The stone underfoot was already warm in the sunlight that peeked over the jagged ridge to the east of the temple compound. Noe padded quietly up the exposed staircase to the roof, hugging a small pot sloshing full with water. The stairs were slick with the fine dust that drifted endlessly even through the still morning air, but she moved with impatient confidence, not spilling a drop in the climb.
The sky lightened by the moment, the ridge edged with the brilliant gold of the cresting sun, but no one on the roof stirred when she reached the top. Girls lay tumbled on rush mats and rugs, bare sweat-streaked limbs akimbo, lying across each other in the snaking angles of tree roots threading through stone. Breathy snores fluttered here and there, but the last few minutes of sleep were precious to the initiates, and no one woke even as Noe shook out her towel and stripped off her robe.
She jumped as the first splash of chill well-water hit her skin, barely holding in a squeal as she sluiced it under her arms and down her chest. Quickly, for the skim of water would evaporate in moments, she worked greasy soap into a rough lather and scrubbed. Silt mud squished under her fingers as the dust on her skin mixed with the soap.
Once she was clean, Noe raised the pot and doused herself in what little remained. The water gurgled down its clay drainpipe, through moss fronds and puffed saffron dawn drops that fed off the runoff and the shadows of the roof wall.
The gurgling rush disturbed the nearest sleepers; one of them rolled over, throwing an arm over squinted morning eyes.
"Mmm," she murmured, "Bring any for me?"
"Dawn blessings to you too," Noe replied, drying herself so quickly she chafed. "And no. You'll have to get your own."
"Mmm," there was a distinct edge of grumpiness to the drowsy sound, "What are you in such a hurry for?"
"It's apprenticing day," Noe said, "Why aren't you?"
"Don't remind me. I'll be locked up in meditation for a year," the girl, irritated into wakefulness, finally sat up. "Where are you going?"
Noe grinned, working a comb roughly through her tangled corkscrew curls, "To the sorceresses."
She turned away and tackled her hair with an enthusiasm that left many casualties caught in the comb's fine teeth or drifting in the morning air.
Apprenticing day, here at last! The final one of her initiate life. She couldn't keep the gleeful smile from her face. The night before she had hardly slept, turning on her reed-stuffed mattress until her back and shoulders ached with bruises. Her eyes burned, but she dared not close them for a second.
Her toes itched, urging her to run, to fly. If by some blessing of the Goddess she could have lassoed the sun and dragged it faster along its course, she would.
Hair combed and springing wildly from her scalp, Noe picked up her robe and shook it out. The thick lumpy homespun, woven by the unskilled hands of younger initiates in their first year at the temple, snagged on her fingertips. She frowned. Today was far too important for the same old clothes.
So she bundled the robe up with her towel, folded the comb and the dish of soap into the ball, and crammed it all into the pot.
"Better not be too early for breakfast," Moura smirked up from her mat, hand still over her eyes, "Mistress Shial will call you greedy again."
"Let her!" Noe called over her shoulder, bright voice piercing the calm blue sky as sharply as the rising sun. Girls all over the roof groaned as her cry woke them, but she only laughed and scampered headlong down the stairs, clean brown skin gleaming in the golden light.
Across the courtyard she ran, past the deep echoing wells and shaded gardens of fruit, flowers, and herbs. Water ran deep under the temple grounds, the water that was so sacred to the Goddess they served, and the wide courtyard was an oasis and a tribute to Her. Beautiful and stately, it not only grew the food they needed to live and serve others, but also provided alcoves and bowers for meditation.
Noe was in no mood to meditate, not now that she was finally freed from that service. A year was far too long for nothing but reading and thinking and staring at flowers. She longed to be doing.
Her feet carried her past the initiates' meditation garden without pause and into her dormitory. Within the cavernous dark of the long chamber, shadowy figures moved as in a pantomime, shaking sleep from their eyes and rubbing the night's accumulation of dust from their faces.
She slipped back to her bed and tossed her robe and towel carelessly over the sheets. Her trunk was unlocked—initiates were not allowed to have sole dominion over anything, even their own property—but the things inside were undisturbed. Closest to the top were her books, wrapped in oilskin to keep out the dust. At the bottom were her toys, relics of the eight-year-old child Noe could hardly remember. Over the years, they had fallen in importance as they had drifted down the trunk.
Between these two layers in another oilskin packet underneath was her finest—and only—gown.
Noe wiped her hands on her sheets before drawing it out. In the gloom of the dormitory, the fine white wool had a moonlight glow to it. It had no fastenings or laces, but was cut so exactly to her shape that it needed none.
Well, it did gape a bit in the front. Her mother had clearly thought Noe would be as well-grown as she had been at thirteen.
She shrugged and twirled around. The soft skirt was full and light, brushing against her legs as though she walked through clouds.
Far more appropriate, she thought with pleasure, to meet the future this way. Noe studied the Books of the Goddess along with all the other initiates and believed in their virtues, but she had not quite managed to rid herself of her parents' unspoken pride of place and person. She had been the petted youngest daughter of a rich merchant, and in her heart she was so still.
"Oh, Noe," her bedmate was watching her, frozen with her own homespun robe in hand, "it's lovely."
"Will you wear yours today?"
"No," she replied, "my parents could not afford to have one made."
Noe nodded, biting her tongue. Shara was a sharecropper's daughter and her parents had given half of their seven children to every religious order in the city. Once again, though Shara showed no hurt or embarrassment, Noe felt herself a failure in Consideration.
"Would you like to borrow my Sigil?" she offered, wrestling the cord around her thick halo of hair. It was her mother's—made of gold so solid it bent under a firm touch—and had been in their family for generations.
"That's very kind," Shara said, a knowing smile touching her lips, "but I am not ashamed."
Noe turned away. Guilt over her error warred with the joyous anticipation of the morning and for a minute she did not know how to feel.
Joy won out, though its edge was blunted.
"See you at breakfast," she said, hurrying past Shara's bed so she need not hear her reply. The heavy golden medallion burned in her palm.
The warren of the temple was now humming with activity, though each inmate moved at the measured pace required and Noe had to force herself to do the same. Rows of newly-pledged initiates—short, so short, had she ever been so short?—filed in obedient lines behind their Mistresses, hands folded demurely though their eyes ranged with the irrepressible freedom of wild horses. Older initiates were allowed to move unchaperoned, so long as they did so with decorum; but Noe noticed that she was not the only one whose feet seemed rather more willful than usual.
And of course, there were the hundreds more above the initiates, the apprentices and the fully Professed, who alone were allowed to wear the deep blue and pale dun colors of the Goddess. These living manifestations of the Goddess moved gracefully, robes fluttering like sails caught in a dancing breeze. Their faces were calm and kind, eyes soft and contemplative.
Noe unconsciously straightened whenever one of the Professed passed her, measuring her headlong strides by their even paces.
One day she would be like them, she vowed. Gracious, composed, knowing.
Despite Moura's threat, Noe was not even close to the first one in the dining hall. Usually a peaceful place where all members of the temple followed the unspoken rule of quiet set by the Professed, this morning it was buzzing louder than a swarming hive. Nor was she overdressed. Male and female fifth-year initiates both were tugging at tight collars or adjusting woven sashes. Embroidery glittered, silk threads of scarlet and lapis shining brilliant as jewels in the dull setting of homespun.
Noe tugged on her Sigil, letting it hang down the front of her dress. The white wool and shining gold was more subdued than some of the other costumes, but she trusted her mother's eye for elegance. She had nothing to be ashamed of.
Shoulders raised and head high, she sashayed into the hall, short skirt swaying almost like the long habit of the Professed. She tried to set her expression in the same kind, composed lines as well, but before long—
"Vain as a tufted duck, aren't you?" Eiel slid up behind her, silent as a shadow, and pinched her side. Noe lashed out with her elbow in fashion neither kind nor composed, and grinned when he yelped.
"No," she shot back, "this is how I walk."
"Maybe in the feast halls of your father," he smirked.
Noe huffed. "And I suppose you put on your finest tunic and yoke to show your humility? I'm sure the Goddess finds linen and silk a worthy tribute…all this praying and service we do is secondary."
"All right, then," Eiel's grin remained unrepentant. They crossed the hall in silence to join the rest of the fifth-years, clustered together in a knot that drew tighter every second with anxiety.
"Who do you want?" he asked, nodding towards the high tables where the ranks of Professed were slowly assembling. His gaze was fixed on the cluster of blue-turbaned and veiled Masters and Mistresses whose twisted yellow belts showed their mastery of the sorcerous arts.
"Mistress Phia perfected the remedy for fainting flu," Noe muttered, trying and failing not to stare as he was, "But I would prefer Master Naeh. He has the All-Mother's ear and is most often called to advise the Shurial."
"So it's power you're after," he said, and Noe nipped her tongue again to keep from lashing out.
"Oh, yes," she breathed, "he studied with the All-Mother that passed…they say he knows every language ever used in the Books."
Eiel nodded, eyes alight. "He does."
The noise in the room was so oppressive that they had to shout into each other's ears to be heard. Even so, the gentle ringing chimes from the top table pierced the din as they always had, and in a moment everyone from the oldest Professed to the youngest initiate was sitting and silent.
The All-Mother stood and every eye lifted to follow her.
She might have been a statue of obsidian, draped in ivory and lapis; like that glassy, sharp stone, her skin was translucent and cut deep with the lines of her many years. Under the rich blue of her veil, her black eyes sparkled. An aura of peace radiated from her, peace so deep and unquestionable that the tension in the room dispersed quickly as fog before the sun.
"Dawn blessings be upon you."
"And upon you," the assembly replied in its mighty, single voice.
"I welcome all who seek the blessings of the Goddess. From wherever you come, for whatever reasons you came, you are all one in Her holy temple. To those beginning their journey," she turned to the two tables of first-year initiates, awkward and squirming under her gaze, "welcome.
"To those who have traveled now for years," her eyes swept quickly over the other initiates, but each one could have sworn she spoke to them alone, "I pray Her strength and mercy upon you. To those who have made their commitments," she spread her hands to the apprentices and Professed that sat nearest her, "I offer this wisdom: keep focus on Her glory, and you shall not falter."
She paused, hands still outspread, eyes moving again over the crowd. Noe shivered as their gazes brushed; even at such a distance she could feel the woman's latent magnetism pulling her as the moon tugs on the tides.
The silence pulled taut again as five hundred people strained for her next word.
The All-Mother smiled.
"Today many of you will take momentous steps," she said, "but no one should do so on an empty stomach," a ripple of laughter shivered breathless through the hall, "So first we will eat."
She kissed her Sigil, the movement rippling down through the assembly. Then her hands and eyes raised and she began the breakfast prayer.
Noe listened for a moment as the voice of the assembly rushed together like a great waterfall, the piping tones of the initiates mingling with the modulated murmur of the Professed. Was it her imagination, or could she still hear the All-Mother's clarion voice above the multitude?
She shivered and lifted her own voice to mingle with the others, hand clenched tight around her mother's Sigil.