High Matriarch of the Rinji Dyasty
The Matriarch of the Rinji Dynasty paced through the wreckage of her ceremonial regalia, howling at the walls and tearing her hair. She paused to kick a robe, shrieking, with her green hands at her sides, fingers clenched into fists.
She was supposed to be meditating.
Fortunately, the stone walls were thick -- seclusion being necessary for her to purify herself, so that she could return to her many, many ceremonial duties in the great pyramid of her ancestors.
“For the rest of my cursed life,” she said aloud to the empty room.
Tawa Rinji, protector of all that rested under the shade of trees, hung her head. Day in and day out, she was always supposed to be somewhere doing something. Sitting still in the hall of rain and fasting, to appease the rain gods. Reciting the epic of the sun god’s birth from memory, all six hours of it, to appease him. Singing to holy trees, to appease them. Blessing babies, blessing the elderly, blessing supplicants, blessing new homes, blessing herds of the wretched broadbeaks! All with her hands uselessly glowing green with magic that did nothing! For what?!
Tawa kicked a headdress, sending the mess of beads and metal and feathers into the wall.
She knew none of it mattered. Her fasting didn’t bring the rain, the sun would come up without her reciting poetry. Her blessings were meaningless.
Once, Tawa had believed. She’d fulfilled her duties eagerly. Until, one day, she made a mistake in the ritual of the first sprouts -- a dance and chant meant to see that the corn harvest was good. That night she went to sleep fearful, sure that she’d brought ruin on her people. The next morning High Priest Tenpo had congratulated her on the flawlessness of the ritual and reported that the first sprouts were already visible.
In the years since, Tawa had quietly introduced flaws into her ceremonial performances -- testing to see if lightning, bad luck, the trees, or the gods struck her down. Nothing ever happened. Nothing changed when she performed the rituals incorrectly. Finally, she’d been convinced that the gods did not exist -- or at the least, that they did not care.
It took her longer still to work up the courage to share this horrifying news with the high priests of her pyramid.
They’d responded by telling her that she clearly needed to spend a day in meditation and peaceful contemplation of the gods -- to purify herself of such thoughts.
Since then, unseen by most of the Rinji, a small war was being fought at the very top of the pyramid.
Tawa dropped a ceremonial pitcher, breaking it. High Priest Tenpo clicked his tongue, and then sent her to meditate for three days.
Tawa proclaimed the truth before a conclave of all the priests and Tenpo had declared that she was possessed! The priests immediately exorcised her and… sent her to meditate in solitude for another three days.
Finally, Tawa attempted to sneak into a ceremony blessing a group of noble warriors who were going out into the jungle to hunt a monster -- hoping that perhaps here she would find an ally or a champion. She didn’t get anywhere near the ritual -- and now, she found herself again trapped in her stupid meditation room!
For a moment, Tawa stared at the door, despairing at her situation. Then she shrieked again and jumped up and down, working out her anger by stomping on the stone floor.
Beneath her, the floor shifted, sliding down.
Tawa stopped, frozen, thinking that maybe the gods had finally showed themselves. Then she backed up and lifted the skirt she’d been stamping on. One of the stone tiles in the floor had dropped about an inch. She crouched down and prodded the stone. It turned, rotating under the other tiles. She spun it deliberately, and it wound down lower into the floor. It stopped suddenly, slamming into place and a loud rumble sounded behind Tawa. She spun around, to see a whole panel of the wall moving -- shifting out of the way to reveal a staircase, leading down.
The young matriarch looked from the tile, to stairs, to the thick closed stone door. It would be days before she was considered pure again. No one would be here to check on her until after dark when they brought her bread and water. Everyone, the high priests included, would all be at the other ceremonies.
With a whoop, she went running down the stairs, excited to explore her new secret passage.
The stairs went down a long way -- so far that Tawa thought that wherever they were leading might be all the way down on the forest floor. When it finally leveled out, the tunnel went from the soft golden stone of the pyramid to rough grey rock. Tawa continued, until finally she found herself outside -- under the giant trees, away from the pyramid. The entrance was hidden under an old private shrine to the Rinji Dynasty and Tawa’s family. She’d been here hundred and hundreds of times, honoring her ancestors. She’d never felt quite as grateful to them as she did now. For the first time in her life, she was free.
Tawa Rinji threw her arms in the air and went running away into the trees, feet thudding down in warm mossy ground, birds flitting overhead, unseen wildlife running away from the ruckus she made. She had hours and hours before anyone would notice she was missing -- and she was going to take all the time she could to enjoy herself.
She watched wild hollerbirds hunt in a small pack, picked crisp ripe starfruits and splashed her feet in a warm, clear river.
Feeling far more calm and purified by her day out than she would have stuck inside, Tawa continued to sit by the river, watching the white churning water. She needed to go back soon -- so that she could keep her passage a secret. But not quite yet. She was enjoying herself too much.
Something in the forest caught her eye.
Snuffling out from between the trees came a boar. Or rather, a creature that used to be a boar. It was enormous -- three times Tawa’s height -- with big jagged tusks and red eyes. It foamed at the mouth, it’s fur was patchy and grey, and it had a brand burned on each flank. The brands were unfamiliar arcane symbols, glowing faintly red under the shadowy trees. It was a monster, infused with magic of bloodlust and fire.
It hadn’t seen Tawa -- and the sounds of the water covered the noise she made standing up and sneaking towards the trees.
She got to the treeline and looked back at the boar. It’s great head swung back and forth, sniffing the ground. There was blood on its tusks. Goblin blood.
Tawa stood at the edge of the forest, furious.
How many of her people had this monster slain? And there was nothing she could do! She had no weapons, and wouldn’t know what to do with one if she did. She had her magic -- but all she really knew how to do was use a tiny, tiny bit to make her hands glow. Combative magic was beneath her -- according to the high priests. What a ridiculous notion!
The boar stamped the ground, it’s head lifting up as something caught the monster’s attention. Tawa heard it a minute later -- the chant of the hunting party coming after the boar.
They would all be killed -- the warriors would be trampled and skewered in front of her if she didn’t do something.
Tawa reached for her magic -- like she was trying to make her hands glow, but more. In doing so she found something strange. Her magic was just her life -- linked inexorably to her health and the years she would live. It was finite. Using it now would age her -- using it now would make her die faster.
The hunting party was getting closer.
The boar prepared to charge.
Tawa Rinji bared her little teeth and shrieked and put up her hands, throwing the power of her own fiercely bright life at the beast.
Bolts of emerald light flew from her fingers, thudding into the monster. It staggered, turning back to look at her, before keeling over -- crashing into the underbrush.
Tawa stood frozen, shocked at what she’d just done.
A shout went up from the hunting party. They were nearly through the trees! Tawa hoped they hadn’t seen too much.
The matriarch of the Rinji turned on her heel and fled through the forest, running as fast as she could for her pyramid.
She slowed down once inside the secret tunnel, dragging herself up the stairs -- her emotions swinging wildly between elation over what she’d done and irritation over how tired she was. Between using her powers and a lifetime of being carried up and down the pyramid, the stairs were a struggle. Where was a good palanquin when you needed one? But she’d finally done something real! She’d actually been a blessing to her people, saving them from a monster.
All in all it was the most exciting day in Tawa Rinji’s life -- and she was determined to have more days like this. Whatever it cost her in life and seclusion.
When, a few days later, Tawa was allowed out of her mediation room -- to return to her many ceremonial duties, High Priest Tenpo gave her a significant look before bowing.
“Divine matriarch! Did the gods give you wisdom?” he asked -- the question both formal and a warning.
Tawa Rinji smiled -- she had new wrinkles at the corner of her eyes. “Great wisdom!” she replied, “The gods are good, sir priest. They gave me a sign -- and I know exactly what they want from me now!”