Soshay was recovering from being marked by Tez and even more slowly adjusting to her new status. She was no longer the ignored acolyte. The negligence that Neldo seemed to foster was replaced by an almost suffocating reverence.
The healers insisted that she walk the halls of the temple every day. She walked on legs disconcertingly weak and shaky, enduring the looks of reverence and awe the priests cast her way.
After a few weeks of worshipful stares, she began taking her walks at twilight, the time all the priests were at their evening prayers. Tonight was no exception. She began her walk a few minutes after the chimes for prayers. She was grateful to find the hallways empty. She stopped often to rest and to read the many stories of Tez that adorned the walls. Tonight she wanted to finish the story of Tez’s bride, the Jaguar Woman.
She pushed herself to make the walk of three hundred feet without stopping for a rest. When she reached the frieze her legs were shaking badly, and she sat before the frieze, breathing hard. After a few moments she scanned the text around the frieze, looking for the place she had last stopped. Tez had fallen in love with a Cetza woman, and the woman had returned his affection. Soshay considered this part of the story. It was not explained why the woman loved him. Was it only because he was a god, Soshay considered, or maybe Tez had wooed her, winning her affection? She continued the story. Tez offers the woman immortality, but the woman refused, begging to remain a mortal. Soshay rested her chin in her palm. Why would she refuse to be a god? Soshay let her eyes roam over the pictures. The woman stood weeping beside Tez as he collected the spirits of those fallen in battle. She is his link to us, to mortals. How else could he, who cannot die, understand what death is to us?
The voice made her jump and she struggled to get back on her feet, and managed to stumble to her knees. She flinched as her knees hit the stone floor.
“Do not hurt yourself because of me, Novice.”
Soshay recognized Tenoch, the second priest of the temple. “Second Priest, I’m sorry…” She swayed on her feet.
Tenoch put out a hand to steady her. “Peace child. I only wanted to make sure you were alright. Sitting here alone, and after your illness I was concerned.”
Soshay felt warmed by his words.
“What are you doing on the floor?”
She blushed, “I was reading the story, My Lord Priest. It is one I have never heard.”
Tenoch glanced at the frieze. “Oh, the Jaguar Woman,” he turned to her, “And what do you learn from this story?”
Soshay responded without thinking, “That one does not deny her god anything.”
Tenoch smiled, “So you never deny Tez’s requests?”
Soshay nodded. “I serve Him.”
“And I speak for Him.”
Soshay could hear the truth of the words. But was confused, only the High Priest speaks for Tez. She offered a slight nod even with her doubt.
Tenoch offered her his arm, “Come let us walk a bit.”
Soshay did not want to walk with the man, but found herself taking his arm.
“When you give your prophecy, are you in control of your words?”
Soshay frowned, “I speak what I see.” She glanced at him to see if he understood, “When I give prophecy, it is usually like the friezes here,” she gestured at the walls, “the images tell me a story. Sometimes my visions are less clear, and I see only a jumble of images.” She paused, “It is different when I use liuqui. I do not know what I say or see then.”
Tenoch nodded. “So when you do not use the drink of visions, you can control what you say?” He stopped their walk to let her rest.
Soshay shrugged with a frown, “Tez sends the visions and I speak what He asks.” She didn’t understand what he was asking her. They had paused near the kitchens. Soshay could smell the evening meal cooking and could hear the commotion of cooking in the kitchen.
Tenoch followed her gaze into the kitchen. “I am keeping you from your dinner, allow me one more question.”
Soshay blushed again, “Truly my lord, you may ask as many questions as you wish.”
Tenoch looked at her, “You are a good child, but I remember youth and I was always hungry. If Tez commanded it, would you change a prophecy?”
Soshay felt the question sink in and answered quickly, “But why would He give me a vision He did not want me to share?”
Tenoch stroked her hair, “What if He asked through me? Sometimes patrons come, and they may need to hear a tempered version of their future. If I asked would you be diplomatic in your telling?”
Soshay found herself nodding, suddenly understanding how hard the Jaguar Woman’s choice had been. What he asked sounded like heresy, and she just have felt it a heresy to refuse Tez’s gift of immortality. What Tenoch asked sounded like lying about the visions Tez gave her. Even so, she knew that if Tenoch asked, she would speak whatever he commanded. The realization unsettled her.
Tenoch nodded, “Tomorrow you are to give prophecy for a high ranking noble. I will help you be diplomatic.”
“Go to your dinner, and forget this conversation, but remember when I ask you to change your visions, you will.”
Soshay bowed her head, “Thank you for your help with my walk, My Lord High Priest.”
“Good night, Soshay”
Soshay watched the Second Priest walk down the hallway still frowning. She remembered they had talked about the Jaguar Woman story, but she could not remember what either of them had said about the story. She entered the kitchen, puzzled.
The constant warmth of the kitchen enveloped her. The stoves and ovens were always lit, making it the warmest place in the temple. The scents of food, spices, and fruit mixed together. Soshay filled her lungs with the smell, trying to identify each individual scent and quickly became lost in them. Soshay made her way around the mountain of crates that held vegetables and called across the kitchen to Cook.
“Good evening, Soshay” the cook called from across the stove.
Soshay smiled at him, putting the strange conversation from her mind. “Good evening, where is Pelo tonight?” She asked looking for the cook’s assistant.
Cook rolled his eyes, “With that boy, I never know.”
Soshay took her regular seat near the stove.
“What story did you read tonight?” The cook asked. Each night the cook asked her to tell the stories to the kitchen workers.
“I finished the Jaguar Woman story. Would you like to hear it?”
Cook smiled, “Of course.”
Soshay began telling him the story. She found that he and the other kitchen servants loved hearing the stories about Tez. She was surprised to discover that most of them had a fierce devotion to the god. Pelo eventually returned and handed her a mound of dough to knead as she spoke. Cook always glared when Pelo gave her work to do, even though she insisted she enjoyed having something to do.
Before the story was finished she had kneaded five mounds of dough and watched Pelo turn them into mountains of flat bread, which another young woman slid into the ovens. The other kitchen servants came and went, lingering over their tasks to listen to her story.
She finished the story as Cook was putting together a plate for her.
“It is a good story, Soshay.” Pelo said placing the food in front of her. “But I hope the Lord of Death doesn’t turn his eye on you. I wouldn’t want you to spend eternity as a jaguar.” He winked at her.
Cook scowled at him, “Don’t speak so flippantly about Him! He has already marked Soshay as His own.” Cook’s eyes flicked over the mark on her arm.
Soshay frowned, “Pelo didn’t mean to sound disrespectful,” Soshay said elbowing Pelo, “I don’t think the Lord of Death needs another jaguar anyway.”
Cook scolded both of them as they ate, but Soshay kept finding her thoughts returning to the mark. Why had Tez given it to me? What does it mean? None of the stories mention such a mark, and Keron refuses to speak of it at all.
Cook have pelo and warning look. She narrowed her eyes at them, “You are keeping something from me.”
She continued to pester them both, until Cook relented. “Do not repeat this to anyone.”
Cook continued, “He is not a good priest Soshay. He is hungry for personal power. He doesn’t even recognize what your mark means, and even if he did, I fear he would ignore it. You are his path to power.”
Soshay gaped at him, “Wait, what does the mark mean?” She knew Cook had been in service to the temple for decades, so mayhap he did know more lore than the priests.
Cook frowned, “Has no one told you?” He muttered about foolish priests until Soshay got his attention again.
He gave her a concerned look, “I guess it can’t hurt for me to tell you, besides the fool priests in this temple would figure it out eventually.” He smiled at her, “You wear the mark of the True Bride.”
Soshay looked at him confused. “The brides of Tez are the women that are used on the altar…” She blushed, knowing those women were used sexually in specific ceremonies.
Cook shook his head echoing her blush, “No, no, not like them at all. The True Bride is the Cetza woman Tez will choose to rule the Underworld as His queen.” Cook nodded at her mark, “The legend says she will bear His mark.”
Soshay shook her head, “Why would Tez need a queen? And why would He choose me to be a queen?”
Cook shrugged, “I’m no priest. I can’t explain the mysteries of the gods.”
Soshay continued to frown, “Why would no one tell me this story? Cook, I respect your knowledge, but you must be mistaken. Keron would have told me if the mark was so significant.”
Cook only shrugged, “i think they have forgotten. Ask Keron.” He paused, “Or, there was once a frieze of the story near the altar room, you could go and read it.”
Soshay sighed knowing that the walk from her room to the altar room maybe outside her strength for the time being.
Soshay considered Cook’s words as she made her way back to her room. Keron would have told me if the mark was that important. It makes me different, but I cannot be anyone’s bride, much less a god’s. Her thoughts continued to be troubled until she fell asleep.
She awoke having dreamt of her sister. Soshay saw them together, now as adults. She tried to recall the details and saw candles and another woman and an altar. She was certain that a man was present, a priest from the Temple of Midnight.
Something in the dream made her very afraid. During her first few years in the temple, Soshay had thought of sister often, blaming Chacon for her service in the Temple of Twilight. But something about the she and her sister being together left her disquieted. Her own relationship with Tez was changing, and she considered her feelings about her sister. Questioning whether she still resented Chacon for failing to serve in the Temple of Dawn.
She remembered the day the news reached her parents that Chacon, her sister, had renounced her service to Zel’s temple. Soshay had been weaving in the courtyard. The large adobe tiles were cool under her bare feet and the wall surrounding the courtyard were twice the height of a man kept most of the heat of the sun away. The tamed parrots flitted about the myriad of shade and fruit trees. The servants passed through the courtyard going about their many chores. The scents of cooking reached her as her fingers worked the loom. The sharp aroma of spices filled the air, already laden with the warm scent of cooking flatbread. She remembered demanding that one of the servants bring her a cool drink, and remembered with some shame, her rude treatment of those who served her house. Still, she could almost taste the cool, tart lime drink as it slid over her tongue. Her fingers tingled remembering the smooth, finely wrought clay cup with its brightly painted designs. The sun speckled the adobe bricks between the shadows of the trees, and then there was a rap on the outer gate.
Soshay ignored it. As a merchant, her father had many visitors, often trades people plying their wares, or sometimes travelers seeking passage on his caravans. His trade in winter took him beyond the farthest southern vassals, into the lands of the Suyu and in the summer he traveled to the far north to trade with the Zazana. But it was not a tradesperson or a traveler that entered. A servant led a priestess in sunny-yellow robes into the courtyard. The woman refused to sit or to accept a drink. Soshay rose in her presence and also offered her refreshment, while a servant ran to bring her parents. Soshay wanted to ask about Chacon, but knew questioning the priestess would be unseemly. So she waited respectfully silent. Her parents came. The priestess delivered the news without dissembling. Chacon had renounced service. Her name was stricken from the temple records, and her parents would pay restitution for their daughter’s sins. Soshay, even at eleven, understood the ramifications to their family. A forsworn priestess was a shame few could live down, and her father’s business depended upon his reputation.
Her mother, Calzi, had turned pale and fell to her knees, tearing at her hair. Soshay’s skin still prickled to recall the haunting wail. Her father had quietly thanked the priestess and promised to send restitution. Soshay noticed the woman’s pointed gaze in her direction, but her father ignored it, promising to send money. When the priestess left, he declared that Chacon was dead and her name was never to be spoken again. He raged at Calzi for her wailing, finally dragging into the house by her hair. Soshay had remained alone in the courtyard and cried for her sister. She had wondered then if service to the goddess was so terrible. It was only a year later that Keron had come and rapped on the same gate to take her into Tez’s service. Soshay could not believe that Zel’s temple would have treated Chacon harshly; certainly Chacon’s treatment in Zel’s service would have been better then her own early years in Tez’s service.
Soshay knew from messages that Chacon sent home, that Chacon had risen quickly in her two years of service and attended on the High Priestess herself. Even as a young child Chacon had the ability to charm everyone around her. She always got her way. Maybe it was being forced to serve that had been the problem. Where was Chacon now? had she really gone to Mat’s temple with her lover as the gossips said? She never seemed to have any gifts as a child, not like me she mused.
Soshay had been plagued by visions of the future as long as she could remember, often hiding them from her family. Chacon had never seemed to have any such abilities. She pushed herself up and shook off her thoughts. Being unable to solve the riddle of her sister left her restless.
Wanting to escape her own thoughts, she walked through the hallways, stopping to answer the polite greetings of the priests she passed. She was reminded of Cook’s story about the True Bride. Another idea she pushed the idea from her thoughts, content to wait until she next spoke to Keron.
She walked the hall twice and was returning from one of the meditation rooms with her muscles beginning to shake from overexertion when she heard the voices. She recognized Neldo’s now permanently hoarse voice and froze in the hallway. She did not want a confrontation with him. She hadn’t seen him since Text sent the lightening to silence him. She checked the door to the Records Room, planning to slip inside and wait for Neldo to pass. She had just closed the door behind her when his shuffling, limping steps halted in front of the door, and she scurried to hide in the shadowy rows of books. The door opened and Neldo shuffled in accompanied by Tenoch. Soshay inched farther into the shadows, praying to remain hidden.
Neldo stiffly sat in one of the chairs. “Tenoch, what are we going to do with the girl?”
He did not speak directly against me at the council. Soshay remembered and he has been kind to me.
“Why do we need to do anything? She seems amenable to my plans” Tenoch said.
Neldo frowned, “You’ll find that she won’t be. I’ve had to work with her for years, and she seeks only to fulfill her own will. Besides all of this gossip about her being the True Bride, is getting out of hand. More and more are starting to believe it.”
“Mayhap she is His True Bride.” Tenoch’s voice was confidant and melodious. He has been trained to use his voice, but not only in public speaking, but in something else, Soshay realized as she felt a slight tug of truth in his words; as if the words alone compelled her to believe him. But Tez’s bride? It is just so ridiculous.
Neldo glared, “This does not seem to benefit our plans at all” Neldo’s voice rasped “her continued existence in our temple, only raises Keron’s esteem.” Neldo slammed his hand on to the heavy wooden table for emphasis.
Tenoch raised an eyebrow, “Does it? What of these rumors of their affair? If he is so blasphemous to cuckold a God, wouldn’t that destroy him?”
Neldo glared, “Tenoch, Keron has not touched the girl in five years, and he is not going to touch the girl – ever. He believes. Tez has marked the girl, she is sacrosanct. He would kill for her” Neldo’s voice rasped out a curse, “he would die for her, but he will never touch her.” Neldo slammed his hand on to the heavy wooden table for emphasis. “I have had my far-seer watch them. They spend hours alone, actually working,” He finished with a rueful laugh that sounded like the harsh call of a parrot.
Tenoch raised an eyebrow, “You would spy on the highest oracle in the temple? Neldo, you surprise me with your irreverence” he said with a smile. “If Keron will not act the man, can you be certain another will not?”
The words rang through the silence of the records room. Soshay listened wide eyed. She felt the marks on her arm burn as she grew angry. They speak of me as if my own desires, my own will matters not at all.
Neldo glared, “Look at me? What man would dare touch her after seeing what she did to me? No one would be foolish enough for that.”
Tenoch raised an eyebrow, “If none will have her discredited, then we must convince her to work with us.” his voice was unctuous.
Neldo opened his mouth to speak, but Tenoch continued,
“I have spoken to her recently, and she seems amenable to my plans. If she does as I have asked, I think we can certainly use her. Her powers rival Keron’s,” Tenoch paused, “Imagine if she used them for me.”
Neldo slowly nodded in comprehension. “I have tried for years to manipulate her prophecies, to force her to speak what I desire. She cannot be swayed, not with punishment of any sort.”
“Fool!” Tenoch snapped. “Your hatred and mistreatment of the girl has poisoned your chances of success with her.” He glared at Neldo, “I was foolish to leave such a delicate task in your hands for so long.” Tenoch’s voice changed, again becoming melodious, “If she can be convinced to give the prophecies I provide, then she stays in the temple.” He offered a sly smile, “If she does not say the words I tell her to say then I will find a way to be rid of her.”
Soshay could see Neldo’s face break into a sly smile. How dare he think I would lie! Her rage was clouded by confusion. But Tenoch has always been kind to me, he spoke in my favor at the council meeting, and I need his support. And I want to help him, she realized confused by her warring response. She was uncertain why she felt so strongly that she wanted to please Tenoch, why she wanted to do what he asked, even though she knew it was wrong. She missed their remaining words distracted by her jumbled thoughts. Why do I believe he seeks to help me, when he plots with Neldo to destroy me?
She struggled to make sense of her conflict as the priests finally left the room.
Soshay crept from her hiding place and froze finding Tenoch still seated at the table. She gaped at him, unable to say anything.
“Soshay, I thought I saw you slip in here.”
She remained silent frozen in fear, she knew that she had overheard far too much.
Tenoch’s voice shifted. “I don’t have time to deal with your spying ways adequately,” he said with his steepled his fingers under his chin, his eyes locked onto hers. “You will forget what you heard here today. You will remember your walk as uneventful. You saw no one. You will continue back to your room.”
It seemed to Soshay that she felt the words rather than heard them. She tried to look at Tenoch, but her eyes shifted away from him. She felt herself walking away from him and leaving the Records Room.
In the hallway she shook her head. I must have become lost in my own thoughts, she reasoned to herself and continued to walk back towards her room. She spent the remainder of the day with a nagging feeling that she had forgotten something.
“Soshay?” a voice carried through her door.
Pelo opened the door, and she noticed, as always, that he left it open as he entered the room. She knew that he sought to avoid gossip. Only Keron had ever spent time with her alone and behind closed doors. I cannot be so beautiful that these foolish men would lose all control in my presence. The thought led to a nagging remembrance, something she had heard. She tried to place the voice, the words, but could not. She cut off her thoughts, dismissing the nagging memory as only more gossip spoken by bored priests and acolytes. She noticed Pelo’s grin.
“My friend” his voice dropped into a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ve a gift for you.”
She noticed then that he kept one hand behind his back. She sat up excitedly on her bed, and crossed her legs under her skirt. “A gift for me?” She grinned back, “what is it?” She bounced with the words.
He laughed, “The great oracle is just like any village girl.” He produced a basket of fresh oranges that he set on her desk. “I bring you the sun my lady” he said with a mocking bow. He tossed her an orange that she fumbled to catch. He folded his lanky sun-bronzed limbs into her chair.
She raised the orange to her nose and inhaled. The citrus scent filled her senses and she closed her eyes, pretending for a moment that she could feel the warmth of the sun or better yet, the cool breezes of summer nights as the sun was disappearing over the horizon. “Thank you” she whispered. The silence between them was awkward. Before their friendship was a quiet rebellion, both of them playing at small defiant actions, whispered secrets, hidden food, and small gifts.
Now, Soshay realized it was something more and she was unskilled in the art of friendship. She struck a playfully, haughty pose, “this may be a gift worthy of an oracle as great as I am.” She barely finished the speech before they both broke into laughter.
“So what news from the world?” She asked beginning to peel the orange. Cook, frowned on their gossiping, but for Soshay the trivial trials of others gave her a connection to the world outside the temple.
“Cook is continuing his affair with the farmer’s daughter.” He pointed to the oranges, “hence this gift. She hopes they will marry. Cook, I think, hopes she will give up more than oranges.” He took an orange from the basket himself. “Qel, Tenoch’s under-priest, seems besotted with a young priestess of Zel. She’s very pretty.” His dark eyes glinted with amusement.
Soshay raised a questioning eyebrow, “But isn’t she the woman that Tenoch is…” she let the question trail off.
Pelo smiled and nodded.
She choked on her orange, “what a scandal, two priests of Twilight bewitched by a priestess of Dawn.” She sighed, “It would make a dashing story. The two priests of the Lord of Death using their terrible magics to win the heart of a priestess of life.”
“There’s something about Tenoch that doesn’t fit a hero for this tale.” Pelo said.
Soshay considered his words, remembering Tenoch as a strong, handsome man. Older by her reckoning, but not elderly. In fact, she realized that he was the exact type of man her parents would have wanted her to marry. Not a man like Keron, who was young, and beautiful. She paused, suddenly uneasy that her thoughts had turned to Keron and that she was thinking of him as a man. She shook her head, “Unfortunately,” she frowned, “Tenoch is not the right sort at all to be the hero of a romance. He is too husbandly.”
“So if you and this girl weren’t priestesses, you both would be married to men like him?” Pelo asked.
She nodded absently wondering a moment about what type of man her father would have chosen for her. While her mother was noble-born, her father’s status would have most likely prevented a noble marriage. “Hmm maybe I’d have been married to a man like him. Probably, some merchant or craftsman my father wanted better business with,” she shurgged. “After we had a few children, unless we suited each other, we’d both have found lovers.”
“So service to Tez means no marriage.” His dark eyes lit up with thought. “Unless you marry Text, of course.”
She laughed, “Why are you the only one who isn’t afraid of my mark?” Sometimes she forgot the distinctions between them. In age they were not so far apart, but by class they were worlds apart. The Cetza, like most of their vassal states, had a limited social hierarchy. While any Cetza could move up or down in standing, but they all started somewhere. Pelo started far lower on that ladder than she had. Of course Temple service was a great equalizer. Had Pelo been an acolyte they’d be equals, but he was not – so they were not.
Yet, she relished his friendship with a fervor she had never before experience and she played his game of grandiose dreams. She told him endless stories of “what could be” where she was often married to a distant prince, with Pelo as her trusted advisor, and he never ceased telling her how naïve she was, and she had to admit, even sometimes to him, that he was right. Sometimes she spun tales of them going on adventurous journeys to far off lands, often places Soshay wholly invented to make the stories more exciting and exotic.
He ate the last segment of his orange. “we, the servants, have different stories of the gods. We have a different relationship to them.” He gathered up the orange peels. “We have rituals you and the priests know nothing about.” He winked at her, “So you may be his bride, but he speaks to me too.”
He turned serious when the chanting of the final evening prayers reached the room. “I’ll have to go soon, but I’ve news of your initiation.”
She gestured for him to go on.
“You know the priests all speak openly in front of the servants” he said the word with some shame, “Rumors are flying among us that Neldo doesn’t intend for you to have a legitimate initiation. He’s been seeking the ear of the Priest of Rituals and he and Tenoch have been spending much time in discussion of you.”
She paled, but she did not doubt the rumors. “Wh-what do they intend?” She hated that her voice shook.
Pelo shrugged. “That I don’t know, yet, but I will be listening – We all will.” He let the comment trail off awkwardly.
“Why?” She questioned.
He shrugged off the question, “Our stories have always spoken of you. To see you treated so poorly, shook their faith in the priests” his fingers laced through hers, “besides, all of us hated Neldo. You did what none of us could ever hope to do when you blasted him.”
She cringed at the memory, suddenly only able to smell cooking flesh. The bright flavor of the oranges turned bitter in her mouth and she pulled her hand away. “I didn’t do that to him. I swear to you, even if I had that power, I don’t think I could use it on a person, even Neldo. That truly was the work of Tez.” Well above their heads in the temple, the chanting had stopped – it was always his signal to leave.
“It bothers you? That he was hurt?” He asked confusion in his voice.
She nodded unable to find the words. “He was awful, he is awful. But, gods, it was more awful to see, to hear his screams” she stared at the floor. “I pray it was Tez that did it. If it was me, if I could do that, what horrors would I be capable of?” She heard Pelo rise and felt his hand on her shoulder.
“You’re not a horror, Soshay. You are gifted by the gods, I know that. I must go” he glanced toward the door. “I’ll come tomorrow, if I can get away.”
She nodded and watched him go and was alone, until she felt a presence in the room. She hurriedly wiped at her face, but the room was still empty. You are more. She did not know where the words came from, but she knew them to be true. “Tez?” she whispered to be met with silence. Am I really to be your bride?