held Gen down with a firm hand winged across her hips, and began.

It was like being lost in a different world entirely, Gen so slick and wet under her tongue, hoarse cries muffled and held back as Adrianne licked first curiously and then intently, chased the wetness down, joined the fingers of her other hand to her tongue, firm press of both.

She felt absorbed, swallowed up, the distant din of her thoughts muffled as she buried herself closer, felt Gen shake under her, salty-sweet on her lips, wetter than Adrianne had thought a person could be, and she felt for a moment as though she couldn't stop, didn't want this to end. If she stayed like this, hidden and safe between Gen's thighs, then maybe the morning would never come. All too soon, though, tracking the sounds Gen made and the way she moved, Adrianne could feel a change in Gen's body, a tenseness, like a bow pulled too tight. As Gen quivered under her mouth and hands, an unrelenting shiver made its way through her body and she came, one hand over her mouth stifling her cries, the other still in Adrianne's hair, holding it tight enough to be painful now as she fell apart. It was a long moment before Gen’s hands loosened and, still, Adrianne barely breathed or moved. When she did it was only to wipe her face, to clear away the evidence of what she'd done.

When Gen tried to touch her, to trace the same pattern down her thighs, Adrianne captured her hand and stopped her, although she ached with want. She couldn't let Gen give her more. She had stolen enough from her already, hoarded Gen's pleasure like a miser counting golden coins, storing those memories inside herself. To take more would be to feed her greed and make this even harder than it must be. Instead, she brought Gen’s hand closer to her, curled up beside her, and shut her eyes, not to sleep but so she couldn't see Gen's face, pleasure-ridden still. Her eyes were soft and hopeless from that tiny taste of everything she would be ripped away from in the morning.

"Sleep," Adrianne whispered, a coward's response to what must come, "I'll wake you when it's time." As though all hope had died in her, Gen closed her eyes and Adrianne listened as her breathing slowed and deepened and she drifted into unconsciousness. She waited for long minutes until she was sure Gen was asleep, and then silently she slid out of bed to make the final preparations for the sacrifice.

Adrianne bade the guards leave - in these final hours, none but the priest or priestess who officiated the rites might see the sacrifice's face, a superstition Adrianne had once believed in, and now thought was probably so the humanity of the sacrifice would not be seen in those last moments. Then she gathered the harsh unbleached linen shift Gen would wear and a white muslin robe for herself and laid them neatly to one side before she went to her own quarters and made less orthodox preparations. Afterwards, she went to the courtyard and checked the heavy stone slab and one iron cuff that held the sacrifice until the god was done with them, before she returned to the room and did the last, most important thing.

She bent her head and let her hair fall forward as she found the tiny clasp of her necklace and opened it, letting the heavy weight fall, and then, the time near, she crawled forward to Gen. With tiny, tentative movements she took up a wrist and with swift sureness found a latch, the imperfection so tiny that only the priest of the temple had ever known it existed, that final proof of cruelty— the potential for freedom. It slipped off in her hands and Gen shifted, enough that Adrianne could take her other hand and release it. Now Gen was pure and ready, as Adrianne was.

Gently, she shook Gen awake, sponging her down once more, and closed her eyes when she saw that there wasn't a single mark on Gen's body, not one of teeth or tongue or the trace of her hands, nothing to indicate that she'd ever been touched, that Adrianne had ever held her, even for so short a time. Then, she helped her into the robe and walked them both outside. Gen didn't struggle, aware of how hopeless it was, and Adrianne closed her eyes, filled with self-loathing. Outside, in the grey dawn of the morning, the air was chill and they shivered in thin clothes. Adrianne bade Gen sit on the ground under the tree and fastened the necklace around Gen's neck, not letting herself see the bewilderment in Gen's eyes, as though she could not understand why Adrianne would do that.

Then with swift movements, aware of how close the time drew, she clasped her own wrists with the brass cuffs she'd taken from Gen, and, determined now, sure in what she was doing, at peace for the first time in her life, no longer filled with the restless gnawing of faith or the wild touch of doubt, she lay down on the stone. Before Gen could spring to her feet with a wild no, Adrianne had clasped one brass-cuffed wrist with the sole iron cuff which, when closed, sealed itself completely until the sacrifice had been taken and consumed.

"Gen," she said quickly, before the fear could overwhelm her and strangle the words on her lips, "Gen, leave. By the courtyard door there is a bag with a little money and some clothes. You should cut your hair and hide."

Gen was beside her, fruitlessly wrenching at the cuff, her strong fingers still no match for its iron intractability, her face filled with horror. "You can't do this," she said desperately. "Oh, Adrianne, why wouldn't you come with me?"

"I have to do this," Adrianne said. "The one year there was no sacrifice, the god took one hundred people and the crops died of famine. I do not claim that he is a good god or that he ought to be worshipped. I can see now that propitiation might be wrong, that to sacrifice you was a horror, but there must be a sacrifice, regardless of faith. And I have faith, if not in the god, then in what I have always believed. Better one than many."

"But you aren't marked as a sacrifice," Gen said, but softer as though she began to realise the inevitability of what Adrianne had set in motion.

"I'm as virgin as you are," Adrianne said, "And I'm wearing your cuffs and you're wearing my necklace. He cannot complain." And now the shaking started, from the cold or from the fear, and she could no longer control it, her words more calm than her emotions, a mask on her fear.

"Gen," she said, pleaded, even, "Gen, leave. Run, or we shall both die and there will have been no point." Gen was closer now, her face against Adrianne's neck, her body a little warm against her.

"Do you believe?" Gen whispered. "In all the things you told me about where your soul goes, and how happy you'll be?"

That belief was impossible to cling to in the cold wind, under the knowledge that death was close. Faith clutched to the breast since childhood had shredded and fled in mere days as Adrianne had come to understand what the God took. Adrianne could not believe that to die in such a perverse fashion would yield a happy afterlife. She could only hope for a cessation of pain. But that would be cruel to say, so she took refuge in a lie. "Of course I do. And maybe one day we'll meet there."

Gen laughed, the sound grieved, harsh with pain. "I know you're lying," she said, "but I'll hope for you." She released Adrianne and stepped away. "But I'm not leaving," she said simply. "I'm not going to let you die alone like this." Adrianne struggled for the first time against her bonds, frantic.

"Gen, you must go. Now. The god may not kill you if he thinks you are the priestess, but the guards will know the difference. You must run now, put distance between yourself and this place. Please." She didn't know what else to say, what would drive Gen from this place and not render impotent the sacrifice Adrianne was making. But something in her voice must have got through, some desperate note, because Gen had picked up the bag, and then returned to her.

"If you go," Adrianne said softer, not struck dead— yet—despite her blasphemy, "Then maybe you can find some way to free the country from this. Give some purpose to a life I've dedicated to a false ideal.”

Gen bent, then, and kissed her, cold lips on cold lips.

"I'm staying," she said. "I'm staying and I'll pretend to be the priestess, and then I promise I'll run and never look back, but I'm not going to leave you here alone in this moment. None of the other sacrifices died alone, and even if it isn't much comfort, you'll know I'm here."

She sat on the edge of the stone slab, taking Adrianne's free hand in both of hers, and together they waited for the god to come.