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Dreadful Beauty

Nymphosis, a disease that turns humans into Chimeras, is ravaging the land of Gashom. 

 

The More-Than-Pure, determined to protect themselves, have seized power and enacted segregationist laws. 

 

Neria, the daughter of a high dignitary, witnesses more and more of the Chimeras being ruthlessly executed.

 

When she learns she is afflicted by the very disease her father is determined to eradicate, she’s forced to surrender her privileges. She flees the capital amid her terrifying transformation and traverses the strange wilds to seek refuge with others like her.

 

But she knows what’s happening isn’t right.

 

Find out how Neria develops the courage to fight oppression in this inspiring and elegantly written fantasy novel that pushes all to look deeper. 

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First chapter

The sudden burst of sunlight stirred Neria from her sleep. She groaned, turned over on her stomach, and covered her face with the sheet. She knew what was to come yet she refused to let such thoughts linger.

After opening the shutters, Ellane started to tidy away the clothes scattered across the room. She busied herself like a frightened animal, the rustling of her cautious movements soothing Neria like a lullaby. Just as she was drifting back to sleep, the slave whispered her name. The faint sound was enough to wake the girl from her slumber, but she remained still. The timid, hesitant call came again. There was a time when Ellane would have shaken her by the shoulder or kissed her on the forehead. A light kiss, somewhat apologetic, but boldly asserting a forbidden fondness. These subtle signs of affection had disappeared ever since the incident. They had been replaced by a heavy void. Neria was, at times, surprised by just how much weight such emptiness could have, like an ever-present boulder on her back. After a moment of silence, Ellane repeated her litany of whispers. Neria bolted upright and yelled, “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep, you stupid woman?”

The slave's figure cowered. Her eyes widened. Just before they were concealed behind her eyelids, Neria noticed moisture marring their tranquil azure. Ellane bowed, a lock of white hair falling on her forehead, “Forgive me, Miss Neria. Lady Nephalie told me that...”

“I know what my mother said.”

Arhel's eyes had also been blue, but a dark, grayish shade, quite unlike Ellane’s almost transparent pupils.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s because of the execution.”

“I know, Miss Neria.” 

The slave lifted her face for a moment and gave a feeble smile to convey forgiveness that she could never possibly deny. Neria stiffened at the thought of her father learning that she had apologized. Fortunately, neither of them would ever tell him about it.

“Bring me my breakfast.”

Ellane left the room,. Neria was not hungry but had seized upon this excuse to gain a few moments of respite. She let herself fall back onto the bed and closed her eyes. The sound of birdsong blew in with the scent of jasmine from the half-open window. The heat would soon make the air unbreathable, but for now, a gentle breeze caressed her arms and face. She thought of various ways of getting out of the burdensome chore. An embroidery work to finish? Feigning an illness? A rash that would render her so disfigured that her father would refuse to let her out in public? Perhaps he would allow her to stay at home if it were as punishment. Neria's thoughts went round and round, trapped in the confines of her skull. She did not understand why her father forced her to attend these plebeian spectacles.

Ellane reappeared, carrying a plaited olive wood tray that she placed on the bed. Neria sat cross-legged, sighed, took the cup the slave handed her and smelled the infusion... mint and white poleo with a hint of lavender. She sipped it. Just the right temperature; its warmth comforting rather than scalding. Ellane knew her tastes well. She knew the tastes of every member of the family. Everything she touched bordered on perfection. A decapitated egg sat in a ceramic bowl, the top of its shell removed to reveal its firm white and smooth yolk. Three dates bulged and glistened on a fig leaf. Neria bit into one, but, repulsed by its sweetness, put the half-finished fruit down.

Ellane took a blue tunic out of the trunk and laid it at the foot of the bed.

“Why do you live here with us?”   

The slave froze still.

“I’ve often wondered why. You’re the only female Chimera living in the city.”

“There may be others like me living in hiding, Miss Neria.”

“Perhaps. But still... How did you end up here?”

“Thanks to your father. It is a long story."

“Tell me. I won't tell anyone else.”

The slave smoothed out the fabric of the tunic.

“I don't want this one. Get me the yellow one."

“But Miss Neria...”

“With the gold belt and that coral bead necklace. Quickly!”

“Are you sure? Your father...”

“I’m sure.”

Ellane began to fold the dress with a calm elegance out of place in a slave.

“What does flying feel like?"

“I beg your pardon, Miss Neria?”

“Well, you could fly before. What was it like?”

The woman held the dress to her breast with an unreadable expression on her face.

“It was wonderful.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Not now. You’re going to be late.”

How had her father managed to hide a female Chimera under his roof? And why take such risks? Neria knew that she would not be able to extract any more details from her but resolved to try again later that evening.

The egg mocked her with its congealed yellow eye. A stare like that of the barn owl she had seen just a matter of days earlier in the cool of the night. She had looked up and seen it perched on the branch of an oak tree, so very close. The bird had watched her for a few minutes before turning its flat phantom face away and taking off to the skies, nonchalantly beating the air with its great white wings. How would it feel to fly? What would it feel like to have your wings cut off? Like the phantom pain of an amputated limb? Regret for no longer being able to soar towards the sky? Neria had suddenly felt nostalgia for unknown lands. At that moment, she wished she could have followed the bird's example and gone.

Neria put on her long tunic and clasped the coral bead necklace around her neck. The Balou Tipol Manual encouraged the use of muted colors. Well-raised girls should reserve red for their family circles. The color attracted too much attention at public gatherings. Irritated by Ellane’s worried glances, Neria dismissed her. She proceeded to carefully fasten her belt to highlight her waist and raise the hem of her dress, revealing her ankles. She fixed her hair and placed a veil over her brown curls. After strapping on her leather sandals, she sat herself down on a chair. The twittering of the birds softened the muffled sound of the preparations she could hear from downstairs. Neria got to her feet when she heard her mother calling her. Hasty steps announced her arrival, eyebrows creased and mouth pursed.

“They’re waiting for you to leave... Why are you wearing that necklace? Why do you have to be so stubborn, Neria? Take it off this instant.”

“No.”

“What will people say?”

“They’ll be jealous, especially the ladies, I think…”

“You don't think. If you only knew... this is no time to be drawing attention to yourself. At least hide it under your veil. Hurry up! Your father’s getting impatient.”

Neria rushed after her mother, ran down the staircase and burst into the living room with a smile on her lips. A haze of spice from the kitchen filled the house, making her nauseous. The others were waiting for her. Elinor, beautiful in one of her favorite blue tunics, wore an immaculate veil. Adamek had, of course, dressed in white to imitate his father.

“Any reason why you’re late?”

“I didn’t realize the time.”

“You know how I value punctuality.”

“Yes. Sorry.”

As Valterone approached her, Neria lifted her eyes and tried to maintain a calm expression and an air of innocence. He raised his hand as she held her breath. His hand falling again, he smiled. This smile worried Neria more than the looming threat of being struck.

“Let us leave. We have delayed for too long.”

Surrounded by walls that protected their privacy, the residences of the More-Than-Pure were concentrated in front of Supreme Square, where the Temple stood. Neria turned around. Only the flat rooftops of the family residence could be seen from the square. Her mother, a frail solitary figure, raised her hand to wave goodbye. Exempted from public appearances since Arhel's death, Nephalie would be waiting for them at home. With the help of Ellane and the servants, she would put the finishing touches on the preparations for the reception. Paz and Anaëlle would join her at a later time.

Valterone, dressed as ever in white, walked forward in long strides. Adamek, of similar stature, seemed to have difficulty keeping up with his father. The strides of the family’s eldest son made him look like a horse in a dressage competition. The girls, dazzled by the harsh light, hurried along, trying not to fall behind. Their leather sandals slapped against the flagstones. This early summer heat had already become unbearably intense as the sun shone in a blue sky speckled with debonair clouds of white. The heatwave would last for five months, with minor variations that would fluctuate between two temperature levels: barely tolerable and outright infernal.Neria glanced over to her sister and noticed her pinkening cheeks and a veil of moisture on her upper lip and forehead. Her pale skin could not withstand the heat. Neria was always amazed to notice she had any sort of defect, however small it was, and derived a guilty pleasure from it. Yet there was also a certain fondness or hope that she perhaps vaguely resembled her sister in some way, in spite of Neria’s curly hair, dark complexion and hooked nose.

As the custom required, they circled the Source three times, with Neria opening her veil and exposing the necklace that adorned her neck with its ruby luster. The bystanders threw glances in her direction. The women did not seem envious, but rather surprised, even critical. As for the men... Neria felt herself blushing. She decided to ignore them, in the same way that she avoided contemplating the dark waters of the Source. She adjusted the veil on her forehead to partly conceal her face.

They walked toward the Temple. Its three terraces of decreasing size, piled one on top of the other, leaned against a rocky peak that towered over the building, as if the earth's entrails had given birth to an architectural protrusion or, on the contrary, had pierced the human structure to punish humanity for its arrogance. Neria would have preferred to wander on street level, among the fine goods stalls of the Grand Hall, which served, except on feast days, as an indoor market. Its stone walls, pierced with narrow openings, would have protected her from the heat. In accordance with their rank, they took the Cardinal Staircase, located to the west and perpendicular to the building. Neria dreaded the ascent of the hundred and fifty steps that led to the First Gate. Three majestic outer staircases, the north, the south and the west, joined in front of it and provided access to the roof of the Grand Hall, the Sublime Terrace. Neria eventually arrived soaked in sweat, with a red face, labored breath, and burning calves, the price to pay for her status, and passed under the stone arch following Elinor.

The guardian priests, responsible for opening and closing the three Temple Gates, stood on either side of the First Portal. The eldest carried large keys, attached to his belt by a crimson cord. They bowed as Valterone approached, who returned their salutations without stopping. He continued to the area reserved for the More-Than-Pure and their families, just at the edge of the parapet, but immediately left his children to talk to some of his acquaintances. As they settled on their bench, Draz joined them and sat as usual beside Elinor, in the place left vacant by Nephalie. Neria asked herself for the thousandth time why they had not yet married. Their long engagement had become something of a joke and, at twenty-one years old, Elinor now passed for an old maid.

The More-Than-Pure occupied the first row. Other dignitaries had taken their seats behind them, rich merchants, military men, a few priests. They spoke among themselves, happy to prance around in their finery, to boast of their children and to spread rumors. Neria replied to a friend with a smile, then turned her head away. She felt too ill for mindless prattle. The gaping mouth of the Source opened in the center of the esplanade, which was swarming with people. Neria gazed at it - she was not at risk from this distance - and remembered the first time the visions had appeared.

After several days of bad weather that had confined them indoors, their mother was annoyed by the children’s unruly play and hoped that a little exercise and a change of scenery would calm them down somewhat. She had taken advantage of a break in the weather to take them shopping. They went to the market in the Grand Hall, but the bright spell was short-lived. By the end of their shopping, black clouds had gathered again in the sky and icy gusts of wind swept through the square, ruffling their hair, and shaking their clothes like sails on a boat. Neria remembered the joy she had felt as she stood witness to the force of nature and its potential for destruction. When Nephalie stopped to speak to a neighbor, she seized the opportunity to let go of the hand holding onto her and walk away.

“Stay away from the Source!” her mother had shouted to her. An unnecessary warning. Neria had been afraid of the black waters for as long as she could remember. Children played a game of chase. With their feet bare and dressed in grayish rags, they seemed indifferent to the cold and to the opinions of passers-by. Their dirty faces lit up with beaming smiles. Neria, who could never have imagined being among these destitute wretches crawling with vermin, had not been able to take her eyes off the group.

Until she noticed a call. She had already felt a feeling of expectation emanating from the Source, but on that day, this presence had grown into a demand. Neria had approached the water as much as she had dared to and let her gaze sink into it. At first, she had only seen the reflections of clouds, then there had been glimpses of faces, her family, her friends, familiar landscapes. She watched them for a while, enraptured by this magical transformation, oblivious to what was going on around her. But, little by little, the images became less innocuous, and scenes of suffering emerged. Woken from her trance by Arhel tugging at her cloak, she ran away. Since that day, the Source had tarnished her childhood outings with its noxious air. As soon as Neria left her house, she could feel its malignant presence following her down the city's alleyways. Several months after this incident, she had gathered the courage to ask her brother - in a blasé tone, as if she could not attach any less importance to the question - if he had ever seen the pictures in the black water. His expression confirmed her fears. She claimed it was a joke, just a story a friend had told her. Arhel looked at her in that piercing way he would at times but had not pressed her any further on the matter.

From this distance, on her bench among the privileged, Neria could not discern any images on the surface of the Source and felt safe. All around the pool, some passers-by were going about their business, but the majority now awaited the beginning of the spectacle. Silence gradually descended. Valterone took his place next to Adamek. He cast a distant gaze on his children before he sat down, like a final inspection of his troops. Neria could see in his expression he had noticed the necklace. She resisted the desire to cover it with her veil and turned her attention to the high priest, standing on his pedestal. At his signal, the audience rose, and the ceremony began. Down below, younger priests perched on platforms echoed his voice. The congregation recited their praises like all the faithful in the land of Gashom:

“Born from the bowels of the earth, we yearn for exaltation...”

“We are the link between heaven and earth...” 

“Blessed be thou, Asoas, show us the way to eternal purity, send the Savior unto the earth, the Liberator who shall lead us to an enraptured future...”

The air shook with their chants. Neria, carried away in spite of herself by the zeal of the flock, was surprised to find herself voicing her exaltation aloud.

“Blessed be Elatek, thy emissary, who shows us the way of righteousness...”

“Burn the cesspit with thy fiery breath, blind our enemies with thy flaming anger...”

“Let them die, let them perish, let them suffocate in their putrid pestilence...”

At the end of the prayer, a troop of soldiers made their way through the congregation and formed a protective ring around the Source. Insurgents had tried to free the prisoners in the past. Despite the ineptness of those ill-fated endeavors and the moribund condition of the rebellion, the More-Than-Pure took precautions to ensure the solemnity of their justice.

The crowd roared. Two men escorted out a repulsive woman. They propped her up, dragging her along. She did not struggle and seemed to accept her fate. Neria saw red patches, tufts of hair and perhaps even scales on her inflamed skin. Bulbous protuberances disfigured her temples and her bloated legs labored her movement. At this point, it was impossible to tell what kind of monster she would become. A few weeks earlier, she had thought she was safe and was still part of the community. Neria wondered how such a disgusting creature could have dared to hide in the city. Chimeras, with their deceitful and malicious nature, would remain ever unworthy of the trust of Humans. Neria thought suddenly of Ellane, submissive and honest, that Ellane with her many talents. Her extraordinary gifts had distinguished her from the others and had encouraged Valterone to keep her.

The people shouted with glee or jeered at the prisoner. The most daring of them risked the ire of the guards and threw rotten fruit at the condemned. Neria did not dare look away out of fear of her father's scorn. Seized by nausea, she focused on her breathing. The pained feet of the monster were dragging on the ground. Neria felt a great heat and fanned herself with a side of her veil.The executioners stopped in front of the rim surrounding the Source. The Chimera raised one leg, leaned on the uneven stones and, propped up by the two men, climbed up onto the edge.

Neria hoped that the criminal would not struggle. She abhorred those pitiful spasms, those pathetic attempts to escape an inevitable death. But this one accepted her fate. The executioners pushed her forward and backed away hurriedly to avoid any splashes. She fell, disappearing as if sucked into quicksand. A few feeble ripples, then nothing. The Source devoured its victims like an ogre. But who was the real ogre here? Those unfathomable waters or the Humans who used them to dispose of their condemned? Neria's throat tightened, a wave of heat overwhelmed her. She was afraid of fainting or worse... What punishment would she face if she defiled the Temple grounds?

“Are you feeling okay?”

Sweet Elinor... So obedient and caring. She didn't ask for much, really, just a little affection.

“But what are you wearing? Are you crazy? If father finds out...”

“He saw."

“You're going to get in trouble!"

“I need to get some air. I won’t be long.”

Neria ignored her sister and left. The public was still discussing the anatomical curiosities of the monster and rejoicing in its death. Neria had the sudden sensation of seeing her reflection in a distorting mirror. In no rush, she moved towards the Transcendental Staircase that led to the second floor. She climbed the first step and waited. Reassured by the hubbub of the conversations that continued without interruption, she continued her ascent. If anyone noticed her, she would tell the truth, that she had wanted to get some fresh air. But no one in the crowd of dignitaries was interested in the strange behavior of such an insignificant girl. She reached the shadow of the Sovereign Gate, cooled off for a moment, turned around, leaned against the wall, and took in the view. She could still hear the incessant cackling. Vividly colored clothes studded the terrace like precious gemstones. Valterone, like a white sun, stood dominant among them with his stature and his presence. Beyond the parvis lay the tapestry of the streets of Alipaz. Beyond that still lay the sea, both magnificent and malevolent.

A decade had passed since the last sea monster attack. After breaching the protective nets, tiger sharks had swarmed onto the beach and into the city. They slaughtered thirty-five people and then left, taking the remains of their victims with them.

Neria shivered in spite of the heat, turned her back to the sea, advanced towards the Superior Terrace and stopped in front of the Sanctuary of Asoas the Glorious. Elinor and Neria had been admitted to this holy place only on rare occasions, a place mostly frequented by men. Their father usually went there accompanied by Adamek. She clearly remembered its stately antechamber with six arched windows, which led into the Chancel. Adorned with pilasters and recesses, the Chancel was illuminated by several narrow openings in the upper part of the walls and by the Clarifying Fire on its stone pedestal. The opulence of the ornaments, the magnificence of the clothing of the priests, and the gold and silver holy artifacts that glistened in the half-light had dazzled Neria. After the ordeal of the many steps, she had been rewarded by the privilege of being comforted by cool water, the fragrance of incense, and shimmering flames in the intimacy of the house of Asoas.

This time, Neria did not dare enter. She skirted the Chancel and approached the balustrade. From this point, the highest in Alipaz, higher still than the walls that protected it and domineered only by the great rock against which the Temple leaned, she could freely admire the two peaks that flanked the eastern road, the so-called Two Sisters. The two peaks were crowned with buildings. They had served as sentry posts in the distant past when the forest reached the sea and wild hordes attacked the city. They were no longer needed and were falling into ruin. The Little Sister's post resembled a fortified farmhouse, the Big Sister's a tower. To Neria's eyes, the Big Sister, slender with its top crowned with battlements, represented Elinor. The other, the Little Sister, was stocky and banal, reminding her of herself. At their feet, the Yatir River meandered, languishing and lazy, crossing through fields before flowing into the city and into the sea. Beyond the Two Sisters, a mysterious world began, a world that neither Neria nor Elinor had ever gone near.

“What are you doing here?”

With her heart pounding, Neria turned to the stranger, an emaciated priest with thin lips twisted into a spiteful grin.

“Answer me! Why aren’t you saying anything? Such stupidity. Don't just stand there dangling your arms, you're defiling the sanctity of our Temple. I'm taking you to the guardhouse.”

The excuse of wanting to take in some fresh air would not be enough. Neria imagined the shame she would feel if she had to go back down like some common criminal accompanied by this middling nobody. Her father's reaction…

“The Divine Valterone, my father, gave me permission to come to admire the Sanctuary and the view.”

“The Divine Valterone? But he knows very well that...”

“I was just about to leave. No need to see me out.”

Neria walked away as proudly as she could.

“Wait, I'll come with you.”

She heard the hurried steps following her but continued on her way. The priest, now groveling, smiled to her with a foul grin.

“I’ve always wanted to meet the Divine Valterone, such a wonderful man...”

“Don't even think about it. You’d only disturb him.”

“But why not? This is the perfect opportunity.”

“I advise you not to get on his nerves when he’s in conversation with his friends. The executions may seem like a bit of fun for you, but I assure you that my father takes them very seriously. They are more than a cleansing ceremony; they are a crucial opportunity for this city's leaders.”

“But...”

They had reached the Sovereign Gate. She stopped and looked him straight in the eye: “Trust me. Coming with me now will only end in trouble.”

He must have sensed the sincerity of her words, revealed as an expression of disappointment spread over his face. She had not lied. Bearers of bad news were by no means immune from Valterone’s anger.

"See you soon, I hope.”

“Yes. Sure.”

She began to descend the stairs. She would have liked to mimic the serene immobility of the stone and melt into it but forced herself to maintain the same regal rhythm as when she had begun. One step and then another... The crowd had started to disperse. She could see her father talking to another More-Than-Pure. From time to time, he turned away from the speaker. He seemed preoccupied. As long as he did not raise his head... One step and then another...

Elinor, blue and white as a summer sky, with her widened eyes and mouth half-opened, had seen her. She snapped out of her amazement and came to meet her. The two sisters arrived at the bottom of the stairs together.

“What were you doing up there?”

“Just needed a bit of fresh air.”

“On the Superior Terrace?”

“Whyever not? You think it’s right we're not allowed to visit it?”

“You're mad.”

“Don't tell anyone I went.”

“What do you take me for? I'd rather not get us in trouble. But you might want to think about the consequences of your actions...”

“Shut up, he's coming.”

“Where have you been?”

“I needed some air, so I found a quiet spot in the shade.”

“Where do you think you are? A picnic?”

“I'm sorry, I didn't think...”

“Exactly. You never think. And that necklace... Well, I suppose you won't be my problem for too long, but don't think that this conversation is over. Come on. Inside. Our guests are waiting. And cover up that ridiculous necklace!”

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