Selesti’s arrival brought a great deal of curiosity from among the priestesses. The temple of San Ria was a secret known to only a select few, and new recruits were rare. Buried in the forest, Selesti never would have found it if she had not been recruited by Alandra, the brothel owner who had saved her from the overdose of hormones her homeland Garania had forced on her.
She enjoyed a deep breath of air. The simple things seemed to mean the most since she had been freed from constant desire. But still… it nagged at her that the Moral Revolution was coming to San Ria. Part of her wanted to go back to the city and take up arms at Alandra’s side, but Alandra had told her it was not her fight any more, and she wanted to rest, wanted to be at peace. Selesti had been through so much that she just wanted some safety for a while.
“Selesti, is it?” One of the more senior priestesses approached her, “Alandra told me that you would be coming, that you have been through much… No, no, you don’t have to explain,” she soothed, seeing Selesti’s reluctant expression, “This place is not about the past, it’s not about what you have done, or what has been done to you. It’s about peace, about finding yourself and freeing yourself from the things that weigh you down.”
Selesti nodded, looking around her, “Where do I start?” she asked.
“Sorry,” the lady said, “Most rude of me not to introduce myself. I’m Elise, assistant to the Lady. The Lady is very essence of femininity who we all worship. I’m going to give you your robes, and leave you in the care of one of our acolytes.” She looked around her, “Tami, could you come over here?” A sandy haired, strikingly blue-eyed girl looked up shyly and nodded, walking over with calm, even strides.
“Yes?” Tami said quietly, when she was closer, “What may I assist you with, Elise?”
“This is Selesti. I want you to stay with her, show her around, get her settled into her quarters and begin her orientation.” Elise said.
“Yes ma’am,” Tami said. Elise nodded her head and walked away, her robes flowing behind her. Tami looked Selesti over and smiled, “I’m Tami,” she said, “but I suppose you already know that. Come this way and I’ll show you your quarters.”
Selesti followed Tami through hallways and corridors. She saw groups of priestesses in classes, individuals meditating by themselves, and some in prayer at statues of a beautiful woman. All looked calm and at peace, and everything was so white and unchallenging.
“How did you end up here?” Selesti asked.
“Who we were before doesn’t matter,” Tami said, “That part of my life is over…” She looked down at the floor, “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to brush you off… I just… It still hurts to think about the past.”
“That’s okay,” Selesti said, “I’ve been through a lot too, so I understand if you don’t want to talk about it. We came here to escape the world, right?”
“Yes,” Tami said, “Though I fear the world is fast approaching our doorstep.” She sighed, “All is peaceful now, and the Lady says we will be safe, but… I don’t know. If the Moral Revolution does come to San Ria, will we really be able to evade notice? We depend on San Ria for supplies. There’s no way we can stay hidden forever…”
“Don’t worry,” Selesti said, “Valen hasn’t won the election just yet… and if he does, we’ll stand and fight. Whatever it takes. I won’t fall into the hands of the Moral Revolution. I’ll die before I let them touch me again.”
“You have spirit, Selesti,” Tami said, “I’m glad. Many here think that we should be peaceful, no matter what happens, that survival outweighs all else, but I fear they haven’t suffered enough to understand that there are far worse fates than death.”
“Tami…” Selesti felt a bond with Tami already. It was clear that the woman had suffered at the hands of the Moral Revolution, perhaps as much as she had. Perhaps she wasn’t alone in her pain.
“Well, here’s your room,” Tami said. The room was small and cozy, with a bed and a bookcase. A small statue of the goddess she had seen others praying to sat on the table.
“Who is your goddess?” Selesti asked, gesturing to the statuette, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before. But then, I never left Garania until recently.”
“She’s not a specific goddess,” Tami said, “Instead she’s supposed to embody the essence of femininity. It’s complicated, but it will be part of your training. When an acolyte prays to the statue, they are seeking a certain trait inside of themselves. A woman embodies many things; love, strength, a protective nature, the power to create. All and any of these things are within your grasp if you work hard to improve yourself.”
“All I want is peace,” Selesti said, “To feel safe, to heal…”
“As well as working with us, time also helps…” Tami said, “You’ll have your life back, Selesti, as long as you don’t let the past rule you.”
“That’s easy to say,” Selesti said, “I fear that time is my enemy and the past is still far too fresh to be anything more than a scab.”
“I’m sorry if I worried you with what I said,” Tami said, “I pushed my own fears onto you instead of becoming stronger to combat them, I fear.”
“It’s the truth,” Selesti said, “San Ria is in grave danger. You’d be a fool to ignore that.” She sat on the bed, “I shouldn’t be here. I should be with Alandra, stopping the Moral Revolution.”
“No, you should be here,” Tami said, “You need healing, I can see the discord within you. How long you’ll stay, I can’t say, but consider this; if you find peace within yourself, you’ll be better equipped to fight back against the Moral Revolution when the time comes. I feel stronger even after only a few months here. I know it seems like the pain is too great now… but you will start to feel better, Selesti. I just know it.”
“I hope so…” Selesti thought back over the last few months of her life. She had betrayed Arietta, the woman she thought she would spend her life with. She had slept with so many people, worked as a whore, “I just want to have respect for myself again…” she said.
“You will,” Tami said, “Rest awhile, Selesti. The journey up here was probably tiring. We’ll talk later, okay?”
“Okay,” Selesti said. Tami left, and she looked around the room. She knew she shouldn’t be tired, that she had rested plenty in Alandra’s care, but she wanted to rest, to enjoy the fact that she was safe, at least for now. Nobody could harm her here. Safety was something she had not felt much in the previous few months. In Garania she had always felt afraid, on the White Ship she was afraid of herself and her desire, and in San Ria she was afraid of selling her soul to the highest bidder. Now she was free, thanks to Alandra. Perhaps she had done things she hadn’t truly wanted to, but at the time they had been necessary, and she had been less afraid there then in Garania. In San Ria, the clients who had come to her for sex didn’t want to destroy her as a person, so it wasn’t as bad, but it was still not what she would have done if she’d been sane… if the Garanians hadn’t abused her body and soul.
She laid back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. Closing her eyes, she sighed and let herself relax. She was safe now, and the past, no matter how recent, was the past. The future, too, lay ahead… but that was for tomorrow. Right now, she could sleep in peace, as though she was a child again, safe and at home with her parents.
Tami walked down the hallway to her own room. Her best friend, Selyna, a bookish girl with glasses and brown hair, was sitting in her room waiting for her.
“You look happy,” Selyna said, “What happened?”
“I met an interesting woman,” Tami said, “Her name is Selesti, she just arrived this morning. I’d love for you to meet her, I think you’d get along well.”
“Usually you’re shy,” Selyna said, “How did you meet her?”
“Elise introduced us,” Tami said, “She said I was to look out for Selesti and train her in our ways.”
“She thinks you could be a good match,” Selyna said, “Elise is always matchmaking.”
“She doesn’t know anything about Selesti,” Tami said, “There’s no way she could make such a judgement!” She reddened, “I’m not ready for a relationship anyway…”
“You’ll have to be someday,” Selyna said, “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life alone, do you? Love is one of the aspects of femininity – embrace it, and be whole.”
“Perhaps,” Tami said, “I don’t even know much about Selesti yet. Just because I got a good first impression doesn’t mean I want to spend my life with her!”
“I know that,” Selyna said, “I just want to see you happy, Tami. After what you went through… you deserve it.”
When Selesti woke, sunlight was streaming in through the window in the ceiling. She washed herself with the basin of cool water that had been left for her, and dressed in the white robes she had been given. White robes,’she thought, but I am no maiden. There is nothing pure about me. Even before the Moral Revolution…
There was a knock on the door. “Come,” Selesti commanded, and the wooden door swung open. Tami stood in the doorway, dressed in her white robes. She looked Selesti over, then nodded.
“Your training begins today,” she said, “But first we must eat. Come with me, I’ll show you the mess hall.”
Selesti followed Tami, trying to map in her head the maze of corridors that made up the temple. Sandy stone made up the walls, and it looked as through the temple had been standing for thousands of years, perhaps even longer than San Ria itself.
“How did this all start?” Selesti asked, as they walked, “Was this temple always here, a sanctuary away from the world?”
“The temple was here long before we were,” Tami said, “The Lady only founded the temple after the Moral Revolution started to spread out from the Arian Empire. Refugees started to flee and come to San Ria… and eventually we banded together and formed this place. I shouldn’t say, “we” – this place was here long before I arrived.”
“The White Ship is looking for a Sanctuary, too,” Selesti said, “My ex-girlfriend is traveling with them.”
“The Lady respects Lady Thea and has co-ordinated efforts with her on a few occasions, but ultimately, they felt they had different goals. We don’t want to fight or establish a country of our own. Our goals are self-betterment and survival. We’re happy to rely on San Ria for food and goods, and for the most part we try to avoid being dragged into politics… though the recent situation with Valen has us all worried. The San Rian authorities have always left us alone, but we’re afraid under Valen, they won’t. Then where will we go?”
“Perhaps we’ll have to fight,” Selesti said, “I’m ready if that situation arises.”
“I don’t think the Lady will let us,” Tami sighed, “She’s a pacifist, Selesti. All our weapons are locked away in the vaults. I try to tell myself that she’ll have no choice if Valen’s men come here, but I’m not so sure.”
“She’d let us be taken away by Valen?” Selesti said, “I must speak with her, tell her what the Moral Revolution is really about!”
“She knows,” Tami said, putting her hand on Selesti’s shoulder, “Calm down, Selesti, you’re shaking. I’m sorry I spoke too much. I’m full of fears lately, but I’m sure they’re unfounded.”
Selesti shook her head, “I thought I was coming to a safe place, a sanctuary. Now I’m not so sure.”
Tami stopped, and Selesti nearly walked into her. Tami took her hand, “Come with me,” she said. They climbed stairs and hurried through hallways until they reached a huge cavernous room. A huge statue stood in the back and light streamed through windows on all sides. Selesti stood in awe, bathed in the sun’s light. It reminded her of the heat of Garania, and for a second she was back there, standing on the roof of her home with Arietta by her side. They were laughing about something that she didn’t remember now, some joke, something that had made them smile. Politics had never interested them, and beyond a little disappointment that they would never have children, Selesti and Arietta’s families had accepted their romance. They could have been together always… but that now that was gone forever.
Selesti found there were tears in her eyes. She had been so filled with desire for such a long time that she hadn’t had the chance to deal with the fact that she had lost Arietta forever. Fulfilling her desires and sating her needs had kept her busy… until now. Now the loss hit her hard.
“Selesti, are you okay?” Tami held her arm and looked into her eyes, concerned, “I just brought you here in hopes you could see what we have built… and have faith that the Lady won’t let us down. This is a place of peace… but I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s all right,” Selesti said, “The bright sunshine… just reminded me of better days, that’s all. I have a lot to work out, Tami. A lot has happened to me, and I haven’t had any time to deal with it.”
“That’s what this place is all about,” Tami said, “How about I leave you here, to meditate on things awhile? If you get lost finding the mess hall, just ask anybody.”
“Okay,” Selesti said, and Tami was gone before she knew it. Had she offended the girl somehow, made her leery? Perhaps her pain had showed in her eyes and scared Tami away? She knelt down in front of the statue of a beautiful woman, her serene eyes staring lifelessly out at the world.
“Where do I start?” she whispered. She looked around her, conscious of the fact that it was a public place and others might be watching, but there was nobody around, so she closed her eyes, and she remembered.
“Where’s Selesti?” Selyna asked as Tami brought a plate of food over to the table.
“I took her to the Place of Peace,” Tami said, “She’s been through a lot. She needs to find peace, find herself before she can learn any of our ways.”
“What happened?” Selyna asked, “You look sad.”
“I just… I hate to see her so broken. I don’t know what they did to her, but I can only assume it was similar to what happened to me. And I can’t help but wonder… are we doing the right thing here, hiding away and being peaceful? Perhaps we are letting it happen to hundreds of others out there. What if we should be fighting to end the Moral Revolution?” Tami ate slowly, poking the food around on her plate.
“Fighting is not the way,” Selyna said, “We’d just get killed, or captured again. Are you willing to say you’d go back to that?”
“No,” Tami said, “I just wonder if there’ll ever be an end to this, or whether we’ll spend our entire lives hiding away while the Moral Revolution consumes everything. It won’t be so easy for us if Valen wins the election in San Ria. Will we wait until it’s too late to fight back?”
“No more talk of fighting,” Selyna said, “Tami, we’ve been friends for a long time… and you’ve never been like this. So Selesti’s in a lot of pain… but so are all the new recruits! They come here to heal. That’s what this place is for… healing. If you want to fight, chase down the White Ship or join the Resistance. But I don’t think you’re ready for that. I’ve known you for long enough to know you’re still healing. Maybe Selesti frightens you, because you see yourself when you first came here… all that pain and suffering brought back to you. But this is a test of your character. Show me that you can teach Selesti without becoming a victim of her pain and yours… and I will celebrate, because I will know you are truly healed.”
Tami pushed her plate away from her, “I should go and meditate,” she said, “I have a lot to think about.”
“She’s awfully wound up,” one of the women at the table said, “She’s usually so calm… what’s the matter with her?”
“I don’t know,” Selyna said, “She’s just emotional at the moment. I think she likes that new recruit… I just hope it’s not clouding her judgement.”
“Elise.” Selyna stopped the older woman in the hallway, “I want to talk to you.”
“What’s the matter?” Elise said.
“I think that Selesti woman is a bad influence on Tami. Tami was so peaceful and shy before… Now she’s talking about fighting back against the Moral Revolution!”
“She’s only known Selesti for a day, Selyna,” Elise said, “Perhaps these feelings were always present in Tami, she just never showed them to you until now.”
“I’m still concerned,” Selyna said, “We are pacifists. I don’t want Tami to fight back against Valen and get killed!”
“There is altogether too much panic about Valen,” Elise said, “He hasn’t been elected to anything yet! Jamien Talenqua’s assassination hasn’t destroyed the world. They are still planning to put forward another candidate. Why would his supporters jump to support Valen? Fear is a weakness, Selyna. If you love Tami, then be a protector and ease her fears of the Moral Revolution. In the meantime, I will speak to the Lady. It is past time we made a statement to calm everybody’s fears.”
“I suppose,” Selyna said, “We can’t help but be afraid. So many of us have suffered under the Moral Revolution. How many people here are from the Arian Empire or Garania? The stories coming from those places are truly horrific. Those women didn’t get it easy like us, growing up in San Ria with just a few conservatives calling us names. They’ve been raped, their friends and lovers put to death–”
“I know that,” Elise said, bowing her head, “Sometimes I think I haven’t suffered enough to be qualified for this role. How can I advise all these women who have been through such horror? I don’t know how they will react if Valen does win the election. I’m not sure even the Lady’s command will still them. Everything we have worked hard for here could be torn apart… but I can’t bring myself to blame them for wanting to fight.”
“Perhaps we have to fight to protect our way of life,” Selyna said, “That frightens me more than anything. Perhaps we should have just joined the White Ship when it came to port.”
“Don’t say that,” Elise said, “We have our own unique philosophy and it’s not going to die. I wish them well on their journey, but their path is different to ours.”
“Well, what is our path?” Selyna said, “Does the Lady have a plan if Valen wins?”
“I’m going to consult with the Lady and make a speech later,” Elise said, “Please try to calm Tami and any others talking of fighting back.”
“I’ll try,” Selyna said, as Elise glided away, “But I’m not entirely sure I can…”
Selesti felt a hand on her shoulder and turned, “Tami,” she said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She felt a calmness inside herself having released all her burdens.
“Did it feel good to cry?” Tami asked, “I cried a lot too, when I first came here. It takes time to ease all the burdens we have suffered, to heal. I didn’t really want to heal. I thought that it might be like forgetting what happened, like letting it go. I didn’t want those crimes to go unpunished while others out there still suffered…” Tami knelt down beside Selesti, “Time has helped, though. I don’t feel as angry now. I just miss the people I lost.”
“What happened to you?” Selesti wondered out loud, “I mean — you don’t have to,” she corrected.
“No, I want to talk about it. That way– it doesn’t become like it never happened.”
Selesti looked into Tami’s eyes. They were calm, like the deep blue sea. I’ll never feel that calm about my experiences, she thought, No matter how many years pass me by, I’ll only ever feel hate for the ones who raped and abused me. But– I wonder if I’ll ever stop hating myself, for what I did in their name?
“I lived in the Arian Empire,” she said, “I wasn’t born there, but my father was a trader and trade was always good in Arian, so we settled there. Then the Moral Revolution erupted. My father wasn’t concerned — he believed in the Empire’s ideals and thought it was a good place to raise a family. I saw lots of men and women beaten, hanged — they were tough times. I was a teenager, just trying to understand my place in the world, but I hadn’t gotten there yet. My father was always saying that we should be good and do what the authorities said.”
“There were two women who lived next door to us. Joan and Lena. My father always said how disgusting they were, and my mother covered my eyes whenever they were around, but I didn’t understand why. One day I was returning home late with a loaf of bread from the bakery when I saw they had left their curtains open. I was curious, and looked in their window. They were in bed together, making love. I was aroused and I was scared. I ran home and told my father, and the next day, I saw them being taken away at gunpoint. I never saw them again, and my father told me what a good girl I had been.”
Selesti’s eyes were wide. I cannot judge this woman, she thought, Look at what I did to Arietta, selling her out– and I was a fully grown woman, understanding my actions and their consequences.
“It was maybe six months later that I met Sarah. We went to the Arian Academy together. I don’t know what it was about her that I liked, the way she moved, the way she was always so kind to me, but I fell in love with her. And I hated myself for it. I told myself that Joan and Lena had cursed me to feel this way. I ended up asking my father for a transfer to a different academy. He wanted to know why, and I told him that I was having what I described at the time as evil feelings.”
“My mother cried a lot, and my father looked broken and defeated, “You understand,” he said, “what happens to women who like women in that way in this country?” I shook my head, “The government kills them,” he said, and for the first time I truly let myself understand what had happened to Joan and Lena. What I had done to them with my big mouth.”
“You were just a child,” Selesti said, “How could you have understood?”
“I should have known,” Tami said, “My heart told me that it wasn’t right, but I did it anyway, because I wanted my parents to approve of me, for society to look up to me. I sold them out for approval.”
“What happened next?” Selesti asked.
“I asked to be sent to a reeducation camp,” Tami said, “I still didn’t accept myself, and I blamed myself for Joan and Lena’s deaths. I didn’t let Sarah’s name slip, and I don’t know what happened to her, but I was shipped away.”
“Because my family were good citizens and I was there willingly, conditions were better for me. They kept me isolated, and made me read a lot of their literature. I had to take lessons on how to be a good wife. I thought that perhaps I could do it, perhaps I could be cured, so to speak, until the final test came– I had to… let one of the guards have me. It hurt, and I was afraid, but I submitted, just to go home.”
“They sent me home, but not before marching me past cells filled with emaciated, tortured women. They told me that what I had been through was easy, compared to what would happen if they ever had cause to send me back again.”
Selesti saw her cell again, the experiments, the torture, the repeated rapes. Tears came again. Tami held her close, “If you want me to stop, I’ll stop,” she whispered, “I didn’t mean to upset you, truly I didn’t.”
“It’s okay,” Selesti said, “Please, go on.”
“My father was reluctant to have me back, but the authorities insisted he either take me, or I would be put to death, so he took me back into his home. I helped him with his trading business, and tried to forget everything that had happened. I thought I could be asexual, live without sex and the pain and fear it had brought for me. But then I met Amber. She was the daughter of a captain of a ship from San Ria that was trading with my father. She was daring and wild, a true tomboy, and I was fascinated and excited by her. She took me to her cabin one day and touched me, and I backed away, “No,” I said, “It’s not safe to want another in the Arian Empire.”
“They’ve hurt you, haven’t they?” she said, “I can tell. I’d heard tales of the Moral Revolution. I’m sorry…” She took her hand from my breast but I moved it back. I wanted her and threw caution to the winds.”
“Take me with you to San Ria,” I said, in the afterglow of our lovemaking, “I want to see the city of freedom with my own eyes.”
“Are you sure it would be okay?” Amber asked, “You have a life here…”
“A sexless, loveless empty husk of a life,” I said to her, “Take me with you, please…” and she relented. She told me to meet her on the docks the next morning. When I went, the ship was surrounded by soldiers. I thought that Amber was doomed but her father pulled the ship out of port, throwing the soldiers off the deck of his ship. I thought that the Arian Empire would give chase but they didn’t. Amber got away — but I was trapped, fearing they somehow knew about Amber and I.”
“So how did you escape?” Selesti asked.
“I knew they would be after me, so I didn’t go home again. I stole provisions from the dock and made off with a rowboat. There were soldiers shouting at me to stop, but they didn’t give pursuit. I thought I was free, but I had to sleep. I drifted while I couldn’t row. Provisions ran low quickly, and I was lost at sea. Then a storm came. I tried to keep the water out, but my boat was shattered into driftwood against some rocks. The last thing I remember was being swept over the side. When I woke, I was onboard a ship. I was afraid. I remember wondering if I had escaped the Arian Empire just to be returned there, but the captain was San Rian and he offered to take me to San Ria, so long as I worked my passage. I did so, and arrived in the city.”
“How did you find the Temple?” Selesti asked, “It’s well hidden.”
“I had nothing when I arrived,” Tami said, “Penniless, in a strange city, I was terrified. I took sanctuary at the Church of the Fire God, and it’s there I heard rumors of a temple in the forest that was a sanctuary for women. I had nothing to lose, so I ventured out into the forest, and I found this place. They welcomed me with open arms, and I’ve lived here ever since, trying to make sense of everything I did and everything that happened to me. Sometimes I wake in the night and I still feel like it was all my fault… If I hadn’t given up Joan and Lena, how would my life have been different?”
“You can’t change it now,” Selesti said, “You were young, you made a mistake.”
“For them it wasn’t just a mistake!” Tami said, “It cost them their lives!”
“You don’t know that,” Selesti said, “They may still be alive, somewhere.”
“It may be better if they’re not…” Tami said.
“Either way, it’s done,” Selesti said, “All that’s happened to us is already done. None of it can be taken back.” She looked down at the floor, “No amount of suffering on your part is going to change it. Same with me. Victim or no, what happened to me will still have happened. I don’t want to cry about it. I want to be stronger, to overcome it.”
“That fact that we still keep living is a rebellion in itself, Selyna once told me,” Tami said, “They want to break us, to destroy us. They want us to hate ourselves, to question everything we do and have done. They want us to implode under the weight of our burdens and disappear from the world.”
“That’s the truth,” Selesti said, “But it doesn’t make it easier, does it? Sometimes I still wonder if it’s all my fault this happened to me. I don’t know why I feel guilty, but I do.”
“I’m grateful I met you,” Tami said, “I’ve met a lot of women here, heard a lot of different stories, but you’re the first person who really gets it, I can tell.”
“I suppose it’s only fair I tell you my story,” Selesti said, “I grew up in Garania, young, wild, carefree, bisexual. Not something that really bothered my family. I wasn’t worried about the Moral Revolution when it started gaining traction because I never thought that the Garanian people would vote for it.”
“But they did,” Tami said.
“I was so afraid the day of the election, when they came to power. I hadn’t even voted, and I cried. Arietta Sashrady, my girlfriend, was even more frightened than I was. She suggested we go into hiding right away. So we separated for a while, started seeing each other only when we knew people could cover for us, that we’d be safe. We saw a lot of our friends just disappear. I considered ending the relationship altogether, but Arietta would have none of it. She was such a rebellious spirit…”
“I’d been out for a long time, though, A lot of people knew me. I never knew who gave me up, but it doesn’t really matter, I supposed they were tortured to give names and they did. I hadn’t seen Arietta in so long that I was lonely, and weak — easy prey for the woman they sent my way to sting me. They caught me with her, and took me away. Arietta didn’t see me much, and information was hard to relay, so she didn’t know I’d been taken.”
“I was so afraid that I gave up a lot of names. But they still tortured me. They said they wanted to experiment on me, and they did, injecting me with all kinds of things. My sex drive went out of control. They thought that made me a useful tool to catch others, so they sent me home. It was only three days, but it felt like a lifetime.”
“I didn’t want Arietta to know what had happened to me. I felt so dirty, yet I wanted more. I hadn’t seen Arietta in so long and all I thought about was sex. I slept with a lot of different people. Whores, lesbians, men, I even attended an orgy. The Decency Guard was always right behind me.”
“It broke me to betray the people I’d always been friends with, and the ideals of openness and sexual freedom I’d always believed in. I tried to stay away from Arietta, knowing they would take her, but she snuck a note to me. I was weak, missing her, wanting her, and so I went, and the Decency Guard, having found my girlfriend who they’d been waiting for me to give up, took us both into custody.”
“We were going to be executed, I knew it, but we were lucky– some White Knights from the White Ship were also due to be executed that day, and their friends led a rescue. Arietta saved my life, even after what I’d done to her. The next thing I knew, I was aboard the White Ship. Everybody was happy because they were safe, they had been freed, but I was burning up inside with desire, and I’d just been delivered into a world of temptation. I slept my way around the ship, and I finally told Arietta what had happened to me back in Garania. We broke up, but amicably, because we could no longer offer the right things to each other. I thought it was best if I leave the ship, so I departed in San Ria. But the need was still strong. I wound up in a brothel, begging for somebody to help me. Alandra took me in and told me I could work for her, and I did. Then I started to get sick. First the need started to get worse, then I burned up with a fever. Alandra protects her girls like family, though. She braved the tension and violence in the city to get me the cure I needed. She helped me get better, even though it meant I couldn’t work for her any more. She made love to me, in order to cure me of my fears of sex, and she sent me here, to start again. I owe her my life…”
“San Ria is a wonderful city, with generous people,” Tami said, “That’s why I’m so afraid of losing it.”
“I wanted to stay and fight with Alandra,” Selesti said, “but she told me it was her fight, and that I needed to rest. She snuck me out of the city, and here I am. I’m so restless, though. I can’t just sit here and do nothing! The Lady may be a pacifist, but I am not, and I can’t just sit here and watch while Alandra gets killed!”
“Are you really that afraid of feeling safe?” Tami said, “This is the best place you can be right now.”
“I don’t deserve to feel safe,” Selesti said. Not after everything that’s happened. When I fought back against those guards at the jail, I felt more alive then I had ever felt when I was free on their leash. I’m strong, I’m young, I was born to fight. I want to fight back, instead of letting them control me for the rest of my life. Don’t you?”
“But the Lady is calm, controlled, powerful,” Tami said, “Peace will make you a stronger person then all the rage that’s inside you.”
“Is that really true?” Selesti asked, “Inner peace isn’t going to mean a damn thing to Valen.”
“Forget about Valen for a second,” Tami said, “Sit still, and close your eyes.” Selesti ddi as she was told. Tami put her hands on Selesti’s shoulders, “Let it all go,” she said, “Everything you’ve told me here today — let it go.”
Selesti started to relax, but then she shook her head, “I can’t,” she said, “I can’t be like you, Tami. I thought this would be my Sanctuary, but I don’t think this is the place for me after all. I can’t just let it go. The rage is all that sustains me any more. I won’t have peace until the Moral Revolution is wiped from the face of the world forever.” She went to stand up, but Tami pulled her back down.
“Don’t go,” Tami said, “Please…” The tears were wet in her eyes, and Selesti felt guilty inside.
“It’s not your fault,” Selesti said, her hand gently stroking Tami’s hair, “You’ve been kind to me Tami, and I appreciate it. But I’m no priestess, and I can’t just sit here while the world turns to ashes.” She stood up and walked away.
“Lady, please help me,” Elise said, bowing down at the altar. She was in the Lady’s room, a room restricted to only her and a few others who knew the true nature of the Lady’s existence. She reached through the magic that held the Lady in stasis and caressed her blonde hair as she slept. She thought the Lady loosened her grip on the flowers she held a little, but she knew she was only dreaming.
“Lycia,” she whispered, “My love.” She tried not to cry, but tears were all too eager to come to her eyes, “I don’t know what to do,” she said, “You were always so strong, so brave… until the Moral Revolution reduced you to this. Now my only hope is that we can protect you long enough for me to find the cure for your disease.”
“Elise,” a man said, sweeping into the room in long, white robes, “We are doing all we can. I’ve studied every book I could get hold of from San Ria and beyond on the subject of the sickness, but information is hard to come by these days.”
“Rygar… I ask myself sometimes: am I doing the right thing?” Elise asked, “Perhaps I should have let Lycia die. Making her into a religion was perhaps the worst thing I could have done. Just because I worship her and want to protect her…”
“Lycia is beautiful, feminine, noble and kind, a wonderful person. An example to others,” Rygar said. He tucked his long, brown hair behind his ears, a habit of his when he was thinking, “The Moral Revolution wanted to use her as a tool. They gave her this virus in hopes she would spread it to every woman she came into sexual contact with. They should have known better then to pick Lycia.”
“Always pure… Determined to wait until we were married… even though no land would marry us. In her own strange way, she saved my life,” Elise said, “I’m no pure maiden like her, though, and all those damaged, errant women out there aren’t either.”
“It doesn’t matter to her how others choose to live their lives,” Rygar said, “It’s just how she is. Her personal code of conduct. You know how she works.”
“I know,” Elise said, “I’ve loved her for all these years from afar, with no more than a kiss. There were times when I thought I would go mad for want of what others had, but she always told me that as long as we could not have everything we wanted, we would continue to fight for it.”
“And yet you became a pacifist,” Rygar said, “You locked the swords away and said no more fighting. Now your pupils grow restless, and you cannot still them. They have suffered untold horrors, and understood that there are fates much worse than death. They will not let Valen take them away without a fight.”
“What would you have me do?” Elise said, “They were all so angry when they came here. They didn’t want to learn or improve themselves, they didn’t want to overcome adversity, they just wanted to fight. Making peace a basic tenet of their spiritual teachings helped them.”
“There are times to make peace and times to fight,” Rygar sighed, “Elise, you’re my sister, you’re smart. You know that if Valen wins, he’s not going to let this place alone. You should be training them to fight, so they can protect this place, and Lycia.”
“Perhaps that’s my problem,” Elise said, “I brought them here, telling them I could help them. But it’s I who needed the help, to save Lycia. I needed the resources to keep her in stasis and hidden from the world. Those women grow our crops so we can sell them to San Ria and use the profits to fund research. But they don’t even know Lycia, beyond what they know as the Lady. How would they react to know that their teachings are a lie, invented to protect my own interests?”
“You might find them more sympathetic than you realize,” Rygar said, “So many of them have lost people they loved.”
“No, I can’t tell them,” Elise said, “Lycia is ashamed to suffer from what she calls the blood plague, as if she did something to deserve it. I won’t tell them what happened to her, I won’t. Her dignity is everything to her.”
“It should be her life you’re fighting for, not her dignity,” Rygar said, “Lofty ideals are for safe people.”
“Selesti,” Tami stood at the door to Selesti’s room. Selesti had already changed back into her civilian clothes and had packed her few possessions.
“You’re not going to change my mind,” Selesti said, “I can’t stay in a place where I don’t belong. It would be lying to myself and everybody here.”
“I’m not asking you to stay forever, or to change who you are.” Tami said, “The election is tomorrow, and I’m afraid. Please stay until after the election! Teach me to fight so that if we lose, I can fight back!”
“Won’t the Lady disapprove?” Selesti asked.
“Perhaps,” Tami said, “But our survival is more important. You may be the only hope we have. The Lady will not fight, and Elise follows her in everything, so you’re the only one who will teach us.”
“What is the Lady like?” Selesti asked, “Perhaps Elise will not listen, but if I could get an audience with the Lady, might she hear us?”
“Nobody has ever seen the Lady except Elise,” Tami said, “She lives in the back room of the temple, alone. She instructs Elise on what to do, and Elise passes the orders onto us. Elise is very protective of her — she’s not going to let you in, I can tell you now.”
“Why live isolated from the people you are trying to teach?” Selesti asked. “It makes no sense.”
“She’s supposed to be a spiritual figure, the very essence of femininity,” Tami says, “Personally, I doubt she exists. I think Elise is truly the one in charge, but some believe in her, so don’t say that out loud.”
Selesti nodded, “If Valen comes, are you willing to fight? Truly?”
“Yes,” Tami said, “I’ve heard others in the mess hall say the same thing. We could group together, and you could teach us how to fight back… I have no combat training, but you can handle yourself. Help us, Selesti. Help us stop the Moral Revolution from taking us again.”
Selesti reached into her bag and pulled out her knives. Perhaps this is what I was sent here to do, she thought, and nodded.
“The resistance begins here,” Selesti said, and Tami simply nodded.
“No, like this,” Selesti showed Tami how to stab with the knife as a group of about twenty women looked on. When Tami had spread the word, many had come to their meeting, eager to gain some power over the demons that were towering over them.
“I’m sorry,” Tami said, “I’m so nervous. I’ll feel better when the messenger gets back with the election results.”
“I wish I could vote here,” Selesti said, “But I’m Garanian, so I have no voice in San Ria. I’m glad you all went, though.”
“I’ll stab you with this knife if I find out any of you voted for Valen!” Tami said, and laughter broke out.
The day had been nervous, filled with tension both inside the temple and in the city. Fights had broken out at ballot boxes, and a few reports of voter intimidation from Valen’s men had spread to their ears. They had gone to cast their votes in civilian clothes and returned to the temple quickly, and now the sun had set and they were waiting, passing the time with Selesti’s combat training, waiting for the messenger to return with news of the result. Elise was in the courtyard pacing, her brother Rygar telling her to relax, but she only resumed wandering in circles. Selesti had considered going to her and asking about the weapons locked in the vault, but she decided it was a bad time. If Valen won, he might not be at their doorstep for a while. They had time, and she knew she should choose her moment carefully, for there was more than Elise’s resistance to overcome. Tami’s friend, Selyna, had threatened to report the meeting when she had heard about it, and only Tami’s insistence she not had kept her from ending the combat lessons before they started.
Finally they saw a torch light up the darkness outside the window and they rushed out to the courtyard.
“Stay back,” Elise said, as the messenger approached, “I don’t mean to make this harder, but the confusion of many voices may make this difficult.”
They craned forward to hear as Elise talked to the messenger. There was much gesturing and shaking of heads, and Selesti knew what the result was before Elise turned to them, pale faced and tear stricken and said simply, “Valen won.”
Shouting and questions broke out, but Selesti slipped away. She knew all she needed to know. The Moral Revolution had won the hearts and minds of the people again, somehow. She felt anger rise up in her. Why did people betray her so? How could they vote for Valen, after hearing the whispered tales from Garania and Arian of torture and disappearances? It made no sense.
Tami found her in her room, sitting on her bed, shaking. Tami’s face was streaked where she had been crying.
“I should have stayed on the White Ship,” Selesti said, “They have the only chance of finding a true safe haven now that democracy has failed us.”
“The White Ship left port after Jamien Talenqua’s assassination,” Tami said, “Besides, it’s not over yet. When Valen comes, we’ll fight back. We won’t go down without a fight.”
“A few poorly trained women won’t hold back Valen’s city guard,” Selesti said, “I shouldn’t have stayed. I fooled myself into thinking I could be useful here, that somehow we had a chance.”
“We do have a chance,” Tami said. She sat beside Selesti and hugged her close, “I won’t give up. I won’t. And if you won’t fight, I’ll take your knives and fight for you. I won’t ever let them take you back! I swear it!”
They were both crying as their lips tentatively met, then realizing they were accepted, they kissed deeper. Warm arms encircled each other, giving comfort and love and they gave in to it, needing to let each other in.
“We’re lost,” Elise said, pacing the Lady’s room. Tears were flowing freely. Rygar sat in the corner, stunned.
“We could relocate Lycia,” Rygar said, “If I could find a way to contact the White Ship, I’m sure Lady Thea would help us.”
“They can’t,” Elise said, “They had to flee after Talenqua’s assassination. Some even thought it was their fault. I won’t risk their safety for my own needs.”
“Then we have nowhere to go,” Rygar said, “Arian, Garania, San Ria… all the significant nations of our world are under the control of the Moral Revolution. We could flee to the wilderness, but then we won’t have the power to keep Lycia in stasis.”
“If she spends much longer awake, she will die,” Elise said, “I used all her time for my own whims, waking her to spend time with her. Now I can’t save her.”
“Feeling guilty won’t change it,” Rygar said, “What’s done is done, sister.”
“What to do? Do I release the weapons and let them fight, or try to appease Valen somehow? Maybe if we forbade all relationships for a while…” Elise sat down in a chair and put her head in her hands.
“They won’t come overnight, Elise. Take time to think, when you have rested.” Rygar looked down at Lycia’s peaceful face. What would you do, Lady?
When the bell rang, Selesti woke with a start. Tami was naked next to her, and she stirred, her eyes widening as she heard the bell. They dressed quickly and hurried out into the hallway. Lots of confused women were scattered about, some holding the first thing they could find to use as a weapon. Finally Elise came through and waved them all towards the cathedral. When they were all assembled, Elise walked to the front and stood on the dais, hushing them. The room fell silent.
“As you all probably know, Valen won the election,” Elise said, “The Moral Revolution is here.” They all knew it, but some broke into tears anyway, for hearing it again cemented the horrible nightmare into a thing of reality.
“We have to avoid Valen’s notice. If we can pass ourselves off as celibate priestesses, we may avoid his glare. But the Moral Revolution has spies. I trust all of you here, now, but others will come and we cannot turn them away without drawing attention. So we must be what we say we are. Relationships are hereby forbidden until further notice. You can be friends, but kissing is off limits, and each person must stay in their own room at night, by themselves.”
“You can’t do that!” Selesti cried, “We came here to flee the Moral Revolution, not to become it!” There were nods and murmurs of assent among the crowd.
“Then what do you suggest we do?” Elise said.
“Fight back!” Selesti said, “Get the weapons out of the vault and train everybody here how to use them!”
“The city guard will crush all of us,” Elise said, “Do you want to die? I’m tired to hearing all this talk of fighting. You have no sense of reality! The Moral Revolution has taken over three countries — and you honestly think you can fight it with forty women? Wake up!”
Behind her, Rygar left the room without any emotion. Selesti shook her head, “I’m done here,” she said, “If you won’t fight, then you will face a fate worse than death! Do you think Valen will really believe you are priestesses? And don’t think he’ll let you follow the Lady — the Moral Revolution has its own god, and he is not kind nor forgiving! Valen will tear this place apart and make you follow his god, and if he’s not happy with what he sees, he’ll brand you as traitors and kill you anyway. His reputation proceeds him, and it is not a good one. He has brought the Moral Revolution down on the world with an iron fist, and completely believes he is saving the world. Not words nor pleas for mercy will stop him! I know, because I lived in Garania when he came there!”
Uproar broke out as Selesti left the room. Tami chased after her, “You can’t leave us now!” she cried, “I love you, Selesti, don’t go!”
That made Selesti turn around, “Everything’s a mess,” she said, “I can’t protect you, I can’t save myself, and I can’t help them.”
“The answer to all three problems is simple,” Tami pulled Selesti’s knife from her robes and pressed it into her hands, “Take control.”
Take control… Of these women, of myself, of my demons… Yes… Selesti took the knife from its sheath and walked back into the room.
“Elise!” She rang out a challenge across the room, “You tell us you follow the Lady, but who is the Lady? Let’s see her!” Selesti walked with purpose across the room, “Follow me and we’ll see!” She threw open the double doors and headed down the hallway, women following behind her.
Elise pushed through them, “No, you wouldn’t dare!” she said, but Selesti was determined.
“If I’m going to give up everything I am, I at least want to know who my master is!” she said, “I’m not a sheep, to follow every order blindly! What if you are working for Valen and this was your plan all along, to gain our trust and make us give up loving women!”
“No, I would never…!” Elise said in horror.
“Then let us see the Lady!” Selesti said, “Prove to us that what you say is true!”
The doors opened, but Selesti did not open them. Instead, it was Rygar standing behind the doors.
“Rygar… no, you can’t!” Elise said.
“I have to, Elise,” he said, “It’s for the best.” He opened the doors wide so the assembled women could see Lycia resting.
“What… who is she? Why is she sleeping? What is that light?” Selesti asked, as she saw Lycia.
“That’s Lycia… the love of my life, and the reason you are all here. The Moral Revolution experimented on her. They thought that if they gave her a sexually transmitted virus, that it would do their work for them and kill us all. But they chose the wrong person when they chose Lycia. She’s a maiden, and has never been with anybody, even me. She was waiting until the world became free enough that we could be married…”
“The virus is killing her,” Rygar took over, “We keep her in stasis in hopes that someday, we might find a cure. You have helped keep her alive without even knowing it. The work you do here, growing crops, trading with the locals… has given us money to do research. But sadly, we are no closer to a cure…”
“I’m sorry…” Selesti said, “I understand what you’re doing here and I sympathize, but you’re still wrong, Elise. I won’t become like them to keep them away.”
“Elise!” A guard came rushing through the assembled crowd, “Valen’s men are here! He’s told us to open up in the name of the Moral Revolution! We’re trying to stall him, but…”
“Perhaps I can talk to him,” Elise said, “Maybe he will listen to reason…”
“There is no reason in that man’s mind!” Selesti said, “Don’t you get it?”
“Lycia!” Rygar called out, “What the hell?” Everybody turned and looked at Lycia.
Lycia sat up, breaking through the stasis field, “Rygar, go to the vault, get the weapons… take some of the women to help you… go!” she commanded.
Rygar paused for a second… “How did you break through the stasis? You’ll die if you’re awake for too long!”
“I couldn’t move, but I could hear you as I slept… I managed to use my will to break through the stasis field. This folly must continue no longer. Elise, I am not worth sacrificing all these lives for. If it is my time, then I think I have finally accepted it. I’ll die with a sword in my hand, as myself. Don’t sell your dignity to save my body. I’m already lost…”
“No!” Elise said, “Go back to sleep, we’ll find the cure!”
“Perhaps, someday,” Lycia said, “But I’m not willing to sacrifice everybody for my own life. It’s only now that I understand how foolish I’ve been… I should have let myself be who I truly am. Elise, we were married in spirit all along, but I under realized it. I let myself be dictated to by the rules of the world, and thought it was better to wait for the world to accept me then to fight to be accepted. I can’t change things now, but I can help you. Don’t sell your soul to Valen. Fight back!”
Rygar and his assistants came back with weapons. Lycia picked up a sword, “I can barely lift it,” she confessed, “but I will fight with you now. I’d rather die here then die slowly.”
The women all rushed for weapons. Selesti looked at Lycia with admiration as she gripped her dagger, “Our own revolution begins here!” she cried, and they marched to the gate, ready to fight back against Valen and the Moral Revolution.
The battle was hard. Selesti looked around for Tami, but another guard was upon her and she fought him, ducking the swing of his axe and stabbing low. He fell, but there was another to take his place.
Meanwhile, Lycia had found Valen in the melee. She smiled as she held her her sword. “On guard,” she said.
“You,” he said, eyes wide, “You’re still alive? Ha! You’ll never be strong enough to defeat me in your state!”
“I’ll never let you get away with what you did to me,” Lycia said, “Even if it means my death, I’m ready.” She rained down blows on him with all her strength, but he was stronger. He disarmed her and her sword clattered away uselessly. She fell backwards, and Valen was ready to strike with the killing blow when a sword stuck him in the stomach. His eyes fell open with surprise and he stumbled forward as Elise pulled her sword out.
“Retreat!” he moaned, and his soldiers, realizing their leader had been seriously wounded, rushed forward to carry him away.
Lycia looked up at Elise, “I’m still alive,” she said, “How?”
“It’s not your time yet,” Elise said, before hugging Lycia tightly.
“They’ll be back,” Selesti said, “Even if Valen dies, the Moral Revolution won’t fall so easily. It’ll take the combined strength of San Ria to expel it.”
“For now, we are safe, though,” Tami said. Selesti saw her approaching, dropped her knives and hugged her tightly, “You’re okay?”
“Yeah,” Tami said, “I’m better than okay.”
“What now?” Elise asked, “I’ve been such a fool…”
“Stand down as leader,” Lycia said, “You can’t lead these people and search for a cure. The conflict of interest is too great.”
“You’re right,” Elise said, “Selesti, you have proven yourself to be strong and capable. I am going on a journey to get more information about Lycia’s illness… Will you lead these women into the light?”
“I will,” Selesti said. Those gathered around cheered for their new leader. Tami looked at Selesti with pride and admiration.
“Now I go back to sleeping,” Lycia said, “and await the day you find the cure…”
Elise kissed her, “I’ll keep working on it,” she said, “I’ll never give up…”
“I know,” Lycia said, “I believe in you, Elise. I’ll be waiting.”
“Come on,” Rygar said, leading Lycia away, “You need to return to stasis…” Lycia looked back at Elise as she walked away, drinking in every image of the woman she loved to illuminate her dreams.
Selesti looked around her and watched as the women helped each other up and gathered the dead. She knew she had a lot of work to do, tending the wounded, training the women for another attack, but she was happy just to know she had won a victory against the Moral Revolution. She looked out at the gate. She had been ready to leave, but now things had changed. She had taken charge of her own destiny, and now she had a role to play in shaping the future of the world.
“I think everything’s going to be okay,” Selesti said, and for the first time in a long time, she truly felt it.