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Lady The priest struck the gong. The sound reverberated off the temple's vaulted domes, splendidwith brightly coloured carvings. The solitary note echoed back andforth, diminishing to a remembered tone, a ghost of sound. Mara knelt, the cold stones of the temple floor draining thewarmth from her. She shivered, though not from chill, then glancedslightly to the left, where another initiate knelt in a pose identical toher own, duplicating Mara's movements as she lifted the white headcovering of a novice of the Order of Lashima, Goddess of the InnerLight. Awkwardly posed with the linen draped like a tent above herhead, Mara impatiently awaited the moment when the headdresscould be lowered and tied. She had barely lifted the cloth andalready the thing dragged at her arms like stone weights! The gongsounded again. Reminded of the goddess's eternal presence, Marainwardly winced at her irreverent thoughts. Now, of all times, herattention must not stray. Silently she begged the goddess's forgiveness,pleading nerves - fatigue and excitement combined withapprehension. Mara prayed to the Lady to guide her to the innerpeace she so fervently desired. The gong chimed again, the third ring of twenty-two, twenty forthe gods, one for the Light of Heaven, and one for the imperfectchildren who now waited to join in the service of the Goddess ofWisdom of the Upper Heaven. At seventeen years of age, Maraprepared to renounce the temporal world, like the girl at her sidewho - in another nineteen chimings of the gong - would be countedher sister, though they had met only two weeks before. Mara considered her sister-to-be: Ura was a foul-tempered girlfrom a clanless but wealthy family in Lash Province while Mara wasfrom an ancient and powerful family, the Acoma. Ura's admissionto the temple was a public demonstration of family piety, orderedby her uncle, the self-styled family Lord, who sought admission intoany clan that would take his family. Mara had come close to defyingher father to join the order. When the girls had exchanged historiesat their first meeting, Ura had been incredulous, then almost angrythat the daughter of a powerful Lord should take eternal shelterbehind the walls of the order. Mara's heritage meant clan position,powerful allies, an array of well-positioned suitors, and an assuredgood marriage to a son of another powerful house. Her ownsacrifice, as Ura called it, was made so that later generations of girlsin her family would have those things Mara chose to renounce. Notfor the first time Mara wondered if Ura would make a good sister ofthe order. Then, again not for the first time, Mara questioned herown worthiness for the Sisterhood. The gong sounded, deep and rich. Mara closed her eyes amoment, begging for guidance and comfort. Why was she stillplagued with doubts? After eighteen more chimes, family, friends,and the familiar would be forever lost. All her past life would be putbehind, from earliest child's play to a noble daughter's concern overher family's role within the Game of the Council, that never-endingstruggle for dominance which ordered all Tsurani life. Ura wouldbecome her sister, no matter the differences in their heritage, forwithin the Order of Lashima none recognized personal honour orfamily name. There would remain only service to the goddess,through chastity and obedience. The gong rang again, the fifth stroke. Mara peeked up at the altaratop the dais. Framed beneath carved arches, six priests andpriestesses knelt before the statue of Lashima, her countenanceunveiled for the initiation. Dawn shone through the lances windowshigh in the domes, the palest glow reaching like fingers through thehalf-dark temple. The touch of sunrise seemed to caress thegoddess, softening the jewel-like ceremonial candles thatsurrounded her. How friendly the lady looked in morning's blush,Mara thought. The Lady of Wisdom gazed down with a half-smileon her chiselled lips, as if all under her care would be loved andprotected, finding inner peace. Mara prayed this would be true. Theonly priest not upon his knees again rang the gong. Metal caught thesunlight, a splendid burst of gold against the dark curtain thatshrouded the entrance to the inner temple. Then, as the dazzlingbrilliance faded, the gong rang again. Fifteen more times it would be struck. Mara bit her lip, certain thekind goddess would forgive a momentary lapse. Her thoughts werelike flashing lights from broken crystals, dancing

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