She wasn’t normally this miserable. Or this desperate. Twenty more minutes of waiting and she would have to do the unthinkable. Elise emptied the dirty, soapy water down a drain in the tavern’s kitchen floor. Disposing of the water like that in her uncle’s presence would have earned her a slap across the face. He would want her to go outside, in the dark, and empty the bucket in the alley. A dark alley where cutthroats and only the gods knew what else.
She smiled smugly to herself. But her uncle wasn’t here now. Instead he lay in his cozy bed back in the town while she scrubbed and tidied up his stinking tavern, which he had rightfully named Schadenfreude, a word in some old, dead language that meant “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others”. And her misfortunes had gained him free labor. In a fleeting fit of rage, she spat on the floor, remembering what he had told her: “Room and board, Elise. Room and board alone.” She despised the way he’d repeat things to her twice—sometimes three times, as if she were too stupid to comprehend it the first time. If she had a gold piece for every time he had called her stupid, she’d be as rich as the princess regent of Io.
She’d be damned if she proved him right. Surely, he would kick her out on the streets once he found out her secret . . . or worse, turn a kind gesture on its head in order to show her how much better he thought he was by forcing her to stay. Well, she wasn’t going to stay! By the gods, she’d make her own way and leave this backwards and forsaken country.
Come to think of it she had never hated her country until now. It used to be the titled “jewel of the world”. Nearly two years ago, with the sudden sickness of the Lord of the City, drastic changes had occurred. The most obvious change was a nearly palpable and heavy weight of daily fear.
But the Lord of the City’s young and beautiful golden-haired son, Lucien, had other plans. With a flourishing, beseeching speech he had convinced all the people of Clarius to embrace what he had called a “new era of peace and prosperity”. It didn’t take long for exultant cheers ringing out like thunder to dwindle down to fearful whispers, blaming Lucien for making them all vulnerable to the gods’ wrath.
At first, she couldn’t deny that she had been swayed by the promises Lucien had offered, but now she was a part of a growing minority who desired the old ways once again – blood tributes to the gods and all. Never in her life had she been so afraid. The first year and a half after Lucien stopped the blood sacrifices and the use of alternative forms of energy to power their homes, she and many others wondered what the gods would do to them if they continued to defy them by not taking part in sacrificing others.
She remembered the first blood sacrifice she had seen as a child. There had been a power outage in her small village, Luche, a couple of miles away from the capital city of Clarius. Her mother dressed in her most beautiful Templeday dress of pink and white. Her father, of course much younger then and more handsome, shaved the shadow of a growing beard and slipped into his finest black and blue Templeday suit with matching Ionese silk tie. Walking in the middle of her parents, Elise held one of her parents’ hands in each of her own tiny gloved ones, as she stared at the glossy blackness of her brand new Templeday shoes, kicking up her heels as she hummed a hymn to Katharoas.
The beautiful, new day changed though. And changed quickly. Once seated in the Temple with other families, Elise watched with increasing worry as the blood tribute, a dark, slender girl a few years older than her wept profusely. The blood tribute did not shake with sobs, nor did she wail as some children do, but streams of tears poured from her eyes and trickled down her cheeks and showed no signs of stopping as she silently stood within the blood dome, a glass structure, riddled with holes. Dressed in a long, white flowing dress, with large, white flowers in her braided hair, the girl resembled some fairy tale maiden or more precisely . . . a bride of Katharoas. Why is she crying, Elise wondered. Brides should be happy and smiling!
The answer to Elise’s question came in the sound of screams erupting from the girl that strangely tore at her own soul. Elise watched in horror as blood streamed from the blood tribute’s eyes, her wide open mouth, her ears, streaming out in all directions, like ribbons of scarlet pulled by an unseen hand. And the longer the girl screamed the more Elise was convinced that she was losing her own soul. She remembered squeezing her eyes tight, laying her head on her mother’s lap, and plugging her ears to deafen the terrible sound of the dying, bleeding girl.
On the way home, Elise fell quiet. Only when they entered the quiet and safety of their home, did Elise ask her mother, “Why did you take me to see such a terrible thing? Why do they do this? And how could you watch it!” Her mother simply stared at her, a tender expression on her pale, beautiful face. She stooped to her knees, held her by the shoulders and spoke gently, “It may seem cruel, darling, what we do to the Atavans, but it really isn’t. You see, there is an order to the world. The Clariusians are the chosen of the gods and the Atavans too are chosen by the gods to bleed and die. But as they die, my little rose, they gain a soul and go to Paradise due to their great sacrifice to our world – to us. So don’t feel bad for them. Don’t make yourself sick by pitying them. Doing so is insulting. Smile through your tears and know that what we do is right and just. And know that what they do is even more so. Their blood has power, my dear, to power our world and to allow us to live so wonderfully.”
Of all the things that her mother had said, that one remained in her memory to comfort her.
And it was that day, even as her mother cheered her up with these words, she watched her father at the corner of her eye, pour himself glass after glass of vodka, followed by a tankard of strong ale and as he drank, his eyes seemed to be swimming with tide after tide of emotion. Finally, when he had nothing more to drink, she would often catch him staring at the empty glass, as if searching for answers in its bottom.
Elise used one of the glass plates as a mirror and combed her rough, calloused fingers through her chin length hair. Her hair had once been her most cherished feature—long, flowing, and the russet color of shiny, new coins. She remembered that not long after the blood sacrifices had ceased, only the nobles could afford the simple, mundane things like hot water, which she had taken for granted. Without clean water to bathe in on a day to day basis, her hair became filthy and infested with lice. Her uncle took no chances and hacked her beloved locks. A pity she hadn’t been as beautiful as her mother. If she had, then things could have gone smoother. Life may have been . . . kinder. Sweeter.
And yet, beauty could not silence the gods and their sometimes petty and always ravenous desires.
Unthinkingly, she whispered the first several lines of a macabre children’s song:
The gods are thirsty for your blood, not a single drop will do
The gods are thirsty not for tears, but the red fire flowing in you.
Boy or girl, woman or man, skin the shade of the earth,
Give your life, pour out your blood, gain your soul’s worth.
Elise shuddered. She had never considered how threatening the song was because her white Clariusian skin had always protected her.
She plucked two clean glasses from one of the shelves behind the counter and poured brandy into both. One glass for herself and the other for her “visitor”, a young knight who had taken a fancy to her. Before she replaced the bottle, Elise refilled it with water, hoping her uncle would not notice. After all, his drunken customers did not notice. She lifted the glass to her lips, but a wave of nausea turned her stomach, threatening to regurgitate the little bit of food she had managed to eat. Just my nerves, she told herself, half-heartedly. Lately, eating had become the last thing on her mind and vomiting, an everyday occurrence. It was almost as if her body was trying to tell her something she still wasn’t ready to face.
She drew in several long, deep breaths and the brandy’s sharp scent stirred up an image of her alcoholic father, who was long dead. He abandoned her in his own cruel way by hanging himself. Elise shook her head, shoving remnants of the unpleasant past from her mind. She set the glass down harder than she had intended to, causing its contents to slosh out onto the table. A year ago, her beautiful mother had run off with a younger, wealthy man. The gods only knew where she was now and Elise didn’t care. Perhaps living it up in one of Clarius’ many free cities, she thought bitterly. She wasn’t surprised when her mother had taken off either. Leading up to that terrible night, her father had foolishly gambled every last gold coin and anything of value (even her dowry) in order to pay off debtors who had promised to get their payment back by any means possible.
She glanced at the chiming clock on the wall, followed by the distant voice of a watch-man, calling out the current time. Ten more minutes and she’d seize control of her life in the only way she knew how. She reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a slender, glass vial of perfume. Before she could dab it behind her ears, she heard the opening and closing of the tavern door.
He was early. Not surprising. “Men are rarely late when it’s in their best interest”, her mother would often say in her silly sing-song voice that men for some reason or another found seductive and irresistible.
Without turning around, she seized a box of matches from her pocket, struck it with a practiced, graceful hand, and then lit one candle, to illuminate the dim room. “Good evening. Care for a drink before we begin?” she said, mimicking her mother’s voice. “Or should we start with a kiss?”
Elise spun around on the balls of her feet, an inviting smile on her face that quickly wiped away when her eyes focused on her visitor: a young man dressed in a white tunic and immaculate white cloak. Disappointed, the smile faded from her face. She watched him move toward her in an unnatural manner and he seemed to glide, for his pale, bare feet hovered over the tavern floor, the cape floating behind him. He radiated with a pure, white light that drowned out the pathetic glow of the candles. Alarmed, she found herself paralyzed with fear as her heart drummed wildly in her chest.
Until this night, she had never imagined the gods – not even in her wildest dreams— would take notice of her. And here, right now, one was visiting her.
Finally, able to speak, she asked, “What do you want?”
“Your heart,” he answered. His deep, exquisite voice worked like a lullaby so that she could not immediately react to the verbal threat. And no sooner did she blink her eyes, the air shimmered and rippled around him. His countenance changed from one of beauty to one of absolute horror. She had heard of legendary creatures that possessed power to paralyze their prey with their appearance. She had also heard of legends where men and women who were beheaded had time to blink and look at their own decapitated body, just before expiring. The moment he ripped open her ribcage with mysteriously fashioned talons and tore out her heart, she watched her blood gush up like a fountain.
Just before she slipped into oblivion, Elise realized the legends had been terribly truthful.
Comments are much appreciated! Thanks for reading. And thanks to my older brother, Serge Desir, for helping me make this story better and better. Looking forward to being published some day soon!