I tugged Father's hand. "It's my turn. Let me see."
My little sister Alaina grinned down at me from Father's shoulders. There was no way she was going to give up her position.
Father ignored me. He shouted into Mother's ear, "It'll be over soon. The Conveyor will make her choice and then we can all go home."
It seemed the whole of Atiphar had packed itself inside the Temple today. The air beneath the dome was hothouse thick. Even sunlight struggled to penetrate the humid air through the star-like chinks in the roof. Moisture trickled down my arms, soaked through my sari, as I tried to gain a view of the candidates on their raised platform. But all I could see was a heaving wall of sweat-beaded backs.
I gave up trying to gain Father's attention. It wasn't fair. The only reason we had come here at all was because I had insisted.
"I don't want to go," Alaina had pouted as we broke our fast earlier that morning.
But my chatter had been relentless. "They say it's a once in a lifetime event. There'll be a face of Lyseda, and envoys from across the whole Heptatheon. They say --"
"Enough, Shanra!" Father had slammed his cup down. Hot tea spilled across the table. "It's all I've heard for days."
Mother quickly stepped in. "Perhaps we should go. You know how their grandfather was always going on about being there when Irisa was Chosen..."
Father glared, his lips pressed tight. Then he groaned in defeat and pushed back from the table. "Then let's go. Before it becomes too crowded."
Alaina had rolled her eyes at my triumphant grin, but I didn't care. I couldn't wait to reach the great Temple of Lyseda and witness the spectacle of a lifetime; I couldn't wait to tell all my friends at school, how I was there when the new Conveyor was chosen.
But now that we were here, my little sister on Father's shoulders had the only clear view of the platform.
I shouted, "I'm going to the front!" Without waiting for a response, I formed my arms into a wedge and plunged headlong into the crowd. Immediately, a stray elbow collided with my ear, and the friction of the jostling bodies almost tore the damp sari from my shoulders -- but I persisted until I reached the edge of the raised dais at the center of the temple. At last, a view of the candidates!
They sat on their imitation thrones, crowded by their families and supporters. The months-long public selection process had generated a constant stream of gossip and rumor, so much so that I felt I knew each of the remaining seven candidates personally. There sat Udella Sanmaran, silver bells and bows adorning her trademark plaits, parents hovering behind with smiles fixed on their faces; Rucuba Oengi, biting her lips, nervous, looking for all the world like she wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, else; Dahna Cadiatris, my favorite, her pet sand-leopard limp across her lap and her wooden leg almost hidden beneath her midnight blue sari... They, and all the others, were just as I had imagined them. No one but the gods -- and perhaps not even they -- knew which of these girls the Conveyor would choose as her successor today.
The crowd roared in anticipation, and I let the frenzy infect me. I cheered and jeered in equal amount, my throat becoming sore, until I felt a vicious poke to my ribs. "Ow!"
Alaina wriggled up beside me and shouted into my ear. "You're going to be in so much trouble, Shanra! Mother has no idea where you went. We've all been looking for you!"
My joy evaporated. I grimaced as I realized I would have to pay for my close-up view.
Loud trumpets blared before I could answer. Like a startled animal, the crowd fell silent and still.
The tall bronze doors at the back of the temple groaned open. Gasps rose from the crowd as a clutch of Ustormengi stickmen scuttled out, featureless and impossibly thin, animated by some ancient, forgotten magic. They drove into the crowd, clearing a path for the Conveyor and her entourage. A troupe of plumed guards streamed through the doorway after them, followed by a procession of nervous-looking dignitaries: priests, councilors, merchants and the like. The great and the good preceded the Conveyor like colorful sweetmeats before the main course.
Alaina tugged at my arm. Her voice quivered with excitement, all disapproval gone. "She's coming!"
Trumpets blared again. Maidens draped in embroidered gowns scattered rose petals before the Conveyor's bower as it slid into view. Fabric angel's wings curved up to form a canopy over its bowl of plush cushions; an army of millipede legs bore the knurled and uneven shell across the Temple's floor. The Conveyor herself lay collapsed within, pale and withered, her bulbous skull half-buried beneath a ceremonial headdress. High Priestess Irisa Omcheck III, two hundred and fifty-sixth Conveyor of Lyseda, looked more than half-dead already.
But it was not the Conveyor who drew my attention. Beside the bower strode a glistening, silver-skinned figure, twice as tall as any person. There were more gasps from the crowd. My heart pounded. It was one of Lyseda's faces, an aspect of the god Herself. The rumors had been right! I stared in fascination as the crowd rippled and distorted across the creature's reflective skin.
The bower crept towards the platform. One by one, the candidates stood. The crowd began to applaud. The noise mounted. It filled the temple -- until the trumpets blared a final crescendo and a thick silence descended.
I glanced at Alaina. Her eyes gleamed.
"It's time, it's time," she squealed, bumping her shoulder against my own.
I frowned as her voice pierced the anticipatory hush, but couldn't help but mirror her grin. "See, I told you it would be fun."
The crowd shuffled back as the bower edged closer to the platform. I grabbed hold of Alaina's wrist and pulled her with me as the sinister-looking stickmen advanced. After a few moments I expected the backward movement to stop, but for some reason it continued. Stickmen waded into the crowd on either side of us. A muttering rose from the throng. The Conveyor had changed direction, away from the platform.
I peddled back, but a cold hard hand clamped down on my shoulder. I turned, expecting to see Mother or Father glowering down at me, but instead I looked up into a circular caricature of a head. I tried to shrug off the claw gripping my shoulder, but the sharp fingers dug into the flesh around my collarbone. I gasped in pain.
The crowd grew sparse around us. Only Alaina and myself were left, held firm by the stickmen. What was happening?
Millipede feet click-clacked across the marble floor. The Conveyor's bower approached, the face of Lyseda accompanying it. Lidless, mirror-finish eyes looked down at me from a great height. My guts slithered. Had we done something wrong?
The Conveyor struggled up from her crimson bed. The tall bonnet tottered atop her head, and despite everything, I found myself thinking how ridiculous it looked. A sharp-nailed, twig-like finger reached out and pointed.
"I make my choice."
The quavering voice was only just audible, but the remaining stickmen swiftly closed in. The face of Lyseda smiled, and silently echoed the Conveyor's gesture.
Irisa Omcheck III looked straight at me and gave a thin humorless smile. She collapsed back into her red nest and the bower withdrew.
Someone -- one of the petal-tossing maidens, I think -- grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to one side.
"What's going on?" Alaina shouted. More stickmen converged on her and raised her up. Someone tossed a floral crown over her head. She grabbed at it, tore it off, kicked her feet as she cleared the ground. A crimson-robed priest rushed up to her, kneeled, and grasped a flailing hand.
"Hush, my child. Hush. You are Chosen."
"But I don't want to be Chosen!" Alaina's panicked words were quite clear.
I glanced across at the candidates on the platform. They stood, as one, dumbstruck.
A buzzing filled my ears. I couldn't think; I couldn't understand what was happening. Alaina couldn't be Chosen. There was nothing in our family history, or in Alaina's behavior, or anything at all about her that gave any indication she was special in any way. She wasn't even meant to be here today. It was only because of me she was in the Temple at all.
"It's a mistake," I shouted. "There's been a mistake."
But no one seemed to hear me.
"She is Chosen!"
The lilting, harmonic voice of the face of Lyseda rose above the confused rumbling of the crowd. People began to take up the cry.
"She is Chosen! She is Chosen!"
The chant spread through and beyond the Temple. It rippled into the packed square outside, out into the arterial streets, through the city, and out across the Heptatheon.
No one could stop it now.
My parents and I were reunited in an small room deep within the Temple's working complex. I waited alone for what seemed like days before I heard their familiar voices outside the door. I had expected anger, shouts, blame -- but Mother just grabbed me in a crushing hug and rocked me back and forth without a word. Father stared at me, his face like a stone. He just asked me if I was unharmed, and then stood in silence.
Shock, I suppose.
We were at the centre of a frantic whirlwind of activity as a succession of temple officials bustled into the room. They demanded explanations, shoved scrolls at us, accused us of one unlikely thing after another. As the afternoon progressed, and the ramifications of what had occurred sank in, their tone softened.
My parents bore the brunt of their attention, but breathless adults in ceremonial garb kept asking me, "What's it like? To be the sister of the next Conveyor?"
I shrugged and said, "I don't know."
I began to say it a lot.
"My apologies," a crimson-robed priest said. He breezed into the room. A tall, flat-topped hat crushed his wisps of pale hair. He beamed at us. "You must understand, this is a most unexpected situation. Our worthy bureaucrats have been quite thrown." He spread his arms and bowed his head in greeting. "High Priest Prehar Mahoor. May Lyseda's love be with you."
"Where's Alaina?" Father growled.
Mother laid a hand on his arm. She said, "She's just nine years old, High Priest. She's so young. Too young."
"But of course you're concerned for your daughter." The High Priest turned and motioned to room's opened door. "Come. The preparations for her inauguration are well underway."
Mother gasped and Father scowled, but both followed without another word as Mahoor guided us through the labyrinth beyond. I was ushered out, too.
I tried not to gawk as we trod through the winding Temple passages. Only a day or two ago this would have seemed like an exciting adventure, an opportunity to explore the most sacred place in Atiphar, but all I could think of was my little sister, her despairing cries when she was taken away. I had to do something!
We passed an ornate, arched doorway. Two stickmen stood, motionless as carved stone, outside. I tried to peer inside but the High Priest slowed and pulled me back. His hand was rough on my shoulder. "Not there," he warned me. "The Conveyor gathers her energy for tomorrow."
I pulled away from his grip. I wanted to burst in to the Conveyor's chambers; I wanted to demand the evil crone tell us the reason she had cast us all into this nightmare. Father marched over and took hold of my hand.
"Come," he said, tight-lipped. He pulled me along after the High Priest, ignoring my protests.
We soon heard Alaina's voice from further down the corridor. It echoed my own.
"Get away from me!"
The preparatory chamber looked like a blown-up version of the Conveyor's bower: all plush cushions and satin curtains, alabaster statues of angels and dragons. The Conveyor's maidens hovered around my sister, attempting to measure her with loops of silk. Mother ran to her. Father clamped my hand and held me back.
I stood at the threshold and watched as Mother hugged and fussed over the tearful Conveyor-in-Waiting. High Priest Mahoor sidled up to my father and whispered in his ear, words I could not hear. Father grunted. He leaned down and told me, "Stay here, Shanra."
The High Priest took Father to a corner and spoke in hushed tones. The wide smile the priest had first lavished upon us had disappeared. Father listened without speaking, and I watched his face harden until I thought it must crack and fall apart. My fingernails dug into my palms.
Mahoor clapped Father on the shoulder. After a long pause, during which I thought he might turn and punch the priest, Father walked up to Alaina and Mother. He knelt beside them and hugged them both.
"Hush," I heard him say. "You have been chosen by Lyseda, Alaina. It is a great honor. For you and for all the family."
Mother glared at him, but he just continued to stare at Alaina. "Do you understand? We have no choice."
Mahoor had crept up beside me. I jumped, startled, as he leaned down to whisper to me. "You're welcome to stay awhile." His sour breath stank. "If it will help calm your sister. But you'll have to leave before dawn. The Chosen has to be prepared for her big day."
"Leave my sister alone," I hissed. "She wants to be free!"
He smiled, but he was staring somewhere over my shoulder. "Freedom? There's no such thing as freedom in the Heptatheon, child. The gods rule over us, one and all."
Father returned and quickly took my hand, glaring at the priest. "Go talk to your sister, Shanra."
I stood, mute.
"Come. Your mother and I need to talk with the High Priest alone. Alaina wants to see you."
He knelt down beside me. For the first time in my life I saw tears in his eyes. He pinched my cheek, gently. "Please, Shanra. She needs you."
I was so shocked that I let him pull me to where Alaina sat waiting atop a mound of pillows.
Her hair, scrunched by countless wooden rollers, looked like it had been attacked by giant locusts. Her fingernails had already been extended into near talons, painted mirror-surface silver. She looked so young and so frightened, my heart ached.
Mother crushed Alaina in a fierce hug and then stood back, her face hidden behind her hand. Father pulled her away. Mahoor ushered them both out of the room and then closed the door behind him. I heard a key turn and the lock click. The maidens with their silk tape melted into the walls made of veils.
Alaina and I sat in awkward silence, alone for the first time since she had been Chosen.
"Will you be there tomorrow?" My sister's voice was quiet, but surprisingly steady.
She frowned. "Why are you crying?"
"It's all my fault. I wanted to see the new Conveyor chosen. You didn't even want to come."
Alaina stood up and jounced across the pillows to hug me. "Don't be silly, Shanra. Of course I wanted to come." She touched my face, and I saw her tears reflect my own. "I just didn't want to be blamed for making all the fuss. You did exactly what I wanted you to!"
I stared at her in surprise. Then we laughed and cried together. The tension between us melted away.
"Did you see the look on the candidates faces?" Alaina giggled. "They were absolutely furious!"
I nodded in agreement. "Udella Sanmaran's parents looked like they wanted to scratch someone's eyes out."
We laughed and chattered, and spoke just as if we were back in our own shared bedroom at home. We talked of how ugly the old Conveyor looked, how officious the priests seemed, how vast and confusing the hidden innards of the Temple were.
Later, as night could be glimpsed stealing over the room's large skylight and we both began to yawn, exhausted by the long and overly exciting day, Alaina grew serious. "Shanra," she whispered. "You have to help me escape."
I glanced around the room. I couldn't see anyone else, but I didn't doubt that if we attempted to leave -- or at least, if Alaina did -- a multitude of guardians would reveal themselves.
I shook my head. "I can't. I don't think we can leave." I remembered Father's grim face when the High Priest had spoken privately to him, and lowered my voice. "I think they might hurt Mother or Father if we try."
Alaina's face twisted with anger and grief. She hurled a cushion. "It's not fair!" She threw herself down across the pillows.
I lay down on the soft mound beside her. "I know, little sister. But we cannot fight the will of the gods."
Through the room's large skylight I could see Lyseda's full disc gleaming directly down on us from a dark bed of cloud. It had grown late. I felt a shiver of fear. It meant that dawn was closer.
"What are you going to do when you become Conveyor?" I asked.
Alaina didn't answer for a while. I thought she had fallen asleep, but then she replied, "Travel. I'd like to travel."
"To the lights of Ustormeng, and the Upwards Falls on Mount Golgis. The One Way Gate." She yawned. "See all those places, you know, that Grandfather used to talk about, the places he visited when he was young."
I had never understood Alaina's fascination with places other than home. She had always been the one, sitting on Grandfather's knee, listening with avid attention to his tales of sea monsters and distant adventures. But now I humored her. "How about climbing the Rissenbar? Or catching sight of Ildaress through Death Door?"
Alaina gave a quiet mmmmm of agreement.
"How about seeing Thranrak's Clasp? Or Sulashu's Grave? They say it's haunted, and pieces of the old god still lie there..." I reeled off my own fantasy itinerary, reconstructed from vaguely recollected fragments from Grandfather's tales.
Finally, I asked Alaina, "Are you still awake?"
This time there was no reply.
The next morning the temple was packed again. Gone were the cheering factions and gaudy flags of support for different candidates from yesterday. The crowd was hushed, respectful, expectant.
Mother, Father, and I sat to one side, on the platform that yesterday had held the spurned candidates. On it stood High Priest Prehar Mahoor, as well as the face of Lyseda, the dying Conveyor cradled in her bower -- and Alaina.
My sister looked nervous, lost within a puffed-up confection of a gown. She kept glancing towards us, or up at the High Priest who stood grasping her hand. Her hair had been styled into extravagant loops over a crown-like scaffold that extended far over her head; the huge ruffled collar that rose from her back dwarfed even that. Her face had been polished and powdered until it gleamed like one of the alabaster statues in the bed chamber.
First step in the transformation, I thought. I felt ill.
There was utter silence beneath the dome as the old Conveyor uttered her final sermon. Her voice was not the coarse whisper I remembered from when she had made her choice, but the powerful, commanding voice that befitted her role -- the Conveyor of the Word of Lyseda. She spoke of almost a century of service, of the changes she had seen and had wrought since her own inauguration. She spoke of the love of Lyseda for Her people, and of the plans the god still had for us all... and then, quite suddenly, her voice stuttered and grew weak, and her massive head drooped down and was still.
The face of Lyseda stooped down. Its huge hand eased the Conveyor's conical head into a position of repose and kissed her on her desiccated lips.
Then it walked round and stood behind Alaina.
Mother gripped my hand tight. My heart hammered inside my chest.
To someone who did not know Alaina, the moment of change would have passed unnoticed: a slight flutter of her eyes, a momentary slackness in her jaw, a twitch of her mouth. Mother squeezed my hand even tighter.
I endured the pain. She had seen it too, and knew, as I did, that the Alaina we had known was now gone.
Alaina stood, smoothly. She smiled and opened her eyes. Spoke with a newly confident voice.
"People of Atiphar, I will gladly serve you, and Our Lady Lyseda. I will listen to your concerns and let them be known to Her. I will listen to Her words and let them be known to you." She smiled down at the hushed crowd. "May Lyseda's love be with you."
Quietly, behind her, Irisa Omchek's bower slipped away.
"And also with you!" the crowd roared back, and then burst into applause.
Trumpets lifted high, pennants unrolled. The dignitaries arrayed on the platform around us nodded and smiled at each other. The applause thundered beneath the dome.
It seemed like the old Conveyor had chosen the new Conveyor well.
After the crush of officials queuing to greet Alaina began to disperse a little, I dodged through the crowd of robes towards her.
"Alaina!" I shouted. "What's it like?"
She heard me above the hubbub of encircling adults. She squinted across at me and waved. Then she looked over her shoulder at a door that had opened across the temple. "I have to go. We'll talk later."
But somehow I knew we wouldn't.
She headed a procession towards the doorway, into the inner sanctum of the temple. The crowd continued to cheer and applaud. A line of priests, officials, and other notaries filed in after her. Just before the door shut, I saw the mirrored face of Lyseda bend down and grasp Alaina's arm, as if greeting a long lost relative. Alaina's wide reflected grin dancing back at her, all twisted and distorted.
Somehow I managed to escape from the ceremony and my parents and all the attendants that suffocated us. I stole back into the Temple complex, roaming through the empty corridors until they began to look familiar.
This time there was no sign of the stickmen guarding the old Conveyor's room. No doubt they had been already re-posted to my sister's side.
I crept into the darkened chamber. The ex-Conveyor lay sprawled across the satin sheets as if she had been thrown carelessly into the bower from a height, her legs askew and her arms outstretched to either side. Her over-sized head, swollen after decades of direct communication with Lyseda, was now bare, and lolled to one side. To my surprise, I saw her chest still moving. She was alive, though barely.
I approached and drew aside layers of silk net curtain.
"Why did you choose Alaina?" I prodded the bower. I had intended to be calm, respectful, but I found I couldn't control the anger in my voice.
At first the old woman didn't acknowledge my presence. I thought she might be too feeble to hear me -- but then she mumbled and stirred. The gilded bower vibrated as the grotesque head lolled forwards and one sunken eye widened. The cloying smell of perfume failed to mask the underlying stench of decay. I gagged at the smell.
The old woman croaked something I couldn't quite hear. Despite myself, I leaned closer.
"You looked so happy." Her voice seemed both wistful and bitter. "So alive. Both of you." With sudden energy, she rolled onto her side and a withered hand tried to grab my arm. I stumbled back.
She hissed, "The truth is, I could have chosen anyone. Anyone at all." She looked at me, through me, and then fell back. "My one freedom."
Her eyes rolled up and her breath came out in a rasping sigh. From another room I heard a chime sound, concerned voices, footsteps.
I turned and ran out of that cursed chamber as fast as I could.
Later that day the temple bells tolled, announcing the death of the old Conveyor.
For the most part, the city seemed too busy falling in love with the new Conveyor to take much notice.
Soon after the ceremony, Mother, Father and I were moved into a villa in the grounds of the temple. The villa was much larger than our old house near the banks of the Phar, but I never came to consider it home, only a glorified prison. On the rare occasions we were allowed to venture back out into the city streets we were always flanked by squadrons of guards. I had to withdraw from school, and temple-vetted tutors took over my education.
So much for impressing my friends.
At least, in the villa, my parents felt they were closer to Alaina, even if the only times we were allowed to see her were on state and ceremonial occasions -- and then, only from a distance. There was always some excuse, some sad-faced official apologizing, the Conveyor so busy...
Once I pushed through her retinue of guards, shouting her name. Her gaze had briefly flicked towards me. A faint smile had quirked her lips, and I heard her say, "Be gentle with her," -- but she did not stop and the guards swiftly bundled me away. After that, I was never allowed to approach too close again.
Over the next few years, I often prayed for Lyseda to take me, to enter me, to ride into my skin the same way She had my sister. I knew She had that power: Her influence could extend into our marked flesh, into our blood, our bones, our very minds. Burn away all doubt and treacherous thought. If only She chose to.
But nothing happened. I remained just myself. Merely Shanra. Merely mortal. Elder sister of High Priestess Alaina Avese, two hundred and fifty-seventh Conveyor of Lyseda.
Alaina never did travel. She did not need to leave Atiphar. As Conveyor, the world came to her. She probably didn't even remember our last real conversation, that night before her inauguration.
But I did.
So that is why I ran away from the villa. From Mother and Father. From the Temple and its stultifying officials, and from Atiphar itself. I ran to escape the memory of the person my sister used to be. I ran from the sight of the gods, to lose myself, to forget what could have been.
I now travel the Heptatheon. From the lights of Ustormeng, and the Upwards Falls on Mount Golgis, to Sulashu's Grave and the Rissenbar beyond. I go under an assumed name, evading all agents of the Temple. Attracting no attention. Making no mention of my monstrous, all-powerful sister.
And in the forgotten corners, at the abandoned edges, I meet others like myself: the outcasts, the apostates. The rebels.
Together, we gather.
Together, we organize.
And together, we will search for freedom.
To find if such a thing truly exists.
This story originally appeared in Mythic.