The servants draped the ceremonial robes over the Zalethi’s body, working in the utmost silence, no need to talk to each other, no need to disturb her thoughts. The woman with the body like a starry night stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by tall columns of marble lined with gold and jet.
A few paces behind her, eleven Loukomon from the cities of her Dominion stood in contemplation. The Zalethi’s nudity was seen as a matter of beauty and divine cleansing. They knew it was not for them, and it was as far removed from their base desires as the highest clouds of the sky.
Each of the eleven men sported a bald head and a long beard, as it was custom. They whispered prayers to the Twelve without making any sound, so that only the shape of words was made nby their lips.
The Zalethi lifted her arms so that the servant girls could finish wrapping white robes, lined with glass beads, around her waist, slowly covering her up. As they reached her hips, her hands came closer to the mask of frosted glass that covered her face and it creaked and flew like melting ice, turning into a tall helm that obscured everything from the tip of her nose upwards.
The servants did not stop and the Loukomon nodded as one at the display of divine agency. By now they had watched the same ritual every year, but their hearts beat just a tiny bit out of sync, betraying their uneasiness before the miracles.
She could feel it in the vibrations propagating through the marble, in the slight hitch of their breathing. Every thought they could have appearing clear as spring water before her. Not because she could peer into their heads directly, but because they were, ultimately, the same.
Awe and terror went hand in hand.
As did devotion and oppression.
“Thesanthei,” she called. Her voice flew like the echoes of a brazen bell through the room. The servant girls froze. The mouthed prayers stopped.
From the other end of the room someone walked in. The Loukomon, each of them already an old and wizened man, turned their heads to the newcomer: an ancient lord dressed in all black, his bald head shining like a marble due to the whitening of his skin. Lips like clay turned upwards as he strode forward, his steps a chaotic mixture of his sandaled feet and his walking cane, tick-ticking on the marble floor like rain pelting a window.
“I apologize for the delay, o Eternal Grace,” he coughed, taking his place among the other governors. Starting from the one closest to him, each of them lowered his head in a sign of respect. Velathri’s Loukomon smiled and he nodded in return at the end, accepting his place amongst them.
“No need to apologize to time, Child,” the Zalethi stated. She flicked her wrist and the robes, flew in a dance of their own, guided by their glass beads as they wrapped up around her, forming the ceremonial dress that would accompany her for the day.
The servants nodded and scuttled back to the columns, their assistance requested no more. The eleven Loukomon were, for all of their political acumen, not quick enough.
“Leave us alone,” the Zalethi commandeered. The eleven old men bowed and one by one left the room, leaving the Zalethi alone with Thesanthei, the single ray of sunlight peering into the temple from above forming a shining line between them.
As dust particles twinkled in the air of the marble temple, the Zalethi walked up to her servant, offering him a smile.
She twirled on the spot, showing him her robes as they fluttered around her dark body.
“I’d wish my eyes were still as keen as ever,” he muttered. “So I could bask in your beauty as it deserves. As it is, I will hold onto faith that it is ever more astounding with each year,” the ancient Lord said.
He leaned forward as his body rattled with a cough. The Zalethi fell on one knee and set her hand against his black robes, the tiny stars and clouds of shimmering brightness filling her skin standing out even more against the dark fabric.
“Will you allow me to trade your eyes for beads? They would be shining for ever, Child.” Her hand trailed upwards, cupping his withered skin. The chalk-illness had long run its course, gnawing on every fibre of the old man’s body, and only the persistent care of her physicians and herself had allowed Thesanthei to continue. “I say Child, and I should say friend.”
“Let’s not make the nest of vipers on the council eager for more bites,” he chuckled in a dusty cough. “I will keep my eyes until the end, o Eternal Grace. I will remit my soul to the Twelve when it will be time. Soon enough, it seems.”
“Soon enough,” she replied with aa sour whisper.
“But this is a day for celebration,” he stated, his voice now a tad firmer. Memories of his oratory skills when he addressed the other Loukomon in a council seat danced like drunken eels through her mind. “There shall not be tragedy. Will you allow me this, o Eternal Grace?”
“I will allow it,” she replied as she withdrew her hand, guiding him now towards the temple’s entrance, “as far as the Twelve will.”
“Fair, and more so than the times allow,” he noted.
Once out in the sky again, the sight of the Zalethi next to him cut an even more imposing figure. The other Loukomon waited for her on the lower steps. Next to her, the sea of faces od dignitaries, diplomats, priests and their ancillaries waited for her command.
The Zalethi turned her face to the Whitepath unfurling next to the small temple that grew in a dome of marble and gold next to a gurgling spring. They would depart shortly, travel the distance from the holy spring site all the way to Velathri and her castle.
Her covered face seemed to regard its shape, the unending spire that wrapped itself up in ever-sharper and thinner slabs of glistening black glass, until the very tip that shone as a ray of light aiming for the heavens.
And above, she perceived the tremendous weight of the Bulwark, keeping the foul air outside and allowing her Dominion peace enough to grow.
And regrow again…
Thesanthei looked at her again. She clearly felt his doubt – he had learned to read her, up to a point.
“All is as the Twelve wants,” she whispered, sating his questions.
She turned to regard her carriage, completely made out of see-through glass, with the eleven slave-girls she had picked up along the way through her dominion. One for each city she passed through on her way back to Velathri.
He lips curled in a smile. Perhaps, if she found a pretty enough girl during her day, she could concede her old friend had a point.
And there might be something to celebrate after all.
Author’s Notes: First time we have seen the Zalethi by herself. I like these chapters and I can’t wait to show her in action.
Thanks for reading.