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A Brand New Novel
I am posting an excerpt here from my new novel, releasing June 13th. This is the origin-story of the most beloved character in my entire 24-story Wings in the Night series; Vampire romances that started before there was such a thing, and the first to use “twilight” in their titles, by the way. Not that it bothers me.
Since this tale is set long before any of the others in the series, chronologically, it’s the perfect place to begin.
Young Rhiannon in the Temple of Isis
I, Rhianikki, firstborn of Pharaoh, stood in a straight line with the other five-year-old girls, and not even at the front of the line. We all wore the same white linen dresses with straps over both shoulders. We wore no silk aprons, no golden girdles, no precious stones. Our sandals were woven papyrus with long, pointed toes that curled up and back around—every pair, just the same.
I hated it!
We’d been told to line up here, in the temple garden, which was rife with fruit trees, fragrant herbs, and flowers of all sorts. There were twisting stone paths all through it, with wider stone floors for gathering. It was open to the summer sky above but surrounded on all three sides by the gleaming Temple of Isis. Its fourth side was made of bushes and shrubs with an opening in the center for passing in and out, and beyond lay the desert. The temple’s walls were made of white stone blocks bigger than I, and they blazed like the sun when the rays of Ra hit it just before sunset.
In one end of the garden, there was a fountain with a pool at its base. A golden statue of Isis stood on a raised stone dais as tall as a person. Her wings were spread wide, and arced forward, as if she were offering a hug. Her face, arms, and flowing skirt were carved of smooth black onyx. Her glorious wings, skirt, arm bands and headpiece were made of pure gold. Water flowed upward, as if by magic, bubbling out around her feet before tumbling down the head-high dais into the circular pool below.
A beautiful, dark-skinned woman with long black hair that hung in a thousand braids, stood before us. She wore white linen, too, but the front of her dress was pleated. Over one shoulder, she wore the red sash of the temple, and around her waist, the girdle of her station, a black cord shot through with threads of silver and gold.
“I am Priestess Elana,” she said, and she walked slowly in front of us, pausing to examine each of our faces for long moments. When she came to me, I gazed right back into her eyes and did not blink. She did, though, and then she moved on.
“You have been given by your families in service to Isis, and to this, her temple. How you serve here reflects upon your family’s honor.”
My family. I seethed at the word. I was firstborn to Pharaoh, but my mother had died giving birth to me. My father had taken a new queen who had born him twin sons.
At first, I had adored the infants, despite their incessant squalling. But soon, my father had sent me away from the palace to serve in the temple. He said I could no longer be heir to the throne. His heirs would be the new queen’s sons, in order of their birth.
A breeze stirred the air and I heard the ringing of chimes. The beautiful priestess went on as if she’d sensed the fury inside me. Or more likely, she’d seen it in my eyes.
“You must not be angry with your families for sending you here,” she said, and her words caught my attention despite my rage. “Gifts to the goddess must be the finest and the best we have to offer. The first fruits. Anything less would offend the goddess and invite her wrath.”
I tilted my head and listened more closely.
“Only the best, the most gifted girls and boys are sent to serve the gods. You are special, every one of you.”
Some more than others, I thought, looking at the girls around me. None of them had divine blood. I was born of Pharaoh, a god himself, although a cruel and shortsighted one. I would be ten times the leader those mewling runts could ever be.
“Here you will learn of the gods, their stories and their history. You’ll learn how to properly serve them, and you will learn the secrets of magic.”
My head swiveled toward her and I blurted, “Magic?” Then I clapped a hand over my mouth. My father would have slapped me for interrupting, had he been the one speaking.
But Priestess Elana smiled at me. “Yes. Magic.”
Something in her eyes spoke to something in mine, but only for a moment. It was as if she recognized my greatness already. “That is all for now. You may enjoy your breakfast here in the garden and then we will begin your lessons.
I saw servants carrying trays laden with fruits and breads into the garden. These, they placed on flat-topped stands and pedestals.
The girls around me scattered, rushing to gather all they could carry. Some even used their skirts to carry more. Each went to the fountain to offer the very best piece to the goddess before finding a spot to sit and eat their own. I alone stayed behind, watching them.
“You are pensive, Rhianikki?”
I was stunned at Priestess Elana’s familiarity. “I am called ‘my lady, my sun, my princess,’ or ‘my goddess.'”
“Yes, by those who served you in the palace. But here, you serve. In that way, you are equal to the rest of us here.”
I blinked very slowly because her words made no sense to me. None of the people here was my equal. Not Priestess Elana—not even Naiya, the high priestess herself. I was no longer convinced that even my father was my superior, having made the sand-headed decision to send me here.
To serve. Ha!
“You are only five years old. You will come to understand, in time.”
Oh no I would not. But maybe she would. “I will eat now.”
“Yes, you may get some breakfast.
“I was not asking.” I lifted my chin as I went toward the nearest tray of food, the ridiculous sandals slapping the stone as I walked. A mountain of fruits and breads made from the grains grown along the banks of the Nile awaited me. I took the very biggest, most moist looking slice of bread and brought it to my mouth.
I froze, thinking there must be a wasp about to sting or a cobra about to strike.
It was the High Priestess Naiya, who’d shouted, I realized as I found her with my eyes. She was far older and less friendly than Priestess Elana. She had come out into the garden and stood near the fountain that splashed endlessly by whatever magic lived in this place. Her hair was long, jet black and shot through with white as if she’d walked through a forest of spiderwebs. She wore it in a single braid that fell across her right shoulder. Her skin was sun-bronzed and wrinkled. She was making her way toward me. Both red and gold sashes crossed over her linen dress, one over each shoulder, draping well past her knees, and her corded girdle looked to be mostly made of gold threads.
In spite of it all, she still wore the stupid papyrus sandals. Apparently, there was no hope of graduating past them here.
“What?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows where light and dark seemed to be at war, maybe due to the note of impatience in my tone. “We give offerings and thanks before we eat. The gods must always be fed first. No doubt you chose the very best slice of bread. Bring it along, over here.”
She turned, pointing. The statue of the great goddess stood there, wing and arms open wide. She looked like me, I thought. There was a basket on the dais above the water, for offerings.
As soon as High Priestess Naiya turned and started toward the goddess, I swapped my bread for a different slice.
She looked behind her. I held the bread in my palms in front of me and looked up at her with as much innocence as I could fake. Her eyebrows bent low, but she turned around again and kept walking, and I followed.
We stopped before Isis. High Priestess Naiya bowed deeply. “Accept this offering, oh great goddess Isis, lady of the dog star, eye of Ra, adored by men, envied by women, I offer you the finest part of my meal. Thank you for providing for your people, oh great Isis.” Turning her head slightly, she said, “Repeat.”
“Oh mighty Isis—”
“Oh great Isis,” the high priestess corrected.
“Mighty is a far superior word to great.”
She blinked down at me, then lifting her eyes slightly, looked past me. I glanced over my shoulder in time to see Priestess Elana, her hands over her lips to hide her smile, but I could see it clearly in her eyes.
“Princess,” I corrected. And then I repeated her stupid words verbatim, mostly, just to show her I was not stupid. “Accept this offering, oh great Isis, lady of the dog star, eye of Ra, adored by men, envied by women. I, Rhianniki, Daughter of Pharaoh, adored by all and rightful heir to the throne of Egypt, offer you the finest part of my meal. Thank you for providing for my people, o great… and mighty Isis.”
I looked at the high priestess, who was watching me with one eyebrow crooked up higher than the other. I was thinking only about getting back to that tray before someone stole my perfect, wonderful slice of bread.
“Bless all who serve in this temple and teach them of your ways. So be it.”
“So be it,” I repeated. “I will eat now.”
As I turned away, I heard the high priestess mutter, “Forgive her, oh Isis. She is… well she is Rhianikki.”
I looked back at her, in case I wasn’t supposed to go, but she nodded and waved me away. I sped to the food table and snatched my bread just as another hand reached for it.
The little girl I’d beaten sent me a surprised look, but when I glared, she backed away. I helped myself to a handful of dates and looked around the garden for a place to sit.
There were other girls gathered and talking as if they knew each other or were beginning to. I had no need for friendship, however. I had noticed something of interest back at the fountain, so I carried my food that way, and found a wide spot to sit atop its short stone wall. I gazed into the pool at the fountain’s base as I ate.
There were jewels in there, gemstone beads and pieces that gleamed like gold. I took a bite of my bread as I studied them. Oh, it tasted even better than it looked!
“When people come here, they leave offerings in the goddess’s pool to win her favor.” Priestess Elana had come to join me. She sat on the stone wall, nibbling her own slice of bread.
“What does the goddess do with them?” I looked at the statue. Isis wore no jewelry at all, except that which was carved into her stone and engraved in her gold. “If I were her, I would not like that one bit—all those gifts at her feet and she can’t even pick them up and put them on.”
“It is the value of the gift, the sacrifice of giving it that the goddess imbibes, not its physical form. Like when we eat the nut but leave the shell.”
“Yes, I do.” I continued eating my bread, having finished the conversation.
The next morning, when we lined up as we did every morning in the temple garden, before the statue of Isis and her sacred fountain, I wore my white linen dress just like all the others. Around my waist, I’d tied a strand of precious gemstone lapis lazuli and golden topaz beads all strung on twine. Around my neck hung a strand of onyx beads, around my wrist, four silver bracelets, and holding my dress across my left shoulder, a golden buckle.
I still had no headpiece worthy of my station, so I’d braided the blossoms from the hibiscus plants to create my own.
Priestess Elana stood before us, and when she saw me, her eyes widened. She kept opening her mouth and then closing it again.
High Priestess Naiya, noticing the silence as she passed the open archway between the temple and the garden, came out to join us, looked at me, and then clapped a hand over her mouth and turned away. Her shoulders were shaking. I thought she might be crying, and broke ranks to run to her and put my hand on her back.
“Do not weep, High Priestess Naiya. I gave the finest to Isis first! Look!” I pointed to the statue.
Priestess Elana came to stand on my right. High Priestess Naiya was on my left, both facing the statue of Isis, which was now draped in jewels I had rescued from the pool. I had strung amber with jet, and moonstone with blue topaz, and I’d draped strands all up and down her wings. I’d dangled golden cuffs from her headpiece and piled more at her feet.
“Isis is pleased,” I said.
Both women looked at me sharply. “What makes you say so, Rhianikki?”
I shrugged. My jewels jingled like music. “Look at her. She’s smiling, can’t you see it?”
They looked at the statue, then at each other, and then they looked at me.
“Well, maybe you can’t see it, but I can. Probably because I am part goddess myself, as you know.” I turned to the other girls, who’d stayed in line waiting, because I wanted to make sure they had heard me clearly. “I am the daughter of Pharaoh, who is divine, which makes me divine, too,” I said. Then I added, “Divine means of the gods,” for the little girl who was frowning hardest.
I turned back to my teachers and my necklaces jangled again. “I am ready for the day’s lessons now.”
The two women were still staring at the statue. The high priestess frowned, tilting her head to one side and squinting. “Elana, do you think she is smiling?” she whispered as I walked away.
“I think… she might be,” Priestess Elana replied. “Yes. I think she is.”