I’m not in the mood to murder someone tonight, but I must.
My pulse quickens as I gaze at the dozens of sweat-slicked bodies filling the sandy beach, twirling and touching beneath the moon’s glow.
I wonder which one I will absorb the life force from.
Palm trees line the jagged edge where sand meets jungle, standing crooked from years of braving summer storms. Though the night air is heavy with moisture, the sky is clear. Stars litter the space overhead, shimmering off the equally dark sea. A raging bonfire sits at the center of the revelry on pale sand, bathing those who dance around it in a warm hue.
Off to the side, closer to the dense forest than the water, I watch from an enclosed ruby- colored tent as bodies squirm in tune to rhythmic drums and string instruments. Squeals and chatter battle with the music, filling the air. Some folks wear the finest garments they own—silk slacks or breezy gossamer skirts in every shade imaginable—but the majority wear only their skin.
Tonight’s bacchanal is especially rambunctious. The pleasant weather allows for celebrating on the beach rather than in the palace, like we’ve been limited to in the weeks past, and the joy is contagious.
I fan myself with one hand, lifting a heavy curtain of hair off my neck with the other.
“I don’t know how they stand to have a fire in this heat,” Ilona says, her freckled face moist from the humidity. She pulls her fiery red curls off her shoulders, tying them with a strip of cloth. “That cannot be comfortable.”
“It’s not about their comfort. It’s all about the atmosphere,” I say, reciting my mother’s words with an eye roll.
Mother prefers to go all out for the events she hosts; she has a flair for the extravagant. Though she’s uncharacteristically late tonight.
It’s just Ilona and me sitting on a blanket littered with snacks, in a grand tent watching the revelers. Our stomachs are filled to the brim, and our bare toes wander off the blanket’s edge, digging into the cool sand as we watch the night’s events. The tent’s opaque material is special—a one-way viewing fabric. We can see out onto the beach, but no one can see in.
“Don’t you pity them?” Ilona asks, stuffing a chunk of cheese in her mouth, moaning at how good it tastes. “Goddess above, save their poor souls.”
I grab a piece of bread off the wicker platter and chuck it at her. She ducks just in time, and it misses, hitting the cloth behind her. Her pale cheeks flush as she swallows her mouthful.
“Oh gosh, Astrid. You know that’s not what I meant. I meant save them from the heat, not from you. The poor things will probably die of heat stroke or dehydration long before you even—”
She catches herself rambling and trails off. I snicker. Ilona might be my best friend—my only friend—but she fears my mother and me. There isn’t any real reason for it, at least not one she’s aware of. It’s not like we’ve ever used our magic on her. Mother only uses her myndox powers on her enemies and disobedient servants—persuading them to do her bidding with mental manipulation—and I only use my vygora powers once a week at these bacchanals, when I absorb the life force energy of a willing participant to transfer to Mother.
It’s dirty, useless magic that I neither want nor need.
But if Ilona knew I was responsible for her mother’s death, she would have true reason to fear me. Her sentiments would transform to hate in the blink of an eye.
It was an accident. I discovered what I was in that moment, in the most unfortunate of ways, when I was nothing more than an innocent six-year-old with a proud, gap-tooth grin.
I only remember a plump, redheaded woman hugging me—Mother’s handmaiden. The hug was enchanting, like warm sunshine on my bare skin. Until the woman went still and the feeling washed away. She went slack in my arms, and I didn’t have the strength to hold her upright as she toppled to the ground, shriveled beyond her years as if she had aged decades in those brief moments.
Hours later, Mother found me sobbing on my bony knees at the woman’s side, fists clutching her skirts. She took one look at the desiccated face before me, those unseeing eyes, and recoiled.
That was the day we learned I’m a vygora—an energy reader and life force absorber—but not a regular vygora. Transference is unheard of, yet I can absorb and transfer energy from one body to another, much to Mother’s delight.
At first, Mother only brought me prisoners to practice my ability on. When the well of prisoners ran dry, she sought volunteers to come to the palace grounds under the guise of these weekly festivities. Over the years, the gatherings have become larger and more exciting—the islanders eager to partake in a bacchanal with their queen. As for Ilona, she never learned the truth about her mother’s death. We took her in, and she’s been like a sister to me—proof that my callous mother does indeed have a heart despite what the masses assume.
“They’re well aware of their potential sacrifice. They choose to be here, Ilona,” I say, fingering a frayed edge of the blanket. “I’m not the monster here.”
“I love you, I do, but I just find it hard to believe so many people willingly show up each week, knowing they might die.” She sighs, but her emerald eyes don’t waver from my face. As irrationally fearful as she can be, Ilona always says what’s on her mind and keeps it straight with me. At least someone does.
“It’s their choice.” I shrug, not wanting to get worked up over something I can’t change. “Are you sure your mother doesn’t... you know, influence them?”
I sigh. This again?
Mother doesn’t use her abilities on innocents. I may have had my doubts in the past, but
she’s denied it any time I’ve asked. I truly hope she doesn’t invade the minds of others out of selfishness. Then again, she hosts these weekly sacrifices purely for her benefit. She has me drain a willing participant of their life force, only to transfer it to her so she can stay young, beautiful, and powerful.
She is known among the people of the island—and even those living across the Insipid Sea—for making morally ambiguous decisions. Like executing all the island prisoners when I was young. Nobody knows the truth—that she rounded them up for me to practice my powers on.
It worked for us both: she became infamous, and I was protected.
Crime rates certainly dropped after that decree. They began calling her the Dead Queen because of her supposed ruthlessness. It’s a nickname she now wears proudly. But she is capable of compassion. Why else would she take in a young Ilona and shelter her from the truth of her own mother’s death?
As uncomfortable as I am with murdering people on a weekly basis to allow Mother to stay young and powerful, I truly believe the island of Hakran is safer with her as their queen. Our rule is better than the alternatives.
For example, the countries on the mainland, like Stellaris, are strict and old-fashioned. They don’t let women rule or join the guard. They marry off their heirs to other countries for political alliances. It’s barbaric and oppressive, especially considering our magic came from the original goddess long ago.
Despite her vices, Mother has been a good ruler. Her mental powers help her rule effectively.
“Of course she doesn’t use her power on them.” I pluck a purple grape and toss it up to catch. I miss, and it bounces off my nose before rolling into the sand. “She wouldn’t do that.”
“How sure are you? What if she’s manipulating them into thinking they want to be a sacrifice?”
“She’s not that powerful. You know she can’t affect people beyond her immediate proximity, let alone control the entire village like you’re suggesting.”
“What if that’s what she wants you to think? What if she’s got a hold on you too, and you’re doing her bidding against your will?” Her voice drops an octave. “I know she’s your mother. I mean, she’s practically mine as well, and she’s the queen, but I can’t help it. I find it hard to trust myndoxes.”
“Why are you doing this again? Is this your way of justifying my choices instead of accepting me the way I am? Am I not good enough for the perfect Ilona? Too dark, too broken, too willing to do my duty and protect my people that you have to change my narrative?”
“Gosh, no,” she whispers.
“Then let it go. Stop making me feel bad about completing my duty.”
“I just... I’ve been having this recurring dream... It feels so real. And in it, you’re confronting your mother about her lies. I’m not really sure what the full extent of it was... I can’t remember. But I have this weird feeling, and then—”
“It’s a dream,” I say in a flat voice. “A nightmare. Whatever you want to call it. It isn’t real.” “But it feels so real. And it’s recurring. I keep having the same one!”
“Just because it feels real doesn’t mean it is. You of all people should know this.”
“Maybe. Or maybe Enira is capable of more than you think. Do you truly believe her power—”
“Oh, does it truly matter, dear Ilona?” Mother’s monotone voice reaches my ears, and I look over my shoulder to see her parting the tent’s flap and entering. Her ebony eyes pierce me, and her blood-red lips curve up on the side. Tonight, she wears a dress—if that’s what it can be called—that matches her eyes. It’s constructed of thin swatches of burgundy, which barely cover her sensitive bits.
Ilona wipes her hands on her slacks and stands, eyes on the ground. “I’m s-sorry, Queen Enira. I didn’t mean it.”
“Your chatter is bordering on treasonous today. You know how I handle treason, regardless of the mouth from which it spills,” Mother says. She waggles a finger before gliding to my side, skirt swishing around her thighs. Pausing behind me, she rakes her ruby nails through my sleek hair. “Darling, you are goddess-blessed with such luxurious locks. Have I informed you of how lucky you are?”
Fighting a scowl, I keep my eyes locked on the revelers outside the tent instead. A droopy- eyed brunette with sun-crisped skin takes off her top. She’s so close to us that her elbow swipes the tent’s fabric. Her large, bare breasts hang heavily. Reddish-brown nipples stare at me like lopsided eyes, as if they can see me through the opaque fabric after all. “Yes. You have, Mother.”
“Oh, what I would give for such hair.” Her voice is sharp as glass as she pulls her hands away, reaching for the pile of scarlet fabric on the ground by my side—the veyl I wear during these ceremonies. Tutting with dismay, she shakes out the sand and crumbs. “Ilona, run along, dear. Astrid must tend to her duties. You two have dallied long enough.”
“Yes, Queen.” Ilona gives an awkward half bow. She’s been with us seventeen years now, since we were both six, and still isn’t sure how to address Mother. I’d laugh if I wasn’t so annoyed at her. Despite our quarrel, she reaches in to hug me, whispering in my ear, “I’ll see you later. Remember who you are. The most incredibly strong woman I know.”
With a quick wave, she parts the tent’s slit and darts away. She’ll likely head up the trail to the palace rather than stick around the beach. Like me, she enjoys watching the debauchery but doesn’t care to take part. I bet I’ll find her sipping a cup of ginger tea and reading a steamy novel up in her suite after the ceremony.
“Was that necessary, Mother?” I snatch the veyl from her hands, not looking forward to putting it on. The people don’t know I’m the one who performs the transference. Mother keeps me covered, referring to me only as “the vessel” during the bacchanal and transference ceremony. She says it’s safer this way, so people don’t know what their princess is truly capable of. Plus, it makes her look even more commanding to be fully in control of a being with such dangerous power.
Other than Ilona and Mother, and perhaps a few of the queen’s closest advisors, no one knows I’m the one underneath these concealing drabs each week.
“It was,” she says. “You two have spent more than enough time on gluttony this evening. She distracts you.”
“No, actually she keeps me grounded and makes me feel more human, Mother.” Unlike you, I want to add, but I keep my mouth shut.
“Quit with the dramatics.” With her porcelain-smooth skin and severe black bob, she looks like my sister rather than my mother. Perks of receiving the extra life force energy. Though the texture of our hair is similar, my skin is a deeper olive than hers, my eyes a unique shade of teal. Where her features are sharp and angular, mine are softer. Attributes from my father, I’d assume, though I’ve never met the man. In my twenty-three years, my mother and I have only spoken about the topic a handful of times. Mother claims she had many lovers around the time she conceived me and that it makes no difference which male sponsored my creation. Crass.
“Go. The energy is resplendent tonight. Do not let it go to waste.” It’s only one night a week.
It’s not all the time.
I can do this.
“Yes, Mother.” Groaning inwardly, I stand, slipping the veyl over my head. The heavy fabric covers all five feet of me from head to toe, falling in a pool by my sandy feet. Not a single millimeter of flesh peeks through; there’s not even a cut out for my eyes. Like the tent’s fabric, the veyl allows me to see out, but nobody can see in.
“Go, Astrid!” She grabs my shoulders, steering me to the tent’s slit and pushing me out into the night.
Outside the tent, the air is only a few insignificant degrees cooler. My thick thighs stick together. Salt from the sea wafts through the air, mingling with the fire’s smoky scent.
As I round the tent, making my way toward the bonfire on the beach, my feet drag.
Bacchanals awaken my guilt. I don’t want to steal the life force of others to keep Mother young and healthy. But I also know it’s our best way to protect our rule on the island. The sacrifice of one life keeps many others safe.
Mother once said, “People can fear you, or they can love you, Astrid. One offers protection, while the other makes you weaker. Let them fear you.”
If they fear Mother, her power, no one will question her rule. The other countries stay away; we’re protected from their potential invasions. The islanders are safe because they remain obedient. Crime is nonexistent. The palace servants stay loyal. Everything runs efficiently.
Turning back toward the tent, I see my mother standing with hands folded delicately in front of her. Elegant. Graceful. She’s a stunning woman, but one look at her face reminds me of what she is capable of.
She’s the only person I know of who can enter someone’s mind and influence their thoughts, shaping their reality until they submit to her control. I obey her because I value my freedom. Some might say that makes me selfish or weak, but I say it makes me smart.
In the past, she’s threatened to force me into line if I disobey, but she’s never actually used her powers on me.
At least, not that I’m aware of.
Or would I?
Ilona’s words haunt me, and I curse her under my breath.
Bodies sway in circles around the bonfire, succumbing to the trance-like rhythm of the drums as I draw nearer, dragging my feet through the sand. Cheers and chatter litter the air, and the energy is ecstatic. Ilona is right. It’s strange that each person is so joyous at the prospect of possibly sacrificing their life. It’s common knowledge this isn’t a normal party, yet they’re always utterly delighted.
But there’s no way they’re all under Mother’s influence. Nobody’s magic is that strong.
Countless bobble-headed partygoers thrash against one another. Scanning the crowd of sticky flesh, I look for someone highly energetic—someone young, with much life to give. On the other side of the fire, near the water, a group of six is fully engrossed in one another as their lips mash and their hands explore. People get carried away during Mother’s bacchanals, which works perfectly. Sexual energy is one of the strongest and easiest to absorb because of its intensity.
My cheeks no longer blaze with heat like they did when I was young.
I start in their direction, but movement farther down the beach catches my eye. Moonlight gilds the brunette I saw earlier, the one with the observant breasts, as she straddles a man with thick eyebrows, their mouths merging ravenously.
She will do.
Heading in her direction, I pass the bulk of dancers, thankful to leave the heat of the fire behind, as I slink toward the pair.
“Vessel! May the original goddess bless you!” someone yells over the ruckus. A few more people turn, regarding me with awe. Conversation picks up a notch as they recognize the symbolic red veyl. A few people bow their heads in a show of respect, and it’s quite humorous, considering many are stark naked.
If only they could see it was their princess under this garb. That would be a priceless reaction.
Others dance faster, moan louder, thrash against each other harder, all in a desperate bid for me to acknowledge them. To choose them. They want me to see how lively they are, that they’re worthy of sacrificing their life for their queen.
Ilona’s words make me view it all through a new lens tonight, and it looks sad. Pathetic. They truly want to be the reason their queen is young, beautiful, and forever powerful. Week after week, I see so many of the same faces. A few are even nobles from the village.
Ilona’s voice haunts my mind: “What if she’s manipulating them into thinking they want to be a sacrifice?”
Balling my hands into fists beneath my veyl, I brush off the thought. There’s no way Mother could manipulate this many people for so long, and from such a distance. Her power doesn’t work like that. As odd as it may seem to Ilona that people would choose to die for their queen, she needs to accept it’s true.
My lungs burn for fresh air as I close in on the brunette and her thick-browed man. Their exposed, overlapping thighs are slick with humidity and pleasure. Averting my eyes, I reach one bare hand through the only slit in my veyl, planting it on the woman’s back.
She shudders at my touch.
“Forgive me,” I mumble, knowing she can’t hear me. Even if she could, she wouldn’t accept my apology. They always find honor in their sacrifice.
Focusing on pulling her energy into my body, my hand tingles, emanating a soft golden glow where it meets her flesh. The woman gasps at the sensation, throwing her head back with a throaty moan and thrusting her hips forward, as if my touch is as pleasurable as the man’s lips were on her neck a moment prior.
My own eyes roll back in my head as a wave of synchronized pleasure consumes me too. There’s no denying how good it feels. For us both. I can’t stop, can’t pull away. The sensation is incredible. Energy absorption is pure indulgence for me. I hate that something so cruel feels so good—and that I like it.
The surge rushes through my veins as I pull all the energy out of her body with a single touch. It continues to pour into me until she’s left dry and unconscious, and the connection between us fades away. Drained of her youth, all that remains is a shriveled shell of a human. Her head flops forward, hanging limp, and I’m grateful I can’t see her withered cheeks or the final gaze of her vacant eyes.
“Thank you for choosing her, vessel.” The thick-browed man places her limp body on the sand before bowing to me and taking off into the crowd.
Waves lap the shore a few feet away, almost inaudible over the chaotic music and shrill revelry around me. I’m tempted to close that distance. To step deep enough into the ocean that it wraps its liquid arms around me, absolving me of my guilt.
But I don’t.
Mother’s waiting for me.
The sacrifice is over, but the celebration is not. As the wine flows and fire burns, so will the activities of the night. The people will continue to party, thanking their queen and the original goddess for blessing them, while I curse her for damning me.