Jessi pulled the flimsy material of her scarf further forward, to try to block out some of the glare reflected from the white buildings as she passed through the town. It was fortunate that her sister’s house was not far; the houses at the end of the street were shimmering in the heat, and a longer walk might have brought on the dizziness that she resented as a sign of physical weakness.
The bell by the sun-disc at the end of the street rang out just as she opened the gate. Although it was bad manners to disturb a household during withdrawal, she knocked on the little side door, hoping that someone would answer, for the thought of making the return journey without first resting in a stone-cool interior made her feel faint. Surely a man as self-important as her brother-in-law would ensure that some poor servant was available to let visitors in, even in the mid-day heat. After a pause when the very walls of the house seemed to reproach her, the door opened.
The servant looked down his nose at her, and she hurriedly lowered her gaze to the floor. “Did you not hear the withdrawal bell?” he asked pompously.
“I did. I do apologise.” She kept her head bowed and the tone of her voice humble. “It occurred to me to offer to look after the children for my sister, so that she might rest through withdrawal, but I was delayed. I’m so sorry.” She could hardly say that she had left without her father’s permission, which he would surely have withheld under the circumstances, and that she had therefore had to wait until he had retired to his private quarters before slipping out of her home.
“Your consideration does you credit, although it does not excuse your poor time-keeping. I will check if your visit is convenient.” He started to shut the door, but then relented. “You’d best wait in the hall. You don’t look strong enough, to be outside during withdrawal.”
Jessi felt a flash of anger, that even his kindness in allowing her into the house had to be tempered by such an insult, but did her best to keep her demeanour meek. She knew herself well enough to regret that her anger was all the greater because he was probably right.
He did at least return quickly, and escorted her straight to the family room. “Good afternoon, Ranga,” she murmured without raising her head. “I hope my visit is not unwelcome.”
At that point she heard the door close softly behind her. She glanced round, to check that the servant had indeed left, and then looked up at her sister, a happy grin on her face. When she saw Ranga’s answering smile, she ran lightly over to her and hugged her carefully, around the small infant that Ranga was feeding. “It’s lovely to see you. Hello, sweetie!” The last was to her niece, Ganna, who was cautiously using her mother’s knees to pull herself to her feet. Jessi picked her up and cuddled and then tickled her, revelling in her squeals of delight. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re not sleeping!”
“Chance would be a fine thing; these two aren’t old enough to respect withdrawal yet.”
“I was worried that Maran might have changed his mind, and you would have left them with the nursemaid while you slept.”
“That’s not going to happen. I’m the only woman my esteemed husband will allow to be in charge of his precious son.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“What – that he entrusts our son to me, and to me alone? Of course not: it’s a mark of his respect for me.”
“No – I meant that Maran’s always been happy for you to leave little Ganna with someone else, but not Sintor – not a boy baby. Surely their needs aren’t so different, at this age.”
“No, they’re not.” Ranga gently removed her sleeping baby from her breast, and laid him against her shoulder. “But you didn’t walk here under the midday sun to discuss my domestic arrangements.”
“No – I came now because I thought there was a good chance I’d catch you on your own.” Jessi looked up at her sister. “Ranga, I was up in the tree this morning.”
“Jessi, you know you shouldn’t! You’re a woman now; that’s no way to behave!”
“Well, it’s just as well I did, or I wouldn’t have heard them!”
Jessi sat down next to her sister. “Papa came out into the garden with some old man, and they sat on the bench to talk. Ranga, he was agreeing for me to marry someone I’ve never even met!”
“What did you hear?”
“This old man was talking about his son. He’s been married before, but his wife’s dead, and they only had two daughters. Ranga; it seems that the oldest is only a couple of years younger than me – think how old he must be! Anyway, apparently he’s wealthy, and he needs a son to train up. Preferably two. And the old man said that they had hesitated to approach Papa, because he’d had two daughters, and then his only son was weak and died as a baby. But he’s heard that you’ve recently had a boy, and that he’s strong and healthy. So they thought I might be suitable after all. And Papa was talking about how I’m never ill, and how I don’t faint or have any other womanly weaknesses. And then he told this man that he’d had two other offers! And although he favoured this one, it would have to be soon, because I was restless, and he needed to get me married quick!”
To her surprise, Ranga said nothing at first, taking her time as she carried her baby over to the cradle against the wall and gently laid him in it. It was not until she had returned to her seat and taken Jessi’s hand that she spoke. “This can’t be entirely a shock, sweetheart. You’re fifteen – I’d been married a year by that age. Why, Ganna was born when I was only a month or two older than you are now.”
“But that was all you’d ever wanted – to get married and have babies!”
“That’s true. But whether we want it or not, that’s what happens. Papa’s left you a bit longer, because it was clear that you were nowhere near ready, but he’s right, isn’t he? That you’re restless; that you want more than you have right now.”
“Well, that’s true, but I don’t want some old man with two almost-grown daughters!”
Ranga let go of her hand, and sat back. “Listen, Jessi. He has money. He has an excellent standing in the community, and he has plenty of servants, including several who take care of the girls. He wants a son. All you have to do is treat him respectfully and bear his children, and you’ll have your own household to run.”
“Yes, right – and I’ll never be able to lift my gaze from the floor again!”
“It isn’t that bad. I’m looking at you now, and I can even meet the eyes of some of the male servants!”
“Wait a minute – how come you know so much about him? You knew, didn’t you? You and Papa have been discussing me!”
“Do you never talk with him about me? Of course you do.”
“But I would’ve told you, if there’d been something this important!”
“Would you? If it concerned a topic that it was Papa’s right to bring up with you? And if he asked you to respect that?”
Jessi lowered her gaze, and her whole body crumpled with the despair that she felt. Nevertheless, she could not bring herself to admit that her sister was right. “Ranga, what am I do? I’d run away, but where could I go? There’s no-one in the town who would hide me against Papa’s wishes, and how would I get anywhere else? I wouldn’t last a day in the desert, and Papa would expect me to know that, and to follow the river; his men would soon overtake me.”
“That would be a very foolish thing to attempt. Jessi, I really don’t see why you’re making so much fuss about this. It’s what happens when we get to fourteen or fifteen, and you’ve always known that.”
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t know why you’re taking his side – I remember how sad you were, when you had to leave home to wed Maran.”
“Sad, yes, but resigned. We don’t have a choice, Jessi. And I hate to disillusion you, my sweet, but that’s as it should be. You see, you’re right, that if I’d had any say in it, I wouldn’t have married Maran. And by now, I’d be a sour old maid, still living at home, a burden on Papa, and with no prospects. Instead of that, I’m a respected married woman, looked up to by the wives of those junior to Maran, and running a household. I have power; I run my own home. In such matters, Maran even defers to me when we’re on our own; you’ve no idea how attractive that is, to have a powerful man like him listening to me and taking notice of my opinion. And I have my babies. Jessi, until it happens to you, you won’t realise just how much having children brings a woman. But believe me, I’d happily obey a far worse man than Maran, if I could have my little ones as compensation.”
“Well, not me. Papa’s had power over me as a child; I’ll not give anyone else that right, especially not some fat old man who’s already driven one wife to an early grave!”
“Jessi! He’s not that fat!”
The younger girl made an impatient gesture, and got up to pace restlessly around the room. “I won’t be married off, I tell you! I didn’t come for you to try to change my mind. I came to ask you what I could do.”
“Accept it – that’s the best thing you could do. Papa will marry you, to him or to one of the others; you can’t stop that happening. And you’ll have an easier time, both before and after the wedding, if you go willingly.” Ranga must have read the non-negotiable refusal on her sister’s face; after bending down to pick up Ganna, she went on, “I mean that. It really would be the best thing. Swimming upriver is so much harder. To say nothing of the dishonour you’d bring on Papa – and on Maran and me, come to that. Unless you got it absolutely right.”
“Got what right? What have you thought of?”
“Does Papa have any idea that you know about this? Have you mentioned marriage to him, or been sulky or difficult, since you overheard him? Or does anyone else in the household have reason to suspect that you are aware of his plans?”
“No; he had his visitor. They went straight from the gardens back into his office. I was, sort of, keeping an eye out – from the tree – and I saw his guest leave. I wanted to talk to you, so I was trying to think of a way of being allowed to go out, without anyone asking his permission. And the only thing I could come up with, was to wait ‘til he was preparing for withdrawal – no-one would dare disturb him then. So I kept out of the way, and as soon as I heard his steps along the corridor towards his room, I asked my governess for leave to come and offer to look after your children, so that you could sleep during the hottest hour. She lectured me about planning my day better – she would’ve liked to check with Papa – but then she said it was kindly meant, and I should hurry, to try to get here before the bell. I’ve not spoken to anyone else, except the servant who opened the door here, and I gave him the same story.”
“If anyone asks, say that I didn’t dare leave Sintor with you, as I couldn’t ask Maran if he would allow it. But that I dozed here on the couch once Sintor fell asleep, and was very grateful that you looked after Ganna so that I could do so.” Ranga reacted to her sister’s impatient gesture by continuing, “Anyway, I still think you should marry whoever Papa chooses for you – you know he would want you to be happy, and he’d take your needs into consideration. But if you really can’t face it, there is one other way. It’s not easy, though, and it might not succeed.”
“What is it? Because I won’t marry, you know – whatever refusing costs.”
“I can see that. Otherwise I wouldn’t be saying this.” Ganna was wriggling in her mother’s arms, and Ranga put her back down. “So this is what you could do. You could try to get accepted for Priests’ Training.”
“Don’t be silly, Ranga – they’d never take me.”
“Well, if they don’t, you’ll be in the same position you’re in now, won’t you? No worse off. And if you play things right, I rather think they might take you. Now, listen!”
* * * * *
Jessi looked up, relieved at the interruption to her sewing lesson, and then delighted to see her beloved sister entering the room, Sintor asleep in a sling that she wore like a sash of honour. “Ranga!” she exclaimed, and then, mindful of her governess’ presence, she went on in a more subdued tone, “I am pleased to see you. To what do I owe the honour of your visit?”
“Papa asked me to call,” her sister answered. “Would you take a walk with me in the gardens? I would love to look at your new water feature; I am hoping to persuade Maran to invest in one.”
Jessi checked with her governess and then accompanied Ranga out through the wide archway to the gardens. “It’s not really about the fountains, is it?” she asked.
“No. But we’d best go and look at them, anyway.” Ranga led the way, and explained, “Papa is bewildered. He says you have changed, and he wants me to find out what is going on. I take it you’ve been following my advice?”
“Every bit of it! I’ve been quiet and well-behaved with Papa and with everyone else, and I’ve been most humble and devout. I’ve watched the sun rise every morning – as you thought, on the days that he wasn’t going himself, Papa was only too pleased to provide an escort at first, so that I could attend at the sun-disc. After a while, he said that it would not be possible for a servant to accompany me the next day, and that I was not to go on my own. So I came out here, into the garden, and kept watch on my own. And I’ve made it clear to him that I will accept his authority, that I will submit to whatever he chooses to do with me. But I’ve asked him if I could be allowed to speak with Priest alone.”
“Has he arranged that for you?”
“Not yet. He said he needed to talk to him first. And I expect that’s why he’s asked you to talk to me. I don’t think he knows what to make of me anymore.”
“That’s true enough! He told me that either you’ve suddenly got a vocation, or you’ve gone mad!”
“Let’s hope I can convince him I’m sincere! Being shut away as a crazy would be marginally better than being married off, but I’d sooner keep more freedom.”
“Not much more,” commented Ranga. “You’d still be shut away, during your training at least, for fear of being contaminated. I don’t think becoming a priest is an easy path, especially not for a woman. You’ll have to persuade them that you’re clever enough to take instruction, and humble enough not to be a threat. That you’re womanly enough to accept their authority, and unfeminine to the point of not wanting a husband to make decisions for you. That your entirely masculine desire for an elevated position within our society stems from a desire to submit yourself totally to the sun’s will, rather than to refuse that of a man.” They had reached the new water feature, which had no less than three fountains as well as a gently murmuring cascade, and Ranga sat down cautiously on the low parapet. She trailed her hand in the water, already warm, although midday was still some way off. “Sit down,” she went on, “And look more docile. If anyone reports on your demeanour, Papa needs to believe that you were listening to me meekly. If you’re sure you want to continue with this, let us plan what I am to say to him, and how you will move this charade forwards.”
* * * * *
At her mother’s insistence, Ganna dutifully presented her cheek for a kiss.
“She doesn’t recognise me,” said Jessi sadly. “And who is this fine young man, then?”
She approached him, intending to pick him up and hug him, but the boy took a step back, fire in his eyes. “I Sindor!” he exclaimed. Then he turned and ran to his father, who stood unmoving in the entrance. “Pappi, Pappi! That lady looking at me!”
“Come, Ganna,” said Maran, picking up his son. “Let us leave your mother with her sister.”
Jessi was suddenly aware of her breach of manners, and lowered her gaze to the floor. “I am sorry, Maran, Sindor,” she said quietly. “I have long been shut away from society, and have forgotten its rules. Forgive me.”
“Ever the rebel,” Maran commented, and then turned to his wife. “You have ten minutes, and then the carriage leaves.” He strode away, and Jessi raised her eyes.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I hope I haven’t made things difficult for you, with Maran.”
“You couldn’t do that, my sweet; he doesn’t hold me accountable for your shortcomings. But I mustn’t take more than the time he has allowed me. Else, I might have to walk home.”
“Two hours, it would take you! And withdrawal starts in less than one! You would never make it. He wouldn’t really leave, would he? If not for your sake, what about the child in the sling?”
“A daughter. Although the one I am hosting may be a son. You’re right; he probably wouldn’t leave. But I will not displease him, so don’t waste time. How is your life? Do you not regret the marriage you could have had? Why, you could have a couple of children of your own by now! And instead, you are so far removed from society that you do not remember how to behave! How could that be worth it?”
Jessi considered for a moment; how could she possibly explain her life to her sister? She had to try. “You know, Ranga; I only started this because I couldn’t bear to be given to some man I’d never met. I expected to do just enough in my studies to be allowed to continue, and I hoped that, by the time they gave up on my ever becoming a priest, I would be too old to be a good catch. Then I would have been left alone to become an old maid in peace.
“But it didn’t work out like that. If only I could explain to you, how it is to soar aloft, bathed in the desert sunlight, to learn from it, to feel it course through all your being! Before I’d been in training for six months, I was caught up in these mysteries, and I knew that I would die, rather than give up the opportunity to learn more! Since then, I have devoted myself most earnestly to my studies and my practice, and I thank the Light daily that my application here was accepted, even though I made it for entirely the wrong reasons. And now I thank you, for making the suggestion that led to my pretence, and hence to the fulfilment that I now know.”
“That expression,” said Ranga slowly, “That delight. You look how I feel, when I think of my babies.”
“Then you do understand. Your passion is your children; mine is my work.”
“But they said we could visit you, after all this time. Does that mean that you’ve failed; that you’re back in the world?”
“No, Ranga. It means I’m ready for the next step. I’ve finished the first part of my training, where I had to stay in seclusion, so the pull of the world of matter would not make me too heavy to rise to the sunlit realms. Now, I am strong. I cannot be brought down in that way. So I will move on to the next stage. I will be sent to a community that needs a junior priest. I will learn, with one other, from two seniors, to serve a community as well as the Light.”
“Sent away?” asked Ranga. “You won’t be coming back to our town?”
“No.” Jessi lowered her gaze, although no men were present. “It is the only part that distresses me. I don’t yet know where I am to go, but I will not be allowed to tell you, nor to return. My new seniors will become my mentors, and the community my family. I will not see you again, Ranga.” When she looked up, her eyes shone, this time with the tears that threatened to spill, rather than with excitement or passion.
“I feared this.” Ranga shifted the weight of the child in her sling, and reached out clumsily to stroke her sister’s arm. “I am glad that you are happy; that you have found contentment in your work. But think on what you just said; that children bring the same kind of fulfilment as your training. Do not shut yourself off from such joys forever. After all, priests are allowed to marry. In fact, only last year, the younger daughter of the man you were supposed to wed was given to Priest – our priest, I mean, the one who first instructed you. I think they are very happy together.”
“Really? I’m glad for him; he was a kind man, and yet he seemed rather lonely. But his case is not mine; a priest has even more power than an ordinary man. So a priest can take a wife, and be even more her superior. But how could I marry? Could I be a priest, and yet take orders from one who is not? Or could a man marry me, and accept that I was his superior?” Jessi could see that Ranga’s sudden realisation of her situation had devastated her, and she put her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “Don’t be so sad for me. I have far more than I ever dreamed of. I am happier than I ever believed I could be. Never being able to marry or have children is such a tiny price to pay for the ecstasy that I know in the Light. Come, Ranga; your time must be up. You must go to your husband, back to the life that fills you with joy. Smile for me; show me that you are happy that I, too, have found my path.”
* * * * *
“So,” the woman admitted finally, “Your trainers were right. You are indeed gifted; you walk fearlessly in the realms aloft, you allow the Light to permeate you without putting up barriers, and you have the presence and confidence of a potential leader. But more than that; you also bring a sensitivity, an intuition, to your work. You are ready.”
At last! thought Jessi. When she left the monastery, she had expected to join a community at once, and these further weeks of seclusion had been all the harder to bear for being unexpected. Additionally, she had seen no other students, had been isolated in total darkness with only the intermittent company of this anonymous woman, who seemed to be taskmaster and examiner rolled into one. “Will I meet the priests I am to train under, then?” she asked.
“Bless you, child; had you not realised that I am to be your mentor? Henceforward, you may call me Priest. Come, let us go and meet my colleague, and our other junior.”
They had spent their time together in a complex of dark caves, the better to focus on sensing the Light during this intensive exploration of her skills, and Jessi rose to her feet, sensing rather than hearing the direction that the woman took. “Could we not light a torch, to find our way from this place?” she asked, stumbling a little on the uneven ground.
“To serve the Light fearlessly, we must not crave it. Come, lead the way. Take us from this underground chamber; do not fail me now, for I have claimed to my partner that you have a talent for this.”
Jessi directed all her senses outwards, to try to discern the features of the black environment around her. There was a wall of rock to her right: she knew it was there before she reached out and touched the uneven surface. To her left, she felt an absence, an emptiness; she slid her foot cautiously sideways until the ground fell away. Whether the drop was far enough to kill, or only a hand’s-width, she had no idea, but she strained her awareness forwards, seeking a safer route. Only when she was as sure as she could be that she had learned what she could of her surroundings did she venture slowly along the path.
It seemed to take an age before she realised that she need no longer rely on her heightened inner awareness, for the utter blackness ahead was tinged with grey, and she could discern the shapes of rocks, a harder shade in the gloom. After the path had twisted round several more corners, the hues lightening at each turn, she suddenly halted and flung her arms over her face. “Oh, may the Light be blessed!” she exclaimed.
“The sun has just set,” the woman commented, “But I expect the sky seems unbearably bright, after so much time in the caves. You did well, to navigate your way through those passages unaided. Now, follow me, and I shall lead you to the town.”
Jessi kept her eyes half closed and shaded them with one hand, but after a short while, due perhaps as much to the sudden nature of the arrival of night as to any acclimatisation of her sight, she found that the light no longer hurt her. The woman must have realised this, for she at once started speaking.
“Just a couple of things, before we get there,” she began. “This is not part of your spiritual training, and thus could not be discussed in the sacred caves. But you do need to know them.
“Firstly, you will find it very hard to be around other people at first, especially men. You need to remember that your training elevates you far beyond most people. You will lower your gaze before senior male priests, and before the Emperor or any of his lineage, should you happen to meet such people.” Her tone made it clear that she considered this unlikely. “To maintain your authority, you must hold the gaze of any others. This will be difficult. But you will lose the respect of your people if you cannot do this. And to make it even harder, you must neither hang your head and meet their gaze through your lashes, for such an attitude would seem timid, nor tip your head back and look down your nose at people, as this would make you appear haughty. You had a sister once, didn’t you?”
“Yes”, agreed Jessi, feeling a spasm of guilt for appearing to deny Ranga’s continued existence.
“Then imagine looking at her, but take away a little of the familiarity,” advised the woman. “That should avoid the worst excesses. Practise with me and with our colleagues, and observe how we interact with others; you will not go out in the town unaccompanied for a while. And you will wear a priest’s sash when out, that others might recognise your status.”
After a pause, which Jessi assumed was to allow her to absorb this, or to ask any questions that she might have, her mentor said, “And one other thing. You have probably noticed that most priests are men; I expect this has been your experience, wherever you may have grown up, for it is part of an attitude that prevails throughout Tarka and its dependencies. Unusually, my partner is, like me, female. And now we have chosen you as our second junior. Our existing junior, however, is male. He is, theoretically, your senior, as he has already been studying with us for over a year. We have, however, told him to treat you as an equal; you have both come so far from your previous lives that the single year of experience that separates you is almost insignificant. You will, therefore, need to be aware that you should defer to him in matters where his extra training imparts greater knowledge or authority to him, without implying that you consider yourself subservient to him. It has been hard for him, already, to have to accept that two women are his mentors; I would not want you to allow him to compensate by exerting an unthinking male dominance over you. Neither would I want you to challenge him openly; preserve his dignity while maintaining your own right to be respected. None of this will be easy, but I hope that you have long since learned that you relinquished the right to an easy life when you chose the priesthood.”
As she spoke, they had been crossing a desert landscape that seemed familiar only because much of Tarka’s mainland was the same monotonous mixture of sand and rock. Now, however, they could see patches of green in the distance, and Jessi guessed that they were approaching either the coast or the great river that brought fertility and prosperity to the land. The birds that soon wheeled overhead were not the sea-birds that had populated her childhood, so she deduced that the town whose gates they were approaching was one of the riverside settlements that she had heard about in tales and from merchants.
Although the sky was almost black now, the stars shone down with a steady light, and a moon that was not much past full was rising above the horizon behind them, so the torches that burned brightly at each side of the open gates were scarcely needed.
“Watch how I greet them, and appear respectful, without lowering your face,” the woman murmured.
In spite of the words that had to some extent prepared her, Jessi was taken aback to see the warriors guarding the entrance to the town look down at their feet as they passed. She could not see that her own attitude could possibly be construed as respectful or otherwise, for no-one looked at her.
She gazed around with curiosity as they walked through the streets. There were people about, but not very many; back home, this post-sunset hour would have been a meal time. The houses seemed much like those that had formed her natal town, although the stone was somewhat darker, and the buildings were more closely crowded together.
“Come,” said the woman, who had stopped outside a house, and was watching her, smiling, as if she had followed Jessi’s thought processes. She showed Jessi into a cool windowless interior room, but Jessi had barely time to wonder where the refreshing draught was coming from when the woman went on, “Lie down; here, next to me. You will meet my partner and our other junior for the first time up aloft.”
Jessi slipped out of her body and followed Priest to a glowing area where two souls were already working. Enjoined to stillness by her companion, she watched. They were not simply bathing in the Light, or listening to it; they were actually interacting with it! This realisation almost broke down her silence, but Priest was expecting her reaction, and steadied her. “Come; let us join them,” she said after a while.
The other two people must have been expecting them, for they moved apart and made room. The woman said, “Welcome, my dear. Watch!” She scooped up some Light and passed it to the young man, and Jessi watched as he shaped it into a ball. She could sense that this was not a physical process alone – if it could be called physical, up here in the spiritual realms – but that he was communicating in some way with it. “Would you like to try?” asked the woman, before Jessi had worked out how he was doing it. She took the amorphous, dripping mass that the woman passed her, and reached out towards it, with the same senses that had guided her safely out of the underground cave system.
There was a flicker of something powerful and dangerous, but also a willingness. She tried to convey an image of a ball, and received in reply a kind of disappointed acceptance. Keeping her mind engaged, she began to move her hands, encouraging and shaping, reaching out and smoothing in, until something outside distracted her.
“You were right,” she heard from the new woman, “She’ll do nicely.” She sensed the woman turning towards her. “How would you put it down?” she was asked.
That was quite a question. Jessi could feel the power that was barely contained by her hands, and, examining it, she realised that any attempt to rid herself of the Light would probably result in an eruption of energy that might be painful or damaging, and would certainly look uncontrolled. She considered, and then she sent her senses questioning into the ball. Almost not at her command, her hands slowed their constant smoothing and rounding motions, and then cupped into a bowl shape. Her fingers gradually spread apart and the light flowed stickily through them. The stream dispersed as it waterfalled outwards.
“Very nicely indeed,” the woman said, and Jessi realised that she was still being tested. “Now, try this,” the woman suggested, confirming Jessi’s insight. She scooped up some light again, but this time she passed it to Priest. Jessi watched for a while, until she became aware that the fourth member of their group, who had been still and silent until now, was trying to attract her attention.
“Open your hands, and your mind,” he urged, once she turned to him. He was holding a roughly shaped ball of light, and as soon as she obeyed him, he placed his hands above hers, and poured the light into her grasp. “Now back again,” and they poured their glowing burden back and forth. Before she could become complacent, he moved back a little, so that they had to impart energy to thrust the light to and fro, rather than simply allowing it to pass from one to the other. This was far harder; it was not, Jess believed, that the light was opposing them, but simply that they were trying to control something that was wild and free. “You don’t need to control it,” the man answered, although she had not spoken, “You show it what you want, and if it respects you, it cooperates.”
Jessi could not see how to do this, and she turned her attention away from the light and towards him, intending to seek clarification. He was intent on the light, however, and she observed him, waiting until she could ask him for more information. She saw that he was young, probably not much older than she was. She tried to look deeper, hoping to understand how he was working with the light, but her clumsy attempts attracted his attention.
He looked up at her. “We’ll be working together,” he said. “We’ll get to know each other well. But we’ll have to respect each other’s boundaries.” His smile took the sting from his words. “Look – let me show you.”
He let her see his thoughts, and how he communicated with the light, and she did her best to emulate his gentle control. They kept working until she was tired, but there was more to do, so they continued beyond weariness. Twice he had to step in to help her, because her exhaustion caused her concentration to slip, before the woman said, “That will do for now. Dissipate your light, and let’s go home.”
Jessi kept her eyes closed for a few minutes longer than she actually needed, pleased to have some time entirely to herself, after sharing such intimate work with strangers for so long. The woman had seemed pleased with her, and the man had been friendly; she thought she would be able to work with them. Priest had been kind to her, to allow her to meet her new colleagues aloft; she was still rather nervous, for they would soon see how young and unversed in worldly matters she was, but at least this knowledge would be mitigated by an awareness that she was competent aloft.
“Grounding yourself is all very well, but this is beginning to look self-indulgent,” came Priest’s voice. “Come; let us not keep our colleagues waiting.”
She led Jessi to another room, lit by many small candles. The woman and man were both there, but Jessi focused on the woman, as the most senior. Gaze lowered to the floor as a mark of respect, she offered her hands, and was pleased when the woman held them. They sensed each other silently for a dozen heartbeats, and then the woman said, “Welcome, Jessi. You may call me Priest.”
Jessi barely had time to reflect that this was likely to prove confusing in future, before the woman relinquished her hands, and the man took her place. Again she offered her hands, but this time only one was taken. Before she could apologise for any offence she might have given, she felt the fingers of his other hand gently pushing her chin up. Annoyed with herself for forgetting that they were almost equals, she raised her gaze to meet his, as she felt him grasp her fingers. Silently they observed each other, looking through the eyes to the soul that they had worked with only a short time ago. Something in her leapt to meet him, and it occurred to Jessi that she had misled her sister, that a woman priest could indeed engage with certain men on equal terms. He smiled and blushed, and she blinked to break the contact. “I admit, Jessi,” he said, “That I too have wondered how I could settle for less in my personal life, when I have known such depth and intimacy in my work. Perhaps this is something we can explore together, in due course.” She felt his hands squeeze hers and then prepare to get them go. One of the women, Jessi was not sure which, made an impatient sound, and the boy added, “Oh, yes. Welcome, Jessi; you may call me Hantor.”