“I want you to remember a time in the past when you were a very little girl. And my voice will go with you. And my voice will change into that of your mother, your friends, your playmates, your teachers. And find yourself in your favorite place, a girl feeling happy about something. Something that happened a long time ago. Something you forgot a long time ago.”
The words dawned in Elyse’s mind like morning rays cascading across gentle seas. The panic and fear which gripped her shattered. And something in her mind unlocked… unfastened, unfettered, and was loosed.
There was a time, before the basilisk’s baleful eye, before the cold gray stone gripped her in the most terrible of horrors, before she was plunged into darkness within the bones of the earth. Before she set out and failed, to find the man that set a spark in her soul. There was a time long ago, on her island home of Cykreta.
Her mother had brought her there… away from the sprawling coastal cities of the empire. To the ancient ruins of her own fallen race.
“You will not be a roguish urchin, my dear, it’s time for your Krypteia. The time of your tutelage as a Courtesan. This is how we remember our people.”
“But mother, there’s plenty of Suhndran harlots in the city! And there’s Marko’s crab cakes! Who is he going to get to deliver them? I’m the sweetest delivery girl, he says. And what about Giblets and Socks?! Who will feed them?” Elyse worried, referring to two harbor-town strays she had taken in. One, a gnarled and scarred gray tomcat with one eye, that was nigh feral. The other, a slim and silky black cat with white limbs. The pair seemed rather romantic to her, and they seemed to lead an entourage of other strays.
They spoke on the prow of a small schooner, sailing out of the harbor. Elyse watched the familiar buildings and alleyways shrinking with distance. Her mother was holding her from behind but dropped her embrace at Elyse’s comments.
Elyse remembered the sailors saying you could judge the wealth of a harbortown by the amount of gulls. And one such gull braved an audience near to her on the banister. Lady Galatea snatched a silk fan from her belt, snapped it open, and with a flick as fast as lightning she decapitated the gull. In the same motion, she drew her fan up to fan her neck. Casually. Elegantly. Elyse’s eyes went wide with bewilderment as a tablespoon of blood spurted from the bird’s neck before it tumbled overboard. Her mother’s fan was not even metal. And it was not even soiled.
“No mere harlots are we,” her mother answered gently, “The kitties can care for themselves, and so will we. Delivering crab cakes is not Visintha’s will for you my darling.”
Her mother, lady Galatea, gazed towards the setting sun thoughtfully, with a smile at the corners of her mouth.
“What is Visintha’s will for me, mother?”
The sun shone on the ruins of high Kasta Cykreta. The rhythmic pounding of the surf sounded against its cliffs. Gulls called across the island skies. Elyse meditated on the beach, her daily ritual until the tide came in, her tiny delicate form poised on the wet sand, the sea foam roiling around her thighs with each gentle wave.
Her days were filled with meditation, with arcane body postures, music, and cheerful etiquette. But most of all, her days were filled with dancing. Tumbling, pirouetting, leaps, turns, kicks, flourishes, and rolls. She learned all the proper formal dances of the empire. And reveled in the manic ecstatic dances of the night. She learned how to walk with an elegant syncopated grace. She learned to be dancing all the time. Even their martial sparring was dancing. How to flow and blend with another’s momentum. How to redirect not just an opponent’s force, but their thoughts. And she learned how to carve bacon with a paper fan.
“My voice was with you since the beginning, my love,” her mother said, embracing her.
“In my womb you heard the beating of my heart, the rhythm of the waves, the pulsing of the earth, even then. This is the rhythm we dance to. And you will hear it in the bosoms of lovers, in the thunder of storms, the savoring of fine foods, the sipping of fine wines. Wherever you are, my voice will go with you.”
“Visintha’s heartbeat,” Elyse answered.
“I was with you even then,” the voice in the darkness stated.
…Mother, I am done. My rhythm locked in cold, unfeeling stone! I cannot breathe, I cannot feel the beating of my own heart!
“Stay with me love,” her lover cooed.
There was a time she forgot. Something that happened a long time ago. On the beaches of Cykreta. A thing she was very happy about.
The elf-girl strode from the waves, her body glistening, under the bronze rays of the sunset, eyes flashing and teeth glinting. Elyse and her mother had made the voyage with half a dozen other Suhndran, and there was a score more already dancing at Kasta Cykreta, she didn’t remember ever seeing this one before.
“Merry meet, thou foam-born Cykretan,” Elise flirted, ‘foam-born’ being a compliment akin to calling someone ‘beautiful’ among her people.
The Suhndran girl from the waves was possibly the most beautiful woman Elyse had ever seen. She rose from the waves as if the sea could not contain her. Her body undulating as she strode towards her. Almost as though she uncoiled from beneath the water.
Certainly she’s among the devoted at Kasta Cykreta! Elyse thought, She’s freer than a gull on the wing, or a hare in spring time! Why have I not met her before?
The girl laughed, “You flatter me lady Galatea! Thou foam-born yourself, yourself!”
“You know me?” Elyse asked.
“Of course, you caught my gaze some time ago, may I join your sabbat revel?”
The sabbat revel was a ritual of their tradition, when the Devoted (as the Pearl Courtesans referred to themselves) isolated themselves, and sought ecstasy with their own company. Sometimes trysts occurred, that might be missing the point of the ritual, but it was never punished or guilted over. Besides, guilt is for the Golden Field-aspiring Imperials.
“Please do, my lady…?”
“Aphra is my name… and thank you!” The newcomer stated, seeming to coil beside Elyse.
The closeness filled Elyse’s bosom with warmth. There was an instant rapport. And she savored it. This is the way of anticipation, she thought, pondering the tenets of her monastic coven, savor it. Forget yesterday, for it is already gone. Do not worry the morrow, for the morrow is just a dream. Revel in the present, for the present is a gift.
Elyse was already intoxicated with the Blue Water Lily the devoted often used in their ceremonies and meditations. It was difficult to exchange formal pleasantries but Aphra seemed relieved to discard formalities as well. They shared more of the seductive flower together, and bottles of wine.
They spoke of their tutelage, of the island’s few visitors, of men—for their were a few trusted ‘merchants’ that traded with the isle’s inhabitants. The island, with high Kasta Cykreta’s haunted, moss-crowned walls —mostly had the reputation of being home to “cannibal witch-girls.” And of course there were the stories of the few times sailors were welcomed onto the island but abused the local hospitality. —Crews of men bound naked with silken cords, in strange uncomfortable postures, left on the sand under the sun. Food for gulls and crabs.
Others were much more fortunate. The wine they received was very fine and received from their most trusted shipper, a small but noteworthy merchant fleet founded by an ancient halfling pirate. Those gentleman enjoyed amenities no continental harbormaster would believe. On a paradisaical island school of expertly trained courtesans, halfling men were the most favored. Their kind being the most secure in their bodies by necessity of their genetic stature. The cheeriest, by virtue of tossing aside their obvious shortcomings, they were the most fun.
Elyse and Aphra watched the sunset together, danced around the fire, and sang songs in their ancient Suhndran tongue, taking turns playing the Lyre. They laughed and silently pondered their ecstasies in equal measures. The lovemaking was exquisite as they melted into each other’s joy.
“Stay with me,” Aphra cooed, as she caressed Elyse’s bosom and belly with a fan. The gesture dangerously erotic, considering what the devoted could do with their fans.
…But silk, and even paper, can slip between the seams of a knight sheathed in steel.
Aphra folded the fan and left it between Elyse’s breasts.
“By Visintha! Aphra, you mean to…”
“Yes, by Visintha’s coils,” Aphra’s voice breathed in her ear.
The gifting of a devoted’s fan was a promise of everlasting intimacy. Elyse had heard of the tradition, but never witnessed it. It was a promise of their deepest intimacy and devotion. Aphra stood up smiling, her body shining in the moonlight, blushing with the afterglow.
“This is my pact with you… and now I must return to the sea.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to swim?” Elyse asked, her hands curling around the fan on her chest as she sat up, “Has the Lily waned enough for you?”
Aphra danced to the water’s edge, turned, and locked eyes with Elyse, striding backwards in the water. She seemed to be growing somehow, the sea and the moon and the stars all flowing into her. And then it seemed Aphra was as big as a mountain, only far away.
“Safety is never guaranteed my love, take what is offered. Revel in pleasure, fear, and pain all, for this is life. To feel so much.”
Aphra’s eyes blinked and her pupils were now serpent’s crescents. But Elyse never felt so much love and awe and wonder overflowing from a pair of eyes.
In the morning Elyse found herself naked and alone.
“I was with you even then”, the voice in the depths spoke, “Through your birth, your tutelage, your loves, and now your death. I am the song. I am the singing. I am the dance. Even the rhythm beyond the flesh. And my voice reverberates among the bones of the earth.”
Holy Mother, Holy Lover, Holy Death, Elyse cried, I am your Lady. And I will stay with you. And she felt her presence even now. And remembered her presence throughout her life. She had always been there. In the careful tutlege of her mother and dance partners at Kasta Cykreta. Through her lovers. It seemed now as though she remembered those serpent slit-eyes in the face of the Hyrdland adventurer who worshiped the Goddess with her.
“Return the Devoted to me, my love. Too long they have honored the memory of Grythwycke, when I am their Mother.”
And Elyse embraced her greatest fear. The awful stasis of solid stone. Even the rocks hum to the pounding waves of Visintha’s rhythm.