Long shadows crept across the valley, the sun's final rays painting the east-facing mountain peaks in warm pinks and oranges. Even Liss couldn't deny the beauty of the evening–from twilight's colorful show to the heady perfumes of the tasteful flower arrangements displayed around the threshold of the sacral tent. She was reminded of scenes she'd read in the old stories, where two people in love performed a ritual of handfasting. But this was something different entirely.
Dev held her hand as they passed through the decorated archway, heading in for the ceremony. The sacral tent was a true version of its namesake, a relic of the past with an intricately carved beam at the center holding up dozens of thick fabric panels that draped toward the floor, supported by a slender wooden framework that bowed out as it neared the ground, creating the illusion of an upside-down teardrop. Hundreds of candles burned on wide candelabras arranged throughout the open space, placed carefully away from the outside walls on posts buried in the ground. Incense burned on an altar at the center of a wide, low dais constructed of the same gleaming blackwood used elsewhere in the oldest architecture of the village.
Clusters of Darkbane elves stood spread out inside the tent, all of them in ceremonial attire similar to Dev's. The seven members of the clan's Council sat in their customary places on the dais, ensconced in matching ornate high-backed chairs, their raiment enhanced by gold-embroidered stoles about their shoulders and delicate diadems resting on their brows. The three councilwomen's headpieces were embellished with miniature hanging jewels, setting them apart from their four male counterparts whose fine ensembles sparkled somewhat less grandly.
Liss fought to keep her expression neutral and her hand firmly in Dev's as murmurs about her choice to wear grays reached them. She supposed Mell was here, somewhere, but she kept her attention focused straight ahead instead of scanning the crowd.
Elder Fex, the oldest and highest ranking councilman stood as she approached, bowing his head in acknowledgment. Dev gave Liss' hand one last squeeze before stepping into the shadows off to her side. It was a relief, albeit a small one, that the golden candlelight was pervasive enough that she could discern his tall silhouette hovering nearby.
"Liss of the Year of the Moon," Fex announced in his aged, gravelly voice. His long fingers were ever-moving, punctuating his words as a conductor might direct an orchestra. "We are here this night to mark the commencement of your sixteenth year, a tradition long upheld by our clan. Do you acknowledge that you were born on this day sixteen years ago?"
Liss closed her eyes and nodded. It didn't matter if she challenged him, Fex had been the clan's leader for decades, like his predecessors before him, all of them using the same name. He was the one with the birth records. Besides, every child born sixteen years ago was of the Year of the Moon, and Liss had known that to be her designation from the time she could speak. Just as it was Dev's and Rana's.
"As we are in agreement, please step forward to be granted Hona's blessing."
Liss took a deep breath, steeling herself to the task. She concentrated on the feeling of her toes wrapped safely inside her boots, a trick she'd taught herself to defeat her shyness as a child. She was well aware this was no blessing. But she was vaguely grateful that there would be no drawn out introductions, no languishing speeches or musical interludes. At least in that aspect, Sixteenth ceremonies were an efficient business.
"Liss of the Year of the Moon." Fex's voice rang out like an echo through the tent despite the innate sound-snuffing qualities of its fabric construction. "Upon completion of this rite you will become a woman in the eyes of the clan, and as such certain new responsibilities and allowances will be bestowed unto you. The greatest of these responsibilities shall be adherence to the truth at every juncture, the Darkbane's most noble virtue.
'It is known that centuries ago our people ravaged the land and angered the Goddess Hona, whose spirit presides over and protects us all. Thus, Hona cast her judgment and forbade us from intentionally deceiving and lying to one another, as punishment for our sins." At this point he hesitated a moment, taking a small sip of water from a fluted glass on the altar. When he was finished, he cleared his throat and went on, his voice slightly less of a growl. "Hona, in her infinite wisdom, decreed that only children under the age of majority were exempt from this new rule.
'Now you have reached the age of sixteen, and so, from this night forward, if you fail to uphold this tenet of our people, you would court death and devastation for us all and most notably, for yourself. Do you understand?"
Liss nodded again, inclining her chin as a sign of respect. "Yes, Elder Fex."
Fex reached forward with both hands, the gaping sleeves of his tunic hanging toward the ground. He laid a hand on either side of Liss's head, his palms dry and warm, his touch light.
"Liss of the Year of the Moon, this night Hona blesses you a truth-teller, an elf of the Darkbane clan, one sworn to protect Cradelow, the last living land. From this night until you expire, it will be so."
Liss raised her chin as Fex's palms slid off her face. Her own hands were balled in sweaty fists at her sides, her fingernails digging half-moon welts into her skin, but at least it was over. The Council hadn't commented on her choice to wear her grays, or asked her to give a speech, and she was more or less unchanged. All in all, it hadn't gone as poorly as she'd expected.
She stepped away from the dais as the clan cast her polite smiles of encouragement, finding the empty space Dev had kept for her beside him. "You did it," he whispered, bumping shoulders with her.
She glanced up at him, expecting to find amusement dancing in his firelit eyes. But despite the lightness of his words, he seemed preoccupied.
"What is it?"
He shook his head, gesturing to the dais where the council was rising in tandem, Elder Fex still at the forefront. Oh no. In her relief over the ceremony ending, Liss had almost forgotten about the announcement to come afterward.
"Clansfolk, as you may have heard, we have more to speak of this evening, a decree which is particularly timely as it pertains to those who have risen to their Sixteenth. And as we have just inducted our last clanswoman of the year into that group tonight, we thought it best to make the announcement in tandem with her ceremony."
Liss was so invested in trying to decipher Fex's meaning, it took her a moment to realize she was the clanswoman he was referring to.
Clanswoman. That would take getting used to.
"Councilwoman Bett, would you do the honors?"
Fex returned to his chair and his second came forward. Long rose-gold tresses were swept back from her dark brow, a style that suited the wearing of a diadem. Golden cuffs shaped like leaves curled around her pointed ears, deceptively delicate. Dimples stood out on her cheeks as she smiled beatifically down at them.
"Good evening, friends. I do not think anyone could have asked for a more lovely day for a Sixteenth, and I like to think it is no coincidence that we are also using this night to announce an impactful and necessary change to one of our time-honored traditions, the age at which one may perform her duty to the clan as a Bearer."
Stifled gasps and deep rumblings of surprise roiled through the tent like fizz on the surface of a hot spring, light and ephemeral. Liss found that she was unable to make any sound, her lips hanging open in something like horror or anticipation.
A cold sweat pricked at the back of her neck. When she glanced at Dev, his expression was unchanged.
It suddenly occurred to her that he'd known this was coming. It also stood to reason he knew what else Bett was about to say. When had he found out Rana's rumor was founded, and why hadn't he said anything?
"As most of you know," Bett went on, using her hands to gesture in a similar way to her superior, "we have experienced certain... difficulties in recent years maintaining a target threshold for live births." She held out her palms, fingers splayed. "Of course this is no fault of anyone's, it is simply as the goddess has seen fit. However, after much deliberation it has been decided that we will lower the age at which a woman might first become Bearer from twenty to seventeen. This means that our clanswomen over the age of majority will be recommended to begin their Engagements by sixteen-and-one-half years of age."
The moisture beading on the back of Liss's neck shot down her spine in an icy deluge. Sixteen and a half. Why would they-? How could they expect-?
"We understand this may come as a shock to the young women who were not anticipating such a change, and so we are also amending the law to state that any clanswoman between the ages of sixteen and twenty reserves the right to choose her Seed. This routine is quite new, so let me explain. Should two women request the same clansman, he will be given the option of which female's request to accept. He must accept one or both requests. Furthermore, if all parties agree, the clansman will be granted permission to accept Engagements where his presence is requested insofar as the Council allows."
"This is unjust," a deep voice from the shadows cried, not one that Liss recognized. "You cannot force men to accept a female's request for Engagement, and it sounds like that is what you are suggesting."
"Aye, that is right," Bett purred, her dark eyes shining like jet. "Men will have to accept certain requests from our youngest and most eligible women. Is it really so bad? We women have been subject to choice-less Engagements for centuries."
The man started to retort but someone cuffed him, cutting short his reply. Several long moments passed, and no one else spoke up. Bett surveyed the gathering with a renewed smile, resting a hand on her curved hip. Liss was appalled, but she had to admit the councilwoman made a valid point. Men had long been able to choose their partners, while it was a new rule to allow women the same benefit. But Liss couldn't find it in herself to be grateful, or even relieved. She was too young, they were all too young.
"You knew." She turned to Dev, her voice low and harsh. "You knew, and you let me go through with the ceremony."
Dev threw her a wide-eyed glance before turning away, granting her his profile to study.
"What choice did I have? I didn't want you running away and getting into trouble."
"I would have," she said darkly.
"I know." He sighed, his gaze dropping to the floor. "And I didn't want you to lose your choice."
"My choice?" Her brow wrinkled. She regarded his angular features limned in flickering candlelight, then it hit her. Her choice. "Oh... Well, I'm not making one. Obviously."
Their discussion was disrupted when a new question came from the audience, this one from one of the dozens of women in attendance. Rana's silver curls sprang into clearer view as she stepped out of the shadows of a cluster of juniors on the other side of the tent.
"Councilwoman, if we are close to the half-year mark of our sixteenth year, may we submit our request for Engagement immediately?"
"Any woman over the age of sixteen may submit a request. Once the request is reviewed and accepted by the Council, couples will be granted permission to proceed with their Engagements."
"So the half-year mark is simply the deadline for when a request must be made."
"Correct." Bett nodded, regarding Rana like a proud teacher admiring their prized pupil. Liss found it sickening. "If there are no further questions, then we can close the floor and proceed to the feast that was prepared in celebration of Liss' Sixteenth."
"Excuse me. I would like to speak on behalf of the healers."
Mell. Liss couldn't see the old woman through the throng of elves, but her presence was palpable.
"As the clan's eldest living healer, I have discussed this matter in private with the Council for some time. I believe the clan has a right to know that we healers did not vote to adopt lowering the age of female Engagement. In fact, we raised concerns over the matter. Girls are not fully mature at sixteen, or even eighteen. It was our recommendation to keep the threshold set at age twenty, and certainly no younger than nineteen."
Murmurs rumbled through the tent. Liss fingered the leather binding of her notepad and the calming draught Mell had given her through her discreet pocket. So Mell had known this was coming, too. Maybe she'd known Liss wouldn't take the draught prior to the ceremony. Maybe she'd known just when she'd need it.
Elder Fex rose stiffly from his chair to stand beside Bett, one of his long-fingered hands wrapped around her elbow for support. "Healer Mell, your sage advice is ever appreciated. We do not presume to know better than our healers. However, as we discussed in our private meetings, our clan is in crisis. Please understand the Council's decision was not made lightly. It is not our intention to put anyone's health at risk. We will work in concert with your healers to make sure our women are in peak condition throughout their pregnancies, so Bearer and child both remain safe and hale."
Mell cleared her throat, stepping out of the throng to approach the dais. Liss was surprised and a little emboldened to see that her great-grandmother had not changed out of her healer's greens into the traditional ceremonial garb. Whether it was due to her own wizened stubbornness or in condemnation of the Council's decree, Liss wasn't sure.
Either way, she approved.
"I would pose a counter-request. There are ten girls aged sixteen to twenty at this time. Of the ten, there may be some who are eager to begin an Engagement, while others, especially the younger girls, may like to wait. Shouldn't our sixteen and seventeen year olds be given the option?"
Fex looked ready to bark a terse refusal, the first hint he'd given tonight of his true demeanor as the clan's rigid authority, but Bett laid her hand over his and whispered something in his ear that stayed his rebuke. Then the councilwoman was speaking again, a new gentleness about her.
"Mell, you have brought up a valid concern, one that has not gone unconsidered by the Council. I believe that if we have at least five women in the age bracket who are willing to accept the new terms, exceptions may be made for their less confident peers." Bett's serene gaze traveled the front row, alighting on Liss. "However, we will need to review all five applications, and they must be accepted by the Council in order to move forward with the motion, so as of this night the case will remain open and on the table."
Mell bowed her head. "Thank you, Bett. That is all."
Liss bit her lip to keep her turbulent emotions from spilling over. She was proud of Mell's tenacity, but would it really change anything? The Council was notoriously stubborn and dispassionate. Even if they agreed to Mell's request now, they might change their mind again. Elder Fex and his underlings claimed to care for the Darkbane, but it seemed like they cared more about numbers than actual people.
"Liss," Dev whispered, pulling her back to reality. He gripped her cold hand, guiding her into darker shadows brooding behind a candelabra. "Please don't be angry. Will you meet me at the stream after the feast, like we talked about last night?"
She looked up into his desperate eyes, unsure why he still had the look of a caged beast about him. She shrugged. "I guess so. But I'm still mad at you. Never, and I mean never keep something like this from me again."
"You know why I did it."
"That's no excuse. I told you, I don't need you to protect me, so stop-" she poked his bicep, frowning as her finger jammed painfully against hard muscle "-trying to give it to me! I can handle myself."
"Fine," he said through his teeth.
Liss wasn't under the illusion he would listen, but in that instant all she could think to do was hold onto the threads of her dignity and step away from the looming argument. Besides, she couldn't be too mad at Dev. By his own admission, he just wanted to keep her safe.
That didn't mean she had to like it.