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All of my cousins were older. My parents had tried many times and waited many years to have a child, to have me. I was their sunshine girl, their light – a beloved only child to a wealthy couple from a large and prestigious family. The vineyards came from my mother’s mother. From my father’s family came the olives. Everything was blooming, mature, and organized – established – when I came into being. I was their last jewel.
By the time I could walk, the servants’ boys to my cousins brought me flowers or wishing leaves or pretty stones and shells. Every girl wanted to be my friend, touch my ribbons, and share their cakes.
But even then I sensed something was not right. More from the absence of nothing being wrong than the knowing. I saw when faces turned sadly away towards shadows, the tenseness on my mother’s face when her friends mentioned the ceremonies or the Church. I knew I was special and that there was something monstrous waiting for me. I’ve known for as long as I can remember. I took each kindness with the grace of a princess awaiting sacrifice, beautiful and ill fated.
I only found out what it was or that it was a family curse the day before I met my best friend. It was almost the solstice and crops were ready, but my parents waited to go to town.
“After,” they said. “After the ceremony. The roads will be quieter and so the way less crowded.”
My aunt and uncle came at dusk, my mother’s sister Jyll and her husband. From a darkened doorway outside the lamplight, I watched my aunt cry into my mother’s lap. Her summer gown was muddied and torn. My uncle Goss stood over his wife. His face was frozen though tears ran down his cheeks from blank eyes. His hands hung empty at his side as if no power were in them. They were such big and calloused working hands.
Grandma Sanoo found me frightened in the dark. She led me away, whispering words I only half understood. I did not know I was crying until she wiped my eyes with the hem of her skirt as she sat me at the thick table for chopping and mixing in the kitchen. With her own hands she stirred the fire, sat water in the great kettle, and found hard bread and sausage. As she busied herself, she talked. The words formed images in my head as if I dreamed.
“They have taken her, your cousin Anna. I knew they would. I warned them. I said to wait till she was older, stronger. She could have run then. But no, they went when she was a child to the ceremony and so they have lost her.”
“Who Grandma Sanoo? Who took her?”
“The Church child. The Priest of the Church saw her and took her. Just like my mother’s brother, just like my daughter Tessa, and poor Kori, the lad.”
Here grandma stopped and looked me in the eye. “You see, my darling one. They know us. There is a curse in our blood and the Church knows us. The others, the servants and village folk, think it is an honor to be taken and to become a Priest or Priestess. But when a member of our family goes, is ‘chosen,’ they never come back. We never see them again.”
She pinched my arm. I pulled away shocked at what felt like the worst and only pain I’d experienced in my life.
“Remember this, little Ariadne. Remember today, the day your cousin was taken never to return. Remember your aunt and uncle crying as if it were your mother and father. Because it may very well be that someday. If you ever see a Priest or Priestess, you run and hide. Don’t let them see you or they’ll take you away. Don’t ever believe anyone if they say the Church means you no harm. They do. They’ll come for you too.”
I ran then, ran from the kitchen with my hand over the red welt on my arm as if covering it could hide what lurked in my blood.
The next day my parents were pale and red eyed, too tired to notice I was quiet and scared. I remember my mother’s gentle hand brushing my face to see if I had a fever, feeling as if it were the first time she had touched me.
“Today,” she told me, “You are going to meet someone very special. We are going to take you with us to Mirocyne and you will meet a family, who saved my grandparents from drowning in a great storm. They have a daughter just older than you. I think you will be great friends.”
I knew it was fated. Lavinia and I were meant to be friends; we were friends before we met. The blue-eyed girl with dark and wild hair, daughter of a sailing house and me, the privileged daughter of an estate family. I held her hand and raced by her side the next day and after, not letting her out of my sight. She was my talisman against the Church. With her, I am safe. Nothing and no one can touch me.
It is the only reason I can bear what is to come in two days. It is my turn at last. We leave for Mirocyne in the morning. Then the day after dawns the summer solstice. I am sixteen now and it is my turn to go. To wait longer risks the Church coming to my home and who knows what or who they’d find here amongst my uncles and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. I must go.
But I won’t be alone. Lavinia will be there. She has been to the ceremony before, every year since she was born. She has gone home after each. With her by my side, I will be safe. I will come home as well. I have nothing to fear.
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