Badness you can get easily, in quantity; the road is smooth, and it lies close by. But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it. - Hesiod
Maru had been done with her packing for hours. Not that there was all that much to do; the few meager belongings she could call hers had been tied up in a cloak, and she had donned her ornaments and her good gown. Soon she would leave for the assembly, and when it was over she would bid her friends and family goodbye and accompany the priestess back to the temple.
The narrow dirt streets of the village were thronged with girls and women eager to hear the priestess speak. Once per month (on the sixth day after the full moon), a priest or priestess would arrive to address the people; everyone would gather in the square to hear the latest news from other parts of the kingdom, to ask questions and present grievances to be taken to the Priest-King, and to listen to the sermon. An acolyte also accepted letters to be delivered to other parts of the realm, and handed out any letters which had come from elsewhere. After dinner would come a talk about vocations, and those youths or maids who wished to return to the capital to be trained for one of the available positions would come forward to give their names, and early next morning would join the priestly entourage on its journey to the next village.
The first and second months of spring were slightly different, though. Last month the priest of the war-god had come, resplendent in his magnificent armor, to speak only to the men and boys; as usual, several of the youths who had reached manhood in the past year had departed with him to be trained as priests, warriors or (in cases of unusual ability) both. And this month it was the priestess of the love-goddess, whose meeting was open only to women and girls; Maru had decided several years ago that once she became a woman, she would follow the call to become a temple harlot. She was widely recognized as the most beautiful maid in the village, and her natural grace and clever mind had long been remarked upon. More than anything else she wanted an education and a chance to serve her people by caring for the needs of the great men in the service of the Priest-King, and the old women of the village were all certain she would be accepted.
But as she listened to the priestess, Maru began to doubt. The holy woman was the epitome of poise and grace; her clothes were magnificent and her hair beautifully arranged, and if she had ever spoken in some provincial dialect there was no trace of it now in her perfect elocution. She was everything Maru could ever wish to be, but she feared it was hopeless; still, she had come this far, and had to try. All through the long afternoon she worked to reassure herself, but had no appetite at dinner and began to worry that her voice would fail when it came time to speak.
At last, the moment arrived; the call for vocations had been given. Maru felt herself stand and heard her own voice speak her name, but it was almost as if someone else had accomplished it for her. She felt every eye upon her, but the tension was broken in an instant when the priestess smiled and said, “I’m so glad you’re joining us, Maru; I’ve had my eye on you for two years now, and I’m sure the goddess is as pleased as I am.” A great shout broke out among her friends and kin, and she felt she would be suffocated by hugs and kisses.
When she met the priestess in the square at dawn she was given a novice’s gown of plain white linen, and on the journey to the next village some seven hours away the great lady braided her hair and spoke to her as if they were peers, answering every question Maru could think of and listening while the girl told her more about the village and its people than she could possibly want to know. The acolyte, Zuza, was only about two years older than Maru; she was as friendly as her mistress, and by the time they arrived at their destination Maru felt as though they had been friends for a long time. Her heart swelled with pride as she saw the way the village girls looked at her, but she followed Zuza’s example and carried herself humbly, as a servant of the priestess.
They travelled thus from town to town for three weeks, and were joined on the way by three more girls; one aspired to the priestesshood, another wished to learn the healing arts and the third was an orphan whom the priestess had accepted as a servant of the temple; had even one more joined their number someone would have had to ride up front with the driver. At last the tour was over, and on the day of the next full moon they arrived at the city which served as the capital of this province; from here they would depart for the City of the Gods, where the Priest-King ruled and all the great temples stood. Maru’s father had been to the provincial capital once, years before she was born; but none of her family had ever been to the Royal Seat, which lay so far to the east it would take months to get there even on a fast horse.
But there were no longer any roads upon which to make such a journey; the great thoroughfares crossing the wastelands had fallen into ruin since the end of the Golden Age, and the only practical means of travel across the wilderness was the one they would board in the morning. Though Maru had heard them described and even seen pictures, nothing could prepare her for the awesome sight of the airship, longer than the main street of her village, gleaming like burnished brass in the last rays of the setting sun.
One Year Ago Today
“The Eye of the Beholder” explains my philosophy of tolerance: we all have the right to our own preferences, but nobody has the right to impose his own preferences on others.