There was only a small patch of blue sky visible above the inner courtyard of the palace in Mesreth. Seserakh leaned back in her chair and tried to keep it in view through the shifting clouds of steam.
It was a month before the spring sacrifice, and she was being fitted for new clothes. Not for the sacrifice itself, which was a grim, solemn affair, with the dragons crawling up one by one in a silent, eerie line to drink the blood and eat the holy fire. Seserakh didn't like to watch, although it was better now that her father had made them substitute a goat for the human girl.
But the time before that, while the people gathered and waited for the dragons to come, that was a festival. Everyone met under a sacred truce, for it was taboo to attack anyone coming or going on religious business, and that made it the only time that all the people of the western desert could gather together in one place. For a few short days all the blood feuds and rivalries were suspended and no one tried to kill anyone, except for the poor girl who they used to feed to the dragons.
The priests would put on holy plays, and there was music and dancing, and races on horseback and on foot. People went around hawking kebabs and sweetmeats, and all the merchants of Mesreth laid out blankets covered with their wares: toys and jewelry and metalwork. Everyone wore their best clothes, and the ladies looked like a giant field of desert poppies in their red veils and their round, wide-brimmed hats.
But the main thing people did at the spring festival was visit their relatives, since it was much easier to travel from campsite to campsite in the valley below the Place of Sacrifice than it was to travel from village to village during the rest of the year. Since her father was the king and the head of his lineage, their family stayed in front of their tent while all the aunts and uncles and cousins came by to visit them. For each cousin who stopped by, the ritual greetings had to be exchanged, and the ritual blessings had to be said, and a fresh pot of tea had to be brewed, and a new tray of savory meats and pastries had to be brought out, and then all the gossip of the year had to be shared and laughed about and tsked over. With so much to do no one was watching the children.
It was very easy to steal pastries off the trays and stuff yourself until you felt sick, and then slip away to watch the races or the holy plays or join in the dancing. For most of the year, Seserakh's world was bounded by the tall cedar door inlaid with opal and emerald that marked the border between the inner rooms, where the women and children lived, and the outer rooms, where the men conducted their business and her father held his war councils. There was no privacy in the inner rooms. There was always someone watching her, her mother or her aunts or their bondwomen. There was always someone telling her not to run, not to climb onto the roof, not to be greedy at the table, not to be so careless with her spinning, not to fidget, not to speak out of turn. “Be still!” She heard it so often she was starting to answer to it as though it were her name.
But at the winter festival they forgot about her, and for a few blissful days she could be as free as her brothers. For as long as she could remember, it had been the highlight of her year.
And then, yesterday, she had turned fourteen.
Last night it had seemed like a game. They had slipped out of the palace in the darkness, all the women together, laughing a little at the strange furtive secrecy of it, bringing as their escort only the old eunuch who guarded the door to the inner rooms. No man could accompany them on this night and no man needed to, for on this journey they needed no guards. Any who interrupted them in their task would call down upon themselves the curse of the Dark Ones. They traveled on religious business and the taboo held.
So they went through the darkened streets in a little knot with Seserakh in the center until they brought her to the sacred hill where the women of Mesreth conducted their rites of passage. At first she was still inclined to giggle, for it was very odd to see her stately mother and the nagging aunts and her older cousins and all the bondwomen standing around an empty hilltop in the dark, carrying strange objects and reciting ritual words that had long since lost their meaning. But since they mounted the hill the women had become very serious, and their seriousness made her serious and transformed her giddiness into awe, so that she came back to her bed feeling that she had indeed passed through some great barrier, and been made holy.
It had not occurred to her last night that it was the last time she would leave the inner rooms without a veil.
Like every girl of noble birth on Hur-at-Hur, Seserakh had known all her life that she would put on the feyag when she became a woman. That too was a rite of passage, one which held a fascination for them from the time they were small. Little girls would play at veiling by draping a bed sheet over their heads, or run up behind their mothers and wrap themselves in the delicate fabric. As they grew older they would whisper about it to each other: what must it be like to see the whole outside world through a crimson screen?
Sometimes Seserakh would wait until the women had all gathered in the courtyard or in the weaving rooms, and then slip back into her mother's bedroom and take out her feyag. It was kept in a pouch of red felt inside a wooden box of carved cedar, and Seserakh liked to run her fingers over the carvings on the box, or take the feyag out of its pouch and carefully unfold it and hold it up to the light so she could peer through the sheer red fabric. The aunts and cousins had veils of fine-woven linen, but her mother's feyag was made of silk, with golden borders and an embroidered pattern of twining vines picked out in gold thread. It had come as part of her dowry, and it was the finest thing any of them owned.
Her mother would have scolded her if she caught her playing with it, but it would not have occurred to Seserakh to treat it with anything but reverence. It was a special thing, a sacred thing. When she looked through it, the world was tinted red, as if it was bathed in sacred fire. The feyag guarded the boundaries of the world of adults, the border between men and women, between the holy and the profane. One day her mother's veil would pass to Seserakh in her own dowry and she would wear it with honor.
But the romance of that far-off wedding day seemed very distant as she sat in the courtyard and held her head still so the women could fit her with the wide-brimmed hat that would carry her veils. There was a cauldron of water boiling on the hearth to shape the felt, and the whole courtyard was thick with steam and with the acrid scent of the resin they used to stiffen the brim. Seserakh was a woman now, and she was trying be still, to endure with a woman's uncomplaining patience, but the warm, damp felt itched horribly against her forehead and she was choking in the foul-smelling air.
It was a chain they were fitting her for, a collar. Covered in crimson from head to toe, she would never be able to escape their notice again. The days of freedom were over forever. Unexpectedly, she found herself blinking back tears, which might have been from the resin or from the growing lump in her throat.
Her mother had treated her with an uncharacteristic gentleness all day, saving her favorite dumplings for her at breakfast, bringing her down into the storerooms to choose the fabric for her new dress. She saw now that Seserakh was nearing the end of her endurance and intervened.
“Shape it on Kebbe's head,” she said, seizing one of the slave girls by the arm and pushing her forward. “We can adjust it later. Come, Seserakh!”
Before she knew it the awful half-formed hat had been removed and dumped in the arms of an aunt, and she was being pulled to her feet and whisked away from the stench and activity of the courtyard. They went down a flight of steps into the cool quiet of the room that held the cisterns, where they could speak in what passed for privacy in the crowded palace.
Her mother sat down on a sack of potatoes and patted the wine cask beside her, motioning for Seserakh to join her.
“It's not easy to put it on for the first time and think you'll never be able to take it off again. I know.” She smiled ruefully. “I was your age, not so very long ago.”
Seserakh wondered if her mother had ever taken advantage of the chaos of the spring festival to run free. It was difficult to imagine.
“But the feyag is your protection and your shield, my heart. It is the barrier against the greed of men, the jealousy of women. There is great evil in people, and I would not like to see my precious daughter kidnapped or cursed.”
“If it is so wonderful a shield, why don’t men wear it?” Seserakh asked, not insolently but seeking an answer. She wanted to believe her mother, to believe that the veil was something other than a chain to bind her, that in marking out her womanhood it would anchor and protect that holiness she had felt in herself last night. But it had been easy to believe in the sacred fellowship of women in the dark. In the daylight she remembered their scolding, the endless stream of admonitions.
Her mother smiled again, but her eyes were sad. “Men have their swords to protect them. Women have only men, and the feyag.”
“A sword seems safer,” Seserakh said.
There was nothing that could be said to that. Her mother reached over and tucked Seserakh’s hair back behind her ear, as she had when she was small, and after a while they stood up and went back together to the busy courtyard and the ceaseless work of the house.