art by Steven R. Stewart
by Amy Sundberg
My guardians, tall and robed in blue, whisper when they see me now and shake their heads. They're dissatisfied because I haven't orchestrated an escape attempt for at least five Champions. Well, okay, exactly five. Since the Champion known as Eric.
I'm not supposed to know the Champions' names, of course, but I see it as my job to break the rules (of which there are never-ending lists) as often as possible. Why else would they choose a girl forever sixteen to preside at the Court of the Sybil? They're looking for trouble, even hungry for it. My adolescent fire is what runs the magic they seek. Plus, anybody in my place would have to bend the rules just to provide some variety to the monotonous sameness of never reaching seventeen.
I don't know how long I have been here. Once I had a choice, but I made the wrong one.
On the day of Eric's first audience, he knelt before me and raised his head to meet my eyes. A small smile played about the corners of his mouth. He wasn't as handsome as some of the Champions: his gray-blue eyes were set slightly too close together for true symmetry, and his skin was bad--his two-day growth of stubble wasn't enough to hide the red blotches on his jaw line. But he had a nice smile--a kind smile, I thought--and his two days of fasting and praying hadn't dazed him so much that he couldn't focus on me. He looked at me as if I was an actual person. You'd be surprised how few Champions are able to do that. I think the stories that circulate about me intimidate them, because usually they choose a spot a few inches above one of my shoulders to stare at during our audiences.
Or hell, maybe they don't need to hear stories to be frightened. My formal get-up is not designed to be reassuring: my long black hair styled to wind and spiral over my head, like a snake with pretensions (and let me tell you, getting the wire untangled from my hair afterwards is painful); the pure white cotton shift which shows the pleasing contours of my nubile figure (not my words, I assure you); and the sickly red streaks they use to paint my cheekbones, my lips, my hands, and feet. Yes, it's blood, but I try not think about it. If I try hard, I can imagine it's just exotic cosmetics, like fire-poppy dust. I understand it might be hard to see the girl underneath all these trappings.
Eric's smile encouraged me. I often grew lonely here, my guardians spending much of their time in forbidding silence. "Rise, my champion," I said, making a graceful gesture with my hand. "Did you have a pleasant journey?"
He blinked. "Pleasant enough, my lady," he said, ducking his head.
I tried not to blush furiously. Of course he hadn't had a pleasant journey, not one bit of it. The mountains were treacherous, and tradition required that Champions travel alone with no outside assistance. "May your endeavors here meet with the approval of the Gods," I said, lapsing into formality to hide my discomfort. I never knew what to say to these handsome Champions of mine.
"I am most grateful for your blessing, O Sybil." Eric, on the other hand, seemed to have no problems speaking to me. The men that came to see me were inevitably brave and self-assured, although not always the brightest.
Well, I could always impress them with prophecy if nothing else. I focused my eyes on his forehead and began the ritual breathing that would help me fall into a trance. The rushing sound came quickly this time, and my eyes rolled backwards in my head as I raced down his fate line, a throbbing blue in the darkness, reminding me of the veins that interlocked underneath my own pale skin.
I passed up two separate prophecy lines, so thick and shining so brightly that I knew they portended greatness. I didn't want a prophecy of greatness for a Champion who smiled at me. He might be disappointed to be denied fame, or I might be forced in a later session to reveal more than I wished, but for this, our first meeting, I could afford to be selfish.