The screams of the Offerings used to haunt me as a child.
Now it’s the smell.
That smoking, charred stench of death worms beneath the skin, burying deep as if the peeling flesh from seared bones still lives, desperate for a new body to inhabit.
It is the single most disgusting smell in all of Heaven.
And the most horrifying.
Public executions are not uncommon for the capital, but the guilty fall to Cardinal blades, examples, and reminders to all with sin in their hearts.
The halo’s glare burns red with death. Smoke and ash fill the blistering sky, staining my veil as it does the darker, exposed skin of my forearms. Long gone is the fine dusting of gold that coated my flesh, run from my body as I long to run from this abomination. Instead, I remain, trapped by my fellow chalice who huddle around me, trapped by obligation.
My shift fairs no better. The sheer white material, what should be soft and light, designed to entice, now clings, sweat drenched. My veil fails to hide the disgust, fails to catch the muttered curse beneath my breath.
Ruined. Even if the laundermaids manage to salvage it, I will not wear it again.
I was raised to believe my complexion is better suited to life under the halo; that the few fairer chalice have it worse, as if that somehow makes it better? Just as standing hundreds of feet above the fire of Sanctity Square is better than being packed into the streets of Highcliff along with the rest of lowborn rabble?
I fail to see how either is comparable. I am highborn, heir to the Grail, why waste time with useless placations?
“On the first day of the Holy Offerings,” booms the voice of the Holy Mother who holds court in the center of the square below, “we gave thanks to the Alseer, so that her sacrifice is not forgotten! Our Blessed Lady of Light, savior of Heaven, and the bearer of Light Eternal. She who banished the darkness and sought fit to grace us with the halo so that we may bathe in the protective light of her all-seeing eye. Let us rejoice!”
The crowd roars, thousands of voices bleeding to one. The Holy Mother enjoys the eyes of the city on her, enjoys the fear that comes from what she is, perhaps more so than even the power she wields from her elevated station. Her dark skin is accentuated by her pristine red cassock robe. Sweat pearls along her highbrow beneath the hood. Everything about Holy Mother exudes strength; from the stone straight spine to the sharp lines of her face and sharper brown eyes as piercing as the curved confessor knives that lie hidden within the folds of her robe.
The wicked looking blades are only ever used to extract confessions, of course, it is heresy to speak otherwise. As fearsome as confession may be, it is nothing compared to the woman herself. More than once, I have witnessed that razor sharp stare upon those unfortunate to catch her attention, watched the storm within her powerful frame rage and turn those eyes to a deadly glittering gold during a public execution.
I would face the flame over the mercy of her blades any day.
A ring of red leather cardinals surrounds her to hold back the crowd, her obedient sisters of the Order Anointed, all who have cut away heavenly ties to House and home to serve the Algiver and uphold His most sacred of laws.
Uphold is stretch, the sisterhood’s methods drift more to…enforcement.
Brutes, sycophants, and pain lovers all.
“On the second day of the Holy Offering, we honored our Algiver, Lord of Light, and the protector of the realm. He, who sought fit to cleanse the corruption and sin of our forebears, ushering in a new era for our people. Let us rejoice!”
Another cheer erupts through the square.
The Offerings have existed for as long as anyone can remember. A symbolic gesture celebrated throughout the realm in acknowledgement of the Great Cleansing: when the Alseer and Algiver returned to Heaven to find only corruption and sin had taken root in their children. Our forebears were cleansed from the world in much the same fashion as the tributes of today—through fire. The few that survived were imbued with new Light, and given the name Lightbearer. We are the hope for our world, for the future of Heaven.
Watching the grubby crowd, I cannot help but think, some more than others.
The other chalice continue to push up against me on our private balcony, as if the heat was not oppressive enough. I have never understood the need to huddle. From our vantage point, we have a clear view of the city and the masses of lowborn come to pay homage to the Algiver. The Sacred Steps, which lead from the palace are protected by palace guards spaced evenly in their silver armor. The same can’t be said for the rest of the city. People are packed into the streets; they watch from windows and press against each other at the edges of the square. Even the length of Seekers Way is full. The sloping path leads all the way from the St. Uriel’s Cathedral in the center of the city to the square below.
The walk of the repentant.
Only the High Road is clear, the jutting cliff face overlooking the city from the west is the home to the nine Highborn estate homes in the capital. All sit neatly in a row, separated and safe by the Seraph River. Templars stand on either side of the Silver Bridge, the only way to access the High Road, dressed in their purple tabards beneath silver chainmail. It would not do to let any simple commoner sully the hallowed street. It is easy to spot the Volante estate, standing tall and proud and third in line, with our house sigil on the wrought iron gates, the same sigil that hangs on purple banners throughout the city and square, announcing to all who sits upon the throne. The silver emblem of the skycallers—a crowned star supported by swirls of air—sends a flutter of excitement through me. How many nights have I lay awake and imagined what it would be like to summon the air, to bend it to my whim when my Light and gift are returned?
So close now.
Every lesson to remember, every slight to endure, every insufferable moment of the last seventeen turns has led me to this point—Everdusk, the end of a reign, and more importantly, the beginning of a new.
The remaining estate homes stand in solidarity, their occupants all watching from within their private apartments within the palace. I wonder where my parents are.
Do they look for me?
Even if their balconies were visible from our vantage point, I would not recognize them, will never meet them, not unless I claim the throne as my aunt before me.
“On the third day of the Holy Offering, we honored the Saints for their heavenly wisdom. Architects of the Empire, and keepers of the commandments. Their knowledge is repaid through transcendence beyond blood, beyond flesh. Let us rejoice!”
The crowd roars a third time as the Holy Mother’s speech draws to a close, worked up into a frenzy of righteous fury, demanding the next sacrifice, demanding another death. Oldlight’s offering continues to perfume the air, smudging the city’s normally spotless white stone just as it coats the back of my tongue. Worse still for the human chained between the Pillars of Justice at the center of it all. At his feet lie charred remains of those who have come before to embrace the Living Flame. If the man fears for his life, it does not show. The hood of his black robe has fallen back to expose long dark hair that reaches below his shoulders. That alone is telling. He’s from beyond the halo’s reach, a rogue who lives in the Outlands. Human filth who believes himself free.
Such arrogance. How can cattle ever truly be free?
Word reached the palace days ago that the Holy Mother and her sisters discovered a group of outlanders suspected to be in league with the Fallen One and his hellspawn. Clearly those rumors were true.
The human’s eyes are closed, his face calm even amid the cries for his blood. Such delusions of freedom lend false strength. That strength will soon fade under the flame, none but the Algiver may stand against it, not even the flamemakers amongst us.
Behind the man burns the Living Flame, a piece of the halo itself, gifted from our Lord, and waiting upon the alter of the Alseer. Many men and women have embraced the Living Flame, yet this one is different. His calmness is unsettling, more unsettling than even the Holy Mother’s next words.
“And on this day, the fourth day of the Holy Offerings, we honor the Grail and the sacred unification between royal blood and the Divine so that He may be reborn anew. Let us rejoice!”
At the mention of the Holy Union, the crowd thunders, the air itself thrumming like something alive; a pulsing, collective heartbeat of the capital, and for good reason—this Offering is unlike any other. Not only is the five-day celebration to mark the beginning of a new turn, but the beginning of a passage—Everdawn.
As if on cue, golden banners drop within the square, side-by-side with the purple banners of House Volante, displaying the sigil of the Alseer and Algiver—a hawk sitting atop a lion’s head, wings flared the width of its mane.
Both He and His chosen Celestial, His divine offspring, born of the Grail, will arrive shortly from the Silver City to join the celebrations. And upon newlight, the empire will witness His power pass to the godprince, the Holy Union ushering in a new age, and with it, our reborn Lord will choose his own consort.
Another wave of excitement flutters through me, stronger than before. Everything I am, everything I have done has led me to this moment. In two days’ time, I will win His favor, I will become his Chalice Consort, my powers restored, my family returned.
And when I bear His celestial, I will claim the mantle of Grail, and all will bow to me.
The daybells ring out over the city, twelve in total. Midlight is upon us.
The Holy Mother calls for silence, savoring the power before holding out her hand for the flame, waiting with the confidence of a woman used to being obeyed. A younger sister steps forward from the edge of the square, torch in hand. The rest of the sisterhood, other than the Holy Mother herself, wear dark red leather the color of old blood. Leather britches under hooded coats, offering both protection from the halo and ease of movement. Not the flourishing prance of red linen that her Holiness prefers. The young one’s own pale, hairless head is hidden from the halo’s unwavering light and the stares of the crowd. The sisterhood renounce all body hair as a sign of their service when they join the Order, just as they wear the mark of the halo upon their brow—a golden symbol of ascension beyond our society, no longer lightbearer but something more, something that may one day see them ascend to join the rank of Sainthood.
Holy Mother takes the torch and holds it high, sparking another cheer from the crowd. After three days, I do not understand how they have any lust for death left?
The torch descends, and the crowd grows still once more, poised, the air itself growing fat and bloated…waiting. The Holy Mother continues to enjoy the moment, the thought of the pain to come. This is the side of her, I fear. She enjoys her calling. It is not reverence for our Lord that guides her hand, but some other perverse pleasure she finds in inflicting pain.
She looks upwards towards the palace, and bows respectfully to the Grail. It is all for show, there is no love lost between the two women, and if my aunt watches, I cannot say. Instead, it is all too easy to imagine those eyes seeking out my own. The thought turns my blood cold. No longer does sweat bother me, no longer do I wish to stand out. It is tempting to step back, to allow the other chalice to swallow me into the folds of their soft, damp skin and take my place.
I remain where I am, unwilling to show such weakness, especially in front of those same people who would use it against me as much as comfort me.
The torch touches the robe of the outlander filth.
The last tribute—this one Forsaken from the length of his hair falling no further than his chin—remains chained to the ground nearby. He is forced to kneel, forced to watch as the Living Flame catches against the cloth and ignites. Forced to acknowledge his time to embrace the flame is almost at hand. The same fate awaits him upon newlight.
It takes but a moment for the fire to spread, for the outlander to become the Living Flame, the Holy Tribute.
Then there is nothing calm about the man. There are only his screams, soon to be followed by that infernal smell.