Aoife’s chestnut eyes stared up at the marble statue before her. It was one of many statues throughout Eturia, her home city, but this particular statue had always intrigued her. While the other statues depicted muscular men and enchantingly beautiful women, this statue portrayed a much more simple being. The statue was that of the first king, Aostre. He was responsible for bringing about the end of the war and had been coronated the day Man settled in the South. Aostre was depicted as a tall man, with curled hair and a clean shaven face, a rare sight in the Old World. Aoife had always been careful to keep her gaze above the man’s waist, for like all the statues in the city, Aostre was naked. She’d stolen a glance once and hadn’t exactly been impressed with what she saw. She wouldn’t know from personal experience, being seventeen and therefore under the age of consent, but she had heard from local gossip that Aostre wasn’t very well endowed.
Aoife pulled her coat tighter around her, shivering faintly as a gentle breeze flitted by, carrying with it the last of winter’s chill. It would be spring soon, and everything would jump back into life, including the city. The city ran on steam, mostly, and the snow would always close the mines, meaning the city ran on limited resources til the spring. Perhaps that was why she felt the cold so much; because she was used to the city being full of steam.
Eturia was easily one of the largest cities in the New World and was famed for its Cathedral, which Aoife was all too familiar with. It wasn’t that she was religious; for the record, she believed the Maker had lost interest once his playthings had separated, though if He had only waited a while He would’ve seen the lengths Man will stretch to, to get whatever it is he desires. No, Aoife was far too familiar with the Cathedral since she had grown up there, and would continue to live there til she turned eighteen, for she was an orphan. She had been raised by nuns and would be allowed to stay in the Cathedral if she took her vows and joined the convent. The young girl had other plans, though. She spent her days reading about the Old World; of princes and princesses, warriors and villains, love and war. She wanted to travel. To find herself and to find love. But that involved money, and though she had been saving for as long as she could remember, she didn’t have enough to get where she wanted to be. She’d heard of women using their bodies as payment, but she didn’t think she could sink that far. You see, in Eturia, a woman’s virtue was still a sacred thing, and though most women did not wait til they were married, they had still only had relations with the man they intended to marry. So naturally, Aoife didn’t want her first time to be with a total stranger.
Another breeze blew past her, catching her long brunette hair, which she had left untied for the day. She scrunched up her features as the wind pushed her hair into her face, attempting to fight back the chocolate curls. She grabbed a deep purple ribbon from her coat pocket, tying her hair in a loose ponytail before pulling her hood up. The royal blue fabric contrasted beautifully with the white fur framing the hood. The coat had been a gift from one of the many Lords in Eturia. His name was Finni, and he had sought to court Aoife, while his brother Adre had sought to court Aoife’s best friend, Niamh. Unfortunately, the two young lords had been killed in a hunting accident, though most believed foul play was involved.
The bell in the clock tower chimed, alerting the world of the time and Aoife sighed, saying a polite goodbye to Aostre, before heading for home before the sky began to blacken as day faded to night. She was greeted by Niamh upon her return, her friend’s lithe figure wrapping around her in an embrace.
“Sister Ciara was getting worried,” Niamh said, her tan skin warm against Aoife’s chilled ivory flesh.
“Why? It isn’t dark yet,” Aoife said, hugging Niamh back before letting her friend lead her inside the Cathedral.
Niamh was tall and thin, with sleek black hair that fell to her hips. Her skin was the colour of coffee with cream and her eyes were like melted chocolate. She had a cute button nose and delicate features, though she had prominent cheekbones. Niamh had always been considered the prettier of the two girls, and it was evident that she knew it from the way she carried herself. Aoife didn’t mind, though. She was happy to be ignored by men for the time being, choosing instead to surround herself with books and myths. She was hardly ugly, though. She was shorter than Niamh, and her skin was white as snow. Her eyes were bright and full of life, unlike Niamh’s darker ones. She wasn’t as thin and her hair was loosely curled, but she was pretty in her own way.
The two girls hurried to their rooms, hoping to avoid the wrath of Sister Ciara as they changed. They had been taught to keep themselves covered at all times, though as two young women on the cusp of womanhood, this idea didn’t best please them. So whenever they made their way into the city, they snuck on more revealing clothes, though of course they kept themselves as respectable as society dictated they should be. They had just finished buttoning up their long, grey dresses when a knock at the door startled them, a gentle wrapping of knuckles against the heavy wood that could only signify Sister Ciara.
“Yes, Sister?” Niamh asked, hurriedly hiding a lacy garter.
“Ah, Niamh, I see you found Aoife,” Sister Ciara said quietly with a smile.
Sister Ciara was a spindly old woman, with a weathered face, heavy set with wrinkles, and thinning, grey hair, not that she showed her hair very often. Her fingers were long and skeletal, as was the rest of her.
“I am sorry, Sister, I had some errands to run,” Aoife said sheepishly, her eyes on the granite slabs that were the floor of the Cathedral.
Sister Ciara smiled a little sadly. “That’s quite alright, Aoife. You will be a woman soon, after all, it is only natural that you would want to get your affairs in order.”
Aoife felt guilt tug at her gut. When she was a child, she had boldly told anyone she met that she was going to be a nun when she grew up, and she knew Sister Ciara has been greatly pleased by this. After all, Sister Ciara was the closest thing Aoife had to a mother and vice versa. But as she grew, her desire to spend her life celibate and a servant of the Maker had lessened, and none had noticed this more than the elderly nun.
“Supper is in a few minutes, girls. I trust you won’t be late this time,” Sister Ciara smiled, leaving the two girls on their own again.
“You’re leaving?” Niamh asked, shocked.
“I don’t know. I hadn’t decided yet.”
“I can’t picture you out there. Your head’s full of fairy tales.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” Aoife asked.
“No, but the world’s not that magical. There are no heroes in this day and age.”
Niamh had come to understand that better than any in the Cathedral. The stories of knights of valour and warriors of the Maker that she had been told as a child had turned out to be little more than dusty old scripture, and the men she had taken to associating with in the hopes of making a name for herself were far from the chivalrous types in Aoife’s stories.
“I know that,” Aoife said a little defensively, “I just like reading the stories”
“And staring at the statues. Don’t think I haven’t seen you staring up at Aostre” Niamh chuckled, elbowing her friend in the ribs. “He’s not got a very big cock, has he?”
Aoife’s cheeks exploded a violent shade of red and Niamh laughed. Aoife had no interest in anyone’s genitalia, living or marble. The two girls chattered away on their way to the dining hall, falling into silence once they reached it. They took their seats, joining the other nuns and orphans in saying grace before digging in. Aoife felt the mother superior’s eyes on her while she ate and it unnerved her. She tried not to let it bother her, but she couldn’t help being a little on edge. Especially when she saw the Sisters whispering about something, the mother superior’s icy stare still on her.
“Aoife, may I have a word?” Sister Ciara asked, voice as quiet and soft as ever.
“I’ll leave a lamp on for you,” Niamh said.
Aoife thanked her, before following the Sister back to her room. She couldn’t help the suspicion that someone had seen her in the city. The Sisters all knew that she and Niamh took regular visits to the city, but they were all under the impression that the girls kept themselves covered from shoulder to toe, dressed in bland grey dresses and long cloaks.
Sister Ciara gestured for Aoife to sit on the bed, lighting a few candles. The glow from the flames was bright enough to see by, but it cast eerie shadows on the walls where the light couldn’t reach.
“As you know, you are nearing your eighteenth birthday, and when that day comes, you will have a decision to make,” Sister Ciara said, sitting next to Aoife. “The other Sisters and I all want you to make the right decision for you, but we are a little worried.”
“You are?” Aoife asked, surprised.
Sister Ciara nodded. “I can tell you have not made up your mind yet. I want you to know that I am here if you ever need to talk. And I should not really tell you this, but if you choose to go out to the city for good, you may still return and take your vows if you remain pure.”
“Thank you, Sister.”
Sister Ciara smiled. “No need to thank me.”
A silence hung between the two of them, not entirely uncomfortable and yet not exactly an easy silence, either. The Sister was never clear whether she had something to say, unless it was to discipline an unruly child, and sometimes Aoife found herself wondering if there was more she wished to say. Was that what was to lie in store for her if she chose to take her vows and swear herself to the church? The idea that she might lose what little freedom of speech she had scared her. Women always had some place or another in this world. Wives were homemakers, they were mothers, they were the embodiment of home and familiarity. Single women were to be courted, they were the socialites and the debutantes (and prostitutes, in parts of the world Aoife was yet to familiarise herself with), they were the embodiment of youth and vigour. Nuns were women of chastity and faith, daughters were the apple of their fathers’ eyes, the rare few scientists were the sparks of change in an almost archaic societal view. But lonely little orphan girls? They didn’t have much place in the world; most of them died in their infancy, and everyone that had left the Cathedral in all Aoife’s years there had never been heard from again.
No, to lose what little speech she had by silencing herself with a habit and a holy book was not an idea that sat well with her, at all.
“...Sister, do you believe the myths of the Old World?”
“Why ever would you ask that?” Sister Ciara chuckled.
The Sister had never left the Cathedral, and as such had never seen the statues of Aostre and his kinsmen. Nor had she visited the Great Library, where Aoife had memorised all the stories of the Old World.
Aoife shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
“No, Aoife, I do not believe in the myths. That does not mean they are not true.”
“Oh. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“I know those stories mean a lot to you, but I do not want you to make a decision based on them.”
“Maybe... Maybe I’ll go to the city. As long as I know I can come back.”
Sister Ciara smiled. “You are a smart girl, you will figure something out. Now off to bed. And do not tell Niamh what I told you.”
“Yes, Sister,” Aoife said, before heading back to her own room.