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Sila knelt before the altar, hands clasped at her chest. Her eyes were closed as she sent her silent plea to her goddess. Mother of All Nations, please hear my prayer. Do not let my father give me in marriage to Tam. It would be bondage, not marriage.
Tam was a wealthy merchant that had a lot of influence in her village. He came through twice a year, bringing with him news of the world and many beautiful things that most couldn’t buy. He’d taken an interest in the pale blond girl who now begged her goddess for protection two years earlier. Her father had put him off for those two years because she wasn’t of marriageable age. Now that she was, Tam was pressing his suit hard.
Minali, Sila’s older sister – who was as of yet unmarried herself – entered the temple. “Sila, father is looking for you. Tam is with him.” Sila burst into tears. Minali came and knelt beside her. “I know you don’t want to marry him, but it might not be as bad as you think.”
“Yes it will be. He’s said as much. I am to stand there and look pretty while he sells his wares in order to entice his customers. I might be called on to perform other duties when male customers express an interest. You know what that means,” Sila said.
Minali sighed. “Yes, and so does father. But I have a feeling Tam is offering a large sum of money for you. You know how much we need the silver.”
A moment later her mother appeared. “Sila, your father is calling for you. Why are you here? You should be home, attending to your duty to your family.”
“I’d rather die,” Sila said fiercely through her tears.
Her mother took a step back. “What do you mean by that?”
“Father is going to give me to Tam, isn’t he?” Sila asked.
“His suit has been accepted,” her mother said.
“I’ll be used as an object to get people to buy his wares, sold to men to be raped whenever he feels like giving me to them, and who knows what else,” Sila said. “Father would force me into that kind of slavery?”
“You’re overreacting, Sila. Such duties are far from onerous, and think of the pleasure you could get from the men you lie with,” her mother said.
“It will be rape. I will be forced into being a whore, just so Tam can make a profit,” Sila said.
“This is forbidden,” a soft voice said. All three women looked up. An aging priestess stood near the altar. “No woman is to be sent into a marriage where it is known she will be forced into a degrading position, and forced prostitution is one such thing.”
“You stay out of it,” her mother snapped. “The temple has done nothing for my family except try to steal my daughters at every turn.”
Two more priestesses appeared. These were younger women, and both were armed. “You heard Mother Helena,” one of them said. “If she wishes, we will protect her from this atrocity.”
Sila thought for a moment. “I do want to be protected. I won’t marry Tam. I won’t be forced into slavery just because my father wants the money Tam offers.”
Mother Helena nodded. “Then step forward, my child.”
“I too claim this protection,” Minali said. “For if Sila is out of his reach, he’ll try to take me instead.”
“Then you as well may enter,” Mother Helena said, smiling at both young women.
“I forbid it.” Sila’s father strode in, Tam hot on his heels. “My daughters are required by law to submit to my will, and you cannot interfere.”
“There are provisions in the laws to protect them from violation, and what the man you have selected offers is nothing less than that,” Mother Helena said. Three more armed priestesses appeared. “Step back or face the wrath of the goddess.”
“Your goddess has no power over me,” Tam said, smirking. “My god is far more powerful than her feeble attempts at interfering in my life.”
“Do you truly believe so?” Mother Helena asked. She gestured with one age spotted hand. “Behold the power of the Mother of All Nations.”
The statue behind the altar shifted, as if it were a flesh and blood. The seated female rose to her feet, towering over them all. You dare claim I have no power? Here, of all places? You are a small man of even lesser status. Leave my daughters alone, or face my wrath.
“What can you do? My god protects me,” Tam said.
And who is your god?
“The God of the Night,” Tam said.
The statue laughed, a sound like stone grating on stone mixed with music. He is weak here. These are not his lands. You are at my mercy. Leave. Now.
Tam scowled. “I’ll be back for Sila.” He stormed out.
No, you won’t, the goddess said softly. You are cursed. Your business will fail. Your luck is gone. You will lose your fortune. You will die a pauper and your god will not be able to save you. She turned her attention to Sila’s parents. You too shall face my wrath.
“Forgive us,” Sila’s father said, his voice shaking.
No. You do not deserve that forgiveness. The statue fell silent, staring down at them with white marble eyes. You will never enter my realm. I cast you into eternal darkness. You shall wail with the wraiths who have defied me, always knowing your crime and never being able to atone for it. The statue returned to its place and once again became still.
“Leave now or we will remove you,” one of the armed priestesses said.
Mother Helena held out her hands to Sila and Minali. “Come forward, my daughters, and embrace the love of the goddess.” Sila and Minali walked towards the priestess while their parents fled the temple sobbing.