The funeral pyre caught with a whoosh, lighting the night sky and shadowing the faces of the thousands gathered to witness the Burning. Smoke, scented with fragrant oils to disguise the smell of burning flesh, hung in the warm, still air, as if reluctant to leave the ceremony. The spectators were silent as the hungry flames licked the oil-soaked pyre, reaching for Trayla’s corpse. The death of the First Sister had drawn almost every inhabitant of the Citadel to the amphitheatre.
R’shiel Tenragan caught the Lord Defender’s eye as she pushed her way through the green tunics of the senior Novices to take her place past the ranks of blue-gowned Sisters and grey-robed Probates. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked up. The Mistress of the Sisterhood would have her hide if he reported she’d been late. She met the Lord Defender’s gaze defiantly, before turning her eyes to the pyre.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw the Lord Defender take an involuntarily step backwards as the flames seared his time-battered face. Surreptitiously, she glanced at the ranks of women and girls who stood in a solemn circle around the pyre. Their faces were unreadable in the firelight. For the most part they were still, their heads bowed respectfully. Occasionally, a foot shuffled on the sandy floor of the arena. How many were genuinely grieving, she mused, and how many more had their minds on the Quorum, and who would fill the vacancy?
R’shiel knew the political manoeuvring had begun the moment Trayla had been found in her study, the knife of her assailant still buried in her breast. Her killer was barely out of his teens. He was waiting even now in the cells behind the Defenders’ Headquarters to be hanged. Rumour had it that he was a disciple of the River Goddess, Maera. The Sisterhood had confiscated his family’s boat — and with it, their livelihood — for the crime of worshipping a heathen god.
He had come to the Citadel to save his family from starvation, he claimed, to beg the First Sister for mercy. He had killed her instead.
What had Trayla said to the boy, R’shiel wondered? What would cause him to pull a knife on the First Sister — a daunting figure to an uneducated river-brat? Surely he must have known his plea would fall on deaf ears? Pagan worship had been outlawed in Medalon for two centuries. The Harshini were extinct and with them their demons and their gods. If he wanted mercy, he should have migrated south, she thought unsympathetically. They still believed in the heathen gods in Hythria and Fardohnya, R’shiel knew, and the whole of Karien to the north was fanatically devoted to the worship of a single god, but in Medalon they had progressed beyond pagan ignorance centuries ago.
A voice broke the silence. R’shiel glanced through the firelight at the old women who spoke.
"Since our beloved Param led us to enlightenment, the Sisters of the Blade have carried on her solemn trust to free Medalon from the chains of heathen idolatry. As First Sister, Trayla honoured that trust. She gave her life for it. Now we honour Trayla. Let us remember our Sister."
She joined the thousands of voices repeating the ritual phrase. It was uncomfortably warm this close to the pyre on such a balmy summer’s eve and her high-necked grey tunic was damp with sweat.
"Let us remember our Sister."
Small and wrinkled, Francil Asharen was the oldest member of the Quorum and had presided over this ceremony twice before. She was Mistress of the Citadel, the civilian administrator of this vast city-complex. Twice before she had refused to be nominated as First Sister and R’shiel could think of no reason that would change her mind this time. She had no ambition beyond her current position.
Harith Nortarn, the tall, heavily-built Mistress of the Sisterhood, stood beside her. R’shiel grimaced inwardly. The woman was a harridan and her beautifully embroidered white silk gown did nothing to soften her demeanour. Generations of Novices, Probates, and even fully qualified Blue Sisters lived in fear of incurring her wrath. Even the other Quorum members avoided upsetting her.
R’shiel turned her attention to the small, plump woman who stood at Harith’s shoulder: Mahina Cortanen. The Mistress of Enlightenment. Her gown was as elaborate as Harith’s — soft white silk edged with delicate gold embroidery — but she still managed to look like a peasant in a borrowed dress. She was R’shiel’s personal favourite of all the Quorum members, her own mother included. Mahina was only a little taller than Francil, and wore a stern, but thoughtful expression.
Next to Mahina, Joyhinia Tenragan wore exactly the right expression of grief and quiet dignity for the occasion. Her mother was the newest member of the Quorum and, R’shiel fervently hoped, the least likely to be elected as the new First Sister. Although each member of the Quorum held equal rank, the Mistress of the Interior controlled the day-to-day running of the nation, because she was responsible for the Administrators in every major town in Medalon. It was a position of great responsibility and traditionally seen as a stepping-stone to gaining the First Sister’s mantle.
R’shiel watched her thoughtfully then glanced at the man who was supposed to be her father. Joyhinia and Lord Jenga were coldly polite toward each other — and had been for as long as R’shiel could remember. He was a tall, solid man with iron-grey hair, but he was always unfailingly polite to her and had never, to her knowledge, denied he was her father. Considering the frost that seemed to gather in the air between her mother and the Lord Defender whenever they were close, R’shiel could not imagine how they had ever been warm enough toward each other to conceive a child.
The fire reached upward, licking at Trayla’s white robe. R’shiel wondered for a moment if the fragrant oils had been enough. Would the smell of the First Sister’s crisping flesh sicken the gathered Sisters? Probably not, she noted darkly.
Behind the members of the Quorum and the blue-gowned ranks of the Sisters, the Probates and Novices were ranked around the floor of the amphitheatre, their eyes wide as they witnessed their first public Burning. Some of them looked a little pale, even in the ruby light of the funeral pyre, but tomorrow they would cheer themselves hoarse with glee when the young assassin was publicly hanged. Hypocrites, she thought, stifling a disrespectful yawn.
The vigil over the First Sister continued through the night. The silence was unsettling. Another yawn threatened to undo her, so R’shiel turned her attention to the first ten ranks of the seating surrounding the Arena. They were filled by red-coated Defenders who stood to attention throughout the long watch. Lord Jenga had not spared them a glance all night. He did not have to. They were Defenders. There was no shuffling of feet numbed by standing all night. No bored expressions or hidden yawns. She envied their discipline.
As the night progressed, the crowd in the upper levels of the tiered seating gradually thinned. The civilians who lived at the Citadel had jobs to do and other places to be. They could not afford the luxury of an all-night vigil. In the morning, the Sisters, Probates and Novices would still expect to be waited on. Life went on in the Citadel, regardless of who lived or died.
The night dragged on in silence until the first tentative rays of daylight announced the next and most anxiously awaited part of the ceremony.
As a faint luminescence softened the darkness, Francil raised her head. "Let us remember our Sister!"
"Let us remember our Sister," the gathered Sisters, Probates, Novices and Defenders echoed in a monotone. Every one of them was tired. They were beyond being reverent and wished only that the ceremony were over.
"Let us move forward toward a new future," Francil called. "Let us move forward toward a new future," R’shiel repeated, this time with slightly more interest. Finally, the time had come to announce Trayla’s successor, a decision that affected every citizen in Medalon.
"Hail the First Sister, Mahina Cortanen!"
"Hail the First Sister, Mahina Cortanen!" the crowd chanted.
R’shiel gasped with astonishment as Mahina stood forward to accept the dutiful, if rather tired, cheers of the gathering. She could not believe it. What political scheming and double-dealing had the others indulged in? How, with all their intrigues and plotting had the Quorum actually elected someone capable of doing the job well? R’shiel had to stop herself from laughing out loud.
As the cheers subsided, Mahina turned to Jenga. "My Lord Defender, will you swear the allegiance of the Defenders to me?"
"Gladly, your Grace," Jenga replied.
He unsheathed his sword and stepped forward, laying the polished blade on the sandy ground at the feet of the new First Sister. He bent one knee and waited for the senior officers down on the arena floor to follow suit. The Defenders up in the stands placed clenched fists over their hearts as Jenga’s voice rang out in the silent arena.
"By the blood in my veins and the soil of Medalon, I swear that the Defenders are yours to command, First Sister, until my death or yours."
A loud, deep-throated cheer went up from the Defenders. Jenga rose to his feet and met Mahina’s eyes. R’shiel watched her accept the accolade. Never had a woman looked less like a First Sister.
Mahina nodded to Jenga, thanking him silently, then turned to the gathering and opened her arms wide.
"I declare a day of rest," she announced, her first proclamation as First Sister. Her voice sounded rasping and dry after the warm night standing before a blazing bonfire. "A day to contemplate the life of our beloved Trayla. A day to witness the execution of her murderer. Tomorrow, we will begin the next chapter of the Sisterhood. Today we rest."
Another tired cheer greeted her announcement. With her dismissal, the ranks of the Sisterhood dissolved as the women turned with relief toward the tunnel that led out of the arena to make their way home. They muttered quietly among themselves, no doubt as surprised as R’shiel was to learn the identity of the new First Sister. The Defenders still did not move, would not move, until every Sister had left the arena. Mahina led the exodus. R’shiel studied Joyhinia and the other members of the Quorum, but they gave no hint of their true feelings.
The sky was considerably lighter as the last green-skirted Novice disappeared down the tunnel and Jenga finally dismissed his men. R’shiel waited for the others to leave, hoping for a moment alone with the Lord Defender. The pyre collapsed in on itself with a sharp crack and a shower of sparks as the Defenders broke ranks with relief. Many simply sat down. Many more flexed stiff knees and rubbed aching backs. Jenga beckoned two of his captains to him. The men rose stiffly, but saluted sharply enough for the Foundation Day Parade.
"Georj, keep some men here and keep the pyre burning until it is nothing but ashes," he ordered the younger of the two wearily.
"And the ashes, my Lord?" Georj asked. "Rake them into the sand," he said with a shrug. "They mean nothing now." He turned to the older captain. "Tell the men they may only rest once their mounts are fed and taken care of, Nheal. And then call for volunteers for the hanging guard. I’ll need ten men."
"For this hanging guard you’ll get more than ten volunteers," Nheal predicted.
"Then pick the sensible ones," Jenga suggested, impatiently. "This is a hanging, Captain, not a carnival."
"My lord," the captain replied, saluting with a clenched fist over his heart. He hesitated a moment longer then added tentatively, "Interesting choice for First Sister, don’t you think, my lord?"
"I don’t think, Captain," Jenga told him stiffly. "And neither should you." He frowned, daring the younger man to laugh at his rather asinine comment. "I am sure First Sister Mahina will be a wise and fair leader."
R’shiel saw through his polite words. Jenga was obviously delighted by Mahina’s appointment. That augured well for what she had in mind.
"The expression ‘about bloody time’ leaps to mind, actually," Nheal remarked, almost too softly for R’shiel to make it out.
"Don’t overstep yourself, Captain," Jenga warned. "It is not your place to comment on the decisions of the Sisterhood. And you might like to tell your brother captains not to overindulge in the taverns tonight. Remember, until tomorrow, we are still in mourning."
"My Lord!" Jenga turned from the pile of embers, and noticed R’shiel for the first time. As day broke fully over the amphitheatre, bringing with it a hint of the summer heat to come, he walked stiffly toward the exit tunnel where she was standing.
"Lord Jenga?" she ventured as he approached.
"Shouldn’t you return to your quarters, R’shiel?" Jenga asked gruffly.
"I wanted to ask you something."
Jenga glanced over his shoulder to ensure his orders were being carried out, then nodded. R’shiel fell into step beside him as they entered the cool darkness of the tunnel that led under the amphitheatre.
"What will happen now, Lord Jenga?"
"The appointment of a new First Sister always heralds a change of direction, R’shiel, even if only a small one."
"Mother says Trayla was an unimaginative leader, lacking in initiative. Actually, she used to refer to her as ‘that useless southern cow’."
"You, of all people, should know better than to repeat that sort of gossip, R’shiel."
She smiled faintly at his tone. "And what about Mahina? Joyhinia calls her an idealistic fool."
"Sister Mahina has my respect, as do all the Sisters of the Blade."
"Do you think her elevation means a change in the thinking of the Sisterhood?"
The Lord Defender stopped and looked at her, obviously annoyed by her question. "R’shiel, you said you wanted to ask me something. Ask it or leave. I do not want to stand here discussing politics and idle gossip with you."
"I want to know what happens now," she said.
"I will be called on to witness the Spear of the First Sister swear fealty to Mahina. It will undoubtedly be Lord Draco."
"He’s supposed to be the First Sister’s bodyguard," R’shiel pointed out. "Yet Trayla died at the hand of an assassin."
"The position of First Spear is a very difficult one to fill - the oath of celibacy it requires tends to discourage many applicants."
"So he gets to keep his job? Even though he did not do it?"
Jenga’s patience was rapidly fading. "Draco was absent at the time, R’shiel. Trayla fancied she was able to deal with a miserable pagan youth and ordered him out of the office. Now, is that all you wanted?"
d"No. I was just curious, that’s all."
"Then be specific, child. I have other business to attend to. I have an assassin to hang, letters to write and orders to issue ..."
"And banished officers who offended Trayla to recall?" she suggested hopefully.
Jenga shook his head. "I can’t revoke the First Sister’s orders, R’shiel."
"The First Sister is dead."
"That doesn’t mean I can rearrange the world to my liking."
"But it does mean you can rearrange the Defenders," R’shiel reminded him. She turned on her best, winning smile. "Please, Lord Jenga. Bring Tarja home."