The Bloody Staircase
by Gabriella Officer-Narvasa
Issue #2, Autumn 2022
I was given into the service of the Thar Balasu when I was fifteen years old, and by the time I was twenty, I reckon that I’d killed as many men as any great berserker on the steppes. There was only one man I regret killing. He was my very first. It is he who looks through my bedroom window at night, pushing aside the screen of rice-paper so that he might leer down at me from the shadows. It is he who I see when I venture into town, veiling my face from the curious eyes of the townspeople as I buy my small things-quail’s eggs, scallions, plums. I cleanse my body in the sacred pool of Ka-Hala, and I see his gray eyes looking up at me from beneath the ripples of the blessed water.
It was an honor to kill him. I am a holy woman. I kill for the sanctity of the Thar Balasu and his temple. But if I see him again, as I assuredly will, I shall fall on the silver dagger I carry with me. The tale of it all is thus:
I was a maiden of fifteen, and my family was a poor one. Poor but proud, which is always the worst combination of qualities that a family can have. I was raised modestly, but being the youngest of five children, my father decided not to waste more of his meager funds on my feeding, clothing, and dowry. I was given to Thar Balasu, dropped on the doorstep of the great temple with nothing more than a bundle of robes and a pair of leather sandals.
“I told Altar Yanag that I had no use for another girl.”
Like a well-bred maiden, I had been kneeling as I waited for the Thar. My hands were outstretched and my palms were raised to the sky, so that I might honor the god Hanal with my industry. My spine was curved so that I might honor the god Karait with my humility. And my cheeks were burning with all the wrath of the war-god Sera as I heard the booming voice of my province’s most respected cleric.
“No one seems to have any use for another girl, Your Eminence,” I whispered, lifting my head. I was a well-bred maiden, and I never raised my voice, especially not when speaking to a cleric.
“So it seems,” Balasu said, “Excepting the whorehouses, of course.”
To this day, I maintain that some sort of mischievous spirit possessed me, because I raised my head, looked that holy man in the eye, and said,
“I’m sure you must frequent those a lot, Your Eminence.”
He was as surprised as I was. The Thar Balasu was a huge man, with arms like tree trunks and a belly like a barrel. That belly began to tremble as he cackled, grabbing fistfuls of his long white hair in the throes of his mirth.
“Perhaps there will be some use for you yet, girl,” he said to me, and bade me enter the temple. I passed rows of kneeling penitents and solitary priestesses wafting censers full of sandalwood incense. There were innumerable fountains and gardens and courtyards, all filled with clerics tending to them. Occasionally, the Thar would say a few words to one of them in the temple-argot, which is a harsh, guttural language that I could barely parse. The walk seemed endless, and the Thar often spoke to me too, levying questions upon me about various aspects of the holy paintings and sculptures that graced the temple.
“Here’s a hard one,” Balasu said, looking at me with mirth still dancing in his eyes, “If you know this one, girl, I might very well have use for you yet.”
The sultry summer heat that pervaded the temple seemed to multiply tenfold as he looked down at me. I clutched my bundle to my chest and looked up at the painting to which he was gesturing. It wasn’t one of the gods traditionally painted above family altars. In fact, I only remembered seeing the god once before, in an old scroll that my brother had smuggled home from school for me. Even then, as I stood beside the Thar, I began to tremble as I gazed upon the visage of this little-known god. Its face was as beautiful and as terrible as the daybreak over a blood-soaked battlefield, and its body was a gnarled, twisted thing that boasted two scorpion tails and arms embedded with daggers and shards of glass. Somehow, in the painting and in the scroll, it was aloft in the sky, blotting out the sun with its massive bulk.
“It’s Taroun, the god of the steppe-berserkers,” I murmured, “Please, Your Eminence, don’t make me look at it any longer.”
“Why are you scared, girl? It won’t hurt you, it’s just a picture on a wall.”
A strange shudder coursed through me as I locked eyes with the god on the wall.
“I’m not scared, Your Eminence,” I told the Thar, “It just makes me feel odd. It makes me feel like I’ll go mad if I keep looking at it.”
Balasu looked at me for a long moment, and I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing desperately that I had kept my mouth shut. My father wouldn’t take me back, being already burdened with the need to feed and clothe his sons and elder daughters. If Balasu truly wished, he could give me to one of the whorehouses in the outer districts, and no one would know. No one would care.
“Come with me,” he said, and I followed him because I could do nothing else. We left the main temple area and ventured out into an alleyway, where the stench of the tanners and dyers nearby rose into the air. The sound of my sandals in the dirt as I walked made me wince. I wanted to vanish.
“Girl, do you know quite what the role of the Thar is?” he asked me as we neared a squat, clay building behind the temple. I squinted up at it, for on its rooftop was a whitewashed set of stairs that led nowhere but the sky.
“You are the spiritual leader of our land,” I recited, “You are the vessel through which the gods speak to the mortals, and you keep equilibrium between the warring passions of our many gods.”
“Yes,” he said, eyeing me closely, “Equilibrium is important, isn’t it? If there’s any group of beings that ought not to be out of balance, it’s the gods. And some gods get more worshiping than others. That does nothing to maintain balance. Some gods demand more than others. Rice left on an altar, that sates nothing.”
He opened the door to the small clay building, and I went in. It seemed familiar to me, probably because it had been described in reverent tones throughout my childhood. The Thar was the intermediary between the heavens and our earth, and he spoke to the gods after periods of long fasting, as well as the drinking of a fermented moss beverage called kotar. His fasting room was ascetic in its simplicity. There was the bamboo cot on which he lay, there was his prayer mat that faced the holy scrolls, and there was the ceremonial silver scimitar hanging on the wall.
And there. In the corner. There was a man. Bound and gagged and bloodied and half-naked, lying unconscious in the midst of the simple dignity of the Thar’s fasting room.
“For some gods, they need more. And whose duty is it to provide them with what they need but mine?”
The floorboards creaked beneath me. I didn’t know whether to run or scream, so I just stood rooted on the spot.
“For a long time, I’ve been the only one,” Balasu said, “I’m old. Perhaps I’m careless. But if you run from here and tell people what you’ve seen, you’ll be nothing but a raving young lunatic.”
The man in the corner had gray eyes. I could see them because they were half-open. I thought he might be looking at me, and I turned away, frightened.
“And if I don’t run?”
“If you don’t run, then perhaps you have enough of a spine to do what will soon become your duty. Take the blade, girl.”
I dropped the bundle on his cot and padded over to the wall. I could hardly manage to lift the scimitar from its sheath, and I let out a sigh of exertion as I took it down and awkwardly held it away from me, watching the sunlight shine on its keen edge through the half-open door. Balasu wrapped his arms around the man and picked him up, slinging him over his shoulder as if he weighed nothing more than a sack of flour.
“There are stairs around the back,” he said, “Go on.”
I climbed the stairs, stopping every few steps to readjust my grip on the weighty sword. Soon, I could see the top of the staircase. My father was a builder by profession, and I had seen enough houses being painted that I could tell those stairs had been whitewashed many times. They were almost sparkling-clean as I looked at them, and Balasu let the man slump over the top step. His palms were turned upwards so he might honor the god Hanal with his industry. His spine was curved so that he might honor the god Karait with his humility.
“I am going to go downstairs and prepare for my fast,” the Thar said to me, resting a hand on my head, “And I am going to come back up, and he must be dead.”
“What god demands this?” I asked, and it was only by the taste of salt on my lips that I knew I was crying, “And what type of man gives in?”
“Taroun demands it,” Balasu said, “Our greatest mistake was believing that his fury and violence was a world away from us. It never is. And I am nothing but the type of man who seeks to satisfy one who would destroy us all at his whim.”
He went downstairs. The gray-eyed man didn’t wake up. I don’t know who he was. I never know who they are, and I never dwell on it, but he was my first, so I wondered about his lover, or his wife, or his children, or his horses. His profession and his favorite food and his favorite robe. I must have fabricated a thousand and one lives for him, and each one made me fond of him. Unreasonably so, I suppose. He could have been a rapist or a killer or a purveyor of forbidden goods, but I was fond of him.
“Do you want blood?” I demanded as I knelt on that staircase that led to nowhere, “Have mine then!”
I slid the pad of my thumb along the curve of the blade, watching the scarlet blood swell up from the cut that I barely felt. I pressed my thumb against the staircase, and a tiny bit of red blood marred the pristine whiteness.
It was not enough. I felt a great pain in my head, and I think I might have screamed. The pain took hold of every vein in my body and squeezed. I had never felt pain like that before, and I have never felt pain like that again. Taroun, or whoever it was, played a sadistic symphony inside of me as I writhed on that rooftop, in too much pain to even cry.
It was not enough. The pain passed. I got to my feet and looked out at the city. The Thar had gifted me with a great honor. I had nowhere else to go. I lifted the blade as well as I could, and then I chopped down. I had to do it again, had to swing again, because his eyes flew open at my first chop, and he let out a garbled scream as dark blood spurted from the wound in his neck. I was sick all over myself. Three times. Three times I had to lift up the aching weight of that scimitar and bring it down through skin and flesh and muscle and bone and blood.
Sometimes I think he follows me because I didn’t save him, but today I think he follows me because I tried. I don’t know who he is. I never knew who he was, but I wish I did. I wish I knew the man who watches me in my mirror, the man who sits beside me in the inn. I wish I knew the man I did not save.
I shall know him soon. I am kneeling on these whitewashed stairs once again, kneeling with my scimitar in my hand.
About the Author
Gabriella Officer-Narvasa is a writer, dancer, and high school senior from Brooklyn, New York. When she is not crafting speculative fiction stories in non-traditional worlds, she is studying, embroidering, listening to reggaeton, and hoarding books.
Purchase the full issue here