Juzeva struggled to sit up in the nest of blankets her mother had made for her, then peered out the carriage window. The land outside was grassy with thick green woods and big red rocks sticking out in places. Far in the distance she could see the dark blue line of the sea blurring toward the sky. She turned to her mother and father, sitting across from her on the other bench. “Are we almost there?”
Her mother looked up from her embroidery and smiled. It was a bright, lovely smile that didn’t quite hide the sadness in her eyes or the lines of worry on her face. “Yes, my darling. It won’t be much longer.”
Juzeva’s father glanced out the window beside him. “Perhaps another hour or so.”
Even sitting up for such a short time made Juzeva tired. She lay down again among her blankets and picked up the doll her grandmama, Papa’s mother, had given her for her eighth birthday a few months ago. All this journeying was supposed to help her parents find a way to make her get better, but it only made her feel even more tired and weak. From one healer to another, and one Source to another, not to mention all the physicians they had called to the Holding and all the medicines and treatments that only made her sick and sore and left her feeling even worse. None of it had helped.
Then her father, who was the High Priest of Source Yzu, had had the idea that Juzeva might be Chosen of a Source, someone who was born perfectly attuned to the power of a Source, who needed that Source’s power in order to live. A month at Source Yzu, the most likely possibility, hadn’t helped, so her parents had started taking her around to all the other Sources again, staying longer at each one. But it hadn’t made any difference. Source Azara, which wasn’t a healing Source and was much further away from the Holding in Yiz than all the other Sources, was their last hope.
There were Sources in other lands besides Savaru, and Juzeva could be Chosen of one of them, but there wouldn’t be time to travel to them and find the right one. If Source Azara wasn’t the right place, Juzeva knew deep down inside, though she couldn’t explain how, she would soon slip free of her body and go to the Land of Light, as did all children who died. She hoped that her mother would let her go instead of dragging her on any more long journeys. But her mother wasn’t one to give up, and Juzeva didn’t know how to ask her to.
She lay in her blankets as the carriage bounced and jostled along the road, wishing she could be outside in the sunshine and fresh air, riding with the guards and servants. But if she was well enough to do that, they wouldn’t be here at all.
Her mother unpacked a light lunch of bread, cheese, cold meat, and fruit that had been prepared before they left the inn that morning. Juzeva didn’t feel like eating; she never felt hungry any more, as though her body no longer needed food. But she ate a little to please her mother and looked out the carriage window again. The edge of the land, where it dropped away to the sea, seemed closer than before. She pushed the window in its wooden frame open a bit and took in a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. It smelled like grass and wet sand and ocean.
With the fresh air, a strange feeling started to grow inside her, a tingle like when her foot or hand was asleep and started to wake up, except it was deep inside her body and more pleasant than painful. It made her feel strangely light and happy. “I think we’re almost there,” she said, suddenly feeling excited.
A short time later, the carriage stopped and a guard opened the door. “Your Majesty. Your Holiness,” he said to Juzeva’s mother and father. “We’ve arrived.”
Papa pulled on his formal white robes, then helped Mama set her golden circlet on her black hair. He climbed out and helped Mama down from the carriage, then climbed back in and carried Juzeva out. The sea breezes whipped her long black hair around her face as she looked at her surroundings, the lush green grass and woods atop high red cliffs that dropped down into the sea. The sunlight and the colors seemed brighter and clearer here than anywhere else. If she was going to die, Juzeva thought, this would be a nice place to do it. But suddenly she didn’t feel quite so certain she was going to die.
The ground rose towards the end of the arm of land. A building almost as grand as her mother’s Holding stood at the top of the rise, backing up onto the edge of the cliff. It was built of the same red stone as the boulders and cliffs, with gracefully arching doors and windows, and balconies on the upper floors. Beyond the building was only the sea, shining blue and gold in the afternoon sun. “It’s so beautiful,” Juzeva said in wonder.
Her mother smiled at her. “It is, isn’t it? A grand shrine to our greatest Source, the Mother of our land, and a fitting home for those who serve Her.”
Juzeva wished with all her might that she could live in that beautiful building, overlooking the glorious sea. “If I am Chosen of Azara, does that mean I can live here?”
Her mother gave her another smile, that didn’t quite reach to the tight lines around her eyes. “Yes, that’s what it means, my daughter.”
They began walking towards the broad steps that led to the building’s entrance, Juzeva still being carried in her father’s arms. A small woman in white robes came out the great double doors and walked down the steps. This must be the high priestess of Azara; her white robe looked a little like Papa’s. The woman curtsied deeply to Mama, though not as low as a regular person would.
“Your Majesty, it is an honor,” the priestess said in a gentle voice. “Lord Ezdar.” She nodded to Juzeva’s father. “We received your message. We are prepared to have your daughter stay as long as you wish, and I am ready to take her down to the Source at your convenience and desire.”
“Thank you, Lady Griya,” Mama said. “It has been a long journey, and my daughter is tired –”
All at once, Juzeva didn’t want to be held any more. That tingling feeling was spreading through her and she felt like she might burst if she didn’t stand up and move around. “Please put me down, Papa.”
He did so, setting her carefully on her feet and making sure she was steady, though she felt much steadier than she had in a long time. “I want to go now, Mama,” she said.
Her mother turned to look at her, her eyebrows raised in surprise. “It seems my daughter isn’t as tired as I thought she would be.” She considered Juzeva for a moment, her lips pursed, then sighed. “I suppose it would be best to take her down now, instead of waiting.”
“Very good, your Majesty,” Lady Griya said. “We have a litter and bearers ready.”
“Thank you. That was kind of you, to think of that.”
Juzeva’s legs still felt weak, but they also needed to move. “I can walk down to the Source, Mama. May I, please?”
“It’s a long and steep climb down the cliff, child,” Lady Griya said.
“I can do it.” That warm, buzzing feeling inside her almost made her feel like she could fly.
Lady Griya looked at Mama, who glanced at Papa. Finally, Papa nodded. “If she feels like trying to walk, then we should let her,” he said. “But not alone.”
“I will go right behind her,” Lady Griya said, “to guide her on the way and help her should she stumble or grow tired.”
“And we will follow you,” Papa said.
Lady Griya came to Juzeva and took her by the hand. Her hair was a mix of black and snowy white wrapped in braids around her head, and she had smooth pink cheeks and a gentle smile. She reminded Juzeva very much of her grandmamas, and a warm, snug feeling wrapped around her heart when she looked up at the priestess.
“Come, child,” Lady Griya said.
Moving slowly even though Juzeva had no trouble keeping up, the priestess led Juzeva down the grassy slope beside the building to where the land dropped away in a steep cliff. There, a thin path wound down the cliff to a rocky cove far below. Sea water, shining in the sun, churned and sprayed among the rocks. “You must go carefully, one step at a time, and be sure of your footing before you take the next step,” Lady Griya said.
Juzeva set foot on the path worn into the red rock of the cliff and let go of Lady Griya’s hand, for there was only room to go in single file. Feeling steady and secure, she took a second step, then another, and another. Before she knew it, she was nearly running down the path. Her feet seemed to know the way and the safest places to step all by themselves.
“Princess Juzeva! Stop!” Lady Griya called out behind her.
“Juzeva!” her mother and father shouted from even further back. “Don’t run!”
Juzeva didn’t heed them. In a few more steps, she reached the bottom of the path, where it ended in the water. A number of rocks showed their wet tops above the waves. Juzeva jumped across them from one to the next as though her feet had wings on them, and finally came to a standstill on one rock that was bigger than the others, big enough for her to easily stand on. A large wave crashed amongst the rocks, sending spray high into the air. The drops of water sparkled in the afternoon sun like diamonds. The sight filled Juzeva with joy. She flung her arms wide open, laughing as the spray fell down on her like rain.
Daughter. The word came into her mind, spoken by the surf. Reach your hands into my water.
Juzeva knelt on the rock and plunged her hands into the water. It was so cold she gasped, but instead of the cold she felt warmth flowing into her, banishing her weakness and aches. She closed her eyes and breathed in the magic like she was inhaling the scent of her favorite sweet pastries. This was even sweeter, and the sense of love and safety and comfort that surrounded her were even greater than she had ever felt with her own mother, who loved her more than she had words to say. Warmth and happiness and strength filled Juzeva until she couldn’t hold any more.
You are mine, Daughter, Azara said. You have come home. You must never forget the mother who bore you and the father who sired you and your older brothers, and you must hold dear your love for them and theirs for you. But you and I are parts of the same whole, and this is where you belong.
“I am your Chosen?” Juzeva asked. She already knew, but she wanted to be sure.
You are my Chosen, Azara said.
“And I can live here with you?”
You can. Joy swelled inside Juzeva, but then Azara went on, sounding solemn. First, there is something you must understand. You must know what will be required of you should you enter my service and remain here with me, and consent to it.
“What is it?” Juzeva didn’t care what it was; she would do anything to stay here. But Azara seemed to think it was important that she listen carefully before giving her answer.
If you enter my service, you must retain your maidenhood. Your heart, body, and desires must remain pure and bound only to me. This means that you must not lie down with a man, or marry, or have children. Do you understand?
“I think so,” Juzeva said, though in truth she understood only a little of what Azara was saying. She did know that husbands and wives had a special way of kissing each other that would make a baby start growing in the wife’s belly. And she knew that when her father was visiting from Source Yzu, she wasn’t allowed to crawl into her mother’s bed at night.
Those things are good, in the proper time and circumstances, Azara said, but they are not compatible with my nature. Can you accept this requirement?
Juzeva had never expected to grow up to marry and have children anyway, so it was no loss now to be told she couldn’t do those things. She didn’t care; what she felt right now, filled with Azara’s power and Azara’s love for her, was as much as she could ever wish for. I can, she said. She spoke in her mind this time, since it seemed like Azara could hear her thoughts. As long as I can live here with you.
My Daughter. More warmth wrapped around Juzeva, like a hug.
Mother, Juzeva answered.
Go now, and tell them. The warmth retreated slightly, as though Azara was releasing her from the embrace.
Juzeva turned to see Lady Griya and her mother and father waiting on the path, halfway down the cliff. She stood, hopped back across the rocks, barely noticing the dampness of her skirt, and ran up the path. “Come on!” she called out as she nimbly edged past the adults.
She reached the top of the path and the grassy slope first. When the adults caught up, her mother and father came over to her while Lady Griya waited a little ways off. Mama dropped to her knees in front of Juzeva, tears streaming down her face. “You are Chosen,” she whispered.
Some of Juzeva’s joy dimmed at the sight of her mother’s tears. Why would her mother be sad? “I am Chosen, Mama.” Azara was Mother now, but her mother would always be Mama. “Azara will make me get better.”
“Yes.” Mama gave her a wobbly smile, then it disappeared. “You will live, but still I have lost my daughter.”
That made Juzeva’s throat hurt, and tears came to her own eyes. She put her arms around her mother’s neck and hugged her. “You haven’t lost me, Mama. I’ll just be living here. You can come see me whenever you want. And maybe I can come visit you.” It wouldn’t be the same as living at the Holding in Yiz with her mother and brothers and her oldest brothers’ families. It would be like how her father lived at Source Yzu and came to visit every few months.
Suddenly she wondered if she really did want to stay here at Source Azara. She would miss the Holding and her brothers and their wives and the little ones. Most of all, she would miss her mother. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she tried to swallow the aching lump in her throat.
“A Chosen cannot leave her Source for long,” Mama said. “But yes, I will come see you whenever I can. And so will your father.” All at once, she hugged Juzeva tightly. “I will come see you whenever I can, my treasure. I would not be able to do that if you went to the Land of Light.”
A blanket of comfort eased the ache in Juzeva’s heart, and her tears stopped. It would be all right. She was going to live. And her mother and father would be all right too, because she was going to live. She looked up at her father; a few wet tracks showed on his face, disappearing into his neat black beard, but now he was smiling. He bowed his head to Juzeva. “My daughter, Chosen of the greatest Source in Savaru. I am pleased.” Then he pulled her close and gave her a big hug as well. “Be well, my heart.”
“I will, Papa.”
Lady Griya stepped forward and took Juzeva’s hand again. “Come. We will introduce you to the others here, and settle you into your room. Your Majesty, Lord Ezdar, would you care to stay the night?”
Mama and Papa gave each other a long look. Mama opened her mouth as though to say something, then closed it again and turned away.
“I think it would be best if we were on our way,” Papa said.
Juzeva embraced her parents once more, clinging to them. “Don’t be sad,” she said. “Azara and Lady Griya will take good care of me. And I’ll write you a letter soon.”
They kissed her, and told her to be good, and said they loved her, then, hand in hand, they walked back to the carriage. As Papa helped Mama into the carriage then climbed in himself, they looked back at Juzeva once more. Then the carriage drove away.
Holding Lady Griya’s hand, Juzeva watched the carriage move back down the long slope and down the road until it was gone from sight. Then Lady Griya said, “Come, child.” She led Juzeva to the front steps of the building and paused in front of the door. She smiled at Juzeva. “Welcome home, Chosen of Azara.”
Copyright 2016 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.
From The Brilliant Career of Sajur Golu and Other Tales of Azara
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A companion volume to Chosen of Azara.
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Chosen of Azara