The crowd parted like a field of reeds before a sudden gale. The Zalethi touched ground, standing out starkly against the afternoon sun and the cobblestones, a piece of night that had descended amongst them.
Eteri’s heart seized. She felt it skip a beat and rise to choke her throat. Tatia pulled back, leaving her alone for a moment, before their immortal ruler, walking towards herm, ever closer – she could see the creases in her robe, the explosions of stars and clouds of colours going off inside her body as she came nearer, reaching her.
“O Zalethi!” She cried, holding up her olive branch as if it could protect her.
She walked up to her.
“Ah, that is what I was looking for.” Eteri turned to see her sanding right in front of her sister. She picked her chin between her fingers and tilted it upwards and then sideways, examining her like one could do with cattle. “Smooth skin, deep eyes, and I can see your fiery spirit from here. Truly a blessed day by the Twelve. You shall be granted a great honour and become my twelfth slavegirl. Now let go of your binds and be reborn.”
“Ah…” Tatia could only manage a gasp. Eteri watched, stunned beyond belief as those black and smooth fingers traced until the curve of her neck. A smile split the Zalethi’s face.
“How endearing! I share your surprise, indeed. I almost despaired. Now walk with me.” She turned and began to walk back towards the carriage. Tatia founds herself lost in a sea of gazes. Their parents, Barnabas, each of them looked at her with awe, joy, jealousy or concern, as different from each other as the tassels of a mosaic, but one which complete image only looked dark and oppressive to Eteri’s heart.
Barnabas licked his lips and hesitated, about to take a step forward and pull her back.
A suicidal gesture.
In the future, she would have never known how or why – her body took over, or perhaps her beating heart, and she found herself kneeling in the dust, her fingertips reaching for the hem of the Zalethi’s dress.
“Oh?” She asked, without even looking at her.
“O Eternal Grace,” she spoke, keeping her voice and her face low. She couldn’t even look at her, she couldn’t do anything but pray to the Twelve, pray with an intensity she had not felt since that night she stayed up until dawn trying to get them to take back ati’s illness. her faith had taken a sharp decline since then, but it now came back, burning and fluttering like a bird about to fly off a cliff. “Please. She is about to get married.”
The silence that surrounded her turned into a heated murmur, sounding to her as an approaching cloud of angry bees.
“What are you doing?” Tatia hissed, reaching out to her. She pulled her to make her stand up, but Eteri refused. “Stop, please for the love of the Twelve, please stop… oh, Eteri…”
“Take me in her stead!” Eteri shouted. “I would serve you forever, o Zalethi, if you let her go.”
She heard the annoyance in her voice reach for her, biting into her heart like a heated knife.
“You would be wise not to offer what is not yours to give, child.”
Eteri knew what she was supposed to do. She’d withdraw, leave her sister to the Zalethi’s care, and they would go back home to a emptier house, crying her departure and pretending to be happy for the honour that had been given to her.
They would receive a stipend to remember her by, and be content.
She would fade from memory and by the next time the procession was held in Velathri, Eteri could perhaps live with herself and with her lack of bravery.
“I beg you,” she hissed, her fingertips tangled in the hem of her white robe, “she’s my only sister.”
Silence stretched so thin Eteri felt its edge begin to cut right into her heart.
“Raise,” the Zalethi commanded.
Eteri untangled herself from her sister and did not turn to regard her, her eyes were only for the woman of night and glass, who regarded her with her head slightly tilted, as if deep in thought. Perhaps she was listening to the voices of the Twelve.
“People of Velathri,” she intoned, raising her arms. “Rejoice at the bravery of this maiden. For this one time, for this one time only, for she has shown such courage, she will be granted an honour that’s reserved to few. She will come up with me, and she will come reside into the castle at my service.” A pause. Eteri felt like a handful of mud getting cooked under the rays of a ravenous furnace. “Now walk with me.”
There would be no further questioning.
Eteri had the presence of mind to just obey – she proceeded forward, took the offered hand, so smooth and surprisingly warm, and she followed her on the tinkling steps of glass that formed just beneath her heels, each echo carrying her farther and farther from her family.
She did not hear the strangled gasp coming from her sister’s mouth, or the faint cries from ati’s wizened throat, or her father committing blasphemy and rushing towards the Whitepath, stopped only by the quick intervention of the crowd. She did not hear his shouts as he was pushed to the ground and he shouted obscenities.
She did not hear any of those, because they simply did not happen.
She followed the Zalethi up to the highest row of the carriage – the Loukomon gave her a nod, but she did not reply, stunned as she was, and only then she noticed that she was still holding onto her olive branch, so hard that her knuckles had turned just as white as the Zalethi’s robe.
Their immortal ruler pushed her towards the front of the carriage. She raised her hand and everything began to move again – the music, the dances, the carriage, the crowd waving their branches like the most bitter of seas.
Author’s Notes: One of my favorite scenes – I have written it five times over the course of the years, but the first meeting between Eteri and the Zalethi never ceases to fascinate me.
In related news, I have accomplished my secret goal of writing 150,000 words for this year’s NaNoWriMo.
It’s a kind of goal I don’t think I will ever impose over myself ever again, but it was a fun thing to try, especially as the challenge of writing and publishing every day is kind of drawing to a close.
I would like to thank the friends over there at the WrimoItalia discord group for all the support – I wouldn’t be there without you…
Together with a few more friends belonging to a different discord group. You know who you are.
As always, thanks for reading.