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Emancipation

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The window above my bed reveals the moon bright over the tree line so it's still early, what woke me? I look over and see my sister is sound sleep, wrapped up like a Kebapche, one leg hanging over the side of the bed so she is not to blame. A sudden dull ache blooms in my belly, strong enough to make me roll over on my side groaning. Grabbing my pillow, I bury my face in it to smother the noise. I don't wanna wake Filipa she needs the rest, it's market day tomorrow and there's a lot to do. Another wave of pain grips me and I pull my knees up, biting my lip. If this keeps up I'll have no choice but to get mama. Pressing my hand to my belly I close my eyes and pray to the ancestors that won't be necessary.

The moons glow has nearly made its way across the floor to Filipa's bed and the pain hasn't gone away indeed, it is now a constant discomfort. There's a cool breeze coming through where I've propped open the glass with one of my old slippers but I'm dripping with sweat. I haven't managed to disturb my sister but it's apparent now I need to wake up mama. I throw the sheet back and sit up to reach for the oil lamp on the bed stand when I notice the dark stain between my legs. My finger shakes as I touch the wetness soaking the sheet, a sinking feeling in my stomach. I needlessly bring it up to my nose to scent it as if I need that final proof to tell me what I already know. My courses have come.

Were this not the Year of the Vekoven the arrival of my moonblood would be cause for celebration. Mama would invite all the women in our family to come and share in the joy. All over the valley and down from the mountains they would come for the feast. Wine would flow and laughter would fill the house until the rooster called the sunrise. I would be gifted with the sacred Corn Woman, a tiny doll fashioned from the dried husks and hung over the bed as a symbol of my burgeoning fertility. I would finally be free to be courted by the boys in my village and allowed to wear my hair loose instead of in the braids of a child. But it IS the Vekoven and so my world comes to a halt waiting for the appearance of the Patron's sigil above the bed. If I am chosen by him, not for me will they hold a celebration of womanhood. A wake it will be instead, a grave with no body and banners of black hung from the door. If I am spared, thankful tears for my family and pain for someone else's. I am aware of the weight of the sacrifice of our daughters. It's what pays for our kingdom's peace and prosperity. Every hundred years the Patron comes and chooses from among the newly blossomed women for his own and her life is given so that we may enjoy freedom from the strife that so often consumes our neighbors. For untold years we have remained faithful to this holy compact and now it is my turn to stand on that precipice hoping to be passed over for another. I want nothing more than to let everyone go on sleeping including me. To pretend for a moment my life doesn't hang in the balance. No one knows what the Patron does with the daughters he chooses, they are never heard from again and only an empty altar greets the priests the next morning. I lean over and turn the wick with trembling fingers, grimacing when I see the blood in the light and decide against wakening anyone. I want them to enjoy the peace while they yet have it, if the sigil appears above my bed it will be interrupted soon enough. If I am not chosen it won't matter. I wrap myself in the sheets so I don't have to look at the evidence and watch the moon as it continues to drop behind the trees, trying to ignore the ache in my belly and the hair sticking to the back of my neck.

It feels like forever though I know by the moon's position not much time has passed when I sense a presence in the room. My eyes dart around, squinting to pierce the dark corners where the light doesn't reach but I can't make out a thing in the gloom. I slip from the bed and turn the lamp up more, holding it out in front of me, the glass mantle clinking with my nervous breaths. There's a loud crack followed by a groan when I stumble over the floorboard that sticks up over by the wardrobe and I freeze, hoping it wasn't enough to wake Filipa. I hear her shift but thankfully she only turns over to face the wall and I lift my foot from the board, stepping to the side and continue with measured steps across the room. Time passes at a snail's pace as I peek into the shadowed corners and wince with every creak my feet make on the boards. My heart pounds so fiercely in my chest I'm surprised my sister sleeps through it.

The light fails to illuminate anything out of the ordinary however and I attribute the sensation of being watched as a consequence of my condition. Quietly picking my way over to the wash basin I set the lamp down and dip a cloth in the water, wiping the blood from between my thighs with a scowl. A more thorough wash in the copper tub will have to wait till morning. I grab a loose ribbon from my jewel box, haphazardly tying my hair up for some relief from the bothersome sweat and moisten another cloth to lay on my neck. Heading back to my bed, I pause to pick up the dressing gown my sister left on the floor and drape it over her footboard. My mild annoyance at having to clean up after her again is cut short when I hear what sounds like dead leaves crackling underfoot. In the stillness, it's horribly loud and oddly accompanied by the scent of smoke. I trace it to its source and can't stop the wretched cry that erupts from my lips. Burned into the wall above my pillow is the stylized cipher of a hunting falcon in flight, the sigil of the Patron. I just barely set the lamp on the chair as my legs go weak and I drop to my knees.

Every year on the anniversary of the holy covenant we celebrate the favor the Patron has bestowed upon us and mourn the daughters we have lost. We tell ourselves to be chosen is an honor, that we'll face it with acceptance and grace but I can't find any of those things within me. I want to hurl the glass mantle at the wall, just to hear it shatter. I want to scream and rail at my fate but I sit there numb.
I hear a thump and look up as my sister tumbles out of bed onto the floor, she struggles to get free of the sheets and stands, breathless and wide-eyed.

"Elena by the Patron what is it?"

Bitterly laughing at the irony of her exclamation I wordlessly point at the sigil and her face crumples in anguish.

"Oh Elena no."

Reaching out she grabs hold of me and buries her face in my neck, her tears seeping into the white cotton. It's not long before the door swings wide with a crash and the rest of the family fills the passageway, a panorama of fright and concern on their faces. Papa, bless his stout heart, is standing there holding an old pitchfork long retired from service, looking for the intruder he evidently thinks has broken in to ravish his daughters. I'm not equal to speaking just yet so I gesture to where the faded whitewash is now marred by the blackened visage of a falcon. Mama looks at it and walks over to lift the sheet, closing her eyes in resignation at the sight of the blood. She calmly looks over at my brother.

"Aleksandar, get dressed and go fetch the Priests."

He nods and quietly slips out the door. I know what comes next, the holy men will come and invade the serenity of my home. They'll bear witness to the sigil and the crimson stain on my bed. They'll hood me like a bird of prey and place me in a covered carriage so that no mortal may look upon me during my journey to the Great Temple. I will be purified, no hands but those of the highest order will touch me, no mouths but those of the same will speak to me. When I am cleansed I will be sealed inside a sepulcher and taken to the Holy Grove, there to be tied to the altar to await the coming of the Patron.

I'm pulled from my musings at Katerina's soft touch. The tears finally flow when I look at her swelling belly and realize I will not be there to see the birth of my eldest brother's child. Gently I disengage from my sister and push myself to my feet, heading for the wardrobe. I pull out a gift wrapped in wool and tied with a gold ribbon, giving it to Katerina with a wobbly smile.

"This was for the child, I would have given it to you when you......"

I stop, unable to continue as Katerina reverently unwraps the gift, revealing a crème and gold baby blanket richly embroidered with our family tree, a multitude of branches each one bearing a name with the newest one left blank. She runs the tip of a finger over the empty space and I know she imagines the day she can take a needle to thread and add their child to it. She sets aside the blanket and wordlessly embraces me. I can feel the tremors of her quiet sobbing and it makes me angry that in the grand scheme we are merely trading one pain for another. Over her shoulder, my beloved younger brothers Stefan and Andre, as alike in looks as they are unalike in spirit, hover in the doorway afraid to enter as if in doing so my fate will become real. I look at Papa who clings to the pitchfork in desperation with one hand and the trailing end of mama's nightshift with the other like a little boy whose world no longer makes sense. She, always the calm in the storm quietly tells him to go to the kitchen and start preparing for the guests. To my brothers, she gives instructions to go wake the aviãrius and have him send word to the rest of the family. The room empties and is silent but for the weeping. Mama comes over and wraps me in a tight embrace. She says nothing, there is little point in platitudes and no time to say everything that is in our hearts. The scent of Peppermint, Lemon Balm, and Primrose fills my nose and it hurts my heart. Nothing gives me greater joy than easing an elders passage when it's their time, bringing new life into the world or tending to a winter chill. Mama felt the calling of the healer as did her mama and her grandma before that. Now, the legacy is broken, I will be gone and my sister's passion lies elsewhere in the schoolhouse.

My tears have dried and the wick burned down another notch by the time I hear footsteps and look up to see Aleksandar coming through the door with the priest and two acolytes. Despite being woken from a sound sleep the priest is in full regalia, puffed up and full of self-importance. The extravagant cost of his silk and velvet robes would feed my family for six months. He looks around the room, taking note of the chipped wash basin, the crooked door on the wardrobe and the threadbare rug, badly concealed disdain on his countenance. It is no surprise; the priests have grown fat and wealthy as the mouthpieces of the Patron. When measured against the marble halls of the Great Temple, our home must seem like a pig sty to him. Papa comes in from the kitchen and the priest turns to address him.

"The sacred witnessing is for servants of the Temple only, take your family to the sitting room."

I can see him about to vociferously object and I rush over, taking his hands in mine and squeezing.

"Papa don't, it is Temple law."

He searches my face, sorrow defacing his and steps back in defeat. He knows he has no choice, so he quietly ushers the rest of the family from the room. Mama is the last to leave as the door closes and I hear her whisper.

"I love you, my sweet Elena."

Then the door closes and the sound of it locking is deafening.

The priest turns his eyes toward me, sweeping them over my body, blatantly lingering on the outline of my breasts and the apex of my thighs. I grit my teeth, wrapping the shift tighter around my body and stare at the floor lest he sees the contempt in mine. Through the fringe of my lashes I see him walk over to the bed and examine the blood, then the falcon burned into the wall. At some unseen signal from him one of the acolytes moves from his spot by the door and takes up position behind me, close enough I can feel the heat from his body through my shift and his breath stirring the hairs on my neck. Done scrutinizing the evidence the priest comes over and without warning reaches out with his hands and grabs the laces of my shift, rending it open from neck to hem. Shrieking I instinctively jump back but there's nowhere to go, the acolyte at my back immediately seizing my wrists in a rough hold, forcing me to cant my hips forward to relieve the pain of them being held at such an awkward angle.
There's a pounding on the door and I hear papa yelling. The priest glances at the door and then at me.

"If you don't wish to see your father thrown in the Temple dungeons I suggest you speak to him."

I swallow the sudden fear and steady my voice.

"Papa I'm fine, I was just startled."

"Are you sure skŭpa?"

"Yes."

I hear mama saying something and after an interminable length of time, the sound of them walking back to the sitting room. I sigh with relief; the thought of Papa being subjected to their barbarism is intolerable. The priests of the Patron wield enormous influence in our kingdom and they brandish it with cruel relish. The priest looks toward the door as if still considering condemning papa. I see it and panic, if I wasn't restrained I would be begging on my knees.

"Please forgive my father Your Grace, he didn't mean to impose upon your holy works."

He takes hold of my jaw and I wince as he applies pressure, smiling viciously.

"You will be silent and you will be obedient and I will consider overlooking your father's lapse in behavior."

I cast my eyes down and adopt a meek manner. He steps closer and runs his hand from my jaw down the side of my neck and over the swell of my breast, pinching my nipple between the fingers of his left hand. Sighing he perfunctorily plucks at it regretfully.

"It's a shame you must be virgin for the Patron."

He flicks an amused glance at the acolyte over my shoulder who shifts to a one-handed grip on my wrists and brings his free hand around to cup my other breast. I squeeze my eyes shut and pretend it's the lazy current of the Tundja that caresses my skin and not the lecherous fingers of an old man and a perverted boy.

Gasping, my eyes shoot open when the hand that isn't kneading my breast abruptly slides between my legs and cups my sex. His lips curve upward in malicious glee.

"It is my sacred duty to verify you are pure. Girls your age are like bitches in heat, can't be trusted not to spread your legs for the first boy that takes your fancy."

He thrusts two fingers inside me, prodding until he meets resistance and I bite down on my lip with a whimper.

"Well, look at that, you're a good girl after all."

He pulls his fingers out, wiping them off on my nightshift and then reaches out to run them over my lips, tilting his head in lustful appraisal. I'm standing there humiliated, praying he's finished with his show of dominance when he takes a step back and undoes his robe, pulling out his member.

"On your knees."

I hesitate, I don't know what he wishes of me. He glances over his shoulder to the acolyte still at the door.

"When we are done here send word to have Elena's father picked up."

I push forward, fighting the hold the other acolyte still has on my wrists.

"Please don't I beg you!"

He looks at me as if I've been a naughty child and his patience is running thin.

"Very well, I will stay my hand but should you disobey again......"

Frustrated I snap at him.

"I'm not I just.....I don't understand what you want!"

He peers at me for a moment, dubious for a moment that I honestly don't know and then quietly chuckles at my ignorance.

"Your innocence is truly a delight."

He nods and my wrists are released. I rub them, wincing at the ache and sink to my knees before him.

"Put it in your mouth."

I look up, shocked at his request. After she married our brother, Filipa and I pestered Katerina about the things a man and his wife did in the bedroom and after enough hard cider she shared that men derived much pleasure from being touched there. She never spoke of putting it in her mouth however.

"Come now, open up."

I lean forward and reach for it, tentatively wrapping my lips around the end.

"Good girl, now get it wet with your tongue."

My cheeks burning with anger and shame I lick the hard flesh, utterly repulsed. After an eternity he wraps his hand around the back of my neck with one hand and with the other, in a perverse parody of beauty ritual rubs the end of his shaft against my lips like he's painting them for a social engagement.

"Now put it in your mouth and suck on it, mind your teeth."

Thinking of the cost to papa should I balk I open my mouth and take it in.

"There's a good girl, just like those sweets you love."

He holds my head, slowly guiding his shaft in and out. I close my eyes and block out his moaning and the horrible wet sucking noises. After a while, I hear his breathing speed up and without warning, he grabs a handful of my hair and forces me to take in the entire length. It hits the back of my throat and I convulsively swallow, fighting the urge to vomit.

"Oooohh yes, you are a natural."

He holds my head there, the wiry hair between his legs scratching my face until he releases down my throat with a loud groan. I'm not prepared for it and I end up choking, his seed running from my nose and the corners of my mouth. He finally pulls out and I collapse onto my side, coughing. When the spasms have stopped and I can breathe again the priest drops one of the cloths from the wash basin onto the floor in front of me.

"Clean up."

I slowly get my feet under me and head over to the basin to wash my face off, cringing at the smell and taste, trying not to cry. He comes up behind me and hands me a gorgeous dark green robe trimmed in gold that looks like it came out of the Queens wardrobe.

"Remove your shift and put this on."

I lay the robe on the table and slip off the torn pieces of my shift, angry and self-conscious in equal measure. For as long as can remember there have been tales of the Temple priests acting inappropriately towards the younger girls. Whispered confessions in the night between sisters and friends during overnight visits. It was always limited to casual touches and never anything that couldn't be explained as an accident. I myself had endured their unwanted attentions before. Once when the Miter visited our stall at the market to purchase some fresh apples and pinched my backside while papa's back was turned and again during Temple devotions when a priest grabbed at my breast under the pretense of stumbling. I never bothered to tell papa, it wouldn't have mattered, the priests are above reproach and untouchable. I put the robe on and wrap it around me, tying the strings tight. Under different circumstances, I could have appreciated the rich, butter soft fabric. The priest reaches over and pulls up the voluminous hood, drawing it completely over my face and securing it to the front of the robe, cutting off my sudden exclamation. I feel him grab my arms and usher me to the door. I can hear the muffled sounds of it being opened, the strident voices of my family, the priest rapping out orders to the acolytes. I keep bumping into him, tripping over my bare feet and pleading with him to let me say goodbye. He ignores me and grips my arms tighter, practically dragging me outside to where I can hear the whuffling of horses and the jingle of tack. I'm summarily picked up and tossed into a carriage, the door closing and locking with an ominous click.

Struggling to get the hood off I have just enough time to glimpse my family out the window before the carriage lurches forward and snatches them from my view. I turn the knob on the door and find it is indeed locked from the outside, probably to keep us girls from panicking and running off. Who knows what the Patron would do if he came for his due and the priests were empty-handed, it's an amusing image. Now that I'm alone the pain of my courses reasserts itself and the thought of bleeding all over this nice fabric makes me snicker. It's the only defiance left to me and I savor it. Running my fingers over the plush seating I marvel at the luxury. If I am to meet death at least I am getting a comfortable ride there. Lacking anything else to do I lean my head against the window and watch the orchards and fields roll by. I spot the castle up on the hill in the distance, the white stone glowing in the pre-dawn light. The Midsummer Festival will be coming soon and mama will be baking her famous apple tarts to sell. Filipa will spend days agonizing over what to wear to the dances even though she isn't old enough to be courted yet. My closest friend Ivet will be plying her brother Danil with sweets and promises to do his chores if he uses his position as a soldier in the Kingsguard to get us into the castle to see the Royal Bard perform. Aleksandar and Katerina will be moving into the cottage he built on land in our south orchard papa gifted them with in honor of their handfasting.

My musing is interrupted when the carriage comes to a halt and the door is opened. The priest pulls me out, yanking the hood back over my face and guiding me over the cobblestones. I hear the petitioners in line waiting for an audience go silent for a moment and then burst forth in a mass of noise when they recognize what I am. Their excited chatter is thankfully muted and replaced by the echo of our steps on the cold marble when we enter the vestibule. I am quickly led through countless doors and down several flights of stairs made terrifying by my blindness. When my hood is finally removed I am standing in a small room heavy with the scent of incense. There's a table and chair for eating, a simple bed and side table and a stand with a wash basin. The room has one window high up on the wall and a small shrine to the Patron beneath it. The only source of light other than the window is a single oil lamp. Everything is white, the floor, the sheets, the furniture, the wash basin, even the fresh flowers on the shrine.

There's a brisk knock at the door and the Lord Vicar comes in, one of the senior priestesses with him. My escort bows and proudly gestures to me as if retrieving me from my home and bringing me to the Temple was a dangerous endeavor.

"Your Holiness, this is Elena the daughter of Petar and Brigita of the family Dragomirov."

The Vicar nods and waves his hand absentmindedly, dismissing the priest. Miffed that his Lordship doesn't seem to see him as important as he sees himself he leaves the room seething. The priestess smiles at me coldly and without so much as a by your leave, reaches out for the robe and tugs it off of me. The Vicar looks me over appreciatively, smiling indulgently when I attempt to cover myself.

"Elena, this is Agnesa. She will be preparing you for the Patron and instruct you on what to do. I will be by later to see that everything has been done to the Patron's satisfaction."

He nods at Agnesa and takes his leave. She hands me a white robe and waits impatiently for me to slip it on, taking me by the arm and down the hall to a private bathing room.

"You will be purified and escorted back to your room. You will remain unclad except for when you are outside your room. From this point on you will imbibe only water. Just before moonrise, you will be taken to the Great Hall for the ceremony after which you will be sealed in the sepulcher for your journey to the Grove. When you need to relieve yourself ring the bell by the door and a priestess will escort you to the middens. I suggest you use the time before the ceremony to meditate before the shrine."

Part of me wants to run back to the shelter of my mother's arms, away from this horrible place and this horrible woman who looks at me with scorn. But, I square my shoulders and follow her to what looks like a shallow cistern made of white tile about the size of a trestle table. In its center is a narrow wooden bench that sits knee high, it's attached to a second piece of wood that comes up to the waist. I am mystified as to its purpose when she guides me to kneel on the lower bench and drape myself over the taller piece. I find myself in the most ignominious position with my hindquarters in the air, hands clinging to a tiny ledge on the opposite side to keep from falling face first into the tile. Startled I yelp when she grabs my thighs, roughly pushing them apart.

"Keep your legs open and breathe!"

I don't even have to time to wonder what she means by that when her fingers unexpectedly push into my anus covered with what feels like salve. I instinctively shift away but she grips my neck, holding me down.

"Are you going to make it necessary to tie you down girl?"

I see the ropes on the bench and fight back a sob.

"Why are you doing this?"

"You are being purified for the Patron. Now, I ask again, do I need to restrain you?"

"No."

I lie there bent over the bench, mortified as Agnesa lubricates my back passage and then inserts a long flexible tube. I hear the squeak of a knob followed by a rush of tepid water flowing into me and I squeeze my eyes shut gripping the ledge till my knuckles are white. It's tolerable at first but then the cramps begin getting sharper by the minute, the pain making hard to breathe.

"Please! Take it out, it hurts!"

She ignores me and I feel the water filling me up, the pressure on my belly growing until I'm almost ready to scream, tears running down my face. Finally, she pulls out the tube and has me squat over a hole in the tile, expelling everything while she watches. It's humiliating and she forces me to go through it two more times until she deems me clean enough. I'm hoping the ordeal is over but she makes me bend over the bench again and inserts a second tube into my vagina, careful not to break my maidenhead and flushes it with water until she is satisfied. I'm woozy and shivering by the time it's finished and she walks me over to a tub, making me kneel in the hot water as she scrubs my body and washes my hair. I barely notice when she dries me off and wraps me in the robe, guiding me back to my room.

I must fall asleep because I wake up buried under the sheets a bit later to fierce hunger pangs. I drink some water and make an attempt to meditate at the shrine but I'm too restless. Restless and self-conscious of my nudity. The silence and unbroken white of the room are disconcerting. I drag the chair over to the window but it's too high up on the wall to get a view of the outside. Putting the chair back I spy my hair ribbon on the side table, the faded red triggering a flood of memories. I remember it was the Festival of the Snows and I had saved up all the coins I earned from helping our neighbor Yana. Mama would bring her, her medicine and I would collect the eggs from the coop and visit the market for her. I saw the ribbon in the dressmaker's window one day and knew that was what I wanted to spend my coins on. I felt so grown up walking into the store and paying for the ribbon myself. I wore it all through the days of the festival and on into spring and summer until the shine turned dull with age and it was retired to my jewel box. I still wore it on occasion and even when it became threadbare and frayed on the ends I couldn't bear to get rid of it. I tie my hair up and wonder why Agnesa bothered to return it to me, she didn't seem the type to be moved by sentimentality.

With nothing else to do I wander back over to the shrine, picking up the offerings and looking them over. It doesn't look neglected; the Temple must make use of this room in the intervening years. Peeking up at the window I see the sun is up. The messengers will have delivered their missives to my family members by now and most of them will probably be arriving by sundown. I close my eyes and picture the last time our home was filled with so many Dragomirov's. It was grandma Aneta's eightieth birthday and she held court in our tiny sitting room, perched on papa's chair by the hearth. I was only ten at the time and I remember Filipa and me spending all day in the kitchen with mama, helping her make the moussaka and wine kebab and bean soup. We were allowed to stay up far past our bedtime and getting to play the Gadulka for grandma's special day was a joy.

My hunger pangs have morphed into a numb haze when Agnesa finally returns with the Vicar at midday. She closes the door behind them, turning the lock.

"His Holiness needs to examine you girl."

I'm beginning to look forward to my death, if only to escape this nightmare. I bite my lip, refusing to show any emotion and stand before them. I can smell the wine on the Vicar's breath as he scrutinizes me, brushing his fingers over my nipples, across my belly and down my backside. Leaning in he whispers in my ear as if I'm his lover.

"Lay down on the bed and spread your legs."

Thinking of my family and my people I resist the urge to grab the water pitcher and strike him over the head with it, laying down and opening my legs. I turn my face to the wall, determined to ignore him as he sits down next to my hip. I feel both their hands under my knees and shut my eyes as they bend them further outward and up toward my elbows, completely exposing me. I hear the rustle of fabric and then the Vicar is thrusting his fingers inside me, prodding a bit and withdrawing.

"Excellent work Agnesa."

"Thank you, your Holiness."

I hold out hope he's done but he slides his fingers into me a second time and begins to slowly move them in and out, his thumb rubbing the tiny hard nub I discovered brought me pleasure the summer I was fourteen.

"Tell me Elena, have you learned to pleasure yourself?"

I bring my hands down to push him away and Agnesa captures my wrists in a painful grip, pinning them above my head. Cheeks burning, I shake my head.

"Stop please!"

He laughs.

"I think you have. You're all secretly whores behind closed doors."

He pinches the nub and crooks his fingers upward pressing in and I cry out before I can stop myself.

"That's it."

He rubs and pinches and strokes me relentlessly until I'm whimpering, my hips moving of their own volition. I fight to hold it in but I can't stop the natural responses of my body and I orgasm, clenching down on his fingers and releasing a flood of juices onto the sheets beneath me. He pulls his fingers out and wipes them off on the robe with a gusty sigh.

"It's a shame you won't be staying with us. You would do well among the courtesans."

I knew the priests enjoyed visiting the women in the balneum and the thought of this depraved holy man touching me that way makes me ill. Agnesa finally releases my wrists and gets up from the bed.

"I will return at moonrise to take you to the ceremony."

They walk out without another word. In a rush of defiance, I put the robe on but see the smear of blood from his fingers and throw it across the room where it knocks over the flower vase on the shrine, spilling water across the tile. Going over to the wash basin I scrub between my legs until I'm sore but I can still feel his fingers inside me. Overcome with a surge of fury I tip over the table and rip the sheets off of the bed screaming in anger. Anger at the Patron for his complete obliviousness to the abuses of his priests, anger at the possibility he knows and doesn't care, anger at the King for being so concerned about his throne he refuses to stand up to the Temple for the sake of his people, anger that my life and all it held is gone. The doorknob turns and one of the senior priestesses, drawn by the noise, looks in and sees the mess. She doesn't say a word, merely walks over and picks up the robe, righting the vase and the flowers, putting the table back and walking out. I slump to the bed, wrapping myself in the sheets, suddenly exhausted. The priestess comes back with a fresh robe, refills the vase and leaves again. I get some more water and lay down on the bed dropping off to sleep again.

When next I awake Agnesa is coming in the door and I can see from the window it's time for the ceremony. She hands me the robe.

"Come."

I wrap myself in the robe and follow her down the hallway past the bathing room and up a flight of stairs. I don't see another soul until we enter the Great Hall. I have been here for every day of devotion since just after I was born. In the mornings it's absolutely radiant, the sunlight bursting through the stained glass in a riot of colors. The white marble columns festooned with sweet smelling flowers and the benches filled with villagers, their voices raised in song never ceases to lift my spirits. Even in the face of my anger at the Patron and the clergy, I still found comfort in this place. Tonight, however, it feels like a tomb, oppressive and silent. Arrayed around the edges are all the most senior ranking clergy, in front of the altar I see the Lord Vicar and his Holy Council. Agnesa walks me down to the altar and removes my robe, stepping away to take her place amongst the clergy. I'm light headed from the cleansing, the lack of food, too little sleep and the incense that was burning in my room making the whole ceremony hazy. I dimly remember chanting, kneeling before the statue of the Patron and being anointed with oil on my breasts and between my legs. I remember being lifted up and held aloft, paraded around the room to be blessed with a touch by all the clergy.

At one point I think must have nodded off because when I open my eyes I'm in the sepulcher. The air inside is warm but there's a faint breeze by my head. I can barely move an inch there's so little room inside. I know I'm passing through the center of town because I can hear the chattering of the crowds and the Royal Guard marching alongside in escort. The bell in the Century tower will have been rung as soon as word reached the Temple, announcing to everyone in Starazagora that the Patron has claimed a daughter. My parents and siblings will be sitting with the King and Queen as all the families of the Chosen do for the procession. I wish I could open the lid and have one last look at them but the sepulcher is sealed shut as it has been for every journey to the Grove.

Eventually the sounds of the crowd and boots on the stones fade and is replaced by the song of the crickets and the whispering of the trees. My stomach lurches because it's almost over and I'm not ready. All too soon the sepulcher is set down and the lid lifted. I blink in the sudden brightness of the torches by the altar. I look around and notice most of the clergy has stayed behind at the Temple, the only ones to witness my final journey are the Lord Vicar, Agnesa, the Holy Council and the bearers of the sepulcher. When they lift me out and I see the bindings hanging from the two columns rising on either side of the marble slab, all my intentions of standing tall and facing my fate with dignity are washed away by fear and my legs buckle beneath me. One of the priests who bore the sepulcher simply picks me up and sets me down on top of it. Agnesa and the Vicar bind my wrists to the columns, leaving me resting on my heels, arms stretched out to the sides as if in praise. I am given a final blessing by the Vicar and the incense bowls at the base of each column are lit, the heady scent filling my head and leaving me dazed. I watch with a detached sort of fog as he and the rest of the clergy turn to leave. Agnesa is the last to go and I see her pull something from the sepulcher before the priests put the lid back on and carry it way. I swallow the lump in my throat when she comes up to the altar and I see it's my red ribbon. She wraps it around one of my wrists and ties it off in a snug bow, squeezing my hand before turning and catching up with the others. They disappear into the trees and I'm left alone.

There's not enough give in the ropes to allow me to lie down so I fold my legs up in front of me and rest my head on my knees. The white marble is still warm from the days sun but won't be for long with the mountain breezes rolling in. I close my eyes and let my mind drift, wondering if my death will be painful and what form it will take. Wondering how long I will wait until he comes for me. I don't even know what he looks like, no one does, he's only ever communicated to us through voices and signs. His statue in the Great Hall is nothing more than a vague male form standing sentinel over the rows of benches. I think about all the things I'll miss, the birth of my niece or nephew, corn mazes at the Petrova farm, the smell of mama's apple tart, dozing on the shores of Koprinka Lake, the Festival of the Snows.

My wrists are beginning to get sore and the marble has gone cold when the crickets suddenly go silent. The torches start to wildly flicker and the air turns thick and still, I'm reminded of the hush that falls over our valley before a summer storm comes sweeping down from the mountains. Goosebumps break out all over my body and my heart starts racing. Just in front of the altar a roiling mass of shadow emerges from thin air and starts to grow. I watch as it begins to slowly rotate like the eddies in the rapids of the Tundja river. It continues to expand in size until it's as wide the barn doors on our stable and half again as tall. The darkness parts like a curtain and out steps the Patron. Well over six feet tall with skin as black as onyx, sporting a single thick braid the color of fish scales and just as bright. He's built like a plowman with a face that would induce swooning in every woman over the age of five if it weren't for the cold and forbidding look that graces it. More terrifying still are his eyes, they glow crimson from within like the banked embers of a fire. Unlike the ostentatiousness of his priests, he's dressed rather ordinary for a god. Barefoot and bare-chested with a simple wrap the color of twilight tied around the waist and draping to his ankles. Devoid of the vulgar display of jewels favored by the Vicar he wears a set of bracers fashioned of interlocking silver links similar to the scale mail our knights wear and a stunning torc shaped like a falcon in flight, its wings curving upward around his neck.

He steps up to the altar looming over me and I cringe when he reaches out thinking it's the end but he merely undoes the bindings on my wrists and takes each one in his hand carefully looking it over. I'm confused, to say the least, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect but this quiet perusal, this calm silence was not it. I summon my courage to address him, weighing my curiosity against what I have to lose which is little.

"Are you examining me for injury?"

He looks up sharply, surprise, irritation and then forbearance passing in rapid succession across his face.

"Yes."

"Why bother if I'm destined to die?"

"I do not desire your death."

"Then what do you want?"

He places his palm fingers spread wide over my forehead and everything fades into black.