Chapter Four (Temple of Twilight)

Este, High Priestess of the Temple of Dawn, sat in her audience room.  The high windows, in every eastern wall of the temple to capture the sunrise, let in the morning sun. The warm light made Este languid. The audience room was not opulent, in keeping with Zel’s teachings, but it was luxurious in keeping with Este’s tastes.  The walls were whitewashed stone, which were blinding at sunrise when the full glare of the sun flooded the room. On the western wall a large mirror reflected the sunlight further.  It was a priceless gift from the days when Naiglen, the Imperator, had been her lover.

Este was impeccably dressed in the traditional green gown of Zel’s service with its elaborate pleats and folds.  The large square of fabric hung from her neck, leaving her shoulders and back bear, and was further pleated and draped to accent her beautiful figure, purposefully seductive. She thought that it suited the High Priestess of a fertility goddess to exude sexual energy.  The subtle luxury of the room around her spoke of her power.  Not the power she once held in the capital as the Imperator’s lover, but power within the City of the Jungle, the religious center for the Cetza.

Este kept a small table and chair in one corner.  It held ink and papers – often codices of the temple’s mysteries.  Este’s predecessor had not cared for the room, always claiming the massive Jadite Throne made her uncomfortable.  The former high priestess had even tried to get the temple council to lock the throne away.  She had argued that being spoils of war, the throne had no place in the temple. Este did not share her predecessor’s misgivings about the chair.  She knew the chair had power, and had spent the last ten years in political exile, learning to wield its power.

The chair, carved of solid jadite, was to those in the Temple of Dawn a mark of the goddess’s favor of Este.  For Este, it had become her only hope to have her status restored.  The last high priestess had refused to use the chair, regardless of its potential power.  Este cajoled a cast-out priestess, Anacoana, to teach her the magic of the chair.  The cast-out was a self-styled herbalist and sorceress eking out a living with tricks and poisons, but Este did not care.  With excessive application of agaval, the intoxicating agave cider banned by the Imperator, the woman taught her the principles of the chair.  Anacoana would only discuss the chair while drunk.  Este had risked her reputation in the temple visiting the out-cast witch and risked the strict laws prohibiting the consumption of any intoxicating drinks to learn.  Both risks had paid handsomely.  The source of the jadite’s magic was a mystery to both women.  However, Este had learned that if properly prepared, one could control the energy flow of the chair, but using its power had risks.  The power which flowed from the throne could also kill the wielder. The sorceress had told of early experiments that left priestess smoldering husks on the throne.

Anacoana once told Este that she believed the throne was like a jar, a holding vessel for the unnamed god represented in the images carved into it. While the front of the chair bore the stylized sun and serpent imagery of the goddess Zel, it also contained panels that represented fire, which was not a symbol for Zel.  Yet, it was the back of the chair, which Este kept against a wall, that bore the image of Anacoana’s unnamed god, surrounded by glyphs of another tongue.  These alien glyphs circled the unnamed god, perhaps telling his name or story.  While this god carried a serpent, like Zel, it was not flowers or an ear of corn in his right hand. He held a spear and stood upon a mound of skulls.  What it meant, or whom it invoked was lost to temple memory, even the purpose of the throne was unclear.

Regardless of her role as high priestess, Este doubted the gods, but she recognized real power.  The oracles of her own temple and those in the Temple of Twilight had real power. The potions and spells crafted by her priestesses and those in Tzi’s temple were evidence of magic. These gifts existed and were very real, but that these were gifts from some greater beings Este doubted.  The gods were nothing more than convenient myths used to manipulate the populace, and through her positions in the temple, Este had become a master of manipulation.  She had manipulated the entire temple into accepting her as High Priestess.  By using old legends and spreading rumor, she had slowly, carefully changed the mythology of the temple, making them all believe that the Jadite Throne was a mark of Zel’s favor.

Este took a deep breath and stilled her thoughts. Once prepared, she gingerly lowered herself into the chair in preparation for her meeting with her under-priestess, Setch.  As she sat in the chair, the low thrum of power began to course through her body, beginning in her legs and loins, and finally vibrating through her head.  Sitting in the chair was not comfortable and remaining in it for long stretches of time, left Este with pounding headaches and numb appendages.  But, being able to sit in the chair gave her authority in the temple.  And she had only herself to blame for creating the myth that the goddess could speak through her while seated in the chair.  Now, she was forced to use it regularly.

The chair’s power allowed her to create the illusion of the goddess’s voice, to project the aura of the great mother, lights, and emotions all theatrics powered by the chair’s strange energy.     Once seated, she gritted her teeth and waited to acclimate to the frissons of power.  She settled her features into a mask of serenity and rang for Setch.  The young woman came in, head bowed and eyes downcast.  Her obvious obsequiousness was what prompted Este to notice the young woman.  But it was Setch’s appearance that caused Este to initiate Setch into the ranks of her special sisterhood.  Setch had unusual eyes, a lustrous green that matched the jungle – rare among the Cetza.  And she was lovely, not beautiful like Chacon and some of the other young women who Este recruited, but lovely with her fine bone structure and honey-bronzed skin.  Her high forehead and high cheekbones accented plush lips and those strange green eyes.  It made her striking, but it was her willingness to give herself so thoroughly to her lovers that they loved her, and they served her.  They willingly, cheerfully spilled their secrets to her, and she, in turn reported them to Este. Este chose how best use their secrets.

Setch entered the chamber with her head lowered in respect, “I am here to serve, My Lady.”

Setch’s tone grated on Este.  She often felt the younger woman was feigning obsequiousness, to mock Este. As always, when seated on the throne, Este held her annoyance and emotions in check.  “What news, my child?”

Setch risked a quick glance at Este her eyes wide, but Este couldn’t say if it was fright or naiveté.  “Soshay has not failed.  Keron,” she spoke the name quickly, “has succeeded.  Soshay will have her initiation.”

Este schooled her expression, fighting her own rising emotions that were echoed in the rising tide of the chair’s surging energy.  “What do you mean, Keron succeeded?”

“The girl now bears the mark of Tez.  And the God struck down the priest Neldo when he accused her of lying” the words fell from her mouth in a jumbled rush.  “They say Neldo may die from the lightening that Tez rained down on him.  He is by all accounts burned beyond recognition.  None oppose Keron now.  The girl belongs utterly to Tez.”

Este blinked.  She had known Neldo, after her exile, they had briefly been lovers.  At least until he had become useless to her.  He had become so twisted by Second-Priest Tenoch’s schemes, that he no longer trusted her.  He had been a handsome man and an ambitious one, once.  She felt sympathy for him, like her, his ambitions had been thwarted by Keron.  She pushed those thoughts aside.  “Tez has marked the girl? How is that possible? Zel promised the girl to me!” Este felt her serene façade falter, and the throne poured energy through her.  The constant tingling became a low burn.  She took a slow breath – focusing on maintaining control of the chair.

When Soshay’s sister had entered the temple service, with her tales of her sister’s skill with foretelling, Este had begun spreading the stories that Zel desired both girls in her service.  If half the stories she told about Soshay were true, Este knew the The Imperator would welcome her back.  He was obsessed with oracles, and before Soshay, Keron was the most impressive oracle in the empire.

“Tez has robbed us of our daughter,” Este spoke slowly, carefully choosing her words.  Seated on the throne, she could not give in to surges of emotion.  “We must find away to turn her from Tez’s service to our own.”

“My Lady,” Setch murmured, “is the girl so important, even after being so marked by Tez?”

“Yes, she is” Este replied and felt the power of the throne thrum through her. After her exile from the capital, from her role as advisor to Imperator Naiglen, Este had begun her experiments with the throne.  She had teased out some of its secrets, and one was the chair’s response to power.  Powerful people, plans, ideas, and objects, caused the chair to surge with energy.  Not the kind of energy that could harm her, a benign quiet energy, like a subtle nudge.  Este relied on these nudges to help her form her plans.

Setch remained on her knees unmoving “It is possible the girl will follow her sister’s example.  She is by all accounts unhappy in the temple, and like her sister, she has a willful streak” Setch raised cautions eyes the High Priestess.  “Maybe, with motivation, she can be persuaded to leave Tez’s service.”  Setch averted her eyes, as Este began to smile.

Este felt the chair pulse with energy at Setch’s suggestion.  “Yes, she must be persuaded before her initiation – have you access to the girl?” Este gave Setch a small caress on the head, using the touch to create a conduit for the chair’s energy.  Through this conduit Este could manipulate Setch’s emotions, her thoughts.  The energy from the chair could be pushed into another person to remake her will.  Through multiple applications, Este had turned Setch and all the priestess in her special sisterhood into her creatures.

Setch shivered not from the touch, but from the slight frisson of the energy entering her body. “My Lady,” she was slightly breathless, “I don’t have access yet, but I should soon.  Tenoch will soon prove amiable to my requests.”

“Why the delay? Chacon would have already met with the girl?  Is Tenoch immune to women?”  Este asked.

Setch shrugged, “He is Tenoch, concerned more with his own schemes and machinations within the Temple of Twilight, than with me.  But I will persuade him.”

Este reached for the energy of the chair and slowly pushed it toward Setch, letting it flow into the priestess, until Este could feel Setch’s emotions.  “Setch my pet” she stroked Setch’s head, “I need you to visit Tenoch tonight.”

“Yes, My Lady” she murmured, “What do you wish me to discover?”

Este began to feed the energy into Setch, shaping it into the warm glow of the Goddess’s motherly love.  “What it will take to coerce her to leave?  How soon will she take the rites of initiation?  If he will speak of them, what are her current prophecies?”  Este allowed the flow of energy to increase with each question.  Through this process, Setch would forget her own desires, her own questioning nature.  Este twisted the energy making it a geas, an overriding need to submit to anything, to fulfill Este’s command filled Setch.

With this expenditure of time and energy, she missed Chacon. She never had to put such effort into compelling Chacon – that girl enjoyed her seductions, her spying, and the game of politics, and Este realized that maybe that had been the problem.  Setch had a real devotion to the goddess, and Este used that.  She became the goddess incarnate for Setch.

She pulled more energy from the chair and created a glowing aura, like the dawn, around herself. “Look at Me priestess.” Using the energy, she made her voice exuded power.  The dulcet, bell-like tones of the goddess’s “voice” echoed through the chamber.  “You are my beautiful servant.  Your service pleases Me.  Follow My High Priestess’s commands, for she is My voice on earth.”

Setch gazed at Este with shining eyes.  She lowered her head in respect.

Este dropped the guise and feigned to slump in the chair exhausted.  “Setch?” she made her voice breathy and weak.

Setch gazed at Este, her eyes burned with barely contained zeal.  “We shall have the girl, my lady.”

“Good my pet, good.”  She kept her eyes half-lidded as if exhausted from the possession.  Este lay back in the chair with another artificial sigh. She made a show of lifting her hand heavily to lay it upon the exquisitely carved malachite box next to her chair.  The box bore a gold border of caterpillars that seamlessly became butterflies.  An image of Zel standing in a flowing stream, the symbol of fertility was etched and bejeweled, on the left side.  On the right side, Zel was depicted harvesting the corn – a sickle in her hand and a freshly sliced stalk in the other, the symbol of sterility.

Este’s fingers traced the design before unlocking the box.  Inside the rows of potions gleamed. All were crafted by the apothecaries within Zel’s service. They prevented conception, aided conception, and ended conception.  Zel’s priestesses guarded their knowledge and control of pregnancy. Zel as the goddess of births could, with the help of her priestesses, deny a high-ranking noble an heir, destroy the happiness of an announced pregnancy, or destroy an unfaithful wife with her lover’s child.  Este controlled this power and used it deftly.  Sometimes purposefully to gain favors from high-ranking women and men, but more often clandestinely dosing a drink to force the powerful to beg Este for her aid – and her aid came with a price.

She fingered the bottles, running her fingers over the conception potion.  She often wondered what Tenoch would pay for a child or for keeping one from coming to be.  Este only knew the priest in passing.  When she entranced Setch, after her assignations, the girl provided astute analysis of Tenoch’s plans and motives and could recite verbatim everything he and anyone else she had spoken to had said.  But, when questioned about Tenoch as a man, an individual, Setch failed to perform.  She did not break from the trance, but she would begin to speak only gibberish.  Without a full understanding of the chair’s power, Este did not know if Setch’s reaction was caused by the compulsion or entrancement, or was possibly a flaw in the girl herself. Alas, it left Tenoch a cipher.

She continued to consider which potion to give Setch.  Tez’s priests were ordered to maintain celibacy, expect in strict ritual circumstances – she was certain a dalliance with Setch would not qualify as ritual.  Setch would drink any potion that came from the box and would never question the intention.  Besides, all the potions were stored in small malachite vials with almost identical obsidian stoppers.  Only the apothecaries in the temple and Este herself could identify the minute differences between the vials.

The chair surged with power as Este past her fingers over the vials of conception, but it was not the searing pain brought on by her own unchecked anger, and it was more then the nudging of energy.  It was strength; it was power.  She held the vial for a moment longer to savor the warm strength that flowed through her.  The power made her giddy, intoxicated.  The energy was warm, alive caressing her almost like a lover. Another visit to her private library was in order.

Este leaned forward and kissed Setch’s forehead while pressing the vial into her hand.  “The goddess smiles upon your service Setch.”  Este rose from the chair, a sign of dismissal that Setch accepted and backed slowly out of the room.

***

After leaving Este’s presence, Setch stopped to look at the vial.  To the untrained eye, the three potions of Zel appeared identical.  All in their sealed malachite vials with obsidian stoppers.  Even pouring the potion out would not help identify them, as they all were pale green with a faint glow, and once the potions were exposed to air or light their effectiveness diminished.  Setch’s eye was not supposed to be trained.   She knew that Este kept all the special priestesses from learning the skills of the apothecary, but Setch believed in the goddess, and the apothecary priestesses recognized her devotion.  She could identify the potions.  The vial in her hand throbbed with life.  It should have a faint echo of power, but no indication of life.

She froze in the hallway, preparing to return to Este’s audience chamber and ask for the correct potion.  The thought of bearing his child filled her with revulsion, but she hesitated, to question Este was to question the Goddess herself and that Setch could not do.

Very since Este had ordered her to seduce Tenoch, Setch had felt conflicted.  She truly felt it was the goddess’s will when she lay with him, but after, after she felt unfulfilled.  A small part of her questioned, why the goddess herself, had asked Setch to defy one of the major tenets of the Temple of Dawn, the tenet that command no priestess lie with man for anything other than her desire.  Setch has never desired Tenoch the man; her desire was for her goddess.

She turned from the audience chamber and fled through the sun warmed stone hallways.  She missed Chacon more and more.  They had been novices together, and Setch thought friends as well.  Chacon had become one of Este’s sisterhood priestesses a year before Setch, but unlike Setch, Chacon had enjoyed the intrigue and seduction.  Setch admitted that what Chacon lacked in piety, she compensated for with a practicality and with ambition.  She could have soothed Setch’s conscience and Setch ached for her now. But, Chacon had repudiated her service to Zel and left the Temple of Dawn.  Setch had heard that Chacon had been accepted into the Temple of Noon, serving as a warrior priestess.  Without Chacon, Setch was left to beg the goddess herself for guidance.

Setch reached the main temple.  The malachite potion clutched in her hand still throbbed with life. The scent of the goddess’s incense, sweet and floral with an undertone of musk and earth, filled her lungs.  The temple was empty at this hour.  Even the constant stream of women praying for children, or the ones that prayed for no more children were absent.  Only Setch stood on the green veined stone floor.  The silent frescos gazed down at her.  The goddess as fecund mother etched and painted in wearing vibrant greens standing in rich lapis waters.  Like all the frescos of the people, this too bore the glyphs of prayer and legends of the goddess.  Setch did not need to read the words; she knew all the legends and the prayers with a fierce devotion. Behind her she knew without looking, the fresco portrayed the goddess at harvest, the cessation of fertility.  Today the frescos of the goddess, with her benevolent smile, offered her no succor.

Her gaze turned to the altar carved of jadite, temple legends said it to be the same jade as the throne, but Setch knew it was not.  The color of the jadite did not match, and the throne was carved with the sun and flames, flames that had no place in Zel’s iconography.

The altar was barely visible under the fruit flower offerings.  Both scents mixed with the incense, becoming cloying – almost nauseating as the faint sweet stench of decay from the flowers seeped in.  She glanced around for the temple priestess, and saw no one.  Setch took a step toward the altar, wanting to seem controlled, to appear the high ranking priestess she was.  As soon as her feet hit the floor of the temple, her control broke, and she raced to the altar her eyes blinded by tears.

She fell to her knees before the near rotting fruit and dying flowers and begged her goddess for understanding.  She laid her head against the cool jadite altar, “please, I do not question my service, but I need to understand.”

The jade altar thrummed with energy.  As Setch’s tears fell to the floor, the altar’s energy flooded through her.  The energy was warm and the thrum a soft caress.  She jerked away at the feeling, never before had the goddess touched her outside the presence of Este.  The vial clasped in her hand burned, and with wide eyes Setch opened her hand.  The vial had not changed, but the potion had.  The goddess had smiled upon her.  The potion became the contraceptive she depended on.  Setch heard the goddess’s voice, “Soshay is important to Me Setch.  I have given her my gift and without her, I will be driven from the lands of the people.  A grave threat rises to destroy us all.  Once My Brother lays His claim on Her, I do not know if I can use her.”  Setch felt the words hum through the energy flowing through her body.

“Thank you my lady” Setch whispered raising her tear-stained face in awe.  “I serve Your will.”  The energy faded and Setch rose to go, she would not fail her goddess.

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