“A Dancer for Aonou” by Eliza Hirsch

Judith stretched on her belly and yawned.

“Did you bring me drink, sweet woman?” she purred, eyes half open. I shook my head; her smile drooped.

“It’s time to get up.” I fought to keep my hands still, hidden in the sleeves of my robe. “The Fathers are becoming agitated.”

She rolled onto her side; the scarves covering her fell away, revealing long, lean legs. My gaze followed the curve of her hip and travelled up the slope of her shoulders. Her skin looked like burnt sugar in the reddish light.

“If we make them wait much longer they’ll move on to Utivus or Malla V’on and we’ll lose our chance.” I glanced at the door, anxious to leave. Still, she did not move. I would have to dress her, then.

I crossed to the pile of discarded clothes at the foot of her bed and dug around until a flash of bright purple caught my eye. I shook the wrinkled dress out and held it up. It was more modest than her others: the hem would brush her thighs and the top would cover most of her breasts.

“Wear this one,” I said.

Judith pushed herself up on one arm, wrinkling her nose.

“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s old. Father Grenwick brought me dresses from Lizzain Por. I want to wear one of those.” She crossed her arms. If I forced the issue, she might never leave her bed.

I went to her wardrobe and pulled out a handful of Grenwick’s presents. Presents indeed, I thought. The old man had sent her a dozen bits of cloth, held together in places by lengths of string and colorful beads. The only reason he’d sent them, I was sure, was to give him something to ogle while Judith performed rites for his people. Since his gold paid for at least half of her living — and most of mine as well — I said nothing.

“Do you have a preference?” I asked.

“The green one.”

I plucked the dress she wanted from the bunch. It felt like air in my hand, only a few glass baubles to give it weight. I grimaced, but not so Judith could see.

“This one?”

She nodded, sitting up on her knees. If I moved quickly, and she proved cooperative, I could get her into the meeting room in a quarter of an hour. With entertainment being provided in the interim, the Fathers might be only mildly peeved.

“Put it on, then.” I dropped the dress in her lap. “I’ll brush your hair.”

Judith wriggled into the dress. I had to admit, the garment was quality. One of the beads alone would have cost an artisan at least a day’s work, filled as they were with miniscule scenes from across the thirteen provinces, each instantly recognizable. The bead resting between her breasts portrayed the high mountain range of Terath n’i; the bead on her left shoulder showed the same lapping waves of Brennan M’ok Judith could see from her bedroom window.

My own bedroom, located deep within the foundation of the compound, afforded me no such sights. Only a small round porthole on my door provided a view: a long hallway of identical doors, leading endlessly to the left and the right. I preferred it to Judith’s quarters. Oceans were such a distraction.

“Come along.” I grabbed her hand. “You don’t want one of those cheap dancers stealing the show, do you?”

Judith flowed up from her seated position and wrapped her arms around my neck. She moved with an easy grace I could only marvel at. Grinning, she pressed against me, rubbing the coarse material of my robe into my skin. One leg snuck around my calf, pulling me closer.

“I don’t want to go,” she whispered. I shivered and bit my bottom lip, eyes shut tight.

“This opportunity is for us both.” I reached up to push her away; my fingers found skin and slipped beneath the silk on her back. “We can’t afford to miss it.”

“Hmm…” She pushed the hood off my head, ran her hand over the soft fuzz on my scalp. “Your hair is getting long again.”

Her words pushed me away, more effectively than my hands could. If we succeeded, half an inch of growth wouldn’t be scandalous. I’d never have hair like Judith’s — burgundy waves as long as her back, brushing the tops of her buttocks. I didn’t lust for such luxuries. But to have something my lovers could grab onto…something Judith could — I shook the thought from my head. If we succeeded, there would be little possibility of her touching any part of me again.

“Put on your robe.” My voice sounded rough. I took a deep breath and stilled my shaking hands. “Please, Judith.”

There was a hint of sadness in her wicked smile. Subtle, really: a twitch of her lips, a softening of her eyes. After a handful of years with her, I knew her expressions as well as I knew the words of our rites. Neither of us could ignore what this meeting with the Fathers might mean. Failure would keep us in Grenwick’s compound, performing the same rituals until we grew too old and tired to Dance. Success, though — success would mean a life in the service of the Mother. Success would mean happiness.

Judith slipped into her robe. The silk floated on her skin, painted with delicate flowers. She waved her hand and the door, programmed to look like a slab of carved wood, slid away. The hallway beyond felt cold, crafted of the sleek metal the designers of the compound favored for economy and easy cleaning. I took her collar from the wall, attached it around her neck, and pulled her out.

* * *

“My humble greetings to the Fathers of Arcycana.” I held the chain attached to Judith’s collar behind me and bowed, then spun slowly on my heel, revealing my bare head to each of the twelve men seated around the gallery.

“You may stand, Felai,” Father Grenwick said.

His voice snuck into the collar of my robe and irritated the scars that decorated my body; I looked forward to a time when I would not have to hear him speak. When I rose, he looked not at me, but at Judith, a sly smile on his lips. I squeezed the chain tighter. Only the sharp sting of pain kept me focused.

“Our thanks,” I continued, “go to the Fathers who have travelled from great distances to visit us. It is rare that Brennan M’ok has such refined guests. We are deeply grateful for — .”

“Keeper!” A harsh voice to my left cut me off. I turned, but did not recognize the face of the young Father. A new recruit, perhaps, assigned when Mother Aonou had ascended last year. He leaned forward, one hand clutching the balustrade that separated the Fathers from the Dancing circle. “My patience is short, and I have no time or stomach for empty speeches.”

“Sir, I only-”

“Felai…” Grenwick half stood. Though he appeared to be warning me, I could see hope glimmering in his piggish eyes; he wanted to keep Judith here and would use any excuse to end the council. I touched my forehead in deference.

“Yes, you’re right, Father,” I said. “I apologize for our tardiness. I do hope the entertainment wasn’t too painful.”

Grenwick grunted and fell into his seat.

“Quite the contrary,” Father Vasis of the Asanya Yu region said from the other side of the room. “I, for one, appreciated the felicitous distraction. It has been some time since I have had the women of the water beguile me with their…creativity.”

He chuckled, joined by the other Fathers. Only Grenwick and the stranger remained silent.

“Still,” Vasis continued. “We are all men of great importance…”

“Of course.” I took a deep breath. “Since the death of Mother Erthystra, our land has been covered in a fog of sorrow. She was an icon for us, possessing a dedication to her people not seen since the early days. It brought me great distress when I heard of her passing.” I tugged on Judith’s chain and she stepped forward. “My Dancer was nearly inconsolable.”

That day I had leapt around Judith’s room, the message from Sibagul, the capital, clutched in my hand the. I knew how lucky I was. Not every Keeper lived to see the death of a Mother and her Dancer. Her death meant another Mother, and another Dancer, would ascend. That Dancer, I swore, would be Judith. I had believed Erthystra would survive at least another decade, if not two. She would have, if her Dancer had not betrayed her.

Each new Mother chooses her Dancer soon after her ascendance. A profound decision, as the pair will be bonded for life. The Dancer performs rites only for the Mother; in turn, the Mother acts as Keeper, with all the cruel responsibilities. Together they form one, indivisible whole, acting as lovers, sorcerers, confidantes, friends…a Mother’s Dancer is her shadow. A shadow, apart from its caster, cannot exist.

Erthystra’s Dancer fled from her duties. The girl was found hiding among street trash. I cannot imagine she would have been spared any courtesy. The Mother’s claim to a Dancer is sacred; her Dancer is as much a part of her as her own, scarred flesh.

Erthystra performed the Wailing rites and took both herself and her Dancer into the afterworld.

So the rumors said, but I didn’t believe the whisperings. It is hard for me to imagine any Dancer being so reckless. Judith would never stray so far.

“We are a people of mighty spirit. When the fire of a Mother is extinguished, a new flame is ignited in her place. One we hope will burn brighter and longer.” I bowed my head for a moment of silence. “While a new Mother has taken the reigns of Sibagul, she is yet alone in this world. Half of a beautiful whole.

“In moments of grief and longing, people turn to their habits for support. An organized life leads to a steady mind; a steady mind will build a prosperous future. But when the Mother has no Dancer to turn to, to celebrate and mourn with, the energy of the land becomes compromised. The energy of her people, your people…my people.” I held my fingers to my lips, shut my eyes, and coaxed out a single, fat tear. It disappeared beneath my collar, leaving a cold trail.

“All very moving, Keeper.” The voice of the stranger interrupted me again. When I opened my eyes, every Father in the room stared at him; he kept his gaze locked on me. I suddenly felt as if I’d already shed my robe. The way he leered at me, lips curled, made my scars crawl. “Must I remind you — we are not here for pretty words.”

“I’m sorry, Father.” I said.

He slid his hands over the balustrade, his fingers very thin and white against the polished steel. “I will forgive your assumption in calling me Father.”

I looked around and took a quick head count…eleven, twelve…thirteen men. Why had I not noticed before?

“I am Eyrik, lead council to Aonou,” he said. “On behalf of our new mother, I must say—get on with it.”

I shook my arms and rolled my shoulders, which did nothing to ease the tension in my back. I would not let that slow me.

“Father Grenwick, Fathers of Arcycana, in the name of the Mother, Arcycana, and Brennan M’ok we invoke Aurora Protectra.” I glanced up at Eyrik. “Without another moment’s delay.”

I unclipped Judith’s collar. She, in turn, tugged on the strings holding the neck of my robe together. My robe fell away. I winced as it slipped down my arms, rubbing on still-healing wounds and sensitive scar tissue. The shoulder caught on the dagger strapped to my thigh. Judith tugged and the robe crumpled around my feet. I stepped out of my slippers onto the cold metal floor.

The air became my cloak, the patterns on my body my gown. Years of devotion to the Mother glistened on my skin. Designs first traced almost a dozen years ago, opened and reopened as each month passed. The rites required different parts of me, so the scars Judith would plumb were white and hard, their scabs long washed away. Only one mark, the equal-armed cross in the center of my chest, never closed. I slipped the dagger from its sheath and held my leg out to Judith so she might remove the leather. It joined my belongings, which she pushed to the edge of the gallery, along with her own robe.

Above us, centered in the vaulted ceiling, a plain glass window let in the sun. Its light came through at an angle, shining full upon the faces of two Fathers. I nodded to Judith, and we took our places in the middle of the room. She stood directly in front of me, an arm’s length away. Her skin shone milk perfect, accentuated by her hair and the wisps of Grenwick’s gift. Looking at her, I found it hard to resent his attraction.

I raised the dagger high above my head. A simple tool, unadorned and crafted of dull gray metal. The hope that this might be the last time I would have to wield such a crude device strengthened my grip.

“Tower of Light.” I placed the hilt to my forehead. “Cavern of Dark.” I put the blade flat on my chest. “Across the twelve lands, the Fathers walk.” I pulled the point of the blade across my breastplate, tearing the scab. The familiar glow of the rite set my bones to quivering. “Above and below, with jeweled eyes, the Mother sees.”

I cut into the second, vertical scab. Slowly, I was opened. My blood is the Mother’s. My life belongs to Aonou. I dropped to my knees, bent at my waist, and offered my back and the blade to Judith. She took it with one hand, placed the other on my head, and knelt beside me.

“It is only in the blood we find protection.” Her voice echoed through the chamber.

Judith slipped the blade into the scar that outlined the bones of my shoulder.

“It is only in the pitch of night that we can see the sun!”

My blood dripped to the floor.

“It is only in the grip of pain that we can find glory!”

Clawing at the slick metal, shuddering in the ecstasy of the rite, my mind grew heavy. Mother, Mother, Mother…the word seized me. Judith lowered her lips to the wound and drew my blood into her mouth. Mother… She positioned herself behind me and placed the point of the blade on my spine, halfway up my back.

“One drop to fill the chalice, one to fill the skin, one brush to paint the vision, one to wash the sin.”

In some distant world, I heard myself scream as she sunk the blade deep, too deep. Mother!

“The Mother…” Judith faltered, the knife still buried in my scar. I felt her breath through the blade, lifting and settling. “The Mother brings the light of revelation, but cannot form the wall. The Fathers build it, brick by brick, but cannot see at all.”

The dagger turned left and curled in a spiral over my side. She lessened her pressure, made a quick diagonal slash through the spiral. She stood, lifted one leg high into the air, twirled on the ball of her foot, and leapt over me. I could see her dancing in my mind, her every movement fluid and easy. I’d watched her practice countless times, correcting her mistakes, finding improvements to make where others saw perfection. She rolled forward, the blade tucked in the bend between calf and thigh. She would turn, then, to face me, and hold the dagger level to her shoulders.

“We call to land, to sea, to sky, to fire and wind and rain, to gold and copper, black and white, to joy and pleasure and pain. Come forth into this hall of men.” One, two, three steps and she was beside me again, slicing through the line on my bottom left rib with a flourish. My forehead pressed hard into the stone. “Come forth and heed my call.”

She traced my second rib in the opposite direction.

“Come forth and heed my call.”

And onto my third rib, where the dagger dug through uncommonly tender scar tissue, the result of an ancient infection.

“Come forth and heed my call!”

Up, and back towards my spine, where she dipped her fingers into my blood and spread two parallel lines upon her cheek.

“Protect the Mother and her children. We bathe in the purifying waters of our souls.” She copied the lines upon her clean cheek, and leapt once more into the air. I slumped in the middle of the room, motionless, as she built energy with her footwork, her convictions. Her breath came fast and heavy, pulling the room into her rhythm. The words of the protection rite came in little punches. From the sound of her feet I could tell she performed flawlessly. Good.

“Blood from the necks of our enemies, blood from the back of the servant.” She stopped in front of me, squatted, and rested the point of the dagger at the nape of my neck. “Black night to they who attack us, our sun will shine sure and brilliant.”

She pressed lightly, enough to draw a single drop of blood, and then moved the blade so I might rise to look at her. The sun had moved down the wall, but remained a good foot from the gallery floor. I repositioned my legs so my knees mirrored Judith’s, a small gap between us. She held the knife, point up, on the floor. I wrapped my hands loosely around the blade. The bloodletting was complete. A tingle ran through my bones; Judith’s dance had drawn up a shield around us, around all of Brennan M’ok. A timid smile crept onto her face as she watched me, and I returned her look in kind.

“Around our borders shines the promised sun, a fortress pulled from the land. Walls that rise and threat undone, their castles built on shifting sand. The bricks are made with flesh, with bone, hold up the sky and guard our home.” We chanted together, her and I, connected through the dagger. “To the edges of our water and the borders of our land, protect us. In the trees of Asanya Yu, the waves of Brennan M’ok, the peaks of Terath N’i, the dust of Caspovi Rith, every corner of our mortal and immortal land, protect us. Jutoem!”

I yanked my hands back as she thrust the dagger skyward.

“Jutoem!” the Fathers echoed, signaling the end of the rite with an exclamation of approval.

For a moment, the room was silent. I stayed perfectly still until a noise broke my meditation. Peering over my shoulder, I saw Eyrick, applauding. His dark eyes met mine, and I struggled to my feet.

“Well done,” he said, nodding at me without a glance in Judith’s direction. “I feel safe, knowing your talents have not gone to waste.”

“Thank you.” Judith spoke first.

“I see.” He said it quietly. I noticed his lips twitch, like he wanted to say more, but refrained himself. “Have your Dancer gather your things, then get out. The Fathers and I have much to discuss, and no need for frivolities.”

I lurched forward, ready to protest, when Judith clasped my arm. Her touch sent my words shivering into my belly. We were being dismissed without proper formalities, what he called frivolities. This man…the Mother’s council? I couldn’t see how. He seemed nothing more than a heathen, a heretic. Eyrick cocked his head and raised one eyebrow.

“Problem, Keeper?”

I held his stare until Judith yanked me away. With the tip of my tongue clenched tight between my teeth I picked up my robe.

“I did not say get dressed!” He slapped his hands on the balustrade. “Leave us, now.”

Judith’s grip failed; I stood naked and shivering before the twelve Fathers, before this maggot of a man.

“You would have me walk through these halls like this? Exposed for all to gawk at the holy designs of my post? This is blasphemy!” I swept my eyes over the Father’s, seeking in vain for a sympathetic face. “Does no one see this mockery?”

“Sir…” Vasis said lamely, flapping his hands in front of him as if he were shooing away an insect. “Surely the Keeper is right…”

Not the kind of support I hoped for.

“Under most circumstances you would be correct, Vasis. However, for the occasion I have made arrangements to ensure her utmost privacy.” He turned back to me. “You will do as I say, and proudly. Don’t disappoint me, Felai. You body will leave evidence.”

I shuddered, revolted by the sound of my name on his tongue. This was the man Aonou chose as council? How could I travel to the capitol, knowing he would await us? Fire ignited in my veins. I dragged my hand across the small of my back, slick with blood.

“This?” I flicked my fingers upward and watched in sudden horror as droplets arched through the air, over the balustrade, and landed on Eyrik’s face. My muscles refused to move, but my mouth would not stay shut. “Is this what you’ll be scouring the corridors for?”

Eyrik licked his lips, cleaning the single drop upon them, and leaned back. Judith fell to her knees, pressing her forehead to the ground. It took all my will to remain upright, but I would not bow before this heretic.

“I wasn’t aware that Keepers were so fond of marking their territory,” Eyrick said. “Tell me, Grenwick are all the women in Brennan M’ok as impetuous as this one?”

“Ah…” Grenwick stuttered, then twisted his mouth into a greasy smile. “Our women have spirit, sir. No more than the next land, I should think. I was under the impression that the Mother appreciated diversity.”

“I doubt very much she would enjoy getting soiled by a girl in a fit of anger.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his cheeks, then held the stained cloth up so I might see. “Is this how you treat all your superiors?”

“Only those who ask me to betray my creed.”

“Your creed being what?”

“Loyalty to the Mother and adherence to my post. I will not parade my honored scars along the walkways of this building, or any other.” I pulled my shoulders back, managing not to wince.

“Even under direct orders from the Mother?”

I expected Eyrik to shout at me, or to leap over the balustrade and strike me down, but he stayed eerily calm; I felt an axe hanging over my head, suspended by a thread of silk.

I chose my next words with care, speaking slowly so I might keep some control over the tremor that threatened to betray my unease. “The Mother would never require humiliation from one of her children without providing reason.”

“You propose to know how Aonou would behave?” A bit of disdain crept back into his voice.

“Aonou is a woman; the Mother is our leader. I see a great distinction.”

“Felai!” Grenwick sprung from his chair. “Curb your words, child!” His eyes flicked to Eyrik. “I’ll have her thrown into the holds and — ”

“You’ll do no such thing, Father. Sit down. Still your tongue.” Eyrik let his gaze rest on each Father in turn. “All of you. Unless you’d prefer to leave?”

No one spoke. Grenwick sank into his chair, cheeks flushed. The silence stretched out over the room until I imagined I could taste it, burnt and sour with bitten tongues.

Eyrik nodded and turned to me. “Your view seems to be unpopular.”

He waited, eyebrows raised. Did he expect an answer? What could I say that would not sound petulant, or haughty? I had doomed myself already; anything more would only be coals upon my head.

“I didn’t come here to evaluate others, only — ” He smiled suddenly, breaking eye contact. “It’s better than we expected.” He flapped his hand in the air. “Get dressed. The halls are empty, but you wouldn’t leave much of a trail now, anyhow.”

I yanked my robe over my head and strode to the exit, Judith close behind. True to his word, Eyrik had ensured absolute privacy for us. Not a single footstep besides our own sounded through the hall.

* * *

“Lock the door behind you,” I said to Judith, once we were back in the washroom. She complied, and then came to pull my robe from my crusted wounds.

“Careful now.” She pushed my fidgeting hands away. “You’re still bleeding.”

She threw my robe in the disposal bin. I could not wear it again, decorated as it was by blood. Anything that hinted at my holy markings was considered sacrilege outside the circle, an offense punishable by whipping.

A rule Father Grenwick never failed to observe.

Judith dabbed at the blood, her gentle touch doing little to clean me.

“Run some hot water in the large bath.” I took the cloth from her.

Saying nothing, she went to the tub and opened the spout, one hand in the stream to test the temperature. Moving with delicacy, I followed her and lowered myself into the rising water. The tumbling rush of water eased my nerves a little. The large tub sat on a raised platform, surrounded by a dozen smaller tubs. It felt alternately like a throne, and a gallows. Plenty of women would be thrilled to step into my place; they would rejoice once word of my stupidity got around.

“I’m sorry.” My words sounded hollow.

Judith poured warm water over my hair, ran her hand over my fuzz. Then she moved away, and a moment later the invigorating scent of Thyrin mint flooded the room. A treat from halfway around the world: exactly what I needed, and what I didn’t deserve. My head started to clear, the aches speeding away with the analgesic properties of the oil. I grabbed her wrist before she could move away.

“Judith…” Her name came out as a croak. I cleared my throat to try again. “Judith, I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined — ”

“Shush, now.” She turned away, almost fast enough the hide the twitch of a smile.

“Judith?” I yanked on her wrist, causing water to splash over the lip of the tub and onto her legs.

“What?” She pried my fingers off her wrist and went to grab a towel.

“I said I was sorry.”

She made a little noise and shook her head. “You don’t need to apologize, really.”

“But our plans!”

Our plans?” She frowned. “I like Brennan M’ok.”

“And Grenwick?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes. He’s been good to us. But he’s not…”

“Not what?”

“It’s not so bad as you make it out to be. I mean, we have the ocean, and we’re taken care of.” She came back to the edge of the bath and kneeled before me. “It’s just us here. You and me.”

Her words didn’t make sense. “Us” meant a night of comfort, alleviation to the boredom between training and rituals; a companionship meant to groom us for the next step in our lives. Not something to sacrifice our future for. I stood, flinging water off my body and coming close to passing out. I grit my teeth until my vision steadied.

“Are you mad?” It was difficult to keep my voice low. “Do you hear yourself?”

“Yes.” She grinned, oblivious. “I love you!”

“Shut up!”

She shook her head; her hair shimmered in the light. I wanted to grab that hair and yank it out of her skull. My Dancer — my Dancer — spouting words of a traitor. After coming so close to joining the Mother she should be in anguish. I had the sense to be.

“Felai…” The corners of her mouth quivered.

“I’ve made a grave mistake, I think.” I stepped out of the tub and took a towel from the shelf, ignoring the one she offered.

“I haven’t.” She clenched her fists. “I know exactly what I’m doing — and I’m not going to Sibulgar.”

“I doubt either of us have that option now.”

“Then we’ll stay here.” Her face brightened. She rose and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Nothing has to change.”

“Judith…” I couldn’t think of anything to say. Her hands were so warm, so familiar. But her words…had she always been so blind? Had I?

“No! We won’t be going, I’m sure, not after you — ” She flicked one of her hands in an imitation of my earlier stupidity.

“Nothing will be the same,” I said. “Even if Eyrick doesn’t order me to the hold, Grenwick will have my hide the moment the coterie returns to Sibulgar. I’m done. Done.”

Her arm twitched, as if she meant to strike me, but a loud knock stole her chance. Her eyes widened. It was too soon. Judith glanced at the door. She stepped forward and spoke in a low, rushed whisper.

“We can escape, you and I. Maybe we can’t stay here, but we can go somewhere else. Somewhere no one knows us. Across the ocean, maybe. We can get out of here and hide on a ship.” Her hands trembled as she touched my face. “We can do this together. We don’t need any of them.”

The knock came again, followed by muffled shouts. Judith was crazy — crazy but right. It would take a while for them to get the door open, especially if we engaged the hostile intruder setting to bypass the outer security devices and lock us in relative safety. From there we might shimmy down the laundry chute, the only other exit. It would be tight, but possible.

She saw me considering escape, and kissed my forehead. “We don’t need the Mother!”

She said it defiantly, her head tilted back and laughter in her eyes. My stomach seized, then. Mother. The title, and its terrible weight, scoured away Judith’s oily slicks of treason. I realized Judith, too, was only a woman. It was the Mother I was beholden to.

Judith laughed again and went to examine the laundry chute. I gave her one last, wistful look before crossing to the door.

“For our Mother,” I said, loud enough to draw her attention, and punched in the access code. Two men stood outside, clad in dark, tight uniforms. Each carried a small sidearm on their hip and the badge of the Mother’s Guard upon their chests and upper arms.

“Keeper Felai.” The first man, a bit older and sporting colorful honor pips on the shoulder of his uniform, looked at me. I raised my eyebrows, urging him to continue. He stammered as he noticed my state of undress, and with a sharp movement turned his back to me. Like a shadow, the other guard followed suit. “Your presence is requested in the Father’s gallery.”

“I thought — ” The words stuck in my throat. I coughed, and tried again. “I thought I might have more time. I’m not dressed.”

“I uh…I see. A set of clothes has been laid out for you next door.”

“Sackcloth?”

“What?” He looked over his shoulder.

“What about Judith?”

“She’s to stay here.” He gave a quick nod to the other man and offered me his hand. “Right this way.”

I pushed past him, eyes stinging. Judith cried out, and the second guard slammed the door.

“Someone will be along for her,” the older guard said in answer to my startled expression. He overtook me and opened Judith’s door.

She will be fine. She is a grown woman and she will be fine.

My own reassurances sounded hollow to me. Her reliance on my strength had been both wearying and satisfying, as if her dependence had been some kind of guarantee. Had I held my tongue long enough to get us to Sibulgar, it would have been disaster. Worse than this. She would have broken beneath her new responsibilities and the weight of the Mother’s presence, leaving her open to an early, painful grave. Had I, then, saved her?

A crumpled woman sat upon Judith’s bed, holding a colorful bag. Her pale green dress marked her as a true healer, not one of the cheap herbalists from Brennan M’ok. Her withered features were a lie; this woman was likely less than twenty years of age. Healers tapped into the same energy we used to draw protection, and used it to mend broken flesh. The practice wore on one’s body worse than my few cuts. She smiled at me, and I caught a glimpse of the young girl inside.

On the bed beside the healer a mound of crimson fabric waited for Judith. I looked around for the dirty brown cloth prisoners wore, but all I saw were remnants of Judith’s wardrobe tossed over furniture and scattered on the floor.

“Out,” the healer shooed the guards. “She’s not going to strip for the likes of you.”

After they were gone the healer grabbed my towel and threw it away. I flinched, making an effort to cover myself. Being exposed in front of this woman — who literally gave her life in order to keep people like me alive — was almost more than I could bear. She made a noise, and laid her hands on my belly. Her palms felt dry, papery. I closed my eyes, unwilling to watch her work. I didn’t want to witness her aging.

“What are you doing?” I asked, as her fingers whispered over my scars. I felt a slight tugging sensation, as if her fingertips were magnets and my skin inlaid with steel.

“I’m fixing you.” She moved to my back. “Don’t distract me.”

Her breathing grew labored; the tugging sensation increased. Soon, my skin tingled and stung where she put her hands. It felt too tight. She coughed and stumbled to the bed.

“That’s all I can manage,” she said as she collapsed. One hand crept out to the bag and searched, withdrawing a vial. With obvious effort, the healer pushed herself up and emptied the vial into her mouth. A shudder wracked her body, strong enough that I wondered how she didn’t fall apart. When she spoke again, her voice cracked. “Get dressed. You know how.”

“I don’t — ”

“Ugh…” She grabbed the top piece of clothing from the pile of Dancer’s garb. “Here.”

“No!” I jerked away from the fabric, heavy with the crimson of the Mother’s assembly. Eyrick wore that color. “That isn’t mine. Do you know who I am?”

“I don’t care.” She winced and the hem of the dress dropped to the floor. “Put it on, or I’ll summon the guards for assistance.”

“I’m not a Dancer,” I protested again. She turned sharply and stared at me with narrowed eyes.

“You are whatever Aonou says you are.”

Confused, I took the garment and slipped it over my bare head, prepared to watch it hang gracelessly on my bony frame, empty in all the places Judith would have filled. To my surprise the cloth hugged my few curves perfectly, as if it had been made for me. It felt strange to wear something so form-fitting, so gentle, after my years in the Keeper’s robe.

I picked up the next piece — a long-sleeved dress in a slightly darker red — and put it on. This new layer provided warmth, a luxury richer than Judith’s incense and silk. A pair of black leggings followed, and a long waistcoat. I picked up the final item and held it out.

I could not breathe. I could not look away. The dresses I already wore were beautiful, but this outshone them.

In my hands I held a floor-length, crimson jacket. Every inch of the fabric had been embroidered with matching thread, so the scenes disappeared at even a short distance. The designs, depicting different rituals, were intricate beyond my imagination. Over the right breast, the symbol of the Mother had been stitched in bright gold.

“Don’t gawk,” the healer said. “People are waiting.”

Hands shaking, I pulled on the coat. The symbol upon my breast felt like armor. For a moment I forgot about Judith.

Then I hurried out of her room, taking care not to trip on the scattered rugs that rudely reminded me of her. I tried not to think of them as hands, reaching out to catch me.

* * *

“I’m ready,” I said to the guards. Though I felt powerful now, my stride faltered as we passed the baths.

“Will she-” I stopped, a painful tightness choking me.

“She’s being attended to,” the older guard said.

Part of me yearned to see her face once more, but a larger part wanted to hide the clothes — the clothes that must be a mistake, somehow — from her and everyone else. Instead of hiding, though, I threw my shoulders back and, as Eyrik had entreated me to, I walked through the halls with my head high. Shame burned in my chest, apparent only to me.

The halls were still deserted, all the men and women in this area locked away for the proceedings. Even the guards, save the few escorts, were in hiding. The older guard held the door of the gallery open for me, then moved into position as sentry. I stepped into the empty, sunlit room.

Vacant chairs littered the raised area behind the balustrade, scattered, as if the occupants had left in a hurry. A few harsh shadows lurked among those chairs, areas left untouched by the warm rays. I walked to the center of the room where the light shone brightest. The floor was damp; even here my blood had been chased away.

“Welcome back, Felai.” Eyrick stepped out of the dark, still wearing his crimson jacket. “I trust you found my servants accommodating?”

He grabbed a chair, swung it around, and straddled it, resting his arms on the back.

“Yes, sir, but I’m afraid — ”

“There’s been a mistake?” He cut me off. “No. Though I understand your confusion.”

“But I’m not a Dancer!”

“That other girl, was she a Dancer the moment she slipped from her mother’s womb?” He shook his head. “She was a child, willing to learn. We are all children of the Mother, eager to create a better world for her, for everyone.”

“Of course, but I don’t see how this farce can do that.” My hand went to my chest, and the scar that lay beneath the heavy clothes.

“Farce?” He laughed. “There is no trickery here, no unseen machinations. Aonou chose you. I admit, I was skeptical at first, but you have proven yourself amply prepared. Anyone can learn the steps of the rites, but few can learn to truly love the Mother. In that, I find you are unique.”

“Judith loves her.” The lie felt thick on my tongue.

“I have seen what she cherishes.” He waved his hand. A square of light shimmered in the darkness on the other side of the gallery. An image of the baths formed showing Judith arguing with me. No sound; I didn’t need to hear. Eyrik cleared his throat and the picture faded. “We made our decision well before this incident. Your performance was immaculate. Your behavior afterward…”

I sucked air between my teeth, prepared for a lashing.

“Your behavior served only to solidify our decision. You have the mind we need, capable of drawing difficult distinctions. While the Mother’s foibles rarely escape the walls of her chambers, it is imperative to have someone intimate with her to hold her accountable. Aonou is young, and will need much guidance.” He stared at me. “She didn’t want a Dancer.”

So the rumors were true about the last Dancer. The Mother didn’t want a Dancer because she didn’t want to die alone if her Dancer betrayed her. But the girl had obviously been disturbed. She was the exception, not the rule. I began to say as much when the door to the gallery slammed open. Eyrik shot out of his chair.

“I told you, no disturbances!”

Judith stood in the doorway. It looked, at first, as if her hair had grown to cover her entire body, cloaking her in red. As she stumbled closer the illusion disintegrated. She was covered, head to toe, in blood; her feet left wet smears behind her.

“Judith?” My voice came out as a whisper.

“We can still escape!” She moved forward with shaky steps. I flinched away. Her eyes travelled over my new uniform.

“You can’t run in that,” she said, shaking her head. “Too heavy. Take it off.” She lunged at me, grabbed hold of the jacket. “Take it off! Take it off!

Her fingernails flashed, tugging at the cloth and my face. She screamed, filling the room and my head with an inhuman sound. Her fingers tore my skin; our blood mingled together. She attacked me with a strength I’d never seen in her. Growling, she snapped at my throat. I freed one of my hands and shoved her head back. Our eyes met.

“I love you,” she said.

Her body shook with the impact of the shot. She fell into my arms. Eyrik lowered his weapon as she slid to the ground, keeping the barrel aimed at her head.

“Step away from her,” he said.

I could not move. The weight of her body pinned my skirts to the floor, and my heart along with them. Men in heavy vests filed into the room. Their faces looked tight and wary as they scanned the room and narrowed their focus to the woman at my feet. Her eyes were wide, still alive but unable to track; she stared at the ceiling, through the window. I looked up. The sky was clear and blue.

“Felai…” Judith whispered.

“Move back!” one of the guards shouted.

I squatted, keeping my hands free and visible. Judith blinked, unseeing.

“Felai…” Her voice was faint.

“She’s not a danger anymore,” I said, as the men closed in. “Please. All I need is a moment.”

Eyrik spoke to the guards and the heavy boots of armed men moved away.

“You’ve done something terrible,” I said, pressing my hands to her chest.

My fingers found the edge of a wound, another bullet hole. Oh, Judith…I slid my hands over her breastbone, up her throat. She was still breathing, but it was shallow. I pulled her eyelids shut. A cloud passed over the window, dimming the light. I pressed my palm against her lips, the edge of my hand shoved tight against her nostrils. She didn’t twitch. Eventually the suction on my hand eased, and I sat back. The room was silent.

“In the Mother we are whole.” I recited the familiar words of the funeral rite. Words Judith had spoken a hundred times, for a hundred men and women. “In the Mother we are blessed. Children, all of us.”

The words rolled off my tongue. After a moment I stood, still chanting, and tugged my skirt free. My feet moved of their own accord, tracing designs on the bloodied floor. I circled Judith, round and round. My voice grew stronger as I moved, though the dance became more difficult; my skirts wicked up the blood, weighing me down. She never moved. It was over.

“Jutoem!” The end.

“Jutoem,” the crowd answered hesitantly. I could not to begrudge their caution; I performed a sacred rite for a friend, yes, but also a murderer. My lip curled.

A traitor.

None of the beauty I cherished these past years remained in her. None of the love.

Eyrik holstered his sidearm and approached me.

“She was right,” he said, guiding me away.

“Who?” I focused on his hand around my arm.

“Aonou. You’ll be perfect. Dedicated.” He smiled, looking almost cheerful.

My skirts dragged along the ground. Slowly, the room brightened, clouds swept away by the currents above Brennan M’ok.


Eliza Hirsch is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in the Seattle area. She is a Clarion West alum, loves cats of all kinds, and collects deep thoughts about serial killers. You can find her online at exploringeliza.com.
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