The unrelenting sun scalded the crowd of worshipers that had gathered to listen to the Messengers. It was only once a week that anyone faced the intensity of midday, for the bustling center of trade came to a complete stop when the heat reached its peak. Except for days of temple, citizens rested while the sun was highest in the sky.
Today they would not complain of their personal ordeal -- the poor with their bare feet blistering on the baked ground and the rich with sweat soaking their silk garments -- for the wealthy and the poor served alike. On one day of the week they knelt beside one another outside the temple like equals.
It had been the Messengers who had decided that fortune and class had no place in the sacraments. “The Gods reward those who follow their laws,” they said, “regardless of standing.” Those who were privileged enough to indulge in luxuries on any other day found no favor at the temple. They knelt outside on the ground next to the poor, albeit in their finest clothes and wearing palm fiber sandals to protect their feet. Heavy veils protected porcelain skin from burning.
They knelt in silence. Even the most acrid of the merchants and the most arrogant of the concubines bowed their heads and remained still. Enduring the steaming temperature, the still air, the blinding sun and the stinging sand, not one person so much as whimpered at their discomfort. All wore faces of stone as they waited for the ceremony to begin.
A boy called Sajha knelt in the front row, staring down at his sun-stained toes. Like those around him, his face did not display the pain of sitting stiffly in an awkward position while the skin on the bottom of his feet baked beneath him. He tried not to think about his flesh cooking as if on a sun-heated stove, but the idea of his feet being charred like thick slabs of meat kept squirming, uninvited, into his mind.
Instead of supporting him in his crouched position, his calloused hands were crossed respectfully over his chest. It was a struggle of the will to keep them there as his calves began to strain and cramp. Young as he was, he had lived for sixteen years under the reign of the Messengers, and followed their teachings as strictly as any of the adults. If the Gods willed him to kneel in wait for an indeterminate amount of time without moving a muscle before each ceremony, then he would. But even the Gods and their Messengers could not prevent his bitterness. He was still human.