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.
Girl bridles. After ten years in the Lady’s service – four in the Novitiate House itself – she’s sick of being treated as a child. It’s bad enough in the monastery, but here, where she’s a year older, head and shoulders taller, and vastly more intelligent than the simpleton, Pema, whose marriage the priestesses have come to bless, it’s insupportable.
“I’d prefer to stay, honoured one,” she says carefully, avoiding a direct lie. “These takin must be curious animals, like cow and goat and yak all mixed together.”
As the words leave her mouth, she knows it’s a mistake – the priestess of Truth has had long enough to learn to read the clues in her expression and voice.
“Curious indeed.” The priestess’s smile shows she isn’t fooled. “But after so many weeks travelling, it will be good for you to be with someone your own age again.”
With as much grace as she can muster, Girl acknowledges the order and leaves.
“I can tell you about the white-coloured takin if you want,” says Pema as the door closes upon them. “I saw him once.”
Girl gives a non-committal grunt, annoyed at being excluded from the adults, ashamed at being annoyed over a trifle, angry at being made to feel ashamed.
“The god lives in him sometimes and turned him white to show he’s special. He brings good fortune, so Papa has sent men out to try and find him and bring him to my wedding.”
Girl huffs out a breath in mingled irritation and self-pity.
Pema touches her arm. “I’m sorry you’re so unhappy.”
“I’m not unhappy!” Girl snaps.
“But the servants said …” Pema chews her lip, then, “Would you like to see my bridal clothes?”
No, she wouldn’t. But pique has been replaced by guilt at speaking so sharply to someone little better than a child, so she follows Pema up to the girl’s room, where cedarwood chests hold more silk and soft goat-wool than Girl has seen in her entire life. Shawls, blouses, overdresses, in brilliant reds, gorgeous blues, vibrant greens. Exquisite embroidery complements intricately woven bands; gold clasps shine above jewelled brooches.
Girl fingers her rough woollen gown, the drab colour of barley-meal, and tries to suppress a spurt of envy.
“Would you like to try them on?” Pema asks.
Truth overrides wisdom: “Yes.”
The day passes in a succession of clothes, jewellery, trinkets. Though Girl enjoys it more than she cares to admit, she guesses it’s Pema’s childlike way of cheering her up, and she worries at the issue.
Is she unhappy? No, but … restless. Life goes so slowly in the monastery, and it’s like she has quickfire in her veins – she wants to be doing, not simply learning. Rules and tradition stifle her at every turn, and there have been days when she’s wanted to run and shout and burst into tears for no reason. Even the journey through this foreign land, discovering its animals and plants, its culture and customs, hasn’t fully quenched the burning. She wants more.
Belatedly she realises Pema has asked a question. “Yes,” she says. “I can read and write.”
“And count and add things up?”
“I wish I was clever like that. Married women should keep accounts, but I can’t do them, though I try and try. Jigme, who’s to be my husband, he says he’ll look after my money. It’s a woman’s job, but I’ve no woman friend who can help.”
Girl’s sure there was no calculation behind the words, but as Pema toys with an ivory comb and chatters about handsome Jigme, she reflects on the idea. Could she give up the monastery – the hope of becoming a priestess – to be a servant? But a servant in fine clothes, whispers a treacherous thought. A servant treated as an adult, respected. That would be doing. That would be more.
“Papa frets,” says Pema. “Because Jigme comes from far, far away and he’s got no family here to speak for him. But Jigme says we mustn’t let Papa stop us marrying, so he’s coming Night Courting to my room tonight when everyone’s asleep, and Papa will have to agree.”
Girl has never heard of Night Courting, but she’s in no doubt what it means. She’s debating what to say when a man’s voice reaches them from outside. Pema jumps up.
Girl follows her to the window, looks down on a tall, broad man, then shrinks back. It’s been ten years since she saw him, but she’d recognise him anywhere. The enemy of her childhood. Aprakash.
Girl pleads a headache to avoid the evening meal, which has the advantage of being true, since she thinks her head will burst with worry and fear. She knows Aprakash would never recognise her, but she feels sick at the thought of being in his presence.
She sits outside in the yard, close enough to the dinner room’s open shutters to hear all that’s said. As the priestess of Wisdom makes conversation with Aprakash, asking commonplace questions, while the priestess of Truth undoubtedly weighs the answers and watches closely, Girl understands why they’re here. Master Tshering didn’t track them down simply to add lustre to the wedding celebrations; he wants them to discover the truth about Aprakash.
But Aprakash is clever. He tells no direct lies, he embroiders no stories, he appears to be open and honest. The priestess of Truth will learn nothing.
Girl can take no more. She flees to the wooded rise behind the house, where bright rhododendrons flourish, and slumps to the ground in a clearing. She can’t confront Aprakash – the anger which allowed her to face Naala is missing; there’s only fear. She could tell Master Tshering, but what if he doesn’t believe her? She could tell the priestesses, but leaving them to sort it out is a child’s evasion of responsibility.
Then, through the darkling wood, there’s the rustle of movement and a pale glimmer. A large beast ambles into the clearing – its long, mournful face topped with wide horns, its heavy, hairy pelt pure white. The golden takin. At its side, a luminous figure is dressed in saffron robes embroidered with both the book of Wisdom and the light of Truth.
“You looked unhappy, little mouse. There are no water buffalo here to bring you comfort, but I thought this ridiculous creature might be an acceptable substitute.”
The takin shambles its way to Girl, then settles at her side. She tells herself she’s not a child, but she still wraps her arms around its neck and buries her face in its warm coat. “Aprakash is here to marry Pema,” she says, her voice muffled. “I have to tell them he’s a thief and a bully.”
The goddess sits and leans back against the takin. “Is that wise?”
Girl looks up. “It’s the truth.”
“And truth and wisdom are always identical, of course.”
“He was a thief and a bully, ten years ago. Perhaps he’s changed his ways. If he cares for this poor child, what good will come of revealing his past?”
“He won’t have changed,” Girl insists. “And Master Tshering suspects him – he brought us here to learn the truth.”
“No, he didn’t. He suspects and feels obliged to test his suspicions. But he wants my priestess to say Aprakash is genuine, even, perhaps, if he isn’t.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He wants his daughter to be happy, which to him means married. No family around here will allow any son to take her as a wife, for fear their children will inherit her mental affliction. Who is there left?”
“So we keep silent, and let Aprakash win?” Girl scrambles to her feet and stalks around the clearing. “No. I won’t let him hurt Pema. They have to know the truth.”
“Then discover the truth. Don’t assume what you wish to be true is true. Remember that wisdom comes first and requires humility as well as knowledge. Recognise there are things you don’t know. Accept that you might be wrong.”
“This is a test, isn’t it?”
The Lady smiles.
Girl returns to the takin and sits again. “How can I prove what kind of man Aprakash really is?” She curls her fingers into the beast’s coat. “Can’t you just send the takin down to the house and make it denounce him in the name of their god?”
“I can send it there if you wish, but no, I can’t make it talk.”
A thoughtful silence, then, “Perhaps you don’t need to.”
Girl lies in the darkness, consumed with guilt, fear, worry. Guilt at the untruths she’s told Pema; fear for their safety since she can’t foresee how Aprakash will react; worry that she’s ruining Pema’s future.
There’s a scratching noise at the window, and instantly Pema’s there, opening the shutter. “You can’t come in,” she whispers before Aprakash can speak. “Kalpana’s here, sleeping. She walked up to the salt lick earlier and the white takin was there and frightened her. He spoke to her, Jigme. He was angry, and said he’s coming here tomorrow to tell Papa about you and Naala and Ishwan and Girl.”
Girl hears the indrawn breath, feels Aprakash’s sudden alarm.
“Who are these people, Jigme?”
“No one. Just people I used to know. Has she told anyone else?”
“I don’t think so. But what will happen? What will the takin say?”
“There’s nothing it could say.” His voice grows in confidence. “Don’t worry. The stupid girl had a bad dream, that’s all.”
“But how could she know these names? And what about the golden horn caps?”
“What?” It’s practically a shout, and there’s a scrabble as Aprakash slips, then fights to regain his foothold.
“The takin said he’d tell papa about them, but what are horn caps?”
“How would I know? What else did the girl say?”
“These things were stolen from a god, and the thief must be punished. The takin is part god himself, that’s why he’s angry. What does it all mean?”
“I don’t know. But I can’t stay here. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And he’s gone. Pema closes the shutters and creeps back to her bed. Girl lies still, hoping beyond hope her plan will work. It seems an age before the Lady murmurs in her ear.
“He’s taken the bait and is nearly there. Do you want to see?”
“Please,” she mouths.
Moments later she’s sitting beside a rhododendron looking down onto the salt lick and the sitting takin. She can’t see anyone else, but an air of tension hangs over the space. Footsteps sound; someone moving quickly.
Aprakash stops short at the sight of the takin, then draws a long knife and advances. He’s only yards away when the beast looks straight at him and gives a bellowing roar which echoes around the woods. Then men are running towards Aprakash, Master Tshering is shouting, and the two priestesses walk calmly forward to ask the questions Girl has given them.
The sun is high as Girl watches the takin graze among the rhododendrons. She can’t tell whether the beast did indeed bring good fortune to Pema. In his shock, Aprakash lied badly, but the knife in his hand had already destroyed him – bound and branded, he was carted away well before dawn. Girl guesses that Master Tshering is still struggling with the truth; she knows Pema is still crying.
“Might she have been happy with him?” she asks.
“Perhaps,” says the Lady. “For a little while. Until he stopped acting, or the money ran out.”
“Can you help her?”
“Mend her brain, you mean? No. She was damaged before she left her mother’s womb. But I dare say I could find a man who would be a good husband to her. But aren’t you staying to manage her money?”
Girl shakes her head. “I’m going back to the Novitiate House.”
“No, you’re not. I thought allowing you to travel with my priestesses would quell your desire for change so you could return there. I was wrong.”
Girl’s stomach plunges. “Lady, I promise, I’ll …”
“You passed the test, little mouse. It’s time for you to become an acolyte.”