“Why am I so stupid?”
The holler echoed through the trees, the indiscernible scream of a young woman in anguish. It was replaced with the steady thrum of rain, the droplets making ripples in the water of the slough. Marlew sat on the edge of both the water and reason, her clothing, hair and mind all saturated with the dampness.
How did I get here, at the edge of town, anyways?
Looking around and spying her home a while upstream, she put together a haphazard string of events to explain and rationalize.
I must have fainted at the water’s edge, she thought. And as I fell, I hit my head on something, which is why my ears are ringing.
But there were still some pieces missing.
Why did I faint, though?
She peered off at her house, trying to remember what might have happened. Seeing nothing of help, she looked down at herself and in the water around her. Eyes rested on her hands, arms, and legs; all pale, near white.
The sapa! The thought was almost triumphant. It must have caused the fainting spell. Qurystal knows it has before.
The Slough’s women of the evening were particularly practiced in three talents: providing pleasure, playing the fake, and pretending the events had never taken place. It was this third discipline that enabled Marlew to stand, still soaked, and sway back to her home without shame.
The town was awash with sights, smells, sounds, and scintillating water-drops. The bland tarps above struck a backdrop to the colourful stalls of the market, and the looming towers of the temple tore through, knives rising above the town.
Marlew found herself at the doors of the temple, eyes staring in longingly, but body unwilling to enter. She was beautiful in her internal struggle, unknown to outside audiences. Her tangled hair was still damp, and hung formless across her slender shoulders, and her clothing clung to her lithe body, like limp lover afraid to let go. A man in the courtyard looked up at her, mouth agape.
She is the essence of beauty.
He approached cautiously, not wanting to startle the maiden. Moments of silence passed as he tip-toed to her side, the murmur of the pious never reaching his ears. His senses were focused on Marlew.
“Were you wanting to go in?,” he whispered, his mouth bare inches from her ear. Marlew whipped her body around, blue eyes burning brightly.
The man’s face fell, and he stammered his next words. “W-what I mean is, uhm,” his body shifted nervously. “We all wish to cleanse ourselves before the Qurystal, but someone as beautiful as you mustn't need to. Ever.”
Marlew smiled at the man’s kindness. “Well, sometimes it is the best whom hide the worst.” She tipped her chin down, butterflies dancing in her own stomach. “And to what do I owe this kindness, sir?”
“Please, no sir for me,” the man said with a tense laugh. “I am Rossel. And m’lady would be?”
“Marlew,” she said. Her own laugh mimicked his. “And no miladys for me, either.”
A magpie chirruped on the eaves of the temple, white plumage in brilliant contrast to the black. The bird made a second cry, then took flight towards the market, joined by a second. As if mimicking this, Rossel’s hand crept into Marlew’s, and together they entered the temple.