Neptune’s temple shone gold and blue in the summer sun. The skies were completely clear of the storm, allowing the sun to beat down with the entirety of its late afternoon force. It would have been a cheerful day if I didn’t have to die.
I noticed, with a sneer, that Neptune’s temple had been untouched by the monster’s visit. I walked up the golden stairs, Lily’s hand in mine. She hadn’t let me go since I’d announced that I was going to allow myself to be sacrificed. Her hand pressed mine tightly, her hips bumping against me on a regular basis. She couldn’t seem to get close enough. I enjoyed these last minutes of nearness, wishing that I had more time to be with her, to explore all the parts of my love for her.
A huge, wooden altar waited at the top of the stairs, right between two golden columns. A crowd had already gathered in front of the temple, waiting anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. They were silent, venturing only a whispered conversation occasionally. A general hush fell over the area, strangely quiet after the mayhem of the afternoon. My father stood in the shadows, half hidden behind a column. He held a long, nasty looking knife with a jewel-decorated handle, rubbing his thumb thoughtlessly over a ruby. He wore a long, black cloak ornamented with gold and blue waves. I wore the same black t-shirt and jeans that I’d fought the monster in. Why change when I was just going to be killed anyway?
I stood beside the altar, glaring over at my father. He stepped toward me hesitantly, sadness dominating his features. In that moment, I felt pity for him. This man, his eyes filled with emotion, reminded me of the father I’d known—the father of my childhood. The man who had returned from war was a stranger to me. Now, in these last minutes before my death, I could finally see the man that I’d missed for all those years. Here was the man that I had pined for in those lazy summer afternoons and chilly winter nights.
Warmth filled me, lasting a minute before reality reasserted itself.
I purposefully let go of Lily’s hand and, directing my words at my father, I said,
“Let’s get this over with. I’m ready.”
I turned to kiss Lily one more time, but I didn’t let it last too long. I held her to me for a moment, whispering in her ear,
Then, I gestured for her to stand away from the altar and I climbed on, lying down on its wide table. The wood was hard and unforgiving under my shoulders, upsetting my newly bandaged wounds. I ignored it, thinking that I was about to be in much more pain anyway. What a waste. My father walked slowly toward me, the knife shaking in his hand.
He stood over me, his figure grim and massive in my vision. He put a hand on my shoulder, saying,
“Goodbye, my daughter. I’m sorry.”
Then, with both hands, he raised the knife above his head and shouted,
“Neptune, be appeased!”
I closed my eyes and heard Lily scream,
Suddenly, a weight pressed across my chest, pressing me into the altar. I opened my eyes to see Lily stretched over me.
“No,” she repeated. “Kill me instead! I volunteer myself to Neptune. I will die and Ida can live.”
“You can’t do this,” I said to her, sitting up to get her off of me. To her credit, she fought to stay between me and the knife. “I’m the one who must be sacrificed,” I insisted.
“No, I offer myself as sacrifice!” she shouted.
I looked right into her tear-rimmed, beautiful eyes and pleaded,
“Lily, please. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
She shook her head defiantly, situating herself once again between me and my father’s blade.
“Take me instead,” she said to my father.
“If you kill her,” I said, “then you have to kill me, too. If she dies, we both die.”
“No!” Lily fought back. “I’m doing this alone. Ida must live out her life. She must be happy!”
“I won’t allow it,” I said, raising my voice and giving my father the sternest look I could muster. His knife hung above us, uncertain and tremulous.
Suddenly, a crack of lighting raced across the sky and thunder roared in our ears. Without any warning, a man materialized beside my father. He was tall, impossibly muscular, and wearing a crown of golden seaweed on his head. He was radiantly handsome, ageless, and smelled strongly of the ocean. He had his massive hand around my father’s wrist, which looked frail and tiny in comparison.
“Stay your hand,” the mysterious man said. My father dropped his arms and the man took the knife from him.
My father fell to his knees, whispering,
“Almighty Neptune, we are not worthy.”
Neptune looked down on my father in disgust. Then, he turned to Lily and me, a look of admiration on his face. I put a protective arm around Lily, whose eyes were big with shock, and faced the god head-on.
Neptune turned to the crowd, addressing them in a deep, booming voice.
“No one will die today,” he said. I could feel the relief run through Lily, releasing the tension from every one of her muscles. I planted a kiss of joy on her hair, pulling her to me. Neptune continued, “True love has won out today. I will not allow innocents to die for the greed of a lost man.”
He turned to my father, pointing at him with a thick finger,
“You will pay for this. I will spare your life, but you must give up your rank, your title, your land, everything. You are never to enter the battlefield again. You are to live as a pacifist, stripped of everything you once had. Your entire inheritance and all your belongings are now in the hands of your daughter. You are to move out of your house and live in the town among those who were terrorized by the monster. Your daughter is to be trained as a military leader instead. She has been born for greatness. I know that she will manage your estate with grace and honor. Do all these things or I will come back and I will take your life.”
And as quickly and mysteriously as he’d come, he was gone. Only my father was left, meek and cowering on the ground. The knife fell, clattering and purposeless, to the ground.
I leapt off the altar and helped him up. He stood and looked at me with a weary smile. He weakly took me into an embrace and I hugged him back. Then, I turned to Lily and kissed her as if I’d never kiss her again, all the joy of our new life, of our new possibilities, rushing through me. When we parted, she was smiling crazily. She pulled me in for another kiss, laughing against my mouth. I smiled, too, holding her close against me and never wanting to let her go.
I laid in bed that night, the day’s events rushing through my head. I couldn’t seem to believe that it had really happened. Somehow, Ida had cheated death twice, leaving her alive for me to hold and have. We’d escaped with more than I could have ever hoped for.
But, what of the future? What if she only wanted me for a concubine? Or what if she got tired of me? Would all of this been some cruel joke to make me love her more, only to lose her in the most mundane way possible?
Suddenly, the thought of losing her in another way overtook me and the previous happiness fled. She seemed far away in her room. How easily I could lose her…
Panic rose in my chest, urging my heart into an uncomfortable race against no one. I sat up in bed, the night-dark room menacing instead of comforting around me. I wanted to be weak, to run to Ida and curl up in her embrace. I had almost lost her so many times…
I couldn’t decide what to do. The right thing would be to stay in bed and go to sleep. I shouldn’t worry. It was silly. It was something a girl would do. I was a woman, after all, and I’d faced death today. I’d given myself, my very blood, for my true love. Surely I could sleep through the night, alone in bed, and be fine in the morning. I could have faith that everything would be fine. I could banish these fanciful fears.
But I wanted to go to Ida. I wanted to ask her to take me into her bed and hold me close. I wanted to feel her heartbeat against my back, lulling me into peaceful sleep. I wanted to leave this room, to leave this solitude, and never leave her side. Surely, she wouldn’t think less of me because of that.
I pulled aside my covers, stepping out of bed onto the wood floor. My bare feet were soundless in the already soundless night. I crept toward the door, still undecided. I reached it and let my hand rest on the knob, my forehead leaning against the wood. Just as I was about to reprimand myself and go back to bed, the softest of knocks sounded on the door. I jumped away in surprise. Next, there was a soft,
The voice was unmistakably Ida’s.
“Ida?” I asked anyway.
“Can I come in?”
I opened the door for her.
She looked simultaneously exhausted and wide awake. Her hair was sticking up in the back and her face was drawn, but her eyes were open and alert.
She stepped in, closing the door quietly behind her.
“I can’t sleep,” she said.
“Neither can I,” I replied.
She looked down at her bare feet, large and bronze in the moonlight. It seemed like she wanted to say something, but was too afraid to begin.
She reached out and took my hand, running a thumb over my knuckles. She looked at our joined hands as she said,
“I want to ask you something. You can say no if you want.”
I took a step toward her and my closeness seemed to give her courage. She looked at me, her eyes somehow even darker and more mysterious in the night, and asked,
“Lily, would you come and…sleep with me tonight?”
I must have blushed because she added, quickly,
“Oh, not like that. I mean, just sleep. Sleep beside me.”
I didn’t answer right away, even though I wanted to. For some reason, I didn’t want to seem too eager.
“I wouldn’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to,” she added. “I don’t ever want to pressure you to do anything. If you don’t want to stay with me tonight, I understand.”
I knew that she could pressure me to do anything. She had all the power in this situation. She always had. I could have had no interest in her and she could have forced everything from me. But she never did. I knew her words about not wanting to pressure me were real, and that made me smile.
“It’s not that,” I said carefully. Hope flashed in her eyes. I put my hands on her arms, running my fingers over her biceps. They were the perfect combination of soft skin and hard muscle. I knew that I couldn’t say no to her, but I couldn’t give up this opportunity to ask her for more.
“But why?” I asked. “Why the urgency?”
Ida look a deep breath, leaning into my touch and taking a moment to organize her thoughts.
“I’m afraid,” she said finally.
“You, afraid? You weren’t afraid of anything today. Not a monster, not death, not anything.”
“But I am afraid of losing you,” she admitted. “I know it’s silly, but I have this horrible fear that I’m going to wake up and you’ll be gone. I’ve almost lost you so many times today. I couldn’t bear to lose you now, after I’ve won you back. I just can’t let you out of my sight. I want to sleep with my arms around you so that no one and nothing can take you from me.”
All at once, I was so glad that I had asked because that was easily the most beautiful thing that anyone had ever said to me.
I enveloped her, pressing all of me against her. I breathed her in, finding her usual cinnamon and summer wind scent under all the smells of the day. She twisted her fingers in my hair, pulling my head into the curve of her neck.
“Lily, I love you so much,” she whispered.
“I love you, too.”
Then, after a beat, I said,
“I understand. I want to come with you.”
Without warning, Ida was kissing me, her fingers insistent on my arms. She intensified the kiss, her one hand moving to massage the top of my ear. I pressed in, causing her to take a step backward. Encouraged, I pushed again and she was against the wall. Using her good arm, she flipped me around so that I was against the wall and she was leaning over me. Her hands settled on my hips, keeping me against the wall as she kissed me. My mouth broke away, landing a kiss just below her ear and then again farther down her neck. At this, she took in a breath, leaning her head on the wall above me.
“Lily,” she said, her voice raspy, “I’ll never get to sleep if we go on like this.”
I kissed her chin and smiled. She looked down at me, chuckling almost inaudibly. Her eyes were bright and she couldn’t seem to keep a smile from her face.
She kissed me once more, quickly and casually, and said,
“Let’s go to bed.”
“Yes, please,” I said.
“If I wasn’t injured, I’d pick you up right now and carry you to bed properly,” she said, extending her hand to me.
I flushed at this and took her hand, letting her lead me to her room.
Once inside, we climbed into bed with a strange giddiness. I felt as though I’d conquered the world and I could tell she felt the same. Promise rang in the air, filling me with a golden, inexplicable joy.
I curled into the middle of the bed and she came after me, folding her arms around me. The sheets and the pillow smelled just like her and I loved it. She held me tighter, her lips brushing the nape of my neck and it felt so natural, so calming, that I fell into sleep almost immediately.