Arjin looked down at his bare feet, toenails painted crimson and adorned with impossibly tiny, clear gems. He stood on the border between the world he'd known for almost nineteen years and an ancient, alien realm that had been all but obliterated millennia ago. He knew he waited at the edge of destiny, and longed to take the last few steps to meet it. Instead, he remained still, with his head bowed and his hands folded in front of his belly, as he'd been instructed.
The layers of gauzy silk over Arjin's face lent a hazy, scarlet cast to his odd surroundings, as if he watched the proceedings through a shifting, red mist. He shuddered despite the heat of the fabric piled over him. He wanted to avert his eyes, but curiosity, that irresistible Vice, defeated piety. Staring through the translucent, shimmering cloth, Arjin watched men he'd grown up beside unloading sacks of grain, barrels of fruit, dried meat, bolts of fabric, clayware, and metal utensils onto the smooth floor of geometric gold and cobalt tiles. Gifts, in tribute, like himself.
He wriggled his toes, girdled in gold bands. The metal bars in his nipples and navel itched, still healing, and he distracted himself by casting his gaze around the vast foyer. Refreshing, blue-gray shade draped the room, starkly different from the searing sunlight outside. Arjin felt a wave of nausea and panic ripple from the pit of his stomach up his back. Forbidden things surrounded him: statues of nude men and women, lurid paintings, gratuitous arrangements of flowers, their petals lush and damp despite the dry heat, and mirrors. Mirrors adorned almost every wall, multiplying the sinful sights, volleying them back and forth into infinity. Despite his best efforts to resist, these illicit visions engaged Arjin's eyes and mind; he'd never imagined anything like them and couldn't look away.
The men finished unloading precious piles of goods, casting a final, sympathetic eye toward Arjin as they turned to depart. In response, Arjin raised his chin a little higher. They shouldn't see him as a victim, but as a savior, and in time they would. Everyone would know his name one day, and it would be praised.
Pride, Arjin thought: the Vice he fell victim to most often. No matter how he tried to bury the evil feelings, they always surged to the surface. The High Cleric had known and had tried to beat it out of him, to no avail. He couldn't help but feel some prestige at the task he'd been handed and would accomplish. Others should see his sacrifice and acknowledge what he suffered on their behalf. Not out of pity, but out of the respect he was due.
But they didn't, and Arjin couldn't break the ruse. He stood with his hands clasped, head bowed, and shoulders sloped downward, as he'd been coached to do all of his life. He had no way to measure how much time passed as he shifted beneath his coverings, his breath moistening the ruby cloth.
Finally, it came: the Ansari. Arjin had heard tales of it since he'd been a babe. While it might resemble a man, one of The Faithful, it stood outside human experience. Arjin's people, with the blessing of the Father, had all but destroyed their vile race over a thousand years before. The Ansari that remained feared to show themselves, with the exception of this one and maybe a few others scattered around the civilized world. Arjin could see little through his veil, aside from its impressive stature and the dark clothing it wore. He shivered as it drew nearer, passing alternately from strips of shadow to shreds of warm, golden light spilling from the round windows high above them, though it still stood several hundred yards from him, at the opposite end of the vast hall.
Arjin noticed a curtain of dark hair swaying back and forth as the Ansari walked closer, in no particular hurry. He felt torn between terror at the thing reaching him, and eagerness to assess it up close and learn what sort of demon he faced. The High Cleric had explained some sort of ancient bargain allowed this Ansari to keep its lands and decadent palace of sin while its brethren had been hunted to the last member. Arjin's people, in keeping with an archaic truce of their own, offered the creature a cache of gifts every decade. Every tenth tribute needed to be especially extravagant, hence the inclusion of Arjin in his translucent robes, painted body, plaited hair, and jeweled adornments. He made an exemplary gift. At least that was what the High Cleric hoped the Ansari would think.
He watched the Ansari regarding the offerings with clear disinterest, even the exquisite jewelry and jugs of expensive oil. The sacks of grain could feed Arjin's people for months, but the creature, unimpressed, barely paid them any attention. As it drew nearer, Arjin began to see it in more detail. Most considered Arjin tall, yet the Ansari stood over half a foot higher. Hair like a sheet of black silk hung to its hips. Arjin noticed pinpricks of light glinting amongst those dark locks, probably gems and beads. The Ansari stood with his back to Arjin, and Arjin couldn't see its face.
"Follow me," the Ansari said with as much enthusiasm as if it directed a servant to clean the chamber pots. Arjin flinched. He'd at least expected appreciation, as he'd been preparing himself for weeks, and growing his hair for over three years. He'd also expected a bestial snarl, not an almost human voice: deep, rich, and buttery like fine leather or good brandy. Still, he'd been instructed to obey, to do anything to avoid suspicion, so he followed, careful not to tread on the hem of his flowing garment.
He couldn't see much as he traversed the winding halls, though he did notice vast, lush gardens bountiful with fruit trees and flowers, and wondered why the Ansari needed the offerings of food from The Faithful. They passed more towering, naked bodies hewn from marble, more mirrors, fountains, tapestries, golden urns inlaid with jewels, drapery woven from thread so bright it almost hurt Arjin's eyes. He truly had moved beyond the boundaries of the world he knew, and now walked through a realm of unfathomable excess and Vice. Vice, in the shameful nudity of the statues, Vice in the luxury, Vice in those horrifying mirrors, Vice everywhere, threatening to poison his eyes and corrupt his soul. He wanted to run to the temple and pray to forget he'd ever witnessed any of it. Instead, he fortified his vow to end the immoral power of this creature over his people and followed obediently along.