Maenads are lazy creatures. This is a fact known to anyone who might have spent any significant amount of time in the temple of Dionysus. Aster knew it long before she became one of them, but she knew that such laziness was reserved only for when there were no upcoming festivals. For mostly immortal beings that spent a majority of their time either drinking or sleeping, they could be quite industrious when they had to be. Of course, of any time of year, this was the time for such diligence. The Dionysia, the most loved and anticipated festival of the year, was only a few days away.
The usually sparse cella was filled with busy priestesses and temple slaves. Gone were its couches and vessels of wine. In their place were all manner of half-finished decorations. In one corner, a few rare male occupants of the temple--kept for such rough purposes--were busy constructing scenery elements for the stage and hauling lumber from outside as they went. In another, priestesses were busy repainting the color back onto a few well-used theatre masks. The old paint had begun to peel off of the overly-expressive helmets, but that was easily fixable. Another end of the inner sanctum saw the last minute touches being put on the procession floats. It was there that Aster scrambled to, joining the others as she had been commanded.
Lysandra snatched the basket of flowers from her greedily. "About time," she snapped. "At least you got the right ones."
Had she not been so used to taking orders, Aster might have complained about being sent to fetch things. Really, though, there wasn't a free hand in the entire temple to take the task for her without interrupting another. She settled herself back in beside the wooden statue of Dionysus, and went back to threading flowers into a garland along its base.
"Aw, give poor Aster some credit," Corrina begged from across the wooden gods' feet. "She's been working very hard over the last few days, as we all have. Soon enough, we'll get to have our festival and forget about all this work. A week of watching plays, drinking, and fucking. If that's not a fitting reward, then I don't know what is."
"Of course you wouldn't," Roxanna cracked from where she stood arranging a leopard skin over the statue's body. "You don't even end up watching the plays most years."
Corrina smiled slyly. "Hmm, most of the populace away, engaged in sobbing at the sad tales of old? There's no better time for fun. Last year I took two lovely young men right in the middle of the agora and--"
"And that's when we paid attention to what we were doing," Lysandra interrupted, pointing out the base that Corrina was decorating. "You have far too much white on there now. Use something else."
Corrina rolled her eyes at the stuffy blond maenad, but complied all the same. She reached for one of the many baskets of flowers scattered around her, and took up one before giggling briefly at it. "Here," she said, passing it over the statue and offering it to Aster. "I think it would be more appropriate for you to have these."
Aster took the basket, finding it full of the purple daisy-like flower that shared her name. "You do know your plants well," she said, then bit her lip. It had been hard not to talk about the things she'd seen after drinking from the older maenads' cups. Her tearful--and likely stupid-sounding--confession to Evanthe had prompted her to keep her mouth shut as much as she possibly could.
Luckily for her, Corrina didn't quite pick up on her tone. "I do, but I don't think they look much like the stars they are named for, but I'm sure you knew that."
Above them, the two older maenads adorned the statue. Roxanna struggled with getting the leopard's head centered over a knee while Kallistrate was trying to fix a gold-capped bull's horn into the head to match the other she'd just set in. Evanthe, as usual, had relegated herself to a place away from the rest, and had taken top untangling a pile of necklaces and adornments where she sat with her back up against a column.
Aster's wandering eyes were brought back around by a snort from Lysandra. "Do you seek to spoil the little one as our master does?" she chided Corrina. Her golden eyes never left the intricate wreath of flowers she was weaving, but they didn't look fondly on it either.
Roxanna cackled above. "Jealous much?" she asked the blond. "You're not the exciting new thing anymore. It's not like you have been for a while anyway. Perhaps you'll finally come to understand that our lord's favor comes and goes as much and as often as he does himself."
"Why would I be jealous?" Lysandra answered with as much calm as she could muster, which wasn't much. "Jealousy doesn't make sense in this place." Her drifting gaze spoke otherwise, though, as it fell on Aster's neck.
Greedy eyes found a necklace there, beautifully crafted in intricate pieces gold with delicate drops of garnet. Aster had found it on her vanity that morning, a token left by Dionysus, who had mournfully departed to attend some godly business before the festival. The other maenads had already teased her thoroughly about it, but she wore it proudly all the same. Even as Lysandra's eyes viciously bored into her neck, Aster still smiled and thought that she looked like she belonged there just a little bit more now.
"Jealousy has no home here," Kallistrate said sternly. "Aster already seems to understand that, though. She's quicker than some."
An audible crunch could be heard as Lysandra's hand clenched tightly around her flower wreath--crushing stems and petals mercilessly in grip.
Fortunately for her, and the flowers, any notion of further abuse was interrupted by a slave that rushed to Kallistrate's feet and knelt before her.
"What?" the eldest maenad barked.
"Sorry for the interruption. The High Priestess of Athena Polias wishes to have audience with you. She wouldn't wait on the portico..."
"So she's right behind you," Roxanna said. Indeed, a woman in blue-edged robes was leading a pack of her priestesses right through the middle of the busy cella.
Kallistrate's usually unmoving face turned to a slight scowl. "Arrange for food and wine for them--not good wine. Go."
"She always seems to come when she's not wanted, doesn't she?" Corrina pondered. Even her typical bemused smile had flattened.
"If that were the case, she'd be here all the time," Lysandra spat.
Aster had seen the high priestess before. She was the most important woman in Athens, after all. She was the head of Athena's cult, the voice of the goddess that gave name to their city and protected it. The honor of her position was inherited, and if there were such a thing as a queen of priests and priestesses, she would be it. Her bearing spoke as much, since she seemed to sneer at the preparations she was marching through. The ridiculous headdress and garish gold owl staff she leaned on certainly didn't give her the appearance of modesty either.
"Why is she here?" Aster asked softly.
"Some idiots thought it would be a great idea to give her authority over all of the city's festivals. Now everything has to meet with her approval," Roxanna responded, and not too quietly or graciously.
"As if anyone appreciates bowing and scraping at her feet," Kallistrate resounded. "Athens is now so controlled that we have to take orders from a mortal, or see our festivals canceled. She thinks the gods themselves move at her command, yet I doubt she's even had so much as a conversation with hers."
Even as they all scowled at the priestess' approach, the maenads suddenly made themselves look a bit more cordial when arrived. They all rose, and Aster followed suit quickly. Even Evanthe stood and plodded over to offer her respect, or at least the appearance of it. A rare thing occurred along with this. Kallistrate's lips formed themselves into an odd semblance of a smile. It didn't look right on her, but she offered it all the same to the priestess, whose returned grin seemed just as fake. They bowed their heads briefly to one another, and their followers did as well.
"I was not expecting you today, priestess," Kallistrate said through her teeth. "Allow me to apologize for the hectic state of things. We still have a lot of work to do."
"I should hope so," the woman replied. The uninformed might have guessed her to be older than Kallistrate. She was probably somewhere in her thirties, but the maenad had a good thousand years or so on her, despite appearances. Otherwise, she was just a mess of finery--piled onto her without much care for the bigger picture. Gold cuffs weighed down her wrists and at least three heavy necklaces covered her chest. She had rings on every finger, and her dark hair was mostly hidden beneath an awful, heavy-looking headdress of stylized gold owl feathers. If she could have buried herself in gold and still been able to parade about the streets of Athens, then she probably would.
"Is there anything you came here to discuss specifically? I thought all arrangements had been made with you and the strategori. We have all the approvals we need for the Dionysia, don't we?" Kallistrate asked.
The priestess' fake grin grew wider. "Oh of course. You and your temple actually made all the proper efforts this year. I can only hope that such adherence to the law continues. I'm merely here to ensure that everything continues to meet with the proper standards. I'm on my way to inspect construction on the top of the hill today, so I figured I would drop in down below."
"How kind of you," Roxanna sneered, clearly making an effort to sound pleased, but failing miserably.
The priestess' eyes scanned the statue, as if she needed to find some fault with it. Instead of fixing on one, though, they found their way back to the maenads. "There's six of you," she pointed out.
"Yes. Our lord has chosen another maenad to replace our fallen sister. Aster was a priestess of our order for some years, and was rewarded for her service with this elevation," Kallistrate explained stiffly.
Aster bowed her head again for the high priestess.
She received only a cocked eyebrow and a frown in return. "I was not informed of this. Ah well, nevertheless, I am pleased to know Dionysus' name will be represented by a full temple of maenads again. I am sure you already know, but I am High Priestess Eudora of Athena Polias."
"We weren't informed that you had to be informed," Roxanna responded, her fake smile resembling a tiger's hungry snarl. "As long as they don't involve entertaining the citizens of this city, I believe the goings on in our order are our concern alone, right?"
She and the priestess had a staring contest over that for a moment. Roxanna won. "You're correct, but I do like to get to know the people--or whatever it is you prefer to be called--that I must work with," Eudora said.
A few slaves finally arrived to break up the chill that had taken over that corner of the temple. They rushed in and knelt before the priestess and her escorts with trays of food and cups of wine.
Kallistrate took a cup first. "Please, priestess, make yourself at home and ensure that everything is being prepared as planned. I'm certain you'll find it all in order," she said as she offered the cup personally.
Eudora waved her hands away. "I'm afraid I don't have that kind of time, and it doesn't seem that you do either. I expect that you'll have everything prepared in time, but perhaps next year, you might instruct your people to treat their temple with more care and not scatter their mess about like this. I am probably overdue at the Parthenon, so I must take my leave. I shall see you at sunrise before the procession to make my final inspection."
She nodded again, ever so slightly, and whisked her gaggle of blue-clad priestesses away through the cella again.
Kallistrate's cold eyes stared after her, at first in disbelief of her slight, then with a tempered edge of rage. When the priestess had disappeared behind the columns again, Kallistrate threw the cup to the floor. It shattered, spilling wine all over the marble. "Pick it up!" she ordered the slaves, but not before taking another cup off of their trays and downing it in one gulp.
The slaves scrambled to her order, setting their trays down and running for cleaning supplies.
Roxanna laughed, even as she too seemed to boil over with hatred. "Wow, she is just awful. Worse than her mother was."
"Who does that even?" Corrina asked as she snaked around to sneak a cup of wine for herself. "If hospitality is offered, you take it. That's the rule. She stuck her nose in here anyway, so why not get some free food and wine out of it?"
"Why is she in charge of the festivals anyway?" Aster finally got to ask.
"The strategori appointed her to be, well, her mother anyway. Before that, the order of Athena Polias and it's High Priestess were just like any other in the city. She got to whispering in the ears of all those important old generals. Now all the sudden we are shit to her, and they build her a massive temple at the very top of the Acropolis and tell the rest of us to report to her. It was bad enough when her mother was in power, but this whole Parthenon thing has really gone to that bitch's head," Roxanna sneered.
"That damn Parthenon," Lysandra growled, looking up through the columns to see it only half-finished, but still looming over them. "No one else gets funding while they build that thing. Meanwhile our theater decays and the old seats in the back are in shambles, but they pour all their coin into building yet another temple for Athena."
"Oh, but think about all the fun the people will have there! Surely they'll all enjoy staring at a giant statue of a manly-looking goddess and begging for her wisdom, right? That's much more fun and useful than a theater," Roxanna spat sarcastically. She elbowed Kallistrate for support, but the eldest maenad had gone back to her usual silence, though this time with a distinct note of hatred present in her frightening eyes.
"Whatever," Corrina said, shrugging as she picked off a few stray olives from the trays. "She's just jealous of our festivals because the people like them better. Kalli said it right. We did everything we were supposed to this year--delivered every unnecessary scrap of paper to her people that we had to. She'll just have to enjoy watching the people honor Dionysus and have fun this year without complaint."
"I'm sure she'll find something to complain about," Roxanna added, "but the people won't. All right, let's get this finished."
She went back to arranging her leopard. The others followed suit, save one. Kallistrate stood a moment longer, and stared out at the columns as if she could kill the High Priestess just by wanting her dead enough. Sadly, it did not work.
It was perfect. The morning was cool, but hardly chilly. The white light of dawn was just beginning to spill over the tiled roofs of Athens, down onto the agora. Instead of its usual mess of either politicians of athletes crowding the square, the procession was busy gathering themselves together. They would soon make the long march up to the theater--the drunken, joyous parade that began the Dionysia.
For the maenads, though, the moments leading up to it were all business. Kallistrate lead them with a few slaves in tow, distributing the last jugs of wine to the appropriate floats and marchers. They worked their way up the line--from a band of Syrian fire-eaters to a pack of old men dressed as satyrs and everything in-between--but what they found at the head of the procession wasn't part of the weeks of planning.
In front of the wooden statue they'd spent so much time adorning with flowers and vines, a large white creature, topped by a small, mostly brown one was blocking the way. As soon as Kallistrate took notice, she forgot all about the wine, and made a bee-line for him.
"What do you think you're doing?" she snapped quietly at Pan.
He gave a her a rosy-cheeked grin from atop his trusty fat steed. Fat Pegasus didn't seem to realize he'd left the friendly confines of the temple at all, but that was probably due to his usual vacant stare. "What everyone ever likes to paint me doing," the goat god laughed. "Leading the procession."
Roxanna lunged, threatening to tear him off the rotund horse. "Do you see our lord gallivanting around here? No. You wonder why that is, old goat? It's because this is for the mortals. Let them have their fun and go bleat somewhere else."
"Or at least don't go in front," Corrina offered.
Pan made his best attempt at a pout, but even then, it still came out as a disguise for a mischievous grin. "I hate waiting up in the theater. You won't be there for hours. If I have to spend another year listening to Dionysus schmoozing up with the family again, then I'd rather dash my head against the stage. You know me, girls. I want to be where the party is, and that's here."
His plea wasn't met with anything but a solid glare from several pairs of golden eyes. Even Aster joined in the annoyance. Now that she'd seen all the effort that went into managing this parade, she could understand the want for perfection.
Pan's enthusiasm didn't suffer for it, though. "Besides! I made you this cute little guy here and you leave him at home? Poor thing. There's plenty of other horses here. Why couldn't you include Fatso?"
"Because he can't even walk straight," Roxanna replied. "He's not exactly what I'd call 'majestic' either. It's our job to put on a good show, not have retarded pegasi trampling all over the city."
Pan tried the pout again. "Don't make me go up there. Apollo's there, and if I have to listen to his bitching anymore, then I'll just throw myself off the Acropolis repeatedly and hope that I suddenly become mortal."
Kallistrate let out a brief sigh of annoyance. "Go with the satyrs and seleni. If you cause any notable disruption--"
"What'll you do?" Pan scoffed. "Send Zeus himself after me?"
Roxanna grinned and offered a more fitting torture, "We'll tell your uncle Apollo that you'd love to sit next to him this afternoon--to catch up on old times, of course."
Pan's smirk disappeared. "Fair enough."
The maenads looked after him with satisfaction as he sauntered away atop Fat Pegasus, defeated. Still, Pan didn't miss the opportunity to grab a stray wine jug from one of the slaves as he went. He hoisted it above himself with one hand, and with the other offered the maenads a lovely, one-fingered gesture of his gratitude.
The girls shrugged it off. They had, after all, reclaimed their rightful place in the procession--at the head.
Corrina elbowed Aster as they filled their arms with flower garlands. "Are you ready?" she asked with an overly-excited grin.
"I've been in the procession before," Aster reminded her.
"Not at the front," Corrina responded with a wink. "Not with horns and the admiration of the entire city ahead of you."
That idea made her smile a little in spite of herself. "No, but I'm ready."
They had donned their skins again. The older maenads had a variety to choose from, but Aster still only had the fawn skin she wore during her initiation. The others had rotated in some different ensembles. Roxanna still wore a tiger's stripes, but from a white tiger this time. Lysandra had left her awful zebra outfit behind in favor of a gazelle's skin. Corrina had small parts of what was once a bull covering only what needed to be covered. The head of the maenads, and thus the prime keeper of the festivities, had the honor of wearing the leopard skin, which Kallistrate did with a fierce, almost protective elegance. Aster had expected to see Evanthe don her large bear skin again, to hide from the world even as she paraded through it, but she too had changed. They nearly matched, actually. Evanthe wore the skin of a great red deer, one that fit perfectly with her antlers.
Kallistrate took her place at the head of the procession and cast one more condemning look behind her. Before the statute and its bearers, she found the other five ready to march--three with garlands of flowers to give, two with jugs of wine to pour. In her hands, she held the thyrus--the pine cone tipped staff of Dionysus. Eyes forward again, she raised it. The agora went silent--all of its former bustle and idle chatter silenced as quickly as a candle snuffed out by the cold wind.
When she lowered the staff again, and took a step into the streets of Athens, they followed along behind her with a fury of sound. They were an organized line of chaos, snaking their way through the streets of the orderly white city. What was left in their wake--save split wine in flower petals--was a tingling excitement, an anticipation of the week ahead. Even in the most civilized place in the ancient world, the people were afforded seven days to act by how they felt, rather than how they thought. Drink would be plentiful, and entertainment too. Dionysia, though certainly centered on the dramatic competition, wasn't just about the plays. It was about the animal still left in Athens.
"Hey brother, how have you been?"
To the citizens already in the Theater of Dionysus, they must have looked like a large family of ordinary people--the kind one might look at and wonder if that was someone they were supposed to know. That was the idea, of course. If any of them were to show their true faces, then they'd end up with a whole theater full of ashes instead of an audience. The gods preferred to be inconspicuous most of the time. Discovery usually ruined their fun anyway.
"Hermes!" Dionysus cried, though not too loudly, as he embraced his brother. "It's been far too long! I didn't think you'd make it today!"
"Dad will understand if I take some time off, especially if it's to hang out with my favorite little brother. The place looks great," the messenger god said as he took a seat on one of the stone thrones that made up the front row.
"Doesn't it? My girls have really worked their asses off this time," Dionysus beamed.
"Ah, the maenads. I wish I'd been so smart as to think of that idea first. I just ended up with a half-goat kid to wreak my havoc upon the mortal world. Where is he anyway?" Hermes asked, scanning the crowded theater for fat bald heads.
Dionysus shrugged. "Pan? I have no idea. He's your son, not like that helps. I'm sure he'll be along."
Hermes just laughed. "Yeah, I'm sure. So how are things with you? It's been a while since you've made a trip upstairs. We miss you, man."
"I'm afraid pressing concerns have kept me down below, but of the good kind, I assure you!" he responded with a grin.
Hermes smirked right back at him. "I heard you got yourself a new maenad. I'm sure she meets all your godly...requirements..."
Dionysus winked. "Most certainly. That's not the only reason, though. I got invoked by some dreadful priest in Sparta over some blood feud. I do loathe that city. Everyone is so grave and serious there. I made my visit as quick as I could. Gave some politician a brew that put him into fits of girlish giggling, which is, of course, considered stark raving mad in Sparta. That satisfied the task well enough, and actually brought a small sliver of humor to that humorless place. No, no need to thank me, brother. I'm just doing my job."
Hermes laughed. "Of course, and you do it so well. Come back to Olympus for a while after this. It's been far too long since you and I spent any brotherly time together."
"I'll see if I can arrange it," Dionysus said.
Hermes chuckled again and pointed over his shoulder. "You'd best attend to what's behind you first, and then consider my offer. I'll see you later!"
The wine god turned to see what his brother was directing him to. All he saw was a flash of gold before his face was zealously snatched up by a quick pair of hands. Ariadne kissed him, and pulled away with satisfied smile. To the crowd, she was just another pretty girl, like many accompanying the wealthy men of Athens to the opening ceremonies. To the gods, though, she was a being of gold, from her hair to the horns Dionysus had given her so long ago. Though she'd given up the title for goddesshood, she was still technically his first maenad, but her eyes certainly didn't possess the sort of innate animal savagery that the current six did. Though as gold as the rest of her, they could have been made out of sugar and honey for all the sweetness they gave with their gaze.
"Did I surprise you?" she asked.
Dionysus grinned. Not one to be taken aback, he pulled her off her feet and into his lap. "Not in the least," he said smoothly. "If you hadn't come, then I might have been surprised. I know my dearest Ariadne does so love to hear the songs and watch the plays."
"She does occasionally like to see her husband too," the golden goddess pointed out. "When business doesn't call him away, of course."
Dionysus' grin turned devious. "No business of any sort could make me forget my sweet Ariadne. How have you been, my little golden demon?"
"Bored," she sighed. "I went with some of the other minor goddesses on a tour around the islands. I was hoping for beaches, relaxation, and some nice tan young men. All I got was boring sight-seeing and them trying to get us to bless people and be invoked."
"Aw, does fame not suit you?" he mock pouted at her. "No, no. I know it doesn't. You would much rather be the goddess of doing nothing rather than of...what is it again?"
"Weaving," she replied with disinterest. "Remember? For the yarn? I don't really even like to weave all that much."
"Well, worry no more of impending boredom! You're at the Dionysia, after all," the god announced proudly.
"It hasn't started yet," she pointed out. "Do you think Kalli will actually talk to me this year?"
All he could offer with certainty was a shrug. "You know her. It depends on what mood she's in."
Ariadne's giddy features flattened. "She's always in some sort of mood. Don't you have another new girl too? Or is it two of them? I have a hard time keeping track these days..."
"Just one, and she thought you might smite her with jealousy not too long ago, but I corrected her. Still, go easy on the poor thing. She's still a bit skittish about this whole divine lifestyle and what not," Dionysus warned.
"Hah, I don't even remember being that young. Seriously, I don't," she told him.
Dionysus chuckled to himself before whispering. "That's because you were dead for a bit. Remember? I went down to Hades, begged him to bring you back?"
Her golden eyes looked cloudy for a moment as she tried to recall, but then sparkled up again. "Sort of. I'm thinking it's better if I don't."
"I'll agree with that."
To the other side of them, another pair sat, but these two looking far less amused and definitely much less entwined. Brother and sister sat boredly beside one another, twins even in their mortal projections. While as Apollo looked like he had somewhere better to be, Artemis was restless and tapped her foot loudly on the stone. "How much longer will this parade go on?" she finally asked. "I'm here to see the opening ceremonies, not to wait endlessly for them."
"You act as if we're here for any reason other than our brother's demanding it," Apollo sighed.
"Oh come on," Artemis snapped back at him. "Like you don't enjoy the Dionysia. After all, it was started originally to celebrate songs, which I believe is your discipline."
"Songs about drunken idiocy," Apollo bemoaned.
"Oh lighten up!" his sister chided. "Would it kill you to just enjoy yourself for a week? Some of us look forward to these days when we can join in with the mortals and their parties, instead of worrying over this divine concern or that. And I'd say that it's hardly just 'drunken idiocy' these days either. I enjoy seeing the plays, especially if I'm in them. They've evolved into quite the art form."
Apollo simply rolled his eyes. "Oh yes, I do love seeing myself portrayed by a smelly mortal in an over-sized mask. Delightful."
Artemis had had enough. She called over her older brother to her younger one, "Dionysus, help me."
The wine god turned to her, his hands still frozen in mid-tickle on Ariadne's waist. "Is our brother being a horrible brat again?"
"Pretty much," Artemis reported.
Dionysus winked at her, and then turned to his wife. He reached behind her ear as she giggled down at him, and produced a small jug of wine, which he handed to the grumpy Apollo.
Apollo stared at it for a moment before asking, "And a cup?"
Dionysus shook his head. "No brother, I think you just need to drink the whole thing."
Apollo stared wistfully at the jug for a moment, then shrugged and took a few sips despite himself.
Suddenly, the empty stage came to life as several purple-clad priestesses scrambled out onto it. One blew a horn to sound the coming of the procession. The restless audience settled and quieted quickly, and sat at attention, waiting for the much-anticipated ceremony to finally begin. The priestesses quickly made their exit again, and left the stage bare. A few moments later, the maenads appeared. Kallistrate and Roxanna led them in, both carrying a young goat in their arms.
The stage was absent any decoration save the flower and banner draped background. Only one object was allowed on it. A simple altar stood front and center, which the maenads came up to and placed the fightened goats upon. They formed a semi-circle around it, with Kallistrate in the middle, standing before the altar.
Though she was normally not much for words, her voice rang clear and steady throughout the theater. "Citizens of Athens, today we gather to begin the celebration of Dionysus, the liberator. For seven days hence, we will sing of his glories, and celebrate the gifts he has given to us. We will show all the world that our god of wine deserves as much love from us as he gives to us. But first, we must purify this sacred ground, so that our contests and festivities might please this mighty god properly. So citizens, now you must choose. One of these beasts will die to make this theater holy, the other will be offered as the prize for the highlight of this festival; the tragic competition."
The goats stood stricken as the crowd roared. Had they perhaps understood the stakes, they might have tried to run, but instead they stared with their strange eyes wide and scanning the mass of people before them.
"Which will it be? Decide people, for today and in the days that follow, you are freed to do as you wish by the great Dionysus. Liberate your hearts from your heads, and give in to the lusts which lie deep within you. Ask the ancient soul of the hunter within that cries for blood. Ask him which one you want to die," Kallistrate commanded. She then held her hand over one goat, a sturdy little black one. The crowd cried out, but not with its full fervor. It was only when her hand moved over the head of the smaller, trembling brown and white goat that they truly roared. She smiled, this time a natural, but still frightening smile.
With what could barely be called a nod, she summoned a priestess to carry off the lucky goat, while she put her hand on the other. It flinched at her touch. "Athens has chosen. Let us begin this festival with a gift of blood, to honor our god and the freedom he grants us."
Swiftly, as if they were hungry predators swooping in for a kill, the other maenads surrounded the goat. They flipped it on it's back, belly to the sky. Only then did the poor creature realize what awaited it. The goat kicked and squealed, but they held it still. Kallistrate took a hold of its thrashing head, leaving only Aster with empty hands. Well, not entirely empty. She held a large, sharp knife and steeled herself to use it as she had been told she would. Trying her best not to flinch, Athens' newest maenad quickly sliced through the goat's belly, letting whatever came out of it spill bloodily across the altar. The crowd cheered as the creature's legs gave a few last desperate kicks, then suddenly jerked to a stiff stop.
Before the noise of the crowd could die down, entertainers from the procession filled the stage. Instruments joined the cheers in a loud, joyful chorus, as dancers and jugglers went along with their hectic rhythm. This was their cue to leave, for now. Aster cast one last look at the crowd over the body of the goat and found Dionysus looking up at her approvingly. She took a deep breath, settling her nerves, and told herself to remember that this was who she was now--a loyal servant of a powerful god. Feeling sorry for a mere goat wasn't something she should be doing right at that moment.
She followed the others backstage, behind the skene. They jostled through the narrow entry, having to push through throngs of people in elaborate costumes--all waiting for their turn to go out and perform in the celebration.
Roxanna grinned as they found a small empty space to wait in. "So, new girl, are your ready to see how Dionysia was meant to be celebrated?"
Aster could only nod, but did her best to look enthusiastic as she did. To say she was a little overwhelmed would be a bit of an understatement--just a bit.
Corrina, however, seemed to be way too excited. "She did well for her first little public sacrifice, didn't she?"
Aster watched as several men attempted to lead a massive white bull through one of the larger entrances onto the stage. She knew it wouldn't leave alive. "I guess I never realized how bloody the first day is," she noted aloud.
A tap on her shoulder brought her eyes away from the doomed bull. Evanthe stood before her, pointing. "Your face," she finally said when Aster looked at her with confusion.
Aster followed her finger and wiped her face. Blood came off onto her hand.
Evanthe shook her head. "There's more."
Aster tried to get the rest, but only seemed to smear more goat blood all over her face Evanthe finally gave up her usual despondent expression for one of frustration, and licked her thumb before finally ridding Aster of the spot herself.
Aster smiled at this display and felt her jarred nerves instantly calmed by it. "Thanks," she said, nearly sighing in relief.