A young woman's hand rested against the rugged texture of the wood. Slowly, carefully, she pushed forward, and the comparatively tall door opened up, though not without a loud creaking sound. She tried to look inside, but it was pitch black. Even outside, it was a little difficult to see: the village was lit by plenty of street lamps, but this temple was about a five minute walk from the nearest house, and she only had a small oil lamp with her. Fortunately, the moon was full and bathed her surroundings in a cold, dim light. She turned her head to the side, where an older man, wearing some comfortable but old-fashioned clothes and carrying a walking stick, smiled at her reassuringly.
"I'm sure you'll do great, honey. There's nothing to be scared of, okay? Just remember what aunt Clarene told you."
She gave him a determined look before nodding, then bending forward and picking up the basket and the oil lamp that were sitting at her feet.
"I'll be sitting here until you're done."
"Alright. Thanks, Dad."
She took a deep breath and walked inside, gently shoving the door open the rest of the way with her shoulder. After taking a few steps forward, the sound of it closing on its own behind her startled her a bit, but she turned her head forward and kept walking, determined.
The inside of the temple was way too spacious to be illuminated by her small lamp. It was cold, too, especially with her current outfit: a simplistic white robe that only covered one of her shoulders, and a pair of sandals. Only after lighting a few of the candles, as she had been instructed, did she start to see her surroundings more clearly. Most of the structures around her, from the walls to the few pillars that supported the ceiling to the shelves and raised surfaces that held the candles, were made of a smooth, grey type of stone. One got the impression that it would have been quite magnificent back in the day, but now it was all chipped and covered in cracks, moss growing wherever it could find a hold. One of the pillars was missing entirely, but the ceiling showed no signs of caving in.
After lighting all the candles, the young woman directed her attention to the most prominent feature of the temple: the large statue that sat exactly in the middle, right under a deliberately square hole in the ceiling. It was about twice the size of a regular person, and it depicted a woman dressed in an elaborate tunic, with her arms put forward and her palms facing up, as if offering something, and with a hood pulled over her head. The statue was as chipped and mossy as the rest of the temple, and a couple fingers were missing from one of her hands, but it wasn't any less beautiful for it. The young woman stood in front of it, glancing down at a grey pedestal in front of the statue, then took a few steps back and knelt down, leaving the basket and the lamp on the floor. She then put her hands together and closed her eyes.
"Oh, Saint Nonno, patron of the village, please answer my call."
A few seconds passed, and nothing seemed to happen. She opened her eyes slowly, and saw a faint glow manifesting right in front of the statue, about where the moonlight hit its chest. The glow got bigger and brighter, seeming to gain a shape of its own, while the young woman watched in silence. Finally, it formed the outline of a woman identical to the statue. The ethereal shape floated in mid-air for a moment before opening its eyes and looking down. It spoke, too, with a soft, feminine voice that seemed to reverberate unnaturally between the walls.
"Welcome to my temple, my child."
The young woman closed her eyes again and tilted her head forward. Her hair was completely black, and hung down a little past her neck, tied in a complex pattern of braids.
"Greetings, Saint Nonno. My name is Riesz, and I will be performing the Offerings from now on, taking over the role of priestess for my coming of age."
The figure smiled down at her.
"I know who you are. I know everyone in the village, my child. That is part of my role as a protector."
Riesz kept her head tilted down.
"R-right. Of course. I apologize, Saint Nonno."
"There is no need. Now, you brought the Offering, did you not?"
She seemed to extend one of her transparent arms forward, and made a gesture. The basket that was in front of Riesz rose up into the air, as if suspended by a string, and floated over to the grey pedestal. It contained some food, mainly a variety of fruits and a couple loaves of bread.
"So I have, Saint Nonno."
"Very good. Did Clarene inform you on how to conduct the rest of the Offering?"
"Yes, Saint Nonno. She taught me the necessary prayers."
"Perfect. You may spend the rest of the time in prayer if you so wish."
That caught Riesz off guard, and she lifted her head. "If- if I wish?"
"Prayer is not strictly necessary for the ritual. The priestess may choose other spiritual activities if she wishes."
"The Offering is already done. Most priestesses choose to dedicate a prayer to their loved ones, but you may also leave now if you prefer. You are under no obligation to stay."
"Well, I- um... I had a prayer ready, so I can do that- I mean! If that would be okay with you! Um. Saint Nonno."
"As I have said, that is fine."
Regaining her composure, Riesz put her hands together again and closed her eyes. For a few minutes, she sat in silence, mentally going over the lines she had prepared, the temple's normally stone cold floor feeling oddly warm against her knees. Saint Nonno waited patiently for her to finish and, when she was done, she rose to her feet, picking up the lamp.
"Are you done, my child?"
Riesz nodded in response. "Yes. May I go back home now, Saint Nonno?"
"Of course. Tell your father and the others who contributed that I thank them for the offering."
Smiling up at the floating figure, Riesz nodded, and watched it fade into the air just as gracefully as it had appeared, leaving only the statue of her likeness behind. Letting out a long, drawn out breath, Riesz moved to put out the candles and walk out of the temple, where her father was waiting, sitting on a stone bench.
"Well, how did it go?"
"It wasn't bad at all, actually. She seems nice. Not as scary as I remembered."
The older man took the lamp from her hand and they both started walking back to the village. "Hah, well, she has to put on a bit of a show for the festivals and such. And you were only a little kid for the last one."
Riesz nodded her head, not paying a lot of attention. A thought wouldn't leave her mind.
Had Saint Nonno always been so... pretty?
Half a year had passed since then. Riesz dutifully performed the Offering every month, like every priestess before her had. She fell into a comfortable routine with Saint Nonno, much less intimidated now that she knew her role. Today, however, she had an unexpected problem.
"Is something wrong, my child?" Riesz was kneeling on the floor again, in her ceremonial robe, and Saint Nonno looked down at her with a concerned expression.
"I. Kind of forgot to prepare a prayer for today."
"Ah. That should not be a problem. You can pray about whatever your heart desires. The content is not important."
"No, no, I am horrible at improvising. I've always prepared them way in advance." Well, that was at least half of the reason she didn't want to go along with that plan.
"It is also fine if you wish to leave now. Nobody is accompanying you this time, is that not right?"
"Well..." She stood up and thought for a moment. "You mentioned other priestesses did other rituals instead of praying?"
"That is correct."
"What kind of rituals?"
"Some of them performed a ceremonial dance. Others brought some paint with them and painted small drawings on the walls and columns, though those have long faded away now. Some simply talked to me about whatever was troubling them."
"Talked... to you?"
"Like I said, the ritual after the Offering is not for my sake, but the priestess' own. Is there anything you want to share with me, my child?"
Kinda. Maybe. No way. "No, not really. But... well, instead of sharing, could I ask some things of you, Saint Nonno?"
"Of course." She gestured towards a grey stone bench to the side, and Riesz walked over to it and sat down.
"Well, uh... this might be disrespectful but... why do priestesses need to be so... formal when addressing you?"
Saint Nonno couldn't hold back a small chuckle. "They do not need to. This is the kind of language I am comfortable with myself, but I do not demand it of others."
"Wait, you don't? Are you- I mean, is that really so?"
"Not at all. Speak to me however you like, my child."
Riesz stretched her legs out and let out a breath. "Oh, thank Nonno. You have NO idea how difficult that is to keep up."
The figure smiled down at her. "I was surprised you chose to speak just like Clarene did, given what I know about you."
"Yeah, no, I thought that was just what I had to sound like. Clarene told me it would offend you if I didn't." She shook her head. "Wow, that's a relief."
"That is just like her. Her family has always put me on an even higher pedestal than I already am. But you do not need to worry about that, my child. I am simply the patron of the village, nothing more."
"Just... don't tell her, okay? She would flip out if she found out I'm not being all formal and crap with you."
"It will be our little secret."
They exchanged a glance, both of them smiling. For the first time, Saint Nonno seemed not just kind, but actually... approachable.
"Oh, by the way, what is it with the whole 'my child' thing?"
"Ah. That is simply out of habit. Do you dislike it?"
"I know it's like, tradition or something, but it feels weird. I'm already nineteen, you know? I'm not a child."
"You are eighteen."
"And a half. That is basically nineteen."
Saint Nonno couldn't help but smile. "Well, if you prefer, I could call you something else."
"Just Riesz is fine."
"Very well, Just Riesz. Is it because of your sense of justice? Riesz the Just?"
"No no, that's not what I meant! I-" She stopped when a soft laugh cut her off. "... wait, you're messing with me, aren't you?"
"Heh. Me? Whatever do you mean?"
Riesz looked up at the figure, smiling and kicking her legs while she sat on the tall bench. 'Who could have thought she actually knew how to joke around?', she thought to herself.
"Well, um, I should be heading back to the village, I think."
"Very well. As always, be sure to thank your father for the offering."
"Will do." Riesz walked over to one of the candles, before Saint Nonno's voice stopped her.
"Wait. Before you leave, Riesz."
"I simply wanted to let you know... it is okay if you, say, forget your prayers again in the future. It has been a long time since, well... since a priestess has given me conversation instead of seeking spiritual guidance."
Riesz felt a giddy sense of... pride? Excitement? "Alright. I'll keep that in mind."
Over the following year, Riesz kept coming back to the temple every month to perform the Offering. Sometimes she still offered some prayers for her family and friends, but most of the time there was spent conversing with Saint Nonno. She asked about the history of the village, about the previous priestesses, and about the saint herself.
"I am afraid there is not much to say about me. It would be a reach to call me a person in the first place. I am simply a manifestation of the spirit of the village."
"Really?" Riesz was lying on the stone bench, hands behind her head. "So there wasn't an actual Nonno that lived a long time ago?"
"There might have been, but I am not her. Not entirely, at least. It is complicated."
"Weird. But you do remember everything that happened in the village for a long time, don't you?"
"Yes, that I do. I could not tell you when I first manifested, but ever since I did, your people have been giving me Offerings and appointing a priestess to perform the ritual."
"How long ago was that?"
"Six centuries, approximately."
"Wow." Riesz glanced at the floating figure, then back up at the ceiling. "You're old."
Saint Nonno gave one of her characteristic soft laughs. "I suppose to you I must be incomprehensibly old, yes."
"But you're also good at listening. Unlike every other old person in the village."
"It does not take a supernatural being to realize that something is weighing on you, Riesz."
"You could say that."
"Please, allow me to offer my advice. My role has always been to guide and watch over the people of the village, priestess included."
Riesz let out a loud sigh.
"Alright. Well, you probably know about Terrence, right?"
"The baker's son, yes. You are arranged to marry him when you turn 21, are you not?"
Riesz raised her head in surprise. "How do you know that? Dad just told me about it last week."
"Your grandmother came by the temple just last night to light a candle and offer a prayer for your union."
"Right. Of course she did."
"I can tell you are not exactly thrilled about this. Do you not like Terrence? He has a good heart. He has been to the temple a few times himself to pray for his family."
"It's not that I don't like him. Well, it kind of is. Like, he's a good guy and all, I just... don't swing that way."
"Swing?" Saint Nonno's hooded head tilted in confusion.
"Ah, right, you're old and stuff. Um. I mean I don't like guys in the first place. Nothing against Terrence specifically."
"Oh. I think I see the problem."
"Yeah. I've tried to tell Dad, but he just shrugs it off and says that I'm too young to know what's good for me, and it will pass."
"Heavens. It's hard to believe how much the village has regressed recently..."
"What do you mean, recently?"
"You're far from the first villager to come to me with this problem in the last century. It was not like this before."
"It... wasn't? I assumed this was a new thing."
"Oh, no, not at all. Your own great-great-grandfather married a handsome man from a village all the way across the region. This is very much recent. I wish I knew the cause."
"I see. Well, speculating won't really do much. Can't you just... declare this nonsense over in the next festival? I bet people would listen to you. Or at least talk to Dad about it."
"I am afraid it does not work that way, Riesz. All I can do is offer guidance for yourself. In this case, you may want to have a serious talk with your father. Sit him down and explain calmly why what he wants is not what you want."
"You don't think I've tried that?"
"I know your father. He's a good man. If you speak with enough care and confidence, he'll listen. And... while I cannot speak to others myself outside of the festival, you can tell him that you have my blessing."
"I see. That... might work, yeah."
"I hope it does." A sweet, caring smile formed on Saint Nonno's lips.
"Thanks. You really know how to make someone feel better. You're not the patron of the village for nothing, I suppose."
"I have had plenty of practice. Say, do you happen to have your sights set on any young ladies? I am sure I could also offer guidance on-"
"Whoops! Would you look at the time. I think I need to head back!"
Saint Nonno chuckled. "I suppose that is a yes, then. I will not press any further."
'Oh, if only you knew', Riesz thought to herself while hurriedly walking over to put out the candles.
Riesz had her hands raised up above her head, palms facing each other. Her eyes remained closed as she extended one of her arms to the side, shifting her weight forward. She slowly, gracefully spun around, the faint shadows cast on the temple walls by the candles weaving together. Finally, she stood with her back perfectly straight, brought her hands together in front of her chest, and took a deep breath.
And then a low, loud rumbling sound echoed through the temple.
"Oh heavens. I believe that was your stomach, Riesz."
Saint Nonno was sitting at the feet of her own statue, her legs dangling over the grey pedestal where the Offering was sitting, a rare sight for her. Riesz let her arms fall to the sides, defeated.
"Listen. I haven't had dinner yet, alright?"
"You have not? Is something wrong?"
"No, Dad's stew was just taking a bit longer today, so I decided to come and do the Offering early."
"That is not good. You need to feed yourself. We have some food here with us, conveniently enough. Why don't you take some?"
"Huh? The- the Offering? I can't take that food! That's- well, that's the Offering!"
"Why ever not?"
"Well, because it's for you! We're all taught from a very young age that you don't take food from the Offering!"
"Ordinarily, yes, but you are hungry, are you not? Think about it for a second, dear. I am a spirit, what do I need food for?"
"The food is not for me. It is for the animals that live in the fields around the temple. Offerings are simply a way for villagers to give back to nature, after being provided with so much."
"Oh." Riesz blinked, looking like she had just been told that the sky is blue. "Well. I guess that makes sense."
"The food is here for those who need it, and you need it. Take some." An apple floated out of the basket, as if by magic, and landed on Riesz's hand. "I insist."
"Alright already, Mom." She sat down on the bench and took a bite out of the apple. "You're not usually this pushy."
"Now, who was it last time that insisted on not being called a child?"
"Shush." Saint Nonno laughed, and even through her pretend indignation, Riesz couldn't help but grin at that beautiful sound. She took another bite to disguise it. "So, hey, did I do the dance okay?"
"It was not bad. Your movements certainly are as graceful as those of the priestesses that came before you. You seemed too hasty to finish, though. The purpose is not to complete the ritual, it is to calm and center your soul. You can even perform it by yourself when you need a moment to focus."
"I guess that's true. I'll do a little better next time."
"Next time? So you are planning on trying again, are you?"
"Oh yeah. Just you watch, I'm going to blow all those other priestesses out of the water. And I'll even do the dance at the next festival."
"That is a wonderful idea. I am sure everyone will love it."
Another year came and went, surprisingly fast. Riesz kept Saint Nonno up to date with the goings-on in her life, and sometimes requested the spirit's guidance, although in general she seemed to prefer to handle things by herself. On the other hand, Saint Nonno told her bits and pieces about the history of the village and its inhabitants, and every time Riesz listened attentively, not wanting to miss a single word.
Today, after offering one of her prayers, Riesz stood back up and rested her back against one of the pillars, sighing.
"That was a very heartfelt prayer", the tall, transparent figure said. "I hope it comes true. Your father should really be more understanding by this point."
"Yeah, I hope so too. I wish you had the power to just... knock all those marriage thoughts out of him. Still, he's getting better. At least now he's trying to match me up with girls instead."
"He still should not meddle in your love life. That is not a parent's role."
"I know, I know. I hope he just lets it go soon."
"Speaking of, you never did tell me which fair maiden it is that holds your heart. I cannot help but wonder."
Riesz fidgeted with the braided hair behind her back, grinning. "Well, maybe I should tell you."
"Oh, exciting! Who is it?"
"Well, I can't just yell it out! There might be someone listening. Can't you come closer?"
"Hm. No, I am bound to this altar. But..." She lifted one of her hands and made a gesture, and just like that, Riesz's body raised up into the air, light as a feather.
"Woah!" She kicked her legs around a bit, surprised, then looked up to see Saint Nonno's face approaching hers as she floated closer. "Well, that works too!"
Once they were face to face, a little closer than Riesz had expected, she stopped moving. "Well?"
"Come on, I can't whisper into your ear like that."
"Right. Just a moment." Saint Nonno reached up and finally pulled her hood back, letting her long, white hair loose. It seemed to wave on its own, like carried by a gentle breeze, and if she hadn't known better Riesz would have thought she was dreaming. "Now, how much longer are you planning to keep the secret, dear?"
"Oh, not very long at all. You see..." Riesz then leaned forward, closer. Then a little closer.
And then she pressed a very brief kiss to Saint Nonno's lips.
They looked into each other's eyes for what felt like forever, in stunned silence. Truth be told, Riesz felt a little helpless, suspended in midair and right in front of someone so much bigger than herself. But she also felt good. Like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
That was all the response that came from Saint Nonno.
"Aw, you didn't like the secret?"
"Like? I mean, I am- You're- You cannot be-"
"Oh, now you're telling me what to do? I thought you were only supposed to offer guidance."
Another eternity passed in silence. Then, Riesz felt herself being pulled closer once again, and her lips once again touched with Saint Nonno's, this time staying together. She put her arms around the figure's neck, and even if she was ethereal and could pass right through her, she felt more real than anything had ever felt before. Her eyes closed and she let out a sound of comfort, not wanting to let go, pressed together under the light of the full moon. Her fingers ran through the thin strands of ethereal hair, as delicately as she could. Finally, she felt herself being pulled back, and opened her eyes again. Once more, none of them knew what to say.
She felt her weight slowly returning as she was lowered down to the ground, and awkwardly looked back up at the imposing figure. Though it wasn't so imposing when even her colourless cheeks were obviously shining bright with blush. Funnily enough, Saint Nonno was the one to break the silence.
"That was... certainly something, was it not?"
"Was it too much? Should I not have- I mean, I am not really supposed to-"
"Too much? No, not at all. I kind of wanted you to keep going."
She looked down at Riesz, giving her a nervous smile.
"To be perfectly honest, this is very new. I had never done anything of the sort with a human."
"Really now? None of the priestesses ever made a pass at you? I find that hard to believe."
"I suppose none of them were as... adventurous as you are, Riesz."
"Well, I'll take that as a compliment!"
Saint Nonno's eyes drifted down to the floor, with a sad expression on her face.
"Listen, Riesz. I hope you understand why I cannot be what you want. You humans need to be with other humans. I cannot leave the altar, and I would not-"
"Woah, hey, what do you even know of what I want?" She put her hands on her waist, offended. "Have you even thought to ask?"
"Huh? Is a kiss not a confession that you want the other as your partner?"
"Well, it can be, but not always! I don't expect you to ever leave your altar, or to give up your obligations with the village."
"Is that so? Then what did this... mean? What do you expect from me?"
"Nothing at all. I'll keep coming over for every Offering, just like I always have, and maybe if you like we could have a little repeat of what we just did."
Saint Nonno looked up at the full moon, lost in thought. "What would that make us?"
"I dunno." Riesz shrugged. "All I know is that I like you a lot, talking to you is very easy, you make me smile and make my problems feel less like problems when you're around. Do I have to give it a name?"
"That is... an interesting question. Maybe romance is a more complicated topic than I thought."
"Do you like me too?"
"Oh yes! I have not had so much fun around a human in centuries."
"And did you like the kiss?"
She looked to the side, her cheeks lighting up again. "Well... it was... yes, yes I did."
Riesz grinned. "Then what's the problem?"
"I suppose there is not one, is there?"
They exchanged an affectionate look, smiling at each other.
"Oh, before I head back home. I could use some guidance on this problem I have."
"In that case, tell me. I would be more than happy to help."
"You see, there's this girl I like, and I'm not sure how to tell Dad..."