Still, my past is not what concerns me most. Jaya and I have to pass inspection before the Claiming, and considering the rajah’s unpredictable behavior at skill trials, I decide that we should abandon our efforts to be shown. I would rather that we suffer through a second rite together than face the rajah and risk being separated. But, ultimately, Healer Baka has the final word.
I meet her stare. “Can I pass inspection?”
“You know the rules. No one unfit will stand before the benefactor.” She removes her spectacles, revealing her stern gaze. “I will judge you fairly, but if you feel a single degree warmer than you should, I will fail you.”
I manage a wavering smile. Healer Baka means to prepare me for the disappointment of failing inspection. She must think that I am worried that my fever will spoil my chance of being seen by the benefactor, but that is precisely what I want. I pray that Jaya’s hives and my fever will be enough to spare us from the rajah.
Healer Baka pats my arm. “Go change.”
I strip off my robe, letting the ivory satin pool at my bare feet, and resist the urge to cover myself. The sisters taught us the order of the rite, so I was fully prepared to disrobe, but being naked before my peers heightens my insecurities about my thinness.
Gooseflesh puckers across my exposed skin. I am one of twelve girls standing in two rows in the inspection chamber. Healer Baka patrols the lines of nude daughters, looking in eyes and mouths, peering up noses and into ears. No one utters a complaint. The Claiming is our payment for a life of shelter, food, clothes, and training. This is what we were saved for.
The healer stops beside me, in front of Jaya. The gash across Jaya’s cheek has been sewn shut with a skintight row of tiny black stitches. Her hives are nearly gone; the chamomile ointment soothed away the redness. My hope that we will fail inspection does not look good.
Healer Baka finishes with my friend, and her calm eyes meet mine. I try to ignore the healer’s adept hands roaming around my body, but it is impossible not to be anxious about potentially being shown to the rajah. I breathe easier when Healer Baka moves on.
Natesa lobs a withering glance over her shoulder at me from where she stands in the front line. A white bandage rings her neck. A thimble’s worth of shame spills over me, but with one sideways glance at Jaya’s cheek, fury burns my guilt to smoke.
I do not know how long we wait, but my knees ache when Healer Baka finishes. “You may put your clothes back on,” she says.
I scoop my robe off the floor and cover myself. Natesa and Sarita flaunt their bodies, unrushed to get dressed. They are replicas of the goddess Ki, petite and round, soft yet firm, fit yet feminine. So unlike my gangly, angled shape.
Priestess Mita, who watched the inspection from the rear of the chamber, confers with Healer Baka. They speak in low, heated voices. Healer Baka looks at me and shakes her head. Priestess Mita nods fervently and steps forward.
“Daughters, you have all passed!” says the priestess.
I lock gazes with Jaya. Her weak smile releases slivers of fear. We are going to be shown to the rajah.
“Daughters,” says Priestess Mita, “we will now adorn you with the mark of Enki.”
The priestess and Healer Baka come around with a pot of henna and draw a wavy line down each girl’s spine. The wave symbol dyed into our skin represents the water-goddess, Enki. Stories depict Enki as a daughter who walks in perfect obedience to her parents, Anu and Ki. Wearing Enki’s mark indicates to the benefactor that we are in full submission. I let my robe hang low at my back, clutching it to my front. Priestess Mita marks me and then leaves the henna to dry and flake away.
Once we are all adorned, the priestess whisks to the side door. “Form a line. We cannot leave our benefactor waiting.”
Jaya and I pair up and hang back. The other girls take their positions close to the door. Priestess Mita ushers Prita into the adjoining chamber first, with Healer Baka. Jaya and I step to the end of the line, and I take her hand. We have prepared for the day we could be separated and have done everything we can to prevent it from happening. Now our fate is up to the gods.
The line shortens. One by one, the daughters are shown to Rajah Tarek until only Jaya and I remain. The priestess tilts her head toward the door to listen. Healer Baka soon appears and motions Jaya inside the chamber. My breath constricts into a hot, burning ball. Rajah Tarek may have shown me favor at skill trials, but his wives and courtesans are renowned for their breathtaking beauty. One look at my bony shape and he will conclude that I am not a girl to add to his collection. He will pass me over, and I will be free of the benefactors. But Jaya . . . Great Anu, please do not let her be claimed.
The door opens a final time, and Priestess Mita accompanies me inside the Claiming chamber. I have not been allowed in here before. The walls, ceiling, and floor are tiled in a multicolored mosaic, depicting clouds as white as the August moon, land the deep orange of safflower seeds, fire a madder red, and water a serene indigo. Opposite the entry, a heavy mallow cloth hangs from ceiling to floor.
“Face the veil and undress,” says Healer Baka.
Someone painted a red line on the ground near the white drapery. My gaze downward, I approach the worn, chipped line. I shrug out of my robe, wondering how many daughters have stood in this exact spot, naked and afraid.
Priestess Mita collects my robe and dangles a strip of muslin. Every daughter is blindfolded to preserve her innocence for future benefactors. The priestess brushes my long hair behind me, and I stoop so that she can tie on the blindfold. Sudden darkness disorients me. I touch my covered eyes and press my knuckles against my pounding temples. I cannot stop from quaking.
The room falls silent. Someone is hiding behind the drapery. I can hear him breathing.
Cloth rustles in front of me, followed by steps. Something glances my chin. My spine snaps into line, and my muscles grit down. A featherlight touch—a fingertip—traces my jaw and dips down my neck. Gooseflesh breaks out in its wake.
Hot, sour breath permeates my blindfold. The rajah’s stroke follows the curvature of my collarbone. My chest heaves, and I prepare to be groped. His touch carves a direct line to my pelvis. I lift my chin, refusing to flinch. I will not give him the satisfaction of knowing my fear. Rajah Tarek is at fault for Jaya’s injury. Her cheek would still be untouched if he had not demanded that our duels end in blood.
His finger pulls away. Softness brushes against my elbow, perhaps a sleeve, and then my hair lifts off the nape of my neck. The rajah stands behind me, and his careful fingers feather through my tresses from my scalp to the ends. He grabs a loose handful of my hair.
“This one.” His deep voice bores rivulets of horror into my back.
“Your Majesty, I commend you on your selection, but are you certain?” asks Healer Baka. “It is my duty to inform you that this ward has a sickly past.”
A tense silence weighs down the air. I capture my breath, questioning what the rajah sees in me. I am too skinny, too tall, too homely. He has countless women already. He cannot want me.
“Is she well now?”
“That is difficult to determine, Your Majesty,” Priestess Mita replies.
“I trust your healer’s estimation.”
“She is well,” Healer Baka answers with a tenor of defeat. I wait for her to mention the tonic or my fevers, but she says nothing more.
The rajah releases my hair and rubs my hip. I ball my hands into fists to resist smacking him away. His voice coarsens with finality. “I stand by my decision.”
Cloth rustles. A door shuts, and the women exhale in chorus. Frigid hands scramble up my face. Healer Baka removes the blindfold. Rajah Tarek is gone. The healer’s strained gaze consumes my sight.
I seize her wrists. “What does this mean?”
Priestess Mita drapes the ivory robe over my shoulders and rubs my arms too briskly to be comforting. “It means you have been claimed.”
Healer Baka and Priestess Mita steer me toward the chapel, each with a hand on my shoulder. My legs are stiff with shock. All of the younger daughters wait cross-legged on floor cushions. The older ones, who just came from the Claiming, are barefoot and clad in identical ivory robes, creamy against their skin, eyes, and hair. When we first congregated in the inspection chamber, I admired our elegant uniformity. Now I barely register my surroundings.
Jaya motions me over to the cushion that she has reserved near her own. I split off from Healer Baka and Priestess Mita, and they lapse into urgent whispers. I do not linger to hear them, though I can fathom their disbelief. Bamboo Kali caught the rajah’s eye.
“Did you hear?” Jaya clutches her chest, her nose red from crying. “We were inspected by the rajah.”
I nod and kneel beside her, bile winding up my throat.
“Natesa said she felt his breath across her chest.” Jaya’s horrified gaze drifts inward. She sucks her lower lip. “I heard her tell Sarita she’s going to live in the palace. Do you think that’s true?”
“Maybe.” Two rows in front of us, Natesa sits high on her knees, beaming smugly. “Did he touch her?”
Jaya pulls out of her anxious daze. “I don’t know. Why?”
“Did he claim anyone else?”
“Not that I heard.” Jaya’s breaths shorten to quiet gasps. “I—I could not stop shaking.”
I wrap my arms around her, guilt digging a gulch in my stomach. I have to leave her. I have to leave here. I should warn her, but the confession grips my tongue, reluctant to let go.
A gong chimes, and all conversation dwindles to a close. Many faces shine with eagerness. Rumor of the rajah’s visit has spread like ripples across the meditation pond. I release Jaya but stay pressed against her side.
Priestess Mita commands our attention from the front of the chapel. “I am certain by now you have all determined the identity of our benefactor. Rajah Tarek was pleased with the variety of your beauty and battle skills.” She raises her fingers in a V. “He chose two daughters.”
Gasps fly around the room. They know of Natesa but not of me. The others speculate in hushed voices, and Jaya rests her hand on my knee. I meet her searching gaze and nod. Tears sprout at the corners of her eyes.