Talitha woke to the new dawn, a strain in her abdomen. It had come this day, just as she had expected, the day of her thirteenth spring. She quickly took herself to the privy, a small enclosure in the far corner of the dormitory. After caring for her toilet, she returned to bed, but was unable to sleep. Instead, she again crept from her palm-leaf bed to look out the window at the sun creasing the bloody sky.
Gentle rays of light lit her pale face and shining, mahogany hair, making her deep brown eyes sparkle as she leaned on the sill, resting her chin on the palm of her hand. She watched as the sun rose, and sighed as the last dew that graced the land evaporated from the seeded gray flowers growing just outside the temple proper, below the sill. She had always loved the flowers’ feathery touch when she blew their stalks empty, seeds brushing her face before they were snatched away by a stray breeze. They would blow among the distant trees that she loved to climb when the governess wasn’t looking, trees just beginning to exude their pastel fragrances, buds cautiously opening to spring.
Today would be the day. In this lot of girls, she was the first to reach menstruation. Talitha wistfully knew she would miss her girlhood days when she was as careless as the pages who would one day become priests. All they ever did was serve at the eating tables in the mess hall and do some lifting of ceremonial objects that temple slaves were not qualified to perform. When grown and initiated, they would only have to officiate at temple ceremonies for the city when required. Talitha and the other girls were better than any of the males, having grown up with more advantages than the pages would ever know in their entire lives. The girls were made literate; the males were not known for their patience. The girls would—could—know the deep magics of the womb and cycles of life that males had no ability to fathom. They had been allowed to run at will outside the temple gates, a privilege the males could not properly appreciate.
There had been many trips with the acolytes to a far field surrounded by dense flora and fauna—the Sacred Grove. Talitha didn’t know what happened at any of the high Sabbats, but she and the other girls were taken to the grove at any time of any other day that they wished. The most revered Sabbat was Beltane, the fertility ceremony. She did not know all of what occurred there, but a masked man and woman would be selected, one of the lesser and one of the beauties to be carted away in a small, golden chariot after ritual preparations. The reigning priestess was the one who made final decisions pertaining to attendees, and prospective priestesses were never permitted to go. Talitha envied the chosen woman who was made to look so beautiful. Her clothing was intricate, unique. Talitha was one face of many and wore the same style gown as the other girls.
The grove remained an enigma to Talitha, for all that she knew its layout, so intimately, like she knew the lines of her hand. None of the acolytes spoke of it, despite escorting the girls to the site almost every day. It was a magical place—Talitha knew that much from experience. The back of her neck always prickled when she went to the grove, and the more times she went she received different dreams, dreams of faraway places and people.
The dreams were not always pleasant, but that didn’t bother her. She could not—would not—let them bother her. Priestesses were not meant—rather, were not known—to have visions. The vividness of the images she saw more than made up for it, not to mention that what she saw was proven by their physical presences when she and the other girls were taken to the grove. Nine fire pits left blackened circles around the perimeter, and statuettes would sometimes be left behind in their centers after a ceremony, flowers strewn about their bases. The relics would be left unmolested by the girls. She and her fellows would play games, and they would gossip over rumors from the city that made it to the temple, and they would drink from the gurgling, crystal stream that flowed into the main river, rushing lifeblood of the city which lay downwind of the temple…
Vanya’aviah, the Lotus City. Bustling with trade between far provinces, exotic sweets and only the fairest of goods and productions, it was widely known for its plays, carvings, art, delicate clothing, rare foods and other aesthetics. Great trade ships with large sails could be spied from the temple’s dais at the mid-day ablutions and prayers, wonderful cloth-of-gold plumes struck with color showing off the wealth of various other cities.
However, all of these fanciful things were considered too frivolous for the priestess’ training. They were relegated to sparsely furnished quarters, vigorous studies of traditional subjects, such as philosophy and cartography, and general opportunity to visit the grove or play an instrument.
But since she was now a woman, Talitha knew the times of idle childhood were past. She would be a priestess; it was bittersweet knowledge on her tongue. A woman, Talitha mouthed the words to herself, then bit her lip. Of the nine girls given to the temple every fourth year, only one would be chosen—the one who reached maturity first, thereby revealing that she had the strongest spirit. Talitha, with wrinkled brow, supposed that was something she could be proud of. Should be proud of.
With all the dazzling beauties reflected in Talitha’s eyes, distracted thoughts, she found it a wonder that a shadow at the end of the field should capture her attention, breaking her childhood reveries. It was a slight thing, a shimmering wave of standing dark, perhaps a figure set against the sun. But the sun had already risen overhead, and no shadow should lie in front of such a thing. Frowning and feeling cold inside, Talitha drew away from the window and began her day of routine chores and studies; if the governess caught her dawdling she would be banished from the window just the same, so she saved her the inconvenience.
At noon, the girls were collected from their activities by the reigning acolyte, ranging from pretty, delicate Avaret at the harp to wide-mouthed, plaited-hair Gertiel practicing her calligraphy.
“Come with me, girls,” Jestrianne beckoned, one hand caught in the folds of her voluminous, grass-green dress. “Today is an important day.”
“You mean more important than any of the others?” Gertiel quipped, glancing up from her quill and parchment. Her mouth creasing deeply along well-drawn paths, Jestrianne looked over the girl’s head at the others. “A priest has had a vision.”
Looking up from beneath shadowed lashes with a sense of foreboding, but also a secret, muted exhilaration, Talitha already knew what it would be.