Page 7 of Soul in Darkness

“They treat you like a goddess,” Papa said quietly, almost reverently, but with a hint of regret, as if the thing that had always pleased him had turned to strike him with hidden fangs. Part of me rejoiced that they were finally beginning to see the burden of it.

“Then perhaps we should make a special offering to the gods, something even more than usual, as a family,” I suggested.

Mother’s eyes snapped to Papa’s and they appeared strangely hesitant.

“An offering,” Mother said, as if it were an altogether new idea. “It couldn’t hurt.”

Papa looked away, down at the table, around the room at the hanging rugs, then down to his cup. I couldn’t understand their odd reactions.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Mother quickly responded. “There’s just been a bit of talk lately. People from the mainland coming over, spouting off about our ‘superstitions’ and the changing ways of the new world.”

I glared now. “What superstitions? About the gods? That’s sacrilege, Mother! I hope you’re not paying them any mind.”

I stared back and forth between my parents who shrugged and shook their heads, pulling their faces to the side. A horrible thought punched my innards as the walls shook with a bellow of thunder.

“How long has it been since you gave an offering?” As a minor in the family, it was left to my parents to pay our debts to the gods and goddesses at the altar. I attended and participated in the festivals, but now that I was entering adulthood, I would soon go independently of them.

Again, those gestures of nonchalance. Mother waved a hand. “The last festival, I suppose?”

Shock razed my skin like I’d skidded across coals. “That was at the start of fall! It’s nearly spring!” They should have been worshipping and giving gifts several times a month on behalf of our family! My last meal turned to rocks, and I grabbed my stomach.

Mother sighed with exasperation, fiddling with her skirts. “Darling girl, things have been so busy with trying to find you a suitable match. I’ve never been so exhausted!”

I gaped at her, then Papa, who nodded. My gods. They’d been faithless. A pit of dread opened inside me.

“It’s no wonder our efforts have fallen flat.” I stood abruptly, my eyes scanning the room for something to give the gods before landing on the bejeweled gold cuff on Papa’s wrist. I held out my shaking hand.

“Give me your cuff.”

He reeled back. “Pardon?”

“Papa! We need to make an offering—now!”

“It can wait until after the storm.” And to back up his words a bolt of lightning filled the room with brightness before crashing in our ears seconds later, shaking the room.

I reached down and wrestled the cuff from his wrist. He barely fought me, just laughed as if I was being ridiculous. Then I turned to Mother’s shocked face and pointed at the golden snake that wound around her upper arm. She placed a protective hand over it.

“Are your treasures more precious to you than my life? Our future?”

Now it was Mother’s turn to laugh at my dramatics. “Of course not. Please sit and relax and I swear to you we will gather a proper offering first thing in the morning.”

I pressed a hand to my forehead and whispered, “It will be too late.” In truth, I believed it already was. My eyes burned with fear, filling with unshed tears, and Mother reached for her upper arm.

“Please, Psyche, don’t cry. Here.” She placed the winding gold in my hand, folding my fingers around it and rubbing my skin with tender affection. Her eyes were soft and regretful. I had a feeling her regret had everything to do with my sadness and nothing to do with offending the gods. I would rather it have been the other way around.

I swallowed hard and turned from them, forgoing my shawl. Both of my parents made sounds of despair as I ran for the doors, but neither stood to stop me. A guard opened the door for me, peering over at my father for instructions.

“Accompany her to the altar,” Papa said, resigned.

The winds hit me in a rush, rain pelting my skin with the sting of a hundred tiny daggers. I lifted an arm to shield my eyes and ran. Several times the winds blasted me, offsetting my balance momentarily, making me slip on slick stones. But I never stopped.

At the altar, I climbed the wet steps then fell to my knees in the rounded center of pillars under a domed roof. I let out a small cry at the two measly piles of soggy offerings. This altar should have been filled with bounty.

With trembling hands, I laid my two gifts in the center of the circular room, open to the elements, rain slashing sideways to smack at me.

“Forgive us, please,” I shouted over the howling storm. “Please accept these offerings and know that there is more to come. We—” I had to stop and swallow. “We honor you. All we have is for your glory.”

A gust of wind rocked me to my side, and over the din of noise I heard a sickening snap and whap, followed by the yelling of my guards. I lifted my head in time to see an unrooted palm tree fly against the outer pillars as if trying to fight its way into the altar area. A strong arm came around my midsection and lifted me from the ground.

“We must go!” Boldar shouted.

I didn’t argue. He and four other guards surrounded me, and we shuffled our way clumsily down the path back to the castle, my hair whipping all of us like a live, angry thing. We’d barely reached the stone entrance to our palace when my eyes filled with blinding light. An explosion loud enough to burst the insides of my ears lifted all five of us off our feet, throwing us through the castle doors. A shock of heat filled the area before dissolving into a chill again. But the rumble of crashing sounds continued, and even through the rain we nearly choked on ash and dirt. I waved a hand in front of my face, trying to see.

What in the great name of Jupiter had happened?

“Lightning strike!” Boldar yelled, on his feet, lifting me again. And as the dust finally began to settle, I squinted into the darkness. Through the sheet of rain, under the angry gray skies, our altar lay in crumbled ruin, smoke warring with the falling moisture. I smacked a hand over my mouth to hold back a cry of anguish. My parents could speak of superstition all they wanted, but I didn’t believe in coincidence. Our offerings had been denied in the most powerful of messages.

And now I had no doubt. I was cursed.

THE ORACLE

The rain didn’t let up until early morning and sleep never found me. My only relief was that I didn’t have to beg or convince my parents—when they set eyes on the altar wreckage, they took one long look at one another and paled, realization dawning on their faces.

“We travel to Miletus at first light,” Papa had said, his jaw set before stalking away from us.He never took defeat well. Even, apparently, against the immortal gods. And while I didn’t want him to suffer, I hoped he would be truly humbled. If he brought his mortal pride into that ancient temple tomorrow, it would further insult the gods. Even kings could be made into fools.

I was ready to go. I’d been ready for hours, donning my most modest dress and plain shawl, my hair piled neatly atop my head in a way befitting of worship. And then I’d gone around my room and gathered every worthy item: jewels, a fine body wrap sewn with gold thread, dazzling hair pins, and hand carved boxes. These were all things meant to accompany me to my marital home someday. Things that would add to my worth and dowry. Without all of this, I could only hope my good name and my beauty would be enough to land a decent match. If the gods allowed.

The muscles of my abdomen seized tightly at the thought of the gods and their wrath last night. Deep in my marrow I knew this was our last chance to please the gods. If they found our worship and offerings anything less than perfect, it wasn’t just me who would be cursed. I had no doubt our entire island kingdom would suffer. With a snap of their fingers the immortals could tell the waters to swallow our land and every being on it. No castle on a hill was too high for them to transform to rubble. Civilizations rose and fell at their whim. How my parents had forgotten that fact I had no idea.

I jumped at the sound of a light tap on my door. Instead of calling out for them to enter, I opened the door myself. Boldar’s grim face greeted me, surveying me from top to bottom.

“You are ready.”

“I am,” I answered, bringing my basket of goods. He winced when he spied my offerings, regret in his eyes as he took the basket from my hands, but he said nothing as he led me to my parents in the courtyard. The dark crescents under their eyes were an indication they slept as little as me, and I was glad of it. Papa gave me a nod, and Mother tried to smile at me but failed horribly, her mouth only managing to quiver instead.

Beside them was a cart covered in cloth. A shining hilt protruded from one corner and I covered my mouth against a gasp. The sword had been in our family for countless generations. Papa had won battles with that sword in his hand. As much as it pained me to think of giving it away, I was glad to see he was taking this seriously. Not a single material item was worth more than the lives, health, and happiness of our people and homeland.

The walk to the barge was a somber event. Dark clouds still roiled in the skies above us, the grounds sodden with the aftereffects of the storm. Rivulets of water ran down the streets, and the morning was hazy gray. Guards pushed the cart and pulled our best animals behind us. Our finest steed. Our best milking cow. Fatted swine and the fluffiest of sheep. Our sweetest little lamb. I couldn’t allow myself to think of their sacrifice. For their sake, I was even more frustrated with my parents that it’d gotten to this point.

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