It was tradition that a newly assigned Priestess hand-bead an item for her new Headmaster, for the betrothal ceremony where she would officially accept him as her lord and consort. Tradition! Ilsi had picked the smallest possible item—a cloak clasp—and now was painstakingly binding the pearly white beads that were her temple’s pride onto the metal pin. White on white on silver was irritatingly invisible. That was definitely why she was grumpy. No other reason. She was making the perfect clasp for her Headmaster, and when she jammed the needle into her thumb, she yelped and flung the entire thing away like a snake.
“A bandage is a better solution than throwing things,” a dry voice said behind her.
It was Kyndri. Of course. Of all people to see her tantrum, it was clever, interesting Kyndri, who Ilsi always wanted to talk to but never quite got up the nerve. Two years older might as well have been two decades. Kyndri wore the standard blue robes of the priestesses who had permanently chosen life in the temple over life in service to a Headmaster, as well as a non-standard intricate necklace made up of the cheap colorful beads that the temple sold to commoners. Her eyes always seemed to have a private laugh flickering behind them. Late at night, when Ilsi couldn’t fall asleep, she often found herself wondering exactly what Kyndri found so funny.
Now, though, Ilsi growled. “I hate these white beads and I hate this silver pin and I hate—” But she stopped short of telling a temple priestess, even one almost her age, that she hated tradition.
“Not all the priestesses choose to go into service outside the temple,” Kyndri said gently. “Some of us....”
Ilsi snorted. “I know, some priestesses are unlucky and never get picked.” She stabbed at her pincushion. “I’m one of the lucky ones.” She had worked like a dog to be picked, in fact, excelling in everything from estate management, mathematics, and diplomacy, to the recent classes in the... well. Special Priestess Arts, as the temple euphemistically called it. Arts that were still very theoretical to Ilsi at this point, since going on outings with strange men was nowhere on the list of priestessly things one was allowed to do. Save it for your future Headmaster, they said. And now Ilsi had seen her future Headmaster, and he seemed like a fine ordinary middle-aged Headmastery sort of person, and this was apparently the point where she was supposed to feel lucky. Lucky about leaving the temple, about living the rest of her days in his household, about spending the rest of the her days in his service; all of it.
“Not always luck,” said Kyndri evenly, as if Ilsi hadn’t just slighted her horribly.
Gah, why was she such an idiot. Top of the class in Diplomatic Arts, and yet she couldn’t even talk to this one particular girl without making a fool of herself.
“Do you remember Verse Seven from your studies?”
“A priestess has to choose to be chosen,” Ilsi rattled off. “But what else am I supposed to choose? The Headmaster who picked me runs five estates and controls all the shipping on the northern coast! He told me his business regularly requires entertaining investors, so he needs a capable hostess like myself for his newest estate on the coast.” Tact and charm and greasing the wheels. That’s what priestesses were for, and that’s what she was good at. “Prestige, Kyndri. How am I supposed to turn down that?”
“Five estates surely speak to a man of kindness,” Kyndri said, and her tone was dry again. “Of good judgment and solid character.”
Ilsi frowned. It was true she knew more about his reputation for acquiring real estate than his character. She had only met him the standard handful of times; first during the week in spring when the Headmasters came to meet the new crop of priestesses, and second, last week, after she had received formal word of his interest in choosing her. They had had the required tea ceremony, as two of his Priestesses hovered in the background. They did not look scared, or meek. They were both older, near retirement. Priestesses were expected to freely give brain and body but would receive every luxury in return. They helped the country by managing the estates for the powerful men that made the country strong and prosperous. They helped the temple by spreading their teachings, reminding the Headmasters of their moral duty to care for the sick and the poor who worked under their command. They were an integral part of smoothing away all the creases in the fabric of society; tending to the rich and the poor in different ways. The priestesses made everything work.
But did they look happy?
Of course, what was happy, anyway. The temple had taken her in, the fifth daughter from a family of ten; they had fed her and clothed her and taught her... certain things, and now she was at the step where she would do, well, the next step. Which was to be chosen. And she had been chosen. By a man who clearly valued her ability to run an estate as much as the shape of her figure. So what was the point of second-guessing everything now? This was the role she had been given to fulfill. The clasp would be beaded and the betrothal betrothed and that was that.
At least she hadn’t picked a cape, like smug Mimmi, who was devoting every waking moment to crafting it. Ilsi could hardly have picked anything smaller than the clasp, unless it was a necklace made of a single hateful bead, and no one would approve that. Her clasp would have to be at least as fancy as Kyndri’s, which must have taken forever to craft.
Ilsi eyed Kyndri’s colorful necklace. “Did you make that?”
Kyndri’s fingers fluttered to its intricate floral design. The beads were not just the prized pearly white beads; they flamed in every color. “Two years ago I was in your place,” she said. “Torn between accepting a life of prestige, in service to another—or staying here in the temple, in service to an ideal. Expected to carve my own path and figure how best to contribute. I sat right there where you are. Except I actually like beadwork, even though it’s hell on my eyesight.”
“Language...” murmured Ilsi, but Kyndri ignored her.
“I was determined to be the best priestess ever,” Kyndri said, “and my dedication to the Headmaster ceremony would prove it. Prove it to the world—but also to me, I think. It was going to be the most elaborate white-beaded collar of all time. Boost the prestige of the Headmaster, reinforce the status of the temple, all with one fancy piece of jewelry. The florals grew and grew. And then—”
Kyndri shrugged. “It sounds strange, but the longer I beaded, the more it felt like I was pouring... myself into my work. Like I was making myself into this beautiful, functional, useful object. That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? But then suddenly I knew. I couldn’t give so much of... well, myself, up.” She flashed Ilse a wry smile. “It turns out just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it. I told the priestess in the morning I had made my choice, and to hell with the Headmaster who’d picked me. I was staying.”
“But don’t you feel you’ve given up... I don’t know, a lot of experiences?” asked Ilsi. “The next life step? We’ve trained for service for so long.”
That private laugh flickered behind Kyndri’s eyes again. It seemed to know all the things Ilsi thought about, late at night. “I think,” Kyndri said softly, “you’ll find all the experiences you need right here in the temple.”
Ilsi felt a hot blush creep up her neck.
“Anyway,” Kyndri said. “This little bit right here was just the first flower.” She pointed to a tiny cluster of petals in pearly white. “I cut the rest of it off, finished binding the threads, and laid it on the goddess’ shrine. Later someone bought it, and so it brought money and honor to the temple. Meanwhile, my own...” She gestured at the rest of the beadwork. “Well. I’ve been adding all the colors to it over time.”
Ilsi admired the beaded flowers. She wished she could make something that beautiful, or possibly that someone would make her something that beautiful.... She glanced up at Kyndri’s face again, only to find Kyndri’s eyes studying her.
Now Kyndri was the one to start. She stood hastily, brushing off her blue robes. “Anyway, I’m off to devotions.” She seemed to be searching for what else to say, but she settled on: “Good luck with your clasp.”
“You too,” Ilsi said to her retreating form, and then flinched at her awkward reply.
Ilsi picked up the partially beaded pin. Her finger had stopped bleeding. She hadn’t thought Kyndri had even looked at her simple needlecraft, but apparently she had.
Being in charge of one of them.
In service to a Headmaster.
Or... none of those things. She thought again of the laughter behind Kyndri’s eyes. If she left now, she would never get a chance to find out exactly what Kyndri thought was so funny. But if she stayed... maybe she would be lucky enough to find out.
Ilsi reached into the unsorted bin of cheap beads, the colorful rejects.
If she were going to wear the clasp herself, she would want it in the wildest colors imaginable.