Episode 13 – The Cleansing Flame

The flames burned high around the altar with nearly a hundred people in attendance. Coronations weren’t a simple matter of putting a crown on but a ritual monitored by the priests of Ahmun, the flame god.

The rite took place on the temple grounds outside the city. The Imperial Guard stood watch, and Rouya kept Evelyn close by in case of any unwelcome surprises.

Rouya stood by the gates of the temple with a bed of coals laid out before her, stretching all the way to the temple steps. She wore a simple white shift with nothing but the Nazar around her neck. The priests and witnesses were there to bear testimony of her crossing the Cleansing Flame. Only the righteous and pure could become King or Queen of Aequilla, the flames would turn all others to ash.

“Shahzadi Rouya, daughter of the great unifier, Padishah Emperor Justinian I, you seek the crown and title of Queen of Aequilla,” the High Priest announced to the crowd. He held his hand out to Rouya and indicated to the pedestal beside him on which the crown rested. “It is here for your taking. Prove your worthiness to Ahmun and those here before you.”

Rouya raised her fist into the air, bringing about a silence in the surrounding crowd. “I am my father’s daughter but we must each find our way in life. Those that seek to harm our people in a moment of weakness will be punished and order restored. My father’s vision of peace and union throughout the universe will live on with me. I vow to be just and bring justice to those in need.”

Rouya felt the heat coming off the coal bed as she approached and kicked off her sandals. She held her chin high, eyes moving from the High Priest to the tiara fitted with jewels, most notably the red ruby at the center. She took her first step, slowly lowering the flat of her foot on the uneven surface. Pain flared through her body, but she couldn’t afford to wince or pull back, lest she fail before them. She sucked in air through her nose and steeled her mind in an attempt to buy herself some time. All she had to do was take twenty paces. She moved more swiftly, lingering only briefly to prevent onlookers from thinking she was rushing.

All eyes were on her, studying her every movement for any signs from Ahmun that she was not meant to be their sovereign.

Rouya ground her teeth together but forced herself to appear poised as she continued striding down the path. She could minimize the pain but it still affected her body. Sweat trickled down her legs and mind clouded with dizziness.

Flames erupted around Rouya as she reached the end of the bed, cutting her off from the rest of the temple witnesses. Rouya balled her hands and shut her eyes, letting the flames wash over and sing her skin.

The crowd gasped, already interpreting the situation in their minds. She forced herself to continue onwards and prove her worth. Her mental barricades broke down one after the other, allowing the pain to sweep through her. She took another step forward and planted her feet on the smooth pavement Rouya opened her eyes, realizing she’d crossed the bed and hurriedly went up the steps to the pedestal.

The pain vanished instantly, and she held her hands up, taking in her unblemished skin. A moment earlier it had felt as though she were melting but no traces of the burns remained.

“Your crown awaits you, your Grace,” the High Priest said, taking a step to the side and holding his hand out to the tiara.

Rouya blinked, still perplexed by the sudden shift in her senses, and felt the adrenalin from near death running through her veins. She set her jaw and reached out, cupping the tiara on both sides as she gently lift it off the pedestal. The gold circlet and jewels shimmered in the light. She turned around to the crowd and held it higher for all to see before setting it on her head.

Within a heartbeat, the gathered nobles fell to their knees and held fists to their chests. Even the priests and High Priest bowed before her.

“Long live the queen of queens, bambisnan bambisn, Shahbanu Rouya!”

Rouya glanced over the heads of those loyal to her. A mix of exhilaration and sadness set in over what had happened for her to have come thus far.

Amongst all those gathered, one person remained standing and met her gaze. Evelyn. The Battle Maiden gave her a curt nod, to which Rouya smiled. Rouya was already her master. Titles and nobility didn’t play a role in the relation the two of them shared. One she planned on deepening.

“By the light of Ahmun, we have our queen.”

“I stand before you, not to dictate your lives but to improve the lives of all. When we all work together and put our minds to the task, we can achieve greatness. The light of Ahmun will show us the way and I will guide us along the path,” Rouya announced and indicated for the crowd to rise. Her heart fluttered at seeing them do as she wished. “I ask of you only what I would do myself. To prove this, I shall venture forth and challenge Parsa for the crimes committed and to hand over the anchita.”

Rouya turned and nodded to the High Priest who blessed her before she ventured out of the temple grounds. Evelyn held the reins to her horse ready and helped her saddle up.

The Noda River ran along the banks of Aequilla, with a bridge crossing protected by the fort from which the temple still stood a mile away. The distance gave the priests the freedom to practice their faith without distractions from the common folk and only those truly dedicated would come out to see them.

“Congratulations, your Grace,” Markus said as he stepped out of a portal in front of her along with his wife. “I apologize for my tardiness but I freed Adelaxia from Kalim’s grip and dealt him a significant defeat.”

“You killed him?” Rouya asked in disbelief. She looked to Adelaxia and smiled. “Excuse me, it’s great to see you back in good health. You’re more than welcome to be my guest and rest after such an ordeal.”

“Too kind, your Grace,” Adelaxia said with a bow. She drew in magic and opened up another portal leading to the castle. “Allow me to be of service. We can’t be too careful in times such as these.”

“She’s right. I might have taught Kalim a lesson, but I doubt I’ve killed him. He’ll be seeking vengeance, which I hope to use to our advantage.”

“I see. We can talk about it during the council meeting this afternoon. I’m sure you two have some catching up to do.”

Rouya needed the short break between her ordeal at the temple and the council meeting. She might be new to politics but it occurred to her that there seemed to be an abundance of bad news while good came in short supply and was usually followed by a disclaimer.

The queen let herself dip under the water of her bathtub and inspected the marking on her finger. A connection to her daeva. The image of Mah kissing her flashed through her mind, catching her off guard. She gasped while submerged and choked on water. She rose, coughing it back out when she spotted the Battle Maiden watching her by the door.

“Do I have to start worrying about you drowning in your own bath?” Evelyn asked, raising a brow.

Rouya lowered her gaze from the woman and felt a sense of shame overcoming her. “No, I was ju— Well, yes, actually you should.”

“I should?”

“There’s no reason for you to sit over there and watch me, when you can join in. I’m sure you’d enjoy a nice bath as well.”

Evelyn knitted her brows. “I don’t require baths. With a bit of magic, I’m able to restore myself to peak condition.”

Rouya pulled her legs back up against her chest, making space for her. “Come now. It’s human to do things we don’t require.”

Evelyn stood and glanced from Rouya to the water before unfastening the straps of her clothing and letting them drop to the floor. Her clothes, being created out of magic, vaporized in a blue mist and left her in the nude. The sight of her pristine smooth skin and gentle curves sent Rouya’s heart racing. She even envied her for the larger breasts, even though she told herself size would only get in the way during a fight.

The Maiden dipped her feet into the water and paused. “It’s warm.”

“That’s the point,” Rouya added and beckoned her closer. “Turn around let me wash your back. It’ll feel nice.”

Evelyn did as she said and sat with her back to Rouya. They’d been together plenty of times but never this close and without clothing.

Rouya dipped the sponge into the water, gulping as she eyed the Maiden’s bare neck. She lifted it over her back and squeezed, allowing the water to drip down her curve and started rubbing her back gently. “Doesn’t that smell fresh? It’s lavender and works wonders.”

“You haven’t told me anything about your trip to the Shadow Realm,” Evelyn slowly said. She glanced over her shoulder and met her eyes. “I thought you were going to summon me when you arrived. What happened?”

“I saw my father, but that can’t be, he’s not a daeva.”

Evelyn nodded and turned around to face her. “The Shadow Realm is a reflection of the physical universe with its own inhabitants. People we believe to be dead can still exist there as a shadow of their previous selves. It’s why people shouldn’t go there during uncertain times. That, and the magic will get to your mind.”

“I understand, but I bound a daeva,” Rouya said, holding her hand so Evelyn could see the mark around her finger. “I’ll introduce you two later so you can get to know each other.”

“Introductions aren’t required. What are her talents?”

Rouya sighed, tilting her head to the side. “I’m not sure but she’s quite persuasive and attractive.”

“Attractive?” Evelyn asked, raising her brows again. She stood and moved to step out of the bath but Rouya quickly caught her hand.

“Stay, please. I think you’re beautiful as well, but you’ve been treating me different since I took the Nazar.”

“You’re my master and I’m just a servant, your Battle Maiden. Nothing more and nothing less.”

Rouya’s heart sank at hearing the emotionless words come from her. “Is that all I am to you?”

Evelyn pressed her lips together and sat back down, eyes no longer looking up to meet Rouya. She appeared distant, lost in memories Rouya could only imagine. The Battle Maidens were thousands of years old and must have seen a lot during that time. “Masters die, sooner rather than later. It’s best for me not to get attached. We should concentrate on the upcoming fights. Our opponents aren’t going to make it easy for us to defeat them.”

“There’s got to be more than just fighting,” Rouya said, leaning closer. She brushed a strand of loose hair aside and smiled. “I’m so glad that I have you on my side. I don’t think I could fight you.”

“Master—“ Evelyn was cut off when Rouya moved in and pressed her lips against hers. The Maiden briefly resisted, but returned the kiss with renewed vigor. “We shouldn’t. It only ends badly.”

“I’m not going to hide my emotions any longer,” Rouya said and pulled her in so they could continue the kiss. She wrapped her legs around Evelyn’s waist and pressed their bodies together. Evelyn’s hands explored the curves of her body and gentle breasts, cupping them in her hands. A breath escaped Rouya’s lips as Evelyn began trailing her chest with her tongue.

Next time on Battle Maidens …

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