A Veil, a Meal, and Dust

Note: Not suitable for younger children.

A Veil, a Meal, and Dust – Excerpt

The time had come for the Catechist of Yeratet to choose a new spouse. The final candidates knelt at three corners of a blanket, heads bowed, while the priest kneeling at the fourth corner recited the ritual questioning of God. Ivory pillars, inlaid with gold and jade, reached to the high domed ceiling of the Catechilis. Outside, sand whispered against the thick stone walls. The air tasted dry and smelled of dust.

Parteeka Ren Sussu took the opportunity to size up the other two candidates. The man on her left was tall and solid, with skin the colour of slate dust. Scars seamed his arms and neck like zippers, and one very old scar crossed his nose and his left cheek, just below the eye.

The supreme leader of Yeratet would never choose this scarred thug as his spouse. He had chosen but two men in seventy-two spouses. Parteeka struggled not to show her contempt. She must not underestimate the thug. He had made it this far through the selection. And showing the wrong emotion at the wrong time could undermine her entire carefully designed strategy.

The young woman on Parteeka’s right presented a more serious challenge. She was dressed cheaply but was small, with long brown hair, a tough body, and taut, tanned skin. This Catechist was known to like tough women. Indeed, his last wife, Turana, had been very similar to this girl. Well, Parteeka thought, there were more ways of being tough than having a hard body.

There had been a thousand candidates at the first round of selection; now there were only three. Parteeka had spent most of her fortune and called in favours gained over twenty years to get her this far, but here her influence had ended. The Catechist could not be bought. Still, if all went well, she would soon be the Catechist’s new wife.

The priest finished the ritual and drew out a cloth bag. “In this place you will speak only the truth.” He offered the bag to the young woman, who reached in and brought out her fist with something clutched inside. The bag passed to Parteeka, and she too reached in. There were two smooth balls. She ran her fingers over them, trying to feel a difference between them, then selected one at random and pulled it out. The scarred man took the last ball.

The priest folded the bag into his robe. “In this place, God and the Catechist hear all, see all, know all. Do not lie, for no one may lie in this place and live. Speak true, speak well, and you will become the spouse of the Catechist.” He stood, and strode from the Catechilis.

Parteeka looked down at the small black ball clutched in her hand. Two.

The scarred man rose. Tinted light from the stained-glass windows high above fell on his black skin. Muscles tensed beneath his clothes as he spoke. “Dorat has number one.” Parteeka did not recognise his accent. “Dorat tells you how he saw the Catechist of Yeratet and fell in love.

“In Serinda, on the other side of the world, the flame-spike trees flower for fourteen months a year, and the blossom is as thick as oil in the air. At dusk, the sky is filled with silver bats flickering among the towers. Some have said that it is the most beautiful city in the world. Perhaps they are right. It did not seem so to Dorat.

“Those who say it was beautiful have not seen the hanging square where crowds gathered to cheer the death of their neighbours, nor the way Serinda treated those who seemed different. There was beauty, yes, in the flowing water and the trees and the flowers and the golden temples, in the syrupy smell of figs and the dry spices, but a homeless child cannot appreciate that beauty when the militia are hunting him down.”

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