|She stood on the upper balcony of the temple, one arm held above her head creating an arc while the other was cradled in front of her stomach. Her face was upturned, staring across the courtyard and into the city. Off towards the west, the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, painting the sky in soft pinks, oranges, and purples. As the sun rose higher, it lightened the buildings below her, reminding her that her place was in the temple beneath. She should be leading the Dawn Dance now, the intricate steps that welcomed the new day and praised the sun for making another journey to grace their land with life. This morning, she couldn't find the joy within her that dance required though. No one would berate her for missing this one dance, although it would be noticed and marked.
Below her, the doors of the shops began to swing open as the music of the Dawn Dance floated out of the open temple windows. Jazieth dropped her upper arm as the music swelled, filling the air around her where she could already smell the yeasty scent of freshly baked bread. She swallowed as her mouth watered since she hadn't thought to grab something from the kitchen before she ascended to the temple summit. Although she couldn't hear the snap of the rugs, she could see the shop keepers shaking the dust from them and then laying them beside their doorsteps for their customers to place their shoes before entering the shops. It had been years since she had been allowed to walk unescorted among the people, but she still remembered leaving her shoes beside a doorway and ducking inside to browse a shop with her mother.
That was before one of the priestesses had seen her dancing in the streets, long before she had been selected in the Tribute and delivered to the temple where she was given over to her training. She hadn't thought of her birth mother in years. There was another woman whom she called mother now; the woman who lay in the temple below, waiting to be interred in the crypt.
Jazieth knew that she was the next choice for High Priestess, that she was to take Pythalla's place, and in fact she had been leading the dances since Pythalla had fallen ill, but she wasn't sure she was ready. She was young to be named High Priestess, barely twenty-eight summers, but Pythalla's hair had already been turning gray when Jazieth had been presented to her. The priestess had cuddled the crying girl and dried her tears with the corner of her own robe, then called for tea and cakes. Pythalla had pulled Jazieth onto her lap and reassured her that no harm would come to her. When Jazieth was calm and had devoured more than half the cakes on the plate, Pythalla had picked up a harp and asked Jazieth to dance for her. Happier now, the young girl had demonstrated the steps that had called attention to her.
Pythalla had praised her and set her to learning the Dawn Dance, the first dance that every girl learned. Jazieth had mastered the dance and each new dance faster than any other girl in her age group. Soon word had spread about the young girl who could dance even the most complicated of the dances and who would gladly dance for every festival, every celebration, and even the simple daily dances. Dance was a way of life, a way to celebrate and thank, to grieve and mourn. Today, in memory of Pythalla, she would dance the Danse Macabre.
The Danse Macabre would be the hardest dance she ever completed for there were no steps to learn, no memorization to lose herself in as she mourned Pythalla. Nothing of the dance was by rote for each Danse Macabre was unique for the person it was honoring. Jazieth would have to dance alone in front of everyone and one misstep would mean her own death. To misstep today would dishonor Pythalla and Jazieth would have no choice, but to take her own life before the next Dawn Dance.
The Danse Macabre was why she stood on the highest balcony above the temple now, remembering not only her life, but also Pythalla's. Those memories would guide her feet when she entered the temple later and began the dance. There would be music, but it would be guided by her movements. She didn't fear the musicians would take a miscue from her because she had grown up with all of them and danced to their music for years. She feared her grief would overwhelm her and cause her steps to falter. She couldn't afford to dishonor Pythalla.
The door behind her opened, but she didn't turn; knowing instinctively that it would be one of the novices sent to fetch her. Jazieth wanted just a few more minutes to enjoy the dawn and pretend that Pythalla wasn't really gone. She had sat the Death Watch herself so she was aware her teacher and mentor, her mother in spirit, had moved on, but from up here it was easy to pretend she was waiting below to greet Jazieth with a smile and a hug. Behind her, the novice cleared her throat and ventured tentatively, "Tor Jazieth? I'm sorry to disturb you."
Jazieth sighed inaudibly and turned to face the young girl. It wasn't her fault the priestess would rather be left alone. The young girl stood with her head bowed respectfully although her carriage was erect and poised. Jazieth smiled to see a perfect stance in a novice who couldn't be more than eight summers old. She would keep an eye on this girl and perhaps make the child her protege. "Yes, tor'antha?" she asked, giving the child the honorific normally given to a much honored student.
The girl flushed at the praise and sank into a perfect dip and bow. "Tor'en Zorraine sent me, Tor Jazieth, and wishes to know if you will perform the Danse Macabre?" The girl almost whispered the last two words, she was so awed to be in the presence of the new High Priestess.
Jazieth nodded regally at her in praise. "Tor'en Zorraine did well to send you for you have delivered your message beautifully. Who is your dre'gra so I may convey my praise of her efforts?" Even, Jazieth added to herself, if Zorraine is overstepping her bounds by sending someone to fetch me.
"If it pleases you, Tor Jazieth, I have no dre'gra," the girl replied. "I'm too clumsy in my classes for any of the tor'dre'gras to want me."
Jazieth knelt in front of the girl, taking the child's hands in one of hers. She touched her forefinger of her free hand to the girl's heart. "Do you feel the music in here?" she asked softly. The girl nodded, wide-eyed. Jazieth moved her finger to the girl's ears; one at a time. "Do you hear the music with these?" she asked. Again the girl nodded and her eyes followed Jazieth's finger as it flowed down to her bare feet. "And do these itch to move when the music begins?"
"Yes, oh, yes," the girl breathed.
Jazieth looked up at the sky and nodded, then spoke in the Old Tongue, one that only a few priestesses spoke, "I understand, Pythalla. My feet will be true so I can guide the next High Priestess." She rose gracefully to her feet and took the girl's hand. "I know you don't understand, tor'antha," she reassured the girl. "But someday you will. Right now you need to attend the Danse Macabre and then move your belongings to your dre'gra's room."
"Tor Jazieth, who is my dre'gra?" the girl asked as the two glided into the temple.
"I will be, child," Jazieth answered.
The girl looked confused. "But you don't even know my name!"
"We will have many long years to learn everything about each other," Jazieth replied. "Tell me your name quickly so you know I am sincere and then run to change your clothes."
"Adaila," the girl whispered.
"Well met, Adaila, you are a brave and good girl." Jazieth swooped down and kissed the girl softly on the forehead, then pushed her gently to send her scampering on her way.
Jazieth hurried off in the other direction, avoiding the scurrying novices and priestesses. When they noticed her, they paused to dip and bow as was proper, and she inclined her head in response. When she finally made it to her room, she breathed a sigh of relief to be safely inside.
She rapidly stripped off the clothes she wore and dropped them in an untidy heap on the floor. She opened the armoire and pushed aside her everyday clothes and dresses to reveal the black and maroon of the Danse Macabre robes.
She paused to look at them for a moment. Each of the higher level priestesses made these robes when they came of age, but the majority never wore them except to try them on and be sure they fit, only the highest of high were accorded the honor of the Danse Macabre. The High Priestess, her acolytes, the ruling priestesses from the other temples, and sometimes the rulers of their little country were the only ones accorded the honor. She sponged off her body, whispering the words of cleansing as she moved the sponge over it. She let the air dry her body as she lifted the dress from her armoire and set it on the bed for a moment. She unbound her hair and ran a brush through it, leaving it loose after she finished. She pulled on the dress, adjusting the top so that it curved across her breasts and held them tightly in place. A shimmy of her hips settled the skirt into place as it draped gracefully down from her waist. The skirt would move with her, reveling colors as she turned, first black and then maroon.
She entered the temple proper to find all the priestesses and novices waiting for her. Pythalla was laid out on the bier, but Jazieth didn't look at her now. She held her head high as she swept past the assembled group and made her way to the center of the temple. The music wouldn't start until she began dancing, but she could see the musicians assembled where they normally sat. She bowed to the altar, then swept her hair back, and turned to face Pythalla's bier. She took one last look at her mentor and soul-mother.
Turning again, she stepped into the dance. For a few moments, the only sound in the temple was the stamp of her bare feet on the stone floor and the breathing of the assembled women. Then the musicians caught the pace of her dance and began to play. She bent and twisted, reaching up towards the open roof of the temple, then sweeping her hands down to run them across the floor before raising them up again. She spun, causing her skirt to swirl out and display the colors, and continued to spin. She lost herself in the freedom of the spins for a few minutes, then concentrated on continuing the dance.
She felt a bit light-headed as she ended the spins, but didn't allow herself to falter as she lifted one leg high, extending it so that her toes pointed straight up at the ceiling. She stepped into part of the Dawn Dance for a few minutes, knowing that was a fitting tribute to Pythalla because that was her favorite dance. As she lifted her arms to praise the sun, she dropped into a crouch for a moment, then spun out of it, lifting both arms high as she reached the peak of the spin. She heard the music crescendo and threw herself into the finale. She ended prostrate before the bier and realized she had done it. She had successfully completed the Danse Macabre and would reign as High Priestess. She would train Adaila to take her place and one day Adaila would dance the Danse Macabre for her.
Names were generated at: http://www.squid.org/tools/names/ and then some were edited from there to better fit my ideas.
Special thanks to Ransom Noble for assistance with the vocabulary.
Tor means Mother Superior or High Priestess
tor'antha means Honored Child
tor'en means Sister Priestess and is used for any priestess
dre'gra means teacher
tor'dre'gra means senior teacher