The room was darkened and the focus was on a grunting, pushing woman. “One more,” crooned the midwife, “and you’ll have done it. Here it comes, push. That’s right.” There was business with cloths and strings and a knife. “Here you are, a beautiful little girl.” The midwife eased the wrapped child into the new mother’s arms.
“I think I’m having more contractions.” The mother sounded frightened.
“That’ll just be the afterbirth,” said the midwife’s assistant calmly, “I’ll deal with it while you get to know your daughter.” A little while later she said, “That’s you all cleaned up, I’ll just take this outside.” She bundled everything up and carried it out the door, past the waiting family members and through the house to her fellow priestess waiting at the back door. “Here she is,” she handed over the second baby. “The parents don’t know and she’s a good little thing, not a peep out of her.”
“You’d best get back,” the priestess outside the door said, “I’ll take this one and get her some milk and a warm bed.”
“You have to sing.”
That was easy for them to say, they weren’t the ones who had to do it. It was going to be easy for the other girl, too. I’d never been encouraged to sing at the orphanage.
The other girl was Lida. Everyone knew Lida, she’d been winning singing competitions for years. She gave recitals that important people went to in the evenings so that they could meet other important people. Lida was in the robing room with her mother, her dresser, her make-up person and her music teacher to get ready. I just had me and the corner of the room they left me.
When we were done, changed into the plain linen robes the temple had provided, the priestess in charge came back into the room, looked us over and then tut-tutted. “This won’t do, they’re supposed to be identical. How long will it take Lida to clean off her face and brush out her hair?” Lida’s entourage spluttered outrage at the idea. “Then you’ll have to do up Dana the same way.” She took in their renewed protests and said firmly, “Do it and do it properly or I’ll scrub their faces clean myself.”
Fifteen minutes it took Lida’s dresser and makeup person to do their work on me and when the two of us looked in the mirror together, we did look identical. The priestess in charge was pleased but made us go barefoot which provoked more protests from Lida’s mother. As I followed the argument out of the robing room, I realised that Lida and the people with her were treating this as just another performance.
They weren’t scared. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t know what was going to happen. If they weren’t scared then our speculation back at the orphanage was right, the fix was in and I was going to get a cup of poison while Lida would wake up afterwards, high as a lark, but alive. All those temple guards in the corridors were suddenly a whole lot more sinister.
It wasn’t that long a walk from the robing room to the sanctuary, certainly not long enough to get tired but it was certainly long enough to tie my stomach into knots, given that I knew what was coming. Every opening on the way had a guard in it, which I expected. What I didn’t expect was at the final one where, behind the stony-faced guard, were the two senior-most priestesses from the orphanage.
“Dana!” It was a soft, urgent whisper from Vicaress Letha that carried over the guard’s shoulder to me and no further. “I’m sorry, but they’re allowed in and we’re not.” She glanced down the corridor towards Lida’s entourage. “Know that we love you, we’ve always loved all of you. Remember that!” Then I was being beckoned fiercely from the end of the corridor and I had to hurry to join Lida so we could make our entrance together.
Lida’s mother was complaining about that too, remonstrating with the priestess in a fierce undertone that her daughter’s status required her to go first. I, for one, had had enough.
“Listen, lady,” my voice was as quiet and as fierce as hers, “this isn’t a performance, it’s a sacrifice. One of us is going to die. No matter which of us that is, you are making things worse. Shut up, let us follow the priestess’ directions without opening your gob every five seconds and this entire exercise will be slightly less painful for everyone.”
She went to open her mouth and I glared at her. Lida went to say something and I held up a warning finger. “The outcome is in the hands of our god,” I said firmly, “and any suggestion that matters might be otherwise could be construed as treason or heretical thought.” Lida shut her mouth quickly and the singing teacher went pale. Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious.
Lida and I were quickly lined up by the priestess after that and sent out into the sanctuary singing the sacrificial hymn. Naturally, Lida had been coached to show off her voice and she sang with crystal clarity about an octave and a half higher than me. I didn’t try to compete, stayed in my own range and although we were supposed to be identical, I think we made a pretty good harmony.
All too soon we were in front of the altar and the hymn was ended. The high priest said his usual piece, handed us a message scroll for the god each and poured out the two cups of soporific. As he poured from the same jug into both cups, I could only assume that the poison was already in my cup. We both murmured the response about promising faithfully to deliver the message and while we were doing it I scanned the temple floor. There was no escape that way, too many congregants and guards, so I drank.
I lost consciousness so fast I didn’t feel myself fall. Presumably I did because standing there, unconscious or dead, would have been really strange.
The next thing I knew, we were standing in Xaratous’ Hall before His throne. Nothing, even knowing it was going to happen, could have prepared me for that, so all I did was proffer my scroll. Lida seemed more unsettled by the experience than I did, it certainly took her longer to hand over her scroll.
“Ah,” it wasn’t His voice because His lips didn’t move but it vibrated through whatever bit of me was there, “so, can you two tell me why they always send me identical twins?”
Lida replied to that first. “We’re not,” she said firmly. “I don’t have any sisters.”
“But you most certainly are,” He rumbled back at us, “I see it clearly, formed from the same conceptus, birthed by the same mother, then…” He looked sad. “So, what do I do with you two now?”
“Isn’t that already decided?” It was my turn to pipe up unwisely. “Her family’s been told she’s going to live, so I must going to stay.”
“You think this has already been decided?” He was angry and it showed.
“I’m fairly certain my cup contained poison,” I pointed out. Lida looked at me in horror while He looked thoughtful.
“Indeed,” He was pensive, “your body is failing while hers is not. I do not like having my hand forced and I am, after all, a capricious god.” He smiled. “I have made my decision and it will be my little surprise. These are my replies to the messages you brought me.” He handed both of us our scrolls back. “Now be gone, both of you, to whence I send you.”
Everything went dark again.
The two sacrificial girls had been moved to the side of the sanctuary to clear space for the hubbub around the collapsed high priest and sacristan. No-one knew what had felled them so swiftly but it seemed to have been fatal and matters had reached the stage where no-one was quite sure how to proceed with the ceremony or removal of the bodies, or which, if either had precedence.
One of the girls stirred and a well-dressed, middle-aged woman pushed past the temple guards to get to her.
“Lida, darling, you’re all right aren’t you? Everything else seems to be going wrong.” The woman went to embrace the girl and found herself gently but firmly pushed aside.
“I’m not Lida, I’m Dana.” The conscious girl looked down at the unconscious one. “But she’s still breathing…and I need to give this scroll to the high priest.” Dana looked around, “Okay, if he’s dead, who’s in charge now?”