Recap: Soshay prepares for her initiation into the Temple of Twilight, while Tenoch and Neldo seek a way to discredit her. Setch has learned the truth about Este’s manipulation. The Jade Throne is not an artifact belonging to Zel, but rather contains a foreign god, one who seeks destruction. Both Keron and Este believe that Soshay is important to the rise of or destruction of this new god.
Setch had delayed every summons from Este as long as she could. But now that Soshay’s initiation was scheduled, Setch knew Este would call on her. So when the novice appeared to tell her that Este commanded her presence, Setch was not surprised.
Setch had reached Este’s door. She knew that Este would use the power of the jade chair on her, and wondered if she could pretend well enough so that Este would think the chair still affected her. She considered removing the Zel’s Tear necklace, but even the thought of giving up control of herself was too terrifying. Can I fool Este? And without the spells of the throne, can I go to Tenoch and fool him? A group of novices passed her in the hall, slowing to watch her. Probably wondering why I am standing here, she thought and took a deep breath. Setch knocked on Este’s door, trusting in the Zel to aid her.
Setch took another breath and entered Este’s audience room. Inside, she walked slowly forward keeping her head down and her eyes trained on the stone floor. She counted each tile as she walked, using anything to keep from focusing on the entity within the chair. She could feel the thrum of energy in the chamber; it was like a living presence in the room. She also noticed that once gleaming stone floor was dull and dirty. Rather than the scents of incense and scented oils, the room stank of rotting food and flowers.
She reached the foot of the chair and knelt on the floor. “I am here my lady.” She kept her voice level, and her eyes focused on the ground. She expected to see Este’s feet, and glanced up to find the chair empty.
She glanced around the room and found Este seated at her desk. Este was worn ragged. Her hair hung in snarls, unbound and unbrushed. Circles so dark they looked like bruises bloomed under her eyes. Her clothing looked slept in.
Este barely looked up from the codex she studied. “Setch, rise. There is no need to stand on ceremony today.” Este said with a glance in Setch’s direction.
Setch rose and walked widely around the chair. Its energy seemed to fill the room, like some great predator waiting to pounce. She wondered if Este could feel how it strained at its leash, waiting to devour them all. She wondered if Este felt anything at all beyond her devotion to the Unnamed God.
“Setch, you will go to Tenoch and bring Soshay to us.” Este’s words were clipped. “He cannot be allowed to kill her.”
Setch flinched at Este’s angry tone. “I will do my best, My Lady.” The title stuck in her throat. She had no desire to offer Este even false courtesies. Setch’s voice was quiet. “I have been meeting Tenoch for three years now. I know him. I do not think anything will convince him to send her to us. Maybe when he thought her just an oracle, but she has betrayed him somehow, and now, he wants her dead.” Setch was surprised at her daring in speaking to Este.
Este scowled at her. “Do you think I am unaware of this? Your duty is to go to his bed, nothing more. Go to him. Let him sate himself of your body. I know you will not fail in that.” Este reached for the conception potion. She handed it to Setch without a word. “He will be in my power after tonight.”
Setch took the potion with a shaking hand, immediately felt the frisson of energy emanating from the bottle. So she wants me to become pregnant, and she will use this pregnancy to force Tenoch’s hand. Neither she nor her new master understands Tenoch at all. No child will sway him, and the entire Temple of Twilight knows me for his lover – there is no currency there. Setch did not worry that Este noticed her sudden pallor, after handing Setch the potion, as Este had turned all her attention to the chair. Setch stifled a shudder watching Este stroke the chair like a lover.
“Thank you, My Lady. I will go make myself ready.” Setch mumbled, and did not expect a reply from Este. She wanted nothing more than the escape the foul room.
Setch hurried from the room as she felt the energy from the chair starting to grow. It seemed to pull at her, stick to her like spider webs. In the hallway, she fought her desire to wipe her hands and face to rid herself of the clinging feel.
She clasped the bottle so title, it bruised her hand. She had no concerns about the potion. Joining the Sisterhood had given her access to all the potions the temple made; thus, she had a small cache of the contraceptive potion in her chambers and knew she would not have to conceive Tenoch’s child for anyone.
Not even for Me? The voice whispered through her.
Setch stumbled at the voice. Oh my Goddess, please do not ask this blasphemy of me. You command we only bear children created in love. I do not love him, and I cannot love his child. She stared at the potion in her hand. The slow ebb of power from the bottle did not change. Do you truly ask this of me? Setch prayed?
She hurried down the hallway towards her chamber, putting the potion from her thoughts. She must ready herself for her assignation first. She would seek Zel’s will regarding the potions. Upon entering her room, she found Drioux waiting.
“What did she ask of you?” Drioux asked.
Setch began laying out her clothing before answering. “She wants me to conceive a child with Tenoch to force him to give Soshay to us.” Her voice was flat.
Drioux looked surprised and to Setch’s eye, horrified.
“It will not work.” Setch glanced at Drioux’s face; and while the woman appeared surprised, to Setch’s eyes she also appeared to be calculating – to weigh the risk and benefit of this child.
“Would he really give up Soshay to have a child?” Drioux asked holding the potion Setch handed her as proof of Este’s intent.
Setch let out a cold laugh. “He only desires power. A child is nothing to him, and my bearing one will cause him no harm.” Setch paused, “perhaps if the child grew into someone he saw value in, someone with influence or power, he may be interested. But a babe?” She shook her head. “He would find no value in that.” Setch locked eyes with Drioux, “Will you ask me to conceive his child, Drioux? To violate the first law of Zel’s temple?”
Drioux started to shake her head then stopped. “I do not know if I could ask this of you, but Este’s plan, no matter how repugnant I find it, may work.”
Setch narrowed her eyes, “So the Sisterhood also ignores Zel’s edicts when it is convenient. How can you claim to be cleaning the corruption from the temple, while adding to it? I do not love Tenoch, and I will have no love for his child.”
Drioux flushed, “Of course not, but is it possible that She wants this?” She paused, “That Zel intends this pregnancy to reach her own ends?”
Setch sat at her vanity and began braiding her hair with a scowl. “She has made no such demand of me.” Setch felt the twinge of the lie, but she ignored it and braided her hair tightly around her head. “I am tired of being used. My body is my own, and I will not bear a child for anyone’s ambition.” She pinned her hair in place; “I have gone to Tenoch’s bed for two years. And every time I go, I must see his under-priest. He is a kind man, a man who respects me even though I break the most basic of my vows, and even though I serve some corrupt god rather than the goddess I am bound to serve. Yet, when he looks at me,” Setch felt her voice catch, “When he looks at me, I know what love is.” She hid her face in her hands for a moment. “So, no I will not have Tenoch’s child. In this, I will live by Zel’s will. And if this means that Soshay will die,” Setch shrugged, “then maybe her death is the will of the gods.” She thought of Coliu’s lash and the time they spent together after. She had told the priestess much, and their time together had helped Setch start to heal.
Drioux stared at her, pale and wide-eyed. “You would allow her to die, knowing that we need her to save our temple? Knowing that Zel herself has demanded we bring her to our temple?”
Setch began putting on her gown. She glanced over her bare shoulder at Drioux, “Zel has not told me She wants Soshay. No, the Lady of Dawn has said nothing of Soshay to me. She accepts my worship and devotion as enough.” She knotted the fabric behind her neck, twitching the folds of the dress into place; “Your Sisterhood proves no better than Este and her Jade Throne. Why should I accept your word, the word of your oracles as the truth?”
Drioux paced, pale faced and frightened. “Setch, I would not lie to you. You know the Sisterhood only seeks to restore Zel’s worship and prevent the Unnamed One from taking power.”
Setch turned to face her, “I want to trust you, and I want to believe in the Sisterhood’s intentions, but what I know is that I am the only one preparing for an assignation with a man I revile.” Drioux began to interrupt her, but Setch waved her to silence. “Now because of the Sisterhood, I must go to this humiliation knowing that the damned throne will not be able to erase my memory of what transpired. I will be forced to experience everything without the balm of believing the acts I engage in worship to Her.” Setch’s voice was sharp. “And now, the Sisterhood and Este’s plans align, and you both demand my body not for hours but for months.”
Drioux sat in stunned silence.
Setch offered a cold smile, “So when you are the one using your body, the one whoring for others’ ambitions, then you can tell me what I should do.” She turned back to her mirror and began applying the muted gold paint to her face and chest with practiced hand, the brush traveling quickly over her heated skin causing the paint to streak.
“Setch, I am sorry that you have been used this way.” Drioux looked at her imploringly; “If there were any other way…” she let her words trail off.
Setch did not move from the mirror, “Of course no one would ask these things of me if there were another way. If Este and the Sisterhood’s ambitions could be filled in accordance to Zel’s laws, well we would all like that. But if her laws are too taxing, or get in the way of ambition, then we can ignore them just this once.” Her voice was low and cold. “So on your word, on Este’s words, I am to become a cow for breeding to a bull. I am to sell my child for everyone’s goals. And all this for Soshay, who like me, seems to lack any control over her own destiny. Perhaps once she and I have given up our last breaths to others’ ambitions, she and I both can be free to die as we chose.”
Drioux opened her mouth to speak, her face drawn and her eyes glittering with tears.
“Stop.” Setch turned to face her. “I will go and do my job. I will speak on Soshay’s behalf, but I will be the one deciding which potion to take. I want the corruption gone from this temple as much as you and the Sisterhood, but I must serve the Goddess as I see fit. I can no longer blindly follow commands made by others in Her name.”
Drioux rose, “I understand. We all ask a great sacrifice of you. I am truly sorry that you will not have the false comfort afforded by the throne’s influence. If we can find something that will make this more bearable, we will get it for you.”
“Drioux, nothing will make this more bearable. Please leave me alone now. I will report to you when I return.”
Drioux nodded and hesitated, as if she wanted to say more, but left the room in silence.
Setch went back to her preparations, fixing the steak paint, she her skin glowed golden and glittering. In red, she carefully painted the glyphs for Zel’s constellation around her collarbone, trying to use the routine activities to dull her mind, to delay thinking about what she was going to do. She noticed that Drioux had left the potion on her bed. Setch picked it up and searched through her chest for the others that she had hidden away. She kept the one from Este in her hand, and hid a second in her pocket. I will let the Goddess decide my fate. She will reveal her will to me.
She turned from her room and walked serenely to the altar room. At this time of day, she found it full of women, all at worship. Some she knew begged for children, others to cease bearing, and some to be rid of an unwanted pregnancy. She passed them all, not stopping until she reached the altar. Unlike Este’s chamber, the alter room smelled of fresh cut flowers and incense. The malachite floor gleamed rich and green beneath her feet.
The altar was heaped with flowers and fruits; She noticed a bowl filled with cacao berries. It lightened her heart to see that the women of the Cetza still came to seek Zel, that the corruption had not reached them yet. Her eyes locked on the image of the Goddess. Was it you who spoke to me? Or was it another of Este’s tricks? Her thoughts implored the goddess. Do you wish me to bear his child?
She held a potion in each hand; they looked and felt no different. She stayed on her knees, her eyes darting over the stone image. Help me! A movement in the offers caught her eye. The diamond head of a viper peered at her from the mound of guavas on the altar. Its obsidian eyes seemed to meet hers. Its gleaming coils with red and yellow bands sent a shiver down Setch’s spine. This was a viper, one whose poison would kill. The potion fell from her grasp and cracked against the stone floor. The viper turned its gleaming coils back into the flowers.
She watched the small bottle crack and the potion puddle on the floor. The snake was your messenger when I lost faith and was going to enter Tzi’s temple. She watched the snake coil into the flowers. This snake was a reminder, Setch thought. Zel, like all her siblings also has the ability to fight, to defend her temple and her worship. “I serve your will,” she whispered. She opened the remaining potion and drank it before the altar.
The Temple of Twilight rose across the plaza, a massive dark ziggurat. The sunlight faded behind it, only the barest sliver of it still above the horizon. She would endure her meeting with Tenoch and the potion would work. Setch entered the Temple of Twilight with all the surety her faith gave her.
As it was well after twilight, and the evening prayers were over, but this section of the temple seemed empty. The corridors around her stretched into dimness, with flicking witchlights casting their blue light weakly. The friezes seemed to dance and move, bringing to life the story of Tez’s last Imperator-Priest. The Imperator-Priest had claimed to be fathered by Tez himself, and birthed to a human mother. Some priests claimed his mother was the woman of the jaguar story, others claimed he had been a man drunk on power.
In the frieze, the Imperator-Priest stood at the summit of the Temple of Twilight, while the Cetza people knelt in supplication, or perhaps subjugation, far below him. In the Temple of Dawn, they told the story with a different ending. In Zel’s teachings the Imperator-Priests brought about the end of the fourth age, nearly destroying the world and the Cetza. It was Zel and Tzi who rebuilt it, and destroyed the practice of Imperator-Priests. Now priests and all politicians most come from separate spheres. No child born to a political family could enter temple service.
She was startled from her thoughts by Qent’s quiet voice. He looked harried, as if he was fighting a losing battle to hold on to his normal calm.
“Priestess Setch,” he nodded and skipped all the formal words of greeting, “I am sorry, but Tenoch is unavailable.”
Setch frowned at him, “Qent, what is it? You are not yourself.” Her concern for the man was genuine. He seemed untouched by Tenoch’s plans and was tied to the man because of temple protocols, not desire to serve under him.
Confusion and concern crossed his face, and he seemed to be considering what to say; “Please come with me.” He led her away from Tenoch’s receiving room and back into the dim hallways. She followed closely behind him, not relishing becoming lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the temple. They did not go far, when he stopped and opened the door to a small chamber.
Upon entering she guessed it was his personal quarters. He did not have the status for more formal apartments. There was no receiving room, only his bedchamber. Yet the white-washed walls gleamed in the witchlights blessed brighter and yellow here. One corner held his bed and the other a desk, covered with neatly stacked papers and codices. A small alter to Tez was next to the door, and a second alter, one to a lesser deity she didn’t immediately recognized sat next to his bed. There were no windows, as the Temple of Twilight had few, but it was very like her own room, bare of anything but the necessities of life.
Qent closed the door behind them. “Priestess, I apologize for the impropriety of bringing you here, and I mean no disrespect at it.” His words were earnest, and he gestured for her to sit in the only chair.
Setch could not contain a laugh. “Qent, my friend, I appreciate you willingness to pretend, to maintain a façade that I am an honored guest. Everyone in this temple knows I am Tenoch’s lover.” She offered a rueful smile. “You always treat me according to my position.” He started to protest, and she cut him off. “Please, just tell me what is going on here?”
He sat upon the edge of his bed, his hair falling forward to hide his face for a moment. “The High Priest is coming to preside over Soshay’s initiation. No one expected him to come, and now Tenoch is enraged.”
Setch considered this information, wondering if Mitlan would finally reign in Tenoch’s ambition. Would Mitlan protect Soshay, she wondered. But she asked a different question; “So Mitlan will come from the capital. Is it unusual for him to leave the City of the Lake?”
Qent nodded. “He rarely leaves the Imperator’s side. He did not return even to attend Keron’s initiation. This is rare, and for Tenoch, very troubling.” He brushed his hair back, “And if he is troubled, it is trouble for us all.”
Setch smiled at the honesty she saw in Qent’s eyes. The stone at her breast, Zel’s Tear, grew warm. Setch let her hand absently stroke the stone, what do you wish my Lady? I cannot see Tenoch, so I cannot get with child. What do you wish me to do? She found herself speaking without thought, “Does he fear trying to manipulate her failure with Mitlan as a witness?” She watched the kindness fade from Qent’s eyes at her bold accusation. It made her heart ache to see the kindness replaced with wariness and fear.
Qent swallowed, “You, you would say such a thing?” his voice was barely a whisper. “How would you even know such a thing?”
Setch smiled sadly understanding that Zel had spoken through her, “Because he told me as much. Zel hopes to have Soshay sent to serve with us. If his plans would allow her to fail her initiation and not die, Zel would welcome her service.”
Qent stared at her a moment, “You speak for Her, don’t you? This is not temple politicking?” His voice was hushed.
Setch nodded. “Este sent me, but in this moment, I speak for Her.”
Qent appeared surprised by her honesty. “So, you no longer spy on us,” he smiled at her wide-eyed surprise. “Don’t think you fooled me with your games. I could see you were conflicted about your work here. You did not visit out of love or even desire.” He squeezed her hand, “Don’t worry, Tenoch believes you come here for him. I guess that alone proves him a fool.”
Setch frowned, “Am I so terrible at my ruse, that he is a fool to believe it?”
Qent laughed softly, “No, not that. You have him convinced. He would never suspect you of any duplicity. He is a fool to think without question that a woman like you would desire him.” Qent blushed as he spoke. “Unlike him, you serve your goddess truly. You care not for games of power.”
She echoed his blush. “Thank you.” She took her hand away from him. “I only hope that you can use what I have told you to help Soshay.”
“I can try. I know Keron seeks to protect her, but without knowing what Tenoch plans, he cannot do much.” He ran his hands through his hair, a nervous gesture she had seen a hundred times before. “If she fails her initiation, it may well end in her death.” His eyes grew distant. “If Tenoch allows her to make it as far as the Chamber of Trials, she will certainly be dead. No one who fails lives.”
“If enough in this temple love her, maybe they can help her to leave here. Maybe in Tzi’s temple she would be safe.”
Qent raised an eyebrow, “You would see such a valuable oracle given to serve in a rival temple?”
Setch smiled, “I would see her as a fisherman’s wife if it meant she would live. The oracles, of Zel’s temple, have seen that Soshay’s prophecy will be vital to save us all from… from a new god, a destructive god.” She watched his face, trying to gauge if he believed her, and continued, “So, yes I would rather she live and have her prophecy to aid us, than see her dead for some foolish man’s ambition. I wish no woman to die for someone else’s ambition.”
“I will speak to her supporters and offer your warning. If we can prevent Tenoch’s interference, then all may still be well. If not, I will try and persuade those who support her to send her away to Tzi’s temple, as none would seek her there. Maybe I will be successful.”
“I should leave, if I cannot see Tenoch,” Setch began.
Qent grimaced at the Second-priest’s name. “Setch, does your temple condone your work here? I thought the tenets of Zel demanded priestesses only give themselves in love.” A blush crept over his face as he spoke.
Setch turned away from him, trying to frame her answer.
Qent laid a hand on her shoulder, “Setch if I have offended you, then I am sorry.”
She drew in a deep breath, “No, I am not offended my friend.” She felt her eyes burn with tears, “This is something I have been struggling with for a while.” She blinked away the tears before turning back to face him. “Many in my temple seem to feel that our laws can be ignored when power is involved, much like your own temple.”
Qent frowned, “I am sorry your temple would use you so. And we are no better treating Soshay as a prize to be won or broken. Tenoch cares nothing for her; only what her failure will cost Mitlan and be Tenoch’s path to High Priest.” He gazed at her questioningly, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Setch offered a weak smile.
Him, you want him.
Setch gasped hearing the voice in her mind. Zel, do you ask this of me? No voice answered her silent entreaty. Do I care anymore? I care for him and he loves me. The realization that he loved her shook her to her core, none other than Coliu had ever loved her – many had desired her, and more had used her, but love wasn’t hers.
“Setch? Are you alright?”
She nodded, and felt herself smile, not the contrived smiles she had worn for the last seven years, but a genuine smile. She reached for his hand, “You care for me, perhaps even love me.”
Qent swallowed, “Setch, I swear by Tez himself, I have loved you for many years. I do not think anything can change that.” He stumbled over the words.
Setch continued to smile and kissed him, and began to understand Zel’s plans.
She kissed Qent’s cheeks, whispering Zel’s blessing. She kissed his forehead, between his eyes, and spoke another prayer. Setch felt a flooding of warmth through her body, and she knew the hand of Zel was upon her and that the goddess found joy in this act. It was the same feeling of wholeness, of rightness she had found in Itz’s temple, with Coliu.
She smiled at him, feeling her doubts and shame dissipate. Zel was with her and would always be with her. She had not erred, and she had committed no blasphemies. Este blasphemed with her accused jade throne, and Tenoch blasphemed with his grubbing for power and acclaim. She and Qent, they sought only to serve their gods and through this service to serve their people. “In this act, we give praise to our gods.” Setch whispered, and kissed him again.
He kissed the hollow of her throat, and she felt the warmth of his lips as they smeared the paint on her skin. She heard him speak a prayer to Tez, only catching a few of the words of the pounding of her heart. She did not know if she loved him, but his love was an intoxicating balm. He rested his hands on between her breasts, and once again offered a prayer. For a second, her heart stopped, its last beat fading form her ears. She met his eyes, unafraid – while his were wide with wonder. Then, the drumming of her heart resumed; her blood heavy with desire. She kissed him, her hands tangling in his long hair. The charms he knotted into his hair in tiny braids clicked against one another.
She allowed herself to fall into his kiss, to simply feel and revel in Zel’s gifts of love. Her hands left his hair, slipping under his tunic, feeling the planes of his chest. His hands, slick with the golden paint she used, explored her skin.
Setch stood and tugged the tunic over his head, tossing it aside before letting her dress pool around her feet. As she stood, naked before him, she felt the hand of Zel upon her.
For the first time, Setch found herself saddened to be leaving the Temple of Twilight. She dressed slowly, languidly, stopping often to laugh, to touch him again, to simply look at him. She fought to keep her hands from running over her stomach. Setch may have begun to doubt much about her temple and those in it, but she would never doubt how effective Zel’s potions were. She looked at him, “For the first time, I do not want to leave the Temple of Twilight.” She began straightening her hair. But I will not endanger Qent by staying too long. She knew that Tenoch would not be jealous that she spent an afternoon in Qent’s bed, but she knew he would punish Qent for overstepping his place.
“And for once I do not wish to see you go.” He still lay naked on the bed, his eyes constantly tracing the lines of her body.
She looked back at him, her smile fading. “I told you of corruption in my temple,” She waited for his nod before continuing, “This was to be my last visit to Tenoch.”
Qent sat up quickly, and pulled her to him. “I spoke the truth before. Nothing will change how I feel about you.” He shifted to look at her, “Setch, no matter what you must do for you temple, I will accept it.” He paused, “As you accept what I do for my temple.”
She gazed into his eyes, searching for some sign of truth or falsehood. Trust him, my daughter. “I believe you will.” She whispered and kissed him softly. “I should go. I do not know when I will see you again.”
He nodded. “We will find what moments we can.” He reached for her hand as she stood, “I will have to be content with that.”
Setch swallowed and managed a nod, before leaving his chamber. She turned to follow the corridor back, past Tenoch’s chambers, lost in her own thoughts. I will have his child. A child I can love, one with a good man for a father. The thought filled her with wonder. She had never considered children before. Certainly many priestesses of Zel had children. Girl children often stayed in the temple, while boys, once weaned, were sent to their fathers or to the mother’s relatives. I will worry about wat to do with the child later, she thought, her hand resting over her abdomen. She almost walked into a priest waiting beside Tenoch’s door.
She stumbled and caught herself. She managed to stammer out the formal greeting, hoping to pass by quickly.
“Setch, under-priestess of the Temple of Dawn, I have business with you.” Telmax smiled at her, “Please, it is urgent.”
Setch frowned, “We have business?” For a moment she thought him one of the many priests of Twilight who assumed that she would fall into any man’s bed. She began framing her normal cutting remarks, but something in the priest’s eyes stopped her.
Telmax lowered his voice, “I need to make an ally of Zel, and you are favored by her.” He stepped away from the wall, “The Unnamed One awakens in your temple.”
Only her years of training to hide her emotions allowed her to keep her expression blank at his words. “Who are you?”
The priest smiled, “Telmax, a lowly under-priest to Keron.” He offered a quick bow. “Will you now hear my request?”
Setch narrowed her eyes at him considering his words. Can I trust him? He knows about the Him, but being the under-priest to an oracle makes that an easy feat for anyone who listens well. She gazed at his face, his body language. Part of her training included an exhaustive study of facial expressions and body language. This training was used to facilitate both seduction and to gauge truth. Everything about his posture indicated his was telling the truth, and his nervous posture could easily be a side-effect of approaching her at Tenoch’s door.
Telmax broke the silence, “Please, it may help us save Soshay.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “Why would I care about your oracle?” She made to walk around him, letting her anger at everyone’s desire to control Soshay get the better of her.
He grabbed her arm, softly, “Because all the Cetza need her to live.”
Setch considered his words and nodded stiffly. As a priestess Setch put the needs of the people before her own. “We cannot speak here. Tenoch may return, and I would rather avoid that complication.”
Telmax nodded. “Meet me in the plaza between the temples. We should be able to speak freely there.”
Setch nodded and walked away wondering all the while if trusting this man was a mistake.