"Donít take her! Please, donít take my sister."
Katera laid her fingers on the arm of Elder Torkon, but a firm hand on her shoulder yanked her back.
"Do not touch him," came the stern voice of Elder Rastonon. Katera turned around to face him. He was squinting at her with small, black eyes. A drooping mustache and tapering gray beard tugged at the corners of his mouth, intensifying his scowl.
"Please, if you must send one of us, send me," Katera pleaded, holding out her folded hands. "We are identical. For twenty-four years, our own mother has had trouble telling us apart. The Master will never know that I am not Adrella."
"Askinadon will know," Elder Torkon said, as he poured the contents of a vial into the sacred bath. "He is the Voice. He will know. She has been Summoned, not you. If you want to be with your sister during her last hours in Parallon, you will cooperate. The only reason youíre being permitted in the elderís bathhouse is to calm her so we can complete preparations before the sacrifice. And if you canít do that, you will be sent away."
"No, no. Donít send me away." Katera lowered her head. "I want to be with her."
"Good," Elder Torkon said. "Then you may bring her to us. The bath is ready."
A sweet fragrance drifted up from the steamy water of the large wooden tub that dominated the room. Katera knew the water had been scented with the attar of the white urlissin in preparation for the sacrificial maiden. With a growing ache in her heart, she left the room to retrieve Adrella, who was waiting on a bench outside the bathhouse. As she looked up, Katera saw the terror in her eyes and slid onto the bench next to her, slipping an arm around her shoulder. They sat leaning into each other, as Katera savored a few precious moments alone with her. Too soon, ElderTorkon called from inside.
Katera turned to her sister and scooped up her hands. Hot tears threatened to escape from the corners of her eyes, and she blinked them away.
"Itís all right, Katera. Iím ready," Adrella said, in a small voice. "And please, be careful; you must watch your thoughts. Askinadon will know them."
Katera forced a smile, and stood up offering an arm. Adrella took it, and they entered the room together. The steam had dampened everything in the darkened room, including the elders, who were wiping their brows. Adrella stared at the tub in the middle, a blank look in her eyes. Elder Torkon motioned her to undress, and stood back to watch. Too shaken to protest, Adrella allowed Katera to help her out of her garments. One by one, Katera draped each item over a chair against the wall until Adrella stood naked and trembling before them. Katera moved protectively behind her as Adrella climbed into the tub. She looked dwarfed inside it, like a child with her knees bunched up in front of her.
Katera settled on a chair next to the tub and talked to her softly, whispering stories of their childhood and the carefree days before Askinadon had overpowered their small village. Adrella listened in silence, her head tilted to one side and her eyes brimming with tears. When Katera spoke of Banken, the boy who had loved Adrella, a pain pierced her chest as her sister turned her head away. Still, she kept talking, as much to calm herself as Adrella.
An hour later, the elders instructed Adrella to get out and dry off. Katera handed her a drying blanket, and while Adrella wrapped herself in it, the elders poured a liberal amount of rubbing oil into a sacred gourd and handed it to Katera. She approached Adrella holding it tenderly in both hands and feeling helpless.
"Itís all right," Adrella whispered. "Better you than them."
Katera kissed her lightly on the cheek, and dipped her hand into the oil. Adrella dropped the blanket, and Katera rubbed the oil in loving strokes over Adrellaís shoulders and neck. As her hands worked the oil into the skin over her back, a chill spread through her chest, threatening to overwhelm her. She rubbed Adrellaís legs slowly, trying to release the lump in her throat and hoping to postpone the inevitable. As soon as she finished with Adrellaís feet, the elders pushed her aside.
"She needs to dress," Rastonon said, holding up a silken spullera painted with images of the rocsadons, the ferocious dragon-like creatures in Askinadonís corral.
Adrella stepped into it as Rastonon held it open for her. He slid it up her legs and over her hips, securing it around her waist. Abundant layers of soft cloth tumbled to the hemline and floated onto her bare feet, forcing her to gather and lift the material whenever she moved. She dropped the skirt when Torkon held up a red flowing top, also silken, and raised her arms to allow him to pull it over her head. Her bare breasts lifted and disappeared under it as Torkon tugged it down over her hips. Finally, he wrapped a yellow shipunta three times around her waist in the traditional fashion, tucking and pulling the tail through from top to bottom. Over it all, they threaded her arms through the leather harness that would allow Askinadonís ghastly servant bird, the giant takatak, to retrieve her at the altar and deliver her to its master on the summit of Kan Mountain.
Now fully dressed, the elders seated Adrella and allowed Katera to brush her long hair and lace it with the small, red blossoms of the lidala vine. Katera wove it delicately through the long strands of her sisterís shiny, dark hair and gazed into her large, green eyes. She resisted the temptation to say goodbye. Adrella didnít need a farewell to remind her that she would not be returning. None of the maidens who were Summoned each year returned. Katera twisted the last flower into place and leaned back to admire her sisterís beauty. Adrellaís smooth, buttery skin and delicately chiseled features mirrored her own, though the expression of resignation and defeat did not.
"You look lovely," Katera whispered, but the words felt empty, inadequate.
She wanted desperately to reassure Adrella, to give her hope, but the elders seized Adrella under her arms and lifted her from the chair before she found the right words. As they sequestered her in the adjoining room, they told Katera that isolation would preserve Adrellaís purity before the sacrifice that evening. No eyes would be permitted to fall on the maiden and devour her beauty before then.
As the sun sank into the western Shirkas, the elders marched Adrella, whimpering before her family, into the clearing in the forest where the altar at Kopa Na An was tended. She was laid on her stomach on the long table in front of it, the harness on her back exposed. A golden statue of a man in flowing robes towered over her. She waited, shaking, on the table while the elders chanted their verses to alert the takatak. Apart from the elders, families alone were allowed to witness the spectacleÖand then, only as long as they heeded instructions to join the chanting. Katera watched her mother and father, their faces ashen, as they mouthed in horror the words to beckon the beast that would approach and seize their daughter.
The wind beat into her face as the takatak approached with its black wings bent and pumping, its long shadow falling over the entire company. Dust and leaves swirled around her feet as the huge bird descended upon Adrella, screeching through its crooked beak. Adrella cringed before the beast as it clinched its talons onto the harness around her back. Then she rose within its grasp crying softly, her silky hair reaching for the ground over bare arms. A cool, gusty wind whipped at her spullera and sent it thrashing around her legs.
Katera listened to her motherís choking sobs as Adrella rose above the trees. They watched, unable to look away, until the thick ashy clouds surrounding the summit of Kan Mountain swallowed the dark takatak and the small figure of Adrella beneath it. The final sacrifice was not for them to see, and like the others before, it would remain a mystery to the villagers of Parallon. Katera swallowed hard and followed her parents home, numbly placing one foot in front of the other. Her sister and only sibling, who had held the most cherished part of her, was gone.