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art by Steven R. Stewart

Forever Sixteen

Amy Sundberg is a writer of speculative and Young Adult fiction, a musician, and a blogger. A recent graduate of Taos Toolbox, she lives with her husband and little dog in California. She loves to sing, travel, and eat pie. You can find her online at practicalfreespirit.com.

My guardians, tall and robed in blue, whisper when they see me now and shake their heads. They're dissatisfied because I haven't orchestrated an escape attempt for at least five Champions. Well, okay, exactly five. Since the Champion known as Eric.
I'm not supposed to know the Champions' names, of course, but I see it as my job to break the rules (of which there are never-ending lists) as often as possible. Why else would they choose a girl forever sixteen to preside at the Court of the Sybil? They're looking for trouble, even hungry for it. My adolescent fire is what runs the magic they seek. Plus, anybody in my place would have to bend the rules just to provide some variety to the monotonous sameness of never reaching seventeen.
I don't know how long I have been here. Once I had a choice, but I made the wrong one.
On the day of Eric's first audience, he knelt before me and raised his head to meet my eyes. A small smile played about the corners of his mouth. He wasn't as handsome as some of the Champions: his gray-blue eyes were set slightly too close together for true symmetry, and his skin was bad--his two-day growth of stubble wasn't enough to hide the red blotches on his jaw line. But he had a nice smile--a kind smile, I thought--and his two days of fasting and praying hadn't dazed him so much that he couldn't focus on me. He looked at me as if I was an actual person. You'd be surprised how few Champions are able to do that. I think the stories that circulate about me intimidate them, because usually they choose a spot a few inches above one of my shoulders to stare at during our audiences.
Or hell, maybe they don't need to hear stories to be frightened. My formal get-up is not designed to be reassuring: my long black hair styled to wind and spiral over my head, like a snake with pretensions (and let me tell you, getting the wire untangled from my hair afterwards is painful); the pure white cotton shift which shows the pleasing contours of my nubile figure (not my words, I assure you); and the sickly red streaks they use to paint my cheekbones, my lips, my hands, and feet. Yes, it's blood, but I try not think about it. If I try hard, I can imagine it's just exotic cosmetics, like fire-poppy dust. I understand it might be hard to see the girl underneath all these trappings.
Eric's smile encouraged me. I often grew lonely here, my guardians spending much of their time in forbidding silence. "Rise, my champion," I said, making a graceful gesture with my hand. "Did you have a pleasant journey?"
He blinked. "Pleasant enough, my lady," he said, ducking his head.
I tried not to blush furiously. Of course he hadn't had a pleasant journey, not one bit of it. The mountains were treacherous, and tradition required that Champions travel alone with no outside assistance. "May your endeavors here meet with the approval of the Gods," I said, lapsing into formality to hide my discomfort. I never knew what to say to these handsome Champions of mine.
"I am most grateful for your blessing, O Sybil." Eric, on the other hand, seemed to have no problems speaking to me. The men that came to see me were inevitably brave and self-assured, although not always the brightest.
Well, I could always impress them with prophecy if nothing else. I focused my eyes on his forehead and began the ritual breathing that would help me fall into a trance. The rushing sound came quickly this time, and my eyes rolled backwards in my head as I raced down his fate line, a throbbing blue in the darkness, reminding me of the veins that interlocked underneath my own pale skin.
I passed up two separate prophecy lines, so thick and shining so brightly that I knew they portended greatness. I didn't want a prophecy of greatness for a Champion who smiled at me. He might be disappointed to be denied fame, or I might be forced in a later session to reveal more than I wished, but for this, our first meeting, I could afford to be selfish.
I found what I was looking for farther down the fate line, further than I'd normally bother to look. A fainter fork, but glowing with a tinge of yellow. This path would take him to happiness. I prodded at it, coaxed the sun-colored glow to burn more brightly, felt how it connected to the great whole.
"Beware the flow of blood," I said, speaking through the jeweled colored crisscross of fate lines into the outer world. "Do not deviate from your path until the seven suns form a straight line in the sky." That should keep him away from those first two stronger fate lines. We would have other sessions later on, when I could solidify his future still further. But now, the lines began to grow brighter and brighter until they blinded my inner eye, and I fainted.
Once, I got older like everyone else. I grew taller, I celebrated birthdays, I changed. I failed to appreciate it at the time. I gave it all up to be Somebody, to feel important, to live in this luxurious yet barren palace. I didn't understand about the barren part yet. I did it because I knew my mother wanted me to accept the honor. It made her and my family more important too. And eight children was a lot of mouths to feed. I was actually excited to stay sixteen forever, and in the event that I might need to be comforted (which I couldn't even imagine), I could think of the opportunities I had bought for my brothers and sisters and be proud.
Never mind any opportunities for me.
The problem is, even if my physical body stays frozen, I still think. I still remember. How many years of being an isolated sixteen-year-old virgin to whom nothing happens and nothing is told does it take until life becomes stale and predictable and, well, lifeless? And all the while I don't age, not even a day. Thinking about sisters whose faces are no longer distinct in my memory can't touch this torture.
After my audience with Eric, I decided I had to forget about the dozens of aborted escape attempts and try something different. He was my chance, I could tell, and if I could just get him alone, convince him to compromise my virtue, either with words or temptations, I didn't care which, then I wouldn't need to escape. I couldn't very well be the Virgin Sybil without the virgin part.
I wasn't allowed to wander at will with a Champion in residence, but I still went to my special meditation garden. The garden was critical to my plan. I can't even count how many times I had tried to strike out from there, so there were plenty of alarms set up to keep me inside, but none that I knew of to keep me out. After all, they have to leave me some leeway to misbehave, or I'll lose my fire altogether, and that would never do for a Sybil of my importance. So they're not as careful as you might think.
I went there at the usual time, late afternoon, and knelt beside the black pool. The pale shadows of golden fish danced in its depths and the small tumble of water from the next pool up tinkled into it, disturbing the surface with an energetic pattern of ripples. I was alone, would be unless I tripped one of their devices.
I waited as long as I could bear, then started climbing up the palace wall, which was prettily (and practically) decorated with a network of vines that produced pale pink and white flowers for a short period in early spring. My arms were strong from the prescribed exercise routines I endured every morning, and I wasn't afraid of heights. Sometimes I thought I might not be afraid of anything except the possibility of more of the same.
Arm over arm, I hauled myself up to the appropriate window. It was closed, but I broke a pane of glass with my hand and reached inside to undo the clasp. My hand was bleeding, but what was more blood to me? I ignored the pain and pushed open the windows, losing my balance at the last minute and tumbling in.
Eric had his back toward me, but he turned around with a fighter's fast reflexes when I crashed through the window. He didn't recognize me at first without the ridiculous hair style and the blood, but maybe the blood on my hand jogged his memory. Whatever the reason, after that first surprised pause, he sprang into action--he pulled a sheet from his bed (his bed!) and tore a strip to wrap around my hand. "My lady?" he asked, hesitating to touch me.
"Do it," I replied. "Please." He reached out and took my hand with such gentle grace that I almost started to cry while at the same time I felt a frisson through my body. A man touching me! And not just any man, either, but one of my beloved Champions, the nicest one yet.
He bound my hand, wrapping the sheet around and around with care. "Let me call someone to assist you," he said. His voice was quieter in the small space--it fell into my ears without the echoes that cloaked it in the Great Hall.
"Please don't," I said. "I'm fine and… I need your help."
I saw a light in his eyes and wondered if he thought this was yet another variation of the ritual, perhaps a test of some kind. "I am at your command."
We stood looking at each other. His hand was still holding my injured one, cradling it as though it were broken. I didn't know how to talk to him. "Tell me what you are called?" I asked finally, trying to build up my courage.
"Eric, my lady," he said, and he dropped my hand as if just realizing he was still holding it.
"Mine is Clara." I told him even though he didn't ask. Clara, the word I keep closest to my heart. I repeat it to myself during the long hours of solitude wandering my white unblemished palace.
"I didn't know you had a name," he said. Had he not thought about me then? Did my Champions not obsess about me as I did over them? It was a new idea.
I didn't care. "Please, I need your help." I could barely force the words from my throat. I crossed the few steps between us and pressed myself up against him as I remembered my older sister doing with her betrothed. He started but didn't pull away. I tilted my head to look into his face and pushed my lips against his.
He was frozen, his body a marble statue against me, and I could feel the exact instant when he began to kiss me back. Oh, and here was the fire again, the fire I could feel running low within me! My heart pounded its fast staccato in my chest and for the first time I felt my dream sensations in the flesh. It was going well, I thought between beats. I would succeed. Finally I would escape.
He pulled away from me, and at first I thought it was to lead me to his bed, but then I opened my eyes and saw him backing away from me, palms out as if to fend me off. "Sybil, I cannot. We must not." He continued to move away. "Let me call your attendants."
"It's Clara," I said, following him. "And I don't want my attendants. I can't live this way anymore. Please, just trust me. Please." A tear slipped down my cheek.
"This is a test," he said, and my tears started dripping faster. "I won't take away who you are. Your power. I'll call someone."
"This isn't who I am!" I said, desperate now, sinking onto the floor in front of him. "I'm not a mystical Sybil, a virgin who never changes. I'm Clara, and I do change!" I held my head in my hands and rocked, sobbing my name over and over.
I felt his hand brush my shoulder, and I almost hoped, but he pulled it away. "I will follow your advice, my Sybil," he said. "The suns aren't yet in line."
His footsteps rang against the hard white floor, going ever farther from me. Cursed by my own prophetic words. If only I hadn't softened my heart for him, if only I had shaped him for a great destiny, I wouldn't be kneeling here alone. My body shook with soundless pain until rough hands pulled me up and took me to my room, locked me in.
I never saw Eric again.
It's cruel, being caught up in a perpetual adolescence, but it's necessary. That's where the power is, in the state of being between, teetering from childhood to womanhood and back again. That's why they keep me this way, the best age to read the portents, to shape what is to come. My flimsiest whim is a force to be reckoned with, here in the palace. It would be heady, all that power. It would be, except I never get to hear how it's turned out. I'm guiding the world while blindfolded.
Four more Champions since then, but I don't care. I only dream about Eric now. You might think I'm in love with him, but I know I'm not. How can I be now that I know he didn't really see me at all? I pretend I'm in love with him though, and in my dreams, I can almost convince myself. And what is love anyway? He knows my name; isn't that enough?
They've brought a new girl to the palace. Isabel. She's so young. I mean, she's sixteen like me, but she has a soft place inside her that's missing in me. I bet I had it once, before I was forever sixteen, but I can't wind time back up on its spindle so I can have it again.
She'll make a good Sibyl, I think. Her long blond hair is the color of butter, her eyes gray-blue, like Eric's. There's a lot of fire in her, I can tell just by looking. We're working on fixing her imperfections: special rinses to take away the stringiness of her hair, expensive ointments to clear up her skin. She has to be a suitable vessel for the importance they plan to bestow upon her, after all.
I introduce myself to her as Clara, and now there are two people who know my name. I remember the girl before me. I called her Sybil. Maybe she'd forgotten her name. Or maybe she didn't care about it anymore. I still care, and I feel a small sense of victory in it.
You'd think that I would be excited to finally succeed at escaping this place, but now that it's really happening, I feel strange. Tired. Old. It's as if my sixteen-ness has suddenly worn out and deserted me. I found a white hair mixed among my black ones a few days ago, and there is an unaccustomed ache in my middle back that I can't seem to make go away no matter which way I stretch. A small price to pay, I tell myself, but the truth is, I'm scared. Where will I go? What will I do? My brothers and sisters might all be dead by now (surely not that much time has passed?) I don't know.
I throw myself into my duties to help prepare Isabel. "You'll have a wonderful life here," I tell her. "Being forever sixteen, young and pretty. And the Champions are so handsome!"
She doesn't need much convincing. She trills along, leaving her soft spot where anyone can see it, learning the various prophecy forms I have to teach her as if they're nursery rhymes instead of words that can change the fate of a nation. (Or just a man, one with a permanent smile hovering at the corners of his mouth.) She doesn't understand, and I don't try to explain it to her. She'll find out soon enough, won't she? I've learned my lesson about sacrifice, haven't I? She's the reason I'll be allowed to leave.
After awhile, she starts confiding in me. "There was a boy," she says, voice lowered. "He's big and blond and laughs a lot. I thought, maybe…" I know what she thought. "But my parents wanted something better for me," she continues, smoothing her dress as if brushing the memory of this boy from her. "Something grander, more important. They know what's best, of course."
Of course. They all know what's best. I bite my tongue.
"You were a very good Sibyl," she continues, surprising me. "I hope I can be like you." She lowers her eyelashes and stares at her hands, as if she doubts herself.
"What… what do they say about me?" I ask.
"How you see so clearly, how you steer us right through the hardest times without blinking. They say it's because of your brilliance, the raging hotness of your fire, that you've burned out so quickly."
Quickly? They think this is quickly? How little anyone knows. Isabel must see something in my expression, because she bites her lip and looks worried. "They mean it as a compliment. Clara." She adds my name as an afterthought, but I forgive her instantly.
It is the night before Isabel's induction as the new Sibyl. I have helped her into her silken white nightgown, brushed her hair until it shines, spread rose-scented cream on her skin. She is content, I can tell, content with the luxury and excited for tomorrow. I leave her snuggled among her pillows and go back to my room. My last night.
I pace from wall to wall next to my bed, sleepiness making my eyes heavy. This is my chance. I tell myself so many times the words lose meaning. Change has come.
But I can't go through with it. I go back into Isabel's bedroom and shake her awake. She is flushed and drowsy, confused in her half-sleep. "Clara? Is it time?"
"No," I whisper. "You mustn't go through with it, Isabel. Who cares what your parents say? I promise you, whatever reasons you have for being here, they're not worth it. Refuse the honor and go home. There's still a chance for you."
She stares at me. "What?" she says. "What?"
"I've been lying," I tell her, the words pouring from my mouth in an unstoppable rush. "I've been lying about everything. It's horrible here. It's no life, to stay one way forever. I've tried to escape so many times I've lost count. They've tricked you into coming. You should leave before the ceremony begins."
The twisted truth is that the Virgin Sybil must volunteer for the task. She cannot be forced. So in the years of suffering after you take your vows, you know that it is, ultimately and completely, your own fault.
Isabel shakes her head, pushes herself up against the pillows. "I know what I'm doing," she says. I know she doesn't. "I'm sorry you've had such a short time, Clara, but now it's my chance. My chance to change the world. To make things better for everyone."
I narrow my eyes. "And your pretty laughing boy?" I ask. "What about him?"
She pauses, and for a minute I think I've reached her, but then she shrugs. "He's in the past now," she says. "I won't let him ruin this for me." She tilts her head so her blond hair cascades over her face like a shield. "Leave me now." She sounds imperious, like a Queen. I pity her, but maybe she'll be more content than I have been. Maybe her fire comes from a different place. I hope so.
The morning comes. I help Isabel dress, then kiss her soft cheek goodbye. I won't be seeing her again. She leaves to begin the rituals, and I return to my room. Once she is vested with the Sybil's powers, I will be free to leave, they have told me. I have packed some things. I will live in comfort, in a little house by the ocean. They have promised.
I stare at myself in the mirror, wondering what comes next. I finger my perfect, unlined skin, my thick black hair that has more than one white hair peeking out. I think of how big the ocean is, how big the world is. I wonder if, after all, I might find my soft place again.
As I watch, my face changes, and my hair. Gradual at first, but then faster and faster, my face develops a network of wrinkles and the white hairs spread. My knuckles become more knobby, the blue veins sticking out in ever-growing hills. It hurts, oh please, I hurt. And I realize this is one last lie, one last indignity. I wonder if my mother knew.
I don't cry, even though the pain is something fierce. I stand and watch my face crumple in on itself until it hurts too much to stand, and then I lie on my bed and wait for it to end. I think of my little sisters kicking in the bed we shared. I think of the seven-tiered pools in the meditation garden. I think of Isabel's hair, which looks even more like butter than it did before.
I think of Eric and his taste of heady wine, only sweeter, and I think that he knows my name.
And at last, that is all I have left. Clara. Clara. I feel my body turning to dust, I'm falling down an endless well. At least it's finally changing.
I'm cold here. Clara.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Author Comments

I first thought of my seed idea of a sixteen-year-old who was never allowed to grow up when I was soaking in a hot tub in Maui. I was supposed to be relaxing before diving into my next novel project, but about five minutes after having this idea, I knew I had to write it right away. So I wrote this story on the beach and lanai at the Maui resort. Strangely, it still felt like vacation, and I don't know if it was the idyllic setting, but this story flowed very easily from my brain to the page.

- Amy Sundberg
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