This is an unused chapter from my upcoming fantasy novel, The Brumal Star. It’s a glimpse into the life of the Sisters of Durainne, a religious cult in the world of Ransara, as they prepare for The Connubia, their fertility festival.
The seaside city of Kelvirre laid atop a hill that rose above cliffs pounded smooth by the surf. Its tropical climate made it a popular destination for the country of Helantha’s wealthiest citizens to escape the boredom of their indulgent lifestyles.
Gulls careened in the sky, shrieking at each other above the crashing waves. The sun glinted off the pastel shacks tucked into the sheer cliff faces, and the azure ocean stretched to the horizon.
One building stood out from the others: the Temple, home to the Sisters of Durainne, a stunning monument to lavish architecture funded by rich patrons of the goddess and through taxation from everybody else in the city.
The Temple was set at the highest point on the hill, it was said, so the Sisters could be closer to their goddess. Towering alabaster walls surrounded the place. Its enormous aquamarine blue crystal dome glowed in the sun, encircled by nine glittering silver spires piercing the sky.
Kaija and two of her Durainne Sisters, Elene and Jesmaine, strolled through the Temple’s sprawling greenhouse to look over the white roses, orchids, and lilies they’d be decorating the altars with for the Connubia.
The Connubia was a springtime fertility festival that celebrated the marriage of the goddess Durainne to her consort Yusarre. Tourists visited from all over Helantha to gawk and stuff their faces with some of Kelvirre’s finest delicacies: eel stuffed with fruit compote, steamed giant ous fish with fluffy potatoes, roasted fen deer drizzled with sweet sauce, and a dazzling array of cakes, pies, sugary ices, and sorbets.
The Sisters of Durainne and the Order of Yusarre had been resurrected in the last hundred years, after war against the northern country of Vordmarre had engulfed Kelvirre in flames and bloodshed. Kelvirre’s citizens credited Durainne for the deliverance of their fair city rather than the sacrifices and battle strategies of Helantha’s army.
Together, the two cults hosted a three-day celebration of rich food, music, and dancing, culminating in a re-enactment of the marriage.
“Galatea is worried about low turnout this year for the Connubia,” said Kaija. “It’s only a few weeks from now!”
“I heard her say we’d have to pay people to look interested!” Elene said. She glanced at Jesmaine, and they giggled.
Kaija pressed her thin lips together. “I wouldn’t joke about that, girls. The goddess would be displeased if she overheard, especially since … you know .”
Elene put on a pious face and traced a protective sign in the air with her hand. “Forgive me, Goddess. Please overlook that comment.”
Jesmaine grinned and took a few orchid blooms to tuck into her hair.
Kaija snatched them away from her. “Please leave them alone until we decide what we need.”
“Excuse me,” sniffed Jesmaine. She flicked a stray leaf off the bench. “It looks like there’s more than enough to go around.”
“They’re grown for the Connubia, not to decorate yourself with!” Kaija said.
“What’s the big deal?” Elene said. “It’s not like anyone would notice a few missing flowers.”
“Most of them are going to die anyways. What a waste,” Jesmaine said.
Kaija’s face darkened. “They will notice. Sometimes I don’t think either of you are being serious about any of this. The Connubia isn’t just about flowers.”
“They?” Jesmaine smirked. “You mean the gods or the overlord priestesses?”
Kaija shot her a warning look. “Don’t—”
“Oh, I am serious!” said Elene. “It’s just that sometimes I wonder if they are even listening. They don’t seem to care about the people who get together in the public square every weekend and protest having to pay the taxes that fund us—”
“Of course they’re listening!” Kaija said. “I’m sure all those people will be punished when the gods feel it’s the right time. Until then, be satisfied that they get arrested and have to sit in jail all weekend.”
Jesmaine scuffed her sandal on the concrete floor. “I’m sure the gods will be holding a big meeting about what to do with the protesters in the town square.”
Elene elbowed Jesmaine. “I mean, are they listening to us? Not just when we want people to go to jail. About other things.”
“Elene, who do you think chose you to be one of the Sisters?” Kaija asked. The heady scent of the blooms began to give her a headache. Next year, she would beg Galatea to hand these duties off to one of the younger Sisters and be put in charge of something else that didn’t involve the heat and the cloying stink of the greenhouse.
“My mother chose me,” said Elene. “And Galatea and some of the others had a say in it too.”
“But Elene, who guided that choice? You don’t think they came to that decision on their own, do you?” Kaija said. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead. She unfolded the parchment with the list of alter flowers on it and fanned herself.
Elene twisted her hair around her finger. “I don’t know, Kaija. I never thought about it that way.”
“Hmph,” said Jesmaine . “You both came here willingly. Must’ve been nice to have had the choice.”
“Your parents caught you smoking eoesu flower to get high with,” said Kaija, “more than once! Whose fault was that?”
Jesmaine scowled. “Mine, I suppose, for being dumb enough to get caught. Besides, they were more upset about me selling it at school.”
“You’re lucky that happened,” Kaija said.
“Lucky?” Jesmaine replied. “If I was lucky, I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble, and I’d still be at home instead of here.”
“Sending you to us gave you a chance to redeem yourself,” Kaija said.
“You make it sound like I murdered babies. I was providing a service,” Jesmaine said.
Kaija frowned. “A service selling illegal substances to students!”
Jesmaine grumbled again under her breath.
“I think you should pray extra hard for the goddess’s divinity to come through you,” said Kaija. “It might help you in your moments of doubt. If Galatea was here, she’d say the same.”
“Kaija, have you heard anything about this new girl she’s bringing here?” asked Elene, ready to change the subject.
“Just that she’s from Reathe and her father is some captain of a guard or some such,” said Kaija. “Galatea thinks her father’s patronage will lend us some prestige, which we need.” She looked at Jesmaine.
“What are you looking at me like that for?” Jesmaine asked.
“I hope she’ll liven things up around here. It gets very boring!” Elene clapped one hand over her mouth and with the other hand drew another protective symbol in the air.
Kaija shook her head in disgust. “Wasn’t our recent scandal enough excitement for you?”
Elene blanched and feigned interest in some pale, creamy orchids in the wooden potting troughs. “It wasn’t me fooling around with one of those Yusarre boys.”
A few months earlier, one of their Sisters had been caught inside their temple in a compromising position with one of the boys from the Order of Yusarre. Breaking sacred vows was treason to the Sisters.
The boy was beaten and then sent home. The girl, Retha, had her head shaved, was flogged, and then placed under house arrest inside the temple. Her fate would be decided when Galatea received divine guidance from Durainne, after she returned from Reathe.
If the divine guidance was that Retha had been punished fairly, then she would be released from her service and returned home. If she should be further punished, then she would be put in chains and drowned.
“I still think that boy got off rather light, don’t you?” Elene asked. “Don’t you think it’s strange that they didn’t just send Retha home—”
“ELENE!” Kaija said in a loud whisper. “Be careful what you say. You have no idea who’s listening.”
Elene rolled her eyes. “Like the gods?”
“Them,” said Kaija, “and others.”
Elene picked at a hangnail. “Nobody can hear us in here, Kaija.”
Kaija raised her eyebrows. “You have a very cavalier attitude.”
“I’m entitled to my opinion,” Elene said. She pursed her lips. “Why are we subject to so much more punishment than the boys from Yusarre are? Have you ever thought about that?”
Kaija clenched her fists, crumpling the flower list parchment. “Elene! It isn’t our place to question Temple law!”
Elene shrugged. “Fine. If you think that us getting whipped and put under house arrest and possibly drowned while the boys are given a slap on the wrist for the same offense is fair, I don’t know what else to say.”
“She’s right,” Jesmaine said to Kaija.
Kaija went back to fanning herself with the parchment. “Life isn’t fair. They hold us to a higher standard. We are supposed to be the example setters.”
Elene turned her head and made a face.
Kaija smacked her on the arm. “You knew the punishment for breaking our vows.”
“I didn’t ask to be an example setter,” Elene said. “In fact, the Sisters aren’t what I expected at all.”
“What did you think this was going to be about? Dressing up in pretty robes and having our hair done by the acolytes?” Kaija said. “You took sacred vows to be here.”
“Not that,” Elene said. “I like those parts, and I like all the Sisters. But it’s that other part. The way everything with Retha was handled.”
“Are you surprised, Elene?” Jesmaine said.
“At least they didn’t force us to watch,” Kaija said. “If Galatea had her way, we would have. But some of the other priestesses disagreed.”
“I still don’t think it’s right,” Elene said. “Even if we did take sacred vows.”
“It doesn’t matter what you think is right,” said Kaija. “We take those vows for important reasons. To preserve the integrity of the order. To honor the goddess. To honor ourselves.”
“Those are all very good reasons, but Retha’s life shouldn’t be hanging by a thread because of one mistake,” Elene said. Kaija’s constant speeches about integrity and honor pissed her off. Elene’s elderly uncle talked a great deal about integrity and honor, except a lot of good it did him when he shot himself in the leg with a crossbow bolt on purpose to get out of the military.
“It is,” said Kaija. “Retha was a fool.”
“If I was in charge, I would have the same punishment for both, and it wouldn’t be half as harsh as what we do,” Jesmaine said. “The laws are stupid. They should be changed.”
Kaija gasped. “You don’t have to like them, but you’ll follow them if you know what’s good for you, because that is what is best for the Sisters. Start taking things seriously, girls. End this conversation.”