Six more days passed.
Six more times the Skahllian Prince came to the chamber.
Six more nights Ember lay with him on the bed, abandoning herself to pleasure that left her feeling emptier than she had ever been.
When the Prince finished with her the seventh time he laughed.
“You mate with desperation, Princess. It makes you refreshingly focused.”
The pain came back even quicker than before.
Oh, Kai! What am I doing?
No, she couldn’t weep. Not here. Not while he was watching.
A silly thought. She had no reason for pride.
He ran his tail along her spine in a caress and she felt stirred and nauseated at the same time.
Prince Woldmont chuckled.
“So conflicted. Spending time with the Salshirans truly has made a mess of you.”
He repeated the caress and she moved away from him, even as she felt the heat rising in herself again.
Oh no! No!
She began to shake.
“Pathetic,” Prince Woldmont said. “You don’t even know what you want anymore. I think it’s time for you to get over this silliness and rejoin your people. I’ll have something sent in for you.”
He left her shivering on the bed, and she was finally able to cry, great wracking sobs as she curled tight into a ball on the bed and wrapped her wings close around herself.
If he would just come back, she could feel better again…
Footsteps and the smell of blood pulled her out of herself. She uncurled and stared at the group of servants carrying a large silver tub. The contents were…
Human body parts floating in blood. From the altars.
They set it down near the bed and one approached.
“Most exalted Princess Rehkskarri, his gloriousness, Prince Woldmont, bids you eat and drink and be refreshed, in the name of Nk’drak’sil.”
Her stomach almost turned right there. The servants, thinking her snarl was a threat, left quickly. But the blood stayed.
Drink. Drink and be strong again.
You are nothing. I already own you. Drink!
The urge to feast, to deny and forget everything she had learned in Salshira beat at her, throbbed through her veins and twisted through her mind, tangled with her desire for the Prince to return. Following close after both was the deep, stabbing conviction that her best course was to just die. Die forever.
After all, she had already thrown everything else away.
If any of what she had found had even been real.
The contents of the tub were the most delicious thing in existence. Feasting on humans, reveling in her power, destroying everything weaker than herself, this was all that mattered, all that she wanted. Her head was moving toward the tub. She couldn’t stop it. She was too weak to stop it.
Reality slewed. She hadn’t moved. Her senses were lying. She took a step back.
You have already foresworn your god. You have no power. Drink!
Pain jabbed into her from every side and ran along her nerves. She fell to the ground and writhed. Screamed.
If she didn’t move, maybe…
Pain jabbed at her again.
You have no hope. You cannot go back to them.
The pain turned to pleasure, an embrace that soothed away all the aches in one enfolding touch.
But if you obey, all this can be yours again. Take, and enjoy.
The hideous feast beckoned.
She moaned, and whispered,
“Yahsaw, I’m yours. Save me.”
The muscles in her back snapped taught. She screamed again as hot fire danced along her spine. She waited for the claws digging into her nerves to release, but they didn’t.
She whispered the plea again anyway.
A great weight settled in, darkness that covered the room and turned all the light to shadows.
Again she pleaded to her god.
“Yahsaw, I’m yours. Save me.”
And again, holding to the whispered name like it was the only spark maintaining her existence in a sea of pain that had no end.
An unknown time later the pain released and she was able to lie still, though the weight remained. She continued to whisper even then, only pleading more fervently the same, simple, prayer.
A short time after the false darkness had changed to the true darkness of night Ember felt something new building within. She sat up, no longer aware of the weight, if it was still there, and listened. She felt the urge to open her mouth to say something other than the prayer, but she didn’t know what.
No. To sing something. Something that burned, but in a way that didn’t hurt. A way that filled all the broken cracks of the past month of her life.
She drew breath, and…
The song that emerged had words, but none that she knew. It rang through the hall until the windows quaked with it, rising and falling with melody and harmony at the same time as no human could sing. It grew in intensity until it filled the air and bathed her, and though she did not know what it said, she sank into its words and knew that somehow hope remained.
When it faded she wept, but it was the tears of the tired, not the despairing. The song had left a stillness in its wake, and she was finally able to feel how truly exhausted she was, to the depths of her soul.
Exhausted, but no longer hungry for something to take away her pain.
A door opened, and another servant came in. One of the slaves, by the collar and dress.
He looked around, scanning the room for anyone else, then stared up at her for a moment, as if gathering himself to speak.
“I won’t eat you,” she said.
He glanced at the metal collar around her neck and the chains attaching her to the wall, then at the tub, still full. Then back to her.
“Most exalted Princess, pardon me for my daring. I only came to investigate who was singing just now.”
The accent. She knew that accent.
“It was me,” Ember said.
He studied her again, as if trying to look underneath her skin.
“It seems strange,” he said, “to hear one of the Ascended singing a song of my people, and so well as I have never heard it sung before.”
Antan. Antan spoke that way!
“You’re one of the people of the Stone.”
“You are correct, most exalted princess. I was captured on the shores of my homeland ten years ago and brought here.”
She wanted to stop him from saying ‘most exalted’. It stung each time.
“I didn’t know it was one of your songs,” she said. “I don’t speak your language and I’ve never sung that song before.”
His eyes brightened.
“Then it is even more strange. One might even say prophetic. Tell me, if I may be pardoned this most forward question. Which of the elder gods do you revere the most?”
“None. I am sworn to Yahsaw… if I haven’t already broken that contract.”
The man smiled and relaxed.
“Then it is He who told me to find the singer of that song, and my own unbelief that made me afraid. And now the song itself makes sense, for it was surely He who made you sing it.”
“Are you certain?” She wanted to believe.
“Are you in the habit of singing songs you have never heard in languages you do not know? I assure you, your accent was perfect.”
She believed. The spark from before returned and began to grow.
“What did I sing?”
“You sang a song of encouragement, set in the voice of Yahsaw to his people and listing his promises. The first line translates, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.’”
Ember shivered at the words and the spark grew.
“The next line should have been, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine’, but you substituted Orilei-ku, or ‘you Orilei’, saying, ‘I have called you Orilei, you are mine.”
Ember listened to the words, turning them over for meaning, then gasped.
“Are you Orilei?”
“I… a friend… one of your people used to call me that once. What does it mean?”
“It is a name made from two words, ‘Ori’ and ‘Lei’. Ori means ‘fire’ or ‘light’ or ‘truth’. ‘Lei’ means ‘heart’ or ‘soul’ or ‘song’. Put together, they could mean many things, or even all of them at once. They aren’t simple concepts.”
Anten had called her that?
She didn’t deserve a name that beautiful.
“Now that I know the song was addressed to you, I am certain it is prophecy. Will you trust me to interpret?”
Ember looked at the man. She had prayed, and the pain had left, and the song had come, but she… could she?
“I will hear you. Pray that I may believe.”
“I will do so.” He bowed his head for a moment, then looked up at her again and smiled. “The full song contains many verses, each holding a different promise, but you only sang three, and in the wrong order. Yahsaw gives these three promises to you that you may set your heart upon them and believe:
“First, that though you are in chains, he is with you, and he will free you from the snare of the fowler.”
“Second, that when you pass through the waters, he will be with you, and the waves will not overcome you.”
“Third, that when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame will not consume you.”
As he spoke each promise she felt as if it was fixed in her heart, struck into place with a firm blow, there to blaze in her mind’s eye.
“He says he will surely do these things, for he is Aihay, your God, the Holy One of Yisra’el, your savior.”
Ember felt tears running down the scales of her face.
“But I betrayed him. Just now. The Prince comes, and I say yes. I’m a whore! And even before that… I’m no Alleji! I’m still covered in scales, and angry, and hateful, and I can’t even fly anymore!”
“Aihay once ordered one of his prophets to marry a whore and love her faithfully, as a demonstration of Aihay’s own heart toward such.” He let that sink in for a moment. “Now, your shame aside, why do you say yes to Prince Woldmont?”
“I don’t know. He begins to… he is attractive, and he wants me, and I say yes.”
“That’s half a reason, but why do you really say yes?”
Ember looked deeper, searching for the full reason under all the shame.
“Because I want to feel better. I’m in pain all the time, and when he takes me I feel like I can forget. Like I can make my pain go away for a while.”
“And does it?”
Ember shook her head.
“It comes back worse. And I… I hate it. I hate it. But I know that. And I still say yes. I’ve always said yes.”
“Are you still the same person you have always been?”
Ember wrestled with the question, back and forth, getting more depressed moment by moment as the way she’d been living for the past week, and the things that hadn’t changed before that, loomed larger and larger. She felt like she was the same as she had always been, except even more miserable. But Bethania would have said that feelings were often deceivers.
She thought of the sword, of the impossible moment when it had sunk into her heart.
Had it happened?
Had she died?
“I do not know.”
“Those who belong to Yahsaw, follow him. Those who do not follow, do not belong.”
Something broke inside, and she collapsed. She was not following. She was not… but…
She was not following. She did not belong.
Emptiness returned. Despair rode in full force.
“Look at me.”
She looked at the little man and he held her gaze.
“I do not believe that you have left Yahsaw. You have not foresworn his name and you have not returned to the altar of Nk’drak’sil. Yet, you are not following as you should. So, what are you holding onto that keeps you from following?”
She looked, and clearly as if it had been physical, and not something in her heart, she saw herself holding onto the reins of her life, charting the course that she thought would hurt the least, and tearing her soul apart in the process.
“Control. Freedom to do whatever I have to to stop the pain.”
“You call it freedom. Is it?”
Ember hung her head.
“It enslaves me.”
“Then let go of it.”
Ember nodded without looking at him again.
“There is something I have to get. I’ll be back soon. Then we can talk of how to give such things up as lomg as you need.”
She heard his steps go, heard the door close. In his absence she lay down on the tile and stared at the decision in front of her.
Yes. She could say no to the Prince. Somehow she knew she had always known that, and the shame of it threatened to freeze her in place.
But no, shame would not help. What she needed was a path to life, and shame would only blind her to it. She dispensed with shame, and framed the decision in clear terms.
She had two choices: to accept the possibility of a lifetime with pain, and no way to end it, but to have the kind of life and freedom to grow and change that she had found in Salshira, or to hold onto control that murdered her entire being every time she used it, and dulled the pain only by making her sick and numb.
Even looking at it so clearly, shame crept in at the edges, searched for a way to come in and pin her down.
But she was already as far down as she could get. That gave her the advantage.
The decision came in a moment, a realization, and with it, a release.
Yahsaw had not left. Here in her shame he had been with her, had found her. She knew it from the song, and she knew it also from the many things that Bethania had said to her, from the books the old woman had made her read, from the laughter of Trin and the love of Ean, from the kahtahkism she had memorized with Nanli.
From the night with the sword, in the depths, where the hands of Yahsaw reached out for her.
She would follow. No matter how much it hurt, she would deny the Prince, and she would follow. But if she was to follow, she would have to go, however much it hurt. If she stayed, Prince Woldmont would beat her down. He would find a way to make her say yes again. She was not certain she could bear it.
Footsteps returned. The door opened and the slave came through. Clutched in his arms was a small winejug, and a cup, and a loaf of bread.
He looked at her.
“You have decided?”
“I will follow.”
“Good. Then we will break bread together, for you need the strength.”
One little loaf of bread? How could he think… oh…
“I’m not worthy,” she said.
He looked at her again.
“Do you know what this means?”
“The sacrament. Yahsaw’s body and blood.”
The man set down the jug and the cup, but kept the bread.
“Do you need it?”
Ember struggled against the clear direction of his argument.
“Yes,” she bit out. She did. She thought of the decision she had just made. She could not make it, or keep it, if Aihay was not her strength.
“Then it’s yours. Come humbly and repentantly, or expect a beating. But I think you see that clearly.”
“Well then.” He began with the traditional words of Yahsaw, given on the night before his sacrifice, and then broke the loaf, and offered half to her.
“This is his body, broken for you. Take, and eat, and be satisfied.”