The Lottery – Chapter 1
The only fair way to choose a maiden as sacrifice to the dragon was by random lottery. Unfortunately, the lotteries held every Cycle were hardly random. It wasn’t an accident that the poor, the lame, or the outcast were almost always selected. Kassi, for her part, had good reason to be worried.
Not that she put her anxiety on open display. Regardless of the thorns that twisted at the pit of her stomach, Kassi carried on as she always did. Even on this morning, on the Day of Choosing, she had sat up as soon as she heard the cow’s impatient mooing, her body ready and poised to begin its daily labors.
Only now, in this moment, did Kassi pause. She hugged her knees against her chest and wrapped her fingers around a lock of her thick, black hair. She drew out a piece of straw, her grey-green eyes losing focus as she flicked it way.
I could leave, she thought to herself, not for the first time. Everyone will be at the Spire for the Choosing all morning. They’ll all be drunk before the Grefa celebrations even begin. By the time anybody realized I was missing, I would be deep into the Barrens. They’d never find me.
There was truth in that. The Barrens was a convoluted, twisted landscape of scrubby grasses and little else. It would be very unlikely she would be found— or, closer to the truth, her body. Even if she managed to navigate her way through, her ruminative plan still had one glaring hole. There was one person that would notice immediately if she wasn’t present. Duke Brogan. No, she wouldn’t be going anywhere. She was bound to the Keep like a ghost to its haunt.
Kassi straightened, yanking her hair away from her face with a piece of rawhide. She jumped to her feet, giving her face a quick splash of icy water before turning her attention to the cows.
By the time her morning chores were finished, only a handful of Aetheldrake’s Children could still be seen flickering in the western sky. The other Keep servants milled about the courtyard, a few of them frantically trying to finish their last tasks. Most, however, clung together in small, whispering knots. They all took care not to look directly at her, but Kassi could still feel the burn of their furtive glances. She made her way toward the lowly side-gate that led through the Keep’s walls.
“Flimen!” A voice called after her.
Kassi winced as she heard the Matron’s voice. She turned to see the woman’s round figure clomp toward her, the Matron’s face already reddened and her wispy hair askew.
“I take it the cows are already tended,” she said.
The Matron nodded, but before turning away, gazed a moment into Kassi’s face. She reached out with her puffy fingers and grabbed hold of Kassi’s chin, forcing her to look up into the Matron’s gray eyes. Kassi flinched, more surprised by the touch than frightened, but she did not resist the Matron.
She twisted Kassi’s face from side to side. “You sick? You’re pale enough to be a proper Camderian.”
“No, Matron,” said Kassi, and with relief she felt the Matron’s grip relax.
Crossing her arms, the Matron regarded her thoughtfully. “Hmm. Now, don’t tell me you’re worried about the Choosing.”
“No, Matron,” mumbled Kassi.
The Matron shook her head again. “You shouldn’t be. Flimen or not, you’re one of my better girls. There’s plenty that’d make better dragon meal than you.” The Matron turned and pointed. “Yes, you heard me. I’m talking about you.”
The cluster of girls began to giggle, but they dispersed nonetheless. The threat of the dragon was an empty one, of course, but the Matron herself was not someone to cross. As soon as the girls were out of sight, the Matron turned her attention back to Kassi.
“You quit you’re worrying. The guards caught a thief not three nights ago. Running away, they say, and taking a fair amount of her neighbor’s gold with her. She’s the one bound for the dragon, mark my words.” The Matron slapped a heavy hand on Kassi’s shoulder. “Get along if you want now.”
Before Kassi could answer, the Matron flicked her hand in a dismissive wave and began walking toward another gaggle of servants. “Have you finished with them linen’s yet?” She demanded.
Sighing in relief that the interaction was over, Kassi turned to make her way out of the gate and navigated down the rocky path. At the bottom of the hill, the buildings of the town huddled together against the cold desert morning. The streets were already busy, a sizable trickle of pedestrians flowing out from the gate. Kassi joined them as they headed toward sunrise. The road soon emptied into a flat and open field. In the center of the field, a tall, thin tower of natural redstone rose up as to pierce the sky. The Spire.
They didn’t have long to wait. Kassi’s heart slowed to a heavy beat as the first curve of Aetheldrake’s head peaked above Tahra’s horizon. Her fellow observer’s shielded their eyes against His brightness, but Kassi averted her face altogether. Still, His fire could not be ignored as the heat licked against Kassi’s skin. From the corner of her vision, Kassi saw the second globe. The crowd began to hum, encouraging Tahra in her labor as She pushed the Sonstar from her womb. The newborn sun quivered as he emerged from the horizon.
Kassi wasn’t sure when the Brethren arrived. Perhaps they had always been there, watching the double sunrise with the rest of them as they stood upon the raised dais. The black-robed Brethren stood silent, their hairless heads and faces gleaming in the morning light, the symbol of the flame that each of them wore on their foreheads seeming to glow like living fire. Brother Drefan, the one with red chain-mail over his robe, stood ahead of the rest.
A procession of nobles headed for the dais, Duke Brogan first and foremost. The Duke placed himself beside Brother Drefan; with his arms crossed, he surveyed the crowd with sharp blue eyes. Her lungs constricting, Kassi looked away. Lord Wyvham was next to climb the stairs, his hunched figure darting behind Brother Drefan. Kassi’s nostrils trembled as she spied her once benefactor. Cowering suited him.
Brother Drefan raised his arms up to the sky and the speeches began. Kassi had no interest in any of it. She already knew all the things the Camderian’s believed. Her people, the Nyapeh, believed something else. What was it, though? Her truths were hidden behind a smoke-filled memory.
Turning away from the men on the dais, Kassi took to studying the crowd. Every maiden over the age of fifteen had the same pinched expression on their faces. More than a few covered their faces and shook while their families tried to comfort them. It was easy to see, though, which ones had cause to worry, and which ones were safe. All Kassi had to do was look at the girl’s parents; the ones that couldn’t quite hide their sly smiles told Kassi everything. Not far from where she stood, Kassi noticed a cluster of guards. In their midst stood a young woman. Streaks of dirt painted across her face, and her was twisted into a rat’s nest of knots. The thief. Kassi looked at the girl with pity, but the thief’s wild eyes caught her gaze. Kassi broke away.
“And through the sacred lottery, Aetheldrake’s Will is known,” droned Brother Drefan.
The crowd withheld its breath in unison. Kassi stole one last glance toward the thief, before she too turned her attention to the dais.
“She, who will be given to one of Aetheldrake’s mortal sons. She, who will leave this world as handmaiden to Tahra and mate to Aetheldrake. She, who will sacrifice her being for the sake of the next Sonstar. She is known to us now.”
Brother Drefan made a show of reaching deep into his sleeve, then drawing out a tile. He held it up to the sky so that it could be blessed by Aetheldrake’s light, then lowered it down to eye level.
“She is Kassi the Flimen, servant of Lord Wyvham.”
Brother Drefan paused to allow the crowd their moment of relief. Handshakes and backslaps were traded, and foreheads were wiped. Small bouts of laughter erupted. The thief outright fainted. One of the guards caught her, and slung her limp form over his shoulder.
Kassi receded into herself, her vision sharpening and narrowing to a fine point. The guards were slowly- so slowly- turning toward her.
Kassi’s eyes strayed to where Duke Brogan stood. The ground felt like it was tipping, and the world around her began to spin. Why? She had kept her promise. She had never said a word. He had already proved to her what he was capable of. This wasn’t necessary- Why?
Her senses were still in a whirlwind when the guards grabbed her. Before her mind could grasp what was happening, she found herself being dragged toward the dais. She tried to find her footing, but her feet only stumbled. Duke Brogan was smug in his gold-trimmed tunic. Lord Wyvham, his pasty face a chinless blob underneath his feathered hat, would not meet her gaze. The soldiers hoisted her up the stairs, their fingers digging deeply into her arms, then set her down in front of Brother Drefan.
Kassi turned her head toward the Duke. Her body trembled, her fear giving way to a rage she didn’t know she possessed. Drawing up as much spit as her mouth could hold, Kassi hurled the wad straight into the Duke Brogan’s face. Her aim was true, landing with a satisfactory splootch against his cheek. The crowd gasped; so did Kassi. She had often imagined doing something like that, but she never thought she would actually dare.
The Duke took out an embroidered kerchief and wiped the spit from his cheek, then thrust it toward Lord Wyvham. Lord Wyvham collected it by pinching the corner, then thrusting it toward an even lower underling. Once Duke Brogan’s hand was free, he struck her. Her head was whipped to the side, and in disbelief Kassi reached up to touch her lip. Her finger brought back the proof of blood, yet Kassi could feel a tiny smile tugging at the corners of her lip.
Duke Brogan crossed his arms around his chest again. “Were we not discussing this very thing, Brother Drefan? A more perfect illustration of the problem with the Flimen I cannot imagine. Here, fate has bestowed this girl with the greatest honor, and she behaves like a wild beast.”
“May you rot in Tahra’s bowels,” snarled Kassi.
Duke Brogan’s brow raised, but he didn’t reply. Brother Drefan, on the other hand, reddened all the way to the top of his scalp. “We’ve had enough of your demonstrations. You will be still now.”
Kassi blinked, then snorted into a fit of hysterical giggles.
Duke Brogan leaned closer to her, the aroma of pickled sweat invading her nose. The freedom of her temporary madness fading, Kassi trembled with all-too-sane dread. She recoiled as his corpse-pale fingers brushed against her russet-brown skin.
“If you ask me sweetly enough, I can take you away from this.”
Kassi closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. The Duke was a liar. Her name was announced; not even the King could stop this now. For the sake of spite, though, she answered, “In that case, I choose the dragon.”
At least Duke Brogan’s smirk faded. Stepping back from her, he motioned with his hand to his soldiers. “She will be honored to meet the dragon,” he announced.
Once more the guards grabbed hold, but she was at least allowed her own footsteps this time. The crowd gave a half-hearted cheer as the guards led her away, probably more out of relief than anything else. Their ritual would go on, unchallenged. They would spend the rest of the day drinking into a stupor.
Kassi, on the other hand, would be dead in three days.