the unmarked skin

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Along with the rest of the household, Clara woke up before dawn.

By the time she was dressed, with her long hair brushed shining and ribbons wound though it, the sun was up, and the holding yard was festooned with bunting and banners. It was King's Day--the festival that celebrated Aelas the Prophet, the first and always king of Teleahn.

Every child in Teleahn was named on one of the five great festivals: usually the one occurring most soon after their birth. Clara had been named on King's Day sixteen years previous, and this year she would come of age, and the naming mark on her right hand would be completed.

As she walked out into the sunny yard, she studied the back of her hand. The naming mark was three dots, one for each Prophet, stretched and blurred, for they had been tattooed on when she was a baby. By sundown, the dots would be crisp again, and wound around with the old oak that was the Vallebrion sigil. So had been the Vallebrion naming mark for generations. Clara knew it well; she had seen it on her mother's and aunts' hands all her life.

What would the Prophets think of her aiding Duncan? He had been hidden in the cave for a month now. The idea had started to become commonplace. But he wasn't safe. She couldn't forget that. Not least because he hadn't been named.

Teaching said that those who were not named were invisible to the Prophets. Clara had always taken that for granted; now she thought it was an awfully cruel thing to condemn a person to. Were the Prophets really so blinkered that they couldn't see suffering when it happened in their land? Or so indifferent that they ignored it if the person had not taken their mark?

And what gave the priests the right to decide who would receive the Prophets' protection?

Clara shaded her eyes and looked around. A pavilion had been set up, draped in amethyst, blue and gold fabric. Outside it, about twenty folk of the household--those who shared their name-day with Clara--waited to make offerings. But Clara, as daughter of the house, was first. She looked back at her mother and father, who stood in the grand entranceway. Behind them she could see Enrico.

Then she turned and ducked into the tent. Inside, the ground was laid with black and white tiles that had been set down specially. The priest sat at a wooden table. To one side was the gold-bound Prophets' Book of Vallebrion. To the other, the tools of the tattooist. Behind him was a shrine on which sat Aelas, Inne and Thandi in effigy, observing proceedings.

"Mistress Clara of Vallebrion," said the priest. He wore a white robe, and was middle-aged, with a mole on his jaw.

"Brother Priest," said Clara. "I am of age and wish to make my mark in the book."

The priest nodded slowly. "Do you pledge to live your life in accordance with Teaching?"

"I do," said Clara.

"And do you promise to uphold the teaching of Aelas, first and always king of Teleahn, and of his children Inne the Just and Thandi the Merciful?"

"I do."

"Will you protect and shelter adherents of Teaching, and cast out those who turn their backs on the truth?"

An image of Duncan curled on his side in the cave flashed before her eyes. "I will," she said hoarsely.

"Will you have no King above Aelas, and no ruler but the Prince whom Aelas has chosen to rule on Aea in his place?"

"I swear fealty to Aelas the King and to his prince-proxy on Aea."

The priest held her gaze for several stern moments, and Clara's heart began to pound.

Then, he smiled. "Then, if what you have said you say in good faith, affix your mark to the Book and make your pact with the Prophets."

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