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Army Of The Goddess

Army Of The Goddess

Book excerpt

Chapter 1 - Celebration

Landing Day, in the Year 308 after the Landing of the thirteen colony ships from Old Earth

The Great Hall inside the Hall of the People’s Council boasted a splendor of brightly colored streamers and an elongated table set for the staff, their significant others, families, and the Protectress and her guest, Quinn Elgar. A silky red tablecloth contrasted sharply beneath white china plates and silver tableware. Red symbolized the courage of their ancestors to leap into space in faith and hope of survival, and represented those who died long before reaching their destination. The guests seated themselves at this table in celebration of their successes and in review of their failures with a promise to better themselves in the coming year. Landing Day is the mark of the new year, a day that stands alone upon the calendar, uncategorized by season, unhindered by months or weeks, and therefore a day when all arguments and trials are set aside in recognition of centuries past.

Alongside the dining table stood a smaller table supporting a candelabrum with six candles of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple hand-dipped wax. After the food was brought out, but prior to serving, Axandra Saugray, Protectress of Bona Dea, stepped up to the candelabrum with a long match dressed in a flowing green silk dress with flared sleeves, trimmed with silver beads sewn in the pattern of bursting stars. Her typically curly, dark brown hair was tamed into an elegant chignon at the nape of her neck. With a bright expression on her face, she began to recite the mantra of the Landing Day celebration as she touched each candlewick.

“We light this candle for courage, the courage of our ancestors to leave Old Earth never knowing if their dream of a new life would succeed.” Axandra recited for the red candle. For once in her career as Protectress, her hands did not shake as she spoke aloud to her public. These words were stamped upon her heart for every year she honored this day above any other; for without her ancestors, she would not exist, and it was likely that all of humanity would have plummeted into extinction. No soul on Bona Dea could begrudge that truth.

“We light this candle for perseverance, the will of our ancestors to survive on a new world so that we can continue to make our home here.” The orange candle followed, the wick staining black with the scorch of flame set immediately at the touch of the match. Axandra felt pride in her personal perseverance to continue her studies and perform as best she could in her position. The work was not easy, nor envied by many. Even the most magnanimous extrovert balked at the idea of compromising the thousands of arguments proposed by the masses on a daily basis.

“We light this candle for creativity, the innovations that allowed our ancestors to escape persecution and the creativity of our people in everything we do to make this world a better place.” Humans were blessed with a variety of creative arts for all minds and hands throughout all time. The Bona Dean tradition to value creativity in all manners was expressed by the walls of art both ancient and modern, the shelves of books on every topic whether factual or fictional, and the architecture in both form and function. Little in daily life lacked artistic value. Every child learned art and music and carried that language through to adulthood, even Axandra, although she rarely played her instrument in recent years.

“We light this candle for cooperation, the virtue that sustains our society and provides for our people the best possible life.” The green candle decided to be uncooperative, despite its symbolism. The wick twisted sideways and, though lit for a brief moment, extinguished itself rapidly, forcing Axandra to angle her match awkwardly from the right. Her uncooperative right hand seemed contrary to this virtue as well, but she resolved not to allow the damaged limb to dampen her spirit. Quinn began to rise from his chair to assist her, but she quickly halted him with the words, “I’ve got it. Thank you.” The candle flared brightly then settled into a steady burn.

“We light this candle for wisdom, that we may recognize and respect our pasts in order to shape our futures.” Having attempted to flee her own family’s past, Axandra inhaled deeply and said these words in a tone of utmost respect. Her attempt ultimately proved futile, and she returned to her homeland and her promised position. Almost every day for the last several months since her return, she studied her inherited past, delved into the lives of her foremothers, and learned to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each of them. She hoped to internalize the aged wisdom and use her knowledge for greater purpose.

At last, she brought the dwindling matchstick to the purple candle. “We light this candle for peace. May we continue to look forward with open eyes and live free of violence.” Peace was the foremost product of their governance and laws. Peace brought freedom to create, to learn, and to grow. Without peace, humanity suffered and labored in darkness. Everyone alive today had known nothing but peace in the land until a few months ago, when the Stormflies became known and the Prophets attempted a coup of the Protectresship. Going forward, the people of Bona Dea would struggle to redeem the promise of peace. The task would not be easy, and there was no telling how long the struggle would last. The Stormflies were out there, stalking humans like a prairie cat stalks nightly prey. Eventually, war would come between the species.

But in light of today’s celebration, Axandra put those thoughts aside, lifted her chin and upturned her lips in a smile to face her companions.

The attendees responded in unison, “We give thanks today for those who have come and gone before us, for their courage and determination, for their wisdom and creativity, and we honor them with our continued cooperation for future peace.”

“Joyous Landing Day, everyone!” Axandra cheered as she came back to the table. “Let’s eat.”

A long-standing tradition of Landing Day, that penultimate day of the vernal equinox and the first day of every year, was to create a feast with a favorite dish from each family member invited to the celebration. Households across the continent received neighbors, hosted visiting relatives, and gave a moment of honor to their ancestors before emptying pantries onto their bowing meal tables.

This was the first annual official Landing Day celebration at the Palace, the nickname given to the People’s Hall centuries ago, and a name that proved difficult to retire. Axandra desired to show the staff how much she appreciated those people who served the Hall and its only residents by cleaning, gardening, cooking, and keeping the general order; and, in general, the staff appeared agreeable and even excited to be a part of the new tradition, especially the younger interns who were away from their families for the holiday. Having no other family and little in the way of neighbors while perched atop this stalwart hill, Axandra longed for familial intimacy with those who intersected her life on a daily basis.

Being as this was the grandest holiday of the year, no one served others. Axandra served herself and began passing dishes down the table, and each diner did the same, creating a clatter of silver on ceramic and a steady stream of voices and laughter. Several bottles of wine circumnavigated the table, bolstering spirits and widening mouths.

“Your Honor, what’s a tradition your family used to do on Landing Day?” asked Marta from down the table. The older, pale-haired woman in the floral-stamped dress kept the gardens tidy and kept the gossip muddy. She enjoyed poking around for new stories.

Axandra sipped her crystal goblet of tangy golden ferment and formulated a response that didn’t stray too far into that rocky period in her life when she ran away from home to be adopted by another family. “We used to announce something we would like to accomplish in the coming year, and revisited the old year to take stock of how we fared. Nothing extravagant.”

“And how did you fare last year?” Marta needled with her gravelly, well-worn voice.

Smirking wryly, Axandra inhaled deeply through her round nostrils and leaned both elbows on the table edge. “The one thing I wanted to accomplish last year was reading thirty books. While I didn’t come close to that literary adventure, I think I accomplished a great deal more than I expected.”

“Absolutely!” cheered Miri, who blushed at the sound of her own voice echoing back to her in the large room. The Protectress’ personal aide offered the words as reinforcement and distraction, knowing topics that broached her mistress’ past posed complications to any event. The young blonde raised her goblet high. “A toast to the Protectress!”

“Here, Here!” everyone shouted, out of synch with one another. A resounding flam of Ching! followed as the crystal goblets tapped together.

“That sounds like an excellent game,” Quinn chirped with a broad grin on his round, sun-starved face. He had allowed his thinning cap of blonde hair to lengthen over the winter months, and the thin locks lay feathered back from his brow with a touch of scented hair oil, enough to create style without a greasy appearance. “Let’s go around the table and tell everyone something we’d like to accomplish this year, no matter how small. I’ll go first.” Interlacing his fingers with Axandra’s, he made no qualms about looking her in the eyes and announcing, “I want to make this woman the happiest possible by marrying her and lifting her up every day that I see her.”

“Is that a proposal?” Marta gasped with surprise, the wrinkles in her face smoothing out with her wide expression.

“No,” Axandra shook her head sheepishly, her cheeks blazing crimson at her lover’s open broadcast. “I already asked him, and he said yes,” she revealed, grinning so widely her blushing cheeks ached.

“Ohhh! Congratulations!” Cheers and applause erupted along the table, for no one could frown in the face of love’s declaration.

“I think we’ll all feel a bit selfish after that pronouncement,” Paris bemoaned from down the table. She was one of the building’s many environmental maintainers, particularly in charge of the laundry and wardrobes. Her already long face lengthened as she angled her nose to the upper corner of the room indignantly. “I think I want to see the ocean this year. I’ve never been.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jared promised. As one of the yearly interns, he had come from the seaside village of Littoralee. Ever since his arrival, he made himself comfortable with the young women, catering to their whims with flirtatious prowess. His rugged attractiveness enhanced his powers of finesse, including the uneven dimples on his long cheeks. “I know the perfect beach.” The young people began to make plans for a getaway in the near future, including who would cover for whom during their absences.

Others joined in the pronouncements with both serious and not-so-serious goals, from planting a garden box in an apartment window, to riding a dardak, to finishing a quilt started a few years ago and abandoned due to life’s surprises, to climbing Mt. Zetnic to the highest peak.

Axandra basked in the warmth of her collected, adopted family, and in the glow of her lover’s smile. This was the ultimate Landing Day celebration, and she was proud to bring it to her home.

~*~*~*~

At the end of the long table of staff and friends, Lynn Grady sat alone and quiet, allowing her loose, tawny hair to hang like a drape beside her face. She wasn’t certain why she had accepted the invitation to sit with the Protectress for Landing Day. By all rights, the woman should have sent her packing and looking for a new occupation. Instead, the Protectress exercised her right to give someone with a decent performance record a second chance despite her mistakes. Lynn felt honored to be asked to attend; the Protectress delivered the invitation personally. She dressed smartly for the occasion in a fitted red dress and a silver set of jewelry passed down to her from her grandmother.

Yet, no one else cared about the Protectress’ intentions. No one else wanted anything to do with her. She didn’t blame them. She worked with Nancy Morton to practically get the Protectress killed; she just didn’t know it at the time. She was the one who opened the garden gate to let the Prophet in for clandestine meetings. She was the one responsible for the packhound entering the grounds, which ultimately attacked the Protectress and one of the Elite. Lynn thought she was doing a duty to her people by following Morton’s orders. It was the most profound mistake of her entire life.

Ignored for most of the meal, Lynn decided to take her leave. She said nothing, but folded her napkin neatly and slipped out through the nearest side door of the hall while the company was laughing boisterously at each other’s plans for the coming year. No one paid attention to her.

“Leaving already?”

“Councilor? What are you doing here?” Lynn questioned seeing Franny Gilbert standing in the access hallway along the east side of the Great Hall once she’d slipped from the large room. She didn’t let on that the woman’s voice startled her. The aging councilor shifted within the shadows of the far wall, barely illuminated by a stream of sunlight entering through the textured glass window. She appeared more wrinkled than Lynn had last noticed, and the purple smudges beneath her eyes cried out for rest. “Can I do something for you?”

“No, thank you. I’m just watching the party.”

“Shouldn’t you be celebrating with your family?”

“I decided not to today. I wanted to do something different.” Gilbert was smiling with a peculiar show of delight that made Lynn’s skin prickle. “Go on, then. Don’t mind me.”

Lynn took that as an invitation to flee the woman’s presence, so she made her way quickly up to her room.

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