XVII - Test of Faith

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Adras

When I return to the temple she's there, waiting for me at the top of the steps. Her long hair blows in a gentle wind that I don't feel. A scowl of — disapproval? Disappointment? Hesitation? Hatred? Resignation? — clouds her face.

"Is that her?" Xanthos asks, jerking his chin upwards.

"Yes."

"Quite beautiful, isn't she? I don't remember you mentioning that."

I grunt, "I didn't think it mattered, she's no temptation."

Xanthos grunts and dismounts his horse, busying himself with looking through his saddlebags.

She's dressed better than last time. She swapped her battered tunic for a more elegant, pleated dress made from shimmering silk. The fabric is the same burnt orange as the sunset that illuminates her. The dress is closely modeled after the style of my homeland, yards of pleated and tucked fabric under a short, cropped blouse. No stringy hems, no tarnished tin belt. She wears gold today, a thin, twisting rope of if flashes around her waist, peeping out between the sheer ruffled edge her top and the pleats of her skirt. The silk is so finely spun it smolders in the dusky light. 

What I didn't see last time, what I didn't notice — perhaps they weren't there — is the splendor of thousands of bangles encircling her arms and ankles. They twinkle and glitter and, though she doesn't move, I can hear their pleasing jangle drifting down to us on a perfumed breeze.

She must have been concealing her power three days ago. The shock of her still lingers, burnt into my soul with rich surprise — but today the mask is removed. Where before I could only sense her greatness when we touched, today it is plain and obvious. She looks unnatural. A crackling, singing energy surrounds her; drapes over her like a regal, expectant mantle.

"You sure do gawk a lot for someone who claims not to be tempted." Xanthos slaps me on the back with a hearty laugh. "Come on, take me to meet our new master."

I'm glad I Xanthos came with me — if only to have a witness of her terrifying, inspiring reality. Over the past few days, it was easy enough to tell myself the entire encounter had been a dream; but now that I have second-hand confirmation that she is in fact real, all I want to do is flee.

"He's shy, my lady!" Xanthos yells up, his voice swirling and echoing off the mountain walls.

I could kill him.

Athanasia contorts her face, fighting a smile. Still, she descends, taking slow, liquid steps down the stairs. Her bare foot kicks the heavily embroidered hem of her skirt out in front of her. Her eyes lock onto me alone as she comes closer. She stops just above the halfway mark. She won't lower herself further, I must come to her and meet her at or below her level.

Xanthos laughs, I smile, unsurprised by this show of dominance.

"Oh, I like her," my friend flashes me a winning grin and bounds up to meet her.

Half chasing him, half rushing to her I climb the steps, anxious to make the introduction before Xanthos can further ruin my reputation. I bypass Xanthos easily, beating him.

"I take it you have made your decision," Athanasia says without formal preamble.

"I have."

"What shall it be?" She looks at me expectantly. She claimed she could read me without effort. I can tell she's doing it now. Scanning me, assessing what she sees. That heat, that strange, compulsive fire in my chest is magnetized by her scrutiny. It swoops and swirls inside of me with each pass of her eyes.

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