March, 274 post plague
I wake up dreading the day ahead, the Prophet’s birthday celebration complete with morning prayer and bloody penance for sins that I have not committed. After that it’ll be party after party, doing what everybody knows I love most—entertaining people.
It’s a lie.
My whole life is a lie. I lie when I declare my undying loyalty to the Order and the Temple. I lie when I say I love my husband. I even lie when I take the mandatory monthly lie detector test to prove to the nation that its government is free of liars. Before those other lies, though, came my first lie, the worst lie. Being caught in that lie could mean a brutal public execution.
My alarm goes off with a cheerful “Good Morning, Priestess.” The shades open, taking away the screened-beauty of the sun rising over the ocean. Behind the shades are tall floor-to-ceiling windows, through which I see the rays of the rising sun bouncing off the granite, glass and marble of Temple City’s buildings, all framed by the Rocky Mountains. As I swing my legs over the side of the bed, my sixty-year-old attendant, Naomi, enters. She carries a jewel-encrusted gold tray, which she places on my black walnut bedside table. “We have just an hour to get you ready for the celebrations, Priestess. Injections first.”
I hold out my left wrist. She reaches for a short, sharp syringe on the tray, inserts it into the tiny port hidden in the middle of my clan tattoo and shoots me up with serum. Having been refrigerated, the serum feels cool as it slides through my veins.
“Another plague-free week. Cheers to me,” I say dryly as I look down at that little port, part of the implant that the Temple fits every citizen with shortly after birth. I hate it. It is a constant reminder of my need for serum, which keeps me chained to the Temple just as surely as my lies keep me balanced on the edge of a razor.
She looks at me quizzically. “It’s better than the daily injections people get in the parishes.”
“Or bleeding to death,” I answer, referring to the plagues that took down civilization almost three hundred years ago. The serum is the only thing between it and us. Miss the injection and within a couple of days you develop a fever. That’s followed by a pounding headache, which eventually brings on vomiting. At that point, if you get your injection, you might still live. If you don’t, you develop blisters that break and bleed, followed by screaming pain in your gut as your internal organs turn to mush. Our best medical technology, which can rebuild partially destroyed organs, cannot stay ahead of the destruction and eventually you bleed from all your orifices. It starts slowly, but as your blood loses the ability to coagulate, it comes out in streams and you bleed out.
People rarely miss injections.
“I hear,” Naomi says in a rallying tone, “that the 6th sect has gone all out for their party tonight since they’re also celebrating their Founder’s Day. They’ve coaxed the Temple orchestra away from the 2nd for the night. Rumor is they have a cake made of chocolate and coffee. Only imagine the cost.”
She shoots me up with a second syringe, this time in my arm. This injection has nothing to do with disease, although for all I know the substances are gradually killing me. It’s my monthly shot to maintain the color of my hair and eyes—temple-brown. Another brick in my wall of lies.
I miss my blond hair and blue eyes. I miss being me.
“The 6th can afford it,” I say with light bitterness. The 6th sect, the government’s medical and science division, is well funded. They created both the serum and our implants.
She frowns. “They deserve it. Without them we would all die.”
I bite back another retort, because Naomi is vehemently loyal to the Order and the Temple. “Well, you know how much I love chocolate,” I say. “It almost makes the rest worth it.”
“After worship, you have a full day of celebration. You’ll love that.”
I won’t. I’m not Social. Naomi doesn’t know that. Nobody does except for Jarvis Sutcliff, friend, head guard, and the only person in all of Temple City that I trust.
Shoving back simmering acrimony, I conjure up a brilliant smile and give her arm a squeeze. “Of course. I’m joking. I’ll get my shower now.”
A short time later, wearing my ceremonial ivory and gold chiffon kaftan, I sit patiently at my dressing table while Naomi’s arranges my hair in an elaborate style of braids and buns, threaded with gold beads and seed pearls. I’d prefer simplicity, but it’s not an option. Since all of Temple City has brown hair, everybody battles to differentiate themselves through hairstyles. I am High Priestess and mine must be the finest of all.
At last I am ready for my audience with the Prophet. Grayson Starling. My husband, leader of our nation. And a man I fear more than the plague itself.