Priestess Mita enters the dining hall with an orderly line of sisters trailing behind her. Falan and Prita stop talking, and all eating halts across the hall. The sisters line up at the front of the room. Jaya tenses beside me, and I wipe my hands, no longer hungry. Our leaders rarely interrupt mealtime.
“Daughters, I have marvelous news.” The priestess presses her hands together, as if in prayer. “A benefactor has arrived for a Claiming!”
Most of the girls, even those too young to be a recipient of this rite, gasp with delight. Priestess Mita allows the outburst, smiling proudly. I seek out Jaya’s hand beneath the table and clasp her chilly fingers in mine.
The priestess strides our way to address the girls of age. Twelve of us kneel at two tables. Our blue saris are identical, the shade of obedience and submission, deference and conformity. That is where my similarity with the other girls ends. My gangliness sticks out among their compact curves like a pin stuck into a basketful of thread spools.
“By request of our honored benefactor, tomorrow’s skill trials will continue as planned,” says the priestess. “They will take place in the courtyard, where the benefactor will watch anonymously from the north tower observatory.”
Resentment ignites low in my belly. I want to duel for my own sense of accomplishment, not for a benefactor’s entertainment. I do not care to gain the benefactor’s favor.
Priestess Mita paces the length of our table, her words deliberate and her steps measured. “You will be given the choice to spar with a staff or a bladed weapon.”
Jaya squeezes my hand so hard that my fingertips tingle. Because my chronic fevers have held me behind the other girls, I have not trained with bladed weapons. We learn to slash and parry with steel after we master the staff. I am more than fair with a slingshot, but it is not considered a respectable weapon in the ring.
“We want each of you to look your best when you are shown,” Priestess Mita says. Her smile contains an edge of warning. “Be mindful not to leave too many marks on your opponent.”
I look askance at Natesa smirking. Everyone knows that she wants to leave the temple and become the wife of a benefactor. If she had a choice, she would fight against the weakest girl to increase the appearance of her own skill, and it is no secret that I am the weakest girl.
Winter’s chill soaks into the temple’s ancient bones, dampening the shadowed corridors. Jaya and I leave the dining hall in silence and return to our bedchamber. We change into our nightclothes and brush out our braids, and then Jaya tends to her pots of seedlings, and I cozy into my cot with a sketchbook. Our nightly routine is effortless, comforting. I refuse to think that this evening’s could be our last.
Jaya drizzles water over green shoots in her clay pots. She is assigned to tend to Healer Baka’s medicinal garden, but these are not herbs. With little exposure to sunlight in our windowless home, Jaya has successfully grown only poisonous plants, but she prefers to nurture something rather than nothing.
She sets aside her watering can and stands behind me, stroking her fingers through my hair. She considers my sketch. This is how we first met. Jaya had spent her early weeks at the temple in the infirmary, recovering from being starved, beaten, and hurt in other ways that Healer Baka only whispered about. During one of my bouts of fevers, I was laid up in the cot beside Jaya’s, and she asked to see my drawing. Most of the other girls would not come near me, for fear that I was contagious, but Jaya did not mind. I have shown her all of my sketches since.
Jaya finishes smoothing down my hair. “The wheels were bigger.”
She has a fine eye for proportions, so naturally she is right. She sits down beside me. I rub away the wheels and redraw them wider. Jaya picks up my other sketchbook and flips through finished drawings: portraits of her, the garden where we played Fly-Fly Crane between the barley, and the meditation pond where we raced lotus flower petals.
She stops on a drawing of the sky-god. Anu is the most prominent male subject I have ever sketched. I am enthralled by the hard, angled lines of his rugged facial features, so like the formidable Alpana Mountains. In my drawing, a sarong covers his thighs. His hairless, bare chest is flat and wide, like a valley, and his lean legs are strong, like a river. He wields a shard of sunlight in one hand, his other hand outstretched in invitation to follow him. Anu is the majesty of the world; his large eyes are the doorway to the sky, his fierce expression a warning of his omnipotent power.
Jaya traces a finger down Anu’s nose. “What if you’re claimed?”
“What if Natesa starts being kind to me?”
Jaya’s lips tauten. “The benefactor could see your worth and claim you, Kali.”
I shake my head. I will be passed over. My best physical attribute, according to Jaya, is my long hair, but hair is not enough to draw the eye of a benefactor.
Jaya’s shoulders curl over her chest, and her voice drops to a whisper. “What if I am claimed?”
I open my mouth to tell her not to worry, but Jaya is not gawky and whip-thin like me. She is petite and lovely. Looking at her, I understand her anxiety. I cannot imagine anyone passing her over.
Her voice becomes even more scraggly. “What if the benefactor is like my—”
“Do not think about it. No matter who he is, it does not change our plans.”
Jaya and I plan to swear fealty to the Sisterhood and live out our days here, but we can do so only if we are passed over during the rite. “They will not separate us. We will make certain of it.”
“How? You may not even pass inspection.”
I tamp down a groan; I forgot about inspection. Healer Baka examines each recipient before the Claiming to weed out those who are not in prime condition for the benefactor. She has not said if my illness will impede my chances, but taking a daily tonic may be grounds to fail me.
“We will worry about inspection later,” I say. “First, we have to discuss skill trials. The benefactor must want to judge how well we are trained as sister warriors.”
Jaya nods solemnly. Sister warriors are prized among men. The most desirable girls are pretty and skilled at battle.
“You have to lose your duel,” I say. “The benefactor won’t want you if you’re defeated.”
Jaya’s eyebrows slant together. “What about you?”
“Me?” I scoff. “Even if I somehow won, the benefactor would still prefer a pretty face.”
“And if we’re chosen to fight each other?”
I laugh. “Then I will best you, even though all the girls will know we cheated.”
Jaya rests her head on my shoulder and takes my hand. We weave our fingers together, clamping our palms close. “All right, but we cannot get caught, or Priestess Mita will put us on refuse duty for the rest of the year. Our losses must be believable.”
“That will be easy for me.” I lean my head against hers and stare down at our linked hands. “We will be careful.”
“Can you sleep?” Jaya asks, sitting up.
“Of course.” I feign a smile. “I will dream of besting you.”
Jaya snorts a laugh. She squeezes my hand, our way of saying I love you, and then kisses my forehead and goes to her bed.
Despite my attempt at humor, the reality of the next day saws at my nerves. Regardless of our plan for skill trials, Healer Baka could fail me during inspection, and Jaya would face the Claiming without me. I want to be seen by this benefactor and be done with the rite. Then, once passed over, Jaya and I can join the Sisterhood. Most girls opt to be shown again for a chance to leave. A recipient who is not claimed by age twenty-one is automatically sworn in as a sister, but few wards last that long. Benefactors are always in need of more servants.
Amber candlelight warms my sketchbook. I open to a fresh page and slide my charcoal stick over the ivory paper, leaving smooth, dark lines. I hope that putting my thoughts on paper will relieve my mind. I waited for Jaya to go to bed to draw this; I cannot get it out of my head.
Finished, I lift my hand. The lead soldier looks exactly how I remember him—with shoulders a mountain could rest upon and arms powerful enough to soar with the clouds. But his face remains blank, as is true of all of the male faces I have attempted to draw.
As an infant, I was abandoned on the steps of the Vanhi Brotherhood’s temple, run by the men of the Parijana faith. I cannot remember the brethren who cared for me until I was old enough to transfer here. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing a man. Jaya has told me about her older brothers, warning of what will await us should we be claimed. I believe her, but the brethren are proof that not all men are terrible, and the sisters teach that men are our masters and protectors.
Staring at my sketch of the faceless soldier, I do not know what is true. Did the gods create everything about us? They gave me fevers and gave certain plants poison, but did they give people their power? Was Natesa born a tormentor? Was Jaya always cautious? Where is the line between the gods’ will and ours?
I set aside my sketchbook, still wondering if all men are fashioned like Jaya’s cruel older brothers and if I really am better off without them.
A white satin robe is draped across the end of my bed when I awake. Someone left an identical robe at the foot of Jaya’s cot, where she still sleeps. They are our clothes for the Claiming.
I slip out of my rumpled bed, achy with restlessness. I did not dream of skill trials. I did not dream at all. Fretting about Healer Baka not passing me during inspection drove sleep away. I cannot speculate any longer. I have to speak with her.
Flinging a shawl over my shoulders, I tiptoe down the hushed corridors, through incense smoke and pools of lamplight. Though I have no way to see the dawn, a chill emanates through the stone walls, whispering of the early hour.
The familiar pathway to the infirmary sets me on edge. I have spent more time with Healer Baka than any other sister. I do not wish to argue, but if she uses my chronic fevers as an excuse to exclude me from being shown in the Claiming, I will oppose her.
I pass a stairwell opening, and murmurs carry up from below. The rumbles are so faint that I nearly miss them. I back up to listen, sharpening my hearing. The voices are low, lower than I have ever heard. I silence my breaths, but my pulse drums a quickening tempo. I think that these voices are the voices of men.