The Empire is sweeping the land, taking cities and towns by force. Nami, a young priest dedicated to the Goddess Ceres, is ready to sacrifice himself as Numidia falls, but his slave, lover, and protector Avan saves Nami from the temple flames against his will.
Alive and outraged, Nami travels to the city of Gran Terra to consult the Great Temple, but Avan’s love is changing Nami’s worldview. When he sees the Great Temple has become a hive of greed and indulgence, he challenges the idea of dying for a deity. However, the High Priest has another idea, and Nami will have to find every ounce of strength inside himself if he’s to escape the Temple alive with Avan by his side.
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The bells in Nami’s long white hair tinkled as he knelt before Ceres’s altar. He bowed his head in prayer, his hair falling in front of his face and obscuring his vision. He prayed fervently to his Goddess, hoping Ceres would hear his frightened voice. The lifeless statue of a beautiful woman towered over him, her face carved into a perpetual, emotionless stare.
Nurturer and mother, protect your children in their darkest hour. Keep Avan safe, please. I will give my life to this end. Nami’s prayer was barely more than a fevered whisper uttered in haste. He didn’t have much time. Fire and blood would soon stain the sacred halls of the temple when the Imperial army descended upon them.
The rattling of plate mail interrupted his reverie. Nami knew the identity of the familiar presence in the room without even laying eyes on him. He brushed the hair out of his eyes and stood up to meet his friend and protector.
“Nami, I come bearing grim news.” Avan knelt before Nami on one knee, raising his head to behold Nami’s sparkling blue eyes.
“Avan, stand and report. Is it dire, as the rumors suggest?” Nami’s voice was soft and sweet like song, in contrast to the rich, deep baritone of the man kneeling before him.
“The Empire has taken Numidia, my Master. The city folk surrendered without much of a fight.” Avan looked at Nami with something akin to reverence on his bald, ebony face. Candlelight reflected off Avan’s armor, making him look like if he was alight with holy flame. He looked every bit the righteous defender of a fragile high priest.
“I suspected as much. The rise of the Empire is a foregone conclusion.” Nami kept his voice calm, hiding the turmoil inside. His blue robes dragged the floor as he descended the altar steps. “Give the order to evacuate. The Empire may take this temple, but I will not allow them to desecrate it with the blood of Ceres’s faithful.”
“Will you come too, my lord?”
“You know I cannot, Avan. The ritual must be carried out. If the Empire takes this place, they will commit unholy acts within its walls. I must burn the temple to the ground and make myself a sacrifice to Ceres. These are the laws set out by High Priest Apharas of the Great Temple.”
“Rules can be broken. Please, Nami. Come with me. We can burn the temple in our wake so the Empire cannot plant their cruel gods here.” Avan met Nami’s stark blue eyes with his soft brown gaze.
“I cannot leave this place. That is the will of the Gods. Would you have me disobey them?” Nami gazed at the flickering flames of the candles lit around the room.
“Your life is precious to me. Ever since you gave me a second chance at life, I swore I would protect you. I was nothing but a common criminal before I came here. I had no future. You saw past what I did and allowed me a place in your world. I shall not discard my promise so easily. Even if that means I die by your side.” Avan clenched his gauntlet-clad hand and held it over his heart in a motion that caught Nami’s breath.
“I would rather see you safe,” Nami whispered. “I must do what I must, but there is no need for you to die. Go forth and live your life. As a priest’s guardian, you shall be respected across the land, and your crimes forgotten.”
“I would never forgive myself the crime of leaving you to die,” Avan said. He pulled off his gauntlet and held out his hand. Nami took it and stepped forward. They stood so close that Nami could feel Avan’s warm breath on his face. The barrier between priest and protector disappeared for a moment, allowing Avan to drop his guard and raise his hand. He gently placed it on Nami’s cheek, caressing the pale white skin. He noted the contrast between them, his ebony skin versus Nami’s untouched pallor.
“Your service has always been a blessing,” Nami whispered. “Most priests live lives of loneliness, but you have been a good and loyal friend. My only friend. I would ask that you carry out my wishes now. Help the priestesses leave before the Imperial army surrounds these walls.”
“I will,” Avan said, bowing his head. “Then I shall return to your side.” Avan spun about, his blue cloak billowing behind him while he headed out into the halls of the shrine.
“Avan…” Nami said, watching him leave. “Be safe.” Helplessness overwhelmed him, and he returned to his prayers with steadfast determination, hoping Ceres would hear his desperate plea and grant Avan a mother’s protection.
* * * *
Avan led the last of the priestesses and servants to the boats awaiting them behind the temple. Downstream would lead them away from the encroaching Imperial army and to relative safety, for the time being. Avan watched the rowboats cast off, carrying their precious cargo away from the war. He ignored the curious eyes upon him, silently questioning his reason for staying behind in the face of certain defeat.
I have to stay. If Nami dies, I die with him. I have been his protector for four years now, watched him blossom from a youth into a full-grown man of twenty summers. I cannot imagine a life in which I did not stand by his side. He gives me a purpose I never had as a petty thief and bandit and certainly never as a slave. Nami saved me, and now I shall save him.
Avan watched the sun set with troubled eyes. Across the river, Imperial forces were no doubt planning their invasion of the temple. Perhaps they were even on their way, climbing the rocky hillside that led up to the summit where Ceres’s temple stood.
Dusk petered out, the last glimpse of firelight sinking below the horizon as Avan considered his heavy burden. Nami would most likely not live to see the dawn and Avan could not help but feel as though he had failed in his task as temple guardian. He had taken an oath to keep Nami safe from harm—with his own life if necessary—and now he was going to break it by seeing Nami into death. The Mother Ceres would take her child into her arms, the fire eating away at his flesh and blood until nothing was left but ashes. Worse yet, Avan would be the one to light the flames at his Master’s command. His temple slave status forbade him from disobeying, yet his place as Nami’s protector and friend challenged him every step of the way.
He gripped the hilt of his sword and took a deep breath, offering silent prayers to the gods of his desert home as well as Jupiter and Apollo. He needed their strength now instead of Ceres’s matronly warmth. He wanted fire and battle to fill his veins to ward off the intruders soon to come. He would stand and take down an entire army by his hand if necessary and would be the legend who turned back the Empire single-handedly out of the desire to love and protect a fragile soul.
Avan laughed at the absurdity of his thoughts before he turned on his heel, abandoning night for the dim halls of the temple. He knew he might never breathe fresh air again, nor see the stars. He had accepted that. Nami had never stood beneath the sky, and he had survived for twenty long summers. Nami would never see a billion things, and Avan mourned them all, along with his hope that he would somehow be able to take his friend beneath the forbidden sky and show him the wonders of the world.