Zachary had spent his entire life with a hole inside of him where his God’s love should be.
It wasn’t safe to show that hole so Zachary tended to his tiny shrine to Illarion, the God of Light, worked his pottery job and spent time with his friends.
Caleb, Zachary’s best friend and occasional lover, tempted Zachary to reach out to the one person who truly mattered despite the fear of being rebuffed or, worse, reviled for everything he lacked. But one night of sex tempted him to take the chance on the love Caleb offered.
(Please note that there are themes of racism, past bullying, a character with PTSD, religious beliefs, and a sweet new romance in this story. If these themes bother you please read with caution. Overall, I’d give this one a PG-13 rating, R at the very most for the sex scene.)
The Hole Inside
By Meyari McFarland
Sweat beaded on Zachary’s forehead and throat. The sun was almost directly overhead, filling the square with light and heat that approximated summertime despite the fact that they were a full month away from the Summer Solstice Festival. Light shimmered in bands that fell from the sky like sheets hung up to dry, filtered by Zachary’s eyelashes. He held one hand up over his eyes, shading them enough to allow him to see his friends approach the little common altar to the Dark Goddess set at the intersection of Temple Road and Armory Way.
Three stories high with two thirds of the building’s height composed of the massive roof, the altar building was tiny compared to the huge temple buildings in the complex built into the side of the holy mountain. The outdoor altar’s heavy, overhanging roof extended several yards beyond the actual space inside, ensuring that even in the midday sun the altar remained shaded. It was covered with dark rock hewn from the mountain itself.
Only the edges of the tiles had bits of gold applied but those tiny bits made the roof shine in the midday sun. For yards around the altar, the square was paved with rough dark stones that absorbed the light instead of reflecting it upwards. While the rooftop’s swooping tiles glimmered in the sun, the underneath where people went had been painted black and set with tiny mirrors that shimmered like stars in the night sky.
Between the shadows from the roof and the tiny candles used by worshipers, Zachary couldn’t see Caleb and Luis’ faces for the darkness that enveloped them. Zachary watched them as they went up to the altar of the Dark Goddess with their offerings of dark brown bread, candles and little cones of pressed brown sugar. It was very nearly like looking into a cave, dark, mysterious and somehow enticing beyond what was justified by the utterly mundane act.
Placing a tiny loaf of bread and a little lump of sugar on an altar before lighting a miniscule candle that burned out in a matter of minutes shouldn’t hold such weight. But hold weight they did, enough that Zachary couldn’t tear his eyes away from his friends as they clapped their hands once and bowed their heads in silent prayer. The faint scent of burning wax intensified as the wind changed, causing at least half the older candles along Luis’ right side to gutter and go out.
Darkness restored after a moment of prayer, a moment of devotion, Zachary thought with an almost physical ache inside. He wasn’t welcome under the altar’s sheltering roof. This wasn’t a mystery he was allowed to participate in, no matter how much he craved something similar.
Zachary wasn’t a follower of the Dark Goddess. He had never been able to connect to Her despite his grandfather and mother’s efforts. His whole life had been spent trying to connect to one God or another, though only Illarion, the God of Light, spoke to his soul.
He was alone in a city that had no Church for him to attend, no followers for him to speak to. No matter how much he wanted to follow Illarion, Zachary never could. His grandfather’s abandonment of Illarion when he was younger than Zachary ensured that there was no going back to him.
“Right, sorry for the delay,” Caleb said as he turned away from the altar and strode back out into the light. “You ready for lunch?”
“Very much so,” Zachary said. He was quite aware that his smile was a bit stiff but neither Caleb nor Luis commented on it as they left the square.
The midday crowd hadn’t started to build yet. There was plenty of room for the three of them to walk side by side as they crossed the square. Zachary had seen it so crowded that you couldn’t see the cross streets, that you couldn’t walk faster than a shuffle and had to be careful of your pocket being picked while you tried to make headway through the press of bodies.
Given another month it would be that crowded. The little altar was a popular one for pilgrimages, as well as a good place to come during Festivals if you didn’t want to brave the crowds up in the Temple Complex.
Away from the dark stone surrounding the altar, the paving stones were pale, sandy-blond. They reflected the heat of the sun up at Zachary, doubling the effect of the sun beating down on them. The buildings around the square were wide and squat with flat roofs that reflected heat in much the same way. Every rooftop was covered in potted plants grown by the occupants of the buildings, a common theme all across Pompal.
Zachary’s grandfather had said that it was uncommon in other countries, something that Zachary had a hard time imagining. Where would people get their fresh vegetables and fruits if they didn’t have rooftop gardens? Still, the plants were only on the roof. Down in the square it was always warm even in the dead of winter, not that Pompal had cold weather in winter. It was far too close to the equator for that.
He supposed that he should welcome the heat and light. Illarion belonged to the sun, to the light, while his twin sister, the Dark Goddess belonged to the darkness. But no matter what Zachary claimed to his friends to keep them from asking awkward-to-answer questions, he didn’t truly follow Illarion.
That was something that his grandfather had given up when he’d immigrated to Pompal. Worship of Illarion, snow in the winters and persecution from the then-new rulers of Synvain had all been things that had been abandoned during the move. Pompal followed a different deity and had different, elected, rulers with vampire teeth and a quiet taste for blood. His grandfather had said many times that the best way to fit in was to throw away the old ways he had followed and embrace the new ways of their new home.
“Tch!” Luis grunted while glaring at a group of refugees from Kaintrude that walked by in their flowing clothes decorated with beads and tiny bells. “They could at least try and fit in. Look at them. Could they be any more obvious about their disdain for our way of life?”
“They look to me like they’re going to lunch,” Zachary said as mildly as he could while forcing down automatic panic at Luis’ disapproval. He made a point of smiling and nodding to the refugees, getting wary smiles and nods back from them. Of course. Zachary looked no different than Luis or Caleb. They had no reason to trust that his good will was real instead of faked.
“You shouldn’t encourage them,” Luis complained once they walked another dozen feet or so. “They’ll never get ahead if they don’t learn to fit in. Those clothes are all wrong.”
“They’re clothes,” Zachary replied defensively enough that Caleb put his hand on both of their shoulders. “They are. For all you know they don’t have the money to buy new clothes, Luis.”
“Let it go, both of you,” Caleb sighed. “Let’s not start this argument again. I want to enjoy my lunch for once.”
Zachary only allowed himself to visibly relax once Luis sighed and threw his hands up as if asking the Dark Goddess to forgive for the foolishness of his friends. He turned the conversation to the big Temple project at work, complaining about the quantity of bowls and plates that they had to throw to meet the firing date.
Caleb took up his side of those complaints with groans about the amount of glazing to be done and the complicated patterns the priestesses had requested be painted on their plates.
Rather than join them with his own woeful complaints about the sheer quantity of special orders he was dealing with on his pottery wheel, Zachary did his best to calm down. The arguments with Luis over immigration and religion were old but never familiar. Never. Zachary had never gotten to the point that he could treat them as casual discussions the way Luis did.
Every single time Luis got over it immediately while Zachary flinched for hours and days afterwards. To Luis there was only one answer: if you wished to live in Pompal then you had to wear the same clothes, speak the same language and follow the same religion as those who had been born in Pompal. There was no other way to succeed in his mind.
The lunch cart in front of the Elvish ambassador’s white marble residence was in its normal place. A mixture of human and Elvish customers clustered around it, some already eating their meals while others waited in line for a chance to order. None of the Elves spoke with the humans around them, preferring to talk in their strangely-accented language that flowed like water from their tongues. Zachary did his best not to flinch when one of the taller ones with the long thin ear tips that marked him as a High Elf glanced his way. Luis glared at the Elf until Caleb smacked his shoulder warningly.
“They ought to fit in too,” Luis grumbled under his breath.
But he doesn’t see the cost of it, Zachary complained to himself as he waited in line with his friends to order fried meat, vegetables and spices wrapped in flat bread with fresh juice to wash it down. I don’t think that he’ll ever understand just how hard that assimilation is or how much it costs, even three generations on.
Today Zachary frowned at the chalked list of sandwich fillings and defiantly chose pork instead of his normal shrimp. He bought apple instead of mango juice. And before taking his first bite or drink, Zachary bowed his head in a half-hearted, deeply felt but equally deeply flawed prayer to Illarion to give him the strength to deal with his friend’s prejudice. When he raised his head Luis’ dark cheeks were red but he didn’t say a word about the atypical prayer.
“So,” Caleb said, his voice higher than normal and eyes worried as he looked between Luis and Zachary, “how are the special orders going? You didn’t say.”
“Mmm,” Zachary murmured while chewing and swallowing a bite of the pork (good but not as good as the shrimp, honestly), “busy. I’ve got nineteen more vases to throw today, each with a different shape and twenty-three tomorrow. Then there’s glazing them all. That’ll probably take the rest of the week. It’s always busy just before the Festival.”
Both Caleb and Luis groaned their agreement. To Zachary’s relief, Luis didn’t renew his ranting about foreigners coming to Pompal. Instead he ate quietly while Caleb questioned Zachary about the designs he had to paint on the vases. The sheer number of vases that had to have special religious inscriptions painted on them made Caleb stare while Luis frowned.
“Should you be doing that?” Luis asked. He huffed at Caleb’s swat. “No, really. I mean no offense, but you don’t follow the Dark Goddess. Should you be doing the inscriptions?”
“Master Augustine said that it was fine,” Zachary said stiffly enough that Luis winced. “The inscriptions have to be put on by someone and I’ve got the steadiest hand for calligraphy in the shop. They don’t become sacred until they’re blessed. Until then anyone can work on them.”
“I certainly couldn’t do it,” Caleb agreed. “Flowers and the like are fine. Legible writing is not something I’m good at.”
The sheer thought of Caleb’s horrific handwriting made Luis laugh into his melon juice while Zachary started coughing around his sandwich. His joke did ease the tension enough that they made it through the rest of their lunch without any more awkward pauses in the conversation. They returned their mugs to the cart owner’s daughter and rinsed their hands in the fountain set in the corner of the Residence before making their way back to work through the now-busy streets.
Temple Square was so busy that they bypassed it and went along the double-wide Marsh Street, cutting back through the little winding Marker Alley that had once been a private square between two apartment buildings. Now it was a covered walkway full of tiny stalls selling everything under the sun from pottery to second-hand clothes to imported trinkets from as far away as Gaitrinn and the Broken Lands north of Synvain. The shop keepers ignored the three of them, recognizing workers with little money to spend.
Temple Road was busy but once they passed the square it was possible to make their way back to work. The two and three story buildings were quickly replaced by one-story buildings and well-ventilated shacks full of workers making the goods that fueled Pompal’s booming economy. The edge of town was full of places like Master Augustine’s, small factories turning out the goods that Pompal needed to prosper and grow. Once back at the block long, fifteen foot wide shed that housed Master Augustine’s pottery business, Luis hurried back to work with a casual wave at the two of them. Caleb caught Zachary’s elbow, stopping him. The sheer concern in his eyes made Zachary blush and pull away.
“You shouldn’t let him intimidate you,” Caleb murmured.
“I can’t help it,” Zachary sighed. “You know that. His attitudes about foreigners are just… wrong.”
“I know,” Caleb agreed tiredly. “But it bothers me to see you upset for so long whenever Luis gets on his rants.”
Caleb’s concern showed in his eyes, the tired droop of his mouth. His fingers tightened around Zachary’s elbow as if he feared that Zachary would bolt. Zachary smiled up at him as reassuringly as he could. Apparently the smile was less than convincing because Caleb’s lips went tight and his eyes wide. This wasn’t something that Zachary wanted to talk about. How did you admit that you were without a God, without a religion? Only horrible people who committed terrible crimes were without Gods.
Well, Zachary thought sadly as he shook his head at Caleb’s barely murmured ‘Zach?’, only terrible people and me.
“I’ll be all right,” Zachary told Caleb for what felt like the thousandth time. “I know I let him bother me but truly, he’s so prejudiced against those who follow other ways. It’s as though he’s never studied his own holy books. The Dark Goddess accepts everyone, not that Luis seems to understand it.”
“He thinks acceptance comes with strings,” Caleb snorted, the worry fading away into amusement. “I’ll remind him that he’s not the one who gets to say who is or isn’t accepted in Pompal. He’s only one vote and the rest of us think he’s an idiot.”
“True,” Zachary said, this time with a much better smile. “I’d best get to work. You, too. We’ve got too much to do to stand around talking.”
Caleb chuckled and nodded. The rest of the day passed quietly, thankfully. Zachary focused on his pottery wheel, shaping the clay into vases that matched the customers’ requirements.
It was a peaceful sort of work, allowing ample time for aimless thought. Usually Zachary enjoyed the chance to mull over the events going on around him. Today his thoughts ran in circles focused on Luis’ words and the emptiness Zachary always felt when festivals approached.
Three generations after his grandfather’s abandonment of Illarion, Zachary wasn’t sure that it was worth it. He’d been born in Pompal, grown up surrounded by the trappings of the Dark Goddess’ worship while never actively participating in it.
Mother had married a refugee from the political chaos in Kaintrude. She and Father had agreed long before Zachary was born that there was no need to force him or his siblings into one religion or another. Father had taken Zachary and his siblings to the dance-filled celebrations of Rene and Abriel, the married gods of Life and Death. Their celebrations always terrified him; full of loud noises that made him shake and sudden movements that scared him.
Mother’s efforts to drag him into the Temple for Festival celebrations, which was as much as she ever did to worship the Dark Goddess, had been equally unsuccessful. The crowds had terrified Zachary as a child. His few visits during quieter times had been full of confusing rituals that no one could explain to him. He’d been too intimidated to ask the priests and priestesses to explain what was going on so he’d simply stopped going.
There had never been any chance of his properly learning the worship of Illarion. Zachary had never set foot outside the capital city in his life. As far as he knew, in the entire city there was not one church dedicated to Illarion though there might be some in the Palace for visitors and certainly the Elves had to have one in their homes. He’d never learned why Illarion’s followers didn’t come to Pompal but his assumption was that the Dark Goddess didn’t welcome her brother’s church into the city that was the basis of her religion.
Zachary’s little altar to Illarion was a simple shelf at the foot of his bed with a tiny statue of Illarion that had a mirror behind it and one ever-bright light crystal in front of it. Occasionally he dusted the altar off and polished the statue of Illarion. When Illarion’s holy days came around, Zachary bought flowers up to offer. That was as much as his grandfather had ever explained of the ways they worshiped Illarion in his youth.
He didn’t know the prayers he should offer. The songs that he knew were sung to Illarion when faithful people in other countries prayed were unknown in Pompal. Zachary had found one old hymn book supposedly from his grandfather’s original home but there were only words (written in High Elvish that Zachary couldn’t read) without musical notation. His poor attempts at worship felt like a mockery instead of something real, especially given the guilt he felt for going back against his grandfather’s decisions. There was no deity that Zachary felt a connection to. He was as empty inside as anyone who had been cast out by their religion and their deity, with no hope of filling that void that Zachary could see.
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