Goddess Hichristy stepped back from the yellow altar so that she could see Vanuva’s soul and its masterwork at once. The goddess wore a hot white-blue crown, like a burning star, and more white regalia covered her chest and hips. Her hair was so dark in its wild poofs at the top of her head, behind the crown, or the heavy dreadlocks, it appeared purple. Her skin so bright with power, it cast the brown away, it seemed, to the extremes of her form. Her cheekbones, the line of her mouth, the hollows around her eyes, the lines of her body were most apparent. For mortals, it was like looking directly into flame. To immortals and the divine, Hichristy’s skin shone like the yellow and black extremes of gold ingots. The intense woman had filled the small shrine with any of Vanuva’s things that looked meaningful, anything that her nymphs and her Emberill, her ash-moths and minions could bring to Pavilon that might help Vanuva’s soul recover.
Above where the greenish shade of Vanuva lay, looking so much like Vanuva had once, but hopelessly devoid of anger, love, anything… there was a large, laughing sow’s head drawn on the wall. Hichristy had drawn the sow, large enough to take the entire wall so that she could scrutinize every single stroke of the artwork, but Hichristy couldn’t understand it.
Hichristy looked now from Vanuva the woman, or what was left of her, to the strange drawing she had found in one of Vanuva’s old beaten journals. (Apparently, an ex-queen does still have time to write down things politely at the end of a full day of taking people’s heads off. Small hope there, Hichristy held, for getting Vanuva back into civilization.) Beneath the drawing of the sow’s head, something special had been written. The one thing Hichristy feared to re-create on the wall. Hichristy reached to pick up the worn leathern book by Vanuva’s translucent foot at the edge of the altar, to read it again,
“The Prescient Grotesque.”
Hichristy knew it was impossible for her to confuse things like this, being divine, but she had another long breath, eyes closed, then returned to the page a final time. She saw the words anew, hoped that something was mis-spelled, or that there was some other sign Vanuva had made a mistake…
There was none.
Many scrawlings and drafts of the sow’s face were in the journal, but this one sketch, named The Prescient Grotesque, seemed to be the version Vanuva liked best. Yes, it might have once been the design for Vanuva’s own helmet, which resembled it—but this drawing was so much more. It was an obsession. Or, a character, a friend. What children did in the schoolroom instead of writing down their lessons. Or what older girls did when they had fallen in love, writing their names down entwined with their paramour’s. Imagining them together, dreaming of being a wife, taking the man’s name as her own.
One some pages, Vanuva indulged drawing the uglier aspects of the horned sow’s face. Four unremarkable dark, glistening knobs protruded from the crown of the head. The two between the ears were just larger than the ones at the edges of the brow. And the sow’s teeth were wretched. Some combination of a pig’s teeth, with the canines protruding up from the jaw to cover the front teeth, and a mix with a wolf’s jagged encisors. Following the same reasoning lovestruck girls used when scrawling things precious to them, the Prescient Grotesque’s teeth were the most fiendish combination of predator and pig teeth that Vanuva could imagine. She must have liked the idea of it.
Triangular marks falling down from the stylized feminine eyes, like eyelashes, scars or tears—or perhaps they were all three: under each eye one was white, a tear; the other red, a scar; and the ones at the edges were definitely how a woman might line her eyes, with kohl. Line them like a cat’s eyes, to impress her lover, or make herself look cleverer than all the other women in the room. The tops of the eyes, near the corners, were delicately lined with white or else one imagined they were slivers of silver the way they were shaded. So this was an enlightened, divine pig, something like that… A fat ruby sat in the middle of the angry, furrowed brow and other jewels helped complete the kind of tiara that was starting to form now, with the help of the horns.
Warts were on the snout, made in perfect rows… and finally, of course, all those horrible teeth set in either a happy snarl or an angry laugh were golden. The ears were large and as spade shaped as any pig’s would be, but not folded over. The ears were as gently tattered as they were perfectly porcine.
It was a horrible, beautiful thing that was only easier to look at, after practice. But now that Hichristy was done studying it, for days, the only thing that she understood perfectly about the sow head drawing was that it pleased Vanuva very much. Vanuva loved to have it in her private diary, worn over her face as her helmet, scratched over the face of an old pierced coin and worn on a string around her neck, like a talisman. Perhaps, beside that pet silver sow of hers, it was the only other thing that Vanuva loved. Loved about her life. As far as loves, there were lovers and broken friendships, certainly an ex-king and husband, and other people Vanuva left behind and still loved whether she wanted to or not—but the sow drawing was something Vanuva doted on, up until her death, something Vanuva had invented and was proud of. And it meant far more to Vanuva than that ugly war mask. Without the war mask, Vanuva would still draw the sow’s laughing face, want it near her. Hichristy sensed that.
Hichristy turned pages in Vanuva’s journal again. More sow heads, sketched at the margins of notes, strategic plans, or scrawlings of people she’d met. There were crude maps, sums of supplies and money owed, then more sow faces drawn again, deeper, with fascination, traced over and over until blackened, circled, harder, tearing into the page. Then, the fire goddess got angry, the pages started to singe, and Hichristy threw it to the ground.
“Enough of this, Vanuva. I may not understand all of you, as you certainly cannot conceive of everything I feel or need…” Hichristy stopped herself, realizing how strangely that sounded, putting herself and a wayward mortal, however she was once a heroine, on the same pedestal. “But you lying here, refusing to either re-awaken to life as you promised me, or even pass through the other side…” she came and leaned over Vanuva’s feet, grasped her ankles and shouted up to her, “So. I. Can. Help. You. This is offensive, Vanuva! You will not resist me again, not me nor my devotion to your soul.” She sweetened, “I will have you back, my creation. I will bring you back to my peace and my love.” Hichristy smoothed hands up Vanuva’s ethereal legs and they became smoke, loosening while she pressed, but by the time Hichristy’s hands swept back down to the ghost woman’s ankles, the sickly green vapor tightened stubbornly into the shape of unliving legs once more. Vanuva’s soul wouldn’t be prodded anywhere, it would not be molded.
Well then, let us hope the once queen has good enough defenses within her mind.
Vanuva squeezed her thighs and swatted the animal underneath her, with her heels, but the white mare she rode could not go any faster. Not as fast as Prince Vael’Kellen’s horse.
The people watching them were a colorful blur on both sides of the field. She turned, into the streaks of green grass and blue sky thundering past them. That is when Vael came up from behind. Vanuva knew he would catch up eventually, but seeing him right when she feared she would—the excitement overwhelmed her. Her and her mare. For his stallion was as brilliant gold and impressive as Vael’Kellen was in his armor. He had his arm out, calling for Vanuva, and she was already reaching back, smiling to have it done, for him to steal her away like this…
Where swords, one day, would cross and rip open his armor, send his innards flying in ribbons of blood across their galloping horses…
Vael leaned from the saddle, and Vanuva did too, neither of them armed now, and never to be armed against one another again. The galloping of their animals matched, their lips pressed in a kiss. A much longer kiss than catching a woman while on horseback should have allowed. It was only the prowess of true athleticism, power that a man at his peak in everything could possess. Then, they parted. But Vanuva turned her horse to follow his. Back to the castle. Back through screaming, cheering people also so besotted with the two of them.
The prince of Hichrisom was the very apex of creation on that day he caught Vanuva and engaged himself to her. An old tradition going back to the ancient Kubeckum tribes that used to fight and die on horseback—and as legend had it—they did it all while naked. But the Hichrisonians took what they liked from conqured savages and left the rest. So warriors engaged themselves to be married while chasing one another on horseback. So, after it was done, Vanuva and her fiancé couldn’t go on being as bad as that in front of so many people.
But it was certainly not the case on that night.
Vanuva was certainly no virgin to her affianced, Prince Vael. Every one of their friends, and the ones in the prince’s inner circle knew that. The white regalia, the traditional engagement between people of the warrior class, kissing only that once and never touching in public, it was all for show. By nightfall, Vael was back over his more than willing woman just as he had been that very morning, before their engagement. Vanuva and Vael could only stand to let hours part their bodies and wills. There were still expectations of a royal betrothal, so they set their teeth against the excitement or covered one another’s moans with their mouths as they sexed each other at the brink of real aggression for having to actually wait. Wait until the wedding to make noise, to stop sneaking around. And for them, this was waiting. Imagine…
“I love you, Vanuva.”
Vanuva whispered the same, then pressed fingers over Vael’s mouth to keep him quiet. They lay there in the moonlit room, relaxed after getting what they needed from each other. The white bedsheets seemed to glow in the blue dark.
“You stink from riding on horses all day.” She complained. In those days, just after the war, Vanuva could let her hair be put in long braids, clicking gold beads and cowry shells. Vael’s body was strong and his gaze was undeniable. Mischief played around his mouth, was always tugging at one eyebrow, just so. Like he was constantly on the verge of making a very good joke. Vael could make, really empower people, to smile.
“So do you—” Vael wouldn’t let Vanuva push him off when she played at putting him out of his own bed. Vanuva was not royalty. Not yet. The woman came to Vael, to his bed, to his chambers. No one risked the prince’s neck. “So no one wanted to wait. Neither of us even wanted to wash. We must be disgusting.”
“Oh, we’re nasty.” Vanuva kissed, then bit Vael’s lip. He had another kiss, too. Vanuva smiled and cuddled into Vael again. “Well, be sure to wash top to bottom, between your toes and even behind your ears when I finally, finally get to marry you, Vael. I’ve been dreaming of the day. I want a perfect groom.”
“You’ve been dreaming of a groom with the back of his ears cleaned.”
“I like squeaky clean men who have been wallowing in soap suds all day. It’s a need I have. Don’t judge me.”
“I would never do that, Vanuva.” Then, Vael spent time kissing the back of her sweaty neck. “We’re going to have a whole litter of puppies together. You know that, right?”
Vanuva reached up and held the side of his dark face. She felt his short, wiry hair. It was getting long, when so many other men at court kept theirs shaved close to their scalps. All of them ready to put gold helmets on and go to war to fight for Hichrisom, at any moment. She pressed their brown faces together. A large polished bronze mirror far across the room reflected an inseparable amalgam of his blue-brown over her gold-brown skin, bittersweet cocoa sifted prettily over almonds. Not the green tattoo of Eff, the god of foolishness, across her once undefiled chest and belly. Not a vision of the prince, so high-born, laying over his long-time lover, who had done foolish things and more for him, gone to hell and back to save him, who the prince wanted to marry, and now, as she felt the urge rise in him again, Vanuva was confident that Vael wanted to do a whole lot more to her body and will. Thank the gods they had made it back together, home.
“I want you to listen to me, now. Are you listening, baby?”
“Of course I am listening to you, Vael. I love you so much,” Vanuva began to cry.
“We will have other children. We will.”
Her sobbing got heavy and loud. Vael lay over Vanuva completely, held her down, squeezed his fingers into her fists. She buried her face into the pillows to try stifling it. “I promise you. Oh, it’s alright, Vanuva. Nuva? Oh sweetheart, shh…”
Vanuva lost control of her crying. She was beginning to see the source of her pain again, remember it all. That was driving it now, and Vael knew it. He kissed her gently over the shoulders, down her back. “We’re happy now, aren’t we? We’re almost so happy. We nearly have everything that we want, Nuva.”
She sniffled, withdrew from his arms enough to swipe a hand across her nose and face. “Yes. I’ll be alright.”
“No, you aren’t, warrior princess. But there’s no battle here. It is definitely okay for you to cry.”
Vanuva nodded, winced and turned over to hold Vael back.
“I will help you, whenever you do weaken. Don’t forget that.”
“But I just didn’t—”
Then, mighty Prince Vael’Kellen snorted. Like a pig.
“What was that?”
He did it again, louder.
“Oh my goddess—stop! Haha!”
He kept doing it, and he started snortling and snuffling all over her like she was his dinner trough.
“Um, Vael? Am I supposed to be insulted by this? Or are you still trying to make me laugh? Haha! Okay, okay! Ack!”she squeaked.
He pretended to root beneath her, into the sheets and rolled Vanuva over. She gripped the edge of the blankets with her fingers and almost fell off the bed. Vael quickly apologized and hooked a strong arm around her waist to keep her from hitting all the way to the floor. Her toes were already there on the marble, and her other hand was spread, half-braced for the drop.
“Why were you making pig noises at me?”
“It was all I could think of. I guess that was awful.”
“No, it was wonderful. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long, long time, Vael.”
“Oink. Oink.” Vael said it more like a gentleman this time, held Vanua up and nuzzled her nose.
“I should go back to bed now, I guess.” Vanuva said. But Vael held on and cradled Vanuva in his arms. “I don’t want to, though. I want to sleep the night here with you.”
“You will. Soon. Just as my wife and queen should.”
“And you get to be the king when they make the War Matriarch into a queen. So, I’m kind of the one making you the king, you know. You’re the one who has to behave for me.”
“Laws and more laws… factions and more damn factions eating up my empire.”
Vanuva slapped his hands away and got out of the bed, with Vael laughing and trying to catch her. She shushed him and sneaked back over to a chair, where her nightclothes were waiting. She flirted and wiggled around, seducing him as she put her clothes back on.
“Remember, I want you to wash behind those ears, little piggy. I’m not letting the clergymen make any man my king unless he’s squeaky clean and plays by all the rules. That’s the kind of sovereign the clergy want.”
“Fine, though I’m more like a big horny boar right now.”
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted to go gallivanting halfway across the world, lay around and get high with demons while the priests fought over what was a prince and what wasn’t in your absence.”
“Eh, I blame the courts for not keeping the throne warm for me. Emmyweed is pretty well worth it.”
“Fine. That’s my one ‘when I was high’ joke for the day. I’m done. Promise.”
Vanuva finished cinching up her robe. “Good night, my prince.”
Vael followed her to the private doorway they often used. He swept the blue curtain aside, then opened it for her first, checked down the dark corridor. A few more kisses. “I will… sleep… perfectly tonight. Thanks to you.”
“I broke you off.” He bragged, pulled her into him again.
“You nearly broke me in half. And stop being gross. Only a few more days to go, so be good…” Vanuva pushed away, backed into the darkness. She blew him one last kiss.
And then, as loud as he dared in the quiet, enclosed corridor between their rooms, “OINK, OINK!”
Vanuva squealed herself, but mostly because Vael frightened the sense out of her and she tripped over something in the darkness.
“Vael!” She hissed, he ducked. Then after he waited to be sure her barefootfalls carried on down the passageway, Prince Vael closed his door.
He shuttered the curtain.
He lit a candle.
He made a small offering of incense to the fire goddess.
He prayed for Hichristy to bring his love back to him, safely.
The one time he prayed.
Hichristy now raised her head. She knelt on the floor, still holding Vanuva’s legs, pitying the broken soul of the woman, and pitying herself. Hichristy could already feel that it hadn’t worked. She failed to bring one of her greatest creations back to life, using one of the most powerful spells that she had. A true memory. A pure vision of compassion, love, forgiveness. Healing fire. Wasn’t that what Vanuva assented to before she gave up and died? What Vanuva craved the most? That she needed and wanted to love again?
That great laughing sow was still up there on the wall too, grinning at them both with her gold, sharp teeth.
And when Hichristy looked around herself, she realized why. Hichristy was no longer alone with Vanuva’s soul in the room. There were white pigs everywhere, grunting and squeezing around the altar. Now, as Hichristy came more out of the haze of her conjuring, she heard them better. The animals were becoming agitated, some began squealing. They pressed in from everywhere, they were terrified of something and they stank. The noise, the close tension, their fear which needed no translation, it was horrible.
A tall, slender woman, who looked more willowy like the tree, than any real woman could be, with skin as black as pitch, wearing a toga burning with blue flames at its decorated edges, was also shouting for Hichristy. Witness Cerulea. The fire nymph that loved Hichristy most. Cerulea kept covering her eyes with twig-thin fingertips, trying to turn away from a blinding light as she called to her goddess.
Hichristy looked around again, trying to be sure of her bright surroundings, trying to rouse herself from the thick daze. The more aware she felt, the brighter the room became. Hichristy could feel her rage, the orange flames on her own skin mounting. Or was she still inside of the vision itself? She’d offered up so much of her power to reach Vanuva, but somehow, it had become tainted.
“Damn him… No wonder… They weren’t oinking at each other back then—and how could they ever? Vael and Vanuva never did that!”
And so Hichristy knew it, even before Cerulea’s mouth could unite well with the words,
“Eff has breached Pavilon!”