Every year the authorities impose a levy. No parents think their child will be chosen, but the lectors came to our house. Mother wept and wailed; Father held back his tears as best he could. They both knew the authorities would kill them and sell my brothers and sisters into slavery if they resisted in any way.
I tried to be brave as I said goodbye, acting stoic as I kissed and embraced every member of my family. The men and women who were taking me looked on stone-faced and then nodded for me to walk out the door with them.
Once outside, I bowed to the terrible realization that I would never see my family again, and that there was a good chance I would end up serving as a whore for the nobility and guests who visited or lived at court. Everyone knew that most of the young women who were levied were taken for that purpose, thus my mother’s anguish. I resigned myself to whatever Fate had sent my way. There was no way out. If I behaved uncooperatively, ran away, or committed suicide, the rulers would kill my family. To keep them from harm, I would accept. I would obey, no matter the task they set me to when I arrived at court.
We began to march toward the castle, which lay two days’ journey from my hometown. They fed us at noon and we continued, arriving weary and footsore at a military base where we would be housed for the night. They led us into a room that had a row of benches. We were thankful we could sit. After a while, the woman who accompanied us and two soldiers came into the room where the eight of us sat. She loudly clapped her hands. We scrambled to our feet. She walked up and down, looking us over. She pointed to Janessa, who is beautiful with coal-black hair and a lovely face and body, and who was the only girl in the group with whom I was friends, since none of the other inductees were from my town.
“This one,” she said and told her to stand to one side. Then she came to me, looked me over, seemed to dismiss me, but then seemed to reconsider. “This one.”
I joined Janessa. The guards hauled us out of the room.
I thought I knew what would happen next and what my task at court would be, but I was wrong. The other six girls were consigned to service in the palace as comfort women. Janessa and I were put in a secure room, carefully guarded, and slept together in a comfortable bed. No men came for us. In the morning, some women we had not seen before told us to get out of bed, gave us dark blue dresses to put on, and cut our hair short. We knew enough about the palace to understand that we would not be whores. We would be Maidens of the Court whose duty was to stand witness at a variety of ceremonies. That night I wept for the other six girls, who would go to a very different type of service.
We received special treatment for the remainder of the journey. We traveled in an enclosed carriage with cushioned seats. Our keepers gave us food and, before we departed, water for bathing. No men came near our carriage; in fact, none of the men we encountered on our journey spoke or even looked at us. So it would be during the years I lived at court.
Once we arrived at the castle, a young woman named Jocasta, who dressed as we dressed except that she wore a head covering, greeted us—well, greeted is not exactly the right word.
“You stupid hillbillies,” she hissed. “Get out of the carriage and get moving!”
I dismounted. Thinking she had been rude, I gave her a look. She spat on me.
“You will treat your sisters superior with respect,” she said. “Any more dirty looks from you, girl, and I’ll report you to the Venerable Mother and see to it that you’re strangled.”
She meant to frighten us, but even at that point, anxious as we were in a new environment and not knowing what might lie before us, Janessa and I could tell this girl was posturing. For one, she was not much older than me. I didn’t imagine she would, at such a young age, have enough clout among the Maidens of Court to bring about my execution. Her eyes were uncertain as she spewed out her insults and her overall attitude seemed forced and contrived. She ordered us to follow her. When she turned, Janessa and I shared a smirk. Janessa rolled her eyes as we followed the impudent girl into the palace.
We forgot all about Jocasta’s rudeness when we stepped past the outer gate, crossed an open courtyard, and were allowed into the place, at the center of which sat the Court of the Sovereign King.
I had been told its splendor was equal to the splendor of Paradise. That sounded blasphemous to me, but when my eyes rested on the magnificence all about me, I saw how one might make such a comparison.
Everything radiated splendor. Color and light, beauty and intricate design glowed from any object I looked upon. The floors, made of black stone, shone with innumerable brass designs—leaves, snowflakes, stylized animals, geometric patterns—embedded in it. The walls were complicated patterns of varicolored brick. Huge columns of white stone rose to the ceiling. Gold decorated the columns. Doors were metal with sculptures of women and gods on them. Janessa and I tried not to gape as we followed Jocasta’s energetic stride. She led us to a door. Graven images of young and old women, all with distant, ethereal looks on their faces, covered its surface. Jocasta rang a bell outside the door. She turned and set her eyes on me.
“What are you staring at?” she demanded. “Haven’t you ever seen a sculpture?”
“I have seen many sculptures,” I said, not wanting to seem afraid of her. “My father is a goldsmith and has wrought projects such as this. I wondered if he made any of the ones I am now seeing in the palace.”
I had slighted her by not addressing her as “mistress” or “holy sister.” She did not notice my omission. Too stupid even to know when someone is insulting her, I thought.
She sneered. “I doubt that. And you bumpkins need to know that we do not permit idle, foolish talk. You are holy women and we expect you to act in a manner that conforms to holiness.”
All posturing, I thought.
The doors opened. Two women, probably in their fifties, took us inside. Jocasta closed the doors behind us. Janessa and I followed them. Jocasta walked behind us. Obviously, her importance in this place was not that great. The women who escorted us were kind and affable, saying they were happy to welcome us into the fellowship. No new sisters had come in the last five years, they said, and it gave them pleasure to have us join the community.
They took us to meet Nemara, the Venerable Mother.
We knelt. I thought perhaps I should prostrate myself, but when I made to do so, she stopped me with a touch.
“No, child. You have shown reverence to my office, which is proper, but remember we are sisters. We are happy to have you in our convent. I’m sure you are weary. Imelda and Anna will conduct you to your quarters. As I said, there is no rank, though you will be expected to observe reverence for those who have served longer and are your elders. Go now. Imelda and Anna will get you settled. You will be consecrated this afternoon.”
When we turned to go, we noticed Jocasta had disappeared.
We spent the rest of the morning learning some of the basics of life in the convent. We marveled at how beautiful and comfortable our rooms were. Every nun had her own room, though Janessa and I did share a bath chamber. Imelda, who was assigned as my mentor, told me I was to bathe every day and always shave—only the hair on my head and my intimate parts would be left untouched. The hair of my head would be kept short, trimmed every week. I bathed first and Imelda, assisted by Jocasta, who had reappeared but remained silent and deferent, helped me dress. They gave us underwear, light gray dresses, socks and shoes, and veils to cover our short hair. I was glad of this. A woman’s glory is her hair, we say, and for it to be shorn off is a shameful thing—a thing done to women who are criminals, and done to a woman who is to be executed. People had stared at us during the journey to the palace because our hair was short. They must have thought we were being transported to the gallows.
The short hair meant we had “died” to the things that most women would experience. I could not marry or have children; I would remain a virgin all my life. Janessa felt much more bitterness over this than I did. She had been engaged to be married when the levy took her away. She tried to stem her grief but could not entirely do so. Sometimes she vented her anger and pain to me in private. I told her to be careful. I got the idea that such speech would not be tolerated here.
I did not know much about what the Maidens of the Court actually did. Everything that went on inside the palace walls was shrouded in secrecy. I had been told the sisters stood as witness to certain things. This turned out to be true but only partially. We witnessed such things as treaty signings, agreements, appointments to office, royal weddings, and commissioning of various ambassadors and officials. We also stood witness to darker things.
I leaned that with my first assignment.
That morning, after a pleasant night’s sleep, we sat at breakfast with two of the older women. They told us a little about Jocasta.
“She probably insulted and bullied you when you came to the palace, is that right?”
I was too reticent to answer, but Janessa said, “She called us hillbillies and behaved rudely.”
“She’s from the capital city, which lies just a mile north of here. She thinks that makes her superior to the girls who come here from the villages and farms.”
Nervous that she might hear, I looked around for her. One of the women touched my hand.
“Not to worry, Alethea. She is in the kitchen. Her primary duties here are cooking, washing dishes, and cleaning privies.”
“She spat on Alethea,” Janessa said.
The other women looked at me. “I’m sorry, daughter. And Janessa, thank you for telling us. I’ll see that she is disciplined for what she did. You don’t need to be afraid of her. When she came here, she ruined her prospects of advancement. She is the lowest-ranking woman in the convent.”
“Why’s that?” Janessa asked. “What did she do?”
“The Venerable Mother called on her to stand witness at an execution. The sight of blood made her vomit and then faint. The king attended the execution and was angry with her. The mother pled for her and saved her life, but she is consigned to household duties and cannot stand witness.” She glanced at me. “There is an execution today, Alethea. You will be one of the two witnesses. This is your first assignment. Steel yourself for what you will see. You don’t want a similar thing to happen to you.”
My throat constricted with fear. I hoped I did not show my fear as I bowed my head in assent.
After breakfast, we began the routine that would become so familiar to me in the time I served in the palace. After breakfast, we had a half hour to “groom,” as the nuns called it: wash, change clothes, and have our hair trimmed if necessary. After that came assembly and worship. We were not a religious sisterhood, but because we were cloistered the fellowship worshipped Medeina, a goddess of chastity. My family followed a different religion. Those of us who held to another faith were told to think of the service as veneration of the ideals Medeina embodied and not as disloyalty toward the deities we had grown up worshipping. This seemed reasonable to me. Janessa didn’t like it. Her mother was a priestess of Umbria and she had shown devotion to the goddess of dark, shadows, and secrets all her life. Despite her aversion to worshipping other deities, she knew the convent would not tolerate disobedience, kept quiet, and went to the daily service. After that, we danced.
You might think it odd for women living lives that emphasized duty and required abstinence and asceticism to “dance,” but the women who operated our order knew that since we did not do physical labor and sat in courtrooms all day listening to legal proceedings, we would quickly grow weak, fat, and temperamental unless we did something to exercise our bodies. After grooming and worship, we would go to a large space called the “common room,” put on tunics, and do sacred choreography. The steps and movement were designed to make our bodies strong and supple.
The first day I did the movements I could hardly stand up when we finished. After two weeks though, I marveled at how much better I felt and, over the time I lived there, how strong and slender I became. We danced over two hours, rinsed off in cold water (something else I had to get used to), dried off, and dressed. Sister Anna led me to what she called the preparation room.
I knelt in a small room. The Venerable Mother anointed my forehead with scented oil.
“The fragrance of the oil is the breath of truth. We anoint you so that those who come near you will be reminded you represent truth and will be a faithful witness. This is your first witness, Alethea, and it is a difficult assignment so early in your time here. Master yourself. Do not disgrace your calling.”
“I will not, my Lady.”
She nodded and led me through a labyrinth of corridors to a dim room. They were not ornate and decorative, as the halls in the main part of the palace were. They first were built of smooth gray stone. Later they turned to uneven brick. I stumbled and fell twice as we made our way down. I heard terrible noises: begging, pleading, and—I wondered at this the first time I heard it—screaming and shouting. By this time, we were far underground. The cold made me shiver. It was in that room that I first saw the king.
He was tall. I had always thought of kings as tall, but he stood above all the other men there. He wore a crimson cloak over black clothing. Soldiers and attendants stood all around him. When Sister Zarria, an older nun who would act as second witness, arrived, the king gave me a hard look. I think he noticed how young I was and wondered if this would be a repeat of what happened with Jocasta. Anna had told me her behavior invalidated the legality of the execution and caused problems for the king. The execution stood as technically illegal because it was not properly witnessed and thus could not be certified. He had to pay the family of the man killed a large sum of money and they had become his enemies as a result of the whole affair.
“Our witnesses are present,” he said. “Proceed.”
They dragged a young man forward and pushed him to his knees.
“Do you have anything to say, Xanti?” he asked, his voice contemptuous.
“Damn right I do.” The young man fairly spat out his words. “You are a tyrant and will go the way of all tyrants.”
Silence. The king nodded. A soldier with a sword stepped up. Realizing I had been holding my breath, I breathed in and hardened myself for what I would see. The soldier raised the sword, swung it, and decapitated the man. His head flew into the air, hit the floor, and rolled. His arms flailed as his body fell forward. Blood shot up like a geyser from the stump of his neck.
A wave of terror and nausea surged through my body. I could not breathe. It seemed my heart had stopped. I feared the worst, but then my body rallied. My pulse stilled, my breath returned, the slight dizziness I felt faded. I stood there, stable and clear-headed. I looked down at the headless body, the lake of blood gathered about it, and viewed it with remarkable calm and detachment. From the corner of my eye I saw the king was watching me. I raised my face, making sure my expression conveyed detached objectivity. He looked away.
A man wearing a long chain with the seal of the king’s office on it over his cloak reached out and picked up the severed head.
“Behold the head of a traitor,” he proclaimed in a stentorian voice. “Behold the head of a traitor.” He carried the dripping head around the small room, declaiming all the while. He held it directly in front of Sister Zarria and me. I blanched maybe a little but managed to maintain my dignity—and my balance. The king nodded, the official carried the head out, soldiers picked up the body. The ceremony was ended. Sister Zarria touched my hand and gestured toward a door when I looked at her. We had performed our task and were allowed to depart.
We walked in silence back to the convent. Later that afternoon, the Venerable Mother sought me out, touched my shoulders, and smiled the sort of subdued smile her rank required.
“Very good, Alethea. You behaved in a worthy manner. The king sent a messenger to express how pleased he was with you.”
“I’m humbled that I could represent our fellowship well,” I said.
“I know from my years here that witness of an execution is a difficult thing, especially the first time. Go now. I believe it is time for recreation.”
Recreation was what the nuns called free time. We had a free hour before supper. The sisters talked, played board games and cards or read. I felt like reading and found a novel I got absorbed in. I wanted to distance my mind from what I had seen. But after a while I put the novel down as I realized I did not need a distraction. I had seen an execution. I had seen blood. My family had taken me to more than one public execution, so it was not the first time I had seen someone put to death. The sight of it today was certainly harrowing and gruesome. But it was part of my calling in life. The government killed criminals and traitors. I had come into a vocation that required me to witness such things. The pragmatic side of me asserted itself. I took up the novel once more, reading not to soothe my soul but for the story and the enjoyment of the experience. We ate supper and then went to chapel for our short worship of Medeina. This service included a half hour for meditation after the prayers and hymns were done. One of the sisters told me we were to search our souls and measure our progress in devotion to our calling during this time. After that, we cleaned our small rooms, swept and mopped other sections of the convent, and went to bed.
My first few days as a sister had been memorable. I had faced challenges and done well. When I laid my head on my pillow that night, I knew I could thrive in this place.
Or so I thought.