Sultana awoke late that morning, her eyes dry and scratchy from the lack of sleep. From the sunshine coming through her tiny window, she guessed it was almost noon already. She hadn’t slept this long in ages. But then, she hadn’t had this much fun in ages.
The life of a high priestess was not as boring as most people imagined, and the rules were far less strict. Somehow, however, it seemed that Sultana had not been in contact with many people on a personal level. Atlantis was not a big island, so everyone knew who she was. Of course they did. They had seen her perform the rituals for the last thirty years, starting as a young woman with blond hair, growing into her body and her profession. And now they still recognized her, although her hair had become a lovely shade of grey and most of her official duties were fulfilled by other, younger women who lived here to serve her and be trained by her in return.
Carefully, she gathered her clothes from the ground, put on the comfortable light blue robe she wore in most days and called for Cylanthia to bring her a late breakfast. The most important meal of the day, for her it consisted of fruit and honey and some young cheese. The women knew her preferences and hurried to obey. Silently, Cylanthia put the wooden tray in front of Sultana on the table and disappeared, quiet as a mouse.
Sultana knew she wasn’t thinking nice things most of the time. But being nice was overrated anyway. During her life she had heard the sorrows and secrets of so many people – without ever being able to tell her own stories – that she was almost able to read their minds. And Cylanthia, nice girl that she was with her seventeen winters shining on that golden face, actually moved like a mouse, always in the corners and always on guard.
Sultana took her time. Slowly, she cut the fruit in half, dipped them in honey and savored the sun and the land that had produced such an exquisite treat. Unsupervised, her thoughts crept back to last night. The tavern down at the harbor – possibly not the safest place in the world, especially not for a woman. Well, she wasn’t a normal woman, she was safe. And that tavern surely had the best beer on the whole island.
Most people had bowed out of her way quickly, although she hadn’t had her guards with her. The night had been dark and warm, fires flickering in the darker corners of the streets and places. Most houses were unlocked, doors and windows wide open. Of course they were. Atlantis was a wealthy island, no one suffered from hunger or poverty. Consequently, there was no need for jealousy, greed or any kind of emotion leading to unrightful behavior. No one had to work excessively hard to make a living, and people were grateful for this most of the time. This was a place where you could feel safe, appreciated and bored at the same time.
She hadn’t been in a hurry. The stranger would wait for her. He knew the reward was worth it. A handsome, dark stranger, with broad shoulders and a narrow waist… perfect for a night in the town. Or the stables. But Sultana wasn’t after the captain for his good looks. She needed transportation.
“I’ll give you 300 gold pieces if you promise to take me away with you tomorrow night.”
He had looked at her surprised. He, too, knew who she was. “If Mylady wishes… May I ask where our journey will end?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just make sure we’re gone before midnight.”
After looking at the gold she had brought to persuade him, he had nodded and emptied his glass. Then he had walked out of the tavern and back to his ship.
Sultana had been sure no one had heard their conversation, for it was a merry night. She had watched the people around her, drinking her beer in slow sips. From her place at the back of the room, she could watch almost everything and still didn’t see any faces that were not relaxed. Empty lives. Emptied by happiness and safety.
She had been home at the temple in the early morning hours, a little bit tipsy and satisfied. Just one more day…
Cylanthia came back into the room to take the breakfast tray with her. Sultana rewarded her with a warm smile. “You’re a good girl. Make sure to take the afternoon off, will you.”
Most people believed the reason why Sultana had started taking young women into the temple was that she had lost her divine vision. She had stopped talking to them as a messenger from the Gods several moons ago. But this was not due to her aging and becoming useless. Instead, she had not liked what the Gods used to show her. For nights after nights, she had been on her knees in front of the sacred flame, praying for a different solution. The Gods had led her through her hometown, shown her all the things that were going wrong. And persuaded her that there was no way out. So she couldn’t be bothered to pass the message on. Why not give these people a few more happy days, instead of making them run around like headless chickens.
She spent the day sorting through her possessions. This didn’t take long. After fiving it much thought, she decided to leave all her books behind. Her heart bled at the idea, but the knowledge her predecessors had gathered had led to her people’s undoing. She spent a long time in front of the flame, just once more, but she didn’t pray. Praying didn’t do any good. She watched the flames uncurl and fall back in on themselves, dancing around and devouring each other.
Then, for the first time since she had taken on this profession, she removed her white belt which she wore on her bare skin and carefully placed it on her cushion. There was one single, ancient-looking key dangling from it. She knew that it had especially been designed to look this old, less than fifty years ago, after some young men had demolished the temple’s door in a state of drunkenness. The officials had had the door replaced that very night and provided it with a new, stronger lock. This was the way things worked around here.
Almost reluctantly, Sultana picked up her belongings and walked out the room. She resisted the urge to look back. Nothing good ever came from looking back. Her bare feet carried her all the way to the harbor as if they had a mind of their own. People looked at her curiously, but didn’t stop her to ask questions or talk to her. Almost a shame. She had sworn a solemn oath never to lie to her people, so if they had but asked her, she would have been forced to tell the truth. Should she talk to them now? Give at least some of them the chance to escape? Her heart beat faster at the thought, hope raising its tiny crystal head. Sultana smashed it with her decision. She was unable to save any of them. What a pity.
The captain was waiting for her and helped her climb on board. The gold pieces had made sure she had her own cabin, her own bed, and no window. She didn’t want to see what was about to happen. Putting her things down on the simple bed, she turned around to the captain. “Are you ready to leave?”
“As you requested, Mylady, everything is prepared. We have been waiting for you and will leave now, any moment.” With these words, which only held the slightest hint of derision, he turned around and closed the door behind him.
Sultana knew she was in trouble. From now on, her life would be difficult. No one knew who she was, no one knew she had been chosen to be special. These men were sailors, rough and untamed creatures, and most of them didn’t like the thought of a woman living on their ship. She would have to be prepared to fight if she wanted to survive.
But survival was all about fighting anyway. Atlantis had taught her this. No fight, no needs, no life. She could hear the people in the streets talking and being happy and realized they were all dead, they only didn’t know it yet.
She wondered if Cylanthia had found the key already.