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Melanie Dunstan 1997 "Kat, dear, do put a little more green on the eyelids, there’s a pet - you need that handsome guard to really notice you....." Jenna’s tones were dripping vitriol disguised as sweetcakes, and Kat, behind her back, opened her mouth wide and silently hissed, a parody of her namesake.

Jenna languidly rose from the couch, and draped the turquoise and silver shawl more becomingly around her shoulders and blew a kiss at Kat, before oozing her way towards the arch, and her assignation with the Senior Clerk of Works. As she left, she could hear a cat, hissing, somewhere.

Prime tormentor gone, Kat allowed herself to sink down onto the vacant couch in utter misery. She wasn’t supposed to be here. It wasn’t her fault that stupid, bovine Bolya got herself pregnant and couldn’t do the elder girl’s duty at the priestess’ shrine. Bolya would have loved it here, Kat thought spitefully. Nothing to do all day but drink yurtgha, play ‘ladylike’ dice games and eat. Oh, and of course, dress up and go for assignations. And, of course, night duty to the priestesses. Yes, Bolya would have been in her element - she didn’t mind what she did, nor with whom.

But no, not our Kat. Been here twenty days at least and not a single thing to read! She was sure she would go crazy, tripping over half-drugged forms, nose too full of overripe perfumes and everywhere she looked beautiful brown skin, brown eyes and not an ugly red hair nor a freckle in sight. Until she looked in the hated mirror. Kat sighed. It was true-said that the child of a priestess must look far for a father. Resignedly, she took out the green eye shadow and watched hazel eyes sadly regard her in the mirror. Maybe if she did encourage a guardsman, he would bring her something to read....

Bells tolled in the courtyard below and Kat leaned out of the high arched window, wrinkling her nose against intrusive ascending incense. The wide wooden arched doors were standing open - a very unusual sign, in Kat’s limited experience. As she watched, a strange procession wound through the gateway; female warriors on foot, with upper bodies encased in metal and leather like children’s dolls, and then an animal - goodness - of all things - carrying a large box. Kat, breathtaken, saw the curtains of the box twitch aside and the tiniest woman, dressed all in white veils, came out. Kat could have sworn on the Goddess she moved faster than lightning. One moment she was moving the curtain in the box, the next - the box was empty, curtains moved aside, and the tiny woman was on the ground. "Magic!" breathed Kat. Here, at last, was something interesting.

Later, at dinner, the tiny woman was at the head table, in the topmost place of honour. Kat, for once, had the leisure to enjoy her meal, for Jenna was still absent. Kat allowed herself a wicked grin, deep inside where nobody saw. Jenna’s favourite desert - and no Jenna to eat it. No, for Jenna was still with the Senior Clerk of Works - whom she cordially hated - even though he gave her necklaces much more beautiful than he gave to his wife. Surreptitiously, Kat watched the tiny woman dressed in white. As did the entire population of the priestess’ hall that mealtime. With the result that few noticed - and fewer commented - on the heavier than usual dosage of pitjeri powder in the food.

With the other novices, she crowded round the urns of yurtgha after the meal. When she was the only one left, having no senior priestess to attend to at present, she sat in a corner to savour the taste of the one cup a day that she permitted herself. As a much milder version of pitjeri, the drink was still extremely habit-forming, although not nearly as dangerous as the powdered root itself, and without the debilitating effects of the essence that the men mixed in to make Kriochor. With her first sip, Kat was jolted - the drink was far stronger than she had ever tasted, and very salty, in addition. She sat to wonder; then, as the drug started to take hold, inwardly shrugged. She didn’t really care, after all. It was not until many days later that she remembered drinking a second cup, and a third, from thirst. Nor that she had to wait in line for many others to refill their cups first.

At the Call To Address, Kat was one of the first through the arch, and so sat in the front row - not her usual place, which was to the rear of the room, where nobody could easily see her and point at her white skin and red hair.

The seats were soon full, for everyone wanted to see what the tiny woman had to say. The metal gates clanged shut, and the day’s steward Called the Address. Before she had halfway finished, the tiny woman was there. Kat caught her breath. "Magic" she breathed again. Around the room novices and priestesses alike were looking at each other in amazement. It seemed that nobody had seen the tiny woman enter. Yet she was there. Silence fell, and the tiny woman spoke.

Today I break with the tradition of recent years, for it is I who will Address you. But beforehand, any who will, may ask a question. Kat was on her feet before she could stop herself and opened her mouth against her better judgement. "Why do you use magic?" she shouted, and the women in the hall breathed a collective gasp. "The ancients used magic - and so do you - for I have seen you!" accused Kat. Deep inside, where she really lived, she was appalled, but could not stop her words before they jumped out and hit the assembly in the face. The tiny woman bowed her head towards Kat, and then gently asked: "Has anyone else seen me use magic?"

Slowly, as if against their will, three other novices rose to their feet, and a newly-ordained priestess. "And nobody else?" the words had the bite of cold steel at their edges. An older priestess half rose. "M-mother, I am not sure..." she stammered. The tiny woman beckoned, and the priestess reluctantly walked towards the standing group, who were now huddled in the centre of the stage. Bemused, looking out at the sea of closed faces, Kat wondered how she had got onto the stage without noticing. But she did hear the tiny woman say despairingly, under her breath; "Is that all?"

Kat woke into a white room, on a white mat under a white cover, with candles burning at her head and feet, even though it was daytime. The tiny woman’s face floated in a sea of white somewhere near her feet.

"We have finished our discussion, my lamb," said the tiny woman, gently. Kat looked into her eyes and understood how kind she was, the first kindness she had seen since unwillingly coming to the shrine. "Now you many ask a few questions before it is time for you to go". "Go?" repeated Kat, stupidly. "But I haven’t even been here a month! What of my studies?"

"Completed", said the tiny woman. "You are well along your chosen path".

Kat became angry. "But I’m not s’posed to be here! Bolya was s’posed to come!" The face of the tiny woman became more remote. "My child remember well; who was it who whispered to your sister that the farmer’s son loved her? Who went to that farmer’s son as a ‘messenger’ from that same sister? Who arranged the assignation? Who set the date - the date, I might add, when Bolya was most likely to become pregnant? Oh, my child, remember well - who saw to it that Bolya was disqualified from shrine service so that you could take her place?" "Bolya did", said Kat, in a very small voice. But nobody, not even Kat herself, believed the words.

The tiny woman’s fleshless, clawed hand took her own. "Kat," she said gently "You became Destiny’s Wielder when you decided to become a priestess; because you wanted what all true priestesses want - power". Deep within herself, Kat , surprised, agreed with her. "You worked and schemed long and hard to be here. Now I have worked long and hard," said the tiny woman, and Kat could see the story of sleepless hours written on the tiny face "so that you now have the beginnings of that power available to you. Use it well". And she disappeared. "I’d like to do that..." said Kat to herself, as she took a step onto the roof of the oratory in the town square. And then paused, uncertain, as she remembered the very many steps it took to get from the shrine to the town centre.

As she lifted her arms up to heaven, it seemed only natural that lightning should touch the base of the pillars of the oratory, and thunder should roll overhead. And once again, only natural, that when she opened her mouth to tell of the Goddess’ ascendancy to the position of supreme worship, that the town square should be full of people, and that they should listen to her words and agree, instead of reviling her. And much later, when the line of priests was formed up to deliver the scrolls of the archives to her for the Goddess’ safekeeping, it seemed only natural, once again, that she should bless the Kriochori-men, and that they should regain their faculties immediately, and become whole again. Particularly since the sisterhood had much better things to occupy their time with than running around after men!!

    Prasad giggled a little at the end of the story, then turned to his boy and beckoned him forwards. " We are all Destiny’s Wielders" said Prasad, lifting his hand in farewell. Slowly, the pair shuffled away from the marketplace, leaving behind a couple of old men and one little girl. Marah, her name was, and she had been thunderstruck by the story. No, not the content, for it was Prasad’s fate to ever have his students miss the main teaching point of the stories; Marah was fascinated by the way that Prasad told the story; the pitch and tone of his voice, the colours lent to it by the different characters in the story, the way he made his words come alive. And there and then Marah resolved that when she grew up, she would be a man and go on the stage, or enter the priesthood and tell such stories herself; or possibly both. But the Goddess had other things in store for Marah, and after a while she found out what some of them were.

 

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