Jourd’Selene, 39th Primera, 4020
Seven days was the prescribed time for cleansing. Seven days of rituals to rid the soul of a family blood-curse, or of feelings of guilt or shame. Seven days to rid the heart of its ache. Seven days of rituals to make sure the soul of the deceased received an Audience at all — seven days of rituals and three days of funeral rites to give the soul a chance of an afterlife. Without those seven and three days, there was a chance the soul would wander the earth restlessly for all time, unable to take corporeal form but still in the belief of life, tormented by people and food and drink it could not touch or taste or drink. No relief for the thirst and hunger it would feel; no cure for the loneliness.
Jules had spent seven days in service to the goddesses. He had spent seven days fasting, burning incense, bathing in the sacred water, cleansing his body with the heat of the sauna, being anointed by the holy ground of the temple, pouring libations, and even the most serious of rituals: self-flagellation and blood-offerings. Seven days doing what was required and more, to give his father a chance at an Audience, to ease his own heart-ache, and still — still he felt no relief from the grief that pressed down upon him and made his every breath labored.
“What do They want from me, Sarai?” he asked his sister at the end of their seven days. They had spent the time in isolation from the rest of the temple’s denizens, aside from the priestess and priest who had officiated their cleansing. Now, at the end of the seven days, they were allowed to break their fast and be together as a family, though they were still alone. Looking at Sarai’s face, Jules knew with the intuition of a brother that where he felt no relief from the rituals, his sibling the High Priestess felt even less.
She sighed and picked at her food listlessly. “It’s not about what They want, brother,” she said, in a voice that almost sounded like she was speaking to herself. Jules stopped his unenthusiastic eating and reviewed what she’d said, because he was sure what had just been uttered couldn’t have come from his devout sister.
“What do you mean?” he asked, giving up on the meat and taking a sip of wine instead. It did nothing to slake his thirst, and he couldn’t taste anything beyond ash. “These rituals are all done for Them, I thought. To show Them that Dad is worthy of the afterlife — that his family care enough for him to be granted an Audience with the Blind One. Right?” The last was hesitant, and Sarai said nothing. “Right?” he asked again, his voice breaking.
Sarai cleared her throat and set her glass down on the table. When she replied, she did not meet his gaze. Her eyes stayed steadfast on her hands.
“Religion is a trapping for us, Jules. Not for Them.”
Jules shook his head in denial as his world spun to a stop. “The Scriptures say — we all know it’s in service for Them, Sarai! Why else would we do it? I do it, and I don’t even particularly care about it, beyond not getting struck by lightning by an angry goddess or making sure Da makes it to the afterlife. We follow it because it’s Divine Law. How can you say it’s for us, not Them? Sarai, you’re High Priestess!”
“Which is why I know it,” she said, her tone exasperated. “It’s one of the Mysteries. By rights I shouldn’t be sharing it with a layperson, but you’re my brother.” She broke off and looked out the window again.
“Sharing the heavy burden of truth with someone else?” he asked.
“No. I just think that if I can handle the truth, you certainly can. Nathaniel wouldn’t be able to,” she said, an afterthought.
Jules nodded in agreement. Their very religious brother would never accept what Sarai had just said. Religion for him was not a career choice, or something he ignored until Jourd’Aradia, as it was for Sarai and Jules. It was a part of life. If Jules and Sarai were opposite ends of the spectrum, Nathaniel was in its middle. He had no desire to explore the deeper mysteries — going to the Temple, reading the Scriptures, and saying his prayers with his family was enough for him and always would be. Knowing the goddesses were there was enough for him.
“So,” Jules said as a thought occurred. “Are you saying that They don’t exist? They’re not real?”
“No. They are real. I’ve met Them, Jules. Some of Them, at least. They are just as real as you and I, even if we can’t see Them all the time. And They told me the truth — well, the Sisters did. While there are rites for certain goddesses that are required, because those goddesses require it — Juno’s yearly sacrifice is something She wants regardless how we feel about it, for example — those rites are given because they are actually demanded, they are actually wanted. But the funerary rites?” She shook her head and got up out of her chair to begin pacing. “Muerta and the Blind One are the Sisters of Mercy, Jules. They grant Audience to all who pass through Muerta’s door, regardless the rites we do or do not do. We could very well dump Da in a hole and piss on him and he’d still get an Audience.” She turned away from him, as if ashamed of her outburst.
His heart twisting in pain at the distress he was causing his sister, Jules forced his voice to be gentler with his next question. “Then why do the rites at all?”
Sarai paced some more before making her way back to her chair, where she sat down with the grace of a woman many years older. “When Muerta saw the suffering we went through upon the death of a loved one, She spoke unto Her prophet Libitina and bade her make the new Divine Law be known — that there were to be funerary rites that lasted seven and three days, and that these were to be done without fail. She decreed this to bring Her children solace in their time of grief. She made it law so we would never fail to take care of ourselves and ease the pain, until such time as She can take away all our pain.”
Jules sat back in his chair in disbelief. “Why do I feel no relief then? If these rites are for us like you say then I should feel something other than this constriction of my breathing and the inability to face another day.” He blinked as tears came to his eyes, and looked away from Sarai, not wanting to meet her gaze.
“Some grief needs more than the rites. Sometimes time is the only cure. And sometimes time cannot do anything but a small, almost minuscule lessening of the pain, and it only sees you through until sweet oblivion takes it all away.” Her voice was quiet and choked, as if she could hardly bear to say what she had to.
A silence fell between them. He should have felt angry, to discover such a large part of Athering’s religion was based on lies but, beyond a momentary surge of livid disbelief, he didn’t. It made too much sense, and his brain and heart were too emotionally battered for him to fight what was logical. Grief was all he had strength for right now.
“Are you going to Dedicate soon?” he found himself asking, as much in interest of his sister’s life as for a change of subject.
She shook her head and made a small coughing noise. “Not for another year at least. I’ve yet to be Called, so for now I stay here and serve all the goddesses. It’s why I’ve been chosen to perform the Ceremony.”
Jules choked on air. “The Birthright Ceremony?” he coughed out, and tried to take a sip of wine to soothe his throat. Sarai nodded. “And when were you planning on telling me?”
“I just found out myself this morning. It’s a great honour, to be chosen,” she said, but the claim was weak, lacking any conviction.
“Or it would be if it were Yarrow ascending to take the Sceptre and not Zardria.”
Sarai made a small noise in her throat, as if a laugh had gotten caught half-way out and so died before blossoming into a full-grown chuckle. “Can you read my thoughts now, brother?”
“Always,” he said with a half-smile, continuing the old family joke. “You’d be awfully close to her for a day,” he added in a neutral voice.
Sarai burst out of her chair and started pacing again. “I knew you would suggest that. And don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind.” She looked back at him sadly. “It has, so many times I’m ashamed to say it — it’s unconscionable of me. But even — even if I was fine with abusing my power, I would not do it. The Temple and the Order have been politically separate from the Throne and Sceptre for centuries. I have no wish for one entity to control the other. We’re not Nighttide.”
Jules bowed his head in embarrassment. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said, sitting again. “You’re only human. We all are. I’m sure there are other people in the Temple thinking the same thing. I’m sure most of Athering is thinking the same thing.”
They both fell silent, Sarai looking out the window and Jules deciding to make another attempt on his food’s life. He got half the bit of meat and most of the vegetables down before he gave up again. He simply was not able to enjoy the meal. As the noon hour left them, servants silently came and cleared away the plates from the table, leaving the empty slab of wood between them that Jules felt should be filled with something. To avoid looking at the emptiness he directed his gaze out the window, watching the rain fall on the city outside. Afternoon turned into evening and still brother and sister sat, unable to move or speak, trapped under the lethargy of grief.
When she spoke he jumped, unable to categorise the strange sounds in the room after so much quietude. “What was that?” he asked, realising it had been his sister’s voice.
“I can’t remember him,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Her eyes glistened with wetness in the late afternoon light. “I haven’t seen him since I was eleven and when I think about him I can’t put together a clear picture of him in my head.” Tears spilled down her cheeks and landed on her lap, making her twisting, wringing hands damp. Hastily Jules got up and sat beside her slight form on the klina, wrapping his arms around his elder sister. “I should be able to remember his face, right? All I can picture is someone taller, a big bushy beard that scratched and tickled when he kissed me and how desperately I wanted out of the family because they’d never understood what I felt — especially him because he didn’t even really believe in the goddesses — he was so irreverent and I — ” her voice had risen and she was sobbing hard, rocking back and forth in her brother’s embrace as he made soothing motions and noises. “I — I just wanted him to believe as I did and I resented him for it and now I don’t even remember what he looks like, for Muerta’s sake, and I must be the worst daughter in the history of the whole universe!” She shouted the last and put her hands to her face, raw sobs escaping her like sounds ripped from the earth when it shook in agony.
Jules pulled her back into his arms and let her rest against his chest, and was struck by how small she was compared to him despite the years between them. She was coming up on forty and still was a smaller woman then their mother had been. Gently he ran a hand down her long black hair and whispered gentle nothings of comfort, offering her what solace he could. “You’re not the worst daughter in the history of the universe, Rai-Rai,” he said, using his childhood nickname for her. “I daresay a certain Empreena was much worse.” He smiled down at her, hoping to make her giggle with his small joke, but to no avail.
“But, Jules,” she choked out, sniffing and wiping her eyes, “what if he doesn’t get an Audience because of me? What if I keep him wandering the earth forever, tormented and lost?”
“Sarai.” He tilted her chin upwards so she was looking at him and frowned at her. “You just said yourself that those rituals don’t count for shite with the Sisters of Mercy.”
“I know, but what if — ”
“Hey,” he said, firmer. “Are you having a crisis of faith here? Should I call the Mother Superior? Cause I will, and I don’t know about you but she scares the starlights out of me.”
She let out a small nervous laugh and looked down. “Maybe a small crisis. But don’t call her, please — she scares me too.” She sat up straight then, smiling, and smoothed her robe, looking more composed than she had all day.
“Now that’s more like it,” he said, glad to see his capable sister back. “You’re the strongest of us, Sarai. Nathaniel and I will be leaning on you heavily. Hate to say it, but that’s your lot — guarding your dumb kid brothers.”
She smiled, a touch sorrowfully, and reached behind her to start braiding her hair again, unbound as it had been for the seven days of rituals. “So long as you watch out for your dumb elder sister from time to time.”
Jules responded by brushing her hands away and doing the braiding himself. “What are brothers for?” he murmured gently.
A soft laugh was her only response.