It was finally time to select the twelve.
“Citizens of Palunia, welcome to what I can only hope will be the end of an ancient and perilous journey. A journey we keep fighting toward, time after time, triannually, hoping against the odds that our travellers will seize our ancestral treasure from those who banished us, and in turn also seize the Traveller’s Cup.”
“He must have some kind of blessed artifact to project his voice this far,” Westalyn murmured.
“Yeah,” I said, though I realized I’d never seen what it was.
“The cup looks different from back here,” she noted.
“It’s because of the sun,” I said. “We always have the Drawing at this time because it collects, and reflecs, the most rays. It’s beautiful, huh?”
“So who wins in the end?” she asked as Jiyorga drew the first name.
“What do you mean?” I whispered, not taking my eyes from my uncle. He read out something Grey that sounded like Marlithan Izeyrin.
“A single traveller gets the Cup, isn’t it? Why send twelve? How do they determine who the winner is if they all make it back? Shouldn’t a full crew return if they manage the mission?” Another Grey, Helragizan Thuli. Then Rodiger Hozayathin and Welsia Modolin, followed by Militaw Throzen.
Westalyn’s eyes were on the Cup. It really did shine brighter than it had that morning, reflecting the rays of the lowering sun back into the sky. It was barely a speck from how far back we were, but it was a speck that stood bigger and brighter than any gem beside me. Once you looked at it in this perfect lighting, it was hard to look away.
“Maybe it’s the person bearing the treasure,” I whispered, offering a slight shrug. Three more Grey names had been spoken. Then two others. They all sounded the same to me. I was wondering, in that brief moment, what it might be like to claim the Cup. The truth was, I didn’t know the answer to Westalyn’s question. I made a mental note to ask my mother after the festival. When the next name was drawn, I realised I was squeezing her arm.
“One name to go,” she said, breaking me out of the imaginings in my head. The audience had become tense. Following the last name would be the final feast, which would last the night, leading to the Grand Procession. I exchanged a smile with Westalyn, eager to burn this moment into both our minds. This was an important day. When the feast was underway and they lit the sky fire, I’d ask her to officiate our partnership and bear my child.
I snapped out of my daydream as someone called my name. I spun around, searching the crowd for the speaker. Those behind me looked at me, and then upward, I turned back again and saw only Jiyorga peering out into the crowd. Was it him? Did he need my help?
“Lord Damaus Ju Demma,” he repeated. His white-painted lips were almost certainly pursed together on his round, plum-coloured face. He waited. The Lumen who had noticed me were signalling to their friends. I even saw a few Grey eyes motion over toward me.
Realization set in. Horror began to rise up from the pit of my stomach as I remembered the dare. Remembered how impossible it seemed, how much of a joke I’d made out of the whole thing. My mother was the first person I thought of. She’d be nearby and worried. I placed a hand on Westalyn’s shoulder before pushing through the scoffing Lumen beside us and rushing to the front of the crowd.
There were six red guard at the staircase now. “It’s me!” I snapped at them. “I’m Damaus Ju Demma.”
One looked over to the front row, and I followed his gaze. It was my mother and my brother Jona. Jona was flabbergasted as usual, but my mother looked more angry than I’d seen her in my life, and I’d given her a plenty of opportunities before. She nodded viscerally at the guard, who opened the gate and accompanied me up the staircase, each step a moment to revel publicly in my shame.
Jiyorga didn’t immediately come to meet me. I stood firm at the side of the stage, behind the curtains. He was in my line of sight, and I stared at him until he left his position at the podium, making a joke about going to get me. The crowd’s laughter was nervous, laced with the suspense one got at an acrobatics show.
“It was a joke,” I said, when he came into earshot. “Hurry. Laugh it off and call the next name.”
He gave me one stiff nod before grabbing the neck of my tunic and tugging hard. I lurched forward into sight, then regained my balance and joined him bitterly for the walk to centre-stage.
The crowd below was silent. I was more embarrassed than worried. They couldn’t make a Lumen go. This would be the last time I helped Jiyorga.
“That concludes the Drawing of the Traveller’s Cup!” he exclaimed, raising his pudgy plum hands to the sky. The Grey cheered as much as they would for their own. It was a nice touch. The Lumen were staring at me, horrified. I looked for Westalyn, but I couldn’t find her among the crowd.
I was frozen in place. I kept waiting for Jiyorga to laugh and say he was kidding, or to tell me nevermind, but he just stood there. The first thing that went through my mind was that the punishment for fleeing the Cup was death. The prize for going, was, well, likely also death, but my chances would be marginally better.
On shaking legs I tried to stand with confidence. I probably looked like a sweating, pleading child the way my mouth was forced into a smile, but I fought to maintain my composure. Jiyorga’s eyes didn’t leave me until two men wearing crimson cloth came to him and began whispering. I stared at the stage floor, not wanting to make eye-contact with anyone, especially not my mother.
Then Jiyorga turned to face me, adjusting his pastel cyan robes, as though he’d snapped out of the charade of the ceremony and just realized there were thousands of eyes on us. “Lord Damaus Ju Demma,” he addressed me, his throat struggling through the words. His white lips contrasted sharply with the blackness inside his mouth as he spoke. “You are hereby stripped of all rights, of all titles, of all claims, of all friends and family, and granted the honor to participate in the Traveller’s Cup. Do you have any words for your community?”
My confidence definitely faltered. I forgot about the speeches. For most of the Grey, the speech consisted of little more than a grunt. I wanted to scream and yell, but I couldn’t spit curses at my own community, in the face of my family. “I…” I stammered, not sure anyone even noticed I was speaking. Then, as he opened his mouth to dismiss me with the patronizing banter that always followed these ceremonies, I coughed. And I remembered words from my childhood. Words a Grey prisoner had given when I was about five years old. What he said had stuck with me, because he was the only one who had spoken with dignity and full phrase. The only one who had gone with confidence, who had used true Lumen words on this stage. I didn’t understand it, but he couldn’t have been all Grey. And right now I supposed I wasn’t all Lumen. I opened my mouth, and it came pouring out. “Let the fire of your sleeping god rain on me.”
There was a gasp from the crowd, which startled me into looking up. There in the front row, clad in a brilliant silver robe, was my mother, and she was spilling tears of anger. Jona was, as usual, dumbstruck, but for once looked part of the crowd. Every jaw was hanging, and every body stiff. Some of the Grey had grim looks of satisfaction on their faces, and they began to cheer. To repeat my words. It seemed so foolish now. What had I even said?
I didn’t have time to think it over because the next thing I knew I was being dragged away by the red guards. When we reached the other side of the stage, behind the curtain, I lost my balance. One of the guards had slipped. I turned to see Westalyn, gripping his arm and spitting words into his ear. The men loosened their grip and allowed me to walk, but at their unnecessarily quick pace. I craned my neck backward toward Westalyn, whose eyes followed me to the staircase. She had her arms crossed and was staring expressionlessly.