Mayence, Creda, Monster, May
Creda hated who she used to be.
“Charges: Theft of a hundred cens, utterance of traitorous language,” she read out loud. She looked the criminal up and down—a young man, around sixteen.
“I swear, I’m a good person,” the boy pleaded. “I just—I just questioned my priest, that’s all.”
“You tainted your mind with sinful thoughts. You stole money. You broke the law of the Maker, and you claim to be good?” Creda kept her voice flat. She wanted to snap, to yell at this stupid child, but she was Head of Religion now. She needed to stay calm.
“Throw him in prison. His sentence is eleven years.”
Children like him were a reminder of who she used to be. Honorless. Selfish. Monstrous. She was better than that now, and she’d never be like that again.
When Creda was six, she learned how to lie to her schoolteacher and put the blame on someone else.
When she was ten, she learned that she couldn’t trust her parents. Ever. So she lied, made a persona her parents believed.
When she was twelve, Creda learned that middle school was a ladder, and the rungs were other people. She learned how to climb. She learned how power worked and how to use it. She learned how to force her way to the top of the social scheme, to toss her hair and flatter her pawns and make people cry, make people laugh, make people love her.
“You lied,” said Creda’s friend. They were both twelve. “I—I helped you! You said you’d cover for me. You said they wouldn’t catch me.”
“Yes,” said Creda.
“That’s not fair. You ran from school grounds too,” cried Creda’s no-longer-friend. “You broke more rules than I did. You made me, not the other way around. And I’m the one who’s banned from school. And parties. And everything fun. For a whole year. It’s your fault and none of the adults believe me over you.”
“You stabbed me in the back. You’re horrible. How could you?”
Creda gave the girl the smug grin of a twelve-year-old who had gotten her way.
Her parents were religious. Like the majority of the country, they followed the Flete religion. Her parents taught her to pray, to be good, to do what she was told and think pious thoughts and never question anything the church said.
“Creda,” her mother said once. “You have to understand: Our priests tell us what’s right and wrong. You need to heed their words.”
“That’s bullshit,” Creda responded. “Why should I listen to them?” Why be a goody-goody who got nothing when you could be a bad child who got everything?
“Report?” asked Balthasar. Creda was thirty.
She bowed to her king. “The implementation of the local priest system is working perfectly, my lord. In each town, there is an executive leader and a religious authority, mirroring the royal system.
“We were able to procure enough priests that had studied the word of the Maker for at least five years, enough for every region. We’re still working on a standardized protocol for punishing those who question the priests’ words, but I’m handling some of the cases myself.”
“Yourself? I’m impressed with your dedication.”
“Of course. They need to be done right.”
The war happened when Creda was thirteen.
In a way, Creda identified with the Flete king. He was greedy, and it was clear he took actions not to help his people, but to benefit himself. The taxes. The border wars, to gain territory and wealth that the people would never see. (Of course, those actions never benefited her.)
When Creda was thirteen, Balthasar, the leader of the Siej religion, led a rebellion. In the name of the Maker, he dethroned the Flete monster and made himself the new king.
“In the name of the Maker, I vow to always serve our country and our people,” he pledged in a speech that would be immortalized for years to come. “I vow to be a good ruler, one of honor, one whose actions are justified.”
Creda’s birth parents protected her from the monsters under her bed. But later, a different parent taught her to fight the monsters around her.
“Report?” Creda asked. She was thirty.
Creda’s assistant bowed. “Over in Sujo, a mob murdered a woman who was suspected of collaboration with the Flete rebels. They pulled her body apart—only her head was left, and it was badly desecrated. They threw it in the river.”
(Siej custom treated dead bodies with the utmost respect. They were cremated in a ritual, then the ashes were buried.)
“I’m impressed by their passion,” Creda said.
“It’s not surprising, considering how badly their previous governor, that Flete scum, treated them. But this anger—it’s sinful, is it not? The Sujo officials have the lead culprits imprisoned and are awaiting your orders.”
“Who are we to police their anger? They are hateful; that hatred is righteous. Their former governor treated them like animals; we treat them well. That woman committed a sin, so she is evil. They did what was justified. Release them.
Creda’s assistant did not protest. “Yes, my lady.”
(Monsters didn’t get funerals.)
“And question that woman’s family. If there’s even a hint of treason, wipe it out.”
Before the Siej rebellion, when Creda was still a bad child, Flete priests taught the population that the inhabitants of their neighboring countries were evil.
It is our duty to fight them, to take wealth and land from them. It is our duty to kill those monsters.
Back then, Creda barely paid attention to religious sermons. But once, she heard someone grumble, “The Flete leaders probably made that up to justify our idiotic wars. I’m sure my son was happy to die at our border because he killed monsters along the way.”
Creda’s parents died in the war, and it was a Siej priest, a woman named Mayence, who took her in. Mayence had been more of a mother to her than her own had been, and Mayence was the one who taught her right and wrong. For real. Her parents’ religion had been an inferior belief system, but Siej was one of love and honor. Mayence taught her what it was like to be a part of a community, to care about more than herself.
Like children tend to be after losing their parents, thirteen-year-old Creda was miserable when Mayence took her in. But even crying in front of this new stranger did not mean Creda trusted her.
I need to find her motivation for helping me, she thought. People have bad hearts; she must want something. I need to make sure I give it to her. I need to stay useful so she doesn’t throw me out.
She spent her days helping around the house and in the fields. In front of Mayence, an authority figure, Creda made sure to be demure and obedient, to do everything she was told without question.
After she’d been given a couple weeks to grieve, the Siej priest started teaching Creda about their religion. She didn’t believe a word of it, but studied hard anyway.
“Why did you take me in? Why did you help me?” Creda asked once.
“Because I care about children like you. You’re a good girl; you’re pious and you support Balthasar and the Siej movement. You’re on the right side of history.”
Creda nodded, but something in her expression must’ve told Mayence that she didn’t quite believe it.
“You’re like my daughter now, Creda. I love you.”
Creda said nothing, but she smiled a little.
Once Creda finished signing the documents to release the Sujo prisoners, she sent out an official statement.
Our king Balthasar is blessed by the Maker, who loves every one of us. Each local priest carries the sacred word of our king and our Maker, so anyone who questions their priests’ words must be branded with the monster symbol. We have sent branding irons with the correct symbol to all towns. The brand is permanent, and we will allow the local governments to determine the criminal’s sentences. We recommend around ten years in prison for uttering any evil words.
When Creda was a teenager, she was not Mayence’s only student, but she was the favorite. She got to help Mayence perform the most important rituals and do the most important tasks. When the war ended, Mayence and Creda did everything they could to help the new regime. They organized meetings and events to spread the Siej ideals, helped manage money and resources, and made speeches supporting Balthasar as their new ruler.
“The Flete leaders told us that there were monsters outside our borders that we had to fight,” Creda wrote for a speech. “But who cares about foreigners? In reality, the true monsters are within our own country. The selfish ones who care more about themselves than the nation. The remaining Flete worshippers, lovers of a king that sacrificed his own people for his greed. They are who you should fear.”
Somewhere along the line, Creda started to believe.
“I used to be such a bad girl,” she confessed to her mentor one day. “I was so selfish, and I hurt other people out of greed.” Why am I telling her this? Now she’ll like me less.
Mayence pulled her into a hug. “I love you, Creda. You’re a better person now. Look at you. Look at all you’ve done for the Siej, for our country. You’re bright and hardworking and you’re better.”
“Thank you,” Creda said. She was fourteen, and it was early in the morning. Mayence was waiting for her at the old kitchen table.
“It’s nothing. Just ask me when you need extra menstrual rags, okay?” Mayence took a sip from her cup—it was porcelain, painted with a sun and a moon. When she set it down, it made a little clink against the wooden table. “I can tell you were considering stealing them to save yourself the embarrassment. Don’t do that.”
“I—I was. I’m sorry.”
“You’re getting better. You really are.”
“Thank you,” Creda said again. “Why do you normally wake up this early? The sun just started to rise.”
“Because I like to see it climb up the sky. I like to watch the colors fade into blue.”
They both looked out the window. The dark sky was getting lighter.
“I started waking to see the sunrise when I was your age, maybe a little older. I was so angry with the Flete regime. Seeing the sun break through the night reminded me that I would see a better future.”
“Mayence?” Creda said suddenly. She was fifteen, helping her teacher cut apples for apple pie. “You’re a mother to me. I love you.” Surprised at her own words, Creda almost cut herself. But it was true, she realized.
“I love you too, Creda. I’ve seen you as my daughter for a long time, and I’ll always be grateful that I saved you from becoming a monster.” Mayence set down her knife with a little thunk on the wooden table. “It’s my life’s work to pass down everything I know so that you can help our leader. But remember: Your love for any individual person should never eclipse your love for our religion and our country.”
By the time Creda turned eighteen, she had gained fame in her own right as a speaker, traveling around the country to speak about Siej ideology and lead prayer sessions. Mayence, as a policy advisor to the king, sometimes brought Creda along to meetings. But this wasn’t about the fame, Creda reminded herself. It wasn’t about the power, no matter how much she loved it.
When Creda was eighteen, the Flete rebels kidnapped her. Those traitorous monsters took her somewhere underground, propped her up against a stone pillar, and tied her up with rope.
“It’s nothing personal, child,” one of her captors told her, a woman about Mayence’s age. “We need some things from your master.”
“I’m not a child,” Creda shot back, not bothering to struggle against her bonds. “And my master is loyal. She’d never trade anything valuable to the king for me.”
(Mayence wouldn’t. She wouldn’t.)
“Not even if you are more valuable to your wonderful Siej regime than whatever we ask for?”
“That doesn’t matter, you idiot. Making any kind of deal with a traitor is treason. Justice ordains that all of you will die, even if I won’t see it myself.”
Creda started to go mad on her third day as a prisoner.
At least, she thought it was the third day. Or the thirtieth? There was no sunlight. The ropes around her cut into her skin like little knives. There was nothing to do except suffocate in her own thoughts and listen to the rebels when she could hear them.
“How should we kill the girl?” Creda heard someone ask. “Like, if Mayence won’t give us the documents.”
(Mayence won’t give them anything, Creda thought.)
“Just hang her. We have ropes. It’s easy.”
(Creda imagined the ropes tight around her neck. She gagged.)
“There’s nothing wrong with a nice beheading,” someone else said. “Sarai has an axe. She can do it. We can send the girl’s head back to the Siej as a warning or something.”
“Would you like to do the honors of cutting off her head?” snapped Sarai.
(Beheading’s a good way to go, Creda thought deliriously. There’s honor in it. Or something.)
“Calm down, you two. I can just poison her and no one has to cut off anyone’s head.”
“No, Sebastian, we shouldn’t waste your supplies on her. Can’t I just stab her in the heart and let her bleed to death naturally? It’s easier than cutting the head all the way off.”
(Ooh, that’ll be painful!)
“Let her bleed out and make a huge mess? Who wants to clean that up?” replied Sebastian. “I have some cheap poisons I can easily replenish. She can drink my belladonna juice; I have lots.”
“Who willingly drinks poison?”
“A prisoner who knows she’ll never be free again.”
“Finally,” said Creda when she saw that the rebels entering the room carried blades instead of food. Though her head was foggy, she tried not to slur her words—she wanted to die with dignity. “It’s about time you killed me.”
In response, someone tied a gray blindfold around Creda’s eyes. She heard the slice of a knife against rope, and felt the bonds tying her to the pillar loosen, then fall away. Rough hands brought her wrists together and a thinner rope bound them again. Other hands on her shoulders prodded her to start walking. She obeyed.
They led her up some stairs. Then around and around, taking a twisting path as if to make sure she wouldn’t be able to retrace her steps.
(Huh? Why are they bothering with that? I’ll be dead anyway.)
“Let’s stop here,” someone said. Maybe it was Sebastian? Creda supposed she should be able to recognize his voice by now. From the sounds in the air and the softness beneath her feet, she guessed they were in some forest.
She felt the cool of a knife slipping past her wrists. Then the ropes straining against her skin, tugging against a knife before giving in, falling away. Her hands were free.
“You can go home now,” the man-who-might-be-Sebastian said. “We got what we wanted.”
By the time Creda got her blindfold off, the rebels were gone.
(They got what they wanted.
No. She didn’t. Mayence wouldn’t--
Don’t lie to yourself. Mayence would.)
Creda didn’t go home, to where Mayence was waiting for her.
Instead, she marched to the magistrate’s palace. She gave them those crucial five words: My teacher is a traitor.
“Her charge is conspiracy against the throne. Her sentence is death.”
The executioner’s axe glinted. Soon, it would be covered in Mayence’s blood.
The woman who had been a mother to Creda walked to the scaffold. The pair of soldiers escorting her stopped in front of Creda, giving teacher and student a final chance to speak.
“I love you, Creda,” Mayence cried. “I did it for you. I did it to save your life.”
“You yourself told me to love our country more than any individual person,” Creda responded. Something in her chest was breaking in two, but she ignored it—she was only doing what was right. “You handed over precious documents to a group of Flete rebels and enabled them to attack a government building. People got hurt. You broke the law.”
“You would have died!”
“You should have let me.”
After watching the life drain out of Mayence, Creda cried.
Briefly, she wondered if she could trust her mentor's teachings anymore. She'd been a chrysalis clinging onto a branch as the caterpillar inside melted into something better. The branch couldn't fall.
It didn't fall. The king personally congratulated Creda, held her up as an example for the youth of the nation.
“This girl gave up the comfort and love of a mother because her bravery and love for her country was stronger,” he told a crowd, in a speech that would be written and copied for years to come. “She embodies the loyalty of a true Siej worshipper.”
After all, Creda could keep the teachings of a woman in her mind without the the guidance of a mother in her heart. After all, the Siej path was the right one to walk even if the one who put her on the path wasn’t righteous. After all, if Creda wasn’t a good Siej citizen, what was she except a terrible girl who had never redeemed herself?
“Our Maker is benevolent. So why does he not forgive those who commit transgressions?” asked May, Creda’s young protégé. The two were sitting at the old kitchen table, cutting apples for apple pie.
“Forgiveness is a concept of the Flete heathens,” Creda said. She frowned at a spot in the apple she was holding. “It is used to excuse monsters and sinners, and it was used by the Flete king to do terrible things. We were told to suppress our anger. Now, we revel in it.”
May nodded and Creda felt a rush of pride. She’d seen May as her daughter for a long time, and she would always be grateful that she’d guided May down the right path and saved her from becoming a monster.
May placed her slices neatly on a plate. It was porcelain, painted with a sun and a moon. She reached for another apple. “And as we all know from that famous story about you and your teacher, even loved ones don’t get forgiveness.” She sliced into the new fruit, knife cutting through the white flesh. “Our love for any individual person should never eclipse our love for our religion and our country.”
Creda smiled. “You’re pretty smart for a child of fourteen, eh?” Creda cut away the spot in her apple and discarded the piece. “Recall one of the essential Siej maxims. Moral impurity--
“Justifies any punishment in response,” May finished.
Grace Yang is a queer and disabled student from Lexington, Massachusetts. Her writing has been recognized by Bow Seat and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.