Cora wound the Signal Vine around her wrist, leaving enough slack so that it hung away from her skin. The bigger thorns had been removed, but that left plenty of smaller ones, sharp and curved like fangs.
“You must pull it tighter,” the Matron told her, clutching her own wrist with one withered crone’s hand. “Like this.”
“If I do that, it will cut me,” Cora said.
“Yes, but that is the point, isn’t it?”
Cora frowned and pulled the vine tighter. As soon as she did, one of the thorns pierced the tender flesh at the base of her palm. She drew her hand back, and two more thorns sank in. Cursing louder than she meant to, Cora began to untie the binding.
“You must not profane the Leistra,” the Matron said.
Cora choked back a sarcastic response--no sense antagonizing the Matron of the Presentation--and turned to face the display wall, where ceremonial robes of every size hung from elaborate silver hooks. As soon as her back was turned, she loosened the Signal Vine, giving it just enough slack to keep the thorns from stabbing her. Then she stepped up to the display wall and into a pungent cloud. The robes looked heavy, heaps of silk and wool and gold brocade, with sprigs of herbs, mint and sage and thyme, tied to the sleeves in cascading layers.
“You do know your size?” the Matron asked.
Cora realized she had been staring at the robes in silence for almost a full minute, bathing in the absurdity of it all. She roused herself and reached out, touching the stiff collar of the nearest garment, disliking the coarse feel of the starched wool.
The Matron appeared at her side, hands tucked beneath the strap of her red apron. The apron was the sign of her office, red for authority, red for the mingling of blood. Her face was as wrinkled and brown as an old walnut, and the lines around her mouth seemed to prohibit smiling.
“Cora An,” she said, biting each word. “Why are you wasting my time?”
Cora considered the question. It was a perfectly valid thing to ask, she knew that. She was now the last of the Presenters to get ready for the ceremony. Everyone else was already outside in the People’s Plaza, circling the Founder’s Stone, and she wasn't even dressed yet.
“Matron,” Cora said, as she pulled a robe off its hook. It proved to be even heavier than it looked, and it nearly dragged her off her feet. She took a stumbling step forward, her forehead grazing one of the silver hooks, and dropped the robe.
It would have fallen to the floor, but the Matron, moving with surprising speed, lunged, seized the high collar in both hands, and swept the robe aside.
“Sorry, Matron,” Cora said, backing away from the wall and rubbing her forehead. She felt the sting of fresh thorn wounds on her right wrist.
“You were about to say?” the Matron asked, pressing the robe into her arms.
“Just that, well, I don’t understand the importance of all of this,” Cora said. The robe had a slit down the back from collar to belt. She held it open and stepped into the garment, and the Matron helped pull it up over her shoulders. It felt like being enclosed in a giant, hard shell.
“You have had seventeen years to learn about the importance of the Leistra,” the Matron said, moving around behind her.
The stiff collar pressed against her jaw, holding her head upright and making speech difficult, and the great cloud of scent burned in her nostrils.
“I’ve learned about it,” Cora said, as the Matron laced up the back of the robe. “We all stand around the stone and present ourselves, and then nothing happens, and then we eat.”
The Matron gave the laces a great tug so that Cora’s last word came out as a squawk.
“Then you have learned about it, but you have not understood it,” the Matron said. “The meaning of the ceremony is about more than what is done. The Leistra is the foundation of our culture, and in it, we reenact that which is most dear to us.”
“Yes, I get it,” Cora said with a sigh. “The stone on which the Founder of the city slew the demon. Stone of strength, stone of victory. I know all about it.”
The Matron stepped in front of her and gave her an appraising look. “Then what is the problem, Cora An?”
“The ceremony doesn’t do anything, that’s what I mean,” Cora said. “The robes and the Signal Vine and the Presenting. It doesn’t do anything.”
“It reminds,” the Matron said, smoothing out some of the layers of the robe. “Like all ceremony, it reminds and reinforces.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Cora replied, trying in vain to pull the collar away from her throat. “If you want to remind people of the Founder, you could very easily tell them the story again, year after year. The rest of this foolishness doesn’t remind anyone of anything because nobody thinks about anything except getting it over with, so we can eat.”
“It is the demonstration of who we are,” the Matron said. “It connects us to our identity as a people, and we are stronger for it.”
“I don’t feel stronger for it,” Cora said. She knew she was walking a dangerous line, but she felt so absolutely miserable in the ridiculous robe that she didn’t care. “I feel stupid.”
“That’s because you are a brat,” the Matron said, her face twisting into an ugly scowl. “Get outside with the others!”
Cora sighed and staggered across the cavernous dressing room.
* * *
A hundred or more people, standing in neat concentric circles, filled the People’s Plaza, all of them encased, male and female, in enormous robes. Cora took her place in the outer ring to the grumbling and snorts of those who had grown tired of waiting for her. She bit back a snide comment, figuring it best not to offend absolutely everyone.
Massed near the Presentation House were the others, parents and siblings and bystanders, waiting and watching, hushing the little ones. When the Matron appeared at the door, clad all in silver, crimson, and gold, gleaming in the late afternoon sun, a murmur of awe swept through the crowd. A bell rang from atop the Presentation House, and the Presenters began to move in step. Cora had no choice but to fall in line, shuffling clockwise around the Founder’s Stone. And all she could think about was how much she would rather be at home in her garden, where every little movement meant something, where all activity led to something tangible, to fruit and flower and vegetables. Not like this silly pantomime.
The Matron shuffled toward the plaza, moving stiffly so that the tall conical hat on her head wouldn’t fall. She climbed a set of stone steps to a raised dais at a corner of the plaza, took a moment to settle herself, then waved her hands at the circling Presenters. All movement ceased, and even the wind died down, as if the sky were holding its breath, and, no doubt, that is exactly what many of them thought. The time for the Intonation had arrived, the long, dry words that Cora had heard year after year, pointless words, empty words.
The Matron clasped her hands in front of her and opened her mouth to speak. The great mass of people gathered near the Presentation House pressed forward, straining to hear. And the Matron raised her hands, still clasped, took an audible breath, and the wrong words came out.
“It has been suggested,” she said, and these four words, different words, caused gasps and groans, but the Matron pressed on. “It has been suggested by some that there is no meaning in this ceremony.” Cora stood directly across from her, a sea of upturned faces between them, the Founder’s Stone just to the left, and the Matron’s steely eyes swept over her. “But it was upon this ground, this very ground beneath our feet, that our Founder slew the demon and drove corruption from the fertile valley. Seventeen years old he was when he faced that accursed creature. First came the fire from its mouth, represented here by the gold upon every robe, but the Founder endured it, silver shield before him, until the flames were utterly spent. Then he fell upon the creature with sword in hand. Teeth gnashed, blade flashed, the creature took the Founder’s hand, and the Founder took the creature’s life.”
Her deviation had worked its way back to the old story. The Founder who rode into the fertile valley with a handful of brave men armed only with swords and shields. The Founder who marched boldly into the demon’s lair and challenged it to single combat. The Founder who slew the demon at the cost of his right hand. And so the valley was cleansed, and the city founded, and three hundred and twenty-seven years passed, and here they were. Yes, yes, Cora knew it all too well. She tuned out the words as best she could.
“What do we do here if not reenact the founding of our city?” the Matron said, her shrill voice echoing in the plaza. “And what do we do by reenacting it if not connect ourselves to that founding? Year after year, we renew our connection to it, and we embrace all that it means. Nothing that we do here is without meaning.” Again, a deviation, and Cora knew the words were meant for her most of all, and she felt a flush of embarrassment and anger creep up her face. “Heavy robes of many layers to represent the pages of history. Fragrant herbs to remind us of the Founder purging the stench of the demon from the valley. High collars to hold the head up in pride, for our Founder was mighty and victorious. Signal Vines bound tightly to wrists to recall the biting teeth and the cost of that victory. By the Presentation Ceremony, each generation is connected to the Founding. The Leistra, we call it, from the Old Tongue, Leise Teria, the Time of Connection.”
With a sweep of her arm, she drew every gaze to the Founder’s Stone. A rough spheroid of dusky translucent rock, six feet in diameter, it sat upon a low silver tripod at the heart of the plaza.
“Here the blood of the Founder mingled with the blood of the demon,” she said. “For as he drove it down with the point of his sword, the demon fell upon this stone and died, and its blood gushed forth, and it crumbled to ashes and smoke. And now you mingle your blood, as well, and the stone becomes the enduring testimony of your connection to the Founder and his victory.” She turned to address the distant crowd of family and well-wishers. “All of you bearing witness.”
Cora looked at the faces around her, all of them, like her, seventeen years old, her peers. She was not particularly close to any of them, never had been. Nor did she feel any more connected to them by this ceremony. She did try, at that moment, to dredge up some sense of attachment, of belonging to these people and the Founder, but all she could think about was that the strawberries would be in season soon and the ivy growing on the fence needed trimming.
“Presenters,” the Matron called, lifting her right hand high above her head. “Present yourselves.”
The Presentation had been carefully choreographed and practiced many times in the preceding weeks. They all knew it by heart. The inner circle of Presenters made one clockwise rotation around the stone, then stopped, raised both arms, and with the left hand drew back the right sleeve. With many a gasp and grunt, they untied their Signal Vines and removed them from their wrists, pulling free embedded thorns, causing blood to flow. Then, one at a time, they approached the Founder’s stone and wrapped their arms around it in a strange embrace, making sure the bleeding right wrist made contact. Each one in the circle took their turn, each embracing the stone from a different angle so that when they were done, they had made a crude crown of fresh blood around it.
The inner circle completed their Presenting and made their way to the outer edge of the Plaza, and the next circle moved in and took their place. Each circle in turn, until, at last, Cora found herself standing before the stone. It had rested in this spot, on its silver pedestal, for three hundred and twenty-seven years, placed there by the Founder himself after his victory, or so they said. That alone was impressive, even to Cora, though it did not excuse the silliness of the ceremony. Beyond that, it possessed one curious quality, which made it unlike any other stone she had ever seen--the blood smeared on its surface seemed to evaporate within minutes, as if the stone repelled it. It happened so quickly that by the time Cora stood before it, the blood of the first circle of Presenters was already gone. She had never heard a reasonable explanation for this, only an appeal to some sort of magic caused by the mingling of the Founder’s blood and the demon’s.
It was her turn, her last of all. Cora looked at her wrist. She had very little blood to show for herself, a drop here and there, mostly coagulated, and a few shallow scratches, that was about it. She felt the weight of the Matron’s gaze. Did the old woman notice the lack of wounds on her wrist? Perhaps, and if she did, so what? Cora held her right hand a bit higher to give the old hag an ever better view and stepped up to the Founder’s Stone.
She wrapped her arms around it and felt warmth against her hands and forearms, on her face, even seeping through the heavy robe. She had not expected that. Warm, yes, and she thought she detected a faint heartbeat coursing through the stone. But surely that was her own heartbeat. Suddenly an unpleasant tingling danced across her exposed flesh. She pulled her arms away and lurched backward, but her foot came down on the hem of her robe, and she fell. As she landed on her rump, to a cacophony of whispers from her appalled peers, she heard the laces on the back of her robe tear. The Matron gave a great cry and shuddered in rage, causing the conical hat on her head to tumble off. She reached for it but only managed to bat it across the Plaza. It sailed over the heads of the Presenters, who watched it, wide-eyed, like children gazing at a shooting star.
Cora opened her mouth to utter an apology--it was all she could think to do--but then the Founder’s Stone trembled, rattling its pedestal, and made a loud crack. All whispering died, and all eyes returned to the stone. The matron lowered her arms, the red-faced look of outrage melting into one of profound disquiet, and the distant crowd grew terribly still. Cora lifted the hem of her robe and rose.
For a long, tense moment, nothing happened. The Founder’s Stone lay quietly on its pedestal as it had for so many years. The Matron cleared her throat to speak, no doubt searching for some way to restore the profaned Leistra. But then the stone trembled again, made a sound like thunder, and a crack appeared on its surface, gleaming darkly. The circles of Presenters began edging away from it.
“Matron, what is it?” someone cried.
But the Matron had no response. She stood dumbly on the dais, her mouth hanging open, her hands clutched to her apron. The stone cracked again, as if it were being hit by an invisible hammer. And again it trembled, this time popping up into the air. At this, a few Presenters turned and fled, all pretense of reverence gone, but their heavy robes made every step awkward and slowed their flight. When the stone landed, it came down on the edge of its pedestal and sent the squat, but quite heavy, pedestal flying into the crowd. The unfortunate Presenter in its path tried to leap out of the way, but the pedestal caught him at the knees, and, with a crunch of bone, tossed him into the crowd.
And then the stone hit the ground with a crash and shattered into a thousand glittering crimson shards. More Presenters fled then, including the boy with the broken legs, who was helped away by his brothers, wailing loudly as he went. Some of those massed near the Presentation House, though they didn't have a clear view of what was happening in the Plaza, gathered up their children and left. As for Cora, she edged away but didn’t run. Somehow, she had caused all of this. That was all she could think. By falling, by lurching away from the stone, by not having a suitable amount of blood on her wrist. Somehow, she had profaned the Leistra, and now the terrible consequences were unfolding before her.
The Founder’s Stone was gone, reduced to tiny fragments, but something remained, a twisted shape where the stone had been. It unfolded, and before their eyes became a creature, tall, long-limbed and thin, with a sinuous tail and a face almost human and very much not. Eyes like glittering jewels scanned the crowd, sending a chill down Cora’s spine as they passed over her and found the Matron.
“Liars,” it said from a mouth full of cruel teeth. “And you, priestess of liars, you shall be the first to die.”
“Who are you?” the Matron said in a breath.
“Your Founder didn’t kill me,” it said in a voice like the ring of metal on metal. “He murdered my children in his attempt to drive me from my home, but he didn’t kill me. That is the lie he told, that you perpetuate. When he drove me back with his sword, I went into the stone, as is our way, and there, in hibernation, waited.”
Presenters, attempting to flee but moving like the infirm beneath their heaps of clothing, scattered across the Plaza. Cora turned to run but again caught the hem of her robe beneath her heel, and, when she fell, the laces at the back of her robe tore completely, and her shoulders popped out of the robe like intestines from a gutted animal.
“You…are…the demon,” the Matron said. Cora glanced over her shoulder and saw that the old woman had fallen from her dais and sat now on the ground, pointing with one weak hand at the creature looming over her.
“No, you are the demon,” it cried, tail whipping back and forth. “Liar and fool, for three hundred and twenty-seven years, as I slept in the stone, you fed me with the blood of your young and strengthened me, and for three hundred and twenty-seven years, I have dreamed of revenge.”
“Revenge?” the Matron said. “We have done nothing to harm you. Please, we are innocent of whatever it is you think we have done.”
The demon stooped and picked up the fallen pedestal, casting it aside as easily as one might toss a pebble. “Your Founder’s crime is your crime, by your own admission. Connected to him, connected to the death of my children, connected to the theft of my land. You are connected, every generation willingly, by this ceremony which I, in troubled sleep, have listened to again and again and again, as I seethed with rage. By your own admission, are you not connected to him?” It screamed this last, and its eyes flashed with a pale light.
“No, it’s only a ceremony,” the Matron said. “It’s only…”
The demon opened its mouth and, with a gurgle, belched flame. The heat of it drove Cora back, and she turned her face so that she did not see the moment when the fire, as yellow as the sun, engulfed the Matron. She only heard the screams, the momentary screams, and saw the charred husk that remained seconds later, the flames dancing upon the flagstones like tongues.
“You are all connected to his crimes,” the demon shrieked, a voice that pierced the sky. “You have said it yourselves, you have reenacted it, year after year. And so, you will pay for it!”
Cora squirmed out of the robe. Clad now only in her undergarments, she ran. A few men from the crowd came with swords to confront the demon, but most of the people fled back toward the city. Cora felt the heat of flames on her back, heard the screams of the men as they died, but she didn’t look. She ran, passing those still weighed down by their robes. Unlike the others, she didn’t head for the city but turned toward the fields on the other side of the Plaza.
“Take up arms against me, yes,” the demon shouted. “Draw swords, as your Founder did when he cut down my little ones, merciless and unprovoked, and called me a demon. But I am stronger now, and my hatred for you has grown with each of your vile Leistra ceremonies.”
Cora ran until her lungs burned and sweat plastered her hair to the sides of her head and her vision blurred. She ran until her legs gave out, and she collapsed in the shadow of a small apple tree at the edge of a plowed field. Behind her, all around her, she heard screams and the sizzle of flames devouring flesh. She waited to catch her breath, then peeked around the trunk of the tree.
The demon had made its way to the Presentation House, burning Presenters and any who confronted it along the way, a trail of blackened bodies in its wake. And the House itself had begun to burn. The demon moved quickly, long limbs taking great strides as it headed toward the city and the fleeing crowd.
Connected. Yes, she saw it, and the truth of it sank into her belly like sickness. The Leistra had connected them all to the Founder, and whether the demon told the truth or lied, they all now lived in the consequences of that ancient conflict. They were the Founder, all of them, all who had embraced the stone and shed their blood upon it, whether they understood it or not, whether they accepted it or not.
Long hours she watched the demon wreak its terrible vengeance upon the city, burning homes, her garden, her people, burning the Founder himself, until the full measure of its rage had been spent, and the smoke of the Leistra rose like a thousand pillars into the cloudless sky.