Iliana hesitated. “She…was a priestess, right?”
“Correct,” Rhode agreed, then paused as Dalphie approached.
Iliana took the muffin when offered, as well as a water-skin that Dalphie must have pulled out of the basket when she wasn’t looking. The siren turned her attention to Rhode, who offered a small shake of her head. Satisfied that Rhode wasn’t hungry, Dalphie disappeared into the bathroom.
“The woman’s name was Sarai Noinna. She served as the head priestess in a Reotakian temple.”
The surname tickled the back of Iliana’s mind. The way ‘Noinna’ rolled off of Rhode’s tongue reminded her of Cieon, and the strange signifier they had for their priest and priestesses. The head of each temple was believed to belong to their chosen god, hence ‘Sarai Noinna,’ or Sarai who belonged to Inna.
She furrowed her brow as she bit into the muffin. Gods, it was good. The sweet bread seemed to coat her tongue. Iliana was possibly biased due to months at sea--fresh bread was rare on long trips--but, the muffin seemed to be absolute confirmation that Dalphie was an amazing baker.
“Reotak doesn’t worship Inna,” Iliana pointed out.
Or signify their priestesses with surnames.
“True, they worship the war god, Kikin,” Rhode replied. “This was a special case. Sarai had been all but sold to the Reotakian king by the royals of Cieon as an effort at peace. Unusual, given the child they hand over to the temples had never before been forced into a royal marriage. Cieon were desperate, however, as even with their riches, the constant threat of war had begun to wear on their coffers.”
The marriage detail was true, Iliana knew. One of the two eldest children of the royal family was always given to the temples. Given Inna’s preference for women, the royal family would place the firstborn in Inna’s temples if it was a girl, and in Umae’s if the babe was a boy.
It was common knowledge even where Iliana was from--although most at home thought the tradition to be strange. With the royal family having dwindled to a handful of individuals in recent years, there was speculation that the tradition would be discontinued. She’d brought the topic up with Kain once, given his Cieonian heritage, and he’d dismissed the rumor instantly.
“It was an unpopular decision, but considered necessary.”
As she spoke, Rhode’s fingers curled into fists in her lap. The movement was not lost on Iliana, who held similar feelings. No woman deserved to be handed over as a political pawn, but it was doubly horrible in this regard. Cieon and Reotak were known for their bad relations. Reotak wanted Cieon’s rich mines, and for the same reason Cieon was able to raise a big enough army to fight back.
Following the fall of Nubella over twenty years-ago, things had only grown worse. At first, it was a silent conflict. Rumors of assassinations in back rooms, and skirmishes in the mountainous borderlands. Within the last decade, however, all-out war had been all but declared. Refugees from the border were common, even without anything official having been decreed.
Iliana doubted any Reotakian would treat a Cieon citizen with respect. There was too much bad blood. Sarai might have been royalty, but she had probably expected treatment akin to imprisonment.
“The marriage worked. She became a favorite of the king, and he allowed the construction of a single temple in honor of Sarai’s previous life as a priestess of Inna,” Rhode continued. “As you might imagine, this drew the goddess’s attention.”
Given that Inna and Kikin’s relationship was as volatile as Cieon and Reotak’s, the goddess had no doubt been shocked that a temple for her would be constructed in a country belonging to Kikin. It was said that within the borders of Reotakian, Inna was powerless, nearly mortal. In modern times, rumor said all the gods were powerless there since Emperor Zuher had declared temples and idols of gods’ other than Kikin illegal.
“Inna would often visit the mountain-side temple disguised as a young girl. It took little time for her to grow especially fond of Sarai. Meanwhile, despite the marriage, Cieon and Reotak were nearing all-out war. The king grew harsh and violent.”
Iliana tensed, suddenly disinterested in her food. She remembered the story, now. As a teen it’d held her interest, reminding her of her brother-in-law. She pushed the thought aside--seeing no reason to linger on such a minuscule detail.
“Inna continued to visit Sarai. The bruises were well hidden, but she could see them nevertheless. It angered the goddess, but she had little power in Reotak. She could do nothing about the human king, not without permission from Kikin, who was far more interested in the neutrality of the gods than the treatment of a queen.
“The issue reached its boiling point when the king threatened to kill her if Cieon didn’t cede a portion of their land to Reotak,” Rhode’s voice became bitter, irritation flickering across her face. “The king meant it, too. He had no trouble throwing away those he deems useless. The threat made Sarai’s people back down, uncertain of what to do. In Cieon, the heads of the temples are sacred, especially those who’d originally been a member of the royal family.”
Iliana started, having forgotten that detail. No wonder Sarai was seen as a valuable bargaining tool.
“Sarai, unwilling to play this part, walked into the ocean the very day she heard the news.” Rhode paused, taking a deep breath.
Her expression was even, revealing nothing of the emotion behind her pause in the tale. It was curious, Iliana realized, that this story affected her so much. Still, she said nothing. Simply waited until Rhode seemed able to continue.
“Inna, knowing she could do nothing for the king, appealed to the other gods. They’d long ago created laws forbidding the creation of new species, but their laws said nothing about the evolution of one that already existed.
“The gods gave in, and Sarai became the first siren. Inna built this island for Sarai, giving her a place she could live in peace, free of the world that had caused her death. She blessed Sarai with a voice to protect herself, and with the help of Umae, gave Sarai the ability to swim beneath the ocean, so she could visit Inna in the home she shared with Umae.
“Sarai was grateful for all she’d been given, and asked only one thing of Inna: that she be allowed to save those like her. So, it became, no women are turned away from the island. They are all given the choice to join us, as to save them from meeting the same fate she had.”
Iliana stared at her muffin, fingers rolling over the piece she’d torn off earlier. It’d never made it to her mouth, the story stealing away any appetite she’d had.
Her mother had been the first to share the legend with her. She’d been four, maybe five at the time. It was used as an example of the kindness of the gods. As she had grown older, Iliana had grown to view it as an example of their idle hands. Sarai’s fate could’ve been avoided if Inna had ignored the laws sooner and acted.
“That’s why,” Rhode concluded, her tone much lighter than before. “We abide by the original agreement. Anyone who comes to the island and meets the Laws may become one of us. It is the way it has always been.”
“That didn’t answer my question, though,” Iliana said after a moment. “I’m not dead, nor am I dying. Isn’t that a Law?”
Rhode hesitated. “There are ways around that.”
A shiver crept down Iliana’s spine. Somehow, she doubted the method was pleasant. Not when Rhode’s tone implied she was reluctant to speak of it.
“How, exactly?” she challenged, reaching a hand to touch the back of her head almost unconsciously. “What does getting around it, mean? I am okay, aren’t I?”
“You’re fine,” Rhode replied, her tone reassuring. “As far as I can tell, the wound looks worse than it is. Nothing you would die over.”
“You’re avoiding the first question,” Iliana pointed out.
“There… is a ceremony,” Rhode said, slowly. “It gets around the problem. I can’t share the details, however.”
Iliana might have argued this, but something about the firm tone Rhode used told her that further questioning would go nowhere. So, she switched directions.
“And what if I don’t agree? What if I wish to stay human?”
There wasn’t an ounce of hesitation in her entire body. Iliana would die for good before she joined them by choice.
Again, Rhode hesitated. Then, she shrugged.
“It is your choice. You would be allowed to stay until you have recovered, then you would have to exit the village. We have no rules against a human living on the island, but we also have no method for you to leave.”
Iliana tensed. “You mean, I’d be stranded.”
“The bath is ready,” Dalphie said, reappearing.
Rhode smiled, eyes never shifting from Iliana. “Thank you. Leave us, please.”
Dalphie nodded and left the cabin. Iliana frowned as she watched her go. Was Rhode someone important, here? That was the second time Dalphie had followed the woman’s instructions without hesitation. And the way Rhode spoke held an expectation that told Iliana Dalphie was unlikely the sole person who unquestioningly followed the siren’s instructions. Rhode’s tone echoed someone used to being followed.
“Come,” Rhode said, dragging Iliana’s attention back to her. “I will help you to the bath. The basket is all for you, so you can eat at your leisure after you have bathed and changed. You cannot be comfortable.”
“But--” Iliana began.
“We will continue this conversation later,” Rhode cut in as she stood. “There is plenty of time.”
Iliana hesitated for a few more seconds before nodding her agreement. Perhaps waiting was for the best. Given everything that had happened, her emotions and thoughts were all over the place. The offer, the wreck, the loss of her crew… it was all too much. Perhaps it would be easier to take in when she was clean and fed.
She doubted it.
So, she took the arm that Rhode offered her and began the slow path to the bathroom.
Me, become a siren… She thought. Well, it’s not the worst thing that’s ever been asked of me.
But I won’t do it.