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Eclipse

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~ I ~

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Solisse was five the first time she saw the moon cover the sun.

Newly arrived at the Temple of Light, she could tell from the way Elder Sister was dressed that it was a momentous event. Everyone was gathered in the Hall of Dawn: tyros like Solisse in ochre, postulants in coral, novices in citrine, priestesses and Elder Sisters in pale yellow, and the Abbess herself, in a white robe embroidered with gold.

A screen patterned with rows and rows of tiny holes had been placed in front of the huge windows on the sunlit side of the hall; the light winked through it like stars in the night sky and cast hundreds of miniscule dots of light on the floor.

"Watch carefully," said the Elder Sister holding Solisse's hand. "The disk of the sun will soon be embraced by the moon."

Solisse squatted down and gaped as the myriad circles of light on the floor gradually dimpled on one edge. "Why did the moon leave the night time?" she asked as the Elder Sister knelt down next to her.

"Perhaps it wanted to see the beautiful colors of the day world."

Solisse considered this. She herself loved the inkiness of the night, the thousand shades of gray, the way the moon and its light threaded silver in unexpected places. As the spots of sunlight on the floor became crescents, Solisse traced them with a finger. "Maybe the sun wanted a chance to be the moon."

"Perhaps," Elder Sister said.

Solisse stroked the waning slivers of sun until they winked out, and then — ignoring the shouted warnings of the Elder Sister — ran around to the back of the screen of pierced metal and looked out the window, searching for the sun in the strangely blue-black sky.

The glorious crown of light she saw was burned into her eyelids; she took comfort in it every moment of the weeks she spent in darkness while her eyes healed.

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Noon had sown thousands of glittering seeds on the waves. Solisse and her fellow postulants ran into the water again and again, diving into the crystalline blue depths or standing in the shallows facing the shore, laughing with glee as the breakers crashed against the backs of their legs. The world was bands of color: blue, white, the speckled green and tan of the verge, and beyond that the dark striations of the woodland.

Solisse almost didn't see the hooded figure at first, mistaking it for a broken tree trunk, slightly paler gray against the taller, darker trees — but then it moved, raising what she realized was an arm draped in a long, concealing sleeve.

She splashed forward a few steps. There was a pain in her chest at the sight of the beckoning stranger, a sudden wild joyful impulse to run to them… but there was fear as well, and a feeling of hunger and emptiness, like the fading echoes of a bell.

One of Solisse's friends grabbed her arm and, laughing, pulled her back into the sea. When Solisse emerged, sputtering, the figure was gone.

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Solisse was exceptionally gifted at healing, and so she took her novice's vows at fifteen, three years earlier than most. Her days became fuller; in addition to dawn study she now spent most of the daylight hours in the infirmary with one of the Elder Sisters, ministering to the people. After vespers and the evening meal there were dishes to be washed or laundry to be scrubbed or fields to be tended, and after that she was too tired most nights to do more than slip gratefully into her bed.

Except on those nights when the moon crossed her window on its path across the starry sky.

On those nights the mysterious light seemed to call forth an ache in her limbs, a longing. She would stare at the silvery shape as she rubbed her hand over her breasts or between her legs; at times, if she closed her eyes and let her thoughts go still, she could almost feel the moonlight becoming tangible, feel its weight settle against her skin, as if she had called forth a manifestation of her desire, and she would press her wrist or the inside of her arm against her mouth to muffle her gasps and moans. As the illusion began to fade she would press her teeth into her skin in frustration; when she was depleted she would turn onto her side and curl around her pillow, weeping because she was alone.

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At twenty Solisse made her final vows, and entered the order as a full-fledged priestess. She was given a room on the top floor of the cloister, but unlike the rooms that overlooked the central garden, Solisse's room along the outer wall had a large stone balcony.

She slept under the moon every night that it did not rain.

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The noise was as faint as a mouse moving a pebble, but it awakened her instantly.

She stayed perfectly still. The moon had been visible when she'd fallen asleep, her hand lazily stroking, but now the night sky was curdled with clouds that hid the moon, and it took her eyes a while to pick out the dark shape leaning against the balcony railing.

"Took you long enough." It was a woman, her voice a pleasant contralto. She unfolded her arms — long long sleeves covering her hands — and in two steps was at Solisse's pallet.

"Who… who are you?" Solisse asked, but she already knew. The black robe and long silvery hair that hung over the stranger's face marked her as a moon priestess.

"Luna," the priestess said, standing for a moment before kneeling astride Solisse's naked thighs.

"What do you want?" Solisse asked, crossing her arms over her breasts.

"You know that too," Luna said.

A hopeful throbbing began between Solisse's legs, so strong she gasped; and then Luna's hands, her slender pale hands, darted from her sleeves and snatched Solisse's wrists in an unyielding grip, pinning them to the pallet next to Solisse's shoulders.

And just then the clouds pulled aside. Luna's face was as mottled as the moon, the pale gray skin interrupted with ragged scars and exposed bone.

She smiled before bending down for Solisse's kiss.

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~ II ~

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"It's been a while." Luna sat up and pulled her hair away from her neck; the marks were almost completely healed. She inclined her head. "Don't make me beg."

Solisse pulled on Luna's shoulder until she lay back down. "I don't need to. You're beautiful enough already," she said as she smoothed the mass of shining silvery hair off Luna's face. No scars remained, no bones were visible; Luna had, in fact, so far transcended perfection as to become faintly luminous.

Luna's cool fingers traced around a nipple until it shivered and hardened. "But the book says 'the land must sip the dew of night' — "

"Greedy, always so greedy," Solisse said, though none could say if it was herself or her lover that she meant.

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She had not wanted to believe it, had ignored the signs as long as she could, but finally she had gone to the Vault of Tomes; and when the words in the Tomes had dismayed her, she had gone to the Scholars; and when the Scholars had dashed her hopes, she had gone to the Abbess.

"You are bound together now," had been the answer. "She is the cooling rain that quickens the land and quenches the parched earth."

"If I continue to feed on her she will die!" Solisse raged.

"If you do not continue, you will die."

"Why must it be this way?" Solisse had asked. "I cannot, will not, take her life, even if it costs me my own."

"A selfish love," the Abbess said, "to condemn her to a life of misery without you." Her face softened then, as if she knew she had been too harsh. "It would have been better to let the field lie fallow then sow your heart just before a drought," she said. "Still, as the Blood Moon has just passed… perhaps the time has come. I will speak to the Nyctomancer."

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The pounding at the door seemed to go on for hours.

"Do not cast me aside!"

"Go away." Solisse had bolted her doors and windows and now sat, huddled in on herself in the darkest corner of her room. Away from sunlight, away from moonlight.

"How dare you will deny me my purpose!" A fury of fists hit the door, but the hinges held.

"Go away."

There was silence for a long, long time, and then a whisper, as soft as a dream. "Don't you love me any more?"

Solisse hugged her knees to her chest and wiped her eyes on her robe, then swallowed until the lump in her throat went away and she knew her voice would be steady enough for lying.

"No. And I never did."

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~ III ~

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After a week, they broke down her door, and carried her brittle, feverish body to the bed. in her hand was a parchment entreating them, if she were not dead when they found her, to tie her to her bed and to cover her mouth, but they misunderstood the request: they thought she was forbidding them to bring her anyone to feast on, but in truth, all she had meant was that she did not want the sound of her voice to reach Luna.

There was no need to cover her mouth. She was too weak to call out.

They fed her every rare tincture, every infusion in the Botanicarium; they massaged her emaciated flesh with oils. To no avail. Honoring her wish to fade, they bathed her and made her as comfortable as they could. They burned delicately aromatic herbs to sweeten the air, and had two musicians play softly in the corner to distract her from her pain and ease her way.

On the evening of the third day, just after sunset, the Abbess knocked at the door. She was carrying a wooden cup of savory broth, unutterably fragrant.

"This appeared in the kitchen," she said to the Elder Sisters in attendance. "Shall we see if Solisse might wish to eat some?" She sat by Solisse's bed and used her hand to waft steam from the cup toward the dying priestess.

Solisse opened her eyes. Her mouth moved in soundless inquiry.

The Abbess held up a spoon; when Solisse nodded she carefully fed her a trickle of broth; and then, after a moment, another, and another. By the time the cup was empty Solisse's eyes seemed brighter, and she fell into the first natural sleep her caretakers had seen.

For the next three days a cup of broth appeared each evening; an onyx cup in the garden; a cup of bone in the hallway outside Solisse's room, and lastly a silver cup on Solisse's balcony. No one knew who had placed the cups there, or what ingredients or seasonings the broth contained, but it restored Solisse to full health, and so they did not question it.

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~ IV ~

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Solisse had thrown herself back into her work. She still rose at dawn, helping the postulants study, and then spent most of the daylight hours supervising in the infirmary. After vespers and the evening meal there were still dishes to be washed or laundry to be scrubbed, but she no longer worked in the moonlit fields, and she no longer slept on her balcony.

And then she was summoned to an audience in the Hall of Dawn.

As long as Solisse had been at the Temple there were two legendaries that many spoke of, but that no one ever claimed to have seen: the Nyctomancer, and the Greatmother. When Solisse entered the Hall that day two women stood with the Abbess, and she knew instinctively that they were those very legends.

The Greatmother was ancient, dressed in an unadorned version of the Abbess' white robe, with eyes as white as twin moons in her dark face. Next to her was a tall figure dressed in a hooded black robe; although her face was hidden, silver-white hair spilled from the sides of the hood in a cascade that reached the floor.

"In ancient days the Temple of Light and the Temple of Night warred for supremacy," the Abbess said. "Their worshippers followed them, and in their bloodlust trampled the people of the land. For four hundred years the land and sky were silent witnesses to the slaughter, but then their patience ran out. The land rose up and ploughed under the hills of corpses and the rivers of blood, and the sun and moon themselves embraced in loving harmony.

"Ever since that day, in remembrance, every ninth generation, as the Sun and Moon embrace in the heavens, a new Greatmother and Nyctomancer are wed here on earth during the eclipse."

The Greatmother turned to the Nyctomancer, who nodded; then the Greatmother walked toward Solisse, assured despite her blind eyes. "My time is coming to an end," she said. "You have been chosen to succeed me."

"Sunrise tomorrow," came the Nyctomancer's whispery voice. "Just before the eclipse. I shall escort your bride."

Solisse, astounded, looked at the Abbess. "I am to wed the new Nyctomancer?" she asked. She was heartsick, and yet not heartsick; if Luna was alive, she was out of reach and thus could not be wed; and if Luna were dead…

No, since it could not be Luna, Solisse did not care who her wife would be. She would do her duty, and serve the Temple for the next nine generations, but she already knew that her wife's blood would taste of mourning-seed and bitter ash.

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Two attendants came for Solisse an hour before sunrise. They bathed and anointed her, dressed her in white robes and golden sandals, set the Diadem of the Sun upon her dark hair, and then led her to the Hall of Dawn.

The entire assembly was there; so too was the pierced metal screen that she had seen as a child so long ago, the day that she had marveled that the moon would leave the night.

And so too was her bride. Hands hidden by the long sleeves of her robe, Solisse had only fleeting glimpses of a scarred face, the exposed bone of the jaw, and one arched eyebrow that was painfully reminiscent of Luna's.

Solisse looked away, to the wall opposite the windows overlooking the rising sun, where thousands of crescent-shaped reflections glittered in celebration.

As the moment of totality approached, the Abbess recited the oath that would bind Solisse to her bride:

"As day gives way to night, and night to day;
as winter and summer share the sceptre;
as rivers carve the hills, and mountains rise from the waves,
so we honor the Cycle never-ending."

They exchanged rings. As a glorious corona rose above the horizon, the new Nyctomancer tossed back her hood. It was Luna.

She embraced Solisse wih joy, distracting the new Greatmother from noticing that her wife was missing two fingers from each hand.

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~ The End ~

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first post 12 October 2015; rev 14 October
original story © 2015