8. The Ritual
The remaining days before the ritual were beginning to feel like an eternity to Alanis as she worried about what Alexander would uncover. There was little she could do, but hope her story would be proven true, that she wasn’t a spy set out to harm the people of Berthold.
At first, when she found herself worrying, she would find other things to keep her mind occupied. After awhile, those pleasant thoughts were no match for the rumors that spread throughout Berthold regarding her intentions.
It seemed Cassandra wasn’t the only one wary of her presence. Nearly half the people she came in contact with didn’t want a thing to do with her, or were downright cold towards her.
Luckily, for the time being, King Alexander relieved James of duty while they waited for new moon. Though, as kind as the king’s gesture was, she understood the reasoning behind his generosity. It was clear James’ company was merely ruse to keep tabs on her.
Regardless of the reason, she was thankful to have someone to spend time with besides herself. Whenever she was feeling down, James was there to pick her up with an uplifting remark, or an exciting excursion to calm her nerves.
The young knight was certain that everyone would calm down once the ritual was performed. But to be safe, Alanis made herself scarce, spending most of her time at his place in hopes her lack of presence would ease the rumors.
When the day of the ritual dawned, Alanis was escorted to the castle by a group of palace handmaidens. There were three of them, each dressed in matching grays gowns that drew little attention towards them. And unfortunately for her, their personalities were just as lacking, as they offered no conversation on their carriage ride to the castle.
After they arrived, Alanis was directed to the guest’s wing of the castle, to a large elegant room with an incredible bathroom. It was enormous and decorated quite beautifully with a mixture of marble and stone carvings.
Of course her eyes were instantly drawn to the bath ahead of her. She explored it, noticing the expert craftsmanship of the exquisite cream marble tub, and the silver fixtures that sparkled with the reflection of the water that filled within it.
Soon after, one of the older handmaidens explained that she needed to bathe in this specially drawn bath, that it was required for the ritual. With strong argument, she talked them out of helping her undress, explaining that in her culture, people were uneasy with being nude in front strangers.
Alanis quickly undressed while they gave her privacy, then slipped into the tub on her own. Though the water was hot, she found comfort while her skin soaked in the soothing oils that swirled within it.
Just as she was getting comfortable, the maids reappeared pushing a cart that was filled with lovely scented soaps and shampoos. As pleased as she was with the enticing scents, she understood the they were there to do more than help her choose a soap.
In retrospect, she should have known to ask about the preparations the ritual entailed.
Knowing she couldn’t keep the handmaidens waiting long, she sat back and let them bathe her. Once the awkwardness of the situation faded, the bath progressed more quickly, and wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be.
When the time came to get out Alanis stood stiffly in silence. This time her nudity wasn’t concealed by the bubbly bath water. The servants took no notice of her modest demeanor and without hesitation led her to a tall free-standing mirror where they began to dress her in ceremonial garments made of silk.
While Alanis was being fitted, the youngest of the group began to twist and braid her hair, securing each section with beautiful hair ornaments made of silver.
As she watched through the mirror’s reflection, her modesty began to melt away as she noticed how beautiful the ceremonial gown looked on her. Now, other than her dark hair, she looked like she belonged amongst the people of Berthold.
“You can tell a lot about someone, just by looking into their eyes,” the eldest handmaiden spoke up while working on Alanis’ garment, her eyes were moving across the hemline of her skirt as she altered it.
What, what is it you think you see, Alanis thought, fearing the woman was going to convey her distrust in her like the others.
“It’s all right.” She smiled warmly easing her concerns. The woman’s hands stopped working and her eyes met Alanis’ stare. “Your eyes, they’re gentle, but there’s something buried within them.”
"What do you mean?" Alanis whispered, feeling the nervous stiffness she felt earlier grow again.
"Sorrow,” she replied softly, “You’ve been carrying it so long that you have learned to live with it.”
Alanis looked away from her and thought of home, of Larska. There were many sorrows she had endured there. The deaths of close friends and the lack of a real family, those were some of the sorrows that weighed on her heart.
Realization struck her and she trembled, fearing all the stories she had heard about Larska were true.
She fought back tears as she thought of Anna, her best friend that had supposedly died two weeks earlier from The Burn. Like, Alanis, Anna had trusted Justin and the other Larska Officials with their lives. In fact, Justin and Anna were somewhat of an item, although they kept their relationship hidden from everyone.
What if he knew—what if it was all true? What really happened to Anna? What did he do to her?
“I’m sorry if I brought up old memories,” she apologized, noticing Alanis’ faraway gaze.
Alanis glanced down at her hand that dangled at her side. “It’s okay, I was only thinking...”
“Take if from someone who has seen her fair share of troubles come and go, the best way to get through them is to face them. Once you do so, their hold on you will begin to unravel.”
“Facing them will make them vanish?” Alanis’ eyes drifted to hers.
“No, but it will help.” She laughed at Alanis’ question. “It’s certainly better than holding on to fear, right?”
Alanis supposed she was right. Those old feelings she held on to ended up dictating most of her actions. They kept her from moving forward, forcing her to live in the past. As a result, she kept fewer friends so she wouldn’t have to deal with their inevitable deaths.
Alanis watched again as she worked at the hem of her gown, noticing how her old hands weaved swiftly with the thread.
“I heard something the other day,” the younger servant, who was working on Alanis’ hair, spoke. Her cold eyes met Alanis’ in the reflection of the mirror. “Stories from the royal guard, saying you’re a spy, and that you will bring destruction to Berthold.”
Alanis sighed disappointedly. It was apparent, from the brief look the girl gave, that she was waiting for some sort of reaction to follow.
“They are only rumors, I assure you,” Alanis replied politely, watching as the handmaiden’s eyes darted back to her hair, where she continued to work on the finishing touches.
Great—It looks like Cassandra’s stories have broken through the castle walls, Alanis thought while adjusting her eyes above to the large vaulted ceiling.
After they were finished dressing Alanis, all of the other servants left except for the eldest one, she stayed behind and schooled her on royal etiquette since she would be in the presence of Alexander alone.
Apparently it was customary to remain silent around him, that was, unless he addressed you personally. It was also an offense to raise one’s tone in front of him, to question his word, to touch, or make any physical contact with him, and many more mind-numbing rules that she doubted she’d even remember.
As the afternoon stretched into night, the woman led her to a crypt-like room in the castle. Her eyes were wide as they peered around the damp, dark room. It was so dark, that if she wasn’t being led, she would have ran into one of the many columns that lined the walkway.
Finally they made it to the stone steps at the other end of the room. The woman made her goodbye brief, and left her side, vanishing into the dark. Alanis turned around and glanced up the stone steps, to what looked to be an altar. Her heart quickened as she noticed it and the covered tray that sat upon the stone table.
Again, she found herself wishing she would have asked more questions regarding the ritual. Because standing there, alone in the dark, she was beginning to second guess her decision to go through with it.
The next several minutes, anxiety started to get the better of her, forcing her to pace on the stone steps. Just as she was getting ready to leave, her heart jumped as the door opened.
Alexander’s silhouette soon cut through the light on the other side. His shadow met with her feet briefly before the door closed behind him. She lowered her eyes as he came to her, minding the rules, though she had an urge to stare.
When he reached her, she noticed how tall he stood, even without looking up at him. He was taller than she recalled, but then again, most people were giants compared to her.
They stood in silence for a moment before she lifted her head.
“King Alexander,” she greeted, offering a curtsy that she was taught earlier by the older handmaiden.
Oh, you stupid, stupid idiot, she scolded herself, realizing she was breaking a rule as she rose from her curtsy. It was going to be hard to remember them all while she was around him. There was something about him that made her nervous and more ditzy than normal.
“Please excuse me—” She stopped as the floor beneath them began to rumble.
Soon after, the ceiling began move, sliding into a large opening that left the room exposed to the night sky. During the commotion, Alanis stumbled and fell into the king’s arms quite awkwardly.
Oh, my god, she thought humiliated as she regained her footing. Things were most certainly not looking good for her, not after this.
Her eyes lifted expecting a scowl, or something worse, but instead was greeted by a smile. While she pulled away she smiled back, catching his stare briefly. His eyes were something else, they were haunting and seemed to glow with the candlelight.
Gray eyes dancing in the dark. How beautiful.
She swallowed hard, stifling a nervous cough at she looked to the dark, night sky.
“I hope the preparations for tonight’s ritual weren’t too invasive,” he said, breaking their tension. “I know some of our traditions must seem odd to you.”
Alanis’ stare descended from the sky back to his gorgeous gray eyes. “It took some getting used to, but I managed,” she replied, sparing him the truth after everything that happened.
“That’s good, I was worried they would have scared you off with the bath. That almost always does the trick,” he said with a laugh.
Again, she smiled, though this time she was surprised. She was sure after all of the rules and warnings she was given, that the king would be more distant to her than he was.
“Well, now that you’ve made it this far, make yourself comfortable. I will join you shortly.” He made his way towards the altar as she looked around for a place to settle.
Alanis sat on the stone step, but found her stare kept drifting to him. While he wasn’t paying attention to her, she noticed how their gowns paired. She blushed, wondering how they must have looked together, when she fell into his arms.
Not now, Alanis. Stop it, she warned herself while she watched him at the altar.
While she continued to watch, she began to wonder if the upcoming ritual was troubling him, too. His hand made odd movements over the table as he searched the tray, hesitating to touch the contents it held.
Finally, after what seemed a minute or more, he stopped, his hand hovered over the center of the tray. Below was a saucer. Carefully, with the tips of his fingers, he touched its white, polished surface then picked it up, along with an urn-like object then joined her on the step she sat on.
After he sat, he removed the small lid that covered the urn and sprinkled some of its contents onto the saucer’s center. Despite the little light that illuminated the room, the contents shimmered brilliantly in the water.
"Onobilando,” Alanis’ said, her voice hitched, remembering the gleam of the serpent’s scales.
“Yes, you have a good eye,” he replied, impressed by her observation. “These are the scales and essence of Onobilando. James reported that the two of you encountered her during your journey to Berthold.”
Alexander closed the urn and leaned away with it grasped in his hand, then gently placed it on the top step. With his close movement, she caught his scent. It ignited a deep emotion within her heart, one of comfort, and in a funny way she felt safe—like she could trust him.
“What are they used for, decoration? They’re quite beautiful.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said with a short chuckle, “When Onobilando is threatened she releases a poisonous vapor that affects her prey’s thinking, rendering them helpless if they succumb to it. Many years ago, practicing alchemists realized they could collect and grind the serpent’s congealed mist into a powder. If ingested it would give them visions of the past, which is what we’re hoping to accomplish here tonight.”
“We’re not going to eat that, are we?”
The thought of ingesting snake venom was making her queasy. In hindsight, that should have been the least of her worries.
“No,” he chuckled again.
“And what about tonight?” Her questions came out with ease. “Why does the ritual have to be preformed on a new moon, why not any other night?”
“Ah, curious aren’t you?”
“I’m—I’m sorry if I overstepped.” Damn, she was digging herself into another hole.
“There is no need to apologize, Alanis. It’s wise to ask questions.” He bowed his head. “New moon is known as the night of renewal. That’s why we’re performing the ritual tonight, because it’s when the tides of power are at their highest.”
“Thank you,” she replied grateful for his patience with her.
He said nothing, but his return smile was welcome enough.
“James also informed me that you were gifted Oaro’s pull. We have master wielders in the castle that would be happy to teach you how to hone her power, should you decide to stay.”
Alanis looked away, hoping he didn’t catch the annoyed look that spread across her face like wildfire. Again, she felt as if their whole lifestyle was being crammed down her throat and that she was supposed to just sit back and accept it, like she didn’t have a life elsewhere.
“You’re quiet. I expected another question regarding your ability.”
“It’s just... I didn’t earn her power. James says it’s a blessing, but I don’t think the others will see it the same way.”
“She doesn’t give her powers to those who aren’t fit. If you’re worried about how the others are going to feel regarding your gift, you shouldn’t, they’re only being hindered by themselves,” he replied while blending the elements together on the dish until it thickened. “And yes, it is a blessing. Give it time, you will see.”
That was easy for him to say, he was loved and revered by his people. She was a stranger, that most of those people distrusted. This wasn’t going to be easy for her. It was only a matter of time, before they would begin to speculate, regarding her powers, and question if she would use them for evil purposes.
Alanis watched as he held the dish, his fingers dug into the paste like substance, scooping out only a small amount then he spread it across his wrist. When he was finished, he scraped the remaining paste from the plate and sat the dish beside him. He then lifted his hand ahead of hers then hesitated once more.
“May I have your hand, Alanis?” he asked with his hand raised in front of her.
“Yes, of course,” she breathed, feeling quite uneasy. She lifted her shaking hand to his, not knowing what to expect.
“Don’t be nervous, no harm will come to you,” he assured her while taking her hand into his with her palm facing him.
His touch was warm and soft against hers. Her eyes followed his every movement, watching silently ,while he traced the inside of her hand with the paste. As he reached her wrist, she jerked, feeling a rush of goosebumps grow across her arm.
“Now relax and close your eyes, think of nothing, but the sound of my voice,” he said soothingly as he cupped both of his hands around hers.
Was he serious, it would have been hard not to do what he asked. Alanis felt drawn to him, more so than she had been during their first meeting. Everything about him was attracting her to him, his eyes, his scent, and now, his touch.
When Alanis closed her eyes, she could feel something flowing through her body, to the tips of her fingers, like a strange pulse that flourished over time. With each moment that passed, those sensations built into something else, his presence, and it grew inside of her until she could hear him speak without words.
"Reu mani, mimur enreuldka,” Give me your untold memory, he chanted his unfamiliar words into her head, each ringing out like a melody.
As those foreign words rippled through her, she could feel herself drifting away with them. She followed his voice until its echo was lost, until she was lost with them. All around her, it was dark and growing darker, if it could, until there was nothing.
Her heart quickened, feeling the darkness cave in on her as if her sight had been stolen, leaving her blind.