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Jaskri and the Maiden
By Leem
April 1999

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Index to the Jaskri Series

Author's Note (August 2004):
This page was originally coded using Word 97, which produced workable but very scrappy HTML, including such W3C no-nos as upper-case and incorrectly-nested tags. Now that I'm trying to convert my entire site into compliant CSS and XHTML, the old coding was desperately in need of a makeover, so the challenge was to keep as much of the original style while upgrading the code. One little problem was that most of the page didn't conform to the stylesheet I'm using for the rest of the site, so I had to include the style definitions on the page itself.

One small change I've made is to increase the size of the text slightly. I originally chose Garamond because it's stylish and elegant, but it also has thinner strokes and displays smaller at relative type sizes. CSS allows me to define a bigger pixel size for the font, so I have. While revising the code I've also spotted and corrected a few typos, but I've left the text of the story untouched. Enjoy.

Author's note (April 2001):
This is the first story I ever wrote, way back in the heady days of my youth in 1999. At the time it was intended as a one-off, but since then I've written several sequels, and extensively rewritten the original so that it works better as part of a series.

I'd like to thank everyone who offered me support and encouragement in those early days, especially James ML, Argo Forg and Dmuk. Thanks, guys.

Author's note (September 2000):
This is the ORIGINAL version of this story, the first that I wrote (complete with original formatting, fonts and background colour) before it became a "franchise"! The final version is almost 1100 words longer and contains numerous revisions.

Author's Note (April 1999):
Some readers might be offended by the lack of explicit sex in this story. There's just no pleasing some people… Anyway, I've decided to leave that kind of thing to the experts ;-)

I just enjoyed working out the logical ramifications of a science fictional plot. After all, you can't spell ASFR without SF!!

This story may be published by any interested websites providing the author's name and this paragraph are included and that no unauthorised changes are made to the text of the story.

Every morning, before she went to help her mother pick zalberries and dewfruit in the fields, Jaskri would kiss the Maiden and ask her to bless the day's labours. Every evening when she returned home she would kiss her stone lips once more to thank her for those blessings. To Jaskri, of course, as to all her fellow villagers, the statue was always "she", never "it". She stood upon a broad pedestal in a small grassy square at the centre of the village, looking a little out of place amidst its modest wooden dwellings.

The villagers had not gone so far as to give the statue a name, perhaps because they were unable to find one that would do justice to her charm and grace. Yet for some strange reason none of the villagers could regard the statue as a mere object, and so "the Maiden" she had become. Indeed, to the villagers she almost seemed like another member of the community. They would sit upon the edge of her pedestal as they would sit with a friend, and tell her the latest gossip without feeling the least bit foolish for doing so. Late at night, by the light of Silvermoon or Goldmoon, lovers would lie upon the winegrass knoll before her pedestal and ask her to bless their unions. Some of them were shyly exploring each other's bodies for the first time. Some were fully experienced. Some were of the same gender. Some, indeed, were more than couples. Yet all had one thing in common: they were seldom disappointed by the Maiden's blessings. Indeed, it was common for lovers to climb upon her pedestal and thank her by making her a part of their lovemaking. Curiously, this treatment never caused the statue to become stained or worn. Her marble surface, if indeed it was marble, always remained as clean and smooth as the day she had first appeared.

Jaskri had always known that she possessed a special bond with the Maiden, and though she did not understand the nature of that bond she happily accepted it. Whatever it was, she knew it could not be bad for her, or for her village. Since the day the statue had appeared, the village had enjoyed peace, prosperity and finer harvests than it had ever known. Some villagers claimed that they could feel a kind of aura radiating from the statue into the village, its fields and its people.

Nobody knew where the statue had come from. She had simply been found one morning, standing on a hill overlooking the village, the marble or alabaster image of a beautiful maiden of perhaps twenty years. She was poised gracefully upon a pedestal, naked and dignified, with a beatific smile upon her face. The villagers, seeing her for the first time, had been enchanted by her beauty - perhaps, some suggested, literally.

How she came to be there was a mystery. One man suggested that a merchant with more wealth than sense had discarded her. "If so," another replied, "the man's blind, or a fool, or he really hates women. Who could possibly want to throw out such a treasure? Why, I'll wager there are royal palaces that don't house such wonders as her."

Already they were unconsciously thinking of the statue as if it were a person.

"Anyway, she couldn't have been thrown out of a coach or whatever. We're on a hill, a good hundred strides from the road. Can't imagine anyone being daft enough to cart a heavy statue all the way up here in the middle of the night."

"I didn't hear any coaches on the road last night."

"Me neither. And it would have taken at least two men to lug her up here. Surely someone would have seen 'em or heard 'em."

"Well, she got here somehow, and now we have to figure out what to do with her."

The villagers had debated the matter for some time. "We can hardly keep her, can we? Like you said, she's worth an emperor's ransom. She must belong to someone."

"Well, what are we supposed to do then? Cart her off to City Dravinye and sit in the market square until the owner comes looking for her?"

To this, nobody had an answer.

Three people who were unavoidably absent from that gathering were Jaskri's expectant parents and the town midwife. That morning as the villagers were waking up and preparing for their daily tasks, they had heard two cries simultaneously. One was the astonished cry of the farmer who had risen early to feed his vorniks and discovered the statue. The other was the lusty bellowing of a new-born girl.

In the end it was decided to keep the statue until such time as her rightful owner might be found. This was hardly stealing, after all, they told themselves. They were merely holding her in trust, as it were. And surely no one would object to the statue being given pride of place in the village square until then. Yet despite discrete enquiries as to who might have lost or had stolen such a treasure, no owner could be found. The discrete enquiries were eventually abandoned and the villagers came to think of the statue as their own. Surely after the passage of so many years no one would come looking for her.

From as early as she could recall, the Maiden had held a particular fascination for Jaskri. Once while she was learning to talk, her mother held her up before the pedestal and told her, "Say hello, Jaskri. This is the Maiden. She's our own very special statue. In a sense, she's the same age as you." Her mother smiled. "I suppose that more or less makes you sisters." She turned toward the Maiden. "What do you think?" she asked. "Will you accept her as your sister, and guide and protect her?" It was surely just her imagination that made the statue seem, for a moment, to smile even more sweetly than usual. But little Jaskri had reached out a hand to the statue's face and shyly murmured, "Mai'en."

Jaskri grew to be an exceptionally pretty and intelligent young girl. Fortunately she also had the knack of making friends easily. Unlike many who consider themselves beautiful and intelligent she never felt the need to make others feel ugly and stupid. Some years earlier, when the improved harvests began to yield surplus revenue for the village, it had been decreed by the council that extra funding should be allocated to school teaching. As a result Jaskri learned to read and write, although some of the older villagers still considered these to be useless skills.

When Jaskri was about thirteen, a newcomer moved into the village, a single woman of about thirty summers. The villagers treated her warily at first, like any small community encountering a stranger, but she seemed harmless enough and they gradually warmed to her presence. It seemed she was called Diann - a strange-sounding name whose origin nobody could identify. She was also said to have healing skills, which helped soften the villagers' attitudes toward her. Their village was generally a healthy place, but accidents can always happen. Meanwhile Jaskri, with her characteristic extrasense, believed that Diann's arrival was significant both for her and for the Maiden. Some day, somehow, the destiny of all three would be woven together.

So she was not surprised when one day she and her parents encountered Diann as they were walking by the Maiden. The healer was studying the statue with a curious expression. "Good morning to you," said Jaskri's mother. "I see you're admiring our most honoured resident."

The healer turned toward her. "Oh… yes," she replied. "It's a… fascinating work of art."

"She's my sister," said Jaskri. "We both appeared at the same time."

Jaskri's parents laughed at this. "Yes, but you didn't appear from nowhere," said her mother. "You spent three seasons growing in me. Although," she told Diann, "she didn't make too much of a fuss about entering the world. Say hello properly, Jaskri."

Jaskri curtseyed as politely as you please and said, "Good morning to you, lady. My name is Jaskri. The Maiden's blessing be upon you"

"Good morning to you too, Jaskri," replied Diann, studying Jaskri's face almost as intently as she had studied the statue's.

"We were just taking some torva-fruit to my grandmother," said Jaskri. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you had one."

Diann smiled. "Well, if you're sure…" Jaskri's mother nodded in confirmation. "Then I should like it very much. You grow some marvellous produce in this district."

"We like to think the Maiden blesses the harvests," said Jaskri's father.

"The Maiden, yes…do you consider her a goddess, then?"

Jaskri's parents seemed taken aback by this.

"Well, no not a goddess, exactly…"

"…I mean, that would be idolatry, wouldn't it…"

"…but we've always had the feeling that she's watching over us…"

"…looking after us somehow…it's hard to explain."

Jaskri joined in: "It's true. She's not a goddess, and she's not a woman, but somehow she does look after us. I can feel it"

The healer looked thoughtful. "Well," she said, "whoever or whatever your Maiden is, she certainly seems to be…unique." She paused as if about to say more, but seemed unable to find the right words. Finally she muttered, "Well, then. I must be getting along now. Thank you for the fruit. I'm sure we will talk again soon."

Jaskri and her parents nodded politely and turned away. As they departed, Diann took another lingering glance at the statue. This is bizarre, she thought, unprecedented. In all my experience I've never heard of such a thing. And yet the evidence is incontrovertible. As for what it means for the girl…Diann scarcely knew what to think. After another searching look at the Maiden she shook her head and walked away.

The healer's arrival came to seem fortuitous less than a moon later. One warm spring afternoon Jaskri was out harvesting when, reaching beneath a zalberry bush to pick some particularly large and ripe berries, she was bitten by a jalga that had been sheltering there. Ironically the weather that brought the village's good harvests had also brought the poisonous lizards that normally would not venture so far north. Jaskri's screams brought her mother and a dozen other harvesters rushing to her aid, but when they saw what had happened some of them exchanged despairing glances. A jalga's venom was quite potent enough to kill a fully-grown man, let alone an adolescent girl. It seemed as if the Maiden had withdrawn her blessings from the village.

By the time the harvesters had carried Jaskri to the healer's house she was already in a high fever. When Diann heard what had happened, her face became grim.

"Please, healer, you must save her," her mother sobbed. "She is everything to me. She cannot die."

Diann's expression was unreadable. "No," she muttered. "That would be…unthinkable." She placed a hand upon Jaskri's forehead, as if she needed proof of the girl's condition. Then she took Jaskri's mother by the hand and looked her in the eye. "You must trust me now. Leave your daughter with me and I will do everything that can be done for her. I swear it upon my life."

Jaskri's mother swallowed. Then, wiping ineffectually at her tear-stained face, she nodded. "Yes," she whispered. "I trust you, healer. May the Maiden's blessing be upon her, and upon your healing skills."

"Yes," said Diann. "Somehow, I believe it will. Go home now and try to rest. I must get to work immediately."

The villagers reluctantly departed, leaving Jaskri in the healer's care.

Jaskri scarcely saw or heard any of this. She was aware, when she was aware of anything, only of the fever raging within her and the aching in her bones. In her delirium she seemed to hear Diann conversing in an unknown tongue with somebody whose voice could be heard clearly, yet who was nowhere to be seen.

"Subject is class six-three humanoid female, age approximately equivalent to fourteen Earth years, bitten by class one-four-seven venomous reptilian. Uploading subject's DNA sample and specimen of poison for immediate analysis. Administering broad-spectrum anti-inflammatory nanos to combat immediate threat from fever and tissue damage. Priority Alpha download full repair nanoprogram."

"Query Priority Alpha status."

"Subject is focus of Quadrant Seven temporal anomaly. Temporal vortex is destabilising rapidly. Imperative, repeat, imperative this be prevented. High probability death of subject would create catastrophic temporal collapse, extent potentially infinite. Therefore subject
must be healed. Failure not repeat not option. Download nanoprogram immediately."

There was a brief pause before the bodiless voice replied. "Downloading as requested." Another pause. "Tell me, Diane, what makes you so certain she's the one?"

"The statue is emitting kilo-electron-volt neutrinos. This entire village is bathed in them. They're interacting with the environment somehow, enhancing growth and fertility. Even the local people can feel them. They call them the 'Maiden's blessing'. Do you know what that means? KeV-neutrinos are the only things that can penetrate a temporal stasis field! What more proof do you need?"

"Even so…could so much really be hanging on one girl's life?"

"I've been over the figures dozens of times. I couldn't believe it myself, but it's true. She's just a teenage farmer's daughter, yet she could save the entire universe! As to what that will mean to her…"
Diann sighed. "Well, it's unavoidable. But if she knew what I was saving her for…."

Jaskri was convinced that Diann and the invisible speaker had been discussing her fate. Jaskri was certain that Diann knew what her destiny was, and she was convinced that it was not to die from a lizard bite. What, then? Perhaps the Maiden knew…

As she was lapsing into unconsciousness once more she seemed to feel something sting her arm. No, she thought, not another jalga! But then, she thought, one jalga bite was so bad that a second could hardly do more damage…in her delirium the thought was highly amusing, and she would have laughed if she had not felt so tired…so very tired….

Just before she lapsed into unconsciousness Jaskri seemed to hear Diann speaking more incomprehensible words: "Temporal vortex beginning to stabilise. Thank God. We were just in time. If you'll pardon the expression." And then she heard no more.

As dawn broke, so did Jaskri's fever. She woke feeling cold and damp with sweat, but though she was still weak her bones no longer ached. Diann was sitting beside the bed. Had she been keeping watch all night? Jaskri tried to sit up, but lacked the strength. "Would you fetch me some water, please?" She croaked. The healer did so, raising Jaskri's head to help her drink.

"Thank you," said Jaskri. Not just for the water, they both knew.

Remembering the strange stinging sensation she had felt the night before, Jaskri felt her arm. There was a sore spot there. An insect bite, perhaps? But Jaskri suspected it had something to do with Diann's healing sorcery. The healer had given her nothing to eat or drink - she had been far too ill - let alone anything that might have had medicinal powers. So just how had Diann cured Jaskri from an incurable bite? Her instincts told her that asking Diann would not elicit an answer. And the healer surely knew other secrets concerning Jaskri, and the Maiden as well….

"I'll go and tell your parents you're awake," said Diann. "Meanwhile you just lie here and rest a while. It'll be a moon or two before you're fully recovered."

"Wait. Before you go…I thought I heard you talking to someone last night."

For the briefest of instants, a guilty look seemed to cross the healer's face. "There was no one. How could there have been? I've been alone looking after you all night. It was just a fever-dream, that's all."

Jaskri was unconvinced, but decided to let it go. What could be gained by calling the woman who had saved her life a liar? Nonetheless, as Diann made for the door, Jaskri said: "Diann, what is it that you know? I know that you are somehow bound up with my destiny, and so is the Maiden. But what is my destiny? What is it that connects us? Please, healer, I have to know."

Diann sighed. So perceptive for one so young…finally she said, "Jaskri…you are right. You do have a destiny, but I cannot tell you what it is. Not yet. The time is not right. I promise you that when the time comes you will know everything you need to know. Please, Jaskri, I only ask you to be patient until then." And before Jaskri could argue Diann left, returning shortly afterward with Jaskri's rejoicing family and friends.

It was generally agreed that Jaskri's recovery was a miracle, one that was attributed in roughly equal parts to Diann and to the Maiden.

"The Maiden couldn't have healed her without Diann's help," one villager was heard to remark.

"Well, that's as may be," another replied. "But I reckon Diann couldn't have saved her without the Maiden's help."

Jaskri's grateful family had offered to reward her, of course, but the healer had asked for nothing but their friendship, and some of their wonderful fruit. Jaskri of course made a full recovery and within two moons was back with the harvesters in the fields. The village now employed beaters to spot and drive off any jalgas or other pests that might be lurking in wait for the pickers, but many of them in spite of this had taken to wearing thick gloves while harvesting. Sweaty hands were a small, if conspicuous, price to pay for safety. Apart from that, Jaskri's only reminders of her ordeal were a small scar above her left hand where the jalga had bitten her, and a smaller, circular blemish just below her right shoulder where the mysterious sting had occurred.

So village life returned to normal. The healer became accepted as a member of the community, though Jaskri wondered if she still spoke to her invisible friend when there was no one to hear.

As the moons turned to years the pretty girl that Jaskri had been turned into an exceptionally beautiful young woman. It was whispered that all the young men in the village were in love with her, and half the young women too. For many years Jaskri's closest friend and confidante had been Vireni, the wool-merchant's daughter. The two of them often slept over at each other's parents' homes, and it was not entirely surprising that on one such night, Vireni leant across the bed, kissed Jaskri and whispered, "I want to make love to you."

Jaskri was happy that Vireni had asked her and embraced her enthusiastically. But it soon became clear that Jaskri's heart was not entirely in it.

"What's wrong?" asked Vireni. "Would you rather do it with a boy?"

"No…I mean, yes, I'd like to try it with boys, but I do love you and I want you to be happy. I just…I don't know what's wrong."

"Is it me? Is there something I'm not doing to please you? Come on, you can tell me, I'm not made of stone."

Jaskri made a sound that was halfway between a sigh and a laugh. "To be truthful…I think that might be the problem."

Vireni laughed out loud.

"Quiet," said Jaskri, "you'll wake your parents! Anyway, what's so funny?"

"I think you've just solved your problem. Come on!" And grabbing Jaskri by the forearm Vireni dragged her out of the room.

"What are you doing?" Jaskri demanded as Vireni led her to the outer door. "Vireni! We can't go outside! We're both naked!"

"So what? It's a warm night. And she certainly won't mind. Honestly, Jaskri, I don't know why you didn't think of this yourself!"

And so Jaskri's friend led her down the lane toward the village square where the Maiden stood. They were in no danger from jalgas. At night any that might be lurking in the village would be sleeping under rocks or trees.

"Vireni, suppose someone sees us? What will they think?"

"They'll think we're having sex! After all, we're hardly the first, are we? Now do come on, Jaskri. There's nothing to be afraid of."

It was a fine night for love. Goldmoon was a narrow crescent low in the west, but Silvermoon was full and cast its pale light over the square. "Perfect," said Vireni. "She doesn't have any other visitors tonight. Well, you're the one who's always saying how much she loves us. It's time we thanked her properly." And without further ado she stepped onto the pedestal. Jaskri hesitated but saw that she had no choice but to follow.

The idea of embracing the statue seemed strange and embarrassing at first, although Jaskri knew that almost all of the adults in the village had done so at one time or another. In fact she had often fantasised about giving her love to the Maiden, but somehow had never expected to actually do so. When she finally wrapped her arms around the Maiden's stone torso there was a brief moment when her marble skin almost felt like warm, living flesh. Vireni was already rubbing her genitalia against one of the statue's buttocks and gasping quietly with pleasure. As Jaskri began to caress the marble body she began to feel a kind of excitement that she had not experienced with Vireni - nor indeed when giving herself pleasure. As the girls continued to make love to the statue and each other, Jaskri felt astonishing sensations growing within her, slowly but inexorably. This truly was the Maiden's blessing, and Vireni was feeling it too. When Jaskri finally achieved orgasm it was as if golden lightning flashed from the Maiden into her body and then leapt into Vireni's, paralysing them both in an ecstasy so intense it was almost unbearable. For several long minutes three statues stood upon the pedestal, but two of them were moaning quietly.

When at long last it was over the girls leant against the Maiden, exhausted but euphoric. "Thank you, sister," Jaskri muttered.

"Sister?" said Vireni.

Jaskri grinned sheepishly. "Oh…yes. The Maiden appeared the day I was born, you know, so I've always thought of her as a kind of sister."

Vireni chuckled. "Well, considering what we just did it's probably just as well you're not a boy!"

"Yes, well…it's silly, I know, but…Vireni? Where are you going?"

"No, just stay there for a moment." Vireni had stepped down from the pedestal and walked back several paces to get a good look at Jaskri and the Maiden. In the silvery moonlight Jaskri's flesh had taken on an almost marble-like appearance, allowing Vireni to see what only her subconscious had known until then. "Jaskri…it's true. She really is your sister."

Jaskri was taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"You're twins, Jaskri. You and the Maiden…you're identical!"

Jaskri could hardly believe what Vireni was telling her. The thought made her dizzy, and she leant against the Maiden for support…and was even more stunned when her hand encountered a small circular flaw just below the statue's right shoulder. It was identical to the mysterious blemish upon her own arm. Scarcely daring to believe it, she gingerly reached for the statue's left wrist. And there it was: another flaw in the marble, twin to the jalga-bite scar on Jaskri's own wrist.

"What does it mean, Vireni? What does it all mean? She doesn't just look like me, she even has the same scars as me. How is that possible, Vireni? How?" Jaskri seemed close to tears. Perhaps, thought Vireni, she was just emotionally drained after their strenuous lovemaking. But the girl's perfect resemblance to the statue was both wondrous and yet somehow almost frightning. "Oh, Maiden," said Jaskri, "If only you could tell me. If only Diann would tell me! I'm sure she knows what it all means. Oh, why won't she TELL me? Why?" By now Jaskri was indeed in tears.

"Hey, now, come on, love," said Vireni, stepping upon the pedestal once more and taking Jaskri by the arm. "It's been a long night, and it's been full of surprises for both of us. Haven't you always said that whatever the Maiden means to you it can't be a bad thing?" Jaskri nodded, wiping her eyes. "Well, then. Accept it as a blessing. The Maiden has not only favoured you with her beauty but has also tutored you in the ways of love. I'm willing to bet you won't forget her lesson in a hurry!" At this, Jaskri laughed. "There," said Vireni, "that's better. Now come on. Say goodnight to your twin sister and let's go back inside."

And so they returned to Vireni's home and went back to bed. Later that night Jaskri embraced Vireni once more, and though their lovemaking was slower and less intense it was clear that Jaskri had not forgotten the Maiden's lesson. Afterward, before they fell asleep, Jaskri muttered, "I wish I could go back."

"Back where?" said Vireni sleepily.

"Back to the day the Maiden first appeared. The day I was born. I'd go back and stand on that very hill so I could see where she came from."

"Tha's crazy," yawned Vireni. "Ev'one knows you can't go back t' what was. 'Less that Diann's go' some sorc'ry that c'n do it…"

"What did you say?" Demanded Jaskri. But Vireni was asleep.

Diann again, thought Jaskri. It always comes back to Diann. Why?

The next day tongues were wagging in the village. The lovers' tryst with the Maiden had indeed been seen, and had aroused a great deal of comment. As a result Jaskri found herself engaged in frank discussions with her parents concerning responsibility and safety and the proper way for a young lady to behave. These talks also brought her into contact with Diann once more, as her parents felt the healer could give her the best advice on protecting herself from disease or unwanted pregnancy. And so she did, in an efficient, businesslike manner, as she had done for tens of other village girls and boys. She even gave Jaskri a canister containing a substance she claimed would deter any unwanted male advances. "Throw some in his face and he'll be in too much pain to even think about rape. Throw it in his crotch and he'll be limp for ten days! Be careful with it, now."

Jaskri eyed the container as if afraid it would explode in her own face. "Have you…ever had to use it?"

"A few times, in my travels. Some of the places I've been…" the healer's face darkened. "Let's just say, there are places where women are not treated with the respect they deserve. Well…there are a lot of places where people don't get treated as they deserve. Not like here. You villagers really don't know how lucky you are. Anyway, here and there I've had to teach people some respect, and the stuff in your little tin was only a part of it." She spoke so earnestly that Jaskri could not help but believe her.

Not a word passed between them concerning Jaskri's destiny, or her mysterious resemblance to the Maiden. Jaskri felt certain that Diann must have noticed it, but as always the healer said nothing. "When the time comes," she had said. Jaskri wished the time would hurry up and come.

It was not surprising once the news of Jaskri and Vireni's liaison got about that both of them would attract the interest of potential suitors. Jaskri's miraculous resemblance to the Maiden had also attracted attention. Jaskri did find herself politely refusing numerous requests, some of them from married men older than her father, who really should have known better. At least she never had to resort to Diann's canister. But there were some boys, and one or two girls, that Jaskri liked, and over the course of several moons she engaged in sexual experiments with all of them. To her delight, Jaskri found she was able to summon the Maiden's gift - the "golden lightning", as she still called it - and confer ecstasy upon her lovers in whatever degree she chose. As a result, and somewhat to her chagrin, she gained a reputation as the best lover in the village, which only served to attract even more unwelcome advances. It was not quite how she would have chosen to be known, however enjoyable her experiences. After all, she could also sing and dance and recite poetry, but for some reason those were not the talents her friends and neighbours chose to discuss….

Despite her embarrassment, however, Jaskri was convinced that by unleashing the golden lightning she was doing the Maiden's work. The ecstasy that the lightning conveyed was somehow akin to the Maiden's blessing upon the harvests. In the long run she knew that somehow the whole village would benefit from it.

This seemed to be proven in the year following Jaskri's sexual awakening, when several of the village girls became pregnant almost all at once. Jaskri was the first to realise that all of them had either been her lovers, or the lovers of her lovers. It seemed that just as the Maiden brought fertility to the fields, so her golden lightning brought fertility to couples. And once the babies were born they were all bright, lively and healthy. Though the village suddenly found itself with several new mouths to feed, even there the Maiden's blessing prevailed, providing even more abundant harvests. It seemed the only exception to this sudden outbreak of fecundity was Jaskri herself. Despite trying for several moons with her favourite boyfriend Jeruvin, she was disappointed. In the end Jeruvin, although happy, was so exhausted that he had to beg Jaskri to give him time to recuperate. She was not altogether surprised when, four moons later, Vireni told Jaskri she was going to have Jeruvin's baby. Jaskri tried not to feel jealous, but it hardly seemed fair. After all, she had been the first recipient of the Maiden's sexual gift. She even went to Diann and asked if the jalga bite or Diann's cure could have rendered her infertile. Diann seemed somewhat secretive as usual, but told Jaskri she could see no reason why that should be so.

Jaskri, of course, found no shortage of baby-minding opportunities, and while she played and sang to her friends' toddlers, she tried not to be too jealous that they were not her own. Perhaps, she mused, her destiny did not involve having children. For a moment she was chilled by a thought. Perhaps it was her fate to die young. Perhaps the statue's looks predicted the way Jaskri would appear on the day of her death - and just now she and Jaskri looked to be of an age.

No, she thought. It could not be. The Maiden's gifts brought life, not death. Whatever Jaskri felt from the Maiden, death was not a part of it. But the time was drawing near when she would finally understand. She could feel it.

One evening in her twenty-first year, after an afternoon spent singing and dancing to entertain Vireni and Jeruvin's little daughter (she had long since forgiven them both in the best way she knew, in the embrace of the Maiden), Jaskri found herself feeling especially restless. She felt almost as if a storm were approaching, but a benign storm, if such a thing could exist. The sun was setting and Goldmoon rising as her footsteps carried her through the village, past the Maiden's pedestal, to Diann's house. She hesitated before knocking, but some instinct told her the time was finally right. It was now. And when Diann opened the door she showed no surprise at Jaskri's arrival, but merely invited her in. Diann was dressed in a belted robe, and to Jaskri's surprise was barefoot. For some moments no words passed between them. The healer merely beckoned Jaskri to sit at her table while she brought mugs of herbal tea for both of them. Finally Jaskri almost whispered, "Diann…it is time. I can feel it."

The healer's response was astonishing. Loosening her belt, she let the robe slip to the floor and stood naked before Jaskri. "Show me, Jaskri. Let me feel the golden lightning. That is the price. Do this and I will tell you everything I know about your destiny and why the Maiden is so important, not only to the village but to all the worlds."

Jaskri was momentarily taken aback. In all the years she had known Diann, the healer had never been known to show any interest in lovemaking. There had been offers, of course. She was a very attractive woman. But she had always refused, politely but firmly, and Jaskri had no doubt that if anyone had become too persistent Diann would have used her canister of noxious liquid against them. The reason for her celibacy was a matter for speculation. Some suggested that she had taken holy vows, though unlike a nun or priestess she never spoke of religious matters. Others wondered if some illness or injury might have damaged her sexually. Many believed she had had a bad experience and did not wish to be reminded of it. Considering what she had told Jaskri of her travels in lands where women were not respected, this seemed the most likely explanation. Yet Jaskri had sometimes wondered if Diann's invisible companion might not also be an invisible lover. How would it feel to be embraced, to be caressed, by someone you could not see? Would it feel stranger than embracing a marble woman?

But here was Diann, standing naked and inviting before Jaskri. And she was indeed an attractive woman. Curiously, she seemed no older than when she had first arrived in the village. Answers or no answers, Jaskri realised she did want to make love to Diann. She wanted it very much. And so she disrobed, and allowed Diann to lead her to her bed, and embraced her. And slowly, gently, and with infinite patience, she allowed the golden lightning to well up within her and spill over to her lover as she had done so many times in the past. If Diann had indeed been celibate for so many years, she was more than making up for lost time, if her sighs and gasps of pleasure were anything to judge by. Very well, thought Jaskri. It was what she had asked for…. Over the course of what seemed like hours Jaskri repeatedly brought Diann close to the peak of ecstasy but drew back at the last moment. Finally, when Diann had reached a state of almost frenzied anticipation, Jaskri began to unleash the golden lightning to its fullest extent. It was like that first night with Vireni all over again. Jaskri and Diann simultaneously climaxed again and again, each orgasm seeming more intense than the last. Diann's eyes repeatedly grew wide with astonishment before spasming shut. Celibate or not, it was clear that she had never experienced anything like it before. Their final, stupendous climax froze them both into statues, honouring the Maiden's perfect immobility, for several endless minutes.

When at last it was over, Jaskri lapsed into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Jaskri woke feeling light-headed and euphoric. Golden moonlight streamed in through the window onto her naked body. It took her a moment to remember where she was. Diann was no longer beside her. Gone to tell her invisible friend, perhaps?

Soon, Jaskri thought dreamily. Soon I will have the answers I have waited a lifetime to hear. I have paid Diann's price, and she can scarcely claim I have not paid her in full. Whatever else she may be, she is a woman of her word. Now she will tell me my destiny. She must.

At length Diann returned, wearing her robe once more, and sat on a stool opposite Jaskri, who felt no embarrassment at still being naked.

Diann said, "I would never have believed I could feel so…" She shook her head. "At last I understand. It's ironic, isn't it? In all the years I've lived here I never truly understood what the Maiden's blessing meant to you villagers."

"Any of us would have been happy to show you, if only you'd asked," said Jaskri. "But what does she mean to me, Diann? You cannot keep it from me any longer."

"No," sighed Diann. "You're right. I will tell you all I know, Jaskri, although I'm not sure you'll understand all of it. I'm still not sure I entirely understand it myself. Jaskri, the first thing you need to know is that this is not the only world. There are countless other worlds in this universe, and I came from one of them."

Jaskri was not sure whether to believe this, but she still felt lethargic and euphoric and in no state to argue.

"Does your invisible friend come from another world as well?"

"Oh…that. Yes, but actually he never left his world. We simply have devices that can project our voices and images across space and time. What you heard that night was me discussing your condition with him…and yes, your destiny as well. You see, the world where I come from is one that has devoted itself to the study of other worlds and the universe in general. We have devices that can show us the nature of time and space themselves. Your world had attracted very little attention because it had no great machines as we do, but about twenty years ago - yes, about the time you were born and the Maiden was discovered - we noticed that time was beginning to behave strangely in this part of the universe. When we investigated more closely we found that the disturbance was coming from this very village. We were puzzled. A major change to the nature of reality was taking place in a small village of farmers and growers on an unremarkable little world. It soon became clear that matters would come to a head in thirteen years' time. I don't have to remind you what happened when you were thirteen."

"The jalga," muttered Jaskri.

"Exactly. That was part of the reason I came here, Jaskri. To save you from the jalga."

"But why? If, as you say, I was just one little girl in one little world…"

"The disturbance in time, Jaskri. It was centred on you! I could hardly believe it myself, but it was true. Jaskri, if you had died from that jalga bite, it would have created what we call an unsustainable temporal paradox. Believe this or not, Jaskri, but on that day you were the most important person in the entire universe!"

Jaskri laughed. "Now that really is unbelievable!"

"But it's true, Jaskri. If you had died that day, time would have come to an end. Everywhere. Jaskri, your death would have meant the death of the entire universe!"

It was really too much. Jaskri began laughing hysterically. "Must…" she spluttered. "Must I live forever, then? I don't want to be a goddess, with the fate of whole worlds hanging on me. That's more like…like…"

She broke off. A sudden thought had struck her, and somehow Diann's story did not seem so funny any more.

"More like the Maiden's responsibility?" said Diann. "Yes. I was coming to her. You see, it's all to do with time, Jaskri. You, the Maiden, her blessing…and my presence here. Time has played some strange tricks, and yet it will be my task, who should be working to protect the integrity of the temporal matrix, to set those tricks into motion."

"I still don't understand half of what you're saying. What is the Maiden? Why does she look like me? Diann, she even bears the same scars that I do. The jalga bite, and the mark on my shoulder - that was your doing, wasn't it? You knew about the scars, didn't you?"

"Yes, Jaskri, to both questions. When I saw the needle mark on the statue's arm I knew that was where I had to inject you. There was no conventional antidote to the poison, so I injected millions of tiny machines into your arm through a hollow needle. They sought out and absorbed every atom of poison within you and bound them to other atoms, rendering them harmless, then when they were finished your body simply disposed of them in your urine."

"This gets more fantastic by the minute," muttered Jaskri. "Tiny machines? Well: I can't deny that you did heal me, but you still haven't answered the most important question of all. Why does the Maiden look like me?"

By way of answer, Diann reached into her robe and pulled out a small silver tube, which she pointed at Jaskri.

Jaskri found herself becoming dreamy and light-headed once more. It was a pleasant sensation, almost like floating. She was vaguely aware that Diann was taking her by the arm and leading her from the bedchamber to her small living room.

"Just stand there for a moment," said Diann. Jaskri was happy to obey. In her euphoric state she would have gladly done anything Diann commanded. "You see, Jaskri, " the healer was saying, "if you had died, the statue would never have been found, because it came from your future. Yet it was found, and was standing in the village at the moment you would have died. Thus it would have both existed and not existed simultaneously. And that is the paradox that would have destroyed the universe."

Jaskri murmured, "Now that I really don't understand." But it didn't seem important. There would be plenty of time to understand later.

"The poison-eating machines weren't the only things I injected into you that day. There were also devices that would help to prepare you for your transformation."

"Transformation?" said Jaskri. Whatever that meant, it sounded interesting.

"Yes, Jaskri. It's ironic, but we've had to use technology that was forbidden because of the potential danger in order to save the universe."

Jaskri was beginning to feel a little cramped, so she adjusted her position slightly. It occurred to her that she was unconsciously mimicking the Maiden's pose, and the thought brought a smile to her lips. But before she could comment on this, Diann pointed another device at her and she suddenly lost all sensation in her body. As her senses reeled, she heard Diann saying, "Jaskri, the reason the Maiden looks like you is that she is you. Jaskri…you are the Maiden!"

And then Jaskri was enveloped by light….

The woman the villagers called Diann looked around the empty room and sighed. It was done. Temporal stability was restored. At least until the next paradox…peering out of her shuttered window she could see two young men, painted gold by the moonlight, embracing the statue and each other. Another ordinary night in the village. But in the morning the village would find its favourite daughter gone.

Diann sighed again. How simple it would have been to replace Jaskri with a perfect android replica, one that would act and speak and sing and dance and embrace indistinguishably from the real Jaskri. But no android could ever summon the golden lightning as Jaskri could. Besides, even if no one else could tell the difference, the Maiden…Jaskri…would know.

In the years she had dwelt in the village, she had come to love its people. They were good, simple, hard-working and honest folk, unaffected by the petty jealousies, rivalries and politics that beset her own world and so many others. It would be hard to leave, especially since she would be blamed - rightly in a sense, even though there was no alternative - for Jaskri's disappearance.

Diann walked through the small house, making sure she had not left any of her devices behind, and picking up a few pieces of locally-made cutlery as souvenirs. As an afterthought she also picked up a ripe torva-fruit from her bowl. With any luck she could clone it and have an unlimited supply to remind her of the Maiden's bountiful harvests. Then she took a small device from the pocket of her robe, pressed a small button upon it, and vanished.

Neither Diann nor Jaskri was ever seen in the village again. Jaskri's clothes were found, neatly folded, in Diann's house. Some villagers suggested that Diann had abducted Jaskri and sold her into slavery, but that hardly seemed like the Diann that they had known. Others believed that they had become lovers and run away together, but that too seemed unlikely, especially given Diann's apparent celibacy. And just where could Jaskri have gone, naked? It was as if they had both been spirited into thin air.

"Oh, Maiden," Jaskri's mother said, "if only you could tell us where Jaskri has gone. I know that wherever she is, you will see that no harm comes to her. And it is a great comfort to know that my daughter's beauty will always live on in you." And she kissed the Maiden's cool lips. And as she turned to go, she seemed to see the statue's smile brighten.

On the night of her disappearance, Jaskri had been enveloped by light. For a seemingly infinite time she could neither see nor hear nor think clearly. When at last the world came back to her, she seemed to be standing on a hill overlooking the village. A figure was walking up the hill toward her. As he approached, Jaskri saw that the man looked like old Zalgren, the vornik farmer. But hadn't he died four years earlier? When he paused for breath and saw Jaskri for the first time, the man gave an astonished cry and ran back down the hill. In the distance a baby was crying. No wonder he was startled, thought Jaskri with amusement. I'm naked! And even as she realised this, the golden lightning began to well up within her. She was standing outside, in broad - well, dawning - daylight, stark naked, and now she was having an orgasm! But this was unlike any orgasm she had ever felt. Waves of pleasure washed over her again and again and again, and each time when she believed it could not go on any longer, it did. The energy flowing through her was too much for her body to contain. She could feel it radiating out of her, into the fields, the trees, the animals, even the people.

The people! No matter how much pleasure she was experiencing, it was not seemly to remain naked in public. If she took the alley past the back of the wool merchant's, she might make it home without being seen.

She tried to move - and only then did she understand.

You are the Maiden, Diann had told her. And she had once wished she could go back and see where the Maiden had come from. And Diann's people were able to manipulate time.

Jaskri could not move a muscle, try as she might. She had gone back in time. Diann had sent her back. And now time, for Jaskri, had stopped. She would never move again. She was the Maiden. Diann had told her, "the reason the Maiden looks like you is that she is you". That was why the Maiden bore Jaskri's scars, of course. The man who looked like the lamented Zalgren was Zalgren, because he was not dead yet, in this time. And the baby Jaskri heard crying was Jaskri. She had been born and reborn simultaneously and was now in two places at once! In fact she had been in two places at once all her life, and had never suspected…

I'm a statue, she thought. It was stranger than anything she could ever have imagined. And all the while the golden lightning welled up from within her, carrying wave after wave of physical and emotional pleasure through her and beyond her to all the surrounding countryside.

Yes, she thought. I am the Maiden, and my blessing will enrich this village and the people that I love. And someday they will journey to the farthest corners of this world, and even to the other worlds that Diann spoke of, and they will carry my blessing of peace and prosperity with them. Human beings will treat each other as they deserve to be treated. War and poverty and abuse will come to an end. She would have laughed, had she been able. Oh. Diann, could even you have predicted that such a thing was possible? I can't even move, and I'm going to save the universe all over again!

As the centuries passed, all that Jaskri had predicted came true. It was a golden age for beings on a thousand worlds, who could never have guessed that their prosperity rested on the shoulders of one young woman on a small agricultural planet, who stood forever paralysed in an endless, glowing orgasm.

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