Ginger-Sun feared her own power.
She was alone inside the RayLight Chamber, a circular room two paces across with stained-glass walls.Afternoon sun hit skylights in the roof far above her, and mirrors reflected the light down to where as it shone, she was safe from her inner darkness.
She served as a priestess for the Dragon-Sun, who blazed in the sky and lit the world. Her people worshipped the day. Her duties in the village of Sky Flames were concerned with offering comfort to her people and carrying out ceremonies in praise of the sun. She could do no magic now. She knew this to be truefor it was the middle of the day.
Her spells worked only at night.
Ginger opened her hand and stared at the fire opal on her palm. Such a dangerous gem. Her grandfather had given her the foursided pyramid on her fifth birthday.Years ago, she had discovered it allowed her to create spells of heat and light. She had never heard of anyone with such abilities. No one knew about her power; she guarded that secret as she would her own life. It would be dangerous enough if her people suspected she could do spells; if they realized she could do them only at night, gods only knew how they would deal with that trespass against her calling to the dragon.
"Ginger-Sun?" a man called, using the honorific that named her as a priestess. "Come quick!"
His urgent tone jolted her.Whoever called couldn't enter here; this chamber was forbidden to all but the priestess. As she opened the door, the rumble of men talking rolled over her.The presence of so many rough voices unsettled Ginger. She felt suddenly conscious of her vulnerability; this building was a ten-minute walk from the village and she lived alone.
Ginger entered the main temple, a large room with a roof of inverted terraces high above her head. A fountain bubbled nearby, fed from the village irrigation system, and a statue of the dragon stood within it, his wings spread. Instead of fire, he breathed water. It rose into the air from his upturned head and cascaded down his
Across the room, five men had gathered by the wall.They wore coarse trousers, shirts and boots encrusted with sand.The sun had weathered their faces, and heavy muscles corded their arms.Tools hung from their belts.They had shovels strapped to their backsand massive axes.
Ginger's pulse leapt.Why did they want her? She took a breath, steeling herself. Her calling required she tend anyone who came to the temple, no matter how threatening. She walked toward them, seeking to appear calm, though sweat dampened her palms. Her bare feet made no sound on the floor. She wore the traditional garb of a priestess, a gold silk wrap that fit her snugly from neck to ankle and constrained the size of her steps.
As she reached the group, a stocky man with gnarled muscles spun around and grasped the handle of the axe sticking up over his shoulder. Ginger gulped, her gaze fixed on the blade as he pulled it above his shoulder.
Then he paused, and the clenched set of his face eased. With a start, she recognized him as Harjan, who had been a friend of her parents before they passed away. Now that she could see the others better, she realized they were miners who worked the ore flats outside the village.They kept watch over the temple,too,for her protection.The relief that washed over her was so intense,it felt visceral.
Harjan lowered his arm."My apology for disturbing your evening, Priestess."
"Are you all right, Jan?" she asked. His pallor worried her. Behind the miners, someone was lying on a stone ledge that jutted out from the wall. A makeshift litter lay on the floor, and blood stained the men's clothes.The miners averted their gazes more than usual when she looked at them.
"Has there been an accident?" she asked.
"Not an accident," Harjan said. "This man was stabbed."
"We didn't want to bring him here, Priestess," another man said with a look of apology. "But only you can do the rites."
Ah, no. They wouldn't have come to her if the man lived; the village had another healer who treated the men. But only Ginger to walk among the dead.
Afraid of what she would find, she walked forward, and the miners moved aside. A large man lay on the shelf. She sat next to in his midthirties, with a square chin and strong nose, but that was all she could see. Bruises covered his face, and deep gashes had gored his torso, his arms, even his legs. Blood soaked his clothes. She pulled away scraps of his shirt and winced as coagulated blood smeared her hand.The ragged pattern of his wounds told a gruesome tale, that he had fought hard against his assailantsand lost the battle.
"Gods," someone muttered. "Why would anyone do this?" A tear ran down Ginger's face."Only the Dragon-Sun can answer that." She couldn't imagine how he could burn in the sky while such a monstrous crime took place below him. "Do any of you know this man?"
"Never seen the poor bastard," another man answered."We don't know what happened."
"I'm sorry we had to show you this," Harjan said.
She looked up at him through a mist of tears. "You were right to bring him."
"Ach, Ginger-Sun." He lifted his hand as if to lay it on her shoulder, offering comfort, but he stopped himself in time, before he touched her.
"Could you bring him to the Sunset Chamber?" Her voice trembled. If she didn't perform the rites before sundown, the man's spirit could be condemned to wander the site of his murder until his killers died. onto the litter and carried it across the temple, past the RayLight Chamber, which no longer glowed now that the sun was too low in the sky.
At the far wall, Ginger opened an arched door with a window at its apex that depicted the setting sun.The floor, walls and ceiling in the chamber beyond were bare stone in the red and ochre hues of the desert, a stark but fitting memorial to those who lost their lives in this harsh land. Here the dead received their blessing before their spirit traveled to the realms beyond. chamber.The only light came from slits where the ceiling met the walls, and shadows were filling the room as the day aged into night. She hoped she could complete the rites in time; otherwise she would have to remain here all night with the corpse, to ensure its spirit didn't become trapped in the realm of the living.
Harjan was watching her. "We can stay."
His offer touched her, but they both knew she had to refuse. If she allowed the uninitiated to stay while she performed the rites, she risked stirring the wrath of the Dragon-Sun.
"Thank you." Her voice caught. "But it isn't necessary."
He twisted his big hands in his sleeves. "It's not right you should have to face this alone."
"But you're so young."
She almost smiled at that. He had always been a big bear of a man with a kind heart. But she would celebrate her eighteenth year in only a few tendays, which put her two years past the age when young people were considered adults.
"I'll be fine," she told him, though she wasn't sure who she wanted to convince, Harjan or herself.
He nodded with reluctance. He and the other men bowed and quietly took their leave, closing the door behind them.
Ginger sagged against the wall. Despite her assurances, she feared offering succor to the people of Sky Flames, who eked out lives in the harshly beautiful desert. She gave blessings, performed rituals to honor the sun, presided at marriages and christenings, comforted mourners, listened to those who needed to talk and tended the health of women and children. It was a calling she loved, one well suited to her. She needed to perform the Sunset Rites less often than other ceremonies, and she had never done them for someone who had suffered such a brutal death.
Ginger drew herself up, determined to do well by this man's spirit. She went to a wall niche and lit the fire-lily candles there.Their spicy scent wafted around her, and in their flickering light, the scrolled carvings on the walls seemed to ripple.As she picked up a bundle of cloths, she realized she was clenching her opal. Startled, she set it down.Then she changed her mind and took it up again. The opal gave her a sense of confidence, which right now she very much needed.
One of the candles sputtered and died, and a tendril of smoke curled in the air. She thought of doing a flame spell, then shook her head, angry at herself, and relit the candle from one still burning. In her childhood, she had discovered by accident that she could do fire spells by concentrating on the opal, but she didn't understand why it happened. She used her abilities rarely and strove to do only good with them, but deep inside she feared they were a curse.
Ginger took the bowl of water in the niche and a soap carved like trip to the spirit lands. She returned to the table and looked down at his ravaged face. Softly she said,"May you have more peace among the spirits than you had among the living."
The dead man opened his eyes.