This scene is actually an alternative beginning to the book, as I worried there wasn’t enough setup into how the Priestesses worked or Nelay’s motivations. In the end, it was cut because there simply wasn’t enough to pull the story forward.
Note that it is a rough draft, so errors in spelling/grammar will occur. If you think your friends might be insterested, I’ll include a tweet you can share.
He opened it for them seamlessly and they passed the open-air worship chambers and stepped into the courtyard, with its circle of eternal flames rising up much like a fountain of water would.
Suka was waiting for them, her eyes pausing on Nelay before sweeping across the rest of the acolytes in their finery. �Let�s show the king what the best Priestesses in the kingdom can do.�
She hastened out without another word, the Priestesses right behind her, with Nelay and the other acolytes following. The temple was inside the expansive palace grounds, though it had its own entrance to the city. The high priestesses in white fanned out across the wide palace stairs while Nelay and the other acolytes lined the walkway as they had practiced a thousand times before.
The drums sounded and Nelay lifted her staff into the ready position, above her head and poised to strike. The drums rolled and the enormous gates rolled open.
The King moved into the palace grounds atop a bay charger, his Immortal Soldiers in a phalanx around him. The first two acolytes dipped their staffs� soaked, padded end into the bowls of flame at either end of the door.
This set of the chain reaction. Each acolyte touching her staff to the woman next to her as the king came level with them, and then they began their intricate battle dance. Swinging their staffs in formations that were elegant and deadly with flames dancing about their bodies, close enough to feel the heat but not close enough to burn.
Their clothes were dyed in deep read that shifted to yellow and then white at the top, so they looked like spinning flames.
Nelay held her position across from Jezzel as the King came closer and closer. She watched him with her peripheral vision, noting that his beard was long and he was shirtless.
That�s all she could make out before he came even with her and her staff was lit. She whirled it about her and sprang into motion, lighting the shallow channels of stone that had been filled with a viscous flammable paste called fiall, which burned slow, but gave off different colored flames.
The fire spread across in intricate patterns until climbing elevated channels which curled in patterns similar to the tattoos Nelay wore on her scalp.
Nelay and Jezzel raced the flames, reaching the palace doors just as the King came level with them. They stuck their whirling staffs into cauldrons of fiall and flames spread in special channels carved into the rock frame as the doors were pushed open.
The acolytes came in just behind Nelay and Jezzel as they lit more cauldrons and set fire to more channels built into the walls. One by one, each acololyte went still as they took their original places, until the king sat on his throne with flames dancing all around him.
Nelay and Jezzel twirled their staffs in perfect unison before slamming both ends onto the ground just as he sat. Nelay�s heart was pounding and sweat ran in beads down her bare back.
She looked up, taking in her surroundings for the first time and saw the King watching her. Suka stood beside him, leaning and speaking in his ear.
Looking angry, the King motioned for Suka to step back. She did, proclaiming, �The King has arrived at the Winter Palace!�
A deafening cheer rose up as the king�s court clapped and cheered. There was no mention of the fact that the king was three months early. Or that he�d been forced to retreat here because the Summer Palace had fallen to the Clansmen�s armies.
The King stood, the heavy golden phoenix amulet across his chest catching the light from the fires. �As always, the temple of fire proves themselves the most skilled fire dancers in the entire Kingdom,� as he said this, his eyes strayed again to Nelay. �The flame of Idara has returned to Thanjavar. May ever it burn!�
�Burn on!� the people called back.
The king sat down and servants flooded the room with fire baked bread which they threw like discs into the crowd.
Suka tapped her staff and the acolytes dropped their position. Jezzel came immediately to Nelay�s side.
�He�s been watching you,� Jezzel whispered. �And he looks angry. What did you do?�
Nelay didn�t have to ask who Jezzel meant. She could still feel the king�s eyes upon her. �Me?� Nelay said, incredulous. �If anyone�s done anything, it�s you.�
In truth, Nelay had nothing to fear from the king. The Priestesses were not his subjects, they belonged to the Goddess of Fire. But still, his interest made her uneasy.
�And risk my chances of being Liason, I don�t think so.�
There had been a time when Jezzel and Nelay had been the bitterest of rivals. Both were ambitious, rather brilliant, and best of everything. And then after a particularly nasty fight, Jezzel had hissed that they couldn�t both be the Priestess Liason. Nelay had laughed. She wanted to be the high Priestess, not liason.
In that moment, they realized that working together, no one would be able to stop them. Their alliance had lead to friendship, which had developed into a fierce loyalty.
Nelay�s gaze swept carefully across the room. She stopped when she saw one of the younger soldiers. He was not an immortal, just one of the palace guards. But Tanzer had a pretty face, and a way of knowing far more than he should. Which is why she had employed him as a spy years ago.
She made the sign that she wanted to speak with him and left the palace, Jezzel forced behind her because of the press of the crowd. Hands reached out, asking for her blessing. Nelay gave it as often as she was asked. Pressing three fingers to their foreheads and saying, �Fire burn in your bosom.� It promised many things, life, passion, ambition, success.
Nelay stepped outside the open doors. It was pleasant out now, no longer cold and not yet hot. Nelay breathed a sigh of relief to feel the wind across her sweaty skin. She and Jezzel crossed the palace grounds and entered the upper city market. They headed straight for the cumfa tables, where they specialized in thick black liquid made from the cumfa root.
Nelay didn�t really like the stuff, but it was the best excuse she could come up with for her regular visits into the market, though the proprietor always provided lavender tea instead.
She got up as she always did to visit the privy, but instead of going out back, she stepped into the kitchen, which was hot and steamy.
Tazner was waiting for her. She wanted to come right out and ask him what he knew, but Tazner was one of her more finicky spies. More important to him than money was that she stroked his ego. �You�re looking dashing in your uniform.�
�Care to see what�s inside?� He shot her a cocky grin that she knew cause other girls hearts to melt.
Nelay wasn�t other girls. �You know Priestesses don�t have relationships with men.�
He took a step toward her. �Relationships, no. But dalliances, frequently.�
She tipped her head to the side. �Ah, but you deserve better than a mere dalliance, Tazner.�
He rested the point of his shoulder on the wall beside her, his posture the very picture of ease. �It wouldn�t get much better than a dalliance with you, Nelay.�
Nelay dropped her voice to a throaty whisper. �Well, I wouldn�t want you to peak so soon into manhood, would I?�
He threw his head back and laughed, and Nelay knew she�d paid her price without having to give him a single coin�she�d stroked his ego and made him laugh. The money was a mere formality now.
Tazner shook his head. �My brother in the Immortals says the king didn�t want to come to Thanjavar. He wanted to stay with his armies in Dalarta and Arcina, but someone convinced him to come back.�
He shrugged. �Don�t know.�
He grinned lazily at her. �Don�t know that either.�
She narrowed her eyes in thought. What could be more important to the king than fighting a war that had already cost him half the kingdom? �What about the Hansi Province?� Her father and mother still lived on the outskirts. In letter after letter, she�d begged them to come to Thanjavar, had sent them nearly every silver she had, but they had refused. �Nothing new.�
She sighed. �All right. If you find out anymore, I�ll be here tomorrow after the morning training.�
She pressed a silver into his hand and turned to go, but he captured her wrist and held on. She looked up at him as he leaned in dangerously close. �Are you ever going to give in to me?�
She patted his cheek. �And ruin all your other girlfriend�s hearts? I�m not that cruel.�
Just as she turned to away, her reached over and cupped her cheek. Before she could process what he�d done, he�d kissed her mouth. There was none of the hunger she�d expected from a man like Tazner, only gentleness. �I would give them all up for you,� he said earnestly.
Without another word, he slipped out the backdoor. Nelay stood in shock before slowly shaking her head. Pushing the heavy door, she stepped back into the pavillion. Jezzel was leaning back in her chair with her arms folded across her chest.
Nelay sat down, but before she could say a word, Jezzel grunted. �Tazner was looking very satisfied with himself just now.�
Nelay grunted. Men like Tazner treated women like toys�something to play with. She had more ambition than to ever settle for a man like that. �He wouldn�t know what to do with me if I ever allowed him to catch me.�
�Ah, but he�s pretty.� Jezzel said between sips. �And it might be fun.�
Nelay didn�t bother responding. �What did you find out?�
Between the two of them, they had a network of spies in nearly every level of government. They also had loyalty accumulated over years of service. And promises of support without any questions asked. Such a network was vital if Nelay was to challenge Suka for the title of High Priestess once her training was over.
Jezzel leaned over her mug of cumfa. As opposed to Nelay, she loved the stuff. �Someone convinced the king to come to back to Thanjavar.� She sat back, a jealous glint in her eyes. �Who has that kind of clout?� she asked.
�There are three ways to force someone to do what you want.� She counted them off on her fingers. �Threats, bribes, and loyalty. The king is the law, so a threat would be pointless.� Nelay looked past the busy market to the green of the high mountains in the distance. She squinted, not really seeing anything. �And the king is loyal to no one over himself.� That the king would die horribly if the kingdom fell did not need to be stated. �So that leaves some kind of bribe.�
�But who would have something so powerful in their possession.�
Nelay growled in frustration. �What did your maid say?�
Jezzel passed the note. �Only that the King brought his mistress and their children with him and it looks like they�ll be staying indefinitely. She didn�t think the king would stay long.�
Nelay let out a drawn out breath. �Perhaps we�re overthinking it. Perhaps he simply came to deliver his mistress safely from the fighting lines.�
�And leave the army?� Jezzel didn�t look convinced.
Nelay perused the childish scrawl before glancing outside. The wind had completely died, the calm before the ovat took over, bringing with it the unbearable heat off the desert. She finished the last of her tea. �It won�t be long before the wind changes. Come on.�
Jezzel rested her hand on Nelays to stop her. �Any word from the man you sent after your family?�
Nelay let out a frustrated breath. She�d sent letters after her parents, demanding they flee their small sheep ranch and head into Dalarta, but her father had refused to leave the land that had been in their family for generations.
Finally, Nelay had simply hired a handful of mercenaries and a handler to retrieve her parents, regardless of what they wanted. If all was according to plan, her parents should be on their way to Thanjavar even now.
They left the shop and moved toward the temple entrance. One of the guards, who were always very pretty to look at, stepped in front of her. �Acolyte Nelay, you are to report to your rooms and not leave until the temple servants come for you.�
She stopped short. �Why?�
The guard bowed. �I was not told, Acolyte.�
She and Jezzel exchanged glances. Besides the few times Nelay had been caught sneaking out of the temple grounds after curfew, she�d only ever been confined to her room before an advancement in her status.
�Are they making you a full priestess?� Jezzel asked. That was the last step in Nelay had left to take.
She slowly shook her head. �They wouldn�t do it today, not with the king coming.�
Glancing around, Nelay pulled Jezzel out of earshot. �We�re missing something. Something big.�
Jezzel bit her lip and looked around before leaning closer. The two stared at each other, and Nelay was suddenly glad she�d been acquiring an underground network since she was nine, when she decided she would be the next high prestess, that she needed to build a network. �Get everyone in motion. Let�s see what we can find out.�
Jezzel pushed the door open, letting in a blast of heat from the Ovat. She stood panting, her clothes stained with sweat. She�d been gone for hours.
With nothing else to do, Nelay had taken a nap, as she always did during the ovat. �What did you find out?�
Jezzel�s mouth thinned. �The King�s mistress, her name is Zayid, one of the maids found her in her rooms sobbing.
Without a word, she went to Nelay stood with her arms crossed, staring at the blank wall. �You�re certain of this, Jez?�
Jezzel watched her carefully. �She heard the mistress screaming at him.�
�Good enough to distract a King,� Jezzel finally said.