“The Bull is dead.”
In the wake of the Caretaker’s announcement, silence filled the Hall of the Red Throne. Outside, down the steps, beyond the pillars and silken curtains and chimes of shimmering glass, the people went on about their business: priests chanted and bled, fortunetellers peered into eyes and tossed bowls of teeth, and merchants shouted the worth and beauty of their wares in the first market of the day.
But inside … inside there was silence and a terrible stillness.
The Pasithea upon her throne, bare-breasted, silken skirts pooling around her ankles and golden sandals, wreath of golden bees and bulls framing her head. The Grandfather of Serpents, straight-backed despite his age, a snake of vibrant green and purple curling around his arm and tasting the air. The Master of Honey, the tiny gilded wings of bees circling his wrists in delicate bracelets and dangling from his ears. The Lorekeeper, all in white, veiled and bare-footed; not even their eyes were visible. And the three apprentices to the Grandfather, and the three apprentices of the Master of Honey, and the three apprentices to the Lorekeeper. And the Shield of the Pasithea, bristling with knives, armor glimmering, eyes hard. And a dozen guards, spears planted against the stone. And the dozen children of the Pasithea, ranging in age from twenty summers to five, bare-chested and bare-breasted, their skirts each a different shade of red.
Tieffem stood closest to the Pasithea, only twelve years, their skirt a deep red.
Ariemme, older by four years, stood at the far end of the line of children. Her skirt was so pale that it was pink. A pale pink.
She bit the inside of her lip, not otherwise daring to move.
The Pasithea broke the silence and the stillness with a sharp inhalation of breath and a single word. “How?”
The Caretaker remained standing, shoulders squared, hands clasped, unmoved by her anger. The collar of bull’s horns — two, capped in gold and carved with images of plenty and virility — framed his neck and his grey-streaked beard. The points ended just above his heart, deliberately offset at a leftward angle to show his devotion and dedication to the Maiden’s beloved Son.
“Magic, Holiness.” The Caretaker’s jaw flexed. “There can be no explanation other than malefic magic. A child of the Marrow Witch has done this.”
Ariemme’s eyes darted to her mother upon the throne. The movement of her head was just enough to set the golden bees in her hair to clicking.
The Pasithea made no response except to tighten her jaw.
The Caretaker continued. “The Bull was never out of sight of myself or one of my apprentices, in addition to the priests preparing for the sacrifice. There were also blessing-seekers, writing their prayers in blood upon the hides that will be burned along with the Bull.”
The Grandfather of Serpents leaned forward as he spoke. “And you are certain these were all true prayers?”
“I am. Each is inspected before the hide is removed, and a new one set in its place. And none of those hides were brought near to the Bull — and would not be until the sacrifice. It is impossible for a Marrow Witch to have cursed and murdered the Bull in this way.”
The Lorekeeper’s veil rippled. “Then the child of the Marrow Witch used the flesh or blood or bone of the Bull.”
A moment of hesitation. “It would seem so, though ….”
The Pasithea scowled. “Speak.”
The Caretaker tilted his chin. “Holiness, I have thoroughly examined the body of the Bull. There is no evidence of harm. None. No cuts. No bruises. No missing teeth. No nicks or shaving of his hooves or horns.”
“You are saying that the body of the Bull is perfect?”
“I am, Holiness. The Bull is dead. Only a child of the Marrow Witch could have slain him. But I cannot see — I cannot explain — how.”
The Pasithea rose slowly to her feet, silken skirts swinging as she moved forward a single step. Her crown of bees and bulls glimmered. The Grandfather of Serpents and the Master of Honey and the Lorekeeper all watched her, still, while the Shield moved forward, matching her steps.
“You have failed in your sacred duty, Caretaker. You will find this child of the Marrow Witch and you will present them at the time of sacrifice. As they have slain the Maiden’s beloved Son, it is their blood that shall be spilled in tribute — or yours. You have until the sun settles beyond the edge of the world.”
The Caretaker bowed lower, his knees visibly shaking.
The Pasithea turned and strode from the room, through the archway towards her private quarters, her skirts sweeping across the stone. The guards flanked her, and the Shield followed; then Tieffem, one brow raised in contempt and frustration; and then the Grandfather of Serpents and the Master of Honey. Then the apprentices. Then the other children of the Pasithea.
Only Ariemme remained behind, and the Caretaker, and — oddly — the Lorekeeper.
Their head swung towards Ariemme, but it was impossible to see the direction of their eyes through the veil.
“Where will you go?”
Ariemme tightened her shoulders when she realized that she had spoken aloud. Her question was too noisy in the nearly empty Hall of the Red Throne, echoing from the pillars and the stone floor.
For a long moment, the Caretaker did not seem to hear her. His hands twitched, dropping to his sides. Finally, he answered. “I … will begin with my apprentices. The priests. I shall question them again. Perhaps I shall catch one in a lie, or … perhaps one of them saw something strange, out of place, and will remember.”
Ariemme crossed the stones to him, her bare feet silent. The golden bee ornaments that capped the ends of her braids clicked gently.
He looked down at her.
Your eyes are too much like his. Your nose and cheekbones. There is too much of him in you, and not enough of me. The Pasithea had sighed. I should have chosen a man with weaker seed, but I liked those eyes.
“I shall assist you.”
The Caretaker chuckled, for a moment the grimness of his expression replaced with affection and indulgence. “I treasure your offer. But it is Vernaltide. You are a child of the Pasithea, and you have your own tasks to prepare for the rite this evening.”
“Do not despair yet.” He lightly touched her cheek. “There is time. I may yet find this child of the Marrow Witch.”
With that he turned away, descending the stairs outside the Hall and disappearing into the early morning sun.
Too much of him in you. Your skirt will never be red.
“He will die.”
Ariemme jumped. She had completely forgotten that the Lorekeeper still remained in the Hall. She turned to find the white-robed figure only three steps away. Their sleeves drooped, hiding their hands, and their skirts covered their feet. They looked like one of the unpainted statues of the Wavemaker in the Hall of Potters.
But then it was the Wavemaker who had first given the people the Lore, who had blessed the first keeper to hold it safe and speak it true.
Ariemme tightened her jaw. “He did not murder the Bull.”
“No.” The veil barely fluttered. “But there must be a sacrifice. The Maiden must know our gratitude. In years and ages past, when there was no perfect Bull, it was a child of the Pasithea who carried the people’s blessings and entreaties to the Maiden.”
A snort. “Then it is Tieffem who is in danger, not I.”
The Lorekeeper tilted their head. “Then perhaps we should be looking to you as the child of the Marrow Witch.”
Ariemme’s heart stuttered in her chest. “What? … How?”
“Your dislike of your sibling is well-known. They, after all, can speak with the bees and the bulls, call the rains, feel the cracking of the earth deep down. They are the most powerful of the Pasithea’s children. It is they who will inherit the Red Throne, not you.”
She laughed. It was a harsh sound.
“I have no wish for the Red Throne, Lorekeeper. I never have. And, as you say, I am the weakest of my mother’s children. Were I to sit upon the Throne, it would be the doom of our people. If the Pasithea cannot speak with the bees and the bulls, call the rains, or feel the cracks of the earth before they tear down our buildings and turn back the tides — well, they are no Pasithea.”
Outside, down the steps, beyond the pillars and silken curtains and chimes of shimmering glass, Ariemme could hear the priests chanting, fortunetellers tossing bowls of teeth, and merchants and shoppers haggling as the first market of the day drew to an end.
Suddenly embarrassed, she crossed her arms and looked away. Down. Stared at her toes curling against the stone.
She lifted her head, eyes wide as the Lorekeeper turned in a swirl of white and moved towards the far right corner of the Hall.
Confused, still embarrassed, Ariemme scampered to catch up.
The Lorekeeper was quick, moving between the great pillars to the door in the corner. They pushed it open and strode down the corridor. Narrow windows let in the morning sunshine, illuminating the paintings of dolphins and fish, gryphons and flowers.
“Tell me the story, child of the Pasithea. Recite for me the Lore of the Bull.”
Ariemme swallowed, calling the words to mind. “Long ago, the people lived in a land consumed by fire and war, tainted by the bloodlust of the Marrow Witch. They cried out in fear and despair, and the Maiden heard them. The Maiden appeared to them, and told them to build ships, many ships, enough to carry all of the people. They built their ships and fled, following the song of the Wavemaker across the sea. They found this island, a land with no name, a land of bees and bulls and plenty. The Maiden appeared again. From among the people, She chose one. The first Pasithea, the first to hear the bees and the bulls, to call the rain, to feel the cracking of the earth. And the Maiden said that this nameless land would be ours, unto forever. The first covenant.”
The Lorekeeper turned a sharp corner, moving deeper into the Hall of the Pasithea. The windows disappeared, replaced by golden-white torches. “Continue, child.”
She cleared her throat. “Unto forever. But under one condition.”
Another turn, this time down a flight of stairs. There were fewer torches here.
Ariemme had never been in this part of the building.
“Ah, yes.” Ariemme lifted her skirts, golden bees clicking and clacking as she bounced down the stairs behind the Lorekeeper. “That blood must be shed only in Her honor, and that it must be freely given.”
The stairs ended, opening onto a narrow passage. It was barely wide enough for the Lorekeeper to walk straight. If the Shield had been leading the way, he would have had to turn sideways.
“And did the people hear the words of the Maiden?”
“Yes. Generations passed. Peaceful. The people created farms and granges and vineyards and apiaries and orchards, raised bulls and sheep and goats, fished in the waters of the Wavemaker. But then, one day, twins were born. Sons of the Pasithea.”
Ariemme’s feet slowed, feeling the darkness all around, the weight of the stones and earth. Her body grew cold.
Where was the Lorekeeper taking her?
“Continue, child. Pay attention to what you have just said, and to what you are about to say.”
Ariemme stopped, frowning.
The Lorekeeper stopped, too, turning back to face her. At least, Ariemme assumed the Lorekeeper was facing her. They were a shadowy white blur down here, in the depths beneath the Hall of the Pasithea.
“The younger twin was especially beloved by the Maiden. Not only could he speak with the bees and the bulls, call the rains, and feel the cracks in the earth, but he could read the patterns of the stars and clouds, sing in the language of the gryphons, and swim with the dolphins in the waters of the Wavemaker.
“The elder twin was jealous. And, in his anger and hate, he sought out the Marrow Witch, and a curse by which he might slay his brother.”
Ariemme paused, mind churning.
The Lorekeeper waited.
“The Marrow Witch promised the elder brother what he most desired: a curse to kill his brother. She required only one thing: his blood ….”
“But,” the Lorekeeper prompted.
“But it was a trick.” Ariemme took a hesitant step towards the shadowy white blur. “The elder shed his blood willingly, yes, but not in honor of the Maiden. He broke the first condition of the first covenant. And … oh ….” Ariemme’s eyes widened in the dark. She pressed shaking fingers to her lips. “Twins.”
The Lorekeeper nodded once and turned away, making their down the corridor again.
Ariemme hastened to catch up, her words even faster than her steps. “They were twins. The brothers, the sons of the Pasithea, they were twins. Blood alike. When the elder gave his blood to the Marrow Witch and she created the curse and he cast that curse, he killed his brother — but he also killed himself.”
Without breaking their stride, the Lorekeeper reached out and pushed against the wall. The stone moved smoothly to one side, making only the barest scraping sound. They stepped through, Ariemme nearly trodding on the hem of their white robes.
She stopped in surprise, gaping at the room that spread out before her.
They had come out on a balcony, framed on the far side by red pillars and a low carved wall. There was a wooden table here, polished and smoothed by age and use. And padded benches and chairs, all crowded around the table. And a great chandelier with dozens upon dozens of candles hanging over the center of the table, filling the balcony with warm light.
Stairs at either end of the balcony led down in a swooping arc.
Ariemme took a few hesitant steps, moving to the low wall. The golden bees in her hair clicked and clacked softly.
She peered out into the space below.
The walls of the cavern were untouched, rough and striated; even cracked in a few places, the crevices as wide as her arm. Only the floor had been smoothed out, but even then eruptions of grey-black rock here and there created natural hills and outcroppings. The smooth spaces were covered in shelves and cubbies and cabinets and trunks, each filled with neatly labelled and tagged scrolls. More chandeliers hung from the rough ceiling, enough to illuminate the entire Lore Room.
For this could be nothing else.
“I didn’t know. I had no idea that the Lore Room was real.”
The Lorekeeper moved up beside her, hands tucked deep into their sleeves. “It is not. There is no Lore Room. The Lore given to us by the Wavemaker is never written down, only spoken.”
Ariemme frowned, lifting a shaking hand towards the cavern. “Than this is …?”
The Lorekeeper seemed to shrug. “Histories. Records. Births and deaths. Reports of the fishing fleet and honey harvests. Shopping lists and kitchen orders. Every piece of paper, every piece of writing that has passed into or out of the Hall of the Pasithea has been preserved here. If it becomes too old and fragile, the words are re-written and saved. All the way back to the first Pasithea named by the Maiden.” The Lorekeeper tilted their head down at Ariemme. “I believe that we shall find what we seek here.”
Ariemme bit the inside of her lip. “You believe the Bull had a twin. And that the child of the Marrow Witch cursed and killed the twin, thereby cursing and killing the Maiden’s beloved Son, as well.”
“But that would have been a lie. A deceit committed upon the Pasithea herself and all of the people. No twinned bulls are allowed to be offered up as the Maiden’s beloved Son precisely because they could be killed in this way. Just as the elder twin killed his younger brother, and himself.”
“Exactly. So, was the lie deliberate, or born of pride or ignorance? Perhaps this was the plan of the child of the Marrow Witch all along. To interfere with the sacrifice, the foundation of the second covenant, and thereby earn the Maiden’s wrath and ire.”
“Or … or perhaps the granger who bred the bull wanted so badly for it to be the sacrifice that they lied and hid the existence of the twin.” Ariemme twisted her fingers around the railing, gaze moving slowly around the massive cavern. Now that she looked, she could see the Lorekeeper’s three apprentices walking among the cabinets and cubbies and trunks. “Or perhaps the person who bought the bull and traveled with it to the Hall as a potential sacrifice was unaware that it had a twin.”
“Very good. Well reasoned.” The Lorekeeper waved a hand towards the labyrinth of scrolls. “Shall we begin?”
[End Part One. Part Two of The Maiden and the Marrow Witch can be found here.]
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]