Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My life in your service came full circle when I once again journeyed with your judge-priestess …
Everything is the same, and nothing is.
The thought isn’t new, but it strikes Girl with greater force as they ride into the foreign city, as this leg of their itinerary will be very different. No more trials for one thing, since the judge-priestess has no standing here, this embassy being a step towards changing that, at least for the country’s border villages. But the main difference between this journey and the one fourteen years ago is Girl herself – she’s not an encumbrance to be delivered to the monastery, but a valued member of the priestess’s entourage.
She doesn’t have Sukhbir, and her heart aches at his absence, but Lal is with her, though he’s now senior guard and no longer drinks rice wine and raksi nor would ever again leave a priestess undefended. But the smell of the guards’ hard-leather armour is the same, as is their grumbling about everything, especially thieving villagers charging too much for stabling the horses. The long, tiring days have been the same, the pity and horror of the trials, the tears and anger at the judgements, the glimpses of good and evil.
Yet the main thing that’s the same is Girl herself. Her excitement, her hunger to learn, her resolution to make Sukhbir proud of her, and her determination to become a priestess of the Lady Giver-of-Judgements.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. As an acolyte I tended the most beautiful of your shrines and discovered the secret of its reliquary …
Girl steps back, the better to see how the shrine looks. She’s privileged to be keeper of the oldest and greatest of the shrines to the Lady, especially as she’s the youngest and newest of the acolytes, as some of the other girls continually remind her. So it has to be perfect for the ceremony tomorrow. No, it’s well past midnight, the ceremony today. Which is why she’s here, not still in bed. Sleepless with excitement and worry, she couldn’t remember if she’d cleaned one of the butter lamps, so she dressed hurriedly and rushed across to the temple to check.
She had cleaned the ornate copper lamp. But she cleaned it again, and the others, then spent time rearranging them around the jewelled casket – the reliquary – which, for so long, has had sole pride of place beneath the statue of the Lady. The reliquary itself received special attention from her during the day. Above all else, it has to look perfect.
Opinion is divided in the Acolytes’ Hall as to whether Revered Mother will break the reliquary open to split the precious palm-leaf manuscripts it contains – manuscripts the goddess herself wrote, setting out the rules of the Order. If so, the new reliquary being presented tomorrow – today – will hold half the leaves; if not, the new one will stay empty, so won’t be a reliquary at all, only a decorated box. Girl hopes the old reliquary remains sealed. After so many months caring for it, studying every detail of the finely worked silver with its lapis and gold inserts, its sapphires and emeralds, she wants nothing to spoil its perfection.
But the pottery lamp she brought with her is failing. She makes one final, tiny adjustment to a butter lamp’s position, then – as always before leaving the shrine’s enclosure – she kneels and gazes up at the gilded statue. Every other figure portrays the goddess with six arms, usually with the symbols of her six aspects in her six hands. Only in this statue can Girl see any likeness to the Lady, and with the marble evoking silken robes, its beauty and serenity fill her with ever-renewed wonder.
“Thank you, Lady, for entrusting me with this honour,” she whispers, then offers her usual prayers for the monastery and its people, for Sukhbir and others she loves. Then she rises and steps through the gate in the tall railings that surround the shrine, locks the gate, and drops the key chain over her head.
As she emerges from the temple, the lamp’s flame is no more than a red glow. The night is overcast, with no glint of moon or starlight, but in the distance she sees a momentary pale glimmer, a sense of movement relieving the darkness. It’s only when she’s again undressing for bed that she wonders why anyone else would be out there in the middle of the night.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your aspects of Wisdom and Truth guided me both in the Novitiate House and in my travels with your priestesses …
“So while Wisdom and Truth are comprehensively interlinked,” the priestess of Truth continues, “they remain discrete entities.”
As, for example, now, thinks Girl. For the truth is she’s bored – she’s heard this lesson many times – but wisdom keeps that truth hidden. She suspects the merchant and his family are also finding the lecture tedious, though they’re valiantly pretending otherwise, mindful of the honour accorded their house by the presence of two of the Lady’s priestesses. Only the simple-minded daughter, staring open-mouthed, appears truly interested, though doubtless understanding little. As for the boys, they’re a mass of twitches and fidgets, and one is surely about to yawn.
The priestess has noticed. “But I’ve talked for too long. Perhaps, Master Tshering, you might now tell us more of the white-hued golden takin we hope to see.”
“First,” says the priestess of Wisdom, “we should release the children. I’m sure they’d rather be elsewhere.”
The boys leap up and are out of the door as soon as their father nods. The girl, Pema, trails after them.
“You may go, too, Kalpana,” says the priestess.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. My first year in the Novitiate House was a time of great learning, but also a time of sorrow and death …
Girl is kneeling, about to pour yet more tea for the foreign trader, when he slips from his cushion and slumps against her.
The other traders jump to their feet, exclaiming loudly. The priestesses of Wisdom and Truth rise more elegantly, quietly worried. Unmoving, unmoved, old skinflint Dhanash, who invited himself to the negotiations, demands to know if Master Jin is dead.
Girl tries to remain calm, supporting the trader as she sets the tea-kettle down, then carefully lowering him to the devdar-wood floor. She touches his throat, seeking the pathways of his life force, but finds only clogged and stagnant channels.
A priestess kneels beside her, considers the man’s harsh breathing, his rank breath, then presses a point of confluence at his neck. “I fear it’s the honeyed disease. Fetch a healer, Kalpana. Go your quick way.”
Girl runs from the Teaching Hall. The proper way to the House of Healing is down the four storeys of the Novitiate House, then through, across, along and past the many courts, open alleys, covered passages and buildings winding their way around the monastery. But the roofs of the two Houses are connected. It’s a simple climb even in formal robes, and she knows which window shutters open easily from the outside.
For Girl is no stranger to the House of Healing. She lost Sukhbir there.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the child you named Kalpana, though in my heart I always remained Girl. In the Postulant House I learned of your first aspects, but I didn’t truly understand until the township and the pilgrim hospitium …
Girl stands by the prayer flags, several yards from the hospitium door, and not only to ready herself for the stench of illness and death. She’s accompanied priestesses of Compassion and Benevolence on many occasions to comfort the dying, but always alongside other postulants. This time she’s the only one.
Girl has learned a great deal in her six years in the Postulant House, not least that it’s more than a place of teaching, it’s a place of assessment, and not every applicant is accepted into the Order. She’s determined to become a priestess, but first she must progress to the Novitiate House, and she’s sure the hospitium is where she’ll be tested and the decision made.
One deep breath and she takes a step forward. Then stops dead. Inside the hospitium a woman’s voice has risen in a screech.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, the unhappy girl in the Postulant House. It was there I ran away from you for the first time. It all began with my name …
“What’s your name?” the tall girl asks, and the floodgates open.
“How old are you?”
“Where are you from?”
“What’s your caste?”
“Is it true you can’t talk?”
Girl is dazed, flustered. Nearly a month she’s been at the monastery, but until now her only company has been Shanti, a slow, sweet dumpling of a serving girl who was surely a water buffalo in her last life. Shanti looked after Girl, sleeping alongside her, bathing, eating and praying alongside her, and never once asked any questions or made any demands. Gradually, under her placid care, Girl learned to trust and to speak again.
But Shanti has other duties now and Girl must live with the young girls in the Postulant House, and they’re crowding about her with their shrill voices and insistent questions, and her head is spinning.
“I’m called Girl,” she finally stammers.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. Your priestess brought me to the monastery. There I saw your statue for the first time. There I turned away from you for the first time. But before you, there was another …
“Here, little one. Sit here.”
Sukhbir, the older of the priestess’s guards, points to a broken wall well away from the crowd. Girl sits. She likes Sukhbir. He’s kind and gentle and makes her laugh. He’s her friend, and she’s never had a friend before.
The young guard, Lal, is nice enough, but smells of rice wine and raksi, reminding her of Aprakash. The priestess is beautiful, but far away somehow, as if always thinking important thoughts.
And Sukhbir is the one who bought clothes for Girl – new clothes, not ragged cast-offs – which keep her warm as they climb higher and higher into the mountains. He’s the one who holds her when she’s sick, which is often, as she isn’t used to having such rich food and so much to eat. And he’s the one she rides with, sitting before him on his great horse, while he tells her about the monastery and the priestesses, who she mustn’t call “lady” but “honoured one”, because the Lady is the goddess, the Lady of Six Aspects, though Girl doesn’t know what an aspect is. But whatever Sukhbir says to do, she does. So when he says “Sit here.” she sits.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me, your little mouse. You sent your priestess to free me from my cage …
“I shall come for you.”
Girl whispers the words to herself as she rides a water buffalo home from the steep terraces of the rice fields. Many, many days have passed since the goddess made the promise, but Girl knows she will keep her word.
But how will she come? In a chariot, drawn by white buffaloes? Riding a great golden yak? Or a tiger? Yes, a tiger. And the goddess will let it eat Naala.
Girl has more weals on her back and legs nowadays, as Naala finds any excuse to lash out with her bamboo cane. For Aprakash has gone, and not to his auntie’s. Gone without the golden horn-caps, but Girl is sure he’s taken other things, for Naala has spent hours searching her coffers, sometimes weeping that he’s left her, more often cursing his name.
The village gossips think he’s gone for good. Girl hopes so. The goddess said not to fear his threats, but Girl does fear, and she repeats the goddess’s promise over and over to herself like a holy mantra.
Hear my prayer, Lady, and remember me. I was six years old, no one, nothing, but you found me. Girl was my name …
Girl doesn’t respond, only crawls further into the gap beneath the house, deeper into the shadows. She’s done nothing wrong, but Naala screaming for her like that means a beating.
“This is how I’m repaid for my compassion and benevolence,” cries Naala as villagers gather. “But it certainly shows I lacked wisdom, taking in the orphaned babe, caring for her for five long years. In truth, she’s as wicked as her feckless parents. But I’ll have judgement-giving and justice before the god. As Temple Elder, I demand it.”
Girl doesn’t understand all the words, but some make her tingle inside. Then Aprakash stumbles from the house, half-drunk on rice wine and raksi.
“Why all the shrieking, Mother?” he demands. “What’s the brat done now?”
“Theft! Theft from my own house!”
“Old story, new story…”
Softly, mournfully, Akiowa sang the Storyteller’s call to herself, but the rest died on her lips as she reached the brow of the ridge and gazed down over the land. A sparkling river ran alongside a birch forest, overlooked by a white rock shaped like a wolf howling at the sky. A rock she’d first seen as a babe, when her father had brought her to be blessed by the village totem. A rock which had watched, impassive, as the tribeless men carried her away.
Home. After the long years of slavery and wandering, she was home. She fell to her knees, one trembling hand at her mouth holding back her cry of joy, tears pricking her eyes.
Then joy turned to sorrow; the tears fell. For this was no longer home, since she was no longer Akiowa, young daughter of the tribe’s noblest man, his dwelling hers as long as she lived. She was the Storyteller, an old woman with no family, who would stay only a night or two before leaving.