The sky was purple here, with roiling clouds that never stopped moving. Liliya’s fellow novitiates told her that the winds of time kept the sky churned in a storm that only the Lord of Time could control. The others came from families that had served the Lord for generations. They’d grown up in the shadow of the temple and heard stories about the god at their nurses’ knees. Liliya, on the other hand, hadn’t even known the god’s name until two years ago.
There were thirty novitiates total, girls sixteen years of age, and they huddled outside a gate of twisted wrought iron as tall as five men. As it creaked open, the girl next to Liliya grabbed her arm, her eyes wide with fear.
“What are you afraid of?” Liliya asked. “Your family has served him for so long.”
The girl shivered. She was beautiful, like most of the priestesses the god favored. “He’s not cruel. But he is harsh with his punishments, should you disobey him.”
Liliya wondered what this girl, whose soft hands and smooth skin bore no sign of the ravages of war, considered a harsh punishment. Could it be worse than what Liliya’s village had already suffered? But there was a real fear in the girl’s eyes, and Liliya sensed she shouldn’t make light of it. She would be careful. She would stay safe.
The gate opened completely to reveal a woman. It was hard to tell her age–though the skin of her face was smooth, it was drawn tight over harsh cheekbones and a proud nose, features that spoke of age, wisdom, and command. The woman’s raven black hair was pulled atop her head in an elaborate braided coil, and the emblem of the High Priestess was embroidered in gold thread on her lavender robe. She carried a single incense stick that burned with a blue flame.
The pack of novitiates crowded closer together.
“Follow me,” said the Priestess. “Single file.”
The novitiates fell in line behind the priestess. As they entered, they filed past a group of young men still waiting to be allowed in. While the boys all wore the ceremonial tunics and nervous expressions of those entering the temple for the first time, one looked particularly awestruck by his surroundings, staring open mouthed at the sky, the gate, and the buildings across the wall. He caught Liliya watching him and grinned sheepishly. Liliya lowered her eyes and passed through the gate.
The Temple grounds were tranquil, quite unlike the clouds above. Stone walkways crisscrossed a green–gray lawn. Priestesses, novitiates, and the god’s male servants went about their tasks between simple stone and wood buildings. Liliya’s gaze was caught by a blue light in the center of the compound. It was too far away to see clearly, but the other novitiates’ eyes strayed in that direction as well.
“Eyes on me,” said the High Priestess.
She led them into a long wooden building with beds lined up on each side–one bed for each of them, with a chest at the foot. “For the next five years of your lives, you belong to the Lord of Time,” she said. “Most of you will never see him, but you will serve him. You will prepare his incense and his offerings. You will plant the gardens that feed the people of the temple and grow the herbs that comprise the incense. Every morning and evening, you will sing praises in his honor. You will remain in service for five years. After that time, you will return home and live your lives in his favor.”
Liliya’s new life in in the temple was simple. The novitiates spent their days doing mundane tasks–fetching water, preparing food, hoeing the gardens. It was modest work that Liliya knew well, and she was grateful for this. The god’s presence was far away, easy to ignore once she grew accustomed to the purple clouds.
The other girls fell naturally to their duties and to each other. In the evenings, they clustered together and spoke of their day, laughing and chattering. These girls shared a history of secrets passed down from their families, of incense breathed into their mothers’ wombs. Sometimes, one of them would beckon to Liliya, at which point she would sit on the outer edge of the circle and listen to them talk. Liliya was always silent, though she knew she should try and befriend the others. There was a liveliness to their interactions that Liliya could not grasp. The novitiates were by turns happy or nervous, angry at imagined slights or subdued at the High Priestess’s admonishments. Liliya could feel none of these things. If the others’ lives were boldly colored, Liliya lived in shades of gray, and she couldn’t bridge the difference.
The god whom they served resided in an old house in the center of the temple grounds. Liliya found it strange. Of all the places for a god to live, she might have expected a marble obelisk, or a grand palace. But this was a rickety wooden house, with slats askew and old cracked windows. Even the novitiates’ dormitory looked more stable. But then, the house wasn’t held together by things such as nails. It crackled with the same energy of the skies, and Liliya had the impression that if she raced toward the house, she would be thrown back by an invisible force. Perhaps that was why everyone gave it a wide berth. The only person ever seen to enter was the High Priestess, and even she entered with her head veiled and carefully bowed, with an offering of scented herbs held reverently in front of her.
Next to the house was a globe, the source of the blue light that had attracted Liliya’s attention the first day. It was as large as a man and held up by a stand made of boar tusks. Lightning arced in its center, and images appeared and melted into each other. When Liliya first gazed into it, passing by as she lugged a bucket of water for the kitchens, she’d seen a man hanging by a set of chains. His face was downcast, hidden in shadow. His muscles were contorted in agony. Veins popped under his skin, and there was a curious crescent-shaped birthmark at the base of his neck.
Liliya stopped, transfixed by the man’s pain. Was this the Lord of Time himself?
“It shows images of the future and the past,” said a voice at her ear.
Liliya blanched to see the High Priestess next to her. The woman hardly ever spoke directly to the novitiates. The priestess’ voice still had the cold, imperious air that Liliya remembered from her first day, but Liliya sensed no malice in it.
“He knows the future?” Liliya asked.
“He is the God of Time,” the priestess said with a faint smile.
“Who is that man?”
The priestess gazed into the ball. “I don’t recognize the image, so it is unlikely to be from the past. The future then, perhaps.”
A shadow crossed the window of the house. Liliya tried to look through the glass. She couldn’t make out features, but there was definitely something blocking the light, and a feeling of presence that froze her to the core.
The priestess gave her a sidelong glance. “What do you feel, child?”
“Nothing,” she lied.
“The Time Lord doesn’t favor everyone with his presence or attention,” she said. “But then, you are not like the others, are you?”
There was no greater honor and no greater mystery than to be chosen by the Lord of Time. He was one of five gods who held sway over the heart of civilization, and of the five, he was the most mysterious by far. But until recently, Liliya’s people had paid the gods no heed. The rice farmers of Asayi were far from the temple, and weeks of travel over swampy roads buffered them from the gods’ meddling.
Then Asayi was invaded–not by the gods’ servants, but by a savage warrior people from the north. The godless attackers left the village in flames, the rice paddies red with blood. Those who weren’t killed outright were left to face a long hard winter, as the invaders had taken their food stores. By spring, their village had dwindled to half its size, and the raids continued on.
Five long years later, the priestesses and their armies came from the south, enforcing their rule over both the invaders and the invaded alike. The Asayi farmers welcomed them with relief. Liliya’s mother buried her once-beautiful face in her hands and wept for joy.
So it was that a year after the gods took over, when the High Priestess came carried on a palanquin by six young men, the villagers bowed their heads in respectful welcome. Beautiful and severe, she stopped at the edge of the rice paddies and raised an imperious hand to the workers there.
“Line up. The Lord of Time wishes one of you in his service.”
At first, the workers didn’t move, uncertain about the woman’s words. But the palanquin bearers also carried spears and used them to herd the people to some semblance of a line. The priestess drew out a globe the size of her hand that flashed with blue lightning. A palanquin bearer, strong and graceful, came before the priestess and took it. When he passed in front of Liliya, the globe flashed bright. Murmurs ran through the crowd. The priestess looked at Liliya in a way that made Liliya all too aware of her mud soaked clothing, the dirt caked in her nails.
“Liliya.” Her voice sounded timid, even to herself.
“How many years do you have?”
“Report to the temple on the summer solstice of your sixteenth year.”
One moon cycle after she arrived at the temple, Liliya once again crossed paths with the boy who’d smiled at her by the temple gate. Liliya had been struggling with a weed in the temple garden–a coarse, grassy nuisance that grew in tangled clusters with roots spread wide to hold the dirt. Liliya braced her foot against the ground and pulled with all her strength. Her arms ached with the effort, and her palms were rubbed raw.
The boy came by and took a clump in his hands. He was a few years older than Liliya and on the cusp of manhood, with his shoulders broadening and his limbs becoming corded with muscle. Scars crisscrossed his arms, the only sign that he may not have had an easy childhood. There was a set to his jaws as he pulled the weeds out, but he showed no greater effort beyond that.
“Thank you,” Liliya said, as he handed the weeds back to her. As she stared at the dead grasses, her vision blurred, and she remembered a time when she’d been surrounded by similar weeds. Liliya had been ten when the barbarians invaded–not old enough to fully understand the attacks, but old enough to hear the screams of dying men and tortured women, to smell the acrid smoke of burning flesh. Old enough to stifle her sobs as her mother pushed her into the surrounding swamp grass and to know, as she huddled alone and terrified, that nothing would ever be the same. Days later, when most of the invaders had gone, she’d hobbled back to the village, dirty, thirsty and hungry. She’d found her father dead, and her mother forever broken.
“Are you unwell?” asked the boy.
The question brought Liliya back to herself, and she tore her eyes from the weeds in her hand. Words froze in her throat.
The boy looked uncertainly at her. “I am Dineas,” he finally said. As with all the Time Lord’s servants, he was beautiful, with sand colored hair and a charming smile. His eyes were friendly, and Liliya found herself able to smile back. The memory faded.
“Thank you, Dineas,” she said. She gave a polite bow and continued with her weeding.
Dineas was light hearted and cheerful. One day, he waved at Liliya from across the grounds, which struck her as bold. There was no prohibition against talking to the young men–occasionally her duties even required it. There was an unspoken rule, though, that the two groups otherwise stay apart. The novitiates were, of course, to stay pure to the Lord of Time while they were in his service. But when nobody reprimanded Dineas for his boldness that morning, Liliya worked up the courage to wave back.
The day after, he fell in step beside her on the way to the garden. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“Far from here,” she said.
“I know.” At her surprise, he explained. “You’re like me. I see you looking around at everything, taking it all in. It’s not normal for you, to live in a god’s shadow. You don’t act like the purple clouds aren’t there.”
“Are your people also new to the god’s service? Is this why you keep talking to me?” She imagined that Dineas might feel just as out of place amongst his fellow palanquin bearers as she did amongst the novitiates.
“That is one reason.” He gave an uncertain smile. “Also, you always look a little lost.”
Liliya dropped her eyes. “I do miss my village.” It was selfish to burden him with her troubles, but the offered ear was too tempting to refuse.
Dineas reached out and squeezed her hand. His grip was comforting, and Liliya noticed that her entire hand could fit inside his. “It’s only five years,” he said. “Then you can go back and live with the Time Lord’s blessing.”
The High Priestess walked by. Her eyes settled sharply on the two of them, and Dineas let go of Liliya’s hand. The two of them stepped away from each other in unspoken agreement and continued on their own way.
The High Priestess was waiting for Liliya at the gardens.
“Remember, Liliya,” she said. “The Lord of Time is possessive of his priestesses. You have not yet done anything to incur his wrath. Be careful to keep it that way.”
Liliya bowed her head, properly chastened. She knew the god’s strict demand for purity, though it hadn’t even occurred to her to think of Dineas as anything but a friend to talk to. It saddened her, but Liliya understood full well by now that few people had the luxury of living the way they wanted.
“I’m sorry, Blessed One,” she said. “I will be more careful.”
Two moon cycles after she arrived, it was Liliya’s turn to prepare the incense offering. It was a task she approached with trepidation. There were so many different herbs, so many different combinations for each occasion. A priestess guided her as she gingerly picked the correct portions and crumbled them into a clay bowl to soak in oil. When she finished, the priestess handed her a flint. Liliya struck it until a spark started the herbs smoldering.
The herbs secreted a thick, heavy scent that stuck in Liliya’s nostrils and made her dizzy. No one paid her any heed as she crossed the courtyard toward the incense holder in front of the Lord’s house. The smoke blew back in her face as she walked, and Liliya concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The ground became unsteady under her, yet she kept walking. How foolish the other novitiates would think her if she stumbled on this simple task. The Lord’s house drew closer, and the presence inside was stronger than she had felt before. Ten more steps to the incense holder. Now five more.
Liliya’s knees were weak when she finally placed the bowl on its stand. She prostrated herself before the offering and bowed three times–once for the past, once for the present, and once for the future. Then she climbed unsteadily to her feet. The smoke from the incense was curling up into the sky, forming wispy patterns that shouldn’t have lingered so long in the breeze. Its smell was still strong, and Liliya turned away. She swayed on her feet. A novice passing by reached toward her in alarm.
The blood rushed to Liliya’s head.
She awoke in a dim room with walls so aged and warped that they could only belong to one house. The presence that surrounded her confirmed it.
“You breathed too much incense, little one,” echoed a voice.
She said nothing. What could one say, when wrapped in the presence of a god? Surprisingly, Liliya felt no fear. It was as if the sense of the god around her drove out the last of her capacity to feel anything at all.
“Do you have questions?” There was a hint of amusement to the Time Lord’s utterance.
“Why am I here?”
“Your people interest me,” said the presence. “You intrigue me. Your past, your present, your future.”
As he spoke, she relived her childhood, both the good times and the horrors, but it was as though it happened to someone else, her feelings numbed by the god’s presence.
“You’ve been through much,” said the Time Lord.
“Yes, my Lord.”
“And where will you go from here? You have the spark that all my servants carry, and so will your daughters, if you bear them. But perhaps you’re not ready. Will you try to avenge your people? Or will you let it go?”
She was confused by his words. Vengeance was beyond her reach. Her anger had long been beaten out of her, extinguished by necessity so she could live without going mad. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“You amuse me, little one. But mortals don’t always feel the eddies of the past around their ankles until they’re drawn under.”
For a moment, Liliya could sense streams of time around her. It seemed they propped her up when she swayed.
“I will let you determine your fate,” said the Time Lord. “But the choice you make is harsh. One that belies the timidity of your appearance.”
Was she timid? She was broken. Like the others in her village, she had picked up the pieces of herself and gone on living. She didn’t feel any hate. She felt nothing where those memories were concerned. They were numb, emptied out.
“All will come clear with time,” said the god. She saw a shadow in the corner of her eye, but there was no one there when she turned. The darkness closed in once again. When she opened her eyes, she was back on the ground by the incense offering.
Liliya relived the attacks that night. Once again, she raced into the swamp as the flames of her village roared behind her. Smoke filled her lungs and made her choke. Somewhere in the midst of battle, a child shrieked. The Time Lord’s presence was not there to dampen her fear, and she awoke with the full force of remembered terror in her chest and the sound of her own frantic gasps in her ears. Her fellow novitiates were asleep around her, their faces peaceful. Liliya put one bare foot on the ground, and then another.
The grass outside looked almost silver in the moonlight. No one else was awake, and the only movement was the arcing blue light from the Time Lord’s globe. Images flitted through it, first scenes from her past, and then the curious image of the man in pain. Liliya watched it, her eyes settling again on the crescent birthmark at the base of his neck. It was shaped like the moon overhead, though dark instead of brilliant white.
She could feel the Time Lord watching her.
“Are you all right?”
Liliya jumped. The voice was too young and too human to belong to the Time Lord. Dineas stood next to her, clad still in his sleeping tunic, his straw colored hair mussed by sleep.
Liliya took an alarmed glance toward the Time Lord’s house, the High Priestess’ warning flashing through her mind. But she sensed no anger from the dilapidated house, and Dineas’ voice was kind.
“Some memories came to me in a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep.”
The boy nodded sagely. “It happens to me too. I come out here to clear my mind, when it happens.”
It was a relief to speak with someone who knew a life beyond the perfect routines of the god-ruled lands. “What was your home like?” she asked.
“We didn’t have a home,” he said.
“None at all?”
“We wandered,” he said. “We were warriors, and we followed our swords.”
“I thought there were no more wars,” she said.
“We don’t fight anymore. The priestesses put a stop to it. But I was raised by the sword. I was grappling by my fifth year, hunting game by my eighth, dueling before my tenth. After the gods came, we changed our ways, but my memories still linger.”
Liliya looked at the scars on his arms and imagined the blades that put them there.
“When I was twelve,” he said, “I was deemed ready to fight with the men. I was so proud. Our first battle was a raid. I remember rice paddies, many of them, surrounded by grassy swamp.” He paused, as if seeing the scene before him. “It was different from my training. Messier, but easier. The farmers couldn’t fight, and we cut them down easily. I earned my shield that day.”
Dineas gazed up at the moon, lost in thought, and Liliya was glad he was not looking at her. The burning rice paddies filled her vision, the screams of her people.
“It was the way of our people,” he said. “But I was sick afterward, secretly. It became easier after that, but now I think back on it and wonder. I still hear the screams.”
He was still talking, but she no longer listened. In front of her, the globe shifted. The man’s image became more crisp, and his face came out of shadow. There was a plaque underneath him, and Liliya could make out the words. “Thus are punished those who consort with the Time Lord’s priestesses.”
Dineas looked up at the house. As he moved, the collar of his tunic fell open and Liliya saw–as she knew she would–a mark shaped like a half moon. He was so beautiful. So deceptively innocent. Liliya looked at his hands, remembering how strong they’d felt around her own, and how she’d taken comfort in his touch. He was not much older than she was, and just as lost.
The Time Lord’s presence all around her, strong and watchful. She thought to take Dineas’s hands in hers, to squeeze them and tell him it would be all right, but her hand was slow to move. In her mind’s eye, Liliya saw her father’s charred body as she laid him to rest, the deadness of her mother’s gaze. Smoke from the remembered fire twined around her, wrapping her limbs and drawing her under. She couldn’t breathe.
The boy turned a tortured eye toward her. “What do you think? Will I pay for the pain I’ve caused?”
He reached for her arm, and she felt the warmth of his fingertips. She looked down and imagined them covered in blood.
Liliya placed her hand on his chest. The winds of time whipped around her, so strong that she could hardly stand. “Be at peace,” she said. “The gods are just.”
At the very last moment, Liliya thought to look at the globe again, to see if there was a woman being punished alongside the man. But she didn’t look. In the end, it didn’t matter.
And with that last thought, Liliya stood on her toes and slowly, deliberately, touched her lips to his.
About Livia Blackburne
Livia Blackburne wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into peoples’ heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner. Her novel MIDNIGHT THIEF debuted with Disney-Hyperion in July 2014, and its sequel DAUGHTER OF DUSK is due out in Summer 2015.