Happy happy birthday, dear reader! To say thank you for being a newsletter subscriber and reader, I have a couple of birthday surprises for you. First, I made a desktop background with a favorite quote. This one is a picture I took from my parents’ cabin in the North Georgia mountains. I got a lucky shot with a rainbow. I’ve paired it with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which was meaningful to me in 2017 and is always a good reminder.
To download your own desktop background click here or on the picture. It’s a shared file in Dropbox, so all you have to do is click on the box with the three dots at the top right and click download.
And now for a bonus present – a short story! It’s a longish short story, but you can always come back with the link to this page and read it later. I feel like I’m sharing one of my first moments of author joy since this was the story that earned my first bit of writing success – a contest win in the 2011 Mystery Times Ten contest, by publisher Buddhapuss Ink. The story was featured in the anthology that came out of the contest, and I won some swag and a Kindle. Not bad, huh?
So, without further ado, to entertain you on your most special of days, I bring you…
The Coral Temple
Lin-Tai swept the sand off the steps leading from the Temple vestibule to the water. She snuck glances at the Sun Dancers as they undulated to the music of the surf and raised their arms to welcome the sunrise. The energy of the moment caught her, and she twirled with a flourish, then gasped at her own audacity. This would not be a morning to be caught distracted. A junior acolyte shirking her duty would be an embarrassment at any time, but especially when the royal family was in residence at their beach castle next to the Temple.
“Do you wish you could join them?”
Lin-Tai looked up from the crack between the flagstones where a few rebellious grains of sand hid from her broom bristles. Princess Rial stood on the top step, arms crossed against the morning’s chill. With her dark hair loose around her shoulders and face plain of makeup, she looked like another one of the acolytes, only with a fancier robe of seashell pink silk.
“No, Your Highness. I am happy in my humble work.”
The princess laughed. “I saw your little twirl. It’s hard not to run down there and join in.” She sat on the top step, elbows on her knees and chin on her hands. “Why do you sweep the Temple stairs? The wind will only blow sand back over them once you finish.”
“It is the job of the newest acolyte. I’ve only been here three weeks. Engaging in this exercise is the first step toward letting go of one’s pride and ego.” She realized she had stopped sweeping and got back to work. She tried to ignore the sand that seemed to ride on the wind and land on the freshly cleaned surfaces.
“And you get a good view of them.” Rial nodded to the dancers, who finished as the lower edge of the sun cleared the water. “Especially that one in the front.”
Lin-Tai smiled. “Humble work has its advantages.” She had noticed Jor-Gan, senior acolyte and junior dancer, her first day. He executed the steps on the soft sand with ease, the sun silhouetting his lean, muscular body and setting aflame his golden hair.
“What’s your name, newest acolyte?”
“I am Lin-Tai.” She bowed.
“I like you, Lin-Tai. You’re the first one here who’s had a conversation with me without sounding like a stuck-up Temple prude.”
“You honor me with your words and company, Princess.”
“Call me Rial. Oh, here he comes!” She stood and smoothed her robe.
Jor-Gan ascended the steps with sleek grace. Lin-Tai realized her jaw had dropped, and she closed her mouth. Sand crunched between her molars, and she became aware of how grimy she must look next to the princess.
The young man bowed to Rial and turned to Lin-Tai. “The Dance Master would like a word with you.”
The broom clattered to the steps. “Me?”
Jor-Gan nodded and picked up the broom. “I’ll put this away for you.”
“Thank you, Jor-Gan.” Lin-Tai bowed to the princess and made her way over the rest of the gritty steps and soft sand to the water’s edge, where Dance Master Jalloran stood and watched a circle of junior female dancers rehearse. She could barely make out his features, as he stood between her and the morning sun.
“Ah, Broom-Tai,” he said.
Lin-Tai bowed, palms pressed flat together in front of her chest. She tried not to gasp when a cold wave licked her feet. “You summoned me, Master Jalloran?”
“I have seen you sweeping every day at sunrise,” he said without taking his eyes off the slender girls. He winced when one missed a step and stumbled.
Lin-Tai looked at her feet and reminded herself to breathe. Had he seen her that morning, and, she admitted, others, when she had danced a few steps as she swept? Would this result in her being dismissed in disgrace?
“Yes, Master. I perform my duties.”
“But if the feet want to dance, it’s hard not to let them, eh?”
Lin-Tai’s throat burned, and she blinked to clear the salt water that had crept into her eyes. “I am sorry, Master. I meant no disrespect.”
“It seems to me, Broom-Tai – what is your real name, by the way? – that if the Goddess inspires you to dance, you should do so.”
Lin-Tai frowned, not sure whether to respond to the question or the statement. The question seemed safest. “I am called Lin-Tai, Master. And I have always loved to dance.”
“Would you like to be a Sun Dancer?”
The energy of the waves and wind made her tingle from head to toe as it echoed her joy. “Oh, Master, more than anything!”
“Then come to the beginner class this afternoon. You need to learn to walk over the sand with grace before you can dance on it.” He cringed again as another one of the young ladies lost their footing. “As you can see, it’s not easy. You are dismissed, Lin-Tai.”
She bowed again even though he wasn’t looking at her as far as she could tell. He strode over the sand with ease and grace to the circle of young women, who looked less than graceful with sweaty faces and frowns, and barked corrections at them.
Lin-Tai made her way over the sand and back up the stairs on gritty feet to retrieve the broom from the closet on the side of the vestibule’s north alcove where Jor-Gan had put it. She reached for the door, then paused. A dark undercurrent rippled through the silent vestibule in spite of the high windows letting in ample sunlight. She closed her eyes and breathed long and deep three times, opening her senses to the sixth degree, and saw the streams of energy as they moved through the Temple, its sanctuary on a cross-point of earth and water. She saw shadows moving, replaying what had happened a few minutes ago. Jor-Gan and the Princess had come inside, and she had pushed him against the wall, her lips on his. His arms encircled her, and he clasped the back of her head through her thick hair to bring her closer.
Tears came to Lin-Tai’s eyes. Of course he wasn’t interested in her – he had volunteered to fetch her and put away the broom because of the opportunity for time with Rial. She shook her head. That wasn’t the blackness she sensed, as much as it broke her heart. Jor-Gan and the Princess had parted, and he had put the broom away. Lin-Tai saw it then, the sword thrust into his back.
The source of the darkness was the broom closet. With a prayer that she hadn’t seen what had actually happened, she opened it, and he fell out, backwards, the tip of the sword sticking through his chest. His landing drove it further through, and fresh blood joined the crusting ooze on the blade.
Lin-Tai screamed and fainted.
Bitterness in her nostrils and back of her throat brought Lin-Tai out of the darkness. She coughed and opened her eyes to see Princess Rial’s face over her on one side, Master Jalloran’s on the other. The Dance Master helped her to sit and lean against a wall. She tried to bow from her seated position but couldn’t stop trembling.
“There, now, Lin-Tai,” he said. “It’s all right. That was quite the shock.”
She tried to speak, but her teeth chattered, and her head swirled with the distress of those around her. The vestibule was now filled with people who rushed around, shouted orders, and only contributed to the chaos she felt. She took a couple of deep breaths, drawing energy from the earth through the walls, and calmed herself.
Tears dripped down Princess Rial’s cheeks. “Are you all right? I thought you were dead, too!”
Before Lin-Tai could respond, a voice boomed over the chaos. “What is the meaning of this? Where is my daughter?”
Rial rolled her eyes and stood. “I’m here, Father.”
Although some of the Royal Guard – not small men – lined the room, the King overshadowed all of them. From Lin-Tai’s seated position, he looked like a giant, and his footsteps sent echoes through the flagstone floor.
“Is this the victim? She looks very alive to me.”
“No, Father, she’s the one who found him.” The Princess’ voice broke with suppressed tears. “He’s over there.” She held a hand out to Lin-Tai and helped her up, keeping her close as they followed the monarch.
The King, who had seen his share of battle wounds, recoiled when he saw the blade sticking out of Jor-Gan’s chest. He knelt and touched the bloody tip, rubbing the clotting liquid between his thumb and forefinger. “This is recent.”
“Yes, Father,” Rial said. “This acolyte and I talked to him just after sunrise.”
Lin-Tai noticed that Rial left out the details of the subsequent encounter. Not that she was surprised – the princess wouldn’t want her father to know she’d been kissing a lowly Temple dancer, even one as attractive as Jor-Gan.
The frown on the King’s face deepened until his black eyebrows had drawn almost completely together. “Who would cut down a young man like this?”
The doors to the Temple sanctuary flew open, and High Priestess Alara, her cheeks flushed, strode through followed by the five Vestals who always accompanied her in prayer.
“What is this noise? Who dares disturb my morning prayers?” she demanded, but her hand flew to her mouth when she saw the king. They bowed to each other.
“High Priestess,” the King said, “there seems to have been an incident with one of your acolytes.” He moved aside to give her a clear view of the body.
“Oh!” Alara swayed, and a Vestal moved to each side of her to steady her. Although the High Priestess had a tendency to be overly dramatic, her appearance alarmed Lin-Tai. Alara’s hands had grown so thin they looked like claws, and she had dark circles under her eyes. “How did this happen?”
Jalloran answered her without much expression. “I would say that someone stuck a sword in his back.”
The king’s mouth twitched, and Lin-Tai bit her lip to suppress a hysterical giggle. The tension between the monarch and priestess had raised the temperature in the room, and even those who weren’t sensitive fidgeted.
“I’m sure it was not one of my Temple personnel,” Alara said. “Nothing like this has ever happened, at least not while I have been High Priestess.”
Lin-Tai shivered when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Jalloran. She moved aside so he could pass.
“Sister,” he said to Alara, “this is a great tragedy. Young Jor-Gan was one of my better dancers and was on the cusp of starting his Master examination project. We are all feeling his loss.”
“And I feel that my family is now in danger,” said the King. “We will have to cut our visit short.”
“With all due respect, Your Highness,” Jalloran replied, “it would likely be best for you and your retinue to stay in residence until this is solved. We have no witnesses, and the murderer may not be with the Temple.”
“Just what are you saying, Dance Master? None of my people had anything to do with this!”
“I am just saying that we cannot be sure of anything right now,” Jalloran replied. “That is a Royal Guard sword sticking out of his back, is it not?”
The king motioned for one of his men to roll the body over and retrieve the sword, which came out with a slick scraping sound. Lin-Tai had to swallow the contents of her breakfast again. The man wrapped the blade in a cloth and handed it to the king, who examined the hilt.
“You are correct, as always, Jalloran.”
The Dance Master inclined his head. “Thank you, Your Highness.”
“In that case, we shall continue this discussion in my conference room at the palace. Rial, back to your rooms. This is no place for a young woman.”
“But Father, I want to help with the investigation! Jor-Gan was…” She paused when her father raised an eyebrow. “…a friend, as is this acolyte.”
“Very well, she may go with you to comfort you in your loss, but you will stay clear of the Royal Guard as they look into this.”
Lin-Tai looked at Jalloran for permission to accompany the princess, but realized she should be looking at Alara, who stood with arms crossed and one foot tapping.
“You may go,” the High Priestess said. “All classes and activities will be canceled today. We will have a ritual to sing this young man’s soul to the Other Side at sunset.”
“Thank you, High Priestess.”
Lin-Tai bowed and turned to follow Princess Rial out of the side door, but Rial grabbed her hand and pulled her into an alcove that would hide the girls from view while they could watch most of what was happening in the main vestibule. Thankfully, Jor-Gan’s body was around the corner.
“He didn’t say to go back right now.” Rial whispered and put her finger over her lips. “If I’m going to be queen someday, I need to know how to do this.”
Lin-Tai didn’t say anything. Being close to the princess would help her to determine whether the royal heir had anything to do with the murder. She was the last person to see Jor-Gan alive, after all. It had nothing to do with Lin-Tai’s jealousy, absolutely nothing. The male dancer had just been a fantasy, nothing more.
But her breaking heart every time she thought about how she’d never see him dance again exposed her rationalizations.
High Priestess Alara removed herself back into the Temple to perform a sacrifice for Jor-Gan’s soul with her Vestals, and the room cleared out until it was just the king, Jalloran, and a handful of Royal Guard members, who staked out the perimeter and didn’t allow anyone in except for the Royal Physician and Temple Physician, both of whom had been called from their breakfast meeting with local healers, and the Royal Guard captain.
“What is this?” Temple Physician Rolke looked like a frowning vulture most of the time, but his gray eyes darkened when he saw Jor-Gan. “I know this young man.”
“How so?” asked the king.
“He was in the Temple Infirmary last week. He’d tripped down the stairs, banged his knee, and twisted a wrist.” He shook his head. “I told him that was a rather clumsy thing for a dancer. Did he say anything to you about it?” he asked Jalloran.
“Nothing,” the Dance Master said. “You must’ve patched him up well – he didn’t miss a step in rehearsal.”
“He was well-attuned to the water energy, so healing him was no problem.”
The king snorted. “Or maybe he just wasn’t that hurt.”
The two physicians shared an exasperated look. Lin-Tai had heard that the king only came to the Temple seasonally to keep up appearances and appease the High Priestess, who had influence over the peasants. She wondered what the high-strung Alara would have said.
“Darandir,” the king said to the Royal Guard Captain.
“Your Majesty.” the captain snapped to attention.
“Check and see if anyone is missing a sword, then report to me in the library at the castle.”
“Yes, sire.” He strode out, the guards at the door saluting him as he walked by.
“Well, gentlemen, I’ll let you do whatever sort of doctoring things you need to do.” The king exited through the front doors followed by the Royal Guard.
Jalloran helped the physicians lift Jor-Gan’s body on to a stretcher. It was well-known that Temple Physician Rolke had a bad back.
“Shall I help you gentlemen bring him to the infirmary?” asked Jalloran.
“Please,” said Rolke. “I’ll prepare him for the ceremony this evening.”
They left through the other side entrance, and Lin-Tai exhaled.
“That was interesting.” Rial stuck her head out and looked to either side. “I think everyone’s gone. What to do now…?”
Lin-Tai crept around the corner, her senses open, but although she could hear the chanting in the Temple, nothing disturbed them. She peeked into the broom closet, but everything was as it should be except for a dark pool on the floor that she ignored. She’d probably have to clean it up later, but she wasn’t ritually prepared to deal with blood.
“See anything?” asked Rial.
“No, just… No.”
“Good. Then let’s go spy on my father in the palace library.”
Rial led Lin-Tai through the side exit and down the sandstone steps leading to the royal residence. The Coral Temple itself sat at the crest of the bluff, but the Coral Palace still had a nice view of the water to one side and the town to the other. Instead of ascending to the royal chambers when they entered the palace, Rial took Lin-Tai through the kitchen and storage rooms and up a narrow staircase to the main floor, where they walked down a dark wood-paneled hallway.
“This way, no one sees us,” the princess whispered.
Lin-Tai heard men’s voices and realized that they must be close. Rial tucked her robe around her and lifted a tapestry away from the wall. She squeezed into a two-foot gap that turned into a narrow hallway and ended at a wooden panel.
Rial’s breath tickled her ear. “This is a spy hole that I discovered on our last visit here. The servants in the old days would use it to see when the king wanted refreshment so they could anticipate his needs. No one uses it now except for me – none of the adults can fit.”
Lin-Tai reflected that she would probably fit even as an adult, but her frame was narrower than that of the princess, whose womanly figure was just coming into evidence. They pressed their ears to the panel and listened.
“Sit down, Jalloran.” the king said. “You’re not going to solve this mess by pacing like a lion.”
“I can’t help it, Your Majesty.” The sound of a body plopping into a wooden chair. “One of my best dancers has been murdered. Plus, I think I just heard something on the other side of that bookcase.”
“This place has mice in the walls. They chew the corners of the books when we’re not here. You know, if you get tired of that dance master position, I have one for you back in the Royal Guard.”
Lin-Tai raised her eyebrows. She hadn’t known that Jalloran had been in the military. He did he seem friendly with the King.
“You honor me with your invitation, but I could never return after being dismissed in disgrace, even if my name was cleared later. Besides, I’m woefully out of practice with the sword.”
“There’s brawn, and there’s brains. You’ve got the brains, Jalloran, and I need good captains.”
The door scraped open, and Jalloran said, “Ah, here’s Jor-Gan’s roommate. Dal-Gan, please have a seat.”
Another body sat in a chair. This time the straw inside the cushion crunched more stiffly. She pictured Dal-Gan turning pale under his crop of reddish hair when faced with the scrutiny of the King and Dance Master. Like Jor-Gan, he was a junior dancer and senior acolyte.
The king didn’t waste time. “When was the last time you saw Jor-Gan alive?”
Dal-Gan’s voice quivered. “He’s really dead, then? I hoped it was a rumor.” A deep sigh. “I last saw him just after rehearsal today when the Dance Master sent him to fetch the broom-Tai.”
“And not after?”
“No, Your Highness.”
“Did you know of anyone who might wish to hurt him?” asked Jalloran.
“What about his fall last week, when he visited the infirmary?”
“He said he just fell, but he was coming from the Girls’ Quarters. Maybe one of them got jealous and tripped him.”
“Is this something he did often?”
“Dal-Gan,” Jalloran coaxed, “we need to know these things so we can figure out who killed him.”
“He would go up once a week to talk with Thea-Gan.”
“Who is that?” asked the king.
“Another one of the dancers,” Jalloran replied. “She and Jor-Gan had danced as a couple, but any relations beyond the dance are forbidden.”
The king chuckled. “Young people will be young people.”
“So, did Jor-Gan and Thea-Gan have a relationship?”
Dal-Gan hesitated, but finally murmured, “Yes.”
Lin-Tai, pressed against Rial in that tight little space, could feel the princess’ heart rate speed up, and a warm tear plopped on top of her head.
“I didn’t know he had a girlfriend,” Rial whispered. “Did you?”
Lin-Tai shook her head. She wondered if Rial had known and had gotten jealous. Or maybe the other girl had. The two men in the library seemed to feel the same, for they then summoned Thea-Gan.
“How long have you been a Senior acolyte?” asked the King once she arrived.
“I ascended from Tai to Gan rank last summer, Your Majesty.”
“And how long did you know Jor-Gan?”
“Hmmm… I’ve known him for a few years now. We came to the Temple the same year.”
“How long did you have a relationship with him?” asked Jalloran.
“What?” The thump of a fist meeting a chair arm. “Who told you?”
“Well, now that we’ve confirmed it,” the King said, “would you answer the question?”
“We’ve been seeing each other for about a year. Yes, regularly.” Lin-Tai pictured Thea-Gan narrowing her eyes and crossing her arms, as she often did with the junior acolytes. “The only times we wouldn’t see each other were when the Royal Family came. Then Jor-Gan would disappear.”
“That’s all, Thea-Gan,” said Jalloran. “Spend the rest of the day in your room.”
“May I at least dance at the ceremony for him?” Now the tears came through in her voice.
“Yes. You are dismissed.”
“Well, it sounds like we’d better get my daughter in here,” said the King.
Rial and Lin-Tai tiptoed as fast as they could out of the spy hole, and Rial brought them to her rooms. They had just plopped on a chaise lounge when the Royal Guardsman came to get them. He raised his eyebrows, and Lin-Tai realized that both of them had smudged robes and likely dirty cheeks from where they’d had them pressed to the wood panel. Rial looked at her and smiled.
“Just you, Your Highness,” the guard said when they both got up.
“I’m not going anywhere without my friend.”
Lin-Tai shook her head. “That’s all right, Princess, I can stay behind.”
“No, we’re in this together.”
Lin-Tai hoped the princess would believe so if things turned ugly, but she had no reason to doubt the girl’s integrity. If anything, she identified with her inquisitive nature. And Lin-Tai knew what it was like to be too curious for one’s own good.
When they reached the door, the guard in front of them motioned for them to stop. “The High Priestess is in there,” he said. “Wait just a moment.”
They stood in the hallway, and Rial nudged Lin-Tai closer to the crack in the door, where they could make out the hysterical voice of the High Priestess. The guard looked at them sideways but didn’t seem to want to reprimand the princess.
“No, I didn’t hear anything,” Alara said. “I was doing my morning prayers with the Vestals.”
“The acolyte’s scream brought practically the whole Temple to the vestibule, and you didn’t hear anything?”
“I was in a deep trance, Jalloran.”
“Or still asleep, and you snuck in the back of the Temple with your lazy Vestals when you heard the commotion because you knew you’d look bad.”
A chair crashed backwards – had the high priestess jumped to her feet in indignation? “I do not have to stay here for this. Let me know when you find the killer. My acolytes are nervous, and I don’t know how that will affect the cadet initiation tomorrow.”
Lin-Tai looked at the floor as the High Priestess burst from the library. Did that woman ever open a door normally? But she knew that she hadn’t heard any prayers that morning or even sensed any of the energy that should have accompanied them, so she suspected that Jalloran’s accusations were true.
“Come in, Rial,” the King called.
Rial moved into the library, her hand tightly around Lin-Tai’s. “I’m not saying anything without her here.”
“Oh, for goddess’ sake, Rial.” The King gestured to Jalloran. “No one’s accusing you of anything.”
“But you think I might have had an inappropriate relationship with him.”
Lin-Tai closed her eyes. Why didn’t the princess just come out and tell the men that they’d been eavesdropping? She’d practically just confessed to it.
“And how would you know that?” Jalloran stood and turned Lin-Tai’s face so her cheek and ear caught the light. “It looks like the mice we heard in the walls weren’t mice, after all.”
The King sighed. “This place is riddled with spy alcoves and holes. I thought the Royal Guard had sealed all of them. Now about you and this senior acolyte, Rial…” His voice faded, and Lin-Tai saw the room in negative colors.
Murderer, murderer, murderer! her inner sense told her, and she pulled away from Jalloran and out of the princess’ grasp. She saw the sword go into Jor-Gan’s back again, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t manipulate the vision to see who had done it.
“Lin-Tai?” Rial’s voice was tinged with panic. “What is it?”
“I saw the killer’s hand for a moment,” Lin-Tai whispered and shook her head to clear it. “But I couldn’t see the rest of him or her.”
“It seems that this acolyte has more ability than our High Priestess,” said the King.
Jalloran shot him a sharp look. “Is that true, Lin-Tai? That you have visions?”
She nodded and looked at the floor. “I do, Master. That’s why I’m here – they would come on at home, and the others in the village thought I was a witch because I knew things I shouldn’t.”
“But you couldn’t see the murderer. Interesting.” The King leaned back and steepled his fingers.
“What are you thinking, Your Highness?” asked Jalloran.
“The mind is a funny thing, Lin-Tai.”
Her eyes widened when she realized the king was speaking to her. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
“If your mind isn’t allowing you to see something, that’s because it doesn’t make sense to you for some reason. There’s a conflicting piece of information it can’t reconcile, which means you need more information.”
“We can’t let these two participate in our investigation,” Jalloran said. “It’s not safe.”
“We can ask questions,” Rial told her father. “The acolytes and dancers will be more likely to be open with us than with you.”
The king inclined his head. “You make a good point, daughter. What harm can come from them questioning the others?”
“Very well.” Jalloran frowned. “But to ensure nothing happens, I’ll have my son Lars-Gan accompany them.”
Someone knocked on the door, and Royal Guard Captain Darandir entered. He saluted the king.
“You may speak.”
“All of the men have their swords, but one of the cadet swords for the ceremony tomorrow is missing.”
“And how easy is it to get access to those swords?” asked the King.
“Not too easy, Your Majesty, but if someone wanted to badly enough, they could.”
“What is the weight of those swords?” asked Jalloran. “It’s been so long I don’t remember.”
“About three quarters of a full Guard sword.”
“You’ll need to correct this lack of security immediately. You are dismissed.”
Darandir saluted again and left.
“I thought that sword felt light. That means it’s not impossible for a woman to have been the killer.” the King turned to Jalloran. “You see what I mean by needing brains?”
“I’m beginning to, but I don’t feel my destiny is back in the Royal Guard, as much as you honor me by your invitation.”
“Ah, too bad. As for our two mice, get cleaned up and have lunch, then see what you can find out by talking to the acolytes. Lin-Tai, as a junior acolyte, you should be invisible among the older ones and can eavesdrop.” And then with a sigh, “Rial, we know you get along with the boys. See if anyone will tell you anything useful.”
“I’ll let Lars-Gan know that he is to watch out for the two of you,” Jalloran added.
Lin-Tai nodded. She hadn’t seen much of Lars-Gan aside from the sunrise ceremonies and when he would take over the classes when his father was needed elsewhere.
“And Rial,” the King said, “No more spying through the walls. And for goddess’ sake, no more kissing in the temple.”
“Yes, Father,” said the Princess. Lin-Tai bowed deeply and followed Rial back to the Princess’ quarters. Soon robes and lunch had arrived for both of them. With clean clothes and faces and full stomachs, they conversed with the acolytes, who had all been dismissed from afternoon activities to support each other after the loss of one of their own.
By the time the sun lengthened the shadows on the beach, Lin-Tai and Rial hadn’t found out anything interesting, although there was a lot of speculation. Wild theories abounded including that the High Priestess was involved. She wasn’t well-loved among the acolytes, who were often called upon to serve her when she didn’t want to bother her lazy Vestals. It was also well-known that she often slept through the early prayer time, although there hadn’t been any proof until that morning. Jalloran, Lin-Tai was surprised to hear, was also not popular, and there were rumors that he was about to lose his position as Dance Master because of an old scandal, likely the same one he had alluded to with the king. This was mentioned by Dal-Gan when Lars-Gan was distracted talking to the female dancers.
Lin-Tai had kept a close watch on the princess, and although the facts fit – she had a jealousy motive, she could have gotten the sword, the weapon was light enough for a female to handle, and Lin-Tai had had that vision when the princess was touching her – she just couldn’t be comfortable with the idea of Rial as a murderer. First, the girl likely would have slipped and said something. Second, her sadness showed on her face at times during the day and when they were called to prepare for the soul-singing ceremony.
As a junior acolyte, Lin-Tai’s job for the ceremony was to chant along with prayers and keep the candle she held from blowing out in the stiff breeze from the sea. She didn’t know the funerary prayers yet, so she hummed along with the melodies and followed the line as it processed into the Temple from the beach, mimicking the path of the sun. The air smelled like tears, and even the features of the Temple façade were lost in the gloom with the setting sun behind it. She thought of Jor-Gan, how he’d looked so strong and invincible that morning on the beach, and how a day that had started with such joy for her had turned so sorrowful. She focused on the candle, and everything clicked into place in her mind.
The Temple façade was blurred because of the light behind it.
Jalloran’s face had never been clear to her that morning, and Lars-Gan looked a lot like his father.
Jalloran had been in the military. He would have known where the swords were and how to inflict a fatal wound without the victim crying out.
He had confronted the High Priestess about her laxity, and it was likely he had planted the seed of doubt in the minds of the acolytes.
Jor-Gan had broken the rules, and although he’d only been caught after death, it made Jalloran, who had been dismissed from the Guard under suspicious circumstances, look bad. It also made it easy for the Dance Master to frame and punish Thea-Gan, the other offender.
Because he was on the beach every morning, Jalloran could have watched her and known when the vestibule would be empty and unguarded, and it was likely he knew just what she’d do, ensuring the body would be discovered early and enhance Alara’s appearance of incompetence.
Lin-Tai shook her head. She was grasping at phantoms. There was only one way she could be sure her theory was true and to have more than circumstantial evidence and visions, which could easily be discounted. But why would Jalloran risk everything and expose himself? What if he were next in line to be High Priest, which was possible since Alara was his sister? As High Priest, he would be untouchable for previous offenses in the secular world because he would be seen as Goddess-chosen.
Legend had it that when a new High Priest or Priestess ascended to the Temple throne, the Goddess wrote the name of his or her successor on a scroll kept in a locked room at the bottom of the Temple, forbidden to all but the High Priest or Priestess and the King. That way, discontented but powerful citizens would be prevented from “helping” the succession along in return for political favors and influence among the peasants.
She needed to see that scroll.
As the newest acolyte, Lin-Tai was last in line in the procession. She blew out her candle when she passed through the temple doors and motioned to it when a senior acolyte gestured for her to proceed into the sanctuary.
“Just re-light it off someone else’s!” he said.
“It won’t. I think there’s something wrong with it. I’ll duck down to storage and get another one.”
“Fine, but hurry.”
Lin-Tai darted down the stairs next to the broom closet and re-lit her candle from one of the torches in a wall sconce. She used its light to guide her down to the catacombs, where Jor-Gan would eventually be buried after his family came and said goodbye. Tears threatened her eyes, but she bit her lip and fought them back. She only had a certain amount of time. She focused on her candle flame and imagined what she wanted: the succession scrolls. It illuminated a familiar object in the corner, a broom. She grabbed the broom, holding it in her left hand with the candle, and pulled one of the straws from the bottom, holding it like a dowsing rod.
“Who says country magic doesn’t work?” She again focused on the scrolls. The straw held loosely in her right hand swayed, and she followed its implied directions to a locked wooden door with thick metal studs in it. She added a country expletive to the magic. Her foot nudged something on the floor that clinked, and she saw a pair of narrow metal files used to scrape wax drippings from altars and around candles. She used those to pick the lock and let herself into the room.
Scrolls lined the walls in dusty shelves, but the ones she wanted were on an altar at the far end of the room. A statue of the three-faced Goddess stood over them, and Lin-Tai knelt before her to ask permission for the transgression she was about to commit.
“The blood of the innocent cries out,” came the response clearly in Lin-Tai’s head in a voice that was neither masculine nor feminine. “The one who was under my protection has forfeited it by murder. But violence begets violence, Little One, be warned.” Lin-Tai saw the murder then from start to finish, how Jalloran had instructed Jor-Gan to fetch Lin-Tai and then had told his son to stay on the beach in his stead. He had walked up to the Temple behind the apprentices and slipped inside behind Jor-Gan and the princess, picking up the sword from where he’d hidden it and waiting for the Princess to leave before stabbing Jor-Gan from behind.
Lin-Tai didn’t have to look at the Temple Succession Scroll to know whose name would be in it. She tucked it into her robe and turned to leave, but saw that she wasn’t alone.
Jalloran stood in the door and watched her, short sword in hand.
“I can’t let you leave with that,” he said. “It’s against Temple protocol.”
Lin-Tai clutched her broom and candle, one in each hand. “It’s over, Master Jalloran. You’ve spilled enough blood today.”
“I think not.” Jalloran crossed the room, and every time Lin-Tai tried to dart around him, he blocked her. He backed her up against the altar, and she leaned back to avoid the point of the sword.
“Dance,” something whispered to her. She didn’t have time to think, just held the broom in both hands as she had that morning and twirled. The candle blew out, and she struck something hard – the sword? – with the broom handle, and whatever it was clattered away. Jalloran cursed, and she ducked past him and ran for the door, then down the hallway. Without her dowsing rod, she quickly became lost in the maze-like catacombs.
“Little acolyte,” Jalloran called. “You could die down here, alone in the dark. Why don’t you give me what you’ve taken, and I’ll lead you out.”
Lin-Tai remained silent and stilled her breathing. She closed her eyes and prayed to the three-faced Goddess to lead her out. The broom in her hand gave a tug, and although it was dark, she followed it through various twists and turns. It did not lead her back to the Temple, but rather through a passage that smelled like damp earth, and she heard the roar of water. She emerged at the beach under the Coral Palace from a drain pipe that had long been dry.
With a prayer of thanks, she ran up to the palace and knocked on the door. The Royal Guardsman who had fetched her and the princess earlier let her in.
“I need to speak with the King,” she said.
“He is in a meeting with the Royal Captain,” the man said.
“Please tell him he was right, and I have the information I lacked. He will understand. By the Three-Faced Goddess, please!”
After what felt like an hour, but which was really a few long breaths, she was shown in to see the King.
“And what is it you bring me? A broom?” The king laughed, and she leaned the broom against the door post. “I hear you have information for me.”
“The murderer is Jalloran,” she said.
The King’s smile disappeared. “Jalloran? Do you understand the weight of your accusation, little acolyte?”
“I had a vision, but I’d figured it out for myself first. You were right – I couldn’t see him in my vision because I was convinced I’d been talking to him at the time of the murder. I later realized I hadn’t seen him clearly because of the sun behind him, and I’d been talking to his son.”
“Why would he kill one of his own dancers?”
“Because he wanted to expose Alara as a fraud, so what better than to have a murder and its discovery right outside where she was supposed to be praying so she’d be found out when she didn’t emerge to see what was going on?”
“And that would be to his advantage because…?”
“He wants to be the High Priest.” Lin-Tai pulled the scroll out of her robe. “This is the succession scroll. He’s next in line, and he needs protection from the scandal that’s about to erupt. That’s why you offered to let him back in the Guard, wasn’t it, Your Majesty? To let him make things right?”
Now the king’s eyebrows threatened to crawl into his hairline. “I’ve only seen this once, as a young man when it was time for a new High Priestess to ascend. How did you get it?”
“By the will of the Goddess. She said that he had forfeited her protection by spilling innocent blood, and she warned me that violence begets violence.”
“She spoke to you.” The king sat back in his chair, his face pale. “Do you know how long it’s been since the Goddess spoke to anyone in the Temple, acolyte or priest? They’ve all been frauds since, in my opinion.”
“I do not, Your Highness, but I do know he killed Jor-Gan.”
The doors to the library burst open, but this time it was Jalloran. Lin-Tai winced when the broom clattered to the floor.
“Don’t believe a word she says, Your Highness! She’s mad.”
“No, she’s not.” Rial followed him into the room. Lin-Tai blushed when she remembered how she’d suspected the princess for Jor-Gan’s murder.
“I have the succession scroll, Jalloran,” the king said. “Everything fits into place now.”
Jalloran grabbed Rial and held the sword to her throat. “Then I’ll just take her.” He started backing out of the room.
“No!” The King stood, one arm outstretched. “Leave her alone. Take me instead.”
“A slight girl is easier to handle than a grown man. I’ll send her back unharmed if everyone cooperates.”
Jalloran stumbled over the fallen broom. The princess used his disrupted balance to push his sword arm away from her. Two burly Royal Guardsmen pinned him, and Rial ran into her father’s arms.
“Throw him in the dungeon.” He looked at Rial. “Are you all right, dear daughter?”
“I’m fine, Father.” She gestured to Lin-Tai. “Are you all right?”
“I think so.” Lin-Tai plopped into the chair a Guardsman placed behind her. She knew she shouldn’t sit until invited to, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. “It’s been a strange day, Your Highness, Princess.”
“It’s only going to get stranger,” said Rial. “During the ceremony for Jor-Gan, Alara had a fit and is still unconscious. I was coming to tell you, Father, so you could get the succession scroll. The Temple Physician says she may not last the night.”
“Jalloran is her successor,” the King said. “Or was. He forfeited his right of ascension when he killed the acolyte. It’s ironic he didn’t wait.” He glanced at the scroll, and his eyes grew wide. “We need a new High Priestess, and as I said, it has been generations since the Goddess has spoken or since the High Priest or Priestess has demonstrated a talent for vision.”
“Oh, Lin-Tai, look!” Rial said and pointed to where the scroll lay open on the table. Faded script that grew darker by the second appeared beneath Jalloran’s name: Linora.
Lin-Tai blinked, but the ink didn’t fade as her visions would. “I can’t be the High Priestess! I’m only a junior acolyte.”
“It is the will of the goddess,” said the King. “Do you accept?”
Lin-Tai stood and bowed to the king. “I accept.” With a shriek, Rial ran to her side. Lin-Tai and hugged her friend, whom she would never doubt again.
High Priestess-elect Linora felt the energies of air, water, earth, fire, and spirit wash over her, and when she closed her eyes, visions crowded around her. One, of Jor-Gan dancing in the moonlit surf, brought tears to her eyes. He turned, bowed to her, and said, “Thank you” before fading into the waves.
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