We now return you to your regularly scheduled short story. Part 1 can be found here.
The world they called Abraxas had been shaped by nearly a hundred gods, and many families had a temple room, a chamber that could be dedicated to any god they needed to pray to. A simple altar of grey stone stood at the room’s end, far past the double doors that Shiloh closed behind her. Dozens of alcoves lined the walls, each with a small statue representing one of the various gods.
Shiloh walked along one wall, seeking out the proper statues. One of Mhandi, the goddess of love, family, and marriage, of course; necessary duties despite Shiloh’s feelings about that last one. A statue for Amerileia, the goddess of commerce, since that was the day’s true purpose. Shiloh tilted her head to one side as she considered which statue to put at the center of the altar. Amerileia’s seemed the better choice.
She chose a few other statues, to make sure she had all the appropriate areas covered, then stopped in front of one last alcove. She looked at a statue of a woman clad in loose, flowing garb, caught in the middle of an acrobatic dance step, with hair that reached to her feet and a gleaming red gem set in her forehead.
Wykahi, the Dancer on the Sands. The goddess of the people of Cordobrae. Alexi’s people. For a moment, Shiloh thought she saw Alexi’s face in the goddess’s statue, then blinked and shook her head. Just her eyes playing tricks on her, she thought.
But she took that statue, and hurried to the altar.
As she arranged the statues, Shiloh thought about praying, but only sighed. The gods had never listened to her prayers before, why would they start now? She’d heard Alexi’s people were quite dedicated to Wykahi, but her parents paid only lip service to the appropriate gods, and Shiloh had never felt much connection to any of them.
If Alexi were here, Shiloh thought, she could ask her about Wykahi, and maybe Alexi would tell her some stories. Some long, interesting stories, to take their minds off of what was to come. They could sit together, and Shiloh would let her hand brush against Alexi’s, and then–
The sound of the temple doors opening shocked Shiloh out of her reverie, and she knocked over the statue of Mhandi. She righted it with shaking hands, then spun to see who had come in.
“A-Alexi,” Shiloh breathed. She shoved her hands behind her back as they began shaking for an entirely different reason.
“I’m not disturbing you, I hope,” Alexi said, her voice low and lilting, like there was somehow a curved quality to her words. “I told my father I wanted to be sure our gods were placed properly.”
Shiloh fought to catch her breath, suddenly very glad she’d placed Wykahi’s statue on the altar. “I hope so,” she made herself say, then stepped aside all at once. “Please, take a look. I’m not sure how you do it in Cordobrae.” She paused. “Set up the statues, I mean.”
“Mostly there’s only the two,” Alexi said as she approached the altar. “Wykahi and her father. Though I think the Earthwarden has better things to do than be here, hmm?”
Alexi gave Shiloh that smile again, like the two of them shared something unspoken. Shiloh felt her whole face grow warm, thought about turning away but couldn’t make herself do it. She gestured to the altar, making sure to keep from knocking over the statues.
“I – I made sure Wykahi was here,” Shiloh managed. “I thought it would be important to you. And your father. He seems like . . . like he’d notice that.”
Stop babbling, Shiloh told herself. Surely the last thing Alexi wanted to talk about was her own father. Judging by his behavior, he was the reason Alexi was in this whole mess to begin with.
“He would,” Alexi said, her dark eyes narrowing a little. “Such a perfectionist. I’m sure he only let me leave his side to ensure nothing goes wrong today.” She moved the Wykahi statue to a more prominent place on the altar, then formed a triangle with the statues of Mhandi and Amerileia. “There. I think that covers everything, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Shiloh said quickly. “Everything’s . . . covered.” She clenched her hands together behind her back, then spat out the first thing that came to mind. “You don’t want to do this either, do you.”
Alexi raised an eyebrow at her, and to Shiloh’s surprise, gave her a bright smile. “How did you guess?” she asked, then laughed, warm and yet somehow strained. It faded quickly. “No. I’d rather be almost anywhere else right now.”
“It’s not right,” Shiloh breathed. Finally, someone else saw how ridiculous this whole mess was. “I don’t know the Figaro brothers, I don’t want to marry one of them, I don’t understand why this has to happen to me. I’m too young to get engaged, we both are – aren’t you?” She bit at her lower lip, glanced away as Alexi looked a bit amused. “How old are you? I’m – I’m not good with that.”
“Fifteen,” Alexi said. “And I agree with every single thing you’ve said.”
Shiloh steadied herself against the altar, her knees suddenly weak. Somehow, she’d managed to say exactly the right thing. She only nodded at Alexi, not wanting to spoil the moment by saying something foolish.
“I’d like to get married, someday,” Alexi said, and gestured toward the altar. “But to someone I love, not for money.” She frowned. “Do you think that’s too much to ask, for people like us?”
“No,” Shiloh said, shaking her head. “Not at all. My sister Bethany would have laughed and walked away if our parents told her she had to marry for a contract, and my brother Anders. . . .” She trailed off, not sure how to say what she had in mind.
“Your brother. . . .?” Alexi asked, her expression curious.
“He’s been bringing home girls and boys both since he was thirteen,” Shiloh said. “I can’t imagine him settling down with any one person.”
Alexi laughed again, and a tingle swept all across Shiloh’s skin. Once again, she’d said the right thing. She had to keep this going.
“Sounds like he’d enjoy life in Cordobrae,” Alexi said, still quite amused. “Marriage isn’t as common at home, save among the merchant houses and the nobles in the cities.” She sighed, and looked off to the side. “There is something enchanting about the thought of dedicating your life to one person, though, I’ve always thought.”
Her mirth faded, faster this time. “But we don’t always get what we want, do we.”
In the struggle to say the right thing yet again, Shiloh’s mouth moved without her mind’s permission, and what came out was, “I’d marry you.”
Alexi turned and looked at her all at once, her hair sweeping across her shoulders, her dark eyes open wide. Her mouth formed a perfect circle of surprise, and Shiloh only stared, her heart pounding hard. That, she thought, was definitely not what she should have said.
Shiloh opened her mouth to apologize, but no words came out. Her voice didn’t seem to work, now that it had betrayed her. She could only watch as Alexi’s eyes narrowed.
Then, to Shiloh’s surprise, Alexi began to smile again, that same secret one. “Would you now,” she whispered.
“I. . . .” Shiloh breathed. It seemed to be the only thing she could get out, especially as Alexi took a step toward her. “I. . . .”
“Could you do that?” Alexi asked, her voice low and quiet. “To save us both from this? We’ve an altar here, and the gods are listening.” She reached out, held her hand halfway between the two of them.
“I – I don’t know,” Shiloh finally managed to say. “We’ve just met, and our parents would . . . I can’t even imagine what they would do.”
“They’ve done all this without even asking us,” Alexi said. She still held out her hand. “Did they ask you? Or did they tell you, like you can’t make up your own mind?”
So it was the same for her. Alexi was as desperate to get out of this as Shiloh had been when she’d thought about locking herself in her bedroom.
Shiloh reached out and took Alexi’s hand. Her skin was soft and warm, and Shiloh let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding as she twined her fingers with Alexi’s.
“They never asked,” Shiloh whispered.
“So why should we ask them, hmm?” Alexi’s serious expression turned to a smirk, one Shiloh guessed she wore often. “The Figaros aren’t here yet. Let’s show them we won’t let them take our lives from us.”
Shiloh’s pounding heart made it hard to think. Could she do this? She wanted to, it seemed the only way to save herself from marriage to a stranger. Though Alexi was little more than that. Her eyes traced over Alexi’s face, searching for answers there. Every part of her being urged her to say the right words this time. And nothing Shiloh had ever touched felt so good as Alexi’s hand.
“I don’t know if I could get married now, I’ve never even kissed anyone,” Shiloh managed, her voice shaky. She knew it was a weak excuse, but she no longer knew what she should say.
“My mother,” Alexi said, “told me she knew she could spend her life with my father when they first kissed.” She stroked her thumb up the side of Shiloh’s hand, a motion that made Shiloh’s breath catch. “Do you think we could know the same way?”
Shiloh couldn’t say which of them moved forward first, or who reached for the other with their free hand, but she felt Alexi press against her, warm and soft and smelling of sandalwood and some other fragrance she couldn’t place. Something from the desert, surely, a faint corner of her mind said.
Then their lips met, and a shock thrilled all through Shiloh, and she couldn’t think at all.
All the world faded from around her as Shiloh closed her eyes, and all that mattered was the two of them, this single moment. Alexi’s lips on her own felt like nothing she’d ever known, warm and soft and somehow wholly right. She knew that yes, she could marry Alexi, they could say the words before the gods and each other, and–
The temple doors boomed open. Light flooded in, followed by a shout.
The kiss shattered, and Shiloh and Alexi both looked to the temple’s entrance, still tight in each others’ embrace. A knot of people stood in the open doorway, all starting. Master RiLeon looked ready to tear off his own mustache in sudden rage, while both of Shiloh’s parents wore looks of utter dismay.
In that moment, Shiloh knew she’d made their plans come crashing down.
Three people Shiloh had never seen before stood with her and Alexi’s parents, the dark-skinned men of House Figaro. The eldest, tall and slender with tightly-curled black hair that showed grey at his temples and all through his beard, wore a confused scowl, like he hoped this was some kind of joke and someone had better tell him soon. He held an arm out to the two young men at his side, as though holding them back.
The Figaro sons. The two Shiloh and Alexi both were supposed to end up engaged to. She supposed that wasn’t going to happen now, if their father’s expression was any indication.
Of the two sons, one looked much like their father, though clean-shaven save for a thin mustache, and Shiloh couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He seemed stunned, more than anything else. The one a bit behind him, clearly younger, was shorter and had round cheeks, and he only looked relieved.
At least one of them wasn’t mad at her, Shiloh thought before all the elders started talking at once.
“What have you done!” Master RiLeon boomed. “Alexi, you can’t--”
“These are the women you’d promise to my sons?” Master Figaro asked, his voice strong and somehow calm, though Shiloh heard the force behind it, and the sheer disbelief.
“Shiloh, how could you,” her mother said, a lifetime’s worth of disappointment in those four words.
Shiloh let go of Alexi, and looked to the ground. She said nothing. There were no right words, not for this. It had seemed like the best and only thing to do, when it was just the two of them, but now – now–
Master Figaro’s eyes narrowed as he spoke. “If your daughters would break this betrothal before it even begins,” he said, each word clipped and stern, “then I can’t expect them to be faithful to my sons. That is no basis for a marriage, or for any deal between us. Master Donovan, Master RiLeon, consider this entire matter canceled.”
Master Figaro turned on one heel and left. His sons followed, without even a single glance back.
“Fool of a child, you’ve ruined everything!” Master RiLeon stormed into the temple. He reached for Alexi, who dodged with ease. “How could you do this to me?”
“The entire deal was about you,” Alexi spat. “How could you expect me to go through with this? You married for love, I’ll do the same!”
“You’ll be lucky if ever let you out of the house again,” RiLeon growled. “We’re leaving before you do any more damage.” He stormed out of the room. “Come!”
Alexi gave Shiloh a look that showed how sorry she was, and whispered, “It was worth it,” low enough so only they could hear. She followed her father out of the temple.
Shiloh leaned against the altar, her heart sinking into her stomach. It all seemed so right, just a moment ago. And now . . . now she’d. . . .
Her mother turned and walked away, but Shiloh’s father strode into the temple. He approached the altar, removed the statues of Mhandi and Wykahi, along with all the gods but one, and returned them to their proper alcoves. When he returned, he moved the statue of Amerileia to the center of the altar, then fixed Shiloh with the gaze she’d dreaded since she was three years old.
Shiloh bowed her head. “I--”
“Say nothing,” he said, and Shiloh fell silent. “I don’t want to hear a word from you.” He rapped one knuckle on the altar. “But pray, Shiloh. Pray that House Figaro doesn’t set out to ruin us because of the broken deal. Pray that the family can survive what you’ve done.”
Shiloh turned and knelt before the altar as he left, and offered every prayer she could think of to the goddess’s statue. She prayed for Figaro’s mercy, for her family’s success despite it all, and for her own future skill, that she could contribute to the family as soon as she was old enough to start working.
She prayed for them to survive whatever happened for what she’d just done.
Once she was finished, Shiloh returned Amerileia’s statue to its alcove, then made sure no one was watching. She hurried to Mhandi’s statue, bowed her head.
And prayed that she would meet Alexi again someday.
I hope everyone enjoyed that. ^_^ As much as I usually don't like writing short stories, I had a lot of fun writing this, and it was an excellent break from nothing but plotting. I'm thinking about doing another for a different plot-in-progress, which would involve two parts of a rather eclectic cast of characters meeting for the first time. I'm eager to write this ragtag crew, though, and the story would serve much the same purpose, taking place quite a while before the book begins. We'll see what happens.
But considering this story would involve security guards at an enormous telescope dealing with apparent aliens who are there to steal the telescope's lens, yeah, I think I'll end up writing it. Bwa ha ha.