The visions started the night of the winter solstice, the moon high in the sky. Frightened, Lorena sat up in her small cot in the observatory, perspiring despite the chill that had crept into the room. But for her gasp, the night was perfectly silent, so silent that she could hear her heartbeat like the pounding of drums.
Lorena felt the presence in her room like the warmth of a summer breath, the slightest caress of air across her skin. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw motion: the silken movement of a cat, the graceful ruffle of an eagle's wing on the air. She blinked, trying to figure out why such images had come to her. She was a biologist, but she rarely thought in terms of natural description.
Her heart pounded in her chest; fear made her senses come to life. She could feel the breath of the creature as it paced toward her. There was a raw, feral, smell to it, the sort of smell that made her reptile brain gibber in fear. She pulled the covers up over her naked body, shivering despite their warmth.
The moon shone on the creature as it moved into view, shimmering on its skin with a thousand muted colors. It was a woman, but like no woman Lorena had ever seen before. She was sturdily built, naked but for the feathers she wore. Lorena's breath caught. She was a supernatural creature, a goddess even, more beautiful than Lorena could have ever imagined. She was taller than Lorena by at least a foot, her long legs and curves accentuated by the moonlight.
The goddess leaned over her, pulling the covers back. Tracing lines of fire down Lorena's sternum, her ethereal fingers brushed Lorena's skin. Between her breasts. Touching her heart. The fire burned in Lorena's belly, radiating downward in gentle strokes of pain and pleasure, and she lay back on the bed, moaning despite herself.
The goddess' feathered headdress shimmered in the moonlight. She smiled, teeth sharp and gleaming. She leaned over and licked Lorena's stomach, her tongue as rough as a jaguar's. "Come to me on the summer solstice."
She left, disappearing and leaving Lorena gasping for air. The memory of the goddess' touch made her moan. Nothing relieved the need that grew inside her.
Lorena woke the next morning convinced it had been a dream, a sinful dream brought about by her desires, by the loss she felt at Sophia's impending wedding. There would be too much wine at the wedding. Her heart would be filled with the sourness of seeing her lover in white, smiling happily at a man.
When she pulled off her night shirt, she saw the marks. The five cuts on her abdomen ached with the memory of the goddess' touch. Drops of her blood stained her shirt, lines like unholy stigmata. Yet she couldn't bear to consider the goddess' touch as unholy. Despite her Catholic fear of pagan idols, the Goddess' presence had been pure and hungry. She had never felt something so real, so immediate, as the goddess' presence. Nothing in her religious experience compared with the lust she had felt, the sheer desire that burned through her.
She tried to ignore the memories of the sensation as she showered and dressed. Putting on a slip, she glanced at the bridesmaid's dress. Sophia was just being cruel. The dress was turquoise with silver beading that trailed down from the bodice to the hips. It was a flattering dress, one that Lorena suspected Sophia would have liked to see on her in another circumstance. She ran her hands down her hips and felt a flare in the marks on her abdomen.
Kassandra smiled at the merchant and settled her basket in the crook of her elbow so she could better reach for the vegetables that were for sale. She wanted to do something nice for dinner tonight, though not for any particular reason except that festive and warm seemed to be in the air in her small village. The red, dirt-streaked potatoes looked hardy, and she found her fingers sliding around the rough skin before she really thought about it. The tuber was bigger than normal, filling her palm and feeling firm in her hand. Stew. The word came unbidden to her mind, and she knew that would be what she cooked tonight for dinner, maybe including some of the rabbit that her nephew Mikael had brought home the other day.
One of the concessions of living with her brother and his family was that she did most of the cooking. When she had first started living with her brother, Kassandra's taking over the cooking had left Jaslyn more time to care for her son, but now Kassandra loved to cook for them. She also knew that Jaslyn liked the free time that came with splitting the house work between them now that Mikael was older.
"Hello, Derek." She held the potato up and smiled at the merchant. Money had always been tight in her little village, so most of them bartered and traded instead. "What will you trade for these?" She hoped that he would barter today, since Derek had always been back and forth for what he might want for his vegetables.
"Well met, Kassandra." Head tilted, he watched her for a long moment and thought about what he wanted in exchange for his potatoes for. Nearly everyone knew everyone here, so he knew about how many she'd be looking for, and he knew what her strengths were. "Two loaves of fresh bread tomorrow?"
Even before she nodded, the grin that spread along Kassandra's features said that she'd accept those terms. Jaslyn constantly pushed her to set up shop and sell her baked goods, but the town frowned on an unwed woman putting business before marriage. Families, children, both were prized more than a woman not taking a husband in order to open a shop, follow her heart, or both. She offered her hand, "They'll be here bright and early tomorrow." She set the potato into her basket and freed her hand so she could shake on the deal before she turned to pick out the other potatoes.
"I look forward to having it for breakfast," he answered with a chuckle. "You know you'll make one of those bachelors very happy when you finally choose." His tone was pleasant enough with his comment, but there was an undercurrent of something that she couldn't place her finger on. Something that told her he felt more than the normal disappointment in regards to her not being married yet.
She offered a pleasant smile at his words and shrugged off the unusual tone, not sure she wanted to know why it was there or what it really meant. Her head shook just a little, brown locks shifting around her face slightly. "And I'm sure all the others will be jealous when I am finally taken," she countered good-naturedly. Truth be told, while the villagers could be sweet, she had grown tired of being prodded into choosing for the last four years.
Shaking his head, he chuckled and waved his hand. She knew that the bemused look on his face came from what he thought about her being single, and that he thought she'd make a good wife. The girls who cooked always had a slightly larger flock of suitors vying for them. "Just don't keep them chomping at that bit too long," he commented and moved to help a new customer.
"I'll try not to." She moved away from his table. She glanced around the marketplace with a sigh; two of her suitors browsing a couple stalls over kept glancing at her. Normally they'd have come over to her by now, to try and gain more favor with her so she would marry them. Today though, they kept their distance and chatted quietly.
Do you know what flashes through one's mind as they wait to become a dragon's main course? Neither do I, because I'd never met a sacrifice before.
The rough stone dug into my back while heavy iron shackles pinned my arms over my head, leaving my feet free—not that I could move that much, there was a perverse pleasure in wiggling my toes in the soft grass. Ahead of me, two blues met at the horizon: the light blue sky and deep sapphire blue sea.
Just off to my right, a crowd had gathered, also waiting. The glint of gold and the sparkle of precious amber stones made my stomach lurch in anger. Othe sat in his litter, its heavy drapes pulled back, allowing him to see, but not get any sun on his pale skin. Litter bearers stood beside him, awaiting Othe's commands; the sun glistened on their broad chests and glinted off the polished horn-tipped bullhead masks that engulfed their heads. Movement toward the rear of the litter caught my attention, and a fair faced man gave me a leering grin before he pressed his lips to Othe's cheek and disappeared back into the darkness of the litter. Othe's eyes locked on mine, and even from the distance I could see his beady brown eyes twinkle with a private joke. He smiled when I tore my gaze away, focusing instead toward the growing crowd. A group of gypsy musicians that had played during the annual celebration of the harvest god, Nazy, were in attendance. Their flamboyant costumes were a bright spot in the center of the crowd, but they were not playing; instead they sat solemnly and their instruments quiet. I remembered the joyful music that they had played passing by my cart and the customers that followed. It was a very good day. They were the same group that had begun to raise a commotion for my defense when the city guard had hauled me away. The still growing crowd sat on woven mats, eating or just staring at me or the horizon, waiting to see what would happen to the woman chained to a massive rock. I began to wonder myself. I had never seen a sacrifice, only heard tales sung or told by bards. Glancing around me, I saw no claw marks on the rocks; there was nothing that showed that dragons had ever been present. The litter moved toward me, the bull-headed men showing no strain under the weight.
The descending sun threw me into shadows, and the sea breeze was cool. The litter rolled toward me. I watched as the bull-headed men moved in unison, resembling a skiff cutting through the waves. Othe stepped out, his high black wig askew and his thick gold robe creased from sitting or bed sport. Thin blue-tinted lips sneered at me while his eyes shined with wanton lust as he gazed over to his bull men and to the passenger waiting for him in his litter.
"Song Godseraph, do you know why you have been chosen for this highest of honors?" Othe asked, his voice bouncing off the rocks toward the crowd below.
"I guess you couldn't find a suitable virgin." I bit back a smile at the few quiet snorts of laughter from the crowd. Othe whipped around and all noises died. The back of his robe drenched in sweat. He held his hands aloft, reaching for the sky, his sleeves falling to his shoulders. Wrapped around his left wrist, a silver and gold rope ended at crook of his elbow. The metal-rope, tight but not digging into his skin, was his sign of a high office. My throat dried at the sight. I swallowed hard.
Imogen Greene drove the knife into Silas Lew's chest as he slipped his tongue past her lips. He pulled back, gasping. Before the older man could scream, she slammed her forearm against his throat. He fell back across the bed. Imogen pressed down on his Adam's apple with all of her meager weight. She stabbed him again, twisting the blade. Silas pawed at her with feeble, clawing hands.
"Please don't hold this against me, Mr. Lew," she said. "You would've been hanged for treason."
She wiped her blood-spattered hands clean on Silas's discarded shirt. He gurgled and trembled as she tucked her silver pentacle necklace between her breasts and re-tied her bodice. By the time she finished, the man had expired.
The blade slipped free of his chest easily, trailing less blood than Imogen expected. The bed clothes were handy for cleaning her weapon before sheathing and tucking it away. She grabbed Silas's hand and tugged at the ring on his finger. With some twisting and pulling, it finally came free. A square and compass were engraved in the jet stone.
Imogen popped open the door. Her boots thumped across the creaking wooden floor as she hurried the length of the hall and down the steep, narrow stairs to the foyer. A small negro boy jumped up from his cane-backed chair at the bottom. He couldn't have been more than eight or nine.
"Your master is quite tired and has gone to bed. He does not wish to be disturbed until morning," she said.
The boy nodded. "Yes, ma'am." He opened the front door and bowed as she walked out.
Killing the boy wouldn't raise an alarm, and it might even be a kindness, but Imogen hoped Silas's death would mean freedom for him. Service to another could be a noble thing, but only if entered into of one's own accord.
Middle Street in Boston's North End bustled with traffic. Men and women, children and slaves hurried about their business. She could see the soaring masts of ships at the wharves a few blocks to the east. A breeze blew off the water, offering scant relief from the June heat. The salty air brought with it the stink of low tide, though it did little to overcome the stench of smoke and gunpowder still hanging over the city after yesterday's battle across the river.
Imogen headed south, following Middle until it crossed Mill Creek and became Hanover Street. She skirted wide of the docks with their rough seamen and eager merchants, down Cornhill and Marlborough Streets to governor's residence.
Province House was a grand home, with massive chimneys at both ends and a soaring cupola rising from the center. A weathervane of hammered copper shaped like a fierce Indian with a drawn bow topped the cupola. The red man's oversized arrow pointed inland. The Red Ensign of Great Britain fluttered on a pole in the front yard.
She climbed the broad granite stairs. A liveried valet opened the door for her. A white servant.
"I believe General Gage is expecting me," she said.
"He is in the study, ma'am. My apologies, but the general is occupied at present. Military matters." The valet gestured towards the parlor door. "You may wait in there, if you wish. I will notify him of your arrival."
Imogen strode down the hallway, ignoring the man's protests. The study door stood open. Gage and several of his officers stood around an intricately carved table, pouring over a map of the area. Small wooden pieces marked the position of regular units within the city and the rebel militias without.
General Gage stopped speaking and cocked an eyebrow at her. The other men straightened. "Yes, Miss Greene?" he said.
"The spy has been dealt with," she said.
Gage knuckled his chin. "I suspect it would be too much to hope he confided in you and let slip the name of any fellow spies."
Imogen nodded. "I'm sorry, sir. He did not."
"Thank you, Miss Greene. We will send word if we need your services again. I believe Lord Linn is waiting for you in the parlor." He favored her with a brief nod before returning to the map with his subordinates.