It was the night of the Winter Solstice that Aleria chose to make an unexpected announcement.
The princess and her two ladies-in-waiting were sitting in the great room of the Dervaughn estate, the floor littered with ribbons and bright scraps of fabric. It was Solstice tradition to exchange gifts with one's family and friends, and so the evening had passed in squeals of delight as the girls unwrapped packages of jewelry and perfumes, small toys and candy. The king was always most generous at Winter Solstice, not only showering his beloved daughter with presents but ensuring that Aleria and Brie received gifts as well.
Talon was not forgotten either; she sat on the hearth before the fire admiring the finely crafted silver sheath that Soltran had commissioned especially to fit the ever-present sword she wore at her hip. The metal guard was much nicer than the leather one she had been using, and she noted with a hint of amusement that the king had the silver engraved with a swirling pattern that was faintly feminine. She slid her sword blade in and out of the sheath a few times, appreciating the close fit of the metal; it was extremely well made.
Talon looked up as Aleria suddenly rose from her spot by the princess' chair, and bowed before Soltran.
"Your Majesty has been most kind to us," she said to the king. "I do not know how we could ever hope to thank you for your thoughtfulness."
Soltran smiled back at her. He had come to like both of the former slaves who attended his daughter very much. They were polite, modest, unassuming girls who worked hard and seemed to truly enjoy the princess' company. Aleria in particular had a dignity and grace that Soltran wished would rub off on Shasta, if only a little. He inclined his head. "You are most welcome, Lady Aleria."
"Your Majesty, if I may…" the dark girl bit her lip. "I have a request to make of you." Talon's eyebrows went up. Aleria never asked anyone for anything. The king also seemed to be a bit surprised, and he leaned forward in his chair. "A request?"
"I would like…" She took a deep breath. "That is, with your permission, I want to…" Aleria twisted her fingers nervously.
Soltran gave her an encouraging smile. "Speak up, child. It is Solstice, and I am in a generous mood. Now is a good time to ask a favor."
Aleria met his eyes then. "I would like your permission to take vows at the Irythrian temple."
All jaws in the room dropped, and in unison both Shasta and Talon exclaimed "What?!"
Aleria blushed, but did not look away. "I have thought very hard about this, Majesty. Since the day we first came to attend the princess in the palace, I have felt a pull within me. A calling, if you will. I have come to know and love the Goddess with all my heart, and I wish to serve as priestess in her temple."
Shasta blinked. "You want to be an Irythrian priestess?" she asked incredulously.
"With the king's permission, yes."
Soltran stroked his chin thoughtfully. "You would choose the Goddess' service over my daughter's?"
Aleria's eyes widened anxiously. "I did not mean it that way, Majesty. I love attending Princess Shasta." She nodded quickly in the direction of her young mistress. "I have never been so happy in all my life, as I have been in these years in her service. The last thing I want is to appear ungrateful." She turned back to him. "There are many reasons for my desire to join with Irythria. In gratitude to your Majesty for the wondrous kindness you have shown us, it seems right that we should follow Lysterian tradition. Talon is dedicated to service in the royal guard, and I, as the eldest daughter of our family," here there was a note of irony and amusement in her voice that only her siblings and the king understood, "would like to dedicate myself to the Goddess as is the custom among Lysterian families who serve the throne." Her dark eyes shone. "But more than this, Majesty, I feel called to the Goddess' service in a way that is difficult to explain. I am meant to serve her. I feel certain of it."
Soltran eyed the girl's earnest, glowing expression, and one corner of his mouth twitched up. "You are only a moon or so older than Shasta, are you not?"
"Which means you will reach sixteen winters in a matter of weeks. You are aware that most of those who enter the Goddess' service have already completed their winter of pledge by their sixteenth birthday?"
Aleria nodded. "I have…" She dropped her eyes shyly. "I have spoken with the high priestess at the palace temple, Majesty. She says that if I enter the pledge on my sixteenth birthday, it will not be too late for me to take vows when I become seventeen."
"I see." The king drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. "I have been told that when a girl is meant to serve the Goddess, she does indeed feel a calling, as you described it. And yours, Lady Aleria, must be particularly strong to give such a modest girl the courage to ask me for it." Aleria flushed again, and he chuckled. "You and your brother and sister have served me well, as well as any Lysterian family. I am inclined to grant your request." Aleria's head came up with excitement, and Soltran put up a hand. "But there will be a condition." The king turned and looked at Talon, his deep blue eyes piercing. "During your winter of pledge you will continue to attend to the princess, and once you have taken vows you must not leave the palace temple to serve elsewhere."
Slight confusion appeared on Aleria's face, but she did not ask for an explanation. Talon understood well, however. The king would allow Aleria to become a priestess if that was her wish, but she had to remain on the palace grounds as insurance on the princess' life. Soltran had not forgotten the terms of their agreement; Shasta's life was tied to those of Talon's sisters. If anything happened to the princess, Aleria and Brie would pay the price, and not even status as an Irythrian priestess would exempt Aleria from such consequences. Talon swallowed hard, and gave the king a nearly imperceptible nod to show she comprehended his meaning.
Aleria curtsied deeply. "Your Majesty, if that is your wish I will gladly obey, and remain at the palace temple so long as you wish me to."
Soltran inclined his head. "Very well. Lady Aleria, you may have my permission to pursue a life of dedication to the Goddess."
Talon had never seen her sister look so happy as she did at that moment, but her own feelings were a jumble. She was incredibly proud of her sister's courage and grace. But she was also afraid for her. Neither Aleria nor Brie knew of the terms of their service to the king. Their safety rested on Talon's shoulders just as the princess' did. It was all too easy to forget, in their day to day routine, that Shasta was the key to all their futures. And more than that, Talon knew what the life of a priestess required. Aleria was going to give up her name, her family identity. She would belong only to the Goddess. If that was Aleria's desire then Talon would be happy for her, but she was going to miss her gentle, soft-spoken sister. Since they were children, Aleria and Brie had been the only constants in Talon's life. It was hard to imagine living without either of them; and after taking vows, Aleria would no longer be her sister by anything but blood.
She must have looked more pensive than she'd thought, because suddenly Aleria was kneeling beside her, searching her face with dark eyes. "Talon, are you all right? You don't mind, do you?"
Talon returned the searching gaze. "Are you sure this is what you want?"
Her sister nodded emphatically. "More than anything."
After a moment of silence, Talon smiled gently. "Then… you have my blessing."
Aleria threw her arms around the older girl's neck, and kissed her cheek. "You're the best brother in the world, you know that." She gave a little wink and Talon chuckled.
"I do my best."
Later that night, as Talon lay on the carpeted floor beside the princess' bed, Shasta peered over the edge of the mattress. "Did you know Aleria was going to do that?" she asked curiously.
Talon shook her head. "I was just as surprised as you were."
Shasta let out a puff of air. "I wonder why she'd want to be a priestess," she mused. "I mean, she could never get married, or have children, or do anything fun. She'll have to spend all day inside swinging incense burners and chanting prayers. What kind of a life is that?"
"Doesn't sound like much fun to me either, but…" Talon shrugged. "I guess that's what she wants. Aleria's always been a quiet sort of person. I think she'll be happy serving Irythria."
"I'm going to miss her," Shasta sighed, rolling back onto her pillow. "You think we'll even get to see her once she goes into the temple? I mean, other than for morning prayers?"
"Probably not. Once she takes her vows she won't be my sister, or your friend, anymore. She won't even be Aleria." Talon's voice caught and she stopped talking, but not before the princess picked up on the sadness in her tone.
"You're going to miss her a lot, huh?"
"I…" Talon didn't trust her voice, and it took her a moment before she was able to still her swirling emotions enough to reply. "I've never known a time when the three of us weren't together."
"But at least you'll know she's alive, and happy, right?"
With a pang of guilt, Talon realized Shasta must be thinking of her dead twin. She propped herself up on one elbow, and nodded. "That's true."
"Since Daric died, you've been almost like a brother to me." Shasta reached out and touched Talon's cheek. "I know I'm nothing like Aleria, but if you ever need someone to sort of help take her place…"
The princess' cool touch on her skin caused Talon to inhale sharply. She raised a hand and held Shasta's fingers to her face for a moment, and unable to resist she turned her face to press a kiss into the soft palm. But that was as much as she could allow, more than she should have permitted to begin with, and she forced herself to release the other girl's hand and back away slightly to break the contact. "Thank you, Princess." She laid back down on the floor, out of Shasta's reach. "We should sleep. It's going to be a long trip back to the palace tomorrow morning."
Shasta grinned at her, and disappeared back onto her own pillows. For a long time Talon lay staring uncomfortably at the ceiling, listening as Shasta's breathing slowly deepened into the even rhythm of sleep. She was glad this was their last night away from the palace. As much as she wanted to deny it, Erinda was right. Too much time alone with the princess wasn't good for her. It aroused desires and fantasies that were as impossible as they were inappropriate, and Talon found herself looking forward to the embrace of the little chambermaid more than she liked to admit, even to herself.
Aleria's birthday was the first time Talon had ever witnessed an Irythrian pledge ceremony. It was very early spring, and most of the snow had melted from the ground, replaced instead by sporadic bursts of rain that turned the earth into mud beneath their feet. It was pouring down the afternoon that they assembled in the temple sanctuary, at the feet of the marble statue of the Goddess.
An Irythrian priestess was required to first pledge her intentions to Irythria for a full winter before she was allowed to take her vows; this pledge time was intended to allow the girl a final opportunity to decide whether life as a priestess was truly what she wanted. The Pledged were expected to conduct themselves as priestesses-in-training, investing great amounts of time in meditation, prayer and study of the Irythrian manuscripts. As one of the Pledged, Aleria could still live in the palace and attend the princess, but she would also be preparing, under the watchful eye of the Irythrian priestesses, to eventually take vows herself.
One of the most distinctive features of an Irythrian priestess was her shaved head and veils; though the Pledged were not yet allowed to don a priestess' veils, their hair was cut short during the ceremony to demonstrate a fledgling commitment to the Goddess. Talon watched in fascination as the high priestess walked behind Aleria, pulling out the long golden pin that held the girl's hip-length hair in a knot at the base of her head. The shining dark tresses fell down Aleria's back, and the priestess produced a small dagger from beneath her full white sleeve, holding it up to the Goddess' statue and chanting.
Talon didn't understand the language of Irythria; it was a musical, tinkling speech that made up all Irythrian hymns and prayers. The only bits of it she knew were the general blessing and morning salutation that all citizens recited daily. From what Aleria had told her, the Irythrian language had been the first language ever spoken by man. Now it was obsolete, replaced by the more guttural and common languages of Lysteria and its surrounding kingdoms. Only priestesses and scholars ever used the Irythrian tongue now.
Aleria joined in the high priestess' chant as the knife came down in several quick flashes. Almost faster than Talon could blink, the floor beneath Irythria's monument was covered in shorn piles of hair. Aleria's face was now neatly framed by a sharp, straight line level with her chin. Her sister's eyes were closed, her lips moving in earnest prayer, and when the high priestess was finished Aleria opened her eyes and picked up a strand of hair from the floor. She held it up towards the statue and said a few words in the Irythrian tongue that Talon assumed had some ceremonial importance.
The high priestess then addressed the small audience in the language they all understood. "The newly Pledged will now drink from the cup of purification for the first time," she said firmly. One of the smaller priestesses stepped forward with a tray bearing an ornately engraved silver goblet, which the high priestess took and lifted for all to see. "For those of you who are unschooled in the ways of the Goddess, the cup of purification allows she who drinks from it to come into contact with Irythria's power. The first drink is always accompanied by a vision. Do not be alarmed, as these visions are often powerful and can evoke great emotional response."
Talon took a deep breath. Aleria had told them of this. Irythrian priestesses were the only ones allowed to drink from a cup blessed by the Goddess, in order to more fully experience her presence and hear her voice. It all sounded a little fishy to Talon, who secretly figured it had to be some sort of potent wine or drug in the cup that induced hallucinations and other such seemingly-mystical experiences. Still, Aleria had seemed very excited about it, and so she leaned forward to watch as her sister took the cup from the high priestess and drank.
There was a metallic crash as the silver goblet fell from Aleria's hands and hit the stone floor, spilling its contents. Talon tensed as her sister's head was suddenly thrown back, her arms out to the sides, and instinctively the soldier girl's hand went to the hilt of her sword. But the high priestess held up her hands to soothe the startled onlookers. Apparently this phenomenon was expected. Talon kept her fingers on her sword, however; the smooth, solid feel of the hilt in her hand was oddly comforting, though it was doubtful that the weapon would be of any use in defending Aleria from whatever it was that had come over her.
Aleria's body convulsed involuntarily, her blank gaze fastened on the ceiling murals of the temple and her arms outstretched. The Irythrian priestesses began to sing a hymn together, and the high priestess picked up the goblet from the floor, replacing it onto the tray so it could be carried away. She pulled a small bottle of oil from her belt, and used her forefinger to anoint first the feet of the statue, then Aleria's forehead. Talon saw a tear trickle down her sister's face, and ground her teeth. Irrational as it was, she wanted nothing more at that moment than to snatch Aleria up and run with her out of the temple, away from these crazy women and their veils and oils and holy cups of radiant whatever-it-was. Only Shasta's soft touch on her arm prevented her from acting on that impulse, and stubbornly she reminded herself that this was what Aleria wanted, and she wasn't in any real danger.
After several breathless minutes, Aleria gave one final gasping jerk and collapsed onto the floor. One of the veiled women brought a stool, and the high priestess helped the young girl to sit, recovering from the intensity of the experience. The high priestess used a gossamer scarf to dab at Aleria's forehead. "What did you see, child?"
"I…" Aleria's gaze flew to Talon, and Talon's lips parted at the look of fear in her sister's face, unlike anything she'd ever seen before. If she didn't know better, she would have thought Aleria was suddenly afraid of her. "I saw Irythria."
"The Goddess herself?" The high priestess' eyes widened. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. She… she was beautiful. Her eyes glowed with light, and her voice sounded like she was singing."
The high priestess nodded slowly. "Those who drink from the cup of purification are unable to lie. If you say you saw Irythria...." She shook her head, her long golden earrings jingling. "Child, you are truly chosen by the Goddess. Very few of us have ever seen her directly in a vision. I myself have only seen her twice, and never have I heard of Irythria appearing to a Pledged in her first vision." She gazed at Aleria with an expression akin to reverence. "Did she speak to you?"
Aleria nodded uncertainly, still staring at Talon. "Yes."
"What did she say?"
"I…" Aleria gulped and turned to the high priestess. "I'd rather not talk about it, your Grace. Please… I can't."
The veiled woman regarded her for a moment before nodding again. "The Goddess' words may have been for your ears alone, Child. Whatever she told you, you must take it to heart, and ponder it carefully. She would not have appeared to you this day if it were not important."
Aleria ducked her head to show she understood, and Talon watched her sister with concern. Something had happened that Aleria didn't want to talk about, and if Talon wasn't mistaken, it had to do with her. Why else would Aleria have looked at her with such uncharacteristic fright in her eyes?
The rest of the ceremony passed in a bit of a blur; Aleria read from a scroll and chanted several prayers, then two of the priestesses helped to raise the hood on her white cloak, effectively hiding her face. When it was over, everyone rushed forward to congratulate the newest member of the Pledged. Aleria seemed distracted, though she smiled at the well-wishers and accepted the embraces of the priestesses with respectful curtsies. When they stepped out of the temple to return to the palace, Shasta and Brie both opened their parasols and scurried across the muddy ground as quickly as possible, wanting to get out of the rain. Talon took the opportunity to fall behind them with Aleria. She opened her sister's parasol and held it for her.
"Walk with me?" Talon asked in a low voice. Aleria looked up at her and nodded. She still seemed afraid. Talon held the parasol over both their heads, and Aleria clung to the taller girl's waist as they picked their way across the soggy lot. "Tell me," Talon said finally, pausing as Aleria hopped over a puddle and gathered the hem of her white cloak over one arm to prevent getting it dirty.
"Tell you what?" Aleria asked, though she knew perfectly well what her older sister meant.
"Something happened in there. Something's scared you."
"I just…" Aleria shook her head. "The Goddess, she…" The smaller girl stopped suddenly and looked up into Talon's face. "Talon, you wouldn't ever betray King Soltran, would you?"
Talon's eyes widened. "What?" She stopped moving, and stood for a moment as the sound of the rain hitting the canvas of the parasol pattered above them.
Aleria cleared her throat awkwardly. "And you're not… um… you're not pregnant, right?"
Talon choked back a laugh. "Aleria, what are you talking about? What did she say to you?"
"You're going to think I'm crazy." She began walking again, slowly. "Irythria's words were vague. I couldn't make sense of much of it. But one thing I did understand clearly. Talon, the Goddess told me that one day your child will rule Lysteria."
Talon gave a snort. "My child? Aleria, I can assure you, I am definitely not pregnant. And I'm not planning on having children. That sort of requires… well, it requires factors that are very unlikely in my situation."
"I know." Aleria squeezed her sister's waist gently. "But I also know what Irythria said. Your offspring will take the throne one day. I don't see how it's possible, unless you…" Now Talon understood the reason for Aleria's fear, and she stopped them again.
"I am not a traitor, Aleria."
The younger girl sighed. "Of course you're not. I can't even imagine you doing such a thing. But how else…?"
"It was just a vision. It might not mean anything. And this is the Goddess we're talking about; she's notorious for speaking in riddles and confounding us poor mortals with her mysteries and so on. For all we know, 'Talon's child will take the throne' might have meant that I'm going to eat pork the next time the wind blows."
Aleria giggled in spite of herself, and smacked Talon lightly on the shoulder. "You are such a heretic." But she sobered quickly. "You don't have to believe it, Talon. But I'm certain of what I heard. Just… be careful. Promise me you'll be careful."
Talon lifted an eyebrow. "Have you ever met anyone more careful than me?"
Her younger sister snickered. "Well, I don't know. While we've been standing here talking you've almost let the princess out of sight."
Talon looked up to see that Aleria was right; Shasta and Brie had nearly disappeared into the palace gardens. "Guess we'd better hurry, then," she grinned, and Aleria took her arm as they quickened their pace to catch up.
My child, on the throne. The very idea was so preposterous Talon almost wanted to laugh. She couldn't imagine herself giving birth to a child, much less participating in the act that would create one to begin with. And if that weren't enough, there was no way that the child of a former slave would ever wear the crown. Despite Aleria's fears, Talon would never dream of turning against the king, or against the princess, for that matter. It would be utter foolishness. Besides, Talon had no political ambition. She didn't want the throne. All she wanted was for her sisters to live safe, happy lives. With Aleria on her way to becoming a priestess, all that remained was for Brie to marry well, hopefully, and settle down with a family; and of course, Shasta would also eventually marry, leaving Talon truly free at last.
And then what? The future wasn't something Talon liked to dwell on often. The truth was, she didn't know what she was going to do once the princess no longer had need of her. She supposed she could continue her service in the royal guard. Her only other option would be to leave the palace and start a life somewhere else, and Talon had no desire to marry or settle down. There was too much of the soldier in her to be happy with such a life. But without her sisters and the princess to protect, what would she really have to live for? She pushed those depressing thoughts to the back of her mind. The point was, she might not know exactly what her future plans were, but they definitely did not include having children, overthrowing the king or laying claim to the throne. Of that much at least she was certain.
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