Chapter 5: Nirayime

Daniel 3:28: Then Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king's word, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.

Karat Eku Ra 6512: Eku vayr gral dlon dlon vayandra say yefid fed gek. Neeka rigek fed. Raytanl Eku.

Eku said, "You will assemble ten times a year--yes, every 40 days--to praise me."

The next day, Kelar and Chran led me to the top "branch" of the castle. I was only vaguely conscious of its unusual architecture; the large balcony was held up by angular supports, not a straight tower below it. Kelar hesitated for a moment before he stepped out of the archway onto it. We were probably at the highest point in all of Sheshack, but I wasn't afraid at all. Walls that nearly reached my waist surrounded the whole balcony, protecting me.

The rising sun cast an orange light onto the treetops below, painting them bronze, which was a better look than their usual, varied, clashing colors. The orange seemed to turn to red, the same color as the enemy soldiers' coats, and I shuddered instinctively, taking Kelar's hand for comfort. He smiled, but he quickly let go when I tried to pull him with me. He didn't follow when Chran escorted me to the edge of the tower. The priest forced a small, thin book onto me. Since it was bound at the top, and open to a handwritten page about halfway through, I must have looked a bit like a reporter.

Kelar finally edged his way out, though he still stayed behind me, leaning over me. "It's time, Bonnie," he said softly, his breath warm on my neck.

I shivered. "What do you mean?"

Kelar knelt, bowing his head. "Forgive my impudence, I beg you." When I said nothing, he added, "I truly think this is the moment of Sheshack's greatest need. Don't you agree? It's no longer safe to leave this fortress. The men of Tlaklen will siege us before long, and though I'm sure no harm would come to Your Greatness, the rest of our people would perish." My stomach turned as I almost felt the touch of Tlaklen's men, drawing me close. I knew I didn't want to live on Sheshack without Kelar. The king added, "We've all served Eku faithfully, except for some of the women. You're not going to punish us for that, are you?"

"Why would I punish you?"

"Then please, read from Eku's Book. Please save us all."

He was so intent, and so earnest, I almost believed that I could summon Eku's aid after all. "What do you want me to read?" I asked.

Kelar pointed to a passage, but though I'd spent the last couple months listening to Chran read for hours on end, I wasn't entirely sure whether the characters read horizontally or vertically, let alone in which direction. And just about every symbol looked different, nothing like letters. I had no idea what any of them meant, and couldn't pronounce a single one. I closed my eyes, wishing for the knowledge. And suddenly I knew what to do. I opened my eyes wide and yelled, dropping to my knees. Kelar rushed forward to catch me, and he looked so terrified I felt a little sorry for stretching the truth. But it was too late to stop now.

"What's wrong?" Kelar asked.

"Plir's spirit attacked me," I lied. I sat up and grabbed the book, staring at the open page. "It's no use. It's all gone."

"You've forgotten how to read?" Chran asked, a cross between disbelief and contempt in his voice.

Kelar squeezed my shoulder, as gently as if I'd been physically hurt. "Try harder," he suggested, pointing to each of the symbols in turn. Finding they went from left to right didn't help me at all.

Chran hurriedly wrote something and put it in front of me. I didn't react any differently than when I'd looked at Eku's Book, and his expression softened.

Kelar snatched the paper from Chran, looking almost as angry as he had when he'd faced the men from Tlaklen. In one smooth motion, the king crumpled the scrap of paper, tossed it aside, and boxed Chran's ears. "How dare you write such a disgusting, wicked thing about her!"

The priest shook his head. "It was a test," he said. "Frun, I beg your forgiveness."

Kelar narrowed his eyes. "And you accuse my mother of lacking faith."

Chran bowed deeply. "I'm sorry for my failure, Your Majesty." When Kelar didn't reply, the priest turned to me. "Is Your Greatness strong enough to start learning right now? Perhaps just a little teaching will bring her knowledge back."

Of course it wouldn't, because, just like in a dream, I couldn't read a word. Not a word of Shesha, anyway. Some days, Bunfa had asked me to read from my Bible for her, and I did, though I never translated the words aloud. She still liked to hear me read, and if I felt like it, I answered her questions abut what the words I'd read meant.

I couldn't read Shesha at all, any more than Bunfa could read English. I knew I'd learn someday, though. And once I did, once I finally spoke the words they put in front of me and the spell didn't work, they'd probably throw me out of the fortress, if not hang me for masquerading as their Chosen One. For the first time in my life, I could understand why some people are afraid to succeed.

Chran and I got to work that day, and kept at it for what felt like forever. We spent some days in my room, and some in Chran's office. He was teaching me the characters one-by-one, and I felt sick every time I even looked at the letters, sometimes seeing grotesque pictures in their lines. We spent almost all of our daylight hours working, but no matter how I tried, I struggled with even the simplest of words. Even when Chran yelled at me, or told me men were dying because I was such a poor student, I just couldn't match the characters with the words I already knew how to say.

One day I couldn't remember a single character, and Chran got so frustrated he called off our class early, leaving me to amuse myself for the last couple hours of the afternoon. I wandered down to the courtyard to look around a bit.

The whole area inside the inner walls was like a huge wild garden, with trees and plants spread over half the area, and grasses growing high in other sections, arranged a bit like the patterns of a quilt. I forced my way through the tall grass, past a patch infested with biting insects. One area in a corner near the wall had been cleared of grass, its brown dirt standing out like a neon sign against the bright plants and flowers. A couple dozen kids gathered around; they were probably forbidden to trample the plant life. A young, thin, girlish guard with his hair tied back stood on the alert, watching the children with some amusement. I didn't pay much attention as he bowed, and then he smiled at me, a smile more friendly than reverent. I nodded.

The children were too busy arguing to notice me, and the guard didn't alert them to my presence. I was briefly struck with jealousy, that they paid more attention to a squabble than to me. I had to remind myself that I wasn't really Eku's Chosen One, that they were wise not to show reverence. Besides, they were just kids. I sat down under a tree, on a patch of neatly-trimmed grass, a clean bit that didn't prick through my dress, nor stain the fabric.

Most of the boys had a certain sameness to their appearance, but one caught my eye. His brown hair was dyed black at the ends, reminding me of the way a rather stuck-up girl at school had worn hers. The other boys wore shirts and pants not that far removed from what a farmer would have worn on Earth a hundred years ago, but the one I noticed had a deep blue-gray tunic, embroidered in designs as elaborate as anything Kelar would wear. The embroidery was done in dull green thread, though, and the robe's hem had come undone, so the bottom was frayed. The elbows were also patched--patched well, but patched. He wasn't taller than any of the other kids, but he reminded me of a tiny adult.

"Fine," he said. "It's a stupid game. But I'll play King Bleeth."

"And I'll be Frun!" a short, stocky boy announced. The thought of him posing as Kelar made me giggle. "Let's pick teams!"

So the children were playing some sort of war game. Kelar's ugly twin called a name, and one of the boys gladly joined his side. Apparently, "Frun's" side was allowed to choose all its players before "King Bleeth" was allowed any. Finally, half the boys had been chosen. A couple of the remaining children cringed, and one was near tears. The others looked nervous, a little like they were about to be bullied into pulling a prank on a teacher they liked.

"I don't want to fight for Plir," one of the boys murmured.

"Baby!" the stocky boy yelled back. "It's just a game! Go on over with Ran, or should I say, the wicked King Bleeth."

The other boy, Ran, cleared his throat. "Don't be silly!" he bellowed. "I am the mighty King Bleeth! I don't need any soldiers! You can all fight for Sheshack. I'll defeat you all!"

Then all the boys cheered like war cries. The boys who had been so dejected instantly perked up, staring in wonder at Ran, more reverently than I'd ever seen Chran look. The whole group crowded around Ran, and took to shoving him, worse than a mosh pit, so roughly I wasn't sure it qualified as playing at all. The guard was drawing nearer to them, but hadn't yet interfered.

"Stop them," I called to the guard, and he stepped into the crowd of boys, catching Ran and pulling him up and away from the rest.

"All right," the guard said gruffly, though his voice was still soft, and high-pitched, a lot like one of the kids'. "It's time for you boys to get back to studying."

"Aw," the boys moaned in unison, although a few were bleeding and bruised, and probably secretly glad the fight had been called off.

"Come on," the guard went on. "Orders of the Chosen One."

The boys looked back at me, most of them as startled as if I'd just appeared from nowhere. They all dropped down and bowed three times apiece. It cheered me to see how quickly they paid their respects.

"Go back and study," I said. Of course, I had no intention of doing the same, though everyone thought my studies were the most important ones Sheshack had ever known. The guard went to follow the boys in, but I stopped him.

"What was that game?" I asked.

"War, Your Greatness," the guard said. His eyelashes were much nicer than mine, and rather girlish. Maybe he wasn't a man at all.

"When they play war, the strong kids beat up on the weak kids, in the name of Frun?"

The guard nodded. "It encourages them all to become strong."

The guard turned to go, but I suddenly asked, "Do girls play games like this?"

The guard looked back at me with twinkling blue eyes. "A few, but they're not called 'girls;' they're called 'recruits.' I'm sorry, Your Greatness; it's my job to watch the boys--"

"Take your leave," I interrupted, and he (or she) did so.

Once I was alone again, I resumed exploring. A few other people had come to the courtyard, perhaps to find peace among the trees. Whenever one or two drew near to me, they bowed. I immediately bid them stand again, and though it was fun to be worshipped at first, I got to wishing they'd just leave me alone. I finally made my way to a cluster of trees across the way, wondering why no one else in the courtyard had wandered over there. But as I drew near, I understood. I got goosebumps, and my heart raced faster. It was a place sacred to Eku, I was sure, full of the priests' magic. As I walked forward, a branch grazed my ear, gently, making my skin tingle. It was like Eku was there. And when I saw a green figure moving there, I almost fell over.

But it was just the prince, in a simple green robe, similar to the one Chran usually wore. It flattered Leander's thin frame, revealing the contours of his muscles. He was holding a book, and when he spotted me, he dropped it and laid down in front of me, three times. He always performed his polite duties with both eagerness and reverence, and I suddenly didn't mind his presence.

"What are you reading?" I asked, looking down at the book he'd dropped.

"I'm not," Leander said, picking it up as he rose. He opened it, showing me an ink sketch of a tree.

"What is it?" I asked.

Leander motioned a few steps behind him. "Rejebu," he said, and I saw the resemblance between the rather scattered lines on the paper before me, and the tree with thick branches laden with vines instead of leaves. The prince drew the character "rejebu" for me, and I knew I'd remember it for good. I asked to see more.

We sat down on a wooden bench, polished smooth as glass, and Leander went through his sketchbook, showing me drawings of dozens of plants, some as familiar as the rose-like habak that Bunfa had placed by my bedside, and some more foreign than an alien in a bad sci-fi film. All the animals in the book looked strange, but I wasn't sure whether or not Leander had just drawn them poorly. The prince labeled each drawing for me. I doubted Eku's Book had many references to the tiny red flowers that smelled like vinegar, but it couldn't hurt to learn anyway. And I enjoyed seeing more of the world I was in, even if it was just through drawings. Kelar had loved to swim and talk with me, but he had no interest in botany.

There were a few people in the book, too, drawn a bit out of proportion. One was probably supposed to be Bunfa (I didn't ask Leander, for fear of insulting his abilities). One sketch was so erratic, it took me a few moments to see it was a drawing of a crowd gathered. One of the figures there caught my eye. "Who's that?"

Leander didn't know, but the woman in front looked familiar, just a bit like me, only uglier. She wore what was supposed to be either a dress like I wore to dinners in the great hall, or else a huge wedge of cheese.

"That's not me?" I asked.

Leander frowned thoughtfully. "I'm not much of an artist," he said, turning away. "But she wasn't meant to really look anything like you."

"Where'd you see her?"

"Just in my imagination," Leander said. "I saw the crowd when I closed my eyes at temple last month, when we were so desperate. It was almost as good as drawing from life, although I really only saw their faces."

"What about the crowd? What were they doing?"

"I think they were at temple, too. Hey! I'm sorry, Bonnie! I didn't mean to upset you!"

My shoulders shook, and my eyes stung with tears.

"I'll fetch my brother," Leander said quickly.

I shook my head, grabbing the book from him, wanting to destroy the image Leander had shown me, to melt away into the ground, to be free from the sick feeling in my stomach. "Where's Mom?" I asked softly, saying "Mom" in English.

Of course, Leander didn't know what "Mom" meant. Shesha didn't even have any M's, so the word "Mom" couldn't mean anything in their language.

"Don't cry, Bonnie," the prince said helplessly. But I was sure the girl Leander had drawn was meant to be Frieda. The other people in the crowd all had rough lines around their faces, and were probably meant to be old. It was Frieda, at the church, without Mom.

I sobbed inconsolably, dropping tears onto the drawing on my lap. Mom was likely dead, but even if she was still clinging to life, then if I stayed here, I'd never see her again. And if I went back home, I'd be an orphan, with no place to turn, probably spending the rest of my life poor, if not homeless. Leander lightly touched my shoulder, but I shrugged his hand off. He softly said, "Wait here," and left me. I sobbed for a couple more minutes, before I realized I couldn't let Kelar see me so helpless and ugly, with my eyes red and my face redder, my mouth scrunched up helplessly as I tried in vain to stifle my tears. So I fled back up to my room. Some people bowed to me, astonished to see the Chosen One crying, I'm sure, but no one confronted me.

I didn't even get to lay down and sob in peace, because Bunfa was waiting for me. I nearly ran back out of my room, but she humbly murmured, "I'll leave you if you like." And somehow, I was glad to see her.

She sat me down and hugged me, and I cried into her shoulder until my chest hurt. I wound up telling her more than I'd ever meant to, but she didn't shy back at all, and I knew she'd keep my secret, and wouldn't tell anyone I was a fraud. She even knew that what I was most upset about at the moment wasn't being discovered, but of losing Mom.

"I know you're scared," Bunfa murmured, patting my back. "Of course you are. But you remember God's in control. He drew you into this world; surely He can heal your mother if He wills it, or if not, draw her into His heaven."

I wiped my eyes roughly, my other arm still around Bunfa. "You really think so?"

"You've already been to two worlds, yourself," Bunfa said. "And God has to live somewhere. Didn't He promise to take the faithful up with him?"

She had to be right. I hugged her harder, and although I was still scared for myself and Mom both, I took a little comfort in her assurances.

She stayed with me until Kelar finally got the news and came to me. He opened the door without knocking, and although I was still weak from crying, the moment I saw his worried face, I launched myself into his arms. Kelar caught me in a gentle hug, then leaned down, his cheek against mine.

"Soon Eku will right all wrongs for us," the king whispered. "Please don't cry."

Protected by his warm body, I started to calm. "Why can't we call him now?" I asked softly. "Can't you just teach me to memorize the words?"

Kelar shook his head sadly. "Recognizing the characters--the words printed on fallen trees, pressed into paper--is part of the process." His voice softened as he murmured, "Don't worry. You'll learn in time."

His words made me want to believe in myself, and as he gently ran his rough fingers over my hair, I decided to trust in God, or the god Eku, and some of my worries faded.

Leander, Bunfa, and Chran met me in the courtyard before dawn one morning, and four letun were readied for a trip. We were going to the temple, as many of the people of Sheshack did, once a month. I almost groaned at the thought of a bumpy, three-hour ride, and I asked if there was a quicker way. But all the farana were drawing carts in battles, so our choices were to ride the letun, or to walk. And riding was faster.

Since we each had our own letun, we were too far apart to really talk, even though they were harnessed together. I spent the first hour or so admiring the forest. The more I'd learned of Eku, the more impressed I was with the trees, things that grew up from a tiny seed or clipping, to be bigger than ten men. A few villages interrupted the forest's beauty. The settlements were simply built, with a few stone buildings, and a couple wooden ones, but mostly clay residences. The few people in them looked simple, too, dressed in rough nightshirts. Most of the men wore pants underneath, and some of the women had tied a decorated band just under their breasts, forming a simple dress. But the villages were only guarded by a few men, a couple merchants, and women with tiny children.

One of the villages was completely deserted, and even its stone houses had started to crumble. There were tiny hills that had probably once been earthen houses, though I couldn't be sure. Trees grew up thickly in the whole village, and everything around, except the path ahead of us, was completely overgrown with grass. I tried to ask Leander what had happened to the village, but he couldn't hear me. It didn't look like it had been attacked, and the ruins were probably older than me, besides. We soon left it behind.

After a while, all I could notice were the bugs biting and my body aching from the way the mismatched legs of the letun jerked me about during the trip. We only stopped once, to drink from a stream and rest a few minutes, before the letun waded across. The water was so deep, our steeds almost had to swim. My feet got wet, so I was cold, as well as sore, when we finally reached the temple.

I hardly knew when we reached our destination. Trees grew almost to the temple's walls, and vines grew down all four sides, so it looked like a giant, homely tree. It was a simple building, probably three stories tall, made of black stone underneath the thick vines. As far as I could tell, it was shaped like a refrigerator box. That made it look a little like the character, nirayime, which meant "temple."

No pilgrims had come to join us as we traveled, and there was no crowd outside, just a few people hurrying through the doors, like it was a refuge from a storm.

"The body of worshipers are on the holy side," Chran said quietly as Leander helped me down off my letun. "None will be allowed to follow Your Greatness." A couple boys came like valets, to take our beasts.

Two guards stood outside the temple's huge doors. Each held a sword in his right hand, and a shorter sword, with a larger guard, in his left. They couldn't kill an army, but they looked grim and fierce, and strong as Kelar. They might be able to keep the enemy back long enough for the priests inside the temple to shut and bar the giant doors.

The guards took turns bowing to me as I approached, so one could protect the temple at all times. As we walked in, three men came towards us from a wide obsidian hallway. Their green robes were so long, they stumbled on the smooth black floor. They had a hard time bowing, and I can truly say one fell down to worship before me. But I was touched by his sincerity, and didn't think of laughing. They washed Bunfa's, Chran's, and Leander's hands. None of them touched me.

The hallway split into two right behind the three priests. Bunfa went to the right, taking the women's path, the lesser path which, I was told, led almost directly to their section of the temple courtyard. Chran, Leander and I followed the left hallway. We passed by about a dozen entryways, all without doors, where priests were praying, or cooking meat, or dancing. Chran and Leander stopped to bow at each doorway, but Chran glared at me for even considering doing the same.

We emerged at the other side of the temple, a huge yard fenced in by dense rows of trees that held everyone as effectively as a brick wall. More people than I'd seen at a school football game were gathered in an area twice the size of our field. Beneath their feet was grass that must have once been long and tall, though most of it had been trampled into a thick green carpet Men filled the whole left side of the field. The smaller right area, fenced off by thin, tall grasses sturdier than reeds, was a mixture, mostly women and children, with some disgraced male peasants interspersed. They were packed closely together, and there wouldn't have been room for them all if they weren't all so skinny. Some looked ill. A few swayed, like flags in a breeze, and I wondered how they'd made it to the temple.

Kelar came to me from the front of the crowd, and he bowed to me, then gently kissed me. A priest I'd never seen before followed him, and bowed three times as well. The priest's face was fairly wrinkled, and if Leander would have sketched him I think he would've been nothing but thick lines. Yet he didn't really look old, but more strong and weathered, like a man in a cigarette ad. His hair was more brittle than Frieda's, but it still reached to his shoulder blades. His green robes had no waist at all.

"Would Her Greatness like to see her people?" the priest asked, in a more deferential tone than even Kelar and Leander had used, and without the coldness Chran always tried to hide.

I was about to say yes. But my stomach knotted, and it was almost like I lost my balance for a moment. I got a clear, certain idea, from outside of myself, that I was supposed to walk away right then. I don't know what might have happened if I'd trusted my feelings, but I told myself I was just imagining, or that maybe it was even evil forces, or my subconscious somehow trying to ruin me. After all, if I'd acted on every fool impulse I'd ever had, I'd be hooked on cigarettes or worse, and my knuckles would probably have gotten broken once a week, because any time Frieda, or Chran, talked down to me, I would have punched them. And besides, Eku probably didn't even exist. So what was the harm of just pretending to serve him, to boost the troops' morale?

"Please lead me," I said to the priest. He bowed again, and then bid me, and only me, to follow him. We went up about a hundred wide, high steps, all made of earthen bricks. Foot-tall trees and bushes edged the stairway on either side, and I imagined they trembled as we passed.

The platform was made of earth, broader than me and Frieda's bedroom, though not quite as deep. A wall, covered in ivy, stood high behind us, serving as a backdrop. There was no railing in front, and I stood a couple steps away from the edge, in case a wind picked up. The high priest urged me forward as far as I dared, and then he took my hand as gently as Kelar would, and raised it to the air. Sounding like an excited sportscaster, he yelled, "This is Bonnie, Eku's Chosen One!"
Every eye below was on me, but only for a moment, before almost everyone was bowing before me a few times, making something like a moving carpet of people. The whole women's section bowed four times, and they were so crowded together, the boys and men among them had to fall down a fourth time, too, pressed down by the females. All stayed bowed, awaiting my permission to stand. While they were prostrate, I picked out the people I'd seen earlier in the day, who didn't have to bow to me. Bunfa stood at the far edge of the women's section, or else she would've been forced to bow, too, by the mass of worshipers. Kelar and Leander were both at the very front of the men's crowd, watching me in awe.

"Eku will deliver Sheshack through Her Greatness Bonnie!" the priest yelled down. "We've nothing to fear now!"

The priest smiled back at me, and I looked down and yelled, "You may rise!"

The crowd rose to their knees and cheered in a strangely reverent tone. Most of the people were genuinely smiling, as though they really trusted me to deliver them. I suddenly worried about letting them down.

The head priest knelt in front of the people, and awful organ music played. I couldn't tell where the organist was, though when I looked closer I saw pipes coming up from walls behind us. The high priest shouted wordlessly, or in a language so foreign it sounded like screams. His scraggly hair seemed to be turning to grass, growing longer, out of his scalp. I stepped away, suddenly reminded of the church.

The leaves on the trees and bushes around us suddenly moved, though there was no breeze. Even their roots shook, and the ground shifted with them. A branch from one of the trees reached out so I could grab it and steady myself. Then every one of the trees went into bloom, so fiercely they sprayed pollen, stinging my nose and making me sneeze. I looked back at the priest again, somehow hoping to be comforted, but instead I nearly screamed. His skin had turned green, and he looked wild.

"Don't be so scared, Bonnie," he said, using my given name, not a title. "Don't you know me? I'm Eku."
I felt sick, but the now-green priest smiled. His features had totally changed; he looked years younger, with the grin of a spoiled child. Eku had seemed beautiful in the forest, but close-up, he was terrifying. I got the feeling his impossibly long hair could strangle me, and the strands waved as though they had a will of their own, or were a thousand snakes. "Don't worry," Eku said with a smile. "No harm will come to you. And you're prettier than I'd expected."

I took a step back anyway. "Is the priest all right?"
"He's fine. Honored to host me. Bonnie, when are you going to save our people?"

"I'm sorry," I said, belatedly adding, "Sir." I wanted to run right down the stairs, to Kelar, but then, Kelar would probably take Eku's side over mine.

Eku took my hand. His skin was smooth as a leaf, and a little cool, so that it almost felt wet. "I would never possess a human woman's body. You have nothing to fear from me. My spirit will simply work through you; nothing more."

"Did you really mean to call me, sir?" I asked. "Wasn't it a mistake?"

"I don't make mistakes!" Eku yelled, like a child--not an ordinary child, but a rich child, the type with dozens of servants, and used to always having his own way. I shied back again, but he just laughed. "Bonnie, Bonnie, don't doubt yourself. You're the girl with a sick mother, right? Who couldn't find love or acceptance or safety in her own world?"

My blood ran cold when I realized he knew everything.

"I saw you in your dreams," Eku added. "You're the one I wanted. And you're more special than you know."

I was about to kneel, but Eku grabbed my shoulder and held me up. Though he was thin as an aspiring actress in Hollywood, he was stronger than even Kelar. "We'll be equals, Bonnie, you and me. One and the same. But you have to learn quickly, or else I can't protect the one who's close to you."

My eyes wandered to the crowd, to Kelar. His face was gray, and he looked as reverent as an angel. I could almost hear the king's voice, though Eku was the one speaking. "Save Sheshack. Learn quickly."

It felt like a tree had fallen not two inches from me when I understood that Eku knew I was a liar, that he knew I'd never known how to read Shesha.

"It doesn't matter, Bonnie," the god said soothingly. "It was a well-formed lie, and I'm proud that you thought of it. If you hadn't, no one here would have faith in you. But I'll try to help you learn now. Please, try, too. I can give you all you desire, once you call on me."

"I'll learn quickly," I said.

And suddenly it wasn't Eku, but the high priest in front of me, his skin twice as pale as it had been. The grasses that had been Eku's hair had fallen to the man's feet, and his own distressed locks looked like dry straws after seeing Eku's wild, magnificent, living hair. The priest staggered over to face the people, and led them in a song of praise to Eku, his own voice trembling. So many voices sang, so loudly, the only word I could make out was "Eku." I shivered as they called on our god, but I felt as tired as the priest looked. There was no place to sit, though, so I stood as straight as I could, looking strong for our people.

The ceremony went on for at least another hour. They led out a jetran, an animal as big as an elephant, with wool like a lamb's, only blue. They tethered it to the ground, as securely as they would have tied a tent in the wind. When it could hardly move, they sunk a sword into its side. I was up far too high to see the blood, but I heard its high-pitched scream, and watched it struggle, raising its great round paws, unable to get loose. The ground shook slightly when it fell, but it was all for Eku's sake, and it didn't bother me. Then a couple priests deftly butchered it, and others cooked its pieces lightly over a wide, low flame. As the jetran cooked, some grain, some vegetables, and some wine were also offered. They buried a portion of each under a large tree. Another portion was passed to the crowd below. (Some of the women and disgraced men almost fought over the meat.) The rest was set aside. Finally, the head priest prayed again, and then dismissed the people. Some of the trees were parted for them, and it took about fifteen minutes for everyone to clear out. Once the worshipers had left, the priest led me back down the stairs. Kelar stood in the recently-emptied field, on the border of the men's and women's areas, and Chran, Leander, and Bunfa stood beside him. The long grasses separated Bunfa from the men. I slipped my hand into Kelar's, almost flushed with excitement. He smiled back at me, as proud as if I'd already saved the nation.

"I'm sorry I wasn't with you this morning," he said. "I came to the temple late last night, to petition Eku, and to show my reverence."

"We've nothing to fear," the high priest said, with a warm, worshipful, loving smile, nothing like Eku's reckless grin. "She is the true Chosen One. Eku himself said so." And I knew he was right, that I really could, and would, call on Eku and save Sheshack.

We entered the temple building, went up a flight of stairs, and came to a place reminiscent of the castle's great hall, but with a sacred feel to it. The room was decorated with flowers, leaves, tiny trees and beautifully patterned ivy, instead of tapestries. Windows overlooked the grassy clearing below, and let fresh air and sunlight in, illuminating the spotless floor and tables. The windows were probably only there for the sake of the plants, but the people appreciated them too. Many priests were already standing by the tables, but no one ate until my party had sat down, and the high priest had laid down and prayed over the food. Then the priests sat and started eating, and talking amongst themselves.

We each had our own small plate of meat and grain and vegetables, mixed together, of course, and our own wine glass. The high priest explained that the priests were free to eat wherever they felt closest to Eku, though I didn't see anyone leave the hall.

Bunfa made no motion to eat, and when I reached for my utensil, she murmured, "Don't."

The meal wasn't particularly solemn, and since we each had our own plate, no one was watching me. I was looking forward to eating.

"Why not?" I whispered back. "I've seen you eat meat."

"This meal was sacrificed to Eku," Bunfa replied.

"And Eku called me to Sheshack." I took a bite, and the food actually tasted good mixed together. From the look on Bunfa's face, you'd think I was eating one of her children. She didn't so much as touch the dish in front of her, not when Leander suggested she eat, nor when Kelar commanded her to. The high priest grabbed Bunfa's shoulder and ordered her to recant, but she wouldn't speak.

"You'll have nothing else today," Kelar said, with all the authority of a king.

Bunfa nodded, with the offended look of a wrongly sentenced prisoner with no hope of reprieve.

I had no idea how Bunfa could dislike Eku. From the little I'd seen of him, I could tell Eku was cheerful and attractive, if perhaps unpredictable. And he was to deliver Sheshack from the enemy. I shivered pleasantly to think he was real, that I'd seen him, and a dozen trials couldn't convince me he didn't exist. And I could call on him, once I was worthy.

"I won't serve Eku," Bunfa insisted, fire in her eyes.

The head priest leaned down over Bunfa. "You don't worship the god of Tlaklen, do you?" he asked.

She shook her head quickly, but of course she would, not wanting to be classed with the enemy. "No!" Bunfa pointed at me. "I worship her god."

Everyone at the table stared at me, and I shook my head. "You worship Eku?" I asked her.

"No!" Bunfa cried. "I serve the God you pledged yourself to long ago--the one you should worship. The God over all! The God of your world!"

The room had grown quiet. One of the lower priests rose and cuffed Bunfa across the face. Bunfa yelled, but no one reprimanded the priest, and I was a little glad he'd done what the rest of us hadn't dared.

"There's no use trying to beat sense into a mad woman," the high priest said softly.

"Restrain yourself," Kelar added, frowning at the violent priest. But he didn't defend his mother. He gave her only the tiniest concession once we left the temple to mount the waiting letun.

"You're gravely mistaken, Bunfa," the king said softly, "but I'll not force you to visit the temple again."

Bunfa stayed quiet, but Leander cheerfully said, "You're just afraid she'll make a scene again, aren't you, brother?"

"It doesn't matter," Kelar said. "Soon the whole nation will be astounded by Eku's power. Every man, and every woman." He drew me into his arms, for the first time in days. We kissed, and I felt fluttery inside, knowing that I was the Chosen One after all.

On to Chapter 6: Exile

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