The First House
Of the Sting of the God
Even gods dream.
I dream of water, of how it falls, the plop of the great hot drops on the desert, the hollow pits they make in the sand; how the parched land drinks them instantly.
I am a god; my dreams should come true. But then, water is different, water is she, and there's no control over her.
I think I have lines on my body, and great scorched places and pustules that burn like volcanoes. Or sores. Or deserts.
I puzzle myself. Am I single or double? Light or light's shadow?
And the tunnel leads up to the world and I climb and scuttle through it, and come to where you live. And one of the problems of divinity is that people expect something huge and powerful.
And an instant result.
She Speaks to the Archon
The Procession was at least halfway down the terraces before Mirany stopped trembling enough to walk properly. It was hard to see clearly through the eye slits; the mask was too big, the slits too far apart. And in the sweltering heat, the dust rising in clouds, the flies, the shimmering mirage of the road, everything was bewildering. She flipped hair out of her eyes, tight with dread, her whole body sheened with sweat. Just as the back strap on her sandal started to chafe, the Procession shuffled to a stop. They had reached the Oracle.
Rattles, drums, and zithers were silenced on one note.
In the terrible still heat, Chryse whispered, "My arms are burning."
She had oddly fair skin. Maybe, generations back, her people came from the mountains.
"Put anything on them?" Mirany said breathlessly.
"That won't help." Her voice was tight.
Through the mask of the Taster-for-the-God, Chryse looked at her kindly. "Don't be scared, Mirany. You'll be all right."
If I survive. Behind, as she glanced back, the long ranks of troops were clanking to a halt, glittering in their bronze, their general, Argelin, grim on his white horse, and in front of them the six men that carried the Archon's litter had paused, too, lowering the golden canopy thankfully onto the track, rubbing their aching shoulders. The old man must be heavy.
But then, he wouldn't be going back.
The Speaker turned. "Mirany." The great mask she wore was the only one of the Nine with an open mouth. It muffled her voice; made the familiar name sound strange, a breathy, unfamiliar summons. As if the god was speaking then, for a moment. Until she snapped, "Follow me. Only you," and it was Hermia again, acid and watchful, and Mirany saw her eyes gleam dark through the narrow slits.
Giving the end of the garland to Chryse, Mirany stepped out, silent. She felt shriveled with dread, sick with it. The narrow path that led off the road was made of cobbles tightly placed together, and wasn't straight but wound round into the olive trees through a doorway of three great stones. On the smooth lintel the scorpion and the snake were carved, fighting their eternal battle. Uneasy, Mirany glanced up at them. She had passed the doorway many times, but had never entered it. The Speaker, already through, turned, impatient. "Quickly!"
Mirany took a deep breath, and followed.
She was in the enclosure of the Oracle.
They walked down the path. In the sizzling heat Hermia said, "Are you afraid?" "Should I be?" Mirany whispered.
The mask swiveled. "I'll assume that was a serious question, and not impudence.
Indeed you should. Yours is a dangerous honor for a girl so inexperienced." She knew that. She had never, never thought it would be her. When Alana had died, all the girls had whispered about who would be next Bearer, but when Hermia had sent for her this morning and told her she'd been chosen, she hadn't been able to believe it. Neither had anyone else.
The terror had come later, growing all day. Now, despite the heat, her hands were so chilled she could hardly feel them, so she rubbed them together and asked the question she already knew the answer to. "Will I be doing it today? Carrying the god?"
"If he wills it." Hermia sounded amused.
Fear tasted sour. A prickling, her heart thudding, and that sickening, sweating emptiness. She swallowed a huge lump of it in her throat but it was still there, choking her, and the gold and scarlet mask was a stifling hand over her breathlessness.
Up here the noise of the Procession had faded; it was as if the path under the stone door had led them both abruptly out of the Island into another, hushed place, where only cicadas hissed in the prickly furze. Stumbling, Mirany felt a sticky strand of hair fall in her eyes. It was coming loose, like it always did. Then she thought, All right, so you're terrified. But at least you'll see the Oracle.
The others had arguments, in the Lower House, late at night. About whether the Oracle was a statue that spoke or a spring that bubbled up out of the ground. Whether it thundered with a roaring voice, or whispered like leaves in the wind, while Hermia went into a trance and moaned and shrieked. Too shy to join in, Mirany had listened, and thought her secret, wicked thought. Now she'd finally see. But she'd never be allowed to tell them about it.
Juniper and stunted bushes of thyme and artemisia scorched the heat with scent. The path coiled round on itself like a sleeping snake, and the underbrush stirred and crackled with the god's life, small scurryings, slither of scales, the quick green scuttle of a lizard.(Continues...)